the Israel series: Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi only gets one mention in Scripture, but it’s an important mention. It was a Roman city that held one significant place in the time that Jesus was alive on earth. That place was a grotto dedicated to the mythical Greek god Pan. The grotto is just a small cave-like opening that goes back a few yards into the face of the rock. In Jesus’ day, ancient tradition said that the grotto was the “Gate of Hades.” Worshippers of the false god Pan believed that the grotto was the entrance of the gods of Romany mythology into Hades, the realm of the underworld.

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Jesus never entered Caesarea Philippi while He was on earth. But one day, He did come close to the city, and He had an extremely important and world-changing conversation with His disciples there. As they came into the region, Jesus asked His disciples a question, “Who do people say I am?” The disciples had lots of answers— ones that people really had been giving. People who had been hearing Jesus teach and seeing Him perform miracles were curious and confused about who He could be, and they had many theories. Maybe Elijah, or Jeremiah, or another resurrected prophet? Or even John the Baptist, back from the dead? The disciples gave all of these suggestions they’d heard to Jesus. And then Jesus asked them the real question He was getting at: “But who do you say I am?”

Peter spoke up and boldly answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

To us, perhaps, his answer doesn’t seem like such a big deal. We know and have believed that Jesus is the Son of God. But for the Peter and the rest of the disciples, this was BIG. They had been waiting their whole life for the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel to come. And for the first time, they were putting together the pieces that Jesus was it. He was the Messiah, exactly who they and their fathers and grandfathers had been waiting for. But even more than that, Jesus was God Himself, living as a man! Peter’s statement expressed that Jesus was both the promised Messiah fulfilled and the Son of the living God, ruler of all. That was a monumental statement indeed.

And Jesus gives this famous and powerfully simple answer in light of what Peter said: “…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).

Jesus said that His church would be established on the strong foundation of truth that He is the Christ and the Son of God, the very truth that Peter had spoken, the truth that was as solid as a rock. But He also made another secondary statement about His church: “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” At first glance, this just seems like Jesus is making a reference to hell and the forces of evil that will war against His people but ultimately be defeated. But why use this phrase, “the gates of Hades,” which is found no where else in God’s Word? Why does Jesus say specifically that “the gates of Hades” will not overcome His church?

Because they were standing right outside them.

Jesus and His disciples were standing just a little ways away from the grotto of Pan, the place which hundreds of people over the centuries had believed to be the “gates of Hades” itself.

That’s what our professor explained to us as we stood right beside the grotto in Caesarea Philippi on Monday afternoon of our trip.

Standing there in the rain, looking into the grotto, I thought about the power of Jesus’ words. How does knowing about the grotto change my understanding of Jesus’ statement about His church, its foundation, and who it is that will never prevail against it?

In the moment that Jesus said what He said in Matthew 16, He was declaring that He is the truth and that His church is the only true way. Everyone who worshipped the gods and believed in the myth of the gates of Hades was just wrong. Everything that they believed in just simply wasn’t true. And in one simple phrase, Jesus obliterated their false faith and called them to real truth. He declared that His called out people would have a firm foundation on the fact that Jesus is the only Son of the only one and true God. And then He declared that no forces of evil, but especially not made-up forces which were just unproven, ancient folklore, would ever be able to overcome or defeat that church which He was about to establish and purchase with His own blood. Unlike the flimsy and questionable foundation of those who believed in the Gates of Hades, Jesus’ followers would have a strong and unquestionable foundation in the power of His love.

This can start to sound like some cerebral theological stuff, but it’s really pretty simple. Nothing can stop God’s church from winning the ultimate victory because God’s church is founded on the truth. And the truth is Jesus Christ.

When Jesus said, “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” I wonder if the disciples looked around at each other like, “Wow okay, yeah the gates of Hades,” and then it hit them and they got sort of wide-eyed like, “Oh you mean that gates of Hades.” I wonder if they got nervous about the residents of Caesarea Philippi hearing their conversation as they passed by on their way in and out of the city. I wonder if they felt the need to be hushed for fear of offending anyone. I wonder if they were shocked by Jesus’ implications.

Their culture was full of people who weren’t getting it, but they were getting it. I wonder how they went forward from here. If Jesus’ statement gave them confidence, or if they were afraid of how comprehensively life-changing His declaration was for them. Maybe a little bit of both. Jesus was turning their world upside down more and more every day.

He certainly turned Caesarea Philippi upside down. He reclaimed a place that was nothing more than a natural phenomenon—one for which He deserved the credit as co-Creator of the world—and proclaimed Himself as the true One to fear and worship and His coming Kingdom as the true place to turn for life.

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At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus said, “My church wins. Because it’s My church.”

And it’s literally that simple.

 

Amelia

the Israel series: Tel Dan

This is how I feel about Tel Dan: blegh

And I don’t feel bad saying it because it’s pretty much what God said about it too.

On Monday of our trip, we went to Tel Dan. A “tel” just means an archeological site that’s turned into a mound or a hill. So Tel Dan refers to the ancient ruins of the biblical city of Dan, which is now a national park in Israel. On the day we visited, it was POURING the rain. Pouring. So much water. Everywhere. So much mud. So many soaking wets socks and shoes.

