Archive for March 2015

Made Holy or Becoming Holy?

from the devotional book, PICTURES OF GOD

Deuteronomy 7

At times, God told Israel that they were a people holy to the Lord. They were holy because He had chosen them and made them so. For example:

You are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 7:6, NASB)

At other times, they were commanded to be a people holy to the Lord. Being holy was their own responsibility.

I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:44, NASB)

How can we reconcile these approaches to being God’s holy people? Were they holy because God had made them holy, or were they to be holy by their own decision and effort? What makes God’s people holy?

  • First, they were holy by God’s decision and God’s doing. God had separated them to Himself. He had chosen them as His own (v.6). Why?
    –Not because they deserved it, but because of His great love (vv.7-8);
    –Not because they had been faithful, but because He was faithful to His promises to Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob (v.9).
    They were holy because God is holy. Whatever is God’s, whatever is separated to His service, is holy.
  • In response to God choosing them and separating them to Himself, they were called to live as His holy people. They had to obey and separate themselves from the ways of the people around them (vv.2-3). They must not serve their gods (vv.4-5). They must obey God (v.11) and trust Him in times of need (vv.17-23).

God is holy, and He is the only source of holiness, so holiness is always His choice and His doing. But we must respond in faith and obedience. Those who did enjoyed all the continuing blessings of being God’s people (vv.12-15). Those who disobeyed were judged and buried in the wilderness. They never received God’s promised blessings (Hebrews 3:12 – 4:3).

Holiness is a living relationship with the holy God. Only He can initiate the relationship, but we must allow God to be our God in our thoughts, words, and actions.

God Blesses His People

When God was preparing Israel to enter the Promised Land, as He was forming them into a people who were uniquely His own, He commanded the priests to regularly bless His people with these words:

Yahweh bless you and keep you.
Yahweh shine His face on you and be gracious to you.
Yahweh lift His face on you and give you peace.
(Numbers 6:24-26, author’s translation)

To bless someone is to speak their well-being. Human speech, of itself, is relatively powerless. It is simply vibrating air. Though our blessings express kind intent, they are wishes, not commands.

But God’s words are sovereign, and so are His blessings. When He speaks, reality responds. When He blesses us, He decrees our well-being. And here in Numbers 6, as throughout scripture, God decrees the well-being of His people. He decrees the well-being of all who trust Him.

This special blessing in Numbers 6 doesn’t stop there. God wants His people to know that He is always keeping them. The word for “keep” means to watch, guard, and protect; to exercise great care over someone or something. For example, it describes the way one cares for a garden, or tends a flock, or watches over one’s own house.

Psalm 121:3-8 is a beautiful description of the way God keeps His people:

  • God keeps us constantly. He never sleeps.
  • God keeps us completely. Not even the sun and moon can touch us without His permission.
  • God keeps us in every place, in every daily activity, in every circumstance, in every season of life, now and forever.

But my favorite part of this blessing in Numbers 6 is God’s promises about His face. Remember the story of Esther? She was afraid to enter the presence of the king without permission, and if she entered without him extending his favor, she would die. But here, God promises that the light of His face is always shining on us. He is always a gracious, loving, welcoming King. He invites us into His presence, and when we enter, He lifts up His face toward us and blesses us with His peace. This peace is not just the absence of all conflict. It is wholeness, harmony, and well-being, all the best that our sovereign God can give.

What does the light of God’s face mean in practical terms? Turn to Psalm 44. The psalmist is recounting all the ways God provided for His people by bringing them out of Egypt, taking them through the wilderness, then into the Promised Land. They overcame major challenges every step of the way.

It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them. (v.3, NIV)

God’s blessing, His keeping, His compassion, and the smile of His loving favor are constant toward His people, toward all those who love and trust Him.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: God Blesses His People
Printed Music & Lyrics

Beyond All Images

from the devotional book, PICTURES OF GOD

Exodus 20:1-6; Deuteronomy 4:15-20

Understanding God’s transcendence sheds light on the second of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4, NASB)

This strong prohibition not only applies to images of false gods, but to images of the true God as well. Why would God absolutely forbid His people to make any likeness of Him?

  • Because God is transcendent, any image of Him would diminish Him. It would make Him far less and far other than He is, bringing more misunderstanding than understanding. He is Creator, not anything created. Worshiping any image, even an image intended to represent Him, is inherently worshiping a god other than the infinite, unseeable God. Such worship is inevitably idolatrous, regardless of its intent. The entire universe in all its vastness and wonder is only a tiny, partial revelation of all He is.

Death is naked before God…
he suspends the earth over nothing…
The pillars of the heaven quake,
aghast at his rebuke.
By his power he churned up the sea…
And these are but the outer fringe of his works;
how faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power? (Job 26:6-14, NIV)

  • Any image of God is static, whereas God is a God of action. He reveals Himself through His actions, not through some static image.
  • Once we reduce the infinite, almighty God to anything local and material, our tendency is to try to control and manipulate Him. Think of the way the Ark of the Covenant has been pictured as having magical powers. That is the way any image of God would be used. Almighty God would become a mere tool to be wielded for selfish human ends.

