Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Journey Through the Bible: Exodus 7 and 8

Exodus 7:5—”And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them." The Egyptians might have learned that Jehovah was God, but they didn’t remember it for very long. They had a very complex religion which included just about everything from totem poles to theology, and influenced literature, government, art—all aspects of society except perhaps morality. In the beginning was the sky; that and the Nile River were the chief divinities. Constellations and stars might be gods, too. Sahu and Sopdit (Orion and Sirius) were tremendous deities. Sahu ate gods three times a day regularly. Sometimes he ate the moon, but only for a moment; prayers of men and the anger of other gods forced him to vomit it up. The moon was a god, too, but the greatest god of all was the sun, Amon-re, or sometimes called Horus. Nearly everything, at some point in Egyptian history, was worshipped—the bull, crocodile, hawk, cow, goose, goat, ram, cat, dog, chicken, swallow, jackal, serpent—and they allowed some of them to roam as freely as the cow in India today. Sometimes women were offered to certain of these animals as sexual mates; the bull in particular received that honor (the bull was the incarnation of the god, Orisis, who was god of the dead). What it all pointed to was immortality. To the Egyptian, the body was inhabited by a small replica of itself, the “ka,” and also by a soul—all three, body, ka, and soul survived the appearance of death. When an Egyptian died, he made his appearance before Osiris. If he was clean from sin, he would be permitted to live forever in the “Happy Field of Food,” those heavenly gardens where there would always be abundance and security. These nice fields, however, could only be reached with the aid of a ferryman, and this old gentleman would receive into his boat only such men and women as had done no evil in their lives. Osiris would question the dead, weighing each candidate’s heart in the scale against a feather to test his truthfulness. Those who failed this final examination were condemned to live forever in their tombs, hungering and thirsting, fed upon by hideous crocodiles, and never coming forth to see the sun.

One last point about Egyptian religion, of which I only touched the merest hem of the garment: Pharaoh was a god-king, and it was his association with the gods that was the source of his power and authority. We read of no police force in ancient Egypt; since they had a supreme “god” on earth—Pharaoh—that was sufficient for social control. Of course, crime happened, but for the Egyptian, Pharaoh’s divinity was enough to ensure proper living. It would be nice to see religion have that kind of effect in America today. As James Madison said, if all men were angels, we wouldn’t need government.

Exodus 8:19—“Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." But Pharaoh's heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had said.” Up until this plague (the lice), the Egyptian magicians had been able to, at least to some degree, duplicate what Moses and Aaron had done. These conjurers probably believed that the two Hebrews were tricksters like themselves. Frankly, magicians of today have little over the magicians of the ancient world. They knew ruses that would stump the ablest of modern conjurers. But, with the plague of lice, the power of Jehovah exceeded the Egyptians’ best efforts and they were honest enough to recognize and admit the limitations to their abilities. Unfortunately, it would take several more such exercises of true divine power before Pharaoh would be convinced of the superiority of the Hebrew God and allow His people to leave Egypt. And even then, he had a change of mind (see Exodus 14).

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Journey Through the Bible: Mark 6

Mark 6:12—“So they went out and preached that people should repent.” Jesus sent His apostles out two by two to gain some experience. I find it interesting that their message wasn’t the love and/or grace of God, but “repent.” I suspect they probably mentioned God’s mercy, but there is much more to the plan of salvation than that. People need to understand that God’s blessings—including salvation—are conditional, and they always have been. Read Leviticus 26 for just one example among the hundreds that could be brought forth. “Repent” is not as pleasing a message as “love,” which is why a lot of preachers preach much of the latter and not much of the former. But, folks, Jesus wasn’t crucified because He preached “love;” He was killed because He told people what they had to do to be right with God and they didn’t like it. Nobody likes to be told to “repent.” The very concept of “repentance” implies that we are doing something wrong and must change, and if we are doing what we want to do, we don’t want to change. It is much easier—or at least, more palatable for us—to shut the messenger up than it is to reform our lives to put them in harmony with the strict teachings of the Bible. But, after teaching God’s part in the scheme of redemption—His love and grace—we must teach man his responsibilities and duties, which can be summed up in the word “repentance.” The word “repentance” is a translation of the Greek word metanoia, which literally means “change of mind.” That “change of mind” implicitly requires a reformation of life; one doesn’t truly change their mind unless there is a concomitant change of life. But again, that’s the message that gets preachers in trouble—convicting sinners of sin which unreservedly means making amendments to one’s behavior. And it was that message Jesus sent His apostles out to preach.

