Is the Bible the Word of God to Me?

Man reading a bible isolated on black

Perhaps you have heard the story of the young man who was desperate to hear from God. So he prayed a quick prayer of guidance and opened his Bible at random. Looking down at the page, the words he read were: “And he (Judas) went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). He shuddered, slammed the Bible shut, and quickly dismissed any connection to himself. Then he said another, more earnest, prayer; tightly shut his eyes; opened his Bible again; and read: “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). “No!” he thought to himself, briefly doubting this guidance methodology. Giving it one more try, he prayed even more earnestly, took a deep breath, and paused as if to give divinity greater access to his trembling fingers. Once again he opened the sacred book and glanced down to see the words: “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). I never did find out what happened to him.

However humorous or tragic you may find this story; this method is fairly common. You may have used it yourself. Your life may have taken a significant turn based on this method. But is it a legitimate form of Bible reading? My guess is that most who would claim such a thing as a legitimate experience would not prescribe it as the normal every day way to read the Bible. Instead they regard it as a special moment in which God led them this way.

Whatever you think of this, it seems to me that many people approach the Bible in exactly this way without realizing it. Not the random part, but in the way we extract verses and apply them to our lives. Do we not read the Bible, hoping that God might speak to us from it? That’s reasonable. It is his written Word after all. But how does he speak to us from his Word? We happen to be going through a particularly difficult time, when that day’s reading includes the words: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). Tears roll down our cheeks as if God had stepped into our room and personally spoken to us that everything will be okay. But those words were not spoken to us in the 21st century. They were given to the ancient Kingdom of Judah hundreds of years before Yeshua came about a time when the nation would be under Babylonian oppression. Is applying these words to our personal current problems really that different from the young man who randomly read, “You go, and do likewise”?

It doesn’t take much of a reading of Scripture to see that it wasn’t written directly to you and me. The bulk of Hebrew Scripture was written to ancient Israel and the New Testament to various audiences in the first century. Whatever the audience, the vast majority of what was written was not in the form of timeless sayings, but within particular contexts (there are a few exceptions, such as the Book of Proverbs). Yet this doesn’t stop us from treating the words of Scripture as if they were written directly to us today.

One of the times I was personally given a Bible verse by someone ended up being very instructive with regard to this subject. I was at a conference many years ago in Vancouver. During the lunch break on the last day, a few people were praying for me. It went longer than I would have liked and it got pretty intense (they meant well). It was getting near the time for the afternoon session to begin, when a woman I didn’t know was trying to take her seat in our row. Soon after, she spoke up, saying: “Pardon me, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I believe the Lord has something for you” (meaning me). It was Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Since then I have learned that many people have been given this verse, and I can understand why. If you’re going to take a verse out of context to encourage some struggling soul, it’s hard to find a better one. What can be better than to know that God’s plans for me are good and not bad? But in that moment, when I heard those words, the thought dropped in my mind: There is more to this than just the verse. So I made a mental note to look up the passage when I got the chance.

Around five that afternoon, when I was home trying to get some rest before supper and the conference’s final session, I remembered to look up the passage. It turns out it is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon. Much of his book is pretty negative as it addresses the terrible consequences of the people of Judah’s rebellion against God near the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The twenty-ninth chapter is one of the few positives in all of Jeremiah. Here the exiles are encouraged by God through the prophet to get on with their lives in a foreign land, because their situation is only temporary. The Jewish nation will be able to return to their homeland in seventy years. There is even a hint of a future greater restoration apart from the return from Babylon. As I read the chapter, I realized for the very first time, that God’s plans and purposes for my people, the people of Israel, were still in effect. Until then, I thought of Paul’s reference to the Gospel as being “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16) as simply historical (the Gospel was presented to the Jews first and then after to the Gentiles). With the inclusion of non-Jews as part of God’s family, Israel, I thought, retained no special role in God’s plan. But in that moment, I realized I was wrong. As Paul writes elsewhere in Romans: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). God’s promises to my people were yet to be fulfilled.

I don’t know what the woman who gave me the verse was thinking, but receiving Jeremiah 29:11 that day forever changed my life. Not only did it change my understanding of God’s relationship to our people, I also learned that I could personally count on God’s goodness, because of his ongoing commitment to us. My understanding of the context enabled me to not only grasp what God was saying through Jeremiah at the time, but it helped me to know God better and properly understand the implications of these words to myself in my own day.

Maybe Jeremiah 29:11 has been given to you too. For years it has been a source of encouragement as it convinced you that God has good plans for you. I am not saying he doesn’t. He does. Not because Jeremiah 29:11 was written directly to you, but because the faithfulness of God as expressed to Israel in Jeremiah’s day is the same faithfulness of God that has been extended to you because of your relationship to him through Yeshua.

The genius of Biblical narrative is that God’s truth is given to us within concrete examples. We don’t simply read about God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and so on as abstract concepts. Rather, we read about him and his attributes in practical terms. So instead of just reading “God has good plans for his people” as a universal timeless saying, we encounter these and other such words in the context of God’s goodness toward Israel, the activities of Yeshua and his early followers, and in letters to real communities of believers in actual places and situations. We see a people failing miserably at times (that’s Old and New Testament, by the way!), yet unable to divest themselves of God’s love and goodness. We can observe instances such as God’s encouraging of the exiles and derive encouragement for ourselves when we are in the most difficult situations. For if God’s plans were good for the Jewish exiles in Babylon, how much better plans must he have for those who have experienced his forgiveness and acceptance in Yeshua! Therefore, it isn’t illegitimate for you to claim Jeremiah 29:11 or other verses for your own. It’s that we need to understand how the power of these verses get from their original contexts to you and me.

