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Friday, April 27, 2012

Christ as Provider

Last week, we considered the period of the count to Pentecost as representing the years of our conversion as Christians, and we focused on the work that was required of the Israelites to grow and harvest the grain used in the offering of the wave loaves. This work—and it can be called nothing less—typifies the work God requires of us in preparation for eternal life in His Kingdom. Just as the Israelite had to work to present an acceptable offering to God, so the Christian is required to "work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

Ruth, the subject of the Old Testament book of the same name, is a wonderful example of a productive worker. She goes out into the fields at harvest time and industriously gleans on the heels of the reapers so that she and her mother-in-law, Naomi, would have enough to eat throughout the summer months. As Boaz' servant tells his master when he inquired about her, "She came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house" (Ruth 2:7). Her gleaning ties this story firmly to the instructions regarding Pentecost, as Leviticus 23:22 contains God's instruction to allow the poor and the stranger to gather the remnants of the crop after the reapers had gone through the fields.

While engaged in this, Ruth is introduced to Boaz, the owner of the field that she had "just happened" to choose (see Ruth 2:3). The Hebrew indicates with a wink that her choice of Boaz' part of the field was not serendipity; she was supernaturally led to it. This wealthy man, Boaz, we learn, came from Bethlehem (Ruth 2:4), which means "House of Bread," so God is suggesting that the man hails from a place of plenty—and of course, in the background lurks the biblical metaphor of bread as a symbol of God's Word. It is also good to know that Boaz means "in him is strength," a hint that he is a man of strong character, one whom Ruth can trust.

Boaz is immediately interested in her. Perhaps she was pretty and thus attracted his attention. More likely, though, it was the fact that she was a stranger, a Moabitess, and he probably admired her diligent work. His servant informs him that she is from Moab and is Naomi's daughter-in-law, and she herself humbly requests permission to glean, which he graciously gives (Ruth 2:8-9). Remembering that Boaz is clearly a type of Christ and that Ruth symbolizes the Christian who is being redeemed, Boaz' subsequent instructions take on a heightened meaning:

Then Boaz said to Ruth, "You will listen, my daughter, will you not? Do not go to glean in another field, nor go from here, but stay close by my young women. Let your eyes be on the field which they reap, and go after them. Have I not commanded the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn."
His immediate concern is for Ruth's safety and health. Notice, too, that when he speaks to her, he makes no mention of her foreignness but calls her "my daughter." He was most likely older than she was, but what is striking is that his first words to her are familial, as if he had already accepted her. She was not a stranger and a foreigner to him but part of the community and maybe even as part of his extended family.

His speech is essentially five consecutive commands. As a type of Christ, Boaz is lord and master of his domain, in complete control of the situation. He knows what she should do and gives her clear instructions about it. Though he has already determined to provide for her—which he does lavishly throughout the rest of the book—he gives her some ground rules to guide her gleaning.

First, he tells her to listen, to pay attention, to heed his instruction. If she wished to place herself under his care, she would need to abide by his rules. He did not say this because he was a tyrant, but because it was for her good to do as he said. As the master of the harvest, he knew the situation and how she could be most successful. As Jesus would say, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Matthew 11:15).

Second, he forbids her to glean anywhere else, "but stay close by my young women." This is the equivalent of Christ telling us, "Do not gather spiritual food from any other source." His field is sufficient to supply her all she needs to be filled, and the implication is that gleaning in other fields would not be safe. In fellowship with his other servants, she would be safe and satisfied with food.

Third, he tells her to keep her eyes on his field and his servants. A person's eyes show where he is focused, and Boaz did not want her to stray off his land. He did not want her to think that the gleaning was better elsewhere because, frankly, he knew it was not. He also desired that she follow the example of his servants, as they could give her help in doing her work.

Fourth, he assures her that his young men will not touch her. Boaz' servants are under strict orders to be kind and proper toward those under his care. They are not to take advantage of her in any way or to treat her harshly. The "young men" are equivalent to the ministry of God's church, who are commanded to "tend His sheep" in love (John 21:15-17).

Finally, he instructs Ruth to drink only what the young men have drawn from the well. Boaz knew that his water was clean and safe and that going to draw water at another well could put her in a dangerous situation. Water, as we know, is a type of God's Spirit, and here it represents teaching inspired by God's Spirit—what is offered through His true servants. Clearly, God is very concerned about what we consume spiritually, and so Jesus tells us in John 4:14, "Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him with never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life."

