my new book on Ecclesiastes!

I have just finished a new book. It is a new translation of the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, and a reader’s guide to its content. I am offering the book as a .pdf download.  If you are interested, send me $5 through my PayPal account:

paypal.me/jeffersonvann

Then, send me an email at jeffersonvann@yahoo.com and I will send you the document.

Of course, it is also available as a Kindle e-book:

Thanks for supporting my writing habit!

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2018 articles published in New Zealand

Afterlife

2018 articles published in New Zealand

Here is a list of articles I have written which were published online in New Zealand in 2018. You may click on the hyperlink for an individual article to find it on the Afterlife website.

 

the conversation continues

jp

I have been having an interesting discussion with Pastor Corey McLaughlin on the subject of whether angels and demons are immortal. My view is that God alone is immortal (based on 1 Timothy 6:16).

But Pastor Corey argues that Revelation 20:10 implies that at least some angelic/demonic beings are immortal.

Catch up with the discussion by going to my latest post on the Afterlife website:

https://www.afterlife.co.nz/2018/05/demon-mortality-and-revelation-2010/

Called to bless

Japan 2017 (55)

I would like to begin with some reflections on the story of God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3.

Then Yahveh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kin and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you an influential nation, and I will bless you and make your name important, and be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3 my translation).

I want to reflect on this text about Abram. I ask what his experience has in common with ours. This passage could accurately be called the first great commission. It can help us find our place in God’s plan for world missions.

  1. God called God set him apart from the family he came from, and the culture he was used to.
  • The New Testament tells us that the God of glory appeared to Abram in Mesopotamia (Acts 7:2). God called him away from the pagan world that he grew up in, to a life focused on the one true God. God spoke to Abram, and changed the focus of his life forever.
  • Every believer in Christ has a conversion experience where he or she encounters God, and each one of those experiences is a call from God. Paul told Timothy that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace (2 Tim. 1:9 CSB17).”
  • That calling is first and foremost a calling to God himself, and away from the trappings that we are familiar with. Like Abram, our first mission is to separate ourselves unto God. If God wanted to simply “save” Abram, he would not have needed to affect his life in any way. If it was just about preserving Abram for eternity, God could have done that without Abram even knowing it. But God had a mission for Abram, and that mission required dedication and change.
  1. God changed Abram’s context. He sent him to different lands to be a blessing to different people.
  • I want to remind you of the words of today’s text: “Then Yahveh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kin and your father’s household to the land that I will show you.” When the Lord Jesus commissioned his disciples to make disciples, they had to leave Galilee and go to Jerusalem to launch that discipling ministry. He had told those disciples “I appointed you to go and produce fruit (Jn. 15:16 CSB17).”  We had better not forget that there are two verbs in that statement.
  • Not every believer is going to have the privilege of serving as a missionary overseas, but every believer needs to consider where God wants him or her to be. Like Abram, God often uses us in a different context than the one we are born in. He takes us away from the familiar so that we can learn to trust him as we represent him.
  1. God committed himself to blessing Abram. He invested in the future of Abram and his family.
  • God did not call Abram to bless the nations without assuring him that he would be provided for and protected. Abram could bless because he had been blessed.  This is one of the secrets of successful mission work.  When we separate ourselves unto God, being willing to go where he wants us to go, he sets us apart from others by uniquely blessing us.  Abram learned that. Daniel learned that. John the Baptist learned that. Peter and Paul learned that.
  • Let’s not forget that our Lord has already pronounced a blessing upon us as his servants and representatives. Remember the beatitudes?

