Monday, February 17, 2014

What is the valley of dry bones?

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,
And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.

Ezekiel 37:1,2

The valley of dry bones? Ezekiel has a vision where the Lord takes him and sets him in the midst of a valley full of bones. The bones signify Israel, being scattered to the four winds, and being thought as of extinct, as a nation goes. When I read the words of this prophecy, I cannot help but think of the prophecy of Moses, a long time before, in Deuteronomy 30:
Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. 6 The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
Deut. 30:4-6
God knew all along about the disobedience of Israel, and how he would use it to bring a light to the Gentiles, and how he would usher in the present age of grace, until the times of the Gentiles are through (Romans 11). But I find it compelling that God would tell Israel, through Moses that they were going to fail, and that in spite of that failure, God would bring them back, this time circumcising their very hearts, that they may truly know how to love God.
At Ezekiel’s time, it was of course, much later than Moses. Undoubtedly Ezekiel would have been familiar with the prophecy of Moses, but Ezekiel was a man who saw his nation in captivity, scattered to the four winds. His vision is singularly important to him, for in the vision, Ezekiel receives assurance from God that he is in charge, and will bring them back. Jeremiah received from God that he had determined seventy years against Israel, and then would bring them back from their captivity. Daniel reads Jeremiah, and finds this seventy years (Daniel 9), and this becomes part of the basis of Daniel’s prophecy. Second Chronicles, in its last chapter, also speaks of this seventy years, and also gives the proclamation of Cyrus, signifying the beginning of the end of the captivity, so we see repeatedly that the revelation of the seventy years is very important.

What indication do we have that the dry bones were more than this return from captivity? In several ways, we can confidently know that this vision of dry bones is yet future. First, in relating it to the prophecy of Moses, where Moses predicts that banishment will take place, then God will bring Israel back, and then he will circumcise their hearts and the hearts of the descendants. Have the hearts of the Israelites been circumcised? In no manner is this circumcision seen; hence it must be future.

Second, there is the vision of Daniel. Notice the order of events presented in chapter nine. Daniel first reads the prophecy of Jeremiah, and discovers that seventy years are determined against his people. Second, Daniel prays a great prayer of confession, and seeks the Lord’s direction. Third, Daniel is given the prophecy of the seventy-sevens, a prophecy which was to explain to Daniel that the times of the Gentiles was not going to be through for some time yet. This vision of seventy-sevens is taken with each week symbolizing seven years, thus making a total time of 490 years. Christ’s death is foretold here in Daniel, and some time after that, an untold amount of years pass, until Israel is to live out the judgment of the seventieth seven. Thus we do know that God intends to rescue Israel yet again, this time forever sealing them with circumcision of their hearts.

Third, Ezekiel foretells a regathering that simply has not happened yet. Read these words and see,
1) Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 9:13, 14)
2) This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. (Ezekiel 9:21, 22)
3) I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” (Ezekiel 9:26,27,28)

Notice the order of events. First, I will put my Spirit in you. Second, I will make of you one nation, with one king, never again to be divided. Third, God will make an everlasting covenant and will make Israel holy, putting his sanctuary among them forever. Can we by any stretch of the imagination suppose this to have taken place yet? Israel is regathered, when she was beyond hope and reckoning of all men. She stands in the midst of hostile nations all about her, who are all pledged to drive her back to the sea, and extinguish her forever. Is it not curious that God seems to be the agent performing what few men, if any, looked for?

But the Israel today is definitely not the one prophesied about to Ezekiel. Surveys today show Israel to be an atheistic nation, perhaps more so than any other. They are not looking for their Messiah anymore, let alone the return of the Jesus whom they crucified. Not in any sense has God made them his people—but as I look at the regathering, I have a deep sense of awe, watching to see when the Lord God will indeed reveal himself.

There remains one important prophecy to discuss in this all too short article. That is the prophecy of Zacharias who has much to say of this last week of years. What of the Lord, and how will he reveal himself to Israel? “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son (Zechariah 12:10). Israel surrounded and about to be overwhelmed by their enemies, will at last recognize their Redeemer, and they will repent with many tears. At this time the partial hardening that Paul talks about in Romans is at last lifted, where he declares, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25,26).

And Zacharias goes on to tell us about that time, “Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. 4 On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south” (Zachariah 14:3,4). The prophet goes on to tell us, “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name” (Zachariah 14:9). The valley of dry bones will be brought back to life, and God himself shall renew Israel, making it the center of attention for the whole earth.

