Archive for the 'Devotional' Category

Slaughtered Sheep (Do not click here if you are squeamish!)In Part I of this series, we examined Lamb Selection Day, and in Part II, we examined the preparations for Passover. In Part III, we delved into the Passover Banquet, now called the Seder. Tonight, in Part IV, we will examine the passover sacrifice.


The origins of sacrifice in Hebraic tradition, and so, too, for us, goes back hundreds of years before Moses and the Exodus to the time of Abram. In Genesis 15, we read:

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)

So here, God has promised to protect Abram and to reward him. In Abram’s culture, the two most important things one could have were children and land – because these were the only things that could carry on as a legacy to future generations. Abram, when told by God, Himself, that He would reward him, immediately and boldly asked God about children, and had faith in God’s answer to him (which is a bit different response than most modern/Western Christians would expect in reaction to a Word from the Lord).

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

Here, Abram has the chutzpah to ask the God of the universe for a sign by which he will know that God will give him land. And so God set up a Covenant with Abram.

So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. (Genesis 15:7-10)

Sacrificed Sheep (do not click if you are squeamish!)Note that God did not have to tell Abram what to do with the animals, as this was a common means of creating a covenant between a greater party and a lesser party. This type of covenant, sometimes called a “bloodpath” is still practiced by the Bedouin of the Negev in modern Israel – particularly in arranged marriages.

In this bloodpath ceremony, the lesser party provides an animal – or animals – to be sacrificed and the greater party provides the terms of the covenant. Then, the lesser party kills the animal(s), and drains the blood into a trough. The greater party then walks through the blood, stamping his feet in the liquid to say “If I do not provide what I promised, you may do this to me (i.e. you may kill me)”. The lesser party then walks through the blood to say “If I do not keep my end of the bargain, you may do this to me (i.e. you may kill me)”.

[Even today, in Bedouin culture, if a husband or wife is found to be unfaithful or lazy or somehow less than what was promised in the bloodpath ceremony, the father of the unacceptable spouse is very likely to end up at the bottom of a wadi with his throat slit and shoeprints spattering his blood. As you might imagine, then, there is a good deal of pressure for everyone in the family to help each other's marriages to work out!]

Back to the story in Genesis:

Abram had supplied the animals for sacrifice, but what terms was God bringing to the table? In return for God giving Abram children and land and being their God, Abram would need to walk blameless before God. If God did not keep his end of the bargain, Abram could ‘kill’ him (we Westerners scoff at this idea, but this is the Eastern picture being drawn for Abram, an Easterner). However, if Abram didn’t keep his end of the bargain, God could kill him.

At this point, Abram had to be wondering what he had just gotten himself into. How could he expect to walk blameless before God? We read:

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. (Genesis 15:12)

“A thick and dreadful darkness came over him” is a Hebrew colloquialism which essentially means, in modern English – “he was scared out of his wits”. However, here is what happened next:

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. (Genesis 15:17)

Throughout scripture, God is symbolized by two primary images – fire and smoke. And so it is that first, as the greater party, God walked through the blood. Then, rather than Abram walking through the blood – which would have been an almost instant death sentence – God, in the form of a blazing torch, walked through the blood as the lesser party, as well! In doing so, He was saying “Abram, if you do not walk blameless before me, I will pay the penalty for your sin”, and in doing so – at that moment – Jesus was sentenced to death.

Sacrificial System

Many Christians have a misconception that the Jewish belief was that their sins were forgiven by the sacrifice of animals. This cannot be farther from the truth. The reason for sacrifice was (at least) two-fold:

  1. It had to cost something, and in being so, it had to be messy and vile – because that is what our sin is to God
  2. It was a call to God to ‘remember’ his promise of mercy and grace – His covenant with Abraham. Not that God could “forget” and require “remembering” (as we think of the words), but that He would “remember” as He had throughout the Hebrew scriptures, by giving specific attention to the person.

After the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Jewish people looked at verses like I Samuel 15:22

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

And so their Rabbis taught as our Rabbi Paul did:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1)

It is to be through obedience to God, not through sacrifice of animals, that they would worship the Lord – not to earn grace, but out of love for Him.

The Crucifixion

During the Second Temple period, each day there were two sacrifices made for all the people of Israel, one at 9 a.m. and one at 3 p.m. The evening sacrifice of passover (remembering that this would have been the evening BEFORE Passover in our Western measurement of day and night) was for each family unit’s lamb, which was then shared with the family in the Passover Banquet. The afternoon sacrifice, at 3 p.m. (also called “the ninth hour” of the day), was to be the Passover sacrifice for the entire nation of Israel.