Let’s return to my opening story about the young man’s attempt to hear from God by randomly opening the Bible. Can God ever use such a method? Of course he can, and I believe he has. But he does so in the same way that he might use anything else to get your attention about something. That doesn’t imply that this is the appropriate way to read and study Scripture. In fact, I suggest the more we learn the Bible within its context, the more, not less, God will speak to us through his Word. If reading it out of context has made a difference in your life, how much more difference will it make when you understand what God is really saying through it!

The Most Important Thing

Stamp confirm on important text

For followers of the Messiah the question over life’s priorities is perhaps both the easiest and most difficult question there is. I guess many would consider the most important thing: “being faithful to God,” and perhaps quote Paul: “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthian 4:2). Don’t we all long to hear Yeshua say to us one day: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)? Life isn’t about money, success, or recognition, but rather being faithful to God. Easy answer, right? But is it, really? Doesn’t this answer beg for clarification? What use is such an answer if we don’t know what “faithful to God” entails? That’s what makes the question so difficult.

We resolve this difficulty in various ways. Some, maybe most, don’t think about it. They do what they do because they do what they do. Subconsciously, there is likely much more going on, since such people may not realize they are fulfilling an unspecified set of expectations, which may be derived from their upbringing or due to the influence of one or more peer groups. Going along with whatever crowd we are a part of may not be a problem unless it conflicts with what it means to be faithful to God, which we wouldn’t know until we have adequately worked through this question.

Another way to resolve the difficulty is to limit faithfulness to God to one’s sense of calling. If you are able to satisfactorily answer the question, “To what prime role has God called you?”, then as long as you put significant time and energy into that role, you may be at peace with the question. But is our service to God limited to some prime role we have? That’s besides most people not having have a strong sense of calling to begin with. But even if you do, how do you know you are being adequately faithful?

Maybe faithfulness to God is not wrapped up with the roles we play after all, but rather in the spiritual and personal aspects of life. For some serving God is limited to the moral realm: staying out of trouble; being honest; staying away from sin, especially sexual sin. It’s not so much the roles we play, but how we play the game (of life) that counts. As long as we behave ourselves, God is happy with us. For some faithfulness has nothing to do with behavior at all. All we need to do is “believe.” They think as long as we have faith in Yeshua, nothing else matters.

But limiting spirituality to the confines of morality alone or disconnecting it entirely from the everyday details of life in the name of faith is completely unbiblical. People of faith are called to be faithful to God in all sorts of ways in every area of life. The verses quoted at the beginning are a small taste of the overwhelming testimony of Scripture on this topic. Yeshua said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Yeshua came to accomplish a task. That included living a perfectly moral life, but also doing the teaching he did, the signs he performed, and the death he died. His faithfulness to God included everything. The same is true for the long list of other exemplary Bible characters throughout the entire Scriptures. While faith in God and the Messiah is key, they were commended for their faithfulness.

We still haven’t resolved the difficulty. I will offer two guidelines that I believe are indispensable in answering this question. There is no formulaic one-size-fits-all answer for this very important question. However, these two guidelines will provide you with an essential foundation to help you live a life of faithfulness to God.

First, you need to see yourself within God’s overarching narrative. That’s fancy talk for finding your place within God’s story. The prevailing mood today is meaninglessness. For many, human life is nothing more than power and desire. Many Yeshua followers, knowing this is untrue, opt to disengage from life, trying to live in an alternate spiritual reality. But this is not what following Yeshua is all about. He calls us to be part of his rescue operation of the creation. An operation in which everyone has a unique complex role to fulfil, work that is the “food” (essential life nutrients) Yeshua speaks about.

When we begin to understand the overarching story revealed in Scripture, we will better perceive the grand vista of God’s purpose for life. This opens vast possibilities for the gifts and talents God has bestowed upon us as well as provides the necessary definition and limitations for those almost infinite possibilities.

But even with definition and limits, how do we know what we should be doing, so that we can be genuinely faithful to God? This is where faith, the second guideline, comes in, but not in the irresponsible detached way I discussed above. Faith doesn’t simply make life better. Nor it is a free pass, dismissing us from all responsibility. On the contrary! Faith is our intimate and personal connection with God. The context in which Yeshua speaks about his work as food is his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, and which begins with “And [Yeshua] had to pass through Samaria.” (John 4:3). Note we read, “Had to pass.” What was the basis of the necessity to go into that region? Knowing how it turns out, we know God had a special assignment for his Son to do that day. That’s why he took the normally avoided road into Samaria. Yeshua’s faithfulness to his Father led him to go off the beaten track in order to fulfill an unusual assignment.

No formula could ever result in what Yeshua did that day. “But that’s Yeshua,” you might say; he is the Son of God! True, but are we not to follow his example as did so many others in the Bible, who through various means discerned (not guessed!) God’s will? Their faithfulness was derived from their intimate relationship with God.

How do we get to that place where we too have such discernment? That’s something that God is more keen to give us than we will ever be ourselves. Yeshua said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Following Yeshua is not just another way to describe a passive so-called faith, that is nothing more than mental agreement over his identity and history. It’s an intense relationship of purposeful attention to his promptings via the Holy Spirit. It’s something nurtured through an honest and intentional pursuit of Yeshua and his ways through the Scriptures, prayer, godly community, along with a willingness to obey him whatever the cost.

It is as we lovingly respond to his desires in every area of life, both big and small, that we can anticipate hearing the words one day: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Did God Make Himself?


