The Well: Y2 March 2-6
March 2: Galatians 1,2
Paul’s letter to the “churches” of Galatia has been called the “Magna Carta of Christian Liberty”, and for good reason. It rightly maintains that freedom is not to be found in the keeping of law but in following Jesus Christ.
Unlike his other letters, Paul wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. He is astonished that his readers are moving away from the gospel of Jesus Christ to once again place themselves under the burden of a deformed gospel of legalism.
Apparently this move was motivated by a desire to please those who still believed righteousness was gained through law keeping. Paul condemns this, and instead argues strongly that the gospel he preached to them was not of his own making but was entrusted to him by God himself. We read that, after his conversion experience, Paul did not immediately consult with other Christian leaders. He, instead, went away to Arabia and Damascus for a number of years. Some estimate Paul was away for up to 14 years, with only a brief sojourn back in Jerusalem after the first three. During this time it is apparent that Paul spent his days studying the Old Testament, and came to understand, under the Spirit’s guidance, that Jesus was Messiah.
Chapter 2 continues Paul’s autobiographical defense of the legitimacy of his gospel by showing that he received the “right hand of fellowship” from Peter, James, and John who were leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Paul’s point is that, after his exhaustive study, the conclusions he came to were affirmed by the Apostolic leaders. Further, he and Barnabas were commissioned to take the message of Christ Jesus out to the Gentile world .
At this point the argument shifts to Paul’s determination to keep the gospel pure. His main concern with the Galatians was their tendency to add law to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That this had always been his view is now evidence by means of recounting an experience with Peter himself.
Paul here calls out Peter for being “out of step with the gospel.” What had he done? He had simply refused to be seen eating with Gentiles. Paul saw this as contrary to the gospel of grace by which all those in Christ are accepted by God, regardless of ethnicity.
It is interesting to note that it was Peter’s behavior that evidenced a less than adequate gospel. He was still trying to please man by suggesting by his actions that Gentiles were still not quite part of the people of God. As such he was corrupting the very essence of the gospel that saves all who believe on the same basis and into the same family.
The remainder of the chapter finds Paul stating this essence. Keeping the law cannot be the means by which a person is justified before God. Rather, God declares those who by faith are united with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection to be righteous in his eyes, justified in the eyes of the heavenly court.
Prayer: Almighty God and Father, thank you for the power of the gospel by which my soul has been rescued in Christ Jesus my Savior. I thank you that my life is in your hands, that you love me with an everlasting love, and that my desire to obey you flows out as a response to your love rather than the means of attaining it. You are a great God and the only Savior, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
March 3: Galatians 3,4
Here we find Paul really taking of the gloves! He lashes out and refers to the readers as having acted foolishly. They are walking away from the freedom of the gospel that saves in order to return to the bondage of the law that kills.
Paul reminds them of the indwelling Spirit who has been gifted to them through faith. Did law keeping bring the Spirit? No. Are they thinking that, having been given new life by the Spirit that they can now live that life by the law? They need to remember that not even their father Abraham was found worthy before God because of his obedience to the law. Rather, it was by his faith that he was accepted before God.
Paul refers back to Hab. 2:4 to ground his argument of the superiority of faith over law keeping. His point is direct and strong. Those who count on their own abilities, their own righteousness, will find that it has no currency with heaven.
The high point of Paul’s argument comes in vs. 13: Christ has redeemed us from the curse that hovers over all humanity by virtue of the fact that no one can keep the law perfectly. The law had a purpose, and it was to hold back the natural proclivity of mankind to sin while being a constant reminder of mankind’s sinfulness. By so doing, the law prepared us for the salvation only Christ can grant.
Consequently, the age-old promise of Genesis 12:3 – that through Abram’s seed all the nations of the earth will find God’s blessing – can be fulfilled. Such a promise could never be fulfilled if it demanded universal obedience to the Mosaic law. It can only be accomplished through the work of Christ who has fulfilled the law, and brought about a complete forgiveness through transforming grace.
Chapter 4 continues Paul’s illustration of the law as a guardian for a little child. Even a son is led by a guardian while a child until such time as he can fend for himself. So also, the law was a guardian to bring our hearts to Christ. In Paul’s illustration, we are no longer children but adult sons and daughters who have come to understand the reality of life in Christ. The guardian (the law) has done its job in bringing our sin to the surface, and then driving us to Jesus for rescue and reformation.
Paul continues using several different arguments to persuade the Galatians that their current turning back to the law will never satisfy the real need of their heart. His illustration of Sarah and Hagar is meant to graphically display the foolishness of the choice they are making. To return to the law is to once again become slaves
Paul is convinced that they are actually not slaves, but children of promise. And the promise is all around them in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Prayer: Gracious Father, too often I still think that your acceptance of me is based on how good I’ve been. Lord, I know this is not how I should think of you, nor how I should understand my place in your family. Remind me afresh that, in Christ, I am as forgiven as I will ever be, and that you accept me today and always on the basis of Christ, and not my failures. Grant me a strong measure of gratitude for this great salvation Lord, through the Spirit that dwells in me, Amen.
March 4: Galatians 5,6
Chapter 5 finds Paul changing his emphasis away from the foolishness of deserting the gospel to the benefits found in it. The great benefit of the gospel is freedom. This is not to be understood as license to do whatever is available, but freedom from the wrath of God found only through faith in Christ. It is also true that this freedom found in Christ frees us from the tyranny of the law. Now, our lives are no longer aligned with rules but with the righteousness that is found in Christ. He is our standard, our model, our law. We are to follow him closely in order to imitate him more fully.
It is this freedom that the Galatians are in danger of losing in favor of returning to lives under the tyranny of the Mosaic law. It is Paul’s intention to persuade against such a return.
