Monday, December 12, 2011

Is Modern Israel a Fulfillment of Prophecy?

This question has drawn heated debate among Christians since the modern State of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948.  Some interpret the regathering of Israel as already fulfilled by the return of Jews to Jerusalem and Judea from Babylon in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 29:10.  They would say the culmination of that regathering was the first Advent of Messiah Jesus, at which time the faithful remnant received Him and the rest were eventually driven out of the land again. The next event, then, would be the return of Messiah to set up His Kingdom, which will include the faithful remnant of Israel and the faithful Gentiles who are "grafted in" (Rom. 11:17)  to be "fellow heirs" with Christ (Rom. 8:17; Gal. 3:29; Eph. 3:6).  This view would not preclude another regathering of ethnic Jews to the land, but neither would it require it.

Most who hold the above view would also view the 1,000-year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:2-7 as figuratively picturing the Church Age.  They as are known as a-millennialists.  They hold that Christ will return to judge the world and set up His eternal kingdom in a new heaven and a new earth. A similar view is that of the post-millenialists. They are the eschatological optimists: they believe that through the ministry of the Church, the gospel will at last conquer evil and prepare the world for the return of Messiah who will establish His universal reign. In both of these views, the regathering of Israel is past, and thus there is no prophetic significance to modern Israel.

The popular Dispensational view of prophecy sees modern Israel as the fulfillment of the prophecies of Israel's regathering (Deuteronomy 30:3-4; Isaiah 43:5-7; Micah 2:12; Zephaniah 3:20, et al) before the return of Messiah to establish His Millennial Kingdom, over which Jesus will rule from the Throne of David for a literal 1,000 years. To Dispensationalists the Millennium pertains to Israel as God's "earthly people."  They see two peoples of God--Israel and the Church--one earthly and one heavenly, for which God has separate purposes.

Despite my use of the third person in the very brief summaries above, I do not dismiss any of these views entirely. Each makes valid Scriptural observations which ought to be given serious thought.  Still, as coherent systems, they cannot all be right.  For now, I would like to point out one prophecy concerning Israel's regathering that may help us understand what God is doing in that land today.

One common objection to viewing modern Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy is the belief that when God regathers Israel, they will return in belief, as a holy people who have received their Messiah.  The prophecy of the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14 may shed light on that issue:

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, You know." Again He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them, 'O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.' "Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, 'Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. 'I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.'" So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life."'" So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.' "Therefore prophesy and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. "Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. "I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it," declares the LORD.'"

This prophecy presents a progression in Israel's regathering: first, the "bones" come together, then sinew and flesh covers them, and lastly, the spirit (Hebrew ruach, wind, breath, spirit) is given.  Often in biblical prophecy, events that are far apart in time are seen prophetically as close together.  Such is the case with various prophecies of Christ's first and second advents.  The regathered Jews from various parts of Europe looked, sometimes literally, like dry bones, weak and helpless in a hostile land. But God granted them sinew, strength to fight for a homeland. Though they have grown stronger as a nation, they are still relatively weak in the face of the forces against them.  For the most part they do not acknowledge God, much less Messiah Jesus, as their Deliverer to whom they owe their very existence. Yet there is evidence that God is breathing life into the dry bones in Israel. Response to the gospel of Jesus the Messiah is growing, and congregations are being formed.

Is all this in fulfillment of prophecy?  You decide.  In any case, the spiritual salvation of Jews and Arabs in that troubled region ought to motivate our prayers, not the political maneuvering of men destitute of the truth. "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," David exhorted. "May they prosper who love you."  (Psalm 122:6)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The High Priest's Benediction

After the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, while they were still in the desert of the Sinai peninsula, God instructed, through Moses, the High Priest Aaron and his sons as to how they were to bless the people of Israel when they came to worship and offer sacrifices.  This benediction is recorded in Numbers 6:24-26: 
The LORD bless thee, and keep thee;
The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
The LORD The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
You noticed, I'm sure, that I quoted from the old King James Version of the Bible.  I did this on purpose, because in this passage the Elizabethan English more accurately translates the Hebrew original.  In Hebrew the form of the verb tells the reader if the writer is addressing a group of people or an individual.  Unfortunately, in Late Modern English we have lost that distinction when we use the word you. In Early Modern English (also known as Elizabethan English), ye and you were plural for the subject and object of a sentence respectively.  When addressing one person,  the writer or speaker would use thou for the subject and thee for the object.

Well, this grammar lesson also has a spiritual lesson in the Aaronic Benediction: God is directing his blessing upon individuals in Israel.  This is not a corporate blessing; it is personal.  When a devout Israelite came to the Tabernacle to offer a sacrifice for his sins, or a sacrifice of thanksgiving, or a vow, or a peace offering, or any one of the many offerings, the priest was to pronounce the Name of the LORD upon that person in the form of the above blessing, and God assures the worshiper of His blessing.