A key feature of my booth at Missions Fest in Vancouver last month was a simple sign that read, “Ask me a Bible question!” This resulted in many interesting, sometimes challenging, discussions. My favorite question of the weekend was from a young girl, about ten years old, who asked me, “Did God Make Himself?” I was very touched by her sincerity and interest. I assumed that the inquiry stemmed from her correct understanding that God created everything that exists. Therefore, it is logical that since God exists, he must have created himself.

First, I told her that God simply exists. Since he wasn’t created, no one, included himself, created him. I referred her to the interaction between God and Moses at the burning bush, when Moses asked God what he should say to the people of Israel if they would ask him God’s name (see Exodus 3:13-15). God responded with “I am who I am” and that Moses should say, “’I am’ has sent me to you.” This use of the verb “to be” (Hebrew: “hayah”) is the basis of the most common name for God in the Bible, spelled out in Hebrew as, yod-hey-vav-hey (YHVH), and is represented in most English translations as LORD in all capitals. God’s name, therefore, establishes him as “The Being.” I like how French translations use, “L’Eternel” (the Eternal One), emphasizing the idea of “he who has and always will exist.”

This is all to say that God is self-existing, the only being in the universe who is uncreated, self-sustaining, and self-dependent. Our problem with biblical God concepts such as this is that they are so utterly different from our own experience of life. But it’s this vast difference between the nature of God and ours that is key to understanding the God of the Bible. We need to remember that he is not like us. This is central to what his holiness means. Proclaiming God as holy is to acknowledge he is so very different from ourselves. We must constantly guard against reducing him to our level of existence and explaining him on our terms. While he has graciously made himself accessible to us, he is nevertheless completely different from us. Although it is impossible for dependent creatures such as ourselves to fully comprehend such a being as the God of Israel, we do have the ability to accept his self-existence as valid, as I sensed this young girl was doing.

Do you have a bible question?

Meaning in a Meaningless World

Abstract concept of young woman on a tiny floating island depicting loneliness

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Believers often feel like Moses did during his time in Midian—“a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22; KJV). Moses never did fit in wherever he was. Destined to die as an infant along with all the Hebrew males of his day, he is rescued by the daughter of the King who had decreed his death sentence. Returned briefly to be nursed (for pay) by his own mother, he is then raised in Pharaoh’s household. After his attempt to alleviate his people’s suffering resulted in rejection by them and another death sentence by Pharaoh, he went into a self-imposed exile in Midian where he worked as a shepherd and started a family, naming his son “Gershom” (“stranger there”) to memorialize his sense of alienation. When God eventually called him to his true identity, he resisted. But God persisted and Moses becomes one of the greatest leaders of all time. Yet, despite the remarkable service he showed to his native people, he lived as a man apart, never truly belonging.

This sense of alienation from the world around us is normal for God’s people. The world as we know it doesn’t seem like home. Like those listed in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, we are “strangers and exiles on earth” (11:13), “seeking a homeland” (11:14), “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16).

At the current time, the discord we sense is exacerbated by an increasing sense of meaninglessness. Generations have been told that we are nothing more than the product of energy and matter plus chance. The masses seek to fill this void of meaninglessness with all sorts of distractions to mask growing despair. Unsatisfied with the pursuit of pleasure, some invent meaning for themselves through work, family, or various causes. Deep down they don’t really know why they do what they do, since they don’t believe there is a “why” to know.

Yeshua’s followers assert they know the “why,” that through the Messiah and the Scriptures we have meaning and purpose. But we regard that meaning and purpose as the antidote to a meaningless world. Agreeing with the world’s perspective of itself that it is meaningless, purposeless, and hopeless, we find meaning, purpose, and hope in an alternate existence in the future. This enables us to endure as “strangers in a strange land.”

While this may sound biblical, there is a subtle error in this way of looking at life. And this error undermines our calling to effectively serve God in an apparently meaningless world. It is appealing to turn our thoughts away from the perceived void of this life to visions of another world in order to cope with this one. But is that what authentic biblical spirituality is all about? Is this what it means to “desire a better country”? Were the ancient heroes of faith motivated by their desire for earth’s inevitable destruction and their transference to an immaterial existence? Did they suffer through a black hole of nothingness in the hope of being granted access to a distant otherly land of meaning and purpose?

That’s an interesting story, but not a biblical one. The world in which we live is not meaningless. It was created by God on purpose and for his purposes. He specially designed human beings and appointed us to steward Plant Earth, a responsibility he never rescinded. The alienation from the creation we experience Is not due to anything intrinsic, whether it be lack of meaning or anything else. We are strangers, not because we don’t belong on this planet, but because God’s plans and purposes for the planet were hijacked through our first parents’ collusion with Satan. God’s intention from that moment was to realign the creation with its designed purpose, where human beings fully and freely serve him under his reign through his Son, his chosen King.

Therefore, while true meaning is foreign to our current existence, God’s revelation through the Scriptures is not intended to provide us a disconnected state of mind to help us cope with an otherwise futile existence. The futility we struggle with is based on deep layers of misunderstanding due to the consequences of sin. Through the Bible, God gives us the opportunity to discover what life is really all about, the meaning and purpose of his creation.

All heroes of the faith whether it be Moses or those listed in the book of Hebrews or from any time in history yearn for the restoration of all things in the new heavens and the new earth when the plans and purposes of God will be in full synch with its inhabitants. Until then we have the opportunity in the name of Yeshua with the help of the Holy Spirit to not only to understand the true meaning of life, but to rescue others from the desperation of meaninglessness.

A Hanukkah Message for Christmas

For the first time since 1978, the first evening of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve. And while the two holidays share little between them besides historical and geographical context as well as approximate time of observance, Hanukkah has something to teach us this Christmas season.

