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The Great Christmas Mystery

Because I grew up in an observant Jewish home, Christmas was not part of our family celebration. Although I enjoyed the lights, the music, the TV specials, old Christmas movies, and all the general good cheer, I was clear—Chanukah was my celebration; Christmas was for the Gentiles. Although, looking back, I realize there were many aspects of the Christmas celebration that I didn’t understand, nevertheless, there is one part of it that especially confused me. It was in a song that I kept hearing as Christmas carols were played. Over and over, I heard, “Born is the King of Israel.”

I kept asking myself, what in the world does the birth of Jesus have to do with the birth of a Jewish king? And if the Gentiles thought that Jesus was that Jewish king, why did they dislike Jewish people so much?  To me, this was the great Christmas mystery.

Years past and I became a follower of Yeshua (Jesus), the Jewish Messiah. Then, I went to Bible college and seminary, and learned church history and the great creeds of the Church. One of the essential truths discussed in the Church councils and Creeds was the incarnation of the Son of God. Of course, that was the purpose of Christmas—to celebrate that God became a man.

But reading the New Covenant scriptures is what ultimately helped me to understand “The First Noel,” with its enigmatic declaration of the birth of Israel’s king. When the New Testament opens, it announces “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). Jesus, being the descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is Jewish and being the descendant of David, He is the King of Israel.

When His virgin mother Miriam (her real name) was told that she would bear a son, she was also told, “He will be called great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33). This also indicates that Jesus was born, not just as a human, but as a Jewish human who would be Israel’s greatest King.

And it’s not just in the gospels—it’s also in Romans 9:4-5, where Paul was correcting those who thought the church had replaced Israel and taken over the promises God made to the Jewish people. There he noted that along with all the promises that remained part of God’s gifts to Israel, the ultimate gift was that “from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all.” Christmas celebrates not just that God became a man, but that God became a Jewish man.

Paul thought this truth was so significant that he associated it with the gospel itself. In 2 Timothy 2:8, He reminds us to “keep your attention on Jesus the Messiah as risen from the dead and descended from David. This is according to my gospel.” Paul’s preaching of the gospel included that the risen Messiah remained the King of Israel.

I’m not surprised that the Church’s creeds, while affirming that Jesus was the God-Man neglected to remember that He was really the God-Jewish Man. The Church Fathers’ view that the church had taken over Israel’s promises made the Jewish identity of Jesus difficult for them to grasp. But for those of us who understand the message of the Bible, this is the answer to one of my childhood mysteries. Christmas should be the greatest Jewish celebration possible because we are commemorating the birth of Israel’s promised King. Although I don’t know on what day Jesus was born, December 25 is as good as any to remember that “born is the king of Israel.”

As to my second question, why Gentiles would dislike Jewish people if they’re celebrating the birth of the Jewish king, that remains an enigma. It reminds me of the little poem:

How odd of God
to choose the Jews.
But not so odd
as those who choose
a Jewish God
yet spurn the Jews.

This Christmas, let’s remember that we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus, the King of Israel. Not only do we love Him and joyfully remember His birth, but we ought to love His people as well and stand with them. Our King doesn’t want it any other way.

O Little Town

“Where do you come from?” I can’t say how many times I’ve been asked that question. And I always give the same answer: “The Holy Land . . .  Brooklyn, NY!” I understand how knowing a person’s hometown can give some insight and understanding of that person. Brooklyn has certainly shaped me in many ways. Nevertheless, where I come from did not identify me as anyone special—it was not a fulfillment of Bible prophecy.

Not so with the birthplace of the Messiah Jesus. His birth in Bethlehem was a fulfillment of prophecy and identified Him as the promised Messiah. Micah foretold from where the Messiah would come, and it was even more than just Bethlehem.

The prophecy of Micah 5:2 reveals three truths about the Messiah’s true origins. Here’s what it says: “Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me. His origin is from antiquity, from eternity.”

To begin, the prophecy reveals that Messiah would come from Bethlehem. It’s specific—not that other Bethlehem that was in the Galilee, but Bethlehem Ephratah, in Judah, David’s hometown. Some have objected that Jesus didn’t really fulfill Bible prophecy but rather, He just set it up. He knew the prophecies and then intentionally did those things predicted by the prophets, to make it look like He was the Messiah. This prophecy shows that this can’t be true. A person can’t choose where he or she will be born. I had no say in Brooklyn as my birthplace anymore than my sister could choose Berlin. But that’s where the Lord determined it for us. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was not manufactured by Him or even His parents—God, in His sovereignty, sent forth His Son, just when a Roman census required Joseph and Mary to travel to their ancient hometown. And just then, in the specific place predicted, Jesus was born not through His own manipulations but as part of God’s plan.

The prophecy also reveals that Messiah was to come from the line of David. It says He was “to be ruler over Israel for me.” The only rightful ruler over Israel, according to 2 Samuel 7:12-16, had to be from the line of David. Jesus was born to a poor Galilean young woman, but both she and her husband were from the line of David. Although born in obscurity, Jesus was born to be the King of Israel.

