Friday, November 29, 2013

Test the Spirits

Today is the final day in our 47th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Zechariah 6-8; 1 John 4.

Today marks the beginning of the season when most people begin to decorate for Christmas, purchase their gifts, and do their holdiay baking, and prepare for yuletide festivities.  One of the most popular movies/plays/stories of this season is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  In this amazing tale, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four spirits--the ghost of his late partner Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.  Scrooge is full of questions for these ghosts.  Some of them answer his questions, while others remain silent.  Scrooge asks all of them for proofs and evidences, but in the end, it is Scrooge who is put to the test.

John 4:1-3 (ESV) talks about testing the spirits...but I don't think John was talking about Christmas ghosts.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

When I was a kid, I used to think that this meant if a spirit appears to you, you should say, "Wait a minute, spirit--let me test you to see if you're legit.  Do you acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?"  And if that spirit said, "Why, no!" then I'd recognize the spirit to be a demon.  But if the spirit said, "Of course I do, you silly boy!" then of course that spirit would be an angel.

Today, I don't think that this is what John really intended.  After all, demons are liars anyway--and if such a situation really happened (unlikely), then they'd lie, wouldn't they?

So if this isn't what John intends, what does he mean?  1 Corinthians 12:10 lists "discerning of spirits" among other spiritual gifts of believers.  This can mean intuitively sensing the presence of an angel or demon.  Or, it can mean the ability to recognize people's false motivations and doctrines.

In this case, John says that any spirit that does not confess Jesus, or acknowledge that He has come in the flesh, is antichrist.  (Note--this is not The Antichrist, but simply means someone who purports to be a believer but who is really anti-Christ.  See also 1 John 2:18.)  Basically, John is saying that there will be many people who claim Christianity, yet whose teachings are far from the truth.  

For one, John says that the doctrine of incarnation is essential to real Christianity.  After all, if Christ had no flesh and blood, then how could He have shed His blood for us?  If there were no body, there would be no resurrection for Jesus or for us.  

John also says that a person must confess Jesus in order to be saved.  There are a lot of deceiving teachers out there today saying that a person doesn't have to confess Jesus in order to be saved--but that God just saves everybody, whether they believe in Jesus or not.  This is far from the truth.  1 John 2:22 (ESV) says:

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

Let there be no mistake, John says.  Those who reject Jesus are antichrist. Acts 4:12 says that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.  God doesn't save anyone just because they're good people, or because He wants to have mercy on everyone despite their rejection of His son.  Salvation is for those who confess Jesus as Lord.  Anyone who teaches otherwise is antichrist.

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God (1 John 4:16 ESV).

Anyone who would be saved must confess Christ as the Son of God.  Don't be deceived.  No one is saved because they are an "anonymous Christian" (a "good person" who is outside of the Christian fold).  Those who acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah incarnate, and that He is the Son of God who died for the sins of the world are saved, whether they're "good people" or not.  In fact, nobody is saved because they're "good," but because they call Jesus their Savior.

This is what John means by testing the spirits.  Make sure that the teaching you receive from pastors and teachers and authors is sound.  Don't accept it just because it came from some Christian publishing house or from the pulpit of a church that you trust.  Listen carefully in order to discern the truth.  And if the message contains error, reject it.  This is the discerning of spirits--knowing truth from falsehood.  I pray that you'll be discerning of the messages that you hear, and of the messages that you believe.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Snatched from the Fire

Today is the fourth day of our 47th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Zech 2-5; 1 John 3; Psalm 93.

Today is Thanksgiving Day in America--and today I'm thankful that our OT and NT scriptures go together, the one to shed light on the other.  Generally, it's the NT passage that illuminates the OT scripture.  This time, it's the other way around.

A quick reading of 1 John 3 can be very depressing, because it can leave you feeling like if you ever sin, you're probably not saved.  In verses 4-10 (HCSB), John writes:

Everyone who commits sin also breaks the law; sin is the breaking of law.  You know that He was revealed so that He might take away sins, and there is no sin in Him. Everyone who remains in Him does not sin; everyone who sins has not seen Him or known Him.
 Little children, let no one deceive you! The one who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous.  The one who commits sin is of the Devil, for the Devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose: to destroy the Devil’s works. Everyone who has been born of God does not sin, because His seed remains in him; he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God.  This is how God’s children—and the Devil’s children—are made evident.