The following image, contrasting the scene at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1939 with 2014 caught my attention today (it was posted on Facebook by the Israel Project):

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. In 1939 huge Nazi flags were flown from it. In 2014 a large Hanukah menorah was on display.

The survival of the people of Israel through the centuries is more than an interesting feature of history, it is an expression of God’s creation design through which we best understand the world. And what happened at the first Hanukkah preserved the integrity of God’s design.

Few people are aware that without Hanukkah there would be no Christmas, because the survival of the people of Israel was an essential part of God’s plan to make himself known to the nations of the world. Contrary to popular sentiment, the world was not waiting for a Savior to come. The Bible tells us that prior to Yeshua’s coming, the Gentiles (non-Jews) were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12; NIV). The only ones waiting for salvation (which is what the name Yeshua/Jesus means) were the Jews, having been prepared by God through the Hebrew Prophets for centuries. Among the Messiah’s detailed predicted qualifications was that he was to come from a distinctly Jewish family heritage. Therefore, it was absolutely essential that the people of Israel retained a distinct religious and cultural existence at the time of his coming.

The particular threat that had fallen upon Israel in the second century before Yeshua’s coming was intended to destroy Israel’s national identity. The Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon the various people groups within his domain. Many Jewish people of that day went along with his insidious plan. The God-ordained distinctive nature of Israel would been erased through forced assimilation if it had not been for the Maccabean uprising, when a relatively small Jewish army successfully fought off their great oppressors and restored the purity of biblical religion to their land. It was the faith of the few that ensured that a distinct Jewish nation was in place in the Land of Israel at the coming of the Messiah about 160 years later.

Nationhood in general, not just with regard to the Jewish people, is not an accident of history, but the outcome of God’s providence. As Paul made clear in Athens, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). National distinctions are not the result of humanly defined social constructs, but of God. While racial pride, prejudice, and oppression are the results of sin, national boundaries and differences in culture in and of themselves are not.

Christmas indeed marks the dawning of the extension of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14; KJV). The reality of the one true God, which for the most part was the sole possession of a unique people, would now be shared with all nations, but not unto the dismantling of national distinctions. Rather it was to culminate in a gathering “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). It is a misnomer that one of the key purposes of the Gospel is to do away with national distinctives. So-called racial blindness and the breaking down of nationality may sound appealing, but it is contrary to God’s purposeful design.

I believe that one of the reasons why the State of Israel is the object of continued distain is that it is considered a nationalistic relic in the face of ever-increasing globalization. While one-world advocates call for the removal of national boundaries, Israel stands apart. It’s not as if Jews have not been open to being absorbed by the rest of the world. On the contrary, whether it was the assimilated Jews of the Maccabean era or of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis, we have tried to fit in, but God has had other plans.

God indeed desires unity, but his version of it ingeniously takes into account the beautiful international mosaic of diverse peoples. This was brilliantly established by the early Jewish believers when they decided to not require Gentile followers of the Messiah to embrace Jewish culture in order to be full members of the new messianic community. This opened the door for each nation to work out for itself their unique contribution to the vast family of God. Yet tragically, as the church quickly became predominately Gentile, it failed to effectively provide this freedom, beginning with snuffing out its Jewish component by seeing itself as the New (or True) Israel. Much has changed in this area in the last century or so, but there is still a ways to go. This is largely due to the continuation of replacement theology (defined as “the Church is Israel”) among believers as well as false and destructive notions of unity in the world around us.

God-given distinctives are under constant assault today, not only with regard to nationality, but also having to do with sexuality and gender roles. In the name of equality, social engineers, politicians, and not a few religious leaders are seeking to impose sameness. But God didn’t intend a world of sameness, but one of intentional variety. He began his creation by separating light from darkness and brought it to a climax in the distinction of male and female. Peoplehood distinctions followed immediately afterwards.

That which makes you a unique individual rests upon the foundation of true diversity. This is not a diversity of our own making, one that casts off God’s design. We cannot be anything or whatever we want, but we can be all that God wants us to be. The only way for that to happen is to accept and insist upon our God-given distinctives. Because of the Maccabees, this is something we can celebrate this Christmas.

Do You Know What You Are Singing?

Four carolers singing with questions marks and snow

It’s that time of year again when almost everywhere you go you hear Christmas music. Why songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Let It Snow” don’t get airplay all winter long, I don’t know, but some things are just the way they are.

Christmas carols, a subset of Christmas music, are not all created equal. I accept that one’s preferences are their own and often have to do with sentimental associations rooted in childhood. Growing up in a Jewish milieu, I nonetheless enjoyed the sounds of Christmas. But that’s more to do with its general joyous mood rather than anything to do with the content. To me, at that time, “Hark the Herald” and “Rudolph” had more in common with each other than not. They were both happy and festive even though the festive aspects had little to do with me, my family, and our community. But how I loved going to downtown Montreal in December. The decorations, the sounds, and (unless it was my imagination) the unusual general happiness of the crowds and merchants was a delight.

After coming to know the Lord at age 19, my relationship to Christmas carols understandably changed. “Their” songs had now become “my” songs, or at least they were supposed to. No longer simply a cultural expression of holidays and happiness held at arm’s length due to my naturally acquired Jewish apprehension, the content of these age-old songs was now being validated as legitimate expressions of biblical truth in my newly embraced Gentile-dominated faith community.

The theological perspective of the crowd I was first a part of claimed to be strongly biblical. It would take some time for me to realize that simply claiming biblical authenticity doesn’t automatically inoculate anyone from the influence and control of tradition. Ironically, the stronger the claim to biblical accuracy, the greater the tendency to confuse tradition with what is authentically biblical. This becomes more and more difficult to see when biblical concepts have been obscured through redefinition and misapplication over a long period of time.

