Layers of Meaning in Scripture

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I am often astonished at the beauty of Scripture.
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Not only astonished at the beauty of individual books or passages, although that happens too.
What often takes me aback is the elegance of how the entire Bible fits seamlessly together, flowing in and out of itself like a river flowing into the sea.
The Old Testament points toward the New Testament, while the New Testament points back to the Old as well as forward into the future.
There are layers of meaning to everything – the personal inside the theological inside the historical – and every layer is truth.
Everything that Jesus said and did points back to what God did for Israel and forward to what He was going to do for all the nations.
Exquisite.
Beauty
Look at the Crucifixion.
It was certainly historical and political. It happened to one man in one place on earth at one particular time, a man caught between two powers struggling for supremacy.
It was theological. When Jesus died, He took upon Himself the sins of the world to atone for them once and for all.
It was personal. Jesus paying the penalty for your own sins is about as personal as it can get.
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Look at the meeting between Jesus and the disciples after the resurrection. The one after the disciples had been out fishing and Jesus called them to shore for breakfast.
Jesus spoke to Peter and told him, If you love Me, then feed My sheep. That is a very personal calling.
A calling which is nestled inside of the layer of Jesus as the Passover Lamb and all of the theological meanings implied therein.
The theological meanings that are nestled inside the first Passover and Israel overthrowing Egypt in their escape through the Red Sea and all the historical and political pieces of those events.
Personal meaning burrowed inside theological meaning burrowed inside historical meaning.
Truth
You see? Go look for it. Find it everywhere and be astonished.
See the Word as beautiful.
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What Should We Truly Fear?

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Fear is a powerful force.
I have done things of which I am not proud out of fear. I have done things that were good from the same motivation.
The Bible speaks often about fear.
Fear God. Don’t fear anything else. Simplified, perhaps, but that is about the sum of it.
Yet we are also told that in Christ, we do not need to fear God. We are instructed to come boldly before His throne. We are told that perfect love casts out fear. How are these reconciled?
Fear the Lord thy God
Come boldly
It is certainly true that God tells us to fear nothing but Him. We are told that we will have trouble in this world but that we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the world.
Jesus tells His disciples not to fear those who can harm only the body but to fear only the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
He had, however, just been speaking about the Pharisees who had the power to cast them out of the temple which, for a first century Jew, was about the worst thing imaginable. The temple was an integral part of who they were. If they were cast out, not even their family would be allowed to associate with them. They became untouchables.
Jesus reassures His followers, though. He tells them that the Pharisees truly are not to be feared and that to be cast from the temple is not the worst thing imaginable. He warns them that the worst thing would be for God to cast your soul into hell.
Frightening words.
Then come comforting words, as Jesus is wont to do.
He then reassures them that if you trust in God you don’t have to fear the worst (being cast into hell) because God cares even for the tiny sparrows and you are worth so more than a sparrow to God.
So fear God. But don’t fear God.
Clear, yes?
I find clarification in the writings by John, one of Jesus’ disciples. He was there when Jesus spoke of fearing God rather than one who can harm only the body. Perhaps he was thinking of that moment when he wrote about fear in one of his letters.
John, speaking to those who have confessed that Jesus is Lord, says that there is no fear in love. He says that fear has to do with punishment, which has no place in those who are in Christ. Matthew Henry, in his commentary, speaks of this kind of fear as a dread arising from feelings of guilt. And perfect love drives out dread.
Perhaps it is a bit like our feelings about fire.
We all treat fire with caution and care when it is contained in our fireplace or firepit, but perhaps do not fear it. We have a healthy respect for it when checked by the confines of the fireplace, but I venture to guess that if a raging wildfire were headed straight for us with no way to escape, we would feel just a smidge of fear.
Perhaps fire truly is a good example in its limited way. If we follow the rules of caring for fire, it is beautiful and bestows many benefits upon us but if we disobey those rules it can consume us.
In the same way, if we obey God, if we accept His gift of Jesus’ blood covering us, we need not worry about punishment from God, and in that sense we do not need to fear Him. We should, however, still have fear in the sense of reverence and awe of what He could do if He were to choose, what He will do to those who reject Him.
So if we are in Christ, we do not have to be afraid of anything at all: nothing in this world, because Christ has overcome the world, and not of God, for we are in Christ who has taken on Himself the punishment for our sins.
So let us fear God out of awe and reverence rather than out of dread, for He is, in Scripture’s own words, a consuming fire.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. ~ Hebrews 12.28-29

Art credits: Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo; Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Jan Vermeer

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What Is the Gospel?

