THE KINGDOM

One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” Luke 17:20-21

holy name cathedralDepending on your Bible translation, the Kingdom of God is mentioned at least 68 times in the New Testament. Rather than “Kingdom of God,” Matthew usually used “Kingdom of Heaven.” All four gospels, however, are speaking of the same place. Matthew was a Jew and primarily writing for a Jewish audience. While we tend to interpret the third commandment about not misusing the Lord’s name to mean not using it irreverently, Jews have a much stricter interpretation. Believing God’s name too sacred to say aloud, by the 1st century, His name wasn’t even written or spoken in anything but prayer. Even today, many observant Jews substitute “G-d” rather than write the full name.

Because Jesus continually preached the Kingdom of God (or Heaven), the Pharisees asked Him when it would come. Like the rest of Judah, they were thinking of a materialistic kingdom—one with boundaries and a Jewish ruler—so they missed what was happening in front of them. Looking for a political rather than a spiritual fix, they couldn’t understand that the Kingdom had arrived and God was busy restoring it.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees sounds like He’s saying the Kingdom is present and yet He also told His disciples to pray for its coming. Rather than an involved theological explanation to explain a kingdom that was both here and pending, Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed that was planted in a field but hadn’t matured into its future glory. The Kingdom was “already” because believers were taking part in building it but it also was “not yet” because it wouldn’t reach its full expression until the future. To further explain the Kingdom, Jesus used a number of metaphors: a farmer scattering seed, yeast in dough, a fishing net, a merchant in search of fine pearls, treasure in a field, a king settling his accounts, a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard, a king’s wedding feast for his son, ten bridesmaids meeting the bridegroom, and a landowner with tenant farmers. Even then, His own disciples were still thinking of an earthly kingdom when they asked the resurrected Jesus, “has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” [Acts 1:6]

The Kingdom of God is not about going to heaven when we die; it’s about bringing God’s kingdom to earth. We pray, “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” [Matthew 6:10] God is king of everything and everyone and, when He reigns in our hearts and minds, His Kingdom is already here. At the same time, His Kingdom is not yet here until its full realization when paradise is re-created in the New Jerusalem.

The Messiah has accomplished the work of redemption, the Spirit has been poured out, yet evil has not been eradicated, the general resurrection is still future, and the final state of God’s kingdom has not been established. In other words, the new era has begun–has been inaugurated–but it has not yet replaced the old era. [Dr. Peter Cockrell]

Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” [John 18:36 (NLT)]

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CORNERSTONE, TENT PEG, AND BOW (Cornerstone – part 2)

From Judah will come the cornerstone, the tent peg, the bow for battle, and all the rulers. [Zechariah 10:4 (NLT)]

elephant toe - utahIn the Old Testament, “cornerstone” as a metaphor for the Messiah is found in Psalms, Isaiah, and Zechariah. In Zechariah 10, the prophet describes Israel’s need for purification because of their idolatry, fortune-tellers, and false prophets. Holding the nation’s leaders responsible for these transgressions, Zechariah says the people are like lost sheep without a shepherd. Proclaiming the arrival of the ”Lord of Heaven’s Armies” who will look after the flock, the prophet says he’ll come from Judah and describes him as a cornerstone, tent peg, and battle bow.

Nowadays, cornerstones are more ornamental or commemorative than functional. In the first century, however, the cornerstone was the first squared stone in the foundation of any structure. Determining the position of the rest of the foundation, every other stone in the wall was aligned to it and a properly set (or true) cornerstone was essential to the structural integrity of any building. The Messiah as cornerstone would be the first and most important stone in God’s Kingdom and would provide a reliable and firm foundation for His people.

While cornerstone is a familiar Messianic metaphor, tent peg and bow are not. At first, the image of the Messiah as a tent peg seems strange but, if you’ve ever pitched a tent, you know its purpose. Pounded into the ground, tent pegs are fastened to the ropes holding up the tent and must be set securely or the tent will sag, rip, or even collapse. Even today’s freestanding dome tents need tent pegs or stakes to keep them from blowing away in the wind. The tent peg is as important to a tent’s stability as a cornerstone was to a building’s. Just as the peg fastened the tent to the ground and kept it from collapsing, so the Messiah’s rule would secure Israel to Himself and keep His people upright.

