Today’s Off the Grid Radio show is a lot like getting an expensive Christmas gift in the mail. First you have to unpack it from the mailing box. It’s been beautifully wrapped for Christmas, so you have to unwrap it. Once you open it… you’ll find nothing short of a rare gem.
Our first guest, Michael Heiser, one of the world’s top Old Testament scholars, takes a rare look at original-language Hebrew prophecies with Off the Grid Radio host, Bill Heid. They discuss, and unpack in fascinating detail, the need for a Savior in the Genesis story. Next, Bill discusses Christmas past, present, and future with 44-year veteran pastor, Jim Machen, senior pastor at Church Of The Open Door in Clinton, Iowa. Pastor Jim shares how the hope of Christ can overcome difficult and even tragic Christmases. If you’ve had your heart broken this time of year, you won’t want to miss Pastor Jim’s message regarding the real meaning of Christmas.
Off The Grid Radio
Release Date December 20, 2012
Bill: And Merry Christmas everybody. It’s Bill Heid with another Christmas episode of Off The Grid Radio. My guest today—a very special guest—is Michael S. Heiser or Mike Heiser, as he is affectionately known to us. Mike is a scholar and I think one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of biblical studies and near Eastern religions—the ancient religions—and he is also the academic editor of Logos Bible Software. Mike has earned his MA and his PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 2004 and he’s got a whole bunch of other degrees as well.
Well, here’s what happened. I’ve got to tell you something really fun, Mike. And I always look at your stuff and I’m going through and doing a sermon and I run this business that I do—this show and a whole bunch of other things—and then once every four weeks I do a sermon at the church. So I decided to do this Numbers sermon, where we talk about a star out of Jacob and what inevitably I came up with when I started to do some research… Now, I’m not… I’m still living in the pioneer days. I still have Logos 4 so these are the ancient of days, so I’m using primitive… And I have this scholar’s package but I’m using primitive tools. I’m just kidding. So I’m looking up… So I always want to go look up and the nice thing about Logos is that you can see what other people… I don’t like to think that I know everything about… just by looking at the languages myself when I go to the exegetical tools and so I like to go to the commentaries and stuff.
And one commentator, with respect to Balaam in this wonderful prophecy, started to talk about Balaam being a diviner. And then I thought instantly, “You know, I think Mike had done some work and obviously he had called Satan in Genesis 3…”—I think it was… Was that it? A diviner? And so I started thinking, “What…?” Is there any connection there? I don’t… And I’m not trying to make you… I’m not trying to draw too much but I just started thinking, “What is it about a diviner that kind of is a little bit of the “my precious”?” I just got done watching The Hobbit while we were… What is it about that that takes us places—crazy places?
Mike: Divination, just in general, is a reference. The concept is communicating with the other side—communicating with non-human intelligence—and this is both in the Bible and across the ancient, near Eastern world. There was naturally a belief that there was a spiritual world that was real to them. Nobody questioned it. It was assumed. And so if there is this other world that isn’t our world, that isn’t the world of the human—it’s the world of the divine—beings who are not us and who are in fact a whole lot smarter, a whole lot superior to us, then there were naturally attempts to try to communicate with that realm. And it involved tons of different things, like you can even imagine today in an occult sense, altered states—that sort of thing.
Divination though, just in principle and the way I’m defining it, just in general—the attempt to communicate with the other side—is a neutral thing. You have the same… some of the same kinds of things for instance in Deuteronomy 18 that are condemned in the Torah, in the Law, you actually find godly prophets doing elsewhere in the Old Testament and so that raises the question, “Well, how come they weren’t condemned?” Well, they… The answer is the object that you’re trying to contact. I mean the prophets would try to interact or would interact with the God of Israel and that was fine, obviously. But if you tried to contact another deity… If you were an Israelite and you tried to either A—get information from another source other than the God of Israel or B—do something where you sort of took it upon yourself—you assumed that you had control of the situation or you assumed the authority to initiate this kind of thing—that was a no-no because if you look through the Old Testament, whenever people are speaking to God, overwhelmingly God initiates the conversation. And even when He doesn’t—there is some side comment about the prophet inquired of the Lord—there has already been that relationship established by God.
So in other words, Yahweh sets the parameters with His prophet and how to communicate with Him. That’s why He gave instructions for the use of lots and the urim and the thummim and all this sort of stuff. “I know you’re going to want to talk to me so here is how I want you to do it.” So there is this relationship established. So what was forbidden was assuming that sort of contact could be made outside of the established relationship or trying to get information from some other source on the other side besides the God of Israel. That was a terrible offence. But in terms of the idea that there is this spiritual world—that I want to talk to it—divination is a neutral thing. Now the connection you were thinking about in relation to Genesis 3 is that one of the words for divination—one of the verbs—is “nachash,” that there is this hint in that word of contact and really deception but sort of this… again, this kind of interaction, this kind of solicitation—might be a good word—of the other side, of a non-human being, a non-human entity, a non-human intelligence. And nachash, if it’s a noun… Hebrew is like any other language. There are homonyms… homographs—words that are spelled the same way and have a different set of meanings. Nachash is one of those instances.
So it’s also… Those same consonants are also the same word in the noun form for “serpent” or “snake” and it’s the word used in Genesis 3 of… the familiar character in the garden story, that the nachash there—the “serpent,” which your listeners may or may not know… I don’t believe was a member of the animal kingdom. I believe that was a divine being. I think we find out that later. It’s this enemy, this rival of God—not a member of the animal kingdom—but either came in that form or took the appearance of something like a serpent but deceived Eve and she, in a very maybe not apparent sense to us, but she was communing with a member of this other side—this other non-human, divine intelligence kind of thing. And since she was deceived—the term verbally, as a verb—obviously conveys this idea of deception and this kind of interaction again, with the spiritual world so…
Bill: So let me stop you a second.
Bill: I think because that’s such an important thing—communion is such an important part inside the Trinity—communion… There is this theme. I think you touched on something that I hadn’t thought about previously and so it’s almost… You’re almost getting at an autonomous communion where I decide the communion motif, right?
