THE ARK of the COVENANT

I will meet with you there and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel. [Exodus 25:22 (NLT)]

Mt. Rigi crossYesterday’s devotion about Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant raises the questions of what was in it and what became of it. Constructed by the Israelites during the exodus, the Ark held the unbroken tablets of the Ten Commandments (representing God’s law), a golden pot of manna (representing God’s love and provision), and Aaron’s rod that miraculously budded (representing God’s power and leadership). Built in Mt. Sinai and carried all the way to Canaan, nearly 500 years passed before it finally found its home in Solomon’s temple. By the time the temple was built and Solomon brought it into the innermost chamber, only the stone tablets remained.

A thing of beauty, the Ark’s design was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Constructed of acacia wood, it was 3.9 feet long by 2.3 feet both high and wide. It was plated, inside and out, with pure gold. On the bottom of the box, there were four gold rings through which two long poles could be inserted. Also made of acacia and coated in gold, it was by these poles that the priests carried the Ark. Covering the box was the atonement cover or Mercy Seat. Made of one piece of solid gold, it was hammered into the shape of two cherubim on each end. Facing one another, their wings were extended and touched. If we wonder how a people who had been enslaved for over 400 years had gold enough for a golden calf let alone this golden box, we should remember that Israel “stripped the Egyptians of their wealth” [Exodus 12:36] and took their clothing, silver and gold. In a bit of holy irony, the same gold and precious stones that adorned their captors and embellished Egyptian idols was used to make the Ark and outfit the Tabernacle.

As far as we know, the Ark remained in the Temple until Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. Whether it was destroyed, captured, or hidden then, nobody knows; its whereabouts have been debated for centuries. The Babylonians made detailed lists of their plunder and the Ark is not listed. The Ark simply disappeared and there is no mention of it when Zerubabbel rebuilt the Temple upon the Jews’ return from captivity. When Pompey conquered Jerusalem and entered the Temple in 63 BC, he reported that its inner sanctuary was just an empty room.

One Midrash in the Talmud states that King Josiah anticipated Jerusalem’s invasion and buried the Ark in a vault under the wood storehouse on the Temple Mount. Since that site is now home to the Dome of the Rock, a sacred Islamic shrine, archeologists have not been able to search there. According to Maimonides, King Solomon foresaw the eventual destruction of the Temple and set aside a cave near the Dead Sea for its protection and that is where Josiah hid the Ark. The Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees claims that Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave on Mt. Nebo and its location “shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy,” leading some Jews to believe it won’t be found until the Messiah comes. Some Ethiopian Christians assert that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. They claim it is in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion and guarded by a monk known as the “Keeper of the Ark.” No one has been allowed to see it and it’s never been studied for authenticity. In 1982, an amateur archeologist, Ron Wyatt, claimed to have found the Ark beneath Golgotha and that Jesus’s blood dripped through a fissure in the rock onto it. No one, however, ever saw it and Wyatt’s many dubious claims have been thoroughly discredited by both professional archaeologists and respected Biblical scholars. Contrary to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’m pretty sure this divine relic is not shut up in a box and stored in the recesses of a government warehouse.

Under the Old Covenant, the Ark was a sign of God’s presence among His people. Under the New Covenant, God’s law, love, provision, leadership and power are no longer contained in a box; they are found in Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God doesn’t reside in the inner room of the Temple; He is in the hearts of all believers!

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NLT)]

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ICONS AND IDOLS

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” [1 Samuel 4:3b (NLT)]

Madonna and child - NetherlandsSorting through cabinets, I came across a video of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I recall, archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones was authorized by the government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s Nazis could obtain its supernatural powers and dominate the world. Indiana was told that the Bible speaks of the Ark’s power to level mountains, lay waste to entire regions, and that any army carrying the Ark is invincible.

The only other Indiana Jones movie I remember is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like its predecessor, it had equally poor Biblical history and theology. Indiana again found himself up against the Nazis when his father disappeared while pursuing the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper). Since drinking water from the chalice would grant immortality, the Nazis wanted to possess it.

Of course, we should never get our religious education from popular movies. As for an army being invincible when carrying the Ark, the opposite actually happened. Thinking God’s power was in the Ark, the Israelites carried it into battle and were defeated by the Philistines; 30,000 of their soldiers died and the Ark was captured. As for drinking from the Holy Grail, the disciples all drank from it and they all died. Belief in Jesus is the only way to gain eternal life.

While it seems silly to think that merely possessing the real Ark would bring world domination or that drinking water from a cup used by Jesus would bring immortality, the Israelites made the same mistake of venerating some of God’s things rather than God. Instead of reminding them who to worship, objects like the bronze serpent became what was worshipped. When approaching Canaan for the second time, the impatient Israelites spoke against God and Moses. In judgment, God sent poisonous serpents into their camp. As people began to die, the people confessed their sin, and begged for mercy. God then commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, telling him that all who looked at it would be healed. The Bible makes no more mention of Moses’ bronze serpent until some 700 years later when King Hezekiah began to rule Judah. When he eradicated idolatry throughout the country, Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent because people had started to worship it rather than God. Instead of being a symbol of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing, the bronze serpent became an idol.

