Monday, July 27, 2020

What about the end times? (part 1)

I typically try to steer clear of controversial topics. Well, I guess that's probably not quite the right way to say that. I'm sure there are people who would say that a lot of the topics I write about are controversial--after all, it's a big controversy in the world today to say that Jesus is the only way to God. This post, though, is about something controversial within the Church.

There are some matters of doctrine that are debated from congregation to congregation. Some of those are things I believe we can overlook. When it comes right down to it, some of those issues are minor talking points. They don't have any true, lasting effects on believers or the lost, so arguing about them doesn't do anything other than divide. Other issues, however, are worth talking about. Those are the ones that run the risk of causing confusion that can prove harmful. In my mind, the discussion surrounding the tribulation and the rapture is one of those.

If you've heard of the tribulation, it's probably been something along the lines of this: 
The tribulation is coming at the end of times, and it will be the most horrific time that has ever been seen on earth. It is when God's judgment will be poured out on mankind, and it will be so bad that people will cry out to the rocks to fall on them so they will be hidden. The Antichrist will be set up as the supreme leader of the earth, and he will force all people to bow to him. He will force them to get a mark on either their head or hand, and without that mark they won't be allowed to buy or sell. But God's people don't have to worry about it because we will all be raptured and gone.

But...what if that's not the case?

 I don't know the exact timeline of the end times, but I don't know many people who look around right now and don't think we're getting closer to that time. In Matthew, Jesus talks to His followers about the end times. We have another record in Mark and one in Luke. In all of these, Jesus tells His disciples that they need to pay attention and use wisdom to figure out what's going on. With that in mind, I believe it is the duty of every follower of Christ to do the same. With that said, I feel like I need to share the view I've come to believe on the idea of the rapture and the tribulation. There's a whole lot to cover, so I'm planning on splitting this up a bit.

So, since I've procrastinated enough, here's part 1:

In Matthew 24, the disciples asked Jesus to explain what He meant when He said the temple would become rubble. They didn't understand His words when He said He would come again (in part because they couldn't imagine Him leaving), and they asked Him point blank how they would know it was the end of time.

Jesus' answer to them is pretty straightforward, and it paints a pretty bleak picture. Here's the gist:

"People are going to come and claim to be the Savior. The world is going to be full of wars, famines, and earthquakes--but that's just the start.

My followers are going to be handed over to the enemy, tortured, and killed. Many people who claim to be my followers will turn away from the idea of faith because the only thing increasing will be wickedness.

The 'abomination that causes desolation' that Daniel predicted will be set up in the temple, and that's when you'll know that the really bad stuff is starting. In fact, when that happens you should run and take shelter in the hills, because that will start a time that's so bad that it won't compare to anything that has ever happened on earth since the beginning of creation.

People will start telling you to be relieved, because the Savior has come--but don't be fooled. They are fakes, and they will do everything they can to fool God's people.

After all of that, then I'll return. It won't be a secret--all the nations of the earth will see me return leading armies of angels, and I will gather all the faithful of the earth."

I don't know about you, but I believe Jesus when He speaks. I have to admit that sometimes I don't really like what He has to say, but I believe His words are always true. In this passage, I believe Him when He says that He will return and gather His people after all the bad stuff happens. Like so many others, I don't like the idea of suffering. I read Revelation and Daniel and hope those I love won't have to see the devastation described by the prophets. At the same time, though, I have to admit that what I read doesn't support the idea that followers of Christ will be "raptured" from the earth before the tribulation.

Let's look at Revelation. I'm not claiming to know all the answers--in fact, the more I study the more I realize just how much I have to learn. However, I do think there are some parts of Revelation that are pretty clear. If we start with chapter 5, we see the timeline of the end times. It's not a minute-by-minute timeline, but it does tell us the order of events, starting with the opening of the 7 seals.

First, can I point out one of the things I think is the neatest about Revelation? As we see this scene opening, all of heaven is mourning because there isn't anyone worthy to open the scroll. But then the elders tell John, "Look, here comes the Lion of Judah!" So John looks for the Lion--the mighty king, coming in power and majesty. But when he looks for the Lion, he sees the Lamb. And not just the Lamb, but the One who had been slain.