The most amazing aspect of the prophecy is that it reveals that the Messiah was to come from eternity past. It says “His origin is from antiquity, from eternity.” The literal translation would be that “His goings forth are from the ancient past, from the days of forever.” The Hebrew word translated “goings forth” means “appearances,” meaning that the Messiah actually made appearances in past times. This likely refers to all those times in the Hebrew Bible that God the Son appeared as the Angel of the Lord. The words about the ancient past can mean “long ago”  or “ancient times” like the beginning of creation. It is even used in the Bible for eternity past (Deut 33:27; Hab 1:12). The words “the days of forever” when used in the Hebrew Bible can mean long ago or refer to eternity past. But when “ancient times” and “the days of forever” are used together (as in Prov 8:22-23) these two words always mean eternity past. This is saying that “although the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, He will really come from eternity past,” clearly indicating that this is not just the birth of a special human king, but that this King will be deity, the Eternal One, God in the flesh.

Where you and I come from is significant in that it marks and defines us. But where Messiah Jesus comes from is far more special: it identifies Him as the much longed for Messiah, the King from the line of David, and God in the flesh.

The United States and Jerusalem

For more than 20 years, it has been the policy of the United States government that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that the U.S. embassy should be moved there. However, the U.S. Jerusalem Embassy Act (1995) had a loophole–a waiver that allowed the President to wait for an opportune time to move the embassy. Although the embassy was not moved, the Jerusalem Embassy Act nevertheless remained U.S. law.

So while many Presidents pledged to move the embassy while campaigning for the presidency, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, once elected, the U.S. Embassy remained in Tel Aviv. Even Barack Obama had pledged to keep Jerusalem united as the eternal capital of Israel. Yet he undermined his commitment by failing to veto the 2016 one sided UN resolution that called the existence of Jerusalem’s historic Jewish Quarter “a flagrant violation of international law.”

Yet, on December 6, 2017, current President Donald Trump fulfilled his campaign pledge to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Trump is such a divisive figure, that some, who actually supported the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, have repudiated his recent decision. While the President’s base, some who were not even aware of the Embassy Act, support the decision just because President Trump made it. Both of these approaches are wrong. Support or opposition for a policy should not be determined by partisanship but by the merits of the policy.

Some are indeed sincerely maintaining today that the United States recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is somehow wrongheaded, a break with past United States policy, a threat to end the peace process, and an invitation to violence. To understand the merits of this Jerusalem policy, we need to move from fictional history or conjectures about the future to actual facts and reason. Here is my attempt to give context and clarity to this recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

History

Jerusalem has always been a Jewish city; a fact that is often forgotten. King David made it Israel’s capital 3,000 years ago. Even in the many years of dispersion, Jewish people composed the predominant population of Jerusalem. When the UN partitioned Palestine in 1947, they had the pipedream of making Jerusalem an international city under UN governance. Yet the invasion of Israel by six Arab nations in the 1948 War of Independence included attacking Jerusalem, dividing the city for the next 19 years. The newer section of Jerusalem to the West, outside the ancient walled city, remained in Jewish hands and under Israeli sovereignty. The Jordanian army conquered the Old City and promptly ethnically cleansed it of its Jewish people, razed the Jewish Quarter, destroying synagogues and homes and desecrating ancient Jewish cemeteries. Only in 1967, when the Jordanians attacked Jewish Jerusalem, was Israel able to capture the old city, reunite Jerusalem, and guarantee free access to and protection of all sites, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

With the reestablishment of the ancient Jewish quarter, Israel officially annexed the old City of Jerusalem in 1980. In 1995, both Houses of the United States Congress overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and calling for the U.S. Embassy to be moved there. President Clinton signed the Embassy Act into law but then began signing a waiver every six months, to delay the move until the U.S. President deemed the time appropriate. Each president since then has also issued these same waivers. Nevertheless, U.S. law since 1995 has recognized that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel. Thus, the recent announcement was not a break with United States policy, but the fulfillment of it. Additionally, although most people are not aware of it, Russia recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in April 2017, without any protests or problems in the Arab world.

Reality

As President Trump stated in his announcement, accepting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is merely recognizing reality. Jerusalem has been the capital since the birth of Israel in 1948. It is the seat of Israel’s government, housing the Knesset, the High Court of Justice, and the Prime Minister’s and President’s residences. Moreover, there is no question that whatever is decided about how to share Jerusalem in a possible peace deal with the Palestinians, Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital. This is a reality and not an issue under dispute. Even the United Nations does not anticipate a peace agreement that will ever make Jerusalem an international city. The Palestinian disappointment with President Trump’s decision is rooted in their denial of reality, with their objective that one day Israel will cease to exist and that the Palestinians will take over all of Jerusalem. The United States needs to make policy based on reality, not far fetched fantasies.

Peace Process

Some have objected that the United States recognition of Jerusalem effectively ends the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Apparently, those holding this position are aware of some fictional peace process unknown to the rest of the world. In actuality, the Palestinian Authority have refused to participate in direct peace negotiations for more than ten years. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, rejected a two state solution offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, without even a counter offer. Since then there has been no peace process, despite the best efforts of the United States and Israel’s standing offer to come to the table for negotiations without any preconditions.

