Sunday, December 26, 2010

New Testament Lesson #1: "That Ye Might Believe That Jesus Is the Christ"

Isaiah 61:1-3; JST Luke 3:4-11; John 1:1-14; 20:31

THE MISSION OF JESUS CHRIST

Isaiah 61:1-3 is such a beautiful scripture, it begs to be read aloud over and over!  These verses, understood, can change one's understanding of the Atonement, and are a great passage to read and ponder during the sacrament.  Elder Bruce C. Hafen wrote a wonderful treatise on it entitled "Beauty for Ashes" which you can read here.

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our god; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty [to replace] ashes, the oil of joy [to replace] mourning, the garment of praise [to replace] the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified."

Christ read this scripture in the synagogue to proclaim himself the Messiah, "but stopped short so that he could say, 'Today as you heard it read, this passage of [Scripture] (up to but not including the day of vengeance) was fulfilled,' for at his first coming he healed and brought Good News of the Kingdom and salvation; it was not his time to take vengeance or judge" (Stern).  "And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down.  And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.  And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." (Luke 4:20-21)

Notice each of the things Christ has been anointed to do, each marked by the word "to."  Which of these things do you need in your life?
  1. to preach good tidings unto the meek
  2. to bind up the broken-hearted
  3. to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound
  4. to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
  5. and [to proclaim] the day of vengeance of our God
  6. to comfort all they that mourn
  7. to give [or exchange] to [those that mourn in Zion] beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
The next part of the reading assignment is JST Luke 3:4-11, and it also contains a long list of gifts that Christ has brought, each also marked by the word "to:"
  1. to take away the sins of the world
  2. to bring salvation unto the heathen nations
  3. to gather together those who are lost, who are of the sheepfold of Israel
  4. to prepare the way, and make possible the preaching of the gospel unto the Gentiles
  5. to be a light unto all who sit in darkness, unto the uttermost parts of the earth
  6. to bring to pass the resurrection from the dead
  7. to ascend up on high, to dwell on the right hand of the Father
  8. to administer justice unto all
  9. to come down in judgment upon all
  10. to convince all the ungodly of their ungodly deeds.
The Atonement is for the washing away of sins, clearly, and for the resurrection of the dead, obviously, but these scriptures show that it is so much more than that, and very applicable and helpful to our everyday problems and challenges.

The third scripture in the reading assignment is John 1:1-14.  I always had trouble understanding why Christ was called "The Word" here.  The JST makes the meaning of that term clear:

"In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son.  And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God" (v. 1).  In him was the gospel, and the gospel was the life, and the life was the light of men" (v. 4).

(When reading the JST in the LDS Bible Appendix, it is helpful to notice that the changes from the King James Version have been italicized.)

OVERVIEW OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

As we look at the Table of Contents of the New Testament we can see that the book can be easily divided up into four sections: 
  1. The Gospels (testimonies of Christ)
  2. Acts (work of the apostles, especially Peter's work among the Jews and Paul's work among the Gentiles)
  3. Epistles (letters from Church leaders to the saints)
  4. Revelation (revelation received by John on the isle of Patmos)
Why are there four gospels, four different tellings of the life of Christ?  Sure, there is the reason that all truth is established by God in the mouth of two or three witnesses, and here we have even more than that, but couldn't they have collaborated and put together one story that would have been a comprehensive, all-inclusive, chronological biography of Christ, with four witnesses to it?  Then there wouldn't have been any contradictions, and everything would have been covered.  Right?

Well, the gospels are not just biographies, but testimonies of Christ (Bible Dictionary, p. 683).  Each author came from a different walk of life, and was writing to a specific audience.  The study of the authorship, audience, and angle of each of the gospels is fascinating and instructive.

OVERVIEW OF THE FOUR GOSPELS

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are quite similar in phraseology and content, and for that reason they are called "The Synoptic Gospels" (Bible Dictionary, p. 683).  The Gospel of John is quite different, and we will discover the reason for that later.

The Gospel of Mark

Scholars agree that Mark was probably written first, and that the other writers had access to it when writing their gospels.  Mark was not one of the apostles.  He was younger.  He likely was alive when Christ was alive, but he would have been a child.  After his conversion, he became the younger missionary companion of Paul, and later of Peter, serving mainly among the Gentiles.  Therefore, he wrote his gospel from his missionary perspective: a Jew writing to Gentiles.  One can see that hee assumed that the reader would be unfamiliar with Jewish customs and terms and with Palestinian geography, because he explained and described those things.  One can also see that he assumed that the reader was familiar with Latin terms and customs.

"[Mark's] object is to describe our Lord as the incarnate Son of God, living and acting among men.  The gospel contains a living picture of a living Man.  Energy and humility are the characteristics of his portrait.  It is full of descriptive touches that help us to realize the impression made upon the bystanders" (BD, p. 728).  It is "fast moving, emphasizing the doings more than the sayings of the Lord" (BD, p. 683).  Note how many times Mark uses the words "immediately, "straightway," "anon"--all translations of the same word. (Fronk)  This one word is used eight times in chapter one alone, in verses 10, 12, 18, 20, 21, and 28.  Reading Mark leaves one breathless.  The intensity of the ministry is emphasized:  No time to rest, no time to eat.  Mark is full of miracles.  An interesting experiment: Camille Fronk recommends reading it all in one sitting, to catch the energy in the telling. 

The Gospel of Matthew

Matthew was a Jew.  He was a publican, and so he was not popular by profession.  He was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, and he was alive when these things were happening, although he certainly wasn't eyewitness to all of them. "Matthew was probably a thorough Jew with a wide knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures, and able to see in every detail of the Lord's life the fulfillment of prophecy" (BD, p. 729).  His book was written to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.  For this reason, he highlighted the number 14 in Christ's genealogy and he noted 14 prophecies from the Jewish scriptures that were fulfilled by Christ.  (See "The Importance of the Number 14" in a previous lesson.)  He knew that the number 14 was significant to his readers, who were Hebrew.  He knew that they knew that 14 meant "salvation." 

Matthew picked and chose who to represent in the genealogy, as there were actually more than 14 generations between each important individual (and this was acceptable to the Jews, because the symbolic number was the most important thing, not the literal number), but in that picking and choosing, he referenced five women.  Besides Mary (1:16), he listed Thamar or Tamar (1:3), Rachab or Rahab, Ruth (1:5), and Bathsheba (1:6).  Every one of these women had questionable pasts, particularly in relation to their conception and child-bearing, but produced great results for the House of Israel, making themselves ancestral heroines. 

1) Tamar conceived while masquerading as a prostitute!  The father of her child was her own father-in-law.  The reason she committed this grossly immoral deception was that, in opposition to Jewish law, Judah and his sons had cheated her out of progeny, sent her back to her father's house, and consigned her to life as a childless widow (twice widowed, actually), a state that would undoubtedly lead to devastating poverty in her old age.  (See "Opposites" in a previous lesson.

