Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Death on the Mountain

Abraham trudged across the grassy plain approaching the mountain, his heart carrying a burden heavier than the pack on Isaac's back.  For three days, the words of the Lord had lingered in his mind to fuel his grief.  "Take your son...." he heard with every measured step.  "Your only son...."  His heart twinged.  "...and offer him there...."  He slowed his pace as the path began to slope upward.  He looked at Isaac walking beside him.  So young.  So healthy.  So much potential to fulfill the promises of God.  Why must he die?  Jewish tradition calls this account in Genesis 22 the Akidah, the Binding of Isaac.  Not the Offering of Isaac.  Nor the Sacrifice of Isaac.  But the Binding of Isaac, to stress the fact that his father bound himself to the covenant with God as he bound his son to the altar of sacrifice.  What a picture of God binding Himself to His covenant with us as He bound His Son to the altar at Calvary.

            Several years ago, a rabbi in Jerusalem reviewing the Akidah, discovered more than thirty points of comparison between the life of Isaac and that of Jesus.  At this Easter season, I would like to share only a few of these comparisons with you.  For instance, both of them were children of promise.  Although Abraham and Sarah were both advanced in age, God promised them not only a child, but a son!  Centuries later, God gave to Joseph of Nazareth the promise of a son as well (Matthew 1.20-21).  In both cases, God even named the sons for them.

            Furthermore, in both cases, the "son" was the only begotten son of his father.  Of course, we know Abraham had a son by Hagar, the handmaiden of Sarah; but in the context of His promise, the Lord refused to recognize Ishmael as a son of Abraham.  So, in the Akidah, He told Abraham to "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah." (Genesis 22.2)  The Hebrew word He uses for "only" means unique, the only one, one of a kind.  If we should still miss the significance of this, the Lord interprets it for us in the Book of Hebrews, where He says, "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son." (Hebrews 11.17, italics mine)  The Greek word translated "only begotten" is the same one used of Jesus in John 3.16, where Jesus Himself said, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son...." (Italics mine).

            In the life of these special sons, a time came for them to be offered as a sacrifice, Isaac symbolically, Jesus for real, although for Isaac, it was just as real at the time.  Here, too, the similarities abound.  Both were offered by their fathers.  God had commanded Abraham to take his son, go to the land of Moriah, and "offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains." (Genesis 22.2)  For centuries, many have blamed the Jews for crucifying Jesus.  Some have even blamed the Romans.  They drove the spikes into His flesh.  But the truth is, He was offered on the altar of sacrifice for our sins by His Father.  Remember Jesus's words: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son...."?  The Father offered the Son.

            Without hesitation, Isaac set out for the mount of sacrifice in obedience to his father, though he may not have known why he was going.  Jesus, on the other hand, set His face steadfastly toward Jerusalem (Luke 9.51) fully knowing why He was going there.  In the entire story of Isaac, there is no indication the lad even once resisted the leading of his father.  In fact, when the time came, he carried the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain himself (Genesis 22.6).  It was as if he carried his own sacrificial altar.  How many times have we seen dramatic portrayals of the crucifixion of Jesus and not seen Him carrying the cross, His sacrificial altar, up the mountain of His sacrifice?  John tells us, "They took Jesus therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of the Skull." (John 19.17)

When they reached the place of sacrifice, Abraham built the altar.  Isaac asked "Where is the lamb?"  Abraham told him God will provide Himself a lamb (cp. Genesis 22.8).  And He did!  Until the Lord directed Abraham's attention to the ram caught in the thicket, Isaac himself was the lamb.  After building the altar, Abraham arranged the wood upon it.  Then he bound his son, Isaac (the Akidah) and laid him on top of the altar.  But when he raised his hand, brandishing the knife with which to slay the sacrifice, the angel of the Lord stepped in to stay his hand.  When they came to Calvary, it was God who "arranged the wood" on the altar not man.  The Son did not ask where is the lamb?  But the Father answers.  God will provide Himself a lamb in this case, too.  It was God who bound His Son and laid Him upon the altar of sacrifice called the cross.  God who lifted up the cross.  And God who raised His hand to slay the sacrifice upon the altar.  But.....but.....there was no one to stay His hand....

Friday, April 17, 2015

Left-Handed Christians

The following is an article written by my friend, my mentor,  & my theology professor from the Bible Baptist Seminary (Now Arlington Baptist College), the late Dr. George L. Norris. It is taken from the Gideon Baptist News, Gideon Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, 27.8 (November 23, 1970): 1-2.

HIS, student magazine of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship printed a little tract with a most intriguing thought. The point was made: there are some "left-handed" people, those whose strength is in their left arm instead of the right, "where it ought to be." Those individuals who are by nature left-handed can give innumerable examples of discrimination against them. From the day when they first went to school and found the desks designed for "normal" right-handed drivers.

