Archives for November 2015

Psalm 119:153–160; Ezekiel 41:1–42:9; 2 Peter 2:11–22

Psalm 119:153–160: Again, an opening supplication: “See my affliction and free me,/ for Your teaching I have forgotten.” (153) And again, the conviction that God will save him because the psalmist relies on his personal knowledge of God’s teaching.  This time, though, we are in a courtroom and God is his attorney: “Argue my cause and redeem me,/ through Your utterance  give me life.” (154). Which raises the question: if God is his attorney, who is the judge? I think the only candidate is God, who is at once defender and judge.

By drawing this distinction between advocate and judge, we get a hint of what is to come for us under the terms of the New  Covenant, where it is Jesus Christ who argues our case before God. Which when we think about the Trinity is at once lear and as confusing as God the attorney arguing before God the judge…

Even though the psalmist has asked God to argue his case, our psalmist soon returns to arguing his own case: “Many are my pursuers and foes,/ yet from Your decrees I have not swerved.” (157) Then, in almost a role reversal between defendant and advocate, he argues that he has defended God’s law before those who have become God’s enemies: “I have seen traitors and quarreled with them,/ who did not observe Your utterance.” (158) Thus the implication that “I’ve defended You, God, so now please defend me.” We have assurance of Jesus’ defense, and therefore I think we have an obligation to argue God’s case before those who reject him. Not just with words, but with our actions, as well.  The question of course is, do I have the courage of the psalmist to do that?

Ezekiel 41:1–42:9: Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple is at once almost dream-like yet so incredibly tangible as he records dimension after dimension made by the man/ angel with the measuring stick: “He measured the length of the nave, forty cubits, and its width, twenty cubits. Then he went into the inner room and measured the pilasters of the entrance, two cubits; and the width of the entrance, six cubits; and the sidewalls  of the entrance, seven cubits.” (41:2,3)

There is the remarkable pattern that decorates the walls of the temple: “ It was formed of cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Each cherub had two faces: a human face turned toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion turned toward the palm tree on the other side.”  (18, 19) My urge for symbolism suggests that the palms represent nature and the two-faced cherubs represent both the animal kingdom–the lion is after all king of beasts–and humankind. In other words, the temple is in some ways a “recreation of Creation,”–the apotheosis and symbol of God’s participation in his creation.  And that in the end, our greatest response to God is to worship him.

The final impression I receive is the sheer enormity and creativity of this building.  I have to believe that this structure reminds us–or at least the architects among us–that God’s creation trumps any human creation.

2 Peter 2:11–22: Peter’s diatribe against those who corrupt the gospel continues unabated: “These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand.” (12) Once again, it is speech that corrupts. Not just the speaker, but tragically, his listeners.

I would love to know the backstory that led to these remarkably angry verses: “They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children!” (13b, 14)

Peter cites the famous story of Balaam in Numbers 22, the false prophet hired by the Moabite king to curse Israel, reminding us,that Balaam “loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” (15b, 16) It would appear that Peter is playing the role of the donkey here, reminding the corrupt of their sins.

Once again, Peter tells us of their dangerous speech: “For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just[f] escaped from those who live in error.” (18) I can think of any number of preachers who speak bombastic nonsense. Today, these people are all over the various Christian cable channels.

But without question, the greatest tragedy is that the people who follow these corrupter, those who once knew the freedom in Jesus Christ, have been influenced to return to their former ways. But this time they are entangled in even greater corruption: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” (20) And in what is almost a curse, we can almost hear Peter shouting, “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.” (21)

I’m forced to ask, so what of children raised in the faith, who have rejected it as adults? I’d like to think that they never had their own faith to begin with, but merely mimicked that of their parents. And therefore they are not cursed as these adults who once professed but now actively reject. Which, alas, seems to be a growing percentage of the population if the polls showing more “nones” are to be believed.

Psalm 119:145–152; Ezekiel 40:17–49; 2 Peter 2:1–10

Psalm 119:145–152: This section returns to supplication mode as the psalmists writes, “I cried out with a whole heart./ Answer me, Lord, Your statutes I would keep.” (145) While, like most prayers of supplication, he is probably praying to escape his enemies (“The pursuers of the loathsome draw near” (150a)) he offers the usual Psalm 119 reason for pleading for rescue: “I called to You–rescue me,/ that I may observe Your precepts.” (146) Moreover, this supplication in order to obey the law is a full time job, beginning in the early morning–“I greeted the dawn and cried out,/ for Your word did I hope (147). And the pleading continues until “My eyes greeted the night-watches/ to dwell on Your utterance.”

