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In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

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Joseph and Judah and their Salvation

In Genesis we read the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. This coat was not just a fancy coat but, rather, a coat which was like the coats people of royalty wore. In giving Joseph his coat, Jacob his father was saying that he had chosen Joseph to take the position of firstborn and become the next head of the household. Joseph’s brothers knew what their father was doing.

Jacob had reason for doing this. As we recall, he wanted to marry Rachel because he loved her, but he was tricked into marrying her older and less beautiful sister, Leah. He did marry Rachel a week or so later, and although the two of them deeply desired to have children, Leah was the first to bear children for Jacob so that his first four sons were sons of Leah and not Rachel. After much time, Rachel was finally blessed with a son, Joseph, and although he was younger by far than his half brothers, being the eldest son of the wife Jacob loved, Jacob wanted him to have the position of being the firstborn. Thus, Jacob gave Joseph a royal coat which signalled his choice of the one who would receive God’s promises and become head of the household. Jacob, we should note, followed through on his intentions, adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own, thus giving Joseph a double inheritance, the inheritance that the firstborn was meant to receive.

Jacob’s brothers were unhappy with their father’s choice, and they decided to eliminate Joseph, not by killing him but by selling him as a slave into Egypt. In this way they believed that they not only got rid of Jacob’s choice of heir, but they also stood to benefit themselves. They did not conceive that Joseph would survive his slavery let alone become one of the most powerful men in the world. They would never have believed that Joseph would one day hold their lives in his hands. But, as we know, God blessed Joseph and he did become the eventual saviour of his family when they were forced to turn to Egypt for food because of a famine in their own land. As the brothers bowed down to Joseph, what Jacob had desired in giving Joseph his royal coat became reality. It seemed that it would be through Joseph that God would provide the salvation for the world, a salvation he had promised to humanity in the Garden of Eden, a salvation that would be offered to the world through Abraham’s descendants. The book of Genesis ends with us believing that Joseph could be the means by which God would provide salvation, for it appeared that he was the heir to God’s promises.

But things were not as they seemed. First, as soon as we turn to Exodus, we realize that the policies Joseph had created were turned against his people. Under Joseph’s guidance, Pharaoh gave food to the people who came to him on the condition that they become his slaves. Joseph’s policies institutionalized slavery so that it became possible for the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites and use them for their own benefit. Thus, the salvation Joseph provides turns out to be no salvation at all, at least not ultimately.

There is another curious passage in the Joseph narrative that should give us pause. Even as the narrator is recounting Joseph’s story, he stops right in the middle of his account and tells us about Judah and his bad behaviour (Genesis 38). Judah, although the fourth son of Levi, had been given the position of firstborn above his three older brothers, for they had abdicated their position because of a variety of sins. In Genesis 38, Judah plays the role of unfaithfulness to the max as he unwittingly impregnates his daughter-in-law Tamar after refusing to provide a husband for her after her first two had died. He then tries to punish Tamar for her adultery until he discovers that the child that she bears is his. She gives birth to twins, and one of them, Perez, becomes the ancestor of King David and, eventually of Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s promises of salvation are not passed to Joseph, son of beloved Rachel, as Jacob wished but, rather, to sinful Judah, a son of Leah, the unloved wife.

What happened in Genesis plays out in later history. The nation of Israel survives for a while, intact, but after enjoying prosperity as a united nation under David and Solomon, it divides with the southern part being dominated by the tribe of Judah and the northern dominated by the tribe of Ephraim, Ephraim being Joseph’s son who was adopted by his grandfather, Jacob. Animosity grows between these two sons of Jacob, now powerful kingdoms, and they are regularly at war with each other. Eventually both kingdoms are destroyed, but God allows the people to return from exile, but following this, there is never any question as to whom God will use to provide salvation. The returning Israelites receive a new name, Jews, derived from Judah, and there is never any doubt that God will provide a king from among Judah’s descendants, a king who also descends from David. Following the destruction of the two kingdoms and their miraculous return to their homeland, the rivalry between the brothers has completely disappeared.

We don’t often think about this big picture when we read the story of Joseph. Truly, Joseph is the hero of the story as God uses him to provide temporary reprieve for his people so they don’t die from starvation. But it becomes clear that God does not provide salvation through a line of heroes but, rather, through a line of sinners. It would not be the way we do things. We are taught that the only way to survive is to elicit the help of someone powerful, someone who can make a difference, someone who is a lot like a superhero. The salvation that a superhero provides might look real, but that salvation, usually won by the destruction of others, often creates an environment of oppression and subjugation. God’s salvation does not come through expected means, but, rather through the least expected, but it is a salvation that is real, and it is permanent. Jesus did not come from a line of heroes; he came from a line of sinners. And he did not come to dominate others, but, rather, to give his life for them. It was in his humiliation that he was victorious.