And what a blessing!  God will make His face to shine upon the individual, lightening whatever darkness may be in the repentant sinner's heart and mind.   God will be gracious to him, granting His mercy and free favor.  God will lift up His countenance (or face, the same word) upon the worshiper. 

When God is said to look upon someone, that person is either the object of God's salvation and blessing, or the object of His judgment.  Psalm 33 conveys the first sense: 
Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, On those who hope in His mercy, To deliver their soul from death, And to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; He is our help and our shield. For our heart shall rejoice in Him, Because we have trusted in His holy name. (Psalm 33:18-21, New King James Version)
The contrasting purposes of God in looking upon individuals are declared in Psalm 34: 
The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, And His ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, To cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.  (Psalm 34:15-16, New King James Version)
The sincere worshiper who comes before the LORD with a repentant heart, trusting in the complete, finished sacrifice of Jesus Christ for his sins, can be assured of the blessing of God's approving countenance.  And best of all, he or she can enjoy God's peace, His Shalom!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Benediction of Protection

The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day nor the moon by night.  The LORD will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul.  The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever.  Psalm 121:5-8

If anything characterizes our world today it is uncertainty.  The world markets are in turmoil because of unceratinty.  It is the threat of disaster more than the reality of it that causes near panic on both Wall Street and Main Street.  It is a time when trust in all human devises, personalities, and organizations fail.

That's a good time for Christians!

When we realize that only the Creator of Heaven and Earth is in ultimate control of our lives and our destinies, we can find peace and security in Him and His promises.
Psalm 121 is one of the "Psalms of Ascension" that were sung or recited by pilgrims as they ascended to Jerusalem for the seven feasts of Israel.  The journey was very long and arduous for many, and it could be dangerous.  The message of Psalm 121 would comfort and encourage the worshipers as they pressed on toward the Temple of the LORD.

We, too, can find encouragement in God's promise to protect us in our long journey to the heavenly Temple of God--what John Bunyan called "The Celestial City" in The Pilgrim's Progess.  The first and only qualification is that we truly belong to the LORD.  And we can be sure of that if we have trusted in the Savior, Messiah Jesus, and received Him.  (See John 1:12-13)

The verses above promise that the LORD will shade "your right hand."  The right hand was a metaphor for service and labor, and shade represented protection.  The LORD protects our labor and service from all circumstances, day or night.  He will keep us from all evil, physical, financial, or most importantly, spiritual.  This does not mean that nothing unpleasant will come into our lives.  But it does mean that God will not allow anything "evil" into our lives.  If He allows pain and difficulties into His child's life, He designs it for good.  "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:28)  He will keep (or guard) or souls. 

"The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in . . ."  All your daily business is under the watchcare of Almighty God! We can go about our work, the care of our families, and, yes, even our investing, with the confidence that God is caring for us.

We can have certainty in uncertain times, if we are God's redeemed children.  He cares for His own!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Benediction of Encouragement and Hope

Now the God of hope fill  you with all joy and peace in believing, that  you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

This is a benediction we all need, don't we?  When the Bible speaks of "hope," the noun, it is speaking of that assurance that God will do what he promised.  When we use the verb--"I hope things work out"--it implies at least a little, or even a lot, of uncertainty.  But when we turn to God for our needs, we not only have hope, but we "abound in hope."

Notice also that the hope God gives springs from "the power of the Holy Spirit," who stirs up faith ("believing") within us.  Believing in God's promises brings "joy and peace"--Oh! What blessedness!

However dark our current circumstances may be, God, the God of hope, can fill us with "all joy and peace," and cause us to "abound in hope," when we trust in his Word.

Now that is a true benediction!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Benedictions and Doxologies

Throughout biblical history benedictions and doxologies have been a part corporate worship. They are particularly rooted in the Middle Eastern culture to this day. Regretably, except in formal church liturgies (and even those are fading away), benedictions and doxologies are not a major part of Western culture.

Yet I have found precious blessings from meditating on the benedictions and doxologies of the Bible, and I want to share them with you over the next few entries.

First of all we need some definitions. A benediction is a pronouncement of blessing, implying or expressing a prayer that God would grant good things to someone. Probably the most famous benediction is the one God instructed the High Priest Aaron to pronounce on the people of Israel: "The LORD bless thee and keep thee; the LORD make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the LORD lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace." (Numbers 6:24-26)

A doxology, on the other hand, is an expression of praise, magnifying the greatness of God. An example is Luke 2:14--"Glory to God in the highest . . ." The rest of that verse is a benediction: ". . . and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men."

