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Archive for the tag “Bible study”

Hey Bub! Whaddaya Looking At?- Part 7- Looking At Suffering

an old man looking at something

 

 

So far, we have considered two passages about what we should be looking at and seeking after to be continuously filled with light. From Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we learned to “see the unseen” and “walk by faith and not by sight”. From the letter to the Hebrews, we learned to be “fixated on Jesus”, the Author and Finisher of our faith. Interestingly, the contexts of both these passages have the idea of “suffering” in common: for Paul, it was suffering associated with the ministry of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:5-18) and for the Hebrew Christians it was a result of their faith in Jesus as Messiah. (Heb. 10:32-33) Together, these verses give us a practical example of how seeing the unseen and looking unto Jesus changes our perspective on, and understanding of, life events all the while remaining filled with light.

That the world is filled with suffering is often used as an indictment against God by atheists and other kinds of unbelievers who argue that if an omnipotent and perfect Being created the universe, such a Being would not, could not, allow suffering to exist. Therefore, so they say, God does not exist, or if He does, He is a masochist and/or impotent to remove suffering. They conclude (or at least some do) that suffering is meaningless just like raw existence is meaningless and death a welcome end to it all. Contrary to this view, the above passages show that suffering can be part of a grand design that remains hidden except by seeing the unseen through faith and remaining fixated on Jesus, the originator and finisher of our faith.

What we look at and what we seek after has everything to do with how we navigate life’s vicissitudes. None of us will escape suffering; how we endure it is determined by how we see it and how we see it is decided by whether we have faith and whether Jesus is at the center of our lives. This doesn’t answer all the complexities that suffering brings but it is a starting point that can eventually make sense of it all. So, with Paul we come to see it as a “light affliction” giving way to an “eternal weight of glory”. With the Hebrew Christians we see it as loving discipline from a Father who is concerned more about our eternal destiny than temporary distress. (Heb. 12:3-8)

It is this association of divine discipline with suffering that is at once profound and confusing. We are often reminded of God’s love, benevolence, forgiveness and mercy and well we should be. But suffering as part of God’s design seems so foreign to what we are used to hearing it is taken negatively much of time; we have been naughty so God spanks us, that sort of thing. But, I think there is a much more weighty meaning to this kind of discipline, namely to bring us to perfection, not necessarily moral perfection but rather a depth of maturity that without suffering would be quite impossible to achieve like learning patience, for instance. (James 1:2-4)

In a truly remarkable passage Paul sums the matter up when he speaks of abandoning everything for Jesus and an eager desire to be “conformed to His death” through an intimate “fellowship of His sufferings” in order to finally “lay hold” of “perfection” and “attain to the resurrection from the dead”. (Phil. 3:8-15) Paul indeed could “see the unseen” and “looked” steadfastly to Jesus as the center and goal of his entire existence.

 Finally, I think it important to distinguish suffering for the gospel and the discipline of God from self-inflicted suffering (like drug abuse), suffering inflicted by others (like war) and suffering that is circumstantial (like disease). Although God is ever-present in these situations offering hope through the Gospel and through Jesus, it is unwise to assume our afflictions come from identifying with the sufferings of Jesus, suffering because of our faith, or undergoing the discipline of our Father. Doing so exudes a spiritual pride that is breathtaking in its arrogance.

 © W. G. Ryzek 2014

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Hey Bub! Whaddya Looking At?

an old man looking at something

Jesus talks about our eyes filling us with light or darkness (Luke 11:34-36) depending on their condition (diseased or healthy) and what captivates their attention (God or mammon Matt. 6:22-24). Furthermore, in the parallel passages of Matt. 5:14-15 and 6:22-23 a connection between being the ‘light of the world’ and being ‘filled with light’ can be made. These verses make the case that what we seek and what we look at express the condition of our spiritual lives and our effectiveness as witnesses to the Truth; i.e. whether we are filled with light or not.

Consider the saying “something caught my eye the other day”. This usually means that we weren’t looking at anything in particular and then suddenly focused on something specific. What that ‘something’ is reveals our alertness to, and interest in, certain things around us; i.e. what our eyes have been trained to ‘see’, desire to see and, depending on our eyesight, whether we see them clearly. Taking into account technological advances in the media (TV, radio, internet), I don’t think there has been a time in human history when idolatrous images with the sole purpose of ‘catching our eye’ and filling us with darkness are as ubiquitous as now. What’s more, the intensity of the imagery designed to ‘catch our eye’ is increasing and wearing us down to give into the most base and sinful compulsions of which we are capable; all things sexual is an example.

Popular TV shows and movies considered ‘innocent’ fun and ‘fantasy’ are really encouragements to engage in lifestyles contrary to the kingdom of heaven. And judging by the moral decay in the ‘real world’ these encouragements are wildly successful. Making matters worse, people are bombarded by the idolatrous images of money, power, influence, respect, security, notoriety, praise etc., especially through commercials, giving the impression they are the only worthwhile things to have. Of course, getting these things entails removing any competition which, in turn, contributes to further moral decay in the form of poverty and human degradation.

Even the Christians we read about in Paul’s letters were surrounded by idolatrous statues, carvings on buildings and, in a few places, even temple prostitutes parading around in plain sight; they got an ‘eyeful’ every day through their versions of the media. And things haven’t changed much since. There are now atheist congregations worshiping naturalism, empiricism, rationalism and moral relativism. They are 21st century versions of 1st century temples of idolatry and accepted by society with nary a blink of an eye, welcomed, in fact, by those calling themselves progressive and inclusive.

The point is that for this generation, like those before it, the battle lines between heaven and the world, between God and mammon, between light and darkness are clear to those who can really ‘see’. So what should we be looking at and what sort of things should we be seeking after that fill us with light? What follows is a series of blogs highlighting verses that teach us what to look at and what to seek so we might be “filled with light” thereby effectively resisting the darkness gripping our culture, our world and, sometimes, even ourselves.