Has God not told us the end from the beginning? What manner of people ought we to be, knowing all these things? We ought to live truly, as these things were reality, not caring for the things of this earth, but instead looking towards the inheritance that he has given us. In a sense, these unseen things are more real to us than our present world, and if we begin to live that way, what a change could be wrought in us, and also the world about us!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why do we say, “it doesn’t matter”?

Why do we say it doesn’t matter? I imagine that is what Eve said to her snaky friend when he suggested she eat of the fruit and become like God. Eve, wondering about the one limit God had placed on her probably said, “It doesn’t matter. God must be waiting for me to test him, and becoming like him is probably what he wants me to do anyway.” And Adam seeing Eve’s plight, must have said the same thing as he knowingly disobeyed, “It doesn’t matter.” The whole human race was affected, now for thousands of years, far more than Eve was willing to, or perhaps able to foresee. It did matter after all.

The Jewish people compiled a history of saying, “It doesn’t matter.” God would tell them to stop worshipping Baal, and they would murmur, “It doesn’t matter.” God gave them rules to follow, commandments to teach their children, and all they said was, “It doesn’t matter.” Their messiah at last did come, and their only comment, after waiting a thousand years? “It doesn’t matter.” One day soon, the Bible declares, they will mourn for him whom they pierced, and one that day, they will find that it did matter after all.

God designed marriage to be one man and one women, saying for this purpose shall a man leave his mother, and that the two will become one flesh. We today are not the first to tell God that it doesn’t matter. Civilizations buried in the ashes of history have long done the same thing, saying, “God, you are so outdated and conventional. Don’t you know it doesn’t matter?” But then we discover anew that it did matter after all.

One more drink won’t matter, whispers the small voice to the young man. After decades of having the one more drink, the young man wakes up old, bereft of all the rich promises of his aspiring youth, and he too, finds that it did matter after all.
Marrying her? What an outdated convention! The man and the woman live together, and all seems as if it might work out. But then hard times come, and one or the other decide that the relationship is over. Too bad about the kids, but they will have to figure out a way of getting by. The thought of giving myself for life to someone is just too much. But decades later, alone and senile and bereft of the very children he sired, he goes into that darkness, finding out that yes, it did matter after all.

We lie, we steal, we cheat. We think that as long as we are okay most of the time, God will overlook our little faults. We forget that we get so little recompense when we sell our integrity.

We make promises to our children. We think they won’t notice or remember our promises and so, we refuse to keep them.

We make youthful promises to ourselves that we will not compromise our ideals, but our race to senility strips those ideals one by one, and betrays us at the end.
We take that drug because it really does make us feel so good. It is just one time, and surely no one has ever felt this good before. We do not realize that we are swapping feeling for the core of who we are, and too often we slip into that night with great feeling betraying life itself.

“What does it matter” echoes its cry down the annals of history, and at each turn, people find out that it did matter after all.

Beware of the cry of today. People are told that there is a Savior, one who brings the forgiveness of God, that we might have life, have it abundantly, and have it eternally. It doesn’t matter is their cry. There is more than one way to heaven. Surely God will make an exception in my case, and will overlook my sin. After all I meant well.
But the words of Jesus ring truly, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Do not make the mistake of telling yourself the lie. The lie has rung its way through history, and has been shown to be wrong every time. It does matter after all, and Jesus did mean what he said.

We have a God who gave us a nation of freedom. But we have used the freedom for license, and in pursuing our lusts. Alternative lifestyles are the rage of the nation, and in this morning’s city newspaper I read a puff piece for those lifestyles. We have been told that it doesn’t matter for so long that I fear we are, as a nation, really beginning to believe the propaganda. It was one of the oldest tricks in the book to get people to stop believing in their neediness for a Savior—just assure people that it doesn’t matter, that somehow it will all work out.

It does work out, but not to man’s benefit. Our nation has become exceedingly sinful, not only departing from its pretense of following God, but in every imaginable way acting as if God is not there, that there will be no recompense exacted for our follies, that God surely is not concerned about men. The whisper of “it does not matter” has caused many an American to go down to Sheol without even a murmur, the excuse enticing us to forget our way, and who it is that has made us.

