DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

lilacWe reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods. We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know this. If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. [2 Corinthians 4:2-4 (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about John the Baptist, I said that doubt was not the same as unbelief. In John’s question to Jesus, we have the doubts of a godly man but we see trickery and unbelief in most of the questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Because the Sadducees interpreted Scripture literally and the Pharisees gave equal significance to their oral tradition, the groups frequently argued with one another over Jewish doctrine. They were, however, united in their hatred of Jesus. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not belief in an afterlife or the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, they asked Jesus a question dealing with resurrection. Jewish law said that, if a woman’s husband died without having a son, the husband’s brother had the responsibility of marrying her. Using this law as their starting point, the Sadducees set up a bizarre scenario in which one brother dies without having children and his widow, who never bears a son, ends up marrying and burying brother after brother until she’s married and buried all seven brothers. The Sadducees want Jesus to tell them which of the seven will be her husband in the afterlife.

Since they didn’t believe in any afterlife, theirs was not an honest question and they’re sure Jesus can’t answer without looking foolish, offending people, or being caught in an inconsistency. He’ll appear arbitrary if he picks one brother over another and immoral if He says they all can have her! His other choice (and possibly the one for which they hope) is to admit that resurrection is a preposterous doctrine. Not only would they score a point against the Pharisees but Jesus would look like a fraud since He couldn’t be the “resurrection and the life” if there were no resurrection!

Imagine their consternation when Jesus corrected them by saying they’d misinterpreted Scripture and had underestimated God’s power with their assumption that resurrection meant a continuation of the same kind of bodies we have in this life. Jesus explained that people would be raised into bodies unlike their present ones and marriage and procreation would be unnecessary. When Jesus added that people will have bodies “like the angels in heaven,” He dug the knife deep into their absurd question because Sadducees didn’t believe in angels any more than they did resurrection.

In His final thrust, Jesus asked the Sadducees if they’d read about resurrection in the Scriptures. He then repeated these words from Exodus: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” [3:6] Even though the patriarchs had been dead for more than four centuries, God’s words to Moses were in the present tense which showed that the men remained alive before Him. Jesus could have found scriptural support in words from Isaiah, Daniel, or Job but He chose a verse from part of the Pentateuch, the section the Sadducees found most authoritative. Having been out-argued by the Son of God, I imagine the Sadducees departed with their proverbial tails between their legs. The crowd that heard Jesus, however, was “astounded at his teaching.”

When comparing the questions posed by John’s disciples and the Sadducees, the differences between doubt and unbelief become clear. Where doubt seeks answers, unbelief isn’t interested in them. Doubt seeks enlightenment; unbelief prefers darkness. Doubt is receptive; unbelief is hostile. Doubt is straightforward; unbelief has ulterior motives. Doubt wants the truth; unbelief just wants to win.

There are those who insist that it is a very bad thing to question God. To them, “why?” is a rude question. That depends, I believe, on whether it is an honest search, in faith, for His meaning, or whether it is the challenge of unbelief and rebellion. [Elisabeth Elliot]

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. [Matthew 22:34 (NLT)]

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FLYING AWAY

Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly far away to the quiet of the wilderness. [Psalm 55:6-7 (NLT)]

mourning doveEaster is over and “season” here in southwest Florida is winding down. More people are departing than arriving as our seasonal visitors return north, transport trucks laden with cars are moving up the interstate, and we finally can get a table at our favorite restaurant! It’s been said that there is no escape from death or taxes but we usually try to flee from just about every other unpleasant thing. Thinking their lives would be better here, our snowbirds came south to escape sub-zero temps, heating bills, and shoveling snow. While the climate here is nicer, our tropical paradise doesn’t come with a guarantee and none of us can flee from life’s uncertainties and problems.

Rather than escaping from winter weather, Naomi and Elimelech fled from Bethlehem to escape a famine. Instead of trusting God, they ran away to Moab, a pagan nation hostile to Israel. They intended staying briefly but remained for ten years during which time their sons broke Jewish law by marrying Moabite women. Moab, however, didn’t turn out to be the sort of get-away for which they hoped; sadly, Elimelech and both sons died. A widow with no sons in a hostile and pagan land was in worse straits than a family in their homeland during a famine. Having literally fallen out of the frying pan into the fire, Naomi decided to flee from Moab. At least this time, she went in the right direction—back to Bethlehem and the God of Israel!

