Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Uni and I have been reading through the book of Ezekiel. We’ve also been receiving pictures or the damage done by hurricane Ike along the Texas Gulf Coast. We both noted the eerie similarities between Ezekiel’s tirades against Tyre and the pictures of Galveston and Bolivar that we saw.

“How you have perished, O inhabited one,
from the seas, O renowned city,
which was once mighty on the sea,
she and her inhabitants …
Now the coastlands will tremble
on the day of your fall;
yes the coastlands which are by the sea
will be terrified at your passing.”
“ … When I shall make you a desolate city,
when I shall bring up the deep over you,
and the great waters will cover you. …” (Ezekiel 26:17-19),.
“ … I will scrape her debris from her
and make her a bare rock” (26:4).

In chapter after chapter, verse after verse, Ezekiel describes the coming doom of this city. Of course, Tyre is not the only one; other cities, nations and empires are to be destroyed.

The book of Revelation picks up the language in its 18th chapter, to describe the destruction of the city of Babylon, “the great whore” (17:1), in the last days.

Now I’m not saying, even implying, that these prophecies have anything to do with Galveston or hurricane Ike. But it does get me to thinking.

America has suffered some horrible calamities in the last few years: the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2006; Gustav and Ike in 2008; horrible forest fires; droughts; floods. And on top of these “natural” disasters, there are the man-made ones: the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11/2001; the following unending and unendable wars in the Middle East; the collapse of many parts of our market economy.

In Ezekiel and all the prophets, in fact in all of the Old Testament, we’re told that God, the LORD, is behind calamities like these. All are “acts of God,” sent for various reasons, often, though not always, as judgment for specific sins and crimes.

Is America, then falling under the judgment of God? Can we tie these disasters to specific sins, as the prophets often do? There are some, both on the right and the left, who would say yes to that question and have given their opinion quickly after each disaster.

Those on the right tell us that God is smiting American for her sins of homosexuality, abortion and generally “forgetting God,’ etc.

Those on the left give more “secular” causes: hurricanes are due to our failure to do something about global warming; terrorist attacks due to our arrogant foreign policy, etc.

Perhaps both sides have some element of truth in their rants; perhaps neither does. Maybe nothing was done to deserve these disasters.

Interestingly we find some close similarities, In Ezekiel’s tirade against Tyre (Ezekiel 26-28) and John’s against Babylon (Revelation 17-18). While both are accused of various sins, which we could list, the descriptions of both are very modern sounding. They are cities of trade. And they trust in their wealth! They have become arrogant. Three times the prince of Tyre is told, “ … your heart is lifted up” (Ezekiel 28:2, 5, 17). Babylon herself is quoted as claiming, “I sit as a queen and am not a widow, and will never see mourning” (Revelation 18:7). Sounds a lot like the good old USA, doesn’t it?

As I read in the Bible the descriptions of the wealth and trade of these two cities and of the destruction that falls on them, I have pictures in my mind: the destruction of New Orleans, the planes slamming into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center; the panic and grief on the faces of many who have lost so much in these events and in the market failures. I see our leaders and presidential candidates making promises of how they’re going to fix everything.

Is this the same kind of arrogance?

However, in Luke 13:1-5, Jesus gives a different interpretation of disasters and demands a different sort of response from His hearers.

When some report an atrocity committed by Pilate on some Galilean worshippers, He gives this comment: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all the Galileans because they suffered this? I tell you no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (verses 2, 3). Then He picks up the story of 18 who were killed when a tower collapsed and comes to the same conclusion.

He seems to be saying that we should not immediately leap to false conclusions about the reasons for disasters. We should not assume that those on whom disaster falls, in some way deserve it. We should rather take a lesson from these events. We all need to repent, to change our minds. About what? I believe we are being told to recognize that we all are under the judgment of God, and without Him we will face tribulation, whether in this life or the one to come.

Bill Ball

Monday, September 15, 2008


When I taught Bible Study Methods at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, I would assign different texts of Scripture in order to teach my students the various steps and methods of interpretation. I often used Revelation 5 for teaching how to do an analytical outline. I taught them to look for major breaks, pivots or changes in direction in the text.