 © W. G. Ryzek 2013

Being at Home with Righteousness

 

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There are many things about heaven we look forward to, like meeting up with friends and family, the glorious surroundings, seeing the Lord face-to-face, being eternally happy, no more tears and so on. What I’m looking forward to especially is the absolute, unending, unequivocal righteousness that will permeate the new heaven and earth, or put another way, the eternal absence and impossibility of sin.

One intriguing reference about this comes from Peter when he says righteousness is ‘at home’ in heaven (1 Peter 3:14). When I think of something ‘being at home’ it belongs there, it is expected to be there, it is welcomed and it takes up residence there. This is certainly not the case for righteousness during this present age of kosmos where it is at the very least treated as a dangerous anomaly to ‘normal’ sinful living.

The context of this verse shows Peter’s concern that his readers not be intimidated nor be dejected by the ridicule coming from “scoffers” who see the gospel, the return of the Lord, and righteous living as foolish.

But, it was more than just ridicule that effected these believers; they also suffered because of their faith and witness (see 1Peter 1) while, at the same time, besieged by false teachers who had “forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness…” (2 Peter 2:15 italics mine)

Peter turns their attention away from the ungodliness and suffering surrounding them to the heavenly reality that is coming wherein righteousness is the norm, the only norm. They are to “look forward”, not around, to that future where their “home” really is. It is important to note, however, that this only works by first fully embracing God’s promise that finds expression first in Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22 and finally in Rev. 21:1.

This appeal to God’s promise (vv 9,13) is important because it is the guaranty for the yet-to-come reality of the new heavens and earth in which righteousness finds its home. They are therefore encouraged, even compelled, to live “in holy conduct and holiness” (2 Peter 3:11). In fact, other passages in the New Testament declare we are citizens of heaven now and just passing through this present age, a pilgrimage so to speak. We are not to stop the journey and make this world our home, but continue on until we arrive where we permanently belong.

On this point, it seems to me that the avid pursuit of righteous living (or holy, if you prefer) is treated more as an option in many congregations when it should be treated as necessary. Consequently, there is an ungodly Christian hybrid that names of the Name of Jesus but whose life is indistinguishable from those living in the world. This has always been a problem in the church since the very beginning; false teachers lurk in the shadows seeking to dissuade believers from taking up their crosses and truly following the Lord. In fact, if we are not increasingly feeling at home with righteousness now in the middle of nearly unrestrained evil, it probably means we are entangled with the world way more than we might admit.

The point here is that this present life and the pursuit of righteousness is preparation for that day when all is made ‘new’ and righteousness is forever “at home”. Jesus tell us “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” and the Psalmist helps us understand more of what this blessing means when he writes:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

 © W.G. Ryzek 2013

All Prim and Proper: Clothing for the Well Dressed Christian- Putting on the New Man

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As with most theological and Biblical terms, varied opinions exist about what the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ are in Paul.  One simple way of understanding them is this: the ‘old man’ is you BC (before Christ) and the ‘new man’ is you AC (after Christ). However, in real life this distinction between BC and AC is not simply an either/or but more of a both/and. In other words, even though we are a ‘new Creation in Christ’ (AC) there yet remains much of the ‘old’ still in us to be transformed (BC).

Being the clever creatures we are, learning to ‘put on a show’ that meets the expectations of whatever Christian group we belong is relatively easy; we appear to be the real deal without ever really ‘putting off’ anything. But sooner or later, our true nature surfaces and we are exposed in spite of our best efforts at playing the part. But this sort of play acting doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t really Christians; quite the contrary. Paul’s imperatives to “put off” and “put on” were written to Christians whose behavior was not always in keeping with their conversion. (see Eph. 4:20-32)

I have to say that, at least to me, it is quite astounding to read these letters of Paul and realize they were written to believers, some of whom were nasty, lustful, idolatrous, liars, cheats, drunks and otherwise despicable. And Paul calls them saints while they displayed these unseemly characteristics which were anything but ‘saintly’. This gives me hope that while I’m ‘putting on’ and ‘putting off’ I remain His child, not because of anything I have or lack, but because I’m already a new creation in Christ by grace through faith. My concern now is to become in everyday life what I already am because of Him. It is a life-long project to be sure. The good news is that, because of Jesus, we can truly be transformed into someone brand new and not just reformed into an ‘improved’ version of what really should be put to death.

So, like old, worn, ragged, dirty and useless clothes, we are to ‘put off’, ‘take off’, discard the old man and ‘put on’, dress up in brand new, fresh, radiant clothes befitting a child of a righteous and holy King. However, like old clothes we hate throwing away, the old man is not easily gotten rid of and resists all efforts at being cast off. Hence, a corollary to this ‘putting off’ and ‘putting on’ is language like “dying to self”, “crucifying the old man” and such.

One exercise that will help us is being reminded of what the ‘old man’ is really like. Paul helps us do this by describing what we are to “put off” in Eph.4:20-32 and Col 3:5-17.  Put simply, the ‘old man’ is everything about us associated with sin, the world, and the devil, all reeking of death and, therefore corrupt and decaying. In fact, in Eph.4:22 the verb “grows corrupt” is in the present tense meaning that he is growing corrupt now and will do so continuously.

Furthermore, this ever increasing corruption is by its very nature, destructive so everything the ‘old man’ touches is destroyed, itself included. It is an incredible description of sin that these days is rendered innocuous by churches remaining largely silent about what sin really is for fear of offending. But, I digress.

