God’s Full Revelation

“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46-47, ESV).

The Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures form the complete revelation of God’s direct communication to the men He created. This truth is under-emphasized in our day. Some strains of theology today suggest — if they don’t teach outright — that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament, even that a Christian doesn’t need to read the Old Testament. Such teaching is wrong.

The New Testament is truly the final recorded Word from God, and it contains the essential teaching about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it doesn’t make the Old Testament obsolete. Jesus Himself observed in the passage quoted above that “[Moses] wrote of Me.” Therefore to appreciate the singular intent of God in this world, it is important to understand the Old Testament as well as the New.

Someone who is a true basketball fan doesn’t merely tune into a game for the last 2 minutes of the game; he arranges his schedule to watch the whole game. A lot happened in the game before the last two minutes. Similarly, a lot happened in our world to bring us to Jesus. We can’t fully understand the New Testament until we have a grasp of the Old.

For example, why did Matthew begin his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus? It was because of the promise given to King David that Messiah would come from his descendants. Without this knowledge, the first few verses of Matthew (and a portion of Luke’s Gospel as well) would be merely a long list of often-unpronounceable names that have no relevance to life today.

The Old Testament records the ways God has tried to communicate His Truth to men from the beginning. Sin had entered this world and God was/is intent on redeeming men despite it. Beginning in Genesis 3, He promised to send a person who would crush the serpent who had tempted men to sin. That person would become known in Jewish writings as “Messiah” and would be “a prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15).

The list of hints, prophecies and pictures of Messiah are contained in almost every book of the Old Testament. Messiah Jesus didn’t just appear on the scene one day; He was the fulfillment of a long, remarkable plan of God to redeem men.

This is why our church has celebrated Passover for the past several years. This Jewish feast was intended by God (through Moses) to help His people to recognize Messiah when He came. Sadly it just became a ritual handed down from generation to generation. Happily, though, some of us have seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus, and it has enriched us beyond measure.

Not Empty Words

For [the Law of Moses] is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 32:47, ESV).

There are many types of literature that I pass by when I go to a bookstore. I care little for romance novels or science fiction; I have little interest in cooking (my interest is just in the eating!) so cookbooks and nutrition guides are easy to ignore. My real interest is in the ideas that drive us to do what we do, so I peruse books on philosophy and theology and classic literary stories. The rest are just empty words.

Many people today view the Bible as a large book of empty words. The stories coming from ancient times don’t seem to have any relevance to their lives today, and they can’t imagine how a 2000—4000 year old book could be relevant in an age of such advanced technology. Sadly I am talking about people who claim to be Christians.

Biblical theology claims that the God that created us has revealed Himself to mankind. He has not left us to wonder if He exists or what His will is; the Bible asserts forthrightly that its words are the very Words of God. (There are some who choose not to believe that the Bible is God’s Word, but there is no question that the claim to authority is made in the text.) To read those claims for oneself, a person merely needs to turn to the end of the third chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy and read into the first few verses of chapter four. Jesus Himself told us that the words of Scripture will never pass away (Matt 5:18).

If, as Biblical theology also claims, the realm of this God is our everlasting destination, and this space-time existence is only temporary, it seems logical to figure out how He has communicated to men through the ages and what He has said to them. For all our advanced technology, after all, we are still just created people — even as they were in every other age. We must also understand that the Bible’s 66 books claim to be the complete revelation (Heb. 1:1—2:4); don’t be fooled by the claims of some that God added an addendum (see Gal. 1:6-9).

This understanding is the rationale for Moses’ statement that the Law God gave him was not an “empty word, but [our] very life” (Deut 32:47). It is relevant to us today, just as it was when it was written, even though we have to filter the ideas through our changed culture. An initial reading may take us through parts that are difficult to understand (we might even describe them as “boring”), but with some understanding of ancient cultures those difficulties can be overcome — by any normal adult. Some parts are understandable even to preschool children. We simply must begin with the understanding that these are not “empty words.”

Many years ago I decided for myself that if these are indeed the words of God, nothing is more important than for me to understand them, so I began to read the Bible cover to cover each year. No decision has had a more profound effect on my life than this one.

