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Search for the real Jesus

“Believers revere Him as the Son of God. Skeptics dismiss Him as a legend. Artists cast Him in images that reflect their own time and place. Today, archaeologists digging in the Holy Land are helping to sift fact from fiction”. That’s the introduction to an article in National Geographic magazine (December 2017) by Kristin Romey on what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus. Romey hoped to discover how Christians texts and traditions compare to the discoveries of archaeologists.

Could Jesus have never existed?

Is it possible that the story of Jesus is pure invention and He never really existed? Although this is the view of some outspoken skeptics, it’s not that of scholars such as archaeologists. Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University says, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure”. And professor Bryon McCane of Atlantic University says, “I can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist”. Even scholars who disbelieve Christ’s miraculous deeds believe that Jesus did certain things in Galilee and he did certain things in Jerusalem that resulted in his execution.

The evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Ancient Roman and Jewish extra-biblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. These independent extra-biblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible.

Historians and archaeologists agree that Jesus existed, but not all of them believe Jesus was the Son of God who died and rose from the dead. New Testament historians  talk about the quest or search for the historical Jesus, which seeks to answer the question, how much of the New Testament  portrait of Jesus is historically accurate and how much (if any) did the early church make up?

Jesus in Bethlehem

Excavations at Bethlehem have so far turned up no artefacts dating to the time of Christ, nor any signs that early Christians considered the site sacred. Archaeology cannot prove or disprove that two people visited Bethlehem and gave birth to a child. But absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. It’s rare to have any archaeological proof of a person who lived about 2,000 years ago.

Romey claims that Matthew and Luke provide diverging accounts of Christ’ birth with the manger and shepherds in Luke and the wise men, the massacre of children and flight to Egypt in Matthew. But this is very poor exegesis. Luke describes the birth, while Matthew describes how the birth came about (Mt. 1:18-25), the visit of the wise men (2:1-12), the escape to Egypt (2:13-18), and the return to Nazareth (2:19-23). The wise men didn’t visit Jesus on the night He was born, but some 1-2 years later when Jesus was a child in His house, and not a baby in a manger (2:11). And Herod ordered for the boys in Jerusalem who were “two years old and under” to be killed, not babies (2:16). This suggests that more than a year elapsed from Jesus’ birth to the wise men’s visit. Since Herod the Great died in 4BC, Jesus may have been born 6-5BC. Herod’s slaughter of babies is consistent with his executing his wife Mariamne I and three of his sons for perceived threats to his kingdom. So those like Romey who claim that Matthew and Luke are divergent accounts of Christ’s birth haven’t read the text very carefully.

Jesus in Galilee

In the first century AD Palestine was ruled by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ boyhood home, Nazareth,was just 5 km (3 miles) from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. When archaeologists explored the ruins of the residential quarter of Sepphoris they found at least 30 mikvahs (Jewish ritual baths). This is the largest domestic concentration ever found by archaeologists. “Along with ceremonial stone vessels and a striking absence of pig bones (pork being shunned by kosher-keeping Jews), they offer clear evidence that even this imperial Roman city remained a very Jewish place during Jesus’ formative years”. This is consistent with the Bible which shows Jesus to be a practicing Jew.

Jesus began His ministry at Capernaum, a fishing town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (a freshwater lake). Here archaeologists have found the remains of a first-century house that was rapidly transformed into a public meeting place. It looks like a gathering place of the early church, which was later expanded into a larger house of worship.

In 1986 the remains of a wooden boat (the Jesus boat) that dates from the first century were found in the Sea of Galilee. Measuring 2.3 m (7.5 ft) wide and 8 m (27 ft) long, it could have accommodated 13 men. This is consistent with the Biblical accounts of the disciples fishing from a boat and sailing across the Sea of Galilee.

At the site of ancient Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists have excavated the ruins of a synagogue from the times of Jesus.  This is consistent with the Bible which shows Jesus to be a practicing Jew. “The find was especially significant because it put to rest an argument made by skeptics that no synagogues existed in Galilee until decades after Jesus’ death”. “At the center of the room there was a stone (the Magdala stone) about the size of a footlocker that showed the most sacred elements of the temple in Jerusalem carved in relief. This discovery struck a death blow to the once fashionable notion that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel’s religious center”.

“Accounts of large crowds coming to Jesus for healing are consistent with what archaeology reveals about first-century Palestine, where diseases such as leprosy and tuberculous were rife”. For example, it was found that about 70% of graves in Roman Palestine held the remains of children and adolescents. So there was a high rate of infant and child mortality at this time.

Jesus in Jerusalem

Many archaeological discoveries have been made at Jerusalem that support the Biblical account of the life of Jesus. These include:
– The site of the Pool of Bethesda and the Pool of Siloam.
– An ornate burial ossuary (bone box) that may contain the bones of Caiaphas the Jewish high priest.
– A heel bone driven through with an iron crucifixion nail found in the burial of a Jewish man named Yehohanan.

Also, an inscription was found in Caesarea attesting to the rule of Pontius Pilate (the Pilate stone).

What did Jesus look like?

Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. Since Roman-era frescos, artists have drawn and painted images of Jesus which tend to reflect the era when they were created. When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot had to show the soldiers who Jesus was because they could not tell him apart from his disciples (Mt. 26:48-49; Mk. 14:44-45). Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from The University of Manchester in England, specializes in recreating images of historical figures. In 2015 he used three skulls from the time of Jesus to create an image of a typical adult man who lived in the same place and at the same time as Jesus. This image had dark olive skin, short curly hair, a prominent nose, dark eyes, a beard  and was about 1.55 m (5ft 1in) tall and weighed about 50 kg (110 pounds). Neave’s image is probably a lot closer to the truth than the portrayal of Jesus by the artists.

Lessons for us

The National Geographic article confirms that archaeological discoveries in Palestine are consistent with the New Testament and do not contradict it.

But the best place to search for the real Jesus is in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts give the best historical accounts and selective biographies of the life of Jesus Christ. As these were written within a few decades of the events they recount, they are more accurate than opinions formed by commentators about 2,000 years later.

So, read the New Testament to find out what Jesus did and taught and how His ministry impacted people across the Roman Empire in the first century. Since then, His ministry has impacted people across the world.

Reference

Romey K (2017) “The search for the real Jesus”, National Geographic, 323, 6 (Dec 2017), 30-69

Written, February 2019

Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus

God’s greatest promise

In Sydney we can expect lots of promises over the next few months, with a State election in March and a national election in May. Between Genesis and Revelation, the Bible is full of God’s promises. There are thousands of them. This post contains a survey of God’s promises in the Bible in order to determine which one is the greatest. We will see that the promise given to Abraham to bless all nations is the greatest because it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ and it leads to God’s other promises.

