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Monday, May 30, 2011

A Special Thanks to the U.S. Armed Forces

Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., when we take a day off from our usual activities to celebrate the sacrifices of those who have served and sacrificed as part of our armed forces.  I know my readers are probably busy entertaining friends and relatives at backyard parties or family vacations all over the U.S., but I hope they all take a minute from their day to remember the reason for this holiday!

Yesterday I got a chance to thank a Korean War veteran for his service, and he seemed surprised, even touched, to hear it. I was reminded again that everyone is permanently changed by war, even those who don't seem to have any visible scars.  They carry the memories with them everywhere, although they rarely talk about them.

It isn't just the soldiers who have tales to tell.  Also remember those who "served" with them in a less official capacity, including spouses, parents, and children.  These people spent their time worrying about them, missing them, and praying for them to arrive home safely, while at the same time trying to encourage and support them from the home front.  They have their own secret scars to carry.

I guess what I am trying to say is that, all politics aside, these people have given all or a part of their lives with the hope that our families and our way of life can go on without interruption or trouble.  Let's not minimize the fact that we have the time to debate the rightness or wrongness of things while they spend their time defending our right to that debate.  As a religious person, I appreciate this right and the sacrifices it has taken to keep it all the more keenly.  While I was in college, studying in the liberal arts, I lost a lot of confidence in the younger generations, including my own peers, that they fully comprehend what it takes for them to live as they do, or what it would be like to live without their freedoms.  I still pray that I am wrong.

So, today I'm asking you to personally thank a member of the armed forces and his or her family for your freedom--particularly your freedom of religion.  If you can't do it today, do it the next time you get the opportunity (and I'm not just talking to Americans here).  These people need to feel your gratitude and know that you care about them, even if you don't personally agree with all of their political beliefs.  This is the Christian thing to do.

Monday, May 23, 2011

4 Things We Need to Know About the Rapture

So the world waited with baited breath for May 21st to pass, and nothing happened.  What now?  Does this mean it is time to sit back in confidence because God isn't in any hurry to return?  It seems that all I am currently hearing on the television and elsewhere is some mocking laughter at the naive notion Christians have about this thing they call "the Rapture."  I even heard some mockery of the whole concept on the Nightline segment "A Sign of the Times," this weekend.

Frankly, I don't think the Rapture is a concept to be mocked--not by Christians, anyway.  So let's clear the air and talk about the Rapture.

What is the Rapture?

The term "Rapture" does not appear anywhere in Scripture, but it is a term used among Christians to name the incident described in prophecy, when Christ will descend from the clouds with a shout and the sound of trumpets, and first the dead Christians, then the living ones, will be taken instantly into the clouds to join Him (1 Thessalonians 4: 15-17; 1 Corinthians 15: 50-58).

While I don't think there will be enough time for latecomers to change their minds and "catch the bus as it leaves town," because the Bible says it will happen "in the twinkling of an eye," I do feel that this will not be an event that will go unnoticed.  I think the shouting and the trumpets are to get the whole world's attention, and I think they will all look up and see that it has happened (note, I said it will have already happened when they see).  I think many will believe in God after seeing it, and be filled with dismay (Matthew 24: 30-31).  I do imagine that someone will call it "the Day of the Disappearances," but I don't think many will miss the presence of Christians--I think they will view them as a nuisance and a source of guilt that has been finally removed, much as the Nazis celebrated the removal of the Jews from their homes during the war.

When is the Rapture Coming?

Jesus told us with extreme bluntness that God knows when the Rapture is coming, but even Jesus hadn't been told, because God wants us to always be in a state of readiness (Matthew 24: 36-44).  God does not want to see us putting off repentance until the last moment necessary, so He is not sharing with us what that last moment will be.

There are those who have tried before to predict the Rapture, and they have failed.  Take, for instance, the Millerites (now called Seventh Day Adventists), a religious group who formed around the idea that the Rapture and the end of the world would come on October 22, 1844.  These followers of William Miller quit their jobs, sold their possessions, and gathered to await the Rapture on that date, but were horrified when it didn't come.  It also didn't come in 1845, on several projected "date corrections." Eventually many gave up and left the group, while others sought to rewrite their primary beliefs to eliminate this error.

