Relational Investment In The New Covenant

It’s amazing how much you notice the reciprocal nature of God’s relationships with people once you start looking for it. I noticed this when I first read Brent Schmidt’s book Relational Grace, and I’m noticing it even more now that I’m reading his follow-up book, Relational Faith. In both these books, Schmidt explains the context for the Greek words charis (grace) and pistis (faith) are relational and reciprocal; they were connected to patron-client relationships, where a more powerful patron creates a covenant relationship with a client who owes them ongoing loyalty in response to their faithfulness and gracious gifts.

Schmidt writes, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion in the patron-client relationship or within the new covenant brought about through Christ’s Atonement” (Relational Faith, p. 11). Similarly, everyone knew “receiving charis implied entering into reciprocal covenantal relationships” (Relational Grace, p. 63).

So, I’ve been thinking about faith as active trust and the centrality of reciprocal relationship as we went into the Passover this past week. I also took my Tree of Life translation as the Bible I’d be following along with during the Passover service. And I noticed some interesting things. For one, this Messianic translation uses “trust” instead of the more typical “belief” when translating John 14:1. Second (and this is what we’ll focus on today), the words of the New Covenant in John 13-17 have a lot of reciprocal language.

The Importance of Doing Loyal Things

For purposes of this discussion, I’m using “reciprocal” in the sense of “reciprocity.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as “mutual dependence, action, or influence” and ” a mutual exchange of privileges” (Reciprocity). This dictionary also points out that “Reciprocal and mutual share a good deal of meaning; the former may be defined as ‘shared, felt, or shown by both sides,’ and the latter as ‘shared in common'” (Reciprocal). So when we look at this idea in the Bible, we’re looking at places where God says, “Because I do ___, you respond like ___” or where His followers say something like, “It is right for us to do ___, because the Lord has graciously done ___.”

At Jesus’s last Passover on earth with His disciples, He instituted New Covenant symbols and traditions, including the foot washing. During the evening meal, Jesus got up and washed His disciples feet. Then, He told them to reciprocate by doing the same thing for other people.

 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example—you should do just as I have done for you. I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 13:14-17, NET

The proper response to Jesus serving you is to go out and serve others. Then, when you understand and do the things He teaches, you’ll receive blessings. In sharp contrast stands Judas, who responded to His Master’s selfless service with betrayal. You might remember I’ve also been reading The Heliand, a Saxon retelling of the gospel account in the style of epic poetry like Beowulf. In this version, the disciples are cast as warrior-companions who owe fealty to their thane, the great king Jesus the Healer. Though we feel Judas’s betrayal deeply in modern translations, I think the Saxons might have understood even more deeply what it meant to a first-century Jewish, Greek, and Roman audience to break faith with someone who you’d bound yourself to in a covenant that should have been faithful and reciprocal.

Image of Bibles on a table overlaid with text from John 14:21, 23,  NET version:  “One who has my commandments and keeps them, that person is one who loves me. One who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will reveal myself to him. ... If a man loves me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.”
Image by Inbetween from Lightstock

More Reciprocal Instructions

In my church we often refer to the passage of scripture in John 13-17 as the words of the New Covenant. I encourage you to read through that section of scripture and look at how many times the “if you do this, I will do this” or “because I do this, you should do this” pattern repeats. I’ll just quote one of those passages here:

“You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.

 “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.  My commandment is this—to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

John 15:3-14, NET

If we live in Jesus, He and His Father will live in us. Because they live in us, we’ll bear much fruit. When we bear fruit, it honors God. And so on. The New Covenant is a reciprocal relationship. Like any healthy relationship, there’s trust and reliance on each other to do things that build up the relationship. And as the far more powerful party in the covenant, God gives far more than we do. In John 13-17, Jesus promises to send the gift of the Holy Spirit. He assures those who are loyal to Him that His Father will hear and respond to their prayers. And the main thing He asks from us in return is love, loyalty and obedience. Over and over we read, “if you love me, keep my commandments,” including the one to love each other (John 13:34-35; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:17).

It’s really amazing to think about. God wants to have a real relationship with us. And not one that’s easily ended when someone decides it’s hard or not what they expected or they don’t “feel like it” anymore. He’s invested in us for the longest-term possible–eternity. He wants us to grow and thrive in this relationship, learning to be like Him since we’re becoming part of His family.

A Real, Mutually Invested Relationship

Image of two people holding hands with the blog's title text and the words  "God wants a real, lasting covenant relationship with us where the trust and investment go both ways."
Image by Jantanee from Lightstock

Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.

John 17:3, NET

Our eternal potential hinges on a meaningful, real, covenantal relationship with God the Father and Jesus the Messiah. We can learn more about the type of relationship they want to have with us by looking at the relationship they share.

Everything I have belongs to you, and everything you have belongs to me, and I have been glorified by them. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them safe in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.

John 17:10-11, NET

We belong to God, and He gives us to Jesus, and Jesus leaves us safe with God, and they work together so we can be one as they are one. There’s a beautiful, seamless unity in their relationship and they want to welcome us into that oneness as well (John 17). It’s such an astonishing proposition that the apostle John was still marveling at it decades later.

