Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why did I write about the dietary laws? To speak to the questioning mind


(by Peter Waller)
My previous blog entry sought to explain the purpose of the Old Testament dietary laws. I wrote it because I believe it may help people who have questions about God; questions which often undermine faith in God. The Old Testament, especially, can seem very strange to the modern mind. While I don’t think the dietary laws are the most relevant matter in this regard, they nevertheless fall into this category and as I read them I wondered what their purpose was.

My experience with difficult questions is that there are good answers for some of them, but not all. I think St Augustine put it brilliantly 1,600 years ago, “God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity.” If you feel that this is a cop out, I would contend that the fields of philosophy and science also face unanswered questions. The more we discover, the more we realise we don’t understand. If you are under the impression that scientific research is resulting in a reduction in the number of unanswered questions, you need to know that it isn’t. Here is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Guardian in 2013 entitled, The 20 big questions in science:
8 Are there other universes?
Our universe is a very unlikely place. Alter some of its settings even slightly and life as we know it becomes impossible. In an attempt to unravel this "fine-tuning" problem, physicists are increasingly turning to the notion of other universes. If there is an infinite number of them in a "multiverse" then every combination of settings would be played out somewhere and, of course, you find yourself in the universe where you are able to exist. It may sound crazy, but evidence from cosmology and quantum physics is pointing in that direction.
Do you think this question existed when St Augustine pointed out the limits of human reason? I doubt it. But as we discovered more about our universe, we realised how incredible it was. And we realised that it doesn’t make sense for it to exist. Some scientists have therefore taken the view that, if there are billions of other universes, then it would make sense simply on a basis of probabilities for a “finely tuned” one like ours to exist. (What was that you said about a cop out?) Maybe there are other universes. Personally, the precision of our universe makes perfect sense to me since I believe in a Fine Tuner. My point, though, is that both the agnostic scientist and the Christian face questions beyond them. St Augustine explained why and if the world is around for another 1,600 years, I’m confident his explanation will still be every bit as valid.
If you’re facing questions that oppose you in your desire to believe in the God of the bible, can I make a few recommendations based on personal experience?
  1. Pray about them. I found God to be my main helper. He answered some of my questions in a way that allows me to trust him on those he didn’t answer.
  2. If your problem is with a portion(s) of Scripture, do some research. Find a good study bible, book or Christian apologetics website and see what solutions they offer. It’s very unlikely you’re the first person to wonder about something and you’ll often find an answer that satisfies your concerns.
  3. Talk to people who you think may have good answers.
  4. Know that you'll never get answers to all your questions whatever you believe.
In all of your searching I would caution you against being persuaded one way or another too easily. If you’re a Christian, don’t throw away your faith too quickly. The issues are probably more complex than you realise. Strong arguments can be made for conflicting views on almost any topic. Why? Because our minds – as wonderful as they are – are finite. If our minds were infinite, we’d all agree on everything and there’d be no more questions.

When faced with the predicament of a finite mind, the bible’s counsel in Proverbs 3 is incredibly helpful for the Christian: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” God promises to make your crooked paths straight!
God doesn’t ask us to switch off our brains on matters of faith. But he does, lovingly, instruct us to not rely entirely on them. Faith in God may be supported by (and should encourage) the application of human reason and the undertaking of research. Ultimately, however, it is based not so much on a knowledge of the truth, but of the Truth – a person; Jesus Christ. Jesus described himself as the Truth. It is in finding him that our faith is transferred from ourselves (including what our brains can figure out) to him. It is in encountering him that we become convinced as to what the truth is.
If you have encountered him but presently find yourself buffeted by questions and doubts, you may be wondering what path to take. Submit to God’s counsel in Proverbs 3. Let him make your paths straight. It may take some time, but if he is real, he will do it. He did it for me and in the process I encountered him in a new and deeper way. Your questions and faith can reside together without disrupting your peace.

What was the purpose of the dietary laws in the Old Testament?


