Unwrapping Jesus

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Isaiah unpacks the greatest gift the world has ever had. 

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Download Christmas 2018

Christmas Eve 2018. Isaiah 9:6

I’ve had trouble getting in the Christmas spirit this year. A big surgery two weeks ago kinda put the damper on things. I wish I could sit back and enjoy Christmas, but I don’t feel well physically. As I’ve aged, presents hold less appeal for me, too. I’ve started to think, maybe now that I’m an adult, Christmas isn’t really for me. It’s for the kids. It’s for the homeless. It’s for people who don’t have so much to do, or have enough money to get really cool gifts. But it isn’t for me, a middle-aged responsible adult.

As I’ve prepared this message this week, I realize I’m wrong. I don’t know about presents or “the spirit of Christmas,” but the meaning of Christmas is for me. It is for you too. For all of us. The central thing we Christians celebrate at this time of year is the gift of God’s presence in our lives. And that is for me, not just kids or others. And it really is for us, at all times.

Many years ago, centuries before Jesus was even born, Isaiah, prophesying by the Holy Spirit, described several key components of God’s present to us – Jesus Christ. He wrote this:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

The first thing we ought to note from this passage is that the child is born “to us” and given “to us.”  God did not come to earth for any other reason than our benefit.  Jesus did not come for himself, nor for “someone else” but to us.  Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish existentialist, always encouraged people to read the Bible as if it were a personal message for them.

“When you read God’s Word, in everything you read, continually say to yourself: It is I to whom it is speaking, it is I about whom it is speaking…”

So when we read this passage from Isaiah, the words “to us” are not a mistake.  The son was born to us he was given, to us – the message is for us.  Jesus is not an abstraction that exist for those “other people” – he was not just given to Jews or to those really “spiritual” people.  He was given for you and for me.  This is an important signal, a reminder for those who read Isaiah 9:6 that it is relevant.  The prophecy is not just a fascinating historical event, that was fulfilled two thousand years ago – it is relevant to us in our time, our situations, our individual lives. Christmas is for you. It continues even in these days.

So what exactly is this relevant message?

The government will be on his shoulders.  I grew up in a third world country, where the government was frequently entertaining, but never very efficient.  I remember as a youth of twelve, getting off of a plane in L.A., touching US soil for the first time in several years.  We were to be here for three months.  As the car drove smoothly down the empty, early morning freeway, I thought to myself, “Wow, we’re in America.  The government really works here.”  I suppose it was primarily the absence of potholes on the freeway that inspired that thought.  Since that time, of course, I have become as cynical as the next person about the American government. I don’t want to get sidetracked, but it has been a very long time since I’ve had any confidence that the United States government really operates to the benefit of most of the citizens. Of course, the New Guinean government was worse. For those of you who think you might emigrate if it gets really bad, where would you go? You think anywhere is else is better?

Truthfully, no earthly government is perfect.  However, Isaiah tells us that this child, the one given to us, is the one who is ultimately responsible for everything. The fate of the world rests on his shoulders, not on any government or official.

Our hope is not in our government, or any earthly government – our hope in Jesus.  When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus about government (as a governor, it was topic that interested him) Jesus responded that his  (Jesus’) kingdom is not of this world.  In other words, Jesus is not interested in establishing physical ruler-ship of the world at this time – in spite of the fact that the Jehovah’s witness cult says he is.  He is concerned with the government of our souls, lives and our eternal future.  Whom we pay taxes to is not generally his concern, other than that he wants us to obey the laws of the lands where we live.  The Bible does say that there will come a day when Jesus will return and then he will rule the world as  King might.  However, the time and circumstances of that are not our concern.  We can simply put our trust in him, as one finally responsible for what happens. I know earthly government frustrates us sometimes, but we need to take longer view, an eternal perspective on government.

Now this child, this one given to us, the one who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, has been given several significant names. First, he is called wonderful.  In many translations it says “wonderful counselor” but the Hebrew is probably more like “wonderful – comma – counselor.” In other words, they are two separate descriptions of Jesus.  Another way to say “wonderful” might be  “miracle-full.”  Jesus, when he lived on earth, was certainly wonderful in this sense.  Many signs and wonders accompanied his birth – the star, the angels, the wise men and so on.  He did many signs and wonders during his ministry – turning water into wine, healing people, driving out demons, walking on water.  And because he is given to us as well, he wants to continue to work wonders in our lives – reconciling and restoring relationships, healing us and even doing more supernatural miracles as well.

