Saturday, September 1, 2012

Abel: The testifying blood


"Yes... um, yes.  Here I am."

"Where is your brother?"

"Which one?"

"Abel.  Where is Abel your brother ?"

"Um, I, well you see... I'm, uh I'm not sure.  I don't know."

"Cain, where is your brother?"

"I don't know!  Am I my brother's keeper?"

"Cain.  What have you done?

"Well, I, um, I―"

"Silence!  Listen. I can hear your brother's blood crying out to me from the ground.  The soil that you have tended and tilled has been filled with your brother's blood.  You are cursed.  You will no longer work that field or any other, for the earth will no longer produce crops for you―"

"What? But I, how―"

"―and you will be forced to wander the earth."

"But, what... but... My punishment is more than I can bear!"

Judgement!  The blood of Abel cried out for judgement.  Though Cain may have believed that he could conceal the murder of his brother, he was soon confronted by God about his actions.  He lied.  He evaded.  But the Lord of heaven and earth told him that, although his brother was not alive to bear witness to what had occurred, Abel's blood was crying out and giving testimony to Cain's actions. And so Cain was put under a curse.  He was sent out of God's presence, his livelihood was taken from him, and he was forced to wander the earth.

In the letter to the Hebrews, the author writes that Jesus' blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.   Its testimony is much greater.  Instead of a curse, the blood of Jesus brings a blessing.   Instead of crying for judgement, His blood speaks peace.  Instead of innocent blood bringing enmity with God and separation from God, it is only by His blood that we can stand acceptable in God's presence.  Jesus' blood speaks of better things.

(Genesis 4:1-15; Hebrews 12:22-24)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Adam: The man of dust

As they grew older, Eve loved nothing more than to travel and visit her family. She was, after all, the mother of all living and it brought her great joy to see and experience new life. Children. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. Great-great grandchildren. Great-great-great grandchildren. Not that she ever referred to them by such sterile titles, for each had a name. But more than that, each had a lineage, a pedigree, an unbroken chain of people that connected them uniquely and inextricably to her.

So it was that afternoon, as she bounced a young boy on her knee, that she knew him not only as Methusaleh, although that was his name. Rather she knew him as Methusaleh, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth. Her Seth. The Seth whom she had bounced on her knee. Just like this.

She studied him as he smiled and giggled. His first tooth was coming in and he was drooling, his fist in his mouth. His eyes blinked and danced as he bounced.

Eve looked over at Adam who sat nearby. Though he was surrounded by activity, his eyes seemed to be fixated on nothing in particular. He was in one of his moods. She hated to see him this way.

"Adam," she said attempting to cheer him up, "I think little Methusaleh looks just like you!"

"I know," he responded sadly. "They all do."

We read in the account of creation that God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." So God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed life into him. Yet later, after the fall, we read that Adam had a son named Seth in his own likeness and after his own image.

Adam is the pattern, the mold from which all subsequent human beings have sprung. It is a pattern marked by sin, death, corruption and weakness. "We all bear the image of the man of dust," Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

But Christ has broken the mold. Paul described Jesus as the Second Man, the Last Adam, the Heavenly Man. Through his death and resurrection he has established a new pattern. His is an image of incorruptibility, glory and power. His is the image we one day shall bear.

(Genesis 5; 1 Corinthians 15)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Joseph: The suffering saviour

He noticed that they didn't react. Perhaps they hadn't heard him. Perhaps his tears made his words unintelligible. “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt,” he said again, doing his best to hold his voice steady.

This time his brothers quickly exchanged looks with one to the other. He could tell from their faces that they were shocked. And terrified. So he went on, “But do no be grieved or angry with yourselves. God has sent me ahead of you to preserve life. So it wasn't you who sent me here, but God!”

Then he ran to Benjamin, threw his arms around his brother's neck, and wept. They stood there for some time, holding each other, weeping. Then, one by one, he hugged, kissed, and wept with each of his other brothers.

Those brothers had questions, of course. What had happened to him after they sold him to the Midianite traders? How did he rise to such a position of honour and power? How had he been able to prepare Egypt for such a devastating famine? They talked for many hours as he retraced the strange path that had brought him to this moment.

Then Joseph's mind went to his father, the man who believed him to be dead. He ordered them, “You shall tell my father of all my glory in Egypt and of all you have seen. Hurry, and bring my father down here.”

After the death of their father, Joseph's brothers fear that he will finally extract his revenge. They tell him, “Before our Father died, he said `Tell Joseph that he must forgive your sin and the evil you have done against him.'” Again, Joseph's brothers bring him to tears.

