Thursday, February 25, 2010

…when a man or woman commits any of these sins…

Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong.

Numbers 5:6-7


Handcuffs God’s views on sin are described here. We see how He defines it, and how we should deal with it as a society. I think these two things are still important for us today. Mankind generally acts sinfully in all categories. It is ingrained in our actions and attitudes and embedded in all our achievements. And this state of affairs does not end until God wraps up human history into the eternal worship of Himself. Until that day, we will deal with sin and its consequences in and among us.


The way God deals with the nature of sin is important. It is clear from this context that the type of sin being explained involves personal injury or property loss between two human parties. But God makes it clear that all sin is committed against Him first and foremost. He describes it as “breaking faith with the LORD”. So all sin… any sin… every sin is an affront against God first. Our need to confess sin starts with God. And it often does not end there.


The extent to which we expand the circle of confession grows as we deal with any people we have sinned against. In cases of property or injury, God was clear in the Law: full restitution of the value of the loss plus an additional 20%. That was the standard. This was not excessive and it wasn’t solely punitive. It was meant to restore and to atone. And God wisely saw that human relationships may need such material resolution in order to see complete reconciliation and forgiveness take place.


I see this as more than a principle to use in counseling. It is a maxim for my own life and dealings with people. I will sin against people… probably will do so even today. And I need to seek confession, restitution beyond the value of the loss, and true reconciliation under God’s clear principles.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Manly worship.

According to the commandment of the LORD through Moses they were listed, each one with his task of serving or carrying. Thus they were listed by him, as the LORD commanded Moses.

Numbers 4:49


worship rock star NOT This unique census of the three major clans of families among the Levites was meant to establish roles and responsibilities for those who would minister to Israel’s camp at the tabernacle. These were men who would work hard in the worship of the Lord and in obedience to His commands. Over 8500 of them were recruited from this census to assist in the daily activities of sacrifice and worship.


The text breaks down their duties into two main divisions of their ministry: serving or carrying. Serving meant just that. They assisted the priests in the physical tasks at the sacrificial altar. They made sure all the needed implements and essentials of the worship of God were available at the tabernacle. They were also charged with the proper “set-up” and “tear-down” of the tabernacle during those times when the camp of Israel was on the move. Both of these main tasks required muscle, co-ordination, and willing service. I imagine some burly guys who could get their hands dirty without crying about it.


Really, worship is not glamorous. We have turned it into a light show with artists and rock stars. But the Kohathites show us something better. Worship is sometimes simply about getting a job done for the glory of God. It requires hard work, sweat, and the biggest need at the moment is a task that requires a sacrifice of time and effort. Every church needs Kohathites! The ministry of the gospel is carried by those willing to serve unseen and to be rewarded by the motivation that God is pleased with their hard work.


A life of worship will realize that worship has very little to do with singing on a Sunday, taking notes during a sermon, or clapping or raising hands in an emotional chorus with the congregation. These may be good as part of the bigger picture of worship. But worship is different. It is about a life that will carry what God says to pick up and carry and that will serve where God says He wants us to serve. Worship is obedient work for the glory of God.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Worship as a national pastime

Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle.

Numbers 3:6-7


levites Under a theocracy, worship was a different experience. Numbers shows us this. There were two main duties for the Levites as detailed in this section of the Book of Numbers. They were first charged with guarding the tabernacle and its immediate perimeter from intruders. no “unauthorized personnel”  were allowed in places reserved for the priests and the Levites. Their second major duty was to transport the tabernacle and its furnishings whenever the camp of Israel moved in the wilderness.


God entrusts His worship and honor into the hands of these men. They were considered His possessions. They were the “firstborn” redeemed from among the nation to God’s service under Old Testament Law. In fact, the rest of chapter three details the census of Levite clans, as well as a general tallying up of all the males in Israel who were the firstborn in their families. A special tax was then raised from this group that helped pay the expenses necessary for the Levites to labor exclusively in the service of the Lord in His tabernacle. There were more firstborn males than total Levite males and this was offset by this unique “redemption” tax. It honored God whether it was a life of service or a financial gift of service.


I am at a loss for any direct application discussion for this text. The ministry piece is always a springboard, but I’ll steer clear of it for now. God wants people in His service today, but certainly not in the mandatory way these Levites served. Redemption is a concept in play here, but the New Testament concept of salvific redemption should not be read into this text. And I cannot see a direct tie to giving either, since this special assessment was really a kind of tax under the theocratic rule of God in Israel. Probably the safest, simplest concept to apply here in this passage is this one: the worship of God is a serious matter worth investing lives and fortunes in service to Him.


