REVELATION #28: THE BEAST

Shadow Person Hat

To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

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Download Revelation Part 28

There is a lot of biblical prophecy that seems to be “now, but not yet.” What I mean is, sometimes prophecies include information about the near future, the far future, and the end of time, all jumbled up together. For instance, the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the return of God’s people from captivity in Babylon. That return actually happened. But in the same prophecies about the return from exile, Isaiah also prophesies about the coming of the Messiah. Of course, that also happened when Jesus came to earth, but it was several hundred years after the return from exile. And in those same texts which speak of the return from captivity in Babylon, and the coming of the Messiah, there are also images and ideas that seem to be about the end of the world, and the New Heavens & New Earth.

I think this sort of jumbling of different time frames also occurs in the book of Revelation. John’s visions include information about what is happening while John himself is still alive. They also include information about things to come, possibly things that will happen, and go on happening, before the end of the world. And, of course, there are some things that are unmistakably about the very end of the world.

I believe that John’s vision of “the beast” in Revelation chapter 13 contains elements of all three time frames. Some parts of this vision were already happening when John first wrote it down. Other parts likely refer to the very end of time. There are still other aspects of this vision that I think have been going on throughout history, and are still happening today.

Now, I want to say that a certain amount of focus on the future is a good thing. If the people of Israel had never considered the promises about the coming of the Messiah, no one would have followed Jesus when he came. Those promises also gave them hope in hard times. So, prophetic promises are meant to keep us alert, looking for God’s work in the world. They are in the scripture also to give us hope about the future, and comfort when we experience difficult times.

However, too much focus on the future is not good. Time and time again, I have met Christians who study Daniel and Revelation and pore over timelines and charts; they listen to endless podcasts from speakers who claim to know, in detail, what will happen at the end of the world. Very often, these Christians use their obsession with the end times as a way to avoid actually living as disciples of Jesus Christ. It can be a way of “being into” the Bible without actually obeying the Bible. Let’s apply that in a general way to our passage today: It is helpful to know that we are in a spiritual war, and that at times, it may seem like everything is against us; and yet, God is still in control. It is not nearly so helpful to “know” the specific details of who the beast is ahead of time. Theorizing that he will come from the area around the Black Sea, and that he will institute a one-world government doesn’t actually help very much in your day-to-day walk with Jesus. The first sort of attitude helps us cling to Jesus, the second sort of thing is not true Biblical prophecy at all, and it does not help us in our walk with Jesus.

Here’s another for instance. In our passage today, one of the heads of the beast looks as if it had been killed, but was not. Now for decades, the Soviet Union was considered by the West to be the biggest threat to world peace and individual liberty. President Regan called it “an evil empire.” Many Christians thought that the end of the world would probably involve the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, the new premier of the USSR appeared: Mikhail Gorbachev. He had a huge birth mark on his head, and many Christians wondered if he was part of the Beast: the Head that “seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed.” This speculation did not help us grow closer to Jesus. Instead, we wasted a lot of time and emotional energy speculating about something that turned out to be nothing. This is what I’m trying to avoid as we go through the Book of Revelation.

So, let’s briefly consider the strange description of the Beast from a spiritual standpoint. Remember that the dragon, with seven heads was imitating the sevenfold spirit of God, and with ten horns, God’s mighty power, and the crowns, God’s ruler-ship and majesty? Well, the Beast is the representative of the Dragon. He has seven heads, again imitating God’s “sevenfold spirit.” Like the dragon, he imitates the majesty and power of God with ten horns, and ten crowns. The wounded/recovered head appears to be a mocking representation of Jesus, the lamb who was slain. Let us remember how John first described Jesus as the Lamb of God:

6And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:6, ESV2011)

So this Beast, as Satan’s representative, tries to imitate the Lamb, to take his place, and lead people astray. In the book of Daniel, Daniel has a vision of four different beasts: one Like a lion, another like a bear, a third like a leopard, and a fourth with massive teeth. Many commentators believe that what Daniel saw was a prediction of future empires; many scholars agree that Daniel’s prediction was largely fulfilled by the time of Jesus. Here in Revelation, John seems to be borrowing from the same imagery, however, it is all mashed together into one beast, not four different ones. Perhaps then, this one beast represents all of the empires throughout human history that set themselves up in opposition to God, or in place of God.

With these things in mind, let us once more ground ourselves by understanding how our text would have sounded to those who lived in the time of John. These Christians were faced with a culture that was hostile to them. There was tremendous pressure in some of the seven churches to conform to the culture’s immoral sexuality. There was pressure to compromise “just a little bit,” and worship idols, so that they could have certain careers. Above all, there was the Roman Emperor, Domitian. He was the ruler of the entire world, as far as anyone knew. He required that everyone worship him as a god, by offering a pinch of incense at altars dedicated to him. This worship was compulsory, and those who refused were severely persecuted. They lost property, homes, freedom, and sometimes, their very lives.

Now, does that sound like anything we just read…like our text, perhaps? The beast is fearsome and powerful, and everyone was saying: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The whole earth worships the beast. The Beast has authority over the whole world, and even to make war upon the saints and conquer them.

I am quite certain that John’s first readers would see the beast as the Roman Emperor. This passage, for the original readers of Revelation, explained what was going on. In real life, for those believers, the emperor Domitian had set himself up to be worshiped as a God. In real life, their friends and family had been arrested, imprisoned, sometimes even killed. In their actual lives, the whole world went along with emperor-worship, and rejected Jesus and his followers.

This passage explains what they are going through as part of the ongoing, cosmic, spiritual war between the Dragon (Satan) and the followers of Jesus. Those first readers would have read this, and thought, “Ah, so that is what is happening. We are in the middle of a great spiritual war. God knows we are being conquered physically. It isn’t random. This vision (Revelation) shows us that God is aware of what is happening, and that even this hardship is part of his plan to bring about the end of evil, and to make everything right.

The beast is given authority for “42 months.” Remember 42 months =1,260 days=3.5 years. This isn’t a literal amount of time. It represents half of seven years, that is, half of God’s perfect timing to accomplish his purposes. So, for half of God’s time, it seems that his people are protected. The witnesses prophesy without hindrance for this amount of time (chapter 11). The woman is protected in the wilderness for that amount of time (chapter 12). But there is another “half of God’s perfect time,” and during that time, it appears as if Satan and his minions are winning. We are told that time frame, however, to assure us that the evil days will not go on forever. God is still in control, and there is a limit to the time allowed to the devil.

So, John’s first readers would understand that what they were facing would not be the fate of God’s people forever. But in the meantime they might be imprisoned, or even killed. They must endure with faith and patience. Above all, they must remember that their names have been written in the Lamb’s book of Life since the foundation of the world.

