JAEL’S TALE

Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. May she be blessed above all women who live in tents. [Judges 5:24 (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkYesterday, I made reference to the story of Jael. Her story takes place about 200 years after the Israelites entered Canaan in the time of the Judges—a time when “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” [17:6] Because of Israel’s disobedience, the Lord allowed King Jabin of Hazor to subjugate the people of Israel. Sisera led Jabin’s army and, with their 900 iron chariots, the Canaanites had oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. Deborah, a prophetess, was judge at the time.

When the people cried to the Lord for help, Deborah called for Barak. Promising victory, she gave him God’s command to lead Israelite warriors to Mount Tabor where God would lure Sisera and his men into a trap. When Barak insisted that Deborah join him in the battle, she warned him that the Lord’s victory over Sisera would be at the hand of a woman. At this point in the story, we assume Deborah’s prophecy is about herself.

Seeing Barak leading his men down Mount Tabor, Sisera’s troops proceeded down to the Kishon River to meet them in battle. When God sent a sudden storm, the river’s banks overflowed, flooded the valley, and Sisera’s chariots were useless in the mud. Panicked, the Canaanite troops abandoned their chariots and fled. Barak’s troops gave chase and defeated them.

Sisera, however, escaped and found his way to the Kenite camp. The Kenites were nomads, descendants of Moses’ brother-in-law Hobab, and had a long history with the Israelites. The word “kenite” is related to an Aramaic word meaning “smith” and the Kenites are believed to have been blacksmiths. As nomads, their very survival depended on staying out of other people’s disputes but, as smiths, they probably had dealings with Sisera regarding his iron chariots and Heber’s family was on good terms with King Jabin. Thinking he’d found sanctuary in the Kenite camp, Sisera ran to Jael’s tent. She invited the exhausted man inside, covered him with a rug, and gave him milk to drink. Knowing no one would look for him there since men were never allowed inside a woman’s tent, Sisera was sure he’d found safe haven. Asking Jael to keep a lookout, the exhausted man slept. Jael then took a tent peg and drove it through the sleeping man’s temples into the ground. When Barak arrived in search of his foe, Jael showed him the dead man. As Deborah predicted, Sisera died at the hand of a woman but it was Jael’s name that was sung in Deborah and Barak’s victory song.

Jael breached etiquette and usurped her husband’s authority by offering hospitality to a man (something only another man could do). She further dishonored Heber by betraying his alliance with King Jabin. Finally, she violated the ancient Near East principle of hospitality that guaranteed the safety of one’s guests. Like Rahab, she makes an unlikely heroine but, unlike the Jericho prostitute, she never makes mention of the Lord.  

Was Jael a heroine who faithfully followed Israel’s God or simply an unscrupulous double-crosser who supported whatever side claimed victory? Seeing Sisera alone and fleeing for his life, Jael knew his troops had been defeated. After greeting him with a smile and a warm welcome, did she simply take the opportunity to curry favor with the Israelite victors? Or, because of her clan’s close ties with the Israelites, had she come to believe in the Israelite’s God? Knowing how ruthless Jabin and Sisera were, did she bravely refuse to remain neutral in the face of their evil? With Sisera’s death, King Jabin soon fell and Israel had peace for forty years. Deborah and Barak called Jael “blessed among women.” What do you think? Whatever her motives were—whether to serve Israel or herself—God used her to achieve His purpose.

Sisera asked for water, and she gave him milk. In a bowl fit for nobles, she brought him yogurt. Then with her left hand she reached for a tent peg, and with her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera with the hammer, crushing his head. With a shattering blow, she pierced his temples. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet. And where he sank, there he died. [Judges 5:25-27 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

BIBLE BRACKETS

Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” [Luke 5:31-32 (NLT)]

March brought more than basketball brackets. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the Today show pitted 16 Irish favorites like U-2, Irish whiskey, step dancing, and soda bread against one another. The final bracket was a showdown between Guinness and corned beef and cabbage with the Irish beer winning. Since I don’t Twitter (Tweet?), I missed Bible Gateway’s March madness tournament pitting favorite Bible stories against one another.  

I can understand why some stories didn’t make the top sixteen. Gruesome ones like those of Jael pounding a tent peg through Sisera’s head (Judges 4); Dinah’s rape and the vengeful massacre of Shechem (Genesis 34); and the trickery of Ehud who assassinated the fat King Eglon (Judges 3) aren’t exactly Sunday school fare. Entirely missing from the competition, however, were Sunday school favorites like the Christmas story, the feeding of the multitude, and Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses.

