Tag Archives: Old Testament

New Podcast: Super fast survey of the Old Testament

My latest podcast is up.

Today is the day after the 2018 mid-terms. For the next few days we’re going to hear a lot of narratives, or stories, about what happened and about what is happening in our country, maybe even more broadly. In fact, we tell stories about our world to help us make sense out of our lives and give them meaning.

In the Bible, God is telling us a (true) story, and it’s the story of God’s rescue. This episode looks at how the Old Testament fits into that broad story.

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“for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt”

Updated 11/19/2015

I wrote this post well before the Syrian refugee crisis was front page news, but now that everybody and their brother is posting on this same topic, I feel somewhat compelled to revisit what I have said. I have added an “update” section on the bottom to explain how I feel this does/does not apply to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Original Post

As I was doing my concordance search on the word “foreigner” in the Bible I discovered a very interesting link to being a foreigner and welcoming foreigners. If you’ve been following my blog recently you’ll know that I have been a little occupied with the idea that as Christians we are foreigners and strangers. We are sojourners and exiles.

This identity is not unique to the New Testament church. The first of the sojourners and exiles are found in the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, Daniel. Israel itself was a nation of foreigners and strangers. They arrived in Egypt as foreigners by God’s plan. When they became too big a threat to Egyptian rule, God rescued them from slavery and they went into a long period of exile/sojourn in the desert. When they finally arrived in the Promised Land under Joshua they were finally “home”, though they would once again experience exile in Babylon because of the judgment of God.

But even when they were home, when they found themselves as the citizens of the land that God had given them, they were continually instructed to remember that they were at one point the strangers and foreigners. And this sense of identity led to an important ethical conclusion – remember the foreigner among you.

This ethical concern for the foreigners and strangers in codified in the laws of the Pentateuch. First, there are commands to simply do no harm. “Do not mistreat the foreigner among you.” (Exod 22:21, 23:9, Lev 19:33). These commands are specifically given with the encouragement to the Israelites to remember their own historical identity. “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice… Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I commanded you this” (Deut 24:17). Then there are the commands which explicitly state the same laws should apply equally to native-born and foreigners alike. In other words, Israel is supposed to apply a basic principle of justice to all without showing favoritism.

But the laws given to Israel in regards to the foreigners go beyond prohibitions against mistreatment. The “gleaning” laws demonstrate a specific concern for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow (Lev 19:10, Deut 24:19, 21). In Israel these individuals would have been especially vulnerable to poverty and injustice so they required special care from the entire community. Once again, these commands are given with the instruction to “remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” that is, you were once foreigners yourselves.

Perhaps the fullest expression of this idea is given in Deuteronomy 10:17-19:

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. “

This passage is striking because it reveals the heart of God. He shows no partiality. He loves the foreigner and he demonstrates that love by providing for their basic needs. The Israelites are to extend that same love. That is, they are to love the foreigners among them as well, caring for their basic needs. Here the command is to love (a matter of the heart) and it is based on two principles: God’s own love and Israel’s historical identity.

So what does this mean for the church of exiles and foreigners? There is a temptation for a church, as it begins to feel more and more then sense that it does not belong, to become inward focused and protectionist. There is a temptation to focus solely on caring for one’s own inner group. There was probably a temptation for Israel, especially given its history of military animosity towards its neighbors, to view all foreigners as suspect and to therefore deny them justice. That might be why Israel is so often warned against such unfairness (see Deut 26:19 where denial of justice to the foreigner is connected to a covenant curse). At a minimum, then, this means that the church needs to resist this same urge. Being foreigners and strangers does not mean that we lose a concern for those who are different from us or that we take up a position of distrust or animosity to them.

On the positive side of things these commands remind us that God is concerned for the socially and economically vulnerable and that we should extend that concern. They remind us that basic empathy matters. Do you feel like a foreigner? Then keep that in mind when you see someone else in a similar position. Practically, this could mean befriending the friendless, defending the person being bullied, showing hospitality, graciously welcoming newcomers to church, or the greeting the new residents of your neighborhood. Just like for Israel, I think it means showing generosity to the poor and a concern for basic issues of fairness and justice.