I think there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit inspired John to write this vision to communicate to those first believers in the way I just explained. So, then, how does the Spirit want to apply this passage to us?

In the first place, let’s not forget that we Christians are part of a 2,000 year old global movement. In our history as a people there have always been places where this sort of terrible persecution has happened. In some cases, the persecution even came from those who claimed to be Christians. Martin Luther was more than half-convinced that Pope Leo the Tenth was the antichrist, or the beast, since he had worldwide authority, and used it to blaspheme against the truth of God. For German Christians in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, Hitler would have been the obvious choice for the Beast. And like those first Christians in the Roman empire, many believers were imprisoned and executed for defying Hitler. In the 1920s-1990s, many people lived under the terrible, Beast-like authority of Soviet communism. Millions upon millions are still in a similar situation in China, even today. Millions more live under the cruel oppression of radical Islam, where the culture around them demands that they worship a false and distorted image of the One True God; the consequences of refusing are catastrophic. It is happening to Christians also in India. In fact, apart from a few places like Korea and Brazil, the only places where Christians don’t face a clear “Beast” are in the Western world. We live in a unique bubble, but the bubble is very near to bursting. Our culture is changing rapidly, and it won’t be long, historically speaking, before we begin to face severe negative consequences for faithfully following Jesus. I expect in my lifetime to suffer hardship simply for being a Christian. I think it is best if we are forewarned:

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (ESV)
1 Peter 4:12-14

But let us not make the mistake of thinking if this comes to America or Europe, that it must mean the end of the world. Millions of Christian brothers and sisters have lived under Beast-like conditions throughout history. This passage is far more about encouragement and endurance than speculation about the future.

To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

One thing this passage should do for us who are not under persecution is to remind us to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are. I strongly encourage you to visit the website of Voice of the Martyrs, and use the information there to pray for those who live under persecution.

Let the Spirit Speak to you today.

WAR AND HOPE

Temple _Destruction

The words of Jesus in this passage are intended to help us stand steadfast in trouble, they are intended to give us hope. Even in the middle of great tribulation we can have hope, knowing that God is in charge, that he cares about us, and has not forgotten us. Above all, Jesus’ promise to return again and make all things right, is something to give us hope and peace. The fact that he is already been right about some of the things he prophesied should encourage us.

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Download Matthew Part 85

Matthew #85. Matthew 24:15-34

In the very first part of this chapter, Jesus told his disciples that the temple was going to be destroyed, while some of “this present generation” were still alive. Certainly, the apostle John lived to see it happen, and survived even twenty years longer, after the event.

I also mentioned the fact that in this section of Scripture Jesus appears to be jumbling together both the destruction of Jerusalem, and what we call “the end of the world.” When we get to our text for next time, it will become clear that Jesus, remaining in complete dependence upon the Father, was not told by the Father when the end of the world would come (24:36). However, it is also clear (from verse 34) that Jesus himself did know that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was not going to be at the same time as the end of the world. Though he talks about the details of the two things together, when we examine the text closely, it is obvious that he knows that they are two different sets of events.

In our passage today, it is very helpful to understand some in-depth background. Stick with me through that, and I think you’ll find greater understanding and encouragement from these scriptures.

Much of what we know of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 A.D. comes from the Jewish-Born man, Titus Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish General in Galilee, who fought against the Romans in the war of 66-73 A.D.. He was captured in 67 by the Romans, after a six-week siege of the town of Jotopata, where he led the resistance. He then ingratiated himself with the Romans by claiming that it was prophesied that Vespasian, the Roman general who was leading the war in Palestine, would become Emperor. He was made the slave of Vespasian, and later Vespasian’s son Titus, and served as a translator for the remainder of the war. Vespasian did, in fact, become Emperor as Josephus predicted, in the year 69, and he granted Josephus his freedom. Josephus continued to serve the Romans, taking on Vespasian’s family name, Flavius. He became a historian, writing a very large volume about the Jewish wars, and also another volume of ancient Jewish history. I will share more from Josephus’ writings in a little while.

For now, let’s turn to our text. All throughout this passage, Jesus is using ideas and images that come from the book of Daniel, chapters 9, 11, and 12. Daniel, living in the Persian Empire, prophesied about the future tribulations of the Jewish people. Daniel 12:1 says:

1At that time Michael the great prince who stands watch over your people will rise up. There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time. But at that time all your people who are found written in the book will escape. (Dan 12:1, HCSB)

This sounds a lot like what Jesus is saying in our passage today:

21For at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again! 22Unless those days were limited, no one would survive. But those days will be limited because of the elect. (Matt 24:21-22, HCSB)

In verse 15, Jesus says:

15“So when you see the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place” (let the reader understand), 16“then those in Judea must flee to the mountains! (Matt 24:15-16, HCSB)

The first time I read this, I was about thirteen years old, and I did not understand, and that bothered me. I think I comprehend a bit more today, so let me help you. Here’s what Daniel says in the prophecies to which Jesus is referring:

31His forces will rise up and desecrate the temple fortress. They will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up the abomination of desolation. (Dan 11:31, HCSB)

 27He will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and offering. And the abomination of desolation will be on a wing of the temple until the decreed destruction is poured out on the desolator.” (Dan 9:27, HCSB)

The Jewish people at the time of Jesus generally felt that Daniel’s prophecies had already been fulfilled. About 200 years prior, when the Jews were under Greek/Seleucid rule, the Greek leader Antiochus Epiphanes entered the temple and built a statue there. This desecrated the temple, making it unclean, and it was an abomination to all the Jewish people. It was the year 167 B.C. This led to the Maccabean rebellion, which led to a brief period of Jewish independence (See my first message on the book of Matthew for more background).

Jesus did not say, “Let the reader understand.” That was Matthew’s insertion. He wanted his readers to realize that Jesus was saying that Daniel’s prophecy had not yet been fulfilled.

The desecration of the temple in 167 B.C. may have been a partial fulfillment, but Matthew wants his readers to understand that something like those events was going to happen again. In fact, the Jewish war with the Romans of 66-73 A.D. looked a lot more like a fulfillment of Daniel than the events of 167 B.C., when Antiochus desecrated the temple.

In July of A.D. 70, the Roman general Titus set fire to the temple, slaughtered those within it, and had the Roman standards brought into the Most Holy Place. The Roman standards were poles with various decorations on them. The kind most likely brought into the temple sanctuary would have had a square flag, hanging from a crossbar near the top of the pole. Stitched on the flag would be the name of the unit and probably an image of a god, or perhaps even the Emperor (who was considered a god). It might also have had a carved image of the Roman Eagle at the top of the pole. These sorts of Roman standards were considered to be idolatrous by the Jews, and by bringing them into the Most Holy Place, Titus desecrated the temple, much as Antiochus Epiphanes did 237 years before him.

