A Song of God’s Vineyard

I want to start today with a scripture passage. It’s a bit long, but it sets the stage perfectly for what we’ll be talking about in this post.

Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved about his vineyard.
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up,
gathered out its stones,
planted it with the choicest vine,
built a tower in the middle of it,
and also cut out a wine press in it.
He looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

“Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
please judge between me and my vineyard.
What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?
Why, when I looked for it to yield grapes, did it yield wild grapes?
Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will take away its hedge, and it will be eaten up.
I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled down.
I will lay it a wasteland.
It won’t be pruned or hoed,
but it will grow briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.”

For the vineyard of Yahweh of Armies is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah his pleasant plant:
and he looked for justice, but, behold, oppression;
for righteousness, but, behold, a cry of distress.

Isaiah 5:1-7, WEB

Love songs like this are one reason I love the book of Isaiah so much. It starts out sounding like something from Song of Solomon, with someone singing to Yahweh, their beloved. Then the song turns sour (like the grapes in this vineyard) as Israel turned their hearts away from their lover. God Himself interjects to finish the story. They turned their back on Him even though He did everything right, and for Him this isn’t an empty claim. No one can do more than God to show love and to provide fertile ground to grow in. It wasn’t unreasonable of Him to look at a people He “planted” and expect they’d yield fruits of justice and righteousness instead of oppression and distress.

I recently started reading a new one-year devotional called Worship The King by Chris Tiegreen. January 15-19 are all based on Isaiah 5:1-7, and one of the things Tiegreen points out is that, God’s question, “What more could I do?” is in some ways rhetorical. There was one more thing He could do, and He did it when He sent Jesus to die for our sins (p. 18). If you’ve ever wondered why Jesus spent so much time talking about agriculture and vineyards in His parables, this is it. He’s continuing a metaphor God started using in the prophets to show how He fits into God’s love story.

Vineyard Parables

There are three primary vineyard parables that Jesus shared during His ministry. One is focused on reward for workers in a vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), and another on two sons whose father told them to work in his vineyard (Matt. 21:27-32). Then, right after that parable where only one son did his father’s will by working in the vineyard, Jesus says this:

“Hear another parable. There was a man who was a master of a household who planted a vineyard, set a hedge about it, dug a wine press in it, built a tower, leased it out to farmers, and went into another country. When the season for the fruit came near, he sent his servants to the farmers to receive his fruit. The farmers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first; and they treated them the same way. But afterward he sent to them his son, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But the farmers, when they saw the son, said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard, then killed him. When therefore the lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?”

Matthew 21:33-40, WEB

The people Jesus is talking with are pretty sure they know the answer to that last question. The master will kill the servants and “lease out the vineyard to other farmers who will give him the fruit in its season.” In response, Jesus points them back to a scripture predicting the Messiah would be rejected by the people who should have been looking for His arrival (Psalm 118:22-23). The other servants who came before Him were prophets like Isaiah and many others whom Israel ignored. Now, the Master’s Son is here.

Jesus doesn’t point His listeners back to Isiah’s song about the vineyard, but we can easily see the parallels. Here in Jesus’s parable, though, the link between Him and the vineyard is made more explicit. God has a vineyard like the one Isaiah sang about. Jesus coming as the Master’s Son is the one thing more that God can do to receive the fruit His vineyard owes Him. And then the leaders of His people killed Him just like the wicked workers in this parable. Jesus points beyond that death when He says, “God’s Kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a nation producing its fruit” (Matt. 21:41-46). That doesn’t mean Jewish or Israelite people won’t be in God’s kingdom (as Paul points out using another agricultural example in Romans 11). It does mean that staying in a fruit-producing relationship with God is far more important to your long-term spiritual wellbeing than whether or not your ancestors had a covenant with Him.

Our Role as Vines

Fruitfulness is something God comes back to again and again. In another vineyard song from Isaiah, God speaks of a time when “Jacob will take root. Israel will blossom and bud. They will fill the surface of the world with fruit” (Is. 27:2-12, WEB). Even in this song, though, it speaks of issues with the vineyard that must be forgiven before the vines can thrive. As other prophets point out, the vines that God cultivated for thousands of years weren’t always as fruitful as they should have been (Jer. 2:19-22; 12:10-11; Ezk. 19:10-14). It’s an issue that could really only be solved by Jesus’s sacrifice. Even after that sacrifice, though, fruitfulness requires our participation. Jesus addressed this idea in another parable, this time about a fig tree.

