Jesus Is . . .

There are so many ways a person could finish the title of this post. This week at Casa Berea while working with Juventud Para Cristo (Youth for Christ – Spain), we learned that  Jesus is our teacher; he is love; he is our shepherd; our life; and our friend. As we “searched the globe” for Jesus, we met people each day who had encountered Christ in each of these ways. As the children opened up their lives to us and to the Holy Spirit, they encountered Christ and many lives were changed.

Our daily schedule began at 8am with a leaders’ meeting, which involved a time of Bible study and prayer—Nate, Seth, and I led three of the week’s devotions. We focused on a theme—Faithful Faith Foresees Fruit . . . (1) for the Father’s Fame (Life of Abram,), (2) from the Finished (Life of David), and (3) in the Face of Foes (Life of Nehemiah). The Father is faithful to the glory of his reputation, and when we trust him and participate in his plan to bless, he will be faithful to the glory of his name. He will provide all that we need. We experienced so many provisions on this trip: the funding that provided travel, supplies, decorations, and physical resources; the addition of Cole Manschot to the trip who was an excellent American, Spanish-speaker from Wheaton, plenty of beds, plenty of working cars for transportation, the perfect combination of gifted leaders from West Lisbon and on the Spanish team, words to pray over sick, scared, and sorrow-filled kids, fellowship, the Holy Spirit to go beyond our limitations, rest and recovery from sickness when we needed it.

But there’s even more, we could see how God worked in our past — from the things that he has faithfully finished — in order to supply us with what we needed for this past week at camp. I have been amazed for years at how God has used four years of High School Spanish in my life. How could I have known that God used my teacher at Wheelersburg High School to create a love for language, teach me how to learn a language, give me liberty and courage to “Try it,” and a foundation that has served me pastoral ministry and multiple mission projects. God is in the details of our past, planting seeds, creating experiences, that I believe he will use at a later time. Just like David’s experience as a shepherd boy. God used his experience with the sheep, to prepare him as a soldier and as a king.

Whenever a person or team of people set out to participate in God’s mission, there is always opposition. Nehemiah knew this well. Multiple times throughout the book that bears his name, he faced radical rivalry and opposition to his building project. Nehemiah demonstrated a faith that faithfully saw beyond the opposition to the fruit that would eventually come when the building was finished. God helped me to keep my mind and vision on the people of Spain this week, and what he could possibly do in the future in Spain because of one week spent with 5–11 year olds in the name of Jesus. We faced clear spiritual opposition at times, but God helped us to see the potential fruit, and our minds were fixed on the power of the gospel. On the final day at breakfast, the camp director asked for a showing of hands from the kids who had made any kind of spiritual decision with regard to following Jesus during the week. I personally knew of several, but when we watched so many little hands ascend into the air, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. God is so amazingly faithful.

After our leaders’ meeting, we had breakfast; then, we cleaned our rooms. After that, we had praise and worship, which included a theater piece that developed throughout each morning and night as we searched to know Jesus. Nate and the team also provided music that drew the children into desiring God. Next, the schedule would vary day-by-day. We may go to crafts, workshops, games, or pool time. At around 2pm each day, we ate lunch, which was our largest meal of the day, and it was the meal prior to which we decorated. AND WE WENT ALL OUT WITH THE DECORATIONS! It was awesome, and the kids loved it. After lunch, we had devotions and siesta in our rooms until 4pm, which was followed typically by pool time. After pool time, we either had crafts, games, or special team competitions. Some free time was mixed in before dinner, during which we talked with kids, played basketball or soccer, or perhaps started some kind of spontaneous game on the patio. Dinner and showers preceded our final evening event. On the last night of the week, the children dressed in formal clothing and participated in a talent show — very talented and brave kiddos! It seems that most night we made it to bed around 12:30am.

There are three things that I am taking with me back to the States. First, it was confirmed by the Lord again, that no matter what the differences are that are sprinkled throughout his people across the globe, Jesus’ gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit in us are the things that we share in common. I’ve met Christians all over the world, and you know when you meet someone who has the Spirit and knows the gospel. I am returning home refreshed by experiencing yet again this powerful unity of the fellowship of the Spirit of God. Second, I am coming back with some amazing new relationships—with the Spanish JPC team, with Cole Manschot, who’s just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away in Wheaton, and with the boys from my group.

Lastly, I am returning with a new and bigger vision for partnering with our West Lisbon missionaries. I can’t put into words how impressed I am with Mark and Stephanie Dodrill. The impact of the ministry that the Lord has built through them is immeasurable. For me, this was most obvious in the quality of the 20-something leaders on the Spanish team. The camp, the youth center, the obvious connections, the trust that parents put in Mark and Stephanie – God has truly blessed their work. The Spirit of Christ is so evident in them and in their vision for the youth of Barcelona.

