Saturday, November 28, 2009

"I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer."

As part of my daily devotional practice over the past few months, I have been reading a chapter or two from Mike Mason’s book The Gospel According to Job. This morning’s reading was especially helpful to me in light of my present circumstances. For those of you who have been reading my personal blog, you will have known that I have been experiencing severe pain in my lower torso and left leg for over two weeks. Job’s words in 30:20 have been my cry as well, just as I know that they are the cry of God’s persecuted children worldwide. I hope that you find these words a blessing as I have.

True Prayer
"I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer." (30:20)

In the Bible we often read of people "crying out to the Lord." But what does it mean to "cry out"? Does it mean to express oneself demurely to God, with polite restraint, using the well-worn, time-honored phrases of the conventional prayer meeting? Or do the words "cry out" suggest more the sort of sound a man might make whose legs have just been caught up in a piece of machinery? "Surely [God] will save you from the fowler's snare;" sings the psalmist (91:3). A snare is a leghold trap, a contrivance designed to catch an animal and hold it until it dies of shock or starvation, condemning it in the meanwhile to hopeless struggle and horror. Is this not the sort of situation that might bring a human being to the point of crying out to God?

There is no true prayer without agony. Perhaps this is the problem in many of our churches. What little prayer we have is shallow, timid, carefully censored, and full of oratorical flourishes and hot air. There is little agony in it, and therefore little honesty or humility. We seem to think that the Lord is like everyone else we know, and that He cannot handle real honesty. So we put on our Sunday best to visit Him, and when we return home and take off our fancy duds we are left alone with what is underneath: the dirty underwear of hypocrisy.

Why do we flatly refuse to bring real emotions to our prayer meetings? Do we think that the public humbling of ourselves before the Lord should always be a pretty and an enjoyable thing? Do we think the Lord is only honored so long as our own public image and personal dignity are in no way compromised? But the truth is just the opposite: only when we ourselves are prepared to lose face can the Lord's face begin to shine through. It is for Him to exalt us; our part is to humble ourselves. "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14).

Even in our private prayers, let alone in our public ones, we Christians have a way of tiptoeing around the throne of God as if He were an invalid or a doddering old man. But who do we think we are kidding? The Lord always knows exactly what we are feeling. He knows all there is to know about us. There is not a shadow of doubt or anger or hate in our hearts but God sees it. So why not just lay all our cards on the table? Real prayer is playing straight with God. If we have never cried out to the Lord, perhaps it is because we have not realized the true horror of our situation. We need to be careful that we do not grow so preoccupied with maintaining our spiritual equilibrium that we regard it as unseemly to cry out to God.

At bottom, probably what we are most afraid of in prayer is that no answer will come, and that then we will be left worse off than before. But true prayer has two parts: first there is the crying out, and then there is the waiting for an answer. If we are the sort of people who insist on having instant answers, then we shall certainly lack the courage to cry out. Though we might continue to go through the motions of prayer, we will have given up on the real thing.

Towards the end of the book of Jeremiah, the nation of Judah was on its last legs. It had been conquered by the Babylonians, and most of its people had been led away into captivity. Only a small remnant was left under the puppet governor Gedaliah. But when Gedaliah was assassinated by a rebel, suddenly even these survivors were in peril, for everyone knew that a brutal reprisal could be expected from the Babylonians. So what were they to do? What they did, surprisingly, was to go to the prophet Jeremiah and beg him to consult the Lord for them. Furthermore they bound themselves to obey God's Word no matter what. Their situation was desperate. They were crying out. Jeremiah agreed to pray for them.

At this point, we read one of the most astounding understatements in the Bible: "Ten days later the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah" (42:7). Imagine! Ten days later! Who could possibly wait ten days under such circumstances? Did the Lord not understand that this was a dire emergency? After ten days, naturally, the people had already made up their minds to ignore God's answer and to do exactly what they felt like doing: run like crazy down to Egypt. When the pressure was on, they performed the first requirement of prayer admirably: they cried out to the Lord. But for the second half of prayer they had no stomach. They could not wait for an answer.

[Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job. Crossway, 1994: 309-310. Available to order from The Voice of the Martyrs]

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Forsaking the kaafirs and not being unequally yoked

The message of segregation that goes on in both the mosque and the church

Earlier this week, Tarek Fatah in his commentary on November 9 in the National Post “Spreading intolerance, one fatwah at a time” noted the teaching of influential Islamist clerics that the Koran forbade Muslims from making friends with non-Muslims (kaafirs) or even living among them unless the objective was to convert the non-Muslim to Islam. The purpose of such teaching, Fatah suggested, is to convince young Muslims to view their non-Muslim fellow citizens with suspicion and derision. No countervailing effort is being made, he said, at any level in the West to counter the Islamists’ hateful message of isolation, segregation and hostility.

As I read this article, the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14 came to mind:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

I recalled how, in my youth, I was taught that this verse meant that I, as a Christian, should not have close friends who were non-Christians. I especially should not date a non-Christian girl! Such a relationship was doomed to drag me down spiritually, it was said. And for the years, that is how I have tended to view this verse, as I suspect many have. A letter to the editor on Thursday in response to Fatah’s article referred to this same passage, in fact, the author proposing that the Bible actually teaches the same type of isolation and segregation as the Koran did. The only difference, he said, is that Christian churches have learned to ignore such exhortations!

I’m not so sure that this writer is correct, but I do think that Christians have been torn as to how to practice these verses if they are understood to be teaching a strict separation between Christians and non-Christians. I wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Paul’s words, especially in light of the persecution that Jesus experienced for hanging around with sinners. And so I dug into 2 Corinthians 6 this week and was surprised to see how this verse, when taken out of context and viewed separately from the rest of the book, could be used to instill fear, suspicion and isolation in Christian youth in a similar way to how Koranic verses are being used to create Islamists.

It is vital that we see Paul’s words in the context of the book itself. In chapter 5:11-6:13, Paul is speaking of his being entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation, the Gospel, and urges the Corinthians not to receive this message in vain. The Corinthians risk doing this due to their propensity to embrace teachers whose message and methods run counter to Paul’s. Their gospel is not the gospel of Christ suffering on the cross to bring reconciliation with God and their ministry methods are not those of sacrificial service and a readiness to suffer (and even die) in order to bring this message to others.

It is in this context that 2 Corinthian 6:14-7:1 appears and should be interpreted. What Paul is calling for is for the Corinthians to recognize that they cannot follow Paul’s message brought to them sacrificially and in much suffering and follow these other false teachers whose message and methods are so diametrically different. The Corinthians are trying to yoke together two incompatible animals to the same plow. “Stop trying!” Paul says. The call here is to disassociate themselves from complicity with those who would attempt to propagate a false gospel within the church.[i]

Hence, the call here is not to pull away from the world or unbelievers in general, but from those who would seek to contaminate the church with false teachings. Indeed, only a church committed to such segregation can hold forth the true message of reconciliation to a needy world and be willing to sacrifice themselves in order to bring such a gospel to those who need it. Find me a church that is unwilling to sacrifice and suffer and you will likely have found one that is yoking together the gospel of Christ and false teaching similar to that which Paul’s opponents were teaching in Corinth.

[i] c.f. R. Kent Hughes, 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness. Crossway Books, 2006: 141; C.K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Harper’s New Testament Commentaries. Hendrickson Publishers, 1973: 194-196

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Philemon: The power of prayer and persuasion

Paul opens his letter to Philemon in a way that is unique to his writings when he uses the identification "a prisoner for Christ Jesus" to describe himself. Contrary to his normal custom, he adds no title of authority to his name, such as "apostle"[1] or "servant of Christ"[2].

By using this greeting, Paul emphasizes that he is not merely a prisoner or victim of religious intolerance. He is a prisoner of Jesus Christ, which he repeat in verse 10. In verse 13 he says that he is a prisoner for the gospel. Lohse notes that this phrase shows that Paul "considers his imprisonment as the fate that is in store for the messenger of the gospel – this is, part and parcel of the commission given to him. The messenger of the Kyrios must suffer like his master to whom he owed obedience."[3]

It is obvious that this letter is to a dear friend, requesting a favour and he has no intention of invoking his apostolic authority. He entreats his friend (verses 8, 9) rather than commanding him. Perhaps he is emphasizing the sacrifice that he has made for serving Christ and he is about to ask his friend to also make a sacrifice. Philemon is being asked to forgive his runaway slave and to treat Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother (verse 16). He waives his authority to command Philemon (verse 9) as an old man and "a prisoner for Christ Jesus." He hopes that because of his age and his sacrifice that Philemon will be motivated to grant the request that he is about to make.[4] Philemon must decide whether he will respond as a man of the world or as a servant of Christ. By referring to himself as a prisoner for Christ, Paul is reminding Philemon of the sacrificial decisions that he has made. Paul’s imprisonment is thus used to motivate Philemon to Christ-like behavior. It is if he were saying, "Surely you can do likewise dear friend."

