100 Answers in 100 Days

More questions answered on this blog:

Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

What Is The Book of Revelation About?

For those unfamiliar with the Book of Revelation, it contains a description of a vision that the Apostle John had. The vision contains such imagery as angels unleashing plagues upon the Earth, and of people obtaining a mark on their forehead or hand, called “the mark of the beast”, which later consigns them to eternity in hell. And people naturally want to interpret this vision. Many have claimed to know what the vision means, and yet there are many different interpretations. Some say it refers to actual events in our future where, for example, a government will require a literal mark imprinted in our forehead or hands. Others say it refers to actual events that have happened in the past, such as the reign of specific emperors and the specific persecutions that they carried out against Christians. I wouldn’t be confident enough to make specific claims like that. But I do think there are a number of basic things we can say about the book for certain, and that those things may be all we really need to know.

Firstly, there are seven letters written to seven churches, and these are not terribly cryptic. They are fairly straight forward, and I think they form the key to understanding the message of the entire book. The general content of each of these letters is to say that in each of these churches there are things that Jesus commends them for, but that there are those in the church who do things that Jesus rebukes them for. He thus divides each church into two groups - those who do what they ought and those who, despite attending the church, do not. Each letter has in common a sentence which begins: “The one who conquers…” (or in other translations, “the one who overcomes”). “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life”, “To the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” ... Each of these sentences, in each of the letters, are synonymous… The one who conquers will receive eternal life. That is to say, the one who does not continue in the errors that Jesus has named in these letters. This refers corporately to the churches but also to us individually. We fall into various errors, but how do we overcome these errors? Later in the book we read:

And they [the saints] have conquered him [the devil] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:11)

We also read in 1 John the passage:

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (1 John 5:4)

This passage in 1 John, which refers to the world in the sense of the corruption of the world and its allegiance to Satan, reminds us again that it is not through our own efforts that we overcome our errors, but rather that our faith in Christ gives us that victory. The things that we do in this life are the effect of our faith. We do what pleases God because our faith influences us to do so. And we avoid errors for the same reason - our faith shows us our errors and gives us an aversion to them. So it is true that we work towards doing the right thing and avoiding the wrong thing, but it is because we have faith in Christ that we desire to work in this way and are able to. Thus, those who overcome the world (that is, the errors of this world), demonstrate evidence of faith. And in regards to the message of Revelation, this is really the foundation. What Revelation teaches us through the bulk of its content is that keeping ourselves from error in this life will be no easy task. It will be no easy task because there will be persecution towards us, and injustice done to us. The story of Revelation, presented in a vision, is (at a high level) this: That there are God’s people and then there are God’s enemies who war against God and against His people. They cause God’s people to suffer persecution and injustice. But in the end, God’s people are taken up to heaven and God’s enemies are destroyed. The key message of the book is this, then… that we must endure persecution and injustice in the assurance that God will bring justice in the end. The letters to the seven churches establish this basic message; those in the church who are truly the people of God will receive their reward, but those who are not will receive their judgement. The book ends on the same note, Jesus speaking saying…

Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. (Revelation 22:11-12)

In other words, from the time of John’s writing this in the first century AD until the return of Christ, yet future, the book has shown us that there exist the enemies of God and the people of God who suffer at the hands of the enemies of God, and that justice awaits them both at the return of Christ. And it teaches us that we are to allow those who persecute us to do so. As it reinforces in other places in Scripture…

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39)

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12:19)

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. (1 Peter 2:18-19)

If we are the victim of persecution and injustice, we must not ourselves become persecutors as a response. Rather, we endure it, knowing that God is the one who is able to judge rightly.

