The Man With Two Names: How Jesus is the Fulfillment of Immanuel

bible rock

We celebrate and sing the name “Immanuel” at Christmas, and rightly so. “Immanuel” means “God with us,” and in one sense this is the story of the entire Bible. It is certainly the story of Advent.

But a Bible search for the word “Immanuel” doesn’t return many results. Aside from its appearance in Matthew 1, we only find this name twice in the early chapters of Isaiah.

Matthew 1

When the angel of the Lord visits Joseph in Matthew 1, he tells Joseph to name Mary’s baby Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Matthew comments:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” (vv. 22–23)

Since “all this” which took place must include the angel revealing Jesus’ name to Joseph, then the name “Jesus” fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. But in Isaiah’s prophecy, the son would be called “Immanuel.”

This passage raises a question: How does the name “Jesus” fulfill the prophecy that this son would be named “Immanuel”?

Isaiah 7

We need some background before we land on an answer. After King Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel splintered. The 10 northern tribes formed their own country with the capital of Samaria. This country was then referred to as “Israel” while the two southern tribes formed the country called “Judah.”

During the time of Isaiah, the Assyrian empire was gaining power, and the other nations in the area were scrambling. Israel joined Syria in a pact of mutual defense against Assyria, and they pressed Judah to join them. As Ahaz, king of Judah, resisted, Israel and Syria threatened to attack Judah and replace Ahaz with their own king.

Isaiah 7:10–17 is one of the best-known passages in all the Prophets. God told Ahaz to ask for a sign that God would protect Judah from their enemies. Ahaz refused, so God promised his own sign—the sign of Immanuel.

We know that the prophecy about the virgin bearing a son (v. 14) is fulfilled when Jesus is born. Matthew says so! But many biblical prophecies have both immediate and ultimate fulfillments. Is this prophecy fulfilled before Jesus is born?

Isaiah reveals the answer as we read on. One key is that the Hebrew word often translated “virgin” can also be rendered “young woman” or “maiden.” Thus, a miraculous birth is not necessary for an immediate fulfillment. Verse 16 also contains language pointing to a not-long-from-now fulfillment. And the beginning of the next chapter brings this first fulfillment into focus.

Isaiah 8

In Isaiah 8:1–8 we read of the way God will bring about his thorough judgment.

One of the striking features of this passage is the strangeness of Isaiah’s son’s name: Maher-shalal-hash-baz (v. 4). This name means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Through this name God was communicating his plan to break the Israel-Syria alliance by the coming of Assyria.

Isaiah was used to giving his children names with messages. In Isaiah 7:3, God told Isaiah to take his (older) son Shear-jashub with him to speak to Ahaz. This name means “a remnant shall return.” This son carried his name as a reassuring message to Ahaz, designed to give him confidence in God.

It’s impossible to miss the parallels between Isaiah 7:16 and Isaiah 8:4. The birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz is tied to the victory of Assyria over Israel and Syria. As Immanuel comes, Judah will be free from the immediate threat of these nearby nations.

But how should we understand the meaning of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8?

Even when defeat looks near and the Assyrian army is filling the land, it is still Immanuel’s land. God will not abandon his people, even in their darkest hour. Assyria will come in like a flood, sweeping Syria and Israel away. But Assyria will eventually fade from history. Judah will remain in the land of Immanuel. God will be with them.

There is one final mention of Immanuel in this chapter. Though not a title, Isaiah specifically refers to “God with us” in verse 10:

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered;
give ear, all you far countries;
strap on your armor and be shattered;
strap on your armor and be shattered.
Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing;
speak a word, but it will not stand,
for God is with us. (Isaiah 8:9–10)

Isaiah was speaking to those who would attack Judah in the future. He dared them and warned them that they would be broken and shattered. The reason all their counsel will come to nothing and none of their words will stand is because God is with them.

Putting It Together

What does this background to the name “Immanuel” add to our reading of Matthew 1?

“Immanuel” in Isaiah is a sign for God’s people that they will see victory over their enemies. Despite the doom and devastation, God will be with them, and they will be victorious. Isaiah’s son was a first, imperfect version of Immanuel, pointing to God’s victory over military enemies through his presence.

Notice how the announcement to Joseph fulfills this prophecy. Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” For God’s people then and for us now, our sins are an enemy. They are worse than any menacing country. We are no match for them on our own, and we dare not make peace or an alliance with these scoundrels.

Sometimes our sins seem overwhelming and damnable. These rise to our necks and threaten to drown us—

But Jesus is Immanuel, God with us! He will save us from our sins!

For those who trust in him, he has taken away the punishment our sins deserve. And he will strip our sins of their power over us, taking away their allure, appeal, and longevity.

The more we see the strength and rebellion of our sin, the more we see the glory and love involved in the work of Jesus for us. He is God with us, and this is good news worth celebrating, not just at Christmas but all year long.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Aaron Burden (2016), public domain

 

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Ask Questions to Expose Idols

cafe

What is an idol? I’ve addressed this at greater length elsewhere, but here’s a quick definition. An idol is anything we worship that is not the true God.

