Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Miracle of Hanukkah

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, I'm sure the thoughts of many have moved on to Christmas, and everything associated with it. Did you celebrate the day after Thanksgiving by shopping, or by putting up your Christmas lights? There is, of course, nothing wrong with that at all, but what I want to do today is talk about a holiday that many in the western world know little if anything about. It's a Jewish holiday called Hanukkah, or The Festival of Light, and it lasts for eight days generally occurring before Christmas in the early part of December.

In Israel's history, after they had been released from captivity by the Babylonians, they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple which had been destroyed when they were taken into captivity. A few hundred years later, around 175BC, Israel was under the rule of the Selucid Empire (Syria) and their king. This king, Antiochus IV, looted the temple, stopped the worship, and effectively outlawed the practice of Judaism. A revolt began and the end result was that in 165BC the king was overthrown and the Jews were able to resume worship in their temple. The trouble was, they discovered that when they went to relight the Menorrah, or lampstand in the temple, there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Since this oil was specially consecrated by the priests for use, it would take days to prepare more. However, a miracle occurred in that the one day supply of oil burned for eight days allowing time for the priests to prepare more. Although not one of the seven feasts of Israel ordained by God in the Old Testament, it is a very important celebration in Israel and is even referred to in the New Testament. During Hanukkah, the people celebrate by lighting one light each night for eight nights using what is known as a Hanukkah Menorah with eight branches on a single main stem as opposed to the Menorah used in the Temple which has six branches off of the main stem.

So why do I bring this up? I suppose because I find so many interesting things associated with this celebration that we as believers can and should be aware of. So I want to take a little time examining some of them, and share my thoughts with you as to why I think they are important. I will apologize beforehand if I seem to ramble in sharing these with you, but I have yet to take the time to organize my thoughts into an outline form so what you get might seem a little random. So first of all, lets talk about the Menorah. Of all the things to be found in the Temple, I think the Menorah was probably the most impressive. A description of it is found in Exodus 25 where God instructs Moses on how to construct it.

"You shall also make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be of hammered work. Its shaft, its branches, its bowls, its [ornamental] knobs, and flowers shall be [of one piece]. And six branches shall come out of its sides: three branches of the lampstand out of one side, and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side. Three bowls [shall be] made like almond [blossoms] on one branch, [with] an [ornamental] knob and a flower, and three bowls made like almond [blossoms] on the other branch, [with] an [ornamental] knob and a flower--and so for the six branches that come out of the lampstand. On the lampstand itself four bowls [shall be] made like almond [blossoms, each with] its [ornamental] knob and flower. And [there shall be] a knob under the [first] two branches of the same, a knob under the [second] two branches of the same, and a knob under the [third] two branches of the same, according to the six branches that extend from the lampstand. Their knobs and their branches [shall be of one piece]; all of it [shall be] one hammered piece of pure gold. You shall make seven lamps for it, and they shall arrange its lamps so that they give light in front of it. And its wick-trimmers and their trays [shall be] of pure gold. It shall be made of a talent of pure gold, with all these utensils. Exodus 25:31-39 NKJV

Notice how ornate this object was, and how much care had to be taken to make it. Notice too how specific God was with His instructions on how it was to be made. Here is what I get from reading this description. First of all, God is very specific when He says that there are six branches, three on each side, emanating from a main shaft. Why is that important? Type in "menorah" in your search engine and read some of the results. I bet every one of them describes a menorah as a "seven" branched candlestick. Am I being picky here? I don't think so. I believe the picture God paints for us here is very important, and often missed. I think most of you are probably familiar with the following verse;

"I am the vine, you [are] the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. John 15:5 NKJV

"Without me you can do nothing". I would think we should consider that a rather important statement by our Lord. You see, something has to support the branches. I guess that is why they call them branches, they "branch" off from something else. When I look at a picture of the menorah I see one main shaft from which branches grow. Is this the picture God intended for us to see? I really think it is, and I think I can give you something more to help consider that possibility. The branches get what they need not from themselves, but from the vine itself which has roots. So in essence, the main vine is the most important part of the picture. The vine supports the branches, not the other way around. Have you ever seen a vineyard when it is pruned? I live in wine country, and am surrounded by vineyards and wineries. After a vine is pruned I can tell you they look like stumps. Yet they aren't dead, and have plenty of life inside which manifests itself in the spring when the branches begin to grow. So the first thing I see when I look at a menorah is Jesus as the main shaft supporting the branches which symbolize all those who choose to believe.

Let's now consider the purpose of the lamp itself which is to give light. The purpose of having a lamp is to give light when it is dark in order to show us the way to walk without stumbling over something we would not ordinarily see. If God is showing us a picture of His Son as a lamp, with those who believe as the branches whose purpose is to give light, can we find another part of scripture to support that thought?

