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Friday, May 11, 2018

Don't Overlook God's Owner's Manual

Leviticus 16 - The Day of Atonement

Many of the more complex items we purchase today come with an owner’s manual. Whether it’s that new phone fresh out of the box or the new car straight off the dealer’s lot—the owner’s manual tells us how to operate and use that new item that we are unfamiliar with. The Old Testament book of Leviticus functioned as the “owner’s manual” for the Israelite Tabernacle. Unfortunately, as with many of our owner’s manuals today, Leviticus is often overlooked and viewed as a needless part of our normal Bible reading and study.

Admittedly, Leviticus is a challenging and, at times, gruesome book to read. Yet, without a proper understanding of Leviticus we cannot grasp the height and depth of God’s love for us in Christ.  In particular, there is one chapter in the book that serves as an important "hinge" for the entire "manual" - Leviticus chapter 16.

Before we can get to Leviticus 16 we need a little background information and context for the book...

In Leviticus 20:26 God said to the nation of Israel, "You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine."

God had set apart and called the Israelite people to be His treasured possession among all the peoples of the earth. The nation of Israel was to be separate and distinct from all other nations by following the commandments of God given in the book of Exodus. They were to be a light unto the nations pointing people to God—a nation through whom the promised blessings given to Abraham would be realized!

But, what the commandments of God ultimately revealed was that no human could live up to God’s perfect standard. No human, apart from the intervention and work of God, can be holy as God is holy. For, we all like sheep have gone astray because, as we saw back in Genesis 6:5, every intention of the thoughts our heart is only evil all the time.

Praise be to God! He does not leave us dead in our trespasses and sin. God provided a way for sinful man to once again enter His Holy and Infinite presence. The only way for God’s people in the Old Testament to have a relationship with Him was through the Tabernacle and it’s successor, the Temple. Last week we looked at the intricate details of the Tabernacle’s construction and saw how everything had a specific purpose, from the curtains surrounding the outer court to the details of how the furniture was to be constructed.

The book of Exodus then concluded with the Tabernacle’s completion and the glory of the Lord descending upon the tent of meeting. But, in Exodus 40:35, we read this most-unusual statement:

And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

Why was Moses, the man who had communed with God at the top of Mount Sinai, not able to enter the tent of meeting and meet with the Lord? The “owner’s manual,” the book of the Leviticus, gives us the answer. It’s only through the book of Leviticus that God’s people in the Old Testament could learn how to enter the presence of God.

There are two guiding principles of Leviticus that flow like a river through the rest of the Bible until they find their ultimate fulfillment and meaning in the person and work of Jesus. Here they are:

(1) Sin requires the shedding of blood. The debt owed because of sin is death and the death penalty must be paid by the shedding of blood. That’s bad news for each of us, since we are all born sinners. But, thankfully, there’s a second principle.

(2) God accepts a substitute. The penalty of death must be paid BUT the wonderful news of Leviticus is that God accepts a substitute! Each of the different sacrifices outlined in Leviticus teach us that God accepts a substitute.

Chief among all the sacrifices is the one we find in Leviticus 16—The Day of Atonement. Known as Yom Kippur, this important ritual is still conducted and observed by devout Jews today.

All the sacrifices and offerings that God decreed in Leviticus chapters 1–15 were not sufficient to cover all the sins of the people. So, God appointed this yearly sacrifice to atone for (or cover over) all the sins and impurities not covered by other means, that the Israelites committed unknowingly (Heb. 9:7). The sacrifice of the Day of Atonement was the highest and most comprehensive of all the sacrifices in the Old Testament.

The first thing Leviticus 16 shows us is that:

I. God provides the way to come to Him

Notice, first, in verse one God is speaking to Moses. God is giving the directions and guidance to Moses regarding how His people can come to Him. In the Old Testament God spoke to and through the prophets, men like Moses and Isaiah. Some of you probably wish that God would speak to you—like he did to people in the Old Testament. If you just had a direct word from God it would make things so much clearer and easier in life! I want you to know that God speaks to me every day—through His Word! If you want to hear God speak to you open your Bible and read it!

Hebrews 1:1–2 tells us that God now speaks to us through His Son, who is the incarnate Word of God. We have the very words of God kept and preserved for us in the Bible! In the Old Testament God spoke to a few dozen people. Today, we all—at least in this country—have access to the Word of God every single day!

The Word of God continues to be the standard for everything in life. Most importantly, only the Word of God tells us how we can come to the Holy God and be in a relationship with Him. Some of you might be tempted to think you don’t need to really know the Bible that well. You know enough to get by. You know the basics and you’ll leave the details up to the “professionals.”

If that’s the casual nature in which you approach the Word of God, let me draw your attention to the second part of Leviticus 16:1:

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.

Aaron was the high priest and his sons served as priests under him. Leviticus 10 tells us how two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, decided to approach the Lord’s presence in an unauthorized way and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them! What an incredible reminder that we must not approach the Lord in a causal, “anything goes” type way.

One of the popular catch phrases floating around today is “be the church.” But before you can “be the church,” you better understand what God has called the church to be! As with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the church in the New Testament is God’s chosen people, set apart as holy, and called to be distinctively different from the world around us. Above all, when the church gathers we are to worship God!

Just as the book of Leviticus was the owner’s manual for the Israelite’s worship of God—the New Testament gives us clear guidelines on how we are to worship God today. When the church—the body of believers—assembles to worship, we are to proclaim the Word of God through the singing of the Word, reading the Word, preaching of the Word, prayer; and we even practice the Word through baptism and communion. That’s what it should look like to “be the church.”

Now, on to verse two, which begins the content of the Lord’s message to Moses concerning the proper and only way to come to him in the Old Testament. God tells Moses to warn Aaron, not to come whenever he wants into the Holy Place, “so that he may not die.” The Holy Place mentioned in this chapter is referencing the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Testimony would sit and the presence of God would periodically descend among the people. This Most Holy Place was separated from the rest of the Tent of Meeting by a veil—a curtain that we studied in detail last week.

If there is any statement that should have grabbed Aaron’s attention it’s that last phrase, “so that he may not die.”That’s the sort of statement that would grab anyone’s attention! Without a doubt the recent death of his two sons at the entrance to the Holy Place would have been forefront in his mind as he prepared to approach the same place his sons died.

