God-Forsaken Location

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

God-Forsaken Location – Audio Version
The Contested Location

Its precise latitude and longitude coordinates criss-cross at 31 degrees, 46 minutes, 41.2176 seconds north of the equator; and 35 degrees, 14 minutes, 9.5748 seconds east of the prime meridian. Many years ago, long before those coordinates had any meaning at all, heaven and earth intersected there, at that very location, give or take a few fractions of a second north or south, east or west. According to the Bible, the Presence and Glory of the LORD God Almighty once dwelt at those coordinates precisely, inside a magnificent temple, in an inner chamber known as the Holy of Holies. But the Glory of God has long since vacated that location, and abandoned those geographic coordinates. In the language of the Old Testament, it might now be called Ichabod. As the Prophecy of Ezekiel depicts using very evocative imagery (see, for example, Ezekiel Chapter 10), it is a God-forsaken place. 

Even though the Glory is long, long gone, that same geographic spot is hotly and sometimes violently contested turf, even today, and especially today. If you happen to keep an eye on the international news, you are aware that the Israelis and some of the Palestinian politico-military factions have been firing volleys of rockets and missiles at each other over the last several days. This latest round of renewed claim-staking and blood-letting began last Friday, just a few days ago. And the back-and-forth retaliatory strikes seem likely to escalate into the foreseeable future. Alarmingly, the fighting could ripple into a wider regional war.

Why are they fighting, yet again? Primarily, the two sides are fighting about who controls that once God-forsaken geographic location. And they have even been fighting each other face-to-face, man-to-man on top of that spot, on top of the blocks of stone that cover that geographic location. This past weekend, they were sometimes literally physically fighting each other inside the hilltop complex that now stands where the temple once stood. 

Screen Grab from JPost, English Online Edition – Israeli Police on the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif, May 7, 2021

But who cares? Why should we care? Does it matter to anyone besides them? Does the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians are once again fighting at that location — at the place where the Glory of God once dwelt on Planet Earth — does it have any special significance? Or is it much ado about nothing? 

It might matter a lot. Whether it matters entirely depends on whether those spatial coordinates and that geographic location continue to have any special significance to the God who once dwelt there in Glory, only to abandon it later. Asked most simply: Has God forsaken that location forever?

It nearly goes without saying that I am here implicitly affirming that the God who once dwelt there is actually the LORD God Almighty, the actual Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, and not just a fictional, mythological being. But I will hereby make the implicit explicit. I am assuming and affirming just that. I do believe that the Creator once dwelt in Glory in a gilded chamber on a hilltop in ancient Jerusalem. Indeed, the historical events that transpired on and near that particular hilltop make that claim much more believable, when they are given careful attention and close examination. Prophecies have been made and fulfilled there, repeatedly over the centuries. 

If that is indeed so — if prophecies were made and fulfilled there in the past — could it be that prophecies are continuing to be fulfilled there in the present and in the future?

In the Gospel of Luke 21:24, Jesus is recorded as prophesying this about the Jewish citizens of first-century Jerusalem: 

They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. 

And guess what? History has proven Jesus right. It happened just as he once said. They did fall by the edge of the sword, and horribly so. They were led captive among all nations, and for almost two thousand years. And Jerusalem has been trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, and continues to be, especially at the very coordinates where the Glory of God once dwelt. 

But when I hear the news reports and watch the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem literally physically fighting with their Gentile neighbors over that God-forsaken location, I do have to wonder if the times of the Gentiles are nearly fulfilled. Time will tell, I suppose.  

Identification, Please

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

Identification, Please – Audio Version

At least three other people have shared my first and last name. To my knowledge, one other person has shared my first, middle, and last name. His name was identical to mine. He died within the last fifteen years. He was a resident of the same state, and lived not far away. The fact that he has died and that I am still alive could potentially bring me trouble. In fact, it may have already caused some trouble, as I recently had to take documentary pains to establish my identity with state officials. On that occasion, I had to submit official paperwork to prove that I am who I claim to be, lest perhaps I be an imposter, attempting to steal a dead man’s identity. 

Although I have not needed to have this conversation face-to-face yet, I imagine the day may come when I need to explain in person that I share my name with a deceased person. I may need to say something like this: “Yes, I am actually who I claim to be. Yes, that’s my legal name and has always been my name. Yes, I’m still alive, as you can see. The other guy who happened to have my same name is no longer alive. He’s dead. He died some time ago. He was not me. Same name, but different guy. He’s dead; I’m not. And I have the means to prove that I am who I say I am.”  

The reason I say all this is because people and even whole communities share the same name in the Bible. Consequently, the reader has to keep straight who is who. It isn’t always easy to do. There are two or three Zechariahs in the Bible. There are two or three Joshuas. There are two or three Marys. There are two Sauls. There are two James. There are two or three Johns. 