Next, he is the counselor.  Counselor has two major implications of course.  It can refer to someone who helps another with inner healing, and also to someone who gives counsel, or advice.  Jesus does both.  Sometimes we might have struggles in relationships, or a question about how to handle a situation.  Sometimes in our small groups, our temptation is to try and counsel each other – but Jesus is the real counselor. Our real job is simply to connect people with Jesus and His counsel.  He has the wisdom of God.  He stands close by, supporting, listening, encouraging, as good counselor would. If we are honest with ourselves and with him, he can lead us into inner healing, both directly, and through other believers. Another connotation of “counselor” is “comforter.”  Jesus offers us comfort as a counselor – he is there to love us and support us in time of need.

Mighty God.  I think that this name of Jesus is put as the third of the five names for a reason.  It stands, alone, in the center of the other four.  The other four all point to it.  It is, in fact – wait for it – chiastic structure. Jesus is not just some benign, divine uncle, simply there to our beck and call.  He is God.  There is an allegiance that his existence demands on our lives.  Yes, he wants to work miracles for us, yes he wants to be our comforting counselor, but also, he is our God.  He wants to be our ruler.  He is not under our control – but he seeks for us to joyfully submit to His control.  At the heart of the truth about this child is the fact that the God of the universe did come himself to be with us.  Christmas, and this child, is about God’s presence in our lives, and His desire to bring us into a relationship with Him, and to become King of our lives.

Everlasting Father. This is interesting. Isaiah is anticipating the birth of a child that hasn’t even been conceived yet, and he calls this baby a “father.” I think there are several things going on here. First, this is a clear prophecy that the messiah will be God himself in human flesh. Only God was known as “everlasting father.” Isaiah is saying, this child, born to us, will be more than human. He will be eternal God come into the world. Second, fatherhood in those days was significant because it had to do with inheritance. All that your father owned was yours also, even before his death. Isaiah tells us that this “eternal father” is born to us. Through Jesus we gain an eternal inheritance that will never fade or spoil. Third, through Jesus, we get the perfection of fatherhood. Fatherhood is essential to the development of children. An absent or negative father can derail a child for life. A positive and present father goes a long way toward giving the child what he/she needs to succeed in life. In this country we are in a crisis of fatherhood.  Many fathers are negative or even absent altogether.  Yet here, the promise is that this Christ-child will make up for what our earthly fathers lacked.  He can and will fill that most essential void in our lives and even in the lives of our children.  He will treat us like a good father should – He wants to be present in our lives, giving us affection and support, protection and guidance.

Prince of Peace.  “Shalom” is the Hebrew word for peace.  It does not just mean absence of war or “inner calmness” – it means, wholeness, wellness, harmony.  At the heart of Jesus’ peace is reconciliation with God.  Without this reconciliation with God, all the inner calmness in the world is pointless.  Through Jesus, through the child, we can have this peace with God, and the wellness, wholeness and harmony that come with it.

I want to return to the part that I skimmed over before: unto us a son is given.

In ancient Israel, it was tremendously important to people that they have a son to carry on the family name. They saw themselves as belonging to God in groups of families, clans, tribes and then as a nation. If you didn’t have a son, your name would die out, and be remembered no more among the people of God. Therefore, this promise of a son would have meant to those first listeners that they would always have a place in the kingdom of God. This promise of a son meant that they would always belong to God. It means the same thing today. “The Son,” is Jesus, and through him we will belong to God eternally. As the apostle John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:11-13

There is a story told about a man who came home from work one evening, tired and worn out, simply wanting to relax.  As he collapsed into the easy chair with the newspaper, his young son came up to him, wanting to his attention.  The father, unable to muster up much energy, found a picture of the world in his newspaper, and tore it up into small pieces.  He gave the pieces to his son and said, “Here’s a puzzle for you do.  See if you can put the world back together.”  He knew this would occupy his boy for quite some time, since the child did not know his world geography very well.  However in just a few minutes, the boy came back with the puzzle completed, all the countries in the right places

“How did you do that so quickly?” asked the father, amazed.

“It was easy!” replied the boy.  “On the back side of the paper was  a picture of a child.  As soon as I got the child right, the whole world was right.”

That’s sort of how it is with Jesus.  When we get THE CHILD right, our world becomes whole again.

Will you receive the promise of a son this year? Will you receive this child, who rules the universe, the wonderful counselor, everlasting father, mighty God, Prince of peace?

Merry Christmas!

