DON’T ADD OR SUBTRACT

Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you. [Deuteronomy 4:2 (NLT)]

tri-colored heron - snowy egretIt’s easy to have misconceptions about Scripture. If you were to ask someone the identity of the forbidden fruit, chances are the answer would be an apple. Scripture, however, never names the fruit. The Hebrew word used was peri which is a generic term for “produce,” “results,” or “reward.” We probably got the idea that it was an apple from later translations of Scripture into Latin since the Latin word “evil” is mălum, a word quite similar to the Latin word for “apple,” which is mālum. Renaissance painters continued to perpetuate the myth with their depiction of an apple at the temptation. Scripture, however, never identifies the fruit because its identity is not important; the evil wasn’t in the fruit but rather in Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

The three kings were neither three nor kings. Rather than kings, they were magi or wise men, perhaps philosophers, astronomers, or counselors of kings. Familiar with Hebrew Scripture, they knew and understood the various Messianic prophecies. It is merely tradition that their names were Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. While we know there were at least three gifts, we don’t know how many magi there were.

If asked about Mary Magdalene, most people would say she was a repentant prostitute and probably the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet but there is no evidence to support this. All four gospels do mention this Jewish woman from Magdala who helped support Jesus and the disciples, witnessed the crucifixion and Jesus’s burial, and saw the risen Christ at the empty tomb. Although Luke tells us tells us that Jesus healed her of seven demons, we have absolutely no reason to think of this once mentally ill woman as immoral or wanton; she was no more a sinner than were any of the disciples.

If you were to ask most Protestants about the “Immaculate Conception,” they would probably say it refers the conception of Jesus in a virgin’s womb, but it doesn’t. While Jesus was, indeed, born without sin, this Roman Catholic doctrine refers to the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and states that, unlike the rest of mankind, Mary had no original sin and remained sinless throughout her life. Scripture, however, never describes Mary as anything but an ordinary, although godly, woman: a woman who needed a savior as much as the rest of us.

We often quote scripture that isn’t Scripture. Money isn’t the root of all evil; in fact, it can do all sorts of wonderful things. The Apostle Paul, however, warns us that it’s the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil, which is not quite the same. While “it came to pass” occurs about 400 times in the King James Version of the Bible, “This too shall pass,” never does. God does work in mysterious ways but that sentiment comes from a 1774 hymn by William Cowper. “God helps those who help themselves,” is nowhere in the Bible and probably came from one of Aesop’s fables and, while the Old Testament has lots of rules about cleanliness, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” is not one of them. In fact, Jesus tells us to worry more about the sin in our hearts than the dirt on our hands!

The Bible is the written testimony of God’s word. When we quote the Bible, we want to be sure that what we’re quoting actually is in the Bible and, when we’re telling Bible stories, we want to tell the story correctly. God told the Israelites to neither add nor subtract from His commands; neither should we. We are to seek what Scripture actually means, not what we’d like it to mean. “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,” said the Psalmist. [119:11] Let’s make sure the words we’ve put in our hearts actually are God’s!

Oh, how I love your instructions! I think about them all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are my constant guide. … Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. … The very essence of your words is truth; all your just regulations will stand forever. [Psalm 119:97-98,105, 160 (NLT)]

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KILLING THE MESSENGER

Then the leaders plotted to kill Zechariah, and King Joash ordered that they stone him to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s Temple. That was how King Joash repaid Jehoiada for his loyalty—by killing his son. Zechariah’s last words as he died were, “May the Lord see what they are doing and avenge my death!” [2 Chronicles 24:21-22 (NLT)]

“Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” sings Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the musical The Wiz as she tells the Winkies she’ll accept any news as long as it’s good. In the Old Testament, we find that same unwillingness to hear bad news on the part of Judah’s and Israel’s kings. What they didn’t seem to understand was that, while they could kill the messenger, they couldn’t kill the message.

