Friday, August 29, 2008

Church signs

by John D Ramsey

Today, as I was driving to work I passed a church on the highway, and I smiled when I read their sign, “I AM WHO I AM.” This was God’s answer to Moses’ question, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” Exodus 3:13 (NIV) I smiled because it is a message that people need to hear and it is simple enough to fit on a sign.

I am not a big fan of church signs. Some church signs attempt to be cute; others manage to be funny without trying. Some signs are heretical. I have never attended a church because of a sign, but I have known to stay away because of them.

I once sent my mother a mock photograph of a church sign from www.churchsigngenerator.com in which I had misspelled a couple words. She was mortified. She begged me to tell her the location of the church so she could phone them and insist that they correct their signage. I had to let her off the hook. Of course, the church sign generator imprints their URL on every photo, so she had enough information to detect the hoax.

I dislike church signs' limited space. Is it possible to convey the whole story when there is much to tell? I suppose the psychology of church signs appeals to human curiosity. Perhaps they cause some people to inquire for more information.

Faith is not a slogan, yet God’s truths are simultaneously complex and simple. While they are complex enough that men can spend their lives pondering God’s mysteries, they are also simple enough that a child can grasp them. Perhaps their simplicity is sublime. Perhaps I should rethink my prejudice against church signs. Today, I was encouraged to see the quote from Exodus 3 because it addressed an issue that has been on my mind.

In creation, God made man in His image, and since the fall of man, mankind has attempted to redefine God into the image of His creation. Yet God reminds us, “I AM WHO I AM.”

In the bawdy movie, “Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, Will Farrell prays to “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus . . .” While Farrell’s portrayal is blasphemous, he is not too far beyond what Christians do every day when we delicately redefine who Jesus is.

The book of Judges devotes two of its twenty-one chapters to an account that illustrates man’s confusion about who God is. Before we glance at Judges, let us recall just two of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .
  • You shall not steal.
With these two commandments in mind, read the following few verses from Judges 17 and make your own judgment.

Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.”

Then his mother said, “The LORD bless you, my son!”

When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make a carved image and a cast idol. I will give it back to you.”

So he returned the silver to his mother, and she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into the image and the idol. And they were put in Micah's house.

Judges 17:1-4 (NIV)

Micah later hired a Levite to be a priest in his idolatrous shrine even though priests were to serve only at the Tabernacle or temple and only Levites descending from Aaron were entitled to be priests. Later raiders from the tribe of Dan stole both Micah’s priest and his idols. Micah objected, but he was outnumbered and he would not die for the sake of his idol. The tribe of Dan then continued to worship Micah’s idol until the time of the Babylonian captivity. Coincidentally, the tribe of Dan is excluded from the 144,000 from the twelve tribes Israel mentioned in Revelation 7. The tribe of Joseph (Manasseh was Joseph’s son) has a double portion of the total. I state this as correlation. If you can prove or disprove causation, please leave a comment.

I am confident that Micah and his mother rationalized their idols. Perhaps they thought the ban on idols was culturally relevant only to previous generations. Perhaps they did not consider Micah’s idol as equivalent the Baals that the pagans worshipped. Obviously, they thought that they had license to worship God as they saw fit without regard to God’s commands. Micah and his mother's idolatry became a stumbling block to countless other people. This is a warning that we should be cautious. God is who he is.

When I was a child, I remember receiving Sunday School literature that portrayed Jesus as a white man. When Lisa and I were first married, Lisa’s grandmother would not smoke in front of me because she thought that with my long bangs and my blue eyes, I looked like Jesus. Evidently, she had seen Sunday School literature similar to what I had known.

My parents once knew graphic artists who had been missionaries in Africa. Their artwork portrayed Jesus as a black man. When Lisa and I travelled to Mexico, we toured several churches that displayed wax or plaster sculptures portraying Jesus as a dead man. At Christmas, we display crèches portraying Jesus as a baby.

The missionaries rationalized their artwork by saying that portraying Jesus as a black man is no worse than portraying him as a white man. Yes, it is no worse; it is merely as bad. Some might rationalize all of these misrepresentations of Jesus as being culturally relevant, yet I wonder whether God would not simply call all of them idols.

Some idolatrous images of Jesus are not graphical or physical they are conceptual. I once complained about the legalism taught in Christian schools. I was told that the legalism was age-appropriate lies. Legalism is a type of idolatry because it masks the true character of God. Why would Christian schools protect students from discovering who Jesus is? What amount of deceit is “age appropriate”? Apparently, my teachers were uncomfortable with who Jesus is, and they took the opportunity to correct the record.

Nearly everyone will tolerate some Jesus depending upon what the meaning of Jesus is. Some Christian denominations encourage ambiguous vocabularies so as to envelope the widest consortium of those who will confess Jesus as their “personal Savior”. Yet it is not our ideas about who Jesus is that matter, rather it is the truth about who Jesus is that is important.

Who is Jesus?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Matthew 16:13-16 (NIV)

Many try to appropriate Jesus’ authority by saying that he built his church upon Peter and after Peter died they inherited his authority somehow. The language of the Greek proves this interpretation to be self-serving and absurd. Peter means pebble, but the rock upon which Jesus would build his church was an immovable stone. Compared to Peter's pebble, Jesus was building his church upon a geological feature! Yes, it was a play on words, but the antecedent of “this rock” is not Peter, but rather it was Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Paul confirms this saying, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 3:11 (NIV) We need to emphasize here as well that Peter’s confession came by the revelation of the Son by the Father. Men are not allowed to define who Jesus is. If they redefine Jesus, if they substitute a false foundation for the true Rock of Ages, they do not worship Jesus Christ; they erect an idol.

Late in his life John wrote a letter to his “little children”, that is to the believers in the churches in which he had ministered. John begins the letter with an allusion to the first verses of his gospel account. John reminds the reader of what he had seen and heard. In chapter four, he begins a new theme asking those he loves to test the spirits,

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

1 John 4:1-3

The heresy of Gnosticism was taking root in the later part of the first century. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was a spiritual apparition, not an actual man. Yet John knew better. He had seen and touched Jesus. He had stood at the base of the cross when Jesus was crucified. He had heard him cry out in agony. He had cared for Jesus’ mother (John 19:26, 27) for the remainder of Mary’s life. He knew the real Jesus.

John knew Jesus as a man, and he knew him as God. John had heard the words of John the Baptist proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John had witnessed many of Jesus’ miracles. John had seen Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. John was among the first to enter the empty tomb. He was perhaps the first to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Obviously, John’s words in 1 John 4 warned against the deception of the Gnostics, but his words encompass much more. When John calls his Jesus, “Jesus Christ”, he was calling him by both his name and his title: Jesus the Christ. The title Christ carries with it all the expectations of the Old Testament prophecies. The title Christ carries with it all the testimony of the Apostles: their Gospels and their letters. The title Christ carries with it all the words Jesus spoke including those he spoke about himself.

A heretic might be able to define a new Jesus, but John asked his beloved to test whether the Jesus that men proclaimed was actually the Christ.

Who did Jesus say that he was? In John chapter eight, Jesus told the Pharisees, “I tell you the truth; before Abraham was born, I AM.” John 8:58 (NIV) Jesus’ words echoed back to God’s declaration to Abraham, “I AM WHO I AM.” Jesus was boldly claiming to be Creator God. The Pharisees realized this and tried to kill Jesus in the temple courtyard.

John’s testimony about Jesus, indeed Jesus’ testimony about himself, is that he was both God and man. As God, he is the Creator of all things, and as a man he is the Judge of all men. Should we not confess him the Christ, the Son of the living God, before we stand before his judgment seat?