When Jesus came, Israel was looking for the Lion. They were waiting for the Messiah to come as a mighty ruler, driving out the Romans and bringing God's kingdom to earth. Instead, Jesus came as a Lamb and was slaughtered to take our place. In this moment in Revelation, though, the Lamb who was slain is shown to be the Lion of Judah--the only One worthy to open the seals of the scroll and truly bring about God's kingdom on earth.

New kingdoms are very seldom created in peace, though. Before the new kingdom can take over, the old has to be defeated. The same is true of the earthly kingdom, where the Prince of the Earth (Satan) has reigned for so long. Before the new kingdom can take over, the old has to be driven out.

The first four seals that are broken involve something you've most likely heard of many times--the 4 horsemen.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1887, by Viktor Vasnetsov

The first rides a white horse and has been given a conqueror's wreath (like the crown given to early Greek olympians). He rides out to conquer the earth. The second rides a fiery red horse and is given a sword, bringing war with him. The third rides a black horse and is holding a set of scales, telling us that barely enough food for one person will cost a day's wages. The fourth is Death, riding a pale horse. The others are bad, but this one is where the picture really starts to get bleak. This rider is given the power to kill 1/4 of the earth's population with famine, war, disease, and even wild animals. That list wraps up the idea of the end times for a lot of people, but in reality it's just the start of all the horrific things to come.

The fifth seal gives us our first glimpse of hope. John sees the souls of those who have been martyred for following Christ, and they are crying out for justice. They want the earth to be judged and they want to be avenged. Here's a bit of a shadow on that hope, though--they are told to wait, that they still have other brothers and sisters who are going to be murdered for their beliefs. So while there's hope, there's also heartache. There's not a whole lot of room for speculation, either, as we'll see in just a little bit when John sees those who are to be added to this group.

The sixth seal brings us back to earth and the things happening, very much like Jesus laid out in Matthew when He quoted the prophets: "a great earthquake shook the earth and the sun grew dark and became black (like mourning sackcloth) and the full moon became red like blood. The stars of heaven fell to earth as a fig tree drops its fruit during a winter storm. The sky snapped back as a scroll when it is rolled up. Every mountain was shaken off its foundation, and every island melted into the sea."

So here comes some pure speculation on my part. To me, this sounds like some sort of cataclysmic cosmic event, possibly an asteroid hitting the earth. If something like that happened, dust and smoke would cover the earth. That could cause the things described in Revelation 6:12-14. Another interesting possible effect? It could speed up the earth's rotation. Here's why that's interesting to me: Jesus told His disciples that God will shorten those days for the sake of His followers. If the earth's rotation was sped up, it could mean shortened days. Whatever the cause, though, the result is all the people of the earth hiding and crying out for the rocks to fall on them to hide them from God's wrath.

Next, we see a little bit of a reprieve where the angels are held back and told not to harm the earth until God's seal is placed on the 144,000. Just in case what I'm saying isn't already controversial enough for you, here's my next thought--that 144,000 doesn't include "Gentiles," which is the group I fall into. I believe that when Revelation says 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel are sealed, that's exactly what it means. I think the Israelites have always been God's chosen people, and I think at the end He will protect His people. I think they will be sealed so they can stand as a testament, so that the rest of the world will truly see His power.

Now, that doesn't mean that I think the 144,000 are the only ones God loves or the only ones who will see the new heaven and new earth. Right after this, John is shown a multitude from every people group on earth, and I fully believe there will be an uncountable number of believers from all over the world. However, Revelation 7:9 says those in the crowd are wearing white robes--the very same as the martyrs mentioned earlier. If that symbolism isn't enough, it's further clarified in verse 14 when John is told, "These are coming from the time of great suffering and affliction. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, cleansing them pure white."

The final seal is opened, and all of heaven is silent for what John says is about half an hour. Honestly, I think that's because they could see what all was about to happen and had to simply sit with that for a while. So for now, I'm going to do the same. My next post will pick up with the 7 trumpets.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

"If...then" statements in the Bible

"If...then" statements are important in computer languages, both in programming and in queries. When you see a conditional statement like this, you know that the second half of the statement will only happen if the first half does. There's no way around it--that's part of the beauty in math and logic for me. If you know the input and the function, you know the output.

I guess that's why I'm oddly comforted by the fact that so many "if...then" statements are in the Scriptures. There are a lot of things I don't understand, so I like it when something is straight forward. Here's the strange contradiction, though--I can be comforted by the presence of these statements and still be brokenhearted over what some of them mean for us.

