Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Understanding the Book of Revelation - Chapter One, Where I'm Coming From

Chapter 1 - Where I’m Coming From

Sh’ma, Yisra’el! Adonai Eloheinu,Adonai echad [Hear, Isra’el! Adonai our God, Adonai is one]; and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources. These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk about them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead, and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates.”
– Deut. 6:4-9

Before we delve into the Book of Revelation, I’d like to share with you my roots – where I’m coming from and why I am writing this book.

I was raised in a Conservative Jewish family, as opposed to Orthodox or Reform Judaism. (Orthodox Jews are very stringent in their observance of the Law; Reform Jews are quite relaxed in their observances, resembling more of a secular Jew; Conservative Jews are right about in the middle of the two.) Both my mother and father were Jewish, as were their parents, as were their parents, and so on and so forth. Because we were Jewish there were some traditions and customs we followed. These had absolutely nothing to do with Scripture, but rather with our culture, and these had been passed down from generation to generation – like having chicken noodle soup when you were sick or having a nice brisket on Friday night.

We also had our religious traditions and customs. We had a mezuzah (a decorative cylinder containing the Sh’ma) on the front doorpost. In the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which is quoted at the beginning of this chapter) we are commanded to bind the Word on the doorposts of our house, so we put the Sh’ma in the mezuzah, put the mezuzah on the doorpost, and we’re good to go. But every time one of my friends came over for the first time they’d ask what that “thing” was on the front door jamb. After a few minutes of, “A mezuzah,” “A me-what-ah?” they would usually give up and we’d go about the serious business of play.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we didn’t work or go to school, and we fasted and prayed all day long in the synagogue. Having a mezuzah and Yom Kippur stick out most in my memory because they were the two things that always marked the biggest differences between me and my friends.

Yom Kippur, which falls in late September or early October, was also the first time during the school year that my Jewishness was made public knowledge. This wasn’t always a pleasant thing. One year, I believe I was in the fourth grade, on the day I returned to school after Yom Kippur one of my classmates walked up to me and boldly stated, “You killed Jesus.” I told him that I had never met Jesus so I couldn’t have killed him. I probably stuck my tongue out at him, too. Those harsh words rang in my head all day and that afternoon I asked my mother what the boy had meant. This was the first time I was told about the contentious history between Christians and Jews. It made me wonder how people who said that they loved God could hate His chosen people.

During my school years God used every available opportunity to tuck His Word into my heart – everything from the liturgy in synagogue, to the Peanuts’ Christmas special, to our PTA Christmas program. As I stood in the choir with a grossly oversized red bow on the front of my crisp, white robe, I couldn’t help but hear the words I was singing – a baby born in Bethlehem, born to be the Messiah. Deep down I knew that Jesus was indeed the King of Israel, but at the same time I honestly believed that my being a Jew prevented me from ever accepting Him as my Savior. I felt that my King had been stolen from me and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.

After a few more years of seeking God and actually reading the Bible (something most Jews – or Christians – do not do), I did something that I was certain no other Jew had ever done before – I asked Jesus into my life. That sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Well, here’s how it really happened. I was driving north on Interstate 5 in my powder blue Volkswagen Rabbit. I couldn’t shake the feeling that God was really trying to get my attention – I could feel a pressure on me physically. Then, in my own sweet, demure way, I asked Jesus into my life. “Okay, if you’re really there, come on!” At that instant I felt the weight of the world lift from my shoulders and I began giggling uncontrollably. I had no idea at the time what had happened, but whatever it was I liked it! I also knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, my Messiah, and now I was His.

While this was indeed a monumental decision, rather than feeling a part of Christian society I felt even more isolated. I wasn’t comfortable in synagogue because, while they are looking for the Messiah to come to earth to rule and reign, they don’t believe that Jesus’ time on earth was the first coming of the Messiah. Neither was I comfortable in church because, while the Christians seemed genuinely happy about my “conversion,” they were also expecting me to give up my Jewishness – something I could never imagine doing. And as for converting from Judaism to Christianity, I felt that all I had really done was become more Jewish since I had finally accepted the Jewish Messiah as my own. Unfortunately I seemed to be the only one who thought that way. So, in the midst of my frustration and ignorance, I threw out the baby with the bath water and set out in pursuit of God in my own way - again. I can see now that that wasn’t the brightest thing I’ve ever done, and it is only because of God’s mercy and grace that I didn’t fall away from Him completely.