Near the conclusion of John’s Gospel he writes,

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,

the Son of God,

and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31, 31 (NIV)

I know the real Jesus. I want to know this Jesus better.

Hmm. How would that look on a church sign?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Complacency

by John D Ramsey

My family accuses me of being intense. Sometimes I wonder what they see. I am not convinced that I am intense, but I do care about what is important. My entire life I have wondered what is important and what is not. When I was kid in Christian school, a teacher kicked me out of algebra class for parting my hair down the middle. I laughed aloud that my hairstyle could be so singularly important. My dad was principal of the high school, and my hair did not seem so important to him.

I went to a so-called Christian university for a while. There a professor of history chastised me for wearing a corduroy suit made in Poland. A suit was required—their rule, not mine. In retrospect, this professor of history lacked a sufficient background in economics. To him, buying clothing made in a communist country was tantamount to endorsing slave labor; it was supporting a criminal regime. Nevertheless, economic engagement with the West acted as a catalyst for freedom. Poland is now a member of NATO. I do not think that Dr. ____ saw that coming. At age 18, I did not know that buying a suit would help shatter the iron curtain. If I had realized what was important, I probably would have bought two corduroy suits.

In 1998 and 1999, the world hyperventilated about Y2K. In my job, I was supposed to fan the flames about the end of the world, as we knew it. My employer provided me a bootable floppy disk, with which I was supposed to test every one of about 300 computers I managed. I ran the diagnostics on two machines: one that the company I worked for had sold, and one that a competitor had sold. Can you guess which one passed? A quick experiment confirmed that the error was in the diagnostic program and not in the computer’s system BIOS.

After changing companies, I met a coworker who claimed to have saved a major company from a Y2K disaster. She said that their system stored only the last two digits of the year and used “SELECT @Year % 4”, or its equivalent, to determine leap years. Somehow, she thought that you could not divide zero by four. “SELECT 0 % 4” returns 0, but she never thought to check. I do not remember how much her math deficiency cost the client. Propaganda helps people to see what they want to see. Her discovery positioned her to do something she thought was important.

Today everyone knows that Y2K was mostly a hoax perpetrated by opportunists and perpetuated by ignorance. Many people felt very important for a year to eighteen months only to watch their careers fizzle with the New Year’s Eve countdown. Y2K accelerated development projects to the extent that budgets were exhausted and many deliverables were mediocre. Technology took a nosedive, and the NASDAQ crashed. This was predictable. In the summer of 1999, I saw a man in a white shirt and tie standing on the street corner holding a sign that read, “Will program COBOL Y2K for food.” Obviously, his contract had ended and he had difficulty finding another.

Y2K was an exceptional non-event, but we are not immune to propaganda. Every four years Americans hyperventilate about who will be president. During my lifetime, the United States has had nine presidents. Only during the Carter administration did the world nearly end. In the American legislative process, no one gets exactly what he wants and no one goes away completely empty-handed. A little inertia can be a wonderful thing. It does not stop movement, but it resists destructive change.

Today, as a nation, we are less free than the nation in which my grandparents and great grandparents lived. Yet we still have more freedom than nearly any other country in the world. I predict that regardless of whom we elect in November, liberty will continue to erode. I will vote in November, but I do not put my hope in men nor do I indulge in fretting the future. Am I complacent? I do not think I am complacent, but not everything can be important.

I am helping Lisa with her blog, and she was having trouble with a Blogger widget. It automatically assigned a text color that equalled the background color she had chosen. I showed her how she could use CSS to override the default by entering “.item-snippet {color: #99CC99; !important;}.” Because it was the only style marked as “!important”, it overrode subsequent instructions. Some things are important and some things are not. When something is important, it asserts that other things are not.

Jesus knew what was important, and he pleaded with his disciples saying,

Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Mark 8:34-38 (KJV)

For the believer, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to be !important. It is to be our overriding priority in everything. Yet on the public stage, so-called Christians make many other things important, and this vexes me.

Many Christians attack what they rightly perceive as social ills. They rally for causes and constituencies, but in so doing what do they accomplish? They will never change the world, but they will try. Apart from the Gospel, reforming society accomplishes nothing of eternal value. When we “wrestle against flesh and blood”, what motivates us? Do we want a society such as the 1998 movie “Pleasantville” lampooned? Do we seek to come home at the end of each mundane workday and announce, “Honey, I’m home”, and never know the horror that lurks in the hearts of men? Jesus blasted the Pharisees saying,

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.

Matthew 23:27 (KJV)

It does not matter what we look like on the outside, and politics cannot fix what is wrong inside. Efforts to reform society are destined to fail because they cannot address the root cause. I am convinced many genteel people are destined to an eternity of lonely darkness and torment because they will not come to faith in Jesus Christ. Their attractive appearances hide the death and decay within.

I am also convinced that heaven will be full of former scoundrels who turned in repentance to faith in Jesus Christ, crying out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

What do we want to do, make people nice, or save their souls? What is important?

Right behavior does not obtain eternal salvation. Salvation—and its subsequent sanctification produce right behavior. When we care what the culture looks like more than we care that lost souls are stumbling in darkness, we have erected the idol of Personal Peace in place of the person, the Prince of Peace.

When something other than the Gospel becomes important to us, we become complacent because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer for man’s desperate condition and we have cared less. Paul wrote the Romans saying,

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

Romans 1:16-17 (KJV)

The righteousness that God demands from us does not come by legislation and social discipline. It does not come by social justice and economic parity. It does not come by the clothes we buy or the cars we drive.

The righteousness that God demands of all men comes only by faith in Jesus Christ. As believers, what will we tell the world is !important?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Heroes

by John D Ramsey

I just slogged through the book of Judges in preparation for Tuesday morning Bible study. I will read more again Monday night, but I decided to summarize the book in one sentence to avoid unpleasant details. With ellipses to indicate (a lot of) missing content, the Book of Judges reads, “Now it came about after the death of Joshua that . . . everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 1:1a, 21:25b (NASB)

I emailed Mark telling him that the book of Judges is depressing. Israel was not faithful to God, and God delivered them to oppressors to punish them. Moreover, the judges whom God used to rescue Israel are hardly the storybook heroes that children’s Sunday school literature makes them out to be.

Of course, there are bright spots, in the book. Gideon, for instance, delivers Israel from the hand of the Ishmaelites that lived in the land of Midian. Midian is the area east of Sinai across the Red Sea in what is now called Saudi Arabia. Israel had annihilated the Midianites as recorded in Numbers 31. Judges 8:24 explains that the Midianites whom Gideon conquered were actually Ishmaelites. As far back as Genesis 37, we see that the Ishmaelites travelled with the Midianites. This is a probable fulfillment of the prophecy in Genesis 25 saying that Ishmael would settle “in defiance of his relatives.” Ishmael was Abraham’s son by Hagar, and Midian was Abraham’s son by Keturah. Of course, Israel (Jacob) was the grandson of Abraham through Isaac. We infer that the Midianites are Ishmaelites in Judges 6-8 because they lived in the land of Midian and not because of any mitochondrial relationship to Keturah.

After routing the Ishmaelites of Midian with his 300 men, Gideon again went up against 15,000 more. Again, Gideon prevailed. Gideon captured two kings from Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna. These were the very men who had apparently murdered Gideon’s brothers. Upon learning this, Gideon killed them and took the crescent moon ornaments from their camels’ necks.

Seeing Gideon’s valor, the men of Israel wanted to appoint him as ruler, but Gideon demurred. Instead, he asked only that each man from Israel give him one earring from one of the fallen Midianites. The great Sunday school hero, Gideon, takes the gold (about 40 pounds), makes an ephod, and displays it in his town. What ever an ephod is, to Israel the ephod it became an idol, “a snare to Gideon and his household.”