See how glorious a love the Father has given us, that we should be called God’s children—and so we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Loved ones, now we are God’s children; and it has not yet been revealed what we will be. But we do know that when it’s revealed, we shall be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

1 John 3:1-3, TLV

There are expectations connected to this covenant relationship, but they’re expectations that naturally flow from the type of connection we share with God our Father and Jesus our adopted elder brother and betrothed Husband. For example, I expect that my parents will continue loving me as their daughter; they expect I won’t do things to dishonor them or purposefully disgrace the family. My fiancé and I each expect the other to remain faithful to and invest in our relationship now and after we’re married. It’s very similar in our relationship with God–the trust and investment go both ways.

We know God the Father and Jesus Christ are invested in their relationships with people. They’ve “got skin in the game”–they made us in their own image, poured their time and energy into us, and Jesus even died for us. He talked about that at Passover, too: “No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13-14, NET). John brings this up again in his epistles as well, saying, “We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians” (1 John 3:16, NET). There’s even a reciprocal aspect to Jesus’s sacrifice; we can’t pay Him back for such a gift, but there is a proper response we’re supposed to have when we recognize the love that motivated His sacrifice.

Featured image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock

Behold! The Passover Lamb of God

Silly me. I thought when I started writing last week that I’d only have one post on shepherd, sheep, and lamb imagery in the Bible when there’s enough verses on that topic that multiple books could (and have) been written. As you can see, we’re back on this topic again today.

In last week’s post, we went over the Hebrew words for “sheep” and how they’re used in scripture. We also looked at the word for “shepherd,” and discussed the roles and responsibilities of godly shepherds. But we started with Passover lambs, and that’s what I want to come back to today. One of the things we touched on last week is that because we’ve gone astray from God like sheep from their shepherd, the Messiah had to come and die in our place like a lamb.

Let’s think about that a little more. Because we’re wayward sheep, Jesus came as the lamb. He had to take on human nature so He could live like us and die in our place. He became like us–people compared to sheep, one of the animals sacrificed over and over in the Old Testament because of human sins–so He could die instead of us as the one sacrificed Lamb securing forgiveness forever.

I started digging into this topic because of how close we’re getting to Passover. Now, we’re less than five weeks away. So let’s talk about the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

Look, the Lamb of God!

John begins his gospel in a unique way. Rather than starting with Jesus’s miraculous birth, he begins long before that. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God,” John writes as he begins the gospel account, adding, “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:1, 14, NET). Only after establishing Jesus’s preexistence and divinity does he move into the familiar story of John the Baptist testifying that Jesus is the Messiah.

On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.”

Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining—this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God.”

John 1:29-34, NET

We’ve likely read this or heard it dozens of times. Jesus came to die and take away our sins. We know this; it’s one of (if not the) central truths of Christianity. John the Baptist doesn’t stop with that truth, though; he keeps going deeper. Jesus “existed before,” He “baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” and He’s “the Chosen One of God.” And John begins these statements about Jesus by calling Him “the Lamb of God.”

Why A Lamb?

To understand why calling Jesus “the Lamb of God” was such an important statement, we need to look to the Old Testament that John’s Jewish listeners would have been so familiar with.

Gen 22:8 is an important passage in the background of the title Lamb of God as applied to Jesus. In Jewish thought this was held to be a supremely important sacrifice. G. Vermès stated: “For the Palestinian Jew, all lamb sacrifice, and especially the Passover lamb and the Tamid offering [daily burnt offering], was a memorial of the Akedah [binding of Isaac] with its effects of deliverance, forgiveness of sin and messianic salvation” (Scripture and Tradition in Judaism [StPB], 225).

NET Study Note on John 1:29

I knew the moment when Abraham willingly offered his son Isaac and God provided a ram in his place was pivotal, but I guess I hadn’t thought about it as deeply as I could have (see Gen. 22). I wouldn’t have connected it with all the daily sacrifices, though it makes sense since all of them point to the Messiah. And as I think about why Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and God’s provision of a ram instead was considered so important, I ask myself, “What would have happened if this situation had gone differently?”

If Abraham hadn’t sacrificed Isaac, the Messenger of the Lord couldn’t have said, “now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:11, NET). Abraham wouldn’t have pictured a father willing to give up his son’s life because of trust in the promise of a great future (Heb. 11:17-19; Jam. 2:20-22).

On the other hand, if Abraham had sacrificed Isaac without God stepping in to provide a sheep substitute, then that would have been the end. Israel wouldn’t have been formed because Isaac wouldn’t have had a son, Jacob, to inherit the promises God made to Abraham and found the nation of Israel. There wouldn’t have been a promise to save the whole world through Abraham’s seed in the Messiah (Acts 3:18-26; Gal. 3:15-17).

