Another Good Question - Bible Codes & Hidden Messages

We just wrapped up a very cool series of messages at Harvest, where I basically let the congregation determine what we were going to teach on. They submitted a bunch of really good questions, touching on Bible, theology, ethics, current events, and a lot more. I addressed them during our Sunday worship services, suggesting how we can think Biblically about each question. It was a blast!

One of the questions I didn't get to on a Sunday was as follows: "What do you think about The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin? I heard about it but it sounded a little weird…”

Well, the writer of this question has a good instinct. The general idea behind Drosnin’s books (I understand there’s a Bible Code 2 and even a Bible Code 3 now) is that by looking at the Hebrew text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) one can apply a complicated encryption method and discover secret messages that are hidden within the text. These messages can then be de-coded, and are generally said to be able to predict future events. Sounds cool huh? Anyone curious enough to go buy a copy?

Save your money.

I could elaborate on lots of reasons why Drosnin’s idea is nonsense, including the fact that he’s a journalist (not a scholar), that others have also alleged such things before so this is nothing new, and that every time someone like Drosnin makes these kinds of claims they always stand to sell a lot of books and make a boat-load of money. Curious.

But the most important reason has nothing to do with this particular book or its author. Rather, the really important issue here is how Christians should read the Bible. Simply put, God’s word is not a magic book from which we divine mysterious and elusive secrets. Nor is it some deep conspiracy riddle that needs to be solved.

A secret message in the Hebrew Bible? Don't bet on it.

Instead, the Bible is God’s very plain and understandable explanation of the way the world works, and how we fit into it. He intends that when we read it we would understand what he’s been up to in human history, and how we should live in light of that. God didn’t embed secret codes in the Bible that predict future events, reserved only for the select few who are insightful enough to successfully complete some mysterious scavenger hunt. Nor did he encode messages that could only be deciphered by modern cryptography, leaving centuries-worth of his own followers in the dark. In the Bible, God has spoken to all people at all times, plainly.

How can I say that with such certainty? Because of the example of Jesus and the apostles, who never looked for secret messages and hidden meanings in the Bible. Instead, they followed the plainly evident flow of thought in God’s word. They looked at what the Bible says and how it's put together, and in so doing they understood its real message: it points to a coming Messiah who would be the centerpiece of God’s plan of redemption.

How did they come to that conclusion? What were they looking at that helped them see what the Bible’s message was? I will describe that in our Fall sermon series at Harvest. We’ll look at the way God put the Bible together, and we’ll see what message it sends. And I think I can demonstrate convincingly that Jesus and the apostles read it the same way, and thus understood it the same way. Don’t miss it!

And don’t be surprised when the Bible's flow as I describe it this Fall has nothing to do with secret codes, hidden meanings, or selling tons of books to make me rich.

The Bible As Jesus Read It

The Bible Jesus read (sometimes called the Hebrew Bible) was identical to our modern Old Testament in every respect, except one. Rather than beginning with Genesis and ending with Malachi, his Bible began with Genesis and ended with Chronicles. And many of the books in between were also arranged in a different order. This particular arrangement of the books is important because it helps readers understand the message of the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus alluded to the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible when he walked with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. There he explained to them everything the Old Testament taught about him as Messiah. And then notice how Jesus describes this message (Luke 24:44): "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Here Jesus is referring to the three-part structure of the Hebrew Bible:

  • Law of Moses ("Torah" in Hebrew) refers to the first 5 books of the Bible
  • The Prophets includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel & Kings, along with most of the prophets we traditionally recognize
  • The Writings (called here "the Psalms" since this section begins with the book of Psalms) includes everything else in the Old Testament.
But it's not just that there are three sections. It's the deliberate way those sections are attached to one another. They were put together with intentionality, to send the message God wants to send. It's almost as if they are sewn together. And the text in the "seams" where these sections come together emphasizes the dual themes of trust in God's Word and the coming Messiah (which I blogged about below).

So the structure of whole Hebrew Bible looks something like this (click for a larger view):

OK, so... what's the point?
The point is that this is the Bible as Jesus and the apostles read it. And this is HOW they read it. It turns out that the Old Testament is not about law and works while the New testament is about faith and grace. No! The New Testament writers got their understanding of faith and grace from the Old Testament. They recognized that the entire Hebrew Bible was about God's plan to redeem all of creation through the coming Messiah. That's why Jesus said, referring to Deuteronomy, "Moses wrote about me." (John 5:46) He learned what his role as the Messiah was all about by reading the Hebrew Bible.

And so did the apostles. As they were preaching the gospel, writing the New Testament to explain Christian doctrine, and laying their lives down for the kingdom of God, it was this understanding of the Old Testament that informed their theology and inflamed their hearts. And it still does so today.