Now, in contrast to the old, corrupt man, we learn that the ‘new man’ we are to put on is created by God in “true righteousness and holiness.” The language here indicates the ‘new man’ was created both ‘by God’ and ‘like God’, two very important notions that stand over and against the ‘old man’ that is decaying and being destructive in the process. With regard to our being created ‘like God’ the ‘new man’ is righteous and holy, neither of which can be ascribed to fallen humanity and, therefore, attributes belonging to God alone as aspects of His essential beingness. As new creations, however, these attributes make up the ‘new man’ that God Himself creates when we are ‘born again’. (see Col. 3:10)

With regard to creation ‘by God’, Paul use of the genitive ‘of the truth’ (this phrase doesn’t appear in some translations) shows truth as the origin of righteousness and holiness, hence they are the real deal and not play acting mentioned earlier and/or religious self-righteousness by which men seek to justify themselves. James 1:18 provides a good summary of the matter: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” (NKJV)

So, what’s the point of all this? Whatever we were yesterday should no longer be the case today and whatever we are today should no longer be the case tomorrow. We should; no, we must be continuously putting off the old and putting on the new like changing clothes from day to day. What will gradually emerge is the true character of a Christian, namely righteousness and holiness created in truth that will radiate like an armor of light so much so there will be no denying we belong to, and are following, the Creator of light.

© W.G. Ryzek 2013

All Prim and Proper-Clothing for the Well Dressed Christian

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Over the years and with each new generation opinions about what to wear to church have proven controversial, from mildly so to downright antagonistic and have ranged from dressing-up in one’s Sunday’s best to extreme casual.

In fact, this issue was prominent during the Jesus Movement (late 60’s to early 70’s) when scores of hippies were saved and attended church in their less than conventional attire to which some churches took great exception and basically said “dress appropriately or leave”. And leave they did which gave rise to Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel where they were welcomed with open arms. We know the rest of the story, how Calvary Chapels are now almost as ubiquitous as Starbuck’s and still maintain a ‘come as you are’ philosophy, at least the one’s I’m familiar with.

The point is that focusing on externals as opposed to inward, spiritual transformation has always been an issue with Christians, as it was for the Jews of Jesus’ day, because it is easier to changes one’s clothes, hair-style, or hem-line than it is to change one’s life. There is, however, an appropriate Christian uniform we all should wear that displays character and action, virtuous living and fierce battle, taking the offensive while also defending what is right and just. It has nothing to do with outward appearances but everything to do with victorious Christian living.

A favorite phrase of Paul is “put off” and “put on” which, according to the Greek verbs, means ‘changing clothes’. The “putting off” is connected with evil, darkness or sinful behavior while “putting on” refers to Christian power, virtue and a changed life in Christ, or even Christ Himself. Consider the following verses that make this point:

“Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed-in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. (1 Cor. 15:51-53 italics mine NKJV)

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:26-27 italics mine NKJV)

“But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have herd Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:20-24 italics mine NKJV)

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Eph. 6:11 italics mine NKJV)

Echoing Eph. 6:11 a final striking example is Romans 13:12 (italics mine NKJV) where Paul tells us to “…cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (ὅπλα τοῦ φωτός) and will mark the beginning of a series on what the proper wardrobe for believers might look like.Romans 13:12 is one of several where Paul uses the word ‘armor’. Unlike Eph. 6 this reference to ‘armor of light’ hasn’t have been so widely commented on, probably because there isn’t much information in the passage itself about exactly what Paul meant. But there is enough in other passages to glean some wonderful ideas, so here we go.

First off, consider some observations about ‘armor’ itself. It needs to be forged, or sewn together depending in what it’s made of; it is used for both defense and offense; it provides protection; it identifies the wearer as one engaged, or about to be, in heated battle; it can be taken off and put back on; there is skill involved in its proper use, and, finally, it must be regularly maintained.

Of these facts about armor in general, it is the idea of armor being forged that catches my attention because forging armor made of light seems the exclusive domain of light’s Creator. It stands to reason, then, that this armor possesses an almost indescribable radiance and/or brightness (φωτεινός) very much like the radiance associated with the appearance of angels and, most dramatically, in the transfiguration of Jesus. One feature of this transfiguration noted by Mark is a profound radiance emanating from Him and that His clothes were whiter than any earthly ‘laundry’ could ever approximate together signifying purity, holiness and other-worldly transcendence.

It seems to me, then, that the terms ‘darkness” and ‘light” are not just metaphors, although they can be; I rather think they have a substantial structure that can, sometimes, be ‘felt’ directly by our senses in the natural world and most certainly by the demonic (see Matt. 8: 28-34).

So, for example, that light and darkness can be instantiated in the believer is evidenced by Eph. 5:8: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” Here we are to actualize what is already true about us further evidenced by Col. 1:12-13: “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,…” (NASB)

There is, then, something already ‘heavenly’ about us and it can, and should, be steadily increasing. This armor of light we can ‘put on’ is just one example.

More to come soon in this series.

© W.G.Ryzek 2013

American Idolatry (And The Whole World For That Matter): The Only Solution

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It’s time to begin bringing closure to this topic although much, much more could be said. We begin by returning to where we started, Psa. 115.

Psalm 115:1–8 (NKJV)
1 Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us,
But to Your name give glory,
Because of Your mercy,
Because of Your truth.
2 Why should the Gentiles say,
“So where is their God?”
3 But our God is in heaven;
He does whatever He pleases.
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of men’s hands.
5 They have mouths, but they do not speak;
Eyes they have, but they do not see;
6 They have ears, but they do not hear;
Noses they have, but they do not smell;
7 They have hands, but they do not handle;
Feet they have, but they do not walk;
Nor do they mutter through their throat.
8 Those who make them are like them;
So is everyone who trusts in them.