Now that God has his attention, verse 3 begins describing the preparations regarding how Aaron, as the High Priest, was to enter into the very presence of God manifested in the cloud over the mercy seat on the top of the Ark of the Testimony.

For the sake of time, I’m going to summarize the preparations mentioned in the end of verse 3 through verse 10. The yearly sacrifice involved new holy clothes for Aaron to wear into the Most Holy Place, a bull for his own personal sin offering, a ram for his own personal burnt offering, two male goats from the people for their sin offering, and finally, a ram from among the people for their collective burnt offering.

The use of each of these items is then described in great detail beginning in verse 11 where we’ll now pick up the text. I’m going to walk us through verses 11–34 now very quickly...reading the text and providing some explanation along the way. Prior to verse 11, Aaron would have already bathed in water and put on the holy linen garments. Verse 11 then begins the detailed description of the ritual.

Leviticus 16:11
Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.

Remember our two guiding principles from Leviticus: (1) sin requires the shedding of blood, and (2) God accepts a substitute! That’s why the bull is killed! Before Aaron could function as the mediator between God and His people he first had to be cleansed from his own sin by offering a sin offing for himself and his household. He would have killed the bull out by the Altar of Burnt Offering in the outer court of the Tabernacle. After he killed the bull here’s what he was to do next:

Leviticus 16:12–13
12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.

Can you imagine what the fear and awe Aaron must have felt as he approached the veil where his sons were consumed by the fire of God? Can you imagine reaching our your hand to pull back that curtain knowing at any moment the God has the power to snuff out your life?

As Aaron entered into the Most Holy Place and approached the Mercy Seat the glory of God was so overwhelming that he had to carry smoking embers before him to help shield him from the glory of God’s presence over the mercy seat. The smoke would literally act as a barrier to guard him from overexposure to the glory of God, which according to the end of verse 13, results in death! After the cloud of incense was in place between him and the Mercy Seat look at what he was to do in verse 14:

Leviticus 16:14
And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.

Aaron had to take some of the blood from the bull he just killed to atone for his own sin and sprinkle it with his finger seven times in front of the Mercy Seat. Only after his own sin was atoned for could he then act on behalf of God’s people and their sins, which is what we see beginning in verse 15.

Leviticus 16:15–17
15 Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he
shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.

Now that Aaron’s personal sins were atoned for he would repeat the same sacrificial process with one of the goats presented by the people to make atonement for the Holy Place and for all the assembly of Israel. Notice, this is all done by one man, the High Priest, functioning as the mediator between God and His people. Apart from bringing the animals to the Tabernacle the people were not involved in any other part of this process thus far. On to verse 18:

Leviticus 16:18–19
18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.

In these two verses Aaron uses the blood of the two sin offerings, the bull and the goat, and cleanses the Altar of Burnt Offerings because it is continually covered with the blood that symbolizes the sins (the uncleanness) of the people of Israel. This is a messy process because sin is messy! Sprinkling the blood around the altar would be a messy process, but the blood covered the stains of sin left behind on the altar!

Now, what about the other goat by the people as part of their sin offering? Look at verse 20:

Leviticus 16:20–22
20 And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

Back up in verses 8–10 Aaron was instructed to cast lots over the two goats presented by the people as a sin offering. The one goat upon which the lot fell was offered to the Lord as part of the sin offering in verses 15 and 16. The second goat, now referenced here in verses 20–22, was to be kept alive as another part of the sin offering. This goat was said to have been for “Azazel.” This term is only used in verses 8, 10, and 26 of Leviticus 16—nowhere else in the entire Bible! While we don’t know the exact meaning of this term, we do know the significance of the goat’s function.

Before this second goat was brought out, notice that atonement has already been made for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting, and the Altar of Burnt Offerings. Everything in temple has been cleansed. Only when the tabernacle is clean can the substitute goat now be brought out.

Aaron was to then place both his hands on the head of the goat as he confessed the sins of the people of Israel—as a symbol of their sins being transferred to this goat. The goat then, bearing all the sins of the Israelites, was quickly taken out of the camp and set loose in the wilderness—a certain death sentence! Finally, the people of Israel could participate and watch as this symbol of Israel’s sins was quickly taken away from them. What a beautiful picture of God accepting a substitute and covering over (atoning for) the sins of His people for another year.

After the live goat was released look at what happened next, verse 23:

Leviticus 16:23–25
23 Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar.

Aaron would go back into the tent and change out of the holy linen garments, bathe in water, and put his normal priestly garments back on. He would then go out to the Altar of Burnt Offerings and offer the ram for his own personal burnt offering and the ram for the burnt offering of the people.

The thoroughness of the Day of Atonement ritual is seen in the closing verses of this section—Leviticus 16:26–28—where even the person who led the live goat out of the camp had to be cleansed because he was contaminated by the sin the goat now carried. Likewise, the remains of the animals used for the sin offerings had to be carried outside of the camp and burned. Whoever burned them had to also be cleansed!

Now, in the final verse of chapter 16 we see the importance of this yearly ritual for the people of Israel.

Leviticus 16:34
And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Sin requires the shedding of blood, but praise be to God He also accepts a substitute. God provides the way to come to Him. Now, our second point:

II. The only way to God is through Jesus because of who He is and what He has done.

Leviticus shows us how God provides the way to come to Him and that the way involves a sinless mediator. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest became the designated go-between—the mediator between God and His people. Yet, the High Priest of the Old Testament had his own sin that hindered his service until he first offered a sacrifice to atone for his sin! Even then, he had to carry the smoldering embers before him as he entered the Most Holy Place to shield him from the overwhelming glory of God. There was still a separation—between the mediator and the holy God.

There was a separation between God and Aaron and every other High Priest that followed after Aaron in the Old Testament because their service was merely foreshadowing the service of the GREAT High Priest of the New Testament—Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote:

1 Timothy 2:5
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus

Only Jesus, the God-Man is qualified to be the GREAT High Priest and function as our mediator with God. Here’s how the writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament describes Jesus’ role as our mediator:

Hebrews 4:14–16
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, [here’s his qualification] yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus—because God has done what the law of the Old Testament could not do. He sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3–4).