But we trudged through the hike anyway, umbrellas, tourist headsets, and all. We were a sight to see, I’m sure. It was so wet it was comical. We helped each over rocks and puddles becoming ponds and every now and then we took a chilly glance up to see the ruins around us.

It’s not that Tel Dan wasn’t interesting. It was just wet. And blegh.

Because here’s what went down in Dan.

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Most places we went were awe-inspiring because they made me think about Jesus, about God’s plan, about God’s power, about the church, and about my faith. Most sights were positive and uplifting. But Tel Dan was an exception. Something definitely happened there, but it was much more sobering than awe-inspiring.

In 1 Kings 11, nearing the end of King Solomon’s reign, one of the King’s young officers named Jeroboam was leaving the city of Jerusalem and ran into a prophet of God. The prophet told Jeroboam that God was going to give him the kingdom of Israel, because Solomon had disobeyed God. God promised Jeroboam that he would be blessed and the kingdom of Israel would be his if he would walk in God’s ways and do what was right.

When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam assumed the throne. But Jeroboam, supported by the people, revolted against him. All the people except the tribe of Judah made Jeroboam their king. Rehoboam was left with one tribe and a warning from God to not fight back.

So Jeroboam took his place as the leader of Israel, just as God said he would. But he didn’t get very far before fear of losing his new power overtook his remembrance of God’s commands. He quickly forgot that God has promised him the throne under the condition that Jeroboam honored and obeyed Him. Rather than trusting that God would keep the kingdom within his reign as He’d said, Jeroboam decided to take things into his own hands.

Jeroboam was afraid that if people continued going down to Jerusalem to worship God, He would lose them to Rehoboam, whose territory contained the city of Jerusalem and the temple there. So he ordered the construction of two golden statues of calves, each complete with an altar. He set one statue up in a shrine in Bethel on the south side of his territory, and the other he set up in the northernmost part of his territory—in Dan.

Yep, this is gonna go downhill pretty quickly.

Jeroboam told the people, don’t worry about going to Jerusalem! Here are your gods right here (I imagine some pointing to the cow at this point). They saved you from Egypt! Now you can just worship here instead!

The people fell for it.

They went right along with Jeroboam and starting worshiping the cow statues and ignoring God. People were even traveling farther than it would take them to get to Jerusalem to go all the way north to the altar at Dan.

I imagine that at this point Jeroboam was just congratulating himself on how splendidly this was going. He picked people to be priests of the “gods,” and participated himself in the sacrifices and burning of incense. He even made up a random feast for the people to celebrate. The kingdom of Israel was moving away from God fast.

God says that “this thing [in Dan] became a sin” (1 Kings 12:30). This thing. The statue had no real power until Jeroboam and the people gave it the power to pull them away from God. It became a sin for them. It was blegh. Worse than blegh. It wrecked Jeroboam’s world. God was furious with them. He had given Jeroboam an incredible gift, entrusting him with the care of His people and their kingdom. But Jeroboam had thrown the gift away carelessly, and he would pay the price.

God’s message came to Jeroboam: “Because I exalted you from among the people, and made you ruler over My people… and yet you have not been as My servant David, who kept My commandments…but you have done more evil than all who were before, for you have gone and made for yourself other gods…and have cast Me behind your back— therefore behold, I will bring disaster on the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam every male in Israel, bond and free; I will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as one takes away refuse until it is all gone” (1 Kings 14:7-9).

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I hate the rain and the mud. And I hate this story, because I see in it a terrifyingly easy-to-fall-into trap that can take you from being on God’s side to being an idiot cow-worshipper before you’ve even had a chance to process what you’re doing. God said Jeroboam had cast Him behind his back, just tossed God aside like he didn’t care, like God was someone You could dispose of or ignore. That scares me. Because how many times do I just toss God aside too?

Idols are so foreign to me. But they’re still real. We don’t have gold statues and altars just casually around these days, but we do have idols. And it scares me how quick I am to criticize Jeroboam for abandoning God while I’m over here sinking in my own mud of replacing God with some silly thing that could never really replace Him.

I pick the cow all the time. It looks like choosing to do what I want instead of what’s better for a sister in Christ. It looks like seeking approval and acceptance from a boy instead of resting in the approval of God. It looks like picking up my phone for the millionth time instead of opening my Bible. It looks like staying up late studying but not waking up early to pray.

Mostly that’s what I thought about as we trudged through Dan. When am I going to stop falling for idols and start choosing God? How can I stop myself from building an idol and an altar to it just like Jeroboam did?

It comes down to trust. Jeroboam forgot that when God said He would give him the throne as long as Jeroboam served Him, He really meant it. God’s promise was trustworthy. And God didn’t need any help fulfilling it. He didn’t need Jeroboam to take things upon himself and keep the people from crossing into Rehoboam’s territory. God would have taken care of it and maintained Jeroboam’s power without any problems. But Jeroboam didn’t trust him.

So how can I keep from making the same mistake?

Trust. Trust that when God says He’ll do something He really means it. He’s capable of following through every time. He just wants us to do what is right and keep His commandments. If we can remember that He’s the one who brought us here, and trust that He’ll keep taking us where we need to be, then maybe we won’t be so tempted to build a replacement cow when things get tricky and we aren’t quite sure what He has in mind.