He spoke this parable. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none. He said to the vine dresser, ‘Behold, these three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and found none. Cut it down. Why does it waste the soil?’ He answered, ‘Lord, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit, fine; but if not, after that, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9, WEB

As vines and trees in God’s vineyard, we have a say in whether or not we produce fruit. He provides fertile ground where we can thrive. He prunes and forgives us, keeping us spiritually healthy. He feeds everyone connected to Jesus–the Root that we all rely on as branches who are part of Him as the Vine (John 15:1-16). But we’re human beings, not vines that always stay exactly where we’re planted. Whether or not we stay in that good soil is our choice. We need to keep seeking God’s correction and forgiveness as we grow to be more and more like Him. And we need to stay rooted in the vine. Only then will the Father be glorified by the fruit that we produce and the love song that we sing to Him.

Featured image by alohamalakhov from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Dance With Me” by Paul Wilbur

Who or What is the “Morning Star”?

A comment on last week’s post about names got me thinking about “Morning Star” as a title for Jesus Christ. Many of His titles are easy to interpret. They make a lot of sense–of course He’s called Savior, Redeemer, Lord, High Priest, and Lamb of God. We have tons of evidence for and explanations of those titles and roles. In contrast, Morning Star isn’t quite so easy to define.

I’ve studied Jesus as the Light before, and touched on the Morning Star title in those posts (see “The Sun of Righteousness” and “The Light From The Beginning“). I haven’t dug deep into this particular title, though, or addressed the fact that there’s also a verse describing Satan as a “morning star” (though that depends on which translation you’re using).

The phrase “morning star” is used infrequently through the Bible, and not always of Jesus. To understand how this title is used, we need to understand how the Bible talks about stars and which Old Testament passages inform the New Testament verses saying Jesus is the Morning Star. As we’ll see, this title has to do with Jesus’s authority, His light, and His role understanding God’s ways.

Morning Stars in the Bible

“Morning Star” isn’t only used as a title for Jesus. The words show up in other verses as well, and looking at those can help give us a feel for what Morning Star means when used as a title. Let’s start with looking at the Hebrew words in the Old Testament.

In the story of Job, God shows up in-person to answer Job’s questions with some questions of His own. He asked, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? … Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 6-7, WEB). This verse uses the Hebrew words kokab (H3556, “star”) and boqer (H1242, “morning, break of day”) (definitions from BDB lexicon). It’s the only time in the Bible those two words are used together. There’s other talk of stars in the Bible–both literal stars and as figurative language for spiritual beings–but this is the only place in the Old Testament that really narrows in on the idea of “morning stars.”

Other phrases translated “morning star” in English versions of the Old Testament use different words. When Job “cursed the day he was born” and said “Let its morning stars be darkened” (Job. 3:1, 8, NET) the Hebrew word translated “morning” more often means “twilight” (though it can be evening or morning twilight, H5399). It’s not the same phrase as God uses later in Job 38:7. Similarly, the verse in Isaiah talking about Satan’s fall is sometimes translated “morning star, son of the dawn” (Is. 14:12, NIV). However, a more accurate translation of heylele (H1966) would be “shining one.”

How you have fallen from heaven, shining one, son of the dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend into heaven! I will exalt my throne above the stars of God! I will sit on the mountain of assembly, in the far north! will ascend above the heights of the clouds! I will make myself like the Most High!” Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the pit.

Isaiah 14:12-15, WEB

This passage is talking about one who shone like the dawn and arrogantly thought he could exalt himself “above the stars of God” (that word in v. 13 is kokab). I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, but the question “Aren’t Jesus and Satan both referred to as the morning star?” does come up from time to time and can be confusing. Though the titles may have some similarities, the comparison highlights the differences between these two beings. Just like Jesus as the Lion of Judah is far more powerful than Satan as a roaring, ravenous lion, so does Jesus as the Morning Star and Light of the World outshine Satan’s former glory as a shining one.

The Star of Jacob

The clearest connection between an Old Testament prophecy and Jesus as the Morning Star comes from a section of scripture that doesn’t include the word “morning.” This prophecy was delivered by Balaam, a prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the nation of Israel. God did not permit him to speak curses over them, though; he was only allowed to speak blessings (Num. 22-24).

“Balaam the son of Beor says,
the man whose eyes are open says;
he says, who hears the words of God,
knows the knowledge of the Most High,
and who sees the vision of the Almighty,
falling down, and having his eyes open:
I see him, but not now.
I see him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob.
A scepter will rise out of Israel,
and shall strike through the corners of Moab,
and crush all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be a possession.
Seir, his enemy, also shall be a possession,
while Israel does valiantly.
Out of Jacob shall one have dominion,
and shall destroy the remnant from the city.”