Although Gideon refused to be king, he fathered a son by his concubine in Shechem and named him Abimelech, which means, “my father the king”, “my father is king”, or “my father, my king.” Abimelech became king in Shechem after murdering sixty-nine of his seventy brothers. Apparently, Gideon had second thoughts about not becoming king and chose an prophetic and regrettable name for his son. Regardless of his success, Gideon’s failures proved disastrous.

No account in Judges is redacted more aggressively than the record of Jephthah. Jephthah was a scoundrel, but he was bold enough to confront Ammon. Ammon descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot by an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Ammon took up an old offense from its cousin Moab and warred against Israel. In Moab and Ammon, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah survived. The last mention of Moab and Ammon in the Bible comes from the prophet Zephaniah.

“Therefore, as I live,” declares the LORD of hosts,
The God of Israel,
“Surely Moab will be like Sodom
And the sons of Ammon like Gomorrah—
A place possessed by nettles and salt pits,
And a perpetual desolation.
The remnant of My people will plunder them
And the remainder of My nation will inherit them. ”

Zephaniah 2:9 (NASB)

Moab and Ammon were natural enemies of Israel. When elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to fight Ammon, he would only do so if they promised to make him leader. When they agreed, he became the deliverer of Israel.

Now the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon.

So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand.

Judges 11:29, 32 (NASB)

Although he showed an understanding of Israel’s military history, Jephthah’s approached God as a pagan would. God does not elicit bribes; the record of Balaam illustrates this profoundly. Yet Jephthah says,

If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that [whoever] comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall the LORD’s, and I will offer [him] up as a burnt offering.

Judges 11:30, 31 (NASB)

Most Bible translations redact Jephthah’s words to make it sound like he was expecting a little sheep, or kid goat, or perhaps a mini-cow to exit the house and greet him upon his return from war. Yet Jephthah was a violent man, a cold-blooded killer, and an ambitious politician. God used him deliver Israel from Ammon, but Jephthah later killed 40,000 men from Ephraim. Remember that the elders of Gilead chose Jephthah. Although God empowered him to battle Ammon, Jephthah was mercenary seeking his own glory, and God turned Jephthah’s profane vow against him.

When he returned from battle, his daughter, his only child ran of his house out to greet him. Two months later, Jephthah “did to her according to the vow which he had made.” Keil and Delitzsch argue against the interpretation that Jephthah offered a human sacrifice. They claim that only priests in ministry at the Tabernacle would offer burnt offerings—or at least they are the only ones who would offer burnt offerings that would become part of the historical record of Israel. This is a very convenient argument except that it is not true. Manoah, Sampson’s father, built an altar and offered a burnt offering to the Lord in Judges 13. In my Bible, I only need to turn the page to prove that Keil and Delitzsch’ argument is a vain attempt to redact a horrible crime by a Bible hero.

Sampson was a judge whom God chose from before his birth to be set apart as a Nazarite. Yet Sampson was licentious! His morally-vacuous lifestyle actually put him in the position of killing Philistines and liberating Israel from their oppressors. Sampson lived and died by the choices he made. God still used him to deliver Israel.

If we look to Judges for examples of righteous behavior, we will need to redact quite a lot. Nevertheless, what these judges of Israel lacked in exemplary behavior they mitigated by exemplary faith. In fact, Hebrews 11, the Faith Hall of Fame, commends all three of the judges we have considered here.

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

Hebrews 11:32-24 (NASB)

Regardless of the weaknesses and even the wickedness of these men, when the New-Testament writer of Hebrews summarized their lives they shine as examples of faithfulness. When confronted with a choice of whether to trust God, they chose faith. In the end, that is what mattered. The Bible was not written to glorify men; rather it was written to glorify God. The Book of Judges shows that the Spirit of God can come upon scoundrels and make them effective ministers of God’s will. If this is true, then there is hope for us, too.

Slogging through the Book of Judges is nearly as disturbing as reading Herodotus’ Histories, yet in the end, the accounts in Judges are testimony to three things:
  1. Man’s absolute inability to measure up to a holy God,
  2. God’s amazing faithfulness to His Word,
  3. and man’s potential redemption by faith in God and His promises.
Today, we are more genteel than Gideon, Jephthah, and Sampson; nevertheless, we do not measure up to the standard of God’s holiness. Regardless of how civil we are, we fall short of God’s righteousness. Consequently, our only hope is salvation by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The beauty of God’s grace is that it reaches even to scoundrels who by faith respond to God’s invitation for mercy through Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 12 refers to the heroes of the faith as a “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” They are testimony to the depth of God’s power to save, and they are testimony to God’s faithfulness to his promises. None of us is yet beyond God’s mercy, but we must “[fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The kingdom is within

by John D Ramsey

I have begun a little Bible study I call Kingdom in Context. A few nice guys and I get together on Tuesday mornings and take a look at Scripture passages that contain the word kingdom. Okay, sometimes we look at passages that do not contain the word kingdom but are essential to understanding the passages that do. In any event, my friends are extremely patient with me. We began our study in Genesis 10 way back in February. We are about to launch into the book of Judges even though the word kingdom does not appear even once. At the onset, I calculated that the study would take about six or seven years to complete. Actually, I think understanding the kingdom fully will probably take an eternity. While our study is concentrating on the Old Testament so far, occasionally I take a peak at a kingdom passage in the New Testament. Today, this verse came to mind:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke 17:20, 21 (NIV)

To whom was Jesus speaking when he said, “. . . the kingdom of God is within you”? Were these the Pharisees to whom Jesus pronounced six woes in Luke and eight woes in Matthew? How could the kingdom of God be within someone to whom Jesus said,

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to”?

Matthew 23:13 (NIV)

To the observant, my quoting these two verses may appear like a bait and switch. Luke uses the terminology, “kingdom of God” while Matthew says, “kingdom of heaven.” Nevertheless, Luke and Matthew use different words when quoting the same sentences elsewhere (the kingdom parables in Matthew 13 and Luke 13, for instance). Jesus’ probably spoke these words in Aramaic, making both Matthew and Luke’s translations valid and equivalent. Any distinction between the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel and the kingdom of God in Luke’s Gospel is mere speculation.

What did Jesus mean when he said, “the kingdom of God is within you”? This might be easier to understand if Jesus had been speaking to his disciples and not to the Pharisees. When confronted with difficult concepts, some modern Bible translations use a form of semantic jujitsu to deflect Jesus’ words into meaninglessness. The New American Standard Bible, for instance, quotes Jesus as saying, “the kingdom of God in your midst.” If that were the case, then Jesus’ words might have been a self-reference because Jesus was in their midst. Yet if Jesus were referring to himself as “the kingdom of God”, then would not the Pharisees have been able to recognize the kingdom with “careful observation”? In fact, if the Pharisees’ observations of Jesus had been empirical rather than emotional, they would have recognized him as the Holy One of Israel. Jesus was telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God was both intangible yet within their grasp. In fact, the kingdom of God was already within them. If the kingdom of God was within the unbelieving Pharisees, can we infer that the kingdom of God is also within each of us?

On the one hand, the kingdom of God was within the Pharisees; on the other hand, the Pharisees refused to enter into the kingdom. For this, Jesus warned them of impending judgment. When Jesus told the Pharisees that they did not enter the kingdom, the inference is that they willfully refused to enter. Jesus did not accuse them of being unaware of the kingdom. He accused them of rejecting it.

In what way can we have the kingdom of God within us and yet refuse to enter therein? Without attempting to reconcile the metaphors, but rather looking at their meanings, the answer in one word is accountability. Paul preached to the Athenians, saying,

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.

God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

For in him we live and move and have our being.”