2) Rahab was an idolatrous prostitute in Jericho. With no gospel training, no missionaries, no "members" living nearby, and in the most wicked environment in the world, she gained a testimony of Jehovah.  After her conversion, and after saving the spies of Israel, she raised her son, Boaz, to be a great, kind, wise, and faithful man, the man who married Ruth! (See a previous lesson for more on Rahab.)

3) The next woman mentioned, Ruth, was Rahab's daughter-in-law, a convert from idolatry as well, a Moabitess.  She was married to a Hebrew, and then widowed, which dropped her to the bottom of Jewish society.  From this low point, she sought her own marriage, contrary to custom, and was most likely not the first wife.  (See OT Lesson #20.)

4) Last mentioned was Bathsheba, who conceived as a result of an extra-marital date-rape, or at least an event beyond her control, since the perpetrator happened to be the all-powerful king David.  (See a previous lesson for more on this.)

5) By including these particular women, revered by the Jews but with imperfect and even abhorrent family situations, Matthew presented the perfect defense for Mary's unusual circumstance of conception.  (Bokovoy)

A little parable recorded in Matthew is especially applicable to the Jews.  "Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old" (Matt. 13:52).  The "scribe" would be a man knowledgeable in the Jewish religion.  "Things old" would be the Law of Moses, and "things new" the Gospel of Christ.  Matthew included a lot of anti-Pharisee comments to show that the Law was not an end in itself, as the Pharisees seemed to think.  Chapters 5-7 give the higher law.  "The Kingdom of Heaven" would be important to the Jews, and many of the parables in Matthew liken something to the Kingdom of Heaven.  The parables describe trees growing or bread rising, showing that the Kingdom of Heaven is a process, not an event.  (Fronk)

Matthew's is the only gospel that includes the story of the wise men.  Jews would have been most impressed by wealthy, learned men who had studied the scriptures in far away lands (they might possibly have been displaced Jews) and recognized the signs of the Messiah's coming. 

Matthew included five major discourses given by Jesus Christ.  He highlighted these in a way similar to the way he highlighted the 14 prophecies, using a key phrase at the end of each.  The phrase is "When Jesus had finished these sayings..."  Is there a reason he chose five sermons?  Of course!  There is a reason for every number used by a Jew in the Bible!  In this case, Matthew was adding a sequel to five writings that were very near and dear to every Jew, and were in fact, a foundation of their religion:  The five books of Moses, the Torah.  By doing this, he was showing the Jews that Christ was the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, and that His counsel superseded or added to that Law.  (Bokovoy)
  1. 5:1-7:27 The Sermon on the Mount, given to the multitude.  The tag is found in 7:28.
  2. 10:5-42  The instruction for the ministry of the 12 apostles.  The tag is 11:1.
  3. 13:1-52  The Sermon from the Ship, given to great multitudes.  The tag is 13:53.
  4. 18:1-35  "Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?" spoken to the apostles.  The tag is 19:1.
  5. 24:3-25:46  The Olivet Discourse, given to the 12 apostles.  The tag is 26:1.
The Gospel of Luke

Luke's gospel is the one with the beautiful Christmas story, told from a woman's perspective.  (Matthew tells it from a man's.)  Luke was a Gentile convert, likely converted through the labors of Paul (see BD, p. 726), writing to Gentiles and to minorities, and to those looked down upon by the Jews:  women, lepers, Samaritans, sinners (prostitutes).  Luke was a physician, and therefore had close contact with and compassion for all types and both genders of people, a unique position.  Most male professions in that day involved dealings with other men only, but a physician dealt with all, even the "unclean." 

As a missionary, Luke ministered to the Gentiles with Paul.  Like Matthew, Luke gives a genealogy of Christ, but it differs from Matthew's.  Matthew introduced Christ as "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt. 1:1).  This is what was important to the Jews: that Christ was one of the chosen people, and was in the kingly and priestly line.  It was the first thing Matthew said in his testimony.  Luke, on the other hand, gives a genealogy of Christ that identifies him as "the son of Joseph" (Luke 3:23) (even though Luke testifies of the divinity of Christ) and takes Christ's ancestry all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:38), making everyone, Jew and Gentile, a relative of Christ.  (Fronk)

Luke had a special understanding of women as a result of his medical ministry among them.  He wa the only one who wrote of the annunciation of Mary, and of her visit to Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother.  He knew that "Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).  He knew of Simeon's personal prophecy to Mary that "a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also" (Luke 2:35).  How did he know of these things?  Very likely he was a close personal acquaintance of Mary's in the Church, and he heard these stories from her own mouth.  Luke gives what little information we have about the childhood of Christ. He was the one who told of Mary's terror when she realized her 12-year-old was not with the caravan.  (See Luke 2:51).

Where is the parable of the Good Samaritan found?  Only in Luke.  What about Christ's visit to Mary and Martha?  Only in Luke.  Many of the most treasured parables are found only in Luke:  The woman with the lost coin, the shepherd with the lost sheep, the Prodigal Son, the rich man and the beggar Lazarus.  The cleansing of the ten lepers is recorded only in Luke.  Luke wrote to the underdog, to tell him (and her!) that Christ was come for them as well as for anyone.

The Gospel of John

John is the gospel that is not like the others.  Like Matthew and Mark, John was a Jew converted to Christianity.  Like Matthew he was one of the apostles.  But unlike Matthew, he was not writing to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Christ, and unlike Mark, he was not writing to convince the Gentiles that Jesus was the Christ.  He was not writing to convince anyone that Jesus was the Christ: he was writing to those who already knew.  He was writing to the Christians.  This makes his gospel very different.  Near the conclusion of his book, we read, "But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:31).  The Harper-Collins Study Bible translates the intention of that passage to be slightly different:  "But these are written, that ye might continue to believe that Jesus is the Christ..."  "The Gospel of John," wrote Bruce R. McConkie, "is the account for the saints" (Mormon Doctrine, p. 336).

John was in the Church from the very beginning.  A follower of John the Baptist, he then became one of the first disciples of Christ.  John was one of the "inner circle of three who were with the Lord at the raising of Jairus's daughter, at the Transfiguration, and in Gethsemane" (BD, p. 715).  So he was like a member of the First Presidency, one of the "three pillars of the Christian Church".  John wrote not only his gospel, but also three of the epistles, and the amazing book of Revelation.  He identified himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," the one who wanted to continue to minister upon the earth until the Second Coming. His testament was the last one written, and contains unique contributions, and many more of Christ's teachings than do the others.  He had a deep understanding of the Savior and his gospel by the time he wrote his book.  (Ludlow)

Only John tells how Christ raised Lazarus from the dead.  Only John records the cleansing of the temple.  In John, Christ explains his death to the apostles.  Only in John do we read of Jesus washing his disciples' feet, and his commandment to them to be an example of love for each other.  In John, the apostles are warned that the world will hate them and try to kill them.  In John the gift of the Comforter is explained.  The Intercessory prayer for the disciples is found in John.  Only in John is Peter told three times, "Feed my sheep."  More of the resurrected Christ's visit back to his disciples is recorded in John than in the other gospels.  (Fronk)

John records seven miraculous signs of the divinity of Christ, five of which are only found in his gospel.  (To see this list, see Victor Ludow's article,  "John: The Once and Future Witness".)

