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the last trumpet, revelation 11:3-19

Just as John the Baptist came “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” the two witnesses of Revelation 11 (the Church) arise in the spirit and power of the great prophets of the Old Testament as they bear witness to Jesus (11:3). The witnesses are “standing before the Lord of the earth,” which indicates that judgment will be issued on anyone who harms them physically, economically, or politically, or merely rejects their testimony (11:4-5). The Church is called to share the gospel of salvation and prophetically speak into the issues of the day—even if we are slandered or threatened.

Amazingly, ministry is patterned after the prophetic authority of Elijah and Moses. Elijah’s “power to shut the sky” and Moses’s power “over the plagues” were responses to idolaters who persecuted God’s people. The same is true in Revelation 11:6. The laser-sharp focus of the seals and trumpets is persecution!

Revelation 11:10 tells us that the Christian witness will “torment” some people. Why? How can the gospel, which preaches a message of hope, love, and grace, be taken as a torturous thing, and its message-bearers as deserving of persecution—even death? For some, the good news of Jesus’s reign may incite rage, but for others, it is the power of God unto salvation (1 Cor 1:21-25; Rom 1:16).

“And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (Rev 11:7-8). Sodom is not Egypt, Egypt is not Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is neither Sodom nor Egypt. So, what does this “great city” signify? Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem are all places where God’s people suffered great persecution.

It almost feels like John’s been given a fish-eye lens perspective of the symbolic “world-city” filled with “peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” (Rev 11:9). In a positive sense, the Church will complete its role of bearing witness to Christ when it penetrates the city streets of the entire world (Matt 24:14). In a negative sense, the Church will appear to be defeated in the eyes of the world at the very end of history. The picture of their dead bodies lying “in the street of the great city” does not mean that the entire Church will be massacred (Rev 11:9; cf. Matt 24:9; Ps 79). The remnant may be reduced to silence—or perhaps driven underground.

But the world will cheer, “The Church is finally dead! The threat of judgment will not fall on us! Hooray!” The apparent humiliation of Christianity will give the world a reason to party (Rev 11:10). “If those days had not been cut short,” Jesus said, “no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matt 24:21-22). If the Lord does not crash the party at this point, the Church’s witness would be trashed. Silencing the Church on a global scale seems to be a victory for the beast (this is the first mention of him in Revelation and we’ll get to him in chapter 13). Just when the world thinks it has finally stomped out Christianity, the resurrection will complete our witness (Rev 11:11-12)! This is no secret rapture. A world gripped with fear will watch the witnesses ascend to heaven (11:13-14).

That’s when the last trumpet sounds to announce: “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (11:15; cf. 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16; Matt 24:31)! Jesus is finally coming! How do we know? Notice that chorus sings, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was,” and omits who is to come! When the last trumpet sounds, King Jesus will have “taken [his] “great power and begun to reign” (Rev 11:17). He will bust heaven wide open and redeem all that “the destroyers of the earth” tried to destroy (11:18-19). 

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the temple of God, revelation 11:1-2

If lampstands signify churches, a scroll signifies the earth’s title deed, horses signify persecution, trumpets warn, and sealing means shielding and endurance, then what does this temple of God in Revelation 11 signify?

The key lies in the verse preceding chapter 11 in which John was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Rev 10:11). He is given a rod to “measure,” to evaluate the “many peoples and nations and languages and kings” who are then regarded as “the temple of God” (11:1). The church is God’s temple because it identifies with the true temple, Jesus Christ (John 2:19-22).

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17; cf. 2 Cor 6:16; 1 Pet 2:5). We are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:20-22).

The temple of God is both heavenly and earthly; there are believers in heaven and on earth (Rev 11:19; Heb 8:1-2). We are all united in Christ, the true temple. Along with the heavenly temple, the “holy city” will one day come down out of heaven (Rev 21:2, 22). Even so, some aspect of the heavenly Jerusalem is evident on earth. For we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first born who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:22).

What’s striking about John’s vision is that the “outer court” of God’s temple is not to be measured during a time when it is “given over to the nations” to “trample on” it for “forty-two months” (Rev 11:2; cf. Dan 8:10-14). Those are who are being trampled are not being rejected by God; they are undergoing severe persecution. God’s temple can be trodden but never destroyed. Their souls are protected by the invisible sanctuary in which they dwell.

Throughout the Bible, “forty-two months” or “three and a half years” or “1290 days” or “times, time, and half a time” seem to accentuate a time limit on such amplified hardship (e.g., Dan 7:25; 12:7, 11; Luke 4:25; Ja 5:17; 1 Kings 17-18; cf. Jesus’s reference to the Roman siege of Jerusalem that lasted three and a half years confirms this in Luke 21:20-24). What we’re saying here is that John was prophesying “about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” who “being joined together … into a holy temple in the Lord … by the Spirit” would endure severe tribulation because of their witness (Rev 10:11; Eph 2:20-22). It makes sense that the vision quickly transforms the “trampled” into witnesses (Rev 11:3).

Notice that John identifies the two witnesses as “two olive trees and two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth” to testify (Rev 11:4). Both images offer a clear connection to the lampstand-churches in the seven letters and Zechariah 4. In Zechariah’s vision, there is opposition to finishing the second temple (i.e., “the lampstand” of his day); but there are also two olive trees, “two anointed ones who stand before the Lord of the whole earth” to testify—just like Revelation 11:4 (Zech 4:14). The point in both passages is the same: whatever the resistance, God’s temple will be built, “not by my might, nor power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord, “amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zech 4:6-14).

Jesus sums it up well for us: “I will build my church,” he says, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). He who started this great work will bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day he appears (Phil 1:6).  

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our bittersweet calling, revelation 10

In Revelation 10 John saw “another mighty angel coming down from heaven” having “a little scroll open in his hand” (10:1-2). The fact that the little scroll had already been opened may indicate that it is the earth’s title deed, the same scroll of Revelation 5.

A human being had to open the scroll since the earth was given to humanity. The only human being that is worthy (sinless) to claim the title deed is Jesus Christ. And it was by his blood that Christ “ransomed people” to be fully human, fully functioning king-priests on God’s good earth (Rev 5:9-10).

The mighty angel sets “his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, and calls out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded” (Rev 10:2-3). John is forbidden to record the revelation of the thunders (10:4). No reason is given. Perhaps the unknown thunders are meant to humble us and steer us away from timelines and charts that claim to have the book of Revelation all figured out.

When the mighty angel raised his right hand to heaven, he makes an oath: “There would be no more delay … the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets” (Rev 10:5-7; cf. Deut 32:34-35). The mystery of God here is likely the mystery that history, as we know it, will end when, as Daniel put it, the “shattering of the power of the holy people” come “to an end” (Dan 12:7) and God’s purposes are completed.

Notice the movement of the scroll that’s developing. In Revelation 5, God holds the scroll, and the Lamb takes and opens it. In Revelation 10, John is instructed to take the scroll and eat it (10:8-10). By partaking, John is not assuming Christ’s sovereignty over the earth; he is sharing in the reign of Christ as do all believers. Christ reigns through us, through courageous proclamation and sacrificial acts of kindness.

Eating the earth’s title deed is bittersweet. We receive his forgiveness and long for righteousness to prevail, for God to right all wrongs and bring an end to evil and suffering. Yet the more we let that word soak in, more we realize how terrifying the final judgment will be for those who do not trust in Christ.

I like how Greg Beale sums up our calling: Christians are “to reign ironically as Christ did by being imitators of the great cosmic model of the cross … The persecution and defeat of the witnessing church is the means leading to the resurrection of Christians and to their enemies’ defeat.”

The Lord’s ways are higher than our ways (Isa 55:9); which means that his plan unfolds in unexpected ways from our limited perspective. It is not important that we grasp it all but that we trust in him through it all. We receive the promised inheritance through the triumph of suffering love—which ironically lays the basis for the final judgment of those rejecting our testimony. That is certainly bittersweet. 

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the trumpets, revelation 8-9

Apocalyptic prophecy presents its material in numbered sets that parallel and intensify as God exonerates the righteous and brings an end to history. The seven trumpets parallel the seals of persecution, that is, divine judgment may fall at any time on those who oppose the cause of Christ.

The seventh seal begins with silence and then offers the response to “the prayers of all the saints” (Rev 8:3; cf. 6:10). “The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God” (8:4). What happens to all the prayers that have been offered by God’s people? They’re lit on fire and thrown back down to earth with “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:5; cf. Ezek 10)! God hears the prayers of his people, and the trumpet judgments are his answer to them. Cosmic disturbance language signals an epic shake down.

Rather than taking a rigid chronological approach to the trumpets, think of John’s vision as cameras recording events from different angles. Notice how the first four trumpets impact natural resources and mimic the plagues sent to the Egyptians for persecuting God’s people (Rev 8:6-12). But just as Israel was protected from whatever struck the Egyptians, believers are shielded from the trumpet judgments and sealed (i.e., enabled to persevere).

The next two trumpets are explicitly marked off as being far worse (Rev 8:13). When the risen King Jesus commands “the shaft of the bottomless pit” to open, hell’s nastiest demons are unleashed to psychologically torment those who abide in spiritual darkness (9:1-10). As bitter anxiety heightens, the persecuting world “will long to die, but death will flee from them” (9:6). But note, these locust-like demons are “like horses prepared for battle” (9:7)—which leads to the sixth trumpet.

That the precise hour has already been set to the release the four Euphrates* angels underscores who is in control (9:12-15). Heaven is Command Central. Whereas the locust-like demons are not permitted to kill anyone (9:5), the four angels of the sixth trumpet lead a terrifying number of vicious demonic “troops” to “kill a third” of humanity (9:15-19). This army is from hell. Astonishingly, those who survive “these plagues” refuse to repent of their sins—and even more shocking, they continue to worship the very same demons who torment them (9:20-21). Satan’s minions are permitted to carry out their dirty work, but they cannot touch believers. The trumpets carry out Christ’s response to those bent on persecuting his people.

If all this is hard to swallow, perhaps there’s a deficiency in our theology of persecution. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet 4:14). Yes, a heightened sense of God’s glory emerges in persecution (cf. Phil 1:29; Rom 8:17; Acts 5:41; 2 Tim 1:80).

*In the Old Testament, armies “from the east” or “from beyond the river Euphrates” were often described as an innumerable horde riding on horses, threatening to devour like locusts (e.g., Jer 46:2, 4, 6, 10, 22-23; Jud 6:3-5; Joel 1:4, 6; 2:3-4).

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Jesus opens the seals, revelation 6-7

Knowing that Jesus has the earth’s title deed, we can “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12). With this in mind, let’s enter Revelation 6 and watch the Lamb open the seven seals.

It is the risen Jesus that sends four horsemen to earth (Rev 6:1-8). The horses are identified together as being the same in nature (cf. Zech 1:8-11; 6:1-8). Keep in mind that there is no clear indication that they are four single catastrophic events. Revelation is apocalyptic prophecy. Its rich imagery is meant to paint a picture—not to provide a chronological sequence of events. The horses are given permission to persecute Christians. Ironically, the faithful are refined through those who try to destroy them. “Such sufferings are not meaningless but are part of God’s providential plan that Christians should pattern their lives after the sacrificial model of Jesus” (Greg Beale). Following Christ is the way of the cross.

The first rider on a white horse imitates Christ’s appearance (cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15). Counterfeits are permitted to “conquer” (i.e., persecute) through deception. The second rider on a red horse allows tensions to escalate worldwide. Conflicts often enflame hatred toward Christians. The third rider on a black horse grants economic hardship. Like the previous two seals, targeting Christians economically is in mind. The fourth rider on a pale green horse is given the name, “Death,” to represent all kinds of death. For some Christians, persecution leads to martyrdom.

The fifth and sixth seals describe two very different reactions to this irony. When Jesus opens the fifth seal, the martyrs are resting in the Lord and saying, “How long, Lord, before you bring forth justice?” The fact that they “cry out with a loud voice” confirms three things about believers in heaven: 1) they are not asleep in a state of unconscious repose; 2) they are aware of time passing on earth; and 3) they know that the King’s plan is to one day cover the earth with justice, righteousness, and truth.

It must be remembered that Christ ultimately uses persecution as punishments for his enemies. When Jesus opens the sixth seal, cosmic disturbances signal a justified shake down. The perpetrators of persecution are not at rest. They’re seized with fear. They say, “Fall on us, rocks, for who can stand the wrath of the Lamb?” Believers look at persecution with hope, knowing that one day Christ will set things right. Bullies, on the other hand, can only hope that death means extinction without retribution (cf. Is 2:10, 18-21).

Although Revelation 7 is difficult, it explains how believers persevere through the persecution described in Revelation 6 without losing their faith. They are sealed on their foreheads (Rev 7:1-3; cf. Ezek 9). What does that mean? What we do know is that “God the Father has set his seal” on all believers, having “given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (John 6:27; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim 2:19). The Lord seals us—not from suffering—but in order that we persevere through suffering and death by the power of his Spirit.

John “heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” but saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation” (Rev 7:4-14). We must remember that Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy. The broad brushstrokes paint a colorful Church made up of Jews and Gentiles from every ethnic group on earth. “We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation,” explained Tertullian (second century). “That’s why you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church … you frustrate your purpose. Because those who see us die, wonder why we do … And when they find out, they join us.”

And one day we will stand before the Lamb’s throne—and then what will we do? We’ll be busy serving him “day and night” in heaven (Rev 7:15-17). What do you think your loved ones are doing? What do you think you’ll be doing?

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the scroll, revelation 5

Revelation 5 continues the vision of the Court of Heaven in session. Whenever God is ready to render a judgment, he calls “the council of the holy ones” to assemble (cf. Ps 82:1; 89:5-7). Here in John’s vision, God is holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. In many ways, the scroll is the key to understanding the rest of the book of Revelation.

Let’s begin with Daniel because he saw this incredible scene in a vision back in the sixth century BC. “As I looked,” said Daniel, “thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took his seat … the court sat in judgment … and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man … and to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom … which shall not pass away” (Dan 7:9-14).

