A Visible God

In the recent Theophany post, we looked at ways God manifested himself to the Israelites over the centuries, consummating with His penultimate expression through Jesus Christ.

Fifty years ago this summer God drew me into youth ministry through Young Life, a non-denominational outreach to teenagers. I was serving teenagers in my hometown, working full-time, and pursuing an engineering degree taking classes a couple nights a week. In the midst of it all, I tried to read scripture with some consistency and with some success. In the 70s, we didn’t have the availability of scripture translations and paraphrases as we do today, but we had a few – King James, Revised Standard, New American Standard, The Living Bible, The Good News Bible, and a favorite of Young Life staff, the J.B. Phillips New Testament.

Early into my Young Life experience, at a volunteer leader training, we were pointed to Colossians 1:15 – Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God (Phillips). The passage, it was explained, was a cornerstone to Young Life talks – we wanted kids to know the real God who made himself visible through Jesus. Jesus revealed God’s character, compassion, and heart for people. In preparing Young Life talks, I diligently worked at helping kids see this Jesus, the visible expression of the God they could not see. A few months into the beginning of my Young Life tenure as a volunteer leader, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t know God or Jesus, save a few stories I learned in Sunday School*…..

In the midst of a fairly busy schedule, I embarked on a year-long quest to know God. It didn’t start as a year-long quest. It started as a one-time reading of the Gospels in my brand new J.B. Phillips New Testament, underlining and highlighting with a red colored pencil as I progressed. After an initial read, I decided to read them again – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – marking the pages with a different color. I was amazed to discover how much I didn’t observe in the first go-around. So I read them again. I soon realized that my eyes were drawn to passages that were already highlighted. So I bought a new bible with a different translation and repeated the process, highlighting new discoveries about Jesus (and thus about God).

Seven translations and a year later I felt I was ready to adequately venture into other parts of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. As I look back 50 years, I have to believe that year was one of the most transformative experiences of my faith journey. It’s what likely saved me from the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It set me up to know Jesus (not just about Jesus). It set me up to give decent Young Life talks. It set me up to be a better husband and father. It set me up to learn to read Scripture exegetically. IT SET ME UP FOR LIFE!

I suspect few people read the Gospels with regularity

I am amazed how few people have actually read straight through the Gospels even one time, which is why I give everyone I mentor the exact same assignment – read through the Gospels.** When done, I usually have them repeat the process. Invariably, I get the same response – it was a transformative experience (a common ‘practical theology’ theme, you’ll notice).  If you happen to be one that has never done a read-through of the Gospels, then you know what I would suggest. I sincerely hope you would heed the suggestion.

My heart aches when I realize how few Christians spend time in the Gospels, and thus with Jesus. How else will we ever know Him?

* A couple of years ago I had the privilege of joining a group of people to hear George Barna give a researcher’s perspective on what is needed to develop our young people in today’s culture. He said research shows that most church children and youth teachings tend to focus only on about 20 basic Bible stories. (This 2-minute video, Kindergarten Faith, describes the residual effects of Barna’s findings.)

** Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help the listener experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. The pace: ~three chapters a day. Today, June 1, starts a new set of readings. Check it out.

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. The first version of Memorial Day in 1888 was originally called Decoration Day, a day set aside to decorate the graves of the soldiers killed during the Civil War. After WWI, the day became a day to remember all who died fighting wars. Other countries have similar days to remember those killed in wars.

Below is something the late Andy Rooney shared on Sunday, May 28, 2006, in his famous 60 Minutes segment, “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” – a worthy read…

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day we have set aside to honor by remembering all the Americans who have died fighting for the thing we like the most about our America: the freedom we have to live as we please. 

No official day to remember is adequate for something like that. It’s too formal. It gets to be just another day on the calendar. No one would know from Memorial Day that Richie M., who was shot through the forehead coming onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, wore different color socks on each foot because he thought it brought him good luck. 

No one would remember on Memorial Day that Eddie G. had promised to marry Julie W. the day after he got home from the war, but didn’t marry Julie because he never came home from the war. Eddie was shot dead on an un-American desert island, Iwo Jima. 

