They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Where Heaven and Earth Meet – Part 2

We finished our first lesson with God creating a new space where He could dwell with His creation. After the Fall, God and man were separated from each other by sin. The tabernacle would be the new place and the new space where God could reunite with His people. As the intersection of heaven and earth, the Tabernacle was a constant reminder to the Israelites that God was with them as they traveled the wilderness and entered the Promised Land.

Later, God had them build Him a permanent space when they constructed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. However, the prophet Jeremiah prophesied that in the future there would be a time when all of this would change. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, it says that God would change the old sacrificial system that was outward and put it in the hearts of the believers. Verse 34 finishes by saying that God will forgive their sin and remember their iniquity no longer.

In both the Tabernacle and the Temple, God said through the Temple ceremony sacrifice, “Your sins are forgiven”. Only God could forgive sins; forgiveness was only found at God’s house, the Temple. Fast forward nearly one thousand years until the time of Jesus’ coming. Jesus was with His disciples in the Galilee, ninety miles from Jerusalem and the Temple. Mark 2:1-12 tells the story of a lame man that four of his friends brought to see Jesus. They couldn’t get to Jesus because of the crowds, so they cut a hole in the roof and let the lame man down into the room in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven”. Immediately, the teacher of the law said that this was blasphemy, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They were saying, you can’t do that! Only God can do that and then only at the Temple.

Can you see the paradigm shift here? Jesus said to the teachers of the law, “The Son of man (Jesus) has authority on earth to forgive sins. I am the new Temple – I can forgive sins! I am where heaven and earth meet!” There are several other places in the gospels where Jesus told his listener, your sins are forgiven (e.g. Luke 7:48-49, where the listeners said, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”). In fact, what ultimately led to Jesus crucifixion was that He was messing up the Temple system. He was doing what the Temple was supposed to do and that was a huge threat to the Sadducees and Temple authorities.

God never intended for the Temple in Jerusalem to be the final answer to God dwelling with His people! Jesus was resurrected and went back to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, so where is the Temple now? Where is that space that God inhabits and where heaven and earth meet? Where do people come to have their sins forgiven? Because of what happened at Pentecost, we, the body of believers (1 Corinthians 3:16), are the New Temple (also Ephesians 2:19-21)! God came out of His old house at Pentecost and is now dwelling in His new one! We (the church) are where heaven and earth now meet! He wants His presence to be us! We are the body and bride of Christ! There are a lot of people out there that need forgiveness of sins and the church should be the place where those sins can be forgiven. We can say with authority from Jesus himself, to someone, “Your sins are forgiven if you believe on the name of Jesus Christ” (John 20:23). In our churches and in our daily lives we are supposed to be creating a space where God lives, so that when homeless, abandoned or hurting people come in they find the presence of God. When your grandkids come over, is there a little slice of time and space where heaven and earth meet; where they feel loved, protected and forgiven? In our church meetings, do the unclean and the unforgiven find welcome, acceptance, and absolution? We are the New Temple and we are the place that God wants to inhabit! He wants us to be the place where heaven and earth meet. Our heart is that space that God inhabits, where He dwells with His people. What God began in the Garden of Eden, with his desire to dwell among (tabernacle; John 1:14) His creation, He completed by sending His Son and His Holy Spirit to dwell within us.

Additional reading:

  1. Discussion on “shakan” in Mount Sinai & The Mount of Transfiguration
  2. Creation Story in the Tabernacle

Hinds’ Feet on High Places

Nubian ibex

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer (hind KJV), he enables me to go on the heights
— Habakkuk 3:19

This verse, found in the last chapter of Habakkuk, was a repeating of the psalmist’s writing in Psalm 18:33 and was probably a section of the Temple prayers that were chanted with the accompaniment of instruments during Temple worship. What was the psalmist and the writer of the Habakkuk trying to say in this poetic and oft quoted verse? Immediately, a mental picture comes to us as believers; we are standing on a lofty place, surveying the valley below, with God by our side. Learning something about the land of Israel, it’s topography and it’s wildlife, will reveal a picture and a life lesson perhaps at first you didn’t see in this verse.

First of all, although much of Israel is very arid, the topography is extremely rough and rugged. The wilderness, which covers the eastern and souther parts of Israel is the most rugged of all. In a distance of 40 miles, the topography changes from 1300′ below sea level near the Dead Sea to 4000′ above sea level around Jerusalem. This was the Judean Wilderness that was home to most of the Old Testament Bible characters. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were wilderness dwellers that made their living in this harsh environment.

IbexThe main animals that inhabit these remote and rugged areas are the gazelle, which is a small antelope, and the much larger Nubian ibex which is a species of goat. Although at home in the mountainous areas, the gazelle prefers the gentler terrain and smaller slopes. Conversely, the ibex lives in the roughest, steep terrain that it can find. Their hooves are built almost like suction cups to help them to traverse the steep rocky cliffs they call home.

