We live in trying and interesting times. In the midst of enormous political and social polarization in the United States, we are now dealing with the announcement of a global pandemic. The reactions have ranged from virtual panic and hoarding of toilet paper to mocking and distrust.
Yesterday, a group of people I gather with once a month under the auspices of Reasons to Believe, a ministry that blends science and faith. We were live with Anjeanette (AJ) Roberts, who is a research scholar with RTB.
Timing was perfect. AJ is a virologist. She studies viruses for a living. She was one of the small group of people who studied the SARS virus in the early 2000’s at the National Institute of Health. SARS is a coronavirus, the same type of virus as COVID-19, the one we are dealing with now. She was on the ground floor of dealing with SARS, so she is in a unique position to provide wisdom and guidance.
I took notes as best I could yesterday and will pass on what I was able to capture in them. The facts are the facts, but how we respond to them is more important than the facts, themselves. As Christians, we need to be guided by the commands of our Lord to love one another, to love our neighbors.
Politics has a way of creeping into and tainting everything. We should not allow politics to color the facts or affect how we follow the clear direction of Scripture. Jesus is the way and the truth. We should not ignore truth in favor of political agendas or deviate from the way, which involves taking up our crosses and following Jesus, loving others as He demonstrated his love for us.
With that said, which is my paraphrasing of the guidance AJ Roberts gave us at the end of her presentation on the current state of COVID-19 in the world and in the US, I will summarize the facts she presented as best I can recall them. It’s important to note that the landscape is rapidly changing as the virus spreads around the world and in the US. In fact, she said the situation is changing on a daily and even an hourly basis.
If the phrase, “mic drop”, had been coined in the First Century, Jesus would have cornered the market. One of those mic drop moments occurred the day his ministry began.
Picture this. Jesus walks into the church (synagogue) where he grew up. Everyone knows him well. They all knew him because he grew up in the community. Nazareth was a small-town place, so they knew him very well.
Jesus wasn’t a stranger to the church. It was the church where he grew up and went to Sunday school. He was still very much part of the church community as an adult. When he attended church on that Sunday morning and stood up to read, he was doing what he had done many, many times before. Only this time would be different.
Jesus had been making quite the stir lately. His cousin, John the Baptist, was well-known for his unrelenting, uncompromising message about the coming of the one, the Messiah. (Luke 3:4-6)
Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.
Cousin John was literally quoting Isaiah 40:3-5 as if it were coming true out there in the countryside, outside of town where he spent most of his time. Crowds of people made their way out to hear him, but he wasn’t very popular among the church leaders. In fact, they rather despised him, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. He even called them a “brood of vipers”!
Until recently, Jesus seemed more respectable than that. Though they were cousins, it wasn’t like they hung out together. They were each keenly devoted to their Hebrew lessens, Bible reading and participation in church from a young age, but John seemed to “go off the rails” as he got older.
John the Baptist was out there in the countryside baptizing people. Lots of people. He was attracting quite the crowd talking about one who was coming who was more powerful than he. Not that he had any power, really. That was the crazy part: he lived like a homeless person, eating bugs and shunning even the modest comforts that most people had become used to.
And John was attracting a less than reputable crowd too, including tax collectors. Tax collectors were sell-outs to the Roman occupiers, collecting Roman taxes from the people, often collecting more than they should, lining their own pockets. They were a unsavory and despised lot. Tax collectors were worse than the Romans. The fact that John was attracting tax collectors didn’t speak well for his efforts.
But, the common people loved John. They practically worshiped him. This was particularly galling to the faithful leaders in the churches who had given their lives in service to the Lord. Who did he think he was?!
Of course, many were the so-called modern prophets who came, claiming to be the Messiah spoken of old, stirring up the crowds, creating a tenuous hope that was always dashed when the Romans got tired of the charade. John was more or less harmless out there where he had retreated.
John was just like the ones who came before him, though his message was different. He was bold like the others, but in a different way. He wasn’t stirring people up against the Romans, like the others did. In fact, John seemed more interested in criticizing the religious community than the Romans, which hardly endeared him to them.
When Jesus attended church that day, the word was all over Galilee that Jesus had gone out to meet John, and it was apparently quite a meeting by the reports that were circulating. Jesus even let John baptize him. In fact, he insisted on it, and this is where things got a little sideways, if you could believe the reports.