I am so excited at all of the potential, future ways that we can continue to partner with Mark and Stephanie and Juventud Para Cristo. Mark and I talked multiple times about future opportunities in which we (West Lisbon) can continue to deepen our partnership and continue to watch God do amazing things among the youth of Spain. I’m literally bursting with vision! My hope and prayer is that God will lead us into specifics, and continue to allow us to be a part of what he is doing in Barcelona. I can also sense this kind of vision and excitement from our whole team. We all miss our families and are excited for our return; at the same time, we are all coming back sensing that there is more work to do with our friends in Spain.

We can’t wait to tell you more. We’re currently in the air over the Atlantic now, with about 1,500 miles left to fly. Thank you for your prayers, for your amazing generosity, and again for supporting this summer projects over the last three years. God is doing something special among us.

In Christ,

Pastor Rex

Cairns from Reach

We learned today that Cairns are landmarks or memorials made by hikers or climbers, usually a mound of stones, while on a journey. Similarly, we also have spiritual markers that memorialize certain experiences and opportunities that God planned for us to be a part of. 

Ephesians 2:10 says, 

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

God has made us and saved us, and we are his poem, his workmanship. He has good works for us to do that he prepared for us in advance, even before we were born. When we live as those whom he has made us and saved us to be – on the lookout for these experiences and opportunities – we become a blessing and benefit to the body of Christ and the world. Each one is unique, and he or she adds unique good works that God prepared long ago.

As we load up to come home, here’s a look at more pictures!


See you soon! 

In Christ,

Rex

Reaching for Connections 

This missions trip has been such a wonderful and moving experience. I will be honest – I underestimated and didn’t think that a local missions trip was going to be something that would impact my life or I could take something from. I was wrong. It truly has been great meeting new people, building for our neighbors who are in need and learning new things. There are times where it has been overwhelming but the good kind :). The first day we set out for our home along with no one I knew besides Nate Akre. I was nervous that I hadn’t been put into a crew with people I knew and the start of this trip was going to be different and outside of my comfort zone. Later as the days went by I wouldn’t change any memories that have been made with the people in my crew and am so glad God was there with me through it all as I was trying new things. Today was a great and productive day as we are so close to finishing the wonderful deck built by our crew for this sweet lady named Chantay. Let me tell you this week I’ve used so many power tools that I have never used in my life lol. Tomorrow we are hoping to finish it by noon and make sure that ramp is ready to be used :). The ministry that I have learned here this week is incredible and has really affected and applied to my life today. Especially some struggles I have been going through I’m truly excited to see what God has in store for me as I continue to seek more and more of him. Overall I would have to say the theme ‘connections’ is true to what I have experienced on this local trip. If like to say thank you to all who supported us and gifted us so that we could make this missions trip possible for our youth group. I’ve never been more blessed and grateful for the great church community we have. I love you all, and I hope you enjoy this read 😄.

Dogs, Faith, and Asbestos


Coming at you guys from Plainfield, IL, it’s Nate Akre! 

Pastor Rex asked me if I wanted to blog about some of my experiences so far from this trip, so I thought I’d let you all in on my day in Lockport.

The crew that I was assigned to was sent to this house in Lockport, IL, where we will are painting, flooring, and building a deck with a ramp. The past two days we have been working outside on the deck, because we were informed as we arrived on the first day that the home owners had dogs that WILL bite us if we go inside…

…awesome.

We got a nice head start on the deck project, so that was a positive! When the second day came around, we gained access to that house around eleven o’clock.

Now before we entered the house, we were told to only work in the kitchen, because the owners couldn’t make arrangements for the dogs to be kept somewhere else. So one dog was laying on the man’s lap, while the other was laying on the floor next to him with a dresser blocking us and Milo (the dog on the floor).

Here’s the problem.

There is still about a six inch opening between the dresser and the door frame. They nicknamed the dog “Houdini” because he can get out of almost any chain. Milo is staring straight at us.

We all make decisions.

Four of us volunteered to go inside and prep for painting. As we were finishing up, there was a hole in the ceiling covered up by a rug. We had some of the Reach Mission Trip Staff come and check it out for us. Little did we know that there was asbestos coming out of the ceiling. Thankfully no one was near when it spilled all over. God was definitely at work there, and we’re very thankful for our safety.

However, someone had to go inside and clean up the mess on the floor. So I got the job to go back inside and sweep up the asbestos on the floor with an audience of two terrifying dogs. I had to wear glasses, gloves, and a mask because apparently this stuff is dangerous… who knew??