The Gospel of John is a college text, where the other gospels are elementary school primers.  The other three gospels are like sacrament meeting, and the Gospel of John is like a temple.  In fact, John is better understood in relation to the temple ceremony.  It is deep and rich and symbolic, and it builds upon what the other gospels give us and raises our understanding to a higher level.  It is for the increased edification of those who are already saints.

Only John records the descriptions Christ gave of himself, many of which hearken back to the term used in the Old Testament to identify Jehovah: "I AM."  (Ludlow)  Seven of them are especially noted, possibly symbolic of the meaning of the number seven: godly perfection.  These are marked with a tag, similar to Matthew's tags; they all begin with some form of the phrase "Jesus said unto them."
  1. When the multitude asked Christ to show them a sign, like the manna in the wilderness, "And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst" (6:35).
  2. After saving the adulterous woman from stoning, "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (8:12).
  3. Later in that same conversation, "Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I Am" (8:58), identical with the term used in Exodus 3:14, and after which they tried to stone him, but he spirited himself away.
  4. After telling the parable of the sheepfold to the Pharisees, "Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep...by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (10:7, 9).
  5. To Martha, before raising Lazarus from the dead, "Jesus saith unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (11:25-26).
  6. When Thomas asked how they would know the way, "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:6).
  7. When Judas was betraying him, (I'm removing the King James translators' additions, which are in italics in the scriptures) "Jesus saith unto them, I am.  And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.  As soon then as he had said unto them, I am, they went backward and fell to the ground" (18:5-8) and Jesus repeated the statement.
"John's witness of the Lord is unique.  His Gospel and epistles record some of the Savior's noblest feelings and doctrines, especially His message of love" (Ludlow).


Sources: 
Bible Dictionary entries for Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 114.
Camille Fronk [Olson], "The Four Gospels," Know Your Religion Lecture, January 1998, Logan, Utah
David Bokovoy, "A Literary Analysis of the Four Gospels," BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2002
Victor Ludlow, "John: The Once and Future Witness," Ensign, December 1991, p. 51-52
Thomas Mumford, Horizontal Harmony of the Gospels

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #48 "The Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord"

Zechariah 10-14; Malachi

INTRODUCTION

What do a coin, an argument, and the state line have in common?  (Wait for response.) They all have two sides--which leads us right into our topic, the Second Coming.  "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord" (Malachi 4:5).  The Second Coming will have two sides:  it will be great on the one side, and dreadful on the other.

It is reported that President Faust was speaking at a regional Priesthood meeting.  At the end of the meeting he opened up the session for questions.  Someone raised his hand and asked what the Brethren knew about when the Second Coming would occur.  President Faust asked the man what priesthood he held.  The man said he was a high priest.  President Faust said, "Then I will fill you in on what the Brethren know:  (pause)  We haven't a clue."  But then he added, "Go to your High Priest's quorum next Sunday; I'm sure someone there will know."  (Story told by Scott B. Marsh at BYU Education Week, August 2001)

But even though President Faust didn't know when the Second Coming would be, it can't be too far away.  President Benson said, "This is the last and great dispensation in which the great consummation of God's purposes will be made, the only dispensation in which the Lord has promised that sin will not prevail.  The Church will not be taken from the earth again.  It is here to stay.  The Lord has promised it and you are a part of that Church and kingdom--the nucleus around which will be builded the great kingdom of God on the earth.  The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God on the earth will be combined together at Christ's coming--and that time is not far distant.  How I wish we could get the vision of this work, the genius of it, and realize the nearness of that great event.  I am sure it would have a sobering effect upon us if we realized what is before us."  This was originally said in the '80's and was repeated by President Hinckley in 1992 in the October General Conference.  (Ensign, Nov. 1992, p. 4)

THE NEW APOSTACY

The Second Coming is called "the great and dreadful day of the Lord."  It is two-sided, just like the coin and the argument.  On the one side, it will be great for the righteous, and on the other it will be dreadful for the wicked.  Of course, it's going to be great for all of us, because we are members of His Church, right?  Well, that depends on what kind of members of the Church we are. 

Christ told many parables about the Second Coming and one of them was the Parable of the Ten Virgins.  (Read Matt. 25:1-13.)  The most important thing to remember about this parable is that it is the Parable of the Ten Virgins, not the Parable of the Five Virgins and the Five Harlots!  All ten were members of the Church, members of the "wedding party."  All ten had lamps of testimony.  But five had let their lamps get low on oil, and while waiting for the "bridegroom" (the Second Coming), they were extinguished altogether.  They were drifting off to sleep and didn't even realize it was happening until it was gone!  They were victims of what Lynn Scoresby calls "The New Apostacy" (A. Lynn Scoresby, BYU Education Week Lecture, August 19, 1999).

Malachi warned of this type of apostacy.  "A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my [respect]? saith the Lord of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name.  And ye say, Wherein have we despised thy name?  Ye offer polluted bread upon mine altar; and ye say, Wherein have we polluted thee?  In that ye say, The table of the Lord is contemptible.  And if ye offer the blind [lamb] for the sacrifice, is it not evil? and if ye offer the lame and sick [animals], is it not evil?" (Mal. 1:6-8) 

What is the accusation?  Perverted obedience.  It's no sacrifice to give the Lord the leftovers, the things that we didn't need anyway, the sick animals that we couldn't have eaten or sold.

"Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them.  Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.  But ye said, Wherein shall we return? [What did we do wrong?]  Will a man rob God?  Yet ye have robbed me.  But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee?  In tithes and offerings" (Mal. 3:7-8). 

What is the accusation?  It's more than just not paying tithes.  It's not recognizing that everything belongs to God and should go for the good of His kingdom; that we are not entitled owners, but simply stewards.

"Your words have been stout against me, saith the Lord.  Yet ye say, What have we spoken so much against thee?  Ye have said, It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts?  And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered" (Mal. 3:13-15). 

What is the accusation?  Envying those who are not members of the church, or who are not active in their membership.  Who would do that?  Most of us at one time or another.  We get tired of church service and look at the "easier" lives of our nonmember neighbors who get to sleep in on Sunday mornings and don't have as many rules to follow.  We don't recognize the tremendous blessings that have entered our lives through our service to the Lord and our obedience to His commandments.  When something happens to us that we term to be a tragedy, we shout angrily at the Lord, "Hey!  I've been active in the church all my life!  I've read the scriptures, said my prayers, served a mission, gone to the temple, lived the Word of Wisdom!  Why did I get cancer?  Why did my house burn down?  Why did my daughter die in a car crash?  Why did my son go astray?  Look at my neighbor:  His life is perfect, and he's never gone to church!  I have been cheated!"  Instead of trusting the Lord's long-term plan for our lives and looking for lessons and blessings in trials, we blame Him for what we view as injustice or inattention.

THE DANGER OF HYPOCRISY

Let's look at another parable.  "A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.  He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.  And he came to the second, and said likewise.  And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.  Whether of them twain did the will of his father?" (Matt. 21:28-31).

