Weathering the Storms of Life with Jesus Onboard

As I’ve studied “big questions” over the past couple of weeks, one in particular stuck in my mind. It’s a question the disciples asked Jesus during a big storm while they were crossing the Sea of Galilee in boat.

Now a great windstorm developed and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was nearly swamped. But he was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die?” So he got up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Be quiet! Calm down!” Then the wind stopped, and it was dead calm. And he said to them, “Why are you cowardly? Do you still not have faith?” They were overwhelmed by fear and said to one another, “Who then is this? Even the wind and sea obey him!”

Mark 4:35-41, NET

There are a few questions in this story. The disciples ask Jesus, “Don’t you care that we are all about to die?” I’m not sure they even expected Him to do anything other than wake up and reassure them. But then He calmed the storm, and had questions for them. He asked, “Why are you cowardly? Do you still not have faith?” From His perspective, there’d never been anything to worry about. That the disciples were worried showed they didn’t yet fully trust in Him or His power. Then the final question is one the disciples asked among themselves: “Who then is this?” Typical rabbis could not order a storm to stop and have it obey. This teacher they were following was clearly different than the usual prophets or rabbis.

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Commander and Creator

The Jews of Jesus’s day, including His disciples, were typically very familiar with the words of the Old Testament. Some of those words likely came to mind during this storm and miracle. In Job, God describes Himself as the one who “laid the foundations of the earth,” “shut up the sea with doors,” and “made clouds its garment” (Job 38:1-11). Psalms describe Him as the one who “walks on the wings of the wind” and “makes lightnings with the rain” (Psalms 104:3; 135:7). In the prophets, He’s the one who keeps the sea and its waves in check, causes the waves to “stir up and roar,” and “makes storm clouds” (Jer. 5:22; 31:35; Zech, 10:1). Perhaps the scripture most likely to come to the disciples’ minds, though, is in Psalms.

Those who go down to the sea in ships,
who do business in great waters;
These see Yahweh’s deeds,
and his wonders in the deep.
For he commands, and raises the stormy wind,
which lifts up its waves.
They mount up to the sky; they go down again to the depths.
Their soul melts away because of trouble.
They reel back and forth, and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry to Yahweh in their trouble,
and he brings them out of their distress.
He makes the storm a calm,
so that its waves are still.

Psalm 107:23-29, WEB

No wonder Jesus’s disciples were “overwhelmed by fear” even after He proved they weren’t going to die in a storm. He’d just done something only Yahweh could do. By calming the sea, Jesus illustrated He was God here on earth in the flesh.

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Storm-Maker and Anchor

In scripture, waves and storms are used as metaphors for great trials. God’s anger and judgement on persistently sinful people are linked to storms (Is. 28:2; 29:6; 30:30; Jer. 23:19; 30:23; Ezk. 30:3; Joel 2:2; Nah. 1:3). David speaks of being surrounded by “waves of death” and “floods of ungodliness” (2 Sam. 22:5; Ps. 18:4). Both David (figuratively for despair and possibly depression) and Johan (in a more literal sense) talk about being in the depths of the sea with “waves and billows” passing over them (Ps. 42:7; Jon. 2:3). In all these verses, the storms are representative of great trials or hardships.

The purpose of such tempest and storms is “that they may seek your name, Yahweh” (Ps. 83:15-16). We’re to learn from the storms of life to listen to Yahweh and turn to Him for shelter and safety. Those who don’t learn that lesson may make “a shipwreck concerning the faith” and eventually find that God does not listen to their cries for help during storms (Prov. 1:24-29; Zech. 7:13-14; 1 Tim. 1:19). As the writer of Hebrews said, though, I am “persuaded of better things for you, and things that accompany salvation, even though we speak like this” (Heb. 6:9, WEB). Bible teachers don’t share warnings in order to condemn; we share them as reminders to keep faithfully seeking God. The righteous stand firm in the whirlwind and storm since they are founded on the Rock, and that is what I want for myself, for you, and for all who follow the Lord (Prov. 10:25; Matt. 7:24-27).