So, I have to ask, do we really pray to God for rescue just so that we can have the privilege of obeying God’s law? This almost seems like a prayer that a Pharisee of Jesus’ time might pray. Something like, “I exist in order to follow the Law.” I’m not doubting our psalmist’s almost desperate sincerity here or even the Pharisee’s. But were the terms of the Old Covenant strictly about obedience? In this psalm–and certainly in this section–we hear nothing about the love for God that rings out in so many other psalms. Instead, it’s all about connecting to God through his laws and precepts and rules.

No question that is one way, but as a mathematician might put it, while following God’s law is necessary; while being obedient is necessary, it is not sufficient for a complete relationship with God. For me, anyway, a true relationship includes the sufficiency of God’s love and my reciprocation of that love.

Ezekiel 40:17–49: Ezekiel is led by the man (angel) with the measuring stick on an extensive architectural tour of the restored temple from the outer court (17) to the inner court (18) to the “gate of the outer court that faced north” (20), including the windows and steps (22) remarking on the palm tree pilasters. The measuring stick is put to extensive use as Ezekiel records the width, depth and height of virtually every feature. The area of sacrifice includes “four tables of hewn stone for the burnt offering, a cubit and a half long, and one cubit and a half wide, and one cubit high.”  And so on…

One wishes Ezekiel provided architectural drawings instead of this extensive word picture that continues for several more chapters. It turns out of course, that avid readers of Ezekiel have done exactly that and a quick Google serach of “Ezekiel’s vision of the temple” returns a slew of models, plans and even some blueprints based on the prophet’s detailed description:

ezekiels-templeSo, what is this temple? Is it a temple that will be built at the end of history? Personally, I think John’s vision of the New Jerusalem trumps Ezekiel’s temple. Much more likely, I think, is that Herod adopted elements of this temple when he remodeled the second temple. And I suppose there are both Christians and Jews who wish to build this version of the temple–the Third temple– right atop Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Not a good idea, I think.

The larger question is, why is it here in the Bible? If nothing else, it reveals Ezekiel’s incredible prophetic range. I think it also speaks to Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Israel. And as we read in the previous chapters, not merely restored, but by virtue of its victory over the armies of Gog a nation even greater than it was under Solomon.

2 Peter 2:1–10: We return to the real world with Peter’s warnings about false prophets as he refers back to the false prophets of Ezekiel’s time: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.” (1a) He describes their behavior perfectly: “They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.” (1b) They will be charismatic and “many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned.” (2) And in a phrase that certainly resonates today, “in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.” (3a)

So, if we assume Peter wrote this epistle, the church faced corrupt influences in its earliest years–and continues to do so today. When we read of Creflo Dollar’s G5 jet or Benny Hinn’s real estate holdings, we can only reflect on what Peter has written. Unfortunately, with the vastly wider channels of communication of our time, these people can corrupt the Gospel message across a far wider population with depressing efficiency.

We can only hold to Peter’s assurance that in the long run these people will receive what they deserve: “Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (3b). He then goes on to make the dramatic point that God cast angels into hell (4); that “he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly;” (5) and “by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly” (6)

But, Peter assures us, God distinguishes between the evil and those that follow God by citing the examples of God’s rescue of both Noah and Lot and their families. He reminds us that therefore, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (9)

I think the key thing to bear in mind is that it is God who acts against these people, not us. God will see to it that they bring about their own downfall. Were Peter’s readers satisfied with his answer? Are we? Probably not. We’d like to take action ourselves. The lesson is of course that even though it looks like Sodom and Gomorrah all around us, we must be patient and wait for God to act. As he inevitably will.