Joseph assures his brothers that they need not fear because he recognizes God's hand in all that has transpired. He tells them, “While you meant it for evil, God meant it for good. He has used this situation to save many lives!” Their betrayal, being sold as a slave, the years in prison, were all part of God's plan. They were the means by which he would rise to be the most powerful man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, and God would use him to save the nation –and his family-- from the drought, starvation, and death. God raised him from the pit to the palace, from grime to glory, and from a slave to a saviour.

The cross is yet further evidence that God can bring blessing out of man's wickedness. The rulers of Jesus day —Jew and Gentile, spiritual and secular— all wanted to be rid of him, so he was taken and crucified. Yet this great evil was turned on its head. While the rulers meant it for evil, God used it for good. God used the cross to bring salvation to the world. The Son who had died is alive. The Son who was made low is now seated on the throne. Let us tell the Father of His glory and of all that we have seen.

(Genesis 45)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The ram: The God-provided substitute

“Abraham! Abraham!” came the voice from heaven.

Abraham froze. “Here I am,” he replied. The voice continued, “Do not harm the boy! Now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Abraham quickly put down the knife. His hands were shaking so badly, and his vision was so tear-blurred, that he didn't trust himself to cut the ropes. So he unbound Isaac, slowly, by hand, one knot at a time.

As he raised his head from his work, Abraham saw a form in the thicket. He approached cautiously. It was a ram! The brambles and thorns were wrapped so tightly around its horns that it had become trapped there.

Abraham whispered a prayer of thanksgiving as killed the ram. Then he cut the wreath of thorns from its head, pulled it from the brier, placed it on the altar. He laid the animal where Isaac had lain just minutes earlier. He prepared the body. He lit the wood.

Later, father and son sat side by side watching the sacrifice burn. They were silent as their eyes ran the trail of smoke that ascended into the heavens. Then Abraham swept his hand in a manner to include everything around him: the altar, the sacrifice, the mountain, the land beyond, the stars, Isaac. “The Lord will provide,” he said.

As they were traveling to the mountain God had chosen, Isaac noticed that something was missing. “We have fire and wood, but where is the lamb we are going to offer?” he asked. Abraham replied, “The Lord will provide for Himself the lamb.”

And Abraham was correct; God did. At the last moment, Isaac was spared. He was removed from the altar, and the substitute God had provided took his place. Genesis 22:13 highlights the substitutionary nature of this change by noting that the ram was offered instead of Isaac.

Yet the ram was not the lamb Abraham was anticipating. While the promised lamb would be provided, it would be many generations before Abraham's descendants would hear John the Baptist proclaim, “Behold, the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world!”

Paul wrote to the Romans, “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus was the fulfillment of Abraham's prophecy. God provided a substitute. Jesus did not take the place of an innocent victim, but of guilty sinners. He would not only die for Isaac, but for me and you. For us.

(Genesis 22, Romans 5:6-8)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Isaac: The son who was spared

“The Lord will provide,” Abraham said quietly. Whether he said it to convince himself, or his son lying bound on the stones in front of him, he wasn't sure.

He took a deep breath. There was the altar that he had built, laying stone upon stone, with the wood spread out on top. Wood his son had carried up the mountain. He had made many such altars, had offered many sacrifices. The wood was arranged so that the fire would catch quickly and the wind blowing over the mountain top would quickly feed the flame. And consume the offering.

“Father,” Isaac had asked, “We have fire and wood, but where is the lamb we are going to offer?” Abraham had replied, “The Lord will provide for Himself the lamb.” He had been so certain. He had been sure that Isaac wouldn't die. Or if he did, Abraham knew that God would have to raise him from the dead. So many promises were bound up in the boy.

But with the knife in his hand, he was no longer so confident. He surveyed the scene one final time for some sign of deliverance. He found none.

Closing his eyes, he raised the knife. “The Lord will provide,” he prayed.

“Abraham! Abraham!” came the voice from heaven.

Abraham was asked by God to do the unthinkable. He was told to take his son Isaac and to offer him as a mountain top sacrifice. Isaac was his only child with Sarah. He was the miracle baby, born to parents ninety and one hundred years old. He was the son that Abraham loved above all others. He was also the vessel through which God had promised great blessing would flow. It was through Isaac that Abraham's descendants would become a great nation. They would outnumber the dust of the earth, the sand on the seashore, the stars in the heavens. It was through Isaac that every nation would be blessed.

