John T. Willis

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Indispensability of Festivals

As we continue our journey through the Book of Exodus, the biblical composer stops at mid-course in the narrative to "highlight" three significant "festivals" commemorating God's mighty acts involved in the exodus from Egypt. Read this account in Exodus 12:1-13:16. These three "festivals" are inseparably connected with the events prepared in the story of the ten plagues and described in the crossing of the Red Sea in the following narrative in Exodus 13:17-15:21. Here is a synposis of these three "festivals."

1. Passover. 12:1-14, 43-51. According to the narrator, Yahweh gives Moses and the Israelites four instructions concerning the Passover. (a) Each Israelite is to commemorate this festival household on the first month, the fouteenth day of the Jewish year [our calendar in April]. (b) The Israelites are to slaughter a one year old male lamb, take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood of the lamb, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood. When the Lord passes through the land of Egypt and brings the fatal plague on the firstborn children, he will "pass over" the houses that have the blood on the lintel and the doorposts and thus spare those children. 12:1-10, 21-23. (c) The Israelites are to eat the lamb roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and "bitter herbs" (12:8), symbolizing the "bitter" or "misery" life the Israelites experienced for more than 400 centuries in Egypt. (d) This "celebration" or "festival" is encouraged for all Israelites and foreigners as long as the male Israelites are circumcised. 12:43-49.

2. Unleavened Bread. 12:15-20; 13:3-10. This festival contains two instructions. (a) The worshippers are to commemorate this festival on the first month from the fourteenth to the twenty-first days. 12:18. (b) The worshippers are to eat "unleavened bread" to symbolize that the Israelites had to be ready to flee from Egypt at any moment when God sent the plague through the land. 12:11.

3. Consecration of the Firstborn. 13:11-16. This is a specific instruction connected with the Passover and Unleavened Bread. Instead of killing the firstborn children, Yahweh provides firstborn animals as sacrificial substitutes for children to "redeem" these children.

There are two important purposes for these [and other biblical] festivals.

1. A festival is a recurring "remembrance" or "commemoration" of God's mighty acts in the past. 12:14. Such a "remembrance" is not just a "calling into mind," but a "dramatic re-living" of the mighty acts of God before the entire assembly or congregation of believers. Thus, the Israelites were to "dramatically re-live" every year that God "passed over" the firstborn children of the Israelites when God plagued the children of the Egyptians, that the Israelites had to flee from Egyptian slavery in haste, and that God gave sacrificial animals instead of children.

2. The intention of every festival is to "arouse the curiosity of the children" as a means of teaching them how God worked in history and continues to history as they grow and develop spiritually. 12:26-27; 13:8-9, 14. Children are supposed to play an important place and function in Christian worship services.

Exodus 12:29-42 relate a continuation of the narrative.
At midnight, Yahweh strikes down all the firstborn of the Egyptians, and commands Moses and Aaron to begin the exodus out of slavery. 12:29-32.
The Egyptians instruct the Israelites to leave the land of Egypt, and the Israelites go from Rameses to Succoth. 12:33-39.
The narrator tells the hearer and reader that the Israelites had lived in Egypt 430 years. 12:40-42.

Festivals are very important. We have treasured festivals: the Lord's Supper, Easter, Christmas. Also national and family festivals: July 4, Memorial Day, family reunions, and many others. I hope to talk about many of these festivals in forthcoming blogs.

Right now, think about the importance of festivals, celebrations, commemorations. What are some of yours that are precious to you? What is significant about yours? Share these with your family and friends and churches and communities and cities. Tell me your stories. I would love to hear about them.

John Willis


Occasionally, one of my students tells me that his or her roommate sometimes gets so involved in his or her assignment or DVD or TV program that she or he is completely obblivious to everything that is taking place around that person. My student reports that I talk to my roommate, but he or she has no idea that I said anything.

When I was working on my dissertation, my office was in a room set apart from the rest of my house so I could get some type of privacy so I could concentrate on my research and writing. Every now and then, I would come out of my "hidden place" and spend some time with the rest of the family. One evening, I "burst into" their room, and everybody jumped, and one of them even turned a cup of hot chocolate on the rug. They were all watching a TV program about Batman or Superman or something similar, and they were "totally engrossed" in the story. They had no idea that I or any else was anywhere around. SO, when I "burst into" their room, suddenly they were shocked.

From the time that one of my grandchildren was approximately four years of age, she became enthralled with art--and she was very good--even at four years old. Through the years, a person would often come up behind her and say something to her, and she had no idea that anyone was anywhere around. She was TOTALLY ENGROSSED.

In one sense, ENGROSSMENT could be a bad things. All of us should be alert to and aware of the words and ideas and thoughts and concerns of others--and I all all for that. BUT, ENGROSSMENT can also be very valuable for the spiritual development of godly people--individually and collectively. Let me paint and picture, and tell me how you respond.

Luke 5:1-11 relates an incident in Jesus' life when he told Peter and James and John to fish at a certain place in the lake of Gennesaret. Peter and his partners had fished all night. They were tired. They caught nothing. They were washing their nets to prepare for the next night. They faced the hot day ahead, when their wives and their children would probably come home and be disappointed by their lack of success. Jesus was a carpenter, and they were experienced fisherman. Undoubtedly, they were getting on one another's nerves. We have had many days like this. And then, this "carpenter" tells these "fishermen" to fish at a certain spot on this lake IN THE DAYTIME, NOT AT NIGHT. Peter was not happy about Jesus' request, but he says: "If YOU say so, I let let down the nets." When this happened, "they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break." Peter, James, and John quickly called their partners and filled their boat and another boat to come help them bring in all these fish. Then Peter fell down at Jesus' knees and said, "Go way from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." But Jesus replied: "Go not be afraid: from no on you will be catching people."

