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Appreciating Leviticus

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Leviticus is a tough read for many reasons and is sometimes neglected. A helpful way to better understand and appreciate the book is to read it in light of what precedes it.

Exodus — Leviticus comes into better focus when read in the light of Exodus. The Lord redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 1-15) and entered into a covenant relationship with them at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20-24). But for what purpose? To what end? The title of Leviticus may hint at the answer. The English word “Leviticus” comes from a Greek word meaning “things concerning Levites.” But this incorrectly suggests Leviticus is only about the priests. Leviticus is about much more than priestly duties. In fact, it’s about the sanctification of an entire nation. The Hebrew title more accurately reflects the meaning of the book: ‘wayyiqra’ means “and he called”. That makes more sense as God called Abraham (Isa. 51:2; Heb. 11:8; cf. Gen. 12:1-4) and his descendants for a special purpose.

Israel was called to be different from the nations. What’s more, they were to do this with the Lord himself dwelling in their midst in the tent of meeting (Ex. 25-31, 35-40). To dwell with a holy God necessitated Israel become holy too. So God provided a series of laws to direct Israel in everyday living so that they could become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:3-6). Through his instructions in Leviticus, God set up an earthly society where his holiness and wishes for humanity could be seen in the corporate life of a special nation. To the Hebrew, Leviticus was a practical guide to dwelling with God.

Creation — Leviticus can be further appreciated in light of the more distant preceding context of creation. The formation of Israel is deeply rooted in Genesis 1-2. In many ways, God’s purpose for Israel as a nation is a return to his purpose for all humanity in creation. We can see parallels in the realms of separation, blessing and calling.

  1. Separation — God separated (Hebrew ‘hibdil) the various aspects of creation into their proper place and brought order to a chaotic situation (Gen. 1:4, 6-8, 17-18). Was not the Lord doing same thing in Leviticus with Israel? He brought order to the nation of Israel by separating ('hibdil') things into their proper place, distinguishing between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean (Lev. 10:8-11; 11:44-47; 20:24-26).
  2. Blessing — God created Adam and Eve, brought them into his ordered world and poured his blessings upon them. He gave them the blessing of fruitfulness (Gen. 1:28); he placed them in a lush garden where all their physical needs would be met (Gen. 2:8-25); he gave them a Sabbath rest (Gen. 2:2-3); and most importantly, he dwelt with them (Gen. 3:8a). Did not the Lord also make Israel fruitful (Lev. 26:9), place them in a lush land where all their physical needs were met (Lev. 26:3-6, 10); give them a Sabbath rest (Lev. 23:3; 25:1-7); and most importantly, dwell with them (Lev. 26:11f)?
  3. Calling — God called humanity for a purpose. Humans are special in creation in that they uniquely reflect God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28). Humans were meant to represent God, ruling the earth on his behalf in a way that reflects God’s character; ruling with justice, mercy, kindness, righteousness, holiness and love (Psa. 86:15; 89:14; 96:10; 97:2; 103:8; cf. Psa. 8). Humanity had a mission: to subdue and fill the earth with God’s kingdom (Gen. 1:28). Did not God also call Israel for the same purpose (Lev. 19:2; Ex. 19:3-6)? The nation of Israel was meant to show the world what walking with God looked like. By obeying God’s law they would become living signposts pointing back to Eden and God’s original intent for humanity: to walk in rich fellowship with God and to enjoy his care and blessing, to live with him and to reflect him to the world.

What does any of this have to do with us? Humanity failed in Eden and was ejected from God’s presence. Israel failed as a nation and was similarly exiled. We too have fallen short of our created purpose (Rom. 3:23). But where all of humanity and Israel failed, Christ was victorious. Jesus fulfilled God’s intentions for humanity (Heb. 2:6-8; cf. Psa. 8) and is able to “bring many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).

Therefore, in Christ we can share in his victory. Through Jesus, God has created a new nation and sanctified a new people, a new Israel (Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 6:16; Eph. 2:11-22). Has not God also called us through the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14) in order to separate us from the world (1 Pet. 1:14-16) and bless us (Gal. 3:8-9) so that he might again walk with us (2 Cor. 6:16)? Leviticus is an integral part of our spiritual heritage and deserves our attention and appreciation.