The story of Joseph and Judah foreshadows this perfectly. Jacob had his ideas of who should be the heir of God’s promises, and he tried to manipulate history to make things work his way, but God had other ideas. It was through Judah the sinner and not Joseph the hero that salvation comes. And for that we can be thankful.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Clean and Holy

In the Bible we see words like “clean,” “unclean,” and “holy.” These words are related to each other, as is illustrated below.

Unclean versus Clean
Common / Profane
versus Holy

As we can see, the opposite of unclean is clean. If something is unclean, it is defiled in some way. The bodies of dead animals which had not been killed for meat or sacrifice, for example, were considered unclean in the Bible, and touching such a body would make one unclean as well. Skin diseases made a person unclean. Mold in a house made the building unclean. Something that was unclean could be made clean. Mold could be removed from the house or a person’s skin disease could be healed and, with the proper rituals, that which was unclean became clean.

A second set of opposites common/profane versus holy is also found in Scripture. Most of the world was considered to be common or profane. However, from time to time, something was designated to become holy and through rituals, usually involving blood sacrifice, so that which was common could be moved to the realm of holy. Objects in the temple, things like tables and censors, were considered to be holy. The temple itself was declared to be holy, with some places in it considered to be more holy than others.

The placement or location of each person or object was determined by their designation. Unclean objects and unclean people were removed from mainstream society and forced to live away from others. Thus, lepers were forced out of their homes and communities, not only to prevent transmission of their disease but also because that which was unclean was not allowed to defile that which was clean. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers, he not only gave them healing from a terrible disease, but he also made it possible for those lepers to return to their homes and communities. On the opposite end of things only those people and objects which were made holy were allowed to be present in areas which had been designated as holy. Holiness is an attribute of God, and because God’s holiness may not be contaminated by that which is common/profane, careful rules were followed to keep that which was common away from holy places. Thus, only the High Priest, who was designated as being holy through elaborate sacrifices, was allowed to enter into the presence of God in the Most Holy Place. Certainly nothing that was unclean or even clean and common could enter into a holy area, for that would be to defile holiness.

The Roman Catholic Church had adopted some of these Old Testament designations and has assigned them to parts of their buildings. A Roman Catholic church building, before it is used for worship, undergoes a ritual by which it is made holy, and certain parts are more holy than others. The altar area, the area at the front of the church, usually separated from the rest of the building by a fence or low wall of some sort, is usually considered off limits for the common person. Thus, in many Roman Catholic church buildings, only those who are so designated may enter into the altar area. All the rest come to the fence/wall, mostly to receive Christ’s body and blood during the Mass. Symbolically, Christ comes from the holy place to give himself to the common person. While we do not necessarily agree with Roman Catholic practices, this symbolism is powerful. When a Roman Catholic church building is no longer needed, it is desacralized (made common) and certain objects are removed, and a ritual is performed so that the entire building can be used for common purposes.

Protestant churches, including ours, do not consider the church building to be holy. Our buildings, while dedicated, are not especially holy although they may function to house holy gatherings (congregations of believers) and holy events (worship services). We do not believe that the church building is intrinsically different from any other building except in purpose and function. Thus, one does not need to enter into a church building and approach the altar to draw near to God. It is faulty theology to say that we are going to God’s house (implication, a holy place) on a Sunday morning to worship. It is further erroneous to sing, “We have come into your house to worship you,” and it is equally erroneous to use those same words in prayer. The church building is not a sacred place where God lives. Differing from the Old Testament practices, we do not need to offer sacrifices or undergo rituals to be allowed into the church building.

The major change, according to Scripture, is that the house of God is no longer the building; it is the people who God has called to belong to him through Jesus Christ. Essentially, we can’t go to the house of God because are the house of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are the place where God dwells on this earth, and he can do so only because we have not only been made clean but have also been made holy through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is only because of that cleansing and sanctifying (the process of becoming holy) that the Spirit can come into our lives and be among us.

