Daily Thoughts from Exodus: Insufficient Magic

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water. Stand on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that turned into a serpent. And you shall say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed. Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile.”’” And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”

Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile.

Seven full days passed after the LORD had struck the Nile.  (Exodus 7:14-25 ESV)

The Egyptians believed that the god Osiris was drowned in the Nile and that his body annually caused the flooding of the Nile which brought fertilization of the land.  This annual flooding was needed for them to prosper and the regularity of this was known as Ma’at, the orderliness of the world.  The Pharaoh, a god in their view, was responsible for maintaining Ma’at and the flooding of the Nile.  So too was the god Hapi.  Everything depended on the Nile’s annual flooding and life giving properties.

For Yahweh to turn the Nile and all other waterways into blood was a powerful demonstration of His sovereignty over all nations and the impotence of Egypt’s Pharaoh and Egypt’s gods.  And even though the magicians’ ability to turn a small amount of water into blood was obviously insignificant compared to what Yahweh did through Moses, Pharaoh hardened his heart.  For seven days the Egyptians were forced to dig for pure water.  The danger could not be more obvious, the nation could not be more close to collapse.  Simple reason told them they should listen to Yahweh.

People have a knack for ignoring the obvious, and according to Paul (Romans 1:18-26) the most obvious fact we ignore is God’s existence and who He really is.  We repress the truth about God so that we don’t have to submit to Him as He requires.  We shape an image of the God we want to serve, one we can control.  That is at the root of all idolatry.  Egyptians had gods they could manipulate to fertilize their land.  We have a god who is supposed to take care of our every need and be most concerned about our happiness.  We need a Moses to show us how insignificant our magic is.

Romans 1:25, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: Listening for a Miracle

And the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the LORD commanded them. Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh.

Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.  (Exodus 7:1-13 ESV)

Yahweh reiterates for Moses how the process of redeeming Israel is going to work.  Moses is to be like God to Pharaoh, commanding him in God’s name (Yahweh) to release His people, speaking through his prophet, Aaron.  But God will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that God will have opportunity to multiply the plagues He demonstrates against Egypt.  This Yahweh, whom Pharaoh did not know, he will come to know.  Moses was 40 years old when he fled Egypt.  Now 40 years later he is back to accomplish in God’s power what he could not do in his own.

Moses and Aaron use the first sign God gave them, but Pharaoh’s magicians seem to duplicate it until Moses’ staff turned snake eats theirs up.  Because Pharaoh can see his own magicians doing magical things he might tell himself that Moses is simply doing the same.  But his magicians and he are hardening their hearts against the truth.  God takes responsibility for hardening Pharaoh’s heart but also indicts him for hardening his own heart.  As Paul teaches in Romans 9:19, no one resists God’s will and yet God still holds accountable those who do evil.  This is fair and just and beyond our ability to understand.  Though sovereignty and responsibility seem to contradict, in God’s mind and universe they do not.  No one will ever be able to say in the judgment, “God, You made me do the evil I did, so You’re to blame.”  We will be held responsible for every decision we make.

In the course of our decision-making we may be called upon by God to trust Him for a miracle.  In Moses’ case God told him to do this.  God is always the one who determines if a miracle is appropriate or doable.  If you are listening to the Lord He will let you know that such a thing is needed and then you must trust Him to do it.  This is why it is important to listen in prayer for whether God wants to heal someone or not.  I remember during prayer in church one Sunday asking the woman who had come for prayer to listen to what God might be saying to her about her illness.  A certain illness had been dismissed as the cause of her problems by a doctor but she thought she heard God saying this was the problem.  She returned to the doctor and asked for this to be checked again and that was the problem.  God used the doctor to bring the healing.  Listen, listen, listen.

Ephesians 6:5-9 — Conversations with God

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.  Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

If I were a slave, Lord Jesus, owned by another person, owned by a Christian person, and your apostle told me to obey my earthly master as I would obey You, I could be very tempted to doubts and to giving up Christianity. I could argue that being a Christian has certainly not changed my situation as I hoped it would.  Why wouldn’t Your apostle command my Christian master to give me my freedom?  Where is the justice?  Where is the compassion?

But when Paul reminds me that I am a bondservant to You, Lord, I have no qualms about it.  I willingly serve You as your slave.  I owe everything to you.  You own my life and I willingly embrace that and want to serve you from a sincere heart.  And the fact that You will reward me for such service blows my mind.  I don’t deserve that!

And commanding masters to “do the same thing,” to live as Your bondservants and do Your will from the heart, this could certainly lead to real changes in the way I am treated and reminds me that the Christian life is not about righting all the wrongs that are here in this world before the kingdom comes.  It is about demonstrating the righteousness of the kingdom despite all that is wrong continuing to make it countercultural to live as Your followers.  How else will people see that You really do transform our lives?  You don’t just change our conditions, You change our hearts.

