God’s Law and Life in His Family

February 11, 2015

Those of you following the Bible Unity Reading Plan read the Ten Commandments this last week. How is that Law relevant for us today?  Why did God give the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel? Did God give these commandments so that the people could enter into a relationship with Him by keeping them?

How can we answer questions like this?

We must look at the context of the commandments:

  • Including the immediate context of the passage,
  • Including the context of the storyline of the book of Exodus,
  • Including the context of the overall storyline of the Bible,
  • Including what the New Testament has to say about these commandments.

Consider first the immediate context and the storyline of Exodus. The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. While they were still slaves, God said, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22).  Not after they kept the Law. Before they even received the Law, Israel was in the family of God.

God then rescues the people from slavery and brings them to Mt Sinai. He states: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). Then in introducing the Ten Commandments, He says, “ I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2, emphasis added). The people were already with Him, they belonged to Him, He was their God prior to Him speaking the Ten Commandments. The relationship preceded the Law.

Subsequently, the people explicitly violate several of the commandments in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). God punishes the people via the Levites, and many are killed. But He reveals His very nature:

Merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 34:6b-7a).

How can he both forgive iniquity and not clear the guilty? The story of the Bible eventually tells us: The sacrificial system provides hints; the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 develops the idea more fully; the perfect sacrifice occurs at the cross; and the Apostle Paul tells us that God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25).

And so God does not say to His disobedient, rebellious people, “That’s it! You broke the Ten Commandments! You’re no longer my people!” Instead, in the latter chapters of Exodus He commands them now to build the tabernacle – the picture of His presence in the midst of His people.

The point is this: We do not enter into a relationship with God by keeping the Ten Commandments, or any other law, or any other rules. Nor do we remain in relationship to God by keeping His law or by keeping rules. We enter into a relationship with Him by His grace and mercy through the cross. And we remain in relationship with Him by His grace and mercy through the cross. This is the very center of biblical Christianity.

What then is the role of the Ten Commandments? What is the role of Law?

The Nature of the Ten Commandments: Life in a Family

When we hear the word “law,” we normally think of some set of restrictions on our behavior. A sign on I-85 says that there is a law prohibiting you from driving faster than 65mph. If you see a police car in your rearview mirror, you will restrict your driving speed. You will not drive 80mph.

But God’s Law is not fundamentally a set of restrictions on our behavior. Instead, God’s Law fundamentally is a revelation of His character. Through the Law, He tells us what He loves and what He hates: “I Yahweh love justice; I hate robbery and wrong” (Isaiah 61:8). God in His very essence hates and despises sin, He despises evil; in His very essence, he loves righteousness and justice.

Now, connect this with the idea of God’s people being His family. When we had six little children running around the house needing correction, we would sometimes say, “We’re Pinckneys – we don’t act that way. Instead, in this family, this is how we behave.” That’s similar to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Thus, when God tells us to obey His Law, He is saying, “Become like Me! I have brought you to Myself! You are part of my intimate family! This is your identity; this is who you are. So act like it’s true! Act like me!”

So God does not give us the Ten Commandments, saying, “Obey these and you will be in My family.” Nor does He say, “Obey these in order to remain in My family.” Instead, He says to the Israelites, “You are in the family. And this is how those in my family live. This is how they reflect my character.”

Four Implications of the Ten Commandments Revealing God’s Character

If the Ten Commandments tell us how to take on God’s character, then there are at least four implications we can discern from Scripture:

First, these are all positive commands, not just prohibitions

For we don’t become like God by avoiding certain behaviors!

Consider the seventh commandment: Do not commit adultery. Lots of people never commit the physical act of adultery, but they are filled with lust. As Jesus points out, such people have broken the commandment without engaging in the physical act (Matthew 5:28).

But we are not to simply expand the command, saying, “Do not commit the physical act of adultery or lust.” Rather, we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We are to take on His character. Thus, with regard to the seventh commandment, we are to honor all marriages, we are to build up our own marriages and the marriages of others to the glory of God.

So each commandment both prohibits some attitudes and behaviors, and commends others.

Second, no one will succeed in fully taking on the character of God

As 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” None of us will reach perfection in this life. God’s Spirit will work in those He has saved so that we bear the fruit of the character of God:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

But in this life that work remains incomplete. We can never say, “At long last: Now I am like God!”

Third, Jesus fully displayed the character of God

He said He came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) – and He did. He showed us what God is like: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Fourth: How then can we fulfill the commandments and be holy? By union with Christ!

Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, God not only saves us from our rebellion, wiping out the negatives in our accounts. He also adds positives – He credits us with the righteousness of Jesus Himself. In union with Christ, we along with all other believers are counted righteous:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Jesus fulfilled the Law. We fulfill the Law not by perfectly keeping the Law, but through union with Christ, through being credited with Christ’s righteousness. And we learn practically how to take on the character of God, how to take on His family likeness in our day to day lives, via the Law.

How then is the Law, and the Ten Commandments in particular, relevant for us today?

The Ten Commandments are not a law code for ancient Israel in our modern sense of “law code.” Nor are the Ten Commandments primarily restrictions on our behavior. Rather, the Ten Commandments are a revelation of the character of God, so that those in His family might know Him better, love Him more, and become like Him by His grace. And this only happens in and through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

(Parts of this devotion are taken from a sermon on Exodus 20:1-3 preached May 9, 2010, “Having Been Saved By Grace, Do You Put God First?” The audio is available here.)

Who Am I?

February 6, 2015

“Who am I?”

Many people spend years trying to answer that question.

We Americans in particular spend time and energy trying to discover ourselves. So we take personality tests and, in evangelical circles, spiritual gift inventories. We want to know who we are.

At the beginning of Exodus 3, Moses thinks he has answered that question. He had an extraordinary childhood:

  • Hidden in the Nile River to escape Pharaoh’s edict that all Hebrew baby boys should be killed
  • Found by Pharaoh’s daughter
  • Brought into the palace and raised as her son
  • Given the best upbringing, the best education
  • He became “mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22)

As a young man, he rightly identifies himself with God’s people rather than with the Egyptians. He turns his back on riches and power. He seems to have seen himself as the logical vessel through whom God would rescue His people from Egypt.

But then Moses acts in his own power, not God’s. Thinking he is the key actor in this drama, he kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. His own people reject him as leader (Exodus 2:11-14). So the highly-educated and talented Moses leaves Egypt, and becomes a shepherd out in the sticks. He stays there for forty years.

Initially Moses seems to miss Egypt; he gives his first son a name that laments his exile. But over time that lamentation turns to contentment. Moses hadn’t taken a Myers-Briggs test or a spiritual gift inventory, but after all these decades, he has decided who he is. “Who am I? A shepherd. Nothing more.”

Then one day Moses sees a bush burning, but not consumed by the fire. As Moses approaches, God speaks to him: “Go! I’m sending you to Pharaoh! Bring my people out of Egypt!”

Moses is flabbergasted. God challenges his self-assessment. Who is he?

So he asks:

”Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

God answers in two ways – two ways that are absolutely key for Moses as well as for us.

The first answer is in Exodus 3:12:

God’s first answer: Surely I will be with you.

God is saying: “What matters is not your personality, your experience, your education, or your preparation. What matters is that I am with you! What defines you is that I work through you!”

Do you see? This is why Moses failed before! He was in the prime of life, well-connected, energetic, mighty in speech. And he blew it. He blew it because God was not with him in the actions he took.

For all of us: This is the most important aspect of who we are. Not our personalities. Not our education or life experiences. Not our family or ethnic backgrounds.

Instead: Is God with you? Are you stepping out in God’s power for His glory? As you seek to help others – are you leaning on Him? Depending on Him? Trusting Him?

Moses tells God: “Who am I? I’m inadequate for this task.” God tells him: “Yes, you are – by yourself. You proved that 40 years ago. But you’re the one that I am with! And if I’m with you – my grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Now look at the rest of Exodus 3:12:

“And this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

God’s second answer: You shall worship God

Many commentators struggle over this sentence. We normally think of a “sign” in such a context as something that encourages us, something that shows us we’re able to complete a task, or something that gives us direction in a task.

But Moses thinks he is inadequate for bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. How does the fact that they will worship God after they are already out of Egypt help or guide Moses now?

This is a key point. God is here answering not only the question: Who is Moses. He’s also answering the question: Who are the people of Israel? His answer is: “You all are the ones who may worship Me. This defines you. This is who you are.”

Remember, God is holy. Left to ourselves, we are repugnant to him. Defiled. Unholy. Stained. In this state, we cannot approach Him to worship Him – except on His terms. He – and only He – can tell us how we may worship and who may worship.

So understand: Who we are is a result of our relationship to Him. That is: Our identity is defined by this relationship to God.

  • Those who reject Him forever ultimately become irrelevant and unimportant. Their only purpose in eternity is displaying God’s justice.
  • Those who are His spend eternity fulfilling the purpose of their creation: Worshiping Him, giving praise, honor, and glory to Him, delighting in Him and they learn more and more of His inexhaustible goodness forever and ever. This defines them.

