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Reading All the Pages

How many pages are in your Bible? I have one I carry to church that has more than 1,500 pages. The study Bible I read every morning has more than 2,300.

Unfortunately, though, many Christians could condense their Bibles down to about 50 pages. They’d keep many of the Psalms, some of the Proverbs and the Gospels – at least the birth and crucifixion of Christ, the Sermon on the Mount and some of the miracles. They’d add a selection of their favorite Old Testament stories – Joseph and his coat of many colors, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lions den – then toss in a couple dozen of their favorite verses, mostly from the epistles of Paul – and viola! they’d have their personal abridged edition of the Bible.

The sad truth from my observation is that most Christians don’t really read their Bibles. They just read selected portions of it.

While that may seem like a drastic oversimplification, the sad truth from my observation is that most Christians don’t really read their Bibles. They just read selected portions of it. They tend not to want to read the Old Testament because, well, it’s old. They want the “fresh” stuff of the New Testament, especially when Paul talks about warm fuzzies like peace, love and joy.

It’s understandable in a way because the Bible does seem compartmentalized. It’s divided into an old and new section, further divided into 66 books – 39 Old Testament, 27 New – and further broken into chapters and verses. Because it was written by dozens of people over the course of about 3,500 years, (the freshest of it more than 1,900 years ago), it’s easy to see why some people find it less than a must-read.

In reality, though, the entire Bible is one seamless piece. Yes, it was written by many people over many years, but it is seamless because all of it, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, is about one person – God. God was and is and always will be, so a story about Him will always be seamless, no matter how many centuries it takes to tell it.

But surely that doesn’t mean all of the Bible needs to be read, right? Who needs all of those genealogies with the unpronounceable names? Or those Levitical laws about sacrifices and diseases? Or the prophets with their bad attitude about everything and everyone, always calling down God’s wrath? And Revelation? That’s just plain weird. Surely reading those is just a waste of time when we could spend more time reading the great love chapter in 1 Corinthians.

Back in January I received a birthday card from my 85-year-old mother that included a letter. In the letter she told me about the weather (it was foggy), that she had to get her glasses repaired, the death of a cousin (which I’d already known about) and her plans to attend the funeral, with a final comment that she didn’t know when she’d get her glasses back.

All in all, it was not an exciting letter or particularly informative. But I read every word of that letter with interest. My interest and enjoyment of reading it had nothing to do with the content – no, I read every word because it came from someone who loved me and who I love. It was the person writing the letter that made the content interesting.

That’s the same way I approach reading the portions of the Bible that seem less than interesting, like genealogies and Levitical laws. Do I gain a lot from reading them? Not usually, but I can enjoy reading them because they are the words of the God who loves me and who I love. Besides, there are some really cool names in the genealogies, like Zerubbabel.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells us that all Scripture is theopneustos – God breathed. It comes from the very breath, or spirit of God, the same way he breathed life into Adam. The Bible is not just words on paper but the very breath of God. And notice that Paul said all Scripture – all would include the genealogies and all the other “boring” parts. And, note further that when Paul wrote that statement he was referring exclusively to the Old Testament, since the New Testament was still in the process of being written and not considered Scripture yet.

So I challenge you to read your entire Bible, all 1,500 or more pages of it. You’ll be surprised how many great stories, insights and promises are hidden there, and you might even gain a new appreciation for the genealogies. After all, it’s a lot of fun to say Zerubabbel.

Leaving Egypt Behind

Pyramids of Giza, Cairo

I don’t ever want to go back to Egypt.

I’ve never been there, so that may seem like an odd thought. But the Egypt I’m referring to is not the modern day one of traffic-clogged streets and cheap tourist trinkets but the one of 4,000 years ago with mud bricks and a baby in the bulrushes. The one that the Israelites left behind as they headed off to the Promised Land.

