Thursday, May 6, 2021

May 6 - Ruth 4, Acts 18

It may be an exaggeration to say that, like the book of Ruth, the Bible begins with a funeral and ends with a wedding. But hopefully a pardonable one. The story of humanity does begin with death and loss, and ends with the marriage supper of the Lamb and the beauty and intimacy of an eternal family. Naomi, by the end of the first chapter, has a bitter heart and empty arms, but by the end of this sweet short story, her arms have been filled with a grandson who is like a son to her, and her heart has been restored by the love of her daughter-in-law and faithful kinsman redeemer. We have seen God's lovingkindness modelled by each of the main characters in the story. Ruth's commitment to go with Naomi, Naomi's desire to provide for Ruth, and Boaz's tender generosity all point to the God who is working behind the scenes. Can the work of God end in anything less than new life? 

Early in the book, we noted how different the faithfulness of the Moabite Ruth was from the wicked Israelites in the period of the Judges. But of course, that is too broad of a brush. God has always maintained a people for himself. He told Elijah that he had preserved thousands who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Jesus promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his church. The whole world was bathed in wickedness before the flood but Noah still stood for the Lord. God is never without witness. So when we come to the genealogy at the end of this book and find that Ruth is the ancestor of no less than King David himself, we should not really be surprised. The covenant keeping, faithful God, preserved the lineage of the King with whom he would enter a new covenant. 

Even more importantly, the promises God made the David were not the last word to David's line. David's descendant, Jesus, came into the world as a direct descendant of this Moabite woman, who had been a widow and was redeemed by Boaz. He was the heir of Naomi, who had called herself "bitter," and yet learned to remember that life could be sweet. How much more do we, as children of God, need to realize that his lovingkindness always breaks through. God has a plan to use the pain, the sorrow, and the apparent chaos of our lives for something beautiful. It began with death, but it ends with new life!

Discussion idea: Why do you think God chose to include this short story in the Bible? What would we miss without it?

Prayer focus: Thank God for the people he has used to demonstrate His lovingkindness in your life.

Key Verse: Acts 18:10

Big Idea: The churches of Jesus have unexpected allies.

Many storytellers, with a wink and a nod, bring every character back for the great finale. In The Lion King, Timon and Pumbaa show up as some unlikely allies to fight Scar. In Great Expectations, every ostensibly minor character is actually a major one. Most of us learn quickly that real life has a lot more loose ends. But as we read Acts 18, we realize that in God's world, nothing happens without a purpose. In Corinth, Paul makes two important allies, Priscilla and Aquila. They had moved out of Italy (about AD 49) because the conflict over Christ had caused dissension among the Jews and Caesar had expelled them all from the capital. The king's harsh edicts placed two people in Paul's path that would have a wide-reaching impact for God's Kingdom. Although Paul faced a lot of opposition, God reassured him not to worry: God was with him and there were many people in the city Paul did not know about. When the persecution reached a fever pitch, the local ruler's laziness protected Paul and he was able to complete his ministry there.

When he left Corinth, Paul took Aquila and Priscilla with him to Ephesus, where they stayed and eventually discipled Apollos, who became an important ally of Paul's and figure in the development of the church at Corinth. Paul then traveled on, strengthening the churches that had already been established. Every thread pulled together to make a path for the gospel to be spread and for God's servants to be brought together. In your life and mine, there may be threads that we never see the end of, but none of them are loose. God is weaving them all together into a master tapestry, to showcase the beauty of Jesus and make us like Him. There are no accidents, so we can be grateful for everything. We are never alone because God can raise up friends in unexpected places and unexpected ways. No one knew that better than the apostle Paul, who saw the friends Christ raised for Him and was surely an unexpected ally himself. 

Discussion Idea: In 1 Kings 17, Elijah was convinced that he was God's last faithful servant, but God reassured him that there were hundreds more. Why are we so prone to feeling alone? If we know God is in control of every circumstance, how will that affect the way we respond to those kinds of situations? 

Prayer Focus: Who is someone God has placed in your life for your good and His glory that you can thank Him for today?

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

May 5 - Ruth 3, Acts 17

 Key verse: Ruth 3:10

Big idea: Lovingkindness is at the heart of true character.

Alfred Hitchcock coined the term "MacGuffin" to refer to an element that is theoretically the center of a film's plot, but could actually be replaced with something else and exists only to pull the story along. He called it, "The thing the actors on the screen worry about and the audience doesn't care about." The classic example is the military secrets in Hitchcock's own Thirty-Nine Steps, but the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, the travel papers in Casablanca, or the meaning of the word "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane are all classic examples. On paper, those are what those stories are all about, but they are ultimately passive plot devices, a means to an end.

