It’s getting hot in more ways than one. After an unusually cool beginning to our summer, the Ottawa area, where I live, is about to be engulfed by a significant heat wave. The anticipated temperature for our national holiday, Canada Day, this Sunday, July 1, is 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit). That’s high enough. But with the humidity, it may feel more like an all-time record-breaking 47 C (116.6 F)!
Such heat can be very oppressive. No energy. No motivation. It’s nearly impossible to think.
Also oppressively hot is the current social environmental condition. With yet another setback against religious freedom in Canada earlier this month when our supreme court decided against Trinity Western University, the heat of secularization continues to melt the traditional values that undergirds Canadian society. Certainly, a liberal culture claiming to celebrate diversity would have even a bit of room for an excellent, well-established and distinctly Christian educational institution to train lawyers. But no, a different kind of diversity prevails. One that enforces a new morality of sexual expression intolerant of biblical values.
The normal response to a heat way is escape. Hunker down. Stay cool until it passes. But is this how God wants us to respond to the growing encroachment of government forces? Just wait for the weather to change?
And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. (Matthew 8:25-26; ESV)
What would you think if I told you that God calls us to be weather changers? Am I stretching the metaphor beyond reasonable limits? Think about it. Are we not followers of the great Weather Changer himself? Remember the disciples in the boat, thinking they are about to die by drowning due to a massive storm, while the Master was asleep in the back? Several of them were weather experts, being fishermen. Based on conventional wisdom, they weren’t overreacting. They were finished as far as they were concerned. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus (or “Yeshua” as they would have called him) completely changed their environment. He didn’t simply hold off the devastating effects of the extreme weather event. The result was a complete positive transformation – “a great calm” (Matthew 8:26).
This story is designed to encourage us to confront extreme weather – not so much about the impending heat wave. Better than that! We are reminded that when we are in the boat of life with the Messiah, we are not to view ourselves as victims of our environment, praying for nothing more than survival. We are to be weather changers.
Following Simon Peter’s confident declaration of Yeshua’s messianic identity, Yeshua said “I will build my kehillah (English: assembly, congregation, church) , and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Gets pretty hot the closer you get to Hell. But once we are assured that Hell won’t win, we can relentlessly storm its gates.
If we are overwhelmed by the heat, we may find ourselves like the disciples in the boat, thinking it’s all over. Yeshua may not be sleeping, but he may as well be, given how things are going. But when was the last time you sought to arouse him, allowing him to size up the situation, and watch him do the impossible? That won’t happen as long as you think Hell is winning.
While I am not looking forward to the weekend weather, it will pass. As for the current social climate, that’s another thing. Hell’s heat isn’t going to dissipate on its own. By prayer and his Word, God has given us what we need to refresh a sweltering oppressive culture.
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Never before have we been fed so much information in such condensed packages. At one time soundbites dwelt solely in the domain of radio and tv news. These audible quotes served the purpose of supporting or illustrating the main points of a story. For example,
News anchor: Mayor Jones reserved special praise for his team of volunteers after winning his third term.
(Cut to Mayor Jones soundbite) “I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for your tireless and sacrificial service without which we wouldn’t be here today!” (Boisterous applause and cheers)
The soundbite in this fictional account doesn’t add much in the way of information, rather it draws the listener or viewer into the mood of the occasion that mere description tends to lack. Soundbites continue to be used this way, which is fine. I have no issue with the soundbite itself, it’s that it has become all too common as the culture’s chief communication medium. This is not to say that the traditional soundbite hasn’t been misused. It is all too easy to isolate a comment or part of a comment to create a false narrative. Quotes taken out of context are no different from outright lying, especially when done intentionally. But even apart from intention the soundbite as an information nugget is always somewhat dangerous because for it to effectively represent reality it must be presented within its original context. Otherwise there is no control on how it might be taken.
Soundbites and context
We are not normally conscious of how context controls even the simplest of communication. When you walk down the street you don’t abruptly stop at the corner because the red octagonal sign tells you to. Neither do drivers of vehicles require a “go” sign. Stop signs don’t state, “Vehicles stop here before proceeding when safe.” They simply display the word “STOP.” The humans are expected to understand the intent of the command, which we do most of the time. We are not conscious of the vast amount of prior knowledge that is assumed for the stop sign to be effective. Soundbites function in a similar manner. As long as their context is sufficiently grasped, they can communicate effectively and truthfully. Without that context, they are meaningless at best and misleading at worst.
We live in a soundbite culture. Not that it is due to the soundbite itself, but that most of the information we consume today is presented in very small bits. Technically these are not all soundbites. They are headlines, memes, short clichés, scripted and non-scripted talking points, and brief portions of larger items. How many of us simply peruse social media without taking the time to thoroughly read the accompanying article when there is one. We watch clips of interviews, not the whole interview. Even then, entire interviews are rarely available. Instead we are given edited versions tailored to suit the agenda of the information provider.
The soundbite culture feeds on itself. We have easy access to more information and a greater variety of information resources as at no other time in history. It isn’t possible to take it all in, however, and so we scan and skim, thinking we are in the know. But there is no way to retain all the bits of information we scan, and due to the soundbite nature of the information, we are acquiring impressions not content. After all, soundbites provide mood and illustration, not information. That we also tend to engage information sources solely according to our own ideological preferences further skews our perception of reality.
Truth and reality
Truth is the word we use to describe reality. If someone says it is raining, then they are creating an image in our minds of a weather condition that has the potential of affecting how we might prepare to go out. Either it is indeed raining, confirming that the statement “it is raining” is true, or it is not, thus rendering the statement false. This illustrates what truth is. Much of life is far more complicated than whether or not it is raining. As in the case of the stop sign, even a simple example assumes a very complex context, but the essence of the nature of truth is clear. Truth requires matching what is being communicated to reality.
Traditional soundbites, quotes, headlines, and other examples of concise communication by their very nature cannot convey truth. They can potentially highlight it, illustrate it, even summarize it. But as standalone isolated phenomena they are not sufficiently capable of being a vehicle of truth. Reality by its very nature is complex. Even the smallest cell is an intricately complex system. How much more are human affairs. Yet we seem to be satisfied with boxing up complex issues into supposedly manageable simplistic categories. It’s far easier to define people with terms like “left” and “right,” for example, than to take the time and energy to unpack who they really are and what they are truly saying. Complexity cannot be captured in soundbites. The only way to effectively communicate truth is to give it the time and energy it deserves.
Anyone interested in communicating truth needs to accept the reality of our soundbite culture. But accepting it as the overwhelming driving force it is needn’t mean we have to play by its rules. And how can we? If truth can’t be conveyed in a soundbite culture, truth providers have to play by a different set of rules altogether.
