Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Fig Story

"Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer [is] near. "So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
Matthew 24:32-33 NKJV

Over the years as I have had the opportunity to teach on the subject of biblical prophecy, one question more than others seems to be asked quite often of me. Now if you were to guess you would probably think it to be a question about what I teach, but in reality it is quite another. You see, the question I get asked most of all is why do I choose to teach on prophecy? The answer to that question can be summed up in just one little word, and that word is “fig”.

One point that I always make when teaching about the end of the world is that we must be clear about the difference between the rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ. When Jesus returns for His church, He comes in the clouds and we are “raptured” to meet Him there. At the end of the tribulation period Jesus returns to the earth, which is the event referred to as the second coming and considered by most to be the end of this age, or the end of the world as we know it.

It has often been said, and quite accurately I believe, that if you want to know where we are on God's time clock, you simply look at the nation of Israel. The reason for that lies in a prophecy about Israel that is found in the Old Testament which is commonly called the seventy weeks of Daniel.

"Seventy weeks are determined For your people and for your holy city, To finish the transgression, To make an end of sins, To make reconciliation for iniquity, To bring in everlasting righteousness, To seal up vision and prophecy, And to anoint the Most Holy.
Daniel 9:24 NKJV

Here we are told that the scope of Israels' future from the point the prophecy was given would be seventy weeks, or shabuwa in the Hebrew. This is actually a word that means literally “weeks of years” or seventy periods of time lasting seven years each. Just like our word for twelve is a dozen, the Hebrew word for seven is shabuwa. Scholars agree that a period of sixty nine shabuwa passed between the time of this prophecy and Palm Sunday when Jesus rode a colt into Jerusalem and presented Himself to Israel as their Messiah.

Because they rejected Jesus as their messiah, the clock stopped and a period of time we know as the church age began. The church age ends when the rapture occurs, and God will then turn His attention back to Israel in order to complete the prophecy and the last shabuwa, or seven years, will take place. This is the period of time known as the tribulation, and as you can see from the passage above, God has a plan to deal with Israel.

Now what does all this have to do with my desire to teach prophecy? Well if you have followed this blog for any period of time you may have heard me share that I majored in history in college. About that time I naturally became interested in the history of the nation of Israel, and began to read what I could find on the subject. Imagine my surprise as a twenty something student to find out that the nation of Israel was destroyed by the Romans in the first century and in essence did not exist until 1948 when they returned to their land and reestablished themselves as a country.

Now as a student, I was always taught to look beyond the facts and to try and read between the lines to try and understand the “why” of events which have occurred throughout history. So as I looked at the history of Israel, and especially the prophecy of Daniel, it was hard not to come to what I consider a logical, if not very obvious conclusion. If God promised that Israel was going to get it's seventy weeks, then they obviously had to exist as a nation in order for that to happen. Add to that the fact that after almost two thousand years Israel is suddenly back in their land, well, are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Now if we look at the passage from Matthew about the fig tree blooming, does it not lend more than a little support to the idea that the time where God is going to restart Israel's clock is almost upon us? Note as well that Jesus said that the generation that witnessed “all these things” would also live to see it come to pass. Now there are those who choose to argue that Jesus was not talking about Israel in the passage from Matthew, but to those who hold that position I will simply say we agree to disagree. I also thought I would share just a couple of verses from the Old Testament where God is speaking of Israel and uses the metaphor of a fig tree.

"I found Israel Like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers As the firstfruits on the fig tree in its first season. [But] they went to Baal Peor, And separated themselves [to that] shame; They became an abomination like the thing they loved.
Hosea 9:10 NKJV

"Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: 'Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for [their own] good, into the land of the Chaldeans.
Jeremiah 24:5 NKJV

There is no question in my mind that the fig tree Jesus refers to in the Matthew passage is the nation of Israel. God told Israel they would get seventy weeks, and they have until this point in time only had sixty-nine. Jesus said that when the fig tree blossomed again, that generation would see the last week. Israel is now back in their land awaiting the final week, and it's been sixty-four years since they became a nation again. How long is a generation? There are plenty of opinions on that question as well, but the fact remains, the fig tree has indeed put forth it's leaves.

There are so many signs around us today concerning fulfilled prophecy and indicators of the approaching end of the world as we know it that it sometimes seems hard to keep up. I like the fact that many respected teachers are now calling the period we are living in right now as the “times of the signs” rather than “signs of the times”. Why do I choose to teach on prophecy? Actually I think of it more as teaching on current events, and if I were to pick one “super sign” to tell us where we are on God's calendar it would be the fact that Israel is back in it's land prepared for the last seven years of God's prophecy for them.

