Sunday, September 29, 2019

Bible Character Spotlight: Jacob

As we know, Abraham’s son Isaac survived God’s test of Abraham. He grew up and, just as God promised, Isaac became Abraham’s heir. He inherited Abraham’s power and estate and carried on Abraham’s legacy. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a nation. Of course, that is a promise that would take generations to come to fruition. Isaac represented the first generation in the growth of Abraham’s nation, and he in turn contributed to the fulfillment of God’s promise by having children of his own. One of his children was named Jacob. Jacob had an interesting and, what some might consider, bizarre life.

Jacob knowingly lied to his father and stole his brother, Esau’s, birthright (Genesis 26:34 -28:9). That was one of the first notable things that happened in his life. Right away, we see that Jacob isn’t one of the blameless characters like Noah or Abraham who had been instrumental in the Bible’s story up to this point. From the very beginning of his story, we know he’s flawed. What’s curious is that God’s reaction to Jacob isn’t necessarily what we might think. Instead of immediately punishing Jacob, God sends Jacob a dream that confirms that, despite how he came to it, he would inherit Isaac’s blessing and carry on Abraham’s legacy (Genesis 28:11-20). Jacob winds up serving his uncle, Laban, who gives Jacob his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. In our modern society, such a thing would be considered a completely foreign concept. To make matters stranger, his two wives engage in a child bearing competition of sorts that comes to involve their servant women. Jacob finds himself making many children with several women, all in the confines of what is allowed through his marriages (Genesis 30). Jacob eventually leaves Laban’s employ and returns back home escaping his brother’s wrath and claiming what God promised him.

In that abbreviated version of the story, it seems like Jacob got away with his original transgression. After all, in the end, he received the blessing that he originally stole. While that is true, to only acknowledge that part of the story is to make a mistake that we often make in life. We see the beginning and end points of certain incidents and storylines and miss everything in between. To modify a popular saying, "God is in the details." Jacob had to leave home to escape his brother. He fell in love with Rachel and had to work hard to earn her hand in marriage, but that only came after he was first forced to take Leah as his wife even though, at the time, he did not want her. He ran afoul of Laban and had to flee with his family. The fact is Jacob’s life was complicated. God rewarded him in the end, but claiming his reward was not easy. Maybe God always intended for Jacob to carry on Abraham’s legacy, but Jacob’s underhanded way of receiving that blessing may have been what led to his life being harder than necessary.

People who only look at the endpoints of Jacob’s story may miss another important point. Despite being flawed, he was still faithful and obedient to God. When God gave Jacob his dream, Jacob accepted it as truth without question and marked the land God promised. When Jacob was hiding from Laban, God told him to go back home, and Jacob obeyed right away. When God told Jacob to go to Esau, Jacob did so even though he was afraid of what Esau might do to him. God was with Jacob at every point in his life, and whenever God spoke Jacob obeyed. Jacob wasn’t rewarded in the end because he tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s birthright. Jacob was rewarded because despite the troubled beginning to his story, he still kept God at the head of his life and doing that always pays off.

Jacob’s story is surprisingly easily applied to our own lives. While the details may differ, we all go through ups and downs in our lives. Our lives take turns that we don’t expect and leave us in circumstances that we sometimes don’t know how to handle. We all seem to wrestle with daily problems, the people around us, and even God. Well, Jacob did the same, both figuratively, oddly enough, literally. Yes, Jacob actually physically wrestled with an angel representing God and won...sort of. 
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome." - Genesis 32:38
The encounter was symbolic of Jacob's life.  God acknowledged that Jacob had been through trials and declared that Jacob had come out of them triumphant. 
We have to learn how to be like Jacob and trust God in and out of our trials.  We have to let God navigate us through life. Like Jacob, we are all flawed, but sometimes it may even be the wrong that we do that starts us down the path to righteousness. No matter where our lives take us, if we keep God at the head, we’ll end up just where he wants us to be, and that’s always just the right place for us to be.
Chris Lawyer
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Monday, September 23, 2019

