Jerusalem the Beautiful


With all the commotion in response to the U.S. President’s announcement last week regarding recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is easy to forget that real people’s lives are at stake. Personalizing political decisions should in no way diminish or distract from their national and international importance. If I read the Bible correctly, we are called to keep the Big Picture and the details in mind at all times, no matter how much they might appear to be in tension.

The Big Picture aspects of the President’s announcement are vast. So much has been said since Wednesday, but I am convinced that he did the right thing. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It is unjust that until less than a week ago, the Middle East’s only true democracy was the only country in this troubled world whose capital was denied by all other nations.

I commend to you two items that are most helpful. The first is from Honest Reporting, an agency that seeks to correct anti-Israel bias in the media. This piece provides general historical and political context to last Wednesday’s announcement:

The second is the speech by Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, given at Friday’s emergency session of the UN Security Council, where she clearly lays out the what the President said and what he did not say in his announcement two days’ prior.

Whatever our viewpoint might be on this and related issues, let us take the time to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for the people living there, Jews, Arabs, and others. I will never forget when I was there a couple of years ago. I was heading back to where I was staying from my first solo walk around the Old City. I happened upon an Armenian woman, who had been born there many years before. I can’t remember how or why we started talking, but she exclaimed, “This is the most beautiful city in the world!” She was right. There is a beauty that is intrinsic to Jerusalem that is incomparable. But it’s a beauty beyond its geographical landscape and architecture, ancient and modern. It’s the beauty of God that permeates its very existence.

It’s no wonder that the President’s announcement caused so much reaction. Jerusalem is no run-of-the-mill city. The Maccabees (it’s Hanukkah this week!) knew that over 2000 years ago, and we have celebrated their victory ever since. The Armenian woman knew that. The President knows it. And in some way, millions of others know it too. But could you imagine what would happen if we used even a small portion of our reactions to Jerusalem news to offer up a prayer for help and blessing to Almighty God?

Please pray for the men, women, boys, and girls for whom this is far more than a news story. Pray that world leaders would make wise decisions, putting the welfare of their people ahead of national interests. At the same time may justice prevail for all. May God’s will be done!

Just Released: The Between-the-Lines Bible (KJV)

Note: The following is satire. References to organizations and individuals are fictitious.

Genesis 1:1-8 (KJV) with lots of space between each lineSpeculative Publishers Inc. (SPI) just announced its latest Bible resource designed especially for readers who are not satisfied with just the plain text. For the very first time, the “Between-the-Lines” Bible (BTL) gives you all the room you need to expand upon the revelation of Scripture. Instead of the usual cramped line spacing of regular Bibles, the BTL Bible provides ample space for your imaginative and fictitious additions and comments. Instead of having to jot your thoughts in the margin, you can now add your ideas right into the words of the Bible itself.

Pastors and teachers alike are delighted with the BTL. “I always found traditional Bibles cramped my style,” remarked Rev. Bernie Clarke, founder of End Times Now Times Ministries. The BTL Bible is like opening a window to infinite interpretive possibilities.

SPI is so proud of its first edition. President Bartholomew Eisegesis exclaims: “We are confident that our readers will appreciate the BTL’s beautiful print and layout as well as the extra line spacing in the books of Daniel and Revelation.”

SPI is working on a digital version in which users can expand the lines in between the text as much as they like.

Do You Know the Messiah’s Name?

Names of Jesus in Hebrew, Greek, and EnglishOne of the challenges for my wife and I in having ten children was names. Besides the fact that my wife wanted to have their names in hand from the moment we knew of their conception, while I tended toward leaving that important decision much closer to their birth, we shared pretty high standards. We preferred characters from the Hebrew Bible, but only those of noble character and they had to be sufficiently easy for English speakers to pronounce. It helped that we didn’t feel the need to provide more than one name per child, though three did get middle names. All in all, we wanted to give our children names that would be meaningful to both to us and to them.