Therefore, to unwind these words of Jesus, and the parenthetical comment of Matthew, it is something like this: “When you see the Roman legions marching, carrying the standards of the Emperor, flee!” I think that the Jewish people at the time would have understood these things much more easily than us.

Later, Jesus says:

19Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! 20Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21For at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again! 22Unless those days were limited, no one would survive. But those days will be limited because of the elect. (Matt 24:19-22, HCSB)

You might think that Jesus has begun talking about the end of the world again, but I don’t think so. First, he encouraged his followers to pray that it wouldn’t happen in winter. That doesn’t make sense for the end of the world: the weather really won’t matter. But in 1st Century Israel, winter rains made most roads impassible with mud, and cold could kill those forced to camp outside with no shelter. Perhaps many people did pray, because, in fact, the worst part of the war was in spring, and the temple was not desecrated until July, and not fully destroyed until after that.

Historian Josephus, although somewhat familiar with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, was not a Christian; Christianity remained illegal in the Roman empire during his lifetime. Even so, the way he describes the war sounds very much like what Jesus predicted. Jesus said, “Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers!”

In a section about the siege engines used by the Romans against him in Jotopata, Josephus writes (warning: these words contain matter-of-fact graphic violence):

And any one may learn the force of the engines by what happened this very night; for as one of those that stood round about Josephus was near the wall, his head was carried away by such a stone, and his skull was flung as far as three furlongs. In the day time also, a woman with child had her belly so violently struck, as she was just come out of her house, that the infant was carried to the distance of half a furlong, so great was the force of that engine. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews. Book 3, chapter 7, paragraph 23).

Josephus describes many such terrible and heart-wrenching events. It was a brutal, horrific conflict. When Jerusalem was besieged, people became lawless, and many took food and other things from mothers and babies, and did violence to them. In fact, some historians have described the Jewish-Roman War as the worst massacre of ancient times. Jesus is not wrong to call it a “great tribulation.”

Josephus also describes the kinds of natural disturbances that Jesus mentions:

There broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 4, chapter 4, paragraph five)

Some of the language that Jesus uses in our passage today is probably exaggerated imagery (in other words, he did not mean everything literally), but given the writings of Josephus, I think it is worth noting that Jesus predicted a horrific, unbelievable tribulation, and that is exactly what happened.

In verses 23-30 it seems clear that Jesus turns to talking about the end of the world. In fact, he is warning his disciples not to confuse the coming turmoil in Israel with his own return at the end of the world. This is the second time in the same discussion that Jesus has warned us not to be taken in by false prophets and deceivers who claim that the end of the world has come, or who claim to be Jesus himself, returned for his people. He makes it clear that when he comes back again, no one can miss it:

27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matt 24:27, HCSB)

In verse 32, he may be returning to the discussion about the coming destruction of the nation of Israel. The fig tree is a useful analogy: just as we can tell the season from looking at the trees, those who hear him should be able to recognize the signs that these things are about to take place. For my part, I would think that as soon as I heard of the Jewish rebellion that led to the war, it would seem to me a sign that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed.

Verse 34 clearly refers back to the first part of the discussion, about the coming tribulation to the Jewish nation. This is clear both from what Jesus said about his own return (it will be unmistakable) and also what he says later on in verse 36 when he insists that the Father has not revealed the day or the hour to him. If the Father hasn’t told him when the end of the world is, Jesus certainly can’t claim to know it will happen before the present generation passes away. Therefore that comment must refer to the events of verses 15-22.  The short discussion from verse 32-33 is a warning not to be mistaken about the coming of Jesus.

Even though much of our passage today is concerned with events that have already occurred, I think we can learn a great deal from it, and be encouraged by it.

First, as I said last time, this is very good evidence that Jesus is reliable when he speaks prophetically. Since he also prophesied that he would return, and that we would recognize his return, I think we can bank on that, and look forward to it. Though there may be difficult times we have to endure, we can trust his promise to deliver us, and to bring us into his eternal kingdom.

A second thing gets my attention from this text. Jesus told his followers to pray that these events did not happen in winter. As it turns out, they did not happen in winter. I can’t help wondering if many Jesus-followers did, in fact pray, and so influenced the events to happen in summer. It encourages me to believe in the power of prayer.

Another thing I get from the text is this: If we find ourselves in the middle of trouble and tribulation, it isn’t wrong to try and get out of it. We may not be able to escape it; it may not be God’s will for us to escape it. Even so, it isn’t wrong to try (as long as it does not involve sinning).

The analogy of the fig tree is also helpful for me. As we will see next time, it is absolutely pointless to try and build a timeline for the end of the world. Even so, verses 32 and 33 show us that it is possible to recognize the “signs of the times.” In other words, we can look at history, and culture, and current events, and evaluate them with wisdom.

Overall, the words of Jesus here are not intended to scare us. They are intended to help us stand steadfast in trouble, they are intended to give us hope. Certainly, many Jesus-followers left Jerusalem before all this took place. They escaped this terrible tribulation. And even in the middle of great tribulation we can have hope, knowing that God is in charge, that he cares about us, and has not forgotten us. Above all, Jesus’ promise to return again and make all things right, is something to give us hope and peace. The fact that he is already been right about some of the things he prophesied should encourage us.

Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you about all of this right now.

 

WHAT BARACK OBAMA HAS IN COMMON WITH JESUS

obama1

 

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Download Matthew Part 4

 

 

Matthew #4 . 2:12-23

Sometimes, at my house, we have leftovers for supper. We often do this on Sunday nights, so no one has to cook, and we can all have a day off. I actually really enjoy this, particularly when we have high-quality leftovers. So, we might get it all out, and then call the family together and say something like:

“OK, everyone, we have some leftover lasagna from when we went out to eat, some spinach pie, and some curry. Take your pick, and dig in.”

Sometimes, I think of bible passages like leftover-night. We’ve got several good things to choose from, and maybe everyone will get something a little bit different from it. That’s how I feel about our text this time. So, I’ll set out the food and let you dig in. Start out by reading the passage, if you haven’t already (Matthew 2:12-23). For those of you who got sucked in by the title, let me offer full disclosure: I’ll get to Jesus and Barack Obama in the second half of this post. That’s part of the “second serving.”

Last time, we looked at the Magi (wise men). Our text this time picks up at the end of their appearance in the bible. On the way to see Jesus, they had stopped first in Jerusalem and asked King Herod about the birth of the Messiah. Herod had pretended to be interested for the sake of worshipping the Messiah himself, but in truth, he asked the Magi to come back and tell him about it so that he could learn the identity of the child, and have him killed.