And then we read something that I find very interesting…

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book (Revelation 22:18)

We see this as a warning against trying to modify the message of the book. But this, to me, also says something about the plagues described in the book. People try to interpret the various “plagues” in Revelation as somehow referring to some actual event, perhaps past, or of a future event - a nuclear war, or some chemical weapon… But Jesus is saying that to anyone, at any time in history, who tries to modify the message of this book, “God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” I personally feel that the things described in Revelation at least have a more general sense to them. Whether they refer to specific events in the past or in our future… they may well do… but that doesn’t exclude the idea that they refer to a general state of affairs for all humanity for all of history. People suffer war, famine, pestilence… we have suffered horrific wars, from the 100 years war in 1300-1400s or World War II as an obvious example. And we have seen the bubonic plague, or outbreaks of syphilis and ebola, to barely mention a few.

At the very least we can say that if the visions of Revelation refer to actual plagues in the past or in the future, or to actual governments in the past or in the future, we can still, nonetheless, apply the message to ourselves. Do we suffer at the hands of unjust governments now? Do we suffer persecution for our faith? These are things which apply to us all, and the message is the same… To the one who conquers (by faith), there is a reward and justice will be done in the end.

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:21-22)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Why Was King David's Census a Sin?

In 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 we read parallel accounts of a census taken by king David. To summarize quickly what happens; David decides to take a census and commands the head of his army, Joab, to go and count the population. Joab tells the king not to commit such a sin, but David insists. As a result of this sin, however, God tells the prophet Gad to offer David a choice of three punishments; 3 years of famine, 3 months of warfare, or 3 days of plague in the land. And so, as a result, 70,000 people die of the plague and an angel of God stands above Jerusalem with his sword drawn, about to destroy it, before God decides to have mercy and halts the angel. He commands David to make a sacrifice of atonement for the people so that the plague might be stopped. This David does on an altar at the site later used by king Solomon to build the temple.

The question on many people’s minds, as well as mine for some time, is typically “What was so wrong about David, the king of Israel, taking a census?” It baffles us because a census seems like a reasonable thing for a king to do, and yet it was somehow wrong. And not just a little bit wrong; it was clearly very wrong and very serious. So I went to Google looking for answers but the few answers I read did not convince me. And I’m not going to disparage or discredit any else’s work, but dissatisfied with the answers I’d read, I simply referred back to the Scriptures themselves, and I think I have a satisfying answer to this riddle, which I’ll share with you for what it’s worth.

From the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, Israel was to travel to the promised land, subdue it and take up residence in it. In 2 Samuel 23, the chapter which precedes the story of David’s census in 2 Samuel, and likewise in 1 Chronicles 20, the chapter which precedes the story of David’s census in 1 Chronicles, we are told of David’s victories in warfare, particularly of how he defeated the kings and giants in the land. At the conclusion of these chapters, it seems to suggest that the land had thus been subdued. It is a key detail, then, that David is asking Joab, the head of his army, to take this census. It is clear that the purpose of this census is to number those who are able to go to war for David. When Joab returns, 2 Samuel 24 explicitly gives the results as “800,000 valiant men who drew the sword.” But Joab, forced by the king against his will to take the census, still refused to count the Levites, which are the priests of the land. If we read Numbers chapter 1, Moses was asked to take a census of “all in Israel who are able to go to war”, and then told “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list… But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle.” In other words, Joab recognizes the motivation of David’s census as preparation for war and refuses to count the Levites because they must not be counted as those who are able to go to war.

I imagine that there may have been many motivations for a census which would have been fine, even for David. King Solomon, in 2 Chronicles 2, counts all the foreigners in the land for the purpose of putting them to work. Here the purpose is not for warfare. And I even suspect that David, counting the people available to him for warfare, would have normally been fine in the case where Israel was justified in going to war. But here we have Joab, the head of the army, being asked to count the people after we’ve just been told that the land had essentially been conquered. It is my conjecture, then, that the sin of David was that he was planning for war that went beyond the mandate of God to subdue the land. Once the land had been subdued, Israel was not supposed to go invading other territories.