We need not tremble with fear, wondering if the fire is about to consume us as we approach the presence of God. Through Jesus, we can now draw near to the throne of grace with confidence—and like Aaron, when we draw near to the presence of God we encounter the mercy seat of God. We find mercy and forgiveness through the mediator, Jesus, because there is ONE mediator between God and man.

The only way to God is Jesus because of who He is—the mediator—and now because of what He has done! Only Jesus provides complete atonement for our sins!

Over and over throughout the book of Leviticus we read that the sacrifices provided atonement for the sins of the people. Even this greatest sacrifice in Leviticus 16 is referred to as the Day of Atonement. Indeed, the sacrifices of the Old Testament atoned for sin in that they “covered over” the sins of the people who offered the sacrifices through faith.

But here’s what we read in Hebrews:

Hebrews 10:1–4
1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of
the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

The sacrifices were a continual reminder for the people of the messy and severe consequence of sin. Year after year the sacrifices reminded the people of the two guiding principles of Leviticus that flow like a river through the rest of the Bible: (1) sin requires the shedding of blood, and (2) God accepts a substitute. These two guiding principles flow through Scripture and lead us to Jesus.

Leviticus was looking forward to Jesus and setting the stage for Him. Romans looks back from Christ’s work and traces it to Leviticus! It’s an amazing picture.

Romans 3:21–26
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— (that’s pointing us back to the Law—which Leviticus is a key part of) 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins, but God, in his divine forbearance “passed over” the sins of the people in the Old Testament. In that sense, the blood of the bulls and goats covered over, atoned for, the sins of those who offered the sacrifices in faith until—as verse 26 says—“the present time,” when God would “put forward (Jesus) as a propitiation by his blood” (3:25).

The blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins. The sins of man can only be paid by man. Thus, Hebrews 2:17 says:

Hebrews 2:17
Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

There’s that same word we read in Romans 3, propitiation. It sounds like an important word and it is! That Greek word is the word for “atonement.” In its noun form it’s used only in Romans 3 and in Hebrews 9 where it is translated “mercy seat.” That should set off all kinds of alarms in our head as it points us back to the Tabernacle where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the Day of

Atonement. Were it not for the truths of Leviticus, Romans 3, Hebrews 9, and the entire message of the cross would be emptied of its meaning. Only the blood of the perfect, sinless man—Jesus—can provide true cleansing from sin. Only the death of a Jesus paid the price for our sin—in our place—as our substitute. Jesus sacrifice on the cross provided substitutionary atonement for His people.

As Jesus was hanging on the cross, nearing the moment of his death, John 19 tells us he uttered a single Greek word, tetelestai, which the ESV renders “it is finished.” Archeologists have recovered Papyri receipts for taxes that were paid around the time of Jesus. Written across these tax receipts is a single Greek word, tetelestai, with the meaning, “paid in full.”

When Jesus died on the cross His redemptive work was completed. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 the Apostle Paul wrote,

2 Corinthians 5:12
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

What a wonderful truth—but I want to draw your attention back to Romans 3:26. God’s work of sending Jesus “...was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

While God passed over the sins of the people in the Old Testament and He continues to be patient waiting for others to believe in Jesus—He cannot look past your sin forever! Hebrews 9:27 tells us, “...it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

For the one who has faith in Jesus—God is a justifier through Jesus. The penalty of your sin has been paid in full. If you have believed in Jesus, by faith, then Jesus has stepped in front of the firing squad for you. Jesus endured the judgment and wrath of God destined for you when he died upon the cross. Jesus redeemed you from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for you (Galatians 3:13). But, for those who have not believed in Jesus, by faith, God will demonstrate His righteous justice.

John 3:18
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

I urge you today—believe and Jesus—and be cleansed through the work of the GREAT High Priest— the perfect sacrifice—Jesus!

Many liberal theologians and other people in the world direct attention to Christ’s teaching and compassionate deeds rather than his suffering and death on the cross, but that is why he came to earth. The angel of the Lord who appeared to Joseph in Matthew chapter 1 said, “...you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Christianity is Christ, and the pivotal fact about Christ is his work on the cross. It is offensive, but it is salvation—for everyone who believes!

Bruce Demarest in his book, The Cross and Salvation, wrote:
Given his own rules for how sin would be handled in his moral universe, the course of saving action God chose in light of the foreseen human situation was the wisest, most righteous, and most loving course possible. In sending his Son to be bruised and to bear our evils, God gave his highest and best. 1

SO, as the apostle Paul stated, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

We do not worship God according to the same “owner’s manual” of Leviticus that the Israelites used, but the same guiding principles of Leviticus are still in effect—sin requires the shedding of blood and God accepts a substitute. Praise be to God the sacrificial substitution has already been made once for all who believe! Christ’s work is finished. Sin and death has been defeated.

And, just as the people of Israel in the Old Testament were God’s chosen people—who were to live holy lives to honor the God who called them. So too, today, Christians are called to live holy lives—to honor the One who called us from death to life!

1 Peter 1:16 in the New Testament quotes straight from Leviticus and applies the same truth us today: “...YOU [believer] SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I [the Lord] AM HOLY!

God has made us holy through the atoning work of Jesus—so that we might live holy lives! Our holy living should be a beacon of light pointing people to the GOD who gave His own Son—to die in the place of us, sinful people.

You, believer, be holy, for the Lord, your God is holy!

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1 - Demarest, Bruce. The Cross and Salvation (Crossway Books, 1997), 188–189.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a
publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Psalm 23 - The Lord is MY Shepherd

Psalms is an amazing book. It’s a collection of 150 Hebrew poems, prayers, and songs—written over a span of hundreds of years by several different authors. Of the 150 Psalms, King David wrote 73 of them and nearly a third were written by anonymous authors.

The Psalms were written in Hebrew poetry, which has a few similarities to our English poetry but is, by in large, very different. Many of the Psalms came to be used by the choirs that sang in the Jewish temple, but the book of Psalms is not primarily a hymnbook. At some point after Israel’s exile into Babylon (after 586 B.C.) the various poems and songs were collected and arranged very carefully into the book of Psalms.