During the years that followed I thoroughly convinced myself that if a person wanted to be a good Christian then he would in fact be a good Jew. Didn’t Jesus tell us to do as He did? Wasn’t He the perfect Jew? While I felt that I was on the right track I was still enormously confused. Did being a good Jew mean going to synagogue and following the modern Jewish traditions? If so, there seemed to be quite a bit that would be in direct conflict with Scripture. I finally came to the conclusion that it was just too much to sort out on my own, so I stopped trying. I knew that God was with me and that He understood my dilemma, so I simply walked away from all organized religion and tried to live my life the best I could.

As you might have guessed this didn’t work out very well and over the following thirteen years I ended up chasing every spiritual rabbit trail that came along. Part of my problem was the acceptance of worldly practices within the church at large. All sorts of non-Scriptural practices have been condoned and embraced by churches of every denomination. Throw in various New Age practices and Eastern religions that embrace Jesus as a legitimate path to heaven and my confusion was at an all time high. Since I didn’t have a solid Biblical foundation, I was delighted with the spiritual smorgasbord that was spread before me. Certainly, I thought, these choices were from God since He knew that I could never go back to the synagogue, nor could I turn my back on my heritage and become a card-carrying Christian.

Thankfully, God never stopped prodding my spirit, challenging me with His truth, daring me to see things from His perspective. One afternoon I decided that I simply had to go to a church, any church, and give it another chance. What I didn’t know was that other snares had been set for me and over the four years that followed my fateful decision I think I stepped in every single one.

What exactly were those snares? That’s not important. What is important is why I didn’t see them and how they could have been avoided. Why didn’t I see them? Because I didn’t have the standard of God’s Word in my life. I had no way to know right from wrong, true from false. How could those snares have been avoided? By having a sure foundation. Jesus Himself spoke of having a sure foundation for our faith:

“So, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on bedrock. The rain fell, the rivers flooded, the winds blew and beat against that house, but it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a stupid man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the rivers flooded, the wind blew and beat against that house, and it collapsed — and its collapse was horrendous!”
– Matthew 7:24-27

I think it would be safe to assume that we would all prefer to have a house built on a solid foundation.

Is protecting ourselves from dubious characters and precarious situations the only reason for studying God’s Word? No! While keeping ourselves out of the jaws of deceit is a wonderful motivator for study, it should not be our sole incentive, nor should that be our main goal.

There are numerous passages in the Bible that encourage us to study the Word of God. Throughout Psalm 119 we see how vitally important studying and knowing Scripture is for us. The whole Psalm is wonderful, but verse eleven has always stood out in my mind:

“I treasure your word in my heart, so that I won’t sin against you.”

So here we see that keeping God’s Word in our hearts will aid us in not sinning against God.

Proverbs 25:2 says:

“God gets glory from concealing things; kings get glory from investigating things.”

God has indeed stored many wondrous treasures in His Word, each one just waiting to be discovered by His children.

In Proverbs 8:17-19 we find:

“I love those who love me; and those who seek me will find me.
Riches and honor are with me, lasting wealth and righteousness.
My fruit is better than gold, fine gold, my produce better than the finest silver.”

What a beautiful promise! Not only does God say that those who diligently seek Him will find Him, but that with Him are treasures better than gold and silver. As if finding the God of the universe weren’t enough, the Lord tells us that He will give us His riches and honor!

Another reason that I think it is important to study the Scriptures is to more fully know and appreciate the God in whom we place our faith. The New Testament, which not only chronicles the life and ministry of Jesus, but also brings us deeper insights into our walk with God, is built entirely upon the Old Testament. The two Testaments are not independent of each other as many believe and teach, nor has the New Testament replaced the Old Testament. The Old Testament isn’t the “Jewish Bible” and the New Testament isn’t the “Christian Bible.” They are both Jewish and both paint beautiful pictures of God bringing both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) into His family. Therefore, both should be included in our studies. Without having a working knowledge of the Old Testament, many of the passages in the New Testament just won’t make sense. No, our faith won’t be any less for not knowing. But if we take the time to diligently study the Word of God, there will be a richness added to our faith that is indeed more precious than gold or silver.

Another very important reason to study and understand the Word of God is to understand the times in which we live. These can be very troubling times, uncertain and just down right frightening. But if you study God's Word and understand what He's saying, His peace will be with you even in these times of upheaval. In fact, all of history will start to make more sense as we see God's purpose and plan unfold in His Word and our world.

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