Reflections on India 3

I am just returned from a 12 day trip to India where I partnered with John Marley, a teacher from my church, to hold two 3-day Bible conferences.  The first was in Madurai, or more specifically, Light of Hope Gospel Mission just outside of Madurai.  The second was in Kovilpatti, a 3 hour trip south of Madurai.  All this is in the southern tip of India.  Our host was S. J. P. Vijayakumar, or Vijay.  He has been a missionary sponsored by Central Church since the mid 90′s.  His father-in-law, the founder of Light of Hope, has been supported by Central for many more years.  They are faithful servants of the kingdom.

I found myself drawn to several of the participants and their stories and would like to share some of those with the world (or at least whoever reads this blog).

Jesus Was More Powerful Than the Occult

Her father was a Hindu priest of the Brahman caste and she was assigned, among all his children, to be his assistant.  He created many potions and participated in sorcerer’s arts and she helped mix the potions.  I don’t recall how she became acquainted with the gospel, but she came to question whether her father’s magic arts were really his power or not.  So she devised a test.

I am not sure exactly how this test makes sense, but it made sense to her.  If in the alcohol her father used in many of his potions she were to mix some salt and the potion did not work, this meant that Jesus was lord and her father’s powers were not his own.  So she secretly added salt to the alcohol and the potions ceased to be effective.  As a result, she gave her life to Christ and had been serving him some time when she came to our conference.

In the newspaper today in Memphis is an article on science and religion and the evidentiary nature of scientific knowledge versus the more subjective nature of religious knowledge.  But on several occasions the people I encountered had clear power encounters with Christianity and Jesus and He demonstrated His superior power over their wrong views of life and persuaded them that Jesus was the truth.

Unity and the Glory of God (Theology for Living from Philippians)

To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.  Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters who are with me send greetings.  All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verses 20-23)

For Paul, everything revolved around the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so he was most excited to greet those who had embraced this gospel and send greetings from those whom Christ had found through the gospel.  Such were those who had received his witness while in prison in Rome (we believe).  Once again Paul has a chance to emphasize that nothing can thwart the gospel, not even the great apostle’s imprisonment.

It is this unity of believers in the gospel that then becomes his most powerful message.  For even though nothing can thwart the gospel, disunity among believers can hinder it.  Disunity is the single most dangerous enemy of the gospel.  Unity is the most powerful base of our witness to the truth of the gospel.  When we stand together as one our enemies get truly scared.  When we fight, they laugh us to scorn.

And though we say that, for Paul, everything revolved around the gospel of Jesus Christ, we might also say that an even higher level of importance for him was to give glory to God.  But it is this same devotion to the gospel that brings God such glory.  It is His gospel, it is His message to a lost and dying world, it is His means of restoring His creation to its original beauty.

Would you bring Him glory?  Devote yourself to His gospel.  Would you be devoted to the gospel?  Devote yourself to the unity you must have with your bothers and sisters in Christ.  “The grace of the Lord Jesus,” the love that moved him to sacrifice his rights and agendas, “be with your spirit.”

Setting Aside the Counterfeits (Theology for Living from Philippians)

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.  For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3, verses 17-21)

One of Paul’s responsibilities, and a responsibility of all spiritual leaders, is to identify counterfeits to the true gospel.  Given the rebellious nature of human beings and the very active influence of Satan, there should be a high expectation of distortions to the message of life.  Paul leverages his own example of orthodox living and orthodox doctrine, then he begins to describe those in particular, the Judaizers, who are threatening all of Paul’s church plants.

Not everyone is agreed that these are “the enemies of the cross” to whom Paul is referring.  To some it looks like Paul is describing a group who seeks to push the limits of godly morality.  “Their god is their stomach” sounds to them like those who eat greedily. “Their glory is in their shame” sounds like taking pride in their willingness to push the boundaries ethically.

But in the context Paul has only identified one group of false teachers.  These appear to be people who teach the Jewish law as the standard of holiness and focus on the requirements of circumcision for males and kosher food laws for all.  With that in mind, “their god is their stomach” means their focus on keeping kosher has become their idol; “their glory is in their shame” means they rest confidence in circumcision as their badge of honor.  In all this “their mind is set on earthly things.”  What God designed as a picture of ultimate spiritual truths to be revealed when the new dispensation arrives, these false teachers are still clinging to and giving saving power to instead of looking at faith as the basis for salvation.

By way of contrast, Christianity, God’s new revelation in Christ contained in “new wine skins” (Matthew 9:17), is focused on heaven.  Though the Philippians might take pride in their Roman citizenship, the real reason to boast is their heavenly citizenship.  As citizens of heaven we need no longer be enslaved to earthly elements.  We are people of the last age, the age of the resurrection.  When Jesus comes He is going to resurrect us, make our bodies like His, with all the attributes of a body made suitable for the kingdom.