Herod had become king of Judea through scheming with Rome, and he held the position because he was supported by the Roman army. He wasn’t a Jew, and the Jews resented him. Just a little more than a generation before Herod, the Jews had still been ruled by a Jewish king. As a king, Herod was smart, insecure and ruthless, which was a bad combination for the people he ruled. Most likely, he thought that the child was some kind of descendant of the Hasmonean (Jewish) kings who had ruled the region in his father’s time. He saw the messiah as a real and political threat to his throne and to his life.

God warned the Magi in a dream not to go back to Herod, and they obeyed. After they left, God spoke to Joseph in a dream also, and warned him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape from Herod. Joseph also obeyed. The fact that Jesus spent time in Egypt fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy, the fifth fulfilled prophecy that Matthew refers to:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. (Hos 11:1, HCSB).

After time passed, and Herod never heard from the wise men again, he realized he was not going to learn the identity of the Messiah. He flew into an evil rage, but it was also a cold and ruthless rage. By simple mathematics, he figured out how old the Messiah would be, and had every male child that age and younger in Bethlehem killed. This fulfilled yet another prophecy, from Jeremiah 31:15.

This is what the LORD says: A voice was heard in Ramah, a lament with bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children because they are no more. (Jer 31:15, HCSB)

After Herod died, Joseph had yet another visit from the Lord in a dream. This time he was told it was safe to return to the territory of Israel. One more dream warned him not to go back to Bethlehem or Jerusalem, however, which were controlled by Herod’s son Archelaus. So Joseph settled the family back in Nazareth, Mary’s hometown. Matthew makes reference to one more prophecy, the seventh so far, that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. This probably comes from one or two sources. Isaiah 11:1 says:

Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. (Isa 11:1, HCSB)

In Hebrew the word “branch” sounds a lot like the word Nazarene. There is another prophecy that does not name Nazareth, but it does name the region (Galilee):

Nevertheless, the gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times when He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. But in the future He will bring honor to the Way of the Sea, to the land east of the Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness. (Isa 9:1-2, HCSB)

Matthew may have been thinking of either or both of these passages, which were widely regarded to apply to the Messiah.

These fulfilled prophecies are important, not only to the Jews who first read Matthew’s book, but also to us. Let me review them for you, with a reference to where Matthew shows them as fulfilled. The Messiah was supposed to be a descendant of David (1:1-17), but born of virgin (1:18-25). He was supposed to be born in Bethlehem (2:1) and associated with a star (from Numbers 24:17, fulfilled in Matt 2:1). Though born in Bethlehem, he was to come from Egypt (2:14), and there would be lamenting in Bethlehem near the time of his birth (2:16-18). Though born in Bethlehem and called from Egypt, the Messiah was supposed to come from Galilee/Nazareth (2:23).

Even if you took out the virgin birth, the probability of a single individual meeting all these criteria is extremely low. You see, this is one reason that prevented every woman who had a baby boy out-of-wedlock from claiming that she was really a virgin and her baby was actually the Messiah. There were simply too many strange requirements to meet. Only Jesus met them. And Matthew is not even close to finished pointing out all the ways Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. If you were with us on our study called “Understanding the Bible” you know that there is no doubt that all those prophecies were written long before Jesus was born.

That should encourage our faith. This is one of our “meals” this time. Do you need to hear again how unique Jesus was? Do you need the faith-boost of understanding how he fulfilled things that were written about him hundreds of years before he was born? Do you need to be reminded of how amazing and how reliable the bible is? Sink your teeth into these fulfilled prophecies.

There is another one here that is very personal for me. Some of you know that I grew up in Papua New Guinea. When you grow up in a country that is not the home-country of your parents, you experience some very unique things. People who grew up this way are called Third-Culture-Kids (TCKs), because we are not really from the first culture (the home country of our parents), but we aren’t really from the second culture either (the place in which we grew up). By the way, President Barack Obama is one of us.

When I was younger I had to come to terms with the fact that I am a person without a real home culture or home country. Sometimes, I felt like I was from outer space. Even after more than twenty years in the same country, I still feel like this at times. For all my life, I’ve had to deal with being absent from either one home, or the other. I’m not trying to say “poor me,” but the fact is, I’ve found that only other TCKs really understand. When I was coming to terms with all this, I remember complaining a little to the Lord. I said, “You say that you can understand and empathize with our weaknesses, because you’ve been tested in every way just as we have (Hebrews 2:17-18). What about this? What about the strange struggles of being a TCK?”

I thought I had him, until the Lord pointed me to this passage in Matthew, and it hit me like a cement truck: Jesus was a Third Culture Kid. Like me, and like Barack Obama, Jesus was a TCK. He was born in Judea, but raised for some of his childhood in Egypt, a place where his parents were not from. He wasn’t really from there either, but by the time he came back to Nazareth, he would not have really thought of himself as from that place, either. If you had asked him, “Where are you from?” he would have given a typical TCK type answer:

“Well, I was born in Bethlehem, Judea, but I grew up in Egypt. I come from Nazareth, but right now I’m living in Capernaum.”

To make this more applicable to people other than TCKs, let me clarify the main point: Jesus can really, truly identify with you. There are probably only a few hundred thousand TCKs in the entire world (maybe far fewer), but Jesus made sure he could relate to us, and us to him. Whether you are a TCK or not, realize this – Jesus has made it so that he can truly understand you and your struggles. Don’t doubt that he knows and understands what you are going through, and cares about you in the midst of it.

A third “dish,” that I notice in this passage is the way the Lord spoke to people in dreams. In this passage, he did it four times – three to Joseph. Joseph also heard from the Lord in a dream in Matthew 1:20. Dreams are a tricky thing. First, and most importantly, I want to caution that you should never listen to your dreams if they are “guiding” you to do something that the bible clearly says you should not; or if they guide you to refrain from doing what the bible says you should. The bible is our final and authoritative guide. Even so, I do think that sometimes Christians put God in a box – that is they won’t even consider the possibility that he may speak to them in dreams. Joseph’s experience shows us that the Lord can and does lead us directly in choices and directions where the bible is not specific, or in things that the bible does not address. It may be through dreams, or some other method, but the point is, God remains active in our lives.

Yes, it is true, Joseph was the step-father of the Messiah, so his choices were pretty important. But there is nothing in the text that suggests other Christians should be different, or treated differently by God. In fact, the Holy Spirit gave dreams to lead Peter (Acts 10:10-19) and Paul (Acts 16:9-10) and even Cornelius (Acts 10:3-5). Joel, the prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit, predicted that the Lord would use all sorts of ways to speak to his people after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit

After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions. I will even pour out My Spirit on the male and female slaves in those days. (Joel 2:28-29, HCSB)

So, what I get from Joseph’s dreams is that God wants to speak to us, even about our specific lives and the choices that we face. As you face choices, I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you and guide you; and then trust that He will. In fact, I trust that he is speaking to you right now. Why don’t you pause and listen, and absorb what he wants to do right now?

