Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Let the oppressed go free

 How can any nation pretend to fast or worship God at all, or dare to profess that they believe in the existence of such a Being, while they carry on the slave trade, and traffic in the souls, blood, and bodies, of men! O ye most flagitious of knaves, and worst of hypocrites, cast off at once the mask of religion; and deepen not your endless perdition by professing the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, while ye continue in this traffic!

–Adam Clarke’s commentary on Isaiah 58:6

Clouds – the welcome and the not so welcome.

And now men see not the bright light which is in the clouds: but the wind passeth, and cleanseth them. Job 37:21

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Our land is dry and thirsty; clouds in the sky lift our hopes. We are sad when they only dampen the ground as they pass over. Others not far away have been blessed with rain and more clouds are in the forecast. We continue to hope.

Clouds within the eye are not so welcome. It happens to us as we get older: a cloud, barely noticed at first, comes between us and the things we want to see. I had cataract surgery in both eyes several years ago and that cloud is gone.

Another cloud to distort my vision came eleven years ago . The doctor called it macular degeneration, said he could help but I would have to consent to having him poke a needle into my eye. With that needle he would deliver a tiny amount of drug into my eye to dry up the rogue capillaries that wrinkled the macula of my retina.

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He has done that dozens of times since then and most of the time it has worked. My right eye has a tiny dark cloud at the centre of my vision, possibly because I did not notice what was happening soon enough, I consider myself fortunate, I can still see to drive, read and use the computer. If the macular degeneration had begun a few years earlier there would have been no drug available to treat it.

In March I began to notice distortion beginning again in my left eye. I called the doctor’s office and a couple days later had an injection in that eye. The tiny amount of drug in the fluid of the eye brought a cloud to the vision for a say or two. That cleared up and in a week the distortion cleared up, too.

I had another injection yesterday, preventive maintenance this time. By this evening the cloud caused by the injection is mostly gone. I will have more such injections in the future. I don’t enjoy them, but they bring hope.

Holy violence

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)

The tax gatherers and heathen, whom the scribes and Pharisees think have no right to the kingdom of the Messiah, filled with holy zeal and earnestness, seize at once on the proffered mercy of the gospel, and so take the kingdom as by force from those learned doctors who claimed for themselves the chiefest places in that kingdom. He that will take, get possession of, the kingdom of righteousness, peace, and spiritual joy must be in earnest. All hell will oppose him in every step he takes; and if a man be not absolutely determined to give up his sins and evil companions, and have his soul saved at all hazards, and at every expense, he will surely perish everlastingly. This requires a violent earnestness.

-Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible

Sometimes a light surprises

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Image by Piet van de Wiel from Pixabay

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To clear it after rain.

In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new:
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it nay.

It can bring with it nothing,
But He will bring us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe His people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens,
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig-tree neither,
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the fields should wither,
Nor flocks, nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall trill my voice,
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

-William Cowper

Mixed up about the Gibeonites

God had miraculously led the children of Israel through Jordan and to victory over Jericho and Ai. Before them now were the mountains; the nations in those mountains greatly outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. These were the people who had so frightened their fathers forty years earlier; the challenge before them was formidable.

Up in their mountain stronghold, the people of Gibeon had gotten the message that God planned to give this land to the Israelites and they believed that He could and would do it. They also knew that God had forbade the Israelites to make any covenant with the people of the land. So they hit upon a ruse, sending a delegation pretending to come from a far country and wanting to make a league of peace between their people and the people of God.

Of course it was deception, and yes, Joshua and the elders of Israel were tricked into doing what God had told them not to do. And yet, what was the result? Bible story lessons make this a great issue. But what evidence can they point to of God’s displeasure?

The kings of the Amorites called out their armies to attack Gibeon in order to prevent the Israelites from gaining a foothold in the mountains. God told Joshua to go to the defence of the Gibeonites and promised to deliver the attacking armies into his hands. He rained hailstones that killed more of the Amorites than Joshua’s army, He made the sun stand still in the sky until the victory was complete. Over the next few days Joshua and the Israelites attacked and vanquished all the Amorite cities. Far from punishing the Gibeonites, God had used them as the key to the conquest of the whole southern half of the promised land.

Now the kings of the north, Hittites, Perezites, Jebusites and the rest of the Amorites and Hivites, gathered together to prepare an attack on the Israelites. Joshua and the army marched north to attack the gathered armies and once again God gave them a decisive history. Now they were masters of the whole land. They had not destroyed all the people of the land, but there were no longer any mighty armies to stand against them.

