HEARING

For twenty-three years…the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear. [Jeremiah 25:3a,4a (ESV)]

green heron

As the language of the Scriptures, Jesus spoke and read Hebrew and, as the language of the Roman Empire, He probably spoke some Greek, as well. His everyday spoken language, however, would have been Aramaic. A Semitic language widespread throughout the Middle East by the 7th century BC, Aramaic was adopted by the Jews during their Babylonian exile. By Jesus’ time, Hebrew (considered the “holy tongue”) was reserved for holy matters such as prayer but Aramaic was used for everyday speech. Jesus may have spoken Hebrew in the Temple but, as the common language of people throughout the Middle East, He spoke Aramaic, the rest of the time.

Even though Jesus spoke Aramaic, the words of the New Testament (probably composed between 50 and 100 AD) were written in Greek, the language of scholarship at the time. Since Jewish scholars had already translated much of what we call the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek, it made perfect sense for the New Testament’s authors to write in Greek, as well. As a result, when we read the Bible, we are reading English words translated from Greek but originally written or spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic. As happens with even the best translation, sometimes the nuance of a word is lost in translation.

For example, consider the Greek word akouwhich simply means “to hear, to be endowed with the ability to hear, or to hear something” and usually is translated into English as “hear” or “listen.” This meaning is sufficient when Jesus heard the Centurion express his faith, Herod heard the Magi say the Messiah had come, Jesus heard that John was imprisoned, John heard about the deeds of Jesus, and Peter heard the rooster crow. Akouό, however, is not sufficient when both the prophets and Jesus spoke of having ears that hear. The words they used had the root word shema/shama and the words “hear” or “listen” don’t catch its full meaning.

In Greek and English, hearing or listening are mental activities but the Hebrew/Aramaic word shema/shama meant more than that. It was as much a physical activity as an intellectual one. Along with hearing, it meant to take heed, submit, obey, and do what is asked. We may hear the television but we expect our children to shema/shama us when we tell them to do their homework!

As an observant Jew, Jesus would have said what is known as the Shema every morning and evening. It begins with the word shema: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…”  The Shema continues on to tell the Israelites the rewards of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. Shema/shama is the word prophets used when warning Israel and Jesus used when explaining His parables and the consequences of not “hearing” His words. While hearing is passive, shema/shama most definitely is not. The people of Israel failed to shema God’s words and warnings. Will we make the same mistake?

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. [Matthew 13:40-43 (ESV)]

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KNOWING HIM WELL

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6-7 (NLT)]

Mallards
After fifty-five years of marriage, there’s not much that surprises me about my husband. Even the surprise birthday weekend he gave me earlier this year wasn’t a surprise. Granted, bringing all three of our children together for a weekend here truly was a surprise but that he chose to do something special for me was not. I was sure that, true to form, he had something wonderful up his sleeve for my 75th birthday; I just had no idea what it actually was!

After over five decades of togetherness, more often than not, my husband and I think alike. When one of us makes a suggestion, the other usually admits to having the same thought and, with at least 97% accuracy, we know what the other will order at any restaurant. We recognize each other’s voice in a crowd and probably have a good idea what the other is saying! After more than half a century, we’ve seen one another at our best and worst. There’s nothing left to hide and any awkwardness, embarrassment, or shame is long gone. I know when he needs some nudging and he knows when I need words of encouragement. Appreciating each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we rest comfortably in the knowledge that we love, trust, and honor one another completely. The relationship is relaxed, pleasant, peaceful, and comfortable but never boring. As my birthday weekend proved, even though we know what to expect, we can still surprise one another in beautiful ways.

The covenant relationship of marriage is much like our relationship with God with one major difference. Through the last five plus decades, both my husband and I have changed so that we complement each other and accommodate one another’s likes and dislikes. God, however, is immutable. Since His characteristics and divine nature do not change, He is not about to accommodate our preferences; we are called to accommodate His! As in any relationship, however, the more time we spend in His presence, the easier it is to recognize His voice, to hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper in our hearts, to discern the meaning of His words, to know what He expects, and to offer prayers in harmony with His plan. As we draw closer to the Lord, we become attuned to His rhythm and pace and we’ll even begin to walk like Jesus.

