Subtle and Oblique by Design

Saturday, November 13, 2021

What did Jesus indicate? 

Shop talk. Get ready for some theological shop talk. I must necessarily get detailed and somewhat technical in this post.  

A single word will examined. I want to make a case for translating and interpreting an old Greek word in a very particular way. How this one rather inconspicuous word gets translated does indeed matter. It matters because this one word informs readers of the Book of Revelation as how they should approach and understand the entire book. 

The old Greek word is σημαίνω, which may be indecipherable to you. It is pronounced “say-mah-ee-no.” It is a verb. The most generic way to translate this verb into English is the word indicate. And as far as translations go, indicate works well enough. But the word σημαίνω needs to nuanced according to how it is used in a particular sentence, in a particular context. The context I have in mind is the very first verse of Revelation, in which Jesus indicated something.

For those of you who know a bit of New Testament Greek, you will notice that the word σημαίνω has shape-shifted a bit in Revelation 1:1. That is to say, it appears as a cognate in verse one, as ἐσήμανεν (“es-ay-mah-nen”). The reason the word looks a bit different is because the word has shifted into what we would call the past tense. In case you’re interested in grammatical exactness, in Revelation 1:1 the word ἐσήμανεν should be parsed as follows: It is the aorist – indicative – active – third person – singular. And it can be translated as he indicated

At this point, you might ask, “Okay, the most generic translation of this word from New Testament Greek into English is he indicated; so what? Why should I care?”

Well, there is a problem here, actually. The problem is that John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, uses the word ἐσήμανεν with a slight nuance. And it matters that his slight nuance is recognized. When John uses ἐσήμανεν, he means that something is not stated directly but indirectly. Something is being alluded to or hinted at or even encrypted.   

At this point, I imagine a good friend of mine saying, “But why should anyone believe you rather than the learned Bible translators?” A good question, good friend. What my good friend knows is that most Bible translators do not translate ἐσήμανεν with any sense of indirectness or opaqueness. 

That’s too bad, though. The translators should have caught the particular nuance in usage in Revelation 1:1. But because their semantic range of reference was too broad, they didn’t. They should have narrowed their focus to just how John uses the word. But for whatever reason, they didn’t. If they had focused just upon John’s usage, they would have noticed that John consistently uses the word σημαίνω and its cognates to convey indirectness, as communication that is not immediately apparent, but which needs to be examined carefully and figured out.

And now my friend is saying, “Okay, prove it.”

Okay, I will. It is not that hard. Just do a selective word study of σημαίνω and its cognates. Look at how John consistently uses the word.

The place to start is The Gospel of John, Chapter 12, verse 33. Here is how the verse is translated in the New International Version: “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” The NIV translators used the words “to show” to translate σημαίνων, which is an obvious cognate of σημαίνω. As far as translations go, it is good enough. But notice what the verse means in context. Jesus had indicated or shown how he was going to die. Jesus had not just said, “I am going to be crucified.” Instead, what Jesus had just said was, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men/people to myself.” Jesus had indicated his manner of death obliquely, indirectly. The observant only caught his oblique allusion/reference after the fact, after his death by crucifixion.

John uses the word σημαίνω indirectly again in John 18:32. As with John 12:33, the word is used in its cognate form: σημαίνων. And as with John 12:33, the word references Jesus’ opaque allusion to his manner of death, that is, by crucifixion. The only significant contextual difference is that the crucifixion is now immediately forthcoming.

John uses the word σημαίνων a third time in John 21:19. This time the allusion is not to Jesus’ forthcoming crucifixion, but to the manner of Peter’s eventual death. But all the same, it is an allusion, and not a direct indication. Jesus does not tell Peter, “Someday you are going to die in a way that you would rather not die.” Instead, Jesus is more subtle and indirect — a bit more opaque and oblique. But he makes his point to Peter all the same.

Therefore, in the Gospel of John, we have not one, not two, but three instances of how John uses the word σημαίνω. Every single time, he uses the word to convey a sense of subtlety and indirectness. Jesus indicates what he wants to indicate opaquely. Only the observant (eventually) catch his drift.

My suggestion, or rather, assertion is that John uses the same word the same way in the Book of Revelation. Jesus did indicate something in Revelation 1:1. He indicated the entire vision — all the content of Revelation — opaquely, indirectly, cryptically. Jesus used allusions and references to say what he wanted conveyed. We do well to keep that in mind as we read and interpret the book. 

To summarize, if my assertion is correct, we are told from the very first verse of Revelation that the book’s content is opaque and cryptic by divine design. The implication is that it requires careful observation, frequent reflection, and protracted study.     

Because Peter Says So

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Is Moses a historical figure, as opposed to merely a literary character? Did Moses really live? If he did actually live, did he really lead the Children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt? And are all the plagues and miracles recorded in the Book of Exodus true to history? I have an opinion and a position on this constellation of questions. I would affirm that Moses did exist, and that the various wonders recorded in Book of Exodus are factual and reliably historical.