This definition of an idol includes the statues and poles shaped from wood and metal that we read of in the Old Testament. But it also includes more common things—even good things—we see and enjoy around us every day.

Family. Church. Reputation. Lack of conflict. Influence. Wealth. Knowledge. Success.

Because our hearts are expert in twisting and fashioning idols from good, God-given parts of our lives, identifying idols is a difficult task. In fact, it’s a task we cannot do on our own.

Idols Kill Relationships

Andy Crouch’s book Strong and Weak has some excellent advice for Christians who long to kill their idols.

The first things any idol takes from its worshipers are their relationships. Idols know and care nothing for the exchange of authority and vulnerability that happens in the context of love—and the demonic powers that lurk behind them, and lure us to them, despise love. So the best early warning sign […] is that your closest relationships begin to decay. It is those relationships, after all, that could grant you the greatest real capacity for meaningful action. But they also demand of you the greatest personal risk. — Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak, pp. 106–107

The more we give ourselves to an idol, with its false promise of success or peace or power or happiness, the more our closest relationships wither.

Exposing Idols

Relationships may be a casualty of idolatry, but they also offer a strong defense against the same. The strategy is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement.

Ask your friends, consistently, about their closest relationships.

By asking your friend about her relationships with her sister, her mother, her best friend at work, or her husband, you may help her identify some idol currently gaining a foothold in the dark.

Part of the beauty of the church of God is that we’re not alone in the battle against sin. Indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have a valuable role to play in our friends’ spiritual lives. Having these conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward—they involve real risk!—but these interactions are a tangible way for us to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11).


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Christian Battaglia (2015), public domain

The Good News of the Ascension of Jesus

sunrise

“Do not cling to me.”

This can’t be the reception Mary Magdalene was expecting when she encountered the resurrected Jesus.

Mary had been weeping outside Jesus’ tomb. You can imagine her distress, having just watched her dear friend suffer a humiliating, grisly death. Now his body was missing.

Jesus walked up to her while she investigated the empty tomb. Mary initially thought he was the gardener, but when Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him! She called out, in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).

But instead of an embrace or some other warm gesture, Jesus was much more direct:

“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

Read in the wrong light, this sounds cold, almost cruel. But in this statement, Jesus reveals his focus on his Father and also provides hope for Mary and the other disciples.

Jesus Longed for His Ascension

As you read through the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, you’ll find that Jesus focused much more on his ascension than we do. By “ascension,” I’m referring to Jesus’ bodily return to heaven after his resurrection (see Luke 24:50–51 and Acts 1:9–11).

In John 20, Jesus didn’t want Mary to think he’d be on earth forever. He didn’t want her to get attached to his resurrected form. There was still work to do.

We think of Jesus’ work for us in three distinct categories: his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus would have us add his ascension as a fourth category. And there’s no doubt this was his most anticipated work.

The Ascension Is Relational

Jesus loved his Father and longed for a reunion.

  • Jesus says to his disciples, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
  • “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28).
  • Jesus prays to his Father, “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11).

Before his incarnation, Jesus enjoyed perfect fellowship in the immediate presence of God the Father. This is what he longed to reclaim, and it’s one reason the ascension was so important to him.

In his ascension, he would experience the unbroken presence of his Father.

Don’t miss the fact that Jesus’ ascension was a bodily ascension. This matters! It means that in the incarnation Jesus took on and identified with the human body for all time. It also means that, as the head of the new humanity, Jesus shows us the destination of the redeemed: to be with God, bodily, forever (see Revelation 21:3).

This destination should shape our longings. When our aspirations or goals are dashed, when we experience pain in body or soul, we can lift our eyes to our final home. The new heavens and the new earth await, and we will dwell with God!

The Ascension Is Functional

Though Jesus wanted the heavenly reunion that his ascension would accomplish, he also had work to do. In his ascension, Jesus accomplished and began several vital tasks for our salvation.

Jesus is coronated as King.

Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). The Old Testament background for the title “Son of God” (see Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7) makes it clear that this title has a royal meaning. By his resurrection, Jesus was declared to be the king!

If the resurrection declared Jesus to be King, then the ascension functions as his coronation ceremony. It was important that his disciples saw him depart, ascending to his throne, knowing he would return in the same fashion.

For more support of this function of the ascension, note the following:

  • Jesus has conquered and sat down with his Father on his throne (Revelation 3:21), where he is praised (Revelation 5:6–14).
  • Peter says that God made Jesus Lord, sitting at his right hand until his enemies are his footstool (Acts 2:34–36). This is the language of a king.
  • Paul writes that Jesus must reign (like a king!) until he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).

Jesus sends the Holy Spirit.

We begin to learn what the ascension means when we consider what we would lose if it never happened. Here’s a huge implication: If Jesus never ascended, his followers would never have received the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Let’s not underestimate the sending of the Spirit! Because of the Spirit, we have the conversions at Pentecost, the growth and expansion of the early church, and the Bible. If the Spirit were not sent, you and I would not be Christians!

Jesus is our heavenly high priest.

