Sunday, November 1, 2015

Noah's ark: The protective covering

"Look!", Ham shouted. Seven heads turned in time to see the giant door closing. They watched silently until it thudded closed, shutting them in, and dropping them into darkness.

Noah lit a lamp. He reached for a bucket of pitch and walked over to seal the edges of the doorway.

He had never gotten used to the smell, which surprised him. When he thought of the hours they had spent coating the wood, inside and out, he figured that he would have habituated by now. But who knew how long he would be sealed up with his family and these animals? With time, he thought, he might begin to appreciate how the pitch overwhelmed other odors.

He stood back to admire his handiwork. Seven days ago the Lord had told them that today would be the day. Of course, the ark was finsihed by then and most of the preparations had been made. But it had still taken most of the hours in those seven days to get everyone and everything loaded aboard and stowed away. It felt good to be still for a change.

His wife walked over and stood beside him. Together they stared at the doorway in silence for a few moments more before she spoke. "Do you think it will hold?"

"It will have to," he replied. "It is the only hope we have."

She slid her fingers into his, still not looking at him but at the door. They lingered there until they heard the first drops of rain hit the roof. Now they looked up. And the sound of the rain grew louder and louder as it beat upon the ark.

God gave Noah detailed instructions for the construction of the ark. Along with the material, He specified the dimensions, the number of decks, and the location of the door and the window. Noah was also told to "coat it with pitch inside and out."

There is some word-play in that particular instruction that gets lost in translation. The noun "pitch" is the Hebrew word kopher. In addition to referring to a tarry substance, it can also describe a sum of money, like a ransom or a bribe. The verb "coat with pitch" is the Hebrew word kaphar, which is more often translated as "atonement." Both these words hint at the figurative significance of the ark.

God's judgement was coming upon mankind. Yet a way of deliverance was prepared. There was protection for those who believed and responded to God's invitation. They would be covered while judgement passed over.

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes "there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." God's judgement for sin came down upon the Lord Jesus, but there is protection and deliverance for those who are in Him. He is our covering.

But just like the ark, there are aspects of atonement and ransom to the protection Christ provides. His work on the cross has atoned for our sins, reconciling us to God. The price paid at Calvary has also ransomed us, delivered us, from our slavery to sin. He is one in whom we can have complete and utter confidence. He is the only hope we need.

(Genesis 6–9; Romans 8:1)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Esau: The scented son

As his father blessed him, Jacob exhaled slowly. He relaxed. "That was a close one," he thought to himself.

His mother's plan had been a good one. The clothes, goat skins, and recipes had all made him appear to be his brother. But he hadn't thought to disguise his voice? Stupid! All that preparation was almost wasted the moment he opened his mouth.

His father, who was obviously suspicious, had called him over. Jacob had obeyed. There was nothing to be gained from running away at this point. His father had reached out and grabbed his hands. Isaac felt them. Then he had said: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but those hands are the hands of Esau." Jacob had given thanks that his father's eyesight had declined. He had then closed his own eyes as his father proceeded to bless him.

He assumed that the worst was now over. But then the old man asked, "Are you my son Esau?" Jacob steeled himself and replied, "I am." "Well, then bring me the food so that I may eat it and bless you."

"WHAT!?! No, no, no, no, no!" he thought to himself. "I thought this was done!" He tried to keep his hands from shaking as he brought the food to his father. He silently prayed that the inside of the goat would be as successful at deceiving his father as the outside had been.

They ate in silence. Seemingly interminable silence, as far as Jacob was concerned. He was silent with fear. Isaac, although he seemed to be enjoying his meal, seemed unsettled as he ate.

When he was finished, and the food was taken away, Isaac spoke: "Come here, my son. Give your father a kiss."

Jacob stood. He approached his seated father and leaned down to kiss him. As he did so, Isaac grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and pulled him closer. Unbalanced, he would have fallen had his father not had such a strong grip on him.

Jacob proceeded to place a kiss on his father's cheek. Isaac, in turn, gave him a kiss of his own. He then inhaled deeply. Jacob found this action oddly frightening. Seemingly satisfied, Isaac released him and allowed him to again stand.

Isaac smiled as he placed his hand on the son —believing him now to be the son that he loved— and proceeded to bless him. He began, "The smell of son is like that smell of a field that the Lord has blessed!"

Esau was the firstborn. The Bible tells us that he was a man of the field, a skillful hunter. It also tells us that he was his father's favorite, the beloved son. So, as Isaac grew older, and his eyesight failed him, he decided that it was time to bestow the customary blessing on his eldest.

He instructed Esau to hunt and then prepare him a meal so that he could receive his father's blessing. Rebekah, who overheard this exchange, then devised a plan whereby her favorite of the two sons —Jacob— would receive that blessing. They dressed him in Esau's clothes, covered his hands and neck with goat hides, and then sent him in with a meal — all steps designed to deceive Isaac.

Each of their techniques worked to some degree; however, it was Esau's clothes that finally convinced Isaac to unleash his full blessing. Jacob smelled like Esau. As he leaned in to kiss his father, he carried the scent of the beloved son. The start of Isaac's blessing makes it clear that this was the factor that finally settled the son's true identity in his mind.

Like Jacob, we dare not approach God the Father smelling like ourselves. There is no blessing for us. But when we approach God clothed with the scent of His dearly beloved Son, we receive spiritual blessings to which we are not naturally entitled. God treats us, in effect, as if we were His Son.

God is not hoodwinked like Isaac was. Yet Paul makes it clear that scent again plays a factor. He writes to the Corinthians to tell them that "our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God." Because we bear the smell of Christ, God chooses to treat us and bless us as His only beloved Son.

