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

The Rabbi and the Scorpion: The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs 1:7; 9:10 and Psalm 111:10

It seems as if almost every day lately, in the news we get a new story of a famous politician, actor or sports figure who has committed some egregious sin that brings shame to them, their families and organizations. Though not publicized, the same failings are being repeated throughout our communities all over our country. Sins that used to be “in the closet” are now being discussed and practiced openly. The prevailing attitude is that everyone is entitled to do what makes them feel good and is best for them, regardless of the consequences. “Have it your way; you deserve a break today”, and “I want it all, and I want it now” are just a few of the slogans that we hear every day. The fear of the Lord has seemingly vanished from the consciences of many people. Satan is having a field day with our families because we are dabbling in more and more of the sins that God has told us will bring us harm and ruin. The following, short devotional story is a great teaching lesson in what our approach to sin should be.

There was a rabbi who was taking a long journey to climb to the top of Mt. Sinai. As he was about to begin his ascent, a scorpion approached him and said that he also was going to the top of Mt. Sinai. “Would it be possible for me to ride on your shoulder and go with you on this journey, “asked the scorpion? At first, the rabbi was adamant, “NO! You will sting me and leave me to die on the path!” However, the scorpion was very persuasive and he finally convinced the rabbi that it would be stupid to sting and kill his ride to the top, because then the scorpion wouldn’t get to the destination, either. Finally, the rabbi consented and put the scorpion on his shoulder, and together they started to the top of Mr. Sinai. When they had almost reached the summit, the scorpion suddenly stung the rabbi in the jugular vein, causing him to crumple to his knees, and start the painful death throes that accompany the scorpion’s venom. The rabbi gasped, “Why? How could you do this? Why did you trick me?'” The scorpion replied, “I didn’t trick you-you knew what I was when you picked me up!”

What a powerful lesson! Don’t pick it up and don’t even touch it! We can’t afford to dabble in and pick up worldly vices! Their end is certain and sure because Satan is in the business of deceiving whoever he can. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and that is where you will find long life and peace. We know what we are doing when we choose Satan’s lies over God’s wisdom, and we pay a hefty price when we choose to sin against what we know is right. This story is a great reminder to us to stay in God’s word. Concerning God’s words to us, Psalm 19:11 sums it up best when it says, “By them is your servant warned, in keeping them there is great reward”!

A City on a Hill; A Lesson Learned at Tel Gezer, a City on a Hill in the Shephelah of Israel

Most of us are familiar with Jesus words to his disciples in Matthew 5:14,” You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” The obvious and most common teaching on this passage is, as the Christian community, we’re supposed to stand out and be different, be a light to the world around us. However, if we study the culture of Jesus day and see what part the city played in their lives, we will discover that there was probably a lot more that was being said by Jesus when he made that statement. What did Jesus mean when he told us to be a city on a hill?

Standing in the gate at Tel Gezer, Israel

First of all, the whole concept of city and city life is so different for us than it was for people in Bible times. Americans don’t like the crowds, the crime and the hectic pace that comes with city living. The American dream is to move out to the country. We want to get out of the bustle of the city and have a secluded ten acre plot where we don’t have to see a lot of people. Our desire is to live in the country and only drive to the city when we have to. We are self sufficient in suburbia and the city doesn’t have much appeal to us and we don’t have much need for it.

In the ancient world, however, the city was life. Within its walls was where food (oil and grain) could be stored. Every city made a secure place where food could be stored in case of famine and drought. Do you remember the story in Genesis where Joseph, in Egypt, stored up large amounts of grain in preparation for seven years of famine? Also, the city was where the most plentiful, reliable and protected source of water could be found. Cities naturally sprung up around the best sources of water and they always put them inside the city walls so that they would have access to it during times of siege. Lastly, and very importantly, behind the city walls was where you would have protection from the enemy. All major cities were walled and well fortified to protect their inhabitants.

Now, think of what the city provided and how important it was to the people of the land. Where would you go if you were hungry? Where would you go if you were thirsty? Where could you have security and be protected from what threatened you? Cities, in that time, were not places that you wanted to move away from. Cities were where you wanted to be, because that is where the necessities of life were provided. The city was literally your salvation and hope in times of trouble.

