City of Refuge

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a country that had no standing army, no police, and no full-time judiciary? Wanda and I recently visited one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere that has no standing army, Costa Rica. We thought it would be an interesting place to visit because it was rated as one of the world’s most happy places with the smallest negative environmental footprints.

We noticed that they were able to spend the money they saved on the military on education and health care. Their education system seems to encourage multilingualism, entrepreneurism and ecological balance. Everyone we met seemed to be proud of their country’s democratic institutions and its fiercely independent history.

The Bible’s story centers around a nation which had an opportunity to shape its future without needing an army or even a police force. When the nation was first established upon leaving Egypt and entering the land of Canaan, Israel’s judiciary was comprised of priests who learned law from God’s own teaching, ably assisted by the wisest elders of each clan.

Crime scenes were studied by local leaders, witnesses were interviewed. Guilt was established and punishment fit the crime. Property crimes and injury were handled by restitution. Murder was dealt with by capital punishment at the hands of the nearest male family member, referred to as the “avenger of blood,” or by the community if such a relative was unavailable.

Nobody stayed in jail at community expense. No taxes were raised for police enforcement or military protection. God had promised to protect the nation from foreign enemies so long as they honoured and obeyed him. Of course, history has taught us that they failed to live up to this ideal, but that is a story for another time.

Today I would like to talk about a unique provision of that law. What do you do in this system if you have accidentally killed someone? You know that a hot-headed family member will be looking for you with vengeance on his mind. What do you do until you can convince the authorities (and the avenger) that you are innocent of murder? On the other hand, does the avenger get justice for the accidental killing of his relative?

God had an unusual way of dealing with that possibility, as he instructs Moses:

9 Then the Lord said to Moses: 10 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 11 select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. 12 They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly. Numbers 35:9-12 | NIV

Even the murderer has the right to a fair trial, and the guilty party is put to death. But what happens if the verdict is accidental death? We read later starting in verse 22:

22 “ ‘But if without enmity someone suddenly pushes another or throws something at them unintentionally 23 or, without seeing them, drops on them a stone heavy enough to kill them, and they die, then since that other person was not an enemy and no harm was intended, 24 the assembly must judge between the accused and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. 25 The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled. The accused must stay there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.26 “ ‘But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which they fled 27 and the avenger of blood finds them outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder. 28 The accused must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; only after the death of the high priest may they return to their own property. Numbers 35:22-28 | NIV

It ended up being almost 40 years later that they actually entered the Promised land, so Moses reminds them about all of the laws given at Mt. Sinai, including this instruction about the cities of refuge:

4 This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. 5 For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6 Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. 7 This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. Deuteronomy 19:4-7 | NIV

These cities were set aside literally to protect the innocent from death at the hands of vengeful relatives. On the other hand, it was not necessarily a picnic to stay in the city until the death of the high priest. Remember that this was an agrarian society. Imagine if a farmer even today had to conduct all of his or her business from within Regina, without ever setting foot on the farm for 20 years. That’s just a random number, but Israel’s priests tended to have long lives, often more than 100 years if the numbers for Aaron and his ancestors are correct in the books of Chronicles. You could conceivably never see your farm again if the high priest is young.

That was probably a good incentive to do a good occupational health and safety evaluation of your job site. All in all, however, staying in that city sure beat the alternative.

The idea of refuge is important in the law God gave to Israel. Believe it or not, Israelites were required to provide refuge to a surprising element of society. Witness this from the book of Deuteronomy:

15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 | NIV

Imagine that! Even slaves who had run away from their masters had the right to live in one of their towns without fear of being returned to an abusive master.

On a larger scale, Israel was intended to be a nation of refuge for the oppressed and powerless. This was one way they were to reflect God’s image: as a refuge. The Psalms often describe God in terms of being a refuge, such as in Psalm 9:

9 The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. 10 Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. Psalms 9:9-10 | NIV

22 The Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned. Psalms 34:22 | NIV

The city of refuge is a reflection of God’s character as a protector of the innocent and oppressed. Notice what else these Psalms say: the oppressed and innocent must first seek his refuge. A city of refuge does me no good if I don’t make the journey and seek refuge with the city elders. As the proverb says:

12 The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty. Proverbs 27:12 | NIV

The key to eternal safety is to actively take refuge in the only One who can grant it: Jesus Christ the Son of God. On the night he was betrayed he told his disciples about a place he was preparing form them:

1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.” John 14:1-4 | NIV

Eventually the disciples figured out what that reference to them knowing the way to that place meant: Jesus himself was the way. Taking refuge in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is the only way to remain safe forever, no matter what the circumstances may be in your life.