Mike: Right. Again, one of the major concerns or one of the major points of condemning certain practices like in Deuteronomy was the assumption that you can initiate this at your whim. In other words, you’re in control of the situation. You’re defining the parameters and Yahweh is saying, “No, you don’t. You actually don’t.” Now some of these commands to not do certain things—again, in this realm, this thing we’re calling “divination”—part of the point… Part of the rationale of the command was that look… We don’t have commands in the Bible like “Thou shalt not fly” or like “Thou shalt not flap your wings and fly away” because we can’t do that. You don’t have commands against doing something that you can’t do—“Thou shalt not grow a third arm.” When you have a command to not do something, the assumption is that it can be done and it ought not to be done.
And so you get these commands against divination. They are there not because it doesn’t work. They are there because it does, because that when you initiate—as a human being—initiate contact with the spiritual world, apart from again, some prior relationship and especially with a divine being other than Yahweh… I’m defining it that way deliberately because we’re not discounting things like prayer, okay? There was a specific set of parameters here, a specific logic to it. When you make these assumptions and you contact the spirit world, part of the reason is that “Look, hey, you could be contacted by some entity other than myself, other than the God of Israel and it’s just not your turf. You could be easily deceived. You could be easily manipulated. You could be harmed. I mean any number of reasons not to do this.
You as a human being cannot assume that you’re controlling anything. And when you operate with those sorts of assumptions it can either be very bad for you or again, it’s just a violation. It’s just evil. It’s something I don’t want you to do or I am commanding you to not do it because it can work,” okay? It’ll work. I mean when we have people running around even today, that are either pretending or actually making contact with some spirit entity—talking to the dead and whatnot—they’re easily victimized by a spiritual intelligence and so again, that was part of the reason why God didn’t want this to occur. “You cannot handle this. This is not your domain. Don’t assume that what you’re told is the truth. Don’t assume that you can control the interaction and can even parse it correctly because you’re just… You’re just human. It’s… This is just not where you belong.”
Bill: Yeah. Don’t open that channel, you know? Because it… Because you create a channel and then that channel starts going both ways, right? It can… Once you autonomously open a channel, you signal that you want to be in sync with whatever that is somehow so you’re signaling—and I’m not trying to make anything weird out of it—but I’m just saying you’re almost calling that in and… You’re right. And God’s saying, “Boy, this is way above you.”
Mike: You know and this is not just Christian hocus-pocus and hokum and all that kind of stuff. I’ll give you an example. I have on my shelf a book on modern polytheism. It’s a polytheistic theology and the author is a guy that’s in our local Society of Biblical Literature regional group for that scholarly organization. His name is Jordan Paper and he is a practicing polytheist. He is a pagan. And I mean I’ve seen this guy at… I’ve read his book. I’ve seen this guy at meetings. And the book is very clear. He basically says, “Look, what I do—my faith, as it were—my spiritual practices… I have to be the initiator. If you want to be a polytheist like me you need to initiate this contact and then the gods will hopefully smile upon you and interact with you and then you can begin to barter… have a bartering relationship with them and form some sort of bond or whatever.” But he’s very clear—very open—that this is something that when human beings try to solicit the gods—these other entities—that’s required. That willingness is required and then that’s a precursor to having this interaction. So here you have a scholar in the 21st century who does this. So again, it’s not just something that Christians make up to scare people. No, it’s… This is what they do, okay?
Bill: Sure. Sure.
Mike: You can’t be any simpler. This is the way it is and the way you do it—again, to go out into these… on these trajectories.
Bill: Do you remember in Ghost Busters, like the building was an antenna? And it’s sort of made light of and so I think people tend to not pay much attention to it because Dan Aykroyd sort of going up and saying, “Gozerian, good evening. As a duly constituted representative of the city, state and county of New York…” and he goes on in this thing and it sort of becomes like a joke but that idea of creating some sort of channel or antenna… I guess the point I was making with Balaam is I thought he was—and I might be reaching—but I thought he was doing a little bit of that by sacrificing on… setting up seven bullocks and doing those sacrifices and I wasn’t sure which antenna he was setting up.
Mike: Well, Balaam is both… Balaam is an odd duck because…
Bill: He is.
Mike: …on the one hand, in the book of Joshua—Joshua 13:22—Balaam is condemned for divination. I mean he… I’m just looking at the passage here. I found it. “Balaam the son of Beor practiced divination. He was killed with a sword by the people of Israel.” Now this is later, of course, than the incident in the book of Numbers but he winds up dying. He winds up getting killed and during the conquest. And a lot of scholars figure that he is sort of—in that most immediate episode there—it hearkens back to the fact that he took money from the Moabites to curse Israel and sort of that was his transgression—to try to manipulate or at least accept money with the thought that “Okay, I’ll try to contact Yahweh and cajole Him into cursing His people.” In other words, there… It’s a violation of the normal relationship between Yahweh and the prophet. Now of course Yahweh basically says, “No. You’re not going to do that. You’re not going to curse Israel. Here, I’ll tell you what you’re going to say. Now open your mouth and repeat after me.”
Mike: You know? So he… It doesn’t turn out that way but the fact that he would accept a bribe, essentially, accept payment to try to curse the people—that was the line that he crossed and he is…
Bill: And he also sent the Midianite girls in, right? So that would be something that would… You would probably slap him down for as well—Midianite girls gone wild, right?
Mike: Well, and he gets consistently. Yeah. Even… Even in the Bible and even outside the Bible he is consistently condemned for coming up with the idea of how “Okay, I can’t curse Israel for you but you know what? The only one who can curse Israel is Yahweh and the way you… that Yahweh would be…”
Bill: Oh, very good. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mike: Right. The way Yahweh would be angry with His people is if they violate covenant—they go after other gods—and the way you get them to do that is of course with the… either intermarriage—the whole Solomon thing of their hearts go after the gods of their wives—or some sort of ritualistic sexual worship. It’s probably two sides of that same coin. There is probably both of these things going on with the Moabites. Now that’s the way you do it. You get them to violate covenant and then God will do all the cursing you want for it.