Paul points out that it was specifically because of his imprisonment that Onesimus became a follower of Christ and his spiritual child (verse 10). He also mentions that he would have like to have kept Onesimus with him in his "imprisonment for the gospel" (verse 13). In such a situation, he needed help from others. While we are not told of the conditions of his imprisonment, it may be assumed that Philemon was familiar with what Paul was experiencing in his confinement.[5] Besides, it is the fact of his imprisonment that is of fundamental importance to Paul in this letter, not the specific attributes of his chains.[6] The fact that he desires help, however, suggests this Paul’s imprisonment did leave him in a situation of need where Onesimus’ absence would be keenly felt.

As an apostle, it is conceivable that Paul might have drawn upon his authority to insist on keeping Onesimus’ help during his time of need. It is obvious, however, that he did not want to show disrespect for Philemon’s authority as the slave’s rightful owner (verse 14). Moreover, it is conceivable that Paul recognized that just as force is no attribute of God, neither is it to be an attribute of His people. Rather than resorting to a show of compulsion and strength, Paul uses the power of persuasion and love.

He is confident that Philemon will accept his plea on Onesimus’ behalf and accept his slave as a brother, just as he would receive Paul, himself, were Paul able to be freed (verse 17). In fact, he is confident that Philemon will exceed his expectations (verse 21).

With such expectation, Paul instructs Philemon to prepare for his release (verse 22). The apostle expects to be freed, in answer to the prayer of Philemon and the Christian community (verse 22).[7] He recognizes that the prayer will have a significant role in his release.[8] Prayer, for Paul, was far more than just a spiritual way of saying, “Think about me from time to time.” It is through prayer that God will free him from his chains and restore him to fellowship with Philemon and the Christian community.

[1] 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor.1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:1

[2] Romans 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1

[3] Ibid: 189.

[4] Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon. Fortress Press, 1971: 199

[5] Richard J. Cassidy, “Paul’s Letter to Philemon” in The Bible on Suffering. ed. Anthony J. Tambasco. Paulist Press, 2002: 151; Richard J. Cassidy, Paul in Chains. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002: 75-76.

[6] Cassidy, Paul in Chains: 76

[7] Note that the Greek word for “you” used twice in verse 22 is in the plural.

[8] Cassidy, “Paul’s Letter to Philemon”: 156; Lohse: 207.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Role of a Christian in a Given Society

gudina tumsa1by Gudina Tumsa

Gudina Tumsa was the General Secretary of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus when he wrote a lecture in preparation for the church’s 11th Assembly entitled “The Role of a Christian in a Given Society”.  One week later on July 18, 1979, he was abducted by Ethiopian authorities.  Though his whereabouts were unknown at the time, the lecture was still read. Later, believers were to learn that Gudina had been martyred the night after his arrest by the Marxist government. This is the lecture that many have called his enduring legacy.

The Role of a Christian in a Given Society

A Christian lives in a society that God created, saved from sin and placed to bear witness to the Gospel of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. A given society cannot be free from the different competing forces like other religions, atheism and pluralism. A Christian is placed by God to live and proclaim the Gospel of Christ to the people who are in need and difficulty so that they can turn to God to get their needs met and their problems solved.

A Christian in a Society

A Christian lives in a given society where he carries out the mandate given to him by the Lord of the Church. We have not been given a choice as to where we should be born. We believe that God has placed us where we are to do His will as Ethiopian Christians and to fulfill His purpose. It seems to be proper to speak about what a Christian is prior to speaking about his/her given responsibility.

A Christian is a person who is transformed by what the God of the universe has done in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is the basis for our Christian Faith. What God has done for the salvation of mankind can never be undone, simply because it is the God whom we know in Jesus Christ who has done it.

In response to faith in what has been accomplished by the sacrifice of the Son of God for the salvation of mankind, the Christian has tasted heavenly gifts in earthly life. A life of relationship with the Lord of the Church is possible only through faith.

When we as Christians state that nothing in the universe can separate us from the love of God made ours in Christ, it is not bringing of human strength, but an acknowledgement of the fact that the relationship our Heavenly Father has established with us through His Son can never be broken (Rom. 8:3 39). It is even beyond the ability of death, the greatest enemy of mankind, to destroy the relationship we have with God through our Saviour.

When Christ died for our sins on the cross and became our cure the power of death was broken. The battle was won for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. What is going on in the world between good and evil is not a real war but the final operation after the war has been won because death has been destroyed and victory is complete (I Cor. 15:54). It is only the Christian who can ask the question, 'Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your power to hurt?' (I Cor. 15:55). Thanks be to God we have complete victory through Him who loved us and sacrificed Himself for us. The most death can do now is to be a stepping stone for the Christian to be transferred to fullness of life in and with the Lord Jesus Christ.

As the theme for this 11th General Assembly indicates, we confess that 'God is with us'. In the Lord's Supper he assures us of his presence that renews his covenant with us, thereby forgiving us and ever leading us to the fulfillment of his purpose for His world.

A Christian has not chosen God, but God has chosen him/her and in the act of being chosen he/she is set apart for service in the kingdom of God. Because of what has happened to him/her, the Christian is encouraged to let God transform him/her inwardly by a complete change of mind. Romans 12:1-2: 'So then my brothers, because of God's great mercy to us, I make this appeal to you: offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. Do not conform outwardly to the standards of this world, but let God transform you by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God - what is good, and is pleasing to him, and is perfect.'

The Christian knows what he/she has been made by an act of God through Jesus Christ. If he/she is holy God by His grace had made him/her so, the Christian knows that he belongs to '... the chosen race,' he/she belongs to 'the holy nation,' he/she belongs to 'the king's priests,' he/she is part of 'God's own people'. All those named belong to the chosen race, ordination as the king's priest, being a member of the holy nation, God's own people, all done by God in order that the Christian may be equipped to 'proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called him out of darkness into His own marvelous light' (I Pet. 2:9).

Sin is not human weakness, it is rather a rebellion against God the creator. It is refusal to accept God's gracious gift through his son Jesus Christ. Sin is a departure from the father's house in rebellion. It is a denial of one's own source. Sin is an attempt to dethrone the one who rules above. It is a futile effort of mortal man to replace God. The Christian is aware that he lives among people whose lives are ruled by the power of sin.

The Lord's Supper is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which the Christian is entitled to enjoy here on earth. By the coming of our Lord the new age has dawned on us, he has inaugurated the messianic age, the sole rule of God has started; the demons are cast out; the Gospel is preached to the poor; the blind are given sight; the lepers are cleansed. In participation in the Lord's Supper three things come to mind:

a) What has been written about the messiah by the prophets has been fulfilled.

b) The power of God is at work, all because the Son of Man has shed His blood as ransom for many, thereby making the forgiveness of sin a reality for those who respond in faith.

c) The third aspect of the Lord's Supper is expectation of the Lord's return to subject all things to himself. Recollection of God's mighty deeds in the past, experiencing forgiveness of sins today and expecting the second coming of the one being equipped for a life witness in society.

A Christian is responsible to God and Man

In the preceding paragraphs and in part one of this paper, attempts are made to show what a Christian is. A Christian is a transformed person by believing the Gospel of Christ (justification) and is in a constant process of being transformed (sanctification) by the power of the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the Christian. God has counted the believer as righteous without any contribution on his/her part with the exception of accepting the gracious gift of God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Christian is made a citizen of the kingly rule of God. By belonging to the realm of that rule, the Christian is charged with the responsibility to proclaim: 'The right time has come..., the Kingdom of God is near. Turn away from your sins and believe the good news.' In carrying out this assignment from heaven to be fulfilled on earth, the Christian is aware of two things. The first is that no Christian is ever alone. He has joined, as a companion of Jesus Christ, millions of Christians who have responded in obedience to the command of the head of the church and are engaged in working for the acceleration of the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The creator and redeemer of the Christian has total claim on the life of the one who confesses him as Lord and Saviour. When the Christian confesses that Christ is Lord he proclaims that Jesus Christ is the king of kings, the president of presidents, the chairman of chairmen, the ruler of rulers, the secretary of secretaries, the leader of leaders and the head of heads of state. Christ is the lord of the universe and the one who guides historical development to its right fulfillment according to the purpose of the creator. At the same time, he guides us both collectively and individually in such a way that the hairs of our heads are well known to him so that we can relax in carrying out the commission he has given to his church. This assignment has the first and top priority in the life of the believer.

To promise second place to the Lord (anyway the Lord would never accept second place in human life) is openly to worship idols and is a breach of the first commandment: 'Thou shall not have other Gods before me' (Ex. 20:3).