It is also the message Jesus preached. Mark’s first recording of Jesus preaching has the Master saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Indeed, the Bible never once records Jesus using the word “grace.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Journey Through the Bible: Mark 4 and 5

Mark 4:23-24—“If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. Then He said to them, ‘Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.’” Jesus makes this statement, “if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” twice in this chapter, and He says it to all seven of the churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3. “Do you have ears?”—and everyone does, of course (theoretically), “Then listen to what I’m saying.” In other words, pay attention to what the Lord teaches. “Hear ye Him” (Mt. 17:5). It is His word that will judge us on the last day (John 12:48). Listen—but also obey.

But it’s interesting that Jesus says not only to take heed how you hear but also “take heed what you hear.” “Many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1). Knowing this will make us rightfully cautious. We owe the Lord Jesus, Who has done so much for us, faithful, devoted service—according to His will, not the will of man. By doing so, and serving others according to His dictates (“with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you”), we will be effective in His kingdom and be given the privilege of even greater service—“and to you who hear, more will be given”—which, concomitantly, leads to greater blessings. We cannot outgive the Lord.

Mark 5:13—“And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.” Demon possession, as it occurred in the time of Christ, does not take place today. And we read no instances of it in the Old Testament. Thus, it was allowed by God for only a short period of time, during the age of miracles that accompanied the ministry of Christ and His apostles. Why did it happen? Jesus, of course, was God in the flesh. To prove that, He needed to demonstrate His power and authority over all aspects of creation. In Mark 4, nature submitted to Him when He calmed the storm and the seas. A little later on in this chapter, He is going to cure a sick woman (healing the sick was something He did frequently, of course), but He is also going to raise a dead girl to exhibit His authority over death. So, the natural world, the physical world, even death are conquered by Jesus. But how about the “spirit” world, i.e., demonic forces? By casting out demons, His absolute dominion over all aspects of existence is firmly established. There is nothing that is not subject to His rule, which is exactly what one would expect of God in the flesh. Without demon possession and Jesus’ evicting of these malevolent spirits, someone could perhaps have asked, “Well, does He have power over the spirit world?” But now there can be no doubt of Who He is. That fact being established and confirmed, there is no longer any need to plague mankind or torture humans by allowing demonic forces to inhabit them. Christ’s authority, once and for all—and over all—has been verified.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Journey Through the Bible: Exodus 5 and 6

Exodus 5:2—“And Pharaoh said, Who is Jehovah, that I should hearken unto his voice to let Israel go? I know not Jehovah, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” This is certainly a true statement. Jehovah wasn’t Egypt’s god; that country had a multitude of gods, and Pharaoh was considered one as well, or the representation of the great Egyptian god, Horus, the sun god. So, in effect, Pharaoh was considered a god by his people. The upcoming battle between Jehovah and Pharaoh was a mighty one indeed—the god of the Hebrews versus the god of the Egyptians. I think part of the rationale for this supreme struggle and the 10 plagues was that the Hebrews didn’t know Jehovah, either, or at least didn’t know Him by that name. As He told Moses in the next chapter (6:3), “and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name Jehovah I was not known to them.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew the name “Jehovah” (or, “Yahweh” as it is popularly called today), but they didn’t understand the full implications of the covenant nature of that name. See my discussion of this in the Chapter Summary of chapter 6. Jehovah, by these mighty works, was trying to build faith in the children of Israel. They had had no communication with Him for well over 200 years, and no doubt were influenced by the Egyptian gods. Idolatry will, of course, be a serious problem in Israel once they arrive in the Promised Land, but it will be the Canaanite gods that tempt them, not the Egyptian ones. The Lord would constantly remind them throughout their history what He had done for them in Egypt—for what good it did. But He did all He could, and in Egypt, had defeated the most powerful monarch on earth at that time. Yet still the Jews descended into pagan idolatry. For that, they will be purged by captivity in Assyria and Babylon.