Building a culture of truth
Some of the most successful players within new media aren’t playing the soundbite game. Who would have thought that some of the most popular YouTube videos would be in the form of three-hour-long, in-depth political analysis shows? If the trend continues, it’s likely that traditional media companies will get on board and provide similar long-format shows.
This is not to say that long-form communication always equals truth. Inaccuracy and deception aren’t dependent on format. On the other hand, long-form is necessary for truth, because truth is dependent on context which is always larger than a soundbite container.
Recently a Facebook friend posted an image of a very nasty message on a religious organization’s outdoor sign. The sign was taken as evidence of the alleged nefarious nature of this type of group. The problem is both the sign and the organization were faked. All it took on my part was a quick web search. It turns out that there is a website that allows users to create realistic photos of various signs by adding your own wording. This is potentially damaging stuff. But it can only do damage within a soundbite culture. I posted a correction along with a suggestion to delete the post, which they did.
This is one way we can work to restore truth in a soundbite culture. However, no one person can analyze and respond to every soundbite. But if more of us insist that information be provided with supporting context, then perhaps others will become more sensitive to this need.
What we expect from others, we need to demand from ourselves. To be part of the solution and not the problem requires that we no longer give in to soundbite culture’s lure. We should make sure we do the necessary factchecking before posting something, and, even better, draw people into the necessary depths of real information by only sharing within broader context. This likely would entail sharing less often, but then what we do share will be that much more accurate and effective.
The Bible’s role in building truth culture
As God’s only authoritative inspired revelation, the Bible is the remedy for any form of information breakdown, soundbite culture included. But in order to effectively communicate God’s written Truth in a soundbite culture, we need to do so on the Bible’s own terms. The Bible isn’t a collection of soundbites, but rather a complex, profound, and remarkably cohesive collection of diverse writings.
Understanding the Bible requires great sensitivity to context. Because of the lack of biblical literacy in our society, something that was taken for granted not that long ago, we can’t broadcast quotes, memes, and pithy sayings based on Scripture and expect them to be understood. That some people are courageous enough to bear the stigma of flashing “John 3:16” at a large public gathering is commendable. But who today knows what John 3:16 means, let alone grasp the depths of biblical truth within this verse. I expect that there are some people who, deep down in their hearts, have retained the genuine meaning of such a Bible verse, and who when encountering such signs may be awakened to its ancient Truth, but these people are quickly disappearing.
An adequate defense
Peter reminds us to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). A simple “I believe in Jesus” doesn’t cut it today. To give a reason for our hope requires a careful and sensitive unpacking of biblical truth. That might be difficult at a bus stop, but quite possible if you continue the conversation on the bus.
Years ago, I heard Edith Schaeffer, wife of Francis Schaeffer, speak on one of her favorites subjects, “Christianity Is Jewish.” She even wrote a book on it. As she related stories of discussing this subject with interested folks, she would say how she would resist giving quick answers on this topic. Instead she would arrange another time to sit down and explain in detail. Quick answers, such as “Jesus was Jewish,” or “the early Christians were Jewish” accomplishes little. So much misunderstanding has occurred on this essential biblical topic that it takes time and patience to properly unpack it. It’s the same for almost any biblical topic today. We do no one a favor by shortchanging them on Truth with soundbite theology.
Does this mean that biblically based soundbites (Bible verses, pithy sayings, etc.) have absolutely no place today? Not necessarily, as long as you make sure to also provide their broader context. Putting up a stop sign where needed and understood is helpful. Traffic signs that do nothing but confuse, kill people. Before sharing a soundbite, think carefully of how it will be taken. Use soundbites to point to a well-thought-out article or book. You can lead people directly to the Bible as long as you don’t create an expectation that it, too, is an expression of soundbite culture by being nothing more than a collection of heart-warming sayings.
The biblical context
How you yourself read the Bible makes all the difference. The soundbite culture drives you to mine the Bible for soundbites. We might call it reading, but how many of us who read the Bible with any measure of regularity don’t actually read it at all. Instead we skim a chapter or part of a chapter hoping to find a nugget that might warm our hearts.
But didn’t Yeshua (Jesus) quote Bible verses? Yes, but he understood them within context. It would have been common for Jewish men like himself in those days, regardless of his being the Son of God, to have at least the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) memorized. Insisting we read the Bible within context is the first step to overcoming the control of soundbite culture. Almost every statement of Scripture is related somehow to its immediate and broader context. Think of how the Bible opens with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To some extent this is an introductory statement, but it actually assumes prior knowledge of the concepts therein. God is not explained. Besides the fact that he is never fully explained in Scripture, the only way to gain a reasonable grasp of God’s identity and character is to keep on reading. It isn’t until early in Genesis chapter twelve that the reader is given sufficient information to identify God. This is when he first associates himself with Abraham and the Promised Land, which is the primary context of almost all the rest of Scripture.
Considering context when reading and studying the Bible must be done on several levels and all at the same time. This needn’t be as daunting as it might sound, especially if we are patient with the process. Words need to be understood within the context of the phrases and paragraphs they are in. Just because a word means something in one context doesn’t mean it means that in all contexts. Every sentence or paragraph is also part of a sectional context which in turn is an essential part of its book. Each book needs to be read within the scope of the overall unfolding of the entire Scripture. Paul’s letters, for example, would make no sense unless they are read knowing that the long-awaited Messiah has come. The older books of Nehemiah and Esther are meaningless unless one understands the Babylonian Exile. Finally, in order to grasp how the historical scope of Scripture functions, one must also be aware of the overall storyline.
God’s epic story
Tragically, many attempts to describe the storyline of the Bible is through a collection of soundbites. Instead of highlighting the actual story elements of Scripture, it has been all too common to exclusively focus on its Messianic highlights. Messianic expectation and fulfillment is an absolutely essential aspect of Scripture. Without it we are all lost. Even so, the messianic component of Scripture is a theme of the story, not the story itself. Yet by focusing almost solely on the messianic theme, we are reinforcing the soundbite culture not confronting it.
But if the messianic component is not the story, what is? The Bible is God’s epic story of his rescue of his creation through Abraham and his descendants. Paul’s soundbite on this is found in the book of Galatians (remember, there is nothing wrong with soundbites in and of themselves. Within context, they can be most helpful). Paul writes, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8).