It has already been stated in this part of this paper and in the preceding paragraphs that a Christian is a citizen of the kingly rule of God in this messianic age. A Christian is also a citizen of a given country and as such is under the laws and policies of the country of which he/she is a citizen. Should the Christian obey the laws and policies of his country? There can be no doubt about obeying the government. Two classic examples should be sufficient (Rom.13: 1-7, and I Peter 2: 13-14). All authority is given from above, from God. Whether those in authority believe it or not is not the issue. The Christian knows that anyone in a position of authority is placed there by the God who is the source of all authority and power. According to Romans 13:2: 'Whoever opposes the existing authority opposes what God has ordered; and anyone who dies so will bring judgment on himself.'

The Christian not only obeys the authority of the state; he does more than that, he/she shows honour and respect to the person in authority. A Christian does not stop with paying what is due to the state, such as various taxes, he does more than that by being honest and by fulfilling the demands of the state for the sake of conscience.

Considering the present special situation of our country, the Christian should not think only in terms of paying tax as if it were sufficient. The Christian should invest his/her money, time, knowledge and life, as well as anything else he may treasure, in the interest of his/her country. A Christian knows that his/her country is God's gift to him/her and his/her posterity. The Christian is part of society and as such he/she should cooperate with governmental as well as other organizations such as rural and urban associations, in working for the well-being of the Ethiopian people. Everything possible should be done by the Christian in contributing to the current Green Revolution so that hunger, one of the three enemies of developing countries, should be done away with.

When speaking about obedience to the authority of the state and making contributions of whatever we may have to change the living conditions of the Ethiopian masses for the better, it seems to me to be unfair to pass without expressing my opinion on what I call a very sensitive issue in our situation. The sensitive issue is that there are Christians who debate on the recitation of slogans. In the programme of the National Democratic Revolution of Ethiopia three arch enemies are listed, namely imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism. These are systems to which the Ethiopian masses are firmly opposed. Today 'Down with Feudalism,' 'Down with Capitalism' and 'Down with Imperialism' mean simply that as Ethiopians we no longer want to live under these systems. As a matter of fact, feudalism, capitalism and imperialism are things of the past as far as the Ethiopian masses are concerned. There are other numerous slogans that have cropped up during the various stages of the revolution to inspire people and to urge them to do their part with enthusiasm. This writer has talked with Christians who believe that reciting slogans is a betrayal of their Christian faith. With all due respect to those who consider repeating slogans as a denial of their commitment to the faith, I think that they are of non-religious significance and if slogans are non-religious in nature, joining with others in reciting them will have no effect on one's Christian commitment.

A Christian should know the essentials of his faith. Ignorance of the central theme of the Scriptures should not be identified with Christian commitment. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the centre of our faith. The Old and the New Testaments bear witness to him. We do not believe in a person who died almost 2,000 years ago and remained in the grave, but we believe in a person who gave his life as a ransom for many and who was raised from death for our justification. In my opinion a Christian has to make a choice only when he is faced with the demand not to confess Christ as Lord, and when he/she is denied the right to teach in his name (Acts 4: 16-20). Many things were considered 'adiaphora' (non-essential for salvation) by the early Church. But when it concerned the denial of the Person of Christ as Lord, the believers preferred physical death to earthly life and went for martyrdom. The term martyrdom is derived from a Greek word which means witness. Martyrdom means a believer witnesses for Christ by dying.

A responsible Christian does not aggravate any situation and thereby court martyrdom. It is the duty of the Christian to pray for the peace of the country where he is placed by the creator and work for the well-being of the society of which he is a part (I Tim. 2:1-2).Something that we could not sufficiently remind ourselves of is that to be a Christian is not to be a hero to make a history for ourself. A Christian goes as a Iamb to be slaughtered only when he/she knows that this is in complete accord with the will of God who has called him to his service.

It should be clearly understood that the good news of Jesus Christ can never be seen as a part of the systems that came about at the various stages in the process of historical development in world history. The Gospel is the power of God working in the human heart with a view to transforming man and thereby putting him in a right relationship with God who is the source and goal of his life, regardless of the stage in the process of historical development at which man finds himself. The Christian Gospel refuses to be identified or to be considered as a part of feudalism or capitalism and as such it cannot fade away with these systems, since by its nature the Gospel of Christ is totally different from them. Christ himself is the Gospel. There is no Gospel apart from His presence with us in our daily labour. Christ is the living Lord who was raised from death by God the Father. A living person cannot be identified with any impersonal system. A person can work in any system and the living Lord Christ commands us to go out and proclaim his presence, the good news. He forgives us our sins and saves us from the bitter experiences of sin. Only a living person can perform such things.

Recognizing that our day and age is quite different from that of the first century of the Christian era when the apostles of Jesus Christ travelled around the Middle East and Europe preaching the good news of Christ, my assumption is that there are some principles in the New Testament which we should make use of in order to get our one to be able to chart our way with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Right at the beginning of his ministry Jesus of Nazareth was faced with opposition. At times his opponents, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and Searchers of the law, wanted either to arrest him or to kill him. To enable them to achieve their purpose, the opponents of Jesus addressed to him various questions. From some of his replies we learn that Jesus knew the wish of the evil one but avoided confrontation to show he was someone great (Matt. 4; Matt. 6). Whenever they wanted to arrest him, Jesus left them and went to another district to carry out his ministry (John 7:44;-8:59). The supreme purpose of Jesus was to know his father's will at every step he was taking and do that will at the right time. Jesus was always in touch with his father and received guidance for the actions He had to take in the interest of man. When the hour came for him to be sacrificed for the sin of the world, he knew it was the will of God and said, 'Father, Your will be done' (Matt.26:39). A Christian should stay in prayer for guidance so that he/she knows the will of-God for any action he/she may take. If this is not the case, one may be considered as giving oneself for what is less than the will of God.

A glance at the book of Acts provides us with the basic information, that Paul of Tarsus, the apostle of Christ to the Gentiles, followed in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus in a life dedicated to constant prayer, searching to know the will of God, as he carried out his missionary task. As we know it, Paul did not hesitate to proclaim the whole truth of the Gospel of the one who called him to be a missionary, the preacher of the good news of Christ. The world in which Paul understood his ministry was sophisticated in the Greek philosophy of that age and in the Judaism of the rime. At this period in world history the Roman Emperors were worshipped as gods. It was in such a tense situation that Paul had to proclaim Christ as Lord, but always avoiding, as much as possible, confrontation or aggravation of the situation. To be sure, Paul was ready to reason with the Jews and the Greeks, but this was a challenge not an aggravation. Whenever he saw the situation aggravated, Paul had to change his tactics (Acts 23:6-9). This is to say that Paul did not preach the Gospel of Christ to create an opportunity for himself for posing as a hero. The supreme purpose in the life of Paul was to know the will of God and follow it regardless of the cost it might entail for his life (see Acts 21:1-13 when he went to Jerusalem). Paul was the seeker of the will of God and once he was assured of that will he was ready to submit to it wholly as his master did. The will of God is the goal of the Christian's life.


It must be crystal clear to the Christian that he/she has a double purpose to live for:

a) As someone has said, when a person is called to follow Christ, that person is called to die. It means a redirection of the purpose of life, that is death to one's own wishes and personal desires and finding the greatest satisfaction in living for and serving the one who, died for us and was raised from death (2 Cor. 5:13-14). In other words, the Christian has been crucified with Christ and has no life which he claims to be his own. The life the believer leads is a life of faith and the risen Lord lives in him (Gal. 2:19). It is a life set free from the power of sin and it is beyond the capacity of death to destroy it. Because it has its source in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, that resurrection life is at work in the life of the believer. Being in Christ the Christian is already the possessor of eternal life by being placed in a new order of existence where the law of life is the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:13). And where the power of the resurrection of the Lord is at work, and the life of the Christian is a life of witness to the risen Lord.

b) It has been stated that a Christian is a citizen of a given country and as such under the laws and policies of that country. Because he is under the laws of the country of which he is a citizen, it is his duty to pray for the peace of that country and co-operate with his fellow-citizens for its well-being. The only limitation to his co-operation or obedience to the laws of his country is if he is commanded to act contrary to the law of God (Acts 5:29).

(Source: Ø. M. Eide, Revolution and Religion in Ethiopia: The Growth and Persecution of the Mekane Yesus Church 1974-1985. Oxford, 2000: 280-284)

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Battling the Beasts (Revelation 13)

13Durer_a The hatred and anger that Satan must have towards God is impossible for me to comprehend. As I read Revelation 12 and 13, I am struck by the fact that Satan is fighting a battle that he knows he can’t win. His time is short (12:12). He knows that his doom is sure and still he strikes out repeatedly at Christ and His Church through attacking the people of God.