For too many Americans, Memorial Day has become just another day off. There’s only so much time any of us can spend remembering those we loved who have died, but the men, boys really, who died in our wars deserve at least a few moments of reflection during which we consider what they did for us. 

They died. 

We use the phrase “gave their lives,” but they didn’t give their lives. Their lives were taken from them. 

There is more bravery at war than in peace, and it seems wrong that we have so often saved this virtue to use for our least noble activity – war. The goal of war is to cause death to other people. 

Because I was in the Army during World War II, I have more to remember on Memorial Day than most of you. I had good friends who were killed. 

Charley Wood wrote poetry in high school. He was killed when his Piper Cub was shot down while he was flying as a spotter for the artillery. 

Bob O’Connor went down in flames in his B17. 

Obie Slingerland and I were best friends and co-captains of our high school football team. Obie was killed on the deck of the Saratoga when a bomb that hadn’t dropped exploded as he landed. 

I won’t think of them anymore tomorrow, Memorial Day, than I think of them any other day of my life. 

Remembering doesn’t do the remembered any good, of course. It’s for ourselves, the living. I wish we could dedicate Memorial Day, not to the memory of those who have died at war, but to the idea of saving the lives of the young people who are going to die in the future if we don’t find some new way – some new religion maybe – that takes war out of our lives. 

That would be a Memorial Day worth celebrating.


I have always been fascinated by thunderstorms and their lighting displays. I remember laying in bed as a kid estimating how far away the actual lighting bolt might have been. I was always intrigued when a very bright flash turned out to be 5-6 miles away. It gave me a sense of the magnitude and power of a lighting bolt – typically 300 million volts! (Bear in mind that the largest cross-country transmission lines you may see are only 345,000 – 500,000 volts.)

When our two oldest children were around two and four years old, we lived in Oklahoma for a couple of years. Oklahoma knows how to do thunderstorms! Our upper-midwest lighting shows pale in comparison. Our house had a vaulted living room with about 15 feet of window on the vaulted end. I would sit with my kids watching the amazing lightning displays together. We were in awe of the splendor.

Once I was flying from MSP to Houston, sitting next to a young astronaut that had recently returned from her maiden space shuttle voyage as the deployment officer. I was fascinated as she recounted her experience. She equated it to going to summer camp. Her “bed” was adjacent to a window which she said she stared out of when she should have been sleeping. She wanted to take in the splendor of the Earth God had created.

As we neared Houston, we found ourselves surrounded by thunderstorms as the pilots navigated a path of least resistance. We both watched in awe at the height of the thunderheads and the continuous flashes within the clouds. The young astronaut told me about dazzling thunderstorms she had seen from space. Unbeknownst to her (and me!), lighting bolts extend out of the thunderheads upwards toward space in a most glorious display. I can only imagine!

Hebrew thought and literature are laced with theophany language and examples. Though unseen, the one true God chose to manifest himself to his people in a variety of ways. Theophanies were a visible expression of an invisible God, denoting his presence with His people.

Theophany. Though not an everyday word for us, it begins to touch on the magnitude of a thunderstorm. By definition, a theophany is a visible manifestation of a god to humanity. Etymologically, theophany stems from ancient Greek theophaneia, meaning “appearance of a deity” and was part of Greek mythology. Homer’s Illiad was one of the oldest writings to describe theophaneia. My limited knowledge of Greek mythology recalls Zeus as the sender of thunder and lightning.

Examples of theophanies we might be aware of are related to Moses, beginning with the familiar burning bush event (Exodus 3), which captured Moses’ attention given that the shrub was not consumed. From the bush, God revealed his name (Yahweh) and then unveiled Moses’ mission to be instrumental in delivering His people out of captivity in Egypt.

The entire Exodus story is laced with theophanies. After the multitude escaped Egypt under Moses’ leadership, a visible expression of God appeared in the form of a “pillar of cloud by day” and a “pillar of fire by night” (Exodus 13:21-22). But the BIG theophany took place a couple months later at Mount Sinai when God met with His people…

There was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently (Exodus 19:16-18).

A Theophany!