However, it was very worth it for the four of us to be able to make sure that the home owners and the rest of our crew were safe. We went back to the school to shower and then returned to finish working.

When I woke this morning, I didn’t expect any of this to happen. But that’s that funny part about God’s plan. We go about life thinking we know how our lives go until God steps in and goes “LOL! Let’s try my plan instead.” And it isn’t always what we want because its uncomfortable for us. But that’s where God does his best work.

That’s the beauty of this trip. We get to work alongside our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in an attempt to help our “neighbors”and show them the love Christ demonstrated for us. Instead of staying at home and swimming and sitting in air conditioning, we stepped out of our comfort zone and decided to put our needs second to those who need us. It’s crazy y’all!

Thank you all for your support, both through prayer and financially! We couldn’t have done this without your support. Please pray for strength for our team as we are getting tired and running out of energy and that we can continue to humbly work hard in his name and for His glory.

It’s been real guys! G’night!!

In Christ,

Nate Akre

Is the Church a Fasting People?

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day (Mark 2:18–20 ESV).

Fasting. Just doesn’t sound all that fun does it? Not something you’re gonna invite your buddies into—“Hey guys, we’re going to do some fasting next week, want to join in?” Yeah right. I’ll take a rain check on that. Hand me my Big Mac, fries, and Coke! What is this fasting thing all about? Is it biblical? Should Christians do it? If so, how do we do it?

One of my favorite theological journals is the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS). In the most recent volume, there is an article from Sigurd Grindheim, a professor of New Testament at Fjellhaug International University College in Oslo, Norway.  The article title is “Fasting That Is Pleasing to the Lord: A NT Theology of Fasting” [JETS, 58/4 (2015) 697–707]. Professor Grindheim addresses the passage above from Mark 2, and extends a challenge to traditional Christian thinking on the spiritual discipline of fasting.

His article seeks to discern whether the NT spiritual life calls for either exceptional or habitual fasting. The exceptional fasting approach is rare rather than routine, and attached to largely significant moments, decisions, or spiritual efforts in the will of God. The habitual fasting approach is routine rather than rare, and in so doing, prepares a person for those bigger moments needing discernment in the will of God. One may say that the exceptional approach is more impulsive, and the habitual approach is more preparatory. In saying this, I don’t mean anything necessary negative about one or the other. For one may say that being impulsive is negative because its reactionary, but another may say being habitual is negative because it is legalistic.

Professor Grindheim attempts to argue for a new kind of fasting, not merely for exceptional practice, but also at the level of motive. He describes Old Testament fasting as accompanying (1) prayer, (2) mourning, (3) humility, (4) repentance of sins, and (5) direction from the Lord (cf., 2 Sam. 12:16–23; Esth. 4:16; 1 Sam. 31:13; 1 Chron. 10:12; Ps. 35:13; 1 Kgs. 21:27–29; 1 Sam. 7:6; Jon. 3:5; Neh. 9:1; Judg. 20:26; Dan. 9:3). The only required fast of the OT accompanied the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27–32). Later on in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the Jews are practicing the discipline more regularly as indicated by the very early Christian document called The Didache,

And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day”(Didache 8:1 AFL-E).

Jesus himself references this regular practice of the Jews in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14.

Out of this regular practice flows the dismay of both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist when they approach Jesus in Mark chapter 2:18–20. In other words, they are asking Jesus why his disciples don’t fast twice a week like the rest of us? Most likely for both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, they participated in regular fasting, which was motivated by eschatological and messianic hopes. So, their question to Jesus is not merely about religious practice but also an indirect inquiry about his identity. So as to say, “Have they stopped fasting because they believe you are the Messiah? Are you the Messiah?”

Grindheim writes,

Whereas the Old Testament (OT) devout were characterized by their longing for the presence of God, New Testament (NT) believers are characterized by their joy at his presence. OT believers were yearning to experience  God’s favor; NT believers rejoice that they always enjoy his favor through Jesus Christ (698).

He goes on to explain that Jesus would fulfill the Day of Atonement on his cross. Therefore, Jesus’ presence includes the complete forgiveness and removal of sin, so that his presence is marked by joy and exultation, not mourning or grief.

We can all agree with such thinking. We can all agree that the disciples had no reason to fast because Jesus was present with them—the bridegroom was there with them—

Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” But what does Jesus mean when he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day?

Professor Grindheim argues that this is a matter of debate among scholars,

Scholars debate whether this refers to the relatively short period between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, or whether it refers to the long period between Jesus’ death and his second coming (699).