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. John 8:12 NKJV

So if Jesus is the light of the world and the main shaft or vine, as His branches we have that light as well with the ability to give light. Jesus told us that in the book of Matthew where He says this;

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Matthew 5:16 NKJV

So what I see here is this, a lampstand such as the menorah gives light two ways. One, it shines light outward to fight the darkness that surrounds it. But two, the branches also send light inward, lighting up the shaft itself. When the world looks at the lamp, not only do they see the effect of the light it produces, but they see the lamp itself. So the second thing I think of when I see a menorah is Jesus as the light of the world, not only giving light but being glorified (lit up) by those who believe.

Then of course we come to the reason behind the celebration of Hanukkah, and that is the miracle of the oil. Obviously a lamp without oil cannot give light, so the oil is probably the most important part of the picture we are looking at here. Throughout the Bible it is plainly seen and accepted that oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament kings and priests were annointed with oil as a sign they were being "consecrated" and filled with the spirit. In Zechariah we see that the prophet was shown a vision of a lampstand with oil dripping into it and when he asks what it signifies is he is told;

So he answered and said to me: "This [is] the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' Says the LORD of hosts. Zechariah 4:6 NKJV

We also know Jesus told His disciples that they were going to receive the Holy Spirit as a gift and just what the results of that gift would be.

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Acts 1:8 NKJV

When we become believers and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit we receive the "oil" we need to light our lamps. We have the power we need to live the life God expects from us and "light" the world with the deeds that will bring glory and honor to God. It also gives us the strength we need to let our light shine in the midst of the darkness we seem to be finding ourselves surrounded by more and more as we get closer to the end of this age. So I guess this is the third thing I see and think about when I look at a menorah, and that is the oil of the Holy Spirit which lights up the world through those who believe.

Hanukkah might be considered a "Jewish" holiday, but I hope from my ramblings you can see that it can be a beautiful picture of our life with God through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ. When I think of Hanukkah and see a menorah I remember Jesus as the vine, we as the branches, and the Holy Spirit as the oil which helps us shine the light of Christ in a world increasingly filled with darkness.

Keep watching.

Oops. I told you I was rambling. I forgot to mention why I think God specified that the bowls would be like "almond" blossoms, but I think I will let you study on that for your "homework" this week. (Clue: Almond trees are the first to bloom. Think firstfruits, rapture, etc. :) ) Have a good week.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wings Like Eagles

A question I have always had in regards to living in the end times is just how much discomfort are believers going to be subjected to as we get closer and closer to the return of Christ for His church? Lately it would appear that the answer to that may be a bit uncomfortable as more and more I am hearing about situations where dedicated, committed believers being subjected to trials they never suspected would occur. Many are a direct result of the state of the economy, as I hear of Christians losing their jobs, having trouble paying their bills, and even struggling to put food on the table. Of course, it should come as no surprise that the natural question which results from these situations is simply "why"? As a believer, shouldn't we be able to expect God to spare us from these troubles?

The reality is, that question is not a new one. How many times in the Old Testament can you recall someone asking God "why"? The past few weeks we have been looking at some of the prophecies in the Old Testament written by the prophets around the time of Israel's captivity, and I want to share something that Isaiah wrote about this subject.

Why do you say, O Jacob, And speak, O Israel: "My way is hidden from the LORD, And my just claim is passed over by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, And to [those who have] no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew [their] strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:27-31 NKJV

Obviously, from this passage we can see that Israel was complaining to God that He was obviously unaware of their suffering because He had not done anything about it. They were feeling as if God had abandoned them, and was either unaware or unwilling to do anything to alleviate their suffering. Especially interesting is the idea we see that the people felt that God was obliged to deliver them! Do you notice the words "just claim"? They felt as God's chosen people, they should somehow be immune to struggles. I am sure many today are experiencing those same feelings as they experience the hardships that seem so prevalent in our nations current situation. Yet Isaiah goes on to answer those feelings by telling us three things we need to remember when we experience trials in our lives.

First of all, Isaiah reminds us that God is never asleep, or too tired to listen to our cries for help. He doesn't "faint" or get "weary", and believe it or not, He has a plan that we as humans may not "understand". His ways are not our ways, but Isaiah assures us that even though we may not understand, or agree, God's ways are not our ways.

Secondly, Isaiah assures us that God will give us the "power" and the "strength" we need to endure. It seems here as if we are being told that within the body of Christ there are three levels of maturity. The "youth" would refer to those who are new and relatively immature believers who would struggle the most when experiencing these kinds of difficulties. The "young men" would be those who have grown enough to endure a bit longer, but still struggle with circumstances they could not control. Those who are able to "wait", however, are those believers mature enough in their faith to understand that God is always faithful to provide the strength we need to endure.