We’re not much different from Naomi and some of our snowbirds; we want to escape to a place where life will be better, simpler, happier, easier, less costly, or more fun. Like Naomi, however, we’re likely to be disappointed because the baggage we’ve packed contains more than our clothes. Tucked in with the sunglasses and beach attire are things like problems at work, disappointments, worries, responsibilities, lack of faith, ill health, guilt, unmet deadlines, family strife, or financial problems. If we can’t physically flee from our troubles, some people try escaping through things like procrastination, alcohol, shopping, drugs, busyness, codependency, or denial. Disregarding the bills doesn’t get them paid, ignoring the lump won’t make it disappear, and taking a vacation, moving to a new house, or having another baby won’t fix a broken marriage. There is no way to escape from life’s problems, obligations, or consequences. We carry that baggage with us wherever we go.

In Naomi and Elimelech’s day (the time of the judges), famine was a test of faith but the couple missed what God planned for them by fleeing from their challenge. If we simply suffer through our troubles and allow them to be our master, we lose hope and become bitter, as did Naomi. Having resigned herself to being an embittered penniless widow with no grandchildren, upon her return to Bethlehem the woman whose name meant pleasant called herself Mara, meaning bitter. Rather than running from or resigning ourselves to our troubles, we can endeavor to change them by trusting God—exactly what Naomi and Elimelech failed to do. Instead, it was the Moabite woman Ruth who showed more faith in Israel’s God than did her in-laws. Trusting in Him, she bravely faced the challenges of widowhood by gleaning in the fields of Boaz. Ruth, however, wasn’t alone in those fields; God was at her side! No matter how bleak the situation may seem, there’s no need to flee when we remember that God is with us in our troubles.

Good people must never expect to escape troubles; if they do, they will be disappointed, for none of their predecessors have been without them. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. [Psalm 34:17-19 (ESV)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

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PHILIP AND THE EUNUCH – Part 1

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. [Acts 8:26-27 (ESV)]

firebushOnce day, the Holy Spirit told Philip to go south and then down the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Although Scripture leads us to assume that Philip’s fortuitous encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch quickly followed, a look at the map tells us otherwise. At the time, Philip was in Samaria and, before he could walk the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, he had a 42-mile uphill trek south to Jerusalem before turning southwest onto the 50-mile stretch of road leading to Gaza, the southernmost of the five chief Philistine cities in southwest Palestine and the last settlement before the desert waste stretching away to Egypt. The trip to Jerusalem probably took at least two days and we don’t know how far down the Gaza Road he walked before the Apostle discovered his God-ordained task and met the treasurer of Ethiopia. In actuality, Philip was on this mission for several days before he knew why he’d been sent.

While most translations say the eunuch was from Ethiopia, he was not from the nation we know as Ethiopia. He was from a territory called Cush in the Old Testament and Nubia (meaning black) by the Romans. Present day Ethiopia (once called Abyssinia) is southeast of the ancient Nubia. This large kingdom was located in today’s southern Egypt and northern Sudan, an area considered by the Romans and Greeks to be the outer limits of the known world or “the end of the earth.” Referring to the dark skin of its inhabitants, the Greeks called any place south of Egypt Aithiopia, meaning the land of the “Burnt-Faced People.” When Wycliffe translated the Greek into English in 1382, he called this land Ethiopia and, until the late 1800s, Ethiopia was a general term referring to any of Black Africa.

The Ethiopian man was the Secretary of the Treasury/Chancellor Exchequer for Candace (Kandake in some translations). Rather than a given name, Candance was the title given to the queen mother. Her son, the king, was considered the child of the sun. As such, he was considered too holy to get involved in secular matters so the queen mother ruled the kingdom on his behalf. The Ethiopian is referred to as a eunuch because it was common in the ancient world to castrate trusted male servants in the royal household. It kept them out of the royal harem (or queen’s bed) and, since they were incapable of setting up a dynasty of their own, castration prevented them from plotting to overthrow the government.