These verses set the stage for understanding the true nature of idols and the assertion that those who worship idols become like them, namely deaf, blind, impotent and stupid. Now we turn to verses 9-15, along with v3 above, to see what the solution, the only solution, is to idolatry:

Psalm 115:9–15 (NKJV)
9 O Israel, trust in the LORD;
He is their help and their shield.
10 O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD;
He is their help and their shield.
11 You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD;
He is their help and their shield.
12 The LORD has been mindful of us;
He will bless us;
He will bless the house of Israel;
He will bless the house of Aaron.
13 He will bless those who fear the LORD,
Both small and great.
14 May the LORD give you increase more and more,
You and your children.
15 May you be blessed by the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

Verse 3 is important because it describes a particular cosmology about creation, namely that God is in heaven and, because He is God, does whatever He pleases. This means He has both the will and the means to accomplish whatever He sets out to do, unlike everything else that is limited by finitude and absolutely dependent on God.

Idols, however, are earth-bound images first formed from the vain imaginations of fallen humanity (Rom.1) and then fashioned using the very material God, who is in heaven, brought into existence from nothing (creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing). Idols, therefore, are ‘nothings’ since they are made from substances that once never existed and can, at His discretion, cease to exist at any time (the irony that we share, with the exception of the soul, similar substances as idols is interesting). The contrast is important to see.

Now, in verses 9-15 the operative words are “trust in the LORD” and directed to three groups of people: all of Israel, the Aaronic priesthood and then everyone who fear the LORD, whoever and wherever they might be. To the degree they do trust the LORD, His blessing is assured.

The Hebrew word used for trust in these verses is batah and denotes both the experience of well-being and an accompanying sense of security because of confidence in someone or something that is deemed worthy of such trust; it is to be “care-less”. The same word is used of idols in v8 and shows how such persuasion can be ascribed to what is deceptive, thereby creating a false security and false sense of well-being that is essentially self-destructive.

Reading from the Septuagint, we note that the translators did not chose for batah the Greek πιστευω “believe in”, which has more to do with intellectual assent to truth about God, but used ελπιζω “to hope” instead which has more of an emotional overtone, or ‘feeling’ a certain way, in this case safe and secure with God as opposed to ‘feeling’ dread and anxiety.

Although hard to admit, trusting God, Who is invisible, inscrutable and uncontrollable to provide safety and security is not ‘natural’ to us. Most of the time we think we have “to do something”, and quickly, to fend off threats to what security we have. Trusting God, of which waiting on Him with patience is a necessary requirement, almost seems irresponsible, especially if we think that “God only helps those who help themselves.” The words of Jesus “be anxious for nothing” while beautiful seem just too impractical given the magnitude of our needs.

However, we all end up trusting something, or someone, mostly ourselves, to achieve some semblance of control over the uncontrollable. Psalm 115 teaches that we either trust idols or trust God and, furthermore, trusting anything but God is idolatry. However, it is often the case that this clear either/or is turned into a both/and. One example is saying we trust God, devising clever plans to get what we want/need, and then asking God to bless our plans and efforts. Engaging in this sort of thing, however well-intentioned and ‘spiritual’, is really using God as a means to our ends. This is idolatry, plain and simple but difficult to discern as such because of all the religious trappings attached to it and, even worse, gross misapplications of Scripture (the ‘prosperity’ gospel, for example).

Trusting the LORD so described in our passage by the words batah and ελπιζω is like a sigh of surrender, a giving up of self-effort and abandonment of all self-interest, an acquiescence to both the vicissitudes of human existence far beyond our ability to solve and to God who is far greater than ourselves or our problems. Such acquiescence, while including a rational choice, is much more an existential capitulation leading to a state of ‘blessedness’ (verses 12-13), a transcendent experience rooted in the reality of Who and what God is to us.

In the Old Testament, when God blesses He is granting power for success, prosperity, fecundity, and longevity to those who trust in Him. As we have seen, these are the very things the heathen seek from their idols. It was Israel’s privilege to know the true Source, the One True God from Whom all blessing flows and Israel’s bane when it substituted this revelation for the fallacy of idolatry. And so it is with us of the New Testament.

Along with God’s blessing, those who trust in Him exclusively (all of Israel, the priesthood and everyone else) will enjoy His “help” and His “shield” (verse 9-11). The Hebrew word for ‘help’ signifies assistance or support militarily, materially, or spiritually. That ‘help’ associated here with ‘shield’ suggests a military application which includes actual physical combat or spiritual combat. The word for ‘shield’ indicates protection. The picture is that trusting God sets into motion His assistance and protection in the midst of life’s dangers and unpredictability while, at the same time, promising eventual victory and success in all spheres of our existence.

Together with His blessing, this help and protection insure that those trusting God will “increase more and more…” (verse 14). Contextually, this idea of being ‘increased’ is a consolation, a comforting word that, in spite of the oppression of surrounding heathen nations, when Israel trusts in the LORD and nothing else their numbers will increase, their might to overcome their enemies increase, and their presence as God’s people will inspire awe in the sight of her enemies. This idea echoes the promise of fecundity, longevity and prosperity that God’s blessing (see verses 12-13) brings.

Therefore, because we trust/hope in God we enjoy security and well-being so much so we become carefree, able to pursue Him and His will with reckless abandon and can say with Paul that “…nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him until that Day.” (2 Tim. 1:12 NKJV) In this verse we can easily see the ‘about God’ and the ‘with God’ that our text in Psalms 115: 9-15 (in Hebrew and Greek) expresses and the ‘persuasion’ that He is ‘able’ which lies at the center of what trusting God means.

In the next blog, a closer look at the three groups of people called to trust God will be considered. If you haven’t read the other blogs in this series, I encourage you to do so. This installment will make more sense in that context.

© W.G.Ryzek 2013

American Idolatry (And the Whole World For That Matter)-Part 5: Lessons From the Golden Calf, Cont’d

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Exodus 12:35–36 (NKJV)
35 Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. 36 And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

Exodus 32:2 (NKJV)
2 And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

If it is the case that every thing belongs to God and that the essence of idolatry is substituting some thing that is made in place of the Maker, then how we think about and what we do with things reveals much about our spiritual state not the least of which is whether we are thankful or not (Rom. 1:21-23). The passages cited above show how the treasure that God gave His people for building the tabernacle (Ex. 25:1-9) was used for their own decoration and constructing the golden calf. They took what was given to them for a higher and sacred purpose, regarded it as theirs and then turned it into something unequivocally opposed to God. The point here is how we, too, can take the very things God has given us and then make idols by regarding them as personal possessions, my car, my family, my job, my money gotten by my strength, my work, my ingenuity, my planning and so on.

