THE RIGHT PATH

You’re blessed when you stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God. You’re blessed when you follow his directions, doing your best to find him. That’s right—you don’t go off on your own; you walk straight along the road he set. [Psalm 119:1-3 (MSG)]

You, God, prescribed the right way to live; now you expect us to live it. Oh, that my steps might be steady, keeping to the course you set; Then I’d never have any regrets in comparing my life with your counsel. [Psalm 119:4-5 (MSG)]

hiking Steamboat SpringsIn an article about how our post-pandemic new normal will evolve, the author suggested a process for businesses to identify what needs changing in their post COVID-19 world. As a way of illustrating their method, there was an aerial photograph of a college campus quad.  Before designing the walkways for this large green area surrounded on four sides by university buildings, the landscape architects simply sodded the field and observed how the students used the grassy expanse. After a while, the beaten down grass indicated the students’ preferred traffic patterns and it was on those favored paths that they finally placed paved walkways. At first glance, the asymmetric sidewalks seemed random but, once the process was explained, the strange arrangement of paths made sense. It was easy to see how they accommodated people’s tendency to take shortcuts and cut across corners.

While observing emerging patterns of behavior and then accommodating those patterns worked for that quad’s design and may be a good model for business, God doesn’t work that way. He’s not running a business, seeking to improve employee output, or trying to accommodate customers or students rushing to class. God is both perfect and immutable—unchallengeable and unchanging—and He has not designed the world or our lives to accommodate our preferences for ease, efficiency or profit. Instead, we are to adjust our lives to accommodate His desires!

The landscape architects accommodated the students’ tendency to take shortcuts and cut corners. Hoping to keep us from walking on the grass, God doesn’t place the sidewalks where we want them. Instead, He puts the walkways exactly where He wants them and posts signs saying, “Keep off the grass!” Cutting corners and taking shortcuts in life usually involve far more than walking on the grass and God is not about to pave the wrong way for us.

The path God chooses for us isn’t always the easy one. More often than not, it is pretty much guaranteed to be the hard way, one that is often rocky and steep. Nevertheless, since it is God’s way, it is the right way and only path to take.

Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention. … What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. [Matthew 7:13-14,21 (MSG)]

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HAVING A KING

In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. [Judges 17:6 (NLT)]

great blue heronAlthough God passed along some very detailed commands, the people of Israel frequently refused to obey them and, in Judges 17-18, we see what happens when people do whatever seems right in their own eyes. After stealing 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother, Micah hears her curse the thief. Fearful of her curse, he confesses and returns the money. After blessing Micah to remove the curse, his mother dedicates the money to the Lord. In honor of her thieving son, however, she gives 200 of those coins to a silversmith for the fashioning of an image (a figure carved from wood overlaid with silver) and an idol (a figure cast from molten silver). Micah then sets up a shrine for the prohibited items, adds some household idols of his own, makes an ephod (a priestly garment), and installs his son as his own personal priest. This was wrong in so many ways: not only were people expressly forbidden from making either carved images or molten idols but only a Levite could serve as a priest!

A Levite who seems to have no better grasp of God’s instructions than Micah stops at his house. Thinking the Levite’s presence will bring him prosperity and give legitimacy to his shrine, Micah buys the Levite’s services as his own personal priest. Wrong again! A Levite was to serve God only in the tabernacle but the man accepts and serves Micah in an idolatrous shrine.

The story continues with the arrival of five scouts from the tribe of Dan. Unable to conquer the land originally given to them, the Danite scouts are in search of easier pickings in Israel’s northern frontier. Finding the unprotected town of Laish, they return with 600 warriors. After stopping at Micah’s, where they steal his shine, ephod, image and idols, they offer the Levite a position as priest to their entire tribe and he accepts their offer. Although Micah protests the theft of idols and priest, he’s outnumbered, admits defeat, and returns home empty-handed while lamenting that he has nothing left.

The Danites easily defeat the town of Laish and rename it Dan. Micah’s pagan shrine is worshiped there for another 200 years. When the Kingdom divides, Jeroboam places a golden calf there for Israel’s worship while the Levite’s family continues to serve Dan until Israel’s exile.