We in America have now “progressed” to the point where right is wrong and wrong is right, on so many levels. Scarcely a month goes by where someone is not branded for racism, or other “unorthodox” movements, even though evidence is not sought—the charge itself is enough to convict—and so voices which would warn us of this wrongful path are carefully extinguished. Individuals are not denied their right to speak absolutely, but a careful spirit of cooperative thinking is adopted, and let those who depart from it beware. The state has taken over the morality of the individual, not by force, but rather by extinguishing the independence, by softening the will, by guiding the will to adopt the values of the society, and no matter that those values themselves are constantly fluid—that which is wrong today can be made right tomorrow. Men are not browbeaten into group think; but rather encouraged quietly to say and think what they are told, molding them and bending them into acceptable societal models, who bit by bit become utterly unable to figure out what is wrong, let alone articulate it. Our Lord reminds us that the path to Hell is broad, and many there are that find it, but the problem of the state is that it nurtures the very road to Hell itself, sponsoring thoughts and movements which can have no possible good in themselves, but are “evolved” morality.

We in the church are little better. By our complete unity, says the Savior, the world will know that you sent me, and have loved them. Does America know us for our singularity? Not! We are divided on every side, and rare is the time that even an evangelist like Billy Graham can get us to lay aside our differences, to show the world that he has indeed unified us into one body. We are to be busy making disciples, and proclaiming the gospel, yet the question of the Lord seems in many ways to be specially designated for America. “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?”

Morality does not evolve; what was wrong five centuries ago is also wrong today. But men’s concepts of morality do change from generation to generation. Those concepts must be laid carefully next to the morality of the New Testament—and we desperately need our prophets and pastors to preach that same morality, covered in love for our own wicked generation, notwithstanding its sinful choices. The problem is that Christians are tempted to change the definition of sin, in the name of toleration, and so lose the power of the gospel, because the power of the gospel is found in obedient saints, not saints who are working to change the rules. We cannot be the lights on the hill, if it be that we are not reflecting his glory.

One of Satan’s greatest devices is to give us the company of our fellow man; he knows that it is human nature for us to continually compare ourselves to others. We Christians may acknowledge our badness, but at the same time, we see so many other saints behaving so deplorably that we feel better about ourselves. But all the while, the Bible screams out its testimony of the needs of saints for holiness; God expects nothing less from us than the total giving of ourselves to be used of his good purposes, and he simply is not going to create a line in which the “less bad” are closer to the front than those who might be “more bad”.

Christians need to wake up, to be roused to believe that which God has promised us, to act as if it were true, to fall flat on our faces before God, confessing, and seeking his power, that it might yet be renewed upon this fallen nation. Perhaps revival can fall again upon this nation, as it has fallen so many times before. One day soon, the Lord will return, and we will find out that everything mattered a whole lot more than we believed. Make no mistake; the Lord is going to judge us, not comparing us to one another, but rather by judging whether or not we were faithful to him. That is the standard that does matter!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Why do our natures prove God?

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20

I know that scripture cannot be broken, and therefore even the most base of men must see, in the words of Paul, God’s eternal power and divine nature. What evidence do I find within mankind that this is so?

When I look at man, I see straightway that man is a needy creature, for in every culture across the expanse of history, he has invented Gods. Interestingly, many cultures do share some sort of ancient flood myth, in which the world was renewed after being destroyed. But even more interesting, man devises his own gods, making them out of everything, worshipping them, and sacrificing to them. This is what I call the evidence of man’s inventing religion. There seems to be a hole in man, sought to be filled with many forms of religion, but never being filled until the Christ is met. I know poor souls who spend all their lives seeking and shedding various religions, never coming to the knowledge of the truth. Lewis refers to something like this when he speaks of civilizations, “That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended— civilisations are built up— excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to us humans.”1 Religions without truth are exactly like that; they run a bit, and then conk out, but their very presence, I am arguing, indicates God must be. Religions permeate different civilizations at different times, but with strikingly similar patterns. They never seem, in contrast to Christianity, to provide answers that solve the dilemma: Man has a huge hole in his life that can only be filled by knowing Christ, and unless he discovers that, he is doomed to pursue the same religions over and over again, endlessly throughout history.