John seems to set a standard to which no one can attain.  First, it's important to point out that John is talking about willful, repetitive, habitual, lifestyle sin--not the falling into momentary temptation that every Christian experiences.  Second, John gives a method of ensuring that the believer doesn't find himself descending into habitual wickedness.  That method is the word that we studied yesterday, and it's found in verse 6.  Remain  in Christ, and you won't fall into the kind of sin that proves you haven't truly been transformed.  

Still, this passage in 1 John can be a very frightening thing, causing even true believers to question their standing in Christ.  Our consciences convict us when Satan reminds us of all the things that we've done.  1 John 3:18-20 (HCSB) says:

Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action.  This is how we will know we belong to the truth and will convince our conscience in His presence, even if our conscience condemns us, that God is greater than our conscience, and He knows all things.

To shed light on all of this, we turn to Zechariah 3:1-9.  Here, the high priest Joshua represents all of God's people.  Satan accuses him of sin--and the accuser is correct.  "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)."  But see the solution to the problem:

 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, with Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.  The Lord said to Satan: “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! May the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Isn’t this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
 Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the Angel.  So the Angel of the Lord spoke to those standing before Him, “Take off his filthy clothes!” Then He said to him, “See, I have removed your guilt from you, and I will clothe you with splendid robes.”
 Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So a clean turban was placed on his head, and they clothed him in garments while the Angel of the Lord was standing nearby.
 Then the Angel of the Lord charged Joshua:  “This is what the Lord of Hosts says: If you walk in My ways and keep My instructions, you will both rule My house and take care of My courts; I will also grant you access among these who are standing here.
 “Listen, Joshua the high priest, you and your colleagues sitting before you; indeed, these men are a sign that I am about to bring My servant, the Branch.  Notice the stone I have set before Joshua; on that one stone are seven eyes. I will engrave an inscription on it”—this is the declaration of the Lord of Hosts—“and I will take away the guilt of this land in a single day."

Here, the OT passage sheds light on the NT scripture.  Anytime Satan accuses you of "not being good enough," because of what you've done, remind him that you've been purified by Jesus, that righteous Branch.  1 John 2:1-2 says:

My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One.  He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

Jesus has removed your guilt and atoned for your sins.  He has cleansed you and given you clean garments once again.  When you were in your sin, you were a burning stick, but you have been snatched from the fire, if you've given your life to Him.

Notice that this gift of purification is free, but once Joshua is purified, God has certain expectations of him.  Verse 6 says, "If you walk in My ways and keep My instructions, you will both rule My house and take care of My courts; I will also grant you access among these who are standing here (the court of Heaven)."  While salvation is free, the blessings and benefits of that salvation are contingent on obedience.  He expects us to live His commands.  1 John 3:23-24 (HCSB) says:

Now this is His command: that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another as He commanded us.  The one who keeps His commands remains in Him, and He in him. And the way we know that He remains in us is from the Spirit He has given us.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Today is the third day in our 47th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Haggai; Zechariah 1; 1 John 2; Psalm 138.

This morning, you're going to appreciate why I've named my blog, "Love the Word," because today I'm going to focus on just one word--the word remain.

Ten times in one chapter, John uses the word remain.  This really stands out in the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which translates words with the same Greek root by consistently using the English word remain.  Most other English translations use various words such as "abide, dwell, stay, and remain," and don't give the same effect.  I happened to be using the HCSB this morning, so the word remain really stood out to me.  Below, I've listed all the occasions that John uses this word in 1 John 2.

The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked.

10 The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.
14 I have written to you, children,
because you have come to know the Father.
I have written to you, fathers,
because you have come to know
the One who is from the beginning.
I have written to you, young men,
because you are strong,
God’s word remains in you,
and you have had victory over the evil one.

17 And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.

24 What you have heard from the beginning must remain in you. If what you have heard from the beginning remains in you, then you will remain in the Son and in the Father. 

27 The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you don’t need anyone to teach you. Instead, His anointing teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie; just as He has taught you, remain in Him.

28 So now, little children, remain in Him, so that when He appears we may have boldness and not be ashamed before Him at His coming. 

Because I am, as my wife says, a "word nerd," I couldn't resist digging into the etymology of this fascinating word remain.  At first, I thought it must come from a combination of re (which means "back, again") and main (which means "the principle thing").  If this were so, then to remain would be to return again to the principle thing.  This seemed to make sense to me, since remaining in Christ would involve re-maining, or re-centering yourself on the main thing in life, which is Jesus.

