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Monday, July 31, 2017

The Key of David isn't a message!

Gerald Flurry, the founder and current leader of the Philadelphia Church of God, broadcasts his message to the world via The Key of David television program. Flurry claims that he and his followers constitute the "Philadelphia era" of God's Church, and that all of the other groups which attempt to adhere to the teachings of Herbert Armstrong are "Laodiceans." In other words, Christ has given his message to Flurry and the PCOG to deliver to the world.

Why did Flurry decide to call his church’s television program The Key of David? “We took that name right out of Revelation 3:7 and a couple other scriptures,” he explained in an article entitled “What is the ‘Key of David’?” (https://www.thetrumpet.com/10776-what-is-the-key-of-david)

In that same article, Flurry calls the key of David “one of the deepest truths in the entire Bible.”  He goes on to claim that “it is a message from God—the message that Jesus Christ gives His Church to deliver to this world in this end time.” Flurry then proceeds to summarize his teaching on the subject with seven bullet points (God named his message after King David, “Jesus Christ is the head of the church,” “Christ has the key,” Christ has set “an open door” before the PCOG, “No man can shut it,” PCOG has “kept His Word,” and they “have not denied His name”).

How do all of these claims square with the Bible? The short answer is:  they don’t!

Let’s take a closer look at the actual scriptures which Flurry is using to make his claims about himself, his television program and his church. In the third chapter of the book of Revelation, we read:  “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth, and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works:  behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it:  for thou has a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:7-8)

First of all, it is interesting to note that the language employed in this verse was borrowed from a passage found in the book of Isaiah. This particular prophecy foretold that Shebna (the then administrator of the palace in Jerusalem) would fall and be replaced by Eliakim. Through Isaiah, God says that he would clothe Eliakim with Shebna’s robe and commit the government into his hands. (Isaiah 22:21). He goes on to say:  “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (verse 22) Hence, Isaiah is saying that Eliakim will receive the position/power/authority which previously belonged to Shebna.

This language agrees with what Strong’s and Blue Letter Bible have to say about the Greek word translated here as "key." In their outline of the biblical usage of this word, we read:  “I. a key A. since the keeper of the keys has the power to open and to shut B. metaph. In the NT to denote power and authority of various kinds” (https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=G2807&t=KJV). In this connection, it is interesting to note that this is the same Greek word which is used to denote “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 16:19. It is likewise the same word that Christ employs in the beginning of the book of Revelation when he proclaims that he is in possession of “the keys of hell and death.” (Revelation 1:18)

Hence, just a modest amount of research clearly demonstrates that “the key of David” is not a message, but a symbol of Christ’s power and authority. Notice again in the verses that Flurry is using (Revelation 3:7-8) that it is CHRIST who possesses the key and is the one who has the ability to open and shut. Moreover, I can’t find anywhere in these scriptures where either the key or that ability to open and close is given to the Philadelphians (and they certainly aren’t given permission to give that key or ability to others). And, as for the significance of the key bearing King David’s name, doesn’t that clearly suggest that Christ is the chief representative and power within the House of David?

We will lay aside the arrogance implicit in claiming to be the Philadelphia era of God’s Church for the purposes of this article. We cannot, however, allow such a clear perversion of the obvious meaning of these rather obscure verses in the book of Revelation to go unchallenged. Once again, it appears to this writer that an Armstrongite has misapplied Scripture to himself and his followers and twisted it to reinforce his own message and agenda.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A closer look at the book of Leviticus

In my previous post, a critical part of my thesis was that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 should not be regarded as eternal and universal spiritual principles. In that post (and as part of my response to the comments which it provoked), I expressed my belief that they are best understood as being applicable to the people of ancient Israel and as components of the covenant which YHWH made with them.

Gordon's comments, however, make clear that many Christians do regard these two scriptures as binding on both themselves and all of humanity. Of course, Gordon is not alone in this view. Indeed, it would seem that a majority of Christians favor this view of these two scriptures which clearly forbid sexual relations between two men.

This is part of a debate that has been raging since the founding of Christianity as a religion:  Just how much of the Law of Moses is still applicable to people living in the 21st Century? And, more specifically, how much of that law applies to Christians?

However, rather than revisiting this as part of that larger theological debate, I thought it would be more instructive to look at the particular context of these two verses in determining whether or not they should be regarded as binding on us. In short, lets take a closer look at the book of Leviticus and see just how much of it is actually applicable to the people of our time.