God takes naming seriously. The Bible tells us he invented it, when he called the light “day” and the darkness “night” (see Genesis 5:1). While he would pass on the naming of animals and most people to humans, he would from time to time intervene, providing names to particular individuals either before birth as in the case of Ishmael and Solomon or change them afterwards, as in Abraham and Jacob.

Tragically, the meaning of the most important name God has ever given anyone has been lost to most people, partly due to the English translation tradition. In the great majority of English versions of the New Testament, we read the angel’s words to Joseph the betrothed of Mary as “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

To most the name “Jesus” is exclusively associated with the Messiah, which is fine. But the name actually given by the angel was common at that time. The name “Jesus” is an attempt to provide an anglicized version of what is actually recorded in the New Testament. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it itself translates most of the dialogue and speeches in the Gospels and the Book of Acts from the original Hebrew or Aramaic. The name normally translated in English as Jesus is the Greek Iesous (pronounced yay-soos). But that is not exactly what Joseph heard from the angel. Nor is it what people in his day called him. What God named him was more along the line of Yeshua, a proper name derived from the Hebrew word for “salvation.”

Yeshua is certainly a fitting name for the Savior, and associating his name with the concept of rescue (which is what salvation in the Scriptures means) is most likely intended. But connecting with the concept of salvation is not the first thing that the people of his day would have thought of upon hearing his name. Whether a person regarded him as Messiah or not, Yeshua was and is the common short form of Yehoshua, the Hebrew name normally rendered in English as Joshua – the same name given to the son of Nun, the successor of Moses and the military leader who led the conquest of the Promised Land. It is still common in Hebrew today to refer to people named Yehoshua as Yeshua. That said, it is almost certain that the New Testament Greek derivation Iesous may not be representing the short form, Yeshua, after all. That’s because the name Iesous is used in passages referring to Joshua the son of Nun, thereby following the lead of the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, where Joshua is translated as Iesous.

This is all to say that when God named the Messiah it was clear that he would be associated with Israel’s prototype military leader who led the conquest of the Promised Land. As people came to consider the possibility that this Joshua might be the Messiah, it fueled their expectation that he had come to engage in a new conquest of the Land. Instead of overcoming “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exodus 3:8), this time it would be the vanquishing of the Romans.

For most of the time since returning from Babylon centuries earlier, the Israelites were under foreign domination, a certain sign that they were the objects of God’s disfavor. Messianic expectation became associated with the restoration of God’s favor and the end of foreign oppression. By God naming the Messiah “Joshua,” he affirmed their expectations.

Yet the last thing we think of Jesus is his being a conqueror of the likes of Joshua son of Nun. What is often taught is that the messianic expectation of the first century Jewish world was wrong. Jesus didn’t come to conquer in that way, rescuing the people from military and political oppression. Rather, he came to save in a spiritual, nonphysical sense.

Obviously Jesus did not aspire to or fulfill the role of a military conqueror. There was much about his methodology that was contrary to expectation. We see this in Peter’s reaction to Jesus’s announcement to his closest disciples of his imminent arrest and death (see Matthew 16:21-23). That Jesus also mentioned resurrection seemed to go over Peter’s head, since suffering and death was so counter to the Jewish messianic concept. However, just because the Messiah’s methods were contrary to expectation doesn’t mean he is any less the conqueror. God didn’t stamp his Chosen One with the name Joshua only to dash the people’s hopes and dreams that he himself gave them through their prophets.

Some see the misunderstanding solely in terms of timing. Much of what was expected two thousand years ago will happen when Jesus returns. In the meantime, God is patient with humankind as he gives us the opportunity to turn to him. But one day, the Messiah will return to judge (see Acts 17:31). The problem with shifting the Joshua concept to later is that it neglects the power of everything he has done until now.

Calling him Joshua is not a shout out to a future time, it’s the Messiah’s God-given identity marker. It’s not that he will one day be a Joshua, who will conquer evil’s minions and establish God’s rule on earth forever. He will indeed do that fully and completely upon his return, but he has been the conqueror all along. As the greater Joshua, he has conquered far more powerful threats than the earlier Joshua ever faced.