The conclusion of this event is the selection of the site for the temple and the commissioning of Solomon to build the temple. This event signifies the end of the subjugation of the land as God is telling the king to build a temple; the place where God would dwell amongst His people, no longer in a tabernacle, or tent, that was designed for moving from place to place. The temple signified that God could set up His permanent dwelling in the land and settle there because the land had been settled. It had been said that Solomon would have peace in Israel, and his name literally means “peace”. It was the name given to him by God precisely because there would be peace during his reign: “Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.” (1 Chronicles 22:9). This was clearly prophesied of Solomon before Solomon was born, and so David knew that the subjugation of the land would be complete. After the events of the census, David instructs his son: "Is not the Lord your God with you? And has he not given you peace on every side? For he has delivered the inhabitants of the land into my hand, and the land is subdued before the Lord and his people. Now set your mind and heart to seek the Lord your God. Arise and build the sanctuary of the Lord God, so that the ark of the covenant of the Lord and the holy vessels of God may be brought into a house built for the name of the Lord." (1 Chronicles 22:18).

It is also curious that the three choices given to David all involve the deaths of many people in the land. Whether by famine, warfare or plague, many would have died. None of these are targeted only at David personally. But the punishment seems fitting; as David had planned to number the people in order to evaluate the army he had available to him, God was more or less foiling David's plans by taking away from that number. David purposed to build an army and God overturned his plans by thinning out such an army. People often consider it unjust that innocent people die because of the sins of one man, but there are actually several reasons why this is justified or wise on the part of God. The main point in this case is that David was the king over Israel. The decisions of those who are in authority unavoidably influence those they lead. That is literally their job - to make decisions on behalf of the people. And it is likewise true of anyone in authority, including you or I if we are in a position of leadership, from being a manager at work to being a parent in the home. If the decisions leaders make are good, the people benefit and prosper. But it is necessarily true that their poor decisions cause the people to suffer. The histories laid out in the Bible focus almost entirely on the decisions that the kings of Israel made and how those decisions affected the people. And in this instance, it was all the more fitting to reinforce this principle to the people and the new king, Solomon, who would soon take the seat of power. Even the punishment itself was offered as a choice the king should make between three options, and the king had to choose according to wisdom; something that Solomon became famous for as he asked, right from the beginning of his reign, that God give him wisdom to make the right decisions to lead God’s people.

The decisions of a king, as they related to spirituality, may not have led directly to the physical deaths of the people. But to lead people to disobey and defy God certainly led to their harm spiritually. It is better, then, to have this principle reinforced by seeing the physical harm caused to people for the disobedience of God by the king so that in future generations the spiritual harm caused by such disobedience might be avoided. The fact that 70,000 people died is of little consequence from the perspective of God. We all die eventually, and we must all prepare for death in this life by turning to God. Whether our death occurs today or sixty years from now, death is inevitable. Some 70,000 or more may have died in the warfare that David had planned. But David had chosen the plague when given his choices saying “for God’s mercy is very great” (1 Chronicles 21:13). David knew that there was the potential for God to call short the punishment. When I read the account, 2 Samuel 24 says that it lasted “from the morning until the appointed time” (ie the full three days), and yet it also seems to be that God relents from the final blow which was to take place. The angel of the Lord was said to have his sword drawn, about to destroy Jerusalem, but God had compassion on the people and said “it is enough” and called off the destruction (1 Chronicles 21:15). It is also noteworthy that the story begins with the phrase “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Samuel 24:1), suggesting that perhaps the people as a whole were culpable of some error. Perhaps they had once again began to worship false gods? And so God’s purpose was to chasten the whole population to some degree from the very beginning anyway. All in all, God’s purpose and His wisdom are seen in that David is brought to repentance and Solomon, his successor, surely learns to seek wisdom from this event, amongst probably other events in the life of his father.

Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people. Proverbs 28:15

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Should Men be Making Laws About Women's Bodies?