Bill: That is really insidious, Mike, because here’s a guy that knows Jehovah. He knows Yahweh. He knows this God and he knows how He operates blessings and cursings and he says—as you’re saying—“I’m going to take this idea and I’ll engineer the curse,” which again is back to the diviner side again, right? Because he starts to sort of say, “Look, I’ll autonomously figure out how to engineer this thing.”
Mike: Right. It’s kind of startling for us, that here you have a… Balaam is called a prophet in the New Testament. The word “prophet” is used of him in 2 Peter 1. So even though he’s not an Israelite—he’s again, from somewhere else—but he is in this prophetic office. And there were prophets running all over the ancient Near East but in this case he does have interaction with the God Most High—El Elyon, who the Israelites would refer to as Yahweh—and so on and so forth. But he has this interaction and it’s kind of startling that he would be such a… such a jerk.
Mike: That he would take the money, he would sort of try to manipulate and then when it doesn’t work, he’s willing—again, it’s another act of manipulation—it’s sort of a backdoor approach to not only getting the… satisfying the Moabites but also it’s almost like he’s using Yahweh. He’s using Yahweh’s justice sort of against His own people. It’s very… It’s very devious. It’s wicked. I mean I don’t… I think that’s the best word for it—because he’s going to know something about Yahweh. He’s going to know something about the God of Israel where the people of Moab—you know, Balak—what does he know? Well, Balaam has to tell him that “Hey, the reason that this is not working is because this people is in special, covenant relationship with Yahweh so you’ve got to… You have to have them mess that up and then Yahweh is just. He will punish them for violating covenants.” It’s very devious.
Bill: Very devious and then yet out of this guy’s mouth comes these amazing prophecies at the same time. And I think a lot of people want an… And I’m sure you run into this in your work because of how you… because of just what you do and your ability to do a lot of near ancient language and so forth—Near East ancient language work—but people want an off and on switch for everybody and here’s a guy where you’re… It’s almost like a rheostat, where you’re jerking it back and forth from dim to bright and… which is God’s world, right? It’s God’s prerogative to use…
Mike: Yes. He’s not the only one. I mean it surprises us because he’s the most blatant example but in Jeremiah 23, Jeremiah in his interaction there about who the true prophet is. It’s the prophet who has been in the counsel of Yahweh in Jeremiah 23 and if you read that interaction there is another prophet of Yahweh there that gets something wrong. He prophecies something incorrectly and Jeremiah has to rebuke him and correct him. So… Now the question is is the guy saying what he said sort of to “Well I’m just as good as Jeremiah,” you know what I mean? Is he doing it for bad motives or whatever? I mean there is a hint of that but there are instances where prophets do go astray. There is the man of God in the book of Kings that commits… who does wrong and God punishes him. So Balaam is not the only one so we shouldn’t be surprised that hey, lo and behold prophets are human and humans are fallible and that the heart is deceitful above all things and so on and so forth—that this does happen.
And the fact that it does happen—that they can go astray—shouldn’t invalidate the fact that God can use them, like you said, to give us something like Numbers 24:17, this amazing prophecy. You know, think about Caiaphas in the New Testament—the high priest. This is the guy who said, “Hey, it’s expedient that one man should die for the whole country of Israel.” Well again, it’s one of these backdoor prophetic statements. He doesn’t even know what he’s saying but the reader of the New Testament who is reading the story of Jesus and of course the crucifixion—he knows exactly what’s going on there—the reader does. But Caiaphas is like… I mean he is the enemy and yet out of his mouth comes this… an incredible statement. So these things do happen in scripture. You have these things that are quite apparent.
Bill: Definitely apparent and as we kind of… We’ve got… We sort of set aside a half an hour so we’ve got just a little bit of time but Mike, talk about… Let’s go back. We’ve talked about Balaam and I think boy, you really… You hit it with that… sort of the diabolical nature of what was going on there, understanding covenant blessings and cursings but let’s go back into… It’s Christmas, right? Let’s go back a little bit in the time that we have and talk about what life was like and we… We need a savior but I think… and we get to that—people understand Christmas on some sense—but what was the nature of the fall? And what I like about your work is your work there in early Genesis especially, so can we kind of set up again, what was going on in the garden? I like the idea of you saying Satan was on his way to work one day. And it’s almost like with… in Job and God and Satan were talking one day. So Satan’s on his way to work one day at the divine council. He’s part of God’s team, as it were. Set that up. You do that better than me. I’m the one that’s reading you, you know?
Mike: You have the enemy, of course, that’s going to be referred to as the serpent there and Eve is not surprised at all when she has this conversation. I mean she doesn’t like “Holy cow! What happened here? This thing crawling around on the ground is talking to me.” I mean this… It reads as though it’s just completely normal. And again, part of my argument is that well that’s because she’s not talking to a member of the animal kingdom. She’s talking to a divine being. She… In other words, she has some sense of who this is and she’s… They’re in Eden. It’s the place where God is. Where God is, the council is—His heavenly host, His administration, His bureaucracy. This is again, ground zero. It’s the headquarters of divine activity on the planet and she’s right in the middle of it and so she sees these sorts of things that we would associate with the throne room of God, with the administration of God all the time.
And so one of these beings decides to interact with her and says, “Hey, did God really say…?” and then they get into this conversation because again, the goal—and this isn’t unique to me; I mean you’re going to read this in later Jewish literature, Second Temple period stuff—that the goal, sort of like Balaam, is that I can’t take it upon my own authority to get rid of these people because we were here first. We’re more intelligent. We’re greater. We were God’s family first. We’re His original kids, so to speak—the sons of God, the divine beings, the heavenly host—and I can’t get rid of them myself but I can get them to sin and then I’m under the assumption that God’s just going to destroy them. God’s going to get rid of them because that’s what God does. So he manipulates the circumstance so that they are deceived, they eat and thinking, “Mission accomplished. Let’s just watch the lightning bolts come out and get rid of these two” and that isn’t what God does.