Right now at church, we're working our way through Jeremiah. A few years back, we started making our way through the Bible chronologically. What was supposed to be a 1-year journey was stretched out the first time to be somewhere close to 3 years. We started through from the beginning again a while back, and I'm pretty positive that we're going to end up taking longer to make our way through this time. I was thinking we should skip to the end and study Revelation with everything that's going on right now, but there's this crazy thing about God's timing...and Jeremiah is incredibly eerie to read right now in light of current events.

When God originally promised blessings and His favor to Israel, it came in the form of an "If...then" statement from the very beginning. In Genesis 17, we see the initial promise God made: 

“I am El Shaddai [God Almighty].
Walk in my presence and be pure-hearted.
I will make my covenant between me and you,
and I will increase your numbers greatly.”

Too often, we focus on what God promised to give but lose sight of what He required. It's not hard to overlook, because He stated it very simply without much fuss: "Walk in my presence and be pure-hearted." His covenant was an agreement, and just like with any covenant (or binding agreement), both sides have things to uphold. If not, the covenant is broken. God is faithful to uphold His end of the covenant, but that is the second half of the "If...then" statement. The first half is what was required of the people, being pure-hearted and walking in the presence of God.

In Jeremiah 12, we read a prayer that seems very familiar to most people. Jeremiah is crying out to God, asking why the wicked prosper and why bad things keep happening. I've found myself wondering the same thing on many occasions. I look around and see the evil that seems to be running rampant in the world, the wicked people who seemingly have everything handed to them on a silver platter while good people struggle. More specifically, I'm seeing the United States being overrun by people who are determined to break down the Christian values upon which this country was founded.

Here's a little clarification of my view, before anyone starts thinking that I'm someone who thinks the prophecies regarding Israel directly pertain to the U.S. I don't think that. I don't believe that we are God's chosen nation--that's a designation that very plainly applies to Israel. I do, however, think that when we invoked the name of God in establishing this country and when we asked for His blessing and His protection, we entered into a covenant with Him. In doing so, we chose to take His requirements onto ourselves in order to ask for His promises.

So in light of that, let's look at the next chapters of Jeremiah.

God starts off by telling Jeremiah that He created Israel to be close to Him, to cling to Him and be His people. Their purpose was to bring glory to His name (which is the purpose of everyone who covers themselves with the name of Christ). But as He tells Jeremiah, God's people chose to turn away from Him.

When the bad stuff started happening, though, the Israelites started crying out to God. In their case it was a drought--in ours right now, the "bad stuff" looks like riots and violence and tyranny and hatred being spewed out. So like Israel did, we've started crying out to God. We mirror Israel's words in chapter 14:7-9

"Although our sins testify against us,
    do something, Lord, for the sake of your name.
For we have often rebelled;
   we have sinned against you.
You who are the hope of Israel,
    its Savior in times of distress,
why are you like a stranger in the land,
    like a traveler who stays only a night?
Why are you like a man taken by surprise,
    like a warrior powerless to save?
You are among us, Lord,
    and we bear your name;
    do not forsake us!"

 And we know that God's promises tell us that He will protect us and rescue us, right?

Here's the thing, though--His covenant with us is an "If...then" statement that depends on us holding up our end of the bargain. Here's God's response:

“Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the Lord says:
“‘Those destined for death, to death;
those for the sword, to the sword;
those for starvation, to starvation;
those for captivity, to captivity.’"

Wait a minute--that's not what He's supposed to say, right? He's supposed to just tell us that all the ugly stuff we've done, all the times we've broken our promises, doesn't really matter. He'll swoop in and save the day, rescuing us from the consequences of our actions.

Here's the thing, though--we've spent decades pushing God out. We've told Him (as Israel did) that we're smarter than Him and that we can take care of ourselves. We've declared that we are better at planning our future and determining our steps, that we don't need to follow God's path because we can create our own.

And then we have the nerve to wonder why that path has become treacherous.

God is eternally faithful and merciful, but He is also eternally just. As such, there are times when in His wisdom He lets us deal with the consequences of our actions. It's just like we do as parents--as much as I would love to protect my kids from anything negative, making sure they have a happy, comfortable life, and as much as I would love to protect them from the negative consequences of their actions. As a parent, though, I know that sometimes my children need to learn from their actions. Sometimes they need to face up to the negative consequences of bad decisions in order to truly understand why those decisions are wrong. If they don't ever have to deal with the consequences, they won't ever learn to stop making those wrong decisions.