Keep Jesus in your boat, and the storms of life have no power over you. You might get tossed around and nearly swamped, as the disciples were when they cried out asking if Jesus cared that they were dying, but ultimately there’s nothing to worry about. Faith and hope anchor our souls (Heb. 6:19; 10:23).

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Hold Fast

With Jesus on board our ships, we can weather the storms of life. Working together in unity, He and His Father are the same God who created the seas and storms, and rule over them (Gen. 1:6-8; Job 28:23-27; Ps. 93:3-4; Eph. 3:8-9). They are the ones who’ve seen faithful people through earth-shaking storms and who still the roaring sea (Ps. 46:2-3; 65:7; 89:9; 107:29-30). Today, He still saves and anchors us so that “we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14, NET).

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Yahweh, you are my God. I will exalt you! I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago, in complete faithfulness and truth. … For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat, when the blast of the dreaded ones is like a storm against the wall.

Isaiah 25:1, 4, WEB

If we’re in the middle of a storm and asking God, “Don’t you care that we are about to die?” the answer is two-fold. First, God tells us we don’t need to worry so much; He’s got this. Second, He assures us that He definitely does care; He cares so much that Jesus came to this world and lived and died as a human being to save those who believe in Him and give them everlasting life.

As we face the storm-like trials of our lives, remember that Jesus is there with us in our boats. Even if it seems like He’s fallen asleep and isn’t paying attention, He still has us in His power and under His protection. Hold fast to Him, and He’ll get us through.

He has said, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can people do to me?”

Heb. 13:5-6, NET

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Big Questions of the Bible

Since last week’s post, inspired by the big questions Leo Tolstoy asked in his book A Confession, I’ve been thinking about the questions that people in the Bible asked. From the sorts of questions recorded in Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and elsewhere in scripture, it seems clear that God is okay with us asking Him things such as “Why am I here?”, “What is the purpose of suffering?”, and “What ought I do with my life?”

Today, we still have a lot of questions for God. Some of them are specific, such as “Why did that bad thing happen to me?” or “How can I decided what the next step for my life is?” Others are more general, the sorts of things that most thinking people wondered at some point in their lives, such as “What is the meaning of life?” and “Where do I fit into the universe?”

It often seems like these types of questions are too big to answer and so we shouldn’t try to ask them. Or it might seem as if we’re the only ones who haven’t figured this out yet, since everyone else seems like they’re functioning just fine. But we’re all asking questions and we all have things we’re uncertain about, just like people in the Bible. Even the “heroes of faith” like Job and David asked big questions, some of which seem audacious to us. We might expect God to get angry or offended at questions like “Why did you make me like this?” or “What do you think you’re doing, letting this terrible thing happen to me?” But throughout scripture, God shows remarkable patience with His people’s questions and also a willingness to answer. One of the most amazing things about Job’s story, for example, isn’t that Job asked questions about his suffering; it’s that God showed up to give an answer and ask questions of His own.

If you search for question marks in the Bible, you come back with 3,256 results in the WEB translation and 2,990 in the NET. The exact number varies depending on how translators choose to interpret phrases and where they put punctuation marks, but however you figure it up that’s a lot of questions. We can’t cover them all in one post, and not all fit in the “big questions” category. I’ve picked out four types of these questions I want to look at today, and there are plenty more that we could examine. If this inspires you to do a study on questions for yourself, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below or in an email.

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What is the point of anything?

In his darkest trials, Job asked why he’d even been born if this is what was going to happen (Job 3:11-16; 6:11-13; 10:18). It wasn’t a self-destructive thought for him, but it does seem to be one of frustration and despair. Why even live if suffering is the main result? What’s the point of being born, and living, and dying in a world where such terrible things can happen to good people?

