Friday, February 5, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 5 - The Mystery

The OT portion of today's reading is the story of the exodus, the single most important event in Israel's history, and the paradigm for all future deliverances God performed for the nation. It is a story of severe justice, as God struck down the firstborn of Egypt as a recompense for the way Egypt brutalized His firstborn son, Israel (see Ex. 4:22-23). Pharaoh ordered the murder of Israel's sons; God executed Pharaoh's firstborn son. If the final plague of the death of the firstborn seems harsh, it is only because the crime to which it was a response was so harsh.

Most of the OT revolves around historical events which pitted Israel against Gentiles, whether smaller states on the same level as Israel (like the Philistines), or major world empires that spanned the far reaches of the ancient world (like Egypt, Babylon or Persia). By the time of the NT, the greatest pagan empire of all imposed Pax Romana with brutal efficiency, and Israel seethed with resentment of the tight grip of Rome.

Who would have ever expected in the light of this animosity that God's plan to save Israel also included salvation for the nations? It is true that God promised Abraham that his family would bless all families of the earth, but most Jews expected this could only happen if the nations of the earth became one with Israel on the basis of the Law. If the Gentiles would embrace the Torah, obey the covenant of circumcision, and cast their lot with Israel, they could be blessed.

But as Paul wrote in today's NT reading, God's actual plan to bless the families of the earth was much different, and only in Christ was this mystery revealed: "This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph. 3:6). Here is what Paul says God had always intended to do, but only disclosed in the gospel:
1. Gentiles would become fellow heirs with Israel, rather than being second-class members of the covenant.
2. This would happen on the basis of the gospel rather than the Law.
3. The Messiah would be the one who made this possible.

How unimaginable it must have been for any Israelite watching the waters of the Red Sea devour their pagan enemies that centuries later, Egyptians (or Assyrians or Romans) could be part of the same family, that the Law would no longer identify God's true people, and that all of this would happen because of the work of the Messiah.

God works in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 4 - Slavery, Freedom and Riches

When I first read God's instructions for Israel to ask the Egyptians for silver and gold (Ex. 11:2), I was bothered by the command. It seemed like God was condoning robbery. Not only that, but when the Israelites actually did this, the text says, "Thus they plundered the Egyptians" (Ex. 12:36). How could God not only condone, but command, plundering like this?

In the larger context of this account, however, the plundering of the Egyptians is not a crime, but a display of justice. Egypt enslaved Israel for centuries (Ex. 12:40), imposing forced labor on Israel with no payment of any kind. The plundering of the Egyptians was God's way of repaying Israel for the years of service they had given the Egyptians, and supplying much needed resources for the fledgling nation.

God did not simply emancipate Israel and then leave the Hebrews to fend for themselves. He delivered them from bondage, but He also blessed them with great wealth. God frees, then God enriches.

Using a different metaphor (resurrection as opposed to emancipation), Paul made the same point in Ephesians 2. God, "being rich in mercy," made us alive with Christ and seated is with Him in the heavenly places, "so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace" (Eph. 2:4-7). We now look forward to "the riches of his glorious inheritance" (Eph. 1:18). He raises us, enthrones us, and enriches us!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 3 - Songs About the Plagues

When I was a senior in college I worshiped with some ladies who developed a curriculum for teaching the Bible to little children. Along with it they created several original songs which were designed to help children memorize key events in Bible history. One of the songs was about the plagues, and I will never forget how surreal it was to see the smiling faces of the children as they sang - in very upbeat and bright melodies - about the devastating pestilences that God brought upon Egypt! "Water to blood, frogs, lice, flies!" just doesn't strike fear in the heart when sung to a tune that is as chipper as Barney's "I love you" song!

But those kids learned the plagues - and that was the point. Songs are great tools for the memory; our brains are hard-wired to deeply imprint information that is put to music. This is undoubtedly one of the reason the Lord gave His people the Psalms.

Today's scripture reading combined a narrative account with the plagues (Ex. 7-9) with a musical account, Psalm 105. Commentators sometimes label Psalm 105 as a "historical psalm," or a "psalm of remembrance," along with others like Psalm 78 and 106. Such psalms reviewed the history of Israel as an expression of praise and thanks for God's mighty acts of deliverance. This reflection was designed to motivate Israel to greater obedience, to remember Israel's past failures and avoid them in the future, and to celebrate God's faithfulness to His covenant even when Israel was unfaithful.

