Exodus 36:8-39:43

tabernaculoExodus 36:8 – 39:31

[the construction of the tabernacle]

Exodus 39:32-43

32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did. 33 Then they brought the tabernacle to Moses, the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 34 the covering of tanned rams’ skins and goatskins, and the veil of the screen; 35 the ark of the testimony with its poles and the mercy seat; 36 the table with all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 37 the lampstand of pure gold and its lamps with the lamps set and all its utensils, and the oil for the light; 38 the golden altar, the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance of the tent; 39 the bronze altar, and its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils; the basin and its stand; 40 the hangings of the court, its pillars, and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court, its cords, and its pegs; and all the utensils for the service of the tabernacle, for the tent of meeting; 41 the finely worked garments for ministering in the Holy Place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons for their service as priests. 42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

The word “obedience” has fallen onto hard times in the popular vocabulary of Evangelical Christianity. We prefer to talk instead of “spirituality” and “victory.” “Obedience” sounds so very puritanical to us, so oppressive. Yet, I suspect Dallas Willard was correct when, in his book The Great Commission, he wrote, “The missing note in evangelical life today is not in the first instance spiritualitybut rather obedience.”[1]And I suspectJerry Bridges was correct when, in his book The Pursuit of Holiness, he wrote, “God wants us to walk in obedience—not victory.”[2]

Obedience to the Lord is so very important, whether talk of such is popular or not. This is why Exodus 36-39 is so valuable. These chapters give us an amazing picture of what obedience looks like. These chapters are dominated by a long chronicle of the construction of the tabernacle in all of its various components. At the end of Exodus 39, in verses 32-43, the people have completed their work and the scriptures comment on the reaction of Moses and, indeed, of God Himself.

True obedience is obedience defined by the will of God.

We begin by observing the standard by which obedience is defined. Who determines the line over which “disobedience” happens and behind which “obedience” happens? The language of our text is telling.

32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did.

42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

This is a text filled with telling repetitions, as we will see. For our purposes here, note the following:

  • “according to all that the Lord had commanded” (v.32)
  • “according to all that the Lord had commanded” (v.42)
  • “as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it” (v.43)

Who establishes the line? The Lord does. “Right” and “wrong” are not defined by our whims or proclivities and wants. They are defined by the character and nature of God. Obedience is therefore always to the praise of God for it is in agreement with the heart of God. Perhaps this is why this particular text has echoes of Genesis 1-2 in it. Victor Hamilton explains:

A number of phrases in these last two chapters of Exodus recall similar phrases in the first two chapters of Genesis. Such parallels suggest some connection between God’s building his world, and Moses and the Israelites’ building the tabernacle. Here are four of those:

(1) “And God saw everything he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen. 1: 31) with “And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the LORD commanded, so they had done it” (Exod. 39: 43);

(2) “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished” (Gen. 2: 1) with “Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished” (Exod. 39: 32);

(3) “God finished his work which he had done” (Gen. 2: 2) with “So Moses finished the work” (Exod. 40: 33);

(4) “So God blessed the seventh day” (Gen. 2: 3) with “And Moses blessed them” (Exod. 39: 43).

We might also include the extensive use of the Hebrew word for “skilled labor” (mĕlākâ) throughout chaps. 25– 31 and 36– 39 with the use of the same word in Gen. 2: 2–3 to refer to the “work” from which God rests. Similarly, one may see a connection between the use of the verb “sanctify, consecrate” (qādaš, Piel) for what Moses is to do with the tabernacle’s sancta and the priests (40:9–13), and the use of this verb, again in the Piel, for what God does with the seventh day at creation (Gen. 2: 3). Many commentators have remarked on the Exod. 39–40 parallels with Gen. 1–2…[3]

We might say, then, that obedience is convergence with the creative heart of God insofar as obedience helps to shape our lives into that which we were originally created to be. Obedience is a Genesis 1-2 reality, a creative reality, an “It is good!” reality. Conversely, sin is destructive. Sin tears down. But obedience is constructive. Obedience builds and creates and transforms.

If true obedience is defined by the will of God, that means that we must know the will of God in order to be obedient. For this reason, immersion in the word of God and frequent communion with fellow believers in worship, ministry, and mission are extremely important. The community of God’s people helps us to obey as we gather in solidarity around divine truth.

True obedience is complete obedience.

There is another telling repetition in these verses.

32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did.

42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

Observe:

  • “all the work” (v.32a)
  • “all that the Lord had commanded” (v.32b)
  • “all that the Lord had commanded” (v.42a)
  • “all the work” (v.42b)
  • “all the work” (v.43a)

All…all…all…all…all!Which instructions did Israel obey? All of them. Which part of the way did Israel travel in their obedience? All of the way. What portion of their efforts did they give? They gave their all!

Too often we pacify our own consciences with the thought that, while we may have disobeyed the Lord on thispoint we at least did not disappoint Him on thatpoint. We grade ourselves on a curve and we create the curve.

However, obedience to God is less like doing an average paint job as opposed to a great paint job than it is like an average life-saving surgery as opposed to a great life-changing surgery. Much is at stake!

One wonders if our inability to be perfect becomes a bulwark behind which we attempt to shield our intentional mediocrity and apathy. But we must remember that Jesus say we “therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The fact that we are saved by grace and not by works does not negate the need for or importance of obedience. As a child I learned to sing:

Trust and obey,

for there’s no other way,

to be happy in Jesus,

but to trust and obey.