Brother Scoresby defines the First Apostacy as getting angry and leaving the Church in a huff.  The Second Apostacy, he says, is to pervert the Church from within.  The Third Apostacy, or the New Apostacy, is much more subtle.  It's not really new, but it has experienced a resurgence in recent years.  It's like a virgin with not quite enough oil.  It's like a sacrifice of a lamb, but a blind one.  It's like paying 8% tithing.  It's like accepting a Church calling and never getting around to doing it.  The New Apostacy is to not do what you say you believe.  It is half-heartedness.  It is hypocrisy.  It is a lack of spiritual integrity.  If the integrity of a building is compromised, it may look fine, but in a hurricane or an earthquake, it will crumble.  So with the faith of one whose spiritual integrity is not solid.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, "Some people are weak in their faith and testimonies but are not even aware of how precarious their situation is.  Many of them likely would be offended at the suggestion."  He explains what their problem is: "They raise their right hand to sustain Church leaders and then murmur and complain when a decision [made by those Church leaders] does not square with their way of thinking.  They claim to be obedient to God's commandments but do not feel at all uncomfortable about purchasing food at the store on Sunday and then asking the Lord to bless it.  Some say they would give their lives for the Lord, yet they refuse to serve in the nursery.

"The Savior spoke very explicity about people who 'draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me' (Isa. 29:13).  His words were: 'Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven."  (Joseph B. Wirthlin, "Spiritual Bonfires of Testimony," Ensign, November 1992)

Brother Scoresby notes that when there is a conflict between your belief and your action--in other words, hypocrisy--the action wins; the brain will eventually adjust the belief to match the action.  The value of other beliefs in the brain are also compromised when one belief is overridden by action.  Over time, the individual continues to lose control over his own behavior.  This is why Christ condemned hypocrisy so soundly.  It is a powerful sin because it decreases integrity and eventually leads to apostacy.  It compromises the soundness of the spirit, it undermines the foundation of faith.

DEVELOPING SPIRITUAL INTEGRITY

How can we develop spiritual integrity, or help our children do it?  Most of us as children, if we were in good homes, developed the foundation for integrity, which forms the foundation upon which we can build spiritual integrity.  (This chart is my interpretation of the principles taught by Lynn Scoresby.) 

Keep in mind, these stages overlap, and we are often working on several of them at once.

Development of Personal and Spiritual Integrity
1. Adapting emotional behavior
    First, we learned to adapt our emotional behavior to the situation. 
    As infants we were more excited to see our mothers than to see a
    stranger, for example.
2. Adjusting language to situation
    Then we learned to adjust our language to different situations,
    such as learning to be reverent in Primary.
3. Self-regulation
    And we learned how to regulate ourselves in sports or in playing
    games or in restaurants to adhere to the rules or the social
    expectations.  Most children have reached this stage by about
    age five.  

At stage 4, we can begin to develop our spiritual integrity:

4. Formation and application of conscience
    "Put your trust in that spirit that leadeth to do good..."
     (D&C 11:12)
    The next step is to learn to listen to our conscience and recognize
    the direction of the Spirit.  This is the stage we would hope to
    have children reach by the age of accountability when they are
    baptized.  We continue to build on the ability to hear and follow
    the guidance of the Spirit throughout our lives.
5. Accurate view of self
    "I show unto men their weakness..." (Ether 12:27)
    We must also be able to recognize the truth about ourselves,
    without being afraid of what we might find, and then go to the
    Lord with repentant hearts.
6. Practice and internalize beliefs
    "Write it in your hearts..." (Prov. 3:1-4)
    Over the course of our lives, we must daily internalize our beliefs
    through our experiences; we must practice obedience to God
    until it becomes "second nature."
7. Change circumstances to match belief
    "Faith to move mountains..."  (Prov. 3:5; Matt. 21:21)
    Then we gain the ability to change circumstances based on our
    beliefs, rather than changing our beliefs to fit the circumstances;
    we use our faith in Jesus Christ to work for improvement in our
    world, to heal, to receive answers to prayer, to exercise the gifts
    of the Spirit, to change lives, even to work miracles.
8. Integrity and compassion
    "This is my work and my glory..." (3 Ne. 28:9-10; Moses 1:39)
    Finally, we reach a state of spiritual integrity: behavior that is
    consistent with belief.  In this stage, we truly live with charity
    and peace, wherein we love God so much that, not only do we
    trust Him, but we are one in purpose with Him, meaning that our
    top priority is always the temporal welfare and spiritual growth of
    those within our influence.  This is the effect of a celestialized
    person.

If we look carefully at ourselves, we may be able to find what is holding us back.  Instead of the positive development noted above, we may be stymied by acting in ways that are detrimental to our spiritual integrity, such as in the examples below.

4. Formation and application of conscience.
    We don't always listen to the Holy Ghost, trust what it says to do,
    or follow through on promptings.
5. Accurate view of self. 
    We are too prideful to recognize any error, or don't want to go
    through the storm of repentance to get to the peace of
    forgiveness.
6. Practice and internalize beliefs.
    We pick and choose which commandments to keep, or we keep
    them under our own terms like Cain did when he sacrificed grain
    instead of a lamb (Gen. 4:3-5).  We keep the commandments
    only if it doesn't require us to give up anything important, like
    offering a blind lamb as a sacrifice (Mal. 1:8).  We don't think the
    Brethren know what they're talking about it regarding some of
    their counsel to us, or we think we are an exception.
7. Change circumstances to match belief.
    We say we have faith in Jesus Christ, but we don't believe He
    can or will help us with this particular problem/church calling/
    weakness/sin/relationship. We look at our planner each morning
    and freak out, rather than trusting the Lord to guide us to do the
    most important things.  We second-guess the Lord's wisdom,
    and try to tell Him what to do in our prayers, rather than seeking
    to know His will.  We interpret unplanned events (accidents,
    illnesses, financial losses, etc.) to be tragedies, rather than
    potential blessings and stepping stones in our progression.  We
    look to the future fearfully, not remembering that our lives and
    our earth are cradled in God's hands. 
8. Integrity and compassion.
    We go to church, we read the scriptures, we carry out church
    callings, but we can't stand our relative/neighbor/coworker.  We
    gossip or judge.  We are jealous or judgmental.  We feel a
    constant sense of competition, as if to "win the prize" of celestial
    glory (Mosiah 4:27) we must beat our ward members to it, as if
    the Lord graded on a curve.  We continually break the great
    commandment to "love our neighbor as ourselves."

THE IMPORTANCE OF INTEGRITY AT THE GREAT AND DREADFUL DAY OF THE LORD

Read Malachi 3:1-4.  Do we want the Second Coming to be great for us, to be terrible?  It's a no-brainer, but it's a question we need to ask ourselves every day in order to avoid the New Apostacy.  Do we want to be one of the five wise virgins, or one of the five unprepared virgins?  The days ahead will be a challenge to testimony, and those that are just a flicker will go out.  Those who have been hypocrites and not realized it will find that their "hearts fail them."  They will not be able to abide the Day of His Coming.  Their compromised foundations will crumble.  But those who have the integrity to stay on the Lord's side, who have built their lives upon the Rock, will be saved. 

"Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.  And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.  Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not" (Mal. 3:16-18).