God asked Abraham to take this son and to sacrifice him. By faith, Abraham obeyed. But at the last moment, as the knife was raised, a voice spoke from heaven. Isaac was delivered.

This scene would replay itself many years later. Like Isaac, Jesus would climb a mountain, and there submit himself to the will of the Father. He would offer himself up as a sacrifice. But unlike Calvary, there would be no last minute deliverance. There would be no voice from heaven. Jesus would not be spared. There would be no substitute. Jesus himself was the substitute.

(Genesis 22)

Friday, June 15, 2012

The bronze serpent: The lifted-up one

When he saw movement by the sleeping baby, he instinctively tried to crush it with his foot. But when he missed the head, the serpent twisted beneath his sandal and bit him in the heel. He screamed with pain and stomped with his other foot, grinding the creature's skull into the ground.

He looked down at his foot. Already it had swollen substantially and he could feel the burning sensation spreading up his leg. He knew he didn't have much time. He had to get outside. But when he tried to put weight on his foot, white-hot pain threw him to the ground.

He crawled. He knew what had to be done. He had seen so many die from these bites. Family. Friends. Strangers. But there was another snake. A snake that would heal. But he had to see it. He had to get outside.

He pulled. He dragged himself along the ground. His whole leg was swollen now. He was sweating with pain and exertion and fear. Keep going, he thought. To the door. Through the door. Pulling. Sliding. A little farther. There!

He rolled on to his back and craned his head. High above the camp he saw the brilliant fiery serpent shining in the desert sun. He stared it for a while, just to be certain, and then lay back and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed. He sighed. He would live.

In Numbers 21, the people complain to God and to Moses. They complain that they've been brought into the wilderness to die. They complain that there is no water. They complain that there is no bread. They complain that the manna, the miraculous daily provision from heaven, was loathsome to them. God responds by sending venomous snakes amongst the people. Many of them to die.

When the people recognize their sin, they return to Moses. They confess that they should never have spoken against Jehovah or against him. They plead with him to pray to God on their behalf that God might take away the snakes. But instead of removing the snakes, God gives Moses some bizarre instructions. Moses is told to fashion a snake out of bronze, to put it on a pole in the camp, and that whoever it bitten has only to look to the snake and they will live.

It is worth repeating that God does not take away the curse or its effects. The snakes are not removed and the dying people are not instantaneously healed. The damage in not undone. Instead, God provides a way of deliverance from certain death. A deliverance that was available to every man, woman and child in the camp who was willing to receive it. And the symbol God uses to bring about that deliverance is, paradoxically, the very things that was killing them.

Jesus would tell Nicodemus many years later that “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” The world lies under a curse because of our rebellion, a curse that leads not just to physical but to spiritual death. Yet our sin and its effects are not taken away by the cross. Instead, God provides a way of deliverance, one that promises eternal life to dying sinners. And He does so using the very thing that is killing each one of us.

Paul writes, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” Jesus became sin and he was lifted up. For us. We have only to look and live.

(Numbers 21; John 3)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Adam: The wounded husband

He was looking upwards, pruning branches, when she finally found him. Intent as he was on his work, he had not heard her approach, so she stood for a moment to watch him.

Adam gently broke of some branches. He was tending to the tree, exposing the fruit to the sun, so that it would grow and ripen. More than that he was also molding, forming the tree. He was directing its growth so that it would mature into the unique shape he had envisioned for it.

As he stretched upwards for one of the higher branches, her eyes drifted to the scar on his side. It seemed to grow, to lengthen, as the skin tightened around his ribs. She was the cause of that scar, of the hole in his chest.

Quietly, she circled around the trees so that she would not be seen. Then she quickly sprinted through the grass, wrapped her arms around his chest, level with the scar, and squeezed herself against him. His arms still raised, he looked down over his shoulder at her. She gave him a quick kiss between his shoulders, smiled, and said, “I love you.”

If there was a single word that could be used to describe creation, it would be “good.” The Bible tells us that God created light, saw it, and declared that it was good. He separated the dry land from the sea, and He saw that it was good. Over and over, the creation is expanded, assessed, and declared to be good.

The Bible tells us that God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed life into him. Adam was then placed in the garden that God had prepared for him. Yet God surveys the situation and states, “It is not good that man should be alone!” A parade of animals are brought before Adam, and though he gives a name to every one, no suitable helper is found.

So God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep. God then opens his side, removes one of his ribs, and closes up the flesh. From that rib He fashions Eve. She is brought to Adam, presented to him, and they become husband and wife.

