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

Urim and Thummim; Knowing God’s Will – Part 1

Nothing gets our attention quicker than someone writing or speaking about, “knowing God’s will”. We all desperately want to know about the future and we want to be able to ask God for direction and have him plainly give it to us. If you study the Old Testament and in particular the book of Exodus, you will discover the method that the Israelites were told to use to determine God’s will in matters of great importance. It will give you some fresh insight on your quest to know God’s will for your life. Let’s take a look at what the Bible calls the, “Urim and Thummim”. In our first session we will attempt to describe these objects and how they were used by the Israelites. Then in our second session we will try to apply it to our own walk with God. Let’s, ”go and see” what is entailed in this fascinating subject in the Hebrew Bible.

In Exodus 28:1-15, God gave Moses specific and detailed instructions on how to make the priestly garment for his brother, Aaron, the High Priest. Verse 15 says, “fashion a breast piece for making decisions”. The breast piece was folded double to make a pocket or pouch around the heart. Inside this pocket or pouch were placed two objects, the Urim and Thummim (read Exodus 28:29-30). They were to be close to Aaron’s heart when he entered the Tabernacle in the presence of the Lord.

Apparently the Israelites knew what the Urim and Thummim were and how they were made and used, but the Bible doesn’t describe their appearance in any way, so we are left to guess as to what they were made of and looked like. They seem to have been some type of “holy dice” that were thrown to determine God’s will. Scholars speculate that they were made of stone, or bones, or some type of precious gems – similar to what was on the rest of Aaron’s breast piece – however, we just don’t know.

The Hebrew meaning for these words is interesting, also. The Hebrew word, “Urim” begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (alef) and Thummim begins with the last letter (tav), which is interesting in that it seems to indicate that it covers the whole spectrum from beginning to end. “Urim” means, “curses” and “Thummim” means, “perfections”. Scholars speculate about how they were read and actually used. One suggestion was that in a series of rolls, if “Urim” (curses) came up the most, then the answer was no. If “Thummim” (perfections) dominated, then the answer was yes. Also, it has been suggested that perhaps they were different colors such as black and white, with the same type of scenario for getting an answer. Or, possibly they could have been an object with two sides, like a coin, with “Yes or No” on them and they were tossed into the air to get an answer. We really just don’t know how exactly they were used. What is interesting though is that they were often used in time of crisis to determine the will of God. They trusted God to reveal his will to the High Priest through this decision making breast piece and objects. Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but it’s every decision is from the Lord”.

There are several stories in the Hebrew Bible where the Urim and Thummim were used. Joshua, in Numbers 27:21, was commissioned to succeed Moses and was instructed to go before Eleazar, the high priest and to obtain decisions from him by consulting the Urim. Joshua knew when to stay and when to go by consulting the Urim and Thummim. Saul also consulted the Urim and Thummim in 1 Samuel 28:6, but he didn’t get the answer he was looking for. Later, David received clear direction after consulting the ephod on attacking the Amalekites (1 Samuel 23:1-2,9-12 and 1 Samuel 30: 1-8). The Urim and Thummim are mentioned in Nehemiah when they were rebuilding the wall and returning to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity. A question arose as to who were eligible to become priests, since all family records had been lost (Nehemiah 7:65 and Ezra 2:63). In these verses the men were told to wait until the priest could use the Urim and Thummim. There are many other examples in the Bible where, although not specifically mentioned as the Urim and Thummim, lots were cast to make important decisions. It is very important to note here that only the high priest was allowed to consult the Urim and Thummim, and only in matters of great concern to the public good, and in instances where men could not possibly know the answer. The answer was not considered just a matter of chance, but God giving his judgment, his decision as to what to do. Now, that we have some basic knowledge of what the Urim and Thummim were and how they were used, let’s see if we can apply it to our walk and our desire to also know what God’s will for our life is.

Jesus Calms the Storm

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

— Mark 4:35-41

Although Matthew and Luke also record the miraculous story of Jesus calming the storm, Mark’s gospel gives more details and records Jesus’ words as he spoke to the storm. The story is familiar to us; Jesus tells his disciples that they are going to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. While they are crossing, a huge storm comes up and threatens to sink the boat. Amazingly, Jesus is asleep on a pillow in the bottom of the boat! The disciples awake Jesus and plead with him to do something. “Don’t you care if we drown?” they cry out. Jesus rebukes the storm and says to the wind and waves, “Quiet! Be Still!”. At once the storm dies down and it is completely calm. The disciples were terrified even after the sea was calm and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!” Admittedly, this was a great miracle, but they had already seen him heal people of various diseases including leprosy, make a paralyzed man walk, restore a man’s shriveled hand and even drive out demons. Why were they terrified enough in this case to say, “Who is this?” What about this act by Jesus to calm the storm convinced them that this rabbi that they were following was without a doubt the son of God? The answer, as usual, is in the Hebrew text! Jesus showed himself to be God by doing the same things that God did in their Hebrew Scriptures. Let’s take a look.