Forgiveness: Hard But Necessary

What does it mean to live a Christian lifestyle? That’s a topic that’s been broached many times on this blog. It’s unfortunate but true that many people who call themselves Christians believe that living a Christian life means cherry picking commands from the Bible to live by and then chastising others for not living in the same way. That’s not a Christian lifestyle. Yes, as Christians, we acknowledge that God gives us commands in the Bible that we are supposed to follow. However, we can’t just pick and choose the commands we want to follow. In fact, it does not benefit us at all to overemphasize the importance of adhering to the Law as written in the Old Testament. Paul addresses this:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. - Galatians 3:10-14
Paul makes it clear that attempting to live by the Law is problematic. If you’re going to live by the Law, you have to live by all the laws without fail. Paul points out the folly in that line of thinking. None of us can obey the Law without falling short. That is why Jesus had to die for us. As Christians, we are supposed to live by our faith in Jesus. We aren’t supposed to try and force nonbelievers into doing what we think is right. We are supposed to share the Gospel and give them the information necessary to make an informed choice to choose Jesus. After that, it is up to them whether or not they want to give themselves to the Lord.

That’s not to say that the actions of Christians don’t matter. They do. Jesus instructed his followers to live righteously to serve as examples to the people of the world around them.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. - Matthew 5:16
When Jesus said “let your light shine,” he wasn’t just talking about following laws. He was talking about living a righteous life. That means following the example Jesus set with his life and following his teachings. Jesus covered many topics with his teachings, so it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to start when attempting to live life more righteously. In a previous blog entry (Humility is the Key), we identified humility as the place to start when trying to live a righteous life.  However, you don't become humble just by speaking it.  You may have to change yourself in many ways, and adding a spirit of forgiveness to your character should be one of the first changes you make. It may sound like an odd thing to start with, but it’s not.

Learning to forgive can help us keep ourselves in line along the righteous path. It can help us refine our thinking. When talking about forgiveness, most of us naturally come to a question of how much forgiveness is enough. Jesus addressed that.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” - Matthew 18:21-22
Jesus is essentially telling us not to worry about how much we should forgive. He’s telling us that our focus should simply be to forgive. He followed that answer with a parable (Matthew 18:23-35). That parable tells a story about a servant that was forgiven by his master but refused to forgive another servant. The master finds out about the lack of forgiveness from the first servant and punishes him for it. That parable describes us perfectly. Every Christian should accept that God has forgiven the sins of those that believe. If we move through life cognizant of God’s forgiveness of ourselves, then it becomes easier for us to act with forgiving spirits. In doing that we will be following Jesus’ example and also humbling ourselves in a way that is necessary to add all the other important traits like faithfulness and obedience to our characters.

When you really think about it, Jesus’ life and death boil down to a story about forgiveness. God sent him to die for us, so that we could be forgiven for our sins.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. - Ephesians 4:32
So, if we are to follow Jesus’ example, wouldn’t it make sense for us to start with the concept that brought Jesus to us in the first place. We as humans make mistakes that hurt others. Sometimes, we even intentionally hurt others. We are also hurt by others. Depending on what is done to us, it can be very hard to forgive, but doing the right thing is often hard. Forgiving someone when everything and everyone in the world would tell you not to is probably one of the most striking examples possible for what it means to be Christlike. Have you ever seen a story where someone whose loved one was murdered forgave the killer? What kind of strength must that take? How strong a statement does it make when that person turns around and says that they were able to forgive because of Jesus. What about when our loved ones wrong us? It might be easy for us to push them away or treat them differently because of what they’ve done, but isn’t forgiving them and finding a way to move forward the more loving thing to do? Maybe by forgiving when reason tells us not to, we can be more effective in bringing people to God than we ever could by trying to force laws on them. 

If a spirit of forgiveness can help us live more righteously and also help bring more people to the Lord, then isn’t it paramount that we strive to add it to our characters no matter how difficult that might be? Jesus would certainly say so, and that alone should be reason enough to do it.