Day and night, Satan accuses them before God (12:10) but they repeatedly conquer him (12:11) by not clinging to life but by being prepared to give their lives for Him who, as the Lamb of God, gave His life for them. With such preparedness for suffering, death loses its terror.

But still the dragon continues his onslaught. In Chapter 13, he summons his emissaries, enemies of God’s people who arise seeking to undo God’s work of recreation and restoration through chaos and destruction. Through these two terrible beasts, the dragon attacks and oppresses God’s people in two ways.

The first beast (13: 1-10) represents the forces of violence and blasphemy. This is persecution at its extreme. We read in 13:7 that this beast is allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. At first glance, this might seem to contract 12:11 where the saints are said to “conquer.” Are we to conclude from this that the beast wins some of the battles and the Christians others? Who are the real victors when God’s people suffer and die for their faith?

The answer, as Richard Bauckman rightly observes “depends on whether one sees things from the earthly perspective of those who worship the beast or from the heavenly perspective which John's visions open up for his readers.”

To the inhabitants of the earth (13:8) it is obvious that the beast has defeated the martyrs. The political and military might of the beast, which seems to carry all before it and wins the admiration and the worship of the world, here seems triumphant even over the witnesses of Jesus. That it can put the Christian martyrs to death apparently with impunity seems the final proof of the invincible, godlike might of the beast. In the judicial contest as to who is the true God - the beast or the one to whom the martyrs witness - it seems the verdict is clear: the evidence of the martyrs has been refuted.

Even Christians must have been tempted to see it that way. They were a tiny minority of powerless people up against the overwhelming might of the state and the overwhelming pressure of pagan society. To refuse to compromise was to become even more helpless victims. What was the point of resisting the beast when he was proving irresistible? But John's message is that from the heavenly perspective things look quite different. The martyrs are the real victors. To be faithful in witness to the true God even to the point of death is not to become a victim of the beast, but to take the field against him and win. But only in a vision of heaven (7:9-14; 15:2-3) or a voice from heaven (11:12; 14: 2) can the martyrs be recognized as victors. The perspective of heaven must break into the earthbound delusion of the beast's propaganda to enable a different assessment of the same empirical fact: the beast's apparent victory is the martyrs' - and therefore God's - real victory.[i]

Thank God that He provides us with a revelation of this heavenly perspective. How easy it would be to lose sight of this in the midst of the battle and to think that we are fighting a losing cause.

The same is true as the second beast (13:11-18) attacks God’s people through the more subtle means of deception and economic pressures. Perhaps more Christians have been tripped up not by open attacks on their life or assaults on their faith through violence or blasphemy but by an undermining of it through false teaching (cf. 19:20), deceptive miracles, and pressure to compromise their convictions in order to keep afloat financially. It is worth reminding ourselves that idolatry is not just a failure to obey God. It is a setting of one’s heart on something besides God. This second beast does not lure us to abandon religion but to assimilate into the culture, values, and beliefs of our beastly society that worships man and not God. This temptation looks benign, often attractive, inclusive and welcoming. Spirituality may even be appealed to. But its orientation will be self-centred.

The key to overcoming, John points out, is not only to refuse to submit to these beasts but to submit oneself fully to God and to faithfully witness to His truth in all aspects of one’s life. The pressure to compromise will be great but greater still is the grace of God to faithfully witness and persevere in the midst of the battle with the beasts.


[i] Richard Bauckman, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, 1993: 90-91.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Behind the scenes of the Christmas story (Revelation 12)

I remember being part of many a Christmas pageant as a child. Memorizing lines, watching my Sunday School teachers scurry to stitch together outfits and glue together silver stars at the last minute. There was a lot of hustle and bustle that went on behind the scenes which was never seen by the people who watched the final program.

Many Christians see the book of Revelation as a sort of road map to the future rather than a message of encouragement and warning to first century believers undergoing increasing persecution. It is revelation that was meant to help clarify for these believers what was really going on all around them. Revelation 12 takes the readers back to the beginning of the gospel story, back to Bethlehem where it all started. Revelation 12 is really a wonderful Christmas text. But quite unlike the accounts in Matthew or Mark, the intent here is not to give a literal description of an historical event, but to pull back the curtain to see what spiritual forces were at work that night long ago.

_mary_childIn verses 1-4, we see two signs: 1) a woman in heavy labour and 2) a dragon standing ready to devour the child she is about to give birth to. It is not too hard to understand from verse 5 that this child, a male, is Jesus, the one who would rule the nations with a rod of iron (a reference to Psalm 2).

As we read the gospels, we know that from the very beginning of His life, the dragon sought to destroy the Son (a clear reference to Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child in Matthew 2). Having failed to destroy Him but instead finding himself defeated (verses 7-12), we read that the dragon then turns his violent rage on the woman and her other children who keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus (verses 13-17). God’s people suffer because of Satan’s hatred for Jesus and his rage at being unable to defeat Him.

But even this attempt to destroy Christ’s church is unsuccessful. The dragon is powerless to obliterate the Church and so he vents his fury against individual Christians through the persecution they suffer.

In chapter 12, we see how Satan goes after God’s people in three ways:

First, in contrast to the living creatures who praise God day and night (4:8) and the martyrs who serve the Lord in heaven day and night (7:15), Satan accuses God’s people day and night (verse 10), slandering them before God, claiming that they do not really love God but are only following Him for selfish reasons (see Job 1-2).

Second, he deceives the world, spreading lies and casting doubt on the truth (verse 9).

Third, he seeks to kill and enslave people under the fear of death (see Hebrews 2:15). Many Christians have turned aside from the path God has called them to because of the fear of suffering and death.

But as we read in verses 10-11, the “brothers” who suffer persecution are not helpless victims. Suffering persecution is not a passive experience, as something to be endured as one hangs on to a slim thread of hope. Indeed, those who overcome the dragon do so aggressively in three ways.

First, they overcome the accusations because of the blood of the Lamb (verse 11). Without the blood of Christ, Satan’s accusation that we are unworthy of the Lord would be true. But because of Jesus’ work on the cross, we can stand unashamed before the Lord. This is good news! This is the gospel! Because of Christ, we have everything we need to stand faithful in the face of persecution (see 2 Peter 1:3).

Second, they overcome Satan’s deception by the word of their testimony (verse 11). We overcome lies with the truth of Jesus. We proclaim and practice the truth unapologetically and without compromise. Truth matters so much that we are prepared to even die for it.

Third, they overcome the threat of death by not loving their life even to death (verse 11). God’s people understand that death is not the worst thing that can happen to them. The worst thing would be to turn their backs on Jesus. Satan is overcome when we do not let fear control us but instead enthrone Christ as Lord in our lives.

As you celebrate Christmas, remember that there is a battle going on going in today’s world that is mostly behind the scenes, unnoticed by most but brutal and harsh. Satan's rage against God's children burns on and they continue to suffer throughout the world. Revelation 12 reminds that this is true for Christ’s followers wherever they live. But Revelation 12 also reminds us that those who faithfully persevere will not be devoured, but will one day stand triumphant in the eternal kingdom of our Lord.

Glory to God in the highest!

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Psalm 91

For he will command his angels concerning you
   to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
   lest you strike your foot against a stone. (Psalm 91:11-12)

In the second temptation of Jesus, we find the tempter urging Jesus to cast Himself from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem thereby immediately proving that He was the Son of God (Mathew 4:6; Luke 4:10-11). By quoting this psalm, Satan suggests that God has promised to deliver Jesus from all harm should He do perform an act.

The nature of this temptation, as Dalglish rightly points out, is an ethical one; will Jesus use God's means of ambiguity, obedience, obscurity, weakness to achieve His purposes or will He use unworthy means such as power and public acclaim to accomplish this noble end?[1] Jesus rejects Satan's temptation by responding from Deuteronomy 6:16 with its command not to tempt the Lord. The temptation that Jesus is subjected to is to use earthly means to accomplish God's purposes.

God's messengers are still tempted in this way. But Jesus' rebuttal indicates that the promises of Psalm 91 are not universally applicable; they must be interpreted in the total context of the situation and in the larger reference of Scripture.[2] Indeed, a closer examination of the context of the verses themselves shows that the psalmist never intended them to be understood in the fashion in which the tempter used them. This is, indeed, a promise to deliver the righteous as they abide in God's shadow and walk in obedience and love towards Him (v.1, 14). The righteous can count upon God's help when they call upon Him (v. 15) with the assurance that they shall not be ultimately destroyed by those who would ambush them.[3] The child of God can be assured of God's help in the midst of trouble but he should not presume upon God's protection if he acts autonomously or in contradiction to God's ways and means. It is enlightening to note that when it was when Jesus was on the cross that He claimed assurance from Psalms (Ps. 31:5; Luke 23:46). [4]

[1] Edward R. Dalglish, "The Use of the Book of Psalms in the New Testament." Southwestern Journal of Theology 27, 1984: 27: 38. cf. Arthur Weiser, The Psalms. SCM Press, 1962: 611.