The first connection is from the Psalms, in 107:28. The psalmist, in describing God says, “They cried out to the Lord in their trouble and He stilled the storm to a whisper. They were glad when it grew calm and he guided them to their desired haven.” Then, in Psalm 65:7 it says, “Who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves?” Also, Proverbs 30:4 says, “Who has come down from heaven and gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands and wrapped up the waters in his cloak?” The disciples knew the Psalms and knew that this man who had calmed the sea must be God because this is what God does!

Another story that would have had a huge connection is the story of Jonah. Like Jesus, Jonah is asleep in the bottom of a boat, during a huge storm and the sailors wake him and ask him the same question as the disciples asked Jesus. “Don’t you care if we drown?” In the Jonah story, God also calms the storm. All these same details demand that the Jonah story be part of this God story that Mark records.

The third story from the Old Testament that the disciples would have no doubt thought back to, is the Exodus itself. When the Israelites were backed up against the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army was approaching, the were terrified and cried out to the Lord and to Moses. Moses told the people, “Be Still!” These were the exact words that Jesus used to calm the storm. The Messiah who was to come to Israel was supposed to be like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). Because Jesus used the exact words that Moses had used as God’s messenger, the disciples must have made another connection and thought to themselves that Jesus was the second Moses! He is the one who is to come to us, the prophet!

To look back to the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus and his disciples would have known so well is like looking at the same room from a different window. Looking at the New Testament through the window of the Old Testament doesn’t change the story, but it makes it so much deeper and richer. The deeper you dive the deeper it gets. There is so much more in the text than we see on the surface. This story of Jesus calming the storm is just one of the many examples.

Behold the Man

 

'Ecce Homo' - Antonio Ciseri

'Ecce Homo' - Antonio Ciseri

When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
John 19:5

This well recognized and famous painting of Jesus with Pontius Pilate was done by Italian artist Antonio Ciseri in the mid 1800’s. The title of the painting is, “Ecce Homo” in Latin, which means, “Behold the Man”. Those were the words of Pontius Pilate as he spoke to the crowd in John 19:5,  immediately before he sent Jesus to be crucified. With this wonderful painting and it’s title as a backdrop, here are some thoughts that may shed some light on the age old question of, “Who are we and what are we doing here?

Jesus’ disciples and followers came to know Jesus the man; first as their Rabbi, Master, and Teacher and following His death and resurrection, as their Savior. They walked and studied the man day and night for over three years. They knew him intimately and absorbed His teachings and character into their own personalities. They did not understand that He was eventually going to die for them and be resurrected as their Savior. Their gift of salvation came at the end of their journey.  For every believer since the resurrection, that process has been reversed. Now, we first encounter Him by faith and take Him as our resurrected Savior and only later, if at all, do we come to know him as a man and our Rabbi, Master, and Teacher. Because of this reversal it is easy for the death and resurrection to overshadow our need to  learn from and about our Rabbi, Jesus. It requires only a simple faith to receive His salvation, but to know him as Rabbi and Teacher takes work. Salvation is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9), but discipleship is a walk (1 John 2;4-6). But, shouldn’t His rabbinical teaching ministry be as important to us as his death and resurrection? We cannot ignore or minimize either His death or His life. The Bible requires of us not only to have faith in Jesus, but also the faith (or faithfulness) of Jesus. We can’t just accept him as Savior, we must also learn to walk as Jesus walked.

Pilate said to the crowd, “Behold the Man”. What about the man, Jesus? What about His thirty three years on earth and the three and a half years of His public ministry before His death and resurrection? Shouldn’t we take the teachings of His life and the scriptures that He studied as seriously as we count on His redeeming death and resurrection? Dwight Pryor says concerning Jesus, “His mission as the ‘Son of Man’ was to be lifted up on a cross for the world. His mission as a ‘Man’ was to raise up many disciples”. We are supposed to become His disciples, His students. We all know the Great Commission that Jesus gave in Matthew 28:19-20, that we are to go and make disciples. But, the burning question is, “How can we make our own disciples if we have never been a student, ourselves?”

It is safe to say that Jesus wants to be our rabbi and mentor just as badly as He wants to be our Messiah and Savior. How do we “Behold the Man”? There is no way around the hard work and discipline of becoming a disciple. To get to know Him, we have to spend time in His Word. To study God’s Word is the highest form of worship. We learn the truth about the man, Jesus by studying his very words to us. John 8:31 says, “To those Jews who had believed in Him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to (continue in) my teachings, your really are my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’” It is our personal and corporate responsibility to know that truth, the truth that will set us free. Our churches are full each week of people who have taken Christ as their savior and have put their faith in Him as their resurrected Lord. But, they don’t know much about the man, Jesus and what He taught and how He lived. How can they imitate Him if they don’t know what He did and said? People must be challenged and exhorted to do the hard work of discipleship, to “Behold the Man!” Only then will they know the truth and have purpose and know who they are and what they are doing here!

