Monday, July 25, 2005


The New Jerusalem

According to gospel music (white and black), according to numerous sermons, and according to books about heaven, after the resurrection we will live forever in a massive city with golden streets, gates of pearl, and foundation stones of precious gems. But not according to Revelation chapter 21.

The misrepresentation of the Holy City, New Jerusalem, as our final eternal home is so engrained in us by our misguided Christian cultures that it is hard to pull away from it. Help me as we read with our eyes open and discover what John is actually describing.

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” says verse 9. “He showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,” says verse 10. This glorious city is not a place, not our future residence. It is the bride herself. Wow! How long has that been in the Bible?

This city is a description of the church of Jesus Christ, with the gold and jewels symbolically portraying its beauty, value, and endurance. The apostolic foundation stones reflect the authority the church is built on, while the patriarchal gates show the Biblical entrance into it. The cubic dimensions symbolize the perfection and completeness of its makeup. The divine presence (instead of a temple) demonstrates the fulfillment of God’s ages-long purpose to live with his people and be their God. Though the city sheds its light to the nations, only those written in the Lamb’s book of life can enter.

Is it possible for us, surrounded as we are by so many references to the Holy City as a “where,” to really think of it as a “who”? Only if we read with our eyes open and redraw the mental pictures we were given.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Red Letter Bibles

Printing the words of Christ in red ink is a common marketing approach. However, it implies an erroneous conclusion: that these words are more important than the other words of Scripture, more authoritative, maybe even more inspired. This is doubly false.

You can’t blame the average reader of the Bible for being misled. Most would prefer to read black ink, except for the longstanding practice of red letters. It is the publishers who are at fault. And they may only be following a tradition whose meaning they do not know. Preachers and authors compound the problem by making a reference to the redness (and, in their view, the superiority) of Jesus’ words.

The words Christ spoke while he was on earth were certainly inerrant. He claimed, “I speak just what the Father has taught me” (quoted in John 8:28). So, his words were a revelation to those who heard them. But to everyone else, they are an event in the past. We today cannot count them as “God’s revealed word” to us, because we didn’t hear them. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries, even, didn’t hear them, and so received no divine revelation from them. We only know them through the inspired writing of the New Testament. And the authority is the work of the Holy Spirit who inspired not only the quotations of Jesus’ words, but all the authors’ words.

Jesus’ words have been quoted by many, with more or less accuracy and for various purposes, but it is only in the apostolic preaching and the writing of Scripture that their telling has been divinely authenticated as a verbally inspired revelation to others. In your Bible, all the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Scripture, inerrant in their presentation of the story of Jesus and in their lessons for faith and life.

To hold the words of Jesus, quoted by the authors of the New Testament, in higher esteem than the authors’ commentary about them opens the reader to the frightful risk of giving his or her own interpretation of them, separate from and perhaps opposite from the God-breathed interpretation of the Bible writers themselves.

When God put his word in writing through the process of inspiration, he claimed the right to select not only the way the events would be told (which details, which quotations, in what order, with what emphasis and repetition, etc.) but also the meaning of the events (God's role and motives, human motivations, the moral of the story, etc.--in other words, how we should understand what those quotations mean). We had best understand the words of Jesus in the context of the inspired Gospel story and draw the same conclusions that the writers did about Jesus’ words.

Some might protest that the words in red do not indicate a greater importance or a higher authority, but the red ink is needed to show which words are quotations of Jesus and which are not. But, a simple “Jesus said” (which the writers already put there) or a set of quotation marks would do that.

Let’s read with our eyes open, and focus on the black ink, too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Clean and Unclean

When Isaiah saw the Lord (Isaiah 6), he cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Most sermons on this text highlight the sinfulness of Isaiah and the people of Judah. They miss the point by equating “unclean” with “sinful.”

The concept of “unclean” is a basic element of the old covenant. Leviticus 11-15 gives great detail about what made an Israelite unclean: touching dead bodies, eating specified unclean animals, contact with various bodily discharges, contamination with skin disease or mildew.