Such is the case with the great carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Few songs, Christmas or otherwise, possess such a high level of biblical referencing. Dating back as perhaps as early as the 5th century, it is most likely derived from “O Antiphons” a series of antiphonies (responsive singing) used during Vespers (evening services) on the last seven days of Advent in the Western Christian tradition.

I get very emotional every time I hear, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I want to both weep and scream at the same time! I want to cry because it so vividly captures the hope of ancient Israel, longing for Messiah’s coming. As a member of remnant Israel myself, my heart resonates with these well-crafted divine words set to a beautifully haunting melody and it also breaks for my people who continue in alienation from our King:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Who mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

On the other hand, I want to scream, because when this song is sung, I am most often among those, who, for the most part, completely skew its meaning.

The four remaining verses of the original version continues in a similar vein, using Old Testament references to pray for Israel’s salvation:

  • That the Rod of Jesse would free Israel from Satan’s control and break the power of death.
  • That the Dayspring would bring joy, dispersing the cloudy gloom of death’s shadow.
  • That the Key of David would secure our access to heaven and end all misery.
  • That (in a verse rarely sung) Adonai (the traditional Jewish reference to God in prayer) who gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai would come to Israel again.

But who is Israel? When you sing this song, who are you singing about?

Historically, “O Antiphons” may have been written for Advent as a retelling of the period of anticipation for Messiah’s coming. The carol then should teleport you back in time to feel the hearts of those such as Anna and Simeon who longed for God’s day of redemption (Luke 2:21-38). But the redemption of whom? Certainly, Anna and Simeon didn’t foresee the full extent of Abrahamic fulfilment of the Gospel – the blessing to the nations that the early followers of Yeshua had to grapple with and eventually implement. To them and other faithful Israelites, Messiah’s coming was primarily for Israel.

Yet how many people around the world singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” see it solely fulfilled in themselves as if the redemption of Israel is equivalent to the Church? Certainly, the nations can relate to concepts expressed in the song, as they too were in a state of darkness in desperate need of Emmanuel’s rescue. But while the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises to Israel are the foundation of salvation for all peoples, the biblical specifics of the anticipatory cry expressed through this song is Israel’s alone. For not only are they the original objects of these promises, the anticipation continues until they are fully realized in them.

But how can the revelation of Emmanuel dawn upon the people to whom these promises were given, when the great majority of his followers today intentionally or unintentionally obscure the meaning of the song by continuing to misappropriate God’s promise’s by claiming to be Israel? Sure, God can do it himself, but he has chosen to bring messianic mercy to Israel through non-Jewish believers (Romans 11:31). The ongoing arrogance of treating the church as a new Israel not only puts a wedge between Abraham’s descendants and their God-given inheritance, it prevents believers of other nationalities from experiencing their unique place in God’s plan and purposes, one of which is to be God’s conduit of restoration to Israel. You can begin to do that this month by singing an old song in a new way – as a prayer for Israel’s redemption.

Review: The Shack

Shack in woods in fallThe movie version of the best-selling book, “The Shack” is due to be released this coming March. Trailers have begun to pop up on Facebook along with excitement from fans and caution from detractors of which I am one. “But it’s just a book,” they say. “It’s just fiction,” they say. And soon it will be: “It’s just a movie.”

Well, we don’t know how the movie will fare, but “just the” book has sold over 20 million copies. I have heard countless times how this work of fiction has transformed lives or helped people understand God in new ways. And this is from bible believers. Story, fiction or not, is a powerful communication device. Even the most fanciful tale represents a view of the world and can teach most valuable lessons. In the case of the Shack, the author, William P. Young, has been very clear that his purpose of the book is to teach his understanding of spirituality. No wonder small groups have studied it and the author produced a study guide (“The Shack Study Guide: Healing for Your Journey Through Loss, Trauma, and Pain”). And if that’s not enough, you can purchase the daily devotional (“The Shack: Reflections for Every Day of the Year”), also by the author. Just fiction, eh?

Especially given The Shack’s expressed purpose and its impact, should it not be subject to biblical scrutiny (like everything else in life)? Due to its popularity and its imminent return to center stage due to the coming film, I encourage you to read the following review of the book I wrote some time ago:

I decided to read “The Shack” by William P. Young, because of its great popularity and its enthusiastic endorsement by many Bible believers even though what I had heard about it indicated that it espoused a non-biblical spirituality.

Young deals with many important issues, including free will, the problem of evil, the love of God, forgiveness, passing judgment on others, abusive authority, etc. He does so through the fictional account (made to sound as if true – a key literary device used in “The Shack”) of the main character, “Mack”. Having suffered great personal tragedy, Mack receives a mysterious invitation to return to the place where the tragedy occurred.

At the shack, Mack encounters Young’s depiction of the Trinity, namely “Papa” also called “Elousia” in the form of an Afro-American woman (though in one chapter “Papa” takes the form of a man, because in the experience that soon follows, as Papa says to him, “This morning you’re going to need a father” [p. 210]). Papa as a woman is consistently called, “Papa,” but using the pronoun “she.” Jesus is called “Jesus” throughout and looks Jewish (he has a big nose). The Holy Spirit is an ethereal woman-like person with Asian features, named “Sarayu.”

The bulk of the book is Mack’s conversations and experiences with one or more of these three characters, plus a special appearance by a personification of Wisdom, aptly named “Sophia.” The characters teach Mack what’s what about himself, God, and life.

