Monthly Archives: September 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013 – An Apostle of Christ Jesus

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. - Colossians 1:1-2    

We turn our attention now back to Paul’s writings, as we focus for several weeks on his short letter to the Colossians.  Paul begins this letter, as he begins most of his letters, by identifying himself and offering his credentials.  ”An apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” he writes.  Paul was a lightening rod of controversy, and while many Christians today revere his insights and appreciate his faithful witness, he tended to create more enemies than friends during his lifetime.  He tells us in 2 Corinthians 11 that he had enemies on every front – the Romans, the Jews, even his fellow followers of Christ Jesus.  He was often in jail, often in conflict, often in trouble.  So, to introduce himself to his readers, he needs to give his credentials.

Paul calls himself “an Apostle of Christ Jesus.”  An apostle is defined in various ways in the Christian faith but etymologically the term “apostle” comes from the Greek word apóstólos, which includes the prefix apó- (“from”) and root stéllō (“I send”).  There is some thought that no one who was not an eye-witness of the resurrected Christ could gain the status of apostleship in the Church. This provision served as an obstacle to Paul, who never knew Jesus.  Paul, however, claims that his experience on the Damascus road was a resurrection appearance, and he claimed a relationship with Jesus as his apostle.

Apostle means ”messenger” or “envoy.”  Surely Paul lived out the role of an apostle. Perhaps we see Paul’s claim to apostleship most fully when we recognize that the Latin term for apostle is “missio,” from which we get the word “missionary.”  No one could deny that Paul was the missionary to the Gentiles,  Paul understands his status to be granted neither by his own decision nor by his own doing, but by God’s direct calling.

Paul is writing the letter with Timothy, his companion.  It could be that Timothy was recording Paul’s words, much like a secretary, due to Paul’s difficulties with his vision.  The letter comes from both of them and, in customary Pauline style, is addressed to all the “saints and faithful brothers and sisters.”  This is not an open letter to all the world, and to this day, those who understand Paul’s message best are those whose lives have been given over to Christ Jesus.

Paul uses his customary greeting, blending the Greek and Hebrew traditions, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.”  Paul’s assurance is that his words come in peace; his words bring good news from God.

Eternal Father, we are thankful that you have sent apostles and missionaries through the ages to share your grace and peace – your good news of healing and hope.  May I receive everything you have for me, and may my life serve as an authentic witness to your love and grace.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Friday, September 27, 2013 – Redemption for One, Redemption for Two, Redemption for All

And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David. – Ruth 4:17

“Obed…was the father of Jesse, the father of David.”  With two brief genealogies, the story of Ruth comes to a close, and with the genealogy we finally grasp the significance of this little book.  Ruth’s pledge of love and loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi did not merely provide means for the two widows to survive; nor did it simply allow Ruth to find acceptance as a foreigner by the townspeople of Bethlehem; nor did it just position her to be married by the distant relative of her deceased husband.  Ruth’s pledge of loyalty and love brought redemption – restoration, healing, wholeness and hope – first to herself, then to Naomi, and finally to all the world.

The book concludes with the revelation that Ruth gave birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David.  God’s grace did not simply provide a way for Ruth to survive; she was woven into the very fabric of salvation history.  Just as Tamar, the Canaanite, had been used by God’s providence to give birth to Perez to continue the line, Ruth, the Moabitess, extended the family line to Obed and Jesse and David.

What significance is that?  David, of course, became the great King of Israel.  Never before David’s leadership had Israel been so powerful and prosperous.  He became the gold standard for kings.  But more than that, his line extended as well to include the Redeemer of the Nations, the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

So, what do we glean from this little story of Ruth?  Here are some ideas.

