The Incredible Message

I admit that I have been wrestling with a big question. Why would God entrust the message of “Salvation” for the entire world to such a small group of followers? Spreading the news to every person on earth, in my view, is an impossible task.

Then I ask another question. Why was the message not there from the beginning? The Old Testament pointed to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. In other words, the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs had an incomplete message. However, it must have been sufficient.

We read in the New Testament that even the angels are amazed by the message of “Redemption.” Those who benefit from a knowledge of Christ are of all people on earth most blessed and even celestial beings acknowledge this truth.

So why the incomplete message, in the Old Testament? And why the partial knowledge among people groups of the world, historically, and in the present?

What greater message than the possibility that our sins can be forgiven and we can begin a new, guilt-free life? Why withhold or obscure this message? This is a really big question for me, and, as I usually do, I lay it before God and wait for an answer.

Today, as I was reading in the book of Luke, I began to get a glimpse of understanding. I read about Peter leaving his great catch of fish and following Jesus. Earlier Jesus spent some time speaking to the people on the shore from where he was, in Peter’s boat, before he told Peter to cast his net in the water. Peter explained to Jesus that fishing had been futile that day. He still did as he was told. He had nothing to lose. The catch he drew caused Peter to fall down in worship before Christ. This is our response when we encounter the supernatural, unfathomable provision of God.

The provision of God is something we can’t make happen. We can only be open to it.

I have sought God in conventional and unconventional ways. In fact, it has been my mission in life to know God. This has turned out to be the most stimulating and rewarding search. Because of my fabulous journey, I am particularly concerned about the message getting out. I want everyone on earth to have the same opportunity.

As I ponder the message, and the distribution of the message, and the reception of the message, my mind goes to another problem and this is the matter of “predestination.” So much ink has been spilt on this topic, I’m not going to belabour it. But we have to ask, are there some people who will be “saved” because it was “predestined from the beginning”?

In the early chapters of Luke, I saw references to “angels”, the “Holy Spirit”, the “devil”, “sickness”–which Jesus healed, and “demons” he cast out. I say this because I am made aware that we are not just dealing with a message. We are dealing with resistance, too. We are informed of a “spiritual” realm where there are spiritual beings, in opposition to one another. There is a confrontation. Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, God, and the angels, are on one side. The devil, demons, imperfection, oppression, sickness and evil are on the other.

There is opposition, not only to the message, but to the delivery, which makes it even more amazing that the spreading of the message was entrusted to so few.

I have noted that shepherds learned about the birth of Christ through the supernatural message of angels. The wise men who came from the east, followed a star, also a supernatural phenomenon. Herod, the king, was so threatened by the message conveyed to him by the wise men–the possibility of the birth of another king–that he ordered all of the newborns in the district killed. Note that this was foretold, prophetically in the Old Testament: “Rachel” would not be comforted because of the loss of her children. This raises another question, concerning the justice of God. Why did these mothers endure such sorrow, as a consequence of the birth of Christ? This story also reminds us of the birth of another “deliverer”–Moses. The Pharaoh of Egypt sent out an edict to have babies of Israelite mothers killed. Ironically, the “deliverer” was raised in the royal household, right under the Pharaoh’s nose.

From this I learn that, 1) sometimes the message is spread supernaturally, and, 2) the message and the messenger will be interpreted as a threat and fiercely resisted in some corners. The most radical evidence of this resistance is the crucifixion of Christ.

Every healing, every miracle, every true word spoken, by Christ, was a confrontation. I fail to comprehend the need to crucify the most loving, generous and wise person that walked the earth. It is so paradoxical–the need to kill the “Savior.” We can only understand this within the context of true evil. We are told it was because of “envy” that they delivered him up to be crucified. Jesus Christ was going to displace the thing they relied on, weak and faulty as it was. But that is the nature of deception. It does not see what really is.

God is able, and sometimes chooses, to spread the word without the assistance of mere humans. However, it is through the “foolishness of preaching” that we often receive the message, implying that talking about the message is a very imperfect form of communication. It is still essential, however, and we are encouraged to spread the word verbally. The apostle Paul, probably the greatest preacher of the message of Christ, claims he did not come in man’s wisdom, but in humility, recognizing his inadequacy, and total dependence on the “demonstration of power” that would accompany the message. This demonstration, I might add, is sadly lacking in Christian contexts today.

Jesus’ miracles of provision, of casting out demons, and of healing the sick, were demonstrations of the power of God at work. Jesus knew people would struggle with the message, so he pointed them to his ministry–the evidence of the power of God at work.

God at work. That is what we see. That is the message.

God is not willing that any should perish, the Bible tells us. The gift of salvation–the forgiveness of sins— is extended to all.

We tend to make Christianity complicated. The scriptures are profitable for correction and instruction in right living. From the beginning we were intended to live a life free from fear, a life of worship towards God and care for our fellow human beings, a life that is at peace with our God-given conscience.

This begs the question, can we be saved without a knowledge of Christ?

When people do not receive the message of Christ delivered to them, can they still be saved?

