October 1, 2017 Bible Study — Things Will Not Get Better Until Each Of Us Is Seeking The Good Of All

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Zechariah 11-14.

    Usually when I read the various shepherd metaphors in the Bible I clearly understand why the writer is using that particular metaphor. However, today I do not really understand why Zechariah is using the metaphor of a shepherd and sheep. For that matter I am not sure I understand the message which Zechariah is conveying, but I will write what I see the message as being. Zechariah seems to me to be saying that everyone is seeking to satisfy their desires, no one is seeking to promote the good of everyone. The various leaders were merely in it for themselves. The “buyers” sought to consume the sheep. The “sellers” sought to profit from the sheep. Even the shepherds, whose job it was to care for the sheep, sought only their own interest and did not care for the sheep. The sheep themselves were out to take advantage of each other and expressed disdain for the only shepherd who tried to lead them to their best interest.

    Zechariah finishes his writing with prophecies of God’s redemption of the people of Israel. When that day comes, God will not use the elites to bring about victory. Victory will begin with the common man. God will do this to show that the “elites” are not better than the common man. All are on common ground as the people of God. When Zechariah wrote these prophecies he believed them to be about the Jewish people, and that may indeed be the case. However, there are elements here, and in other similar Old Testament prophecies, which suggest that these prophecies apply to all who choose to worship and obey God. In either case, a key part of this prophecy is that those too whom it applies mourn for the One “whom they have pierced.” This is a clear reference to Jesus and His death. One thing it also makes clear is that part of salvation is accepting our share in the guilt of His suffering and death. Recognizing our guilt is a requisite step in receiving the cleansing from sin and impurity which God offers us.

September 30, 2017 Bible Study — Judge Fairly and Show Mercy

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Zechariah 7-10.

    A couple of years after his first vision some of the returned Exiles came to Zechariah and asked if they should continue to hold a ceremony of mourning for the destroyed Temple now that rebuilding had begun. Zechariah’s response was that they were not, and had not been, fasting for God, but for themselves. The same thing was true of their feasts and celebrations. While Zechariah was chastising them, I do not think he was telling them they had been doing wrong in doing this. It is not enough to hold the ceremonies of worshiping God…for that matter the ceremonies are for us. But if we want to truly worship God, there are other things we need to do, things which these ceremonies are supposed to remind us to do. Zechariah gives us a list which pretty much sums up what God wants from us: “Judge fairly, and show mercy and kindness to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other.” A little later Zechariah gives us another similar list of things God requires of us: “Tell the truth to each other. Render verdicts in your courts that are just and that lead to peace. 17 Don’t scheme against each other. Stop your love of telling lies that you swear are the truth.” If we do these things, we will not be far off no matter what else we do.

    I usually avoid writing about applying the passages I am reading to current political issues, but this is one where some well meaning people use this passage to support their position without having looked at all of the ways in which it applies. The phrase “Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor” (and other similar passage from elsewhere in the Bible) is brought up from time to time in the discussion about illegal immigration in the United States. It is appropriate for Christians to consider this passage when they think about how they deal with immigrants. The argument is usually made that deporting illegal immigrants is oppressing the foreigner. There is some merit to this argument, although I do not think that I agree. What is generally overlooked by those who make that argument is the degree to which illegal immigrants are routinely oppressed in this country. Those who employ illegal immigrants often pay them substandard wages and otherwise treat them badly. The evidence I have seen suggests that lax enforcement of immigration laws does not alleviate this abuse, but actually makes it worse. One of things that many of those who make the argument I am speaking against typically overlook is that many of their allies in the campaign for lax enforcement of immigration laws are also campaigning against allowing more immigrants to enter the country legally. This issue is a difficult one for me as a Christian, because I do believe that we need to be caring for the poor and downtrodden and illegal immigrants are among the poorest in this country. On the other hand, I also believe that failing to enforce the law leads to injustice, which as a Christian I also oppose. This is one of the reasons that I believe that as a Christian I cannot be involved in politics.

September 29, 2017 Bible Study — Not By Force, Nor By Strength, But By The Spirit Of The Lord

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Zechariah 1-6.

    Zechariah’s first vision involves four horsemen. These are not the same four horsemen as those mentioned in the Book of Revelation (although I suspect that Zechariah’s description of them influenced John’s description of his four horsemen). These four horsemen appear later in this passage as the drivers of four chariots. It is interesting that of the four horsemen (and later of the four chariots) only three went out on patrol while the fourth waited their report. The message of both of these visions, four horsemen and four chariots, was that God was angry with the other nations of the earth because their actions against Israel exceeded the punishment which He intended. I struggle with reconciling this statement here with my belief that God controls how things turn out. I intended to write a bit about how I understand this, but realized that it is too complicated to explain in this daily post. The best I can do in this forum is to say that it has to do with the difference between how we treat groups and how we treat individuals. The passage also makes it clear that those who overstep God’s intended punishment of the Jewish people will suffer for their actions.