I mean God, of course, is quite able to sort out what really happens and in the midst of all that, the cursing. They lose their immortality. They are expelled from Eden. They are expelled from the divine presence where life is. That is the source of life. So now they will—being on the outside of that—they will age. They will die eventually. But the other part of that is that God says, “Look, what I’m going to do is that someday one of your seed—one of your offspring—there will be a human being that comes out of Eve—out of Adam and Eve—again, a member of the human race who will someday come and undo the effect of this, who will undo what you have done here. And so Genesis 3:15 again, starts this with a very cryptic reference—starts this idea that somewhere in the course of human history a human person descended from these original parents will come and will undo the effect of this fall—redemption. Now we get lots of things accrued to that in the Old Testament, as you go through. Of course Numbers 24 is one of them. Even though Matthew… You go back to the magi—the birth account with Jesus…
Bill: Sure. Sure.
Mike: Matthew does not quote Numbers 24:17. He does not quote the star passage when you think he would but there are other passages that do hearken back to Numbers 24:17. There are other New Testament passages that do that. The star idea again—think the sons of God—the stars of God. Stars—that star imagery—the symbolism there was associated with divinity and so this is again, a cryptic reference that well, this human person that was described in Genesis 3:15—now we’re getting a little more information. There is also going to be divinity here associated with this “and a scepter will rise out of Israel. A star shall come out of Jacob,” so on and so forth. So there are other New Testament passages that apply that to Jesus even though Matthew doesn’t so it is part of what I call “the Messianic mosaic.”
I think Messianic prophecy was deliberately cryptic. I take Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2 seriously where Paul says, “Look, had the rulers of this age”—and Paul uses that elsewhere, of non-human intelligences, of divine, sinister beings—“If the rulers of this age had known what they were doing, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.” So there… You can’t go back… This is why you can’t just look at your New Testament and when it quotes the Old you think, “What in the…? How…? I would have never figured that out. I would have never figured that was the fulfillment of this thing over here.” Well, there is a reason for that, okay? It was veiled. It was cryptic. The New Testament writers could only tell these things with 20/20 hindsight, after they’d lived with Jesus for three and a half years, they’d witnessed the crucifixion, they’d witnessed the resurrection. Then they got it. Before they didn’t get it—not because they were stupid but because it was veiled and it was veiled for a reason. As Paul says, if they had known that to kill the guy…
Mike: The demons knew who it was. All these accounts in the gospels—“We know who you are. You’re Jesus, the son of God.” Jesus says, “Yeah. Shut up,” okay? They know who He is but they don’t really know what the plan is. So they think, “Well, He’s here so logically, what we should do is get rid of Him” and not knowing that that was the key—that was the thing that needed to happen to seal their own doom—they had no idea. That’s why Paul again says, “If they had known that they would not have done this.” So Messianic… I view it as a mosaic. There is all these little pieces of what the Messiah would be and look like and say and do and they’re just floating around. It looks random to us in the Old Testament. But 20/20 hindsight, you can see it.
Bill: Well, even Peter when he…
Mike: Even Peter.
Bill: I’m just thinking about grabbing a sword and Jesus saying… calling him “Hey, you crazy knuckle-head! You don’t know what the plan is.”
Mike: Yeah, Jesus hitting his forehead like, “Oh, what have I…? What do I have…?”
Bill: “What in the world are you doing with that?” You know, “Who are you—Kim Jong-Il?” I mean “You don’t have any idea what’s going on here.”
Mike: And you know, and Jesus does rebuke him—“Well, you just… You ought to know more than this.” But when they do get it right, you notice what He says, like when they’re at the Mount of Transfiguration and—well, even before that with the whole “Thou art Peter and upon this rock,” Matthew 16—when He says, “Who do men say that I am?” and of course they give Him some answers and then he says, “Well, who do you say I am?” And Peter says, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” He says, “The only reason you know this is because God has revealed it to you.” In other words, it took a supernatural act—some activity of the Spirit—to get that message. It was not something that they could just go back and… You know Peter doesn’t say, “Well, on page 25 here of my Old Testament it says…” They don’t do that and Jesus says, “That isn’t where you’re going to find it.” This had to be supernaturally revealed to you, again because this is deliberately cryptic. We look at it and see clarity because we have the New Testament and we have the benefit of their writing, putting it together under inspiration. It looks clear to us but to them it was not clear at all and that’s deliberate.
Bill: Yeah, deliberate and fascinating at the same time. Mike, we’ve kind of run out of time but you’ve got some classes. If you’d like to get a little closer to ancient languages, how do people…? How do people sign up for those classes?
Mike: Yeah, if people would like to take Greek and Hebrew online over the course of a full year, they could go to www.memraonline.com and sometime in January I will be posting a schedule for when people can get into those classes. They are… It is something they’d have to pay for but it’s, I think, $150.00. But it’s for a whole year. It’s like $3.00 a week—something like that. And I’ve had a number of people go through and you can learn Greek and Hebrew online. I have hundreds of videos going through a grammar in each language, me explaining it, doing all the exercises with you. So if you’re interested in that, it’s www.memraonline.com.
Bill: And you’ve also got a bunch of… At www.michaelsheiser.com you’ve got a bunch of other things that you do. Do you want to just run down quickly and tell people roughly? Because it’s fascinating stuff.
Mike: People who wonder how to spell my last name, I finally got smart and used a redirect so if they go to www.drmsh.com it will go to the same page and then at the top there are my other websites. Memra is one of them and there is my blogs—I have three blogs that I maintain on sort of oriented to different subject matter. My novel, The Façade—the original edition—is available for 50% off until the end of the year because the publisher produced a special edition that has the first five chapters of the sequel in the back. So that’s all explained on the front page of the website. If people haven’t read it, hey—it’s a great read. I like to read it.