Even so, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should not be an impediment to peace negotiations should the Palestinians ever choose to proceed. Clearly, United States recognition of Jerusalem would not inhibit the concerned parties, Israelis and Palestinians, from forging a peace agreement, even with adjustments to Jerusalem’s boundaries as part of it, if necessary.

Not only would United States recognition of Jerusalem not impede a peace agreement, it might actually make it more likely as the history of past advances to the peace process demonstrate. For example, the situation after the first Gulf War, when Yasser Arafat and the PLO stood alone in the Arab World in support of Saddam Hussein’s aggression. After Iraq’s defeat by the U.S. led coalition, the Palestinians found themselves ostracized, alone in the world, without their traditional support. In order to regain support and a place in the Arab world, Arafat and the PLO had to enter into a peace process with Israel, and thus the Oslo Accords were born.

On the other hand, President Obama’s policy of creating daylight between the United States and Israel, resulted in the Palestinians refusing to come to the peace table. If President Obama insisted that Israel stop enlarging settlements as a precondition to peace talks, then how could Mahmoud Abbas be less insistent than the U.S. President? So, although the Palestinians had previously negotiated, regardless of Israel’s settlement policy, after President Obama made his demands, they abandoned peace discussions.

Furthermore, President Obama’s failure to veto the egregious United Nations December 2016 Resolution 2334 against Israel, led the Palestinians to believe that they did not have to make any concessions to achieve their objectives. Resolution 2334 stated that “any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem,” have “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.” This meant that Israel’s restoration of the Jewish quarter, the building of a plaza by the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, and the rebuilding of Jewish homes, was a “flagrant violation of international law.” Why would the Palestinians negotiate for peace if their desired outcomes were already recognized by the United Nations and the United States. However, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital overturns this perception. This decision has demonstrated to the world and the Palestinians that the new U.S. government will not abide with that wrongheaded resolution and that Palestinians will need to negotiate peace to achieve a state. Therefore, the Unites States recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should rejuvenate the presently moribund and failed peace process.

Violence

One serious objection to the United States recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is that it will spark Palestinian violence in Israel and Muslim attacks on U.S. Diplomatic offices in the Arab world. It is feared that U.S. recognition will set the Middle East on fire. However, apart from issues related to Israel and Jerusalem, the Arab World is already aflame. In fact, the history of Palestinian violence demonstrates that some extremist Palestinians do not need a reason to become violent, they just need a pretense. For example, in 1929 some elderly, pious Jewish men put a few chairs besides the Western Wall, so they could sit while praying. The Mufti of Jerusalem called this an attempt to attack the Al Aqsa Mosque and instigated rioting. After killing 17 Jews in Jerusalem, Arab mobs attacked Hebron and killed 67 Jewish men, women and children. By the end of the week, Arab mobs had murdered 133 Jews.

This pattern of violence has been replicated over and over, even when agreements were in place. In 1996, Israel opened the back end of the underground Western Wall tunnels to allow greater flow of tourists through the tunnels. This exit was made only after the Israeli government had negotiated an agreement with the Palestinian Authority to do so. One objective was to bring tourists into the Muslim quarter in order to provide business opportunities for the Palestinian shopkeepers there. Nevertheless, Yasser Arafat, despite his previous agreement, declared that the tunnel opening was an attack on Al Aqsa, encouraging riots against Israeli police and military.

So will there be riots as a result of the recognition decision? Since the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are calling for 3 “days of rage,” it is quite possible. However, it is not likely that the Palestinian people are ready to launch a full scale Intifada, to counter a U.S. decision that will not change any possible final status agreement in any substantive way. There are some 1 to 1 ½ million Palestinians in Israel. It is unlikely that they will want to have their livelihoods and lifestyle, upended by prolonged violence. Moreover, the great problem in the Middle East now is Iranian nuclear ambitions. The new anti-Iranian coalition being forged between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, recognizes the need for Israel to participate. These Arab states will hopefully attempt to influence the Palestinians to abandon violence and enter genuine peace negotiations so that the greatest threat to peace, Iran, can be addressed.

Of course, most important for United States foreign policy, is that it ought to do what is right, regardless of threats of violence or attempts to intimidate. And the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the right thing to do.

The Bible

Does the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have anything to do with the Scriptures? Plainly, it does. It could be said that Jerusalem is God’s capital. Psalm 132:13-14 declares, “For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His home; ‘This is My resting place forever; I will make My home here because I have desired it.’” Not only is it God’s capital but He has given Jerusalem to the Jewish people as their eternal capital. He tells them that He “will establish it forever” (Psalm 48:8). Therefore, Israel is to “Go around Zion, encircle it; count its towers, note its ramparts, tour its citadels” (Psalm 48:12-13). These actions are emblematic of receiving God’s gift of this great city to the Jewish people.

