Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What Makes a Prophet?

me leafing . . . er reading on my computer
I was leafing (do you leaf on the computer?) . . . errr, paging, errr reading through this months Ensign online and came across an article by President Monson entitled Priesthood Power, http://lds.org/general-conference/2011/04/priesthood-power?lang=eng. I’m not really going to talk about this article right now, but a statement he made at the beginning of the article about not wanting to offend anyone really got me thinking about what, biblically speaking, a prophet is/was. (It made me think because a lot of the Old Testament prophets were quite offensive even though that's not really what this blog is turning out to be about.)

The Old Testament is full of examples of prophets throughout many generations and so it’s hard to characterize exactly what one might look like (would he wear a suit and a tie, or jeans and a beard?), but there are some characteristics that Biblical Prophets shared. These are what I want to look at because I believe that these are traits that modern prophets also ought to share.

The first thing I thought of when thinking about Old Testament prophets was that they were nobodies whow many times came out of nowhere. John the Baptist for example, came out of the wilderness. (Luke 1:80) Amos was a herdsman (Amos 1) Elisha was tilling in his field (a farmer) when Elijah came and got him. (1 Kings 19:19). Saul was actually hiding when Samuel came to anoint him. (1 Samuel 10, note Saul wasn’t a prophet per se, but God did use him to prophecy in the beginning of God’s dealings with him, later though he tried to do things in his own strength without God so God rejected him as king and his prophesying seems to have been a temporary thing). David we know was a sheepherder and the youngest of his father’s sons, and his family wasn’t particularly significant either. (1 Samuel 16) and I think if we study the other prophets (the ones that we know their history) we’ll find the same thing: they were insignificant men who God reached down and pulled up and made into significant men.

And, that’s really the main thing we see in scripture that defines them: God called them, and what’s more they knew that God had called them. Isaiah describes how God called him in the first chapter of his book.

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. . . Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. (Isaiah 6:1, 5)

Similar things happened to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many of the other prophets in the Old Testament. They knew directly and without a doubt that God had called them, and sent them out with a specific message. Here are some more examples:

“The words of Jeremiah. . . To whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah . . Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying. . .  I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:1-5) “ Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. . . .The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel. . . and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.” (Ezekiel 1: 1-3) “The word of the LORD that came unto Hosea” (Hosea 1:1) “The word of the LORD that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.” (Joel 1) “The vision of Obadiah. Thus saith the Lord GOD” (Obediah 1) “Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah” (Jonah 1).

Lastly, Old Testament prophets weren’t in any way perfect, or sin free. In some ways this seems like it’d be obvious, but in the LDS church at least, I grew up thinking that prophets were right up there pretty darn close to God, meaning that while they probably did some little tiny sin from time to time, they certainly wouldn’t fall into any big sin. Biblical prophets though, struggled with some pretty big sins from time to time. We talked about David, and it’s super easy to see that David messed up big time with Bathsheba, (2 Samuel 11) but there’s also evidence that David was a bad father (2 Samuel 13-18), and he did a census of Israel that God had not wanted, making Israel suffer really bad consequences because of it. (2 Samuel 24)

We see too in scripture how Abraham didn’t always trust God like he should, and instead ran ahead of God rather than wait and trust Him (by sinning). And, I’m sure as we look at the other prophets we can find instances where they didn’t do everything just right. (Elijah ran away from Jezebel because he didn’t really trust that God could save his life).

But, the biblical expectation isn’t that they were perfect. Instead, it’s that they trusted God, and that when they did mess up they put their trust in God and in His forgiveness.That's why God could honestly say that David was a man after His own heart even though David messed up so big. (1 Samuel 13)

In fact, as I was studying to put this together I realized that the one thing that ties all the prophets together above everything else was that God had given them a message (which they then spoke out), and that really, no more and no less, is what made them prophets.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Follow the Prophets. . . except when they're wrong!

The other day, in my daily devotional reading I got caught up in reading the tale of the destruction of Israel that’s recounted in Jeremiah 52, and continued in the book of Lamentations. To tell the tale though, you really need to read the entire book of Jeremiah and hear how again and again and again Jeremiah was called to go to the kings of Israel and predict the destruction of Israel. (I had done that in the past days before this incident).