And so it is that we read:

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. (Matthew 27:46-50)

And so it was that, at the very time when the Passover lamb in the Temple was being slaughtered for the nation of Israel, the Lamb of God was being sacrificed for ALL the nations, for those who would be grafted into Israel. According to John, the only disciple we know was present at the crucifixion, we know that Jesus’ last words were “It is finished”. And so it was – all the blood, all the sacrifices, all of it! The promise made by God back in Genesis was made complete, and the sins of all who would accept His grace were fogiven and forgotten.

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In Part I of this series, we examined Lamb Selection Day, and in Part II, we examined the preparations for Passover.

In Part III, we will examine the banquet traditions of Passover as practiced in the first century – in very similar manner as is done today – with the intention of examining some significant details relevant to Christianity. It is not my intention to give an all-encompassing look into what is now referred to by faithful Jews as the Seder (which is most likely not the name used for this meal in the first century). If you want to see all of the parts of the service, there are a number of Christian and Jewish websites which document this.

The Banquet

Unlike the traditional Christian “Lord’s Supper”, this meal was a four-course banquet, each with a specific cup of wine to symbolize it. While we are certain that this was practiced in the First Century, we do not know whether Jesus and his disciples each had four cups or if only Jesus had the four cups (there is evidence of both, though the synoptic accounts seems to indicate that Jesus shared from one cup for at least the third cup), which also signified where they were in the meal. We do know, though, that the tradition of the cups of wine began some 200 years before Jesus and his disciples met in the Upper Room.

These four cups, according to Jewish tradition, are given their meaning from Exodus 6:6-7

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will deliver you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.

The four cups are (sometimes the English translations for the names differ, but the meaning is consistent):

  1. The Cup of Blessing/Thanksgiving (I will deliver you)
  2. The Cup of Judgement (I will free you)
  3. The Cup of Redemption (I will redeem you with an outstretched arm)
  4. The Cup of Praise (I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God)

Each of these four cups symbolized one of God’s promises, and it is believed, from numerous early Jewish sources, that wine was representative of life/blood, and that God was promising on His own life that He will keep His promises (more on this tomorrow, if it seems a little “odd” to you).

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In Part I of this series, we examined Lamb Selection Day, which we Christians celebrate as Palm Sunday (though technically, since the selection happens on Sunday evening, it is actually on Monday in the Jewish calendar).

In this, Part II, we will examine some more of the traditions of Passover as practiced in the first century – in very similar manner as is done today – with the intention of examining some significant details relevant to Christianity.

Removing the Leaven

For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native-born. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread (Exodus 12:19-20)

In Hebrew practice and tradition, on the seventh day before Passover, all families would search their houses for yeast (in some Jewish families, a paternal figure would hide bits of bread for the children to search out and find – which may have been borrowed later by Christians in ‘Easter Egg Hunts’. We do not have evidence, though, that this particular tradition was practiced in the first century). All yeast found in the houses would be brought to a central place and burned.

While the elimination of yeast was a rememberance of the Children of Israel leaving Egypt so quickly that there was not time to make bread with yeast, this elimination is also symbolic of systematic removal of all traces of sin in one’s life. Yeast is used throughout the scriptures – both the Old and New Testaments – as a symbol for sin. While it is important to always keep sin out of our lives, it is this purposeful searching that it done at Passover that seeks ALL the sources by which it may have crept into our lives. Both King Josiah (II Kings 23:1-25) and King Hezekiah (II Chronicles 29-30) took care to cleanse their entire kingdoms of the sin of idolatry as a way of preparation for Passover.

The Apostle Paul also reminds us of this need to remove the yeast from our lives at the time of Passover:

Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. (I Corinthians 5:6-8)

The Setting of the “Last Supper”

In the gospels, we read of the supper had by Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room. This room, most likely in the Essene Quarter of the Upper City (and possibly called an “upper room” because of its location, rather than it being on the second floor of a dwelling place), would have looked nothing like DaVinci’s painting of the Last Supper. For at least 200 years prior to the Last Supper, it was customary to eat the Passover meal while reclining, and archaeological evidence supports the tradition that in the first century, this meal would have been shared around a tricilinium, a short 3-sided table arrangement with the fourth side open to allow food to be served. (This, in itself sheds a great deal of context to the Last Supper that we won’t have time for in this article.)

