Saturday, December 28, 2013

RBV: Psalm 35:18

I will give You thanks in the great assembly;
I will praise You among many people.
—Psalm 35:18

Psalm 35 is a plea to God from David to weigh in on his side against those who were troubling him without a cause (see verse 7). He had no idea where the animosity had come from, and for his part, he had behaved toward them like a friend:
But as for me, when they were sick,
My clothing was sackcloth;
I humbled myself with fasting;
And my prayer would return to my own heart.
I paced about as though he were my friend or brother;
I bowed down heavily, as one who mourns for his mother. (Psalm 35:13–14)
However, when he was down, 
. . . they rejoiced
And gathered together;
Attackers gathered against me,
And I did not know it;
They tore at me and did not cease;
With ungodly mockers at feasts
They gnashed at me with their teeth. (Psalm 35:15–16)
To grasp the reason for David's statement in verse 18, it must be read in context with the previous verse:
Lord, how long will You look on?
Rescue me from their destructions,
My precious life from the lions.
I will give You thanks in the great assembly;
I will praise You among many people.
David felt alone and persecuted unjustly, and worst of all, he felt that God was merely sitting as a spectator in the stands of the arena, idly watching the spectacle of his being torn to pieces by the teeth and claws of ravenous lions, his enemies. Knowing how undeserved his trouble was, David cannot understand why God has not acted to save him before this. Verse 18 is a promise, along with the plea of verse 17, to praise God publicly and give Him all the glory for his deliverance (compare Psalm 22:22, 25; 40:9–10).

Specifically, he promises to praise God in the public worship at the Tabernacle, as this occurred before the building of the Temple, accomplished by David's son, Solomon. The phrase "many people" is elsewhere translated as "the throng" (see Psalm 42:4; 109:30), and in this case, the psalmist speaks of it, not just as a great number of people, but as a "mighty throng," implying great strength as well. It is doubtful, but there may be a suggestion here that the people of the assembly would be strengthened if they only knew the mighty works that God had performed on David's behalf.

The more cynical may see David's promise as a bribe of sorts, trying to finagle a miracle from God and vowing to repay Him with praise. Others may equate it with the desperate prayer of a soldier in the foxhole, promising to go to church every week if God will just preserve him through the battle. However, that is certainly not the case here. David is already fully committed to God, which he has proved over many years of service to Him, and in this particular psalm, by loving his enemies and waiting on Him for salvation.

The simple fact is that praise (through continued thanks, worship, and proclamation of God's goodness) is the only way a human being can "pay back" the great God of the universe for His blessings and aid. What can a man give to God? We have nothing that God needs; He owns everything already. David's promise, then, should be read as a pledge of joy (verse 9) to praise his Lord and proclaim his faith in God to the widest audience possible as a witness (verses 27b-28). He will do his part to show the world that his God is the God of salvation, one who comes to the aid of His people. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

*Dating Christ's Birth

Despite the continuing secularization of our society, people remain fascinated and curious about the historical basis for the life of Jesus Christ. This curiosity becomes apparent especially around the traditional holidays of Christmas and Easter, when Jesus is supposed to be "the reason for the season." The Internet provides a wide-open window into the things people are thinking about, and questions about Jesus' birth and death are frequently asked on search engines and answers are posted on social media sites. For instance, a quick inquiry on Google or Bing about the date of Jesus' birth returns literally millions of pages of material.

As the world just experienced, the vast majority of mainstream Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 or January 6 (Eastern Orthodox), depending on their denominational allegiance. While a minority of these Christians insist that December 25 is the correct date of the Nativity, most people realize that proof for this early winter date is quite scanty, which we will see presently. Even so, very few of them think that the date is significant as long as one is celebrating the advent of the Son of God into the world for the salvation of mankind—and one experiences good cheer with family and friends and receives the expected number of presents under the tree. I know, my cynicism is showing.

In the run-up to Christmas, it is not uncommon for newspapers, magazines, and online news sites to publish articles revealing the errors and inconsistencies in the supposedly Christian holiday. A person would be ignorant indeed if he did not know that erecting Christmas trees, burning yule logs, hanging mistletoe, and putting up twinkling house lights have no biblical foundation, and in fact, hail from paganism. Santa Claus blends the fourth-century Saint Nicolas with old Germanic and Scandinavian traditions that probably have their roots in Odin worship, and his eight reindeer likely derive from Odin's eight-footed horse, Sleipnir. (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the ninth reindeer, was added in 1939, thanks to the poem of that name by Robert L. May written for the Montgomery Ward department store chain.) Santa's modern look comes courtesy of a Coca-Cola advertising campaign in the 1930s.

The more serious-minded publications, however, tend to focus on the date, the place, and the biblical and historical sources of Jesus' birth. In 2012, "Bible History Daily," an online publication of the Biblical Archaeology Society, published "How December 25 Became Christmas," written by Andrew McGowan, Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Writing for the general public, McGowan collates the findings of numerous scholars who have looked into the issue, concluding that, frankly, no one can really be sure how Christmas came to fall on December 25.

In typical scholarly fashion, McGowan brushes over the biblical information, mentioning only the detail of the shepherds being out with their flocks at night (Luke 2:8). He snootily dismisses it, writing, "Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical." He quickly hurries on to extra-biblical findings, clearly believing them to be more credible.