When life gets wet and muddy, remember Tel Dan. With a sobering earnestness, remember that God wasn’t joking when He said, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Remember the consequences of forgetting that God is God. Remember that God is with you and for you— so long as you are with Him and for Him.

Trust Him. Choose Him. Even when it seems too wet and muddy.

Especially then.

 

Amelia

the Israel series: Caesarea by the sea

Who is God?

I don’t know about you, but when I think Mediterranean Sea, I think warm. Sunny. But when we went to the Mediterranean Sea, it was definitely not sunny, and definitely not warm. It was more like the wind was blowing so hard from the storm rolling in that I could hardly even stand up straight.

On Sunday afternoon of our trip (this is literally still day two, we did so much and there’s so much more to tell!!), we visited Caesarea Maritima, the ruins of what once was an impressive, bustling, coastal metropolis in the Roman Empire. “Maritima” just means “by the sea,” and it distinguishes this town because of its location right on the shore of the Mediterranean.

Why does Caesarea matter? The ruins we saw in the ancient part of this city were crazy impressive. A huge theater, a hippodrome, an aqueduct. But what does Caesarea have to do with God’s story?

Acts 10 tells about a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He was a Gentile, but he was known for his good deeds and his belief in God, and he was about to change history. This man named Cornelius lived in Caesarea Maritima.

One day as Cornelius prayed, an angel told him in a vision that his prayers were heard by God, and instructed him to send for a man named Simon Peter to tell him what to do next. For starters, that’s a little crazy. But Cornelius trusted and sent two of his servants and a soldier to find this Simon Peter. They followed the angel’s instructions and headed to Joppa.

The next day, Peter went up to the roof of the house where he was staying to pray. He was really hungry, because it was lunchtime. All of a sudden, he had a vision too. But this vision was way wackier than Cornelius’. Peter saw a huge upside-down parachute thing coming out of the sky and it’s full of all kinds of animals, just a whole zoo of them (I picture lizards, owls, turtles, pigs, camels, frogs). And a voice tells Peter to go ahead and pick one of them to eat for lunch.

Peter, as I imagine I would also be, was horrified at the prospect. But unlike me, it wasn’t just because he wasn’t too keen on getting near them. It was because even if Peter had wanted to eat them, he couldn’t, and he wouldn’t, because the animals in the vision were “unclean” according to Jewish law. Peter had grown up with this law as the rule of his life. He had never eaten anything deemed unclean. It was so ingrained in his lifestyle that he could hardly consider the concept of eating them. Becoming a Christian had not changed that strict dietary law for him, even though in Jesus, he was free from all the restrictions of the old law. Peter, as the vision suggests, still had much to learn.

Peter replies, no way Lord! I’ve never eaten anything “common or unclean.”

And the voice says, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”

Apparently Peter didn’t get it the first time because the vision happened twice more. “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”

And just as Peter is standing there wondering what in the world is going on or what he’s supposed to have learned from the strange animal vision, here come Cornelius’ men knocking on the door of the house.

The men told Peter about Cornelius and asked him to return to Caesarea with them. The next day, they departed, with Peter and some of the other Christians from Joppa. I wonder if Peter thought about the vision on the way. Just like Peter had never eaten anything “unclean,” he had never set foot in an unclean person’s house. And here he was, headed to the house of a Gentile. I wonder if he heard that voice over and over again: “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” I wonder when he really figured it out. I wonder if he was afraid. I wonder when he decided that God’s plan was bigger than his fear.

When they arrived at Cornelius’ house, there was a small gathering of family and friends present. And Peter, crossing the threshold of a Gentile’s house for the first time in his life, began his message by saying, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean,” and proceeded to share with them the beauty of the story of Jesus.

In Caesarea Maritima, for the first time ever, Gentiles were invited to hear the good news. No longer was salvation for the Jews alone. In Jesus, all people are welcome. Everyone of every race has the same opportunity to be saved.

So as we stood there looking out at the Mediterranean, wind whipping through our hair, waves crashing onto the rocks and spraying us as the splash blew out across the shore, storm clouds darkening the sky in the distance, I thought about what it must have been like that day. What it was like to stand in Cornelius’ house and watch a Jewish man allow God to break down the racial barrier in his heart and share Jesus with someone he had previously believed to be unworthy. To watch a group of Gentiles receive gladly with great faith the truth about Jesus, and to see the Holy Spirit fall out on them. To see that whole gathering of people rejoicing as Cornelius and his family and friends were baptized into Christ, in one short day turning from racially isolated strangers to brothers and sisters, united as children of God.

I think it must have been even more powerful than the great waves of the sea.

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I love this story because it’s my story. I’m a Gentile. At Caesarea Maritima, God changed history. God used Cornelius as a gateway for Gentiles to be His people too. He opened the way for all people to come to know Him. Just as His creation of the sea and the beauty of the crashing waves convey His power and glory, His perfect plan for saving people conveys His love and power and greatness.

Who is God? Standing on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea reminded me He is a God who shows no partiality. Indeed, “in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (v. 35). And trying to ignore God’s impartiality is like trying ignore the fierce wind off the ocean. Trying to push the gospel into a corner of racism is like trying to ignore the mighty swell of the sea. It can’t be done. Jesus is for everybody, period. God shows no partiality, period. It’s so obvious in God’s Word. And I’d rather embrace the power of God’s plan for all people than try to hide it or fight it. God shows no partiality, so I must show no partiality. It’s as beautiful and simple as that. “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”

Caesarea by the sea. Where God shows His power through His creation. Where God showed His power through His salvation.

