WHICH CAME FIRST?

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. … Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. [Genesis 1:3. 2:7 (NLT)]

hen and eggs

Years ago, The Jerusalem Post published a joke about human arrogance. After considering all of humanity’s scientific progress, a group of scientists decided that God no longer was necessary. The chief scientist explained to God that man’s ability to clone people, manipulate atoms, build molecules, fly through space, create body parts with 3-D printers, and perform other miraculous feats meant God was unneeded and could be replaced by man. After patiently listening to the scientist, God suggested a human-making contest with only one rule: “We have to do it just like I did in the Bible.” Saying that was easy, the arrogant scientist bent over to pick up a handful of dust. “Put that down!” said God, while adding, “To do it my way, you have to make your own dust!”

Our vacation home in Idaho came complete with chickens and hen house. Every morning, the littlest grands would trek out to the hen house, check for eggs, and return with the makings of an omelet. I was relieved they never asked the age-old unanswerable question of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” We need a chicken (actually two) to have a fertilized egg but we need a fertilized egg to make a chicken. This seemingly futile question has been discussed for thousands of years. The Greek philosopher Aristotle considered it but evaded the answer by saying that both egg and chicken went infinitely backwards and always existed. The oldest fossilized eggs are 190 million years old and the oldest fossilized birds are only 150 million years old so paleontologists might say the egg came first. A strict reading of Genesis, however, would lead us to conclude that the chicken came first because animals appeared on the 5th day of creation. It’s a silly question but people ask it because they want to understand how something can come from nothing.

When making the children’s omelets, we still needed the raw ingredients. Along with the eggs that came from chickens (that came from eggs), we needed butter and cheese from cows, salt from the sea, pepper from the drupe of a pepper plant (Piper nigrum}, and green peppers and onions that came from seeds sown by a farmer, as well as a frying pan, whisk, spatula, and gas stove. Although my seamstress friend creates stunning clothing, she needs the silk from the silkworm (that came from an egg) or the cotton from the cotton bush (that came from a seed) to do so. My wood-working friend creates beautiful furniture but he can’t do it without the wood that comes from an oak tree that comes from an acorn that originally came from the oak! This begs the question, “Which came first, the oak or the acorn?” As the arrogant scientist learned, mankind can’t create something from nothing!

God, however, created everything from nothing. He had no eggs for the chickens, acorns for the oaks, seeds for the apple trees, or pollen for the flowers. He had no hydrogen or oxygen for water and no sodium or chloride to add to the water for the sea! Simply put, God spoke all creation into existence. That’s a rather unsatisfactory answer for those who want a technical explanation but the Bible is a book of theology that tells us the who and not a book of science that tells us how. We’re not about to get any more details as to how chaos turned to order, a void came to be filled, and nothing became something. Whether it was the chicken or its egg that came first will always be a conundrum.

The Lord merely spoke, and the heavens were created. He breathed the word, and all the stars were born. He assigned the sea its boundaries and locked the oceans in vast reservoirs. Let the whole world fear the Lord, and let everyone stand in awe of him. For when he spoke, the world began! It appeared at his command. [Psalm 33:6-9 (NLT)]

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HEROD AGRIPPA I

The Lord detests the proud; they will surely be punished. … Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. [Proverbs 16:5,18 (NLT)]
peacock

After Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, Herod Agrippa interrogated and executed the apostle’s guards. Luke tells us that the king then went to Caesarea where he died. While independent historical evidence of the Bible’s stories isn’t necessary, it’s always welcome. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD) corroborates Luke’s account of the king’s death in his Antiquities of the Jews. 

With his flowery language, direct quotes, and added details, Josephus’ account differs slightly from Luke’s but the two versions are complementary rather than contradictory. While in Caesarea, Agrippa attended a festival in honor of the emperor Claudius. Luke simply describes the king’s dress as his “royal robes” but Josephus adds that they were “made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful.” When the sun shone on Herod, the garment “was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god.” Luke tell us that when Agrippa spoke, the people gave him a standing ovation and said his voice was that of a god, not a man. Josephus adds that “the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.”