NOW, think for a moment. What happened on this occasion? Peter and James and John were frustrated, disappointed, getting on one another's nerve, tired. But when they did what Jesus told them, SUDDENLY, they forgot ALL ABOUT their frustration and their differences and their weariness, and NOW they FOCUSED on one thing: bringing in the fish. They were ENGROSSED by the situation before them. AND THEN--Jesus taught them a lesson--THIS can happen if you will do what I say and "catch people."

Is there a lesson for us today? In our churches, what goes on day in and day out? We do not like the preacher or the elders or the staff or the teachers or another person in the church. We are frustrated and tired and disappointed and get on one another's nerves. What if, TOGETHER, we FOCUSED on serving others and loving others and bringing others to Christ? THEN, what would happen? We might become ENGROSSED--and our headaches and our problems and our distractions might be put on the "back burner."

How do you respond? Do you know a friend or a family member or someone in your church that is ENGROSSED? Are you ENGROSSED? Share your stories with your friends and neighbors. This is fun and expanding. Let me know what you think.

John Willis

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Brief Walk through the Ten Plagues

[*NOW--before I begin this blog, and before you correct me, and before you laugh too loud, I realize that I made a BOO BOO in my previous blog. Do not tell me why. I could give you all kinds of "reasons" or "excuses." I JUST FLAT MADE A BOO BOO!!! Did you see it? I said: GOLDILOCKS and the Seven Dwarfs. What a laugh!!! NO!!! NO!!! NO!!! It is SNOW WHITE and the Seven Dwarfs. PUHLEESE forgive me. John Willis*]

We have devoted several blogs on the Ten Plagues in Exodus 7:14-11:10, emphasizing certain important issues in this section of the Hebrew Bible. NOW, let's take a brief walk through each of the Ten Plagues.

1. Water to Blood--7:14-25. The Lord commands Moses to go to Pharaoh "in the morning" as Pharaoh is going out to the Nile River, and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go in the wilderness to worship Yahweh. When Pharaoh refuses, Yahweh instructs Moses to tell Aaron to take his staff and stretch out his hand over the rivers, canals, ponds, and pools of water in Egypt, and Yahweh will turn this into blood. Moses and Aaron obey Yahweh in doing this. All the fish die, a terrible smell ensues, and the Egyptians could not drink any water. But the magicians of Egypt do the same thing "by their secret arts." Pharaoh's heart remains hardened, and refuses to obey Yahweh's orders.

2. Frogs--8:1-15. The Lord tells Moses to go to Pharaoh [apparently in his palace], and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go in the wilderness or else Yahweh will plague the whole land of Egypt with frogs. Yahweh brings this plague, but the magicians of Egypt do the same thing "by their secret arts." Pharaoh goes to Moses and promises him that Pharaoh will allow the Israelites to go in the wilderness if Yahweh will remove the plague of frogs. Yahweh agrees, but Pharaoh hardens his heart, and refuses to let the Israelites go.

3. Gnats--8:16-19. The Lord instructs Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his staff and strike the dust of the earth so that it may become gnats. Aaron does this and gnats swarm over the land of Egypt. The magicians of Egypt try to produce gnats also, but they could not do so. They rush to Pharaoh, saying: "This is the finger of God." But Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and refused to let the Israelites go.

4. Flies--8:20-32. The Lord commands Moses to go to Pharaoh "in the morning" as Moses goes out to the Nile River, and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go in the wilderness or else Yahweh will plague the land of Egypt with flies. Yahweh sends flies among the Egyptians, but not among the Israelites in the land of Goshen to prove that Pharaoh may know that Yahweh is "in the land" of Egypt. When Yahweh sends the flies, Pharaoh offers Moses two alternate proposals: (1) Sacrifice to Yahweh "in the land"--Moses refject this; so Pharaoh proposed: (2) I will let you sacrifice to Yahweh but do not go far away. Responding to the latter, Yahweh agrees to removes the flies. But Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let the Israelites go.

5. Livestock Diseased--9:1-7. The Lord tells Moses to go to Pharaoh [apparently in his palace], and tell him to let the Israelites go in the wilderness or else Yahweh will strike the livestock of the Egyptians with a "deadly pestilence," but will not affect the Israelites. This occurs, but the heart of Pharaoh is hardened, and refuses to let the Israelites go.

6. Boils--9:8-12. The Lord instructs Moses and Aaron to throw soot in the air in the sight of Pharaoh and become fine dust and cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt. This happens the even the magicians of Egypt suffer greatly. But Pharaoh's heart is hardened and refuses to let the Isrealites go.

7. Hail--9:13-35. The Lord commands Moses to go to Pharaoh "in the morning" [here the text does not specify WHERE Pharaoh was at this time], and tells Pharaoh to let the Israelites go in the wilderness or else Yahweh will send "such heavy hail as had never fallen in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation," and people and animals will die unless they go under shelters and remain in the fields. Yahweh does this, and the Israelites are unaffected. Pharaoh begs Moses to summon Yahweh to remove this hail, and promises Pharaoh will let the Israelites go. Yahweh removes the hail, but Pharaoh's heart is hardened and refuses to let the Israelites go.

