THE MAN FROM GALILEE

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. [Isaiah 53:2-3 (NLT)]

poppyBecause we know little about the geography or politics of Jesus’ time, we sometimes miss subtleties in the gospel accounts. We know Jesus was from Galilee but what do we know of Galilee? Located north of Judea with the province of Samaria separating them, Galilee originally was settled by the tribes of Naphtali, Asher, Issachar, and Zebulun—all of whom failed to drive out the Canaanites. King Solomon gave twenty towns in the northern part of Galilee to King Hiram of Tyre either as payment for the cedar, cypress, and gold Hiram provided for the Temple’s construction or as collateral to cover later payments. In any case, Hiram later returned the cities to Solomon who then settled Israelites in them. When the kingdom divided, this region became part of the northern kingdom of Israel.

When Assyria defeated Israel, much of the Jewish population was relocated while those remaining often intermarried with the Gentiles sent there to repopulate the area. By the 7th century BC, the region was known as Galilee with Upper (northern) Galilee known as the “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was a rich and fertile region and, with the Sea of Galilee being the largest freshwater lake in the area, it was an ideal location for settlements and fishing. After returning from their exile in Babylon, Judean immigrants resettled the region.

By the time of Jesus, Galilee was a heavily populated area. Jesus was raised in Nazareth in Lower Galilee. Most, if not all, of His disciples were from Galilee and He spent much of his ministry preaching around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in towns like Capernaum and Bethsaida. It was in Galilee that he turned water into wine, gave the Sermon on the Mount, and performed miracles like feeding the 5,000, healing the centurion’s servant, raising Jairus’ daughter and the widow of Nain’s son, walking on water, and calming a storm.

What we 21st century believers probably don’t know is that, in Jesus’ day, Judeans disparaged Galileans. Even though most Galileans were Jewish, the pureness of their ancestry had been diluted by intermarriage and Judeans considered them of questionable ancestry. The Galilean Aramaic dialect differed enough from Judean Aramaic that Galileans (like New Yorkers) were recognizable by their accents. It was Peter’s accent that identified him as a Galilean when he denied Jesus and it was their distinctive accent that caused Judeans to consider Galileans uneducated. One story in the Babylonian Talmud told of prohibiting them from speaking in the Temple for fear they might mispronounce something and offend God! In Acts 4:32, we find the Council amazed at the confidence with which Peter and John spoke because they were “unlearned and ignorant” men. It was their thick Galilean accents, not their words, that caused the incorrect assumption of ignorance.

Regional prejudices were as prominent in Jesus’ time as they are in ours and Judeans, especially Jerusalemites, viewed Galileans as uncultured peasants. “Galilean” was as derogatory a term as are “redneck” or “hillbilly.” Consider Nathanael’s surprise when Philip told him the Messiah was from Nazareth: “Can anything good thing come from Nazareth?” When Nicodemus dared to defend Jesus by pointing out He deserved a trial, his fellow Pharisees taunted him with their answer: “Are you from Galilee, too? Search the Scriptures and see for yourself—no prophet ever comes from Galilee!” Not only did their scorn prove their bias and prejudice, but it also revealed their own ignorance. The prophet Jonah came from Gath-Hepher, just a few miles north of Nazareth, in Galilee! Their bias also kept them from seeing how Jesus filled Isaiah’s prophecy of a Messiah in Isaiah 9 (repeated in Matthew 4:13-16).

Are we as judgmental as were the Pharisees? Do we make assumptions about groups of people based on pre-existing beliefs about their heritage, race, accent, attire, age, gender, religion, or disability? Many in Judea turned their backs on Jesus and the disciples because all they saw were uneducated peasants who spoke with a Galilean accent! Because of their prejudice, they continued to sit in the darkness in the presence of the Light! Let’s not make a similar mistake!

