The greatest need of the believer
Romans 7: But I need something more.
In this passage the Apostle describes the frustration of many of God’s people. He’s been set free from sin’s prison and now wants to live God’s way. He understands that God’s ways are right but under the influence of sin even the purity of the Law becomes a tool of temptation and failure. He’s been freed from prison but some of that prison remains in him. He declares “I need something more.” A believer doesn’t have to attend a particular brand of church to identify with this statement. Having been forgiven of sins I set out to live a new life of righteousness in fellowship with the Lord. However, I come to the conclusion that this isn’t as easy as it appears. In fact, the harder I try to live that life of righteousness the clearer it becomes that, in Paul’s words: “I obviously need help!” Is this passage a pitiful surrender to sin? When all is said and done, is the Christian life all about grimly holding on through repeated spiritual failure? The Apostle will more fully answer these questions as he continues writing in what we call chapter eight, but he tips his hand when he says, “The answer, thank God, is…Jesus Christ.”
Take Away: Without the deeper work of God the Christian life is one of constant struggle.
A courtroom scene
Zechariah 3: Get him out of those filthy clothes.
In his vision Zechariah sees the high priest, whose name is Joshua, in a courtroom scene. Joshua represents not only himself, or the priesthood of Israel, but the entire nation. Their situation is a dire one. Even though they’ve been snatched from the consequences of their sin and returned to their homeland, they remain unclean before God. And that’s what the Accuser comes to declare. However, there’s a remedy. In the vision, the Lord removes the high priest’s uncleanness and outfits him in clean clothes. Then, the prophet asks that Joshua be given a clean turban as well. Now, remember that Joshua’s the high priest. The clothes he’s given aren’t just average clothes and the turban isn’t an average turban. They’re the robes and turban of the high priest: rich garments reflecting his high position. That hat, in particular, has meaning. The turban worn by the high priest has a gold plate on it that’s inscribed with the words “Holiness unto the Lord.” This is powerful symbolism. Although the people are redeemed they remain unclean in the sight of the Lord. Through the mercy and grace of God there’s a remedy. The Lord purifies their lives and then outfits them in his holiness. Believers of today can identify with this. After I put my faith in Jesus as my Savior I come to realize that there remains a basic uncleanness in my heart. It’s when I throw himself to the mercy of God that he takes action to graciously purify my heart and fill me with his Holy Spirit that I might be holy in his sight.
Take Away: Through the mercy and grace of the Lord there’s a remedy for the stain of sin.
Sorting out a passage and finding at its core: grace
Haggai 2: From now on you can count on a blessing.
“Temple fever” is sweeping the nation as governor Zerubbabel and his people give themselves to the rebuilding project. One group that’s especially energized is the priests who’ve served without a Temple. They’re sure things are going to be much better once the Temple is restored. Haggai comes teach them a core spiritual truth and he does so by asking two questions. Question number one has to do with imparted holiness. If meat from a sacrifice is put into some priest’s pocket, it will make his robe holy, but what about other foods then touched by the robe? The priests respond that there’s no ripple effect concerning what other foods the robe might touch. Therefore, those foods remain unholy. The second question concerns the flip side of things. If a person touches a corpse, becoming ceremonially unclean and then touches various foods, do they also become unclean? The answer is “yes” – the “uncleanness” is imparted to whatever that person touches. Haggai then tells them that the sacrifices they’ve been making haven’t been proper because of their spiritual failure. The sin of not rebuilding the Temple has impacted all they’ve done, making them all worthless. Even as a person who touches a corpse makes all they touch unclean, so has their disobedience concerning the rebuilding of the Temple had a negative impact on all their religious practices. The flip side, which I wish Haggai had more clearly stated, is just as disturbing. Just offering proper sacrifices in the rebuilt Temple isn’t going to have the hoped for ripple effect of making the entire nation holy. It’s like the robe touched by the sanctified meat. It’s made holy but that’s as far as it goes. Touching other things with that robe won’t make them also holy. In other words, rebuilding the Temple isn’t a cure-all. Still, the prophet has some wonderful, and educational, news. From the moment they returned to God he began to bless them. His blessings weren’t a result of their making the right kind of sacrifices; in fact, they weren’t the right kind. Rather the blessings were the result of his grace. As I read this especially confusing little passage I come away with a better grasp of this truth: sin has contaminated our entire lives, making us exempt from any hope of self-manufactured holiness. Even when I return to God, my renewed commitment to him will still come up short because of the contamination of sin that has ruled my life. However, I’m not without hope because of God’s grace. He blesses me, not because I’ve managed to restore all that was broken but because he chooses to respond to my surrender to him with wonderful grace.