As we read the whole story, the inescapable conclusion is that God blessed the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites. Yes, they came with a deceitful story, yet they did it because they recognized the greatness of God. They submitted willingly to the conditions laid upon them by the elders of Israel, knowing that the alternative was death. Joshua 11:19 says: “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”

We can natter on if we wish about the wickedness of the Gibeonite deceit and the wickedness of the people of God in falling for their treachery. But we won’t find anything in the Word of God to back us up.

It is true that God did instruct the people in Deuteronomy 20:17 : “But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.” Are we blaming God for not sticking to His word even when one group of those people willingly submitted to Him? God later told Jeremiah: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).

The story of the Gibeonites is a vivid portrayal of the redemption that God offers to all mankind when we accept His judgement on our sins. It is a story of God’s providential care of His people in leading them to victory and of his mercy to the heathen in drawing them to find salvation with His people.

The Gibeonites did not become slaves to the Israelites. Read the story carefully, they became slaves of the Levites for the service of the tabernacle. There was mercy even in this. Their work was menial, but it was for the service of God and it protected them from oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are included among the people later called Nethinims.

There came a time when King Saul thought he would do God a service by wiping out the Gibeonites. Because of this God sent a three year famine in Israel in the time of King David. The famine ceased when seven of Sauls grandsons were hung. I don’t read this as revenge. This was the most effective means of getting the message out to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God. Nowadays Twitter may be quicker, but often not much kinder.

Let’s not be like Saul and condemn the Gibeonites for their deception. The real story here is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but the Bible account leads us to believe the sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty God.

Fast food Christianity

We are told, and it is obvious if we are paying attention, that there is a great decline in Bible knowledge among evangelical Christians who claim their faith is built upon the Word of God. What is the cause?

Jack Miner told of an elderly Scot who said, “In my day children were raised on the Bible and oatmeal porridge, today they are being raised on the Eaton’s catalogue and corn flakes.” Then pounding the podium, he said “I tell you folks, it can’t be done!”

Leaving aside the fact that I was allergic to oatmeal (I broke out in hives) and that the Eaton’s catalogue is long gone, this anecdote does reveal that there once was a time when it was believed that children were not too tender or dull to be exposed to the Bible just as it is.

My observation, as an old-timer, is that the decline in Bible knowledge is a direct result of the tools we are using to enhance our Bible knowledge. I am thinking primarily of children’s Bible story book, study Bibles, and Bible reading plans that lead one hither and yon in search of interesting elements of Scripture, but never allow one to get the whole picture.

We have advanced so far in this that readers are likely to dismiss such ideas as the incoherent rumblings of an old curmudgeon. Perhaps I am somewhat of a curmudgeon, but consider the evidence before you reject what I am saying.

What could be more innocent than a Bible story book? Look at the stories closely and you will see that each one is told to teach a moral lesson. Sometimes this requires some editorial tweaking by the writer. And sometimes the moral is altogether different from what you will find if you read the full account in context in the Bible.

I will examine some of the more egregious examples of this in future posts. But the overall effect of Bible story books is to create a kind of pseudo-Christianity that is described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the thought that God has given us the Bible to teach us how to live moral and upright lives and to teach us to feel good about ourselves. That may not sound so bad, but years ago people believed the Bible existed to help us know God. That is what I still believe.

Study Bibles are like the fast food restaurants who used to advertise “Don’t cook tonight, Call Chicken Delight!” or “Colonel Sanders makes it finger-lickin’ good, with his secret blend of herbs and spices.” If you don’t think reference Bibles have their secret blend of herbs and spices, I don’t think you’re paying attention.

That’s enough for an introduction. Stand by for more rumblings in future posts.

Prairie fire!

Just before supper time today my wife smelled smoke. We went outside and saw the fire behind the buildings of our neighbour. Our son-in-law was the first to see it while going home for supper. He turned around to get the fire engine from the village six miles away, sending out the alert to  other members of the volunteer fire department as he went. He called the closest farmer and he drove his tractor over there right away to make a fire guard in the stubble.

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Image by skeeze from Pixabay

This is spring time in Saskatchewan; Quebec is having floods, we are having fires. They happen most often around the Easter weekend; people clean up their yards and want to burn the trash. If there is a little breeze, the fire gets away on them and spreads like wildfire in the dry grass, stubble and brush. A week ago our son-in-law spent the whole day going from one fire to another, three in all.

Today’s fire may have been caused by spontaneous combustion. Our neighbour makes doors for cabinet makers. I am guessing the fire may have started in a pile of wood scraps, rags and empty paint and glue containers. He was not aware there was a fire until our son-in-law called him.  It took two hours to put the fire out, a couple of trees and some dry grass and stubble burned, but the fire was away from the buildings. 