Exodus 6:26—“These are the same Aaron and Moses to whom the LORD said, ‘Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt according to their armies.’" By this time, Moses and Aaron had been identified several times in the Exodus account; why this seemingly superfluous statement, naming and classifying them again? Liberal, skeptical "scholars" argue that Moses wasn’t the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, but that they were compiled over the centuries (beginning several hundred years after the exodus—if that event really happened) by various priests, editors, redactors, etc. and since there were a number of these editors, there is a lot of repetition, each “editor” putting whatever comments, etc. he wished into the text. Some have even suggested that Moses never even existed. I suppose George Washington didn’t exist, either, that later historians and “editors” have created a fictional history of the United States as well. But, again, to return to our initial question—why this identification, or re-identification, of Moses and Aaron? We must always remember that most ancient peoples were illiterate, and books were few and far between. Every book had to be hand written; there were no printing presses. So how was knowledge disseminated? By word of mouth, or, in the case of the Law of Moses, public reading. For example, in Deuteronomy 31:11, Moses commanded the elders of Israel, “When all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.” Such is not a terribly effective way of learning, but it was basically all they had. So, repetition of important people or events was frequent. One finds it constantly in the Old Testament, especially; education and reading ability increased as time went on, but never were more than a small portion of people literate. By repeating the events, they were more to be remembered. So, Moses and Aaron were obviously extremely important, and to emphasize that to the hearers, they are identified again in Exodus 6:26. Because hearing was such an important means of education, much of the Old Testament was written in poetic form. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose. So repetition such as that found in Exodus 6:26 doesn’t mean multiple authors; modern skeptics need to understand a little bit about ancient history and peoples and grasp the practical circumstances of daily living.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Journey Through the Bible: Mark 2 and 3

Mark 2:17“When Jesus heard it, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’" Perhaps one of the most difficult thing for many of us to do is to get outside our circle of comfort and reach out to those who are “sinners,” those whose cultural or financial situation doesn’t appeal much to us. The church of Christ in America is largely a white, middle-class organization; part of this is understandable, because we all tend to gravitate towards those whom we are most comfortable with; our friends are white, middle class thus they tend to be the people we go to church with. It will be challenging for us to do what the Lord did here—reach out to those who are truly lost, and not just more white, middle-class people. The spiritually sick are those who need our help, regardless of race, economic condition, or social background. God is color and culture blind, and we need to be so as well.

Mark 3:11-12—“And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, ‘You are the Son of God.’ But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known.” Why would Jesus not want the demons—and others—to announce who He is or what He had done? He tells more than one individual “that they should tell no one” (Mark 7:36). One would think Jesus would want knowledge of Him broadcast as far and wide as possible. A couple of reasons can be suggested as to why He asks many people—and demons—to be silent concerning Him. One, the more that His works were announced, the more people He would attract. In one sense, that would be good, of course, but if the crowds became too large and unruly, this would hinder His mobility and keep Him from preaching everywhere He needed to go. A second reason revolves around the total ignorance people had of His mission. Nearly all the Jews expected the Messiah to come as an all-conquering king, defeat the Romans, and re-establish Israel as a great power. That is not what He came to do. He certainly wanted people to believe and know that He was the Son of God, but only on His terms. If a strong political movement arose because of a misunderstanding of Who He truly was, then this could create social disturbances, bring the Romans into play, and definitely interfere with what He was trying to accomplish. Demons, of course, might deliberately spread erroneous ideas about Him. Ignorance, then, was the underlying cause for His demand for silence. Once people understood more about Him, then obviously He wanted the gospel preached to every creature in the world (Mark 16:15).