By this point in Ruth, you might start to think of Naomi as a MacGuffin. Things have happened to her (a famine, the death of her husband and sons, a faithful daughter in law), but she seems only to react and not act herself. She is the way that God brought Ruth to Israel but has otherwise been passive. But in chapter 3, things change. Naomi turns out to be an insightful and wise woman, making a plan for Ruth to have the "rest" of marriage. It had been about two months since she had first met Boaz, and he was a man of character and kindness, ideal for a husband. Naomi gave her specific instructions: go to him in secret (there was no need to pressure or embarrass him). Uncover his feet when he was asleep with the others after a long day of harvest, and lay down there. When the chill of the night gradually woke Boaz up, he would wake and find Ruth there, who could then propose marriage. It would be a unique kind of Hebrew marriage: because Boaz was a close relative (a kinsman redeemer), their first child would be legally considered the son of her deceased husband and his heir, to carry on the family name. 

Teens/Adults: Judah, the father of Boaz's tribe, sinned grievously in a story about this kind of kinsman redeemer marriage. Genesis 38 tells the story of how his daughter-in-law Tamar remained childless because no one in the family was willing to have his deceased brother's heir, and Tamar pretended to be a prostitute who was solicited by Judah. Both of these woman, Tamar and Ruth, are in the ancestry of Jesus. In Tamar's case, the responsibility of the kinsman redeemer went unanswered. It adds a certain tension to the story: will Boaz be like his ancestor, or will he be noble and kind?

Naomi's plan worked. But there is a wrinkle. There is another man, who is a closer relative, that would have something like "right of first refusal." Boaz cannot redeem this family if the closer relative chooses to instead. Would this other redeemer be the same kind of man as Boaz? Ruth did not want to marry him because he was the youngest or most attractive from a physical point-of-view, but because he was a man of character and integrity. Boaz did not fall in love with Ruth because of her family origin (she was a Moabite), because of her wealth (she was deeply poor) but because of the character she showed in her relationship with her mother-in-law. Our faithfulness reveals our hearts.

Discussion idea: Compare Ruth 2:12 and 3:9. How does Ruth use Boaz's own prayer to persuade him? Now read James 2:16. How does God often answer our prayers for others?

Prayer focus: Ask God to make you a person of lovingkindness, and to value faithful integrity in others more than the superficial things that so often distract us.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

May 4 - Ruth 2, Acts 16

 Key verse: Ruth 2:20

Big idea: The Lord shows His lovingkindness through His people. 

In a study going through the Old Testament as quickly as this one, it is hard to justify slowing down to reflect on every single chapter of any particular book. We will not do it again except the book of Obadiah (look it up), but Ruth is a truly incredible piece of literature which has taught many people how to love the Bible. This chapter introduces us to the third and final major character of this short story: Boaz. The first chapter of Ruth was about Ruth's love for Naomi, this chapter is about Boaz's love for Ruth, the next chapter will be about Naomi's love for Ruth (in helping her plan for her future), and the final chapter will be about Boaz's love for Ruth. Confused yet? Let's take it one day at a time.

Gleaning was a provision in the Israelite law to provide for the poor and the immigrant. Israelites were forbidden to harvest to the very edges of their field, go back if they dropped anything, or prevent people walking by their fields from harvesting what they could eat. This food belonged to God, who used it as a provision for the needy and the foreigners who had no land of their own. It maintained their dignity, as they still worked for what they had, while providing for those without capital. Ruth, both a widow and a foreigner, was the kind of person that the law was deigned to protect. But when she "just happened to" enter the field of Boaz, she met a man who was far more generous than even the letter of the law required. He had heard of Ruth's faithfulness to Naomi, and his heart was touched by her character. He had his workers feed her, give her water, intentionally drop sheaves for her to pick up, and not stop her from picking even among the rows which had not been harvested yet. God provided for Ruth, and used this godly man to do it.

God rarely provides for us with manna falling from Heaven. Instead, He shows his lovingkindness to people who pass that lovingkindness onto others. Ideally, it starts with your parents, who taught you what God is like by their own faithfulness. Friends, church family, spouses, and a thousand other people besides are all God's vessels for showing His love for us. In turn, even our smallest acts of kindness are infinitely important if we remember that these two are worship: pointing people to the God who is Love.

Discussion idea: Who is someone specific who has modeled God's lovingkindness to you? What relationship in your life is a chance for you to show God's lovingkindness to someone else?