The Jewish world, Jesus’s followers included, thought he would beat off the Romans, but instead he beat off sin and death. This is not a spiritual-only victory. It’s spiritually based, but not spiritual only. This Joshua may have not removed the Roman presence from ancient Israel. He did something far more effective. By defeating death, he broke Caesar’s power, thus freeing God’s people to conquer the effects of sin throughout the world.

Coming to grips with the essence of his God-given name is essential to effectively follow him today. His followers are increasingly relegated to society’s fringes. The aggressive tone of our culture’s influencers can be overly intimidating. But it is the people of the messianic Joshua who have been mandated by God to teach the nations the Truth about himself and his ways. This is not a time to shrink back. Instead, we need, like his early followers, to pray for boldness and the demonstration of his power (see Acts 4: 23-31). As he answers this prayer, let us step out in confidence, knowing he will prevail.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Escaping the Fun House

Illustration of a fun house mirror

When my wife and I were recently in Vancouver, we visited the world-famous Stanley Park for the first time in years. As a treat we took our two youngest children on the miniature train. In the waiting area they had something I hadn’t seen in years: two fun-house mirrors. Not exactly the place where I would expect to see them, as they are normally found in a traditional amusement park attraction called a “Fun House”. Fun house mirrors are designed to provide (hopefully) humorous reflections, by skewing the mirrored image, thus making the subject and others look extremely tall, short, fat, or even upside down. The intended humor is found in how nonsensically people are represented. While the fun of fun house mirrors is related to how preposterous these reflections are, I don’t think most people would find them funny at all if they represented any semblance of reality, especially since they are actually very grotesque.

I grew up in a fun house, but there was nothing funny about it! No, I wasn’t raised in an amusement park. Rather, throughout my childhood and adolescence, everywhere I turned so to speak, I saw skewed, grotesque reflections. The problem was I didn’t know that what I was seeing was anything but normal.

Almost nothing was an image of reality. I had a father and a mother, plus three older brothers. But my family life was extremely dysfunctional. My parents bickered all the time. My brothers hated my parents, and left home as soon as they could. Being as young as I was while chaos reigned, I was helpless to do anything about it, except suffer. What furthered my distortions were words of love and demonstrations of affection that were part of my everyday life. My mother would dote over me and my father would take me out with him quite regularly. But I didn’t realize then that my mother’s love was more about satisfying her needs than mine, while my father’s desire for my presence was a ruse towards my mother as a way for him to get out of the house. My mother worried all the time and feared almost everything, demonstrating to me that the world was a very scary place. Both parents played the victim instead of looking for ways to constructively resolve issues. When he was young, my father determined that might means right, and became a body builder, so that he could beat people up when necessary. He was ashamed that my brothers and I didn’t share his physique, teaching me that my lack of strength meant I was helpless facing life’s problems. Along with that he taught me: “Money makes the world go ‘round,” and did he ever believe it! Almost every blow up was about money and, according to him, the lack thereof prevented us from enjoying life.

After years of skewed reflections, I was full of fear and could no longer cope. I was living in a world of lies, caught in a web of illusion in a nightmarish fun house that was anything but fun. No wonder I had a nervous breakdown at age eleven and panic attacks at eighteen.

Then one day I was given an opportunity to escape my fun house. A Friday afternoon in the Cote St. Luc suburb of Montreal, talking to a friend of a friend, I was presented with a whole new set of reflections. Could it really be that I was living in a crazy fun house; that the skewed reflections I had always thought were real had deceived me? As I was hearing a biblical case for Jesus’ being the Messiah for the first time, I was being presented with reflections of a clarity and sharpness that shone of a goodness and truth that I had never encountered before.

I stepped out of my fun house that day and discovered the real world for the first time. I cannot overstate that transition I experienced as God through Yeshua transformed my life. But what I didn’t know at the time is that I would carry with me many of the skewed reflections of my former residence. While God has wiped away many of the old images from my mind, others have stayed with me. Some of the ways my mind interprets circumstances and interpersonal interactions is still via old skewed reflections – old fun house mirrors that still need to be broken.