He went first to Nazareth, then left there and moved to Capernaum, beside the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This fulfilled what God said through the prophet Isaiah:  “In the land of Zebulun and of Naphtali, beside the sea, beyond the Jordan River, in Galilee where so many Gentiles live, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined.” [Matthew 4:13-16 (NLT)]

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ON WHAT DO WE LEAN?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)]

pickerel weedWhile pondering an important decision, I realized I was trying to figure it out on my own rather than taking it to God. Relying on my own perception and trusting in my wisdom, however, is what got me into my dilemma in the first place. Based on some of the truly stupid choices I’ve made when leaning on my own understanding, it’s only through God’s grace that my life is not a total disaster.

It all started with Adam and Eve who, after listening to the serpent’s advice, leaned on their own understanding of God’s prohibition about that one tree. Doubting God’s goodness, they thought the fruit would make them as wise as God and foolishly took those bites rather than check with Him. Not trusting God’s promise of descendants to Abraham, Sarah looked to her own solution and gave Hagar to her husband. What part of “Don’t look back or stop anywhere!” did Lot’s wife fail to understand when she looked back at Sodom? It was leaning on their own understanding that made Aaron mold a golden calf and sacrifice burnt offerings to it or Saul spare Agag and take the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and plunder from the Amalekites. There were grievous consequences to all those decisions to lean on themselves rather than God!

Consider the Israelites who made it through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan by following God’s plan. Before crossing the Jordan, Moses sent twelve scouts on a reconnaissance mission to determine the lay of the land and the region’s agriculture. They weren’t supposed to assess the people or determine if they would enter Canaan—that was a given because God promised Israel both the land and their victory over its residents. But, when the scouts returned with reports of giants, the Israelites leaned on their own understanding rather than trusting God—an error that cost them forty more wilderness years

Although Israel’s  strength was in the power of their God, David’s logic told him a nation’s strength lay in the size of its army. Ignoring the advice of Joab, he trusted his reasoning more than God and took a census of all who could “handle a sword.” As a result of his foolishness, Israel suffered a plague and 70,000 people died. Although leaning on our own understanding doesn’t necessarily result in tragedy, it frequently does.

When faced with a decision, like David, we consult advisors and friends, or turn to that font of information and misinformation—the Internet. Unfortunately, our human understanding is pitifully limited and our motives often suspect. Writing and debate classes taught me that a case can be made for any stand on an issue—whether it’s the right stand is an entirely different matter! It’s human nature to search deepest for information and advisors supporting our desires and to disregard as faulty anything that doesn’t support our position. Rehoboam did just that when he followed the advice of his greedy friends rather than Mosaic law and the godly advice of his father’s advisors. When he leaned on his own understanding, the kingdom divided.

We see just a portion of what is right in front of us but, in just one glance, God sees the whole picture—the past, present, and future. While our flawed understanding of God and His plan isn’t a requirement for obedience to Him, our trust is! The first part of today’s verse tells us to trust in the Lord—which is what Adam, Eve, and the rest should have done! Rather than lean on our own understanding or that of other flawed humans, we must turn to the true giver of wisdom—God—and His book of wisdom—the Bible.

“I wish I knew what to do!” we exclaim. While I can’t tell anyone what to do, I can tell everyone what not to do—don’t lean on your own understanding!

This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. [1 Corinthians 1:25 (NLT)]

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TATTOOS – Part 2

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NLT)]


While the New Testament does not specifically address tattooing, my friend’s question about tattoos got me wondering whether it’s addressed in general terms. Because tattoos apparently originated in things like pagan symbolism, superstition, and idolatry, some maintain they’re prohibited in Scripture. Indeed, the Israelites were prohibited from worshipping the pagans’ gods, following their customs, and participating in “detestable acts” like child sacrifice and the New Testament warns of sorcery and idolatry, but applying those words to tattoos seems a long stretch. The dates of holidays like Christmas (Saturnalia), All Saints’ Day (Samhain), and Valentine’s Day (Lupercalia) have pagan beginnings as do customs like placing flowers on graves, embalming, and celebrating birthdays. Must we abandon those (along with the heart symbol) because of their pagan origins? In that case, we’ll need to ditch our calendars since both the days of the week and the names of the months are founded in astrology and pagan gods (i.e., Saturday/Saturn, Thursday/Thor, March/Mars, and June/Juno)! Where do we draw the line?