I was listening to an interview on NPR where the interviewer was discussing Islamic radicalization in Great Britain. The big concern for Britain is that there are many Islamic youth who feel like they are not “full citizens.” This sense of not belonging in that particular community leads to radicalization and, ultimately, to acts of terrorism. It would be a great tragedy if there was the same movement in Christian communities! But the Bible points us in the exact opposite direction. The status of “exile” and “foreigner” needs to point us to love and concern for others. After all, we may be foreigners on earth but we are citizens of heaven and it is our mission, through the ministry of reconciliation, to draw others into that same citizenship.

Updated 11/19/2015 – How does this apply to the Syrian refugee crisis?

First, I want to stress that the primary application for these texts is for the Church, not the State. I find it somewhat ironic that many Christians who would ridicule conservatives for applying 2 Chronicles 7:14 to the United States when it should apply to the Church, are so quick to make a blanket application of Old Testament law (in a theocracy!) to U.S. policy. Both texts apply to the people of God, and not directly to the secular state.

In regards to the refugee crisis (or just basic immigration policy, for that matter) we should apply these texts first to the church, with secondary applications (as citizens of an earthly kingdom) to government policy. For implications for the church, look up three paragraphs.

Second, I do believe there is some application for secular governments. The role of the secular government is to establish justice. This means (a) protecting its citizenry from evildoers/punishing evildoers (see Romans 13) and (b) doing what is within its scope of responsibility for caring for the destitute. That second point could certainly be contested, and I won’t fully defend it here, but I do want to point out the close connection between the laws listed above and principles of basic justice (i.e., doing no harm, equal protection under law, etc.). The pattern of connecting care for the especially vulnerable with justice (and not just charity) is established well throughout Scripture. For more on this see Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice. It’s natural for Christians to want both forms of justice from their government. And the challenge for the secular State is to balance between competing goods. The arguments just aren’t as simple as “keep them all out” and “people who want to limit the refugees, or take a pause, are heartless jerks.”

A Christian friend of mine posted a provocative status on Facebook which actually illustrates this quite well. He stated “If Obama allows Syrian refugees in we will house a family in our home. Who is with me?” This is a rather radical proposal, but I really like the heart behind it. First, it’s an observation that its the government who decides who to let in and when. The government is going to make this decision based on its competing interests. Second, though, there’s a call to the church to take an active role in caring for those strangers if or when they arrive. At that point the church has the opportunity to fully realize its role and take the above passages to heart.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to help refugees now, Syrians or otherwise. One such organization doing this good work is Samaritan’s purse. I was touched by this video back in early October, and it’s worth another “share.”

Kingdom of God: The Old Testament Hope (Week 2 Recap)

In Week 1 we surveyed the spectrum of belief about the Kingdom of God. Is it primarily a present reality or is primarily a future reality. Our tentative opening thesis is that the Kingdom of God is the active reign of God, manifested in both the present age, through Christ, and, ultimately, at the consummation of all things. Before expanding and testing this thesis we must take brief account of how the Old Testament sets the stage for the Gospel’s use of the phrase.

The Old Testament does not use the phrase “Kingdom of God” but it nevertheless views God as King, generally over the whole Universe, and particularly over His people. The Old Testament hope, then, is for God to manifest His reign on earth on behalf of His people. This hope is dynamic, eschatological, earthly, and ethical.

Dynamic Hope

The Kingdom hope in Old Testament is dynamic and theocentric. By theocentric we mean it is all about God. By dynamic we mean active. That is, the hope is not just that God is sovereign, but that He reigns. This is illustrated in Psalm 145:10-12 “All you works praise you, Lord; your faithful people extol you. They tell of your kingdom and speak of your might, that that all people may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.” The kingdom in this passage is not a realm (a geographic location) but the active reign of God – his might acts in history.