To make my case, my starting point will not be Moses or the Book of Exodus, though, but Peter. Yes, I begin by appealing to Simon Peter, as in Peter bar Jonah, the Galilean fisherman. My first witness will be that particular Peter — the impetuous, thoughtlessly verbose, bumbling, ever earnest disciple of Jesus Christ. In proposition of my Bible-banging position, I present Simon Peter.  

And I hope you catch the courtroom analogy here, because I am asserting the importance and reliability of his eyewitnesses testimony. Simon Peter was an eyewitness of Moses, after all. I mean, you know that already; right?

But first, perhaps I need to explain why any of this matters.

It may surprise you to learn that the existence of Moses is even a contested question in academia. But indeed, it is. Some academics say that there is insufficient evidence for a historical Moses. And if Moses is merely fictional, so is the rest of Exodus. Simply stated, there is insufficient external evidence to establish the historicity of the Book of Exodus. Archaeology cannot confirm it. Egyptian monuments and documents cannot confirm it. The Book of Exodus simply cannot be established and proven as history, they assert. So, sad to say, it ought to be considered mostly or entirely fiction.   

Well, crap. If the Moses and the Ten Plagues and the Ten Commandments and the entire Book of Exodus aren’t actual history, is anything in the Bible truly trustworthy? Ding, ding: There’s the rub. And that’s the upshot. That’s the implication. This is why it all matters. The best and the brightest — the people with the PhDs — say that you can’t be sure anything in Exodus is trustworthy, kids. And as Exodus goes out the window, the rest of the Bible goes with it. Well, crap.

A lot of hypothetical and real college/university students will merely shrug at this point, because they simply do not know what to conclude. An unsettlingly doubt may well creep into said college student’s mind: “Maybe everything they taught me at church is just a bunch of bunk. After all, the professor seems really smart and knowledgable and has earned a doctorate. I dunno. The professor seems smarter than that pastor… I wonder what sort of dessert the cafeteria has today.”    

And as for that particular college/university student, the Bible may have just lost considerable credibility, given just one (somewhat) challenging, critical lecture. Oh, and this can and does routinely happen at religious institutions of higher learning, too. Believe it.

However, a student who has somewhat higher regard for the authority of the Bible may accept the implicit challenge. She or he may set out to prove the historical reality of Moses and the reliability of Exodus. The problem is that the bar is too high. The challenge is too great. The burden of proof is too daunting. Neither Moses nor the Book of Exodus can be indubitably demonstrated as historical (indubitably being the key word). A certain amount of faith must be exercised. But who knows whether the Book of Exodus deserves that much faith? I mean, it is a really, really old document, after all.

But what about Peter? What if Simon Peter can verify the historicity of Moses with eyewitness testimony? What if Peter says it’s all true? Does that make a difference?

It ought to. And he does.

In his Second Epistle Peter says this:

For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. 

2 Peter 1:16-19a New Living Translation

Here Peter is clearly referring to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Realize that in every single account of the Transfiguration recorded in the Gospels (compare Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-8; and Luke 9:28-36), Jesus appears with two prominent Old Testament prophets. Just guess who the two Old Testament prophets are. 

Moses and Elijah. 

Peter saw Moses and Elijah alongside a transfigured, glorified Jesus. And Peter later asserted that his experience on that mountain was real and worthy of confidence.   

So now an informed “said college student” and you, the blog reader/listener, need to ask yourself whether you think Peter’s testimony is reliable here. If it is, then the Transfiguration really happened. And if the Transfiguration happened, then Moses was presented not just as a historical figure, but even alive post-mortem. That left a profound impression on Simon Peter. That carried some hefty verifying weight with Peter. Likewise, it is probably safe to conclude from all this that the Book of Exodus also stands validated, along with the entire Old Testament. 

However, if you don’t consider Peter’s testimony reliable on this point, then you probably don’t give much credence to the much of the New Testament. I say that because the Transfiguration is repeatedly affirmed as a historical event in the New Testament.

Said a bit differently and more generally, in a variety of ways the New Testament affirms the reliability and the historicity of the Book of Exodus, as well as other portions of the Old Testament. Consequently, someone who affirms the reliability of the New Testament must (by virtue of just that) also affirm the reliability of the Old Testament. You cannot have the New without the Old. It just doesn’t work.   

If Jesus was a historical figure, so was Moses. If the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are historically reliable, so is Exodus. Peter testifies to all that. 

In the Depths of the Dungeon

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Based on Genesis Chapter 40

Although he was stuck in prison for who-knows-how-long, Joseph had not been abandoned. Given his helplessness and the uncertainty of his situation, Joseph was undoubtedly tempted to despair. However, God was there with him — with him and for him. God was somehow with Joseph the entire time; and God blessed Joseph with success and favor, even while he was in the pit of prison. The Book of Genesis repeatedly emphasizes the importance of God being with Joseph there. With God’s blessing on him even through the most difficult time of his life, Joseph won the respect of everyone around him. He even earned the complete and utter trust of the boss, the keeper of the prison, someone we would today call the warden.