The book as a whole has a very unique design and message. There are Psalms of thanksgiving. There are Psalms for various festivals and feasts. There are songs of trust and meditation. But the two key themes of the Psalms that are woven through the entire Psalter are the themes of Lament and Praise.
Throughout the 150 Psalms the focus slowly shifts from lament to praise. Many of the early Psalms emphasize the personal and corporate sorrow of the nation of Israel. 

Psalm 4:1 “...answer me when I call, O God...
Psalm 5:1“...Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning.

The book of Psalms Finally concludes with five Psalms of praise to the God of Israel—each of which concludes with the Hebrew word "Hallelujah!" which means "Praise Yah" or "Praise the Lord!"

The book of Psalms has long been a source of strength and comfort for God’s people. Many of the early church reformers of the 16th century who were martyred for their proclamation of the gospel leaned heavily on the Psalms as they faced execution. In the mid-twentieth century pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for conspiracy in a plot to kill Hitler. It was from prison, just prior to his execution, that he penned one of his final writings entitled "Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible." As he neared the day of his execution, Bonhoeffer leaned heavily on the Psalms and its guidance in approaching God in the proper way.

Wherever you’re at in life—whether your rejoicing over the miraculous work of God or in the depths of despair and sorrow from a devastating blow in life—the Psalms will speak pointed truth into your life.

Psalm 23 is perhaps the most well known Psalm. It’s a Psalm of David as he reflects on the work of God in his own life and it gives us a beautiful pattern and promise of God’s work in the lives of his people. Many of the Psalms captivate us with their vivid imagery and realistic acknowledgment of the struggles we face in our daily lives. Psalm 23, perhaps more than any other Psalm, reaches to the depth of our soul with an unparalleled simplicity and beauty.

Like many others who grew up in and around the church, I memorized the twenty-third Psalm with the help of my mother before I even knew how to read it.

Psalm 23:1–6
1 A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup over ows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


The twenty-third Psalm gives us a beautiful picture of God’s care for His people. There’s just one main point that you need to remember from the text this morning. It’s similar to the title that most of your Bibles probably have for the Psalm and it comes from David’s opening statement in verse one that the Lord is his Shepherd.

I. The Lord is a Shepherd

One of the few similarities between English and Hebrew poetry is the use of metaphors, similes, and other figurative language to convey a truth. The challenge with figurative language is that it’s often difficult to translate the exact meaning into other languages and cultures—especially when those cultures are separated by thousands of miles and years.

Just this past week my son, Grant, was reading a book to a visiting friend from Africa and one of the characters in the book said, “he was going to completely lose it!” Even nine-year-old Grant knew that was a figurative saying that our African brother might not understand, so he stopped to explain that “completely losing it” means he would “go crazy.”

Here’s another example of figurative language from Psalm 84:11 “For the Lord God is a sun and shield...” The psalmist isn’t saying that God is a sun or that God is a shield. He’s saying that God is like the sun and like a shield in that He provides life and protection for His people.

In Psalm 23 David uses a metaphor for God’s work in his life that is especially meaningful to him. David had served as a shepherd among his father’s flocks for years. He knew the intricacies of shepherding. He knew the difficulties and commitment required on the part of a Shepherd who genuinely loved and cared for his flock. He knew it was a wonderful picture of God’s genuine love and care for his people.

The biblical imagery of the Lord as a shepherd did not originate with David though. All the way back in Genesis 48:15 Jacob blessed his sons and described the Lord as “...the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day.

For David, describing the Lord as a shepherd was not some vague or random image. Rather, it reveals the comprehensive and committed care that God provides for his people. The concise and vivid way David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, describes God as a Shepherd in Psalm 23 is what has made it such a deeply moving and captivating Psalm.

There are many important details we’ll look at concerning the Lord’s role as a Shepherd of his people but they can be arranged and sorted into four main roles; four roles that are completely and perfectly fulfilled by the Good Shepherd of the New Testament—Jesus—the Messiah.

Almost 700 years before Jesus took on flesh and became like us, here’s how the prophet Isaiah described His coming ministry:  Isaiah 40:11 "He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young."

We are going to look at the four ways David describes God’s role as a Shepherd and then see how Jesus, fully God and fully man, perfectly exhibited those same roles in His life and ministry. The first implication or role of God as Shepherd comes from that first phrase of verse one. David said, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

(1) The Lord is a Shepherd who knows His sheep (23:1a)

David understood that a shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know their shepherd. On those dark and stormy nights, tending to his own flock, when he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face— David could call to his sheep and they would respond—because he was their Shepherd. God calls to his sheep and his sheep respond! Look at what Jesus said:

John 10:14–15 "14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep."

Jesus identifies himself as God through one of the many “I AM” statements in the book of John. This
“I AM” statement has a double emphasis since
he also equates himself with the Messianic shepherd promised in Isaiah 40. But look at what he said after that amazing “I AM” statement: “I know my own and my own know me.” 

Sheep are not that smart, but they know the voice of their shepherd! A shepherd and their sheep have a very personal relationship. God’s people enjoy a close, personal relationship with the Lord—because the GOOD Shepherd laid down his life for them. Jesus voluntarily, willingly gave His own life for His people.

Can you say, confidently—“the LORD is MY SHEPHERD? Jesus laid down his life for ME!” Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Good Shepherd will save you from your death sentence due to you because of your sin.

The second role the Lord has as a Shepherd is found beginning in the second part of verse 1: “I shall not want.” David meant that since he had the Lord as his shepherd, he had no other want; he was lacking nothing because...

(2) The Lord is a Shepherd who provides for His sheep (23:2a)

In our American culture we are under the illusion that we are the masters of our own destiny. If you work hard enough or long enough then the American nightmare (I mean dream) is that you can have all the toys you want!

So, we spend the majority of our lives trying to secure provisions: securing enough money to buy food, to by a home, to send out children to college, to retire, etc.! Our stomachs remind us of our need for sustenance morning, noon, and night. But we cannot provide for ourselves—especially when it comes to our spiritual need.

Children grow up and hopefully become less dependent on their parents. Sheep, though, are always completely dependent upon their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to provide for them! David said, “I shall not want.” There were no wants on the part of David because he knew God has met his needs. God’s people shall lack nothing because of His care. This is an expression of contentment in the Shepherd!