Bill: Oh, the book is great. I’ve read the book. Listen, you won’t put… If you get that book, you won’t put it down. You’ll want to… It just leads you forward so there is another reason and there is a reason…
Mike: Yeah. I am in the sequel right now and it’s…
Bill: Oh cool.
Mike: It absorbs a lot of my thinking. It’s just a lot of fun.
Bill: Yeah. Well, I know you’re a busy guy and I really do appreciate your time that you spent with us today, Mike. Just have a great Christmas and a great New Year as well.
Mike: You too.
Bill: All right. God bless.
Mike: God bless.
Bill: Hallelujah, hallelujah. We are back again with our special Christmas episode and the second half of this podcast. We’ve got a very special friend of ours, Pastor Jim Machen
Sr. Jim, you have been doing this for a long time. You’ve been pastoring for years—what, 44 years? I’d just like to say that I am honored to spend some time with you. Thanks so much for being with us today. So you’re still actively preaching?
Jim: Yeah. I still am. Jim’s doing more preaching now but I…
Bill: Jim, your son?
Jim: Yeah. And I am actually going to announce this Sunday that we’re moving toward Father’s Day. That will be the… We came to Clinton 44 years ago on Father’s Day and so I… Two milestones—that we’re going to celebrate our 50th anniversary for our wedding in April and I’ll become Pastor Emeritus. I don’t hardly know what that means but… And I can’t think of the word “retire.” I think, “refocus.”
Bill: Refocus. Sure. Sure.
Jim: But I will… But he will become… And I am serving on the international board, which is taking more of my time too, which involves 1,700 churches here and over 60,000 on the mission field.
Bill: And just a little background for the people that do know us that we’ve talked about, one of our friends is Judge Roy Moore, who was just reinstituted, by the way. And if people want to know how I know you Jim, it’s… Originally, I think we met because when we decided to have Judge Moore come up here and speak…
Bill: We ran… We over sort of booked what we could do at the Christian school that my kids were going to so we came to you and you welcomed us with open arms and you were the only one that had the church large enough to—at your church, Open Door in Clinton—you were large enough to have that meeting. And it was an amazing meeting, if you remember that?
Jim: Yes, I do.
Bill: It was standing room only and we had a lot of Clinton’s sort of dignitaries, as it were—members of the newspaper and the mayor and everybody—we had everybody there and there was literally no place to sit down and Jeremy, our producer—I met him through that event as well because he produced the video for me. And here’s he… He is working for us after all those years and here you are again and…
Jim: Yeah. Still here.
Bill: It’s really great to… Still here. Still here. Anyway, it’s great to have you because what I was thinking about and telling Jeremy that one of the reasons I’d like to talk to an experienced pastor, because Christmas is not always about this thing where we play all the holiday music and things are always going well. And I started thinking, “I’ll bet Pastor Jim had a lot of stories.” You’ve been around for years and years and years and most people that go to a church don’t realize what it’s like to be a pastor because it never gets shut off, does it? I mean…
Bill: Really, your phone has to always be open and I’m sure you’ve had some blessed Christmases, which were sort of Norman Rockwell-esque but some of the other ones too. But it’s just…
Jim: Yeah. And I don’t know how deep you want to go with that but I was called on Christmas Eve about midnight and—this was several years ago—to go up to the hospital because they… They had a group of people—they have 25-30 people—and it was completely out of hand. They’re so upset because a little baby died—crib death—on Christmas Eve. And I… I went up there. A young man was outside venting, cursing God, you know. And I walked into that room and I saw that mother holding that little baby and the baby had already gone to be with the Lord. But everybody was so upset and the hospital was having a hard time working with them because everybody was crying and angry and upset.
But you know, I took that little… I told that little mother… I said, “Please give me your little child” and I… I said, “I want you to be quiet because I am going to pray and I’m going to dedicate this child to the Lord.” And I held that little one. I dedicated that little child to the Lord and I want to tell you the Holy Spirit showed up in that room in such a beautiful way. And I sat down with that little mom and dad and they received Christ as their savior. The young man that was outside venting and angry with God and cursing God watched as they received the Lord and he looked at me and he said, “I want that too” and he received the Lord. And as much tragedy in the mix of that, God did the triumphant thing. He took that little child to heaven. He opened Mom and Dad’s heart to bring peace because they received Christmas. They received Christ. And Christmas is a person. And then the other young man who was at one point cursing God now received Jesus. And see, things like that people don’t get to see or hear very often.
Bill: And that’s why I wanted to have you on because that really is the message that… We live in a fallen world, Pastor Jim.
Jim: We do.
Bill: We live in a broken world and as a pastor you’ve seen your share of all of this stuff and so… And yet here, as we were talking before, where is God in all of this? That could have been said almost any time during Mary and Joseph’s trek or relationship, even after the news was found out, after she went to see… Mary went to see Elizabeth and so forth and she came back and she’s pregnant as well. You mentioned the Holy Spirit. And so we’ve… All of a sudden here’s the Holy Spirit working in an amazing way right out of the blocks for this… arranging this amazing gift for mankind.
Jim: And let me say on this line too—and you kind of guide me a little bit if you want me to get into this—the… I was asked to go for the preview of the Passion before it went into the movie theaters and that. We went to Willow Creek. There was about 4,000 pastors gathered there and I was one of them. And we didn’t know just what to expect and everybody was kind of cheerful and high-fiving and all the pastors… It was just good to be together with that many shepherds, you know? And we watched that. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place by the time we got done. And then they said, “Well, we have a special guest that wants to talk to you” and Mel Gibson came out. And we began to talk to Mel and we asked him why he made this film because he had to put $25-30 million of his own money in it because Hollywood wouldn’t back him on this. And he said he did this to thank the Lord because he was at the point he was going to take his life.
And we asked him “Well, why…? What happened? What did you do? Did you get counseling? What did you do?” and he said, “I knelt down and I asked God to help me and I asked Him to forgive me and I asked Jesus to help me” and he said, “He did.” And he said, “I make this film to thank God for what He did—instead of me taking my life, to help me to be able to live.” And I know Mel’s messed up a lot since then but he made the most graphic thing and the most factual thing that we would ever see of the cost of Christmas on that first tree—that first Christmas tree—the cross tree of Calvary where God put the gift of His son, Jesus Christ. That’s the first Christmas tree.
