PSALM 61- A PRAYER IN OVERWHELMING TIMES

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‘I am the captain of my soul’ – writes William Henley in his famous poem ‘Invictus’. Henley is right in that I have the power to choose to follow the wind or to go against the winds of life. I find though that my power to choose could sometimes be meaningless when the winds of life are so overwhelming, when the winds of life are so strong that they lift me off my feet and dump me where they wish.

King David in the Bible experienced what it means to be overwhelmed by the winds of life. We read his story in the book of 1 Samuel Chapter 17 how he killed Goliath and all of a sudden he became a national hero more popular than King Saul. A short while later we read about David fleeing from King Saul who had become jealous and wanted to kill him. David flees to Gath, the hometown of Goliath.

We read in 1 Samuel Chapter 21 that David pretended to be mad, so that the king of Gath would not kill him. Life had become so overwhelming for David, what is he going to do? It is this and other difficult circumstances in David’s life that produced Psalm 61, a prayer in overwhelming times.

Psalm 61:1-4 (Living Bible) states: “O God, listen to me! Hear my prayer! For wherever I am, though far away at the ends of the earth, I will cry to you for help. When my heart is faint and overwhelmed, lead me to the mighty, towering Rock of safety. For you are my refuge, a high tower where my enemies can never reach me. I shall live forever in your tabernacle; oh, to be safe beneath the shelter of your wings!”

In these difficult economic times, in these unstable political times, in this era where strong cultural and spiritual winds want to blow us off our feet, lets not stop praying. Instead like David, when our hearts faint and are overwhelmed by all that is happening around us, lets draw closer to God, the towering Rock of safety, a refuge and a high tower, to be safe beneath the shelter of his wings!

Lord, in dark and difficult times, shine brighter on our path, Amen!

VOTING FOR THE MESSIAH

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Everytime we choose a king or vote a leader, we are looking for a messiah – looking for that man or woman who will make our dreams of paradise come true. We are looking for that person who will make sure there is food on our table, there is peace in our land, and there is good health and prosperity for all.

Many teachers have written books on how to produce this messiah, who will lead us with wisdom and selflessness. More than 2000 years ago the Greek Philosopher Plato wrote a book called ‘The Republic’ to teach us how choose a messiah, and in more recent times the American philosopher John Rawls wrote another book called ‘A Theory of Justice’ also to teach us how to produce a messiah.

The good news for Plato and Rawls is that ‘The Messiah’ has already come; the wise and selfless leader, fair to all, has already come. Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV) talks about him like this: “For to us a child is born… a son is given… the government will be on his shoulders… he will be called Wonderful Counselor… Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne… upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever…”

When we read about Jesus in the Bible, when we think about his love, and his many miracles of healing, feeding the hungry, raising the dead – don’t we just wish that the leaders we choose have these same abilities? Fortunately, the Jesus who walked the earth and turned water to wine is coming again. In the space between his first and second coming, we have seen that no one can be like him!

As the world goes through troubling times, with one crises after another, with one leader after another promising us paradise only to fail to deliver, have you thought about Jesus? Perhaps, the gospel stories about Jesus is still just those silly stories we tell children; think about them again, in light of the fact that the biggest need in the world right now is for a wise, selfless leader, who is fair to everyone!

Jesus, the world needs you, come quickly, Amen!

DANIEL’S LAST VISION AND THE LAST DAYS – Part 4

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Daniel’s visions narrow down from providing a long history of world leadership changes, from the days of Babylon to the coming of Jesus in Israel, and to issues of the end-times or the last days. Why is this the case? It is so because the Bible is ultimately about God’s plans and not about human plans.

Daniel has a vision of all the empires that will exist, from Babylon to the coming of Jesus in Chapters 2 and 7. In Chapter 8 he has vision of how a Greek king will act brutally and viciously towards Israel. History shows that king to be the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, the man who sacrificed a pig in the temple, and almost wiped out Israel if God had not intervened to deliver Israel.