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Our culture is passionate about the importance of the individual.
We believe deeply that each person (especially our own person) should have all they need to be happy.
Pursuit of Happiness
We are also quite certain that anything which claims to be good news must primarily be about benefiting us as individuals.
Even the Good News.
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Many of us in the church were taught that the word gospel means good news.
It does.
The word gospel is translated from the Greek word evangelion/evangelizo which means good news or one who brings good news.
But what is the Good News?
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Many of us in the church were taught that the Good News is that Jesus died to rescue us.
It’s not.
Don’t get me wrong. Jesus dying to rescue us is good news, indeed.
But it’s not the Good News. It’s not the best news.
The Good News of the Gospels is not that Jesus saved the world; it is not that He died so that we can be with Him forever, although these certainly are pieces of very good news.
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The Good News of Scripture, rather, is that the Jesus who died and rose from the dead is Lord of all.
He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and because of this He has power over all of creation, even death itself, power over Satan.
Within that is a personal good news, of course, but a personal good news is not the primary Good News.
The primary Good News is not just good news for the individual person. It is not even good news for all of mankind. The primary Good News is good news for all of creation.
This is so much bigger than us and is so much more excellent than our attempts to confine the Gospel by our tiny definitions of what is good for me.
The news that Jesus is Lord of all is news that can be celebrated by the singing of mountains and the clapping of trees.

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This is true Good News for all.

Art credits: page from a 1769 German Luther Bible; Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses; final photo of mountains and trees by Kirk Sewell; all other photographs copyright by Elizabeth Giger

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Never! Said I

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I would never do that.
No, never! Said I.
Horrified, confident, righteous within.

Never? He said
with a gleam in his eye.
Perhaps, yes perhaps, and yet.

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This little thing?
What about this small little thing?

Oh, that? That’s nothing.
Said I with a grin.

That surely won’t matter
in the vast scope of life.
So yes, I’ll do that and enjoy.

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Well, what about this?
Just a teensy bit larger.
And the pleasure is much larger still

Oh, that? That’s still nothing.
Said I, standing tall

This too, doesn’t matter
it surely won’t hurt
those around me or go against God’s will.

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Said he with the gleam
You’re so close, just look
at what could be savored and gained.

I turned ’round
and suddenly saw with despair
my righteousness lying quite stained.

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I did it, yes did it.
How could I? Said I.
with shock and confusion within.

Your confidence blinded.
Said he with the gleam.
You trusted in self not in Him.

 

copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Giger

from the archives

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God in the Darkness

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Sometimes it happens this way.
Sometimes when you are closest to God, you feel as though you are farthest away.
It seems to happen that when you are a new Christian, God speaks clearly, you feel His presence solidly, light is all around you.
New
Fresh
As you progress in your faith, God’s voice gets fainter, His presence is harder to grasp, the clouds begin to form around you.Old
Dry
This is how it was for Mother Theresa who began her life full of fire and certainty and spent the last fifty years of her life full of darkness and silence. She continued to obey, even when the dry times outnumbered the rich times.
As a baby, you need God to discernibly carry you. When you become more mature, you need to trust that God is still carrying you.
When God first showed Himself to Moses, it was in the light.
Light
In a miracle of a fiery bush that did not become ash, He revealed Himself to a man who did not yet know Him.
Later, God showed Himself to Moses in a cloud.
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In the middle of the cloudy dimness of a pillar of cloud, God spoke to a man who was learning to trust Him.
Once Moses became more perfected, he saw God in the darkness.
Dark
In the darkness on the top of a mountain, God gave His Word to a man who knew Him.
We should not think that this is unusual. We should not despair when we must enter the darkness. We should not give up on God when we can no longer see Him.
Rather, we should continue to obey, continue to trust, continue to speak and to listen.
What you discovered about God in the fiery light does not disappear once He cloaks Himself in darkness.
He is still there, He still loves you, and He is still working to perfect you.
Becoming
Perfect
Especially in the darkness.

Ideas in this post come from St. Gregory of Nissa (335-395 AD)

Art Credits: God Appears to Moses from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg; Pillar of Cloud is a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company; Promulgation of the Law by Gerard Hoet