Jesus’ ascension also takes him to a place of great importance. He is now at the Father’s right hand, and his ongoing work there is vital.

  • The Bible tells us that Jesus is the true high priest for his people. He “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus brings his people to God for true deliverance and salvation.
  • Jesus is also our heavenly advocate. He reminds his Father of his sacrifice for sin and holds our status as sons and daughters before God. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
  • Jesus transcended physical limitations in his ascension. Though he keeps his human body forever, Jesus is now able to listen, rule, and heal without the familiar time and space restrictions we know.

What the Ascension Means for Us

The ascension of Jesus is a glorious fact that has scores of implications for his people. Here are a few:

Assurance

As our high priest, Jesus sat down at God’s right hand, indicating that his work of sacrifice is done (Hebrews 10:11–12). Our standing with God doesn’t depend on our actions or our emotions, but on the finished work of Christ.

Confidence

The enthroned king has been given all power to rule, and this power is his to dispense to his church (see Ephesians 1:15–23). Nothing can stand in the way of God’s purposes, and he will accomplish them with power, often through us.

Hope

When Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure from earth, the note was joyous, not mournful. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). In this one verse, Jesus gives at least three reasons for hope.

He is preparing a place for us. He will come again. He will take us to be with him.

This is the destiny for those who, by God’s grace, call on Jesus in faith.


Note: I benefited greatly from reading these three articles in researching this topic: Why Is the Ascension So Important?Four Reasons Jesus’ Ascension MattersMore Than an Afterthought: Six Reasons Jesus’s Ascension Matters.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Dawid Zawiła (2016), public domain

 

Five Leadership Lessons From the Mountain

man on mtn

When we think of the Israelites wandering through the desert, we often picture God leading them by cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). But God also appointed human leaders to govern, judge, and guide his people into the promised land.

God famously called to a man named Moses from a burning bush in Exodus chapter three. He summoned Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, where they were enslaved (Exodus 3:10). When Moses protested that he wasn’t skilled in speech, God promised that Aaron, Moses’s brother, would go with him and speak to the people (Exodus 4:10–17).

These brothers led the Israelites away from Pharaoh and out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and eventually to Mount Sinai, as God commanded. Here, Moses climbed up to meet with God and left Aaron in charge of the camp below (Exodus 24:12–14). After just 40 days, Moses returned to a camp in chaos.

Open Idolatry

In Exodus 32, we see a failure of leadership, and the contrast between Aaron and Moses is stark.

While Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai with God, the people at the base camp grew restless. They demanded that Aaron make them “gods who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).

Aaron seemed eager to comply. He melted their jewelry into a golden calf. The people were enthralled; they threw Moses to the side and forgot the God who delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 32:1, 4; see also Psalm 106:19–23). They attributed God’s mighty saving acts to the idol.

When the people wanted to worship the calf, Aaron built an altar and proclaimed a feast day (Exodus 32:4–5). Aaron knew better; yet he even used God’s covenant name “YHWH” (v. 5) in his feast day proclamation.

Meanwhile, God told Moses of the rebellion (Exodus 32:7–8). God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses interceded and pleaded for mercy, which God granted (Exodus 32:9–14).

Moses then went down to the camp, and he was super upset. As he charges into camp and confronts the people, the contrasts between the brothers jump off the page.

Five Characteristics of Godly Leaders

Let’s observe the major differences between Aaron and Moses.

1. Godly leaders know God and are concerned for his glory.

When God told Moses about the people’s sin, Moses immediately took to prayer (Exodus 32:11–14). He reminded God that wiping out the nation would violate his purpose in delivering them (v. 11), expose him to slander from the Egyptians (v. 12), and stall his promises to Abraham (v. 13). Killing all the Israelites would contradict God’s purpose to glorify himself through his people.

Meanwhile, despite seeing God’s miraculous work up close, Aaron built an altar for the idol. “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Had Aaron been jealous for God’s glory, he would have rebuked every attempt at false worship.

2. Godly leaders don’t tolerate sin; they work to eradicate it.

When Moses came into the Israelite camp, his “anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19). He broke the tablets and destroyed the calf. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:20).

Moses knew the evil of the idol. He saw the temptation it offered and eliminated every trace of it.

Aaron, on the other hand, formed the idol and made no attempt to point the people back to God.

3. Godly leaders fear the Lord.

Aaron caved to the people’s request, perhaps fearing they would harm him (see Exodus 32:1–2).

On the other hand, Moses took action against popular opinion. He destroyed the calf in quick order, and then addressed the people’s behavior. He sent the Levites through the camp with their swords drawn. “And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell” (Exodus 32:28).

While Moses feared God and honored him as holy, Aaron feared the people.

4. Godly leaders take responsibility for their flock.

Aaron was quick to make excuses when Moses confronted him. “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Exodus 32:22). You can hear the contempt in Aaron’s words. He saw the people’s flaws and eagerly blamed them, rather than take responsibility for the sin he advanced.

But Moses worked for the people’s forgiveness. He didn’t minimize their sin, but sought the Lord on their behalf. He took on their burden as his own. “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30).