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 

In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 

I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 

Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 

If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 

Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

PREPARE THE WAY–THE WAY TO PREPARE

Mayan-Calendar

This is a good time of year to consider our lives, and where we need to be “raised up” or “leveled out.” Isaiah’s words, spoken 2600 years ago, are far more relevant than the recently expired Mayan calendar.

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DECEMBER 23, 2012

“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of forced labor is over, her iniquity has been pardoned, and she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth and the rough places, a plain. And the glory of the LORD will appear, and all humanity together will see it, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 40:1-5, HCSB)

Well, the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end on Friday, which is a pretty big disappointment for those us who go to work and pay taxes. It was also probably surprising and discouraging for the folks who got blind drunk Friday night and woke up alive on Saturday. Now the president and congress still have to save us from the fiscal cliff and everyone is still on the hook for Christmas credit-card bills. In a bible passage that is often read near Christmas time, the prophet Isaiah also made a prophecy about something momentous that was going to happen. He wasn’t a Mayan, by the way, and some of his prophecy has already come true.

I have talked before about how biblical prophecy is multi-layered. It’s like looking at a mountain range on a clear day, from a distance. All of the mountains and ridges look like they are next to each other. However, as you get closer, it becomes obvious that some of the heights are closer to you, while others are actually many miles behind the first line of ridges and peaks. So a prophet speaks what the Lord has shown him. In biblical prophecy, particularly in the Old Testament, you often find prophecies that were fulfilled before Jesus right next to prophecies that Jesus himself fulfilled, and also next to prophecies about the end of the world. From a distance, they were all “sometime in the future.” But some have already come to pass, while others are still some way off. In addition, most biblical prophecy also contains some sort of message that was relevant even before the fulfillment of the prophetically predicted event.

With all that in mind, let’s look at Isaiah 40:1-5. Isaiah prophesied to the nation primarily during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah, from about 750 to 690 or so, BC. One of the many things he prophesied, was that the nation of Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians, and that many of the people would be taken away to Babylon as exiles. This was fulfilled in 587 BC, about 200 years after Isaiah’s time. Looking even further ahead, after his prophecies about the future exile, Isaiah goes on to prophesy about the return of the Jews from Babylon. This also happened, starting in the 520s BC. Isaiah 40 is basically the beginning of the section about that future return from future exile. And yet, at the same time, parts of this passage (and others in this section) are about the future coming of Jesus Christ to earth, which he did, as we know, roughly 2000 years ago, or, about 700 years after Isaiah prophesied. And finally, elements of these prophecies also refer to the time when Jesus Christ will come back again, at the end of time.

Whew! If you wonder how one passage can contain all those elements, just don’t forget how those distant mountains look.

The essential message for those in the days of Isaiah, and later for those exiles who returned from Babylon, was this: God is bringing his glory back to his people. Even in the days of Isaiah, the nation of Israel had clearly become a second rate power. The magnificent days of David and Solomon were history. The one nation ruled by King David had long since been split into a Northern Kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern Kingdom (called “Judah”). These two nations often fought each other. They were dominated by the powers around them – Syria, Assyria and Egypt (and later, Babylon). In fact, while Isaiah was still alive, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) was utterly destroyed by Assyria, and ceased to exist. The glory days were over. But Isaiah 40:5 says

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Something that was lost is going to be restored. Now, “Glory” in the Bible, isn’t just about victory and success and triumph. In fact, the key element to Biblical “glory” is the presence of God. Maybe another way to say Isaiah 40:5 would be this:

“God’s presence will once more be manifest among you. He will be with you in such a way that it is obvious to all people. God has promised it.”

Along with this idea of the return of God’s presence, is the theme of deliverance. When we look at the context of the passage, clearly God is returning, and when he returns, he will bring deliverance. Salvation would be another word for it.

It is significant that the voice calls in the desert, and the rest of the passage refers to making a way in the wilderness. When we consider the context of exile in Babylon, it may help to know that caravans and armies from Babylon to Israel always traveled North, around the desert, west toward the Mediterranean Sea, and then South into Palestine. When Babylon invaded, it did so from the North. And yet God is coming straight across the desert. The idea here is that there is no delay in his coming and that obstacles will be removed. God will come by the direct route. His isn’t bound by the caravans routes and traditional paths of men.

This passage from Isaiah is used in all four gospels. Each of the gospel writers identifies John the Baptist as the one who is calling in the desert, “prepare the way for the Lord…” It is probably no coincidence that John did most of his preaching out in the desert, directly east of most of Israel. John’s ministry took things one step beyond a return from exile. Once again, as a fulfillment of this passage, John was declaring that the presence of God would be manifest among his people. Certainly that promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God was present now in a way that went far beyond what the exiles could imagine.

Each time, along with this promise of God’s manifest presence and his deliverance (in short, his glory), comes an admonition that we should “prepare the way.” I think this bears some looking at, and perhaps has some application for our own lives. One of the primary places where this passage can really be played out, is in the human heart. God will come, someday, in the flesh once more and end this world. But he wants to come to you right now in your heart. And the best way for you to prepare for that “someday” is to let him in your heart today.

First, we need to be clear – we don’t “prepare” in order to get God to come be with us. He has already promised to come. His coming is not dependent on our preparation. He’s said, essentially, “I’m coming, whether you get ready or not – so get ready!” We can prepare by learning his word, by telling others about him, by discovering our gifts and using them for his Kingdom. But even more profound than that, this passage gives us a clue as to how to prepare. Isaiah says: “Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

What he is getting at is this: we need to give God access. The image here is to let God come straight at your heart. Take out the twists and curves we put in to deceive others, ourselves, and even God. Let him get straight to the heart of the matter. I think the way to do this is to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. Sometimes we might not be completely ready to be honest with other people as well. I’m convinced, however that once we make the way straight for God, once we give him unlimited access, we will experience His grace and love to such a degree that eventually we’ll be able to “be straight” with certain other people as well. Giving God clear access to your heart and life is simply a matter of saying “yes” to him. Doing that is the best way I know to receive him now into your life, and also to be prepared for when he comes back to put an end to this world.

Look at what else this passage has to say. God is coming. Give him access. And, “every valley shall be raised up.” Do you have any “valleys” in your life? Are there “low spots” – places where you are lacking or empty? I guess that’s a stupid question – of course there are. God says this. “I’m coming, give me access. And those low and empty spots, those places of weakness and hurt will be filled in. My presence is coming, and it will fill in all of your failings and inadequacies.”