Christ did not sleep but died so that a suitable helper, bride, companion could be fashioned for Him. His hands and side bears the scars of that transaction. The church will one day be presented to her bridegroom. And in that day we will wonder at the price paid for us.

(Genesis 2)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Benjamin: The son of sorrow and glory

Jacob noticed a sudden increase of activity about the birthing tent. More women were appearing. Everyone seemed to be moving more quickly, with more urgency. Something was wrong!

Jacob barged into the tent. Rachel was still on the birthing stool, surrounded by the midwives. One was supporting her from behind, stroking her head, whispering comfort into her ear. She was pale and seemed barely conscious. There seemed to be more blood than in the past.

The midwife by Rachel's feet tried to encourage her. “The baby's head is emerging.” Rachel groaned, her faced clenched. She pushed. Twice more she pushed and groaned and bled. “It's a boy! You have another boy”, the midwife shouted.

Rachel almost collapsed onto the floor. The midwife at her back barely kept her from toppling over to the side. A bed appeared and they quickly transferred her onto it . A servant carried the newborn to his mother, and leaned down low so that Rachel might see her son. Rachel ran her fingertip across his little brow. When Rachel tried to speak, the servant leaned in even lower so that she might hear.

The woman rose from Rachel's side and came to present the baby to his father. “My mistress,” the woman said, “has named the child Ben-Oni.” Jacob looked at his son. “I shall call him Ben-Jamin,” he said.

With her dying breath, Rachel named her child. She called him Ben-Oni which means “Son of my Sorrow.” But the boy's time as Ben-Oni was a brief one, for his father gave him another name. Jacob called him Ben-Jamin, or “Son of the right hand.” It was the father's name that he carried throughout the rest of his days.

The book of Isaiah speaks prophetically of the Messiah as “A Man of Sorrows.” We see this prophecy fulfilled throughout Jesus' life as He weeps at the grave of Lazarus, as he weeps over Jerusalem. He even tells his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”

But that time of suffering and sorrow was brief. It has past. The work of Calvary has been completed. Over and over, the New Testament tells us that Jesus is ascended. That He has been given a place of honor and glory. That the Son is seated at the right hand of the Father.

(Genesis 35)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Joseph: The innocent prisoner

They made a particularly glum pair this morning, the butcher and the baker. “Why do you look so sad,” Joseph asked. “We've both had strange dreams,” came the reply, “but we have no one to interpret them for us.”

Joseph thought for a moment. “Don't all interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”

The baker went first. “Mine was really weird. I was standing in front of a vine with three big branches. Suddenly, the branches started to bud and the buds turned to grapes and soon the branches were heavy with these huge clusters of ripe grapes! I looked down at my right hand, and I was holding Pharaoh's cup. I watched my hands reach out to squeeze the grapes and catch the juice with the cup. Then I turned and there was Pharaoh seated next to me on his throne. I placed the cup into his hand... and that's all I remember.”

“Here is the interpretation,” Joseph began. “The three branches represent three days. Within three days Pharaoh will bring you up out of this prison and return you to your former position. You will again put the cup into his hand, as you had in the past.”

“When you are returned to the king,” Joseph said, “Remember me.”

Pharaoh's butcher and baker were sent to prison for offending the king. The exact nature of their crimes is not recorded for us but, whatever their crimes, it appears that they were both facing execution. The morning after their bizarre nocturnal visions, they sit together with Joseph as God reveals to him the interpretation of their dreams.

The baker's dream foretold that within three days he would die. The butler's dream showed that he would be delivered from prison, returned to his post and to favor with the king. Joseph pleads with him to remember him, to bring his case before Pharaoh, and to seek his deliverance from prison. Although the dream comes to pass and the King frees the butler three days later, it is two full years before he recalls his promise to Joseph.

The scene in Genesis 40 is an innocent man and two condemned criminals. We see a similar scene at Calvary: the innocent Jesus hanging between two thieves. When one begins to curse and blaspheme Jesus, the other confronts him. He rebukes the man, confesses his own guilt, and then pleads with Jesus for mercy. “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” he cries. There will be no delays, no forgotten promises. “Today”, Jesus declares, “you will be with me in Paradise.”

(Genesis 40, Luke 23)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

David: The uncrowned king

“Strike him,” Abishai whispered into his ear.

David stiffened and quickly scanned the sleeping soldiers that surrounded them. No one stirred. He listened a few seconds more and then slowly exhaled.

He glanced down at the man who had been pursuing him, forcing him to live in caves, ever on the run. He simply lay there sleeping. David wondered at the last time he had seen Saul looking so peaceful.