It has been noted that Jesus talked more about money issues than He did about heaven or hell and as many as 25% of His parables had material wealth as their theme. One of the major points He stressed was stewardship which tacitly presupposes that what we have belongs to someone else and forgetting, or rejecting, this truth leads to severe problems like, for example, when ownership thinking trumps stewardship thinking the kingdom of heaven stands to be lost to us. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve both God and mammon and note carefully the operative word here: serve from Δουλεύω which means ‘slave’. All of us are slaves to one of two masters so we all know exactly what our options are. However, the great Lie first uttered in Eden suggested there is a third option, serving self but that, it turns out, is the same as serving sin and Satan. So, while we might assume that if we possess something it is ours to do with what we want the fact is we are possessed either by God or by mammon; no human being is, or ever can be, independently owned and operated. And, choosing anything other than God is tantamount to idolatry.

Consider, for example, that some Christians seem to believe, and act accordingly, that once a tithe is paid, the rest is theirs. Making matters worse, it is further assumed that, since they did their part, God is now under some sort of obligation to ‘bless’ them with still more wealth. And so, based on this sort of thinking a Christian can easily end up with a sense of entitlement or, in other words, that they are owed this blessing. This attitude is precisely the same that has overrun our society; someone, somewhere owes us something. The net result is thanklessness usually accompanied by complaining and topped off with bitterness all of which affirm Paul’s assessment in Romans 1 that the whole human race are idolaters. This sense of entitlement will invade the Christian church when we take what God gives us, but is rightfully His, then use it for our own ends thinking because we possess it, it must be ours, and then substitute our own agenda in place of God’s by looking to the world as the source of all we need, and not Him. And all of this while adhering to surface religiosity, language and ‘devotion’ defined as ‘Christian’ when in fact it is all very pagan. We see an example by what happens next in this story.

After building the golden calf, Aaron and the people presented an offering to it that was meant only for God (burnt and peace offerings, v6) suggesting, at least to me, that the difference between the idol and God was lost. (Ex. 32:4) One was as good as the other as long as it got them out of their predicament. So consider this proposition: not understanding or submitting to the basic truth that all we have and all we are is grounded in God’s benevolence distorts reality to the point where idolatry and service to God become indistinguishable. Again, the parallels between this story and Romans 1 cannot be overlooked; what Israel did in this one instance has become the norm for the entire human race. The point here is that what some consider true Christian worship might in fact be the worshipping of idols with the fearful prospect of not being able to tell the difference. However, all of us can at least get a clue by honestly assessing our attitude towards, and use of, the things given us by God.

© W.G. Ryzek 2013

American Idolatry (And The Whole World for That Matter)-Part 5: Lessons from the Golden Calf

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The Old Testament demonstrates that Israel had a frequent problem with idolatry. It officially began with the golden calf, although some might argue otherwise. But, whatever the case, we Christians of the 21st century can learn a great deal by studying this inaugural lapse that ended up being repeated over and over again during their history. It turns out that the forces leading to idolatry haven’t changed and God’s attitude and response to it hasn’t either. So, adding to what we learned in earlier blogs from passages in Paul’s writings, we now turn to Moses and Exodus 32-34.

The backdrop for this story of the golden calf is the Hebrews immersion in the religious idolatry of Egypt. The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob was, for the most part, forgotten by the people until the call of Moses, their dramatic deliverance by “I Am” and the revelations given at Mount Sinai. What is noteworthy is the gods of Egypt (like most idols in the Old Testament) were visible and tangible, associated with nature and human experience whereas “I Am” remained invisible and transcendent; i.e. the Hebrews could never ‘see’ God like they could ‘see’ idols. It was Moses, not God, they experienced directly and, consequently, the deliverance stories and the golden calf incident show how they continually railed against Moses, accused him of leading them astray and insisted he should take them back to Egypt as if he and not “I Am” was responsible for everything. They couldn’t get over the hump that while they could see what He did for them, they could never see Him.

This point is brought home when some of the more vocal people questioned whether Moses would ever return from the mountain. They didn’t know what had become of him, whether he was alive or dead, whether he had abandoned them or had lost interest in the whole matter (Ex.32:1). But whatever they were thinking their attention was not on God to whom Moses went to see but on Moses himself. Since he had seemingly gone missing it was time to carry out plan B, build an idol and head back to Egypt, something that was on their minds anyway.

Now, given Aaron’s proximity to Moses as his ‘mouthpiece’ thinking that a little more resistance to this idea of building an idol seems reasonable. But, it looks as though Aaron fell right into step and even took leadership over its construction. (Ex.32:2) This is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, when idolatry among the people spills over to the leaders themselves and they join in and even encourage it.

From all this we can learn that when our attention is turned away from God’s leadership to God’s leaders, to men and women like ourselves, idolatry is not far behind. While we might abhor the ‘cult of personality’ pervading our culture many of us nevertheless do precisely the same thing, idolizing leaders, ministries and even doctrines. When we ‘see’ only the surface of things, the splashy displays, the huge auditoriums, the large number of people, and self-promoting preachers, our need for sensory stimulation overshadows the fact that the ultimately and eternally Real cannot be seen except by faith. Like the Hebrews, then, not being able to ‘see’ God can lead to worshipping something we can. And by surrounding whatever, or whoever, the object of our devotion is with enough ‘Christian’ religious trappings it becomes easy to hide what is really going on.

