Friday, June 29, 2012

RBV: Jeremiah 19:12

"Thus I will do to this place," says the LORD, "and to its inhabitants, and make this city like Tophet."
--Jeremiah 19:12

This verse appears as part of what the prophet Jeremiah was to tell the Jews after he performed the sign of the broken flask, which is the subject of the chapter. Jeremiah was to take a clay flask to the Potsherd Gate, or the east gate, which opened out into the Valley of Hinnom, the very place that Jesus later used as an illustration of the judgment of the Lake of Fire, Gehenna. He was also to gather some of the elders and priests of Judah and proclaim God's message of judgment upon them and the city of Jerusalem.

Then, he was to break the flask before them, saying, "Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Even so I will break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter's vessel, which cannot be made whole again; and they shall bury them in Tophet till there is no place to bury'" (Jeremiah 19:11). Clearly, this is a sign of utter destruction of a sinful people and nation, and the details of what God promises to bring upon them are gruesome and horrifying to an extreme.

What was Tophet? According to the McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, the word itself means "spittle," of all things, or "filth," signifying something abominable, but it could also mean "place of burning," hinting at the abomination that occurred there. Tophet itself was a small hill within the Valley of Hinnom that had once been part of a grove that Solomon had had planted, where his singers had given concerts to the people of Jerusalem.

Perhaps Solomon had chosen that spot, not just for its fertility and closeness to Siloam, but also to help Israel forget that the Canaanites before them had made their children pass through the fire to Molech--in other words, it was a place of vile child sacrifice (see Psalm 106:38; Jeremiah 7:31). However, it was not long before the Israelites and Jews again "filled this place with the blood of the innocents" (Jeremiah 19:4). During his reign not long before Jeremiah's prophecy, King Josiah had defiled Tophet as part of his purge of idolatry (II Kings 23:10). He did so by overthrowing the altars and then using the place as the city dump, and the filthier the trash the better. But just as soon as Josiah died, the Jews returned to Tophet.

In Jesus' day, it was once again the city's garbage dump, where a fire was always burning to consume anything thrown on the pile (Mark 9:43-48). And of course, the worm did not die there, meaning that there were always new maggots going through their life-cycles, feeding on the trash. It was also a place where, down through the centuries, many have been buried. Thus, the Valley of Hinnom is a fitting picture of the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29).

So what did God do to Judah because of their heinous sin?

I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hands of those who seek their lives; their corpses I will give as meat for the birds of the heaven and for the beasts of the earth. . . . And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his friend in the siege and in the desperation with which their enemies and those who seek their lives shall drive them to despair. (Jeremiah 19:7, 9)
Sounds like justice.

*Peter, a Sketch

Of all the disciples of Jesus Christ, the one that we usually consider to have the most personality is Simon Peter. This opinion may merely be the result of the fact that no other disciple's words and actions are so often recorded in Scripture, but by all accounts, he was a person who stood out in a crowd. As the apostle John records, even Jesus marked this quality—or maybe more correctly, potential quality—upon their first meeting: "Now when Jesus looked at [Peter], He said, ‘You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas' (which is translated, A Stone)." Thus, Simon took on his surname—in Greek, Petros, "Peter"—identified for all eternity as a rock of a man.

Peter was a native of Bethsaida (which means "house of fishing"), as were his brother, Andrew, and Philip (John 12:21) and possibly also James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Luke 5:10). This Bethsaida (there is another one east of the Jordan) lies on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in the fertile plain of Genesaret, and within a few miles are the cities of Capernaum and Chorazin. Jesus restored sight to a blind man in Bethsaida (Mark 8:22), and in nearby fields, He fed the 5,000 and healed multitudes (Luke 9:10-17).

At some point, Peter moved to Capernaum, where his wife's family also lived (Matthew 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31). (In I Corinthians 9:5, the apostle Paul indicates that Peter was still married more than a quarter century after the founding of the church and that his wife accompanied him on his travels.) In Capernaum, Peter and Andrew owned a fishing business, perhaps in partnership with Zebedee and his sons. While Peter was engaged in this trade, Jesus called him, his brother, and the sons of Zebedee, telling them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus made Capernaum the center of His ministry in Galilee.

