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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WATCH YOUR STEP

Chicago skylineSo watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! Don’t live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (MSG)]

We were at my son’s home in the city. The smoker and grill were fired up and the family had gathered up on his rooftop deck for a barbecue. Being just six weeks after my foot surgery, I was rather proud of myself for having navigated the four flights up to the deck while carrying a large tray of appetizers. In this case, however, pride came before the fall. Walking onto the deck, I looked out at the magnificent view of the city’s famed skyline and, the next thing I knew, I was flat on my face, surrounded by cucumber sandwiches and broken glass. Feeling too sure of myself and distracted by the surroundings, I hadn’t realized there was one more step to navigate.

A similar event occurred after my other foot surgery four years ago. Thrilled to finally get back on my bike after six weeks of inactivity, I was happily cruising along and “in the zone.” Thinking I was reaching for my bell to warn a walker of my approach, I ended up braking—hard. I flew over the handlebars and my bike and I landed in the muddy gutter. On both occasions, my brain simply went on vacation. Failing to look where I was going or to think about what I was doing, I ended up bloody and bruised. Sprawled on my son’s deck, I pictured God shaking his head and saying, “Will you never learn? Use the brains I gave you; be cautious and watch your step!”

When we stop paying attention to our actions and surroundings, we can plunge into more than gutters or tumble onto more than a floor; we can land in a spiritual sewer or a den of iniquity. In spite of being warned to stay alert for the enemy and his snares, we often just barrel along, oblivious to his hidden hazards. When we’re not watching our step, the enemy’s traps can trip us up and we can fall into a heap of trouble. When we live heedlessly, it’s easy to stumble and end up bashed and battered.

Looking back on Saturday’s misadventure, I’m thankful that I escaped with just few cuts, abrasions, bruises, and sore muscles. On the plus side, no bones were broken, there was plenty to eat without my tray of food, and my swollen knee and stiff neck have kept me from thinking about my aching foot. We rarely get off that easily when we sin.

Oh Lord, teach us to be alert to both the physical and spiritual pitfalls of life. Give us sure footing as we navigate the unpredictable world in which we live. And, (as I asked four years ago), could the inspiration for my next devotion not involve blood and bruises?

Satan is the master distracter. He is always working to keep us off track in our walk with God. [Joyce Meyer]

God made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him. When I got my act together, he gave me a fresh start. Now I’m alert to God’s ways; I don’t take God for granted. Every day I review the ways he works; I try not to miss a trick. I feel put back together, and I’m watching my step. God rewrote the text of my life when I opened the book of my heart to his eye. [Psalm 18:20-24 (MSG)]

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UH-OH!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. [James 1:2-4 (MSG)]

double rainbowThe most obvious way God speaks is through the Bible. Sometime, however, He whispers to us in the “Aha!” moments. Serendipitous, they are God’s love notes that gently remind us of His presence, His love for us, and the magnificence of His creation. While they vary from person to person, I tend to find them in things like butterflies dancing among the flowers or a double rainbow after a spring storm.

God speaks louder with those wonderful “Oh, yes!” moments—the joyful times when all seems right with the world. We recognize His voice when the healthy baby arrives, the surgeon says the word “benign,” or the prodigal returns home. Along with the welcome “Oh, yes!” moments are the unwelcome “Oh, no!” ones—times when the bottom falls out of our world. They come with words like “malignant” or “inoperable,” a phone call in the middle of the night, or in the ICU. In all of these occasions, we quickly seek God with either our incredible feelings of thanks and praise or in our deep sense of desperation and need. The only way we can make sense of either the awe or the awfulness of life is to believe and trust in our all-powerful and loving God who knows exactly what He’s doing.