The third metaphor is that of a battle bow: an offensive weapon symbolic of military power. As God’s warrior, the Messiah would fight to save His people. Whether it would be a physical or a spiritual battle is less clear. The bow, however, is associated with more than warfare; it is connected with God’s power in judgment and speaks of a Messiah who would deliver judgment.

We then come to the fourth term in this short verse: rulers. The original Hebrew had no punctuation and it’s unclear if this is a metaphor. Some commentators believe it refers to the Messiah and means that He will be the rulers of rulers. Many others disagree because the word translated as ruler was nagas which wasn’t used for a rightful king. It meant tyrants, taskmasters, or oppressors. Rather than a metaphor for the Messiah, they interpret this to mean that the Messiah would defeat every oppressor of His people. In either case, the people of Judah interpreted Zechariah’s words to mean the Messiah would wage physical war on the nations that oppressed them. The Messiah, however, wasn’t about an earthly kingdom and earthly oppressors. As Judah’s cornerstone, tent peg, and battle bow, the Messiah would wage war on the nation’s true enemy and oppressor—the tyrant Satan and sin. The Messiah would strengthen His people and, in His might, they would find salvation!

I will strengthen Judah and save Israel; I will restore them because of my compassion. It will be as though I had never rejected them, for I am the Lord their God, who will hear their cries. … By my power I will make my people strong, and by my authority they will go wherever they wish. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Zechariah 10:6,12 (NLT)]

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HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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YOKE OR EASY BUTTON?

yoke - easy button

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”  [Matthew 11:28-30 (NLT)]

Several years ago, an office supply company featured an “easy” button in its advertisements and you still can purchase one for less than $9. “Don’t stress it; press it,” their web site suggests. Apparently, when placed on your desk, you can show others how easy it is to find solutions to their problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was push a button to make things easy (or at least easier)?

Rather than a button, however, Jesus offers us a yoke: a wooden frame used as a sort of harness to join two draft animals so they can work together. Among assorted farm implements that once decorated our mountain home, we had the yoke pictured above. It hung upside down but that heavy wooden beam actually rested on the animals’ necks. Without any padding, it doesn’t look that easy to bear! If it is all the same to God, I’d much rather push an easy button than take on anything like a yoke! Fortunately, Jesus was speaking figuratively.

The heavy burden to which Jesus was referring was that of the Pharisees and their legalistic law-keeping that went far beyond God’s demands. For example, there were 39 major categories with hundreds of subcategories defining what constituted work on the Sabbath. While the Jewish way offered the yoke of the law without the power to be obedient, Jesus offered a yoke of faith empowered by the Holy Spirit!

Nevertheless, this passage also can be interpreted as Jesus being our burden sharer. While many things are too heavy for us to bear alone, nothing is too great for Him. By taking His yoke, we give up trying to do life on our own; instead of finding rest in a method, we find rest in a person: Jesus! His yoke is better than an easy button because it actually works! When yoked to Him our burdens are no longer our own!

Can you think of any kinder words than Jesus asking us to come to Him to find rest? Life isn’t easy but God never promised that it would be. Rather than an easy button, we have Jesus and His promise that life is doable with Him. Unlike the yoke that hung on our wall, His yoke is easy to bear and the burden is light. We never have to carry the heavy load of life on our own because He will share it with us. Better yet, since He is so much stronger, most of the weight will be on His heavenly shoulders.

Today, as I take on Jesus’ yoke and share life’s weight with Him, I recall the old Swedish proverb that says, “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”  Wearing His yoke will make my life much brighter and my burdens much lighter.

Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. [Psalm 55:22 (NLT)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

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ANOTHER SONG OF MOSES

Take to heart all the words of warning I have given you today. Pass them on as a command to your children so they will obey every word of these instructions. These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River. [Deuteronomy 32:46-47 (NLT)]

queen anne's laceYesterday I wrote about the Song at the Sea or Song of Moses found in Exodus 15. There is another psalm known as the Song of Moses. Found in Deuteronomy 32, it was sung forty years after that first one, when the Israelites were again preparing to enter Canaan. With Moses’ death imminent, God had appointed Joshua as the nation’s new leader. Knowing that the people would turn their back on Him once in Canaan, the Lord met with Moses and dictated the words to this song. God’s words were ones of warning and Moses was to teach this song to the Israelites as a reminder of the consequences of disobedience.