The style of the book evokes thought and emotion. The reader interacts with the other characters in the story through Mack. Mack is a sort of everyperson with questions about life that many of us have. He struggles through his strange experience with “God” in a way that I expect most of us would. As his heart softens to his experience, I suspect most readers would as well. I cannot say that the author intentionally manipulates the reader, but I have no doubt that if Young would have simply stated his theology, it woud be a lot more difficult to accept.

That Young uses story to communicate supposed theological truths should not in itself be an issue. We could mention many wonderful books that have done just that. The problem with “The Shack,” however is that besides Young’s questionable theology and ideology, he puts his ideas into the mouth of God. Some may not see a difference between C.S. Lewis’s Aslan of Narnia or Bunyan’s characters in Pilgrim’s Progress and the characters of “The Shack,” but both Lewis and Bunyan create fictional worlds through which they seek to communicate their version of truth. The reader in those cases knows that he is entering the writer’s world and is invited to engage their ideas. Young creates a dream-like reality, where the reader’s judgment is suspended and may easily confuse Young’s fiction with truth. While “Papa” and “Sarayu” are extremely unusual depictions of the Father and the Spirit, the “Jesus” character is depicted as simply “Jesus”. To write “And Jesus said” in any genre of writing, is best avoided unless we are quoting Scripture.

To make matter worse, Young’s ideas themselves are far from biblical. As I mentioned, God the Father is depicted as “Papa” and most of the time is in the form of an Afro-American woman. This is reason enough to reject “The Shack” as legitimate. While God in his essence is not male or female, he has revealed himself in masculine terms, as “Father” in particular. While it has become increasingly popular to emphasize God’s “feminine side,” he chose to reveal himself in masculine terms. Jesus told us to pray “Our Father in heaven” (Mathew 6:9). Whatever value there may be in exploring the so-called feminine side of God, the Scriptures never encourage us to image God in feminine terms. Mack is told that the reason why Papa is depicted the way “she” is, is because she loves him and doesn’t want him to fall back into religious stereotypes. Religious stereotypes may indeed be a problem, but not God-chosen biblical imagery. If we have misunderstood what God intends in the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves will correct us, not new forms of spirituality.

We are given the impression that God’s revelation of himself in the past was due to our need at the time. Since our current need is different, so God now reveals himself (herself?) to us differently. Even if that were true (which it is not), who is to decide how God is revealing himself? Young’s depiction of God is one of his own making. It is not derived from the Scriptures. By using terms such as Elousia and Sarayu, we may suspect unbiblical spiritual sources. The gender-confused “Papa” may fit in with our post-modern society, but has no resemblance to the God of the Bible. And since when does God reveal himself according to our need? Our need is to accept God’s revelation of himself. While God has accommodated himself to our understanding, he has done so in such a way to reveal to us who he really is. To change biblical images based on our needs or anything else is to risk changing the essence of God’s Truth. There is more that can be said about the details of Young’s version of God, but let’s move on.

I mentioned that Young deals with some important questions, but his answers are unbiblical and extreme. For example, he attempts to resolve the issue of God’s sovereignty and our free will by claiming that while God prefers us to do his will, we are always free to make our own decisions. Tell that to Pharaoh and Saul/Paul of Tarsus. According to Young, human institutions (namely religious, political, and economic) are the cause of all the evil in the world. The only things that matter to Young are love and relationships. This is Hippie talk, not Bible talk. Yes there are major wrongs that have been done through human institutions, but the problem is sin, not institutions. Governments, for example, according to Romans 13, have been instituted by God, not man, and they exist for a good purpose. Young “solves” the problem of evil and suffering, by calling us to understand the role that evildoers have in God’s purposes. This is not the “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” of the story of Joseph (Genesis 50:20), but it is far more of a Hindu, “everything that happens is from God,” so learn to accept life as it is without question. Yet Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” not to sing “All you need is love.”

Perhaps the reason why so many Christians love “The Shack” is because for the past several years we have played with and accepted all sorts of unbiblical concepts in the guise of legitimate spirituality. What Young has done is taken our current image of God and truth and rolled it into an appealing emotional package.

In the book of Acts with regard to the Bereans’ response to Paul’s teaching, we read “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Paul instructed the Corinthian believers, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29). That “The Shack” might challenge our thinking or touch our hearts is one thing. But is Young’s depiction of God scriptural? Are his answers to some of life’s questions truly correct? God expects us to do more than accept something based on its appeal, its popularity, endorsements by famous people, or its emotional impact. We need to weigh whatever we are told and judge its validity based on God’s Truth in the Bible. Based on this standard, “The Shack” falls flat.

Irreducible Complexity

Mousetrap On Dark

There is a concept central within the domain of Intelligent Design (ID) that is essential to an effective understanding of life in general. ID asserts that the existence of certain complex organisms is evidence that they are the creation of an intelligent being rather than the product of random matter and energy. These organisms either exist in their complex form or else they wouldn’t exist at all. There is no way that these complex entities could have begun as simple forms that became more complex over time. They had to come into existence in a state of complexity from the start.

A favorite illustration of irreducible complexity among ID proponents is the standard mousetrap. While the mousetrap is made up of very simple components (the base, hammer, spring, catch, and holding bar), it is only when all these are working together in a very particular way that you have a mousetrap. Remove any one of these components, and you don’t have a simpler mousetrap; you don’t have a mousetrap at all.

Within the scientific community, there is discussion about the validity of ID and the appropriateness of the mousetrap illustration. But whatever irreducible complexity can tell us about origins, there are so many aspects of life that are, like a mousetrap, irreducibly complex.