Behind Bars

One morning while making the rounds and checking on the other inmates, Joseph noticed that something was wrong. Two of the inmates appeared quite upset. Of course, Joseph asked the two what was bothering them. They said that they had had disturbing dreams. He invited them to describe their dreams. It is important to the story to know that these two particular prisoners were not insignificant nobodies, but high royal officials who until recently had had immediate access to the Pharaoh himself.

Pharaoh’s personal cupbearer described his dream first. He had dreamt about three branches on a grape vine. The three branches somehow produced fully ripe grapes way, way, way faster than they normally and naturally would. In his dream, Pharaoh’s cupbearer then squished all the ripe grapes and brought the grape juice to Pharaoh.

Old-Fashioned Grape Press

Then Joseph interpreted the dream for the cupbearer. The three branches represented three days, Joseph explained. In just three days, the cupbearer would be released from prison, and would be elevated up to his former position. He would soon be released and get his old job back. Having interpreted the dream, Joseph requested that upon his release the cupbearer please mention the injustice of Joseph’s plight to the Pharaoh. But and however, once elevated back to his old position, the cupbearer’s mind was preoccupied on other things. He forgot all about Joseph the Dream Interpreter, for two long years.

Back to the second official’s interpreted dream, though. It was the royal baker’s turn. When he heard that Joseph gave the cupbearer an optimistic interpretation, the royal baker was eager to describe his dream. He had dreamt that he had three baskets of baked goods on top his head, from which the birds were eating. This time, when Joseph interpreted the dream for the royal baker, it was not good news — not at all. The three baskets represented three days. Like the cupbearer, the royal baker would be elevated in just three days. But unlike the cupbearer, the royal baker would not be elevated in a desirable way. In just three days, Pharaoh would elevate the baker’s head (and body) by hanging him and strangling him on a tree. Joseph’s final words to the royal baker were especially horrifying: “And the birds will eat the flesh from you.” Yikes. 

The Baker and the Birds

As it so happens, that third day was Pharaoh’s own birthday. Pharaoh was celebrated with a big birthday bash. And everything Joseph had predicted happened. Both the royal cupbearer and the royal baker were elevated on the occasion. The royal cupbearer was elevated out of prison back to his former position. But the royal baker was elevated out of prison to a noose. Joseph, however, had to wait in prison for another two years to be elevated, because the cupbearer forgot all about him. The royal cupbearer would only happen to remember Joseph later, when the Pharaoh himself had some perplexing dreams that needed interpretation.

Questions for Consideration

• How do you think did Joseph felt while he was unfairly imprisoned? What doubts probably went occasionally through his mind? What temptations might Joseph have struggled with? What do you think was hardest for Joseph during his time in prison?

• What hopes or dreams might have kept Joseph going while he was in prison?

• What does it mean when Genesis says that God was with Joseph? What might Joseph have experienced that made him aware of God being there with him? Is this point (about God being there for Joseph) meant to give us hope that God will be us when we go through difficult times?

• Why was God there for Joseph in a way that God might not have been for some of the other prisoners?

• Based on the backstory of Joseph’s boyhood, what keeps re-emerging and recurring as a curious (and yet nightly) phenomenon that repeatedly alters the course of his life? What might we, as readers, potentially conclude about this curious, nightly phenomenon? Might God use the same phenomenon in our lives today?

• Which talents or gifts did Joseph demonstrate while in prison?

• Were Joseph’s prison years good or bad for him? How do you think Joseph might have changed as a result of his prison years?

• Why is the word elevate important in this story? Who was elevated, and how? Who had to wait a while longer to be elevated?

• Looking ahead: What eventually got Joseph out of prison? Who gets credit for getting Joseph out of prison?

The Snatcher and His Favorite Son

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Wrestling for A Blessing

On the eve of a dread and potentially deadly family reunion with his hairy twin brother (his long-estranged, vowed-to-violent-vengeance twin brother Esau), Jacob the Snatcher arranged for himself to be all alone for what might possibly be his final night on earth. But his time of quiet solitude was not to be. Instead, a mysterious nighttime intruder arrived and upended Jacob’s plans. Jacob found himself in a desperate wrestling match with the mysterious, anonymous intruder. The two wrestled through the night. At daybreak, the mysterious, anonymous intruder finally asked Jacob to let go. But Jacob refused to let his mysterious opponent go — at least not without first receiving a blessing. In response to Jacob’s request (or demand) for a blessing, his very mysterious wrestling opponent inquired, “What is your name?” Jacob told him that his name is Jacob (which means snatcher). The anonymous intruder (who seems to have been none other than God himself) then gave Jacob a few lasting mementos from that nocturnal wrestling bout — an injured hip, and thus a hobbling limp for the rest of his life, and also another name — a new name and identity: Israel, which translated means “Struggles with God.” If you’re interested in reading this story for yourself, you can find it in Genesis 32:22-31.

Envy, Hatred, & Gross Injustice

Years later, as a hobbling, limping older man, Jacob (aka Israel) resided in the Promised Land with his large family. He had twelve sons and one daughter. Of all his children, Jacob’s favorites were the two sons of his late, especially cherished wife Rachel. She had tragically died during the birth of their second son, Benjamin. 