To remind you of this tragic story I’ll attempt to recap a bit what happened. After several evil kings, Zedekiah became the king of Israel and continued in his rebellion against the Lord. In his eleventh year as king, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon came against Israel and besieged it. For two years his army literally camped out outside the walls of Jerusalem, allowing no one in or out. Not surprisingly after a bit the people ran out of food. Lamentations, which is Jeremiah’s lament about all this, tells us more about this sad, hard situation and includes the detail that the ladies of the city even resorted to eating their own children! (Lamentation 2:20)

If you haven’t read it before, I’d highly suggest you read Lamentations, which is were Jeremiah literally weeps over the utter destruction of his people, and their subsequent dehumanization and humiliation. (Zed, for his part had his sons put to death in front of him, and then was blinded, and taken to Babylon where he lived as a captive for the rest of his life—see Jeremiah 52).

As I mentioned before I was absolutely gripped by this story, even though it’s not a unfamiliar story to me. And, then in the midst of this story I found the cause of the problems that Jerusalem faced very clearly spelled out:
 Thy prophets have seen vain and foolish things for thee: and they have not discovered thine iniquity, to turn away thy captivity; but have seen for thee false burdens and causes of banishment. (Lamentations 2:14)
  For the sins of her prophets, and the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her, (Lamentations 4:13)
 You see, Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet in this time period, but instead there were a whole bunch of prophets, and these prophets, every single one of them, made false prophecies which led the people astray. Early on in Jeremiah’s ministry, for instance, he went face-to-face with false prophets, and the Lord had him do it by wearing a yoke and telling the people that they should go into captivity and that if they did they’d be safe. Hananiah, who was also a prophet came against Jeremiah and said that wasn’t true, but that the Lord was saying the people would be set free (see Jeremiah 28).

And, this leads to my point, I, when I was LDS, was taught that a prophet would never, ever lead the people astray, (See http://lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-9-prophets-of-god?lang=eng&query=prophets+leading+people+astray) and yet in Old Testament times (and in the New too I suspect) prophets did just that—they led the people astray. In fact, in the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah puts the blame for Jerusalem’s destruction, and the people’s being led into captivity squarely at the feet of the false prophets.

And, yet there were some Israelites that were wise enough to ignore the false prophets, and believe the true ones (Jeremiah). How did they know? How could they discern? I think the answer lies in the biblical truth that they knew God’s Word—in their case it was a matter of knowing the Pentateuch (or the first five books of Moses, often called the Law in the Bible). Remember Moses had admonished the people that they should put his words on their door posts, and on the wall as they went in and out of their houses, as well as teach them to their children, and more! (Deuteronomy 6)  and some followed this commandment. These were the ones, I believe, who knew that what Jeremiah was saying had to be true. Because you see, what was happening in the government of the time so obviously was NOT what God wanted, that to anyone familiar with His Word, it would have been clear that they weren’t OK—not at all.

In a more contemporary example, many people were duped by Harold Camping, and spent a lot of time and money trying to convince the rest of us that what he predicted was true—that he was a true prophet, and that the world was going to end last Saturday. It didn’t of course, and those of us who knew God’s Word weren’t fooled by him. That’s because there is always, always safety in knowing what God has said—it, and it alone won’t lead us astray. Prophets on the other hand can and will, as is well documented in Zedekiah's story and several others in God's Word. 
 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.(1 Cor. 10:11-12)
 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. (Romans 15:4) 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Victory that Comes from the Holy Spirit

Last week I confessed to you, my readers, that I could make people mad at me. This week I want to go even further on that thought and confess to you that I fail. . . often. The thing is though that I suspect you fail too—maybe even often.

Let me set the scenario for you so you see that I’m not just a hopeless loser, but more like a normal and even common loser. Nearly every morning of my life I start the day with Bible reading and talking to God. And, sometimes (often) in that quiet time in the morning I feel Him speaking to me about something: being kinder to my family, reaching out to my neighbors, praying more, and harder, or some other such thing. (Some of these things are quite personal and hurt even!) And, in the quiet perfection of my morning time I say “I’m going to do that today!”

Then eight o’ clock comes around, the kids get up, I start my day, and things change. . . you see, it’s no longer just the Lord and I, but there are all these. . . interruptions, problems, issues, even drama and most of all people, people that are sometimes hard to live with! And, before I know it it’s suppertime, and I totally forgot whatever it was that I committed to in my quiet time.