Take Away: The blessings of the Lord are the result of his grace.
Ezekiel 43: Draw a picture…
As a casual reader, one of the bewildering portions of Ezekiel has been, to me, all the measuring that takes place in the final chapters of the book. In his vision Ezekiel crawls all over the Temple measuring every nook and cranny, carefully taking note of every inch. If I thought about it at all I thought maybe these were the plans for the promised rebuilding of the Temple. However, I don’t think that’s the actual intent. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “Draw a picture so they can see the design and meaning and live by its design and intent.” Concerning the Temple the prophet is told, “Everything around it becomes holy ground.” God had called the people of Israel to be his own, holy nation. All the laws, rituals, and even the construction of the Temple had the purpose of helping to bring that to pass. In this case Ezekiel is to rediscover the power of the architecture of that place of worship. Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple is to remind his people of how far they’ve fallen from the holiness to which they were called. It’s also intended to give them hope and call them back to God. Ezekiel’s going to go right on with his vision, talking about the rituals and the work of the priests and the feasts, all with that same intent. However, I’m still thinking about the purpose of sacred space. The Temple wasn’t just built to be a functional place of worship. It was to call people to holiness — a place set apart for the worship of a God set apart by a people set apart. The layout and the furnishings weren’t just for practical use. Just looking at the building was to create longing for holiness. I don’t know that I’m deep enough to fully grasp this, but I’m reminded today that as I read of Ezekiel with his tape measure that there’s more going on than just the drawing of blueprints.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for those gifted in the design of buildings set apart for the purpose of worship.
God’s agenda isn’t a secret
Ezekiel 20: I, God, am in the business of making them holy.
Through Ezekiel, the Lord recounts the history of his dealings with the people of Israel. We’re reminded of the Exodus from Egypt and Moses going up on the mountain for an encounter with the Almighty. A result of that meeting is the Law. They now have Ten Commandments to live by and soon there’s an entire body of Law to go with them. In the passage before me today the Lord tells their descendants his purpose in all of that. He did it as a part of his project to make them holy. From the beginning and down through the centuries the Lord has continued to work to that end. As he speaks through Ezekiel we find that God’s purpose has not been watered down or diverted. In this passage, the Lord tells them that the whole “Sabbath day” approach was for this purpose, part of his grand plan. This message is addressed to another generation that insists on resisting the Lord and the result is his rejecting them, erasing many lines that have been drawn, and nearly erasing them from the face of the earth. What’s next? The answer is obvious: it’s God’s purpose. Their failure doesn’t change his purpose for them. In new ways and with a new generation the Lord will return to the “business of making them holy.” As he said to their ancestors, “Be holy because I am holy.” I’m reminded today of just how committed God is to this business of holiness. As one of his people, I want to cooperate with his purposes for me and for the entire human race.
Take Away: The Lord is in the business of making people holy.
The cry of God’s people
Ezekiel 11: I’ll give you a new heart. I’ll put a new spirit in you.
Judah’s problem isn’t poor leadership or powerful enemies. They aren’t ignorant of God’s desires for them and they aren’t the unwitting victims of circumstance. They are where they are because they’ve rebelled against God. Through their history, time and time again, they’ve followed a cycle of failure, judgment, repentance, and restoration — only to have it all start again. Now many of them have been exiled from the land God gave them. Back in Jerusalem sin reigns and soon the result of that sin will be the total destruction of their beloved city. The Lord says he’s going to break the cycle by changing their hearts. The result will be a people who love God and love his ways. Many Christians can identify with the cycle of failure we see when we journey with these ancient Israelites. We too have been trapped in a cycle of failure, judgment, repentance, and restoration. As we read the promise of a “new heart” our spirits respond with longing for that kind of relationship with God. These words stir us and challenge us to let God have his way in our lives even if that means we need a spiritual “heart transplant.” The result is a healthy spiritual life: “You’ll be my people! I’ll be your God!”