He spends the next several paragraphs in his article choosing and defending the former interpretation over the latter; that is, the bridegroom’s “taking away” refers to the three days in the tomb, not to the time between Jesus’ ascension and second coming. He references texts such as John 16:20 about the disciples’ grief being transformed into joy. He also appeals to the many promises of Jesus to be with his disciples (eg., Matt. 28:18–20). He claims that the mediated presence of Jesus to the church through the Holy Spirit (John 14:23; Eph. 2:21–22) is also reason to believe that the church age is not a time of mourning for Jesus’ presence, but rather a time of rejoicing because we are indeed experiencing Jesus’ presence. He further and finally builds one final evidence of Christ’s presence with his church—the fellowship of suffering. Grindheim doesn’t see suffering as a sign of Jesus’ absence, but rather as a sign of his presence and intimate fellowship with his people as they suffer for their identification with Jesus (Rom. 8:17; Phi. 3:10; Col. 1:24; 1 Pet. 4:13); further still, such suffering is a cause for joy, not a cause for mourning.

From Grindheim’s perspective, when Jesus calls for “new wine to be put in new wineskins,” he is saying that the old mindset (i.e., anticipating Messiah and eschatological realities) and old practices (twice weekly routine fasting) are obsolete. Now, as I believe Grindheim would say, we have a new mindset (i.e., new wine = the Messiah has come) that requires new practices (i.e., new wineskins = a new kind of fasting).

He then spreads his discussion beyond the Mark passage into the rest of the New Testament and a little bit into the early church writings and practice of fasting. Regarding the early church, he only quotes The Didache 8:1 (see above), which he dates much later than the most recent scholarship would suggest, which would place it possibly in the 40’s. Therefore, the Christian practice of regular fasting on two days a week is very early. It’s early practice doesn’t necessarily make it correct, but it can’t be dismissed because it is late, as Grindheim seems to suggest. It is also demonstrable that a period of fasting accompanied the act of baptism (Did. 7:4).

He takes on several NT texts on fasting (Matt. 4:2; 6:16–18; Col. 2:20–23; Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; 14:23). Regarding the temptation of Jesus, he argues that the 40 day fast is not example for us to follow, but rather a unique undertaking by Jesus to prepare himself to be the second Adam and faithfully endure the temptations of the devil and continue his Messianic mission. In Matthew 6, Jesus is giving instruction about the practice of spiritual disciplines and the danger of hypocrisy. Grindheim is too strong when he writes, “Jesus’ point is not to instruct his disciples to fast, but to warn them against hypocrisy” (703). No, Jesus isn’t teaching them to fast; he assumes that they will fast, so much so that he commands them how to do it regularly without being hypocrites. Paul in Colossians is not directly dismissing fasting as a practice; rather he is dismissing wrong motives behind fasting as a practice—self-imposed piety has no value in opposing self-indulgence. Paul is clear in Romans and Galatians that what the law could not accomplish through the sinful flesh, God himself has accomplished through his Son and by the Spirit. The motive of fasting must be a desire for the control of the Spirit over the flesh, a desire for the word of Christ to dwell in us richly and to become our “food.” Paul’s own practice of fasting in Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; and 14:23 finally forces Grindheim to admit that there are some, exceptional occasions when fasting is legitimate and appropriate for the Christian and the church.

However, in the very next paragraph, Professor Grindheim goes on to say,

The baseline for Christian piety must therefore be that fasting is not an appropriate expression of Christian devotion to the Lord. NT differs from OT piety in that God has now come near in his Son and through his Holy Spirit. Even though believers long for the Second Coming of Christ and the visible manifestation of his rule (Matt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20), NT piety is characterized by intimacy, not distance. The predominant sentiment of believers living in the age of fulfillment is joy, not grief (Phi. 3:1; 4:4–7; 1 Thess. 5:16). They therefore have no occasion for fasting (705).

My difficulty with Grindheim is that he struggles to see how joy and fasting can be in continuity and continuation into this new age—a new age to which I feel he attributes too much fulfillment, nearly eliminating some forms of Christian practice and piety. The dominant message of the NT writers is that the kingdom is both already and not yet here, which he finally does acknowledge at the end of his article,

The Christian fulfillment of fasting should therefore be to spread the joy of Christ’s presence and to demonstrate it in action by sharing with the needy (cf. Isa. 58:3–7). Nevertheless, while joy has replaced fasting as a habitual expression of Christian piety, fasting is not prohibited in the NT. Christian experience is still characterized by the tension between the already and the not yet, between the realized and future eschatology. Normal Christian experience will therefore still have room and need for other expressions than manifestations of joy (parentheses mine, 707).