Rather, they should order their lives by the Spirit. The desires of the flesh can only ever be curbed through a dependence on the Spirit demonstrated in obedience to Christ, and never by the self-discipline of law-keeping. Law-keeping may change behavior, but only the indwelling Spirit can change and grow and mature the heart
On the one hand, the outworking of the flesh – the mindset of the unregenerate heart – will be seen in the list of sinful acts found in vs. 19-21. On the other hand, the outworking of the indwelling Spirit will be manifested in the list in vs. 22, 23. If you are truly set on saying “no” to the flesh, mere legalism will never work. Saying “no” to the flesh is only possible as we say “yes” to the Spirit, and work hard to have his influence be unhindered in every area of life.
Chapter 6 is Paul’s exhortation to those in Galatia who are “walking by the Spirit.” While good works are never the means of our acceptance before God, they are always the expected evidence of that acceptance. We work, not to become God’s children but to show what the transforming grace has accomplished in us as God’s children. It is our privilege to live out the “family” characteristics before a watching world
This chapter is themed around the idea of mutual love and care. Those who walk according to the Spirit’s power and direction will not be isolated, but rather they will be their brother’s keeper. They will understand the privilege of caring for their fellow believers, and sharing life with them.
The letter ends with one final warning against those who would equate circumcision with acceptance before God. It is not circumcision, nor any other human activity that can reconcile us to God. Reconciliation is God’s work, and it is accomplished only as he makes us new by his grace.
Prayer: Lord, forgive me for ever thinking I can leverage you with my obedience. Forgive me for thinking I can manipulate you, the God of All. And forgive me Lord, for thinking that doing enough good things can give me space to practice my favorite sins, or that I can atone for my sins through doing more good things! O Lord, please deliver me from my delusions about your grace, and show me that walking by the Spirit, and obeying your Word are always the better choice, as I follow my Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
March 5: Proverbs 11,12
Chapter 11 continues a long list of ethical behaviors. In each case the reader is given an example of what is right contrasted with what is wrong. While the first is commended as the way a righteous person lives and acts, the contrasted wrong action is condemned.
It is interesting to note that this method (giving a good example contrasted with a bad example) was the common teaching method of the day in training children. The proverbs were not so much principle as example. And, as examples were piled on top of one another, the overall principle would emerge.
In this case, the overall principle is ethical living in the public arena. We read of ethical business practices (vs. 1, 26), ethical speech (vs. 9, 11-15), and the benefits of integrity (13), kindness (16) and general ethical conduct (19, 29).
The contrast between those who walk in pride and the humble was always at the core of ethical living in the mind of those who wrote proverbs. The proud (2) were often also the wealthy (4, 28), and they made up just one class of those considered unrighteous. These included cruel men, wicked men, crooked hearted men, and fools. Those who walked in unrighteousness would be recognized by their unethical behavior while those who trusted in God, and aligned their lives with his words and ways would be distinguished by their conspicuous and ethical behavior.
Chapter 12 continues the listing of various wise sayings intended to give a child a whole encyclopedia of wisdom. Every area of life could be addressed via these short, truth-packed proverbs.
As we read this chapter we notice a wide range of subjects. The benefit of discipline, marriage, our though life, humility, mercy, tongue-control, hard work, honesty, and sloth are all addressed.
Of special notice in this chapter are the verses dealing with our speech (vs. 6, 13,14, 17-20, 22). “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” This may be one of the more powerful statements on the power of the tongue to be found in the book. It succinctly states what we all know. Words can both hurt and heal. The nursery rhyme that declares “words can never hurt me” is pure fiction and actually dangerously wrong. The wise and righteous will carefully keep a hold on their tongues, and use their words to heal and protect and direct, and not to wound or in any way bring disrepute on the Lord of their lives.
Prayer: Father, I know the power of words, for I have often been wounded by them, and have also sent my own sword thrust deeply down into the lives of others. Forgive me Lord, and enable me to use my words to further your grace and truth today, through the power of the indwelling Spirit, Amen.
March 6: Proverbs 13,14
Chapter 13 finds wisdom and discernment as its central theme. From the wisdom of a son who listens to his father’s instructions (1) to the devastation suffered by those who ignore instruction (18), the value of having the wisdom, common sense, and godliness necessary to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, and the presence of opportunity is woven throughout this chapter.
We must remember that, in the days these proverbs were written, “wisdom” was more than knowledge. It was knowledge put to practice in behavior. It was understood as the “skill” of righteous living. Each of these proverbs is set in real life situations, and represent the conclusion that can be reached by those watching the individual involved. As we watch a person in his business, in his conversations, in his relationships, in his social involvement, what do we see? Do we see a preference for humility, righteousness, and discipline? Do we see a sharp discernment of truth versus error, of right rather than wrong? Do we see the kind of character being displayed that would be commended by God himself? These are the questions proverbs attempts to illustrate and help answer.
The essence of this “wisdom” is found in vs. 14. Wisdom is the result of instruction. When instruction shapes behavior, it is wisdom. This wisdom is a much needed skill that can be gained, and sharpened, and enhanced throughout life with increasing benefit. However, it can also be shunned in favor of following the desires of the moment. Those who walk in wisdom will find success as God defines it while those who follow their own natural desires will fall into the snares of death.
Chapter 14 continues the collection of wise sayings by which the righteous can walk in the way of wisdom. This chapter introduces us to the scoffer and the fool. The scoffer is one who hears instruction, thinks about it, but ultimately mocks it. The fool has heard it over and over and now refuses even to listen. In Proverbs, the fool is not unintelligent, but rather so hardened that he is no longer teachable. This represents the lowest level to which those who ignore instruction can fall.
This chapter also includes one of my all-time favorite proverbs, found in vs. 4: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”
The meaning is pretty cool. In my world it comes out this way. If you want to keep a clean desk, clean office, with everything put away and in order, you can, but you’ll not get much done! But, if there are books opened and papers everywhere it means that a mind is on fire, searching here and there, reading, thinking, and endeavoring to put together a sermon or writing that merits being listened to or read.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it!
Prayer: Lord, help me to be wise, to be teachable, to listen and heed the lessons you are teaching me through your word, and through the experiences of those who have gone before me. Father, humble me, and grant me wisdom, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
The Well: Y2 March 9-13
March 9: Deuteronomy 1,2
This book’s name comes from the Latin for “second law”. But here Moses does far more than repeat what he delivered to Israel back in Exodus. Deuteronomy is much more of an exposition of the law laced with the final exhortations from Moses to the nation as they prepare to cross the Jordan and – finally! – enter the land of Canaan.