This greatly packed statement is a wonderful summary of the biblical narrative. And yet soundbite culture has skewed its meaning. The common assumption that the term “gospel” is code for “Jesus died for your sins,” collapses this inspired summary of the plans and purposes of God as revealed in the Bible into a prooftext of overly individualized disconnected spirituality. If the gospel (good news) is no more than a reference to what Jesus did, then mining the Bible for messianic soundbites is in order. But the good news is much bigger than that. The sacrificial death of the Messiah is core to the Bible’s story, but it isn’t the whole story. Paul’s soundbite summarizes how the nations are included within God’s rescue operation of the creation. The good news is since Jesus is now King, the curse that has oppressed the creation and its inhabitants since Adam and Eve’s initial disobedience has been broken, thus providing the opportunity for every tribe, nation, and language to experience the blessing first promised to Abraham.
Experiencing and being the instrument of God’s blessing requires we confront the soundbite culture. Attempting to reduce truth into bite-sized digestibles, robs it of its fullness. Thus, the soundbite culture misrepresents reality. Through Scripture we have been entrusted with the only divinely authorized resource that can break the destructive nonsense derived from oversimplification. Let’s not buy into soundbite culture any longer. Instead, let’s embark on the long and sometimes difficult journey of complex truth. It may be challenging at times, but well worth it, not only for ourselves, but for others as well.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version
Something most unusual happened as I was getting back to Ottawa from my Vancouver Island trip Monday night. As the passengers on my flight disembarked, the door at the end of the Jetway leading to the terminal building was locked with no airport personnel in sight. It was so strange after being cooped up in an airplane for over four and a half hours to feel trapped like that. You can’t correctly perceive the number of people via the photo above, since I was near the front.
But facing this obstacle in itself was not the most unusual part. It was how this group of mainly Canadians (myself included) handled it. It was virtually silent. We just stood there until someone came along to let us out. Perhaps a passenger went back to the plane and said something. I have no idea. But, however long we stood there, it was calm and quiet. I would guess that in many other places in the world, a near riot would have broken out. But not in Canada’s capital!
I suspect that most of you would regard how we handled this situation as exemplary. There was no need to panic, not that there ever is. Yet, I wonder what was going on inside people’s hearts. The silence may have been due to a slight case of shock, since it was so unexpected. And we were tired after the flight. But wouldn’t a little bit of verbal processing have been therapeutic, not to mention get the door unlocked sooner?
I have often wondered how much Canadian politeness is actually unhealthy fear of exposing our true thoughts and feelings. I know that in spite of our apparent self-control, much complaining goes on. But perhaps that too stems from our inability to properly deal with truth and reality.
Canadians are often viewed as some of the nicest humans on Planet Earth. Much of that is genuine, I am sure, and yet our most popular sport, hockey, is one of the most violent activities outside of war that has ever existed. Great sport, but I wouldn’t call it “nice.” Might we Canadians possess an inordinate amount of unresolved aggression? Just asking.
How much help of all kinds isn’t being received, because too many people resist being fully honest with themselves and others. The good news of the Messiah in its fullest expression includes infinite resources to heal and help with every kind of need there is. But until we give ourselves permission to express what is really going on with our lives, the door to God’s provision will remain shut to us.
Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children. (Isaiah 66:8)
I just returned from a very fruitful time teaching to a wide variety of groups on Vancouver Island. I was primarily in the Victoria area, but also presented my “God’s Epic Story” seminar in Ladysmith about an hour north of there.
Being in one of the most beautiful regions on this planet during a very gorgeous time of year wasn’t lost on me. The Lord provided all sorts of wonderful surprises along the way, both in terms of delightful scenic spots and in spending time with old and new friends.
But a week ago Monday was especially difficult for me as it marked 70 years since the birth of the modern state of Israel (according to the Gregorian calendar) and the U.S. became the first country to move its embassy to the capital, Jerusalem. That wasn’t the difficult part,however. What was difficult was the time I spent scanning major Canadian news sources only to discover that they buried the story and/or portrayed it as a Palestinian tragedy. That was a day of Palestinian tragedy is clear, but none of these news outlets provided the kind of complex coverage needed to paint an accurate picture of the whole situation.
The entire world would do well to applaud the achievements of the State of Israel in spite of – even because of -all its challenges. That we have lived to see this day is a great privilege. For 2000 years the Jewish people were relegated to the fringes of both history and the world community. Only a few, first among Christians and only later Jews, aligned themselves with God’s promises in the Bible, and began to envision the return to Zion. Against all odds, from the early Jewish settlers until now, Israel has not only survived, but thrived, and has become a blessing to the world through its advancements in all kinds of technology, all the while facing an existential threat each and every day.
To miss this great accomplishment is to be blind to a miracle of God.
Those who can’t accept Israel’s existence, but rather believe they have a claim on the Jewish people’s divine inheritance understandably cannot join in the celebration. I do believe that the bulk of responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians falls on the shoulders of their own leadership. The refusal to negotiate in good faith and to work toward a compromise agreeable to both parties has been the cause of ongoing strife and unnecessary suffering.
That the media in Canada and elsewhere allows the arrogance and nearsightedness of the Palestinian leadership to define the narrative is absolutely irresponsible and fuels the deception and destruction. Israel cannot compete for media attention when groups like Hamas allow civilians, including children, to purposely be in harm’s way. Such tactics must be condemned. We should insist that all terrorist activity stop, and not be given a public platform in the meantime.
The establishment, survival, and thriving of Israel is a key component of the grand epic story of God as it demonstrates in such practical terms his enduring faithfulness to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That all is not well shouldn’t distract us from celebrating this great milestone. At the same time, let us pray for the region that peace may come, and that King Messiah will reign over all.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version
You may have heard of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian university professor and psychologist, who first caught the public’s attention by posting a series of YouTube videos on why he would not submit to government-imposed compelled speech. Then a few months ago his extraordinary interview on British television with Channel 4’s Cathie Newman went viral. The occasion was the promotion of his latest book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” what has been #1 or thereabouts on Amazon for some time.
One of the most unusual things about Peterson’s teaching is his love for the Bible in spite of his own uncertainties about God. Last year he did a twelve-part public lecture series in Toronto called, “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories,” where he endeavored to analyze several stories from the Book of Genesis within a strict psychological framework. His appreciation for Scripture isn’t isolated to talking about Bible stories. Biblical references are strewn throughout his “12 Rules” book.
We must keep in mind that Peterson doesn’t come to the Bible as a believer in its divine authorship. While not discounting the reality of a spiritual or mystical dynamic to Scripture, he treats the Bible as the product of higher consciousness, the result of billions of years of evolution. For him, that the Bible stories are no more than a fruit of human achievement doesn’t take away how incredibly profound they are. He continually marvels at the biblical narrative, saying such things as “this is something really worth thinking about for a very long time!” As someone who is driven by a desire to (in his words) “get to the bottom of things,” he proposes that in one case at least, the story of Cain and Abel, this may be a story with no bottom, in other words: infinitely profound.