Similarly, Solomon in Ecclesiastes wonders what the point is of living and working here on earth (Ecc. 1:3; 3:9; 4:8). Life seems to just go on and on with no real profit or gain, especially if you’re working alone rather than in a community. If there’s no satisfaction, or wealth, or any sort of meaningful profit then it’s all “vanity. Yes, it is a miserable business” (Ecc. 4:8, WEB). Others ask this type of question more specifically, wondering “What is the point of serving God?” (Job 21:15; Mal. 3:13-14).

God counters this sort of thinking with a question of His own: “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in richness” (Is. 55:2, WEB). In other words, if our lives and efforts seems pointless it’s because we’re devoting them to the wrong sorts of things. This reminds me of one of Tolstoy’s observations in A Confession* that I wrote about last week. He realized that just because it felt as if his life wasn’t meaningful that didn’t mean all life had no meaning.

Another answer that God offers to this question is a clearer picture of Himself. He answered Job’s questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of suffering by revealing Himself to Job more fully (for an interesting take on that aspect of Job, see Philip Yancey’s The Bible Jesus Read*). It might seem an oddly indirect answer to us, but it’s one that appeared to satisfy Job. The clearer we can see and understand God, the more meaningful life seems.

*please note that this is an affiliate link, which means I'll earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you purchase this book.
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Does God really care?

Faith in God answers a lot of life’s big questions. But it also brings up new questions. Once you believe that God exists and that He’s all powerful, it often follows that we wonder why He lets certain things happen. Why is there suffering? Why are there wars? How could a loving God allow such terrible things? Doesn’t He care?

The psalms are full of these sorts of questions. “Why do you stand far off, Yahweh?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1, WEB), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1, WEB), and many more questions like these echo through history in the cries of many hurting people today (Ps. 13:1; 43:2; 44:24; 74:1, 11; 89:46; 108:11). We wonder why it seems that God leaves us alone in our times of trouble, and why it seems like He’s ignoring our cries for help (Lam 5:20; Hab. 1:2). Doesn’t He care about us at all?

There’s a story of a time when Jesus and his disciples were on a boat and a storm blew up. Jesus was sleeping through it, but they woke Him with the question, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are dying?” (Mark 4:38, WEB). Jesus hadn’t been worried at all, but at their question He got up and stopped the storm. I suspect there’s a reason Jesus wasn’t worried. With God on our side, the storms of life don’t present a real danger to us. Even if He seems to not be paying attention, He’s still very present and protective. He has the power to stop the storms instantly, and sometimes He does to show us His power and reliability, but things are still going to work together for good in the end even if He decides to let us go through the storms.

Perhaps a better question would be, “Why does God care so much?” There’s tons of evidence that God cares deeply about humanity. The main proof of that is found in Jesus’s sacrifice–God cares enough about us to die in our place. With that perspective in mind, our question may become “What are we that God should even think of us, much less care so much about us?” (Job 7:17; Ps. 8:4; Heb. 2:6). It’s awe-inspiring to think about the creator of the universe wanting us to be part of His family simply because He loves so much.

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Why isn’t God doing things the way I want?

This next question is closely related to the last one. We wonder how long our trials will last, sure it would be better if God stepped in now and took care of things for us. We wonder how long it will be until the end comes, since it seems like the sooner the better for Jesus to return and stop pain, suffering, death, and evil. Similarly, we may question God’s planning and timing in other areas, wondering if He is unfair in the things that He commands or the way He interacts with people.

Even though these questions can sound like a lack of faith or an accusation, they’re still questions that it’s okay to ask. Jesus didn’t get upset when His disciples said, “Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”–He just answered their question (Matt. 24:3, WEB). Yahweh didn’t cut-off Moses for asking, “How long must this suffering last?” (Ps. 90:13, NET). We can ask these things. It only becomes problematic when we decided the answer must be that God is wrong and we’re right.

