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God Has Plans For Us

Saturday, August 26, 2023

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most quoted and claimed promises in the Bible. We find it printed on pretty calendars, on coffee mugs, and even on interior walls of some homes. It’s easy to see why this precious word of assurance from God captivates believers. But do those who quote it understand its context? This is a surprising word of hope given to a nation under God’s judgment.

In Jeremiah’s day, Israel was suffering exile in Babylon as a just punishment for their flagrant rebellion against God. Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem, sent a letter to the exiles telling them to settle into their new lives in Babylon: “seek the welfare of the city… and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7). After warning them of the dangers of false prophets (Jer. 29:8-9), Jeremiah wrote that after seventy years God would rescue them from captivity and bring them back home to Jerusalem (Jer. 29:10). Then comes the word of assurance in verse 11. Despite the exiles’ present suffering, God’s ultimate purpose for them was for good (“welfare” = shalom) not evil.

Note that the “you” in verse 11 is plural (“you all”) not singular. In this text, God is not promising an individual plan for each person but rather a plan for his people as a whole. We see that plan worked out through history when Israel, far from dying out in obscurity in Babylon, returned to their homeland exactly as God promised.

Israel’s “future and hope” was bound up with God’s promise to bless all other nations through them (Gen. 12:3); their survival was crucial to God's ‘big picture.’ The proper response to such grace was not gleeful celebration or mere relief—“Everything is going to turn out okay, so let’s party!”—but heartfelt repentance and renewed devotion to God. When Israel would turn to God with all their heart they would find him and be restored (Jer. 29:12-14; cf. Deut. 4:29-31). At the end of those seventy years, Daniel, living in captivity, did exactly what Jeremiah said and led his people to earnestly seek God and his restorative grace (Dan. 9:1-19).

Understanding the context of this glorious promise helps us apply it properly to our lives. God’s plans for exiled Israel have been fulfilled. They paid the penalty for breaking the covenant with their exile and God comforted and restored them (see Ezra; Neh.). Now, under the New Covenant established by Jesus through which we enjoy the forgiveness of sins—another promise from the book of Jeremiah (ch. 31)—God wants us to know that he has plans for us as well, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Christians are also “exiles” of a sort (1 Pet. 1:1-2). Because this present world is not our true home, we live in constant tension within it. Though we are rejected by the world, we know that we are “chosen and precious” in the eyes of God (1 Pet. 2:4, 9-10). We have been called out of this world (Jn. 15:19) to live for the world to come (2 Pet. 3:10-13). Like the faithful pilgrims of old, we “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16), “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). By faith, we await the “New Jerusalem” where we will live together with God — and without sin, pain or death (Rev. 21:1-5).

Like ancient Israel, we know that the period of our current state of exile will end because God has promised to bring us to himself: “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). Like Israel, we are not to squander our time in exile with inactivity, detachment or despair. We are to seek the Lord and the welfare of our neighbors by praying on their behalf (Jer. 29:7). In Christ, God has given us “a future and a hope.” We express that hope by loving him and loving others.

A Different World

Saturday, August 12, 2023

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

Genesis 1:1, 31

Amber is the fossilized resin of conifer trees. Sap runs from the tree trapping insects and plants then hardens over time, preserving whatever is inside, a process popularized by Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1993 film Jurassic Park. Sometimes tiny pockets of air also get trapped in the amber. When the gases within these microscopic air bubbles are analyzed, scientists find that the Earth’s atmosphere was quite different when the air bubbles were originally trapped. In fact, the atmosphere contained about 35% oxygen compared with our 21% today. This oxygen-rich atmosphere means that the simple act of breathing in the ancient world have would been exciting! Studies indicate that increased oxygen and higher air pressure (like that reproduced in a hyperbaric chamber) can reduce infection, heal certain diseases, decrease stress and even enhance stamina.

There is also evidence to suggest that the Earth was much warmer long ago and, if the air was rich with oxygen, the atmosphere would have been much more dense. All this would make it possible for large creatures to fly, such as pterosaurs like the Quetzalcoatlus which had a 50 foot wingspan and weighed over 500 pounds.

The late Dr. Kei Mori of Keio University in Tokyo experimented raising plants in nutrient-rich soil under special light using a mirror system which sent light through fiberoptic cables that filtered out infrared and ultraviolet radiation. This means the light the plants received was pure sunlight. His tomato plant grew 16 feet tall and produced over 900 tomatoes! The plant was then moved to a larger area with scaffolding to support it. The plant grew to over 30 feet tall, covered an area of over 900 ft² and yielded over 13,000 tomatoes over six months, a Guinness world record. They were a kind of cherry tomato but Mori’s were the size of baseballs. Could this environment of filtered sunlight, enhanced carbon dioxide, and nutrient-rich soil mirror the conditions of the early Earth? If so, why is our world so different and what accounts for the change?