Salvation is restoration to a relationship with God, our creator, through forgiveness of sins, and the embarking on a new life. I may be wrong in this, but I think it is possible to believe in God without a knowledge of Christ, as we see in the Old Testament. But when Christ is introduced, the believer will recognize Christ as God.

The Bible says, “All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” It also says, “demons also believe, and tremble.” So, it is insufficient to merely acknowledge the message. One must engage with the message, as a believer. The Israelites who looked on the serpent Moses lifted up on a post, were healed from the plague. They accepted the hope and deliverance offered to them. This was a symbol of what was to come, Christ lifted up on the cross, for the healing of many.

In the book of Luke the crowds initially heard Jesus gladly, but then the people turned on him. It happened after he told them about the healing of Naaman and God’s provision for a widow during a time of drought. There were many other lepers, at the time, who were not healed, and many other widows who were not provided for in the same way. When Jesus pointed this out to the people, it incited their rage. I don’t fully understand why, but it could be for the same reason people react negatively towards the message today. They think all should be healed and provided for.

It seems that God is not troubled by the fact that only Naaman was healed and only one widow was helped. And he apparently is not overly disturbed by the fact that only a few will be saved. This is a fascinating thought to consider. We might be tempted to say God is unjust. And by what standard of judgment would we declare this? Only by the one we have derived from our limited understanding of justice and of God, as revealed, primarily, in the Bible. Be angry at God, if you will. Lift your fist in his face. Tell him he is wrong. Tell him he is unjust. He will still choose whom he pleases.

So, when he chooses us, we fall on our face before him, like Peter. Maybe we think to ourselves, at first, this probably won’t work. We’ve already fished all day and caught nothing. But we have nothing left to lose. And then the wonder happens.

Jesus, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Living Water. He is the missing element of sustenance we need in our lives. He will come and abide with us, live in us, by his Holy Spirit. He will guide us–He is light. He will nourish us–He is bread. He will quench our thirst--He is water for our souls.

“To whom shall we go, for you have the words of life,” Peter declared to Christ. He believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and Jesus’ response to Peter, as we read in Matthew chapter sixteen, was, “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” The message, ultimately, is revealed, supernaturally.

We may participate in the distribution of the message, but God ultimately takes responsibility for the revelation.

Killed for Gathering Sticks

Numbers 15:17-16:40

It was going to be a test.  A showdown. The children of Israel, we are told, in Numbers 15:32, found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. They brought him to Moses, because they knew this activity was forbidden in God’s law.

Moses and Aaron secured the man, not yet sure what was to be done. Then the Lord spoke to Moses and told him the man should be stoned to death, by the congregation, outside the camp.

I thought of the possible reasons this man was gathering sticks. Maybe he was bored, or restless. Maybe his wife sent him out to gather sticks for a fire. Maybe he wanted some warmth later in the day.

I was looking at the human element. I imagined the stoning. I visualized people picking up stones and the man turning to his friends and family, imploring them to intervene, to have mercy, to plead his case. The stones thudded against his flesh, again, and again, until he slumped over, and died.

This was the reality. We sometimes don’t let ourselves into what it was like to be there. I, personally, would rather not think about the details of that day. However, it is in the Bible, and I need to grapple with this story.

At first I was angry. It seemed so unjust to me, such an excessive and extreme punishment for a little thing like picking up sticks. I considered rejecting a God who was, to my sensitivities, so harsh, and, seemingly unfair. But, for me, this was not an option. Long ago I decided that indeed His thoughts are above my thoughts, and his ways are above my ways. So I asked for an explanation.

I was reading out of my One Year Bible which has daily portions selected from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs.

In the past I might have succumbed to a black or white, fundamentalist perspective, believing that I must simply accept what God does and says as good and right and disregard my fears and feelings. However, I now understand that my reaction is significant. It reveals things about me and my relationship with God and his word.

It only took a moment before other thoughts came to me. The first was, this man, undeniably knew that picking up sticks on the Sabbath was forbidden by God. The law had been very clearly presented to the Israelite congregation. Therefore his actions were clearly willful disobedience.

I began to see that if there was no consequence, then either the commandment meant nothing, or God could be defied.

I also saw that this incident was public knowledge and was going to set a precedent.

People were watching. The effectiveness of the law was on trial. How the case was handled would be extremely significant, given that the commandment originated with God.

Essentially, God was on trial, and I’m sure two questions were burning in the hearts of the Israelites, from the beginning, just as they burn in our hearts today. Who is this God? How does he respond to his people, particularly when they rebel?

I noted that if there had not been a command, then a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath would be of no consequence to anyone. But this was the crux of the matter. There was a command. And the command came from God.

One more thing, Moses was the guardian of the law. As the leader of the nation of Israel, he was responsible to enforce the law and mete out consequences for disobedience. It was not an enviable position. In the next chapter we read of a coup attempt.

Levite priests, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, along with two hundred and fifty supporters, “princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown” (Numbers 16:3 King James Version), protested against Moses and Aaron. They claimed that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; (why do you lift yourselves) above the congregation of the Lord?” (v. 3). It was an all-out revolt against authority.

