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God’s Guidance for Rest

Are you a workaholic? Think about these questions: Do you get up early, no matter how late you went to bed? Do you work while you eat lunch? Do you work on weekends and holidays? Do you find it hard to take a vacation? If you answered yes to these questions, you may be a workaholic.

Someone once defined workaholism as an addiction to work rather than results. Then again, there are many results oriented people who always can find something else that needs to get done. Sometimes we think, well, what’s so bad about working hard? And the answer is, nothing; it’s commendable. But an addiction to work is dangerous. At our jobs, workaholism makes us less productive. Dr. Charles Garfield of the University of California said, “The workaholic never makes the discovery, writes the position paper, or becomes the CEO.” In our homes, it leads to failed relationships, alienated children, even divorce. Workaholism creates havoc for our own well being, producing physical exhaustion, emotional burnout, alcoholism, and even heart attacks. Workaholism also keeps us from giving God the worship and reasonable service due Him.

Why do some of us work so much? For any number of reasons, including our own self-expectations, or to build our own self-esteem, or because of employer expectations. Whatever the cause, it’s hurting us.

But what about the rest of us—those who aren’t workaholics? There still seems to be a problem. Considering that we in the United States spend more money on leisure and recreation each year than on education, new home construction, and national defense combined, then why is everyone still so tired? The reason for all these problems is that we are neglecting God’s guidance for rest.

A few weeks back we began looking at Ten Words that Will Change Our Lives. We’re examining what the Bible calls, “The Ten Words” or what most English translations call “The Ten Commandments.” And the 4th word is “Rest.”

Exodus 20:8-10 (GNT) reads: “Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. You have six days in which to do your work,  but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work.” People are sometimes confused about this word from God. Sometimes people think we are still obligated to keep Sabbath as Israel did. Others think all the Sabbath laws have been transferred to Sunday. And still others think, since this is the only one of the 10 Words not repeated in the New Testament, there is no need to take a day of rest–we are free to work 7 days a week, in essence to become workaholics with God’s approval.

But let’s understand Sabbath law as it is in the Bible. First, at creation, God set an example for humanity by resting on the 7th day (Gen 2:2-3). After creating the world, it’s not as if God was tired. Omnipotence knows no fatigue; Omniscience does not run out of ideas. Rather, God was modeling for us what we need—to rest from our labors.

Second, at Mt. Sinai, God gave Israel a command to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-17). For the first time, Israel, living as a theocracy under God was to obey Him by keeping the Sabbath.

Third, with the New Covenant, God established a principle of rest for all of us. By not repeating the command and by warning us not to let anyone judge us with regard to Sabbath observance (Col 2:16), it becomes clear that we are not necessarily to keep Sabbath as Israel did. Rather we need to listen to Paul’s explanation in Romans 14:5: “One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind.” The point is, it doesn’t matter what day we chose to take as our rest day. But we must remember the principle that goes back all the way to the beginning of the Bible—the need to rest one day a week.

There are three reasons this is so crucial. First, we need one day a week to rejuvenate ourselves. Our bodies grow weary and our emotions grow strained during the week. We need a day to renew our strength and relieve our stress. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while” (Mark 6:31).

Second, we need one day a week to remember our God. Taking a rest reminds us of our Creator, who rested after finishing the creation (Ex 31:17). It also recalls our Redeemer, who delivered us, “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to keep the [Rest] day” (Deut 5:15).

Third,  we need one day a week to renew our spirits. Just as a compass needs to be recalibrated periodically to keep it pointing in the right direction, so we need recalibration on weekly basis to keep us balanced. We need a day for worship with others, an additional appointment with God for some extended alone time, or a day for a more in-depth study of the Bible. We may need some time to listen to beautiful music, to ride bikes with our spouses, play catch with our kids, or even just to watch a ball game with some friends. All these will help us recover from the strains of the past week and prepare us for the challenges that are still ahead.

In 1793, after the French Revolution, the government of France got rid of the Sabbath and established the ten day week. By 1802, this experiment had failed so dramatically that the traditional seven day week was restored. Also, after the Russian Revolution, the new Soviet Union adopted a five day week, then a six day week but neither worked well—they finally had to restore the traditional seven day week. A seven day week is part of the creation order that God established, and part of that order is no more than six days of work and then one day of rest. We neglect God’s principle of rest at our physical, emotional and spiritual peril.