Monday, February 22, 2010

God at the Center

pillar of fire The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, "The people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers' houses. They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side.”

Numbers 2:1-2


The content of chapter two of the Book of Numbers seems to read like a military manual, with detailed descriptions of how the nation of Israel was expected to camp in the wilderness and march on campaign. But there is an interesting informational piece that provides a valuable spiritual lesson. Ad the people of Israel assembled to either travel or set up camp, God was kept at the center of Israeli life.


The physical encampment was interesting. The site was always arranged in something like concentric circles with God in the center. Immediately surrounding the Tent of Meet were the priests and Levites. Then the various tribes arranged themselves in a set pattern around the Tent of Meeting, taking care according to God’s command to pitch their tents so that they always faced God’s presence at the center.

camp setting


This was a physical reminder of a spiritual truth. Every morning these people would awaken and leave their dwellings always taking their first step out of the door toward the worship of God. The first thing they ever saw from the door of their tent was God’s presence in fire or the cloud that overshadowed the Tent of Meeting. The worship of God was central to their lifestyle. They still had daily subsistence tasks, but God stayed in the center.


The same was true while on the move. The twelve tribes divided into four divisions with a fifth column surrounded by the two divisions front and back. That center division was made up of Levites who carried all the worship essentials with them on the march. God never left center focus for Israel.


If God cared enough to never leave center focus for Israel, what does that teach us today? God is more than a Sunday sermon with an hour one day a week. Jesus gets more than sixty minutes a week, doesn’t He? He is not an add-on or a hobby. He is a central focus for a true Christian. Worship is a daily lifestyle and not just a short activity endured for the length of a TV drama. We can learn this from God’s instruction to His people in the wilderness!


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Routine tasks have spiritual value.

Thus did the people of Israel; they did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses.

Numbers 1:54


The Book of Numbers begins with a census. The goal of this assessment is to determine the eligible fighting force for the army of Israel. It came at the command of God (Numbers 1:1-2), was expected to be obeyed, and was immediately administrated by Moses through a list of representatives and officials from each of the twelve tribes (Numbers 1:5-15). It was an administrative task, but because God was behind the request, it was not just routine administrivia.


The fourth book of the Old Testament tends to get a bad rap among today’s Christians precisely because it begins and ends with a census. It does not help that someone gave it the cumbersome and rather mathematical-sounding name of “Numbers”… BORING! But it isn’t. Along the way in this first chapter we learn that there were assistants to Moses from each of the twelve tribes. There was shared spiritual leadership in Israel. That is a good thing. We learn God exempted the ministry professionals, the Levites, from military service because they were already called into service in the tabernacle. God seemed to place equal value on religious and societal service. That is a good thing and worth noting in a culture where we often divorce the sacred and secular for all the wrong reasons. Of course this was a people who were governed by a legislation that came directly from the finger and lips of God. But there are principles that illuminate Christians in response to culture today. I kind of think this is interesting stuff… even if the name still sounds boring!


And of course the end of chapter one shows the reward of complete obedience. The people did everything that God had commanded Moses. That has to “count” for something!


I got my “Census 2010” reminder letter from the Federal Government yesterday. I know that my2010-census-logo experience with it will be nothing like this passage. For one thing, the letter had at least five languages in the P.S. (Russian was one of them… Russian, really?), and promised/threatened me with the prospective loss of government funding for stuff in my community if I did not fill it out accurately. So I will do my civic duty with a pen next week. That is also the week I sit down with my accountant for income tax preparation. Sometimes life has this dimension to it… I learned that from the Book of Numbers.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Authority, politics, and a reminder of Who controls it.

mideast may Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms.

Haggai 2:21-22


Just a short observation as I wrap up this look at Haggai’s prophecies: God has authority over all human politics. That is the assertion made here by God Himself. It is true. God was telling a government official through His prophet that He was in control of both of heaven and earth. And no throne or kingdom was beyond His grasp.


The warning was meant to encourage the returned exiles that foreign nations would bring them national prosperity again. But this would be God’s doing and not strictly the result of human endeavor. God even says that military outcomes will result in Israel’s enemies destroying themselves. This would clearly leave God in control and worthy of worship. So don’t get any more wrapped up in politics than God is. It exists to exalt God as He gets the glory! Human power is nothing to Him.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Worthless Pursuit

old nebraska_barn

Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.

