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How to find hope in a hopeless situation

Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles

Recently a friend of ours died of leukaemia. His family cared for him while he was in palliative care. It was a hopeless situation. They knew he wasn’t going to be healed. Yet they prayed for God’s will to be done and the funeral was a celebration that he had been delivered from his suffering and was now with the Lord.

Jeremiah’s letter to Jewish exiles in chapter 29:4-23 shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate deliverance and restoration.

Context

Jeremiah prophesized during the last 40 years of the nation of Judah (626 – 586 BC). At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. The Assyrians and Babylonians used their overwhelming military force to terrorize the people of the lands they invaded. They also took heavy tribute and deported masses of people into slavery. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.

Jeremiah prophesized during the reign of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jahoiakim, Jehoichin and Zedkiah. All of these kings except Josiah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”.

Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. At the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.

The prophets before Zephaniah announced God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. This was also Zephaniah’s message. Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies.

Later in Jeremiah’s period, Obadiah pronounces judgment on Edom, one of Judah’s closest enemies and predicts Israel’s restoration. Habakkuk complains to God because He’s doing nothing about the terrible violence, wrongdoing, destruction, strife, and injustice in Judah. He is perplexed when told that the pagan Babylonians were going to invade Judah. But God reassures him that the Babylonians will eventually be punished as well.

In the book of Jeremiah, he speaks out against the sins of Judah (Ch. 1-38). He warned them for at least 23 years (Jer. 25:2-3). The punishment for these is that they will be invaded by Babylon and taken captive. Chapter 29 is a letter that Jeremiah wrote to all the Jewish captives in Babylon (Jer. 29:4). After chapter 29, Jeremiah predicts that the Jews will be released from captivity and able to return to re-establish their lives in their homeland. He also predicts living under the Messiah with a new covenant.

The letter, written by one of God’s prophets, is comprised of commands and promises (Jer. 29:45-23). This means that it was a command to be followed by the Jewish exiles and promises they were to believe.

The Babylonians attacked Jerusalem three times. On the first occasion in 605 BC, Judah became a vassal state and paid tribute to Babylon and a group of people including Daniel was carried off to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:1-2). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem in 598-597 BC, replacing the king, taking tribute, and taking about 10,000 Jewish captives to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:8-17). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem again in 588-586 BC, destroying the city and taking more Jewish captives to Babylon, including the king (2 Ki. 25:1-21). Instead of being a nation, Judah was now a province of the regional superpower. The remaining Jews, including Jeremiah, fled to Egypt for safety (Jer. 41:16 – 44:30). This wasn’t unexpected because it was the ultimate punishment for breaking their covenant with their God (Lev. 26:31-33; Dt, 28:49-68). Everything that God had done for them since they left Egypt would be destroyed. The goal of the punishment is their repentance (Lev. 26:40-41).

Judgment

So after being warned for at least 100 years, Judah has finally been punished for their sins. The captives in Babylon were suffering grief and loss, forced relocation and slavery. They probably feared the worst and thought their fate was similar to that of Israel in 722 BC. Over 136 years ago, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the kingdom of Israel and took captives and the people were scattered to other nations. That was the end of the kingdom of Israel and there was no way it could be restored. It seemed the same when Babylon invaded Judah. So the Jews in Babylon thought this was the end of their nation. They cried in despair as they were in a helpless and hopeless situation (Ps. 137:1). Jeremiah also lamented because he saw the destruction of Jerusalem (Lamentations).

Jeremiah also predicts the destruction of those who didn’t go into exile (v.15-19). It’s punishment for their disobedience. They didn’t deserve God’s protection like those sent into exile (Jer. 24:5-7).

What a surprising letter from Jeremiah! They are told to prepare for a long captivity (v.4-7) by settling down to live for a long time in Babylon. To establish families and raise children among themselves; but don’t intermarry with foreigners. God wanted them to grow in number, not dwindle.

WW2 POWs 400pxUsually captives hate their captors. But the Jews are told to pray for Babylon! To pray for their enemy! To seek Babylon’s peace and prosperity so things will go well for them as well. To pray for the prosperity of their enemy!

What did the exiles think of Jeremiah? Whose side was Jeremiah on, first he says to surrender to the Babylonians and now when they are prisoners of war (POW) he says this? Has he lost his marbles?

