IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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IPUWER’S VERSION

And all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. … And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile. [Exodus 7:20b-21,24 (ESV)]

The Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. …There was hail and fire flashing continually… And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field. [Exodus 9:23a,24a,25b (ESV)]

great egretNo story is repeated more in the Old Testament than that of the Exodus. Although it is the defining moment in Israel’s history and faith, there are many who choose to disbelieve it ever happened. Yet, if it didn’t, Jews and Christians alike are basing their faith on an elaborately constructed lie. In the early 1800s, a papyrus was found in Egypt that tells the story of the Exodus from an Egyptian’s point of view. Although the papyrus itself dates from around 1550-1069 BC, it is believed to be a copy of an earlier document written between 2040 and 1782 BC. Housed in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Netherlands, and first translated in 1909, it’s commonly known as the Admonitions of Ipuwer or the Ipuwer Papyrus.

Appearing to be an eyewitness account, the papyrus describes mayhem, drought, starvation, the escape of slaves (along with Egyptian wealth), and death throughout Egypt. Compare today’s verse from Exodus 7 with these from the Ipuwer Papyrus: “Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere. … The river is blood. Men shrink from tasting… and thirst after water… That is our water!… All is ruin.” [2:5-6,10,13] Compare the words from Exodus 9 to Ipuwer’s: “Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. Lower Egypt weeps… Forsooth, grain has perished on every side… The entire palace is without its revenues. [2:10,6:3,10:6] Even the mention of “lower Egypt” weeping is notable since Scripture says that only in the land of Goshen (in the upper or northern part of the country) was there no hail.

Ipuwer reports the deadly plague that struck cattle with these words, “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan… [5:5] The plague of darkness is reported with, “The land is without light.” [9:11] In reporting the final plague, Exodus 12:30 says, “And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead.” Ipuwer reports that, “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.… It is groaning throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.” [2:13,3:14] The Bible tells us the Israelites carried away the Egyptians’ wealth and Ipuwer tells of the “gold and lapis lazuli, silver and malachite, carnelian and bronze” that were “fastened on the neck of female slaves.” [3:2]

The plagues are but a part of the papyrus and a large portion of it concerns what happened in Egypt after the plagues. While Scripture doesn’t address the after effects of Egypt’s loss of livestock, grain, wealth, first-born sons, or Pharaoh’s troops, chariots, and charioteers, Ipuwer does. He writes of the resulting chaos and ruin in the land—bankruptcy, crime, famine, rebellion, and invasion. If, like me, you ever wondered why Egypt never bothered the Israelites as they wandered the Sinai Peninsula for the next 40 years, Ipuwer’s papyrus offers a logical explanation. They were a broken nation!

Ipuwer seems to have been a real historical figure and his name (along with the title “Overseer of Singers”) was found on an ancient stone listing a group of royal scribes for the 19th dynasty. Nevertheless, the papyrus is not without controversy and scholars differ on whether it is an historical account of the events surrounding the Exodus or fiction (something called “national distress” literature.) Let us remember that once a skeptic accepts the historicity of the Exodus—the supernatural plagues and parting of both the Red Sea and the Jordan—then he is faced with the existence of a supreme being who rules over the world and directs its affairs. For those who do believe, while we don’t need extra Biblical evidence, it makes for interesting reading and even more interesting discussions with non-believers. Let us also remember that even if there were no extra-biblical evidence, lack of evidence does not mean something didn’t happen. The only way to disprove something is with evidence that it didn’t occur and that we most definitely do not have!

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. [Exodus 14:28-29 (ESV)]

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THE IMPOSSIBLE

He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” [Luke 18:27 (NLT)]

Several years ago, we took our daughter and grand-daughter to a magic show. On the way home, we explored various scenarios to figure out how the $50 bill, signed by my husband, that we’d witnessed going up in flames, ended up in the middle of an uncut orange, that was in a paper bag, inside a locked box, inside another locked box, that was way across the stage. While we tried to find an explanation for the trick, my grand piped up, “Stop trying to figure it out. It was magic!”

While it was an entertaining show, we adults knew it wasn’t real magic—just carefully orchestrated and well-executed sleight of hand. But, not wanting to disillusion the little one, we waited until she was out of ear-shot before trying to find an explanation for what we saw. There is something about us that wants to make sense of that which makes no sense, which probably explains the popularity of the CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us in which magicians perform tricks and the hosts try to figure out how they’re done. To determine whether they’ve been fooled and yet avoid exposing the trick’s secrets to the audience, the duo use cryptic language when speaking to the magician to describe the methods they suspect he used. On rare occasions, Penn and Teller are perplexed and the guest receives a trophy. Yet, even when that happens, the audience knows it’s just an illusion rather than anything supernatural.