8. Locusts--10:1-20. The Lord tells Moses to go to Pharaoh [apparently at his palace], and tells Pharaoh to let the Israelites go in the wilderness or else Yahweh will send a locust plague "as had never been before, nor ever shall be again." Before the plague occurs, Pharaoh strikes another bargain with Moses: Let THE MEN go into the wilderness. Moses rejects this offer, and the plague ensues. Only the Israelites are not affected. Pharaoh begs with Moses to have Yahweh remove this plague and promises him that Pharaoh will let the Israelites go. Yahweh removes the plague, but Pharaoh's heart is hardened and refuses to let the Israelties go.

9. Darkness--10:21-28. The Lord tells Moses to stretch his hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness. This darkness descends and "can be felt." For three days, the Egyptians could not see one another or move from where they were. But the Israelites had light in the land of Goshen. Pharaoh gives Moses another proposal: I will allow all the Israelites go in the wilderness, but let your flocks and herds remain behind. Moses responds: "Not a hoof shall be left behind." Pharaoh's heart is hardened, and tells Moses never to see Pharaoh's face again. So Moses leaves.

10. Death of the Firstborn--11:1-10. The Lord tells Moses that Yahweh will go out through Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, human and animal. There will be a cry throughout the whole land "such as has never been or will ever be again." But Yahweh will deliver the Israelites. This final plague triggered the exodus from Egypt.

God is more powerful than any nation or any king or any power. He is incomparable. No one is like him. God wishes and invites all people to come to him and to obey his will and his purposes. Some, like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, refuse. When people harden their hearts, God is forced to react harshly and severely and decisively. He does not will this, but people makes choices of their own will. Pharaoh and the Egyptians made their choices. The story of the ten plagues portrays the works of God. There is a practical lesson for us. Let us take heed.

Share your thoughts with this section of the Book of Exodus. Let me know what your thoughts are.

John Willis

16 and 17 July--Two Momentous Events in American History

Two very significant events occurred in American history on 16 and 17 July. Stated briefly, here are the events.

On 17 July 1955, Disneyland had its opening day in Anaheim, California. In ensuing years, this event brought amusement parks all over the world, including Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Six Flags near Dallas, Texas, and many other places. Children and adults both thrill at the stories and memories of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Pinnocchio, Peter Pan, Goldilocks and the Seven Dwarfs, Schreck, Carz, Up, and many other tremendous animated cartoons and movies, to say nothing of many fascinating movies produced on the active screen. America is quite different today because of Disneyland.

On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 lifted off carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins toward the moon. On 20 July 1969, the whole world [an estimated 500 million people] watched on TV as Armstrong and Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the surface of the moon. The pictures in those days were not very clear, but my whole family stayed up late that night to view that memorable event. 40 years later, digitally re-mastered the images of these pictures so that now people can get a clearer view of what happened on 20 July 1969.

Armstrong reports as a pilot and scientist, the most challenging feat of the journey was landing Apollo 11. Armstrong found a relatively smooth spot, and with just 100 feet to go, he brought EAGLE into final vertical descent, approximate 30 seconds of fuel left. He shut down the engine with approximately 20 seconds' worth of fuel remaining. But for Armstrong himself, the moment of triumph had already come. He keyed his mike and announced, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The EAGLE has landed."

What a memorable event in American history--for all human history.

God continues to bless people on earth. Two of these people are Walt Disney and Neil Armstrong. Because God has given these people [and thousands of others] with just the right gifts at just the right times, the lives of human beings are better.

YOU may be one of these people God plans to raise up. I pray God will use you in great and surprising ways in YOUR LIFE. Tell me your story. I want to encourage you and support you in every way I can. YOU are and will be a tremendous blessing to many people--in ways yet to happen in history.

John Willis

Armstrong's words echoed around the world and down through history: "one small step for man, one giant step for mankind."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I Am Never Satisfied

I am going to make a confession: I am never satisfied. I do not know why I feel this way, but throughout my life--including yesterday and today--I am not satisfied. As I visit with my family and my friends and my church and my city and my country and my world, I get the impression that no one is every satisfied in life.

I am not satisfied with my research and writing efforts. I am not satisfied with attaining my goals or intentions each day. I make out a list every morning, but at th end of the day, I do not accomplish everything I planned or hoped to do that day. I am not satisfied with my conversations during a day. After the conversation is over, and I reflect on what we talked about, I realize I did not say enough, or I said too much, or I forgot about something I wanted to talked about further. I am not satisfied with my friendships. Sometimes I think things are going very well, and then sometimes I think our relationship is rocky. The story goes on and on.

But it is not just me. Notice "famous" people--past and present--who obviously are [or were] never satisfied. Some of our movie stars change spouses several times during their lifetimes. Some of our athletes change teams or positions during their careers. I know several people who have changed their jobs several times, not because they were fired, but because they just could not be satisfied.

Now, not being satisfied may be a good thing in several circumstances. For example: scientists are constantly trying to discover and understand people and situations to improve life--think of cars and airplanes and highways and so many other things we now enjoy that people did not even know about a century ago. Doctors and researchers are constantly trying to find ways of overcoming human diseases and disabilities of all kind. This is so important and marvelous. In this sense, we need to be satisfied.

