Reflections on “Holy Justice” (from RC Sproul’s “The Holiness of God”)

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holiness of god

I discovered R.C. Sproul fairly recently– last year I read Chosen by God as the first book I had read by him, and I felt like I was reading an American CS Lewis. This week, thanks to my friend Mark Knight trying to consolidate his library, I started reading Sproul’s The Holiness of God. And it is a fantastic book.

Chapter Six is called “Holy Justice,” and it deals with the harsh stories of God’s judgment against Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10); Uzzah (1 Chronicles 13-15), the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Canaanite nations that were driven out before the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land. As Sproul says in the opening paragraph, these are not stories for the faint or faint of heart.

It’s admittedly hard to square our “God is love” understanding from the New Testament with the God who put Nadab and Abihu to death for experimenting with the rituals of sacrifice. It’s even harder to think about Uzzah, whose only offense (if you could even call it an offense) was trying to keep the ark from falling into the mud when the oxen stumbled who were pulling the oxcart it was sitting on. But Sproul makes some great observations which help us understand this story:

  1. The ark should never have been on an oxcart in the first place. God’s law was clear that it was to be carried on poles inserted through rings (see Ex. 25:10-16).
  2. Uzzah should never have been in a position to touch the ark in the first place. Only the Levites were authorized to approach the ark, and even then, not all of them could. Sproul suggests that Uzzah might have been a Koathite, which would have allowed him to carry the ark in the prescribed manner (see the above point). But even if he was (and I think this is a big if. I’m not sure how Sproul comes to this conclusion); the Koathites absolutely couldn’t touch the holy things, or they would die (Numbers 4:17-20). David apparently learned from the mistake, because 1 Chronicles 15 is very clear that Obed Edom, who has been housing the ark, is among the Levites who ultimately transport the ark to the City of David.
  3. It was presumptuous for Uzzah to assume his hands were holier than the ground. Uzzah did what any devout Jew would do–he reflexively reached out to steady the ark. But who are we to believe our hands, attached to our bodies, which rebel against God time and time again, are holier than the God-created ground, which never disobeys God? Sproul writes “Uzzah assumed his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would have polluted the ark; it was the touch of man” (Holiness of God, p. 108).

As I was journaling on this today, it came together in a poem. I wrote the last stanza several years ago, but this expands on that one stanza. You can kind of sort of sing it to “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Enjoy.

UZZAH WASN’T, WAS HE?

Look at God’s ark, on an ox-cart.

That’s a bad start, ain’t it?

Where’s the long poles that the priests hold

So their hands won’t taint it?

Oxen stumble, Uzzah fumbled,

Put out his hand and grabbed it.

The deadly lesson–don’t go messin’

With holy things, like Nadab did.

Why should we who are sinful all through

Think our hands are cleaner

Than the mud that blooms and buds at

God’s word, and earth made greener?

Obed-Edom, how we need him

To handle the ark safely

He’s a Levite; he’s got the right.

But Uzzah wasn’t, was he?

 

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Where Jesus Walks…

“I walked today where Jesus walked, and felt His presence there.”

where jesus walked That was one of the favorite songs of the minister of music at the church where I grew up. And there were so many times over the past two weeks when the words to that song came alive to me. Whether it was walking on paving stones that were over two thousand years old, kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, walking down the hill from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, or standing in the bottom of the cistern underneath Caiphas’s house, something profound happens to your spirit when you walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

But maybe the most profound sense of God’s presence happened in the most unexpected place: Concourse C of the Frankfurt airport.  As you may know, our trip did not start well. A snowstorm cancelled our flight from Atlanta to Toronto. After a night in Atlanta, we flew to Frankfurt, where some of us had a twelve hour layover. In the middle of that layover, someone from the other half of our group (the group whose flight was not cancelled) posted some beautiful pictures from the first day of their tour. And I, your pastor and spiritual leader (cough, cough), had a good old fashioned pity party. It went something like this: God, I’m supposed to be in the Holy Land right now! This isn’t fair! I’ve been waiting all my life to walk in your footsteps. To be among your people. To walk where you walked. Why am I stuck in an airport, with very spotty wifi, eating a Burger King hamburger that DOESN’T EVEN HAVE BACON?!?

frankfurt airport

And that’s when I felt God saying to me, “James, is there anywhere on earth that I don’t walk? Is there any place on the planet that shouldn’t be considered the Holy Land?”

 

That was maybe the biggest lesson from the trip. Friends, I loved Israel. I learned so much, and I look forward to going back in a couple of years, and hopefully taking some more of you with me. But we miss so much the Lord has to show us if we think we have to travel thousands of miles to walk where Jesus walks. As the Dutch theologian and politician (yes, there are such things) Abraham Kuyper said way back in 1905, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” So whether you are shopping at Wal-Mart, sitting in the carpool line, at the soccer fields on Saturday morning or the baseball fields Monday night, you are in the Holy Land. Just open your eyes.