  •  Just as the account of Ruth begins in heart-break and pain, so too life is filled with both burdens and blessings.
  • Just as Ruth refused to focus on her own plight but set out instead to be a blessing to Naomi, so too we often find healing as we reach out to others, seek to be a blessing, and give ourselves to causes beyond our own self-interests.
  • Just as Ruth pledged her love and loyalty to Naomi with no eye for reward, so too our gifts are most purely given when they are freely given with no strings attached.
  • Just as God blessed Ruth and many others through her pledge of loyalty and love, we are reminded that no pure sacrifice of love and loyalty is overlooked or lost in God’s kingdom.
  • Just as Ruth blessed Naomi and Boaz blessed Ruth, so we are reminded that some of the greatest blessings in life come through the kindness and compassion of others.
  • Just as Ruth and Naomi were poor and powerless with no future and little hope but were incorporated into God’s mighty work of redemption and salvation, so too we remember that status, wealth, and power neither qualify nor disqualify us from serving God’s great purposes.
  • Just as Naomi found bitterness as she looked back and joy when she finally looked forward to the next generation, so too the hope of the future has the ability to overpower the pain of the past, especially in God’s good care.

There may be other lessons we glean from Ruth, but these lessons offer us enough.

Good Father, help me learn from the story of Ruth that my life makes a difference in the lives of others and in your kingdom.  Remind me that you are at work redeeming and transforming all of your creation to your greater glory.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, September 26, 2013 – From Barrenness and Bitterness to Blessing

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.  Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!  He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”  Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. – Ruth 4:13-16

Once Ruth and Boaz are married and a child is born to them, another blessing is offered – this one by the town’s women for Naomi.  Just as Ruth had found a redeemer in Boaz when he married her, so too Naomi found a redeemer in the son born to Ruth and Boaz.  This child, whom Naomi nursed, was “a restorer of life” and “a nourisher” in her old age.  These aspects of both shalom and salvation are found in another familiar place in the scriptures, Psalm 23, where they describe the work of the Shepherd who “restores my soul.”

Ruth and Naomi had arrived in Bethlehem as poor, childless widows, and Naomi’s life had turned from joy to bitterness.  But Naomi was not alone.  Ruth had freely pledged her loyalty and love for her mother-in-law.  Ruth had worked hard to provide for them and had followed the insights and wisdom of Naomi.  In the process Ruth came under the care of Boaz, who freely negotiated to redeem Ruth and  who ultimately married her.  The story assures us that while these widows faced hardship and sorrow, they were never out of the care and keeping of a shepherding God, and they experienced the fullness of redemption and blessing.

There is a big message in this little book of the work of God, whose grace moves through our expressions of costly love and commitment, our acts of genuine hospitality and care, and our adherence to wisdom and hard work, to transform lives of barrenness and bitterness to blessing.

Good Father, how thankful we are for the movement of your grace to redeem our lives from barrenness and bitterness to blessing!  May we extend your grace and redemption to the world, that all who are barren or bitter may receive your full blessing.  Amen. 

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 – Two Women

“…through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” – Ruth 4:12

The final blessing Boaz received from the townspeople of Bethlehem continues the theme of the previous two blessings and invokes the name of Tamar.  On the one hand the mention of this Canaanite woman follows the mention of women in the previous two blessings – Rachel and Leah in the first blessing and Ephrat in the second one.  On the other hand Tamar’s story and Ruth’s story parallel each other.

Tamar first appears in Genesis, as the wife of Judah’s son Er.  Judah, of course, was one of Jacob’s sons, a great-grandson of Abraham.  Tamar was taken as Er’s wife, but that was just the beginning of this story.  Er died, as did his brother, and Tamar was left as a widow with no one to redeem her.  She was ultimately redeemed by Judah, her father-in-law; however, to force his hand, Tamar deceived Judah by dressing like a prostitute, and Judah thought he was paying a stranger for sex.  When Tamar was found to be pregnant, Judah was prepared to have her burned for her indiscretion.  When she revealed that she was pregnant by Judah, he acknowledged his indiscretion, and her life was spared.  The child who was born to Judah and Tamar was Perez, and from Perez came the Perezites.