Prayer focus: Thank God for the specific example you thought of in the discussion section, and ask for open eyes to see acts of kindness to offer God as worship.

Monday, May 3, 2021

May 3 - Ruth 1, Acts 15

 Key verse: Ruth 1:1

Big idea: The lovingkindness of God continues even during judgment.

By the time we finished our series in Judges, I was ready to be finished. It is such a dark and depressing period of the Bible that a serious study leaves your heart longing for a better day. That better day comes swiftly in two forms: one will be the rise of the judge Samuel, who will set apart both Saul and David as king. The other is the book of Ruth, set during the book of Judges, showing a bright patch in an otherwise bleak portrait of the life of God's people. We will touch on both this week, and they are like a breath of fresh air after a long time in darkness. The theme of Ruth is best summarized in a little Hebrew word: hesed. It refers to the faithfulness of God to His covenant promises, and is often translated as "lovingkindness." God is faithful even when people are faithless, and we see His hand here, during the period of the judges.

The story is kicked off when Naomi, her husband, and her sons must leave Bethlehem because of a famine. We should not see this as some random chance: God had warned Israel that when they were unfaithful they would experience famine and drought (Leviticus 26:19-20). God would not leave them to be complacent in their sin but would judge them to shake them from their slumber. Naomi and her family went to the country of Moab, where both of her sons married Moabitess women. Her husband and her sons died until she was like a female Job, bereft of all the blessings she had enjoyed. She determined to return to Bethlehem and said goodbye to her daughters-in-law. 

One of them kissed her, and said goodbye reluctantly. The other one "clave unto her." Especially in light of the wickedness in the book of Judges, this Moabite woman was a better picture of the faithfulness of God than the Israelites who learned about Him from childhood. Others might kiss and make a show, but He clung to His people, whatever it took. Even when He was judging them with famine, it was to bring them home. In fact, it was only through the famine and the death of these three men that God brought Ruth into Bethlehem, and through her both King David and King Jesus into the world.

Discussion idea: How did God use His judgment of Israel to bless Israel in the story of Ruth? Has God ever done anything like that in your life?

Prayer focus: Faithful God, teach me to be faithful like You. Teach me to cling to Your people and to Your promises, as a model of integrity and hope.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

April 29 - Judges 19, Acts 13

 Key verse: Judges 19:12

Big idea: Cycles of decline end in a crash.

Judges 19 is a horrible story, and in that sense a fitting end to the book of Judges. Over and over again, the moral decay of the nation has spiraled deeper and deeper until now, there is nothing but death. Even the most basic family relationships are broken down, and so there cannot be anything but disaster. The scene opens with another Levite, which would not be so ominous if we had not read about the wicked Levite in the previous chapters who served as a hired pagan priest. It is hard to escape the parallel: this chapter also begins by reminding us that there was no King in Israel. The Levite's wife is not mentioned, but he has a concubine who has left him and returned to her father in Bethlehem. He goes to her, intending to speak sweetly to her and convince her to come home. Apparently, he is successful because she is going to go back with him, but her father delays. For several days, he continues to drag out the limits of hospitality to prevent them from leaving. Finally, the Levite decides to leave, but foolishly late in the day.

As sunset hastens, he is close to the city of Jebus, a Jebusite city which remained unconquered, although it would eventually be taken and renamed Jerusalem. It is ironic that this somber tale begins in Bethlehem, where King David and Jesus would both be born, and passes by Jerusalem, where God's presence would be revealed in Temple and Cross. The Levite does not stop in Jebus, fearing the way he will be treated by pagans. Instead, he decides to go on to the Benjamite city of Gibeah, which would be the hometown of King Saul. But when he gets to Gibeah, he finds that the Israelites act like pagans. He is left to sleep in the city square, until an old man from the same region where he lives who is staying in Gibeah temporarily welcomes him into his house. 

Have we finally found a hero in this story? Alas, what follows is nearly a beat for beat recapitulation of the story of Sodom. The climax is when the host offers his daughter and his host's concubine to the mob, and tell them to (literally) do what is right in their eyes. This host gives into the spirit of the age, where there is no king and every man did what was right in his own eyes. Our text gets more somber still. The concubine is abused all night, stumbles to the porch and died. Her husband wakes up in the morning and goes out to callously tell her it is time to leave, only to find her dead already. Sodom is now within Israel, the tribes are set up for an inevitable conflict, and all of the things that God had been doing through His people seemed to be in jeopardy. Of course, it won't be. There will be much sorrow because sin leads to disaster, but God's grace goes farther still.