The Scriptures give us many wonderful benedictions and doxologies, so many, in fact, that there is no need to make up our own. Unfortunately, some biblical passages have been misused as benedictions when they were anything but. An Internet search of "benedictions" or "biblical benedictions," is sure to turn up some lists that give Genesis 31:49--"The LORD watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another." The context of this passage is a bitter dispute between Jacob and his uncle Laban, after Laban accused Jacob of stealing his household idols. Jacob set up a pillar of stones and invited Laban and his relatives to pile up stones for a testimony that one will not cross that monument to harm the other (31:52). It was hardly a benediction: It was a malediction!

A more contemporary example of misuse of Scripture for benediction is the chorus Give Thanks. The line "And now, let the weak say I am strong . . ." appears to come from Joel 3:10 -- ". . . let the weak say, I am strong." Again, the context paints a very different picture than benediction. God is taunting Israel's neighboring enemies--Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia--challenging them to mount up the best defenses they can. The whole verse in the New American Standard Bible reads,"Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, "I am a mighty man." Yet God assures them that they will all be judged and destroyed. In its larger context, the prophecy is of the final judgment of the ungodly nations. (Compare Matthew 25:31-32; Revelation 16:15)

So why is this so important? Aren't we making much of nothing? I don't think so. The Bible has the power to change our lives only to the extent that we understand its message as a whole in its context. The Bible is not a talisman whose words have magical power apart from their message. Nor is it a collection of pithy words of wisdom to give us a boost to get through each day. Using biblical words and phrases out of their context and contrary to their original meaning trivializes the Bible.

In a nation that exceeds all others in its multiplication of Bible translations and editions (and new editions will invariably turn up every Christmas!), we are a nation ignorant of the Bible's message. Relatively few professing Christians have read the Bible in its entirety, even those who have attended church regularly for decades.

The Bible has benedictions for sure. But the greatest benediction is the whole Bible itself, God's grand plan of redemption through His Son Jesus Christ, spanning the ages until the final judgment and the establishment of His Kingdom.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Mandela Mirage

Last Sunday I was astounded to hear a local preacher use Nelson Mandela as an illustration of Christ-like forgiveness and reconciliation. I suspect that the pastor imbibed deeply the cinematic fiction of director Clint Eastwood in his film Invictus.  Actually, the contrast between Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela couldn't be sharper!

Despite Mandela's assertion in his biography that he is a Christian and that Christianity gave him strength and informed his life in his struggle against apartheid, his version of "Christianity" is the Marxist liberation theology that inspired revolutions in many third-world countries from the 1960s through the '80s. Mandela maintained close ties with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Initially influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela promoted non-violent demonstrations as the way to bring about change. But when progress was not fast enough for him, he abandoned non-violence and helped found the military wing of the African National Congress, known as the UmKhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation, abbreviated MK. The MK was strongly Marxist and grew increasingly violent. They went from guerrilla attacks on government offices to terrorist bombings of public places like the Johannesburg railway station. The popular fiction is that Mandela was imprisoned for his opposition to apartheid. Many other South Africans, however, protested apartheid, including Bishop Desmond Tutu, but they were never incarcerated. The reality is that he was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, 156 counts of public violence.

Dr. Peter Hammond comments in his review of Invictus on Mandela's trial and conviction:  
"The fact is that even Amnesty International refused to take on Nelson Mandela’s case because they asserted that he was no political prisoner but had committed numerous violent crimes and had had a fair trial and a reasonable sentence."
Mandela's MK terrorists were responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, including women and children. How different from Jesus who rebuked his two militant disciples, saying, "For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:56).

While Mandela was in prison, South African President P. W. Botha offered to release him if he would simply renounce terrorist violence. Mandela refused.

One has to wonder what would have happened if Mandela and the ANC would have continued to work for an end to apartheid through non-violence. At any rate, Jesus never organized nor advocated violence to achieve one's goals. On the contrary, Jesus said in his wonderful Sermon of the Mount:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also . . . 
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven . . ."  (Matthew 5:38-39, 44, 45)
 We can certainly find better examples of Christ-like, sacrificial lives than that of Nelson Mandela! How about Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian,  Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming, young missionaries who gave their lives to reach the violent Auca Indians of Ecuador in 1956? And what expression of true Christian reconciliation could be more moving than the widows' outreach to those same Indians and seeing the Waodani (their real name) come to faith in Christ and become brothers and sisters to the families they had deprived of their beloved husbands and fathers?

My pastor friend, if you want to view a good movie on love, forgiveness, and Christian reconciliation, get a copy of The End of the Spear. Let's not forget: "friendship with this world is enmity with God." (James 4:4)