Abishai pulled up Saul's spear from where it had been stuck into the ground. He rolled the shaft back and forth in his palms a few times as he eyed the sleeping king. He leaned into David's ear again. This time he whispered, “Look! God has delivered your enemy into your hand.” Gripping the spear and pointing the tip downwards, he continued, “Give me your leave, and I will pin his head to the earth!”

It could be all over. He would finally be king. “No,” David said, “bring his spear and that water jug by his head.” Then the two men crept silently out of the camp.

King Saul twice finds himself unknowingly at David's mercy. While pursuing David through the mountains, Saul one day retreats into a cave to relieve himself. Hidden deeper in the cave are David and his army. The men encourage David to seize the opportunity to strike Saul dead, but David will only cut off the corner of his garment. Then some time later, David and Abishai sneak into the camp of Israel. As they stand over the sleeping king, Abishai offers to strike Saul dead. Instead David is content to steal the water jar and spear that were lying by Saul's head.

David had been forced to live and hide in the wilderness because Saul saw him as an enemy and a threat. Yet, all that time, he was God's anointed. He knew that God would one day make him king. So when these two opportunities arose, those around him tempted David by saying, “Look! God has given you your enemy! All you have been promised will finally be yours!” But David would not kill Saul. He knew that there were no shortcuts to the throne.

The Bible records for us that Jesus, after his baptism by John, retreated alone into the desert. There he fasted for forty days before being tempted by Satan. The Devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me!” No suffering! No humiliation! No cross!

But Jesus would not take short cuts. Just as David suffered before finally being raised up to the throne, Jesus too had to follow the path laid out for him by his Father. Writing to the Philippians, Paul says, “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.” And one day we shall.

(1 Samuel 26; Philippians 2)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Jordan: The river of rebirth

The servant cleared his throat. More loudly this time. “WHAT?”, Naaman snapped.

The day had not been going well. When they had arrived at the palace of the king of Israel, Naaman had been welcomed according to protocol, as befitting someone of his rank and accomplishments. The letter from the king of Syria was then presented to the Israelite servants to be taken to their king. But the king's response had been slow. Insultingly so.

When the servants finally returned, they looked somewhat fearful. Perhaps it was the leprosy. The servants explained that the king would not cure Namaan's leprosy and that he would have to consult with a prophet named Elisha. They were given directions and shown the door. Naaman, seething, returned to his chariot. Not a word was spoken until they arrived at Elisha's door.

This time, a single servant had emerged from the house with a message for Naaman. “Go wash in the Jordan river seven times and you will be clean,” he said and then he returned into the house.

That had done it. Naaman was furious. “Why wouldn't the prophet come out and pray over me and heal me himself? He wouldn't even speak with me directly! And why the Jordan river? It's barely a river, more of a muddy stream! There are much better rivers in Syria!” Naaman's anger had not abated, even as they continued on their return home.

The servant chose his words carefully. “My Father, if the prophet had asked something difficult of you, would you have not done it? Why then would you not be willing to obey when you were simply instructed `Go wash and be clean?'”

Naaman looked at the servant for a few silent moments. Then he ordered that the chariot be turned around.

When they arrived at the Jordan, Naaman descended from his chariot. He removed his sword. He removed his armor. Finally he removed his garments and handed them to the servant. As he stood there naked, the servants could clearly see the ravages that the leprosy had already taken on his body. Naaman descended the muddy bank, wadded out into the water and immersed himself. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times. Five times. Six times. Seven times.

When Naaman came up after the seventh washing, the servants all gasped. The leprosy was gone! The damage to his body had been undone. Even all the scars Naaman had acquired from years of fighting had disappeared. Naaman was shaking with joy as the servant helped him dress, and as his fingers brushed Naaman's body he could feel that his skin was as smooth and as perfect as a newborn's.

Nicodemus the Pharisee came to speak with Jesus one night. The conversation did not go at all as he had anticipated. At one point Jesus said to him, “You must be born again” which left Nicodemus was very confused. Was Jesus was suggesting that he had to return to his mother's womb and be born again physically?

Naaman the leper experienced something as close to physical rebirth as is recorded for us in the Bible. The account makes it very clear to us that his skin was not just healed, but regenerated. But first he had to humble himself, go to the river, expose himself, and obey.