“”Blessed are the spiritually poor now, because theirs is the promised kingdom from the sky later. “Blessed are those who are mourning now, because they will be comforted later. “Blessed are those who are meek now, because they will inherit the land later.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness now, because they will be satisfied later. “Blessed are those being merciful now, because they will receive mercy later. “Blessed are the clean in heart now, because they will see God later. “Blessed are the peacemakers now, because they will be called sons of God later. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, because theirs is the promised kingdom from the sky. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, because your future reward is great stored up in the sky, because they persecuted the prophets who were before you in the same way. “You are the salt of the land, but if salt has lost its taste, with what will the land be salted? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in the sky” (Matthew 5:3-16 my translation)

 

  • We are already blessed. That makes it possible for us to bless others as we serve Christ among them. The beatitudes are followed by the “salt and light” passages because there is a direct connection between blessing from the Lord and missions, the same way it was for Abram.
  1. God challenged Abram to be a blessing wherever he went.
  • God commanded and commissioned Abram to “be a blessing.” Of all the people on earth, God set Abram and his family to represent him and share him with others.
  • Jesus commanded and commissioned his church to make disciples among all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). When we go where we need to go, lead people to come to Christ and be baptized in God’s name, and teach all that Christ taught, we also become a blessing wherever we go.

God has called you and me to bless the world around us.  He may change our context to put us where we need to be, and we need to be willing to let him do that. He has committed to blessing us and providing what we need so that we can bear fruit where he places us.  He challenges us to be a blessing wherever we go.

God blesses some people by sending them as missionaries.  But each of us is challenged by this text to follow God’s call to be a blessing. Here are three things that all of us can do to bless the nations.

  • SHARE your life and testimony with people. Perhaps the LORD will bring a stranger into your life who needs to know about Jesus.
  • SUPPORT those who are working as missionaries in other nations.
  • SEND someone to reach another nation for Christ.

May God continue to bless you as you seek to respond to his call.

{I originally shared this message in Barbourville Kentucky.  I recently adapted it and shared it in the Ayameike Advent Christian Church, Japan.  The photo is of Penny and me on one of our sightseeing excursions while in Japan, November 2017}.

 

A prayer for the persecuted church

 

Lord Jesus,

You warned us that your church would be a persecuted church.  You promised your ultimate blessing upon those of us who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and promised us a coming sky kingdom where justice remains.

You reminded us that the prophets who came before us were also persecuted because they took a stand for the God of the Bible in the face of political and cultural opposition.

Like the prophets of old, you are sending your church out today into nations and communities which arrest, deport, wrongfully punish, and even murder them. Indeed, you warned your disciples that they would be hated by all nations because they accept you, and seek to serve you.

But you told them not to return violence for violence, hatred for hatred. Instead, you told them to pray for their persecutors. We are to follow your example, because you prayed even on the cross “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”

If possible, Lord, we ask you to grant your church and your gospel favor among the nations in this generation. But if not, we ask for courage for our brothers and sisters who face persecution because of their loyalty to your name.

Amen.

Jefferson Vann

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

 

gifts for the missionary

“Gifts for the missionary” was the title of the message I shared at three churches in Illinois September 10th and 17th, 2017.  Here is the message:

Daniel 1 (CSB17)

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. 2 The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God. Nebuchadnezzar carried them to the land of Babylon, to the house of his god, and put the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility– 4 young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature. 5 The king assigned them daily provisions from the royal food and from the wine that he drank. They were to be trained for three years, and at the end of that time they were to attend the king. 6 Among them, from the Judahites, were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. 7 The chief eunuch gave them names; he gave the name Belteshazzar to Daniel, Shadrach to Hananiah, Meshach to Mishael, and Abednego to Azariah. 8 Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself. 9 God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, 10 yet he said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.” 11 So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.” 14 He agreed with them about this and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food. 16 So the guard continued to remove their food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables. 17 God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind. 18 At the end of the time that the king had said to present them, the chief eunuch presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king interviewed them, and among all of them, no one was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they began to attend the king. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king consulted them about, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and mediums in his entire kingdom. 21 Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.

 

Our text begins with a tragedy, but most of us skip right past it, only stopping to notice what we already know. So, allow me to share the background to the story.  The first person listed in the text is king Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim was the puppet of two Gentile superpowers. He first surrendered the sovereignty of his nation to Egypt. Then, after Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem he switched sides and supported that superpower.