May the “all’s” of our text be emblazoned on our hearts and minds. When we think, “How many commandments of God should I obey?” may we hear the cry of our text: “all…all…all…all…all!” And may this drive us not to despair and then to godlessness but rather to Jesus who is our all!

True obedience receives the blessing of God.

What is the result of obedience? Self-congratulatory plaudits? A trophy? Self-righteousness? No, on the contrary, it is the blessing of God Himself! God honors the obedient heart.

42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

This blessing from Moses is truly the blessing of God for Moses was simply the instrument through which God gave His commandment. The people were therefore obeying Moses only in a penultimate sense. Ultimately, they were obeying God.

Victor Hamilton says of this blessing:

Exodus 39:43 is the only occasion in Exodus in which Moses blesses anybody. It is doubtful if Moses honors Pharaoh’s request to Moses to bless him (12: 32). What a contrast between how Moses responds to Israel in chap. 32 and at the end of chap. 39! In chap. 32 he blasts them; here he blesses them. What he sees the people have done in chap. 32 incenses him; what he sees the people have done in chap. 39 inspires him.[4]

This is a crucial and important point. See the difference in the reaction to Israel’s sin before the golden calf and the reaction to their obedience in constructing the temple. The former brings judgment and grief. The latter brings blessings and joy. We see this likewise in the New Testament’s image of God saying to His children, “Well done, thy good and faithful servant!”

Dallas Willard is correct: we do not need “spirituality,” we need obedience. Jerry Bridges is correct: we do not need “victory,” we need obedience.

We need, in other words, an Exodus 39 moment, a moment of clarity and gratitude that gives way to joyful and exhaustive obedience. When this happens, the people of God enjoy the favor of God.

Even so, the cross of Jesus Christ is there to add a most important element. There is hope even for those who have been disobedient—and does this not describe us all?—for those who have failed time and time again. The cross of Christ reminds us that God Himself has made provision, through the death of His only begotten Son, to pay the price for our disobedience so that the repentant can be forgiven, can be restored, can be brought into the life of joyful obedience for which we were originally designed. The cross reminds us that while obedience is important, our salvation hinges ultimately on the obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us and who gave Himself for us. The cross reminds us that blood has been shed to save us from the terrible consequences of our disobedience and to draw us in to the glory of God’s mercy and love.

Read Exodus 36-39.

See and learn what true obedience looks like…and obey!

Strive to obey in all things!

Do not hedge your bets!

Do not play games!

This matters!

But know, if you fall, that the Lord Jesus is here…and that He loves you…and that He came so that your fall would not destroy you…and that, through Him, you can press on again, leaving behind death-bringing sin and pressing on in the life-giving grace and mercy of the God who made you for this!

 

[1]Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 44.

[2]Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), 22.

[3]Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 18993-19005). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4]Hamilton, Victor P. Kindle Locations 19005-19008.

 

Haggai 2:6-9

Haggai 2

6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’”  

Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who was standing outside of a store watching another man whittle little wooden dogs. This whittler was amazing at his craft. He would take a piece of wood and, methodically and without hesitation, whittle until he had a perfectly shaped little wooden dog that he would then give to bystanders. The man watching all of this was amazed. When the whittler stopped to take a break the man asked, “Tell me: how in the world do you do that?” The whittler paused for a moment, looked at the next piece of wood in his hands, and said, “Well, I take a piece of wood and then I get rid of every part of it that don’t look like a dog.”

I have heard versions of that story all of my life. The humor in it (and, if I might say, the profundity in it) rests in the fact that some people really do have the ability to see the hidden reality in a given situation instead of the situation itself. Most of us look at a piece of wood and say, “wood!” Artists look at the same piece and say, “dog!”

In Haggai 2:6-9, God teaches Israel this very lesson. They had now been working on rebuilding the temple for about a month. It was not going well. So they looked at it and said, “Unimpressive. Underwhelming. Incomplete.” But God looked at it and said something else.

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Exodus 36:1-7

Ff108270Exodus 36

1 “Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the Lord has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. And they received from Moses all the contribution that the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the craftsmen who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing, for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more.

In a May 2015 article in The Atlanticentitled, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving,” Sam Kean told the story of a man in Brazil who went from being stingy and miserly to being excessively generous. In fact, many believed he became toogenerous! What caused the change? Brain damage from a stroke, apparently. Here is what the article, in part, says:

In the early 1990s, a quiet man named João quit his job running the human-resources department of an insurance company in Rio de Janeiro and began selling french fries from a street cart. The fries quickly proved popular, in part because they were delicious—thin and crisp and golden. Even more enticing, João often served them up for free. All you had to do was ask, and he’d scoop some into a box, no charge. What money he did take in, he frequently gave away to children begging in the street or used to buy them sweets. Day after day, he came home to his wife and son without a single real in his pocket.

In his previous life, João—a chubby man with pointy ears and arched black eyebrows—had been stern and serious, prone to squirreling money away. But after suffering a health crisis in 1990, at age 49, he wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.” And nothing made him happier than giving. To those who didn’t know him well, he must have seemed like the embodiment of selflessness—the Saint Francis of Rio de Janeiro.