Finally, this Philip is not the one from Bethsaida—the one who brought his friend Nathanael to Jesus and was one of the twelve apostles. This Philip is one of the seven men selected as deacons for the Jerusalem church. Following the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution of Jesus’ followers, Scripture tells us that all the believers (“except the apostles”) fled Jerusalem and scattered. The deacon Philip went north to Samaria where he found his true calling—that of evangelist.

In Samaria, Philip “proclaimed Christ” and brought so many to believe in Jesus that “there was much joy in that city.” [Acts 8:8] Then, out of the blue, the Spirit told him to leave his thriving ministry in Samaria and start to Gaza. Did Philip question God’s reasoning? If he did, imagine his questions and the Spirit’s answers. Where exactly am I going? You don’t need to know. How will I know when I get there? I’ll tell you. What am I supposed to do? You’ll know when the time comes. How long will I be gone? As long as it takes. When do I leave? Now! We don’t know if Philip asked any of those questions but we do know that, when the Spirit said “Go!” he obeyed.

While it made no earthly sense for Philip to leave a successful ministry, it made sense to God because He’d arranged a divine appointment between Philip and the Ethiopian. God knew about the hunger for the Word of God that lay in the man’s heart and knew that Philip was the perfect choice to help fill it. People like Stephen, Peter and John brought the Gospel to Jerusalem and Judea. Philip took it to Samaria and, after he met with the Ethiopian, the Gospel would reach the last geographical sphere mentioned in the Great Commission—Ethiopia—the end of the earth!

Think of what we could do for the Lord if, like Philip, we went when the Spirit said, “Go!”

The Lord of all creation has ordained that he would do his work through us. Our seeking the Spirit’s guidance and obeying what he wants us to do and say is the way he works to bless the world. [Lloyd Ogilvie]

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (ESV)]

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PROPHET OR FRAUD? (Prophecy – 4)

Daniel replied, “There are no wise men, enchanters, magicians, or fortune-tellers who can reveal the king’s secret. But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and he has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the future. Now I will tell you your dream and the visions you saw as you lay on your bed.” [Daniel 2:27-28 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronThe book of Daniel begins with the arrival of the first set of Judean captives in 605 BC and the first six chapters describe the events occurring in Babylon until around 536 and the beginning of the Persian empire. In contrast, chapters seven through twelve are filled with visions and dreams. As part of the Jewish and Christian canon, the traditional view is that this book is a factual recounting of Daniel’s life and a record of supernatural predictions written during the late 6th century BC. Skeptics, however, call its author a fraud and the book fiction because of the mention of Belshazzar as the last king of Babylon, Darius the Mede as the one who took over Babylon, and the incredible accuracy of Daniel’s fulfilled prophecies. They claim that the book had to have been written (or amended) 400 years later in the 2nd century BC by someone claiming to be Daniel.

For centuries, ancient historians reported that Nabonidus (who Daniel never mentions) was the last king of Babylon. It was not until the late 19th century that a cuneiform text known as the Nabonidus Chronicle was discovered. Written in 539 BC, immediately after Babylon fell, it tells us that Babylon’s King Nabonidus was away from Babylon for ten years and was not in Babylon at the time it fell. In his absence, he “entrusted the kingship” to his son, the crown prince Belshazzar. The existence of a coregency helps explain Belshazzar offering the position of “third highest ruler in the kingdom” to Daniel; the other two would have been Nabonidus and Belshazzar. With Nabonidus’ absence the fateful night Babylon fell, it was Belshazzar who was seated on the throne, hosting a feast for 1000, and acting as king in his father’s absence. For all purposes, Belshazzar was Babylon’s last king!

Another point of contention among critics is Daniel’s mention of “Darius the Mede” taking over as king of Babylon. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Greek historian Xenophon (c. 430 to 354 BC), and Babylonian records, Cyrus appointed Gubaru, a Mede, to be ruler of Babylon. These ancient texts also tell us that Gubaru was born in 601 BC. which make him 62 when he took over Babylon in 539—exactly the same age Daniel said Darius was. Both nationality and age match but we still have the different name. Darius is a Persian word meaning “the Royal One” and, rather than his given name, Darius may have been an honorific title.

Seeing how the first six chapters of Daniel are supported by extra-biblical sources, the book’s author appears to have possessed first-hand knowledge of all that happened between 586 and 536 BC. Perhaps the real motive behind denying the book’s historicity is theological. To avoid concluding that Daniel’s predictive prophecies in the later chapters are the inspired word of God, critics hold that the impossibility of such accurate predictions means that someone added to his work after the events happened.