© W.G. Ryzek 2013

On the Meaning of Mercy-Into the Presence

 

 

 

 

 

1 John1:7-2:2 shows us the dynamic interconnectedness between our association with Jesus (walking in the Light), confessing our sin, being cleansed by his blood, His propitiary sacrifice (mercy), and His Advocacy on our behalf all of which, like a mirror, reflect facets of God’s mercy.

We learned last time from Leviticus and the elaborate sacrificial system described there that in order to enter His Presence the people, especially the High Priest, must be made clean from all things unholy. This required the shedding of blood, a great deal of blood.

The New Testament affirms this, only now it is no longer by sacrificing animals but by the blood of Jesus who is both Sacrifice and High Priest for those who believe. So, for example, 1 John 1:7 and 2:2 tells us we are cleansed by His blood not only from sin but also from the unrighteousness that breeds it. Cleansing by His blood, confession and forgiveness of sin take us back to the idea of ‘mercy’ we encountered in Luke 15:18 when the Publican cried out, “Have mercy upon me, a/the sinner.”

Cleansing by His blood is contingent on fulfilling two conditions: walking in the light and confessing our sin. Although John doesn’t give us a lot of detail about what ‘walking in the light” is, his Gospel suggests that, at the very least, it is fully embracing the Light that is Life (John 1:4) i.e. the Incarnate Word.  We get another clue from this letter when he says that hating one’s brother is to be in darkness so it seems that loving one’s brother would place us in the Light, which makes sense. At any rate, ‘walking in the Light’ is a case of association; i.e. as long as we are in His Light, which is tantamount to walking with Him, His blood provides continuous cleansing.

The other condition for cleansing is confession of sin. The term ‘confess’ ὁμολογεῖν is from ὁμός, one and the same, and λέγω, to say. It’s a verb in the present tense so the phrase could read “if we keep on continuously confessing our sins…”  And note that sin is plural suggesting we all have much to account for.

Because part of this verb means “to say’ (λογεῖν) it can be argued that we are to speak the confession. There is something about actually saying the sin that makes it more real, tangible, something that we actually did in thought, word, or deed and not just an abstract memory. Saying out loud “Father forgive me for lying to my boss today” seems more substantial than just thinking “Father forgive my sins today”. It’s like the difference between using a credit card and paying with cash. When I pay with cash the value of the money is much more real to me. Handing over a $100 bill is way different from swiping a card through a machine. With a credit card, it’s more abstract and because real money isn’t exchanged, the financial impact of the purchase remains more remote-until the end of the month when the bill comes.

Once confession is made, we are forgiven; our sin is “sent away” and not heard from again, at least on God’s part. Forgiveness is the way of reconciliation because the barrier, sin, is done away with, removed. The forgiven sinner, then, not only avoids God’ wrath but now is embraced by His merciful loving-kindness.

But even then residual things hang on the periphery of our hearts, like guilt, fear, anxiety, a sense of failure and disappointment, especially for those who are particularly tender-hearted and keenly aware of their shortcomings. These feelings must be countered by the truth that Christ is our Advocate, our defender. The word ‘advocate’ is from parakletos which is used in John’s Gospel concerning the ministry of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. John teaches us that one of the activities of the Comforter is to testify about and reveal Jesus to the believer. Here, Jesus our Advocate testifies, appeals our case before the Father, a testimony based on His sacrifice so that mercy may be granted.

Placing this idea of Advocacy along with what the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus that He is our merciful High Priest and makes propitiation (hilaskesthai, part of theword group from hilaskomai in Luke 15:18) for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17) an even more incredible picture of our Lord emerges. ‘Merciful’ is from eleoo and means sympathy, pity, compassion and the like. You will remember in the first article we learned that the English word ‘mercy’ is translated from different Greek words. This is our first example and eleoo is the most common word for ‘mercy’ in the New Testament. I also pointed out that, in my opinion, all ‘mercy’ no matter the word used depends upon propitiation (hilaskomai). I think Heb. 2:17 supports that opinion. Therefore, Jesus is a merciful High Priest because He is also the propitiation for our sins so the connection between mercy as propitiation and mercy accompanied by propitiation is clear.

What all this means is that when we sin, and we will, there is an incredible, eternally binding recourse for us that is grounded in eternity and is portrayed, at least in part, by the word mercy. It should be becoming clear that this word is rich in meaning almost beyond finding out, its power almost unimaginable, and its efficacy for us reaching the heavens in God’s very presence. It is no small thing to say “Lord have mercy on me.”

In our next installment, we will look at the Book of Hebrews where mercy is implicitly prominent when we go into the Presence.

One final note since we won’t be visiting 1 John again in this series, I think it’s important to point out the constant use of “if… then” conditional claims throughout this letter. Some of you will recognize this argument form as modus ponens and is usually expressed symbolically as

If P, then Q

P

Therefore Q

Here’s how it works: if the antecedent P is affirmed (the condition met), then the conclusion Q must follow when it is a valid argument; i.e. the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises and can’t be any other way.  So 1 John 1:7. “If we walk in the light… then we are cleansed by His blood” or 1 John 1:9; “If we confess… He forgives”.  “Walking in the light” is the condition for being “cleansed” and “confessing sin’ is the condition for being ‘forgiven’ and ‘cleansed’.

 

This might seem overly technical, but here’s the point: if the premises of a modus ponens argument are true and the argument valid, then we end up with a necessary truth. Since forgiveness of, and cleansing from, sin is exceedingly important and since we believe The Bible’s claims are true then what John sets before us are necessary truths, absolutes, no wiggle-room claims and, therefore we can, and should, have absolute confidence in their veracity. This is especially useful for those who argue that the Bible is illogical, incoherent and, otherwise untrustworthy.