 

What’s In a Name?

So what’s in a name? How significant is it that God revealed His name and expects His people to live up to it? Names are a serious business. Whether it’s choosing the name of a child, even of a pet, we had better remember how important it is. It’s because names should reflect who we are and what’s in our hearts.  Well God chose to reveal His name to Israel and then told them to respect it. That’s because respect for God’s name reflects our respect, our reverence for God Himself.

A couple of weeks back we began looking at Ten Words that Will Change Our Lives. We’re examining what the Bible calls, The Ten Words or what most English translations call the Ten Commandments. The first word that we talked about was Believe as in Believe in the One true God! And the second word was prioritize, remember to put the Lord first in everything. And today, we’ll look at the third word to change our lives: Respect!

Exodus 20:7 reads, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” To take God’s name in vain means to take it lightly, as nothing, as insignificant. Well if we’re NOT to take God’s name lightly, then obviously, we need to take God’s name seriously. We should show God the respect and honor due Him, by respecting His name.

So how do we misuse God’s name? How do we take it lightly? One way we misuse God’s name is by swearing. This may include swearing falsely, like taking an oath in God’s name to tell the truth and then telling a lie. Or it might be swearing an oath in God’s name lightly, without thinking about it or truly meaning what we’re swearing. If we swear in God’s name, God expects our words to be faithful and true. By the way, the Lord Jesus said that our words should be faithful and true even without swearing, that our yes should be yes, and our no, no (Matt 5:37). We also misuse God’s name by using it irreverently, as an exclamation. People tend to shout God’s name as casually and thoughtlessly as Homer Simpson exclaiming, Doh! Another misuse of God’s name is cursing in His name or using His name insincerely. What I mean by using God’s name insincerely is when we say “God led me” or “God’s will for me” and what we really mean is, “This what I want to do but I’m making it sound spiritual.”

So how can we show respect for God’s name? To begin, we can show respect for God’s name by reverencing His name, ascribing glory and honor to His name and thereby, to glorify and honor Him. That’s what Psalm 29:1-2 means when it says, “Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty, Ascribe to the LORD, glory and strength, Ascribe to the LORD, the glory due His Name, Worship the LORD in the splendor of His holiness.”

A second way we can show respect for God’s name is by relying on it. We can depend on His name for security. As Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower, the righteous runs into it and is safe.” Another way to rely on God’s name is for joy. It says in Psalm 33:21, “In Him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in His holy name.” And most importantly, we can rely on His name for redemption. Acts 4:12 tells us, “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” It is only in Jesus’ name that we are forgiven and become part of God’s family.

Besides reverencing God’s name and relying on it, a third way to show respect for God’s name is by representing God’s name well. That’s why Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). Wherever we go, whatever we do, remember we represent the Lord Jesus. We are acting in His name.

I heard a professor of mine tell a story of a time, when as a teenager, he stole a car. After being caught by the police and having his dad called to come and get him from the station, this prof of mine said he then had to face the really scary part of this story, he had to face his dad. What his dad told him actually changed his life. He said, “Son, you carry my name. Either change your name or change your behavior.” Remember, as followers of the Lord Jesus, we bear His name. Let’s reflect that in all we do, and then we’ll be showing God’s name the respect it deserves.

Putting God First

Does life seem out of balance? Are you confused about what you should be doing?  Do you freeze when you need to make a decision? A.W. Tozer once said, “When we take to ourselves the place that is God’s, the whole course of our lives will be out of joint.” That’s why we feel out of balance. It’s why we become confused and conflicted when we need to make a decision. The key to resolving all this is to get our priorities in order.

Last week we began looking at Ten Words that Will Change Our Lives. We’re examining what the Bible calls, The Ten Words or what most English translations call the Ten Commandments. The first word that we talked about was Believe (Exodus 20:2)! The second word, that we’ll look at today, is prioritize! The passage it’s from is Exodus 20:3-6, which says, Do not have other gods besides Me. Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth ëgenerationsû of those who hate Me but showing faithful love to a thousand ëgenerationsû of those who love Me and keep My commands.