The setting of the book is the elevated plains of Moab, just east of the Jordan. Moses reiterates God’s promise to the previous generation to leave Horeb (Sinai) and travel to Canaan. Along the way, Moses raised up other leaders to help care for the nation.
Moses continues the story reminding the people how their fathers had come to Kadesh, and determined to send 12 men into Canaan to see the peoples there and determine the best way to proceed. These men returned with glowing reports of the produce of the land. Yet, 10 of the men advised against entering it for fear of the inhabitants. Their counsel won the day and the nation refused to trust God in obedience. Rather, they chose not to enter the land, and God’s anger brought the judgment of years wandering in the wilderness. They had chosen the wilderness over the promised land, and so God gave them their fill of it, and that generation of men would die off before God would bring the nation into the land of their inheritance.
Chapter 2 chronicles the wandering years during which the whole generation of fighting men that had refused to follow God’s leading had perished. Then God commanded Moses to take the people and begin their final journey to Canaan by way of Edom, Moab, and Heshbon.
As they passed through the various areas, God told them not to disturb the inhabitants, but to move peacefully among them. Edom was descended from Esau, and although not part of the people of God nevertheless they were spared because they were relatives. Moab (modern Jordan) was spared because they did not live in a place that God had promised to Israel.
But Heshbon, and its king Sihon, and Bashan under King Og were a different story. Moses sent word to Sihon asking for safe passage on the condition that Israel stay on the road and in no way plunder or disturb the people of Heshbon. But Sihon, whose heart was hardened by God even as Pharaoh’s was in the time of the plagues, would not allow it.
The battle was drawn up, and God gave Israel the victory over Heshbon. This land is on the eastern side of the Jordan, known as Trans-Jordan, and along with the region of Bashan, became the land of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.
Prayer: Father, as I read about the Israelites, and their refusal to trust you, I am convicted concerning my own weak faith. Too often I succumb to temptations that are selfish simply because I don’t take the time to realize your will for me is always best! Lord, increase the strength of my faith, through a deep, experiential knowledge of your heart and your truth and your amazing faithfulness to me, through Jesus Christ, Amen.
March 10: Deuteronomy 3,4
Chapter 3 takes up the story of Moses and the nation of Israel as they are journeying north along the eastern shore of the Jordan. Having defeated Heshbon, God now delivers Bashan into their hands. The captured lands make up the Trans-Jordan portion of that land promised to them by God.
Moses explains to his audience that this land was then given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.
Victories over Sihon and Og are used by Moses as examples that God is with them and for them. As this land has been conquered and given over as their inheritance to some of the tribes, so also will the Lord deliver the lands of Canaan into their hands, if they will but trust his promises and obey his word.
As Moses prepares to send the people over the Jordan into Canaan, he makes provision for the women and children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh to stay behind, safe now in their conquered cities. Only after the wars have been won, and all the tribes are safe in their own land will they be allowed to return to their homes and families.
Moses also describes to the people how he pleaded with God to rescind his judgment and allow him to enter the land. But God would not repeal the order given years before. Moses would not be allowed to enter Canaan because he had chose, in anger, to strike the rock rather than speak to it when the people needed water. The rock, recognized as a symbol of God himself, had first been struck (Exodus 17) foreshadowing Jesus taking the blows meant for us. But when, in Numbers 20, the same situation arose, Moses was commanded to speak to the rock. Instead, he struck it again. Water flowed, but the symbolism of God needing to be struck twice was shattered, and so were Moses’ dreams of entering the land.
Chapter 4 begins a compendium of several sermons Moses presented to the people as they camped on the plains of Moab, waiting to enter the land. He begins with a strongly worded admonition to understand, honor, keep, and practice the law of God. They are not to add to them, nor take away from them, or in any way turn their worship away from God and to idols.
Moses’ stresses the individual need to “take care and keep your soul diligently” lest any begin to forget the goodness and truth of God. They are especially to stay away from idols. This one things would always be Israel’s downfall. They were consistently intrigued with the gods of the peoples around them. They must never forget that God alone is God.
Prayer: Father, it is apparent here that you are the great law giver. Further, it is evident that the laws you give us, and the ways you ask us to walk in, are always our best option simply because you are infinitely good and wise and would never ask of us what was not best for us. Lord, I confess my stubbornness and selfishness, and ask that you would root out those things in my life that cause me to seek out my own idols instead of being wholly devoted to you, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
March 11: Deuteronomy 5,6
Chapter 5 begins the second of three lengthy “sermons” delivered by Moses (chapters 1-4; 5-28; 29,30). But along the way, Moses also weaves in direct commands from God that come in the form of an ancient treaty. God is entering into a treaty with his people, and their success in entering the land, defeating its inhabitants, and dwelling in peace and security will depend on their keeping the treaty’s stipulations.
Moses begins where all of Israel’s relationship with God begins: with the covenant God entered into with them at Horeb (Mt. Sinai). The core of the covenant we know as the 10 Commandments, but the entirety of the agreement encompasses much more. The Mosaic Covenant (covenant made through Moses with Israel) was an “agreement that governed relationship” between God and Israel. It set forth both what God promised to them, and what he expected of them. Beyond that, it also set forth the ways the clans of Jacob’s sons would now function as a nation, with laws governing their daily lives, and as well laying out the ways they would show their allegiance and love for their God.
Moses also reminds the people that their God is the great God of all. His presence at Horeb was terrifying. God was not a deity to be trifled with. Moses pleads with his audience to be careful to acknowledge God, and walk in righteousness before his face that they may live and that it may go well with them as they enter the land, to possess it and dwell in it.