Consider the following outline of the book's contents by chapter (based on both the New Living Translation and King James Version of the Bible):
1: Burnt offerings
2: Grain offerings
3: Peace offerings
4: Sin offerings
5: Sin and guilt offerings
6: Further instructions about offerings
7: More instructions about offerings and the portion of the priests
8: Ordination of priests
9: Aaron's and his sons' performance of their duties as priests
10: The failure of Aaron's sons and instructions about priestly conduct
11: Clean and unclean animals
12: Purification for women after childbirth
13: Instructions about skin diseases and contaminated clothing
14: More instructions about skin diseases and how to treat contaminated houses
15: Male and female bodily discharges
16: Detailed instructions for the observance of the Day of Atonement
17: Regulations regarding the consumption of blood
18: Prohibited sexual behaviors
19: Various prohibited behaviors
20: Punishments for various offenses
21-22: Priestly conduct and acceptable offerings
23: Festival observance
24: Oil, holy bread and appropriate punishments
25: Sabbath years and Jubilee observance
26: Blessings for obedience and punishments for disobedience enumerated
27: Redemption of things dedicated to the Lord

Now, looking over that list, how much of that material do you regard as carrying forward to us?

I think that most of us would agree that offerings and the ordination of priests are not applicable to us - that eliminates the first ten chapters of the book! A small minority of Christians and many Jews still adhere to the dietary restrictions (clean and unclean) found in Chapter 11, but the vast majority of folks have no problem eating bacon and shrimp. Most of us would agree that the instructions about purification rituals for females, the treatment of skin diseases and contaminated houses, and the instructions about bodily discharges don't have any applicability to us - that eliminates four more chapters! Even the small number of Christians and Jews who attempt to observe the Day of Atonement DO NOT follow the instructions given in Chapter 16. Jehovah's Witnesses and a few other fringe groups claim to follow the instructions regarding the consumption of blood in Chapter 17, but most folks don't have any religious objections to eating a rare steak or receiving a blood transfusion. Once again, most of us would disregard the instructions about priestly conduct and the acceptability of offerings - there goes two more chapters! For those Jews and Christians who still attempt to observe the festivals, it should be noted that they do not strictly follow the instructions given in Chapter 23 (dates, attendance at the central sanctuary, associated offerings, constructing temporary shelters out of tree branches, etc.). Most of us would agree that the instructions concerning oil, holy bread, Sabbath years, Jubilees and the redemption of things dedicated to the Lord don't have any applicability to us - three more chapters gone! I suppose we could make a philosophical case for the importance of the blessings and punishments which are enumerated in the book, but most of us would agree that these were meant to specifically apply to the Israelites.

That leaves most of us with THREE chapters to consider (18-20). Lets take a closer look at them:
Chapter 18 makes clear that YHWH expected the Israelites to NOT act like the former inhabitants of the Promised Land or the nations which would surround them there. It goes on to enumerate specifically prohibited sexual behaviors like incest, intercourse with a menstruating woman, man on man sex and bestiality.
Chapter 19 gives instructions for "the entire community of Israel." There are numerous proscriptions in this chapter which most of us would not have any problems with (e.g. not disrespecting parents, no idolatry, no stealing, no cheating, no mistreatment of the deaf and blind, etc.). Nevertheless, there are also a great many proscriptions in this chapter which most of us disregard (e.g. not harvesting the borders of fields, not mating two different kinds of animals, planting fields with two different crops, wearing blended clothing, no tattoos, etc.). In addition to these, there are instructions regarding sex with female slaves, trimming hair and harvesting fruit which most of us would regard as irrelevant.
Chapter 20 enumerates many sins/offenses which are regarded as capital offenses (things that most of us no longer regard as capital crimes). Moreover, most of us no longer regard burning, stoning and childlessness as appropriate punishments for anything.

Hence, for most of us, we are left with a few items from three chapters which we would characterize as being applicable to us today! Does that indicate to you that the principles and instructions found in the book of Leviticus were intended to have universal applicability? In fact, doesn't it make more sense for us to regard the fact that we can extract a few passages which we consider as still having applicability to us today as a fluke/coincidence?

It sure seems to me like the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that the book of Leviticus was intended for a specific time, place and people. What do you think?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Bible, Marriage and Homosexuals

As with some of the other topics related to religion and morality, many folks have wrongly assumed that the Judeo-Christian scriptures teach things about homosexuality and gay marriage which simply are not there! However, for those who are truly interested in what God's perspective on this issue might be, the traditional understanding of what those scriptures teach can be demonstrated to be too simplistic and clearly flawed.

The following statement by Focus on the Family is typical of that traditional view of the subject:
"As an evangelical Christian ministry committed to the authority of Scripture as the inspired Word of God, Focus on the Family believes that sex is given by God as an expression of love to be shared and enjoyed exclusively between a husband and wife. Further, we are convinced that the Bible leaves no room whatsoever for confusion or ambiguity where homosexual behavior is concerned. The Scripture both explicitly and implicitly regards it as falling outside of God's intention in creating man and woman as sexual beings who bear His image as male and female."
-- https://www.focusonthefamily.com

Well, that seems like a fairly straightforward statement of belief about what Scripture teaches on the subject, but I hope that the promulgators of that statement won't mind if we take our own look at what is explicitly or implicitly taught in Scripture. After all, if we are truly seeking to know God's will on the matter (as revealed in the pages of the Bible), then we shouldn't mind a thorough and impartial review of what that collection of documents has to say about it.