Numbers 24:15-19, WEB (emphasis added)

This is the only Old Testament passage I’ve found that explicitly identifies the promised Messiah as a star. That being the case, this prophecy is likely something Peter was thinking of when he wrote these words:

For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

2 Peter 1:17-19, NET

Here in these verses, Peter chooses not to use the standard Greek word for star (aster, G792). Rather, he uses the word phosphorous , which means “light bringing” (G5459). The reason that it’s translated “morning star” is because it’s often used of the planet Venus as the “day star” (Thayer’s dictionary). It is also is “a Hellenistic word that was sometimes used of emperors and deities” (NET footnote). This strengthens the connection back to Numbers 24:17 by connecting to the authority Jesus has as the scepter-carrying Star of Jacob. 17

What Peter’s doing here is connecting his audience back to prophecies in the Old Testament scriptures that point to Jesus as the Messiah, then he references one of those prophecies while drawing a parallel between Jesus as the Morning Star and Light that shines into our minds. That connection is made even more explicit through Jesus’s own words at the end of Revelation (though He uses aster) .

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify these things to you for the assemblies. I am the root and the offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”

Revelation 22:16, WEB

The Morning Star Dawns in Us

If we look back at the verse in Peter’s letter, we see he’s talking about how the Bible (specifically the “prophetic word”) is something we ought to “pay attention to … as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” There’s a connection between Jesus’s title Morning Star and the way that truths of His word dawn on us. He is the great light shining into the world’s darkness; “the dawn from on high” who visited us (Matt. 4:13-16; Luke 1:76-79).

Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who are dying, in whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn on them. For we don’t preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake, seeing it is God who said, “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6, WEB

From the Old Covenant times until now, the righteous have been associated with light, dawn, and the sun (Ps. 112:3-5; Prov. 4:17-19; Is. 62:1; Dan. 12:2-3; Matt. 13:43). God is light, and if we walk in His ways (i.e. live righteously) then we will shine with His light (1 John 1:5-7). It’s because of Jesus shining into us that we have the chance to shine with God’s righteousness. This idea of Jesus dawning understanding into us may be why His letter to the church at Thyatira says this:

He who overcomes, and he who keeps my works to the end, to him I will give authority over the nations. He will rule them with a rod of iron, shattering them like clay pots; as I also have received of my Father: and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies.

Revelation 2:26-29, WEB

It’s sort of a weird phrase. Based on what we’ve studied on this topic, Jesus giving people “the morning star” may be connected to understanding, righteousness, and/or authority. It’s hard to tell for sure, though. Like so many things in the Bible, “morning star” is something we could study over and over again, and probably find a deeper understanding each time. I’m not sure where we might take this study next, but I feel it’s still at the beginning stages. Who knows, maybe we’ll come back to it again in another two years (that’s about how long it’s been since the last post I wrote which touched on the Morning Star).

If you have thoughts on this study or it inspires you to dig into the topic of stars in the Bible, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think and learn about this!

Featured image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

When God Calls You By Name

I remember feeling completely lost when I first read Isaiah. It didn’t make much sense, which made it a puzzle, which meant I kept going back to it over and over. I’m glad I did because, years later, Isaiah is now one of my favorite books. There are so many passionate expressions of God’s love for His people here, and so much insight into how He relates to us when we slip up and make mistakes. I’m particularly fond of this passage:

But now Yahweh who created you, Jacob,
and he who formed you, Israel, says:
“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name.
You are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned,
and flame will not scorch you.
For I am Yahweh your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
your Savior.
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
Since you have been precious and honored in my sight,
and I have loved you,
therefore I will give people in your place,
and nations instead of your life.”

Isaiah 43:1-4, WEB

For me, reading this verse is the spiritual equivalent of wrapping up in a fluffy blanket and snuggling in with a cup of hot cocoa. It makes me feel safe and loved and warm. It doesn’t stand by itself in Isaiah’s book, though, and the context adds more layers of meaning and assurance to the words of my favorite verses. There’s a particularly intriguing emphasis on names, which is what I’d like to dig into deeper today.

Called By Name

Names matter deeply in the Bible and ancient Hebrew culture. The Hebrew word for name, shem, “often included existence, character, and reputation” (TWOT entry 2405). When speaking of God, there are some passages where “shem Yahweh is so intricately bound up with the being of God, that it functions almost like an appearance of Yahweh.” Shem also “signifies the whole self-disclosure of God in his holiness and truth.” Names stand-in for who a person is as a whole. They often have profound meaning, and in some cases God renames people He’s working with to signify who they’re becoming in him (for example, “Abram” [exalted father] becoming “Abraham” [father of many nations]).

You can see, then, now much it meant to have someone call you by name or to give you permission to call yourself by their name. When God says, “I have called you by your name. You are mine” it means He fully knows who we are and He claims us as His own (Is. 43:1, WEB). Most translations of this verse say “called you by name” or “called you by your name,” but there are some that choose to emphasize God’s role in naming His people. For example, “have named thee” (JUB), “I have chosen you, named you as My own” (VOICE), and “I have called thee by my name” (Clarke’s commentary). Either way you choose to translate it, this is a declaration of knowing and caring on a deep, personal level.