Usually, the individuals who share the same name are helpfully separated by big stretches of time, which makes it easier to keep things straight. The two Sauls are separated by well over a thousand years; and the latter Saul did everyone a favor by assuming the Græco-Roman name Paul, thereby erasing any confusion. But that is not always true. The three Marys are pretty close to each other in time and place. There is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and Mary Magdalene. All of the Marys were closely associated with Jesus. If we had photos of the three Marys, it would be easier. But alas, no photos back then. Someday in glory, it will be easier. 

And then there are cities. Caesarea serves as a prime example. There is more than one Caesarea mentioned in the New Testament. One sits right on the Mediterranean Sea. It is therefore known as Caesarea Maritime. An extremely important New Testament event happened there (see Acts 10, where the Holy Spirit dramatically fell upon a believing Gentile household). The other Caesarea does not sit on the sea, but near a spring in the northern highlands of Israel. It is known as Caesarea Philippi. A crucially important New Testament conversation happened there (see Matthew 16:13-20, where Jesus candidly affirms Peter’s claim that Jesus is the promised Messiah). If you’ve traveled to Israel (which I have not, yet) and visited either or both locations, the two Caesareas should be easy enough to keep separate, since one is a beach-front Mediterranean resort; and the other is definitely not. But if you’re just reading through the gospel accounts, the two cities are not easy to distinguish.

Making matters even more complicated, sometimes one biblical name is deliberately used two ways. Israel is both an individual man (also known as Jacob) and a nation. Ephraim is both an individual man and a region. Judah is both an individual man and a nation. Context usually makes it clear whether you’re reading about a person or an entire nation. But not always. Sometimes biblical writers even deliberately play on the eponymous ambiguity. When such situations present themselves, biblical readers may need to slow down, re-read, cross-reference, and even take some notes. Again, context usually clarifies matters, eventually.  

Now, we must turn our faces toward Jerusalem. When they appear in prophecy, the names Zion and Jerusalem are effectively synonymous; and they are conceptually hard to keep straight. You may want to repeat that statement aloud about fifteen times, because it is an extremely important point to grasp. 

In prophetic literature, the names Zion and Jerusalem are conceptually hard to keep straight.

In prophetic literature, the names Zion and Jerusalem are conceptually hard to keep straight.

In prophetic literature, the names Zion and Jerusalem are conceptually hard to keep straight.

Keep going…

Just be very aware that should you encounter the names Zion or Jerusalem in a prophecy you may be on slippery interpretive ground. In the Bible, Jerusalem is usually what you might guess — that is, a geographically-defined, map-able ancient city. But not always. Sometimes in prophecy, Jerusalem is used as a metaphorical reference or a spiritual designation. Therefore, as a prophecy reader you have to ask yourself exactly which particular Jerusalem or Zion you have before you. Here are some of your interpretive options:

  1. This is indeed and simply Jerusalem/Zion, the literal geographical city.
  2. In this passage, Jerusalem means the populace of the literal, geographical city.
  3. In this passage, Jerusalem stands for something larger, such as the entire Jewish nation.
  4. In this passage, Jerusalem signifies the elect people of God, including Jews and Gentiles.
  5. In this passage, Jerusalem designates not an earthly city, but a heavenly or spiritual city.                  

Since these various Jerusalems play such an important and recurring part in both Old Testament and New Testament prophecies, careful Bible readers cannot escape these interpretive decisions. Which Jerusalem or Zion is this? You have to ask the question, time and again.

When I read the Bible and encounter the name Jerusalem or Zion, I generally start by asking myself if the passage I am reading is prophecy. If the answer is no, then it is almost always safe to assume that it is the literal geographical city or the populace thereof. But if the answer is yes, this is indeed a prophecy, then it matters greatly if I am reading from the Old Testament or New Testament. In general, the Old Testament thinks of Jerusalem in either literal, immediate, and usually negative terms or in futuristic, utopian, and positive terms. In the Old Testament, there is the corrupt, sinful Jerusalem that existed back then; and there is the purified, holy Jerusalem that is to come. But to think of Jerusalem as the entire elect people of God, including even redeemed Gentiles from outside Israel — well, wait… what? That idea is mostly foreign to the Old Testament and a rather surprising mystery, a mystery that is only hinted at here and there, a tiny bit.

In New Testament prophecy, though, that once seemingly foreign mystery comes to forefront. In the New Testament, Jerusalem/Zion is very often a symbol of the entire elect people of God, including Jewish believers and redeemed Gentiles. More simply stated, in much of New Testament prophecy, Jerusalem is one and the same as the Church Universal and Everlasting throughout all of human history. You can repeat that statement to yourself a bunch of times, too.

An extremely important thing to keep in mind is that in the end all the various Jerusalems will merge into just one holy community anyway. The Church Universal and Everlasting in heaven will someday descend down to Earth and be established here as a permanent city, both spiritually and literally/physically. That is because what is now distinct spiritually and literally will someday be fused together. In the end, there will be just one Jerusalem where God will dwell with the redeemed.