As you might be aware, family favoritism can be a very destructive dynamic. And given all the trouble that paternal favoritism had caused between himself and his twin brother Esau, you might think that Jacob the Snatcher would have learned his lesson, and would have known better than to play favorites with his own children — but sorry, no, not so. Jacob played favorites with his children, too. Jacob’s clear favorite was Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn son. 

Whether he realized it or not, Jacob’s favoritism was entirely obvious to all twelve of his sons. As mentioned previously, Jacob had a total of thirteen children by multiple mothers. When young Joseph turned seventeen, Jacob gave his most favorite son a gift, a coat or a robe, a coat of many colors. This special, distinctive garment of honor provoked the envy and hatred of Joseph’s older brothers.

Had Joseph been somewhat older and wiser, he might have noticed his brothers’ growing resentment and sullen envy. But Joseph was not older and wiser. He was younger and more naïve. Indeed, Joseph was naïve enough to blab, blab, blab indiscreetly. He even casually recounted two nighttime dreams to his resentful older brothers. The symbolism in his two dreams was very easily decipherable. And an obvious, quite insulting message was altogether apparent to his brothers. In both of his dreams, all of his brothers (and even his parents) symbolically bowed low, low, low before him. Consequently, the obvious, demeaning, infuriating interpretation of Joseph’s dream provoked even more resentment. His older brothers’ hatred festered. They all loathed Daddy’s favorite son, their half-brother Joseph.

Then one day, a rather perfect opportunity for taking revenge presented itself. Joseph had been sent to go check up on them as they tended their herds. Old man Jacob had told Joseph to go observe his brothers, and then return and let him know if they were doing their jobs or not. When Joseph came along to check up on them, his brothers saw him and said, “Here comes that dreamer!” And they eagerly seized upon a perfect chance to do him harm. First they ripped off his despised coat/robe of many colors. Then they threw their obnoxious little half-brother into a nearby pit. After that, they convened an impromptu field committee to decide the precious brat’s fate. Joseph’s life appeared to hang in the balance. 

The immediate question was, how much more harm would they do? Some of his brothers wanted to be done with Joseph and his vain dreams, once and for all. They meant to kill him. But their oldest brother, Rueben, who seems to have had a bit of a conscience, convinced them not to kill Joseph. Instead, Rueben suggested they should merely sell him as a slave. Coincidentally and conveniently, a caravan of Midianites happened to be passing near by. So his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him as a slave to the Midianite traders for twenty shekels of silver. As they did so, they ignored Joseph’s many pleas for compassion. 

To cover up what they had done to their younger brother, the ten of them dipped Joseph’s coat/robe of many colors in a goat’s blood. They brought the bloody robe to their father Jacob and said, “Father, we found this out in the field. Is this not Joseph’s robe?” Jacob recognized it as the robe he gave to Joseph. He concluded from the blood that Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal. His heart was broken. Not only had he lost his cherished wife, Rachel, now he had also lost his favorite son, Rachel’s firstborn. He wept and could not be consoled.

Meanwhile, the Midianite traders brought Joseph down to Egypt, where they sold him to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. But although he was far from his home and had to toil as a slave, God was there with Joseph. And God made Joseph successful in everything he did. Potiphar was so pleased with Joseph’s work that he put him in charge of his entire household.

But then something bad happened. Joseph suffered yet another personal setback. Potiphar’s wife took an illicit romantic interest in Joseph. Joseph was young and handsome. She could not help but notice. Sometimes Potiphar’s wife was home alone with Joseph. She suggested that Joseph spend more time with her, somewhat closer. Joseph emphatically said no, to do so would be a big violation of his boss’ trust, and it would be wrong in God’s eyes, too. But she was very, very determined to have her way. On one occasion, when they were alone together, she reached out and grabbed ahold of his clothing. Joseph quickly turned and ran away, leaving some of his clothing dangling there in her hand. Potiphar’s wife then realized that she needed a quick alibi, so she flipped the narrative. She framed Joseph. She accused Joseph of a crime. She said Joseph had tried to do something inappropriate to her, not the other way around. Potiphar believed his wife’s story-spin, and had Joseph arrested and put in prison. 

But even inside of that prison, something ~somewhat~ good happened. Genesis says that the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love, even there. The Lord gave Joseph favor in the sight of the warden, the keeper of the prison. As before and as always, Joseph stood out from everyone around him. Joseph was a model prison inmate. Eventually, the warden trusted Joseph so much that he let Joseph do his job for him. Nonetheless, Joseph was still in prison. In spite of his criminal record, Joseph knew he was actually an innocent man. He hoped to someday regain his freedom.      

In a future episode, we will learn what happened to Joseph, the model prison inmate, who has been attacked by his envious older brothers, sold into slavery, and then framed by his owner’s wife.  