Some have questioned whether the Jewish people are still recipients of the land promises of the Bible’s Abrahamic Covenant and have objected to what they call “territorial theology.” In response, it can be said that to believe that God took His land promise away from the nation He chose is tantamount to calling God unfaithful and a promise breaker. Moreover, it is not a “territorial theology” to recognize God’s promise of land to the Jewish people but a “faithfulness theology.” It is a view of God that understands that Israel’s unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah will not cancel God’s faithfulness (Romans 3:3). In the words of Paul, “God must be true, even if everyone [else] is a liar” (Romans 3:4).

Besides the land promise, there is also biblical prophecy. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital does not add to nor does it diminish the significance of Jerusalem in end of days Bible prophecy. It is this city that one day will become “a cup of staggering for the peoples” and “a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who try to lift it will injure themselves severely when all the nations of the earth gather against her” (Zechariah 12:3-4). At that time, the nation of Israel will finally look to their Messiah to deliver them and He will return to save them from the nations. Then, “the Lord will go out to fight against those nations as He fights on a day of battle” and “His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” providing a way of safety for the Jewish people (Zech 14:3-4). These events remind us it is the same Jewish people who received the promise of Jerusalem and the same Lord who will deliver the city of Jerusalem yet in the future. This is true regardless of any United States recognition of Jerusalem.

Truman’s Example

In 1948, at the end of the British Mandate, Israel was about to declare its independence. At that time, the United States Department of State was squarely opposed to any recognition of Israel by President Harry Truman and tried to influence him against it. Moreover, the greatest ally of the United States, Great Britain, also rejected Israel’s statehood and attempted to convince President Truman from recognizing Israel. Nevertheless, the President directed the United States Ambassador to the UN to grant Israel de facto recognition as soon as word came of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. He did so only because he deemed it the right thing to do.

President Donald Trump has become convinced of recognizing the reality that every state has a right to determine its own capital. Furthermore, it is only appropriate to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the United States’ greatest ally in the Middle East despite the objections of the State Department or the allies of the United States. Regardless of one’s opinion of President Trump, in a manner similar to Harry Truman, the President of the United States has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital because he correctly determined, it was the right thing to do.

The First Good News

The very first prediction of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures is found in Genesis 3:15, a verse that has historically been called, The First Good News.” Since advent season began yesterday, I thought we should take a look at it. And surprisingly, it does NOT predict the birth of the Messiah, but something quite different.

You would think that the first messianic prediction of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, would be about the birth of the Messiah. Not so! When we look at the Hebrew Scriptures and discern what the prophets foretold about the coming Messiah, we see that the very first prediction of Messiah’s coming is about His death.

After Adam and Eve succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation, God gave the very first promise of the Messiah. In Genesis 3:15, speaking to the power behind the Serpent, God says, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike His heel.” This predicts that one day, a descendant of the woman, the Messiah, would strike that Serpent on the head, delivering a death blow. At the same time, the Serpent would strike the Messiah on the heel. The kind of serpent described in this passage always bites with a deadly blow. This verse is saying that in defeating Satan, the power behind the serpent, the Messiah would also die. And that’s exactly what happened.

When Jesus died for us, not only did He take the punishment we deserved, but in dying, He also defeated the enemy of our souls. Hebrews 2:14-15 says that Jesus became a man so that “through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death–that is, the Devil–and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.” Because Jesus died and rose again, we don’t ever need to be fearful, either as we live life in difficult times or even if we are facing death.

This Christmas season, let’s remember that Jesus was born to die. The good news is that in His death, He defeated death and in His resurrection, He gave us new life. For those who trust in Him, that is the best Christmas message ever.

What Thanksgiving is All About

Recently I heard of a family that has a common but meaningful Thanksgiving tradition—they go around their Thanksgiving table and each one states what he or she is most thankful for. The only issue is they don’t want to offend anyone by talking about being thankful to God so they are just generally “Thankful.” To me, that seems to miss the point of Thanksgiving. The holiday was always intended to express our thanks to our Creator.

So I did a word search on my computer Bible program. I punched in the words “give thanks” and I found that the Bible tells us who we should be grateful for. The Scriptures repeatedly uses expressions like, “Give thanks to the LORD” (Psalm 33:2) and “I will give thanks to your name, O LORD” (Psalm 54:6). Also, “We give thanks to You, O God, we give thanks” (Psalm 75:1) and “give thanks to His holy name” (Psalm 97:12).  The New Testament adds more specificity: “We give thanks to the God, the Father of the Lord Jesus the Messiah” (Colossians 1:3). The Bible is clear—our Thanksgiving should not just be a nebulous feeling of gratitude but a clear expression of thanks to our Creator, the God who made us and loves us.

But besides telling us who we should be thankful for, the Bible also tells us why we should be thankful to God. Here are some examples.  We should give thanks to God because “He is good” and “because His faithful love endures forever.” Also “for His wonderful works” (Psalm 107:8, 15) and because God “has answered me” (Psalm 118:21) when I prayed. Other reasons given are for God’s “judgments” (Psalm 119:62) found in the Bible, for God’s “truth” and for God’s “word” (Psalm 138:2), because God forgives and “comfort[s]” (Isaiah 12:1), because God “accomplished wonders” and fulfilled “plans formed long ago.” Psalm 116 is an entire song of Thanksgiving because God spared the psalmist’s life. The apostle Paul adds that we should be thankful to God “for His indescribable gift” a reference to the Lord Jesus and His provision of salvation (2 Cor 9:15). Here’s what the Bible is saying—our thanksgiving to God must be specific and precise. We need to ask what the Lord has done for us and then thank Him for it specifically.