Both historians report that Herod Agrippa immediately fell ill and died. “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner,” reported Josephus, adding, “And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.” Although Josephus doesn’t specify the cause, Luke says the man was “consumed with worms” and Agrippa probably had roundworms or tapeworms. Feeding on the nutrients in the intestines, these parasites can block the intestines, bile and pancreatic ducts, and cause severe pain along with seizures, diarrhea, and vomiting. Able to migrate to other parts of the body, the worms can damage the liver, eyes, heart, and brain. Being eaten by worms both before and after his death seems a fitting end for such a despicable man and both Luke and Josephus agree that his agonizing (and gross) death was a supernatural act of divine judgment for Herod Agrippa’s arrogance and blasphemy in accepting the people’s worship.

Herod Agrippa I was raised in Rome where, after playing the dangerous game of political intrigue, he ended up on the winning side. It was through his friendship with the emperors Caligula and Claudius that he gained rulership of all the Jewish territories once ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great. Although he owed his position to the favor of the Roman emperor, Agrippa was part Jewish. The politician in him  recognized the importance of prudence and diplomacy with the Jews if he wanted to maintain his powerful position. According to Josephus, Agrippa sought the support of the Pharisees and proved his Jewish identity by carefully observing the law and making daily sacrifices. By acting as a Roman for the Romans and an observant Jew for his subjects, the king did what was politic and self-serving until that day in Caesarea when he was lauded as a god.

Caesarea was a pagan city, so it’s somewhat understandable that the crowd may have been in awe of him. Nevertheless, Agrippa was a Jew who knew that what occurred was nothing short of idolatry! Moreover, as a Roman, he knew that only Caesar could be proclaimed a god. The right (and expedient) thing to do would have been to immediately correct the crowd and reject the honor of being called a god but Agrippa didn’t. Instead, he was filled with pride and the man who’d lived by flattering others to curry favor made the mistake of believing his own flattering reviews. When Agrippa accepted the crowd’s worship, he offended both the emperor Claudius and the Jewish leadership. More important, he offended God!

While none of us are likely to be lauded as gods, we all will have moments, like Herod Agrippa’s, when pride takes hold of us. Pride like the king’s, however, is idolatry because it is worship of self! When we put ourselves front and center, our pride displaces God from His rightful place. Pride may not bring on a fatal case of worms but let us remember these words by Charles Spurgeon: “No matter how dear you are to God, if pride is harbored in your spirit, He will whip it out of you. They that go up in their own estimation must come down again by His discipline.”

None are more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not. [Baruch Spinoza]

I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols. [Isaiah 42:8 (NLT)]

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PETER WENT FREE

O Sovereign Lord! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you! [Jeremiah 32:17 (NLT)]
angel

Herod Agrippa I was a good politician who knew how to manipulate people to gain their loyalty and support. When his approval rating went up after the execution of James, the king arrested Peter, the acknowledged leader of the apostles. Perhaps he thought by literally cutting off the head of this new sect, he could put an end to the troubling Nazarene movement. After imprisoning Peter, Agrippa planned to try and execute him once the Passover ended. The trial’s delay was because Jewish law did not allow for executions during the eight-day celebration.

Since this was Peter’s third arrest, Agrippa made sure he was not going to be released with a slap on the wrist or allowed to escape, as he’d previously done. Peter was guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.  Although a prisoner usually was attached by chain to one guard, Peter was chained to two soldiers while the other two guarded the door to his cell.

