Book Review 50: Why Jesus? by Ravi Zacharias

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I must admit I did not think my first review for 2014 would be a non-fiction book. Since I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction and all my reviews reflect that truth.  Anyway, there is always a book that jumps out at you and asks to be read and reviewed.  Why Jesus by Ravi Zacharias is such a book.

Also, I have one more admission to make before I get into the review.  Ravi Zacharias is my favorite Christian apologist.  I’ve hesitated in reviewing this book because I didn’t want to have my objectivity compromised by someone you truly respect and admire.  However, I believe in reading this book has been this best thing for me because you still have to judge the book on its own merits and not about your personal feelings towards the author.

Zacharias tackles one of the biggest themes currently in Western Spirituality.  The subtitle of the book (Rediscovering His Truth In An Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality) covers a wide ground and Zacharias does an admirable job in presenting his argument for Christianity.

He explains how the New Age Movement got spiritual lineage from Eastern pantheistic religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.  The attractiveness of those religions have been craftily repackaged for Westerners who are seeking spirituality away from Christianity.

Zacharias argues that all religions are not the same and have exclusive tenets for their believers.  However, one of the effective marketing methods of the New Age Movement is that you can have spirituality without the religious and theological dogma of monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

I heard him speak about this book recently and he wanted to title the book From Oprah to Chopra.  But, the publisher decided against it and went with the aforementioned title. Zacharias devotes a couple chapters to Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra and I feel that non-Christian believers would read those chapters and see him attacking them for their embracing of New Age Spirituality.

However, I thought in reading those chapters were worth the entire price of the book.  Zacharias shows quite a bit of sympathy towards Oprah while bringing up strong arguments against some of the beliefs she had incorporated on her TV show.  While he does go after Chopra quite strong for some his views, Zacharias argues point-by-point against those beliefs in a fair manner.

What reading Why Jesus reveals  that most people have a spiritual hunger inside and are determined to seek it.  Now that we have a religious supermarket where people can choose some of this religion and a little bit of that religion unfortunately misses the mark.  Zacharias reveals that all religions have a worldview and to create a gumbo spirituality will truly not make you spiritual or religious.

In closing, I would like to write as a Christian reading and reviewing a book like this one does affirm and strength my faith.  That’s easy.  However, I believe that non-believers should give a book like this one a try. Because it isn’t always about affirmation but information.  Even though you may not believe in Christanity. Whatever your beliefs are have an origin and worldview they subscribe to. At least one should have some kind of knowledge on where your beliefs come from.

Also, I would like to write that I studied Taoism and practice Astrology before I became a Christian.  I have always been a searcher for spiritual truth and it has led down some interesting paths.  And reading a book like Why Jesus shows that knowledge and truth about different faiths is needed in order to satisfy the spiritual hunger that man has always had.

I give Why Jesus by Ravi Zacharias a highly recommended rating and a good start to my reading and reviewing year in 2014.

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Introduction to the Book of Titus

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A few years ago, I decided that I would I do online bible studies for the lesser known books of the Bible. It seems even amongst Christians, we have our favorite books of the Bible.  From the Gospels to Paul’s most popular letters (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians…etc) to Genesis and Exodus in the Torah to Psalms and Proverbs and so on.  Even though I’ve heard many pastors proclaim that we should learn and study the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation.  However, the reality is far different from that proclamation.

Well, I have taken that proclamation seriously and I did my first study on the Book of Ecclesiastes several years ago and most recently did a study of the Book of Habakkuk.  Since I have done two Old Testament books for study, I thought it is time do one on a New Testament book.

My hope for these studies is that we as believers truly begin to read the word for ourselves and apply these principles to our daily lives and truly live out faith in an honest and unashamed way for a world that needs to see authentic Christianity.

For the next three weeks, I will post the Book of Titus one chapter at a time.  Well, there are only three chapters and the entire book can be read in about 30 minutes.   Here’s a introduction to the study of Titus:

The letter of Titus was written by Paul to a young protege named Titus somewhere between AD 62-64 on the island of Crete.  It has been considered that Paul did a fourth missionary journey to Crete, but it was not recorded in the Book of Acts.

As a result, there have been some critics who have questioned the authenticity of Paul’s letter to Titus.  However, the letter of Titus has strong evidence that it was written by Paul and theology of the letter is aligned with Paul’s doctrine.

The theme of Titus is the inseparable link between faith and practice, belief and behavior.