What then is the hind or the deer that some translations have for these verses? A hind is a female red deer that is native to Europe and there are no deer species native to the land of Israel. Could it be that something is missing in the translation of this word? If, as many scholars believe, the ibex is the animal being referred to in these Biblical passages, then a great Bible life lesson begins to unfold.

When we pray about the future, we always ask God for smooth paved paths, with curb and gutter, no rocks, and plenty of park benches for resting along the way. We don’t want to face the trials and tribulations that are often a very real part of this life on earth. A sign of maturing in the Christian faith is realizing that God often puts us in wilderness situations where the going is tough and the path strewn with rocks, to teach us to trust Him, when our strength and scheming won’t get it done.

Now, can you picture the ibex working through the steep terrain, with his feet giving him sturdy footing on the cliffs? Could this be what this verse is alluding to? God, give me strength, give me the feet of the ibex so that I can hold on and make it through the rough places that you are having me walk through? Our prayers should not necessarily be for smooth paths, because we know that there is not much of this life that is flat and smooth. Our prayer should be, “give me the feet to walk the path that you’ve put me on today. I trust you to take me through the high and rugged places where the footing is treacherous and a fall would be ruin”. This is the cry from the writer of Habakkuk and Psalms, “give us the feet to traverse the rough patches of life that God is sending us through to mold us into the person that can completely trust in Him.”

The next time you find yourself in a rough and rugged patch of life, instead of asking God for a way out, ask him for the feet needed to walk the path He chose for you.

Up on a Mountain to Pray – Mt. Arbel

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place where he prayed” – Mark 1:35

Mt. Arbel, Galilee, Israel – This high mountain, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, affords one of the most breathtaking views of the area that Jesus spent most of his public ministry in. Josephus tells us that there were over 200 towns and villages around the lake called the Sea of Galilee during Jesus’ day. Almost all the people living there earned their living by farming or fishing. From the top of Mt. Arbel, you have a panoramic view of the whole area where Jesus walked and lived. You can see Capernaum, Bethsaida (where the Jordan River empties into the lake), the Mt. of Beatitudes, Korazin, and the Decapolis (home of the demoniac). A lot of Jewish history is also in this mountain. Herod the Great came here and killed hundreds of Galilean Zealots that were hiding in the steep cliffs on Mt. Arbel to crush their rebellion against his authority. The mountain is a landmark in the area and can be seen from almost anywhere for miles in any direction.

Our group of disciples came to this mountain and climbed it to learn about all the geographical places and to also learn another fascinating lesson abut the relationship between a rabbi and his talmidim (disciples). At the base of the mountain is the small fishing village of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. We left early in the morning, at daybreak from Magdala, and made the arduous ascent through the cliffs, to the summit. It was very tough physically and at one point we had to climb vertically and cling to metal pegs that were driven into the cliffs. Once on top however, the view was breathtaking. We could imagine Jesus and his disciples as they moved from village to village around the lake. While we were on top, we heard the following story about the relationship that a Jewish Rabbi had with his talmidim:

Rabbis were passionately committed to the young men that they had chosen as their disciples. They felt totally responsible for their physical and spiritual growth and well being. It was a common practice for a rabbi to get up early in the morning, well before light and make a very strenuous climb to a place where they could overlook where their disciples were sleeping. The harder the climb for the rabbi, the more it emphasized his commitment to his flock. After reaching his observation point, the rabbi would look below and begin to earnestly pray to God on behalf of his disciples. He would pray large portions of the text out loud and ask God to make those scriptures come alive in the hearts of those young men under his tutelage. It was a very gratifying experience for the teacher as he pleaded to God on behalf of his unsuspecting students below.

After just making this tough climb ourselves, we could feel the commitment and the sacrifice that the rabbi had for his talmidim. He was willing to do the hard work it took to make sure that they became just like him and were instructed correctly. We then read the Mark Passage and saw that our Rabbi Jesus also got up early in the morning and went out to pray for his disciples.

Who are your disciples? According to Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus instructed us to go and make disciples and to teach them to do everything that He had taught us. Are you earnestly praying for them and their walk with Jesus? If we are to become like Jesus, we will have to have disciples and we will have to commit to praying for them. It will take a high level of commitment on our part. Mt. Arbel burned in my spirit the need to be a man that lives and prays the text and that is actively pursuing someone to train to walk in the footsteps of our Rabbi, Jesus.

