Sunday, January 21, 2018


(this is a continuation of the post of 2 weeks ago,
A Place Called Bethel)

How Are We Then to Live? 

It took a direct command by God, but Jacob finally does return to Bethel, to the “house of God.”

You will notice that God told Jacob not only to return to Bethel, but that he also told him that he was to “live” in that place. Other translations of the Bible put it that he was to dwell there or to settle down there. The word in Hebrew is yashab.

This is a much different word than the word God once used when he was speaking to Jacob’s father Isaac at a time when Isaac was in the land of the Philistines. At that time, there was a severe famine in the land, and Isaac apparently had thoughts of going down to Egypt. God told him explicitly not to do this.

He said to Isaac:“Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land (the land where Isaac was at the time), and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.” (Genesis 26:2-3 ESV)

In these instructions that God gives to Isaac, he uses two words in telling him what he was to do. First, God told Isaac he should remain or to dwell only in the land that he would show him. That is, Isaac was only to settle down and live where God wanted him to live. God did not want Isaac to go to Egypt, since Isaac apparently was thinking of making this a permanent move.

Because of this, God told Isaac to stay where he was for a while—to sojourn (gur) with the Philistines. His residence there was only to be temporary. God was indicating to Isaac that the stay in the place where he was living at the moment was for a limited time, but it was not to be his permanent home. Isaac was to stay there as a foreigner in a strange land.

It would be in the future that God would show him the land where he was to settle down. It would be also at that time when God would fulfill the promises that he had made to Abraham and was then also making to Isaac. 

Back to Jacob

However, with Isaac’s son Jacob, God was giving a different sort of instruction. God told Jacob that when he returned to Bethel, he was to settle down there. The word this time was yashab. Jacob was to live there and make it his home. God intended this move to be a more permanent one.

God in fact intended this move for Jacob to mark a very significant time in his life. It was when Jacob arrived at Bethel that the Lord again spoke to Jacob about the covenant promise that he was making to him. Also, to emphasize the significance of the moment, God now called him by the name of Israel.

“No longer shall your name be called Jacob,” God told him, “but Israel shall be your name.” It was Jacob’s new covenant name. 

The Oath of Jacob

It seems astounding indeed that it was so difficult for Jacob to remember the oath that he had made some years earlier. It is astonishing that Jacob could become so used to living by his own trickery and manipulation in the world that he seemingly forgot his relationship to the One whom he had asked to protect him.

As we saw in the post of two weeks ago, Abraham had also fallen into the same deception of self-sufficiency, but he at least quickly returned to the place where he remembered “calling upon the name of the Lord.” When he was reprimanded for his deeds and attitude in the world, he remembered and returned to God.

Jacob would not be quite so quick to understand.

Jacob could have spared himself and his family much trouble and heartache if he would have quickly returned to Bethel to renew his relationship with the Lord and allow God to reaffirm the promise and blessing that the Lord had made to him.

Certainly, it was not the site itself that was holy, except that for Jacob, it should have been. It was where he had met God. After his time of having lived in the world, Bethel was to be for Jacob a place where he could return to renew his relationship with the Lord.

Abraham was quick to recognize this. Jacob much less so. Jacob had to be reminded. 

The Temple of Jerusalem

Many years after Abraham and Jacob, another of their line and their descendant wrote the following words. He wrote them not about Bethel, but about the temple at Jerusalem. The words are part of a song that was sung as the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob went up to the temple of Jerusalem to worship. The author is King David.

The words that David wrote came from someone who had grown tired of dealing with the world. “Woe is me,” David writes, “for I sojourn in Meshech, for I dwell among the tents of Kedar!”

David was not really from these places, but he used them as metaphors for living in the world and dealing with the things of the world. He continues: 

In my trouble I cried to the LORD, and He answered me.
Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips…
Too long has my soul had its dwelling with those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from whence shall my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth…
I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go to the house of the Lord.
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
(Psalm 120:1-2a; 6-7 122:1-2; 122:1-2 NAS). 

The temple was, to the people of that day, a holy site. Like Bethel, it was not as if there was something magical or enchanted about the place itself, but only because it was set aside for worship. 

What Later Happened at Bethel

Some years after the time of David, the site of Bethel itself fell into corruption. An apostate king arose in the nation of Israel; a man by the name of Jeroboam. This evil king constructed a golden calf at Bethel as a place of worship to this idol.

Similar to what happened during the Exodus in that event with the golden calf, this king also proclaimed to the people, “Behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). The very place that was once set aside for worshiping God had been converted to a place of idolatry!