Is life hard? For many, the answer is, “yes.” Was it easy for other believers before us? Let’s read what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says about what their expectations and experiences of this life were:

35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Hebrews 11:35-40 | NIV

What on earth could have possessed these people to endure all of those things and yet remain faithful to God? And what does that have to do with us living now?

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16 | NIV

When we seek shelter in Jesus Christ, we seek the very God who invented refuge. He is refuge personified. He founded the country and city we long for and will bring it with him when he returns. Speaking of seeking shelter in Jesus, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says,

22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24 | NIV

The Apostle John, writing to a group of churches in Asia Minor, says,

12 The one who is victorious (who overcomes) I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Revelation 3:12 | NIV

When Jesus declares us innocent (by shedding his blood to cover our sins) we remain safe in the refuge of his eternal city. Since he remains alive forever, we are safe with him forever. There is no going back to old the world or the old ways for us. We must stay within the walls of his city, figuratively speaking. The Apostle John saw a vision that has inspired every later generation of Christians concerning Christ’s city.

2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4 | NIV

He goes on later in the vision to say,

22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Revelation 21:22-27 | NIV

John is not the first to have seen visions of the New Jerusalem, Christ’s city of our refuge. Here is a message Isaiah the prophet was inspired to write:

1 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts.2 Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith. 3 You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever,for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26:1-4 | NIV

No matter what, trust in the Lord Jesus forever. His city is our City of Refuge.

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Atonement: Vindication of the Martyrs

The first recorded sermon by Jesus occurs in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. In that sermon he makes a remarkable statement about his mission and person. He begins by reading a few words from Isaiah 61 from the scroll handed to him.

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2a | NIV)

Luke reports what happened next.

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. (Luke 4:20-22 | NIV)

We only get the first line of Jesus’ sermon, but it is a telling line. Jesus is there to proclaim freedom, release and “the year of the Lord’s favor.” What most of us Christians do not know is how deeply rooted in Israel’s law this particular proclamation is. It goes back to a duty God gives to his ancient priesthood early in its establishment.

8 “ ‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.13 “ ‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. (Leviticus 25:8-13 | NIV)

In this instruction to the Levitical Priesthood, God instructs them to blow trumpets on the Day of Atonement every 50th year to announce a year of jubilee. In this year all land that was sold goes back to the family it originally belonged to. All debts are erased. (The whole economy is essentially re-booted.) Even the cropland gets to rest for the year, since this was a part of the system of seventh-year “land sabbaths.”

Unfortunately, there is no record that Israel actually managed to observe this important law. A further clue to Israel’s disobedience to this law can be found in this description of their exile to Babylon.

20 He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. 21 The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah. (2 Chronicles 36:20-21 | NIV)

The seventy years seems to be calculated from the missed land sabbaths of Israel. If they missed the regular land sabbaths, it is certainly likely that they also missed the jubilee sabbaths as well.

This is the imagery that Isaiah draws upon for his prophecy in Chapter 61. It is also the imagery that Jesus draws upon as he reads that passage and announces that he has fulfilled the proclaiming of Jubilee. After almost 1100 years, Jubilee is finally proclaimed! Jesus has set in motion the return of the families to their inheritance.

But there is a problem. Israel is in bondage to Rome. More importantly, Israel is also in bondage to sin and disobedience. Those two things need to be dealt with in order to bring families back to their inheritance.

Since sin and disobedience are what result in exile and bondage to other nations, it seems logical to deal with the sin first. Jesus does this by his death and resurrection. He sends his disciples to spread the word and gather people into Jesus’ family, preparing for eventual resettlement in the land of promise.

The good news for those of us who are not physical descendants of Israel is that we are allowed to be “grafted in” to the “rootstock” of Israel (Rom. 11:13-18). We (Jew and Gentile) are now being gathered into Jesus’ family and await resettlement at the appointed time.

So, what about Rome? Or any other occupying Gentile power throughout history. When does this “appointed time” happen? John provides a theological answer in the form of a vision.

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. (Revelation 6:9-11 | NIV)

In this vein, it is interesting that Jesus read only a portion of the assigned sabbath reading from Isaiah 61. Here is how the rest reads.

…and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. (Isaiah 61:3 | NIV)

Isaiah’s description of that ultimate Jubilee – the “year of the Lord’s favor” – seems to include God’s vengeance on those who murder and abuse his chosen people, whether Israelite or Gentile believers. It includes restoration and vindication – lifting them up or honouring them in the sight of the rest of the world.