Peterson’s awe of the Bible is refreshing, especially in a day when the mainstream regards it as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. It helps that he apparently tries to approach Scripture at face value without being burdened by theological and religious interests. He has no need to fit this or that into his own or anyone else’s theological or ideological systems, freeing him to fully ponder and to expound. He does have a particular perspective, however, which I will discuss below.
Peterson has certainly given us something to think about with regard to the depths of Scripture. The tendency among so many true believers is to overly simplify the Bible, as if the goal of God’s written Word is to make it as easy to understand as possible. There’s also the popular misconception that every passage only has one meaning. While it is appropriate to encourage people not to run wild with the text – a common occurrence throughout history, we cannot and should not diminish its depth.
Since the Bible’s origins are in God, should we not assume that its depth of meaning would be virtually infinite? Not that it can mean anything we want it to, but what it does mean is of such a complexity that we may never fully plunge its depths. I am not implying that it’s inappropriate to simplify it for children, for example. Part of the Bible’s ingenious complexity is that it can be engaged at every level of intelligence by every culture. Just because a child can appreciate a great classical symphony or novel doesn’t mean that such great works don’t also contain overly complex meaning to mine for generations. If scholars and others can wax eloquent over a Beethoven symphony, a Shakespearean play, or a da Vinci painting, how much more the divinely inspired written Word of God!
Peterson through an authentic biblical lens
Peterson’s apparent lack of theological bias doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring a particular perspective to Scripture. Apart from his evolutionary presuppositions, he views the unusual profundity of the Bible through the teaching of the highly influential psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Peterson understands many of the Bible stories in terms of “archetypes.” In generic, non-Jungian, terms, an archetype is a most basic, original, or best example of something. While the Jungian understanding of archetype includes the generic meaning, for Jung (and Peterson), archetypes are an expression of collective human consciousness. This is how they account for similarities found in ancient stories, biblical or otherwise. It is why certain themes in literature and film resonate so strongly across time and cultures. So, according to this way of thinking, at its core, the origin of archetypical stories emerged out of human imagination. As Peterson explains in his biblical lecture series, he understands God himself as a projection of human imagination. That doesn’t lead Peterson (at least in his own estimation) to diminish the concept of God or the benefits of belief. Yet combining a Jungian perspective with his passion for the Bible is potentially a dangerous path. Hereon in I will use prototype to refer to the generic, non-Jungian understanding of archetype to avoid associating it with the Jungian version.
Instead of accepting the Bible’s assertion that human beings are the creation of God, Peterson’s god finds his origin in human consciousness. This is where his take on Scripture collapses. On one hand, Peterson demonstrates a level of respect for the Bible that puts many believers to shame. But he doesn’t, at least at this time as far as I know, accept what the Bible actually says about the God who is at the center of the very stories he is enraptured with. On one hand, he is wonderfully overwhelmed that humans could have reached such a level of consciousness to come up with such profound stories, yet this necessarily implies that these same people were totally off base in their understanding of God, the Bible’s most central character.
Moreover, the Bible also clearly views its own origins as being inspired by God (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). Peterson would have to say that they either knew their claiming of divine inspiration wasn’t true or they were mistaken. If the former, then the Bible lacks integrity. If the latter, so much for higher consciousness!
Claiming that the stories are the result of highly developed imagination means they are made up. However, the Bible doesn’t present its narrative sections as expressions of imagination. Most of the most profound scriptural narratives, including describing the supernatural, are presented as occurring within normal everyday life. The Bible, for the most part, lacks the normal literary clues of fiction. So again, we face the integrity issue. Can we highly value a collection of writing that presents fiction as fact?
Is it reasonable to conclude that stories such as these could be the result of imagination? I am continually struck by how truth is stranger than fiction. The most unusual, interesting, encouraging, troubling, profound stories are the ones that really happened. Key to the belief in archetypical stories is that they reflect reality extremely accurately, not only as a record of fact, but due their impact on minds and hearts. That’s why great fiction draws upon classical themes. Attempts at fiction which are not rooted in reality and truth tend not to endure. Therefore, is it not more reasonable to assume that the power of the Bible’s stories is rooted in their actually happening instead of being fanciful projections of the mind?
The Bible’s inspiration is not solely found in its recording of actual events, but in how it presents its contents. The Bible doesn’t simply tell us what happened, it also provides insight into God’s involvement. For example, we are not only told that God created people, but that we are made in his image. We don’t just read about wild disasters endured by the Egyptians, but that they were initiated by God as an expression of love for his people. King Saul didn’t just slip into dysfunction, God gave him over to evil spirits because of his arrogance and insubordination. Yeshua didn’t just die an unjust death. He gave himself for our sins. That there were other interpretations of these events at the time is likely. God’s interpretation is what the Bible is all about.
A most profound book
Yet, in spite of Peterson’s Jungian misunderstandings, he is still correct about the profound nature of Scripture. Years ago, I knew someone who was enamored with the stars to the point that he knew all their names. He was an atheist, and yet gazing at the stars filled him with not only awe and wonder but appreciation as well. That he had no one to whom to express that appreciation didn’t prevent him from such a sensation. His rejecting the stars’ divine origin didn’t prevent him from regarding them as profound. Astronomy is worthy of human investment whether or not God is explicitly acknowledged. I assert that knowing the Creator puts that sphere of study on its best footing and increases the potential for understanding. Still, as God’s creation, they themselves are worthy of awe. A person needn’t know the painter of a great painting to appreciate it. It’s the same with the Bible. What makes Peterson so unique is that he hasn’t given into the prevailing political correct view of this book, which has provided the foundation for what’s good in Western Civilization. He is able to appreciate it on a great many levels regardless of its origin.
If Peterson is in awe of the Bible, how much more should we who accept its divine origins be in awe? That these narratives reveal God shouldn’t lead us to acknowledge that and nothing more. It’s not as if giving him credit for the Bible’s creation is its only objective. That God is at the core of Scripture should lead us further into its depths, not keep us in superficiality.
