Monday, October 31, 2011

I Am

Try not to let your eyes glaze over when I warn you that I am going to discuss some basis aspects of grammar in order to shed light on the topic I want to discuss. I confess that studying English grammar in high school was, to me, the educational equivalent to a root canal. However, when I studied Greek grammar in college and seminary, all of a sudden English grammar made sense, and it became a useful tool to explain the precise nature of the teachings of Scripture. Let’s see if a little grammar lesson opens our eyes of understanding.

“I am.” The two simple words “I am” can make up an entire sentence, and can make perfectly good sense, provided the context is clear. For example, if someone asked, “Who is writing this blog?” It would make sense if I said as my entire response, “I am.” However, without such a question being asked, if I opened up a conversation with “I am,” you’d wonder, “you are what?” My two words need something more to make sense. That “something more” is a “predicate,” the part of a sentence that expresses what the subject is or does. If I said, “I am happy,” or “I am six feet tall,” you would understand, because those sentences have a predicate.

Seven times in the Gospel of John Jesus uses the words “I am” followed by a predicate in order to express who He is. The predicates that follow Jesus’ use of “I am” are “metaphors,” figures of speech that use a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing, but is used to designate something else. The comparison of the two is what expands the ordinary meaning of the word. For example, after Jesus fed the 5,000 people along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (see Gospel of John chapter six), He said, “I am the bread of life.” The hearers knew that bread provided sustenance. Thus, Jesus uses a common element of his audience’s everyday lives to teach spiritual truth, equating Himself to that which sustains a person’s existence. “Bread” is used as both a predicate to express what Jesus is, and also as a metaphor to expand the spiritual application of who He is.

Seven times Jesus uses metaphors as the predicate following “I am.” He is not only the “bread of life,” but also the “light of the world,” the “door,” the “good shepherd,” the “resurrection and the life,” the “way, the truth and the life,” and “the true vine.” Each of these great metaphors is logically connected to a context that allowed the hearers to understand the spiritual truth Jesus was teaching. After multiplying the five loaves and two fishes in order to feed the 5,000, Jesus uses the food the multitude had received as a basis to provide a transcendent teaching about feeding our souls. After healing a man born blind (John chapter nine) He says, “I am the light of the world.” He then uses sheep to illustrate His nature (John chapter ten), stating “I am the door” (to the sheepfold). Sheepfolds of Jesus’ day were enclosures that kept the flock together and protected from predators. Often the shepherd would lay across the entrance to keep the sheep in and danger out. Jesus presents Himself as the door, also adding, “I am the good shepherd.”

After Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus told his daughter, Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He then proceeded to raise Lazarus from the dead (John chapter eleven). When Jesus told His disciples He was going “to prepare a place” for them, (John chapter fourteen) He added that they knew the way that He was going. When Thomas asked, “How do we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Finally, Jesus speaks about the fruit that His followers are to bear, and uses the metaphor of a vine to teach that without Him His followers “can do nothing,” stating “I am the true vine.”

The seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel greatly expand our understanding of the nature and work of Jesus. Those who heard His teachings could understand the spiritual truths He was revealing because He used metaphors that involved aspects of their everyday lives, including food, light, sheep, life and death, pathways and vines. These predicates provide rich meaning to the scope of Who Jesus was, and what He had come to do. But there are two additional uses of “I am” in John’s Gospel that are not followed by predicates—John 8:24 (“unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins”) and John 8:58 (“Before Abraham was, I am”).

Where is the predicate? There seems to be something amiss grammatically. It is natural to ask, “You are what?” Since Jesus, in both cases, does not use a predicate like He did with the seven “I am” statements mentioned above, what are we to make of these two “I am" statements? Judging from the reaction of the hearers (John 8:59, “they picked up stones to stone Him”) Jesus’ use of “I am” without a predicate meant something to the Jews who were present. What was it that caused those Jews to want to kill Him? The answer lies in the Book of Exodus, when Moses was confronted by God who appeared through a burning bush. God commissioned Moses to speak to the Jews, and Moses knew the Jews would ask the name of the God who had sent him. Thus, Moses asks, “What shall I say to them?" God says to Moses, “I am who I am. Tell them 'the I am has sent you.'” When Jesus tells the Jews in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was I am,” they understood this to be Jesus’ claim to deity—that He was the same as the God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. In addition to the seven “I am” metaphors, Jesus also uses “I am” to confirm that He was God in the flesh (see John 1:1, 14 “…the Word was God… and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”). From the humble beginning as a babe born in Bethlehem, Jesus emerges as the crucified, risen and exalted King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the great I Am seated at the right hand of the Father, at whose name every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Brave New Secular World

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, upon seeing outsiders for the first time, Miranda says:

          O wonder!
          How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!
          O brave new world! That has such people in it! (Act V, Scene I).