Bill: That’s a great… Can I just say this? That is a great one-liner in some sense, Pastor Jim. In other words, what did Christmas really cost?
Jim: See, that’s what I want to say because many times we don’t think of the cost of Christmas. I mean other than the material cost. But what it cost God to send His son—that God looked and said, “Bill, I’d rather die than live without you” and He did.
Bill: That’s a love story, isn’t it?
Bill: That’s an amazing…
Jim: A lot of people will say that but they don’t do it. And He did that. It isn’t “God so loved the world.” God so loved you—put your name in there—that He gave His only begotten son. And see, to me if you don’t personalize the Bible you miss it. You don’t realize it’s 66 love letters from God to us. And that’s what you have to capture.
Bill: I love that idea because I think it’s substitutionary atonement, which I think is where you’re getting at, is pretty personal, right? I don’t know what gets more personal than that—somebody taking your place and offering themselves up for you—not for some vague concept but for you.
Jim: Yeah. And see, that’s the thing that we have to capture in the heart of that because if we don’t understand… The Bible is not a book. It’s the very breath of God. When you read the Bible God is breathing His life into you and when we realize the Bible… You know my problem in life is I think I was born with a bent compass because I get lost all the time and I’m… You know they finally got me a GPS—the staff did—because they didn’t know if I’d ever come back from some of my trips and I was always calling them and asking them to help me get where I was going and they’d ask me where I was at and I said, “I don’t know. If I knew, I wouldn’t be lost.” But then it was hard because if they didn’t know where I was at, they couldn’t tell me. But they got me this GPS and this GPS is amazing because I get on the wrong road and it says, “Recalculate.” And I have another GPS—the Word of God—the roadmap of life, the owner’s manual. And it tells me when I’m on the wrong road and it doesn’t say “Recalculate.” It says, “Repent. Go the other way” and that’s what I do. And it always works out well. And those are the things that I look at when I think about Christmas. I…
Bill: You bet. You bet.
Jim: Okay, now…
Bill: Now let me… Can I interrupt you for a second? Because you just said something again, very profound that I want to stop and elaborate on just a little bit. Both Mel Gibson—lest people say with some sort of cynicism about Mel “Oh, I’m going to write him off because he’s in constant problems”—listen, what Pastor is saying here is we’re all in a sinful world. We’re sinners. We’re not at the consummation of all time. We’re living in a sinful world and we still carry some of this baggage with us. So you just said something really amazing. You… A lot of times, especially in more evangelical churches, we say that we need to learn how to repent and that sort of gets repented once. I think what you’re saying is the GPS on this thing for you, for Mel, for me, for everyone listening is you need to learn how to repent more than just one big, major, cataclysmic time. You’re going to go on your whole life… We ought to teach a class on repentance, right? I mean how to continue to sort of repent as we go through life.
Jim: Yeah, repentance is a lifestyle. You know it’s just like getting baptized. It’s essential I have lived baptized, not just get baptized. It’s something that it’s a lifestyle. And I’m not such a good Christian. I’m a good repenter. I understand to repent and listen to the Holy Spirit to guide my life because without that we really lose our focus in life and… And I think Christmas tells us all about the fact that it’s a gift that keeps on giving and… You know I’ve been pastoring for 43, almost 44 years now and one of the things that’s difficult for me—the more I learn, the more I feel I don’t know. But it’s because I have a bigger picture—a bigger picture of God, a bigger picture of who I am. And I think it’s so necessary for us to understand we never change the message that God has given us. We do change methods. And we need to keep unwrapping Christmas. We get it wrapped up so tight in all the worries and hustles and things and the commercial things that happen with Christmas but to understand that when you open the gift of Christmas and Christ as a person and knowing Him… Because see, I was raised religious but I didn’t know a relationship with God. And that’s what Christmas is all about is again, God being able to come and love us to life and when we understand that, that’s the greatest experience you can have in life.
And when I think about our elder brother, the Jewish people who… They didn’t understand the present day visitation through His son, Jesus Christ. I wonder sometimes if we understand the present day visitation of God through the Holy Spirit because Jesus got a sinless body—the Holy Spirit didn’t get that. He got you and me and He lives in us. And the apostle Paul says, “No, you’re not”—that you’re a temple of the Spirit of the living God and He lives in us. And that’s the Christmas gift—that Jesus said, “It is expedient that I go because unless… If I don’t go, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t come” and so He leaves the great Christmas gift in us—the Spirit of the living God. Some people talk about the Spirit of Christmas. That’s the Holy Spirit. And He’s the one that can bring joy to our life. In the mix of all the brokenness He gives us joy and that’s something the world can’t give and it can’t take away.
Bill: No. Well said. I think that people don’t… Especially certain denominations, Pastor Jim, I think because we get hardened as a people and we get hardened denominationally and if we say, “Hey, we’re not X—this denomination—whatever denomination that might be,” we kind of end up saying, “Well, we’re not the denomination of the Holy Spirit, not realizing that we’re talking about the Trinity here. We’re talking about a manifestation of God Himself. Lest people forget what God they’re worshiping, they’re worshiping a Trinitarian God and even our Catholic friends, our Presbyterian friends—almost… You take a good walk along the path of what’s on the Christian landscape and if you’re saying the Nicene Creed at all, if you think that there is any traction there among the things you believe, you’re talking about the Holy Spirit quite a bit. But the question is has the Holy Spirit touched your heart and then are you sort of living a life that’s a life of thankfulness, a life of grace based on what’s happened to you?