WHO DO *YOU* SAY JESUS IS?

Who is

Just as it was in the time of the disciples, many people have opinions about Jesus. Some of those opinions have little basis in fact. Many of them are generally positive. But the key question is: who do you say Jesus is? If you don’t know enough to answer, this may be a good place to start.

 

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Matthew #52 . Matthew 16:13-20 (Part A)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

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

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matt 16:13-20, ESV2011)

It is worth taking a long look at these eight verses, because there is so much packed into this one small passage. First, Jesus asks, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” I hope you have noticed by now, that sometimes Jesus referred to himself as “the Son of Man.” We considered this briefly before, but I will add some information here. The prophet Ezekiel, when he records God speaking, says something like this: “He said to me, ‘Son of man, speak to the people of Israel and say…’” Ninety-three times Ezekiel records God calling him “son of man,” in this way. The significance of this is that in the case of Ezekiel God chose human flesh to speak his words. I think sometimes that Jesus called himself “son of man” to remind those around him (who would have been familiar with the prophecies of Ezekiel) that he was speaking God’s words to them.

I also believe that at a certain level Jesus found it unique that he was not just “God-the-Son” as he was before he came into the world, but now he was also “son of man,” like Ezekiel, a human instrument of God speaking. You might say, humanity was a kind of new identity for Jesus, and so he often called himself by that name.

There is further significance. Two particular passages in the Old Testament which prophesy about the coming Messiah call him “a son of man.”

I continued watching in the night visions, and I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14, HCSB)

So, by this phrase Jesus is reminding others that he is a messenger from God, embracing his human nature (new since his birth from Mary) and also embracing and reminding others of his identity as the Messiah.

He asks the disciples what others say about him. The answers are interesting. Every one of them is someone who has already died. John the Baptist had already been beheaded at this point, and obviously, many people did not hear anything about Jesus until after John’s death. Hearing his preaching and seeing miracles, perhaps they supposed that John had somehow been resurrected. At the very least, they assumed that spirit of John was somehow manifesting in Jesus.

Elijah, Jeremiah and the other prophets had all died centuries before. Again, the people are either believing that one of the prophets has come back to life, or that Jesus is somehow manifesting the spirit of such a person. All the answers share this in common: the people believed that Jesus was either the physical or spiritual embodiment of some great godly person from the past.

What it amounts to is this: In the general opinion of the people, there was something special about Jesus. However, the answers reveal something else. Though they are willing to give Jesus special honor, they are not willing to grant him the status of being the Messiah, the Lord and savior.

I think this is significant, because most of the world still views Jesus with a similar attitude. Like the people who were alive during his time on earth, many people throughout history and even today, agree that Jesus was something special. The prophet Mohammed attributed many miracles to Jesus, and even said that Jesus lived a sinless life. But Mohammed and Muslims will not grant Jesus the status of Messiah and Lord. They call him only a prophet, no more. Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses have a special honor for Jesus also. Hindu religious leaders often praise Jesus for his teachings, as do many Buddhists, and even some atheists. Even Jews respect Jesus as an important Rabbi. But all of them stop short of Peter’s confession.

Peter said: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” What does this mean, exactly?

“Christ” is simply the Greek word for the Hebrew “Messiah,” which literally means, “anointed one.” That may or may not be not be helpful. The basic meaning of “Messiah/Christ” is: God’s unique, Holy-Spirit-empowered servant by whom He will save His people and accomplish His purposes in the world. Though many people “foreshadowed” what the Messiah would be like (like David), the Old and New Testaments teach that there is only one true Messiah.

What about: “Son of the Living God?” This means more than meets the eye at first. John, who present at the time, wrote this about Jesus’ son-ship:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-4)….

The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning Him and exclaimed, “This was the One of whom I said, ‘The One coming after me has surpassed me, because He existed before me.’ ”) Indeed, we have all received grace after grace from His fullness, for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son — the One who is at the Father’s side — He has revealed Him. (John 1:14-18, HCSB)

Here John, teaches us that the “Son-ship” of Jesus means that he shares the same essence with God the Father. There is one God, not three, and yet he is revealed to us in three persons (not three gods): Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One human being = one person. But God is greater than human beings. For God (and God alone) one God = three persons. This is not something we can understand entirely. It is not the type of thing that human beings would ever make up. If you were creating a religion, or even just refining one, you would either go with polytheism (many separate Gods) or single monotheism (just one God, with one “person”), or monism (everything in the universe is just a part of one big whole). All of those are easy to understand and easy to explain. In a man-made religion, these types of verses I am sharing right now would end up in the trash can. On the other hand, if, as we claim, God is infinite and we are not, it stands to reason that we would not be able to fully understand His nature, which gives the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (that is what we are talking about here) a ring of truth that is missing from polytheism, single-monotheism and monism.

