The Streets of Tripoli

Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. John 12:31

One of the central themes of the Bible (many say it is the central theme) is the coming of God’s kingdom. Christians oftentimes appreciate the idea but fail to identify themselves fully with it. The reason is not hard to find: In the past few centuries monarchies worldwide have been replaced by republics. Hereditary rule is a foreign concept in democracies, and so the ancient idea of serving under a king from a royal bloodline has mostly become an alien one. Hence the widely held view that the British Monarchy is outdated and should be abolished.

But this does not mean that the message of the Bible should become diluted in our understanding. It simply means that we should grasp it at the level where we currently make sense of political liberation and rule.

The footage on our television screens this past week, of the celebrations in the streets of Tripoli, provides us with just such a glimpse. It represents the effect of very good news, namely that an evil and corrupt ruler has fallen and that a legitimate government is about to be set up. And so the people are rejoicing as a result of their liberation. It is a parable of the gospel, of the coming of a kingdom, which is why the joy is so infectious.

There is a danger, however. The scenes of Tripoli are not unlike those that greeted Jesus Christ as he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. The Hebrew cry “Hosanna” is not a synonym for “Hallelujah”, as many believe, but means “please save” or “save now”, implying a fervent plea for national liberation from Roman domination. This was the expectation, and when Christ failed to provide it he was rejected as the Messiah. Within days the hosannas were replaced with another cry: “Crucify him!”

Jesus knew better. The evil dictator was not Caeser, but Satan – the “prince of this world.” And Christ’s liberation was not national, but universal.The streets of Jerusalem and Tripoli provides us with a picture, but that is all it is. A shadow, a type, signifying that which is to come.

But there’s another parable in there, one that that we dare not miss. People are celebrating victory because the evil regime is something of the past. In the words of the Bible, the house is being plundered because the strong man has been bound. We saw the plundering of Gadhafi’s mansions on CNN. The once mighty ruler has been disarmed and has now become a public spectacle, to use another line from the New Testament. Yet, in spite of all this, the shooting continues and good people are still dying. Is there a contradiction in there? Not at all. In the words of Revelation 12, the dragon has lost the war and has been cast out of heaven, yet he has a season on the run before his final destruction. This is his last opportunity to inflict as much damage as possible.

Examples of this interim phase between victory and final redemption abound. On April 24, 1945, Soviet armies surrounded Berlin. It was the beginning of the end of World War II. In the ensuing week German resistance collapsed and on the afternoon of 30 April the desperate Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. The war in Europe, for all practical purposes, was over.

However, in early May people were still being tortured and killed in many of the concentration camps. Some camps, like Auschwitz, had been liberated. Others, like Stutthof, were not. Knowing that their time was short, frantic Nazis organised mass exterminations of prisoners before becoming prisoners themselves. The war was over, but for tens of thousands of men, women and children the maltreatment continued exactly as it did before.

The last days of the concentration camps provide Christians with a powerful metaphor for understanding their pain and suffering in this world: Victory and final redemption are oftentimes separated by a gap, with victory becoming a theoretical reality before it becomes a practical one, a belief before it becomes an experience. In the concentration camps victory was no more than a rumour, and the only benefit thereof was the light of faith and hope that was ignited by believing it.

This is the way the Bible authors spoke of salvation. They realized that Christ had conquered the enemy and that his Kingdom had come, yet they knew that the full benefits of the victory would only be experienced at his visible return.

This is the current state of Libya, and so we are reminded that it is quite possible for a kingdom to have arrived without having been set up. This is also the current state of the church. We have arrived, yet we haven’t. No contradiction there.

To misunderstand this is to expose yourself to a sniper’s bullet. The various versions of triumphalism, currently doing the rounds in many churches, do exactly that. If you believe you should be perfectly healed, holy, prosperous and so on, you make yourself extremely vulnerable to a deep disillusionment that has absolutely nothing to do with God’s inability to deliver on his promises and everything with your misunderstanding of the lesson above.

Let us learn from the streets of Tripoli.

(This is an expanded version of two columns that have previously appeared in Bloemnews)

Steve Jobs And Eternity

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. Luke 16:22-23

Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs is estimated to be worth about 6 billion US dollars. This makes him one of the richest people in the world. Jobs is the co-founder of both Apple and Pixar (the studio who brought us the Toy Story movies) and, as a result of the latter, The Walt Disney’s Company’s largest single shareholder. He has (quite understandably) been named the CEO of the decade by Fortune Magazine.

A truly successful man by all measures. And enviable. In a 2009 survey he was selected the most admired entrepreneur among teenagers. Everybody wants to be like Steve, it seems.

Until now. Jobs announced this week he is resigning as CEO from his company, and the reasons are well known. He has been battling with pancreatic cancer for some time. The announcement caused Apple stocks to plummet and many to wonder if his successor will be able to fill his shoes.

In the face of death we have a tendency to reevaluate things. I suspect Steve would be happy to rid himself of all his possessions (and fame) if he could be given immortality in return. The point is: If he fails to find it, then in the bigger scheme of things, the one who does find it will be a much greater success than he, even if such a one has lived his or her earthly life as a beggar in the slums of Calcutta.