Being a prophet was a risky business and Zechariah wasn’t the only prophet who suffered or died because his message was unwelcome. When Hanani was sent by God to rebuke King Asa for allying Judah with Aram, the enraged king responded by putting the prophet in stocks and imprisoning him. Jeremiah prophesied God’s judgment on Judah for its disobedience. Not wanting to believe that such a condemning prophecy could come from God, the people called him a traitor and demanded his death. Reminding them that Micah had given a similar prophecy, the elders stepped in and Jeremiah’s life was spared. Although he escaped death that time, the prophet suffered beatings, imprisonment, and being put in stocks before being killed in Egypt. After Uriah prophesied against the evil in Judah, King Jehoiakim had him hunted down and killed. Wanting to wipe out the worship of the Lord and replace it with Baal worship, Jezebel sought to kill Elijah; although he escaped death, several other of God’s prophets weren’t so fortunate. Not wanting to hear John the Baptist’s bad news, Herodias urged Salome to demand his severed head on a plate.

The common theme of the prophets was repentance – turn from your evil ways and back to the Lord. For the most part, the typical response was like that of Evillene: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” We still have the words of those prophets and much of their censure applies to us today. Moreover, many of their prophecies remain unfulfilled and we’d best not turn a deaf ear to them. Like Evillene, we only want to hear what we want to hear but God doesn’t work that way; He tells us what we need to hear!

When reading the words of the prophets, think of how they apply to the world in which we live: a world plagued with poverty, deficient health care, food insufficiency, human rights violations, climate change, diminishing resources, religious conflicts, genocide, wars, lack of economic opportunity and security, corruption, inequality, poor sanitation and water insecurity to name a few. Those problems are not that different from the ones addressed by the prophets thousands of years ago.

We no longer kill the prophets; we just ignore them. Let us learn from the fall of Israel and Judah; ignoring God is done at our own peril.

The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it. [George Orwell]

Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. … If you will only obey me, you will have plenty to eat. But if you turn away and refuse to listen, you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Isaiah 1:16-17,19-20 (NLT)]

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IT AFFECTS MORE THAN YOU

The prudent understand where they are going, but fools deceive themselves. [Proverbs 14:8 (NLT)]

great blue heronAlthough God ordered the Israelites not to seize any plunder for themselves after the battle of Jericho, Achan stole a beautiful garment, silver coins and a wedge of gold. Confident after their Jericho victory, the Israelites went out to conquer the city of Ai but were so overpowered that they turned and fled and thirty-six Israelites died in battle that day! When Joshua asked God why they’d been defeated, God told him it was because Israel had defied His command about not looting Jericho. Achan’s guilt was discovered and he and his entire family were stoned to death. Clearly, Achan hadn’t thought about the consequences of his sin, not just for him but for his family and thirty-six other families, as well.

I recently ran across a quote but wanted to check out the author before using it. A quick search of his name told me that he’d been involved in a public scandal of infidelity and deception. As apt as the quote was, there was no way I was going to use it. In my research, I happened upon an article the man wrote shortly after the scandal. He mentioned walking into a bookstore and seeing a new book by a Christian author. The disgraced pastor had gotten an advance copy and a blurb with his recommendation was on the book’s cover. Realizing that his tarnished name would now hurt rather than help book sales, he finally understood how many people were paying the penalty for his dishonorable actions. He’d wounded not just his family, another family, and his entire church but an unsuspecting and innocent author, as well.

As both Achan and the fallen pastor realized, the way we conduct our lives affects not just us but everyone associated with us. The father who smokes, ignoring the health dangers, might say it his life to do with as he wants while overlooking the dangers to his family of second-hand smoke. He’s not thinking about the possibility he may get cancer or emphysema, saddle his family with huge medical bills, and the loss they’d suffer were he to die. The wife who has an illicit affair disregards the damage her infidelity could have on her marriage and children or the ramifications of a divorce. Inevitably, people will be hurt, relationships destroyed and finances strained. The salesman who neglects a customer is indifferent to the impact that a client’s dissatisfaction could have on his employer. A disgruntled customer may spread word of poor service or cancel orders; lay-offs or even business failure could result. Even little failings have a way of touching the lives of others. Bad language is often copied by one’s children, yet they are the ones punished at school. Lies and negativity have an uncanny ability to spread and affect the morale of those around us and then to the people around them.