Power comes from God, not from things. Central to the Israelites’ faith, the Ark was a sign of God’s covenant with them. Even though it symbolized a holy pledge, the Ark was no more worthy of worship than a rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with Noah. Although it contained precious relics, it had no more power than does my jewelry box. The Holy Grail had no more power than my coffee cup and the bronze serpent possessed no more power than the bandage on my knee.

None of those items were graven images nor were they made to be idols and yet people turned them into objects of worship. While we have no ancient artifacts tempting us, let us never make the error of turning respect for a religious symbol into the worship of it. While worthy of reverence, the cross in the sanctuary or on the chain around one’s neck, the Communion chalice, a statue of Mary or picture of Jesus, dried palms from Palm Sunday, or a mezuzah at the doorway have no more power than a rabbit’s foot or a lucky penny. While they may aid in prayer or worship, salvation comes from God—not from any of His things!

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

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A WORKER’S PRAYER

For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. [Romans 14:7 (NLT)]

Lord, speak to us, that we may speak in living echoes of your tone; … Oh, lead us, Lord, that we may lead… Oh, feed us, Lord, that we may feed… Oh, teach us, Lord, that we may teach The precious truths which you impart;… [Frances Havergal]

campionAt last Sunday’s worship, we sang Frances Havergal’s beautiful hymn “Lord, Speak to Us, That We May Speak.” First published in 1872, the hymn originally had the heading “A Worker’s Prayer,” and made reference to Romans 14:7: “none of us lives to himself alone.” It is a simple prayer that God will speak to, lead, feed, teach and fill us so that He can use us in the service of His kingdom. Busyness had taken over my days and, having fallen behind in my writing, my supply of devotions was running dangerously low. Indeed, I needed Him to speak to me so that I could speak!

As we sang Ms. Havergal’s straight-forward and expectant prayer, I felt the Spirit’s convicting voice. Rather than prayers asking God to speak, lead, feed, teach, or fill me, I’d simply been pleading for more time to get everything done that needed to be done. I realized my problem wasn’t lack of time, but how I was spending that time. We certainly can’t hear the news without turning on the TV, learn French without attending class, get to a new destination without consulting the GPS, be nourished without sitting down to eat, or recharge our phones without plugging them in! How can we expect God to speak to us, let alone lead, feed, teach or fill us without spending quality time in prayer or taking the time to read more than a few Bible verses? Yet, that is exactly what I’d been doing. I recalled the words of Martin Luther who, when asked what his plans for the day were, is supposed to have replied, “Work, work, from morning until late at night. I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” I came to understand that, by putting God at the top of my day’s “to-do” list, I’d be more productive rather than less.

Last Sunday’s sermon was about fulfilling our God-given purpose of communicating the hope and love we have in Jesus and, while all Christians share that purpose, the way we fulfill it differs from person to person. Nevertheless, none of us can accomplish God’s purpose without His speaking to, leading, feeding, teaching and filling us! He’s more than willing to do His part; the problem comes on the receiving end—we must be available to listen, follow, eat, learn and receive. Often, we’re not! So distracted by the business and busyness of life, God ceases to be our priority.

Havergal’s hymn is, indeed, a worker’s prayer. As we submit our lives in worship and service to God, let our morning prayers echo her beautiful words: “Oh, fill us with your fullness, Lord, Until our very hearts o’erflow In kindling thought and glowing word, Your love to tell, your praise to show.”

It’s not enough to splash a little prayer on in the morning or to run through a sprinkler of God’s mercy now and then. It’s not enough to double our spirits in an hour of worship on Sunday or to dash into a drizzle of teaching every month or so. Our souls need to soak in God’s presence. It’s no luxury, this time we spend in the healing waters of God’s grace. It’s neither excess nor indulgence to immerse ourselves in communion with our creator. It’s a spiritual necessity if we want to become the people God has created us to be. [Penelope J. Stokes]

Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food. Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, and you will find life. [Isaiah 55:2-3a (NLT)]

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THE CANON

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

kildeerTwo days ago, when writing about the prodigal son, I used a scripture verse from Sirach found in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE). Also known as Ecclesiasticus, this book of wisdom was written by Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, between 200–175 BC and is part of the Apocrypha. Primarily written in the 400 years between Malachi and the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, the books of the Apocrypha include Sirach, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel. While the nation of Israel was familiar with these writings and treated them with respect (which is why I used the verse), they never considered any of them as true books of the Hebrew Bible.

