Our God Delights In Helping Us Succeed

There can be great peace and security in having a relationship with God. That’s something He wants us to enjoy. But if you’re struggling, feeling as if you may never measure up to God’s standards, serenity is likely the last thing you feel. It might even be discouraging to see other Christians seem so confident when you’re secretly unsure if you’ll make it through the week as a good and godly person.

One of the most comforting truths revealed in the Bible is that God wants us to succeed. His “mercy triumphs over judgement,” which in Greek means that mercy “boasts against, exalts over” judgement “in victory” (Jas 2:13, NET). When He looks at us, He hopes to see us doing well and He wants to support our growth far more than He wants to pass judgement on us. And when we slip-up or stray off the “straight and narrow” path, He’s eagerly looking for us to come back. God wants as many people as possible to be in His family, and He’s deeply committed to making that happen.

The Compassionate Father

You’re likely familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. In some translations, it’s labeled The Parable of the Compassionate, or Forgiving, Father. This name shifts our focus as we read this parable to notice the father’s role. In this parable, a man’s younger son demanded his share of the inheritance, then went off and “squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle” (Luke 15:13, NET). Once he’d lost everything and was living destitute, barely scraping by feeding pigs, he realized he’d be better off going home even if his father only let him be a servant rather than acknowledged again as a son.

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. … the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe, and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again—he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

Luke 15: 20, 22-24, NET

This father’s joy is the same joy God and all the hosts of heaven feel when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10). God has felt this joy over us; we’ve all sinned (Rom. 3:23) and we’ve all had to repent many times. We count on God’s mercy to say, “Yes, I forgive you” every time we come to Him repentant and committed to doing better.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Wanting Us To Choose Life

God sincerely “desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4, WEB). He does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9, WEB). His goal is salvation and truth for, and repentance from, everyone (with that last one connected to our acceptance of the first two). We need to opt-in to grace; God doesn’t give people eternal life unless we take Him up on His offer. But He very much wants us to accept His gift and He’s invested in our success.

“But if the wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed and observes all my statutes and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be held against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he will live. Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked,” declares the Sovereign Lord? “Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live?”

Ezekiel 18:21-23, NET

We might sometimes think God seems strict or unfair, but the reality is that His whole focus is on making things turn out well for His people (Rom. 8:28). He says to people He’s working with, “I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope” (Jer. 29:11, NET). That group He’s working with can include any of us; people from all sorts of backgrounds, personalities, and experiences. Through Jesus’s sacrifice, God has opened up the opportunity to live in covenant with Him to anyone who hears His voice and responds.

Invested In and Delighted With Us

God delights in people who do their best to follow Him, not in people who are already “perfect.” Which is good for us, since we’re all still quite a ways off from attaining perfection even though we’re headed that direction. What’s important to God is that we stay on the journey toward being more and more like Him.

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God.

Philippians 2:12-13, NET

There are so many verses saying God delights in His people. Ps. 149:4; Prov. 11:20; 12:22; Is. 62:4-5; Jer. 32:40-41; Zeph. 3:17 are just a sample that point out He specifically delights in those who keep covenant with Him; who love and obey Him. Doing these things leads to delight for us as well (Ps. 16:11; 21:1; 37:4; 112:1; 119:16, 24, 35, 47, 77, 143, 174; 149:2; Is. 29:19). The more we delight in God and His laws, the more He delights in us. And when we do sin–since, as Paul said, it’s a struggle to do good all the time even when you delight in God’s law (Rom. 7:14-25)–then God delights in our repentance; our choice to run home to our compassionate Father.

Featured image by SnapwireSnaps from Pixabay

Aware and Fearless: Trusting God in Perilous Times

Over and over in the Bible, God’s people are told not to fear. But there are a lot of things in this world that could understandably frighten us. Is our fearlessness supposed to come from burying our heads in the sand, unafraid because we’re ignorant about things which could make us fearful? Or are we supposed to be fearless in spite of knowing about all the things which could scare us?