Promises in the Old Testament

The best known promises from God in the Old Testament are called covenants. We will summarize five of these that were given to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah.

Promised protection

After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolized by the rainbow (Gen. 9:13). It was an unconditional promise of God’s protection. God has kept this promise: there hasn’t been another global flood.

Promised nation, land and blessing for all nations

After the tower of Babel, people scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. And God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and to give them the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:18-21NIV). He also promised that “all peoples [nations]on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]”. This was an unconditional and  everlasting promise (Gen. 17:7-8). The sign of this covenant was male circumcision (Gen. 17:11). So this covenant was a promise of a nation and their own land. God partially fulfilled this part of the promise when David and Solomon were kings over Israel. But the Bible indicates that Israel will be restored again in the future (Rom. 11). The other part of the promise (blessing for all nations) is discussed below under “The key promise”.

Promised relationship

After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, at Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). It was conditional on obeying God’s laws, and there were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant (Ex. 31:13, 17). So this third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God. God kept His part of this promise, but Israel failed to keep their part, and so were invaded and driven from Palestine.

Promised dynasty

When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). This covenant was unconditional. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). And His kingdom is everlasting.

So this covenant was a promise of a dynasty. Because Israel failed to keep their part, the physical dynasty ended. But after a 400 year gap, Jesus established a spiritual dynasty.

Promised revival

We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant that came through Moses. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicted a Babylonian conquest, followed by a 70 year exile and then restoration for Israel (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27; 30-31).

Jeremiah also promised the Israelites a new covenant, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). The nation will be revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today. This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s an unconditional promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth. This covenant was a promise of a future Jewish revival and peace on earth.

That’s five covenant promises. The Old Testament prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.

Promised Messiah

In about 980BC David prayed for deliverance when facing death (Ps. 16). He finishes with joy because he is assured that he will not die (Psa. 16:9-11). But Peter said that this refers to the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:25-33). And Paul agrees (Acts 13:35-37).

In about 700BC Micah said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah (Mic. 5:2). And about that time Isaiah said that he would be more than an ordinary child because he would be called Immanuel which means God with us (Isa. 7:14; Mt. 1:22-23). Isaiah also taught about the suffering servant (messiah) who would:
– Suffer for our sins to bring us peace and spiritual life (Isa. 53:5).
– Die among the wicked but be buried with the rich (Isa. 53:9).

In about 520BC Zechariah said the messiah would be humble (riding into Jerusalem on a donkey) and victorious (Zech. 9:9-10).

But all the promises in the Old Testament were given to Jews as individuals or as a nation. They weren’t given to Christians or Gentiles like us. But there are promises given to Christians in the New Testament.

Promises in the New Testament

When I looked at the 60 verses in the New Testament that include the Greek word for promise (epangalia, Strongs #1860) and its close derivatives, I found that they involved four main types of promise:
– Promises given to Abraham and his descendants.
– Eternal life.
– The Holy Spirit.
– The second coming of Christ or end times.
We will briefly look at these in turn.

An email says you’ve won a new car or free airline tickets. Or that you can make easy money working from home or from bitcoin. The promise of romance cost a Canadian woman more than $40,000. Some promises are worthless! But God’s promises have lasting value.

Promises given to Abraham and his descendants

These promises involved three topics:
– God keeps His promises. “After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). God is reliable.
– Jesus was the promised Messiah. We will look at this soon under “The key promise”.
– Salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earned. As a result of this salvation, all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.

Eternal life

Eternal (spiritual) life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). All believers have eternal life and can look forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord in heaven where rewards are given for serving the Lord.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.

The second coming or end times

The second coming of Christ has two stages. The first is when the Lord returns to resurrect believers and take them to heaven, called the rapture. The second is when He returns in great power and glory to rule the earth with justice. Believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.

The Key promise

One of the promises given to Abraham was that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). This was explained more fully as, “through your [Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; 26:4). Jacob was given a similar promise, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Jacob] and your offspring” (Gen. 28:14).

Who is being blest in these Old Testament verses? According to Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB), the Hebrew word:
mishpachah (Strongs #4940) means “people, nation” (Gen. 12:3; 28:14; 28:14).
– goy (Strongs #1471) means “nation, people” (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4).
Although the same word is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.

This promise is explained in the New Testament. Peter quoted this promise to unbelieving Jews, “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days [the millennial reign of Christ]. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring [Jesus Christ] all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up His servant [Jesus Christ], He sent Him first to you [Jews] to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:24-26). Peter applies the promise that was made to Abraham to Jesus. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus all peoples earth will be blessed. In this instance, “offspring” means Jesus.

Paul quoted this promise to believers who were being influenced by legalistic Jewish Christians, “Understand, then, that those who have faith are (spiritual) children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you [Abraham]’. So those who rely on faith [believers] are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:7-9). Paul says that all believers are spiritual children of Abraham. They are saved by faith like Abraham was and not by good works. This is the gospel message, that both Jews and Gentiles can be saved by faith in Christ. This explains how the nations are blessed through Jesus.

Who is being blest in these New Testament verses? According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the Greek word:
patria (Strongs #3965) means “nation, people” (Acts 3:25).
ethnos (Strongs #1484) means “nation, people” (Gal. 3:8).
Although patria is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.

Paul then explains how this happens, “He [Christ] redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14). It’s through Jesus Christ. And he says it again, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ” (v.16). In this context “seed” means Jesus. And he says it a third time: Jesus is “the Seed to whom the promise referred” (v.19). Christ is the seed promised to Abraham. And he says it the fourth time: What was promised to Abraham is “given to those who believe” through “faith in Jesus Christ” (v.22). This says that the blessing is salvation through Jesus. Then he says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v.29). Christians are Abraham’s spiritual descendants as we share his faith (Rom. 4:1-25).

All those with faith in God are spiritual descendants of Abraham (his offspring or seed) (Rom. 4:13, 16, 18, 9:6-9). This includes Isaac but not his half-brother Ishmael, Jacob but not his brother Esau, and believers but not unbelievers.

The promise of Gen. 12:3 was to bless all nations of the earth in Abram. The promise of salvation through Jesus included Gentiles as well as Jews. The “seed” referred to Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Lk. 3:34). God promised to bless all nations through Christ. It was through Christ that God intended to fulfill this promise to Abraham. The New Testament version of the promise is, “For God so loved the world [nations] that He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

The promise of salvation was meant to be received by faith in Christ. This is evident by hindsight after being revealed by the apostles, although it is not clear from reading the Old Testament alone.