Before this, Peter, Andrew, and probably John had been disciples of John the Baptist (see John 1:35-42). Clearly, they believed the prophet when he said that he was the messenger announcing the coming of One greater than he, and when John the Baptist pointed Jesus out as the Lamb of God, Andrew and John immediately followed Him. As soon as he was able, Andrew found Peter and declared that they had found the Messiah.

This event is the earliest indication of Peter's stature among the disciples, which is borne out in multiple passages in the gospels. In every listing of Jesus' disciples, his name invariably heads the list (Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16; Acts 1:13). He often speaks for the rest of the disciples in their conversations with Jesus (for instance, see Matthew 16:15-16; John 6:66-69), and he is frequently shown leading others in activities (Mark 1:36; John 20:1-8; 21:1-3).

Peter is also clearly the leader of the "inner circle" of disciples, a small group composed of himself, James, and John. These three alone see Jesus resurrect a young girl (Luke 8:51), witness His transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-2), and accompany Him to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane just before His arrest (Mark 14:33).

As for his personality, he seems to have had an impetuous nature; he often speaks or acts before thinking. Of all those in the boat, Peter steps onto the heaving waves of the Sea of Galilee to walk to Jesus on the water (Matthew 14:25-33). At the transfiguration, he blurts out that tabernacles should be erected to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). He stridently declares that Jesus will never wash his feet (John 13:8), and later that evening, boasts that he would never deny his Lord (Mark 14:27-31). His sword slices off the ear of the high priest's servant (John 18:10-11). When the fishing disciples recognize Christ on shore, he plunges into the sea to swim to Him (John 21:7). Finally, after hearing Jesus predict his martyrdom, he asks to know John's fate, receiving a none-of-your-business rebuke (John 21:21-22).

Yet, after Christ's resurrection, he is a changed man and becomes the leader that Christ had groomed him to be. Peter quickly takes charge of the little flock of disciples, organizing the choosing of a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26). When the Holy Spirit is manifested on the Day of Pentecost, it is Peter who responds to the mockers, preaching a sermon that explains the miracle and convicts thousands to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:14-41). Along with John, Peter heals the lame man in the Temple and preaches in Solomon's Portico (Acts 3). All fear of martyrdom quelled, he boldly responds to the Sanhedrin after their arrest (Acts 4:1-20; also Acts 5:17-32). He is the one who curses Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), and he severely rebukes Simon Magus for trying to purchase the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-23).

Of all the apostles, Peter is chosen by God to inaugurate the conversion of Gentiles (Acts 10). Not only does he have the position and respect to implement this radical change in thinking, but he is also spiritually astute enough to recognize and respond to Christ's lead in the matter. As he remarks to Cornelius' household, "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34-35). He is so convicted of this "new truth" that he vigorously defends this understanding and his actions before a strong Jewish faction in the Jerusalem church, convincing them as well (Acts 11:1-18). Later, he argues cogently in agreement with Paul and Barnabas that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised to become members of God's church (Acts 15:6-11).

As mentioned earlier, in his office as apostle, Peter traveled a great deal; as Jesus puts it in Acts 1:8, ". . . you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." The book of Acts details some of these travels within the confines of Israel, and a few verses throughout the New Testament hint at other journeys. Paul informs us that he and Peter had a confrontation in Antioch (Galatians 2:11)—an unfortunate, hypocritical relapse into Jewish prejudice—and we can assume that Peter traveled to many of the local congregations in Syria and probably Egypt, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia. In fact, his first epistle, a message of hope sent to Christians suffering persecution, ends with a salutation from Babylon (I Peter 5:13). British tradition claims that he evangelized in Gaul and Britain, fulfilling his mission as an apostle to the house of Israel.