It would be interesting to know whether or not Grindheim feels we should pray habitually or give offerings habitually, or only exceptionally? Proportionately, prayer is spoken of far more in the NT than fasting, and I think that guides us some in our practice of spiritual disciplines. No one disagrees that Mark 2:18–20 is transforming the way that we must think about and practice fasting. It must not become religious ritual that seeks the reward of other religious people, and it’s motive and practice must adjust to the realities of Christ’s work in death and resurrection. It must come—whether habitually or exceptionally—out of the joy and longing we have because of and for Christ. And there is no reason to be rigid in our practice of the discipline, but rather a practice rising from our love and liberty. Isaiah, the OT prophet understood these things,

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to oppress himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:3–7).

So what about you? Have you ever fasted before? What is your motivation to fast? Do your motivations sync with the NT transformation of fasting in light of Jesus’ person and work? What are the exceptional times that you feel require a season of fasting? Do you think habitual fasting is appropriate sometimes? If so when, and how do you prevent it from becoming an empty ritual? May the joy of the Lord become your utmost hunger, and may the Lord renew your minds to discover his aim for you in Christ, using every detail of your life, until the kingdom fully and finally comes.

From Lament to Life: Remembering Jesus As a Fellow-Sufferer

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

(Matthew 2:16–18)

While perusing the Facebook newsfeed one day this December, I noticed a link that a friend had posted from Crossway Publishers that described a dramatic poetry reading from Pastor John Piper called The Innkeeper. As I listened, I began to realize where the story was headed, and I discovered two reactions in my soul—first, I was surprised that I had never considered the powerful implications behind the text of Matthew 2:16–18, which is quoted for you above; and second, I was determined to take a deeper look at this text.

[Watch The Innkeeper by John Piper.]

Matthew 2:18 is the fourth Old Testament (OT) passage quoted in Matthew’s Gospel, which indicates that the writer establishes early on that he intends to interact heavily with the OT as he writes about the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. I tend to agree with Blomberg and Hagner on the reason for Matthew’s oft quoting of the Old Testament,

Again, in Matthew’s perspective Jesus is understood as summarizing the whole experience of Israel as well as bringing it to fulfillment.

For example, the previous paragraph quotes Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea is referring to Israel’s experience of the exodus out of Egypt. Like Israel, Jesus too would be called out of Egypt.

Moving to the primary text of this article, Matthew 2:16–18 paints a grim scene. As we recite Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story this year, we should not skip over this part. The passage can be divided into two parts: (1) The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem and (2) The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah.

The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem

Remember, Herod was not the the first to order the slaying of young Hebrews. Do you recall what happened in the days of Moses? Remember how Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to execute the male Hebrew children? The Hebrew midwives feared God (Ex. 1:17) and refused to obey the command of the king of Egypt. Although I am not certain, I wonder if the Hebrews in their oppression began to remember the promises of God to their fathers, believed that God may send a deliverer to them, and therefore, the midwives feared and obeyed God rather than Pharaoh because they were waiting for a deliverer? We do know that the people of Israel began crying out to God for help (Ex. 2:23–25). In the face of tragedy, God sovereignly raised up Moses in the midst of Egypt to deliver his people from bondage.

The wrath of Herod fueled by his wounded pride brought great tragedy upon the town of Bethlehem. Apparently, it took place nearly two years after Jesus was born. As indicated in 2:16, Herod had calculated the number of years based upon the previous information he had received from the magi, and in calculating the number, he determined to execute a raw expression of his rage. Every male child two years of age and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region was mowed down to the grave by Herod’s soldiers. Can you imagine being a parent in Bethlehem at that time? No warning. No refuge. The life of your child taken away—and perhaps your own—because you were the town that made room for the Deliverer. A tender population of your town wiped out because you sovereignly became associated with the Son of God. Bethlehem was not a booming metropolis. Estimates during the reign of Herod suggest that approximately one thousand people populated the town, from which we may gather that possibly “twenty boys would be born in two years, and several of those would have died in infancy” (from R. T. France, “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem”). However, even though we are only talking about the slaying of a dozen or so young boys, the tremors of tragedy reach deep into the context of a small town. The whole town feels it, and whether directly or indirectly affected, such a thing became part of everyone’s story. The history books have no record of Herod’s attack upon the children of Bethlehem, but God did not forget and chose Matthew to remind us of the price Bethlehem paid for its association with the new born King.