Jim: Absolutely. And no person can come to Christ unless they’re drawn by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us and really, because of the fact that we know Christ. We’re blood kin because of the blood of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter what denomination. It’s not about a revelation of a denomination. It’s a revelation of the person Jesus Christ. And we’re part of the Father’s forever forgiven family once we come to receive Christ. All God ever wanted—all He ever wanted—was a family and that’s what He’s about. And so many times we’ve made Christianity so complex, we don’t know how to connect. And so we think about all the dos and don’ts rather than a revelation of love—a God that loves us so much He can’t leave us alone and He comes to where we’re at to bring us where He wants us to be. And that’s for time in eternity and realize the ultimate Christmas gift is not what we’ll receive in this life. There is so much pain in what we go through in this life but God will never waste a pain and the process of pain that we go through and the choices we make because God gave us a free will has to do with our eternal destiny. It’s not just about where we’re at. It’s about where we’re going for all of eternity.
Bill: You bet. And I was reading a little bit about Roman culture last night and it was interesting that at the time of our Lord’s birth culture was very hardened to certain things and in terms of Roman culture, you didn’t have any kind of transcendent idea that made one… You had a little bit of “Yeah, we’re in the Roman Empire together” and you had a… but you had a little bit of a clannishness that existed in all of Rome that kept people apart. And you’re talking about something transcendent that joins people in community.
Bill: This was very different on the world, the landscape that was paganism at the time. All of a sudden something came that was a community oriented. And you’re talking about community and family—this idea of community. We talked about the Trinity and this idea of community there. How does the Father get along with the Son and the Holy Spirit and vice versa? That’s a model for us to live in a way that’s harmony. So we… Well, we have all these broken things in the world but so what’s the formula for living in harmony? It is there in this book, given to us from a God with harmony.
Jim: Yes. It is. And that’s the hardest thing for us to accomplish and that’s what the enemy of our soul would most like to keep from us because when any two will agree, anything can happen. One can put 1,000 aflight—two can put 10,000. Unity is so important and He wants to do everything he can to bring brokenness in this world and many times I say there is 1,000 things that can break us, only one that can make us whole—that’s the gift of Christmas—Jesus Christ. He came to heal the broken hearts. There’s broken homes. There are so many people that have… that are good at making a living but they can’t… They don’t know what it is to make a life. And that’s something that God wants to bring healing to.
Bill: What they were connected… What’s interesting about what you said was what seemed to connect people in Rome at the time of Caesar Augustus was money.
Bill: And here we are, right back… It’s like a NASCAR race. We run all this time and then we end up right back at where we started. You’re right back there again where what seems to be the social glue in this country seems to be money. In other words, come from anywhere in the world and you can come here and if you have this common zeitgeist, if you have this common thread with us, you’ll get along well. Well, that’s not the way it always was here in this country, compared to our founders. That’s what we talked about with Judge Roy Moore. This country was… Once the social glue was Christmas, right?
Bill: It was something very different.
Jim: Absolutely. Yeah. And the foundation of this nation came about because of our belief in the Word of God and our freedom to worship, very much like Israel. And the important point for us to understand about Christmas is not a historical fact but an up-to-date experience of the reality that Christ came but He is coming again but also He’s here through the power of the Holy Spirit, realizing that we need to live our life to an audience of one. I’ll tell you a simple story about this and this is where we started out with our church here in Clinton Iowa nearly 44 years ago. We came to this community and I told Sharon after about 30 years here I felt like God not only placed us in a community but He put the community in us because we’re asked to take other churches and do other things. But I remember going and taking that little church and they told us there was 36 people there but I couldn’t find them.
Bill: You couldn’t find one of the 36.
Jim: No. And I remember going out to a service where there was just one person and no music, nothing. And it was a little lady that came and she had been praying that there would be a pastor come and stay and develop the church because the church had been there 15 years and we were the eleventh or twelfth pastor to come. And we didn’t know it but they were going to close the church if it didn’t work out with us and it was going to be the Church of the Closed Door. That’s why God spoke to us to call it the Church of the Open Door—because God set a door before us that no man could close, according to the book of Revelation. But I remember going out and I preached my whole sermon to that one little lady and I remember turning around and walking back into that little apartment we lived on in back of the church and we were getting 25 bucks a week whether we needed it or not.
And I asked the Lord this question. I said, “Lord, should I preach if there is only one person?” and He said, “It doesn’t matter whether it’s 1 or 1,000. If it’s not to me first, it doesn’t matter because it will not accomplish anything.” And that day I learned what it is to live my life to an audience of one. That’s the way it’ll end. That’s the way we need to live every day. And see, that’s the gift of Christmas. It’s Christ—His presence—practicing His presence every day and realizing that. And it becomes a wonderful way of life. It makes us so God-conscious so we’re not so self-conscious. And it doesn’t make us judgmental. It doesn’t make us act holy. It helps us to be holy though in the sense of what He talks about holiness and how to help other people. And perhaps because He’s brought healing in some areas of my life, I can help another person experience that. So those are the things that I look at that make me realize what a wonderful gift Christmas really is.
Bill: Well yeah. And you’ve been able to garner up—this is what I was talking to Jeremy about is—all these years of experience and that’s why it’s so fun to sort of pick your brain because you don’t have to go through broken glass necessarily if you can harvest some of someone else’s experiences and so here’s someone that’s been at this a long time and as you said, you started out… We like to say here, “Never despise small beginnings.” That’s one of the mantras or one of the sort of clinging ideas that we have in our company. And you’ve lived that life as well. I started the company in my garage and you commented to me “Isn’t it amazing the things that have come about from nothing?”
Jim: Yes. They’re beautiful.
Bill: But you’ve… If you have the Holy Spirit and you have that desire—that divine spark of life, which you and I would agree that people have this—they have the ability to go be nice to their neighbor, to start something, to do something at a small level and those small things then become big things over time. I’m worried Jim that so many people in our culture are existentialists. They want some…. You know it’s… The big joke is “I want an oompa loompa and I want one now,” right? It’s the old Willy Wonka thing. But your life, if anything, tells me good things come in time if we’re patient, we let God’s grace work. Do you want to comment to that a little bit?