5. Godly leaders are sacrificial.

Moses wasn’t perfect. But the contrasts in this chapter culminate in a breathtaking example of sacrificial leadership.

When Moses spoke to the Lord about the people’s sin, he begged for their forgiveness. But he knew that sin had a cost, and his love for his people produced a shocking request:

So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31–32)

While Aaron condemned the people to save himself, Moses was willing to be condemned to save his people. And in this request, Moses points to the Messiah.

At the cross, Jesus our great High Priest also appeared before God and confessed his people’s “great sin” (Hebrews 3:1-3). Like Moses, Jesus stood as a leader and mediator, knowing that a sacrifice was needed for the people to be saved.

And while God refused Moses’s proposal (Exodus 32:33–34), he planned and accepted Jesus’s offer of himself (Isaiah 53:10).

Learning from These Lessons

Godly leadership is of vital importance, and all of God’s people need to pray for, recognize, and encourage such leadership.

The contrast between Moses and Aaron is particularly arresting for those in or aspiring to leadership positions in the church. We would all benefit from considering these reflection questions that flow out of Exodus 32.

  • Where have you made allowance for sin in your life? Are there idols you need to grind into powder?
  • In what ways have you blamed others? Take note of your temptations toward gossip and resentment.
  • Have you been concerned for your people’s holiness? Have you compromised God’s standards to satisfy your people?
  • How is God calling you to sacrifice for your people? Are there unpopular steps you must take to help your people glorify their Savior?

If you find these questions convicting, don’t lose heart. The Savior who Moses foreshadowed is sufficient for leaders and followers alike. He always offers forgiveness, cleansing, and strength for those who come to him in faith.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Julentto Photography (2017), public domain

 

Too Busy to Love My Neighbor

busy

I’m a college professor, so my life is marked by the rhythms of the academic calendar. We gear up in August and January for 14 intense weeks, then we enjoy the slower pace of the winters and summers.

This past fall was especially busy. I had new classes to teach, a department to chair, plus other obligations too boring to recount. In addition, I taught a new class at my church for ten weeks in a row.

I’ve had busy seasons before, but this fall wrung me almost dry.

The Effects of Busyness

Looking back at the semester, I noticed one unpleasant effect of this busyness. At least in me, busyness aggravates self-centeredness.

As my to-do list filled beyond to-doing and my calendar crowded to standing room only, I focused more attention on myself than usual. I was concerned about my tasks, my meetings, and my responsibilities.

My time and attention were squeezed, like a half lemon giving up its juice. I felt mentally out of breath—my commitments seemed to rush at me, each one faster than the last. Though my days were full, the mental consequences of this busyness were more damaging than the shortage of time.

With my vision narrowed, I ignored critical areas of my life. I didn’t go beyond the bare minimum in my most important relationships.

  • My prayer life was almost nonexistent.
  • I scheduled no date nights with my wife.
  • I didn’t spend much time in meaningful conversations with my daughters.
  • I didn’t anticipate how I could bless others in my church, my neighborhood, or my wider circle of friends. I neglected all acts of proactive love.

Have you experienced anything like this? I doubt I’m alone when it comes to the detrimental effects of busyness on my heart.

Toward a Solution

This isn’t a healthy or sustainable state of affairs, so is there a solution to be found?

Answers are probably as different as the people asking the question. I’m still sorting through my thoughts on busyness, but here’s where I am now.

The main thing I’ve learned is this: the areas of our lives are all connected. The decisions I make regarding work affect my personal/home life. Family choices influence pressures on the job. The threads are all linked behind the screen.

Digesting this lesson of connectivity—perhaps obvious to many—is an important first step. But there must be practical changes if I want to avoid another semester like this past one. Here are some steps I’m trying to take moving forward.

First, I need to repent where appropriate. Though my situation may introduce temptations and pressures, it’s never an excuse for sin. If I’ve neglected my family and friends, I need to take this matter to God and to the people I’ve sinned against.1

Second, I need to remember my particular weaknesses, tendencies, and temptations. If extreme busyness tempts me toward selfishness, I must avoid that type of schedule whenever possible.

It’s helpful for me to review my weekly calendar ahead of time. If I know what’s coming up, I can adjust my expectations accordingly.

Finally, both at work and at home, I want to be present and take advantage of the time God has given me. At home, this consists mostly of building relationships and serving my family in practical ways. At work, there are three ways I’m trying to clear out some space on my calendar and in my brain.

  • Say no. Especially at the beginning of my career, I felt pressure to agree to every request. I’ve gotten better at declining invitations, but I haven’t yet mastered the art of delicately ending the small conversations that eat up my day. I need to say “no” or at least “not now” more frequently.
  • Build margin into the calendar. I’m feeling the effects of stress as much as busyness, so I need to make sure I have time to breathe during the day. Even a small step like scheduling at least 10–15 minutes between meetings can pay large dividends.
  • Be less available (at times). I need to be accessible to my students. But this doesn’t mean I need to be available at all times. I’ve found that I’ll never get any long blocks of work time (necessary for grading, research, and class preparation) if I spend all day in my office with the door open. So, I’ve taken to stealing away to the school library or a local coffee shop for a few hours each week in an attempt to engage in deeper work. As a middle ground, I’ll also close my office door at times to work inside. The key is to communicate my availability as transparently as possible.