In spite of his less-than-comforting dismissal of what the Bible says on the subject, McGowan rounds up the historical facts with rigor. He shows that Christian leaders well into the late-third century did not celebrate Christ's birth, citing the well-known "Early Church Father," Origen: "Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as 'pagan' practices—a strong indication that Jesus' birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time." Note that Origen lived into the latter half of the third century.

Earlier, around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria had written that Christian teachers had proposed various dates for the Nativity, but December 25 was not among them. In fact, most of them fall in the spring. But by the fourth century, December 25 in the Roman West and January 6 in Egypt and the East had become widely recognized as competing dates for that unique day in Bethlehem. How had the people of that time come to decide on these dates?

McGowan posits two theories—and that is all they are. The first is the one most members of God's church are familiar with: that December 25 is borrowed from Roman paganism, particularly the Saturnalia festival kept in late December. As the author notes in support of the idea, "To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25."

While collecting the facts assiduously, he stumbles in interpreting them. Finding no historical proof that the Roman church in the late-third or early-fourth century intentionally syncretized the pagan holiday into Christianity, McGowan fails to see any plausibility in this theory. However, he later contradicts himself: "From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals." For this, he blames Constantine, who "converted" in AD 312. We can only conclude that he is being either na├»ve or purposely disingenuous about the Roman church's penchant to ignore God's Word in its quest for converts.

The second theory makes a great to-do about the date of Passover (Nisan 14) when Christ died, which at the time was believed to have occurred on March 25, exactly nine months prior to December 25. The ancients apparently considered such symmetry to be divinely ordained. "Thus," McGowan writes:
Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25. . . . Connecting Jesus' conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together.
Despite this theory being based on supposition and "divine symmetry," McGowan considers it more likely than deliberate syncretism—before the mid-fourth century, of course.

Belief in the general historicity of God's Word would solve his dilemma, but trusting the Bible is rare among critical scholars these days. Our article, "When Was Jesus Born?" uses the biblical details to narrow the possible dates to a two-week period in the early autumn, aligning well with the fall holy days, particularly the Feast of Trumpets. It is far more likely that the divine symmetry would align Christ's birth with God's feasts than with the short days of early winter.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

RBV: II Timothy 2:26

. . . and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.
—II Timothy 2:26

It is important to realize who the apostle Paul is writing about in this verse. The antecedent of "they" appears in the previous verse: "those who are in opposition." The entire epistle is instruction for the evangelist Timothy, and in this passage in particular, Paul is giving the younger man advice on how to handle those who dispute the gospel message he taught.

He instructs Timothy, as "a servant of the Lord," to correct his opponents with humility and in the hope of two positive outcomes should God grant repentance to them. First, his correct explanation of the matter in contention would bring them out of their ignorance, liberating them from the bondage of error (John 8:32) and opening the potentialities of the truth to them. Paul was very aware that false teachers and anti-Christian foes functioned with a veil over their minds (see, for instance, how he explains it regarding the Jews in II Corinthians 3:14-16; Matthew 15:14), a blindness that could only be lifted by the direct intervention of God revealing Himself and His truth by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:10-14; John 6:44). A minister of God should always answer naysayers plainly with the revealed truth of God to give them the knowledge that may lead to their repentance.

The second positive outcome is the subject of II Timothy 2:26. He hopes that exposure to the truth will bring opponents "to their senses" and free them from their captivity to Satan. The apostle realizes that even the most cunning argument of one of God's servants is not enough to accomplish this; a person's repentance and acceptance of the truth will happen only if God "flips a switch" in his mind by the Holy Spirit to become receptive to Him. So a minister must present the truth in the event that God will use his explanation to call him into a relationship with Him. It is only at this point that an individual truly comes to his senses (see Luke 15:17; Acts 9:3-20). Only then does he begin to see without the blinders (or in Paul's own case, when the scales fell from his eyes).

Once one accepts the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and acknowledges Him as personal Savior and Lord, the walls of Satan's prison fall away and crumble to dust (see Romans 6:16-22). His power over us disappears because his claim on us has been removed; our sins have been forgiven and we are no longer in rebellion against God. We have gone over to the other side in the great spiritual war that the Devil has always been destined to lose. The Captain of our salvation has already crushed the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15), and all that remains is the perfection of the saints for their roles in the Kingdom of God.

However, there are yet billions of people who are still "captive . . . to do his will." Revelation 12:9 states that the great dragon, who is the Devil and Satan, has deceived the whole world. Despite his ignominious defeat at Calvary, Satan is determined to turn it into victory. In his pride, he still thinks he can win! So he will continue to oppose God and His people wherever and whenever he can, using his captives all over the world to trouble, persecute, and kill God's saints. This reality means that Christians must remain on their guard at all times, prepared to "fight the good fight" (II Timothy 4:7) to wear the crown of victory in the Kingdom.

Finally, we must remember that our fight is really not against the men and women still enslaved to Satan, although they are the faces and voices that oppose us. Paul writes:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Ephesians 6:12-13)
We need to look beyond our physical opponents to the evil spirits behind them, realizing that our human foes have not yet come to their senses and seen the light of the truth that only God can reveal. Thus, we can contend with them in humility and gentleness, grateful for the grace God has extended to us.