I wonder what happened after Acts 10. I like to think that Cornelius and his family and friends just took off with this fire in their souls for Jesus. I hope that many of Cornelius’ soldiers heard the good news and became believers too. I wonder if Cornelius or his family or friends ever went down to the Mediterranean Sea just a few yards from their house to baptize another friend into Christ. I wonder if the new church in Caesarea met at Cornelius’ house. I wonder if as they sang and praised God together that they remembered their Jewish brothers and sisters in Joppa and their brother Simon Peter who first told them about Jesus.

I don’t know for sure what happened with them, but I do know what Peter did next. Peter got back to Jerusalem and ran straight into a bunch of scandalized Jewish Christians who just could not believe what he had done. But Peter, who had finally figured it out, told them the simple truth. I love their response: “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has granted to the Gentiles repentance to life'” (Acts 11:18).

Who is God?

He is powerful in the storms of the sea. He break barriers down. He cleanses. He makes people un-common. All people. That’s who I want to stand with. How about you?

“Who is so great a God as our God? You are the God who does wonders; You have declared Your strength among the peoples.” Psalm 77:13-14

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Amelia

the Israel series: Nazareth

Nazareth doesn’t get a lot of air-time in scripture. It was a tiny, tiny village where Jesus grew up, and God’s word doesn’t give us much description of that time in Jesus’ life.

The biggest story that Nazareth does get doesn’t give it a good reputation.

In Luke 4, Jesus has begun his ministry by traveling around and teaching in the region of Galilee. He came home to Nazareth and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The Jewish tradition was to gather on the Sabbath to read from their treasured and limited copies of the Scriptures. Jesus was given a scroll and He read from Isaiah 61, a beautiful prophecy about Himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

When Jesus finished reading, everyone in the synagogue stared at Him. He closed the book and sat down. Then He stated a simple truth: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And the gathering turned into an uproar. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they said. We know this kid! He grew up here! Where did he get these ideas from? He’s crazy! He thinks he’s the Messiah? Ha!

They were so angry that they dragged Jesus out the city and were about to throw Him off a cliff— and would have, if Jesus hadn’t miraculously disappeared through their midst.

Jesus knew that this would happen. He said to disciples, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). 

After that day, Jesus never went back to Nazareth.

That’s why I love our Nazareth story so much.

Nazareth has changed a lot since Jesus’ day, but there wasn’t much that we were there to see. We spent three nights in Nazareth, but every day we traveled out of the city to view other important sites. Except Sunday. Sunday was different.

On Sunday, we met the sweetest, most incredible group of people, people who prove that although Jesus never physically returned to His hometown, He is back in Nazareth today. On Sunday, we worshiped with the church in Nazareth. About 20 Nazarene brothers and sisters in Christ welcomed us in and together we prayed and studied God’s Word. In a little two story building, we sang songs of praise in both English and Arabic, together, at the same time. We took communion. Our customs were not all the same, but our hearts were.

Worshipping in Nazareth took my breath away because it pointed me to the God who brings all people together through Jesus Christ. Right there in Jesus’ hometown, we worshiped together. And in that moment, no other labels mattered. There was no American, no Israeli, no Arab, no white— nothing but Christian defined us. We were altogether the called out of Jesus Christ.

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Only God can do that. His love brings people together in a way that breaks barriers, surpasses language, eclipses race, and transcends culture. Without Jesus, it makes no sense. With Jesus, nothing else but this incredible, barrier-breaking love makes sense.

As one of the men prayed in Arabic that morning, my eyes filled with tears. Though I couldn’t understand the words he said, the emotion behind them was so evident and an overwhelming sense of God’s presence with us filled my soul. All I could think was, “Oh God, who is like You? Nobody brings people together like You do.”

And as I think about Jesus’ last physical day in Nazareth, I realized that He was trying to share a little bit of that message with the people there too. He gave the people in the synagogue two examples of people who—unlike them—had figured it out, who actually realized the evidence in front of them and believed in God. The widow of Zarephath, who trusted that God would provide for her by Elijah’s promise, and Naaman the Syrian, who was healed of leprosy after following Elisha’s instructions from God to wash in the Jordan River.

You know what’s interesting about those two people whom Jesus heralded as examples of true faith?

They were Gentiles.

They weren’t “God’s people.” They were people that the Jews viewed as dirty, undeserving, and immoral. But Jesus lifted them up as people of another race who had come to understand God’s love and put their faith in Him. Jesus was making a point about who God really is. God isn’t a God of division. His love unifies. He wants everybody to know Him.

The people of Nazareth in Jesus’ day didn’t get it. But there are some wonderful people in Nazareth today who have figured it out. God’s love is greater than our differences. Through Jesus, He draws all people to Himself.

It was like a little bit of Heaven. That’s what the preacher in Nazareth said after we all sang together. He was right. I don’t know exactly how Heaven is going to work, but I do know we’ll all be singing praises to God together, whether its in a million languages at once or in one new heavenly language all its own.