As a balance, there is a kind of "dissatisfaction" which is not "spiritually healthy or uplifting." The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes was a "searcher." He achieved a PhD (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18), but was not satisfied. SO, he turned to "pleasure," sought to cheer his body with wine, built houses and planted vineyards, made gardens, bought male and female slaves, had great possessions of herds and flocks, amassed great treasures of silver and gold, organized male and female singers, and had many concubines (Ecclesiastes 2:1-8), but was not satisfied. SO, he buried himself with hard work and built an economic empire (Ecclesiastes 3:9-16), but was not satisfied. And the story goes on and on.

Like the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, we spend endless hours, money, time, efforts--the works--just so we can be satisfied. And the next morning, we wake up, and we are still unsatisfied.

Is there any way out of our trap? Augustine said simply that we are "restless" until we "rest" in God. This sounds so simple, and we REALLY do not believe this will work. "Let go, Let God?" Sounds good, but this will not work.

Jesus, our Lord and Master, offers to all of us this simple invitation:

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I WILL GIVE YOU REST. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30).

Genuine REST is a GIFT from GOD. God offers this gift. It is up to me and to you to accept and receive this gift.

It seems that I am never satisfied. What about you? Share your thoughts with your friends and your church and your community about your dissatisfaction. Let me know what you think. How can we help one another about this taunting problem?

John Willis

The Nub of the Story of the Ten Plagues

After "wading through" the literary structure and the issue of the "chronological order" and the details related in the story of the ten plagues, it is VERY IMPORTANT to REALIZE and UNDERSTAND and APPRECIATE and ponder and reflect on and accept the biblical testimony or witness of the biblical account of Exodus 7:8-11:10--the "nub," the "gist," the "point" of this account.

This section of the Book of Exodus portrays a struggle, a conflict, a battle--physical, but also spiritual.

On one level, this is a conflict between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The Egyptians are in an advantageous position. They "control" and "rule" and oppress the Israelites. The Israelites are living in misery, under oppression, treated unjustly.

One another level, this is a conflict between Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh is the king of Egypt. Moses grew up under the royal house of Egypt, but fled to Midian, where he lived for forty years. SO, now he is a foreigner to the Egyptians--in "intruder" demanding that Pharaoh let the Israelites go into the wilderness for three days to hold a festival to Yahweh for the Israelites. Two conflicting "leading figures" meet person against person in this story.

But on another level--a much deeper and higher and more important level--there is another conflict taking place. Exodus 12:12 succinctly testifies or witnesses or proclaims the "nub," the "gist," the "point" of the story of the ten plagues.

God declares in this verse:

"I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; ON ALL THE GODS OF EGYPT I WILL EXECUTE JUDGMENTS; I AM THE LORD [YAHWEH]."

The REAL BATTLE, the REAL STRUGGLE in life on earth is between Yahweh [God the Father] and invisible anti-Yahwistic beings every surrounding human life. The Bible calls these beings "gods" [as in Exodus 12:12], "angels," "demons," "spirits,"
"seraphs," etc. These are super-human beings "created" by God. They are invisible to human beings, but not only exist but also continually function and work in heaven and on planet earth.

Since the Enlightenment, many of us people in the Western World have bought into the idea of "rationalism." This has led us to ignore or reject or deny the existence and work of miracles and invisible creatures, etc. People in Africa and Asia are very familiar with spirits and demons and other types of invisible beings.

The Bible testifies that angels and spirits and "gods" created by Yahweh [God the Father] exist and work in heaven and on planet earth. To mention only three examples: (1) Matthew 1:18-25 testifies that "an angel of the Lord" appeared to Joseph in a dream and announced that her fiance Mary would conceive and give birth to Jesus Christ. (2) Luke 2:1-18 testifies that "a multitude of the heavenly host" appeared to the shepherds near Bethlehem, praising God for the birth of Jesus. (3) Paul testifies in Ephesians 6:12: "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against THE COSMIC POWERS OF THIS PRESENT DARKNESS, AGAINST THE SPIRITUAL FORCES OF EVIL IN THE HEAVENLY PLACES."

This the what the Bible testifies. This is what the Bible claims. What do YOU think? Are your struggles and battles and conflicts between people, or are your struggles between your God and your God's invisible opponents: Satan and his angels?

Tell me what you think. Re-read Exodus 7:8-11:10, then read this in light of Exodus 12:12. I think this is the "nub" of the story of the ten plagues. What do you think? I would love to get your thoughts and your ideas.

John Willis

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Horses Are Amazing

During my years as a childhood and young adulthood, I enjoyed riding horses. I did not ride often, but when I did, I really enjoyed riding horses. At 75, I would not try that now--I would break my neck. Horses are amazing.

As I think through the radio programs and TV programs and movies, I remember the Lone Ranger and the GREAT HORSE SILVER and The Lone Ranger's "sidekick" Tonto and his horse SCOUT. I remember Mr Ed, and then all the Wild West movies and TV shows involving horses. And then, I think of Flicka and Seabiscuit. What great memories about stories concerning horses.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited a day in Ireland on a "stud farm." The hosts brought us to world-fame horses who brought mares all over the world to reproduce "top-flight" horses for the Kentucky Derby and events all over the world. One stud was called Invincible. That name "grabbed" my attention. He brings millions of dollars to this farm every year--and that is just one stud.

The Bible often refers to horses in a variety of ways. Here are a few striking examples.