"And at that day, when I shall come in my glory, shall the parable be fulfilled which I spake concerning the ten virgins. For they that are wise and have received the truth, and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have not been deceived—verily I say unto you, they shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire, but shall abide the day. And the earth shall be given unto them for an inheritance; and they shall multiply and wax strong, and their children shall grow up without sin unto salvation. For the Lord shall be in their midst, and his glory shall be upon them, and he will be their king and their lawgiver" (D&C 45:56-59).

CHALLENGE

The New Year is upon us.  What better time to examine ourselves prayerfully, determine where our spiritual integrity is lacking, and make a resolution to strengthen that foundation?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Extra Christmas Lesson: The Measure of Our Faith

If your ward has more Sundays than the manual has lessons, you can use this extra lesson if you didn't use it last year:  The Measure of Our Faith.  It has a Christmas connection in it so it might work well on the Sunday before Christmas.  Then you could give Lesson 48 on the last Sunday of the year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #47 "Let Us Rise Up and Build"/Christmas Lesson

Ezra 1-8; Nehemiah 1-2; 4; 6; 8

(Note:  This lesson is heavy on Christmas and light on Ezra and Nehemiah.  I just can't give a lesson the week of Christmas without focusing on the birth of Christ, but I have included links to more material on Ezra and Nehemiah for those who would like them.)

PREPARATION

Before class, decorate the room with 14 large paper stars.  Hang them from the ceiling with fishing wire and thumb tacks, or tape them to the rim of the white board or chalkboard, etc.  You may also want to display a nativity scene on the table.

INTRODUCTION (Just for fun)

If you have a class with a good sense of humor (or if they need one), you may want to introduce this lesson by showing this 2-minute, 45-second Claymation video segment, "The Carol of the Bells."  Before showing the video, tell the class there is a symbolic significance to it that relates to the prophecies of Christ, however obscure.  After showing the video, you can freeze the picture at the 8-second mark to let the class see if they can figure out the symbol.  Tell them, if they can't figure out the symbol, the same symbol is found in the stars hanging around the room.  Most likely, no one will be able to guess correctly, but it will grab their attention and keep them listening for the answer which will come much later in the lesson.

RETURN TO JERUSALEM

This lesson takes us back in time 400-500 years before the first "Christmas" in Bethlehem to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries and colleagues in the rebuilding of the kingdom of God.  The two books go together and are actually just one book in the Jewish Bible.  Babylon, where the Jews had been taken, had been overthrown by Cyrus of Persia, as foretold by King Nebechudnezzar's dream of the great image (Daniel 2).  Cyrus encouraged the Jews to begin their return to Jerusalem to build up their temple.  And why did he feel inclined to do that?  Because he found his name in the prophecy, foretelling that he would.

Ezra 1:1-4:  "Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, the Lord God of heaven [remember, that is the Persian term for the God of the Jews; see previous post] hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah."

Josephus wrote, "This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies; for this prophet said that God had spoken thus to him in a secret vision:--'My will is, that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their own land, and build my temple.'  This was foretold by Isaiah one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished.  Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfil what was so written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant, and that he would write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighbourhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and besides that, beasts for their sacrifices."  (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, Chapter 1, verses 1 & 2)

Here is the prophecy Cyrus read about himself as recorded in our present-day Old Testament:  "Thus saith the Lord, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the Lord that maketh all things...That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid."  (Isaiah 44:24, 28)  The prophecy to Cyrus continues on in Isaiah 45, promising the Lord's aid to Cyrus as he performs this work.

So nearly 50,000 Jews went back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple.  The joy for the Jews when the temple was complete was contrasted with the sorrow of the old men who remembered the glory and splendor of the previous temple, as recorded in Ezra 3:11-13.  "Many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house [remember this was 70 years after they had been taken captives in Babylon, so these people must have been nearing 90 or 100 to remember the first temple] when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy" (Ezra 3:12).  (Institute Manual 29-4, 29-14)

EZRA

The first six chapters of Ezra take place 60 to 80 years before his time.  There is no record of what happened in those years (Bible Dictionary, p. 669), but it must have been something bad, because a lot of damage had been done to Jerusalem.  Ezra was a priest (Ezra 7:6), and he received the king's permission to lead another group of Jews back to Jerusalem and reform the Jews living there.

"Along with Nehemiah, [Ezra] took steps to instruct the people in the Mosaic law.  Hitherto, the law had been to a great extent the exclusive possession of the priests.  It was now brought within the reach of every Jew." (ibid.)  In other words, most of the people had never had access to the scriptures, never heard them read in their entire lives, and their worship had, obviously, drifted and deviated from the Word of God.  It was a time similar to that following the Dark Ages in Europe, when Wycliffe and Tyndale translated the Bible into English and made it available to the commoner (although Wycliffe and Tyndale paid the price for their effort with their lives).

Read Nehemiah 8:1-4, 12, 17-18 for the beautiful account of the reading of the scriptures to the people.

(For much more on Ezra, see the Institute Manual.)

NEHEMIAH

Nehemiah, the king's cupbearer (Neh. 1:11), a high-ranking civil servant, was allowed to go back as well.  Nehemiah became the leader of the re-building effort and, while under attack, rebuilt the walls of the city.

"Nehemiah stands out as one of the noble men in the Old Testament. As he fulfilled a necessary mission in his day, he demonstrated the highest level of dedication and courage, both in the practical matter of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and also in the spiritual matter of rebuilding the religious life of his people" (Institute Manual).

“[Nehemiah's] career presents an exceptional combination of strong self-reliance with humble trust in God, of penetrating shrewdness with perfect simplicity of purpose, of persistent prayerfulness with the most energetic activity; and for religious faith and practical sagacity he stands conspicuous among the illustrious personages of the Bible.” (J. R. Dummelow, ed., A Commentary on the Holy Bible, p. 278, quoted in Institute Manual)

For more on Nehemiah, see the Institute Manual.

LINK TO THE NEW TESTAMENT AND CHRISTMAS

Sadly, there are many people today who do not treasure the scriptures, even though they are easily accessible to almost anyone in almost any country of the world, thanks to the Internet and the efforts of the Church Translation Department.  The Christmas season is one time of the year, however, that many people who are not exposed to religion in any way allow just a little bit of the scriptures into their lives.  For example, the Christmas special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which first aired in 1965, is the longest-running television Christmas special in history.  Charles Schulz wrote it to include the Bible recitation of the Christmas story in Luke 2, to the chagrin of the network authorities.  They were sure that the television audience would not like scripture in their Christmas entertainment.  It was too late once they found out the content to do anything about it, as the special had already been advertised and scheduled.  So they ran it, expecting it to be a flop.  To their surprise it was a huge hit in the ratings that week, and has run every year since then:  For 45 years the scriptural account of the birth of Christ has been a part of American families' Christmas viewing.  ("A Christmas Miracle:  The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas" DVD featurette in the Remastered Deluxe Edition of "A Charlie Brown Christmas")  If you have access to this video, you may want to play it for the class beginning at the point where Charlie Brown cries out, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" and ending with Linus saying, after reciting Luke 2, "That's what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown."