This has implications, of course. As Paul says directly at least twice in 1 Corinthians, we are temples of the Holy Spirit and therefore we are to avoid becoming unclean through sinful activities. By grace alone the Holy Spirit does not remove himself from our lives and from the church when we defile ourselves, but we can imagine that our holy God must find the experience of living in the presence of willful sin to be an unpleasant one. If we take seriously that we are God’s house, we will seek to keep sin to a minimum and always ask forgiveness when we fail. By God’s grace, we have been made clean from the defilement of sin and qualified to live in God’s holy presence through sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By his grace, we become the house of God, the dwelling place of God here on this earth. We are cleaned up and made holy through Jesus so that the Holy Spirit may dwell in us and among us. Let’s work hard at becoming what we have been made in Christ Jesus, a holy people who are the temple/house of God.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Specious

I learned a new word a few days ago: specious. I was reading an article, and they talked about a particular worldview as being specious. At first, I thought perhaps that the author meant that the worldview was special or unique, but I began to sense, as I read further, that the word meant something entirely different. I had to look it up, and I discovered that specious means, “superficially plausible, but actually wrong.” In other words, something that is specious looks like it could be right but upon further study, it comes evident that it is wrong.

In the insect world we sometimes find specious species. There are a number of insects that look remarkably like leaves, so much so that we probably wouldn’t see them as insects even if we looked right at them. Of course, it only takes a second to discover that the insect is not a leaf at all. It is a specious insect because it appears to be something that it is not, and the truth can be revealed through further examination.

Examples of specious things in creation are quite wonderful, but when it comes to ideas, they can be quite dangerous. Take, for example, the idea that working seven days a week is advantageous. By working that extra day, it is argued, we can get more done, and when we get more done, we get paid more, and when we get paid more, that is to our advantage. This argument is specious on so many levels, but, from a biblical perspective, it becomes completely false. We well know that all that we have is provided to us by God. If we dispute that, consider where we live. Farmers in Canada, for example, generally are reasonably prosperous. Farmers in many places in the world are among the poorest in their countries. The reason that any of the farmers among us are doing so well is because God has placed them here in Canada and has given us the conditions favourable to good crops, markets that will buy them and prices which allow us to live and even live well. Any one of us could have been born in a different country, worked as hard or even harder than we do now and yet live on the brink of poverty. In this and many more examples, we discover that God is the one who provides for us. Thus, while we are called to work, we do not expect that it is our efforts that make us rich, but, rather, God’s blessings on those efforts. It is specious, therefore, to say that working seven days per week will be to our advantage. We could try it, but unless God provides, we could find ourselves more worn out, grumpier and even poorer than when we took a day off.

We hear all sorts of ideas that seem plausible at first but prove to be completely erroneous upon closer examination. A former prime minister (Pierre, the father of Justin) said that in matters of sexual activity what goes on in the bedroom should not be our concern. That sounds plausible. How can we say that someone’s moral decision that leads to activities that are completely hidden be our concern? Their acts don’t affect us, do they? Sounds plausible, even logical. But consider the devastating effects of the sexual revolution that has been gaining ground for the last 60 years. It is a proven fact that repeated sexual encounters without commitment result in people who cannot keep commitments. What went on in the bedroom now affects the lives of children in their living rooms and kitchens. Mr. Trudeau’s reasoning proves to be specious.

One other example: there are many parents who would say that if their teenagers are going to drink, they would prefer that they do so at home perhaps even with their friends. Thus, they provide opportunities for their underage youth to drink, sometimes heavily, and often fairly regularly. It sounds like the parents are protecting their children from harm. Isn’t it better to create a safe environment in which to drink rather than have them run the roads under the influence of alcohol? Creating a safe environment sounds like the right thing to do. But that argument, too, is specious. Many studies have shown that the undeveloped brain (brains of humans are not fully developed until the individual reaches the age of 22 or 23) is very negatively affected by alcohol, especially if the person engages in binge drinking, which is defined as 3-4 drinks per evening. Memory loss, loss of ability to make sound decisions, and a general reduction in the ability to think are seen, to one degree or another, in every person who binge drinks before their brains are fully developed. Studies show that the effects seem to last about a month, but it is uncertain if the undeveloped brain is permanently disabled when exposed to alcohol before it is fully developed. An argument that seems plausible (we are protecting our children) turns out to be false as those same children are given the opportunity to inflict temporary or perhaps permanent brain damage on themselves. This reasoning by parents is a specious as well.