People said they heard a loud voice. Some said it was the voice of God. Others said that a dove swooped down and landed right on his head. People were saying Jesus was a prophet. Some seemed to think he was the Messiah that John had been talking about. It seems that Jesus had gotten caught up in John’s delusion, and he was starting to believe it.
When Jesus stood up to read that day, these things were going through their minds. They knew something was up, but they weren’t at all prepared for what he was going to do.
“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 30:16)
This is the way the English Standard Version translates Deuteronomy 30:16, the verse of the day today in a Bible I use. I highlight the phrase that jumped out at me today, the one I have been contemplating since I read it this morning.
When I went looking for some deeper meaning, I found the other translations take it in a slightly different direction:
“For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws….” (NIV)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments….” (NASB)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments….” (NKJV)
Only one the English Standard Version instructs us to obey the commandments of God “by loving the Lord….”. Most of the time I believe we think about loving God by obeying His commands – not obeying God’s commands by loving Him. It’s a subtle difference, but it piqued my curiosity further.
I also discovered that the Hebrew word for love in this verse is “aheb”, which means (not surprisingly) “to love”. But it dawned me as I looked at the other verses in which that word is used that it seems to mean to love with affection. Abraham loved Isaac (Gen. 22:2); Isaac loved Rebekah (Gen. 24:67); Isaac loved Esau (Gen. 25:28)(more than Jacob); Rebekah loved Jacob(Gen. 25:28) (more than Esau); Isaac loved the “savory meat” that Esau provided (Gen. 27:4); and Jacob loved Rachel (more than Rachel’s sisters that his father-in-law insist he marry first) (Gen. 28:18).
Clearly, all of these uses of the word for love used in the commandment in Deuteronomy to love God imply a kind of personal affection, even to the exclusion of affection for other things (or people). Thus, we are commanded to have affection for God and to walk in His ways and keep His commandments: or, as the ESV translates, to obey God’s commands by loving Him (with affection).
The real light bulb moment today, though, wasn’t in the breaking down of this verse, but in its juxtaposition with my daily Bible reading, which is taking me currently through Numbers (after having left the detailed instructions about the Tent of Meeting in Leviticus). So many rules for the priestly duties of the Levites in connection with the Tent of Meeting and Ark of the Testimony and the altar where endless sacrifices were to be offered up have me wanting to get through these passages quickly!
And they have me asking, why? I know… they foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Lev. 9:22; Heb. 9:22) The writer of Hebrews tells us Christ has appeared, now, as the ultimate high priest, entering once for all into the holy places, securing for us eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11-13) All the sacrifices commanded by God in Leviticus, Numbers and so on were just copies of heavenly things: “For Christ has entered, not into the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God in our behalf.” (Heb. 9:24)
All the many sacrifices offered by the Levites at God’s commands as God’s chosen people wandered in the wilderness, carrying with them the Tent of Meeting and all of its accouterments, were just copies of the one sacrifice, “once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:26)
As I read through these passages in the Old Testament, I find myself asking, “Why?” as if I were one of them, not knowing anything about the plans of God that were devised before the foundation of the world. What were they thinking as they did these things?
I am finding some solace today in the increasingly polarized world in which we live. I can always find some balm in humor! Over the last half decade or more, I have stepped outside the political fray psychologically, taking a seat in the audience and observing the circus. I vacillate from horror to sadness, but there is always humor to which I can turn for solace.
I have not checked the facts, by the way. Does it matter anymore? Doubt everything. That’s just easier!
I have been meaning to “collect” a bunch of articles and memes in pairs that are the exact opposites of each other. For instance, one article might say, “Trump beats up little girls!” While, another article might say, “Hillary Clinton approves of beating up little girls!”
When I start looking for these supremely ironic pairings, I begin noticing them often, but I haven’t found the energy to do the collecting. Democrat says, “Scientists have proven the world is black”; Republican says, “Scientists have been debunked: the world is white.” Each posting is made with the certainty of inalienable truth.
Most people respond with hearty signals of knowing acknowledgment, replying according to the identities and protocols of their particular form of group think. Though one or two brave souls might dare to post rebuttal, this modern ritualistic dance on social media is practiced to perpetuate and strengthen what we already think, gaining the knowing approval of the people “who matter” in a series of empty triumphs over the time and energy it takes to be candid and introspective about truth.