At its most basic, Christianity isn’t a doctrine, philosophy, code of ethics, or a way of life; it is a relationship with God. Just believing in Jesus is not the same as having a relationship with Him. As with any relationship, we have to spend time in God’s presence, praying, listening to His voice, and reading His word for our relationship to flourish and grow. No serious bond is developed overnight; it took decades for my husband and me to get to this point in our marriage. Fortunately, developing a deep relationship with our triune God doesn’t take nearly that long. Like marriage, however, it is a relationship that continues to mature and mellow through the years.

After fifty-five years, I can ask myself, “What would Bob do?” and pretty much know the answer. As we develop our relationship with God, we’ll be able to ask, “What would Jesus do?” and know that answer as well!

Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:6 (NLT)]

You must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All glory to him, both now and forever! Amen. [2 Peter 3:18 (NLT)]

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WHICH CAME FIRST?

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. … Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. [Genesis 1:3. 2:7 (NLT)]

hen and eggs

Years ago, The Jerusalem Post published a joke about human arrogance. After considering all of humanity’s scientific progress, a group of scientists decided that God no longer was necessary. The chief scientist explained to God that man’s ability to clone people, manipulate atoms, build molecules, fly through space, create body parts with 3-D printers, and perform other miraculous feats meant God was unneeded and could be replaced by man. After patiently listening to the scientist, God suggested a human-making contest with only one rule: “We have to do it just like I did in the Bible.” Saying that was easy, the arrogant scientist bent over to pick up a handful of dust. “Put that down!” said God, while adding, “To do it my way, you have to make your own dust!”

Our vacation home in Idaho came complete with chickens and hen house. Every morning, the littlest grands would trek out to the hen house, check for eggs, and return with the makings of an omelet. I was relieved they never asked the age-old unanswerable question of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” We need a chicken (actually two) to have a fertilized egg but we need a fertilized egg to make a chicken. This seemingly futile question has been discussed for thousands of years. The Greek philosopher Aristotle considered it but evaded the answer by saying that both egg and chicken went infinitely backwards and always existed. The oldest fossilized eggs are 190 million years old and the oldest fossilized birds are only 150 million years old so paleontologists might say the egg came first. A strict reading of Genesis, however, would lead us to conclude that the chicken came first because animals appeared on the 5th day of creation. It’s a silly question but people ask it because they want to understand how something can come from nothing.

When making the children’s omelets, we still needed the raw ingredients. Along with the eggs that came from chickens (that came from eggs), we needed butter and cheese from cows, salt from the sea, pepper from the drupe of a pepper plant (Piper nigrum}, and green peppers and onions that came from seeds sown by a farmer, as well as a frying pan, whisk, spatula, and gas stove. Although my seamstress friend creates stunning clothing, she needs the silk from the silkworm (that came from an egg) or the cotton from the cotton bush (that came from a seed) to do so. My wood-working friend creates beautiful furniture but he can’t do it without the wood that comes from an oak tree that comes from an acorn that originally came from the oak! This begs the question, “Which came first, the oak or the acorn?” As the arrogant scientist learned, mankind can’t create something from nothing!

God, however, created everything from nothing. He had no eggs for the chickens, acorns for the oaks, seeds for the apple trees, or pollen for the flowers. He had no hydrogen or oxygen for water and no sodium or chloride to add to the water for the sea! Simply put, God spoke all creation into existence. That’s a rather unsatisfactory answer for those who want a technical explanation but the Bible is a book of theology that tells us the who and not a book of science that tells us how. We’re not about to get any more details as to how chaos turned to order, a void came to be filled, and nothing became something. Whether it was the chicken or its egg that came first will always be a conundrum.