(by Peter Waller)
Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11 laid down laws for the Jewish nation regarding clean and unclean foods, which were later rescinded in the New Testament (Romans 14, Acts 10). The laws seem rather odd when read with a westernised mind-set, which can undermine one’s confidence in the Old Testament and, therefore, the God of the Old Testament. Which raises the question: “What was the purpose of these laws?”
The answer to this question is put as bookends before and after these laws:
Front bookend: You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any badness on your foreheads for the dead. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abomination…
Back bookend: You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.
The laws were put in place because the Jewish nation was holy to the Lord. Being holy to the Lord is best explained in the front bookend which makes it clear that being holy means being chosen from a group. Singled-out. God went shopping in the nations (as one does) and chose Israel to be his special possession. He left the rest. It sounds harsh but that’s what he did. Why he did that is a question for a different day. For the purposes of the dietary laws, the fact that he did is critical. God set a differentiated diet for a differentiated people. He wanted the Jews to be easily distinguishable as the unique people they were.
But for who’s benefit was that? I suggest it is for the benefit of the Jews. God did not need to be reminded that they were his people. He chose them as his treasured possession. His memory is perfect, but his people’s wasn’t. As they settled among the nations, they needed regular reminders to help them remember that they are not just another nation. They were God’s treasured possession.
God made a big deal in the Old Testament about the Israelites keeping themselves separate from the nations. Again, why he did this is another matter – but the fact that he did helps us understand the dietary laws. God knew Israel would be tempted to forget their special identity and blend in with the other nations until they were no longer a separate nation. Creating unique dietary laws was one of the strategies he employed to prevent this from happening.
Once we see this, it is easy to understand why these laws were done away with in the New Testament. God’s chosen people are no longer a separate nation but the church – a body of people (both Jewish and gentile) scattered throughout the world. Unlike the Jewish nation of the Old Testament, the church is sown as seed in the world; utterly mixed in (Matt 13:24; John 17:15).
In the next post, I'll have a closer look at why I wrote this entry.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

David, the death of Uzzah and Reverence for God

by peter waller

At some stage during his rule as king, David decided to bring the Ark of God (which housed God’s manifest presence) into Jerusalem. The Ark had been housed for some 20 years in the house of Abinadab following its return by the Philistines. As David and a procession of people journeyed with the Ark, they danced with joy in expectation of more of God’s presence and goodness in their lives.
 
But the celebrations met an abrupt end when one of Abinadab’s sons, Uzzah, was struck dead by God. Uzzah had touched the Ark to prevent it from falling off the cart that was transporting it. All eyes must’ve turned to David – “Now what?” David was offended by God’s seeming harshness. And, suddenly, he was afraid of God. He feared that God might kill him too; “If God is so holy that he killed Uzzah for a mere knee-jerk reaction, he may well find some wrong in me and kill me too if I bring the Ark back home."

Is God safe?

Because of this fear, David abandoned his plans and left the Ark at a nearby house, inhabited by a man named Obed-edom (a “guinea-pig” if ever there was one). I imagine that David was confused at this time as to whether God was safe (and it was good to draw close to him) or dangerous (and it was best to admire him from afar). It probably was especially difficult for him to absorb since he already had a close relationship with God. He had history with God – with God’s help he had killed beast and brute while still a boy; as king of Israel, God had given him detailed battle strategies. Yet his experience with the Ark of God left him perplexed.
 
Three months later, David heard that Obed-edom’s fortunes had improved considerably since the Ark had been in his house. Having had time to think, this news seemed to provide him with some clarity, for he returned to collect the Ark. (What did he say to Obed-edom? “Thanks Obed, I just wanted to see if God killed you, but seeing as he’s blessed you, I’ll take it from here.” Courageous leadership.)
As the Ark entered Jerusalem, David danced joyfully, with all his might. He was again delighted; seemingly even more so than when he first led a procession to bring the Ark back home. What can we take from this story that is relevant to the New Covenant? After all, God no longer dwells in a physical container or building. And there aren’t stories circulating of people being struck down for taking the holiness of God for granted.