1. When Job kept accusing God for treating Job unjustly, God invited Job to consider the horse as just one of God's numerous creatures on earth--to ask Job to explain how God created a horse and why a horse behaves as he does. A key passage is Job 39:19-25:
Do you give the horse its might?
Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust?
Its majestic snorting is majestic.
It paws violently, exults mightily;
it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver,
the flasing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground;
it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says 'Aha!'
From a distance it smells the battle,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting."
Human beings do not ride on hippopotamuses or rhinoceroses or crocodiles or kangaroos. Why? Why not? BECAUSE, God created horses to have the temper and behavior of horses!!! So, human beings ride horses in competition--at olympic events, at polo contests, in carrying the mail, in battle. Horses are "cut out" for just these kinds of activities.

2. The primary means of fighting in battle was using horses and chariots. The Bible often refers to this. Think of Yahweh's victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Exodus 14:9 relates: "The Egyptians pursued after them, all Pharaoh's HORSES AND CHARIOTS, his chariot drivers and his army." After the victory, Moses and the Israelite sing this song:
"I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumped gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." (Exodus 15:2).
Horses and chariots were such powerful means of fighting successfully in battle that biblical prophets and speakers warned the Israelites not to trust in "horses and chariots," but only in Yahweh (see for example, Deuteronomy 17:16; Isaiah 31:1-3).

3. Trained equestrians can do marvel things with horses. Think of the acts in circuses and carnivals. This is amazing. James capitalizes on a horseman's control over his or her horse by teaching a lesson about the tongue in James 3:2-3:
"For all of us makes many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies."

God's creatures are all awesome. One of God's creatures is the horse. Do you have a horse? Do you ride horses? Share your experiences with horses. I would love to hear your stories about horses.

John Willis

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Nature of the Ten Plagues

Exodus 7:14-11:10 describes or narrates or relates or reports ten plagues. Various thinkers and scholars, ancient and recent, have understood the ten plagues in various ways.

1. Some propose that this account is completely fictional. This is the kind of ancient thinking and literature which was popular and common hundreds or thousands of years ago, but sophisticated, modern human beings KNOW this is not historically true. As one example, Johannes Pedersen wrote a book arguing that Exodus 1-15 is the cult legend of the Passover reflecting the annual re-living of historical events, as it took shape through the ages.

2. A widely accepted scholarly view, championed by G. Hort in 1957-1958, is that natural phenomena in Egypt explain the ten plagues related in Exodus 7:14-11:10. The right condition of the Nile River described in Exodus 7:14-25 meets four necessary phenomena: the blood red color, the death of the fish, the putrid smell of the water, and the undrinkableness of the water. These four phenomena set the basis for the rationale for later plagues in Exodus 8-9, the presence of massive numbers of flagellates in the waters of the inundation. Probably the flagellates originated in Lake Tana and came through the Blue Nile to Egypt, accounting for the change to a red color and the horrible taste of the water. The Nile rises in July-August, crests in September, and declines in October-November. A strong sandstorm would explain the darkness. Generally speaking, natural scourges in Egypt explain the ten plagues.

3. Several scholars suggest that each of the plagues represents a different "deity" or "god" in Egypt, and thus the story of the ten plagues is a kind of mythological adaptation of ancient Near Eastern myths. The god of the Nile is Hapi. The god of frogs is the goddess Heket. The god of the cows and bulls are Hathor and Apis. The god of the sun [obscured by darkness] is Re. And the propositions go on and on.

BUT, the biblical composers affirm, testify, claim, declare, announce that the ten plagues are Yahweh's "signs and wonders" (Exodus 7:3; 11:9) and "miracles" (Psalms 78:42-43; 105:27). We are in no position to know or understand or explain HOW God works, but the important point is that Yahweh performs such phenomena which human beings cannot initiate or reproduce. These are "superhuman" deeds.

I believe that God works in phenomena all the time which we call "natural." But we still cannot make these things happen--like making a seed grow into a plant into a fruit or a vegetable; OR, making a human being eat food and produce energy and eliminate waste and continue to grow for many years in life; and so on. OH, we can describe these phenomena; we can "tamper" with them and aid God's work medically and in other ways--BUT NO ONE has figured out HOW all these things occur day by day, year by year, through the centuries.

The ten plagues are God's miracles, God's superhuman acts, God's signs and wonders. This is the biblical testimony. It is left to each hearer and reader to accept or reject this testimony. NO ONE can prove or disprove this testimony is true or false.

How do YOU respond to this testimony? What thoughts do you have? Discuss this with your friends. I need your thoughts and your prayers. Let me hear from all of you.

John Willis

High Church and Low Church

We are in the year 2009 A. D. A lot of water has run under the bridge of life. For many centuries, we human beings have built up walls to keep us from loving one another and uniting one another under God through Christ. It is all our fault. But we seem to be trapped by our traditions, our baggage, our deep-rooted beliefs, our family backgrounds, our preachers and teachers and influenced predecessors. We just cannot break free. Much of this is "in the name of religion" or "in the name of Christianity."

Here is just one example.

First, from a historical perspective. Not long after the Reformation, the Church of England divided sharply from the Roman Catholic Church. It was not long under the Church of England divided into two large groups of thought: The so-called High Church and the so-called Low Church. Briefly, here are these two ways of thinking--and this is always a "stereotyped" and thus often overstated.

The High Church, originating in the 17th century A. D., is the party in the Anglican Church that emphasizes the Catholicity [Universality] of the Church of England. It emphasizes the continuity of the Church of England with the undivided Catholic church, before the Reformation. This movement represents a theological school of thought and never became a separate church. Typically, it means elaborate ceremonies. In the United States, the Church of England becomes Episcopalians or "Spikes", and often takes political positions, especially promoting the idea of the divine right of kings.