Just because pagans did something doesn’t necessarily mean it is sinful. Before condemning every pagan custom, we should remember that even the pagans ate, harvested crops, worshipped, and prayed! In fact, much of the early church’s success was because it adapted to (but didn’t adopt) the pagan culture of its time without compromising the gospel message. “Like the apostle Paul,” said pastor and theologian Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, “they sought to be all things to all people, that Christianity might become the religion of as many as possible.”

The Apostle Paul refers to a Christian’s body as God’s temple and some condemn tattoos with this verse. Likening tattoos to graffiti in the sanctuary of a church, they consider them nothing short of vandalism or defilement. Citing Paul, they maintain that altering our bodies in any way is a sin. Again, where do we draw the line—at make-up, plucking eyebrows, shaving, piercings, coloring hair, Lasix and cataract surgery, corrective and reconstructive plastic surgeries, Botox, or even Spanx? All alter our bodies in one way or another. Since the Apostle was specifically addressing sexual immorality among believers, that’s not what Paul had in mind with his words.

Perhaps the best Scripture to guide us regarding any body embellishment is found in 1 Peter 3. Rather than prohibiting adornments altogether, Peter was emphasizing a proper sense of values. Materialism, boastfulness, conceit, attention seeking, and obsession with sex existed in the 1st century just as they do today. Whether it’s a body entirely covered with tattoos, one enhanced with every sort of plastic surgery, a see-though gown with plunging neckline, heavy gold chains around the neck and gold rings on every finger, or tee shirts with rude or hateful messages on them, none seem to display the Spirit of God or represent the way our humble, gentle, and holy Lord would have appeared.

How we adorn our bodies is one of those grey areas that, to some extent, is a matter of taste and judgment. Remembering that we are created in God’s image and hold His Holy Spirit within us, we must be led by the Spirit, the Word, and common sense. Clearly, any practice that is vulgar, ostentatious, insensitive, or a distraction to one’s Christian influence should be avoided yet, even those guidelines are open to interpretation. When in doubt, I find it best to err on the side of caution and ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Our lifestyle, language, attitudes, and manner of dress reflect on His name. He leads us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Unless you are honestly convinced that the thing in question will bring glory to God, then don’t do it. [Curtis Hutson]

Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. [1 Peter 3:3-4 (NLT)]

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TATTOOS – Part 1

Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 19:28 (NLT)]

Moses - Meiringen - Michaelskirch
Since Leviticus 19:28 seems to prohibit tattoos, some people mistakenly believe that that it’s a sin for a Christian to be tattooed. My attention was drawn to this specific verse because a friend’s parents had cautioned him throughout his youth that a tattoo would keep him out of God’s kingdom.

Even though the word “tattoo” appears in most Bible translations of this verse, Scripture makes no specific reference to tattoos as we understand them today—a permanent mark or design on one’s body made by depositing pigment beneath the surface of the skin. The original Hebrew word was kethobeth; appearing just this one time, it appears to mean incised writing. Whether this was a scar from cutting (previously mentioned in this verse), a brand, or a mark using dye is unclear. The English word “tattoo” comes from tatau, tatatau, and similar words found in the tribal cultures of Polynesia and didn’t even enter the English language until 1771 when Captain James Cook (and his freshly tattooed sailors) returned from their first South Pacific voyage. Published in 1611, the King James Bible more correctly translates kethobeth as “mark.”  We really don’t know if Leviticus 19:28 was a blanket prohibition of all body markings or just certain types nor do we know if it applied to all circumstances or just specific ones like mourning, idolatry, or blasphemy.

Nevertheless, we’re curious about the various prohibitions in the Mosaic law and often wonder about God’s reasoning behind them. Many laws that seem quite arbitrary, like that in Leviticus 19:28, may well have been to distinguish the Israelites from the pagan customs they left in Egypt and would encounter in Canaan. Archeology indicates that ritualistic cutting was common in the Canaanite, Hittite, and Mesopotamian cultures when mourning the dead or honoring their gods. In their false belief that drawing blood called the attention of the gods, 1 Kings 18 tells us the prophets of Baal, “following their normal custom,” cut themselves with knives and swords “until the blood gushed out!” after they failed to call down fire from heaven.