Acknowledge We Live in Perilous Times

The Bible never advises us to live in ignorance. We’re not to be caught up in the ways of this world, but we are supposed to be aware of what’s going on. Jesus warned His disciples to “stay alert” and “watch” as the end times neared. Mostly, that watchfulness involves keeping ourselves ready, but it also involves keeping an eye on the world around us (Matt. 24:4, 32-52; 25:13).

But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come.

2 Timothy 3:1, NET

The word translated “difficult” here also means “hard to take,” “troublesome, dangerous, harsh, fierce, savage,” and perilous (Thayers’s Dictionary, G5467). Paul doesn’t want Timothy, or us today, to be ignorante or caught off-guard as the world becomes more and more dangerous.

For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, not lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding a form of godliness, but having denied its power. Turn away from these, also.

2 Timothy 3:2-5, NET

We are not the first of God’s people to live in times like this. Abel’s brother murdered him. Noah lived among people so wicked God wiped them out. Abraham was so scared other men would kill him and steal his wife that he told them she was his sister. Joseph was enslaved. David fled for his life several times before and after he became king. Elijah got so discouraged by the perilous time he lived in that he wanted to die. Yet God got them through all that (Heb. 11:1-40).

Choose Fearlessness

The reason God’s people are fearless isn’t because they don’t realize the world is a scary place. It’s because our God can handle all the scary things for us, and carry us through them if He chooses not to make them go away. And He’s happy to prove that to us. Elijah, for example, was so afraid he’d be killed that he fled to a wilderness to hide. God didn’t chew him out for his lack of faith; He answered his questions and helped him keep going forward. Turning to God for help and remembering how He came through for us in the past is an antidote to fear (Deut. 7:18-19; 20:3-4; 31:6).

When I am afraid,
I trust in you.
In God—I boast in his promise—
in God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can mere men do to me?

Psalm 56:3-4, NET

Note that David says, “when I am afraid.” Even King David, the man after God’s own heart, had times when he was afraid. We don’t need to start out completely fearless. But when we commit to trusting God in spite of our fear, we can end up as confident as David and the other psalmists.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we won’t be afraid, though the earth changes,
though the mountains are shaken into the heart of the seas;
though its waters roar and are troubled,
though the mountains tremble with their swelling. Selah.

Psalm 46:1-3, WEB

Share Your Hope

We’re to acknowledge we live in perilous times, then put our trust in God and live fearlessly with Him on our side. As part of that fearless life, we must follow Jesus’s example. Sometimes that will mean people don’t like us very much. It may even mean persecution. That’s not supposed to scare us, though, or stop us from talking about the gospel.

For who is going to harm you if you are devoted to what is good? But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you.

1 Peter 3:13-16, NET

The world might not know it, but it desperately needs the hope found in the same truths that give us courage. Jesus didn’t let anything stop Him from sharing hope–even hanging on a cross (Luke 23:42-43)–and we shouldn’t either. I know that’s easier said than done, though.

In today’s world, it often seems like sharing your hope is more likely to make people hate you than to give you a chance to show them the love of Jesus. While there are some situations where it’s clear what we should do (e.g. if someone asks you about what you believe, you ought to tell them the truth), but many situations are more ambiguous. We’re to be wise as well as fearless and bold. Be aware of the situations you’re in, but at the same time don’t act out of fear. Remember how great your God is and live confidently in a way that honors Him.

Featured image by Simon Berger from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “I Am Not Alone” by Kari Jobe

Revisiting the Deep Things of God’s Covenants

I wrote a bunch of posts about covenants in spring of 2016. Those posts, especially “Inheriting Covenants,” make up a Bible study that I still think about on a weekly basis. I’ve considered revisiting my covenants study several times over the past five years. During Sukkot this year–a time filled with scripture-rich messages and Bible discussions–I felt the time was right for another study.

Covenants are the framework that God uses for His relationship with human beings, which means they’re a vital part of Christianity. If we want to be in a relationship with God, then we’d better make sure we understand the terms of that relationship. God loves everyone, but He isn’t in a loving, friendship-relationship with everyone; only with those who keep covenant with Him. The better we understand Biblical covenants, the better we understand how God relates to us and to all of humanity.