My Fundamental Flaw

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).

I had a rough week last week. I learned that I am diabetic. For all of my adult life I have been healthy and whole, generally speaking. My back surgery in high school limited some of my activities, but not significantly. A dozen or so years ago I learned I had high blood pressure, but that was attributable to some OTC sinus medications, which I have cut out. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but no one would consider me to be significantly overweight.

I was really shocked when my doctor informed me of my diabetes. In fact, I was in denial for a couple of days. I considered myself to be a healthy man that had an occasional illness. In fact, I haven’t even had a major cold or flu for a couple of years. How could I have this fundamental flaw in my body? Yet multiple tests confirmed the diagnosis. Instead of viewing myself as a healthy man with an occasional illness, I must now consider myself to be a flawed individual, seeking to control my symptoms.

Americans (in fact, all mankind) today face the same issue as I do — to view ourselves as fundamentally flawed rather than generally whole. Like me, the society is mostly in denial. How could we be the biggest and best, the richest and most technologically advanced, and have a basic flaw to our character? Yet, the evidence should convince us, like the additional tests did for me. Justice is what the vocal minority opines it to be rather than an objective standard in our society; we (taxpayers, that is) continue to fund the barbaric practices of the abortion rights lobby that would make Attila blush; and, contrary to the most basic natural knowledge, we have declared the legality of same sex marriage. Yet we go on believing that the problems in our society come from outside ourselves — we’re good, the environment is not.

Biblical Christianity is the only religious system that views mankind as basically sinful, instead of basically good. All others — even the pseudo-Christian groups — mask the evil in our hearts by suggesting that a certain combination of good works will overcome any moral deficiency in us.

Several years ago, after one of the school shootings in our society, I heard a local radio personality interview a mental health professional. As they deplored the violence the host asked his guest, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (echoing the book by the same title that was popular at the time). The underlying assumption was that we are good people, and that bad things happen to us from outside ourselves. Jesus was clear, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19, ESV, emphasis added).

The Founding Fathers of our country lived in an era when the foundational tenets of the society were Biblical. A generation before the Revolution the Colonies experienced a religious event known to historians as The Great Awakening. The moral courage that was required for them to put at risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” came from the Great Awakening. (Do you think any of our current crop of politicians would put their lives and fortunes at risk? Most are there to make a fortune!) The writings of Washington, Adams, Madison and Jay are steeped in a Biblical worldview, a worldview in which they understood that the human heart is “desperately sick” as Jeremiah noted (above).

To this condition the Bible declares that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the answer. The Apostle Paul declared that “[that sacrifice] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, ESV). Many have been tried, but no other solution will work.

I now recognize the fundamental flaw in my body, leading me to significant changes in my lifestyle. Assuming I get this under control, it may not affect me as it does some other people. But I can never look at a restaurant menu from the perspective of a healthy person again. Until and unless the people of our society change their perspective, the problems we face will continue to spin out of control, as surely as the blood sugar of us diabetics.

Wrestling Against Powers

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)

As Evangelicals we believe this verse, but most of us don’t understand it. I can’t say that I understand it fully either, but I read something this week that offered a bit more insight.

In Daniel 10:13 there is a reference to the “prince of Persia,” evidently a spiritual ruler or authority that has some influence over the whole nation. Since it was in opposition to the angel sent to comfort and aid Daniel, we understand it to be a demonic power. To my knowledge this is the only clear Biblical reference to demonic powers that oversee individual nations, but I have no doubt about the veracity of this teaching. We just don’t have any authoritative supporting information.

But I offer an anecdotal reference. Just last week the German government sent armed law enforcement officers to a private home and removed the 4 children from the home. Their crime? They were homeschooling their children. In 1948 the international community responded to the abuses of the Hitler regime by declaring, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Universal  Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, Section 3). But now the German government is  rescinding this without any protestation from the international community. (This information was shared by ParentalRights.org in a recent communique.)