Haggai 2:19


So long ago God’s people learned

a painful lesson of Law spurned

They turned away from worship and praise

for personal rest and home luxuries


For a very short time they were at ease

Until drought and famine gave them the squeeze

And backed into hunger and pain

They listened to God’s call again


The stuff of this earth failed them

as God’s prophet relentlessly assailed them

Haggai told them judgment would change

to blessing if they obeyed again


In their return the truth was heard

And the walls went up… the lesson learned

They came back to the Lord repentant

Found Him forgiving and truth accepted


The worthless pursuit of personal ease

will let us down but falling to our knees

we will find God forgives and even restores

so that we can find His blessing once more


Monday, February 15, 2010

God of the Exodus and the Exile

shining light Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.

Haggai 2:4-5


God’s covenant love is strong and binding. While encouraging the Jerusalem generation of re-settled exiles, God views His relationship with Israel from the very beginning of their national identity. He brought them out of Egypt. In a way, God is reminding them that He has done this sort of thing before. He knows how to take care of His people when they have come into covenant from slavery in a foreign land. The same powerful God of the Exodus was also God of the Exile. And He is God of this new endeavor among a generation that was re-settling the Land of Promise and re-building the temple of God.


God calls them to courage and asks them not to fear the task in front of them. Though it was big, He was bigger. God appeals to three things to encourage them. He appeals first to His Presence – “I am with you”.  They had forgotten that in the slow slide into apathy. When they settled into their lives, homes, and personal business without recognizing God, they failed. Now they would succeed with God’s promises as they recognized God’s presence with them to do His work.


His second appeal was to the His Covenant by which they came into relationship with Him. It was both past history and their present reality.  It bound them to obedience and blessed them with God’s care. It was a gracious and unique position. God’s people ought to build His house.


The final appeal was to His Spirit. He was active among the people. He had not abandoned them thought they had forgotten Him. God was faithful and would provide what they needed for the hard work. He promised to supply simply and abundantly from His Spirit, His Presence, and His Covenant that were always with them.


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Thursday, February 11, 2010

obedience and the fear of the Lord

Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD.

Haggai 1:12


hannibal a team “I love it when a plan comes together!” Somehow, I feel Haggai smiled and muttered that to himself. In one of the few times in Israel’s history, the voice of the prophet is heeded…immediately. The Word of God was heard and obeyed. The alarm produced in Haggai’s two stern warnings at the beginning of this book leads to a real obedience. Israel heard what God said. The remnant was ready to repent of their selfish lethargy. They began to work on rebuilding the temple again.


There are two words that characterize the response. They are simple, but important to understand. The first part is obedience. They did not debate the message. They did not analyze or worry about the ramifications. It seems to have started with the leaders and moved through the ranks. By obeying the message, they were admitting their own slack and disregard for God. And they focused again on the covenant. They simply obeyed.


The second response is deeper and more personal. They feared the Lord. There is a lot wrapped into those four words. They undoubtedly were afraid of His judgments that they were already experiencing and that Haggai was quick to point out to them. But fear of God is also found in the respect that is due to the One Who holds all things before Him. They knew He knew their hearts and lives. A healthy respect for God grew again in their hearts. They did not want any more economic hardship. But they did not want to hurt their relationship with God. They repented and returned in obedience. And a personal respect and reverence for their God grew again in their hearts, blossoming in a quick and ready obedience.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

what God deserves and demands

stack of lumber Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.

Haggai 1:7-8


Once again, God calls the Jews to get back to the task of building His temple in Jerusalem. There has been an agricultural and economic recession among the people. God takes credit for it (Haggai 1:9-11). He tells the people to repent of their materialistic ways which He has brought to nothing and instead to concentrate on His worship. And He will be worshiped, even if it means withholding from them as they have withheld from Him. Covenants certainly have a painful side to them.


What God is asking for is a renewal of their since and full attention in worship. And He draws all focus on Himself since they would not. There were two reasons why they needed to heed this call and get back to work on the temple. They are God-centered reasons.


The first reason to get back to the task was to please God. This was the covenantal reason. When God took pleasure in their work of building His temple, they in turn would find happiness, peace, blessing, and fulfillment. That was the way God had set up things with Israel through Moses and the Law so long ago.


The second reason was to glorify God. This was the worship reason. God is the only being in the universe Who deserves and demands worship. He is the only One with “glory” and should be glorified. In the context of Israel’s relationship with God under the Law, this came through obedience and sacrifice. And for now, Haggai’s call to build the temple meant just that. They had not obeyed. They had not sacrificed. God could not be worshiped and neither could He be happy with them until they did so. God deserves our full obedience. His Word should be followed. God deserves our worship. He should be glorified in our lives.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

spiritual lethargy


Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet,  "Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways.”