My little word search taught me another aspect of biblical thanksgiving—how we should express our gratitude to God. We need to thank God wholeheartedly (“with all my heart” says the Psalmist, Psalm 9:1), by singing (Psalm 30:12), and by declaring God’s praise “to all generations” (Psalm 79:13). We also thank Him by offering gifts of gratitude or thanksgiving offerings (Psalm 54:6) and by worshiping the Lord in community, what the Psalmist calls “making known His deeds among the peoples” (Psalm 105:1) and praising Him “in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1). Another way to express gratitude is by teaching our own children to give thanks. Hezekiah said, when declaring his gratitude to God, “a father will make your faithfulness known to his children” (Isaiah 38:19). We should take all these specific actions to say thank you to God.

As I read through all these passages, I also learned when I was to be grateful. Repeatedly, the Bible says “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” Paul adds, “in everything give thanks” (1 Thess 5:18) and “we ought always to give thanks” (2 Thess 1:3). From now to eternity, thanksgiving should be on our lips. In good times or bad, in times of plenty or in times of loss, when our lives are terrific or when we are struggling, God remains good and worthy of our gratitude. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is good, because it is good; if bad, because it works in us patience, humility, contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.”

The most interesting lesson I learned from this word search is that thankfulness should not be limited to a specific day or holiday. Rather, a thankful heart needs to be part of who we always are. Let’s not limit our gratitude to Thanksgiving Day but instead give thanks to God every day, especially for His indescribable gift.

Certainties in the Storm

Last week was horrible. It began with the horrific shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs TX and ended with a number of dear friends facing a variety of serious personal difficulties. What can we be sure of when life is so uncertain?

When an angry and wicked man entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX, and then began shooting, he quickly became infamous for the worst mass shooting in Texas history and the worst carnage in a church in US History. By the end of the week, I was told of a number of my dear friends who were facing difficulties: one was facing a cancer diagnosis, another had a baby born with a serious birth defect, another got a pink slip from a job he had held for many years. Obviously, mass murder and these challenges are not parallel. But they have the same effect in many cases—a sense of doom and loss; pain and anguish; and of course, fear of the future. Most of the time, when faced with these issues, people ask me, “Why? Why does God allow this?” But that’s not the question I want to answer. I want to address the question of “What?” When tragedy strikes or when a crisis erupts, what can we be sure of? Of what can we be certain in the storms of life? Psalm 46 provides three absolutes for followers of Jesus, three truths upon which we can rely.

Here is the first. In the storms of life, we can be certain of God’s protection. The first three verses of Psalm 46 read : 1God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble. 2Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, 3though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil.” In the earthquakes of life, times of trouble when the mountains seem to be crashing into the bottom of the sea, Psalm 46 reminds us that the Lord remains our refuge and strength. It is in our relationship with Him that we find safety and security.  Proverbs 18:10 says “The Name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe.” Even when we lose loved ones or face some sort of health crisis or have a tragedy with one of our kids or if we lose a job, it is the Lord who will always be there, providing protection for us, if we’ll run to Him.

Second, in the storms of life, we can be certain of God’s presence.  Verses 4-7 depict a crisis in the city of Jerusalem as it is besieged by enemies, looking to destroy the city. Here’s what the Psalmist says: “4There is a river—its streams delight the city of God, the holy dwelling place of the Most High. 5God is within her; she will not be toppled. God will help her when the morning dawns. 6Nations rage, kingdoms topple; the earth melts when He lifts His voice. 7The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” There is peace in the midst of all this turmoil, not because the crisis is gone, but because the Lord is present in the storm. In the same way, in the middle of our personal earthquakes, we can have peace because of God’s presence. Sometimes, though, it is only afterwards that we see that God was always with us—as the Psalmist says, it becomes clear “When morning dawns.”

I love the scene in the book, The Horse and His Boy from The Chronicles of Narnia when a young orphan named Shasta feels that every bad misfortune possible has fallen upon him and from the darkness of the fog, Aslan explains: “I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice. “Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta. “There was only one lion.” said the Voice. “What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two lions the first night, and -” “There was only one, but he was swift of foot.” “How do you know?” “I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you as you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.” Aslan was always with Shasta, just as the Lord Jesus is always with us. Sometimes we don’t learn what His presence meant for us until afterwards, but He is there, working all things for our good. So we can be confident and peaceful in the midst of the storm.

