Check Out Those Golden Calves

One of the best things about the Bible is that the lessons it teaches grow with you. When I was a teenager, I set out to understand Christianity as it is rather than the spiritually ambiguous thing that I had grown up with. The best way I knew how was to read the Bible since that was the holy text of the religion. What I found was not a list of do’s and don’ts but rather the story of the people of Israel. One of my favorite sections outlines the rule of Kings or Israel and what went wrong in their lives.

The one judgement that is repeated most often in the books of the Kings was a line, “but King _____ continued in the sins of his father and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” When I was younger, I did not understand what that meant but merely thought, “this king is a bad dude, I wonder what else he did.” The text would often tell of one or two terrible infractions and then move on to the next king. What I had failed to notice in those statements about the sins of their fathers was that they were all following in the sins of this man called Jeroboam, son of Nebat.

So… what did Jeroboam do that set up generation after generation of Israelites to sin a sin so bad that it led to the ultimate downfall of Israel?

King Jeroboam  was the first king of Samaria, the Northern Tribes of Israel. While king, he did many things that would cause Samaria to fall out of favor with the Lord, including building temples to worship Baal and Asherah. This would probably have been enough to justify God’s punishment of his people, however the Lord often showed a great deal of mercy when dealing with this kind of sin. For example, Judah, the southern two tribes of Israel, was not destroyed until much later even though they too had alters devoted to the pagan gods of the Canaanites.

The sin that led Jeroboam’s people into destruction had to do with something he did at the start of his reign. In order to prevent Israel from worshiping the Lord YHWH in Jerusalem, he made a pair of golden calves and set them up on two mountains for the people to worship instead. This particular idolatry was more significant than the others because of something that had happened in Israel’s past.

In the days of Moses, the people of Israel were brought to the Lord at Mount Sinai and He appeared to them as a great and terrible fire, consuming the whole mountain. YHWH called Moses up from among the people to establish a covenant between YHWH and this nation but the covenant took a long time to prepare. When the people saw that Moses had left them there in the desert at the base of this burning mountain, they crafted a calf  from gold and proclaimed it as their rescuer from Egypt… right there in front of the Lord and his burning mountain. They even set up a feast in the name of YHWH to worship this golden calf as if it was the Lord.

This was so outrageous that the Lord desired to destroy the people right there in front of His mountain. Moses interceded for them and turned back the Lord’s anger. However, as a punishment, Moses ground up the golden calf and made the people drink it causing many to fall ill and others to die.

So, why was God so angry? Why did He get so mad that He desired to destroy them? It’s not because they were worshiping another god, which is a problem in itself… what they were doing was worshiping something other than YHWH and calling it YHWH. They worshiped the calf as though it were YHWH. They attributed all of the actions of the Lord, the ten plagues against Egypt, the cloud and pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea, all of it to a mere metal image they had made from their own jewelry. It’s not surprising that the Lord would think to destroy them.

Fast forward again to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. Not only had he set up the calves to worship, but the worship of these calves was to be a substitute for the worship of YHWH, stumbling the people for generations to come. They completely misidentified who their God was and turned from Him. 2 Kings 17 gives a full account of their sin and declares that they “went after worthless things and became worthless themselves…”

So what does this have to do with us? We don’t offer sacrifices anymore, but we are not immune to this kind of substitutionary idolatry either. It’s easy to look at ourselves and say that we have done no such thing, yet Christian history is marred time and again with religious copies of the golden calves. By reading our own desires and wills into the words of the Bible, Christians have found ways to justify slavery, sexual abuse, gluttony, debauchery and all forms of hedonism.

One example could be pressuring someone to do something you want because you had a dream “from the Lord” about it. Another, might be divorcing someone because “the Lord wants you to pursue someone else.” On more than one occasion, I’ve declined  helping someone in need because I “needed to focus on the Lord right now”.

Some of my friends have left the faith in pursuit of authentic worship of God. I’ve seen whole cults develop under the guise or “truly worshiping God” when in reality the Lord has been substituted with another.