The Lord merely spoke, and the heavens were created. He breathed the word, and all the stars were born. He assigned the sea its boundaries and locked the oceans in vast reservoirs. Let the whole world fear the Lord, and let everyone stand in awe of him. For when he spoke, the world began! It appeared at his command. [Psalm 33:6-9 (NLT)]

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KNOWING HE’S THERE

And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. [Acts 13:52 (NLT)]

zebra longwing butterfly
Zebra Longwing butterflies (Heliconius charithonia) live in hammocks and damp forests. Unless they are resting on a plant, however, they are often difficult to spot. Unlike most butterflies, they don’t stay in the sunlight for long. I may see their shadows on the boardwalk but, when I look up, they quickly vanish into the shade they prefer. With their yellow and black colors, shallow wingbeats and languid flight, they float through the woods and often seem to be little more than flickering sunlight glimmering through the trees.

Oddly, I think of the Holy Spirit whenever I get a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. Just as I’ll probably never hold one in my hand, I have difficulty grasping the concept of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I know they both exist and bring me joy. There are times it’s difficult to catch sight of the winged zebras and, unfortunately, there are times I have difficulty detecting the Spirit. Nevertheless, just as I know the butterflies are in the woods, I know that He is present. Some days are better than others when it comes to spotting the Longwings and some days are better than others when it comes to sensing the Holy Spirit’s presence. If I’m jogging down a trail, I’ll never spot the butterflies and, if I’m rushing through life, it’s just as easy to overlook the Holy Spirit.

While I can blame the season, weather, light, or location for not seeing a butterfly, I have only myself to blame when I fail to perceive the Spirit. The times I feel devoid of His presence are when I neglect Scripture and prayer—the times I become so busy with the “me” and “my” of life that I don’t leave room for Him. They are the times I refuse to accept God’s control of my circumstances, ignore His direction, or don’t want to hear His conviction of my unacceptable behavior. Most often, however, I can’t feel the Holy Spirit because I’ve done something that grieves Him. Things like anger, resentment, jealousy, guilt and pride serve as barriers to feeling His presence. Fortunately, unlike the butterflies that disappear as they float through the woods, the Spirit will never leave me, even when I’ve disappointed Him.

In perfect unity with God the Father and God the Son, the Holy Spirit is the power of God that dwells within every believer in Jesus Christ. Just as it’s likely that I’ll catch a glimpse of Zebra Longwings on a certain boardwalk through the mangroves, I’m sure to feel the Spirit’s presence when I walk in His ways throughout the day.

You might as well try to see without eyes, hear without ears, or breathe without lungs, as to try to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. [D.L. Moody]

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. [John 14:26 (NLT)]

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THE MARK OF CAIN

The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [Genesis 4:15-16 (NLT)]

After the magnificence of creation, things go from bad to worse and, by the fourth chapter of Genesis, we have the first homicide. When Cain and Abel make an offering to God, Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is not. The rejection wasn’t because one gift was animal and the other was crops—both fauna and flora were acceptable and represented each brother’s vocation. Abel, however, presented the “best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” and Cain merely offered “some of his crops” rather than the best and first. God rejected the offering because of Cain’s heart. While Abel made his offering whole-heartedly, Cain begrudged making the gift at all. Although Abel was not responsible for the rejection, he died at the hands of his angry jealous brother.

God punished Cain by banishing him and cursing the ground so that he would be unsuccessful in cultivating the soil. Having lost homeland, family, and livelihood, Cain was condemned to be a “homeless wanderer.” Cain protested that his punishment was too harsh—as a homeless fugitive without the protection of a community, he could be attacked and killed, perhaps in revenge by Abel’s family. Promising Cain that scenario wouldn’t happen, God pledged a seven-fold punishment for anyone who killed Cain.

To seal the deal, God gave Cain a sign or mark. Contrary to what we may have learned in Sunday school, this mark was a blessing not a punishment and may not have been a physical mark at all. The Hebrew verb typically translated as “set” or “put” in this verse was sum or sim which could mean everything from appointed, assigned, and established to attached, placed, or laid. The word typically translated as “mark” was ‘owth which referred to a sign, token, or mark and is the same word God used when giving Moses miraculous signs to convince Israel’s elders that God had spoken with him. Because we don’t know if this was an actual mark on Cain or some other sign, some Bibles translate the questioned verse as God giving Cain a sign or appointing a sign for him. Nevertheless, in one way or another, the sign or mark guaranteed Cain’s safety by indicating he was under God’s divine protection and warning of repercussions should the fugitive be killed.

