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Thursday, November 12, 2020

How to succeed at everything



I think I’ve discovered one of the core principles of the universe.

Many people who study the Bible have a favorite scripture. I never really had a favorite scripture. But recently, I re-examined a verse that I learned decades ago:

“I am Jehovah your god, who instructs you for your benefit.” (Isaiah 48:17)

I have to (sheepishly) admit that before now I’d never really grasped how vastly important those words are.

It is even more embarrassing because – for literally decades – when I’ve encountered people who claim the Bible is ‘just a book written by men’, my argument has gone like this:

First, I’d read 2 Timothy 3:16. “All scripture is inspired by God and beneficial.” Then I’d explain, ‘That’s an easy claim to make and a hard claim to prove. Perhaps you remember, back in the 80s, a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who claimed that ‘God spoke to him’ – inspiration – and then promptly demanded $8 million. Paul knew that there were then and would be now, fake claims of inspiration. So he gave us the key: the benefit proves the inspiration.’

Then I’d say, ‘Perhaps you know Acts 20:35, “There’s more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” When you look at how some of your neighbors are living, don’t they seem to be following the principle that there’s more happiness in getting? “When I get that car, that boat, that house, that girl, then I’ll be happy.” Do they ever, truly, get happy? They could go through their entire life and never, on their own, come up with the principle that there’s more happiness in giving, because that’s not human nature. It’s not human thinking. But if you’ve tried it, if they were to try it, they would discover what? It’s true: we get more happiness from giving. It is higher than human thinking; it is wisdom that had to come from God. The benefit proves the inspiration.’

In my life I’ve probably had that conversation with a hundred people. In a couple dozen cases, I’ve gotten people to seriously ponder the value of the bible because of it.

Yet, until just the past few weeks I never made the connection to Isaiah 48:17.

Jehovah said that everything He teaches us is for our benefit.

Let’s look at an example.

When I was a kid and I read scriptures such as, ‘You must not bow down to images, for I Jehovah am a jealous God...’ I’ll be honest: my reaction was, Why? I don’t mean, why not worship idols; But why should God be jealous? He’s God. The idols are nothing.

God doesn’t benefit from that rule. He is perfectly self-contained, confident in His being the sovereign. He gave that rule to benefit mankind, to keep us from being misled by pagan priests claiming this or that thing is a god (‘and Oh, by the way, the gods want you to give me your money...’) That’s the first benefit. The second is, God is loyal to those who are loyal to Him (2 Samuel 22:26), and He made you to be loyal to him. It is in your nature to be in an exclusive relationship with Him. How is that a benefit to you?

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Here’s an appropriately modern comparison: Tesla cars are connected to the Tesla factory. They get regular software updates, they can quick-charge at the supercharging stations. You can go to a junkyard and buy one that’s been written off by the factory, and get it running again, disconnected from the Tesla net. But it will never go as far or as fast as a connected car. And it will get worse over time while connected Teslas keep getting better.

Jehovah made Adam as part of His family, with the ability to communicate with Him. Adam and God were in nearly constant communication. Imagine his first day: ‘That pain you’re feeling in your middle is called hunger. Pick some of those berries and eat them and the pain will go away. You can’t walk on the shiny stuff. It’s called water - you’ll sink. Let me show you how to swim. You’re going to get sleepy when the sun goes down. Let’s fix you a bed...’

At some point Adam noticed that animals died. He must have worried: Was he going to die someday, also? He would have asked God. God made it clear that, yes indeed, that was a possible outcome. But God didn't want him to die. Unlike the animals, God had something special in mind for humans; He had made them “in his image.” He wanted them to be part of His family. Adam could avoid dying by remaining in his relationship with Jehovah.

The rule, ‘If you eat from this tree you will die’, that didn’t benefit God. It wasn’t some nasty trick God played on humans; it wasn’t that God needed to test Adam’s loyalty.

Isaiah 48:17 is a universal truth. The instruction not to eat from the tree had to have a benefit for Adam, and it did.

None of the animals were in God’s image; none was offered an exception to the universal law of entropy. But God did offer an exception to Adam. He wanted Adam to stick around. Job 14:14,15 tells us that God misses loyal ones who have died. If Adam had remained in his special relationship with God but had gradually grown old and died like an animal, God would have missed him.

So God told Adam: You can avoid death if you just keep doing what you’re doing. Stay connected to me. Listen to me, ask me questions, talk to me, check with me about anything you aren’t sure about. I’ll be happy to answer.

There are plants in this world that can kill us. I’m not suggesting the tree was poisonous. I think we can safely assume that nothing poisonous was growing in the Garden of Eden, since the account tells us that God had prepared it especially for these brand new humans.