Australian POWs in World War 2 endured hard labor working on roads and battling to survive the harsh Austrian winter. Under their German masters, it seemed a hopeless situation. But after 12 months they began receiving Red Cross packages with food clothes and medicine, which were like a ray of light in a sad, dark part of the world. These helped many POWs to survive.

Through the fall of Jerusalem, the exiles learnt that God eventually judges sin (many died, others were POWs, some escaped and their capital city was destroyed). Also, what seemed to be the worst to the captives (being POWs), was actually the best because they would be kept safe in Babylon (most of the rest died). Also, they were to accept the situation that God had placed them in and not hope for something better.

Warning

Then God warns the exiles not to be deceived by false prophets who were prophesying lies in God’s name (v.8-9, 21). They contradict the words of Jeremiah (Jer. 27:16-22; 28:3). The captivity was to be 70 years, not two (Jer. 25:11-12; 28:3, 11; 29:10)! God’s prophets predicted disasters, but the false prophets predicted peace (Jer. 14:13-16; 23:17; 28:8). One of them sent a letter to the priests rebuking them for not putting Jeremiah in prison (v. 24-27). Because of their lies and adultery, Jeremiah predicted they would be put to death by the king of Babylon (v. 21-23).

Jeremiah tells the captives to not be gullible by believing their lies. Instead, they should ignore them and not listen to them.

After the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, the Russians claimed that the missile was fired by a Ukrainian fighter jet. They were telling a lie.

So the lesson for the exiles to learn was to be discerning and listen to God’s prophets and not the false ones. They needed to know the difference between the two.

Deliverance

Next Jeremiah predicts deliverance and restoration for the exiles. He says that God will bring them back to their homeland after 70 years of exile. Those still alive at the time and their descendants would be able to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, including the temple and the city walls. This restoration was predicted over 900 years beforehand (Dt. 30:3-5).

“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:11-14NIV).
God hadn’t forgotten them. In fact He had planned their future lives. These plans were for their collective good, to prosper them collectively and give them a hope and future to look forward to. There was hope for their nation after all. But the benefits wouldn’t come for 70 years! In the meantime they were POWs.

God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future (v.11) are described as their return to Judah from exile (v. 10, 14) and these plans were fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC (Ezra 1:2-4; Jer. 29:11). So this promise has already been fulfilled.

God also predicts that by that time they will return to following Him once again. This implies that they will confess and repent of their sins. The Bible teaches that their restoration was conditional on their repentance (Dt. 4:29-31). This shows God’s mercy and His commitment to the covenant made with their ancestors.

Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has just been released after 400 days in an Egyptian prison. He said the experience was a “baptism of fire” that helped him learn more about himself. It felt like a “near-death experience”, but also like a “rebirth” because he was given an opportunity to look back at his life.

So the lesson for the exiles to learn was that repentance was the way to a restored relationship with the Lord and to their release from being POWs in Babylon. This repentance was essential for their deliverance and the restoration and rebirth of their nation.

They also learnt that their situation is never helpless or hopeless because God promises ultimate deliverance and restoration from whatever situation they are in. The way to optimism is to remember that God has plans for their future. But there was no shortcut; they had to go through suffering along the way.

What are the lessons for us today?

What’s changed since then? We are God’s people today, but we are not a nation with their own home-land like the exiles. Jesus brought a new covenant. He prayed for His enemies (Lk. 23:34) and taught His followers to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44-45). Paul taught that we are to never take revenge, but leave that up to God (Rom. 12:19-21). Because, doing good to one’s enemy, instead of taking revenge, may bring about repentance.

The lesson that God eventually judges sin applies to us as well. People say, what’s God doing about the evil in the world? He seems absent. But the Bible says that He is patiently waiting for more people to turn to Him before He brings judgment (2 Pt. 3:9).

Also, what seems to be the worst for us may be the best because He knows us better than we know ourselves and He ensures that everything that happens to us is for our benefit (Rom. 8:27-28). That’s why God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we would like it.

The lesson to accept the situation that God had placed us in and not hope for something better applies to us as well. Paul gives an example of this for marriage (1 Cor. 7:17-20). He also wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18).