As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”

Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.

He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

Acts 17:24-31 (NIV)

The evidence of God’s kingdom is within each of us, and God will consequently hold each accountable. God “commands all people everywhere to repent.”

When Paul says, “He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead”, what is the antecedent of the word him? The man whom God has appointed to judge the world is the man that God has raised from the dead.

Moreover, the one whom God raised from the dead, is also the “UNKNOWN GOD” whom the Athenians worshipped in ignorance (v22, 23). Paul told them, “what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” Paul’s appeal to them, in essence, was for them to acknowledge the truth that they already knew in their hearts: that they were accountable to Jesus Christ. They already knew they were accountable to someone; Paul introduced them to Jesus. The kingdom of God was within them, yet to enter into it they needed to acknowledge their accountability to the resurrected Savior.

Acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Creator, Savior, and Judge is the essence of our repentance unto salvation. We turn away from ignorance of God toward the knowledge of him who died for us. We acknowledge that we are accountable to him, and we acknowledge that our salvation comes only through him.

The kingdom of God is within us; have we entered into it?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Super lucky elephant

by John D Ramsey

The little girls are at their grandparents’ home this week. While public school has started, Lisa has decided that Claire and Gabby will begin their home-school schedule earnestly after Labor Day. In past years, she has tried to start earlier, but personal schedules do not really slow down until September. Claire has already begun studying math at www.aleks.com. The goals-oriented approach and its graphical reporting motivate Claire. She prefers ALEKS to “mean math” with Dad. Maybe I should have drawn her a progress chart. Gabby is always learning something. Lately she has been concentrating on her reading skills. While Lisa has postponed their formal school schedule, both girls are already putting in hours toward their education.

With the girls away, Lisa picked me up from work yesterday and we went to T.G.I. Friday's for dinner (I had a buy-one-get-one coupon). BOGO notwithstanding, I was impressed with the prime rib stroganoff. Lisa’s petite sirloin was tender and grilled to perfection. I am not a big Friday's fan, but I was pleasantly surprised.

After dinner, Lisa and I drove to Mardel and picked up a birthday present for a little girl (hint, hint) and a handful of Gospel of John booklets. Lisa and I surveyed home-school resources, too, but we deferred purchases. From Mardel, we drove to Costco where we debated the advantages of “Super Lucky Elephant” rice over a plain long grain. We bought neither. Lisa could not decide, and I did not really care. For me the joy is in the analysis and deliberation. We stopped at Target on the way home and picked up a few more things necessary to keep the household operating.

While we were in Target, I noticed that I had missed Daniel’s call. I called him back and visited with him until we reached our driveway at home. I told him about the tobacco growers association we have at work. We have just seven plants in various office windows – one of them is over four feet tall (1.3 m). I also talked to him about mini-cows and other potential hobbies. He chuckled. I am not certain whether he was embarrassed to know me, or whether he finds me genuinely amusing. Nevertheless, my heart was gladdened hearing him laugh.

Lisa had talked to Cara earlier in the day. A stranger who observed Cara acting generously had scolded her. Some people are so cruel that they cannot fathom why someone else would be kind – such attitudes help no one and make no one happy. Keep doing what is right, Cara. Earlier in the day, an auto mechanic commended Lisa on Claire and Gabby’s behavior. Lisa’s eyes began to water as she conveyed to me how blessed she feels when she thinks about our kids.

I stayed up too late last night, and this morning I arrived at work a little later than I would normally. My morning began with some laughter with friends before I settled into troubleshooting a problem. My workday ended with progress toward a resolution and more laughter with friends. There is a lot of laughter in our office. Come to think of it, there is a lot of laughter in our home.

Tonight, the little girls are still at their grandparents’ home. Lisa and I are both working. As I reflect upon my week, I remember what a wonderful wife and children I have. Yesterday, I got yet another email from a recruiter promising to rescue me from the daily grind. It forced me once again to admit that I like my job; I like the company for which I work, and I like the people with whom I spend Monday through Friday.

I do not think that I am lucky. Rather, I know that I am tremendously blessed. I thank God for his many blessings upon me and upon my family.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Zeal

by John D Ramsey

Throughout the last week, we have watched the Olympics at our house. Our data projector and large screen in the basement make the drama of competition even more theatrical. The girls like to take popcorn with them when they watch in the evening.

Among the athletes of Olympic caliber, the quality that I admire most is zeal. Zeal comes from the same root word as jealous. Although envy is often labeled jealousy, they are distinctly different. In fact, Jealous is merely a variant spelling of zealous. If there is a distinction between zealous and jealous, zeal is jealousy with feet. Envy wants what is yours while jealousy protects what is mine or lays hold of what is precious to me. Zealous athletes train intensely so that they may compete successfully to win. They are jealous of their own success. A zealous athlete can still be gracious in defeat while an envious athlete is the occasional poor sport. Zeal wants to accomplish victory whereas envy merely seeks the reward.

I was pleasantly surprised when I watched Chris Collinsworth’s interview with Kobe Bryant. The Wall Street Journal noticed, too. It was touching to hear that the sight of his Olympic uniform overwhelmed an athlete who has lingered at the pinnacle of success. When Collinsworth questioned him, Kobe summarized his sentiment saying, “This is a tremendous honor.” It is right that he should feel that way. If he were nonchalant about wearing a USA jersey before the eyes of the world, he should have stayed at home. Kobe Bryant exhibits zeal for his country and his sport.

It has been many years since I participated in competitive sports of any kind. Yet I think that I have tasted the zeal for winning in spite of pain. I remember running a middle distance race when a competitor took an early lead. I caught up and passed him because I feared that if I did not lead I would not get another opportunity to catch up. For the rest of the race I could hear his feet behind me step for step. Neither of us would relinquish the race to the other, and we both achieved our personal best times. When we talked afterward, he told me that he usually started fast and then after building his lead relaxed in to a lighter pace. I usually raced differently, staying with the pack until the last 200 yards when I rolled into a sprint. His early lead made me modify my race, and my persistence made him modify his. Had we not both been jealous of the win, neither would have accomplished as much.

Among the heroes of the Old Testament, the zeal of Elisha stands out. When Elijah called him to serve, Elisha sacrificed his oxen and burned his plow. There was no turning back. Before Elijah was taken into heaven, Elisha would not turn back. He would not leave Elijah's side though he knew that Elijah's ministry was complete. Fifty other prophets stayed on the western bank of the Jordan, but Elisha crossed over with Elijah as the river divided in front of them.

In his zeal, Elisha asked for a double portion of Spirit that was upon Elijah. When God took Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Elisha knew that Elijah was indeed the strength of Israel. Yet Elisha was zealous to become greater. He had asked for a double portion of God's Spirit. He was jealous for what was most precious to him.

After Elijah disappeared from sight, Elisha duplicated the last miracle of Elijah, approaching the Jordan River and crying out, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” and striking the waters of the Jordan with Elijah’s cloak. The water parted and he crossed over.

Elisha performed many other miracles in the name of the Lord including raising the Shunammite woman’s son from the dead. Late in his life, when Elisha was sick and dying, the king of Israel, Joash, came to him weeping, crying aloud, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Nevertheless, Joash was not zealous for the God of Israel; rather, he was envious of Elisha’s power. Elisha tested him accordingly. He had him take his bow and shoot an arrow through the open window. Elisha said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, even the arrow of victory over Aram; for you will defeat the Arameans at Aphek until you have destroyed them.”
2 Kings 13:17 (NASB)

Then Elisha had Joash take arrows from his quiver and strike the ground. Joash complied striking the ground three times. Elisha became angry and said, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would have struck Aram until you would have destroyed it. But now you shall strike Aram only three times.” 2 Kings 13:19 (NASB) Elisha could see that Joash lacked zeal. His heart was not right before God. In fact, 2 Kings 13:11 says, “He did evil in the sight of the LORD”. The king’s lament for Elisha was a mendacious attempt to elicit Elisha's blessing. Joash only wanted the power; he lacked the zeal to accomplish what the Lord would have him to do. Although God was merciful, Israel’s victory over Aram was incomplete.