There are many possible naturalistic explanations for these changes which science continues to answer. But we can also offer a theological reason which accounts for them: in a word, sin. When God created the world, it was “very good.” Humans were made to live forever in fellowship with God and in proximity to the “tree of life.” But the introduction of sin into creation caused death and decay to “reign” until the coming of Christ (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 5:12ff). Not only were humans exiled from Eden and the tree of life, creation itself suffered as a result of human sin (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul says it was “subjected to futility in hope” and is now “in bondage to corruption… groaning” in pain until it is set free (Rom. 8:19-22).

Sin brought suffering, disease and death into creation. Even after sin entered the world, humans lived much longer lives in comparison to today (see Gen. 5). Perhaps the reason for this longevity and robust health was due to factors such as lower radiation levels, increased air pressure, richer carbon dioxide, more nutrient-rich soil and a generally cleaner world. Noah’s flood would also have vastly changed the biosphere, making it difficult for many species to adapt to the new postdiluvian environment. But the further we got from the beginning, the more the effects of sin compounded until the human lifespan decreased, eventually leveling off to about “seventy, or if by reason of strength eighty” years, as Moses wrote (Psa. 90:10).

I realize some of this is speculative but the gospel is certain: Jesus came to grant us access to the tree of life. His death redeems us from the curse of sin and his resurrection secures our hope of eternal life. In him, we look forward to an even better world to come (Heb. 11:16; 2 Pet. 3:13), a perfect world in which there is no sin and we can live with God forever in perfect bodies (1 Cor. 15:42ff).

The Two Beasts of Revelation 13

Saturday, August 05, 2023

Revelation 13 retells the same story of cosmic conflict as the previous chapter but this time using the symbolism of Daniel’s animal visions (Dan. 7-12). Satan, depicted as a giant red dragon, summons two beasts which he empowers to be his agents of evil on earth. Having failed to destroy the Messiah he turns his destructive energies toward the church (12:12-13). But who or what are these beasts?

THE SEA BEAST = the war machine (13:1-10) — The first beast emerges from the “sea.” To Israel, a mostly agricultural and pastoral society, the sea represented the chaotic forces of evil which oppose God’s purposes. Violent and rebellious nations that threaten God’s people are sometimes described as tumultuous waves (Isa. 17:12; 57:20-21; 60:5). In Daniel’s vision, four beasts arise from the sea, each one representing a great kingdom: Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome. The beast in John’s vision is Daniel’s fourth beast, which would be defeated after waging war against God’s people for a time (Dan. 7:2-8, 23-27), but is depicted as an amalgamation of the first three.

Therefore, this sea beast represents the Roman Empire. It possesses the tearing power of the “lion” (from the Babylonian empire), the crushing force of the “bear” (from the Persian empire) and the swift ferocity of the “leopard” (from Macedonia under Alexander the Great). The evil and might of Daniel’s first three beasts reaches its climax in the fourth, this “beast from the sea” which Satan uses as a tool to oppress God’s church. It possesses military strength and authority, symbolized by its ten horns upon which were set ten crowns, and malicious cunning, symbolized by its seven heads which bear blasphemous names (Rev. 13:1-2). This description signifies a government intoxicated with its own power, exhibiting total irreverence toward God and all that is sacred—Roman emperors took blasphemous titles for themselves and accepted, and eventually demanded, worship.

But this beast received what seemed to be a mortal head-wound which was then mysteriously healed to everyone’s amazement (13:3). This probably refers to the death (suicide) of Emperor Nero in 68 AD which plunged the empire into civil war and anarchy. After the “Year of four Emperors” (69 AD), Vespasian restored order and the Flavian dynasty began first with Titus, who reigned from 79-81, then Domitian, who reigned from 81-96. Nero’s bloodthirsty spirit lived on in Domitian and the persecution of Christians intensified to its historical apex.

The watching world marveled at the recovery of the empire and “worshiped the beast,” attributing to it divine qualities (Rev. 13:3-4). Though under the power of the dragon, God gave permission to the beast to do its worst: Rome was allowed to speak blasphemy against God and his church, to exercise authority for a period of time, to persecute and even kill the saints, and was given all those who would give their allegiance to it (Rev. 13:5-8).