The Grass is Always Greener; The Story of the Tribe of Dan

High place built by Jeroboam at Dan to house the golden calf

High place built by Jeroboam at Dan to house the golden calf

The beginnings of the tribe of Dan are found in Genesis 30:1-6. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, had been unable to conceive a son with his wife Rachel while Jacob’s first wife, Leah, had borne him several sons. Jealous of Leah, Rachel encouraged Jacob to sleep with Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden. This relationship produced a son whom they named Dan. The name Dan means , “to judge” or “minister judgment” or “to plead a cause”. Dan was one of Jacob’s twelve sons and became one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Dan was the second largest tribe – only slightly smaller than Judah. However, they were never thought of as true Israelites because of the circumstances surrounding Dan’s birth.

During the Exodus out of Egypt the tribe of Dan was given the responsibility of guarding the rear flank of the people as they marched (Numbers 2:31). Dan did not do a particularly good job, as the story of the attack of the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16 & Deuteronomy 25:17-19) infers. The Amalekites picked off the weak, elderly and helpless that were lagging behind and Dan should have protected them.

Dan was the last tribe in the book of Joshua to receive their allotment of land. Dan’s inheritance was located in the Shephelah, or low foothills between the coastal plain and the Judah mountains. The Philistines lived to the west on the coastal plain and were superior to the Israelites militarily because they had the technology of iron (1 Samuel 13:19-20). They constantly gave the Danites problems. To the east were the allotments for the tribes of Judah and Ephraim and their tribes kept the tribe of Dan from expanding towards their land. God had placed them between a rock and a hard place, with a formidable enemy close by. The story of the most famous Danite, Samson (Judges 13:24), echoes the problems that Dan had with the Philistines.

The Banias river as it flows through the territory of Dan

The Banias river as it flows through the territory of Dan

Dan never really liked where God had placed them. When the situation got particularly tough, they decided as a group to look for a better place to live (Judges 18:1-2). Dan sent out five spies who traveled about one hundred miles north to a city called Laish. This was a beautiful lush area, with lots of water and grass. The spies liked this area a lot better than where they were in the Shephelah. They came back to the Danites and told them how great it was and that it would be easy to defeat the people living in Laish. The tribe agreed and sent 600 armed soldiers to capture Laish and take their land. The story of their trip to the north is a bizarre and is found in Judges 18. They stole some cast idols that were household gods and convinced a priest to go with them and set up their own house of worship in their newly captured land. Dan slaughtered the residents of Laish and renamed the city Dan. This became the northernmost location for any of the twelve tribes. They set up a temple there and put the household gods in it, with their new priest to conduct the services. Because of this foolish act, the area and tribe of Dan was always connected with idolatry and was known as a place for cult worship. Dan’s reputation continued to erode (Judges 5:17) because of the seed of idolatry that had been planted in their tribe. Also, now that they lived next door to Tyre and Sidon, where Baal and Asherah worship was most fervent, they began to dabble in that, also. All this led, over time, to the area of Dan becoming the most pagan place in all of Israel. This was where Jeroboam set up the golden calf to worship when the kingdom was divided (1 Kings 12;28-30). Also, Dan was one of Ahab and Jezebel’s royal cities where Baal was worshiped and acknowledged as the main god of the northern tribes. The prophets of Israel harshly criticized the inhabitants of Dan (e.g. Jeremiah 8:16-17 and Amos 8:14) and their transgressions certainly did not go unnoticed by the Bible writers. In the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7, when the remnant of the Tribes of Israel are listed as the ones sealed by God, Dan is left off the list! No longer are they listed as one of the twelve tribes! Also, a tradition developed very early in history, that the anti-Christ would come from the tribe of Dan! The tribe of Dan had sinned against God by leaving the inheritance that had been given them and looking for something better. This decision to change locations ultimately led to their elimination from the tribes of Israel.

Another interesting fact that the Danites did not realize was that this beautiful location that they had picked was the first stop for every marauding army that came through the Promised Land. Dan was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times because every army that sought to conquer Israel destroyed Dan first as they came int the country from the north. Dan had no Israelites neighbors to help them fight, so they suffered greatly by moving to their new location.