But then, after some research, I found that I was wrong.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word main comes from the Old English word maegn, which means "power, bodily force, efficacy."  This is a cognate of the Latin word magnus, which also means "great, powerful."  If remain stemmed from maegn and magnus, then remaining would mean "returning to your source of strength and power."  This would be a great definition, and it would fit these biblical passages.  However, this isn't the case.  Remain has a different root word altogether.

It turns out that the English word remain has its roots not in the Old English or Latin, but in ancient Greek.  The actual word that John uses, ten times in this one chapter, is a form of meno.  You can hear the English sound "main" in it, though the English meaning of "main" isn't the sense we get in the Greek.  This is what we call a false cognate--when words from two different languages appear to be related, but aren't really.  Main (power, principle, force) and meno aren't related at all.

The Greek verb meno means "I abide, stay, wait."  Thus, to re-main would mean "to wait again," or "return to your place of abiding."  

I like that.  If we remain in Christ, then we dwell in Him--over and over.  We keep returning to Christ, who is our home.  We wait on Him.  We stay with Him.

If the Greek meno and Old English maegn are false cognates, you may ask, "Are there any real cognates between meno and English words?"  Whew!  I thought you'd never ask.  Since you did, I've listed a few below:

The English words immanence, immanent, manor, mansion, manse, ménage, permanency, permanent, remain, remainder, and remanence all come from the Latin word manere, which itself is derived from the Greek word meno.

So, to remain in Christ, to remain in the light is to construct a mansion there and take up residence.  For God's Word to remain in you means that you become the permanent dwelling place for God's truth.  God's anointing remains in you when it is immanent within you--naturally part of you, and inherent part of your being.

You may say, "All that from one little word?"  

Yep--all that from one little word.  Now you can see why I love words so much.  They can convey so much with just a few syllables.

And more than loving words, I hope you can see why I "Love the Word."  I hope that you'll remain in The Word, and love much as I do.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christ and the Tao

Today is the second day in our 47th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Ezra 3-4; 1 John 1; Psalm 9.

Just a few days ago, I met a man who said that all religions are the same.  I didn't have time to probe deeply into this claim--I hope he meant that all Christian denominations point to Jesus, but I think he was talking about religions, and not denominations.  While there are similarities in all religions, there are also some important differences.  While all religions have a bit of the truth, only Jesus said that He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Today, we take a look at the claims that the apostle John made about Jesus, and how these claims compare to other religions.

I confess that I'm a big fan of John's gospel, and the epistles of John as well.  The authors of the three other (synoptic) gospels all take a historical look at Jesus, but nobody gets mystical like John does.  I love John's other-worldly approach, that must have appealed to people of more esoteric traditions.  Within John's culture of the ancient near East, Christianity had to deal with influences from Greek and Roman mystery religions and Judaism.  But, because of commerce and political connections with the East, John's culture was also familiar with Babylonian and Persian religions, as well as traditions from farther east.  Developing Christianity had to distinguish itself from all of these other ideas, if it was going to maintain its own identity.  Let's take a look at Christianity, compared with the Chinese religion/philosophy Taoism.

My Greek professor in seminary had been a missionary to China, and told us that many Chinese concepts have a Judeo-Christian influence.  (Click here to read a fascinating article, entitled "The Lamb of God Hidden in the Ancient Chinese Characters.")  For example, the Greek word for "way" is hodos.  Remember, Jesus said, "I am the Way" in John 14:6.  Early Christians were called "Followers of the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:23; 22:4)."  This Greek word hodos sounds very much like the Chinese word tao (prounounced "dow"), which also means "way."  Taoism is the Chinese philosophy/religion that had its beginnings in the late fourth century B.C., with its founder, Lao Tzu.  Scholars debate whether Lao Tzu was a real person or not, but the book that bears his name, the Tao Te Ching, teaches the "way" of Taoism.

Many of the teachings of Lao Tzu are completely compatible with the teachings of Jesus.  In fact, they are so compatible that some see Taoism as a sort of Chinese proto-Christianity, with Jesus as a fulfillment of the Tao.  However, there are also major differences between Christianity and Taoism that make it imperative that we separate the two.  Christ and the Tao may share some overlapping principles, yet the two are very definitely different.

Lao Tzu taught that the ultimate principle of the universe, of life itself, was called the Tao.  (If modern readers want to get a picture of what Taoism looked like, just watch Star Wars.  George Lucas based his idea of "The Force" on Taoism.)  The power of the Tao is called Te (pronounced "day").  It flows through everything, both governing and responding to the movements of all living things.  As Star Wars puts it, "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."