THE EARTH BEAST = the propaganda machine (13:11-18) — The second beast rises from the “earth” and resembles, at first glance, an innocent “lamb.” But its speech quickly gives it away, for its message is diabolical, nothing but lies and deception. Because it has swallowed the lies of Satan (12:16; cf. Jn. 8:44), this beast is later called “the false prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). It supports the Roman Empire by compelling people to worship it (Rev. 13:11-12).

The earth beast represents paganism and false religion, particularly the Roman imperial cult whose job it was to disseminate propaganda. Through its "two horns"—the Roman Proconsul (the appointed political power) and the imperial priests of the Commune (the appointed spiritual power)—the earth beast worked to compel the citizenry to worship the Empire and Emperor while the sea beast enforced it.

While the first beast attempted to control people through fear, the second exerted its influence through deception. The Roman propaganda machine bolstered its lies with false displays of power, pseudo-miracles to deceive people into making an image of the Emperor and worshiping it (Rev. 13:13-14; cf. Mt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9-10). Anyone who refused to give their total, public allegiance to the Empire—symbolized by receiving the “mark” of the beast on their hand or forehead—was either “slain” or economically boycotted (Rev. 13:15-17). This “mark” was a kind of anti-shema; the “shema,” so named after the first Hebrew word in the prayer (“listen”) was the daily Israelite prayer of complete loyalty to God whose commandments they were to bind on their “hands” and “foreheads” (Deut. 6:4-9). The “mark of the beast,” therefore, was not a physical mark on one’s body but one’s public loyalty and support of the imperial cult.

Saints suffering under such beastly pressure were called to two things:

 

  1. The call for faithful endurance (Rev. 13:10) — Saints who were being taken captive and slain with the sword by the Roman war machine were simply told to persevere and refuse to retaliate against this evil. They were not to resist the government (Rom. 13:2; 1 Pet. 2:13) but remain faithful to God and fight with spiritual weapons (Eph. 6:10-18). If they were unjustly taken captive or slain with the sword for their faith, they must follow Jesus and continue suffering in innocence, entrusting themselves to him who judges justly (Rev. 13:9-10; cf. 1 Pet. 2:23). “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Rev. 13:10b; cf. 1 Jn. 5:4)
  2. The call for wisdom (Rev. 13:18) — In addition to being “innocent as doves” in their suffering, they were also to be “wise as serpents” (see Mt. 10:16). Following the description of the second beast which used words to deceive, saints were told to discern between truth and error. They were to “calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of man, and his number is 666.” (Rev. 13:18) Israelites would compute the numerical value of Hebrew words based on their constituent letters. Each letter possessed a value: Aleph = 1, Bet = 2, Gimel = 3, and so on. When the Greek words “Nero Caesar” and “beast” are spelled in Hebrew letters, they each add up to 666. In the numerology of Revelation, the number six symbolized ultimate (thrice repeated) creaturely imperfection in comparison to divine perfection (symbolized by the number seven). What does all this mean? Christians are to be wise enough not to be hoodwinked by the schemes of this beast. After all, behind this evil empire was a dark spiritual force pulling the strings, colluding with it and animating it. The “number of the beast” would signify to Christians that Rome belonged to Satan and would soon fall. So don’t put your trust in it!

 

In the face of the first beast’s violent persecution, the church was to endure faithfully and refuse to retaliate (Rev. 13:10). In the face of the second beast’s political and spiritual deception, the church was to be wise to the schemes of the devil (Rev. 13:18). Neither Rome nor any other earthly entity was the real enemy. God wants his people then and now to see that Satan works through earthly powers. Governments become beastly when they fail to protect people from evil and instead exalt their own power and economic security as false gods and then demand total allegiance. But they are merely tools under the influence of the evil one who wants to inflict as much damage as possible before he is “thrown alive into the lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). If we must suffer for our Lord, let us suffer innocently, faithfully and wisely!

God Calls His Shots

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

(Luke 24:44-49)

As far back as I can remember we had a billiard table in our basement. Dad’s house rule was that you had to “call your shots.” Something like “nine ball, corner pocket” or even a silent tap on the desired pocket would do as you were lining up your shot. This was, of course, to increase the challenge of the game. Anyone might accidentally knock a ball in and claim afterward that they meant to do it. But making a shot which you specified beforehand indicates a certain amount of skill (instead of luck)—especially if the results are repeated. If dad made a ball early on, he was liable to “run the table” on you, pocketing one and setting himself up for the next and so on leaving you holding your stick until he won. It was frustrating but also motivating; it made you want to improve so you could beat him one day (I still can’t).