Third, Isaiah uses a beautiful example of an eagle to picture what life as a mature believer can be. Can anyone imagine running and never getting tired, or walking forever without running out of gas? Fortunately for me, I live in an area where all I have to do to watch eagles is drive a mile to the river that runs through a canyon south of town and I can spend hours watching bald eagles fish and hunt for their food. If you have never had the opportunity to do something like that, I want to share a few observations about eagles.

One of the first things you notice when you get up close and personal with an eagle is just how big their wings are. I don't know just how they can fold them up so small, but let me tell you, when they unfold those wings to take off they are impressive. It is common to see eagles with a wingspan of 6-7 feet, and when they fly by 20 feet or so away you usually feel like ducking. Of course, with wings that big it follows you should see the size of fish they can take off with. I am talking about salmon bigger than they are! The strength they possess is just amazing to watch. To see them dive on the river and come up with a fish that size just takes your breath away. Then of course, we come to the hunt. These eagles can soar forever! They just sit over the river riding the air currents and never hardly move their wings. They just sit up there floating for hours without seeming to expend any effort at all until they spot dinner swimming below.

Is it any wonder God chooses to use the eagle as an illustration of His care and concern for His own? The power and strength and endurance is there for us when we need it, but what is required of us most is to wait. We are an impatient people who want answers and action right now, but our God is a God of patience and deliberation.

Many [are] the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all. Psalms 34:19 NKJV

God tells us that as faithful, righteous believers we will suffer afflictions. However the proper response is to wait upon the Lord who is not only able, but promises to give us the strength we need to soar like eagles. Note in the passage from Isaiah that God does not promise to take away the suffering, but rather to give us "strength and endurance" so we can be delivered through it. When believers suffer, rather than growing tired or fainting, we need to ask for strength and wait for the promises of God as a witness to those around us that God indeed will provide what we need.

Please join me in praying for those who are struggling as we approach the end of this age. Never forget, God is faithful.

Keep watching.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Here Comes the Judge

"Don't judge me." "You're judging me." "The Bible says judge not lest you be judged." Have you ever heard those words directed to you? I know I have, yet many are unaware of the simple fact that if you do hear those words, it probably means you are busy doing what God asks of us. No, not judging others, but informing others of what God has said in His word concerning what He requires of us.

When I have taught about this in the past, I always like to use this example. Have you ever been pulled over by a policeman? Do you remember what it felt like when you saw the car pull up behind you? Not me! I wasn't doing anything wrong! Then the lights go on and he motions for you to pull over. You look in your mirror and watch as he slowly gets out of his car, adjusts his black robe and picks up his gavel before slowly walking to your car. Gotcha didn't I? Of course that's not what he looked like, because he is a law enforcement officer, not the judge. It is simply his job to tell you he observed you breaking the law. It is the judge you face in the courtroom who has the power to pass the sentence, and in reality, it is he alone that "judges" you.

Last week we discussed our responsibility to speak out about what we see happening in the world around us, and the fact that just like the prophets of old, we are in essence warning of God's coming judgment. The thought occurs to me that the Old Testament prophets probably heard "you're judging me" a whole lot. Of course, that did not stop them from doing what they were told by God to do, and neither should we. There is, of course, a more acceptable way of doing that and I believe we need to be sure we warn people with and attitude of love, and not with an attitude that could be interpreted as "judgmental". I'm sure we all have a passage or two in scripture that means something special to us, or one we seem to feel applies to us more than another. One of my very favorites is the following passage from the book of Psalms.

The law of the LORD [is] perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD [is] sure, making wise the simple; The statutes of the LORD [are] right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD [is] pure, enlightening the eyes; The fear of the LORD [is] clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD [are] true [and] righteous altogether. More to be desired [are they] than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them Your servant is warned, [And] in keeping them [there is] great reward. Psalms 19:7-11 NKJV

I liked this Psalm so much that I memorized the whole chapter, and have tried to remind myself to quote it every day. One of the first things I noticed about this Psalm is how much David is saying he loves God's laws. Now just like anyone else, I would rather people not tell me what to do, so I wanted to discover why David was so desiring of knowing God's laws. What came to mind as I read this Psalm is that David concentrates on the positive results of following God's laws rather than the judgment that comes from disobeying. Not to say we are not warned of what could happen if we don't, but as we would say in this day and age, he concentrates on the "upside".

I look at this as a clue as to how we should approach fulfilling our obligation to speak out about what we see around us today. Accentuate the positive aspects of obeying God's laws, without minimizing the judgment that God says will certainly come. I have said before that when I encounter something unusual or out of the ordinary when studying scripture, it is Gods' way of making a point. Consider the following as an example. There occurs an unusual verse in the book of Zephaniah I want you to read. Why unusual? It is the only time in the entire Bible where every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is contained in just one verse. Guess what the subject of that verse is? That's right; Gods' coming judgment of this world.

