Categories
Uncategorized

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

For hundreds of years, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in bondage as Egyptian slaves. Then, in a miraculous event that served as the very foundation of developing Israelite culture, God freed His people to bring them into their own land. Through Moses the deliverer, God sent plague after plague against His enemies until, finally, His people were released. God showed up in spectacular form, appearing as a pillar of cloud and fire, and led His people through the Red Sea on dry land. Notice, immediately after these amazing events, how the people respond to their God and Rescuer. Exodus 16:2-3 tells us: 

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt…”

 

The Israelites Complain

Did you catch that? Miracle after miracle, spectacle after spectacle, with the presence of God visible in their midst, the first thing the people do is complain. And their complaining didn’t end there. When God provided food from heaven, the people complained. When God gave them water out of a rock, the people complained, and when God finally led them to the edge of the Promised Land, the people refused to enter, complaining about the size of its inhabitants. In fact, they had rejected God’s kindness so often that He decided to teach them a lesson they and their descendants would never forget. He taught them, among other things, how to be grateful. For this generation of ex-slaves, this lesson would take 40 years to learn.

It’s easy to sit back and judge these people. Certainly, I would have made better choices. I wouldn’t complain… But ask yourself; how do you respond to the goodness of God in your own life? How long after God blesses you with something amazing do you wait before grumbling about His blessings? When you are blessed with an education, do you complain about teachers or assignments? Or when you are blessed with a job, do you complain about the work you do, your boss, or your co-workers? When you are blessed with a child, do you complain about the late nights and dirty diapers? You see, it is so easy to become like the rebellious generation of Israelites who perished in the wilderness. 

So, what is the remedy to this problem? How do we keep from grumbling? While future generations of Israelites that we read about in the Old Testament don’t have the best track record, they did institute practices to help guard against an attitude of rebellion. Perhaps the biggest part of this was the Feast Days. 

 

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

Feast days, or festivals, were yearly opportunities to remember and give thanks for the goodness and kindness that God had displayed in the past. By celebrating festivals annually, the people would never forget what God had done for them. During these feasts, the people would come together and recite their history, giving thanks to God. To a lesser degree, the weekly Sabbath day of rest also served this purpose as it reoriented the worshipper to have a heart of praise and gratefulness toward God.

And what better way to celebrate than with food? Of course, we do this all the time. Try to think of a celebration that doesn’t involve food. Typically, the happier the occasion, the more it revolves around eating. It is a great way to establish gratitude in our hearts with good memories of friends, family, and feasting.

 

Our Feast: Thanksgiving

In the United States, we have a holiday that accomplishes this explicitly. It is even called Thanksgiving. Like the Jewish feast days, Thanksgiving is a time when we join together with our community and remember the goodness and kindness of God. We do this historically, remembering what God did in the lives of our ancestors. We do this in our community, recognizing what God has done and is doing in our nation. And we do this personally, cultivating thankfulness in our hearts toward God for His faithfulness. 

This Thanksgiving, as you look out over the holiday feast, or even as you microwave a single serving of frozen turkey, take the opportunity to remember and give thanks to God. Take the opportunity to guard your heart against grumbling. Remind those around you of the great things God has done in history and in your life. Practice thankfulness and see how remembering God’s goodness impacts your faith in a positive way. 

 

Categories
Studying the Bible Uncategorized

What Kind of Book is Genesis? The Book of Creation as Ancestor Epic

 

What Kind of Document is Genesis?

The way you answer that question will dramatically impact how you read it. 

When reading fiction, you expect to be entertained. When reading a law book, you expect to learn the rules of society. If you try to read Genesis the same way you read the Psalms or Revelation, you will quickly run into problems. 

So, to return to our question, What kind of document is Genesis? 

Is Genesis a myth? Is Genesis akin to works like the Canaanite Baal epic where Baal earns his kingship by defeating the sea dragon, Yamm, or perhaps like the Babylonian creation story about Marduk’s defeat of the sea goddess Tiamat, called the Enuma Elish?   