God is great and marvelous beyond our full comprehension. And in Exodus 3:12, God says, “I AM with you”, using the exact word that He uses for His name in 3:14. Transcendent, Almighty God is with us always, in the full force of all He is.

Our understanding of the transcendent God deepens the mystery and wonder of Jesus Christ, a Galilean peasant, Who comes as the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15, NASB) and the exact representation of His nature (Hebrews 1:3, NASB).

God of All Music

During forty years in church music publishing, I’ve seen how easily we confuse our biblical beliefs with our cultural preferences. Usually we don’t even realize that these are two different things, much less are we able to distinguish the two. A glance at church history down through the ages proves that the problem is ever with us.

This is certainly true in music. Our personal tastes are deeply, fiercely held, and they seem so “right” to us.

We like to think of ourselves as rational and biblically literate. Whatever our tastes, we learn to support them by scripture and reason. But let’s be honest: with all of us, the head tends to bend to the will of the heart. I am no exception. In the current tension between hymns and praise songs, I have my preferences, and I can support them with logic and chapter and verse.

But God continues to show me that He is the Source and Sovereign of all. He alone is all-knowing. He alone is holy. Thus His purposes and His perspective are so much broader and deeper than I can imagine. His concerns are all-encompassing. They take in every need of every being of every race, nation, age, culture, and personality.

This God of all is the God of all music. From Him and through Him and to Him are all things (Romans 11:36, NASB). Rationally, can I really believe that this all-encompassing Spirit-being limits His creative voice to one particular musical style or set of styles? Hardly! Read His written Word. He speaks through prophets, children, kings, and fools, donkeys, sunsets, wind, and fire, laws, stories, love poems, and songs. Do we really think that such a God speaks only through our narrow range of preferred musical styles?

Read 1 Corinthians12:3:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (NASB)

That seems to apply to sung as well as spoken word. All music that proclaims Jesus as Lord is, in some sense, inspired by the Holy Spirit. It flows from Him, through Him, and to Him, for the glory of God. The same passage goes on to say:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, but the same Lord. (1 Corinthians 12:4-5, NASB)

I can give strong, logical reasons why musical styles I don’t prefer are seriously flawed. But every style is seriously flawed, my own included. Every human effort is partial and imperfect. Our music is imperfect. Our praise is imperfect. Even our love is imperfect.

Each of our perspectives is childishly limited. Our motives are uneven. We are more small-minded and self-centered that we ever imagine. But God uses all who trust Him, no matter how stumbling our faith might be. Read the Bible. Consider Noah, Abraham, Hagar, Moses, Samson, Gideon, David, and more.

If Paul made himself all things to all people that he might win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), how much more will the Father of All, in His unquenchable love, use all the tools at His disposal that He might reach everyone.

The Bible warns us repeatedly and in the strongest terms not to judge one another. Shouldn’t that include one another’s music as well? I’m not referring to constructive criticism or comparative study done in a Christ-like spirit. Such objective evaluation can be mutually beneficial. But we dare not condemn a style as being unworthy of being offered to God for His glory.

Let’s humble ourselves before our Father and before our brothers and sisters. Let’s admit our smallness, narrowness, and ignorance. Let’s support the Spirit’s work, even when we are unable to fully appreciate it.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: God of All People
Printed Music & Lyrics

Risen with Christ

Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,
the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through a man,
the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
(1 Corinthians 15:20-22, NIV)

In Jesus Christ we are
risen from eternal death,
risen from slavery to sin,
risen from darkness and futility.

In Jesus Christ we are
risen to eternal life,
risen to be like Christ,
risen to completeness in Him.

In Jesus Christ we are
seated at the right hand of God,
kept by His sovereign love,
robed in every spiritual blessing.

Praise be to Him forever and ever!

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Risen from Eternal Death
Printed Music & Lyrics

Keep God’s Name Holy

from the devotional book, PICTURES OF GOD

Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:11-12; Ezekiel 36:22-28

The third of the Ten Commandments says,

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. (Exodus 20:7, NASB)

What is God telling us when He says not to take His name in vain? I believe He is saying this:

My name is My identity.
It is Who I am.
Only say it if you mean it.
Don’t use it
as an expletive,
as a magic charm in an attempt to manipulate Me, or
as an empty vow to cover your lies.
Only say my name with the reverence and fear that my Being demands.
Keep My name holy.

But keeping God’s name holy affects far more than what we say. The Old Testament repeatedly warns God’s people against living in ways that would profane His holy name. God has a burning desire that all people everywhere would know Him. When we break His commandments and ignore His laws, we dishonor Him before those who need to see and know and trust Him. Sinful lives profane His holy name.

“I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.” (Ezekiel 36:23, NASB)

How can we keep God’s name holy? By living lives of love, honesty, consistency, and purity that show the world Who God is – that He is love, wisdom, peace, justice, and righteousness.