The Low Church originated among pietistic members of the Church of England objecting to rituals in the church and denied that bishops were essential to the nature of the church and rejected apostolic succession. This party affirmed rigorously a literal interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles of religion. Increasingly, people in this party moved to non-conforming congregations, toward Presbyterian, Congregational [Independent], Baptist Churches, and yes--Churches of Christ. Their meetinghouses were often called "chapels" to distinguish them from High Church cathedrals. While the High Church emphasizes communion, the Low Church emphasizes preaching. The services are much less formal. This form of worship emphasizes the priesthood of all believers [in contrast to exalted priestly officials], less sacramental worship, and congregational singing.

NOW, go to churches of all kinds, and you will find these two basic "mind sets." Simply observe churches in different parts of the United States and elsewhere, and even in different parts of large cities, like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio. Here is what I see among Churches of Christ.

Group One: Begin the worship service. Most of the men have suits and ties and polished shoes. The women have very trim and nice dresses and shoes and jewelry. The children must be as quiet as a mouse, or else dismissed to another room for attendance by assigned individuals so as not to disturbed the service. The service focuses on the preacher and his sermon with a strong emphasis on information and doctrine and reinforcement of the hearers. There is a single song leader who leads the congregation through non-instrumental well-known songs. There is a Lord's Supper time, usually as brief as possible, in order to fulfill the commandment to partake in the Lord's Supper every week. There may be a prayer or two, usually repetitive, redundant, and expected. The preacher, the elders, the leaders of the church are aloof and do their work in separate places and meetings and thus are above the hoi polloi. There may be some announcements for information for the whole congregation. The hearers are silent listeners--few if any "amens," no lifting up of hands or proclaming "Praise the Lord," or anything like that. It is verboten. Oh, I know all this from the inside out, because I grew up in just this kind of church.

Group Two: Begin the worship service. Men, women, and children wear nice casual clothes, usually without coats and ties, but some do. There is a lot of sharing and talking and affirming and encouraging before, during, and after the service. The preacher is not the focus of the service. God is the center of the service. Many participate in the service--men, women, and children. Many read scriptures, pray, lift up hands, share testimonies, comfort those in all kinds of need. Several people together guide the songs and scriptures and power point presentations and dramatic pieces and the like. The Lord's Supper is very important. These people spend a great deal of thought and time focusing on God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, so they are not interested in rushing through the worship times. Often, the whole church breaks out in clapping and shouting out "amens" and "praise the Lord."

NOW--THINK--Which of these two is "superior" or "more godlike" or "more Christian?" I think I could make a pretty defense for either one.

One could emphasize worship at the Jerusalem temple. David invested untold money and workers and worship leaders to build and maintain the services in Jerusalem. Just read 1 Chronicles 16; 22-29. Here are the priestly officials, the designated temple musicians, the required sacrifices, the prayers, the vows, the tithes. It sounds very High Church to me.

On the other hand, one could emphasize worship in a synagogue in Nazareth, or in a house church among Christians in the first century A. D. All the members are lay people. The worship is very simple. The congregation is rather small. The people are not able to contribute much money for the church. It sounds very Low Church to me.

There is a very important point to all this. We human beings have built religious walls through many centuries making it impossible to have genuine love and fellowship between God and Christ and one another and the world. We are shackled nad paralyzed and very fearful and powerless. Somehow, some way, by God's grace and Christ's love and the power of the Holy Spirit, we must rise above all these notorious, false, divisive walls to higher spiritual ground. May God grant us to see ourselves and our baggage and our burdens.

How can you help with this? Give me some ideas. We need all the ideas and prayers and visions we can have.

John Willis

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Ten Plagues Viewed Chronologically

Many modern thinkers assume the Bible presents the books and sections of the Bible in chronological order. Accordingly, one approaches a text like the story of the ten plagues in Exodus 7:14-11:10 assuming that the second plague follows the first plague and the third plague follows the second plague and so forth through all ten plagues. In our previous blog overviewing the "chart" of the first nine plagues, it became clear that the biblical composer intentionally presents this material "theologically" to group three sets of plagues to communicate three important truths about Yahweh or God. SO, I think we should be very cautious about dogmatically concluding that we should understand the plagues as a "chronological" sequence of historical events.

Let me explain further. There are at least two other passages in the Old Testament also present the plagues of Egypt during the time of Moses. Let's look at these three passages as presented in these three texts at another "chart." Here is THE ORDER of the plagues in each text.

Exodus 7:14-11:10 Psalm 78:44-51 Psalm 105:26-36

Water to blood Water to blood Darkness
Frogs Flies Water to blood
Gnats Frogs Frogs
Flies Locusts Flies
Livestock Diseased Hail Gnats
Boils Death of firstborn sons Hail
Hail Locusts
Locusts Death of firstborn sons
Death of firstborn sons

What facts arise from this?
1. The ORDER of each list is DIFFERENT. The ONLY PLAGUE consistent in all three is the LAST ONE=the death of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians--and, of course, THIS is God's "knockout punch" which led to the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.
2. The NUMBER of the plagues is not the same. The Book of Exodus presents 10 plagues, Psalm 78 presents six plagues, and Psalm 105 presents eight plagues. If we believe biblical writers are dependable and people of integrity, often these composers are not as interested about some issues as many of us moderns are. It is "okay" NOT to have the same NUMBER or the same ORDER.
3. SO--there must be other concerns. The overall presentation of these these texts about the plagues in Egypt is "theologically." Apparently, God is interested about communicating great truths to reach hearts, NOT about factual or literary details. When we can finally come to realize this truth, we will begin to look at the Bible very differently.