The truth is that there is plenty of rebuttal to be found if one is simply looking for it. For every black, there is a white. It’s easy, of course, to get lost in the myriad shades of grey. And, perhaps, that’s the real problem of modern (postmodern) people. We fear getting lost and sucked down in the shades of grey. If we can “rise” above that gravitational force of contrary facts, virtually skimming the surface lest we get sucked under the waves, we can maintain our preferred position.
Might I dare suggest another course? The shades of grey are difficult to navigate, no doubt, but it isn’t all black and white. Life isn’t that simple.
That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t exist in a postmodern world. Truth is still truth. It just isn’t as simplistic as we prefer it to be.
“[T]hese figures … underline an important point about the vast racial and ethnic diversity of the evangelical strain of Christianity — a diversity often neglected in American conversations about faith.”
Evangelicals make up a little over 25% of the Christians in the world, and only 14% of the Evangelicals in the world live in the United States (993 million of 660 million evangelicals worldwide).
Let that sink in.
Let’s take another step back. Let’s gain a little perspective. Let’s look at American Evangelical Christianity for a moment from the larger perspective of the world.
More Evangelicals live in China and India, taken together, than in the United States (66 million and 28 million totaling 94 million). Almost one-third (32%) of all Evangelicals in the world live in Asia (213 million). Another 28% of Evangelicals live in Africa (185 million), doubling the number of Evangelicals in the United States! More Evangelicals live now in South America (123 million) that the United States.
These numbers show that American Evangelical Christianity is dwarfed by the number of Evangelicals worldwide, and the gap is widening.
Sean McDowell did his doctoral dissertation on the fate of the Apostles of Jesus. Legend has it that they all died as martyrs, except for the Apostle John, because they witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus and were willing to attest to it with their own deaths. But is that really true? That is the question Sean McDowell set out to answer with scholarly research and analysis.
It’s a common understanding. It’s been my understanding, more or less, going back many years, though we may not have hard historical evidence to support what happened to all the Apostles. Peter and Paul are pretty well known and attested. They died martyrs’ deaths, but what about the others?
I am reading through the Bible again this year, but I am reading it in chronological order using the You Version Bible app. I am not sure how old I was when I realized that the books of the Old Testament are not in chronological order and that events in one book overlap events in other books. But that isn’t the point of this blog piece.
I am in Leviticus right now. The struggle is real! So many laws! So many times the text goes over the same things, or so it seems, but I am trying to maintain focus, and I am asking the Spirit for help in understanding what is going on, what God is saying, what He is foreshadowing, etc.
The last couple of days I have been reading the instructions for all the various types of offerings (animal sacrifices if we want to be blunt), and I have just gotten into laws for ceremonial cleansing for various “leprosies” and other “unclean” conditions. It can seem so mundane, archaic, maybe even naive and unenlightened to a modern mind.
For instance, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that all kinds of skin conditions were labeled leprosy. When we read in the English Standard Version about leprosy in houses, we realize that it’s probably talking about mold. (Some translations call it mold in fact.) The vocabulary and understanding of the Bronze Age mind was limited. It’s no wonder the Richard Dawkins of the world, reading these passages with a 21st Century mind, scoff at first blush.
But, underneath that temptation to scoff is a heavy dose of pride and lack of appreciation for what God is doing in the information and instruction that He was inspiring Moses to write in these passages. God was speaking to them in their language and according to their understanding to set the stage for a global plan that would be unveiled over many centuries and millennia that, even now in the 21st Century, is unfolding and being revealed.
Jesus is the key that unlocks the door to the Old Testament Scriptures.
I don’t claim to have all the answers or all the insights, though I am reminded of the words of Jesus to the Pharisees: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40) For the scoffer, Jesus might have said, “You don’t study the Scriptures because you think that they are mythical superstition that has no life. Those Scriptures testify about me, and you refuse to come to me to have life!”
Jesus is the key that unlocks the door to the Old Testament Scriptures. But, I still struggle sometimes to find the relevance, significance or meaning in some of these passages. I’ll be honest. I am sure I’m not alone.
One thought comes back to me today as was I reading about the ceremonial cleansing rituals. A thought that goes back many years, but with a new twist today. It has occurred to me before that many of the cleansing laws, laws about what animals they can eat and not eat, and so on, acted like in place of our modern knowledge of germs, disease and other health dangers that the people in that time simply didn’t know. I have long been struck by that thought, but I had never made the additional connection that strikes me with significance today.