Do we believe all we see on the internet? How gullible are we? How do we know what to believe? Do we compare what people say and write with Scripture? Because there are false teachers out there. In Jeremiah’s day they ignored gross sinfulness and said, God’s not going to judge us. They wanted God’s blessing without going through the suffering of the captivity. But the Bible teaches that suffering precedes blessing and glory, with Jesus the greatest example (Rom. 8:18; 1 Pt 3:18, 22). Christians should expect to suffer for their faith (1 Pt. 4:12-19). We should be skeptical of those who teach an “easy” Christianity that brings lots of benefits because our benefits are largely spiritual (Eph. 1:3-14). Also, beware of false hopes.

The lesson that repentance is the way to a restored relationship with the Lord applies to us as well. In the New Testament, God doesn’t promise to release us from our physical problems (if this happens it is a mercy), but deliver us from our spiritual ones. The steps of repentance include “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:7-10).

As God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future was fulfilled in 538 BC, this promise isn’t for us today. But what sort of plans does God have for us? We can ask God in prayer (Jas. 1:5). Of course, He wants us to be faithful to Him in everything we do by following the commands and principles He gives for believers in the New Testament. We can begin by being faithful where we are (Mt. 25:21). As we do this, God usually reveals the next step. It’s one step at a time, not a jump to our final destiny.

The lesson that our situation is never helpless or hopeless applies to us as well. However, our ultimate deliverance and restoration is spiritual, not physical. When there’s despair, discouragement or bad news our hope is the good news of Jesus. Heaven is the ultimate hope for Christians, though we may have to go through suffering along the way.

Conclusion

We have seen from Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles that God judges sin (which is why they were POWs), and cares for His people and warns them not to be deceived by false prophets.

It shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate spiritual deliverance and restoration.

Written, February 2015

Andy arrives!

IMG_0965 400pxAndy, our new grandson, arrived recently. Here are a few things that I am reminded of at a time like this.

Just like you and I, Andy is unique. There is no one else on earth (past, present and future) who is exactly like him. He has a unique genome, which is comprised of about 3 billion DNA base pairs in each cell of his body. He grew from a single cell itself.

God designed and created our world so that, over a period of nine months, the genetic information in a single cell can develop into a child that is ready to be born. It takes a lot of design to build a genome; it’s amazingly complex.
The Bible says that the development of a baby in the womb is an example of God’s power (omnipotence) and skill. King David wrote, “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born” (Ps. 139:13-16NLT). And another psalm says of God the Creator, “You made me; you created me” (Ps. 119:73). Of course God knows all about a baby as it’s growing in the womb (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15).

I think another example of God’s power and skill is life itself. Can anyone explain the origin of life, without referring to God? We see that life always comes from life. Andy’s family tree goes back to Adam and Eve. How did Adam and Eve become alive? The Bible says their life came from God (Gen. 2:7, 22). Only God can create life; scientists can’t manufacture it, they just use it.

Is Andy perfect?

Although Andy is perfect in the eyes of his parents, in two ways he isn’t perfect.

Firstly, just like you and I, Andy’s genome contains mutations inherited from his parents. When parents reproduce, they make a copy of their genome and pass this to their child. From time to time, mistakes occur (called “mutations”), and the next generation does not have a perfect copy of the original genome. Each new generation carries all the mutations of previous generations plus their own. So the mutations accumulate from generation to generation. This means that the human genome is degenerating genetically with time due to the accumulation of mutations. In order to minimize the risk of deformed offspring that can result from shared mutations between genetically close parents, marriage is usually prohibited between close relatives. In fact, such limitations needed to be imposed after about 26 copies of the human genome, which was in the times of Moses’ children  (Lev. 18:6-16; 20:11, 17, Dt. 27:22).

Secondly, just like you and I, Andy has a sinful nature. This means that he will have a natural tendency to misbehave. The Bible says that we are all sinners by nature (Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:1-3). Even when Andy tries to do the right thing, it will be elusive (Rom. 7:14-20). This attitude affects our mind, will and emotions in particular (Jer. 17:9). But according to Andy’s “Beginner’s Bible”, “Jesus knew that he had to die for the sins of all people. It was part of God’s plan. When it was time, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.”

Now we can look forward to seeing Andy grow and develop from a baby to a child, to an adolescent, and then to a man, the way God has planned.