For those who are God’s sheep, God has already met and will continue to meet all your needs in Christ. It’s how Paul opened his letter to the Ephesians in chapter 1 verse 3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

David had no wants because he was content in the Lord providing for his needs. And then he carries on the shepherd/sheep analogy and God’s provision by describing the provision in the first part of verse 2. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Green pastures and lush grass, both essential to the success and survival of the flock.

The spiritual nutriment we need as God’s people comes from the Word of God! When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 “Man shall not live by bread alone, buy by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Just as sheep need lush, green grass that provide the essential nutrients to sustain life—God’s spiritual  flock needs spiritual food that only comes through the Word of God! Listen to how the prophet Ezekiel describes the coming role of the Messiah:

Ezekiel 34:14–15 "14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God."

One of the many places we see the importance of the Word nourishing the flock is at the end of Hebrews chapter 5. The writer to the Hebrews basically took the recipients of the letter to the woodshed. (There’s that figurative language again, so if you aren’t familiar with it, that’s not a good thing to go the woodshed.) The author basically said, “you’ve been fed long enough—you should be feeding others! You should be teaching others the nourishing Word of God—yet you aren’t even weaned off  the spiritual milk. You are still unskilled in the word!”

We must seek the provision that the Shepherd has given us! The food for your soul is the Word of God! Crave it! When you get to the sections that taste more like beets or brussel sprouts keep eating it up. Your mom and dad were right: the stuff  that’s hard to get down is often the most nourishing. Wrestle with the text—work through it and grow in your spiritual life!

If you are visiting with us today and perhaps looking for a church home, let me give some important direction to you... As you evaluate the churches you visit (including ours) ask yourself “will the teaching and preaching of this church grow me in my knowledge and understanding of Jesus and help me be weaned off  the spiritual milk if I join this church assembly?” Today many churches serve up energy drinks and candy. They provide a momentary high and excitement, but they have zero long-term nutritional value. To quote John Calvin, "[The] flock of Christ cannot be fed except with pure doctrine which is alone our spiritual food.”1

And let me say this to those of you who are elders in the church or aspire to the office of elder or to those of you who are members of our local assembly and will someday consider future elder nominations! Elders are often called under-shepherds because we are called to shepherd God’s flock serving under the great and good Shepherd.

1 Peter 5:2 directs elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Elders are responsible for the local flock that is among us. How do we shepherd the flock of God? Primarily by feeding them! Jesus had a very pointed discussion with Simon Peter in John 21. Three times he repeated a similar command—Feed my lambs—tend my sheep—feed my sheep...

Elders, the under-shepherds should model God’s shepherding of his people—and the first and primary way we are to do that is by feeding the souls of the people through the Word of God! As one author put it, “A fundamental responsibility of any and every shepherd is to assure that the sheep are well nourished.”2 It’s why we see the Apostle Paul command Timothy—preach the Word! Be ready whenever to feed the flock!

The under-shepherds (the elders) ought to oversee the preaching and teaching of the Word to protect the integrity of the food. The elders are to oversee the singing of the Word to ensure that the lyrics are theologically rich and robust. The elders are to guard the practice of the Word through baptism and communion. The elders are to oversee and model one-on-one discipleship among the flock. In whatever form the Word is dispensed it is the responsibility of the elders to make sure that the food doesn’t spoil.

Ok, we’ve made it through one and half verses. We need to keep moving. The third way the Lord is a Shepherd (there at the end of verse 2 and 3) “he leads me beside still waters... He leads me in paths of righteousness...”

(3) The Lord is a Shepherd who leads His sheep (23:2b–3)

Humans need a leader. We need direction and purpose in life! The Israelites proved that point over and over again as God led his people out of bondage in Egypt and brought them through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Once the people finally entered the Promised Land, God raised up judges to rescue them from their enemies and lead the nation. Finally, the people demanded a king because they knew they needed a leader and they failed to acknowledge God as their king.

David describes God as a Shepherd who leads his people to “still waters” for refreshment and cleansing—which results in “restoring the soul.” There is a tremendous spiritual lesson here that we’ve encountered over and over again reading through the Bible together. God provides forgiveness and peace for his people. Those who are His sheep follow him to forgiveness and cleansing... which then results in us following him down paths of righteousness. He makes us righteous and then helps us walk in right paths! What an amazing picture!

God desires to lead us into greater depths of righteousness in our daily lives! 1 Thessalonians 4:7–8 says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” Striving to live a holy life as a Christian matters greatly to God! It’s why there are so many high qualifications (many of them pertaining to holiness) for leaders in the church!

Those who are in leadership positions in the church are continually reminded that they are to set an example for the flock (because the flock is behind them following their lead), but we must always remember that we are following the chief Shepherd so that HE gets the glory! Look at the end of verse three. The reason God leads his sheep is “for his name’s sake” ...so that HE gets the glory!

All through the Old Testament God accomplished His words. He redeemed his people, He saved them from destruction, He led them out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land for His name’s sake! We must always remember it is God’s work to lead his people, so that He gets the glory, but a key part of his leadership is through under-shepherds He has established to lead under his authority. Peter describes this biblical leadership as “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3) 

Speaking of not domineering over the sheep but leading out in front by example... the story is told about a group of tourists in Israel who had been informed by their Israeli tour guide, after observing a  flock and their shepherd, that shepherds always lead their flocks from the front. He told his attentive listeners that they never “drive” the sheep from behind.  A short time later they drove past a flock along the road where the shepherd was walking behind them. The tourists quickly called this to their guide’s attention and he stopped the bus to step out and have a word with the “shepherd.” As he boarded the bus he had a sheepish grin on his face (pun intended) and announced to his eager listeners, “that wasn’t the shepherd, that was the butcher!”

Beware those who look like a shepherd but really are wolves in sheepskin! Which leads us to the fourth role that God fills as a Shepherd (found in verses 4 and 5). David’s words are pointed and powerful.

