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

The Resurrected Dead

Signorelli_Resurrection-pano

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
– Matthew 27:51-53

A scripture we normally read over fairly quickly is the above passage in Matthew 27. The main reason we do not spend a lot of time on this story, incidentally only found in Matthew, is because of the part in verses 52 and 53 where tombs are broken open and dead people come to life. Since that is something we have never witnessed or heard of happening, it causes us some problems in trying to explain what and how this might have occurred. One amazing fact that we often overlook because of the quick read, is the fact that these resurrected people only appeared after Jesus’ resurrection, three days later! Only after Jesus’ resurrection did these holy people go into Jerusalem and witness to people. Where did they go for three days and is the fact that they appeared only after the resurrection significant?

The answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes”! These people were the first fruits offered to God of eternal life for the believer. Jesus himself was raised on the day the the Jews celebrated the Feast of First Fruits (see Exodus 23:14-19). The Feast of First Fruits had, at its center, the idea that you gave to God the very first harvest of your crops as a way of saying, “I trust you to provide and protect the rest of the crop to me at a later date when the full crop is ready to harvest.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (also read the next two verses, 1 Corinthians 15:21-23). Christ was the guarantee of the resurrection of all God’s saved and redeemed people and these first holy people were resurrected as the first fruits of that promise of eternal life. We have this promise in Scripture that God resurrected these people and will also give us that same resurrection from the dead.

Another interesting piece of information is that every major city in the Roman world had three parts. As you approached the city you first came to the graveyard, called the necropolis. Next was the city itself, called the polis, and finally came the acropolis, the high place that was fortified to withstand assault. Now, read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and picture in your mind Christ returning and picking up the dead in Christ – first on the outskirts of the city and then coming in to the city and picking up the living and taking them up to meet with him on the high place in the clouds. What an exciting picture of the hope that we have in Christ and a great thought for the upcoming Easter Sunday!

Walking on Water

Jesus Walking on WaterThe only miracle in the New Testament where the disciples say, “Truly this is the Son of God”, was the miracle of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:23-33). Could the reason for this be found in the Hebrew bible? In Job 9:8 it says, “He [God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” What about Psalm 107:28-30, where it says, “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.” Also, in this story, Jesus walks by the boat on the water. Listen to the next passage in Job 9:11 talking about God. ”When He passes me, I cannot see Him, when He goes by, I cannot perceive Him”. Could it have been that those disciples knew their Text and realized that God was present among them because Jesus had done what the Text said God alone could and would do? The miracle of calming the sea does not necessarily prove that Jesus was God. Moses and Elijah also performed miracles with water. What made the miracle so profound was that He walked on the sea and by doing so, according to the Text, claimed to be just like God. Also, like the Jonah story (Jonah 1:4-6), both Jesus and Jonah were asleep in the bottom of the boat, just before the storm was calmed. The disciples must have thought, “It’s happening again!” However, this time, the greater Jonah (Jesus) went toward His mission from God instead of running from it.

How many times have we seen this happen in Scripture where something that Jesus did was fulfillment of the Hebrew text? The Bible is one long interwoven thread – we just have to study it enough to be able to trace the cord!

The Old Glove

“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.
– Jeremiah 32:17

O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for you.
    Be our arm every morning,
    our salvation in the time of trouble.
– Isaiah 33:2 (ESV)

old-leather-glove-2There was a teacher who placed an old glove on his desk at the beginning of his Bible class for each semester. Periodically, he would talk to the glove and tell it do do something for him. “Turn off the lights”, he would say to the glove, or, “make me a cup of coffee”, or , “clean this desk off, it is dusty.” Of course the glove would not respond to his directions and would lay there lifeless as it was on his desk. At the end of the semester, on the last day of class, without saying a word to preface his actions, the teacher would put on the old glove and perform the tasks that he had been asking the glove to do during the semester. Then he would leave his students with the following thought. “The glove by itself is useless”, he would say, “but with my hand in the glove and my arm directing it’s movements, it is now a useful tool.” The point the teacher made was obvious: we are the glove and we are not worth anything unless God’s presence fills us and His arm directs our thoughts and actions. As God empowers us and we depend on His strength, we are able to perform the tasks that He has given us to perform.