It would seem that Jesus read only the part that applied to his first coming. Surely he will fulfill the rest–at his return. The symbolism of the Day of Atonement appears in a scene before God’s altar in Revelation 8. (Remember that the souls under the altar have asked when God would avenge them.)

1 When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. 4 The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. 5 Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5 | NIV)

Aaron must do something similar on the Day of Atonement as a ritual. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain.

13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.15 “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. (Leviticus 16:12-16a | NIV)

In the previous post I argued that the goats of the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement were not what is normally assumed: representative of Jesus and the Devil, with the “Devil goat” being banished for 1000 years in the “bottomless pit.” of Revelation 20.

I believe that the goat “for the Lord” represents the innumerable multitude of saints who endured torture and death rather than renounce their faith in Jesus. Like Jesus, the conquered by submitting to their Lord to the death. It is a powerful testimony to a powerful faith in the life-giving power of Jesus Christ, the “firstborn from the dead.”

These are people who put their lives on the line “for the Lord.” As such their offering is a sweet savour to God, who reminds himself of it just before finally beginning their vindication by overthrowing “Babylon the Great” (a code-name for Rome and its many imitators who try to dominate the world.

Jesus will return when a designated number of faithful martyrs have sacrificed their lives for his glory. He will return to avenge them and glorify them, completing the picture of the Jubilee prefigured by Moses and prophesied by Isaiah.

1  After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,   2  for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (Rev. 19:1-2 | NIV)

The end result:

1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.   2  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.   3  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.   4  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”   5  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”   6  He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.   7  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.   8  But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”  (Rev. 21:1-8 | NIV)

This is part of the Jubilee Proclamation of the Day of Atonement: Sin dealt with completely, retribution for the oppressed, and a settled inheritance forever. All of these things are fulfilled by our Lord, Jesus Christ, who fulfils all of the Scriptures.

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The Day of Atonement and The Curious Incident of the Lamb of God

[Note: When I originally posted this in 2013 I seem to have made a mistake in the settings so as to make it inaccessible. Since this is the season, I am posting it again.]

The Israelite holy day we call the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) presents a fascinating imagery of community purification of sin. It may seem like a weird and bloody ritual from a barbaric time, therefore completely irrelevant to our modern age.

In some ways that is true, but for early Christians it had a great deal of symbolic meaning related to the life and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the writer of the Letter to the  Hebrews uses many aspects of that ritual to point to how great a High Priest Jesus is due to his life, sacrifice and resurrection. He compares Jesus’ life and mission to various rituals of that ceremony and shows how Jesus fulfils them completely.

There is one allusion to “the blood of bulls and goats” that he makes that seems to indicate that Jesus has come to fulfil those types. And so it is. Jesus’ blood redeems both the priesthood and the people of Israel (and anyone else who “joins” them through acceptance of their Messiah as their Lord).

This has led many people to see a curious offering of two goats in Leviticus 16 in a certain way. Lots are drawn for the goats. One lot is “for the Lord,” while the other is “for azazel.” Uncertainty about the meaning of azazel has led many to assume that the reference is a name. This leads to the conclusion that one goat represents Christ, while the other represents the devil (or a goat-headed demon named Azazel).

The common understanding is that the “Jesus” goat is sacrificed on behalf of the people, while the “devil” goat is sent away into the wilderness with the sins of the people hanging on its head. This is a view I held for over 30 years myself.

Many people who keep the festival also have the view that the sending away of the “devil” goat  represents the pre-millennial binding of Satan into the great abyss. In this way Satan is kept away from the great millennium of peace under Jesus Christ until he is set free to tempt the world again. I also held this view for as many years as the above.

Several elements of the Scriptures have helped me see this story differently. First of all, I note what John the Baptist calls Jesus in John 1:29, 36. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is referred to as the Lamb in Rev. 5:6, Rev. 15:3 and Rev. 22:1-3.

In one of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories the private detective’s first clue to solving the mystery involves “the curious incident of the barking dog.” Watson, dumbfounded, responds that there was no barking dog. “Precisely!” replies the detective. “The dog did not bark.”

In a similar vein, I refer to the curious incident of the slain lamb in Lev. 16.

“What lamb?”


Nowhere in Scripture is Jesus Christ called “the Goat of God who takes away the sin of the world

Once I realized that, I had to explore the meaning of the two goats further.

There was a second clue: lots were cast over the goats. What were lots used for? Two uses are noted in the Scriptures.

