Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Ezekiel’s “Wheel in the Middle of a Wheel”

     “He’s my rock, my sword, my shield, He’s my wheel in the middle of a wheel …” Have you ever heard or sung these lyrics? What do they mean? A number of songs, including the old negro spiritual, “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel,” are based on an obscure passage in the first chapter of the OT book of Ezekiel. While different songwriters may have different ideas, our purpose is to consider the passage in its original context.

Background

     Around 605 BC, the people of Judah were forced to pay tribute to the rapidly expanding Babylonian empire, while Daniel and certain others were carried off into captivity. About seven or eight years later, in response to Judah’s revolt, the Babylonians enacted a massive deportation of the upper echelons of Jewish society, including King Jehoiachin and Ezekiel the priest. Five years into this exile, Ezekiel is called to be a prophet to the Jewish captives, warning that divine judgment against the rebellious people of Judah has not ended.

Ezekiel’s Call (1:1-3)

     The “thirtieth year” (v. 1) is probably the thirtieth year of Ezekiel’s life, seeing that as a priest (v. 3) he would have been eligible to begin his priestly service at age thirty (Num. 4:23, 30, 39, 43, 47). But in exile God had another job for him. In the fifth year of captivity (ca. 593/592 BC), Ezekiel saw “visions of God,” and “the word of the LORD” came to him.1

A Vision of God’s Glory and Divine Judgment (1:4-14)

     The record of Ezekiel’s vision is highly symbolic, because God’s glory (v. 28) cannot be seen, described, or fully conceptualized by finite humans. The images in v. 4 of “a whirlwind,” “a great cloud,” “brightness,” and “fire” are common symbols of divine activity and judgment.2 The “four living creatures” (v. 5a) symbolize God’s attributes,3 depicted in “the likeness of a man” (v. 5b), i.e., in human terms and concepts (anthropomorphism), with faces, wings, legs/feet, hands, bodies, spirit (vv. 6-12).
     Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings” (v. 6). They moved in one direction, with singleness of purpose (vv. 7a, 9b, 12). Their feet were “like the soles of calves’ feet” (v. 7b), not getting blistered or tired. There was a radiance about them (vv. 4, 7c). “The hands of a man” (v. 8a) represent action to be taken, while “under their wings” (v. 8b, 11) suggests the divine activity is somewhat hidden from plain sight. The touching of the wings (vv. 9a, 11) shows unified action. Each had “the face of a man” (v. 10a), indicative of intelligence and dominion (Gen. 1:26); “the face of a lion” (v. 10b), signifying sovereignty (Gen. 49:9-10); “the face of an ox” (v. 10c), representing strength (Num. 23:22); and “the face of an eagle” (v. 10d), symbolizing swiftness [in judgment] (Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8). All were directed by one spiritual force (vv. 12, 20). God’s judgment is again depicted in vv. 13-14 with the symbols of “burning coals of fire,” “torches,” and “lightning” (cf. v. 4; also 2 Sam. 22:9, 13, 15; Psa. 77:18).

The Wheels (1:15-21)

     Next Ezekiel saw “a wheel on the earth” (v. 15), so divine judgment is not coming in the heavenly realm but on the earth. Then the single wheel becomes four radiant wheels (v. 16a), and Ezekiel seems to struggle to describe what he was seeing. He says, “The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel” (v. 16b). What does that mean? Commentators and artists have made valiant attempts to explain or depict this enigmatic vision, but in so doing I think they are missing the point. What Ezekiel saw was incomprehensible and even indescribable because it represents the working of God, whose ways are incomprehensible and indescribable (cf. Job 42:3; Isa. 55:9).
     The wheels were working in unison. “When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions” (v. 17a) – omnipresence; “they did not turn aside when they went” (v. 17b) – singleness of purpose. As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome” (v. 18a) – exalted; “and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them” (v. 18b) – omniscience. In the vision the living creatures have metamorphosed into God’s chariot of judgment, directed by a single spiritual force (vv. 19-21; cf. 2 Sam. 22:8-11).

The Rest of the Opening Vision (1:22-28)

     The symbolism continues, depicting God’s glory (v. 22), God’s providential working (v. 23), God’s power (v. 24), God’s authority (v. 25), God’s sovereignty (v. 26), and God’s splendor (vv. 27-28a). This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking” (v. 28b).

Conclusion

     Whatever application modern-day songwriters have chosen to make from Ezekiel’s opening vision, our concern is the passage itself and its intended meaning. Contextually the “wheels” of Ezekiel 1:15-21 seem to depict the chariot of God’s judgment in the broader framework of God’s glory in judgment. Ezekiel’s prophetic vision was fulfilled approximately five years later as divine wrath was poured out on the rebellious people of Judah. About 587/586 BC, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, followed by another massive deportation of the Lords’ defiant (now defeated) people into Babylonian exile.
--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     1 Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
     2 See, e.g. Ezek. 30:8, 14, 16; Job 38:1; 40:6; Psa. 18:12; 58:9; 77:18; 104:3; Isa. 17:13; 19:1; 34:9; Jer. 4:13; Lam. 2:3, 4; 4:11; Joel 1:19-20; 2:3, 5, 30; Amos 5:6; Ob. 18; Zeph. 1:18; Mal. 4:1; et al.
     3 Called cherubim in 10:5, 10; imagery borrowed by John in Rev. 4:6-9; 5:6-14; 6:1, 6; 7:11; 8:9; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4.