How dare we place divisions where God has not. The people of Nazareth in Luke 4 were so focused on staying apart that they missed what was right in front of them and threw the Son of God out of their lives. But the Christians who live in Nazareth today are so focused on bringing people together that they’ve invited the Son of God back in.

Galatians 4:27-28 “For as many of us as were baptized in Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In Jesus, there is neither white nor black nor Arab nor anything else that separates us. In Jesus, we only wear one label—His— and we become one body in Him.

Nazareth taught me about the church that belongs to Jesus Christ. And Nazareth taught me about Heaven. In the city where my Jesus grew up, His love still lingers.

I’m so thankful His love makes us all one in Him.

 

Amelia

Let God be magnified

Let GOD be magnified.

I’ve been thinking about pride lately. Pride keeps us from doing the things we should and makes us do other things for reasons we shouldn’t.

Why do I do the things I do for the Kingdom? Maybe, if you’re like me, it’s easy to serve or be kind under the pretense of glorifying God, while our true purpose is to be seen by others or to bring glory to ourselves. Oh, we would never say that out loud. We tell ourselves that we’re so spiritual, but deep down we’re doing those things because that boy we like is watching or that professor is here and I want to impress her.

Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

Why I am helping this older lady? Why am I writing that memory verse on my hand? Why I am washing the dishes after the church potluck? Is it because I really love God or is it because I really love other people thinking that I love God? Would I do the same thing if no one was here to see me? If no one ever knew?

Psalm 70:4, “Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; and let those who love Your salvation say continually, ‘Let God be magnified!’”

People who are truly seeking God and who are rejoicing in His salvation want God to increase, not themselves. They say, “Let God [and not me!] be magnified!”

What stands out to me in this verse is that the attention could easily be drawn to themselves here. Let those who seek God show everybody else how happy they are and how much better they are than them. Let those who love God’s salvation receive praise from others because they’re so in love with God and everyone can tell they’re so spiritually minded. It seems like a lot of the time that’s how our spiritual life goes. I hope everybody sees how joyful I am and how much I love God! I hope everyone thinks I’m so spiritual!

No, that’s not what people who truly love God do. People who seek God and love His salvation point all the joy and glory and honor to Him. They do everything with the mindset of increasing God’s greatness in other’s eyes.

And that goes straight against our pride. That cuts straight through all the times we did something good but with the motivation to make ourselves greater. Yikes.

What’s my goal here? That’s what I need to ask myself every time I head down that road of spiritual showing-off. Who I am I really trying to magnify— myself, or God?

Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.”

So many people know that familiar verse by heart. But are we really living it? Why shine? Why do good things? Sometimes the way we actually live would make people think it reads like this: Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify you for being such a good person.

I’ve missed the mark on that one like a million times.

What we’re really talking about is godly humility, and there’s so much more to learn and study about it. But maybe the one thing we need to remember today about magnifying God is that we’re really bad at it— but God knows.

That’s why I love verse 5. Because right after stating the standard of the truly godly person who joyfully says, “Let God be magnified!” and really means it every time—that mindset that we want to have but struggle so much to fulfill— the writer says the truth about himself: “But I am poor and needy; Make haste to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.” (Psalm 70:5)

It’s like he’s saying: this is what I want to do Lord. I want to seek You. I want to rejoice in You. I want to say continually, “May You be magnified.” But I’m not very good at it. I know You’re the One who can help and deliver. Please help me, Lord, and don’t delay.

Maybe the best way to battle pride is to turn it over to Him. When I recognize that having the right attitude of humility is difficult for me, He can start working on my heart to help me grow. The faster I say, “I can’t,” the sooner I can say, “But look everyone, He can.”

The sooner I can say, “Let God be magnified.”

 

James 4:6 “…God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

 

 

Amelia

 

the Israel series: the Jordan River

We did a lot on our first day in Israel. So when our bus stopped yet again on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and we pulled ourselves out of the almost-nap daze and into the sunlight without much knowledge of where we were headed, I was completely unprepared to walk right up to the Jordan River.

It blew. me. away. (A regular Israel occurrence but still a notable one.)

Definitely not because the water was pretty— on the contrary it was a nasty-looking greenish brown. Not because the river was so mighty. It’s actually decreased a lot in size over the last couple thousand years. Not because the border between Israel and the country of Jordan falls right in the middle of the river these days— intriguing, but not what made it special.

The Jordan River blew me away because I could not believe I was standing on the shore of the same place where God cleared the water away for Joshua and His people to cross over. That’s one of my favorite Bible stories ever. And I felt kind of like a little kid standing there and thinking, “It really happened. They really did cross this river. That I’m standing in front of. Right here.”

love the story in Joshua 3 and 4 of God’s people crossing the Jordan River. I think it’s the underrated water-parting story of the Bible. I get it, the Egyptian chase across the Red Sea with God parting the water into two giant gravity-defying walls for His people before collapsing them onto the Egyptian army is pretty cool. It’s got a lot more drama and thrill and pizzaz. But if it’s okay to pick a favorite, mine is crossing the Jordan.

Because it comes at such a different moment. The calmness and purposefulness and reverence of that river-crossing makes it uniquely beautiful to me. They weren’t on the run, rather, God was on the move.