Haggai 1:3-5


The prophets often had to confront spiritual laziness at various times in the history of Israel. No two messages were ever quite exactly the same. The unique circumstances in which Haggai’s message came are worth careful reflection. They can enlighten our attitudes toward love for the Lord.


The post-exilic Jews had returned from Jerusalem. They came from poverty and servitude to a new degree of self-determination. Some were becoming wealthy in their endeavors. Their one specific task under Zerubbabel as governor was to rebuild the temple. This is why they had been released from captivity. Nehemiah and Ezra give us the other side of the projects these new settlers were called to do. For some reason, the work had slowed down and suspended. The people grew materialistic and contented in their own homes. They invested time, energy, and money in decorating their own houses while the house of God lie unfinished. Haggai is tasked with the messages from God to call them back to this work.


The message calls them to think about their circumstances. God was not being honored. They had put their personal comfort above spiritual commitment. And they were not really prospering there. God was not blessing their spiritual apathy. They were not keeping covenant with Him and He was not going to bless disobedience (Haggai 1:6).


There is instruction here for our own days. No place or time has been so blessed and so easily apathetic than our own. Even in the worst economy in 60 years, materialism abounds. The housing market may be down, but you can’t tell it by what people want. Luxury is still worshiped in America. And Christians are not immune to the apathy and lethargy of materialistic thinking. We need to consider our ways. We need to remember that our commitment is to honor and worship God in and with all things, not just have the things in and of themselves.


Monday, February 8, 2010

The limitations of media

twitter is down I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

3 John 13-14a

John had a preference for personal care whenever possible and one of the reasons this letter is so short is because John planned on visiting his friend Gaius very soon. The postcard was to encourage him to hang on until then. This was a situation best dealt with “face to face”. There are times when written communication breaks down. This was one of them.

I wonder what the apostle John would do in ministry in this day and age? He would probably take advantage of it, no doubt. 3 John is as close to an Instant Message as possible in the 1st century! But He would recognize the limits, which many people do not seem to do now. I like the information and communication available to us now. I remember vividly when exactly I knew that computers and the internet had changed the way we talk. It was in 1995. I logged onto my AOL account to check my email. It was my window into the world and there on the home page I learned that the Oklahoma City bombing had occurred just minutes earlier. People were already commenting on it. The speed of communication dramatically changed. It is good, and it is not so good.

Today, I can use Twitter and other social network sites to connect with more people in a day than every before. Many I have not seen face to face in years. Some I have never met personally. Social networking is virtually void of emotional cues (smileys aside). :-) It is short, particularly when I twitter. It is instant and far-reaching. That gives it some value despite these clear limitations. In that sense it is a lot like this first century “tweet” from John.

Face to face is always better though. We should never forget that. We should always minister the gospel through preaching, personal ministry, and real conversation. But we should feel free to also utilize and not abuse the media we have available to us. It can assist the message. It cannot be the message.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

avoiding the evil of selfish manipulation

chess king

Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.

3 John 11

This terse command and its explanation should be understood in context. John has just had to deal with the ugly effects of cultic celebrity and politics in the church. Diotrephes was destroying the church, disrupting the beauty of the Body of Christ, and dividing the unity of God’s people. John was planning on a special visit just to deal with the situation. Until then, this letter to Gaius would have to stem the tide.

So the evil that John is interested in people avoiding is selfish division. The problem that Diotrephes had was putting himself first. He was an egomaniac on a mission of self-promotion. And the church was his personal playing field. As a leader, his influence could create other selfish tyrants in homes and families. His example was to be avoided. Abusive leadership was the evil to shun.

The origin and destiny of the actions of selfish manipulation do not find their source in God. This is very direct. When this kind of leadership emerges in ministry, watch out. The devil has gotten a stranglehold on gospel effectiveness. Why? The attention moves away from Christ and the preaching of the cross. Focus centers on the leader. And when the gospel is diminished, only sin will fill the void.

Part of the reason I am not fond of reading books on leadership and management (even Christian ones) is that they often focus on the personality of the leader and what can only be called manipulative techniques. They emphasize technique and tools over character and can become aids to selfish manipulation. I believe a better leadership model is found in Christ. I surrender to Him as His slave. He then calls me to be the servant of all. Even though I lead, it is from the position of a servant of Christ as He is the head of the church. This keeps my ego in check.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

me first!

cult celebrity I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.

3 John 9

Whoa. Selfish thinking in the Body of Christ is highly disruptive It causes damage and division. It works against the plan of God. It short-circuits divine authority by exalting self. It is dangerous and also more widespread than we imagine. Diotrephes lives! Be very afraid!