Well, one thing we can say with confidence is that Genesis does not bear the marks of any of the myths that were common in the days of Abraham, nor in all the years of the Israelites. 

Another thing we can say with confidence is that Genesis, being largely stories about historical figures, presents itself as a historical document. Knowing this certainly does not mean, however, that we easily understand the nature of ancient history writing, the skill of woven story, or the purpose of telling these particular stories as they are told.

 

Genesis is History

So, if Genesis is History, what kind of history is it? Is Genesis cold, academic inquiry, or does the author hope to impact the thoughts and actions of the reader through it? Is he preaching?

Well, we might be interested to know that the ancient Israelites regarded their sacred history texts as prophetic literature. Through the prophets, God inspired a proclamation and interpretation of the past that was designed to preach. Therefore, these stories are theology, however, rooted they may be in actual historical events.

Now an important point when reading biblical history is that you must know where to look to find the message God has for you in it. Some think that the telling of the story points you to an event that you are expected to recreate in your imagination and then respond to in your heart. They think that the inspired message is then found in your heart’s response to events as the text helps you imagine them. 

We see the flaw in this perspective most keenly when reading the Gospels. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus exactly the way each inspired author wished to tell it. When most of us read them, however, rather than studying the details of each gospel exactly as it is written, we treat each telling of an event as a resource for details that we can use to imagine the story. Matthew tells us part, Mark tells us part, Luke throws in some new points, and, in a few instances, John may even give us an extra tidbit to chew on. We gather all these facts, iron out seeming contradictions, and then we spin a whole new version of the story replete with all the tidbits from all the Gospel writers. Then we meditate upon the event as we imagine it, and listen for God’s word to us. 

This is not how the gospel writers wanted us to do it. Each author crafted the stories in their histories using the necessary terms, grammar, literary relationships, and structures needed to deliver their message. Because the author used common communication symbols and literature processes of his day, the intended audience could be reasonably expected to use all of them to discern the message. Each story preaches into a context in such a way that those living there at that time could grasp what was being said to them. 

Wow! That sounds complicated, it can be but have no fear. I’ll give you the skinny on exactly what kind of history Genesis is, exactly what lens will prove most beneficial to you when reading it. 

 

Genesis is an Ancestor Epic

So, here it is! Genesis is an Ancestor Epic.

Ancestor Epics are collections of stories that ancient tribes told themselves about how they became a people… indeed, about how they almost failed to become a people. Circumstances arose that once threatened their future existence as a people but their God saved them. For had Sarah been kept by Pharaoh they would not exist. If Rebekah had remained barren, they would not exist. Had Esau killed Jacob they would not exist. But they have become a people, because Yahweh had a plan for them and overcame those situations on their behalf, and dozens more, in order to bring about His plan in and through them.

There are two main divisions in the Genesis Ancestor Epic. We find their Primordial History in Genesis 1-11 and their Patriarchal History in Genesis 12-50.

 

The Patriarchal History

The Patriarchal History looks at the circumstances that (save for the grace & mercy of Yahweh who loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives) would have overtaken Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 tribal fathers. These include barrenness, wars, famines, captured wives, political struggles over land and water and intermarriage, divine judgments, competing heirs, dead childless heirs, pre-tribal jealousies, and betrayed heirs.

 

The Primordial History

The Primordial History looks at issues of threat more broadly, considering the threats to yet older ancestors, the ancestors of all men. Had the world remained a barren, anti-creational, dark, and landless waste, they would not exist. Had God not made a plan of redemption when Adam and Eve fell, they would not exist. Had God not acted to check human evil with the flood, they would not exist. Had God not spared Noah and his family, they would not exist. Had Abraham not been a man of faith, waking up to the One Holy Creator of all, they would not be a people. 