Linus was right:  That is, indeed, what Christmas is about. The heart of Christmas, Jesus, is also the heart of the scriptures. We can link the Old Testament to the New Testament (which will be our study for next year) with a special set of prophecies significant to the life and mission of Christ. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE NUMBER 14

Did you figure out the symbol in the bells and the stars?  It is the number 14.  (On the board, post the number 14.)
  • There were 14 bells celebrating Christ's birth in the Christmas carol on the video.
  • There are 14 stars hanging in the room proclaiming Christ's birth as the Star of Bethlehem did.
  • Matthew used the number 14 to teach the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.
Each of the four gospel writers wrote the story of Christ and his ministry a little differently from the others, because each of them had a different background and was writing to convince a different audience.  (More on this in a later blog entry.)  Matthew was a Jew, writing to Jews, and the purpose of his book was to teach the Jews that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and law.  You may have looked at the first chapter of Matthew before and thought, "BORING!  Why did he stick this big recitation of genealogy in here rather than get straight to the great story about Jesus' birth and life?"  Because before he told the Jews about Jesus, he wanted to tell them who Jesus was:  The Messiah of the Old Testament!  So he listed Christ's genealogy, and afterward wrote this:

"And all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations."

He actually telescoped the genealogy (manipulated it, leaving out generations) to highlight the number 14 and drive home his point that Jesus came as the promised Messiah  from the House of David, the royal line.  In Hebrew, every letter had a numeric value, and every number had a symbolic meaning.  The symbolic meaning of the number was more important in many or most cases than the literal meaning.  The Jews loved playing with these numbers and letters and inserting deep symbolism into them.  The letters of the name DAVID in Hebrew add up to 14.  The meaning of the number 14 is "deliverance, salvation."  (Harper-Collins Study Bible, and Biblical Numerics.)  (Post a picture of Christ on the board by the 14 and add "= Deliverance and Salvation.") 

Beginning with the next few verses, as Matthew told the story of Christ's life, he noted 14 prophecies from the scriptures available in that day--what we now call the Old Testament--that were fulfilled by Christ so that the readers, the Jews, would recognize Jesus as Jehovah, their God of the Old Testament, their Deliverer descended from the House of David.  These prophecies were noted with phrases marking them as fulfillment of prophecy.  For example, "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying..." (Matthew 1:22).  Ezra had brought these prophecies back into the life of the common Jew several hundred years before, and so the Jews were now very familiar with the scriptures and would have recognized this prophecy as they read Matthew's testament.

Pass out copies of the list of the 14 prophecies below, and if there is time, go through all or some of the prophecies on the list.  Encourage the class to mark in the margins of their New Testament the cross-references to these 14 prophecies, and number them as OT Prophecies 1-14.  Families can use this as an alternate or additional Christmas scripture reading to tell the story of Christ's life through the eyes of the Old Testament prophets.  If this lesson is given on December 12, 2010, there will be exactly 14 days, including Christmas Day, in which to read one prophecy per day.

FOURTEEN OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECIES NOTED BY MATTHEW
  1. 1:23 (Isaiah 7:14) A virgin will conceive and bear a son who will be "Emmanuel," "God With Us."
  2. 2:6 (Micah 5:2) The Governor will come from Bethlehem.
  3. 2:15 (Hosea 11:1) The Son will be called out of Egypt.
  4. 2:18 (Jer. 31:15) Rachel will weep for her children.
  5. 2:23 (Lost from our OT) He will be from Nazareth.
  6. 3:3 (Isa. 40:3) The voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.
  7. 4:15-16 (Isa. 9:1-2) The people who were in darkness will see the Light
  8. 8:17 (Isa. 53:4) He will take our infirmities.
  9. 12:18-21 (Isa. 42:103) He will not harm even a bruised reed.
  10. 13:14-15 (Isa. 6:9-10) The people's heart gross, their ears dull.
  11. 13:35 (Psalm 78:2) He will speak in parables.
  12. 21:5 (Zech. 9:9-11 or Isa. 62:11) The King will come riding upon a donkey.
  13. 26:56 (possibly Zech. 13:6) People come out with staves against him, although they were previously companionable
  14. 27:9 (Zech. 11:13) He will be sold for 30 pieces of silver.
(Sources:  Harper-Collins Study Bible, footnotes on each individual prophecy; Camille Fronk [Olson], The Four Gospels, Know Your Religion Lecture given in Logan, Utah, January 1998; David Bokovoy, A Literary Analysis of the Four Gospels, BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2002)

CONCLUSION/CHALLENGE

Today Christmas is over-commercialized, as we all know, and many people don't ever get very far beyond the packaging to the real Gift of Christmas.  (Hold up the Baby Jesus from the nativity set.)  We ourselves, being believers, need to make sure that our Christmas does center around the heart of the matter, Jesus Christ, and we need to make Him prominent for our families.

I really love this Christmas song by popular country singer Clint Black, because it emphasizes the effort we of the latter days must take to find Christ in Christmas.  It is from the album of the same title.  (There is a free mp3 download of this song at this link.

Looking For Christmas
Clint Black

I'm looking for Christmas,
I've gotta find Christmas,
Flying back in my mind
Does anyone know of this Christmas,
A long ago Christmas,
Sleigh bells ringing, carolers singing
Only bringing the long traveled message of love.

I'm looking for Christmas,
In time for this Christmas,
A day far and away
And could a star show me Christmas,
The town of old Christmas
Where truth is ringing,
A virgin's bringing the newborn King
And the Lord's own Messiah of love?

And I close my eyes
And I'm kneeling there in the stall,
And could I be the wise man,
Sharing His wisdom,
creating a Kingdom for all?

I'm looking for Christmas,
I know I'll find Christmas
Imparted right from the start
And everyone knows of this Christmas,
The very first Christmas
Where Christ is guiding all with tidings
Still His light is residing here in us all.

And I close my eyes,
And a thousand lifetimes recall
Aren't we all wise magi, sharing His wisdom,
Creating a Kingdom
As born on this Christmas
And each Christmas Day we are sharing His wisdom,
Creating a kingdom
As born on this Christmas
And each Christmas Day that shall fall.

(If you would like to play the music for your class, you can illustrate it with the Church video segment "Luke II," from the "New Testament Video Presentations".  Turn the sound off the video.  Key it up to the point where the red curtain is dropped after Joseph asks entrance.  Begin to play the video and the Clint Black music at the same time.  It doesn't line up perfectly, but it gives you something nice to watch while you listen.  This little music video presentation will be 3 minutes and 50 seconds long.)

It is my hope that we can all use the symbols of Christmas, like the Hebrews used symbols of the scriptures, to point us to Christ.  We might cast a prayer heavenward in gratitude for the Old Testament authors, and the restorers like Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as those who preserved the scriptures through the centuries, and those who later translated them into English, all so that we could read the story of the nativity for ourselves  in our own homes on Christmas Day.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #46 "A Kingdom, Which Shall Never Be Destroyed"

Daniel 2

PRELIMINARY QUESTION

Ask the class to be thinking about this question (post it on the board):  "What is one thing you really like about Daniel or one message from his book?"  (You will ask for their answers later in the lesson.)