The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah

While the life and experience of Jesus in Matthew seems to have some parallels with Moses’ day, Matthew 2:17 reveals to us that Matthew primarily has in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are then quoted in 2:18. Jeremiah 31:15 is the exact reference here. Remember, Jeremiah lived during the tragic days of the Babylonian captivity and the fall of Jerusalem. Besides a brief period of revival and reform under king Josiah, Jeremiah faithfully and painfully proclaimed the word of God to idolatrous Israel. However, Jeremiah 31 is a rare chapter filled primarily with hope of restoration following the captivity. In verse 15, the message of hope digresses for just a moment because the Lord hears the lament of Ramah, the weeping of Rachel as her children are led through the town into captivity. Ramah was a town located approximately 8km north of Jerusalem. Interestingly, Bethlehem was located about 7–8km south of Jerusalem and was located along the same road. Even so, Matthew’s parallel between Ramah and Bethlehem is more than geographical—it is social, emotional, and theological. Blomberg further highlights the appropriateness of Matthew’s connection between Ramah and Bethlehem—they were both towns familiar with sadness and suffering. There is also one more thing that draws these two towns together—Rachel. Rachel was thought to have died and been buried near Ramah (1 Samuel 10:2) while Jacob and his family were on their way to Bethlehem (Genesis 35.16–21). Therefore, these two towns have a connection in biblical history, both being marked by the weeping Rachel, the mother of all Israel. Returning to Jeremiah 31, Rachel was heard weeping over her children as they were taken away into captivity to Babylon. She struggles to be comforted even by God’s promise to restore her children. Thus, Matthew once again sees Rachel weeping for her children in 2:16–18 when he compares the pain of the Babylonian captivity to the ruthless slaughter at Bethlehem. This is a fitting comparison, for where else could he have gone but to the darkest period in Israel’s history to describe the pain and mourning of the families of Bethlehem?

From Lament to Life

Just as there was suffering in the midst of the grand promise given by God and proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah, there was suffering in the midst of the fulfillment of that promise when the Son of God became incarnate. Consider the words of comfort given by the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah to the weeping Rachel:

The LORD says to her,
“Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears!
For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded.
Your children will return from the land of the enemy.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
Indeed, there is hope for your posterity.
Your children will return to their own territory.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
I have indeed heard the people of Israel say mournfully,
‘We were like a calf untrained to the yoke.
You disciplined us and we learned from it.
Let us come back to you and we will do so,
for you are the LORD our God.
For after we turned away from you we repented.
After we came to our senses we beat our breasts in sorrow.
We are ashamed and humiliated
because of the disgraceful things we did previously.’
Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children.
They are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them
and will surely have compassion on them.
I, the LORD, affirm it!

(Jeremiah 31:16–20)

The proclamation of hope and restoration is accompanied by the future repentance and turning of Rachel’s children back to the Lord. God sent them into exile due to their idolatry and rebellion against him. But what are we to make of Bethlehem? Why the slaughter? We know why Judah was taken away into Babylon. But why this tragedy upon Bethlehem? Ultimately, I don’t know. Evil happenings in our world escape the reaches of human reason much of the time. Yet, I do know that they do not escape the reach of my all-knowing God, and I do take comfort in him because of this.

I feel that there is also one other possible explanation (perhaps among many) that may speak to us about this tragedy in Bethlehem that accompanied the glory of the Lord’s birth. Bethlehem sovereignly became associated with the Messiah. Which causes us to ask, what does it mean to be sovereignly associated with the Messiah? What a wonderful thought for meditation this Christmas season. Listen to what Dale Allison writes,

Jesus is literally sympathetic; that is, he suffers along with others. His identity as God’s beloved Son (3:17; 11:25–30; 17:5) does not render him immune from agony or despair. He is, on the contrary, especially subject to misfortune and pain: in Matthew’s story, Jesus suffers far more than anyone else. The savior is the innocent victim writ large. Now for those who believe in him, there is surely something reassuring in this. One recalls Heb. 4:14–15 and 5:8, where Jesus learns through suffering and so can sympathize with human weakness. Suffering shared is more easily endured. And as in Hebrews, so in Matthew: the principle has become christological. It is not just that one does not suffer alone, but precisely that one suffers in the company of Jesus, God’s Son. This must mean that the divinity does not remain aloof from suffering, for God knows the Son (11:27) and the Son knows suffering. If the Son is a person of sorrows, acquainted with grief, his Father must likewise be beset by grief and sorrow. This does not, to be sure, do anything to unravel the mystery of iniquity. It does, however, put God on the side of the hapless Rachel weeping for her children, and on the side of the disciples tossed grievously to and fro by persecution. And perhaps that thought matters far more than any rational apologetic.