No wonder, then, that the Jewish people recognize this time when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son and God stepped in with a substitute as a key moment. Abraham’s assurance that “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8, NET) echoed down through the ages, pointing to the time when God would provide a Lamb to take away the world’s sins.

Image of several lambs overlaid with text from 1 Peter 1:15, 19-19, NET version:  “just as he who called you is holy, you yourselves also be holy in all of your behavior ... knowing that you were 
redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from the useless way of life handed down from your fathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish or spot, the blood of Christ”
Image by Herbert Aust from Pixabay

The Passover Lamb

Let’s think back to that first Passover. Generations after Abraham and Isaac, the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. They’d cried out to God for help, and He sent Moses as a deliverer. Plagues rained down on Egypt, and still Pharaoh refused to let Israel go. So now it was time for one last plague. God pledged to kill all the firstborn in Egypt, human and animal. But there was a way for His people to escape.

Your lamb shall be without defect, a male a year old. You shall take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening. They shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two door posts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they shall eat it. They shall eat the meat in that night, roasted with fire, with unleavened bread. They shall eat it with bitter herbs. …  This is how you shall eat it: with your belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is Yahweh’s Passover. For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and animal. I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. I am Yahweh. The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are. When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a memorial for you. You shall keep it as a feast to Yahweh. You shall keep it as a feast throughout your generations by an ordinance forever.

Exodus 12:5-8, 11-14, WEB

Thousands of years later, Jesus kept the Passover with His disciples and then died as the Passover lamb (Hebrew days begin at sunset, so when he kept the Passover in the evening and then died the next afternoon, it was all on a single day). In 1 Corinthians, Paul reinforces our understanding of how Jesus relates to Passover when talking about how we now observe Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough—you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

1 Corinthians 5:7-8, NET

Pretty much all of the 1 Corinthians letter links to Passover and Unleavened Bread. Here in this passage, Paul clearly identifies Christ as our Passover lamb or simply “our Passover,” since the Greek word for “lamb” isn’t specifically in this passage. Jesus fulfilled (i.e. filled up to the fullest extent) all that the Old Testament Passover pointed to. He’s the one whose sacrifice makes God “pass over” punishment for our sins. He saves our lives. And He’s the lamb that dies in our place.

Messianic Promise For Our Futures

In addition to being the Passover Lamb, Jesus’s coming was a direct fulfillment of promises God made to Abraham. Jesus’s mother Mary and John’s father Zacharias were well aware of this, and highlighted God’s covenant faithfulness to provide a Lamb and once again save Abraham’s children (Luke 1:46-55, 67-75). We also benefit from God’s faithfulness to do that right now. But Jesus’s role as a Lamb isn’t only about what happened in the past or about prophecies that have already been fulfilled.

Jesus is called the Lamb 33 times in Revelation. Here, we see the Lamb opening seals, pouring wrath on a wicked earth, and conquering as Lord of lords and King of kings. We also see Him receiving worship and praise, providing salvation, washing people clean in His blood, acting as their shepherd, and standing with those redeemed from the world.

 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” …

“These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb! For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They will never go hungry or be thirsty again, and the sun will not beat down on them, nor any burning heat, because the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7:9-10, 14-17, NET (italics mark allusions to Isa 49:10 and  Isa 25:8)

This the future we have to look forward to. When we walk with the Lamb now, following our Shepherd as faithful sheep, we’ll get to stay with Him forever in the future (Rev. 21:9-11, 22-23, 27; 22:1-3). We can even become His wife.

For the Lord our God, the All-Powerful, reigns!
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him glory,
because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints).

Then the angel said to me, “Write the following: Blessed are those who are invited to the banquet at the wedding celebration of the Lamb!” He also said to me, “These are the true words of God.”

Revelation 19:6-9, NET

It would have been a huge blessing on its own just to have Jesus as our Passover lamb. Yet here He is shaping our future as well. In Jewish tradition, a song called “Dayenu” has been part of Passover celebrations for over a thousand years. The title means “it would have been enough.” This song lists 15 gifts of God (including deliverance from slavery, the Red Sea parting, and giving the Torah), saying even one of those gifts would have been enough by itself, yet God keeps giving more. When speaking of the Messianic Passover Lamb, it would have been enough if Jesus had died for us but He doesn’t stop there. He’s the Lamb of God yesterday, today, and forever. He’s our savior and our good shepherd. And when we follow in His footsteps as the Lamb, we’ll have Him as our  shepherd and guardian for ever (1 Peter 2:20-25).

Featured image by Anja from Pixabay

What Can We Learn From Shepherd, Sheep, and Lamb Imagery in the Bible?

This year, we’ll be observing Passover just after sunset on April 4. That’s less than six weeks away. As I began thinking about Passover, I started musing on the shepherd, sheep, and lamb imagery found throughout the Bible. It’s central to Passover; the Old Covenant sacrifice for Passover was a young male from the flock and Jesus fulfilled that with His sacrifice as the Lamb of God, becoming the center of the New Covenant Passover.