We need to remember the lessons taught in the Old Testament: good behavior brings blessings but bad behavior can bring disaster not just to us but to others. Sadly, as Achan learned too late, the people we hurt the worst often are the ones we love the most.

Trouble chases sinners, while blessings reward the righteous. [Proverbs 13:21 (NLT)]

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THE GOOD OLD DAYS

Virginia CityDon’t long for “the good old days.” This is not wise. [Ecclesiastes 7:10 (NLT)]

When talking with my centenarian mother-in-law, we often spoke of the “good old days.” She sometimes indulged in what I came to call “wishful remembering” and her past became more like a Hallmark movie than reality. I suppose, to some extent, we all do the same. The sledding hill grows steeper, the house bigger, the friends nicer, the grades better, the paycheck larger, and the success greater while any failure, disappointment, blame, pain, or drudgery diminishes. Not every memory we have, however, is a correct one; rather than an accurate record, our memories are actually what we tell ourselves about the past. Given the choice, it’s far nicer to have wishful good memories than ones of bitterness, regret and sorrow and I never corrected my mother-in-law’s. Nevertheless, we must be cautious of becoming too attached to our memories, especially if our less than accurate version of yesterday keeps us from moving into tomorrow.

Less than a month after God’s parting of the Red Sea and their song of victory and triumph at the defeat of Pharaoh, the Israelites had a serious case of wishful remembering and started to grumble. Instead of recalling the slaughter of baby boys and the back-breaking labor of Egyptian slavery, they remembered sitting around in comfort eating all the bread and stew they desired. Months later, they again complained about their hardships while recalling free fish, fruit and vegetables instead of the price they paid in sweat for that food. Rather than oppression, they remembered the “good old days” of Egyptian provision.

Sodom was the place where a gang of men wanted to attack Lot, sexually abuse his guests, and, for reasons beyond our understanding, Lot offered his virgin daughters to a mob of depraved men. When Lot’s family was told that Sodom was to be destroyed, they were urged to flee immediately and specifically warned to neither stop nor look back. Nevertheless, stopping and turning back is exactly what Lot’s wife did. According to the Moody Bible Commentary, the Hebrew word used for her looking back (vathabbet) has a very specific meaning of looking at something with desire or approval. Lot’s family left their home, possessions, friends, and even their sons-in-law behind. Choosing not to recall the evil, Lot’s wife turned, remembered the “good old days,” and longed for what had been and was no more.

When we follow God, we’re not promised an easy journey; in fact, Jesus pretty much promises we’ll encounter hardships. Stepping out in faith often means moving from comfort, convenience, and familiarity into the disruption, trials and vulnerability of the unknown. In light of new challenges and burdens, it’s easy to repaint the past with wishful memories of “the good old days.” As bad as the past may have been for either the Israelites or Lot’s wife, for them it seemed preferable to their unknown tomorrows. Those wishful memories, however, cost the Israelites an extra 38 years and Lot’s wife her life!

While wishful memories can make the past more palatable, they also can prevent us from experiencing the blessings of the future. We must never remember the good old days at the expense of failing to trust God with the new ones.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

But I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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BEARING FRUIT (Part 2)

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (NLT)]

concord grapesBeing the branches on the vine of Jesus means that we are extensions of Him and a good branch is one that produces fruit. In Galatians 5, Paul told us that fruit should look like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Our fruit doesn’t come by following guidelines or obeying laws; it comes from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; it comes from staying connected to the vine.

My son lives in California and has several beautiful trees in his yard. Not an arborist, I didn’t know what kind of trees they were until I saw their fruit. It was only by the orange persimmons, yellow lemons, and dark figs that I recognized the trees. As with my son’s fruit trees, it is by our fruit that we are recognized as Christ followers. Our responsibility as Christians is to bear godly fruit and, if we’re not producing fruit that looks and tastes a whole lot like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we’re not connected to the vine!