At this point, it appeared that evil had won. John and the others were mourning James’ death and Peter was in custody facing execution! Rather than lose heart, however, the church spent the eight days and nights of Passover fervently praying for Peter’s release. I suspect that while Peter was chained in his cell, when he wasn’t evangelizing his captors, he prayed as well. Herod may have had prisons and chains but the church had the power of prayer. On the night before his trial, Peter was miraculously freed by an angel. Herod Agrippa thought Peter was secure in prison but he didn’t take into account the power of God—the cross and sealed tomb couldn’t stop Jesus and a cell wouldn’t stop Peter!

What’s interesting in this narrative is that Peter thought it was just a dream when the chains fell from his wrists, the angel led him from the cell, and the gates opened by themselves. It wasn’t until the angel left him on the streets of Jerusalem that the apostle realized the Lord actually freed him! In the same way, in spite of their week of fervent prayers, when Peter appeared at the home where the church had gathered to pray, they were so astonished that their prayers were answered that they didn’t believe the servant who said Peter was at the door nor did they believe their eyes when they actually saw him! They were like the Iowa church during a several months’ long drought. When they called for a prayer meeting, everyone came and prayed for rain but nobody believed enough to arrive there with an umbrella!

As Puritan minister Thomas Watson pointed out, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” Even though the odds against Peter were astronomical, we should never bet against God nor should we be surprised when He answers our prayers or exceeds our expectations!

Forgive us, Lord, when we’re surprised by answers to our prayer; Increase our faith and teach us how to trust Your loving care. [Sper]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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SEEING ISN’T BELIEVING

Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief. [Matthew 13:57-58 (NLT)]

kurrajong hybridAlthough Jesus performed many miracles, when compared to the illusions performed by various well-known magicians, they aren’t all that impressive. Jesus emerged from the tomb on the third day but David Blaine buried himself alive in a plexiglass coffin under a 3-ton water-filled tank for seven days and nights! Calling Lazarus out of the tomb after several days was impressive but only his family and some mourners were there to see it. When David Blaine emerged from the 6-ton block of ice in which he’d been encased for over 63 hours, thousands in Times Square were there and even more watched it on television. Granted, Blaine fell short of his 72-hour goal but the man knows how to draw crowds! Couldn’t Jesus have done something similar?

The disciples saw Jesus walk on water but magician Criss Angel did the same thing on national TV. Jesus appeared in a locked room after His resurrection but Criss Angel has passed through a glass window (without breaking it) and both a metal door and an iron gate. Jesus had Peter take a coin out of a fish’s mouth but David Blaine turned a cup of coffee into a cup of money. Feeding several thousand with a boy’s lunch pales in comparison to David Copperfield making the 225-ton Statue of Liberty disappear. Quietly transforming water into wine isn’t nearly as impressive as illusionist Cyril Takayama removing his head or David Copperfield making an airplane disappear.

Of course, the difference between Jesus and those magicians is that the men are mere illusionists and Jesus was God. Those magicians and their tricks only seem miraculous because we don’t understand how they’re done. Miracles done by Jesus had nothing to do with misdirection, deception, trickery, or sleight of hand. Without worldly explanation, they truly were supernatural. Nevertheless, wouldn’t Jesus have gathered more followers if He’d been more of a showman?

Couldn’t Jesus have done something more dramatic and remarkable in Nazareth than a few healings and a display of wisdom in the synagogue? People unimpressed by his background might have been awestruck if He’d made a camel disappear, pulled shekels from children’s ears, or cut a disciple in half. No matter how spectacular the miracles, however, the people’s skepticism would have blinded them to His message. The lack of belief in Nazareth didn’t mean Jesus couldn’t perform miracles; it simply meant He wouldn’t because there was no point. Some people are unwilling to believe no matter what they see.

The magician’s end purpose is to create illusions for money, fame, and entertainment—none of which were Jesus’ purpose. He performed miracles only out of compassion, to illustrate a lesson, or to establish his credentials as God. Frequently, He even asked people to say nothing about them. Miracles were a small part of His ministry because Jesus knew that miracles alone make a poor basis for faith.

