Prophecy and fulfillment

We people move one direction in time, from past to present and from present to future. Sometimes we forget that God sees all history at a glance and that he can jump into any time as he chooses. When we speak of prophecy, our descriptions sometimes miss the mark because we have forgotten that God is timeless.

We say that God knows everything, including the future. Of course God knows everything, but the future is not something he foreknows as much as something he already sees. Worse, sometimes people picture God fulfilling prophecy as if he was checking items off a list: “Let’s see—born of a virgin? check. Born in Bethlehem? check. Honored by Gentiles? check. Called out of Egypt? Let’s see how I can get him into Egypt so I can bring him home again.”

When God spoke to the prophets about future events, God was describing things he had already experienced. He never had to figure out how to fulfill a prophecy. As far as God was concerned, he was talking about things that had already happened. When God described Judas’ betrayal of Christ, he was not foreordaining that Christ would be betrayed by a certain man. He was telling what had already happened, the betrayal that Judas chose freely to perform. David and Isaiah wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus, and Jesus predicted his own crucifixion, but the priests and elders did not think of sending Jesus to the cross until Governor Pilate offered them a choice—to free Jesus or to free a terrorist named Barabbas. When the crowd chose Barabbas, they then began demanding that Jesus be sent to the cross, which was to have been the execution of Barabbas.

The focus of the Old Testament prophecies was always the rescue mission performed by Jesus. Trying to predict our future based on Biblical prophecies is pointless, not because the prophecies are unreliable, but because they have already been fulfilled. What of Judgment Day? That Day will come, as hurricanes and earthquakes remind us, but the propheciesabout that Day were met nearly two thousand years ago. As the Son of God was hanging on a cross, the sun went dark and the earth shook, even as the prophets had described. The Father’s judgment was poured on Jesus that day, which is why Christians need not fear the coming Judgment Day. Our judgment and our rescue have already been accomplished.

The book of Revelation describes a battle at a place called Armageddon. That name, Armageddon, means the heights of Megiddo. Megiddo is an ancient city built upon a plain. Several key battles were fought upon that plain, including the battle in which King Josiah was killed. The picture of all the nations of the world gathering to fight on the heights of Megiddo (which do not exist) is an image of the world-wide rebellion of sinners. That rebellion began in Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. It still rages today. It will end when Jesus appears in glory, and it will end without a bomb exploding or a shot being fired. That is the case, not because of some future event, but because of the victory Jesus won over sin and evil while nailed to the cross.

All the prophecies of the Bible are fulfilled in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. If he should appear in glory this afternoon to raise the dead and call all people to judgment, no one could say to him, “But wait! You can’t do this yet! Something else has to happen first!” For this reason, Christians prepare themselves for the glorious appearance of Christ every day, even while we make plans for tomorrow and next year and the more distant future. We have one foot in each world—we live in this world and deal with it, while we also are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We read the New Testament to learn about Jesus. We also read the Old Testament to learn about Jesus. The sacrifices and holidays of the Old Testament were lessons about Jesus. Moses and the prophets wrote about Jesus. Even the commandments of God are descriptions of the perfect, sinless life Jesus lived for our redemption. It’s all about Jesus, and for us, all the news is good news. J.

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The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)

As I continue working on a book about the parables of Jesus, interpreting those parables by the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, I continue to discover new treasures in the Word of God. Consider, for example, the parable of the persistent widow:

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” On other occasions Jesus compared himself to a thief; in this parable he compares himself to “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” A widow repeatedly approached this judge, begging for justice. Because of her persistence, the judge eventually decides to answer her plea “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Jesus concludes, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Of course Jesus intends to contrast the goodness of God with the evil of a judge who neither fears God nor respects man. Judges should fear God; they should do their work faithfully, knowing that God is watching them. They should do their work fairly, granting justice to all people, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female. Withholding justice from a widow because she can neither afford to bribe the judge nor threaten him with any harm would be wrong. God, on the other hand, can be trusted to do the right thing all the time. God can neither be bribed nor threatened. When we pray to God, we have no power over him. All we have going for us in our prayers is his command to pray and his promise to hear and answer our prayers.