The thing that works to preserve my remaining skewed reflections is what made them so effective in the first place: I think they are genuinely accurate reflections of the way things are. Instead of perceiving the real world, one that is saturated by the presence and power of a loving God, I see myself alone under the threat of danger in an unsafe world.

The recent events in Edmonton, Alberta or Las Vegas, Nevada, not to mention the devastating weather disasters that took place before them, plus all sorts of personal and large-scale tragedies the world over may support the skewed reflections of my old fun house. But these circumstances, terrible as they are, do not reflect the whole story of the world in which we live. The world is extremely complex. The daily happenings of our individual lives are complicated; how much more are global events? Yet whether from the media, be it main-stream or social, or a chit chat over coffee. we are continually confronted by skewed reflections of today’s world. No wonder we see so much personal and societal breakdown. Our increasing inability to cope is largely due, not to the problems of life themselves, however real and serious they may be, but to the great amount of skewed reflections that distort reality all around us.

It’s not enough to exit the fun house. We have to also smash the mirrors wherever they may be.

That’s what Paul told the first century believers in Rome, when he wrote:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2; ESV).

It’s not good enough to exit the fun house of your old life. It’s starts there for sure. Our journey to reality must begin with being in right relationship with the God of reality by trusting in his Son, the Messiah, who gave his life for our sins. But it doesn’t stop there. Unless we smash our mirrors of skewed reflections, we will never be able to discern God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will. Instead we will continue in our dysfunction of distorted reality, unable to accurately interpret the personal and societal events of life.

But if we have the courage to smash the lying mirrors that continue to haunt our lives, not only will we discover ever-increasing freedom and goodness in our own lives, we will become reflections of reality to others, helping them to see how skewed their mirrors really are.

Unsolicited Input

I'm always here for you. Indoor shot of warm-hearted young African American man showing compassion to unrecognizable male, patting him on shoulder while trying to comfort and reassure his best friendMany years ago, I was taking a course in Jewish studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Near the end of the term, we had a social. At some point one of the female students, an Israeli, whispered in my ear: “Your pants are open,” which translated means that the zipper of my trousers was down. Was I embarrassed? For sure. Was I grateful? Absolutely. What was most embarrassing for me at the time was not that this woman would inform me of my personal clothing mismanagement, but that others in the room may have already observed it. But would I have rather continued to remain unaware of the truth of the situation? No. Given the opportunity to resolve the situation (which I did as discretely as possible), while momentarily uncomfortable, was far better than possibly discovering the truth on my own later on.

Yet there seems to be a life value controlling most people that would prevent them from ever doing what my fellow student did that day. I can’t say with certainty what that is. Is it the value of personal autonomy? Do people think they lack the right to enter into what they might perceive as others’ personal bubbles? Do they think they are obeying an invisible “No trespassing” sign?

The lady Robin and I encountered in Manhattan last September didn’t see one. We had just arrived and were looking for a place for breakfast, standing outside one particular diner, reading their menu posted on their window. A complete stranger came up from behind us and started telling us why we shouldn’t eat there, referring to her cholesterol research. She then led us down the street to another restaurant before continuing on her way. We’ll likely never learn all the facts behind that situation, but we were delighted by her unsolicited input. We didn’t have to listen, but we’re glad she cared enough to speak up.

One of our favorite stories in this vein has to do with how our daughter Tikvah got her name. Before she was born, we decided that if the baby were a boy, his name would be Asher (from Hebrew, meaning blessed or happy). My wife, Robin, had seen in a baby name book that the feminine derivative is Asheyra. We liked the sound of that, and a friend who knew Hebrew said it was appropriate. When she was born, we announced her name to our friends and family. Everyone reacted positively, except for one Israeli-Canadian couple, who were very concerned about our choice of name. “You can’t call her that!” they said. “It sounds too much like the ancient fertility god Asherah. She could never go to Israel with a name like that.”