When we do things like this we set stumbling blocks in front of ourselves and our children, keeping us from worshiping the Lord. When we worship other things and call them God, we are in danger of inciting the Lord against us, generation after generation.

The Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,  is our Mountain. When we turn to Him, His fire reveals to us the darkness hidden in our ways. We must examine our hearts and break down the altars we have set up in the wrong places and turn our worship from ourselves and put it back on the Lord lest we find ourselves overcome by our enemies.

Reform takes time and our actions do have costs. Let our cost be what it takes to worship the Lord, not the ruin of our children and our children’s children.

How to Have Hairy Faith

In my last few posts we discussed what the spiritual disciplines were and how they can put some strength into your spiritual life through practice. There is a problem though… The list of disciplines is long and challenging and doesn’t seem like a basket full of fun. It’s worth it to gain some level of competency in each discipline for your own spiritual growth and longevity in the Christian faith, but what happens when you forget to do what you set out to do? What do you do when you try to do what is good and right and fail?

Enormous volumes have been written in the business and fitness sectors under the topics of goal setting and personal growth. They tell us that we can be motivated and that it takes a special sort of motivation to get good at any sort of skill… but they only cover the mental and physical aspects of the problem. You can do great things under the tutelage of mentors like Jon Acuff, Tim Ferris, Amy Cuddy, Angela Duckworth, Anders Ericsson and others. I highly recommend their work. However, these writers often come from a strictly nonspiritual perspective and can only address behavior from the physical or psychological standpoint.

To gain wisdom in all areas of spiritual, physical, and even psychological truth the Bible provides us with many examples and a whole body of advice for life. More often than not, Biblical examples are narrative and descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that they don’t tell you what you should or should not do but rather what someone else was doing or thinking and then let you figure out how you can apply the story to your situation. Reading these stories is the first of the spiritual disciplines. The second is meditating on them, which gives us a gateway into understanding and application.

For example, in the New Testament, Paul spends a long time explaining that he just can’t make himself do the things that he knows he should. Also, he does those things that he knows he should not, things he hates doing. This is the scenario I find myself in constantly. When I get mad at my dog and throw away her treats in frustration or when I refuse to do something my wife asks “because I don’t wanna,” I know that I am acting as a child. When I sit and stare blankly at my Bible or look at my phone during what should be my prayer time, I know that I’m not doing what I ought. My knowledge of sin does not prevent me from sinning.

According to Paul, there is no amount of time or effort that can keep me from failing to do as God asks. I, like the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, am too stubborn and thick necked, unyielding in my commitment to self-devotion. My desire to be better cannot not simply bear for me the fruits of the Spirit.

Keeping this in mind, there is still hope for us. The Bible offers us an example for how we can move forward in faith when we have failed: Samson.

Most of us know Samson for having strangely long hair and performing unusual acts of strength. What we often miss is the terrible lifestyle he led and the fact that, in spite of this lifestyle, he goes down in history as a great Hero of the Faith.

Samson began his life as a Nazarite. His mother dedicated him before he was born to live as a Nazarite, serving under the high priest for his whole life. Now, we know from the book of Hebrews that Samson had great faith. However, when we read his story it’s easy to wonder if he had any faith at all. Samson was known for partying hard, drinking a lot of wine, and most notably, killing a lot of people and several animals. He was also selfish, ignored many of the commands God laid on his people, and acted out of anger at perceived wrongs against him.

Samson married a Philistine woman named Delilah who made it her goal to find out his greatest weakness in order to sell him out to the Philistines. When Samson finally gave in to Delilah and told her the secret of his strength, he told her that he was a Nazarite and it was his hair that gave him his strength. His mother had made a promise to the Lord that no razor would ever touch his head and so far, none had. When Delilah cut off his hair Samson became weak as any man and a group of philistines seized him to mock him and God.

