Monday, February 25, 2013

A Body You Have Prepared for Me

The following is one of the lessons for the second week of Lent from the small group study we are doing at our church entitled Christ in the Psalms. You can purchase the entire study for 99 cents on at this link

Read Hebrews 10:1-10

One of the primary concerns in the Epistle to the Hebrews is to argue that Jesus is our sacrifice and our high priest who has inaugurated a new covenant with us by his blood. By his own sacrificial death, he has ascended into heaven thereby entering the true heavenly tabernacle or Holy of Holies where he intercedes for us continually. As a result of Christ’s continual intercession as our priest, animal sacrifice has been rendered unnecessary as a part of our new covenantal relationship with God. Instead, we are called to offer the sacrifices of faithful obedience and praise. By the time we reach chapter 10, the author of Hebrews is coming to the climax of this argument.

Given that Hebrews wants to emphasize that faithful obedience and praise are more important than animal sacrifice, we can see why the author would turn to Psalm 40. We saw in our previous lesson that Psalm 40 is focused precisely on these two things; faithful obedience and praise, even to the point of denigrating the role of animal sacrifice. As a faithful Jew, the author of Psalm 40 surely was not encouraging others to stop offering animal sacrifices at the temple. His point is simply that its not really the sacrifices themselves that God wants but the trust and obedience represented in the offering of those sacrifices. The author of Hebrews takes the argument further than the Psalmist probably intended and argues that faithful obedience renders animal sacrifice completely unnecessary.

What is even more interesting is that Hebrews takes these words attributed to David and says that it is Christ who speaks them (10:5, when Christ came into the world, he said...). Hebrews presents Psalm 40 as words spoken by Jesus to God. In this speech to God, Jesus acknowledges that it is not animal sacrifice the Father wants. Instead, God has prepared a body for Jesus which will become the proper sacrifice through Jesus’ own faithful obedience.6 Hebrews declares that by Christ speaking the words of this Psalm, he has set aside the first covenant involving animal sacrifice and established a new covenant based on Jesus’ faithful obedience.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Out of the Mouths of Infants

The following is one of the lessons for the first week of Lent from the small group study we are doing at our church entitled Christ in the Psalms. You can purchase the entire study for 99 cents on at this link.

Read Matthew 21:12-17

            It would be difficult to overstate just how important the temple was in first century Judaism; both practically and symbolically. It was the place of sacrifice, forgiveness, a house of prayer, the central place of worship for every faithful Jew, and a symbol of the presence of God with his people. But it wasn’t just a religious building. It was also connected to Israel’s kings, a place tied to God anointed authority. Its history went all the way back to the great King David who had first asked if he could build a house for God. The first temple was built by David’s son, King Solomon. The temple in which Jesus stood in this passage was built by King Herod the Great as a symbol of his power.
            So when Jesus, a peasant from Galilee, enters the temple and starts turning over tables and driving people out, the religious leaders naturally want to know who he thinks he is and why he has the authority to behave this way. Likewise, when the children in the temple start shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” thereby speaking of Jesus as a messianic deliverer in the line of King David, the chief priests and scribes become indignant and ask Jesus if they hear what the children are saying. The implication is that if Jesus had heard the words of these children, he would silence them immediately to prevent them from making such a blasphemous claim about him.
            Instead, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:3.[1] The remarkable thing about this is that Psalm 8 was addressed to God. The praise from the mouths of infants and babies was to be for Yahweh alone and Jesus now says it is appropriate for that same praise to be directed toward him. Rather than rebuking the children for hailing him as the Davidic messiah, Jesus has actually upped the ante. He has essentially said that it is not only right for them to call him “Son of David” but even to praise him as they would praise God. Just as the Psalmist marveled at the wonders of the heavens and praised God for it, these children have seen the wonderful things that Jesus has done (v.14-15) and sing his praises for it.

[1] You might have noticed that what Jesus quotes is a little different than what you read yesterday. Most translations of Ps 8:3 say that God established “strength” out of the mouths of babies and infants whereas Jesus says “you have prepared praise.” This is because most translations of the Psalm follow the Hebrew version of the Psalm whereas Jesus’ quote in Matthew comes from the LXX (Septuagint), the Greek version of the Old Testament. Since the NT authors wrote in Greek rather than Hebrew, it was very common for them to quote from the LXX rather than the Hebrew text. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

You Are My Son

The following is the lesson for Ash Wednesday from the Lenten small group study we are doing at our church entitled Christ in the Psalms. You can purchase the entire study for 99 cents on at this link.

Psalm 2 was a song of promise concerning the rule of Israel’s king. It may even have been written for the day of the king’s coronation. It celebrates the reign of Israel’s king and the close relationship that the king enjoys with Yahweh.
The Psalm begins by acknowledging that there are other powers in the world. Indeed, the Psalmist says that the kings of the earth plot and fight against Yahweh and his anointed king. The promise of this Psalm, however, is that whatever the other nations and kings do, it is God who ultimately reigns supreme. God, in all his sovereignty, sits on his throne and laughs at the weak attempts of earthly kings to overthrow his rule. 

In contrast to these kings, Israel’s king is the very means of God’s righteous purposes in the world. As a result, God promises to work on behalf of Israel’s king. In fact, Israel’s king enjoys such a favored status with Yahweh that Yahweh declares of the king “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.” Given Israel’s stringent commitment to monotheism (belief in only one God), this is not a declaration that the king of Israel is actually divine. It is to say that God’s anointed king enjoys a relationship with Yahweh unlike any other. Yahweh and king are like Father and Son. As a result, God tells the king that all he has to do is ask and all the nations will be given to him as an inheritance. Psalm 2 envisions God’s sovereignty being embodied in Israel’s king as he reigns over every nation on earth. 