When he was accused of being unreliable, Paul said that “all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:10NLT). This is shown in a schematic diagram. The promise of blessing for all nations was made to Abraham. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus people from all nations can be blessed. Here’s how it happens. Those who trust in the work of Christ by faith are saved and delivered from the penalty of their sinfulness. Consequently:
– They enter the new covenant (a special spiritual relationship with God, which is much better than the old covenant).
– They have eternal life, which is spiritual life that endures forever.
– They are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
– They will be resurrected at the rapture and will share in Christ’s second coming to set up His kingdom on earth.

It’s a key promise because it is the original messianic promise (see Appendix A) and it is the source of the other promises. Paul said, “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us [believers] with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ” (Eph. 1:3NLT). The spiritual blessings that we are promised are consequences of our faith in Christ. So they were included in the original promise. The diagram shows God’s plan of salvation over a period of at least 4,000 years: the promise was given to Abram in about 2,000BC, Jesus died about AD 30 and we live in AD 2019. That’s the big picture.

So, God’s greatest promise is that people from all nations can be blessed through Jesus. Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. And salvation through Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. He is the means by which people can come into God’s blessing.

The guaranteed promise

But promises can be broken. Construction of Sydney’s light rail project was meant to go smoothly and be finished before the State election in March, but there were problems, delays and broken promises and now it’s running at least a year late. But God always keeps His promises.

The writer of Hebrews assures us that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Abraham was given a son after waiting for 25 years. Likewise, God will keep His promise of our eternal salvation. Because of this, those who have come into God’s salvation “may be greatly encouraged”.  “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). Like an anchor holds a ship safe and stops it being shipwrecked in a storm, our hope in Christ guarantees our safety. The storms of life can lead to doubt and despair if we forget that God’s greatest promise can be our anchor.

Today’s meaning of ancient promises

The Bible was written in ancient times. What do promises written thousands of years ago mean for us today? It was also written over a period of at least 1,500 years. Because of this, the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end (the graph goes up with time). So we should read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation. Let’s look at what the promises we have mentioned above mean to us today.

Protection. This was a promise with Noah and his  sons and their descendants and “every living creature on earth” (Gen. 9:8-9). They were the only ones on earth after the flood. So this promise applies to all people and creatures on earth today. We can be assured that the earth won’t be destroyed by a flood or by climate change (a euphemism for the enhanced greenhouse effect). Part of the promise was “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22). It’s an unconditional  promise that as long as the earth exists the climate will remain within acceptable ranges for plants to live. Of course the Genesis flood was the greatest climate change event in history.

A nation and a land. Abraham and Jacob were promised that they would have many descendants (the Jews) who would be given the land of Canaan (and they did live there). These were promises for the Jews, so it  doesn’t mean that God will give us many children and a house. Those who follow Jesus live under the new covenant and their promised blessings are spiritual, not physical (Eph. 1:3). So the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings. That’s the inheritance that we can look forward to – being part of the family of God and having eternal life in heaven.

Blessing for all nations. We have already seen that that the equivalent promise for us is the blessing of salvation through Jesus.

Promised relationship. This was a promise to the Israelites who were to live under the laws of Moses. But that doesn’t mean that we need to obey these laws in order to have a relationship with God. The old covenant wasn’t given to Gentiles like us. The equivalent relationship for us in the new covenant through faith in Christ and His commands in the New Testament.

A dynasty. The Bible says that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David of an eternal dynasty.

Revival. Although the Jews were promised a new covenant, the Bible says that believers enter into it spiritually and enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the good news by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. The Lord’s Supper is a symbol of this new covenant (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?

A messiah. Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah. Because He was rejected by the Jews, salvation by faith in His finished work is now available to all nations.

As the other promises we have looked at were made to Christians, this means that they still apply to us today. So Christians have eternal (spiritual) life; they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; and during the end times they will be resurrected when Christ returns to take them to heaven.

Consequently, we need to be careful in our understanding and application of promises in the Bible (see Appendix B).

Lessons for us

We have seen that God gave Abraham a promise to bless all nations, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and which leads to God’s other promises. Through Jesus all nations can be blessed. The blessing is salvation through faith in Jesus and all that it brings including the Holy Spirit and eternal life.

This is the greatest promise because it’s the source of all God’s promises to believers. Believers have every spiritual blessing because they are united with Christ. The Bible says it’s like an anchor to get through the storms of life. Do we have this anchor to get through difficult times or do we get shipwrecked?

It’s greater than all promises outside the Bible because it’s given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.

In Old Testament times, the physical descendants of Abraham had a special relationship with God, which other people lacked. Likewise, today those who have trusted in Jesus have a special relationship with God that helps them get through life and gives them something to look forward to. What about us? Do we have that special relationship with God? Salvation is a gift to be received by faith.

If we are part of God’s special people today, we receive the blessings of God’s promises. But we don’t know about them unless we read them in the Bible. And we can’t recall them unless we read them in the Bible. So let’s read about them in the Bible so we can appreciate how great and precious they are (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, are we looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future?

Let’s remember that God’s greatest promise is Jesus and salvation through Jesus.

Appendix A: Is Genesis 3:15 a messianic promise?

You may wonder why I haven’t included Genesis 3:15 as the original messianic promise. God’s judgment of the serpent after mankind sinned was,14So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15).

This has been called the Protoevangelium, which means the first announcement of the gospel. It has also been called the first messianic prophecy. In this interpretation, the serpent represents Satan and the offspring of the woman represents Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection secures victory over Satan which will be finalized when Satan is thrown into the lake of burning sulfur for eternity (Rev. 20:2, 10).

I haven’t mentioned Genesis 3:15 in this post because:
– I can’t see any direct reference to the statement in Genesis 3:15 anywhere else in the Bible. However, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20) could be an indirect reference. This verse seems to be saying that believers will share in Christ’s victory over Satan. According to the NET Bible, “Rom 16:20 may echo Genesis 3:15 but it does not use any of the specific language of Genesis 3:15 in the Septuagint [the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament]. Paul uses the imagery of God soon crushing Satan’s head under the feet of the church. If Paul were interpreting Genesis 3:15, he is not seeing it as culminating in and limited to Jesus defeating Satan via the crucifixion and resurrection, but extending beyond that”.
– According to the NET Bible, “Many Christian theologians (going back to Irenaeus) understand v. 15 as the so-called protevangelium, supposedly prophesying Christ’s victory over Satan (see W. Witfall, “Genesis 3:15 – a Protevangelium?” CBQ 36 [1974]: 361-65; and R. A. Martin, “The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” JBL 84 [1965]: 425-27). In this allegorical approach, the woman’s offspring is initially Cain, then the whole human race, and ultimately Jesus Christ, the offspring (Hebrew “seed”) of the woman (see Gal. 4:4). The offspring of the serpent includes the evil powers and demons of the spirit world, as well as those humans who are in the kingdom of darkness (see Jn. 8:44). According to this view, the passage gives the first hint of the gospel. Satan delivers a crippling blow to the Seed of the woman (Jesus), who in turn delivers a fatal blow to the Serpent (first defeating him through the death and resurrection [1 Cor. 15:55-57] and then destroying him in the judgment [Rev. 12:7-9; 20:7-10]). However, the grammatical structure of Genesis 3:15b does not suggest this view. The repetition of the verb “attack,” as well as the word order, suggests mutual hostility is being depicted, not the defeat of the serpent. If the serpent’s defeat were being portrayed, it is odd that the alleged description of his death comes first in the sentence. If he has already been crushed by the woman’s “Seed,” how can he bruise his heel? To sustain the allegorical view, v. 15b must be translated in one of the following ways: “he will crush your head, even though you attack his heel” (in which case the second clause is concessive) or “he will crush your head as you attack his heel” (the clauses, both of which place the subject before the verb, may indicate synchronic action)”.