This reign is evident when God visits the earth. God is the God who visits, both past and future. He revealed Himself to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. When He did so, the earth shook. His reign was evident to the entire nation. His future visit is understood in similar terms. It is both a wonderful and a terrifying experience. This Day of the Lord brings both salvation and judgment.

Eschatological Hope

One problem with using the term “eschatological” is that nobody knows what it means even, and especially, among those who know what it means (that is, theologians). On one side of the spectrum it could refer to no more than a spiritual reality that gives meaning to the natural processes of history. On the other side of the spectrum it is a future, transcendental, a-historical, age-to-come. Ladd categorizes four potential meanings.

Better Age: This is the hope for a coming age that arises out of the “normal” historical process. It does not come about through cataclysmic events or by God breaking into history. That is not to say that God is absent, just that he does not circumvent the historical process. At most he is working behind the scenes. This better age is not substantially different from our present age, just of a better quality.

Golden Age and Future Age: Ladd separates these two categories, but they are, in my mind, substantially the same. The Golden/Future age only comes about through God breaking into history in a cataclysmic way. This future age brings about an entirely different kind of reality that is radically different from the present age. It is, however, a historical and earthly reality. It does not exist beyond history, per say, but is the consummation of history.

Transcendental Age: This future hope, which Ladd calls the “Age to Come” is similar to the Golden/Future age in that it comes about only through God breaking into history. More appropriately, though, this future age is conceived not as God breaking into history, but bringing it to an end. The transcendental age is the hope of the Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic writers who were heavily influenced by Greek dualism. The transcendental age does not bring about redeemed life on earth, but an escape from earth and an escape from our bodies into a purely spiritual and heavenly realm.

So, which is the hope of the Old Testament? We can rule out “Better Age” since we have already observed that God’s reign is evident when He visits the earth, when he breaks into history. As we will see below, we can rule out the “Transcendental Age,” since the Old Testament’s hope is for a new heaven and new earth. The Eschatological hope of the Old Testament, then, is a hope that God will break into history (an event which will bring about both salvation and judgment) and that he will bring about a radically new, though still earthly, reality. The hope is eschatological in the sense that it is a hope for God’s final actions, the consummation of his redemptive purposes.

Earthly Hope

We have already noted this above, but the Old Testament hope is for a new, but still earthly, reality. There is no matter/spiritual dualism in the Old Testament, but a fundamental unity.

The earth shares in the fate of humanity. When Adam and Eve sinned, the earth was the subject of the curse. When Israel was called to enter the Promised Land, the fate of the land was tied to the obedience or the rebellion of the people. A faithful people led to a fruitful land. When God warned of exile, he used the metaphor the land “vomiting” the people out of it. When the prophets looked forward to the future visit of God, it is not surprising, then, that we see the land sharing in both the judgment and the redemption.

In judgment we see the prophecy of cosmic and cataclysmic events, the trembling of the whole heavens and earth before the Lord. In redemption we see the final hope of the “new heavens and the new earth.”

The Old Testament hope, then, is not for escape from our bodies or from the material world, but the redemption of both our bodies and the (re)creation of a new material earth.

Ethical

Finally, the Old Testament presents an ethical hope. When the prophets rehearsed the history of Israel, or predicted its future, it was always with the present in mind. This is well illustrated by the book of Deuteronomy. In this grand sermon Moses reminds history of God’s mighty acts in history and holds out the rewards of blessing and the warning of curses. All this sermonizing is to bring the people of Israel, as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, to the point of decision, either to serve God and trust him alone, or to reject God and serve idols.

We see the same thing in the prophets. As the prophets rehearse the history of God’s people and predict the future of both Israel and the nations who surrounded her, they also call the people to repentance. The prophets were not simply seers who saw the future of national Israel – they were preachers who called Israel to repentance.