Covenants 101

As I wrote about five years ago in “Covenants 101: An Introduction to Relationship with God,” Hebraic understanding of covenants in the Old Testament forms the basis for covenants between God and man. We need to start in the Old Testament for this study because Jesus Christ’s covenanting work (and the way New Testament writers talk about that) grows out of the earlier covenants. The central covenant in the Old Testament–the one New Testament writers call “the Old Covenant”–is the one made at Sinai, but it’s not the only significant covenant in the Old Testament.

Noah

Though some describe God’s relationship with Adam and Eve as a covenant, the first time the Hebrew word bĕriyth is used is in relation to Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:8-17). In this covenant, God establishes a promise not to flood the whole earth again. He describes this to Noah as “the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.” The sign, or token, of this covenant is a rainbow. Like other covenants, this one involved an established relationship, specific words and promises, and a sign to seal the covenant and remind both parties of its existence.

Abraham

In Genesis 15, the Lord Yahweh initiates a covenant with Abraham that forms the basis of the future religious covenants with His people. The key promises for this covenant were land inheritance and heirs. The covenant also establishes a relationship, which is maintained when both parties stay faithful to their covenant agreements. In this covenant, as in all others God makes with His people, He is unfailingly faithful. He sets the terms, binds Himself to them, and then invites people into a covenant relationship with Him based on those terms.

When a Bible translation says, “the Lord made a covenant,” a more literal version of the Hebrew phrase would be “Yahweh cut a covenant.” Covenants often involved blood sacrifices to show the seriousness of the covenant agreement. We see that here in Genesis 15, with God binding Himself to the covenant by walking between the blood sacrifices. Later in Genesis 17, when Abraham learns more about his role in the covenant, he binds himself to it with the sign God gave him of male circumcision.

Israel

In many ways, the Sinai or Mosaic covenant grows from the Abrahamic covenant. The children of Israel, those promised descendants of Abraham, just recently delivered from slavery in Egypt, arrive at Mount Sinai to find God giving them a covenant. This covenant involved blood (sprinkled on the people as they bound themselves to the covenant), promises from God to the people and from the people to God, and agreement from both parties. The words of this covenant agreement are briefly covered in Exodus 19 through 24, then expounded on through the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

In addition to blood and male circumcision, salt was also a sign of the Sinai covenant (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19). This connects the Sinai covenant with friendship (we’ll talk most about that in a moment). In addition, Israel is described as being in a marriage covenant with God because they agreed to bind themselves to Him; this analogy is also used to describe the New Covenant (Jer. 31:32; 2 Cor. 11:2).

David

God’s covenant with King David also plays a key role in Biblical history. Oddly, there’s no mention of a sign for this covenant in 2 Samuel 7. It is, however, described as “a covenant of salt” in 2 Chronicles 13:5. We need to go outside the Bible to get more information on this type of covenant. Salt and covenant are traditionally linked, likely because of salt’s preservative qualities and because sharing salt at meals is a sign of established friendship (“What is a ‘covenant of salt’?”). The promises of the Davidic covenant focus on God providing loving kindness, relationship, and kingship for David and his descendants.

Covenants, Messiah, and Inheritance

Another important aspect of the Abraham, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants is the promise of the Messiah. Paul tells us the Abrahamic covenant pointed directly to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15-18). Jesus’s words, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me,” reveal the Mosaic covenant points to Him as well (Deut. 18:15-16; Luke 24:44). Jesus is also a fulfillment of God’s promises that David’s descendants would be established as rulers forever (2 Sam. 7:16; Jer. 33:14-22; Acts 2:25-36). Jesus’s role in these covenants is key to understanding what covenants mean and how they change between the Old Covenants and the New Covenant.

Defining “Covenant”

The words translated “covenant” in the Bible come from the Hebrew bĕriyth (H1285) and the Greek diatheke (G1242). These words have slightly different meanings that echo our slightly different relationships to covenants with God before and after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Bĕriyth is a binding agreement between two parties. As we saw in the examples discussed above, these covenants established a relationship defined by the covenant words and sealed with signs such as blood and salt. Diatheke is a little different. It can be translated “testament” (as in, “last will and testament”) and reflects the unilateral will of one person. Despite those differences, both words are translated “covenant” and the Biblical writers clearly connect their discussions of diatheke to the relationships God describes in the Old Testament as bĕriyth.