With this background, when Jesus told us to be a “city on a hill”, could we have missed a significant portion of what he was saying? A “city on a hill” in Jesus day was not just a huge billboard that said, “Followers of God Welcome”! It was a place where people in trouble went in order to have their basic needs met. If you were hungry or thirsty, or needing protection from the enemy, the ruler of the city said, “Come in! We’ll help!”

With these comparisons in mind, how do our present day church communities compare as a true “city on a hill?” In many cases our churches are more like fortresses to keep people out, rather than inviting them in to share what they have. Many Christians and their church communities lean toward isolation and insulation rather than accommodation. We have our own little faithful community, our own Christian schools, our own church language, programs and procedures. Our method of operation doesn’t lend itself well to inviting outsiders to come in. If we are to be a “city on a hill” in the manner of cities of Jesus day, we probably have some changing to do. We need to be a beacon to hurting people saying, “Are you hungry, are you thirsty, are you in trouble? Come in! We have food and water and we will help you with what is causing you trouble!” Our goal, our mission should be to bring people in and show them the blessings the city and the Christian faith provide. Then we will be the light of the world and that city on a hill that the world so desperately needs.

Cutaway of an ancient city gate

P.S. An interesting side note to studying cities of ancient Israel is to learn about the city gates. The city gates performed many functions. Obviously they provided security because they kept the bad people out and good people in. They were also a place where commerce was conducted because of the traffic going in and out of the gates. However, one of the more interesting functions of the city gate was that this was where justice and law were carried out. The ruler or king of the city, “sat in the gate”, and decided all questions and legal matters and pronounced judgment on wrong doers. Several examples of this occur in Scripture (Lot at Sodom in Genesis 19:1; Ruth and Boaz in Ruth 4:1-12; Absalom in 2nd Samuel 15:1-6, to name a few). What makes this so interesting is that from this concept of the King sitting in the gate and pronouncing judgment, we get the concept and the image of the “pearly gates of heaven”! From the images provided in Revelation 21:12 and 21 and 22:14, we get the heavenly picture that we will all stand one day before the gates made of pearl and will be judged by the king before we can enter the heavenly city. It was enlightening to see that God used the practices found in ancient city life to describe what the future heavenly city will be like. As believers may we be tireless in our efforts to invite the weary traveler into our Christian communities so that they can one day experience the king saying, “Come in! Well done thou good and faithful servant!”

John’s Baptism of Repentance

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3:1-20

In our last post we looked at John the Baptist and his role to be like Elijah in the coming of the promised Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6). We noted that he looked and acted like Elijah and that he lived and preached in the places that Elijah had frequented when he was preaching and teaching. How did John understand his role as the predecessor of the Messiah? What did he think that he was supposed to preach and teach in order to prepare the way for the Lord to come? John’s language was always a language of repentance-“Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” was his constant theme. As the crowds came out to see him, he would always tell them to repent! The Hebrew word for repent is “teshuva” (Strong’s H8666) and means to get off the wrong path, turn around and get on the straight path and walk in obedience. The Luke passage quotes Isaiah 40 that talks about making the straight path for the Messiah that is to come. John is constantly telling his audience to Repent! Be baptized! Turn around, get on the straight path, be obedient and produce fruit!

John was trying to get the Israelites to walk in obedience and righteousness. He was saying, “If you prepare and walk in obedience, God will show up, His Glory will come, His Kingdom will come”. As you are reading through Luke chapter 3, the people are touched by John’s message and they ask, “what can we do”? John then gives them specific answers on how to live a holy life that will produce fruit. What’s the moral of this story?

If we want God to show up in our churches, we as a congregation need to repent and obey God’s word and get on the straight path that John advocated. God’s kingdom will come if we will do our part! Just as John was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, we are also to prepare the way for the Lord to come into our lives and churches and the key ingredient is repentance. If we were asked to summarize John the Baptist’s ministry statement, we would all probably say that it was, “Repent and be baptized, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near”. If you were asked to summarize Jesus’ ministry statement, what would you say? Look at Matthew 4:12-17 to find a surprising answer. “When Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been put into prison by Herod, the Word says in verse 17, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is Near’”! He was preaching the same message that John did!

Also, one other interesting note is that John the Baptist would probably have been a Sadducee! Both his parents were from the priestly line, and the Bible seems to indicate that most if not all the priests were a member of the Sadducee sect. This group of people was generally thought of as corrupt and in cahoots with the Romans. So, it is interesting to think that God would have used a member of the corrupt party to call the nation to repentance!