Gathering sticks on the Sabbath set in motion a whole series of events. It revealed the hearts of the leaders of Israel. The accusation was not new to Moses. “Who made you a ruler and a judge?” was hurled at him when he tried to break up a fight between two Israelites (Exodus 2:14).

Moses was no different, as a man. But he was anointed by God and this set him apart. God warns,Touch not the Lord’s anointed, and do his prophets no harm” (1 Chronicles 16:22, Psalm 105:15).

It is common to resist any type of authority or restraint. In fact, we might produce the argument that all Christians are anointed and we are all equal.

Who are you to tell me what to do? We don’t like your virtue signaling. You are no different from the rest of us.

I believe this passage bears out that not every anointing is on the same level. Some carry greater responsibility. Some are subject to others. Some can even be abused.

I just want to clarify that Jesus came to fulfill the law and to exchange the heavy burden of the Old Testament law for a lighter, easy yoke. When his disciples were criticized by religious leaders for “threshing” on the Sabbath, as they plucked and ate grain in the field, Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He abolished the tradition of stoning, when a woman was caught in adultery and brought to him. He demanded that those without sin cast the first stone.

The law serves the purpose of revealing the nature of man. We tend to resist authority. Ultimately we need a new nature. Jesus came to give this newness of life to us through faith in him. But Jesus never gave us license to disobey or defy God.

The question, Who made you a judge would be better replaced by, Who gave humans a standard of righteousness? We have a tendency to shoot the messenger when we are really rebelling against the message which originates with God.

By this time there should not have been any doubt in the minds of the people concerning the authority of Moses. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. God gave the law to Moses and revealed to him the pattern for the tabernacle and the rituals of worship. Moses’ face shone with the glory of God when he came from his presence. But the Levites, who served in the tabernacle, and the princes of Israel seemed to have forgotten all of this.

Moses told the people to separate themselves “from the tents of these wicked men” (v. 26). The ground opened and swallowed them and their families and closed again. A fire ignited and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who held censors with incense. God spare the rest of the congregation because of the intercession of Moses and Aaron.

The next portion for the day in my One Year Bible reading, is the story of the crucifixion of Christ. I see a clear parallel in the attitude of the religious leaders who could not accept the authority of Christ and demanded his death. Jesus Christ was crucified. However, he rose from the dead, victorious over the demons of hell. Have no doubt, Satan, the deceiver and destroyer, is behind this rebellion.

I read somewhere, recently, (I apologize for forgetting the source) that Jesus was not crucified because he was good, but because he presented something new. I don’t concur. In fact, I strongly resist this message. It was precisely because he was good, and because he upheld a high standard, and because he claimed to be God, that he was crucified. This message, today, is no longer “new” and it is still being resisted just as strongly.

So, yes, God was just in putting to death those who defied his Godhead. And he forever will be.

What changed after Easter?

We have just celebrated Easter, the resurrection of Christ. What is the significance of the coming of Christ to earth? What changed after Easter?

The answer is found in the Bible. The significance of Christ appears in the Old Testament as well as the New. A great deal of richness is lost if one does not know the “back story.” There are many layers of truth to be uncovered, not unlike an archeological dig. I find the process fascinating.

I had a small insight concerning Christ in my devotional time this morning. My reading was from the book of Ezekiel, portions of chapters 42-44. In these chapters instructions are given for sacrificial purification. One very marked historical difference after Easter is the discontinuation of sacrifices in the Jewish tradition for those who called themselves disciples of Christ, later known as Christians.

Animal sacrifice for cleansing from sin and atonement of guilt were prescribed by God after the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, were delivered by Moses from slavery in Egypt. In chapter 42 of Ezekiel we read of the necessity to make “…a separation between the holy and the common.” Throughout the Bible we are reminded of the holiness and righteousness of God and we see him at work to make a way for an unholy and unrighteous people to approach him. “I will accept you,” he declares in Ezekial 43, when the conditions of sacrifice are met.

This ritual of sacrifice was a considerable burden for the nation of Israel. If the people were straying from God, one of the first signs was the forsaking of sacrifices or the profaning of  sacrifices by disregarding instructions.

Jesus is metaphorically referred to as the “lamb of God,” because he came to put an end to animal sacrifice. He became the final and perfect sacrifice for sin. When Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness there was an occasion when God sent poisonous snakes among them to punish them for their disobedience. Moses, according to God’s instruction, made a serpent of brass and fastened it to a pole and lifted it up for the people to see. Anyone who looked at the snake could be healed (Numbers 21). Just like the snake-bitten Israelites in the wilderness were saved on the day when they looked at the serpent, so anyone today can be forgiven, healed of their sin by looking at Jesus their Saviour. It is so simple.

What stood out for me in my reading was the fact that God’s attitude towards sin has not changed. He still separates the holy and the common. Another translation says, “the holy and the profane.” Forgiveness through Christ is a remedy for sin and disobedience. It is never an excuse to continue in our snake-bitten, and poisoned condition.

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23