Genesis: Goats, garments and God’s grace

It’s been a while since I shed the naive notion that the patriarchs were perfect people, so a reminder wasn’t unwelcome. As I listened to the series of talks I’ll describe below, I pictured a bewildered angel trying to make sense of God’s choice of such a dysfunctional family (1 Peter1:10-13 is one of my favourite passages of scripture). If you think about it long enough, you may also wonder why God didn’t choose more shining exemplars to effect His salvation…

In his five talks on Genesis 25-50, Simon Flinders drummed into my head the complete unworthiness of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons to be recipients of the grand promises of God:

  • In Genesis 25, we see Esau’s foolishness and Jacob’s conniving;
  • In Genesis 26 we see Isaac repeating the sins of his father. Genesis 27 tells us how Isaac was like his sons: like Esau he was ruled by his appetite; Jacob resorted to deception like his father had done in the previous chapter;
  • Chapter 37 introduces us to Joseph (who was either insensitive or clueless) and his brothers (who were malicious and callous);
  • Chapter 38 recounts the sorry story of the ancestors of Christ;
  • In chapter 50, we finally have a ray of light in Joseph

Flinders wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. He also stressed how:

  • God determined to use this family in spite of their obvious and many sins
  • God saves and restores broken people to achieve His purposes
  • God’s invisibility doesn’t mean He is absent
  • God acts in mercy towards sinners
  • God works out His purposes despite the limits of human wisdom
  • God is sovereign over evil and uses it to fulfil His purposes.

Have a listen to the audio (five teaching sessions + Q&A, all less than 45 minutes each), and hopefully you’ll come away with a renewed appreciation for God’s goodness to ill-deserving sinners!

P.S. If you’re wondering what the goats and garments in the title of this post are, you’ll just have to listen to Mr Flinders 😉

Genesis-2 Kings: Awaiting a King

A while back, I read a 22-page article from a theological journal. I liked it so much that I created an overly simplified version of it.

So here’s a stripped-down version of Royal Expectations in Genesis to Kings: Their importance for Biblical Theology by T. Desmond Alexander:

Awaiting a King: Genesis-2 Kings
Awaiting a King: Genesis-2 Kings

Why is it neither safe nor right to go against conscience?

I recently received a lovely pair of earrings that may or may not depict the deities of an ancient civilisation (I’m not familiar enough with the culture to know). As a believer in Jesus Christ, is it wrong for me to wear the jewellery?

The closest biblical injunction that comes to mind is the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). With immense gratitude to the Holy Spirit, I can say that of my countless sinful tendencies, worshipping graven images isn’t one of them. But that doesn’t do anything about the uneasiness I feel about wearing the earrings. Which leads me to the New Testament’s teaching on conscience.

I was greatly helped by a talk given by Kevin DeYoung titled “Holiness” at this year’s Next conference. Here’s an excerpt of what he had to say about a weak conscience in reference to 1 Corinthians 8:7-13:

A weak conscience is one that accuses you of things that aren’t inherently blameworthy. So in this case, Paul says, “Look, idols are nothing. They are no gods whatsoever. So eat the food. The food is not really offered to any sort of deity because they don’t exist.” And then he says, “Some will not have knowledge and some will eat this food and their conscience will tell them ‘this is wrong.’” Now it is not strictly inherently wrong but Paul says very clearly throughout his letters that if it is wrong to you then you should not do it. The conscience is weak.

Here’s how a stumbling block works: the person with the weak conscience—let’s just use the category that seems to fit most clearly in our context, the category of alcohol. Drinking alcohol in moderation when you are of legal age is not a sin. But perhaps, some of us grew up with this understanding or because we hear about the dangers—rightly so—of drunkenness, that alcohol feels very wicked to us. God would say, “If it feels wicked to you, you should not do it.”

But here’s what happens with a stumbling block, you have this Christian over here—they’re 25, they drink in moderation, they do it once in a while and they are pressing in on this brother with a weak conscience saying, “Come on. Are you a fundamentalist? Are you a legalist? Come on, just have a drink, it’s not a big deal. You have freedom in Christ!” and what are you training this person with the weak conscience to do? You are training him to ignore his conscience. That is the stumbling block. So then you are training this person that, though I feel in my heart this is wrong, I should suppress that feeling and do it anyway. That’s why Paul says you will lead the brother to destruction. You and I do not want to do anything that will ever encourage our brothers and sisters to violate their conscience. […] It is a dangerous thing to push people to act against their conscience.

Right. Now that I have the problem figured out, what’s the solution? DeYoung again:

  1. Turn from sin when your conscience tells you that what you’re about to do or what you’re in the middle of doing is wrong.
  2. Turn to Christ when your conscience tells you what you’ve already done is wrong.

