Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is This It?

I'm sure by now most of you have become aware of the conflict that has begun in the Middle East between Israel and the militant government Hamas located in the Gaza Strip. It also should come as no surprise that, because of the nature of what I teach, I have begun to get questions asking if this is the beginning of the conflict that gives rise to the Antichrist and ushers in the period of time we know as the tribulation? So I will devote this blog to try to explain what is happening now, and what I think may happen in the future, in order to make some sense about what is going on in that part of the world.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed General Assembly Resolution 181 which in effect, created the nation of Israel with defined borders in the area then known as Palestine. This resolution was accepted by the Jews, but rejected out of hand by the Arab states, and the Arabs living in Palestine. When negotiations appeared doomed to failure, on May 14, 1948, the members of the leadership representing the new nation passed a declaration of independence citing the boundaries given in the UN resolution and in essence created the nation of Israel. It should come as no surprise that on May 15, 1948, Israel was invaded by the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in what has become known as the War of Independence. Israel won that war, but has been subjected to many conflicts with it's Arab neighbors ever since, with only temporary ceasefires or peace agreements that never seem to last very long.

The conflict in the Middle East right now is between Israel and the ruling government in the Gaza strip called Hamas. In August of 2005 Israel, which had up to that time been occupying Gaza in an effort to keep the peace, decided to remove all it's troops and give the authority to self-rule to the Palestinians who lived there. Hamas is the political party which rules in Gaza, and is considered by most of the world's governments to be a terrorist organization. Until last week they had a ceasefire agreement with Israel which had for the most part resulted in a relative peace between both parties. That agreement expired, and instead of renewing it, Hamas began to fire rockets into Israel cities. After enduring almost a week of rocket fire, Israel decided to respond and began to bomb Hamas government buildings, police stations, and known warehouses which stored arms for use against the Jewish state.

As of this morning, close to 300 people have died, and it would appear that Israel is moving troops to the border in what many believe will result in a ground incursion to attempt to remove or seriously cripple the capability to launch rockets into Israel's cities. The problem as I see it is not what Israel can expect from Hamas, because I believe Israel is well aware of the military capabilities they possess, but rather the response from other Arab states which support the Hamas cause. Most troubling to Israel should be the question of whether or not Hizbullah, another radical group which occupies Lebanon to the north, decides to join in and attack from the north.

In 2006 Israel and Hizbullah fought a war that lasted a little more than a month and resulted in losses for both sides in what many believe was a war with no winner.
The conflict ended with the acceptance by both sides of UN Resolution 1701, which called for the retreat of both sides, and the disarmament of Hizbullah. Unfortunately for Israel, almost immediately Hizbullah began stockpiling new weapons with an even greater capability and range than they previously possessed. These weapons have come from Iran by way of Syria, two countries who have made no secret of their hatred of the nation of Israel, as well as their stated desire that Israel cease to exist.

The question before us is twofold; will Hizbullah join in this conflict and attack from the north, and if so, will Israel decide not only to respond to Hizballah, but to respond by attacking the two countries which support and arm them? If you are familiar with my book, and the prophecy of Isaiah 17, you can see where this question may in fact have apocalyptic implications. Remember, I believe the progression of events leading up to the tribulation and the emergence of the so called Antichrist is this; Isaiah 17 where Israel uses a nuclear device on Syria, Ezekiel 38 where the world responds with an futile invasion of Israel where God directly intervenes on Israels' behalf, and Daniel 9 where an individual we know as the Antichrist brokers/enforces an agreement between Israel and it's enemies for a period of 7 years.

So where are we? I believe we need to watch closely what Hizbullah, Syria and Iran do about this conflict Israel is having with Hamas in Gaza. Early this morning, (Sunday 12/28), reports from Lebanon are that Hassan Nazrallah, leader of Hizbullah, appeared in public (which he has hardly ever done since the Lebanon War) and stated that "Northern Israel will burn as Gaza is burning". Also Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on all Muslims to oppose Israel's actions and any Muslim killed as a result would be considered a "martyr". Are these signs of what is to come? Keep watching.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Origin of Christmas

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, why do we celebrate it at that particular time? There are no records of the early church even celebrating Jesus' birth, so a logical question would be why and when did the world begin to do so?