God wants us to pray. He does not need our prayers. He knows everything about us, including what we need and what we want and what is best for us. He does not need advice or instruction from us. Jesus reminds us why we pray with his sample prayer, which begins with the words “Our Father.” God wants us to approach him confidently, as little children on earth turn to their fathers, expecting good things from them.

At the same time, God wants our prayers to be meaningful. “When you pray,” Jesus taught, “do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Persistent prayer is not vacuous prayer, speaking words without considering what they mean or to whom they are addressed. We cannot impress God by our prayers, so we need not try. A child cannot overpower a father with many words, persuading the father to do as the child wants even though what the child wants will harm the child. So also, God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers does not mean that we have magic power to make him do as we want. He is wiser than us and more knowledgeable. If we ask for something harmful, he loves us too much to grant us what we ask.

Imagine, though, spending day after day with someone you love while that person refuses to say a word to you. Think of the pain that silence would cause you. Often we treat God this way. We do not speak to him at all, either to ask for anything for ourselves and for others, nor to thank him for any good thing he has given us, nor to confess our sins and beg for his forgiveness. God encourages us to do all these things, and more: he invites us to praise him. He does not need our praise—flattery accomplishes nothing with God—but we need to praise God in order to remind ourselves how good he is and how blessed we are that he loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

So Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who finally obtains justice from an uncaring judge. Because this story is labeled a parable, the secrets of the kingdom should reveal more from the story than an exhortation to pray. Indeed, much more is happening in this story. For as Jesus compared himself to a thief, robbing us out of the hands of the devil, he now compares himself to a corrupt judge. Jesus truly is the Judge who will rule on our eternal home. Sinners will be locked out of the kingdom, while those who are pure and flawless will be welcomed into the kingdom and called children of God.

Were Jesus purely just and fair, he would lock us out of his kingdom. We have sinned; we do not deserve a place in heaven. But Jesus is unfair to us, not to our harm but to our benefit. Jesus judges that we are sinless because he covers our sins with his righteousness. Jesus judges that we are flawless because he has paid in full our debt for sin. Jesus judges that we are worthy to live in his kingdom—even to be called the children of God—because He, the Son of God, took our place and our punishment so we could receive the rewards he earned.

We have adversaries—not worldly foes, but spiritual enemies. We need protection from the devil, from the sinful world around us, and from the sin still within us. We persistently confess our sins and ask God to protect us from our enemies. God answers swiftly—so swiftly that he has finished answering our prayers before we reached the “Amen.” Christ has already paid our penalty. On the cross he fought our enemies and defeated them. Even the final enemy, death, has been defeated by Jesus. God has not delayed; he has given us all that we need and far more good things than we ever deserved.

“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Without faith, no one can receive the benefits of the exchange that Jesus offers. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. Our faith is not a work that earns God’s grace; it is a gift, a result of God’s grace. Jesus asks whether or not he will find faith, not in despair that all faith will be quenched, but as a reminder that he will be seeking faith when he sits on his Judgment throne. Those approaching the throne of Judgment with faith in Jesus will be welcomed into his kingdom, an inheritance prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). Those approaching the throne demanding justice, demanding to get what they deserve, will receive such justice. They will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Jesus does not want to send anyone into that fire. He died to rescue all people. But those who refuse the gift of the unfair Judge truly will receive the justice they deserve rather than the gift the Judge offers them.

 

The parable of weeds in the field

The Day of the Lord is another name for Judgment Day, or the Day of Resurrection, or the Dawn of the New Creation. The prophets spoke frequently about the Day of the Lord, describing its coming with the darkening of the sun, the shaking of the earth, and the judgment of God upon sinners. In one sense, that great Day of the Lord is still to come, when Jesus reveals his glory, raises the dead, and judges all people. In another sense, the Day of the Lord was fulfilled when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. For three hours the sun did not shine. At the death of Jesus the earth shook. God’s judgment on sinners was poured out on sinners so sinners could be redeemed and set free from the punishment we deserve.

Jesus spoke many parables about the Day of the Lord before the day when redemption was accomplished on the cross. His parable of the weeds—one of the two parables Jesus explained to his disciples—concerns the Day of the Lord. This parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30, and the explanation Jesus gives is in Matthew 13:36-43.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a man who sows good seed in his field. Later, an enemy sows weeds in the same field. The servants of the man offer to pull the weeds, but the farmer says no—he fears that they will damage the good plants while pulling the weeds. “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:30).