To get back to the main point, we know that “Son of God” means that Jesus shared the same essence with God the Father, and directly manifested the glory and purpose of God in a specific time in the history of our planet.

Paul says similar things. In the following passage, he also connects the Son-ship of Jesus (and his shared essence with God) to his work as the Messiah/Christ:

[God the Father] has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves. We have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Him. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross — whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Col 1:13-20, HCSB)

So “Messiah/Christ” and “Son of God,” go together. Jesus was fully God (one “person” of the One true, three-person God) before the creation of the world. Nothing was created apart from Him doing the creating. Yet he came to earth and took on human flesh, and became not only God the Son, but also “the son of man,” having human nature as we do. He did this because he was the Messiah, the one who ultimately defeated sin and evil through his death on the cross.

Peter may not have understood every single nuance of this at the moment of his confession in Matthew 16:16, but this is what he was saying, this was his confession; this is what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

There are many opinions about Jesus. Our world today is no different in this respect than that of the first disciples. Only the very ignorant refuse to believe that he was a real historical person. Many people recognize the influence he has had on the world, and explain it by calling him a prophet, a great teacher, an angel or something else.

But I believe Jesus asks us the same question that he put to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?”

I don’t want to be overdramatic, but this question is the key question in all of life. Who do you say Jesus is?

The world says all sorts of things about Jesus. Ultimately, however, we each have to grapple personally with what we believe about him. I have a friend who isn’t a Christian. Once, at the end of an email, he said: “Maybe you could put in a good word for me at the pearly gates.”

I responded with this: “My word is no good in heaven. But I can introduce you to the Guy that I’m counting on to get me in.”

It isn’t enough that our friends or relatives know who Jesus is. It isn’t enough to rely on the opinions of educated people about Jesus, or the opinions of religious people, or of wonderful people, or of someone you met at a party. We are all confronted with the same question as the disciples: who do you say Jesus is?

Hopefully, as you have followed along with these sermons, you have learned a thing or two about Jesus. Matthew has recorded that up to this point, Jesus has fulfilled more than a dozen different Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, including things Jesus couldn’t manipulate, like the manner and place of his birth, and his early life in Egypt. John the Baptist testified that Jesus was the Messiah. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven said “This is my beloved son. I take delight in him!”

In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus claims greater authority than Moses. He claims to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament. He says that he is the narrow gate. He prophesies that people will call him “Lord,” and drive out demons in his name and do good works in his name.

So far from Matthew we have seen Jesus heal lepers, and blind people, and lame people, and sick people, and a dead girl. He has healed by touching, and also by simply speaking a word. He has driven out demons. He has miraculously fed 18,000 people or more. We have seen him claim the authority to forgive sins, and then prove that claim by healing a paralyzed man. We have seen him calm a storm and walk on water.

We have heard Jesus say that following him will bring persecution – but that we should follow him anyway. He claims that if we acknowledge him publicly, he will recognize us before the Father in Heaven – he seems to assume that his recognition in this way is all-important. Jesus has called himself the Lord of the Sabbath, and said that the Father in heaven has entrusted all things to him. We have heard him tell the followers of John the Baptist that he is fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. He has claimed to have authority over all demonic powers because his power comes from Heaven. He promises to give us rest for our souls, and he did not stop people from worshiping him.

We have spent fifty-two weeks getting to this point in Matthew; there are many more claims and miracles by Jesus than those I have referenced here, and we are only a little more than halfway through Matthew’s gospel. I think when you look at them all together like this, it makes an impact. Clearly, Jesus is not a great teacher, or a great man in any way, if all these claims are false. But if they are true…?

I think sometimes in my own walk of faith, I get caught up in me. I think and pray about what I want God to do in my life. At other times, I am into intercessory prayer: I want God to do something in the lives of others, or the world at large. But today I want us to remember: it is all about Jesus. Jesus is who he is, whether we believe it or not, whether we even think about it or not. And the foundation of our faith should be recognizing Jesus for who is, and worshipping him. This confession of Peter is the great foundational truth of all people who call themselves Christians. It is worth contemplating.

So, I ask you today: who do you say Jesus is?