Chapter 6 continues the sermon concerning the law of God. Moses gives, in vs. 4 the great bedrock truth concerning God upon which Israel’s religious devotion will forever be built: Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Made up of only 4 Hebrew words, none of which are verbs, this statement has become the foundational statement of Jewish belief. As the people prepared to enter an idolatrous land, filled with gods, it was imperative that they understood the uniqueness of God. To say “God is one” is not only to say he is not plural, but actually to say that he is the only true God. Even more, this statement carries the idea that the only God is Israel’s God. That is, no other nation can lay claim to the relationship Israel has with the only true and living God.
The chapter finishes with a direct warning to the people of God. Given that their entire identity rests on their relationship with God, they must be radically diligent not to allow the convenience the land will offer to make them forget their God. If they do, God will have to resort to judgment and discipline to regain their attention and affection. Better to remain faithful and rest in the refuge provided by their loyal and loving God.
Prayer: Lord, I realize that in you I also am in relationship with God. I understand that your death has initiated a new covenant, one that isn’t about my keeping of the law but about your keeping of me as my Savior, and Lord. O God, keep me near your heart, and turn my eyes away from the selfishness and deception that is all around me, that I may be faithful and true to you, today, and all the days of my life, through the Spirit you have made to dwell in me, Amen.
March 12: Deuteronomy 7,8
As Moses continues his sermonic instruction he turns to the issue of intermarriage. When Israel enters the land, and conquers it, they will be tempted to intermarry with the idolatrous inhabitants there. God forbids them to do so! Dating back to the intermarriage described in Genesis 6 between the sons of the promised line and the daughters of unbelief, intermarriage has always proven to be the undoing of God’s people. Paul continues the warning in the New Testament in 2 Cor. 6:14.
The reason God forbids his people to intermarry with idolatrous neighbors is that they are considered by God to belong to him. They are his treasured possession upon whom he has set his love. They are to be “other” than the peoples of the world in that they are “holy unto him.” That is, they are focused on God and thus, more and more averse to sin.
Moses reminds the people that this covenant not only benefits them as God’s chosen people but also places great responsibility on them to order their lives according to God’s commands. Their obedience will be met by God with blessing demonstrated in healthy flocks, abundant crop yields, and good health all around.
The chapter ends with God’s promise that he will make Israel victorious in their battles. They are never to fear their enemies for God is on their side. They will subdue kings and kingdoms and overthrow idolatrous shrines and temples. They must not succumb to the temptation to take for themselves any of the silver or gold or idolatrous decorations. God will not tolerate any mixture of idolatry with the pure worship he alone deserves.
Chapter 8 calls the people to be a remembering people. Too often the past mercies and benefits and faithfulness of God seem to slip from our minds. Even back in Moses day it seemed the people were susceptible to a “what have you done for me lately” mindset when it came to approaching God with reverence and praise.
The call to remembrance is a call to find everyday ways to love God afresh. When you see the fields of barley, and the fig trees laden with fruit; when you have eaten and are full, and your flocks and wealth are multiplied; when you are full and happy, then beware lest you consider that all this has come about by your own hand. Be careful lest you forget God and place your own work, your own creativity, your own insights on the throne of your life rather than humbly acknowledge every day that God alone has granted you these blessings.
And if you do forget, says Moses, God will have to treat you like all the other nations who are blind to his goodness and love to rebel against his commands.
Prayer: Father, in this quiet moment I confess I too often forget that every good gift I enjoy is from your hand. I am quick to take credit for my successes and all the quicker to blame you for the hurts I endure and the obstacles that come my way. Lord, forgive me, and give me a fresh understanding of your faithfulness to me, and your love for me, and your plan for me, that I may live this day – and every day – in a way that exalts and glorifies you, through Jesus Christ my Savior, Amen.
March 13: Deuteronomy 9,10
As the nation of Israel prepares to cross the Jordan and commence the long, arduous task of dispossessing the land of its idolatrous inhabitants, Moses reminds them that they are not crossing alone. Their God, a consuming fire, is crossing ahead of them, and will be with them, and lead them, and give them the victory. The end is already guaranteed. All that is left is their obedience and faithfulness to their covenant-keeping God.
And when God wins the battles, they are not to think they did it in their own strength. The success God gives them must not give way to pride in their hearts. Rather, they must see in every victory the very hand of God effecting it all.
Moses also is clear: God is not going before you and giving you the victory because you are so good, so righteous, so better than the surrounding nations. No, you are a stubborn people, and the past 40 years of wandering only underscore that point! You have a long history of rebellion, from Horeb to Kadesh. Even while Moses was on the mountain communing with God himself and receiving the law the people were fulminating rebellion.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of Israel’s wayward hearts was the incident of the Golden Calf. Aaron had fashioned a golden calf and then declared to the people that it was their God who had delivered them from Egypt. Moses reminds the people of the devastating judgment that fell on them from the hand of God because of their compliance in this idolatrous action.
Chapter 10 continues Moses’ report of how he plead with God not to destroy the nation because of their sin, but to remember his covenant with them and restore them through his truth and love.
After reminding his listeners of the way God did remain loyal to his people despite their sin, and how he gave another set of stones bearing the covenant laws, Moses calls them to “re-enact” the covenant themselves by once again obeying the law of circumcision. Circumcision of males - the cutting away of the flesh – was to be a sign to them that their deliverance would never come through their own procreative activity. No man could do what only God could do.
The chapter ends with some of the most beautiful verses describing God’s love for those who cannot take care of themselves: the orphans, the widows, and the sojourners who are homeless and come to find refuge with God’s people. This is the God they are to fear, and praise and obey. To do so will demonstrate their faithful hearts and bring the blessing of God.
Prayer: Lord, as I read what God was asking of Israel I can’t help but thing he is asking the same things of me. Father, help me to fear you, not as a danger to me, but as the almighty, holy, righteous God that has rescued me from my fears and my sin in order to shape me more and more to be like Jesus. Help me to fear disappointing or disobeying you, to pursue righteousness with as much passion as I too often pursue sin. Hold me fast, O Lord, that I might reflect your goodness today, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.