The way we've changed the order of the Old Testament books masks its overall message to a degree. But the more I learn about how clearly and consistently the Old Testament teaches about the importance of faith in Jesus for ultimate redemption, the more in awe I am of what God has done. I have literally been brought to tears numerous times these past couple weeks of studying these things more closely, as I think about my love for my Savior: the Messiah who was talked about all the way back in Genesis.

We're going to look at these things more closely this Fall at Harvest, so for those of you who attend or who listen to our sermon series online we're going to have a great time! I hope you'll let me know as the series progresses if the material we're teaching makes sense, and if it has the same effect on you as it does on me.

Stained Glass Bible

I've always liked big stained glass windows. So many different shards of glass, each unique in its size, shape and color. And with the sun shining through, each piece is bright and beautiful in its own way. But of course we don't pay attention to the individual shards when we look at a stained glass window. We want to see the big picture they add up to. We're transfixed by the way all those varied and unique pieces fit together to form an artistic image that carries within it a message.

I've learned a lot about the Bible from an Old Testament scholar named John Sailhamer. He says the Bible is in many ways like a stained glass window. Each of the Bible's 66 books has its own unique content and form, like individual shards of stained glass. But those shards have been fit together to form a complete picture. As beautiful as each separate verse and book of the Bible is, the greatest beauty of God's Word is in the picture of reality that it forms when viewed as a whole.

Here's just one example: the Old Testament historically consisted of three major divisions: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. These are the same 39 books we have in our OT today, but they're in a different order than we see them in our Bibles. And the order matters! Because when you put them in their ancient Jewish order you notice something: there are transitions in the text between each of the three groupings:

  • Section 1 (the Torah) ends with Deuteronomy 34, which talks about a coming great prophet.
  • Section 2 (the Prophets) starts with Joshua 1, which is about meditating on God's Word
Now hang with me here:
  • Section 2 (the Prophets) ends with the end of Malachi, which talks about a coming great prophet (sound familiar?).
  • Section 3 (the Writings) then begins with Psalm 1, which talks about (you guessed it) meditating on God's Word.
The transitionary material is parallel in each case, and this points to a deliberate message in the Old Testament: from start to finish the Old Testament advances the dual themes of faith in God's Word and the promised Messiah king. These are not New Testament concepts! In fact, Jesus and the New Testament writers saw these themes in the Old Testament and realized that faith in the Messiah was the core of God's plan from the very beginning.

And there's so much more! These transitions are just one of many examples of how the entire Bible is far from a loose collection of random religious writings. Rather, it's a whole, cohesive, master-crafted work of art! And this is what we're going to unpack this Fall at Harvest Community Church. We'll spend time backing way up and seeing how the whole of the Bible's 66 books form a cohesive view of the world, and thus forms the basis of our own view of the world. And I hope everyone's appreciation and love for God's Word increases dramatically, as mine has as a result of learning these things.

Long ago, in many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" Hebrews 1:1-2

My difficulty with slowing down

I just wrote an article for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview called Sacred Disengagement. It's about our need to step back and reflect on our lives from time to time, with some suggestions for doing so. It was prompted in part by my pondering what it means that God rested on the 7th day of creation, and why he tells us to do the same thing. But there's a personal back story behind why I wrote about this in the first place.

The article was prompted in large part by my personal experience with sacred disengagement, which I didn't have room to get into in the article. Truth is, I find it really hard to do. I don't know why for sure, but I've always found it very difficult to take a few hours away and focus on things like prayer and reflection on my life. I just recently made another attempt: about a week ago I spent 5 days away. The first couple days was just fun, hanging out at my old mechanic buddy's house completely re-wiring the dash in my 1974 Scout and installing all new gauges. Yes, that is fun for me!

Doesn't this look like fun!?!

But the next couple days was my real disengage time. I drove up to Clear Lake, the headwaters of the McKenzie River and one of my favorite places on earth. There I planned to camp by myself and do some fishing, as well as some reflecting. The camping was great, and the fishing was relaxing (gorgeous photos of the lake below).

But as usual I found the reflecting difficult. I parked myself by the lake one afternoon for a couple hours of reading and journaling. After 45 minutes I had made almost no progress. I found it difficult to know where to turn my Bible, or what to concentrate my mind on. A few gallant attempts at concentration ended predictably, with 1,000 busy things crowing in to my consciousness, rushing past every attempt I made to ward them off and keep them out for a while. I was frustrated.