One use of the lot involves the determination of guilt or innocence in cases too difficult for the judges of Israel. The priest uses two items called Urim and Thummim to determine the will of the Lord in those cases (Deuteronomy 17:8-10). We presume that these are a kind of lot because they are stored in a pouch in the Priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:30). In the one incident that mentions methodology in the determination of guilt the priest uses Urim and Thummim as lots to determine that Jonathan broke a command of King Saul (1 Samuel 14:41-42).

The second major use of lots was to determine the inheritance of land in Israel (Joshua 14:1-3). God chooses which tribe gets what land, and what families inherit which tracts within the tribe by lot.

The third clue involves what the lots are “for.”

The first lot is “for Yahweh.” We tend to think that this means it represents Yahweh, but it seems to be “for” Yahweh. In other words, Yahweh chooses this goat to belong to him.

The second goat is “for” azazel. This is the only time this particular Hebrew word appears in the Bible, and scholars cannot agree about what it means. Some believe azazel is a proper noun. However, it makes no sense for the goat to be sacrificed or offered to some pagan deity named Azazel – because the Israelites were forbidden to sacrifice to other gods.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia entry about azazel presents a persuasive case for understanding the term to refer to “removal” or “sending away.” This agrees with the Brown Driver Briggs Theological Dictionary, which refers to an Arabic verb azala, meaning to banish or remove. The latter indicates that “entire removal” is the meaning of Azazel.

The online translation on that best matches that meaning is Leviticus 16:8 in Young’s Literal Translation: “And Aaron hath given lots over the two goats, one lot for Jehovah, and one lot for a goat of departure.”

For me, the best way to understand what is happening with the goats is to see one goat as selected to belong to the Lord, and the other selected for banishment. This works especially well if you see what happens to the goat. It is sent to the wilderness, never to return.

In fact, the ceremony of the two goats bears a remarkable similarity to a reference in Hebrews 11:4 about Cain and Abel. This references the story in Genesis 4:1-6. In that story Abel makes an acceptable offering while Cain’s is not accepted. Upon killing Abel, Cain is banished from the presence of the Lord to a wilderness that cannot support him. Remember also that the book of Hebrews contains many references to the ceremony in Leviticus 16. The writer of Hebrews notes that even though Abel is dead, his inheritance is assured in the Lord Jesus. One for Jesus. One for removal.

Let us get back to what lots are used for. They are used to determine God’s will in judgment and in inheritance.

Matthew 25:31-46 provides an interesting story involving both judgment and inheritance. The sheep and the goats are separated based on works. The sheep inherit the Kingdom prepared for them, while the goats are banished to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The Parable of Wheat & Tares in Matt. 13:24-30 and Matt. 13:36-43 and the Parable of Net in Matt. 13:47-52 also tell of a great dividing of people into two camps. One marked for inclusion and the other for exclusion.

If there is a prophetic fulfilment of the Day of Atonement in the book of Revelation it is most likely to be found in Rev. 20:7-15. After the Great White Throne Judgment all sin is finally dealt with by forgiveness of the repentant who have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord (including doing “works worthy of repentance”) or banishment to the lake of fire for eternal destruction. Here we have again a judgment directly by God, in the person of Jesus Christ, that involves both guilt and inheritance. There is no return for the banished, whether angelic or human.

Only after this final judgment does the era of a new heavens and a new earth open up for those whose names are written in the Book of Life. Only then will there be no more tears and no more death. But that is a story for another Feast.

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“Here is My Servant…”

This post was inspired by Chapters 42 and 43 of the book of Isaiah. Scripture references are from an online version of the New International Version of the Bible.

There is an incredible beauty in reading the prophetic passages of what we Christians call the “Old Testament.” There are many passages that speak of a glorious return of God to Israel. Many passages speak of a regathering of God’s chosen people to the Promised Land after the inevitable fall of Israel.

But who will lead such a gathering? Who will reach out into all the nations to bring a captive people out of servitude?

Spoiler alert: God himself promises to do so in 43:5-7.

The interesting thing is how this is promised to happen. Isaiah 42:1-4 He begins that whole section by saying,

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.

In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

Anything that I can say about this passage has been said before by other pastors and teachers much more eloquently than I can hope to match.

I cannot help but marvel, however, at how closely the first two statements above match the description of Jesus in Luke 3:21-22 as he is being baptized by John.

Luke 3:21-22 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

God literally puts his Spirit on Jesus, and then tells the witnesses that Jesus is his own Son, who is very pleasing to him. To me, this means that God delights in Jesus, his Son and chosen Servant.