Their instructions were to spread the garden, over time, until it covered the whole earth. (Genesis 1:28) In the course of that work, as they stretched the boundaries outside the original garden, they would encounter obstacles that were potentially life-threatening – not just poisonous plants and insects but cliffs, raging rivers, falling tree limbs, and more. So it would benefit them to make it a habit to look to  God for instructions. It would be to their detriment if they developed the habit, so common in the world today, of just doing whatever they felt like doing. 

God’s instructions are always for our benefit.

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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist and author of three Bible-friendly novels and the non-fiction book “99 Ways to Fire Your Boss”, all available at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Hard things in the Bible, part 5: Beasts, and the Mark of the Beast


 

If you’ve been following this series, by now I hope you’ve gotten at least one thing firmly embedded in your brain: None of us can just make up an explanation for what the hard stuff in the Bible means.

Or rather, everyone can; anyone can spout ideas about what they think things mean; and therefore none of us should pay any attention to those explanations. The only reliable explanation of a Bible symbol is one which is found in the Bible itself.

I’ve had individuals tell me that ‘the spirit revealed’ to them what this or that passage meant. Does that really make sense? The Bible itself warned us: “Do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God.” (1 John 4:1) It also warns us, repeatedly, not to rely on our own understanding. ‘Follow your heart’ is a Hollywood-ism, not a scripture.

John had good reason for that warning about inspired expressions: It had been 30 years since anyone prior to him had literally been inspired by God. That was a long drought. But that didn’t stop people from claiming they were inspired.

For example: Noting that the Bible is silent on Jesus’ life from age 12 to 30, books such as ‘The Gospel of Thomas’ made up details about miracles Jesus supposedly did during those years. Obviously, any idiot can make up details that are omitted from the Bible. I should know: I made up details about Paul’s catastrophic voyage to Rome for my novel The Minotaur Medallion. But I didn’t try to pass it off as “inspired” – I made it quite clear it was fiction.

We need inspired scripture to explain inspired scripture. We can understand the beasts in Revelation only by reading other passages in the Bible that explain exactly what various beasts mean. And the Bible doesn’t leave us hanging.

The book of Daniel, like the book of Revelation, has several descriptions of monstrous beasts. Unlike Revelation, however, Daniel gives us quite a bit to work with.

In Daniel chapter 7, Daniel sees a disturbing vision of 4 huge beasts. Then an angel explains:

“These huge beasts, four in number, are four kings who will stand up from the earth.” (Da. 7:17)

See? Simple. Beasts = Kings. Now, did the angel mean literally 4 kings, 4 individuals? No. How do we know? The angel says so: “As for the fourth beast, there is a fourth kingdom ...and ten kings will rise up out of that kingdom.” (Da. 7:23, 24)

So each beast is a kingdom, possibly lasting for generations.

In explaining his next vision, the angel told Daniel, “The two-horned ram that you saw stands for the kings (plural) of Media and Persia. The hairy male goat stands for the king of Greece; and the great horn that was between its eyes stands for the first king. As for the horn that was broken, so that four stood up instead of it, there are four kingdoms from his nation that will stand up.” (Da. 8:20-22)

While a Bible beast stands for a kingdom, the horns on the beast often represent the individual rulers over that kingdom.

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Now let’s use this method to define the beasts in Revelation. We’ll take them in the order in which they appear.

1.       ‘A great fiery-colored dragon, with seven heads and ten horns and on its heads seven crowns...’ (Re. 12:3) That one’s easy: A few verses later the account tells us clearly that the dragon is, “the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan. . .” (Re. 12:9) But why is he pictured with 7 heads and 10 horns? The devil is portrayed in other parts of the bible as a snake or as a lion. Each creature has specific traits. In John’s day, a dragon was a mythical beast, possibly based on fossils of dinosaurs. In any case, the Greek word “drakon” refers to a beast that quickly slurps down its prey. The 7 heads and 10 horns, and especially the 10 crowns, tell us clearly that here we are dealing with Satan as a king; his role as ruler of all the kingdoms of the world. That’s not a stretch; in this same passage, when Satan is thrown out of heaven, a voice announces that, ‘Now have come to pass the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ...’