Tolstoy talks about the insanity of this attitude by comparing “learned and liberal” people who reject God to kids who tear apart a watch without understanding how to put it back together, then complain that it doesn’t work. That’s similar to the analogies found in the Bible. When people accuse God of unfairness or of not knowing what He’s doing, God turns some big questions back on them. He says, “You turn things upside down!” It’s not for the creation to question the Creator and decide that He’s the one who lacks understanding. “Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ House of Israel, aren’t my ways fair? Aren’t your ways unfair?” (Job 8:3; Is. 29:16; Jer. 2:5; Ezk. 18:23-29). God’s not the problem here; our limited understanding and lack of trust are what’s to blame.

What must I do now?

A rich young man once asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” When Jesus replied that this man should keep the commandments, he responded, ““All these things I have observed from my youth. What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:16-20; Mark 10:17-21; Luke 18:18-23). That question is at the top of my list for things I’d like to ask God and get a clear answer on right now. I grew up in the church and didn’t really have a rebellious phase (though that doesn’t mean I haven’t sinned/missed the mark on God’s commandments). But I do sympathize with this young man. I’ve been following God my whole life; what do I still lack?

Whether you’re just starting out your journey as a Christian–like those in Acts whose response to hearing the gospel was, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37; 16:30)– or you’ve been following God for many years, the question of what to do now is a good one. Throughout scripture, people asked questions like, “How can man be just with God?”, “Where does wisdom come from?”, “Where is the good way?”, and “How shall I come before Yahweh?” (Job 9:2; 28:12, 20; Ps. 119:9; Jer. 6:16; Mic. 6:6-8). We treat these questions like they’re very complicated, but God gives us simple answers.

He has shown you, O man, what is good.
What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly,
to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8, WEB

Jesus reiterates the simplicity of this point in the gospels. His answer to “How can we know the way?” is “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:5-6, WEB). His answer to “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” and “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” is to love God and love your neighbor (Matt. 22:35-40; Luke 10:25-29). It’s not that complicated.

God welcomes His people to engage with Him in real, dynamic relationship. Part of that relationship involves asking questions. If we have concerns, we’re invited to take them to God. If we have questions about Him or for Him, we ought to ask and then seek answers from Him through prayer, Bible study, meditation on the Word, and fasting.

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“Why Do I Live?” Finding Answers to Life’s Big Questions

If you’re familiar with Leo Tolstoy, chances are it’s in the context of him being one of the greatest Russian novelists rather than as a Christian writer. He published his two best-known works in the mid-to-late 19th century: War and Peace in 1869 and Anna Karenina in 1878. It was after finishing Anna Karenina early in 1877, and before resuming his literary work in 1885, that he devoted himself to a close study of faith (reference: Aylmer Maude’s introduction to A Confession, The Gospel in Brief, What I Believe, printed by Oxford University Press).

Tolstoy’s essay titled A Confession was mostly written in 1879 and was first circulated in Russia (with a short additional note from the author) in 1882 despite efforts to suppress its publication. In this essay, Tolstoy recounts his own loss of faith, the years of his life spent in dissipation among other “learned and liberal” people, and finally his disillusionment with that sort of life. He describes himself as coming to a seemingly inescapable realization that life is meaningless and that he ought to kill himself. This was a time of mental agony for him. Tolstoy was a highly successful and respected author, with a wife and children whom he loved, yet he had to hide ropes and guns lest he use them against himself.

As he recalls his reasoning in those days, Tolstoy talks about asking questions such as, “What am I with my desires?” and “Why do I live?” As a well-educated man, he naturally turned to science and reason for answers. Yet there, he found that people aren’t so much interested in answering these questions as they are in studying and observing the world. What he found from science indicated that everything happened by chance and you must understand “infinite complexity” and “the laws of those mutations of form” before you could hope to understand why you’re alive. Then Tolstoy turned to philosophy, where he found that philosophers had been asking his same questions for thousands of years. Yet they didn’t have an answer which satisfied him either–they just gave back “the same question, only in a complex form” (Section V).