The problem of pain, or evil, in the world is a proof that our nature indicates a Maker. Why, you may ask? The very fact that we acknowledge evil and pain shows that we have a conscience. There remains no evolutionary reason for any “animal” to have a conscience. Man, alone among all the animals, is capable of denouncing his own species for wrongful acts. What possible natural selection or chance mutation could account for man condemning himself? I think it is a large indicator of the Creator, who put the image of himself in every man, for it is the simplest explanation of what we see in ourselves. Who told us we were wrong except that God himself, planting the seeds of conscience in man which make us to rise up in wrath when we see great wrongs. C. S. Lewis noted this long ago, “Now natural selection could operate only by eliminating responses that were biologically hurtful and multiplying those which tended to survival. But it is not conceivable that any improvement of responses could ever turn them into acts of insight, or even remotely tend to do so.”2

But it is not rationality alone that makes us unique; we are also the opposite of rationality—emotional creatures that are capable sometimes of expressing such volatile emotion that one has to wonder if rationality will ever emerge again. Of course, I do exaggerate, but at times, even the most staid among us is overcome with raw emotion. My dog frisks around after his bath, and seems to greet me happily enough when I come home, but for all of that, there is such a difference in the emotions expressed by men. I think a marked difference in the emotional state of man is that rationality lies behind it, and if you are having trouble with accepting that remark, perhaps it would help to think of love sonnets, or indeed, any similar act of passion that results in a wonderful creation. I think of human singing, and note that angels are not said to sing. The gift of singing, of making music, and of composing songs may well be one of the greatest marks in man of the creator. Any serious listener of music must recognize the laments and the infinite sorrow expressed in much of our music. Do not our very musical notes ring with the lament of a broken man?

We may “think” with our hearts more than we know, for there is little evidence of rationality. Bertrand Russell noted our emotional state with one of my favorite quotes, “It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.” Upon man, even in his emotion, is the indelible stamp of his Creator, and thus we do not have to look further than ourselves to see evidence of him. Of course, thus far I think many men have gotten in their reasoning, and I judge that most people would see some sort of creator, but it is at this very point that great divergence happens. I am told that Egypt used to worship the sun, and perhaps even cats, and Egypt is not alone in choosing the created to worship. Listing the areas of false worship, where mankind has chosen to worship the created rather than the creator, would go far beyond the scope of these simple comments. It is sufficient to note that men have gone wildly in pursuit of every sort of religion.

And that is what makes Christianity different. It is not man’s story of his pursuit of God; rather it is a story of the Divine God pursuing man. In a sense it starts with the burning bush that is not burnt up, with God revealing to man that he is the one who made the laws of nature, even nature itself, and that he is not beholden to them. Progressive revelation is what we see across the spectrum of history, as God takes a stubborn and perverse people, and chooses them to bring the Son to his full glory. We see a God in Christianity unlike any other; He condemns us utterly for our awful sins, but then, “in the fullness of time” he sends his son to take the very penalty of that sin upon himself, that he might make us partakers of his eternal glory. And that is what makes it so different; God pursues us, God forgives us, God reconciles us.

No other religion can capture the pain and evil of the world, reconciling it to its temporary place, and assigning the things of God to their eternal permanence. No other religion tells us that precisely what we find in ourselves is evidence, not only of a world gone horribly wrong, but also of a God who intends to make it right.

1. Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 50). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
2. Lewis, C. S. (2009-06-03). Miracles (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 28). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Friday, February 07, 2014

How big is your God?

There is only one true answer to this, when we are talking about the God of the Bible and all of creation. The answer is always, “Not big enough.” Particularly, I find the American God to be a small God, of no moment. Offended? Well, look at the American church; instead of being the rock of offense at which men stumble, it is little more than a pebble in a shoe, discomforting at times, but hardly a stumbling block. The American church is hardly a pinprick on the conscience of society, What happened to us?

The answer may lie in a solid look at the times when men have prospered in their relationship with God. In particular, I have been looking at America’s revivals for clues about what made their times so significantly different from ours. Every awakening that I have looked at resulted in times when God became not just a little bigger in the eyes of men, but so enormous as to eclipse all else. Let’s look briefly together at each of the awakenings, that we might begin to recognize the enormity of our God.

In each of the awakenings I find men praying earnestly for their own souls first, but also weeping for the souls of others. Often God seems to delight in pulling such men of prayer together to earnestly pray for revival. In the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards was at the forefront, encouraging men and women alike to first see themselves as God sees them, desperate and utterly destitute. People would often stay up all night, seeking first to mortify themselves before God, and then waiting on God for the filling of his Spirit. Even his own wife was profoundly changed while waiting upon God. Without missing a step, Edwards writes of the powerful changes that took place in her that were similar to what was happening all over. Edwards himself carefully catalogues not one revival, or movement of the Spirit, but reveals that there were five such movements in his ministry. Charged afterwards by others with allowing emotional excesses, Jonathan Edwards spent many hours afterwards both reporting on, and intelligently defending the works of God which went on. The First Great Awakening might well count half of our current church membership as distant progeny; the debt we owe to the Spirit of God hundreds of years ago probably cannot be overestimated. God became much bigger in the reckoning of man, and that was to forever change America.

