Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 304

The scriptures read are Hosea 3-4, Psalm 99 and Matthew 1.

Hosea 3-4. God orders Hosea to get his wife back and love her again, the way the Lord does with his people.

God indicts his people of unfaithfulness as well as theft, murder and a lot of social sins. He indicts the priests and the prophets who fail to educate the people in what is right and what is wrong.

Oh, and it is interesting that God does not go after the women who become temple prostitutes in these fertility religions but the men who patronize them. Just like some police departments have decided to treat prostitutes as victims and go after the pimps who control and oppress them. Gee, God was way ahead of our advanced modern morality!

The prophet warns Judah not to follow Israel into this destructive behavior.

Psalm 99. This church choir does a bang-up job singing a familiar version of this psalm.

Matthew 1. It will be interesting to reread the gospels in the light of what we have read in the Old Testament.

For one thing, we know more about the people mentioned in this genealogy that we did the first time we read it. BTW I read that the difference between Matthew's and Luke's genealogies is that Matthew is sticking to the kings and their official successors (not every royal son becomes king) whereas Luke is giving the actual physical ancestors of Jesus. And the feminine form "of whom" in verse 16, indicates that Jesus comes from Mary, not Joseph. The New Bible Commentary sees the inclusion of the 4 women in the genealogy as not only unusual but given that the women are mostly not Jewish and even a bit scandalous, Matthew is probably indicating that it is not unheard of for God to choose a "social insignificant and unmarried" woman to be the mother of the Messiah.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 303

The scriptures read are Hosea 1-2, Psalm 98 and Revelation 22.

Hosea 1. We have seen how the prophets from time to time enact parables. Hosea's whole life, or at least the domestic part, is an enacted parable about God's love for his people.

God commands Hosea to marry a prostitute to dramatize how God loves his unfaithful people. Hosea marries a woman named Gomer and she bears him a child. God tells Hosea to name his firstborn son after the Jezreel valley, site of many a battle and especially Jehu's massacre of people that went far beyond Ahab's descendants. Jezreel also means both "God sows" and "God scatters." So its meaning is ambivalent.

A daughter follows and is named "No Mercy." God's done giving Israel breaks. (Hosea is a prophet to the northern kingdom, Israel.) God has not yet given up on Judah.

A third child, a son, is named "Not My People." God is washing his hands of them. And yet we get an assurance that both Israel and Judah will be one people, God's people again.

Hosea 2. The last two kids' names will be reversed, a sign of their redemption.

God accuses his wife, Israel, of unfaithfulness. He will expose her and her promiscuity with other gods.

And yet he will take her back. He will court and cleanse her. He will forgive and love her again.

Psalm 98. A Scottish metrical psalm based on the first 4 verses of this psalm is wonderfully sung by a Presbyterian choir.

Revelation 22. The old creation is recapitulated in the new with similarities and differences. The newly recreated paradise is a city, not a garden. But within the city is the Tree of Life, the other tree in Eden with desirable fruit. The sea (symbol of chaos) is no more but there is a river, the Water of Life. Night is gone. The light is not the sun but God's glory. Humanity, who were supposed to rule this world for God, will rule it with him. It all comes together in him who is the beginning and end, the be all and end all of the universe.

Unlike the instructions to Daniel to seal his book, Revelation is not to be sealed. It is to be an open secret.

It ends with a litany of "Come." We are invited to come to him who provides the Water of Life. And Jesus is asked to come and bring about this resolution of all things. And the last words are a blessing bestowing God's grace on those who hear and heed this word.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 302

The scriptures read are Daniel 11-12, Psalm 97 and Revelation 21.

Daniel 11. This chapter reads like a synopsis of Game of Thrones. The 4 Persian kings are probably the successors to Cyrus, who was king at the time. The powerful king is probably Alexander the Great. After his death, his empire was split up between his generals. Ptolemy 1 ruled Egypt and Seleucus eventually took control of Babylon. They fought a series of wars over Syria, its ports and trade routes. The last king of the North is Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried to suppress Judaism in Palestine. His actions led to the Maccabean revolt which eventually led to the last independent kingdom of Judea. The abomination of desolation was setting up an idol of Zeus in the Jewish temple.

Daniel 12. In verse 2 we get the first unequivocal reference to bodily resurrection in the Bible. We've seen hints in Job and Ezekiel but this is fairly clear.

The number of the days are of interest to those who like to calculate the last days, usually by converting the days to years. Literally 1290 is 3 years and 7 months of 31 days each (the Greek calendar, adjusting for the difference between solar and lunar years.)

Psalm 97. A soaring interpretation of this psalm with a beautiful and cosmic video.

Revelation 21. This is the culmination not just of Revelation but the whole Bible. The saga begins with God creating a paradise where people live in his presence. We turned this world into hell on earth. God redeems us and recreates the heavens and earth so that the epic ends with a paradise where people live in his presence. There is no death, mourning, pain or tears. As God says, "Behold! I make everything new!"

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 300

The scriptures read are Daniel 9-10, Psalm 96 and Revelation 20.

Daniel 9. Daniel confessed the sins of his people and asks God for his compassion. I love how Petersen translates v. 18: "Act out of who you are, not out of what we are."

Then we get to the prophesy of the 70 X 7 weeks. Dispensationalists make a lot of this for it seems to predict precisely when Jesus will come, not to mention his death. But there are other interpretations; get a good commentary and explore all of explanations. But notice the use of the number 7. And note that it is 70 times that, the same number of times that Jesus told Peter to forgive an erring brother who asks for forgiveness. 7 is the number of perfection and completeness. The number might just mean at the perfect time.

Daniel 10. Daniel has another vision, this time of a man-like creature who seems to be made of precious stone. We learn that angels apparently act as representatives of nations and sometimes conflict with other nations.

Psalm 96. This extremely upbeat version of this psalm should get you moving!

Revelation 20. The Millenium. Steve Gregg in his book dropped the fourfold commentary by chapter 17 because the 4 schools of interpretation converge. These events are future no matter how you slice it. But here he adopts 3 columns to deal with the Pre-millennial, Post-millennial or Amillennial positions. That is, does Christ return before this 1000 years of peace on earth, after the 1000 years (ushered in by the church) or is this 1000 years another symbol, not to be taken literally? You can find plenty of material arguing for each of the main options.

Eventually God will judge all people. The dead will be resurrected so that everyone has their day in court. It couldn't be fairer than that. Then all evil, including Death itself, will be destroyed.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 299

The scripture read are Daniel 7-8, Psalm 95 and Revelation 19.

Daniel 7. We flash back in time. Now Daniel, like Revelation, suddenly turns into apocalyptic literature. Daniel sees these visions in his dreams. You'll notice a lot of similarity between the images here and those in Revelation.

We have 4 beasts rise from the sea. The sea represented chaos to the Hebrews. (Genesis 1:2) The first 3 creatures are chimeras: mixtures of 2 or more animals. The last is unique and has a multiplicity of horns. Horns in the ancient Near East meant power. The last is especially horrific: swallowing victims and crushing the rest into dust. Then a new horn uproots 3 of the original ones. It sprouts eyes and a big mouth.

God makes an appearance on his throne with fiery wheels. The heavenly court is now in session. The monster is immolated and the other animals are deposed from power. Then power is given to one "like a son of man", in other words, like a human, but coming on a cloud and given everlasting rule. So not mortal, then. Now you see where Jesus got the title "Son of Man."

Like John, Daniel asks somebody for an explanation and is told the creatures represent kingdoms and the horns represent kings. As for what kingdoms and kings are meant, there is no definitive way to know, though it is interesting to note that Alexander the Great's empire broke up into 10 kingdoms after his death.

Daniel 8. This vision is of a ferocious ram who is defeated by an even fiercer billygoat. The billygoat's horn even prevails against God's truth for a while, interrupting the regular sacrifices for 2300 days. This time Gabriel interprets the vision and names the kingdoms involved: the double act of the Medes and Persians and the Greeks. The Greek king will be taken down but not by human hands.

Psalm 95. This Kansas choir does a great job on this choral version of the psalm, performed in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Revelation 19. The downfall of Babylon gives way to singing in heaven. The Wedding Supper of the Lamb is announced (a wedding feast being one of Jesus' favorite pictures of the kingdom of heaven).

Then a white horse and its rider, called the Word of God, comes out of heaven to put an end to God's enemies.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 298

The scriptures read are Daniel 5-6, Psalm 94 and Revelation 18.

Daniel 5. The second of the kings Daniel served under, Balshazzar, serves his friends drinks in sacred chalices taken from the Jewish temple. So a ghostly hand writes a cryptic message on the wall. None can decipher it but Daniel. The words, "Mene mene tekel upharsin" are actually the names of 3 different units of measure in Aramaic. They are also puns. They sound like "to number, to weigh, to divide." The Bible is full of plays on words that we don't even realize are there, because they are lost in translation.