It seems that the same spirit that oppressed Germany under Hitler has reared its ugly head again. Is it just me or does it seem odd that the same oppression is being perpetrated upon the same people 65 years after it was defeated and declared to be evil (or at least associated with an evil regime)? Could it be that there really is a conflict going on in the heavenlies that somehow effects us with real – sometimes dire – consequences, but about which most of us are oblivious?

Obviously, I believe the answer is “Yes!” I cannot explain how the conflict in the heavenly realms impacts our world, but I recognize that to make an eternal difference we need to drop the frenetic pace most of us keep and begin to pray more and fast more. If the real battle is in the unseen world beyond ours, we must learn to take the fight to that realm.

Solemn Assembly

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly (Joel 2:15).

Economic disaster was imminent when Joel prophesied to the nation of Judah. Locusts had come through and had wiped out the crops. Unlike our day where we have grain stored away for years and we even bid on the FUTURE price of those commodities, when their crops were destroyed they didn’t eat till the next year (at least not that food).

Richard Owen Roberts, a student of revivals throughout history and an author on the subject, identifies the “solemn (or sacred) assembly” as the answer prescribed by God for any kind of imminent appeal to avoid disaster. When the “Ark of the Covenant” was captured by the Philistines, Samuel proclaimed a fast and called the people together to repent before God (I Sam 7). When kings Asa and Jehoshaphat were threatened by nations mightier than they were, they each called upon the people to fast and repent at a solemn assembly (2 Chron 14, 20). When God declared judgment for the sins of his grandfather, Manasseh, King Josiah was moved to repentance himself and called the people to the same in 2 Chron 34:29.

Usually the solemn assembly was accompanied by fasting because throughout the Old Testament, fasting was a sign of self-humiliation, mourning and repentance. It is significant that historically the singular sign of a repentant spirit was the willingness to mourn through fasting. That’s why the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has historically been known as “the Fast” (see Acts 27:9).

God responds to the Solemn Assembly – not because there is anything magical about an assembly – but because He responds to brokenness and contrition. When Christians mourn and confess and repent of their sin He takes notice because He sees that we understand the seriousness of sin. When Isaiah wrote that Jesus was “crushed” for our iniquities in Isaiah 53:5, that word is the same Hebrew word that is translated “contrite” in Psalm 51:17 – “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The power of a single Christian’s repentance is significant, but when a group of Christians – as in a local church – gather to genuinely mourn their sin, His heart is moved to action on their behalf.

In our day the Church has decided that His blessing must rest upon the mega-church because everyone strives for “bigness.” Pastors flock to the seminars or books of the most recent “success” story to learn their “secret,” which they are glad to share – for a price. (I even have a book in my library on how to use fasting to grow your church – apparently the author sees fasting as one of the tools in a pastor’s ecclesiastical toolbox!) But Isaiah tells us that if God wanted to build a BIG ministry, He wouldn’t need us. What He is looking for are those who are “humble…contrite…and who tremble at His Word” (Is. 66:2).

Testing Our Faith

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (Josh 5:2-3).

This is one of the places in the Biblical narrative where geography plays an important role in understanding what is happening in this passage.

Joshua has taken over for Moses in leading Israel. To confirm this God parted the Jordan River at flood stage so that Israel could to cross into the land. This would imitate the great miracle He did in the leadership of Moses – the crossing of the Red Sea – and remind the people that Joshua was indeed God’s choice to succeed Moses. After the nation crossed, the river returned to its natural state.

The place that Israel crossed and camped was not far from the place where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. Geographically, this is the lowest point in elevation on the face of the earth. Within about 5 miles, and, more importantly, within sight was the fortified city of Jericho. Joshua, Israel’s military commander under Moses and now the political leader, was looking up at the city, with no place of escape behind him – not the place a military commander would seek to launch an attack from. It was at this point that God tells Joshua to circumcise his army, effectively disabling his army for 2-3 days. Had the king of Jericho tried, he could have launched an attack just then and destroyed completely the army that was threatening him. He, of course, didn’t know this but it didn’t make it any less significant that Joshua was risking the safety of his nation by immobilizing is army.

Why didn’t God have them do this before they crossed the Jordan? Why did He wait until the River had returned to flood stage? It was simply and solely because He wanted to test the faith of His leader. Joshua passed.