Not once did any of these people consider God in their actions. Saying she dedicated the money to the Lord, Micah’s mother didn’t use it to honor Him. She used it to honor her larcenous son and what began with a son stealing from his mother evolved into idolatry. Micah wanted to worship the god he created rather than worship the God who created him. God made man while Micah’s gods were made by man. God is truth and righteousness but Micah’s gods came from deception and deceit. The tribe of Dan was too strong for Micah and his gods but nothing and no one is too strong for God. Unlike Micah’s gods, God can’t be stolen from us.

Without a king, the people did whatever seemed right to them but, sadly, as seen in Kings and Chronicles, they did little better with an earthly king. An earthly king may prevent social anarchy but only a Heavenly King can prevent spiritual anarchy. Without God as their King, people do only what is right in their own eyes. We have a King in Jesus; may we always do what is right in His eyes!

And this is what I’m praying: that your love may overflow still more and more, in knowledge and in all astute wisdom. Then you will be able to tell the difference between good and evil, and be sincere and faultless on the day of the Messiah, filled to overflowing with the fruit of right living, fruit that comes through King Jesus to God’s glory and praise. [Philippians 1:9-11 (NTE)]

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THE LAW – WHAT ABOUT THE TEN?

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. [Matthew 5:18-19 (NLT)]

Moses Fountain - Bern, SwitzerlandUnlike some laws, the Ten Commandments actually were set in stone; nevertheless, in a 2010 article in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens posited that they were just a work in progress and badly needed a rewrite. Hitchens, who called himself an anti-theist rather than an atheist, had no use for the first three commandments. Getting out his hammer and chisel, he proposed getting rid of them altogether, revising others and adding a few more. While I didn’t agree with Hitchens’ misleading arguments, they caused me to consider the relevance of these laws that were given to an ancient nomadic tribe some 3,500 years ago.

That we seem to live in what often appears to be a godless society doesn’t mean we should throw out the first commandment. Granted, most of us don’t worship Baal, erect Ashtoreth poles or sacrifice children to Molech, but we do seem to worship the false gods of fame, wealth, beauty and self. As for the second, while we’re probably not creating graven images to worship, we do imbue inanimate objects like crystals, good luck charms, fancy cars, mega-mansions, and big bankrolls with divine power. As for taking the Lord’s name in vain—just because profanity and blasphemy have become commonplace in movies, television, and the music industry doesn’t mean it’s time to dispense with that commandment. God’s last name is not Dammit!

Hitchens had no complaint about having a day free from work but the atheist wasn’t about to dedicate it to the Lord. Even believers have difficulty with that one; if we truly kept the Sabbath holy, we’d have to reserve seats at our churches instead of tee times at the golf course. As for the fifth commandment, disrespect for one’s parents and elders seems to be increasing while the authority parents have over their children is decreasing. Unwritten but understood is that parents should be worthy of that respect. Sadly, some parents seem quite willing to abandon or abuse their responsibilities altogether.

When it comes to murder, the nightly news makes it clear that killing others has become the way many settle scores, win arguments, prove manhood, or retaliate for being cut off in traffic. Between the body count and the words and actions of contempt, malice and hatred expressed daily, it appears we desperately need that commandment. As for bearing false witness, just hearing a few political ads tells me that certainly hasn’t gone out of style over the centuries. Nor, it seems, has adultery! The tabloids keep us up to date on all of the adulterous adventures of the rich and famous and I wonder how many young people could define words like virtue, monogamy, or chastity.

As for stealing—that continues to be done both overtly and covertly. People are mugged, banks robbed, and identities stolen; there’s insider trading, currency manipulation, bribery and corporate espionage. We steal when people are paid “under the table,” disability is collected by an able-bodied person or income taxes are evaded. As for coveting, one look at the amount of credit card debt in this nation tells me we’re filled with desire for what isn’t ours. Consumerism and conspicuous consumption are just newer words for that old offense of covetousness. While we may not covet our neighbor’s donkey, ox or spouse, we seem to want everything else he has! It’s not the Ten Commandments that need to be re-chiseled—it’s us!

Granted, Hitchens did suggest adding a commandment about turning off your cell phone, which probably is a good idea but, by the end of his article, I only felt sorry for this godless man. Rather than rewrite the Ten Commandments into something a little more like The Ten Suggestions for a Satisfactory and Rewarding Life, we might want to re-read the original ones and evaluate our lives in their light. Granted, Jesus summarized the original ten into two simple rules, but those ten commands remain excellent and relevant guidelines for Christian behavior today.