Since we can’t understand God any better than an ant can understand us, trying to determine His reasoning behind many of the Torah’s laws is an exercise in futility. Moreover, obedience to God’s word isn’t dependent upon our understanding; His laws are to be obeyed simply because He is God and we are not. If the Israelites were presumptuous enough to ask God’s justification for the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, His answer would have been the same one our parents gave us when we whined about curfews, TV time, proper attire, and being nice to our annoying little brother: “Because I said so!” God doesn’t need to justify His reasoning to His children any more than did our parents to us!

Heeding his parents’ caution about tattoos, my friend never got one but his grandchildren have! I assured him that their body ink has no bearing on their final destination. While many of the Old Testament laws are guidelines for knowing how to love God and our neighbor, they are not the standard by which Christians measure their conduct. We wear garments made of two or more kinds of fabric, trim our beards and side burns, consume dairy and meat in the same meal, and eat things like bacon, shrimp, and shellfish—all of which defy the Torah’s laws, yet no one claims any of those things will keep us out of the Kingdom and neither will tattoos!

When Jesus died on the cross, He put an end to the Old Testament law (even the one about body markings). As Christians the only law we are under is that of Christ: to love God with our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves!

Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. … The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. [Ephesians 3:23, 24-25 (NLT)]

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DRIFTING

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it. [Hebrews 2:1 (NLT)]

Lake Brienz-Switzerland
We had an elderly friend who frequently visited us at our lakeside cottage. An avid reader but a poor swimmer, she loved to relax and read in a small rubber raft while floating on the water. Inevitably, she’d drift off and, finding it difficult to paddle against the current and return to the dock, she’d call on the children to swim out and tow her back to safety. Eventually, tiring of their towing job on a breezy day, they took a length of rope and tied it to both raft and dock. The rope was long enough to allow our friend to float around but short enough that she never got too far away from home. I thought of her when I read the caution in Hebrews 2:1 to carefully listen to the truth lest we drift away from it.

Like the Hebrews, many in the church at Colosse were drifting away into dangerous waters. Rather than drifting into apostasy (the abandonment of their belief in Jesus) as were the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, the Colossians were drifting into the equally dangerous waters of heresy (adhering to a belief contrary to church doctrine). Sitting near the intersection of several major highways, Colosse was exposed to a wide variety of beliefs and philosophies. Rather than waves of persecution, these new Christians were being pushed along by the popular, but false, teachings of the day. Various un-Biblical philosophies and beliefs were being integrated into doctrine and wreaking havoc in the church. Just as my children brought my friend back to the dock, Paul’s letter was his way of returning the church to sound doctrine.

From Paul’s letter, it appears that some teachers were peddling something akin to Gnosticism—a belief that some people possessed secret superior knowledge that was hidden from most other believers. Thinking that all matter (including the body) was evil, they affirmed the deity of Jesus but denied His humanity. Others seemed to embrace a fusion of Christianity and Judaism that included Jewish dietary laws and the observance of Jewish holy days. Some Colossians espoused a spiritualistic teaching requiring them to worship angels before connecting with God. Still others adopted a legalistic version of Christianity with man-made requirements like pious self-denial, special rituals, and possibly circumcision. Calling them “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense,” Paul pointed out that those beliefs came from human thinking and demons rather than Christ.

When those false theories and ideologies were merged into the tenets of the new church, there was just enough of Scripture’s truth in them to make them sound right. Even in the 21st century, it’s easy to get caught up in new philosophies or trendy ideas and different “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense” continue to be preached today.  As Tim Challies said, “This world is a murky madness of true and false. For every doctrine we know to be true, there seems to be a hundred pretenders.” Like the Colossians, we must be on guard for those pretenders—those who add to, ignore, dismiss, or edit Scripture along with any who are more interested in filling their wallets than saving souls, more intent on pleasing mankind than God, or claim to have been called by God to preach words outside of Scripture.