For further reading, I would suggest Isaiah 62 and Revelation 21.            

Temple Visitors

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

The Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
Temple Visitors – Audio Version

Temple. This blog post considers the theme of temple and how it relates to the Book of Revelation.

In a previous post, I explained how I was once an angel in Los Angeles. In the original Greek, from which English eventually inherited the word, angelos really just means messenger. A messenger can be a glorious heavenly being or an unimpressive, ordinary earthling. For a while, I worked for a successful county-line law firm as a courier, driving around the greater LA area. As a courier, I had navigate my way through traffic to various court houses and hand-deliver important legal documents and time-sensitive messages. Thus, in my mind, I officially qualify. I can claim that I was briefly an angelos in Los Angeles. 

A few years after I drove and delivered messages for the law firm, someone from my school asked if I would be willing to drive a van for them. A delegation of English-speaking scholars from across the Muslim world was about to come to Los Angeles. Was I available and would I be willing to drive them around? Yes, I was available. And yes, I would drive them around LA.

The year was 2002. September 11th was a very recent and raw memory. The United States State Department, in cooperation with some institutions of higher learning, had arranged for a delegation of English-speaking Muslim scholars to tour the United States. I believe that the US State Department and the American schools hoped that the scholars would return to their respective countries and speak positively about what they had seen and experienced in the USA. The tour was an attempt at academic and religious diplomacy. Good PR was surely the goal. I’m not sure if that’s what happened, though. Still, it was eye-opening to be their driver.  

One of the destinations to which I drove the scholars was Wilshire Boulevard Temple. As the name indicates, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is located on Wilshire Boulevard, a road that runs right through downtown Los Angeles. You may have heard of it before. The Temple, which I will abbreviate from hence as WBT, is an impressive historic building that belongs to a Jewish congregation. From an artistic standpoint, WBT visually wows a visitor. It has a big central rotunda, much like most state capitol buildings. If you stand underneath the rotunda and look upward, as I did, golden gilded Hebrew letters and words go around the inside of it. To my surprise and delight, I could read it. I knew exactly what it said. It was the Shema. 

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” That would be Deuteronomy 6:4; and that is the Shema.

For me, it was an electrifying moment. Not long before that, I had taken Hebrew. I stood there, looking upward, and actually read what it said, with ease. And I was struck by the weight and the serendipity of that moment. Representatives of the three religions that lay claim to the monotheism proclaimed in that verse were all gathered there. However, we were hardly in harmony. For one thing, we disagreed about the identity of the Temple (of God).

Temple Mount in temporal Jerusalem

The Jewish temple that once stood in Jerusalem — will it be rebuilt someday? For centuries now, the temple’s former location has been a Muslim sacred site. The Dome of the Rock was constructed where the temple once stood. It is there to this day. The site is under the jurisdiction of Muslim authorities. They are determined to hold it. If the Israelis attempt to take control of the location, a regional war will probably immediately ensue. 

With all that in consideration, hear what one of the Muslim scholars asked the head rabbi at WBT. While we all stood around in the office of the rabbi, a visiting Muslim scholar asked him, “Do you want the temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem?” It was a loaded question. The rabbi’s answer surprised me. It probably surprised the Muslim scholars, too.

The rabbi said, “No, I don’t, because if the temple were rebuilt we would need to resume the whole sacrificial system. I don’t want that to happen.”

Alternatively, there are other Jewish religious authorities who do want the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt. That was not discussed with the visiting Muslim scholars at WBT that day, though.

A lot of Christians have been taught and believe that the Jewish temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt before Jesus returns. The Book of Revelation briefly mentions “the temple of God” in the first two verses of Chapter Eleven. Interpreters have to decide which temple is referenced. Is it a rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem, or something else? That is a super-important question. If it is understood to be a rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem, then we ought to intently watch what happens at that contested location in Jerusalem. However, if it is not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, then fixating on events in Jerusalem is unnecessary. Again, interpretively, a lot hangs the identity of the temple in Revelation 11:1-2.

The temple mentioned in Revelation 11:1-2 is actually the Church, not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. That is how I read it. We are mistaken to expect a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, which might never happen, anyway. Here, the Rabbi at WBT, along with the Muslim scholars, may have their collective way. There may never be a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, at least, not prior to the parousia of Jesus, that is, prior to the Second Coming.  

The New Testament repeatedly says that the Church is now the temple of God. We ought to believe it. The Church really is the temple of God now. God’s presence is no longer to be found in a brick-and-mortar building or a stone-and-mortar temple, but in a living temple, in and among the corporate people of God. Ephesians 2:19-22 says as much, and is worth a quick read.

All of this said, the land and the people of Israel are not irrelevant. On the contrary, the nation of Israel is still relevant to Revelation and will be important in The End. After all these centuries of time, God continues to be faithful to the Jewish people for the sake of their ancestors; and they still do have a role to play in the fulfillment of prophecy. Explaining that will have to wait for another day and another blog post, though.