The consequence of being unclean in these ways was exclusion from God’s presence. No unclean person could enter the tabernacle or approach God in any way. Unclean people were not welcome at religious festivals.

Uncleanness was not a permanent state or position, but a temporary condition. Leviticus spells out the procedures for becoming clean again: washing with water, changing clothes, waiting until morning or for a specific number of days, offering sacrifices of cleansing. Once the condition of cleanness was restored, the person could enter into worship again.

Obviously, it was good and convenient to avoid becoming unclean, and the concept of cleanness was an important lesson in God’s plan. But it was not a sin to become unclean. In fact, Jesus became unclean during his life on earth. When he touched lepers to heal them (Mark 1:40-44), when he took the hand of Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:23-26), and when he touched the coffin of the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-15), he was incurring uncleanness according to the Law he was under. He committed no sin.

Back to Isaiah. We know he was a sinner and that his people were sinners also. But the distress of Isaiah was not over this. He feared for his life in that he was (unexpectedly) in the direct presence of God in a condition of uncleanness. He had no time or opportunity to go through the purification ceremonies. The penalty could be instant death, as it was for Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, which introduces the chapters about uncleanness.

The fiery coal from the Seraph takes away the guilt and atones for the sin of Isaiah’s uncleanness. This is a reference to the Day of Atonement from Leviticus 16, which comes immediately after the chapters of clean and unclean laws.

For believers today, not under the Mosaic Law, the condition of uncleanness is not a concern. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (Mark 7:19). “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). “Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival . . .” (Colossians 2:16). We are considered clean and welcome in God’s presence without purifying ceremonies.

It is good for us to be in awe of the Lord, as Isaiah was. It is good for us to respond, “Here am I, send me,” as Isaiah did. But we no longer need to be “undone” as he was over his uncleanness.

Let’s read with our eyes open.


I Know the Plans I Have for You

A favorite Scripture for wall hangings and baby dedications is taken from Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

The people who choose this verse today should realize that it is not a promise to them. It is a promise to the people of Jerusalem as they are going into captivity in Babylon for 70 years. And, even for them, it is not a promise that each of them will experience prosperity or even survive the captivity. It is a corporate promise to the Israelites that there will be a return.

It is amazing to me that people who are quick to take this verse out of context and claim it for themselves and their children do not also take a companion verse (also addressed to Israel in the face of judgment) in Jeremiah 21:10, “I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the LORD. It will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it with fire.”

People don’t choose 29:11 and reject 21:10 on the basis of any indications in the text that it applies to them, but on the basis of what they want to hear from God. This is not reading with open eyes.

In the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation, both of these verses are important. God’s standards of holiness and his covenant with his people had been ignored and violated by Israel for generations. As a faithful God, the Lord carried out his promised judgments in an awful, yet appropriate, destruction of his own holy city. Yet, he did not finish off his people.

Through Jeremiah, not only was the coming disaster predicted, but also the eventual restoration and salvation were assured. What a dramatic lesson on the nature of sin, on the faithfulness of God, on the determination of God to accomplish salvation and complete his purposes. The theme of exile and return appears in many of the Biblical stories, from the garden of Eden, to Jacob, to Absalom, to Babylon.

How should we apply these verses, then? We can’t separate the two and choose the favorable stuff only. We have to recognize that any favorable stuff we get is not because of our deserving, but because of God’s mercy. And, the favorable stuff is on the other side of the unfavorable. Sin must be punished, and God’s promises must be kept—the curses and the blessings.

The cross, of course, is the ultimate point of all the stories of punishment and restoration. Jesus took the exile, the desolation, the wrath of God that he did not deserve, so that we can experience the “plans to give you a hope and a future” that we don’t deserve.

If we want a Jeremiah motto for our walls, we would do better to take Jeremiah 42:6 (though the people who originally spoke these words were insincere), “Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the LORD our God, to whom we are sending you, so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the LORD our God.”