I know that eventually, someone might say that the Rapture is tomorrow, and be right--but I believe this will be an accident, not some secret knowledge that God has shared with only a few.  If God didn't share this information with His own Son, and He didn't share it with the disciples who personally knew Him on Earth, why would He leak this secret information to others?  I have faith that God will do just as He has said--He will come like a thief in the night, when no one has planned for it and when few are ready for it.  Therefore, let us be wary of following anyone who claims to predict the date of the Rapture.

Is the Rapture the end of the world?

There are three theories among Christians about when the Rapture will occur.  Some say it will be before the 7 year reign of the Antichrist (thus signaling the end of the world as we know it); some say it will be at the half-way (3 1/2 year) mark, at the Desecration that will cause desolation;  and finally, some say it will be at the end of the 7 years (the end of the world), at the time of the battle of Armageddon.

Personally, I have studied all three and prefer the pre-Antichrist theory, but I am prepared for any of them.  It doesn't matter when it happens, as long as our hearts are ready for Christ to return, right?  In any case, the Rapture is not the only sign of the end of the world, but it is definitely one of them.  The rest are outlined primarily in the prophecies of Isaiah, Daniel, and John (who wrote the book of Revelation). 

How do we prepare for the Rapture?

When the Rapture happens, Jesus is taking the Christians to be with Him--leaving the unrepentant and disobedient to be punished and judged.  If you want to be prepared for the Rapture, prepare your heart today, and don't wait to be counted among the ones left behind.  This means repent of your sins, and call upon God to (1) remove from you the reproach of past sins with the redeeming blood of Christ's sacrifice, (2) teach you how to live righteously and flee from all future sin.  You don't want to be caught sinning when Christ returns!

Jesus did add another charge to this preparation--to be found doing what God has called us to do in His service.  As Jesus said, "“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time?  It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns," (Matthew 24: 45-46 NIV 2011).  Those who do not know the Lord are not His servants, and therefore do not understand His will or do it.  So today, if you already know Christ, I charge you to find out what tasks God has made you to accomplish, and get busy doing them.  It will have the added benefit of developing in you the nature of Christ.

Let us get ready for Christ's coming, because it could be any day now.  Until then, let us all behave like fitting servants of God, so that the world will find out about how great He is before it is too late for them!  I leave you today with the haunting and challenging lyrics of Larry Norman's 1969 hit, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," here performed by D.C. Talk in 1997.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Beulah Land

I last posted about Ruth and the symbolism of the Kinsman-redeemer, and how it all foreshadows the relationship of the believer with God.  Today, I was thinking about that further, since I will be attending a wedding tomorrow, and I know of several others that will be happening in coming weeks.  It is a wedding weekend, so let's talk about the wedding day, that is, the day the Bridegroom returns!

In Isaiah, the prophet writes,
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.  The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate.  But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married.  As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:1-5 NIV 2011; Hephzibah means his delight is in her; Beulah means married)
  This was written before Israel's exile to Babylon, but Isaiah was already predicting the joyous re-entry into Israel many years later.  Looking beyond that still further, it seems to be a prophecy about the last days, when Christ will return in glory and fight the last battle at Megiddo, near Jerusalem, and enter the New Jerusalem a triumphant King, with the church, His bride, by His side.
Deserted and Desolate, but not for long!

Today, it may seem that we are living in deserted and desolate spaces, where no one loves the Lord, or truth, or anything honorable, and there is no vindication when we are wronged.  Despite how things look, this prophecy is an example of how even before the offense comes, God has planned the ending, and His plans are both good and thorough.

Not only will mockers and troublemakers be silenced, but also they will have to acknowledge their wrongs and follow God's rules as He dictates them--calling us by a new name, not smeared with derision, and blessing us for our obedience.

This is what it means to be the bride of Christ: We are to be not merely provided for or admired for one day, but honored, protected, even doted over for the rest of our days!  And God has promised us eternal life, so this is an enduring promise of goodness and joy.  It is better to be the bride than to be those who have rejected and divorced Jesus.  They will regret their choice soon enough.

So let us endure the temporary pain of waiting for Christ's return, so that we can enjoy the glory of being the bride when He comes back.  It is going to be wonderful!  Let us prepare our hearts for His return, so that no harbored sin could come between us and Christ.  He could be here any day now.