In actuality, there are far more than sixteen great stories in the Bible and, while my brackets would have differed from Bible Gateway’s, I can’t argue with theirs. Nevertheless, it was no surprise that Jericho’s walls collapsing (Joshua 6) beat the lesser known story of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). While the prophet’s vision is a beautiful illustration of Israel’s restoration and spiritual rebirth, picturing those dried bones reattaching, muscles and skin forming over them, and coming to life as a great army is unsettling. The story of the exodus easily beat the lesser known one of Balaam’s donkey. The visual of Moses raising his hand, the Red Sea parting, and the Israelites walking across the dry sea bed with walls of water on each side beats a talking donkey any day!

Before I tell you the winner of the contest, consider your favorite Bible stories. What would you include in your “sweet sixteen” – the wise men, the miracle at Cana, the faith of the woman with the bleeding disorder, Solomon suggesting a baby be cut in half, Zacchaeus climbing a tree, Elijah’s smack down with the prophets of Baal, Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, Paul and Silas singing in prison, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace? They’re all wonderful stories and well worth reading and re-reading over and over again.

The final match-up pitted the story of David and Goliath against the parable of The Prodigal (or Lost) Son. Everyone loves a story about an underdog hero and the boy shepherd who felled the Philistine warrior with a single shot was a sure favorite. It tells us that, even against insurmountable odds, when we trust in God, we can emerge victorious.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why the parable of the lost son won. Described by the Expositor’s Bible Commentary as “the crown and flower of all the parables,” it reassures us that no matter how far we stray, how low we fall, or how much we squander or misuse God’s gifts, His unconditional love is waiting for us when we return to Him. By focusing on the father’s love and forgiveness, however, we often miss an important part of that story—the son’s repentance! This was the last of three parables about the lost—a sheep, a coin, and a son—and the celebration when they are found. Jesus finished them all by tying repentance to the celebration. Let us never forget that we have to repent before we can attend the party!

In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! … In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. … We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found! [Luke 15:7,10,32 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WHAT CHANGED THEM? (Easter – Part 2)

But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. … Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Matthew 10:17-18,16:24 (NLT)]

rabbitThe Federal Trade Commission is charged with enforcing truth-in-advertising laws so that all advertisements are truthful, not misleading, and backed by scientific evidence. Although drug companies abide by the FTC’s regulations by listing their products’ side effects, between the fine print and the announcer’s fast talk, most consumers don’t understand them. Jesus didn’t resort to fast talk, deceit, or ambiguity when he told His disciples the cost of following him. He was brutally honest and told the disciples they would arrested, persecuted and hated because of Him.

While the disciples may not have comprehended completely, they couldn’t say they weren’t warned and Jesus told them the possibility of losing their lives was very real. Nevertheless, I imagine they thought He was speaking figuratively when He spoke of them carrying a cross. Even though He’d predicted His own death, I suspect his followers really didn’t understand what lay ahead until that fateful night when Jesus was arrested. Once He’d been tried, sentenced, and crucified, I’m sure the Lord’s cautionary words echoed in their minds and they finally understood the reality of that cross they’d be expected to carry! No wonder they cowered together in a locked room. The next step after arresting a revolutionary was to arrest his followers.

It was only John and a few women followers at the foot of the cross and it was a stranger, not a follower, who carried the cross for Christ. Jesus’ disciples, the men with whom he’d lived for three years, weren’t there to carry his heavy load or share his final hours. Rather than His friends, it was a secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who placed Him in a borrowed tomb. Rather than a day of rest, the disciples’ Sabbath probably was a day of mourning, disappointment, confusion, and fear. Sunday morning, with the Sabbath over, some followers returned home while the rest continued to cower together in fear.

What turned a veritable group of despondent deserters into men who bravely spread the good news of Christ the Savior? These are the same men who fled from Jesus when He was arrested and Peter publicly denied knowing Him three times that night. What caused the two disheartened men from Emmaus to return to Jerusalem and the disciples in that locked room? What turned Jesus’ followers into people who courageously faced persecution and martyrdom? Of the disciples, all but John are thought to have been martyred. They had nothing to gain from a lie but everything to lose with the truth. What turned a bunch of deserters into evangelists? They saw the risen Christ! They spoke with Him, touched his scars, and broke bread with Him. They knew it to be the truth!