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Taking the Bible Literally

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We need to understand not only the context of the verses, and the history and the culture; we must also understand that not everything in the bible was meant to be taken directly. We need to pay attention to the genre of each part of the bible.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Understanding the Bible #6

We’ve considered the origins of the bible. We’ve established it’s historicity and reliability. Last time we began to learn a few simple rules for reading the bible and understanding it properly. The first rule was to read the bible in context. It is rarely helpful to read a verse or two, without understanding what came before it. What comes after all increases our understanding. We also need to read the bible in its historical and cultural context. In other words, we ought to understand what it really meant to the people who first heard it or read it, in their culture, before we will be able to properly apply it to our own lives.

Today, I want to look at another important principle of reading the bible: Pay attention to Genre. Another way to look at this rule is this: What kind of writing are you reading? There are many different kinds of literature (writing) in the bible. We need to be aware of them, and consider the writing style before we try to apply the bible directly to our lives. We have already learned that the bible is actually sixty-six different books, written by dozens of different people from dozens of different walks of life. Some parts of the bible are laws. Others are records of family history. There is also great deal of official “court” or government history. There are genealogies – lists and records of family names. Some of the bible is prophecy, and there are at least two different kinds of prophecy. There is a great deal of poetry and song in the bible. The book of Proverbs is mostly made up of, well, proverbs – wise sayings. There are four accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus (we call them “gospels.”) Within Jesus’ teachings are a unique kind of literature called parables. There are a number of letters written by Jesus’ apostles to anyone who wants to follow Him.

I have just listed ten major genres, or types of writing, found in the bible. We need to pay attention to these when we read the bible. We will need to read poetry with a very different approach than we use when we read one of Paul’s letters to Jesus-followers. When we read a historical section, we ought to treat it differently than we treat a prophecy.

I will deal with laws in a sermon all by itself. Today, let’s consider briefly how we might approach the other different genres in the bible.

History: This includes both family history and court/government history. Historical narrative is the record or “story” of real people and real events. As we learned previously, there is no reason to doubt the bible when it gives us historical narrative, and plenty of reasons to believe it. So we read it as a record of something that actually happened. We can get spiritual lessons from historical sections of the bible, but we ought to keep in mind that history isn’t primarily a parable, or an allegory – it is a record of what happened. Because of that, history isn’t always ideal. David committed adultery and murder. The record of those sinful actions is not a teaching telling us that it is okay for leaders to do such things. It is simply telling us what David actually did, not what we ought to do, or even what he ought to have done. In the historical situations, we look at how God dealt with people and nations in the events of their lives, and learn how God may deal with us at times. We look at mistakes and failures, and learn lessons concerning what we ought to avoid. We look at victories, and learn how to trust God to work through us. We see God’s faithful love at work in the past, and take encouragement from it.

Genealogies. I admit, this is the hardest genre for me. Lists of families and names just don’t seem to bring me a lot of spiritual benefit. But every so often, God blesses me through one of the genealogical lists in the bible. For instance, when we start to look at the genealogy of Jesus, listed in Matthew 1:1-17, and investigate what the bible says about some of the ancestors of Jesus, it is a blessing. Many of the physical ancestors of Joseph (in other words, Jesus’ earthly family) and even of Mary (she was related to Joseph) were scoundrels. Two of the women were prostitutes! Yet we see that God gave them grace, and used them anyway. He removed their shame and through them, brought the Messiah into the world. I have found similar lessons in other genealogies. The trick is to look up the people listed, and see what you can learn about them.

Prophecy: I’ve mentioned before that reading biblical prophecy is like looking at a range of distant mountains. From a distance, the mountains look like they are all right next to each other, but when you get closer, you find they are a series of ridges and peaks that go on for some time. The mountains aren’t all lined up side by side, as it looks from a long ways away. From the prophet’s perspective (which is how it is written down in the bible) it looks like all of the future will happen at one time. In reality, as you get closer, some things are fulfilled centuries before other things. So Isaiah talks about the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened 200 years after he prophesied), the return of the exiles from Babylon (which happened 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem) the coming of the Messiah (which happened about 700 years after he prophesied) and the end of the world (which, as far as I know, hasn’t happened yet). These prophesies about various times are jumbled in amongst each other.

Prophecy also has a message to us in the present, regardless of the predictive element of it. Most of the prophets spoke to people about how to relate to God, and how God loves us, and longs to forgive and care for us. These words are still relevant today. So the comfort spoken to the exiles who would return to Jerusalem is also spoken to us, who seek peace and comfort in the Lord today.