More important than the mark is God’s choice of Cain’s punishment. It certainly isn’t what we expect from the God who later says, “Anyone who murders a fellow human must die.” [Genesis 9:5] Cain’s banishment is an important lesson for us. After being with God, Cain had to leave the Lord’s presence and his departure from God’s presence demonstrates the way our sin separates all sinners from God. When we sin and reject God’s will, only spiritual isolation and wretchedness remain. Moreover, by God withholding the full penalty of death for Cain’s sin, we are introduced to His amazing grace and mercy—a theme that weaves its way from Genesis through Revelation and culminates in Jesus! When Jesus took our punishment on the cross, rather than the death penalty we rightly deserved, like Cain, we were given life!

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:8 (NLT)]

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) [Ephesians 2:4-5 (NLT)]

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THIS JAMES KNEW HIM BEST

This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! [James 1:1 (NLT)]

climbing aster
Four men were in heated disagreement at a falafel stand in Jerusalem when they asked a passerby to settle their dispute about the authorship of an epistle. “I’m James, the son of Alphaeus. I was one of the twelve disciples and I wrote the book of James.”  The next man interrupted, “No, I’m James, the father of the disciple named Judas (also known as Thaddaeus) and I wrote those words!” Disagreeing, the third man said, “I’m the disciple James, the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, and brother to John. I was the one who wrote that epistle! Contradicting him, the fourth man said, “I’m James, the brother of Jesus, and I’m the one who wrote that letter to the Jews.” The man they’d asked to settle their dispute calmly said, “You’re all wrong; I wrote it.” In unison, they asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “God—and all Scripture is God-breathed.”

Although all Scripture is God-breathed, someone named James put God’s words on paper. The writer of James simply identifies himself as a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is an assumption in his words that he was well enough known by the church that no other identification was necessary. One disciple named James was the son of Alphaeus. Either younger or smaller in stature than the other disciple named James, he also is identified as James the mikros which meant little or small. Sometimes called James the less, he seems too obscure since his only mention is as one of the twelve and that his mother was with some of the women during the crucifixion. James, the father of Judas/Thaddeus is even more obscure since his only mention is that he was the father of a disciple! The other disciple named James was the brother of John. Usually referred to as the son of Zebedee or James “the greater,” he certainly is less obscure than the other two James but, like them, little more is known about him. Moreover, since he was dead by 44 AD, he wouldn’t have been well-known by the early church.

The most likely author is James, the half-brother of Jesus and the eldest of Mary and Joseph’s four boys.  Although he wasn’t a believer before the crucifixion, he was after and, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes specific mention of James seeing the resurrected Lord. The seven references to this James in Acts and both Paul’s and Jude’s letters tell us he played a prominent role in the early church. Scholars are in near unanimous agreement that, of all the James in the New Testament, this James is the one who penned the words found in the epistle.

Believed to have been written before the Jerusalem Council in 48 or 49 (mentioned in Acts 15), this may have been the first of the New Testament books written! Unlike Paul, James wasn’t a theologian and his letter wasn’t about doctrine. When he said that faith without works is meaningless, he wasn’t arguing with Paul’s concerns about legalism—he may not even have known of them at the time. He simply was opposing the attitude that dismissed works as unnecessary for Christians. We can’t just talk the talk; we must walk the walk.

James’ epistle was about applying Jesus’ teachings—a statement about the kind of life a Christ follower should live. As Jesus’ half-brother, he was uniquely qualified to do so. Having known Jesus all of His life, rather than just the three years of His ministry, James knew what he was talking about. He may not have known Jesus was the Messiah until the resurrection, but he knew Jesus as only a brother can. He may not have heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or heard Him preach about forgiveness, sacrifice, and loving one’s enemy, but he’d seen Jesus live those words every day of His life. Whenever we wonder, “What would Jesus do?” there’s an excellent chance we’ll find the answer in James’ epistle, in words penned by a man who actually saw what Jesus did!

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? … So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” [James 2:14,17-18 (NLT)]

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