Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Heavenly Realms — Revisited

Biblegems #274

Question: Are the “spiritual blessings” believers receive in “the heavenly realms” here on this earth those things that we are grateful for that God has provided to us, like happiness, love, joy...all the good things in the midst of all the bad?

( Note: This post is a follow-up of Biblegems # 78, published August 4, 2015, entitled, “What Are The Heavenly Realms?” I encourage readers to read that article first as a background to understanding my comments in this post. )

The phrase “heavenly realms (NIV) may also be translated as  “heavenly places (KJV, RSV, ESV). The underlined words are not found in the original Greek texts. They are added in our English Bibles to help readers understand Paul’s meaning. The Greek word epouranios, literally translates as “the heavenlies” in English (Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12).

The apostle Paul consistently uses the terms “heaven” and “heavenlies” in the sense of a place. So when he writes in Ephesians 1:3 that Jesus “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” he means that the spiritual blessing we experience as believers have their origin in heaven, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Eph. 3:20).

However, even though these blessings originate in heaven, it would be a mistake to think that they come down from heaven to us on earth. Rather, God has “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:20):
         Rom. 8:9            You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.

Not only are we with Him in the heavenly realms but we are in Him, and He is in us:
         Rom. 8:1  Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

What are these “spiritual blessings” we receive in the heavenly realms (Eph. 1:3)? The word “blessings” in its most general sense means “good things.” The New Testament puts these “spiritual blessings,” these spiritual ‘good things’—into two categories.

The first category of “spiritual blessings”—or ‘good things’—is spiritual power, the very same power God used “when he raised Christ from the dead” (Eph. 1:20). A primary role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life is to equip us and empower us with everything we need to live godly lives:
         2Pet. 1:3            His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

The second category of “spiritual blessings”—or ‘good things’—is our inheritance as Abraham’s children by faith:
         Gal. 3:14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

That promised inheritance is to reign with Christ in His Kingdom on this earth as kings and priests. This what Jesus referred to when He said:
         Matt. 5:5  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

For at Christ’ Return in power and great glory there will be no more distinction between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, for everything will be perfectly reconciled as one in Christ forevermore:
         Rev. 11:15b  “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The ‘Bad Laws’ Of God

Biblegems #273

Question: According to Ezekiel 20:25, God intentionally gave Israel some “bad laws through which they could not live.” Why would God do that, and how does that encourage people to trust Him?

When God formed Israel into a nation during their forty years in the Wilderness, He established laws and statutes for them to live by. Consequences for breaking this covenant with God were established at the outset, to which Israel willingly agreed, included the following:
Deut. 28:64  Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known.

Rejecting God’s laws and statutes—established for their benefit—would result in their becoming like the nations around them. This, in fact, became a repeated historical reality. By rejecting God and His commandments the people of Israel chose by default to come under the laws and statutes of the their enemies—laws and statutes they eventually found repulsive and impossible to live by.

So when the Lord says in Ezekiel 20:25, “So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live…,” He is simply fulfilling His promise to subject them to the ‘bad laws’ and statutes of the cultures they have preferred in their rejection of God. They are not God’s ‘bad laws’ at all, but rather the laws and customs of this world that is so often at enmity with God.

If anything, this goes to demonstrate how amazingly good and patient God is in the face of human willfulness and stubbornness. He could force us to do His will. Instead, He allows us follow our stubborn, rebellious determination to do ‘our own thing:’
Ps. 81:12  So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.

God lets us break free from the leash, so to speak, with the intent that we will see the error of our ways and willingly return to Him with a new measure of humility and desire to live in a right relationship with Him. This is what is meant in the conclusion of the sentence from Ezekiel 20:25 that ends in verse twenty-six:
         Ezek. 20:26  I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the LORD.

Among the horrible customs practiced by some ancient nations was that of child sacrifice—placing living infants in the searing hot arms of a huge metallic statue of the idol Molech, where they would roll down into a blazing furnace in its belly (2Chron. 28:3).