Applying those ancient laws in the 21st century may require a broader interpretation but I seriously doubt they need rewriting or deletion. That many people deliberately misinterpret or ignore them is no reason to abandon them either. That drivers frequently disobey red lights, coast through stop signs, or exceed the speed limit doesn’t mean we should dispense with traffic laws. The problem isn’t with the law; it’s with the people!

If you love me, obey my commandments. [John 14:15 (NLT)]

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THE LAW – JUST TWO (Part 2)

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. [Deuteronomy 6:5 (NLT)]

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 19:18 (NLT)]

New England asterYesterday I told about a friend who was reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a young Jewish man belittled her belief in God. Admitting that he once believed, he explained he no longer did because the Torah had too many laws. My friend was pleased when the Holy Spirit provided her with this simple response: “Try the New Testament; there are only two laws in it!”

As Christians, we adhere to some laws found in the Old Testament but not all. For example, while abiding by the commandments regarding adultery and idolatry, we ignore the ones requiring ritual baths or prohibiting pork and shellfish. Because of this, non-believers sometimes accuse us of being inconsistent or hypocritical. The law God gave in the Old Testament was given specifically to the nation of Israel. Setting them apart from the pagan nations surrounding them, the covenant He made was with them and not anyone else.

God gave the new nation of Israel a set of civil laws dealing with such things as their relationship with one another, conducting business, and settling disputes. He gave them ceremonial laws dealing with things like worship, temple practices, sacrifice, ritual cleanliness, and priestly duties and attire. God also gave Israel moral laws: laws telling them what was right and wrong, like those found in the Ten Commandments. Because Israel’s nationality and religion were one in the same, their civil, ceremonial, and moral laws often were interconnected.

The civil laws governing the nation of Israel don’t apply to us any more than Colorado’s laws regarding ski resorts apply to Florida’s beaches or New Jersey’s speed limit of 65 applies to a driver going 80 down a rural freeway in Texas. Like the civil laws, Israel’s ritual laws also were specific for them. Jesus finished the work of their priests and no more sacrifices or days of atonement are necessary.

What then of the moral laws? Based on the character of God, they transcend Mosaic Law and the principles behind them remain valid. With the exception of keeping holy the Sabbath day, the Ten Commandments are repeated throughout the New Testament. Sometimes, they are repeated in much stronger terms, as when Jesus equated anger with murder and lust with adultery! [Mathew 5:21-23,28]

Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were given a choice: obey and reap God’s blessings or disobey and reap His curses. Having to justify themselves, Israel struggled and failed time and time again. The New Covenant, however, is based on grace rather than obedience—Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. With the New Covenant, God’s grace wasn’t limited to one nation but was made available to all people and for all time.

So what laws are we Christians to obey? Jesus made it simple with just two laws: wholly love God and love others as ourselves. Those two simple laws cover every conceivable situation far better than splitting hairs over who qualifies as a neighbor or how many times we are to forgive. We don’t need specific laws telling us to pay wages in a timely manner, use honest weights and measures, be charitable, honor our promises, do no wrong in buying or selling, and not to afflict widows and orphans. Found in both the Old and New Testaments, we have two all-purpose laws that cover all of those situations and much more. If we can fulfill these two, we’ve fulfilled them all!

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-40 (NLT)]

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THE LAW – MORE THAN 613  (Part 1 of 2)

Adonai said to Moshe, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay there. I will give you the stone tablets with the Torah and the mitzvot I have written on them, so that you can teach them.” [Exodus 24:12 (CJB)]

black-eyed susansA friend told of reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a stranger came up and made a disparaging comment about her belief in God and Scripture. Identifying himself as Jewish, he said he no longer believed the Bible, adding “There are just too many laws in the Torah.” Observant Jews have even more than the 613 laws found in Scripture. The words of Exodus 24:12 were construed to mean that, along with the written commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, God gave Moses additional explanations and examples that he was to teach. Believing these oral explanations were passed from Moses to Joshua and on down to the following generations, Deuteronomy 17:8-11 was understood to mean that, along with declaring verdicts in disputes, the priests or sages could further clarify and interpret the law.