Jesus explained to Nicodemus that is wasn't physical, but spiritual rebirth that was needed. The scars and ravages of sin cannot be covered up, they must be undone. Like Naaman's physical healing, salvation requires humility, exposure and obedience. The source of the healing is despised, like the muddy Jordan river, but when we come and believe we are baptised into Christ. We are reborn and remade. As Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

(2 Kings 5; John 3)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ishmael: The son who was heard

Hagar wept.
If only she had told him to be more careful, she thought. To watch his tongue. Maybe if she had been able to make him behave, then none of this wouldn't have happened. But when she had heard his voice carrying over the din of the celebration, she knew there would be trouble.
They had been sent away. Armed with just some bread and a skin of water, they had been rejected and cast out into the wilderness. The angel had told her the first time she had run away, when she was pregnant with Ishmael, that she would have a son and that everyone's hand would be against him. She didn't realize those hands would include his own father's.
If only she had been more careful with the water. There hadn't been much. But he had been so thirsty and it had been hard to deny him. Then when the water had run out, and he could no longer keep walking, she had laid him beneath the bushes. She had moved away, to keep vigil. There she prayed and she wept.
Then for the second time in her life, an angel of God spoke to her: “What is the matter Hagar? Do not fear. God has heard the voice of the lad. Arise, take him by the hand. I will make him into a great nation!”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well. She ran, filled her skin with water, ran to her son, and put the skin to his lips.
Ishmael drank. And Hagar wept.
Abraham had two sons. In back-to-back chapters the two boys both face death by the action of their father. In each case, God intervenes. An angel speaks and the boys are miraculously saved. Yet despite the similarities, there is a fundamental difference to the two accounts. Isaac's story is told from the father's perspective, Ishmael's from the mother's.
What is interesting about Ishmael's account is that, twice in one verse, we are told that God heard the cries of the lad. It is not Hagar's weeping and prayers that brings deliverance. Instead, God hears the voice of her son and responds. Deliverance is provided. Mercy is shown. Hagar sees a well and the son is saved.
At Calvary, we see Mary standing by and weeping for her Son. He has been rejected and cast out, and now He hangs there before her on a cross. Twice God had spoken to Him with a voice from heaven. He had first declared, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The second time He responded to Christ's prayer to glorify His name by saying, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
But at the cross, there would be no deliverance. God would not show His own beloved Son the mercy which He had shown to Ishmael. While He suffered, and while Mary wept, Jesus cried out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” And heaven was silent.
(Genesis 21:8–21)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Paul: The reconciler

It would all depend on the contents of the letter. By law, he knew he was as good as dead; the Roman empire had absolutely zero-tolerance for rebellious slaves. But he had returned anyway. With the letter. The letter he was watching Philemon read.

It was the right thing to do. Not that it had made the journey any easier. But he had to face his master and confess that he had sinned. He had run away. He had stolen. He was deserving of death.

Paul was responsible for this trip. And for the letter. Of course, he had been terrified when Paul had recognized him. The last thing a slave on the run wants to see is a familiar face. But he had been so kind. It was Paul that had introduced him to Jesus. But even as he had helped and served Paul, he knew there was a reckoning that awaited him. When Paul had suggested that he needed to return, he knew he must go.

Another slave had greeted him when he had arrived at the door. It was a familiar face, but he couldn't quite make out the expression. Was it fear? Was it contempt? Sympathy?

He looked at the letter in Philemon's hands. What did it say? He had traveled with it for so many days, but he had no idea what it contained. What could Paul possibly write that would deliver him?

Philemon placed the letter on the table and walked towards him. He stopped. Looked Onesimus in the eyes. Then he embraced him and kissed him on the cheek. “Welcome, brother,” he said.

The story of Philemon is a love triangle, of sorts. The book of Philemon deals with the complicated inter-relationships of three individuals. First, there is Philemon himself, a wealthy Christian living in Colossae and the recipient of Paul's letter. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, the second vertex of the triangle, who has run away and probably stolen from his master. These acts of rebellion have put Onesimus under the penalty of death. Understandably, these are not conditions conducive to a healthy relationship.

Paul, by contrast, has an excellent relationship with both of these men. It would seem that Paul encountered Onesimus while he was on the lam and lead him to the Lord. Since that time, Onesimus has been helping Paul while he was imprisoned. We can speculate from his letter that Paul may have also lead Philemon to the Lord years earlier. Certainly, Paul writes of a strong and warm friendship with him.

Paul recognizes that these two alienated parties must be reconciled, so he sends Onesimus back to his former master armed with a letter. In it, Paul intercedes for Onesimus based on Philemon's love for Paul. He writes “Receive him as you would received me.” But Paul goes even further and offers to settle any outstanding debts, “If he was wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it.”