After going to the Temple at the end of the day to sacrifice the family lamb selected four days previously, Jesus and his disciples would have returned to the Upper Room to prepare the meal. In that year, this would have been Thursday evening. Josephus claims that 500,000 lambs were slaughtered in the Temple at Passover, though some scholars believe it have been sacrifices for 500,000 people comprising a fewer number of family units. Still a large number of lambs, nonetheless!

It is this family Passover meal that Jesus and his disciples would have celebrated on that Thursday/Friday night 2,000 years ago. Then, less than 24 hours later, Jesus would become the Passover Lamb for all of Israel (into which we Christians have been grafted, per Paul’s writing in Romans 11).

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Sheep's Gate[Last year, I did a series of articles on Holy Week on my personal blog. I'm making a few updates and reposting them during this year's Holy Week.]

There are a number of interesting events and “coincidences” that can be examined in the Jewish Traditions of the Second Temple period which hold significant parallels with Christian understanding of the last week of Jesus’ life, leading up to his resurrection.

This is Part I in the series (Palm Sunday), with further parts planned for later this week, to correspond with the days being celebrated.

Lamb Selection Day

On the tenth day of the first month of the year (five days before passover), every family was required to choose a lamb for passover, per the instructions given by God to Moses:

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. (Exodus 12:3-6)

Jewish historians record that the lambs were brought from the fields of Bethlehem to the south up to Jerusalem and through the Northeast gate of the city by the pool of Bethesda, called the “Sheep’s Gate” (see above). (As we discussed during the the Desanitizing Christmas series, the sheep of Bethlehem were owned by the Sadducees, and only these sheep were allowed to be sacrificed on Passover – for the purpose of filling their corrupt coffers.)

In order that the families could comply with the instructions from Exodus 12, the lambs were chosen the afternoon of the 9th day of the first month, so that they would be with the family from the 10th (which began at sundown) through the 14th. One reason for this, according to some Jewish sources, was so that the lamb would spend time with the family, becoming a part of it, so that when it fulfilled its purpose, it would take the sins of the family with it.
The year of Jesus’ death, He and his disciples began the trip into Jerusalem on a donkey at Bethphage (which is exactly one Sabbath day’s walk from the city walls). Bethphage is to the east of Jerusalem, and the road travels over the Mount of Olives down to the Sheep’s Gate. There they were met by a crowd of people waving palm branches.
The palm branch was a symbol which some scholars believe was not allowed within the city of Jerusalem, because it was associated with the zealots who wanted to overthrow Rome. The war cry of the zealots was “(God) Save Us!” chanted over and over again. In Hebrew, this would be pronounced “Ho-sha-NAH”, which we pronounce today Hosanna. This comes from Psalm 118:25-26, which is at the end of the Psalsms of Jewish blessings (Ps 113-118) called the hallel, sung during Jewish holidays.

O LORD, save us;
O LORD, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you. (Psalm 118:25-26)

Palm Sunday

This is the setting for Lamb Selection Day – which we Christians call “Palm Sunday”. And it is on this day that the Lamb of God, born in the flocks of Bethlehem, who was sacrificed for all of our sins, entered the city of Jerusalem. This was done at the end of the day (Mark 11:11) which would have been the same time at which the Passover lambs were being selected for each family group (and it is also the time that the disciples would have chosen the lamb for their own Passover Meal, which occured on the evening of the 14th day).

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosannain the highest!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-11)

As Westerners, we may miss this, but to Hebraic audiences, the picture is a stark one being painted here: Jesus is proclaimed a messiah by the people, but in doing so, they were selecting him as the Passover lamb to cover all the sins of the people for all time. He was from the flocks of Bethlehem, as all lambs were required to be in that time. The people waved the Palm branches, declaring Yeshua the Messiah. And so it is that the early Christians understood this day (which we celebrate as Palm Sunday) as the day in which Jesus was selected to be our sacrifice.

And so it is that this perfect lamb would have additional significance 5 days later, on the day of Passover…

(to be continued in Part II: Passover)

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Replica of First Century Galilee Boat

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus as Rabbi:
Part 1: What is a Rabbi?
Part 2: Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Part 3: Jesus’ Miracles
Part 4: Jesus and other Rabbis
Part 5: Jesus and the Pharisees
Part 6: Bringing up Disciples

In this set of articles in this series, we are exploring the relationship between the rabbi and his disciples. In this article we will examine the key characteristic which distinguishes one authoritative (s’mikah) rabbi from another, that is, his yoke.