To avoid drifting away from the truth found in Jesus, rather than tethering ourselves to a dock as did my friend, we must tether ourselves to God; instead of using a rope, we use His word as found in the Bible. Simply put, sound doctrine comes solely from God. Its authority comes only from God’s Word and is consistent with all of Scripture (rather than a verse taken out of context).

Whatever is only almost true is quite false, and among the most dangerous of errors, because being so near truth, it is the more likely to lead astray. [Henry Ward Beecher]

But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. … Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. [Colossians 1:23,2:8 (NLT)]

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TRUTH OR FICTION?

All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness, so that people who belong to God may be complete, fitted out and ready for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NTE)]

Bible
I didn’t mean to spoil anyone’s holiday last month when writing about some common Christmas misconceptions in “The Real Story.” Like many others, I display historically inaccurate nativity scenes, sing “We Three Kings,” attend live nativities and Christmas pageants, and never will tire of the little ones, in their crooked tinsel halos, singing “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” Even when not historically accurate, Christmas practices like these have become a beautiful part of our traditional celebration of the Lord’s birth. That devotion’s purpose was to point out that, since  God’s story needs no embellishment, we need to know the difference between legend, tradition, and truth if our witness is to be effective.

It’s crucial to know what Scripture says because it’s not just Christmas traditions that can blur the line between truth and fiction. For example, even though Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code  is entirely fiction, there are many people who believe it to be reality-based. While adding sex, intrigue, and conspiracy to the story of God’s redemption of mankind made for a best seller and popular movie, it’s a poor substitute for the truth found in God’s word! We can’t rewrite Jesus to make Him more human nor can we rewrite His message to make it fit our purposes. As Christians, we must be wary of hoaxes and untruths in any sort of media, whether they purport to be fiction or not.

Several years ago, a woman in our study group asked to lead the day’s prayer from a popular devotional. Because the book’s author originally claimed the book’s words came directly from Jesus, this woman believed she was directly quoting the Lord in the prayer and gave its words the same authority as Scripture. The problem wasn’t in the prayer’s insipid words, it was in the author’s claim of divine revelation—that they were Jesus’ words. None of us can speak for God and that prayer’s words were the author’s, not the Lord’s. If our witness is to be effective, we must know the difference between Spirit-led ideas and God’s word. No matter how inspiring, we must never put our words (or those of anyone else) in Jesus’ mouth. If we want to know what He has to say, the Bible (rather than a devotional) is where we should look!

In another small group, we were discussing the crucifixion when Joseph of Arimathea was mentioned. Scripture only tells us that he was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who obtained Jesus’ body from Pilate and, with Nicodemus, prepared it for burial before laying the Lord in his own tomb. One group member, however, related how Joseph later brought the gospel to Britain along with the Holy Grail and, when he stuck his staff into the ground, it miraculously turned into a thorn tree overnight. While Joseph was mentioned by early church historians and in apocryphal and non-canonical accounts, no additional details were ever found credible. He wasn’t even associated with the Holy Grail until his name appeared in a 12th century verse romance and the first mention of his evangelizing Britain wasn’t made until the mid-13th century! As for the Holy Grail—Scripture makes absolutely no mention of a Holy Grail because there was none; like this story of Joseph of Arimathea, it is nothing more than a mythical legend. Nevertheless, many Christians continue to confuse legend with gospel truth.

Because it is authoritative, true, and complete, Scripture alone is the basis for our faith, doctrine, and witness. Proverbs 30:5-6 and Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32 all speak to Scripture’s sufficiency with their warnings to neither add to nor take away from God’s word. Moreover, in spite of skeptics’ claims, every book that God intended to be in the Bible is there. Rather than being lost or hidden, any “missing” books were rejected because they were fallible religious/historical books rather than the inspired inerrant Word of God.

As Jesus’ witnesses, we are expected to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!” Of course, to do that we must know the truth and we can only do that by doing what the Bereans did—test what we hear and read by searching for the truth in Scripture!

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. [Acts 17:11 (NLT)]

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