There is a spiritual parallel in the way so many churches are disappearing in rural and small-town Saskatchewan. The town where I grew up once had five churches; only two are left. Of those two, neither has roots in the Word of God. One teaches salvation through the sacraments, the other teaches that it is society that needs salvation, not people.

What happened? I think they dried up from the roots. Many people used to read the Bible daily. Perhaps their understanding of what they read differed somewhat from the way those in another church believed. Yet they all had a basic trust in the truth of God’s Word. Many preachers were pretty down to earth men who were willing to get by on meager fare to bring the gospel to their people.

Denominational leaders thought they could make the gospel more effective in providing more education for preachers. Once these better-educated preachers went out into the rural churches, the people discovered they hadn’t really understood anything about the Bible. The new preachers brought new insights, but people didn’t trust themselves to read the Bible for themselves any more.

Then too, better educated ministers deserved a better salary. Soon the smaller churches couldn’t afford a minister. They amalgamated to pool their resources. That meant people had to drive further to church and sometimes they just couldn’t make it every Sunday. That often led to another round of amalgamations. Today very few small communities have any kind of gospel preaching church.

A prairie fire mostly just burns dead grass, leaves and bushes. Before long green growth appears amid the ashes and by summer’s end there will be little evince of the fire.

The spiritual prairie fire that destroyed our rural churches burned underground, destroying the roots. People forgot that it is not well-paid, educated ministers and big buildings that make a Christian church. It is people, individuals and families, who read their Bible every day and pray to God to help them live what they read. Once that faith has withered and died, there is no need for buildings and preachers.

Still, something will grow in that burned over ground. We say we don’t like what we see growing around us, so let’s be like the sower in the parable Jesus told and scatter the precious seed wherever we go.

How many days until next Sunday?

Well, that’s a foolish question if there ever was one, everybody knows it’s eight days.

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Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

But I’m writing to English-speaking people and most of you probably don’t know that. You probably count Monday to Sunday and come up with seven days. But today isn’t over with yet, how can you just ignore it, say it doesn’t count?
I used to think that way; it was as obvious as could be that a week is seven days and therefore it is seven days until next Sunday.

Then I learned French and discovered that they think differently. Partial days do count, you need to start with what’s left of today and count up to next Sunday, and voila! it comes to eight days. Once I could get my head around that, I discovered that this is the way that a whole lot of the world thinks.

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Including the people of Jesus’ day. It was no stretch to them to call it three days when Jesus was in the tomb from just before sundown on Friday to just after dawn on Sunday. That was obviously three days.

But I have read carefully thought out dissertations by aspiring Bible scholars who proved to their own satisfaction that Jesus could not possibly have been crucified on a Friday. If He was three days in the tomb, He had to have been crucified on Thursday. I even saw one some years ago that argued for Wednesday. That just goes to show that if you don’t know something, you can’t know that you don’t know it.

One of the gospel accounts says three days and three nights. How does one account for that when it was in fact only Friday night and Saturday night?

Let me answer that question with a few others. At 2:00 am this morning was it Saturday night? But Saturday ended at midnight. Was it Sunday night? We say that night follows day, it doesn’t precede it. Then was it Sunday morning? But it was still night.

The French solution is to say that last night was the night of Saturday to Sunday. No possibility of confusion there.

I think the simplest way to understand three days and three nights is to say that Jesus was in the tomb three days and the portions of night associated with those three days.

Seek the heavenly prize

Last Sunday Tiger Woods won the Masters golf tournament. An amazing triumph for a man who a few years ago thought his days of playing golf were over. Four surgeries and long months of rigorous training later, he is outplaying the best in the world.

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He has had to endure pain, ridicule and scorn, and overcame them all. His reward? Another green jacket, a pile of money and tons of praise and publicity.

Those are things that will perish with time. The apostle Paul wrote about sports and said that Christians should train like athletes, not heeding the protests of their body. But, he said, they do it to win an earthly prize, we do it to win a heavenly prize.

The other big news story of this week is the fire that broke out Monday afternoon at the cathedral Notre Dame de Paris. President Macron cancelled a televised speech, politicians stopped campaigning. By noon the next day wealthy families in France had pledged 700 million Euros to rebuild the cathedral. That is more than one billion Canadian dollars. Obviously this 800 year old building has a great significance for a great many people.

But, the apostle Paul says: “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands.”

What then should a Christian consider to be the most precious of all earthly objects? Not something to be worshipped, but the thing that is the most significant for Christian life?

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It is the cross; the cross where our Saviour died, and where we must also die to the impulses of our body. Beyond the cross lies the resurrection. For Jesus it was at once a bodily resurrection and a spiritual resurrection. For us the spiritual resurrection comes first, the bodily resurrection later.