The sages often used this oral tradition to “put a fence around the Torah” and prevent transgressions. For example, beginning at midday on the 14th day of Nissan, leaven was prohibited during Passover. If clouds covered the sun, the sages were concerned that leaven might accidentally be eaten so they extended the law by two hours. While Scripture alluded to prohibited labor on the Sabbath, such as kindling a fire or doing business, it never listed every prohibited act. In great detail, the oral tradition specified kinds of work and explicitly prohibited anything even resembling labor such as braiding hair (weaving) or applying makeup (dyeing).

The work of compiling these oral traditions began around 200 BC and continued until what’s known as the Mishnah was completed around 220 AD. Divided into six sections, it deals with agricultural laws, prayers, festivals and fasts, family life, both civil and criminal jurisprudence, and the regulations defining what is “clean” and “unclean.” Since some earlier oral material had not been included in it, rabbis continued to interpret and clarify the law and their findings were gathered into the Gemara. Around 540, the Gemara and Mishnah were collected into the Talmud. Consisting of 63 tractates (treatises) divided into 523 chapters, the Talmud represents the labor of many generations over a period of approximately 800 years. Today, the Torah consists both of the written law, Torah Shebichtav, found in the first five books of the Old Testament, and the oral law, Torah Sheba’al Peh, found in the Talmud.

While the law was God’s gift to His people and a guide to life in Israel’s new land, human traditions ended up supplanting and complicating God’s word. With all of the Torah’s rules, regulations, and interpretations, it’s easy to see why the young man became discouraged. It’s not that the Torah is bad, it’s that his religion had become more about rules and obedience than relationship and faith.

Only take great care to obey the mitzvah and the Torah which Moshe the servant of Adonai gave you — to love Adonai your God, follow all his ways, observe his mitzvot, cling to him, and serve him with all your heart and being.” [Joshua 22:5 (CJB)]

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LEAD US NOT

And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [Matthew 6:13 (NASB)]

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when in is accomplished, it brings forth death. [James 1:13-15 (NASB)]

wrong wayWhen I was a little girl, I had a beautifully illustrated picture book of the Lord’s Prayer. I clearly remember the illustration accompanying these words: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” A beautiful angel stood at a crossroads in front of two children and blocked their way down the wrong path.

While we ask God to guide us away from tempting circumstances and situations, we also know that an angel doesn’t always block the way. Sometimes God allows or even leads us into temptation and trials. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted by Satan [Matthew 4:1] and God tested the Israelites during their forty years in the desert to know whether or not they would keep His commandments. [Deut. 8:2] In the book of Job, God allowed Satan to tempt the man by mercilessly attacking him.

While God may allow us to be tempted, Scripture affirms that He never tempts us and He never will be the author or originator of evil. God can’t put evil desires into our hearts because there is no evil in Him. Nevertheless, God may bring us into situations that will sorely tempt us. When He does that, however, His plan always is for our good. Satan tempts in the hope of ruining us but God allows temptation to strengthen or test us. He doesn’t lead us into temptation to see us fail; he leads us into battle with evil so that we may be victorious.

We pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” because we know we are weak. Charles Spurgeon pointed out that a man who carries gunpowder on him wisely asks not to be led where sparks are flying. We may not be carrying gunpowder in our pockets, but things like pride, anger, fear, worry, despair, vanity, greed, and even lust are deep in our hearts and so we ask God not to lead us into situations where they might explode. But, in spite of our request, there are times that’s exactly where He leads us. That’s why, admitting our powerlessness to overcome evil on our own, we continue the prayer with, “deliver us from evil.” Life is a series of temptations and we ask God to give us the power and strength to withstand every temptation we face.

When Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted, the Holy Spirit was with Him the entire time. When we find ourselves in that same wilderness, we have the Holy Spirit, as well. Rather than an angel blocking the way, the Spirit will deliver us from evil!

Temptation is the best school into which the Christian can enter; yet, in itself, apart from the grace of God, it is so doubly hazardous, that this prayer should be offered every day, “Lead us not into temptation;”’ or if we must enter into it, “Lord, deliver us from evil.” [Martin Luther]

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. [1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB)]

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