Considering both visions, the scroll appears to be earth’s title deed. The only one worthy to open it and carry out God’s action plan for the world is the risen King (Rev 5:1-7). By taking the scroll, King Jesus accepts responsibility to cleanse the cosmos of evil in preparation for the new earth. Only Jesus is worthy and capable to take on such a massive task. He alone has the wisdom, love, humility, and power to rule in a way that produces righteousness, justice, grace, and mercy across the universe. Jesus has the fierce fearlessness of a lion and the tender humility of a lamb.

To open that scroll means to release righteous judgments and set things right.

When Jesus takes the scroll, the Court of Heaven grabs their harps and golden bowls of the prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8). Why? Worship and prayer influence world affairs (cf. Rev 8:3-4)! Worship and prayer are vital components of setting things right.

This causes all of creation to burst out in a “new song” of praise (Rev 5:8-14)! What is this new song? It is the new creation song! We sing the song of rescue and renewal to be put into effect in “the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). The good news song sings about—not just going to heaven—but about the rescue, restoration, and renewal of creation (Rom 8:19-21; Acts 3:20-21).

In anticipation of the new earth in the Age to Come, God’s people sing the new (creation) song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe … and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10). King Jesus redeemed us so that we may reign on earth as a kingdom of priests now and forevermore.

Daniel summed it up well. “Judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom … And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Dan 7:22, 27). All the infinite resources and power of heaven are committed to the big plan. It cannot fail. It will come to pass.

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the scroll of revelation 5

Revelation 5 continues the vision of the Court of Heaven in session. Whenever God is ready to render a judgment, he calls “the council of the holy ones” to assemble (cf. Ps 82:1; 89:5-7). Here in John’s vision, God is holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. In many ways, the scroll is the key to understanding the rest of the book of Revelation.
Let’s begin with Daniel because he saw this incredible scene in a vision back in the sixth century BC. “As I looked,” said Daniel, “thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took his seat … the court sat in judgment … and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man … and to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom … which shall not pass away” (Dan 7:9-14).
Considering both visions, the scroll appears to be earth’s title deed. The only one worthy to open it and carry out God’s action plan for the world is the risen King (Rev 5:1-7). By taking the scroll, King Jesus accepts responsibility to cleanse the cosmos of evil in preparation for the new earth. Only Jesus is worthy and capable to take on such a massive task. He alone has the wisdom, love, humility, and power to rule in a way that produces righteousness, justice, grace, and mercy across the universe. Jesus has the fierce fearlessness of a lion and the tender humility of a lamb.
To open that scroll means to release righteous judgments and set things right.
When Jesus takes the scroll, the Court of Heaven grabs their harps and golden bowls of the prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8). Why? Worship and prayer influence world affairs (cf. Rev 8:3-4)! Worship and prayer are vital components of setting things right. This causes all of creation to burst out in a “new song” of praise (Rev 5:8-14)! What is this new song? It is the new creation song! We sing the song of rescue and renewal to be put into effect in “the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). The good news song sings about—not just going to heaven—but about the rescue, restoration, and renewal of creation (Rom 8:19-21; Acts 3:20-21).
In anticipation of the new earth in the Age to Come, God’s people sing the new (creation) song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe … and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10). King Jesus redeemed us so that we may reign on earth as a kingdom of priests now and forevermore.
Daniel summed it up well. “Judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom … And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Dan 7:22, 27). All the infinite resources and power of heaven are committed to the big plan. It cannot fail. It will come to pass. 
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the court of heaven, revelation 4

The vision of the glorified Christ walking among the churches on earth is followed by a vision of the Court of Heaven.

When John enters his first vision, he is not catapulted into the future. He gets a glimpse of the present reality of heaven! John is invited into God’s royal “space” to see the universe from heaven’s perspective. What did he see?

God’s throne is surrounded by concentric circles. Radiant colors of the rainbow loop around it to remind us of the covenant God made with Noah to preserve the earth (Rev 4:2-3). Four living creatures, known as “cherubim,” circle the throne as well (4:6-8). They are neither angels nor chubby babies. Cherubim are guardians of God’s throne. Their gyroscope wheels provide a chariot that can move God’s throne in any direction (cf. Ezek 1:6-26; 10:20-22). Yep, God’s throne moves!

John sees another circle made up of 24 thrones for 24 elders (Rev 4:4-5, 10). Who are these “guys” clothed in white and wearing gold crowns? They are not guys! Whenever God is ready to render a judgment, he calls “the council of the holy ones” to assemble (cf. Ps 82:1; 89:5-7; Dan 7:9-10). Those on the Court of heaven are sometimes called “sons of God” (Ps 89:6; Job 1:6) or “watchers” (Dan 4:13, 17, 23) or “rulers and authorities” (Col 1:16) or “seraphim”—which means “shiny flying serpent”-like dragons (Isa 6:1-8). Amazingly, God invites heaven’s elder board to participate in decisions that affect human affairs on earth (e.g., 1 Kings 22:19-23). God is all-knowing and certainly doesn’t need advice; but he is a loving, relational God who works with creaturely beings (celestial and human) to advance his purposes. Isn’t that marvelous?

John then sees angels circling around God’s throne (Rev 5:11). Contrary to popular belief, nowhere in Scripture do we see angels with wings. Nowhere. When they reveal themselves to people, they seem to appear as men. Angels are messengers that God sends to earth to accomplish specific missions. Their job is to announce, rescue, serve, and guide “those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14). Some angels rank higher than other angels (1 Thess 4:16; Jude 9; 1 Tim 5:21; Dan 10:13; 12:1), but all angels rejoice when someone repents and believes in Jesus (Luke 15:10).

What is the point of all this?

Every creature in heaven currently works under the direction of the risen King, the only begotten Son of God. “Christ is now in heaven, where he sits at the right side of God. All angels, authorities, and powers are under his control” (1 Pet 3:22, CEV; cf. Eph 1:20-21). After all, it was Jesus who created the entire host of heaven in the first place! “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).

No matter how out-of-control things may seem on the earth, we must view history from heaven’s vantage point. God’s throne room is command central, and the Court of Heaven is in session! “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11).

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heresies in the church, revelation 2-3

In the seven letters of Revelation, the churches had been invaded by the teachings of “the Nicolaitans” and “Balaam” (Rev 2:6, 14-15); they were harassed by the “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9); and “Jezebel” was prophesying “the deep things of Satan” from the pulpit (2:24). What in the world was going on?

Let’s play Jeopardy. The category is “heresy.” In Revelation 2-3, we not only need to ask the questions; we must also try to reconstruct the answers!

First, who were the Nicolaitans? Not much known about the group. However, Jesus seems to link the practices of the Nicolaitans with the practices of those who listened to Balaam’s teachings (Rev 2:14). These groups may have professed their faith in Christ, but their idea of “freedom” meant freedom to sin. Heresy is easy to spot. It always negates Scripture.

Secondly, who was Jezebel? Sometimes heresy takes a cheekier, more in-your-face approach through sassy, self-proclaimed “prophets” (Rev 2:20). Like queen Jezebel who openly fed false prophets at her table (1 Kings 18), church “Jezebels” feed others with their “revelations.” The problem with modern day Jezebels—whether they are male or female—is that their “prophetic words” do not line up with Scripture. The New Testament gift of prophecy is NOT like Old Testament prophecy. In fact, “Thus says the Lord” is never a preface when people prophesy in the New Testament. That alone should speak volumes to us. Heresy is easy to identify. It always adds to Scripture.

True prophesying occurs when the Holy Spirit impresses a word on someone’s heart—a word that is “good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). The gift of prophecy strengthens, encourages, builds up, and exhorts the church to take action (1 Cor 14:31; e.g., Acts 13:1-3). Paul tells us not to despise prophecies, but to test and evaluate them, to embrace “what is good” and reject “every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:20-21).

Third, who formed “a synagogue of Satan” and taught “the deep things Satan” (Rev 2:9, 24; 3:9)? Wow, this is serious! Something insidious had invaded the early church! What was it? Gnosticism (Greek gnosis means “knowledge”). Gnosticism refers to a particular kind of knowledge—a secret knowledge into the divine mysteries. Apparently, Christians have gotten everything wrong. “Christ” is the revealer of gnosis, the secret knowledge of people’s divinity. “Salvation” occurs when one realizes that their higher self is part of the Cosmic Christ. “The deep things of Satan” center on Christ Consciousness—not on Jesus Christ himself. Again, heresy is not hard to detect. It always distorts Scripture.

Throughout church history, heresy always diminishes the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross by tampering with Scripture. Thankfully, Jesus continues to stand in the midst of his Church to expose whatever endangers his Bride. 

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7 churches, revelation 2-3

King Jesus reigns over heaven and earth. And he has an amazing master plan! He begins with a message to his Church. What was the Spirit saying to the seven churches in the first century? What he says to every generation! As you read Revelation 2-3, consider how the descriptions are like what’s happening in the church today.

There are always churches like the church of Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7). Some churches labor faithfully for the gospel, endure patiently, and do not tolerate false teaching—but they aren’t very loving. Without love, theological purity is meaningless (1 Cor 13:2). “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through truth and love.

There are always churches like the church of Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11). Some churches suffer great persecution and need strengthening words of encouragement from the One who knows all too well the pain of slander, ridicule, abuse, and death. Those in the fire of affliction have nothing but Jesus—so they have everything! “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through faithfulness not so-called “success.”

There are always churches like the church of Pergamum (Rev 2:1217). Some churches hold on to their faith in Christ amid a satanically charged atmosphere. But unfortunately, they also embrace heresies that compromise their witness. Why root out heresy? Heresy always diminishes who Christ is and what he has done. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” by contending for the faith.

There are always churches like the church of Thyatira (Rev 2:1828). For some churches, diligence in ministry abounds in blessings over time. However, in the effort to love well, they end up openly supporting immoral lifestyles as well. God is love (1 John 4:16); we cannot separate his love from his holiness. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through his sanctified, transforming love.

There are always churches like the church of Sardis (Rev 3:1-6). Some churches are good at marketing themselves. They present the image of being alive, but it’s just a façade. When church activities become “showtime,” it’s time to wake up and repent of “going through the motions.” “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through meek and unpretentious ministry.

There are always churches like the church of Philadelphia (Rev 3:713). For some churches, their lack of size, resources, and money is no obstacle to accomplishing great things for God’s kingdom. They’re always looking for new opportunities to serve and Jesus keeps opening doors for them! “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through patient endurance. 

There are always churches like the church of Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22). Some churches seem so confident and prosperous—but they are clueless about their spiritual poverty. They are like lukewarm water, useless in God’s kingdom purposes. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through brokenness and humility.

The seven churches reflect the Church in every generation. King Jesus continues to stand in the midst of his people, exposing threats from within, dangers from without, and calling his people to overcome adversity, heresy, and compromise.  

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revelation 1

With winged and wild creatures, locust plagues, and a crazed woman riding a seven-headed beast, you might think, “Hooray! Season four of Stranger Things is finally being released!” Sorry Netflix bingers. It’s just the book of Revelation. Why is this book so difficult to interpret? Usually people jump right to “what does it mean?” without considering “what is Revelation?” Revelation is an apocalyptic-prophecy-epistle. What’s that?
Revelation is an epistle. John wrote this letter to seven real churches from the island of Patmos at the end of Domitian’s reign (AD 95). Domitian was demanding that everyone worship his statue as if he were a god. He terrorized anyone that refused to bow to him. John was on Patmos due to imperial banishment.
Revelation is a prophecy (Rev 1:3; 22:18–19). Biblical prophecy “speaks” to the time of the author and into the future. This form of communication is like poetic impressionist paintings. They present God’s message through vivid images, colorful metaphors, and symbols that often parallel one another.
Revelation is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature arranges its material in numbered sets. When these sets are put together, the events they describe parallel and intensify as God exonerates the righteous and brings an end to history. Thus, when John says, “then I saw” countless times in Revelation, he’s simply indicating the sequence in which he received the visions.
The purpose of Revelation is to reveal the victorious, glorious reign of King Jesus. It is the Revelation of Jesus Christ–not the revelation of the antichrist (Rev 1:1)! Christ’s ascension proved that he has “the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18). He alone is “seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:20-23; cf. Matt 28:18). “In putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb 2:8). But make no mistake about it, Jesus is alive, and he is Lord.
Why is it important to know that the rule of Jesus Christ is not something that is going to happen only at the end of history? Revelation reveals how Jesus, “the ruler of the kings on earth,” actively reigns through his Spirit-filled people—a people whom Jesus made “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev 1:5-6; 5:10). Jesus’ kingdom power operates through and becomes evident in our proclamation of the gospel and acts of selfless love. Even our worship and prayers for mercy and justice influence world affairs (5:8; 8:3-4). So, when Jesus says, “I am the Alpha,” the one who began it all, “and the Omega,” the one who completes on earth what he started, he is essentially saying that he has a plan that will progressively intensify the spiritual conflict between God’s kingdom of priests and the forces of evil until he returns to usher in the eternal Age to Come (1:8).
What timeframe in history does Revelation focus on? Jesus explains this, too. Revelation concerns things “that are” (John’s day), and “things that must soon take place” (after John’s day), and things “that are to take place after this” (long after John’s day; 1:1, 19). Revelation pertains to every generation since John’s generation.
Although it’s easy to get caught up in the details, it’s important to remember that Jesus begins and ends his Revelation with a blessing for those who not only read and hear the words of this book, but for those “who keep what is written in it” (1:3; 22:7, 9). How can you “keep” what is written in this book? Stay tuned!  
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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 40-48

After following Ezekiel for 20 years since chapter one, we come to the climatic vision in chapters 40-48. In this final dream-like sequence, Ezekiel is escorted on a three-dimensional visionary tour of a temple with a river that flow out to heal all the nations.