These verses are about getting our priorities in order, and there are three steps we need to take to do that. The first is, Put God first in our lives. Israel’s great temptation would be to take the false gods of Canaan, and put them before the one true God. Therefore, God commanded them, “Do not have other gods besides (or before) me.” So often we struggle with a list of priorities, God, family, faith community, service, job. I think a better way is not to make a list and put God at the top of it but to put the Lord first in every aspect of our lives.  To see what I mean, think of the word, FIRST. We must put God first in our Families, at the top of our Interests, at the head of our Relationships, of most importance in our Schedule, and the One we turn to first when we are in Trouble. Instead of making a list, think of life as a bicycle wheel with God as the hub. He is in the center, and all the spokes of life emanate from Him, giving the Lord our first priority in life.

Second, if we want to bring order to our lives, we need to reject all substitutes for God. So Israel was commanded “Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.” These are all God substitutes. They used to be Baal, Mammon, and Molech but today they consist of stuff, or work, or technology. Idols are appealing because we think we can tame them and make them do whatever we want. But, as C.S. Lewis remarked about the Christ figure in the Narnia Chronicles, “Aslan is not a tame lion.”

What’s so bad about God substitutes? Scripture says they will damage us in three ways: They will deceive us (Jeremiah 10:14 says “molten images are deceitful”), they will dominate us (1 Cor 12:2 says “you were led astray by dumb idols”), and they will destroy us (Psalm 115:8 says, “those who make [idols] will become like them”). This is the nature of addictions, whether to controlled substances, pornography, our even the internet. Addictions, our form of idolatry deceive, dominate and ultimately destroy us. That’s why, for an ordered life, we must reject all God substitutes.

And finally, to have an ordered life, we must worship God alone. This text says, “You must not bow down to them[God substitutes] or worship them.”  Why, because God is passionate about us (that’s what it means when it says He is “a jealous God.” He is also just in punishing sin (so that the consequences of sin affect generation after generation). Most importantly, God is loving, showing faithful love to a thousand generations.

Haddon Robinson once pointed out that one old recipe for rabbit stew started out with this injunction: “First catch the rabbit.” Says Robinson: “The writer knew how to put first things first. That’s what we do when we establish priorities — we put the things that should be in first place in their proper order.” So what’s the second word that will change our lives? Prioritize! Put the Lord Jesus first in our lives, rejecting all substitutes and worshiping only Him.

Has Science Buried Faith in God?

Has the New Atheism dealt a death blow to God? Has faith in God been buried by science? As I walk in my neighborhood,  signs are popping up that affirm what the various homeowners believe. One of the frequent signs declares “I believe in Science,” implying that faith in science somehow contradicts faith in God. This is the message of scientist Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion. Recently I’ve been reading a terrific book by Oxford University Mathematics and Science Professor John C. Lennox, called God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? One of the helpful points he makes is that the issue should not be framed as believing in Science vs believing in God, but rather as two different world views, that both believe in science. We either believe in materialism or naturalism or we believe in theism or God. Again, both views believe in science. And while I can’t reiterate everything Lennox has to say in critiquing the new atheism or affirming faith in God, one of my favorites is a quote he takes from Dawkins’ book and his response. Dawkins has dedicated his book to Doug Adams who said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies living at the bottom of it?” Lennox responds by saying, “Dawkins is guilty of committing the error of proposing false alternatives by suggesting it is either fairies or nothing. Fairies at the bottom of the garden may well be a delusion, but what about a gardener, to say nothing about an owner? The possibility of their existence cannot be so summarily dismissed—in fact, most gardens have both.”

All this to say, this is the first of 10 blog posts from what the Bible calls The Ten Words, or what most English translations call The Ten Commandments. I like to think of them as Ten Words that Will Change Our Lives. And the first word from God is found in Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.”

There is no explicit commandment in this verse–but an expectation to believe in the Lord our God. So the first word that will change our lives is “Believe!” Our very first priority is to believe in God and acknowledge who He is. In fact, this verse identifies seven areas of His character that we’re to believe in.