That is exactly the point of Christ’s well known story from which the above verses come. And it raises a question: How do you define success?

(This is an update of a column that appeared in Bloemnews earlier this year when Steve Jobs took indefinite medical leave)

Strain Out Those Gnats!

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. 2 Thessalonians 2:9-11

End time hype, which received a huge boost in the early seventies with the publishing of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, has been at an all time high since the release of authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ 16 novel Left Behind series. In spite of the fact that more than 35 million of Lindsey’s books and more than 63 million of the Left Behind books have been sold, not everyone is applauding.

A number of prominent theologians are pointing out that these books represent but one view of eschatology amongst several, and not necessarily the most satisfying or historically accepted one. They also argue that, due the particular sensationalist slant of this view (called the “literalist, premillennial, dispensational” view), it has translated extremely well into novel format and especially onto the big screen. Lindsey’s book was adapted into a 1979 movie (narrated by Orson Welles) and the Left Behind series into 3 action thriller films, with a fourth one being planned. Due to the commercial success of the books and films a questionable interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on the “end-times” have now become mainstream, the critics say.

Strain out those Gnats!

Needless to say, eschatological debates amongst Christian are at an all time high as a result of these developments. Premillennialists are arguing with amillennialists who are arguing with postmillennialists. Pre-trib rapturists have a problem with mid-trib rapturists who have a problem with post-trib rapturists, and all of them frown upon so-called “pre-wrath” rapturists. And so it goes on. In fact, the arguments are so severe in certain circles that believers are breaking fellowship with one another because of eschatological differences. A case in point is the compulsory resignation of Marvin Rosenthal from his position as director of the Friends of Israel organisation a few years ago. The reason? Rosenthal changed his views from believing that the rapture of the church is going to take place before the great tribulation to believing that it is going to take place before the period when God’s wrath is going to be poured out at the end of the tribulation.

One cannot help but wonder how on earth Christians got to a place of such pettiness. There was a time when comedian Emo Philips’ classic joke was just a joke (it was voted the funniest religious joke of all time), but now it would appear to have been more of a prophecy than a joke. For those who cannot remember:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

The problem, it would appear, is the very one pointed out by Jesus in his rebuke of the Pharisees: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Whilst the straining out of the gnat indeed seems like a time-wasting display of trivial-mindedness, the greater problem has to do with the swallowing of the camel. Put differently, the real tragedy is not that the devil manages to get us obsessed with nonessentials, but that he makes us lose focus of the essentials in the process. As Mark Twain quipped: “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”

Keeping the Main Issue the Main Issue

The main issue pertaining to the so-called “end times” has never been the timing of the rapture, the nature of the millennium or the nationality of the antichrist. No, the main issue is aptly stated in Jesus Christ’s own words at the opening of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24): “See that no one leads you astray.” This reference to a spiritual seduction and apostasy in the last days, and the reminder to be on the alert, are repeated a number of times in the New Testament, for instance 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 and 9-11 (quoted at the beginning); 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1-5 and 4:3-4; Revelation 13:11-14 and, of course, in the rest of Matthew 24.

One does not need to be a scholar in theology to detect the single greatest characteristic of the coming great deception. In 2 Thessalonians 2 the apostle Paul tells us that the “apostasy” will be characterised by “power” and “signs and wonders”. In the so-called “Olivet Discourse” (Matthew 24) Jesus says that “false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (verse 24). In similar fashion the book of Revelation tells us that the “false prophet” will perform great signs and deceive those who dwell on earth” (Rev 13:13-14).

This is where the primary focus of any eschatological study should be. What makes this focus even more imperative is the fact that we live in a time of great natural calamities, economic uncertainty, war (with the constant threat or “rumours” of greater war), and, above all, global religious transformation. Not only do we see a great apostasy from the Christian faith all across Europe, but in the past few decades we have seen much of the Christian church undergoing a radical shift from a focus on God’s Word to an obsession with signs, wonders and personal experience that is often highly subjective and mystical. Supernatural phenomena in the church are on the rise, and especially angelic appearances are becoming more commonplace in certain Christian circles. If we find ourselves in the last days, what do these changes signify? Is the church coming closer to God and experiencing the foretaste of some latter day great revival, or are we in the process of being deceived?

(Excerpted from the article Angels & Demons that appeared in the Auksano magazine)

The Gift of Knowing

Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. Matthew 11:25-26

Knowledge, according to a popular dictionary definition, is the “acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation.” These last two words indicate the conditions for knowledge, and so the one who wishes to acquire knowledge is assumed to be a “student” or “investigator”. In other words, the responsibility for acquiring knowledge lies with the one who wishes to know.

Some people, of course, are better students than others. They have higher IQs, are wiser than their peers and are generally better and faster at understanding concepts. Many of them become professional students, that is, full time researchers who get paid to share their ever-increasing knowledge with lesser-enlightened souls.