Of course, in all his visions and revelations, John never foresaw Star Wars.  But he did know about Taoism, which portrayed ultimate reality as an impersonal force.  Just as Jews in Jesus' day had encountered reincarnation through extensive trade with the East, so they were also aware of Taoism.  Religious syncretism was a real danger. So in today's passage, John addresses one of the areas of possible misunderstanding, creating a distinction between Christ and the Tao.  John writes:

The life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:2-3 ESV).

John says that the universal principle is more than simply a great force.  In verses 2-3, John says that this Eternal Life that we call Christ, "in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28 ESV)," who is the Way, who is the Truth, He is Life itself.  Yet He is also a person, made manifest in Jesus Christ.  In chapter 1, verse 14 of his gospel (ESV), John writes, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."  We need to know that the God of the universe is more than an impersonal "Force," or Tao.  God is Love...and not just a principle called love...God is love incarnate.  

John 1:4-5, 9 continues to describe this Life, this Light, who came into the world:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it... The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 

In 1 John 1:5-10, John talks about Jesus the Light again:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

This discussion of whether there is any light in darkness, or whether there is any darkness in light, reminds me of the Taoist symbol, the Yin-Yang.  Yin is the dark principle, representing certain aspects the universe, and yang is the light principle, representing opposites.  Swirling together, they do not compete or try to overcome one another.  Instead, Taoism sees yin and yang in concert with one another.  There's even a bit of yin in the yang, and a bit of yang in the yin.  The key in Taoism is a balance between these two principles.  (Here's where Star Wars gets it wrong, because as much as they talk about balance in The Force, the Jedi and Sith are in fierce competition with one another, each trying to destroy the other.)

John says that there's one more set of opposites in this light-dark dichotomy: good and evil.  Contrary to the Taoist concept, John said that God is 100% light, and in Him there is no darkness.  You might say that both negative and positive, female and male, night and day, passive and active, intuitive and logical, cold and hot, soft and hard are all part of God.  But when you factor in good and evil (which Taoism is a bit fuzzy on), God is not a mixture of light and dark.  The two are incompatible, not blended.  And light is supreme.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5 ESV).

Another thing you could add to this list of dark and light is sin and righteousness.  Christians do not seek a balance between these two things in our lives.  Instead, we want to eradicate the darkness of sin from our hearts.  We can't do this ourselves--only the true Light of Jesus can drive the darkness away.  John says that if we confess our sin, our darkness, to Jesus, He will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  This means that He wants to remove even the speck of darkness that may still be floating around in our lives.  Just as Jesus is in the light, we should also walk in the light, without allowing ourselves to be penetrated by darkness.  

So, there's our little lesson in the Tao for today--only to say that while there may be similarities between this Chinese religion/philosophy and Christianity, they are definitely not the same thing.  There are differences, and those differences are pretty glaring.

When you encounter someone who says, "All religions are pretty much the same thing," don't swallow the pill that they're trying to give you.  Other religions may have areas of agreement with Christianity, but they certainly are not compatible with what the entirety of what Jesus teaches.  John saw the doctrinal influence of other religions creeping into Christianity in his day, and he made sure to clarify those areas of similarity and difference.  Believers today need to know their Bibles, and be prepared to do the same.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Second Chance

Today is the first day in our 47th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

  •  Ezra 1-2; John 21
  •  Ezra 3-4; 1 John 1; Psalm 92
  •  Haggai; Zechariah 1; 1 John 2; Ps 138
  •  Zech 2-5; 1 John 3; Psalm 93
  •  Zech 6-8; 1 John 4
This morning, as I considered what to write about John 21, I realized I'd already written it.  So I'm re-posting a blog entry from May 2, 2011.  Blessings to you today.