The similarities between Tamar and Ruth are remarkable.  Ruth was a Moabite; Tamar a Canaanite.  Both were childless widows, and in both cases the husband’s brother also died, leaving no one to redeem the widow.  Both Tamar and Ruth took matters in their own hands and in a quite provocative way “uncovered” a male relative who could extend the name of the deceased husband into the next generation.  And in both circumstances, the widows were redeemed and God’s salvation history was advanced through them.

Good Father, life is filled with surprises – both hardships and blessings.  How grand it is to see how your grace redeems the broken and downcast!  Amen.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 – Three Blessings

Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” – Ruth 4:11-12

Once Boaz announced his intentions and negotiated to redeem Ruth by marrying her, he received the blessings of the townspeople who had gathered to witness the transaction.  The blessings included three wishes: one for Boaz’ bride, one for Boaz himself, and one for Boaz’ “house” or lineage.  Actually all three wishes concern the fruitfulness of Boaz’ marriage to Ruth.

“May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.”  This first blessing is wishing that Boaz’ marriage would produce a family like Jacob’s, whose twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel.

“May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem.”  Ephrathah is the name of Boaz’ clan, and the name is associated with fertility.  The second blessing is that Boaz would be known for his fertility in the land of the fertile.  What is interesting is that Ephrat, the person for whom the clan was named, was a woman.  In a male-dominated society, all three of these blessings name key women in the history of Israel.

“May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”  The final blessing mentions Jacob’s son Judah and his child Perez, who was born to him by Tamar, a Canaanite woman.  The line of Jacob through Judah and Perez was particularly fruitful, and through that line Boaz traces his lineage.  The blessing is that the fruitfulness that produced Boaz would extend into the future.

How remarkable it is that a book which begins in tragedy ends in triple blessings!  Of course, that’s the way God’s kingdom works.

Good Father, thank you for the many blessings you send my way.  May I live out your blessings faithfully and extend them into the next generation.  Amen.

Monday, September 23, 2013 – Strange Customs

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.  So when the next of kin said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal.  Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon.  Also Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his native place; you are witnesses this day.” – Ruth 4:7-10

Boaz approaches the next-of-kin to Elimelech and Mahlon to secure the right to make Ruth his wife.  When the unnamed next-of-kin expresses no interest in the Moabitess Ruth, he allows Boaz to assume the position of next-of-kin and redeem Ruth, along with Naomi and their land.  That is what this transaction is all about.  It is easy to be confused because of the strange customs.  Let’s take a moment to look at those customs.

First, the setting of this encounter may seem strange to us.  How odd it is to conduct legal matters at the town gate!  However, various archaeological digs have found that there were courtyards with benches in the gate area, designed presumably for conducting business and settling legal disputes.

Second, we notice that the proceedings do not include any women, not even those whose lives will be most affected by the transaction.  Such an absence could cause us to think that women had no rights, but in reality in the right circumstances, women were able to inherit and own and buy and sell property.  We don’t know if Naomi and/or Ruth inherited land from their deceased husbands, but we do know that they at least were tied in some way to a parcel of land in Bethlehem.

Third, there was a time (before the Book of Ruth was written) when taking off a shoe or sandal in front of a witness certified a legal transaction.  It may be that giving up a shoe was a legal expression of giving up a person’s rights to something.  The next-of-kin took off his shoe and gave it to Boaz, giving Boaz the right to redeem the land and marry Ruth.

Of course we have similar customs and legal procedures.  Some land sales take place on the courthouse steps.  Often an official witness – a notary – is required to witness a signature on various transactions.   And a host of customs surround engagements and marriages.

The customs may be unfamiliar, but the message is clear.  Boaz is voluntarily seeking to enter into a binding covenant with Ruth, and through that covenant she will be redeemed, she and Naomi will come under Boaz’ care, and God’s plan of salvation history will be advanced.

Good Father, while many things change through the ages, we thank you that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).  Amen.