Anyway, Balshazzar ends up dying that night so the prophesy was fulfilled post haste!

Daniel 6. King Darius' advisers set a trap for Daniel and it succeeds. Daniel is thrown in the lion's den for disobeying his king. But even the king is anxious and doesn't get a wink of sleep. (Spoiler! The lions don't eat Daniel.)

Psalm 94. Everything about this video of Psalm 94 is just right: the poetry of the King James version, the Anglican chant by the choir, the font of the words.

Revelation 18. The great city Babylon has fallen and we get a picture painted of all the people affected. The list of goods the city traded includes "the bodies and souls of men." (verse 13) Slaves?

And provided the stuff said about Babylon isn't hyperbole, it sure sounds like imperial Rome.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 297

The scriptures read are Daniel 3-4, Psalm 93 and Revelation 17.

Daniel 3. The famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. They are thrown in there because they didn't worship Nebuchadnezzar's golden statue. (Where was Daniel?) The interesting question is "Who was the fourth man in the furnace?" An angel? The Angel of the Lord? The pre-incarnate Christ? Especially intriguing is the description that he looks like "a son of the gods."

The names of the 3 men are repeated lot more than necessary. The notes of the Jewish Study Bible say this may be for satirical effect. (The intolerant king is made to look like a fool.) Which reminds me of this song.

Daniel 4. Nebuchadnezzar is humiliated just when he is most self-congratulatory. His illness could be lycanthropy, a psychosis in which the person thinks he has been transformed into an animal.

Psalm 93. In this song and the video verses 3 and 4 of this psalm are emphasized.

Revelation 17. Babylon is pictured as an obscene woman. She represents a great but doomed city. According to the 4 schools of thought, Babylon is really (H) the papacy, (P) either Rome or Jerusalem, (F) the Roman Catholic church or some future heretical form of the church, or (S) the world system that seduces otherwise good people. The beast seems to be the second beast, the parody of Christ, especially since he is described as "was, is not and yet is."

For the various assignment of kings and horns get Gregg's book. I gotta say, though: Rome was a great city that was famous for sitting on seven hills.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 296

The scriptures read are Daniel 1-2, Psalm 92 and Revelation 16.

BTW, you have now finished 52 books of the Bible. That's 52/66 or 78.7% of the books. You have just 14 to go and because most of a lot shorter than the major prophets we've just completed, they will go by dizzyingly in the 70 days we have left.

Daniel 1. If you detected that Revelation borrows a bit from Isaiah and more from Ezekiel, get ready for the mother lode. Yet Daniel is not just an apocalyptic book. The first part is made up of stories about Daniel and his colleagues trying to stay true to God while living in the presence of a pagan king.

The first of 6 stories from Daniel's life revolves around Daniel and his friends trying not to violate the kosher laws while eating at the king's table. Actually Daniel's opting for a vegan diet does just that. In some prisons, they offer, as an alternative to expensive Kosher or Halal diets, something called Common Fare meals. They have no flesh in them or in their seasonings and components. And what most religions reject as unclean is either certain kinds of flesh (for Jews, blood, pork, shellfish, meat and milk together, etc; for Muslims, blood, pork) or all flesh (Hindus, Buddhists, some Seventh Day Adventists). Eliminating all flesh from your diet avoids most religious dietary restrictions. And provided you get all your amino acids (eating corn and beans together, or peanuts) it can be very healthy. Anyway, Daniel and his friends flourish.

Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar is a real believer in carrots and sticks as motivators! And he gives his counselors was seems to be an impossible task: first, tell him what dream he had and then interpret it. Daniel and his friends pray for the answer and God gives it to Daniel in a dream. He saw a statue that had a golden head, silver chest and arms, bronze lower abdomen and hips and feet of iron and clay. A big rock smashes the lower part of statue (which is where we get the expression "feet of clay.") The rock grows into a mountain. The statue represents four kingdoms, each less splendid that the one before (or above) it. The rock is the kingdom of God. Daniel gets promoted. (The interpretation of the 4 kingdoms varies. See a commentary for the alternatives.)

Psalm 92. Here is a solo and chorus composition with a video featuring the university in the Philippines which is presumably the home of the choir.

Revelation 16. The seven bowls are poured out. In many cases, they parallel the plagues that hit Egypt at the time of the Exodus. (Boils were the 6th plague, water turning to blood was the 1st, darkness the 9th, thunder and hail the 7th). The frogs that come out of the mouths of the evil trinity recall the 2nd plague. Remember too that the 5th trumpet called from locusts that stung, combining the 3rd and 8th plagues.

Steve Gregg tells us that the bowls represents: (H) the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and their negative effects on the papacy (P) judgments on either Rome or Jerusalem, (F) the first in literal world-wide judgments, or (S) God's judgments on evil governments and societies.

Armageddon is an actual place, literally "the mountain of Megiddo," the site of a Biblical city in the north of Israel which over looked a valley where major route between Egypt and Assyria passed and thus the site of various battles (Judges 5:19; 2 Kings 9:27; 2 Chronicles 35:20-25.) Some interpreters see this as the literal place where the kingdoms of the earth gather for a last battle, some see it as symbolic. The earthquake that comes from the 7th bowl is either symbolic of the fall of "Babylon," a real earthquake, or a nuclear explosion.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 295

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 47-48, Psalm 91 and Revelation 15.

Ezekiel 47-48. Ezekiel's vision of the restored temple and land of Israel continues. The river coming from under the temple and flowing East seems to be a symbol of life. It will restore parched lands, be filled with fish and be flanked by fruit trees.

The 12 tribes will be given new allotments. And the new name of Jerusalem will be "The Lord is There," because his presence will return with the new temple.

Psalm 91. A breathless rock version of this psalm.

Revelation 15. We are in liturgical mode. There are songs and the temple opens and robed angels carry golden bowls, such as were used to pouring out libations. But they contain God's wrath, his anger at the sins of the world.

(H) The singers who triumphed over the beast are those who stood fast in the face of Papal corruption and persecution. (P) The singers are martyrs and the "seven last plagues" are those that hit Jerusalem when they revolted against Rome. (F) The singers are those who converted after the Rapture and during the Tribulation period and were subsequently martyred (since they are in heaven). (S) The seven last plagues must come very close to the end of the world. Couldn't find any reference to what the Spiritual school thinks of the singers.

The scene is set for the last seven plagues.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Use is the Bible?

In The Omega Glory, an episode of the original Star Trek series, Kirk and crew beam down to a planet to find a vicious war going on between the native population, divided into Yangs and Kohms. In the final confrontation, Kirk interprets the sacred document of the Yangs, vouchsafed only to the chiefs, and finds it to be identical to the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. On this parallel earth the nuclear confrontation between the Yankees and the Communists that we avoided actually took place, plunging both civilizations back to the Iron Age. And the words of the Constitution were slurred into a sacred language and the meaning was lost. Kirk tells them that all the people must be able to read the sacred documents and they must apply to all. The Captain of the Enterprise says, “Liberty and freedom have to be more than just words.”

Unfortunately today's Christians neglect even the words of the Bible. According to a recent survey done by the Barna Group for the American Bible Society, while 80% of Americans think the Bible is sacred, and 88% of Americans own a Bible, and the average home has 4.4 Bibles, only 20% have actually read the whole Bible. In fact 57% say that they have read it only 4 times in the past year. That's explains why so many people think that it says things like “God won't give you more than you can handle” or “God helps those who help themselves” or “cleanliness is next to godliness.” It's also a sad commentary on how little we know the book which we say is the basis of our faith. And it explains why so few Christians live differently than non-Christians.

In today's reading from 2 Timothy 3, Paul writes, “All scriptures are inspired by God and are useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” This is a very important verse and one that deserves closer scrutiny.

The first phrase is better translated “All scripture is God-breathed.” In other words, it is not like some movie that is “inspired by true events;” it comes from the mouth of God. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we read the words, “Thus says the Lord.” And in Paul's day, the Hebrew Bible was what he meant by scripture, since the New Testament is still in the process of being written. But again in the gospels, Jesus says, over and over, “Truly, I say to you.” Some editions of the Bible actually print Jesus' words in red to make them stand out.

But scripture has a purpose and it is not just to satisfy our curiosity about God. It is, Paul says, “useful” in many ways. The Greek word can mean “profitable or advantageous.” So scripture is meant to be practical. Indeed there is very little metaphysical detail in the Bible. The emphasis is on action, either God's or ours. The Bible doesn't have much use for speculation. The wisdom it offers is about how to live a good and godly life.