Next time, I want to talk more about the "Glorious Appearing" that everyone has been talking about, that is, the Rapture of Christians.  I believe what Jesus said, that not even He knows the day or the hour when He will return to this Earth to take His people away (Matthew 24: 36-44), so all of this talk about the end of the world being tomorrow is not convincing me.  However, if Jesus does come back tomorrow, I welcome it whole-heartedly.  What a blessing it would be to be mocked for being a Christian today, and a bride of Christ tomorrow!  Take care, folks, and I'll see you Monday, whether here or in Heaven.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kinsman-Redeemer: Restorer of Broken Things

My example in last week's "Weekly Snippet" was about Ruth and a man named Boaz, her kinsman-redeemer under ancient Israeli law.  I spent some time thinking about that this weekend, and how it symbolically represents Jesus' relationship with believers.  Just as Boaz restored the fortunes of Naomi and Ruth from a doomed state of poverty and almost certain starvation, Christ restored the fortunes of those who choose to follow Him, from a state of destruction and certain death to that of joy and "every good thing."

"Restorer of Fortunes"--Photo Taken Weeks After a Hailstorm
I am not saying that after Ruth married Boaz, or after an individual has accepted Christ, that the rest of the story is effortless, or that trouble never came again.  Ruth and Boaz still faced challenges, like getting the crops in on time, or caring for a sick baby.  Eventually, Ruth may have found herself a widow again (Scripture does indicate that she was young, and Boaz was much older).  In the case of Christians, we are promised persecution from people who hate Jesus, and on top of that, we have the regular trials of this life to daily wrestle with.  It can be discouraging.

In either case, though, something changed between the moment the Kinsman-Redeemer stepped in and the years to follow--both parties (Ruth and Christians) had a future to hope for, and a present that was filled with a special joy that sprang from restoration.

The Kinsman-Redeemer doesn't zap us back to the time before the brokenness came into our lives, but if we trust in Him, He builds something from the broken pieces that we never dreamed we'd see.  It is not just a restoration of what was lost; it's a new and miraculous gift.

Today, are you in the midst of a disaster, and you don't know how it could ever work out right?  I want to encourage you to hold tight to the promise that God not just can, but most certainly will restore your life.  The restoration may not be what you imagined, but I can tell you, it will be better than what you could have hoped for.  Those who wait on the Lord will be rewarded.
Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.  Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.  You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. (Isaiah 54: 4-6 NIV 2011)

That's a promise!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Weekly Snippet: How History and Sociology Aid Biblical Understanding

I recently had a chance to visit with a couple who were working on getting ordination in the Assemblies of God church.  As we ate together, we got into a discussion of how secular historical documents, archaeology, and sociological studies can inform our understanding of biblical passages.

I have heard people say that the only thing we need to read to understand Christianity is the Bible.  Well, I do agree that the Bible is the only book that really contains everything that Christians need, and I do believe that if we never read anything else, we would be okay.  The Bible is not so full of complex language and rules that a child couldn't comprehend it.

However, there are good resources out there that can help us better understand what we are reading.  This is like having a teacher to explain what we read and guide our steps as we learn.  The teacher's words aren't more important than the material, and it is possible that, with enough understanding, we can reach a point where we can validly challenge the teacher.  This is why it is important that we all read the Bible ourselves and train ourselves to be experts about the material.

The Bible contains passages that describe people saying and doing baffling things, but it treats these events as mundane happenings.  Obviously we missed something, and that piece of information was known to the reader at the time the passage was written.

This is where secular historical documents, sociology, and to a larger degree, archaeology, all step in to close the gaps.  Although the worldview of these outside documents is not likely to agree with the Bible, they can reveal what was once considered "common knowledge" in a culture at a time in history that is now forgotten.  These things were so obvious to everyone that the author never thought it was necessary to write them down.