Of course, this fact is not lost on many people who believe that the period of time we are talking about is rapidly approaching. If you choose to investigate the subject of prophecy you will find that there are many people teaching on the subject and some holding some rather novel views on specific times and dates concerning this period of time. The only advice I can give you in regards to some of the things you will find is the same advice given to all of us in God's Word.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
1 John 4:1 NKJV

These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily [to find out] whether these things were so.
Acts 17:11 NKJV

God is preparing to fulfill the prophecies concerning the end of the world as we know it which He foretold to us so many years ago. The most important question to ask is not about what is going to happen, but rather are you personally prepared for what God says will happen? Have you put your trust in God? Have you asked Jesus to come into your heart and forgive you of your sins? Have you made the commitment to live your life according to His laws and for His glory? If not, I pray that you will right now. Here is a simple prayer that you can pray right now to do just that.

Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner. I believe You died for my sins. Right now, I turn from my sins and open the door of my heart and life. I confess You as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank You for saving me. Amen.

Keep watching.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Don't Fall Away

Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for [that Day will not come] unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition,
2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 NKJV

I think most of us have experienced the feeling of heartbreak when a relationship that meant so much to us breaks apart. I'm sure we can all relate to our first attempts at dating or making a commitment to someone else and having it fail and then trying to deal with the pain that results. Of course, in my own experience, that usually happened just when I thought everything was going well and the future looked bright.

The most painful example of that was a relationship I had with a girl from my hometown who was attending a Bible college in another city. Whenever she came home we would spend time together getting to know each other, and attend church participating in the college age activities there. So imagine my surprise to discover, just as I thought things were really going well, that she had another “friend” at college that she was in a relationship with too. I will never forget the feeling I had watching her walk away from my car after we had talked about our feelings and knowing deep inside it was the last time I would ever see her.

Although many may be familiar with this passage from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, they may not be fully aware of just what Paul is telling us here about what we can expect to occur within the body of Christ in the days leading up to the beginning of the tribulation. In verse three, it is translated “the falling away”, but in the Greek it comes from the word apostasia, which means simply to turn away or forsake. Now when I look at that my thoughts immediately return to the events of that day when I watched someone I cared so much about walk away, and wonder about how deeply hurt God will be as He watches people who have claimed to love Him do the very same thing.

I believe this is one of the major signs of the approaching end of the Church Age, and one that may often be overlooked as believers tend to focus on events that many would classify as catastrophic, or earth shaking. So today I would like to share my thoughts on three things I think the Bible makes clear will occur within the church body in the days leading up to the beginning of the period of time we call the tribulation.

1. Many true Christians will become lukewarm.

"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. "So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. "Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'--and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked--
Revelation 3:15-17 NKJV

I think the telling phrase here is “have need of nothing”, because in a sense, it gives us a clue as to the real attitude these believers have. These are those who go to church but have absolutely no passion for their relationship with God. They believe they have all they “need”, and there isn't anything more the church can do for them! Because they are satisfied, they are probably indifferent to the needs of those around them, don't really pray because they have no “needs”, and never take the time to look in the mirror and examine themselves because they are content with the way things are.

Examine yourselves [as to] whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?--unless indeed you are disqualified.
2 Corinthians 13:5 NKJV

2. False Christians will turn away and rebel.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, [because] they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn [their] ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.
2 Timothy 4:3-4 NKJV

False Christians are those who gave the impression they were believers, but in their hearts have never made the choice to accept the salvation offered by Jesus' sacrifice and ask Him to come into their hearts and submit to His will for their lives. They will reject the authority of the Word of God and the standards written in it and will instead “rewrite” God's laws to conform to their own standards. In effect, they are uncomfortable with what they might consider “restrictive” or “intolerant” so they begin to look for others who believe the same with the result being churches where the Word is never taught. Instead of a body being convicted of sin leading to repentance and acknowledging the power of God to change, you have a body accepting anything and denying the power of God, which ultimately will lead to death.

having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!
2 Timothy 3:5 NKJV

3. Committed Christians will move “all in” for Christ.

Therefore "Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you."
2 Corinthians 6:17 NKJV

We have made the point before that as true believers seeing the day approaching, our response should be to “kick into overdrive” and do as much as we can before our time is up. As we observe the church today and see the apostasy foretold by Paul unfolding right in front of our eyes, our response must be to become even more bold and share the news of Christ's sacrifice with an unbelieving world. We must examine our lives in light of God's Word and look for ways we can improve how we talk, how we walk, and what more we can do in the time we have left. The darker the world becomes as the apostasy grows, the brighter our light will shine if we choose to let it.