People in the Bible also asked big questions, and we’re still doing that today as well. The questioner from the Bible whom Tolstoy focused on in his writings was Solomon, and he quotes extensively from Ecclesiastes (which I’ve written about in “Crash Course in Ecclesiastes”). Other Bible people who asked big questions include Job and his three friends. And while Solomon and Job are the first people who come to mind as wrestling with big questions, other questions like “If it is like this, why do I live?” (Gen. 25:22), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1), and “Is there unrighteousness with God?” (Rom. 3:5; 9:14) fill the pages of the Bible. We serve a God who invites us to ask big, difficult, and troubling questions and then come to Him for answers.

It’s fitting, then, that Tolstoy found the most satisfying answers for his big questions when he turned to faith. He realizes that just because he’d decided that his life was not meaningful did not mean all life was without meaning. As he looked around him, he realized that people had been acting as if life were meaningful for thousands of years. Perhaps they hadn’t been wrong. Perhaps they–and the people alive now who saw value in living–knew something that he’d missed. And so Tolstoy began seeking answers among those who believe that life is worth living in spite of the hardships, namely, among people of faith. He was not impressed by those Christians among his wealthy, highly educated acquaintances because most professed faith but did not live it out, but Tolstoy did find something to admire in the simple working people. Those people lived with faith that deeply affected their lives and which answered their big questions.

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At this point, Tolstoy describes the highly educated and intelligent people who reject God as those who “have decided that the master is stupid or does not exist, and that we are wise, only we feel that we are quite useless and that we must somehow do away with ourselves” (Section XI). These sorts of people are so impressed with themselves that they’ve missed what gives life meaning. He also says, “Were it not so terrible it would be ludicrous with what pride and self-satisfaction we, like children, pull the watch to pieces, take out the spring, make a toy of it, and are then surprised that the watch does not go” (Section IX). It should be no surprise that if we try to take out God and faith–which make life worth living and reveal the meaning of existence– we’ll feel as if life is worthless and meaningless. Tolstoy found this born out in his own experiences: “I need only be aware of God to live; I need only forget Him, or disbelieve Him, and I died” (Section XII).

A Confession is a fascinating read. Tolstoy speaks frankly about terribly difficult subjects, including his struggles with suicidal thoughts and with finding answers to life’s most important questions. He also touches on his conflicts with church dogma (in this case the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox church), which I understand he develops more fully in writings that I haven’t yet read. In a way that reminds me a little of C.S. Lewis, Tolstoy left his childhood Christian faith and then later came back as a more mature and intelligent adult, concluding that God is the only thing which can give life meaning.

So many people in the modern world like to set up “faith” and “reason” as things that are opposed. I love reading about highly intelligent people like Lewis and Tolstoy who come to the conclusion that faith in God is the only reasonable answer to life’s big questions. It helps encourage me that a life of faith is not a life that’s opposed to reason, logic, and intelligence–that, in fact, the most reasonable use of our intelligence leads to the conclusion that faith in God is right and good.

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Shine! Let the Light Come Into Your Life

The word began with darkness overcome by light. Millenia after that, Light once again entered a world that had become dark and chaotic to start another great transformation–a recreation that will ultimately result in God’s kingdom being fully present here on earth. The opening sections of Genesis and John’s gospel both describe God as an active creator bringing light into darkness, and they talk about that action as profoundly meaningful. The contrast between light and darkness, and God’s role as Light, is mentioned again and again in scripture from psalmists and prophets to New Testament letter writers.

If you’ve ever had the power go out at night and couldn’t find a candle or flashlight, or been in a cave and turned out the lights to experience the profound blackness of being underground, then you know what a relief it can be to have light suddenly available when you’d been in darkness. But you might also know that light can hurt, such as when you step outside into blindingly bright sunlight or you’ve been half-dozing in a dark room and someone walks in and flips the light switch. In many ways, this is also how Light works on a spiritual level. We’ve all been in spiritual darkness, some longer or darker than others but all characterized by a separation from God. He’s in the business of bringing light to darkness, though, and when He enters our lives with Light it can be a relief, a shock, or both.