What we discover is that God’s commands counteract specious reasoning. While it is not always evident how God’s ways are right, we can be assured that they are not specious. In other words, God guides us toward a particular way of living because it is good for us. Sometimes we discover why through good scientific study, but sometimes the reasoning behind those laws is unknown to us. Someday we might understand but until we do, it is better if we simply obey. But we had better make sure that if we make an argument for something that while it might sound plausible, it cannot be refuted. While we are special in God’s eyes, by his grace, we should never find ourselves to be specious.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Memorizing

Years ago, I didn’t keep a calendar of appointments. I could remember meetings and commitments that were weeks in advance, and I never forgot a single event. Today, if I don’t check my calendar in the morning (and then again, several times throughout the day), I am sure to miss my appointments. While I have more things on my calendar, that doesn’t account for my inability to remember. I do not attribute my inability to age either. I recall beginning to keep a calendar, and within weeks of doing so, I lost my ability to remember what I was supposed to do without looking it up. I attribute a great deal of loss of ability to remember to the fact that I was no longer required to remember. I could look it up.

The philosopher, Plato, who lived a couple of centuries before Jesus was born, said that when we record our thoughts (and appointments) in writing, we weaken our memory. Plato found that if he could look something up, he didn’t have to commit it to memory. If Plato also had that problem, I don’t feel quite so bad.

We do have the ability to look things up easily. Anyone who has a smart phone can find information almost immediately no matter where we live in this world as long as we have access to the Internet. We must wonder what Plato would think if he lived in our day and age. Perhaps he would lament our inability to remember. Because we are able to look things up, we are less likely to remember because we don’t have to remember. In fact, I choose to not remember certain things just because I don’t have to.

Yet, committing things to memory is more than just an exercise in keeping our brains from weakening. When we memorize something, perhaps a portion of Scripture, it becomes more familiar to us. A number of years ago, someone told me that it was not impossible to memorize an entire book of the Bible, and so I tried it. I started with Ephesians, and in a few weeks, I had committed the first two chapters completely to memory. Unfortunately, I stopped after two chapters, but when I do read them today, it’s almost like returning home. They are comfortably familiar, and I find my self reading them more deeply. In other words, it seems that when we commit something to memory, it tends to become part of who we are.

In the Christian grade school where my two children attended in Ontario, the students were required to memorize a portion of Scripture every two weeks. When they were in Grade 1, the verses were short, but as they progressed to the upper grades, the verses turned into paragraphs. Each year, at the end of the year, each student was asked to recite not only all the verses of that year but also all the verses of all the previous years. By grade 8, they had committed 1000s of words of Scripture to memory, and nearly all of them in last year’s graduating class earned the reward that stated that they had recited all the verses they had learned while in that school. I marvelled at that because, from what I knew of these students, some of them were not the most diligent in their studies.

I reflect on the impact that having that much Scripture committed to memory should have on them. I know that a number of students who attended that school have walked away from the faith (as is true of every Christian School and church), but they cannot walk away from what they have put in their memories. True, they may not be able to recite the verses word for word, but we can be sure that when they hear them again, perhaps at a wedding or a funeral, it will be bit like coming home. Those verses will strike a chord.

I believe that Plato might lament the current state of things if he were to be able to visit. He might say that the weakened state of our memories leaves us vulnerable. True, we can look up a verse in the Bible in a few seconds, and that is helpful, but just because we can look something up doesn’t mean that we should be satisfied with our ability. What we read will still seem a little foreign to us, for it hasn’t become part of us.

At one time copies of the Bible were so rare that they were chained to a table in a library. If someone wanted to take a verse of paragraph home with them, they either had to copy it or they had to commit it to memory. I don’t doubt that many decided that instead of taking a pen and paper to the library (if they even had access to such things), that they committed portions of the Bible to memory. That way they would always have those verses with them.

I know that memory work has fallen by the wayside, and we no longer require our children to memorize Scripture as part of their church education curriculum. Parents don’t want the hassle of making their children sit down and learn their memory work before Sunday School of Catechism. I don’t want the frustration of having to deal with students who come with their verses unmemorized. Besides, if I remember my church education days, the way I memorized the verse of the week seconds before I had to say it allowed it to escape my short-term memory almost as quickly as it had entered it. That kind of memorization serves no purpose.

I rather like the way that the Christian school did it: the students had to remember some verses, not for 8 minutes but for 8 years. If we do the same, perhaps we will be well served as Scripture becomes part of us. It is not impossible to memorize significant portions of Scripture, and if we commit those paragraphs to our long-term memory by returning to them time after time, we can be sure that they will become part of who we are. Reading them in church or personal devotions will be like returning home, and we will be blessed.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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