Focusing on the coming resurrection when Jesus returns to rule on earth helps us stay moored to the true gospel.  We are not trying to muster our own law obedience in order to earn God’s love.  We are operating in God’s already abundantly outpoured love.  We are depending on what Jesus can work in us (the willing and the doing of His good will, 2:13), something He is able to do as the resurrected one.  We are free from the earthly elements that so many have clung to as a means of earning God’s love.  We are in training to recognize the false so we may more readily embrace the true.

Is John Shelby Spong right that the Bible is unreliable?

Question:  I read an article by John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, who seemed to question the historicity of the Bible and its authority over our lives in areas of morality.  Can you help me with his views?  Here is a link to the full article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/29/my-take-the-3-biggest-biblical-misconceptions/?hpt=hp_c2.

Answer:  Reverend Spong sees three misconceptions people have about the Bible.

Misconception One

Spong’s  initial statement is,

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.  First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it. 

Let me fill you in on a little secret.  When someone says that “every” biblical scholar or pastor or parent or politician or whoever says or believes the same thing, you can know for a certainty that this is an overstatement that is hiding contrary views.  And believe me, there are contrary views among biblical scholars on Spong’s position.

There have been many books written by reputable scholars for both the Old and New Testaments that support the historicity of the Bible.  But let’s deal with some of the examples Spong uses.

Spong notes,

Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament. 

From this disputed fact (disputed because there are reputable scholars who believe Moses wrote the account of Abraham 400 years after his life) Spong draws the conclusion that too much legend has grown up over that amount of time to give a realistic picture of a hero in Israelite history.  He makes the same argument about Moses and Jesus and the accuracy of their life stories.  Because the account of Jesus includes miracles this must surely be, in Spong’s mind, a padding of the account to make Jesus look more powerful than he was.

But oddly, when we read the account of Moses on the life of Abraham we do not find a glorified Abraham.  We see a very “warty” Abraham who lied about his wife being his sister, who married his wife’s servant at Sarah’s suggestion in order to circumvent what God told him would happen, and who expressed fear despite God’s promises to him that he would have a son through Sarah and that God would make a mighty nation from him.  Rather than glorifying Abraham we see him in his fallen human nature struggling to believe God.  By Spong’s account we ought to see him performing miracles and walking on water after so many years of legendary addition to his life story.

But this is not the way Bible history is written.  It defies the tendency Spong fears and gives us real people.  The other assumption Spong is making about the Bible is that God did not or could not guide the transmission of Abraham’s story, or Moses’ story or Jesus’ story, for that matter, accurately, protecting it from inaccurate accretion.  Spong’s naturalistic perspective, ruling out God’s purpose and power, taints all of his alleged concerns about the Bible.

Still dealing with the historicity of the Bible, Spong then asserts,

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

First of all, there is no reason to believe that Jesus did not speak or write in Greek, but even if he didn’t, how does that make an account of his life written in Greek therefore and of necessity inaccurate?  The logic is baffling!

It is of utmost importance, in fact, to recognize that such accounts of the life of an important person written only 40-70 years after his life and contained in thousands of existing manuscripts (there are over 5,000 existing New Testament manuscripts alone)  is unheard of for other famous individuals in history.  And it is likely that the accounts of the New Testament were written in some cases only 20-30 years after Jesus’ death.  This means there were people still alive who could refute or exonerate the accounts.  This is why Paul mentions that there were over 500 people who saw Jesus alive, or why the Gospels mention Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross, or other individuals who could be asked about these facts.

Spong’s last historical jab is this,

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

Spong is here assuming a view of Mark’s Gospel that sees it as a deliberate attempt to conform the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies.  He assumes what he wishes to prove.  But there is ample tradition and indications within Mark’s Gospel itself that it is based on eyewitness account.

Misconception Two

The second misconception Spong mentions is “the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense ‘the word of God.’ Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim.”  Well, of course, there are many who have read the Bible and claim exactly that.  But Spong’s evidence is that God endorses the violent judgment of unbelievers and this could certainly not be attributed to the God “everyone” knows is the true God.  And because people have misused these passages they cannot be from God.  Huh?  Again, the logic escapes me.  Has anyone misused Spong’s words?  Then they cannot be true.

Misconception Three

“The third major misconception,” according to Spong, “is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging.”  And there is something to what Spong is saying here.  There is a progression through the Bible of understanding and perspective, but it does not seem accurate to portray this as changing truth.  Because God deals with Israel in a way He does not deal with the church does not mean He is changing truth.  We deal with our children one way when they are minors and another as they mature into adults.

Spong’s final statement is,

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

But this only seems another way of saying that Spong has decided what being fully human is apart from Scripture, keeping the parts that fit with his perspective and explaining away those that don’t.  This kind of subjective handling of Scripture leaves one feeling that it would be best for him to simply say what he thinks is right and holy without appeal to the Bible at all.

For other articles exposing the poor logic and facts of John Shelby Spong see:

What’s Wrong with Bishop Spong?
William Lane Craig vs. John Shelby Spong on the resurrection of Jesus

John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: A Critique

Randall Johnson