The Fear of God in the New Covenant

This story can help us to revere, even fear, God appropriately. That was the impact of a story with a similar ending from the days of the early church. Luke records how “great fear came upon the whole church” after God killed a husband and wife for lying about what portion of the money gained from the sale of their property they gave to the church. (Acts 5:1-11)

I believe God was mercifully preventing David and the early church from falling into the trap that Saul and that couple did – the trap of taking him lightly; of fearing man more than him. It is a trap that has devastating consequences, particularly because it leads to a lifestyle of sin; a worthless, wasted life that can expect God’s judgement. A life that flows from seeing God as either indifferent to what we do or who can’t help but overlook our wrongdoing regardless of the state of our hearts. More enlightened biblical writers (of the Old and New Testaments) didn’t make a mistake like this…

“… So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.” Paul, Romans 11:20-22

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God… let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.“ A wise man, Hebrews 10:31 and 12:28

“Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” Another wise man, Psalm 2:11

Worship that is acceptable to God is worship that is offered with reverence and awe. And that means we must keep in our minds who God is. We must not become lazy and approach him as if he is just anybody. We must never become overly familiar with God. It is true that he is our loving, gracious Father who has opened the way for us to approach him freely and boldly. But it is also true that he is the omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent King of the all created things. This can be perplexing at times: what exactly is the nature of God and how should we relate to him? I certainly don’t pretend to be in a position to write the textbook on the matter. What I suggest is that we take time to comtemplate these issues like David did. That we consider afresh who God is and what it means to revere and fear him in our thoughts, speech and attitudes, without losing the wonderful reality of his love and grace. Like so many things when it comes to God, it isn’t a case of “either… or…” but rather it’s “both… and…”

Increased passion and joy

I think David made progress following his initial confusion at the death of Uzzah and gained a more complete view of God – a view that didn’t diminish his passion and joy in worship, but actually bolstered it. As crazy as it sounds, perhaps we would benefit if God struck someone dead for dishonouring him. It would be better, though, if we learnt from these two narratives that have been recorded in the bible for that very purpose so that history need not repeat itself.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The rise and fall of Saul

by Peter Waller
 
The narrative of the life of Saul in 1 Samuel makes for gloomy reading. A tall, handsome young man receives a stunning call from God and is anointed the first king of Israel. Shy at first, early heroics under the influence of the Spirit of God win over his detractors and embolden him to lead. More battle success follows before Saul’s character cracks in some high-pressure situations. It becomes apparent he isn’t fit to lead God’s people. By the time he dies on a lonely battlefield, the armies of Israel vanquished at the hand of the Philistines, his sins are truly staggering. Jealousy and insecurity led him to attempt the murder of David and Jonathan, his own son, and drove him to execute 85 priests of God and their families with scant evidence against them. And on his last night alive he consults a medium, despite knowing doing so is forbidden by God. What insights can we glean from his life that may prevent our lives from becoming similarly ill-spent?

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. (1 Peter 3:14-15)

Saul’s first two major sins were committed because he feared men more than God. Faced with an army that was scattering and a priest who was dithering, Saul overstepped his duties and offered a sacrifice he had no business offering. On another occasion he caved in to the will of his men and let them take some livestock after destroying the Amalekites, going against God’s instruction to destroy every living thing, including the animals. To be sure in both cases he was under great pressure from men, but this only served to reveal the hierarchy in his heart. He feared man first, God second. This led him down a path of sin and devastation and he never returned to God. He layered sin on sin, unlike David who dealt with sin by repenting. His own story became more important than the story of God. He esteemed his own name above that of God’s.

Following these sins, Saul was told by Samuel that God had taken away the kingdom from him and would give it to another. Saul’s response to hearing this news is galling. He pleads with Samuel to appear in public with him so that Samuel’s (and God’s) disapproval of him would remain hidden from the people. Although Saul knows the root of his sin is his preoccupation with what man thinks of him, when Samuel confronts him his response is not to attempt to make right with God but rather to preserve his image before the people.

Saul, as I see it, was familiar with God. He did not see him for who he is – a consuming fire – and so he did not revere him as he ought to have. Perhaps he saw God as a merciful, easy-going God who was more likely to overlook sin than he was to actually do anything. This is evidence of how poor our memories sometimes are and how slow we are to comprehend who God is even though we see him act clearly. Saul’s calling and rise to king had God’s fingerprints all over it. It was not a hard “case to crack”; Saul became king through divine intervention and lots of it. Yet if Saul was a detective, it seems he would have arrested the wrong man. His life as king began with God, yet was lived as if it began with himself.

Next time I’ll consider how David was prevented from becoming overly familiar with God.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Theatre of Nightmares - A Letter to the Newspaper

Below is a letter I recently sent to the Cape Times regarding adverts for a strip club that appear on their Sport's page each day:


I am shocked that the Cape Times has agreed to run the Mavericks adverts. These adverts are pornography (albeit not hard-core).