 

The author of 2 Kings tells us that all this “happened to Judah at the Lord ‘s command to remove them from his presence” (2Ki 24:3 CSB). The kings of Judah had been so rebellious and violent that they had “filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive” (2Ki 24:4 CSB).

 

The prophets had warned Judah for years that it had no immunity from being judged by God. But they always felt that they could handle whatever happened. Maybe they thought that their former and present kings had made mistakes, but they probably thought that the next generation would be different. Surely the next crop of the best and the brightest in Judah would turn things around. But then, Nebuchadnezzar rounds up the lot of these best and brightest Judahites and takes them away to Babylon to make Babylonians out of them!

The real tragedy in all this is not just the fact that tough times have come to God’s people. The real tragedy is that it is God who is behind all this. This dark story serves as the background to the amazing book of Daniel.

The book of Daniel is best categorized as an apocalyptic prophecy. But this first chapter in the book makes no predictions and describes no events or nations in symbol. The chapter simply sets the historical backdrop for the parts of the book which do predict the future.

When I recently asked the Lord to give me a text which I could use to preach on world missions, he gave me this text. I didn’t exactly know why. I thought it probably had to do with the extensive cross-cultural training that Daniel and his three friends experienced. They were taken out of their home culture and context and forced to adjust to a new political structure, a new economic life, a new religious world, a new social environment, a new intellectual grid, and even a new artistic arena.

They were each given new Aramaic Babylonian names.

You might have noticed that two of their original Hebrew names ended in EL (DaniEL, MishaEL). EL is short for Elohim, the Hebrew word for God.

  • Daniel means “Elohim is my judge.”
  • Mishael means “Who is like Elohim?”

The other two names ended in YAH (HananiYAH, AzariYAH).  YAH is short for Yahveh, the covenant name for God.

  • Hananiah means “Yahveh is gracious.”
  • Azariah means “Yahveh is my helper.”

The chief eunuch gave these young men new, Aramaic Babylonian names that featured the names of the Babylonian gods Bel, Aku, Nebo or Nergal.

  • Belteshazzar probably meant “Bel will protect him.”
  • Shadrach probably meant “command of Aku.”
  • Meshach probably meant “who is like Aku?”
  • Abednego probably meant “servant of Nebo” or “servant of Nergal.”

This was only the first step in Nebuchadnezzar’s planned indoctrination of these young men. He would also make sure they became fluent in Aramaic, and skilled in the magic arts.

Part of the enticement for these young men to go along with the king’s plans was for them to be allowed a diet fit for the king himself – rich in meats, sweets and wine.  It was this enticement that Daniel objected to most of all.  He could treat all the other cultural immersion factors as academic. But if he got used to feasting like Nebuchadnezzar, he was sure that it would defile him.

Now, here is – I think – the theological focus of this chapter.  Daniel, as an Israelite, has a commandment that guided his life.  He had the Old Testament equivalent of the Great Commission.  His ancestor, Abraham, was commanded to bless the nations.

“And I will make of you an influential nation, and I will bless you and make your name important, and be a blessing (Gen 12:2 JDV).

Daniel felt personally responsible to be a positive influence upon the nation of Babylonia. But he knew that he could not make that influence if he entirely set aside his own identity as a Hebrew. They could take the Jew out of Jerusalem, but he would not allow them to take Jerusalem out of the Jew.

Herein is the missions challenge for all of us. We have each been called to serve God within a particular culture and ethno-linguistic people group.  How do we bless that culture without losing our Christian identity within it?  For Daniel, the question was how could he bless the Babylonians without totally becoming one. For Christians in 21st century anywhere, that is essentially the same challenge we face.