Jerusalem was filled with people that Passover week some 2,000 years ago. Surely some of the populace there had been fed by Him, received his healing touch, or witnessed Him perform a miracle or two. If they hadn’t been eyewitnesses, many more had heard about His miracles. Nevertheless, on that Friday when Pilate asked if he should release Barabbas or Jesus “who is called Christ,” we don’t read of anyone in the crowd trying to drown out those who called for the release of Barabbas. They weren’t calling for Jesus because seeing was not enough to make them believe.

Men can see the greatest miracles and miss the glory of God. What generation was ever favored with miracles as Jesus’ generations was? Yet that generation crucified the Son of God! [Tom Wells]

Jesus asked, “Will you never believe in me unless you see miraculous signs and wonders?” [John 4:48 (NLT)]

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FEEDING THE MULTITUDE – Part 2

At this they began to argue with each other because they hadn’t brought any bread. Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, “You have so little faith! Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread? Don’t you understand even yet? Don’t you remember the 5,000 I fed with five loaves, and the baskets of leftovers you picked up? Or the 4,000 I fed with seven loaves, and the large baskets of leftovers you picked up?” [Matthew 16:7-10 (NLT)]

white ibisMatthew and Mark tell of a second time Jesus fed a multitude. Jesus had been north of Galilee in Tyre and Sidon before going south to the Sea of Galilee and on to the region of the Ten Towns or Decapolis. Once there, a huge crowd assembled and set up camp around Jesus as He healed and preached. After three days on the hillside, the crowd ran out of provisions and Jesus voiced His concern. Just like the first time they were faced with a hungry crowd, the disciples don’t know what to do, even though the solution was standing right in front of them. After they found seven loaves and a few fish, Jesus miraculously turned that into a feast for 4,000 men (plus women and children) with seven large reed baskets of food remaining!

Why would Matthew and Mark include two almost identical stories to their gospels?  Perhaps the reason is found in the location of these miracles. While the setting of these miracles seems unimportant to us in the 21st century, it wasn’t when the miracles occurred and the words were written. Located on the north shore of the Galilean Sea, the Bethsaida region was Jewish, and most (if not all) of the recipients of that first miraculous meal were Jews. When Jesus was in Tyre and Sidon, however, He was in a Gentile region and at least 35 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. To get to the Decapolis, He had to go east, cross the Jordan, and then proceed south to the southern end of the Sea. Since he was on His way back to Judea, it’s evident that Jesus deliberately went out of His way to minister to this Gentile and largely pagan region.

With their addition of Jesus feeding the multitude in the Decapolis, Matthew and Mark made it clear that Jesus came for both Jew and Gentile. Let this story be a reminder that, whether Jew or Gentile, good church-going people or idol worshippers and pagans, deserving or undeserving, all of God’s children deserve to be fed both spiritually and physically.

It also seems that Jesus’ miracles of provision needed repeating for His disciples. Even though He previously turned a boy’s lunch into a banquet for well over 5,000 hungry people, the disciples stood around not knowing what to do when faced with another hungry crowd of 4,000 men (plus women and children)! Instead of seeing an opportunity, they saw an impossibility. Rather than asking Jesus where they’d find enough food in the wilderness, they immediately should have offered what they did have to Jesus and asked Him to make it enough! It seems the disciples were slow learners!

Even though Jesus turned seven loaves and a few fish into an al fresco picnic for thousands, the disciples still didn’t understand. Shortly after this miracle, Jesus and the disciples were in a boat and crossing the lake. When the disciples realized they had only one loaf of bread between them, they argued about the lack of food! They sat there quarreling about bread while the Bread of Life sat in the boat with them. For the One who could multiply seven loaves to feed a multitude, turning one loaf into enough for thirteen men was child’s play, but they were blind to who He was and what He could do!

May we always remember that God can do things that exceed our wildest imagination. If we just bring Him what we have—no matter how little or insignificant it may seem—God will make it enough. As the old hymn goes: “Little is much when God is in it.”