2.       Next comes a ‘beast ascending out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, and on its horns ten crowns, but on its heads blasphemous names. [This wild beast] was like a leopard, but its feet were like those of a bear, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.’ (Re. 13:1, 2) The various beasts Daniel recounted in chapter 7 included many of these same features: lion’s mouth, leopard spots, feet like a bear, and so on. In Daniel, it was telling in advance the march of the world’s major powers from Daniel’s time down until the last days – Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and unnamed governments that would grow out of Rome.  But as we showed in Part 3 of this series, Revelation is a vision of things as if it were written in these last days. So this Revelation beast is a summary, after the fact, of all those world powers in whatever iteration they grew into: All the governments that grew out of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. From Iceland to New Zealand, China to Zimbabwe, it would be difficult to find a country that was not at some point in its history ruled by an outgrowth of one of those powers. The similarity in appearance between this beast and the dragon is not a coincidence. It reinforces that Satan is the ruler of all these kingdoms.

3.       I saw another wild beast ascending out of the earth, and it had two horns like a lamb, but it began speaking like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first wild beast. . .” (Re. 13:11, 12) This beast’s ‘two horns like a lamb’ might remind us of Jesus, who is pictured by a lamb in the book of Revelation. Or it might simply be meant to put us in mind of the gentle nature of a lamb. However, the beast is a hypocrite... an attribute that is very un-christlike. And it is clearly a government. Whatever government is here pictured, it might be one that tries to pass itself off as Christian – remind you of any ‘one nation under God’? – or the symbolism could simply be that of a nation or group of nations that hypocritically pretends to be as peaceable as a lamb while actually behaving like Satan – as, for example, the allied powers of the U.S. and Britain.

4.       The next beast is called “an image to the wild beast.” (Re. 13:14) This beast is described as being made or instigated by the lamb/dragon beast. This is something unusual: most governments arise when a group of people who live in one geographic space organize a governmental arrangement over themselves, which gets passed down in some way to the successors. But this beast is created, like a manufactured image of something else. It isn’t an image of the lamb/dragon; rather, it is an image, a copy, of the leopard/bear/lion with 7 heads, the symbol in composite of all of Earth’s governments. What would be the meaning of this symbol? Is there, today, a governmental organization that is like a copy in miniature of all the world’s governments? There is. It is called the United Nations. And, just as John foresaw 2,000 years ago, the U.N. was brought into existence at the instigation of the lamb/dragon – the U.S. and Britain.

 Now: what is “the mark of the beast”?

 

 “High and low, rich and poor, freemen and slaves--it causes a brand to be put on the right hand or on the forehead of every one of them, so that no one is able to buy or sell except those that bear this brand--either the name of the Beast or the number indicated by the letters of his name.” (Re. 13:16, 17, TCNT)

In this loose translation the word “mark” is rendered “brand”. But it’s a good mental picture. The marks put on slaves in John’s day were not written in pencil or ink. They were permanent, what we would today call a brand. Like a cattle brand, they were unique to the owner; they marked whose property the slave was.

So getting ‘the mark of the beast’ is nothing as literal as a particular tattoo, or a credit card, or a vaccine, or getting an RFID chip embedded in our hand. Rather, it shows ownership. Jesus says of his faithful followers, “I will write upon him the name of my God.” (Re. 3:12) Yes, we are slaves. But, as Romans chapter 6 points out, everyone is. You are either a slave of God, or a slave of Satan’s system.

Note what Revelation 19:20 says about this mark: “The false prophet... misled those who received the mark of the wild beast and those who worship its image.”

Those who slavishly support this world’s governments, indicating their belief in those organizations aren’t forcibly branded, like a slave; they’re worshipers; they're misled. They make themselves slaves. That’s why the ‘mark’ is on the “forehead” – their thinking – and their “hand” – their actions.

What about the part that says, “nobody can buy or sell except a person having the mark”? (Re. 13:17) We’ve seen something like that in miniature a few times over the last few decades. Occasionally, some government somewhere starts requiring people to demonstrate their support of the government in order to do basic business transactions, or even to feed their families. Based on this prophecy it’s likely that, before this system ends, we’ll see this happening on a much larger scale.

Before that time arrives, we need to decide whose slaves we are. 

 

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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, Bible scholar and photographer. He is the author of four books available in either paperback or ebook on Amazon.com

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Hard things in the Bible, part 4: Revelation's Number Symbolism


As we mentioned in the last part of this series the book of Revelation, being full of symbols, is one of the hard parts of the Bible. No one should claim to be able to explain those symbols without referring to other parts of the Bible.

Before we get to all the beasts and plagues, let’s start with something more basic: the various symbolic numbers mentioned. We’re not talking numerology here; neither are we talking about the kind of demented math used in the Jewish Kabala. There is simply no proof that any of that has anything to do with the Bible.