 

Being Filled with the Spirit

We are all filled with something, mostly ourselves, or, like some of the Christians at Ephesus, that and way too much wine (Eph. 5:18). The point is that whatever fills us controls us, constantly captures our attention, and occupies our time, efforts, and defines our goals. For Christians, being filled with the Spirit is the only real concern; being filled with anything else is distracting at best, destructive at worst.

But what does it mean to be “filled with the Spirit”? One thing we can know right off the bat is the verb ‘be filled’ is in the present tense, imperative mood signifying Paul is not making a suggestion, if we feel like it or when we get around to it, but a command. We can dispense with any procrastination, it’s something we are ‘to do and do it now’. Knowing this is not an option, then, one way to understand being ‘filled with the Spirit’ is through the term displacement and, as a result of displacement, replacement. An instance of displacement occurs when something heavy is put into something light, like a heavy rock into a pail of water. The water is displaced and runs over the sides of the pail. Replacement is simply that the rock takes the place of where water once stood.

The importance of being “filled with the Spirit is further reinforced by this observation: fifteen times the word ‘spirit’ (pnuema) is used in this letter and twelve of these refer directly to the Holy Spirit of which 5:18 is one example. We are sealed with the Spirit (Eph. 1:13); we have access to the Father through the Spirit (Eph. 2:18); the mystery of Christ has been revealed to us by the Spirit (Eph. 3:5); we have unity in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3-4); we are forbidden to grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30); we manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Eph. 5:9); we have the sword of the Spirit as part of our spiritual armor (Eph. 6:17); we are to pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18).

We already know that the Spirit is in every believer. The issue of being “filled” is how much of the Spirit you and I have and this obviously depends on how much space there is for Him. I think we all can agree that the Spirit is ‘heavier’ in terms of sheer existence than our ‘self’, that narrow little narcissistic center of consciousness, infinitely heavier in fact. So the more we give to Him of ourselves the more He settles into our lives and the self is displaced and, eventually, replaced with the fullness that is God. To be ‘filled’ is to be so full of the Spirit there is no room for anything else, to the point we overflow and all that emanates from us is the presence of God.

Finally, consider how remarkable it is how Paul uses the terms filled and fullness in this epistle, always building upward into the realities of being a Christian, the high point being “filled with the fullness of God” (Eph.3:19). Paul delineates what we have already have and what awaits us in his typical now/not yet logic. Line after line, idea after idea, prayer after prayer, Paul sets forth such a vision that we might run from the sometimes paltry lives we live and start enjoying the riches of His grace and love. It is for us to appropriate, enter into, take hold of what is ours in Christ Jesus and we must want it more than anything else, that very fullness of God that was in Jesus Himself (Col. 2:9). Being filled with the Spirit is being filled with the fullness of God.

On the Meaning of Mercy

Lord, have mercy on us.

  Christ, have mercy on us.

Lord, have mercy on us.

 

 O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace.

 

Some of you will recognize these as liturgical lines from the worship in many churches, the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican for example. What fascinates, and spiritually moves me are the constant references to mercy in their services and devotional works (like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer). It is a word I hardly ever hear more freewheeling, less structured non-denomination churches; grace, forgiveness, love, redemption, salvation and the likes are spoken of in abundance but mercy, not so much. Are we missing something important by neglecting this word and all it means? The many references to mercy in the Bible along with the theology behind the term make me think we are. It is certainly worth exploring and you’re invited to come along, Bible in hand and heart open to what God will say to us.

This study, by the way, is a small contribution to diminishing the dumbness targeted in the two blogs “Dumb Christianity”. I figured I should do something besides just harp on it. In fact, I am considering starting a new blog featuring just Biblical and theological studies that will be more lengthy and complicated than a regular blog. I would like all of you who follow this blog to give me your reaction to this idea. This installment you’re reading is an example of what the new one might be like.

There are several Greek words translated as ‘mercy’ in the Bible. The one we are concerned with in this part of the study is found in Luke 18:9-14 (read the parable for the full impact) and specifically in verse 13:

 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13 italics mine NASB)

This parable contrasts the self-righteousness of a Jewish religious leader with someone who knows what he really is, a sinner needing the mercy of God.

The Greek word translated ‘merciful’ in v13 is hilaskomai which is used only here and Hebrews 9:5. It means primarily propitiation and as a verb used here is literally be propitiated. It is also used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) where it is translated ‘propitiary’ (Exodus 25:17 for one example of many) and in the NKJV and NASB it’s translated ‘mercy-seat’. Both renderings refer to that part of the Ark of the Covenant (the gold covering between the cherubim) where the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement was to be sprinkled thereby covering over the sins of Israel, hence propitiation.

 

 

Because Jesus used this word hilaskomai for ‘mercy’ instead of the more common eleeo He reveals that propitiation (more on this word later) is the basis for the mercy shown by someone having the authority, the means and the justification to be angry towards and execute judgment against a guilty party. In both the Old and New Covenant God is the offended party, sin is the violation, the sinner is the guilty party, wrath is His attitude towards sin and the sinner, and death the punishment. It is each of us and all of us, the whole human race, who need this mercy, or propitiation. What has changed from the Old to the New are the High Priest and the Sacrifice, Jesus being both in this New Covenant. The obvious connection between  Luke 18:13 and Hebrews 9, and v5 in particular, become profound in light of the Old Testament sacrificial system outlined in Hebrews, but more on this later. For now consider this: the significance, and even the possibility, of ‘mercy’ designated by any of the other Greek words so translated are based on this one, hilaskomai.

Another observation I think is interesting is the use of the article “a” sinner (NKJV) and “the” sinner (NASB) in v13. It is the same article (singular) in both Greek texts, Byzantine for the NKJV and Alexandrian for the NASB yet the translators used different renderings. Rather than trying to decide which one is more accurate, I think both are revealing and both ‘correct’. Taking the NKJV first what is emphasized by “a” sinner is the personal aspect of sin. The Publican recognizes that he, personally is a sinner and in need of mercy apart from anyone else. The NASB “the” sinner on the other hand could denote his being one instance of all sinners and requiring mercy; i.e. a sinner among all sinners. So, even though the article is singular, it could indicate sin ensconced in a single person, or in a person that is part of a single race of persons; i.e. generically. The point is that both renderings apply to the condition of human beings who need propitiation before God.