Internet Meme
“Men shouldn't be making laws about women’s bodies” reads the meme. The image has been posted all over Instagram in response to various states in America passing laws, or attempting to pass laws, which limit women’s access to abortion, such as reducing the time frame permitted for abortion to the first sign of a heart beat; around six weeks. But this statement, to me, presented as though it is the pro-choice movement’s best opposing argument, makes the least amount of sense for justifying abortion. In this day and age it seems that every new scientific discovery becomes a justification for some cause, and yet in this case people seem to be forgetting something that science has known for hundreds of years… that a fetus is a separate body from the mother. How are we concerned only for the body of the mother and not for the body of the child? Are we saying that those who desire an abortion are justified in making a decision to destroy an innocent child’s body because of how the presence of that child affects their own body? Of all the reasons one could use to try to justify abortion, this is surely the weakest.

If we turn this into a question, “Should men be making laws about women’s bodies?” and consider this as a question about laws in general, then the answer is clearly yes. We should be making laws that prevent harm to women’s bodies. We should make laws that prevent women’s bodies from being stabbed or shot or beaten, or raped. A law which bans abortion is not so much a law which prevents harm to women’s bodies but rather it prevents the death of children’s bodies. A fetus has its own body, after all. And just as we should indeed make laws to prevent the harm of women’s bodies, we should all the more create laws which prevent the death of children’s bodies.

By making the statement “Men should not make laws about women's bodies” rather than asking the question “Should men make laws about women's bodies?” people are led by their emotions to oppose these laws rather than their intellect to consider them. Not only is it nonsense to assert that we shouldn’t make laws to protect human life, the statement subtly points the finger at men in order to provoke the emotional connotations that the feminist movement lends society. It is equally nonsensical to assume that women aren’t involved in the discussions and proposals of these laws, or that the motivation behind these laws has any kind of chauvinistic basis. The concern is for the children.

Another slogan I have read states “Abortion is a human right!” How so? What makes something a human right? Is it the fact that an Internet meme says it is? What makes something a human right is that people have decided that it is, in much the same way that people have decided that it is legal to have an abortion. And we can challenge what is and isn’t a human right in the same way that we can challenge what should and shouldn’t be legal. But we don’t even need to dig into the technicalities of what human rights are. Let’s just concede that is abortion is, in some way, a human right. We also know that humans have a right to life. And when two human rights conflict, surely the right to life outweighs this right to choose an abortion, no? But what of a woman’s so-called “right” to have an abortion? Am I insensitive to their motives to abort their child? When you consider, as I do, that abortion is the killing of a human being, then it is difficult to see how a woman has the “right” to do this. This right was established on the basis of the right to privacy. Again, the right to life surely outweighs the right to privacy. If someone commits murder the police will search their home for evidence of guilt purely based on suspicion. The right to privacy does not supersede the right to life.

I do not deny that there are difficult cases. Abortion may potentially be justifiable in the case where the delivery of the child has a high probability of killing the mother. And that’s only an example of a hard case; one which doesn’t necessarily have a clear answer. In the majority of cases the answer isn’t so difficult. The inconvenience of being pregnant or the financial burden that raising a child might impose do not justify the death of the child. And we know this to be true because we do not allow the death of the child after the delivery. The fact that there are a few inches of flesh between the child and the outside world shouldn’t justify the death of the child, in the same way as putting a baby in a box and throwing it in a river wouldn't justify its death because “there were a few inches of wood between the baby and the outside world.”

But at this stage in society the resistance towards laws which ban abortion exists not so much because there are valid logical arguments for aborting for whatever private reason, but because by creating these laws or declaring abortion legally as murder, society is saying to all the women who have had abortions in the past, “You committed murder.” No woman wants to be told that or admit that even to herself. At the moment she justifies what she did by saying “Hey, it’s legal. And if it’s legal it must be ok.” And what makes this so much harder is that we now live in a society where the greatest faux pas is to offend somebody. But praise be to God that He is a forgiving God. In Biblical times idol worshipers would offer their children as sacrifices to their idols. And even so, God said to the people, “They shall be my people and I shall be their God.” (Jeremiah 32:33-38) By way of explanation of this passage, sin does not go without punishment, but there is also forgiveness to be found. We, as a society, must learn from history and must change for the better. Even if you reject the Bible, you must see that a society that made it legal to sacrifice your child to an idol had an unjust law. Laws must change when they allow that which should not be allowed.

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)