The part about not snuffing out a smoldering wick or breaking a bruised reed is a poetic way of describing someone who will not oppress the helpless or powerless in society. He will be gentle with the weak and helpless, not harsh or domineering. The way he deals with the helpless woman caught in adultery is in keeping with this approach (John 8:1-11). (By helpless, I mean that she was about to be stoned to death by a mob. Why just the woman? If she was caught in the act, where was the man?)

I also find it fascinating that millions around the world for generations have found hope in Jesus’ teaching. The gospel of his death, resurrection and return has given generations of converts hope for a better future and strength to face the trials in their lives. There is no need for his followers to fear death. He will gather them all to himself in new bodies at his return. Death has lost its sting!

If Jesus is able to come back to life from the grave – with many witnesses – then a return in triumph and glory is no stretch great of the imagination.

The next section of Isaiah 42 is addressed to the Servant (vv. 5-7):

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
    I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
    to be a covenant for the people
    and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
    to free captives from prison
    and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

Somehow this “servant” would become “a covenant for the people” as well as “a light for the Gentiles.” One can understand the metaphor of being a “light to the Gentiles,” but how does a man become a covenant?

Jesus does so by dying, then rising from the dead, and then placing his very own Spirit into those who come to believe in him as their Lord and Saviour.

Verse 7 is very similar to the proclamation Jesus makes in  Luke 4:14-21 about Jesus himself being the one to fulfil Isaiah 61:1-2 (his mission statement).

“I am the Lord; that is my name!
    I will not yield my glory to another
    or my praise to idols.
See, the former things have taken place,
    and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
    I announce them to you.”

If Jesus Christ is the Word who both was with God and is God and is now made flesh as the Apostle John states (John 1:1-14), then God has not yielded his glory to anyone else by the saving work of Jesus. All of the glory belongs to God, in the person of Jesus, by the calling of the Father and through the work of the Spirit in each redeemed person.

The next section is a song of praise for God the redeemer of Israel. Within it is a quote from God about what he will do for Israel as he leads them out of captivity at the appointed time.

13 The Lord will march out like a champion,
    like a warrior he will stir up his zeal;
with a shout he will raise the battle cry
    and will triumph over his enemies.

14 “For a long time I have kept silent,
    I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
    I cry out, I gasp and pant.
15 I will lay waste the mountains and hills
    and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands
    and dry up the pools.
16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
    along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
    and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
    I will not forsake them.
17 But those who trust in idols,
    who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’
    will be turned back in utter shame.”

Note that it is God himself who does these things, not a merely human agent or king.

After a section lamenting the lack of belief of Israel (42:18-28), Chapter 43 begins with a reminder that God is their one and only Saviour, who will be with them through flood and fire to save them (verses 1-4). He follows this up with the statement:

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
    I will bring your children from the east
    and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
    and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

Notice that God is the one doing the gathering. This gathering is not only from Assyria or Babylon, but rather “from the ends of the earth.” This appears to be a worldwide gathering at an appointed time for everyone “called by my name, whom I created for my glory.”

Verses 8-13 tell Israel that when these things happen they must remember that it is their own God, not some foreign idol, who predicted it and made it all happen.

After reminding them of how he originally established them as a people by amazing miracles like the parting of the Red Sea and wiping out the Egyptian army’s chariots and soldiers, he tells them that he is about to do something completely new. This new thing will be so powerful and remarkable that it will all but obliterate the memory of the Exodus by its sheer magnitude (verses 14-21).

After once again chastising them for neglecting their own God, he reminds them that he is the only one who can forgive their sins and restore them to blessings, since he is the one who brought them blessings and then curses when they rebelled, causing their destruction and exile from the land.

All of the statements about Jesus as Saviour in the New Testament are predicated on passages like the one above that seem to require God himself to intervene to save Israel and to be a blessing to the Gentiles, and yet also seem to require a human servant of God to do those things.

The answer is that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, fulfilling both those requirements.

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If You Believe In Your Heart That God Raised Jesus From the Dead…

This post continues a study of Romans 10:6-10 in which verse 9 is often used to define how easy it is to be saved, and how little knowledge is required for salvation.

In the previous post we tried to understand what is meant by the expression “Jesus is Lord,” that is “confessed” with the mouth. We noted that Jesus’ disciples and the Apostle Paul understand that Jesus is not only a descendant of the royal line of David, but also literally the Son of God – God in human flesh. What does that mean for Jesus’ followers then and now?