God chose Scriptural narrative as his fundamental teaching tool. That’s why there is more to learn from a very brief Bible story than volumes of abstract explanations. We learn about the value of marriage from Adam’s reaction to seeing Eve for the first time. We are confronted with the loneliness and challenge of being faithful to God through Noah building an ark for years and years. We are encouraged that we can be useful at any stage of life by God’s call of an elderly, childless man to be a blessing to the entire world. We are invited into grappling with life’s utter confusion when that same man is directed to sacrifice his miracle son. We learn about the pain of character transformation through Jacob’s wrestling with God. We are given the gift of how to be free from the trap of bitterness through Joseph’s forgiving his murderous brothers. We discover that God can use us in spite or great wrong by his choosing of Moses. We are exposed to the reality of becoming a leader the hard way through David’s hiding from jealous Saul. I am not saying that these are the only things that can be gleaned from these stories. We can pick any of these or others and make long lists of additional helpful insights, not to mention that each item on these lists may be further expounded virtually forever.
The Messiah: fulfillment & illumination
A word about how the Messiah functions within the Scriptural narrative: Yeshua’s unique role is often misdirected to eclipse, rather than illumine, the rest of the Bible. While it is right to emphasize his person and work as “fulfilling” the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Covenant’s sense of fulfillment doesn’t mean “to finish off something” or “to put an end to something.” Rather it means “to bring it to the full,” thus providing all sorts of color and texture to the older stories that were not as clear before. Far from diminishing and devaluing the Old Testament stories, Messiah’s coming allows us to delve even deeper into the Bible’s depths. Not only does Yeshua brings fuller meaning to Scripture, under the New Covenant we are also offered the gift of the Holy Spirit, freely given to believers both as God’s agent of Scriptural illumination and the one who enables us to live out the Scriptures effectively.
Yeshua is the Bible’s central prototypical character. The way he embodies the Hebrew Scriptures is uncanny. This leads some scholars to deem the earlier writings as unnecessary. But that misses the point. Instead, Yeshua’s unique character gives greater meaning and integrity to the grand narrative. Is it not reasonable that when the God who revealed Scripture, embodies himself that even the smallest detail of his written revelation would be found in him? The ways Yeshua incorporates the Scripture should send us back to these stories over and over again to discover more and more of the treasures of knowledge and wisdom they contain.
Delving into the Bible’s depths
The Bible is indeed full of prototypical stories. What Paul writes regarding Israel’s wilderness wanderings is true for all scriptural narrative: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). These stories are not simple moral tales or allegorical pictures of otherwise lofty spiritual principles. There is something about these real-world events that reflect the truth of God and life in a way no other stories can. Other stories may or may not echo biblical truth, but the authentic prototype for those truths is only to be found in the Bible. And that these stories really happened to real people just like us in real places and times invites us to not only engage these stories but share in similar experiences today.
What prevents us from being in a state of rapturous awe worthy of the Bible’s divinely inspired depth? I have already mentioned the tendency to overly simplify or be limited by strict theological categories. The former keeps us superficial. The latter blinds us from unfamiliar and unexpected insights. In addition, misunderstanding the grand narrative of the Bible undermines the richness of its overarching story. Neglecting its story reduces it to a collection of disconnected moralistic principles. Spiritualizing Israel, for example, skews the concrete aspects of Scripture into overly interpretive abstract concepts. This all results in a theological and philosophical commentary overlaid upon the pages of Scripture, thus fooling us into thinking we are reading the Bible when we are actually rehashing our preconceived ideas. What can be more boring than that!
But the Bible isn’t boring. If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by its depths as we grapple with how to live godly lives in these difficult times, we will discover fresh heavenly nourishment each and every day. And most importantly, unlike the great classic works, the Bible’s author is alive and available for consultation. Therefore, we needn’t be intimidated by the challenge of delving into Scriptures’ depths. God will be our guide.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version
“Job and his Friends.” Painting by Ilya Repin (1844–1930). Public domain
I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:2-3; ESV)
In my desire to more fully understand and teach the Bible, I am keen to unearth the ways we approach Scripture that undermine its effectiveness. There are all sorts of popular misconceptions that stand in our way of being fully exposed to God’s Truth. I list nine of them in my first publication, “Undermining Forces” (book information available here). One reader asked me to write a fuller version outlining antidotes to each one. Good advice. Maybe I will one day, but I keep finding more, including this really big one I want to share with you now (and its antidote).
I don’t know how familiar you are with the Book of Job (pronounced like “robe” not “lob”). It’s part of the Old Testament’s wisdom literature. It is written primarily in poetical form, except for its introduction and conclusion, which are narrative (story-style). Job the man is very rich and genuinely pious, a quality God himself boasts about in his heavenly court. The Accuser (Hebrew: the satan) challenges God, claiming that Job’s piety is exclusively due to his wealth. Take his stuff away and he would certainly curse God to his face. God grants permission to the Accuser to wreak havoc upon Job’s life, as long as he doesn’t touch the man himself. Job then experiences a series of devastating disasters and is left destitute and childless. Yet he responds with humility and faith. The Accuser is not satisfied, however, and makes a case that as long as Job’s life itself is intact, then his continuing to love God is no big deal. God responds to this second challenge by allowing the Accuser to strike Job as long as he doesn’t kill him. Job’s suffering is the stage upon which the rest of the story is told.
Job’s body is in anguish, covered in boils, but he still refuses to curse God. Note that he doesn’t know about the heavenly contest that is at stake. All he knows is that he is suffering badly and for no apparent reason. Three friends of his come to sit with him. A whole week goes by in silence, and then Job finally speaks. He claims his plight is unjust. His friends don’t agree and take him to task. The latter arrival of a fourth friend bridges the debate away from Job and the others to God himself. God’s subsequent lengthy speech puts everyone in their place, but never explains what was going on behind the scenes. In the end, Job’s fortunes are restored.
The most common understanding of the Book of Job is that it is a treatment of the theological and philosophical problem, “Why do good people suffer?” That theme is certainly in the book. It’s an important and difficult question that the book handles ingeniously. But if Job is simply about unjust suffering, why all the speeches? Does it really serve this purpose to have the suffering virtuous man go on and on about his innocence? And then for him (and us) to hear his supposed friends also go on and on about why Job is wrong, that he must have done something to deserve this. Their accusations grow increasingly arrogant and misguided. Certainly, God’s appearance towards the end is a highlight, and the need to trust him in spite of appearances, no matter how dismal, is an essential lesson for all of us to learn. But is that it?
The real problem that Job and his friends have is one of the most common for both believers and non-believers today. And it seriously undermines any attempt to truly grasp Scripture in its fullness. The issue of unjust suffering in the story is functioning as an example of a much more encompassing problem. What is it? Our unwillingness to properly relate to things we don’t understand. What everyone, except for the heavenly gathering, didn’t know was what was going on. Job and the others, while dealing with the situation in different ways all had this in common. They believed that the world worked a certain way. For Job’s friends the only conceivable reason for what was happening to Job was that he was a bad guy. Even though they knew about his good reputation, and they had no evidence to the contrary, Job’s suffering could only mean he had seriously sinned. They had no room whatsoever to even consider that something outside their understanding was remotely possible. That’s why the more Job claimed innocence, the more they demonized him.