So, Genesis 3:15 isn’t included in this post as the original messianic promise because its meaning isn’t as clear or as robust as the other promises.

Appendix B: Application of biblical promises

As a result of the findings under “Today’s meaning of ancient promises”, when we read a promise in the Bible, let’s be careful to note:
– The context. Read the chapters and paragraphs of the Bible that describe the context in which the promise was given. Who was it written to? Did they live under the old covenant or the new one? How did they understand the promise? For example, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14) was a promise to the nation of Israel. Under the old covenant, there was a direct correspondence between their obedience and their prosperity, and their disobedience and their hardship (Dt. 28). If they disobey, they will be judged. But if they repent, God will rescue them from the judgment. It doesn’t apply to any other nation because God never promised that if a righteous remnant repents and prays for their nation, that the nation will be saved spiritually or be prosperous. And as noted above, the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings (not physical ones).
– The conditions. What conditions need to be satisfied to receive the benefits of the promise?
– The fulfilment. Has the promise been partially or totally fulfilled already? Or has it not yet been fulfilled? Read subsequent portions of the Bible.
– History. Is the promise explained in subsequent portions of the Bible?

Written, January 2019

Also see: God’s great and precious promises

Responding to external problems

What keeps you awake at night? According to the World Economic Forum, the biggest risks facing our world in 2019 are climate change, natural disasters, large-scale conflicts and cyber attacks. And many people struggle with poverty. David wrote many psalms in the Bible and it seems as though he spent many sleepless nights. One of the biggest problems he faced was that king Saul wanted to kill him. During this time period, David lived as a fugitive, seeking refuge in various places and moving around to avoid Saul and his men (1 Sam. 18-30). He feared for his life. Also, the Philistines were a perennial enemy of Israel and David faced them in battles. The best known of these is his victory over Goliath.

25 of the psalms are prayers by David for God’s help against his enemies. But most of these (84%) end up praising God and with an assurance that God has heard his prayer and will answer it (see Appendix). And only 8% have no praise or assurance. For example, in Psalm 54 David prays for deliverance from enemies (Saul’s supporters) who are trying to kill him (v.1-5NIV). The Ziphites betrayed David by revealing his location to Saul (1 Sam. 23:19-20). So David writes:

Save me (from enemies), O God, by your name;
vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.
Arrogant foes are attacking me;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
people without regard for God.
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.

David is in a desperate situation. But he knows that God can help him. So he doesn’t cry out in despair or give up in self-pity. The psalm ends with praise and thanksgiving because he is confident that his prayer has been heard (v. 6-7).

I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
I will praise your name, Lord, for it is good.
You have delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.

The promise to praise the Lord is written from the perspective that God has already answered the prayer (David has been delivered from his enemies), even if the actual answer has not yet come. The freewill offering is a voluntary expression of thanksgiving.

We all have external things, circumstances or people that can cause us anxiety and worry. Like work, or education, or family, or relationships, or social media, or peer pressure, or even the weather. How do we respond to such external problems? Let’s be like David and not be ruled by our external circumstances. He was a man of prayer and praise. Then our external circumstances won’t stop us remembering what God has done or stop us praising God.

The psalms were songs the Jews used for corporate worship. Can we block out our external problems from Sunday morning? Today we sang “Here I am to worship”. Are we always here to worship or do these things take us away? Is anything else more important than worshipping God?

Appendix: Psalms by David when he prays for deliverance from enemies

Psalm 3 Deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance when he flees from his son Absalom.
Ends with confidence in God (v.8).

Psalm 5 Morning prayer – for deliverance from enemies
Prays for help from evil enemies.
Ends expecting God’s blessing (v.11-12).

Psalm 7 The cry of the oppressed
A plea for deliverance from a Benjamite who probably supported Saul. And a plea for justice.
Ends in thanksgiving (v.17).

Psalm 12 Protection from the wicked
Prays that the poor and needy will be protected from the wicked.
Ends in assurance (v.7-8).

Psalm 17 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for safety and protection from wicked enemies.
Ends believing he will be vindicated (v.15).

Psalm 18 Praise for deliverance from enemies
Praise after being delivered from Saul and other enemies.
Ends with praise for deliverance (v.46-50).

Psalm 22 Plea for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies and from intense suffering.
Ends with praise for deliverance (v.22-31).

Psalm 27 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with confidence (v.13-14).

Psalm 31 Prayer and praise for deliverance
Prays for deliverance from deep distress because of his enemies.
Ends with praise for deliverance (v.19-24).

Psalm 34 Deliverance
Praise for deliverance from Abimeleck.
Ends with God answering prayers for deliverance (v.15-22).

Psalm 35 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with praise (v.27-28).

Psalm 54 God is my helper
Prays for deliverance from enemies (Saul’s supporters) who are trying to kill him.
Ends with praise and thanksgiving (v. 6-7).

Psalm 55 Cast your cares on the Lord
Prays for deliverance from a betrayer.
Ends with assurance that his prayer has been heard and will be answered (v.22-23).

Psalm 56 God is for me
Prays for deliverance from enemies – when the Philistines seized him at Gath.
Ends in thanksgiving (v,12-13).

Psalm 57 In the shadow of your wings
Prays for deliverance from enemies – when he had fled from Saul into the cave.
Ends with praise (v.7-11).

Psalm 59 The God who goes before us
Prays for deliverance from enemies – when Saul sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him.
Ends with praise (v.16-17).

Psalm 60 Prayer for help after suffering defeat
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with confidence in God (v.12).

Psalm 69 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with praise for restoration (v.34-36).

Psalm 70 Prayer for urgent help
Prays for deliverance from those wanting to kill him.
The second last verse has praise for deliverance (v.4).

Psalm 86 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Praises God in the middle of the psalm (v. 8-10).

Psalm 109 Prayer for judgment of enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends in praise (v. 30-31).

Psalm 140 Prayer for deliverance from evil doers
Prays for deliverance from evil doers.
Ends with praise due to his confidence in God (v.12-13).