Can you relate to this? I think most of us can. The thing is, however, that I think the Lord knows this and even planned for it. Jesus, you know, came down and became one of us for a time, and scripture even tells us that He faced the same troubles, temptations, and such as we did. So, He knows that there’d be all these things in our lives that’d hinder us from doing what we really, really wanted to do.

And, as we learned already we really can’t do any of those good things by ourselves, or in our natural, normal human state. (Romans 7:18, Isaiah 64:6 and other passages tell us that our natural human good works are really filthy dirty menstrual rags in God’s eyes, fit for nothing but to be thrown away). So, how does a Christian live, and what can a person do that does please God? The answer to this is one of those mysteries of the Christian life that in some ways is counter-intuitive. It lies in the answer that God gave: you see, when a Christian chooses to put their faith in Jesus (this is the gateway that God puts before us that we have to enter into before we really can be Christians), God does some amazing things in their lives. And, one of those things is that He comes down Himself, not just to dwell with them as Jesus did, but instead to dwell in them in the form of the Holy Spirit. And, that Holy Spirit dwelling within the Christian is God’s provision for the Christian to even be able to do anything that pleases Him.

 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. (Romans 8:11)

And, this provision of God is why I can honestly confess to you that I fail, but that I am not a complete failure, not because of me but instead because of God, because He, dwelling within me gives me power over those sins that plague me.

And, in looking back at my life I can see how He, working within me, has done those things He talks to me about in the intimacy of our morning meetings. And, I can see that even in the hustle and bustle of the day, with its many annoyances, frustrations, and yes, people, He’s working to do just what He wants in my life.

And, you know what? I can’t take credit for any of it because I know deep down inside that it’s not really me at all. It’s all Him—and all glory is His.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What is "Our Part"?

Did you know that I could make someone real angry, really, really fast? I know it’s hard to believe about me, mild mannered mom and generally all-around nice person that I am, but it’s true. In fact, one of the ways I can tick people off faster than pretty much anything else is for me to tell a LDS person that they are not Christian. And, so in general I don’t make that statement—at all, even though more or less I believe it to be true.

The trouble isn’t that I’m right and they’re wrong, or even that they’re right and I’m wrong, but it’s all wrapped up in definition. You see, when LDS folks say they’re Christian they define that as someone who believes in Christ. When I (or someone else that I might agree with) say that they’re not Christian I mean that they do not believe certain biblical doctrines that are set forth so clearly in the Bible that their truths really are not open to debate.

As I read the LDS webpage entitled Jesus is the Way http://lds.org/plan/jesus-christ-is-the-way?lang=eng there’s a real good example of one of those differences. It’s in the portion of the article entitled We Have To Do Our Part, and says “. . . we have to do our part to overcome spiritual death. To be forgiven of our sins, we need to repent and increase our faith in Jesus Christ throughout our lives. We will not be saved simply because we get baptized or say we believe in Jesus Christ. It takes work. . .”

Now, no true Christian would disagree that there are things that God wants us to do, and doesn’t want us to do, and that a true Christian would live out his life trying to do, or not do, those things. In fact, as James so rightly points out, if we’re not doing (or not, not doing) those things, we should examine ourselves to see if we’re really Christians at all. But, the Bible is very clear that our works do not contribute to our salvation. Or in other words what we do, or don’t do won’t change one bit whether or not we’ve been reconciled to God if we’ve been reconciled to God in God’s way.

Paul is actually the apostle who talks the most about this concept and in Romans 4 he gives the clearest teaching of all about this when he compares us working for our salvation to having a job. Most of us when we go to work every day don’t do it out of grace: we do it because we expect to be paid. And, that’s just how Paul compares salvation, he tells us that if we work for it we get what we deserve, our pay so to speak. The trouble is that God demands that we do it either our way, or His way. His way is through putting our faith in His Son, Jesus and in His finished work on the cross. (See Romans 3 and 4, Ephesians 2, Galatians 3, John 3, 6 and many, many more verses.) Our way is to work and try to make ourselves good enough that God, or Jesus might accept us; to somehow do enough good deeds that our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds and somehow we’ll make the standard that God sets, even if by the skin of our teeth. (If we were Muslim we could choose martyrdom and then we’d know that we’d made it, but otherwise we’re always left wondering if we’ve lived up to God’s standard, no matter how “good” we become or how much “good” we do.)