Thou Preparest a Table Before Me in the Presence of Mine Enemies

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.
— Psalm 23

sulahIn our last post, we looked at the hospitality of the Middle East and the fellowship meal. For centuries, Bedouins have taken pride in sitting down at the family table with strangers and enjoying their company. There is also another ceremonial table meal that has been occurring in the Middle East since Bible times that has fascinating implications on the words we read in our English translations of the Text. This meal is called, “Sulha”, and is an Arabic word for a covenantal meal of reconciliation. The word,”sulh”, means ”peace”, or a literal act of settlement. Sulha is still practiced today in all the Middle Eastern countries and is considered an extension of the legal systems. In fact, it is still the main and official conflict resolution tool of all the Bedouin Tribes located in the Middle East. What is “Sulha”, how is it done, and what is it used for?

Sulha is a meal where you sit down at a table with you enemies and reconcile your differences. By using the cultural ideals of honor and shame, two parties with animosity between them eat together at a ceremonial meal to transition from revenge to forgiveness and reconciliation. Because of the strong family ties in this part of the country, disputes between individuals automatically become disputes between families and clans – often escalating to engulf an entire village. If you offend or harm the individual, you have done the same to the entire family and the problem festers and expands if not dealt with. Therefore, a Sulha is often called for to try and diffuse the situation. Are there some examples of a Sulha in scripture? One that is a good example is the story of Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban in Genesis 31. Jacob was tricked and lied to by his father-in-law, so Jacob took his two wives and flocks and left his father-in-law’s tents and went on his own. Laban was upset and went after Jacob and caught up to him ten days later. At first, it looked like violence might break out, but the two settled their differences by sitting down to a meal together. By eating together, Jacob and Laban were stating that their relationship had been restored. During the meal, they made a sacrifice to God which effectively stated God himself was a witness to the vows that they had made to each other. They were now at peace with God and each other. You can read the story of the meal in Genesis 31:51-55.

How does Sulha work? What are the steps that you take from revenge to forgiveness? The first step in the process has to be initiated by the offender and his family. The offender contacts a mediator from the area, usually a holy man (mukthar) or a pastor, and asks him to approach the victim’s family and offer restitution and seek a path to reconciliation. The mediator then goes to the victim’s house and invites them to take part in Sulha. The victim’s family, of course, has the right to say no, but it is considered very disrespectful to wait too long to respond. If the offer is accepted, then the Sulha meal takes place at the victim’s house with both the mediator and the offender in attendance. The offender, through the mediator has offered to pay some sort of restitution, called blood money. Both families wait for the patriarch of the victim’s family to make the decision of whether or not to accept the offer to reconcile. Cups of coffee are on the table, but no one makes a move until the patriarch decides. If he drinks from the cup of coffee, then he would be saying that he accepts the offer to of reconciliation. Then the patriarch would make a comment to the victim about forgiving him for the transgressions against his family and both families would shake hands. This agreement to “bury the hatchet” is binding on both families and is also considered a contract with God. From now on, “we will not speak of this again. We will acts as if we remember it no more”, would be the gist of the acceptance of the apology. There is lots of leverage for both families to abide by the patriarch’s decision. Honor and respect are very important in the tribal cultures and respect and social standing would be lost if anyone in the family went back on their word.

Think of this story in light of the 23rd Psalm. Preparing a table before me has got to be a Sulha! God invites our enemies in, we break bread together, and we are not enemies anymore. What about Revelations 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man will let me in, I will come in and eat with him and he with me”. That also sounds like a Sulha. Probably the greatest example is the Lord’s Supper. We are the offending party. God’s Son has died because of our sin. We have come to a meal with God to ask him to forgive us. He makes the first move by taking the bread and the cup and saying, “In the blood of Christ, your sins are forgiven and I’ll remember them no more. Then He invites us into His family, to be part of his house. In the Sulha meal there has to be a mediator between the offender and the victim and that mediator was Christ. What is the proof that Jesus requires to forgive our debts to Him? We are to forgive others (have Sulha with them), just as He did for us.

This is an amazing cultural story that makes the pages of the Bible come alive with imagery!

P.S. For an amazing story of a modern-day sullha, please read this story in its entirety.