So what is the Bible useful for? Instruction, for one thing. And the Greek word is just as flexible as the English. It can mean instruction as in the act of teaching or as in the information itself. The Bible offers us a wealth of information about God and humanity and the very different values each holds. It is a treasure trove of wisdom on both how we should think, speak and act and how we do think, speak and act. And because the Bible is short on abstractions and rich in stories about fallible people trying and sometimes failing to follow the path of God, it is easy to use as a primer on how to deal with just about every aspect of life. The folly of youth, the challenges of old age, the trials and joys of marriage and family, the strengths and pitfalls of friendship, the deprivations of poverty, the temptations of wealth, the rewards of just behavior, the pain of injustice, the suffering of illness, the fear and acceptance of death, the hope of healing, the centrality of love, and much more are presented for our reflection and instruction.

The Bible is also useful for reproof. That's not a word we use much today. I personally think “rebuke” is a better approximation of what the Greek word means. It is about being convicted of your sins. Scripture is not shy about laying out what is moral and what is immoral. And if you have been reading the prophets, as we have in the Bible Challenge, you know God does not come off as blithe about bad behavior or even only mildly disturbed about it. He is outraged not only at disloyalty to him but also at the neglect, exploitation or oppression of the poor and disadvantaged, specifically the fatherless, the widowed, and the immigrant, at murder, at cheating, at lying, at betraying one's spouse sexually, at theft, at extortion, at incest, at animal abuse, at mistreating the handicapped, at gossip, at revenge, and more. Read enough of the scriptures and you have no excuse for thinking that God condones such behavior or that he demands anything less than repentance.

The Bible is useful for correction. The Greek word literally means “straightening up again.” Not only does it tell us to turn from sin but to turn to him and be transformed. When I worked in a Skid Row ministry in college, I was surprised by how many of the homeless men we worked with freely admitted they were alcoholics. Denial is considered one of the main symptoms of alcoholism. But they used it as an excuse for their behavior. By saying “I'm an alcoholic” they were in essence saying “It's not my fault; I can't do any differently.” Which is contrary to the experience of those who commit themselves to Alcoholics Anonymous. Change is difficult but not impossible, especially when one turns to God and lets him work in you, which is at the heart of all 12 Step programs. Without making it look easy, the Bible encourages this personal reformation. In Ezekiel, God says, “Suppose I say to the wicked, 'You must certainly die,' but he turns from his sin and does what is just and right...He will certainly live—he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be counted against him.” (Ezekiel 33:14, 15b, 16a) Of course this involves God's action. “I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit within you....I will take the initiative.” (Ezekiel 36:26a, 27b) It is only by God's grace that anyone of us can become a new person.

The Bible is useful for training in righteousness. The Greek word here meant in its day being tutored. It also had overtones of being chastised. So “training” is a good word especially if you think of it in terms of athletic training, which includes being toughened. And once again, the Bible doesn't pretend that righteousness is easy or without risk. Logically, living a moral life—loving God and your neighbor, acting justly but mercifully—should pay off handsomely. And in general, it does. But when the culture goes with what is easy over what is right, when cheating, cutting corners and appealing to people's worst instincts is profitable in the short term, swimming against the tide can be hard and hazardous. Think of Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. Think of Jeremiah in the days before the Babylonian exile. Think of any whistleblower in a corrupt company breaking the law. The Bible can not only tell you how to think and speak and behave justly but it can prepare you for the reactions you get when you are one of the few who are standing up for the right.

The purpose of these uses of scripture is so that the person who is following the path of God will be proficient. Another translation would be “complete” or “perfect.” It's interesting that this Greek word comes from the word for “fresh.” So the idea is complete in the sense of ripe or mature. In many of his letters, Paul exhorted the churches not to remain infants in their faith but to grow spiritually and become mature in Christ. And the way to do that is to study the Bible and put it into practice.

Because, as Paul says, we are to be “equipped for every good work.” There are people who need healing, feeding, visiting and encouraging; there are injustices to oppose and oppressed people to free; there are people who have never heard the good news about Jesus or not heard it presented clearly and cleanly. These are all work God has given us to do.

God's Word is meant to be practical. Scripture is not meant merely to be intoned solemnly for inspiration, or to be used as magic formulas for getting God to do stuff, or to be treated like a secret code key for history or as a calendar and timetable for Armageddon. It is always to be studied with an eye to changing the way we look at and act toward God, his creation, our fellow human beings, and ourselves.

Mark Twain has been accused of saying, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me; it's the parts I do understand.” If he did, he probably meant it cynically. But it is true in a different sense. What is clear is that Jesus told us very explicitly what we need to know and do. And it is in ignoring and neglecting those things, like loving both our neighbors and our enemies, forgiving others, not resorting to violence, not judging people, being one as Jesus and the Father are one, showing we are his disciples by our love, that we are letting him down, by not being the complete and mature people of God he intends us to be, nor doing the good works he prepared for us to do. 

The Bible Challenge: Day 293

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 45-46, Psalm 90 and Revelation 14.

Ezekiel 45-46. A buffer of sacred space is to be set up around the temple. Priests and Levites can live there. And BTW God is fed up with Israel's princes bullying his people. That has to stop!

There are lots of rules about how the prince must worship and act. For instance, he can't take land from his people and give it to his sons.

There is more temple stuff--sacrifices and holy days and procedures. Oh, and that sealed eastern gate can be opened on Sabbaths and New Moons.

Psalm 90. Wonderful harmonies from this couple in a song based on the first 2 verses of this psalm. For more of the psalm here is a choral piece by Charles Ives.

Revelation 14. Unfinished business on my part: (H) The sea beast is Rome, either undifferentiated, or pagan or papal. Usually the land beast represents the pagan and/or papal Rome if the first beast represents the other aspect. The mark of the beast is the code for Latinizing or the Pope. The Historicists are usually Protestant.

(P) The sea beast is Nero, representing the Empire. The head wound is the death of Nero while the Empire lives on. The land beast might be the cult of the divine emperor or a successor to Nero. The mark of the beast is Nero's name.

(F) The sea beast is the Gentile nations. Or the Antichrist. The land beast is a religious leader or fake messiah. Or the Antichrist. The mark of the beast might not be a literal hand stamp or tattoo, but some way of controlling people, financially at least. 666 could mean whoever the Futurist interpreter wants it to be. I remember seeing flyers that made the names of Ronald Reagan or Henry Kissinger add up to 666.

(S) The sea beast could be any governmental/social system that opposes God's Reign. The land beast is a false prophet. 666 could just mean the beast falls triply short of perfection (777.)

In chapter 14, we return to worship in heaven with music and song. But there are warnings to those who would do business with the mark of the beast.

Babylon is mentioned for the first time in Revelation. More on Babylon later.

The harvest has begun.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 292

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 43-44, Psalm 89:19-52 and Revelation 13.

Ezekiel 43. Ezekiel sees God's glory enter through the east gate of the temple. He says if his people change their sinful ways, he will dwell with them.

Ezekiel 44. The man showing Ezekiel around says that since God came through the east gate, no one else may use that gate. New regulations are made to keep the old desecrations from being repeated.

Psalm 89:19-52. This version of this psalm almost has an Irish tenor/Irish tune feel to it.

Revelation 13. The dragon calls a beast from the sea and one from the earth and together they form an evil trinity. The sea monster recalls the Leviathan and the land monster the Behemoth (Job 40 & 41). And yet with the 10 horns and seven heads the sea beast resembles some of the beasts of Daniel although as one monstrous mash-up. One of the sea beast's heads has a fatal wound from which it has recovered, a parody of Jesus' death and resurrection. His career runs 3 1/2 years, just like Jesus'.

The beast from the earth is a parody of the Holy Spirit, which is compared to wind and breath. The land beast persuades people to worship the sea beast, like the Holy Spirit testifies to Jesus. He performs miracles, including calling down fire from heaven (remember the incident from Elijah's life?) He marks people with the sign of the beast, just like the seal of God.

The mark is a number: 666. Remember that John is hiding the plain meaning of what he is writing to the church so the authorities won't destroy the record of his visions. Reducing a name to its numerical value was a common way of sending someone a secret message. The most logical candidate for the name that the number encodes is Nero Caesar. If you transliterate his name from Greek (the most widespread language of the empire) into Hebrew and add of the numerical value of the letters (they had no numerals, so aleph (a)=1, bet (b)=2, etc), Nero's name totals 666. (If you transliterate it from Latin, you get 616, which is a variant reading of the text.) There was a rumor afloat that Nero, though dead by his own hand, would come back. And the Emperor Nero considered himself a living god. Remember all that stuff about the cult of emperor worship back in the beginning of this book?