Take Away: Only the Lord can do what must be done in us and he’ll only do it as we allow him to and cooperate with him in that work.
The mark of God’s people
Ezekiel 8: Don’t lay a hand on anyone with the mark.
In one of his visions Ezekiel finds himself back in Jerusalem. The Lord takes him on a tour of the Temple, giving him a spiritual view of what’s actually going on there. The sin is outrageous and disgusting. Anyone who loves the Lord and worships him would be broken hearted to see their precious Temple desecrated in this way. Then, Ezekiel sees a man on a mission. He’s to walk the streets of Jerusalem, putting a mark on the foreheads of those who are distressed at the sin of their nation. All others will be wiped out. I find it interesting that in Revelation we find the “mark of the beast.” In that case, it’s those who refuse the mark who are saved. Here in Ezekiel, we see the reverse. It is those with the mark who are spared from the judgment that comes. Comparing the two “marks” ought to cause some who subscribe to a “Left Behind” brand theology to pause and consider! I think of the mark of Ezekiel as the “mark of caring.” You see, God cares about people and righteousness and holiness. He’s always on the lookout for people who’ll join him in that concern. If that fellow with the writing kit passed by my life today I wonder if I would receive that mark.
Take Away: The sin of our society should break our hearts.
Hope of restoration
Isaiah 57: I live in the high and holy places, but also with the low-spirited, the spirit crushed.
God is the Almighty and I’d better never forget it. His ways are higher than mine and he’s right at home in Eternity. This awesome God is a demanding God. He calls me to live in fellowship with himself and his standard for me is nothing short of holiness. If I rebel it’s not his purpose that is broken, but me. However, this God is not untouched by that brokenness. He not only sits on his throne way up in Heaven, but he also inhabits the world he created. When my sins have divorced me from the Lord and I begin to realize the awfulness of those sins I find that he’s been there, reaching out to me all the time. The same God, this high and towering Being, cares for me even in my ruined state. He longs to transform my “spirit-crushed” life into something wonderful and new. His language to me is filled with powerful and welcome words: healing, leading, comforting. As I reach up from the bottom, I realize that God has been there all the time, reaching down from the top.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
Isaiah 35: There will be a highway called the Holy Road.
God is a holy God and his purpose for us is that we be a holy people. Isaiah looks to such a day, a day when the people of God will reflect God in their lives. Of course, that reflection is incomplete. Even as the bright moon reflects the sun, but not the entirety of the sun, so do God’s people reflect the holiness of God. Isaiah promises a day and a people who’ll walk the Holy Road and in that journey will “be becoming” the people God intends them to be. To walk that road is, at the same time, a journey and a destination. That is, the journey is what the Lord calls us to. To him, “arriving” is not nearly as important as “journeying.” With that in mind we respond to his call on our lives, the call to holiness, and thus get on the Holy Road. Starting is not the same thing as finishing, but without the start and without the steadfastness of the journey there’s no hope of arrival. Holiness people are people committed to that journey, not people who have finished it.
Take Away: We are a people on a journey, not people who have reached a destination.
Isaiah 29: These children will honor me by living holy lives.
They’re such failures at being a people of God! Nothing works for them. Their worship is skin-deep, their vision of God is lost to spiritual blindness, and their relationship with their Creator is upside down and wrong side out! The Lord, through Isaiah, has no compliments for them. However, the Lord does have words of hope. It will take some doing but God’s going to make them into a holy people. He’s going to have people who worship in holiness, who reverence him as the holy God of Israel. Getting there is going to cost them everything. They’ll lose the land God gave them and, frankly, many in this generation will lose their lives. Out of the destruction, God will begin remaking them into a people worthy of his Name. Today, God’s still in the business of creating holy people. The process is, in some ways, the same. He brings us to the place where we give up everything, dying out to self. Once all else is gone he fills us with himself. This sanctification process is often painful for us as we struggle with the Lord over ownership of our lives. When we do surrender to him, though, the result is holiness; God honoring, wonderfully satisfied lives.
Take Away: The Lord is still in the business of creating holy people.