How to Spot a Creep

Monday, September 27, 2021

How to Spot a Creep – Audio Version

Jude _:4

The Epistle of Jude, the next-to-last book of New Testament, has only one chapter. Its fourth verse says:

For certain individuals have crept in unnoticed, those who long ago were designated for such condemnation, irreverent sorts, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality/licentiousness and deny our only Sovereign and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Jude, quite possibly the brother of Jesus

A lot of commentaries, preachers, and Bible teachers might waste your time by turning your attention away from the immediate relevance of this verse. They will present likely historical scenarios pertaining to how and when this once happened, nearly two thousand years ago. Given my theological training, I would likely find what they say all quite interesting and potentially helpful. It might bore you to tears, though. 

As good as all the secondary textual information might be, the most important issue is whether this verse has any immediate relevance today. Does it apply to us here and now? Yes, it most certainly does. What is described in this verse is happening now, and happens frequently.

Certain individuals are creeping into homes, schools, churches, and (especially) social media. But the word creeping can be easily misunderstood. These creeping individuals often do not appear creepy at all. On the contrary, they seem smart, polished, reputable, and likable. What makes them creepy is not their appearance nor their mannerism, but their agenda. They will (probably) not disclose their true intentions. They will not tell you up front that their intention is to make some “helpful and necessary” changes to the curriculum, or the lectionary, or whatever you want to call the informational content — that is, the accepted doctrine.

But Jude tells us very clearly what these creeps are up to. They will pervert the grace of God. They will pervert or swap the grace of God for something else. Instead of the grace of God, they will offer a license to sin. They will give people permission to be self-indulgent in a way that Scripture forbids. They will tell people that (re-defined) grace allows us to live in a manner that God has deemed sinful and deadly. And yes, this is happening now, and happens frequently.

Jude also tells us that they will deny Jesus Christ. Oops, I realize I need to make an immediate correction. More specifically, these creeps will deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. They will not necessarily deny the historical Jesus, but will “knowledgeably” reappraise what the Church has “errantly” said about him. Some will deny that Jesus Christ is the only Master and Lord. No, they will say, there are several other worthy and wise sovereigns, teachers, and gurus. Some creeps will claim that Jesus was merely a noble teacher, who presented a worthy ethic. Other creeps will say that Jesus was actually a political revolutionary, who met a tragic and regrettable end by execution. But in one way or another, the creeps will all say that Jesus’ disciples got it wrong. The creeps will all deny that Jesus is our only Sovereign and Lord. And yes, many such creeps are on the loose right now, making precisely these claims. You are likely to encounter some of them today, most likely on your digital device. 

Now that Jude has told you what to look for, you might find it a bit easier to spot a creep. 

The Smug and the Lazy

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Smug and the Lazy – Audio Version

Two problematic, contrary strains exist within American Evangelicalism. The first is a smug, smarter-than-thou, prejudicial and elitist intellectualism. The second is a lazy can’t-and-won’t-be-bothered-to-think anti-intellectualism. Both are bad. Both are a persistent threat to the growth of a disciple’s faith.   

Which is the more toxic strain, though? That’s a good question, and a tough question. At first glance, it is hard to say. However, if forced to choose, I would would say the former is worse than the latter. Yes, I see smug intellectualism as even worse than lazy anti-intellectualism, because smug-intellectualism ultimately deceives more gullible people than lazy anti-intellectualism. In the long run, smug intellectuals are far more influential than lazy pew-sitters. 

That said, the irony is that two strains (or trends) actually have a symbiotic relationship. The lazy are content to let the smug do the hard thinking for them. And the smug need the lazy to continue being lazy, lest someone seriously challenge their assertions. It would be bad if the smug were exposed as flawed. It would be especially bad if the smug were exposed as charlatans.

But they often are. They often are charlatans. 

That is harsh, I admit. And perhaps it is a bit less than fair. Sometimes the smug are not entirely smug; they’re actually a mixed bag. They are indeed right about a lot of things. They have real integrity, to a degree. They have done their homework diligently and have come to the right conclusions. And yet, at the very same time, there are certain subjects and touchy topics where they lack integrity. In those particular areas, they have not done their homework sufficiently, nor have they come to the right conclusions. But the lazy ordinary folks, the hoi polloi, need not know that, should not know that.      

The accompanying problem is that they, the smug, often achieve and then hold official positions of prestige. Once you have an honorary title and receive regular compensation, you are obliged to the institution, the guild, or the denomination. And you quickly realize it is best for your professional future not to contradict what everyone seems to know as capital T truth. Your colleagues and superiors will surely notice any deviance. So you tow the party line. And you parrot the pre-approved talking points. 

These are the dynamics that routinely play out in schools, churches, and institutions. Breakthrough change often necessarily comes from a brave soul on the periphery. Numerous historical examples come immediately to mind. They were often seen as misfits and pests in their own time. But history ultimately vindicates them. More importantly, God ultimately vindicates them.        

His Message to Smyrna

Thursday, September 16, 2021

His Message to Smyrna – Audio Version

Ninety-nine years have passed since it occurred. But I only learned of it within the last week. 