Take, for instance, the strange behavior of Ruth and Boaz in Ruth chapters 3 and 4.  First off, in chapter 3, the narrator never explains why Boaz put the corner of his robe over Ruth on the threshing floor.  We can gather clues from other passages in the Bible, such as the place where God instructed men to put tassles on the corners of their garments to remind them to keep God's commandments (Numbers 15: 37-39), but we won't fully understand what it meant to Boaz and Ruth until we understand how expensive it was to dye fabric blue at that time, according to the Biblical requirements for these tassels (as informed by secular archaeology).  To have blue thread in a tallit (tassel) was to be wealthy, so the tassel was in fact power and authority symbolized in a part of Boaz' wardrobe (sociology).  Basically, Ruth formally requested that Boaz use his power to rescue her from destitution, and when he put the corner of his garment over her, he was saying he would do what was in his power, because he cared for her welfare.  If you'd like to read further historical and archaeological exploration of the topic of these tassels, here is a fascinating article on the tallit.

Now, in Ruth chapter 4, Boaz performs the legal ceremony of the kinsman-redeemer.  There are a lot of complex laws being observed here.  Only one--the exchange of the sandal as the formal acknowledgment of the transaction--is ever explained to us.  There are others here that have no explanation, like the ownership of property in the land.  Under Mosaic law, the original clans owned different pieces of land, and it was not possible for one clan of descendants to permanently acquire the land of their kinsmen if someone died.  If a man left no heirs, someone close to him in his family would marry his widow, and her sons by this kinsman were the heirs to the dead man's property.  The duty of the kinsman-redeemer was to take care of the widow and the property, and to provide her with an heir to take care of her in her old age.  The underlying sociological information is that the widow was not an heir of her husband's property, and therefore completely penniless.  Without the kinsman-redeemer system, under the social rules of the day, Ruth and Naomi could easily starve.

One more tidbit about Ruth chapter 4.  The formal place for legal transactions was at the city gate, because there would be plenty of witnesses.  People continually passed in and out of that gate from morning until nightfall, and they got their news there (as informed by sociology, history, and archaeology).  To further insure that the other kinsman-redeemer couldn't change his mind, Boaz made sure there were respected elderly men in the community gathered there, many who may have known Naomi's husband and cared for her welfare, so that they could be special witnesses and could vouch for what took place.  They were probably gathered there to get their news and socialize, but they had special significance here as a legal body, and their words and blessings were like a formal legal document.

The Bible is peppered with such passages.  They make enough sense on their own, without the sociological background, but they become more real, and less distant, when we learn what was important and known to the people at the time it all took place.

The next time you find something strange in the Bible and wonder what it means, you should consider seeking out other sources to help you.  I have shared some in many of my older posts, if you look around.  Follow the tags at the end of this one.  Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mowing Down Mountains

In Biblical symbolism, we frequently see mountains portrayed as a meeting place between man and God (see my post God of the Mountains and the Valleys), or as a stronghold and refuge against trouble.  There is another way the ancients viewed them, which is far less grand or encouraging--the mountain as an obstacle or barrier.

There is nothing more forbidding than a mountain that you have to climb over to reach what you want.  I think this is why the Carpathian mountains, the Himalayas,  and other such ranges have served as an ancient barrier between cultures for centuries.  Mountains are too steep to haul many possessions over them, and the effort itself is dangerous to travelers on foot, so most of the time the preferred option is to go around, or not go at all.

There are things in this life that are just like those mountains.  We feel God has set our feet on a path to go somewhere, or do something, and then suddenly a mountain rises up and seems to bar the way.  It might be financial, it might be educational, it might be a health crisis or a relationship problem, but whatever it is, it is enough to cause dismay.  You might be wondering how you are going to get over it or around it, to do what God has charged you to do.  I can confess I woke up feeling just that way this morning.

When I think back through all the times I've read the Bible, I can't think of a single time when God has challenged His people to break a mountain into pieces and move it out of their way, or any passages when God told His followers, "This mountain is too high. Go around."  Rather, it seems that they are always being directed to watch their path, that is, where their feet were currently treading, not the horizon ahead.  Somehow, barriers both natural (like the Jordan river) and unnatural (like the Canaanite tribes) had mostly evaporated when they got there, and what had seemed forbidding on the horizon was nothing under their feet.

Why?  Because God traveled there first, and it was God's power that saved the day.  By the end of it, their faith had moved them forward, trusting in God, but His power had moved the mountain.  As Jesus said, “Have faith in God....Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them," (Mark 11: 22-23 NIV 2011; italics mine).