(I'm on the road and didn't bring my other commentary so what the four schools of interpretation make of this will have to wait till tomorrow. But for some of the ideas above I wish to thank The New Bible Commentary from IVP.)  

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 291

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 41-42, Psalm 89:1-18 and Revelation 12.

Ezekiel 41-42. More temple measuring. If you wish to see it on video, here it is. (Warning: whoever uploaded this had some problems with pixilation.) And here is one on chapters 42 & 43.

Psalm 89:1-18. A toe-tapping version of this psalm with a beautiful video.

Revelation 12. We have a damsel in distress and a dragon. Later in the book we will have a hero with a sword on a horse who will defeat the dragon, a royal wedding, a bejeweled kingdom and everyone in the kingdom lives happily ever after. One wonders if the traditional elements of fairy tales were derived from Revelation.

How do the 4 schools tackle this obviously symbolic section?

The Historicists tend to see the woman as the church, the male child as the church's children, the dragon as Imperial Rome because this is a flashback as it were. God protects his children which is why they are taken to heaven. The war in heaven is Christianity's conflict with heathenism in the days of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. The wilderness is the decline in true piety following the church's acceptance as the official faith of the Roman Empire.

The Preterists split on their interpretations. One group sees the second half of the book recapping the events of the first but from a different point of view. The other group sees this chapter as a transition from the fall of Jerusalem to a focus on Rome. Both groups see the woman as Old Testament Israel and the child as Christ. The dragon with seven heads and ten horns reveals a kinship with the beasts in Daniel and represents the latest evil empire. The child escaping the dragon is actually Jesus' ascension. Michael the archangel might be a stand-in for Christ (though symbolically, not in the sense that, say, Jehovah's Witnesses identify them as one and the same.) The other angels might represent the apostles and the war in heaven is the spiritual conflict between light and darkness, truth and error. The escape of the woman into the desert is the Christians who escaped from Jerusalem in response to Jesus' instructions to do so. (Matt. 24:15-28)

The Futurists usually see the woman as Israel (though to some she is the Virgin Mary or the church) and the child as Christ. The dragon is Satan. The appearance of Michael in this vision connects this passage with the vision in Daniel 12. While Satan cannot accuse the saints in heaven he can and does go after the Tribulation saints on earth.

The Spiritual school thinks the woman is the the faithful remnant of Israel or the church. The child is Christ. The dragon is Satan. The victory in the war in heaven is Jesus' death on the cross and resurrection. The blood of the Lamb disarms Satan of his ability to accuse Christians of sin because it has all been paid for.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 290

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 39-40, Psalm 88 and Revelation 11.

Ezekiel 39. Gog (apparently the king of Magog) instead of conquering Israel will end up providing a lot of wood for burning, a lot of food for birds and scavengers and a lot of employment for gravediggers.

Ezekiel 40. The temple to be. If, like me, you have a hard time visualizing all of this, here is a video that will help.

Psalm 88. This song perfectly captures the mournful pleading of the psalm.

Revelation 11. Lots going on here. As in Ezekiel, temple measuring is started. Two powerful witnesses preach. They are killed by the Beast from the Abyss and left to rot in the streets but after 3 1/2 days they rise again. The 7th angel finally blows the 7th trumpet and all worship breaks out. And the door of the heavenly temple flies open revealing that the missing Ark of the Covenant is there.

The measuring of the temple is (H) about determining the true extent of God's people, (P) about protecting what is good and true about Jerusalem, (F) the literal temple built in Jerusalem in the end times, or (S) the heavenly temple.

The two witnesses are (H) any of the historical witnesses to the true (read: Protestant) church over against the false (read: Roman) church, (P) personifications of religion and government (via Zechariah 4:11-14), or Moses and Elijah, or James and Peter, (F) Elijah and either Moses or Enoch (Elijah and Enoch never tasted death so this ties that up neatly) or possibly 2 converts among those left behind, or (S) the church militant.

This is the first of 36 references to the Beast.

BTW notice that, in the song of the 24 elders, this judgment is to "destroy those who destroy the earth." In other words, this is not God's action to destroy the world but to execute justice on those who would destroy it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 289

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 37-38, Psalm 87 and Revelation 10.

Ezekiel 37. The valley of bones is probably the most famous passage in Ezekiel, inspiring the famous spiritual about "Them bones, them bones, them dry bones!" God will resurrect the nation of Israel.

Then Ezekiel ties two sticks together to symbolize the nations of Israel and Judah coming together as one nation under one Davidic king.

Ezekiel 38. Gog, from the land of Magog, thinks to invade the newly restored nation of Israel. God says it will not go well. (Gog is not easy to identify but it is grouped with nations descended from Noah's son, Japheth, whose descendants settled Asia Minor and Europe.)

Psalm 87. A rousing and powerful vocal version of this psalm in Hebrew.

Revelation 10. To everybody, the mighty angel is Christ. To the Historicist, the scroll is the Bible and this is about the Reformation. John is not to write down what the Thunderers say because they are papal bulls and invalid. To the Preterist, the scroll is the book of Revelation itself and it is small because all of the seals are broken and its contents are depleted. John is given a private message which is none of our business. To the Futurist, the scroll a title deed to earth. John is not to write what the Thunderers say because God has secrets he cannot yet reveal.To the Spiritual school, the seven Thunderers are the voice of God. John's silence about what is said parallels what Paul said about hearing inexpressible sound which he could not utter (2 Cor. 12:4.)

The best explanation of the mystery of God is to identify it with what Paul calls the mystery of God in Colossians 2:2, Romans 16:25 and Ephesians 3:3-6--the union of Jews and Gentiles into one body in Christ.

The eating of the little book is (H) the church's reception of the Bible, (P) the prophesy of the destruction of Jerusalem, (F&S) the word of God.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 288

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 35-36, Psalm 86 and Revelation 9.

Ezekiel 35. Mount Seir is a poetic stand-in for the country in that region, Edom. They will experience the same hatred and anger they displayed when their took advantage of God's people when they were at their lowest point. It was God's punishment but not an invitation to pile on.

Ezekiel 36. The prophet is to tell the mountains that, after being ravaged and plundered by Israel's enemies and polluted by the blood spilled by its inhabitants, God will restore them. The hills will flourish with new plant growth and animals, and will be repopulated.

God will gather his people from exile and put a new heart and a new spirit in them. He will replace their hearts of stone with hearts that are humane.

Psalm 86. Lots of musical versions to choose from. Many I disqualified for poor sound quality and for not actually being based on the psalm at all. I was affected by this simple heartfelt Christian version though.

Revelation 9. The fifth trumpet sounds, a star falls, a bottomless pit opens and out come locusts who sting like scorpions. They cannot harm vegetation or those sealed by God. The others they torment for 5 months.

Depending on which school of thought one follows, (H) the locusts are the Saracens and the fallen star Mohammed. The Saracens tormented papal Rome but could not kill it. The 5 months or 150 days are 150 years that the Muslims attacked Eastern churches and Western Europe. Or (P) the star was some major personality who unleashed a swarm of moral and spiritual errors. The 5 months might be the duration of the siege of Jerusalem or the period during which Gessius Florus, the Roman procurator, harassed the Jews, killing 3600 in the process and thus triggering the Jewish revolt. Or (F) the star is the pope or Satan and the locusts are demons or fallen angels loosed from their imprisonment or possibly Cobra helicopters! Or (S) very much like the Futurists except no pope or helicopters.

The sixth trumpet. The third of humanity killed is (H) the Eastern third of the Roman Empire, (P) not mentioned, (F) literally a third of mankind, which combined with the quarter killed under the 4th seal, means only half the world's population remains, or (S) a warning to the remaining two-thirds. Judah was in the past frequently threatened from the East (the Euphrates). The 10th Roman legion was stationed there and sent to quell the Jewish revolt.

The army of 200 million is (H) the Turks and the fire, smoke and brimstone came from their cannons. The colored breastplates are the Turkish battle colors and if they lost their standard, they would cut off a horse's tail and tie it to a spear. Or the army (P) was not that big but an impressively large number of Roman troops, (F) the combined armies of the world, headed by the Antichrist, or possibly just the Chinese army, or (S) an impressively large army, as we saw in World Wars 1 & 2.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Unchained and Unchanged

There is a great line in the movie, V for Vendetta. Creedy, one of the villains in the film, is trying to kill the mysterious masked man who calls himself V and who is singlehandedly bringing down the fascist government. He unleashes a hail of gunfire but the man known as V still stands. “Why won't you die?” Creedy screams. V, advancing on the villain, says, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” The line is a slight reworking of a line in the original graphic novel. Some have traced the germ of that line back to something Victor Hugo wrote: “A stand can be made against invasion by an army; no stand can be made against invasion by an idea.” And I think the germ of that thought can be found in today's passage from 2 Timothy 2, specifically where Paul says, “the word of God is not chained.”