In Psalm 105 we are told how to respond to God's works in history:
-"Remember the wondrous works that he has done" (v. 5) - remember
-"Oh give thanks to the Lord" (v. 1) - worship
-"Make known his deeds among the peoples" (v. 1) - proclaim
-"Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice" (v. 3) - celebrate

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 2 - The Mark That Matters

Today's reading offered an interesting juxtaposition: the curious and mysterious story about God's anger at Moses due to his failure to circumcise his son, and the final chapter of Paul's letter to the Galatians, a book that focuses on why circumcision is not what counts before God. In the case of Exodus 4, God was so angry that Gershom had not been circumcised he threatened to kill Moses, whereas in Galatians, Paul says those who insist on circumcision teach another gospel (1:8-9), nullify the cross of Christ (2:21; 5:2-4); and are motivated by the thirst for power over others (and the aversion to persecution for the truth - 6:12-13). How do we reconcile these polar opposite viewpoints about circumcision?

It is all a matter of timing. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14). That covenant, made in Genesis 15, and the promise, made in Genesis 12, were sealed by the act of circumcision. For Moses to have neglected this sign with his own son, when he was the one God called in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to lead the people out of Egypt, was a blatant disregard for the covenant purposes of God, which explains why God was so angry.

But circumcision was always the means to a greater purpose, as was the entire Law. The Law was to lead us to Christ, the ultimate blessing of the promise to Abraham, and once Christ came, the Law (including circumcision) had achieved its purpose. Something great led to something infinitely greater. To continue to insist on observance of the Law and its most intimate statute as the true means of fellowship with God was to deny the sufficiency and meaning of Christ's death, which is why Paul was so appalled that the Galatians would succumb to the influence of the Judaizers.

Instead, there was only one mark that counted for Paul. "From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (Gal. 6:17). The true mark that designates us as one of God's people is the mark of Christ-likeness, which Paul bore in a very literal way in the scars that he gained from suffering for Christ. As he explained to the Corinthians, he was "always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (2 Cor. 4:10-11).

Christ is the only mark that matters.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 1 - Stand Firm in Freedom

The opening chapters of Exodus paint a grim picture of Israel's plight under the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. Concerned about the impact of Israel's exponentially exploding population on Egypt's national security, Pharaoh imposed three increasingly severe measures: he afflicted the Hebrew slaves with heavy burdens (Ex. 1:8-14); he ordered nurses to kill male Hebrew babies at birth (1:15-21); and then he ordered the blatant murder of all Israelite boys by anyone in Egypt (1:22). Not only did these measures prove futile, but by Exodus 12-13 Egypt will pay the price of divine justice for this brutality.

It is almost unimaginable that a group of people who suffered so much would ever desire to return to such harsh conditions, but that is exactly what happened in Exodus 14. Obstructed by the Red Sea in front of them and hemmed in by Pharaoh's chariots behind them, the panic-stricken Israelites cried out: "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: 'Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness" (Ex. 14:11-12).

Freedom isn't easy. There is a perverse sense of security and stability under an orderly regimen, even if that regimen is cruel and unyielding. Combine that with the uncertainty of the unknown life of freedom, and it is easier to understand why Israel wanted to go back to the familiar routine of the taskmasters.

The New Testament portion of today's reading is Galatians 5, which begins, "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1). The Galatians were Gentiles (4:8) whose faith in Christ and the gospel was being subverted by Judaizers, those insisting that God's promises and covenant came through the Law of Moses and not simply through Christ. In Paul's eyes, that would be like going back to Egypt, returning to slavery, and he admonished the Galatians to stand firm in their freedom.

Perhaps a sense of stability lured the Galatians to embrace the yoke of the Law. Perhaps they were afraid of the persecution that would come from the Judaizers if they did not become Law-keepers (a fear which Paul says motivated the Judaizers themselves - 6:12). But whatever the reason, the Galatians were discovering the same truth as Israel did centuries earlier - freedom isn't easy.

The road of freedom is a tough one for for us as well, but like Israel and the Galatians, we must never forget that the road of freedom-bumpy though it may be-leads to the promised land.