Why didn’t we think of that? So we switched her name to another of our favorites: Tikvah, meaning “hope.” Only God knew at the time how fitting that would be for her.

We were curious as to why no one else had said anything, especially since so many of our friends were biblically literate. Yet when Robin mentioned the switch to one such person they said that they had been similarly concerned. “So why didn’t you say anything,” Robin asked. “It’s your baby,” they said.

What does her being our baby have to do with the fact that we were attempting to inappropriately brand her? It’s one thing when we are oblivious to what’s going on; it’s another to think we lack the right, the permission, the responsibility, or whatever it is to speak into other people’s lives for their betterment.

We didn’t have to switch her name, but how arrogant it would have been to think: “How dare they tell us what we can’t name our baby!” They called us because they cared. But motive aside, they were right, and we did the right thing by listening.

The fact is our lives are dependent on the input of others. It’s often other people who see our needs far better than we can see them ourselves. Our hesitation to give input robs people of the betterment that God desires to provide to others through us. Certainly we might be the ones robbing ourselves when we don’t listen to helpful comments. And of course, some people are busybodies and meddlers, getting involved in the affairs of others when they shouldn’t. But it seems to me that in most, if not all, of the circles in which we currently live, the greatest problem is the hesitation to speak up, not giving others the opportunity to make needed adjustments in their lives.

You might be surprised to learn that the section of Yeshua’s teaching, Matthew 7:1-6, beginning with the oft quoted words,” Judge not, that you be not judged,” is more about speaking up than not. Here Yeshua calls people hypocrites who point out problems in others’ lives all the while having the same problems to a much greater extent themselves. He clearly criticizes those who attempt to take specks out of other people’s eyes, when they themselves have logs in their own eyes.

However, it was not Yeshua’s intent to shame these hypocrites into silence. Rather, he goes on: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, when we think we see issues in others, we need to examine ourselves and deal with our issues first. Then, we are in a position to address issues in other people. By using the “speck in the eye” metaphor, Yeshua implies that when we speak into other people’s lives, we should do so gently and carefully. Note that to leave specks in their eyes is to give them over to a much worse eye condition. Love demands we gently remove specks as we see them.

I am aware that not everyone wants their weaknesses pointed out. Or what I perceive to be an issue may not be one to someone else. That’s why we need to ask ourselves the question, what’s the benefit in sharing? The final statement Yeshua makes in Matthew 7:1-6 is “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” When we know our input will be violently rebuffed, it might be better to not say anything. But this is a cautionary note to a culture that errs on the side of speaking inappropriately, not the situation in which we find ourselves today, where most of the time we keep too much needed information to ourselves.

The Lord’s teaching here assumes a societal default setting of speaking into others’ lives. I know that this tends to be a cultural thing. Some people need to take care to listen more and heed Yeshua’s instruction on how to patiently and gently relate to others. But we are not to just be quiet and keep all our opinions to ourselves, no matter what the prevailing culture expects. Because that’s not what the Lord expects.

Yeshua called his followers to be teachers of the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). This passage, commonly called “the Great Commission,” is not instructing us to simply “tell people about Jesus,” but rather an extensive God-ordained program to inform all people everywhere of everything Yeshua taught his early disciples (V. 20), in other words teach everyone the whole Bible from a messianic perspective.

Yet there is so much hesitation to speak God’s truth into people lives. I have heard over and over again, that we need to earn the right to be heard. But while we can lose the right to be heard through all sorts of bad behavior, we already have the right to be heard because we have been mandated by the Messiah himself to do exactly that.

But what do my stories of restaurants and baby names have to do with the Great Commission? Shouldn’t we reserve our unsolicited input for the loftier, more supposedly spiritual areas of life? But tell me, do you really think you will be able to effectively disciple the nations if you are too afraid to tell someone their pants are open?