    Zechariah prophesied that the day would come when so many people wished to live in Jerusalem that they would not all fit within the walls. In that day many people would join themselves to the Lord and God would count them as His people, just as He does the descendants of Jacob. If you look at Jerusalem today you will see that it extends well beyond the area which was within the walls of Jerusalem when this was written, and there are not walls around the city. You could argue that the various barriers and checkpoints which the government of Israel have set up are the equivalent of a wall. God tells us that the situation which Zechariah is prophesying will not come about through force or strength. It will happen by the Spirit of God. This is something we need to remember in every endeavor we undertake. If what we are doing is according to God’s will we will not accomplish it by force or by strength, only by the Spirit of God.

September 28, 2017 Bible Study — Put God First, Or Forget About Him

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Zephaniah and Habggai.

    It is not clear to me if the opening of Zephaniah’s prophecies is about the end of the world, or merely hyperbole to get people’s attention. However, in either case it is quickly apparent that while he is mainly talking to the people of Jerusalem his message is for everyone. Actually as I start to write more about this passage I realized that the opening message is a kind of warning (and perhaps gives us an idea about the conditions which will exist just before the end of the world). Zephaniah condemns those who claim to worship God, but also worship the sun, moon, and stars. Those who claim they can worship both the Creator and the Creation. Further there is a reference to those who claim to worship God yet also worship “Molech”. The translation notes that the Hebrew word translated as “Molech” could also be translated as “their king”. I think that these two possible translations are intentional. “Molech”, as used in Old Testament literature, was a god who demanded child sacrifice. I believe that Zephaniah was telling us that when we worship our king, our government, we will end up sacrificing our children. We cannot worship both God and Nature. We cannot worship both God and government. If we make Nature our god, it will make demands upon us which are incompatible with those made by God. The same is true of the government. Although the latter will do so whether we worship it or not.
    Zephaniah’s prophecy is not completely pessimistic. Zephaniah promises that the day will come when God will purify the speech of all people. God will gather together those who seek to do what is right and live with humility. The day of God’s judgment will come upon the earth. On that day, He will wipe from the face of the earth all who are arrogant and haughty. Only those who humbly trust in the name of the Lord will remain. Again and again God has given us warnings, messages, and examples that this day is coming, but we as people refuse to pay heed.

    I started out to say that Haggai’s message is completely different from Zephaniah’s, but realized that is not really true. Zephaniah warned about the suffering we will experience if we try to worship something else alongside our worship of God. Haggai tells us the importance of putting God first. If we wait to give to God until we have enough for our other needs, we will find that we never have enough. On the other hand, if we discipline ourselves to give the first fruits to God we will find that we have enough for everything else we need. This works in two ways. First, if we give first to God we need to discipline ourselves and our desires in order to do so. As we discipline our spending and our behavior we will find that our resources seem to go further. Second, if we give first to God, He will bless us. That blessing may be material things which we can further use to honor God, but much of that blessing will be in the positive position we find ourselves in before God. I always have trouble properly expressing the nature of God’s blessings here. God does not promise us material rewards for following Him and His instructions, yet often when we do so we receive greater material goods. The complicated thing is that many of those most faithful to Him seem to be always lacking in material goods.

September 27, 2017 Bible Study — The Righteous Will Live By Faith

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Nahum and Habakkuk.

    OK, I was mistaken the other day when I wrote that Obadiah was the only Old Testament prophet who had prophesied exclusively against foreign nations. I had forgotten that Nahum prophesied against Nineveh and the Assyrians. However, unlike Obadiah, Nahum does not describe the sins for which Nineveh is being punished. Instead, Nahum praises God for His power and warns that those who oppose Him will be brought low. The Assyrians had power and wealth which allowed them to lord it over other peoples, but when God chose to bring about their end that power and wealth was of no aid in preventing their destruction. The Assyrians had used their power and wealth exclusively for their own benefit so that when they fell no one mourned their destruction.

    Habakkuk prophesied about the same time as Nahum, possibly a few years later, but not many. Habakkuk cries out to God for judgment on the society around him. He sees that the people have twisted the law so that there is no justice. “Justice” has become a word with no meaning. People use it to gather power and wealth for themselves. Then when he sees what God has in store, Habakkuk fears that the judgment will be harsher than he wished. God’s second response to Habakkuk is the heart of the message. Those who trust in their own strength, wealth, and/or power will be brought low. The proud worship themselves or the tools through which they acquire wealth and power. The righteous live through faithfulness to God. Perhaps the most telling warning in this passage is that those who worship power and/or wealth can never have enough.They are never satisfied and will always seek more.As a result those who worship wealth and/or power will always oppress and mistreat the poor and the powerless. Seeking wealth and power for their own sake will always end in sorrow, but those who seek the Lord will find joy.