Affecting our Culture: The Riot in Ephesus

Read Acts 19:23-41

Ephesus Theater

One of the most fascinating places to visit in the country of Turkey is the ancient port city of Ephesus. Although only one third of the city has been completely renovated and restored, its ruins are among the most magnificent of the ancient world. Ephesus during the time of Paul and John would have been equal to our New York City as far as importance and proportionate size. It was one of the three largest cities in the Roman Empire (250,000 est. pop.) and was the major seaport that served all of Asia Minor. Writers of that day referred to it as the “crown jewel” of the Roman Empire. Several biblical events took place here. Paul came here on his second missionary tour and left Priscilla and Aquila to start the church there (Acts 18:19). Paul then came back to Ephesus on his third missionary tour and stayed for almost three years (Acts 19). John, the youngest disciple of Jesus, also came here and was the bishop for all the churches in the area. He wrote to the church in Ephesus in the Book of Revelation, chapter 2. Church history also records that Timothy was here and later became a bishop in the Ephesian church. In addition, most scholars think that Paul wrote the epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and 1 Corinthians during his three year stay in Ephesus.

If you visit Ephesus you will be able to visit the huge theater that is mentioned in Acts 19. This is the same theater in which the riot described in Acts 19 occurred. This Roman masterpiece held 25,000 or more people and is in remarkable condition, even today. To hear the story of Acts re-read while you are sitting in the theater where it took place is a very moving experience. Let’s look at some history and background that will make this story in the Bible come alive.

Artemis

The city of Ephesus was the “neokoris” (temple warden, or for comparison purposes in English, the Vatican) for the worship of the Greek Goddess Artemis. The huge temple of Artemis was just outside the city and was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. If you wanted to worship Artemis you needed to come to her temple in Ephesus. Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and Leto (an illegitimate relationship) and the twin sister of the male god Apollo. She was known as the goddess of the hunt and wild animals, and was a protector of young girls, virginity, and women in childbirth. In Ephesus, her image was portrayed as a many-breasted, mother goddess who took care of her children.

Artemis Temple in Ephesus

A huge industry grew up around the Artemis cult and silversmiths and carvers made a large profit by making images and figurines of Artemis. Every year a huge festival was held in April to honor Artemis. Estimates of over one million people have been given that appeared from all over the world to attend the festival and ceremonial events each year. During the festival, an enormous procession of people, led by Artemis’ eunuch priests, went through the city with the statue of Artemis in the lead. Against this backdrop, let’s now look at the story of the riot that occurred in Ephesus.

God’s spirit had worked in such a remarkable way in Ephesus that large numbers of people were coming to believe in the Jewish God and His Son, Messiah Jesus. They were bringing their pagan articles and scrolls and burning them in front of the whole city. The Artemis craftsmen were losing all their business because no one was worshiping Artemis any more. The leader of the silversmiths guild, Demetrius, stirred up a riot and they drug some of Paul’s companions into the theater to work them over. The crowd was going wild, with some shouting one thing and some another. The Text says, for two hours they shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Finally, the mayor of the city was able to get the crowd under control and disassembled.

A couple of faith lessons jump out from this story. First, when was the last time that we got people so excited that they shouted something for two hours? By and large, we have little passion for Christ or spiritual things. Our church experience is usually ho hum; we go to Sunday School and church and then go home. We reserve our passion and excitement for sporting events! For the most part, we aren’t even bothering the devil’s crowd, we don’t want to stir the waters and cause a problem. Look at the chutzpah of Paul. He was willing to take on 25,000 Artemis worshipers! We need to be stirring the pot for Christ!

Another thought that jumps out at you is, “What business or activity of the devil is suffering because of our walk and testimony?” What industry (drug, pornography, etc.) are we shutting down because of our impact? What effect is is our personal influence having on the dark side? As Christian businessmen, what are we doing when evil comes to our city in the form of gay pride parades, etc? Can we even have an impact on our city and our state? All these are sobering thoughts that come out of this moving story of one man’s impact on a city and culture. May God give us the courage to be the kind of testimony that we need to be in a world that is dark and full of the same kinds of things that were going on in Ephesus.

Our Stuff: The Story of Acts 19

In Acts 19, Paul went to the huge seaport of Ephesus to further spread the good news of the gospel of the God of the Jews and His resurrected son, Jesus. Acts 19:10 tells us that Paul discipled there in Ephesus for over two years and during that time, all the Jews and Greeks who lived in Asia heard the gospel. Even if this is an editorial statement, it is an amazing one to think that virtually all the people in the area were reached by Paul’s preaching. In Acts 19:17-20, we see that Paul’s preaching had great effect. Many people openly confessed their sins and quit living their ungodly lifestyle. They changed their lives completely and began to follow the God of the Bible. In order to publicly show their change in lifestyle, they brought all their worldly stuff and burned it in front of their friends and neighbors. Acts 19:19 even records how much their “stuff” was worth, 50,000 drachmas. A drachma was one days wages, so if we put this in today’s monetary value, their stuff would have been worth approximately four million dollars! They would have spent 136 years collectively of their daily wages on just “stuff”! If each person had brought $400 of merchandise, then approximately ten thousand people would have participated in this event! Knowing these figures gives us a clearer idea of just how big this would have been in Ephesus. Paul’s preaching had a huge impact on the whole environment of the city. This is a fascinating story to us and we marvel at the affect the gospel had on this city and it’s citizens.