That’s not the only place sheep, lambs, and shepherds show up, though. They’re found throughout the scriptures. Much of it’s literal, as we’d expect since God wrote the Bible through people who lived in an agrarian and herding society. These animals were also closely tied to religious worship since sheep and goats were one of the acceptable (and in some cases the commanded) animals used for sacrifice in the Old Testament. There are also important figurative and symbolic meanings. As mentioned already, Jesus is called the Lamb of God. God also casts Himself as a shepherd to His people throughout Old Covenant books and it’s a role Jesus claims in the New Covenant. And this seems an appropriate time of year to dig into all that a bit more.

OT Background on Sheep

Once I started looking into the Hebrew words translated sheep and lamb, I felt a little lost. There are so many different words! The Jewish Encyclopedia helped me make sense of them all:

The most usual terms for the sheep are “seh” and “kebes” (“keseb”); “kar” (Deut. xxxii. 14; Isa. lviii. 7) denotes the young lamb in pasture; “ṭeleh” (Isa. xl. 11 et al.), the suckling lamb; “ayil,” the ram; “raḥel,” the ewe. In the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament the term “emer” occurs (Ezra vii. 17), which term is found also in the cognate languages. The word “ẓon” is used collectively for small cattle, including sheep and goats.

“SHEEP” by Emil G. Hirsch and I. M. Casanowicz

Getting into more detail for how these words are used, I turned to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Kebs appears 128 times and “only 17 do not occur in the context of sacrifice” (TWOT 949). The (most likely) related keseb is used 13 times and in all but two places it’s used “where a distinction is being drawn between the two kinds of animals of the flock: sheep and goats” (TWOT 950). One of the other words, seh is a little less specific; it can mean lamb, sheep, or goat (TWOT 2237). Seh is the word used of the Passover sacrifice (Ex. 12:3) and of the Messiah (Is. 53:7). Finally, son or zon is a more generic word for “small cattle,” but it’s use typically emphasizes the meaning of flocks of sheep (TWOT 1864).

Your lamb (seh) shall be without defect, a male a year old. You shall take it from the sheep (kebs) or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening. … This is how you shall eat it: with your belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is Yahweh’s Passover.

Exodus 12:5-6, 11, WEB

All we like sheep (zon) have gone astray.
    Everyone has turned to his own way;
    and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed,
    yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth.
As a lamb (seh) that is led to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he didn’t open his mouth.

Isaiah 53:6-7, WEB

Those two verses talking about Passover and Jesus’s sacrifice use the three main Hebrew words for “sheep.” That gives you an idea of how they’re used both literally and figuratively.

Pasturing the Flock

Continuing to explore how the Hebrew words are used, I find it interesting how different the Hebrew word for “shepherd” is than the English one. In English, we get to “shepherd” from sheep+herd–the word means someone who herds sheep (Online Etymology Dictionary). In Hebrew, the word translated “shepherd” is connected to the words for pasture, tend, and graze (TWOT 852). The shepherd is one who makes sure the flocks are fed in good pastures. Practically, there probably isn’t much difference in how shepherd and râ‛âh are used but I find it interesting to think of the Hebrew/Biblical shepherd primarily as one who provides pasture rather than one who herds sheep. The foundational understanding of what a shepherd does and why is a little different in each language.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. The word “pastor” comes into English from the same Latin root as “pasture” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So really, “pastor” might be a more exact translation of râ‛âh than “shepherd” is, though the way those English words are used today makes shepherd the less confusing choice. But I suspect this original connection between pastoring and feeding (which is lost in modern use of the word) is why the KJV translators used “feed the church of God” where modern translations use “shepherd” (Acts 20:28). This understanding of a shepherd’s primary role makes God’s condemnation of poor shepherds stand out to me even more than it did before.

Yahweh’s word came to me, saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and tell them, even the shepherds, ‘The Lord Yahweh says: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat. You clothe yourself with the wool. You kill the fatlings, but you don’t feed the sheep. …

“As I live,” says the Lord Yahweh, “surely because my sheep became a prey, and my sheep became food to all the animals of the field, because there was no shepherd, and my shepherds didn’t search for my sheep, but the shepherds fed themselves, and didn’t feed my sheep.” Therefore, you shepherds, hear Yahweh’s word: The Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, I am against the shepherds. I will require my sheep at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the sheep. The shepherds won’t feed themselves any more. I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, that they may not be food for them.”

“‘For the Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. … I will feed them with good pasture; and their fold will be on the mountains of the height of Israel. There they will lie down in a good fold. They will feed on fat pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down,” says the Lord Yahweh. “I will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong. I will feed them in justice.”’

Ezekiel 34:1-3, 8-11, 14-16, WEB

Those are just a few of the things Yahweh says to the shepherds of His people in Ezekiel 34; I encourage you to read the whole chapter along with Jeremiah 23:1-8. God is deeply concerned with the welfare of His sheep, particularly how well they’re being fed. Jesus emphasized this as well, when He told Peter three times “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep” (John 21:13-17, WEB). The word translated “tend” in WEB is the Greek verb for tending a flock that’s often translated “shepherd” (G4165, poimainō), but the one translated “feed” is specifically used for taking animals to a pasture to graze (G1006, boskō). In other words, Jesus is telling Peter that it’s his role to pasture and tend the people of God. And then later, Peter told his “fellow elders” to feed or “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:1-3).