Paul is a prisoner for preaching the gospel. In reaction to what he was saying, the authorities locked him away. That is always the response of repressive regimes to unwanted ideas. But Paul is right: you cannot chain the word of God; you cannot stop the good news of God in Christ acting to save the world.

Paul knew that the gospel would survive even his death. You see throughout this letter Paul encouraging Timothy to persevere. Thus he brings up Jesus, who was raised from the dead, and who is the focus of what appears to be a fragment of an early Christian hymn:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are unfaithful, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”

The first line is fairly straightforward: If we die with Christ, we will live with him in eternal life. Paul could be referring to dying with Christ in baptism as he said in Romans 6. But it is likely that the imprisoned Paul is thinking here of physical death. He says in 2 Timothy 4, “For I am being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” He will die as Christ died and he will die with Christ in his heart. He knows he will therefore soon be with Christ, enjoying life with him.

Timothy will physically outlive him though and go through tough times, as Paul outlines in chapter 3. He wants him to endure all of this so that he will reign with Christ. Paul also refers to this in Romans 8 when he says we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” In 1 Corinthians 6, we are told we will judge angels. And it says in Revelation 20, “I saw thrones on which we seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who were beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his marks on their forehead or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Indeed, we were created to rule this earth as God's regents but we have messed that up. However, transformed by his Spirit, when we are mature in Christ, we will reign with him.

However, Paul reminds us that “if we deny him, he will deny us.” This is confirmed in Matthew 10:32, 33, where Jesus says, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” That's hardly surprising and certainly not unjust. Jesus is our God and our King. Denying our allegiance to him would be akin to denying one's country. It is renouncing our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. If we disavow any connection to Jesus, he is not obligated to uphold a nonexistent relationship.

But “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” How is this different from denial? The Greek word translated “deny” means to reject. If we are faithless, we have failed to fully trust Jesus but not necessarily disowned him. Everyday we hedge our bets about God and Jesus. We do to an extent put our trust in our money, our position, our own abilities. Some of this is unavoidable but when we think we are secure from life's misfortunes because of them or are divorced from Jesus' demands on us or from the responsibility to act as good stewards of these gifts of his, then we are betraying his trust.

But Jesus remains faithful because that is a central to who he is. He cannot deny himself. That is a great reassurance. Jesus is faithful. He will not abandon us for our faults and failings. Nadia Bolz Weber has written, in regards to the Kyrie eleison, that maybe it is “just shorthand for 'Please do not punish us by our sins'...maybe asking God for mercy is like saying—we beg you, God, that our sin is not the final word.” Because Jesus is faithful even when we fail to be, we know that he will keep his promises. If you have been following the Bible Challenge with me you are going through a long patch of the Old Testament where the prophets are telling God's people at length about their sins against God and their fellow human beings and going into excruciating detail about their impending punishment. And then, like a ray of sunshine breaking through dark clouds, God will assure his people that he will restore them at last. He will not totally wipe his hands of us though it seems at times that he has. He is faithful because that is who he is.

So Paul tells Timothy to reassure his flock. And then he says to “warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words.” That's a pretty solemn warning. What exactly the words they were arguing over are not disclosed so I think there were just people who were nitpicking God's word or the gospel they were given. We've all seen this. We've all met people who pick apart the exact wording of something in order to foist some pet interpretation upon their audience. We see this in certain extremist patriot groups who claim that the government does not have the constitutional right to tax citizens. My son, who has his friends over for roleplaying games, says they are called “rules lawyers,” because of their tendency to use the exact wording of the game instructions to get around the clear intent of the game's creators. Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing that with God's word, twisting it for their own purposes. Such hair-splitting doesn't do the listeners any good, points out Paul, but can ruin their understanding of God's word.

Now sometimes looking at the exact wording of the Bible is informative, revealing nuances that we might miss in a superficial reading. But every interpretation must be in accordance with the spirit of the passage and all of scripture. If, as Jesus says, nothing in the law and the prophets is greater than the commandments to love God and love our neighbor, then it is pernicious to interpret any passage to say we can abuse or oppress or kill people on the basis of their real or inferred sins. Instead we must in every situation love others. Only the way we show our love varies.

And this tallies with Paul's comment about rightly explaining the word of truth. Here is a good example of how properly interpreting the word can help. The King James very literally translates this “rightly dividing the word of truth.” Most other translations use the word “handling” rather than “dividing.” The literal meaning of the Greek word is “cutting straight.” In secular usage it was connected with driving a straight road, or plowing a straight furrow, or cutting and squaring a stone so it fits where it should. So Paul is saying here, “keep on track, keep on message; don't get diverted onto these side issues.”

We certainly haven't been following Paul's advice these days. We have let the message of the gospel get obscured by all kinds of other messages. We have gotten sidetracked by issues either barely mentioned in the Bible or not mentioned at all. We have over-emphasized certain parts of the scriptures while ignoring other parts.

Here's an egregious example. There is a museum in Kentucky that has animatronic dinosaurs frolicking with prehistoric people. It was built for $27 million by a group that promotes young earth creationism. The museum's mission is “to point today's culture back to the authority of the Bible and proclaim the gospel message.” Putting aside the fact that the Bible never mentions dinosaurs, don't they have it backwards? If a person doesn't accept the gospel first, what do they care about the authority of the Bible? I looked through their website and as far as I could see they have exactly one exhibit that focuses on Jesus: a 15 minute film called “The Last Adam.” Which you can download for $8.99. (After scrolling through 131 other videos offered on their site.) How much of the $27 million went to that? What does that say about their priorities?

I'm a geek. I love discussing the minute details of Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Marvel comics, science fiction, and other elements of genre. I am a Bible geek as well, constantly adding to my knowledge of the scriptures. But I know what needs to remain front and center: Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done for us and what our response to him should be. When we lose sight of that, when we get lost in the weeds of controversies over other issues, when we conflate the trivial with the essential, or even confuse what is important with what is essential, we commit precisely the blunders that Paul is telling Timothy to avoid.

Paul kept his message focused on Christ. In his shortest letter, a personal message to Philemon, he mentions Christ 8 times in a mere 25 verses. He said in 1 Corinthians 2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In the earliest letter of his we have, 1 Thessalonians, we learn that Jesus is God's son, that he died to save us, that he rose from the dead, and that he will come again. He reminds us that God has taught us to love one another and that he gives us his Holy Spirit. So all the essentials are there. For all of the other issues Paul dealt with, he stayed on message.

The gospel he preached still spreads throughout the world. The church is growing by leaps and bounds in South America, Africa and Asia. It is shrinking only in the West. Why? There are a number of reasons but one that pops up a lot among young adults and those who claim no religious affiliation is specific issues that are not at the center of the faith. While 90% of all Americans view Jesus favorably, only 78% call themselves Christians. And when it comes to the church rather than Jesus, only 16% of non-Christians aged 16 to 29 has a favorable view of Christianity. 87% of non-Christians see us as judgmental, 85% see us as hypocritical and 75% say we are too involved in politics. They find most Christians not to be very Christlike either in our attitudes or our actions. They see us as more like the Pharisees, who, in Jesus' words, “do not practice what they preach..." and "...have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matt 23:2, 23) It's a sad day when non-Christians can make a good argument for having a more moral stance on some pressing issues than so-called Christians do. We say one thing with our words but another with our works.

If you look at the folks Jesus had the harshest words for, it was the very visibly religious people of his day. With those who were visibly unrighteous, he offered forgiveness and friendship and new life. One group thought they were right and saw no need to change. The others knew they were wrong and that change was their only hope.

At its heart, Christianity is about change. Not random change or change for change's sake or a change for the worse. But it is not about maintaining the status quo. It's about change for the better in a world that is not static. Speaking of things that are constantly changing, the ancient Hebrews saw the sea as a symbol of chaos. It's interesting that Jesus chose as the core of his disciples fishermen, men of the sea. Every sailor knows that even if you started out in the right direction, you still have to pay attention; you have to make sure you don't drift off course. You have to make course corrections if you want to get to your destination. You have to take the way the wind is blowing and the the way the current is flowing into account. And you have to keep an lookout for storms. The sea changes. The methods you use to keep afloat and get safely to port do not.

If we want to communicate with the world, we need to acknowledge that it has changed. We need to realize it changes quite rapidly these days. Yesterday's rhetoric may not work. People don't speak in “thee” and “thou.” They do not accept the authority of the Bible. They do not respond to the idea of hell with fear and they base their lives more on what affects them here and now than on the hereafter. They do, however, understand injustice. They long for love. They hunger for someone they can trust and something they can believe in. Though they may not realize it, they are looking for Jesus. They are looking for the good news that can only be found in our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord.