God’s plans, God’s purposes, remain unthwarted whatever men may do. What remains for those preserving the stories is to live well in the world which YHWH has created. They are called to fulfill His purposes in it. This is why he continually saves them from manifold threats, and the greatest of these threats is their own corrupt hearts and their own wanton stupidity. 

 

Genesis Shares Foundational Theology

Through Genesis, the nation of Israel spends a millennium sitting around the metaphorical campfire with their ancestors. There, they hear the stories of how they almost failed to become a people. They tell how the One Holy Creator of all saved them and continues to save them because He chose them from among all the peoples of the earth to fulfill a corporate mission. He chose them because of the great faith of their father Abraham, who showed them how to continue in the good favor of Yahweh. God is at work in the world; the Israelites are His chosen tool; He preserved and continues to preserve them from extinction so that they might be the People of God, instruments of his Glory in the world. 

Genesis, therefore, preaches some pretty foundational theology about the nature of reality. As an ancestor epic, it establishes their worldview, telling them where they came from, who they are, and what their reason for being is. It tells them what’s wrong with the world and the part they play as instruments of God in making it right. 

Use this as a lens for reading Genesis. Ask yourself: If I were an Israelite, struggling with the tension between what the prophets are telling me about God, man, and reality and what the pagans all around me are telling me about them, what would Genesis be preaching to me? What would I learn about God, man, and reality from reading it?

Categories
Uncategorized

Why Does God Allow Evil?

According to a recent Barna research study, the number of young people in the U.S. who identify as atheists has doubled in a single generation. One of the most significant reasons many reject the idea of God is the reality of suffering and evil in the world. Philosophers refer to this as the Problem of Evil and it is generally stated in this way: a loving God would prevent suffering and evil if He could; therefore, God is either not loving or not powerful enough to stop it. Yet, Christians believe that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. Is this a contradiction? Or does the Bible tell us what we need to know to answer such a significant objection to God’s existence? Let’s spend some time considering what Scripture has to say about the issue.

First, let’s consider what we need to study:

  1. Is God Loving?
  2. Is God Powerful?
  3. Why Does God Allow Suffering and Evil?

If we can answer these three questions, then we can combat the Problem of Evil and help people who are suffering to see the goodness and power of God.

Is God Loving?

If God is not loving; that is, if He is not good, then it would be pointless to continue this discussion. Now, it is one thing to assert that He is loving just by stating all the good things He does. But is God loving in the midst of suffering? Let’s look at what the Bible says. 

Psalm 23 details the life of David who is surrounded by suffering for so much of his life. David writes in verses 4-6:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… surely your goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

David recounts the goodness of God in the midst of great pain and evil. He does not praise God for removing suffering, but for being present in suffering. While David stares his enemies in the face, he is at peace because of the presence of the Lord. He does not praise God because God will certainly save him from his enemies, but that even if he were to suffer the worst possible fate, he would still be with God forever. 

The Bible is absolutely filled with examples of God being good in the midst of suffering. In fact, to be in the world is to endure suffering, whether small or large. We have the promise that He will be with us and that He will rescue us out of this world whether it happens now or only when we get to heaven. 

Is God Powerful?

So, if God is good, but there is still suffering, perhaps the reason is that He is unable to stop it. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that God can do anything, including preventing bad things from happening. Furthermore, there are many verses in Scripture that talk about deliverance from evil. Consider 2 Timothy 4:18: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” Or 2 Thessalonians 3:3: “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” We see examples throughout Scripture of God preventing great evils or avoiding certain disasters. God prevents the destruction of the Hebrew people at the hands of pursuing Egyptians in Exodus 14. God again prevents genocide of the same people in the story of Esther. Many other examples from both the Old and New Testament could be cited to support this. 

But it is equally clear that God does not always prevent suffering and evil. So, if it is the case that God is good even in the midst of suffering, and that He is perfectly able to prevent it, we are left with one big question:

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

As we ask this question, we must first ask ourselves what sort of answer we want to hear. 