There are times when God tells His people to do what is totally against the dictates of human reason, but to do it at His command and in dependence upon Him. Tithing is such a command. In an age when there is such financial pressure on families, He still calls upon us to give a tithe (see Matt 23:23 and Luke 11:42). The idea is not that we deplete our resources; it that we honor the One who owns it all. And this often goes counter to accepted practice in our society.

A related area is that God promises us that if we seek first His kingdom, all our material needs will be cared for. So, should a Christian mom take a job and put her kids in day care or should she stay at home and instill the values in them that she believes? Should a teen take a part-time job that will require him/her to work on Sunday?

There are other apparently irrational things that God calls us to do that we should do in obedience, just like Joshua (e.g., consider Isaiah 40:31). If we are fully devoted to Him, He will test our faith.

Forgetfulness

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hos 13:6).

Even though God was referring to Israel when He spoke to Hosea, He may have used the exact same words to describe the current generation in America. Ancient Israel’s history was sprinkled liberally with special provisions of God for this people: the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Gideon’s miraculous victory over the Midianites, to name just a few.

So with our American history. In their excellent book, The Light and the Glory, David Manuel and Peter Marshall chronicle many of the clear provisions of God in the establishment of our country, provisions that only the hardest of heart could deny being an intervention of God Himself.

For a number of years both of these nations – Israel and America – enjoyed the clear blessing of God. Neither was perfect in its worship and practices, but as a whole, the people (often responding to the national leadership) embraced the God of Israel as their Creator and Redeemer.

But there came a time when Israel forgot Him and His deliverances. As Hosea said, “they were satisfied,” and the satisfaction begat pride – they thought they deserved His blessings. When He began to remove a few of the blessings to make the people remember that they had no real claim to them – they were all gifts – the people got angry with Him (He was acting like any good parent would). So He sent His prophets to warn them. Some repented, but it just made others angrier. After repeated warnings, He finally sent judgment – for Hosea’s Northern Kingdom of Israel, it was from the Assyrian Empire. About 150 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah ignored the warnings and was carried to Babylon.

We have entered that era of forgetfulness in America. Among others, God has sent us DL Moody (with his musical partner, Ira Sankey) and when they passed, Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver tried to stir this country to repentance. In recent years the baton has been passed to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. But with each succeeding generation, the number of people willing to listen to their calls for repentance decreases.

Israel’s history from inception to captivity lasted about 600-700 years, but we should expect God to be more patient with Israel. After all, He specifically called them His “chosen people.” The United States of America has never been called that (at least not by God).

How long do we have before judgment comes? That’s up to us. How long will we wait before we choose to repent?  Some people think (to their shame), “Perhaps we won’t have to repent if the right person gets elected in the next election.” But our hope is not a political one; it wasn’t for Israel and it won’t be for us. How quickly we forget!

The Gauntlet Has Been Laid Down

“Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” (Is 36:20).

             There is a fascinating story of deliverance recorded in the middle of Isaiah’s prophecy. The powerful Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had swept through most of the region we know as the Middle East on his way to world domination. He had cruelly carried the Northern kingdom of Israel into captivity and was poised (at the time of Isaiah’s writing) to destroy the Southern kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem.

             It was at this point that the Assyrians made a tactical blunder – or perhaps it would be better to say they revealed a false religious assumption. Sennacherib’s representative stood outside Jerusalem and challenged the God that Judah trusted in – the Assyrian army vs. the God of Judah. Of course, we have read the outcome (it’s recorded three times in the Old Testament!) and know that the angel of the LORD came and wiped out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night, and Sennacherib limped home with what remained of his devastated army. Not long afterward, he was killed by two of his own sons while worshiping his false god (see Is 37:36-38).

             Our world seems destined for a repeat of this story. While we in America try to “tolerate” our Muslim neighbors, our leaders seem less and less willing to stand up to terrorist threats. We are supposed to allow a victory monument in the form of a mosque near the site of the 911 attacks because to deny it would be to anger the radical wing of the Muslim religion. If anyone else were to suggest this, our legal experts would call it “blackmail.”