The content of the gospel doesn't change. And it's not going away. It is as bulletproof as any idea any human being ever came up with. But how we present it, what words we use, the metaphors we chose, where we put the emphases--those things can and must change with the culture in order to reach our changing audience. The word of God is not chained to any translation, or medium, or order of worship, or denomination, or ethnic group. It is not chained to any building. Like Jesus and the disciples we need to go where people are. We need to bring the gospel to them. It's not like they are breaking down the doors to get in here. We've got a beautiful liturgy and music and the sacraments and the word of truth. What we don't have is young people. That doesn't make us unique as a church by any means. But it needs to make us creative.

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly said, “Because that's where the money is.” If we are to be fishers of men and women, we need to ask ourselves, where are the people? How do we get to them? What are they reading, watching, listening to, talking about? How can we talk to them about the gospel in terms they relate to? And most importantly, what's stopping us from getting on it right now?  

The Bible Challenge: Day 286

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 33-34, Psalm 85 and Revelation 8.

Ezekiel 33. This is a profound chapter that alone justifies the existence of this book. First, God answers Cain's inquiry of whether he is his brother's keeper. God makes Ezekiel the watchman for his people. As the watchman of a city gives warning when danger approaches, Ezekiel is to relay God's warnings about the danger of the way people are living their lives. If he warns them and they ignore him, their fate is on their heads. But if he fails to warn them, then Ezekiel is responsible for their demise.

God is doing this because he doesn't want people to die in their sins. He takes no pleasure from it. Instead he wants them to turn their lives around. He wants them to live.

God also says that a person's past doesn't determine their future. People who were good in the past don't get a pass if they turn bad. People who were bad in the past don't have it held against them if they turn their lives around and start living a good life. The past doesn't veto the present. What you do right now matters.

A survivor reaches the exiles and tells them that Jerusalem has fallen. But the people back in Judah haven't really changed. And the folks who come to hear Ezekiel aren't acting on what he says.

Ezekiel 34. God fires the neglectful, exploitative shepherds of his people. From now on, God will be the shepherd. He will gather and rescue and protect and heal and feed them. He will oversee the stronger ones so they don't bully the weaker ones, which he will strengthen.

He will appoint a Davidic king over them.

Psalm 85. This great trio sings a gospel version of this psalm--in French! Enjoy! (BTW the song ends at 2:12; the rest is bloopers.)

Revelation 8. The seventh seal is opened...and heaven falls silent for a half-hour. It is full of expectation.

Then seven angels with seven trumpets get ready to blow. Meanwhile an angel with a thurible or censer full of coals and  incense (which represents the prayers of the saints) flings it on the earth. And things get bad.

The first 4 trumpets represent (H) the invasions of the Roman Empire by the Vandals, Huns, Saracens and Turks, (P) the disasters inflicted on the Jews by the Romans during the Jewish war, (F) more or less the literal natural disasters depicted, or (S) analogues for the plagues that stuck Egypt before the Exodus, symbolically representing God's judgment on sinful humanity. For more details check out my source for most of this: Revelation: Four Views, a Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg. I've got to say, though, the part about the trees and the grass burning up sounds like our contemporary ecological nightmares.

Ominous is the angel warning that there are 3 more trumpets to blow.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 285

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 31-32, Psalm 84 and Revelation 7.

Ezekiel 31-32. Pharaoh is asked just who he thinks he is. Assyria was like one of the proverbial cedars of Lebanon, the biggest. God chopped it down to size for its arrogance.

God tells Ezekiel to sing a funeral dirge for Pharaoh.

Psalm 84. I really like this rendition. The juxtaposition of the video images and the story they tell pulls you in.
Revelation 7. There is a break, a kind of Sabbath, just before the 7th seal. There will be another before the 7th trumpet. The purpose of this pause is to mark God's people on their foreheads as was done in Ezekiel 9. The 144,000 (12 X 12,000) are sealed to identify them as God's people and to protect them from the coming disaster. They represent (H) the whole church, (P) all the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, (F) faithful Jews among those left behind after the Rapture, or (S) Jewish and Gentile Christians, the Old and New Israel together.

The 4 schools of interpretation see the multitude as either the whole church in heaven (H) or Gentile Christians or perhaps martyrs (P), Gentiles left behind who belatedly converted to Christianity (F) or the church triumphant.    

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 284

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 29-30, Psalm 83 and Revelation 6.

Ezekiel 29-30. Judgement announced for Pharaoh, Egypt and its allies.

Psalm 83. A beautiful Anglican psalter version of this psalm sung by an adult and boys choir.

Revelation 6. Time to open the scroll. But first: what is the scroll?

According to the historicist (H) school, it is God's purposes and designs for the world and his church.

According to the preterist (P) school, it is the sentence passed by the heavenly court on Jerusalem for shedding the blood of the martyrs. Christ will carry out the sentence.

According to the futurist (F) school, it's the title deed to earth which is being reclaimed from Satan. Christ is the kinsman who redeems or buys back at a great price the property we forfeited.

According to the spiritual (S) school, it is God's redemptive plan, in the form of God's last will and testament. Only Christ, his heir, can execute it.

When the lamb breaks the first 4 seals, 4 horsemen ride out. They are traditionally identified as Conquest (white horse), War and /or Bloodshed (red horse), Famine (black horse) and Death and Hell (pale horse). Most futurists think the rider of the white horse is the Antichrist (a name not found anywhere in Revelation.) I must point out that, aside from the last horseman, Revelation doesn't give them names.

The breaking of the seals sets off (H) the last centuries of the Roman Empire till its fall, (P) the revolt of the Jews leading to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD at the hands of Rome, (F) the Rapture of the church and the Great Tribulation, or (S) the cycles of war, martyrdom, judgment and the fall of human governments throughout history while God remains sovereign.

BTW if you are looking for the Rapture (which is not mentioned anywhere in Revelation) futurists see it in John's being taken to the heavenly court several chapters before.

The martyrs are those from the era each school sees this as depicting.

The signs in heaven and on earth unleashed by the breaking of the sixth seal represent (H) Constantine becoming emperor, (P) the Day of the Lord, (F) either literal or symbolic signs of the last days, or (S) the Second Coming. Since the spiritual school isn't tied to specific historical events, they don't see everything in Revelation as unfolding chronologically, but with a lot of overlap and rewinding because parts of this are happening simultaneously with the 7 trumpets and 7 bowls of wrath.

What those fleeing say as they seek refuge recalls Malachi 3:2.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 283

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 27-28, Psalm 82 and Revelation 5.

Ezekiel 27. A metaphor of the port city of Tyre as ship is lovingly detailed, as if written by a sailor. There follows a list of all who traded with Tyre. It sounds like a chamber of commerce press release. Then back to the ship, which sinks.

Ezekiel 28. The king of Tyre, who thinks he's a god, will die like a dog. Then Sidon is judged. But God's people will return to their land one day.

Psalm 82. Know what we haven't offered here? A really hard rocking version of a psalm. Like this. For those of you who prefer soothing harp music and water sounds with your psalm, plus some commentary, we offer this.

Revelation 5. Now that we're in apocalypse mode, you should know that there is more than one way to interpret Revelation. The 4 main schools of interpretation are: historicist, preterist, futurist and spiritual or idealist.

Historicists see the visions of Revelation as predicting the flow of church history from apostolic times to the end of time. People like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Isaac Newton and others have drawn parallels between the events in this book and eras of the church. It's not a very popular position today.

Preterists point to Revelation 1:1 where it says these things "must take place shortly." They think these events must have taken place in the first century. They usually hold that Revelation was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This was a popular view for the first several centuries of the church. Some only applied it to the first part of the book since Jesus has yet to return.

Futurists, on the other hand, think most if not all of Revelation takes place in the future, just before Christ's return. This is the popular view among evangelicals and especially those who are dispensationalists. They work out elaborate timetables of the events, harmonizing them with apocalyptic material from other parts of the Bible. They tend to see more of Revelation as literal and less of it as symbolic. It does make it rather irrelevant to the churches in Asia Minor to which it was originally addressed.

The spiritual or idealist school sees Revelation as containing spiritual lessons and principles that have repeated themselves throughout history and thus are relevant to all Christians in all times, not just the end times. So they emphasize the obvious symbols in the book and interpret it in a non-literal manner.

There are variations within these schools and some students of Revelation blend 2 or more of the approaches, like preterist and spiritual, maybe with some futurist thrown in towards the end of the book. I will from time to time point out these different interpretations, thanks in large part to the excellent book, Revelation: Four Views; A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg.