(4) The Lord is a Shepherd who protects His sheep (23:4–5)

Through the fiercest drought and storms, the darkest valleys of life, the valley that comes in the shadow of death, David feared no evil... and then he gave two reasons why:

(1) For you are with me. Before Jesus ascended into heaven he told his disciples “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” God is forever with those who are His own because he lives in us through the Holy Spirit! It is the Spirit that empowers and seals us for that great day of redemption!

(2) Your rod and your staff  they comfort me. These are the tools of the shepherd. David said that he defended his flocks against lions and bears using these tools. Think about what the Lord can do who has every tool and power at his disposal to protect His sheep!

When we turn to the New Testament, here’s how Jesus again establishes himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10:27–28 "27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand."

As God’s sheep we need fear no evil for what can man do to us!! Certainly, Paul had the amazing protection of the Great Shepherd in mind when he penned these words in Romans 8 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: Romans 8:38–39 "38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

God’s persistent, steadfast love secures our ultimate salvation/redemption. But on the way toward our ultimate redemption there are many things that God provides/does for us as his sheep. Clearly, God protects His sheep by keeping us secure in our salvation, but look at the other ways God protects His sheep: 

(1) He uses the elders/overseers among the flock. Here are the words of Paul speaking to the elders at Ephesus recorded for us in Acts 20:28–30 "28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them."  God uses others who can protect us from those who would seek to pull us away and shipwreck our faith! This couldn’t be more perfectly illustrated than by this story put out by the Associated Press back in 2005. It came in from Istanbul, Turkey.

              First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had 
              left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others 
              followed, each leaping off  the same cliff, Turkish media reported. In the end, 
              450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile, the local 
              newspaper said.  Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher 
              and cushioned the fall. 26 families had their sheep grazing together and only 
              a few families had sheep left.4

I can’t even imagine what a pile of 1,500 white fluffy sheep must have looked like, but what a horrific situation for those families! We need under-shepherds who protect the flock from the errant sheep who runs off the cliff!  

(2) God also protects His flock by placing us together in local assemblies! In Matthew 18, immediately after telling the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus tells us what to do if our brother or sister in Christ sins against us. The first line of protection from the escalating trap of sin is to go talk to them alone. If they don’t listen, we are to talk one or two others. If they still don’t listen and repent of their sin, then we are to take it to the church—to the assembly. The assembly then becomes the protection for the name of Jesus and his reputation that could be marred by this one who claims to be a sheep but isn’t acting like it.

The Lord is a shepherd who protects his sheep. Now look at verse 5. Even in the presence of our spiritual enemies, he supplies us with what we need—down to the last enemy to be destroyed—death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

David finally concludes the Psalm with the reminder of God’s faithfulness to His sheep. Those who walk by faith shall realize the goodness and mercy of God. David knew that God’s good, loyal love would vigorously pursue him throughout his life so that David might enjoy full communion and fellowship in the presence of the Lord ...another picture we see of Jesus with His sheep in Revelation 7:17 “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

I have 5 questions for you to evaluate your own life and evaluate whether you're following the shepherd in paths of righteousness.

(1) Is the Lord YOUR Shepherd? The question I asked earlier—Can you say, confidently—“the LORD is MY SHEPHERD? Jesus laid down his life for ME!”

(2) Do you long for the Shepherd’s return? 1 Peter 5:4 “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” We have a great hope to look forward to, the glorious appearing of the Good Shephard. Do you long for his return?

(3) Do you properly appreciate God’s provision in your life? If God is the shepherd who provides for the sheep, do you appreciate what he has done in your life? God gave His only Son, Jesus—to die in your place! When you fully grasp and believe in that truth in WILL transform your life! What does that appreciation look like in your life?

(4) Are you following the path of righteousness? Living a holy life, living a life worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, should define your life—if you are one of God’s flock. You should look like and act like one of His sheep.

(5) Finally, have you thanked the Shepherd recently? Have you thanked our heavenly Father for calling to you, for knowing you, for providing for you, for leading you, for protecting you?

May we together as the flock of God, say confidently and joyfully with David— The Lord is MY Shepherd!

1 John Calvin, Commentaries, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 22:144.
2 Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 141. 
3 Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 156. 
4 http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/o beat/2005-07-08-sheep-suicide_x.htm

Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

What is a Healthy Local Church? (part 1)

Our consumer driven culture never ceases to amaze (and confuse) me.  Newer is always better, unless it becomes an "antique" or "aged," in which case older is always sometimes preferred.  Bigger is always best, except when you're talking about the new old electronic gadget in your pocket or on your wrist.  Companies spend billions of dollars each year trying to convince us why we need their product to improve our lives or satisfy our deepest desires.  There are even companies that evaluate products for us and tell us what we "can't live without" - for a small fee of course.

Sadly, this consumerism mentality has bled over into the local church.  Many people today decide to attend a local church because it's the biggest, shiniest, newest thing in town.  In an effort to attract as many people as possible – many churches, even with the best motives, use similar consumeristic techniques to create ministry paradigms that cater to the desires of the people.  Then, when the people come - because they are attracted to all the things the church offers them - the church automatically assumes they're a healthy church.  The problem is, once people get bored or allured by a newer, shinier model they jump to the next church that is riding the big new wave in innovative church growth.

Unfortunately, the questions most people are asking and, thus, the questions most churches are seeking to answer - are NOT a biblical measure for church health.

So, what makes a healthy, biblical church?  

The answer isn’t some quick fix, new building, flashy sign, or new program. Simply put, it’s the Word of God building the church.  Jesus, as the incarnate Word of God, said in Matthew 16:18 “I will build my church.”  Paul instructed Timothy to devote himself to the preaching of the Word (2 Tim. 4:2) because the Word makes the man of God “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).

Unfortunately, many churches have chosen to diminish the Word in favor of engaging, motivational speeches and high-energy entertainment that attract crowds of people, just as Paul warned Timothy against in (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

A few months ago I saw something online from another church in our community.  They had posted "10 things kids need to know from their parents" as part of a parenting sermon series.  Number one on the list was: “A strong belief in yourself as a parent.”  It sounds OK – certainly motivational for some – but NOT biblical.  Nowhere on the list of 10 things was anything about Jesus or the Bible!  Yet, that particular church was one of the top 10 fastest growing churches in our entire country a couple years ago.