THE GROWTH OF THE KING'S TESTIMONY

"A God of Gods."  Chapter 2:  Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had a troubling dream which he could not remember or which he would not tell (v. 1-4).  (See footnote a in verse 5:  It is possible the original meaning was that he did remember the dream, but was testing others' ability to divine it.  Harper-Collins Study Bible also suggests this possibility on p. 1305, as does Ellis T. Rasmussen,  An Introduction to the Old Testament and Its Teachings, 2:92, quoted in the Institute Manual, Section 28-9.)  He was deeply impressed, whichever the case may be, that the dream was significant and he needed to know the interpretation.  He called all his wise men and priests and asked for the interpretation.  They answered, quite reasonably, that they could not interpret the dream if they did not know what it was.  Nebuchadnezzar did not back down from his challenge, however.  He offered "gifts and rewards and great honour" to them who could state and interpret the dream (v. 6), and a gruesome death if they failed (v. 5, 12).

The king's guard went forth to slay these men, and on their way, were intercepted by Daniel (v. 14) who asked what was going on.  When he heard, he went straight to the king to ask for himself, and to offer to learn and give the interpretation.  Then he returned to his quarters and shared the news with his three friends, and begged them to pray for him, as all their lives depended upon it (v. 14-18), and also the lives of the other wise men or priests (v. 24).  "Then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a night vision.  Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven" (v. 19).

The story is inconsistent in that Daniel has direct access to the king in verse 16, and in verse 25 the captain of the guard brings Daniel to the king and introduces him as "a man of the captives of Judah," as if the king did not know who he was. Verse 16 is "widely regarded [by scholars] as a late addition to harmonize with Chapter 1" (Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 1306). 

Oh well.  No one's perfect, and neither were the writers and editors of the Old Testament.    The contradiction doesn't affect the important points of the story.

When Daniel related and interpreted the dream, Nebuchadnezzar learned the difference between the idols of Babylon and the God of Israel.  Whereas the Babylonian priests defended their inability to respond by saying that no one could give this interpretation unless they were helped by the gods, and those gods do not dwell near enough to people to aid them (v. 11), Daniel showed the God of Israel to be immediate and personal, even in a foreign nation such as Babylon (Richard D. Draper, "The Prophets of the Exile: Saviors of a People," Voices of Old Testament Prophets: The 26th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 96).  The phrase "God of heaven" here used is a Persian title for the Jewish God (Harper-Collins, p. 1306).  Whereas the stars were considered to be some of the Babylonian dieties, The God of Israel was God even over them, by this definition. 

Daniel gave every bit of glory for the recall and interpretation of the dream to Jehovah (v. 20-30), thus introducing him to the king as a God of gods, who is invested in the doings of man, and who knows all, as evidenced by the fact that he reveals secrets (v. 19, 22, 28, 29, 30).  The dream itself showed that God could place and remove kings and define and direct empires.

The king's beginning testimony:  "Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets" (v. 47).

A God who can deliver.  Chapter 3:  Here is the story of Daniel's three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego surviving an attempted execution by furnace after they refused to worship the Babylonion idol.  Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed that he sent forth a decree that the Jews and their God be respected (v. 28-29).

The king's growing testimony:  "No other God...can deliver after this sort" (v. 29).

A God who is eternal and all-powerful.  Chapter 4:  The king had a second troubling and prophetic dream, which Daniel interpreted.  At this point, although the king had learned quite a bit about the God of Israel, he had not accepted him as his god, relevant to his life.  The interpretation of the dream was terrifying, and Daniel hesitated before giving it (v. 19).  But the king was ready to take it, no matter what, and it revealed that he would be removed from his position of power to a condition of madness for seven years.  What was the purpose?  The growth of his testimony.  He would be mad "till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will" (v. 25).  Daniel counseled the king, "Break off thy sins by righteousness [an interesting visualization for all of us--we don't just repent and stop sinning; we break our sins actively through righteous living] and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor; [so that] it may be a lengthening of thy tranquility" (v. 27).  When the dream was realized, the seven years were spent, and the king was restored to himself, he sent out a proclamation to all of his dominion declaring his personal worship of the God of Israel.

The king's final, mature testimony:  "[He] liveth for ever, [his] dominion is an everlasting dominion...none can stay his hand...Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment; and those that walk in pride he is able to abase" (v. 34, 35, 37).

Whether King Nebuchadnezzar changed from believing in many gods (polytheism) to believing in many gods with one god ruling over them (henotheism) or to completely joining the Israelites in believing in only one supreme God (monotheism), is hard to tell from the writings, but it is clear that he had a powerful belief in Jehovah at the end of this progression of events (Draper, p. 97).

THE DREAM OF CHAPTER TWO

For the meaning of the dream and its fulfillment, go to Section 28-13 in the Institute Manual.

DANIEL:  THE MAN AND HIS MESSAGE

Now we return to our opening question:  "What is one thing you really like about Daniel, or one message from his book?"  (For this section, prepare ahead of time a large circle of posterboard.  Write on it in large letters "Total Christian."  Now turn the circle over and cut it into wedges like a pie.  Number the wedges discretely at the point, clockwise, so that you can reassemble them in the right order.  On each wedge write one of the six statements listed below in bold Itallic about Daniel.  I recommend that you actually cut eight wedges, however, leaving two of them blank to be filled in with class members' ideas. [Don't you hate having to guess what the teacher is thinking?]  As each class member shares an idea, post the wedge that correlates with his idea, or write his idea on a blank wedge.  Comments that you can add are included below.  As each wedge is added, secure it to the next one with transparent tape.)

Daniel was a patient member-missionary, 24/7.  Daniel was not afraid to share God's message with even the mighty King of Bablyon.  He continued this missionary work as the king gained a testimony of God in graduated steps over many years.  Almost all of the stories relating to Daniel's sharing of the gospel took place in relation to his work.  He never set aside his religion because it conflicted with his job.  Daniel was a religious diplomat, able to live companionably with people of other faiths while remaining completely true to his own beliefs.

How can we do this?  We can begin by taking our faith with us everywhere we go, every day of the week.  When co-workers or classmates ask us how our weekend was, we can share not only the fun activities of Saturday, but the spiritual events we enjoyed on Sunday.  We can make it comfortable for those around us to ask us questions about our faith, by making it known that we are Latter-day Saints or Mormons, by briefly bringing up points of doctrine we believe in as they relate to daily situations, and by being patient and not pushy.

Daniel was steadfast at all costs.  Nothing could stop Daniel from obeying the Lord.  He ate what he was commanded of the Lord to eat.  He prayed as he was commanded of the Lord to pray.  He told the king dream interpretations that could have cost him his head, as he was commanded of the Lord to tell.  (Read 10:12.) 

Daniel 1:1 takes place in 605 BC and Daniel 10:10 in 536 BC (Alec Motyer, The Story of the Old Testament, p. 143), a span of seventy years. 

How do we remain steadfast as Daniel did?  How do we avoid being burned out over seventy years?  Total consecration:  "The antidote to exhaustion is whole-heartedness." (David Steindle-Rast, Mt. Savior Benedictine Monastery, New York, http://www.gratefulness.org/.)