Another theological term describing what the Hebrews experienced that day was the witness of God’s Shekinah Glory. The word shekinah is a Hebrew name meaning “dwelling” or “one who dwells.” Shekinah Glory then means “He caused to dwell,” referring to the divine presence of God. Not found in scripture, the etymology of shekinah is from the Hebrew word shākan, which means“to reside or permanently stay.”

The rabbis used the term Shekinah to remind the people of Yahweh’s presence with them, a key distinguisher for the Hebrews. Moses once asked God who was going to help him lead these people (a good question since they tended to be a bit unruly!). God basically said, “Me” – “My Presence will go with you…” to which Moses basically said, “Whew” and followed up with, “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:12-16).

A more preponderant theophany took place upon the completion of Solomon’s temple almost 500 years later. The theophany occurred after a lengthy prayer of dedication by Solomon (2 Chronicles 6:12-42*). God’s Shekinah Glory filled the Temple…

Fire came down from heaven… and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).

God took up residence in the Temple, among his people. He dwelled with them. Shekinah. The people were very aware of his presence, which distinguished them from all the other people on the face of the earth.

Fast forward about ten centuries. The Apostle John was composing his Gospel, the good news of Jesus, the sign of God’s continued presence among the people. One would assume John was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. I would assume he was familiar with Solomon’s prayer…

But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (2 Chronicles 6:18)

…when he wrote the introduction to his Gospel: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Jesus, the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). God built a new Temple and took up residence with his Shekinah Glory.

A Theophany of sorts!

* I encourage you to take the time to read Solomon’s Prayer of Dedication.


Let’s circle back to Jesus’ encounter with two of his followers as they traveled from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus on “that very day” that Jesus was resurrected, Anastasis. As mentioned in the previous post, as they walked the seven-mile route, they had all kinds of time to talk through the events of the previous three days.  As they walked, Jesus, whom they didn’t recognize (“their eyes kept from recognizing him”) came alongside them and asked a great leading question: “So, what were you talking about?” (See Luke 24:13-35)

Pausing with downcast faces one of them, Cleopas*, asked Jesus if he was the only person that hadn’t heard what took place in Jerusalem over the previous several days. Jesus asked (maybe with a twinkle in his eye)…

“What things?”

“Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who certainly was a prophet, mighty in what he said and did before God and all the people.  Our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  And besides all this, some of the women among us amazed us – they went to the tomb early this morning and found no body!  They claimed they saw angels or a vision of angels who said he was alive.  Others went to the tomb and they were right – there was no body.  And we don’t know what to think of all this.”  (My paraphrase and I added the last line because you know that’s likely what they were talking about as they walked!)

Jesus followed with another question: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  And beginning with Moses [Genesis through Deuteronomy] and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 

I wonder what he told them?  He might have reminded them that when God created the universe and everything in it he said, “It is good.”  And after he created the first humans, he said, “It is VERY good.”

Then Adam and Eve ate the ‘apple.’

I suspect Jesus reminded them of God’s call on Abraham – that he and his descendants would become human agents to help Him restore creation, after the apple incident, to its right condition.  God’s words to Abraham: “I will bless you so that you can be a blessing to ALL the peoples of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3).  The inauguration of God’s creation rescue mission.

And surely Jesus must have helped them understand, through the scriptures, that the one to redeem Israel, the Christ, would in fact be a suffering servant, not a conquering hero.  And the redemption was not to re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation but to jump-start their original mission of being blessed to be a blessing for all peoples.

Whatever Jesus told them, they wanted more.  So they invited him to stay with them.  During supper, Jesus blessed and broke bread, their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  And Jesus vanished. They said to each other…

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

We wish for those “heartburning” occasions when we sense Jesus’ presence that result in moments when something previously fuzzy comes into focus. Experience tells me that such encounters tend to happen when we least expect them. For me, they seem to take place when I am in conversations with others as we figure out together how to follow Jesus well.

It was “while they were talking and discussing together” that Jesus showed up for Cleopas and his friend – an encouragement for us as we learn to follow Jesus. An encouragement to not forsake gathering with other pilgrims when “we don’t know what to think of all this,” whatever this happens to be. Who knows, Jesus might just show up and give us a sacred “heartburning” moment.