 

Joy in the Journey,

James

 

 

 

 

A Job Description for Church Leaders from 1 Thessalonians 5

 

shepherd

This week, I was meditating on 1 Thessalonians 5:14-23 during my devotional time, and it struck me that there probably is not a better job description for pastoral ministry–or really any kind of church leadership, than what you see in this text.

Here’s what Paul had to say to the church in Thessaloniki (ESV):

14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle,<sup class="footnote" style="box-sizing: border-box; font-size: .625em; line-height: 22px; position: relative; vertical-align: top; top: 0" data-fn="#fen-ESV-29619a" data-link="[a]”>[a] encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

From this passage, consider these twelve points for a job description for pastors:

  1. ADMONISH the idle and disruptive (v. 14): I need to speak warning to those who lack initiative.
  2. ENCOURAGE the fainthearted (v. 14): I need to speak courage to those who lack courage.
  3. HELP the weak (v. 14): I need to not just speak, but providerelief to those who lack strength.
  4. BE PATIENT with all (v. 14): I need to not get irritated or exasperated with those who lack maturity.
  5. REFEREE the arguments (v. 15): Verse 15 says, “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” I need to speak peace to those who lack perspective.
  6. REJOICE always (v. 16): I need to speak joy to those who lack vision.
  7. PRAY without ceasing (v. 17): I need to speak to God in those times I lack faith.
  8. GIVE THANKS in all circumstances (v. 18): I need to speak thankfulness to those who lack gratitude.
  9. RELEASE the Spirit (v. 19): Verse 19 says “Do not quench the Spirit.” I need to be sensitive to the Spirit’s work and movement in those times I lack flexibility.
  10. DISCERN the Word (v. 20-21): Verse 20 says “Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all, hold to what is good, reject every kind of evil.” I need to speak truth to those who lack wisdom.
  11. REJECT evil (v. 22): I need to speak against anything that lacks goodness.
  12. YIELD to the Lord (v. 23): Verse 23 promises that “the God of peace himself [will] sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. I need to be surrendered in those areas I lack holiness.

And the amazing promise from God’s Word for everyone in Christian service?

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

 

When a Turkey Gets Pardoned

14781510951_28ac287358_abraham-lincoln-and-tadEvery year since 1989, the President of the United States grants an official pardon to one lucky turkey. It had been an on-again, off-again ceremony up to that point. Truman did it in 1947. JFK did in 1963, three days before he was assassinated. But with George H.W. Bush, it became the annual tradition that it is now.

Being the history geek that I am, I wanted to dig a little deeper to see how the whole tradition got started. And here’s what I found on whitehousehistory.org:

The tradition of “pardoning” White House turkeys has been traced to President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 clemency to a turkey recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks, who noted, “a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”

Don’t miss these details:

  • It was Lincoln, who had already brought freedom to millions who had been in bondage.
  • It was Christmas, not Thanksgiving.
  • It was Lincoln’s son, Tad, who interceded to his father on behalf of the turkey.

It’s that last detail that stops me in my tracks. As I think about what I am grateful for this Thanksgiving season, I am most grateful for a Heavenly Father who proclaimed freedom for the captives (Isaiah 61:1). That at Christmas, His son came into the world in order to set us free (John 8:36). And that God’s son, Jesus, does not condemn us. Instead, He is at the right hand of God and is at this moment interceding for us (Romans 8:34).

Because here’s the deal. There are a lot of days where I’m pretty much a turkey. Maybe I’m impatient with my family. Maybe I’m selfish toward my wife. Maybe I’m insensitive to the needs of a church member. Maybe I give in again to a secret or shameful sin. On those days, I am reminded of a Son interceding to His Father to seal my pardon. And I am so grateful.

In the Middle of My Complaining…

Can you find joy in the midst of sorrow? Jeremiah did. Literally. In the exact middle.

lamentations 3

This morning my daily Bible reading took me to Lamentations. When it came up on my Bible reading app, I groaned a little. Because, full disclosure, and knowing that no Christian is EVER supposed to admit they don’t like anything that’s in God’s Word…

I don’t like Lamentations.

Lamentations is the most depressing book ever. It follows Jeremiah, which is also the most depressing book ever. Nor for nothing is Jeremiah called the weeping prophet. His assignment was to communicate a VERY unpopular message to a group of people who didn’t want to hear it. His message:  the Babylonians are coming. God’s people are going to be in exile for seventy years. And it is because of your sin and idolatry that this is going to happen.

 

Because his message was so unpopular, and because there were false prophets who were proclaiming that this whole exile thing would blow over in two years (see Jeremiah 28:1-4), Jeremiah’s words were ignored. The king of Judah actually cut apart the words of the scroll Jeremiah wrote, column by column, and threw them into the fire (Jeremiah 36). Jeremiah himself was thrown into a well and accused of treason  (Jeremiah 38).

Not to put to fine a point on it, but Jeremiah’s ministry assignment sucked.