Psalm 119:137–144; Ezekiel 39:14–40:16; 2 Peter 1:12–21

Psalm 119:137–144: This section is a good reminder for all of us living in a pos-Christian society. Those who reject God are no longer indifferent,  many are actively hostile to hearing anything having to do with God’s word. Especially enthusiasm, as our psalmist notes; “My zeal devastated me,/ for my foes forgot Your words.” (139) This has exacted a substantial social cost: “Puny I am and despised,” (141a), but our psalmist soldiers bravely onward: “yet Your decrees I have not forgotten.” (141b)

Despite his trials he remembers what we all need to remember. God is still there and his righteousness and justice is immutable: “Your righteousness forever is right,/ and Your teaching is truth.” (142) For the psalmist, it’s all a question of focus. Whatever oppression he may be enduring, there is just one place to look at: “Straits and distress have found me–/ Your commands are my delight.” (144) It is on this solid rock he stands–and we stand. Even better than the psalmist, for us it is God’s capital ‘w’ Word–Jesus Christ–that is the source of life. As the psalmist has it, “Grant me insight that I may live.” (144) For us, it is living in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that is life, no matter what oppression we may eventually face. We do not have to arrive here at this safe place though insight and knowledge; rather, we arrive by grace.

Ezekiel 39:14–40:16: These chapters read as apocalyptic literature. The great battle is won and the land is cleansed of any trace of the invaders. A great sacrificial feast is proclaimed. It is at once eerie, but with eucharistic overtones: “You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth.” (39:20)

Israel is fully restored, cleansed of its previous sins. Following this great victory, “The house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God, from that day forward.” (39:22) and “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name.” (39:25) And finally, the terms of the forst covenant will be fulfilled: “I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.” (39:29)

Like the New Jerusalem described in Revelation, Ezekiel has a vision of a new, far greater temple. Once again, Ezekiel’s remarkable vision is tied to a specific point in time: “In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was struck down, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me,” (40:1) Ezekiel is carried by God to the site of the new temple, where he encounters a man, “whose appearance shone like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway.” (40:3) Is this man an angel? Jesus? Given that he is bringing a message directly from God, I’ll go with it being an angel as messenger.

The angel holding the measuring stick (about 6 feet long) measures out the dimensions of this incredible new temple in specific dimensions. He measures the walls, the vestibules, the recesses, the pilasters, and tells us, among other things, “the vestibules also had windows on the inside all around; and on the pilasters were palm trees.” (40:16) So, why all this detail of a building that existed at that point as a vision? I think that the precision communicates reality. It also tells us that God is connected to the real world and that the world to come at the end of history will be as tangible and real as the one we are standing in now.

John, writing his Revelation, must have been very familiar with this passage as he describes the dimensions and aspects of the New Jerusalem, which will descend form heaven at the end of history. This is a reminder that God is Creator and he engages the world not in some ephemeral spirituality, but in nature and even in bricks and mortar. For me, this description given in such detail underscores the reality of God, who is part and parcel of the world we live in–not some strange being up in the clouds.

2 Peter 1:12–21: We hear the urgency of Peter’s message as he tells his listeners, “I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you.” (12) Which is a good reminder to those of us who have been in the church for a long time. Yes, as Peter tells us, we already know the “established truth,” but we come again and again to worship, where we are reminded again and again just what Jesus did for us.

Peter knows his mortal end is near “since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.” (14) But he is writing these letters “so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” (15) Did Peter ever imagine that we’d be reading his letter some 2000 years later? I doubt it! He thought Jesus’ return to earth was imminent. But what a gift he has given all of us. Which is also a good reminder why writing things down is a way to speak even when we are no longer present.

Peter reminds us of his apostolic bona fides: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (16) I love his somewhat sarcastic phrase, “cleverly designed myths.” Because of course many accuse Christianity itself as being nothing more than an elaborate myth. But Peter was an eye–and ear–witness. He heard the actual voice of God: “when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,” (17, 18a)

We readers may be one step removed from Peter’s eyewitness testimony, but in reading the words, I am convinced again that Peter was not making this up, and that the truth of who Jesus was and what happened is historical fact.

Finally, Peter warns us of the dangers of over-interpretation of scripture: “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (20, 21). I think this is fair warning to those around us who believe the books of Daniel and Revelation are some sort of secret coded documents that, if interpreted in just the right way, will forecast future events. Peter is reminding us that is not how God operates. Peter’s message is crystalline: Don’t waste your time!

 

Psalm 119:129–136; Ezekiel 38:7–39:13; 2 Peter 1:1–11

Psalm 119:129–136: The theme of this long psalm is unchanging: the psalmist rejoices in God’s word; it guides him and those who do not follow God’s word are enemies and are lost. But each section always reveals a new facet. Which also tells us that as for the psalmist, God’s word for us is always fresh and there is something new to be revealed and grasped each time we come back to it.