(Genesis 27, 2 Corinthians 2:15)

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jonah: The resurrected prophet

At first, he was sure he was dead. His final memories were just fragments: being thrown; the wind; hitting the water; sinking. The storm had seemed dark, but now he found himself in utter blackness. Cold. Silent. Dead.

The thought of death was almost calming. The slow realization that he was still alive was puzzling. Understanding that he was trapped inside something was ... terrifying! He thrashed. He screamed. It made no difference.

His mind raced. Of course he knew that God was displeased with him. He had known that before he got on the boat. The sudden storm confirmed it. When the sailors said they would throw lots, he knew that it would identify him. He knew he was guilty. That was why he had had them toss him overboard. But he still wasn't sorry. He didn't want to go Assyria. They were a bloodthirsty people. They deserved God's judgement for all they had done. They did not deserve mercy.

So he lay there in the darkness, shivering. One day passed, and then a second, although Jonah could not tell that sun sank or rose. Jonah's could feel his skin soften and pucker, but he could not see its skeletal in the dark.

With time his heart softened too. From deep within his grave in the deep and the dark, Jonah prayed. He began with a note of faith: "In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me..." As he finished, he felt movement. A rushing, shaking, constriction, propulsion, and then...


Jonah would not make the list of Top Ten Most Exemplary Prophets. In the four chapters of the book that bears his name, Jonah reveals himself to be rebellious, stubborn, ungrateful, and petulant. I find him quite relatable. Yet God is able to use Jonah —despite his obvious animosity toward his listeners— to bring many Assyrians to repentance. I find this encouraging.

Still, I wouldn't naturally hold up Jonah as a picture of the Lord Jesus. Christ was obedient and submissive. He wept over Jerusalem for the people's obstinancy. Jonah set up camp outside Nineveh in the hopes that God would still destroy the city.

So it is curious that twice in the book of Matthew Jesus identifies himself with Jonah. When the people demands a miraculous sign, He responds that the only one He would provide that was the one of Jonah the prophet: three days and nights in the heart of the earth. Jesus too brought a message of salvation. He too would rise again after three days.

Jesus then puts the onus on the inquirers. Jonah was not a model prophet. He half-heartedly preached his message while half-hoping for vengeance. Despite the limitations of the messenger, the people of Nineveh still repented in sackcloth and ashes. Now one greater than Jonah stood before them and they were without excuse. How would they respond?

(Jonah 1—4; Matthew 12:39—31, 16:1-4)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The scapegoat: The sin bearer

"...Are you sure? I think you may have it backwards."

"No. The bull is sacrificed for the high priest. One goat is chosen to be sacrificed for us. The other becomes the scapegoat."

"But they don't sacrifice the scapegoat too?"

"No, someone takes it out into the wilderness. But before they do, Aaron puts his hands on the goat's head —like this— and confesses all our sins. That way, when the goat is taken out into the wilderness, it takes our sins with it."

"How does Aaron know all my sins, Father? Do you tell him? Do you have to keep a list?"

"That would be a pretty long list, wouldn't it? And mine would be even longer! The truth is that I don't know. I've never seen it happen. I am just thankful that God has provided a way for our sins to be removed..."

On the Day of Atonement, the roles of the two goats were chosen by lot. One was identified as the Lord's and sacrificed for the sins of the people. The other became the azazel, the scapegoat. As Aaron placed his hand on its head, and confessed the sins of the nation over it, the goat was symbolically loaded with those very sins. It was then entrusted to a man appointed to take the goat out of the camp and release it into the wilderness. Because the sins had been laid onto the goat, it carried those sins from the camp when it left. These sacrifices and ceremonies were repeated on an annual basis to make atonement for the sins of the Israelites.

The Lord Jesus is our scapegoat. The apostle Peter wrote that He "bore our sins in His body on the tree". At the end of that verse, Peter quotes from Isaiah 53. Three times in that passage (verses 6, 11, and 13) Isaiah speaks prophetically of the fact that that our sins and iniquities were laid on, and borne by, Him. Our sins have been removed. Taken away. Not just for the year, but for all time.

(Leviticus 16; Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 2:24)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Aaron: The sinless high priest

"Father, where are they taking those animals?"

"Do you remember how this morning I told you that today was a special day? Today is the Day of Atonement. It is a very serious day. Those animals are being taking to the tabernacle as part of some special sacrifices."

"Special? What makes them special?"

"What makes them special? Well, normally we bring animals to the tabernacle to offer them as sacrifices for our own sins. But once a year these special sacrifices are offered to cleanse the whole nation and the high priest. It is really important that they be done properly."

"Why does the high priest need two goats?"

"What do you mean?"

"The bull is so big so it must be the sacrifice for us. So why does the high priest need two goats?"

"No, the goats will be sacrificed for us. One will, anyway. The other will be the scapegoat. It is the bull that will be offered to cleanse the high priest."

"Are you sure? I think you may have it backwards."

The sacrifices of the Day of Atonement do indeed seem to be backwards. A bull is typically four to five times larger than a male goat. On a per capita basis, one would anticipate that the larger sacrifice (the bull) would be offered for the larger group of people (the nation). But instead the larger sacrifice is made for the high priest and his family, while the much smaller goat is offered for the nation.

This seeming contradiction emphasizes for us the importance of the high priest. As the intercessor for his people, as the one who approached God on their behalf, it was critical that the high priest be acceptable in God's sight. The bull was offered annually to atone for the high priest's sins in order that he might carry out his duties. He had to be holy.

The book of Hebrews explains that Jesus is our perfect high priest. He does not need to offer sacrifices for his own sins. He is holy, pure, blameless. He is perfect. Forever. Even better, he does not need to offer daily (or even annual sacrifices) for the people. Unlike any other high priest, he could offer himself as the sacrifice. His sacrifice is all that is needed.

(Lev. 16:1-34, Heb. 7:26-28)