* Some have suggested that Cleopas and his partner could have been Jesus’ aunt and uncle. John, in his gospel, points out those present at Jesus’ crucifixion: Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas…(different spelling). See John 10:25.

The Road to Emmaus

One of my favorite Easter stories is the one often entitled The Road to Emmaus. If you have never read this story or haven’t recently read it, you might want to.  It can be found in Luke 24:13-35.  I’ve read or heard it a number of times over the past few months.  It’s a most fascinating story – I’m glad that Luke felt God’s tug to include it in his gospel.

It’s the story about two of Jesus’ followers (not part of the Twelve) as they travel from Jerusalem to Emmaus on “that very day” – the day Jesus was resurrected.  As they walked the seven-mile trek, they had all kinds of time to talk through the events of the past three days, so they did. 

As they walked, Jesus showed up, appearing unbeknownst. Jesus had once said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). That’s literally what he did, though the two disciples didn’t recognize him. As he came alongside them he asked a simple, yet simple but profound question: “So, what were you guys talking about.”  They stood there looking sad.

One of them asked Jesus if he was the only person that hadn’t heard what took place in Jerusalem these last few days.  Jesus then asked a simpler and even more profound question: “What things?”  Love it.  Jesus, who experienced it all, asked, “What things?”

It was just like Jesus – not missing a teaching moment, always asking great questions.  (I suppose he could have been just messing with them – I certainly would have!)  I think as a teacher, Jesus asked questions for a couple reasons: (1) He wanted to discover what they understood, thought, believed, and perceived, and, more importantly, (2) He wanted them to discover what they understood, thought, believed, and perceived.

Mostly, I think he wanted people to pause, think, and ponder.

Think about some of the questions he asked – Do you want to get well?  What do you think about John the Baptist?  Which of the three was the neighbor to the victim? What do you think (he asked this often)? What do you want me to do for you?  Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?  Who do you say that I am?  What are you looking for? He seemed to always be asking questions that caused the hearer to pause and maybe ponder for a second or two. Or more.

I remember talking with a High School girl during a grief group session I was facilitating several years ago.  She was struggling with how God could have taken her loved one.  I asked her the question, “Take or allow?”  She was doodling on her folder, paused, looked at me, and said, “I’ve never had anyone ask me that before.  I’ll have to think about it.”  Ponder.  This young gal, with a pretty new faith, came back the next week and said that she was rethinking how she viewed God’s role in her loved one’s death.

Several years ago at a local coffee shop, a stranger, noticing me writing in my journal, asked me how keeping a journal has helped me grow in my faith.  (No one had ever asked me that before or, at least, not that point blank.)  I thought about it for a second and said, “It makes me ponder.”

It really does.  As I spend time alone with God in solitude, I find it’s in the moments that I ponder what I’m reading (and the subsequent questions that seem to arise) that things begin to connect for me.  I get to discover what I understand, think, believe, and perceive about things.  It’s almost like Jesus is sitting with me asking the questions that make me pause and think – pondering in solitude. 

I refer to it as times of pondertude.

It’s Saturday.  But Sunday’s Coming!

Every year I find myself pondering what it might have been like for the first-century Christ-followers as they woke up on the Saturday after Jesus’ crucifixion, wondering what had just happened.  Jesus had come into their lives with words and actions that gave them hope at a time when they needed hope.  God had not spoken for centuries.  The Romans had conquered them.  The religious leaders heaped burdens upon them that left them with a sour taste of who God was and what He was doing.

Jesus came with the good news that God’s kingdom was near.  Good news.  Hope.  He also spoke of the availability of the kingdom for anyone and everyone – even those whom the religious leaders indicated God was not interested in.  Very good news.  Much hope.  Enough hope to cause many to quit their day jobs to follow him. 

He rocked their worlds.  He spoke with authority, demonstrating that God was significantly different than they had ever thought or dreamed.  As they continued to follow him, it became evident to them that Jesus was a prophet, maybe even the Messiah.  As time passed many became convinced that He was the Messiah and were probably confused as to why the theologians didn’t see it.