A quick recap of the situation with the Israelites and Egypt: The original Israelites (old Israel himself and his 12 boys) entered Egypt as a place of safety. But after a while (if 400 years can be considered ‘a while’) the Egyptians, who had earlier been their saviors, began to oppress the Israelites, making them slaves, requiring heavy labor and creating general havoc.

The Israelites cried to God for relief and He miraculously set them free. Miracles were seen abundantly by the Israelites – plagues on the Egyptians, parting of an entire sea, a pillar of cloud and fire, a voice from heaven. They were ecstatic.

For about five minutes.

Then they began to complain about how long the journey was taking.

Israelites: Are we there yet?
Moses: No
Israelites: Are we there yet?
Moses: No.
Israelites: Are we –
Moses: Don’t make me pull this caravan off the road and come back there.

Before long, they were reminiscing about how wonderful their lives had been back in Egypt, where they had plenty of fish, leeks, cucumbers, onions and garlic to eat, all for free (hopefully someone also kept them in a steady supply of mouthwash and breath mints). Sure, there was that annoying slavery issue, and death, but man, remember how sweet life was then? So God sent them manna, enough to fill them. They complained about not having meat, so God sent quails.

Not long after that, the Israelites reached the Promised Land. It was a land flowing with milk and honey (so much better than cucumbers and leeks, especially if it was also flowing with peanut butter). All they had to do to claim this gift from God was to enter the land and enjoy it. They might have to fight a few battles but God guaranteed victory, so there was no reason not to march right in the front door, full of confidence.

What, they cried? There are giants there. We’ll look like grasshoppers they can squash under their feet. Let’s go back. Remember those wonderful Egyptians? They had leeks!

Of course, by that time God had had enough and sentenced them to wandering around the wilderness (i.e., hot desert) for 40 years until the original whiners died off.

It’s pretty easy to look at this story and think, what a bunch of ungrateful boneheads. How could they so quickly forget how the Egyptians had treated them? How could they so quickly forget the miracles? Why would they lack the confidence to enter this new land God had specifically guided them to and guaranteed victory in? How could they prefer leeks to milk and honey?

But yet how different are we today?

We’re quick to cry to God when we’re in trouble and feeling oppressed. This is a fine thing to do – God repeatedly tells us to do that. And he promises he will answer.

We see his miraculous rescue. We rejoice. How awesome is our God!

And then, things aren’t perfect right away. We get hungry, we get some sand in our sandals, and the complaining starts. Oh how nice we had it before when we didn’t have sand in our shoes and we had plenty to eat.

Really? We had it nice before? Weren’t we oppressed and crying out to God for deliverance? Yep. But with a little distance and a little rough going, our brains suddenly trick us into remembering the few good things we did have, the leeks and garlic, and forgetting about those awful things we suffered under, like slavery and whips and death. In our warped minds, we equate leeks and garlic with filet mignon and cheesecake, and the slavery suddenly seems far less onerous than a little grit between the toes. We look at God’s miracles with a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude.

And then when God brings us to a land that He promised and that we asked to inhabit, we look at it with fear and trembling. Oh, sure, we really could have the filet mignon and cheesecake in this new land, but what if life there is even worse, with grasshopper-squashing giants, than what we left behind? Better to hold back and play it safe than to take the risk.

This leaves us in a horrible position of not being able to enjoy the enormous blessings God has in store for us while longing for a past that was far more horrible than we now want to admit. Obviously, we can’t go back in the past and have what we once had – which we didn’t really have anyway, it just seems like it now – and if we aren’t willing to move forward in boldness and claim the victory God has declared is ours, then we are doomed to wander around in a no-man’s land, unable to enjoy anything.

We have a choice to make. We can wander around the wilderness, unhappy, wishing we had what we never really had, or we can choose to move forward, leaving the leeks and mud bricks and chains in Egypt and pushing forward into the Promised Land where we can enjoy milk and honey (and peanut butter). There will be battles to be fought, but God has promised us victory if we keep our eyes on him. If we look at it realistically and in faith, the Promised Land is obviously far better.