Daniel’s fourth and last vision in Chapter 11, says a lot more about how the Greek rulers of the Seleucid kingdom (northern ruler) and the Ptolemite kingdom (southern ruler) (see the map from last week) will fight lots of wars against one another to determine who is supreme. The road linking these northern and southern kingdoms passed through Israel; so their wars affected Israel negatively.

Why the strong focus on the Greek empire in Daniel Chapter 8 and Chapter 11? In these visions of Daniel, he saw the exact time when Jesus will come – that is during the Roman empire. In addition, just as Prophet Malachi revealed that Elijah will come before the coming of Jesus, Daniel also reveals that someone behaving like Antiochus Epiphanes will come again before the second coming of Jesus

Jesus referred to this in Matthew 24:15-21 ( NIV) (shortened): “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains… Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath… there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again.”

Daniel’s visions are not just fanciful Sunday school stories, but are a guide to us all about God’s plans versus human plans, how they clash, and how God has already put in place solutions for any conflict. May we find inspiration and strength knowing that God is prepared and capable of seeing us through whatever is happening in the world today, both what we know and what we don’t know.

Thank you Lord for your goodness from generation to generation, Amen!

DANIEL’S SHOCKING ACCURATE VISIONS – Part 3

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Daniel’s first vision in Daniel Chapter 2 shows that there will be four empires, from Daniel’s day to the coming of the messiah – these ended up being Babylon (head of gold), Persia (chest of silver), Greece (thighs of bronze), and Rome (legs and toes of iron mixed with clay). The first vision shows that these empires become less glorious as time goes on; while the second vision in Daniel 7 show these empires as wild animals – informing Daniel that their cruelty grows worse as time goes on.

Today, we are studying the third vision in Daniel Chapter 8; it is about how the Persian empire (symbolized as a Ram) was defeated by the Greek empire (the Goat); and about how down the line the Greek empire will produce a king, who will act viciously towards Israel and directly challenge God’s authority.

Daniel 8: 21-25 (NIV) (shortened) states: “The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between its eyes is the first king. The four horns that replaced the one that was broken off represent four kingdoms that will emerge from his nation but will not have the same power… [in] the latter part of their reign… a fierce-looking king, a master of intrigue, will arise… He will destroy… the holy people… he will consider himself superior…. he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power.”

History shows that after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, he died and his empire was split among four of his military officers into four kingdoms. Lysimachus ruled in the west; Antigonus ruled the central regions; Seleucus ruled the eastern regions; Ptolemy ruled the southern regions; click on the map to see all of this clearly. The eastern kingdom, the Seleucid dynasty, ruled from Syria to Babylon; the southern kingdom, the Ptolemaic dynasty ruled over Egypt and later Israel.

However, 115 years later, Seleucid King Antiochus the third, captured Israel, from the Ptolemites, he was gentle with Israel. His son King Antiochus the fourth called himself Antiochus Epiphanes (‘God Manifest’ in the flesh). He was vicious to Israel, sacrificing a pig in the temple, an abomination; in his 12 years of rule, he almost wiped out Israel from existence. Judas Maccabeus, a priest, led a revolt with a small army and won against the larger army of Antiochus; Jews celebrate Hanukkah to remember this victory; Antiochus Epiphanes later died suddenly of illness.

The third vision showed Daniel that Israel in captivity in Babylon was a small matter, compared with was still to come in the future during the Greek empire. Daniel Chapter 8 closes in verse 27 with these words – “I, Daniel, was worn out. I lay exhausted for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled [horrified, shocked] by the vision; it was beyond understanding.”

Daniel saw human leaders continually think of themselves as gods and do vicious things. We see how these human leaders pass away and God’s kingdom continues to grow. Daniel saw how human leaders can be cruel and unafraid to challenge God’s authority, we see how God remains on his throne from age to age, human leaders pass away. The book of Daniel calls us to stay with God in hard times like what we experience today; God is the rock, all other ground is sinking sand.

Great God, help us to see that your boat is the most stable from age to age; and that there is a place for everyone in your boat, Amen!