“Let There Be Light”

In the beginning there was formless emptiness, darkness, and chaos. Then God said, “Let there be light.” There’s depth to that phrase even in English, and it gets a whole lot deeper when we look at the Hebrew. First, right before God calls light into existence, the Hebrew word used in the creation story for water changes from “watery deep” (tehom, chaotic abyss, salty ocean) to “water” (mayim, general word for life-giving water). Then, “the first thing God does is correct the darkness; without light there is only chaos” (NET footnotes on Gen. 1:1-3). There’s also wordplay in the Hebrew so that “let there be” expresses “both the calling into existence and the complete fulfilling of the divine word” (NET). It’s a profound transformation accomplished by God speaking Light.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.

A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

John 1:1-9, NET

Light and dark, order and chaos, life and death. The contrasts are sharp between what God offers and any other option available in this world. And just like God spoke light into existence at the beginning, so He’s offering to speak light into our lives today. The Word–the Light–“took up residence among us,” and those who come to Him will be God’s children (John 1:10-14). That’s just as true now as it was for all of Bible history.

Children of Light

One of the most well-known passages in the Bible is John 3:16. Keep reading after that verse, and Jesus talks about how He was sent to save the world and that people are condemned (or not) based on whether they believe in Him (John 3:16-18). Then, He talks about light.

Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.

John 3:19-21, NET

When I read this, I think of that fantasy/sci-fi trope of having nasty, skulking, dangerous creatures that want to eat you being unable to walk in sunlight (think vampires, fyrnocks from Star Wars Rebels, and Tolkein’s goblins). Light can be scary and even painful for the sort of people we are apart from God. Even after we’ve started following God, I dare say most of us have felt that urge to shy away from His light and try to hide the more shameful parts of ourselves. But even if we’re scared, deep down the truest version of ourselves is not the sort of thing that light kills. God’s light only burns away the things that don’t fit with who we’re truly meant to be–people made in the image of God with glorious potential to be just like Him one day.

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.

Ephesians 5:8-10, NET

Arise! Shine!

If we want to live as children of light, we need to be the sort of people who come to the Light. That’s just another way of saying we need to believe in and follow Jesus, who said “I am the light of the world! The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, NET). It’s impossible to understate the importance of this idea; it’s at the center of the gospel.

Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. 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 1:5-7, NET

As I write this , we’re about a week away from Passover–the day commemorating Jesus’s sacrifice and the renewing of our commitment to follow Him. Before that day, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 11 to examine ourselves. Here, in these verses about light, we have a question we can ask as part of that: “I say that I’m walking with Christ, but is my life more reflective of His light or the world’s darkness?” If we can’t honestly answer that we’re walking in the light, then we need to change some things.

Arise! Shine! For your light arrives!
The splendor of the Lord shines on you!
For, look, darkness covers the earth
and deep darkness covers the nations,
but the Lord shines on you;
his splendor appears over you.

Isaiah 60:1-2, NET

I don’t know about you, but it often feels like there’s chaos and darkness pressing in on me, and I certainly see it filling up the world. But there’s good news! Our God is light. We can choose to walk in His light, and as we do the blood of Jesus covers our sins. We are not helpless victims of the darkness. We’ve been rescued and empowered. We get to shine, like Jesus does, because we’re sharing His light.

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Finding Treasures, New and Old, in the Pages of Scripture

Have you ever been reading a familiar part of the Bible–one of the gospels, for example–and came across something you’d never noticed before? I don’t know how many dozens of times I’ve read Matthew, and just a few weeks ago I noticed a verse that I don’t think I’ve ever thought about before. It comes right after a collection of several parables about the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus says,

“Have you understood all these things?” They replied, “Yes.” Then he said to them, “Therefore every expert in the law who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and old.”

Matthew 13:51-52, NET

As I’ve pondered this verse over the past few weeks while studying the kingdom of God, one thing that jumps out at me is the importance Jesus puts on the old and the new. Treasuring both seems like a different recommendation than what some other scriptures teach us about how to relate to the old and the new. But Jesus also makes this sound like something we’re supposed to do. An “expert in the law” (also translated “scribe” or “Torah scholar/teacher”) who is trained (or “discipled”) for the kingdom seems like someone who has paid close attention to Jesus’s teachings and understand them. So how can we imitate this disciple-scholar’s approach to the kingdom of God?