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Friday, July 15, 2005


The Stones Will Cry Out

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-44) the Pharisees command that he silence his disciples who were praising God. Jesus’ reply is, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Song writers and preachers have had a field day with this statement. They make it out that if people today stop praising God the rocks around us will suddenly come out of retirement and shout praise to Him.

Not so. Neither Jesus nor Luke means that this crying out of stones is a covering for silent worshipers. It is a specific reference to that occasion—and the crying out of the stones would not be a cry of praise.

The reference is to Habakkuk chapter 2, where a warning is given regarding the Chaldeans (or, Babylonians). This warning is transferable to any city similarly built on greed, violence, and injustice, as Babylon was. Habakkuk 2:9 says, "Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain.” Verse 12, “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime.”

From Genesis 11 to Revelation 18, the Bible represents Babylon in these terms. Habakkuk predicts Babylon’s fall because of such sinful human intent and action by its leaders and people. In fact, he presents the very stones and timbers of the city as crying out to God for intervention because of human sin and refusal to acknowledge God. Verse 11, “The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.” It is clearly a cry for judgment, not a cry of Hosanna.

As Jesus entered his beloved Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, he recognized the marks of a violent city ruled by greedy leaders. The stones were calling for God’s judgment. He wept over the city (verses 41-44) because of the “woes” awaiting Jerusalem’s people under the judgment of a holy God. Only one thing could hold off that promised retribution: if its people would know what would bring them peace.

The cries of the disciples, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” were cries of hope for Jerusalem. Like the edict of sackcloth, ashes, and repentance in the Nineveh of Jonah’s day (Jonah 3:5-10), the cries of the disciples and pilgrims on this day might have averted the promised disaster, had they been picked up by the city’s leaders and populace.

Alas! the stones did “cry out” and God heard them. But their cry, like that in Habakkuk, was a cry to the God who not only saves but who also brings righteous judgment.

It is comforting (for us) to know that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” In other words, whether we sing our praise or not, the Lord’s glory will prevail (Habakkuk 2:14). But, our worship is not to silence the stones.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


Consider It Pure Joy

James 1:2-15 talks to us about temptation. The Greek word translated “trials” in verse 2 is the same as the word translated “tempted” in verse 13. The primary meaning of the word is enticement toward sin. In a secondary way it sometimes means a trial such as persecution or hard times, because those times often bring a temptation to abandon our faith. Readers today tend to understand "trials” as the difficult circumstances, apart from any associated temptation to commit sin.

There are 3 choices in understanding James 1. It might mean “trials” or difficult circumstances throughout. This is unlikely, since verses 13-15 are clearly expressed as enticement. It might mean “trials” in verses 2-12 and then abruptly change to meaning “temptation” in verses 13-15. This is unlikely, since there are no clues in the context that indicate a change in topic. Yet, because most modern translations render it by two separate words, this is the way many preachers and readers understand it. The third option is to understand the topic to be “temptation” throughout the passage.

Actually, the passage makes perfect sense to understand temptation as the topic through the whole section. It is obvious that this is the topic in the second part. Temptation does not come from God, who can’t be tempted by evil, but comes from our own evil desire (verses 13-15). It is also clear that this is the topic at the beginning. Temptation is an opportunity for great joy (verse 2). This is not because we anticipate the joy of the sin to which we are tempted, but because it is an opportunity for victory over temptation.

Like a big kid challenged to a fight by a scrawny little kid, or like a professional ball team challenged to a game by a little league team, there is confidence of winning. Not the overconfidence against which believers are warned in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” But the trusting confidence that temptation is a matter of subbornly outlasting the temptation, as advised in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “He will provide a way out so that you can stand up to it.”

The key verse in the passage is verse 12, “perseveres under temptation.” Make a commitment to the truth of God’s word, recognize the lies that are embedded in the temptation with your God-given wisdom, and use your God-given stubbornness to stick to your commitment throughout the entire sweep of temptation. The result is that you win, you pass the test of faith, and ultimately you receive the crown of life.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

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