The first mention of December 25 was in the Calendar of Philocalus in 354 A.D. In it Jesus' birthday was assumed to be December 25, 1 A.D. This calendar was compiled sometime after Emperor Constantine's "Edict of Milan" in A.D. 313. This edict in essence ended the persecution of Christians which had previously been the hallmark of the previous governments in Rome, and allowed Christians to practice their faith publicly without fear of persecution. But why choose the date of December 25th to celebrate Christ's birth when there was sufficient evidence to support a September birth?

The answer to that question may be found in an understanding of the times in which the edict of Constantine was made. Up until this time, the world, with the exception of believers of Christianity, could best be described as pagan. As such, it should not be a surprise to find that the pagan world had it's celebrations and holidays as well. When the emperor Constantine published his edict, the church was faced with the problem of a calendar which would include holidays from both Christianity and paganism. It would appear then that their answer in resolving that dilemma was to substitute the Christian holiday for the pagan celebration. If that answer seems strange to you let's take a moment to look at the origins of what we celebrate during this season of the year.

The date of December 25 was officially set by the church in 440 A.D. in an apparent attempt to replace the existing Roman holiday called Saturnalia. Most pagan religions throughout history have worshipped the sun in one form or another as the provider of warmth and light. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere. It was at this time in the month of December that pagan celebrations were created in an attempt to please the sun gods so the days would again become long and the sun would begin to stay in the sky longer.

Genesis 10:8-10 introduces us to Nimrod, founder of Babylon, a city which has become synonymous with rebellion against God. Isaiah 47 clearly tells us that the occultic traditions and practices we know about had their origins in Babylon. Nimrod and his queen Semiramis had a son called Tammuz who was thought to have died during the winter solstice. The tradition arose that his death would be memorialized by burning a log in the fire. The Chaldean word for infant is Yule, and this seems to be the origin of the tradition of burning the "Yule Log". The next day, after the yule log had burned, it was replaced by a decorated tree. Is this story starting to sound familiar?

The Romans also worshipped the god Saturn. His celebration occured on December 17, at which time the people would decorate their homes with evergreen boughs and give presents to one another. The roman emperor Aurelian, 270-275 A.D., combined the solstice celebrations of the pagan gods Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, and Thseus into one celebration called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on December 25 as well.

So is it hard to understand why the church fathers would choose to proclaim December 25 as the official date of Jesus' birth? By doing so, they tried to replace the pagan celebrations with what they considered to be one of the most important reasons the world has to celebrate, the birth of our Savior and Lord.
As such, the obvious question that comes to mind is what can we do as believers to see that Christmas remains a celebration of the birth of Christ, and not the commercial event it has become?

Possibly one way would be to truly study the story of Jesus' birth to find the things that make it unique, and obviously divine in nature. One of my favorites is found in the presents brought to the child Jesus by the wise men. I'm sure most, if not all of you can tell me the names of those three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But my question to you is what is the significance of those particular gifts? You see, at that time the gift of gold would signify His deity; it was a gift given to a king. The frankincense would by symbolic of His purity; in Jesus' case obviously His sinlessness. However, what was the meaning of the gift of myrrh? The truth is, myrrh was a spice used in embalming bodies after death, so what sort of gift is that to give to a child? Well in hindsight, we can argue these gifts were prophetic in that they celebrated not only Jesus' deity and purity, but His coming death as a sacrifice for all men. How so? Look at Isaiah 60:6 where we are told of the gifts brought to Jesus after He comes again the second time. Notice they bring gold and frankincense, but no myrrh? The reason for that is that He only had to die once, and that has already been accomplished for us as the greatest gift we could ever receive.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, I hope we can all remember that we as believers need, especially at this time of year, to remind those around us that we are not wishing Happy Holidays but Merry Christmas, remembering the greatest gift of all.