The Anvil of God's Word

Saturday, March 16, 2024

But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 4:4

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and the public pronouncement from heaven revealing him as the Father’s beloved Son with whom he is well pleased (Mt. 3:17), itself a combined quotation joining the messianic concepts of royalty from Psalm 2:7 with servanthood from Isaiah 42:1, one would think it would be time for Jesus to march into Jerusalem and start preaching the kingdom of God. Instead, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt. 4:1).

This divinely orchestrated showdown between the Messiah and the source of evil was vital for several reasons. The wilderness setting reminds us of Israel’s wandering where the Lord tested his covenant people to know what was in their heart (Deut. 8:2, 16). Israel failed the test and instead put God to the test on several occasions (Num. 14:22). But where all Israel failed, Jesus succeeded and remained faithful. After forty days of fasting, an echo of Israel’s forty years of wandering, the tempter came to him with a series of temptations. Each time, Jesus relied on the Scriptures, particularly those ‘wilderness’ Scriptures from the book of Deuteronomy, to overcome the temptation. He was tempted but he never succumbed, he never sinned. In this truth is his glory and our hope (Heb. 2:18; 4:15).

How did Jesus’ trust in the Scriptures help him? Since he overcame these temptations as a human with the same tools available to us, he provides us with a pattern to follow and proves that sin doesn’t have to be inevitable. Each time he is tempted he says “It is written” and proceeds to quote from Deuteronomy. By saying “It is written,” Jesus means it remains written. Nothing has changed. The words God spoke through Moses were still true. Consider what this means for us.

God’s word remains true even though it’s old— Over a thousand years separated Jesus from Moses. Many kingdoms of men had come and gone but God’s word remained: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:6-9). God’s ancient wisdom has stood the test of time and has helped our Lord and our forefathers gain perspective and spiritual strength. There is no modern wisdom that can compare to God’s heavenly wisdom. It is an anchor that keeps our souls moored to truth (Heb. 6:19).

God’s word remains true even though it’s been translated — Jesus quoted from a Greek translation called the Septuagint (LXX) yet he still considered it God’s word. It still maintained divine authority though it had been copied, recopied and translated. No two languages are equal so there are notable differences in wording between the Masoretic texts and the Greek. Despite this, the Septuagint retained the original meaning and Jesus could confidently quote it as God’s word: “It is written.” Not all translations are accurate but Jesus’ quotation of the Septuagint proves that just because God’s word is translated doesn’t mean it has lost its divine authority.

God’s word remains true even though the situation has changed — Moses wrote Deuteronomy before Israel crossed the Jordan and took the Promised Land. But Jesus appropriated the text for his individual situation. Words to a nation, words to an individual—they still apply. We go through times of peace and times of war, times of prosperity and times of financial crisis, the good, the bad and the ugly. But while our situation changes, God’s word remains the same. It can teach, warn and encourage in various situations simply because of who spoke it (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We need to remember that whatever our situation we can find help and guidance in God’s word.

Consider John Clifford’s poem entitled The Anvil:

Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door,
And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
Then, looking in, I saw upon the floor,
Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.

“How many anvils have you had,” said I,
“To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
“Just one” said he, and then, with twinkling eye,
“The anvil wears the hammers out you know.”

And so, thought I the anvil of God’s Word,
For ages sceptic blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The anvil is unharmed – the hammers gone!

Philip the Evangelist

Saturday, March 09, 2024

There are several Philips in the New Testament, such as the apostle and the tetrarch, but let’s focus on Philip the evangelist. Luke gives us three abbreviated portraits of Philip, all contained within Acts, that reveal three aspects of his character we should emulate.

First, we meet Philip the humble servant in Acts 6:1-7. In the early days of the church, Greek-speaking Christians criticized the arrangement for the care of poor widows in which Hellenistic widows were being overlooked. The Twelve, who were overseeing these things (4:35), realized their burden was too great and this task was distracting them from their primary focus. So seven spiritually mature men were appointed to take charge of this work and Philip was one of them. Philip had a “good reputation” among the brethren and possessed the “wisdom” which comes from God’s Spirit, the ability to apply knowledge in real-life situations with sensitivity, tact and faithfulness. Add to this Philip’s Hellenistic background, as his Greek name implies, and he was a perfect fit for “serving tables” (i.e. distributing food to the poor widows). The plan worked and what could have been a disaster that divided the church resulted in an increase in the proclamation of the gospel and the growth of the church.