After capturing Samson, they gouged out his eyes and chained him in the temple of their own god, putting him on display as if to show that the hero of Israel and the God that he represents were weaker than Dagon, the god of the Philistines. Now stripped of his sight, and his hair, the symbol of his faith and the God he worships, Samson is in a dire situation.

So how can a raucous law breaker, taken captive in a foreign land find himself among the famous faithful?

The text indicates that Samson’s hair began to grow back, foreshadowing a future return of his strength. But Samson went down in history as a hero of the faith, not as a champion of hair growth. In his final day of need he remembered that his strength came not from the hair on his head but from the Lord, the God of Israel.

The same is true for us. Losing in our struggle to be faithful to God is part of our journey. We are going to suffer embarrassing defeats, wreck the good things that God has given us, accidentally (or intentionally) encounter unclean things, and so much more. However, like with Samson, the true strength in our relationship with God is God, Himself. The secret to a strong, heroic faith is believing that God, having started a good work in us, is going to complete it. He is faithful to us in that so that we can be faithful to him.

Any can grow hair, only God can provide strength.

 

Are you a Legalist? (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed two ends of a spectrum for how people relate to the Law: Legalism vs. Antinomianism. The two positions pose the question “What do we do with the Law?” and then go about answering it through one of two methods: either total and zealous obedience which risks missing the point of the Law entirely or lack of regard to the importance of the Law exhibited through total disobedience. That Law, which is the set of holy ordinances handed down to Moses and then to the Hebrew people, has been a highly debated issue amongst Christian thinkers for almost two thousand years.

To avoid the traps of legalism and antinomianism we need to understand the concept of biblical covenants.  Effectively, a covenant works like a contract. However, unlike a contract, once a covenant exists it never passes away. Regardless of whether either of the parties holds up their end of the agreement both parties continue to be responsible to their obligations should a violation occur. Since God is always faithful and true, this means only one side of the covenant is likely to fail (Hint: it’s ours).

Throughout history, there have been a series of these covenants between man and God, forming the backbone of the religions of Judaism and Christianity as well as the cultural identity of Israel and the Jewish nationality. For this post, I will focus on just two covenants, though the rest are intricately linked to them.

First in order is the Mosaic Covenant. This is the covenant that resulted in both the formation of the Hebrew nation as well as the establishment of the Law. With this covenant, God performed a decisive move in upholding his previous covenant with Abram to make him into a great nation. He also delivered to His people a strong and lasting revelation of who He is through the Law and the covenant rituals. Finally, God established once and for all that there is good and there is evil. Failure to keep the terms of the covenant was proof of the evil living within the hearts men.

Second in order is what we call the New Covenant. This covenant is the one ushered in by Jesus’ work on Earth and reveals to us the grace of God. The Mosaic Covenant had quite a bit of language about what would happen to those who failed to uphold its words. This is what led entire sects of Jewish zealots (the Legalists) to seek perfection in keeping the commands of God. The New Covenant showed us that it is not by works, but by grace that we are saved. This then led to the people (the Antinomians) totally ignoring the Law and living as they pleased since salvation has been accomplished for us. We know that neither approach is correct, so we still have to figure out how to relate to the Law.

Remember the rules of a covenant? The covenant remains in tact regardless of whether one of the parties keeps their end of the deal. The New Covenant acts as a wraparound covenant, where in the owner pays the debt for the former and now owns a new debt from the debtor. In Jesus, the debt for the Mosaic covenant was paid. God, in his goodness, knew that man had no hope of upholding their end of the agreement. He clothed Himself in flesh and became a man in order to fulfill man’s side of the agreement for him leaving us a spectators as He works out our salvation for us.