            The constant cry of “peace in our time” that comes from every U.S. political administration concerning the continual Middle East crisis will ultimately end in the withdrawal of American support of Israel. Whatever happened to the principle of “to the victor belong the spoils”? Israel has been provoked, fought back and won each time, yet they are considered the aggressors and the watching world expects them to give in to the demands that they return the lands they captured. Ultimately the idea is to isolate them in the world and to bring about the same showdown outside the gates of Jerusalem that Isaiah recorded. Only this time it will take place a little bit north of Jerusalem at a place called “Armageddon.” But make no mistake, the rationale will be identical, “Whose God is really the true one?”

             I won’t pretend to know the day or even the year that these things will take place. America’s support of Israel seems to hinge on the strength of American Evangelicals who still believe in the God of Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah, but that is waning. Perhaps there will be enough true repentance for God to stay these events for a generation or two. But there is no doubt that it will happen. The gauntlet has been laid down and God will not retreat from it. It is the final conflict of the ages.

The God of Small Details

Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.  They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong” (Acts 25:1-5)

                 As I read this passage (actually, from a couple of different translations) I get the very distinct impression that Governor Festus had no clue that the Jewish leaders were planning to ambush and kill Paul, if he had come to Jerusalem. Luke, the historian who wrote the Book of Acts, somehow knew this, and our English translations make it to read like a parenthetical thought.

                 Yet the Scripture in its totality is God’s Word and there are no extra ideas here, so the clear meaning is that God by His sovereign direction – even over pagan or secular rulers – preserved Paul’s life in this way. Certainly He could have protected Paul even if they had brought him to Jerusalem, but it is clear that the evil plans of those who opposed the Gospel were thwarted by His oversight of the small details.

                 That principle is true in our lives as well. Life has a tendency to “throw us a curve” at times, to interrupt our carefully laid plans. These interruptions may or may not divert us from our plans ultimately, but we can be sure that if we are completely His, they are not accidents. That’s why the writer of the Proverbs says, “The mind of a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (16:9).

                 In the passage above, Paul had no control over the decision of Festus to conduct his hearing in Caesarea instead of Jerusalem, but it is comforting to realize that the Lord still is watching out for us by orchestrating the small details. Sometimes when He steps into our plans we also have no decisions in the matter, but at other times, He is seeking to prompt us to seek Him for some sort of wisdom. Either way, there is nothing that happens to us that He doesn’t at least allow. What a comfort that truth is in times of trouble and bewilderment!

The Object of Our Trust

Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest. (Acts 27:9-12).

             I certainly feel the frustration of the Roman Centurion in this passage. It seems that most of my decisions also pit the wisdom of professionals against the wisdom of revelation. Now, before I comment more about the revelation, it is important to note that the Centurion was not a believer at this point, so he did not have a Christian frame of reference and he didn’t have a clue that his only place in the history of the world was his intersection with the life of Paul the Apostle.

             Personally I can excuse the Centurion for this bad decision (hindsight is 20/20). What I have trouble excusing are believers in our day who operate a Church as if it is a business. Certainly there are some business practices that are proper to follow: financial accountability, organizational management principles and living within our means are just a few.

             But I have been in settings where the leaders ignored the example of our Lord Jesus and ruled by their directives rather than leading as servants. The secular business model took precedence over the revealed Truth of Scripture. An unbelieving Centurion might be excused; but these leaders should have known better.

             There are also times when a Church needs to consciously set aside a normal practice to obey Scripture. One example is that Scripture continually commands us to give. Think about: the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4); the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-22); the principle of sowing and reaping (II Cor. 8-9); and the explicit teaching of our Lord in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you…” These teachings are diametrically opposed to most business models. The Christian businessman may compare “faith” with “risk management,” but the object of his trust is different. The businessman trusts in an expected return on his investments based upon statistics; the Christian trusts in the faithfulness of the God he serves.

             As with Paul and the Centurion in Acts 27, our decisions always betray the object of our trust. It may not be evident immediately, but sooner or later it will become clear. This helps us make sense of the verse in Hebrews that says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6).