His second epistle was written as a reminder of the gospel to the church just before his death (II Peter 1:12-13). Tradition posits that he was martyred in Rome—crucified upside-down—in about AD 67, although this is historically uncertain, as is his burial place. We do know, though, that he will rise in the first resurrection to rule over the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28)—quite a promotion for a brash fisherman from Bethsaida.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

RBV: Daniel 9:2

". . . in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of the LORD through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem."
 --Daniel 9:2

The prophet Daniel was by this time an old man. He had been taken as a captive to Babylon when he was a young teenager, probably made a eunuch, and trained to serve in Nebuchadnezzar's court. Now, with the defeat of the Babylonians by the Medo-Persians, Daniel was in service to a new king and a new empire, Darius the Mede of the Persian Empire. If the prophet was removed from Jerusalem in 604 BC, the year of Nebuchadnezzer's first invasion, and assuming he was, say, 12 years old at the time, he was now approaching 80 years old (Darius' first year would be c. 537 BC).

And the 70 years of the prophecy were just about up--in fact, they would expire in the next year or so. The prophecy, which Daniel found in "the books" (more correctly, "letters"), had been penned many years before by Jeremiah the prophet. It is found in Jeremiah 29:10: "For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place."

Daniel 9:2 can be read as if Daniel was just coming to the understanding of the seventy years, but that may not be the case. He had probably had access to the letter from Jeremiah for several decades, and he had probably understood that the Jews' exile in Babylon would be only seventy years. However, he may not have known when to commence the count of years, since the Babylonian invasions had been successive and had not finished until about 586 BC. Should he count from 604 BC, from 586 BC, or one of the other incursions?

It is likely that, with his access to the halls of power, Daniel had come to know that Cyrus planned to announce that the Jews could return to the land of their fathers in the next year or two. A little simple math told him that the 604 BC date was the one to begin with. The seventy years was almost complete.

But that brought him up short. He realized that the Jews in Babylon were little better for their captivity than when they left Judah in chains. They were still full of sin. They had not repented of their idolatrous ways. So he falls on his knees to utter his great prayer of confession, of which Daniel 9:10-11 is a sample:
We have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in His laws, which He set before us by His servants the prophets. Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against Him.
He ends with the well-known supplication: "O LORD, hear! O LORD, forgive! O LORD, listen and act! Do not delay for Your own sake, my God, for Your city and Your people are called by Your name" (Daniel 9:19).

The obvious lesson for us is that we know that the return of Jesus Christ is not far off. Do we have a similar repentant attitude as Daniel had?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Recent Finds

The insular world of biblical archeology always seems to be waiting with the proverbial "bated breath" for the next big find that will stun the world. More than a hundred years ago, the great archeologists of the day publicly proclaimed that they undertook their expeditions to the then-remote and backwater Near East to "prove the Bible" to an increasingly skeptical world. By the middle of the twentieth century and down to our own time, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Now some atheistic archeologists are bent on disproving the Bible—or at least minimalizing its influence on the field of archeology—even to relegating the biblical narrative to "unreliable" status as source material.

Before proceeding any further, we need to realize that no archeological find will ever prove the Bible. Should even the Holy Grail of biblical artifacts, Noah's Ark, be discovered and verified as the real deal, we could not say conclusively, "Now there can be no doubt that what the Bible says is true!" Such a find would certainly galvanize our confidence in Scripture, but such a find would not, by itself, erase all uncertainties. Finding Noah's Ark would prove that the biblical story happened—but few of its details, other than the Ark itself, would be authenticated.

Archeological finds may not prove the Bible to be true, but they do verify its historicity, that is, its general authenticity in reporting the events and culture of its day. To use a hypothetical example, a dig that uncovers a plethora of pig bones in a Philistine city and a nearby excavation of an Israelite city that finds few confirm the general historical understanding that the Israelites kept the food laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, while their neighbors, the Philistines, did not. If the pig bones are absent at the Israelite city in, say, an earlier Bronze Age layer rather than an Iron Age layer, it may indicate that the clean-unclean laws are older than some scholars have been willing to date them. Beyond that, the find may lend limited credence to the traditional view that the Pentateuch was essentially complete soon after Moses died.

However, such finds do not prove anything conclusively. Notice some of the words in the above paragraph: "general," "may indicate," "limited credence," and "essentially." These are hardly terms of complete confidence in the discovery and the deductions from it. Archeologists cannot honestly claim anything with certainty because so much of what they do is based on educated guesses. Sometimes they are not even sure of the name of the city they are digging into!