Jesus explains that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man—that is, Jesus himself. The field is the world, and the good seed is children of the kingdom—those who believe in Jesus, those who know and trust the secrets of the kingdom. The weeds are sons of the evil one, planted by the devil. The harvest is the close of the age—the Day of the Lord—and the reapers are angels. “He who has ears,” Jesus concludes, “Let him hear” (Matthew 13:43).

The field is the world; the field is not the Church. Hypocrites are found at times within the Church, and Jesus provided a process for removing from the congregation people who sin and refuse to repent of their sins (Matthew 18:15-18). They are removed if they refuse to repent, but they are treated as mission opportunities—as pagans or tax collectors. (The one Gospel containing this procedure is written by a former tax collector, and we remember how Jesus treated him!) The Church is not in the business of removing sinners from the world. Instead the Church exists in the world to change sinners. Christians do not weed sinners out of the world. Instead, Christians warn sinners of their danger of judgment, using the Law of God to call sinners to repentance. To those sinners who repent, the Church promises forgiveness and eternal life through the redemption of Jesus Christ.

God created good people, sinless and pure. The devil brought temptation into the world and so created sinners. Unlike weeds in a field, though, sinners can be changed. Without redemption through Jesus, the entire field is covered with weeds, without a single plant that is good. Through the redemption of Jesus, weeds become good plants. On the Day of the Lord, they will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. But first the weeds will be removed from the field. That removal is not the work of Christians—angels will separate the lost from the saved. They will carry the sinners away “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), but “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We know the secret—we are righteous, but not through our efforts. We are righteous through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” In other words, pay attention! The coming Day of the Lord reminds us of our need to repent, to believe the gospel, and to trust all of God’s promises. When we do these things, the forgiveness of God enables us to live holy and righteous lives. We are not yet perfect, not in this lifetime, but in the new creation our righteousness will be complete. Then we will indeed shine like the sun, as Jesus promises. J.

 

Jesus Christ, identity thief

Earlier this month I heard an interesting sermon upon God’s commandment not to steal. The first part was rather predictable, listing the many ways we rob each other of money, of property, of value, and of time. Most people can probably make a list of the way these things have been stolen from them, and the more honest people can make a similar list of the way these things have been stolen by them.

Of course the point of the sermon was not to scold thieves, but rather to call thieves to repentance so they could be assured of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The sermon took a shocking turn, though, when the preacher said that to rescue sinners like us, Jesus Christ became an identity thief.

Jesus was willing to describe himself as a thief. He described his future coming in glory as “like a thief in the night.” He also called himself a stronger man, tying up the strong man (the devil) so he could rob that strong man of his possessions (sinners). The way Jesus rescues sinners is not fair; he gives us rewards we do not deserve and takes instead the punishment we deserve. On Judgment Day, as our enemies see us enter the kingdom of heaven, they will stamp and cry and shout, “That’s not fair!” Our salvation is unfair, but God’s mercy and love move him to be unfair for our benefit.

But does that make Jesus Christ an identity thief? Generally speaking, an identity thief pretends to be another person in order to gain things through that person’s name and reputation. I know a couple whose tax refund was delayed more than a year because someone had filed a return using their names and address and Social Security numbers, cheating the government out of money that did not belong to that thief. Identity thieves borrow money or make purchases using another person’s name and credit account; it can take years for the victim to escape those debts and reestablish a good credit rating. Identity thieves can hack bank accounts, emptying them of funds before the bank and the victim know what has happened. Identity theft adds up to millions of dollars wrongly gained by criminals and millions of dollars lost to honest individuals, businesses, and banks.

What does Jesus have to gain by stealing our identities? He does not need money or property; everything in the universe already belongs to him. He does not need a better reputation than he already has to get what he wants; Jesus is innocent of sin, pure, and holy. Tying up the devil is one way to steal sinners from him, but taking the identity of sinners appears to be more than even Jesus would want to do.

Yet “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (II Corinthians 5:21). Though he was innocent, Jesus was treated as guilty of all sins. Hanging on the cross, he suffered and died as payment for all the sins of history. His Father abandoned him in the darkness, allowing Christ to know that separation that sin places between God and the sinner. The curtain in the Temple was torn as a sign of the removal of our sins, reconciliation in place of the division that we had caused by our sins.