Chris Lawyer
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Saturday, September 14, 2019

You Don't Work, You Don't Eat

Sometimes, it is easy to get a false impression of how Believers should conduct themselves in this world. The Bible is a big book and packs a lot of information. It offers instruction for virtually every aspect of our lives. At times, it can even seem like the instructions contradict each other, but usually those contradictions come from a misunderstanding of what the Bible is actually saying or a lack of context with regards to what one passage may be saying versus another. A lot of times scripture is presented in one or two verse segments to highlight a point someone wants to make. While using scripture in that way isn’t necessarily wrong, sometimes such usage can work against true understanding of what God is trying to present to us. When focusing on those one or two verses, we may miss the greater point made by all the surrounding verses. For example, let’s look at 2 Thessalonians 3:10:
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
Like with many Bible verses, this one has entered common lexicon and been simplified even further. Everyone has heard the statement If you don’t work, you don’t eat. In today’s world, there is almost a constant debate about what responsibility we as people have to each other. How much are we supposed to help those who are down on their luck, out of work, sick, etc…? The shortened version of the Thessalonians verse is often thrown out as a means of dismissing the idea that we should help certain people. Unfortunately, that is another example of the all too common misuse of Biblical scripture.

The Bible gives us clear instruction to help those in need.
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. – Hebrews 13:16
Our first inclination should not be to find a loophole that allows us to escape our responsibility towards our fellow human beings. That’s a distortion of what God wants from us. Ultimately, as Christians, we are supposed to be spreading the Word of God. We are supposed to be living examples of the goodness that was first represented in Jesus. Sure, conmen and grifters exist, but if we simply dismiss them and move along, how can we introduce them to the Word? How can we allow them to see what a godly person looks like? Maybe we can’t reach people like that. That’s certainly a possibility, but we weren’t commanded to pick and choose who we treat with love. We were just commanded to love. Jesus, during his travels, certainly encountered unsavory people, but he did not treat them any differently than anyone else. He spread the Word to the good, the bad, and everyone in between. That is how we should be too, and if that means sometimes funding people who are just looking for a handout, so be it, as long as God’s will is done.

All that said, even if the Thessalonians verse is being misused, there is no question, it is a real verse, so if we’re saying here that many of the common uses of this verse are wrong, what is the real purpose of the verse? You can only understand that by digging deeper into the Word. Let’s look at the whole passage instead of just that one tidbit.
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10
We must remember that, at this time, Christianity was still a growing faith. It is the mission of all who believe to spread the Gospel, however, at this time it was even more important because most people in the world had never even heard of Jesus. As you can imagine, organizing a new religion was a busy endeavor, and Paul was right in the midst of it. In this passage, he is giving instructions to those that he has had a part in bringing into the Faith. He is telling them to avoid people who have no desire in working to benefit the greater effort, and he’s also using himself as an example for how the people should have behaved. He was diligent in his work, and he expected that from everyone else that professed to serve the Lord. Paul was certainly not telling his followers to ignore the needs of the less fortunate or to treat those who have fallen on hard times as if they were useless and undeserving of care.

Of course, the Spirit can always lead you to take something from this passage that is outside of the literal explanation. For example, it’s fair to say that this passage is making the deeper point that our faith should be active and not passive. That if we truly consider ourselves to be Christians, we should be actively doing God’s work. We should not think that because we have been saved through our faith that we can just sit idly by and wait for the rewards.

Yes, the Bible is rich with wisdom, and it is absolutely possible that different people can read the same verse and gain different insights. Still, any understanding of the Word that does not come from God is bound to be flawed. When we read the Bible, we need to rely on the Spirit and genuinely seek enlightenment. We can try to take from the words what we want them to say. However, reading in that fashion can lead to pushing Biblical rhetoric that actually contradicts God’s will. It’s His Word, so let’s take it in and send it out His way.

Chris Lawyer
Image Courtesy of Sean Bradford's Pinterest page.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Humility is the Key

Love God above everything and love others as we love ourselves. What God wants from us can be stated pretty simply. Still, no matter how easy it is to state what God wants from us, it’s not nearly so easy to actually do what he wants. That’s evidenced by the fact that even the best of us slip and fail sometimes. God understands this, so much so, that it’s even pointed out in the Bible.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10
The path of righteousness is a hard road to walk, but that doesn’t mean we can just give up and go another way. We have to be diligent, and we have to be proactive in finding the things in our path that will cause us to stumble, so that we can remove them. There are many different pitfalls, and to make matters worse, each of us is susceptible to different temptations. So what can we do?