Here is the third truth of which we can be sure: In the storms of life, we can be certain of God’s power. Listen to Psalm 46:8-11: 8Come, see the works of the Lord, who brings devastation on the earth. 9He makes wars cease throughout the earth. He shatters bows and cuts spears to pieces; He burns up the chariots. 10“Stop your striving—and know that I am God, exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.” 11The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” The psalmist reminds us that God is powerful, even more powerful than the earthquakes. In fact, He is the one who makes the earthquakes. He can overrule enemies besieging a city and bring peace. In the same way, He can bring the storms to an end or empower us to endure the earthquakes. Therefore, we can stop striving, and trust Him.

More than anything, Psalm 46 says this to followers of the Lord Jesus: When facing the earthquakes of life, the Lord alone is our stability. We can be secure in the storm, because God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.

The Justice of the Balfour Declaration

Today is Balfour Shabbat in Great Britain, when synagogues all over the United Kingdom will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. What was this declaration and why are Jewish people around the world remembering it?

Last Thursday was the actual anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a decision that was foundational in the ultimate establishment of the modern State of Israel. On November 2, 1917, the British cabinet under the leadership of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, endorsed the idea of a Jewish National Home in what was then called Palestine, or the biblical land of Israel. Issued by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, it took the form of a letter to a member of the British House of Lords and a leader of Great Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Walter Rothschild. Years later, both Lloyd George and Balfour testified that the meaning of the phrase, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” was intended to express the government’s approval of a state for the Jewish people.

The Balfour Declaration was issued at the height of World War 1, at a point when Great Britain had yet to conquer Palestine. Yet at that time, Great Britain had secured support for their declaration from all their allies including France and the United States. Once they conquered Palestine, the League of Nations formally approved the Balfour Declaration, writing its words into the Council of San Remo in 1920 and the 1922 League of Nations Mandate to Great Britain. With these two actions, the League of Nations granted the British the mandate to govern Palestine only on the condition that they use their governance to create a state for the Jewish people. These were significant actions because they gave, what had been the policy of the British nation, the force of international law. In the next 22 years, every time the British tried to renege on the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations intervened and forced the British government to honor its commitments.

The Balfour Declaration has become controversial in recent years, with anti-Israel activists questioning its justice. They frequently cite Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice and only justice, you shall pursue.” Here are several reasons the Balfour Declaration was just.

First, the Balfour Declaration recognized the need to provide the Jewish people a sanctuary from hatred. Jewish history in Europe had been tragically filled with anti-Semitism and Lloyd George and Balfour wanted to provide a place where Jewish people could live without persecution. Sadly, World War 2 and the Holocaust demonstrated how necessary this was. Had their vision been fulfilled, perhaps 6 million Jewish people would not have been murdered.

Second, the Balfour Declaration allowed the Jewish people to return to their ancient homeland. In fact, the League of Nations mandates commission cited this as one of their bases for adopting the Balfour Declaration. It was an act of justice to return the Jewish people to their land from which they had been forcibly removed. This was the land God promised the Jewish people in the Abrahamic Covenant, “I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing–all the land of Canaan–as an eternal possession, and I will be their God.” (Gen 17:7-8).

Third, the Balfour Declaration was just because it was guided by biblical prophecy. Both Lloyd George and Balfour believed that Bible foretold the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. As Christian restorationists, they believed they were fulfilling the biblical prophecy of Ezekiel 36:24, “For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land.”

Fourth, the Balfour Declaration provided justice for all the inhabitants of Palestine. Although Palestine was sparsely populated when the Balfour Declaration was issued, the declaration was still concerned with the rights of the Arab populace. So in 1922, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, took the Eastern 2/3 of the Palestine mandate and created Transjordan (today’s Jordan) as an Arab State. Then in 1947 and several times subsequently, the land was partitioned to provide yet another Arab State, a state which the local Arab population has repeatedly rejected. Moreover, all the Arab citizens of Israel have full and equal citizenship rights in the State of Israel, the nation that was established as a result of the Balfour Declaration.

It’s miraculous today to see what was accomplished through the vision of two political leaders who understood the Scriptures and cared for the Jewish people. It’s right that Jewish people are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and that British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that Great Britain is “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel.” All of us should celebrate the Balfour Declaration as an expression of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

To Treat or Not To Treat

Halloween is coming up, with its emphasis on witches and warlocks and ghosts and ghouls. Should we let our kids dress up and go trick or treating? Many people have a perception of Halloween that is linked to the occult, to witches and ghosts and all sorts of evil that is forbidden of followers of Jesus. Yet there are parents and grandparents, who love and obey Jesus, and still let their small children dress up in costumes and go door to door to trick or treat. Isn’t this terribly wrong? What are they doing?

Well, to answer that I need to go back a couple of thousand years to Greco-Roman paganism. At that time, when sacrifices were offered to pagan gods, the better parts of the animal sacrifice were eaten at special banquets or sold in the market place. For some Jesus followers in those days, the origin of the meat made it unacceptable for them to join such a banquet in a pagan temple or even to buy this meat from a local market or to eat “Zeusburgers” somewhere else, because of the taint of paganism. This issue was more troubling than Halloween and Paul answered it this way: “About eating food offered to idols then, we know that ‘an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but One’” (1 Cor 8:4). So, if someone chose to go to a banquet where meat that had been offered to idols was served or if they wanted to go to Zeus’ butcher shop, that was a neutral issue, not one that was right or wrong. The only limitation would be not participating in the pagan worship or sacrifice itself (1 Cor 10:19-20).