So as Moses showed us through his earlier failure, we will do nothing for God apart from His working in us. Indeed, we have nothing to offer others. We are inadequate. But if He is with us – we can offer everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Indeed, God has promised to work in us and through us to bring about the filling of the earth with the knowledge of His glory. God has promised to bring about worship through us.

So, ask yourself: “Who am I?”

Scripture tells us: “I am by nature an object of God’s wrath. I am a rebel against my rightful King’s purpose for me.  I am one who will not submit to God. I am one who wants to be god of my life.”

But through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we rebels, like Moses, can have a new identity. We can be forgiven. We can become children of God. We can become ambassadors of God, God making His appeal through us. We can become worshipers.

Therefore: “Who am I?”

May we all be able to say truly:

“I am the one whom God is with.  And I am the one who worships God.”

(Parts of this devotion are taken from a sermon, “I Am Who I Am” on Exodus 3:11-22, preached December 27, 2009. Audio of that sermon is available online.)

 

Jacob and Joseph: Pursuing Your Greatest Joy

February 6, 2015

Think of someone you dearly loved whom you have lost. What would you do to have that person back? Would you do anything? Anything?

This is the situation in which Jacob finds himself in Genesis 45 and 46. Imagine the scene: At 130 years of age, Jacob waits nervously for his eleven living sons to return with food from Egypt. For 22 years he has thought that his favorite son Joseph is dead. For 22 years he has mourned him. And much against his will he sent Benjamin, Rachel’s only other child, to Egypt. The sons have been gone for weeks now, perhaps for months. Jacob worries about their return. He sleeps fitfully, and wakes up at night thinking he should never have let Benjamin go. “He’ll never come back! He’ll disappear just like Joseph, and my last connection with Rachel will be gone! I’ll die in misery!”

But this day, he hears the donkeys arrive – his sons have returned! He goes out to meet them, and sees Benjamin right up front. Benjamin! Still alive! But before Jacob can reach him, before he can embrace him, all the sons cry out, “Father! Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!”

Jacob is stunned. “Joseph? Alive? And ruler of Egypt? Is this some type of cruel joke?”

But the brothers tell him the story – all the words of Joseph, as the text tells us. And they must confess their own part in the story – without accusations or argument. When Jacob hears their heartfelt confession and Joseph’s God-centered words – “It was not you brothers who sent me here but God” – Jacob realizes, “Those indeed are the words of my son.”

So he concludes (Genesis 45:28):

“It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

Ask yourself: If you were to find out that that loved one you miss more than anything was alive, living a few hundred miles away, wouldn’t you rush there? Wouldn’t you go right away and see that person? That’s what Jacob feels. And that’s what he begins to do.

So Jacob travels with his family until they reach the southernmost tip of the promised land, Beersheba. To keep traveling toward Egypt will mean leaving the promised land. Evidently, Jacob is beginning to doubt the wisdom of that step. Genesis 46:3 tells us he is afraid to go down to Egypt.

What is he afraid of? We can speculate about many possible fears, but he fundamentally fears disobeying God!

The news about Joseph has caused Jacob to remember the greatness of his God. In recent years Jacob has allowed the difficult circumstances of his life to overshadow his trust in God’s sovereignty. But he knew God. He had wrestled all night with God, and in the end clung to Him, not letting go. He knew that holding on to God was more important than any danger he had to face. He knew God was worth more than all else.

And now, God has proved Himself once again to Jacob. God has kept Joseph alive despite Jacob’s years of doubt. God has watched over Joseph and miraculously exalted him in Egypt. Learning of God’s miraculous faithfulness has renewed Jacob’s faith.

But he is faced with a dilemma: Jacob has a strong desire to see Joseph – and would God really save Joseph, exalt him, and not want Jacob to go to him?

On the other hand: God sent Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans to “the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). And then after Abraham arrived in Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7). God had promised Canaan to Abraham and his descendants – not Egypt. Indeed, God had brought Jacob’s mother from far away so that Isaac would not leave the promised land. And in Genesis 31:3 God had told Jacob himself to leave his father-in-law’s house and return to this land: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

All of these memories would lead Jacob to think that he would be disobeying God, displeasing God, to go down to Egypt. But there is one more memory that would have underlined this danger more than all the others. When Abraham first came to Egypt, right after God told him He was giving him the land of Canaan, a famine occurred in the land. And Abraham did not seek God’s face, but disobeyed God, traveling where? To Egypt! Abraham feared the famine, did not trust God, and left the promised land – leading his wife into danger and almost into disaster (Genesis 12:10-20). Jacob does not want to follow this example.