In the Second Great Awakening, Charles Finney was the preeminent figure used by God to bring great revival, such that has not been seen, and even dwarfed the First. Finney is difficult to define theologically, being neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but there is no doubt that he was the man God used to spread his fires of revival throughout America.1 He found a people strangely prepared by God for the work of salvation, for the doctrine of the day taught the common folk that regeneration was totally the work of God. Church members were taught not to seek salvation from God; in due time, if God revealed himself, then they would know that they were the elect. They were to wait on God for the choosing, and were even discouraged from prayer, for it was felt that such praying for salvation would inevitably lead to insanity.

Finney dared to upset this applecart, and challenged people to realize their own desperate need, and to look toward God, who is both rich in grace and mercy to find their salvation. Many did. Thousands. But Finney did not stop there; he believed and preached that Christians should be active in their world, helping others at every turn. America profoundly changed because of the Second Awakening, as many great organizations and works were started during this period. “Among the dozens of organizations in the Empire, the most important were the “Great Eight” benevolent societies, which included the American Bible Society, founded in 1816; the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in 1810; the American Sunday School Union, founded 1817; the American Tract Society, founded in 1826; the American Temperance Society, founded in 1826; and the Americans Home Missionary Society, founded in 1826.”2 The Second Awakening had its problems too; also charged with spiritual excess, it was nonetheless a work of God, where God had suddenly become much bigger in the minds and hearts of many. Our membership in our churches today would be profoundly impacted if we had to do without the many who were saved and revived during this period.

The Third Awakening was different from the other two, in that we cannot point to a leader such as Edwards or Finney. It was a great movement nonetheless, which took place shortly before the Civil War, and even has been traced throughout the war, on the Union side, and on the Rebel side. It is said that thousands of people prayed during this revival, and I might understand it to be a revival that came from the heart felt prayers of many saints. Ten thousand saints were meeting daily in New York for prayer. But this awakening, unlike the first two, seemed well regulated, and not given to emotional excess. Finney himself witnesses of this great movement, “The general impression seemed to be, "We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray." The answers to prayer were constant, and so striking as to arrest the attention of the people generally throughout the land. It was evident that in answer to prayer the windows of heaven were opened and the Spirit of God poured out like a flood.”3 I suggest that, again, God suddenly seemed bigger than he had been before, and people, with their eyes on God, found him in a new way, a way that was to light America for decades.

I had the fortune to be included in the last great revival of America, whether it will come to be looked at as an Awakening or not by historians, I do not know. But I do know that thousands were reborn, that a new direction seemed to fall on the whole country, and that even Time Magazine noticed, proclaiming “The Year of the Evangelical”. I was saved in a small Baptist church, in a very small town, but the Light was very bright throughout our country, and reached down even to such a small province. In a small way, God used my salvation to awaken that sleepy church to new life culminating into serious outreach efforts into the community. God became bigger to us, as the things he says in his Word came alive to us with a richness of meaning that we had not seen before.

So I say it again. Our God has become too small. We back off of spiritual issues that we should hold forth, compromising truth, and telling ourselves that we do so out of a spirit of Christian love. What love is it to allow those around us to perish? If God means what he says, then most of the world is perishing still, and we are sleeping at the gate, ready to be spewed out as lukewarm Christians. Is it not time to fall to our knees yet again in confession at our awful state? Jude reminds us to love those around us, hating even the clothing stained by their sin. Jesus reminds us to be busy preaching and teaching and making disciples. I think it past time to look for a bigger God. Just maybe a prayerful people can yet ask God to revive us again.

1. “Classical Arminians adore Finney for his revivalistic passion while deploring him for his bad theology. Finney himself said of Jonathan Edwards, "Edwards I revere; his blunders I deplore." An evangelical classical Arminian might say "Finney I revere; his blunders I deplore."”
From: Roger E. Olson. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (p. 28). Kindle Edition

2. Taken from Christian Christian History Home > 1989 > Issue 23 > In the Wake of the Second Great Awakening

3. Finney, Charles G. (2010-03-30). Autobiography of Charles G. Finney (Kindle Locations 7099-7101). Kindle Edition.