Visions are kind of like The Matrix, or the holodeck in Star Trek. Ezekiel is lifted onto a very high mountain where he looks down on a virtual city (40:1-2). Like all prophecy, the point is not in the details themselves, but in the overall image that is being created. The details are meant to heighten the grandeur of the geometric, symmetrical dimensions of the temple’s design.

There is no explicit command to build this massive temple—in contrast to the tabernacle, which God repeatedly instructed Israel to build according to the pattern shown to Moses. With Ezekiel’s temple, there is no hint of any human construction at all. It is simply presented to him in a virtual reality-like manner. The further in you go, the narrower the entrance becomes. Although many have tried to draw it, it’s perfect, three-dimensional cube structure is literally impossible to create. In fact, there are so many Leviticus-sounding details mixed into its Eden-like spiritual geography that no human being could possibly build it. Ezekiel’s virtual reality tour is a vision—not an architectural blueprint.

Nevertheless, some people are convinced that Ezekiel’s temple will one day be built in Jerusalem—only to open its doors to the Antichrist. This is not something we should encourage. To reinstitute animal sacrifices would deny the sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sin (Heb 10:12-14, 18). To reinstate a priesthood would diminish Christ’s priestly intercession from heaven and disparage the priesthood of all believers. Such disregard for the complete and final work of Christ is precisely what the writer of the book of Hebrews warned against.

The guided tour moves along at a quick pace and ends at the place it began (Ezek 40-42). After the tour is over, Ezekiel is led to the best vantage point to watch the splendid arrival of the King: at “the gate facing east” (43:1). The King’s grand entrance sounded like Niagara Falls and suddenly the entire “earth shone with his glory” as “the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (43:3-5). The king has come home. “This is the place of my throne,” says the King, “where I will dwell in the midst of the people forever” (43:6-7). In this vision, priests carry out their religious duties “ministering before the Lord” and “teaching” the people (40:46; 44:15-23). The princes (there’s more than one) carry out their civic duties “executing justice and righteousness” for all (45:7-9).

God then brings Ezekiel back to the door of the temple and water begins to trickle out from below the threshold of the temple (47:1-5). At first it was only ankle deep, then knee deep, and then waist deep. It kept gushing out until it formed a river that could not be passed through without a life preserver! Only Jesus can save and immerse someone in these “rivers of living water” (John 7:38-39).

Wherever the river goes, everything flourishes (Ezek 47:6-11). All kinds of fish and all kinds of trees from all over the world are thriving “because the water for them flows from the sanctuary” (47:12). John saw the river, too, and confirmed that it was “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:1-2).

Ezekiel’s vision ends with the land of Israel divided equally among the people and arranged around the sanctuary (Ezek 48). What does this signify? All God’s people, no matter how long or how hard they serve the Lord, will receive the same reward: eternal life in the Age to Come on a new earth. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). The thief on the cross received the same reward as Paul, Ezekiel, you, and me.

Old Testament prophecies of future scenes are always presented in its local setting, using language the original audience understood. Prophecy used localized situations to foreshadow a future globalized reality. Paul was able to broaden Ezekiel’s dry bones vision and John was able broaden Ezekiel’s Gog prophecy and the 3D temple-cube vision because they enjoyed a certain vantage point: the King had already risen and is preparing a city. “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord Is There” (Ezek 48:35).

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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 38-39

Ezekiel 38-39 present one of the most challenging prophecies in the Bible. It has stirred a bewildering number of odd interpretations. Want to enter the fray with me?

Ezekiel’s prophecy focuses on a cryptic character named, “Gog of the land of Magog.” Ma-who? Ma-goo? Who is this mysterious Gog of Magog? Augustine thought Gog was the Goths. Luther thought Gog was the Turks. Today, some people think Russia is Gog.

I think Ezekiel 38:17 holds the key: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Are you [Gog] not the one I spoke of in former days by my servants the prophets of Israel? At that time, they prophesied for years that I would bring you against them.’” The problem is there is no direct prophecy about Gog mentioned in the Old Testament outside of these chapters in Ezekiel! The name Gog appears only one other time, but it is in a genealogy, not in a prophecy (1 Chron 5:4).

The prophets do, however, repeatedly warn about the enemy from “the north.” According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “The north, then, becomes a harbinger of evil. In various mythologies it is the seat of demons … the place for the meeting of the assembly of the gods.” In other words, “the north” is code for the “seat of demons,” a spiritual war room of sorts—with a devil of a ringleader. Isaiah confirms this. “I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north,” touts the ruler of darkness, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa 14:13). “The north” is Satan’s situation room where evil schemes are devised (Ezek 38:10).

The mysterious “Gog of Magog” refers, not to Satan, but to an evil alliance of demonic hordes and many peoples. “You (Gog) will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your hordes, and many peoples with you” (Ezek 38:9). This unholy coalition will attack God’s people living securely in their land, at peace with their neighbors, without walls and gates (38:11–12).

Thankfully, the apostle John clarifies Ezekiel’s Gog prophecy. He saw Satan being released from prison and deceiving the nations (Rev 20:7-8). What does Satan want to deceive the nations into doing? He wants to deceive them into organizing a global campaign to wipe out God’s people from the face of the earth (called “Armageddon”). Satan’s final, climatic assault requires boots-on-the-ground, that is, he needs “the nations that are from the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle” (Rev 20:8). The devil simply hoodwinks the “Gog” nations to embrace his foolish war plan.

“But fire came down from heaven and consumed them” all (Rev 20:9-10). The dark alliance will be totally decimated by the power of Christ (cf. Ezek 38:19-22). It’s finally game over. “The north” is toast. “I will vindicate my holiness,” God says, “I will show my greatness and my holiness … Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezek 38:16, 23). Justice will prevail. The Good-Shepherd King will complete what he started and ultimately eradicate evil from the earth (2 Pet 3:10-12). 

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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 35-37

Which is worse? To be pleased with another person’s misfortune or to be displeased with another person’s good fortune? German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that to feel envy is human, but to enjoy other people’s misfortune is diabolical.

In Ezekiel 35, God notices the “harm-joy” of the Edomites who were sniggering over Judah’s crash and burn. Since the Jews had been deported out of their land, the Edomites thought that it was theirs for the taking. They didn’t know that the LORD was still there—and he was about to “vindicate the holiness of [his] great name which has been profaned among the nations” (Ezek 35:10; 36:16-23). God will clear his name and provide a radical change of heart and behavior among his own people.

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezek 36:26). People will need to be completely transformed from the inside out. We’ll need to think differently and desire different things to follow the Lord. Proof of having received “a new heart and a new spirit” is that we are more concerned for God’s reputation and glory then for our own. This spiritual heart transplant is like being born again (John 3:7). It’s like becoming an entirely new creation (2 Cor 5:17). It’s like dead, dry bones coming to life (Ezek 37:1-10).

The last time God lead Ezekiel into a valley he was unable to speak for five years. What would happen now? In chapter 37, Ezekiel sees a grisly scene of disconnected skeletons—as if an entire army battalion had been wiped out. The dry, bleached bones were of people long dead. Suddenly, God blurts out to Ezekiel, “Preach to the dead: you will live!” (37:4-6). The bones began to rattle and come together, and flesh appeared on them—but they were still dead until God blurts out again to Ezekiel, “Preach to the corpses: ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (37:9-10). God will not only bring forth the miracle of new existence; he will also bring forth the miracle of new unity. It would be like taking two sticks and making them one (37:15-23).

As Israel’s sin mirrored humanity’s fallenness, so too, their restoration foreshadowed God’s redemption of all of humanity. Jesus’s resurrection fulfilled the vision of Ezekiel (because it includes Israel’s restoration). The breath of life came from the “four winds” which means that God’s Spirit is at work everywhere, in all directions, throughout the earth under the reign of the Son of David, Jesus, the Good Shephard-King (37:22-25).

Paul saw this and broadened the dry bones vision by saying, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph 2:1). Like Israel, we had no hope, no life. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (2:4-5). The nations are no longer “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” (2:12). Jesus not only brings forth the miracle of new existence; he also brings forth the miracle of new unity. “He himself is our peace, who has made us both one”—Jew and Gentile—“that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (2:13-15).

But what about the land? Jesus’s description of Jerusalem as “the city of the Great King” emphasizes the city’s historical calling as the place that signifies God’s reign over the entire earth (Matt 5:35). The “holy” city has been “set apart” to God no matter what human agency claims authority over it (Matt 4:5; 27:53). It is the place where Christ redeemed humanity and it is the place where Christ will return to vindicate his name and resurrect the living and the dead. In the meantime, we keep preaching to the dead. 

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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 33-34

Throughout the ancient world sheep and shepherds were everywhere. They were kind of like Starbucks. Everywhere you turned, there were sheep and more sheep. Back then sheep weren’t just eaten and sacrificed; their sheepskin was used to make containers for wine and water, clothing, and parchments to write on. Their horns were made into writing utensils. Sheep were very useful, and they were everywhere.
When we open to Ezekiel 33, Jerusalem is burning to the ground (33:21). In chapter 34, Ezekiel responds with a scathing indictment on Israel’s political leaders. He calls them “shepherds.” Leaders carry a heavy load. They are responsible to protect and care for people—especially society’s most vulnerable, like the sick, the wounded, and the strays.
But what happens when leaders look only to their own interests at the expense of the needs of people, rather than serving them (34:2-3, 8)? Instead of strengthening and helping people in their time of need, Israel’s leaders “fleeced the flock” to enrich themselves. Instead of defending God’s flock, Israel’s leaders became wolves. The sheep needed rescuing from their own shepherds! One of the main reasons Israel fell was because their political leaders failed to care for the needs of the vulnerable. Political leadership is not about power; it’s about ensuring that the people under their care are flourishing.
Surely, the sheep knew what was going on. Yet, the text is silent on the sheep’s response to their selfish leaders. According to Ezekiel, sheep who ignore the sins of their leaders will eventually follow their example (34:17-22). When leaders are self-serving, sheep begin serving their own needs as well.
What is striking about this passage is that God repeatedly calls Israel, “My sheep.” The flock belongs to the Lord. Israel’s true Shepherd-King would rescue his people and shepherd them for all eternity. So, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), he was essentially saying, “I’m the Shepherd-King that Ezekiel was talking about.”
The Good Shepherd-King is on a mission to seek and save the lost. Through Ezekiel he says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” The Good Shepherd-King knows each sheep by name. He knows which sheep are prone to wander, so he sets two eyes on them. He knows which sheep are sluggish, so he prods them. He knows which sheep are weak, so he picks them up and carries them. The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves, and cares for us, tending to our needs, and providing good pasture.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What kind of leader am I when I’m with my friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers?” Jesus calls us to follow his example. Know people by name. Seek them out when they wander. Feed them when their hungry. Attend to their hurts. Put their needs above our own. That’s what Jesus did for us. Let us do this for each other. 
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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 21-32

When we hear the word, “judgment,” we often think, “oh, oh, this can’t be good.” Ezekiel 21-32 is one huge chunk of negativity. Most skip over it. Let’s not. In chapter 21, Ezekiel sets the tone: “Things shall not remain as they are. Exalt that which is low and bring low that which is exalted” (21:26).

The Hebrew words that we translate as “judgment” indicates a sifting out to right the wrongs. As Leon Morris puts it, God’s judgments are his “power directed toward right ends.” God’s judgment has a redemptive aspect to it. When God sifts out, it is not a return to the status quo.

In chapters 22-32, Ezekiel pronounces judgment on Israel and the nations surrounding them. What’s important here is that every nation—not just Israel—was judged by the same standard: God’s law. God’s law is universal, that is, it’s universally applied as the basis of judgment. What’s going on in Ezekiel’s day? “Father and mother are treated with contempt … the sojourner suffers extortion … the fatherless and the widow are wronged” (22:7-12). People act revengefully and cheer the demise of others while exploiting them (25:3, 12, 15; 26:2). They proudly “imposed their terror” on everyone; they even “exchanged human beings … for merchandise” (26:17; 27:13; 28:5).

In the middle of this chunk of negativity, Ezekiel proclaims an odd judgment on a perfect, beautiful “guardian cherub” that was “in Eden, the garden of God” of all places (28:12-14). Of the three characters who appear in Genesis 2-3, the ancient serpent is the only one who could possibly be identified as one adorned with every precious gem imaginable (after all, Adam and Eve were naked). “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you … [and] you were filled with violence” (28:15-16).

Why does Ezekiel allude to Satan in the context of judging the nations? Likely, to give him some credit for all the misery in the world. “Can this be the one who terrorized earth and its kingdoms, turned earth to a moonscape, wasted its cities, shut up his prisoners to a living death?” (Isaiah 14:16-17).

Because God created the world, he has the right to issue judgments to save it. God’s judgments are merciful interventions to impede evil until the final judgment when Christ returns to set all things right. In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf suggests that people take revenge on others, not because they believe in God’s judgment, but because they don’t. If there is no divine judgment, we have nowhere to go with the pain of injustice. We are left to suffering in silence or taking matters into our own hands. Either one can’t be good.

We must entrust ourselves to God who “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed”—and that includes the devil and his minions (Acts 17:31; Rev 20:10). We are in history’s flight path. We are midflight in a stream of ongoing events—past, present, and future—that are pushing history toward its final goal: the new heavens and new earth. Although judgment may seem negative, God is directing history toward right ends.

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 18-20

Ezekiel’s neighbors thought that God was unfair (Ezek 18:25). “It’s not our fault. We’re the victims here. Our parents and grandparents really messed up. Now we have to pay the price for what they did.” So they came up with a saying, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”—or as the Message puts it, “The parents ate green apples, the children got the stomachache” (18:2). Blame-shifting is as old as sin itself. In a troubled world, it’s easy to pin our troubles on someone. They’re the ones who do stupid things—not us, and we suffer as a result.

Adopting a victim mentality magnifies the bad to such an extent that we lose our perspective on reality. The truth is that God deals with everyone individually. Each of us is responsible before God for our life (Ezek 18:4; cf. Deut 24:16). Harry Truman’s famous desk sign sums it up well: “The buck stops here.”