So here in Jeremiah, God decides to give people exactly what they've asked for. He decides to take a step back and let people be in charge. As a result, though, they are forced to deal with the consequences of being in charge.

We want to be in charge of our lives. We try to make it sound holy, quoting verses out of context or in bits and pieces:
  • "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." ~Jeremiah 29:11
    • But we ignore the fact that this verse directly follows one that talks about 70 years of exile in Babylon.
  •  "He will give you the desires of your heart" ~Psalm 37:4b
    • But the first of that verse? It says that God will give us our heart's desire when we desire Him.
  • "God works all things for good" ~Romans 8:28
    • But we conveniently leave off the end of the verse that says God works all things for good when we are called according to His purpose.
The thing is, we aren't good at being in control. We push God and His standards out of the picture and then wonder why He doesn't answer us when we ask Him to get us out of the messes we create. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

speak your truth?

We hear it all the time--

"Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have."
~Oprah Winfrey

“You know the truth by the way it feels.”

“Live authentically. Live your truth.”
~Neale Donald Walsch

“Face your fears; Live your passions, be dedicated to your truth.”
~Billie Jean King

“You don’t need to get anyone else to agree with your truth.
You just need to live it.”
~Alan Cohen

I could keep going, but honestly it's a little depressing to me. It seems like the whole world is telling us that there's only one thing that matters: each of us is supposed to be true to whatever we feel like is the truth for us.

We see it in the media, we're bombarded with it by self-help gurus, and we're passing it on to our children in the message that our entire goal is to make sure they have happy lives.

But here's another quote:
" The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally."
~Flannery O'Connor

Oxford Dictionary defines truth as "that which is in accordance with fact or reality." Too often, people talk about truth as if it were subjective--your truth and my truth don't have to be the same because our viewpoints are different and therefore change what we see as being true.

Here's the most important quote about truth:

"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. 
No one comes to the Father except through Me.'"
John 14:6

Jesus didn't say He was "a" truth--He specified that He is the only truth. The truth isn't subjective. We can't choose for something to be true because we agree with it and like how it makes us feel. At the same time, we can't say something isn't true simply because we don't like the sound of it. More and more, that's becoming the default for people. We look around and pick and choose, deciding what should and shouldn't apply to us.

We've decided that we don't need God to tell us what is right and what is wrong...and we've been doing it since the Garden. After all, that was the initial temptation: eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that we don't have to rely on God to tell us what is right and what's wrong.

Because, you see, when someone else tells you what's right, you are held to their standards. And we've decided that it's too hard to live up to God's standards, so we just want to be left to our own. In all honesty, the issue isn't thinking we are too good for God--it's the knowledge deep down in the depths of our souls that we can never live up to God's standards.

So as is so often the case, we see our failures and want to make sure no one else sees them. We want to hide all the ways we don't measure up, so the easiest way to do that is to say that the bar isn't really as high as people are saying. If I can just lower the bar, I can soar over it with ease.

We disguise our lowered expectations the way we disguise most of our insecurities and failures--with bravado and false pride. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed."

In Isaiah 55:8&9 we're told:
"My intentions are not always yours,
and I do not go about things as you do.
My thoughts and My ways are above and beyond you,
just as heaven is far from your reach here on earth."

We want to be good enough. We want to believe that we are fully capable of understanding the mysteries of the universe on our own, that we are smart enough to decide for ourselves what is right. We think that at our core we are basically good, that we can just "follow our heart" and decide what is best.

But we aren't.

At our core, we aren't good enough. We aren't smart enough to decide what is best. As part of creation, we don't have the ability to step outside of what was created and see the big picture. We can see the here and now--and only a small part of it at that. And as to the idea of "following our hearts"? We're told in Jeremiah 17:9,

"The heart is more deceitful than anything else
and mortally sick. Who can fathom it?"

Our hearts lead us astray all the time. That's why we are urged to pursue wisdom, not to follow our feelings.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Why do I believe?

I've written about what I believe--we were challenged to do so many years ago at a church we had started attending. It was something I had never been challenged to do before, and I would encourage you to do the same. I've also written my testimony, probably more times than I can count (I grew up in a Baptist church, after all). It's been updated time and again, which should always be the case if you ask me because I should always be learning more about God and realizing what He has done for me (which is somewhere I very much fall short).