Bethel, “the house of God,” had lost its significance. It instead had become a place of rebellion against God. Nearby, another site was constructed that was that Joshua called Beth-avan: “the house of wickedness.” This was also how the prophet Hosea later referred to it (Joshua 7:2; Hosea 4:15). 

What Later Happened at the Temple in Jerusalem

This happened not only to Bethel, for just as that sacred site, the holy temple of Jerusalem also later fell into corruption. The prophet Ezekiel, who lived long after the time of David and even after the time of Jeroboam, documents for us how he witnessed the glory of the Lord departing from the temple in Jerusalem: 

Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple…The glory of the Lord then departed from over the threshold of the temple… and went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. (Ezekiel 10:4, 18; 11:23) 

Even up until the time of Jesus, we read that when Jesus entered the temple area, he found right in the temple, those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves. Moneychangers were also seated within the temple area, making a profit from the exchange of currencies.

Seeing all of this, Jesus made a whip of cords, and drove them all out. He also drove out the sheep and the oxen. Jesus then took the coins of the moneychangers and poured them all over the floor and overturned their tables. Then, to those who were selling the doves he said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:14-16). 

Present Day Places of Worship

Today, we have moved ahead in history another few thousand years. Our situation has changed considerably from that of our forefathers in the faith. In many ways, the meaning of the place of worship has changed, because God no longer has chosen to meet with his people in any single specific location on the earth. He now lives within each one of his redeemed ones. Those people who have been redeemed by the blood and work of Jesus Christ now meet with God through the Holy Spirit dwelling inside each individual.

The Apostle Paul writes to us: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16 NAS)

Nevertheless, even though we as Christians no longer need to look to only a single place on earth where God resides, it is also a fact that we still retain the heritage of faith based upon those who worshiped at Bethel and at Jerusalem. What is more, the Bible teaches us that all of God’s children, made so by redemption through the Son of God, are actually the very descendants of Abraham—perhaps not straightforwardly by flesh, but certainly by faith. And faith, after all, is the most important component of our relationship with God.

“If you are Christ’s,” Paul says of believers in Christ, “then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29 ESV; see also Romans 4:16; 9:7-8). Like Abraham did, we also must conduct our lives based upon the promises of God.

We are still a body of believers, and as God’s children, we still meet together to worship. It is not Bethel or Jerusalem that we gather, but we also have designated our houses of worship. It is in our coming together in the name of Christ that our lives are renewed in the Lord.
 Our sojourning is also different. We are not dwelling in Egypt or Haran, nor do we sojourn in Meshech or among the tents of Kedar, as David sang in his song. We do not dwell in these places except for the fact that we dwell in the world. We are still surrounded daily by the trickery and deceit of the world. Like Abraham and like Jacob, we also still have a need to renew our relationship to God and to receive again his promise to us.

 “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus tells us, “I am also there with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Arise; Let us Go to the House of the Lord

Because of this spiritual need in our lives, it is surprising to me, and more than a little distressing, how lightly many today regard attending our own places of worship. Like Jacob in his return from living in the world at Haran, we pass right on by our Bethel, our house of God, without even a thought of stopping to renew our relationship with the Lord. The time when we should be meeting in worship comes and goes, and if we had even thought about attending our worship service in the first place, we had come up with some reason why we could not attend this time.

So lightly do we regard our presence at our place of worship! Do we not know that we cannot exist long in the world without it affecting the way that we live? As a result of our uncaring attitude, many Christians live their entire lives struggling with the very same personal problems as they did when they first began as believers. This is not a victorious life!

Do you intend to live your entire life battling against the very same problems year after year? The Christian life is not about struggle. The Christian live is about overcoming struggle! The reason many people cannot see victory is because they do not rid themselves of the idols in their lives. They say that they want to change and they make vows to change, but they do not come to the point where the actually divest themselves of those things of the world that keep them under the control of the world.

When Jacob finally had come to his senses, he said this: “Let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (Genesis 35:3 NAS). 

What about us? What about you and about me? It is time also for us to remember the God who answered us in our day of distress. Let us rid ourselves of those idols in our lives that keep us separated from God. We live in a world that operates largely by trickery and deceit. If we fail to take care of our relationship with God, we also will descend into that same manner of living.

Jacob returned to Bethel. David went up to the temple in Jerusalem. As for us, where are we to turn in the day of our own distress? We too must deal with people who have lying lips and deceitful tongues. Where are we to go?

As David said so long ago, “I was glad when they said unto me “let us go to the house of the Lord.”

We may sojourn in the world, but our life is with Christ.

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