Related Posts: K. L. Moore, “The Day of the Lord” <Link>.

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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Who are the “gods” in Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34?

     The Hebrew word elohim (plural of el) essentially means “mighty one(s)” and has various applications in the Old Testament. It can be used in reference to rulers or judges (Ex. 21:6; 22:8), [false] gods (Ex. 18:11), angels (Psa. 8:5; cf. Heb. 2:7, 9), and even the almighty God (Gen. 1:1, 2, 3; etc.).
     Psalm 82 uses a play on words as unrighteous rulers or judges are put on trial in the heavenly court, with God (the Supreme Judge) judging them. In v. 1 we read, “elohim [God] stands in the congregation of the el [mighty one], he judges among the elohim [judges].1 Most English translations render the final elohim in this verse “gods,” whereas the NASB renders it “rulers” because contextually unjust leaders or judges are the ones being indicted. Then in v. 6 God says, “I said, ‘You are elohim, and all of you are children of the Most High.’” While human judges are still in view, most English versions translate elohim here as “gods,” probably because of the way in which Jesus cites the text in John 10:34.
     In John 10 Jesus is confronted by antagonistic Jews, accusing him of blashemy because of his implied claim to be God’s Son. In vv. 30-39, he does not deny their inference, but neither does he give in to their devious request to “tell us plainly” (v. 24). Instead, pointing out their inconsistency, he simply quotes scripture, viz. Psalm 82:6, which we are reading in English translation. The original conversation was most likely in Aramaic, which John has translated into Greek. The word chosen to render the Hebrew elohim of Psalm 82:6 is the Greek theoi (“gods”)2 of John 10:34.
     Jesus is not making a theological statement or trying to enlighten his accusers; he is confounding them and exposing their hypocricy. The scriptures they regard so highly employ the same descriptive term for human judges that is used for God, yet they viciously attack Jesus because of his claim to be the Son of God.3
     Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34 use wordplay that gets lost in English translation. Contextually the “gods” in both texts are human “judges” standing before God, the Supreme Judge.
--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     1 English tranlation of scripture is the author’s own.
     2 Nowhere in the New Testament is the plural theoi ever applied to God the Father or Jesus Christ.
     3 Jesus’ customary approach when responding to his enemies was almost always indirect and ambiguous (cf. John 8:3-9, 21-29; 9:39-41; 10:1-6, 24; 18:19-21, 33-34; 19:9; also Matt. 12:1-8; 13:10-15; 21:23-27).

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Single Women on the Mission Field

     Single women fill an important role in missionary work and therefore deserve special consideration. What can a single woman do on the mission field? Many Christians, including single women themselves, may be skeptical about their role and usefulness in missions. Putting aside the usual stereotypes and preconceived misconceptions, let’s consider what the Bible says.
     Many women followed and ministered to Jesus (Matthew 27:55-56) and are among the finest examples of faith, generosity and service recorded in the New Testament (cf. Matthew 9:20-22; 15:22-28; Mark 12:41-44; 14:8-9). The greatest event in history was first witnessed and announced by godly women (Matthew 28:1-10). The first “missionary” to Samaria, besides Jesus himself, was female (John 4:28-30, 39-42). Women formed part of the nucleus when the Lord’s church began (Acts 1:14; 2:41), and the number of receptive women who obeyed the gospel was an important factor in the rapid growth of early Christianity (Acts 5:14; 8:12; 17:4, 12, 34). Among those in Berea who “searched the scriptures daily” and responded to the truth were noble-minded women (Acts 17:11-12). The church at Philippi initially consisted of devout women and met in a woman’s home (Acts 16:13-18, 40). Because of their uncompromising faith these dedicated, first-century Christian women even suffered brutal persecution (Acts 8:3; 9:2; 22:4).
     Tabitha “was full of good works and charitable deeds” (Acts 9:36). Phoebe was “a servant of the church in Cenchrea,” whom Paul said “has been a helper of many and of myself also” (Romans 16:1-2). Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis “labored much in the Lord” (Romans 16:6, 12). Euodia and Syntyche labored with Paul in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3). There were widows who were “well reported for good works,” who “brought up children … lodged strangers … washed the saints’ feet … relieved the afflicted … diligently followed every good work” (1 Timothy 5:10). Any careful observer of church work and church history must concede that godly women have always been the backbone of the Lord’s church.
     Since Christian woman are to be “teachers of good things” (Titus 2:3), we find that a number of them in the New Testament were endowed with the miraculous gift of prophecy (Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5). It stands to reason that if God had given this gift and the responsibilities of teaching and service to women, he would have expected them to be utilized. At the same time, however, there are certain restrictions placed on Christian women. They are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-12), neither are they allowed to speak as to lead the public assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
     Some have mistakenly concluded that the role of male leadership indicates that women are in some way inferior to men. However, even though male headship implies female subordination (1 Corinthians 11:3), submission and inferiority are not equivalents. While all Christians have been directed to love, serve, and submit to one another (Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 5:5), each has been allocated different functions to perform. For example, elders are to “rule over” the flock and function as “overseers” (Hebrews 13:7-24; 1 Peter 5:2), and the other members are called upon to “obey” and “submit” to them (Hebrews 13:17). As far as the relationship to one another in Christ is concerned, there is equality and mutual submission among all believers. At the same time, there are different God-ordained roles, involving leadership and unilateral submission, to be respected and fulfilled.
     Whatever a Christian woman does in the Lord’s service, she ought to be sensitive to “the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible ornament of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-5). She should be one who “trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Timothy 5:5). A faithful Christian woman “cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:34).
     What can a single woman do on the mission field? There are any number of ministries in which she can be involved, including evangelism, prayer, teaching children’s and ladies’ Bible classes, correspondence work, youth activities, encouraging weak Christians and other singles, secretarial and administrative work, counseling, developing teaching materials, language acquisition, translating, writing, babysitting, easing the work load of other missionaries, providing transport, teaching special skills, and the list could go on. But instead of making a longer list, the best answer to this question, given by one female missionary, is the following: “Whatever I can that needs to be done” (Grace Johnson Farrar, “Opportunities for Women on the Mission Field,” Christian Bible Teacher [March 1988]: 103).
     A single woman, serving the Lord in an environment foreign to her own, must be acutely aware of special problems she may encounter. For any woman in any culture, personal safety can be compromised if good judgment is not exercised. If at all possible single women should travel and work in pairs or in groups or with coworkers, but rarely alone. In many cultures women are expected to be married and have children, so the single female missionary may face a certain amount of suspicion, prejudice, and castigation. It is very important that cultural norms be learned and respected (e.g. women not exposing their hair in some Middle Eastern countries). Nevertheless, these challenges pale in significance to the good she can accomplish and the special needs she can fill.
     Any single woman who exhibits a sincere desire to do whatever she can for the Lord with whatever abilities, opportunities and resources she may have, deserves all the respect, encouragement, support and appreciation she is due. Thank God for the single missionary woman!
Kevin L. Moore