"Therefore wait for Me," says the LORD, "Until the day I rise up for plunder; [fn] My determination [is] to gather the nations To My assembly of kingdoms, To pour on them My indignation, All My fierce anger; All the earth shall be devoured With the fire of My jealousy. Zephaniah 3:8 NKJV

Do you think it's possible God is trying to make a point here? Is it possible this verse is His way of emphasizing that a decision to reject Him and His laws has only one result? We know that the time where all the nations of the world will be gathered is during the Tribulation. The Bible also makes it abundantly clear what the scope of that coming judgment is.

That day [is] a day of wrath, A day of trouble and distress, A day of devastation and desolation, A day of darkness and gloominess, A day of clouds and thick darkness, A day of trumpet and alarm Against the fortified cities And against the high towers "I will bring distress upon men, And they shall walk like blind men, Because they have sinned against the LORD; Their blood shall be poured out like dust, And their flesh like refuse." Neither their silver nor their gold Shall be able to deliver them In the day of the LORD's wrath; But the whole land shall be devoured By the fire of His jealousy, For He will make speedy riddance Of all those who dwell in the land. Zephaniah 1:14-18 NKJV

We see the signs of that coming time all around us today, and as the Bible tells us, when you see the signs you know He is near. Standing up as believers and speaking out about what we see, and using that as an opportunity to affirm Gods' laws and expectations of His people will most certainly occasion a response accusing us of judging others. But we are not the judges because we only speak out about what we see. The responsibility to judge and pass sentence is Gods' alone and He has promised He will certainly fulfill that duty.

The good news is that God is a forgiving God, and has promised to deliver anyone from that coming judgment by simply accepting His free gift of salvation and striving to follow His laws. May we be bold to share that good news with others in a spirit of love and forgiveness as we see the day approaching.

Keep watching.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Decline of a Nation

We have talked lately about what the Bible calls "the days of Noah", and the fact that Jesus himself said that the world would be in a similar situation as it approaches the time of His second coming. My thoughts this week surrounded the similarities between what we see happening in our nation right now, and what Noah, and the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah saw happening in their day. What's more, I also considered the strong possibility that we as believers share the same responsibilities as those individuals had in speaking out about what they saw.

I'm sure most of us are familiar with the following passage.

Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. [For the Son of man is] as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch. Mark 13:33-37 KJV

Did you notice how many times we are told to watch? Did you also notice the last verse says we ALL are being commanded to watch? I get the idea this is a rather important point Jesus is trying to make. So why is watching such an important responsibility? Consider the following passage from the Old Testament concerning watchmen and what was expected from them.

Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman: If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people; Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul. But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take [any] person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand. Ezekiel 33:2-6 KJV

It was the last verse in that passage that got my attention. If a person is appointed to be a watchman, and does not fulfill his responsibility to warn of what he sees, he will be held accountable for those who perish because of his failure. Talk about responsibility. I have no doubt that watchmen in the Old Testament took their job very, very seriously. So here is my question to you; since we are commanded to watch, have we as believers been appointed "watchmen" with the same responsibilities as those in the past? Are we required by God to not only watch, but to warn of what we see?

The state of our country has been the subject of much talk in the last year or so, what with the "changes" being instituted by the leaders in our government. Many have made no secret of the fact they believe the moral compass of our nation is seriously malfunctioning, and the direction we are going is quite the opposite of what it should be. Many have asked what we should do as believers when confronted by what we see happening in our nation today? I believe the answer is as clear as it was to Noah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and all the others appointed as watchmen. We need to stand up and be counted as opposing the direction our country is headed, and especially be clear as to why. Times like these are an opportunity to share the love of God with those around us, and to explain His laws and expectations concerning our behavior. The Bible is very clear that any nation that turns it's back on God will be judged. No question.

Look at what God had to say about Israel in Jeremiah's day.

And I will utter my judgments against them touching all their wickedness, who have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands. Jeremiah 1:16 KJV

Do you see any similarities between our country and what was happening at the time of Noah? Are we as a nation turning from God and worshiping what we have created with our own hands as they did in Jeremiahs' day? Are the decisions made concerning social issues based on God's laws, or popular feeling? Is our country headed for judgement? If we continue on the course we are on, I have no doubt. Will it be hard to stand and be counted? Absolutely. However look at what God told Jeremiah when he was commissioned to serve.

Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them. For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land. And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I [am] with thee, saith the LORD, to deliver thee. Jeremiah 1:17-19 KJV

Are we living in the last days? Personally I am surprised we are still here given what I can see with my own two eyes. America is fast approaching the time of judgement, and as Jesus said, "no man knows the day or the hour". Do you want to be surprised at His coming, and realize you failed in your responsibilities as a watchman? I don't. May you find strength to watch and warn others of what you see by the power of God's promises to us.

Keep watching.