Remember, as believers we need to keep Christ in Christmas, because if we don't, who will?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas in September?

As we find ourselves approaching Christmas, I thought I would share with you a question I have been asked many times, especially at this time of year, and that is, "was Jesus really born on December 25"? Well, to answer that we need only to look closely at the story of His birth told to us in the gospel of Luke and carefully consider what is said there.

First we should look at the description given as to what the shepherds were doing when Jesus was born. In Luke 2:8 we find that the shepherds were in the fields tending their flock at night. Not an uncommon occurrence when in season, but certainly not around December 25 when it's winter in Israel and the lows at night are in the 30-40 degree range. Shepherds in Israel would usually stop taking their flocks out in mid-October and not resume until the spring, so that could be our first clue that a December date is inaccurate.

The second thing we can look at is related to the winter as well. In Luke 2:1-3 we see that a decree was given by Caesar that the whole world should be taxed. As a result, everyone was to return to their "own city" for the purpose of registering their payment. How logical would it be for Rome to ask everyone they wanted to tax to travel, (understanding the main mode of transportation was walking), in the winter when not only was it cold, but snow was possible at any time? Somehow it just doesn't seem likely this would happen. After all, remember Rome was after money, so why make it hard to collect?

The best indication, however, of just when Jesus was born can be found in the first chapter of Luke when we are told of the conception and birth of Jesus' cousin John the Baptist. When we are introduced to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, we are told in verse 5 of chapter 1 that he was a priest "of the course of Abia", or Abijah. It says also that he was beginning his service in the temple when he was told by the angel Gabriel that he was about to become a father. We know from
1 Chronicles 24:10 that the course of Abijah was the eighth course to serve in the temple. This would mean his service would have ended around the month of July. Assuming a normal term of pregnancy, John would have likely been born around April of the next year.

Why is this important to our question of when Jesus was born? If we look at Luke 1:36 we see that when Gabriel visited Mary to tell her about what was about to happen to her, he also said that Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Marys' cousin, was in her 6th month of pregnancy. This means that Jesus was to be born approximately 6 months after John the Baptist. Look at John being born around April, and you end up with Jesus being born around September. Is it possible that Jesus was actually born in September rather than in December as we celebrate it?

I think if we accept what the Bible tells us as being accurate, it would be hard for us not to. But if we assume this to be correct, I want to throw out one more thing to consider. By now most should realize the importance of events in Israels' history occuring on their Holy Feast days. If you have heard me teach at all I know you are familiar with this subject. After the Israelites were delivered out of the bondage in Egypt, while in the desert, God told Moses that there were to be seven feasts celebrated throughout the year. Three occur in the spring, one in the summer, and three more in the fall. If we assume a normal 280 day pregnancy, and then place Johns' birth in April and Jesus' birth in September we find it is not only possible, but probable that John was born on the Feast of Passover, and Jesus was born on the Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot. I'm sure this is just coincidence right? You might want to also think about this. Why was Bethlehem so crowded that Joseph and Mary could not find any room? How about the fact it was The Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three feast days that all Jewish men were required to attend in Jerusalem, and everyone who could possibly make the trip was there to celebrate?

Am I trying to ruin your Christmas here? Of course not. I think Jesus appreciates His children celebrating His birth even if we got the day wrong. However I do think the very best gift we can give Him is to not only remember the reason for the season, but to celebrate it exactly as He would want. Let's all be sure to remember God's gift to us in the person of Jesus, and to give to others before we think of ourselves and what we might want.

God gave us the ultimate gift. What are we giving, and to whom?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Doing It Right

Approval, positive reinforcement, praise, all words that describe what most of us are looking for from parents, friends, and even the world. Generally speaking humans have a need to feel as if they are "doing it right", whatever that may be. It seems to be ingrained in us from the start when our parents would either praise us or correct us when we made our choices as a means to direct our behavior. In my own family, my father was the "administrator" of "corrective discipline", and there are a few incidents in my past where the expectations of my parents were made painfully clear. To be truthful, I never really can remember a time when I wasn't aware of just what my parents expected from me. Our Father in heaven has a few expectations as well, and I thought after discussing what He thought of the Church in Laodicea we might look at the church that got a "good" report card as a way to see just what God expects from us.