In Old Covenant times, God commissioned the priests to bless Israel and put His name on them. He promised to redeem, “my people, who are called by my name” if they sought Him with humility and prayer. Then in the New Covenant, He fulfilled prophecies that say Gentiles will be called by His name as well (Num. 6:27; 2 Chr. 7:14; Acts 15:17). Those who belong to God have His name associated with them (which is one reason it’s so important that we obey the command “You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God” [Ex. 20:7, WEB]).

Isaiah 40-45

The verses we opened this post with are part of a longer message from God that Isaiah records in chapters 40:1-45:13. It’s mostly focused on God’s plans to deliver His people. One of the famous Servant Song prophecies pointing to Jesus as the Messiah is found in this section. There are also promises of God’s comfort, reliability, and protection. He reminds His people that He’s all-powerful and any idols we could come up with are completely insignificant and impotent. God also speaks of His anger with those who’ve abandoned Him for useless pagan gods, while declaring His refusal to permanently abandon them in return. Rather, He revealed He’s planning something new, including providing deliverance using the non-Israelite King Cyrus (who’s mentioned several times throughout this section of scripture).

Power in the Name

Within this passage about anger, deliverance, and God’s plans for redeeming His sinful people, He declares truths about Himself and His name. He also demonstrates His power by showing that He knows even the stars by name.

Look up at the sky!
Who created all these heavenly lights?
He is the one who leads out their ranks;
he calls them all by name.
Because of his absolute power and awesome strength,
not one of them is missing.

Isaiah 40:26, NET

“I am the Lord! That is my name!
I will not share my glory with anyone else,
or the praise due me with idols.

Isaiah 42:8, NET

God’s power contrasted with the uselessness of idols is a recurring theme in this section of Isaiah’s book. It’s one of the reasons that’s God is so angry with His people. There’s no sense in abandoning the all-powerful, all-loving creator of the universe to bow down and pray to a carved hunk of wood. He will not share His glory. And if we know His name, then we shouldn’t expect Him to be okay with half-loyalty or intermittent faith. We ought to reverence His “absolute power and awesome strength,” giving glory to His name.

Image of a man praying with a Bible, with text from Romans 9-10, 12, WEB version: “if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and 
believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes resulting in 
righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made 
resulting in salvation. ... there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on him. For, ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
Image by WhoisliketheLord Studio from Lightstock
Calling Cyrus

One thing about this passage in Isaiah 40-45 that seems a bit odd to me is how much time God spends talking about Cyrus. Why would God keep brining up a Persian conqueror when discussing how He knows and redeems His people? I didn’t remember much about this part of history, so I did a bit more research and GotQuestions.org provides a good overview of Cyrus’s appearances in the Bible. He’s the Persian king who let the Jewish people go back to Israel after 70 years in captivity.

I have stirred up one out of the north and he advances,
one from the eastern horizon who prays in my name.
He steps on rulers as if they were clay,
like a potter treading the clay.

Isaiah 41:25, NET

This is what the Lord says to his chosen one,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I hold…
“I will go before you
and level mountains.
Bronze doors I will shatter
and iron bars I will hack through.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stashed away in secret places,
so you may recognize that I am the Lord,
the one who calls you by name, the God of Israel.”

Isaiah 45:1, 3-4, NET

Here in Isaiah, God is predicting that will happen and revealing His role in stirring up Cyrus to help God’s people. He’s also showing Isaiah (and readers like us) that He can call someone by name even if they don’t submit to Him. God is sovereign, and He gets to choose who He works with in mighty and powerful ways. He might even use someone unexpected to do great things.

Names and Us

Now we get to the chapters where God calls His people by name. Right before the Isaiah 43 passage, God speaks of sending a Messiah (who we now know as Jesus) to redeem His people, looking ahead past the physical relief Cyrus would bring to Israel to a more lasting and complete spiritual relief that Jesus brings to all God’s people. Here, Isaiah also talks about the reasons people need a Messiah–“they would not walk in his ways, and they disobeyed his law. Therefore he poured the fierceness of his anger on him” (Is. 42:24-25). Sins separate us from God, but He has a plan to deal with that.

Now, this is what the Lord says,
the one who created you, O Jacob,
and formed you, O Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, for I will protect you.
I call you by name, you are mine. …

Isaiah 43:1, NET

I will tell the north, ‘Give them up!’
and tell the south, ‘Don’t hold them back!
Bring my sons from far away,
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
and whom I have created for my glory,
whom I have formed,
yes, whom I have made.’”

Isaiah 43:6-7, WEB

Those who God calls by name and whom He calls by His name will not stay separated or forsaken. He calls us not to be afraid, but to trust in His power and deliverance. He has good things planned for us. We just need to stay connected with Him; associated with His name.

One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord,’
and another will use the name ‘Jacob.’
One will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
and use the name ‘Israel.’”