We haven’t walked with Jesus, but we’ve read the words of those who have. We haven’t been in the same room with Him, but we’ve heard His voice. We’ve not touched Him, but He has touched us. We haven’t seen his wounds, but He’s healed ours. We didn’t see His ascent into heaven, but we’ve experienced his Holy Spirit. No—we haven’t actually seen the risen Christ but, as Jesus people, “We live by believing and not by seeing.” [2 Corinthians 5:7]

You can kill us. But you cannot hurt us. [Justin Martyr (c. AD 150)]

During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God. [Acts 1:3 (NLT)]

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” [John 20:29 (NLT)]

WHAT ARE THE ODDS? (Part 3)

He [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. “Today,” he began, “this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing.” [Luke 4:20-21 (NTE)]

evening primroseIn writing about Blaise Pascal yesterday, I mentioned that he, along with Pierre de Fermat, laid the groundwork for probability theory back in 1654. I remember a school friend writing her term paper on probabilities who began by testing what’s called the “birthday paradox:” in a room of 23 people, there is a 50% chance that two people will have the same birthday and, out of 75 people, there is a 99.9% chance of two people’s birth dates matching. Imagine her surprise when the first two people she asked had the same birth date! That, of course was sheer coincidence but, if the next 30 people she asked also had the same birth date, another explanation would have been necessary.

I know nothing of permutations, exponents, or probability theory, but even I know when coincidence can’t explain the improbable. Consider the improbability of anyone fulfilling the many Messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Messiah would come from the seed of a woman (not a man) and be born of a virgin in Bethlehem. He would be from the line of Abraham, a descendant of Isaac and Jacob, of the tribe of Judah, and from the house of David. The Messiah would spend time in Egypt, would be a Nazarene, and a messenger would prepare His way. He would be a light to the Gentiles, give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, visit the Temple, and enter Jerusalem as a king on a donkey. The Messiah would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, falsely accused, and stand silent before His accusers. He’d be mocked and ridiculed, his hands and feet pierced, dice would be thrown for his clothing, and would die with the wicked but be buried with the rich.

Taking just eight of the some 300 fulfilled Messianic prophecies in Hebrew Scripture, mathematics professor Peter Stoner calculated the odds of one man fulfilling them by coincidence at 1 in 1017 (100,000,000,000,000,000). Putting those many zeros into perspective, Stoner likened it to covering the entire state of Texas with silver dollars piled 2-feet deep, placing one marked silver dollar among them, and expecting a blindfolded person to wander through the state and pick up the marked coin in his first try. Stoner then figured the odds of one man fulfilling 16 of those Messianic prophecies at 1 in 1045 and of fulfilling 48 of those prophecies at 1 in 10157, a truly mind-boggling number. Although the odds against one man fulfilling all those prophecies are astronomical, that’s exactly what Jesus did! Looking at it purely from a mathematical viewpoint, Professor Stoner concluded, “Any man who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world.”

While probability theory proves that Jesus is the promised Messiah, intellectual assent is not quite enough when it comes to our salvation because it’s not the same as believing in Jesus. Faith is more than an acceptance of facts; it is a commitment to those facts. A profession of intellectual belief is meaningless until it makes a discernible change in us! Nevertheless, Stoner’s use of probability theory to prove Jesus is the promised Messiah helps bolster our own faith. Moreover, it enables us to defend the validity of Scripture and the truth of Jesus’ identity to those who don’t believe.

And we have the prophetic word made more certain. You will do well to hold on to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star shines in your hearts. You must know this first of all, that no scriptural prophecy is a matter of one’s own interpretation. No prophecy, you see, ever came by human will. Rather, people were moved by the holy spirit, and spoke from God. [2 Peter 1:19-21 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

MISSING THE TARGET

His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” [Luke 15:21 (NLT)]

pearl crescent butterflyHamartia is the word most frequently used in the New Testament for sin. Originally an archery term that meant missing the target when hunting with a bow, hamartia came to mean missing or falling short of a goal, purpose or standard. In Scripture, it conveys the idea of missing God’s perfect standard of what is righteous.