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Taking Time

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I’ve written before in this space about the beauty and goodness of time.
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I’ve written about this time we are in now, the thousands of years between creation and restoration, and how the delay of Christ’s coming is a gift to us.
I’ve written of the idea that it is not a failing of the created world that it reaches its fulfillment only through time. This is part of the way God made things. The created world takes time to be what it is. ~ Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth
Sometimes, though, it is easier for me to accept this idea in the abstract than it is to accept it in my own little life.
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It is easier to be okay with Christ’s delay in returning, because that feels a long way off anyway, than it is to be okay with a delay in God fulfilling a dream that I think is His will for my life.
I feel sure that I am not alone.
We think that if God wants us to do something, to accomplish some purpose, then it should happen now. Or at least within a year or two. If it doesn’t happen quickly, perhaps it really wasn’t God’s will.
I am certainly guilty of this thinking. I dream of writing in a way that changes hearts for God. I dream of articles and books, of ministry that is a part of the story of God’s kingdom.
When I get yet another rejection, I wonder if perhaps I was mistaken. Perhaps God does not want to use my writing after all.
I forget.
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I forget about Joseph who spent thirteen years in slavery before becoming second to Pharaoh. I forget that it took Moses forty years to get from the burning bush to Canaan. (Yes, I know he didn’t actually make it to Canaan, but that’s another story for another essay.) I forget that David waited over twenty years from when Samuel anointed him as king before he actually became king over all of Israel.
Like many of you, I forget that part of fulfilling God’s purpose means delay. It takes time to become what God created us to be.
Would Joseph or Moses or David have been the leaders they were without the waiting? Would they have been able to live out God’s story and lead His people without the process that shaped them into those very leaders?
No.
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And neither can we do anything within God’s story without allowing Him the time to change our hearts into the beauty He intended.
Whether it takes thirteen years or forty, we must accept where we are now, we must be faithful and obedient now, trusting that waiting is not bad, that delay is not ugly.
Growing into our role in God’s story takes time, so rather than chafing as though it were a setback, let Him use that time to make you into who He created you to be.
It will be beautiful, I promise.

Art credit: World Time by rizeli53; Ornate Clock by Kevin Tuck; Just In Time by Adrian van Leen; Clock Tower by Miriam Wickett

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When You Are Desperate to Understand

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There is much that I don’t understand about this life we live.
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I don’t understand why good prayers often go unanswered. Prayers that even an indifferent parent would grant.
I don’t understand why young mothers die horrible deaths or why four year old little girls suffer abuse.
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I don’t understand why God often seems so distant, especially in our darkest moments.
I simply don’t understand.
Yet this thing I know to be true, even if I don’t understand why:
Sometimes God asks us to choose between understanding and Him.
This is the story of Job. Horrific things happened; God was silent.
Job’s friends offered their limited understanding; God offered the fullness of Himself.
And that’s the thing about understanding, you see. When we demand it, we usually don’t get it and in the demanding we lose the grace that God offers to us.
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If you choose God, however, you gain what you need most of all.
We will all receive understanding someday, whether on this or that side of death, but we need God now. Always.
If you have to choose, choose God.
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That was Job’s choice. He admitted his incomprehension and bowed before the God he had seen. And he was satisfied, ending his life full of days.
When we choose God, we receive the gift of His presence and that will satisfy us more than any understanding ever could.
We need God desperately. More than we need anything else.
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If you choose God, you will eventually gain understanding. If you demand understanding, you may lose the presence of God and yet never receive the understanding you gave up everything to gain.
If you have to choose, choose God. It is this grace that will get you through the hard thing you do not understand.
This grace that is the presence of God Himself.

Art credit: Photo of space by NASA

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When You Have Trouble

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God promised that this life would be hard.
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It is part of what draws us together as humans, this trouble that comes to us all.
Whether the trouble is harming you directly or whether you are hurting while you watch one you love suffer, trouble is promised to us all.
Trouble is promised, yet Christ asked us to take up our cross if we want to come with Him, implying that we have a choice.
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If trouble is not our cross, if we are guaranteed trouble no matter what, then what does it mean to take up our cross?
What does it mean to share in the sufferings of Christ, as Paul encourages us to do several times in his writings, and how can that bring us joy? This is, after all, trouble we’re talking about, not fun and relaxation.
As I read through the Bible, God seems to tell us that we have a choice. That when trouble arrives, as it invariably will, we have a choice of how to respond.
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If we look to Jesus as showing us how to live life as we were created to live, we can see Him having to make the same choice and showing us which choice to make.
After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is telling the disciples that He will have to die in order to be honored and glorified.
Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!
Do you see His choice?
His heart is troubled as He looks ahead a few days to His crucifixion and He sees His choice clearly.
It is the same choice you have.
Will you run away from your trouble, trying your best to escape it?
Or.
Will you make the incredibly hard choice to accept your trouble, asking God to glorify His name in it?
Will you try to escape your cross or will you take it up?
Now, I certainly don’t mean that it is wrong to pray that God will take your trouble away. Jesus asked that of God in the garden when He asked for this cup to be taken away from Him.
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I do believe, though, that the greater portion of peace and joy can be ours if we ask for God to be glorified in whatever we are facing.
This is what it means to be partners with Christ by sharing in His sufferings. This is what brings beauty and meaning to our own suffering. Suffering that will happen regardless of how we choose to respond.
It is hard to wrap our minds around this idea that suffering can be redemptive, bringing hope and healing to the world. Our world reacts so strongly against any kind of discomfort at all. Yet the entire life of Jesus shows us how grace and suffering can fit together.
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This language that combines suffering and joy is all over Scripture. Jesus endured the cross for the sake of joy, Peter tells us to rejoice as we share Christ’s suffering.
Trouble comes to us all. The astounding piece of this is that God chooses to use us, if we will allow Him, for the greater good, for the healing of all around us.
So for you who don’t know how you will pay your bills next month, for you who lost a child, for you who can’t imagine an evening without a fight, for you whose heart just broke in two, for you who are walking through the crippling loneliness, depression, physical pain, doubt,
ask God to help you make the choice that will bring the most peace and joy, the choice that will bring healing to those around you.
Ask God to glorify His name through your trouble.
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In this, you will be like Jesus. And God will grant you what you ask.