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35 (NLT)]

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FEEDING THE MULTITUDE – Part 1

Late in the afternoon the twelve disciples came to him and said, “Send the crowds away to the nearby villages and farms, so they can find food and lodging for the night. There is nothing to eat here in this remote place.” But Jesus said, “You feed them.” [Luke 9:12-13a (NLT)]

Kandersteg-Lake OeschinenOther than His resurrection, the feeding of the 5,000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracles recorded in all four gospels. Wanting some quiet time, Jesus and the disciples went by boat to a remote area near Bethsaida. Because the crowd followed them, Jesus spent the rest of day healing and teaching. When the disciples asked Jesus to send the people home so they could eat, Jesus said to feed them. All four accounts agree that only five loaves and two fish were available, that 5,000 men (along with women and children) ate as much as they wanted, and that the left-overs filled a dozen wicker hand-baskets.

We understand why the gospel writers included the resurrection in their record; without it, Jesus was just a good man who died. But why is this miracle the only other one each one thought essential to the narrative? The easy answer is that no one but God could have performed a miracle of such magnitude. Rather than the size of the miracle, however, perhaps it was the enormous size of the crowd! With the addition of women and children to the 5,000 men present, there probably were 10,000 or more people who not only witnessed but partook of this miracle. That’s the sort of thing people don’t keep to themselves—they probably told their neighbors, friends, children, and grands. If someone who lived near the north shore of the Sea of Galilee wasn’t there that day, they knew someone who was! While we can’t know for sure, Mark’s gospel was written in the late 50s to 60s, Luke and Matthew’s prior to 70, and John’s around 80-85 AD. Can you imagine the number of witnesses still alive who could refute or verify this miracle as proof of the gospels’ validity? The inclusion of this miracle gives credence to the rest of the gospels’ accounts!

There is more to this story than God’s amazing provision but, because we’re so familiar with it, we tend to miss some of its subtler messages. The reason Jesus took a boat across the lake was to find a remote area away from the crowd so he and the disciples could be alone. John the Baptist had recently died, the disciples had just returned from their mission trip, and the men were hungry and tired. Jesus wanted peace and quiet but the people wanted Him! Seeing them as sheep without a shepherd, He put the needs of others before His desires. What a beautiful example of the compassion of Christ. Are we so willing to do the same thing?

While a Gentile might miss it, a Jew would see that this miracle evokes two earlier miracles found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Both the manna for Moses and bread for Elisha foreshadow Jesus’ miracle of provision. The story of manna in Exodus probably doesn’t need repeating but you may not be familiar with Elisha’s story in 2 Kings. During a famine, a man brought Elisha some grain and bread. When Elisha told his servant to feed the 100 prophets who were with him, he protested there wasn’t enough bread for those many men. The prophet assured the servant that everyone would eat and there even would be leftovers; indeed, they did and there were. For people who considered Jesus a mere prophet along the lines of Moses and Elisha, His feeding of the 5,000 was irrefutable proof that He was far greater!

Having been told to take nothing with them during their ministry tour, the disciples learned about receiving since they depended on the hospitality and provision of others. Could this have been a message about giving? It certainly showed that ministry is more than preaching; it is providing. Feeding the sheep means tending to the flock’s practical needs as well as their spiritual ones.

Of course, we can’t forget about the boy. While Philip saw what they didn’t have (money), Andrew went looking for what they did have! Even though he knew it wasn’t enough, Andrew saw possibility in the boy’s basket and his willingness to give up his meager provisions. This insignificant boy played an essential role in one of the most significant days in Jesus’ ministry! May we always keep our eyes open to possibilities and remember that, in God’s hands, our inadequacy becomes more than enough!

The four accounts of this miracle are found in Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15. Today, consider revisiting this old familiar story by reading all four accounts of this amazing miracle with fresh eyes!

They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftover bread and fish. A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed. [Mark 6:42-44 (NLT)]

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