But suppose the acquisition of knowledge did not depend on the knower but on the object of knowledge. And suppose the object of knowledge allowed itself to be known by using criteria that had little to do with study or investigation. If that were the case the wise and understanding would loose their advantage. And those who qualify according to the different criteria would gain it.

It’s a strange idea, isn’t it? Yet that is exactly what the Bible teaches. Knowing God does not depend on our wisdom or understanding, but on God making himself known. This “revelation” comes to children, which suggests that the condition for receiving it has more to do with dependence, vulnerability and sincerity than an abundance of grey matter.

That explains why someone like famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been voted the “world’s fifth top public intellectual”, has not been assisted by his formidable intellect to discover a single thing about God.

Beggars and Manipulators

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Matthew 7:23

These verses are found at the beginning and the end of the most famous sermon of all times, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). They present us with a striking contrast between two types of people: The poor in spirit, and demon-driving, miracle-working prophets. It is a strange irony that the former will inherit the kingdom of heaven, whilst the latter will be driven out.

The introduction and conclusion of the sermon presents a frightening contrast, and everything in between expands thereon. There are two roads, two houses, two foundations, two responses to Christ’s words, two ways of praying, two ways of fasting, two ways of giving, two ways of interpreting the law, two ways of storing up reward, two ways of judging and so on. The contrast is not between the vile, drunken sinners on the broad road leading to perdition and the few pious saints on the narrow road leading to life, as the famous painting depicts. No, the contrast is between two types of religion. The religion of the poor in Spirit and the religion of the self righteous. To miss this is to misunderstand the Sermon on the Mount.

‘Blessed are the paupers’, reads the Latin Vulgate, coming closer to the original Greek text. Literally, the blessed are ‘spiritual beggars’, people who are not just deprived, but utterly destitute. They understand their spiritual poverty, their wretchedness before a holy God, and so they mourn (verse 4) and hunger and thirst for a righteousness that they know they don’t possess (verse 6). Subsequently, God fills them. The progression in the beatitudes is clear.

In contrast, the sermon portrays the ‘hypocrites’ as those who take pride in their own righteousness. They base it on their observance of Mosaic Law, and believe that their acts of giving, praying and fasting are meritorious and impressive (6:1-18). They seek their reward in the here and now, and they do so by gaining recognition for their distinction in the matters of God.

The miracle-workers of Matthew 7 fall into this category. Their ability to take control in the spiritual realm, to prophesy and exorcise demons, presents us with a metaphor of the self-righteous person. He has God all figured out, can manipulate the spiritual forces, and thinks this will get him to heaven. As a result they have no need to subject themselves to the teaching of Christ.

Let us not be deluded. Let us join the beggars and mourners instead of fabricating our own righteousness.

Black Swans and the Bible

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”. Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15

In recent years there has been an upsurge in books and scholarly articles dealing with humanity’s inability to correctly predict the future. Most notable has been Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. These are scary reads, revealing how vulnerable we are to constructing idealistic visions of the future whilst heading straight towards disaster.

What we call forecasts are oftentimes no more than wish dreams, and this is true whether we are New York stockbrokers, politicians with bags full of promises or young professionals embarking on the road to their first million whilst raising the perfect family.

It all sounds pretty cynical, especially when the bookshops and airwaves are crammed with messages that you can attract your own future by following a few basic universal laws to which even God is subject. But thinkers like Taleb, Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Gilbert are vindicated by two factors: Firstly, history testifies on their behalf with millennia of grim statistics, confirming how often the unexpected violently intrudes into the lives of the most decent of people. Secondly, and more importantly, the Bible has been saying for ages what these scholars are propagating.

The Bible, however, goes one step further. Instead of merely shattering our wish dreams it introduces us to an alternative focus that is immune to surprises: The eternal, unshakeable will of God.

Angry Axl

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4

One of the past few decades’ most famous ‘angry young men’ is a heavy metal singer by the name of Axl Rose. Rose, who was arrested over twenty times in his teens on charges such as assault and public drunkenness, gained notoriety as the frontman for American rock band Guns ‘n Roses. Rose is as famous for his onstage antics, rants and profanities as he is for his musical abilities. The influential rock magazine Hit Parader ranked him 11 in their list of Top Metal Vocalists of All Time.

But there is another accomplishment of Rose that few people are aware of. As a youngster he won prizes not for musical achievements but for his knowledge of the Bible. Raised in a strict Pentecostal home Rose attended church 3 to 8 times a week, taught Sunday School and memorised Bible verses. He sang in church from the age of five and his first musical performances took place with his brother and sister during services.

Anyone who has ever caught a glimpse of a Guns ‘n Roses concert will realize that Axl is clearly no longer singing for the Lord. Why? What went wrong? We’ll never know the full story, but here’s a clue: As a youngster he once sang along with Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” and got walloped by his religious stepfather. He tells of other instances of abuse, a mother who was never there for him and a church “filled with self-righteous hypocrites”. And so Axl became angry.

Hmm. There is a lesson here for us who are parents. A legalistic “touch not, taste not” upbringing might seem godly, but ultimately it will only provoke anger if not accompanied by love.