The point is that all parts of paganism, like idolatry, are forbidden. But practices associated with it, like eating meat sacrificed to idols, are not pagan in and of themselves. The pagan roots should not necessarily affect the practice of eating the meat. And that leads me back to trick or treating.

It’s absolutely essential that followers of Jesus have nothing to do with any kind of occult beliefs associated with Halloween. But remember this, if there are two things little kids love, it’s dressing up in costumes and eating candy. So why rob them of their joy? I always felt it was ok to let my kids dress up in costumes. They went out as puppies, or cowboys, or newsboy or Superman or Batman or Zorro or whatever fun idea they had, but never any costume associated with the occult. Then we walked to our neighbors houses who “oohed” and “ahhed” at their costumes and gave them candy. Afterwards all the candy went into a huge jar and their Mom strictly limited the intake of candy so as not to have wild kids buzzing around our house with a sugar high. The candy jar seemed to last for months.

Someone might object that there are people who don’t have the freedom that Eva and I felt about this. Paul also wrote about them in 1 Corinthians 8:9-10, saying, “But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you . . . won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols?” Paul goes on to say he would limit his own liberty rather than cause a fellow believer to act against their conscience and thereby make them fall (1 Cor 8:11-13).

If I thought that letting my kids trick or treat would force people to take their kids out to engage in some sort of occult practice, then I would limit my liberty as well. But, the people who might not like trick or treating would never do it themselves; they’ll just be annoyed that I did it with my kids. The biblical concept of stumbling has to do with causing people to engage in behavior that is contrary to their consciences. It is not simply annoying them. Think about how many people the Lord Jesus annoyed with his practices and associations. They complained that “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:34). There is a big difference between stumbling people and annoying them.

So this Halloween, dress your kids up as a hippo or a hero or whatever they like (as long as it’s not occultic). Then get some candy from the neighbors, take pictures, have a party and remember to enjoy your kids and let them enjoy the fun of Halloween.

The Tragedy of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. Next week we’ll be commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But for now, I want to address the most difficult aspect of the Reformation for me—Martin Luther’s unexpected anti-Semitism.

Most people are surprised to hear of Martin Luther’s hatred of the Jewish people. Here’s what he wrote in his book, Of the Jews and their Lies (1543). “What then shall we Christians do with this damned rejected race of Jews, since they live among us and we know about their lying and blaspheming and curses? We cannot tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses and blasphemy. We must set their synagogues on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it . . . in order that God may see that we are Christians. Their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed . . . They should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds, in which idolatry, lies, cursings, and blasphemy are taught . . . their Rabbis must be forbidden to teach on pain of death. Let us drive them out of the country for all  time, for . . . God’s rage is so great against them that they only become worse through mild  mercy and not much better with severe mercy. Therefore, away with them.”

These words are contrary to what Luther had written 20 years earlier in his book, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew. In that work, he called for sympathy, love and concern for Jewish people. His goal was to win them to faith in Jesus and join his Reformation. However, the Jewish community responded by saying, now that you’ve rid yourselves of all the traditions of the Church, why not abandon the One that they’re all based on, Jesus. This infuriated Luther and caused him to turn on the Jewish people, proving that his previously professed concern for Jewish people was merely manipulation. True love would be unconditional.

So what should we do with Luther, since he is such a hero of the Reformation and the man who recovered the doctrine of justification by faith? In a recent blog titled Luther’s Jewish Problem, posted on the Gospel Coalition website, Pastor Bernard Howard gives three suggestions.

First,  Luther’s anti-Semitism should be acknowledged without qualification. Howard notes that often Luther’s hostility is recognized but then rationalized. I have found the same to be true. One professor I know states that Luther was justified in his hostility. He claims Luther’s words are not anti-Semitic but merely an expression of theological hostility. In his view, this is justified because Jewish people are closed to the gospel. The theological rationalization is patently false because Luther expressed ethnic hatred even to Jewish children who had not yet come to a theological perspective. This is distinct from Luther’s expressions of hostility to Roman Catholic clergy but not to Roman Catholic laymen. With Catholics he distinguished between the deceivers and the deceived—not so with Jewish people. All Jews were condemned.

Then I’ve heard, “Sure, Luther hated the Jews. But Luther hated everyone that opposed him.” Yet his hatred of Jews seemed distinct, since he even hated Jews who did not yet have a chance to disagree with him. Another rationalization is that Luther was just a product of his times, so he didn’t know any better. Yet, since his previous tract expressed such love and concern for the Jewish people, he surely did know better. Yet another rationalization of Luther’s hatred is to say look how successful Jewish people are—Luther didn’t do such damage. Yet when we realize that the Nazis honored Luther and saw his anti-Semitism as foundational to their views, we realize how damaging Luther indeed was. So, when we recognize Luther’s hatred of the Jewish people, let’s not rationalize it away.