The Role of Shepherds

As I muse on the role of shepherds in “pasturing” the flock, I’m reminded of how often David in Psalm 23 speaks of being fully satisfied by the food and drink that God provides. The good, perfect shepherd fills His sheep’s needs. The people He lets work under His authority and supervision have a similar role, though Jesus doesn’t delegate everything. He stays the Chief Shepherd, though other shepherds get the chance to work with Him to help care for His flock. “Caring for a flock” is what the Greek word for shepherd means (G4166, poimēn). It’s also the root word for a flock of sheep or spiritual group of people (G4167, poimnē and G4168, poimnion) and for chief shepherd (G750 archipoimēn). That last word is only used once.

So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away.

1 Peter 5:1-4, NET

Peter got to spend time with the Chief Shepherd firsthand. He was most likely right there when Jesus spoke about His own role as “the good shepherd” who guards, gives life, takes the sheep to pastures, and never abandons His flock (John 10:1-18).

“The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The doorkeeper opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him, because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice.” …

“I am the door for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. …

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd.”

John 10:2-5, 7-9, 14-16, NET

The Role of Sheep

Discussing John 10 gives us a natural transition from talking about the role of Shepherd to the role of His sheep. There isn’t a whole lot we need to do as sheep. The Greek word translated sheep is probaton. It literally means “whatever walks forward,” but most usually means sheep or people who could be endearingly compared to those animals (Zodhiates, G4263). We just need to listen to the shepherd and walk after Him. Remember Isaiah 53:6? “All we like sheep have gone astray,” and the Lord laid our iniquities on the Messiah as the sacrificial lamb. Peter quotes that verse in his letter before giving his advice to fellow shepherds.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

1 Peter 2:24-25, NET; bold italics represent quotes from Isaiah 53

We’ve now come full-circle to where we began with “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7, NET). As John the Baptist said, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NET). It’s a key title for Him, one that’s used 13 times just in Revelation.

I got a bit side-tracked while writing this post. I’d meant to tie it all back to Passover, which we did here at the end, but I hardly touched on Jesus’s role as the Lamb. I got so interested in the shepherd-pastor part of the discussion. We might need to come back to this next week. I hope you found this post, rambling as it was, interesting 🙂

Featured image by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz from Pixabay

Avoid The Exit Ramps

I’ve been trying to practice mindfulness and meditation in an attempt to be more present in the moment and bring some order to my scattered thoughts. My mind wanders a lot, so I find it useful to pick something to focus on. Sometimes it’s a sound, sometimes it’s my breath, and sometimes it’s a scripture. Earlier this week, it was this one:

Your word is a lamp to my feet,
and a light for my path.

Psalm 119:105, WEB

It’s a short verse, but not nearly as simple as it seems on first glance. If you need a lamp for your feet and a light for your path, that implies the world around you is dark. A light’s going to keep you from stumbling over obstacles or straying off-track. It’ll let you see where you’re going. If the path branches, a light’s going to give you clarity in figuring out which way to go. That’s what God’s word does for us. It helps us avoid going off the one Way that leads to eternal life. It provides clear vision in a dark world that offers many branching paths.

Just One Path to Life

Our life with God is often described as a “walk” or a “race” that follows a specific way/path. That path is surrounded by many others that the world offers us, and it’s not the easiest of the paths to spot. Alternative paths–which all lead to death since they’re not heading toward God–are often eye-catching, wide enough to see easily, and broad enough to fit many people. In contrast, the way of the Lord is one that’s easily overlooked.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14, NET

Jesus’s sacrifice opened the way to salvation for all people. He and the Father want everyone to be saved and choose eternal life. At the same time, They also tell us that only a few people find this path. We’re also warned that once They open our eyes to see where and how we should walk, we need to do our part to stay on the straight and narrow.

I chose the title “Avoid The Exit Ramps” for this post because once we’re on this path, God intends for us to stay there. We might veer off into one ditch or another, but when we turn to Him with repentance and ask for help He puts us back on track. He also promises that no one who follows Him will be snatched away by some outside force (John 6:37; 10:28-29; Phil. 1:6). The only way for us to get off this path is by our own doing; we can choose to take an exit ramp and reject what God started in our lives (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:25).

Not to the Right or Left

One of the instructions given to ancient Israel over and over again was not to turn from God’s way to the right nor to the left (Deut. 5:32; 28:13-15). It’s something Moses warned them they needed to be careful about and Joshua echoed that instruction again near the end of his life after Israel entered the promised land.

Therefore be very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that you not turn away from it to the right hand or to the left; that you not come among these nations, these that remain among you; neither make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause to swear by them, neither serve them, nor bow down yourselves to them; but hold fast to Yahweh your God, as you have done to this day.