*Adapted from the author’s book The Single Missionary (2002) 47-51; reworked and adapted further for a previous post on “A Woman’s Service in the Church,” <Link>.

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Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Case for the Single Missionary

     Why would it seem so peculiar for a congregation to have a greater preference for an unmarried preacher than for a family man? Why is it generally more difficult for single missionaries to raise support than for married ones? When mission teams are being formed, why are couples often recruited with little regard for single prospects? The underlying message, although subtle and unintentional, is that the unmarried status is comparatively inferior. Consequently singles are unwittingly brainwashed into thinking they are abnormal, and no wonder so many are discontent and undergo senseless frustration and self-pity.
     Is there something inherently wrong with being spouseless? Was not Jesus, our Master and perfect example, a single man? Was it not an unmarried person who wrote, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11)? Almost all successful missionary models are based on the ministries and methods of Jesus and Paul, both of whom were bachelors. There appears to be a greater precedent in the New Testament for single missionaries than for married ones, but in today’s church it looks as though we have turned this idea on its head. Congregations looking to support a missionary usually have in mind a couple or a family, and it seems that single candidates are considered only when no others are available. I can’t help but wonder how difficult it would be for evangelists like Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and even Jesus to find employment or to raise financial support in many present-day congregations.
     One must never let the fact that he/she is single keep him/her from considering missionary opportunities. We need more singles involved in every aspect of church work, especially missions. If a person is eligible, that person most certainly has the “right to take along a believing [spouse]” (1 Corinthians 9:5). But keep in mind that he/she also has the right not to! Regardless of social expectations, the Lord has not made it a requirement for a person to be married.
     If one’s heart is set on doing missionary work, it is much better to remain single than to marry someone who doesn’t share the same convictions and dreams. I know brethren who sincerely want to do overseas missionary work but have never been able to because of a spouse who does not have the same desire. The fire in their bones either has to be extinguished or it continues to burn with feeble attempts to satisfy it on the home front. And if an uncommitted partner is dragged off to the mission field, don’t expect the work to be very fruitful. If your mate is miserable, you will almost certainly be miserable too. A number of missionaries have been forced to return home prematurely because of an unhappy spouse.
     Several years ago, when I was still single, an elder of one of my supporting congregations said to me: “There’s nothing better than a good woman …” After a brief pause, he continued, “… and there’s nothing worse than a bad one!” (cf. Proverbs 12:4). That is not to suggest a person is bad if he or she doesn’t want to be a missionary, and the above observation also applies to the opposite gender. But the point is: marriage is not a prerequisite for missionary work, and in some cases it may even be inadvisable. There are two things a prospective single missionary must never say: (1) “I plan to do missionary work unless I get married,” and (2) “I won’t do missionary work until I get married.” There are some who have chosen single-hood (at least for a time) for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12).
–Kevin L. Moore

Adapted from the author’s book The Single Missionary (2002) 1-5; reworked and adapted further for a previous post on “The Single Christian,” <Link>.

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