"Peter Jumps into the Water" by James Tissot

Spirit & Truth # 224
“A Second Chance”
By Rev. Greg Smith

Oops, The Book of Blunders tells about police who “stopped a teen-age girl in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, after complaints that a car had been seen going around her neighborhood in reverse for some time. The girl told police that her parents had let her use the car, but she had put too much mileage on it. ‘I was just trying to unwind some of it,’ she said.”  Sometimes, especially when we’ve failed, we’d all like to unwind life and go back to the way things used to be.  Peter felt the same way.
After failing miserably by denying Jesus, seeing the crucifixion and witnessing the resurrection, he must not have known what to expect next.  He wanted to unwind the miles and go back to the way things were before he became a disciple, when he’d been a fisherman.  “I’m going fishing,” he says in John 21.  The other disciples go with him, but that night they catch nothing. Peter wants a second chance at the old life—but as the philosopher said, “you never step into the same river twice.”  Things always change.
Jesus appears on shore, but they don’t recognize Him.  The Master tells them to throw the nets on the other side of the boat, which must remind them of the incident on Lake Gennesaret (Luke 5:1-11), when the same thing happened and they hauled in a miraculous catch.  Once again, though it makes no sense, they obey, and God provides a second astonishing harvest of fish.  This shows that when you’ve made mistakes, while there are no second chances at going back to the way things used to be, you do get a second chance at showing Jesus that you can be obedient to Him. 
Finally recognizing his Lord, Peter does a strange thing.  He puts on his clothes and hops out of the boat, swimming to shore to meet Jesus.  Now, when’s the last time you put on your clothes to go swimming?  Usually you take something off.  I don’t think Peter thought he was going swimming.  He’d just seen Jesus reenact the miraculous catch of fish—perhaps he expected Jesus to let him walk on water, like he’d done before in Matthew 14:22-33.  But once again, you never step into the same river twice.  When you’ve messed up, you can’t go back to the way things used to be.  But you can know restoration.
Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and three times Peter said, “Lord, you know I love you.”  Each time, Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.”  For each time Peter had denied Jesus, the Lord restored him.  Peter couldn’t regain the old times, but he could know Jesus’ forgiveness and a fresh start.  The same is true with you.  No matter what you’ve done, there is a new beginning with Jesus.  The trick is being willing to jump in with both feet.  Do you need a fresh start today?  Take Jesus’ hand, and begin again.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Angels, God's Secret Agents

Today is the final day in our 46th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Daniel 10-12; John 20.

There's a lot that I could write about, from our scripture readings today.  Generally, I like to write about the common themes that emerge between our OT and NT writings, if a common theme exists.  In this case, the common theme is found in Daniel 12:2-3 and the whole chapter of John 20--the theme of resurrection.  But, since I've so recently written a bit about resurrection in my post "Can a Christian Believe in Reincarnation?" I'll leave that subject alone for now.  Let's just say that we've got a lot to look forward to, if we're believers in Christ!

I could write about end-time prophecy and talk about the 70 Weeks of Daniel that we already read about in Daniel 9.  Or, I could talk about the parallels between the Greek despot Antiochus Epiphanes, who is mentioned in Daniel 11:21-35; and Antichrist, who is discussed in Daniel 11:36-45.  

But instead, I think I'll focus on the spiritual battle that unfolds in Daniel 10:4-11:1 (ESV).  I'll give it to you in its entirety.

On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river (that is, the Tigris)  I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist.  His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude.  And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision, but a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves.  So I was left alone and saw this great vision, and no strength was left in me. My radiant appearance was fearfully changed, and I retained no strength.  Then I heard the sound of his words, and as I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground.

 And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees.  And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling.  Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.  The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia,  and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”

When he had spoken to me according to these words, I turned my face toward the ground and was mute.  And behold, one in the likeness of the children of man touched my lips. Then I opened my mouth and spoke. I said to him who stood before me, “O my lord, by reason of the vision pains have come upon me, and I retain no strength.  How can my lord's servant talk with my lord? For now no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.”

 Again one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me.  And he said, “O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.”  Then he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come.  But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince.  And as for me, in the first year of Darius the Mede, I stood up to confirm and strengthen him.

This short passage of scripture tells us a lot about angels, demons, and spiritual warfare.  First, we get a fantastic description of a Cherub, which is a warrior angel.  Unlike the six-winged Seraphim (Isaiah 6:2), whose primary job is worshiping God, Cherubim are chiefly warriors.  Billy Graham calls them "God's secret agents."  Though Daniel was the only one in his group who actually saw this Cherub, others who were around him had some sense of dread that made them flee.  Daniel alone saw the heavenly being, who was so fearful that it caused him to pass out.

Then the angel revives Daniel and tells him about the spiritual-political struggle in which he, the angel, has been engaged.  We learn that the heavenly realms have an interest in worldly politics, and even engage in warfare to determine earthly outcomes.  The "prince of Persia" with whom this angel contended, and against whom Michael the archangel came to his aid, is not an earthly prince but a demonic monarch.  As Michael is described as the guardian of Israel, we get the sense that each nation has angels assigned to guard it.  Likewise, satanic strongholds exist in every country.  Celestial battles take place as Lucifer and his angels try to gain supremacy over the forces of Heaven.  But God is almighty, and His armies will always be victorious!