If you are addicted to pornography, you should be aware that it is exactly that - an addiction. And I would argue that it does more damage than the addictions of alcohol and nicotine. It ruins minds and destroys relationships. And it is more rampant than alcoholism.

I am fortunate enough to have a father who is not naive about the hazardous effects of porn. He ran an anti-porn campaign when I was a young boy, and that may be the reason that I have managed to avoid succumbing to a porn-addiction; unlike so many of my peers who have ruined their lives unwittingly.

Ted Bundy, the serial rapist and murderer, testified in an interview conducted just hours before his execution, that pornography, more than anything else, had led him to commit his heinous acts. What started out as mere dabbling in soft-core porn as a youth, raged into a wildfire of lust that even hard-core porn could not quench. So he turned to rape. Murdering his victims was merely part of the clean-up operations.

You may be addicted to porn and not be driven to such extents. Your addiction may be played out in the privacy of your bedroom or study. But what effect does it have on your life? Does it add depth to your relationships, or does it undermine them? Does it make you feel good about yourself or ashamed?

If you confidently assert it does not have any negative effects on you, I fear you are a typical addict. Like the alcoholic who blames his problems on circumstance, the gambler who insists he does not have a problem, or the druggie who gets irritable when his next high is threatened.

What difference do these adverts make in an oversexed society? They serve to further deaden our consciences to the horror that pornography is. We are a society perishing for a lack of knowledge. We do not trace problems to causes. Rape and divorce are as common as Impala in Kruger; one barely gives them a second glance when they appear. Relationships are impoverished. Pornography is a key villain in so many of these tragedies, yet we laugh at it as if it were the Jester... we perceive it to be little more than some entertainment. And this is what Mavericks want us to think. They are to be pitied even above their victims.

But, thankfully, there are many who are aware of porn's destructive potential. Some of them are ex-addicts who have fought courageously to rid themselves of the filth. Yet we are still vulnerable... corruptible. In our more lucid moments, we know it will do us more harm than good. Yet, if we let down our guard for a moment, our sexuality is easily overwhelmed. 

Enter the Cape Times. I turn to the Sport page as I sip my cup of tea mid-morning... and I'm fighting, again, to maintain my sanity. I realise I am not an audience member watching a Jester; I am a part of the play and am on an assassin's hit list. Except that this is not make-believe.

Peter Waller
Cape Town

PS. I will not support the Cape Times so long as the adverts are allowed to run. And will attempt to dissuade my employer from doing so. I appeal to the Editor and Owners to be courageous and so "No." to Mavericks' money for the sake of their readers.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Psalm 40 - David a Man After God's Own Heart


by peter waller
God as deliverer
This Psalm was written by David in a time of fear, yet it starts out with a recollection of what God has previously done for him:

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

I want to be like David. Although he was a king, he was humble before God. He didn’t rely on his own ability to deliver himself. He recognised God (and God alone) as deliverer. And this caused him to wait on God and cry out to God. What about us? When we’re in a tight spot, where do we turn? Do we spend more than fleeting moments in prayer? Do we recognise our dependence on God and wait for him to act? Or are we consumed with our own strategies for deliverance, wherein God plays merely a minor role at most?

Us as worshippers
The benefit of waiting on God is that he acts; we are delivered. But, even more importantly, we see him act and this transforms us into the kind of people we were made to be – worshippers:

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.

Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie! You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.

I’ve heard it said that what every person craves, ultimately, is glory. We love the glory of rock concerts and sports events. We revel in the glory of great art. It is glory that satisfies us and makes us glad. And it is David’s sighting of God’s glory that is behind his exultation in these verses – “none can compare with you!” David’s happiness causes a song to rise from his heart to his mouth. And this song is not just any happy tune – it is a song of praise. Seeing God as our deliverer satisfies our souls and the overflow is worship. As worshippers we realise our true calling or identity which, in turn, secures our contentment.

Obedience built on relationship
This experience of God and worship of him lays the foundation for a relationship with him. David now makes a surprising comment:

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.