What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. Among other symptoms, he became a chronic insomniac and lost his sex drive; he started forgetting things and had trouble focusing; his movements slowed. And, his neurologist says, he became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy. (João died of kidney failure in 1999. His doctor provided only his first name, to protect the family’s privacy. )

We’ve long known that there’s a clear, consistent link between generosity and happiness: surveys done around the world, of many different societies, have found that giving produces high levels of satisfaction and well-being in the givers. What scientists didn’t have a good grasp of until recently were the neuroscientific roots of this feeling—why we get a boost from giving.

A decade ago, Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University Medical School, investigated this link by putting volunteers in an fMRI machine and asking them to decide whether to donate to certain charities. Grafman and his team gathered data on which brain systems were most active during the process.

They had expected to see heightened activity in people’s frontal lobes, a part of the brain that helps with social reasoning and with weighing different courses of action—just the sorts of talents needed for this task. And the frontal lobes did, in fact, come to life on the fMRI scans. But Grafman was surprised to see the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits rev into high gear as well. “Our first impression,” Grafman says, “was that we might see some activation [in those circuits], just because usually when people give, they feel a little bit better. But we had no idea about the degree.”

Specifically, his team saw the brain’s mesolimbic system light up. This system forms a key part of the brain’s pleasure circuits, an archipelago of structures that stimulate the production of the chemical messenger dopamine, which makes us feel good. Neuroscientists usually associate activity in these circuits—which many other species also have—with hedonistic delights like food and sex. Grafman determined that giving money away excited these circuits even more than receiving money did. What your mother told you, then, is true: it is better to give than to receive. She probably just didn’t realize that, neurologically, giving is roughly on par with eating fudge or getting laid.

If giving feels so good, why don’t people do more of it? (One survey found, for example, that 85 percent of Americans donate less than 2 percent of their income to charity.) Part of the answer lies in the fact that other areas of the brain, like the frontal lobes, suppress the instinct for generosity at times. That sounds miserly of them, and maybe it is. But the frontal lobes help us see the bigger picture, and can alert us to the downsides of giving.

João’s case reveals what happens when the frontal lobes lose the ability to weigh in, allowing warm, fuzzy feelings to run amok. João’s doctor believes that his stroke severely damaged a structure called the medial forebrain bundle, a collection of neuron fibers near the base of the brain. To monitor other regions, the frontal lobes need to receive input from them, and that’s where the medial forebrain bundle comes in. Like an Internet trunk line, it pipes in data from all over the brain, allowing the frontal lobes to suppress, in the service of a larger goal, some of the urges that arise. (Your frontal lobes may, for instance, steer you away from that second slice of chocolate cake if you’re on a diet.) When parts of the bundle in João’s brain got destroyed, his frontal lobes lost the ability to control certain impulses—including, apparently, the impulse to give money away.[1]

“Pathologically generous.” Now there is a phrase! I am intrigued by this neuroscientific examination of generosity. It also makes me think that neuroscientists would likely also diagnose Israel as having had a corporate pathology of generosity on the basis of Exodus 36. In this chapter, the people of Israel literally give too much and have to be told to stop! Was it because their frontal lobes were not doing what they should? Or was it because they had had an overwhelming vision of the goodness and glory of God?

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Haggai 2:1-5

Haggai 2

1In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet: 2 “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, 3 ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? 4 Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. 

I do so love these pictures that float around online that show people trying, and failing spectacularly, to create the item pictured on the package! Many of these are food-related. Here, for instance, is a cookie monster cupcake as presented and as attempted:

1

I love the sarcastic “Nailed it!” And here is a Little Mermaid cake:

2

Whew! Not even close! And here is a bunny pancake and a pony cake:

3

4

But this one might be my favorite:

5

I laugh because pretty much anything I ever attempt runs into the same hilarious and frustrating problem.

There is a great distance between the “is” and the “ought,” no? We all know what it is to have our “Nailed it!” moment of disappointment. Israel did as well. Haggai 2 begins with Israel’s “Nailed it!” moment, their moment of sadness in the distance between the “is” and the “ought,” between the reality and expectation.

We must not be at peace with the distance between the “is” and the “ought.”

Israel heeded the call of God and returned to the task of rebuilding the temple. After a period of time, the Lord spoke to them about their work.

In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet: 2 “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, 3 ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?

Carol and Eric Meyers point out that “this date is toward the end of Tishri—that is, on October 17, 520…nearly a month would have passed since the people responded to Haggai’s initial call to work.”[1]This is significant for, after a month, while the project was still certainly in its beginning stages, the people would have had time to get a sense of the scope of the project, of how it was going in its initial stages, and to begin to form opinions of how the work was progressing.  For these reasons, the words of the Lord must have been devastating.

3 ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?

The note of disappointment is palpable. But why were those who remembered the former temple, the temple destroyed in 587 BC, disappointed? They were disappointed because they knew that this new temple would not be like the old. Verhoef explains:

The disappointment was…on account of the lack of suitable material and the absence of sacred objects, such as the ark of the covenant. The new temple, they realized, would never be like the old. They had no resources to pay skilled craftsmen from abroad as Solomon had done, and they could not begin to think of covering the interior with gold (1 K. 6:21, 22). In spite of the work already done, there was nothing to show for it.[2]

But there is something else. There is also the human tendency to romanticize the past. Ralph Smith makes the astute observation that “those who had seen the former temple would remember it through their eyes as children” and that “childhood memories of older adults are often fuzzy and sometimes exaggerated. These people might have remembered the former temple as greater and more splendid than it really was.” He concludes that this dynamic “could have added to their dejection when they saw the smallness of the new temple.”[3]

The interesting question is why God would point out the shabbiness of the current project in light of the temple’s former glory? Why would He do something that, in human terms and, perhaps, in modern terms, we would see as unduly critical and discouraging? I believe a couple of dynamics are at play here.