Then the last few weeks everything seemed to unravel.  There was a sense that things weren’t going to end well.  Judas tried to force Jesus’ hand.  The rest of the followers were confused and grasped at straws trying to understand why all seemed to be disintegrating before their eyes.

And then it did disintegrate.

Within 24 hours it all came crashing down, culminating with Jesus’ death as a criminal.  Now it’s Saturday.  Friday was the worst and darkest day they had ever experienced.  Now what?  This morning I tried to imagine what they might have been thinking: “What happened?  We thought he was the Messiah.  He even led us to believe he was.  Was he a fraud?  If so, what did we miss?  He seemed like the real deal.  Did we just waste three years of our lives?  The naysayers are going to have a heyday with this!  And what of hope?  We needed hope three years ago and thought we had found it.  Now all hope seems to be lost.  So, now what, God?”

We have the privilege of looking back on that Saturday through the lens of the resurrection, knowing that hope was just around the corner.  But they didn’t have that vantage point.  But God did.  And God, knowing he was going to resurrect Jesus, allowed the followers a moment of despair.  What a powerful act of love!  Doesn’t sound like love to us, does it?  But love, in its truest form, is the lover doing exactly what the loved one needs, not what the loved one thinks he/she needs.  Think of the love of the father who let his son (the one we call ‘the prodigal’) leave, knowing it was ultimately the best thing for him.

We all have ‘Saturdays’ in our lives when hope seems to have been snuffed out.  God has a different vantage point than us.  God tells us, as he told the Israelites, “Be strong and courageous!  Do not be afraid and do not panic before them.  For the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).   For the Israelites, ‘them’ was the Canaanites that inhabited the land they were to move into.  For us today, ‘them’ might well be the devil’s minions, those demons that would prefer we lose hope. 

History and the experience of all the Christ-followers that have gone before remind us that hope is around the corner.  As you ponder resurrection hope, contemplate something N.T. Wright once said: “They [demons] can still shriek, but since Calvary they no longer have authority.”

It might be Saturday, but Sunday’s coming! Have a Blessed Easter!

The title, It’s Saturday.  But Sunday’s a Coming!, is a takeoff on a classic old message by Tony Campolo that my wife and I heard him give at a Young Life conference in 1979.

A Sweet Aroma

Below is an article that my friend, Crystal Kirgiss, wrote for Young Life‘s weekly communique to staff and stakeholders worldwide. It is a perfect reflection as we prepare to celebrate Resurrection Sunday. With her permission, I want to share it with you…

Sometime during what we now call Holy Week, Jesus was eating with His disciples and other friends when a woman approached with an expensive jar filled with expensive perfume. Rather than giving the jar and perfume to Jesus as a gift, like the Magi had 30-some years earlier, the woman shockingly broke the jar open and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head and feet, releasing a sweet aroma.

Essential oils are big business right now. But dousing someone with it during a dinner party is not the norm. We might lightly dab to clear our sinuses or calm our mood. But we do not pour plentifully, no matter what the occasion. This woman, though, poured until there was nothing left to pour.

Jesus’ disciples were neither amused nor impressed.

“What a waste! What nonsense! You could have sold that for good money! You could have made a measurable impact!” Leave it to Jesus’ disciples to deliver a thorough scolding for someone’s act of absolute allegiance and utter worship.

Jesus, though, set the record straight. He called her act beautiful. He praised her — not for something impressive like converting an entire village, or investing and making a profit, or planning and pulling off a large event, or increasing her ministry output. Instead, He praised her for humbly and faithfully anointing Him for burial.

For months, Jesus had been telling His friends He would soon die. Just days earlier, as He’d entered Jerusalem, He’d told them that now was that time. Maybe He’d even talked about it during this very meal.

But this woman seems to be the only one who truly believed what He said, in which case her strange, extravagant act makes great sense — for how else could she possibly respond but to pour onto Jesus the most valuable thing she had, knowing He would soon pour out for all of humanity the most valuable thing He had.

Both Matthew and Mark note that Jesus said to everyone in the room: “I tell you the truth; wherever the good news is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed.”

But that’s not usually the case. It’s a weird story, after all. And it lacks a neat and tidy takeaway. If we’re always in search of neat and tidy takeaways, Scripture will often disappoint us. But if we’re willing to read it for what it is, and consider the larger story of the Bible, Scripture will always feed us.