Daniel humbly acknowledged God's help.  He always expressed gratitude for God's hand in his life, and never took credit for wonderful works God did through him.  (Read Daniel 2:27-30).  He did not expect to succeed without mighty prayer.  (See Daniel 2:16-18.)

The great but humble composer J.S. Bach frequently signed his manuscripts with the phrases "Help me, Jesus," "In the name of Jesus," or "To God alone, the glory" (Patrick Kavanaugh, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, p. 20).  His reliance on God undoubtedly made his works great.

How can we do this?  We might keep a journal of the hand of the Lord in our lives as counseled by President Eyring.  We might note the tender mercies extended to us as counseled by Elder Bednar.  We might develop an attitude of gratefulness.  We might replace the word "lucky" in our conversations with "blessed."  We might offer to pray for friends who are suffering trials, even if they are not of our faith, or of any faith.

Daniel lived close to the Spirit.  He could find out what God wanted him to do in any situation that came up.  He lived an obedient life, and took good care to keep his body and his spirit, even at the cost of angering a king, in tune with God's Spirit (1:15-17).

Daniel was submissive to the Lord's will.  He made the best of the circumstances he found himself in.  He was not able to choose his career or his locale, or much about his life, but he accepted it.  People tried to undermine him, bad things happened, but Daniel did not expect perfection.  He took what he was given and carried on as faithfully as possible, a great example of "blooming where you're planted."

Shadrach, Meshach and Abedneggo are excellent examples of this as well.  The words "but if not" in Daniel 3:18 show that they understood that God's way might not be obvious to them, but they still accepted His will.

"You want to make God laugh?  Then tell him about your plans."  (John Chancellor)

"When I narrow my vision to search for an ideal that my mind has created, life seldom complies.  But when I broaden my vision to simply notice what life is offering, I find that I am surrounded by an abundance of care and support."  (Gregg Krech)

"Discontent cheats you out of the life you have" (David Steindl-Rast).  We tend to expect perfection in a manner that does not confrom with God's plans, and that expectation smothers gratitude.  One of the most grateful people I knew was a dear friend and visiting teaching companion named Nola Gay Webb who, at the time that she was enduring the slow and painful process of dying of her second cancer, shared the following story told by Janet P. Lee with the sisters we visited:

"When my daughter Stephanie was five years old, I took her to register for kindergarten. When we arrived, she was invited to go into a classroom to play 'games' with the teachers and other children. As a former elementary school teacher, I was certain the 'games' were a method of testing for placement purposes.
 
"A teacher was sitting just outside the room with a box of crayons and several sheets of blank paper, and I smiled confidently to myself from across the hall as Stephanie was asked to choose her favorite color and write her name. 'She could write all the names in our family,' I thought to myself. 'She is so well prepared, there isn't anything in that room she can't handle!' But Stephanie just stood there. The teacher repeated the instructions, and again my daughter stood still, staring blankly at the box of crayons with her knees locked and hands behind her back.
 
"In the sweet, patient voice that teachers use when they are beginning to feel slightly impatient, the teacher asked once more, 'Stephanie, choose your favorite color, dear, and write your name on this piece of paper.' I was about to come to my daughter's aid when the teacher kindly said, 'That's okay. We will help you learn to write your name when you come to school in the fall.' With all the restraint I could muster, I watched Stephanie move into the classroom with a teacher who believed my daughter did not know how to write her name.
 
"On the way home I tried to ask as nonchalantly as possible why she had not written her name. 'I couldn't,' she replied. 'The teacher said to choose my favorite color, and there wasn't a pink crayon in the box!'

"I reflect on this incident often as I watch my children grow and observe life in general. How many times are we, as Heavenly Father's children, immobilized because the choice we had in mind for ourselves just isn't available to us, at least not at the time we want it?"  (Janet P. Lee, "Knowing When to Persevere and When to Change Direction," BYU Devotional Address given January 14, 1992.  By the way, this is a wonderful talk, well worth reading.)

Daniel was Grateful.  (Read 2:17-23.)  We Latter-day Saints, living in these enlightened times, and many of us in well-developed, prosperous environments, must continually work to be grateful.  "We get, too quickly, used to things."  We are not surprised after a while by our blessings.  When was the last time you were surprised that the light turned on when you flicked the switch?  Yet, if it doesn't come on, your attention is rivited to that deficit.  A friend of mine, on a humanitarian trip to teach doctors in Mongolia to operate on ears and throats, was astonished at the patience of the medical staff there as the electricity would go off for long periods of time in the middle of surgical procedures.  They would just keep the patient comfortable, visit among themselves, and calmly wait for the return of power.

"We get, too quickly, used to things.  Once we take it for granted, it no longer brings us joy.  Instead, we think, What's next?" (David Steindl-Rast)

(Set a teacup inside a glass serving bowl with a capacity of about a half gallon or two liters.  Pour a quart or liter of water from a large measuring cup into the teacup and notice how the cup overflows.)  The cup is the expectation.  The water is the blessings.  The expectation was more than fulfilled, therefore we easily notice the overflow and this gratitude brings us joy!  "Our cup runneth over!"  (Pour the water back into the measuring cup.  Now remove the teacup from the serving bowl.  Pour the water into the serving bowl, and it is not filled.)  If we increase the size of the container (our expectations) we decrease the amount overflowing (the joy).  The amount of joy we experience as a result of our blessings is directly related to our expectation.  If last year's wants become this year's needs, the container of expectation becomes large; it is human nature.  That is why when the Lord prospers a people, they often become ungrateful, forget to acknowledge His hand, and slip away from their faith.

We need to take the effort to slow ourselves down enough to be grateful.  Perhaps keeping a gratitude journal, or sometimes praying or fasting in gratitude only, would help us to teach ourselves to be surprised and to remain in a sense of wonderment about our blessings.

 SUMMARY

(Flip the taped-together circle over to show the words "Total Christian.")

Daniel was the total Christian.  He survived trials, fears, captivity, displacement, almost certain death, prosperity, jealous vendettas, adulation, imprisonment, and great power, all the while keeping the faith.  In every circumstance he was true.  How did he do that?  Well, one slice of the picture cannot tell it alone.  He was steadfast because he was also grateful.  He was grateful because he was humble.  Because he was humble, he was also diplomatic.  Because he was faithful, he could submit himself to the Lord's will.  He was in tune with the Spirit because he recognized the Lord's hand in everything.  Everything in Daniel's life linked together to form a total disciple.

As latter-day children of Israel living in the Promised Land (whichever land that may be, as all parts of the world now have temples), we must follow Daniel's example.  We are the individual snowflakes in the avalanche of the Lord's kingdom.  The stone rolls faster down the hill as each person becomes closer to total consecration in his faith and commitment.

(If there is classtime left, you may wish to show the last five minutes of the Church video, "An Ensign to the Nations.")

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fun Christmas Scripture "Chain"

Hey, Readers,

I just came across a really cute little Christmas scripture reading activity for families with Primary children.  Here is the  link.