It is Israel, not God that chose to go the ways of the cultures around them. God “defiled them” (v. 26) by letting them reject His way of life—a healthy relationship of love with their Creator—for the ways of the corrupt world around them. God will not force us to love Him. He will, however, show us the way back:

         Rom. 2:4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Males More Valuable Than Females?

Biblegems #272

Question: Why does the Bible attach a higher value to males than females in Leviticus 27:3-4?

Actually, these two verses in Leviticus 27 have nothing to do with male – female equality. Rather, the focus is on a system of organization where the people of Israel would take turns serving as Temple assistants to the Levites. This was critical, because the Temple served not only as the worship center for the nation but also as the educational, legal, medical and judicial center.

It was expected that all families who were physically able to help with the Temple upkeep and services would do so, assisting the “paid staff” (the Levites). However, when a person could not fulfill their responsibility, the system in Leviticus 27:1-8 provided a way for the person to be excused. The absentee would make a payment to the Temple equivalent to the established monetary value of his or her services at the Temple—and the temple’s services to him or her.

As we see in verses 3-7, the monetary value for services rendered was based upon the person’s age as well as gender, the assumption being that a young person would perform the more demanding physical labor than a sixty-year old, and likewise a male would perform more demanding physical labor than the average female:
         Lev. 27:5a  or a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels and of a female at ten shekels

This Temple tax was also formulated upon the number of people in a household, including very young children:
Lev. 27:6  for a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver

Not only the age but also the gender, even of infants, reflected on the services the family would receive from the Temple throughout the year. The regulated fees served to protect the family against being unfairly charged by those who collected the fees. In fact, if a family was not in a position financially to come up with the required fee, the priests were authorized to adjust the amount down according to the individual’s financial ability.
Lev. 27:8  If anyone making the vow is too poor to pay  the specified amount, the person being dedicated is to be presented to the priest, who will set the value according to what the one making the vow can afford.

Understanding the culture of the time helps us to understand that the Bible is actually promoting a fair and compassionate approach to engaging families in the support of their center of worship and its related institutions that provided essential community services. This practice foreshadows a new, future day:

         Is. 2:3   Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Who “Will Never See Death”?

Biblegems #271

Question: In John 8:51 Jesus says: "... if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." Jesus must mean something other than death literally, so why doesn’t He just say what He means, or else explain why He uses “death” figuratively?

Jesus is not using the word “death” figuratively. Rather, He redefines the word to help us see what death really is, from God’s perspective, as opposed to the distorted human understanding of death. To do so He still uses our common vocabulary, yet reinterprets the term by applying it differently.

For example, a carpenter points to an assortment of lumber stacked in piles according to their relative size (2” X 4”, 1” X 3”, 4’ X 8’) and tells his newbie apprentice to go get a full sheet. The apprentice does not know that a “full sheet” refers to standard 4’ X 8’ plywood. Once the carpenter clears up the confusion, the apprentice has a new frame of reference for the word “sheet.”

From the human point of view, “death” typically means that a living biological organism as ceased to function. Since it no longer lives biologically, we say it has died. Interestingly, we can also say that something non-biological has died, such as a microwave oven or an automobile, and expect that others will understand. The way we use the term changes the meaning without requiring further explanation.

Jesus frequently re-defined the meaning of death. Whereas we see biological death as the cessation of life, Jesus treated death as a transitional stage of life, not unlike transitioning from sleeping to waking—a transition he had control over:
Mark 5:39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.”
We see death as a state from which there is no return, once decay has set in.  For Jesus, death is not biologically defined. From God’s point of view, once human life has begun it exists eternally. Biological death is an anomaly—an abnormality in God’s created universe brought about by sin:
         Rom. 5:12  sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people

Sin not only introduced death to the human experience, but it also traps humanity into an eternal existence cut off from God, who is the author of life.  To correct this, God entered the human race as a sinless human being to rescue us and restore us to eternal life in His presence. This is why Jesus said to Mary, Lazarus’ sister, outside the tomb of her dead brother four days after his internment,
John 11:25 “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

And then—
         John 11:43-46  Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.