An Old and New Commandment

Describing someone who is trained or discipled for the kingdom as bringing out old and new treasures can seem strange in light of Jesus’s other teachings. The parables of the new patch on an old garment and new wine in old wineskins make it seem like the new and old is incompatible (Luke 5:36-39). Later, Paul writes about cleaning out the old so we can be new, and of the old passing away because we are new in Christ (1 Cor. 5:7; 2 Cor 5:17). Part of figuring out this puzzle involves asking the question, “Old and new what?” because not all these passages are talking about the same old and new things. In addition to keeping that in mind, I think the key to unlocking this mystery is found in John’s writings:

Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have already heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

1 John 2:7-8, NET

Jesus did not do away with the old commandments and words of God (Matt. 5:17-20). He did, however, bring something new to add to it, including a new covenant which would supersede the old (Heb. 8-9). Part of participating in this new covenant involves us cleaning old things that are incompatible with godliness out of our lives (that’s what Paul was talking about in the Corinthians passages). It also involves properly balancing and appreciating the new and old treasures of God’s word.

Called into the New, Founded on the Old

People often think of Christianity as something new that Jesus started. The way scripture talks about it, though, “Christian” is just a new name applied to believers who were continuing to follow the teachings of the one true God and align with His unfolding plan as Jesus revealed the next steps. Our faith’s roots aren’t found in the first century C.E.–they’re found “in the beginning” when God created the heavens and the earth. Jesus coming as the Messiah was the next step in the plan God had laid out even before He laid the foundations for the earth (Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20).

As part of His work here on earth, Jesus revealed more fully how to worship God and invited us to “serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code” (Rom. 7:6, NET). Now, is Paul saying here that the old has no value? “Absolutely not!” Rather, he argues that “we uphold the law” when we live by faith” (Rom. 3:31; 6:15; 7:7).

For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:6-7, NET

The work God is doing in us and the knowledge He gives us are amazing treasures. Part of this treasure of understanding involves an appreciation of the value both of the new and old things that God has given His people. Through His extraordinary power and mercy, we are called into a new thing founded on very old truths.

Finding and Keeping Kingdom Treasures

If we go back to the kingdom of heaven parables that Jesus shared before making the statement where we started this post, we find that He talked about treasure there, too.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid. And because of his joy, he goes out and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. Upon finding a pearl of great value, he went out and sold all that he had and bought it.” …

Then He said to them, “Therefore every Torah scholar discipled for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure both new things and old.”

Matthew 13:44-46, 52, TLV

God’s kingdom is a treasure so precious we should be willing–and even joyful–to give up whatever is needed to get the kingdom (Matt. 10:21; Luke 18:22). And we should be collecting and treasuring things related to the kingdom, such as the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” hidden in Jesus (Col. 2:3, see also Matt. 6:19-21). As we continue to learn and grow, let’s appreciate the rich history of our faith and our own personal experiences, as well as the new things God teaches and the glorious future He has planned.

Featured image by Oliver Eyth from Pixabay

Getting “Salty” for the Kingdom of God

Have you ever thought about the phrase “covenant of salt” or “salt of the covenant”? If you’re like me, you might not have even realized these phrases are in the Bible–I never noticed them until I heard a teaching on it a few years ago. I’ve come back to study salt again now because the grace book I talked about in last week’s post drew my attention to this verse:

Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.

Colossians 4:6, WEB

In Relational Grace, Brent Schmidt says that “in Greek usage,” a conversation described as “seasoned with salt” meant one that’s “enlivened with wisdom” (p. 94). He also mentions “cleansing and preservation” are associated with salt. He does not bring up the covenants of salt mentioned in the Old Testament, but Schmidt does write extensively on the covenanting aspects of grace, and that made me wonder if there might be a “covenants of salt” connection as well. And, as a larger question, what does it mean when God describes us as “salt of the earth” or when He says to “have salt in yourselves?”