Written, February 2015

The fight

runny nose 400pxRunny nose, excess mucus, wheeze, dry cough, heavy chest, sore muscles, aches and pains, headache, loss of appetite, and fatigue. My body’s in a combat zone! My immune system has been fighting since these symptoms arose after a long haul jet flight. I’ve read that these symptoms can go on for weeks regardless of the treatment followed. I know the body will eventually return to normal, but not how long it will take. In the meantime I’ve fasted, restricted my diet, rested, tried shallow breathing and taken medication.

Paul used the metaphor of a fight to describe: the self-control required for Christian service; the way to oppose false teachers and godless philosophies; and how to live the Christian life daily.

The Christian’s main task is to serve the Lord. For this they need self-control, just like a boxer or any sportsman (1 Cor. 9:24-27). In fact, to help attain success, sportsmen need to exercise self-control in all parts of their life.

Paul fought against false teachers and godless philosophies (2 Cor. 10:4-5) by comparing them against what God has revealed in Scripture. He used the divine power of the Bible to demolish these human arguments because they undermined the knowledge of God. He wanted all humanity’s teachings and speculations judged in the light of the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul compared contending against false teachers to fighting in a battle (1 Ti. 1:18).

Paul urges Timothy to strive to live out his Christian faith in daily life like a soldier (1 Ti. 6:12; 2 Ti. 2:3). Discipline is required to be ready for service for the Lord, while not being distracted by less important things.

Near the end of his life Paul looked back over 30 years of ministry and wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Ti. 4:7-8NIV). He looked forward to the reward for faithful service.

Paul also said we are in a literal battle against Satan and his demons (Eph. 4:12). The weapons provided for us in this fight are: to live by the truths of Scripture, to live with integrity, to be ready to share the good news of the gospel, to exercise our Christian faith by always trusting in the Lord and His word, to realize our salvation assures us of ultimate victory, to trust God’s revelation in the Bible, and to pray continually (Eph. 4:10-20).

Remember our spiritual disciplines and battles are more important than our physical ones. But we need to care for our physical life so as to be able to continue serving the Lord.

Written, February 2015

Why didn’t Jesus know the date of His second advent?

white horse 400pxJesus said that “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the day or the hour of His second advent (Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). This says that Jesus didn’t know something. Are there any other passages in the Gospels that say or imply that Jesus didn’t know something? I can only find one other. Luke says that “Jesus grew in wisdom” when He was young (Lk. 2:52), which refers to His mental development and implies that He learned as He grew. This means that He didn’t know everything when He was young.

What about when Jesus asked “who touched my clothes” (Mk. 5:30)? Didn’t He know who touched Him and was healed? In the following verses we see that the question was asked so the woman could publicly declare her faith in Christ, not because Jesus didn’t know the answer.

What about when Jesus prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, if that was possible (Matt. 26:39)? Does this indicate that He thought there could be another alternative to the crucifixion? Is this a lack of knowledge? There was no answer to this prayer because it was rhetorical. It shows us that there was no other way for sinners to be saved than for Christ to die as our substitute on the cross.

On the other hand, we know that Jesus knew what others were thinking (Mk. 2:8; Lk. 11:17). He knew the Samaritan woman had five husbands and knew everything she had done (Jn. 4:18-19, 29). He knew the future (Mt. 16:21) and He knew everything (Jn. 16:29-30; 21:17).

An explanation

The apparent inconsistency between Jesus not knowing something and knowing everything can be resolved by looking at the relationship between Christ’s divine nature and His human nature. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. This means that He could demonstrate the attributes of either nature. For example, his mortal body was human, and not divine. While His omniscience and omnipotence was divine, and not human. As a human being, Jesus had limited knowledge of certain things, but He was still divine. As the divine God, Jesus knew everything, but He was still human. His human nature was always evident, but His divine nature was sometimes hidden (but was evident when He did miracles).

Let’s apply this to our question about Jesus not knowing the date of His second advent. Jesus said that “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the day or the hour when He comes to establish His kingdom on earth (Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). Angels are finite beings created by God with limited knowledge, so it isn’t surprising that they don’t know the date. This is the case for all of God’s creation, including humanity. At the other extreme, God the Father knows everything, so it isn’t surprising that He knows the date. As God the Son, Jesus is both human and divine. Therefore one would expect that His human nature wouldn’t know the date, but His divine nature would know the date.

So, when the Bible says that Jesus didn’t know the date of His second advent it is referring to him as a finite human being, not as the divine Son of God.