I need to broaden my mind and my heart. In 75 years of life, I have changed my outlooks, my beliefs, my understandings, my way of life OFTEN--and I anticipate this will continue to happen. Paul writes to Christian in Galatia: "My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth UNTIL CHRIST IS FORMED IN YOU" (Galatians 4:19). I pray that God through Christ will CONTINUE to "transform" in my heart and my life to become more and more like HE wills me to be. I hope I am not the same person I was thirty or twenty or ten or five years ago, or even last year. I need to change.

What about YOU? What are some of YOUR significant changes for your heart and life?
Let me hear from YOU.

I remind you again, if you wish. You can e-mail me as:

John Willis

The Wonders of Art

God undoubtedly is the most marvelous artist one could ever imagine. Every day I am awed at the shapes, the colors, the sizes of everything around us--big and small. I watch the sunrises and the sunsets here in West Texas out away from the city--it is always different--always stunning.

My wonderful wife showed me a chapter in a little book by Archibald Rutledge entitled Life's Extras. The following four paragraphs captivated my thoughts:

"As I went up the old gullied mountain road toward the home of the first, I noticed in the wild glen, down which a white stream gurgled and spurted, incessant, vehement, and joyous, that the rhododendrons were in blossom. There may be a more beautiful flower, but I have not seen it--taking it all in all, and considering the wildwood setting in which it invariably grows. To look at this wonderous flower and not to feel that God exquisitely designed it, and did not merely as a vagrant artist but with precision and nobility of purpose is to me incredible. Ere long I reached the canin, and one of the man's sisters greeted me and talked with me. Over the humble mantel I saw a crude little photograph of him in his uniform; and beside it, in a small bottle that functioned as a vase, I saw a sprig of rhododendron blossom. I looked at the picture; then I said something casual about the flower.

'I don't know why,' my hostess said, 'but to have it there helps me. It 'minds me of God.'

I have always loved the eloquence of simple people. What they say, coming from the heart, often goes straight to the heart. "It 'minds me of God." I never see a rhododendon without remembering that. And are not all of life's extras reminders of the love and the yearning compassion of God?

I mentioned sunsets and sunrises as extras. Almost the whole complex and wonderful matter of color in the world seems as extra. The color of the sky might have been a dingy gray, or a prainful yellor, or a plum-colored purple. But is is sapphire; and my philosophy makes me believe that such a color for the sky is by no means the result of mere chance. Granted that it is the result of the operation of certain laws, forces, and conditions; yet behind it all, back of the realized dream, is the mighty intelligence of the Creator, the vast amplitude of the dreamer's comprehension. And let us not forget that the two colors at which we can gaze longest are blue and green. There is about them a coolness, a serenity, a spirit of fragrant peace. And as the blud prevails in the sky, the green does upon earth." [End of quotes]

The story of creation in Genesis 2:7 says that "the Lord God FORMED man from the dust of the ground, and BREATHED into his nostrils the breath of life." The verb "form" is the word used throughout the Bible for the work of a potter. Like a potter, God takes wet clay and shapes human beings into God's own image--and THEN, God adds to all this by "BREATHING" into this piece of clay a living being. What a work of art--What a marvelous miracle!!!

But to top all that, God has gifted human beings to received and use art. Evelyn and I have been so blessed to see great art made by human beings. We marveled at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome with all its tremendous paintings. We thrilled at viewing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris--but all around this painting were many other great paintings. In a sense, I wish I had been able to spend my life studying and understanding and developing artistic works.

I have spent my life studying and preaching and teaching "words." And I think words are very important. But song and art and other media even exceed words.

A wonderful example is the life and work of Jack and Jill Maxwell. They are committed Christian people at the Highland Church of Christ, and teach art at Abilene Christian University. For eighteen years, Mike Cope has preached at Highland. But over these years, frequently Jack and Jill have painting behind Mike as they preached. There are pictures of a shepherd, Jonah, runners, and on and on. Every time we have such a gospel message, all of us appreciate and remember the "words" of Mike [Mike is a very gifted preacher and communicator], but we will NEVER FORGET the artistic words of Jack and Jill Maxwell. Our little children go to the front after the service is over, and rally around these wonderful works.

During the Medieval Ages, written Bibles and other kinds of books were not available extensively to the public. Thoughtful Christian people realized the importance of handing down the stories of the Bible through art--in stained glass windows and through other means. We have traveled in Europe and have seen many ancient cathedrals which have these artistic descriptions. How wonderful it is to experience art!!!

Every year, Evelyn and I attend to approximately three or four national and regional conferences in biblical studies. One section wisely deals with art in the Bible. A few years ago, I saw and heard a presentation on the story of David and Goliath throughout the centuries in art. What a revelation that is so easy to miss in scripture. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Through over fifty years, I have been so blessed to have had many students who have developed their work in art. Recently, I think of Brazos Condra in pottery [now with his wife at Highland], Alexsandra Vucic in interior design [now in Serbia, her home country, who has marvelous works]. Then, in our ACU faculty and at Highland, I think of Dan McGregor and Robert Green and Kenny and Polly Jones--and so many others.