That was essentially the question I brought to this text as I stood with my Bible open a few days ago.  I was looking for a clue as to the structure of the chapter. I found that the same Hebrew word is repeated three times. The word drives the narrative. That word is the verb נתן (natan). It means “to give.”  It is translated with different words in English, but each time it appears, it categorizes the whole section it is in.

The first appearance of נתן is in verse 2:

“The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God.”

When the biblical author writes the story of this great tragedy, he is careful to maintain the complete sovereignty of God.  Jehoiakim failed, Judah failed, but God did not fail. Jerusalem was overrun by Gentiles because God allowed it. The temple was robbed because God gave its treasures up. The Israelites were taken captive because God made it happen. Yahveh was not pacing up and down in heaven, wondering what he could do.  History was still marching at his pace. The planet was still in his control.  When Daniel and his friends left Jerusalem, it was because God had a mission for them in Babylon.

The second appearance of נתן is in verse 9:

“God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch.”

The same God who orchestrated the events that brought Daniel and his friends to Babylon also orchestrated the relationships he had with others.  The key players who made it possible for the Hebrew men to restrict their diets ware the chief eunuch and the guard. It was not enough for Daniel and his friends to be in Babylon.  They had to demonstrate the difference between the Babylonian gods and their God.  They had to show their commitment to Yahveh.  God allowed the chief eunuch and the guard to show them favor so that they could see the difference.  They oversaw their training and it would be them who would decide whether they were worthy to be tested by the king.

The final appearance of נתן is in verse 17:

“God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom.”

Here again, we see God at work. Many of the Bibles and commentaries on this chapter emphasize the faithfulness of Daniel and his friends. They were found faithful.  But the author of this book is not just emphasizing human faithfulness.  He is demonstrating God’s involvement in the lives of these men.  These young men were highly skilled and proved themselves better than all the other candidates – not just because they were faithful to God – but because God gave them the knowledge and wisdom and skills they needed. God had a vested interest in putting these young men in positions of leadership in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.

Daniel recognized that as a child of Abraham he had the responsibility – nay, the mission to be a blessing to the nation of Babylonia.  God sovereignly orchestrated the details of world history to put him in Babylon.   God arranged the necessary relationships that enabled Daniel to remain faithful and distinctive as an Israelite despite Nebuchadnezzar’s plan to turn him into a Babylonian.  God also gave him the understanding and skills and resources he needed to succeed in his mission.

Fast forward a few thousand years. Now it is our turn. We also have a mission from God – a Great Commission from Christ. Christ has called us to make disciples of all nations.  Some of those nations might be relatively easy to reach for Christ.  But some – like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon – will require a tremendous cultural immersion.

The good news is that the same God who worked behind the scenes in Daniel’s life to make him successful in his mission is ready to help us too.

  • He is sovereign, and he can change the course of world history if necessary to place you where he wants you.
  • He knows just the right people who you need to befriend to open the doors for your discipling ministry.
  • He stands ready to give you the knowledge, skills, and resources you need to get the job done.

Maybe you have never considered serving the Lord as a missionary.  Lots of people don’t.  Lots of people think that God cannot use them to reach others for Christ.  The only thing you need to be successful as a missionary is the one thing Daniel had – the presence of God.  So, I want to remind you of what Jesus said to his disciples right after he gave them his Great Commission. He said, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mat 28:20 CSB17).

 

the big catch

Slide1

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(See Matthew 4:18-22) Imagine Jesus walking on the beach of the lake called the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers, Simon (whom he had called Peter) and Andrew his brother, throwing a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. And at that time he commanded them, “Follow me, and I promise to make you into fishers of people.” Realizing who Jesus was, they immediately left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, repairing their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him too.

Our story of the big catch begins here – not in the bustling, crowded city of Jerusalem, but in a remote beach setting in Galilee. There would never have been a big catch in Jerusalem if there had not been a command and promise by Jesus that day on the beach. These four fishermen would have caught only fish if they had not obeyed Christ’s command and trusted in his promise that day.

