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Carrot & Stick

This should come as no shock to those who have had some experience wrestling with him, but the Serpent is a sly character.  Just look at his tempting of Eve: in one sense, he didn't really say anything that wasn't true (they didn't physically die, they did become like God, knowing good and evil), but in reality, he completely perverted the truth.  And it was his questioning of the authority of God to command His creatures that led to the downfall of the human race and the imprisonment of the universe in shackles of death and decay.  And this maliciously genius Enemy has been tirelessly working at that same end ever since that day. One of the areas where his influence can be painfully and powerfully felt involves the promised blessings and curses from God toward obedience and disobedience to His commands.  Chapters in the Old Testament like Leviticus 26 or Deuteronomy 28 sound downright barbaric to our modern sensibilities.  "I'll make you eat your babies"!!?? (Leviticus 26:29)  I mean, who says that!?  These judgments are harsh!  A lot of churchgoing "Christians" don't want to have anything to do with a God like that.  It's better to just not read the Old Testament at all (and there are many denominations that don't).  No, when bad things happen, these folks would much rather chalk it up to "chance" and let God be the one who says, "There, there", and pats them on the back and makes it all better.  He wouldn't do the kinds of things written in those Old Testament books; He's all about love and compassion.

And there we see the Dragon at work yet again.  He takes some things that are certainly true about God: His goodness, His compassion, His love, grace, and mercy, and then uses these qualities to question God's authority to judge wickedness.  "Did God really say He would destroy you in wrath if you disobeyed?  No, that won't happen!  He's all about love!"

Those of us who know the tricks of the Accuser would expect this kind of ploy.  We might even be used to blocking this punch, but the Devil has another fist, and his use of it goes largely unnoticed.  Satan doesn't just attack God's promised curses for disobedience, he also calls into question God's promised blessings for obedience.

The first part of Leviticus chapter 26 and the first part of Deuteronomy 28 both deal with the amazing blessings that God will shower on His people if they obey Him.  They are just as beautifully wondrous as the curses are shockingly horrific.  There God promises rain in season, increased yield of field and orchard, overabundance of food, peace and security, the absence of dangerous animals from their land, absolute military victory, fruitful child bearing, and even the very presence of God Himself in their midst.  These are great things, and even the folks who don't like the Old Testament don't mind reading passages like this.  But the place where the Snake has inserted his lie is in the fact that these are blessings for obedience.

"We don't believe in a works-based salvation!  It's all of grace!"  Such might be the cry of many Christians if you started telling them that they should diligently obey all of God's commands in order to be blessed.  The last thing that Satan wants us to believe is that we will be happier and more content if we seek to obey all of God's laws, and so here he has used another deception, confusing our unworthiness to receive the gift of salvation with the Bible's teaching that God expects good works on the part of those who have been saved.  It's true that we can't work for salvation.  We are dead in our trespasses and sins until God makes us alive together with Christ - quite apart from our own working (Ephesians 2:1-10).  But once God has saved us by His grace, He absolutely expects diligent and faithful obedience to His commands out of us (James 1:22).

You see, both of these attacks - attacks against the understanding that God pours out wrath on disobedience and against the understanding that God pours out blessings for obedience - seek to lead us away from a careful attention to God's commands.  If something bad happens, it isn't because you disobeyed, and if something good happens, it isn't because you were obedient.  We need to throw off this deceit of the Enemy and strive to work hard in obedience to receive God's blessings and avoid His wrath.  It is absolutely good and right and biblical to do so.

Fruitful Formula

A lot of church leaders devote themselves to the task of growing their churches in much the same way that modern farmers try to squeeze more productivity out of their fields.  It is a pragmatic endeavor.  As a farmer, you'd be stupid to buy just plain old seed anymore.  Now they have genetically engineered seed that is guaranteed to increase your yield.  Why try just regular old evangelism when you can buy a comprehensive evangelism strategy program like FAITH that has some guaranteed results? We've become high-tech in producing fruit, and yet the church is losing ground to the worldlings in America.  In fact, it seems like the only place where the church is actually growing faster than the population is in those countries that don't have the 'benefit' of mammoth-sized denominational publishing conglomerates to tell them how to do what God has called them to do.  Instead, they have to rely on old-fashioned and low-tech Spirit-giftedness to get the job done.  They can't just hand a pre-packaged Sunday School curriculum to a random church member and have him teach his peers.  Instead, they have to train disciples in the Word and then seek out the ones who are apt to teach that can carry on the discipleship to the next generation.