The first dynamic is that God did not want the people to grow accustomed to the distance between the “ought” and the “is,” between what the temple was in its state at that time and what it had been in its former glory. There is a human tendency to see “the perfect” as “the enemy of the good” and to grow accustomed to mediocrity since we can never be perfect. I believe that God is warning the people not to grow accustomed to mediocrity, not to settle. To do that, we must not be at peace with the distance between the “is” and the “ought.”

We can likely see this reality at play in Ezra 3 and the people’s reactions some years before when the foundation of the temple was initially laid after their return from exile. This is an uncomfortable passage. We would call it awkward. But watch the different reactions of the people.

10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.

Do you see? Many are thrilled at the laying of the foundation but those who knew what the temple used to begrieved at the distance between the “ought” and the “is.” It is good to lay the foundation! It is good to begin the work! But it is not enough. We must be driven by a desire to see the glory restored!

There is more happening here, as we will see, but I believe it is critically important for the modern church age to reclaim a sense of discontentment with the “is.” We must push toward the “ought.” We must not say, “Well I am a bit better than I was and I am certainly a lot better than that person!” No, we must desire to be more, to grow more, to look and sound ever more like Jesus Christ!

Have you grown dull in your efforts and content with mediocrity? Are you resting on your laurels, content with one step when there are a million more to go?

This will sound harsh in our day of “everybody gets a trophy.” It will sound too demanding. But Church, can we not look back at the glory of the early church and grieve that we do not have that kind of power, that kind of glory, that kind of influence, and that kind of world-transforming ministry? Is it not right for us to grieve at the distance between the “is” and the “ought.”

I do indeed celebrate small victories. We must! But we must never let the celebration of small victories cause us to lose our passion for bigger victories!

It is wonderful to see small victories…but let reach for great victories! Where there is progress, let us celebrate…but progress is not completion! Let us press on! Let us move forward!

But there is another reason why God raises the awkward point of the distance between their “is” and their “ought.” I believe He was not only trying to motivate the people to more, He was also trying to challenge the people not to despair!

But neither should we despair, for between the “is” and the “ought” is God’s gift of the “becoming.”

What the Lord says immediately after pointing out their limited success is crucially important.

4 Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.

“Yet now be strong.”

It is as if the Lord is saying, “I know how discouraging the distance between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ can be for you, especially to those of you who remember the temple in its former glory! But do not despair! Do not grieve yourself into inactivity! Be strong! I am with you! The glory will return! I am with you in the process of becoming!”

As a pastor, I have seen this dynamic in the local church. I once pastored a church in which a certain group of people seemed to be stuck in the past. They would speak of large youth trips that their large youth group took twenty years before, of large choirs that filled their choir loft years before. Their fixation on what waswas obvious. I wanted, at times, to yell aloud, “But what about now! What about the kids in the youth group now! What about our choir now! This is their moment! This is their time! Do not miss the beauty of the present because of constant comparison to the past. Join us in the journey of becoming instead of getting stuck in the story of what was.”

True, we must not become content with the “is,” but neither should it cause us to despair. This is why God moves on in our text to call the people to hope and to renewed effort.

Our text truly is an important text for congregations today.

To the young, the Lord says, “Do not grow content with comfortable mediocrity.”

To the old, the Lord says, “Do not get stuck in your memories of the past.”

To old and young alike the Lord says, “I am still here! I am right here! Get up! Get to work! Be strong! The God who brought glory in the old days is the God who is with you right now! I am here!”

Observe the empowerment of God and the obedience of man: “Work, for I am with you.”

We do not work in our own strength, but we do work.

We do not trust in our own obedience, but we do obey.

And as this happens, God’s gift of “becoming” happens. We begin to become what we ought to be. We begin to grow, to change, to move forward!

Christ never leaves His people in the “is.” He always moves in and through and among us to help us become what we ought. And the posture we must embrace in this becoming is therefore a posture of expectancy, a posture of hope, a posture of readiness.

“Fear not,” the Lord told Israel. There is more happening than what you see!

God is with us!

God is at work in and through us!

Let us work in the light of that promise!

 

[1]Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8. The Anchor Bible. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1987), p.49.

[2]Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi.The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p.97.

[3]Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary. vol.32 (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1984), p.157.

 

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom

91NsMDZz0JLBrandon O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom is a very interesting, extremely well-crafted, important, and immensely enjoyable consideration of religious liberty. It uses the 18th century Baptist pastor and religious-liberty advocate Isaac Backus as a case study for calling the reader to consider and reconsider the issue of religious liberty and the assumptions that have for too long undergirded the ensconced positions of the evangelical right. I hasten to add, however, that O’Brien’s telling of Backus’ story has neither the detachment nor the merely utilitarian air of a pure case-study. Backus’ amazing life certainly is not reduced to a simple means to an end in this work. This is indeed good history and a fascinating biography! But it is clearly intended to be a foundation off of which O’Brien assesses the current ecclesio-cultural landscape and the wider arguments surrounding the question of religious liberty.

