Leviticus 17, Proverbs 31, Psalm 103

Today’s scheduled Bible readings are Leviticus 17, Proverbs 31, and Psalm 103.

This devotional is about Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”

Before the tabernacle existed, people offered animal sacrifices wherever and however they wanted. God’s laws described how the sacrifices should be offered and where they should be offered, namely the tabernacle. But people are creatures of habit and stubborn. If Israel was ever going to worship as God had commanded, the people had to stop doing their own thing and start bringing sacrifices to the tabernacle. That’s what Leviticus 17 is about. It commands the people not to offer sacrifices anywhere else but the tabernacle (v. 5) and it prescribes a severe penalty for those who don’t bring their sacrifices to the tabernacle (v. 4).

A key reason for these commands was to stop idolatry in Israel (v. 7). If anyone can sacrifice whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, they also can sacrifice to whomever they want–God or some idol. Creating a central place of worship had many benefits but guarding against idolatry was one of the biggest.

A key theme within this chapter has to do instructions about handling the blood of an animal sacrifice. The word “blood” appears 12 times in this chapter in verses 4, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, so it is an important detail. The reason for this attention to blood is stated in verse 11: “For the life of a creature is in the blood….”

Blood is necessary for life. When it stops flowing through the veins of a man or an animal, the organs and tissues in the body stop working and the animal or person dies. Because it is essential to life, blood is a perfect way to represent life and death. The later part of verse 11 goes on to explain the significance of blood in animal sacrifices: “and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” The Hebrew word translated “atonement” here means “to cover or conceal.” God is saying that the blood conceals one’s sins; it is God’s appointed method for receiving forgiveness. When a person brought an animal as a sacrifice for his sins, that animal became the person’s substitute. God accepted the life of that animal, symbolized by its blood, instead of the life of the person who committed the sin.

Ultimately, of course, all of this anticipated the death of Christ on the cross for us. The statement, “For the life of a creature is in the blood… it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (v. 11) explains why Christ had to die on the cross for our sins. Because he was the perfect man, sinless in every way and righteous by merit for obeying God’s law perfectly, he was the only man who could die as a substitute for sinners. Because you have believed in him, you can be certain that God has forgiven you based on Christ’s death and has accepted you. The death of Christ is central to our faith because only his death could atone for our sins.

Exodus 32, Proverbs 8, Psalm 80

Today we’re scheduled to read Exodus 32, Proverbs 8, and Psalm 80.

This devotional is about Exodus 32.

The people of Israel had been slaves for 400 years. They knew how to follow orders, make bricks out of straw, and that’s about it. In the recent past, they rode a roller coaster of emotions as God liberated his people from Egypt but then allowed them to be chased by the Egyptians as well as struggle with hunger and thirst. These were all traumatic events. Without God, they were helpless against armies. Without Moses, they had no direction, no leadership.

This is why they freaked out when Moses stayed with God on Mount Sinai for so long (v. 1). They were fearful that the powerful, awe-inspiring God that liberated them from Egypt had killed Moses for insufficient holiness, leaving them on their own. Without any ability to provide for themselves or defend themselves, they were fearful, vulnerable, and directionless. This is why they insisted that Aaron create a god for them (v. 1); it was an attempt to tranquilize their fear and give them a new hope for the future.

It was also an opportunity to forget God’s law that they’d received in the preceding chapters of Exodus. God’s law prescribed duties and penalties, but also promised blessings, including built-in blessings such as Sabbath and feast days. By contrast, the new golden calf god gave them no laws to follow and threatened no penalties for disobedience. This god, made by men, conformed to and appealed to human desires. It let them have a festival without any moral constraints; the word translated “revelry” has sexual overtones. It sure seems like they broke the first, second, sixth, and tenth commandments as they worshipped their false god.

This is how idolatry works. It promises power by taking credit what the true God did in the past, v. 4b. It liberates the sinful nature within with lawlessness. Israel may have felt better for a while during their festival, but they paid dearly because of God’s justice. The same thing happens to us when we worship an idol. It offers us relief from fear and momentary pleasure but it cannot protect us from the consequences of our sin.

Although Moses was angry with his Hebrew brothers and sisters for their sins, verses 30-34 show us his tender love and compassion for these difficult, sinful people. Moses pleaded with God for his forgiveness for them (vv. 31-32a). He went so far as to insist that God remove him from his elect (v. 32b). This is a powerful statement, asking for God to send him to hell if He would not forgive the Israelites. In this way Moses foreshadowed our advocate, the Lord Jesus Christ. Although Jesus could not be blotted out of the book of life because he IS life, he identified with us sinners by taking God’s wrath on himself. When God poured out his justice on Jesus for our sins, Jesus took the punishment due to those who are not in God’s book of life. Then he rose from the dead to restore us sinners to eternal life.

A sinner like Moses could never substitute for anyone else’s sin, much less the idolatry of a whole nation. Yet Moses’s statement in verse 32b shows the depth of his love for the people of Israel. Christ DID die for our sins. By doing that, Jesus demonstrated how great his love for us is.

Genesis 9-10, Ezra 9, Psalm 9

Today we’re scheduled to read Genesis 9-10, Ezra 9, and Psalm 9.

This devotional is about Ezra 9.

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Sometimes you don’t get a choice; Ezra didn’t get one.

Things were going well in Jerusalem, finally. God’s people were back in the Promised Land, they were rebuilding God’s temple and had a new priest teaching the law and calling people to obedience. They had cash to pay for the work and had just received God’s protection as a large group of them returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in Ezra 8. That was the good news, after long last.