Jesus has stolen our identities. But, like a careless thief (or, rather, like a generous thief), Jesus has left something behind. He has left his righteousness for us, so we can assume his identity. He stole our identities “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (I Corinthians 5:21). God the Father looked at his Son on the cross and saw sin. He looks at us today and sees the righteousness of his Son. In Baptism our sinful selves die with Christ and are buried with Christ. In Baptism we are raised with Christ as a new creation. In Baptism God says of us what he said of Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”

Do you miss your old sinful identity? Instead, rejoice that Jesus has taken away that identity. He has stolen it from you to give you what you do not deserve: his identity. Made a child of God, you are now royalty in the Kingdom that will last forever. Jesus did this for you, not because you deserve it, but because he loves you. J

Genesis

People who know me describe me as intelligent and educated, even scholarly (among other things). Some of them are surprised to learn that I regard the biblical book of Genesis as historically reliable and accurate. They have been told again and again that the accounts of that book have been discredited by science and archeology. They don’t understand why I will not wave a white flag of surrender whenever they confront me with what “studies have shown.”

In the near future, I will write a second post to comment upon scientific studies. Before writing that, I want first to address my reasons for regarding Genesis as a good source of information about the past. My reasoning is not the circular argument that Genesis is in the Bible and the Bible says it is from God and true, so Genesis must be true. My confidence in the Bible comes from my faith in Jesus Christ. I do not worship the Bible as such, but I follow the example of Jesus in trusting what the Bible says.

Of course Jesus is best known through the Bible, so I might not have escaped yet the accusation of circular reasoning. However “studies have shown” that the New Testament documents were created by the first and second generation of Christians, reflecting information that came from eyewitnesses of Jesus. The four gospels were delivered as oral tradition before they were written—the similarities of outline and content among Matthew, Mark, and Luke testify to this oral tradition. The source of that tradition was a group of witnesses identified as apostles, men specifically chosen by Jesus to carry his message to the world. Gross inaccuracies in the account of Jesus would have been corrected or removed from the gospels. Without demanding belief in inerrancy of Scripture or addressing every apparent discrepancy or contradiction among the gospels, one can accept their general description of the attitudes and opinions of Jesus to be reliable for historians.

Among those attitudes and opinions of Jesus are respect for the accuracy and reliability of the Hebrew Bible (called Old Testament by Christians). Jesus frequently quoted from the Torah (known also as the books of Moses), and he treated the historical information they contain as true. Because I trust Jesus, I imitate his respect for the Hebrew Bible, and I use my intelligence to comprehend the message of those books rather than to fight against their message.

Perhaps on Judgment Day Jesus will tell me and other Christians that the book of Genesis was always meant to be treated as parable and metaphor. Perhaps he will reveal that Adam and Eve were not historic figures, that there was no Garden of Eden, no world-wide flood, and no Tower of Babel. I will not be sorry at that time to learn that what I believed about those stories was false. In fact, I will delight to relearn history and science from the Master. Meanwhile, I risk trusting that they are true, not because I don’t want to use my intelligence, but because I don’t want to lose my relationship with Jesus.

Other people, who cannot accept the accounts in Genesis because of their trust in scientists and historians, use their lack of confidence in Genesis to support their rejection of the entire message of the Bible. Because they cannot believe that the world was created in six days, or that a talking snake met Eve in Eden, they say that the entire Bible is nothing but fairy tales and that God is an imaginary being. Being wrong about how long the world has existed does not matter. Being wrong about God does matter. One of the strengths of science as a discipline is the ability of scientists to keep exploring new ideas, to admit that some ideas are wrong and others are better. One of the strengths of Christian faith is the ability of Christians to remain anchored in unchanging truth even while every scholarly finding is questioned and changed.

I have high respect for scientists, historians, and archeologists. I have high respect for their findings and discoveries. I do not have respect for people who try to use those findings and discoveries as weapons against people of faith. With unintended irony, they mock people of faith who aver that scientists and historians may be wrong, while genuine scientists and historians are always open-minded toward the possibility that they may be wrong. The air of superiority worn by those who trust science to disprove faith will be overturned when they meet God face to face. Sadly, that Day it will be too late for them to change their minds. J.