Archeologists meticulously measure and record where an artifact is found, but they may not be certain that it actually belongs to the layer it was found in (it could have slipped into a layer below its true provenance or someone may have dug a hole and placed it there). The layer itself may not be dated correctly, since most dating relies on matching pottery shards to "known" dates of other layers (but pottery styles can vary from location to location). And, of course, no artifact is going to be stamped with "© 857 BC"!

Archeological finds, then, even the most spectacular ones, are of limited rather than absolute value. They are similar to the circumstantial evidence in a murder mystery: While the clues by themselves mean little, together they have the potential of amounting to a fairly convincing case. A judge or jury may not be able to be absolutely certain that the defendant committed the crime, but the evidence points in no other direction. In this way, the bulk of archeological discoveries in the Near East and Egypt positively affirm the Bible's historicity.

There have been several finds over the last few years that have added to the already large mass of evidence for Scripture's faithfulness to history. Jerusalem is always a focal point of excavation, and lately, large-scale digs have taken place in the City of David. Dr. Eilat Mazar, granddaughter of famed Israeli archeologist Benjamin Mazar, has conducted several seasons of digs in this early-settled area of Jerusalem.

In 2005, she announced that she had discovered the foundation walls of the ancient palace of King David, which is now skeptically called "the Large Stone Structure" by the scholarly community. Her find is a large public building dating to the tenth century BC, as well as pottery from around the same time, a copper scroll, and clay bullae (inscribed seals) from biblically known individuals. Some believe that the Large Stone Structure is actually the Fortress of Zion, which David captured early in his reign (II Samuel 5:6-10).

Mazar also claims that, in 2007, she found part of Nehemiah's Wall just outside the Dung Gate and the Old City walls facing the Mount of Olives. The wall, which was erected swiftly over 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15), dates to about 445 BC, when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem as the Persian Empire's governor of the area. Two years ago, Mazar announced that she had unearthed the remains of a Solomonic wall, an assertion that is contested by several of her colleagues. Even so, her discoveries have generally supported the biblical text.

The bullae may be the most fascinating of the finds, and many have been found in and around Jerusalem. Most of the time, these bullae were made when a lump of wet clay was affixed to an object (such as a cord that secured a lid to a pot), and then the face of a signet ring was impressed into the clay, identifying the owner, seller, or sender. These seals become especially important when they can be matched to an individual named in Scripture, and several of these have been found. For instance, the seal of Jehucal (also known as Jucal), who is mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3—"And Zedekiah the king sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah . . . to the prophet Jeremiah, saying, ‘Pray now to the LORD our God for us'"—has been identified.

Famed Israeli archeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a number of bullae in the Babylonian destruction layer at Jerusalem, and one of them reads, "belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan." This may well be the Gemariah mentioned in Jeremiah 36:10: "Then Baruch read from the book the words of Jeremiah in the house of the LORD, in the chamber of Gemariah the son of Shaphan the scribe." These bullae verify that the Bible is telling the stories of real people in actual historical events.

Even finds outside the Middle East can be helpful. A recent discovery of a trove of gold rings in northern Germany may shed light on Israelite migration. The four pounds of gold, shaped into an early form of bullion, dates to about 1300 BC. Testing has determined that the gold originated in mines just east of the Caspian Sea, and scholars are wondering how the gold made its way to the North German Plain. While we cannot be certain that Israelites brought it with them on their westward journey, we know that it is at least a possibility.

These finds, though they are not conclusive proof on their own, give us additional confidence in the Scripture that has been transmitted to us down through history.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Vain Repetitions

Last night, my family attended our nephew's preschool graduation ceremony from a school sponsored by a local church. The five-year-olds were adorable in their blue or red graduation caps and gowns, and they sang choreographed religious and patriotic songs, recited short Bible verses, and told everyone what they wanted to be when they grew up: policeman, fireman, soccer player, doctor, artist, rock star. Each of the dozen students received a diploma and achievement certificate as the program concluded.

The hour-long program also contained three prayers and a devotion. The opening and closing prayers and the devotion were given by teachers and administrators of the school, but the third prayer was recited by the whole graduating class. Of course, the prayer that they rushed through—as all kids normally do—was what is normally called "The Lord's Prayer," found in Matthew 6:9-13. Most people who consider themselves Christians can recite it at will; it is probably one of the most memorized passages of Scripture.