A Clay Pot Nation

Western Wall and The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel

The Temple Mount captured by Israel on July 7, 1967 illustrates the complexity of the work of God in our in our lives.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Earlier this month, June 10, was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of one of the most world-changing events in human history – the Six Day War. I remember it, sort of. I was nine years old, living in Montreal, where we were consumed, not by the affairs of the Middle East, but by Canada’s biggest party ever! – Expo 67. It was the centennial year, commemorating one hundred years since “Confederation,” when we became a “self-governing dominion of the British Empire with a federal structure” ( We like to think that’s when we became an “independent country,” but that’s another, pretty complicated, story.

Aerial view of Expos 67, Montreal

Expo 67, Montreal –

All sorts of special events took place throughout the country in 1967, but nothing was like Expo. From April through October, Expo welcomed over 50 million visitors, including many heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth and French president Charles de Gaulle. During his visit on May 25, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation commemorating the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 of one hundred and fifty years earlier, which was a disarmament agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom, the governing power over what later became Canada. This treaty “created the world’s longest east-west boundary – 5527 miles, and the longest demilitarized border in the world” ( What the public didn’t know at the time is that the U.S. President and the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, had other border issues on their minds as they discussed the possibility of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. While Canada was partying it up, the fledgling State of Israel was on the brink of destruction. While the one-hundred-year-old vast country was enjoying unprecedented peace with its neighbors, the nineteen-year-old one was about to engage in a fight for their survival.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. -GPO 06/07/1967 –

Fifty years later, it is almost impossible to imagine the situation Israel found itself in. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq were intent on wiping Israel off the map. Ironically, Israel, instead, changed the map. Planning only to undermine their enemies’ ability to destroy them, Israel more than tripled its territory in only six days, capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. There was no greater turn of events, however, than the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem. Taken by the Jordanians nineteen years earlier in the War of Independence, the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City were either killed or expelled. Access to the Wailing Wall (now the Western Wall) was forbidden to Jews. The reunification of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, more than any aspect of the Six Day War, strengthened Israeli nationhood and reconnected the Jewish world to its ancient homeland. In Israeli hands the holy places of the world’s major religions are protected, something that was not the case before that day.

To Israel at the time, with a few exceptions, such as Jerusalem, the captured territories were regarded as bargaining chips for peace. But tragically the Arab world would not come to the table. Still, Israel’s victory of those days along with its commitment to get along with its neighbors eventually did lead to peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. But despite whatever positives resulted from this astounding military event, they are obscured by a great ambivalence as the tension between Israel and its neighbors continues.

For many, the continuing difficulties faced by Israelis and Palestinians obscures one of the greatest military victories of all time. But what was the alternative? The armistice lines of 1949 were no long-term solution. Israel could not reasonably live within such indefensible borders. The new state wasn’t even recognized by the Arab world – a reality that continues in much of the world today. But since 1967, Israel has been in a much stronger position, allowing it to thrive in spite of ongoing tensions. Few nations could achieve what the Jewish nation has in such a short time under such circumstances. And to think that just prior to the establishment of the state, six million Jews were systematically murdered by an almost-successful genocidal plot.

Far from a sense of ambivalence, we should be awestruck by the Six Day War and its aftermath. Instead of the harsh judgement incessantly targeting Israel, we would do better to celebrate its fortitude and resilience in the midst of an intolerable pressure cooker. Most countries would either crumble or disappear in the face of much less. Not Israel. The pressure instead has created a jewel that should be the envy of the world.

Why should we insist that an endeavor be regarded in a positive light only if the results are 100% positive? Life doesn’t work like that. A life-saving surgery, for example, might result in a scar or a disability, but wouldn’t we still celebrate the surgery as long as it met its main objective, that of saving a life?

The fact is the whole world, not just the Middle East, is not what it should be. Injustice, disease, death, and every kind of evil is part of the human story everywhere. What Israel endures on a national scale is no different from the trials and tribulations we all face due to what the Bible calls sin. But that doesn’t stop millions of people from pretending otherwise.