Job’s friends were in a philosophical box which they couldn’t get out of. Whether they understood the dynamics of this or not, they were deeply committed to a particular understanding of how life worked. It included a permanent filter through which to interpret human suffering that allowed no exceptions. The only way for them to cope with the pitiful sight before them was to continue to spout their ideology.
An ideology is “a comprehensive set of normative beliefs, conscious and unconscious ideas, that an individual, group or society has” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideology). In this regard, Job wasn’t all that different from his friends. He also believed that people suffer because of wrongdoing. However, a couple of factors were at play to release him from this ill-informed ideology. First, his integrity enabled him to not doubt himself. If he would have allowed the prevailing ideology to continue to determine his understanding of life, he may have forced himself to confess something – a twisted version of reality or something completely imaginary. If he would have done so, the ideology would have remained intact and the tension with his friends reduced. Second, he was indeed a faithful man of God. So, in spite of the confusion, he knew to go to God for answers. That he challenged God to a court battle he thought he could win, while misguided in some ways, at least demonstrated that in spite of his ideology, he knew deep down who was the only one who could rectify this terrible situation.
So much of the culture clash of today is a clash of ideologies. Don’t think for a second that Bible believers are immune. Far from it! I am not saying that Jesus followers are necessarily left- or right-wing ideologues, though that might be. It’s far more prevalent than we might think. However it might be said, it seems to me that many, if not most, believers define their faith, not in terms of Bible, but some sort of comprehensive theological, denominational, or philosophical set of principles, an ideology in other words.
But isn’t biblical Christianity an ideology – God’s ideology? Doesn’t God’s Word provide us with a comprehensive set of principles and a divinely oriented philosophy of life? Yes and no. Biblical truth is indeed sufficiently comprehensive. It provides us with everything necessary to live effective, godly lives. It sufficiently addresses every area of life. It establishes priorities, focus, and meaning. But is it an ideology? A book that’s daring enough to include Job is no ideology. Instead it undermines ideology. It reminds us that our systems of thought, no matter how comprehensive, supposedly helpful, and apparently biblical, have significant gaps. We often don’t know what those gaps are until we find ourselves in crisis. But when crisis comes, the Bible is clear – and not just based on the Book of Job – relying on our principles should never come before relying on God. If our Bible understanding doesn’t continually lead to us to dependency upon the Master of the Universe, it is seriously deficient.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to understand the Bible or avoid making theological assertions. It also doesn’t mean that we must avoid giving definition to our particular faith communities and affiliations. Definitions, clarifications, and policies need not be ideologies. If the Bible is our authority for faith and practice as it should be, then we need to allow it to challenge our convictions and preferences. Molding Scripture into our particular ideologies, however they came to be, however precious they are to us, blinds us to its truth. If we don’t approach it with the level of humility exemplified by Job, we will become more and more like his good-for-nothing, so-called friends.
The example of Job’s humility is not solely found in his repentant state near the end of the book but is demonstrated throughout his ordeal. Like Jacob, he too wrestled with God, refusing to let him go until he blessed him. Allowing ourselves to engage God on core issues can be very painful. Of those things we hold dear it isn’t always easy to discern what is of God and what is of ourselves. We shouldn’t shift and adjust our thinking every time a new idea in the name of the Lord comes along. But at the same time, do we need to wait for a Job-like experience before we submit our ideologies to God and his Word? It can be scary to lay down our ideologies, but the deepening reality of God that will be ours if we do is more than worth it.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
I was pleasantly surprised at the level of interest I received in last month’s article, Hiding in the Shadows. Many of us need to hear God’s call to emerge from the shadows of our shame and be the people he made us to be. I imagine a good many of us could identify the source of those things in our lives that restrict us from experiencing the “abundant life” Yeshua offers (see John 10:10). While we may struggle to be free, we understand, at least in our heads, that “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) has done everything necessary to release us from shame’s oppression. That being the case, why do we continue to struggle? How could it be the “redeemed of the Lord” (Psalm 107:2) often find themselves pulled back into the shadows. Is the power of darkness stronger than we care to admit?
I would like to propose what I think is one of the main causes for our lack of freedom. It’s something underlying much of what I shared last month but didn’t take the time to explore. As I discussed in last month’s article, responding to God’s call is a call to reject misdirected shame. That’s the shame you or others put on you. These might be societal standards of beauty or success or the expectations of parents. You might even be suffering under impossible standards put in place by none other than yourself. Until we allow our lives to be seen through the lens of God’s standards alone, we will be manipulated by the harshest of taskmasters. I think most of us get that. We know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, feeling depressed because of our physical condition, level of intelligence, work position, who our friends are – the list goes on and on. We know we shouldn’t, but we do it anyway. But this is still not the root of unnecessary shame.
Beneath the surface of much or our unnecessary shame is a deep-seated suspicion about our humanness. We doubt our validity as human beings. This is the case for believer and unbeliever alike. The atheist’s and agnostic’s naturalistic, evolutionary sense of being is based on impersonal chance. While unbelievers may not identify their discomfort with self as shame per se, this profound lack tells them they are nothing more than cosmic accidents. Many believers don’t fare much better. What makes our shame of self so insidious is we don’t know we are doing it. This is because we have accepted the phony distinction between an ideal, supposedly real self and a substandard earthly, supposedly not-so-real, perhaps illusionary, physical self.
When God created human beings, making us in his image, what did he create? He didn’t create intangible, so-called souls, and stick them in disposable packages called bodies. He made people. And people are comprised of physical and spiritual aspects. And these aspects were not designed to be in tension. The problem with human physicality is not that it exists, but that it is tainted by sin, doomed to die due to the curse. But sin and the curse don’t only affect our bodies. The unseen aspects of our humanness are equally affected. And what aspects of our existence have been rescued and redeemed by the Messiah? Every aspect, including our bodies, will be transformed at the resurrection.
In spite of the grief our bodies give us and will continue to give us until Yeshua returns, they are part of God’s ingenious, intentional design. The human body is not a mistake. It is not substandard. It is not even a nuisance (or doesn’t have to be). Our physicality is our God-given interface with the real world. You may have never thought of this, but we engage the spiritual aspects of life through our bodies. We read and hear Scripture with our eyes and ears, we come to God through other human beings with whom we engage with our five physical senses. Even the activity that brings us into existence in the first place is a grand and good wonderous reflection of God’s grand design. Human physicality, including sexuality, is not something to endure, but to celebrate, as long as it is expressed within the boundaries of God’s Word. The reason why sexual sin is so serious and destructive is because it is a sin against our own body, which is to be the residence of God’s Holy Spirit.