Miranda's "brave new world" is actually her optimistic observation of drunken sailors staggering off their ship that had run aground. The notion of a "brave new world" is further used by Rudyard Kipling in his 1919 poem The Gods of Copybook Headings:  
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins...
Science fiction writer Aldous Huxley, in 1932, following the lead of the Bard, used the concept of "brave new world" as the ironic title of his futuristic novel Brave New World. Huxley's work was published one year prior to the Humanist Manifesto I that optimistically anticipated a utopia free from the restraints of traditional beliefs, offering a new "religion" of Humanism that would replace existing religions that were based on a supernatural being and supernatural revelation. Huxley, however, was not so optimistic. His Brave New World was a "negative utopia" ("dystopia"), akin to George Orwell's 1984, devoid of God and goodness. Huxley's novel parodied the 1923 utopian novel Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells.

Fast forward to 2011. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can see the foolish optimism of the Humanistic Manifesto I, written at a time when Germany's Weimar Republic was being replaced by the Third Reich, in which an Austrian immigrant named Adolph Hitler would seduce Germans into thinking they were the incarnation of Nietzsche's ubermensch ("supermen"). With the stench of the Holocaust embedded in the nostrils of post-Word War II humanity, secular humanists had no choice but to admit that their 1933 "Manifesto" was too optimistic. In 1973 Humanistic Manifesto II was published as an updated utopian projection of secular thinkers, ironically in the same year that the United States Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, essentially providing for abortion on demand, legalizing the killing of more than 50 million unborn babies as of 2011.

The question is, whose view of the future is turning out to be more accurate--Huxley or the humanists? In a bit of further irony, elements of Huxley's Brave New World appear to have emerged, but the humanists do not see this as a dystopia--instead, the shift toward "secular values" is embraced as a sign of the humanist's utopia. 

A recent case is illustrative of the point.  In England, a Christian couple, Owen and Eunice Johns, had previously raised four biological children and fifteen foster children. They were denied the opportunity to continue as foster parents because they did not believe in telling children in their care that homosexuality was a good thing. Their case went to court, essentially pitting "anti-discrimination" laws against the couple's religious freedom. The issue before the court was whether sincerely held religious beliefs must give way to the new, secular notion of "equality" that essentially views all forms of sexual preference as equal. The highest court in England earlier this year decided that the couple's unwillingness to tell children that homosexuality is "good" renders them unfit as foster parents. Traditional values, rooted in divine revelation, must give way to "equality" as defined by the new secular "morality" that will not, and cannot, use the historic labels of "right" and "wrong," much less "sin," when describing human behavior. The only apparent "sin" in the religion of secularism may be the belief that there is a divinely-revealed objective standard of right and wrong.  

The Council that denied the Johns the opportunity to continue as foster parents lauded the court's decision in a display of post-modern thinking, stating the Council "valued diversity and promoted equality" and "encouraged and supported children in a non-judgmental way, regardless of their sexual orientation or preference." Being "non-judgmental" is the prime directive that has come down from the secular Sinai, and it must be followed in all cases except where someone has the temerity to take a moral stand. In such cases, the new secular values permit judging those who would judge good and evil, right and wrong. The sheer hypocrisy of such contradictory requirements should be evident to anyone with an open mind. It is as if we have reached the confluence of Through the Looking Glass and 1984.