According to the word given to Ezekiel, as long as you think it’s everyone’s fault but your own, you shall “die” in your sins (Ezek 18:4, 13, 20). Die? What does God mean by “the soul who sins shall die”? The Hebrew notion of “death” describes sin’s slow poisoning of our emotions, our will, our mind, and eventually our physical body. In other words, sin poisons our ability to enjoy human life as it was created to be.

Conversely, if you seek righteousness and mercy, “you shall surely live” (Ezek 18:9, 17, 19, 21). The Hebrew notion of “life” describes the flourishing effects of grace on our well-being—which is human life as God created it to be.

God takes no pleasure in people who drink the rat poison while blaming the rats (Ezek 18:23). He desires repentance, not punishment. “Repent and turn from all your transgressions,” God says through Ezekiel, “lest iniquity be your ruin … I have no pleasure in the death of anyone … so turn and live” (18:30-32). Blame-shifting only blinds us to our need of a Savior. And so Ezekiel laments (Ezek 19).

If anyone had the right to blame people for unjust suffering, it’s the Lord. Although Israel’s history seems like a never-ending cycle of rescue, blessing, and rebellion, one thing stands out in Ezekiel 20. God’s covenant relationship with his people is not a secret affair. He explains, “I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations” (Ezek 20:9, 14, 22).

If God’s name is hallowed “in the sight of the nations,” the nations will come to know him as King (Ezek 20:33). This is the backdrop of Israel’s story. God targets the nations when he repeatedly delivers his people.

Jesus could have blamed everyone for his suffering. After all, it was the sin of the entire world that he took on. Jesus doesn’t blame-shift. He restored the honor of God’s name and absorbed the toxins in our veins that we “may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim 1:17). 

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 15-17

Ezekiel is pretty creative. He uses a variety of tactics to get across God’s message. In chapters 15-17, Ezekiel turns into the Riddler. Riddles use coded language to conceal as they reveal. Clues create images, that when pieced together, offer profound revelations from the Lord.

In the riddle of the vine, we find no grapes (Ezek 15). In a land littered with vineyards, it is not surprising that the vine would represent its people. However, if God’s people bear no fruit, they are useless when it comes to participating in God’s mission. Jesus continues the vineyard theme—but he adds a twist: “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). By identifying himself as the vine, Jesus claims that fruitful participation in God’s mission is possible only for those who “abide in” him.

In the riddle of the bride, we find a wife leaving her husband to become a prostitute (Ezek 16). In the ancient world, people entered prostitution either by force or by choice. Many cultures devalued female babies; so little girls were often left to die and then picked up by people who raised them to be prostitutes. In Ezekiel’s riddle, God saved Israel from a probable life of forced prostitution and blessed her with the finest gifts.

But in a repulsive twist, God’s people turned into Bridezilla and began to pay others to solicit her. With shockingly crude X-rated metaphors (which our English versions have toned down for us), Ezekiel exposes the gravity of betraying the Lord. Amazingly, instead of rejecting her, God promises to transform her into a spotless bride! How? “Abiding in” the Bridegroom through an “everlasting covenant” enables the Bride to join in God’s mission (Ezek 16:59-60; cf. Rev 19:7-9; Col 3:4).

In the riddle of the two eagles, we find the vines looking to them for deliverance (Ezek 17). The eagle is a large solitary bird of prey known for its keen eyesight, long wingspan, and great strength and speed. The Israelites were forbidden from eating such birds and yet many of the 30-some references in Scripture depict the eagle, not as detestable, but as a symbol of speed and power to deliver (e.g., Ex 19:4; Is 40:31). In Ezekiel’s riddle, the first eagle plucks a twig from a cedar tree and plants it in Babylon where it grows as an exiled “vine.” But God’s “vine” foolishly looks to another eagle to deliver it, that is, the Jews look to Egypt, who did nothing to help them. What does God do?

He takes a Branch from the same cedar tree and plants Him “on the mountain height of Israel” where He becomes a noble cedar in which “birds of every sort will nest” from every nation and participate in His mission (Ezek 17:22-23; cf. Mark 4:32).

Piecing together all three images from Ezekiel’s riddles, the main point is that God will never abort his mission, a mission that included all the nations, not just Israel. Israel’s election, like ours, is not the rejection of others; election is for the sake of others. As ones who belong to Christ, as birds that “abide in” the noble Branch, we are transformed, Cinderella-like, from wretch to Bride, to be the vehicle of God’s blessing to the world

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 12-14

People watched Ezekiel’s mime signs, but they would rather listen to false prophets. This is a problem! So God instructed Ezekiel to pack his bags and point out why being disingenuous is a problem (Ezekiel 12-13).

Of course, no one ever claims to be a hypocrite. No one wears a t-shirt that identifies them as frauds. We all fall short. But when we put on false faces, we create an environment that encourages others to do the same. Perhaps that’s why “authenticity” is now a buzzword among Millennials and Gen-Zers. “Just be true to yourself. Follow your heart. Say what you think. Do whatever you feel.” Sounds right, but does prove I’m authentic? What if by being authentic in expressing who I am, I am being inauthentic to who I am in Christ? Doh!

Sometimes people claim to speak for God without ever opening the Bible or seeking the Lord in prayer (Ezek 13:1-7). They wrongly assume that their thoughts are God’s thoughts. And oftentimes, what’s being presented is better than things actually are (13:8-16). Ezekiel calls it “whitewashing.” To say, “‘Peace,’ when there is no peace,” is actually the worst thing to say when God is calling for repentance (13:10).

Sometimes people will engage in anything but discipleship. In Ezekiel’s day, women wore magic bands and veils as substitutes for binding God’s word on their heart (hand) and mind (head) (13:17-23). Gimmickry, in whatever form it appears, may be trendy, but it’s always a distraction away from prayerful devotion to God’s word (14:1-11).

Authenticity is hard to define—and even harder to be. Ezekiel brings up Noah, Job, and Daniel (14:12-23). Why these three guys? They show us what authenticity really looks like!

Noah teaches us that authenticity is displayed in obedience. You can almost hear people say, “C’mon Noah, did God literally mean for you to build a floating zoo?” “Yeah, he did,” Noah probably responded, “and I’m going to obey his word.” Authenticity is evident when we measure our lives by the word of God as carefully as Noah measured the dimensions of his big boat.

Job teaches us that authenticity is displayed by the one thing that is impossible to fake: brokenness. Job lost everything and ended up living in a garbage dump. Brokenness does not allow for carefully curated versions of our best self. In fact, it’s the refusal to break that produces duplicity (and misery). Authenticity is evident in the kind of brokenness that produces humble, transparent selflessness.

Daniel teaches us that authenticity is displayed in consistency. There are risks and rewards for faithfulness to God’s word, but reliability proves the genuineness of one’s character. Authenticity means being reliable amid dire circumstances and uncertain outcomes.

If you are looking for “authentic,” you’ll find it in Jesus. Those who want to be like Jesus, the real deal, will seek to obey Scripture, embrace the power of brokenness, and remain faithful to God no matter what.

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 8-11

It had been 14 months since Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God. In chapter 8, the Man-God Ezekiel had seen on the chariot-throne was now a tour guide (8:2-3). Ezekiel found himself on a visionary journey across the Arabian desert to the temple in Jerusalem. On his arrival, he was greeted by the glory of the Lord (8:4)—but there was “an elephant in the room,” that is, an “image of jealousy” that was driving God away from his sanctuary (8:3-6). Although the idol is not identified, it was likely a statue of the goddess Asherah, the queen of heaven, the mother (and mistress) of Baal (cf. Jer 7:18; 44:17-19, 25).

The queen was everywhere. On every hill and every street corner of Jerusalem Asherah’s image was carved in trees near Baal’s altar on the high places (often translated “Asherah pole” or “sacred tree” or “wooden pillar”). She stood naked on her sacred lion, holding lotus blossoms in her right hand, and serpents in her left. Serpents, lotus blossoms, and a sacred tree … this can’t be good. God’s people openly worshipped her on the rooftops of their homes (cf. Jer 19:13; Zeph 1:5). They even baked raisin-cakes in her image—not for potlucks—but for unholy rituals (cf. Jer 7:16-20; 44:17-21; Hos 3:1; Isa 16:7).

It gets worse (Ezek 8:6-13). Leaving that scarlet hag behind, Ezekiel’s tour guide leads him to a hole in the wall where he’s told to dig toward a secret room being used for secret rituals by seventy men. The graffiti carved on the walls seemed to come alive with images of creepy crawlers—which Ezekiel describes as “disgusting droppings of excrement” (8:10, literal translation)—likely a disturbing reminder of that lunch mime a few chapters back. In their delusion, the creepy men burn incense hoping that God could not see them performing their rituals in the dark.

Outside the temple, women sat weeping for the god, Tammuz, to rise from the underworld, while men bowed to the sun god, Shamash, with their backs to the temple (Ezek 8:14-17). Talk about a pitiful magical mystery tour! Asherah, the queen of heaven, secret rituals, a cult of death, and nature worship, all within Jerusalem’s temple compound. God’s temple had become a pot of religious pluralism. No wonder the Lord’s glory-chariot departed (11:3, 22-23). The Lord was being driven out of his own temple by his own people.

Religious pluralism affirms all forms of spirituality as equally valid paths to God. Religion for the pluralist is not about truth-claims; it’s more like a lovefest parade in which everyone pretends that their beliefs are the same or that they don’t really matter. This is where Jesus gets us into trouble. He’s the one with all the exclusive truth-claims—not us. We believe him. We can’t pretend that all beliefs are the same. Truth exists and it really matters. Logic requires that contradictory religious truth-claims cannot be simultaneously true. God’s exclusive claims are the same today as they were in the days of Ezekiel. 

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 4-7

How many of you have ever found yourself at a loss for words? Perhaps you said enough on the matter. When words are not enough, we often use illustrations or visuals to get through to someone. Charades can be great fun as people try to get their team to guess what’s being depicted without words. Only with God’s prophets, there was no party and it certainly was not much fun.

Ezekiel was a one-man street theater with a powerful message in mime. In today’s world, we would have seen him set up his props on a street corner and then watch him create impressions with his hands and face. One thing’s for sure, Zeke was not playing a game. This was serious. It had only been a week since Ezekiel’s birthday encounter with the glory of God. Yet the hearts of God’s people were rock hard. Babylon was about to burn Jerusalem to the ground, so the Lord instructs Ezekiel to perform bold, provocative, unconventional mime “signs” to shake people out of their stupor.

Ezekiel had to stay home and be quiet while he built a wall, laid on his side, cooked lunch over excrement, and shaved his head (Ezek 3:24-4:17). His house was quite a tourist attraction! People walked past Ezekiel’s house just to see the show and laugh nervously. The more bizarre his mimes got, the more uncomfortable the entertainment became for them. However, for Ezekiel, every scene in his drama brought him deep anguish and tears.

Just think if Ezekiel were to live in our world of late-night talk shows and social media. His mimes would turn into memes on Twitter. He’d be ridiculed to no end. As the last scene played out, there was no applause. In chapters 5 through 7 Ezekiel opens his mouth to explain his actions. God set Jerusalem “in the center of the nations” to be a beacon of hope and righteousness (Ezek 5:5; Isa 42:6). Unfortunately, rather than being a light to the world, Jerusalem had turned into the world’s darkest blot (Ezek 5:6-7:27).

What can we learn from Ezekiel’s mime signs? We are constantly communicating with one another, if not verbally, then nonverbally. If we say nothing, our very silence communicates. Even if our persuasive words are muffled by our unpersuasive lives, Duane Litfin reminds us, “The gospel’s inherent power does not fluctuate with the strengths or weaknesses of its messengers. This truth is humbling, but also immensely liberating. In the end, my inability to answer objections, my lack of training or experience, even failures in my own faithfulness in living it out do not nullify the gospel’s power. Its potency is due to the working of God’s Spirit. Even when we are at our best, the gospel is powerful in spite of us, not because of us. Thanks be to God.”

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 2-3

When we read about the glory of God in the Bible, we might imagine a motionless cloudy mist. But God’s glory actually has an active, dynamic quality that interacts with us in deep, personal, and often unexpected ways.

Notice how active God’s glory manifests to Ezekiel. “As he spoke to me,” Ezekiel says, “the Spirit entered into me … [his] hand was stretched out to me, and behold a scroll of a book was in it. And he spread it before me” (Ezek 2:1-2, 10). God speaks, his Spirit moves, his hand stretches out to open a book. The Lord is fully engaged in reaching out to us—and sometimes what he wants to communicate can be hard for us to swallow (2:3-7).

We can do what Martin Luther did: he threw out the letter of James, calling it an “an epistle of straw,” because he didn’t think James lined up with Paul’s theology. Or we can do what Thomas Jefferson did: he simply removed parts of the Bible that rubbed him the wrong way. But God is not inviting us to create alternative drafts. There are blessings to be found when we digest the passages we don’t like.

God tells Ezekiel to open his mouth and eat the entire scroll. “‘Feed your belly with this scroll that I give you,’ says the Lord, ‘and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey … and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit” (Ezek 3:1-3, 14). The apostle John had a similar experience: “I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I’d eaten it, my stomach was made bitter” (Rev 10:10).

God’s words, particularly those that pertain to sin and judgment, are bittersweet. We receive his forgiveness and long for righteousness to prevail, for God to right all wrongs and bring an end to evil and suffering. Yet the more we let that word soak in, the more we realize how terrifying the final judgment will be for those who do not trust in Christ.

Ezekiel’s encounter with the glory of the Lord required total absorption of God’s book (Ezek 3:12). He did not take a bite to taste it to see if he liked it. No, Ezekiel filled his stomach and thoroughly digested it. God’s word became part of him. Once this happens, it’s impossible to be a detached bullhorn. The message is still God’s, but when it’s fully digested, it becomes authentically Ezekiel’s as well. God’s glory made it his own. Ezekiel found out that such a transformation will inevitably turn you into a “watchman” (3:16-21). What’s a “watchman”?