In The Complete WordStudy Dictionary of the New Testament, Spiros Zodhiates proposes a definition of covenant that covers both the unilateral enactment of diatheke and the established relationship of bĕriythHe writes that a covenant “is a divine order or agreement which is established without any human cooperation and springing from the choice of God Himself whose will and determination account for both its origin and its character” (entry G1242, section IV). As we look at Old and New Testament covenants, we always see God as the initiator. He makes promises that people did not ask for nor expect and which cannot be nullified by their descendants. Yet even though covenants are unilateral in some senses, they are also mutual because people can chose for themselves whether or not to keep the terms of the covenant. Covenants are initiated by God, but responding is our choice.

Jesus’s Covenant Inheritance

Covenants that God makes with people aren’t just for one individual, but most of the Old Testament covenants were limited to certain groups. The covenant made with Noah is for all living things on earth. Abraham’s and David’s covenants were made with that individual man and his descendants; no one else could join. The Sinai covenant was for all the children of Israel, their descendants, and anyone outside that group who wanted to follow Yahweh. Someone joining the covenant from the outside was rare, though prophesy pointed to a time when all nations would enter covenant with God (Is. 56:6-7).

Jesus came to this earth as a physical descendant of Abraham, an Israelite heir of the covenants with God, and a man in the lineage of David. Not only was He the promised Messiah pointed to by the covenants, but He was also born into the physical position of an heir to the covenants. As such, He inherited the covenants made with Abraham, the children of Israel, and David. The writer of Hebrews goes so far as to say that God appointed Jesus “heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2, NET). That position as heir to all the covenants put Him in a unique position for sharing those covenants with us.

Our Inheritance Through Jesus

Every human who tried to keep covenant with God failed to do so perfectly. We are fallible, and even though God is merciful and loving we deserved to inherit the curses contained in the covenanting words. The only one who perfectly kept God’s covenant was Jesus Christ, and so He’s the only one who truly deserved to inherit all the promises. Once He inherited, He died and “willed” those promises to us (Heb. 9:15-28). This washed our sins away and made it possible for all people–not just the descendants of certain individuals–to walk in covenant with God.

In the New Testament, Paul writes to Gentile believers that they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” until the time of their conversion. They were not previously heirs to the covenants, “but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). In another letter, Paul extends this analogy to say, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29). Jesus makes us part of the family and shares the inheritance with us.

If you’re in covenant with Christ, then you are counted an heir of all the covenanting promises made before. We’ll even inherit alongside those original heirs, who haven’t yet fully received the promises; they’re awaiting the resurrection when all the faithful will rise together and inherit the promises as members of God’s family (Heb. 11:8-13, 39-40).

Getting Into Covenant

How do we get into covenant with God? It seems like a serious thing, perhaps something that requires special steps. Really, though, understanding the importance of covenants doesn’t change much about our understanding for how someone enters a relationship with God. The same things needed to join yourself in relationship with God and become part of His church are what’s needed to enter this covenant with Him. At its most basic, this means we need to repent, believe in Jesus, and be baptized (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38). Once that happens, God makes us part of His New Covenant people.

God offers salvation freely, but that salvation is also offered on His terms. He initiates the covenant and establishes its parameters, then gives us the opportunity to join that covenant. Paul’s letters reveal that all believers in Jesus become part of this covenant. In a letter to one of the churches, Paul talks about how God “made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6). He also says that those who’ve been justified by Jesus’s sacrifice, follow Him faithfully, and love God are “heirs of God and also joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17; Titus 3:5-7; James 2:5). As followers of Jesus, we inherit covenant responsibilities and promises as part of joining a New Covenant with God.