[2] Dalglish: 38

[3] Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary, Word, 1990: 459.

[4] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. The Book of Psalms. The New Interpretator’s Bible, Vol.IV. Abingdon Press, 1996: 1048

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My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22)

Psalm 22 is one of the major Old Testament passages that the early church saw as a testimony to the gospel facts or as disclosing the determined plan of God.[1] Matthew, Mark, John, Paul, and the author of Hebrews all referred to this psalm. Verses 1 and 18 are specifically quoted and verses 6, 21 and 22 are alluded to.

Hanging on the cross, knowing that His Father was not going to intervene on His behalf, Jesus ass reminded of a prayer He has known from childhood, an agonized cry wrenched from the heart of another servant of God in a time of trial.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (22:1) [2]

Jesus' use of Psalm 22 is significant. We know that the Jews had regular, formalized worship three times daily, including readings from the Law and the Prophets and singing of Psalms. The Psalms constituted their hymn book, and most faithful Jews would have had the psalms memorized. “My God, my God,” is the beginning of Psalm 22 and the Jews at the foot of the Cross would have recognized this. Some of them would have remembered that Psalm 22 begins in apparent defeat or tragedy, but ends in triumph. Undoubtedly some would have asked, “How can He be quoting something that has a happy ending as the life drains from him – where is the hope of which the Psalm speaks?” Some, in Matthew’s account, mistakenly took the Aramaic “Eli, eli” to be a cry for Elijah to come and save him.

For those of His followers who stayed with Him, one wonders how much they would considered that this incident, like the psalmist's, would ultimately end happily. Given Matthew's account of the incident, it is obvious that some, like Jesus, recognized, as they looked around them, the prophecies in the middle section of Psalm 22 being fulfilled before their very eyes: “They gape upon me with their mouths…” “They pierced my hands and my feet…” “they stand staring and looking upon me…” “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” Hearing Jesus' words and seeing the events unfolding around them the word of this psalm must have been running through the minds of those faithful Jews who stayed at the cross when most of Jesus' other followers had fled. As John witnessed the soldiers dividing Jesus clothing as He hangs on the cross, he saw a parallel to the plight suffered by the psalmist in Psalm 22:18:[3]

they divide my garments among them,
   and for my clothing they cast lots.[4]

As recorded in the psalm, the wicked loot the righteous with callous indifference and ruthlessness. The innocent victim is left helpless in his nakedness.

The words of Psalm 22:6 (together with Isaiah 53:3), "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people" are alluded to by Mark in 9:12.[5] Mark refers to the fact that "it is written of the Son of the Man that He would suffer many things and be treated with contempt." Psalm 22, as a whole, would have been prime source material to support this.

Allen notes that Psalm 22:21 is likely what Paul is referring to in 2 Timothy 4:17, speaking of his first defence before Nero where he was acquitted.[6]

Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

Before and during his first legal hearing before Nero, apparently Paul prayed the lament section of Psalm 22 and upon receiving the favourable outcome, he "transformed the petition into an element of thanksgiving, namely the report of God's intervention."[7] Now, as he faces his second trial, which he does not expect will end with similar deliverance, he still remains confident of God's ability to deliver him from every evil attack and to bring him safely to God's eternal kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).

The words of verse 22, "I will tell of your name to my brothers’ in the midst of the congregation I will praise" are quoted in Hebrews 2:12. Because of the suffering that He endured, Jesus has been crowned with glory that is to be shared with all mankind. This is what is referred to in Psalm 22:22. The suffering that Christ endured, as seen throughout the psalm, resulted in glory that will be shared with all those whom He is not ashamed to call brothers (Heb. 2:11).

[1] C.H Dodd, According to the Scriptures. Fontana Books, 1965: 30 argues that when two or more separate authors cite the same passage from the Old Testament, unless there are definite reasons to the contrary, "they represent to that extent a common tradition."

[2] Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34

[3] John 19:24

[4] John 19:24

[5] Dodd: 92-93

[6] Leslie C. Allen, Psalm 101-150. Word Biblical Commentary. Word, 1983: 88.

[7] Ibid: 89.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

An overview of Mark’s teaching on persecution and discipleship

It is important to remember that each of the gospels was written at different times to a particular audience with a special emphasis due to circumstances of place and time. Tradition has it that Mark’s Gospel was written for the people in Rome under the influence of Peter. Mark’s was the first Gospel to develop, and was written about 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus and around the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Mark’s gospel emphasizes discipleship and its cost. To believe in Jesus and to be found in his company means to take serious the words of Jesus to deny one’s very self, to take up the cross and follow Him (8:34). It means to realize how to save one’s life is to lose it and to lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel is to find it (8:35-37). In a Gospel where there is continual motion, the cross and resurrection are the climax of the story of Jesus. Everything Jesus said and did led up to His passion.

And just as for Jesus, so for His followers. The way of the cross is their path too. Its pain and trial is the only way to glory. Jesus leads His disciples to accept the demands of the cross. Jesus teaches the disciples how they are to differ radically from others in their society and culture. They are not to act on ambition and seek after power but, like Jesus, they are to be those who serve, attentive especially to those in misery and need. For Mark, there is no safe and easy way to be a follower of Jesus, the Crucified One.

Unlike Matthew or Luke, Mark does not provide us with "the euphoria of the infancy narratives."[1] He begins abruptly and bluntly with John the Baptist in the desert shouting that there is "one mightier than I in your midst who will baptize you in the Holy Spirit."

Then just as starkly, Jesus appears to be baptized (1:9-11) and immediately is sent into the wilderness to be tempted and to face the dangers of wild animals (1:12-13).

Almost immediately, the one who had prepared the way for Jesus is thrown into prison (1:14). Jesus picks up exactly where John left off except that His message is that the time has arrived what John said was on the horizon. Jesus appears in Galilee proclaiming the good news of God saying, "This is the time of fulfillment… The reign of God is at hand. Turn your lives around. Believe in the gospel." As the gospel develops we read how, just as John was faithful to his calling and arrested for it, so Jesus remains true to His calling and is crucified by those who oppose Him. Following His death, an angel appears to the women who visit His tomb after his resurrection and tells them "Go now and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee where you will see him as he told you.’" If one accepts the shorter ending of Mark, Jesus’ mission and ministry begins and ends in Galilee and ends with a degree of uncertainty.

There is considerable debate over the textual evidence regarding the ending of Mark. The earliest manuscripts of Mark end with 16:8 with the words "they were afraid." [2] The women fail to follow the instructions of the heavenly messenger, giving an ambiguous ending to the Gospel.[3] We are left to wonder, "What of the disciples? Will they obey His instructions?" If we accept the shorter ending as being the Mark's intended one, he ends at the brink of a new beginning, but we are left to wonder whether it will really happen. The Gospel had started with John the Baptist pointing the way to Jesus and ends with the women refusing to tell others about Him because of fear.

It should be noted that the discussion that follows is not dependent upon the reader accepting the "shorter" ending of Mark. As we shall discover below, the actions of the women in 16:8 are consistent with the way in which Mark depicts the disciples in his gospel. The descriptions of the disciples in the verses that appear in later manuscripts (16:9-20) are hardly more flattering. The fear that marked the women is matched by the doubt exhibited by the disciples. The disciples consistently do not believe (16:11, 13). Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith and refusal to believe the testimonies of those who had witnessed His resurrection (16:14). It is worth noting that this is also consistent with how Christians throughout history (and even to the present day) respond to persecution. Some believe, others are afraid and say nothing, while others leave the Christian fellowship entirely.

Of all of the Gospel writers, Mark is, by far, the one who best reveals the failings of the disciples. Peter, for example, called Jesus the Messiah, but promptly revealed that he had no idea what that meant, having his own ideas about what it meant to the anointed one of God and how Jesus should live that out. He is rebuked as being "Satan", an adversary (8:33). Peter had to learn through experiences of failure, dismay and even denial the real meaning of Messiah.

The other disciples are likewise depicted rather poorly in Mark’s Gospel. They start off so well. At first the ones who oppose Him are His family (3:21, 31-34) and the teachers of the law (3:22-30). Jesus recognized that not everyone would accept His teaching (the Parable of the Soils in 4:1-24) and that some will fall away under persecution (4:17).