After experiencing a powerful conversion, Backus and his mother join the Congregationalist church, essentially the established church, but soon become discontented with the low expectations of the church as symbolized most clearly in the “half-way covenant” and what they perceived to be the dullness and spirit of compromise in the church. Through a series of events, after first becoming a separatist pastor and after a long struggle over the question of infant baptism marked by consistent vascillations concerning his own view, he eventually became a convinced Baptist pastor. O’Brien notes that he, O’Brien, greatly appreciates the tenacious and rigorous process of free and principled thought that Backus evidenced in this transition even as O’Brien’s own journey has taken him in the opposite direction, that is, out of Baptist life and into Presbyterianism with its commitment to infant baptism. Thus, O’Brien has, at least at points, more of a paradigmatic appreciation for Backus than a desire for simple imitation. That, certainly, is a more than legitimate position to take. Many of us appreciate the principles and modus operandi of our heroes even if we end up in different places.

O’Brien applauds strongly Backus’ view of religious liberty. In essence, Backus was the man for his time. Baptists, along with Quakers, found themselves at loggerheads not only with the theological and ecclesial positions of the dominant Congregationalism of New England but also in a position that was fundamentally punitive, both culturally and monetarily, to their convictions. In Massachusetts all citizens had to pay the religious tax toward the livelihood of the Congregationalist clergy, be they themselves Congregationalists or not. Backus argued against this, not from a pecuniary standpoint but rather from the standpoint of principle (regardless of what some in the Continental Congress said to the contrary when Backus argued the Baptists’ case before them). For when separatists were forced, by law, to pay for the livelihoods of the establishment clergy and when, even worse, they were harassed and persecuted (i.e., imprisonment, property confiscation, harassment, etc.) for failing to do so, the state was forcing its citizens to violate their own consciences. I have, to be sure, just given a woefully inadequate summary of a much bigger story, but this book tells about the unfolding of that whole drama and its eventual resolution in the adoption of the general concept of religious freedom that we have today.

O’Brien tells the story well. He gives interesting anecdotes from Backus’ life (and the lives of others) that keeps the telling from become dry. I highlighted numerous passages that I found compelling and that I wanted to remember and ruminate on further. I was especially touched by O’Brien’s recounting of the Backus’ efforts to compile a large collection of grievances from those who had been oppressed for simply wanting to follow their own convictions in religious matters. O’Brien likened Backus’ efforts to the compilation of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I was particularly touched by Backus’ sincere investment in and outrage at the stories of injustices that were perpetrated upon those without a voice, by Backus’ fervent advocacy on behalf of the wronged parties, and by his righteous indignation at any insinuation that the claims were exaggerated or even outright lies.

Along the way, and against the backdrop of Backus’ story, O’Brien pushes against certain cherished assumptions of Evangelicals. He looks closely, with helpful evidence to fortify his assessments, at the assumption that America was “a Christian nation,” at the assumption that the modern conservative church is being “persecuted” (with a helpful consideration of what that word means and does not mean), and at the question of how Christians today who wish to argue for religious liberty should most effectively do so in the public square. In all of this, O’Brien is neither patronizing nor preachy. His style is irenic and honest. He clearly wants the modern reader to consider, against the backdrop of the development of religious freedom in 18th century America, what we mean when we say and think and assume certain things.

If I have any quibble, it is that I would have liked to see O’Brien flesh certain ideas out further. Take, for instance, the following statement:

To make any progress in debates and discussions about religious liberty, we have to figure out how to have the conversations in the lingua franca of the modern political system. This is especially true when the appeal for religious liberty today is perceived as a cover for misogyny, racism, or homophobia. Appeals to Scripture and the Christian tradition become shrill when the hearer doesn’t speak the language. In other words, original sin may be a helpful concept for understanding religious liberty within the family of faith. But the concept will likely come across as tone deaf in the broader culture. Advocating for our own religious liberty—and defending the rights of others— requires the mental agility to have the conversation differently with insiders and outsiders. (Kindle Locations 1454-1460)

One may grant the general point (I do) and yet still have real questions. Does the lingua franca necessarily exclude theological and biblical assertions, even granting the inherent limitations of making such assertions to those who do not hold to our a priori commitments to the validity of such, or are we only talking about the linguistic vehicles of these assertions? (I.e., Is it the mere recitation of scripture or the way in which it is employed in such situations that is the problem?) To what extent does the perception of “misogyny, racism, or homophobia” steer our methodology and can this be taken so far that the very epistemological foundations of our convictions are abandoned in our efforts to avoid these perceptions? Can we give away too much in our effort to conceptually connect and, in reality, do those efforts gain what we think they will? How does careful, intelligent, principled, and prophetic pushback against the system itself (upon which the assumptions undergirding the lingua franca is predicated and out of which it emanates) as Christians work with this approach?

The statement, “Appeals to Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition become shrill when the hearer doesn’t speak the language,” probably deserved more nuance. For instance, is that a de facto reality? Does O’Brien mean all “appeals to Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition,” regardless of how they are prefaced, explained, and nuanced themselves? In short (and again), is it not possible to give away too much in the noble desire to contextualize and speak the lingua franca?