In Judiasm, there are 613 commands, mitzvot, given by God in the Torah. As a result of the variety of real life, there were often times where one or more of these commands might come into apparent conflict with other commands.

For instance, on the Sabbath, which was required to be kept holy, what if an animal fell into a pit? Getting it out would require work (violating Sabbath), but to leave it in the pit would be cruel (in violation of the commands against cruelty to animals). In such a case, which was the greater (heavier) command and which was the lesser (lighter) command?

The yoke of a rabbi would help his talmidim to determine how to interpret Torah correctly, so as to best hear and obey God in everyday situations where one command/principal might conflict with another.

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Replica of First Century Galilee Boat

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.

Jesus as Rabbi:
Part 1: What is a Rabbi?
Part 2: Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Part 3: Jesus’ Miracles
Part 4: Jesus and other Rabbis
Part 5: Jesus and the Pharisees

In the next set of articles in this series, we will explore the relationship between the rabbi and his disciples.

As we’ve noted previously, one of the defining aspects of a “rabbi” prior to 70 A.D. was that they had disciples, talmidim, who followed them. Often, from a western standpoint we tend to equate “disciple” as being a “student”, and the “rabbi” as a “teacher”. This falls short of the cultural richness of this relationship, though:

A student wants to know that the teacher knows. A talmid wants to be what the rabbi is.

This cannot be overemphasized. (NOTE: In the case of Jesus, wanting to be what the rabbi is is a statement about Jesus’ human nature, not his divine nature.)

Educational System

As we’ve touched on before, the culture of the hasidim was highly educated, in comparison to their contemporaries, particularly regarding the knowledge and memorization of scripture.

From the age of about 4 to the age of 11 or 12, they participated in bet sefer, memorizing the books of Torah (for boys) and the Psalms (for girls). Even today, there are a number of Jewish communities that continue this practice, where it is not uncommon for all members of the community above the age of 12 to have Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy) memorized. (From my own grade-school church experience, we seemed pretty satisfied having one verse memorized each week!)

At the completion of bet sefer, the children began to learn their family trade (boys) or home skills (girls), with the most talented boys continuing their Torah studies on top of this. This level of education, called bet midrash, included memorization the prophets and the writings, along with interpretation and application of Torah.

Choices, Choices

At this point in their education, the student would approach a s’mikah rabbi in an attempt to further their study. The students would approach such a rabbi, often based upon the rabbi’s area of focus and key methods, to see if the he would accept them as a talmid, a disciple.

The way they would do this is by approaching the rabbi and asking him, “can I be like you?”

The rabbi would then test the student thoroughly. Should the potential talmid not fully meet the expectations of the rabbi, the rabbi would likely suggest that the family profession best suits the student – a devastating blow. If the potential talmid met the mark, though, the rabbi would reply “yes, I believe you can become what I am”, and would accept the young man as his disciple.

Very few young men ever made it this far. In modern America, it would be the relative equivalent of a young football player making it into the NFL. Being the talmid of an authoritative rabbi was a big deal – an opportunity of great proportion.

However – history records that three of these authoritative rabbis altered this model: Hillel, Akiva and especially a certain Galilean, Yeshua. These three rabbis sought out and chose their own disciples rather than having the talmidim come to find them.

In Jesus’ case, we see him in each of the gospels coming out and choosing his talmidim:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

When viewing this calling in its original context, it is no wonder that these young men immediately dropped everything to follow Yeshua! The fact that they were already practicing the family trade would indicate that they were not “good enough” students to make the cut after bet sefer or bet midrash (From the context of Acts 4:13, it is likely that Peter and John were not talented enough to have participated in bet midrash, though they undoubtedly would have participated in bet sefer with all of the other children.) Jesus’ disciples were the “C” students, but he chose them – which should speak to us as well, when we consider our own lack of qualifications.

Jesus even reiterates this to his talmidim:

You did not choose me, but I chose you

In the Hebrew view, this is often expressed as the “faith” of a rabbi in his talmidim – which is not a statement of divinity, but rather a statement of belief that his talmidim are fully capable of living in a way enough like his own to live out Torah correctly.