Covenants of Salt

In the Torah, God instructed Israel to use salt in some very specific ways. Salt was an essential ingredient for holy incense (Ex. 30:34-35). It was also a vital part of sacrifices.

Moreover, you must season every one of your grain offerings with salt; you must not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be missing from your grain offering—on every one of your grain offerings you must present salt.

Leviticus 2:13, NET

The phrasing here is such a strong instruction–you must include salt. And it’s repeated three times just in this one sentence! Clearly, the presence of covenant salt mattered deeply to God. The connection between salt and offerings continues throughout the Old Testament (Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Ezekiel 43:24). In addition, God described the portion of the offerings that were given to priests as “a covenant of salt” in Numbers 18:19. The NET footnote on this verse explains

Salt was used in all the offerings; its importance as a preservative made it a natural symbol for the covenant which was established by sacrifice. Even general agreements were attested by sacrifice, and the phrase “covenant of salt” speaks of such agreements as binding and irrevocable. Note the expression in Ezra 4:14, “we have been salted with the salt of the palace.”

NET study note on Num. 18:19

This last line refers to a phrase in a letter where the writers claim “we are loyal to the king,” which is translated from an Aramaic phrase that literally means “we eat the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14, NET). Though covenants are not mentioned explicitly in this verse, it adds another layer to our discussion because of the close connection between loyalty and salt.

In 2 Chronicles 13:5, a king of Judah challenged Israel, saying, “Don’t you realize that the Lord God of Israel has given David and his dynasty lasting dominion over Israel by a formal covenant?” or, in other words, “a covenant of salt?” (NET footnote). The covenants of salt were binding, formal, and intended to be long-lasting. They were something that God–and the people who care about Him–took very seriously.

You Are Salt

With that background, Jesus’s words “you are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) could possibly be read as “you are a sign of the covenants sprinkled throughout the earth,” or perhaps, “you are connected to the covenant and my sacrifice.” Of course, there is also the fact that “Salt was used as seasoning or fertilizer … or as a preservative” (NET footnote), and this may also be connected to Jesus’s words. Still, I think it’s safe to assume Jesus’s listeners–all of them Jews–would have been familiar with the strong covenant connection that salt had and would have assumed that was at least part of His meaning.

Adding further depth to the idea that we, as followers of Jesus, “are the salt of the earth” is the association of salt with incense. During one of the scenes in heaven that’s recounted in Revelation, “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8). Like incense, our prayers are “seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Ex. 30:35, WEB).

Everyone will be salted with fire [many manuscripts add “and every sacrifice will be salted with salt”]. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.

Mark 9:49-50, NET (bracketed line from footnote)

If salt implies a covenant, then the instruction “have salt in yourselves and be at peace” is a covenant imperative. It doesn’t mean we ought to eat more salty foods, but rather that we’re meant to live in loyal covenant with God. It involves following “the God of peace,” who raised “our Lord Jesus” from the dead and equips us to do His will “by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20-21, NET).

Speak Salty Words

Let’s go back now to the verse in Colossians that started this whole post, and read a little bit more of the context.

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone.

Colossians 4:5-6, NET

This part of Paul’s letter is talking about how we “conduct ourselves” or “walk”–“a common NT idiom for one’s lifestyle, behavior, or manner of conduct” (NET footnote). We’re to exercise wisdom when interacting with those outside the faith, use our time well, and be gracious and “seasoned with salt” in the way we speak.

In today’s world, being “salty” implies irritation or hostility. This verse is telling us to do the opposite in our dealings with others. We’re to interact with people in a grace-filled way that is seasoned with wisdom and influenced by an awareness of our covenant with God. As the salt of the earth, we’re meant to remember our covenant loyalty to God and show our faithfulness to Him as we interact with other people.

Featured image by andreas160578 from Pixabay