The Well: Y2 March 16-20
March 16: Deuteronomy 11,12
Chapter 11 begins with a “therefore” that shows us the author’s intention in going forward. He has previously reminded the audience of their deliverance from Egypt through the strong and faithful hand of God. Now they should turn remembrance into righteous motivation to love and obey God as he deserves.
He reminds them that, having seen the greatness and covenantal loyalty of their God they should now delight to keep his commandments and order their lives according to his word. There are also practical reasons to do so, including the blessing of God as they enter the land.
If his people will honor him with their obedience, God will bring them victory in battle and also cause them to prosper in the land that he loves. Vs. 12 brings out the important point that God saw Canaan as his land. He has kept his eyes on it. While Israel will be allowed to inhabit the land they must never forget that they are sojourners in God’s country, and must treat the land in a way that honors him. If they fail to do so, and turn to worship idols, God will see it as polluting his land and will take steps to rid his land of their influence.
In vs. 19ff we read the verses that give rise to the legalistic misunderstanding that the commandments are to be literally bound on the hand and the head. Jesus condemned this legalism (Matthew 23:5). Still today in Israel observant men tie little leather boxes containing copies of the commandments onto their arms and heads using long leather cords call phylacteries continuing a long-held misinterpretation of this text. What God intends is for his law to permeate our hearts and minds, driving our lives and our devotion to him.
Chapter 12 continues God’s warning against all that comes with idolatry. Israel are not to allow idolatrous places and shrines to remain in the land. They are to be utterly destroyed. Further, the people are not at liberty to offer sacrifices just anywhere but must wait until they are led to the place where “the Lord you God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there.”
As if to underscore the importance of rejecting idolatry, the chapter ends with another strongly worded warning not to be ensnared in its wickedness. They are not to mimic the Canaanite culture but rather destroy it and replace it with the true worship of Almighty God.
Prayer: Father, it is apparent that worship is very important to you and that you take seriously the ways you intend for your people to engage with you. As I read Moses’ words I wonder if today our worship is shaped more by our needs than your greatness; more by our emotional desires than by our understanding of your holiness, goodness, and love. Lord, teach me to worship … to genuinely engage with you as my Father, my Savior, and my Lord, through the Spirit and the Word, Amen.
March 17: Deuteronomy 13,14
Chapter 13 continues Moses’ instructions regarding the presence of idolatrous worship in the land Israel will shortly inhabit. Vs. 1-5 are particularly relevant in our day. Notice that those with evident prophetic or miraculous gifts are still not to be considered agents of God if their message does not align with the revealed word of God. Today many are misled by those who appear to be gifted in miraculous ways but are actually false prophets intent on leading many away from the truth of God
God would have no time for any who attempted to lead his people away from his truth, even if they were family members in good standing. The people are strongly exhorted to be watchful for those who would attempt to infiltrate their cities and draw them away from the worship of God into the wickedness of idolatry.
Chapter 14 gives a number of commandments that speak to the daily ramifications of living under the protective law of God. The first section speaks to the way they are to mourn the loss of loved ones. They are not to mimic the practices of the idolatrous religions around them for they are holy to the Lord.
The bulk of the chapter goes into detail about clean and unclean foods. God was very prescriptive as to how his people should eat. This should interest us today since we often forget that God cares about what we put into our bodies.
When we look at the dietary laws of God’s law for Israel we can see two primary principles being worked out. First, God was concerned for the physical health of his people.
Many of the dietary laws prohibited Israel from eating those foods that carried a high risk of decay, disease, or other impurities that would harm the body. For example, vs. 21a forbids the eating of anything found dead. Those who ate what was already dead had no way of knowing if the means of death had polluted the meat or if the effects of death and decay had already infected it.
Second, he was concerned about the spiritual distinctiveness of his people. They were not to do anything that in any way mimicked the practices of the pagan nations that surrounded them. Again, vs. 21 is instructive. The practice of cooking a young goat in the milk of his mother was a pagan practice, perhaps associated with fertility festivals, and represented the epitome of evil. God prohibited it for he demanded that his people be distinctive as a people distinguished by their association with him.
Prayer: Father, it is increasingly clear that you care about every area of my life, even those that I think are too mundane for a great God like you to care about. Forgive me Lord, for not considering that you care how I live, how I dress, and even what I eat. Help me to understand that owning you as Lord means recognizing your lordship in every area, knowing that pleasing you is always the best way to enjoy the life you have given me, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
March 18: Deuteronomy 15,16
Beginning in 14:22, Moses instructs the people concerning the ways they are to pay tribute to their God. First through a proportionate returning to him of their crops and herds (tithes), and also by imitating his generosity and rest in the Sabbatical year (15:1-18), the offering of the first born, and the feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (15:19-16:17).
The Sabbatical year, when debts were forgiven, was God’s way of caring for the poor. In this, the people were imitating their generous God who promised to pour out unmerited blessings on them in the land.
It is interesting just how much God cared for the poor among his people. Many of the laws were structured to ease their suffering and improve their lot, even at the expense of those with wealth. Vs. 9 is an example: Those who could help were not to withhold help simply because they knew the 7th year was just around the bend, and the debt would have to be forgiven. The ethic here of the rich caring for the poor out of reverence for God’s generosity is too often forgotten today.
The offering of the firstborn to God was a demonstration that the land belonged to God as did all that it produced. God allowed them to participate in the abundance of the land by gathering to eat a sacrificial meal together.
Chapter 16 sets out instructions for three of five prescribed feasts of the Israelite year. These marked out the sacred rhythm of the nation’s life centered around their worship of God.
Passover, observed in our March/April time frame was joined to the feast of Unleavened Bread, and was a poignant reminder of God’s faithfulness in delivering them from bondage in Egypt.
The Feast of Weeks (in our May/June time frame, and later celebrated as Pentecost) was a celebration of thanks to God for the way he continued to provide for his people. Elements of the festival were a freewill offering each family brought to God (imitating his generosity to them) and a large communal meal.