As with any orchard, it takes time for trees and vines to grow and fruit to ripen and mature. Moreover, being a Christ follower doesn’t mean we’ll never sin. Admittedly, in spite of the Holy Spirit, often my behavior is anything but Christ-like and, frequently, there’s a shortage of good fruit in my orchard. There will be people and situations that challenge our capacity to act as would Jesus. Things will try our patience, test our faith, cause us to question our ability to love our neighbor, and challenge us to curb our anger. There will be times we’re exasperated, irritated, distressed, offended or worried. We’ll fail to turn the other cheek, lose our tempers, and say things we shouldn’t.

Because our behavior in these instances is a clear indication of where we are in our faith walk and how connected we are to the vine, I call them our “Jesus meters;” a bad score on the Jesus meter tells us we’re not walking His walk! When that meter indicates rotten fruit (or none at all), we repent, ask forgiveness, take comfort in God’s grace, reconnect with the Holy Spirit, learn from our errors, and continue to grow on His vine.

Just as I know my son’s trees by their fruit, Jesus know us by ours. If we’re bearing the Fruit of the Spirit, people will see some of Christ in us. If there were a litmus test for Christlikeness, it would not be pious words, powerful preaching, grandiose gestures, or even extraordinary feats; it would be the presence of the Fruit of the Spirit. If love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control aren’t evident in our lives, we may be talking the talk but we’re clearly not walking the walk.

Being reborn takes only a moment but becoming a Christian, now that takes a lifetime. Every life bears fruit of some kind. The question for each of us is, “What kind of fruit is mine?”

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. [John 15:8 (NLT)]

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SELFWILL – The Pilgrim’s Progress

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

strawflowersJesus clearly promises forgiveness of our sins but some people treat this gift as little more than a Monopoly game’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The pilgrims Honest and Great Heart meet such a person in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Motivated by God’s promise of “eternal security,” Mr. Selfwill feels free to live any way he wants. Since David committed adultery, Rahab lied, and Jacob deceived, he believes he can do those things, as well. He thinks anyone who believes that Jesus has forgiven his sins has the freedom to sin willfully as long as he has some virtues to go along with his sins. Assuming his good deeds cancel out his bad ones, Selfwill deliberately sins.

Because we are sinners, all Christians will struggle with sin and it is not until we see Jesus face to face that we’ll be completely free from sin. Nevertheless, Christ didn’t die on the cross so mankind would continue to sin! Honest and Great Heart point out that falling into sin and deliberately committing it are not the same things. There is a difference between a stumble into the mud puddle and an eager and deliberate leap into the muck so one can wallow in it!

Selfwill has the attitude of, “Since I’m saved and all my sins are forgiven, I can keep sinning.” While a genuine believer won’t lose his share in Christ’s salvation when he sins and repents, Selfwill isn’t a genuine believer. Confident that he can’t lose his salvation when he eagerly and intentionally sins, Selfwill doesn’t realize he’s never been saved! Believing that Jesus died for our sins is the correct doctrine but believing in a doctrine is not what saves us. We are saved when we believe in and give our lives to the right person: Jesus Christ (a distinction Selfwill missed). Forgiveness is not something to be taken lightly and, for the true believer, willfully continuing to sin is not an option. Rather than deliberately committing a sin, the true believer wants to be delivered from his sins.

If we are living a life that is indistinguishable from that of an unbeliever, it’s time to look in a mirror and examine ourselves. Have we truly received Christ as our Lord and Savior? Mr. Selfwill (like Misters Formality, Talkative, Hypocrisy, Ignorance, and Moneylove) didn’t come to the Way through the narrow Gate: Jesus. Unfortunately, when these men come to the Celestial City, they will find the door locked and not gain admittance.

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. … Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, “Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.” But I will reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.” [Matthew 7: 13-14, 21-23 (NLT)]

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