Art credit: Gethsemane by Carl Bloch

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God’s Law

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My youngest is in that cute-right-now-but-not-so-cute-in-3-years sort of stage where she will turn and make sure she has my attention just before she does something wrong. She wants to be sure I know she is breaking the rules.
Testing the Law
There is something about breaking the rules that makes all of us more conscious of who is around us. As grownups, we probably want to be sure that no one is watching rather than making sure that the rule-enforcer is paying attention; regardless, we want to know who can see us.
When I make rules for our kids, I am really just describing to them how life works.
Don’t touch that stove because fire is hot and will burn you.
Don’t hit people because then no one will want to play with you.
Upset Mad Angry
I’m sure my girls often feel as though I am just trying to ruin everything they want to do, but the truth is that I understand better than they do how life works best and I want to teach them how to navigate life in a way that will make them content.
Ever wonder why God gave the Ten Commandments? Why He gave over six hundred laws in the Old Testament or why more than one thousand in the New?
Is it because He loves rules? Is it because He enjoys watching His children stay restrained and unable to enjoy their lives?
If God did indeed create this world and everything in it, then this has consequences for every realm of human life. It’s not just about being moral, it’s about metaphysics. It’s about the nature of things.
In simpler terms, God knows better than anyone else how this life works.
If God knows how life works best, it would be cruel to withhold that information from those He loves.
Thus, He gave us His laws.
Rembrandt Moses with the Ten Commandments
Not as a way to restrain us, rather as a way to help us navigate life in a way that will help us to be most content, that will bring us the most peace and joy, that will make us most like Him.
Asking us to obey, then, becomes not a way to keep us far away from Him, but a way to bring us close. A way to prove His love for us by making us fit for His presence.
The next time you are chafing under His rules, remember who created this life and thus knows it best. Trust in His love, obey Him, and reap the benefits.
The next time you hesitate to bring your faith into the public realm, remembering that Christ’s rule has public ramifications may be the most generous and loving service you can offer to your neighbors.
A life of consistent obedience leads to ever-increasing joy.
Put it to the test and you’ll see.

Art Credit: Moses and the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt

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Prayer

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Prayer.
This one word means so many different things.
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Asking. Adoration. Doubt. Despair. Confidence. Confusion.
We pray with expectation; we pray with hopelessness.
We pray in altruism; we pray in selfishness.
We pray boldly stepping up to the throne; we pray pessimistic, not expecting a favorable answer.
Prayer.
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Regardless of how you view it, aside from what you expect from it, no matter how you approach it, the Bible is clear.
We must pray.
From seek and you will find to the story of the widow who bothered the judge enough that he finally gave her justice, we are told to take everything to God in prayer. Everything.
Whatever else prayer is, if we are praying without ceasing, the words we offer to God permeate everything we do, everything we are.
Whatever else prayer does, if we continually give our hearts to God, we end up also offering our selves to others.
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If we offer our prayers to God while we offer ourselves to others, the power of God acts as a wireless network, acting for others to give rescue, healing, comfort, light.
As we offer our prayers to God, we become less ourselves and more a piece of a whole. A whole that covers the whole earth, bringing God’s love and kingdom to all.
We are woven into the fabric of God’s power and love, becoming a part of bringing His kingdom to earth, a part of His restoring of creation.
It (prayer) moves from God to others through us, because we have ceased to be self-centered units, but are woven into the great fabric of praying souls, the “mystical body” through which the work of Christ on earth goes on being done. ~ Evelyn Underhill (Christian philosopher and writer, early 1900’s)
All because of prayer.

Art credit: Gethsemane painting by Carl Bloch

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