The Epistle to Philemon reflects the greater story of the Bible, which also deals with three parties. We are Onesimus. We have wronged and run from God. Since the Bible teaches that our sin makes us deserving of death, we dare not return to Him on our own. Thankfully, we have a “mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” to restore the relationship we've broken. We can return in safety because Jesus tells the Father, “Put his sin on my account. Receive him as you would receive me.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Isaac: The unseen groom

It was hard to believe that she was almost there. They had been traveling for days: out of Mesopotamia, through the desert, and now into the beautiful land of Canaan. Her new home. The servant had assured her that Isaac's camp was just a few hours further. Her long journey was almost complete. She was thankful to the camels for carrying her such a distance, but she would be glad to do her own walking for a little while.

“Just a few more hours until I meet the man I love,” she said to herself. She smiled at the thought. Love. She wouldn't have thought it possible, but it was true. Before the servant had appeared at the well those many days ago, she had never even heard of Isaac. But the servant had spoken so well of him —of his miraculous birth, of his deliverance by God, of his great wealth and inheritance— that she had been willing to return with him and become Isaac's bride. The long hours of her journey were spent questioning the servant further, to learn even more of Isaac, and his every answer had confirmed her decision. How could she feel so strongly about a man she had never met? At times, she had also made the servant repeat the story of how his prayer to God had been answered and he had been led right to her. She had the camels to thank for that too.

Finally, she saw a figure off in the distance. He rose and began walking towards them. “Who is that man coming to meet us?”, she asked the servant as she descended from her camel. He replied, “That is my Master.” She took a moment to smooth out the garment she was wearing, a gift from the man walking towards her. Then she took a deep breath, and placed her veil over her face. And waited.

After the events with his father on the top of Mount Moriah, Isaac disappears temporarily from the Genesis narrative. He reappears to take Rachel as his wife. She is the bride whom Abraham had requested, the one his chief servant had sought and found and convinced to return with him.

In the New Testament, the church is often pictured as a bride. Like Rebekah, this bride had been found by the Holy Spirit. Like Rebekah, she has been presented with blessings and gifts. And like Rebekah, the Church is longing for a groom as yet unseen.

“To you who believe, He is precious, whom having not seen we love,” the old chorus says. Soon the long journey will be over. Soon the marriage feast will begin. But until that day, we wait.

(Genesis 24; 1 Peter 1:6–9)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Elisha: The life-giving grave

The men did not hear the alarm at first. It was drowned out by the clang of shovels, the sounds of digging and their own exertion. But the growing commotion quickly made one fact unmistakable: the Moabites were coming!

This was not the first raiding party —they came every spring— and experience quickly overcame fear. There was no time now to dig this man his own grave. It would have to wait. But someone objected, “We can't just leave him out here.” “Well, throw him in there.” “But that's Elisha's grave!” “Why don't we...” “There's no time!”

And so it was that the poor man's body was unceremoniously dumped onto Elisha's bones. Instantly, the dead man revived. He stood up, looked around, and climbed up out of the grave.

This little event is tucked into just two verses, but its brevity belies its significance. Just a few people were raised from the dead in the Old Testament. The widow of Zeraphath's son was raised by the prophet Elijah and the Shunammite woman's son was later brought back to life by Elisha. The only other instance of resurrection in the Old Testament is in this bizarre little story. The nameless man in 2 Kings 13 was raised by Elisha too, but in a way unlike any other miracle recorded for us in the Bible. It is by sharing Elisha's grave, by being united with Elisha in death, that he is restored to life.

Jesus' death is a life-giving death. His grave is a life-giving grave. Paul writes: “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” When we become Christians, Christ's death becomes our death and His life has become our life. When we are united with Him, we can rise with him and leave the grave behind.

(2 Kings 13:20–21; Romans 6:5)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

David: The good shepherd

Saul stared at the young man, looking desperately for any sign of promise or hope. There was no debate that he was a talented musician. Many times, when the dark spirit descended on him, David had played and sang and that heavenly music had lifted his heavy heart. But these were difficult times and music was not going to provide deliverance today.

For forty days that Philistine behemoth had taunted them from across the valley. Each day he lay down the terms of his challenge: a one on one battle to the death, winner take all. For forty days Saul had scoured the camp unsuccessfully for a champion. Even after offering every manner of bribe and incentive, forty days of taunting and cursing and blasphemy had passed without a single soldier coming forward. No one had come forward until today, when this little youngster had wandered into camp.