Razing the Old and Raising the New

Caution Suit

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1

A few years ago I went to see a client in a small town. When I walked up to his store, I noticed yellow caution tape strung across his front door, partially covering a sign taped to the glass. Thinking perhaps the door didn’t work, I walk around to the back door. Or, where the back door should have been. It wasn’t there because part of the building lay in a heap of rubble.

I walked back to the front and took a closer look at the sign on the door. CONDEMNED, it said, signed by some official. I had expected to sell this guy an ad, not have a brick fall on my head. Which was in danger of happening, apparently, so I quickly removed my bald head as a target area.

A few days later I went to the storeowner’s home. He told me that a support pillar in his store had collapsed, the one that for reasons unknown the builders had decided should carry the entire weight of the building. Fortunately, a beam had caught in the collapse and the main part of the store was saved from instant pulverization, allowing the storeowner to dash in and remove his merchandise before the condemnation sticker was slapped on the window. Now he had to wait for (homophone alert!) the building to be razed and another raised before he could re-establish his store.

The word condemn has several meanings, none of them happy. The word derives from Latin, meaning to cause intense harm. Today it can mean to express extreme disapproval (I condemn his choice to wear stripes with plaids), to sentence a criminal (I condemn you to death by a thousand paper cuts) or, as in the above example, to declare unfit for use or service (I condemn this building from future use by anyone wishing to remain alive). Condemnation, of course, is the act of condemning.

So living under condemnation is not a pleasant experience. But Romans 8:1 states unequivocally that we are no longer under any condemnation. Yay! Great news. But why?

Paul starts chapter 8 (although when he wrote it, it was just the start of a new paragraph in the middle of a letter that would have required lots of extra postage) by saying, “There is therefore….” Whenever you see therefore, you have to ask, what is it there for? It usually refers to what has been said immediately before.

Paging back to chapter 7, we can see that Paul was in a quandary. He wanted to do what was right, to obey the spirit of God, but his flesh kept trying to obey the law of sin. In 7:24 Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

No master of the dramatic pause, Paul immediately tells us the answer in the next verse – God, through Jesus Christ, will deliver him. That is the therefore he refers to in 8:1 – because Jesus delivered us from the body of death, there is no condemnation.

Paul explains this further in the next few verses, telling us that because of Jesus it is not us, but sin in the flesh, that is condemned. People who are no longer living under the flesh – those who have the Spirit of God – are no longer condemned. The same God who raised Christ has also given us new life (8:9-11).

My guess is that Paul used condemnation or condemn in the context of a criminal sentence. After all, as sinners, we should have been sentenced to death (by something even worse than a thousand paper cuts). But I don’t think it’s wrong to look at this condemnation in relationship to my client’s building. It was a death trap that was threatening to literally hit me like a ton of bricks. It was unfit for use or service.

Like that building, our old sinful flesh was unfit for use or service for God. We had become a death trap, threatening to collapse within ourselves at the slightest strong breeze of temptation. We could cause intense harm to ourselves and to others around us. We should have been wrapped in yards of yellow caution tape.

But when we accepted Christ as savior, God razed the sinful flesh and in its place raised a spiritual dwelling, one that is completely sound and fit, no longer a threat to collapse or cause harm, but one that is ready for His use and service.

Whichever definition we choose for condemn – a death sentence or unfit for service – the good news remains the same: We are no longer under condemnation. We don’t have to hang our heads in shame for what we’ve done in the past, we don’t have to feel inadequate when we see our own weaknesses, we don’t have to sit on the sidelines wondering if God could ever use us for his kingdom work. We are not condemned!

That doesn’t mean we’re perfect – we won’t be this side of heaven. But God’s Spirit who dwells in us now is perfect. He has built a new building through His spirit that He can now put into service.

This is a critical thing for Christians to understand if we are to be of service to God. At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wrote, “Marley was dead to begin with…This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” Likewise, we must understand that we are no longer under condemnation or nothing wonderful will come of our story.