Second, Pastor Howard suggests, Luther’s anti-Semitism should—as far as possible—be understood. This means recognizing that Luther, although a profound theological thinker and a brave defender of the gospel, still was fallen. A number of years ago, a rabbinical student spoke with me and based his objection to the gospel on Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism. Then he said, “I suppose you’ll say that Luther wasn’t a real Christian.” My response was, “Of course Luther was a genuine Christian. But the Bible teaches even genuine Christians struggle with sin, have blind spots and need to repent.” Luther’s anti-Semitism was a reflection of his depravity. It was Luther’s sinful nature that caused his hatred of the Jewish people.

Third, Howard proposes that Luther’s anti-Semitism should indeed harm his reputation. Certainly Luther should be honored for what he accomplished. Nevertheless, we need to see him not as a perfect hero but a deeply flawed one. His work in the Reformation should be commemorated but his life should not be celebrated. Pastor Howard states this better than anyone when he writes:Luther is to me both hero and anti-hero; both liberator and oppressor. Spiritually speaking, he has been my teacher, but in relation to my family he has acted as persecutor. Soon after Kristallnacht (when the Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues and businesses), Bishop Martin Sasse published a tract titled Martin Luther on the Jews: Away with Them! Sasse quoted from Luther’s 1543 writings and argued Luther’s goal was finally being achieved. Through Sasse and others, Luther’s name and work were used to prepare the ground for the Holocaust, in which my own great-grandmother was murdered and my great-uncle and great-aunt were brutally incarcerated. The Holocaust was fully underway by 1943—exactly 400 years after Luther shut his ears to the Bible and unleashed his anti-Semitic furies.” I fully agree with Howard and I identify with the loss of his family. I lost my four half-brothers and my half-sister. I lost my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Both my parents were slaves in Nazi concentration camps. This suffering can in a sense be attributed to the foundation of German anti-Semitism laid by Martin Luther. How can anyone think that this should not harm his reputation?

Luther gloriously understood justification by faith as revealed in Romans 4-5. Sadly he misunderstood or ignored God’s faithful love for the Jewish people and God’s eternal choice of them despite their unbelief as revealed in Romans 9-11. As we commemorate Reformation 500, it’s crucial to remember all the truths taught in the book of Romans, the truths Martin Luther recognized and the truths he ignored as well.

Mourning When Disaster Strikes

Disaster and death have filled the last six weeks. There have been natural disasters like hurricanes in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and a major earthquake in Mexico. In recent days we’ve watched in horror as California burns. Besides the terrible toll of homes and businesses destroyed, 34 people have died in the flames. Beyond these natural disasters, there was the horrific human evil of the shooting in Las Vegas, with over 500 wounded and 59 murdered, the largest mass shooting in US history.

Of course, when disasters strike, I’m often asked a variety of questions, like, why did God allow that? Or what should we do for the surviving victims? A question that is not so common is, how should those of us who are observing these events express our sorrow. That’s what I want to focus on today—what does Scripture teach about how to mourn for these tragic events?

We should begin by identifying with those who suffer. Romans 12:15 says we should “weep with those who weep.” We need to feel the pain and suffering of each sufferer. We ought to stand with the people of Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, Mexico and California in their times of pain. We need to identify with the anguish of Las Vegas. We who love the Lord must take the time to stand in sympathy with those who suffered these awful losses and pain.

Second, we should cry out to the Lord. This is not only a time of sorrow, but a time of  prayer. So many verses tell us to cry out to the Lord in our pain: Psalm 18:6 says “I called to the LORD in my distress, and I cried to my God for help.” Psalm 50:15 says “Call on Me in a day of trouble; I will rescue you, and you will honor Me.” Psalm 86:7 declares “I call on You in the day of my distress, for You will answer me.” Also Psalm 120:1 similarly says, “In my distress I called to the LORD, and He answered me.” If there is one lesson to be learned from the Psalms it’s this: When we see or experience the horrors and pain of this evil world, we shouldn’t run further from God but turn closer to Him in prayer. Sometimes it’s these kinds of evil events that turns our hearts to God more than any other kind of experience. We need to be praying for those who have suffered and asking God to send deliverance.

Besides identifying and praying, a third suggestion is to spend time reading God’s Word.  This is what Psalm 119:50 says: “This is my comfort in my affliction, That Your word has revived me.” In my life, whenever I’ve had to deal with life threatening fears, with heartbreaking loss, with the tragic death of loved ones, I have found turning to God’s Word, the Bible, especially the Psalms, has been my true source of comfort.

And finally, after identifying with those who suffer, crying out to God, and drawing comfort from His Word, we need to trust that God will bring comfort. One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 34, says in verse 18 “The LORD is near the brokenhearted; He saves those crushed in spirit.” Here’s what we believe—that God is present with those who suffer, that He is near us when we humbly cry out to Him, and that He will answer us with His supernatural comfort.

Dorothy Sayers once said, “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine . . . . He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death.” Whatever else we can say, we know this: that Jesus, the man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief, truly understands our heartbreak right now.