Psalm 141 Prayer for deliverance from evil doers
Prays for deliverance from evil doers.
Has no praise.

Psalm 142 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Has no praise.

Psalm 144 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Praises God in the middle of the psalm (v. 9-10).

84% (21/25) of these psalms end with confidence in God (praise or joy) and assurance that the prayer will be or has been heard.  8% (2/25) expressed such confidence and assurance in the middle of the psalm. The remaining 8% (2/25) lacked any confidence and assurance.

Posted, January 2019

Also see: Responding to personal problems
Prayer and praise in times of trouble

a txt msg frm God

2009-07_txt_350pxWhen the clock strikes 00:00 on New Year’s Eve mobile (cell) phones all over the world start buzzing with New Years’ wishes from friends and family. Huge numbers of text messages are sent, probably because people send group messages to everyone in their phone. Entire phone address lists spammed with something like, ‘Happy New Year – Have a good one in 19 – Cheers Danno’. Boring, predictable, though very friendly and nice.

It makes one wonder how we’ll cope in the future when everyone we’ve ever met or bought anything from sends us a New Year’s Eve greeting. Perhaps our artificial intelligence assistants (the Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant of the future) will gently mention that we’ve got ‘greetings from many current and former friends’, and if we ask, “Oh, who from?”, well they can tell us if we really want to know.

That’s the challenge of the age we live in, so much communication. It’s hard to separate the essential from the mundane. However, one piece of communication we really do need to know about is a text message from God.

Most text messages are short and tell you something you can forget about like, ‘I’m running 15 mins late’. The Bible isn’t like that. It’s pretty long, but, being the word of God, it’s not the kind of information you can dismiss quickly. And the Bible doesn’t muck around. Like all text messages, it tells us what the other person is thinking. In this case God tells us that He made us, loves us, and also that He’s both sad and angry that we ignore Him and do wrong things.

The best part of God’s text message to the people of this world is that it contains what’s called the Gospel. Gospel means ‘good news’. And the incredible news is; God sent Jesus into the world to save us from the judgment that is coming. Jesus died on the cross to pay the price of our sin.

But have you noticed God’s text or have you been too busy? In 2017, 781 billion text messages (SMS) were sent every month in the United States. That’s more than 26 billion texts a day, and more than 9.3 trillion texts a year. Maybe we need to put the phone down more often.

Bible verse: Acts 13:26, “it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent”.

Prayer: Dear God, please help me to read your text message and give it the attention it deserves.

Acknowledgement: This article was sourced from Outreach Media, Sydney, Australia.

Images and text © Outreach Media 2019

Posted January 2019

Rebellion and deception at Samaria

trojan horse as depicted in vergilius vaticanus 400pxThe Trojan Horse is a story by Homer about the deception that the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy and win the Trojan War. After a 10-year siege, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, ending the war.

In this post we look at an older example of deception.

A promise and warning

After king Solomon had finished building the temple, God promised that if he was obedient his dynasty would always rule over Israel (1 Ki. 9:1-9; 2 Chron. 7:17-22). But if his descendants turned to follow other gods there would be disaster and they would be cut off from their land and the temple would be destroyed.

Solomon’s disobedience

The Israelites were told not to intermarry with other nations because this would cause them to follow other gods (1 Ki. 11:1-8). But king Solomon “loved many foreign women”, and “his wives led him astray”. “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods” (v.4-8NIV).

The punishment for this disobedience was that the kingdom of Israel would be divided (1 Ki. 11:9-13). And that’s what happened. Ten tribes followed Jeroboam and set up the kingdom of Israel in the north and two tribes followed Rehoboam and set up the kingdom of Judah in the south.

samaria - david roberts 1839 400pxThe kingdom of Israel rebels against God

As Jerusalem was in Judah, Jeroboam set up golden calves to worship in Bethel and Dan and led the Israelites into idolatry. At first Jeroboam was based at Shechem, but then he moved to Tirzah (1 Ki. 12:25; 14:17). The first five kings of Israel reigned from Tirzah, the capital of the northern kingdom. The next king Omri reigned in Tirzah for 6 years before buying the hill of Samaria and building his palace and the city there in about 925BC (1 Ki. 16:23-24). Samaria is 55 km (35 miles) north of Jerusalem.

Omni’s son, king Ahab built, an altar in Samaria to Baal, a pagan god, under the influence of his wife, Jezebel. The palace was called the “Ivory house” (1 Kings 22:39), the furniture and some of the wall decor was made of ivory. In the Bible, Samaria was condemned by the Hebrew prophets for its “ivory houses” and luxury palaces displaying pagan riches.

Ahab was the most evil of the kings of Samaria: “There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel” (1 Ki. 21:25).

All the remaining kings of Israel ruled from Samaria. They all “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Ki. 22:52) and followed the sins of Jeroboam (2 Ki. 13:2) despite the warnings of the prophets Micaiah, Ahijah, Jehu, Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Amos, and Jonah.

The false prophets deceive Israel

There were many false prophets in Samaria. During the reign of Ahab there were 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (1 Ki. 18:19; 22:6).

After Aram (Syria) captured Ramoth Gilead from Israel, king Ahab planned a war against them (2 Chron. 18:1-34). He asked for help from the king of Judah. When they asked the false prophets for a message from God, they were told to go ahead because they would be victorious. The Arameans would be destroyed. But Micaiah, a true prophet, predicted their defeat and Ahab’s death. And that’s what happened. Meanwhile, king Ahab had Micaiah imprisoned.

Although the Israelites in Samaria continued to follow the false prophets rather than the true ones, and they continued to worship idols, God didn’t punish them yet.

God’s mercy

In His mercy God delayed His punishment and so provided Israel with an opportunity to repent and obey the covenant once again. The kingdom continued for 130 years after the reign of king Ahab. Although they sinned, God didn’t forget the covenant He had with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God was patient with them. For example:
–  Aram (Syria) besieged Samaria and they were starving. But God miraculously rescued them (2 Ki. 6:24 – 7:20).
– “Hazael king of Aram oppressed Israel throughout the reign of Jehoahaz. But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To this day he has been unwilling to destroy them or banish them from his presence” (2 Ki. 13:22-23).
– “Since the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash” (2 Ki. 14:26-27).