Joshua 23:6-8, WEB

Wavering, doubt, exploring other paths–all of that is dangerous and God’s people should avoid it. That same warning applies to judges, leaders, and kings (Deut. 17:11,18-20; Josh. 1:7). Everyone, small and great, is expected to follow God’s straight and narrow path. We’re supposed to be like the righteous king Josiah, who “did that which was right in Yahweh’s eyes, and walked in all the way of David his father, and didn’t turn away to the right hand or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2, WEB).

When we look at the paths we have opportunity to walk down, it looks like we have a lot of different options. There’s really only two, though: “the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NET). The adversary gives us lots of options, but God keeps things simple and only gives us one. “Walk with me,” He says. “Follow me.” (Matt. 16:24; John 10:27; 12:26; Rev. 3:4).

Image of a man's and little boy's feet walking down a path, with text from John 8:12, NET version: “Then Jesus spoke out again, ‘I am the light of the world! The one who follows me will never walk in 
darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

Mercy and Guidance When We’re Confused

You might already be thinking of all the times when you have turned away from God’s laws, veering off the path into some ditch or another. It might have been a mistake or a result of ignorance. Sometimes we’re like the people of Nineveh who realized they were doing something wrong only after God told them He planned to destroy them. That city was given a reprieve when God chose mercy for those “who can’t discern between their right hand and their left hand” (Jonah 4:10-11). We live in a confusing world, and sometimes its hard to know what to do. There are also times when we just might not have the understanding or the facts needed to make a correct decision.

Other times, though, we’re more like stubborn ancient Israel. Sometimes individuals and even whole church groups become “a rebellious people, lying children, children who will not hear Yahweh’s law; who tell the seers, ‘Don’t see!’ and the prophets, ‘Don’t prophesy to us right things. Tell us pleasant things. Prophesy deceits. Get out of the way. Turn away from the path. Cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us’” (Isaiah 30:10-11, WEB). God has a plan for fixing that, too. If we keep reading in Isaiah 30, we find this:

For thus said the Lord Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, “You will be saved in returning and rest. Your strength will be in quietness and in confidence.” You refused, but you said, “No, for we will flee on horses;” therefore you will flee; and, “We will ride on the swift;” therefore those who pursue you will be swift. One thousand will flee at the threat of one. At the threat of five, you will flee until you are left like a beacon on the top of a mountain, and like a banner on a hill.

Therefore Yahweh will wait, that he may be gracious to you; and therefore he will be exalted, that he may have mercy on you, for Yahweh is a God of justice. Blessed are all those who wait for him. For the people will dwell in Zion at Jerusalem. You will weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the voice of your cry. When he hears you, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your teachers won’t be hidden any more, but your eyes will see your teachers; and when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.”

Isaiah 30: 15-21, WEB

If you catch yourself going off track, stop. Return to God and rest in Him. Find strength in quietness and confidence that the Lord will help you walk in His ways and His word will light up the right path. We might not be there yet, but someday we’ll be teachers who can guide others (Heb.5:11-6:3), nudging them gently as we point out “This is the way. Walk in it.” And if we pay careful attention, we can feel God’s spirit nudging us like that now. Sometimes we’ll even hear it in advice from a fellow believer, a song on the radio, or a still small voice whispering into our heart as we pray.

We’re just a few short weeks away from Passover. This is traditionally a time of self-examination as we continue to grow and become more like Jesus. As we examine ourselves and work on becoming more like God, let’s keep coming back to God’s word for illumination and keep moving forward in the path that Jesus trailblazed for us (Heb. 2:10).

Featured image by Tabeajaichhalt from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Thy Word” by Amy Grant

Continuing to Grow and Change for Jesus our Passover

We’re getting closer and closer to Passover. Based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians, these months leading up to Passover (Pesach) and the Day of Unleavened Bread (Chag HaMatzot) are a time of self-examination for New Covenant Christians. We spend time in prayer and study, asking God to share what He sees in us and help us grow and change to become more like Him. We take time to try and figure out what things in us still don’t look like God, repent of them, and seek His aid in changing our lives to align more and more with His ways.

A couple weeks ago, I kept ending up in Ephesians 5 as I read my daily devotional and worked through a month-long scripture writing study on deception (you can find similar scripture writing plans by clicking here). There’s a lot to think about in this chapter. It comes near the end of a fairly long letter where Paul writes to believers about the blessings and spiritual inheritance that we have through Christ, and says he gives thanks for the faith and love they’re already showing (Eph. 1). Paul reminds them of their transgressions/offenses and sins which God and Christ saved them from when He took those who were once outside God’s family and made them wholly part of His people (Eph. 2). As the letter goes on, Paul implores his readers to value the great and wonderful mysteries God grants us, not to lose heart when some of us suffer, and to fully commit to our relationship with Jesus Christ (Eph. 3). Based on all this, Paul calls his readers to unity with their fellow believers and insists they live holy, spiritual lives (Eph. 4).