May we never trivialize the cross by calling the petty difficulties of life a cross. That is not the cross to which Christ directs us. The cross of Christ is an instrument of death. In order to become what God wants us to be, what he created us to be, everything that hinders must be nailed to the cross and left there to die.

That means all our human desires, hopes and ambitions must be taken out of the way. Just thinking of that brings agony and fear. Yet beyond the cross lies a new life, with blessings we cannot imagine and will never experience if we shrink from the cross.

Leenart Bouwens, an anabaptist preacher and colleague of Menno Simons and Theodore Philippe in the 15th century, baptized more than 10,000 persons. We don’t know a whole lot about him, but it is said that one time a couple came to him desiring to be baptized. After visiting with them he said “You need to go home and die first. I never baptize living people.”

The cross of Christ is still the way we must take to win the heavenly prize.

Oral history of God’s works

In the beginning, people’s memories were better than they are today. Somebody once asked Albert Einstein for his phone number. He went for the phone book to look it up. Incredulous, his colleague asked “You don’t remember your own phone number?” “No. Why should I memorize something I can look up in a book?”

There were no books, no alphabet, no means of written information sharing at the beginning of time. So people gathered around their campfires in the evening and the storyteller would tell them their history. Storytellers had a prodigious memory, but so did the people who listened. If the story teller didn’t tell the story right, his listeners were sure to notice.

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This type of oral history is still found in non-literate societies, and is considered just as accurate as written history, possible even more so due to its collaborative nature. The book of Genesis was first oral history of this kind.

Various peoples developed pictographic styles of writing that used stylized shapes to depict people, animals, places and happenings. There was a limit to how much information could be conveyed in such a manner.

Historians say that the Sumerians began to develop something approaching a phonetic alphabet which was later adopted and refined by the Hebrews. There is a missing link in this theory. The Sumerians never did go on to develop a phonetic alphabet and there is no evidence the Hebrews ever experiment with earlier forms of symbols that developed into a phonetic alphabet. But we are told that 50 days after leaving Egypt, Moses came down the mountain with tablets of stone in his hands. On these tablets, God Himself had inscribed what we now call the Ten Commandments, in a phonetic alphabet.

There is no evidence of a phonetic alphabet anywhere before this moment that forever altered human history. The second commandment says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” How could this ever have been communicated in pictographic writing that consisted of images of creatures?

Up to this moment, the people had always wanted to see God as being like some creature that they were familiar with. Now God was telling them He was not anything like that, nor anything else they had ever seen. The Almighty, invisible God wanted His people to stop trying to imagine what He looked like and rather think of Him as the embodiment of qualities like righteousness, mercy and love.
This was the beginning of abstract thinking, the ability to grasp that the invisible God was always near to His children and to consider the consequences of their actions and the actions of others.

The Hebrew alphabet consisted of 22 letters, all consonants. It was written from right to left and had no punctuation. The fast letters were Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. Many years later diacritical marks were added to indicate vowel sounds.

The Greeks took this alphabet and added vowels. The first letters in the Greek alphabet are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. The Romans adopted the Greek alphabet and provided the letter shapes we use today. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters: Alef-Bet in Hebrew, or Alpha-Beta in Greek.

Moses now had the tools to provide God’s people with a written history, beginning with the creation and following the lineage of those who were faithful to God, from Adam to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He continued to write the history of the exodus and the giving of the law. The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses and are called the Law.

There is one book in the Bible that seems to be outside the history of God’s chosen people. This is the book of Job. It is quite possible that this was oral history that Moses heard told and retold during the years he was shepherd for his Midianite father-in-law.

Job is from the land of Uz, an area in the kingdom of Edom, the possession of the descendents of Esau, the brother of Jacob and Abraham’s grandson. Eliphaz is from Teman, also in Edom. Bildad the Shuhite would be a descendant of Schua, Abraham’s son by Keturah. He would have been from an area close to Edom. Zophar was a Naamathite, indicating descent from Naamah, a son of Esau. Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite appears later. Buz was a son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite. Median was another son of Abraham and Keturah.

All the people mentioned are descendents of Abraham or his brother and inhabited an area east and south of the Dead Sea. Moses would have led his flocks in this area, often meeting the people of this heritage at oases. I am surmising that the story of Job became familiar to him and God told him to put it in writing for the instruction of His people. I don’t know this, but this seems the most logical route for it to have become part of our Bible. Except for the first two chapters and the last ten verses, the book of Job is a poem. An epic poem that stuck in the mind and taught eternal truths.

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