Note that while the Publican admits his personal culpability in sin and the race of which he is part the Pharisee views everyone but himself as a sinner. This attitude has two fatal components found in Luke 18:9 at the introduction to the parable itself: “And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” The first is they trust only in themselves and their own worthiness, not God. Since trust is an essential part of faith, to not trust is to be faithless or unfaithful and without faith it is impossible to please God. The second is having contempt for others who are measured against their own inflated self-worth. The word contempt (NASB and ‘despise’ NKJV) is to “regard as nothing” or treating people as though they are invisible, insignificant, and anonymous. The word is used again in Luke 23:11 where Jesus Himself, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is treated with contempt and gives us a picture of what it is like.

The point I want to make here is that there are many sins but self-righteousness seems to be at the top of the heap and I think for this reason. You well know that the Ten Commandments have two parts. The first four have to do with God and the rest with other people. Self righteousness breaks all the commandments by first replacing God with the idol of self (1-4) and, second, by treating others as if they don’t even exist evidenced by stealing from them, lying to or about them, coveting what they have, destroying their relationships, or murdering them (5-10).

The most dangerous thing about a self-righteous people, and Christians can be very, very self-righteous, is failing to see their need for mercy and, therefore, unable to grant it either. This should give us pause to consider how we treat each other as Christians and how we treat those outside the faith. Is it with mercy or do we just ignore people because we think ourselves so….righteous? Something to think about.

Well, the stage is set for our next study. Since propitiation is the underlying meaning of mercy in these verses, we’ll ‘unpack’ this word and its use in other important passages. For now, dear Christian, know that mercy is available to us all when, as did the publican, we humbly admit to the Lord our desperate need.

Thoughts on Peter’s First Letter, cont’d- Chapter 1, verse 2

We discovered from earlier blogs that the people to whom Peter writes are enduring persecution for their faith and living as “foreigners” in a hostile society. This is especially helpful for us because I see a time coming when we Christians will see increasing hostility towards our faith and our Lord.

A theme that emerges in chapter 1 is salvation (vv 5, 9, 10), what it is, how we got it and what it means. Peter teaches his readers about what God has done for them and, by so doing, show how special, privileged and powerful they really are.  This is a ‘push-back’ against the tide of persecution, not by retaliation but through a proper attitude, faith and, most importantly, witness.

An exceedingly important part of the Christian faith is Trinitarianism or the belief that God’s essence, while remaining singular, is also a plurality; i.e. One God, Three Persons. We learn from this verse (and many others throughout the New Testament) that very early on Christians believed in the triunity of God and, by necessity, they believed and preached that Jesus Christ was God. It was only later after the passing of the apostles and during the great Christological debates that the Triunity of God and the divinity of Jesus became controversial.

For Peter, each person of the Trinity plays a distinct role in salvation. So, God the Father elects, God the Son’s blood is shed for the elect, and God the Spirit sanctifies the elect. Taking these in turn, divine election (ἐκλεκτοῖς) is a “choosing out from” humanity-at-large a people who will be His possession, an inheritance and given a special relationship with Him as sons and daughters. We learn from other New Testament passages that this election occurred before the world was even created. The word is related to ekklesia which is translated ‘church’ or “called out ones” expressing the idea that Christians are called out of society at large and, while part of that society, exist separate from it as holy ones or ‘saints’. Of course, this fits together with Peter’s concern that the “exiles” to whom he is writing live as saints within the surrounding hostile society.

It is important to note that it is God the Father who does the choosing; i.e. there is nothing we can do to sway the choice one way or another because it is compelled by His mercy and grace, neither of which we deserve. But, in response to those who might see this as unfair, that those not chosen never had a chance in the first place and therefore human free will is a false notion (predestination is sometimes thought to prove this), note the words “according to the foreknowledge of God”.  Given God’s omniscience and eternal point of view He can quite easily know who will and who will not embrace His love and forgiveness in Christ. Just because Jesus died for the sins of all doesn’t mean all will accept Him. Those that do are the elect, those that don’t, the damned.

Now, it is often the case that when the Trinity along with divine election, foreknowledge and predestination are discussed, eyes start to roll, brains freeze up and television becomes an attractive alternative. The truth is we simply won’t ever ‘get it’ about these matters because the very nature of our existence is finite; we don’t have the capacity to see it all clearly, no matter how hard we try. It’s like trying to pour the entire ocean into a single glass; it simply escapes containment. We become horribly misguided if we ever think understanding a glass filled with part of the ocean means we understand the whole ocean. So it is with God but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try;  we only need advance with humility and admit that not everything has to be fully understood to be fully believed.

But I digress. The point here is that Peter’s audience is part of the elect, the chosen of God.  They are the recipients of His love. They are the called ones set apart for Him alone and no man, no city, no magistrate, no government can separate them from Him. And no one of any rank or any authority or any power can enter into this relationship except they be called. They are elevated above princes, principalities or powers whether human or demonic; they are the holy ones of God. This is the push back, that knowing their election is secure they can advance into their world as light advances before darkness and though they might appear weak and endure derision from others, they are in fact more powerful than can be imagined even to the point that death itself cannot overcome them. They can, therefore, be calm and confident before their accusers knowing their weakness is occasion for God’s power to strengthen them against the tide and make their message all the more real to those who have ears to hear.

And this is as true for us today as it was for them. We need not apologize for, nor hide our faith for we are sons and daughters of God the Almighty. We are His elect, and need not cower before, nor fear anyone who resists us, nor ever doubt that what we believe is anything but eternal truth.

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