  1. We must believe in the person of God. The verse begins with “I.” God is not an “it” but a person with being and mind and heart and will.
  2. We must believe in the eternality God.  He say “I am the LORD,” using His name Yahweh, indicating His eternal nature (“I am who I am” Ex 3:14). He has no beginning or end; He was never weak or dependent; He did not grow in His ability nor will He ever decline in strength. God does not have good days or bad days. The Lord is as He always was and always will be.
  1. We must believe in the all-powerful God. He is the Lord our “God.” The Hebrew name Elohim was used in Gen 1:1 (In the beginning God [Elohim] created) showing His strength and power.
  1. We must believe in the relational God. It says I am the Lord “your” God. The word “your” is actually singular showing that God relates to us as individuals.
  1. We must believe in the redemptive God. The text says He redeemed Israel from Egypt and from slavery. All people are enslaved even now, we’re slaves to sin. And through the death and resurrection of our Passover lamb Jesus, He has redeemed us from slavery to sin.
  1. We must believe in the compassionate God. Why did God redeem Israel? Because He observed their misery and heard their cries (Ex 3:7-8). God has the same compassion on us so He redeemed us as well.
  1. We must believe in the sovereign God. God has the authority to issue a proclamation such as the Ten Words, including this blog post about who He is.

Believe. That’s the first word and it teaches us our first priority in life–to believe in and acknowledge the God who loved us and redeemed us.

How to Be a Supermom

In Jewish tradition, Mother’s Day is a weekly event. Every Friday night, Jewish husbands return from synagogue to celebrate Sabbath, and begin by singing Proverbs 31 to their wives, the biblical text about the woman of valor, or the woman of noble character. Each week, Jewish families honor the value of a godly mother.

Although that’s the indispensable tradition in which I was raised, I was wondering, what does the New Testament add to our understanding of godly motherhood? It doesn’t teach that oms must be perfect or outdo Martha Stewart at home. But it does reveal these two principles of how to be a supermom. They are both from 2 Timothy and relate to Timothy’s mom.

First, supermoms model faith for their kids.
In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul is in the midst of thanking God and he explicitly mentions that he is grateful because he clearly recalls Timothy’s, “sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois, then in your mother Eunice, and that I am convinced is in you also.” Timothy’s grandmother and mother practiced generational discipleship—the transference of faith in the Messiah Jesus from one generation to the next. Godly moms need to have their own genuine faith walk with Messiah Jesus and they will become godly role models for their kids.

Remember more is caught than explicitly taught. All kids want to be like their parents, carefully observing them and then emulating them. That’s why little girls want to dress up in Mom’s clothes or where their makeup. It’s why little boys want to cook or bake with Mom. My boys, when they were small, had a little broom that they used to sweep the floor, when their mom would sweep the kitchen. This role modeling grows. so that the role of godly motherhood extends beyond common chores to exemplifying a daily walk with God.

In my life, I always remember my own Mom’s faith and obedience to God in the midst of adversity. She remained devoted to the Lord, even during her time in a Nazi concentration camp. So when I face difficult times, I remember how my Mom dealt with adversity, and she remains a role model for me. I also remember, how, as she entered her senior years, even in poor health, she practiced hospitality, opening her home, caring for fellow believers, especially those who needed a place to stay or a meal. That remains a godly example to me.

Second, supermoms teach the Scriptures to their kids.
In 2 Timothy 3:14-15, Paul tells Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned, and that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Messiah Jesus.” Obviously, Paul had taught the Scriptures to Timothy. But that’s not where Timothy’s biblical education began. It started with his mom—that’s how Timothy knew God’s word since childhood.

It is so crucial for moms to teach their kids. Moms begin with story books and songs, and as kids mature, it should proceed to daily time in the Word of God with their kids.  My wife Eva is the ultimate example of this. She has taught our now adult sons so much. She has taught them to love old movies, Shakespeare’s plays, the beauty of plants and trees, the wonder of wildlife. She has given them many lessons, but most of all, she has taught them the Scriptures. She read them Bible books, taught their Bible classes at congregation (along with lots of other kids), discussed the Word around the dinner table, and lived it before them every day.

Just a word of encouragement to moms whose kids may be off the track right now. Remember, if you modeled faith and taught the Scriptures to your kids, you’ve done your part. Now let the Lord do His part. He cares for our children more than we ever will. He’ll bring them back to Himself.

Did Jesus Go to Hell?