Some also note that Jesus said, “a servant does not know his master’s business” (Jn. 15:15). So, in the sense that Jesus came as a Servant who was obedient to God the Father (Mt. 20:28; Heb. 10:5-7), we could say that Jesus didn’t know the date of His second advent.

Written, February 2015

Also see: Did Jesus use any of His divine power when He was on earth?

Why does the Bible describe “death” as “sleep”?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs this metaphor is used in the Old Testament, that is where we will begin. It is related to three Hebrew words: shakab (Strongs #7109), which means “to lie down”; yashen (Strongs #3462), which means “sleep”; and shenah (Strongs #8142), which also means “sleep”.

In one of the oldest books of the Bible, death is described as to “lie down in the dust” (Job 7:21; 20:11; 21:26NIV). In death an Israelite’s body is said to be resting with their ancestors Ge. 47:30; Dt. 31:16; 2 Sam 7:12; 1 Ki. 2:10). Here we see that in ancient history, death is associated with lying down to rest.

In Psalms, death is described as the “sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3; 90:5) and the death of the Assyrian army is called their “final sleep” (Ps. 76:5). In God’s predicted judgment of Babylon, they will “sleep forever and not awake” (Jer. 51:39, 57). Here we see that the Israelites associated death with sleep. This metaphor is also evident in Greek mythology.

In the following verse the word “sleep” has been added by the translators by inference as it isn’t in the text, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Clearly in this context “sleep” means “death” and “sleep in the dust of the earth” means the body after death (corpse). So, in the context of death, the word “sleep” refers to the corpse. Therefore, “awake” means resurrection of the body. Here we see a clear indication that death isn’t the end of the body.

New Testament

Both Jesus and Paul use “sleep” as a metaphor for death in the Bible. They would have been familiar with this metaphor from their knowledge of the Old Testament.

The Greek word koimao (Strongs #2837) means “to sleep, to fall asleep, or to die”. Similarly the Greek word katheudo (Strongs #2518) means “sleep or sleeping”. Both words are also used metaphorically for death, with the meaning in a particular passage being determined by the context in which it is used.

The clearest explanation of the metaphor is given in the following Scripture passages.
‘After He had said this, He went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but His disciples thought He meant natural sleep. So then He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead …’ (Jn. 11:11-14NIV).
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Th. 4:13).

The metaphor is used to refer to the deaths of:
– The girl who died and was raised back to life (Mt 9:24, Mk 5:39, Lk. 8:52)
– Lazarus (Jn. 11:11-14)
– Some godly people who died in Old Testament times (Mt. 27:52)
– Stephen (Acts 7:60)
– David (Acts 13:36)
– A husband (1 Cor. 7:39)
– Some of those who abuse the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30)
– Christians (1 Cor. 15:6, 18; 1 Th. 4:13-15)
– People who died in Old Testament times (1 Cor. 15:20)
– Jewish ancestors (2 Pt. 3:4)

Also, 1 Corinthians 15:51 and 1 Thessalonians 5:10 say that not all Christians will die (or sleep) because the bodies of Christians that are alive at the rapture will be transformed without going through death.

“Death”, “departure” and “sleep”

How is death like sleep? Sleep is the time period between falling asleep and awaking when the body rests. It is a temporary condition, not a permanent one. How is death a temporary condition, not a permanent or eternal one? The Bible teaches that although our bodies decay after death, they will be resurrected on a future day. In fact everyone will be raised from death to one of two destinies (Acts 24:15). Jesus said “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (Jn. 5:28-29). Here goodness is evidence of salvation and evil is evidence of unbelief.

At death there is a separation of the body and soul and the believer’s soul goes to be with Christ (2 Cor. 5:8). As the soul is very much alive, when the word “sleep” is used in connection with death in the New Testament, it refers to the body, not the soul. The body is “sleeping” until its resurrection.

It is said that the early Christians called their burial grounds koimeterion (or “sleeping places”, a word derived from Strongs #2837 and used by the Greeks to describe a rest-house for strangers). This is the derivation of the English word “cemetery” (meaning “the sleeping place”).

The state of the soul after death is illustrated by the story of the rich man, Lazarus and Abraham (Lk. 16:22-31). After he died, the rich man had an extended conversation with Abraham, who died about 2,000 years earlier. Likewise, Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt. 17:3; Mk. 9:4; Lk. 9:30-31). Moses died about 1,400 years earlier and Elijah was raptured about 850 years earlier. This is consistent with the soul of a believer living with the Lord after death. The Bible metaphor for the soul at death is “departure” as the soul departs from the body to be with Christ, which is better than the struggles of life on earth (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23).

