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Crucified Before the Foundation of the World

"Crucified before the foundation of the world." What does that mean? How could that even happen? Historians and archaeologists ta...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lessons of Philemon

Philemon is the shortest book in the New Testament, but it holds some magnificent truths.  It is a quick read, less than ten minutes, but it is well worth the effort.

New Christians are often advised to begin Bible reading in the Gospel of Mark or John, but I might advise a new believer to begin with Philemon.  I would preface the reading with some background to offer a framework for the story.

Philemon was a Christian friend of Paul who lived in Colossae.  He was apparently wealthy.  We know this because he owned slaves and his home was large enough to host meetings of the Colossian Church.  Onesimus was one of Philemon's slaves who had run away.  He got into some kind of trouble and found himself in jail.  There is no indication what the problem was, but it was resolved.  As Paul wrote the letter, he intended that Onesimus carry it to Philemon when he returned home.

There are important passages and meanings in this little letter.  Verses 4-7 remind us of the importance of praying for those we love.  Paul gives thanks to God for his blessing on Philemon and for Philemon's faith. 

It appears that Philemon became a Christian through Paul's preaching, so Paul alludes to the debt Philemon owes for his knowledge of salvation.  Paul, however, wants Philemon's treatment of Onesimus to be based on love not duty.  He is careful to explain his position: "Please receive Onesimus because of your love and concern for him, not because you owe me a debt of gratitude."

Then Paul illustrates the principle of imputation:  Treat Onesimus as you would treat me.  To impute a virtue, righteousness for instance, to someone means you assume it to be true.  You treat him as if you knew him to be upright and honest.  Paul also uses the principle of substitution.  "Treat Onesimus as you would treat me," he says.  "If he owes you anything, charge it to my account.  If you would welcome me, they welcome him."
This is a picture of what Jesus did for Christians.  Whatever debt we owe for sins we have committed, Jesus paid.  Whatever righteousness Jesus carries in his own person, he gives to us.  For a new Christian or even an old one, these lessons of imputation and substitution are timeless and continuous.  The meanings grow and expand as we learn and mature in Christ, but they are a wonderful way to begin.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

God's Word Waters the Earth

10 As the rain and the snow    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
   without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
   so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
   It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
   and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:10-11(NIV)

Some things happen naturally.  The water cycle is a good example:  rain and snow fall to the earth and provide moisture for plants that grow and produce a harvest.  As the plants use the water, it is released in the form of elements that recombine in the atmosphere to produce rain again.  Some of the water flows to streams and rivers and the ocean where it becomes available for fish, or animals, or men.  The earth blooms because of the water.  Our lives are sustained by the water.

This passage mentions two classes of people who benefit from the rain and snow.  First, there are the farmers who get seed as a product of harvest.  They can produce another crop with seed.  They are provided a resource to continue for another year.

Second, there are eaters, hungry people who need the nutrition provided by the harvest.  The rain and snow provide the moisture to grow grain that serves both needs:  seed for planting a new crop and grain to grind for bread.

Grain and harvest are symbols used over and over in the Bible.  This time they are used as a metaphor for the power of the Word of God.  As surely as the rain will produce a harvest of grain, so the Word of God will produce the results he intends.  The harvest may be righteousness.  People who hear God's word may respond in repentance.  The harvest may be in souls that come to a saving knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.  Sometimes the harvest is a personal understanding of God in quiet communication.  However it comes, the harvest will accomplish his desire and fulfill the purpose for which he sent it.

How has God's Word produced a harvest in your life today?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Deborah Praises Jael

The book of Judges tells repeatedly of the descent of the people of Israel into sin and disaster.  When, as a result of their own failure, they sought God for relief from oppressors, he appointed judges who delivered them.  Deborah was such a person.  She was the only female judge the Bible records.  She would have been remarkable under any circumstances, and her record in Judges 4-5 is amazing.

After Ehud died the people fell back into sin, and they came under the hand of King Jabin who reigned in Hazor.  Sisera was Jabin's commander, and he oppressed Israel for twenty years.  The roads were not maintained, and village life deteriorated.  People traveled by hidden paths to avoid the army.  Their crops and herds were taken and the people lived in terror.

Deborah was a prophetess, and I assume that this gave her credibility in the eyes of the people.  She held court between Bethel and Ramah under the Palm of Deborah.  Deborah received a message from God.  She sent for Barak and told him he was to take an army of ten thousand men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and go to Mount Tabor.  She would lure Sisera to the Kishon River where God would give them victory. 

Barak began to quake.  "If you go with me I'll go.  But if you don't go, I won't go."  (This makes me wonder why Barak was necessary.)  Deborah said, "Because of the way you are going about this, the honor will go to a woman, not to you.  A woman will defeat Sisera."

Heber was a Kenite who lived and pastured flocks near Kedesh.  He was married to Jael.  He had "friendly relations" with Jabin and, I assume, Sisera.  It appears Jael did not share his affiliation with them.

Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and an experienced army.  God commanded the skies.  Deborah and Barak and ten thousand men of Israel assembled on Mount Tabor waiting for battle.  The storm caused flooding and the iron chariots became bogged in the mud of the plain.  The men of Israel poured down the mountain side and destroyed the army of Sisera. 

Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled to the tent of Jael.  She was home alone.  It was a severe violation of custom for Sisera to enter her tent, but he did and she allowed it.  She gave him milk to refresh him, actually cottage cheese "in a lordly bowl."(KJV)  He lay down to rest, and she took a hammer and drove a stake through his temple nailing him to the ground.

Deborah and Barak arrived soon after this, and she presented the scene to them.  In the celebration after the battle, Deborah praised Jael's deed and honored her.  The Song of Deborah is, perhaps, the earliest example of Hebrew poetry dating to the 12th century b.c.e.

Just as a technical point, I would like to cast doubt on the pictorial representation of the act.  I cannot see that Jael could take a hand tool and drive a peg through his skull.  I think that would wake him.  I believe she used something like a sledge hammer to drive a railroad spike.  I envision an implement on the hammer that would affix the spike to the hammer until it was struck with one full blow.  Since the women were responsible for setting up the tent, I am convinced that she was able to accomplish this.  Just a thought-- 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Covenant of Salt

Salt from TimbuktuImage via Wikipedia Salt was an important element in ancient societies.  The Hebrews were required to add salt to all the sacrifices they put on their altars. 

Salt signified several things: first, salt preserved meat.  In the heat of that country meat had a short life, but salted, it could sustain them for a long time. 
Salt was a symbol of friendship.  If you were invited to eat salt with someone, you were safe from threat or attack.  It was also an acceptable gift.  Salt, then as now, improved flavor of foods.  Salt is necessary for the body, human or animal, and for that reason alone is valuable.

For the Jews and maybe, other people, a covenant of salt marked an unbreakable contract, one that could not be changed.  Human beings are changeable and fickle, but God is faithful and constant.  Even when we fail to perform according to expectations, God does not change.

I remember when I joined the church.  I was nine years old.  I solemnly took the vows and promised all kinds of things I didn't even understand, but my intent was to be faithful.  Many times I fell far short of Godly standards, but God sustained me and kept his part of the bargain--it was, indeed, a covenant of salt, at least from
God's perspective. 

My marriage was a covenant of salt.  I find it sad that many people don't consider marriage in that light anymore.  Marriage for convenience, or money, or selfish gain cannot approach the commitment needed for a covenant of salt.  Maybe I'm the one that is out of step.  Consider carefully a contract or a commitment that requires a covenant of salt.  It cannot be broken.
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