Next, we meet Philip the faithful evangelist in Acts 8:4-40. Philip was instrumental in bringing the gospel to Samaria (4-25). His preaching was accompanied by the same kinds of miracles and signs that Jesus and his apostles demonstrated. As he “proclaimed Christ to them” (5) there was a very positive response to the call to be baptized (13). This is all the more remarkable because the people of Samaria were previously under the spell of a religious charlatan named Simon who himself dropped the act and converted. Philip’s success in Samaria illustrates the power of truth in contrast to Simon’s lies but it also highlights the Samaritans' readiness to receive the gospel and Philip’s willingness to reach those who many considered enemies.

Whereas Philip’s preaching in Samaria led to a mass movement, his next evangelistic endeavor (Acts 4:26-40) tells the story of a single convert who comes from far south in Ethiopia. There was no (revealed) special direct divine guidance for Philip’s evangelistic efforts in Samaria. But here the Spirit of God was directly involved orchestrating events. Ironically, the Ethiopian’s single conversion could have had just as big or bigger an impact, ultimately, as the Samaritans’.

The Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship. He was at least a God-fearing Gentile if not a proselyte of Judaism. His conversion illustrates the continued gradual progress of the church toward Gentiles which finds its climax in Acts 10 and the spread of gospel “to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Philip helped the Ethiopian see that the prophetic Scriptures he was reading in Isaiah are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. After the Ethiopian was baptized, Philip was whisked away by the Spirit and “found himself at Azotus.” He continued preaching all the way home (40). Both of these stories show Philip’s eagerness to obey God’s commands, his readiness to preach wherever he “found” himself and to whoever would listen whether many (Samaritans) or few (one man in a chariot). It is the picture of a faithful evangelist.

Last, we meet Philip the gracious host in Acts 21:8-10. Several years have passed since those early days. The next and last time we see Philip in the Scriptures he is living in Caesarea with his four daughters. Paul, Luke and their companions were on their way to Jerusalem to deliver aid to the needy saints there and they stayed with Philip “many days” (10). This texts reveals several things about Philip. First, he had a house large enough to accommodate several guests in addition to his own family. Philip’s hospitality toward these traveling preachers is not surprising given what we know about his passion to spread the gospel. He would have had plenty to talk about with this group! Hospitality, particularly hosting traveling preachers, was an important expression of Christian love in the first century when traveling was dangerous and inns were immoral, unsafe and dirty places (3 Jn. 5-8). Luke adds the detail that his four daughters were unmarried and prophesied. Their virgin status could be associated with their prophetic gift (Joel 2:28-29), allowing them to devote their whole time to the service of the church and prophecy. If this was the case it suggests that Philip was a strong spiritual leader in his family.

We all need to learn to be more like Philip. He was a humble servant with a good reputation and spiritual wisdom, a faithful evangelist eager to preach the word to whomever and wherever he was and a gracious host to his Christian friends in need.

Good Sermon Illustrations

Saturday, March 02, 2024

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?…”

Luke 13:18

One of the hardest things about writing sermons is coming up with good illustrations. Illustrations are important tools for communicating because they help the truth to stick in our minds. I’m always hunting for a compelling story, an article or testimony that correlates with Scripture. When I find such treasures I bookmark them for later.

But I’ve got to be careful. A good illustration is supposed to function as a window to help others see the truth more clearly. Sometimes teachers and preachers labor over them so much that they have to stretch the Scriptures to apply their story. Or they emphasize the story so much that it actually obscures the biblical text. I’ll never forget when a visiting preacher came and opened with a prolonged account, with many hilarious embellishments, of how his kids found what they thought was a human leg floating in a creek. They later found out that it was a very life-like prosthetic and had some fun scaring others with it. After about 15 minutes of this admittedly entertaining story, the preacher transitioned from a legless person to the headless horseman of European folklore. This led him to Ichabod Crane and the loose connection to 1 Samuel 4:21, “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!”” I still have no idea what the sermon was about.

Jesus was a master teacher and used illustrations all the time. He explained the kingdom of God with everyday images from farming, fishing and building. His illustrations always had a profound impact. “Now a man had two sons…” Who could forget such a story?