Awakening

As people awake after sleeping, so in a coming day our bodies will be resurrected. The first resurrection takes place in various stages, including the rapture (1 Cor. 15:20; Mt. 27:52-53; 1 Th. 4:16; Rev. 20:4). It includes Jesus Christ and all those who have trusted in God. These are rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). They are raised to eternal life and immortality with the Lord.

The second resurrection is when those who have rejected God’s witness to them are judged at the Great White Throne (Jn. 5:29; Rev. 20:4-5, 12-13). The penalty is to be thrown into the lake of fire where they are tormented forever. They are raised to condemnation and banishment from the presence of the Lord.

So the metaphor of sleep for death should be a warning to be ready for the resurrection when we will face Jesus as either a lifesaver or a judge. What will it be?

Written, January 2015

Responding to terrorism

france-Charlie Hebdo vigil 400pxPrayer calms anxiety & relieves stress

I’m in France where thousands rallied in the streets after the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in a massive nation-wide demonstration of solidarity. “I am Charlie” (“Je Suis Charlie”) signs are still posted on city buildings.

Some people felt helpless and feared for their safety. I was asked: “Are you still going to France?” How can we cope when we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles and tragedies? In this blog we see that Psalm 4 shows that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.

Context

Psalm 4 was written when the Israelites were living in Canaan under King David, one of their greatest kings. It was about 1,000 BC and before the division into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These are the lyrics of one of the songs they sang when praising God. So it has a poetic structure.

It was a model for the Israelites to follow, not a command or a report of events. As they sang it they would have been reminded to pray when they are in trouble. And that the fact that God would look after them and replace anxiety with peace.

The surrounding texts (Ps. 3 and 5) also cover the topic of praying for deliverance from enemies. It’s a major theme in many of the Psalms.

Lyrics

“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?
Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies? Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the LORD. Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.
You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O LORD, will keep me safe” (Ps. 4:1-8NLT).

David addresses both God and David’s enemies in turn. He begins with a prayer of request for God’s help (v.1). Then he addresses his enemies asking questions, making statements, and giving advice (v.2-5). He seeks the Lord’s favor and praises Him for the change he has experienced already (v.6-8). David finishes with a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has already done (v. 7-8).

Trials

David has a problem. Although he was a godly king, some of his subjects were trying to bring him down by using slander, lies and false accusations to ruin his reputation (v.2). They were blaming David for the nation’s problems saying he should be replaced as their leader so they could have better times (v.6). It looks like he’s going to be deposed. This had been going on for some-time and there was nothing David could do about it (v.2). So he seeks relief from his distress. And prays for deliverance from these attacks.

“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” (v.1)
He knows that God is a righteous judge who knows the facts of the situation and isn’t deceived by David’s enemies. That’s why he goes to God for help. He wants relief from his anxiety and stress.

Then he names the problems and challenges the offenders.
“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.2)

This means that they have an opportunity to consider the situation, to acknowledge their part in it (their sins) and repent and change their ways. Obviously this didn’t happen because David needed to challenge them again (v.4-5).

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the people of France responded in public rallies. They didn’t pray to God or ask spiritual questions, because they live in a secular society that seeks all its answers in humanity.

We mightn’t be a king facing his downfall or someone facing a terrorist attack, but we all face trials, troubles and tragedies that worry us from time to time. How do we manage when these bring depression and anxiety and there seems to be no relief? Do we seek help? Or do we give up? Do we pray to God?

Trust

“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.3)
David warns his enemies that God will answer his prayer and intervene because he is part of God’s Old Testament people, the Israelites. So they should realise that their efforts to bring down the king will be futile. Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).

“Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the Lord.” (v.4-5)
Then he tells them what to do. Instead of blaming someone else for their troubles, they needed to tremble with fear before God and change their sinful ways by meditating as they lay in bed and then repent of their ways and trust God.

His enemies needed to control their anger and not let it lead to violence. Paul told Christians they could be angry for God, but it should be limited and not carried over into another day (Eph. 4:26-27).