September 26, 2017 Bible Study — Destruction For Sin Followed By Restoration To Righteousness

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Micah 3-7.

    In this passage Micah goes back and forth between condemning the people of Israel for their sins and offering hope of restoration by God. The condemnation is because the leaders of the people use their position for their own benefit, at the expense of the common people, rather than using their position to serve those who have been placed under their care. Micah tells us that no one is honest, neither among the leaders nor among the common people. Officials and judges apply the rules according to the bribes they are given. Prophets lead the people astray by promising peace to those who benefit them and attacking those who refuse to give to them. Those appointed to teach religious truth tell people that which gains them money and are silent about God’s word which might offend someone. Those with influence conspire to twist the law to their own advantage. Everyone considers honesty a fool’s game. Yet for all of that, Micah tells us that God promises to restore the people of Israel, teach them to follow His ways, and use them to bring His word to all nations.

September 25, 2017 Bible Study — Do Not Desire Punishment For Sinners. Instead Desire That They Turn To The Lord

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Jonah 1-4and Micah 1-2.

    There are many themes woven through the Book of Jonah. Jonah tried to run from God’s will for his life and discovered that this led to disaster, both for himself and those around him. However, he also discovered that as long as we are alive we can repent. If we acknowledge our sins, turn from them, and seek to do God’s will, God will give us another chance to serve Him. Then the passage illustrates a message which God gave to Ezekiel: if God has determined to bring death and destruction upon people because of their sin and they turn from their sin, He will turn aside that death which He had promised them. The final point of the story, and the reason this book is in the Bible, is about our attitude towards sinners. We should not desire to see sinners punished for their sins. The purpose of telling sinners about their sin should not be to gloat about their coming suffering. Rather, we should wish that sinners turn from their sin and come to God, thus avoiding His anger. We should tell them of their sin and the destruction it will bring them because we love them and want them to live.

    Micah begins by warning the capital cities of Israel and Judah (Samaria and Judah) that they will soon face destruction. He warns that those who cheat and lie and twist the law to get what they want will pay the price. His condemnation is mostly directed at the ruling elites, but there is an element to which it applies to everyone. Look around, rather than wanting justice to apply even the common people want to manipulate things so that they get favors at others’ expense. The rich and connected use their wealth and power to unjustly increase their wealth. However, the poor and weak do not seek even-handed laws and justice. They seek for the government to use its force to take the wealth of others for their own benefit. Instead of listening to the words of prophets calling them to turn from their sins and follow God’s commands the people, both wealthy and poor, do what they can to silence them.

September 24, 2017 Bible Study — A Famine Of Hearing The Word Of The Lord

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Amos 6-9 and Obadiah.

    Amos continues to prophesy against Israel and Judah (with the focus on Israel). Here he more directly focuses his condemnation on the elites of both countries, those who thought they were more important and better than the common man. They drink the finest foods and wines; they think themselves the arbiters of the fine arts. Yet, the things they call art is trivial and of no consequence. They do not fear the coming disaster because they think they are above such things. Amos reminds us that it is exactly those people who will suffer first when God’s judgment comes.

    Amos prophesied that part of God’s judgment against the people of Israel would be a famine of hearing God’s word. People would seek spiritual guidance and not be able to find it. I think we are seeing this today. People have rejected Christianity without really knowing what it is. Then they are confused when their search for spiritual fulfillment fails. Recently in a conversation on Facebook a friend of mine used an idiom based on a Biblical passage, one which was common when I was a child. He and I were the only people in the thread who even knew what it meant, let alone where it came from. This is but one example. There are numerous idioms in common use which derive from the Bible which have become distorted because few people know the passage from which they come (my favorite is the transition of “scape goat” to “excape goat”). I hear people describe the characteristics of the spiritual system they are looking for, characteristics which are fulfilled by Christianity. Yet, they summarily reject Christianity. Once, biblical themes and ideas were the bedrock of our culture, even among those who rejected faith in God. Today that is no longer true and people believe about the Bible what people who hate God tell them about it.

    Obadiah is the only Old Testament prophet whose focus is entirely on God’s judgment against foreign nations. Obadiah primarily prophesied against Edom, but he extended his warning to all of the surrounding nations who followed Edom’s example. The people of Edom were confident that their geographic location made them safe, but nothing could protect them from God’s judgment. Nothing can protect us from God’s judgment. Let us look at their sins, and be warned. They gloated when the people of Israel were taken into captivity. They took advantage of the suffering of the people of Israel in order to profit. Actually, it was more than that. When the people of Israel were suffering the people of Edom made that suffering worse for their own profit. They actively prevented the people of Israel from escaping their enemies. That last reminds me of the many nations who prevented European Jews from escaping the Nazis during WWII. However, I do not want to look at the actions of a generation which has died (those who are still alive who were alive during WWII had no role in the decisions made by their governments). Let us be careful not to repeat this sin. Let us not lend our support to those who would turn over those who are fleeing violence to those who are perpetuating the violence.