In Boaz' instructions to Ruth, we see the concern of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, for His people. He wants us to follow these instructions because they will keep us from harm, they will keep us nourished and satisfied, and they will keep us in the right environment so that we will grow and have a successful harvest. God gives us only good and wise advice, so if he tells us to stay in His church, listen to His ministers, and fellowship among His servants so that we will endure through the harvest, we would do well to heed Him.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

RBV: I Kings 11:42

"And the period that Solomon reigned in Jerusalem over all Israel was forty years."
--I Kings 11:42

The reign of King Solomon is a rather bittersweet one. Here he was, the wisest man who had ever lived, ruling over a powerful, wealthy nation at peace, yet the evidence that we glean from Scripture is that his forty-year reign was the prelude to disaster. As Solomon breathes his last breath, the kingdom is poised on the brink of rebellion because of heavy taxation and forced labor (see I Kings 9:20-22; 12:1-5); his heir, Rehoboam, is proud and listens only to his foolish friends (see I Kings 12:6-11); and God has been shunted aside to share glory with a menagerie of other deities (see what happened in Israel immediately after his reign; I Kings 12:25-33).

The Bible provides us both sides of the coin of Solomon's time on the throne of Israel. He presided over Israel's Golden Age and the building of the Temple and a grand palace for the royal family (see I Kings 4:20-8:66). The Queen of Sheba and countless others visited Jerusalem to gaze on the wonders collected there by the king and to hear his wisdom firsthand (see I Kings 4:29-34; 10:1-13). Scripture informs us that gold and silver were as common in Israel's capital as baser metals were elsewhere (I Kings 10:14-23; II Chronicles 9:27). Solomon was so strong and the nations around were so weak that no one dared disturb the peace of the time (except at the very end of his reign; I Kings 11:14-40).

But the underside of the coin is far darker. Though Solomon had been humble as a young man, asking God for understanding so that he could properly rule and judge his people, his pride soon led him to disobedience. He began to flout the instructions given by God through Moses to Israel's kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). He made alliances with foreign nations, particularly Egypt, marrying hundreds of domestic and foreign princesses to cement these ties (I Kings 11:1-3). Of course, these women brought their own gods and goddesses to worship, and it was not long before Solomon was honoring their wishes to have various shrines and "high places" built to house their idols (see I Kings 11:4-8).

As usually happens, when the people saw that Solomon had compromised with idolatry, they followed suit, visiting the ancient groves and hilltop altars that had lain unused but not unforgotten. With few exceptions, subsequent kings either neglected God's command to destroy these high places or made half-hearted efforts. Solomon's reign set an unfortunate standard for most of the kings of Judah who followed him, and the people sank deeper into lifestyles contrary to the law of God.

The number forty is frequently a biblical indication of testing. Solomon received forty years from God to see if he would follow His ways or not. The book of Ecclesiastes indicates that, perhaps at the end of his life, Solomon made an effort to repent--or at least he realized that, in the end, it is a person's chief duty to fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). We really do not know if he passed or failed his test, but we can learn a great lesson from the forty years of his wonderful, terrible reign.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Work of the Firstfruits

Leviticus 23:9-21 covers God's instructions concerning making the wavesheaf offering, the counting of the seven weeks, and the observance of the Feast of Weeks, called Pentecost in the New Testament. With an understanding of the application of the holy days to the plan of God, it is easy to see that this entire period concentrates on the firstfruits of salvation. As the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:22-23, "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming." The wavesheaf is of the firstfruits; it is the first of the firstfruits. As we know, it represents Jesus Christ being accepted before God as our High Priest. He is the first of the Firstborn (Romans 8:29), those who are glorified in the first resurrection.

As last week's essay, Pat Higgin's "Count for Yourselves," illustrated, by counting throughout the whole fifty days from wavesheaf to Pentecost, we are to be concentrating on the theme of this period: on the harvest of the firstfruits and on God's part in it.