In Revelation 3:7-13 we find what Jesus has to say about the church at Philadelphia. Now the name itself has a commendation in that the meaning of the word Philadelphia is "Brotherly Love", and Jesus himself commanded in John 13:34 that we should "love one another; as I have loved you". So the first indication of why Jesus is pleased in this church is that it is apparently following His commandment. Another point that should be noted when looking at these seven letters is found in the words Jesus uses to describe Himself at the beginning of each letter. These descriptions relate not only to what Jesus expects from them, but what they are doing or not doing as well. Jesus uses the same word to describe Himself in both the letter to Philadelphia and the following letter to Laodicea, which is our clue as to what Philadelphia is doing right and what Laodicea is doing wrong.

The word Jesus uses is translated into English as "true", but has a much deeper meaning in the Greek. In Greek, it is pronounced "al-ay-thee-nos'", and actually means "real, true and genuine in every respect, opposite to what is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated or pretended". Ouch! It would appear what Jesus is trying to show us here is a contrast between the Philadelphia church which is genuine and true, and the church at Laodicea which is counterfeit and simply pretending to be true. Although both may appear on the outside to be the same, Jesus says He can tell the difference by simply doing one thing, and that is examining their "works".

What are the works that Jesus has observed that earn this church a good report card? Two things jump out at me in this passage. One, in verse 8 Jesus tells them that He has seen them exhibit a "little strength", keep His "word", and they haven't "denied" His name. Now keeping His Word can be accomplished by obedience to His commandments, something I think we can all figure out for ourselves. But denying His name? Again, looking at the Greek, the word for deny is "contradict", so it appears Jesus is saying that the believers at Philadelphia are being careful that their "works" do not contradict the standards laid out in scripture. Unfortunately for all of us, Jesus also says that it only takes a "little strength" to accomplish this. Personally, that hurts because it's not like I have never thought something along the lines of how hard it is to live life according to God's standards. Jesus, however, also mentions a second way in which this church is "doing it right".

In verse 10 Jesus makes a curious statement in which He commends the believers at Philadelphia for keeping "the word of my patience". This seems to be a strange phrase unless you look again at the Greek meaning of the words, and examine them in the context of what Jesus is saying here. I apologize if this is starting to look like a lesson in Greek, but there really is no better way to understand what Jesus is saying here than to dig a little deeper. The word for "kept" is "tay-reh'-o" which means to "attend carefully; keep in the state in which to observe", and the word for "patience" is "hoop-om-on-ay'" or "perseverance, enduring, not swayed by trials". So the believers in this church are making sure they are in a continual state of watching for something Jesus calls His patience. But what is Jesus being patient for?

If we step back and look at the context I believe we can see exactly what He means here. Remember these letters are addressed to the church as a whole, and what is the church? Of course, it is the bride of Christ; and what is the current status of the bride and groom? Obviously they are betrothed, but waiting for the wedding day when God will tell Jesus "go get her" in something we know as the rapture. So I believe the picture here is of Jesus watching His bride, the Church, for close to 2000 years. Now that is being patient, especially if you consider what these seven letters describe as the state of His bride to be! So what the believers in Philadelphia were being commended for was being faithful to watch for the day of Jesus' return, being steadfast even though they were being tried and tempted. The best part of all of this is spelled out clearly in the latter part of verse 10 when Jesus tells them that because of their faithfulness they would be delivered from the "hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world,to try them that dwell upon the earth." This is a direct promise to His church that they will be removed from this earth in what we call the rapture before the tribulation period begins.

We know what Jesus wants from us by reading this letter to Philadelphia. He wants us to strive to keep an attitude of watchfulness for His return, and live in such a way that the world will see our works and know we are obeying God's Word. We might steal a phrase from a popular movie you might recognize here; "It's what we do that defines us". Jesus knows our works; are we doing it right?