Similarly, when I played Little League baseball in the Columbia, South Carolina, area, it was the practice of our league to gather one team around first base and the opposing team around third base. All the players and coaches would take a knee and reach forward to grab part of a bat that someone placed upright on the base or stack their hands on top of it. Once everyone was situated, the head coach would say, "Take off your caps and bow your heads," and we would all begin to recite the Lord's Prayer in a rapid-fire monotone, hoping to beat the other team to the end. Once done, the players and coaches scrambled back to their respective dugouts, and the umpire called, "Play ball!" God had been invoked and all was well.

Did anyone at the ballpark ever stop to consider if the Lord's Prayer—which is a misnomer; it should be "The Disciples' Prayer" or "The Model Prayer"—has anything to do with baseball? The word does not appear in Matthew 6:9-13 or, in fact, in the Bible. The prayer that Jesus gave His disciples to teach them to pray is about God the Father, His holiness, His name, His Kingdom, His will, His power, His glory, and His eternity, as well as requests for daily providence, forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance. Nary a word about curveballs, double plays, or stealing second base.

Memorizing the so-called Lord's Prayer is a wonderful thing to do. Parents should make it their aim to teach it to their children. But unlike many in nominal Christianity, we need to go further and teach our children that the prayer is not one to be mindlessly repeated but a guideline for our personal, private prayers to "our Father in heaven." It maps out the general attitude and subjects of prayer that we should take to heart and cut deeply into our memory.

It is a wonder that so few who frequently use Matthew 6:9-13 both publically and privately know what Jesus says—no, commands—in the immediately preceding verses:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. (Matthew 6:5-8)
Christ plainly says that public prayers made expressly to be seen by others is hypocritical, and prayers that are repeated vainly (meaning "carelessly," "uselessly," or "thoughtlessly") are heathen! Obviously, this does not mean that He forbids public prayer; there are many examples of proper public prayer in Scripture (see, for example, I Kings 8:22-53; Ezra 9:6-15; Nehemiah 9:5-38; John 17:1-26; etc.). Public prayer is a necessary part of opening and closing religious services. What Jesus denounces is making a show of praying to enhance one's reputation as a "religious" or "righteous" person, as well as repetitious, canned prayers and overlong, tedious prayers.

Overall, Jesus warns us against two mistakes when praying: making them about us and making them meaningless. Doing either (or both) will ruin their effectiveness and actually work at cross-purposes to spiritual growth. When we pray, we need to remember that it is a formal conversation with the divine Governor of the Universe. We have not entered His court for our own gratification and glory. We certainly do not want to bore Him by endlessly repeating the same five words or giving Him the expanded War and Peace version of our pitiful lives. To the contrary, we are before Him to praise Him, to thank Him, to beseech Him for help both for others and ourselves, and to praise and thank Him. I repeat myself for emphasis.

What would we think of a friend who came to the front door each morning, and upon opening it to admit him, he said the exact same thing that he had said the past 532 straight mornings, droning on for half an hour without coming up for air? We might love him as a friend, but we would surely think he was a bit strange and wasting our time with his endless repetitions. We would soon tune out his robotic, one-sided conversation.

We are blessed that God is far more patient and understanding with us than we would be to such a bore. He listens to our petitions whether we are eloquent or mind-numbingly incoherent (see Romans 8:26). Yet, notice that Jesus tells the disciples—us—that the Father knows what we need before we ask Him. We are not springing anything on Him that He has not already figured out. So there is no need for us to meander, be vague, or employ some kind of rhetorical device that is "guaranteed" to convince Him that He has to intervene right away. There is no need to try to impress Him with our knowledge or persuasiveness or righteousness. He wants us to be ourselves and to speak with Him as family members do—with, of course, the proper reverence for who He is.

What is most important—what He is looking for—is a "poor and . . . contrite spirit, and [one] who trembles at My word" (Isaiah 66:2). If the attitude is humble, focused on God's will and His plan for us, He will hear and respond. More importantly, we will be drawing closer to Him and taking on aspects of His character that are so essential to Christian life and the Kingdom of God.