DANIEL’S VISIONS OF THE FUTURE – Part 2

Daniel was an Israelite prince from the tribe of Judah, working as an administrator for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, when he had his first vision of the future in Daniel Chapter 2. In the vision, he saw a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs and feet of iron mixed with clay. The statue was then crushed by a stone that became a mighty mountain and filled the earth. That stone is Jesus – see the study from last week for more on Daniel’s first vision.

Daniel’s second vision is our focus today, and it is told in Daniel Chapter 7. He received the vision many years after the first one, during the reign of King Belshazzar, grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. History shows that Nabonidus, took over the throne from his father Nebuchadnezzar and then handed it to his son Belshazzar. Babylon was passing through hard times, Daniel was worried about the future, and this second vision provided answers about God’s plans for the future.

Daniel 7:1-8 (Living Bible) (shortened) states: “One night during the first year of Belshazzar’s reign… Daniel had a dream… In my dream I saw… four huge animals came up out of the water… The first was like a lion, but it had eagle’s wings… The second animal looked like a bear… It held three ribs between its teeth… The third… looked like a leopard… it had wings like those of birds, and it had four heads… a fourth animal rose up out of the ocean… It was far more brutal and vicious than any of the other animals, and it had ten horns… suddenly another small horn appeared among them, and three of the first ones were yanked out, roots and all, to give it room; this little horn had a man’s eyes and a bragging mouth.”

These four animals represent the four empires Daniel saw in Chapter 2. The first, the lion with eagle’s wings was Babylon because that was their national symbol – this is the head of gold in the vision in Chapter 2. The second, the bear with three ribs in its teeth, was the Persian empire, which conquered Egypt, Babylon, and Lydia (Turkey); the third, a leopard with wings and four heads was Greece led by Alexander the Great, it moved swiftly, and at the death of Alexander split into four kingdoms.

The fourth is the vicious Roman empire of iron; Western Rome later broke into ten kingdoms (click on the map to see them). In Daniel’s vision, a new king, the little horn, rose up later and was more powerful than any other king. This extremely proud little horn is similar to the antichrist beast described in Revelation 13:5 as speaking ‘proud words and blasphemies’ against God. While the Roman empire is gone, we are still living in a world governed by the Western powers that came out of Rome.

Daniel 7:26-27 (Living Bible) says: “But then the Ancient of Days [Jesus] will come and open his court of justice and take all power from this vicious king, to consume and destroy it until the end. Then all nations under heaven and their power shall be given to the people of God; they shall rule all things forever…”

At the end of the vision, God assures Daniel that the Messiah will come during the period of the Roman empire, and bring to an end this iron king, replacing it with not with another human empire, but with God’s kingdom – a kingdom that is not about meat and drink, but about righteousness [justice and fairness] and peace and joy coordinated through the leading of the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).

The hardtimes today will pass, God’s kingdom of fairness, peace and joy will come – come quickly we pray in Jesus name, Amen!

LESSONS FROM DANIEL’S VISIONS – Part 1

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The Old Testament is full of prophecies about the first coming of Jesus, his life on earth, his death, resurrection, and second coming to rule the earth. While these issues are not clearly and fully explained in most of the books of the Old Testament, the book of Daniel is the exception. Daniel’s teachings about Jesus the Messiah (Daniel’s Christology) is very clear and powerfully inspiring. In the next 4 weeks we will study the visions of Daniel to draw strength from them in these troubled times.

Daniel Chapter 1 is how he got to Babylon, and settled in, after the destruction of Israel by King Nebuchadnezzar. Chapter 2 is about his interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the end of history and the coming kingdom of God, which started as a little stone and became a mighty mountain!

Chapter 3 is about God rescuing Daniel’s friends from the fire; Chapter 4 shows God’s mercy and the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar, while Chapter 5 tells about God’s judgement on King Belshazzar (grandson of Nebuchadnezzar). Chapter 6 is about how rescued Daniel from the Lion’s den and punished those determined to destroy Daniel. Chapters 7-12 are about Daniel’s visions about the end of history and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth with Jesus as the indisputable King.

