Joshua 9, Jeremiah 3

Read Joshua 9 and Jeremiah 3.

This devotional is about Jeremiah 3:11: “Faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah.”

In this chapter God compared his people to a wife and their idolatry to adultery. The wife imagery was a better analogy when Israel was one nation because, of course, God made his covenant with one nation not with two. After Solomon, however, the nation of Israel became two nations governed by different kings. The Northern Kingdom was called Israel and the Southern Kingdom was called Judah. Israel had 19 kings after Solomon and Judah had 20 kings. None of Israel’s 19 kings walked in the ways of God but eight of Judah’s 20 kings did to some degree or other.

Because the Northern Kingdom of Israel was the most wicked, they came under the covenant curse first. The Assyrians invaded their land and carried them off into exile. Here in Jeremiah 3:8 God compared the Northern Kingdom’s exile to divorce; verse 8 says, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.”

The Southern Kingdom had some good kings, as I mentioned, so they remained a free nation for longer than the Northern Kingdom did. Given the 8 good kings Judah had, it is surprising to read in verse 11 that, “Faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah.” In what way was Israel “more righteous” than Judah?

That question was answered in verses 8b-10 which say, “‘Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,’ declares the Lord.” In other words, Judah saw God keep his promise and punish Israel but they did not genuinely repent and turn to the Lord. Instead, they made religious gestures rather than sincere worship. Israel was “more righteous” then because Judah had more truth, more information, yet they still rejected God. Their idolatry was more deliberate; they chose to follow the same path as their “sister” Israel despite the negative consequences it brought to the Northern Kingdom.

There are three ways to learn moral and spiritual truths: (1) Believe God’s revelation. (2) Reject God’s revelation and figure it out for yourself by receiving all the consequences God’s word promised for those who reject his word. Or, (3) notice the experience of others–either the blessings they receive by faith or the curses they receive for disobedience, and choose accordingly. Judah had the Temple and the priests and scribes and God sent them prophets, too, so option (1) was there for them. They saw the devastation that Israel’s disobedience brought so they could have learned using option (3). Nevertheless, they chose option (2) and paid the price for it. A wise person–in the Proverbs sense–will receive God’s instruction (option 1) and will also notice how his word is fulfilled (option 3). We are fools when we go our own way, proving God’s word when we receive the pain and misery that sin brings. And, as verse 11 suggests (and Jesus also taught) we are worse (and receive greater condemnation) when we have God’s word and reject it than those who sin but have little to none of God’s truth.

Is it possible that right now you are considering a sin, playing with a sin that you’ve seen others commit? Will you learn from their experience to trust God and follow his ways, even when the attraction of sin is strong?

Joshua 6:6-27, Isaiah 66

Read Joshua 6:6-27 and Isaiah 66.

This devotional is about Isaiah 66:2-4.

The book of Isaiah ends with this chapter and it does so with some surprising words. God had commanded his people, through Moses, to offer animal sacrifices as well as grain and incense offerings. So his words through Isaiah about these things are unexpected and harsh. Why, for instance, did God say that “…whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a person” (v. 3a-b)? Didn’t God want these burnt offerings?

Not really, no. They were not given because God was or is bloodthirsty; instead, they were to teach Israel that every sin deserves the punishment of death. God did not delight to see his creation slaughtered in this way. It should never have been a delight to man either. Instead, the cruelty and violence of it should have bothered God’s people deeply. They were supposed to learn, as they offered these sacrifices, how much God hates sin and how deeply offensive it really is. Observing these rituals–jumping through religious hoops–is not pleasing to God. Instead, as verse 2 said, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”

When we become desensitized to sin and its consequences, we have lost sight of the holiness of our God. When our sin and the cost of it bothers us in our hearts and shakes us to the core, then we have begun to understand who God is. It will show us the importance of what Christ did for us on the cross and how angry God really was about our sin. It will also teach us not to sin and, instead, to strive for holiness and obedience in our own lives. That’s what those “…who tremble at my word” means (v. 2f). When we are unconcerned about our sins or our half-hearted walk with God, any religious observance we do becomes offensive to him.

What Isaiah is describing in this passage is the offensiveness of religious rituals when performed by unbelievers. Verse 4 makes that clear. But because we are still fallen within, we sometimes lapse into the same habits as unbelievers, going through the motions of worship (v. 3) without really thinking about what it all means. In other words, although we are forgiven in Christ, we can sometimes become complacent, doing what Christians do without really walking with God or thinking about him much at all.

How’s your walk with God today? Do you desire to be changed into Christ’s image or are you satisfied that, since you’re in Christ, you’re OK. It is totally true and very important to understand that Jesus paid it all. By grace, God gives us perfect standing in Christ and full forgiveness. But remember that it is by GRACE–something God declared us to be that we did not deserve–not because we’ve been given a divine excuse. The grace that saves us also opens our eyes to the depth of our depravity and our absolute need for God’s power to work in us. That power enables us to live in obedience, which is what God ultimately wants.

Are you real with yourself and God about your sin and crying out for his help to walk in obedience?

Deuteronomy 30, Isaiah 57

Read Deuteronomy 30 and Isaiah 57.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 30:6.

It is easy to read the Old Testament and come to some false conclusions. Two false conclusions that come to mind are (1) that Israel had the capability to keep the law of God and that (2) God would be pleased with them if they kept his law.

False conclusion number 2 would be true but it is impossible because of conclusion number 1. Israel had no chance of enjoying all the benefits God promised in his covenant because Israel was a nation made up of sinners. Their obedience to his Word, therefore, would only ever be partial and half-hearted. Because God is perfect and demands perfection, the sins of the people–no matter how minor they seem to us–would always render them guilty before their holy God. We can see from Israel’s history that God did bless them when, in a general sense as a nation, they kept his commands not to worship idols or commit murder, or oppress the poor. But each individual person would be guilty of things like coveting his/her neighbor’s stuff.