Human beings like to meddle with what we're given, though.  We always think that we can improve things by our meddling, even though we have a mountain of evidence to the contrary.  Where I live, all the fields have copyrighted corporate logos at the end of each row proudly declaring the genetically-engineered pedigree of the crop growing there, but many of the farmers complain that the beans or the wheat just don't grow as high or as healthy as they used to.  Local church pastors will also testify that they've tried program after pre-packaged program but have just not gotten the kinds of results that were promised.

I wonder how excited farmers would get if you told them that you knew a way for their fields to produce triple the normal amount.  In the Old Covenant, the Israelites had just such a formula.  They were to allow their land to lie fallow for one year every seven years, and during this time God said that He would provide for them from the fallow land.  But every fifty years there would be a two-year period where the land would lie fallow: the Sabbath year plus the Jubilee year.  And to provide for His people during this long time of reduced production, God promised that He would "command [His] blessings on [them] in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years" (Leviticus 25:21).  That's a 300% increase in yield!  And what is the secret formula?  Obedience!

This is what we've lost in American Christianity that they apparently still have a passion for in those third-world countries where the church is outgrowing the population: obedience to God's commands.  It's probably also the reason why the pentecostal denominations see greater growth than the more theologically sound ones: they have a stronger focus on holiness.  Doctrine is certainly vitally important, but good doctrine is no excuse for tolerating the presence of sin.  The unanimous witness of the Scriptures is that God blesses obedience to His commands.

So here's the next laboratory experiment for our churches: instead of hiring a marketing firm to advertise our programs as if our churches were just more businesses looking for customers and profits on the American landscape, let's seek to uproot lust and worldliness and pride and gossip and fits of anger.  Let's turn all of our imagination and ingenuity to the task of studying God's Word and learning His commands.  Then let's buckle down and do the hard work of cleansing ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).  In other words, let's take responsibility for what we're being held responsible for (our obedience) and let God take care of those things that He says are His responsibilities (like giving the growth - 1 Corinthians 3:6).

More Capital Punishment

True justice is so terribly perverted in the United States.  Thieves are punished by fines and imprisonment as if their crime was against the state, while the victims of the crime have their property replaced by insurance companies.  This is utter foolishness.  In addition, a person can get into all kinds of trouble for driving too fast or too erratically, while those who have sex with animals or with other humans of the same gender receive no rebuke.   What we Americans have apparently decided is that we know better than God about which things to label as crimes and that we know better than He does about the ways that those crimes ought to be punished.  And the saddest part of all of this is that most Christians are more likely to support man's definition of crime and punishment than God's own wise revelation of justice in His Word. In our land, if a man commits adultery there is absolutely no penalty.  No one is fined.  No one goes to jail.  There's not even a public flogging of such a person.  A person can commit such an atrocity with no fear of a just punishment from the state.  Jaywalking carries a stiffer penalty.  Not so in the perfect Law of God.  We find in Leviticus 20:10 that "if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death."  In the Law of God, the punishment fits the crime.  Breaking the sacred marriage vows that image forth the fidelity of Christ and the church to one another needs to be punished as severely as possible by the state.  To let something like adultery happen day by day in this country with no just penalty is a downright abomination.

The same thing could be said for any of the other crimes that call for the death penalty in God's Law.  Homosexual acts are an abominable crime, and the state ought to hand out the just penalty (Leviticus 20:13).  Intercourse between humans and animals ought to penalized with death (Leviticus 20:16).  Even things like witchcraft and pagan worship should be punishable by death by the state because trafficking with demons will always lead to the downfall of any society (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:2).  Instead, however, our military creates chaplaincies for those who practice witchcraft and even sets up pagan worship areas in complete rebellion against the Law of God (see the story here).