Inserted into this record is a remarkable account; it is as if Elisha had one more miracle left in him. If he could not impart the Spirit of God to the king of Israel, he still had to impart it to someone. After Elisha died and was buried (or entombed), men came to bury a dead man. They spotted marauders from Moab, and rather than taking care to bury their friend, they tossed him into Elisha’s grave. “When the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.” 2 Kings 13:21 (NASB) The zeal of Elisha persisted even after his death. Even his bones testified to the power of God to save!

As believers, about what or whom are we to be zealous? The Apostle Paul wrote,

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, [I became] as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, [I became] as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NASB)

Paul lived among many kinds of people. He was a Jew. He was a Roman citizen. He was a teacher, and he was a tradesman. He debated philosophy and religion in Athens. Yet, all that he did, he did for the sake of the Gospel.
  • What are we willing to do for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
  • For what are we most zealous?
  • Whom do we know who is zealous for the Gospel?
  • If we lack zeal for the Gospel, where will we find it?
Elisha served Elijah. Paul spent the three years after his conversion in Arabia. Their zeal was first evidenced by their diligence to know God. It is there where we, too, must begin. We must first know Jesus to know the power of his resurrection. Knowing his power will fill us with the zeal to serve him as he calls us to do.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

State fair

by John D Ramsey

We just returned from the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. We went to see Claire’s 4-H projects on display, but I was also looking to see if there were any miniature cattle. There is a long story behind that, but I did not see any mini-cows. If they were there, I overlooked them.

Agriculture in the United States intrigues me. I remember bucking bales, killing chickens, and digging thistles on my grandparents’ farm when I was a child. I remember almost passing out when my grandfather and the veterinarian castrated a bunch of shoats before a farm sale. It was my job to pass the bottle of iodine to the vet, but the intense squealing, the blood, and the bucket of [redacted by Lisa] sent me into early retirement from hog farming. I cooled off and regained my color in front of my grandmother’s window air conditioner from Sears. I think I was ten or twelve years old at the time.

I first learned to drive a Ford 8N tractor. I was probably thirteen when my grandfather decided that it was about time for me to learn. The 8N produced about 25 horsepower. In a school science experiment later that year, I produced a little over one horsepower running up the stairway from the school’s cafeteria.

Today I photographed Gabby sitting inside the rim of a 530 horsepower John Deere 9630. I remember I was impressed with how easily my grandfather’s 8N turned the soil in the north garden patch with its one bottom plow. I am older now, and realize that a 25 horsepower tractor is but a lawnmower. Still, the John Deere 9630 is beyond my comprehension.


Huge machines, such as the John Deere 9630, amaze me, but such a beast is inaccessible to me. My interest lies more with self-sustaining agriculture. For instance, this year I am confident that I have produced enough tobacco to meet the needs of the entire family. Moreover, my few plants will produce more than enough seed to let me plant tobacco again next year if I so choose. Additional expenses on potting soil and peat moss followed my initial investment of $3.00 for seeds. If I actually had a use for the tobacco, I am sure that I would be money ahead.

Earlier this month, Lisa and I drove past McGonigle’s Meat Market in Kansas City. Their sign advertised heirloom tomatoes for $5.99 per pound. Price Chopper, a few blocks from our house, sells homegrown tomatoes for $3.99 per pound. The other day I came in from Claire’s tomato patch cradling more than a dozen tomatoes (some heirloom and others not). I let them roll on to the counter and told Lisa, “There’s twenty bucks.”

Lisa looked at the pile and scoffed and said, “At least!”

Yet as we enjoy the fresh tomatoes and basil from our garden, I wonder what it would take to supply all our tomato needs. If we grew enough tomatoes to last us a year, what other costs would be involved in preserving them? At what point would I break even, or have I already by only supplying fresh tomatoes during the summer months?

Lisa and I have concluded self-sustaining agriculture is a difficult puzzle. It suffers from the same economic pressures as commercial agriculture. For instance, if someone were going to buy a John Deere 9630, he would need to use it enough to justify either his financing payments or the amortized return on his initial cash investment. The tractor can make quick work of many things, but if the 9630 is underutilized, it saves time but wastes money. Likewise, any expense I make in the spring preparing the garden must be balanced against the savings I receive eating tomatoes that I did not buy. Otherwise gardening is just a hobby.

A friend and I have been looking at the prices of miniature cattle. According to the Wall Street Journal they produce milk and beef more efficiently than regular cattle, and they are supposedly more suitable for sustainable agriculture. Nevertheless, the prices of the miniature bulls and cows include the valuation of their future offspring. Consequently, for the would-be rancher there is a significant barrier to entry. For instance, I noticed online a bull and two cows on sale for $4000.00. I can buy much beef and dairy for four grand. Yet finding the break-even point is intriguing to me. Dollars spent at a grocery store is money gone, while herds retain and even increase in value.

Do not worry, Lisa, I am not buying mini-cows. We do not have room for them. For me farming and ranching is merely a hypothetical mental exercise. Nevertheless, next year we are planting more tomatoes.

Attending the state fair and walking through the livestock exhibits, reminds me of the celebration of the tithe in the Old Testament. Without getting into too deep a discussion of ecclesiology and tithing, I digress to the history of the tithe. The Old Testament concept of tithing began with Abraham. After rescuing Lot from the five kings from Mesopotamia, Abraham brought the spoils of war to Melchizedek, the king of Salem, and gave him a tenth of all.

Abraham’s tithe was a one-time gift. Moreover, Abraham kept none of the spoil. He gave a portion to his fighting men and the rest he gave to the king of Sodom, saying, “I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’” Genesis 14:23 (NIV)

From the passage, it does not appear that God compelled Abraham to make a gift to Melchizedek. Nor is there any other account of Abraham making a similar gift. Many years later, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, vowed to God, saying:

If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.

Genesis 28:20-22 (NIV)

Again, God did not compel this pledge from Jacob. Perhaps Jacob remembered his grandfather’s account of tithing to Melchizedek and decided that he should do more. We cannot be certain of his motivation; nevertheless, God remembered his pledge and tithing became part of the Law of Moses at the very end of Leviticus. “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” Leviticus 27:30 (NIV) Why did one tenth of everything belong to the Lord? It belonged to God because Jacob (Israel) had so pledged. What is most interesting to me is not that God demanded a tenth of everything, but rather how he instructed Israel to give it.

You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns—and you are to rejoice before the LORD your God in everything you put your hand to. Be careful not to neglect the Levites as long as you live in your land.

Deuteronomy 12:17-19 (NIV)

Who consumed the tithe that God commanded Israel to give? The giver did! God did not want Israel’s possessions; he wanted their hearts. He tells them to come to the place where he will establish his tabernacle or temple, bring their families, servants, and the Levites living nearby to “rejoice before the LORD [their] God in everything [they] put [their hands] to.” Deuteronomy 14 expounds upon the instruction because bringing a tenth of livestock and grain would be a burden to some that lived far away. God tells them they can exchange their tithe for silver and bring the silver to the place of gathering. He tells them,

Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.

Deuteronomy 14:26-27 (NIV)

In every third year, this tithe or perhaps an additional tenth, went to the storehouses that the Levites managed. A tenth of the Levites’ receipts went to support the priests in the temple. The Levites shared their allotment with widows, orphans, and foreigners who lived in the land. This special year was called “the year of the tithe.”