Today the Mosaic covenant remains as a testimony against us, showing us just how far short of acceptable we are. However, the good news of the Gospel is that all God really wants from us is our love and worship. He is willing to go to great lengths to demonstrate His love for us and asks only that we turn from our sins and worship Him alone. Jesus even instructs us on how we can show God that we love him:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. -John 14:15 (ESV)

The Bible is full of God’s commands, so what is Jesus saying here if man cannot save himself through Law? Jesus goes on in John 14 to describe how God the Father will send a helper, The Holy Spirit, to remind us of his commands and all the things that Jesus has done. The Holy Spirit will help us to relate to theLaw properly and rely on God to do the impossible, which is to save man through the fulfillment of His covenants. In order to cure ourselves from legalism, we have to accept the good news that Jesus did the work for us. If we glorify God through repentance and worship, then we will do what he says, not out of requirement but out of love for him and an outpouring of our faith in him. Finally, through the steady and faithful work of the Holy Spirit, we will show our love for the Father through the evidence of keeping His commands, first through loving God and second through loving our neighbor as our self.

When we trust God and leave the work of salvation to him, the Law is no longer a testimony against us. It then becomes a revelation of who God is. Through the Law, we can know Him. We can know how He thinks, what He likes, and the things that He values. Through the Law, we can revel in His glory, in awe that He has accomplished what we cannot. This is the cure for Legalism, loving God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. All else will be added to you.

How can a young person stay pure?

By obeying your word.

I have tried hard to find you—

don’t let me wander from your commands.

I have hidden your word in my heart,

that I might not sin against you.

I praise you, O LORD

teach me your decrees.

I have recited aloud

all the regulations you have given us.

I have rejoiced in your laws

as much as in riches.

I will study your commandments

and reflect on your ways.

I will delight in your decrees

and not forget your word.

~Psalm 119:9-16 (NLT)

Bones of Fire

Several years ago, I worked for a summer camp as a counselor. At the start of the season, all the counselors moved in early for orientation and training. Everyone got introduced to each other and we filled out our counselor biographies. One thing I remember vividly about the biographies was one of the other counselor’s answer to the question “If you had a super power, what would it be?” Traditional powers like flying and invisibility were considered taboo so you had to get creative with your answers. While other counselors were shooting root beer out of their fingers, this guy wanted to have “Bones of Fire”.

For anonymity, we’ll call this guy “John”. I had met him at at school before in my freshman chemistry class and knew he was a Christian. At any university, not every Christian hangs out with every other Christian but we all know each other through the grapevine. John had gotten into a car accident a few months earlier and it turned out to be a really bad wreck. He ended up having to have a lot of bones put back together and back into the right places. We all heard about John’s wreck and the word to pray for his healing went quickly through the community. Fortunately, he was able to recover enough in time to work that summer.

Naturally, when John said his super power would be Bones of Fire, I assumed he was making some kind of thinly veiled comment about the long term discomfort and pain that comes with crushed bones. What I, and probably many of the other counselors, didn’t understand at the time was that this was a deeply theological reference. During my time as a camp counselor, this comment on bones of fire didn’t have a profound effect on me but it did stick in my mind for its strangeness.

Parallel to this season, I had committed myself to reading the whole Bible. It wasn’t until a few months after the summer was over that I came across this piece of scripture:

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Jeremiah‬ ‭20:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬

When I laid my eyes on that for the first time, it was like a bolt of lightning struck me with understanding. You see, John had neatly sidestepped the conversation about silly super powers and brought the thunder with a real one.

The book of Jeremiah, where this verse is located, was written by a young man the Lord called to service. He wasn’t great and he had no love for public speaking. Often, he was known for crying in public, coming to be known as the “weeping prophet.” On the charisma scale, this guy had probably a 2 out of 10. He did have one thing, though, that all of the other prophets did not: he had the word of the Lord.

Now, in those days, the Bible had not been completed and prophetic words and signs were useful to God as a way to warn His people and to reclaim their attention from false gods. Unfortunately for the prophetic messenger, these words of God were rarely well received and often ignored. The messenger usually ended up being tortured, punished, or killed for speaking them. While all the other prophets were busy spreading false words from false gods, Jeremiah was hearing from the Lord. God knew of the sinfulness and hatred that would come against Jeremiah and warned him that this would happen.