Paul tries to show that Jesus is now the highest authority in both heaven and earth. In Colossians 2:9-15 Paul, after stating the Jesus is fully divine, notes that Christians partake in Jesus’ sinless nature through symbolic participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Their sins are forgiven. He also says that the powers-that-be are rendered powerless by the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. How can Jesus’ resurrection do that?

Nations and empires rule by the power of the sword. It has always been so, no matter how modern or democratic a nation may appear. Even states with no standing army must supply a domestic police force to enforce civic laws. Sooner or later someone must punish lawbreakers – especially those criminals who take lives.

The ultimate threat that keeps citizens and subjugated peoples in line is the twin threat of torture and death.

The bad news for worldly governments is that Jesus was both tortured and killed – and now lives again, indestructible and all-powerful. Even worse news is that he promises to raise his followers from the dead if they continue to live in his grace, as Paul goes on to say in Colossians 3:1-4. He concludes, “ When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  

The importance of Jesus’ literal and historical crucifixion and resurrection cannot be overstated. In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul states, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Knowing Jesus Christ is the most important thing on Paul’s mind as he works among the Corinthian believers. Teaching them about Jesus’ death is a high priority.

That statement does not exclude the importance of the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-14 Paul goes on to say what is of first importance to all Christians. He says that those important things are 1) Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; 2) he was buried; 3) he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures; and 4) he was seen alive after being raised by all the apostles, at least 500 other eyewitnesses, and by Paul himself.

For me, the logic goes something like this:

  1. God promised to die for our sins. He kept that promise.
  2. God promised to raise his Son (Jesus) from the dead. He kept that promise.
  3. Jesus promises to raise up his followers from the dead at his return. That promise is from the same God who has kept the other promises above.

Applying this logic to Romans 10:9, we have a powerful summary of the effect of really knowing that Jesus was raised from the dead by God. When you know that Jesus was raised from the dead all the way to the depths of your being, your life cannot help but change.

And it must change. That has always been the way with following God. As a nation, Israel was in dire need of change according to the prophets. For instance, the prophet Ezekiel says in Ezekiel 14:6, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!Note that they had to turn away from idols and back to their true God. They also had to change their way of living to conform with God’s ways.

Isaiah says similar things in Isaiah 30:15, “ This is what the Sovereign1 LORD, the Holy One2 of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.”  Repentance leads to an inner peace and a kind of quietness in the soul. Note that Isaiah also tells them that they must trust God. We would call that “faith.”

As Jesus begins taking over after John the Baptist is imprisoned, he begins to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom. “The time has come,”1 he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Jesus has uttered two key words that parallel what the prophets above have stated. There must be repentance (life-change) and trust in God’s promises.  (Mark 1:15)

Luke records Jesus’ near-final words to his disciples before his death in Luke 24:46-48. Jesus tells them he will die and be raised on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins will then be preached. Repentance and forgiveness of sins leads to rest for the soul.

Acts 2:36-39 records the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached beginning at Jerusalem after Jesus died and came back to life. The Apostle Paul defending himself in King Aggrippa’s court in Acts 26:20, notes, “ First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.  

This is amazingly similar to what John the Baptist has to say to the scribes and Pharisees who were wanting to be baptized in Matthew 3:5-12, “You brood of vipers!2 Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

It would seem, then, that after unpacking the statements in Romans 10:9 we discover that confessing that Jesus is our Lord and believing in our hearts that God raised him from the dead involves our whole being.

It involves our knowledge of Jesus as Messiah (King) and Lord (God). It involves repenting of following false Gods and evil deeds (changing our life). It involves a deep-seated, gut-level belief that the God who raised Jesus from the dead has promised to raise us from the dead if we stay with his Son (motivation to steadfastness). And it involves God’s own Spirit as his presence in our minds, changing us from within into a reflection of Jesus’ image.

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If You Confess With Your Mouth, “Jesus Is Lord”…

In this series we will try to go over the often confusing issue of what we need to know in order to be saved.

I have been told on more than one occasion that, according to Romans 10:9, the key to salvation is to confess publicly that Jesus is my Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead. It would seem that nothing could be simpler, right?

I then have to wonder what a “lord” is, and what that means for how I live.

Once I process that, I have to wonder why I must believe that God raised him from the dead.

It turns out that there is a lot happening in that part of the book of Romans that can shed light on what those things mean. The strange part is that this statement appears in a section of the letter in which Paul is explaining why Gentiles are accepting Jesus in great numbers, while Jewish people seem to be rejecting him on the whole.