At night they were to think about the stupidity of fighting against God. This should lead them to acknowledge, confess, and repent of their sin. And “trust in the Lord”. David told them to offer sacrifices in the right spirit to demonstrate this change in their lives.

Offering animal sacrifices was part of a godly life for an Israelite. We live under a different covenant. The new covenant brought in by Jesus has replaced the Old Testament law. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

‘Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.’ (v.6)
Here David contrasts himself with his enemies. They are blaming David for their problems and are looking for another leader to replace the king, but David looks for God’s favor. He does this because He knows that God is the one we should trust in, not just another human leader. God is the only one who can bring lasting improvement in the situation. They seek all the benefits of a godly life, but they don’t want God.

A smiling face was a common expression for acceptance and favour. It was a metaphor for blessing and deliverance. Though many are discouraged, David asks the Lord to intervene and transform the situation. The opposite is to hide your face or turn your face from people’s need. In this case there is no blessing and no deliverance. David knew the image of God’s shining face from the priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26).

Australian Prime Ministers are usually replaced when their approval rating gets too low. Kevin Rudd’s rating dropped to 58% and Julia Gillard’s to 53% before they were replaced. But now her replacement Tony Abbott is rating at 50%! What a big change since he was elected 16 months ago in September 2013. In fact the two major national political parties in Australia have gone through 10 leaders in 10 years!

Are you like David? If you trust in God are you assured that He will answer your prayers?

Or are you like David’s enemies? Can you control your anger? Do you know that human solutions will disappoint if you ignore God? Are you willing to look at the sins in your life with a view to acknowledging, confessing, and repenting of them?

Triumph

“You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine” (v.7)
God has already answered his prayer by giving him inner joy even though He hasn’t been delivered yet. But he is confident that God will deliver him.

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe” (v.8)
We’ve now come to the end of the song. It began with David pleading to God to free him from his troubles and give relief for his distress. It ends with David sleeping well because he leaves his safety up to God. So his anxiety has subsided and been replaced with assurance and peace. He is confident of God’s protection. He found that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.

Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7).

A new mobile phone app enables children and other users to send emergency alerts and broadcast their GPS location to trusted contacts. It’s called Thread. It can connect users immediately to 911 (or 112 or 999 or 000) and their nominated contacts. It can allay someone’s anxiety and fears. Likewise, Christians have a hotline to God that can allay their anxiety and fears.

Have you accepted God’s provision for our trials, troubles and tragedies? Or do you face them alone?

What about terrorism?

Terrorists are enemies of particular groups of people. What else can we learn from what the Bible says about dealing with our enemies?

In Psalm 109, David uses strong language to ask God to judge and punish his enemies (v.6-21). He wants them to receive the consequences of their sinful behavior. He wants revenge. This language is acceptable for Old Testament times, but not now.

What’s changed since then? Jesus brought a new covenant. He prayed for His enemies (Lk. 23:34) and taught His followers to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44-45). Paul taught that we are to never take revenge, but leave that up to God (Rom. 12:19-21). Because, doing good to one’s enemy, instead of taking revenge, may bring about repentance.

Our real enemy is Satan who directs the terrorists (Eph. 6:12). This means that it’s spiritual warfare that requires spiritual weapons. That’s why when facing all kinds of dangers and threats, the Psalmist could say “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” (Ps. 121:1). We need the God who made the universe on our side, because He’s stronger than Satan.

Do we have the same attitude as Jesus and Paul? Do we leave the problem of terrorism up to God? Do we pray to God about it? Do we pray for our enemies?

Conclusion

We have seen that David prayed for help and deliverance when he faced serious trials, troubles and tragedies. His song taught that God answers prayer and that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.

When we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles, tragedies or terrorism we need to realize that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.

Written, January 2015

What does the Bible say about cremation?

funeral pyre 3 from the Iliad 400pxWith the rising cost of funeral expenses today, many people are choosing cremation instead of burial. Let’s look at what the Bible says about this topic.

According to the Bible, the Israelites in the Old Testament and the early Christians in the New Testament practiced burial, not cremation. Jesus attacked many Jewish traditions, but not burial of the dead. In fact, an Israelite was dishonored if they didn’t receive a proper burial (1 Ki. 13:21-22; 21:23-24; Jer. 16:4, 6; 22:19). One of the sins of Moab is said to be “he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king” (Amos 2:1). In this instance it seems as though cremation denied the king a proper burial.