Personal Reviews

The times between academic semesters are valuable for me to take stock of what has happened and what’s to come. If your yearly rhythms don’t have this natural reflection time, I suggest adding it. Take a personal day, take advantage of a federal holiday, or just block off one day on a weekend.

As you think through your closest relationships and the opportunities you have (or the ones you want) to serve and love your neighbors, make sure your calendar and commitments aren’t working against you.


  1. I have written before that asking your children for forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions you can take as a parent. 

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Photo Credit: José Martín Ramírez C (2014), public domain

 

God Gives Us Himself

Several years ago, I missed my oldest daughter’s birthday. A conference for work overlapped with her big day.

My wife made it special for her, and I called to chat. My daughter enjoyed the gifts and food and celebration. But when a loved one is absent, it’s just not the same.

A Rebellious People

In the book of Exodus, after rescuing his people and bringing them near, God is closer than ever before to Israel. He designs the tabernacle so he can dwell with them (Exodus 25:8).

But in a single act of rebellion, the covenant bond of peace between God and his people explodes like a light bulb.

While Moses is on the mountain, the people hunt for something – anything – to worship. They forget their Savior (Psalm 106:21), they disregard Moses, and they beg Aaron to make a god for them (Exodus 32:1). Don’t miss this—in this treacherous act, the Israelites are turning their back on the God who brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and to this holy, smoking mountain. The golden calf is not a slip of the tongue or an accidental offense; these people are rejecting God with a stiff arm and stiff necks.

Moses begs God not to destroy the entire nation (32:11–13), and though God relents (32:14), there are still consequences. Three thousand people die (32:28). The stone tablets – on which God wrote the ten commandments – lay in pieces. And Moses has to plead for Aaron’s life (Deuteronomy 9:20).

Would God forgive the people? Could he, after the people trashed his reputation and spit on his awesome deeds?

A Gracious Consequence

The drama reaches a climax in Exodus 33. God tells the people to go to the land of Canaan. This is the land promised not only to Abraham (Genesis 12:7) but also to Moses and Israel (Exodus 6:8). God told them that they would enter a lush, bountiful land, and now he sends them off to do just that. But, there’s a caveat.

God won’t go with them (Exodus 33:3). He can’t. The people are “stiff-necked.” Their sin is so odious that God says he would “consume them on the way.”

By his angel he will drive out the inhabitants (33:2). He’ll keep his promise. But God himself cannot go.

A Disastrous Word

To the Israelites, this is a “disastrous word” (33:4). Moses understands how empty the promised land would be without God. He declares, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (33:15).

Think about this! The Israelites have never had their own land. But for Moses, having land is worth nothing if God’s not there.

God isn’t withholding all his blessings. The land will still flow with milk and honey (33:3); the tribes will still be defeated (33:2).

But Moses wants God. And if God won’t give himself, none of his lesser blessings will do.

John Piper frames this issue for modern Christians:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there? — John Piper (God is the Gospel, p.15)

A Steep Price

In my honest moments, Piper’s question makes me squirm. Far too often I’d be satisfied without Christ himself. I’d take the blessings without the Blessed One.

Thank God my destiny is not determined by my desires! Our future is bright with the promise of God’s presence—in the new heavens and new earth, “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3).

This presence of God – God with us for eternity – comes at a steep price. In our natural state, God’s presence would consume us.

But Jesus, the perfect son of God, is our shield. In our place, he felt the consuming fire of God’s wrath on the cross. For a brief time, Jesus experienced the absence of God (“Why have you forsaken me?”) so we could enjoy his presence forever. Jesus suffered so “he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The Eternal Treasure

Moses clearly saw what we catch in glimpses: God’s gifts are wonderful, but they are nothing without God himself.

And we have God himself! Not just in the future, but right now. Because Jesus Christ reconciled us to God, he then gave the Holy Spirit to dwell in each Christian (Acts 2:38).

What does God’s presence mean for us? Exodus offers some answers.

  1. God’s presence means we can rest. We aren’t on a journey to find, achieve, or conquer a land like Israel. But we still go about our lives striving for blessings. We can be still and know that he is God, God with us. Because he has promised never to leave, we can cease our restless striving knowing God will provide (Exodus 33:14). This means we can sleep, we can worship, we can observe the one-day-in-seven pattern that God established for our good.
  2. God’s presence means he loves us. For Moses, God’s presence signified his favor (33:16). Because of Christ’s obedience, we have the perfect approval of our Father. The Spirit in us is the spirit of adoption by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15). When we feel lonely, lost, or abandoned, we replace the whispers of Satan with the clear truth of Scripture.
  3. God’s presence means he has called us. Moses tells us that God’s presence with the Israelites would make them distinct “from every other people on the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:16). In other words, God sets his people apart by his presence. The Holy Spirit now marks us as holy people, called for a purpose.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

God goes with us and trains us to talk to our friends and family. He sends us as the recipients of mercy to proclaim his free offer of mercy. In the midst of many blessings, God has given the gift of himself. He is our eternal treasure! And he equips us to declare God’s excellencies to a dark world that needs light.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Disclosure: the link to Amazon.com in this blog post is an affiliate link, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Holly Mandarich (2017), public domain

No Images

sunset camera

One of the best parts of my mother-in-law’s house is her refrigerator. And that’s not just because of what’s inside.