To be clear, keeping covenants is not the same idea as us trying to “earn salvation” by keeping the law. Under the New Covenant, the law is written within the hearts of everyone who chooses to follow God. That’s what the phrase “not under the law” that Paul uses means—the law becomes internal, transforming our hearts so we have no desire to break it, rather than functioning as external rules. Salvation is a gift, and once we receive it we begin a process of change. Receiving grace means that we agree to live in a certain way as we walk in covenant with God. Even under grace we should still follow God’s way of life, refusing to jeopardize our inheritance for the momentary gratification of fleshy desires (Gal 5.19-21; Heb. 12:14-17).

Learning about covenants help us understand the implications of our belief in God the Father and Jesus the Messiah. It gives us a deeper understanding of the type of commitment we make to God as believers. It helps us fully appreciate and participate in the relationship that God offers us. And if you’re like me, it fills you with awe at the realization that God longs for a stable, faithful relationship with His people so much that He keeps making covenants with us over and over again, constantly inviting us closer to Him and opening up salvation to more and more people each time He makes a new covenant.

Featured image by Alyssa Marie from Lightstock

Joy and Return in Yom Kippur and Sukkot

Last week, we talked about the time between Yom Teruah (Day of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) as a traditional time of return and repentance. Now with Yom Kippur behind us and Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) fast approaching ,we turn to a new theme: rejoicing.

Yom Kippur is widely considered the most solemn holy day by Jews and by Christians who observe God’s holy days. It’s a time of fasting, of strictly observed rest from labor, of prayer, and reminders of Christ’s work atoning for our sins as we look forward to His return and to Satan being locked away. It is followed just five days later by the most joyful of God’s festivals. While the first and last day of Sukkot are sabbaths of “solemn rest,” they’re accompanied by the command, “you shall rejoice before Yahweh your god seven days” (Lev. 23:39-40, WEB).

Why joy? We know joy is a fruit of God’s spirit–it’s something that should be part of our developing spiritual character all year-round. We talk about joy as something which God gives us that cannot be shaken by trials or external circumstances (Gal. 5:22; James 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:8; 4:13). But why the specific command to rejoice during Sukkot right after the solemnity of Yom Kippur?

Rejoice for Redemption

Jesus revealed Himself as God who heals sorrow, binds up wounds, and comforts the lost (Luke 4:17-21). This role connects with prophesies in Isaiah which speak of a Messiah who will come and do great things for His people. Part of these hopeful, joyful prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus’s first coming, and we still wait for others.

Then Yahweh’s ransomed ones will return,
and come with singing to Zion;
and everlasting joy will be on their heads.
They will obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

Isiah 35:10, WEB

Christians who keep Sukkot connect it to the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ pictured in Revelation 20:1-6. Isiah 35 is one of the millennial passages that hints at what that time will be like (see also Is. 11:1-16; 65:11-25; 51:11-12; 52:7-9). Even before that time arrives, though, we have reason for great joy (Is. 51:11-12; 52:7-9).

I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, your transgressions,
and, as a cloud, your sins.
Return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing, you heavens, for Yahweh has done it!
Shout, you lower parts of the earth!
Break out into singing, you mountains, O forest, all of your trees,
for Yahweh has redeemed Jacob,
and will glorify himself in Israel.

Isaiah 44:22-23, WEB

Realizing how great Jesus’s sacrifice is and what He gave up to redeem us should leave us in awe, humbled by His goodness and selflessness. We should also respond with great joy, particularly after our return and repentence . He loves us, redeems us, and wants us to thrive. How could that not turn our “mourning into joy”? (Jer. 31:11-14).

Turn Mourning into Joyful Dance

We don’t have to wait for Christ’s second coming to experience the joy of knowing God, being loved by Him, and having Him save us. For example, in Psalm 30 David recounts the work of God in his life, singing “at the dedication of the temple” (v. 1) about the ways God responded to his calls for aid.

Weeping may stay for the night,
but joy comes in the morning. …

You have turned my mourning into dancing for me.
You have removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with gladness,
to the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent.
Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

Psalm 30:5, 11-12, WEB

New Testament writers also assure us that we can have joy. In John’s gospel, Jesus shares that He’s leaving His joy with His followers so that their “joy may be made full” (John 15:11; 17:23). He also assures them that even though they “will weep and lament” because of His death, their “sorrow will be turned to joy” that no one can take away because of His resurrection (John 16:20-22).