In Daniel 2:44-45 (NIV) we are told: “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed… It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands – a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.“ The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

This first vision of Daniel is the result of his interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, in which the King saw a great statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. The King then saw a stone strike the statue on its feet and smashed them to dust, but the stone that struck the statue became a huge mountain that filled the earth.

Bible teachers agree that the gold is Babylon (capital Iraq), which was ruling the world at that time; the silver is kingdom of Persia (capital Iran) which came after Babylon; followed by kingdom of Greece (bronze) ruled by Alexander the Great; followed by the Roman empire, which was partly strong and partly weak (legs of iron with feet partly of clay); followed by the stone that crushed the statue.

That stone is Jesus, born during the Roman empire, and since then his kingdom, the Church, has grown to fill the earth. There have been other empires since Rome, but the Bible is not primarily about human empires, it is about God’s plans. This vision is about when to expect the Messiah and how his ministry will grow. The other visions of Daniel repeats this message but add more and more details to it.

Lord, show us Jesus, more clearly from the book of Daniel, Amen!

THE BIBLE SHOWS GOD’S CHARACTER

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I thought my teachers in elementary school were the wisest; I wondered how they knew what to teach, such that what we learnt in Grade 4 continued what we learnt in Grade 3. I was amazed – until I got to high school and discovered that they followed a common teaching plan. All over the world there is a teaching plan that guide what children learn from elementary to high school and onwards to University.

Teaching plans or syllabus have a purpose – to produce engineers, or doctors, or lawyers, or musicians. The syllabus is designed to prepare children for society. So there is a purpose to why I was taught how to count, read, and write. We write many exams when we are in school, to test how well we are learning, but the purpose for school is not to write exams, it is to prepare us for adult life in society.

When we come to the Bible, we have to ask what is the purpose? Yes, we read our Bible, we use study guides and listen to Bible teachers to understand the Bible clearly. Like exams, reading and studying the Bible is necessary, but we get maximum benefit when we understand the purpose for the Bible.

Jesus said to Israel in John 5:39 (New Living Translation): “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”

Later in John 14:16 (New Living Translation) we read: “Jesus told him [Thomas], “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

We study the Bible to know Jesus the Son of God, who then lead us to the Father. Why Jesus? Hebrews 1:1-3 explains: “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets… in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance… The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God…”

Jesus “expresses the very character of God”, so the Bible shows us the character of God, seen more perfectly in the life of Jesus. We can see the love of God in the Old Testament, we can see the goodness of God in the Old Testament, but the lessons about God in the Old Testament is sometimes unclear, in the New Testament through the life and teachings of Jesus, we understand God’s character more clearly.

Lord, help us to see your character more clearly in the Bible, Amen!

WHO WAS CAIN’S WIFE?

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Have you ever read a novel or watched a movie and desired that it ended differently? I am sure you have; would I be wrong to think that every human being that has ever lived must have wished a story they heard, ended differently. Why is this so? It is probably because human curiosity and imagination is endless. We continue to ask questions, we continue to probe, what we hear and what we see.

In the book of Genesis, we are told Adam and Eve had a son named Cain; later we are told Cain got married and had children. At some point, you must have asked the question ‘where did Cain’s wife come from?’ The fact that the Bible has no direct answer may have frustrated you. Let’s assume that the Bible gave a direct answer, your natural curiosity would soon lead to another question like ‘was Cain black, white or brown?’ Why does the Bible not probe these questions and give direct answers?

Every book has a purpose, some information in the book are central and very important to achieveing its purpose, some other information are necessary but not central, and some are not necessary at all and are left out. We all filter information in our communication everyday; when I am telling my wife about my trip to the post office, just 10 minutes away from our home, I leave out more than what I share with her; if I were to share everything I saw, heard, and felt, the conversation will never end.