Isaiah 44:5, NET

When God Calls Us By Name

Image of a woman smiling and worshipping with the blog's title text and the words "God knows everything about us and He still wants us to draw into a closer and closer relationship with Him, getting to know His name as well as He knows our names."

When God calls you by your name, that indicates a close, personal relationship very much like the one He had with Moses (Ex 33:12, 17). His relationship with Moses was exceptional, especially in Old Covenant times when having a friendship with God was a little more rare. Now, though, we all have the opportunity to have God call us by name.

“Most certainly, I tell you, one who doesn’t enter by the door into the sheep fold, but climbs up some other way, is a thief and a robber. But one who enters in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out. Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. They will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him; for they don’t know the voice of strangers.” Jesus spoke this parable to them, but they didn’t understand what he was telling them.

John 10:1-5, WEB

Jesus is the good shepherd who knows each of us by name. When we’re tuned-in to His voice we can “hear” Him calling us to follow Him each day. He knows us intimately, and is more familiar with our “existence, character, and reputation” than anyone else we can know. He knows everything about us and He still loves us. He even wants us to draw into a closer and closer relationship with Him, getting to know His name as well as He knows our names.

Featured image by Prixel Creative from Lightstock

Washed Clean by Jesus

I read a chapter in my Bible each night before bed, and I recently finished Exodus and moved into Leviticus. This book is full of God’s laws and instructions for His people Israel, and much of it has to do with ceremonial uncleanness.

Those parts of the Torah might not seem as if they have anything to do with us today. There isn’t a temple building anymore or a priesthood conducting animal sacrifices. We don’t worry about doing things that might make us unclean until evening or take turtledoves and lambs to the temple to ask God to pass over our sins. But the fact that we don’t have to worry about that anymore means something changed, and that something isn’t God. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). He’s still just as holy as He was in the Old Testament. What’s changed is something having to do with our holiness and God’s relationship with us.

This “something” is that Jesus’s sacrifice cleanses us from our sins. The fact that we say “cleanses” us from sin, though, points to the same problem Leviticus was trying to deal with. God is holy, but holiness is not the default state of human beings. Sins (and even things that aren’t sin which once resulted in ceremonial uncleanness) would separate us from God if there wasn’t a way of washing us. I think this is why the New Testament writers spend so much time talking about cleanliness and holiness. When they described what Jesus is doing in us, they’re working with this background knowledge that God didn’t allow unclean people into His temple.

Uncleanness and Sin

In the Old Covenant law, people became ritually unclean in several ways. One was by sinning, which required sacrifices offered as atonement even though they couldn’t actually remove sin. There were also ways to become ritually unclean without sinning, such as by touching animal carcasses or dead bodies, contracting leprosy, having a baby, and having sex (Lev. 5:2;12:2; 13:3, 44-45; 15:1-33). All sin made people unclean, but not all the ways to become unclean involved sin.

Even though many of the things that resulted in ritual uncleanness weren’t sins, they could still disqualify you from entering the temple or eating of the holy things (Lev. 7:19-21; Chr. 23:18-19; Rev. 21:23-27). Because God is holy, His people had to “make a distinction between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” so they wouldn’t die by defiling God’s dwelling place with their uncleanness (Lev. 10:10-11; 15:31). God is still holy today, but the process for making us clean is much more lasting and complete.

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify to the cleanness of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without defect to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

Hebrews 9:13-14, WEB

Washed by Jesus

Jesus spent quite a bit of time during his earthly ministry engaging in debate with the religious leaders of His day. One thing in particular that He pointed out to them was that their efforts to be clean had gotten off-track. It wasn’t the outward cleanliness that mattered the most, but the holiness of the heart (Matt. 23:25-27; Luke 11:40-42). This doesn’t mean we ignore the outside, but outward things aren’t our focus; the outside becomes clean as a result of the cleaning happening inside us.

In John’s account of Jesus’s final Passover, he mentions that “many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually” (John 11:54-56). This is a detail I’ve overlooked in the past; it just seems like a note explaining something about the culture at the time. But a short time later at Passover, Jesus has this conversation with Peter:

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus answered him, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”

Jesus said to him, “Someone who has bathed only needs to have his feet washed, but is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you.” For he knew him who would betray him, therefore he said, “You are not all clean.”

John 13:8-11, WEB

We are clean in every sense–ritually and in terms of forgiveness for sin–if Jesus Christ washes us. Paul emphasizes this in one of his letters, saying “Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it;  that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the assembly to himself gloriously, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without defect” (Eph. 5:25-27, WEB).

Jesus’s sacrifice mediates a new covenant that involves more immediate and lasting cleansing than was ever available under the old covenant (Heb. 9:13-15, 22-24; 10:1-14). Instead of making it possible for us to walk inside a physical temple dedicated to God, Jesus’s cleansing makes us part of God’s undefiled spiritual temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:16-20; 2 Cor. 6:15-18). It goes beyond just being allowed to visit God. We actually get to be part of His dwelling place.