Central to the prophetic message of the Old Testament is the idea of “remnant.” The prophets knew that salvation was not something that came to individuals simply because of their nationalistic heritage or simply because they were the descendant of Abraham. No, the remnant was those who combined the word of God with the same faith of Abraham. The promise of future blessing was for the remnant – or those who God made the remnant – not for those who rejected God, turned to idols, or remained in stubborn unbelief. Therefore the call of the prophets is an ethical call. It is a call to turn to God in faith.

Should we treat church buildings as “holy ground”?

I was recently asked my thoughts on the following email:

Thought for the week: surely one of the moments of high drama in the Old Testament is when Moses beheld the burning bush with the voice of God telling him to “put off your shoes from your feet, for place on which you are standing is holy ground.” The whole concept of “holy ground” is one which is in danger of being lost in this age of multi-purpose church buildings and horizontal architecture.  It is clear from scripture that there is supposed to be “holy ground” set apart for God’s worship and glory –and we are expected to treat such places as truly holy.  That includes dressing appropriately, speaking respectfully, and having a holy demeanor when we are in God’s House.

Let us take care that our churches are not turned into little more than ecclesiastical malls–gathering places which are simply for our convenience–rather than what they truly are: the very dwelling-place of the Incarnate God.

The Old Testament certainly makes a big deal of holy places (holy ground, as in the story of Moses and the burning bush), holy objects (the arc of the covenant), holy people (priests), and holy buildings (the Temple). Temporal location matters in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, the people of God are commanded “you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go” (Deuteronomy. 12:5ff). The Place, it turns out, is Jerusalem, specifically, the Temple, the Place of God’s dwelling.

To speak of God’s present in a particular place does not in any way reduce His omnipresence, His presence everywhere at all times. However, He sometimes manifests His presence in more powerful and revealing ways. One could say that He is “specially” present in a location where He makes His power especially evident.

Even in the Old Testament there was the danger of God’s people turning the Temple into an idol, of worshipping the place rather than the person, of turning the religious element given for worship into an object of worship. God will never be contained within a building or a city. He remains eternally transcendent.

Nevertheless, in the Old Testament, God certainly declares certain objects and locations specifically holy and set apart and He commanded His people to treat those objects and places with reverence and respect.

We see, however, a decided shift in the New Testament.

The Samaritan woman at the well asks Jesus an important question (or rather, brings up an important Jew-Samaritan controversy) in John 6.

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (John 6:20)

Jesus responds:

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 6:21-24)

Even here we can see a shift from the Old Testament system to the one which Jesus ushers in in the New Covenant. It’s no longer about the Place, it’s about the Spirit.

Here we must again ask, what made the ground holy where Moses was standing? What made the Mountain holy when it was engulfed in smoke, fire, and darkness? What made the Temple holy? None other than the real and special presence of God.

In the New Covenant, God manifests His special presence in several ways. He is present with the individual believer through the Holy Spirit. He is present when his people gather for prayer (“where two or three are gathered.”) He is present (in the sense that He is active) when the living Word is proclaimed. His Church (and I understand this to include local churches) is the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). One of the marks of a truly worshipping church is when an unbeliever declares “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25).

All this compels me to conclude that God has “set apart as holy” not the building or location, but the people of God “indwelled” individually and corporately by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Now, we should treat church buildings or other places with respect. We do this:

1)     To honor other believers

2)     To place ourselves in the right mindset as we come to worship

3)     To honor the owner or builder of the church and his original intention

4)     Because (anywhere) coarse joking, immodest dress, disrespect, etc. are not fitting for the people of God

And I’m sure there are many more.

So, can I take the conclusion (“that includes dressing appropriately, speaking respectfully, and having a holy demeanor when we are in God’s House”) while rejecting the premise (the building is “the very dwelling-place of the Incarnate God”)?

Perhaps I can restate the whole thing: “We should dress appropriately, speak respectfully, and have a holy demeanor as we worship with God’s people, not viewing them as just another informal group of individuals, but as they truly are, the dwelling-place of the Incarnate God.”