And, this is where our own works trip us up. You see, the Bible also says that all—yes that’s ALL of our “righteous” acts are like filthy rags before God. (Isaiah 64:6) Other passages in the Bible agree with this assessment, Paul tells us in Romans 7 that in his flesh (our human nature) nothing truly good exists (vs. 18). And, the Proverbs tell us that what we think is “right” isn’t right with God (Proverbs 16:25).

So in the end, although it may seem that we can work and try and do all these good things that’ll somehow help in our salvation, the Bible is unequivocal in it’s teaching that we can’t do anything that’s going to help out in our salvation, and in fact, that if we’re counting on our good works for anything at all, we’ve nullified grace. . . which means that we then get the “wages” for our own behavior.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried to “do” all the right things, and you know what? It doesn’t last, or I just plain can’t do it right, or I don’t know really, but somehow it fails—fatally fails. I lose my temper, or I am not patient enough, or someone cuts in front of me in traffic, or the dog truly does eat my homework, and the washer eats my socks, and well, I just fail again and again and again.

The good news is that Jesus knew that. He planned for that in fact, by taking away the responsibility for my sin from me, and taking it on Himself and in taking it on Himself paid for it in the only way really possible. He paid for it in the only way that is, and will ever be, good enough.

And, all He asked from me was the one thing that I can do: to trust in Him, and even in my utter inability to do that well, He knew and made the provision, and He works in me to do what He’s purposed to do in me, and in that He is glorified, and I am not.

Which is why the next time I make someone mad, I’m trusting that Jesus will give me the will, power, and words to make the situation right, even if we have different definitions of the same word. And most of all I’m trusting that although my “work” is imperfect and in the end fatally flawed, His isn’t.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Jesus Christ is the Way

The other day a friend asked me about something they read on the LDS website: LDS.org. The article she was referring to can be found here: http://lds.org/plan/jesus-christ-is-the-way?lang=eng and addresses the way that sinful people can be reconciled with a Holy God. The beginning of the article states that the Holy Spirit cannot be with us if we are sinful, and goes on to state that no matter how hard we try to live righteous lives, we will commit sin.

The Bible actually agrees with part of this statement and tells us that “there is none righteous” (Romans 3:10) and that “all of us have sinned,” and because we sin, “we fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and finally, that before we knew Christ (of if we don’t know Christ) we “were by nature the children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

However, the Bible also teaches us something slightly different about God the Father and Jesus, and that is that He is a gracious God, full of mercy, and a God who desires all of mankind to be saved. In fact, the picture the Bible paints is of a seeking father who’s standing on a hill searching, day after day, for his lost son, or a shepherd who leaves his entire flock, and devotes himself and all he has, to search for the one sheep that is missing (Luke 15).

And, that picture doesn’t just apply to those who have already put their faith in Jesus, but also applies to those who don’t yet know Him. Romans 5 is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible as it talks about us before we knew God, and says that He saved us (or saves us) “while we were yet sinners,” or in other words while we were STILL sinning He saves us. The same passage goes on and tells us that He actually saved us (or reconciled us to Himself) while we were still ENEMIES!

And, when you think about it, it just makes sense. . . I mean think about it for a minute: who among us doesn’t sin in some way daily? Really. I don’t mean the sins that we generally think of as “big” sins; sins that ruin lives and devastate families like adultery, murder, stealing, etc. What about coveting? Hmmm, are we really totally and completely content with what we have right now? How about tomorrow? What about having faith in God: do we really, every minute of every day, have total confidence and faith in God? Or, one of my personal favorites (by that I mean that it’s one I struggle with way too often) are we “rejoicing always” and in every circumstance like Philippians 4:4 commands? 

That’s why grace is essential in the Christian life: if we didn’t live a life of grace we’d all be toast—really, because there’s just no way I can ever, ever live up to God’s standard of perfection.

And, you know what? Romans 8 chronicles what God does for those who live in that relationship with Him, in a daily walk of experiencing His grace. It tells us that first and foremost there is NO condemnation for those who are in that relationship, (Romans 8:1) and that nothing, absolutely nothing can ever separate us again from the love of Jesus, (Romans 8:35-39) and further that not only that, but God the Father, Jesus His Son, and the Holy Spirit are all advocating for us! (Romans 8:31-34, and 26)

Now that’s good news!

Next week I'd like to spend a bit more time on this article and see how it stands up biblically. See you then!