Well, as a start, we can humble ourselves. Humility is vital to our walks with God because often we are the ones that inhibit the growth of our relationships with God. Our desires to do the things we want to do, go to the places where we want to go, associate with the people with whom we want to associate, etc… are what make it impossible for us to truly live the way God wants us to live. Without humility, it is almost impossible for us to pull back and realize that what we want is not paramount and is not always the answer. Many of us seek to rise above our stations and some believe the best way to do that is through our own efforts, but the Bible says different.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. – James 4:10
The Bible clearly tells us that if we want to become more than we are, if we want to reach our full potential, we need to first lower ourselves. Trying to puff ourselves up to achieve more is the exact opposite of what we should do.
For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted – Luke 14:11
Jesus preached humility, but beyond that, his life was a testament to humility. He was God in human form, but he lived as a common person avoiding all the trappings of the world. Therein lies the problem for many of us. We don’t understand the degree to which we’re influenced by the world. When we read the Bible, and see that it speaks about the dangers presented by the world, we always get stuck thinking about the little things we may have to give up for the Lord. While it’s true that following God’s way may require sacrificing certain worldly pleasures, the Bible’s warnings against the trappings of the world go deeper than that.

Just think about American society. Consider how much importance is put on personal achievement. Everybody is conditioned to want to be Somebody. That means gaining wealth, status, and fame. Those of us who are able to achieve those things on a high level are often praised, idolized, and held up as the standard that everyone should want to meet. Even though most of us won’t reach those levels, we all do our best to try and emulate what we see to some degree and that leads to us celebrating ourselves or looking for others to celebrate us for everything we accomplish. It gets to be so bad that much of what we do is motivated by our need to be lauded. The Bible warns against that way of being.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:3
The interesting thing about Paul’s statement is that applying it to our lives doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to change our pursuits. You want to be rich? That’s fine, but do you seek wealth so that you can have all the fanciest things for yourself, or do you seek it so that you can help others who have nothing? You want to be famous? Ok, but do you want that so you can bask in the adoration of your fans, or do you want it so that you’ll have a bigger platform to spread the Word of God? You see, living humble and Godly lives doesn’t mean you have to live life as a nobody. Moses was well respected and held in high regard, but he didn’t let that go to his head. He understood that no matter how important he might have been, God was still supreme. Living humbly also doesn’t mean you have to live life as a pauper. David was massively wealthy, but he understood that all his riches came from God, and, ultimately, were given to bring glory to God. Living humbly simply means understanding that we aren’t the end all and be all. Whether we are world famous or relatively unknown, rich or poor, we are just people, and none of us is any better than the others. In the end, only God deserves to be praised.

This should be easy for Believers. We understand the greatness of God, so we, of all people, should have no problem prostrating ourselves before something or someone greater. The problem is that we let a lack of humility affect everything, even the way we attempt to encounter God. Many people want to out-pray each other, out-sing each other, out-give each other, etc…, but not because they want God to be glorified that much. They do it because they want to be recognized for their goodness, and, in some cases, that mindset flows down from the pulpit to every seat in the congregation. Unfortunately, that is the exact wrong way to be if we are trying to please God. Jesus laid that fact out for us clearly (Matthew 6:1-18).

It is important that we take what Jesus said to heart. It should be the foundation of our humility. When we learn to serve and interact with God humbly, then we can learn to interact humbly with our fellow humans. When we learn to present ourselves to those around us in a humble manner, then we can learn to put humility at the center of all of our motivations. When we’ve come to really live with humble hearts and minds, then being obedient, faithful, and loving become that much easier. Walking a righteous path won’t seem so difficult once we’ve learned humility because it is the key to removing one of the biggest obstacles in our way – ourselves.

Chris Lawyer

Image Courtesy of Rav Dror Souncloud Page

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Bible Character Spotlight: Abraham

Perhaps nothing could speak to the importance of a person more than having a religion named after them. So what does it say about Abram, later and more commonly known as Abraham, whose name is attached to the world’s three major religions?  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often referred to as the Abrahamic faiths because of Abraham’s significance in all three. It was Abraham’s bloodline that the Bible followed throughout its narrative, particularly in the Old Testament. What kind of person must Abraham have been for God to use him as the patriarch for His Chosen People?

First and foremost, he was obedient. God gave Abraham instructions with a promise attached:
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3
So many of us would hear such a promise and believe it to be outlandish or wonder why we had to leave our homes behind for it to be fulfilled. We would hesitate and protest even in the face of being promised something great, but Abraham did not. Even at the ripe age of 75, he took Sarah (his wife), Lot (his nephew), and the people attached to him and promptly left to go where God instructed.