Yesterday I finished reading a book by Lou Ureneck about the Great Fire of Smyrna in September, 1922. If I were to place a small bet, I would wager that most of my readers and listeners are entirely unfamiliar with the 1922 Fire of Smyrna. So was I, less than a week ago.

Alternatively, I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of my readers and listeners — maybe even all of them — would know exactly what I have in mind if I were merely to drop the names Heinrich Himmler, Nazi, and Auschwitz. I am, of course, referring to the Holocaust during World War Two.          

The 1922 Fire of Smyrna was a foreshadow of the Holocaust, two decades in advance. The perpetrators of the 1922 Smyrna Fire were not Nazis, but another militaristic, nationalist group. Like the Nazis, the violent perpetrators of the Great Smyrna Fire wanted to once and for all rid “their” land of neighbors they deemed inferior, undesirable, and loathsome. The undesirable neighbors in their crosshairs were the Greek and Armenian Christian minorities of Anatolia. To their delight, the perpetrators’ plans prevailed. They were almost entirely successful in ridding their land of their loathsome, undesirable neighbors. Nonetheless, the perpetrators were unable to completely annihilate all their undesirable Christian neighbors. With the help of a few intervening outsiders, a considerable portion of the Christian minorities of Anatolia were delivered from certain death. The book I read is about the rescue effort conducted by the intervening outsiders. The account completely and utterly captivated me.

You will not recognize their names, but Asa Kent Jennings and Halsey Powell should forever be recognized for their great courage, faith, and heroism. I sincerely believe the two will hold a place of high honor in heaven. They saved hundreds of thousands of people from certain death.

Aside from my lifelong interest in history, one of the primary reasons that Ureneck’s account was so compelling to me is because of its locale. Smyrna appears in the Book of Revelation. It is the second of the seven churches addressed by Jesus in the opening section of Revelation. 

If you read what Jesus has to say to the Angel of the Church of Smyrna (see Revelation 2:8-11), it undoubtedly applies to the original recipients, who lived there nearly two thousand years ago. But what Jesus had to say could also (almost) equally apply to the Christians who found themselves besieged by death in Smyrna 99 years ago. Although separated by centuries, the historical situation was very, very similar. And Jesus’ words were equally apt for both situations.

In my estimation, the coincidence of geographic location and recapitulated historical situation speaks to the prophetic nature of the Book of Revelation. I would even say that it is one of many like instances which reveal that God is indeed the ultimate author of the Book of Revelation.   

Remember Lot’s Wife

Friday, August 13, 2021

Remember Lot’s Wife – Audio Version
Screen Grab from the Babylon Bee

Are you a Bible quiz whiz? How many Bible verses do you know by heart? Today, we will learn not one, but two Bible verses by heart, and in almost no time at all. Then you will be well on your way to that most desirable of designations: a Bible Quiz Whiz. Okay then, open up your Bibles and put on your Bible memorization caps, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Is everyone ready to learn two very easy verses? Here we go…

The easiest of all Bible verses to memorize might be John 11:35. That’s the Gospel of John, chapter eleven, verse thirty-five. Has everyone found it? It contains just two short words: “Jesus wept.” See? It’s so simple and so very easy to memorize. Remind me now: What does John 11:35 say, aspiring Bible Quiz Whizzers? That’s right. It simply says, “Jesus wept.” 

Good job! Now let’s learn the second super easy verse!

The second easiest Bible verse to memorize might be Luke 17:32. That’s the Gospel of Luke, chapter seventeen, verse thirty-two. Has everyone found it? It contains just three short words: “Remember Lot’s wife.” Again, it’s super simple and very easy. What does Luke 17:32 say, aspiring Bible Quiz Whizzers? That’s right. It says, “Remember Lot’s wife.”

Great job, everyone! You have now memorized not just one, but two very valuable verses: Jesus Wept and Remember Lot’s Wife. Repeat them after me one more time: Jesus Wept and Remember Lot’s Wife.

“Umm, Teacher, Teacher… excuse me.”

Yes, hold on, everyone. I see a hand over here. Do you have a question, kid?

“Umm, okay, yeah… so I don’t get it. Why did Jesus weep? And what are we supposed to remember about Lot’s wife?”

Oh my! Wow! Aren’t you inquisitive?! Those are two very good questions. For now, let’s wait on those questions until everyone has had a chance to perfectly memorize their verses; okay? Then maybe we will go to the pastor with what you just asked. Given all he has learned about the Bible, I am sure Pastor has the answers to your very good questions. Okay?

“Umm, okay. Do I have to wait, though? I just wondered why Jesus cried and what we’re supposed to remember about that guy’s wife. What was his name again?”

His name was Lot. Remember Lot’s wife. 

“Yeah, Lot’s wife. Did she get into trouble for something? Did she do something bad?”

Well, hmm… if I recall the story correctly, Lot’s wife instantaneously turned into a pillar or statue of salt when she disobeyed an angel’s command to not look backwards at the very bad city they were fleeing from.

“Oh, wow. That is kinda weird. You say she instantly turned into a stone statue?”