God’s Name Is Holy

from the devotional book, PICTURES OF GOD

Exodus 3:13-15; 20:7; Leviticus 22:32-33

In Exodus 3, God is calling Moses to a huge task, and Moses is hesitant. He asks, “If the Israelites ask me the name of the God who sent me, what should I say?” Moses would be coming to them making an immense, unbelievable promise: to free an entire race of powerless slaves from one of the most powerful, most ruthless rulers on earth. So what Moses wants to know is, “What God can make such an outlandish promise and actually fulfill it? What name will make them believe me?”

God’s immediate response: “I AM WHO I AM…Tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.”

Names are significant in the Bible. A name is more than just a verbal handle. Names represent who the person truly is – their nature, their character, and their destiny. In God’s case, He is incomprehensible, far above anything we could discover on our own. But each of His many names reveals something about Him. Here, “I AM WHO I AM”, or simply “I AM”, are versions of the name God chose for Himself: Yahweh (sometimes rendered “Jehovah”).

So what does this name – I AM WHO I AM, I AM, or Yahweh – suggest about God? How do they reveal an Almighty God who can deliver on any promise He makes, no matter how outlandish it seems?

  • “I AM” says that God is self-existent. All existence, all being, flows from Him.
  • All other names are derivative: “Light,” “Healing,” “Wisdom,” “Sun,” or whatever. They all take their meaning from some object or some human context.
  • God is not derivative. He does not derive from or depend on anything or anyone else. He is before all things. He conceived and created all that is. Everything is less than Him and derives from Him, not the reverse.

God is holy…separate…transcendent. Therefore His name, His identity, is holy as well.

Washing Feet

Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet . . .”Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. . . .”Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:4-5, 12, 14-15, NIV)

Imagine it: some awesome dignitary shows up unexpectedly at your door. With excitement and great humility you receive him as an honored guest. You spare no efforts to make him feel comfortable. Then he insists on cleaning your bathrooms.

You’d probably react like Peter did: “No! You’ll never clean my bathrooms!”

But Jesus’ demonstration was powerful. As a people, we’re more inclined to serve ourselves than others.

“Lord, I’m too busy to wash feet. I have more important things to do.”

But Jesus wasn’t too busy. In the final hours of His ministry, with so much yet for His disciples to learn, He taught them this. He changed His clothes, got down on His hands and knees, and washed feet.

Lord, teach me to wash feet. I’m not too old to learn. Help me put my priorities where You put them. Help me focus my days on humble service to my family, my coworkers, and to the least ones around me. Give me Your Spirit and Your heart, Jesus. Teach me to wash feet.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Here at Your Feet, Lord
Printed Music & Lyrics

Our First Lesson in Holiness

from the devotional book, PICTURES OF GOD

Exodus 3

Question: What is the first occurrence of the word “holy” in the Bible? (Big hint: “holy” does not occur in Genesis.)

Answer: Exodus 3:5. Moses was born in Egypt into the home of Hebrew slaves. As an infant, he was miraculously saved from death by his parents’ bold faith. Though raised in the royal palace, his sympathy for the Hebrew people got him in trouble, and he had to flee to the far side of the desert. This prince was now a shepherd, pasturing flocks near Mt. Sinai.

Through the sight of a bush that was burning but not consumed, God lured Moses into their first of many personal encounters. He called out to Moses by name, “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3:4). As Moses began to come near, God gave him his very first lesson in knowing Him:

“Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5, NASB)

The first thing God taught Moses about Himself was that He was holy. What would Moses have understood about God through this warning?

  • God was “above” him. He was unworthy of God. He couldn’t trifle with Him or assume familiarities.
  • The very fact that God revealed Himself through a miraculous sign, rather than through a bodily appearance, communicated that He was separate. He was holy. He was completely above and beyond our human limits.
  • Moses would have been filled with a sense of awe and mystery regarding this transcendent God who had come near and reached out to him.

But as their conversation unfolds in Exodus chapters 3 and 4, a remarkable relationship begins to take form. Moses is honest about his fears regarding God’s assignment—even stubborn. How does this holy God respond? With amazing patience. He responds to Moses’ candor with candor of His own. He teaches. He prods. He challenges. He even grows angry and scolds. But He doesn’t give up on Moses or push him away. He takes steps to meet each of Moses’ concerns, even when they’re unreasonable. Here is a holy God who is gentle and patient with His weak and fearful creatures.

The Christ of Easter

from A Christ-centered Year

By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.
(1 Corinthians 6:14, NIV)

During Easter, Jesus is the Life of the Father,
overcoming death and sin forever.

Consider the power of His Life in your life.
He became a helpless infant,
so He doesn’t recoil at your weakness.

He wrapped Himself in shame, rejection, and homelessness,
so He isn’t offended by your lowliness.

He poured Himself out in teaching and healing,
so He warmly embraces you in your ignorance and need.

He begged forgiveness for His torturers.
so He will not abandon you in your sin.

He silently accepted all the abuse His enemies could dish out,
so He will not be frightened away by anything you might do.

The Life that spoke all life into existence
could not be defeated by death—
not in Christ and
not in you.
This Life took the worst that evil could give and
emerged the Conqueror.

You have absolutely nothing to fear.
Not now.
Not ever.
The unconquerable Life is now your life. 

“Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3, NIV)

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54, NIV)

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Christ Is Alive! We Live in Him!
Printed Music & Lyrics