            We also observe there are left-handed Christians. These are those who are "different." Maybe their method of witnessing for Christ is right for them, though different from most others. Maybe THEY ARE AMONG THOSE WHO BELIEVE THE God of Creation and the God of Revelation are one and the same and they see no conflict between faith and scientific knowledge. Maybe they are among those who love the Lord and love good music, the classics, beautiful paintings and believe subjects and predicates should agree in number! In today's habit of oversimplification they are generally thought by "true believers" to be odd. They are "left-handed" Christians.

            They believe the most single imperative of Christian work is to seek the regeneration of sinners, but believe also that as Christians they have an obligation to "love thy neighbor as thyself." They feel an obligation to relieve misery and ignorance and sickness here on earth and their heavenly pilgrimage. They are not content to postpone all the obligations of being a Christian until they get to Heaven.

            To those of us who somehow do not seem to fit the classical patterns into which men would place us -- this includes both our friends and foes -- we are indeed "left-handed."

            We believe in the Gospel with all our hearts, but believe the worship service should honor God with music that moves something more than the feet! We believe the Gospel should be given to all the world, but do not believe that necessarily means that we are to preach loudly enough for it to be heard universally as some sanctified sonic boom from one pulpit! We believe we are to be heavenly minded, but that does not mean that we are to totally ignore the fact that we now live in this world and that we have an obligation to fulfill to humanity while we are here.

            Let us not be discouraged. In the Old Testament God used "left-handers" in remarkable ways. Seven hundred men of the tribe of Benjamin were specialists. They were left-handed sling-shot experts! (You might figure out why left-handed men were in the van instead of right-handed ones. A clue: the path that led up to the city spiraled upward clockwise around the hill.)

            Let us not berate ourselves if we are different. Let us rather believe that God has a special task for us to fill. We may not fit the normal pattern of today's fundamental form. Instead of feeling a it embarrassed about it, let us seek how we may be used of God to do a work where the right-handed ones would fail.

            Strangely enough, a right-handed man seldom works to build up his left arm, whereas a left-handed man, perhaps due to either necessity or psychological pressure does seek to build up his right arm's strength. Let us develop both. Let us not be weak in the strongest of fundamental testimonies, but neither let us be weak in the present realities and necessities of life around us.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Walking Through Shadows

How can one small ant teach you anything? Ants are supposed to be wise, resourceful, and, socially, highly organized creatures. But one ant?

            One evening before our scouts returned to camp from an afternoon hike, I decided to test this idea out with one ant. Squatting against a juniper stump, I spied the little fella dashing around by my foot. For my first test, I made a little hill in the dirt in front of him. To the ant, it must have seemed like a mountain. And he scampered right over that mountain. So, I then created a valley by scooping out a hole in his path. He plunged straight down into that valley and up the other side without breaking stride. relatively easy tests so far. So, next I placed a rock in his path. He tried to climb it, fell back, tried again, appeared to reconsider, then scurried around it. Picking up a twig, I tried once more to hinder his progress. With a little more struggling, the ant found his way around the twig as well.

            It was my turn to reconsider. God said, "Go to the ant, O sluggard, Observe her ways and be wise." (Proverbs 6:6, nasb) The ways of this ant brought another Scripture to mine: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me...." (Psalm 23:4a, NASB) Normally we interpret the verse as a source of comfort in the face of death. And it certainly provides such comfort. On two occasions at the time I first penned this meditation, two of my dearest friends each saw his father "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" into the presence of the Lord. And each knew and felt the comfort and the joy that only the Lord can give in the midst of such difficult experiences. Both encouraged me by the strength of their faith in our Great Shepherd and in His promise of a future reunion. No wonder the death of a Christian brother is a celebration among the saints. and difficulties.

            But this Psalm means even more. The Hebrew word tsalmaveth means literally "death-shade," a strong poetical expression for the profoundest darkness. You see, it doesn't have to describe only the experience of facing death, but can apply as well to all kinds of problems--the valley, the mountain, the rock, the twig--or our human equivalents. The Psalmist suggests how to handle them.

            For instance, the first verb in the verse is walk through. In the Judean wilderness where David led his flocks, there were narrow gorges and deep ravines filled with real darkness. Any of them might possibly hide a wild beast lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce upon a sheep. No matter what perils or problems or obstacles he faced in these ravines (or in his life), David, like my ant, walked through them all. Nothing in the passage implies stopping or getting stuck with a problem and needing to stay there. instead, David pressed on through all the experiences, confident of the care of his Shepherd.

            And we can walk through our shadows without fear because "Thou art with me." If my ant knew any fear, he failed to show it. But David could say he knew no fear because of the presence of God. A rabbi once told of a devout man who was found sleeping alone in a desolate, forbidding wilderness. Someone asked him, "Are you not afraid of the many wild beasts?" to which he replied, "I am too ashamed before God to be afraid of anything in the world except for Him." Similarly, David's heart was so filled with the fear of God, the awe of God, that there was no room left for the fear of anything else.

            Whether we face death or difficulties, the presence of God gives us comfort and courage to walk through the shadows we encounter in our lives--walk with a song of celebration to our Great Shepherd who walks with us.