In the Bible, God is always “calling his shots.” Take the passage above in Luke 24. After Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose on the third day, he appeared to his disciples to explain the significance of these events. He had previously told them these things would take place but they failed to comprehend his meaning at the time. Now, in the light of his resurrection, Jesus explains that his rejection, far from being a divine blunder, was not only foreseen but prophesied in the “Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Once their minds were opened to see the truth of Jesus’ words and that history had unfolded exactly according to God’s plans, they were filled with confidence, equipped to be witnesses of the risen Messiah (Acts 1:8).

In fact, the books of the New Testament and the sermons of the early Christians all have a strong apologetic backbone, appealing to God’s promises in Scripture to explain how Jesus fulfilled them. In other words, they showed that God calls his shots. Peter said to the crowds who crucified Jesus a few weeks prior that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2:23) He went on to quote several Scriptures, skillfully connecting the dots to show how Jesus directly fulfilled them. Later,  Stephen does the same for the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 7) and the apostle Paul for those in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13).

It was also typical of the Old Testament prophets, in the face of pagan idolatry, to appeal to the LORD’s ability to foresee future events and even bring them about according to his sovereign will. A memorable example of this is found in Isaiah 40-45 where the incomparable greatness of the omnipotent Creator is contrasted with the impotent idols made with human hands. They have mouths that cannot speak, let alone prophesy; ears that cannot hear, let alone answer prayer; eyes that cannot see, let along see the future! All those who fashion and depend on these idols become as deaf, dumb, and blind as they are (Isa. 44). But the LORD who made the heavens and the earth and all that is within them calls his shots: he predicts events before they happen and works through history to bring about his purposes. For example, God called Cyrus, king of Persia, by name (Isa. 45:1), 100 years before Cyrus assumed the throne. What confidence God gives to all those who put their trust in him! We serve a God who calls his shots and always makes them.

Finding Your Place

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

(Romans 12:6-8)

Paul consistently teaches that every Christian has an integral role in the strength and growth of their local church. Have you ever wondered what your role is here at Dulles? You have unique abilities that God has given you and he expects you to “use them” to build up of the body of Christ (Mt. 25:14ff; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:16). Paul emphasizes that no one is unimportant, no task is trivial and no action, if done for the Lord, is meaningless (1 Cor. 15:58).

Consider the text in Romans 12 above. While prophecy was a gift unique to the first-century, every Christian has some measure of giftedness in the areas listed. For example, all Christians must be merciful but there are some who, already having compassionate hearts, are particularly predisposed to showing mercy to the suffering. All must be servants in the kingdom but some excel in service; they naturally see and seize opportunities to serve while others may have to force themselves to do so. The same with teaching, exhortation, contribution, generosity and leadership.

We are all equally made in God’s image but each possess unique traits. Once we give our loyalty to King Jesus, his Spirit can either create and awaken talents within us previously unknown or refine and enhance talents already present. We must learn to evaluate ourselves and each other to point out where our spiritual strengths lie so that we can exercise and develop them for the Lord’s sake.

Backing up a bit, consider Paul’s words in Romans 12:3-5: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

Rather than thinking we are self-sufficient (thinking of ourselves “more highly than [we] ought to think”) we must learn to soberly reflect on our need of others and others’ need of us in the church (3). Paul describes the church with the helpful metaphor of a human body consisting of “many members” each having functions that are essentially different from, yet complimentary to, one another (4-5). The implications of thinking of ourselves and others as unique body parts like limbs or organs are enormous.

First, there are no extraneous body parts. Each one is needed to perform a special function that contributes to the health and growth of the body. Every member matters. Also, what each member does (or fails to do) affects the entire body because of the interconnectedness of the individual members. Moreover, if a member is subtracted from the church body, the church is not simply reduced in number but has suffered a grievous injury!

As is typical for Paul, he gives us the ideal so that we know what to shoot for. The church is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:12; 5:23). The exhortation is to think and behave in accordance with this reality. If we are a member of Christ, we are no more or less important than any other member. If we are a member of Christ, we are also members of one another to share and bear each others’ burdens. If we are members of Christ, our connection to the Head (Jesus) is paramount; our common faith in Christ makes us one. Therefore, above all else, we must hold fast “to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” (Col. 2:19)

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