While skeptics say such accurate foretelling of the future is impossible, as believers, we know nothing is impossible with God! A God who can speak the entire universe into existence should be able to see into the future! A God who can’t show His prophet visions of the future certainly wouldn’t be able to generate a flood, create plagues, part the sea, send manna, make water spring from a rock, order a drought, deliver three men from a fiery furnace or an old man from a lion’s den. Foretelling the future would be child’s play compared to making water into wine, cleansing lepers, feeding a multitude with a boy’s lunch, giving sight to the blind, or raising the dead! When we start picking and choosing which prophecies and miracles we accept and which we don’t, it seems we’re left with only two choices: all or none!

Out of necessity, the skeptic must discredit both the Bible’s miracles and predictive prophecy since, if just one miracle or prophecy is allowed to stand, he must accept the existence of God and the divine origin of the Bible. Either Daniel was one of the greatest prophets of Judaism and Christianity or a scholar who was a fraud. You decide.

Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. He reveals deep and mysterious things and knows what lies hidden in darkness, though he is surrounded by light. [Daniel 2:20-22 (NLT)]

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THE ONE WHO DOES THESE THINGS (Prophecy – 2)

Who has stirred up this king from the east, rightly calling him to God’s service? Who gives this man victory over many nations and permits him to trample their kings underfoot? With his sword, he reduces armies to dust. With his bow, he scatters them like chaff before the wind. He chases them away and goes on safely, though he is walking over unfamiliar ground. [Isaiah 41:2-3 (NLT)]

In 538 BC, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Persia’s King Cyrus issued a proclamation allowing the first group of Judean exiles to return home with the purpose of rebuilding the Temple and inhabiting Jerusalem. In fulfillment of another prophecy, he then did what to any other conqueror would be unthinkable by returning the “plunder of tyrants”: 2,499 gold and silver sacred utensils taken by King Nebuchadnezzar when he ransacked the Temple. Cyrus permitted those who returned to take any wealth they’d accumulated during exile and encouraged those choosing to remain in Babylon to support their returning brethren with gifts, supplies, and food offerings. As a result, a total of 5,400 articles of gold and silver were taken back to Judah with the exiles.

In Cyrus’ proclamation releasing the Jews (found in Ezra 1), he claimed that it was “the Lord, the God of heaven” who gave him his kingdoms and appointed him to build a house for the “God of Israel who lives in Jerusalem.” Although Cyrus acknowledged the existence of Israel’s Yahweh, he limited Yahweh’s domain of power to Judah, just as the lesser gods of other nations (such as Babylon’s Marduk) were limited in power to their territory. Like other lesser gods, Israel’s god was governed by another higher god, “the God of heaven.” It’s likely that Cyrus believed Ahura Mazda, the deity of Persian Zoroastrianism, was the supreme god who ruled the others and gave him his kingdoms.

While Cyrus was right about getting divine direction and assistance from God, he was dead wrong about its source! Rather than a God who ruled over the lesser gods of other nations, there was only one God and, unlike those other gods, He wasn’t an idol, didn’t live in a house, and wasn’t limited to Israel or any other border. This one and only God was all-powerful, omnipresent, and omniscient. While He was the God Israel worshipped, He was the God of the universe!

When we think of the parting of the Red Sea, the flood, Egypt’s plagues, hailstones destroying the Amorite army, or the 3½-year drought followed by rain in Elijah’s time, we see that God sometimes uses nature to accomplish His will. For the most part, however, human beings are the agents through which God does most of His work. Some, like Moses, Isaiah, Samuel, and Elijah knew they’d been called to achieve God’s purposes while others, like Rahab and Joseph’s brothers didn’t. God even used heathen kings and pagan nations to achieve his purposes. It was God who moved the Israelites’ Egyptian neighbors to willingly give them their wealth at the time of the exodus. It was their Egyptian gold, silver, and ornaments that were used to make the sacred objects used in the Tabernacle and Temple! God used Assyria to punish Samaria for their apostasy and later used Babylonia to punish Assyria. Calling King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon “my servant,” God used him to punish Judah for their disobedience and then used both Persia and the armies of Alexander the Great to punish and demolish Babylon! Calling Persia’s Cyrus “God’s anointed one” and “my shepherd,” God used him to free the Jews and rebuild Jerusalem and then used Alexander the Great’s army to punish Persia for their evil!