This period begins and ends with a waving of an offering. It starts with the waving of the sheaf of firstfruit barley, representing Christ. At the conclusion of the fifty days, two wave loaves baked with leaven are waved before God, and these represent the people of God, the called-out ones, the elect. This waving of the firstfruits in the form of loaves of leavened bread pictures the Father's gracious acceptance of very fallible human beings into His Kingdom.

In this period, then, the entire panorama of God's work with His firstfruits is portrayed—from Jesus Christ being accepted as the perfect sacrifice for sin and our High Priest all the way to the time when all of His brothers and sisters, the children of God, fully enter His Family. The holy day culminates a period of harvest, in which the firstfruits of the Kingdom are emphasized. It excludes almost everything else. During this time, God is concentrating on His people.

In the instructions on this period, God emphasizes something that many people miss. In Exodus 23:16, God calls the harvest "the firstfruits of your labors." He adds, "which you have sown in the field." The Pentecost offering, described in Leviticus 23:16-17, is to be of new grain, and it is brought "from your dwellings." These phrases hint that God stresses what His people do during this period. His people are hard at work in their fields and their dwellings.

Applying these types spiritually, we can say, then, that Pentecost tends to emphasize the Christian's work, and it is split between the field, his external labors, and his house, his internal labors. He has responsibilities to produce godly character and growth in his behavior and in his heart and mind. We are being converted inside and out, and it takes a great deal of hard work.

Thus, the period from the wavesheaf to Pentecost pictures a time of intense labor of sowing and reaping carried out by human beings whose goal is to be offered before God as an acceptable offering. God, though, is firmly in the picture. He may not be completely in the foreground, but He is certainly there by our side. He is working alongside us, blessing our efforts just as He blesses the efforts of a farmer bringing physical crops to harvest.

A farmer goes out into his field, tills the soil, plants the seed, pulls weeds, and toils ceaselessly to bring the harvest in. But who provides the rain and the sun? Who made the soil with all its nutrients? God is there and active in the work, but the farmer is the one whom other people see doing the labor. Yet, God is also there, unseen, helping things along. It is from these joint efforts that the new grain is produced.

From what we know from both Old and New Testaments, God is firmly in this picture during this Wavesheaf-Pentecost period in at least three ways. First, it is traditional that God gave His law from Mount Sinai on the Day of Pentecost—or very near to it. Biblical chronology places it firmly in the third month, Sivan, when Pentecost falls. Thus, we see God present in His providence of His law, the standard by which we are to live.

Second, Acts 2, of course, narrates the story of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the fledgling church. The Holy Spirit gives us the power, the inspiration, and the help that we need to do what is right—to see God, to follow Him, and to make right decisions.

Third, we should never forget what the wavesheaf offering represents. We could say it is the most important part of the whole process because Jesus Christ, our Lord, Savior, and High Priest, has opened the way to a relationship with God (Hebrews 10:19-22). By His sinless life and teachings, He has shown us the way to live (John 14:6). He has done what is needed so that the rest of us can follow. We can have salvation because He lives, guiding us through this period of sanctification to eternal life (Romans 5:10).

These three factors are always in play, though in terms of work, they perform invisibly. However, just because they cannot be readily seen does not minimize the part they play in the harvest of the firstfruits. What God provides during the salvation process far surpasses all that we do. And for that we give Him glory.

Even so, the emphasis during this period—the fifty days of the count—seems to be on what we have to do. We know that God will do His work; He finishes what He starts (see Isaiah 55:11). He is faithful (I Corinthians 1:9). He never slacks off in His work—and this is exactly why the emphasis is on what we do because we will certainly drop the ball one time, several times, many times. Some would say we fail to carry the load most of the time!

Thus, we need to be prodded every year that there is still work to be done. We have to get in line with God the Father and Jesus Christ—the First of the Firstfruits—so that what He desires to be built in us is accomplished. While our part may be small, it is very important. We must work out our own salvation (Philippians 2:12).

In the book of Ruth, one of the five Megilloth—Festival Scrolls—and the one we should read in conjunction with the Feast of Pentecost, a great deal of work is done. Ruth, a type of the Christian, is a very diligent worker. Throughout the narrative, she is constantly working, serving, helping. More importantly, she is growing the whole time. Notice how many times she is commended for what she does.