At face value, this story is mostly about something a real woman did, in a real place, during a real moment in time, when it was exactly the right thing for her to do in response to Jesus. Are we as aware of things we’re called to do, in this place and at this moment, in response to Jesus? And if that thing is costly, would we be as willing as this woman was to actually do it, knowing others might misunderstand and call us foolish?

As we read the bigger message of God’s Word beyond this story, it becomes clear why this narrative should be remembered and discussed. This woman’s actions are a reminder that in response to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and Lordship, we’re called to break open and pour out the costliest thing we have — our very lives — as we die to ourselves daily, surrender to our Lord, and honor our King. Hopefully, our acts of sacrificial obedience and worship will release a sweet aroma into the world just like the woman’s perfume did thousands of years ago — but now it will be the sweet aroma of Christ Himself.

By Crystal Kirgiss, Director of Discipleship Content and Partnerships, Young Life

Torah, Torah, Torah

Whenever I hear or read about Hebrew Law or Torah, my mind immediately goes to the classic WW2 movie, Tora, Tora, Tora. I can’t help it – that’s how my mind works. 😬 Torah is a significant part of Jewish history and thus an integral part of the Christian tradition as well. I suspect that we (Christians) primarily don’t know what to do with Torah. How are we to view it, especially in light of Jesus saying…

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law [Torah] or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17, NIV)

So, what do we, as 21st-century Christians, do with Torah, the Law? I have oft stated that part of the value of writing a blog is to process and put to words my own theological wonderments and understanding. This is one of those times…

By definition, Torah is God’s law as revealed to Moses and captured in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). As I write this, I realize that “law” is singular, which I suspect might be significant.

I recently spent time in Psalm 19. After talking about the splendor of God’s creation, the psalmist included a section that consists of a series of adjectives describing the character of Torah, each accompanied by a verbal phrase revealing how it impacts the life of the faithful:

The law [Torah] of the Lord is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
    and all of them are righteous.

If Jesus has “fulfilled” or “completed” the law, does that mean the Hebrew Torah was some sort of defective system unable to accomplish what God intended? Gerald H. Wilson suggests otherwise…

Torah was God’s word for Israel. Jesus accepted Torah (and indeed the whole Old Testament) as God’s authoritative word for himself and his followers. Torah led those who related themselves rightly to it into a proper, restored relationship with Yahweh. This is not defective. It may not be the “fullness” of God’s revelation, but it rightly accomplishes what God intended it to do.1

I suspect, as the psalmist and Wilson suggest, there is a robust understanding of Torah that has been lost over time and is foreign to present-day readers. We tend to read scripture (both Hebrew and Christian) through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection, missing the original intent. Consider the community that sang Psalm 19 in the temple as part of their worship. Unlike today, they did not have a very complete concept of eternal life or resurrection. So what did Torah do for them?

There is a common theme that permeates and threads through the entirety of the Bible, the scripture we possess today. It’s central to the narrative of God’s new creation project as he invites humans to participate in his restoration (think salvation) activity. That theme in some manner, shape, or form…

I will be your God and you will be my people.

Is this new information for you? It was to me when I discovered it years ago and it has forever changed my lens of Biblical understanding. Theologically, it’s known as the Covenant Formula. Through Moses, God communicated to the Israelites in Egyptian captivity, needing rescue (again, think salvation)…

“I am the Lord [Yahweh], and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” Exodus 6:6-7, NIV

This theme, this Covenant Formula weaves throughout the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures, into and throughout the New Testament. What is somewhat fascinating is the bookend effect when we discover one of the last occurrences of the formula in the Book of Revelation…

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” Revelation 21:3, NIV

I suspect this concept that Yahweh is our God and we are his people is the lens through which the psalmist wrote and the people worshipped. Their focus was the giver of the Law. The adjectives the psalmist used to describe Torah (God’s Word to his people) also describe their God, distinguishing Him from all the other gods in their proximity. Torah revealed their God’s character, thus words like perfect, trustworthy, and righteous.