Well, I think the Bible actually says that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt. But she may have looked something like a stone statue. At least, that is always how I imagine it.  

“Whoa. Still, I am confused. Why would the angel do that to her? Why did she have to turn into a statue of salt? What is so bad about turning around to look at a city? It seems like a really harsh punishment.”

Okay, kid, you’re asking a lot of tough questions. Do you really want the answers?

“Yes, I do, because Jesus specifically told us to remember Lot’s wife. Why would he tell us to remember Lot’s wife if it isn’t something important? Are we going to be in a similar situation someday? So honestly, yes, I do want some more answers. What exactly are we supposed to remember about her?”  

Whether you realize it or not, you just put me in an awkward place, kid. The questions you are asking are actually very difficult. I would rather you just memorize the verse and quit with the inquisitive questions. Three short words, kid. I just wanted to entertain you with the two easiest memory verses ever. But then you started acting like you are genuinely interested in what Jesus was saying. 

“Sorry, but I am genuinely interested in what Jesus said. I mean, shouldn’t we take him seriously? I thought the whole point of going to church is to take Jesus seriously.”

Fine, kid. I will give you some straightforward answers. Get ready, because this will require that you actually pay attention. Most people quickly lose interest when they realize that the answer is going to require a bit of time and effort. 

“Umm, I am willing to try.”

That’s better than most people, kid. Let me try to explain some things to you. You asked a very good question a few minutes ago. You might not realize how good your question is. Your question was whether we will ever be in a similar situation to Lot’s disobedient backward-glancing wife. The shortest answer to that is yes, we will. If I say that, though, most people will think I am a bit crazy.

“It kinda does sound crazy, Teacher. Are we going to have to run away from a doomed city someday?”

Probably not. But from what I can see, Jesus was talking about a future event that will require us to make a hard and unequivocal choice between sticking with what is familiar (however evil it is) or suddenly leaving for the promise of something better but unknown.

Affection can be misleading.

“What does unequivocal mean?”

Lot’s wife equivocated. That means she hesitated because she was not sure what she really wanted. In her heart, she kind of liked the evil city, so she turned back, just to look. To make an unequivocal decision is to be completely decisive, and not hesitate.

“Was Jesus talking about a real event, though? Might he have meant it more generically or loosely?”

Sometimes people use the words literally and figuratively to ask that question. You are asking whether Jesus is talking about a literal future event or a figurative, hypothetical scenario. In this passage, it sure seems like Jesus is talking about a literal future event.  

“But what event would that be?”

It could be one of two literal events. The first event was the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. If that is the event Jesus had in mind, then Jesus command to remember Lot’s wife might not apply to us now. Perhaps Jesus just meant that the believers living way back then needed to instantly leave Jerusalem and head to the mountains when they recognized impending danger and realized his prophecy was about to be fulfilled. But in Luke 17:20-37 Jesus does not mention Jerusalem at all, so I think he has something different in mind. I think he is talking about when he comes back. Jesus refers to the event in question as “the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” To me, that sounds like it might be a future event from our vantage point in history — an event we might live to see ourselves someday.

“Do you mean Jesus’ Second Coming?”

Yes, I do. As I read Luke 17, I cannot help but conclude that Jesus is talking about when he comes back at the end of this age. And I will even go a bit further than that. I think Jesus is describing the Rapture. Have you heard of the Rapture?

“Isn’t that when all the believers just instantly go up to heaven and leave all the unbelievers behind on earth? I thought that Pastor does not believe that.”

Yes, that is the general idea. And you’re right, a lot of pastors do not believe in the Rapture, because they think that Luke 17 and passages like it are just talking about the destruction of Jerusalem way back in 70AD. But if Luke 17 is actually talking about a future event, then it seems to describe a Rapture scenario, especially if it is read literally.

“So Jesus is telling us to remember Lot’s wife in the event of the Rapture?”

That is how I read Luke 17, yes. Jesus tells us to be ready to leave without hesitation and without equivocating in the event of the Rapture.

“Whoa! That is intense! I never heard it explained that way before.”

Admittedly, it is not a common explanation. But then again, I have not heard many, if any, sermons on Luke 17:20-37. When I read Luke 17 with the Second Coming and Rapture in mind, it just makes a lot of sense of the passage. Otherwise, I am not sure what Jesus is talking about. 

“Okay. I think I get it. Jesus told us to remember Lot’s wife because we are supposed to be ready and willing to immediately leave when the Rapture happens. That’s kinda what you are saying; right?”

Yes, it is.      

A Prayer for Homicidal In-Laws

Thursday, August 5, 2021

A Prayer for Homicidal In-Laws – Audio Version

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away a newly-wed groom woke to a very bad morning. 

The kingdom’s evil king had sent his henchmen to watch the house of the newly-wed groom. They had orders to kill the groom that morning.

However, and thankfully, the morning was not quite as bad as it might otherwise have been, since the evil king’s assassin-goons were temporarily delayed. They watched the house in vain that morning. 