Do we want to know why there is any suffering at all? If so, Genesis 3 begins to answer this question, and the rest of the Old Testament fills in the blanks. Suffering exists because sin has broken the perfection that existed in the Garden.

Do we want to know why God doesn’t prevent the worst kinds of suffering? If so, ask yourself how you would know if He did. That is, if God prevented all of the worst evil, then you would never know what those evils would have been, and then the second-worst evil would now be the worst from your perspective. In the end, this question is no different from asking why there is any suffering whatsoever.

Do we want to know why God allows a particular instance of suffering? There are times in Scripture when we see God give an explanation for certain evils. Think of Joseph being captured by his brothers and sold into slavery. Joseph himself says in Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” But many times, as in the case of Job, the reason for suffering is not given. Instead, we are asked simply to trust God.

So, Why Does God Allow Evil?

Two important and complementary answers are found in Scripture:

  1. God allows certain evils in order to accomplish certain good things. Think, for example, of the Babylonian Exile of the people of Judah. God tells His people that they are going into exile in order to be broken of their wickedness and idolatry. Or, think of the greatest example of all: the death of Jesus. God allows, and even clearly plans and purposes this evil in order to accomplish the greatest possible good. 
  2. God also allows evil to exist in general because He has created the world with a certain order which He has freely chosen not to violate. Among the most important aspects of this created order is the free will that He gives to His creatures. Scripture makes it clear that God desires for His creatures to freely choose to love, worship, and obey Him. Love that is not free is also not real.  So, God allows evil to exist because He created us with the ability to reject Him, and evil exists because we choose to reject God.

Now, as we close this discussion, we must remember that God is in control. His greatest desire is to eradicate all suffering and for us to live in perfect unity with Him forever. He promised to do exactly this, beginning all the way back in Genesis 3 and culminating in the final verses of Revelation. God’s immediate reaction to humanity’s betrayal was to promise to make everything right. He promised to personally enter into the suffering of this fallen world, thereby taking on all the sin and wickedness of humanity, putting it to death on the cross. God has always had a plan to deal with evil and suffering, and the Bible tells us the history of that plan. We, as Christians, are agents of that restoration; a restoration that will one day be complete. 

Let’s close this discussion with the great promise of Scripture from Revelation 21:4: “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Categories
Uncategorized

What Does the Bible Say About Demons?

Little, red, horned creatures with pitchforks; huge, dark, scary creatures with sharp claws and teeth; shadowy, stalking, creepy creatures that speak in deep whispers… this is what most people think about when you say the word ‘demon’. But how does the Bible talk about them? Are these depictions based in reality, or are they simply figments of some author or filmmaker’s imagination? Let’s spend some time looking at what the Bible says about demons, and what Bible teachers have come to understand about this confusing and interesting subject. 

Here are some questions we want to answer:

  1. Are demons real?
  2. What are demons?
  3. What about Satan?

Are Demons Real?

Most people put demons into the same category as ghosts, goblins, zombies, and so on, and therefore relegate them to the realm of fantasy. But if you believe the Bible means what it says, then you have to take demons seriously. This is especially true because Jesus spends a lot of time dealing with them and talking about them. The life and ministry of Jesus is really the core of the Christian faith, so we can’t just explain away these encounters. 

Mark 5, for instance, recounts an event wherein Jesus meets a man who is possessed by a demon. Jesus speaks to it, and it speaks back. It even gives its name. This sort of encounter is not uncommon in the Gospels as we read about all that Jesus did. 

So, the very simple answer to the question, “Are demons real?” is yes, the Bible clearly indicates that they really exist. More significantly, then, let’s see what the Bible says about the nature and actions of these creatures.

What Are Demons?

Part of the confusion that we have about demons is the word itself. More often, we read in the New Testament “unclean spirit.” Thinking about them in these terms is much more helpful. If you go back and read Mark 5, you learn a few important details about demons. 