Now the family leaders of Israel came to Ezra with “the bad news.” And, it was terrible news–the people of Israel had disobeyed God’s commands and had married women from the unbelieving nations around them (v. 1-2). As if that kick to the gut wasn’t enough, it was delivered with a steel-toed boot carrying tetanus: “And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” The men who should have been teaching and warning and leading by example against this sin were instead the trendsetters in Israel.

I’ll be honest with you; had I been in Ezra’s situation, my instinct would be to distance myself from it. If we were there, you might have heard me say, “That’s on you. May God deal with you for it. It isn’t my fault you disobeyed.” Well…, I would have been speaking Hebrew, so it would have sounded much different than that to you. But, the point is, I would be inclined to move away from this issue.

Ezra was a much better spiritual leader than I am. [I can imagine your collective statements of, “Duh!”] He was offended on God’s behalf about this (vv. 3-4). But, instead of denouncing the people like a prophet would, he led them in national repentance owning their sins with his language:

  • “OUR sins are higher than our heads” (v. 6)
  • “OUR guilt has reached to the heavens” (v. 6)
  • “WE have forsaken the commands you gave (vv. 10b-11)
  • “Here WE are before you in OUR guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”

Did Ezra really believe himself to be guilty of this? Did he really think–given that he knew about Noah and Lot–that God would include Ezra in his judgment if it came? Of course not. But, he was a priest not a prophet. It was his job to reconcile the people with God.

And, Ezra knew that God’s people were interconnected. In order for God’s promises to Abraham, Moses, David and the whole nation to happen, the nation had to survive so that God would bless it. That’s a main reason why God gave the command not to intermarry–so that Israel would survive as an independent nation instead of being absorbed into other nations and cultures. Think about the other nations listed in verse1: “the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites.” Only the Egyptians remain from that list. The rest were absorbed into other nations through intermarriage just like this. Israel remains to today, too, but this disobedience could easily have caused Israel’s extinction. Furthermore, intermarriage with other nations and cultures would have corrupted Israel’s worship just as Solomon worshipped other gods to please his foreign wives.

We’re not ethnically interconnected like Israel was but we are interconnected with one another spiritually. It goes against the culture of “rugged individualism” that we’ve inherited as Americans* but we are the body of Christ. The legs of a person’s body may be strong enough to run a marathon but if that person has a heart attack while running, the whole body dies. Even those strong, tan legs will fall.

So, sins that are widespread among our church body affect us all. We need each other and God has given us the ability through spiritual gifts to help one another. But we can also harm one another. One aspect of spiritual leadership, then, is to lead in what might be called “corporate repentance” for widespread disobedience in a church, a family, or any other group of professing believers.

*Apologies to those who read this in Kingston, Ontario and elsewhere in the world.

Genesis 4, Ezra 4, Psalm 4

Today we’re scheduled to read Genesis 4, Ezra 4, and Psalm 4. This devotional is about Ezra 4.

Have you ever owned car that was hard to start on a cold winter day? Did you ever get that car going (finally!) only to have it stall out a few yards away from your house? This is what a stuck project feels like to me. It takes so much effort to start something new, but we do it because we have high expectations. Then, for reasons we can’t control–and sometimes don’t even understand–all progress on the project just stops.

God’s people in Jerusalem came back to build a temple. Yes, they came back to rebuild their nation and community, but the government officially authorized and allowed them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s temple (Ezra 1). And, they did it! First, they re-established obedient worship, then they laid the foundation for the temple and started building as we saw yesterday in Ezra 3.

But, from the very beginning, there were problems. I did not mention this yesterday, but at the end of Ezra 3 there were both shouts of joy from the people (Ezra 3:11b, 12b) and loud weeping from “many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple” (v. 12a). Were these tears of joy? Hardly. Ezra didn’t say so, but those who wept did so because the foundation of the new temple was so small and humble compared to the great temple Solomon had built. That is suggested in verse 12 by the phrase “who had seen the former temple.” It is confirmed by Haggai 2:3 where the prophet Haggai asked these people, “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?” So, there was internal dissension and opposition to the Lord’s work by God’s people themselves.

Here in chapter 4, we see opposition to building the temple from outside of Israel as well (vv. 1-3). First, foreigners offered to help but, of course, their “help” would almost certainly have come with expectations. God allowed Israel and Judah’s enemies to force them from the promised land because they had mingled the true worship of God with idols. The enemies described here in Ezra 4 wanted that same result.

When God’s enemies failed to infiltrate the construction of the temple they “set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building” (v. 4). They used bribes (v. 5) and political maneuvering (vv. 6-23) to successfully stymie the construction of the Lord’s temple (v. 24) less than a year after the work began (compare 3:8 to 4:24).

What was behind all of these roadblocks? Satan was, of course. There were human actors in all of this dissension, whether internal or external, but God’s ultimate enemy, Satan, was the one doing the damage.

I’ve encountered this in every ministry I’ve ever been involved in. We set out to do something for the Lord. Just when we start to get some momentum some problem discourages people, complicates the work, or stops it altogether. Maybe you’ve encountered this in your life, too. You’ve set a path to serve God in some new way and, unexpectedly, problems cause you to stall out.

Don’t give up. That’s exactly what Satan wants! Opposition to God’s work is part of living in a fallen world. God’s people got through this and, if we keep trusting the Lord and seeking to do his will, he’ll get you and me and us through the problems too.