Let me be clear: Brandon O’Brien knows all of this and I have no doubt would point out that these are questions that simply could not be pursued to great length in the book without it becoming a primary on apologetic methodology. And, knowing Brandon as I do, I have no doubt that his answers to these questions would be much more insightful and helpful than my own, thus my mild frustration at wishing he would have gone further in examining these ideas.

That being said, this is a fantastic book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I kept thinking that this would be a great tool to use in a small group setting to discuss the basic questions, “What is religious liberty? How, practically, does it work? What does it look like in 2018 America?”

O’Brien and his book would be a great guide through these important considerations.

Exodus 35:20-35

tabernaculoExodus 35

20 Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. 21 And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. 22 So they came, both men and women. All who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets, all sorts of gold objects, every man dedicating an offering of gold to the Lord. 23 And every one who possessed blue or purple or scarlet yarns or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or goatskins brought them. 24 Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. 25 And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. 26 All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. 27 And the leaders brought onyx stones and stones to be set, for the ephod and for the breastpiece, 28 and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. 29 All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. 30 Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. 34 And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. 35 He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.

For years I have heard people reference the 1987 film, “Babette’s Feast.” However, I have only recently watched it. It is a truly beautiful film that speaks of the power of love, of sacrificial giving, and of how such giving can bring healing and rejuvenation to an entire community of people. The Wikipedia summary of the story is quite well done:

The elderly and pious Protestant sisters Martine…and Philippa…live in a small village on the remote western coast of Jutland in 19th-century Denmark. Their father was a pastor who founded his own Pietistic conventicle. With their father now dead and the austere sect drawing no new converts, the aging sisters preside over a dwindling congregation of white-haired believers.

The story flashes back 49 years, showing the sisters in their youth. The beautiful girls have many suitors, but their father rejects them all, and indeed derides marriage…

Thirty-five years later, Babette Hersant…appears at their door…sisters cannot afford to take Babette in, but she offers to work for free. Babette serves as their cook for the next 14 years, producing an improved version of the bland meals typical of the abstemious nature of the congregation, and slowly gaining their respect. Her only link to her former life is a lottery ticket that a friend in Paris renews for her every year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris and her lost lifestyle, she decides to spend it preparing a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday. More than just a feast, the meal is an outpouring of Babette’s appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice; Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal.

The sisters accept both Babette’s meal and her offer to pay for the creation of a “real French dinner”. Babette arranges for her nephew to go to Paris and gather the supplies for the feast. The ingredients are plentiful, sumptuous and exotic, and their arrival causes much discussion among the villagers. As the various never-before-seen ingredients arrive, and preparations commence, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will become a sin of sensual luxury, if not some form of devilry. In a hasty conference, the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but to forgo speaking of any pleasure in it, and to make no mention of the food during the dinner.

…Although the other celebrants refuse to comment on the earthly pleasures of their meal, Babette’s gifts break down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.

The sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris. However, when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are aghast. Babette then reveals that she was formerly the head chef of the Café Anglais, and tells them that dinner for 12 there has a price of 10,000 francs. Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life”, to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.” Philippa then says: “But this is not the end, Babette. In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be” and then embraces her with tears in her eyes saying: “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”, which is precisely how the short story ends.[1]

Yes, there is great power in giving out of the overflow of one’s heart. Babette’s sacrifice in the form of a truly beautiful and delicious feast brought focus, healing, and a sense of revival to the little sect of people. There is a particularly poignant scene in which Babette, aware that she has won a great sum of money, stands by the ocean and obviously determines that she will give a great gift to this little group of austere Christians. Her heart is stirred to do so. Sacrificial giving can create love. Likewise, a community of love will give sacrificially.

We see this same reality in the latter half of Exodus 35. Here, the people rally and give out of their hearts. As a result, the community is focused, healed, and revived.

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Haggai 1:12-15

Haggai 1

12 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord. 13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, “I am with you, declares the Lord.” 14 And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king.

One of the most interesting and moving books I’ve ever read is a biography of J. Heinrich Arnold entitled Homage to a Broken Man. Heinrich Arnold was the son of Eberhard Arnold, the founder of a Christian group called the Bruderhof. Heinrich Arnold would become a leader of the Bruderhof after his father died. It was a group that began with a strong dedication to what mattered most in life: radical commitment to Jesus Christ and an intention to live out the life of Christ in the most literal of ways. It was, of course, an imperfect community, but it was truly trying to follow Jesus. However, in time, as always seems to happen, conflicts entered the community. Clashes of personality and agendas, hurt feelings, ego trips, and the like entered the life of the Bruderhof. As a result, the community drifted away from what matters most. They drifted away from the original purity of the movement, from their original sense of calling.

In the midst of these conflicts, Heinrich Arnold became seriously ill. While preparing for death, he had a moment of clarity and a realization that he must say something, that he must call the Bruderhof back to what mattered most. Peter Mommsen, his grandson and the author of the biography, explains what happened.

On September 29, Heiner took another turn for the worse. Not only was organ after organ failing, but he was also short of oxygen and had difficulty breathing. In the afternoon Cyril came into his hut, visibly shaken. “There cannot be much more time left,” he said.

The nearness of death transformed Heiner. His spirits rallied as if preparing for a momentous event. And he was. Life was running out, and before it was gone he must accomplish his mission. This was no time for caution: from now on, every moment had to count; every thread of his life must be reexamined and brought together. Above all, every task that had ever been placed on his shoulders must be taken up one final time – and fulfilled.