First, demons are spirit-entities. In most instances in Scripture, demons are not visible, and do not have a physical form. Second, they are personal entities. They are not some evil, impersonal force but individual creatures. This leads to the third point: they are thinking entities. Jesus reasons with the demon as he speaks with it. The demon in Mark 5 even has a request, and Jesus grants its request. Then, fourth, demons, as personal, individual, thinking creatures, have wills of their own. This means they are not all part of the same collective mind, and they are not controlled directly by Satan.

If we compare these features to another well-known spirit-entity in the Bible, we may realize something surprising. Angels are likewise invisible, personal, thinking, spirit-entities that each have their own will. While this may be shocking, the reason for it is simple: they are actually the same type of creature.

That’s right, ‘Demon’ and ‘Angel’ are just two classifications for the same thing. The word demon simply means ‘supernatural entity’ and is a generic term, while the word angel is actually a job-description meaning ‘messenger.’ In the Old Testament, you will notice that demons hardly make an appearance. Instead, another term, elohim, is used which also means generically ‘supernatural entity’. The main distinction between a demon and an angel is their relation to God. Particularly in the New Testament, this becomes clear as angels are servants of God while demons are His enemies. 

Now, the term ‘unclean spirit’ tells us that there is another distinction to be aware of. Every time we see an unclean spirit, it is possessing and tormenting some unfortunate person. Think back to what the terms clean and unclean mean in the Old Testament ritual system. Something becomes unclean when it mixes with something it shouldn’t. A person would become unclean by touching a dead body because the Holy God is the God of the living. Something that is alive mixing with something dead makes the living thing unclean. In the same way, a spirit-being mixing (or possessing) a body of flesh makes that spirit unclean. 

It is also true that these unclean spirits are evil spirits, but that is a given as the very act of possessing a person, subverting their will, is an intensely evil act. 

But where did demons come from? We know that God created the holy angels before He created humans, but when did He create evil spirits? To answer this, let’s talk about Satan.

What About Satan?

It’s amazing to realize that Satan was not always evil. God created Satan, and everything God created was good and perfect. Ezekiel 28 describes what Satan was like in the beginning. He is called the “signet of perfection,” and was incredibly beautiful. But as great and powerful as he was, he became prideful. What is really significant in this whole discussion is that Satan was merely one elohim among many; perhaps the greatest among them all, but still just a created being. 

Jude 6 tells us that the demons are, like Satan, “angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling…” Also, Revelation 12 speaks of Satan leading a third of the angels in rebellion against God. These rebels make up the evil elohim, some of which become the unclean spirits we see in the New Testament.

While Satan himself does not control these demons, he is the most prominent among them. In several passages of the New Testament, Satan is referred to as the prince of demons, indicating a position of leadership among them. 

We know that Satan’s objective is to oppose God and His plans at every point. He also passionately hates humanity. This is why we see Satan and the other demons attacking people, but more importantly, attacking the Son of God. 

Significantly, Satan and these angels are defeated initially by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and they will be defeated ultimately when Jesus returns. At that point, according to Revelation 20, Satan and his demons will be thrown into the lake of fire. Thus, contrary to the popular view of Satan as ruler of hell, Satan himself will be thrown into hell where he will experience everlasting torment. The demons neither want to go there, nor will they enjoy their existence there, and they most certainly will not be the ones tormenting people for eternity. 

So, as you realize what the Bible says about demons, recognize that they are very real, and very powerful. We should take them seriously, but know that God is still in control. They must still answer to God, and He will judge them. Satan is our great enemy, but he is merely a creature, and he has already been defeated. While Satan and his demons are fighting with everything they have right now, let’s close this discussion with the biblical hope of their defeat as it is beautifully portrayed in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him.

 

 

1 Elohim is typically translated as gods (with a small g), and sometimes even refers to God Himself. Really, the Old Testament refers to every spirit-being as a god. This is why God is called “God Most High,” because He is the God who is above all other gods.