When a court holds that laws "protecting people from sexual discrimination" mean that a couple is unfit to be foster parents because they could not tell a child that homosexuality was an acceptable lifestyle, we have entered into Huxley's Brave New World. However, the reason why Huxley's negative utopia has emerged is because it as a brave new secular world. Religious values, as the humanists have wanted, are being replaced by "secular values." In an age where "tolerance" has become the equivalent of a secular sacrament, the application of "tolerance" to real-life situations, such as the Johns' case, shows how insidious secularism is, and how exceedingly harmful its application is to areas such as child-rearing, education, and the interpretation of anti-discrimination laws. The court's ruling sends a clear message that mainstream Christian beliefs are potentially harmful to children and that Christian parents with traditional Christian views are not suitable to be considered as potential foster parents. The court's ruling also confirms that Huxley's Brave New World has arrived. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Morning in Galilee

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

Sorting through a cascade of thoughts as I sit here watching the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, it seems surreal that somewhere out my window Jesus walked on water. One thought has stuck, namely what an important area this was in the ministry of Jesus. Laurie listened yesterday as I relayed all the references to the region of Galilee found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Reference after reference to the “Sea of TIberias,” “Capernaum,” “Bethsaida,” and other sites line the pages of His Galilean ministry. Later this morning we will turn off at Migdol where Mary “Magdalene” was from, pass near Nazareth, and proceed to Caesarea (Maritima), the coastal town build by Herod the Great in honor of Caesar Augustus. We look forward to experiencing Caesarea, where Paul was imprisoned for two years prior to his journey to Rome to have his case heard before the Emperor Nero.

With my teaching finished in the Old City of Jerusalem and having completed our brief time of ministry in the Golan Heights (north of the Sea of Galilee), now we have our first chance to sightsee, and soak up the significance of this part of the Holy Land. I realize that God could have chosen any time and any place to enter history as a baby in order to bear the sins of world so that we might be united with our Creator. He chose this place, and did so “in the fullness of time “ (Galatians 4:4). The fact is, He did come, and Jesus made it clear that besides giving His life as a ransom, He also was showing us the Father, and revealing God’s plan. Nearly 20 centuries have passed since His ministry, death and resurrection, and Jesus remains the hope of the world. Whether America, Israel, or any place else, the carpenter from Nazareth offers His love and forgiveness to all who call upon Him, and, as some have said so simply, “wise men still seek Him.”

TIberias, Israel
September 27, 2011

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Is Jesus Really Coming Again?

As I write this we are within hours of the time set by radio preacher Harold Camping for the end of the world. If you are reading this blog, it means Camping was wrong. Again. Mr. Camping, now 89 years old and the founder of Family Radio, headquartered in Oakland, California, previously predicted that Jesus was coming back in 1994. That glaring “oops!” has not deterred his faithful. Whether his current followers have short memories or have not bothered to check Mr. Camping’s bona fides is unclear. Those who bought into his 1994 false prophecy but now are certain that this time Camping got it right should remember the old adage: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Camping and his followers have, indeed, been shamefully fooled.

To be fair to Camping and his followers, he is by no means the only date-setter who has lead people astray. Since the early-19th century we have seen the likes of Joseph Smith, William Miller and Charles Taze Russell (and later his organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, commonly known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses”).

Smith, founder of the Mormon church, called a meeting of his church leaders in February 1835 to tell them that he had spoken to God recently, and during their conversation he learned that Jesus would return within the next 56 years, after which the end times would begin promptly.

Miller was a New England farmer who, like Harold Camping, had no formal training in biblical studies. His study of Bible prophecy resulted in his discovery that the Scriptures tell us exactly when Jesus will return (notwithstanding Jesus stating in Matthew 24:36 that “No man knows the day or the hour, not even the angels”). According to Miller’s calculations Jesus was coming back some time between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844, eventually fixing the date at April 23, 1843. Many of his followers sold or gave away their possessions, assuming they would not be needed. When April 23 came and went, Miller re-calculated and concluded Jesus would return on April 23, 1844. After that date came and went most of his followers scattered, but some of them banded together to form what became the Seventh Day Adventist denomination.

Charles Taze Russell set the following dates for the return of Jesus: 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914. His Watchtower organization set 1918, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1984 as the dates that Jesus would return. One has to wonder how many false prophecies an organization must make for it to be considered a “non-prophet” organization.

There are many, many others who share the dubious distinction of thinking they figured out when Jesus was returning and presumptuously publicized the date. Televangelist Pat Robertson, in May 1980, informed his "700 Club" television show audience that he knew when the world would end, saying "I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world." Perhaps we missed that one, Pat.