Is this Biblical practice of burial a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?

Is burial a command?

It doesn’t seem to be a command, because any commands seem to relate to specific circumstances. For example, Joseph issued a command regarding the burial of his body (Heb. 11:22) and the bodies of hanged criminals were to be buried on the same day (Dt. 21:23). Also, there are no curses or judgments in the Bible on someone who was cremated. The examples that are usually quoted for curses are instances when people are burned when they are alive, not after their death (Gen. 19:24; Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 16:35; 2 Pt. 2:6). There are two exceptions, Achan was stoned and then cremated for plundering Jericho (Josh. 7:25-26) and King Josiah executed pagan priests and cremated their bodies (2 Ki. 23:19-20).

Although there is no general command for burial, cremation is said to be a sin in Old Testament times (Amos 2:1). This is the only clear reference to cremation in the Bible and no reason or explanation is given in this brief statement.

The bodies of King Saul and his sons were “burned” by the Israelites (1 Sam. 31:11-13). However, there is no mention of cremation in the parallel account of this event and its retelling to David (2 Sam. 2:4-5; 1 Ch. 10:12). As a result of this, some think this is burning incense, not a cremation (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19).

Today traditional Jews are prohibited under their law from practicing cremation because they believe that cremation rules out the possibility of resurrection. But it’s not more difficult for God to resurrect a body that has been cremated. All believers will one day receive a new body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Th. 4:13-18), regardless of what remains of their old body. All human bodies eventually decay and become like ashes or dust. Cremation mainly speeds up this process (Gen. 3:19).

Whether cremation was a sin in New Testament times is debatable because cremation isn’t mentioned in the New Testament.

Because burial was common, Paul used it as a metaphor for baptism and the fact that a Christian has “buried” their old sinful self and is no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:4-7; Col. 2:12).

Is burial a model or a report?

If burial isn’t commanded in the Bible, then it is either a model to follow or a report of events that are not necessarily right or wrong. I find it hard to decide between these alternatives.

Some say that because Christ was buried after He died, He is an example to follow (1 Cor. 15:4). But this seems like “cherry picking” to me. Christ was also crucified; is that an example to follow? Only in the sense of being a metaphor for self-denial (Lk. 9:23). Also, if it is a model to follow, what is the principle behind the practice? Is burial essential for resurrection? Surely not!

Biblical burial practices included funeral fires or burning incense (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19; Jer. 34:5), anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices (2 Ch. 16:14; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 23:56–24:1; Jn. 19:39-40), burial in caves (Genesis 49:29-32; Jn. 11:38), and family tombs (2 Ch. 16:14). “Spices were likely used in each of the three phases of burial: corpse preparation (Mt. 26:12), funeral procession and interment” (Brink and Green Eds., “Commemorating the dead – Texts and artifacts in context”, 2008).

If you think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then I don’t think you need to adopt the Jewish practices of funeral fires, burning incense, and anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices. For example the body doesn’t need to be anointed with about 34 kg (75 pounds) of perfumes and spices as was the case for Jesus (Jn. 19:39)!

Some believe that the symbolism of destroying a body (cremation) that God created and that God will resurrect is the wrong message to send at a funeral.

But if you don’t think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then you can ask the following questions about cremation: Will it bring the most glory to God? Are we acting in love? Will it reflect the dignity of the human body? Will the future bodily resurrection be paramount? Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on this topic? What do other family members think? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers and of families? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church? Will it help or hinder the gospel witness of the church?

We also need to consider local associations. For example, cremation is mandated by the Hindu religion because of their belief in reincarnation. They think that the fire helps the spirit detach from the body on its way to a new body. Because of this link, Christians who converted from Hinduism may be hindered by cremation. Also in Hindu areas, some may assume that cremation signals approval of idolatrous practices. So it would be better to favor burial above cremation in areas with a large Hindu population.

By the way, cremated remains can still be buried, interred in someone else’s grave or placed in a cremation plot.

Summary

Although burial was used instead of cremation in Biblical times, the Bible seems to be written to allow some people to think it is a model to follow today and others to think it is just a report of what happened and so cremation is also acceptable today. If you are considering cremation, then it would be good to consider the matters raised above.

Finally, the Bible focuses on our life when our bodies are alive. It is less concerned about what happens to our corpses.

Written, January 2015

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