The disciples are viewed relatively positively until 6:30, even though there are difficulties (e.g. 4:13; 4:38; 5:31). But following each incident, Jesus instructs them and the problem appears to have been resolved. But as time goes on, it is clear that they do not understand who Jesus really is. Time and again they do not grasp the meaning of what He said (4:13; 6:51-52; 7:18; 8:18, 21; 8:32-33; 9:32).[4] They fail to cast out a demon because of their lack of faith and prayer (9:19, 29). They try to chase away those who try to bring children to Jesus (10:13-14). They treat Jesus as if He were naïve (4:38; 5:31; 6:37). They quarrel over who is the greatest (9:33-36) and jockey for position (10:35-41). They forbid others not in their group to use Jesus’ name (9:38). Jesus begins to see a hardness in their hearts not unlike that demonstrated by His enemies (compare 3:5-6 with 6:52 and 8:17). Jesus questions whether they are capable of seeing and hearing (8:18) in a context where He has healed a deaf and blind man (7:31-37, 8:22-26). The three boat scenes depict the disciples as fearful, distrustful of Jesus and self-concerned (4:40, 6:49-50, 8:14-16).[5] They fall asleep in the garden at the time of Jesus’ greatest need (14:37). Judas betrays Him, Peter denies Him and when Jesus is arrested, they all desert Him (14:50). This is direct disobedience to the call to follow Him in suffering in 8:34-37, making the disciples liable to the judgment announced in 8:38.[6] It is also an explicit failure to keep their promise in 14:31. The flight of the naked young man in 14:52 "dramatizes the shamefulness of the disciple’s flight and satirizes the pretensions of Christians who claim to be ready for martyrdom."[7] Tannehill notes:

This interpretation may be supported by the reference to the fine linen (sindon) worn by the young man. Elsewhere in the New Testament the word is only used of the cloth in which Jesus was buried (see 5:46 and par.). If this detail is significant, it suggests that this man was so sure of his loyalty that he comes dressed for death, but suddenly changes his mind when death is a real prospect. His nakedness emphasizes the shamefulness of his flight.[8]

The disciples’ failure is contrasted with the behaviour of others who do what they will not; Simon who must "take up"[9] Jesus’ cross (15:21), the centurion at the cross who makes the confession that Peter refused to make (15:39) and Joseph of Arimathea who cares for Jesus’ burial, a task one would expect His closest friends and family would care for (15:43-47).[10]

Even after the resurrection, as noted earlier, the fear that characterized the disciples remains (16:8). If one accepts the shorter ending of Mark, the story is left open-ended. Will they meet with Jesus? If one accepts the longer ending, the question is hardly different. Will they overcome their fear and doubt, and believe?

Tannehill comments:

While any positive qualities of story characters will attract, a reader will identify most easily and immediately with characters who seem to share the reader’s situation.  Assuming that the majority of the first readers of the Gospel were Christians, they would relate most easily and immediately to characters in the story who respond positively to Jesus. The disciples, including the twelve, are the primary continuing characters who, at least at first, seem to respond in this way and so share this essential quality of the Christian reader’s self-understanding. I believe that the author of Mark anticipated this response by his readers. He composed his story so as to make use of this initial tendency to identify with the disciples in order to speak indirectly to the reader through the disciples’ story. In doing so, he first reinforces the positive view of the disciples which he anticipates from his readers, thus strengthening the tendency to identify with them. Then he reveals the inadequacy of the disciples’ response to Jesus, presents the disciples in conflict with Jesus on important issues, and finally shows the disciples as disastrous failures. The surprisingly negative development of the disciples’ story requires the reader to distance himself from them and their behavior. But something of the initial identification remains, for there are similarities between the problems of the disciples and problems which the first readers faced. This tension between identification and repulsion can lead the sensitive reader beyond a naively positive view of himself to self-criticism and repentance. The composition of Mark strongly suggests that the author, by the way in which he tells the disciples’ story, intended to awaken his readers to their failures as disciples and call them to repentance. Allowing at first the comfortable assumption that Jesus and his disciples (and with them the Christian reader) are basically in concord, the story reveals points of essential conflict. The reader is left with a choice, a choice represented by the differing ways of Jesus and the disciples. In the light of what Jesus demands, this choice is not easy.[11]

The Christians in Rome at the time of Mark’s Gospel were experiencing persecution under the Emperor Titus. Some had abandoned their faith or even betrayed others. The Christians of Mark’s time could likely identify with the weakness, hesitation and unbelief of the disciples. Yet, they could also see these traits as a sign of the power of God’s grace of forgiveness and a means of hope to walk in the footsteps of Jesus even after failure. Borrell contends that Mark intended for Peter’s denial to cause his readers to question their own conduct and attitudes so that they might respond more appropriately to Jesus’ death than Peter and the other disciples did. Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial suggests, in Borrell’s view, that failure is not the last word to be associated with the disciples, that the disciples are not ultimately discredited.[12] Borrell points out that when Jesus speaks of his return to Galilee, preceding his disciples (14:28), this is to be understood as a patent link to 16:7 and is a clear invitation to reunification.[13] For those who, like Mark (cf. Acts 15:38) and Peter, failed in the face of opposition, this would have provided tremendous encouragement and hope.

In chapter 13, Jesus assumes a restored relationship with those He recognizes will fail Him. Looking ahead to the future, He warns them to "watch" (13:33-37), even though He knows that they will fail to watch in Gethsemane (14:37). He warns them that they will be handed over to "councils" (13:9) just as He will be. He warns them that they will appear before governors and kings (13:9) just as He will. Even though they ran from this possibility at His passion, Mark anticipates that each reader will decide for himself how he will respond to the persecution facing him. Will he flee or obey? Will he doubt God or trust Him? The reader is left with a choice. How will his story end?[14]

[1] Walter F. Sullivan, "The Gospel of Mark." The Catholic Virginian. January 17, 2003.

[2] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: Second Edition. United Bible Societies, 1994: 102-106. Metzger: 102-103 notes:

The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts (a and B), from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis (itk), the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written A.D. 897 and A.D. 913). Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them. The original form of the Eusebian sections (drawn up by Ammonius) makes no provision for numbering sections of the text after 16.8. Not a few manuscripts that contain the passage have scribal notes stating that older Greek copies lack it, and in other witnesses the passage is marked with asterisks or obeli, the conventional signs used by copyists to indicate a spurious addition to a document.

After examining the textual evidence for the fours possible endings of Mark, he concludes: 104, "On the basis of good external evidence and strong internal considerations it appears that the earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel of Mark ended with 16.8."

[3] Robert C. Tannehill, "The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role." Journal of Religion 57, 1977: 404

[4] This may be why Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone about Him after Peter’s confession in 8:29. Their lack of understanding would have made them inadequate messengers. "It is not as if the disciples had discerned the nature of Jesus but are prohibited from broadcasting it, but it is that the disciples have a wrong conception about his nature." - Joseph B. Tyson, The Blindness of the Disciples in Mark. Reprinted in The Messianic Secret, ed. Christopher Tuckett, Fortress, 1983: 36

[5] Tannehill: 400

[6] Ibid: 402

[7] Ibid: 403

[8] Ibid: footnote 38

[9] This verb is the same as in Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow Him in 8:34.

[10] Ibid: 404-405

[11] Ibid: 392-393.

[12] Agustí Borrell, The Good News of Peter's Denial: A Narrative and Rhetorical Reading of Mark 14:54.66-72. trans. Sean Conlon. University of South Florida International Studies in Formative Christianity and Judaism 7. Scholars Press, 1998: 80-82.

[13] Ibid.

[14] It is significant, of course, to note that following the reception of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, the disciples became changed men. Whereas previously they had been characterized by fear, now they became bold witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is not to say that they did not still struggle with fear from time to time. Mark's desertion in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) and Peter's withdrawal from the Gentiles because of fear (Galatians 2:11-14) stand as marked reminders of the disciple's continued need to choose obedience over disobedience, to live by faith rather than to allow fear to control one's life.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Blessed are the Persecuted?

Ever noticed how often what we say, even as Christians and what Jesus said are often so at odds. This is especially true as we consider the topic of persecution.

Isn't it ironic that whereas the early Christians expressed gratitude for the privilege of suffering for Christ, we often thank God for the privilege of not suffering for Him? We say that we are blessed for living in a country where we are not being persecuted. Yet, we fail to reconcile this with that Jesus said in Matthew 5 when He declared that blessed are those who are persecuted. It is the persecuted who gain the kingdom of heaven.

These latter words appear, of course, in Jesus' teaching of the disciples in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. He begins his teaching by listing characteristics that will be developed in His disciples - characteristics that society sees as weaknesses but which He says are signs of God's blessing, traits that people should be congratulated for possessing. When a man or woman accepts the demands of God's kingdom, having bowed before Jesus Christ and acknowledged Him as Lord, these characteristics begin to be developed. All true followers of Jesus possess them to a certain degree, and the call of Christ is to embrace them even deeper.