Then I said, “Behold, I have  come; in the  scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”

This comment is especially surprising when you think of when it was written – under the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was based on on-going sacrifice. Sacrifices were ordained by God. They were not man’s idea to deal with sin in order to be reconciled to God, they were God’s idea! Yet David says, “In sacrifice you have not delighted.” He seems to have a deep insight into God’s heart.

To be sure, these verses are “Messianic” – they are prophetic of the life and work of Christ. I’m not sure what degree of insight David had in this regard. I don’t know whether he appreciated he was writing about Christ, or whether he knew fully how to apply what he was writing to his own life. But the fact remains he had got an insight into the New Covenant that was at the core of God’s heart. God was yet to unveil his plans fully, yet here is David writing about them. What do we make of that? I think we say, “David had a relationship with God; a relationship where God showed David what was on his heart.”

David saw that God was after more than base level Old Covenant living. He was unhappy about the distance between himself and men and he wasn’t particularly excited about the system of animal sacrifice as a means of forgiveness. He saw that God wanted people who delighted to do his will; who obeyed from the heart, not begrudgingly.

David’s relationship with God is reflected in his communication with God. He heard God, “You have given me an open ear”, and he responded to him, “Then I said”. God was delighted! Here was a man that “got” him; that heard him. He bragged of his closeness with David, describing him as “a man after my own heart, who will do all my will”. David was a man ahead of his time in this way. Its almost as if he was a Christian before Christ had come to earth. He obeyed from the heart; he delighted in obedience. Whereas God described most of David’s fellow Israelites as having ears but being deaf, David says, “God gave me ears to hear!”
Why don't you ask God for ears to hear if you want a clearer understanding of what he is really like?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Staying True To The Faith With Cards

Three Reasons To Use Christian Birthday Cards:

A birthday should be a celebration, and as a Christian you probably like to celebrate as much as the next person. 

The problem that you will face is when you go to buy birthday cards for those that you love. Most mainstream birthday cards do not reflect Christian values and degrade many of the things that you believe in. Many of these cards are far too sexual in nature, or they seem to enjoy insulting the recipient. 

You want a card that will help you celebrate someone’s special day, but you do not want to violate your principles to do so, and the best way to do that is by buying Christian birthday cards from a Christian retailer.



Christian Birthday Cards Glorify Christ

In all things Christians are to glorify Christ and the God that created them. Where a secular birthday card may talk about how close the recipient is to the grave, a Christian birthday card tells the story of the years that Christ has loved the recipient. 

The focus of the card is on the goodness of God and how God kept that person alive for another year, and blessed them with friends or family that love them enough to bring them a birthday card. Rather than focusing on the year that has passed, Christian birthday cards point to the good things that exist in the present.

The Cards Are Uplifting

How many times does a person turning forty need to hear a joke about being “over the hill”? To many Christians the joke is tasteless and glorifies death at the expense of God. Secular cards are full of such jokes, laden with sexual innuendos and other things that are unsuitable for Christians to give each other. 

On the other hand, a Christian birthday card is a way to express to someone an interesting verse or thought that can be very uplifting. The right verse, at the right time, can cause the spirit to soar and bring people into a greater relationship with Christ. This can be a double edged sword. When you go to pick out a birthday card for a fellow Christian, and it has a verse of uplifting message, make sure that you take the time to really look for one that says what you want to say to that person. A thoughtful card is powerful, but a thoughtless card can cause a lot of damage.

Good, Clean Humor

So far the focus has been on serious birthday cards, but not all Christian birthday cards have to be serious. There are plenty of good, clean cards that you can give your brothers and sisters in Christ that are sure to get a chuckle, but do not have to stoop to the level of more secular choices. 

The whole point of the card is to show the recipient that you love them and wish to celebrate another year of life with them, and part of celebration is laughter. Do not be afraid to have fun with birthday celebrations, just make sure that the jokes that are on your card are something that you would have given to Christ.

There are a lot of choices out there for birthday cards, but as a Christian, finding the right card is not always easy to do. With a little extra effort you can give the people that you love Christian birthday cards that they will enjoy and that honor Christ at the same time.

I am George Hancock, long-time pastor and Christian for over thirty years. I am encouraged when I see Christians taking the time to find their Christian birthday cards at Christian stores because I know the message will be suitable. For my cards I shop at http://www.dayspring.com/cards/shop_by_occasion/birthday/, and I can find everything that I need.