Reflections on our life and lessons in uganda
A thread through the Old Testament
As I write this blog post, I am just beginning to prepare my heart for studying Isaiah in depth. It is the book we will be teaching to the pastors in the Terebinth School of Discipleship in October. I’m reading through the first few chapters and praying through the beginning parts of the book, looking at historical context and trying to understand what is this book all about. I thought that I would share just a few of my thoughts…I’m telling you now, in case you’re not into that sort of thing so you can stop reading.
One of the things that I believe is so important when studying the Bible, especially with regard to the Old Testament history and prophesy books, is the realization that it is neither written about me or to me. Often I hear teachings where someone tries to pull out some fancy application in an attempt to blow peoples mind with their amazing teaching ability. Isn’t it enough just to understand what the Bible says about the people and time period that it’s actually talking about? I’ve realized that as I attempted to study the Bible before I moved to Uganda and had the burden of a true teaching ministry to people who would take what I taught and teach others, I used to study in such a way that I wanted to see what God had to say to me or about me. I never actually cracked open the pages to see what it had to say about God. I truly believe that there has been no greater act of inadvertent selfishness in my life than to take God’s story and make it about me. I hope to never fall into the trap again of teaching application like a motivational speaker in place of truth.
So that was my rabbit trail, here’s the reason I actually started typing today. There is a thread that goes throughout the whole Old Testament, and one that can’t be easily ignored (or at least shouldn’t though I think it commonly is). It shows up at the beginning of Isaiah, but here’s some background on it first.
In Genesis 2:16-17, God presents Adam with a choice. “You may eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” The most interesting thing about this statement to me is that God never took away Adam’s access to disobedience. I used to wonder why God would create a “very good” place, and then put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there. Something that would cause death from what was otherwise perfect. I believe there is no other explanation for this tree than choice. If God had removed that tree, He would have removed the choice of man to love God or to love himself.
Throughout the rest of the book of Genesis, there seems to be this theme of choices. You can draw a timeline through the book and make note of the choices that the people make and the outcomes of those choices; here’s just a few small examples. Lot chose to walk by sight while Abraham was walking by faith. As a result of Lot’s actions the enemies of Israel known as the Moabites and Ammonites came about. Abraham chose to follow the word of his wife instead of God and Ishmael was born. All through out the book there are stories of man messing up the good thing God had made. It’s as though God meant something for good, but man is using it for evil.
Then you come to the story of Joseph. His brothers hate him, nearly kill him but decide to sell him to traders instead. As a result their whole family is saved from famine and the nation of Israel spends 400 years living and growing under protection in Egypt. The story of Joseph flips the script of Genesis. Before man used God’s good creation for evil, and now Joseph says, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”. This statement shows that in the midst of the evil choices of man, and there are a lot of them in this first book, God was sovereign and it’s His plan that gets worked out.
If we miss what Genesis teaches us about the choice that man has in regard to his relationship with God, we risk misunderstanding the entire Dueteronomistic history and the prophets who make their points based on the choices that man makes.
Moving forward to Deuteronomy 28, we see Israel presented with a choice, just the same as when Adam was given a choice by God. The choice is simple; if you obey me, I will bless you, if you disobey me, I will curse you. This sounds just the same as God’s word to Adam, if you eat of that tree you will die.
In fact the curses mentioned here in Deuteronomy 28 get very specific. Here’s verse 36, “The LORD will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone.” That promise is fulfilled during the time of Israel’s dispersion and Judah’s captivity. Here’s another more specific (but a little graphic) one in verse 53, “And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you.” We see this basically verbatim fulfilled as the prophet Jeremiah writes in Lamentations 4:10, “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.”
Here’s an aside, Deuteronomy 28 is one of my favorite chapters of scripture, because it explains the rest of Old Testament history (minus a couple books) and it also shows the conditionality of the Mosaic Covenant; if you do this, I will do this…but if you do this, I will do this. In essence, this chapter is God giving man the choice of how they want their lives to go; He’s saying, look, you can be with me or against me and I am not choosing for you.
The choice of man is a sobering reality in the Bible because it places personal responsibility on us for our relationship with God. Not that we are able to do the work to be in a right relationship with God (that’s done by Jesus), but that the responsibility is mine to choose to love God (the tree of life) or to choose to love myself (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). No where is this more clear than in one of Moses final exhortations to the nation of Israel before he died, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20.
Here’s why studying Isaiah brought all this to mind. Is 1:19-20, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the god of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” This is very simply Deuteronomy 28 summarized. Man has a choice because of the sovereignty of God.
A few final thoughts, I recognize in writing this that I am approaching the slippery territory of the age old debate of Calvinism and Arminianism. My encouragement is that you don’t get bogged down in the arguments of men but stick with the truth of God’s word. Just as some of Corinthian believers claimed to be of Paul of Apollos, many Christians, even respected theologians, would rather cling to the name of John Calvin or Jacobus Arminius when the name of Jesus is the only name that saves.
Finally, you may notice that even in such a long debated discussion, I never used the words free-will. I’ve recently made the choice to stay away from this terminology not because of a pre-determined connotation in someones mind, or even because of not wanting to cause division. I made that choice to always remind myself that my will or my choice was anything but free. It was paid for by the blood of Jesus.