Discussion idea: Why is it so hard to reverse the decay of sin? What areas in your life have things seemed to spiral out of control? How does God resolve this runaway train?

Prayer focus: Thank God for the provision of Bethlehem and Jerusalem - that our sin does not continue unbound forever but had been dealt with once and for all!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

April 28 - Judges , Acts 12

Key verse: Judges 18:31

Big Idea: Cycles of idolatry are hard to break. 

"In those days there was no king in Israel" is an expression that can be read in two ways. In one sense, this was the period of the judges, when there was no centralized king who had united the nation. This was important: when God made his covenant with David, he was given a special role in guiding the people as God's representative. But there is another way of reading it too. When the people first clamored for a king, God said that it was because they were rejecting Him as their King (1 Samuel 8:7). To say that there was no king in Israel might be a way of saying that the people had rejected God as their king, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes instead of what God  decreed. It sounds much like our society, I think. Our rejection of all authority is very much a symptom of our rejection of God's authority. There is no King and so everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

Where does that lead? In the case of our chapter today, it led to a priest who had abandoned the duties of his people at the tabernacle to become the private priest of one man, who led the worship of his private idols. Then, when the tribe of Dan (who had failed to conquer the territory assigned to them) came to this have-altar-will-travel priest and offered him more money and more prestige, he followed them instead. The nation was deep in a cycle of idolatry, and getting deeper all the time. The tribe of Dan, with the strength of their idols and their hired priest, found an isolated town and murdered everyone there. When would it stop?

Tragically, the Bible tells us that they kept their idolatrous altar in their stolen town throughout the period of the Judges. Their false priest was a descendant of Moses himself. We might look at this story and wonder why God allowed them to be victorious in their invasion. Shouldn't they have been defeated? Shouldn't their be repercussions? Perhaps that is the most horrible element of this story. They were so far gone that God did not stop them. He let them sow their seeds, let the fruit of their sin grow, and would let them bear the harvest. They were deep in cycles of idolatry, and it would only be in the days of Samuel, who would anoint a king for the people, that things would change.

Discussion idea: What do you think it means that there was no king in Israel, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes? How do you respond to authority in your life?

Prayer focus: Ask God to expose your idols, and break their hold on your heart.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

April 27 - Judges 16, Acts 11

 Key verse: Judges 16:30

Big idea: There is no cycle so deep that God cannot reach us.

One of Jesus' best-loved parables is the story of the prodigal son. Who can hear it without being moved? A son tells his father, "I can't wait for you to die. I want my portion of the inheritance now!" And his father liquidates assets to send the son on his way. Jewish custom was to hold a funeral for such a child, who had dishonored his family and treated his parents as nothing more than a too-slow ATM. There was no taking back such a radical step, the relationship was forever severed. This son went and wasted a lifetime worth of earnings in a short period of time, and when he was forced to take up a job tending for pigs, he was so hungry that he stared longingly at their slop. It was in that state that he came to his senses, and decided to return home. He knew that he could never be a son again, but his father's servants were treated better than he was. When he got home, his father saw him from a long way off, and ran to him (an act considered extremely undignified in first-century Israel). This son was forgiven and restored. He had gone a long way from home and had done something incredible, but he had still not gone too far to be restored by God.

No wonder this story sticks out in our minds! How reassuring to know that we are never beyond the reach of God; while there is life, there is hope (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Samson is a great example of this truth. He had made a lot of mistakes (or rather, he had made the same couple of mistakes over and over again). But in his final hour, when his eyes had been gouged out and he was bound in Philistine chains, his hair began to grow back. It was cut because of his sin, glorying in the wrong things brought shame as it always does, but he was not finally rejected because of God's grace. His final act, bringing the building full of Philistine rulers down on them (even though he knew it would also end his life) killed more of Israel's enemies than he had killed in his life. He had gone far, but when he cried out to God one last time, God still heard him.

Since Samson is included as an example of godly faith in Hebrews 11, I think it is hard to escape the conclusion that when he left this life, the Father received him with as much gusto as the father of the prodigal. "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:24). The same is true for you! While it is much more pleasant to stay in the father's house and enjoy the blessings of fellowship and peace all the time, you have never gone too far to turn back to him, if you just will. 

Discussion idea: How is Samson's life both an encouraging and a cautionary tale? Do you tend to err on the extreme of writing yourself off because of your mistakes, or of being too tolerant of sin?

Prayer focus: Lord, teach me to obey You, but also to have the faith to know that I stand by grace alone, and that nothing I do can ever change your love for me. Thank you for the assurance that no sin is too great to be covered by the blood of Jesus, except rejecting his forgiveness.