When next you are are reading the Bible, and you come across topics and issues that seem not to be fully covered by the Bible, don’t despair or be discouraged, search deeper for answers, and if the answers are not coming, then consider that the topic or issue may not be central to the purpose of the Bible. That then of course raises the question – what is the purpose of the Bible? I will answer next week.

Meanwhile John 21:25 (NIV) does say: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” So who was Cain’s wife? It must have been his sister from Adam’s other sons and daughters (see Genesis 5:4).

Great God, show us the purpose of the Bible, we pray, Amen!

LOVE IN HARD TIMES

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There was a time when with $40 I would fill up my car at the petrol pump, now it cost me $100. As the world seems to be coping better with COVID-19, we are entering a period of high petrol price, and continued increase in food cost. Cost of living is rising daily; for some Christians in places like Nigeria, India, North Korea, there is the added persistent persecution from non-Christians to also deal with.

What happens to love in these hard times, and in even more difficult context of living with persecution today. I remember how I struggled to love during a period when I was unemployed. I was not reachable by family, and did not care much for friend, neighbor, or the stranger. One of Jesus more famous parable, the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, was a commentary on love in hard times.

Jesus told of an Israelite traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho; the Jericho road at that time was called the ‘way of blood’. Israel was under Roman colonisation, and this was resisted by armed jewish rebels; some rebels were also bandits and thieves. The Jericho road was lonely, not well protected, and the playground for armed bandits and thieves. Common advice to travellers was not to stop for anything, keep on moving; this was the dangerous context for the parable of the good Samaritan.

Luke 10:30-35 (NIV) (shortened) says: “… [a] man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers… A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite… But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was… took pity on him… bandaged his wounds… put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn… The next day he took out two denarii (2 days pay for a laborer) and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have…”

During this hard times in Israel’s history, they hated their neighbors in Samaria (the Samaritans); so the Israelites listening to Jesus tell this parable, would have been shocked that a Samaritan, with money, would put himself in serious danger on Jericho road, to help an Israelite. Love in hard times, exposes the person offering love to the needy, to an increased risk of inconvenience and danger. We will all be tested, whether we can love our neighbor, love a stranger, like ourselves in these hard times!

Dear Lord, give us grace, strength, and wisdom to love like the good Samaritan, in these hard times, Amen!

The World Today – Better or Worse Off?

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War in Ukraine, extreme water scarcity in parts of India, gun violence in the US with 19 primary school children shot dead, and a protest in South Africa over French government actions in Africa. These are a tiny sample of the major news headlines in recent times; let’s not forget the big increase in petrol price all over the world, that has added to our daily problems. Is the world getting better or worse?

University students ask me this question from time to time; recent global events, and social life where you live, have probably made you ask this question too. Our answers would probably depend on our wealth status, our nationality or the country where we live, and our religious belief. Many might say scientific inventions have made the world a better place; what does the Bible say about this?

What is the problem with the world according to the Bible? In Genesis 2:17 (NIV) God says to Adam: “…but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” This is the foundational human problem in the Bible – death. When Jesus was on earth, he healed, he provided food, he comforted many, but his celebrated victory was the resurrection.

The foundational human problem in the Bible is not – what shall we eat and drink, where should we live, what shall we wear – what we refer to as the basic needs. The foundational problem in the Bible is that we walked out on God in the book of Genesis and as a result we die. Thus, 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 (NIV) talking about Jesus says: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” So, how well have we done to overcome death?

This puts the question of whether the world is getting better or worse in a different light. Imagine that you are on a long journey by ship, the food is poor and the sea is rough; you complain to the captain, and the food improves but the sea is still rough. The food is better but the degree of danger, the rough sea, has not gone away, death is still at the door, and the captain cannot change that.

When people therefore say the Bible is doom and gloom, I show them that actually the Bible is doom and future hope. The doom, death, already happened at Eden, and the rest of the Bible is about how God brings us back to life from death. While we do our best to make the current world livable, and better off, death and its effects, like on our bodies getting old and sick, continue torment us.

Lord, help us to see the future hope that Jesus preached, Amen!