Youngster. It was decided. “I'm sorry David, but you cannot fight this Philistine. You are much too young, and he's been trained as a warrior longer than you have been alive.” It was too much to risk the nation on a youth.

“If I may, Your highness. I've kept my father's flock for many years now. I've had to fight and kill lions and bears to protect the sheep. The Lord delivered me from those animals. He can deliver me from this uncircumcised Philistine.”

Saul stared. “Go,” he sighed, “and the Lord be with you.”

In John 10, Jesus contrasts the behavior of a shepherd with that of the hireling. Jesus describes the hireling as one who did not own or care for the sheep. In the face of danger, the hireling is more concerned for his own well-being than for that of the flock. He flees. By contrast, Jesus describes a good shepherd as one who lays down his life for the sheep.

David definitely meets the Lord's definition of a good shepherd. David described to Saul how he would chase down and kill a lion or a bear to save one of his father's stolen lambs. He was willing to risk his life to save what had been entrusted to his care. He would later run out to defend his people against the giant Goliath because He trusted God's ability to preserve him through danger.

The Lord Jesus also identifies Himself as a good shepherd. Like David he was willing to lay down His life for His sheep, His people. But unlike David, Jesus was not delivered from death but to death. He did not risk His life to save the lost and perishing, but gave it. He lay down His life. And, unlike David, Jesus also claimed the power to take it up again.

(1 Samuel 17:31–37; John 10:1–18)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Once upon a time

Once upon a time there was a girl named Shadow, who lived with her Mom and Dad, her little baby brother, and her dog named Gus1...

These words marked the start of the final phase of our daughter's bed time routine. After teeth had been brushed, prayers had been said, and Bible stories had been read, she would ask for what became known as a “Shadow Story.”

The little girl wasn't always Shadow. Initially, the stories would begin, “Once upon a time there was a little girl named...” and we would pause to give our daughter the chance to name the heroine. But she quickly settled on the name Shadow and we stopped asking. The issue of Shadow's name was settled much more quickly than any other detail of the stories. For example, Shadow was frequently a little boy. But now she is quite firmly and irrevocably a little girl, and her name is Shadow.

Since you've never been a part of our daughter's bed time routine, you're probably wondering at the types of adventures Shadow faces on a nightly basis. If you are looking for tales of orcs and aliens and toothy cows, I'm afraid you would be disappointed. Shadow's life is very similar to our daughter's, albeit somewhat accelerated. One night Shadow might go on a trip to her grandmother's, the next she might learn to ride a bicycle. When my wife was the storyteller, Shadow's activities tended to mirror our daughter's activities for that day. When I told them, Shadow got to experience things our daughter had yet to do, such as walking to the corner store on her own. Sometimes our daughter even crossed paths with Shadow in the story, such as the time Gus was lost and Shadow posted signs around our neighborhood. Our daughter found Gus and was able to return him safely to Shadow. This is probably her all-time favorite “Shadow Story”.

I mention all of this because the Bible is also full of shadow stories. In the introduction to The Jesus Storybook Bible, author Sally Lloyd-Jones writes:

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story... And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name.
The Bible is God's Story of His Son, and many of the threads in that great narrative tapestry reveal to us aspects of the work and person of the central character. Adam, Joseph, Jonah, and many others, are all shadows, or types, of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Of course, shadows are just two-dimensional monochrome projections. They cannot express the depth or the full character of the object itself. Depending on the slant of light, they may also exaggerate or distort certain dimensions of their source. These biblical shadows are similarly imperfect and incomplete. But just as we can identify the tapered silhouette of a Coke bottle, even with a skewed projection, we can still see in these imperfect stories the familiar characteristics of the Saviour.

This blog is going to consider these shadow stories of the Bible. In doing so, my goal is not to force images where none exist. You do not, and should not, have to squint while standing on your head at dusk to see the presence of the Saviour in the pages of Scripture. Indeed, many of the people and objects we will consider are clearly identified in the New Testament as foreshadowing Jesus. And just as a good book can help us see the everyday with fresh eyes, I believe that God has chosen to include these shadow stories to illuminate truths about Christ with which we have become too familiar.

That last line would better read, “with which I have become too familiar” because I am writing primarily for myself. I need to see Him with fresh eyes. I need to deepen in my appreciation of who He is and what He has done. If you find yourself in a similar state, I trust you will join me as we listen to God's shadow stories of His Son.

Once upon a time...

1Gus should rhyme with Puss, as in “Puss-in-boots.” I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this detail.