Where did the Lord Jesus’ spirit go between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday? Did the Lord Jesus at His death descend to Hell, preach there, and then get resurrected? Did Jesus go to hell?

The reason I raise this subject is that just before the Holiday Weekend and just after, I get repeated emails about this question. Someone raises a particular verse and I answer it, so another listener sends a second passage with a question, and I answer that one, only to lead to yet another question about some passage regarding this issue. So, since there are numerous people calling or writing about this, I thought I’d just start today with a more complete response, and then I’ll wait to next Spring, if the Lord does not return first, to answer the many questions about this that will continue to come in. So, did Jesus go to Hell?

The idea that the Lord Jesus went to hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection, frequently called “the harrowing of hell” has been believed since ancient times. In fact, the Apostle’s Creed seems to teach it when it says, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead.”

Yet, the Scriptures teach that when the physical body of the Lord Jesus died, His spirit went to His Father immediately. A verse that supports this is Luke 23:43, where Jesus assures the criminal on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Another one is Luke 23:46, which records the Lord Jesus’ words at the point of death, saying, “ Father, into your hands I entrust my Spirit” not “Father, I’m now going to Hell.”

The belief in the harrowing of hell is based on the misinterpretation of several passages. For example, Ephesians 4:9 says that the Lord Jesus “descended to the lower parts of the earth.” The phrase “of the earth” is what Greek grammarians call a “genitive of apposition.” As such, the phrase should be understood as saying that theLord Jesus “descended to the lower parts, even the earth.” So it’s referring to the incarnation, when the Son of God became a man, not a descent to Hell.

A second misunderstood passage is 1 Peter 3:19-20 which says that “He went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah.” These verses are not talking about the Lord Jesus preaching in hell. Rather, the passage actually refers to the Son of God preaching through Noah, in the past to people who were alive in the days of Noah. When they rejected Noah’s message, they became “spirits who are now in prison.” They were disobedient in Noah’s day, the eternal Son of God, through Noah, gave them a message to repent, they rejected it, and they are now “spirits in prison” awaiting final judgment.

A third passage, John 20:17,  records  Jesus words to Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me (some versions say ‘do not touch me’) for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” This isn’t saying that Jesus’ spirit had not yet been to His Father, but rather, that Mary should stop clinging to the Lord Jesus because His bodily ascension was yet future. Once she had recognized that it was her resurrected Lord, she became so excited, that she grabbed a hold of Him and was not letting go. In other words, Jesus is saying, you can let go of me, Mary. I will be with you for the next 40 days because I have not yet made my final ascension to the Father (cf. Acts 1:9-11).

There is no biblical basis for believing in the harrowing of hell. Even the earliest versions of the Apostle’s Creed did not include the phrase, “He descended to Hell.” And a church I recently visited, that recites the Apostle’s Creed weekly, had an asterisk next to the phrase saying, “this means ‘Jesus descended to death not that He went to Hell.’” Theologian Wayne Grudem, says that the only argument supporting the harrowing of hell “seems to be that it has been around so long. But an old mistake is still a mistake.”

The State of Israel: Modern Miracle or Quirk of History?

“A quirk of history???” Although many Bible believers consider the Jewish State of Israel to be a modern miracle, one leading theologian has maintained that Israel is totally insignificant—It is, in his words, “a quirk of history.”

Israel will celebrate its 69th Birthday this upcoming Tuesday. David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel and father of the modern state, said “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles!” After more than 2,000 years since the Jewish loss of independence, the long term dispersion of the Jewish people around the globe, and the relatively recent horror of the Holocaust, it seems to be a miracle that there is once again a Jewish state in fulfillment of Bible prophecy.

Yet, some people object that Israel is a secular state—that the majority of Israelis are quite irreligious and not even observant Jews. And the 25% of its citizens that are orthodox Jews and do believe in God, do not yet believe in Jesus. Of course, there is a strong remnant of Jewish followers of Jesus in the land today. But they are a miniscule minority. So, people object to me, how can you believe that the restoration of Israel today is a work of God and not of secular humans?