The Feast of Tabernacles (in our September/October time frame) took place after harvest had been completed to celebrate the faithfulness of God is providing for his people. It was also called the Feast of Ingathering and was an occasion for the people to stop their work to thank the Lord for his abundant provision with a week-long communal banquet in a central location.
Prayer: Father, as I read of Israel’s festivals it occurs to me that you love to hear the grateful prayers of your people. You desire that your generosity to us bring a response of joy and recognition that our lives depend on your faithfulness. Lord, give me a grateful heart, and a generous spirit, and an abundance of joy that the world around me may know that I am yours, fully dependent on you, and so thankful for your love, granted to me in Jesus Christ my Savior, Amen.
March 19: Deuteronomy 17,18
God’s commands regarding leadership in Israel is found in 16:18-18:22. The last part of chapter 16 gives orders concerning the appointment of judges, and this is followed by a long section (16:21-17:13) on representative cases these judges will be ask to decide. Central to their task will be cases of controversial worship. Those found guilty are to be judged publicly demonstrating that idolatry was understood by God to have ramifications for the whole community.
These judges were to be full of integrity so that their decisions would demonstrate impartiality and justice. After all, they were representing God as the ultimate Judge of his people. Additionally, to disrespect a judge was to disrespect God, and the penalty was death. Here, once again we see the way the governing power granted to Israel’s leadership was understood as coming from God. Judges and Kings were his representatives. This carried with it a two-sided responsibility. For the officials, they were held responsible to act as God would act. For the people, they were held responsible to respond to human leadership in a way that honored their authority as coming from God.
Kings were also held to the standard of representing God himself. This is seen in the fact that God will do the choosing when it comes time for Israel to have a king. God also declared that the king should not use his position to acquire wealth or multiple wives lest they turn his heart away from God (as became the case with Solomon: see 1 Kings 11). Most importantly, the king was to have his own copy of these laws regarding his position and be careful to order his reign according to it.
Chapter 18 continues God’s regulations concerning priests and Levites. Unlike the other tribes, they were given no land inheritance in Canaan. Their job was to serve the Lord in ordering and organizing worship of God. It was the job of those who lived around them to support them with food and all they needed.
The priest and Levites were God’s way of keeping Israel’s worship from dissolving into the idolatry of the surrounding nations. It was their job to correct possible abuses and any forays into the despicable acts of pagan worship.
Lastly the office of prophet is discussed. God would provide prophets but it would be the task of the people to test the prophets in order to discover those who were not from God. The test was simple. Any prophet not sent by God would be identified when his prophecies failed to come true.
Prayer: Lord, as this day is laid out before me my highest goal is to be faithful to you, whatever circumstances come my way. Prepare me to be patient when frustrations hit. Grow my sense of joy in you so that I may be thankful, even in the midst of trial. And more than anything, Lord, fill my heart with gratitude and awe as I marvel at the grace you have shown me through which you have taken me from darkness into the light of your love, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
March 20: Deuteronomy 19,20
Chapter 19 continues the legal theme begun in previous chapters. The city of refuge was to be an important part of the legal system once Israel crossed the Jordan and took up their residence in Canaan. After the land is conquered, Israel is to set up three cities that would each provide a “refuge” for one third of the population.
These cities provided refuge for those who unintentionally ended another person’s life. The overriding theme here is that God is providing the land as a “refuge” for Israel. Thus, Israel must also provide a refuge for those who are also at risk in a broken world.
These cities did not provide refuge for those who were guilty of murder, but did protect those who accidently took life from the “avenger of blood.” Mosaic law did allow a near relative to avenge a murderer, and the cities of refuge were to protect those who ended a life unintentionally from the passion of relatives bent on revenge.
In the cities, the local elders were charged with investigation the circumstances and determining if, in fact, the loss of life was unintentional and accidental or murder.
The chapter ends with laws governing witnesses whose testimony would be used to determine the guilt or innocence of those charged with wrongdoing. Those found to be false witnesses were subject to the law of reciprocity: eye for an eye.
Chapter 20 gives broad principles to govern Israel’s participation in warfare. Most importantly, Israel must not fear their enemy because their covenant-keeping God – the one who overcame Egypt and delivered them safely to this new land – would be with them to deliver them and give the battle into their hand.
Vs. 10ff presents the orders concerning the cities of the peoples they will encounter as they make their way into, and around, Canaan. Vs. 10-15 speak to the way they are to treat the cities that are outside the boundaries of the promised land. Vs. 16-20 speak to how Israel is to treat the cities within the boundaries of the land God had promised to them.
The issue of God’s people utterly destroying “all that breathes” hits our sensibilities hard. We cannot fathom why our God would demand such seemingly barbaric action.
The answer is found in remembering God considered the land to be his. Canaan was symbolic of God’s dwelling, the land where God had made his Name to dwell. Consequently, it was to be “holy unto the Lord.”
In Genesis 15:12-16 God promised Abram that his descendants would one day inhabit Canaan, but that it would not be for hundreds of years “because the sin of the Amorites is not yet complete.” It appears that God allowed the Canaanite clans to fill up their full quota of wickedness, even to the place of gross immorality and child sacrifice. Then, at the right time, he used Israel as his scalpel to cut away the immoral cancer that was infecting his land.
Prayer: Father, there are times when your ways are hard to understand. Yet, in the dark I know my best option is to trust that you are just, holy, good, and always right. Lord, increase my faith even as you increase my understanding of your Word, that I might walk and think and act in a manner that is worthy of you, my Savior and Lord, Amen.
The Well: Y2 March 23-27
March 23: Ezra 1,2
The book of Ezra describes the first two returns of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and Persia. The first six chapters describe how, under Zerubbabel, the people rebuilt the Temple, the defining mark that Israel was the people of God. The final four chapters describe how Ezra led a second return and then initiated reforms whereby proper Temple worship was re-established in Jerusalem.
The author of the book makes it clear from the start that the release of the Jewish people from their captivity was precipitated by God himself, who moved the heart of Cyrus to rebuild Jerusalem’s temple. We can’t help but remember that, when it came time for Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem during her 8th month of pregnancy, God moved Caesar Augustus declare the census that required such a trip.