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

As believers, we have entered into a relationship with God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ. The time has come to ask ourselves if we are committed to the relationship, or just coasting along taking what we can get for our own enjoyment. After all He has done for us, don't you think it's time we give back and move all in? What difference could it make if we all made the choice to live sold out for Christ?

Keep watching.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Blessings Are Conditional

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. "Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? "Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!
Matthew 7:7-11 NKJV

I have often noticed how much our relationship with our heavenly father follows much the same principles as our earthly ones. As a father, I have often appreciated the realization that God treats us as a loving father does to his children, with many of the same principles many of us have chosen to use. The passage above tells us clearly that God not only loves us as a father, He wants very much to show us His love by giving us “good things” when we ask.

Yet quite often I hear believers refer to this verse, and then question why they asked, but did not receive? Like little children, many seem to believe all they need to do is ask God for something and because He loves us He is somehow “obligated” to give it to us? I think believers who might have considered this at one time or another have only to think back to their own earthly experiences to find an answer to that, and I believe it's a little concept called obedience.

In the Bible, the word for blessing means a gift or present, which is something entirely different from receiving what we might consider our needs, which would be the normal and necessary things needed for our everyday lives. A blessing is the gift of something more and unexpected which exceeds what we would normally receive. As I look back on my life as a father, I remember many times doing the unexpected things for my daughters which brought them happiness, yet I also recall that there were times when I was not so inclined to be generous. As I thought of those times, and studied what the Bible has to say about blessings from God, it became apparent that in most cases blessings from the Father are conditional. Which is to say, conditioned upon obedience.

So the question becomes, how do we make sure we can receive blessings from God by being obedient? What follows are three steps that I believe God tells us in His Word we all need to follow in order to be obedient children.

"This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
Joshua 1:8 NKJV

You must know His commandments. I think we would all agree it's pretty hard to follow the rules if you don't know what they are. Reading the Bible and understanding what our Father expects from us is a pretty good place to start. Yet this verse also says to meditate on what we read continuously, which is pretty good advice if we want to put what we read into action. I can think back to when my daughters were young, and how often I heard the words “I forgot”. Meditating on what we read in the Bible is a very good way not to forget.

Blessed [are] those who keep His testimonies, Who seek Him with the whole heart! They also do no iniquity; They walk in His ways. You have commanded [us] To keep Your precepts diligently. Oh, that my ways were directed To keep Your statutes!
Psalms 119:2-5 NKJV

You must submit to His commandments. Knowing what God wants from us is not enough. We must also commit ourselves to following His directions for us “diligently”. I think most of us understand what God means by diligent, and it isn't just trying to be good when you want something. Did you ever try that on your parents? You know, you want something so you let them know and then try to be good until you get it? Good luck with that. It didn't work for me, and it didn't work for my daughters either. God expects us to commit to keeping His laws all the time, no matter what our situation.

Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do [it], to him it is sin.
James 4:17 NKJV

You must follow His commandments. The idea here is “do good”. Obedience requires action. God is not interested in our “mental” acceptance of His commandments, rather He expects to see them in action in our lives every day. In this verse God sets the standard for us pretty high when He says that to not do what you know you should do is sin! How often are we all guilty of that? Personally this verse scares me, for as much as I may try to live in a way that is pleasing to God, I know using this standard I fall short everyday. Yet it also serves as a means of motivation, for I know just what God expects from me, and His Word tells me how to do it.

Blessings from God are conditional upon obedience. If we know what God expects from us and if we commit to obeying and follow His commandments we will then receive the blessings He is just waiting to give to us. Our Father wants to bless us, and bless us abundantly. He is just waiting for us to do our part as obedient children, and follow His instructions.

Keep watching.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Balanced Life

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
2 Corinthians 12:7 NKJV

This is probably a very familiar verse to many who have studied the New Testament, and the subject of Paul's infirmity has been taught throughout church history. Some of the earliest writings we have from great men of the faith deal with Paul's struggle with his thorn. So although I doubt I could break any new ground by talking about it, I still felt this week that the Spirit was drawing my attention to it so today I want to share a few thoughts from my understanding of Paul's struggle.