To achieve His purposes, God will use both the righteous and wicked, those who believe and those who don’t. People don’t have to believe in God to be used by Him because it is not one’s belief in God that gives him power. God is Lord of all nations and all people and His supremacy and magnificence are so great that regardless of who we are or what kind of person we happen to be, we can be used by Him. It is God, and God alone, who controls history!

I am the Lord; there is no other God. I have equipped you for battle, though you don’t even know me, so all the world from east to west will know there is no other God. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I create the light and make the darkness. I send good times and bad times. I, the Lord, am the one who does these things. [Isaiah 45:5-7 (NLT)]

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ON HIS HANDS

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us.” “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.” [Isaiah 49:14-16a (NLT)]

mehndiTo the delight of the girls who attended the party, my daughter-in-law hired a Mehndi artist for my grand-daughter’s birthday celebration. Using a red-orange paste made from the dried leaves of the henna plant, the artist adorned the girls’ hands or arms with assorted intricate floral motifs. Since all of the family on her mother’s side is from India, this ancient form of body art is familiar to my grand. Although she’s attended several Mehndi parties, most of her guests have not. A Mehndi party for close friends and family is an important pre-wedding tradition in any Indian wedding. Along with plenty of food and music, there are henna artists. While they take only a few minutes painting designs on the guests, they spend several hours painting intricate geometric shapes and floral and paisley motifs on the bride’s hands, arms and feet. Hidden somewhere among the elaborate patterns on her body is the groom’s name.

Tradition holds that finding the hidden name is a game the newlyweds play on the wedding night. If the groom manages to find his name hidden among all of the designs, he will be the boss of the marriage; if he doesn’t, his wife rules the roost! Determining the boss in the relationship, however, isn’t why God says He’s written Israel’s name on the palms of His hands. Nevertheless, having the name of the bride’s beloved written on her hands always reminds me of God’s words in Isaiah 49.

At the time of Isaiah’s prophecies, Israel was facing hard times and captivity. Although they were the ones who abandoned God, they thought God had forgotten them and no longer cared whether or not they existed. In these verses, God reassures Israel that He will never forget them and, as a sign of His commitment, He’s even written Israel’s name on the palms of his hands.

Assuring Israel that He loves them like a mother, God compares forgetting them to the impossibility of a nursing mother forgetting her suckling child. Having nursed my children, I guarantee a nursing mother can’t forget her infant. If her hungry baby doesn’t make his presence known with howling, her uncomfortably full breasts will remind her that it’s time to feed him. Nursing mothers aren’t likely to forget their babies but, even if they could, God says He won’t because Israel’s name is inscribed on His hand.

The Hebrew word used was chaqaq and meant far more than just applying dye to someone’s skin; it meant to cut in, carve, or engrave. Unlike Mehndi which fades in two to three weeks, Israel’s name was permanently cut into God’s hands. Used figuratively, these two analogies symbolized God’s eternal commitment to His people and His covenant promises.

As Christians, what do promises made to Israel mean to us? In the Old Testament, Israel is used in several ways: Israel is a person (Jacob), a people (the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons), the “promised land” (a mass about the size of Rhode Island), the northern kingdom after the kingdom divided, and sometimes even the southern kingdom of Judah. In the New Testament, however, Israel takes on a new meaning. Rather than a person, people, land mass, or political nation, Israel is a spiritual kingdom. Before Jesus, it was one’s bloodline that defined an Israelite; it’s different now. As the Apostle Paul explains, a true Israelite now is someone who believes in the Messiah Jesus Christ. It is faith, rather than things like circumcision and descending from Abraham’s bloodline, that makes us “sons of Abraham.” God’s promises to Israel are promises made to us because they’ve been received by faith rather than bloodline.

Fear not, no matter how dark the days, God will never forget us—our names are etched into the palms of His hands!

…for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children…. Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. [Roman 9:6b-7a,8 (NLT)]

The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. … God gave the promises to Abraham and his child.  And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. [Galatians 3:7,16 (NLT)]

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