She has filled the front of her refrigerator with dozens of photographs. I love picking up these pictures, asking her questions, and listening to her talk about family and friends. There are people and moments captured in those frames I don’t see elsewhere.

We take pictures to remember, to commemorate. A wedding, the first day of school, that amazing meal—we crave documentation because our memories are faulty. Pictures are so easy, and remembering is so hard.

God’s Forgetful People

Despite our efforts to remember cherished people and critical truths, we forget. And forgetfulness has consequences.

The Bible is realistic enough to portray people like us, people who forget. And we have a lot to learn from the impulses of those who don’t remember God and his commands.

In fact, it doesn’t take long after the ten commandments are given for the Israelites to break them in pieces. The second commandment (no images) takes a direct hit in Exodus 32.

Moses is meeting with God on the mountain and the people start to wonder if he’s ever coming down. They enlist Aaron to make “gods who shall go before [them]” (Ex 32:1). They worship a metal calf because “they forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt” (Ps 106:21).

The people wanted something to see. They used God’s covenant name (YHWH) but attributed his works to melted earrings (Ex 32:4). They forgot, so they made an image.

The problem with man-made images of God is that none of them are true. Since no one has seen God and lived, any image of God we generate is false. Thus the reference to jealousy in the second commandment (Ex 20:4–6). Our images lead to false worship.

Faith and Sight

We’re all on a quest to see, a quest to remember. Here is the hurdle: How do we follow what we cannot see? How do we stay true to the invisible God?

This is the essence of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). We depend on God for the gift of faith when we are blind. Faith seeks what is unseen; faith stretches forward.

Consider Moses again. He destroys the golden calf and pleads with God to go with his people into the promised land. God agrees, and Moses is overjoyed; he cries, “Show me Your glory!” The image is gone, but after a grueling test of faith, Moses wants to see. Please sustain me, just for a moment, with the sight of your glory!

The Image of God

God’s people throughout time share this challenge: “Take care, lest you forget the Lord” (Dt 8:11).

Without pictures or images, how can we remember? How can we avoid the septic spirals of sin that have ravaged forgetful saints through the ages?

God, in his mercy, has provided what we need. Hear this glorious truth about Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Col 1:15)

Humans are made in the image of God, which is no small thing. But Jesus is the perfect image of God. If you want to know what God is like, if you need help remembering, look at Jesus!

When we remember Jesus, what he taught and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, we’ll remember our proper place before God. We’ll remember that we were “separated from Christ” and without hope, but that now we are “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11–13).

We turn again and again to the Bible, where the truth about Jesus is captured with authority. We turn to a healthy, local church, where we remind each other what is true. We turn to the Spirit, who points us to the Father through the Son.

We also turn to the future, because one day we will have no more temptation toward image-making. One day, we will see.

Sight will replace faith and forgetfulness will be forgotten. We will see more brightly and clearly and truthfully than ever before.

And in fact, we will hardly believe our eyes. We will see what we have always longed for. We will see God himself, for he will dwell with his people.


Photo Credit: Karen Arnold (2017), public domain

 

The Gallery (Third Quarter, 2017)

art gallery

 

In an effort to slow down, think, and let the best of the internet sharpen and edify me, I’m starting an infrequent (but regular!) blog series. I’m calling it The Gallery because that’s the image that best fits my idea.

I’m trying to find a happy middle between a daily roundup and The Best of The Year. I want to call attention to some of the best articles, videos, and podcasts I’ve noticed that might still have relevance. For now, I’ve settled on posting this roundup once a quarter.

These are the best things I’ve run across over the last three months. They deserve multiple readings or listens. Their quality demands thoughtful consideration (or reconsideration).

This isn’t the best of the internet, because I have no desire to cast my net as wide as possible. This is the best of what I encountered, taking all my preferences and oddities into account. Enjoy.