We need to have preachers--good preachers, preachers of integrity. We also needs artists--and we need to teach and train our preachers to learn and understand and appreciate and use Christian people in art. I wish we would have some classes at ACU in "Bible and Art" with two profs: a Bible teacher and an art teacher. That is just me.

What do YOU think? Are YOU an artist? What do you think about God's artistry? Do YOU appreciate and encourage and support our artists?

John Willis

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Ten Plagues

After a discussion between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh in Exodus 4:18-7:7, we are ready to move on to the story of the ten plagues recorded in Exodus 7:8-11:10. The biblical writer puts down a marker in Exodus 7:7: "Moses was eighty years old and Aaron was eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh." Back in the story of the birth of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10, Miriam, Moses' "sister" (Exodus 2:4, 7-8), must have been several years older, because their mother, Jochebed, entrusted baby Moses into the care of his sister as she watched to see what would happen. Possibly she was ten years old or older. If so, she is now ninety years old or older.

Exodus 7:8-13 relates an event preparing the hearer or reader to follow the account of the ten plagues recorded in Exodus 7:14-11:10. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh once again, and Pharaoh demands a "wonder" [miracle] from them. At Yahweh's command, Aaron throws down his staff before Pharaoh and the staff becomes a snake. But Pharaoh summons the Egyptian wise men and sorcerers and magicians, and they also do the same thing "by their secret arts." But Aaron's staff swallow up their snakes, and yet "Pharaoh's heart was hardened," and so he would not listen to them, as Yahweh had said. (Exodus 7:8-13).

Before examining each of these ten plagues, let us think of the whole story from Exodus 7:14-11:10. With a little careful study, one will discover a purposeful pattern. The first nine plagues fall into three plagues each. Here is a chart for these first nine plagues.

Occasion: First Three Plagues Second Three Plagues Third Three Plagues
In the morning 1. Water to blood 4. Flies 7. Hail
at the Nile 7:14-25 8:20-32 9:13-35

At Pharaoh's 2. Frogs 5. Livestock Diseased 8. Locusts
palace 8:1-15 9:1-7 10:1-20

Unannounced 3. Gnats 6. Boils 9. Darkness
8:16-19 9:8-12 10:21-29

Purpose: To demonstrate that To prove that Yahweh To show that there
Yahweh is superior is in the land of is no one like
to the Egyptian Egypt--8:22; 9:5, 9. Yahweh in all the
magicians--7:22; earth--9:14, 29;
8:7, 18-19. 10:2, 14, 21-23.

The biblical presentation of this account is intentional. Viewed from left to right, and then viewed from top to bottom, there is a clear sequence. Here are a few observations just to begin our study.
1. This account apparently was composed for dramatic oral presentation before a live audience to hear and view. The repetition and sequence captures the scenes before the eyes of the viewers. The Bible was not primarily WRITTEN for private individuals to be read silently, like in a library; BUT primarily ORAL for public proclamation before a live audience.
2. Theologically, there is a natural movement from: (1) Yahweh's superior to the Egyptian magicians to (2) Yahweh's presence in the land of Egypt to (3) Yahweh's incomparability in all the earth. Any audience or groups of hearers [readers as well] would immediately realize the spiritual truths declared in this tremendous account.
3. These nine plagues prepare for the final "knockout" plague announcing that the firstborn sons of Egypt will die. Exodus 11:1-10.

I hope this will provide a framework or outline for this section of Exodus 7:14-11:10, which we will discuss in forthcoming plagues.

Let me have your thoughts on this.

John Willis

A Tribute to Mike and Diane Cope

Today, 12 July 2009, Mike Cope preaches his last sermon at Highland "officially" as pulpit minister. Lynn Anderson was pulpit minister at Highland 19 years, and Mike Cope concludes 18 years in this capacity. The Highland spiritual family has grown by leaps and bounds over this past four decades. We are abundantly blessed. Praise God for giving us families such as these.

There is no way that Evelyn and I could begin giving Mike and Diane Cope a tribute for all they have done in the name of God through Jesus Christ. This is exceedingly brief, but expresses a few of our deep feelings of appreciation for this Christ-centered couple. We couch this as a prayerful address to Mike and Diane.

God bless you for spending thirteen years of sleepless days and nights incessantly for loving, nurturing, caring for, and launching into Heaven your precious daughter Megan. Megan has blessed all of us richly and will never forget this. You have greatly improved our hearts and lives.

God bless you for being people of character and integrity. Inferior traits "win the day" for a brief time, but your integrity and dignity are permanent.

God bless you for being courageous for truth and vision and change when malicious, unkind, insensitive, destructive individuals and groups criticized you, maligned you, and sometimes tried to remove you from your function in God's family. God bless you with us together for loving our enemies and our adversaries.

God bless you for lifting your voices and your spirits and your actions above the paralytical denominational bias threatening every local church by participating with our spiritual family with a wide variety of individuals and churches of all faiths here in Abilene and abroad.

God bless you for sharing with the diverse gifts of all of our family, young and old, male and female in corporate worship and in ministries and services throughout Abilene and the world.

God bless you for spending endless hours and energy for your sons, Matt and Chris, to be the kind of people the world needs.

God bless you for cooperating with our spiritual family to continue to grow and serve and share in order to allow God to transform us into the image of God through Jesus Christ.

God bless you for many years in the future as you aspire to expand the horizons of people around the world in conjunction with the efforts of Landon Saunders, our co-worker and dear brother for over 40 years.

God bless you eternally when this life is over. As God blesses people, we all receive his marvelous gifts.

John Willis