Here are some of the numbers that seem to crop up with some regularity in the Bible:

ONE: Revelation refers to events that happen in “One day”, and others in “One hour”. Comparing these phrases to other parts of the Bible, we find Isaiah 10:17-20, which describes Israel’s destruction as happening in “one day.” It actually took several years. But relative to the centuries that the nation had lived, its destruction was sudden. “One hour” would be an even more startlingly short time period: “Too bad, too bad, you great city, Babylon you strong city, because in one hour your judgment has arrived!” (Revelation 18:10)

 TWO: In some cases the “2” is clearly meant to be literal; “2 wings of an eagle” or “2-edged sword.” And in others, it seems to refer to a small amount but more than one. For example, when the heavenly armies of angels are described as two myriads of myriads”, (Revelation 9:16) we shouldn’t assume it means literally 200,000,000 angels. A ‘myriad of myriads’ might be taken literally as 100,000,000; ‘two myriads’ simply makes it clear that we’re talking about an unspecified number of myriads of angels.

“2 witnesses” are mentioned at Revelation 11:3. The rest of the passage refers to an olive tree and a lampstand. That should remind us of the book of Zechariah. In that book, the olive tree feeding olive oil to a lampstand is explained as referring to the high priest of the time, Joshua, assisting the governor of the time, Zerubbabel. Both of them were faithful men who were taking the lead in providing ‘light’ to Jehovah’s people the Israelites who had just returned from Babylon. While they had begun well in their assigned task of rebuilding the temple, when persecution hit they drifted away from it. After Zechariah and other prophets stirred them up, they got busy again.

With that background it becomes fairly easy to make the connection to the picture John painted, of 2 witnesses taking the lead at an assigned task during “the Lord’s Day” (if this term is unfamiliar go back to Part 3 of this series), being persecuted for doing that work and becoming less active – to the point that their work looked “dead” – then their work being resurrected again. The work Jesus has assigned his disciples for “the Lord’s Day” is to preach the good news of the kingdom earthwide. I’ll leave the reader to decide which religion fulfills the picture, but here’s a hint: You will struggle to find an application of this prophecy to most of the denominations active during these last days.

THREE: The number 3 comes up a lot in Revelation: 3 angels, 3 trumpets, 3 woes, 3 unclean expressions... While there are hundreds of uses of the number 3 in the Bible, the ones that seem to have a symbolic usage are those that are a triple repetition, the idea of ‘3 times for emphasis’.

For example, “A ruin, a ruin, a ruin I will make it,” speaking of Israel’s kingship. (Ezekiel 21:27) If that were the only example you would be right to be skeptical. But check out these others:

Elihu, counseling Job about Jehovah’s forgiveness: “‘. He has redeemed my soul from going into the pit, And my life will see the light.’ Indeed, God does all these things Twice, three times, for a man,” (Job 33:27-29)

Jehovah’s instructions to Ezekiel: “Clap your hands and repeat ‘A sword!’ three times. It is the sword of the slain victims, the sword of great slaughter, that surrounds them.” (Ezekiel 21:14)

Now, compare the passages in Revelation where a thought is repeated 3 times:

  • Revelation 4:8 (TCNT) “These four Creatures... never cease to say-- 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, our God, the Almighty, who was, and who is, and who shall be.'”
  • Revelation 8:13 (TCNT) “I heard an eagle flying in mid-heaven and crying in a loud voice--'Woe, woe, woe for all who live on the earth.”
  • Re 16:13 (BBE) “And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits, like frogs.”

The threefold repetition of “Holy” in reference to Jehovah is fairly obvious; the threefold “woe” for all who live on the earth shouldn’t be taken as 3 specific ‘woes’, but as an extremely woeful state.

The 3 unclean spirits like frogs seem to be exactly 3 to correspond to the 3 mouths from which they come: the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. More on those guys in a later column.

FOUR: Likely the first thing that comes to your mind with the number 4 is direction: north, south, east, west – the ‘4 corners of the earth.’ The Ark of the Covenant was rectangular with 4 feet under it. It resided in the center of the tabernacle built by the Jews in the wilderness, also rectangular, with sides facing north, south, east and west. The Israelite camp was laid out by divine command in a square, with 3 tribes on each side of the tabernacle. The temple Solomon built was also a rectangle aligned with the compass. Many of its furnishings were square. There seems to be a link between the number 4 and something being organized for worship of God.

Now what about ‘4’ in the book of Revelation? “Around the throne were 4 living creatures.” (Revelation 4:6) It’s probably safe to assume these 4 represent the complete organizational structure of heavenly creatures supporting God’s worship.