Some Christians are quick to defend the man-centered and sin-centered laws of the United States by claiming that God's Laws were only for the Old Covenant Israelites - as if what God decided was good for society is no longer important now that Christ has come.  These folks will often and even loudly lament the state of our nation, and will decry the sinful presence of homosexuality and adultery, but at the end of the day will still claim that not wearing a seat belt should be a greater crime in the eyes of the state than cheating on one's spouse.  Not only is this the height of foolishness, it is also patently unbiblical.

God has always held all nations accountable for the ways that they either keep or dismiss His laws.  In fact, Israel was able to conquer the land of Canaan, slaughtering all the inhabitants, precisely because the Canaanites had lived contrary to the laws of God (Leviticus 20:23).  And Jesus was very clear to state that His coming did absolutely nothing to negate the previously given Law of God, but that - to the contrary - "until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:18-19).

We need to wake up and understand that there has been a great relaxing of the commandments of God (and not just the least of them, but the greatest of them as well) in our nation and even among those in our churches.  We are in dire straights at the moment and the 'Christians' have contributed to this downfall of our society as much as or more than anyone else because it was our duty to educate our people in the importance of God's commands (Matthew 28:20).  May God have mercy on us for failing so miserably at what He called us to do, and may He give us the boldness and the wisdom to begin to make it right.

Precise Obedience

The book of Leviticus can be kind of a tedious read for those who are looking for cute Bible stories.  Not only is there a whole lot of blood and gore in the sacrificial laws, but those laws get repeated over and over again.  First, the regulations for each type of sacrifice are laid down by God in excruciating detail (Lev. 1-5).  Then, the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons is given, using many of the exact same types of sacrifices that were just explained (Lev. 6:8-7:38).  Now they are explained again.  Then comes the actual performing of the ordination, and each one of the commanded rites is once again described as each part is completed in absolutely precise obedience to what has been commanded (Lev. 8-9). Why is there so much repetition of the same commands over and over again?  Is this some kind of ancient and outdated writing style, or is there a real reason for all of this?  Why does God use up so much space in His precious Word repeating things in such detail?  Why not rather write the command in detail, but then simply summarize the obedience to that command by saying, "and they did it"?

The fact is that God has a very important reason for having all of this repeated over and over.  He wants us to know that He expects total, complete, and precise obedience on our part to all of His commands.  Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than at the intersection of Leviticus chapters 9 and 10.

Leviticus chapter 9 ends the long series of repeated commands as Moses and Aaron walk through all that God has told them to do in the consecration of Aaron and his sons.  There is not one movement or ounce of blood that is out of place in this ceremony, and at the conclusion of it, God appears in glory before the people of Israel and a column of fire comes out from before Yahweh and consumes all the burnt offerings and pieces of fat on the altar.  This is the kind of thing that every human being longs to experience: nearness to the visible glory of Almighty God.

Then the next chapter immediately begins with two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, doing something that was not commanded.  They each grab their censer, put fire and incense in it, and offer unauthorized fire before the Lord "which He had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1).

Now, if we pause right there to examine the scene, we will find these two boys doing something that doesn't seem all that bad to us.  They are not - like their father before them - making some kind of idol-calf out of gold.  They did not turn and sacrifice a human baby on the altar or anything.  No, what they did is something that many of us might have wanted to do.  They are in the midst of an awesome display of the majesty of God!  Joy, excitement, and adrenaline are all running high here.  They just want to offer some additional display of their devotion to this great God.  So they get their censers ready...

BOOM!! "And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD" (Leviticus 10:2).  If we imagine the good intentions of the boys' hearts, we are could God do this to these young men?

Thus the reason for the tedious repetition of God's commands.  God doesn't want our creative interpretation of what He has told us to do.  He demands our utter and precise obedience.  This lesson is stressed over and over in the Bible.  King Saul learned this lesson the hard way (1 Samuel 15).  Uzzah learned this lesson the hard way (2 Samuel 6).  King Uzziah learned this lesson the hard way (2 Chronicles 26).