Somehow, the newly-wed bride had received inside information. She had been told what the henchmen actually intended. Together the newlyweds devised a plan. They put a dummy in a bed to make it look like the groom was still there. Then she went to the front door and faced the king’s goony henchmen. She told them, “I am so sorry. I realize you are looking for my husband, but he has fallen ill and is still asleep in bed.” Her ruse bought her newly-wed groom enough time to jump through a side window and slip away.

So what happened to the newly-wed bride? Did she get into trouble? Was she arrested? No, not exactly. Instead, the bride was brought before the evil king. When she arrived, she had another line ready. “Well, you see your royal highness — Daddy dearest — my horrible new husband threatened to kill me — me, your own darling little princess — unless I cooperated and helped him slip away.”

Yes, the evil king was the bride’s own father. The evil king had ordered and arranged for the killing of his new son-in-law. 

From the king’s perspective, it was never supposed to have happened in the first place. The evil king never intended for the wedding to happen. He believed he had come up with a clever way to conveniently get rid of a popular young rival. The evil king proclaimed that he would give his own daughter in marriage to the young man, who had served him as a courageous military commander, if only the young man would go collect one hundred enemy scalps. Except, you should know that I am using the word scalps as a euphemism for some other circle of skin. The evil king believed that, given the odds against him, the courageous young military commander would surely meet a lamentable defeat, and heroically face his untimely demise. It was an altogether convenient strategy, a win-win for everyone involved. The evil King would win total unrivaled control. And his young courageous commander would win a place in history as a tragic, glorious martyr.       

The young courageous military commander agreed that the king’s proposition would result in a win-win. He would win the king’s daughter. And the king would win a battle against his enemies. So he happily agreed to the king’s proposal. He determined to go collect not one hundred enemy “scalps,” but two hundred. And… surprise, surprise… he succeeded. He won the battle. Consequently, the king had to deliver. 

From the king’s perspective, the wedding was never supposed to have happened. But then it did. It was all very awkward and embarrassing for the king, who envied the young commander. And now the young commander was his son-in-law.

Desperate times call for extreme measures, they say. The king deemed this a particularly desperate time. The young courageous commander was far too successful and far too popular, even among the king’s own children. Years before, the king’s own son, the heir apparent, had become the commander’s best friend. And then, the commander had managed to beat the odds and win the king’s daughter as his bride. The king would not watch everything slip away without a fight. He seethed with resentment and jealousy. His throne was in jeopardy. His new son-in-law had to die, and die as soon as possible.

By the way, this story is not original to me. And I am not making any of this up. I am simply retelling an old, old story. This is all in the Old Testament, in the Bible.    

The king’s name is Saul. The young commander’s name is David. You can find this story for yourself in the Book of First Samuel, chapters eighteen and nineteen. Go ahead and check if I have retold the story accurately. 

Spoiler alert: David does eventually end up winning the throne. He becomes king. But before he does, King Saul spends a lot of time and effort trying unsuccessfully to kill him. 

I write all this because it is the back story to a Psalm, Psalm 59.

Psalm 59 caught my attention because it contains what appears to be two contradictory requests. In verse 11 the Psalmist prays that God would not kill his enemies. But then in verse 13 the Psalmist prays for God to consume his enemies, consume them until they are no more.

This makes no sense whatsoever. It seems like a complete contradiction: “Please don’t kill my adversaries, God — just completely consume them.”

But it does make sense if and when you understand the backstory. The Psalmist is none other than David. His adversaries include his father-in-law, once-close friends, and former comrades. The Psalmist does not want them to die. But he does want God to eliminate their threats and the vicious smear campaign. So he prays that God will undo them.

Crucially, the word for consume in the original language — the Hebrew language — also means finish. David wants God to finish his adversaries, but not necessarily kill them.

The word for consume or finish might also connote their eventual destruction, as opposed to their immediate destruction. If that is the case, then David desires that God would give them more time before their demise. Considering that they had tried to kill him, why would David want them to live any longer, though? Perhaps his motives are noble. Perhaps he desires both vindication and reconciliation.

In the second half of verse 11 David further explains why he does not want any of them to meet an untimely, premature death. “Lest they forget,” he says. “Do not kill them, lest my people forget.” David wants “his” people not to forget what happened. Might he want not just his loyal subjects, but even his old adversaries alive to remember?

That assumption works best, I think. David wants even his opponents to witness his victory and his vindication, so that they will realize that they were wrong all along. He wants them to remember the lies they once believed, wants them to see their error, and wants them to realize that they had him wrong. In other words, he is praying for his vindication and for their potential conversion. David does not want them dead. Instead, he wants God to bring their hostility to an end. He wants to finish them off as adversaries, but not as individuals.

Unless you know the backstory, the Psalm does not make sense. But once you do know the backstory, not only does it make sense, it also serves as a good example of how to pray for those who do you wrong. 

Do not kill them, God. Just undo what they have errantly said and done; and let everyone who witnessed the fiasco observe how it all ends, and thereafter recall who was wrong and who was right.

In other words, Psalm 59 is a prayer not for vengeance, but for vindication.

Personally, I like that prayer. I like it a lot.