Given what the first Christians believed about Jesus, its not hard to see how they began to see this Psalm with Jesus in mind. They believed that Jesus was the Christ (Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah” which means “anointed one”), the king who would one day rule the nations and that the people had, indeed, plotted against him. They confessed that Jesus enjoyed a uniquely close relationship with Yahweh; one they described as Father and Son. 

However, it is just as easy to see that Jesus does not fulfill this Psalm in an obvious or simplistic way. One would already have to be convinced that the titles of Messiah and Son of God should be applied to Jesus in order to think that he could be found in Psalm 2 in any way. There is no room in the kingly imagery of Psalm 2 for God’s anointed to experience crucifixion. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an image more against the grain of Psalm 2 than Jesus on the cross. For most first century Jews, Jesus’ shameful and disgraceful death would have been the surest sign that he was not who he had claimed to be. 

With this in mind, we can see that it is an especially bold move that Mark makes when he links the promise of Psalm 2 specifically to Jesus’ crucifixion. The Psalm first appears in Mark 1:11. Jesus has just been baptized by John and coming up out of the water, the heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends upon Jesus and a voice from heaven echoes Psalm 2, saying “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” This is a promising beginning to Jesus’ ministry but we will see that it is also a foreshadowing of the cross that awaits him. A voice speaks from heaven with the same words again in chapter 9 after Jesus’ transfiguration, declaring “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” The very next words that Jesus speaks warn the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen “until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” The disciples wonder what Jesus could possibly mean by this. Finally in Mark 15, Jesus is crucified, the temple curtain is torn in two (remember the heavens at his baptism?), Jesus breathes out his Spirit, and rather than a voice from heaven, we hear a centurion standing nearby say “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Thus we see that Mark portrays Jesus’ baptism and his declaration as Son as intimately connected to his crucifixion. 

Likewise, we are called sons and daughters of God. Although, unlike Jesus, ours is an adoption into the family of God, it is an adoption which leads to the same path as Jesus’ Sonship. Our baptism was the beginning of our journey toward the cross; our transformation for the purpose of taking up our cross and following Jesus. On Ash Wednesday, as we begin the season of Lent and are reminded of Jesus’ journey toward the cross, we are reminded that we have been saved for the same journey. We receive ashes to remind us of our own weakness and frailty. We receive them in the shape of the cross to remind us that weakness is also the shape of our redemption. As we receive our ashes this evening, let us remember that the way of our King, Messiah, and Son of God is the way of the cross.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Gracious Holiness

Haggai 2:10-19 depends on some ideas of ritual purity which are rather foreign to us. As I mentioned in some of my posts on Leviticus a few months ago, sin and impurity were seen almost like a disease or pollutant. It could easily spread from one object or place to another and if it contaminated the house of God, it could threaten to drive the presence of God right out of Israel's midst. It is this basic idea which underlies the questions which God commands Haggai to ask of the priests.
"If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?" The priests answered and said, "No." Then Haggai said, "If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?" The priests answered and said "It does become unclean."
In short, impurity is contagious. Holiness is not. If someone touches something common with something holy, it does not make the common object holy. But if someone becomes unclean and touches something common then that common object does become unclean.

God says through Haggai that this is how it is with the people of Israel as well.
"So it is with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the Lord, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean." 
We have heard previously in Haggai that the people have begun to rebuild the temple. This verse seems to imply that they have also started to offer sacrifices there as well. One would think that this would be a good thing but God declares that "every work of their hands" is unclean because they themselves are unclean. They are polluting the very sacrifice which is meant to bring cleansing, not because they are offering the sacrifice wrongly but merely because they are an unclean people. It is God's presence alone which can sanctify this people and their gifts but it is their own impurity which drives God's presence away. In essence, it seems a hopeless situation.

But God promises to bless the people anyway. Rebuilding the temple and offering sacrifices isn't enough to make room for God because no matter what works are done they are offered by unclean hands. But God ignores that reality and promises to dwell with the people and bless them despite their impurity. God chooses to enter into the very contaminant of sin and impurity which should guarantee God's absence.

This passage in Haggai reminds me of a story in the first chapter of Mark's gospel. A leprous man came to Jesus asking to be cleansed. Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with pity and reached out and touched the man. According to Jewish ritual law, this action should have made Jesus unclean. Instead, just the opposite happens. The leper is cleansed.

In many ways, this is the essence of the gospel. We live in a world fouled by the stench of injustice and contaminated by the sins of misdirected love. Even whatever good works we might offer, are stained by the brokenness of our frail nature and the corrosive systems that surround us. These are the things that should drive a holy God away from us. Instead, this God steps into our world and into our flesh and even into our death and bursts the bonds of all our corruption and weakness with the new breath of resurrection life. This is grace. Grace that is greater than all our sin...

And I think this grace of God says something about what it means to be the holy people of God too. Often, in our "holiness tradition" as Nazarenes especially, we have envisioned holiness as a separateness from our culture. Undoubtedly, there is something to be said for being a people who live differently than those around us. But perhaps we should consider what it means for our notions of holiness to accommodate this passage from Haggai and the story from Mark as well. If we are the body of the Christ whose touch cleansed the leper rather than being contaminated by him then perhaps we can rub shoulders with those who might threaten our "purity" without fear. Maybe if we remember that we serve a  God who sanctifies the un-sanctifiable, namely us, then we will understand that holiness is not something we maintain by our own act of separation. It is not the absence of certain things. It is the presence of the sanctifying Spirit of God in our lives; a presence which is not threatened by the impurity of our world. It is a presence which can bring healing if the Body of Christ which it inhabits will only be moved by pity and reach out to those who are hurting.