We also know the resurrected Messiah and have access to a joy that no one can take away. He still works with us today, giving us His joy as we increase “in the knowledge of God, strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, for all endurance and perseverance with joy” (Col. 1:9-10). And when we walk with Him, we also align ourselves toward future joy the same way He did when He walked on this earth (Heb. 12:1-2).

Joy in Returning

Image by bluebeyphoto from Lightstock

Just as the trumpet call of Yom Teruah reminds us to repent and turn to the Lord, humbling ourselves and accepting Jesus’s atoning sacrifice pictured in Yom Kippur, so our “godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation” today (2 Cor. 7:9-10). That is something to rejoice about! Over and over, the prophets record that God’s people follow a pattern of wandering from God, repenting with sorry, then being filled with joy and gladness as they reconnect with God. That cycle is pictured in these fall holy days, both on an individual level and looking forward into the future of all humanity.

One of the truths I’ve been meditating on and marveling at this past week is that God works with an ever expanding number of people. He created two–Adam and Eve. Then He saved Noah and his family–eight people–in the flood and made a covenant with Noah. Then He worked with Abraham and his descendants to make him into a great nation we call ancient Israel–one precious people that God later made a covenant with at Mount Sinai after rescuing them from Egypt. People outside Israel could join themselves to that covenant, but for the most part God worked with just one nation. Then Jesus came and entrusted His followers with the message that salvation is open to everyone in the world, regardless of their background. Today, God is working with a group of people called out from among all the nations of the world. And in the future, He will show the entire world who He is, resurrect those who died without knowing Him, and give all an opportunity to choose life with Him (see “Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection” and “Rethinking Hell: A Clearer View of God’s Judgement“).

“Yet even now,” says Yahweh, “turn to me with all your heart,
and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning.”
Tear your heart, and not your garments,
and turn to Yahweh, your God;
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness,
and relents from sending calamity. …
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
Sanctify a fast.
Call a solemn assembly. …

Be glad and rejoice, for Yahweh has done great things. …
Be glad then, you children of Zion,
and rejoice in Yahweh, your God;
for he gives you the early rain in just measure,
and he causes the rain to come down for you,
the early rain and the latter rain,
as before.

Joel 2:12-13, 15, 22-23, WEB

God has great joy in seeing people turn from their wickedness and choose life (Eze. 18:23; Luke 15:7,10). The Bible represents this change in our way of life as a return to the Lord, and when we repent and turn to Him with sincerity there is great joy for us as well. Interestingly, at least one prophet connects that joy with coming back to keeping the feasts of the Lord (Zech. 1:3-4; 8:3, 19; 10:7-9; 14:8-9, 16-20). Let’s rejoice in these days and in the knowledge that the Lord loves us. He redeems us, welcomes us into His family, and promises to share His everlasting life and joy with us if only we’ll return to Him.

Featured image by Pearl from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “Praise You With The Dance” by Casting Crowns

A Day of Return and Repentance

On the Hebrew calendar, today is Shabbat Shuvah–the Sabbath of return. That’s the name for the weekly Sabbath that falls during the 10 Days of Awe between Yom Teruah (Day of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Traditionally, it’s a time for reflection and prayer, particularly on the concept of repentance.

On the Gregorian calendar, today is September 11 and this year marks 20 years since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I was 12 years old, and one thing I remember from the aftermath of that attack is how many people turned to God for comfort and answers. Churches filled, Christians talked about revival, but it all petered out pretty quickly. Life went back to something like normal; it was easy to forget the United States was fighting a war unless someone you knew was involved, or to overlook the extra security measures unless you had to fly on a plane. It must have seemed similarly easy to forget how much people felt they needed God and continue a trend (particularly among young people) of leaving churches and abandoning belief in a single faith.