It is the time in the liturgy to read the scroll. But it is secured with seven (there's that number again) seals and nobody can open it. John is in tears over this. But one of the elders tells him the Lion of Judah will do it. John looks up and sees not a lion but a lamb, and one that appears to have been slaughtered. Song and worship break out. The lamb who was slain is worthy to break the seals. The lamb, obviously, is Christ.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 282

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 25-26, Psalm 81 and Revelation 4.

Ezekiel 25-26. Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy against Ammon, Moab, Edom, the Philistines and the city of Tyre for their mean-spirited and vengeful behavior towards Judah. Mind you, what happened to Judah was punishment from God but no one is to gloat over another's misfortune.

Psalm 81. A joyful rendition of the first 4 verses of this psalm.

Revelation 4. This is where Revelation turns from a letter into an apocalypse. The main difference between apocalyptic literature and prophesy is that the prophet is hoping for a response of repentance. In apocalyptic writings, it's too late. God is shutting down the evil in the world. All second chances and do-overs are done with. God is lifting the curtain on the cosmic battle that underlies the struggles of God's people.

John is ushered through a door from our reality into God's heavenly court. You will see a lot of symbols reminiscent of the tabernacle in the desert and Solomon's temple. John is seeing the heavenly temple of which the earthly one was a pale imitation. And Revelation is structured like the Jewish order of worship in the Second Temple era. (Thanks to the Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary for that insight.) It started with the lighting of the menorah in chapter 1. Here we enter the Holy of Holies when God is enthroned on the cherubim. Also there is singing.

The 24 thrones encircling God's throne are occupied by 24 elders in priestly robes and crowns, making them a royal priesthood. They are evidently representatives of Israel's 12 tribes plus the 12 apostles. The 4 creatures around the throne resemble the ones Ezekiel saw, except these are 4 creatures with one face apiece. The lion is the king of wild beasts, the ox the strongest domestic beast, the eagle the swiftest of the birds and the human the wisest of God's creatures. They still are covered with eyes. And they have 6 wings each as in Isaiah's vision.

The 7 spirits of God probably refers to Isaiah 11:2 and the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit.

The whole scene is one of worship going on. This will continue throughout the book, sometimes fading into the background of the battle to redeem the world.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 281

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 23-24, Psalm 80 and Revelation 3.

Ezekiel 23. A fairly transparent allegory about Samaria and Jerusalem. They are depicted as 2 promiscuous women who sleep with the rulers of Assyria and Babylon, not to mention other gods. "Oholah" means "tent" possibly referring to the tabernacle where God dwelt as the Israelites left Egypt for the Promised Land. "Oholibah" means "my tent is in her" referring to the temple in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel 24. Jerusalem is compared to a stew. It should be good but murder has spoiled it.
God tells Ezekiel to not react when his wife dies. That is how his fellow exiles are to act when their beloved Jerusalem falls.

Psalm 80. Driving piano work and a melody that gets stuck in your head makes this version one to enjoy.

Revelation 3. Sardis. The church is skating on its early achievements and reputation. Spiritually it is dead. But if they hear and repent, then it was worth it. God is ever ready to forgive.

Philadelphia. This church had suffered and God will be with them during the time of trial.

Laodicea. A rich and lukewarm church, which doesn't realize its stagnation and spiritual poverty. But Jesus is knocking at the door, waiting to come in and begin fixing and cleaning us up.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Prayer of St. Francis

Back in 1998, a charming movie called Shakespeare in Love told the story, not of how Romeo and Juliet was actually written, but rather how it should have been written. In other words, this period romantic comedy is true to the spirit of the tale of star-crossed lovers, just not the facts of how it came about. You could say the same thing of the prayer attributed to St. Francis, whose feast day was Friday. Though its first publication was in a small Catholic magazine in 1912 and no author is named, the prayer, which you can find on page 833 in the Book of Common Prayer, and page 87 of the book of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, just feels right coming from the mouth of Francis of Assisi. A rich man's son, who had dreams of being a knight, instead he ended up embracing poverty and taking care of lepers. This is the man who, in 1219 went to Egypt to convert the Sultan in an attempt to end the Crusades. He did get to see the Sultan, who was the nephew of Saladin, during a ceasefire in a bloody siege. We do not know exactly what happened but the Franciscans were allowed to stay in the Holy Land and take care of certain holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem ever since. Francis did act in his day as an instrument of God's peace.

And so, though we can't trace the prayer all the way back to Francis, I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to examine this prayer and its scriptural basis, phrase by phrase.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Jesus called for us to be peacemakers and thus be named children of God. Which makes sense because Paul in several places refers to the Lord as the God of peace. And peace in the Biblical sense is not merely the cessation of conflict but the total well-being of body, mind and spirit. This is what Jesus was doing when healing people: restoring them to complete well-being. In many cases, his healing even led to their integration back into the community, which had quarantined them in accordance with the law of Moses. So to be an instrument of God's peace is to work for the healing of people and communities.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Today we automatically reduce hatred to fear, but that is not the only reason that we hate things. Disgust is another root of hatred, as is anger at injustice. Hollywood understands that, making its worst villains aesthetically repellent, especially in horror films, prone to threatening innocents, and unfair even to their henchmen. It helps us cheer when the good guy kills the bad guy. Scientists have found that we do indeed feel pleasure when hating those we feel deserve it. Which explains the present political climate. But we are commanded by Jesus not only to love our neighbors but also our enemies. That leaves us no one we can hate. No wonder it is the least popular commandment. But as Jesus said, we are to bless and do good to and pray for those who hate us. We are always to love in every situation. The only question is how to show it.

And notice the prayer says that we are to “sow” these elements. God is not asking us for instantaneous results. Sometimes all we can do is plant the seed. Sometimes all we can do is water what someone else has planted. As in the parable of the sower, a lot depends on how receptive the soil is. Our responsibility is to spread God's love as broadly and even prodigally as we can. God gives the growth.

Where there is injury, pardon.” It has been my experience that those who lash out, who try to injure others, usually have been or perceive themselves to have been injured by others. Long after the physical pain has receded, and the physical wound has healed, it is the memory of the malice behind it, or the indifference displayed to one's suffering, that continues to sting. That's where the psychological and spiritual healing must begin. We can't always get someone to apologize for hurting or harming us, but Jesus commanded us to forgive others if we expect God to forgive us, something we sign on to every time we say the Lord's Prayer. Forgiving others is what God does, what Jesus most notably did while he was being crucified. As imitators of Christ, we also must forgive those who do us injury. On second thought, perhaps this is the least popular commandment.

Where there is discord, union.” Many versions of the St. Francis prayer omit this petition but it is in the original French version. Because of our emphasis on individualism, we ignore how often the Bible calls for unity. Jesus prayed for our unity the night he was betrayed. We are to be one as he and the Father are one. Think about that: we are to display the same unity that the Trinity does. After all, Jesus said that the world would know we were his disciples by our love for one another. But our love isn't visible when we call other Christians names and don't want to work with them. Small wonder the world doesn't believe it when we proclaim the good news. In a time of extreme acrimony, it looks like our “good” news is the same old news. There is nothing new or commendable about vilifying people who disagree with us. What is truly sad is that our disagreements are rarely over the essentials, but are often about interpretation of otherwise agreed upon facts, or about differing emphases. And our areas of agreement are greater than those in which we find controversy. Every church can and does recite the Apostle's Creed. Everyone knows Jesus declared loving God with all you are and all you have and loving your neighbor as you do yourself to be the two greatest commandments. All else, as N.T. Wright translated it, is footnotes. The church often reminds me of geeks arguing over latest Superman film or Doctor Who episode, forgetting that the purpose of them is to bring joy not animosity. Jesus came to draw all people to himself, not to found a theological debating society.

Where there is doubt, faith.” Faith is simply trust and faith in God is not merely that he exists but that he is trustworthy. A lot of people believe God exists but they aren't too sure that he is friendly or benevolent. But in Christ we see God's great love for us and as Paul says in Romans 8, “He who did not withhold his only Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Our faith rests in God's love.

The thing about faith is you need it the most when it is hardest to hold onto. It's only when things are going well that trusting God is easy to do. The scripture that captures this paradox best is in Mark 9 in which the father of a child with seizures comes to Christ. Jesus says, “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” To which the distraught father says, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” The danger of doubt is not that we stop trusting God entirely but we stop trusting just enough to paralyze us and render us unable to act or respond to God. Inmates at the jail who come to me with problems don't come because they have no faith; rather their faith is weak and they want help strengthening it. So again, sowing just the seed of faith may be just enough for the person to reach the tipping point and commit to following Jesus.