Now for the final thought, which is perhaps not quite as comfortable: “every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain…” Are there any places in your life that “need to be leveled?” Any sins that stick out? Bad habits, pride, ambitions that have nothing to do with God? Get ready, because God’s got a big bulldozer. This isn’t entirely a negative thought. No doctor that I have ever heard of can remove a tumor from his or her own body. Sometimes we badly need and even want someone to bulldoze all the junk out of our lives that we can’t quite seem to handle ourselves.

This idea of the valleys being filled and the hills being leveled is really a sort of promise. The passage tells us to “prepare” by making the way straight. But then, when it talks about the valleys and hills, it says “they shall be…” in other words, it is something God will do for us.

God has promised to bring his manifest presence to his people – that includes us! Let’s give him access, and watch in wonder as he makes us more and more shaped to receive and reflect His glory.

WHOSE AGENDA?

before_palm_sunday

Sometimes the big crowd is all excited about Jesus, but for the wrong reasons. We aren’t aware of, or we don’t accept Jesus’ real agenda.

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Palm Sunday, 2012 (Luke 19:28-44)

Most of us are familiar with the story of Palm Sunday: Jesus sends his disciples to get a mysteriously available young donkey. He gets on the donkey and rides to Jerusalem. As he does so, people start throwing down cloaks and branches to create a kind of “red carpet” as he goes along, and they all start cheering and praising him.

But have you ever wondered, why? What was the point of it all? Why is this story preserved for us in the Bible? First of all, we haven’t named it well. It isn’t “palm” Sunday at all – palm trees don’t even grow near Jerusalem, so the branches they cut were from other kinds of plants. But most importantly – why did Jesus do it? What was it all about?

One startling thought was that maybe Jesus wanted to ride the donkey because he was tired. Jesus and the disciples walked everywhere they went (except when they were in Galilee, where they occasionally rode in boats). Maybe he wanted to sit down and experience the entry into Jerusalem without thinking how much his feet hurt. This isn’t as flippant as it sounds. Jesus was God in human flesh, true. But he did have a human body too – just like yours and mine until his resurrection. Sometimes we forget that, but I guarantee you, he didn’t.

I think it goes beyond that, however. Jesus must have been familiar with the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which says:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you,

righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I don’t know if he was going out of his way to fulfill this prophecy or not. He certainly had no control over whether the crowd shouted, or what they said. But in any case, this procession into Jerusalem fulfilled a prediction about the messiah.

The symbolism of the donkey is somewhat important too. In that culture, when a leader entered a city as a conqueror or military hero, he rode a horse or in a chariot. When a leader came on a donkey it was an indication of peace and mercy for the people. Riding a donkey conveyed a promise of graciousness and mercy from a ruler. It was not a challenge or a military assertion.

So, he was tired. He was fulfilling prophecy. He was also conveying his intention to offer people grace and mercy. But I think there is also one more thing going on here. If you are familiar with other parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you may remember that often times, when Jesus did miracles, he told people to keep it quiet (for example, the leper in Mark 1:44). He was reluctant to turn water into wine (John 3). When Peter said that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God, Jesus told them all not to tell anyone else (Matt 16:20). When he fed the 5,000, the people wanted to make him king, but he slipped away. He always seems so modest and humble, like he wants to keep his power and his identity a secret. But now suddenly, he is perfectly willing to be the cause of a big uproar at the beginning of the most crowed week of the year in Jerusalem, the capital of the region. It seems almost out of character. He spends three years, mostly away from Jerusalem, almost like he is hiding, and now in one day he blows his cover.

I believe Jesus allowed the crowd to go wild, in order to create the pressure on the Jewish leaders that would ultimately lead to his crucifixion. What I mean is this: Before, the time was not right. He was still training his disciples, and it wasn’t yet time for him to die. But now, this week, this “palm” Sunday, he is coming to Jerusalem in order to die. In fact, his mission on earth would fail if he does not die. So he allows the Jewish and Roman leaders to be confronted with who he really is – knowing full well that they will do what they can to eliminate him as a threat to their power. In other words, by riding in a royal procession, surrounded by a cheering crowd, he is deliberately provoking the leadership of Jerusalem into having him executed.

Luke gives us a few verses that shed a little bit of light on Jesus’ attitude toward this triumphant procession.

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:39-44)

I think we can learn two things about Jesus’ attitude from this. First, he fully accepts that it is good and right for the people to praise him the way they were doing. You see if Jesus really was God (as Christians believe he was and is) then it was not wrong or blasphemous for people to praise him and worship him. He didn’t stop them. He never stopped anyone from worshiping him before either, but on previous occasions he tried to keep his identity quiet. So at this time, he feels that the cheering crowd is entirely appropriate. In fact, he implies that as Lord of creation, even the rocks owe him their worship.

Second, even while the crowd is doing the right thing (praising Jesus), Jesus can see that they are doing it for the wrong reasons. What he says indicates that they do not understand what is going on, or what he is all about. He says Jerusalem will be destroyed “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” So even though they are praising him and that is good and proper, they do not understand his mission, or why he is there, or what it means. And they don’t accept it.

So at the one level, his triumphant entry is good and right – he is the messiah, after all, God in human flesh – and he deserves the adulation of the crowd. But at another level, the cheering crowd really doesn’t connect with why Jesus is there. They don’t accept that he has come to defeat sin and the devil – they are more concerned about food in their bellies and freedom from Rome. They want victory and excitement, but they know nothing about the coming crucifixion, and would be repulsed by it if they had known it. They certainly didn’t hang around the cross when Friday came.

What does all this mean for us, two-thousand years later? Well, maybe we just need to be reminded that Jesus experienced the same things we experience as human beings. It might be a comfort to know that he got tired and had sore feet sometimes. Or perhaps you needed to hear how Jesus fulfilled a four-hundred year old prophecy when he rode down the path on that donkey with people shouting and singing all around him.

For me, one of the big applications is how the crowd was doing the right thing, praising God for Jesus, and yet they totally missed the priorities and goals that Jesus had. By coming on a donkey, he was implying that he came in peace – but they ignored that, and still wanted him to militarily overthrow the Romans. Even more telling, they were caught up in excitement and busyness and noise, and because of that, they missed out on how God was really working. The whole, time, what Jesus was really doing was coming to die. They missed that in all the activity.

I think we can miss the point of Jesus sometimes also. Jesus does want to fulfill us, because he made us to be vessels of his grace and glory, and when are fulfilled in him, it brings glory to him. And maybe we get excited and praise God for the things he can do for us, to make our lives more comfortable right now. But he also wants to crucify our flesh. We often forget that. The real reason to praise God is because he has delivered us from ourselves, from sin, our fallen flesh and the devil. And sometimes, he is riding in to town so that the parts of us that are still in rebellion to God can be crucified. Let’s not miss that point, like most of the crowd did that day. We need to be in tune with His mission, not our own goals or comforts.