In each of these and many other cases in the Scriptures, those who are affected don't like God's wrath very much when it is directed toward them.  But they learn a valuable lesson: we do not worship and serve One who is like man.  The One True God of the Bible is the real deal.  He is perfect and awesome and holy and absolutely powerful and He expects an absolute on-your-face kind of obedience to all of His commands.  When we reinterpret what He has demanded in order to suit us, we are placing our own will above His, and He will not tolerate such insubordination.  May we learn to have the kind of heart and spirit that longs to hear and obey God's commands in absolute precision that we may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him (Colossians 1:9-10).

The Holy Horror Show

"Lay your hand on his head and kill him...""Flay him and cut him in pieces..."

"Bring the blood and throw it against the wall..."

"Wring off his head..."

"Tear open his chest..."

"Stack his head on top of his fat..."

"Wash the entrails and stack them with the rest..."

"Burn it all...It is a pleasing aroma."

After reading the instructions on how to offer a sacrifice in the first few chapters of Leviticus, I wonder if an Israelite would have been grossed out in the slightest by watching even our most gruesome horror movies.  This is macabre stuff!  It becomes even more horrifying when you try to put all the images, sounds, smells, and details together in your head to create a decent picture of what it must have been like to be there.

Well before you were able to walk your spotless lamb anywhere near the place of sacrifice, you would have seen the column of greasy smoke reflecting the hellish light of a large bonfire somewhere below.  The screams of dying and frightened animals would no doubt fill the air.  Somewhere, you probably had to jump over or slog through a little stream of blood and gore flowing from the place.  Then you catch a glimpse of it through the gate: fire!  In the flames you can see heads with eyeballs melting in their sockets, burning lumps of slimy fat, kidneys and intestines hanging half over the side of the altar.  And there are priests with blood-stained clothes (so much blood!) slinging buckets of the stuff against the walls of the grill.  Another one snatches a bull close to him as he slashes its throat and one more spray of blood erupts over the scene.

This is hell.  There is no other word for it and there is no other concept in the human imagination that better fits the description of what is going on here.  Just inside the court of the Jewish temple and tabernacle stood a gate to hell.

What was this awful place doing there?  Why in the world did God demand that such a thing ever be a part of His holy worship?  To answer those questions, it is necessary to also imagine what laid beyond the altar of sacrifice.

On the other side of the court stood the Holy Place - the tabernacle or temple itself (depending on where we are in our imagination: the desert or the city of Jerusalem).  This was a palace of heart-stopping beauty.  Literally no expense was spared on the construction of either place.  They were buildings so full of gold and light that our eyes would be quite possibly completely overwhelmed at the sight.  And in there in the midst was the Holy of Holies - the very place where God set His presence and met with His people.  This was heaven.  No more beautiful or holy a place has ever existed in the history of the world.

And yet to draw near to heaven meant that one must first deal with hell.  The burning altar stood between you and the golden palace, and someone or something had to go into that fire before you could proceed.  This was because of a breach of God's Law.  The One who created the universe (including you) gave instructions for how His creatures were to behave and you disobeyed those instructions.  That horrible fire speaks of what you deserve: the end that God has appointed for His enemies.  But He has also made a gracious provision for you.  Another can go into the flames in your place!  Bring a lamb without blemish.  It will go into that hell that you see instead of you, allowing you to pass on by on your way to the glory beyond.

This is the gospel - written with bold bloody letters right at the start of one of the most unread books in the Old Testament.  It is possible for a spotless Lamb to suffer the holy wrath of God so that the wicked sinner can enter His presence.  "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"  That was the way that John the Baptist introduced his crowd to Jesus in John 1:29.  Ultimately, none of those bloody animal sacrifices actually removed the guilt of sin from those who offered them (Hebrews 10:4).  Their purpose was to teach people the horrible price of sin and to prepare us to understand what it was that Jesus was doing when He died - the spotless for the blemished - on the cross.