 

Friday, September 13, 2013 – Land and Heirs

And Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the next of kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here”; and he turned aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down.  Then he said to the next of kin, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land which belonged to our kinsman Elimelech.  So I thought I would tell you of it, and say, Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.”  Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also buying Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance.”  Then the next of kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” – Ruth 4:1-6

After the evening with Ruth, Boaz set out to see if he could make Ruth is own.  The primary obstacle which stood in the way was the man was was the true next-of-kin to Elimelech.  Boaz approached this man.  He gathered witnesses and asked the kinsman if he planned to buy a parcel of land, which had belonged to Elimelech.  When the kinsman indicated that he wanted the land, Boaz accepted his reply and informed him that by taking the land, he would also be taking Ruth and Naomi into his house as the true next-of-kin.  Suddenly, the land did not seem so desirable to the kinsman.  In the presence of the witnesses, the next-of-kin forsook his right of redemption and offered it to Boaz, the next-in-line.

To make sense of all of this, we need to know that in an agrarian culture with no social welfare net, family members had a moral obligation to care for one another.  In a male-dominated society, females, who were denied economic rights, were completely dependent upon their father, husband, or adult son to care for them.  So when a man died, his dependent children and women were taken in by his next-of-kin, often a brother.  But redemption involved more than just protecting and caring for widows and orphans.  Redemption was also designed to continue the family lineage of the deceased brother (or next-of-kin) through the widow.  Redemption, therefore, included marrying the widow and fathering children.

When Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem widowed and childless, no one stepped up to take them into his family, that is, to redeem or restore them to the family.  It was the moral obligation of the next-of-kin – a man, by the way, who is never named in the story. When Boaz presented the true next-of-kin with an offer of redemption, he was ready to take the inheritance of land but not the obligation of caring for Naomi and Ruth.  Such a division was not allowed.

Throughout the scriptures, land and descendants are often tied together.  Back in Genesis when Abraham and Sarah entered into covenant with God, they were promised both descendants and land.  In an agrarian culture, the land offered the means of providing for the family.  To have children without land was to create poverty, hunger, and great want for generations to come.  To provide land without children was to create waste – a shortage of workers to manage the land.  The two are tied together in God’s covenant, and the two were tied together in Boaz’ offer to the next-of-kin.

When the next-of-kin refused to perform his moral obligation, Boaz was prepared to stand in the gap and redeem the widows.

Good Father, often, we seek inheritance without obligation.  Purge our hearts of such selfish, wanton desires.  Grant us wisdom to bind ourselves fully and freely to the one who fully and freely binds himself to us, and who binds us as well to a sustainable future and hope beyond measure.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, September 12, 2013 – “Doing What Comes Naturally” and Supernaturally

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?  Now is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maidens you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.  Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”  And she replied, “All that you say I will do.” – Ruth 3:1-5

Well, the plot thickens and things get steamy as we continue our reading of the saga of Ruth and Boaz.  Naomi knew of the cultural moral obligation for a man to welcome into his family and care for the widow of his next-of-kin. While Boaz was not the closest next-of-kin to Elimelech, the late husband of Naomi and father-in-law of Ruth, he was next-in-line.  Perhaps it was because there was another who stood between Boaz and Ruth that he showed reluctance to extend an offer to “redeem” Ruth and Naomi.  We don’t know for sure.  However, we do know that instead of taking chances, Naomi took matters in her own hands.

Having been encouraged by Boaz’ interest in Ruth, Naomi devised a plan to prompt Boaz to extend an offer of marriage and thus redeem Ruth and provide for her a home.  Naomi told Ruth to bathe and prepare herself with perfume, after which she was to wait until Boaz had finished eating and drinking.  When Boaz lay down, Ruth was to lie down next to him and “uncover his feet,” a term which in Hebrew is often used as a euphemism for exposing his genitals.  Then, Ruth was to sleep with him. Naomi was clearly planning for Ruth to be suggestive and to cause Boaz to think about marrying the widow.  Ruth heard her mother-in-law’s scheme gladly, and she was eager to follow the instructions in detail.