Footnote on Age

One interesting, though sometimes controversial, footnote to this rabbi/talmid relationship is that in the extra-biblical accounts of talmidim serving under rabbis, these talmidim are all between the ages of 12 and 30, primarily weighted toward the teen-age years.

In the Bible, we have no indication that Jesus’ talmidim were outside of this norm. In fact, at least one scripture seems to indicate that Jesus’ disciples, apart from Peter, were all in their teens:

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.


“But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

The two-drachma temple tax was paid by ALL adult (over the age of 20) Jews, and in this passage, we see that Jesus pays the tax for only him and Peter, even though the text says that disciples were with Jesus. So – either Jesus paid for Peter and himself through miraculous providence, stiffing the others , or (more likely) Jesus and Peter were the only ones required (male and twenty years of age or older) to pay it.

Because of our cultural biases, we often “see” the disciples as being the same age as – if not older than – Jesus. Rather, it is far more likely that, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John (the youngest) was likely 12 or 13 and Peter was probably 18 or 19.

Additionally, most talmidim served 12-16 years under a rabbi, but Jesus’ were only with him for three before he sent them out to make their own disciples! As you consider the age and level of “official” training of Jesus’ disciples, it is truly a statement to the his power and the simplicity of his teaching that he sent out a group of teen-age boys, and they, in turn, through him, changed the world by going out and making their own disciples – just like their rabbi.

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Something has kept popping up on my mind for the past few months and I wanted to start a conversation on it. 

It seems (this is a subjective observation open to debate) to me that many times, when one  writes an article in direct opposition or disagreement with something another person has said or done, the other person is severely inclined to be personally hurt by it.

This makes sense to a certain degree.  What I believe is a part of who I am.  When I write or say something to another person and they challenge that, it feels like they are challenging me.  When a person devotes their lives/ministries/time to a particular area and then they are told (sometimes repeatedly) that they are wrong, it seems to me that would feel like everything they believe in is being challenged.

It is important to note a few things.  First, there are some people who when they disagree with somebody else, will attack that persons character.   That’s not good, they need to be confronted.  Second, this site and its authors attempt to avoid personal attacks.

It is hard to see things you’ve said and done be attacked when you feel you’ve worked hard serving Christ in whatever ministry you are in.  It feels personal.  This is a major challenge for ministers in the church (let alone on the web) because pride begins to creep in and we want to defend ourselves and say everything I did was right.  It’s good for us to remember that our thoughts, words, and actions do not always glorify God.  Even when we want them to.

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remember when stamps cost 29 cents?Graceland is an estate in Memphis, TN, that Elvis Presley purchased in 1957. Posthumously turned into a museum and a tribute to the man dubbed the “King of Rock n Roll”, it is now reportedly the second-most visited private residence in the United States (behind the White House). Hundreds of thousands of people go there every year.

I’ve never been to Graceland, but like most places of its kind, there’s only so much time you can spend there. Even the most ardent Elvis fan would probably get bored if he lived there 24/7/365. It is a tourist attraction; you visit it, then you go home.

Unfortunately, it appears that Christianity has its own Graceland.

In the comments on my last post, iggy observed correctly that:

. . . often I see that after one comes to Grace, then more “rules and laws” are added . . .

And therein lies the problem. The Christian version of Graceland has been cheapened to a brief stop between a tour of Sun Studios and a ride on a riverboat.

Paul Galatians 3:24-25" target="_blank" href=";&version=50;">noted that (emphasis mine):

. . . the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

The Christian Graceland is not a pit stop. You do not run by God’s house to borrow a cup of grace until you can get back to the law store and stock up on some more of those tasty commandments. Nor does grace end with a visit to the museum store to buy some short haircuts, long skirts, and a couple of hymnbooks that will start gathering dust before you’ve been back in your “normal” life for three days.

One of the main themes in the book of Hebrews is to help the Jewish Christians of that era see that returning to following the law is a total rejection of Christ’s work. As has been said, “Jesus plus anything ruins everything.”

Perhaps it has something to do with the boredom (with the Memphis Graceland) to which I alluded earlier. We feel like we can’t just stand there, but we have to do something. So we try to pay God back. And in doing so, we don’t merely insult Him. We defiantly tell Him that what He did was insufficient.

Yes, we all are responsible for Christ’s death. And so, in a way, it wasn’t just Roman guards that spit in His face — we all did. But that doesn’t mean that we need to continue to do so.

You don’t visit Graceland. You stay there. Forever.