God also stirred up a group of Israelites and motivated them to take on the project. Not only did they have to travel from Persia to Israel, but they also needed to have the right skills and supplies to complete such a huge undertaking.
The sovereignty of God is also seen in that the people of Persia gave to the people of Israel the silver, gold, and other supplies that they would need both for the trip and for the expensive project ahead of them.
Lastly, in yet another demonstration of God’s sovereign care, we find that the valuable vessels taken by Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple some 70 years previously were still intact. Cyrus demanded they be restored to the people and taken back to their place in a rebuilt Temple.
Chapter 1 presents the sovereignty and faithfulness of God as the theme that runs through the narrative describing the return of God’s people to the land he had given them. They had been sent into captivity because of their idolatry and the wickedness that went with it. But their covenant-keeping God had neither forsaken nor forgotten them. Because of his promises, and his great love, God moved the hearts of Cyrus and the Persian people to both release and resource Zerubbabel’s group of returning exiles for the Temple rebuilding project.
Chapter 2 lists the families that returned with Zerubbabel. The list here is almost exactly the same as that found in Nehemiah 7. The listing demonstrates that, even though these people had been born in exile, they still retained the heritage of their regions and towns in Israel. We also see that a broad spectrum of tribes returned in this first of three returns from captivity to freedom in Canaan.
Those returning are named with the “men of Israel” listed first. This is probably a list of those males who had attained maturity. In vs. 36 we see that a number of priests joined the party, as did some of the Levites (vs. 40). Also listed are the “temple servants” (vs. 43-58) and lastly those who had no proof of their heritage but were allowed to travel back to the land with the group. Careful readers will see that the numbers don’t add up to the total given in vs. 64, and the discrepancy arises from the fact that women and children were not counted in the total.
Prayer: Father, as I read this story it reminds me that you are in control of my life, and can be my refuge no matter what circumstances come my way. I am also reminded that Israel found itself in captivity because they had forgotten you, and forsaken your ways. Keep my heart fixed on you today O Lord, that I might be found faithful in your eyes, and be seen as a witness in my world, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
March 24: Ezra 3,4
Chapter 3 finds the exiles back in their land. The trip had taken 3 months and now, 4 months later they are ready to begin sacrificing and celebrating the feasts God has commanded. The month was Tishri, one of the most sacred months in the Israelite calendar. The first day of Tishri was Rosh Hashanah (literally “the head of the year” or New Year’s Day).
But first they had to rebuild the altar. Both the spiritual leader (Jeshua) and the civil leader (Zerubbabel) worked together to finish the project, and the priests and Levites began overseeing the resumption of sacrifices. In the face of opposition from the surrounding peoples, the Israelites turn to God, demonstrated in their return to the law’s requirements concerning the daily sacrifices. Their dependence on God and faith in his promises were demonstrated in their acts of obedience to his word.
But the altar was only a beginning. The Temple lay in ruins. The challenge now was to find the right workers and assemble the materials necessary to rebuild the house of God. To be successful, the project would have to become a community priority.
When the foundation stones were laid, the celebration began. For some it was an exciting new beginning. For others it was a day of weeping as the devastation of Israel was once again impressed on their minds. In the end, both were right and necessary. It was necessary for the people to realize the depth of their forefather’s sin and rebellion against God. He had warned them over and over of the consequences that would come if they turned from God to serve idols. Now, as they prepared to rebuild the Temple, they could not help but understand the devastation as they stood on the site and surveyed the heaps of stones all around them. To rebuild they first had to clear away the sins of the past.
Chapter 4 describes the opposition Israel faced in attempting to rebuild their lives, their city, their nation, and most importantly, their Temple. At first the surrounding clans attempted to infiltrate the workforce but Zerubbabel saw through their attempt. This motivated them to bribe some into spreading false reports which eventually made their way to King Artaxerxes.
Unfortunately, the king believed all that the conspirators said and issued a decree for work on the Temple to stop. As we read this story, with the theme of God’s sovereign protection and provision for his people running through it, we cannot help but know that the lies of those who oppose God will be exposed, and God’s plan for his people to rebuild the Temple accomplished.
Prayer: Gracious God and Father, I realize that things haven’t changed. Many are still trying to thwart your plan to bring truth and love to our broken world and build your kingdom here on earth. Thank you for the reminder that neither the opposition of your enemies nor the disobedience of your people can in any way obstruct the plans you have to overcome sin and bring in righteousness. Thank you for saving me, and being a strong and faithful refuge amidst the storms of life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
March 25: Ezra 5,6
In chapter 5 we read of two prophets raised up by God to encourage the people to press on in their project of rebuilding the Temple. After having left off the work in 535bc, the people now took up the project again some 15 years later during the second year of the new king, Darius.
The resumption of the building project was immediately opposed by the Persian governor of the province. When he asked the Israelites why they had begun to build again, their response is a short but clear explanation of their forefathers’ sin and eventually captivity in Babylon. Also detailed was the decree by Cyrus that permitted them to return, and also to rebuild the house of their God. All of this, plus a plea to Darius to search the archives for Cyrus’ decree was included in the governor’s letter to the king.
From a literary perspective, it seems unusual for the author to have explained the events leading up to the release of the exiles for their return home a second time. But the reason is clear. The power of God is seen in his movement of Cyrus’ heart, as well as in the provisions that were given to the Jews for their journey and the rebuilding effort. What the writer is asking the reader to understand is that God is the real hero of this story.
Chapter 6 describes the complete turnaround of the events surrounding the rebuilding of the Temple. Those who opposed it were now informed that they were not only to allow the work to continue, but were also commanded to provide all the necessary supplies, paid for out of their royal treasury.
Verse 13 describes the finishing of the Temple. The work took four years, and the people began a mighty celebration.