The custom seems strange to our modern sensibilities; however, the truth it “uncovers” is that redemption took place through a covenanted relationship.  As Ruth made herself available and expressed willingness to submit to Boaz, he acted to enter into covenanted union with her and thus to redeem her.

In its own way, this earthy story reminds us that redemption through Christ Jesus is not a matter of holding doctrine or performing ritual.  At the core of Jesus’ offer of salvation is a covenanted relationship with God through him. That relationship is extended to all those who submit themselves to his Lordship.

Lord Jesus, thank you for binding yourself to us to redeem us and make us whole.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 –

And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.”  And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.”  And Ruth the Moabitess said, “Besides, he said to me, `You shall keep close by my servants, till they have finished all my harvest.’” – Ruth 2:19-21

When Ruth returned to Naomi at the end of a long day of work, she had accumulated quite a bit of both barley and blessings because of Boaz.  Boaz had provided protection for the Moabite widow; he had given her water to drink and abundant food both to eat and to share with Naomi; he had instructed his harvesters not to be thorough in their work but to leave plenty of barley for Ruth to glean, and he had invited Ruth to return to his field until all of the harvesting was complete.  Boaz’ care for Ruth seemed to be as genuine and thorough as Ruth’s care for Naomi.

When Naomi heard of the blessings which had come Ruth’s way, and when she realized that it was Boaz who was the giver of the blessings, she offered praise to God, the “fount of every blessing.”  Naomi words here were quite different from the expressions of bitterness, complaint, and defiance which she spewed forth upon her return to Bethlehem.  She was offering blessings rather than gripes.  No longer living in dread, she was brimming with hope.  ”Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi exclaimed.

Naomi recognized that it was not just Ruth’s generosity which was extreme, but also Boaz’ and ultimately God’s.  The transformation of Naomi began, as she became aware that that the source of all the goodwill and compassion and love and care was God himself. She realized that she was not out of God’s care, that she was not beyond the scope of God’s love, that she had not been forsaken, that she was indeed blessed.  Such an awareness has the power to turn bitterness sweet, to turn complaints into praise, and to turn a life around.

“Come, thou fount of every blessing tune my heart to sing thy praise!”  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 – Freely Giving…

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my maidens.  Let your eyes be upon the field which they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to molest you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.”  Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.  The LORD recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”  Then she said, “You are most gracious to me, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not one of your maidservants.” – Ruth 2:8-13

When Boaz saw Ruth, he immediately offered her protection and provision.  ”Do not go to glean in another field,” he told Ruth, as he brought her under his care, “And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.”  When Ruth experienced the kindness of Boaz, she bowed before him in appreciation.  Boaz replied to the Moabitess that he was only reciprocating the care which she had freely given to Naomi.

We may have wanted a bit more grace or passion in the response from Boaz to Ruth.  It is rather unsatisfying to hear that someone is acting out of obligation.  ”The Lord recompense you for what you have done,” Boaz tells Ruth.  Of course, in reality Boaz did not owe Ruth anything.  His compassion was freely given, and unearned.  He was under no obligation to repay Ruth for her freely given dedication to Naomi.  It may be that Boaz’ compassion was not required by Ruth’s compassion, but perhaps his was inspired by hers.

Ruth did not give herself to Naomi with any expectations of recompense.  Nor was her compassion a veiled expression of enlightened self-interest.  There were no strings attached and no expectations of repayment in Ruth’s offering to leave everything and bind herself to her mother-in-law.

One thing this story assures us is that selfless acts of compassion – while often not rewarded directly as Ruth’s is – are not lost in the kingdom of God.  Such acts instead serve to inspire similar noble acts by others and to trigger God’s grace.

Good Father, purify my heart that my selfless acts may honor you, inspire others, and trigger your grace.  Amen.