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Mosaic from Caesarea Maritima

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day’”for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

Jesus as Rabbi:
Part 1: What is a Rabbi?
Part 2: Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Part 3: Jesus’ Miracles
Part 4: Jesus and other Rabbis

When most of us think of the word “Pharisee”, some pretty strong, negative images are brought forward – for good reason – we we reflect upon their role in scripture. Just check out the textbook definition of Pharisee:

1. A member of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form.

2. A hypocritically self-righteous person.

What about

Not a really flattering picture, is it? Nor were most of Jesus’ words with the Pharisees. Just check out Matthew 23for a good taste. So why on earth should we have anything good to say about these guys? Well, in many/most cases, we don’t. However, I think that by viewing them with the above definitions only, we miss the contextual picture of Jesus and these religious leaders of the day. After all, Jesus had Pharisee followers, some Pharisees warned Jesus of a plot to kill him (Luke 13:31-35, quoted above), and Paul still claimed affiliation with the Pharisees long after his experience on the Damascus road.

Origins and Basic Beliefs

The Pharisees descended from the hasidim, the “pious ones” of the Galilee region in the hundred and fifty years prior to Jesus’ birth, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series. These intensely religious people differed greatly from the Judeans to the south, who were primarily of the Sadducee/Priestly persuasion and believed only in the Pentateuch as God’s Word, and not the entire TaNaKh (which is our modern day Old Testament). The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in all of the TaNaKh as God’s inspired Word, the oral law, and had a theology developed around the coming of a Messiah and the Kingdom of God. They also believed in the future resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees denied.

Read the rest of this entry »

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I recently watched the short film “The First Valentine” in which my understanding of Valentine’s Day was reshaped.  Basically, I had no idea it was St. Valentine’s day.  (There’s a lot of debated history connected with this but the Catholic church maintains an encyclopedia of whom they consider “Saints” and a few Valentines made it on the list and a couple of those are supposed to be remembered on February 14th.)  So I watched this classically campy 80’s afterschool special and was mildly surprised.  First, that it was actually fairly decent (for a religious film from the 80’s) and second, that it challenged me to live the Christian life in such an obvious way that I am ashamed I haven’t seen it before.  The valentine that was given was an encouragement and a love note from Christ (through His servants), but more importantly, it was the life of Valentine himself.

Valentine’s Day for any Christian isn’t about a date, some  chocolate, hard candies, flowers, and jewelry, and romantic bonding (these things are okay in and of themselves and I actually encourage married couples to employ these tools of romanticism, love, and general caring sporadically throughout the year to better communicate that their spouse is still special to them), it is about giving up of your own life for the sake of others.

In practice, this is loving others through actions that show that another person is more important than my own wants.  Sometimes in simple and easy ways like an encouraging thank you note, and other times in difficult and drawn out ways like sacrificing money and time to help another in need, long term missions, and even death for many of our brethren throughout the world.  (By the way, these all apply to how we treat our family members as well.  I struggle daily with giving up of myself so that I can treat my wife and children better and show them that I love them as Christ has loved me.)

There are many ways that this post can go and I probably should have ended it already, but in light of the ministry of this blog I think it is good to take note of how we treat brothers who may not believe exactly as I do.  William H. Willimon writes in “Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry,”

“I recall a fierce debate that erupted at an ecumenical gathering of clergy when it was suggested that we end the gathering by celebrating Holy Communion.  Some objected to this intercommunion saying, ‘My church has a very high theology of the Eucharist an therefore I am not allowed to partake with those who are members of churches where there is a low eucharistic theology.  I have such a high view of the Eucharist that I cannot celebrate the meal with those who have another theology of the sacrament.’

But based upon Paul’s corporeal reading  of the Lord’s Supper, it would seem that a ‘high’ view of the Eucharist is that view that stresses the unity of Christians about the table of Christ.  A ‘low’ eucharistic theology is that which uses the table to draw lines of division between Christians.”

When somebody purports to take a “high view” of anything (especially Scripture) it is often so that that person can separate themselves from others whom they judge as having a “low view” of said thing.  This tactic treats others with contempt and causes division.  I am not a person who believes that if we all just love each other and get along then everything will be okay.  But I am a person who believes that Christ commands us to love each other as He has loved us.  That means that your spiritual health and well being comes before my ego, my interests, and my attitudes.

“Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard.  Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.  Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.   Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.   But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.”  1 John 2:7-11

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