Ancient Israel followed a similar pattern in the stories recorded for us in the Bible. They started out as a godly nation, then strayed from God, came back when things got bad, and then forsook God again. I don’t want to spend too much time drawing parallels with any modern nation, though. The New Testament characterizes the Christian community (not a nation like the United States) as “spiritual Israel;” people who are citizens of God’s heavenly country and who live as foreigners among the nations of the world (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:13-16). We’re the ones that Paul is talking to when he writes about Ancient Israel and says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:1-12, NET). We don’t know when this “age” will end, exactly, but we do know that we’re now closer to the time of Jesus’s return than Paul was when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians. If they needed to learn from stories of Israel as “the end of the ages” drew near, so do we.

(Re)Turning to God

In modern Hebrew, teshuvah is the word for repentance. It’s root is shuva or shub–a verb used “over 1050 times” in the Old Testament. Of those, the word is used “in a covenantal context” 164 times (TWOT entry 2340). Though this word for “return” is used in a variety of ways, the most theologically significant meaning is as a repentance idiom. In other words, when we repent we return to God (and our covenant with Him) and turn away from sin.

To be sure, there is no systematic spelling out of the doctrine of repentance in the OT. It is illustrated (Ps 51) more than anything else. Yet the fact that people are called “to turn” either “to” or “away from” implies that sin is not an ineradicable stain, but by turning, a God-given power, a sinner can redirect his destiny. There are two sides to understanding conversion, the free sovereign act of God’s mercy and man’s going beyond contrition and sorrow to a conscious decision of turning to God. The latter includes repudiation for all sin and affirmation of God’s total will for one’s life.

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2340

Themes of return and repentance, as spoken of here in this dictionary entry, figure prominently in the prophets’ writings. Hosea, for example, says, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for your sin has been your downfall! Return to the Lord and repent!” (Hos. 14:1-2, NET). You’ll find similar calls in other prophets’ writings as they share God’s call for His people to come back to Him after they’ve forgotten Him and been unfaithful. Hosea even gives guidelines for how to do this: “But you must return to your God, by maintaining love and justice and by waiting for your God to return to you” (Hos. 12:6, NET). A key way we can return to God is by prioritizing love and justice (which puts me in mind of Mic. 6:8 and Luke 11:42). Then, all we have to do is wait on the Lord. God is faithful, and when we turn to Him He will turn to us as well.

A Warning Shout

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As we approach Yom Kippur, many believers will read Isaiah 58, which is a passage about genuine fasting. This passaged begins the same way that the fall holy day season did with Yom Teruah on the first day of this Hebrew month–with shouts and trumpet blasting.

“Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet!
Yell as loudly as a trumpet!
Confront my people with their rebellious deeds;
confront Jacob’s family with their sin.
They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements,
like a nation that does what is right
and does not reject the law of their God.

Isaiah 58:1-2, NET

God instructs Isaiah to use his voice as a teruah–a loud shout or trumpet blast–to deliver a warning. These people said they wanted to know God, but they didn’t actually listen to Him. He’s calling them to turn away from wickedness and toward Him with genuine fasting and respect for God’s holy times (Is. 58:3-14). That sort of thing isn’t just in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of dealing with similar people who “have shut their eyes, so that they would not see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Matt. 13:14-15, NET).

We don’t want to be like that. We need to “turn around and become like little children” (Matt. 18:1-3, NET), who “turn back” to faith after we make mistakes (Luke 22:31-34, NET), and who “turn to the Lord” to have the “veil” removed so we can understand God’s word and His glory (2 Cor. 3:15-18, NET). When we repent, we confess “the name of the Lord” and “turn away from evil” (2 Tim. 2:19, NET). The process of repentance is more clearly articulated in the New Testament, but it’s essentially the same that it has always been. Repenting involves turning a way from one thing (sin) and turning to another (God).

Let’s use the Days of Awe this year to take a close look at ourselves. I think we can all find ways that we haven’t walked perfectly with God over this past year. Thankfully, God holds open the possibility for return. While we can repent and return to God any time of the year, this season we’re in now is particularly focused on reminding us to do that. Let’s remember God, return to Him, and commit to remaining faithful.