There’s another temptation for churches and Christians in America today. If we can create lots of busyness and excitement and action, it appears that we are really participating in the kingdom of God. But I think when we gravitate to action and excitement, for the sake of those things in themselves, we often miss out on what God is really doing. I think sometimes he works more through the quiet, unrecognized ways than through the really splashy programs. He’s often at work when a few friends get together for breakfast or coffee to pray and read the Bible. He’s at work when we talk to our kids, and the friends of our kids, about Jesus. He’s at work when take time to make a phone call and see how we can encourage someone else in faith, or when we spend a minute or two praying for someone else. He works in our small groups.

So, it’s good and right to praise Jesus. It’s even better to praise him for the right reasons, and accept that his mission is far greater than our temporary comfort on earth. I’m not saying he won’t do anything for you in the here and now. But when Good Friday and the cross came, this crowd didn’t understand, and for the most part, gave up their hope in Jesus. But for Jesus, the cross was the whole point of the thing in the first place. So let’s remember that, and praise God while accepting His mission in our life is to crucify our flesh, use us to glorify Himself and bring us to eternal, joyful life in the coming new creation.

The Boy Who Listened

1 SAMUEL #2. 1 SAMUEL CHAPTERS 2 &3

samuelHEARS

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1 The boy Samuel served the LORD in Eli’s presence. In those days the word of the LORD was rare and prophetic visions were not widespread.

Times were bad in Israel. There was an old man who was supposed to teach everyone about God, kind of like a pastor, except he was the pastor for the whole country. His name was Eli. Eli had two sons, named Hophni and Phineas. These two sons were grown men, and they were supposed to help their father Eli with the work of teaching people about God and leading them in worship. Instead, they made everyone do what they wanted them to. They took food from people who had saved money all year so they could bring the food to the place of worship and celebrate with God. When people complained, Hophni and Phineas told them that they were working for God, and so the people had to do what they said. They did even worse things than taking food.

Their father Eli did not stop them. He told them that what they did was wrong, but they didn’t stop doing it, and Eli didn’t do anything more about it. As we look at 1 Samuel chapters 1-3, it seems like Eli is not a bad man, but he was weak-willed and he did not do a good job raising his own children.

This wasn’t the only reason times were bad. The text says, “In those days the word of the Lord was rare and prophetic visions were not widespread.” In other words, no one was paying attention to God, and so no one knew what he wanted to say or do. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says this:

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD (Jer 29:13-14, ESV)

Jesus put it this way:

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10, ESV)

So God says, if you look for him, you’ll find him, if you are looking with all your heart. If you want to hear what says, you will, if you really truly want to, and you listen to what he says in the Bible, and when he speaks in your heart. But in those days, no one was doing that.So it wasn’t because God was ignoring his people. People didn’t hear from God because they weren’t listening. They did not really truly want to know God better; they didn’t really want to know what he had to say to them.

But one person started to listen. It wasn’t Hophni and Phineas, the bad priests who were abusing their power and position. It wasn’t Eli, the old man who was supposed to lead the country in following God. It wasn’t a mighty warrior or a great scholar.

The one person who started to listen was a young boy. His name was Samuel. Last week we learned how his mother held on to her desire to have a son, abut also surrendered that desire to God. Because of that, after Samuel was born, when he was about three years old, she let God adopt him. Of course it was Eli, the old chief priest who took care of him and taught him at the house of God, but it was really as if Samuel was adopted by God. When Samuel started to listen to God, he was still only a young boy. Both the Hebrew Text and the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) agree on this point. The Greek uses a word that means “young child.” The Hebrew uses a word that can mean any child younger than thirteen years old. But he is definitely not a grown up; not even a teenager. It isn’t any more specific than that. He could have been twelve years old, or he could have been six. But we know he was only a kid.

Many of us know the story. It is right there in 1 Samuel chapter 3. One night Samuel was sleeping and he heard a voice call him. He thought it was Eli, the old priest. Now Eli took care of Samuel, and made sure he was fed and washed, taken care of educated. But Samuel also took care of Eli, because Eli could not see very well. So Samuel thought it was Eli who called him. Maybe Eli need some help finding something or walking somewhere in the dark. Probably there were times when Eli did call him to come help for things like that.

So Samuel got up to see what Eli needed. Only Eli had not called him. He sent Samuel back to bed. A little while later, Samuel heard a voice calling his name again. He got up and ran to Eli once more. Once more Eli sent him back to bed.

Then it happened again. Eli had his problems, but he wasn’t an entirely bad person, and it seemed like when he was caring for Samuel, he avoided the mistakes he must have made with his own sons. Eli realized that it must be God speaking to Samuel. So he sent Samuel back again, but this time, he told Samuel to ask God to keep speaking, and to listen to what God says.

Now there is something interesting about this story. I think a lot of people feel that if God speaks to them, it is going to be easy to hear him and easy to know that it IS God who is giving them the message. But that wasn’t the case with Samuel. It really was God. He was even speaking in a voice that Samuel heard audibly. Even so, it took both Samuel and Eli several tries until they realized that God was at work.

Many times, I think we don’t hear God because we think it should be easy. We think, “if God wants to say something to me, well, he can.” But that isn’t really seeking God, like Jeremiah and Jesus talked about. And even with Samuel, it took some time and energy to discern that God was speaking. It is good to not assume that everything that comes into our heads came from God. But at the same time, it is good to take a little time and energy to evaluate unusual thoughts or experiences, in case the Lord does want to speak to us through them. We evaluate it first of all through comparing what we think we heard, with the Bible. If it came from God, it won’t contradict the bible. Of course there are some things that aren’t in the bible, like what job we should take or where we should go to school. We should pray about those things too, and ask for God to speak to us, and then listen. When we think we hear something, we should talk with other Christians about it, and pray about what we heard, asking God to confirm it or not.

In Samuel’s case, what he heard was very much like something that another man of God had heard a few years before: Eli and his sons were going to be judged. The sons would be judged for the evil they were doing. Eli would be judged for allowing that evil to continue. This wasn’t actually a very nice or comforting thing to hear from God.

This is where Eli did teach Samuel an important lesson. The next morning, Samuel didn’t want to tell Eli what God said, because it was all about Eli and his family, and it was bad news for them. But Eli told Samuel that when God speaks, it is important to tell others what he said – even if it may be hard for some of them to hear. This is still true today.

And even though it was hard for Eli and his grown sons to hear, it was actually a very encouraging message for the rest of the people. Eli’s sons were bad men, and no one was stopping them. It was a good thing for the people to hear that God himself was bringing their evil ways to an end. It meant that God cared about his people, and would not let someone treat them unjustly.