One of these stood out above all the rest: the community’s restoration to its early vigor and health. God would certainly require him to account for this. So would his father. But how could the people in Primavera find their way back to it? In a sense, he knew the answer. He knew that all of them desperately needed personal renewal – himself as well. They needed to rediscover the joy of their first love. Nothing less would be enough to save them. But how could such a renewal come about?

Heiner asked for the community to gather and had himself carried out of his hut on a stretcher. “Brothers and sisters,” he began, “I am not worthy of speaking to you. But because this hour is critical, I want to beg you: Repent. Each of us bears a guilt for what has gone wrong; I know I do. But let us turn away from all this evil! Only remorse for the past can give us courage to face the future.”

Heiner grew short of breath as he spoke but pulled himself together: “We have a promise—‘Behold, I make all things new!’ Everything can become new! Let us return to the calling that brought us here in the first place. Let us change our lives and love one another so that everything can become new!”

As the meeting broke up, joy swept the gathering; many embraced and asked each other’s pardon. “This is the gospel—this is what we need now!” “I have grown callous and cold. Forgive me.” “I have been far too wrapped up in my work.”

Faces streamed with tears. Karl, who had been weeping openly throughout the meeting, was now so deeply moved that he fainted. The hope they had lost in the bleakness of the last months was returning with double strength. At last their course had been reset.

For the rest of that week, the community was in upheaval. People met to set relationships straight and to rid themselves of longstanding grudges. Heiner heard a dozen, and then at least a dozen more confessions. Faces were cheerful and frank, and eyes shone. Exhaustion vanished.[1]

I find this profoundly touching and moving. One person cries out above the conflicted community and calls them back to what matters most. The Spirit of God falls, the people repent, and they return to their original sense of community. I am particularly struck by the last two words describing what happened after the community repented: “Exhaustion vanished.”

Living life on your own terms is exhausting. Repentance and returning to God is refreshing.

I believe that the story of Heinrich Arnold and the Bruderhof at this point mirrors the story of Haggai and Israel in 520 B.C. And I believe they both mirror what happens whenever the people of God repent and return to a deep and sincere commitment to what matters most, to life in Jesus Christ.

Let us observe how this unfolded for Haggai and the people of God.

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Exodus 35:1-19

shabbat-candlesExodus 35

1 Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. 10 “Let every skillful craftsman among you come and make all that the Lord has commanded: 11 the tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its hooks and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 12 the ark with its poles, the mercy seat, and the veil of the screen; 13 the table with its poles and all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 14 the lampstand also for the light, with its utensils and its lamps, and the oil for the light; 15 and the altar of incense, with its poles, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the door, at the door of the tabernacle; 16 the altar of burnt offering, with its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils, the basin and its stand; 17 the hangings of the court, its pillars and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court; 18 the pegs of the tabernacle and the pegs of the court, and their cords; 19 the finely worked garments for ministering in the Holy Place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests.”

Have you ever heard of Shabbat candles? A helpful article at a website dedicated to Jewish practice and issues explains what they are.

We usher in the peace and sanctity of Shabbat by lighting candles every Friday evening and on the eve of Jewish holidays. The candles bring peace into our homes, and add light and warmth to a world that sometimes feels dark and cold.

The candles are lit eighteen minutes before sunset. Some communities, such as those in Jerusalem, have the custom of lighting the candles and bringing in the Shabbat earlier. In that case, light the candles as per your community custom.

The earliest one may light the Shabbat candles is plag haminchah on Friday afternoon…The latest you may light the candles is just before sunset; after sunset, Shabbat has begun even if you have not lit the candles, and handling or lighting a flame is a desecration of the Shabbat and forbidden…

The mitzvah of lighting candles has been given especially to women, the mainstays of the Jewish home, but it is an obligation for every home, and if no woman over bat mitzvah is present to light, the candles are lit by the man of the home…

After you’ve lit the candles, do not put out the match. Rather, drop it on a fireproof surface or give it to someone who has not yet accepted Shabbat.

Use your hands to shield your eyes from the flames and recite the blessing while your eyes are covered.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אַדֹנָ-י אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל שַׁבָּת קֹדֶשׁ

Transliteration: Baruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam A-sher Ki-de-sha-nu Be-mitz-vo-tav Ve-tzi-va-nu Le-had-lik Ner Shel Sha-bbat Ko-desh.

Translation: Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light of the holy Shabbat.

The time of candle-lighting is considered particularly auspicious for private prayer. Women have traditionally prayed, as they stand with eyes closed, for health, happiness, children who will illuminate the world with Torah, and the ultimate Redemption which will be ushered in by the Messiah. Girls, too, offer their own prayers at this special moment, as they discover the beauty of a practice which will enlighten their entire lives.

Uncover your eyes, gaze at the Shabbat lights and greet your family with “Good Shabbos” or “Shabbat Shalom.”

Once you light the candles and recite the blessing, you have accepted Shabbat. As fire is muktzeh (set aside, and forbidden to move) on shabbat, the candles and candlesticks may not be moved until the conclusion of Shabbat.[1]

It is a fascinating custom, and one that sounds quite beautiful and moving. The conclusion of the article explains that the candles are lit before the Sabbath and the candles are not moved until after the Sabbath. This is because of the beginning verses of Exodus 35, a passage in which the importance of Sabbath observance is expressed once again and a passage that serves as a transition into instructions for building the tabernacle. As such, it is a very important passage and one that is strategically placed.