There is a call to exhibit these characteristics in the rest of the "sermon," but the Beatitudes are addressed to those who already are these things in some way. Jesus is speaking to those who have surrendered all by deciding to follow Him. In a sense one could say that these characteristics are the fruits of true repentance. All Christians are to be like these, not just mature or exceptional ones. These traits draw a line between those who are in the kingdom and those who are not.

Unfortunately, the Beatitudes are so familiar to many of us that I suspect they have lost their intended impact for many of us. We do not feel the sting that the early listeners must have felt when Jesus calls "blessed" those whom the world calls unfortunate or even cursed. He congratulates those whom the world would pity. He encourages attitudes and conduct that the world would discourage-the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Now, conceivably, we might be able to see positive aspects to each of these first seven attitudes. But in verse 10, Jesus calls "blessed" those whom I would suspect almost no one would consider blessed - those who suffer for doing what is right.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)

In order to gain Jesus' perspective on the blessedness of persecution, it is essential that we understand what He is teaching in this central passage. Five principles regarding persecution stand out from this passage:

1. The most basic, but not to be overlooked, principle is that this suffering is "on my account." It is for Christ's cause. Men and women suffer in His service, for the fulfillment of His purposes in the world, because of their allegiance to His priorities and standards. Ultimately, God's people do not suffer for their faith; they suffer for Him.

2. Jesus directs their attention to the fate of the prophets, God's messengers in past generations. He means to instruct the disciples that they, like Him, are in the line of the prophets, in that they are God's messengers to the world of their time. They have been chosen specifically for this purpose - to be sent to preach God's message given to them by Jesus, just as He was. After Jesus was killed, they would take His place and continue His ministry. In Matthew 16, Jesus will shock them with the assertion that in order to accomplish the purposes of God, it was necessary for Him and for all who follow after Him to take up crosses. Suffering, sacrifice, and rejection are the norm for those who truly serve as God's messengers. Christ's cross will provide the means of salvation; the disciple's cross will provide the means by which this salvation is taken to the world. Christ's cross is for propitiation; the disciple's cross is for propagation. Both crosses are needed if the message of the kingdom is to be taken into a world in rebellion to its Creator.

3. The disciples are not only to stoically accept the evil done to them by others, but they are to rejoice and be glad. Later in verses 39,44,45, they are instructed to love those who persecute them. As witnesses, their role was to bring the persecutors to God and to salvation. The persecuted are to be in service to those who cause them the suffering. Just as the Father gives light and rain to those who revile Him and refuse to love Him, so are His children to bring blessings to those who curse them, seeking the good for those who seek only to do them harm.

4. There are tremendous past, present, and future promises that the persecuted can lay hold of. In verse 10, persecuted disciples are assured that they are possessors of the kingdom of heaven, just as the "poor in spirit" were (verse 3). The parallel between the two is not accidental. The "poor in spirit" are those to whom the message of the gospel has been preached by the Servant of God (see Isaiah 61:1).

In turn, like the Servant, they have been rejected and despised because they have taken up the Servant's mission: to proclaim the gospel to all nations. They have therefore become possessors of the kingdom of heaven, partakers in a sovereignty ruled by God. This kingdom is already partially present, experienced in part by those who, by faith, have submitted to God's kingly rule over their lives. Its final culmination is still in the future and it is that which the disciples anticipate. In the present, however, they experience ridicule, persecution, and slander (verse 11), as they actively seek to bring others into the kingdom. The additional promise of verse 12 differs from those in the preceding Beatitudes in that it is much more complex. The promise to the persecuted in verse 12 is declared in two causal clauses. The first looks forward to the reward in heaven; the second looks back to the pattern of suffering experienced by the prophets in God's redemptive plan. Disciples are assured that that they will be rewarded in heaven for their service for God. There is hope of better things because of the coming kingdom of God. They are also assured, as we noted earlier, that suffering for the sake of the kingdom is not unusual; indeed, it is the experience of all of God's messengers. The persecuted stand in good company and can be assured that God is present in their ministry. Because of these future and past promises, they can rejoice in the present (verse 12).

5. Persecution will be inevitable. The language used here depicts a situation where persecution is the expected norm for those who choose to follow Him. Jesus wants His disciples to understand right from the start that the path of Christ is not always an easy one. It is the right path, however, even though the world will sometimes move beyond ridicule, misunderstanding, and denunciation to violent rejection - seeking not only to silence the message of the gospel, but to remove the very presence of the messenger.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

What to do with the imprecatory psalms (part 2)

imprecatory-psalm-smashing-baby How are we to take Psalm 58 with its prayer to God to smash in the mouths of their enemies (verse 7), and the expressed wish of the psalmist to have the righteous bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (verse 11)? Or of Psalm 109 with its prayer that God would make the children of the wicked man fatherless and his wife a widow (verse 9)? And what of the author of Psalm 137 rejoicing at the thought of the little ones of Babylon being dashed against the rocks (verse 9)? How are these psalms to be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to forgive them?

Several things need to be considered. First, it must be remembered that these are prayers for divine justice, not human grudges.[1] The petitioners are asking for God to take direct action; they do not ask for the power to take things into their own hands and to be able to personally punish their foes, nor is permission ever granted for them to do so.[2] In these petitions, the psalmists pour out their pain, anger and hurt. The tone is indicative of the horrors that they have faced.[3] They startle us into feeling something of the desperation that produced these words.[4] But the psalmists do not hide these less "noble" sentiments from us, and God, in His sovereignty, inspired them to record them for our good. Among the lessons we may learn from their inclusion in the canon is the fact that God is less shockable than we are, looks beyond the words to the heart of the supplicant and is afflicted in all our afflictions.[5] Hence, He is pleased when His people pour out their hearts to Him in their entirety.

Additionally, it should be noted that forgiveness of enemies and gaining God’s perspective is not found in concealing these emotions, but in acknowledging them to God, which is what these writers do.[6] As Bonhoeffer writes, "It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself."[7]

To rejoice in the fall of our enemies is also not strictly an Old Testament sentiment. The fall of Babylon in Revelation 18, for example contains language reminiscent of the imprecatory psalms.[8] Jesus instructed His disciples to curse cities that did not receive them (Matt.10:14). He, Himself, called down judgment on Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-24). Paul declared a curse on anyone who did not love the Lord (1 Cor. 16:22) and on anyone who preaches another Jesus (Galatians 1:8-9). The martyrs in heaven cry out for vengeance on those who killed them (Rev. 6:9-10). Hence, the desire to see justice is not strictly a reflection of a less graceful Old Testament disposition corrected in the revelation of Christ.

The imprecatory psalms also challenge the reader to identify with the oppressed and suffering, even though he, himself, may be quite comfortable.[9] They invite us to pray on behalf of others, as they evoke in us an awareness of the wickedness that is in the world. They may not, as Tate, reminds us, be our prayers, at the present moment, but they are the prayers of our brothers and sisters who are trampled down by persons and powers beyond their control.[10] The Christian church has long seen these psalms as the prayers of Christ on behalf of the suffering and needy. Bonhoeffer revived this old tradition in his small book Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible[11] and his sermon on Psalm 58.[12] The incarnate Son of God, knowing all of our weakness, is able to stand in our place before God and pray these prayers on our behalf. Hence, they really truly are our prayers, as well as His.[13] As the perfect Son of God, He is able to pray these prayers without guilt, which we cannot do for we are liable to be reminded of our own guilt and how we often act as those against whom we are praying. Hence, these psalms may awake in us an acute awareness of our own violent sins and hatred for others, and of our need for confession and repentance.[14]

[1] Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Skeptics Ask. Victor Books, 1992: 242.
[2] Marvin E. Tate. Psalm 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary, Word, 1990: 88-89.
[3] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72. InterVarsity Press, 1973: 27.
[4] Ibid.: 28
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid: 88.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon." Theology Today 38, 1982: 469.
[8] It may also be helpful to note that God is mentioned as a God of love more often in the Old Testament than in the New (cf. Geisler and Howe: 242).
[9] Tate: 89.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible. trans. James H. Burtness. Augsburg Publishing Co., 1970: 20-21.
[12] Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon"
[13] Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible: 21
[14] cf. Tate: 90

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What to do with the imprecatory psalms (part 1)

As part of my doctoral studies on suffering for righteousness in the book of Psalms (before I had to abandon them because of health issues), I had to wrestle through what biblical scholars call "The Imprecatory Psalms." These are the psalms that cry out to God for vengeance on their enemies. They call down curses on their foes and look forward to their destruction. Psalms like 137 that declares, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (verse 9)." Or Psalm 58:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun. Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away! The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. (verses 6-10)

Many Christians are uncomfortable with these verses. The Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Common Prayer actually removes them from the Psalter as being inappropriate for Christians to pray such sentiments.