Edgar Whisenant sold thousands of copies of his book, “88 Reasons Why Jesus is Coming Back in 1988.” Whisenant was so confident his calculations were correct that it is reported he said, "If there were a king in this country and I could gamble with my life, I would stake my life on Rosh Hashana 88."  His confidence apparently affected others as well because Paul and Jan Crouch of the Trinity Broadcast Network swallowed it whole. Instead of airing their nightly Praise the Lord television talk show, the Crouches ran videotapes of prerecorded shows dealing with the rapture. For non-Christians who might be watching, the revised programming included specific instructions on what to do in case Christian family members or friends disappeared and the world was thrust into the tribulation. When nothing happened by the end of September 13, Whisenant revised his prediction, suggesting the rapture would come at 10:55 a.m on September 15. When that failed, he revised it to October 3. After that he admitted he made a "miscalculation" of one year and insisted the rapture would occur in 1989. He even wrote another book to "prove" it.

Self-proclaimed “prophet” Ronald Weinland wrote a book in 2006 entitled "2008: God's Final Witness." In his book Weinland states that hundreds of millions of people will die, and by the end of 2006, "there will be a maximum time of two years remaining before the world will be plunged into the worst time of all human history. By the fall of 2008, the United States will have collapsed as a world power, and no longer exist as an independent nation." As the book notes, "Ronald Weinland places his reputation on the line as the end-time prophet of God." Did Weinland, a former follower of cult leader Herbert W. Armstrong, gracefully fade away when his prophecies did not come true? As the late John Wayne often said, “Not hardly.” Weinland currently has a website where he backpedals, re-writes his own prophetic history, and otherwise dishonestly deals with his previous false prophecies, now claiming that 2012 is the year Jesus is coming back (Weinland, perhaps more delusional than Harold Camping, claims that he and his wife are the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation chapter 11 who will be slain then will rise from the dead).

Is it Reasonable to Believe Jesus is Coming Again?
With all the utter-nonsense that has resulted from people trying to figure out what Jesus Himself said “no one knows,” (i.e., the date of His return), can a thinking person still reasonably believe that Jesus of Nazareth is coming again to Earth? Yes. How can an intelligent person believe in such an event? Because we have reliable documents, written by eyewitnesses, where Jesus Himself tells his followers, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again, and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3). And since the evidence is compelling based upon His miracles, fulfilled prophecy, and especially His resurrection from the dead, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (and God the Son), then it would be foolish not to believe Him when He said He would come again to Earth.

Unfortunately, too many have misinterpreted Scripture, stretched the Bible to say something it does not say, and made unsupported assertions about prophetic passages that resulted in the lame-brained date setting previously discussed. From David Koresh (born Vernon Howell, who lead most of his Branch Davidian followers, including more than a dozen children, to a fiery death at their compound in Waco, Texas in 1993) to Ronald Weinland, people who typically lack formal biblical training have a tendency to “discover,” for example, what the seven seals of Revelation really mean (in Koresh’s case, he claimed to be the Lamb of God who could open the seals), asserting they have some special insight that no one else has. Biblically na├»ve and gullible people too often accept, without question, the interpretations and pronouncements of these self-proclaimed “prophets.” In most cases it leads to disillusioned followers, as in the case of William Miller or Ronald Weinland. In some cases it leads to a violent death, as in the case of Jim Jones or David Koresh.

Biblical Test of a Prophet
According to the Bible, in order to qualify as a prophet of God, the prophet must be 100% accurate. Deuteronomy 18:20, 22 says, “But the prophet who speaks presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak…that prophet shall die…When a prophet speaks in the name of the lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD had not spoken…” Mr. Camping, et al., should be grateful that today we do not employ this sanction against false prophets.

Is the Church Contributing to Those Who Mock the Belief in the Return of Jesus?
A common reaction to the doomsday false prophets is scoffing. Even professing Christians who sat through prophecy seminar after prophecy seminar, or heard sermon after sermon about the return of Jesus, are susceptible to getting “burned out” on prophecy to the point where they don’t want to hear about it any more. Is it possible that the “mockers” Peter speaks of in I Peter 3:3ff include people who came out of evangelical churches that spent an inordinate amount of time speculating about the return of Jesus? When a pastor or teacher sets a date or otherwise makes a prediction that does not materialize, a question of credibility emerges. Falso uno, falso omnibus.