Yet I find there to be a tendency among people to attempt to simplify the complex. This is not to say that there is no benefit in breaking down the mousetrap into its components. But that’s not the same as simplifying the mousetrap. Each of its components is essential in their own way, but a mousetrap is greater than the sum of its parts. To fully understand and appreciate the mousetrap for what it is, it must be regarded at as a complex whole. To ignore its intrinsic complexity is to disregard it entirely.

Much of life is irreducibly complex. While simplistic categories and formulaic approaches are far more emotionally comfortable than open-ended, multilayered complex analyses, oversimplifying anything that is intrinsically complicated misrepresents it.

Our society’s demand for sound bites and tweets doesn’t help. Few things, such as certain announcements and sports scores, can be fully communicated and understood with such brevity. But most things of importance ranging from relational issues to political discourse to scientific and philosophical matters require in-depth careful analysis. Anything less is a sham.

This is no less true for biblical studies and theology. Communicating the truths of Scripture in understandable ways does not require oversimplification. I remember hearing years ago it being said that pastors should not introduce their congregants to the wide variety of eschatological (end times) views because it would confuse them. Human beings made in the image of God are far more intelligent than that. It might be that a preacher or teacher is confused and hasn’t taken the time to sufficiently investigate issues such as these. Or they are attempting to understand aspects of life that God has not revealed. Attempts at providing information that has no basis in reality – guessing in other words- can mislead people into thinking that the so-called deeper things of Scripture are too difficult to understand.

There are too many examples of Bible stories and characters that are irreducibly complex to list here, especially since almost all (if not all) are irreducibly complex. How about the image of man being male and female? Simple? I don’t think so! Or Abraham, the man of faith, who was so worried that people were going to kill him because of his beautiful wife that he lied about being married to her? Straightforward? Hardly. Or how about Samson’s uncontrolled behavior? Or Israel’s great King David freaking out over his son Absalom’s treachery? Or another son of his, Solomon, the product of an illegitimate relationship being God’s choice to be his successor? And speaking of Solomon, who was endowed with wisdom from on high, yet he himself didn’t’ listen to his own advice. Pretty complex stuff, if you ask me!

Now that I have brought up Solomon, you may be asking “Isn’t the Book of Proverbs, which he wrote, short simple sayings, most of which could fit in a tweet?” Short, yes; simple, are you kidding? Proverbs are purposely designed to make you think.

But don’t we need to become little children to enter the Kingdom of God (see Matthew 18:3)? Indeed, we do, but that has to do with attitude, not simplicity. Also, it is amazing how children can understand complex things if given a chance. In a recent Bible class of mine, grades five through eight, I asked the question, “Was Jacob and his family’s migration to Egypt a good or bad thing?” Some immediately said “Good,” since they were saved from the famine. Others said, “Bad,” because they eventually became slaves. Still, others said, “Good,” because of the working out of the plan of God over time. But they had no trouble accepting it was “All of the above,” because of the complex nature of the situation. I purposely asked them a faulty simplistic question to highlight life’s complexities. Welcome to the real world of the irreducibly complex, where truth is not as straightforward as many people claim.

If we allow the Bible speak for itself in its splendid complexity, we will be far better equipped to live life in its complexity. We’ll get pushback from others who will continue to insist upon simplistic categories and definitions, however, truth and reality will not only survive, but will prove itself over time. Simplistic reasoning and narrow mindedness will be exposed for its foolishness if we are willing to embrace the irreducible complexity of Truth.

New York City Reflection #5: The Greatest Home Run of My Life

I didn’t hit this home run. It’s a home run that happened to me. That’s sounds strange, except that we are talking metaphorically here. I am using a home run metaphor, because it happened during our recent trip to New York, where Robin and I attended a most unusual baseball tournament. If you haven’t read my other posts, you can see them in order here. I am also using the home run metaphor to emphasize the impact that one person’s relatively small action had on my life. One person’s initiative. One person’s courage. One person’s faith. The result: the complete transformation of my life from a panic-stricken, depressed and aimless youth to an overwhelming grateful husband and father who has lived a Great Adventure.

If you read my first reflection from our trip, entitled, “Crying Over Breakfast”, you know how our trip to New York was the second time in forty years of my being there. The first time was when my panic attacks began as I was eating breakfast in Manhattan. It was these panic attacks that were the impetus of my asking Yeshua into my life a few months later. I wept as I was struck by how much God has done for me through all these years. But it’s possible that I was also anticipating a very special meeting that was due to occur a few days later just before we would be heading home.

For the past forty years I have had the privilege of telling my story to people all over Canada and other parts of the world. Each time I explain how I met Jon, a friend of a friend. He was visiting Montreal from California, and gave me a remarkably clear and effective presentation of the trustworthiness of the Bible, the prophecies in the Old Testament that pointed to Yeshua (Jesus), and the process of being restored to a right relationship with God through him. Jon led me in a prayer asking God to forgive my sins and asking Yeshua to take over my life. I knew at the time something special was going on, but I didn’t know how special. I became a brand new person! I give God all the credit, but Jon was his chosen instrument that day. And did he ever hit it out of the park!

Jon remained in town for only a short time afterwards. Over the next couple of years, we talked on the phone a bit and exchanged a few letters, but never got to see each other again…until a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn. Some time ago Jon and his family moved to the area. So knowing he was in the vicinity I contacted him and we sat down together for the first time in forty years.

It was surreal. It was so special to see him and to meet his wife after all this time as well to have my wife, Robin, finally meet this up-until-now mythic person. Over dinner we got caught up as much as we could in one meeting, Jon wanting to know as much detail of our lives as possible. And if you know some of how God’s grace has worked in and through my family, perhaps you could relate to how Jon must have felt.