–The letter covers the church’s need of authentic leadership and how that can be destroyed by false teachers. {Titus 1:1-16}

–True leaders live by the gospel and their actions reflect their faith. {Titus 2:1-3:8}

–Discipline false teachers and troublemakers.  Cut them out of the gospel in order to preserve the foundational truths of the faith.  {Titus 3:9-15}

Paul wanted to give Titus instruction on what a healthy church should act and look like. This lesser known epistle is relevant to our day because I believe we accepted entertainment and number-counting as being authentic expressions of our faith.  Instead of equipping believers how to live out being a Christian in world that has decided to turn away from Him.

See you next week!

Book Review 35: The Unspeakable by Tessa Stockton

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My first review of the new year is from a new novelist I had not read before. I enjoy discovering new authors and trying out someone outside of the mainstream of contemporary fiction is one of the great pleasures of reading fiction.

The Unspeakable by Tessa Stockton is a first-person narrative about Sylvia Abbott’s ordeal in Colombia’s guerilla war. The story focuses mostly on her relationship with her torturer, Horacio Botello AKA Puma.

Sylvia travels from her home in Portland, Oregon to Colombia to visit her brother, Spencer, who has been living there as a language instructor.  However, when she arrives her reunion with Spencer doesn’t go as planned and Sylvia becomes suspicious about her brother’s behavior and whom he is involved with. Her curiosity leads to being captured and tortured as a political prisoner.

There are several twists and turns in this thriller and I found the relationship between Sylvia and Puma the most intriguing parts of the novel. I thought their relationship was the most developed parts of the story and if the author could have focused the entire plot around those two characters the novel would have been more vibrant.

Moreover, I thought the pacing and rhythm of the story to be somewhat uneven.  Some chapters ended rather quickly and other chapters continued longer than I expected.  As soon as got into the flow of the story, the plot jerked in a different direction.

In closing, I felt the author knew the various aspects about torture, the politics of Colombia and the belief that anyone can be redeemed from a faith based perspective.  Ultimately, I wanted more from the story and didn’t quite get it.  Overall, I thought The Unspeakable was a decent read  and will keep an eye on Tessa Stockton’s works in the future.

Habakkuk 3:1-19 (Habakkuk’s Prayer)

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O Lord, I have heard the report of you,

and your work, O Lord, do I fear.

In the midst of the years revive it;

in the midst of the years make it known;

in wrath remember mercy.

God came from Teman,

and the Holy One from Mount Paran.

His splendor covered the heavens,

and the earth was full of his praise.

His brightness was like the light;

rays flashed from his hand;

and there he veiled his power.

Before him went pestilence,

and plague followed at his heels.

He stood and measured the earth;

he looked and shook the nations;

then the eternal mountains were scattered;

the everlasting hills sank low.

His were the everlasting ways.

I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction;

the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.

Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?

Was your anger against the rivers,

or your indignation against the sea,

when you rode on your horses,

on your chariot of salvation?

You stripped the sheath from your bow,

calling for many arrows.

You split the earth with rivers.

The mountains saw you and writhed;

the raging waters swept on;

the deep gave forth its voice;

it lifted its hands on high.

The sun and moon stood still in their place

at the light of your arrows as they sped,

at the flash of your glittering spear.

You marched through the earth in fury;

you threshed the nations in anger.

You went out for the salvation of your people,

for the salvation of your anointed.

You crushed the head of the house of the wicked,

laying him bare from thigh to neck.

You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors,

who came like a whirlwind to scatter me,

rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret.

You trampled the sea with your horses,

the surging of mighty waters.

I hear, and my body trembles;

my lips quiver at the sound;

rottenness enters into my bones;

my legs tremble beneath me.

Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble

to come upon people who invade us.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength;

he makes my feet like the deer’s;

he makes me tread on my high places.

(Habakkuk 3:2-19 ESV Bible)

The prayer of Habakkuk is one of the finest Hebrew poems in the entire Old Testament. It was written in the form of a psalm and was probably designed to be sung by Levites in the Temple services (1 Chron 25:1-8).

It becomes the capstone of the book and reveals the triumph of faith in the face of adversity. It is a fitting conclusion to the theme of the book. As such, it records a touching and heartwarming example of the manner in which the just can triumph over the adversities of life. Habakkuk looked beyond the vicissitudes of daily life and the threat of invasion to a time when God would right the wrongs of mankind and reward His servants for their righteousness. (pp.50-51 from Everyman Bible Commentary, Habakkuk and Zephaniah by Cyril J. Barber)

As the writer of the above passage stated that Habakkuk’s prayer is one the best Hebrew poems in the Old Testament, I recently heard a good friend tell me the exact same thing.  She remembered this prayer from her seminary studies and referred back to it from time to time.