Starting with praise for their “glorious God…a faithful God who does no wrong” [32:4], it moved into a brief history of the people and God’s faithfulness in bringing them out of bondage. Taking a prophetic turn, it then spoke of Israel’s future ingratitude, idolatry and apostasy, God’s resulting anger that “blazes forth like fire and burns to the depth of the grave,” [32:22] and the judgments of abandonment, disasters, famine, and terror that would be inflicted on Israel by their enemies because of their sin.

Even though the song ends on a note of hope, with God promising vengeance on Israel’s enemies and salvation for his people, it’s a grim prophecy and one we know comes true. We know that God’s clear warnings in this song were not heeded any more than His promise of victory in the first song was believed. We know of Israel’s idolatry and alliances with pagan nations, the divided kingdom, the northern kingdom’s defeat and removal to Assyria, and Judah’s fall and exile to Babylon. We know that, when the Jews finally return to Jerusalem, they are ruled by a foreign nation and that the temple will be destroyed and Judah cease to exist in 70 AD. We know that nearly two thousand years will pass before Israel again is a nation.

God is not like a sadistic teacher who springs a final exam on us without warning. Throughout Scripture, like a good parent, He’s warned his children about disobedience and its consequences. Will we heed His words? Will we learn from those who’ve walked before us?

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. Remember what it says: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.” [Hebrews 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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THE SONG OF MOSES

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; he has hurled both horse and rider into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory. This is my God, and I will praise him—my father’s God, and I will exalt him! The Lord is a warrior; Yahweh is his name! [Exodus 15:1-3 (NLT)]

Capitol Reef - UtahFollowing the Israelites’ successful passage through the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, we find Moses and the people singing a song of deliverance and praise in Exodus 15. This beautiful and powerful psalm vividly describes the warrior God Yahweh hurling Pharaoh’s chariots and army into the sea. This is Moses’ song but he doesn’t figure in the account at all. A paean to the supremacy and unrivaled power of Jehovah, all of the glory is given to God.

This psalm, however, doesn’t stop at Israel’s rescue from Egypt; looking ahead, it warns God’s enemies with its prediction of Israel’s successful entrance into the Promised Land. This is a victory song of both past and future divine deliverance with its promise that the Canaanites would “melt away” as terror and fear fell on them. Following this song, Miriam led the women as they danced and sang of God’s triumph. The confident words of their songs were quickly forgotten when, several months later, the fearful people, ignoring God’s promise of victory, rebelled and refused to enter the Promised Land. Walking through the sea on dry ground, witnessing the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, and having sung of God’s power and promised victory in Canaan were but a distant memory.

This psalm may be the oldest recorded song in history. With its expression of faith in God and recognition of Him as both protector and warrior, it could be considered the founding song of Israel. Jews know it as the Song at the Sea or Shirat Hayam. Recited every day at morning prayers, it has become a focal point of Jewish tradition and liturgy.

Many Christians know this psalm as the Song of Moses. It’s found in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other Christian liturgies at the Easter vigil when the history of salvation is recounted. Just as the exodus story defines Israel’s history, it also defines ours. Like the Israelites, we have been redeemed from slavery, not to Egypt, but to sin. Like the Israelites, we passed through the water, not of the Red Sea, but the water of baptism. Like the Israelites we have a redeemer who redeemed us in the past and will give us victory in the future. For both Jews and Christians, it is a song sung by people redeemed from slavery to the redeemer about their redemption. The difference is that the Jews are still awaiting the Messiah while we know that He has come!

The Song of Moses is the first song in the Bible and we find reference to it in the last song found in Revelation 15. Moses’ song was sung at the Red Sea and this one is sung in heaven at what appears to be a crystal sea. The first one, the song of Moses, celebrates God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt; the second one, the Song of the Lamb, celebrates God’s deliverance of His people from sin.

And they were singing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your works, O Lord God, the Almighty. Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous deeds have been revealed.” [Revelation 15:3-4 (NLT)]

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