Jon & Ellen

Having dinner with Jon & Ellen just before the final game at the World Baseball Qualifier, Coney Island, Brooklyn

There is an interesting true story told at the end of the baseball movie, “Moneyball,” which doesn’t exactly parallel what Jon did forty years ago, but illustrates how as we are true to what God calls us to do, we may not always be aware of its impact. Keep on swinging! You  never know when you will hit the Big One.

New York City Reflection #4: Conflicted

There we were. Team Israel had just won the final game of the Brooklyn Qualifier to advance to the March 2017 World Baseball Classic, and I am feeling somewhat numb. I was certainly happy that Israel would get to play in what amounts to the World Cup of Baseball for the very first time, but shouldn’t I be much more excited?

Team Great Britain (on left) and Team Israel prior to World Baseball Classic Qualifier, MCU Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn

Great Britain (on left) and Israel getting ready for their first matchup at the World Baseball Qualifier.

It was this unusual sporting event that brought my wife, Robin, and I to the New York area. Brazil, Great Britain, Israel, and Pakistan were competing for the final spot in the Classic. Israel just missed qualifying four years ago, when they lost to Spain in the final game of the 2012 Qualifier in extra innings.

Israel flag as end of aisle marker at World Baseball Qualifier, MCU Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn

I never thought this would be how I would find my seat at a baseball park.

We had never experienced anything like this before! Robin and I both grew up in a very Jewish part of Montreal. Our lives have taken us into many different cultural experiences beyond that of our native heritage. So it was very special for us to travel to Brooklyn, one of the most Jewish cities in the world, to root for Team Israel along with a couple of thousand other Jewish fans. It was absolutely delightful to be with religious and nonreligious members of our community. And that they won made it even better!

But why wasn’t the taste of victory sweeter?

Was it that this marked the beginning of the end of our remarkable time in the New York area, as I realized we were to head home the next day? If you have read my other reflections, you know about the incredibly moving times we had at the Holocaust Memorial near our hotel and the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. These were but two of the many meaningful and delightful shared experiences Robin and I had together during our six-day trip. Through our over thirty-six years of marriage, we have had several getaways, but there was something so very precious about this particular time, and it was coming to a close. But I don’t think that was it.

I think I know what it was. Even though our team won, I was conflicted. You may remember how it came about that we attended this event. If not, briefly: I provide chapel services for the Ottawa Champions professional baseball team. I was having coffee with the player who acts as a liaison between myself and the team. Turned out that he was due to play for Team Great Britain in the Brooklyn Qualifier and their first game was to be against Israel. This was the first I heard about all this, and I thought it would be wonderful to attend in order to both support this player and to cheer on Team Israel. But herein lies the conflict. The way it worked out Great Britain and Brazil played in a semifinal to see who would meet Israel in the deciding game. The result was both our dream and nightmare, because while we wanted Israel to win, we didn’t want Great Britain to lose.

It was surreal both times these two team met as we stood to sing the national anthems of both countries. Being Canadian, we grew up singing “God Save the Queen” in the days before “O Canada” became our official national anthem in 1980. The former remains Canada’s royal anthem. That’s all to say that while we don’t necessarily have great feelings of connection to Great Britain per se, “God Save the Queen” is still our country’s song. But Hatikvah, the national anthem of the State of Israel, is also our song. Here is a translation of the Hebrew original:

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem

To sing this song along with our kinsman at MCU Park in Brooklyn makes the occasion much more than a sporting event. It’s a statement of enduring connection. But that takes nothing away from our love for Canada, “our home and native land.” So whether it was “God Save the Queen” or simply the participation of the Ottawa player playing for Great Britain, my heart was divided.

British & Israeli National Anthems:

Something else happened that underscores the complexity of the situation. Through my involvement with Baseball Chapel, I have had some telephone contact with Frank Reynoso, the New York City area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). We met in person for the first time during Israel’s second game of the tournament, playing Brazil. We chatted about our respective backgrounds and current ministries. Me a Jewish guy from Montreal and follower of Yeshua (Jesus) the last forty years, ten kids, homeschoolers, itinerant Bible teacher. Frank, born in New York, parents from Dominican Republic, grew up on the street, drug lord whose life was eventually radically transformed by Jesus. Afterwards, Robin asked me a question that I too was asking myself: What did I think the Jewish fans we were among thought of our conversation, which they must have overheard? The scene of the two of us in intense conversation and our subject matter must have sounded so strange to our people’s ears. While Jewish people have become successfully integrated in Western society, centuries of persecution in Jesus’s name has instilled an indelible sense of us and them, making the brotherly intimacy experienced between me and Frank completely foreign to the point of being repugnant.

Frank Reynoso and Alan Gilman

Frank Reynoso and I in intense conversation at MCU Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn

But what I told Robin was that while I understand how our people feel, what they don’t realize (yet!) is that the brotherhood enjoyed by me and Frank at the ballpark that afternoon is actually Israel’s destiny. Our oneness in the Messiah is an essential aspect of the Abrahamic promise: “through you all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God’s heart has always been to build a family from among the nations, including (especially!) the Jewish people. Frank and I were enjoying a foretaste of what the Jewish people will one day fully embrace when “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). But until then I must continue to bear with an inner sense of conflict, knowing my people look at both my faith and my faith community with great mistrust and regard me as a traitor. I want them to know how much I am rooting for them – just like I was rooting for Team Israel – even though I am also deeply connected to the vast international community of Yeshua followers – like I was cheering on the Ottawa player with Great Britain. One need not undermine the other. It’s uncomfortable, but love is like that.

You can read Frank Reynoso’s incredible story here.