Image of a waterfall, with text from 2 Cor. 6:16-18, NET version: "For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, ‘I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ Therefore ‘come out from their midst, and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,’ says the All-Powerful Lord.”
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Dwelling in the Clean Vine

Becoming clean is something that Jesus does to us. Staying clean is something we’re involved in. It’s part of a lifelong process of becoming holy the way that God is holy (Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). We need to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1, WEB). We’re actively involved in the process of sanctification because we choose what behaviors shape the sort of people we are (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 2 Tim. 2:20-21).

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. …

“In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love.”

John 15:1-4, 8-10 WEB

The way we stay clean is by staying firmly attached to Jesus and following Him. Under the Old Covenant, we could have become “unclean” in all sorts of ways and becoming clean again involved the passage of time and/or ritual washing or sacrifice (depending on how you became unclean). Now under the New Covenant, Jesus washes us clean all the time so long as we’re sticking close to Him.

Staying in God’s Presence

Jesus doesn’t let anything that could make us “unclean” stand in the way of us getting into God’s presence. The relationship we have with God isn’t cut off if we touch an unclean animal or become seriously ill; there’s no more ritual uncleanness to worry about. However, God still cares about the way we live our lives.

Just like there was a difference between ritual uncleanness and law-breaking sin in the Old Testament, there’s a similar difference today. The first doesn’t matter at all anymore–Jesus takes care of washing us from any ritual uncleanness. The second doesn’t have to matter, but still could. Jesus’s sacrifice washes sins away as easily as any other uncleanness, but in this case we’re also supposed to stop sinning after we’re washed clean and repent if we make a mistake.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are.

1 Corinthian 3:16-17, NET

The word translated “destroy” here is phtheirō (G5351), and it can also mean “corrupt” or “defile,” though most modern translations use “destroy” (see Thayer’s Dictionary and KJV translation). I wonder if Paul was thinking about the effect that uncleanness had in the Old Testament when he wrote this. If something that was holy touched something that was unclean, then the holy didn’t sanctify the unclean–the holy thing became corrupted (Haggai 2:11-14). God doesn’t want that happening in His temple (i.e. the church body of believers).

If you look back at Jesus’s words in John 15, you see that remaining in Him involves keeping His Father’s commandments. Jesus washes us from sins as well as from ritual uncleanness, but we’re still not supposed to do things that would defile us. If we do realize we’ve sinned, then we’re supposed to repent and ask for forgiveness so He can wash those sins away again just like He did the first time we were sanctified (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The cleanness of our souls should matter to us because one of our chief desires should be to dwell in the presence of God (Psalm 16:11; 140:13), and He doesn’t have close relationships with people who won’t let Him wash them (as Jesus told Peter in John 13:8-11). So let’s stay close to God, repenting if we sin and continually praising Him for cleansing and making us holy so we can dwell with Him.

Featured image by jplenio from Pixabay

God’s Generosity With His Wealth

In Isaiah, God says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways … For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9,WEB). There are many examples we could use to illustrate this truth by contrasting God’s take on something with the typical human ways of seeing things. One example is how God taking justice to the next level turns into mercy. Where people might typically be inclined to administer justice more strictly, God calls us to follow His example of reconciliation and mercy.

Another key way that God’s thoughts are higher and different than ours shows up in how He handles the question of what to do with the wealth that He has. “The world and all it contains belong to me,” God says (Ps. 50:9-12); He’s the wealthiest being in the universe. And what does He do as the One who has everything? He gives.

Parable of the Rich Fool

Jesus spoke several times about wealth. He’s living proof that God views abundance as something to share (and what greater proof could there be than Him wanting to share eternal life with us?). He also tells us what sort of “wealth” we ought to prioritize. One example is found in this parable:

He then told them a parable: “The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop, so he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:16-21, NET

True riches are located with God in heaven. If we’re more focused on building up wealth here on earth than on being “rich toward God,” then we’re not in a stable place from an eternal perspective. The notion of building larger storehouses to hoard abundance when you have more than enough is a very different attitude than the one God displays.

Open the Storehouse of Heaven

Let’s say you do have a proper view of wealth and prioritize treasures in heaven far more than treasures on earth. Even so, God often blesses His people with more than enough in a physical sense. Just because we’re not supposed to prioritize wealth doesn’t mean we won’t be blessed with more than enough physical things. What do you do then? Do you lay it up for yourself, or is there a different model that God shows?

“Bring the entire tithe into the storehouse so that there may be food in my temple. Test me in this matter,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out blessing for you until there is no room for it all.”