Imagine all the people in an agricultural society coming together to one place and bringing with them a tenth of all their produce. Imagine all their friends and family joining them. Imagine that they stay in this place until they consume one tenth of the national GDP. Imagine that the focus of this event is rejoicing in the Lord and his bounteous provision. This event would outshine any state fair!

Imagine the heart of God telling Israel to take the gift that they promised to him and use it to celebrate his name! The celebration would foster brotherhood. Moreover, imagine the economic stimulus! A man with many cattle might sell them for silver and then use the silver to buy grain and wine. Imagine the man with a surplus of grain gladly exchanging it for silver, which he could use to buy what he lacked. God’s blessing upon his people did not deprive them of bounty. Rather he shared and multiplied his blessings through the economic activity associated with tithing.

When we consider the calendar, we realize that the celebration of the tithe corresponded with the Feast of Tabernacles. At the harvest moon, Israel was required to gather together at the Tabernacle or in Jerusalem and live under the sky for eight days. They built temporary shelters commemorating their sojourn in Sinai. Nevertheless, in Israel’s memory this feast celebrated much more than the Exodus because immediately prior this feast Solomon dedicated the temple. Read about it in 2 Chronicles.

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the LORD above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD, saying,

“He is good;
his love endures forever.”

2 Chronicles 7:1-3 (NIV)

The glory of the Lord filled had filled the tabernacle and now it filled Solomon’s temple. The glory of God came down to earth and when Israel saw it they fell down with their faces on the ground.

As Christians we cannot read 2 Chronicles 7 without remembering the words of the Apostle John, “The Word became flesh and [tabernacled] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 (NIV) We realize that celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles looked not only into the history of Israel but also unto the promise of Christ! Without too much stretch of the imagination, we realize that when Israel celebrated God’s bounteous provision during the Feast of Tabernacles, their actions also looked forward to God’s amazing provision of eternal life through the Son, Jesus Christ.

As believers, the history of the tithe challenges us to use our resources – the blessings that God has given to us – to celebrate Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, God is not seeking a tenth of our increase. Just as he wanted from Israel, he is seeking 100% of our hearts.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Adoni-Bezek

by John D Ramsey
Today I was reading in Judges. I did not read very far before my imagination wandered from the pages and into the drama of the events.

After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the LORD, “Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?”

The LORD answered, “Judah is to go; I have given the land into their hands.”

Then the men of Judah said to the Simeonites their brothers, “Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.” So the Simeonites went with them.

When Judah attacked, the LORD gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek. It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes.

Then Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

Judges 1:1-7 (NIV)

A few things in this short passage captivated my imagination. Firstly, the king Israel pursued was named, Adoni-Bezek. Adonai is a Hebrew name for God meaning, Lord. Adoni-Bezek means “Lord of Bezek.” Bezek was the city or region over which this king ruled. Nevertheless, Adoni seems a presumptive title. I noticed also that Adoni-Bezek was a conqueror. He said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table.”

God conquered the conqueror, Adoni-Bezek. When his army was routed, Adoni-Bezek fled from the armies of Judah and Simeon. When they captured him, they cut off his big toes and his thumbs. What intrigued me the most about Adoni-Bezek is that after he was partially dismembered, he immediately confessed the justice of it, saying, “God has paid me back for what I did.”

The Canaanites were a wicked people who were under God’s judgment. God had told Abraham nearly 500 years earlier, “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” Genesis 15:16 (NIV) According to Genesis 10:16, the Amorites were among the tribes of Canaan. “Fourth generation” may refer to the great-grandchildren of the Exodus, or the children who were born in Sinai. Nevertheless, God would not give Abraham’s descendants a possession in Canaan until the sin of the inhabitants was ripe for judgment.

God destroyed the Canaanites for their sin. Previously, God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by raining fire and brimstone upon the cities, but now God was judging the Canaanites by the hand of Israel. In this way, God’s judgment against Canaan also served as a warning to Israel. They saw firsthand the justice of God because they executed his judgment with their swords, spears, and bows. They knew that God would punish evil because he used them to do it.

When Israel cut off the big toes and thumbs of Adoni-Bezek, he recognized it as God’s justice. God forced him to suffer what he had inflicted upon others. What is our impulse? Do we pity Adoni-Bezek? This man knew who God (Elohim) was; he had seen and heard of the conquests of Joshua. Seeing all this, Adoni-Bezek did not repent. Rather, he inflicted injury upon the kings of the cities he conquered. When God’s justice caught up with him, he could do nothing other than to give God glory. Yet, remorse does not equal repentance. Such is God’s justice that the judged do not quarrel with God. Adoni-Bezek testified of God’s justice only when it was too late. Paul tells us in Romans 2 that at the final judgment the sinner’s conscience will accuse him and everyone will be without excuse.

Paul wrote to the Philippians regarding Christ’s exalted state, saying,

At the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:10, 11 (NIV)

Eventually, we will all come to the same conclusion. Before the throne of Jesus, hubris will melt into humility, and we all will glorify God. While God’s justice is sure, his tender mercy reaches out to intervene. Jesus endured the justice of God in his body upon the cross. He did not suffer for his own sin, but rather “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV)

What must we do to claim mercy instead of justice? Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Romans 10 quote the prophet Joel, saying, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Sounds simple, yet it will change your life. Paul concludes his argument against salvation by human effort saying,

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.

Galatians 6:-14-16 (NIV)

While God’s justice will be confirmed by the law he has written upon our hearts, his mercy comes to us by a new law:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4 (NIV)

Israel executed God’s judgment against the Canaanites only to see God’s judgment executed against them when they turned away from God. In our natural state, we too are incapable of measuring up; nevertheless, Jesus Christ extends to us his mercy by having carried our sins upon the cross. Will we call upon his name?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Measuring up

By John D Ramsey
Okay, I admit, I am a sucker for the Olympics. I ignored the hype, I avoided all but the last few minutes of the opening ceremony. However, I cannot (or do not) resist the urge to watch the drama of sport. Gabby was just a toddler during the last Summer Games, so she is discovering the Olympics for the first time. I have let her stay up late and she has thoroughly enjoyed watching. I wondered what about the Olympics she found so captivating, and so I watched her watch. She identifies with the athletes from the United States and cheers when they succeed. She does this even though she only recently learned the difference between a city and a state and must have a fuzzy notion of what the United States is. I should not be too surprised with her nationalistic zeal because last football season and through the NCAA Basketball Tournament she always asked me, “Who are we voting for?”

Next time she asks, I shall have to correct her and say, “The proper form of your question is, ‘For whom are we voting?’ However, we do not vote, we cheer. Consequently, you should ask, ‘For whom are we cheering?’” I am certain that she would respond as her older sisters would, and say, “. . . Whatever.”

Nevertheless, Gabby is usually eager to lend her enthusiasm to whatever team or athlete I prefer, but sometimes she just likes one team’s colors more. She wants to cheer for someone. I suppose her affinity to an athlete or a team exposes the innate, existential surrogate scheme in which we all occasionally indulge. We feel like winners when our team wins.

During the Minnesota winter, it is difficult to cheer for the home team knowing that Green Bay and Chicago play real football on their home fields. By the same measure, perhaps I should not consider myself a football fan knowing that the true fanatics endure the extreme weather of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Nevertheless, as football fan living in Minnesota, I employed a different ethos than cheering the home team. Rather, I hoped that the better team would win.