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Song Recommendation: “Who I Am” by Casting Crowns

Hear the Trumpet Sound

In just a few days, we’re observing Yom Teruah–the Day of Trumpets (you may also know this day as Rosh Hashanah). As the earliest New Testament believers did, Messianic Jews and many other Christians today will gather to blow shofars and celebrate a day that God describes as holy to Him. We’ll do this because we want to honor God and show our love for Him by obeying His commands, yet we don’t know very much about this day or why God wants us to mark it. The most detailed description we have is this:

Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, there shall be a solemn rest for you, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall do no regular work. You shall offer an offering made by fire to Yahweh.’”

Leviticus 23:23-25, WEB

There are many theories about this day. Some say it pictures the time when “the Lord himself will come back from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (1 Thes. 4:16, NET), like a Jewish bridegroom arriving to marry his betrothed. Others say its a day picturing freedom, release from debts, and joyful shouts. Or perhaps it’s simply a call to prepare for Yom Kippur (JewishLink.com). Some teach that it marks the sixth day of creation and is intended to wake us up, reminding us to turn to the Lord and pray we be inscribed in the Lamb’s book of life (Hebrew4Christians.com).

First and Second Creation

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This idea of a connection between Yom Teruah and the sixth day of creation comes from Jewish mishnah writings rather than scripture, but if that tradition is true it would connect neatly with the second coming. As the author of Hebrew4Christians points out, this reading would mean Yom Teruah “commemorates both the creation of the universe by Adonai as well as the ‘calling up’ of the new creation at the behest of Yeshua, when the sound of the heavenly shofar inaugurates the anticipated End of Days.”

Paul also draws a link between Adam–the first human being God created–and Jesus Christ–the first person raised from the dead in a spirit body. There’s an orderliness to this comparison, “for just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor. 15:20-25, NET). We’ve born the image of the man made of dust, created by God on the sixth day in Genesis 1, and we will “also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:42-53, NET).

Something marvelous is going to happen in the future. We, who are fleshy like the first created man, will change. We’ll become spirit, like the Firstfruit from the Dead, Jesus Christ who lived as a human being, died, and then rose a spirit being. And that will happen “in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15:52). We can debate the exact timing of that change (and many have), but it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to associate it, or at least a blasted reminder that this change is coming, with Yom Teruah.

The King is Coming!

The connection between trumpets and Jesus’s second coming is perhaps the simplest explanation for this day’s meaning that we can offer. The spring holy days (Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost) pointed toward and now call us to remember Jesus’s first coming. The fall holy days point to a time in the future when God Himself will dwell with people; when Jesus Himself will return with the sound of trumpets, shofar blasts, and shouts.

The trumpets and shofars used to make the “alarm, signal,” “shout,” or “blast” that’s described by the word teruah figure prominently in scripture (H8643, BDB definition). Often, this word refers to the sound made by a shofar, or ram’s horn (TWOT entry 2449c). The shofar was used when Israel met with God at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:16-20). It’s what the priest blew when Jericho fell and Gideon went up against Midian (Josh. 6:4-20; Judg. 7:16-22). The shofar was used for signals in battle and to sound an alarm, and it’s often used figuratively as well as literally (Judg. 3:27; 2 Sam. 18:16; 20:1; Neh. 4:20; Is. 58:1; Jer. 4:19, 21; 6:1, 17; Ezk. 33:3-6; Hos. 5:8; 8:1; Joel 2:1; Amos 3:6). Israel also used shofars when anointing a new king (1 Kings 1:34, 39; 2 Kings 9:13), and it played a key role in praise and covenant making with God (2 Chron. 15:13-14; Ps. 81:3; 98:6; 150:3; Joel 2:15).

Shofar blasts are connected to kingship, to warnings for Israel to return to God, and to proper expression of joy after returning. They serve as a warning and reminder as well as a tool for worship. So let’s keep this holy day with all those meanings in mind. Let the Day of Trumpets wake us up from spiritual sleep, renewing our commitment to wait faithfully for the Bridegroom. Let that day remind us to prepare and use the days between now and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) wisely. And let’s also celebrate joyfully, remembering the goodness of God in creating us and promising to recreate us in His spiritual likeness. This world which is so full of frightening and wicked things will not last forever. Someday, our Lord will return with trumpet blasts and we will be changed, fully born into His spiritual family. And that gives us great reason for joy as we begin another fall holy day season.

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