God’s judgment – The kingdom destroyed

The climax of the covenant curses for disobedience was Israel’s expulsion from Canaan (Lev. 26; Dt. 28). During the reign of Jeru the kingdom of Israel experienced the beginnings of this curse. God judged Israel at this time by giving some of their land to the Arameans (2 Ki. 10:32-33). Then Pul the king of Assyria invaded Israel and taxed the wealthy (2 Ki. 15:19-20). And Tiglath-Pileser the king of Assyria attacked the northern tribes in 738-732 BC and deported people to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29). Israel was a vassal under Shalmaneser the king of Assyria (2 Ki. 17:3-6). But when they stopped paying tribute, the Assyrians besieged Samaria for three years and captured the city in 722 BC.

samaria map 400pxThe Assyrians then deported many of the people out of the northern kingdom, and brought in many people from Babylon and other countries to live in Israel. Sargon II claimed to have deported 27,290 Israelites to Assyria. This policy of deportation and re-population was intended to weaken the countries that Assyria dominated, to make it more difficult for a group of people to rise up and try to reclaim independence for their homeland. In time, these different groups of people intermarried and the whole area around the city of Samaria became known as Samaria, and the people became known as the Samaritans. The leadership of Samaria was taken away and replaced by foreign peoples. So the Jews in Judea regarded the Samaritans as a mixed race, and not true Israelites.

God’s promise to Solomon was fulfilled. After they rebelled against God for many years, Israel was eventually “cut off from their land”. They suffered a similar fate to the Canaanites who were driven from their land about 780 years earlier. The Bible says that Israel was exiled because of their sin (2 Ki. 17:7-23). They had repeatedly refused to heed the prophet’s warnings of impending judgment. Instead, they followed idols and disobeyed the covenant obligations. They had been deceived by their leaders and by the false prophets.

Samaria only lasted about 200 years as a capital city. But its name continued as it was used to describe that region of the kingdom of Israel. The Bible says that those who resettled in Samaria continued to worship their national deities (2 Ki. 17:24-41). They also practiced syncretism – they mixed different religions together (this has been confirmed by archaeologists).

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great captured the city and settled Macedonian soldiers there following a revolt by the Samaritans. And in 108 BC, John Hyrcanus (a Jewish Maccabean) conquered and destroyed the city. King Herod the Great later rebuilt the city and named it Sebaste. Today the ruins of the Israelite town, as well the ruins of towns built at this same location later in history, are all adjacent or within the modern Palestinian village of Sebastia.

Samaritans oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem

In about 627BC, the prophet Jeremiah warned the people of Jerusalem that like Samaria, because of their idolatry, they would be invaded and deported (Jer. 7:15). And in 586 BC, Judea was invaded and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Many of the Jews were exiled to Babylon. After the 70 year exile, Zerubbabel returned to rebuild the temple and Nehemiah returned to rebuild the city wall. Both of them were opposed by Samaritans. For example, the Samaritans:
– Pretended that they wanted to assist in the rebuilding of the temple when in fact they wanted to disrupt the work (Ezra 4:1-3).
– Tried to “discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building” (Ezra 4:4).
– “Bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans” (Ezra 4:4). They succeeded in having work on the temple stopped for 20 years until the second year of Darius’s reign (Ezra 4:24).
– Wrote letters to Xerxes and Artaxerxes to try to stop the rebuilding of the city wall (Ezra 4:6-23).

Sanballat and Tobiah led the opposition to Nehemiah. Sanballat was a prominent Samaritan – he held a position of authority in Samaria (Neh. 4:1-2). Sanballat and Tobiah:
– Ridiculed the Jews.
– Plotted to fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it (Neh. 4:8).
– Tried to get Nehemiah to leave his work and meet with them in the plain of Ono in order to assassinate him (Neh. 6:1-4). They did this four times!
– Sent a letter with false accusations to Nehemiah (Neh. 6:5).
– Hired false prophets to trick Nehemiah into sinning so they could discredit him (Neh. 6:10-13).
– Tried to intimidate Nehemiah (Neh. 6:14).

One of Nehemiah’s reforms was to banish the high priest’s son because he was son-in-law of Sanballat the Samaritan!

So the Samaritans opposed those who returned to Judah from the exile in Babylon. This rebellion against the God of Judah was similar to the rebellion that had occurred in the kingdom of Israel.

Good news for Samaritans

In New Testament times the country of Samaria was the area bounded by the Mediterranean Sea (west), the Jordan Valley (east), Judea (south) and Galilee (north). During the time of Jesus there was continuing hostility between Jews and Samaritans (Jn. 4:9; 8:48; Lk. 9:52-53). When the Jews wanted to ridicule Jesus, they said that He was a Samaritan, which was a racial slur (Jn. 8:48).

The disciples were surprised to find Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (Jn. 4:7-9). He revealed to her that He was the Messiah. And she believed and so did many other Samaritans (Jn. 4:28-42). This showed that salvation was being extended to all the people of the world and not just Jews.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus shows that the Samaritan acted as a neighbour who helped the injured man, whereas the Jewish Priest and the Levite didn’t help the man. So the one that Jesus commended was a hated foreigner. Jesus is saying that the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” crosses national and racial boundaries.

When Jesus healed ten men with leprosy, the only one who thanked Him was a Samaritan (Lk. 17:11-19). This indicates that Jesus didn’t show favoritism to the Jews, but included the marginalized in His ministry.

Jesus told His disciples to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Philip took the gospel to Samaria and churches were established there (Acts 8:5-14; 9:31). And Peter and John also preached in Samaria (Acts 8:25).

Lessons for us

We have looked at what the Bible says about the 200 year history of Samaria as a capital city and about the following 750 year history of Samaria as a region in Palestine. Although it was settled by God’s people, it was a center of disobedience and rebellion against God. The people were deceived by the leaders and the false prophets. And they suffered the consequences. But God kept the promises He made to Moses and Solomon. He said that disobedience would lead to being removed from their land. And that’s what happened.

God was patient, giving them lots of time to repent and change to obey the covenant. But in the long term, judgement comes to those who rebel against God. And  in the long term, false prophets will be shown to be wrong.

Jesus reached out to the Samaritans even though they followed a corrupted version of the Pentateuch. And the apostles preached the gospel to the Samaritans and set up churches.

From these events we learn that:
– If God kept the promises He made in the Old Testament, then He will also keep the promises He makes to us in the New Testament.
– If God was patient in judging the Israelites, He will be patient in judging people today. Peter confirms this, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9).
– Let’s beware of deceivers (false teachers or false prophets) whose message isn’t consistent with that of the New Testament.
– Let’s include marginalized people in our ministries, not exclude them.
– Let’s spread the good news about Jesus to all nations and races; and not write off anyone as being unworthy of God’s love and mercy.

Written, January 2019

Also see other posts on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles at Jericho

Responding to personal problems

chemotherapy 3 400pxMy parents in-law are going through tough times with weakness because of chemotherapy and confusion because of dementia. We can all experience such internal problems, which can be physical or mental. After all, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33NIV).