The only way to glorify God in our bodies is to stop rejecting our physicality as a substandard, contra-spiritual, abnormality. Instead, accepting our whole self as God’s intentional design, our sin nature notwithstanding, we can begin to live out our lives to their greatest extent, free from unnecessary shame.
Sayings such as “Life is a journey, not a destination” are very appealing to those who value quality over quantity, process over accomplishment, and character over ability. These are people who remind us to “stop and smell the roses,” and we are human beings not human doings. You might think that’s exactly the Bible’s perspective. Doesn’t God care more about who you are than what you do? We may go as so far to conclude the Bible doesn’t value external, quantitative results at all.
But is that true? King David didn’t seem to think so. He was determined to take Goliath down. Noah before him didn’t think so either. In both cases, we know that their quality of life was foundational to the tasks at hand. David was called a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Noah “was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9) Their character proceeded their God-given objectives. But it is an extreme and unhelpful overemphasis to claim that their lives were about the journey as opposed to the destination. The Messiah understood this as well. He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Yeshua was keenly aware of his life goals. He, like David and Noah, as well as almost every other godly example in the Bible, had a mission to accomplish.
There are certainly times for a reminder to not neglect internal, character issues and to learn how to appreciate process. In fact, there may be something in the fragrance of roses that is essential to your achieving your goals. We need to learn God’s life rhythms, which include time to study his Word, pray, rest, sleep, spend quality time with family and friends, and so on. It is right to remember that without godly character we will not likely achieve the kind of success that God prefers. But he does want success.
God’s written revelation addresses both the journey and the destination – the destination being more than our eternal future. While the Bible won’t tell you what your specific vocation is to be or where best to acquire your training, it clearly reveals God’s design for human activity. The better we understand his plans and purposes for people in general, the sooner we will be able to discern what our particular objectives should be.
The Bible is also clear that we are not on our own as we search for our life’s mission. Our heavenly Father longs to personally engage us and is more concerned than we are that we would discover what our objectives should be.
What you do with your life matters. It matters to God; it should matter to you. The journey to your destination may not be straightforward. In fact, I can almost guarantee that if you walk with God, you will experience all sorts of interesting twists and turns along the way. Learn your lessons as you travel on, but don’t forget the destination to which you are called.
Some time ago, I was reflecting on the futility of living life without direction or goals. The result was The Traveler, which I am presenting here in a multimedia format:
In many ways the Bible is God’s map for our lives. Actually, it is more like a real-time GPS, since it equips us to not only reach our life’s destination successfully, but how to negotiate the pitfalls we encounter along the way. God’s written Word is not only concerned about the so-called spiritual aspects of your life, but every aspect of your life.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16; ESV)
I was doing my fatherly duty to my sixteen-year-old daughter during the holidays by taking her to see the movie “The Greatest Showman,” a musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Some time before, I had seen enough of the trailer to know I wasn’t interested. One of my older daughters told me she liked it, but didn’t say much else, except the music was contemporary, which I thought was pretty strange given that the story takes place in the mid-19th century. Strange or not, a dad’s gotta do what a dad’s gotta do; so off to the movie we went.
I am not sure when it happened – it may have been during the third musical number (“Come Alive”) – I began to see the special something of this film. By the time it was over, I concluded I had just witnessed a leap in the evolution of movie entertainment for the 21st century. The makers of “The Greatest Showman” had accomplished the convergence of compelling story-telling and superb talent as expressed via extraordinary songs and choreography, all the while upholding family values, in such a way so as to instill hope and joy in the audience. And they did it at a time that may be the most cynical in all of history.
Regarded as the movie’s anthem, “This Is Me,” recently won the best original song at the Golden Globe Awards. It captures the fundamental theme of the film, which on the surface may be taken as the overdone “follow your dreams.” While the movie is laced with a good dose of the typical “you can be whatever you want to be as long as you want it badly enough,” it goes much deeper than that. It reaches out to the hearts of those who, for one reason or another, don’t allow themselves to have dreams in the first place.
There are two levels of human oppression. The first is typified by the people of Israel in bondage in Egypt. Trapped against their will, they hold on to the great promises of the past as they cry out to their God for deliverance. In no way should we diminish the difficulty of such a state. Yet the second level of oppression is a lot worse. This is when we either do not know we are oppressed or if we do, we simply accept it. The power of this second level of oppression is chiefly derived from self. Without our cooperation, there would be hope for change. But hope can be too painful. It is a lot easier simply to accept our plight as it is, thinking we are making the best of an impossible situation.
Surprisingly, the second level isn’t often realized until sometime after being rescued from the first. We see this in Israel after the exodus. It isn’t until the people face the challenges of freedom that the depths of their internal oppression become clear. Even though they are no longer slaves to Pharaoh, it is evident they are still entrapped in their own fear and faithlessness. Unable to rise up to their high calling in God, they eventually yearn to return to their house of bondage in Egypt, where they feel more at home.
How many Yeshua followers experience something similar? Our initial encounter with the Lord is glorious as we discover freedom and a power to live beyond our wildest dreams. But it isn’t too long before “reality” sets in and we begin to wrestle with the specters of the past, not to mention new challenges and problems we never had before. That’s when we, like Israel of old, are tempted to return to our old predictable lives, preferring our former taskmasters to the scary unknown that’s ahead.
“This Is Me” is the refusal to give into that temptation. It is a call to embrace the reality of who we really are and not give in to the manipulative deception of shame designed to push us back into the shadows of disengagement. Having tasted freedom; we will not be enslaved again.
Reflecting on this song from a biblical perspective demands at least a couple of considerations. First, I am aware the film and this song in particular is being framed by many as a celebration of “diversity,” which in our day has come to take on a technical meaning in society, especially in relationship to individuals who embrace certain lifestyle choices. Tragically, more and more people regard all forms of shame as oppressive as if morality itself is the problem needing to be eradicated. But while there may be a tendency to leverage “The Greatest Showman” in this way, that’s a metaphorical stretch. The coming out of circus “freaks” Barnum provides is not a green light for the pursuit of unrestricted human desire, but a true celebration of the humanity intrinsic in the image of God embedded in all of us.
The second consideration is of particular concern to me personally. I understand the power of shame calling me into the shadows. That might surprise those of you who are only familiar with me as a speaker and writer, but for now just take my word for it. Because of my tendency to hide away, I love songs and stories that call us out to face our giants or climb the mountain – to be whatever it is we are meant to be against all odds. “This Is Me” is definitely one of those songs.