Throughout the letter, Paul makes some brutal statements about our spiritual condition before we entered a relationship with God. “You were dead in your offenses and sins” and “were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 3, NET). In our lives before meeting Jesus, we were “corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires” (4:22). Paul even says, “you were at one time darkness” (5:8). This sinful state is where we all started out, desperately in need of Jesus to save us. We want to move on from that as quickly as possible and embrace all the good things God tells us about our new identities in Him. And while it is good and right to fully embrace who we are in God, we also need to remember how bad things were without Him. If we don’t keep that perspective, then it’ll be easy to slip back into worldly things because we don’t think of them as being “that bad.”

Image of a man studying the Bible, with text from Ephesians 4:22-24, NET version: “You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with 
deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.”
Image by Matt Vasquez from Lightstock

Slipping Back is Idolatry

Humans have a tendency for self-justification. Even when we’re beating ourselves up about something, we might also be making excuses for ourselves. Or maybe we read through the Bible and see our conduct in some of the things God says not to do, then tell ourselves that it’s not really all that bad. We make mistakes, but we’re human. No big deal.

It is true that God can remove our sins and He has abundant mercy for our mistakes. But it’s not because they’re “no big deal.” Sin results in death, and the reason God can forgive us so freely is because Jesus died in our place. That’s a really big deal. We need to understand the magnitude of what Jesus did for us, and the level of offense we cause if we turn back to wicked ways and brush it off as something that doesn’t really matter. In his one-year Worship the King devotional, Chris Tiegreen sums it up like this:

“we were idolaters. False worshipers. People who gave glory and honor to things that were not worthy, while neglecting the glory and honor that should go to the One who is. That hurts.

“It’s a brutal assessment, but we have to own up to it. We don’t like to think of our flirtation with impurity or materialism as idol worship, but it is.”

Chris Tiegreen, Worship the King, p. 51

Going back to Ephesians, Paul says that flirting with things like “sexual immorality, impurity of any kind, or greed … vulgar speech, foolish talk, or coarse jesting” is “not fitting for the saints” and “out of character” for those saying they want to imitate Jesus’s way of life (Eph. 5:1-4, NET). If we tell ourselves that things God calls sins are okay for us, then it turns into idolatry. We’re putting our desires for sinful things higher than our desire for God and saying our ideas of morality are more accurate than His.

Image of a man studying the Bible, with text from Ephesians 5:1-2, 5, NET version: “Therefore, be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a
 sacrificial and fragrant offering to God. ... you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
Image by Anggie from Lightstock

Moving Into the Light

Emphasizing our need to change and grow as we follow Jesus Christ does not downplay God’s mercy or grace in any way. Grace is something we can’t do anything to earn, but once we accept God’s grace we enter a covenant with Him and agree to live in a spiritual way. He expects certain things of people who promise to follow Him, including that we won’t run off after things which have nothing to do with godliness.

For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let nobody deceive you with empty words, for because of these things God’s wrath comes on the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be sharers with them, for you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live like children of light—for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth—trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.

Eph. 5:5-10, NET

God’s connection with Light is something we’ve explored in other Bible study posts. We’re supposed to shine with Jesus’s light in our lives, to be like lamps burning with bright fire as we imitate the Light of our Messiah. There’s a sharp divide in the world that’s been there since the fall of mankind. On the one hand, there is darkness and death. On the other, there is light and life. Jesus calling us out of darkness gives us the option to choose light. It’s an incredible gift. And unless we don’t really value that gift of Light, we’ll be doing our best to “live like children of light.”

Living With Wisdom

Therefore consider carefully how you live—not as unwise but as wise, taking advantage of every opportunity, because the days are evil. For this reason do not be foolish, but be wise by understanding what the Lord’s will is. And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:15-21, NET

Because of everything Paul talked about before–particularly the way our dark pasts contrast with the light we’re supposed to live in now–he urges us to “consider carefully how you live.” We ought to do this careful consideration throughout the year, but Passover is a particularly fitting time for a check-in. How wise are we in how we live our lives? Are we letting God fill us with His spirit, then letting that pour out through our lips as praise, worship, and thanks? Do we demonstrate our reverence for Christ by submitting to each other in love?

I doubt we can fully answer “yes” to all these questions (I know I can’t), and this isn’t even a full list of everything we’re supposed to do as we imitate Christ. But remember that as long as you’re on the path toward perfection, God treats you as if you’re already perfect. When we trust Him and do our best to follow His example of holiness, He’ll keep filling us with His spirit and light. We’ll be able to stay on track following Him instead of slipping back into idolatry. He’ll empower us to grow and change, becoming more and more like Him each year.

Featured image by Corey David Robinson from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “Immanuel” by Joshua Aaron

Our Daily Bread

We recently observed Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag haMatzot). I suppose studying what the Bible has to say about bread is an obvious topic after that, but it’s been a more interesting study than I’d expected for something that seems so basic. Even the Lord’s model prayer that so many of us memorize talks about bread, and it has more to say on that topic than I’d assumed. Bread also acts as a spiritual symbol in scripture–Jesus calls Himself the “Bread of Life” and Paul talks about what kind of bread we’re supposed to be.