Most students would break the chapter at verse 9: “And they sang a new song, saying …” I’d ask why they broke it there and frequently I’d be told, “That’s where the worship begins.”

“Are you sure?” I’d ask. Sometimes I’d receive a blank stare, so I’d repeat, “Are you sure that’s where the worship begins?”

“Yes. Verse 9!” I’d be told, sometimes indignantly.

“Well, what’s going on in verse 8?” I’d ask, a bit impatiently. “Read it!”

So they would. ”When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

“Where does the worship begin?” I’d ask again.

“Oooh!” Verse 8!” was the usual reply.

[I’ve done this dozens of times and nearly every time the dialogue was nearly the same, as if it were rehearsed.]

Now, why do I tell this story? Because it shows that most of us don’t really know what worship is. Like my students, we have a very narrow definition. We think it’s singing in church. All that stuff about falling down and harps and incense and prayers is not considered worship.

Maybe we need to consider some definitions (always a good place to start).

Webster’s 10th Collegiate Dictionary gives the following definitions that would seem to fit our usual usages:
n. “reverence offered a divine or supernatural power; also: an act of expressing such reverence”
vt. “to honor or reverence as a divine being or supernatural power”
vi. “to perform or take part in worship or an act of worship”

One difficulty we have is that there is no exact one-word equivalent of our English word in either the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament. The words usually translated as “worship” are Shachah in Hebrew and proskuneo in Greek, both of which in their narrowest definition mean “bow down to” or “prostrate oneself before (someone).” Sometimes they are used as signs of respect for a human being. Obviously, while bowing down may be an act of worship, it can be something other, and our idea of worship includes more than this.

There are other words in both testaments that describe worship. Abad in Hebrew and douleuo in Greek, usually translated “serve”; Yare (Hebrew) and phobeomai (Greek), translated “fear.” All of these could be translated as “worship.”

Actually, I’ve found at least 14 different word groups in the Greek New Testament that describe worship, all with slightly different nuances or aspects. (There are undoubtedly many more; I just haven’t found them yet; but I’ll keep looking.)

Worship, it seems, is much broader than our narrow categories of activities, ancient or modern. It is both personal and collective. It is both internal and external. I believe our problems and conflicts involving worship are mainly due to our narrow focus, not only on a particular aspect, but also on style.

It is interesting that four of the major passages in the New Testament that discuss worship describe what worship is not, as well as what worship is.

In John 4, when Jesus presented Himself to a Samaritan woman He had met at the well, she seemed to be trying to escape His claims by pointing out the difference in their two “denominations” – a difference in the place of worship. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (verse 20).

Jesus said to her, “Women, believe Me, and hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (verses 21-24).

Amazingly, in this brief dialogue, Jesus tells this woman two things that worship is not: It is not confined to a particular location and it is not to be done in ignorance.

And He tells her some positives: It is to be done in spirit and truth. In spirit because God Himself is Spirit. It is a communion between the spiritual aspect of our nature, that “God-conscious” aspect of our being, and God. But this does not mean our minds are to be disconnected. The word truth implies that our worship must be conformed to reality. Elsewhere (John 17:17) Jesus identifies truth with the Word of God.

But the most beautiful thing about this passage is the wonderful fact that the Father is seeking such people to be His worshipers. He desires our worship!

In Acts 17, where Paul was going head-to-head with the philosophers at Athens, he begins with the Athenian altar “to an Unknown God” and explains to them who this God is. “ … what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (verse 23).

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things” (verses 24, 25).

He explains what worship is not: It is not to be done in ignorance; it is not confined to man-made location, it is not a tangible, that is, not a matter of touch -- not something done with our hands. We do not fulfill a need of God’s by our worship – He has no needs!