The Temple stood as the centerpiece of Israel’s relationship with the Almighty. He was their God, and they were his people. It was their relationship with him that set them apart from all other peoples, and the Temple was the enduring symbol that God – the One true God, maker of all things – was dwelling in their midst. The Temple was a constant reminder that, of all the nations of the world, God had chosen to dwell with them. No other nation could boast such a privilege. Thus, when it came time to rebuild their nation, their city, their unique civilization, their first priority was to establish the Temple. Its completion was a sign to the nation as well as their enemies that God was with them, for them, and in a unique covenant relationship with them.
After the Temple was completed the nation celebrated Passover for the first time since their deportation in 605bc. The date was April 21, 515bc. Of special note is the fact that the meal was enjoyed not only by the Jews who had returned from Persia, but also by those who had joined with them from the surrounding nations in order to worship the one true God.
The chapter ends with one more reminder that everything had happened because of God’s sovereign work in the lives of mighty kings. The people were full of joy at seeing how their God had kept his promises. Today we must have the same joy, for we have as our God the same sovereign Lord.
Prayer: Lord, you are so generous! Your generosity to your people is evidenced all around. And your generosity is certainly an expression of your amazing covenantal love for your own! Father, thank you for seeking me, and for finding me, and for drawing me to your heart through the truth of the Gospel. In the face of your great grace, your overwhelming generosity, my only response must be a love that obeys, and trusts, and seeks to magnify your glory in all I do and say. Enable that in me today O Lord, for your name’s sake, Amen.
March 26: Ezra 7,8
With the building of the Temple and the celebration of Passover in the previous chapter, the first part of the book ends. Chapter 7 begins a new section that describes the coming of Ezra who leads a second group of exiles back from Persia to Jerusalem.
Ezra’s geneology, which goes all the way back to Aaron, the first High Priest. This listing is unique among Old Testament characters and certainly is meant to show Ezra to be a significant person in the sight of God.
In vs. 6 we see the first of two explanatory statements that are crucial: “for the hand of the Lord his God was on him. We see it again in vs. 9. In describing Ezra we find that he was a skilled scribe whose knowledge of the Law of Moses set him apart. Apparently, Ezra had approached the king of Persia with a request to lead a group of people back to Jerusalem. His group included priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and other temple servants. It was his intention to help restore proper Temple operations and most of all, proper worship.
Ezra made the trip without incident, and did so in record time. Why? The answer is simple: the good hand of his God was on him. Ezra was especially important to God. Ezra had a life that God could applaud, and one through which God could work for his own glory.
Vs. 10 tells us why. We see here that Ezra had early on set his heart to know, practice, and teach God’s law. As a priest in exile, his tasks had turned from offering sacrifices to teaching God’s law. It was during the extended captivity that we see the rise of priests as teachers, and Ezra stands as the first great example.
The chapter ends with a prayer of Ezra in the first person. Notice that all Ezra has enjoyed from the king has come about because “the hand of the Lord my God was on me.”
Chapter 8 goes back in time to describe the journey, and lists those who travelled with Ezra. In vs. 15 the report changes to first person. It is as though we are reading Ezra’s private account of the journey.
In the face of a long, potentially dangerous journey Ezra proclaimed a time of fasting and prayer for protection. He placed the priests and Levites in charge of the valuables, and led the people forward.
Throughout the trip, God protected them from “the enemy and from ambushes by the way.” Once again, as with Zerubbabel’s story, we find that God is the hero here. Ezra is merely God’s servant through whom he is working out his purposes.
Prayer: Father, when I read how Ezra set his heart to know your word, and to practice it, I realize that this must become the priority in my life. So many things crowd into my days that I too often forget just how important knowing and obeying your truth is. Forgive me Lord, and give me a deeper thirst to understand your word, and greater strength and courage to obey what I come to understand, through the Spirit that you have made to dwell in me, Amen.
March 27: Ezra 9,10
The end of Ezra finds the priest confronting a dire problem in Jerusalem. Throughout their history Israel had been plagued with the consequences of intermarriage with the surrounding nations. From the beginning God had instructed his people not to marry the sons and daughters of the idolatrous peoples. We see this as early as Abram’s desire for Isaac’s bride to come from their people. We see it again when Jacob is sent back to his people to find a wife. Over and over throughout their long Old Testament story, Israel got into grave danger, and fell into gross wickedness when they married foreigners who did not fear God.
Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem is immediately met with news that many of the exiles have returned and married foreigners, thus bringing uncleanness into the family of God.
Ezra’s first recourse was to pray (vs. 6). Notice that Ezra considers the nation’s sin to be his as well. He numbers himself with those who have broken the law, confesses their corporate sin, and intercedes for them all. His genuine display of contrition is not lost on the people. The multitude gathers and begins to join in the confession.
Chapter 10 tells us that the decision is made to “put away” all the foreign wives and their children. There were certainly reasons so many men had taken foreign wives. The records demonstrate that the vast majority of those returning were men, and in all likelihood there were not enough Jewish women to go around. What is clear here is that the welfare of the nation trumped individual benefit. Intermarriage threatened the very core of Israel as a unique people, dedicated to God alone.
Vs. 9 presents Ezra’s message to the assembled people of Israel who had come to confess their faithlessness to God in marrying foreign wives. There was only one solution. The men were to separate themselves from their wives. Apparently this was not an easy matter for each marriage had to be ended properly, with a certificate of divorce being written out for each woman. Also, as we can see, women who were sent off were allowed to take their children (as was Hagar in Genesis 16).
This situation is very hard for us to understand today. Perhaps the best way to put this in perspective is to realize that, according to the law of God, these “marriages” were not valid. It would be as though these men were “living with” these women, and had even had children with them, but not in valid marriages before the Lord as men of Israel. Thus, when they confessed their sin, the remedy was to end their cohabitation with these foreign women whom they were treating as wives but who were, under the dictates of Mosaic Law, not legally married to them.
Prayer: Father, this strange story makes it clear that when we sin, the consequences can go much further than just our own personal story. So many others can be affected. And it is also clear that, when we pursue a sinful path, we may soon run out of good options. Help me Lord, to prefer obedience, to be perceptive to the ways this world tries to entice me to satisfy my sinful longings rather than follow close after you, so that in all things your name may be glorified through me, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.