There’s much to be said, and I’d recommend my book, Understanding the Arab Israeli Conflict: What the Headlines Haven’t Told You if you’d like to read more. But right now I want to specifically address the objection that Israel is a secular nation that for the most part does not believe in Jesus. Three perspectives help us to see that God has brought His people back even now, when most Israelis don’t yet believe in Jesus.

First, there is a principle at work here: God remembers His people Israel even when they forget Him. This is the point of the book of Esther. God isn’t named directly, not because He’s not working but because Israel in captivity had forgotten Him. So the author of Esther deliberately chooses not to refer to God directly and yet shows how God’s providence, in faithfulness to His word, preserves the Jewish people. That’s why Mordechai tells Esther “If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place” (Est 4:14). His message was that God would be faithful to His covenant and His promise even when Israel was not acting in faith. And so Israel’s secular nature today, certainly does not prohibit God from acting in conformity to the Land promise He gave and biblical prophecy He revealed.

Second, there is an example of precedence: God brought the people of Israel back to the land of Israel after the first exile even though they were not filled with faith then either. Those that returned were not driven by faith—read the prophets that wrote after the exile (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). Each book challenges the people for lacking faith and being disobedient to God. Here’s just one example—Malachi 2:11 says: “Judah has acted treacherously, and a detestable thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the Lord’s sanctuary, which He loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.” Nevertheless, the restoration at that time was certainly a work of God even though Israel was living in unbelief.

Third, there is the promise of prophecy: the prophets foretold that the people of Israel will only come to faith after being returned to the land of Israel. For example, Ezekiel 36:24-26 says “For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land.” Clearly, this is a promise of restoration. But the next verse says,  “Then I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Only after being returned would Israel believe and be transformed. Also, Zechariah 12:10 teaches that it is only after being returned and facing a terrible attack that Israel will turn to the One who can save them; they will look in faith to the Him who was pierced and mourn in repentance for having so long rejected their Messiah, and then they will be saved.

So yes, I agree that Israel today is a secular state but that does not preclude that the modern state of Israel is indeed a work of God, a modern miracle. God is faithful and He is working, restoring Israel to the land today so He can and will restore Israel to faith in the Messiah Jesus yet in the future.

Where Was God?

Where was God when the Six Million died? What was He doing as His people suffered and perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators? Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, begins this Sunday evening and lasts until sundown on Monday. It’s the official Israeli day for remembering the Nazi murder of their 6 million  Jewish victims and its observed by Jewish people around the world. But the question of “Where was God?” persists, like an open, unhealed wound.

I was raised in an observant Jewish home and my parents were both Holocaust survivors. As a result, two facts helped shaped me. First, I was raised to believe that God exists and that He chose the Jewish people to represent Him on earth. The second fact taught to me was the horror of the Holocaust. I heard about the Nazi persecution, oppression, torture and murder of the Jewish people as a fact of life. It really happened and it happened to my family, the people I loved most in the world. But it was only when I was in college, having read Night by Elei Wiesel, that I began to deal with the question of “Where was God?” Since God certainly existed, and loved the Jewish people, I struggled to understand, why He allowed the Holocaust to happen, why He didn’t defend His people. And now, after all these years, I still don’t have a perfect or simple answer as to why God allowed the Holocaust. No one does.

But as to “Where was God when the six million died?” there is this simple answer the Scriptures give: God was present with the Jewish people, suffering with them, in the ghettos, in the concentration camps, in the gas chambers. Isaiah 63:9 says, “In all their afflictions, He was afflicted.” When the people of Israel suffer, the God of Israel suffers with them.

God’s presence with the Jewish people in their suffering is also evident in Zechariah’s vision of the Angel of the Lord among the myrtle trees, found in Zechariah 1:8-17. There the myrtle trees represent the people of Israel, and the trees are in a ravine, indicating that the Jewish people were in a lowly, oppressed place. In their midst, in that place of suffering, is the Angel of the Lord, the preincarnate Messiah.

More than 50 years ago, the great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Merrill Unger wrote, the Jewish people are “still scattered throughout the world in unbelief and still persecuted with frightful cruelty in the modern world. It is a great consolation to Zechariah, however to know that . . . the preincarnate Messiah is identified with His people in their sufferings, degradation, and woe. He is still standing among [them] . . . . We may be sure, moreover, that if the earthly high priest used to carry the names of the twelve tribes of Israel upon the breastplate nearest his heart (Exod 28:29), the true High Priest, who is the King of Israel as well, has them just as near His loving heart. He loves Israel and yearns for the day . . .  when they will crown Him Lord of all” (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory, pp. 28-29).