Where there is despair, hope.” More often than crises of faith among inmates, I see crises of hope. They think that not only have they hit bottom but that there is no way to climb out. Either it is their first time in jail and they think they have totally screwed up their life and their future, or they have been in jail and prison more times than you can imagine and they think that they will never be able to break the cycle. Loss of hope kills. It can be a warning of suicidal intention, either imminent and by active means or passive and gradual. When they want to give up, I usually refer them to the many people in the Bible who have been imprisoned and especially Joseph. When he helps Pharaoh's cupbearer with his dream, Joseph asks that he mention him to Pharaoh. But Genesis 41:1 tells us it took 2 full years before the cupbearer did so. I tell them to imagine how Joseph felt and how he prayed, thinking he had been forgotten and left to rot in prison.

Hope is the future tense of faith, I tell them. And then I use the words taught to me by a very wise man, Bishop Frade, who stole them from a movie: “Everything will be all right in the end...if it's not all right then it's not yet the end.” That really is the message of the Bible: that God's restoration of the world, his putting all things to right, is a work in progress. But it is progressing. Wherever we are in that process, we have this reassurance: that God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.

Where there is darkness, light.” We live in a time of spiritual darkness all the more inexplicable because we have access to so much knowledge. But knowledge is not necessarily light; wisdom is. The blind Buddhist monks who encounter an elephant for the first time have knowledge. Each one has a good grasp of what an elephant is like at the point they encounter it: to the monk touching the leg, it is like a tree trunk; to the monk touching its side, it is like a wall; to the one touching the trunk, it is like a snake; to the one touching the ear, it is like a big leaf; to the one touching its tusk, it is like a spear. They are all right and all wrong. They need the wisdom to see the big picture, that the elephant can be like all of these things, and more. Its structure is not obvious; neither is spiritual wisdom. What we have in the Bible is true but not exhaustive. We don't have every detail. But we do have the big picture, the goal, the shape of the new creation God is aiming for.

A candle in the darkness makes our path easier to pick out. It gives us a sense of distance and perspective. It dissipates the monsters of our imagination. It can show us we are not alone and that the task we have, no matter how big, is finite. Each of us can provide light by reflecting the love and wisdom of God into whatever stygian night in which we find ourselves and, armed with hope, make it shine until his glorious day dawns.

Where there is sadness, joy.” The word “joy” or some form of it appears over 200 times in the Bible. That's more often than the word “hope.” And yet somehow we have let the world think that Christianity is a joyless religion. Isaiah 35:10 says, “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads; gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” As Nehemiah reminds us, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” You can take on a whole lot of otherwise dismaying tasks if your heart is full of joy.

But what about when things are scary? Think about the reaction of a small child when his father tosses him into the air and catches him. Kids love it! They erupt into peals of laughter. And it comes about because while getting tossed in the air is scary, he knows his father will catch him and that makes it fun. The combination of having the ground retreat from beneath your feet and your father's strong hands open to catch you as you fall makes you giddy. Which is a species of joy. Of course, the child can see his father's hands. We are often called to be the visible and palpable hands of Jesus, ready to catch those whose lives are in free fall.

It is harder to turn sorrow into joy but again, we simply plant the seeds. The joy will come when they look back and remember the strong hands holding them up when they were on the verge of collapse.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” From pitting opposites against each other, the prayer turns to how they often come together in the paradoxes of the heart. Everybody would rather have this last petition was turned around. We would rather be consoled than console someone else, be understood than attempt to understand others, be loved first rather than go out on a limb and love others without a guarantee of their reciprocating. But someone has to start it. And in fact, someone has. In Jesus, we have someone who sought to console rather than to be consoled, to understand rather than to be understood, and to love rather than be loved. He consoles, understands and loves us, giving us the example and power to do the same for others.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Here we move from the paradox of the human heart to the paradox of the Spirit. In a materialistic life, giving is not in any way receiving. It is a loss. Ayn Rand said altruism is a great evil. Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive. And it is not just that, as a Harvard Business School study found, that giving to someone makes you happier than buying something for yourself. Giving grows us spiritually. And that is the goal of following Jesus: to grow into his image, to become ever more Christlike.

We have already spoken of how we are pardoned by pardoning others. The last truth to examine is how we are born to eternal life by dying. And I don't think the composer of the prayer was speaking of the physical act of dying. I think he was referring to Jesus saying we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him and to Paul saying in Galatians, “ I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” We must die daily to ourselves, to our narrow concerns, desires and fears, if we are to make space for the larger life of God. As in death we are made to let go of all the things of this world, we need to let go of our personal priorities and agendas and take up those of God as revealed in words and actions of Jesus. We should be able to echo Paul in Philippians where he says, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

This prayer, though it did not come from the hand of St. Francis, came from the same Spirit that moved him to do the extraordinary things he did—giving to the needy, nursing the sick, working for peace. It is hopeful that we have a Pope who has taken the name of Francis and who has made clear his desire to love and serve Christ in others. God knows we need people who do more than parrot Christ's good words but also live lives filled with good works that he has prepared for us to do. So let us dedicate ourselves to such a life by saying together the prayer attributed to St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

The Bible Challenge: Day 279

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 21-22, Psalm 79 and Revelation 2.

Ezekiel 21. The Lord has pulled his sword. It's judgment time.

There are two paths. One leads to Jerusalem. One leads to Ammon. Both will face judgment.

Ezekiel 22. The reasons for God's judgement: idolatry, killing, mistreatment of parents, cheating immigrants, oppressing the fatherless and widows, incest, murder for hire, usury, extortion. Also priests ignoring God's teaching (which would tell people how wrong this stuff is) and covering up for corrupt politicians with blood on their hands. Not much different from today.

Nobody was willing to stand in the breach and defend the city. It sounds like he is referring to someone like Abraham who pleaded for Sodom when God was considering destroying it. But no one stepped up for Jerusalem.

Psalm 79. A familiar hymn supplies the tune for this metrical version of this psalm asking God to avenge the horrific slaughter of God's people.

Revelation 2. The first church addressed is the one at Ephesus, which, if you remember, is a very important city. "I know your ____" will become a refrain boding good or ill to the church addressed. The report on Ephesus sounds good. They are hard working and don't let false apostles take over. But they have lost their first love. What could that be? If they are zealous about heresy, which would cover loving God, then perhaps it is loving other people which they have lost. They have become so zealous about doctrine they forgot to love their neighbors as themselves or perhaps their enemies. Are they displaying a lack of love for those who have bad doctrine? It is so hard for human beings to love the sinner while hating the sin. We tend to either enable the person or reject them rather than help them with their problem.

Not sure who the Nicolaitans are but they are probably the false apostles mentioned earlier. The tree of life reference is clever, referring to the tree in the Garden of Eden which was not touched, the "tree" on which Christ was crucified (it may have been a literal tree trunk to which the crossbar was affixed, saving the Romans having to erect a new upright each time they crucified someone), and a mocking nod to the tree of Artemus, the deity whose temple in Ephesus was renowned all over the Empire.

Smyrna is up next, a suffering and poor church that is rich in faith. The city had been destroyed and rebuilt and the phoenix was its symbol. This may explain the designation of Christ as the one who was dead but came back to life. They are given encouragement for an intense but brief imprisonment that is coming up. Still after the imprisonment comes a verdict and punishment. They could be sentenced to the salt mines, exile or death. Which explains why it is said that the victor is safe from the second death. After physical death there is the possibility of spiritual death, exile from God. But that is not the fate of those who trust God to the end.

Pergamum is next. Good news: they haven't denied Christ despite living under the shadow of Satan's throne. This could refer to the altar to Zeus or the fact that his city boasted the first temple to the divine emperor.  Bad news: they have succumbed to the heresy of the Nicolaitans which is likened to Balaam's heresy, which was apparently idolatry coupled with sexual immorality. The church needs to repent. If they do they will receive manna, a reference to what the Israelites ate after being freed and while on their way to the promised land. The white stone could be a reference to the stone given the accused with an "acquitted" verdict or an invitation to a party engraved on a stone. That could mean the wedding supper of the Lamb. Either it means freedom or acceptance by Christ, both good.

Thyatira was a city dominated by guilds, each with a patron god. This could make doing business difficult for Christians. But the church has a lot going for it. Their big problem was tolerating a prophetess (nicknamed Jezebel after Ahab's notorious wife) who taught the same combination of idolatry and immorality that is rife in the region. She will be punished and her "children" (followers) as well. But not all of the church is enthralled by her so they are safe. The deep secrets of Satan may be an indication that this is an early version of Gnosticism that they are dealing with. The reward for those who hold out is authority and the morning star which is probably a reference to Jesus (Rev. 22:16).