Verse 29: “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” God is not the product of our design and craftsmanship. It is the other way around. Therefore, we are not to worship Him through representational art. But positively: “And He made from one man every nation of mankind … that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (verses 26, 27). He has revealed enough of Himself that He expects to be sought (cf. Romans 1:18-21 – the purpose of natural revelation).

And it is only through Christ that He can be found and worshiped. “ … God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (verses 30, 31).

In Philippians 3:2, 3, Paul warns his readers of the dangers of falling into the Old Testament rituals advocated by his adversaries. “Beware of the dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilators; for we are the (true) circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and do not put confidence in the flesh.”

Worship is not a ritual of the flesh in which we can take confidence, in this case, circumcision.

Worship is rather conducted in God’s Spirit (cf. John 4:23, 24). It is a glorying (literally “boasting”) in Christ.

I believe he is telling his readers that genuine worship cannot be tied to any mechanical ritual, but must be a communion between His Spirit and ours.

The glorying may well speak of outward verbal expression.

In Hebrews 12:18-28, the anonymous author devotes much material to telling his readers what worship is not.

The readers of this book were apparently Hebrew Christians who because of persecution were tempted to turn back to Old Testament rituals where they apparently felt safer. The book is full of exhortations and warnings based on the fact that in Christ we have something better.

In verses 18-21, he tells them: “For you have not come to … “ and describes the fearfulness of Mount Sinai and the giving of the Old Testament Law.

In verses 22-24, he tells them what they have come to: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” They were no longer to be tied to a fearful religion – that of the Law; rather they belong to a religion of freedom and salvation through the work of Christ.

After some serious warnings in verses 25-27, he tells them: “Therefore since we are receiving an unshakeable Kingdom, let us have grace by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.”

All of the above passages point us to the fact that externals of style or location, even of ritual are relatively unimportant. Worship is an interaction with the Triune God and its starting point is the spirit. It is obviously expressed outwardly and verbally and is to be done to His honor and glory. It is for His satisfaction, not ours. He doesn’t need it, but might I say, we do!

Bill Ball

Monday, September 1, 2008


In Homiletics (preaching) classes that I took at seminary, I was taught to always look for the “big idea.” Our instructor, Haddon Robinson, insisted that each passage in the Bible could be reduced to one big idea, a simple sentence with a subject and a predicate that sums up the whole text, whether it’s a verse, a paragraph, a chapter or even a book. This became a major tool for me, not only in preaching or teaching, but also in my study of Scriptures.

I began to wonder if it would be possible to find the big idea of the whole Bible. Is there some overarching theme under which all the Scripture can be subsumed?

Then one day while studying the book of Habakkuk, I found it! There in the middle of the LORD’s reply to Habakkuk’s gripes, stood this verse: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

This is it: the big idea of the Bible – God’s ultimate purpose in history! Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was not the first to make this discovery!

And this thought is not only found in Habakkuk, it’s scattered throughout the Old Testament, often popping up in places we’d least expect it. “But indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of God” (Numbers 14:21). The context is the LORD’s pronouncement of judgment on the whole generation of Israel that refused to enter the promise land.

“And blessed be His glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and amen” (Psalm 72:19) – a prayer of Solomon.

“They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

“They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD’, for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, declares the LORD, for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). This is included in God’s promises of His future New Covenant.

So let me try to state it in brief summary: God’s purpose in history (creation, redemption) is to bring about in His creatures the knowledge of His glory.

And, of course, this theme is carried over into the New Testament.

Look at Jesus’ prayer in John, “ . . . Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (17:1). “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (17:5). He claimed that He had glorified the Father. “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You had given Me to do” (17:4).

How God is fulfilling His purpose is spelled out in clearer detail.

“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the Name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

God the Father is glorified by the exaltation of His Son!

So how do we fit in God’s master plan?

Our place, our task is, of course to contribute to that glorification. By our worship, by our witness, but most of all by our becoming more and more conformed to Christ.

“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).

I believe the Westminster Confession had it right: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

It’s not about me; it’s about Him! The paradox is that the more we seek His glory, the more we find our own purposes, our own selves and our greatest pleasure.

Bill Ball