First of all, I think that we would find wide agreement among students of the Bible that the appropriate place to begin this study is in Genesis. In the account of creation related there, we are told that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them." (Genesis 1:27)

As we look at this verse, several questions come to mind:  Isn't this an explicit statement that both men and women were/are created in God's image? Doesn't that imply that both genders reflect God's persona? Does this story suggest that God has characteristics that we associate with both genders? In other words, is God masculine and feminine - strong and tender? And, if so, does that preclude the male gender from having any characteristics that would "normally" be associated with the female one (and vice versa)?

In the following chapter, we are told that God observed that it wasn't good for the man to be alone and decided to make a suitable companion for him. (Genesis 2:18) The author goes on to inform us that God created many different kinds of animals and brought them to Adam "to see what he would call them." (verse 19) Alas, however, we are informed that no suitable companion for the man was found among the animals. (verse 20)

As a consequence, we learn that God decided to create a woman for Adam. (verses 21-22) In other words, the solution to Adam's loneliness was another human being. Moreover, this other human being was taken from him - was literally and figuratively a part of him. (verse 23) The story concludes with the author drawing this conclusion:  "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." (verse 24)

Once again, in analyzing and interpreting the meaning of these verses, several questions come to mind:  Was this story intended to explain the phenomenon of marriage? Is the story an explicit statement about suitable human companionship? Does the story suggest/imply that man is made whole when he is reunited with that which was taken from him? or Does it imply that it is the humanity which they share that makes them suitable companions for each other? Does the story suggest that the physical act of sex makes two people one in God's sight? Is gender the critical component of the story? or Is it the fact that two individuals unite to form one? And, if gender is an essential component of the story, does that mean that it is OK for homosexuals to be alone? If so, doesn't that contradict God's original observation that it wasn't good for man to be alone? And, if this story is an explicit statement about God's view of marriage, doesn't that mean that a person is married in God's sight when he/she 1) leaves his/her parents' home, 2) commits to living with his/her spouse, and 3) engages in sexual intercourse with that person? or Does this scripture only apply to males?

It should also be noted that Jesus Christ is reported to have quoted this particular passage in his answer to a question from the Pharisees about divorce. (Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18) In that connection, it is interesting to note that Christ emphasized the fact that two people figuratively become one person as the reason that it is impossible for humans to dissolve a marriage. In other words, how can one person become two separate individuals?

Of course, my friends on the more traditional side of this question will argue that this story implies that marriage should be defined as one man and one woman. However, if that is truly what this story is suggesting, then we are faced with explaining a number of subsequent passages about marriage. In short, what are we to do with all of the scriptures which imply or explicitly talk about plural marriages? Doesn't Moses' prohibition of a man bedding/marrying both a woman and her mother or sister imply that polygamy was practiced by the Israelites? (see Leviticus 18:17-18) What about Jacob's, David's and Solomon's multiple marriages? (see Genesis 29 and 30, I Kings 11 and I Chronicles 3) And, what about Christ's parable about the ten virgins? (see Matthew 25)

Sure, we can say that God only tolerated this practice (polygamy), and that it did not represent "His" original intent for the institution. Even so, it does make us wonder what else God might be willing to tolerate for the sake of "His" people? After all, Jesus reportedly told the Pharisees that Moses had been permitted to included a provision for divorce in the law "because of the hardness of your hearts." (Matthew 19:8) Hence, while most of us would agree that the weight of scriptural evidence available to us strongly implies that God favors monogamy, it is also clear that polygamy was considered to be an acceptable practice among the ancient Hebrews.

Now we come to what my friends on the more traditional side of this question would say is the most compelling reason for characterizing gay marriage as illegitimate from a biblical perspective:  The fact that there are numerous explicit condemnations of homosexual behavior in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. They would point to Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah), Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17, I Kings 14:24, 15:12 and 22:46, II Kings 23:7, Romans 1:26-27 and I Corinthians 6:9. That's an impressive list, but the next question is obvious:  Is it accurate to portray these passages as explicitly condemning homosexual behavior?

Most biblical scholars would characterize Genesis 19 as a story about a complete moral breakdown amongst the people of these two cities. Also, the story fits into the recognized genre of stories dealing with failed hospitality that are found in numerous places in the Bible. Finally, the story is quite explicit in its account of an attempt by the men of the city to gang rape two angels - something that most theologians would have no trouble condemning. It is, however, neither implied or explicitly stated anywhere in this story that these cities were destroyed because of homosexuality.