A Scriptural Basis for a Literal Return of Jesus to Earth
What, then, is my Scriptural basis for believing Jesus is coming back? First, as previously mentioned, Jesus said He would come again (John 14:3). Even though Jesus often spoke in parables and mashals (short parables with a moral lesson), His reference to His coming again was not an allegory. It was a clear promise. The Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus’ return as the “blessed hope” of Christians (Titus 2:13, “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”).  Paul ends his first letter to the church at Corinth with an Aramaic word (“Maranatha”) that means, “The Lord is Coming” (a prayer for His soon return) (I Corinthians 16:22).

Evangelical Bible scholars overwhelmingly see Christ’s return to Earth as a prophecy that will be literally fulfilled at some point. These scholars generally point out that those Bible prophecies that have already been fulfilled were fulfilled literally (e.g., Micah 5:2 is understood as a Messianic prophecy that predicts Bethlehem will be the birthplace of the Messiah, an understanding King Herod’s chief priests and scribes shared according to Matthew 2:4-5). Thus, to be consistent, there is no reason to believe the words of Jesus in John 14:3 and elsewhere mean anything other than He will return to Earth bodily.

The Times and Seasons
Even though no one knows the day or hour of Jesus’ return (Matthew 24:36) the Scripture provides certain signs to enable us to understand the times and seasons in which we live (e.g., Ezekiel chapters 37-39 reference the return of the Jews to the Promised Land; I Thessalonians 5:1 says the Corinthians should be aware of the times and epochs in which they live; I Thessalonians 5:4 indicates that the return of Jesus should not overtake Christians like a thief because we are not in darkness.

Is Christ’s Return One Event or Two?
The historic view of the church is that Jesus will come back to Earth and will establish a kingdom on Earth for 1,000 years (historic premillenialism). Others do not believe in a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ on Earth (amillennialism), while some interpret the Scriptures to say Jesus will come back at the end of the 1,000 years (post millennialism).

The most common view among evangelicals today is premillenialism (i.e., there will be a literal 1,000 year reign of Jesus on Earth). There is a split among Bible-believing Christians as to whether Jesus’ return to Earth is one event or two. Perhaps the most common view among premillenialists is that Jesus will first come back for His church, and will meet them in the sky, after which there will be a seven-year period of tribulation, including the final 3 ½ years of Great Tribulation in which the judgments mentioned in Revelation chapters 6-18 will take place. Then at the end of the seven-year tribulation period Jesus returns bodily to Earth to reign for 1,000 years.

What is the evidence for the view that Jesus will return for His church seven years before He returns bodily to Earth to set up His kingdom? The following chart helps to contrast His pre-tribulation return for His church (commonly referred to as the “rapture,” which means the sudden removal or “translation” of believers from Earth to heaven) with his visible second coming.

Rapture                             Second Coming
Meet Lord in air                He returns to Mount of Olives
Living saints translated     No translation of church
He returns to heaven         He remains on earth
Earth not judged               Earth/sin judged
Imminent event                 Follows signs

Verses that are commonly used to support the pre-tribulation rapture include I Thessalonians 5:9, “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation;” I Thessalonians 1:10 “Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath;” and Revelation 3:10 “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world…”

Regardless of the date-setters and false prophets that bring contempt to the legitimate study of Bible prophecy, there are compelling reasons to believe that Jesus is coming again. Given the rebirth of Israel in 1948, there are reasons to conclude that His return could be soon. Whether one believes in a pre-tribulation rapture, mid-tribulation rapture, or a post-tribulation return of Jesus to Earth, the important fact is the Jesus is coming again. To quote the lyrics of the song “Outlaw” by the late singer/songwriter Larry Norman,

Some say He was the Son of God, a man above all men.
That He came to be a servant, and set us free from sin.
And that’s who I believe He was, cause that’s who I believe
And I think we should get ready, cause its time for us to leave.

Why do I believe that Jesus is coming back? Because He said so, and that’s who I believe. Even so “Come Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).