Bread for Each Day

So pray this way:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored,
may your kingdom come,
may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13, NET

The phrase “our daily bread” involves a curious word. In Greek, “daily” is epiousios (G1967) and it’s only used here and in Luke’s account of this same prayer. It’s not even used outside of the Bible anywhere but other “early Christian literature,” which makes the meaning hard to figure out (NET footnote). “Daily” is just a best-guess for the translation. Other suggestions include “the coming day,” “for existence” (NET footnote), “the bread of our necessity,” and “the bread that suffices for each day” (Thayer’s dictionary).

I wonder if, in using a word that indicated sufficient, needed bread for each day, Jesus might have been thinking about Proverbs 30. Here, Agur asks for two things from God: “Remove falsehood and lies far from me; do not give me poverty or riches” (Prov. 30:7-8, NET). This last one might seem an odd request–who wouldn’t want to be rich?–and Agur provides further details.

feed me with my allotted portion of bread,
lest I become satisfied and act deceptively
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I become poor and steal
and demean the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:8-9, NET

It seems there’s as much of a danger in feeling as if you are “rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing” (to quote the Laodiceans from Revelation 3) as there is in being so poverty stricken that you’re in danger of starving. Neither extreme is healthy, and so balance in prosperity is a prayer worth praying. We need balance–both in the physical things like Agur is talking about and in the spiritual things that Jesus is talking about in the letter to Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22).

I usually think of the request in the model prayer as asking for provision of needs, with bread standing in for all the things like food and clothing that Jesus tells us we don’t need to worry about just a little later in this same sermon (Matt. 6:25-34). I recently heard someone point out, though, that the focus of this prayer isn’t on physical things. It’s about honoring God’s name, praying for His will and His kingdom, and asking for forgiveness and deliverance. There’s no reason not to assume physical provision is included, but it’s likely that Jesus also intended for us to think about spiritual bread. He is, after all, the bread of life.

Living Bread from Heaven

After one of the loaves and fishes miracles (recorded in John 6), Jesus crossed over to the other side of a lake and the whole multitude followed Him. There, He told them they’d followed Him not because they believed He was the Messiah or because they saw miracles, but because they’d eaten a free meal. He advised them, “Do not work for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life” (John 6:27, NET). To work for this eternal food, they must do “the deed God requires—to believe in the one whom he sent” (6:29). Then, these same people who’d just seen Jesus turn five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food for more than 5,000 people with 12 baskets full of leftovers, actually asked Him, “what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you?” They even brought up the manna in the wilderness miracle, showing full well that they knew they’d seen one bread miracle and were asking for another (John 6:30-31).

Jesus and His Father weren’t focused on delivering physical bread this time, though. There wasn’t going to be a repeat of free food on the ground every morning when the Israelites woke up (Ex. 16:4-36). Rather, they’d planned a far more enduring way to satisfy a deeper, spiritual hunger. Yes, Jesus fed the people when they were hungry but the plan was to go far beyond providing for physical needs. Just as Jesus was here on earth to take the Law and the Covenants to a deeper, higher, fuller level, He did the same thing with the miracle of bread from heaven.

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that has come down from heaven, so that a person may eat from it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … the one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

John 6:48-51, 54-55, NET

This brings us right back to where we started this post: Passover and Unleavened Bread. Jesus’s flesh is symbolized by the bread and His blood by the wine that form the core symbols of the New Covenant Passover (Matt. 26:26-30; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). The invitation for us to eat this bread from heaven is also an invitation to be part of His covenant community and be sustained by God.

Our Unleavened Lives

Grace and salvation through Jesus Christ are gifts that we can do nothing to earn. Once we accept those gifts, though, we enter a reciprocal covenant relationship with God. We are supposed to respond a certain way after we’ve received grace. In other words, it is because of the Bread of Life that we ourselves can take on the characteristics of a very particular kind of bread.

Purge out the old yeast, that you may be a new lump, even as you are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed in our place. Therefore let’s keep the feast, not with old yeast, neither with the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

1 Cor. 5:7-8, WEB

Because we “eat” the Bread of Life, we become “unleavened” bread. Symbolically during the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread, leaven represents sin. Eating unleavened bread for that seven-day festival pictures us putting sin out of our lives and replacing it with His character. During the remaining days of the year, though we are free to eat yeasted and otherwise leavened breads, the importance of turning to God to fill all our needs (including our need to daily take-in Jesus Christ) remains the same.

God is concerned about our physical needs. He appreciates it when we choose not to fret about where we’ll get our physical daily bread and instead ask Him to provide (as Jesus did in His model prayer), trusting that He can and will take care of us. Even more than that, though, He is concerned about supplying our spiritual needs because that has eternal ramifications. We also ought to pray for God to “give us today our daily Bread of Life,” trusting that He will satisfy our spiritual hunger.

Featured image by FotoshopTofs from Pixabay