Some might argue that anybody would uproot their lives the way Abraham did if they were promised such great things. If we’re being honest, that’s not true. Everyday people miss out on blessings for lack of obedience, but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that was true. The Bible includes a greater example of the extent of Abraham's obedience. Perhaps the most well-known story involving Abraham concerned his son Isaac. God blessed him with a son against all odds. The idea of Abraham having a son by his wife at that point in their lives seemed so absurd that Sarah laughed when she heard it (Genesis 18:11-12). But God’s initial promise of making a nation through Abraham required that Abraham have an heir, so God made a way for that to happen, and Isaac was born as promised.

Abraham cherished Isaac, so imagine what it must have felt like when God instructed Abraham to kill Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). Abraham received no promise of greatness or anything special along with that particular command. It was simply a duty given to him. Abraham treated it the same way he treated all the other commands given to him and was prepared to fulfill that duty. Through his actions, Abraham showed that whether God promised him riches or requested the sacrifice of something precious, he would obey without question. Few others in the Bible could say they did the same, and certainly such obedience to God is rare in today’s world.

On the other hand, maybe it was not just obedience. Abraham believed God. He believed God’s promise and that God knew what was best. He had faith that God would never steer him wrong. Maybe that faith is what fueled his obedience. Abraham didn’t know what God had planned. He didn’t know that he was simply being tested. What he knew was that God was good and had already provided so much, so he believed that if God asked anything of him, there was a good reason for it. That turned out to be true, there was a good reason indeed.

Skeptics may ask why God would test Abraham with something as barbaric as killing his son. Why was it necessary to torture him by putting him on the precipice of doing something so unthinkable? No one can truly say what’s in God’s mind, however, questions like these often miss a key point. God never intended events in the Bible to serve solely as moments in the lives of the Biblical characters. It was always his plan to use the events to serve as lessons and examples for the people that followed. God didn’t burden Abraham with this test solely to determine whether or not Abraham loved him. God already knew Abraham’s heart. He had already seen Abraham’s obedient actions. God had already promised to build a nation through Abraham, so he already knew Abraham would pass the test. The test was given to Abraham, but it was for our benefit. God wanted us to understand the nature of the relationship he seeks with us. He wanted us to know that he has no desire to take away the things that we love when we properly prioritize them under Him. He wanted us to know that in all circumstances, he will provide for us. He also wanted us to see what kind of sacrifice true love can require.

Love in its purest form can come with pain. Out of his love and faithfulness to God, Abraham had to be prepared to endure the pain of losing his son. God knew in his heart that Abraham loved Him above all and spared Abraham undo pain. Abraham did not have to make that sacrifice, but God did. God didn’t ask Abraham to do anything that God himself wasn’t willing to do. God expected Abraham to love God more than his own son. So what does it mean that God sent Jesus to Earth to die for us? Drawing a parallel to Abraham, doesn’t that mean that God’s sacrifice of his Son proves his great love for us? Think about how powerful a revelation that is, and it was all foreshadowed through Abraham’s story.

Does it sound far fetched that God was using Abraham to set the stage for Jesus’ coming and sacrifice? Consider this, in Genesis 18:1-13 Abraham meets the Lord, who we know to be God in the form of a man otherwise known as the Son. This means that Abraham actually met Jesus, and it was Jesus that helped introduce us to what Abraham would become. Of course, this wasn’t Jesus as we know him in the New Testament. He had not yet become a human being and was instead just taking on that form to interact with Abraham. Christophany is the technical term for examples of Jesus showing himself before his advent in the New Testament. It was Jesus that revealed to Abraham that Sarah would give birth to Isaac. In other words, Jesus set the stage for Abraham to foreshadow His own advent. God set quite an intricate lesson for us didn’t he?

Abraham’s story is full of important moments and lessons. As Believers we can’t just read the Bible as a book of stories. We have to recognize it for what it is, the Word of God, meant to teach and enlighten us. Through his obedience and faithfulness, Abraham was able to serve as the instrument for many lessons that God wanted to teach, and for that he received everything God promised and his name has stood the test of time.

Chris Lawyer
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