The regular state of a Christian should be that of a clean conscience. If that is not the case, then your conscience is not working as it should, or you’re not dealing with sin as you ought (1 Corinthians 4:4).

So, I’ll keep the earrings. It may turn out that the figures aren’t idols after all. Or the Holy Spirit may work on my heart that it doesn’t bother me. Or I may choose not to exercise my freedom for the sake of a brother or sister in Christ. Or something else entirely, I don’t know. What I won’t do is ignore my God-given conscience.

Humans first, and then pagans

This post is based on Alistair Begg’s sermon This is What the Lord Says, part 1.

Amos 1:3-2:3 contains oracles against six nations located around Israel. That they were outside God’s covenant did not stop Him from addressing them. They were without special revelation, but not without moral responsibility. The spotlight falls not on what they may or may not have done in relation to God, but on what they’d done to man. God takes issue with them not for their faulty religious practices, but for their cruelty, treachery and disregard for human life.

The following are the principles we can glean from what Yahweh said to the nations through Amos:

  • People made in the image of God must never be treated as things (1:3-5)
  • Turning profit must never take precedence over human welfare (1:6-8)
  • Fidelity to a pledged word matters to God (1:9-10)
  • Unmitigated hatred is inadmissible with God (1:11-12)
  • Nothing moves God to punish so much as wanton cruelty to the helpless (1:13-15)
  • Cruel vengeance has no justifiable place in human behaviour (2:1-3)

God didn’t judge them because they were pagan, but because they were human.

The apostle Paul said much the same thing in Romans 2:14-15:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

So what?

Humankind cannot escape the obligation of being human, created with a conscience. God is concerned about human injustice and will bring about judgment, either in time or in eternity.

2 things I learned from my cat

Another cat post? Yes. Considering I saw Bolla almost every day for close to 8 years, two posthumous blog posts are a case of too little, too late.

Just to be clear, I didn’t learn only two things from my years with Bolla, but these are probably going to stick with me for longer than the rest.

1. The ugliness of disease and death

Bolla was a very lively cat when we first got her. I’d tie stuff to the end of a string and have her chase me around the apartment (a game neither of the other two cats took to). I’d get breathless long before she did. As age and disease set in, she ran around less, became less fastidious about cleaning herself, and so on. Her last 48 hours were the nadir of her existence. She lost all muscle control and suffered violent convulsions.

The Lord has spared me in that I haven’t walked this path with a human loved one. But the alternating and intermingled rage and despair I felt was no less real. Some passages in scripture are now less remote and more precious to me, like the raising of Lazarus, Paul’s triumphant cry in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 and Isaiah 25:8 (quoted in Revelation 21:4).

2. The beauty of trust

I remember the first time we gave Bolla and her long, thick fur a bath. She sulked at us for hours, refusing any advances. Immediately after her last bath (exactly a week before she died) it was like nothing had happened. Why the change? I believe it was because she knew she could trust us. She had been a recipient of our love, care and concern for her over the years (sometimes in the form of a pill stuck down her throat!) and knew, in her own kitty way, that we were on her side. And you know what? Bolla’s confidence in me brought me great joy and satisfaction.

I’m envious. I’d love to be able to have the same faith in my God that Bolla had in me. I’ve received so much more from my heavenly Father than I could ever give a pet, and yet I’m still prone to not setting my hope fully on Him. I therefore cry out with the anguished father, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The eyes of the Lord are active

When I was in high school, we used to sing a song about the eyes of the Father searching the earth looking for intercessors. I was reminded of it when I read 2 Chronicles 16:9, which is part of a prophet’s words of judgement to King Asa of Judah:

For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless towards him.

I always thought the words of the song were drawn from the Bible, so I embarked on a search. I came up empty—but not unrewarded, for I found a number of verses about the eyes of the Lord doing something.

(Note: the links point to the context of the verse)

For good

  • Deuteronomy 11:12 – Moses tells the Israelites that the Lord’s eyes are on the land of Canaan all year round.
  • 1 Kings 9:3, 2 Chronicles 7:15-16 – In response to Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, Yahweh tells the king that His eyes and heart would  be on that house for all time.
  • 2 Chronicles 16:9 – King Asa of Judah failed to trust in the Lord who strengthens those who are fully committed to Him.
  • Psalm 33:18 – The eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him that He may deliver them
  • Psalm 34:15 – The eyes and ears of the Lord are towards the righteous that He may deliver and save them.
  • Psalm 101:6 – The eyes of the Lord are on the faithful that they may dwell with Him.
  • Jeremiah 24:6 – The Lord set His eyes on the Judean exiles to bring them back to the land and to give them a heart to know Him.