In the course I teach on the Holocaust, when we discuss rescuers, I always ask students if the Lord Jesus would have been a rescuer? Virtually all classes say “absolutely, Jesus would have certainly been a rescuer of the Jewish people.” And then I always remind them that the Lord Jesus, since He is Jewish, would not have been a rescuer but rather one in need of rescue. The real question is not “Where was God” but “Where was man?” Would they, would you, rescue the Lord Jesus? Because He taught, “I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine (the Jewish people), you did for me” (Matt 25:40).

 

The Passover Hustle

 

Is it wrong for followers of Jesus to celebrate a Passover Seder? Was the Last Supper even a Passover Seder? This past week, Christianity Today published an article by two Rabbis, Yehiel Poupko and David Sandmel, titled, Jesus Didn’t Eat a Seder Meal and Why Christians Shouldn’t Either. I cannot figure out why a purportedly Christian magazine would give these men, who are decidedly not followers of Jesus, a platform for their views. But that’s their decision. What bugged me even more was the con job that was presented in the article itself.

I’m from New York City and as a teenager I used to watch the con men in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park hustle people with their sleight of hand. Nobody ever won, whether playing three card monte or a shell game. That’s what I felt as I read this article–it was “The Passover Hustle,” designed to make Jesus followers feel guilty about celebrating a messianic Passover. Here are three ways they used deception to confuse this issue.

First, the article uses historical sleight of hand. It states, “The Seder ritual, as it is practiced today, did not exist at the time of Jesus.” Frankly no one disputes that. Certainly, the Seder meal was only codified after the AD 70 destruction of the Temple. However, the authors know very well that the codification was based on the book of Exodus and oral traditions present for generations. So, the last supper was substantively a Passover meal/a Seder with multiple aspects of Seder ritual evident in the gospels. Some examples include ritual hand washing, the breaking of bread or matzoh, the use of red wine, reciting the Hallel psalms (they sang a hymn after the meal), the anticipation of the messianic kingdom (Jesus said I won’t drink of this cup until I drink it with you in the kingdom), eating ground up bitter herbs (called the sop that Jesus passed to Judas). The great scholar Joachim Jeremias in the Eucharistic Words of Christ, notes 14 of these clear associations with the Passover Seder. So, even if the Last Supper was not a Seder as practiced today, it certainly was an incipient Seder, as practiced before AD 70.

A second problem with the article is its theological sleight of hand. The authors intend to drive a deep wedge between Exodus of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament faith. They argue that the Exodus belongs to Jewish people and the Last Supper belongs to Christians, and the two shall never meet. They further maintain that Jesus created a new religious civilization unrelated to the Jewish world from which He came. The problem with their view is that Exodus is the foundation for New Testament faith. Without understanding Passover, we could never fathom what Jesus’ cousin John meant when he said, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Or Peter’s description of the Messiah Jesus as “that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet 1:19). Or Paul’s declaration that “Messiah our Passover has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor 5:7). Followers of Jesus, recognize that He is the Jewish Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover ritual. The authors may disagree with this conviction but they may not determine how followers of Jesus should express their faith in the Jewish Messiah Jesus.

A third issue with the article is that it practices cultural sleight of hand. The authors assert that observing a messianic Passover Seder somehow shows a lack of respect for Judaism and Jewish people, as if Judaism never borrowed from any other culture. Of course Jewish scholars actually recognize that some aspects of the Seder, such as reclining at the table to show freedom is taken directly from Greco-Roman culture. The authors maintain that Jewish people find it troubling when followers of Jesus participate in a Seder, particularly if led by a Messianic Jew. While it may very well bother these authors, they certainly don’t speak for all Jewish people at large. Moreover, Romans 11:18 attests that the Jewish root sustains the faith of Gentile believers. When followers of Jesus celebrate Passover, even with all its messianic implications, it reflects great appreciation for Jewish people. No disrespect is ever intended or present.

