Thursday, January 31, 2019

Free Delivery

[These are my journal reflections from spending time with God in His Word today.]

Look: “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush.” (Acts 7:35)

This is part of the speech of the first-century Christian Stephen, speaking to his fellow Jews, about to stone him to death for his faith in Jesus. The speech Stephen gives reviews central themes of Jewish history to show that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy for a Messiah and Prophet. Stephen also asserts that Jesus is “the Righteous One” come to earth, God Himself (Acts 7:52). Jesus, Stephen says, is no radical departure from the faith in God given witness in the Old Testament law and prophets, but its fulfillment.

In verse 35, Stephen is talking about the call of Moses by God to be the instrument by which God frees or delivers His people, Israel, enslaved in Egypt in Old Testament times.

Moses received this call from God in Midian, where he’d been living for forty years in exile. Moses had fled Egypt and gone to Midian shortly after he’d killed an Egyptian overlord who had been beating an Israelite (Hebrew) slave. He ran after another incident, when he tried to prevent two Hebrew slaves from fighting one another. Until that moment, Moses appears to have thought that his killing of the Egyptian soldier defending the Hebrew wasn’t witnessed. Instead, referring to the killing, one of the Hebrews asks him who he thinks he is, a ruler and judge of the Hebrews? Moses spent the next forty years as a fugitive.

It’s ironic (and typical of God), Stephen seems to say that Moses, who had been rejected by the Israelites as their leader was picked by God to be their leader.

Listen: But of interest to me is the competing set of designations for Moses in this verse.

Forty years earlier, Moses felt that the people of Israel had rejected him for seeking to be their “ruler and judge.”

Now, God sends him to the Israelites as their “ruler and deliverer.”

Both phrases see Moses as a leader for God’s people. But “judge” is how the enslaved Hebrews who rejected Moses had seen him. “Deliverer,” translating a Hebrew word that can also mean redeemer or liberator, is what God actually sent Moses to be.

It strikes me that often in life, we see people who want to deliver us as our judges. Of course, in order for us to accept the deliverance or freedom a person offers us we must accept the implicit judgment that there are things in my life that enslave me.

The enslaved Hebrews cried out about their horrible situation, their slavery which had now lasted over four-hundred years, but they didn’t want Moses reminding them of their need of deliverance. Who did he think he was?

When someone offers us freedom, our pride kicks in and we deny that we are enslaved in any way. “We don’t need anybody’s help,” we think.

The descendants of the ancient Hebrews, for example, when offered freedom from sin, death, and futility by Jesus, denied that their people had ever been slaves to anyone, even though they’d been enslaved through the centuries by Babylonians and Assyrians and, at the moment they denied it all, were under the thumbs of the Romans.

Their reaction is no different from the addict, whether their addiction is to work, money, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, whatever. All will, at least initially, deny their enslavement.

It’s this pride, this need to hold onto the lie of self-sufficiency, “having it together,” of being gods to ourselves, that prevents us from taking up the offers of others to help set us free.

That pride is why the Israelites saw Moses as their judge rather than their deliverer. It’s why the people who stoned Stephen to death heard the good news of Jesus he proclaimed not as liberation from sin, death, and futility, but as a judgment that they needed freedom from those things.

When God brings up my sin and mortality with me in His Word, He doesn’t do it to judge me. God doesn’t want His interchanges with me to end in terminal guilt or fear of living and dying.

God points my my sin and mortality so that I can see how far I am from being like God, how far I am from having it together, how helpless I am before the reality of my own sin and dying, and how hopeless my existence is without His deliverance. When I see these things, I know to return to Him. And because of Jesus, I know that I turn to a High Priest (Jesus Himself), “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15) and who has, through His death and resurrection killed the power of our sin and mortality over our lives forever.

Moses came to the people of Israel as an agent of God’s deliverance. God comes to me in Jesus Christ, reminding me of my slavery, so that He can be my deliverer. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says in Matthew 11:28. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He says in Mark 1:15.  

According to Stephen, many of his fellow Jews, like many people in the world today, saw God, his Old Testament agent Moses, and Jesus, God enfleshed, as only judges.  They did so because they refused to turn to God and be set free by Him.

And freedom is what Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead to give to us: Freedom from sin, death, and futility. And so, the apostle Paul wrote to first-century Gentile Christians who thought that salvation and new life as free gifts from God through faith in Jesus was just too good to be true: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

“Repent, then, and turn to God,” the apostle Peter told a crowd of his fellow Jews at the temple in Jerusalem shortly after the crucified and risen Jesus had ascended to heaven, “so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…” (Acts 3:19)

Too often, Lord, I turn to myself rather than to You. In some way, I’m running from You as a judge when I do that. “It would be pathetic if I couldn’t handle this on my own,” I seem to think. “I should be able to get this done,” I think at other times without a thought of you. “I don’t regret doing that,” my attitude implicitly says about things I should regret.

But God, I’m grateful that Your Word leads me to repent--to change my mind, to turn from the direction in which I’ve been walking and turn back to You.

I’m grateful that Jesus died so that, despite my inclination for denying my sin, mortality, and need, You have come into the world, died, and rose to deliver me from myself. Thank You that Jesus came to be my Ruler and my Deliverer.

Response: Lord, help me today to live as a person set free from my enemies--sin, death, and darkness--and rest easy, not in the world or my achievements or anything but  in the grace of Jesus Christ, the One Who delivers me from all evil. In His name I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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