“And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.”” Jeremiah‬ ‭1:18-19‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Today, fortunately, we have the completed Bible. All of the works of the prophets have come to pass. The Lamb of God, that the is the Christ who was prophesied to be slain, has been slain and resurrected. The good news of the Gospel has been preached and explained and written down. And, the final revelation has been given to us so that we can know and be prepared for the day which is still to come, the great day of the Lord.

But here’s my point… when you read the Bible, you are consuming the Word of God. Today, we no longer have to receive signs and visions to know what God says because we have access to the Word of God itself. (You can read about why we can trust the Bible as the word of God here). As you study what God says and spend time with Him in prayer and meditation, you’ll grow deeper in your faith and understanding. You’ll begin to find that your thoughts start to shift more and more towards the eternal things and the mysteries of God. You’ll really start to understand that God redeeming us even when we didn’t deserve anything but hell is the best news that could ever be given. You’ll start to feel like you need to tell someone about it. After a while, your faith will become like a fire, shut up in your bones.

I didn’t understand what having bones of fire meant back then. I don’t really think it’s a super power either. When it comes down to it, though, I can only hope that the fire continues to burn and that I don’t try to hide it within me, lest it burn me up. I hope the same for you as well. May we all have Bones of Fire.

If the Bible has been translated so many times, how can we even trust it?

Some faith traditions believe that any translation of the holy scripture strips it of its credibility. The belief is that only the words in their original form can possibly be holy, carrying their full divine message. Unlike other religions, Christians believe that their holy text can be translated from its original language without losing its inerrancy. This belief relies on the message remaining intact in spite of the actual, textual words used. With this stipulation in mind, translators have worked for centuries doing their best to work out the true essence of the original writings of scripture and put them into words that can be understood by the next generation.

A short history of the Bible

What many English speakers don’t understand is that their copy of the Bible is 100% translated text. The Bible is not simply a book, rather it’s a library, made up of several books, all written in different languages by different authors. Excluding the Apocrypha, the Bible is made up of 66 books written over hundreds of years in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Over time, the Bible was translated into Latin and was primarily read in this language up until the Middle Ages. Even though Latin fell from the lips of men as a spoken and written language, the Bible remained only in this language. This made it accessible to just the Roman Catholic clergy because they were the only ones who could speak and read it.

Unfortunately for believers everywhere, this was a bad thing. Since only a few had access to and knowledge of the Word of God, the Word became hidden from man. Eventually, through the efforts of people like Erasmus, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, and others, the Bible was translated into updated Latin and later to common German and eventually English. These men felt that not only can the Bible be translated into other languages, it must be. If every tribe, tongue, and nation will be represented in heaven and salvation comes through hearing the Word, then clearly God intended for his message to go out to the ends of the earth in everyday language.

Considerations in translation

What these scholars learned in translating the Bible is that words have a tricky way of meaning multiple things. Also, when moving across languages, sometimes a word exists in one where an entire phrase would be needed to communicate the same idea in the other. This can leave the translator with a serious problem. Should they try to be as precise as possible in the actual definition of the words or should they try to communicate the message in an understandable way that is more like the way people speak? Also, what happens in one or two hundred years when the way people speak has changed so much that your translation sounds old and nobody wants to read it?

The answers to these questions lead us to the point we’re at today in America. There is a list of English Bible translations as long as my arm, each rooted in the original manuscripts. Thanks to biblical scholars working hard to keep up with modern language, we can read God’s Word comfortably and breathe in the richness of the story without having to get a doctorate in Ancient Greek or Hebrew.

But can you trust them?

One thing that would worry me is something I will call “translation creep”. If you translate a text from one language and then to another and then again, all using the previous version as the base for translation, you will eventually get to a point where the text no longer resembles the original writing. Think of this like a centuries long game of telephone. Fortunately, this is not what happens in biblical translation. Instead, the Bible has continually been re-translated from the same original texts and manuscripts, preventing it from experiencing translation creep.