If we believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Messiah of the world, we can’t help but appreciate the heritage of the people of Israel. It enlightens and enlivens our faith. And that’s why we lose if we play the Passover hustle; We’ll have abandoned the Hebrew heritage of the Scriptures from which we understand our faith, while cutting ourselves off from the rich root of the olive tree from which our faith springs. Always keep your eye on the pea!

The Believer and the Occult

This past week, a friend of mine, told me her sister had visited a spiritist to enquire about her own life. The medium’s words were recorded and my friend listened to the recording, which she said was creepy, but in some respects, accurate. How should anyone, but especially a follower of Jesus, respond to the occult?

To begin, let’s define what we’re talking about. The word “occult” comes from the Latin “occultus” and means “knowledge of the hidden.” It refers to paranormal beliefs and activities related to the supernatural, including magic, mysticism, witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy, astrology or spiritism.  It is the counterfeit of the true spirituality found in the Bible. Well what does the Bible have to say about the occult?

First, the Bible forbids any association with the occult. In Deuteronomy 18:9-14, God clearly warned Israel when the nation was about to enter Canaan and take the land, that they were to have nothing to do with spiritism. Here’s what is written: 9 “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not imitate the detestable customs of those nations. 10 No one among you is to make his son or daughter pass through the fire, practice divination, tell fortunes, interpret omens, practice sorcery, 11 cast spells, consult a medium or a familiar spirit, or inquire of the dead. 12 Everyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord, and the Lord your God is driving out the nations before you because of these detestable things. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God. 14 Though these nations you are about to drive out listen to fortune-tellers and diviners, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do this.” This is not just for Israel in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sorcery is listed among the deeds of the flesh (Gal 5:20) and sorcerers are numbered among those excluded from the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:8). So the first bit of advice I’d give anyone is not to have anything to do with the occult. even a small glance at the astrology column in the newspaper should be rejected. John Piper once said that looking at an astrology column is as unfaithful to the Lord as a man, glancing through a Playboy magazine, is unfaithful to his wife.

Second, recognize that there very well may be some reality to the paranormal and the occult. That’s why Paul says that “our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Many years ago, Eva and I had a friend who was not a follower of Jesus, who told us she wanted to go see a fortune teller and wanted to know what we thought. Eva told her not to waste her money for two reasons. First, many times these so-called “spiritists” are scam artists and don’t know anything about your life—it’s all made up. So why throw money away on falsehood? On the other hand, the second reason Eva gave for this woman not to go, was that the fortune teller may very well may know certain aspects of her life. But even so, since the God of Israel flatly prohibited this, we know that if the medium knows anything it is, by virtue of familiar spirits and demons. Who wants to hear from them? It will only end up hurting us. So, happily, our friend listened to Eva’s advice and did not go to the fortune teller. The reason it is good she didn’t go is that when spiritists are accurate their words are from the evil world. They give accurate facts to draw people in and then use that to destroy them. They hook us with initial accuracy but the goal is to hurt us in the end.

Third, if we’ve had anything to do with the occult, just reject it and renounce it. Get rid of anything associated with it. That’s what was done when the gospel came to Ephesus, described in Acts 19:18-19, “18 And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, 19 while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value, and found it to be 50,000 pieces of silver.” This is what Paul meant by demolishing strongholds and taking every thought captive to the Messiah Jesus (2 Cor 10:5). We don’t need a bonfire but we do need to confess and toss any tarot cards, Ouija Boards, astrology books, or anything to do with the occult into the trash.

Finally, we need not fear or focus on the occult. This is what the Lord Jesus taught 70 of His disciples when they returned from a successful ministry trip. They said,    17 . . .“Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name.” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a lightning flash. 19 Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; nothing will ever harm you. 20 However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” We don’t need to fear the evil spirit world because the one in us is greater than He who is in the world (1 John 4:4). In fact, the Holy Spirit who indwells followers of the Lord Jesus, is the power that raised Him from the dead (Rom 8:11)—so we don’t need any greater power nor should we fear any occult power. Nevertheless, we don’t need to be absorbed with spiritual warfare. The Messiah Jesus teaches us to focus on the Lord and our salvation, that our “names are written in heaven.”

C.S. Lewis, in the introduction to the masterful Screwtape Letters gives the right balance: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”