September 23, 2017 Bible Study — Seek Justice and Righteousness, Not Just the Appearance of Justice and Righteousness

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Amos 1-5. Before I get started on my Bible study, I want to thank my wife for 17 wonderful years. It was 17 years ago today that my wife gave me the birthday present I could ever receive. Every year she asks me what she can get me for my birthday and I tell her that she has already given me the best possible birthday present. OK, I will stop here on that since I cannot possibly express how incredibly happy she has made me.

    The people of Israel and Judah must have been happy with the beginning of Amos’ prophecy. Amos starts by condemning their various enemies and warning them of God’s coming judgment against them. The overarching theme of the condemnation of Israel’s neighbors was their oppressive treatment of the people of Israel. There are a couple of other reasons that one or more of them are condemned for that I want to bring up. Several of them were condemned for enslaving and/or selling the people of Israel as slaves. The people of Ammon were primarily condemned for the killing of the unborn. The people of Edom were condemned for committing something approaching genocide against the people of Israel. And interestingly enough, the people of Moab were condemned for war crimes against the people of Edom. That last is noteworthy because the people of Edom were condemned by God for their actions, but Moab was still condemned for what they did against them. All of the things which Amos condemned Israel’s neighbors for are going on in the world today, and God will bring judgment against those who are following these practices.

    However, the happiness the people of Israel and Judah felt when Amos began to prophesy would not have lasted long. Once he had condemned the pagan nations around them he began to list out their sins in greater detail. At least part of the reason for the greater detail was because the people of Israel and Judah should have known better. Amos condemns them for many of the same sins for which he condemned their neighbors; in particular, selling people into slavery. The part of that which strikes close to home is “They sell…poor people for a pair of sandals.” That hits close to home because of the reports of U.S. companies buying shoes (and other items) from factories which employ slave labor. I am not going to say that those who buy those products are the subject of Amos’ condemnation, but those who knowingly profit out of such companies are. As we go further in the passage, Amos tells us more about those subject to condemnation. He mentions those who cause Nazirites (people who had dedicated themselves to God) to sin and tell prophets to be quiet. I see a comparison to what Amos is saying in those who encourage celebrities who start out with an innocent, wholesome image to become more “edgy”, or who set out to seduce (either directly or indirectly) male celebrities who attempt to avoid sexual immorality.

    Those whom Amos is condemning think they are righteous because they offer sacrifices, which they believe they are offering to God. Amos offers us guidance for knowing if we are making offerings to God, or to an impostor. Do those accepting our offerings call us out when we commit injustices? Or, do they congratulate us on our righteousness? If the place we are giving our offerings does not call us to act justly and to live righteously, we are hypocrites and God will bring judgment against us. God calls us to live righteously, not to put on the appearance of righteousness. God wants us to live righteously and to treat our fellow man justly more than He wants our material possessions.

September 22, 2017 Bible Study — Turning To God In Time Of Disaster

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Joel 1-3.

    As I read the beginning of this passage it made me think of the devastation in Puerto Rico from the two hurricanes which hit it this month. The passage describes a devastation which the people of Israel could see coming, but which they were powerless to stop or escape. As I think about the response which Joel called for from the people I want to add in the other areas devastated by hurricanes this year, the parts of south Asia devastated by flooding, and the areas of Mexico struck by earthquakes. Joel called on the people who suffered the disaster he described to turn to God and give Him their hearts. Looking at the world today, I believe that God is calling us to come together and mourn before Him. This is not just a message for those who have suffered these devastating disasters. This is for all of us. Let us tear our hearts and plead with God for forgiveness. I believe that if we humble ourselves before God, He will give us the resources to restore things better than before.

    And it is for all of us. If those of us who did not bear the brunt of these disasters do not tear our hearts in prayer and fasting before God, we will be counted among the enemy nations recorded at the end of this passage. Those who are counted among the “enemy nations” in this instance will be held accountable for the suffering which went on in many of these lands before these tragedies struck. If the people of these lands turn to God and call out to Him in repentance, He will restore them and punish those responsible for their previous suffering. We have a choice, we can take this warning and seek God, or we will be counted among the enemies of God’s people. Seeking God is not just a mental, emotional, and/or spiritual exercise. It involves our material and physical selves as well. What that involves will be different for different people. For some of us, it will involve contributing from our material resources to restore those who were in the path of these disasters. For others of us, it will involve travelling to the devastated areas and helping them rebuild. For some it will involve both. It may involve other activities as well. Each of us will have to listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling us is our part in the activities of the Body of Christ.