What is the moral of the story? You may find a nicer, less stressful place than where God placed you, but if it is not where God wants you, it will not be a better place. We are all tempted to pull up stakes and leave when we are in the middle of a tough situation. “Let’s just move and get a fresh start”, we often say. The grass always looks greener, but it never really is! You need to be where God places you, regardless of how rough the circumstances seem at the time. If you try to run from the lesson He is teaching you it will never turn out easier in the next location. The scenery will be different but there will just be a new set of problems to deal with. This is an especially important lesson for young married couples when the inevitable stresses and challenges come their way. The tribe of Dan teaches us the “grass is always greener” life lesson in a very powerful way. Some tough consequences await the person who bails out early.

When the Rabbi says, “Come” and When the Rabbi says, ”Go”

”Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” – Matthew 4:19-20
”Go make disciples of all nations” – Matthew 28:19-20
“You will be my witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” – Acts 1:8

Paul in Ephesus

Paul in Ephesus; Acts 19

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus called twelve disciples to follow and learn from Him. He spent three years teaching them to be just like Him. They followed him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and watched him do everything; from simple, mundane things, to healing sick people and even raising the dead.

When the end of this three year training period had ended and Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, His call to His disciples changed. He had finished teaching them to be like Him and now they were ready to go out on their own to spread the gospel that they had witnessed for those three years. And, they went! These eleven former trainees went literally to the ends of the earth to spread the good news about their rabbi. Jesus didn’t spread the gospel; he had his disciples do it! They went to far away, pagan cities such as Ephesus, Pergamum, Collosae, Corinth, Athens, and Rome to carry on the training that they had received from their rabbi.

One striking example, that I had never noticed before, that shows how Jesus’ followers tried to be just like their rabbi is found in the book of Acts in the 19th and 20th chapters. The story is of Paul, in the city of Ephesus, and says in verse 19:7 that Paul had about twelve disciples, and in 20:31 that he taught those disciples for about three years! That is following the outline pretty closely!

We don’t often think about why we have Christianity in America in the twenty-first century. It is because of the discipleship training model of Jesus and his disciples’ determination to follow their rabbi’s instructions down to the last jot and tittle. Those eleven men (and women) followers changed the world forever because of their training and their commitment to their rabbi and His message. We are being challenged by Jesus in the same way today. He asks us to follow Him and to go and make disciples. Are you up to the challenge?

The Royal Roads

One of the most fascinating components of the ancient Roman Empire was their unbelievably extensive road system. The Roman Empire built over 57,000 miles of paved roads throughout their conquered lands. These roads connected the Far East and Mesopotamia with Asia Minor, Egypt, Israel and ultimately Rome, itself. Names such as the “Royal Road” and the “Via Maris”which meant the “Way of the Sea”, were given to these ancient super highways.

Harbor Street, Ephesus

Harbor Street, Ephesus

These roads were as wide as our two lane highways of today and were paved with huge limestone rocks that were quarried, then shaped to fit like bricks on the road bed. As the roads came close to each city, they would get wider and they would place columns on each side of the roadway. Shops would be set up among the columns to trade and sell to the travelers coming and going on the road. The Roman engineers even laid sewer channels for the cities by placing them underneath the roadbed and then straddling the channel with large stones to conceal it and make it sturdy. Way stations were placed one days travel apart, along the main roads. These road side inns were called “caravanserai” and catered to the estimated 3 million travelers that traversed these highways on a yearly basis. All the labor was performed by Roman slaves. It has been estimated that almost half the population of the Roman Empire were slaves they had conquered and used to accomplish their building projects.

These roads were in place and being built during the time of the New Testament. You can actually walk on some of the same road beds that the apostles walked on as they went to spread the gospel in Asia Minor and other parts of the world. Cities such as Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, Collosae and Laodicea were on these roads and they steadily increased in size and commerce because of the traffic on the road. These cities became stopping places for the apostles as they went and spread the good news about Jesus Christ.

What is the faith lesson here? When Jesus commanded his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 and in Acts 1:8 to ”go and make disciples out of all the nations and that he would be with them to the ends of the earth (age)”, He already had the roads in place! One hundred and seventy years before Paul, God began building a road system that would allow the disciples to reach all the known world for Christ. And, they went on those roads literally to the ends of the earth, as far as they could travel! On those main roads, God had set up a ready and accessible congregation in the bigger towns and cities that were intersected by the roads.

The apostles must have been convinced by what they saw at the resurrection and ascencion of Christ, because they fearlessly went to these pagan nations to spread the story about the Jewish Messiah. It is over 1,300 miles on foot, which is a 60 -80 day journey, to Ephesus from the Galilee. This was a huge commitment from the disciples to leave their homes and family to go to these far away places. They must have really believed their message and had a passion that is hard for us to grasp. Because of their faithful witness, we have the blessing of Christianity in America today.

What is the moral of the story?  If God is sending you to Asia Minor, He will already have the roads in place! All you have to do is be willing to walk the path that He has called you to! “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” Ephesian 3:20.