While I can find God in the “Aha,” awesome and awful, my problem comes with God’s ”Uh-oh!” moments—the unexpected and unasked for minor frustrations of life. It seems easier to turn to God in the extremes than in the routine detours, roadblocks, and nuisances of everyday life. We all have them—waiting on hold for ten minutes only to get disconnected, losing the car keys, anything that involves technical support or the DMV (and possibly the post office), waiting all day for the repairman who never shows or engaging in wrap rage while trying to open a child-proof package! These are the moments when my fruit looks far more like impatience, peevishness, self-pity, childishness, and rudeness than anything produced by the Spirit.

We often talk about the joy and peace we have as Christians but rarely about how we deal (or fail to deal) with irritation and frustration. While the emotion isn’t sinful, often how we act in response to it is. The enemy doesn’t have to tempt us with a cannon when an annoying barrage of pellets from his BB gun will make us forget who we are and in whose arms we are held!

I doubt that I’m the only one who has difficulty maintaining perspective and patience in the face of the little aggravations that are part and parcel of living in our world. Perhaps it’s because we think those minor annoyances are solely our concern when, in actuality, like everything else, they belong to God! Focusing on whatever is upsetting us simply makes it grow in importance but focusing on God shrinks it back to size. Let us remember that our God listens—not just to our praise, thanks and heavy-duty pleas, but also to our prayers for perspective, patience and peace. It’s by focusing on God that we can turn those “Oh-oh” moments into “OK!” ones!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. [Colossians 3:1-2 (MSG)]

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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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GETTING THE RIGHT MEANING

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)]

Author John Greco wrote of answering a call for a 24-hour phone prayer ministry to find a man in crisis. Sobbing, the caller confessed that he was a dog breeder and that he hadn’t known that every dollar he gave to the church was a sin that made God angry. A new believer, the man had been following a Scripture reading plan with his King James Bible. That morning, he’d read Deuteronomy 23:18: “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord … for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” Thinking God found his tithe from selling dogs disgusting and sinful is what had him so distraught. What the man didn’t understand, but Greco patiently explained, was that, in the Old Testament, “dog” was a euphemism for “male prostitute.” Reassuring his caller, Greco read the same verse from the NIV translation: “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord….” The King James, being a word-for-word translation, had given the literal translation rather than the original meaning. The NIV, being about half way between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations, used “male prostitute” with a footnote that explained it had been “dog” in the original Hebrew.

Curious, I looked up this same verse in a variety of translations. My NLT, which moves a little further down the thought-for-thought-chain, translates the words in question as, ”the earnings of a prostitute, whether a man or a woman” and also provides a footnote with the original word. Like the King James, the RSV is a word-for word translation but it adds a footnote indicating “dog” meant “sodomite.” The VOICE, a paraphrase translation, refers to the earnings from “cult prostitution.” Although each version is different, they all are right in their own way.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and many of its original words don’t translate easily into English. For example, there were at least four different Greek words (phileō, storgē, eros, and agapē) for our one word “love.” Moreover, like “dog” for “male prostitute,” idioms often are difficult to translate. In 1 Samuel 24, the word-for-word KJV says that Saul went into a cave “to cover his feet” which doesn’t make sense to us. Covering his feet, however, was a Hebrew idiom for relieving himself (which the thought-for-thought translations make clear) and does make sense.

Because it is the first Bible I ever read, I will always treasure the King James translation; its version of the 23rd Psalm remains my favorite. Nevertheless, when I read that same psalm in the TLB, NLT, or Message versions, I see other nuances. Until reading the TLB’s “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!” I hadn’t thought of it in terms of cause and effect. Rather than the “valley of the shadow of death,” the NLT broadens it to “the darkest valley,” and the Message refers to “Death Valley.” Thinking of actually traversing Death Valley—an unforgiving land of extremes where one could die from lack of drinking water or drown in a flash flood—and crossing more than 3 million acres of desolate wilderness—gives new depth to some very familiar words!

When we’re struggling to understand a difficult passage of Scripture or when we’ve heard or said the same verse so often that it’s lost its impact, using another translation is often helpful. Whatever Bible translation or translations we have on our bookshelves, however, the important thing is to open and read them!

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (MSG)]

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