Twelve of the psalms are prayers for God’s help for illness or depression (See Appendix; Ps 6, 13, 16, 30, 38, 41, 42, 43, 71, 88, 102, 116). In these lament psalms the psalmist brings their problems to God. But most of them (83%) end with praise to God. For example, Psalm 13 describes David’s suffering:

1How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts [he was depressed]
and day after day have sorrow in my heart [soul, spirit]?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes [restore me], or I will sleep in death [he feared death],
and my enemy [perhaps Saul] will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

He feels as though God is distant, that God has forgotten him, and that God is inactive in not punishing evil. And he suffered the constant humiliation of being on the losing side. But it ends with David’s joy as he anticipates God’s love and deliverance:

5But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for He has been good to me.

He is confident in God’s protection because of his past experience that God has been good to him. He feels assured that the prayer will be or has been heard.

How do we respond to personal problems? Let’s be like David and not be ruled by our personal circumstances. He was a man of prayer and praise who remembered God’s love and God’s deliverance. When we look to God to help us see beyond our troubles, they won’t dominate our perspective. Then our personal  circumstances won’t stop us remembering what God has done or stop us praising God. And our feelings won’t stop us remembering what God has done or stop us praising God. So let’s remember God’s love and God’s salvation in all situations.

The Jews had to travel to Jerusalem three times a year for corporate praise and worship (Ex. 23:14-17; Dt. 16:16-17). We don’t have to travel that far, but the pattern set for corporate praise and worship in the New Testament for the Christian church is weekly. Let’s attend church regularly so we can offer praise and worship to God together and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. And don’t stay away because of our feelings or personal problems. It’s only through God that we can see these in proper perspective.

Appendix: Twelve Psalms on God’s help for illness or depression

Psalm 6 Double trouble – Illness and enemies
By David.
David was weak and in agony due to illness. He prays for deliverance.
Ends with confidence that his prayer has been heard (v.8-10).

Psalm 13 How long will I suffer?
By David.
David was depressed. He prays for deliverance.
Because he anticipated deliverance, he finishes with an expression of confidence that he will be delivered (v.5-6).

Psalm 16 Trust in God when facing death
By David.
David continues to trust God when facing death.
Finishes with joy (v.9-11).

Psalm 30 A song of healing
By David.
A song for the dedication of the temple. David prays and praises for healing.
Finishes with praise (v.11-12).
“You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
    that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever. (v.11-12)

Psalm 38 Prayer for deliverance from illness and enemies
By David.
David prays for deliverance from serious illness. Has no positive statements.

Psalm 41 Prayer for deliverance from illness
By David.
David prays for deliverance from illness.
Finishes with a doxology (v.13).

Psalm 42 Prayer and praise for the downcast
By the Sons of Korah.
Prays for deliverance from depression.
Ends in praise (v.11b).

Psalm 43 Prayer and praise for the downcast
Author unknown.
Prays for deliverance from depression.
Ends in praise (v.5b).

Psalm 71 Prayer for help in old age
Author unknown.
Prayer for help in old age.
Ends in praise v.22-24).

Psalm 88 Prayer for deliverance from constant suffering
By Ethan
Prayer for deliverance from constant suffering, near death. “Lord, you are the one who saves me” is the only positive statement (v.1).

Psalm 102 The prayer of one dying in the prime of life
Author afflicted and weak.
The prayer of one dying in the prime of life.
Gives reasons to praise the Lord (v. 25-27).

Psalm 116 Praise for deliverance from death
Author unknown.
Prayer for deliverance from death.
Ends in praise (v.12-19).

83% (10/12) of these psalms end with confidence in God (praise or joy) and assurance that the prayer will be or has been heard. The remaining 17% (2/12) lacked any such confidence and assurance.

Written, January 2019

Also see: Responding to external problems
Prayer and praise in times of trouble

Pattern of persecution

cross burning 2 400pxThere’s a widespread government crackdown on religion in China (including Christians and Muslims). Church leaders have been arrested on subversion charges and taken away. But this isn’t new or surprising because there’s a pattern of persecution of God’s people across the past 3,500 years of history.

The Hebrews

The Hebrews were God’s special people in Old Testament times. God gave their ancestor Abraham some great promises. But before these were fulfilled, his descendants were persecuted in Egypt. Slave masters oppressed them with forced labor (Ex. 1:11-14). The Egyptians worked them ruthlessly with harsh labor. And Pharaoh commanded that all Hebrew male babies be put to death; they were to be drowned in the Nile River (Ex. 1:15-22).

But God saw their misery, heard them crying out and groaning because of their slave drivers, and was concerned about their suffering. (Ex. 3:7; 6:5). The oppression increased when they were commanded to gather the straw for brick making (Ex. 5:6-21). This continued until God used Moses to rescue them from slavery in Egypt so they could travel back to Canaan.

Some Hebrew prophets were also persecuted by royalty. Elijah was persecuted by Jezebel (queen of Israel), Micaiah by Ahab (Jezebel’s husband, king of Israel), and Uriah by Jehoiakim (king of Judah) (1 Ki. 19:1-3; 22:26-26; Jer. 26:20-22).

John the Baptist and Jesus

Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of promises that were given to Abraham and King David. John the Baptist announced that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. But both John and Jesus were persecuted by Jewish rulers. King Herod the Great tried to kill Jesus by ordering all the young boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem to be killed (Mt. 2:13-18). Fortunately His family had been warned to escape to Egypt (the country where the Hebrews had been persecuted about 1450 years earlier!).

John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded by King Herod Antipas (a son of Herod the Great) (Mt. 14:3-12; Mk. 6:17-29). Herod Antipas was also involved in the trial of Jesus (Lk. 23:6-12). In fact the Jewish and Gentile (Roman) leaders conspired together to arrange the death by crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 4:27).

Early Christians

Because the Jewish religious leaders were jealous of the popularity of the apostles, they persecuted and imprisoned them. Stephen was stoned to death and the church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 4:1-2; 5:17-18; 7:54-58; 8:1-3; 11:19). So as a result of persecution, Christianity was spread across the Middle East. During his missionary journeys, Paul was also abused and persecuted by jealous Jews (Acts 13:45; 14:5, 19; 17:5; 18:6). He was publicly beaten and imprisoned without a trial (Acts 16:22-24, 37). He was arrested and tried before the Roman governors and the king of the Jews and transported to Rome for trial before Caesar (Acts 21:27 – 28:31). Furthermore, Paul was flogged at least eight times, imprisoned frequently and pelted with stones (Acts 14:19; 2 Cor. 11:23-25).

King Herod Agrippa I (a nephew of King Herod Antipas) imprisoned Peter and executed James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:1-18). After Peter escaped from prison, Herod had the prison guards executed. And the Roman governor of Judea, Antonius Felix, left Paul in prison for two years (Acts 24:22-27).

The persecutors

Some of the people who persecuted God’s people in New Testament times are listed below and shown in the schematic diagram (prepared by Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk). They are selected members of the Herodian family and Roman governors who are significant in New Testament events. The numbers in the list match those in the diagram. Those referred to in the New Testament are shown below in boldface.