Additionally, there are millions of copies of the Bible in existence today, and the side by side comparison between translations is often more like seeing two ways to say the same thing. This makes it extremely difficult to mislead people through tampering or misinformation within the text. Since a simple cross reference is within reach, tampering would be hard to get away with over a long period of time or across a wide range of people. If someone really wanted to mislead people about Christianity, the easiest way would be to get them to ignore the Bible altogether.

For this reason, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Bible and read it. Read it for pleasure. Study it for understanding. Neglecting to read scripture is the first step in forgetting who God is. Reading it is the first step to gaining wisdom.

Appendix: A short guide to choosing which translation to read

With so many versions out there, it’s helpful to understand what some of them are before deciding which one to pick up. Fortunately, the variety of methods for translation has led to some incredibly useful and captivating translations of scripture. Reading multiple translations of the same text can lead to much greater levels of understanding. Even paraphrases like The Message Bible (MSG) can be useful from time to time when the soul of a piece of text eludes you.

The most popular, and my wife’s favorite, translation is the New International Version (NIV). This translation is well rounded, with a very even blend of word for word literal translation and more commonly spoken words and phrases.

The King James Version (KJV), formerly the most popular bible in america, is the classic translation most people think of when the think about Christianity. This translation was commissioned in the 1600’s by King James and was modeled after Shakespearean English. It was intended to be a very elegant and accurate translation and it achieved that. However, it’s not easy for us to read today and comprehension is difficult.

My personal favorite is the New Living Translation (NLT). This version is a little bit lighter on the direct literal translation and a little heavier on the essential (essence) translation. This really makes the poetry of the Bible come alive.

My second favorite is the English Standard Version (ESV). This version was intended to be as word for word literal as possible. I find this version very useful for study and it was the translation I used the first time I read all the way through the Bible.

Recently, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) was updated again to become the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). Both are excellent choices and take a strong stab at literal translation with an eye to commonly spoken English. If you want a more readable version, go with the CSB. This edition came out in the last year and is among the most modern translations of Christian text.

If you really want to have some fun, The Scripture 2009 (TS2009) doesn’t try to decide between literal and essential translation. Where certain words don’t exist in English, this version leaves them in their original form! If you’ve ever wanted to do a word study or wanted to feel like a scholar, then this translation is for you. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to read for comprehension.

There are still others, I could go on. But the point is, the Bible is still alive today with updates being made as scholars and scientists discover more corroborating ancient texts or errors made in translations of the past.

 

The Tetragrammaton

In Christianity, believers share in the concept that there is but one true God. This belief, known as monotheism, states that not only is the God the only God, all others claiming deity are false. Either they are simply made up or they are some lesser being claiming worship that is not due them. Christians, and Jews, have identified this true God, the one above all others, as YHWH.

This unpronounceable word, often rendered Yahweh or Jehovah, helps us identify who we claim as the only true God: “He Who Is” or “He Who Brings Being into Being”. The name YHWH helps us connect the God of Moses to Jesus, both having claimed the title, “I Am”. Further, the Name begins to introduce believers to the theology of a triune god (One being with three persons) since one of its claimants (Jesus) indicates the presence of the other two when he commands his disciples to pray in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The identity of our Lord is important for every Christian to be familiar with. By using the name, YHWH, we recognize not only the deity we worship but also declare that no other is sufficient for worship. We observe that others have come and gone, having challenged the Lord with their own lordships, and still the Name Above All Names persists, lending even further credit to the identity, I Am that I Am. Finally, we establish that our God is not the creation of a first century cult but actually the God of the Jews having come to fulfill the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as to David, Solomon, and the Prophets.

This is worthy of praise, that our Lord should see fit to honor us with His name, providing clarity for his identity and establishing his eternal presence. In the name of YHWH, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, give thanks that you know who your God is, worshiping with glad spirit. For today is a good day to be in the Courts of YHWH.