Malachi 3:10, NET

God doesn’t invite us to test Him often, but He does in this matter of His generosity. It seems counter-intuitive that we could give Him 10% of our income and that He’d give us even more back, but that’s who He is. Just look at the blessings promised in Deut. 28:1-14 if you’re skeptical about His willingness to provide for us physically as well as spiritually. Those blessings were offered to ancient Israel in particular, but God hasn’t changed since then; He still “gives to all generously” (James 1:5, NET).

All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change.

James 1:17, NET

This attitude is a sharp contrast to that of the rich person in Jesus’s parable, whose first thought when he had more than enough was to heap it up for himself. God doesn’t do that. He does give us the power to do what we want with the things we have (Matt. 20:15), but He also watches closely to see how we react when He blesses us. The choices we make for how to handle our abundance (whatever is over and above the things we need to live) help show God where our priorities lie.

Will we be dishonest as Ananias and Sapphira were, trying to fool people into thinking we give more than we really do (Acts 5:1-5)? Or will giving be so much a part of our walk in Jesus’s footsteps that we don’t bother to keep track of our kindnesses (Matt. 6:2-4)? Will we be selfish with our blessings, or will we be generous like God is with us?

A Guide for our Generosity

I’m not saying that we need to divest ourselves of possessions and live in poverty, having given everything we have away. That’s not the call God gives to most of us. And generosity isn’t only specific to money; it can also involve giving of our time, our hospitality, and our attention. That said, we do need to be aware of our attitude toward the blessings God gives us and be sure that our choice of what to do with our “more than enough” is a godly one.

I often think of this quote from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity : “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. … If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small” (click here for full quote). God’s people should be above-average generous because we serve a God who’s been beyond imagination generous toward us. Psalms and Proverbs make it clear: the righteous are generous and will be blessed (Psalm 37:21; 112:5, 9; Prov. 11:16, 24-25;22:9). Similarly, Paul weighs in on this question by saying,

My point is this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work. Just as it is written, “He has scattered widely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness remains forever.” Now God who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your supply of seed and will cause the harvest of your righteousness to grow. You will be enriched in every way so that you may be generous on every occasion, which is producing through us thanksgiving to God,

2 Corinthians 9:6-11, NET

Walking with God involves a change in the way our minds work. We are supposed to become like Him, and the way He thinks is very different than the way human beings think, especially before His spirit begins transforming us (1 Cor. 2:6-16). There is great value in shifting our mindset from one that sees blessings as something we need to hoard for ourselves and one that sees abundance as something to share generously. Psychology research backs this up, too–it’s far healthier to have an “abundance mindset” (i.e. there’s enough for everyone) than a “scarcity mindset” (i.e. resources are limited so I need to guard mine) (see “5 Ways To Go From A Scarcity To Abundance Mindset” and “Abundance Vs. Scarcity — Which Mindset Is Yours?”).

Ultimately, God doesn’t want us to worry about things we might lack now or which we have but could possibly lose. He wants us to focus on His provision and His goodness, storing up treasures in heaven rather than temporary things here on earth. He wants us to care for other people, desire to see them blessed, and be a blessing to them when it’s in our power to do so. Just as those who receive God’s mercy should be inspired to show others mercy, so should those who benefit from God’s generosity be inspired to have a generous, giving attitude. As Paul said, “God loves a cheerful giver,” and Jesus showed that even the tiniest amount of sharing is enough to catch His eye (Mark 12:41-44). It’s not really about how much you can give, but about the attitude that prompts you giving of your time, attention, money, and/or other things you have the potential to be generous with.

Featured image by TanteTati from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Let it Rain” (sometimes this song seems way too repetitive to me, but it’s been playing through my head off-and-on all week since I started writing this post so here it is).

Walk in the Way

“Walk” is an often used analogy for the Christian life. We talk about walking with Jesus and sing about walking in the light. Sometimes it becomes a sort of cute religious-speak phrase, using “walk of faith” as a metaphor for living as a Christian. But it’s also a description of a serious commitment. Two can’t walk together unless they’ve met and agreed to the walk (Amos 3:3). Walking in the Christian way means meeting and getting to know God, then agreeing to faithfully, absolutely follow the words and example of Jesus.

Closely related to walking is the notion of having a way of life. There’s a right way and many wrong ways to live, and those two options are described in the Bible as different “ways” (i.e. paths) where we can walk. This concept is so important that Christianity was called the Way throughout much of Acts (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

Two Ways to Walk

Early in His ministry, Jesus talked about these two ways in His sermon on the Mount. As He offered reconciliation and relationship with God to humanity, He also laid out what God expects from people who want those things. We need to actively seek Him and choose to walk in His ways.

Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it!

Matt. 7:13-14, NET

This passage puts me in mind of one from Isaiah that counsels readers to “Seek the Lord while he makes himself available” (Is. 55:6, NET). There’s a sense of urgency here, urging us not to get distracted but to focus on seeking God now. Thankfully for us, He does a lot to make Himself accessible. Unfortunately, many people don’t find the way of life; they walked right by it even when Jesus was walking among them personally.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.”

Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?”

John 14:6-10, WEB

This conversation took place a few years after the sermon we just quoted, at His last Passover with His disciples. Here, Jesus got more specific about how to find the Way. He’s the one true Way to a relationship with the Father, and therefore to eternal life (John 17:3, see also Heb. 10:19-21). It’s not a complicated idea, but even so “there are few who find” the narrow way to life. Even the disciples like Philip took a long time to understand how this worked.

Walking with Jesus, Like Jesus

The ones who do find the Way and start down that path to eternal life begin a walk with Jesus that’s meant to be life-long. As John says, “he who says he remains in him ought himself also to walk just like he walked” (1 John 2:6, WEB). We want to be like the people Jesus talks about in the letter to Sardis who “didn’t defile their garments” and “will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4, WEB). Jesus empowers us to walk with Him and in Him, as God has done with people throughout human history who respond to His call.

“I will strengthen them in Yahweh;
and they will walk up and down in his name,” says Yahweh.

Zechariah 10:12, WEB

For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

2 Corinthians 6:16, NET, referencing Lev. 26:12; and Ezk. 37:27

God wants to walk with us. He wants a relationship as we live our lives according to His ways. This is something He’s always wanted to have with His people, and accomplishing the reconciliation that makes such a walk possible is one reason Jesus came and died for our sins. We’re made holy so that we can walk with God, in the name of God.

How To Walk

So far, we’ve spoken in general terms about walking with God. We know this means walking in His ways and walking with Jesus. This gives us a pattern to follow–our walk imitates the way Jesus walked. The Bible also gives more specific instructions for how to walk which can help us understand exactly what walking like Jesus means in our day-to-day lives.

In light

Walking in the light is the type of walk that shows up most often in scripture. Psalm 119:105 praises the Lord saying, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path” (WEB). Isaiah calls for people to “come, and let’s walk in the light of Yahweh” (Is. 2:5, WEB). He also prophesied Jesus coming as a Light to the world (Is. 9:2); a title Jesus connected with our ability to walk in the light rather than in darkness (John 8:12; 11:9-10; 12:35). Similarly, Paul instructs us to “Walk as children of light” because the Lord has called us out of darkness (Eph. 5:8, WEB). God’s word is a light to show us the right way to walk. He Himself is also Light, and that’s supposed to show up in how we walk as well.

If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 1:6-7, NET
In integrity

Closely related to walking in the Light is the notion of walking with integrity. In this section, I’ve also included passages that tell us to walk with uprightness and to walk in the Lord’s commands since those ideas are so connected. Psalms and Proverbs highlight this idea more than any other section of the Bible (Ps. 101:2, 6; 119:35; Prov. 4:14; 8:20; 14:2; 19:1; 28:6, 18, 26). Walking with a mindfulness of the Lord’s commands and a commitment to doing the best we can to follow Jesus’s perfect example of blameless integrity is key to our ongoing Christian walk.

(Now this is love: that we walk according to his commandments.) This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning; thus you should walk in it.

2 John 1:6, NET
In the spirit

For New Testament believers, walking in the Light and following the commands of God with integrity also involves walking in the spirit. We’re to keep the law not with a rote, outward sort of obedience but with obedience that comes out of a heart changed by the Spirit of God working in us. It’s a fulfilment of prophecies where the Lord said, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezk. 36:26-27, WEB). Now, those who belong to Jesus walk in the Spirit (2 Cor. 12:17-18; Gal. 5:16-17, 24-25).

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Rom. 8:1-4, WEB
In love

As we walk in the Light and in the Spirit, keeping God’s word with integrity, His character traits become more and more a part of us. One of those most important character traits is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and so it’s not surprising to find that love is the most excellent way to walk (1 Cor. 12:31-13:13). It involves walking according to His commandments (Deut. 10:12-13; 2 John 1:6) and it’s preeminent among other instructions such as putting on compassion, kindness, and humility (Col. 3:12-17).

Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children. Walk in love, even as Christ also loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance.

Ephesians 5:1-2, WEB

Walking Fearlessly with God

There’s one final thing I want to mention about walking with God. When we’re walking in God’s ways, it affects not only the way we live our lives but also the way we experience life. There’s power, security, and peace that comes along with walking in the ways of the Lord even if we’re “walking” through physical dangers (Ps. 138:7; Is. 40:31).

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4, WEB

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned,
and flame will not scorch you.

Isaiah 43:2, WEB

When we’re walking with God, we can walk without fear no matter what’s going on in the world around us. We can walk knowing that He is traveling alongside us. We can walk with strength to face whatever comes, as well as wisdom, integrity, love, and light. Walking in the Way of God benefits us in incredible ways that reach beyond this life we’re living right now.

Featured image by SplitShire from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Walk in the Light” Ted Pearce