I have realized that sport is a justice system. Whoever prepares best, plays hardest, and sacrifices most deserves to win. Like any justice system, there are those who try to pervert it. Some stack the bench with raw talent regardless of cost. Some use surreptitious means to steal competitors’ secrets. Some athletes use performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge. Whenever someone gains an unfair advantage, his losses are sweet to the rest of us. When a great athlete is caught cheating, it is tragedy brought about by hubris. When the best team wins, we feel contented. All these illustrate a natural justice in sport.

Even though sport seeks justice, it is not without irony. Kirsta Coventry’s silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke is ironic in light of her world record in the semi-final of the event. As spectators, we sway to the courtroom dramas that unfold before our eyes. We deliberate with the announcers, and we render our own verdicts after injecting our own prejudice into the equations. We beautify our saints and condemn our sinners.

Perhaps we cheer when Michael Phelps wins gold and breaks the world record in the process. His labors are rewarded; justice is served. Perhaps we also cheer when Dara Torres overcomes the limitations of age to compete and win. Who works harder than these do? Their mental toughness is as commendable as their physical strength. Yet we might ask ourselves, what can we gain by their success? What would we lose if they failed? Most of us have not chosen to endure their sacrifices, nor will we earn the prizes that they seek. Any existential moment we enjoy is meaningless unless we can realize actual benefit. As athletes, very few of us would measure up to the dedicated men and women who earn the right to compete in the Olympics.

Nevertheless, the examples of great athletes encourage us because they confirm justice. Seeing justice in one realm, we can strive for justice in another. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Greeks in Corinth saying,

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)

Paul implores the Corinthians to focus upon their faith even as an athlete focuses upon his training. Paul demands spiritual toughness of believers because there is reward for the faithful, and much is at stake. Later in his life, Paul concluded his instructions to Timothy saying,

The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NIV)

In our Kingdom in Context Bible study, we took a glance at the life of Joshua today. Joshua was spiritually tough. He fought the Lord’s battles faithfully from early in his life until the land of Canaan was subdued. He climbed halfway up Sinai, and he waited for Moses even while Israel committed idolatry. Joshua stayed with Moses even as Moses’ glory was fading. Joshua brought a good report to the people. He had confidence that God would deliver the Promised Land. The people nearly stoned him for his faith. He was strong and courageous as he led Israel in conquest. He succeeded in nearly everything God commanded him to do. When he failed to persuade all of Israel to treat God as holy, he punished Achan and his family, and then led the army to victory against Ai. When he failed to see Gibeon’s ruse, he owned his mistake and kept his oath. Joshua was spiritually tough. He was faithful.

Joshua was perhaps Israel’s strongest leader. Yet in his final days, he surveyed the men of Israel and he said,

You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.

Joshua 24:19, 20 (NIV)

Joshua could see that regardless of what God had done for them; Israel was not spiritually tough enough to remain faithful. In light of Israel’s example, how do we know that we are spiritually tough enough? What hope do we have that we will fight the good fight and finish the race? If we hope to compete on our own merits, we are all like overweight, middle-aged men, trying to qualify for the Olympics. We are stupid to try.

However, we do not fight or run in our own strength, but rather we draw our strength from Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews carries on Paul’s sports analogy saying,

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (KJV)

Jesus is both the author and finisher of our faith. He is our example and he is our strength. What we cannot do ourselves, he has already finished for us. We measure up, because he has measured up. Indeed, we win because he has won.

When we look to Jesus, we will not be discouraged. His faithfulness will keep us faithful. The longer we strive to know him, the more we will long for his appearing. Learning of him and yearning for him will earn us a “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to [us] on that day.”

Monday, August 11, 2008

God's gift of meaning

by John D Ramsey
I mowed the front yard after work on Friday afternoon. This summer, Claire has been eager to help mow, but on Friday neither of us wanted to mow the backyard. I thought that I would mow again in the morning; however, I awakened Saturday to the sight of a gentle but soaking rain. The yard would have to wait. I decided that instead of mowing, I would fulfill my standing appointment with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. The book has been sitting on my desk for a few weeks, but I had not touched it.

For me a book is usually an all-or-nothing endeavor. Lisa can read a page or a chapter each day until the book is finished. I try to read a book in one sitting. Every day I saw Man’s Search for Meaning, but I hesitated even to pick it up lest I become rapt in its pages and fail to do something important such as show up for work. Fortunately, Frankl’s style is accessible and I finished the book in a couple hours. I should have picked it up sooner.

Frankl summarizes man’s source of meaning in three words: work, love, and suffering. As a survivor of multiple Nazi concentration camps, Frankl speaks convincingly of his finding meaning in the midst of suffering. Frankl’s humility toward human suffering is tender. He does not qualify his benevolent compassion for men by the degree of suffering they have endured. Whatever we have suffered, Frankl suffered more. He could have easily lost patience and told the despairing, “Stop it!” as a Bob Newhart did in a Mad TV skit. Rather, Frankl encourages everyone to find meaning in his suffering or perhaps better said – to find meaning even in the midst of suffering.

The focus of Man’s Search for Meaning is not religious much less Christian, but Frankl repeatedly uses metaphors such as crucifixion and carrying a cross. Frankl alludes to Christology to epitomize the depth and persistence of human suffering. For the Christian, this is compelling. Certainly, the audience to which Frankl writes is predominantly, if only marginally, Christian. Nevertheless, the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 52:14, “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness”, together with the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels, testifies of the overwhelming suffering endured by Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ left his rightful place beside the Father in heaven. He became a man. He suffered at the hands of evil men. He was crucified, and therein he incurred all of man's wrath against his God. He who was sinless became the sin offering for the whole world; Jesus suffered more than Viktor E. Frankl.

Had he understood that Christ carried on the cross the cause of all human suffering, Frankl would have become an evangelist rather than a psychiatrist. An earlier Jewish philosopher and theologian, the Apostle Paul, understood the full meaning of suffering when he wrote,

I want to know Christ
and the power of his resurrection
and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings,
becoming like him in his death,
and so, somehow
to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10, 11 (NIV)

While Frankl taught that finding meaning is victory over suffering – even victory in life, the idea that each can find his own meaning falls far short of power of Christ’s resurrection. Frankl’s insights come up short because in Frankl’s philosophy, everyone must find contentment only from within himself.

Frankl, like all existentialists, internalizes meaning. Meaning begins and ends with the man. While Frankl disparages modern man’s pursuit of meaning through pleasure, his system does not preclude finding meaning through pleasure. Frankl merely acknowledges that pleasure is fleeting, and man might find persistent meaning more easily by ascribing purpose to pain. Frankl’s insights are valuable to everyone who feels that they suffer without cause, yet it falls short of man’s greatest hope. A wiser man than Frankl, King Solomon, once wrote:

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.

Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.

And I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

I thought in my heart,
God will bring to judgment
both the righteous and the wicked
,
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time for every deed.”

Ecclesiastes 3:9-17 (NIV)

God has “set eternity in the hearts of men” – eternity is the meaning we seek, yet we cannot grasp what God is doing. Whereas Frankl internalizes the source of meaning, Christianity must externalize the source of meaning. For the Christian, meaning derives from his hope of resurrection unto eternal life. Moreover, we discover eternal life not from within ourselves, but within our relationship with God. Jesus praying to the Father, said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3 (NIV)

Whereas Frankl’s philosophy liberates men’s minds by ascribing some meaning to their suffering, Jesus Christ, through his suffering, liberates men’s souls by offering reconciliation to God and eternal life in fellowship with God. To the extent that we know the Father through Jesus Christ, we are already experiencing eternal life. Freedom according to Frankl comes with personal understanding, yet as believers, we need not understand God’s specific purpose to understand that God has a specific purpose. Our freedom comes not from knowing everything that God knows, but rather from knowing and trusting God himself.