Joshua told the people, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (3:5), and the next day, the priests led the way with the ark of the covenant ahead of all the people. I wonder what they were thinking as they approached the river. I wonder if they talked about what God had done before at the Red Sea, if the oldest few who remained whispered about what they had seen then, if the kids jumped up and down in excitement, if any of them were worried or afraid. When they reached the river bank, which was overflowing because it was harvest time, the priests stepped into the Jordan. As soon as their feet dipped in, “the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away…So the waters that went down into the Salt Sea failed, and were cut off” (3:16). Unlike the water walls of the Red Sea, God caused the northern waters of the Jordan River to be held back upstream as the rest of the water drained away south, leaving a wide expanse of land that was so dry it was like water had never touched it. God’s power on full display.

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As a non-swimmer, not-a-big-fan-of-water-especially-dirty-opaque-water kind of person, I could not imagine getting into the river that was before me as we stood on the banks of the Jordan. But what I could imagine was how amazing it would be if right before my eyes, that water washed away and cleared a path to the other side. The Jordan River was, to me, impassable. It was for God’s people in Joshua 3 too. But God made the impassable passable. He made the wet dry. He made the mighty river humble. He showed His power over everything, power that would carry the people from that moment throughout all their conquest of the promised land.

At the Jordan River, God said, “You are weak, but I am strong. You are overwhelmed, but I make peace. You cannot do this alone, but with Me you can.”

And that’s why when the last person had crossed, Joshua sent twelve men back into the river for a quick but important task. With the priests still standing firm, those twelve men, one for each tribe, picked up a stone from right in the middle of the Jordan. Then the priests walked away, the water came rushing back, and they carried those stones with them to their campsite, where they used them to build a memorial.

What did the memorial mean for them? It was a reminder of all those things God had implicitly spoken by showing His power and making a way across the river. “For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over…that all the people of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (4:23-24).

You know, there’s another really important story that took place at the Jordan. It’s the one that most tourists who come to visit the river are way more focused on— the story of Jesus’ baptism.

Matthew 3:13-17, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him… And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'” 

A lot of theological questions arise from Jesus’ being baptized, but I’m not super concerned about answering them. I just think that Jesus’ baptism was in its own right a sort of crossing. In the same river that God had parted for His people so long ago, He was doing another parting. He was making a new Way.

When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, it wasn’t an end goal, but a starting point. And God was showing them that He was working and that He was with them and that He was making a path to victory.

When Jesus was baptized in that same river, it wasn’t an end goal, but a starting point. And God was showing the world that He was working and that He was quite literally with them and that He was making a path to victory.

The lessons that God was teaching when He parted the waters of the Jordan are the same lessons He was sharing when Jesus was baptized. In that moment, when Jesus went down under the water and came back up again, God said to humanity, “You are weak, but I am strong. You are overwhelmed, but I make peace. You cannot do this life alone, but with Me you can.” And it was like a little foreshadowing of the end goal, when Jesus would go down into the earth but come back up again in victory. At the Jordan River that day, God said, “This is the real crossing. This is the real dry ground. This is the real Way. This is My Son Jesus.” God was on the move.

And it’s kind of like everything Jesus did after that was a memorial stone. Every miracle, every teaching, every healing, every moment that His power was displayed was a reminder: “Remember what God is doing for you.”

It’s pretty cool when God’s plans make so much sense. Here’s where it comes together. When you and I are baptized, it’s not an end goal, but a starting point. It’s God showing us that He is working and that He is with us and that He is making a path to victory in Heaven. And it’s not the water we’re baptized in that’s so special. The water of the Jordan River wasn’t so special either.

What’s special is the God who makes a way at the water over and over again.

Good grief, that plan has me smiling so big! It had me smiling at the bank of the Jordan, and it has me smiling right here today.

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Amelia

“all” 2019: All-in

At the beginning of the year, I shared that my word for 2019 is “all” because there are so many applications that it has in scripture regarding our walk with Christ. Today, I want to share the first of some of those applications, starting with the phrase that has been on my mind the most in the new year: all-in.

It’s like a mantra I’ve been repeating to myself over and over again. It’s been the thing I’ve spoken to God in the mornings, “Okay, here I am, I’m all-in.” It’s been the steady course reminding me what direction I want to head in the middle of a chaotic day, “Okay Jesus, I’m all-in.”

But what does that really mean? What does all-in represent for my faith?

Yesterday I read Matthew 10. The words Jesus spoke in this chapter are hard and maybe a little confusing. But as I thought about His teaching, it occurred to me that maybe this is the definition of “all-in” I’ve been looking for.

In Matthew 10:28-33, Jesus said, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

What does it mean to go all-in for Jesus?

It means to not be afraid. Jesus said that the only person to be afraid of is the One who can actually condemn your soul. Nothing else is worth the worry and fear!! Things of this world may kill our bodies but our souls will survive. Isn’t that crazy powerful? Don’t be afraid to live! Going all-in means living a fearless life. Living like you really believe that your soul is secure in God and facing the things of the world that make your skin crawl. Not bugs or heights or clowns, but deep fears. The fear that keeps you from walking up to a stranger and telling her God loves her. The fear that keeps you from saying, “Would you like to study the Bible with me?” The fear that holds you back from worshipping with all your heart because you don’t know how people around you will react. The fear that stops you from bringing up God in a conversation with your friends because its awkward.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Facing that fear dead in the eyes and saying, “My God is greater than you. My God has power over you. And in Him, I will not let you control me.” That’s going all-in. That’s stepping out and choosing what He wants you to do instead of letting fear choose just the opposite for you. That is living.