Picture your city about to be invaded by an enemy. You’d post “watchmen” day and night to alert everyone of any threat. Early warning could save lives. To remain silent for fear of upsetting people is not an option. Watchmen care enough to speak up and say something. Watchmen are courageous enough to act if necessary. Watchmen are humble enough to warn in ways that are sensitive and yet effective.

Being a watchman is not just an Old Testament phenomenon. “We all, with unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” to become “watchmen” (2 Cor 3:18). Paul confirms this: “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole council of God … Therefore be alert, remembering that … I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears” (Acts 20:26-27, 31).

The only responsibility of being a watchman is to give people a chance to respond. God does not demand success in persuading people, he’s looking for faithfulness in the attempt. 

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapter 1

On Ezekiel’s thirtieth birthday, the year he should have entered the priesthood in Jerusalem, he found himself “among the exiles by the Chebar canal” in the land of Babylon (Ezek 1:1). Everything he had worked for, his schooling, his plans, were gone. And to top it off, no birthday cake.

But it’s in this place of shattered dreams that God breaks into Ezekiel’s life. In his moment of despair, “The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel … and the hand of the Lord was upon him,” along with “the glory of the Lord” (1:3-28). God draws near to us through his word, with his helping hand, and with his radiant glory.

You get the feeling that Zeke is struggling to find the words to describe the heavens opening up to him. It’s indescribable, so he keeps using “likeness.” As a cloud overshadows a windstorm, four Spirit-propelled, four-faced, four-winged creatures emerge (1:4-6). They are not space aliens; they’re cherubim (10:15, 20). And they don’t look like chubby babies either.

In fact, these bizarre looking creatures have their own set of wheels. Well, it’s not really their wheels. Cherubim are more like Motaur (the half-motorcycle guy commercials)—only with gyroscope wheels that can move in any direction. The cherubim and the wheels within the wheels move together “for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels” (1:19-20; cf. 10:17).

Over their heads was “the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire” (1:26). What Ezekiel describes is not a stationary throne on its own, but a four-wheeled-gyroscope chariot-throne (1:15-26). Wait a minute! God’s throne is like a chariot? “There is none like God … who rides through the heavens to your help” (Deut 33:26). He doesn’t just sit on his throne all day, every day, for eternity. His throne moves! Cool.

“And seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance” (1:26). Ezekiel’s description of the Man-God is a lot like John’s description of the fiery radiance of Jesus (Rev 1). No wonder Ezekiel does a face plant. The Lord’s chariot-throne draws near to his people at the gloomiest times and darkest places. Thank goodness.

Hardships are hard. Like Ezekiel, in our moments of despair, God draws near to us through his word to guide us and give us hope. He draws near to us with his hand to strengthen us so that we can take the next step. Jesus draws near to us with his glory to transform us into his likeness “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

Hardships prepare us for an eternal weight of glory. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:4). We will glisten with the blazing brilliance of God’s glory. The “sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

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the weird laws about relational boundaries

Weird laws in the book called, “Leviticus,” are easily dismissed by many people—especially laws that set boundaries for human sexual relations. After all, isn’t sex simply a private matter between consenting adults? Well, let’s take a look at Leviticus 18.

In this chapter, there are four boundaries concerning sexual relations: incest (sex with close relatives; 18:6-18), non-marital affairs (sex outside of marriage; 18:19-20), same-sex affairs (sex with the same gender; 18:22), and bestiality (sex with animals; 18:23). The New Testament offers no exception clauses. So, what happens if someone crosses the line?

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God lavishes his grace on us, without endorsing our sin. In doing so, he establishes the model for how we are to respond to each other. We extend grace to one another, without endorsing each other’s sins.

As we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), we come to realize that we’ve been given a new identity in Christ. What does this mean? It is not the loss of our true selves; our true selves are redeemed in Christ. Our new identity “in Christ” is actually far more profoundly real and intensely intimate than our sexual fulfillment.

This is why Paul says, “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? … he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Corinthians 6:13-17). We are now joined—spiritually and bodily—to the incarnate, crucified, risen King! It is our union with the living Christ that gives us meaning, identity, fulfillment, and eternal existence. We “flee from sexual immorality” because our “body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”—not ours to do with it as we please; our bodies “were bought with a price” so we “glorify God in [our] body” (1 Cor 6:18-20).

We still struggle to live faithfully. Our “natural” impulses surface in countless ways. Jesus invites us to come to him as we are—but his offer is not to stay as we are. We are part of a body being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Following Christ requires difficult, costly obedience as we “groan inwardly” for the “redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Our hope for the complete transformation of our fallen physical state awaits the future resurrection.

Although it may seem odd to contemporary sensibilities, God’s weird laws are not weird after all. God loves us—and we need to trust him. If we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” we will honor the boundaries he has set for us (2 Peter 3:18).

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the weird clothing law

I have a lot of sympathy for those who have been wounded by insensitive and harsh treatment—especially from Christians. The last thing I want to do is to add more pain. So how do we interpret the weird law in Deuteronomy 22:5 that says, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” Is this about who gets to wear the pants?

This law is a good example of how archaeology can help. Christianity is a historical faith based on actual events. In this case, archaeological discoveries can enhance our understanding of the clothing worn by people in the Bible.

The ancient cemetery of Beni Hasan in Egypt reveals a distinctive clothing difference between the Hebrew people and the Egyptians. The two Egyptians wear the traditional white linen kilt; but the Hebrews are wearing colorful robes. The length of the men’s robes stopped at the knees; the length of the women’s robes came down close to their ankles. The men are wearing sandals while the women wearing fashionable short boots. No one is wearing pants!

On the famous obelisk of Shalmaneser III, we see Jehu, the king of Israel, bowing before the king of Assyria. Neither Jehu, the Assyrians, nor the Israelites are wearing pants. If everyone was wearing robes, what was the reason for “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God”?

The word “abomination” occurs 117 times in the Old Testament. In the majority of cases, “abomination” is used to describe the behaviors associated with pagan, idolatrous practices that are abhorrent to God. Here’s one example: “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations” (Deut 18:9). OK, so we’re dealing with pagan practices.

Once again archaeology comes into play. The Canaanites were known for building “high places” to their gods, Baal and Asherah. These “high places” had an altar with rooms around it for “male cult prostitutes” (1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7) and “female cult prostitutes” (Hosea 4:14). Canaanite literature confirms that cultic prostitutes engaged in sexual acts with participants at the “high places” in order to elicit a response from Baal.

These cult prostitutes wore special garments that identified with Baal and Asherah—garments that would often disguise their gender. In 2 Kings 10:22, Jehu “said to him who was in charge of the wardrobe, ‘Bring out the vestments for all the worshipers of Baal.’” Worshippers of Baal wore clothes that identified them as worshippers of Baal. At one point, the Israelite women were even sewing the special garments. Josiah “broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the Lord where the women wove hangings for the Asherah” (2 Kings 23:7). The exchange of gender roles in pagan cults was not uncommon in the Ancient Near East.

Deuteronomy 22:5 has nothing to do with “who wears the pants”! It’s really about idolatry. Idolatry always distorts God’s image, creating confusion for God’s image bearers. Instead of reflecting God’s image, idols can only reflect a confused, broken, distorted image. We must help each other to follow Jesus! Everyone is created in God’s image and deserves dignity and respect—no matter what identity issues they are facing. The good news of the gospel is that all of us are equally invited to be met and transformed by God’s tender loving grace in Christ Jesus.

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the weird unclean food laws

Why were some animals and food declared clean, while others were labeled unclean? What was it that made camels, rabbits, geckos, mice, and pigs unfit for dinner? No amount of cocktail sauce could save the shrimp from being banned from the kitchen table! Why were these creatures classified as unclean?

If the primary purpose of the food laws was for health reasons, it is surprising that Jesus abolished them! There must be another reason. In Mark 7:18-19, Jesus said, “Whatever goes into a person cannot defile him” to which Mark interprets “(Thus he declared all foods clean).”

The observance of the food laws was the mark of the faithful Jew. Abstinence from certain foods set them apart from other peoples. As the laws distinguished clean from unclean animals, so Israel was reminded that God had distinguished them from all the other nations on earth to be his own possession.

This food-represent-people connection becomes evident when God shows Peter a vision of heaven opening “and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals … and there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’” Peter refused to eat any of the animals presented to him because the clean animals had been made “common” by being in direct contact with the unclean animals on the sheet. The idea of Gentiles being unclean (unacceptable) was so ingrained in Jewish thought, that Peter deemed it to be ‘unlawful’ (though God hadn’t) to associate with or enter the house of a Gentile. But “the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common’” (Acts 10:13-15). After God repeats this scenario three times, Peter finally gets the message.

When Peter meets with Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, he clarifies the symbolic meaning of the food laws. “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). In the vision, there were animals and Peter rightly interpreted them to represent people.

Peter continues to expound on his new revelation. “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him … Jesus Christ … is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36). The distinction between clean and unclean foods is as obsolete as the distinction between Jew and Gentile. The food laws were never meant to keep the Jewish people from associating with non-Jews. To be “set apart” to God’s purposes does not mean disengagement with the world. God had always intended Israel to be a light to the nations, so that by her light, salvation may reach the end of the earth.

According to Paul, “Food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (1 Cor 8:8).  “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). God’s kingdom isn’t about food and drink (Rom 14:17). When we seek his kingdom and righteousness, our food will be to do God’s will (John 4:34). 

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the weird goat milk “law”

If someone says, “hold your horses, there’s an elephant in the room, pigs are flying, the pot is calling the kettle black, and Elvis has left the building,” you don’t wig out. You chill out and open your Bible to what appears to be the weirdest of the weird laws in Scripture.

“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19b). What kind of law is this? Was it an idolatrous practice? Or some random dietary law? Or was it about the ethical treatment of animals? After all its cruel to kill a baby goat in the milk which gives it life. Or maybe it wasn’t a law all. Could it be that “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” was an idiomatic expression that was used back in the day?

Like, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” No one takes the saying literally. There was never a time when people threw out their babies with the bathwater! We know that it’s a figure of speech that means: “don’t remove something good while getting rid of something worthless.” It’s an idiom.

Remember Grandpa’s weird sayings? “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” What? “We have cell phones in our hand, Grandpa.” During World War II, to “buy the farm” meant to die; now it means, well, to buy the farm. In processing language, our first default approach is to take words at face value, that is, to take them literally.

“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” is found three times in the Bible. Notice that two are placed immediately after this statement: “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God” (Exodus 23:19a; 34:26a). The context emphasizes offering one’s best to the Lord. The boiled goat milk that follows is a wry, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek figure of speech that means: “Don’t offer to God something that you want to get rid of anyway.” It’s kind of like God saying, “Are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes? I know very well what’s in that soup offering!”

In the third instance, the boiled goat milk idiom follows a long list of food laws (Deut 14:21d). Although it’s placed within a food context, it’s meaning lines up with the other two: “Don’t cut corners. God is in the details.”

Of course, we don’t use the boiled goat milk expression today, and yet, it’s message still rings true. Have you ever given canned goods, you didn’t want anyway, to a food shelf? Have you ever bypassed a $20 bill to throw a $5 into the offering plate? Have you ever served the Lord with a “that’s good enough” attitude? It’s hard to admit, isn’t it, but it’s boiled goat milk—and the goat is bleating: “God knows it’s not our best.”

By understanding the Bible’s idiomatic expressions, we are no longer faced with a weird law. To “boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” is a ridiculously stupid thing to do—just like giving God “less than your best” is a ridiculously stupid thing to do. God doesn’t want our leftovers or white elephant gifts. So “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). Give your best and “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).  

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the weird law that bans sorcery

Some weird laws in the Bible just say, “You shall not,” without any explanation. So we need to do a little research. For example, “You shall not permit a sorceress to live” (Exodus 22:18). The law of sorcery has nothing to do with magic shows that are presented as entertainment. This law is placed with other laws related to social responsibilities (Ex 22:16-31).

What is sorcery? Scholars strongly contend that the Hebrew word translated “sorcery” describes something along the lines of “muttering” while “cutting” up hallucinogenic herbs. Ingesting plants to induce altered states of consciousness have been going on for millennia. The ancient Sumerians cultivated opium by the end of the third millennium BC. In the ancient world, people were constantly in fear of all kinds of danger. In such an insecure world, people sought those who claimed to foresee the future, avert trouble, or reverse misfortune. Apparently, women were engaged in the practice of sorcery more than men (cf. M.T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor).

Religious shamans have been known for consuming hallucinogenic herbs as a means of contacting spiritual entities to produce certain results. Moses had to contend with sorcerers in Egypt (Ex 7:11). Canaan, the land that Joshua entered, was deeply entrenched in occult practices (Deut 18:10-12). Assyria was an active participant in the black arts. Nineveh, Assyria’s capitol city, was known for innumerable atrocities and torture, was called “the mistress of sorceries” (Nahum 3:4). Even Daniel’s colleagues were engaged in Babylon’s version of sorcery (Dan 2:2).

Whether we call “sorcery” demonic or not, the fact that God’s law prohibits such behavior indicates a problem. So even though sorcerers might claim that their concoction-induced incantations have benefits, the Torah doesn’t care. Whatever one’s motivation, engaging in sorcery is prohibited. Why? By muttering predictions, sorcerers seek to manipulate the future and exert control over people or events. What the law of sorcery opposes are those who present themselves as able to control other people’s destiny.

On every mission, Paul confronted some form of sorcery. On his first journey, Paul rebuked a Jewish sorcerer who tried to prevent the governor of Cyprus from turning to the Lord (Acts 13:6-12). On his second journey, Paul freed a young woman enslaved by sorcery in the name of Jesus (Acts 16:16-19). On his third journey, many former sorcerers brought forth their magic books and burned them (Acts 19:19).