American Theologian, Carl Braaten said this in one of his many writings:
If the aim of the church is to grow, the way to do it is to make people feel good.  And when people discover that there are other ways to feel good, they leave the church they no longer need.  The relevant church is sowing the seeds of its own irrelevance, and losing its identity to boot.  The big question today has become how to get the baby boomers back, what techniques and methods will do the trick.  Polls are taken on what baby boomers want and churches are competing to make sure they get it.” (Carl E. Brazen, "The Gospel for a Neopagan Culture," 19.)
The sad truth today is that most churches now reflect the world more than they do the Word.  

Jesus challenged his followers in the Sermon on the Mount to live distinctively different lives (Matthew 5:13-16).   Thus, the gathering of the saints (the church) ought to look distinctively different from the world.

God designed the church to be His embassy in a foreign land.  When you step into an embassy it should look different from its surroundings.  It will have certain characteristics of the country it is representing that will distinguish it from the country in which it sits.

When I was in Uganda a couple years ago I visited the American Embassy.  When I finally got through the security checkpoints it was literally like stepping across the ocean and instantly being back in the US.  The building construction and architecture reminded me of America.  The bushes and shrubs were landscaped like you'd see in America.  The waiting room was clean of red African dirt that seemed to permeate everything outside the embassy walls.  There were televisions on the wall playing the cable network news.  I even saw an desk clerk hard at work scrolling Facebook.  It was just like I was back home!

When people step in God’s embassy here on earth – among His ambassadors in the church - it should be a distinctively different experience from anything else on the planet!  A healthy local church must be sacrificially and wholeheartedly devoted to three biblical commitments:
  1. Worship - From it’s inception in Acts 2 the church has been defined by its worship. When the church is gathered at the end of the age, it will again be marked by its worship in Revelation 5.  
  2. Community - We are an independent, self-reliant, self-sufficient people.  The idea of interdependence, mutual submission, and accountability seems antiquated, weak and sometimes downright freighting. However, we were created to be in community and the church is to be a model community for the world to behold.  
  3. Service - Ephesians 2:10 says it best: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
Certainly, the forms churches take will look differently.  They may use different terms or phrases to describe their commitments.  But at the core of every healthy, local church stands those three commitments that will, by default, make it distinctively different from the world! To God be the glory!

(part 2 will propose a biblical definition of the church)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Origin and Role of the Synagogue

When the Jewish temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 the focal point of the Jewish sacrificial system disappeared. Since that time many have wondered how Judaism survived beyond the first century given the destruction of its central fixture. F. F. Bruce rightly observes that “Judaism survived, because the institution on which its survival, and Jewish community life in general, depended was already well established,”[1] in the synagogue. When the temple was destroyed it had, for all practical purposes, outlived its usefulness to the nation of Israel.[2] For generations leading up to the temple destruction the synagogue had supplanted the temple as the heart and soul of Judaism. Instead of the intense sacrificial system that the temple thrived on, the synagogue focused on the reading and exposition of the Law and Prophets. The intense focus upon the Scriptures developed a new way of thinking in many Jews that began to be obsessed with following the Law. It was these popular teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, who became the new voice for the people in the community and who ultimately became Jesus’ staunchest opponents.

Ultimately, it was the development and function of the synagogue that proved to be a vital and effective avenue for the spread of the gospel message throughout the Jewish and Greek communities of the first and second centuries.

The Development and Function of the Synagogue
The rise of the synagogue is very obscure but often linked with the Babylonian captivity of Israel.[3] In response to the loss of the original temple in 586 BC the synagogue may have arisen to fill the void. While many scholars agree with this theory there is no direct evidence pointing the presence of a synagogue prior to 450 BC, nor is a synagogue mentioned by name in the Old Testament other than possibly Psalm 74:8. Regardless, when the Jewish community returned from the Babylonian exile there must have been local places of worship that undoubtedly began to assume the form of the synagogue found in the New Testament.[4] The simple fact that a developed synagogue form existed in the New Testament points to its beginnings throughout the preceding centuries.

Generations before Jesus most Jewish communities had the synagogue as the common center of worship and community life.[5] When Jewish communities began to spread out across the land, particularly throughout the post-exilic centuries, the increased distance from the temple made it nearly impossible for the Jewish religious life to focus solely on the temple. As a result, local religious activities began to take place within individual communities apart from the temple. Groups of Jews would gather together to provide mutual encouragement to each other and worship God. These gatherings are undoubtedly the beginnings of the synagogue but had no intention of displacing the temple.[6] As the post-exilic centuries progressed (450-100 BC) the synagogue developed into a permanent fixture of Jewish life in Palestine and even in Jerusalem itself.[7]

By the time we arrive in the New Testament era the function of the synagogue was firmly established. Any ten Jewish men who came together to worship and share the law in order to learn and fulfill God’s will constituted a synagogue.[8] By the time of Jesus, its main purpose was to supply the community with a local center of worship, teaching, and community ties.

Every service of worship in the synagogue consisted of prayer, the reading of Scripture, including the Law and the Prophets, and often exhortation. Each of these functions was carried on by laymen in the synagogue. There was at least one presiding officer in the synagogue that was simply referred to as the ruler in Luke 13:14.[9] After prayer was offered by one of the laymen present, the reading of the Scripture would take place. The Law was read through consecutively according to a specific cycle. On the Sabbath, the consecutive lesson from the Pentateuch was followed by a corresponding lesson from the Prophets that related to the Pentateuch lesson.[10] Thus, the prophetic lessons were not read in consecutive order, but were chosen to complement the Pentateuch lesson.

Teaching in the synagogue also took on the form of a school for young boys.[11] It became a school where they could learn to read and know the Scriptures at the same time. The influence of the teaching of the Scriptures in the synagogue most likely led the transition from the Jewish focus on sacrifice to a focus on the Law. At the forefront of teaching boys from a young age to know and follow the law were the Pharisees. Thus, the fiercest challenges Jesus faced in the synagogues of Galilee was from the Pharisees and Scribes.

Even before the destruction of the temple, the synagogue had established itself as the premier fixture in the Jewish faith. With Jewish synagogues scattered throughout the land, the Law could be read and taught taking the place of the sacrifice. This new fixture in the Jewish community had a worship service that afforded the opportunity for Jesus and the apostles to propagate the gospel message quickly.