Magicians are in the business of fooling people but God is not. We can try to figure out a magician’s magic trick but we’ll never find an explanation for God’s miracles. It was not sleight of hand that turned water into wine, stilled a storm, healed lepers, fed a multitude, filled the net with fish, or blinded Paul. It was no illusion that held back the Red Sea, multiplied one widow’s food and another’s oil, caused the sun and moon to stand still, provided manna from heaven, or kept three men from burning in a fiery furnace. Nevertheless, it’s only human to wonder how God covered Egypt with darkness while light fell on the Israelites, caused Jericho’s walls to fall, made water to pour from a rock, turned Aaron’s rod into a serpent, or made a sundial go backwards ten steps. Much in the Bible simply makes no sense in a world ruled by the laws of physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry or any other science.

While magic is merely an illusion, God’s miracles—even though they defy human logic and reasoning—are not! Being the creator of the universe, God has His own set of rules that can be changed at will. One of the greatest minds of our generation was physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. An avowed atheist, he believed the universe is governed by the laws of science and said, “Religion believes in miracles, but these are not compatible with science.” That, however, is the point—a miracle defies human understanding because it transcends the laws we know of nature. If Hawking, Penn and Teller, or anyone else could explain or reproduce it, then it wouldn’t be a miracle.

While God doesn’t want unthinking believers, in the end, we must come to him out of faith, not logic. We come without understanding how a virgin gave birth to a God/man—without witnessing the Holy Spirit descend like a dove from heaven, watching Jesus walk on water, observing Lazarus emerge from his tomb, or viewing Jesus’ resurrected body ascend into heaven. Nevertheless, we believe! “There’s no way he can do that!” is only true when we are speaking of men; with God, all things are possible.

 Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [Augustine]

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

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WITH JUST A WORD

I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! [Matthew 8:10]

Coming from a career in the military where, as the commanding officer, his word was law, my brother-in-law had a rude awakening when he retired from the Navy and returned to civilian life. If, at his word, a squadron of planes could be on the runway and ready for flight at 0700 sharp, he didn’t understand why the cable man or plumber couldn’t be counted on to arrive on time (let alone, at all)! Unfortunately, the power and authority he had as a commanding officer didn’t transfer to his new role as a private citizen.

Like my brother-in-law, the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant was used to the power of his words. When the centurion spoke, he spoke with the emperor’s authority and he knew he didn’t need to be present to have his orders carried out by the 100 men he commanded. Recognizing Jesus as more than an itinerant rabbi, the centurion knew that, when Jesus spoke, He spoke with God’s authority. Like the centurion, Jesus didn’t need to be present to exercise His power—all that was needed was His command!

Typically, people were amazed by Jesus but, that time, Jesus was amazed by the centurion. Turning to the crowd around him, He commended the Gentile’s faith—saying he’d not seen so great a faith in the land. Reminding his listeners that the Kingdom of Heaven was open to everyone, both Gentile and Jew, He warned them that faith, rather than heritage, would determine attendance at the Messianic banquet and cautioned that some Israelites would not be there!

The only other time Scripture records Jesus’ amazement is when, after being scoffed and scorned in Nazareth, Jesus expressed amazement at his fellow Jews’ lack of faith. Mark tells us that was why Jesus could perform only a few healings (but no miracles) in his home town. The lack of miracles, however, doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t have the power to perform them; it means that He chose not to do so in an atmosphere of unbelief. Rather than being subject to our faith, God acts in response to it! God’s power is unlimited but He will not force His blessings on those who don’t believe. Let us remember that the One who spoke the universe into existence is capable of far more than we can ask! The centurion had great faith in Jesus; we should follow his example!

And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. [Hebrews 11:6 (NLT)]

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)]

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JAEL’S TALE

Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. May she be blessed above all women who live in tents. [Judges 5:24 (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkYesterday, I made reference to the story of Jael. Her story takes place about 200 years after the Israelites entered Canaan in the time of the Judges—a time when “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” [17:6] Because of Israel’s disobedience, the Lord allowed King Jabin of Hazor to subjugate the people of Israel. Sisera led Jabin’s army and, with their 900 iron chariots, the Canaanites had oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. Deborah, a prophetess, was judge at the time.

When the people cried to the Lord for help, Deborah called for Barak. Promising victory, she gave him God’s command to lead Israelite warriors to Mount Tabor where God would lure Sisera and his men into a trap. When Barak insisted that Deborah join him in the battle, she warned him that the Lord’s victory over Sisera would be at the hand of a woman. At this point in the story, we assume Deborah’s prophecy is about herself.