The law prohibiting sorcery keeps humans safe. The spiritual realm is not a space we can fully process or understand. We are vulnerable to deceptive forces in that unseen realm whose identity we cannot confirm or trust. Willfully contacting the other side suggests that select individuals can control life through the aid of mysterious supernatural forces. “When they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums … who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God?” (Isaiah 8:19; cf. Gal 5:20; Rev 21:8, 15). Why in the world would anyone seek a drug-induced “word” from an unreliable, unconfirmed source?

Turning to channelers, tea leaves, horoscopes, crystal balls, palm readers, tarot cards or any other occult practices for knowledge or power, mocks prayer, diminishes God’s revelation, and disparages any ounce of trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. So no, the law of sorcery is not weird at all. 

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the weird firstborn son law

Weird laws require patience and tenacity because they are often clarified by other laws and stories in the Bible.

For example, “the firstborn of your sons you shall give to me” (Exodus 22:29). What? Why? We find a bit more clarity a few chapters later. “All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. None shall appear before me empty-handed” (Ex 34:20). OK, so this law is about redeeming the firstborn. But where did this idea come from? Eden.

God in his mercy redeemed his firstborn human son with the sacrifice of an animal (Genesis 3:21). In doing so, God rescued humanity from total ruin and restored their purpose for living even in their fallen state. Redeeming “the firstborn son” is about consecrating human participation in God’s mission. Adam, God’s firstborn human son, represented all his future offspring.

Redeeming “the firstborn son” was dramatically displayed when God told Abraham to “take your son, your only son … and offer him as a burnt offering” (Gen 22:2). This is not a demand for human sacrifice to appease an angry God. It is about redeeming, consecrating, dedicating the firstborn son to God’s mission. Burnt offerings could symbolize either atonement for sin or full surrender to God. Offering Isaac was the clearly the latter—and Abraham knew it. He even called it “worship” (Gen 22:5).

Notice what Abraham told Isaac (who was probably 36-37 years old at the time): “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (Gen 22:8a). Abraham trusts that a lamb will show up or there will be a physical resurrection from the dead. “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:19). Either way, Abraham’s promise to “return” (Gen 22:5) implies that he and Isaac will both come down Mount Moriah alive—which they did. God never intended Abraham to kill Isaac. This was a huge test about surrendering, consecrating, redeeming the firstborn son to God’s mission!

We see this again in Egypt when, once again, God consecrates Abraham’s collective firstborn son. “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go that he may serve me” (Ex 4:22-23). Israel, God’s collective firstborn son was redeemed so that they could join God’s mission as a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:5-6).

The law of redeeming the firstborn son was ultimately fulfilled when God offered his only begotten Son, “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). In his triumph over sin and death, once for all, Jesus redeems “the church of the firstborn” as a kingdom of priests who participate in God’s mission now and forevermore (Hebrews 12:23). 

Posted in coaching

the weird assault & battery laws

We’re not trying to explain away the weird passages in the Bible. We are simply trying to understand them in their proper contexts.

It’s way too easy to plop a twenty-first century perspective into the ancient world of the Bible. But if we understand the environment in which these laws were given, we’ll find principles that are relevant in every culture and every generation. Let’s look at the assault and battery laws in the Torah. Like today’s laws, they often go together.

Assault is the act which causes a victim to apprehend physical harm, while battery is the actual act that causes the physical harm. Today, most state criminal codes make assault a misdemeanor punishable by fines and up to one year in the county jail. Threats of death or serious bodily harm are charged as “aggravated assault”—which is a felony that is usually punishable by fines and a maximum of 10 to 20 years in prison.

When we read the Old Testament assault and battery laws, we should not assume an implied approval into the conditional “if/when/whoever” clause. If we say, “When someone attacks another person, call the police,” we are not condoning the incident. The same is true in the Bible. It uses the if/when/whoever clause to deter people from exhibiting aggressive, threatening behavior toward others, even if physical contact did not actually occur.

The Bible’s assault and battery laws are paradigmatic. They do not address every possible circumstance; they are not meant to be exhaustive. These laws set a standard by example.

  • “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies will be put to death” (Exodus 21:12). The Hebrew phrase, “shall be put to death,” always refers to a civil court verdict.
  • “Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death … Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:15, 17). In the case of elderly abuse, both physical and emotional, parents were allowed to take their adult children to court.
  • “When men quarrel and one strikes the other” and injures him, the assailant must pay for the victim’s medical expenses and the wages he lost during his recovery (Exodus 21:18-19). Sounds fair.
  • “When a man strikes his slave, male or female,” and the slave recovers after a day or two, “he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money” (Exodus 21:20-21). That doesn’t sound fair! But if you keep reading, merely knocking out one tooth of a slave sets the slave free (Exodus 21:26-27). Losing one’s capital investment (“his money”) would hit his own wallet.

The Bible’s weird assault and battery laws are not weird; they are paradigmatic. By setting a standard by example, they are designed to deter people from harming others.

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the weird eye for an eye law

Some laws in Old Testament are weirder than others. And some of these Old Testament laws get even weirder when you see them in the New Testament.

Take for example, the weird law of “an eye for an eye.” “If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). Here we see that the “eye for an eye” is a principle: any punishment must fit the crime. By preventing excessive cruelty and excessive leniency, true justice involves mercy.

The “eye for an eye” is a principle; it was never meant to be taken literally. If someone’s eye is taken out, how will you respond? If you take that person’s eye out, you may unintentionally end up killing him. It’s impossible to maim, burn, wound, or bruise someone in precisely the same way they burned, wounded, or bruised their victim. Enforcing the “eye for an eye” principle prevented the never-ending cycle of retaliation.

The “eye for an eye” principle is deliberately placed within the context of an example (Exodus 21:22). Say, two guys are fighting, and they accidentally hit a pregnant bystander. If the baby or the mother is injured or even killed, her husband has the right to seek restitution in a court of law for the harm done to his family. “Eye for an eye” was the guiding principle to ensure due process. God’s laws created a system that required multiple witnesses to testify before civil judges (Exodus 18:13-26; Deut 17:6).

Unfortunately, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day used the “eye for eye” principle to encourage everyday retaliation. They would say, if you get punched, don’t hold back; if someone hurls an insult, you should respond with a tongue-lashing. So, when Jesus responds with, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you …” (Matt 5:38-39), he is not abolishing the principle; he’s correcting them by clarifying God’s original intent for such a principle. Applying the “eye for an eye” principle is only appropriate in a court of law—not on city streets.

Jesus goes on to say, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt 5:39). The word, “resist,” is used throughout the New Testament for legal disputes—and this fits the context here. “Avoid taking your enemies to court,” he says. “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek.” Is Jesus saying it’s OK to be abused? Of course not! He’s saying, “If someone gives you a backhanded slap on your right cheek, you should turn the other cheek”—that is, turn your face to make it difficult to get another backhanded slap. Don’t retaliate. Protect yourself. Do what you can to avoid abusive situations.

Jesus did not come to abolish God’s laws. He came to clarify them, embody them, and fulfill them (cf. Matt 5:17). The Bible’s weird “eye for an eye” principle isn’t weird; it’s quite relevant, don’t you think?

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the weird law of the poor man’s daughter

It’s easy to pluck Scripture out of its context—especially when it comes to the weird laws. Weird laws are challenging because sometimes one word can carry different meanings.
Take for example, the word “sell.” We all know what that means! But “to sell” also means “to persuade.” You can even “sell the game” by playing badly. For the Brits, “California is a bit of a sell” (a disappointment). Then add the word “slave.” This Hebrew word (evid) also means “servant” (e.g., Moses was an “evid of God”).
So “if a man sells his daughter as a slave,” what does that mean (Exodus 21:7-11)?
The context of this law is “debt servitude.” Debt servitude was the only option for families who could not pay their debts and found themselves living in poverty. So “if a man sells his daughter as a slave,” it is in the context of debt servitude—not sex trafficking. But even so, why would a family in dire, financial straits do this? In the ancient world, females were particularly vulnerable. They had no career paths to take. Insert poverty to the mix and you have a crisis.
A careful reading of the text reveals that a poor man’s daughter could be “sold” to a fellow as a “maidservant.” Notice the poor father’s expectation in the deal: either the gentleman or his son will marry her. If neither one ties the knot with his daughter (“she does not please” them), the gentleman has acted deceitfully, that is, “he has broken faith with her,” as Moses puts it. The gentleman must give his maidservant back to her family (“let her be redeemed”). The law of the poor man’s daughter provided hope and protection for young women with no resources, no future, nothing.
If the gentleman does marry her, and another woman, the poor man’s daughter retains all the privileges of a wife—including conjugal rights. Yes, the law of the poor man’s daughter ensured sexual gratification for her. She was not a sex slave. She was not owned property. If the arranged marriage was not fulfilled, she was free to leave. That, my friends, is not slavery.
Although it’s easy to assume the meaning of words and difficult to understand the ancient custom of arranged marriages, it is simply irresponsible to twist the law of the poor man’s daughter into an issue of human trafficking.
God’s laws protected the dignity and rights of ancient society’s most vulnerable. Apparently, the Bible’s weird law of the poor man’s daughter isn’t so weird after all. 
Posted in coaching

the weird slavery laws

Scripture contains some difficult laws to interpret. It’s not hard to imagine that one day, someone will try to ban the Bible because of them. Let’s talk about the weird laws. For example, take the laws concerning slavery.

The Israelites had come to Egypt as refugees during a famine. They were an ethnic minority in a large imperial state. When a new pharaoh changed Egypt’s immigration policy, the Israelites were forced into slavery simply because they were Hebrews (Ex 13:14). The ten plagues that were poured out on Egypt demonstrate how God feels about racial slavery.

Immediately after the Ten Commandments, the very first law God gave to Israel concerned the treatment of slaves. In it, God was essentially saying, “If you have slaves, do not treat them like you were treated in Egypt. You must protect and dignify them.”

Why doesn’t God prohibit slavery? Well actually, he does. God bans the type of slavery that kidnaps human beings and sells them for the purpose of human trafficking. “Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves” (Ex 21:16). According to Scripture, the kidnapping of any person for the purpose of enslaving them is a capital crime. The Bible unequivocally condemns human trafficking.

In the Old Testament, the word, “slavery,” is usually addressing “debt slavery.” Debt slavery was the only option for people who could not pay their debts or who found themselves in abject poverty. When the poor could not provide for their families, there was no welfare system. God’s law offered provisions to help them work off debt. Debt slavery was voluntary. People could willingly offer their labor in exchange for outstanding debts; in return, masters would provide all their needs. Such servitude, however, was limited to a six-year contract. After that, slaves were free to move on or keep working. Their debts were forgiven (Ex 21:2-6; Lev 25:35-55; Deut 15:12-15).

In the New Testament, Roman slavery was vastly different. Most slaves were prisoners of war—which means that they were merchants, doctors, lawyers, and even politicians (e.g., Eph 6:5-9; Col 4:1). But they lived under a formidable authoritarian state. If Jesus or Paul or any of the early Christians were to call for their immediate emancipation, it would have led to a mass execution. Yet notice how Paul encourages slaves who had a chance to be free: “avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor 7:21). He also lists human traffickers among those who are “ungodly and profane” and puts them in the same category as murderers, the sexually immoral, and perjurers (1 Tim 1:8-10; cf. Rev 18:13).

Apparently, the Bible’s weird laws about slavery aren’t so weird after all. 

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can’t top Easter

The word “indeed” originates from a Middle English term that means, “in truth, or in fact.” So when we say, “Jesus Christ is risen indeed,” we’re saying, “It’s true! He is risen! It’s a fact! Can’t top that!”

In one scene of The Lord of the Rings the beloved character named, Sam, exclaims, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?” Well yes, but only because Jesus Christ is risen. Indeed, everything sad is going to come untrue.

Jesus Christ is risen, which means the new creation has been launched. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). What Paul reveals here is mindboggling! Apparently, the new heaven and new earth are not wholly future (Rev 21-22). Part of creation has been redeemed—that’s us! As God’s new creation, we live in anticipation of the renewal of the whole earth. Indeed, it is a fact! Can’t top that!

Jesus Christ is risen, which means righteousness will prevail. Sometimes all we can see is the viciousness, hatred, and suffering around us. Indeed. But one day, God will manifest his full presence, his heavenly space, and purge the world of evil. That is why we sing: “This is my Father’s world: O let me ne’er forget. That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.” Resurrection guarantees true justice. Indeed, it’s a fact! Nothing can stop that!

Jesus Christ is risen, which means when we die nothing significant about our life will be lost. While creation groans, we groan, too (Rom 8:22-23). But with hope! “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future” (NT Wright). Resurrection makes life worth living. Indeed.

Jesus Christ is risen, which means we, too, will be raised. Our union with Christ is so intimate that it can only be described with organic metaphors, like a vine and branches, a tree and fruit, a head and body. We are that connected. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the big harvest to come when our body will be resurrected to “hold the weight of glory” on the new earth (2 Cor 4:17). There is nothing that can stop or top that!

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo,” says Sam. “The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end … because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing … this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” Sam’s right. A great shadow has departed. Jesus is risen. Everything sad is going to come untrue. Indeed.

Posted in coaching

when God drops in to visit

God is attracted to humility.

Take this 8-year-old king named Josiah (2 Chron 34). He had a lot of obstacles to overcome. His Grandpa, Manasseh, was utterly wicked. His Dad was worse; but Josiah found the Lord in spite of them. Apparently, it’s not always “like father, like son.” Sin’s consequences are influential, not determinative or causative. 

People often misinterpret God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Ex 20:5-6). What people fail to see is that God is the active agent behind the visit—not demons or Satan. What does “visit” mean? The Hebrew word means “to inspect, to take action to cause a considerable change in the circumstances” (the outcome could be good or not so good). Divine inspection-visits are merciful interventions because of the iniquities of the father—not punishments on children for having bad fathers! Each person can respond to God’s “visits”—that is, they can choose to turn to God or continue in the sin of their fathers.

How did Josiah respond to God’s visit? When he was 16 years old, Josiah chose to seek the Lord. When he was 20, Josiah cleansed Judah from its idolatry. Six years later, at the ripe old age of 26, Josiah wanted to “repair the house of the Lord.” It hadn’t been renovated for 250 years! 