“After this I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding tight the four winds of the earth, so that no wind could blow on the earth.” (Revelation 7:1) The 4 winds clearly mean the whole earth, north south east and west. These 4 angels could easily represent the organized angelic army waiting to bring Armageddon to the whole earth.

Re 9:14 (YLT) “`Loose the four messengers who are bound at the great river Euphrates.'” Again, “four” indicates something organized; Euphrates is the major river of Babylon which, in Revelation, is false religion (more on that later). So these angels or messengers have an organized work spreading a message with global effect (verse 15). It had been chained up by Babylon but was to be released during the Lord ’s Day.

TWELVE: The first thing that pops into mind may well be the 12 tribes of Israel, or the 12 apostles. But that example breaks down. The Christian congregation today isn't divided into 12 'tribes', some following Peter, others John, etc. In fact, the apostle Paul strongly counseled Christians not to be partisan. (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

However, we do find a commonality if 12 refers to the leadership of two respective organizations - In its beginning, Israel referred to the 12 sons of Jacob, (each of whose qualities were prophetically described by their father in Genesis) just as the initial leaders of the Christian congregation were the 12 apostles, each having various gifts and qualities.

Why did Jacob have 12 sons? Why did Jesus name 12 apostles? Possibly, in part, because of the symbolism, that 12 is a multiple of 3 and 4: 4 for organized, 3 for emphasis of that idea. Similarly, 144,000 pops up in Revelation 7, and the number is there explained as '12,000 from each' of Jacob's sons. (I know the passages says '12 tribes of Israel,' but read the names closely, and remember that Revelation is symbolic.) 

TWENTY-FOUR - another multiple of 12 - also makes an appearance in Revelation. If our understanding of 12 as the organization of Israel's leadership or the Christian apostles is correct; and our understanding of 2 (2 X 12) as leadership of a god-assigned work is correct, then the '24 elders' mentioned first in Revelation 4:4 pretty much explains itself.

The numbers 5, 8 and 9 don’t get a lot of play in the Bible. So let’s move on.

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SEVEN, TEN and SIX:  7 is one of the earliest numbers in the Bible. The week of 7 days was initiated by Jehovah himself. “God went on to bless the seventh day and to declare it sacred, for on it God has been resting from all the work that he has created.” (Genesis 2:3) God viewed 7 as the completion of the task.

As humans we tend to think in 10s: we have 10 fingers and 10 toes. And throughout the Bible, 10 is often used as a number that means “all” from a human perspective: When Hannah was upset about being barren her husband said, “Why are you so sad? Am I not better to you than 10 sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8) When Jehovah wanted to reassure Hezekiah that He would keep him alive He offered him a miracle: “Do you want the shadow on the stairway to move forward ten steps or back ten steps?” (2 Kings 20:9) The steps were arranged like a sundial. Jehovah could have offered to move the shadow 7 or 8 steps, or 12 steps, but He didn’t. He offered 10.

That leaves 6: If 7 is a number that is complete or perfect from God’s viewpoint, His use of 6 might well represent something that falls short of that ideal – something imperfect, sinister, perhaps even destructive.

It’s true that both Isaiah and Revelation refer to certain angels as having 6 wings, but in each case it is emphasized that they actually have 3 pairs of wings, triple-emphasizing of their flying ability.

Other references to 6 are kind of obscure: Goliath was 6 cubits tall; other monstrous men from his tribe had 6 fingers on each hand; Solomon’s yearly income was 666 talents of gold; the image Nebuchadnezzar set up which Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship was 6 cubits wide by 60 cubits tall; You could perhaps make the case that 6 represents things that are monstrous, idolatrous, or materialistic, but I think that would be a stretch: none of those number were used symbolically.

So: With few other biblical sources to lean on, what can we conclude about the mysterious passage: “Let the one who has insight calculate the number of the wild beast, for it is a man’s number, and its number is 666.” (Revelation 13:18)

Other factors in the book of Revelation make it clear that this wild beast is a bad guy. The fact that the number is specifically called ‘a man’s number’ makes it clear this isn’t a heavenly picture; the fact that the number 6 repeats 3 times should make it clear that the ‘3 times for emphasis’ rule applies here; and the qualities of the beast being emphasized seems to be that it is grossly imperfect, falls short of or even rebels against heavenly perfection.

Next time, we’ll talk about the beasts.

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Bill Underwood is the author of 3 clean fiction novels: The Minotaur Medallion, Resurrection Day, and the best-seller Unbroken, as well as the non-fiction self-help book “99 Ways to Fire Your Boss.” All are available in either ebook or paper at Amazon.com.