Slide4

(See Luke 5:1-11) But something happened once while the crowd was mobbing him so they could hear the word of God, he was standing again on the beach of Lake Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets. After getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And after he stopped speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Teacher, we worked hard all night and caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.“ He didn’t realize that Jesus was using this experience to teach them what he had promised to teach – how to fish for people. When they had obeyed him and put the net on the other side, they caught so many fish that their nets started to rip. So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. But when Simon Peter saw the miracle, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man!” Because Peter and all who were with him were stunned at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s work partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” So when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

This is the first of two lessons that Jesus taught Peter and the other disciples about fishing for people. That day, the disciples learned that God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions.

Slide5

(See John 21:4-11) On a day after Jesus’ resurrection, just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they threw it, and then they were not able to haul it in, because of the weight of the fish. John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.

This miracle is similar to the first one, but took place three years later. Jesus used this miracle to remind the disciples that they were going to be involved in the big catch soon – the people catch. The same principles of people catching are being taught by this miracle. But this incident seems to give a powerful hint as to when the big catch would take place. Why 153 fish? The Bible does not say, so we should be careful about speculating. There is an interesting coincidence. The year was 33AD. Not too many days from this incident, these disciples would be gathered together in Jerusalem as part of a larger group, waiting for Pentecost. That larger group numbered 120. 120 + 33 = 153.

Slide6

Jesus had commanded his disciples to gather in Jerusalem and to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit to manifest. Then they would know that it was time to drop their net. He had described that event as a second baptism, and reminded them that John’s baptism was in water, but this second baptism was going to be in the Holy Spirit. The lessons that Jesus had taught his disciples to get them ready for the big catch had all taken place in water. But the real catch was not going to be in water. The whole group was going to be immersed in the Holy Spirit, and the miracle would manifest. Remember the principles of the big catch: that God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions.

To put it another way, the big catch happens because God provides the hook, and his servants provide the bait. The hook is the miracle that draws the crowd. The bait is the gospel message about who Christ is and what he has done. The book of Acts demonstrates that the hook keeps changing, but the bait remains the same. The way God manifests his power to get people’s attention changes all the time, but the gospel of Jesus Christ stays the same. The pattern that we learn about in the book of Acts is not a constant repetition of Pentecost, but a people who patiently wait for the Lord to manifest his power, then seize the opportunity to let down their nets with gospel preaching.

The Jerusalem church was literally born in a day, but it happened that way because the disciples were willing to wait on the Lord to provide the location and the power, and they provided the witness.

Slide7

Another thing that we learn in the book of Acts is that this great megachurch that went from 120 to 3000 in one day, and 5000 not long afterwards – faced disaster after disaster in the years that followed. In fact, in less than forty years, this megachurch was out of business. Famine, persecution, and church conflict kept taking their toll, and finally all the Christians fled Jerusalem for Petra just prior to the siege and war that destroyed the temple in 70AD.

Slide8

But the megachurch was not God’s ultimate plan. God’s ultimate plan was for the gospel to go with these Christians as they scattered throughout the Roman empire.

God is doing the same kind of thing today. Sometimes he brings together large churches, at other times he sends people out to plant the gospel in places where there is no church. Sometimes we have great success, at other times we do not. What matters is that we stay faithful at the task.

Slide9

The fish are still out there. We may have to wait a lot for the next big catch, but God is still able to make it happen. His power is still present. He has taught us what we need to know to be involved in the next big catch. God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions. We don’t know what hook he is going to use next, but we do know what bait he has given us to use. That never changes. Paul said “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It was God’s power to save the Jews in Jerusalem, and the Greeks in Greece, and the Romans in Rome. It is God’s power to save the Filipinos, the Kiwis, the Japanese, the Malaysians, the Burmese, the Thai, the Indians, and even the Americans.

So, if you want to be ready for the next big catch, pull out your net and make sure that your presentation of the gospel is ready. Then, when God tells you where to witness, you can pull in a pile.