Jerusalem’s magnificent temple was a dilapidated warehouse full of junk. There were no services in the sanctuary. The Bible was completely discarded. But while the remodeling was going on, Hilkiah, the priest finds the Book of Law. He shows it to a guy named, Shaphan, who takes it to the king. Josiah wept when he heard the words of Scripture and orders Hilkiah and Shaphan to “go inquire of the Lord.”

They seem a bit scared to go to the house of Huldah the prophetess. Judah is in big trouble! She says tell Josiah “Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD.” For the one whose heart is tender and responsive, there is great hope!

God is looking for humble, tender hearts. Let’s pray for a divine visit! 

Posted in coaching

kingdom culture

When you’re a leader, you have to at least look calm. But don’t let Jehoshaphat fool you. He’s pretty freaked out. His enemies had joined forces and were about to erase Judah from the map. So the king sets his face to seek the Lord. “Do not be afraid,” says the Lord. “Stand firm, hold your position … You will not need to fight this battle.” No worries, God’s got this.

While revival breaks out, Judah’s enemies start arguing about how to cancel God’s people. That’s the thing about cancel culture; it never ends because everyone sins. Sinners need to be canceled.

Although the term has been around for several years, cancel culture was barely a blip on Google trends until the summer of 2020. Canceling went viral like the virus. Maybe we should start calling out the difference between cancel culture and kingdom culture.

Kingdom culture laments human brokenness and offers forgiveness. With cancel culture there is no redemption—only public humiliation. But in the Kingdom culture, we not only confess our sins and God forgives us; we seek to restore one another “in a spirit of gentleness” (1 John 1:9; Gal 6:1).

Kingdom culture cherishes grace and mercy. With cancel culture, mob enforced judgments are not open to debate. But in the Kingdom culture, the merciful are blessed and “mercy triumphs over judgment” (Matt 5:7; James 2:13). We actually run to “the throne of grace with confidence … to receive mercy and find grace” in our time of need (Heb 4:16).

Kingdom culture values conversations. With cancel culture, there are only statements. But in the Kingdom culture, “speaking the truth in love” enables us to “grow in every way and be more like Christ” (Eph 4:15). Kingdom conversations build up that we may give grace to those who hear (Eph 4:29).

Kingdom culture appreciates forbearance. With cancel culture, the entirety of a person is judged on one word, one action, one assumption or accusation. But in the Kingdom culture, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,” we are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3). After all, there is only one Judge of all the earth. Thank goodness.

Posted in coaching

don’t take the bait

When falsely accused, all kinds of emotion usually kick in. Your natural instinct is to counter with a few choice words of your own. But you don’t have to take the bait. Consider how Jesus responded to false accusations.

When Jesus was falsely accused of blasphemy, he responded with “Why” questions like, “Why are you thinking such evil things?” (Matthew 9:4-5, GNT). Jesus wanted to give his accusers a chance to reflect and awaken to what’s driving the charges. Why? “Why” questions reveal the motivation behind the accusation. If Jesus asked people why they thought the worst of him, you can, too.

When the Pharisees falsely accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus asked another kind of question: “Have you not read?” (Matt 12:3-5). By directing their minds to Scripture, Jesus tried to shift their attention away from their allegations and redirect their thoughts to greater principles in Scripture. As the psalmist puts it: “All your commands are trustworthy. Protect me from those who hunt me down without cause” (119:86).

When Jesus was falsely accused of using satanic power to cast out demons, he responded with humor by way of the reductio ad absurdum. “If Satan is casting out Satan, he is fighting himself and destroying his own kingdom” (Matt 12:26). The implication is that even Satan is not stupid enough to undermine his own work! Humor can be a winsome way to expose the absurdity of false claims.

Lastly, Jesus often dealt with false accusations by sharing a story as an indirect method of presenting the truth. Through parables, Jesus was able to communicate his love and concern for people in spite of their denunciation of him. Share your stories. It’s a peaceful way to disarm accusations.

Whatever comes your way, pause, take a breath, ask why questions, point to Scripture, throw in some humor or a good story, and keep following Jesus.

Posted in coaching

scripture is not enough?

Many of Jesus’ parables begin with “the kingdom of God is like …” But the disciples were confused by them. They ask Jesus, “Why do you speak in parables?” (Matthew 13:10). They suggest that he might be more successful if he would speak plainly and just lay out his main point. To their surprise, the reason Jesus says he teaches with parables is so that people will “see but not see, hear but not hear” (13:11-7).

Why does Jesus say that? Aren’t teachers supposed to be clear? Jesus’ goal is not to confuse people, but to get people to come to the source of life—to God himself, of course!

Parables are not nice little bedtime stories. Nor do they provide cool spiritual truths to apply to our lives. No, every parable is an invitation to join a revolution that thrives on sacrificial love, mercy, humility, truth and justice. In the parable of the sower, God is secretly planting seeds for this subversive movement. Jesus calls the seeds: “the word of the kingdom” (13:19). Seeds of God’s kingdom are being planted and are growing—even if its growth remains hidden to the world.

Some receive the word gladly as soon as they hear it, but notice, “it does not sink deep into them, and they don’t last long. So when trouble or persecution comes because of the message, they give up at once” (13:20-21, GNT). Oh, oh. Why didn’t the word sink deeply into them? What does it mean for scripture to sink deep into you?

When you pass through suffering you realize something very special. You realize that it’s not enough to have Scripture. Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned for his faith, explains, “When you pass through suffering you realize that it was never meant by God that Psalm 23 should strengthen you. It is the Lord who can strengthen you, not the Psalm which speaks of Him so doing. It is not enough to have the Psalm. You must have the One about whom the Psalm speaks.”

Yes, my friends, “everything depends on whether we have remained in the sphere of words or if we are merged with the divine realities” of God Himself. Join the revolution.

Posted in coaching

persecuted peacemakers

In the first century, only Roman emperors were deemed “sons of god” and “peacemakers.” The notion of Pax Romana (Roman peace) aimed to unify the imperial empire. However, the way of ensuring peace and unity was by silencing or eliminating dissension. Social harmony meant forced conformity.

Of course, Jesus had to turn Pax Romana on its head. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). OK, so what does Jesus want us to do?

In a recent study, entitled, “Hidden Tribes,” it was revealed that we have not two—but seven political “tribes” in the United States. There’s Devoted Conservatives, Traditional Conservatives, Moderates, Politically Disengaged, Passive Liberals, Traditional Liberals, and Progressive Activists. How in the world can Jesus expect anyone to be a peacemaker these days?

In Jesus’ day, tribalism flourished. The Romans mocked the “lazy” Sabbath-observers. The conservative Pharisees sparred with the progressive theology of the Sadducees. Militant Zealots plotted a violent uprising because they loathed the Roman government. The Essenes withdrew to the desert because the Jews had contaminated the temple. And the Jews and the Samaritans simply despised each other. These groups hated each other—and yet they all united to get rid of the only One who could reconcile them to God and one another.

The life of Jesus clarifies what true peacemaking is all about (note: peacemakers are not peacekeepers). Peacekeepers avoid conflict by trying to keep warring factions at bay. Peacemakers enter the fray by trying to make transformational changes. Peacekeepers triangulate to maintain the status quo. Peacemakers enter the mess despite the personal backlash from those unwilling to change. Peacekeepers may eventually persecute the peacemakers if their power or position is threatened. “Peacemakers,” as E. Stanley Jones puts it, “must get used to the sight of their own blood.”

When you read about Elijah hiding from Jezebel, or Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, or Jeremiah being thrown into a miry dungeon, do you ever think, “This is crazy! I’m so shocked people hounded them!”? Not likely. Persecuting peacemakers has never been and will never be weird.

Be like Jesus. Be a peacemaker. Show the world what kind of King you serve. 

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joyful acceptance

Of course, not everything Christians claim as persecution is really persecution. Yet, it’s not helpful to trivialize marginalization by claiming that “It’s not as bad as what other groups experience.” If every form of oppression is compared to genocide, then everything would be dismissed. 

One vivid snapshot of Christian persecution is found in Hebrews 10:33-34. “You endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”

In this passage, we find three forms of persecution:

  1. “reproach” = enduring verbal insults aimed at damaging reputations
  2. “affliction” = enduring socio-economic oppression (e.g., vandalism, imprisonment)
  3. “partners” = enduring guilt by association (viewed as accomplices, sympathizers)

How did the early Christians get to the point of joyfully accepting all forms of unjust treatment? The “better, more abiding possession” of the Age to Come had become so real, so palpable to them, they could almost taste it.

“The world into which we shall enter at the coming of Jesus Christ is therefore not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both … renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people, that will be the scene of redemption. At present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow of the not yet accomplished consummation; then they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest, where out of seed that was sown with tears the everlasting sheaves will be reaped and brought home” (Edward Thurneysen).

You can joyfully accept what comes your way because you know what lies ahead. May you taste the goodness of God’s future in every trial.  

Posted in coaching

the spectacle

Tune in for Jeopardy! “I’ll take ‘THINGS TO CANCEL’ for two hundred.” Hooray! It’s the daily double! “A display to gaze at and trash,” says Ken Jennings, the new host of Jeopardy.

“Uh, what are people?”

It happened to Jesus at his crucifixion. “All the crowds had assembled for this spectacle” (Luke 23:48).

It happened to Paul as well. “I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men” (1 Corinthians 4:9).

In the first century, Roman spectacles were an integral part of Roman culture. Spectacles were staged in various arenas, such as theaters, stadiums, and circuses, but the most important was the amphitheater. Tickets were available for wild beast shows in the morning, executions of condemned criminals at midday, and gladiatorial shows in the afternoon (Alison Futrell, The Roman Games, 84-103; Thomas Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators, 55-56).

The reason for making a public spectacle of one person was to instill fear and deter others from undesirable behaviors. Public humiliation not only served as a punitive function for maintaining order; it became an elaborate form of entertainment in Roman society.

Today, it is common to hear calls for public outrage and reprisal for perceived offences in the digital “amphitheater.” Agree with the consensus or you, too, may be accused of “being partners with those so treated” (Hebrews 10:33). No one wants to be the next #spectacle.

Thankfully, Paul left instructions on how to handle this (1 Corinthians 4:12b-13a).  

  • “When reviled, we bless” = when railed on, ask God to empower them to accomplish HIS will  
  • “When persecuted, we endure” = when targeted, pray for patient steadfastness while God accomplishes HIS will 

  • “When slandered, we entreat” = when disparaged, ask the Lord for the winsome courage to win them to the truth in Christ 

Give to others the gift they so desperately need but can find nowhere else. Grace.

Posted in coaching

prepare (just in case)

That old Chevy of yours—you love her, don’t you. You’ve had her for years. She’s so dependable, always there for you, always starts right up. But what if it’s 20 below? You hope she’ll come through for you! But past faithfulness does not automatically ensure future faithfulness.

Timothy was a faithful follower of Christ, and yet in 2 Timothy 3, Paul felt compelled to teach him how to weather persecution. When the atmosphere turns cold, how will you handle it? You know how to prepare for a blizzard, but persecution? How do you prepare for that?

Paul offers four things you can do now—just in case.

Study the lives of those who have endured persecution. Timothy not only followed Paul’s teachings; he observed how Paul endured persecution. How did he conduct himself? How did he keep his aim in life intact? You, too, can study others who stood for Christ under fire. Learn how faith demands patience, love, and steadfastness and follow their lead. You’ll find that God “rescues” his people by carrying them through persecution (2 Tim 3:10-11).

Decide now not to be offended. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). So get over it. Accept the fact that there is a cost to becoming like him.

Refuse to attribute corporate guilt to Christians for the work of impostors. “Evil doers and impostors will go from bad to worse,” exploiting the faith, “deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13). But as for you, don’t betray your brothers and sisters in the Lord. Stick with them. “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” along with the rest of God’s faithful (3:14).

Immerse yourself in Scripture. Notice that it’s in the context of persecution that Paul says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-16). Every moment you read the Bible, God is breathing life into you, teaching, correcting, training, and equipping you for what’s ahead—whatever that is. 

Posted in coaching

when the lost persecutes

You know it’s wrong to hate. But what if YOU are hated? Let’s look at one of those Jesus statements that we don’t like.

“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:21-22). What kind of Devo Tip is this? 

How can the gospel, which offers a message of hope, love, and grace, be taken as an evil thing, and its message-bearers as deserving heart-wrenching intimidation and betrayal? In Matthew 10, Jesus forces us to consider the reality of “lostness”—which is harder to accept when it comes to family and friends. But it gets even tougher for us when “the lost” persecutes. 

When you share the good news about Jesus, you are not likely to be called “Beelzebul” (“the prince of demons,” Matt 10:25). Being labeled as “narrowminded” or “backward” isn’t so bad. But what if you’re called an “extremist” or “radical” or worse?

  1. Persecution aims to silence or bait you—but God wants to sanctify the words of your mouth. “Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say … For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20).
  2. Persecution often creates a strawman fallacy (it alters and exaggerates to attack the extreme distortion)—but God wants to get creative and reveal himself through you. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matt 10:25).
  3. Persecution intends to paralyze you—but God intends to deliver you from all your fears. “Have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matt 10:26-27).   
“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. There is a great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit … Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now. Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands” (Matthew 10:21-28, The Message).
Posted in coaching

the incarnational principle

During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the mere quoting of scriptures did not force Satan to run away with his tail between his legs. Jesus’ Bible knowledge was powerful because his character and actions were fully formed by it. If all we have to do to ward off temptation is to press the Bible app on our phone, then one tap on an appropriate verse would assure a trouble-free existence!

The incarnation was not only an event; it’s a vital principle.

EVENT: God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he “embodied” his word. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus not only came to explain Scripture; he personified it, he realized it, he incarnated it. He is the living Word.

PRINCIPLE: Christ intends to “embody” his word within the very fabric of your character so that he can reveal himself to others through you. To use C.S. Lewis’s words, the incarnational principle is “an experience so momentous that … [our] whole consciousness is changed. We become what we were not before.” 