Articles

  1. You May Not Love What You Think, by James K.A. Smith (Desiring God) — This article is a teaser for Smith’s book, but it’s full of deep wisdom. He explores our desires and our choices and explains the relationship between the two. “And here’s the disconcerting reality we need to face: our loves and longings and wants and hungers are not the result of our conscious, rational choices — they are the drivers of those choices.”
  2. Christians, Writing, Reading, and Faithfulness, by Lore Wilbert (personal blog) — Here Lore Wilbert collects some of the responses to questions about writing she asked on social media. This is filled with sound, humbling advice. “More than once a week I get a message from a reader asking how to start a blog or how to break into the publishing industry or my best book recommendation for writing. My answer is almost always the same: get people around you who won’t lie to you or about you, and ask them what they think of your writing. If they gush yeses immediately, find more people to ask. You’re looking for someone who says, “No.” That’s your person.
  3. Envision the End of Your Sin, by Garrett Kell (The Gospel Coalition) — Garrett Kell writes a powerful warning about the dangers of sin and the power of Christ.
  4. Rejoice in the Wife of Your Youth, by Ray Ortlund (Desiring God) — Part of DG’s series Letters to a Would-Be Adulterer, Ray Ortlund has urgent and profound counsel for those who are on the verge of adultery. (It’s good for all Christians—married or not—to read.)

Podcasts

  1. Pass the Mic (Reformed African American Network) — I have now linked to this podcast in each of the previous two Gallery posts, but I won’t apologize. Jemar Tisby, Tyler Burns, and their guests have important words for the church. Two top-notch episodes from this quarter: Charlottesville, and Speaking the Truth in Love (a sermon by Rev. Duke Kwon).
  2. Ask Pastor John (Desiring God) — The Soul Care for Exhausted Young Mothers episode is excellent.

Song/Video

  • March (Sho Baraka) — This has been in my head for a while now.

Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire (2014), public domain

The Fear of Man Will Crush You

Earlier this year, my right thumb started hurting. I can’t remember any fall or trauma that caused the problem, but I winced every time I had to grip or press with my thumb.

Shaking hands became especially painful. One evening I was hosting an honor society induction at my college. I was proud of these students, and I wanted all of the parents, grandparents, and friends in attendance to feel comfortable and welcome.

As you might guess, I shook a lot of hands that night, and I paid for it. That evening probably set my healing back several days.

What’s going on here? Why did I do something I knew was so bad for me?

I wanted to look healthy and normal, hating the thought of appearing weak or needing to explain my injury. I knew people expected a handshake, and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone or make them feel awkward.

You might notice the pride and the love of reputation present in my motivations that evening. But mixed in with those rascals is another noxious sin the Bible calls the fear of man. It is often set in contrast to the fear of the Lord.

Let me tell you—it’s deadly.

A Dangerous Trap

The Bible pulls no punches when speaking about the fear of man.

In Galatians 2:11–14, Peter changes his dining practices according to his audience. He eats with Gentiles before “certain men came from James,” but when they arrived, he stops, “fearing the circumcision party.” Paul calls this hypocrisy and rightly opposed Peter to his face, because his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.”

There were specific, first-century, social and religious dynamics at play here. But the fundamental problem is universal: We often modify our behavior based on the opinion of others.

The Bible describes the fear of man in terms of a trap. “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Prov 29:25). When we fear man, we are walking into a dangerous place, because we’re no longer trusting in the Lord.

The Desire for Approval

At its core, the fear of man is about our desire for approval. Jon Bloom wrote a helpful article at Desiring God which calls this a natural desire. Bloom writes that God designed us to seek approval, and this proves to be a huge motivating factor for us. The source from whom we seek approval reveals our deepest love.

We can trace our fears to the people who have the most authority over us. This is the person(s) whose approval we most want. Jesus puts a fine point on this.

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4–7)

We are to fear God supremely, because he has ultimate authority over our bodies and souls. No man controls our eternal destiny.

Approved by God

Did you read that Luke 12 passage carefully? Jesus told his disciples both to fear God and then not to be afraid. How can these commands both be true?

God is the Creator and Sovereign, so we should fear him! But this God is merciful and loving, so in trusting his care we don’t need to be afraid. He knows us, loves us, and will give us exactly what we need.

Instead of seeking approval from other people, the gospel of Jesus reminds us that we are approved by God. In our own actions and desires we deserve nothing but disapproval. But Jesus—the beloved Son of the Father, the One approved and accepted before time began—feared God in our place. Jesus lived to do his Father’s will (John 4:34).

Our fear of man was put on Jesus and he was rejected by man and God for us. By faith, Jesus’ perfect fear of the Lord is credited to us, and God approves! Our heavenly Father accepts and loves us, all the way down to our toes.

Do you see how freeing and motivating this truth is? The fears that imprisoned our minds and hearts are now set free in the wind. We don’t have to impress or win over any other person, because the God of the universe is in our corner!

There’s a healthy, God-glorifying way we can say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks.”

Embrace the Fear of the Lord

It’s all too easy to forget our identities as children of God. So we develop practices that help us actively resist the fear of man and embrace the fear of the Lord.

  1. Remind yourself about God. Take time on a regular basis to remember who God is, what he controls, and why he is for you. Meditate on passages like Luke 12 that reveal God’s power, authority, and care. Consider reading other books about the attributes of God.
  2. Interrogate your fears. When you notice the fear of man, pinpoint the fear. Tease out the human consequences of trusting God in that situation. Often our fear of man is not only sinful but exaggerated and unfounded.
  3. Embrace God’s promises. These words from Moses to the nation of Israel are so precious: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6) The reason the people don’t need to fear is because God will be with them. See also Hebrews 13:5–6.
  4. Don’t fight alone. We need allies in this battle. We don’t often notice our fear of man. So, we need to share honest conversations with friends who can help us see our fears. (Of course, we also need to be that friend to others!)