Evidence that the Jews never considered these books to be “divine doctrine” is found in the writings of the Jewish priest and scholar Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD). Explaining that the contents of the Hebrew Bible were written between the time of Moses and the days of Persian’s King Artaxerxes I (465 to 424 BC), he listed the books considered to be divinely inspired by God and none of the apocryphal books were named. Since a typical Hebrew Bible combines books like the Minor Prophets, Ezra with Nehemiah, Jeremiah with Lamentations, and the two books each of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles into single books, Josephus listed only 22 books. Nevertheless, his twenty-two are the same as the 39 Old Testament books found in the Protestant Bible.

Because neither Jesus nor the Apostles made any reference to any of the apocryphal books, most Christians believe them to be far less significant than the 39 books of the Old Testament. Some, however, do contain valuable historical information. For example, the books of Maccabees give a detailed account of the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers to free Judah from foreign rule (167 to 134 BC). It is in Maccabees, with the cleaning and dedication of the Temple and relighting of the menorah, that we learn why Jews celebrate Hanukkah every year. Unfortunately, there also is much in these books that is inaccurate (such as Judith naming Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar as the king of the Assyrians) and some false teachings (such as the forgiveness of sins through almsgiving and a command to use magic in Tobit).

The list of Biblical books accepted as authoritative for faith because they were divinely inspired by God is known as the canon. Since a wide assortment of writings circulated in the early church, many of which were counterfeit, inauthentic, and even heretical, it became necessary to determine which works were genuine and which mixed truth with fiction or were completely false. While there is no definitive date when church canon was determined, the effort to determine it began as early as 170 AD with the Muratorian Canon. By 250, there was nearly universal agreement on the canon of the Old Testament. In 363, the Council of Laodicea affirmed all but the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It was in 367 that Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, provided a list (including Revelation) of the universally accepted 66 books that we still think of as the Protestant Bible. Although the Bishop listed several Apocryphal books as worthwhile reading, he noted that none should be combined with the rest of Scripture.

While none of the Apocrypha is part of the Protestant canon, twelve of its books are considered canonical Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church. It was at the Council of Trent (1546-1563) that the Roman Catholic Church ratified them as part of their canon. While some Bibles, such as the RSV, may include the Apocrypha in a separate section, the Catholic edition of the RSV has those same books mixed in with the Old Testament.

Since it is not the inspired Word of God, the book of Sirach, like the rest of the Apocrypha, is not part of the recognized canon of Scripture. Although the apocryphal books have some historical/cultural significance, they do not possess the qualities of divinely inspired Scripture. While it’s easy to think that the canon was determined by man, we must remember that no man determined what books belong in the Christian canon any more than any man determined what was written in those books. It was God who inspired their writing and it was God who gave men the ability to discern what words were God-breathed. It is those 66 God-breathed books of the Bible that equip us for a life of service and faith.

These are the wells of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add to these. Let nothing be taken away. [Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, regarding the 66 books of the canon]

Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. [Colossians 2:8 (NLT)]

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FINAL DESTINATION

I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, “Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.” And do you know what I am going to say? “You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.” [Matthew 7:22-23 (MSG)]

While speaking of salvation, our pastor suggested that there are four kinds of people we might find in any church. While sure of their salvation, the people in the first group are not secure in it. It’s not that they’ve lost their salvation; they never had it! Often called nominal or cultural Christians, their faith is in religion rather than Jesus and they mistake sitting in a church pew for having a relationship with God. Thinking they can purchase their ticket on the glory train with money or works, Christianity is an insurance policy for the hereafter rather than anything affecting heart or soul. They don’t understand that looking like a Christ follower, even with impressive God talk and charitable acts, isn’t the same as being one. There is a vast difference between true faith and false professions.

The second group is made up of people who know that, because they don’t believe, they’re not saved. They know about Jesus and believe He existed but they neither believe nor disbelieve that Jesus is the Son of God and sacrificed His life in atonement for their sins. Because they’re unsure about God and Jesus and unwilling to commit to Christ, they’re not secure in their salvation. These fence sitters, however, have an advantage over the first group; at least they won’t be surprised on Judgment Day!

Although secure in their salvation, the third group remains unsure of it. Unable to be sinless and perfectly obedient, they doubt their salvation. There’s a lurking fear that, if they fail or disappoint God, He won’t welcome them through those Pearly Gates. Wondering how their sins truly can be forgiven, they can’t get their heads around God’s amazing grace. At times, I think even the firmest believer has moments of insecurity when we fear God’s power, wrath and rejection. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives strengthens and reassures them. In spite of their fears, Jesus will know them when the time comes.

The fourth group is both sure of their salvation and secure in it; they know that Jesus has put their names on His guest list. This group, however, must be cautious. There’s another group equally sure of their salvation who Jesus won’t know when they come to the Heavenly Gate.

While we can be wrong about going to San Francisco or Paris, we don’t want to be wrong about our eternal destination. Missing the train to Chicago isn’t the same as missing the glory train to Heaven! Which group are you in? Will Jesus know your name?

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile. [Billy Sunday]

God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him! [Romans 8:16-17 (MSG)]

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IN ALL THINGS

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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