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Haggai 1:9-11

Haggai 1

You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

One of the most profound reflections on death I have ever read is Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. As Ivan lay dying, he thinks about his life. As he does so it occurs to him that he has not lived his life well, that he has chased after things that do not matter, and that, in fact, his life was squandered. Here is how Tolstoy unfolds Ilyich’s thoughts on his life:

It occurred to him [Ivan Ilyich] that what had seemed utterly inconceivable before—that he had not lived the kind of life he should have—might in fact be true.  It occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest what people of high rank considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest not been the real thing.  His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession—all these might not have been the real thing.  He tried to come up with a defense of these things and suddenly became aware of the insubstantiality of them all.  And there was nothing left to defend.

            “But if that is the case,” he asked himself, “and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters—what then?”  He lay on his back and began to review his whole life in an entirely different light.

            When, in the morning, he saw first the footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every gesture, their every word, confirmed the horrible truth revealed to him during the night.  In them he saw himself, all he had lived by, saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful, enormous deception that shut out both life and death.  This awareness intensified his physical sufferings, magnified them tenfold.  He moaned and tossed and clutched at his bedclothes.  He felt they were choking and suffocating him, and he hated them on that account…

            …Her [Ivan Ilyich’s wife’s] clothes, her figure, the expression of her face, the sound of her voice – all these said to him: “Not the real thing.  Everything you lived by and still live by is a lie, a deception that blinds you from the reality of life and death.”  And no sooner had he thought this than hatred welled up in him, and with the hatred, excruciating physical pain, and with the pain, an awareness of inevitable, imminent destruction.

As Ivan’s despair at having wasted his life grows, Tolstoy has him ask a poignant and desperate question.

            “Yes, all of it was simply not the real thing.  But no matter, I can still make it the real thing—I can.  But what is the real thing?”  Ivan Ilyich asked himself and suddenly grew quiet.[1]

Ivan Ilyich’s question is the question of the ages: “What is the real thing?” “What,” in other words, “matters most?” This is the question that we have been considering with the prophet Haggai’s help. And we have concluded that what matters most in life is an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities.

For Israel, this was symbolized in the temple, the ruins of which the Israelites had neglected for sixteen years, and the construction of which the prophet Haggai was now thunderously calling them back to. This mattered because the temple was more than a building. It symbolized the presence of God in the midst of His people. Thus, to neglect the temple was to neglect the Lord God most high. When Haggai called the people to come back to building the temple He was calling them back to an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities. It was never really about a building. The church father Theodoret of Cyr expressed this well when he wrote:

Now the God of all made these threats on account of the neglect of the divine house, though not for any need of it: the Maker of all things has no need even of heaven, creating everything out of lovingkindness alone. Rather, it was in his care for them all and his interest in their salvation that he ordered the building of the temple…[2]

So, too, with us! God calls us to come back to what matters most because it is only when we are grounded in what matters most that life can truly be lived. Christ Jesus, who is our temple, is what matters most, and our lives are only truly lived when they are lived in Him.

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Exodus 34:29-35

UnknownExodus 34

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34 Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

When I was in high school I went to Rome and, while there, I was privileged to be able to see Michaelangelo’s majestic sculpture of Moses. It was, like all Michelangelo sculptures, absolutely breathtaking! It is a famous statue, not only because of the artist and the artistry, but also because of an oddity. If you look at Moses’ head, there appear to be horns coming out of it! Why is this? The answer has to do with our text and a particular translation of it. Patrick Murray, writing for “Art & Liturgy,” explains:

This statue of Moses, housed at San Pietro in Vincoli (Basilica of St. Peter in Chains), is part of the tomb of Pope Julius II, who was notable for commissioning the Sistine Chapel, as well as the destruction and reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica.

At first glance, the statue seems ordinary, or at least as ordinary as a Michelangelo masterpiece can. Look more closely, though, and you’ll find that the subject has sprouted a pair of horns.

Michelangelo’s sculpture is the most famous of many images with the same quirk. What’s going on here?

This bizarre addition stems from an oddity in Scripture.  Here’s the relevant passage, Exodus 34:29–30, in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

The original Hebrew uses the word qaran or keren here. It can refer to a horn (like a goat’s) or a ray of light. You know, because a light beam can be kind of horn-shaped, I guess. The first translation is more common by far.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Greek translation of Scripture, called the Septuagint, translates this phrase as “his face was glorified.” 

Later on, one of my favorite saints, Jerome, produced the Vulgate, which was the first comprehensive translation of Scripture into Latin. Jerome translated qaran as cornuta. The root of this Latin word, cornus, can mean a horn (like a trumpet) or a horn (like a goat’s). This is where we get the English words cornet, cornucopia, and, yes, unicorn.[1]

The “horns,” then, are a particular way of trying to translate and understand Exodus 34’s description of Moses’ face beaming with light as he came down from the mountain. I like this particular oddity because it shows just how difficult it is to take hold of, much less depict artistically, the reality of what happened to Moses in Exodus 34.

Why was Moses’ face shining and what was happening here? What does this mean?

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