Jeremiah hated it. He actually accused God of deceiving him (Jeremiah 20:7). Later in the same chapter, Jeremiah will say,

Cursed be the day
    on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
    let it not be blessed!
15 Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father,
“A son is born to you,”
    making him very glad.

(Jeremiah 20:14-15)

Much of Jeremiah’s 52 chapters is about how much he hates the assignment God has given him. Yet, he can’t NOT fulfill it. In 20:9, he writes:

If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
    shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.

Apparently, 52 chapters were not enough for Jeremiah. So he followed it up with Lamentations. Which on the surface seems to be more of the same. Five solid chapters of complaining.

But when you start looking at the structure of Lamentations, there is more than meets the eye. Chapters 1,2,4,5 each have 22 verses. They are written as an acrostic, where each verse begins with the corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter three is 66 verses, also written as an acrostic (three verses per letter).

Why such a careful, methodical, precise structure? I think it is to make it easier to find the exact center of the book. The central verse of Lamentations is 3:33. It’s worth backing up a little in order to get Jeremiah’s run-up to this magnificent verse:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;[b]
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man that he bear
    the yoke in his youth.

28 Let him sit alone in silence
    when it is laid on him;
29 let him put his mouth in the dust—
    there may yet be hope;
30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
    and let him be filled with insults.

31 For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men.

In the middle of his complaining (literally) Jeremiah remembered the unceasing, unfailing love of the Lord. He remembered that He renews His mercies to us every morning. That even though God can be the cause of our grief, He is also the source of our comfort. Verse 33 says that God does not afflict from His heart– he is not mean-spirited.

What do I remember in the middle of my complaining? Jeremiah found joy. Literally. In the exact middle of his sorrow. Joy is found when we focus not on our circumstances, but in the character of God.

Ten Lepers Left

0001620_ten-lepers
Ten Lepers, by James Christensen

I wrote this poem several years ago, but updated it and used it in a sermon I preached this past weekend. A few folks have asked for it, so here it is. It is based on the story of the ten lepers Jesus healed in Luke 17:11-19.

Ten lepers walked the city streets,

and stopped to hear the preacher preach

So close to death, all pride was stripped,

Nothing to lose; so those with lips

Called, “Jesus, help us out a bit?”

“Go, show yourselves unto the.  priests,”

He said, they scattered, west to east

Their skin, with cleansing fire burned

Ten lepers left, but one returned.

 

Once, the question came to mind, “What happened to the other nine?”

And though I claim no revelation—this is nothing more than speculation

I offer you this testament

To where the other lepers went.

 

First, there’s Leper Number One

Who took off in an all out run.

Her feet, now free from open sores

Ran like they’d never run before.

 

Poor old leper number Two

Had no idea what he should do.

So, scarred from years of being shunned

Went home, locked up, and saw no one.

 

Then there’s leper Number Three

For whom sickness became security

For years, defined by leprosy

Till it became identity

Healed, became a bitter man

And wished he could get sick again.

 

That accounts for three who were healed that day

Nine lepers left, one leper stayed.

 

Leper four, his skin free of spots

Left and immediately forgot

He’d ever been a leper.

 

Five and six found love along the way.

Ran off, got married that same day.

 

So that makes six accounted for

One leper stayed, that leaves three more.

 

And of those three, there were the two

That wrote “Life from a Leper’s Point of View.”

They gained great fame in lecture halls,

Signed copies of their books in malls.

And on the Oprah Winfrey Show,

Oprah said, “We want to know,

To what do you attribute health?”

“From within,” they said. “We healed ourselves.”

 

Number Nine believed his leprosy

Was to be replaced with prosperity

Convinced it’s what he deserves, somehow.

He’s out there living his best life now.

 

So, ten lepers went their separate ways

Nine lepers left, one leper stayed.

He stayed to fall at Jesus’ feet,

Stayed to feel His touch so sweet;

To thank Him for the gift he gave,

Ten lepers cured, one leper saved.

James Jackson

 

Glorified!

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

I’ve always jokingly wished that I would get a new body. An upgrade. Something more Chris Pratt-like (“Guardians” Chris Pratt. Not “Parks and Rec” Chris Pratt).

But if I truly believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, then I choose to believe that in my glorified body I will look and be exactly as God intended for me to look and be, without the negative effects of age, disease, pollution, decay, environment, athlete’s foot, and Klondike bars. And somehow, in a way I can’t even fathom, it will be glorious yet still recognizable as me. And people will look at me and say, “my God.” Not in the casual, flippant, offhandedly blasphemous way we use that phrase today, but in a way that expresses awestruck wonder for the God that could resurrect such beauty from such ashes. People will recognize me, but they will recognize Christ in me with none of the flaws that distort and hide Him. And the only thing that will keep them from falling to their knees on the spot is that Christ will be seen in everyone else as well. And maybe the reason we will not grow tired of worshiping the resurrected Christ, even when we’ve been there ten Thousand years, (bright shining as the sun), is that we will experience him in ten thousand million different ways, expressed through every unique, glorified saint.