For harm

  • Jeremiah 5:3 – The eyes of the Lord looked for truth, but found none. The people of God would be destroyed, but not completely.
  • Amos 9:4, 8 – The eyes of the Lord are on the sinful kingdom (i.e. Israel) for evil and not for good. It would be destroyed, but not completely.

For both good and harm

  • Psalm 11:4 – His eyes are on both the righteous and the wicked. The former will see His face and the latter will face judgement.
  • Proverbs 15:3 – “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”
  • Proverbs 22:12 – “The eyes of the Lord keep watch over knowledge, but he overthrows the words of the traitor.”

So what?

One common thread I see in these verses is that God’s eyes are on something or someone in order that He may do something.

1. So that God may do something: The song of my teenage years had Him searching for people who would do something, which kind of puts the spotlight on us humans. From these verses, it is clear that the God of Israel is the one doing the main action.

2. So that God may do something: He’s not just watching for the sake of it but so that He may act accordingly: either to bring judgement or to bring blessing. And in this collection of verses, there’s more about blessing than about judgement.

The Lord is watching and is actively involved in the lives of His children—for His glory and for their good!

(P.S. If you know the song and its scriptural reference, do share in the comments!)

I lost my fur coat

A week ago today the first feline love of my life, Bolla, was put to sleep.

Bolla the cat is pensive
Bolla the cat is pensive

I called her my fur coat because she had (a) an extraordinary ability to shed fur, and (b) a tendency to deposit herself on the laps of seated humans. I very much appreciated this last characteristic the time when the winter heating wasn’t working!

Bolla was abandoned by her previous owner(s) who at least had the decency to leave her at the door of a cat sanctuary here in Rome. The personnel named her Bolla (‘bubble’ in Italian) because she was as round as one. She was at the sanctuary for about a month before we came along to give her a new home.  She would stay with us for 7 years, 9 months and 3 weeks.

Bolla investigates the grass shortly after we moved house
Bolla investigates the grass shortly after we moved house

Bolla had expensive tastes—she turned up her nose at cheap cat food and cheap litter sand. She loved meat for humans, whether raw or cooked. She became our quality control expert: if she liked a particular cut of meat, then it was a good one. She was friendly and easy-going, though only with humans. Her interaction with other cats was mostly in the form of hostile hissing or ignoring.

Bolla and Tempesta
Bolla and Tempesta

Close to four years after acquiring Bolla, we were given a kitten whom we named Tempesta. Until that point, I’d never seen Bolla upset or angry. Poor Tempesta got paw swipes and was hissed at. About one and a half years after Tempesta disappeared, Wikileaks moved in with us. She too got more than her fair share of one-way aggression.

Bolla and Wikileaks
Bolla and Wikileaks

When we got her, Bolla was obese. We had no idea what that would mean for our future together. The first health scare was when she was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. So that’s why she had a silent meow. The next scare was the diabetes. So that’s why she was peeing all over the place and drinking vast amounts of water. The last was the feline leukemia. In the end, it wasn’t any of those that led to the painful decision to put her to sleep, but neurological complications arising from the diabetes.

I’m sure there will be animals in the new heavens and the new earth. If both Bolla and I will be there, I look forward to some cuddling and tickles under the chin, just like in old times.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20-21)

No one wants to be a Naboth

When we engage with a story—in a movie, a book, whatever—we tend to identify with a character, empathising with them, egging them on, and generally living vicariously through them. For example in the Elijah narratives in 1&2 Kings, most Christian readers would identify with the prophet (except maybe in 2 Kings 1:9-14).  After all, he has quite the enviable life:

  • He’s miraculously sustained by God during a severe drought (1 Kings 17)
  • He takes on false religion and wins (1 Kings 18)
  • He has a spectacular meeting with God (1 Kings 19)
  • He is taken home in style (2 Kings 2)

But there were lots of other true believers in Yahweh—the  faithful remnant of  1 Kings 19:18—whose lives weren’t quite as desirable. What if you were to identify with one of them instead?

  • Those who suffered the dire consequences of the drought and famine
  • Those who were killed by Jezebel and her lackeys (1 Kings 18:4, 19:10)
  • Those who were hidden in caves, totally dependent someone whose life was also at risk (1 Kings 18:4)
  • Those who were unjustly killed for no fault of their own (Naboth, 1 Kings 21:7-16)

The author of Hebrews saw no contradiction in seamlessly transitioning from the servants of God who experienced victory in this life to those who didn’t (Hebrews 11:32-40, transition in verse 35).

If you’re a true believer in Jesus Christ, you might be a Naboth in this life, but remember that your “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

This post is a distillation of various sermons I’ve heard from Don Carson, John Currid and Dale Ralph Davis.