I must admit I was surprised by her comment because in all the years I’ve been a Christian, I had never heard anyone make that kind of comment.  Or this prayer being mentioned from the pulpit and the entire book of Habakkuk being taught to the congregation.

There were a few things that stood out from the prophet’s prayer.  In verses 3:3-15, Habakkuk refers back to when God freed the Israelities from the Pharaoh of Egypt in the Book of Exodus. Because, the people of Judah were under control by the Babylonians, Habakkuk wanted God to reveal his power like he did in the aforementioned sentence.

What that section of the prayer revealed to me is the interconnectedness of the entire Bible.  Habakkuk referred back to the earliest time of God’s story for what He did for his people under dire circumstances. And he foreshadowed in Habakkuk 2:4, a key principle of Paul’s ministry in the New Testament.  Who knew this obscure book had this kind of connection in the Bible and makes me realize that we should read and study God’s entire word not just what’s popular in our current form of Christianity.

Second, in verses 3:4, 9, 13, the prophet inserted the word Selah. The only other place that word is mentioned is in the Book of Psalms. It revealed that Habakkuk’s prayer was meant to be set to music.  Also, that insertion was to give worshippers time for reflection.

Hmm…reflection.  Do we reflect in our society?  Do we really take time to stop and think about God’s word and what we are to learn from it?  Or do we consume it and move on to the next sermon or bible study?  It seems in a culture of information, there’s not time for any kind of reflection and I believe that is one of the downsides of having access to almost everything we want at our fingertips or a click.

God’s word demands reflection especially when bad things happen in our lives. Prayer is that time for reflection more than any other time in our busy lives. If we don’t pray and reflect, how can we ever get closer to Him and draw on his strength when we needed the most.

Lastly in verses 17-19, Habakkuk’s closing was best describe like this:

As one compares the beginning of the book of Habakkuk with its closing, it is clear that outward circumstances had not changed. Only the prophet had changed. His former bewilderment and confusion had given way to peace and trust in the Lord. It was the Lord who then filled the prophet’s vision and satisfied his soul. Although Habakkuk’s questions had not been answered, his doubts had been resolved. The vision God had given him of His plan and purpose had met the deepest needs of the heart.

Habakkuk’s faith and trust in the Lord illustrate the way Christians today should face adversity. He did not give way to fatalism, nor did he adopt a stoic attitude. He avoided the pitfall of passive resignation as well. Though his inward parts trembled, his attitude was one of submission to the will of God, and he exercised active dependence upon Him. (pp. 62 & 64, Everyman Bible Commentary, Habakkuk and Zephaniah by Cyril J. Barber)

Those above passages were well written and reveals to me a big reason why unbelievers have problem with the God of the Bible and refuses to believe in Him.

Trust.

How can I trust a God that has allowed slavery, oppression, and the wealthy exploit the poor throughout human existence? How can I trust some entity that is unseen and will probably never to get see even though his believers keep talking about a second coming?  It’s easier to trust in a government that can give me assistance when I’m in economic trouble or create laws to right societal wrongs.

Well as a believer, I can not give you the most reasoned and logical answers to satisfy your doubts.  However, in reading Habakkuk and being a Christian for the past decade I’ve learned the change comes from within.  Being a religious person means changing yourself not other people.  I can’t change my wife or my children or my friends or that other ethnic group or rich people and as along as you always focus on the outward things of society, I believe you will never or ever be able to trust in God.

As long as you trust in yourself and your own abilities, you will never be able to cross that bridge to trust in an unseen God.  But, the great thing about this God is that he will receive you with open arms even if you have rejected him repeatedly. That, I can speak from direct experience.  And after reading Habakkuk is a reminder of this principle.

I would like thank everyone who read this study on the Book of Habakkuk and I hope this little obscure book from an obscure prophet is made a little more known to all of us who believe in Him and even those who don’t.

God Bless!

Habakkuk: An Introduction

Last summer, I did an online Bible Study on the Book of Ecclesiastes(my favorite book) and now I’m going to write and post a study on the Book of Habakkuk.

Let’s face it, many Christians when they open their bibles don’t go looking for the Book of Habakkuk for their reading, studying or devotion time. Shucks, I don’t think we can even pronounce his name correctly!