The passages in Leviticus are very interesting in terms of the context in which they find themselves in relation to other laws. First of all, homosexuality is a modern notion - a concept that was unknown to the people of ancient Israel and the authors of these passages. These two scriptures clearly deal with sex between two men and are also clearly related to that society's notions about sex.

To the people of ancient Israel, a woman was "humbled" by a man when he had sexual intercourse with her. Thus, the notion that a man could be so "humbled" by another man was abhorrent to them.

It is also interesting to note that many of the other prohibitions which surround these two passages are no longer considered applicable in modern society (e.g. instructions pertaining to planting crops, wearing clothing and getting tattoos). Hence, one is forced to ask:  Do these passages reflect eternal spiritual principles or the societal norms of a people who lived three thousand years ago?

Likewise, a quick glance at Strong's Concordance (Blue Letter Bible - https://www.blueletterbible.org) would reveal that the scriptures in Deuteronomy and I and II Kings are dealing with male temple prostitution (another feature of life in the ancient Middle East). Check it out for yourself. Ask anyone who is knowledgeable about ancient Hebrew and the history of the people who used it. None of these passages state or imply anything approaching a blanket condemnation of homosexual behavior. Moreover, once again, most Judeo-Christian theologians would not have any problem condemning any kind of prostitution - especially any manifestation of that practice that also involved idolatry.

As for the passages from Paul's letters to the saints at Rome and Corinth, we must again look at the context - both within scripture and the times in which they were written. In his letter to the Romans, it is important to understand that Paul was speaking to them about Gentile failure to acknowledge God. This, he said, had led God to abandon them to their lusts. (1:24) People who sincerely wish to understand this passage would do well to read the entire chapter to get the proper context to the reference about same sex behavior. Likewise, the passage from I Corinthians involves a general condemnation of unrighteousness and lists numerous behaviors which would disqualify an individual from inheriting the kingdom of God.

And, before we move off of the subject of Paul's comments, we should note that what comes naturally to a heterosexual does not come naturally to a homosexual. If one is not attracted to a female, that person's perspective on the "natural use" of a female would be very different from someone who was attracted to that gender. Are the advocates of the traditional Judeo-Christian view of this subject suggesting that homosexuals should deny what is natural to them?

Finally, we would all do well to remember that Paul was not averse to giving his own opinions about social norms (appropriate dress, hair length and the role of women).  Is it reasonable to assume that his views on these subject were unaffected by having lived in the Jewish society extant in the First Century? Does anyone truly believe that Paul's views on these topics reflect God's views, and that they are applicable to life in 21st Century America?

What about the apostle's views on the institution of marriage? He wrote to the Corinthians that it would be "good for a man not to touch a woman." (I Corinthians 7:1) Nevertheless, to avoid sexual sin, he said that it would be better to marry. (verse 2) He then went on to say that married people were obligated to have sexual intercourse with each other on a regular basis so as to avoid the temptation to have sex with other people. (verses 3-5) Paul went on to say that he wished everyone could be celibate - like him (verse 7-8), but he generously concludes his comments with:  "But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." (verse 9) Does that mean that it is better for homosexuals to burn? Thankfully, Paul interjected into his commentary on marriage that he was speaking "by permission, and not of commandment." (verse 6)

To this student of the Bible, the "bottom line" on God's view of things sexual appears to be contained in the fundamental law known as the Ten Commandments. It is there that we read "Thou shalt not commit adultery." (Exodus 20:14) Does this instruction against infidelity only apply to heterosexuals? or Does God also expect homosexuals to be faithful in their commitments to other people?

In the book of Hebrews, we read that "Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whore-mongers and adulterers God will judge." (Hebrews 13:4) Does that mean all heterosexuals? Are homosexuals excluded from the "all" in this verse? And, if they are excluded, doesn't that constitute a catch-22 situation for them? or Do advocates of the traditional view expect homosexuals to deny their own natures and marry someone of the opposite sex anyway? If so, how fair would that be to the individual they end up marrying?

Is marriage (and the sexual intimacy which is a natural part of it) the melding of two individuals into one? Does the institution of marriage provide a suitable companion/partner so that an individual doesn't have to navigate this life alone? or Was marriage instituted solely for the purpose of procreation? And, if so, why do some heterosexual marriages/relationships remain childless?

Hence, to say that the Bible explicitly or implicitly labels homosexual marriage as a sin is not supported by a thorough review of those scriptures which touch on the subject. In fact, I would say that the weight of the evidence demands the same standards of commitment and fidelity which are expected of heterosexuals - and that includes the institution of marriage.