So Jacob thinks: “I only want to go where God wants me to go. God has shown Himself to be loving and gracious and sovereign and good through bringing my son virtually back from the dead. Should I now presume to leave the land of my calling – the very land God promised to my grandfather and father, the very place he instructed me to enter – when God has shown his power, might, and love so clearly?”

Therefore, Jacob halts before leaving the promised land. He decides that his proper response to the revelation about Joseph is not to go to Egypt – the proper response is to worship God. So he does.

And God calls out to him in a night vision: “Jacob! Jacob!” Jacob is listening, and replies: “Here I am.” God continues:

Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. (Genesis 46:3a)

That is, “I am the God of the covenant. I am the God who brought Abraham out of Ur. I am the God he disobeyed to go to Egypt. I am the God who will bring about the fulfillment of all my promises through your offspring.”

“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.” (Genesis 46:3b)

God had promised Abraham that he would make him into a great nation (Genesis 12:2). And now he tells Jacob that that promise will be fulfilled through Jacob in Egypt.

“I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Genesis 46:4)

In Hebrew, there is a strong emphasis on “I.” We could translate this verse, “I, even I will go down with you to Egypt, and I, even I, will bring you up again.”

God is saying, “Jacob, there is no conflict between following your desire to see Joseph and your desire to serve me. I will fulfill both desires. Go! I am with you! I will bring you back! And your beloved son will be with you until your death. I will not take him away from you again.”

Jacob acts wisely here. He shows a willingness to part with what he wants most on earth to hold on to God. And God gives him both.

Finally, Joseph and Jacob are reunited:

[Joseph] presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. 30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)

Jacob last saw Joseph when he was 17, going out to seek his brothers, dressed in his many-colored coat. He’s now 39, dressed in the robes of an Egyptian ruler. But this exalted personage is Jacob’s son! His beloved son! Dead, and now alive!

Jacob is content. Living with Joseph will be a joy; but now even death holds no fear.

Jacob had feared dying in sorrow (Genesis 42:38). Now, through the very trip he didn’t want Benjamin to take, Jacob is reunited with Joseph. He fears death no more.

What a joyous reunion!

Question: Is the reunion with Joseph Jacob’s greatest joy?

Jacob knows that the answer to that question is “No”. At Beersheba he was willing to give up this reunion. For Jacob knew a yet greater joy: The joy of knowing and following the God of the universe. The joy of fulfilling God’s purposes for his life.

Jacob knew this God to be:

  • The good, loving God, who always keeps His promises;
  • The merciful God Almighty who protected Joseph and miraculously exalted Him.

True joy can only be found in obedience to Him. To disobey the source of all good gifts is to seek pain eventually, not pleasure.

So Jacob’s greatest joy is found in following God, clinging to Him. God had granted him the great earthly joy of holding his son raised to life. But he knew: Having Joseph without God is no gain.

What about you? Your purpose in life is to glorify God. Your greatest happiness will come from fulfilling that purpose. We often must give up lesser pleasures to pursue greater ones. The path to your greatest joy can be paved with saying “No” to what seems good. Indeed, Jesus told His disciples:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

If instead you try to hold on to what you think you need for joy in this life, you will lose – you will never attain the greatest joy of following Jesus.

As 17th century English pastor William Gurnall says,

A man never comes to enjoy himself truly, in any comfort of his life, till [he is] prepared to deny himself readily in it.

Are you prepared to deny yourself readily every comfort of your life?

God is not stingy – He doesn’t withhold something or someone from you just out of meanness, or to reserve it for Himself. If He withholds something from you, He does that for a purpose. If we give up a highly-desirable joy – even our greatest earthly joy, as Jacob was willing to do – we do so for the much greater joy set before us.

If your possessions, friends, or family members are more important to you than God, if they become idols to you, you will not enjoy them truly. You will not enjoy them fully. Indeed, those very idols will become to you a source of great pain. But if you accept them as God’s gifts to you – which he could easily take away at any time for your good – if you can see them as undeserved presents showered on you by One Who loves you more than you can imagine – then they can be sources of great joy.

Are you – like Jacob – willing to say no to some pleasures in order to pursue your greatest pleasure?

(Parts of this devotion were taken from a sermon, “True Joy and Self-Denial” on Genesis 45:16-47:27, preached November 14, 2004. Both text and audio of that sermon are available. The William Gurnall quote is from The Christian in Complete Armour, (Banner of Truth, 1964; originally published 1662-1665), Volume 1, p. 569.)