Prophecies are not direct teachings however. We need to understand them in their historical context (as we spoke about last time) and be careful with directly and literally importing everything a prophet says to our own time.

Apocalyptic Prophecy: Parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation contain a specialized form of prophecy called “Apocalyptic Prophecy.” This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. Almost nothing in apocalyptic prophecy should be taken at face value. The images and numbers are usually symbolic. For instance in Revelation, the number twelve is very significant. There were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. There were twelve apostles. Therefore, the number twelve is a symbol for “the people of God.” It’s like a code. In Revelation chapter 7, it talks about 144,000 people who were sealed. This just means “the entire amount of God’s people from both Israel and the Church.” 12 tribes of Israel (representing God’s people before the time of Jesus) times 12 Apostles (representing the church, God’s people since the time of Jesus). 12 x 12 = 144. Get it? You will need help to understand what the images and numbers in apocalyptic prophecy mean. And to be honest, there are still things in apocalyptic literature that no one really understands for sure. A study bible will help, but more than anything, let the clear portions of the bible lead you in understanding what is not clear.

Gospels. There are four books that give us historical records of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We read these as we would read history, with two exceptions:

1. When the gospels record the teaching of Jesus, we understand it as teaching. In other words, it isn’t just history. It is also the teaching which Jesus Christ intends us to learn, understand and follow. We must learn it context, like everything else. But it isn’t just a historical curiosity. We are meant to learn it and follow it.

2. Jesus used parables extensively. Almost always, a parable is a story that is not supposed to be taken literally, and it makes just one (at most two) main points. Don’t follow rabbit trails when you deal with a parable. Stick to the main one or two points. So, consider the parable of the good Samaritan. The main point of the story is that the Lord wants us to look after anyone in need – even our natural enemies. He wants us to treat all the people we encounter as “neighbors.” The parable is not there to teach us that priests are all naturally bad people, or that we should regularly travel from Jerusalem to Jericho, or that we should pay for homeless people to stay in hotels. Stick to the main point.

Letters. Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by the apostles to Christians. These letters generally contain teaching, exhortation and encouragement. We are meant to receive them as teaching and instruction. Generally, once we understand the historical and textual context, we take these things basically literally.

Poetry and Song. Poetic language is often not supposed to be taken literally. For our scripture this week, let’s look at Psalm 19.

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky1 proclaims the work of His hands.

2 Day after day they pour out speech;

night after night they communicate knowledge.2

3 There is no speech; there are no words;

their voice is not heard.

4 Their message3 has gone out to all the earth,

and their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens4 He has pitched a tent for the sun.

5 It is like a groom coming from the5 bridal chamber;

it rejoices like an athlete running a course.

6 It rises from one end of the heavens

and circles6 to their other end;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

First, notice that this is laid out like a poem or song. In fact, in the heading of Psalm 19, there is the note: “For the Choir Director.” Most modern bible translations will lay out poetic language in this way, even though we have no music for it, and it does not rhyme in English. This layout is the translators’ way of showing us it is a song, poem or poetic prophesy. Much of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job is laid out in this way. This lay-out is our first cue for how we should interpret the passage.

Now, in the case of Psalm 19, the writer (David) even tells us the language is poetic. In verse one, he says the heavens declare God’s glory, and pour forth speech. In verse two, he clarifies that we aren’t supposed to take that literally – it’s a word-picture, a metaphor. The sky doesn’t actually talk.

In verses 3-6 David describes the sun. Now, think for a moment. Does this mean that the Bible teaches us that the sky is an actual covering like a tent? Do these verses teach us that the sun actually rejoices? Does it mean that no place on earth can be cold when the sun is out?

The answer to all of those questions, is, of course, no. The language is poetic. We aren’t supposed to take it literally. The point is that God created the sky and all we observe in it, and by the things he set in motion in the sky, we can learn about God. This isn’t a straightforward teaching. It is a song, with metaphors and similes and creative ways of expressing things. We can learn things from it (that God sends messages to us through his creation) but we get that message differently than we do when Paul says the same thing in Acts 14:15-17 and Romans 1:19-20

What can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20, HCSB)

This verse from Romans says basically the same thing as Psalm 19, but in a very different style. That is why genre is important for understanding. Many people make grave mistakes about the bible when they don’t consider the genre. We don’t have to. It is mostly common sense, but we simply have to remember to pay attention.