And what does living in that kind of fearlessness make you do? It makes you confess His name before others. Proclaiming Jesus becomes the core point of your day. It doesn’t have to be loud or broadcasted to lots of people. It comes in the quiet moments when you choose to pray with a friend in the middle of a classroom, when you choose to sing a song of praise, when you tell somebody in the grocery store that they’re beautiful and beloved, when you do anything that gives Jesus the spotlight instead of you. It’s a living confession of faith. A fearless confession that pours out of you every day. That’s all-in.

But how can I do that? What gives me the motivation to live that fearless, all-in, declaring Jesus life? It’s because we can know for sure that God knows us and cares for us. We are valuable to Him. Jesus said He knows the number of every hair on our heads. God is a personal God, who cares about the details of your life. He’s pursuing you because He desperately wants you to go all-in for Him.

This is my all-in definition: a fearless life of claiming the God who claimed you first.

It’s easy to write it, and harder to live it. But Jesus’ promise is that when we confess Him today, He will confess us before the Father someday. That’s when “all-in” will truly be attained: when we are all in heaven with Him.

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Amelia

 

the Israel series: the Word of our God stands forever

I always think it’s so funny when the Bible makes predictions about itself and people are so surprised when they turn out to be true.

In 1947, a shepherd stumbled upon a cave in Qumran, threw a stone inside, and was shocked to hear the sound of clay pots breaking. He had just stumbled upon a hidden treasure, one of the greatest historical discoveries of all time— the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls, which were slowly uncovered in more caves around the area over the following years, amounted to hundreds of documents including 230 partial or complete copies of every Old Testament book except Esther. They were over a thousand years older than any previously identified biblical manuscript, and they contained the same text as the accepted Bible text of the day.

Turns out God’s word was right about itself.

Isaiah 40:8- “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”

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As we stood looking out at Cave number 4, where 122 biblical scrolls and fragments were discovered, I was amazed at the power of God’s Word and how it continues to withstand the test of time. There’s no other book like this. Nothing can stop the word of God. People say it will lose relevance, and yet it remains the best-selling book of all time by a landslide. People say it can’t be trusted, and then a whole copy of its Old Testament text is discovered that fact-checks itself.

The word of our God stands forever.  It is relevant to every culture in every era of history. It provides everything anyone needs to know for life. It changes hearts. And it just keeps on rolling. It keeps on making change. It keeps on acting as the power of God in every place it is made known. It’s been doing it for centuries, and it has no plans to stop.

No surprise here. Jesus said in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”

The lesson for myself, then, is to not let such a powerful, life-changing, world-altering book sit on a desk and not change me.

The word of our God that stands forever is right here in my hands. Don’t let its power pass you by! Every word is trustworthy and true and will last through eternity. You can absolutely count on it.

Qumran was just a lot of empty old caves surrounded by ruins. The civilization has faded and withered away into a dusty desert. But the word of our God doesn’t fade. It doesn’t become an empty old relic. God’s word is alive and colorful and sharp and moving right now. And it always will be.

Psalm 119:160- “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous rules endures forever.”

Qumran isn’t a “Bible place” and yet it is a Bible place, an incredible part of the huge story of God’s enduring word. When those caves crumble into dust, when I’m gone, and you’re gone, and the world looks like a totally different place, God’s word will still remain. People will be so surprised, but God never has been and never will be.

And wow, if that doesn’t just make you so excited to read the thing, I don’t know what will!!

Psalm 119:151-152- “You are near, O Lord, and all Your commandments are truth. Concerning Your testimonies, I have known of old that You have founded them forever.”

Amelia

 

 

the Israel series: En Gedi

Choosing the right thing.

That wasn’t exactly what was on my mind when we got off the bus at a place I didn’t immediately recognize from scripture. My thoughts were more like, “It’s hotter than I expected,” and “Should I really have thrown away that shirt I wore in the Dead Sea this morning?,” and “Oh cool, this place is like, a national park I guess.”

What I’ve learned from En Gedi since then has blown me away.

En Gedi, an oasis in the desert, is a beautiful refuge, not only because of its rare freshwater source, but also because of the rocks and hills and caves surrounding the spring which create a perfect hiding place.

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And in fact, it was a hiding place. It’s a riot of a story. In I Samuel 23, we pick up right in the middle of David on the run from King Saul who wants to kill him. David’s place as the rising new king and warrior of Israel is becoming increasingly obvious everyday, and Saul’s hatred has grown just as quickly and fervently. In chapter 23, David evades Saul once again and runs away to the “strongholds at En Gedi” (v. 7). Enter chapter 24. When Saul finds out David’s location, he gathers 3,000 men and sets out to find David and kill him once and for all.

Saul and his men reach the caves and Saul enters one, the one that just so happens to be the same cave where David and his men were hiding deep within. When David’s friends realize its Saul, they urge David to go and kill him while he has the chance! But instead, David sneaks up to Saul and slices off the just the corner of his robe. And even at this, his heart is troubled and he says, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s annointed…” (v. 6).