So what can we learn from all this? Are you like the people of Israel in those times? Could it be that you don’t hear from God and you don’t see him at work in your life because you really haven’t devoted much time or energy to seeking him? I don’t mean this to sound judgmental or condemning. I just mean that this passage shows us a connection between hearing God and seeking God. It shows that even when God is speaking to us, it takes some effort and focus to realize that, and to hear what he is saying. It isn’t like a lightning bolt spelling something out in letters in the sky. We need to devote our attention to it.

Here’s another thing. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how old you are – God can speak to you. Samuel was a young boy. He was not and adult. He did not have the respect of a grown up or experience to convince people that they ought to listen to him. But God spoke to him. He chose him, out of all the people in Israel, to listen to God and to tell others what God was saying. You may think, “I’m just a kid,” or “I’m not a preacher” or “I don’t know much about the bible.” But all those were true of Samuel also. God can use any of us. In fact, he wants to use each one of us, in different ways.

I mentioned last time that these were some of the darkest days in the history of Israel. But because of one young boy, all that was about to change. People were going to begin to hear God again. I pray that we can all be like the young boy Samuel.

Is Prophecy Real Today? How can you tell? 1 Corinthians #22.



Download 1 Corinthians Part 22

Prophecy is one of the more complex “things of the Spirit” that Paul talks about here. Prophecy figures very importantly in the New Testament. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul says:

So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39)

He lists Prophets alongside Apostles, Pastor-Teachers and Evangelists as special gifts that God has given the church to equip the whole church for ministry.

Most of us tend to think of prophecy as predicting the future. However, there is more to it than that. In fact, there are three distinct variations in the gift of prophecy described in the New Testament.

The first sort of manifestation of prophecy is the traditional “foretelling” gift, wherein God reveals the future to the prophet, and the prophet tells others. I will call this predictive prophecy. One person through whom God gave his people the gift of predictive prophecy was Agabus. In Acts 11:28 we learn that Agabus, through the Spirit of God stood up and predicted a severe famine. Luke notes that the famine did come, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius. How did this gift build up the Church? First, Christians were encouraged to set aside gifts for the needy during the coming famine (Acts 11:29). Second, when the famine came to pass it must have been a faith strengthening experience for believers everywhere – God still really speaks to and through people! And finally, the fact that the famine was predicted by God must have been a source of comfort as believers realized that God not only knew about their situation, but saw it before they did. They must have felt very much in His hands.

Predictive prophecy is the easiest sort of prophecy to distinguish. The formula is very simple and is given as far back as Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a predictive prophet’s message does not come to pass, then the Lord has not spoken and believers should not listen to him.

On the other hand, scripture teaches that even if a prophet successfully predicts the future, and yet leads people away from the Lord in some manner, that prophet is not from God (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Pauls says something like this Galatians 1:8-9

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Therefore we see again the “Lordship test” of 1 Corinthians 12:1-3 at work: if a prophet somehow leads people away from honoring Jesus and his name, then that particular prophecy is not from God.

A second sort of prophecy that the new Testament speaks about is when God reveals his will for a specific situation. I call this present prophecy, because it is something God is saying he wants to do, or begin to do, right now, rather than in the future. The prime example of this in the New Testament is in Acts 13:1-3.

“In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”

The prophecy uttered here is not so much a prediction of the future as it is a direction for the present. The Holy Spirit, through the gift of prophecy, revealed his will for the congregation at Antioch. We can see first that this revelation of God’s will was consistent with his Word (that is, the Bible), honored Jesus, and recognized and utilized the variety in the Body of Christ. All that is to indicate that there was good reason to trust this as a genuine prophecy. Results are not always indicative of this sort of prophecy, for I can imagine all sorts of things which might have prevented God from doing what he wanted through Barnabas and Saul (their own potential sin being one of them). In spite of that, however, the results of obedience to this prophecy were pretty spectacular in the long run!

Some of you analytical types may be wondering what the difference is between present prophecy and, say, a word of knowledge or wisdom. Ultimately, if it is a message from God, does it matter which specific name we call it? Of course not. However, it seems to me, for you categorical types, that the primary distinction is that present prophecy implies an instruction which should be followed – like sending out Barnabas and Saul.

The third sort of prophecy described by the New Testament is what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:3

“But everyone who prophecies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.”

This is prophecy of exhortation. This is a potent gift if you hear someone using it. It can come in a variety of styles, and can actually often appear very low key. The essence of prophecy is not how it is delivered, but rather its effect in building up the church. A prophecy of exhortation might sound like this:

I think the Lord wants us to know that we are in the center of his will right now, and that he is pleased with us. He doesn’t want us to give up hope – he wants us to press on, to stay consistent, to keep reading, praying and meeting together. He isn’t done with us yet.

Revelation chapters 2-3 contain basically prophecies of exhortation for the seven churches that John is writing to.

One person you may have heard of. whom I consider to have this sort of prophetic gift is Jack Hayford. Often musicians use their music prophetically – that is, for the strengthening, encouraging and comfort of the body of Christ. I would consider both Michael Card and the group Delirious (especially in The Cutting Edge) to have prophetic ministries through music.

Now, I have no doubt that the Lord wants to continue to use this “spiritual thing” prophecy – in our churches today. Like all of the gifts, one of the best places for it is in a small group.

However, there is a down side to prophecy, and I believe this is why it began to fall into disuse. Because it is a powerful gift, it is also powerfully attacked by the devil, and can be powerfully corrupted by people who lack integrity. Shortly after the time of the apostles some people claiming to prophets, tried to lead Christians astray (they were known as Montanists). They almost destroyed Christianity.

However, the Holy Spirit had anticipated this evil, and before this happened, inspired the writers of the New Testament to say these things:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies,but test everything; hold fast what is good.Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

So the scripture clearly places a high value on prophecy, but also places a high value on testing potential prophecy, to make sure it really comes from God.

How do we know a false prophet? How do we “test everything?” Well, we just saw that we need to consider if a prediction comes true. If it is present prophecy or a prophecy of exhortation, we need Paul has already us in this passage how to know if it comes from the Holy Spirit. If the effect is to glorify Jesus (not the prophet) if it leads to people allowing Jesus to be Lord of their personal lives more and more, it’s probably from the Lord. If it has the effect of building up the church, it’s probably from God. If the opposite things are true, we should ignore it, or, in some cases, denounce it.

Some of you may be thinking, “well, I’ll probably never hear a prophet, so I don’t need to worry about it.” Don’t be too sure! I’ve heard plenty of preachers on the Television, radio and Internet, who claim to be speaking what God wants them say. Sometimes what they say results in people allowing Jesus to be Lord of their lives more fully. Sometimes they build up the church. Sometimes the main result is that the preacher gets more popular and influential and more wealthy, but there isn’t a clear sign that it really helps anyone, or glorifies God. These people need to be tested, and, as Paul says, we need to hold on to the good.