Her work "pays off." She marries the kind, wealthy Boaz, a type of Christ, and becomes part of a joyous, blessed family. If she had not done the works, she would never have received the blessings. There is a wonderful lesson in this for us as we prepare for God's Kingdom.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Christ, the Way

During the Passover service, we always read John 14 in its entirety. It is chock-full of insight and instruction that we, as Christ's disciples, need to live fully as Christians and to prepare for eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Jesus opens the chapter by saying:

Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know. (John 14:1-4)
He sets the goal before us, eternal life in God's house. He says that He will soon be going to that same goal, where He will be in a better position to prepare us to reach it. Then He says, "You know the way there," which has Thomas scratching his head. "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?" (verse 5). In other words, if we do not have a clear idea of the goal, how can we find our way there? It is impossible. A person must have a destination in mind before he can map out the route.

In verse 6, Jesus provides the answer: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." Jesus' emphasis is on "the way," since that is the force of Thomas' question. Some commentators have even gone so far as to say that the real sense of His statement is, "I am the true and living way"—that is, the words "life" and "truth" modify "way."

He implies that the Father will only accept as His children those who imitate the character and process of salvation that Christ pioneered. He is called the Captain or Author of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10). Jesus has blazed the trail before us, showing us the way to go—and the way to go is to follow in His footsteps, to imitate Him (I John 2:6). There is only one road that leads to the Kingdom of God, the road that Christ Himself trod. He expands this idea in John 14:7-11:

"If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him." Philip said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father, so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves."
This paragraph adds another level to why God will only accept us through Christ—because Jesus was and is just like the Father. A son, if he is a true son, will show the characteristics of his father, which is exactly what we see in Jesus Christ and the Father in heaven. Christ thinks like the Father, speaks like the Father, and acts like the Father. Everything the Father would do is what Christ does. Therefore, if we want to be members of this Family, we, as Christ's brothers and sisters, will have to think, say, and do the same sorts of things as the Father and the Son.

This is why we must go through Christ. There is no other way! The children must have the same character as the Father and the Son, or there is no admittance. Thus, we must imitate Christ if we desire to enter God's Kingdom. He is the way,the method, or the process by which eternal salvation is secured, and if we should try to achieve it any other way, we will fail.

Jesus' next words tell us what we must do: "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father" (John 14:12). When we first read this verse, most of us think that He is talking about miracles, signs, wonders, and healings, that is, that those of us who really believe in Him will be able to do those great works. However, He may not be thinking only about such grand acts.

He is probably also suggesting that the great works we will do are the day-to-day works of Christian living—not necessarily the ones that will make the lead story on the evening news. He means things like having good relations with one's spouse and children. He means overcoming a sin and growing in character. He means helping others in their walk toward the Kingdom of God. In the end, these are far greater works than miracles and spectacular healings.

Consider the twelve apostles. How many people did Jesus convert during His ministry? Acts 1:15 tells us that the number of disciples was only 120. Yet, just a few pages later, we find that the apostles did even greater works, baptizing 3,000 on Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and 5,000 on another day (Acts 4:4). People were saying that the apostles had "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6)! Their greater works were preaching the gospel, feeding the flock, and helping others to overcome and grow toward the Kingdom of God. Sure, they did their share of miracles, but their most lasting, eternal works were their preaching and their Christian sacrifices for the gospel.

Jesus said no one was greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11), and what did he do? He did not perform one miracle, but he preached repentance (Matthew 3:1-2), which is a great work. It makes people realize that they are sinful and that they need a Savior to redeem them and to help them turn their lives around. Many were baptized and later followed Christ.

As we make final preparations for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, we need to apply this personally. What great works are we supposed to do? They may be mundane—overcoming sin, growing in character, producing spiritual fruit, and encouraging others in their walk with God—but they are the day-to-day Christian activities that, in the end, will assure that not only will we be in the Kingdom but those we love and fellowship with will be too. Those are truly great works! "Miraculous" works may be flashy and draw a lot of attention, but the greatest works are the ones with eternal consequences, those that help others maintain a firm grasp on salvation.

In Acts 10:38, Peter pares the life of Christ down to just a few insightful phrases: ". . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good . . ." That is the gist of His life: He did good with every minute He lived. The apostle Paul gives us similar marching orders in Galatians 6:10: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith." If we follow this advice, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, we will one day be where He is.