Jesus’ preaching ministry was supported by his healing ministry. He encountered people suffering from disease, demonic possession and even death. After healing them, casting out the demons or raising them from the dead, his ‘sermon illustration’ was right there for everyone to see. He also exhibited his power over nature. After illustrating his authority and identity by calming a dreadful storm his disciples were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mk. 4:41)

Every person Jesus encountered was changed by the experience. He left many living, breathing sermon illustrations in his wake that could attest to him. These transformed people then went on to persuade others about the truth of the gospel. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

The world needs more good sermon illustrations. That is, people need to see in us the difference Christ makes. Someone said, “The world isn’t mad at the church because we’re different. They’re mad at us because we aren’t different enough.” Do our lives illustrate the uniqueness of the kingdom? Before people will investigate Christ, they often look to his followers. What will they see?

Scripture frequently confronts us with this challenge. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to a deeper righteousness (Mt. 5:20) and a perfect love (Mt. 5:48). Peter exhorts us, “as he who called you is holy, you also must be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15) so that “by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Pet. 2:15) Unbelievers look for fault. They read us more than they read their Bibles. Peter’s admonition is to take those accusations out of their mouths by living lives above reproach.

Our hymns for worship also remind us of this sober responsibility. “We are the only Bible the careless world will read… We are the Lord’s last message, given in deed and word; What if the type is crooked? What if the print is blurred?” The world needs good sermon illustrations. Are you one?

Hopeful Pruning

Saturday, February 17, 2024

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

John 15:1-2

In the middle of what is sometimes called his “farewell discourse,” Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure by exhorting them to remain in him (Jn. 15:1-8) and to love one another (Jn. 15:9-17). This love flows organically from abiding in his teaching and example, just as a branch must remain attached to the vine in order to keep growing and bearing fruit. Certain branches (faithful disciples) are pruned to bear more fruit (Gal. 5:22-23) and receive whatever they ask for in keeping with God’s will (Jn. 15:7, 10). Others, who abandon Christ, will be cut off and burned (Jn. 15:2, 6).

One of my duties is to care for our landscaping at the church building. It doesn’t take much: weeds need pulling in the summer and litter is always being blown into our plant beds, but the automated sprinkler system takes care of irrigation during dry weather and a crew comes to spread mulch in the spring. Recently I’ve had to pull out several bushes that have mysteriously dried up and some of our dwarf crepe myrtles, which are known for being trouble-free, have looked a real mess.

The problems—I think—are two-fold. First, the trees on the east side of the building have developed a powdery black coating. They probably have what is called sooty mold, an unsightly, but relatively harmless, fungal disease caused by aphids. It doesn’t attack the plant. I’ll be keeping keeping an eye on it this spring but am trying to avoid fungicides. I welcome advice about the matter from any of you green thumbs.

The other problem is due to a lack of pruning or, at least, improper pruning. The many inward growing branches, branches growing too close together, suckers growing from the trunk or simply dead or broken limbs have given the trees a rangy, messy appearance. New growth emerged every spring creating a forest of tangled, whiplike shoots that were too weak to support their flowers so that, by summertime, some branches bent to the ground with their weight. I’ve had to ruthlessly cut back the trees to clear out all the clutter. It’s an aesthetic sacrifice (right now, I’m sorry to say, they look like ugly hat racks) but hopefully it will only last a year or two before they bounce back.

Now, it may turn out that I have completely ruined these trees, in which case I will swallow my pride and either nurse them back to health or plant new ones. But the point is this: as Christians, we have a divine Gardener who knows what he’s doing. If we remain in Christ, following his instruction and example, we will continue to bloom. The same righteous virtues he exhibits will flower in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23). He is the source of life, the “true vine.” The vine was a common symbol for Old Testament Israel (Psa. 80:9-16). But whereas ancient Israel proved either unproductive or diseased (Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21; Mk. 11:12-20), the church of Christ blossoms.

But how does the Father “prune” the branches? First, no fruit-bearing branch is exempt: if you are growing, expect to be pruned. Second, the purpose of pruning is for increased growth, so that we can become even more fruitful. But this procedure is painful and involves receiving our Father’s loving discipline (see Heb. 12:4-11). If we allow that discipline to instruct us and remain steadfast through our trials (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-9) our Father clears away the excess and we will grow. But we have to allow ourselves to be pruned. Many things sap our spiritual strength and hinder us from being fruitful (Lk. 8:14). Jesus said, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” (Jn. 15:3) The cleaning process had already begun for the apostles. Jesus’ words, when we obey them, are like the shears that cut out the dead and unproductive shoots. Lastly, if we are not bearing fruit then such dead wood is cut off so that the fruit-bearing branches can have more room to grow. This is a clear warning of the consequence of apostasy. God help us abide in Christ, keep his commands and love one another!

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