Here, the verse, “The portal of Your words send forth light,/ makes the simple understand,” (130) is a fresh image and reveals a new aspect of God’s word. The image is striking. The psalmist imagines that God’s greatness and knowledge–his word–is contained in a room with a door. He stands outside the door and as he cracks it open, which would be studying Scripture, God’s word pours forth out as the light of a brightly lit room would light the outside darkness. Which is exactly how it is for me. Until I open that door, deeper understanding and knowledge of who God is and what he has done for me through the gift of Jesus Christ remains hidden. And I remain in the dark.

But right behind that door is light that “makes the simple understand.” God may be ultimately unknowable, but his word is for everyone, no matter what their intellectual capacity. We do not need to be scholars to understand the simple nature of God’s gift. Which for us of course is even grater than for the psalmist: it is that God sent his Word through the portal of heaven to bring light to every human. The Gospel message my be unexpected and its depths cannot be plumbed by the human mind. But it is a simple, saving message that every human heart can come to know and experience.

Ezekiel 38:1–39:13: This controversial chapter describes a great battle to come at some unspecified time in the future. Israel will be invaded by “Persia, Ethiopia, and Put are with them, all of them with buckler and helmet; Gomer and all its troops; Beth-togarmah from the remotest parts of the north with all its troops.” (38:5,6) These armies will be led by “Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.” In short, an invasion by many armies led by an army from the north.When the invasion comes, Israel will appear to be at peace: “On that day when my people Israel are living securely, you will rouse yourself  and come from your place out of the remotest parts of the north, you and many peoples with you, all of them riding on horses, a great horde, a mighty army.” (38:15, 16)

Gog of Magog surfaces again in Revelation 20 as the head of a mighty army. Therefore many people assume the Ezekiel prophecy refers to the end of history. During the Cold War there was speculation that God would come out of Russia since the prophecy is specific about an invasion from the north. And that the battle will occur during the Tribulation period, which many believe to be the 70 weeks described in Daniel. (We’ll see when we get there.) Today, I would not be surprised if there is speculation that Gog is Iran (Persia). Things seem quite unclear to me and I side with those who believe the OT Gog is not the same person as the Revelation Gog.

The battle itself is pretty horrific since God himself enters the fray in an amplified reprise of the plagues that came to Egypt long ago: “ I will summon the sword against Gog in all my mountains, says the LordGod; the swords of all will be against their comrades. With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him; and I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur, upon him and his troops and the many peoples that are with him.” (38:21, 22) There are so many corpses that it takes 7 months to bury them all. (39:12) I imagine there are those who have interpreted these verses as nuclear war.

Here in Ezekiel, Israel triumphs over all these armies because the nation is fully prepared for battle and is victorious. We could make much of parallels to modern Israel, but I think the dangers of over-interpretation are just great. What I take away is that regardless of the battle, regardless of the enemy, God will triumph in the end. So, I think I will just leave it at that…

2 Peter 1:1–11: The themes of Peter’s second epistle appear similar to the first: how to live a Christian life that includes substantial suffering, while surrounded by a world of corruption and evil. For Peter, being Christian is to be lifted out of that evil to live a far better far richer life: “so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” (4)

But to live that way does not come automatically. It requires intense participation on our part. To help us do that, Peter provides a very Pauline-like hierarchal list, where real love ultimately grows out of faith. But it’s not just as simple as “if you have faith, you’ll have love for your neighbor.” Rather, he says, “you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual  affection, and mutual affection with love.” (5-7). There’s a very clear order here: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, affection, and finally, love. 

For me, these are the essential ingredients of the Christian life. faith is foundational, but it does not automatically create a “good Christian.” Jesus has come to us in grace. We are indeed saved through faith, but then there’s lots of work to be done on our part. As the psalmist would tell us: we must seek knowledge and open the door out of which God’s word pours like light into the darkness. Without self-control we cannot endure suffering. I think in modern terms we would characterize this as loving and valuing ourselves even when times are tough. Out of patience endurance and self-respect come a godliness that takes us out of ourselves and into true affection for others. And the honest love of “love your neighbors” finally arises out of that mutual affection.

Peter has made faith so much greater than a mere intellectual exercise. Faith is the basis of everything about our lives–how we see ourselves and how we treat–and love–those around us.