The Involvement of Jesus in the Synagogue
Throughout every major Jewish community in Galilee, Perea, and Judea Jesus found a synagogue.[12] Essentially, he used the synagogues as a springboard to begin his ministry because through them he could quickly reach the people.[13] He often preached in the synagogues because he would be permitted to speak after the reading of the Scripture. After his baptism and temptation in the desert Jesus returned to Galilee where he “taught in their synagogues” (Luke 4:14-15 NIV).

Unfortunately, very little of his synagogue preaching has been preserved.[14] However, one instance that was recorded by Luke provides a significant look into the service of the synagogue. In Luke 4:16-20 Jesus returned to Nazareth and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day, which “was his custom” (Luke 4:16 NIV). Jesus stood up and read from “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 4:17 NIV). After reading the passage “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:20 NIV). Jesus then began to admonish the people from the Scripture he had just read which follows the typical synagogue pattern of reading and exhorting.

It was in the synagogues that Jesus encountered some of his greatest opposition because he was at the center of Pharisaic influence.[15] Thus, this opposition was not accidental but inevitable because he was in essence preaching out of their headquarters. Nevertheless, the synagogues were an incredible platform for Jesus to present the gospel message to gatherings of people.

The Apostles’ Involvement in the Synagogue
The apostles, even more than Jesus, used the synagogue as a springboard and staging ground for their ministry in each new city they entered. By visiting the synagogues first, the apostles were able to appeal to people who already had at least a partial knowledge of the promised coming Messiah. Luke records that Stephen, who was a member of a Greek-speaking synagogue in Jerusalem, made some of the first gospel presentations to representatives of other Greek-speaking synagogues in Acts 8:8-9. Several of the Jews from these synagogues argued with Stephen but could not stand up against him.

Paul was the only apostle on record to use the synagogues for two distinct purposes. Before his conversion, Paul grew up as a strict follower of the law and was most likely taught much of what he knew about the Law in the synagogue. He was traveling to Damascus because he was going to visit the synagogues and flush out the followers of the Way to take them back as prisoners to Jerusalem. Paul even states later in his life that “many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished” referring to his persecution of believers (Acts 26:11 NIV). Thus, Paul originally used the synagogues as a place to catch and punish early believers. However, it was along that road to Damascus that Jesus appeared to Saul and gave his life a new direction. Paul, continued on to Damascus and still visited the synagogues, but instead of capturing the believers he was preaching “that Jesus is the Son of God” as a believer (Acts 9:20 NIV).

Whenever Paul entered into a new city it was his regular practice to begin preaching in the local synagogue.[16] The synagogue order of service provided him with an opportunity to speak to a crowd of people with the permission or at the invitation of the synagogue officials.[17] Many of the synagogues that Paul visited throughout his missionary journeys were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. These Gentiles were called God-fearers because they attended the synagogue and somewhat followed the Jewish tradition, but were not fully incorporated into the Jewish community. One such synagogue Paul visited was in Pisidian Antioch. When he stood up to speak he addressed the group as “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God” (Acts 13:16 NIV). It was out of some of these Jew/Gentile synagogues that the sharpest expression of the Christian faith and “its clearest challenge to ancestral Jewish customs” arose.[18] The main cause for the instant explosion of Christianity among Greek-speaking synagogues was the instant appeal the gospel made to the Gentile God-fearers.[19] Suddenly, there was an offer of salvation and acceptance by God without the strict requirements of the Mosaic Law or circumcision. The Gentile God-fearers that were present at Paul’s first synagogue message at Pisidian Antioch quickly spread the message and on the next Sabbath the synagogue was filled with Gentiles from “almost the whole city” (Acts 13:44 NIV). Many of those God-fearing Gentiles believed and “formed into the Christian church of Pisidian Antioch.”[20]

After leaving Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas visited the synagogue in Iconium and again “a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed” (Acts 14:1 NIV). Paul visited several synagogues throughout his missionary travels. Luke records that he visited the synagogues in Damascus, Salamis, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. These records show that by the first century A.D. synagogues had already permeated Jewish communities throughout the Greek-speaking world.

As Paul continued to visit these Jew/Gentile synagogues as he traveled, the Gentiles who were considered to be on the fringe of the synagogue now formed “the nucleus of the church.”[21] Paul stayed at several synagogues for extended periods of time preaching the gospel message, sometimes exceeding a year or more at one location.

Conclusion
Even before the destruction of the temple, the synagogue had established itself as the premier fixture in the Jewish faith. The format of the worship service in the synagogue afforded Jesus and the apostles the opportunity to quickly propagate the gospel message. Jesus frequently visited the synagogues, especially in the infant stages of his ministry, and encountered fierce opposition from the teachers of the Law who ruled the synagogue. Likewise, Paul spent as much time as he could speaking in the synagogues and using them as a mouthpiece for the gospel message. Throughout the God-fearing Gentile portion of the Jewish synagogues Paul witnessed explosive growth.

Thus, the synagogue served as one of the major, if not the major, conduit through with the gospel message was preached. This foundation of the Jewish community became an instrument in the hands of the apostles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. In some cases, the first Christian churches in some cities were formed from large portions of former synagogue congregations.


[1] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 147.
[2] Ibid.
[3] William G. Blaikie, Bible History. (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1925), 372-73.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Floyd V. Filson, A New Testament History. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 44.
[6] Ibid, 44.
[7] Bruce, 143.
[8] Filson, 44-45.
[9] Mark 5:22 and Acts 13:15 may indicate that some synagogues had more than one ruler, “the synagogue rulers.”
[10] Bruce, 144.
[11] Floyd V. Filson, A New Testament History. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 45.
[12] Ibid, 44.
[13] Ibid, 93.
[14] John Bligh, Historical Information for New Testament Students. (Baltimore: Helicon Press Inc, 1967), 49.
[15] Filson, 116.
[16] Acts 17:1-2 explains that it was Paul’s normal custom to go into the synagogue and preach when he came to a new city.
[17] Filson, 211.
[18] Ibid, 200.
[19] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 147.
[20] Ibid, 275.
[21] Ibid, 147.

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