In the context of the film, the song challenges the notion of “You don’t belong here.” The temptation for many is to agree and go back into hiding. The song rejects that, asserting the opinions of others will no longer get in the way of one’s contribution to the world. But isn’t expressing this so aggressively as in “bursting through the barricades” or “gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out” arrogant? There’s a part of me that thinks so and would rather return to the shadows. In the film, however, these are metaphors to insist we be fully present in the situations we find ourselves in, not allowing others to diminish us. Yet many believers, including myself at times, think it is godly to be diminished as if that is the essence of true humility.
Some justify hiding away through an oft-misused Scripture which relates the words of John the Baptist as he neared the end of his public ministry (see John 3:22-30). When John’s disciples mentioned to him that people were beginning to flock to Yeshua, he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard people use this in prayer, asking God to demonstrate his power, while keeping themselves from being noticed. Sounds humble, I know. But that has nothing to do at all with what John the Baptist was saying or with true humility. John was explaining that his task of introducing the Messiah was nearing completion, which was why more people were going to Yeshua than to him at this stage. Now that his job was almost done, it was time for him to fade into the background, so to speak. Prior to this, he had an essential part to play in which taking center stage was required.
Hiding away is not humility, but fear due to shame. The aggressive posture of “This Is Me” is not really toward others, but toward ourselves. In spite of the freedom secured by Yeshua on our behalf, we remain our own brutal taskmaster, standing in the way of all God wants us to be both in and through us. We don’t oppress ourselves completely on our own. We leverage the impressions and opinions of others, past and present, to justify our continued imprisonment. But we are no longer slaves, we are fearless children of God (see John 1:12; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6-7).
Far from hiding in the shadows, we are to let our light shine for the world to see. Yet many of us have been intimidated into the shadows, shamed into silence, agreeing that we don’t belong. But we do! The song declares “I’m not scared to be seen; I make no apologies.” Apologies are appropriate when we have wronged God or others. But we are not to apologize for being “me” as if we have no God-given place in the world. We have nothing to be ashamed of. How can we be when we have the very help the world is desperate for? That they don’t know it is beside the point. That we don’t know it undermines what God wants to do in the world.
God wants to do great things through his people, but he can’t use us if we are hiding away. Sure, we are weak and wounded. We make mistakes – sometimes big ones – but he can handle that, especially if we cooperate with him. Nothing is going to happen if we hide in the shadows. It’s time to come out and let ourselves be seen for who we really are.
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This early presentation of “This Is Me,” sung by Keala Settle at a workshop session, illustrates the challenge of coming out of the shadows.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins this evening, Tuesday, December 12, and lasts eight days. It commemorates the Jewish victory over the occupying Seleucids in the second century before Yeshua. After the reign of Alexander the Great, his empire was split into four, with the Seleucid Empire encompassing much of Alexander’s near-eastern territories, including Israel. Antiochus Epiphanes was king of the Seleucid Empire from 174-164 BC and sought to consolidate his kingdom through assimilation, by forcing Hellenistic (Greek) culture and religion upon the diverse peoples of his domain, including the Jews.
Antiochus outlawed Judaism, erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, and defiled the Jewish altar by sacrificing pigs on it. Antiochus’s plan was working as many Jews acquiesced to his assimilation program. Things began to change, however, when a kohen (English: priest) named Mattityahu from the small town of Modi’in sparked a revolt when he killed both a fellow Jew who was willing to comply with the demand to sacrifice to Zeus and the Greek official who issued the demand. Leadership passed to Mattityahu’s son Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, the name also associated with those who joined the rebellion. The revolt soon led to the cleansing of the Temple and the rededication of the altar on the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which coincides with late November/December. Hanukkah means “dedication,” and is a reference to the restoration of the altar.
The most popular feature of the festival is most likely based on legend. It is said that when the Temple was cleansed, there was found only a day’s worth of holy oil for the menorah (the seven-branched lampstand). Apparently it took eight days to make a new batch of oil, but a miracle happened, and the small amount of oil lasted eight days. This is commemorated by the lighting of a special Hanukkah menorah (Hebrew: hanukiah) for eight nights. We also indulge in delicious items fried in oil: latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jellied donuts).
While the oil provides much of the symbol and fun of the festival, the actual miracle is wrapped up in the victory itself, as recounted in the traditional prayer, Al Hanissim which include these words:
You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.
The theme of God’s miraculous deliverance is certainly not unique in Israel’s history. Hanukkah’s recounting of great victory over the Seleucids joins earlier ones over the Egyptians at Passover and Persia at Purim, not to mention all sorts of other sensational victories recorded in Scripture. But at the same time each of these provides different aspects of the outworking of God’s faithfulness toward his ancient covenant people. The rescue from Egypt is about bondage, redemption, and the revelation of his Word. Purim demonstrates the providential work of God against the blind hatred of Israel’s enemies. Hanukkah is about the need to resist the insidious nature of the dominant culture and what a few faithful believers can accomplish if only they would take a stand.
While there is much to learn from everything that God has done for Israel in the past, the lessons of Hanukkah illumine some of today’s greatest challenges. Assimilation forces attempting to eradicate biblical faith will eventually fail. But Yeshua’s triumph over evil will not occur apart from his followers. He pledged to build a community against which the very gates of hell will not prevail (see Matthew 16:18). His kingdom will work through the world just as leaven permeates a clump of dough (Matthew 13:33). And the movement that began small in his day will grow into a gigantic tree (Matthew 13:31-32).
The growth of his everlasting kingdom (Daniel 2:44) was not and will never be dependent on the cultural climate. Yet it requires the tenacity of the Maccabees, willing to take a stand for God’s ways, no matter the cost. Unlike the Maccabees, this is not a military battle (Ephesians 6:12) but a life and death struggle nonetheless. One that will be opposed and criticized; its adherents misunderstood and ostracized (Matthew 10:22). Yet the victory is guaranteed (Revelation 11:15).
The Maccabean victory was not simply another win for God’s people. It was a necessary stand to ensure the ongoing nature of God’s plans and purposes. The divine destiny of Israel and Messiah depended on their sacrifice. Not alone as crucial players in God’s rescue operation of the creation rooted in Abraham, they certainly were true to God’s call on their lives.
May the same be said about us. It is time to stop giving in to the prevailing mood of moral and spiritual decline in our day and allow Yeshua’s kingdom power to be displayed through us. To do that requires, like the Maccabees of old, standing against the current cultural pressures to conform. But more than simply resist, we must also, like the Maccabees, engage the great powers of our day and demonstrate the superior nature of the earth’s true king.