In response to their wondering Paul talks about the difference between seeking God’s righteousness (being “good” in God’s eyes) and seeking to make oneself right before God by studiously keeping the law God gave to Moses. Paul notes that, as a nation, they have failed to obtain God’s favour by attempting to keep the law. Long story short: they failed to keep the law. (In fact, they failed to obey the first commandment of God by failing to honour Jesus, who is God in human flesh. Of course, killing Jesus certainly did nothing to help their cause.)

You can’t fix a broken law. All you can do is live with the consequences.

The only hope is to be forgiven and be given a fresh start.

Paul contrasts self-directed righteousness with what he calls “the righteousness of faith” by quoting sections of Deuteronomy 30:11-21 in Romans 10:6-10. These quotes come from the concluding words of the final sermon given my Moses to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land.

Moses is telling them that the words of God’s law are neither far away from them nor particularly difficult to obey. In fact, God’s word is in their mouths and in their hearts. The interesting part about that section of Moses’ sermon is that he has just told told Israel (in 10:1) that they will fail to obey the covenant and thereby obtain the curses listed in Deuteronomy 28. Among other very unpleasant and frightening results is that they will be removed from the land by force and resettled as slaves in other nations.

If, however, they return to God while in their captivity, the Lord will “circumcise their hearts” and then they will be restored to favour and will once again obey God’s law. He will then [later] restore their fortunes. (Deut. 30:1-10)

Paul uses Moses’ final words to Israel as a template for what it takes to obtain God’s renewed favour. “No, the word is near very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

For the Christian, Jesus is the Word of God. He is near.

For Paul, the “word in your mouth” becomes the declaration that Jesus is Lord and the “word in your heart” is belief that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This is the heart of the gospel. Faith in Jesus Christ is based on Jesus’ action of faithfully going to the cross on our behalf and rising from the dead.

Really believing that radically changes your life.

“Jesus is Lord.” What does this mean?

In the polytheistic Roman Empire worship of the Emperor had really taken off. Citizens honoured Ceasar by shouting, “Caesar is Lord!” Jews were the only people exempt by law from worshipping the Emperor (or other Roman gods). Even so, for a Jew to proclaim that anyone but Caesar was “Lord” was considered treason. A “lord” is a master or overlord.

Jesus, as Lord, is something immeasurably more.

In the last post we discussed Jesus’ response to Peter’s declaration about Jesus’ identity, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now let us examine the statement itself to see if it helps us determine what Paul means by declaring “Jesus is Lord” with our mouth.

The expression “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew title “Messiah,” which literally means “anointed one.” Anointing was done in ancient Israel for three main things: 1) appointing descendants of Aaron to the Priesthood to serve in God’s Tabernacle or Temple; 2) appointing a king to rule over Israel or a portion thereof; or 3) applying ointment to heal a wound or infection.

The most likely meaning Peter has in mind has to do with Jesus’ royal lineage, which Matthew has already described in Matt. 1:1-17. Peter and the rest of the disciples expected Jesus to assume royal leadership of Israel in driving out the hated Roman overlords.

The reference to the Son of God is probably inspired by Psalm 2:6-12, which speaks of Israel’s king as God’s adopted son. Whether Peter understands Jesus as someone more than merely human at this point is greatly debated.

Later on in John’s account we do find at least one of Jesus’ disciples, nicknamed “doubting Thomas,” saying the most amazing thing as he sees the resurrected Jesus. “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) As we read this story we sometimes see only Thomas’ doubt and miss the impact of his statement that Jesus is indeed God in the flesh.

The Apostle John himself acknowledges Jesus’ divinity at the very outset of his Gospel in verses 1-14 of Chapter 1. The Word is with God and yet is God, and then becomes flesh and dwells among us as the only begotten Son of God.

As we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord in our Christian witness, we acknowledge that He is Lord of both heaven and earth as God’s only Son. He is the creator of our world and everything in it, and he has come to save that same world that he created.

I think it is important for a Christian to speak to the issue of Jesus as both God and human in one person in order to prevent confusion when speaking to others about Jesus. He wasn’t just a “great teacher.” He wasn’t just a moralist with a message of peace and justice.

He was, and still is, God Almighty himself, on a mission to bring the entire world back to its intended purpose as his own beautiful, beloved creation. He cannot and will not fail in this mission, because failure is not in his nature.

The next post will discuss the significance of Jesus’ resurrection in the context of Paul’s statement in the book of Romans about believing in our hearts that God raised him from the dead.

