Friday, March 5, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - March 5 - Offerings for the House of God

Today's reading in Numbers 7 contains one of the most repetitive accounts in Scripture. Twelve times - once for each tribe save Levi - the record says this:

On the _____ day _______ the son of _______, the chief of ________, made an offering. He offered for his offering one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of ______ the son of _______.

Twelve times! Why would Moses record this same information twelve times over? Why not just say that all the tribes did the same thing, and be content with a summary such as is found at the end of the chapter?

We are not obviously in the place of God to know all the answers as to why He included the details in this text in the way they were written, but I have a couple of thoughts. First, the ancient world was a very oral culture, meaning that most people did not have access to the written word. In order for information to be passed on and preserved in such a culture, repetition was essential. After hearing this chapter read, most any Israelite have been able to remember - simply by hearing - the specifics of what each tribe offered.

Second, the very manner in which this text is written emphasized the unified and generous giving of all Israel. Each and every tribe gave the same thing, and each tribe gave very generously. It is a marvelous testimony to the unity of the people, and to the gracious spirit of the people.

And that is the point we should take from this chapter. All of God's people have a part to play, and all of God's people need to work together as generous members of the kingdom.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - March 4 - Let Us Run With Endurance

The New Testament portion of today's daily reading is Hebrews 12. Last Sunday night I preached from the first few verses of that text, and thought I would share the outline as today's blog post.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb. 12:1-3)
These Jewish Christians were struggling, on the verge of reverting back to Judaism. Perhaps triggered by persecution (Heb. 10:32-35). One possible scenario is the plight of Jewish Christians who returned to Rome after the edict of Claudius, only to have the persecution of Nero break out. The easier path would be to renounce Christ for the safety of Judaism, which was legally recognized.

For this reason the author emphasizes the superiority of Christ to the angels (Heb. 1-2), Moses and Joshua (Heb. 3-4), and Aaron (Heb. 5-10).

In 12:1-3 the writer encourages the people not to give up, but to run with endurance. Here are three points he makes in that admonition. We can run with endurance...

1) Because many people are cheering for us. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (12:1). Referring to the pantheon of heroes and heroines in the faith listed in Heb. 11. We also have encouragement in each other (Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25).

2) As long as we get rid of unconfessed sin. "Let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely" (12:1). The sin in context us unbelief (3:12). But any unresolved sin weighs us down and destroys our race as Christians (see Psalm 32).

3) If we keep looking to Jesus. "Looking to Jesus" (12:2). Jesus ran the race before us, and His example shows us that while all of God's sons will suffer (Heb. 5:8-9; 12:4-7), that suffering is temporary. We have a reward like Jesus, who looked at the "joy that was set before him," exaltation at God's right hand. So, "consider him!" (12:3).

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - March 3 - Numbers

In Hebrew the title of the Book of Numbers is simply the first few words of the text - "in the wilderness." Our English title comes from the Greek translation, which called this book Arithmoi, "numbers." This title probably stems from the two detailed genealogies in the book (Numbers 1 and 26), which list the tribes and their population.

The Book of Numbers traces Israel's journeys as they make their way from Mount Sinai to the banks of the Jordan River.
  • Numbers 1:1-10:10 describes the final preparations made to organize the nation at the foot of Mount Sinai in preparation for the resumption of their journey.
  • Numbers 10:11-20:13 recounts the travels of the people to Kadesh, including the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
  • Numbers 20:14-36:13 records the final leg of the journey, from Kadesh to the Plains of Moab, where the nation was poised to enter the land of Canaan.
It is easy to gloss over the chapters which contain the census records of Israel, but bear in mind that these lists play an important role in the overall story of the Bible. God promised Abraham that He would make of him a great nation, with offspring as numerous as the sand and stars. These lists show how God is indeed fulfilling that promise.

Daily Bible Reading - March 2 - Was There Forgiveness Under the Law?

In today's reading the writer of Hebrews says, For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). Does this mean that under the old covenant there was no forgiveness of sins, since the Mosaic law only provided animal sacrifices?

If you have been following the reading plan I am using, you remember that in the fourth chapter of Leviticus the Lord outlines several forms of sin offering, and the promised result was forgiveness-
  • "And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven" (4:20).
  • "So the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven" (4:26).
  • "And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven."(4:31).
  • "And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven" (4:35).
Further, throughout the Psalms the psalmists spoke of God's forgiveness, in classic passages such as:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Ps. 32:1-2)

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! (Ps. 51:1-2)

And in the same way, the prophets promised the people they could be forgiven-

"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

So was there forgiveness under the old covenant or not? How could God forgive sins in a system that the writer of Hebrews says only used animal sacrifices which cannot take away sins?

If you think about it, this question is an issue for us because of time. How could people who lived in (for example) 1000 BC be forgiven when the only means by which they could be forgiven, the blood of Jesus, was not offered until AD 33? This is a problem for us because we are locked in the flow of time. But for God, who existed before time and is over time, this is not the same problem. We look at the flow of time as those driving on the interstate look through the windshield and see one mile marker after another. God looks at time as those flying in a plane, who look down and see many mile markers at the same time.

The Bible says that God had a plan to redeem the world through Jesus before the beginning of creation. "Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you" (1 Peter 1:18-20). We are forgiven of our sins because of what Christ has done for us, and those forgiven under the Law were forgiven because of what Christ would do for them. For us His work is past; for them His work was future; for God His work was certain.

Having said this, I do think the writer of Hebrews makes a crucial point in Hebrews 9. While any Israelite under the Law could offer the prescribed sacrifices and be forgiven, their consciences were not really cleansed (Heb. 9:8). That is to say, while objectively a person was forgiven, subjectively they were still plagued in their conscience. Only the willing sacrifice of One who had a conscience could truly cleanse the conscience, which is what Jesus did (Heb. 9:13-14).

Monday, March 1, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - March 1 - Holiness is Serious Business

While it is easy to be overwhelmed by the many laws and statutes in Leviticus, there is certainly no mystery as to why God gave those laws.
  • Lev. 11:44 - For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.
  • Lev. 11:45 - You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.
  • Lev. 19:2 - Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy."
  • Lev. 20:7 - Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God.
  • Lev. 20:26 - You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
  • Lev. 21:8 - You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I, the LORD, who sanctify you, am holy.
All of ordinances that God gave Israel were rooted in His own holiness, and His desire for a holy people.

At its root, holiness refers to being separate (notice 20:26 again). God is holy in two senses. He is separate from creation because He is creator, and is fundamentally different from the creation as one who is self-existent and infinite. In His very being God is holy (sometimes theologians refer to this as God's ontological holiness). And God is also separate from every creature because He is sinless, whereas we are all sinners. This is God's ethical holiness.

While we can never be holy as God is holy in the absolute sense, Leviticus clearly demonstrates that God does intend for us to pursue holiness in who we are and what we do, so that we can be like Him. And to illustrate that point, Moses included two narratives in Leviticus: the story of Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10:1-7, and the story of the blasphemer in today's reading (Lev. 24:10-23). In each case, God's holiness was slighted. In Lev. 10 the sons of Aaron offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, angering the God whose will is that "among those who are near me I will be sanctified" (10:3). And in Lev. 24 the son of Shelomith cursed God and blasphemed the Name.

If we don't remember anything else from Leviticus, we should remember those two simple stories. God is holy, and we must respect that and emulate that if we want to be accepted by Him. "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).