One constant I seem to find when studying this passage is the attempt to identify exactly what the nature of Paul's thorn was. There are numerous possibilities that have been suggested and for the most part all of them seem to make some sense in light of the supposed evidence used to support them. Something to note about it though comes from an understanding of the word itself. When we think of a thorn most of us imagine a small irritating prick from a rose bush. However the Greek word used here is skolops, which is translated a “stake”, which is a whole different thing entirely. So whatever it was, it was a major problem in Paul's life, and not just a small irritation. Yet at the risk of being accused of being too simplistic, my personal opinion is that trying to identify just what it was is really a waste of time because if God wanted us to know He would have told us.

I truly believe the reason for this is that the whole purpose of this story is to help us understand that in one way or another we all will share in the situation Paul found himself in. As many blessings as he had received from the Lord, along with them God in His wisdom also allowed burdens for Paul as well. If you examine this verse in the context of the entire letter you will find that what Paul is addressing is the problem of false teachers coming into the church and boasting of their experiences and knowledge and special revelations. Paul wants to make the case that although if he wanted to, he could easily “outboast” all of these others, but because of the magnitude of God's blessings on his life, Paul was also given a “thorn in the flesh” in order to keep him humble. In essence what God did in the life of Paul was to bring balance by allowing him to be reminded that although He had chosen to use him in a very special way, Paul needed a reminder that it was by God's grace he was being used and not of anything he could bring to the table.

"These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
John 16:33 NKJV

The Greek word for tribulation used here is thlipsis, which can be translated “affliction”. Many believers seem to feel that the life of someone who has chosen to follow Christ should be one filled only with blessings, and none of the troubles that plague non-believers. There are numerous preachers today who have built huge ministries based on that exact premise, yet it is obvious that Jesus is telling us here that although we can expect blessings, we can expect afflictions as well.

Now just like Paul, when we experience trouble our first reaction is to ask God to take it away and make things better, yet also like Paul, we need to understand that there is always the possibility God's answer will be “no”.

Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:8-9 NKJV

As I have studied these verses over the years, one of the things I discovered which has had a profound affect on my personal life is just how God can work through our troubles, and not our blessings. You see, most of us (if we had our own way) would say that a life full of blessings from God is the perfect way to show the world God's favor on us, yet in this verse God says just the opposite. Now as I thought about that over time this is the conclusion I came to. Most of us would agree the Word teaches that we are to be different from the world around us. We are commanded to let our light shine in the darkness that surrounds us by being different than the world, and to act differently than unbelievers in the situations we all find ourselves in while living in this world. But I ask you, is there really any difference to be seen between those who believe and those who don't when it comes to receiving “blessings”?

You see, for the most part we all will react the same when we receive something we would consider a positive. Yet how we react when we receive something negative is the opportunity to show the world we are different by following Paul's example and actually being glad and rejoicing in our troubles. It is when we are presented with trials, temptations, and persecutions that we have the opportunity to let God's grace shine through us to be a witness to the unbelieving world. God uses adversity to show the world His grace by giving us the strength to endure. Job said it best in response to the advise given to him by his wife.

Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!" But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Job 2:9-10 NKJV

Job understood that the adversity he was experiencing was allowed by God for a reason. He may not have understood the reasons behind it, but his faith in God was not shaken by the introduction of trouble in his life. All to often we find ourselves expecting that God will smooth the path before us and remove the things that might cause us to stumble, while showering us with blessings and answering all our prayers. The reality shown us by Paul is that the life of the believer is anything but easy, and God will certainly balance the blessings with the burdens. All too often we forget that when asking God for something in our prayers, His answer can also be “no”.

I heard something in a sermon this week that I have heard before, but needed to be reminded of. “Have you ever looked back on your life and thanked the Lord for unanswered prayer”? Of course you had an answer, but it was no. Yet can you look back and see that it was most definitely the right answer? Paul prayed three times for his affliction to be taken away and all three times God said no. Paul quit asking because he came to understand that God could do more through his life with the affliction than He could without it.

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to [His] purpose.
Romans 8:28 NKJV

Are you struggling with something you would consider a “thorn in the flesh”? Is there something in your life that can cause you to stumble if you let it? God promises us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness. Like Paul, are you asking God to take it away rather than asking for the strength to deal with it? It was God's intent to use Paul's thorn to demonstrate His grace and power to the unbelieving world. A balanced life will have both blessings and burdens, but the burdens should never stop the believer from serving. God allows them for a reason, so accept them and be a light to the world by relying on God's strength to deal with adversity.

Keep watching.