So I packed my things back to the camp site and decided to go for a short hike. As I walked I decided that one way to tame the cacophony of urgent voices in my head was to name them. Perhaps if I gave voice to the thoughts I'd be able to identify them more clearly, lay them at God's feet in prayer, and let them go for a few days. So I began... and the words poured out. Sometimes whispering to myself as I walked, and sometimes walking in silence, my mind was a steady stream of ideas and thoughts, one leading to the next.

Gradually most of the concerns on my mind had been named and I felt I was able to step back mentally and look at them. I began to ask myself questions, such as why certain things were current sources of stress, or what I was intending to do about some of what I had named. I asked myself the questions I would have asked someone else had they told me the same things. This series of questions led to a couple interesting conclusions, and some possible actions I should at least explore as the new school year begins. I hiked back to camp and wrote as many things down as I could remember.

When I returned home I talked extensively with Amy about the experience. She has developed a greater ability to slow down and reflect over the years than I have, brought on in part by her physical limitations but mostly by the mature way she has chosen to respond to them. When I described my initial frustrated attempt at sacred disengagement, she questioned some of my assumptions. That was helpful, and made me think about the whole experience differently. I think I learned at least a couple things about actually doing what I described the article.

First, movement and speaking are good for me. I already knew that the environment we're in is critical for reflection - that's why I chose Clear Lake up high in the mountains, a place I love. But sitting in the warm sunshine while tired and trying to just think does not work for me. It probably works great for some people. But I was struck by the contrast between my total inability to concentrate while sitting by the lake and the clean stream of ideas that flowed naturally while I was hiking briskly, getting my heart rate up some and whispering thoughts and ideas. I'm a verbal processor, and being a guy I find that my brain responds much better to activity than inactivity.

Second, I assumed that all my reflecting had been useful but that it nonetheless wasn't the kind of spiritual reflection I should be after. Amy challenged that assumption, which prompted me to think about the whole Clear Lake experience in different terms. Once I did, the stream of thought that had started while hiking eventually matured a couple days later into some concrete realizations, action plans, and a fresh perspective to start the year. I realized she was right. My idea of what "reflecting" meant was too narrow, a bit contrived and artificial.

That's what led me to think about God "resting" in Genesis 2. It also led me to read and ponder Elijah's experience in 1 Kings 19. And all that thinking and study eventually led to the article I linked above. I believe 100% in the accuracy and usefulness of what I wrote, but it came out of a very personal experience. One that was a challenge in some ways, but was rewarding in the end - just as I believe God intends Sacred Disengagement to be.

Morning lakeside

Fishing from a float tube!

This is one CLEAR lake

The very beginning of the McKenzie River

An ancient lava flow comes right down to the water

What We've Told Our Pre-Teen About God's Plan For Sex

No worries: this post is rated PG. :)

The messages are everywhere. Some more subtle, some less so. But all too familiar:

  • If you've got it, flaunt it!
  • Sex is fun and everyone's doing it - just do it safely.
  • To be beautiful is to be sexy; they are the same.
As with many parents, we've sought to help our daughter understand a different - a more Biblical - view of sex.

The Biblical worldview tells us that God made everything for a purpose, but that everything was broken to some extent by our sin (what theologians call "the Fall"). This includes human sexuality: it was designed by God to work a certain way, and we want our kids to know and respect its intended purpose. So how do you explain that to them? Two things have been helpful to us.

First, prompted by a terrific study Amy is doing with Elizabeth, is Proverbs 5:19 which urges husbands to "be intoxicated always in [your wife's] love." Intoxicated is a strong word! God has designed a woman's body to allure - even intoxicate - a man. But only one man: her husband. We've talked with our daughter about the attraction power she will have as she grows, and who God intends her to reserve that attraction for. And she's also learning to recognize the way many women use their God-given attractiveness to draw attention to themselves from any man who will look.

Which led us to the second item: a great illustration (from a terrific little book called Ask Me Anything) of what happens when we don't use our sexuality the way God intended. Author J. Budziszewski says our sexuality in some ways can be compared to a piece of duct tape. The first time it is pressed to something it sticks strongly. But what happens if you peel it off and then stick it to another surface? Perhaps it adheres again, but not as strongly this time. If it is peeled off and pressed to a new surface time and again it will eventually lose its ability to stick at all.

In the same way God intends human sexuality to cement the relationship between a husband and a wife. It's designed to add a unique level of intimacy to the marriage relationship. But if we go beyond God's intended boundary for sex by sharing our sexuality with others, either through inappropriate public displaying of our bodies or by trying to "stick" ourselves relationally to multiple partners via sexual activity, sex itself gradually loses some of its power to cement a marriage relationship the way God intended.

In all this we hope our daughter comes to understand the powerful and valuable gift God has given her as a woman - and how to use that gift for her own good and for God's glory.

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