Matthew knew very well what it meant to be sovereignly associated with Messiah—it meant he would take a journey from lament into life. You see when Jesus called Matthew to follow him (see Matthew 9), he would have been best described as a publican thug, barred from the temple and the synagogue because of his sins and treason against his own people. However, there is good reason to think that at some point, Matthew developed a heart for God (how else did he know so much of the Old Testament?!). Yet, the religious scene of his day did not allow him to seek God. Then, Jesus comes along and says to him, “Follow me.” Matthew perhaps did not know what was in store for him at that point, but as he followed Jesus, he surely came to realize that to be associated with Jesus meant a life associated with Jesus’ suffering but also with his glory.

I suppose now that Rachel may still be weeping for her children to return to the Messiah. However, perhaps there is also hope stirring in her soul because from afar she saw the birth of a new covenant, she saw Messiah conquer the enemies of her soul, and now she awaits repentance and revival as God promised to her.

What is it to be associated with the Messiah this Christmas? Is it not to believe in him and be saved—the glory of salvation? And is it not to willingly suffer with him and for him in a dark and unbelieving world? Is it not as Paul said, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29)? At the close of The Innkeeper poem referred to above, the Lord Jesus responds to Jacob’s tears of sorrow and faithfulness with the following,

I am the boy

That Herod wanted to destroy.

You gave my parents room to give

Me life, and then God let me live,

And took your wife. Ask me not why

The one should live, another die.

God’s ways are high, and you will know

In time. But I have come to show

You what the Lord prepared the night

You made a place for heaven’s light.

In two weeks they will crucify

My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I

Will rise in three days from the dead,

And place my foot upon the head

Of him who has the power of death,

And I will raise with life and breath

Your wife and Ben and Joseph too

And give them, Jacob, back to you

With everything the world can store,

And you will reign for evermore.”

This is the gift of candle three:
A Christ with tears in tragedy

And life for all eternity.

May the love of Christ cause you to rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, and persist in prayer this Christmas and beyond as you follow Jesus to the cross and into glory.

Blood Moon A’ Risin’

Remember Credence Clearwater Revival’s trendy song from 1969, Bad Moon Rising?

I see a bad moon rising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin’.
I see bad times today.

Don’t go around tonight,
Well it’s bound to take your life,
There’s a bad moon on the rise.

I hear hurricanes a blowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.

Popular “End Times” writers, such as John Hagee, have been stirring the pot of late—and no doubt raking in a ton of cash (pardon my skepticism)—regarding the current blood moon hysteria. Hagee in recent writings and interviews has attempted to link the history of the blood moon phenomenon to significant periods in the history of the nation of Israel:

In the past, the rare appearance of four blood moons on these feast days has coincided with major events for Israel and the Jewish people.
In 1492, Spain expelled the Jews. Columbus also discovered America, which became a safe haven for the Jewish people.
“In each of these blood moons, you have something that begins in tragedy and ends in triumph,” Hagee explained.
For instance, in 1948, Israel was reborn as a nation.
“After 2,000 years, God supernaturally brought them from 66 nations and a nation was born in a day,” Hagee noted. “That again was a supernatural something that happened following the tragedy of the Holocaust.”
In 1967, Israel won the Six-Day War and recaptured Jerusalem.
“For the first time in 2,000 years, Jerusalem and the State of Israel were together again,” Hagee said (Source: Interview with Erick Stakelbeck of CBN News on January 25, 2015).

Chris Katulka is a friend of mine from my days at Dallas Theological Seminary, and he works for Friends of Israel. He has written a response to the blood moon hysteria, and particularly to Hagee, on the Friends of Israel website. If you find this a topic of interest, then I highly recommend that you give Chris’ article a read. There, he also recommends a book by one of my former professors, Dr. Mark Hitchcock, who has written extensively about biblical prophecy. The book is entitled Blood Moons Rising. If you are going to buy a book on this topic, buy Hitchcock’s book.

In Chris’ article, he raises three challenges to Hagee’s correlation of the recent blood moon’s to events in Israel and to the biblically prophesied blood moon. I’d like to borrow two of his points, and then conclude with some of the positive results of all the hysteria.

First, Chris writes, “Biblical blood moons don’t function alone.” Chris is totally correct here. If the blood moons that we have recently witnessed are representative of the blood moon we read about in biblical prophecy, then we should expect other accompanying phenomena in the cosmos. Here are the three Scripture passages that speak of the blood moon:

“The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes (Joel 2:31).
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day (Acts 2:20).
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood . . .”
(Revelation 6:12).

 

The prophetic blood moon will be accompanied by other signs in the cosmos.
The prophetic blood moon will be accompanied by other signs in the cosmos.