So David follows Saul from the cave and calls out to him, showing him the piece of the robe as proof that he could have killed him, but instead spared his life. “For in that I cut off the corner of your robe, and did not kill you, know and see that there is neither evil nor rebellion in my hand, and I have not sinned against you. Yet you hunt my life to take it. Let the Lord judge between you and me…but my hand shall not be against you” (v. 11-12).

And Saul, weeping, says to him, “You are more righteous than I; for you have rewarded me with good, whereas I have rewarded you with evil” (v. 17). And then he leaves.

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This story is only one moment in the saga of David and Saul (which didn’t end after this moment by the way). It is so obvious that David had every right to be angry with Saul. David had done nothing wrong and Saul knew it! Saul knew that David was the chosen one to be the next king of Israel. Saul knew that David had nothing against him and had only ever treated him well. Yet Saul sought to take David’s life. Saul hated him with a vicious and violent hate. Saul took three thousand men on a death mission against him. And David had the chance to end it for good. To end the running and the fighting and the fear, to get rid of his greatest enemy and assume his rightful throne.

But David chose the right thing instead. David chose love.

Sometimes when I read the psalms of David, I wonder at the lines he wrote with such fierce anger against his enemies. Stuff like Psalm 139:19, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore you bloodthirsty men,” and Psalm 58:6, “Break their teeth in their mouth, O God!” He prays this terrible violence on his enemies, and the words seem to be in contrast to the words of peace that He speaks to God often within the same psalm. I know that David was a man of war, and righteously so. But sometimes I hesitate to even read those words because they seem to be scandalously at great odds with what Jesus taught and spoke, things like in Luke 6:27-28, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.”

But then I realize as I study David and what he did at En Gedi that his psalms are not contradictory to what Jesus said or who Jesus is. Because David may have wished the worst for his enemies. He probably even wished the worst for Saul. But those words were written as the thoughts of his heart. And at En Gedi, he didn’t act on those thoughts. He didn’t act on the emotions that told him to strike out in hate. He acted, rather, on the love of God, the same love embodied in Jesus who said, “Love your enemies,” and whose own sacrificial love caused Him to die so that others’ lives may be spared.

At En Gedi, David chose to do the right thing. He chose to love an enemy. He chose to do good to one who hated him. He chose to bless the one who had cursed him. He chose to honor as the Lord’s anointed the one who had spitefully used him. He chose to spare a life. His heart was grieved that he had even dared to take the corner of Saul’s robe away from him. David’s heart, though imperfect, reflected God’s heart. And in this moment, at En Gedi, he chose to act as God’s heart would.

Maybe you feel the same way that David did sometimes. Maybe you have even thought to yourself something like David wrote. Maybe you’ve wished about your enemies, “Get rid of these wicked people, Lord! Stop them! Break their teeth! (or something like that)” Because evil is real and when it meets us in a particularly antagonizing person, it’s easier to wish the worst. Because if you’re like me, “love your enemies” sometimes seems impossible.

But what Jesus taught wasn’t just a suggestion or a good idea. It was the very core of the heart and image of God. Jesus’ words turn the world on its head. Love people who hate you? Give even more to people who take from you? Pray blessings on people who curse you? Lend and don’t expect anything back? Forgive people who haven’t even asked for forgiveness? How can I do it, Lord? That takes bravery, to approach an enemy with love. That takes trust, to give and give and never know if you’ll get it back.

How did David do it? How did David have the courage to spare Saul’s life? How did he have the trust to bow down before the man who wanted to kill him? How did he choose the right thing?

I think it’s because David was in his hiding place. At En Gedi, he was hidden in the refuge of God.

Psalm 57 is a psalm of David that he wrote perhaps when he was fleeing from Saul in the caves of En Gedi. Its words reflect a man who has found refuge in God alone. And I find it interesting that this psalm—although David does recognize his enemies and their shortcomings—is distinctly devoid of any hateful or violent wishes upon them. Instead, the words reflect peace. They reflect love. They reflect a soul who has made the right choice, empowered by the refuge of God.

“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me! For my souls trusts in You; and in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge, until these calamities have passed by. I will cry out to God Most High, to God who performs all things for me. He shall send from heaven and save me…My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and give praise” (v. 1, 2, & 7).

We have the same refuge.

How can I choose the right thing? I can do it within the hiding place of the Lord. He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. He is our fortress and stronghold. He gives us the power and the opportunity to choose love as He has chosen love for us. He gives us the courage to choose the right thing. Within the hiding place of my God, loving your enemies may not be easier, but it makes so much more sense.

And our hiding place is way bigger than the caves of En Gedi. It’s not tied to a physical location on earth. It’s a spiritual refuge, a peace that lives in our hearts when we know that God is with us. It’s knowing that God is always approachable and always listening and always giving us strength. That’s the gift that David, a man after God’s own heart, only caught a glimpse of. Because it’s the fullness of refuge in Jesus Christ.

A steadfast heart in the refuge of God chooses the right thing. It chooses loving your enemies. It chooses doing good to people who will never do good to you. It chooses Jesus.

I think it’s so amazing that even though En Gedi is an Old Testament location, its significance still reaches through time to Jesus Christ. David’s choice there made the love of Jesus known in that place.

Our choices anywhere can make His love known in every place.

 

That’s a big lesson from the wilderness of En Gedi.

 

Amelia