Next, we see the great care that the angel takes to encourage and strengthen Daniel.  

“O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you...Fear not." 

Again one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me.  And he said, “O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.”

And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.” 

What great encouragement it is to know that angels are concerned with the strengthening of God's people!  I've known people who have told me that they have received a touch from an angel.  Angel touches encourage and empower God's people during times of difficulty.  Just as the angel encouraged Elijah in 1 Kings 19:3-8, providing supernatural sustenance and strength, so the angel nourished Daniel with a touch and words of grace.  In the same way, God's secret agents can empower you during your times of need.

Finally, the angel functions not only as a warrior and caregiver, but as a supernatural messenger.  God wanted to reveal His truth to Daniel, and an angel was the bearer of His word.  Throughout the Bible, angels appear to give prophecies, visions, warnings, encouragements, and explanations to God's people.  

How wonderful it is to know that our paths are guarded by unseen forces, that when we're afraid or weak we can be empowered by heavenly hands, and that magnificent messengers are ready to fly to your side with a word from God, at a time when you most need it.  Thank God for His heavenly warriors, His spiritual caregivers, His speakers of truth to our lives!  Thank God for His angels!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Feet Striking Stones

Today is the fourth day in our 46th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Daniel 7-9; John 19; Psalm 91.

During the Gulf War, my dad (who was in the Army at the time) asked his chaplain what churches could do to help soldiers overseas.  The chaplain answered that clergy in war zones frequently run out of Bibles to give to soldiers, either because the supply is so limited or because the demand is too high.  So Dad organized a fundraiser to purchase camouflage Bibles for the troops.  On the inside cover of each one, he put a scripture that is well-loved by soldiers everywhere.  In the ESV, Psalm 91 reads:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler

    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,

    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
    and see the recompense of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—

    the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you

    to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;

    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

 What a beautiful scripture!  What an admirable sentiment!  After all, we just got finished reading about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego being rescued out of the fiery furnace.  There's just one problem.

Believers do die.  Soldiers who had these New Testaments in their pockets were killed.  This psalm isn't a magical talisman to protect people from harm.  (Yes, I've seen this verse worn as protective amulets and talismans before.  What a bizarre way to use the Word of God, which forbids witchcraft!)

Even the three Hebrews acknowledged that believers aren't always protected, as they stood before Nebuchadnezzar, saying, 

"...Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up."
(Daniel 3:17b-18 ESV)

Satan wants people to think of Psalm 91 as a universal promise of God, so that we'll get ourselves into trouble by presuming God's physical protection when in fact that might not be the case.  How do I know this?  Because Matthew 4:5-7 ESV says:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Jesus' answer, not to put God to the test, is a reminder to us not to take this psalm as a universal promise or good luck charm.  The devil promised Jesus that this scripture would make Him invincible.  Yet the crucifixion shows that the most horrifying things imaginable can happen to the most righteous and faithful of people.  

So how do we understand this?  Jesus gives us a clue in John 19:10-11a ESV.  Beaten and bound, he stands before Pilate.  

So Pilate said to him, “...Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”  
Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above."

In other words, everything that happens to us goes through the filter of God's permissive will.  Sometimes the angels bear us up so that we don't dash our feet against stones.  Sometimes we tread the serpents under our feet.  Sometimes we make it through the fiery furnace.  But sometimes we fall.  We get bitten.  We get burned.  We get crucified.  That's life...and death.  It happens to all.

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44b ESV).

What, then, do we make of this Psalm 91?  If it's not a universal promise for divine protection, then what is it?  It's a reminder that God sometimes protects our physical lives in ways that are unseen to us.  It's also an encouragement that God shelters our spiritual lives from demonic forces that may have names such as "Terror of the Night," "Arrow That Flies by Day," "Pestilence That Stalks in Darkness," and "Destruction That Wastes at Noonday."  What horrifying demonic names!  But God delivers us from the powers of darkness.  This psalm uses physical words to describe a spiritual salvation.

Psalm 91 also reminds us to dwell, to abide, in God.  It talks about God's shade, refuge, and protection like wings.  Thus it says what kind of relationship we can have with a God who loves us so much that He covers us and cares for us.  I hope that today and every day, you'll dwell in God.  I pray that you'll abide in His sheltering presence, and that you'll trust Him for your salvation.  

Yes, bad things do happen to good people.  But whether blissful or painful, all of life is under God's authority.  And while random things do happen to us all the time, nothing that befalls us is outside of God's ability to control.