On a personal level, I have been slow to accept the realities of living in a world so affected by sin. Even with the reality of God in my life and the lives of my loved ones, I am still learning to navigate the brokenness we all share. The Bible tells us that we are fragile, breakable vessels containing great treasure. Because of what the Messiah has done for us, even though the presence and power of God fills our lives to overflowing, the troubled aspects of our humanness are not eradicated. To expect perfection from ourselves and others is a dead-end. We will learn to thrive only as we accept the great number of ambiguities that continue in this age.

The challenges we face as individuals are so wonderfully demonstrated by Israel. God’s covenantal faithfulness to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vividly displayed through a long and troubled history; no less so in the events of June 1967 and following. The ongoing tensions certainly need to be addressed, just like the issues in our own lives. Let’s not be put off by the presence of problems. Rather, let’s look to God for his help in the midst of them.

What To Pray For

A man looking up with a wondering gesture

Don’t worry about anything; on the contrary, make your requests known to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving. Then God’s shalom, passing all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with the Messiah Yeshua. (Philippians 4:6-7; Complete Jewish Bible)

Have you ever wondered what to pray for? It can be overwhelming to think of all the important things we could be praying about. We may, at times, be tempted to simply offer up broad generalities. For certainly God doesn’t expect us to petition him about every person and every problem on the planet. Still, simply saying, “God bless everybody,” doesn’t seem to cut it.

Studying the prayers in the Bible is helpful. Doing so provides insightful perspective on both subject matter and the posture of the petitioner, but that doesn’t necessarily give us detailed instructions as to what particulars you and I should cover from day to day. Still, there may be some implications we can derive that are very practical.

The Bible demonstrates that our prayers should be directed to God the Father in the name of Yeshua. We should seek God’s will, not praying out of selfishness. Not that it’s wrong to pray for ourselves. We should pray for ourselves, but not from greed or envy. Our prayers should be expressed in confident trust (faith) in God, though he can handle our struggles with uncertainty (see Mark 9:23-24).

There is one essential ingredient that I have haven’t considered until recently. I don’t remember ever reading about it or hearing it preached. Yet it seems to me that this is what will not only guide us on what to pray, but may actually be the key to a truly effective prayer life. Yeshua quotes Isaiah on one of the occasions where he criticizes the religious leaders of his day for making humanly derived tradition a higher priority over matters of the heart (see Matthew 15:8; Isaiah 29:13). The issue here isn’t prayer, but the principle is easily implied. Simply mouthing the right words is not highly esteemed by God. To insincerely petition the Almighty is nothing more than a religious show and a waste of time. On the other hand, God has regard for the genuine earnestness of his children. This is why the Messiah encourages us to pray and not give up (see Luke 18:1-8). In this story the persistent widow persists because she cares deeply about her concern. And that’s the key. We need to pray about what we care for.

I don’t know why it sometimes takes me so long to bring to God the things that burden my heart. I know I don’t need to impress him with overly religious sounding platitudes. I also know there is nothing too small or too big for him. Yet, I regularly find myself struggling over all sorts of things that I neglect to take to him.

We might think that our concerns are too petty to offer to the Master of the Universe. But if what we consider to be trivial is causing us considerable concern, why not take it to our Heavenly Father, and let him decide what to do with them? Perhaps we don’t think our concerns are spiritual enough. Again, why not let God make that determination? Misguided notions that separate the visible material world (that God created) and the invisible spiritual world (which God also created) prevent us from seeing God’s presence in every aspect of life. God wants to be involved in the world in which we live, and it’s our prayers that often open the doors to his presence.

Whatever the psychology or theology that gets in the way of expressing our cares to God, is there anything not included in Paul’s “Don’t worry about anything; on the contrary, make your requests known to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.” (Philippians 4:6)? Note he doesn’t say that the antidote to worry is to simply stop worrying, but rather to take our worries to God in prayer. If something is worthy of our concern, it’s worth praying about.

As we pray about what we really care about, we might be surprised to discover that God cares about these exact same things. We might even be more surprised to find out that the burdens we bear came from him in the first place.

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?