Today, though, I realized that I've never sat down and thought about why I believe. Honestly, that's not a simple task. It seems like why is always the most complex question to answer.

My first why comes from something most of us use as a basis for belief--it's what I've been taught, and the people I learned from were/are trustworthy. As Paul wrote to Timothy: "So surely you ought to stick to what you know is certain. All you have learned comes from people you know and trust because since childhood you have known the holy Scriptures, which enable you to be wise and lead to salvation through faith in Jesus the Anointed." (2 Timothy 3:14&15) My main teacher has been my dad because I've had the unique opportunity to have Pop as my pastor for the majority of my life. Anyone who knows Pop knows that he is true to his word, so there is every reason for me to trust his teachings. I would venture to say, though, that people of all faiths and beliefs would say that they have learned from people who are trustworthy. After all, we don't believe teachings from people we don't trust.

So, while it is useful for my own beliefs, the fact that I learned from those who are trustworthy does nothing to say that what I believe is true. There is nothing in that fact that says Christianity is the right belief.

My next why comes from a pastor I have recently found online, Voddie Baucham: "The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eye-witnesses during the lifetime of other eye-witnesses. They report supernatural events that took place in fulfillment of specific prophecies and claim that their writings are divine rather than human in origin." His explanation of that statement is definitely better than what I can write, so I would encourage you to watch him here. I'll share my take, though.

My training is in science. That means that I've spent years being taught that we shouldn't just blindly believe things. We should test everything--dig into things, study them, pick them apart. If things can't stand up to scrutiny, we have to take them with a grain of salt. I'm also married to a philosopher-historian, so I've come to see huge red flags with circular logic. Both of those things combine to make me cringe at the idea of blind faith and believing simply because I'm told to believe. If Christianity can't stand up to scrutiny, we shouldn't identify with it. If the Scriptures can't be examined and still prove trustworthy, we shouldn't believe them. That may sound harsh, but I truly believe it.

On that note, the Scriptures found in the Christian New Testament are the most reliable of ancient texts. There is an argument that since we don't have the original writings, we can't trust what we have--they are just copies of copies, so they can't say the same thing as when they started. If that's the case, though, I don't know that there is a single ancient text that we can consider reliable.

You see, we have more than 6,000 copies of the manuscripts that make up the New Testament. No, we don't have the original letters written by Paul or Peter, or the original gospel accounts written by the apostles. What we do have, though, are copies that date back to 100-120 AD, written within approximately 2 decades of when they were written. For contrast, Aristotle's Poetics is thought to have been written circa 335 BC. Our earliest accepted manuscript is from the mid 11th century AD. Homer's Illiad was likely written some time around 850 BC, approximately 400 years after the events it describes. The earliest full manuscript we have? It's from the 10th century AD. For another example, there's not a single original manuscript from Shakespeare...

Historical documents must be examined before they are used as sources. A quick search online gives some basic guidelines for evaluating primary sources, but here's a summary:

1. Is the creator an eye-witness?
2. How close to the event was it written?
3. What was their reason for writing?
4. Who were they writing for?

If you evaluate the New Testament from that perspective, it's reliability can't really be doubted. That's leaving out the archaeological evidence that has been found to back up the Scriptures, or the other historical writers who corroborate the people and the stories of the New Testament.

Another aspect of Dr. Baucham's statement is the fulfillment of prophecy. I can't tell you exactly how many prophecies the life and death of Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled because, to be honest, I haven't ever tried to dive into it and figure it out. I can, however, tell you that the odds of a single man being able to fulfill that many prophecies by chance are astronomical. The only logical explanation for that was that His words and actions were fully intentional...and that has spectacular connotations in itself (check out "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?"). From the perspective of those writing, there would be very little benefit in make such unimaginable claims if they couldn't back them up because it would have invalidated their entire argument. If you want to look into some of those prophecies, read Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 (the Psalm Jesus quoted while He hung on the cross). Though they'll give you a start, they barely scratch the surface. 

I'm not a scholar of either history or Scriptures, so I can't dive deep enough into this subject. I do, however, feel like we have a duty to search out the truth behind our beliefs. As a follower of Christ, I believe I'm called to do so in the very Scriptures I claim to trust:

"Take a close look at everything, test it, then cling to what is good."
1 Thessalonians 5:21

"Always be ready to offer a defense, humbly and respectfully,
when someone asks why you live in hope."
1 Peter 3:15



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