Because my father frequently went bow hunting, he set up an archery range in our garage. A round straw target was surrounded by hay bales along the back wall. Covered with a colored paper target paper showing ten concentric rings of five colors, the bull’s eye was at the target’s center. When we were old enough, my father taught my brother and me how to use a bow. Only seven, I was lucky if my arrow landed in the target’s outer rings and I often missed the target entirely. Whether we’re talking of arrows or sin, it’s not always easy to hit the target. But what of those arrows that missed the mark? While mine went into the hay bales, what if those arrows were sins? What would they hit?

I pondered this question while reading the Parable of the Prodigal (or Lost) Son, a beautiful illustration of God’s grace. In this story, we tend to focus on the pardoning love of the father when he welcomes his lost son home. Since both sons in the story clearly missed the mark with their actions, let’s look at it from a different viewpoint and consider where their arrows of sin landed. Having had a prodigal child myself, I know exactly where they came to rest—deep in their father’s heart. His sons’ actions caused the father untold grief. Thinking back to that target in our garage—what if, instead of hay bales holding the target, it had been my father? Every arrow I shot that missed the target would have pierced him instead! What if, instead of arrows it had been sins and, instead of my father, it had been God?

Sin is far more than not living up to a certain divine standard. It is as much a slap in God’s face as were the younger son’s demand of his inheritance while his father was still alive and the older son’s insolence and rudeness in his refusal to attend the celebration. Sin is a personal affront to God and it grieves Him as much as it must have grieved the father in Jesus’ parable.

Sin isn’t a violation of an impersonal standard—it is a personal offense against our Father in Heaven. Our sins hurt more than ourselves and others—they hurt God because we’ve sinned against Him! Our God is a loving God of relationship, not estrangement, but every time we sin, like the sons in Jesus’ parable, we grieve Him with our rejection. The fact that our loving Father forgives us doesn’t make our sins any less painful to Him. Let us weigh carefully our actions and remember that, when an arrow we shoot misses the target, it hits something else. Don’t let it be God!

This day, my God, I hate sin not because it damns me, but because it has done Thee wrong. To have grieved my God is the worst grief to me. [Charles Spurgeon]

Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. [Psalm 51:4 (NLT)]

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. [Ephesians 4:30 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TOO DEFINITE FOR LANGUAGE

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. [Galatians 2:16 (ESV)]

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. [James 2:24 (ESV)]

Siberian reindeerChristianity seems to be full of paradoxes. We’re saved by faith and not by works but we can’t have faith without works. As for grace and obedience—it’s God’s grace not our obedience that saves us. But, what initially sounds like a free pass isn’t because the saved are expected to have grace-fueled obedience! It’s easy to get confused when we read only isolated verses in Scripture. Rather than inconsistent or even contradictory concepts, however, faith, works, grace and obedience are complementary and interrelated. Perhaps some of the confusion comes from our language rather than our doctrine.

I think back to an exchange between two characters in Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. When the character Ransom is at a loss for words while trying to explain a concept, his companion says, “I realize it’s all too vague for you to put into words.” Looking at his friend sharply, Ransom replies, “On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why it can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language.” Faith, works, grace, and obedience are so distinct and yet so interconnected in Christian doctrine that it’s a pity we don’t have a wider Christian vocabulary.

According to The Washington Post, there really are at least fifty Inuit words for snow that describe everything from a soft falling snow to a wet snow that will ice a sled’s runners. Along with having a multitude of words related to snow and ice, the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. They have a different word for each year of a male reindeer’s life and I suspect they have one that would perfectly describe the reindeer in today’s picture. It’s done through something linguists call “polysynthesis,” which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information into one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word so that one word can encompass a whole sentence

Language evolves to meet the ideas and needs of the people speaking it. If the Sami people can use a single word like sietnjanjunni to describe a reindeer with the hair nearest to its nostrils having a different color than the one you’d expect from the color of the rest of its hair, we should be able to come up with something for the combined concepts of faith, works, grace, and obedience. Using a little polysynthesis, we could try for the whole shebang and come up with “faithorkobegracience,” but it still wouldn’t capture these concepts because we’re talking of something far greater than reindeer, snow, or ice.

We are finite beings trying to capture an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent being with words. No word in any language can come close to the immensity of all that is encompassed in our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith but true faith is obedient and obedient faith leads to works. Simply put, it is our obedience and works that reveal the authenticity of our faith!  We will just have to continue as we have for centuries: by having faith, doing His works, being saved by grace, remaining obedient to His commands and walking the way Jesus walked.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. … By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. [1 John 2:3,5b-6 (ESV)]

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. [James 2:18 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.