Frankl devised a therapeutic framework he designated logotherapy. He chose this name because the Greek word logos can be translated meaning. In the English New Testament, logos is usually translated word. Nevertheless, I like Frankl’s translation.

In the beginning was the [Meaning],
and the [Meaning] was with God,
and the [Meaning] was God.
He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made
that has been made.
In him was life,
and that life was the light of men . . .

The [Meaning] became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory,
the glory of the One and Only
who came from the Father
full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-3, 14 (NIV)

Jesus Christ is God’s amazing gift of Meaning to all who are searching for it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Edouard and eschotology

by John D Ramsey

Cara was at bat this week, staring down Tropical Storm Edouard. If NOAA’s predictions had been correct, she should have been driving to work as the storm wreaked havoc around her. This worried her dad, and he coached her. As it turns out, the storm curved right for a ball off the outside corner. That assessment assumes a left-handed batter, which approximates Cara’s location to the plate . . . I mean . . . predicted landfall. From her perspective, though, it was not even close. Her heightened anticipation resulted in an early swing; strike one! She was not happy with me because she spent an extra sixteen hours at work in an already excruciating week. In my defense, I can only say that I asked her to check into a hotel near her place of employment. I did not ask her to pick up extra shifts. The girl works too hard already.

When the big kids were little, I asked them, “Where is the safest place to be during a California earthquake.” The answer was, of course, “Kansas.” One of the safest places to be during a hurricane is apparently right where NOAA first says it will come ashore.

Why do you suppose God made weather to be so predictably unpredictable? There are still patterns we observe; we just cannot apply them with precision. NOAA was not wrong; Edouard hit Texas. It just did not make landfall anywhere near Cara. Such is the science of meteorology.

Weather patterns are reliable only to a point, and that is probably why Jesus used them in this analogy. He told the Pharisees and Sadducees,

When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.

Matthew 16:2-4 (NIV)

Weather is inherently unpredictable, yet Jesus compares weather prediction with understanding the signs of the times. He implied that the Pharisees and Sadducees that they were ignoring the signs he had already given them. Jesus would give them only one more sign: the sign of Jonah.

The sign of Jonah of which Jesus was speaking was that “the Son of Man [would] be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12:40 (NIV) Interestingly, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not believe Jesus before the resurrection, and many Evangelicals still do not believe him in afterwards. Most Bible-believing churches that I have attended teach that Jesus spent approximately a day and a half in the heart of the earth (approximately 36 to 40 hours), but nowhere near three days and three nights that he said that he would. We excuse ourselves by saying that “three days and three nights” is a Hebraism meaning more than a day, less than a week, but the Hebrews in Matthew 27:62-66 did not understand it to be a Hebraism. Of course, they did not study Hebrew in an Evangelical seminary – nor did I.

To superimpose our traditions upon the historical record, we must discount or dismiss the actual words of Jesus. How wise does this make us? Considering this, how qualified can we possibly be to interpret the signs of our times? Perhaps we are not very qualified at all. Perhaps we are no more enlightened to the signs of our time than were the Pharisees and Sadducees to their age. Remember that we cannot accurately predict the weather. Do we really comprehend the spiritual signs of our time? Maybe only to a point.

In June of 1967, I spent a lot of time out in the backyard of our house in Ruskin Heights, looking skyward. Israel was at war with its neighbors and some well-meaning adult had told me that this meant that Jesus was coming back – immediately. I probably brushed my teeth and combed my hair more that week than in any other time during my childhood. Jesus did not come back in 1967. There have been other predictions since then, but I have learned to pay little attention to them.

In Matthew 24, Jesus gave us signs regarding his coming again. Do we consider ourselves able to discern them fully? Paul warned the Thessalonians not to be alarmed or deceived by reports concerning the coming of the Lord. Paul said that the man of lawlessness would first reveal himself, “[he] sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” 2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV). I suggest that this correlates with Jesus’ words, “When you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Matthew 24:15 (NIV) Some take this to mean that the day has already occurred in 70 AD. This is not likely considering Jesus’ other prophecies in Matthew 24 and John’s prophecies in Revelation that were recorded after the destruction of the temple. Other people insist that Israel must reinstitute temple worship before the Lord will return. This is possible, yet it is tightly coupled to the assumed meaning of the words “temple” and “holy place”. Might they not refer to something else? How can we be sure of our own assumptions? Moreover, how can we be sure of someone else's assumptions?

I can assert that Matthew 24:15 and 2 Thessalonians 2:4 record the same event, but I cannot tell you when it will happen or what it will look like. Jesus says that following this event “will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again.” Matthew 24:21 (NIV) Jesus furthermore says that,

Immediately after the distress of those days,
  1. the sun will be darkened,
  2. and the moon will not give its light;
  3. the stars will fall from the sky,
  4. and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
  5. At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky,
  6. and all the nations of the earth will mourn.
  7. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
  8. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call,
  9. and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
Matthew 24:29-31 (NIV)

Points eight and nine above correlate with 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17, but I cannot explain everything in the list. I believe Jesus when he says it will happen after the distress and not before it. Even though I take Jesus’ words at face value rather than dismissing or discounting them, I have no idea when this will occur. Jesus said of this time, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36 (NIV) Jesus says, “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Matthew 24:42 (NIV) Paul tells the Thessalonians,

Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 (NIV)

I wrestle with this. Jesus apparently sets predicates to his return; then he says, no one can know about that day except the Father. Then he says, “Keep watch” as if his return is eminent, and Paul seems to reiterate Jesus words. Nevertheless, Paul also says, “That day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed.” 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (NIV) Yet Peter warns, “Understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this coming that is promised?’” 2 Peter 3:3, 4 (NIV)

I know that Jesus Christ will return, but I do not know when Jesus Christ will return. I do not think that anyone on earth has better insight into this than I do. I am not being arrogant; I am admitting that only the Father in heaven knows what he has ordained. Whatever I predict would be an uninformed guess and worth about as much as anyone else’s uninformed guess. I choose to take Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John at their word and I try to avoid adding complexity to my interpretation. Jesus will return. Before he does some events will transpire; however, we may not read the impending signs correctly.

Regardless of when Jesus is coming back, I know how we should live in the early twenty-first century. We should live as if we are in the last days. We should expect the world to become more evil and malevolent toward faithfulness. We should expect to see others fall away even as we hold fast. We should be obedient. We should become homesick for the unshakable kingdom rather than becoming contented with or entrenched within this temporary abode. We should be ready for his return.

No believer from the first century, who waited eagerly for Christ’s return, is disappointed. He is with Jesus now. Likewise, whether we are living in the last days, or living until our last day, we will all soon see Jesus. Consequently, we should be watchful. We cannot know when our Lord will come for us.

When we look at world events, they may be warning us that the end is near. Nevertheless, we should not fear. Our best predictions, our eschatology, are likely far off target. Regardless of when Jesus is coming back, our remaining time on earth is short. Even if times of distress are ahead of us, we should not fear. The safest place for us during the time of great distress is to be exactly where God wants us to be.

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High
shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD,
He is my refuge and my fortress:
my God; in him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee
from the snare of the fowler,
and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers,
and under his wings shalt thou trust:
his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;
nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;
nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side,
and ten thousand at thy right hand;
but it shall not come nigh thee.
Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold
and see the reward of the wicked.
Because thou hast made the LORD,
which is my refuge,
even the most High, thy habitation.

Psalm 91:1-9 (KJV)

The safest place to be during a California earthquake is Kansas. The safest place to be during a hurricane may be where NOAA first predicts it will land. The safest place to be during times of distress, both great and small, is deep within the secret place – the refuge of our faith in Jesus Christ. If we are living our lives beneath the shadow of his wings, we will be ready when he comes again.