I believe that God loves us enough that He looks at the terrors that lie ahead of us and clears obstacles out of our paths, so that our feet will not slip and lead us into sin and error (Psalm 66: 8-9). I believe this is one reward for those who follow Him. Today, let us learn to watch our own feet carefully so we stay on the path that God has swept clear for us, and leave the rest to Him.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3: 5,6 NIV 2011)

Friday, May 6, 2011

When the Righteous Fall

I spoke last time about the death of a wicked person, and how Christians are instructed not to rejoice overmuch about their deaths.  It is a victory where justice is concerned, but it is also a tragedy of a wasted life.  We should view it soberly, but our happiness over seeing justice served is not out of place, either.

So how should we receive it when a righteous person dies?  Are Christians allowed to mourn?

Monday, May 2, 2011

When the Wicked Fall

The wicked man will see [the blessings of the righteous] and be vexed, he will gnash his teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing. --Psalm 112: 16 NIV 2011

Last night, the news and airwaves buzzed with the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and his body captured.  People sang and danced in New York city at the news.  I can't say I wasn't at least heartened to hear the news, myself.  The truth is, I do see it as a victory, not so much for America, but rather, for justice and goodness that knows no international boundaries.  I can say that, although I was glad that a tiny bit of justice had been meted out on this earth (it is so rare, and often so tainted these days), I wasn't jumping up and down and singing.

So how should we react when the news reaches our ears that a criminal, a sinner, has fallen in his sins?  This has been a source of somewhat heated debate in a few places, such as Facebook, already today.  Is it right, or Christian, to cheer or say, "praise God" when a man, like Osama, has been punished for murder?  How about a man who has committed lesser offenses against us?  If someone like that gets punishment, what kind of attitude does God expect us to have when we receive the news?

I take my inspiration from David, and how he reacted to the news that Saul was dead (2 Samuel 1).  Now, up until the news arrived, Saul had been hunting him, his friends, and his wives and children.  David wrote many psalms in this era of his life, asking God to punish his enemies and grant him justice.  Finally reaching the point of desperation, he and his men had moved out of the country to get away from Saul.  Even so, when he and his men got word that Saul and Jonathan were dead, they wept and mourned.  Were they crazy?

I realize that part of their tears came over the loss of David's best friend, and part of them came over the disaster that had come upon their whole country as a result of Saul.  Even so, I see that their overall reaction to the justice they had asked God to grant them, was that of soberness and grief.

It is a sobering thing when someone, bent on destruction, finally is destroyed.  Those who seek the Lord understand justice (Proverbs 28: 5)--they understand that justice comes because of disobedience.  When justice is served, it is cause to reflect on sin and its consequences.  It ought to remind us to fear those same punishments, and seek righteousness, so that we don't have to come to the same end.

As for our feelings toward evildoers, I don't see any evidence that we have to mourn the end of their reign of terror (Proverbs 11: 10; Proverbs 28: 28), but I do see that we ought to recognize the tragedy that is their lives.  Yes, I called it a tragedy!  The verse I put at the beginning of this post illustrates it perfectly.  Evil people's choices, and their stubbornness in continuing to do evil, make them pathetic, even laughable, in the end.  They might get a lot of things from their evil, but they die without ever getting what they really wanted.  So much talent and intelligence wasted!  What a terrible summary of their lives!  It isn't right to rejoice that a man chose destruction, and got it, because we could have come to the same end, had we not found Jesus.

This is how I believe we should receive the news that a wicked man has fallen:  (1) We should rejoice that God has once again made a spectacle of sin, so that no one should think it is desirable;  (2) We should praise God for His righteousness, which saves and changes hearts so that those who submit to God can be spared the wages of sin; (3)  We should soberly recognize the devastation that sin brings, and pray for our enemies, that they, through repentance, may be delivered from that certain destruction!

Every time we hear that a sinner has fallen, let us pray that other sinners will fear justice, now that they have seen it, and turn and obey.  Let us pray that it doesn't have to end with weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13: 47-50).  May they fall to their knees in repentance, and find eternal mercy in Christ, rather than suffer the eternal death that the law requires for sin.  This is our Christian duty--to love our worst enemies, because Christ loved us first (1 John 4: 19).

Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
   when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,  

  or the Lord will see and disapprove
   and turn his wrath away from them.
Do not fret because of evildoers
   or be envious of the wicked, 
  for the evildoer has no future hope,
   and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.--Proverbs 24: 17-22 NIV 2011