Acts 2:20 is a quotation of Joel 2:31, and the Revelation passage clearly alludes to the Joel passage. Notice that in all three passages, the blood moon is accompanied by a sun that has turned black. The Joel passage uses the term for darkness, which could be metaphorical, meaning “gloom and doom”; however, Revelation 6:12 seems to clarify that the prophecy is not intended to be understood metaphorically, but literally with its “black as sackcloth” reference. Perhaps, the best way to understand the phenomenon of the black sun is that it would both literally turn black and communicate the “gloom and doom” that accompanies the day of the Lord’s great wrath. Notice also in the Revelation passage that “a great earthquake” also accompanies the cosmic phenomena. Again, “earthquakes” can also function metaphorically in Scripture—like when God says he plans to “shake the nations” in Haggai 2:1–9. The meaning there seems to function metaphorically for the presence of the Lord, but also literally in the sense that he “shakes up” the Persian emperors to fund the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. According to Scripture then, we should expect the biblically prophetic blood moon to be accompanied by these other signs in the cosmos.

Commentator Joseph A. Seiss in his book The Apocalypse: An Exposition on the Book of Revelation has this to say about taking these signs literally,

I take this literally. There is neither reason nor piety in undertaking to explain away the plain terms of Scripture, where there is no necessity for departure from their common meaning. When the Lord came down on Sinai the mountain was shrouded in darkening smokiness. When Jesus hung upon the cross, “There was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.. And the Sun was darkened.” (Luke 23:44, 45.) When the judgment of God was upon Egypt, “There was a thick darkness in all the land three days.” (Ex. 10:22). By Isaiah (33:9, 10) the word came forth: “Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the earth desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. The sun shall be darkened in his going forth.” The same was repeated by Joel (3:9–15). And the blessed Savior himself has told us, that “immediately after the tribulation of those days,” and soon before the appearance of the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, “shall the sun be darkened.” (Matthew 24:29–30.)

Second, Chris writes, “There is only one biblical blood moon.” This is also true. The only prophetic blood moon there is, is the one that is described in the passages above. Further, this particular blood moon takes place at the breaking of the Sixth Seal in Revelation 6. Those who believe in a pre-tribulational rapture of the church typically understand that rapture to happen prior to or simultaneous with the tribulation recorded in Revelation chapter 6. Therefore, if the church is still here and the biblical blood moon is taking place, we may want to rethink our timing of the rapture! In all fairness, I suppose it could be appropriate to understand the cosmic phenomena as signs related to the second coming and not related to the rapture; therefore, these signs of the cosmos would not be dependent upon the rapture in such a framework, but “peers” with the rapture pointed toward the second coming. So, we should be like the Berean Christian in Acts 17:11, who examined “the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” Let’s be careful thinkers about Scripture, so that we can speak truthfully and love well.

Let’s end with some positives about our recent experience with the blood moons. First, wasn’t it awe-some? Psalm 19 reminds us that the cosmos has a voice, and its voice points us to the glory of God. We should always allow creation and its magnificence to return praise to the Creator. Second, I am glad that the blood moon hysteria has caused people to have an interest in the Bible, but I also want people to understand the Bible accurately. Interest and hunger for the word of God can lead people to Christ and give opportunity to the church. You could start an evangelistic conversation like this, “Hey did you see the blood moon?” Pretty cool huh? Did you know the Bible talks about a particular blood moon that will happen one day? The Bible talks about how the sun, moon, stars, and an earthquake together will mark the beginning of God’s judgment of mankind. How do you expect to escape God’s judgment in the end? Can I tell you about Jesus?!” Third, phenomena like these do have a function of reminding us as Christians that God will be able to fulfill his prophecies and that prophecy is not “too far-fetched” to imagine. Today, I was listening to the address of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the United Nations. In our day, it is not hard to imagine the political, economical, technological, and religious landscape quickly cascading together into the great day of the Lord’s wrath and the fulfillment of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Certainly, the world scene today resembles a chess board with all of God’s pieces in place, so to speak—Israel regathered, increasing global political and religious aggression bound with a global hunger for peace, and a global economy looking for a breakthrough with technology in place to offer such a thing. This brings me to my fourth and final positive point, allow the recent cosmic phenomenon remind you of the imminence of Christ’s return. Imminence describes an event that can take place at any moment. Imminence catches the unsuspecting off guard, and fulfills the hopes of those who wait for it with anticipation. Imminence means that no one knows the day or the hour, but everyone should be ready for Christ’s rapture of the church (1 Thess. 4:13–18) and his return to earth to establish his rule and reign (Matthew 24:36–41). May everyone reading this know Christ as his/her personal Savior (Romans 10:9–10), and may every Christian be found ready (Philippians 1:9–11) for the day of Christ’s unveiling. This is the overarching point of biblical prophecy—be ready. Don’t wait until tomorrow to surrender your loyalties to Christ.

In Him,

Pastor Rex