There are a couple of dangers of selfish leadership shown here in this short section on Diotrephes (3 John 9-10). They serve as warnings. The first is an attitude, the second is an action. The attitude is personal arrogance. It is a self-loving, thick pride that exalts personality above scriptural principle. This attitude by the leader sees his role and his very personality as the pinnacle of all things important in the ministry. His books will solve all your problems. His teaching will give you your “best life now”. His success can be yours (for a suggested donation of $30). God only works through him… 8x10 glossies in the bulletin and if you make your donation today, you can get your photo taken with him in the lobby! The line forms behind him and your American Express card is more than welcome. This is the cult of personality now abused at the expense of the reputation and cause of Christ. Pick your evangelical worship center of choice or nearly any local retail Christian bookstore. It is proudly on display.

The actions from such selfish ministry are easy to spot. No one else gets a voice in or to the ministry. Diotrephes was so arrogant that he refused even apostolic authority. He spoke against the apostles (maybe in a best seller preceded by an “open letter”). He refused to let any other recognized teacher into the congregation. And if someone else internally in the church welcomed any other teacher than him, excommunication ensued. Celebrity is so out of character with the humble service Jesus insisted upon (Mark 9:30-37).

This sounds sadly familiar because the sins of Diotrephes always follow pride-filled leaders in the church. The remedy is harsh and painfully severe (John would confront it personally). But it is necessary to restore peace and the centrality of the gospel. When will we learn that the only person to be celebrated in the church is Jesus?

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

fellow workers for the truth

missions For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.

3 John 7-8

Here, in one of the shortest books of the Bible, a case is made for the support of gospel workers. These early evangelists and what we might call missionaries were called by God to move into new regions to proclaim the truth of the gospel. We can look to the ministry of the apostle Paul for more detail.  He appears to not have been alone in this type of gospel work.

John makes several things clear about this kind of gospel work. First, they have “gone out”. They left familiar territory, home, and home church and went somewhere else for the express purpose of proclaiming the truth of the gospel. Secondly, they were called. The phrase “for the sake of the name” makes it clear that God is the high purpose behind all their efforts. This is not just a career choice, nor is it a two week travel chance sanctioned as a holy vacation. They were answering the leading of God by going forward with the gospel and were doing so at great risk, leaving everything behind, including financial means in a subsistence culture.

Thirdly, they were self-supporting and relied on believers for gifts of support and hospitality. They did not take funds from those not yet believers (that is what the phrase “accepting nothing from the Gentiles” is all about). John urges and commend Gaius as he continues in his hospitality and support of these efforts. The church was obligated to assist these who had dedicated themselves to the gospel message.

Finally, John saw their work as supporting the broad work of the apostles as well. He joins their ministry with his ministry by calling them “fellow workers”. Those who respond to God’s call to take the gospel to new people groups are doing the work that Jesus Himself gave the apostles to do in the Great Commissions (Matthew 28:19-20). We still actively persist in this today. And support of this kind of gospel work is still the call of the individual believer.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

joy in making disciples

babyfeet I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

3 John 4

A disciplemaker’s heart is filled with a nearly inexpressible joy at the witness of a life that is walking the walk of a follower of Jesus. This is an ancient joy and a reward of the faith. It grips John the Apostle as he wrote these words in the shortest and most personal of his epistles.

He writes to a disciple named Gaius. We know nothing of him except what can be discerned from this text. He was loved by John and he was a faithful follower of Jesus. His Christian testimony was one of faithful commitment that expressed itself visibly. He may have been a church leader, but not necessarily a pastor or elder, given the situation that John addresses in 3 John 9-10.  It appears that this letter to Gaius was meant to address an issue in a local church that existed back then. And I believe it led to a successful outcome, which is way it survives for us to read it today.

The testimony of this faithful saint was known to John. And it brought him joy. That sort of joy is known by those who help others grow and mature in Christian commitment. It is known by Christian parents as they witness the work of God in their kids. Then there is a joy as ther children literally learn to walk in the truth.

I have the unique privilege of sharing in this joy in an entire church. As a pastor, I work in the spiritual experiences of dozens of people at any one time. I honestly have to keep notes so as to not get the details of one life mixed up with another! But that administrative detail is not the point of ministry and it is worth it, mixed as it is with both the sorrows and pleasures of life. Most Sundays I can look out across a large congregation and feel this surge of joy in my heart at what God is doing in lives. I know more than a lot of people do about the details, and the details are amazing.

There is nothing else in life quite like this. It is hard for me even now to put it into words this morning. It is, as I have written, an ancient joy. And it does not compare to the joy that most be in God’s heart!

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