The incarnation principle penetrates deeper than application. Let’s look at some examples.

“Do not murder.”

  • APPLICATION: don’t kill anyone
  • INCARNATION: everything in you works to sanctify and protect life

“Do not commit adultery.”

  • APPLICATION: don’t have an affair
  • INCARNATION: everything in you works to sanctify and protect marriage 

“Show no partiality.”

  • APPLICATION: treat everyone equally
  • INCARNATION: everything in you works toward justice and dignifying individuals

Notice how difficult it is to apply some verses without the incarnational principle. 

  • “Count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.” (Yeah, just do that, right.)
  • “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Wouldn’t the Holy Spirit need to rewrite everything in you for that to happen?!)

How does God’s word get so deeply into you that it becomes who you are? How does this happen? Not overnight!

Posted in coaching

something greater than deliverance

It’s been months and we’re still praying for deliverance from this plague. What is God up to? We’re ready to celebrate Christmas, but we’re facing a long winter ahead. 

Is the Lord trying to prepare us for what’s next (whatever that is)? Does God want to teach us about something greater than deliverance? 

Did you know that the most common prayer request from suffering Christians from around the world is: “Please pray that God will give us the strength to overcome this hardship in ways that will honor him.” They don’t ask for deliverance; they want to “overcome evil with good” (Roman 12:21).  

Richard Wurmbrand knew all about social isolation. He was tortured in a Romanian prison for 14 years. “In solitary confinement,” he wrote, “we awoke when the other prisoners went to bed. We started with a prayer, a prayer in which we traveled through the whole world … The Bible tells us about one of the great joys we can have, even in a prison cell: Rejoice with those that rejoice.’ I rejoiced that there were families somewhere who gathered with their children, read the Bible together, and told jokes to each other and were so happy with each other. Somewhere there was a boy who loved a young girl and dated her; I could be happy about them. There, they had a prayer meeting; and there was somebody who studied; and there is somebody who enjoyed good food. We could rejoice with those who rejoiced.” 

Is there something greater than deliverance? Once while lying on the planks of his bed, Richard remembered Jesus saying, “When you are persecuted … for the Son of man’s sake, rejoice, in that day and leap for joy.” He said to himself, “Leap for joy, I have not done this.” So he jumped! “I came down from my bed and I began to jump around.” The warden just happened to look through the peephole. He thought Richard had finally lost it. The guard immediately entered, quieted him down and said, “You will be released … everything will be all right. Just remain quiet. I will bring you something.” He brought Richard a big loaf of bread. “Our portion was one slice of bread a week,” said Richard, “and now I had a whole loaf, plus cheese … It was beautiful to look upon.”

“Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:5). Leap for joy, dear friends! (Yes, like Richard, really do it)! 

I think King Jesus is preparing us for what’s next (whatever that is). Overcoming is greater than deliverance! That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. 

Posted in coaching

who’s muting you?

Some people seem to freely say whatever they want. But for others, the topics they openly talk about are dwindling. What’s happening?

Is the Lord pressing “mute” on some people? Or has cancel culture canceled some voices?

In the Christmas story, Zechariah got muted by God. The angel, Gabriel, tells him, “you will be silent and unable to speak” until his son is born (Luke 1:20). Being muted creates space for other voices to be heard. Sometimes God wants us to stop talking long enough to listen.

But notice that God doesn’t keep the mute button on forever. When Zechariah is free to speak, he doesn’t hold back. Listen to the power of his words: “Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). 

Being muted has power, but so does the freedom to speak. 

Perhaps God isn’t the one who’s muting you. You respectfully listen to people sharing what they believe; but you’ve shut down about those topics. “It’s not worth it,” you think. You’ve forgotten that the Lord gives the gift of silence and the gift of words. Is it time to unmute yourself? Could it be that God wants to mute others long enough to hear a “voice of one crying in the wilderness,” a voice that “speaks the truth in love” (Luke 3:4; Ephesians 4:15)? 

“If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence” (Psalm 94:17). Ask God to lift you from the land of silence, the land of cancel culture, and then press unmute. “God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19). 

Posted in coaching


When God delivered Israel from Egypt, “an ethnically diverse group went with them” (Ex 12:38). Who were these people?

Some were Egyptians. I like to believe that among them were the now-elderly midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to slaughter Hebrew baby boys (Ex 1:15-22). But who else?

Some were Cushites (Black Africans). Black Africans not only joined Israel; Moses married a Black African woman. In Numbers 12:1-16, God rebuked Moses’ siblings for opposing her. Another Cushite was Phinehas who was a faithful Black priest that saved Israel from being destroyed (“Phinehas” means “the Cushite/African”). More famously, both the prophet Zephaniah and the Queen of Sheba (the Sabean kingdom of D’mt) were Black (cf. Zeph 1:1; 1 Kings 10:1-13). Less famously, the guy who rescued Jeremiah from a miry dungeon was a Black man named, “Ebed-melech the Ethiopian” (Jer 38:7-13).

The Israelites themselves were already an ethnically diverse group. Backup to Joseph’s rise to power. The Hyksos, a people of mixed Semitic-Asian descent, were likely reigning over Egypt during that time. This means that Joseph’s wife, Asenath, was a West Asian-Egyptian woman (Gen 41:45). From their two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, came two of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yes, two of the 12 tribes of Israel were West Asian-Egyptian-Hebrew. Apparently, Joshua (of Ephraim) did not look Scandinavian.

Others joined the mishmash of faith as well. Caleb, Rahab, and three judges, Othniel, Shamgar and Jael, were all Canaanites (Num 32:12; Josh 2; Jud 3-5; cf. Gen 15:19). Ruth, a Moabite, married Boaz, the son of Rahab, which means that David was part-Moabite, part-Canaanite, and part-Hebrew! The Ark of the Covenant was stored in the backyard of a Philistine named Obed-Edom from Gath (2 Sam 6:6-11). Uriah and Bathsheba were Hittites (2 Sam 11-12). Elijah supplied food for a poor Phoenician widow (1 Kings 17). And Naaman, a commander from northern Syria, came to faith in God through a miraculous healing (2 Kings 5).

Quite a mishmash! Isn’t it perfect?

It’s perfect that a Black man named, Simon of Cyrene, “the father of Alexander and Rufus,” carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). Eventually, this Black man’s wife and son would become leaders at the church in Rome (Rom 16:13).

It’s perfect that Philip shared the gospel with a Black man (Acts 8:27) while two Black guys commission Paul to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 13:1).

What about Jesus? He’s the perfect mishmash (Matt 1:1-17)!

And look at you. You fit right in (Rev 7:9-10).

Posted in coaching

salt & light

God intends that societies should be ordered under wise human stewardship. However, as history unfolds, two threats to society quickly emerge: anarchy and tyranny (Genesis 4).

The threat of anarchy. “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” says Cain after killing his brother Abel, “and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen 4:13-14). Cain feared a world of lawlessness and terror in which God would pay no attention to rampant, arbitrary violence. The irony is thick, isn’t it? Cain feared the anarchy he himself practiced.

The threat of tyranny. “I have killed a man for wounding me,” boasts Lamech, “a young man for striking me” (Gen 4:23). By taking a life to avenge a bruise, Lamech turned justice into a weapon for personal vengeance. What kind of justice is that? Threats of violence only enhance the power to control people.

Both threats reflect “the culture of death,” where “choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense,” gradually become “socially acceptable” (Pope John Paul II).

If you think Jesus simply wants people to try harder to behave so that the world is a better place, you’ve left the gospel station. His list of “blessed are …” is not a pep talk. Jesus was making an announcement:

“You are the salt of the earth … You are the light the world” (Matthew 5:13-16).

“If a piece of meat goes rotten, it’s no use blaming the meat. That’s what happens when meat is left out on its own. The question to ask is, Where is the salt? If a house gets dark at night, it’s no use blaming the house. That’s what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask, Where is the light? If society becomes more corrupt and dark, it’s no use blaming society. That’s what fallen human nature does, left unchecked and unchallenged. The question to ask is … Where are the saints who will actually live as saints—God’s different people, God’s counterculture—in the public square … and pay the cost of doing so?” Christopher JH Wright

Posted in coaching

politics of fear

It’s hard to deny the politics of fear on both sides of the political aisle. Republicans and Democrats regularly paint ominous pictures of what will happen if the other side wins the White House in November. This isn’t anything new. Pharaoh weaponized fear to maintain his power (Exodus 1:10). Notice the three-step pattern of the politics of fear:

1. Present a threat that arouses fear. Pharaoh says to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us” (Exodus 1:9). Suddenly, the Israelites are a threat to Egypt’s wellbeing. An “us vs. them” has been created. They aren’t like “us”—and therefore, can’t be trusted.  

2. Show how vulnerable “we” are. “If war breaks out, they’ll join our enemies and fight against us” (Ex 1:10b). Classic strawman argument. “They” are trouble. By creating on a stereotype, “we” can vilify them.

3. Explain how “we” can protect ourselves from “them.” “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them” … so they “set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens” (Ex 1:10a, 11). Having established an untrue premise that “they” are bad, and even harmful, the politics of fear can successfully dehumanize “them,” making it easier for “us” to justify hatred and violence. 

Note, too, how the politics of fear quickly spreads from one person (Pharaoh) to a small group (taskmasters) to an entire nation (“the Egyptians [literally] loathed the people of Israel”; Ex 1:12). Apparently, fear is not only the result of evil; evil is also the result of fear. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew the spiritual damage fear creates. “It crouches in people’s hearts,” he wrote, “it hollows out their insides … and secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others.” 

For those of you who don’t want your insides hollowed out during this election season, take a lesson from the midwives: they feared God (Ex 1:17, 21). The fear of God is the only thing that liberates people from the politics of fear. 

“The remarkable thing about God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else”—Oswald Chambers 

Posted in coaching

prove Satan wrong

Sometimes we are given a perspective that the characters in the Bible lack. In the story of Job, we have the inside scoop: what happened to Job had nothing to do with God’s discipline or punishment. 

Conversation 1: Satan approaches God to insult him by slanderously accusing God of bribing people with blessings so they will worship him (1:9-11; 2:4-5). (It’s like saying that we only love Grandma because she’s got ice cream. Take away the ice cream and who cares about Granny?) Such a nasty allegation had to be answered by putting someone to the test.

So Satan destroys everything near and dear to Job. Job himself was infested with worms, had difficulty breathing, and was reduced to skin and bones (7:5; 9:18; 19:20). Before Mrs. Job abandons him, she tells him to curse God and die (2:9)—which is exactly what Satan hopes Job will do. Job is suddenly alone and homeless. He has to move to the city dump and use broken pieces of garbage to scratch the burning itch that covered his body (2:8).

Why would Job love God anymore? If you lost everything, would you still love the Lord?

Conversation 2: When Job’s buddies got to dump, they initially didn’t recognize him. He looked so repulsive they were speechless. After a full week, Job breaks the silence with anguish. Do his friends pray for him? No. They slanderously accuse Job of having some secret sin that brought all this down on him. They offer no comfort, encouragement, hope, or grace. No wonder Job says, “miserable comforters are you all” (16:2).

Have you ever questioned what someone did to deserve their trial? Why not evaluate your spirituality by what happens to you?

Conversation 3: God appears in a whirlwind with 77 questions. Does he explain why people suffer? No. He talks about his wisdom and power over creation—including one creature in particular: the 7-headed sea serpent-dragon (Job 41; cf. Isaiah 27:1). Why highlight him? Is it a coincidence that the sea serpent reflects the cruel nature of the ancient dragon behind Job’s suffering? “Terror dances before him … his heart is as hard as stone … he is king over all the sons of pride” (41:22-34).

PRAY: Lord, through good times and hard times, I want to make bold statements to the dark side. I want to prove that Satan is wrong about me, too. I love you Lord because of who you are. I love you Lord no matter what happens. Bring to light the unsearchable riches of Christ’s victory “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Amen. (Ephesians 3:10)

Posted in coaching

5 levels of forgiveness

There was a face, a real person, and a boatload of stories behind Peter’s question. He’d been hurt too badly, too many times by someone. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Can you relate? “Lord, you know what I’ve been through. It’s not fair to let it go. Not after what they’ve done. Forgiveness is too much to ask from me. It’s too painful to even talk about.”

What if you tried to think of the “seventy-seven times”—not as an exact number to calculate, but as steps you can take toward healing?

Steps into LEVEL 1 FORGIVENESS: acknowledge the hurt. One guy really hurt Paul. Did Paul pretend that nothing happened? He doesn’t go into detail but simply states a fact: “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm” (2 Timothy 4:14). He named him. He dared to call out the damage. This is where you start. You cannot forgive what you refuse to acknowledge.

Steps into LEVEL 2 FORGIVENESSbelieve that God’s grace is greater than any sin. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Grace is greater than fear, greater than bitterness, greater than manipulation. What Jesus has done for you is greater than anything that’s been done to you. Grace >                          .

Steps into LEVEL 3 FORGIVENESS: let grace flow by releasing the offender to God. Let’s go back to Paul. After acknowledging the harm done to him (Level 1), Paul released Alexander to God: “the Lord will judge him for what he has done” (2 Timothy 4:14). Releasing someone is not letting them off the hook; you are placing them in God’s hands. As God deals with them, Paul says to “beware of [that person]” (2 Timothy 4:15). In other words, releasing frees you to protect yourself and others from further harm.

Steps into LEVEL 4 FORGIVENESS: ask God to forgive them. Think about Stephen. People are stoning him to death (Acts 7:54-60). Did Stephen look his murderers in the eye and say, “I forgive you”? No, he looked to heaven and said, “Lord, forgive them.” Ask God to do what you haven’t been able to do (which is what they really need anyway)!

Gently ease into LEVEL 5 FORGIVENESS: full forgiveness. You’ll know. Along the “seventy-seven” step journey toward forgiveness, you’ll realize that Jesus is healing your heart.