Abraham and the Three Strangers

AbrahamAngels-panoUnless you have experienced the hospitality of the Middle Eastern culture, there is really no way to describe it. It seems impossible, in a way, to think of hospitality in an area of the country where there is so much hatred and violence taking place. Yet, hospitality in this region is seen as a sacred obligation. If you think about Bible times, living conditions were harsh and food hard to come by. Because of this, sitting down at a meal and sharing your food and drink with strangers was seen as the ultimate act of giving and hospitality. To open your tent and to eat at the table with people not of your own family was considered the essence of a peaceful and harmonious relationship. Job 31:32 says, ”but no stranger had to spend the night in the street; my door was always open to the traveler.”

In Genesis 18, we see the earliest biblical record of this Middle Eastern hospitality and love of the stranger. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day when he notices three strangers approaching his encampment. These are men that he doesn’t know or recognize. As soon as he spots them, he gets up and runs out to meet them and then bows before them and welcomes them into his camp. First of all, in the Middle East, grown men in their robes do not run! It is considered shameful and humiliating to pull up your robe, exposing your legs, to run. Also, at the end of chapter 17, the last thing that has happened to Abraham was that he was circumcised. Running would not have been an easy thing to do in his condition! Abraham humbles himself before these three men and washes their feet. Then, he calls them “Lord” and calls himself ,”your servant”. Next, he invites them into his tent to eat with his family. He orders his wife to knead three seahs of flour into bread and to cook it for these three strangers. How much flour and bread was that? Three seahs of flour, according to most scholars, would have been fifty to sixty five pounds of flour! That would have been enough bread for a month! Then Abraham ran out into his herd, got a young calf, had it killed and prepared to eat by one of his servants. Also, he had curds (like cheese) brought in to to eat. While the three strangers ate, Abraham stood by and watched, waiting to serve them.

It turns out that theses three strangers were two angels and God himself. By humbling and sharing with these three strangers whom he never even thought that he would see again, he ended up feeding God! Now, think about this New Testament verse and see if the author wasn’t referring back to this incident:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2

Now fast forward to the New Testament and listen to what Jesus says in Luke 13:21:

Again he asked,“What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Jesus used the exact same amount of flour that Abraham and Sarah used to describe what the Kingdom of Heaven was like! Was Jesus saying to His audience – who would have been well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures – “The Kingdom of Heaven is like what Abraham did for the three strangers?” Abraham (and also us), in welcoming the stranger, was feeding God and ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus later enforces this by saying, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to eat, I was a stranger and you took me in (Matthew 25:35-40).” What a picture this paints of the Father and His eagerness to bring in the stranger and welcome him into His house! The idea of humbling ourselves and being anxious to be friendly towards people that are marginalized and outcast is an imposing thought for us westerners. We are not naturally inclined towards love for the stranger and more reserved in our approach to people. These verses are a poignant reminder of what Jesus expects from the people that carry his name.

Of Sodom and Salt

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
–Ezekiel 16:49

A naturally occurring "pillar of salt" formation found near the Dead Sea

A naturally occurring “pillar of salt” formation found near the Dead Sea

Interestingly, the sin of Sodom that got them nuked was not just sexual sin and perversion like we would think from reading the story in Genesis 19. According to the verses above in Ezekiel, what really angered God was their lack of concern for the poor! God heard the cry of the oppressed people in Sodom, but no one else was paying attention. The townspeople were wicked, not only in their sexual misdeeds, but in the fact that they were oppressing the poor and less fortunate. God saw and heard this and took action on their behalf. What God did to Sodom and Gomorrah shows how much he dislikes seeing the poor and the marginalized taken advantage of and mistreated.

In the ancient world, the salt from the Dead Sea was a very valuable commodity. Salt was a means of currency because it was so precious and not readily available in most areas of the world. The saying, “He was worth his salt” is an example of how they looked at salt as a commodity. In fact, Roman soldiers were often paid in salt and that is where we get the word, ”salary”. Salary comes from the Latin word “salarium”, which means a payment made in salt. Rabbis have long said that Lot went to Sodom because he was in it for the ”salt” (i.e. the money) and didn’t really care what happened to the people around him. Lot paid dearly for that attitude, as his wife was turned into a pillar of salt. If you understand the worth and importance of salt, this story makes a very powerful object lesson!