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Peter and the Keys of the Kingdom

Probably the most important issue that the writers of the books that eventually were collected into the New Testament had to face was the identity of Jesus. Matthew’s gospel describes how King Herod misidentifies him with John the Baptist in chapter 14, while others marvel at his miracles and others deny his importance in the following two chapters.

Chapter 16 begins with a group of emissaries from Jerusalem’s religious elite approaching Jesus and demanding that he perform a “sign” for them. He had just finished doing a series of miracles with literally thousands of eyewitnesses around the northern areas of Galilee and the Decapolis, so their request was clearly redundant. Jesus gives them a tongue-lashing and leaves them. (Matt. 16:1-4)

Later Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be, and Simon jumps in with both feet, saying, “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.” Jesus tells him that he is blessed because only God the Father could have revealed that to him. (Matt. 16:16-17)

What he tells Peter next (verses 18-19) takes him completely by surprise.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are a lot of things to unpack in these two sentences. Let’s look at the phrases about Peter and the rock first. Some things to notice are:

  1. There is a play on words as Jesus changes Simon’s name to “Peter.” Peter’s name literally means “stone” in Greek, the language the book was written in. So Jesus was saying that Peter was “stone” [petros] and that a “rock” [petra] was the foundation he would build his church on. The word-play doesn’t work as well in English. We might say something like, “you are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.”
  2. When Jesus says “this rock,” he is making a deliberate reference to a prophecy in Isaiah 28:16. “So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”
  3. Jesus also refers to himself as “the stone the builders rejected” that has become “the capstone” in Matt. 21:42, a reference to Psalm 118:22-23. The idea that he himself is the foundation-stone is not foreign to Jesus himself.
  4. Even the Apostle Paul is familiar with Jesus as the “cornerstone” as he writes to the church in Ephesus. (Eph. 2:20)
  5. Since “stone” is a smaller version of “rock,” Jesus is probably calling Peter something like “a chip off the old block.” Peter’s mission will be so similar to Jesus’ mission that you could say that they are “made of the same stuff.” Peter will become closely identified with Jesus. Jesus is the foundation and Peter will build on that foundation.

The next phrase about the “gates of Hades” not prevailing against the church is often interpreted as though hell is on the offensive against the church. Students of military history realize that gates are actually a defensive emplacement, not offensive weaponry. The church will win out against “Hades,” which is the Greek word for the place of the dead, or the grave. The word is often translated “hell” in English Bibles. The idea here is that the church will succeed in saving people from the clutches of death – even if they have already died – so long as they believe in and follow Jesus. (This, of course, does not answer all of the questions we would like to have answered, such as, “What happens to those who never knew Jesus?”)

The final section is about Jesus giving Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” which enables him to “loose” and “bind” things on earth and in heaven.

  1. What do we normally use keys for? The most common use is for unlocking doors that have been locked. It is possible for it to mean locking up prison cells or shackles. A third, figurative use was in vogue among Jewish scholars at the time: permitting or forbidding actions according to interpretations of the Law of God.
  2. The “keys of the kingdom” would have brought to mind a prophecy in Isaiah 22:22. “ I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” This statement is said to apply directly to Jesus in Revelation 3:7-8. He places an open door that no one can shut before his church, suggesting an opening for the gospel.
  3. A look at how Peter is used to establish the foundations of the Church in Jesus might help us see which of the uses of the keys makes the most sense. In Acts 2:14-41 it is Peter who first preaches the gospel to his own countrymen, beginning the first congregation of converts to Jesus.
  4. In Acts 10:1-48 Peter meets with a family group of Gentiles and preaches to them, establishing the first Gentile congregation of Christians and establishing their right to enter into the salvation intended originally for the Hebrew people.
  5. In this way, Peter builds the foundation of the church with both Jewish and Gentile believers, even before Paul becomes the primary Apostle to the Gentiles. The “keys” seem to be ones that open doors for entry into the Kingdom of God. Peter has used them to open the doors to Hebrew and Gentile missions.
  6. Nothing in Jesus’ statements to Peter imply a direct lineage of individuals who will later appropriate the power to make binding decisions about what is allowed or not allowed in the entirety of the church. Once Peter opens the doors, “no man can shut.”

As the first of the disciples to recognize Jesus’ unique identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s Messiah, Peter is commissioned to unlock the door of the gospel (“good news”) about Jesus’ Lordship through His death and resurrection to both his own Jewish people and the wider Gentile world. Once opened, those doors will not be closed again until Jesus returns and shuts them himself.

Our next post will begin to visit what Peter means about Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.

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