After two weeks of loving reminders from my small group, I bought a brace for my hand that immobilized my thumb. It drew neon attention to my injury, but it also kept me from further damaging my hand. In this small way, admitting my weakness and trusting the Lord with my healing has reminded me of this great biblical truth: “Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!” (Psalm 34:9)

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Steven Duong (2010), Creative Commons

The Golden Calf Reveals the Goal of the Exodus

golden calf

While the Passover and the Red Sea crossing are the main events of Exodus, the goal of the exodus is even more profound. The tabernacle shows us that God’s goal in the exodus to dwell with his people.

This week I have more evidence.

Not the First Sin

The golden calf incident is found in Exodus 32. But this was not the first Israelite sin Moses recorded.

  • Before crossing the Red Sea, God’s people questioned his faithfulness (Ex 14:10–14). The Egyptians were closing in, and the Israelites were afraid. They thought death was near and wished Moses hadn’t bothered with their plight at all. Moses told the people not to fear, to stand firm, and to wait for the Lord to fight for them.
  • Shortly after Moses’s song of praise, the people complained about a lack of drinkable water (Ex 15:22–24). Moses cried to God, and the Lord provided a log to throw into the water which turned the water sweet.
  • The Israelites grumbled with hunger (Ex 16:1–8). They wished to die as slaves in Egypt with full bellies than as free men in the desert without food. In response, God provided quail and manna.
  • After explicit instructions regarding the collection of the manna, some went out to gather on the seventh day (Ex 16:27–30). The Lord emphasized the purpose of the Sabbath (v.29), but, instead of punishing the law breakers, he provided rest for the people (v.30).
  • The people complained again about lacking water (Ex 17:1–7). Moses knew the people were testing the Lord. He feared they would stone him, and he cried out to God. The Lord provided water for the people from the rock.

God’s Response to Sin

Taking all of these accounts of sin together, we don’t see any strong response from God. Both Moses and God call out sin when it happens, but there are no deaths, sicknesses, or visible consequences from these sins.

The golden calf is a different matter. In reaction to this sin (Ex 32:1–6), God planned to wipe out the people and start over with Moses (Ex 32:7–10). Moses broke the tablets of the law (Ex 32:19), destroyed the idol and made the people consume it (Ex 32:20), and commanded the Levites to kill about a thousand of the Israelites (Ex 32:28). God also sent a plague on the people (Ex 32:35) and planned not to go with them into the promised land (Ex 33:3).

This sin deserves and receives a swift and stiff response from God. How does this tell us about God’s purpose in the exodus?

Other Accounts

The narrative in Exodus 32 is not the only biblical commentary on the golden calf.

  • Psalm 106:19–23 — The psalmist writes that the people exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things, wondrous works, and awesome deeds for them.
  • Nehemiah 9:16–22 — The people committed “great blasphemies” by looking to a golden calf as God. Nehemiah emphasizes God’s mercy in staying with the people, providing them with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (his presence!).
  • Deuteronomy 9:6–21 — We are reminded that the mountain was burning with fire (v.15) and we are told that God was ready to destroy Aaron for his role in the incident. Moses had to plead with God specifically for Aaron’s life (v.20).

As God was instructing Moses how to build the tabernacle, the place where God would dwell with his people, at that very same time the people abandoned Moses and forgot about God. They attributed the saving work of YHWH to a metal cow.

God reacted so fiercely to this sin because his people were acting like they didn’t know him at all. The golden calf—this is who brought you out of the land of Egypt? This is who brought the plagues on Pharoah? Who made a dry path through the Red Sea? Who closed up the waters and drowned the pursuing enemies? Who provided victory over the Amalekites? Who provided quail and manna? Who provided water from the rock? Who thundered from the mountain and caused it to smoke?

God’s reaction was proportional. He brought them out of Egypt so that he might dwell with them. They rejected him—forgetting him and trading in his glory. So God was prepared to reject them too.

Application

God’s people deserved his wrath. They forgot him, and he could have forgotten them. But that’s not how YHWH works.

As a result of Moses’s intercession, God stayed his hand. He didn’t start over with Moses. He didn’t turn his back.

On this side of the cross, we understand God’s faithfulness and presence more deeply. Because God poured out wrath on Jesus, we are spared. Because Jesus was forsaken by all—even his Father—we are not abandoned. For the children of God, this promise is sure: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).

The implications are profound. God goes with us—he remains with us—even when we sin. A morning of sin does not mean an afternoon without God. He loves, he persists, he remains faithful despite our unfaithfulness.

We all need this truth, especially when facing persistent sins. So, Christian, digest this good news. And encourage a brother or sister in Christ with the reminder of God’s faithful presence. It is not some happy side effect of his saving love; his abiding presence is the very goal of his salvation.


Photo Credit: Gary Stevens (2008), Creative Commons