So all of these laws in the Old Testament were designed to show God’s people and anyone else who was paying attention that God is holy and therefore, people are always guilty before him. God used the law to teach this so that people would come before him genuinely seeking his forgiveness and his help to be obedient to his word.

Verse 6 here in Deuteronomy 30 describes the spiritual work that needed to happen for people to truly worship and follow him. That verse says, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” Circumcision, of course, was the covenant mark of the Abrahamic covenant. Each boy who was circumcised was, by that act, showing that they belonged God’s people, the descendants of Abraham. When verse 6 says that “God will circumcise your hearts” Moses is describing the spiritual act of belonging to God, being marked as a genuine believer of God. This is what we would call in the New Testament “regeneration,” the work of the Holy Spirit that makes someone a child of God.

There are important differences between Israel and the church but it is important to understand that God’s people have always needed his grace through faith and the regenerating work of the Spirit in order to be his people from the heart, not just in name only. What I’m saying is that God’s people–Old or New Testament–have always needed God to save them, to act on our behalf and make us his by the work of the Spirit. Believers in every age have all been saved by the grace of God and never by religious rituals or meritorious good works.

Are you trusting in your religious rituals or are you trusting in the grace of God alone for your salvation?

Numbers 19, Isaiah 8:1-9:7, Psalm 124

Read Numbers 19, Isaiah 8:1-9:7, Psalm 124.

This devotional is about Numbers 19.

Some of God’s commands in the OT law are easy to understand. “Do make any graven images, do not kill, and do not covet” are a few examples.

Some others make sense if you understand their purpose. The sin offering, for example, taught people that (1) every sin was worthy of death (as Romans 6:23a says) (2) they could be forgiven if a substitute died for them. When Jesus died on the cross, he came as the true, final sin offering so we now understand the symbolism of the animal sacrifice known as the sin offering.

Other commands of God are harder to grasp and Numbers 19 is one of those. Verses 1-6 describe the recipe for making the “water of cleansing” from the ashes of a red heifer. Verses 7-22 describe the regulations and uses of this water of cleansing. But what good did it do anyone to be sprinkled with this water?

The “water of cleansing” did nothing. It didn’t make anyone physically clean, it didn’t remove sins, nor did it have magic spiritual powers that removed demons or something else bad from someone’s life. It was truly and only a ritual, a ceremony with no tangible benefit. So why did God command it?

Verse 9 said this water was “for purification from sin” but the only instances where God commanded it to be used were when someone touched a dead body (vv. 11-13, 16-21). So “purification from sin” must mean from the purification from the consequence of sin, namely, death. Death was not God’s original plan for humanity; it was his curse on us for our sins. Since God is life and death is a curse, God gave them this ritual to set them apart from the consequences of sin. If someone were to touch a dead body without this ritual, they would “defile the Lord’s tabernacle” (v. 13b, see also verse 20c).

The point of the red heifer purification water, then, was to teach Israel about the holiness of God. God was not to be approached and worshipped by someone who had been in contact with death. Instead, they were considered defiled and unacceptable to approach the Lord until they went through this ritual. The ritual was a teaching tool to show God’s people, and us, that God is completely separate from sin and death and one must not approach him to worship without being set apart.

In Jesus we have been set apart. There is no need for this kind of ceremony any longer because God has credited to us the perfections of Christ. When we come to God in worship–prayer, singing, whatever–we know that we will be accepted because Christ’s death has been applied to us and we are declared clean, worthy, set apart, washed, sanctified, holy, and perfect in him.

Have you ever considered how a passage like this one shows how utterly holy God is? As you think about this offering, do you get a greater appreciation for all that God has given to us in Christ? He not only cleansed our sins; he has removed every unacceptable trace of sin, death and defilement from us, not because of anything we did but because Jesus did it all for us. That is something to praise the Lord about!

Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, Psalm 16

Today we’re scheduled to read Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, and Psalm 16.

This devotional is about Genesis 17.

Two major events in Israel’s history were recorded in this chapter. First, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (v. 5). Second, God commanded Abraham and his descendants to obey the covenant of circumcision (vv. 9-14). Of all the commands God gave to Israel throughout the generations, this is the only one that they obeyed faithfully. The generation that entered the promised land had not been circumcised by their fathers, but that appears to be the only time when this covenant was not practiced faithfully (see Joshua 5:2-8).

Circumcision created a permanent, physical mark on a man’s body that separated him from people in other nations and specified that he belonged to the nation of Israel. That was important for preserving the unique ethnic identity that God wanted. The Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaites, and later the Philistines and many others had their own identity for a time, but then were absorbed into other nations and ethnicities. Circumcision set God’s people apart from these other nations.

But the covenant of circumcision had a much greater importance than just creating and preserving a national identity for Israel. God told Abraham here in Genesis 17:7 that the purpose of the covenant was, “to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Although it was a physical mark, it had a spiritual purpose. Faithfully marking each man physically, apart from the spiritual purpose, made it an empty ritual.

Rituals such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, faithful church attendance, and Bible reading and prayer are some of the ways in which God’s grace helps us to grow in Christ. But you can observe these rituals without God actually becoming “your God.” And, even as Christians, we can lose focus on our walk with God while continuing to practice these rituals; our practice of them becomes work that we do by habit or by willpower or because we think they earn merit with God rather than expressions of our love for God.

Is there anything you’re doing as a Christian that is expected of Christians but that does not come from your heart? Ask God to re-ignite your passion for him so that you become again a person who walks with God faithfully from the heart.