A question that comes out of this story for us as modern day Americans is, “How much would our stuff be worth if we brought it all publicly and piled it up for all to see?” As the wealthiest nation that has ever lived, we too are captivated by, “our stuff”. We are a nation of accumulators and we desperately hang on to our worldly things. When we think of God testing us, we always think of things like cancer, or bad things that happen to us and our families. But, God also tests us through prosperity. America is definitely being tested by God with the wealth that He has given us. Wealth is such a hard test to pass because when we have it all, we don’t really need God. Read the entire chapter of Deuteronomy 8. In verse 12 it says, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, when your build fine houses and settle down, and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold increase, and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, our of the land of slavery…You will say to yourselves, it is my power and the strength of my hands that has produced this wealth for me”.

As Americans, if we are honest, our “stuff” often holds us back from being an effective witness for the Lord. Think for a second, “What holds you back? What do you spend all your time doing? What keeps you from selling out?” We hang on to our retirement plans, our nest eggs, etc. and think that is where our security is. Wealth is a hard test to pass, but God warns us explicitly about clinging to our wealth and forgetting where our security really comes from. Like the crowd at Ephesus, we need to bring our stuff before God and tell him that we want to serve Him more than we want to cling to our stuff. He is where our happiness and security really lie.

Urim and Thummim; Knowing God’s Will – Part 2

In our first session, we looked at the fascinating subject of the two objects that the Israelites were to use to be able to determine God’s will in matters of great importance. Now, let’s see how this method of knowing God’s will might apply to us as twenty-first century believers. The obvious answer is that we would love to have this kind of guidance in our daily walk! “Just tell me , ‘Yes or No’, Lord and I will do it”! It is human nature to want to know the future and what is going to happen and what we ought to do in response. We all want to be able to say, “God told me to do such and such” and have the future fall into place accordingly. This is why psychics and fortune tellers are such a novelty, because they claim to have a window into the future.

However, God has not given us a direct means of divine guidance like the Urim and Thummim to make specific decisions. So, then how does He give guidance to his children today? The tool that God gives us for guidance is His Word. Although it does not have personal information about us, it does reveal God’s will for our lives. God’s word tells us what to do and what not to do; it has specific rules for our conduct. If we will read and obey the promises and commands that are contained in Scripture, we will know what God wants in every situation and we will be in His will. The Bible is not bashful in it’s discussion of life; it delves into every detail of the human experience. The better and deeper we know God’s word, the better and deeper we will know Him and what His will is for us. Guidance for life’s decisions comes through getting to know the guide!

The next ingredient to knowing God’s will is, His Spirit. The Spirit helps us understand God’s word and to know His will for us. His spirit dwells within us to help us to know and to do His will (John 14:26). When He comes to live in us He starts shaping our minds and hearts. The Spirit give us peace of mind and helps us to make good choices. Whenever we are uncertain as to what to do, we should pray that the Spirit would illuminate and show us in the Word what the correct way or decision is. God will answer our prayer (James 1:5).

The last thing that God uses to show us His will for us is circumstances, or just the way life unfolds. God uses the circumstances in our life to mold and shape us toward the goal He has in mind for us. What are our desires? What are we good at? What need can we meet? What do we have an interest in or compassion for? We look at the way the situation is unfolding and make the best choice we can. His leading is not often a direct revelation as much as it is His sovereign controlling of the circumstances of our lives, leading us in the direction we’re supposed to go. And, if we get to a point where His leading is not clear, we should wait on Him until it is.

There is no three step method to understanding God’s will for our lives. It involves a lifelong process of falling in love with His word and learning its precepts. The more we know God, the more our decisions will be in line with His will for us. We call and wait on Him daily in prayer, asking the Spirit within us to guide us. By the guidance of His hand, as He daily works out the circumstances of our lives, He leads us along the path of life, not allowing us to wander in the wrong direction. Life is a faith walk. God doesn’t write our future on the wall for us to read in advance, but calls for us to see it daily as we walk hand-in-hand with Him. We walk by faith, trusting Him for today and for our future. There is no better way to live! It would be nice to have a Urim and Thummim in one way, but we have a better and more intimate partner now. Hebrew 1:1-2 says it well, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son….”