To the ancients, Torah was more instructive than prescriptive. Torah is formed from the Hebrew word yrh which means to instruct or teach. Rather than “law,” the term is more properly understood as “instruction” or “guidelines.” The psalmist and the Israelite worshippers understood Torah’s primary function to be one of guidance in right living as the people of God.

Right living, not living right.

This is not just wordplay. There is a significant difference between right living and living right. (You may want to visit Anything worth doing is worth doing right.) Torah guides people toward right living under God’s kingship. It described how people relate to Yahweh “as their God” and to each other (thus the strong focus on mercy and justice throughout the Hebrew writings).

The opposite is living right, focusing on the laws and the guardrails of right living. When driving at night, I want to keep my eyes focused on the road ahead, not the guardrails. They serve a significant purpose, but if I focus on them, I might find myself intimately acquainted with them. That’s what happened when Jesus arrived on the scene. The religious leaders had mainly taken their eyes off the intent of the Law, of Torah, and focused on the laws, concentrating on getting it right. And they got it all wrong.

Thus Jesus’ admonition to the “getting it right” Pharisees: Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). The religious leaders constantly did battle with Jesus over the correct application of Torah. In what I assume to be exasperation, they asked him which of the laws (commandments) were most important. As the personified fulfillment of the Law, he reminded them of the full intent of Torah…

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37–40, NIV)

Those are my musings on Torah. Process it as you wish (or as the Holy Spirit leads). In the meantime, when I get 2 1/2 hours to spare, I might watch Tora, Tora, Tora.

1Wilson, Gerald H. The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text…to Contemporary Life Psalms Volume 1. Zondervan Publishing House, 2002.

Lent 2023

We are midway through this year’s Lenten season. Lent may or may not be something you traditionally think about. Many do. Lent (literally springtime) was popularized in the fourth century and had a different and more practical purpose than we might think seventeen centuries later. As one of the oldest Christian observations, the original intent was a period set aside for reflection and self-examination, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. Like other Christian holy days and holidays, it has morphed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same.

How might it have morphed? If we were to poll people this week as to the purpose of Lent, we would likely hear something about what we should give up during the 6+ weeks leading up to Easter. For many, self-denial has become the main focus. We/you might likely have a similar view. If so, we find ourselves entering this springtime with a negative perspective.

I live in Minnesota. With 2 feet of snow on the ground and another 4-6″ of snow predicted yet this week, I am not hearing many people dread the coming of spring. Who would want to approach spring sullenly? Or Lent?

The editors of Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter suggest that “Lent should never be morose – an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement.” After all, the main purpose of fasting (forgoing of a pleasure) is to provide more opportunities to discover and enjoy God. There is an old liturgy that refers to the Lenten season as “this joyful season.”

You may have reached this halfway point of Lent 2023 without giving it much thought. It’s not too late to step into the season. It’s never too late! How might we approach Lent this year in a manner that brings joy? Here are a few suggestions…

  • Read one of the Gospels. This is always a good starting place. You can plan your reading so that you finish at Easter, providing you with the backstory leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Or listen to the Gospels with Annie F. Downs.
  • Find an online Lenten devotional like the one from Baylor University or Biola University. It’s OK to start in the middle (why do we westerners struggle with that?).
  • Find a weekly Lenten service with the express purpose of discovering and enjoying God in new ways.
  • Since we are talking about the hope of springtime, N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope would be a good book to start during Lent (though it will probably take you well-past Easter to finish).

Whatever you choose to do during the remainder of this season of Lent, God will meet you, further revealing himself to you (I speak from experience). Blessings!

Gospel Immersion

Podcaster Annie F. Downs has provided an opportunity for anyone and everyone to experience all four Gospels every month. For the year 2023, she has added a second podcast, Let’s Read the Gospels. I highly recommend checking it out!

Downs’ intention is to provide an opportunity for people to be immersed in the Gospels for twelve months, knowing the year-long experience will lead to transformation. One of her favorite sayings…

You don’t have to read or hear the Gospels every day to be changed, but every day you read or hear the Gospels will change you.

Check it out. I listen every morning to start my day. It only takes 15-20 minutes. It’s been a great experience thus far.