Recently, however, I came across an excellent discussion on the Imprecatory Psalms by John N. Bray, pastor of the Bellewood Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington. Entitled, "Crying for Justice" (Kregel, 2005). In this concise exposition, Dr. Bray demonstrates conclusively, I believe, that these words are the prayers of God's people today as well as they face extreme suffering and oppression. In page 13, he summarizes his position with the following observations:

But the question may yet be asked, "How can it be right for Christians to cry out for divine vengeance and violence, as in the imprecatory psalms?" Four observations from Scripture address this question.

First, the vengeance appealed for is not personally enacted. Rather, God is called upon to be the Avenger.

Second, this appeal is based upon the covenant promises of God, most notable of which are "He who curses you, I will curse" (Gen. 12:3), and "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (Deut. 32:35). If God has so promised, then it would not seem wrong for his people to petition him (even passionately) to fulfill these promises!!

Third, both testaments record examples of God's people on earth calling down curses or crying for vengeance. Yet there is no literary or theological intimation of divine disapproval over such sentiments being expressed. Indeed, the implication is that, in its appropriate place, such utterances are commendable (cf. the imprecatory psalms and the Pauline and Petrine curses of Gal. 1:8-9 and Acts 8:20).
Fourth, Scripture further records an instance in which God's people in heaven, where there is no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the assurance of its impending enactment (Rev. 6:9-11). Since these martyred saints are perfected, their entreaty would presumably be "right."

Of course, Day develops his thought much more completely in the rest of the book. But I thought that I might just whet your appetite for more. I would highly recommend this valuable resource. You can order one from most online book stores like Chapters, Amazons or Abesbooks.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When God answers prayer – Revelation 8-11


When reading the book of Revelation, it is easy to get caught up in trying to interpret all of the details. Perhaps this is why so many either become obsessed with the book or, alternately, despair over ever understanding its message and avoid reading it.

The best counsel I can give on how to avoid either extreme is to follow the admonition of the book itself and to read it as it was intended to be read. Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” Revelation is meant to be read out loud and listened to rather than dissected word-by-word. It is meant to be experienced and visualized.

As we approach chapters 8-11 in our study this month, this becomes especially important. So, before you read any further, may I ask you to stop and read these chapters out loud?

It is vital that we understand the context of Revelation 8-11. In 8:1-5 we read:

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

Everything that follows from 8:6-11:18 is the result of God’s responding to the prayers of the saints in 8:4. What prayers are those? The answer is found back in 6:10 where the saints cry out from under the altar, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

At that time, they are told to be patient. God will respond. Their prayers have not gone unnoticed or unanswered. Indeed everything that occurs in Revelation 8-11 is God’s response to that prayer. But whereas the seals in chapters 6-7 result in the persecuted church pleading for justice from God (6:10), the trumpets in chapters 8-11 result in the persecuting world being offered mercy from God.

Yes, terrible things take place in chapters 8-9--hail, fire, poisoned waters, death and destruction, plagues and war. But the destruction is limited. There is mercy being offered; God’s hand is being held back. Then in chapter 10, God provides a message that is both sweet and bitter. It is sweet because it is a message of salvation and hope but it is bitter to those who eat it because of the inevitable persecution that will result from the proclamation of this message.

This is illustrated in chapter 11 as two messengers bring a message from God to a hostile world. Some repent and give glory to God (11:13) but only after the messengers have been killed for their witness (11:7). Revelation 10-11 reminds us that while Christ’s death provides the means for salvation, the death of His people is often required to bring that salvation message to others.

Chapters 8-11 also remind us that suffering itself rarely brings people to Christ. The result of the calamity in chapters 8-9 actually concludes with the people not repenting (9:20-21) even though they had the opportunity. Sadly, in times of suffering when people should turn to God, they often curse and turn from Him instead. The gospel of salvation requires messengers who will bring the sweet and bitter Word of hope to a world under the judgment of God.

Lastly, these chapters remind us that while God is concerned with justice, His first priority is to offer mercy to those who need to repent. How does He do that? Through you and me. Those who are protected (sealed) from the wrath of God (9:4) are protected for a purpose--to be His witnesses (chapter 11) even though it will likely result in rejection, hostility and, in some cases, even death.

Why are there only two witnesses in chapter 11? Because in Revelation 1-3, only two of the lampstands (cf. 11: 4), Smyrna and Philadelphia, were faithful witnesses. The rest were failing in their lampstand/witness role. Only two had the oil from the oil trees still burning in their lamps.

Are you being a faithful witness in the midst of a world under the judgment of God? Are you extending God’s mercy to a world that deserves His justice?

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Job: Responding to God’s seemingly arbitrary decrees

Last week I told you about how I was reading as part of my daily devotions, a chapter or two each morning from Mike Mason’s excellent devotional commentary The Gospel According to Job. The following is a chapter that both my wife and I have wrestled with. But what the author is saying, when considered carefully, is really quite liberating, which is always the case with biblical truth.  Read it over, ponder it over and then please comment on your reaction to this.


"The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" (1:21b)

Job's remarkable statement here takes us back to the very primitive (and some would say pagan) concept of chance or luck. Job is basically saying that there is good luck and there is bad luck and that God administrates them both, and not only is it His divine prerogative to do so, but for every one of His seemingly arbitrary decrees He is to be praised. Whether in the casinos of Las Vegas or in the parliaments of the nations, it is God who picks up the roulette ball and places it wherever He will. It is He who shuffles the deck - even if He does not shuffle but rather arranges each card as carefully as He numbers the hairs on a head. Whether luck exists at all, from God's point of view, is a good question. But from the human standpoint, there is so much of the divine patterning that cannot be understood, that we might as well chalk it up to luck. Why does one person have red hair and another brown? Why is one sick and another well? Why does one die young and another live to see four generations - and all without any regard for individual spiritual beliefs? There are no good religious answers to these questions. There is only the nonreligious answer: the luck of the draw.

To believe in God is to accept the nonreligious answer. It is to allow for the fact that the Deity behind the strange and inexplicable facade of this world is a real, living person, and therefore a person with not only rational plans and ideas, but also with nonrational intuitions, feelings, and even whims of His own. To know the Lord in this way is, in some respects, just like knowing anybody else, for in our dealings with other people do we not inevitably run up against a large measure of pure unfathomable irrationality? People would not be people if they were entirely reasonable, and so it is with God. How reasonable is grace? Or love? Many cannot believe in God because they cannot stomach His whims. But to allow the Lord His whimsicalness - and more than that, to bless Him for it - is faith.

This topic turns out to be the crux of a good deal of the long debate between Job and his friends. The friends could never have made the statement in 1:21. It would have been too arbitrary, too superstitious for their liking. Good religious people do not believe in luck; they believe in finding reasons for everything. They are always trying to figure out why they are having a bad day, or why they are sick, or why they are not more happy or prosperous. This type of thinking, which forever tries to appease and manipulate the god behind every bush and rock, is a kind of paganism. In this tight theology there is no room for the sheer arbitrary unreasonableness of the Lord. By contrast, the mind that is able to live with unanswerable questions, letting the roulette ball spin at will and yet still seeing the Lord's hand at work - this is the mind of true faith. This is the faith that can respond, whether in good luck or in bad, "Amen!"

The moment we start thinking that we can discern some pattern to the ways of the Lord, we begin to draw dangerously near to idolatry. We come to worship the pattern rather than the Person behind it. We see patterns everywhere, as in tea leaves, and so grow preoccupied with technique rather than relationship. Patterns become molds into which we try and squeeze all of reality, whether it fits or not. In modern times the most obvious example of this is science. Certainly there are patterns in God's universe to be discovered and legitimately exploited; but no pattern can encompass all of reality. When a pattern or system attempts to be all-inclusive, the final result is that it excludes the most vital factor of all: God. This is not to say that God is not rational, only that mere rationality does not completely define His being.

To the ancient Hebrews pure chance, far from being an idea opposed to God, was one of the very things that proclaimed His sovereignty. Why else would they have cast lots and employed the device of "Urim and Thummim" to discern the Lord's will (see Ex. 28:30)? "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Prov. 16:33). Luck was just one more of the enigmatic channels through which God worked. The mere fact that we are alive at all-is that not lucky? That a loving Heavenly Father has preordained every detail of human lives does not mean that there is any discernible reason why the ball lands on 7 rather than 15. While there is much about God that can be known, this is not what the book of Job is about. Job is about the incomprehensible ways of God, and about the praise that is due Him in bad luck as in good.

(Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job, Crossway Books, 1994: 39-40)

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