Even among serious biblical students and theologians, Habakkuk has been overlooked and ignored.  Here’s an example:

“When a well-worn Bible is allowed to fall open at random, the possibility of its opening at the Book of Psalms or the Gospel of John or one of the Epistles is good. Even among zealous Bible students, the books of Habakkuk and Zephaniah are seldom read. One is tempted with the thought if they were somehow surreptitiously removed from the Bible, they would not be missed.”  (from the preface, Everyman Bible Commentary: Habakkuk and Zephaniah by Cyril J. Barber)

My hope for this study is to show that Habakkuk is an important book of the Bible and an integral part of God’s story to us. Also, that it would be missed if it was suddenly removed from the Bible.

Habakkuk is the eighth book in the Twelve books of the Minor Prophets from the Old Testament. However, little is known about the prophet apart from this book. Scholars believe his prophecy can be dated around 609 B.C., which is at the end of King Josiah’s reign (640-609 BC) to the beginning of King Jehoiakim’s reign (609-598 BC). And to get the historical background of Habakkuk’s prophecy, I would suggest reading 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34:1-36:4.

It’s been said that Habakkuk’s name in Hebrew means “to embrace” or “to wrestle with.” Well, if that’s true then after reading the aforementioned scriptures of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles will give you a good idea of what the prophet was trying to embrace or actually wrestle with during that time.  Here’s a sample:

“The peace that had accompanied the reign of Josiah had allowed the people to enjoy a greater degree of prosperity than had been possible for many years. In a real sense they thought the new era would last indefinitely. The realities that faced them, however, could not have been anticipated by either the political liberals or the religiously-minded conservatives.

The power of Assyria had collapsed. Political supremacy belonged to Egypt. Strong political ties, however, had been established with the emerging kingdom of Bablyon. Because she was a vassal of Egypt and a friend of Babylon, it seemed as if nothing could threaten the progress of Judah’s prosperity.

The nation owed its prosperity to God’s favoring of one man, Josiah (2 Kings 22:1, 12-17). Josiah had led the nation in several notable reforms. Although those reforms touched only the outward observances of the people, God said He would honor Josiah for his faithfulness (2 Kings 22:18-20).

The leaders of the people ignored the spiritual reasons for their material prosperity and thought God’s favor could be enjoyed without interruption. It was not long before greed and avarice became prevalent. The rich exploited the poor. Justice favored the wealthy. Those who were God-fearing found themselves oppressed by an ever-increasing number whose desire for power led them to secure, by one means or another, those positions that met their personal (and often pathological) needs.

It was amid such conditions that God revealed His will to Habakkuk. Turbulent times lay ahead for the Lord’s people. The message Habakkuk was told to proclaim was one that would please neither the Left nor the Right. The delusions of the decision makers were to be dashed to pieces before the harsh reality of God’s sovereign justice.” (pp. 13-14, Everyman Bible Commentary, Habakkuk and Zephaniah by Cyril J. Barber)

It is interesting that writer mentioned politics several times in that previous passage. I know after this past presidential election, there are many Christians who are done with politics.  But, it’s unavoidable and whether in Habakkuk’s or our time, we have to deal with it and ultimately trust that God is in control no matter what happens politically.

I will confess this was the impetus for doing this study. The things I’ve heard and read after the election has shocked and saddened me. For political commentators like Glenn Beck saying “God really sucks right now” to States wanting to secede from the Union to some Christians proclaiming the rapture is finally coming since Barack Obama has been re-elected.

But, after reading Habakkuk has shown me that there’s truly nothing new under the sun and human nature doesn’t change.  And what happened over 2600 years ago during the prophet’s time is relevant to our time today.

The prophet asks the question to God that I believe most Christians and non-Christians would ask Him if they had the chance: If God is so good, why does he allow evil and injustice to happen?

I will assert this question not being answered satisfactorily is the biggest barrier from non-believers into becoming believers. On the surface and even logically, it doesn’t make sense that God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and omniscient could allow evil or injustice to get by without him stopping it.

Well in the Book of Habakkuk, the prophet complains to God twice and God answers him both times.  God’s answers range from indifference to actually what he was doing and going to do for Judah. And Habakkuk’s response to God’s answers is something we as Christians should apply in our lives and give non-believers at least an intellectual understanding of who God is even if you don’t agree with it.

There are only three chapters in Habakkuk and can be read in within twenty minutes. However for the next three Saturdays, I will post in this order:

1) Habakkuk 1:2-11 (His 1st complaint and God’s response)

2) Habakkuk 1:12-2:20 (His second complaint and God’s response)

3) Habakkuk 3:1-19 (His prayer)

I believe if you read the Book of Habakkuk in this structure you will get the full context and meaning of this obscure book and its importance for us today.

Finally, I believe this song by Chris Tomlin is an appropriate theme for this study.

See you next week!