  1. Herod the Great, founder of the dynasty, tried to kill the infant Jesus by the “slaughter of the innocents” at Bethlehem.
  2. Herod Philip, uncle and first husband of Herodias, was not a ruler.
  3. Herodias left Herod Philip to marry his half-brother Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee & Perea.
  4. John the Baptist rebuked Antipas for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, while his brother was still alive—against the law of Moses.
  5. Salome danced for Herod Antipas and, at Herodias’s direction, requested the beheading of John the Baptist. Later she married her great-uncle Philip the Tetrarch.
  6. Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee &: Perea (r. 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.), was Herodias’s uncle and second husband. After Salome’s dance and his rash promise, he executed John the Baptist. Much later he held part of Jesus’ trial.
  7. Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea (r. 4 B.C.E.–6 C.E.), was replaced by a series of Roman governors, including Pontius Pilate (r. 26–36 C.E.).
  8. Philip the Tetrarch of northern territories (r. 4 B.C.E.–34 C.E.) later married Herodias’s daughter Salome, his grandniece.
  9. King Herod Agrippa I (r. 37–44 C.E.) executed James the son of Zebedee and imprisoned Peter before his miraculous escape.
  10. Berenice, twice widowed, left her third husband to be with brother Agrippa II (rumored lover) and was with him at Festus’s trial of Paul.
  11. King Herod Agrippa II (r. 50–c. 93 C.E.) was appointed by Festus to hear Paul’s defense.
  12. Antonius Felix, Roman procurator of Judea (r. 52–c. 59 C.E.), Paul’s first judge, left him in prison for two years until new procurator Porcius Festus (r. c. 60–62 C.E.) became the second judge, and Paul appealed to Caesar.
  13. Drusilla left her first husband to marry Roman governor Felix.

herodian-family-tree 800px

christian-persecution-in-china 1 400pxChina

China has intensified its crackdown on religion, with crosses being burned and destroyed at Christian churches, churches closed down, and the sale of Bibles banned. The crosses are often replaced with objects such as the Chinese flag and photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. This is part of a Government drive to “Sinicise” religion (make it Chinese and compatible with socialism) by demanding loyalty to the officially atheist Communist Party and eliminating any challenge to its power over people’s lives. “Chinese characteristics” (including unwavering loyalty to the Communist party) must be incorporated into all activities, beliefs and traditions. Under Chinese law, religious followers are only allowed to worship in congregations registered with authorities, but many millions belong to so-called underground or house churches that defy government restrictions.

cross burnt 4 400px

Open Doors identified three major factors behind the increased persecution of Christians in China. These are:

New religious regulations which were passed in 2017 and enacted in February 2018 to “preserve Chinese culture and party authority against ideological threats”. Since then, religious persecution, including both Christians and Muslims, has escalated to a level of persecution few saw coming. The new regulations include “guidelines on religious education, the types of religious organizations that can exist, where they can exist and the activities they can organize”. These are part of an endeavour to resist “foreign” religions (Christianity is considered to be a product of the west which is being used to destabilize Chinese “harmony”). These religions are considered to be a cultural invasion. The regulations have led to:
– Arrests of church leaders and church members.
– Muslims and Christians sent to re-education camps.
– The destruction and closure of unregistered churches.
– Anyone under 18 not allowed in churches.
– The removal of crosses from church buildings.
– Requiring many registered churches to install facial-recognition technology.

The increased cult of personality around Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping is the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and president of the People’s Republic of China. His policies have been placed into the Chinese constitution, granting it the same level of authority in the country as former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. As the emphasis on Communist ideology and the personality cult emerging around President Xi gets stronger, the authorities will act more strongly against all other ‘ideologies’ not fitting into this system, including the Christian religion.

The positioning of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party against Jesus and His church. Christians are being told that Jesus can’t help them with illness or poverty, and only Xi Jinping can, so they should remove religious images and replace them with pictures of Xi. They are being urged to rely on the communist party for help rather that Jesus.

security cameras tiananmen square beijing 400pxAt the same time, an estimated 1 million Muslims have been detained in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang province. The measures ultimately have the same goal: to give Beijing tighter control over groups officials see as a potential threat to their grip on power. The situation in China is likely to continue to escalate as the Chinese Communist Party increases its power and focus on Chinese nationalism. Meanwhile, Big Brother watches – China is setting up a vast camera surveillance system that is using facial recognition to track every single one of its 1.4 billion citizens.

Discussion

In the historical cases mentioned in the Bible, the civil rulers persecuted God’s people. It came from the top of society (Pharaoh and the Herodian family). They seemed to be insecure and jealous and afraid of losing the allegiance of their subjects. Similarly, in China the persecution is being driven by the President and the Communist Party. It’s a pattern of persecution across about 3,500 years of history. So, it’s not surprising that Christians are being persecuted today in China and some other communist and Muslim countries (see Appendix). Ironically, such crackdowns on religious freedom will cause the church to grow faster, and help church be more united! History shows they didn’t succeed in Roman times, under Stalin or under Mao.

Christians may also be persecuted in western countries by being looked down upon, mocked or ridiculed and marginalized. Because Christians are assumed to be intolerant or hostile towards those with different beliefs or practices, it’s not possible for Christians to live by their convictions in some careers.

The Bible says that those following Jesus will face persecution. Jesus told His disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20NIV). And Paul told Timothy, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

How should we respond to persecution? Sometimes it’s possible to escape from persecution (Mt.5:12; Acts 14:6). If that’s not possible we can persevere and endure under it (Heb. 10:32-36). This involves committing our circumstances to God; “those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pt. 4:12-19). The book of 1 Peter is full of instructions for those facing persecution. It was written just before the outbreak of the Roman persecutions under Nero in AD 64.

Jesus said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45). This means forgiving and praying for our persecutors like Jesus and Stephen did (Lk. 23:43; Acts 7:60). And not taking revenge (Rom. 12:14-21). He also taught the disciples to rejoice under persecution! “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:11-12;). That sounds difficult! But the apostles considered it a privilege to suffer for Jesus (Acts 5:41). God shows His strength to those facing persecution, “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Lessons for us

Let’s pray for those experiencing religious persecution. And pray for those persecuting them. Are we ready to suffer persecution for our Christian faith, because the Bible says that it will come?

Appendix: Violators of religious freedom

In many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs. In December 2018 the US Secretary of State mentioned the following countries of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”: Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Other governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom” included: Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan. And entities of particular concern included: Nusra Front, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa’ida, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan, and the Taliban.

Acknowledgements

Information about religious persecution in China was sourced from Open Doors.
Information about the Herodian family was sourced from the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Written, January 2019

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