Seeing Barak leading his men down Mount Tabor, Sisera’s troops proceeded down to the Kishon River to meet them in battle. When God sent a sudden storm, the river’s banks overflowed, flooded the valley, and Sisera’s chariots were useless in the mud. Panicked, the Canaanite troops abandoned their chariots and fled. Barak’s troops gave chase and defeated them.

Sisera, however, escaped and found his way to the Kenite camp. The Kenites were nomads, descendants of Moses’ brother-in-law Hobab, and had a long history with the Israelites. The word “kenite” is related to an Aramaic word meaning “smith” and the Kenites are believed to have been blacksmiths. As nomads, their very survival depended on staying out of other people’s disputes but, as smiths, they probably had dealings with Sisera regarding his iron chariots and Heber’s family was on good terms with King Jabin. Thinking he’d found sanctuary in the Kenite camp, Sisera ran to Jael’s tent. She invited the exhausted man inside, covered him with a rug, and gave him milk to drink. Knowing no one would look for him there since men were never allowed inside a woman’s tent, Sisera was sure he’d found safe haven. Asking Jael to keep a lookout, the exhausted man slept. Jael then took a tent peg and drove it through the sleeping man’s temples into the ground. When Barak arrived in search of his foe, Jael showed him the dead man. As Deborah predicted, Sisera died at the hand of a woman but it was Jael’s name that was sung in Deborah and Barak’s victory song.

Jael breached etiquette and usurped her husband’s authority by offering hospitality to a man (something only another man could do). She further dishonored Heber by betraying his alliance with King Jabin. Finally, she violated the ancient Near East principle of hospitality that guaranteed the safety of one’s guests. Like Rahab, she makes an unlikely heroine but, unlike the Jericho prostitute, she never makes mention of the Lord.  

Was Jael a heroine who faithfully followed Israel’s God or simply an unscrupulous double-crosser who supported whatever side claimed victory? Seeing Sisera alone and fleeing for his life, Jael knew his troops had been defeated. After greeting him with a smile and a warm welcome, did she simply take the opportunity to curry favor with the Israelite victors? Or, because of her clan’s close ties with the Israelites, had she come to believe in the Israelite’s God? Knowing how ruthless Jabin and Sisera were, did she bravely refuse to remain neutral in the face of their evil? With Sisera’s death, King Jabin soon fell and Israel had peace for forty years. Deborah and Barak called Jael “blessed among women.” What do you think? Whatever her motives were—whether to serve Israel or herself—God used her to achieve His purpose.

Sisera asked for water, and she gave him milk. In a bowl fit for nobles, she brought him yogurt. Then with her left hand she reached for a tent peg, and with her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera with the hammer, crushing his head. With a shattering blow, she pierced his temples. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet. And where he sank, there he died. [Judges 5:25-27 (NLT)]

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WHEN GOD MOVES A STONE (Easter – part 1)

On the way they were asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. [Mark 16:3-4 (NLT)]

Easter tombAlthough Jesus repeatedly predicted that He’d rise from the dead, the women didn’t bring clean clothes for a living man that Sunday morning when they went to the tomb. Instead, they brought burial spices of their own with which to anoint His dead body. Because of the Sabbath, Jesus’ burial was rushed and His body laid in a borrowed tomb. Although Joseph and Nicodemus had anointed Him, perhaps the women were concerned that, in the men’s haste to finish before sunset, they hadn’t done a proper job of preparing the body. The spices they brought would conceal the stench of decay and, out of love for Jesus, they wanted to complete the burial rites properly.

Not knowing about the guards Pilate had posted at the tomb, the women wondered how they would manage entry into it. Many Judean tombs were caves. The opening was covered by a large disc-shaped stone set into a groove cut in the bedrock. Getting the stone in place was fairly easy as it was rolled down a slight incline to cover the tomb’s opening. Several men, however, would be needed to roll it up the incline. “Who will roll the stone away?” they asked. Even though the women didn’t know how it would be done, they trusted that it could be done and proceeded in faith.

For a moment, consider that heavy stone at the cave’s opening. It was impossible to remove from within the tomb but it wasn’t removed so Jesus could exit the tomb. The Messiah who raised the dead, walked on water, and healed the sick certainly didn’t need anyone to move the stone for Him. Regardless of size, no boulder could block the way of the one whose resurrection meant that death had been conquered. That stone wasn’t moved so He could get out; it was moved so that His followers could get in, find the tomb empty, and share the good news!

The women didn’t let their reservations about moving the stone stop them from going to the burial site and serving their Lord. What about us? When we are called to serve Him, do we worry about the stones that might block our way and allow them to stop us? Let the Easter story remind us that, just as that stone was removed for the women so they could tell the good news, God will remove the barriers blocking our way from sharing the resurrected Christ!

Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.” [Matthew 28:5-7 (NLT)]

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