Jim: Yeah. It is a process and many times we want the promise without the process and we want everything right away and one thing too in our culture—we’re so busy all the time because—and Dr. Dobson said it well. He said, “We’ve learned to live with organized panic.” And if the devil can’t you bad he’ll just get you busy. But we want everything and we kind of want the microwave type of thing. We don’t want the crockpot. And we have to go through process because I’ve said many times you can only be young once but you can be immature all your life and you have to grow by the grace of God. And I think about how we go through that process and may I say in simple terms this way?
You have to dare to dream because every person has a dream in their heart of God’s destiny and desire for their life but then you have to prepare the dream. That’s very necessary. And I think too, if you’re going to prepare the dream, you have to show up with work clothes. It is a process that you go through. You need to be a “workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of God.” Even the Bible is a goldmine but you have to dig out those nuggets. So you have to dare to dream, prepare the dream and then sometimes you have to repair your dream. It’ll get broken but you don’t stop there. You keep believing and that’s where you come to the point that you not only realize you can’t do it but you need Christ to help you do it. And so then you get to the point after that you can share your dream. And so you have a dream here that’s been fulfilled. Now you can share it. But you had to dare to dream to develop what you have here. I had to dare to dream that there would be a day that—and I still believe—for a day that there will be 1,000 tongues on that hill to sing and there has been times we’ve had 1,000 gather there. But you dare to dream because of what God puts in you. It’s like Joseph. They looked at him and they said, “Well, here comes the dreamer.”
Jim: But see, we allow… I believe that many people have a Death Valley of dead dreams and they don’t realize that if there has been death, there can be resurrection and that’s the hope of Christmas too because if something has died of your hopes and your dreams, the wonderful part about Christmas is that Jesus Christ can come and He can raise up something brand new and He can bring beauty out of ashes and we just have to humble our heart and ask Him to come and to help us. And so those are things that I am thankful that in the process it’s not just about getting things or what happens because God’s not opposed to us having things. He’s totally opposed to things having us. We can do wonderful things with what God will do with our dream, our desire and what we develop but the ultimate thing is and the greatest success in life is to know you’ve done the will of God.
Bill: You have to run a good race and to sort of be able to say, “You know what? I gave it my all.” And that is quite a thing.
Jim: It really is. And it’s the most fulfilling thing in life. I think of Peter when he looked at the layman and he said, “Silver and gold have I none but such as I have I give you.” And if we’ll give what we’ve got it’s amazing what God will do but the enemy will always try to discourage you, distract you, deter God’s desire for you and we simply have to get beyond ourself and do what the apostle Paul said—“Present yourself as a living sacrifice, which is your reasonable service, your reasonable worship. Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Think different. And that’s where we come to the Word of God and understand that and that’s one of the greatest gifts that’s ever been given to us is the Bible—the Word of the living God—that brings life and hope to us.
Bill: Well, well said. As we close, I guess let’s kind of close a little bit with where we opened. You mentioned a Christmas with a tragedy and certainly this year there are people that have experienced tragedy on the East coast and they have to be saying—some of them at least—the same thing that your family… It’s remarkable that you have that metaphor because there has to be people sort of shaking their fists at God. There has to be people broken, lifeless. I know that’s the way I would be and we’re not saying people shouldn’t grieve. We’re not saying you shouldn’t grieve. That has to be part of what this is all about. But there is hope in all of this.
Jim: There really is because you know one of the most difficult things for me is to have funeral services for little children and that’s where people will question God the most—“Where was God?” And sometimes people will say, “Well God needed another little person in the choir or another flower in heaven” and that’s not the case at all. It’s a tragedy that happens in a broken world and I think of what’s happened in the tragedy of this school shooting and these children that were short-circuited into eternity before they lived out the life that God would intend. Now God’s never the cause of these tragedies. He’s not the cause of the storms that we face in life. But He is the only cure. And the beautiful thing that I can say to people and when I come to a point where it’s a tragic thing of what’s happened and the loss of life and especially with children, I’m so glad that I can come and be able to tell that mom and dad and family that God did the good thing in the mix of this, that Jesus Christ came at the very moment that death said, “I’ll take your little child” and He took that child out of death to greater life. He did the triumphant thing in the midst of the tragedy and that’s the hope that we have and that also this is not the end of the story because of the fact that little child or your loved one is taken into eternity.
And I think not just children but so many today that will grieve because of the loss of a loved one and they feel so lonely about Christmas but one day if you know Christ you will see your loved one again. And the thing that I always think about is the climax of Christmas. When I went to Israel, the place that I visit in that site of Calvary where the first Christmas tree was erected—that cross tree of Calvary—and God placed the greatest gift that could ever be given. He placed His son on that cruel cross tree of Calvary. That’s the first Christmas tree. But that’s just the beginning. The climax of Christmas is when I go to the open tomb and I walk in that tomb and I look where they laid the body of our Lord and there is a little sign right over that place and it has the most wonderful words in the world. It says, “He is not here. He is risen.” And I walk out of that tomb and the reality is no grave can hold our body down. The reality is the testimony of the open tomb. That’s the hope of Christmas because every religion in the world can get you to the tomb. Only one can get you out and that’s Jesus Christ. And see, that’s the climax of Christmas—to realize that Christ comes for us to take us into eternity. Most people all their life look for a place where there’s no sickness, sorrow nor pain. You’ll never find that place on Earth. That’s homesickness for heaven.
Bill: Well Jim, I guess we have to close there but we know why people say, “Tidings of comfort and joy”—that this is our comfort. And this life that we live here is a very short period of time. So we have to be careful of judging God, as you say, over the long haul because so many good things happen from that first example that you gave that it’s difficult to sort of sit back and put God in the dock, as CS Lewis would say. There is something going on here that we don’t know about and we’re here for a very short time—let’s make it a really good time. Let’s reach out to our neighbors. Here we are at Christmas. Let’s reach out with the help of the Holy Spirit and comfort others who are grieving—that’s part of life—and just sort of transmit or convey a feeling of joy as we go through the next few days, right?
Jim: Absolutely. And you know Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” And to be able to share that love—unwrap that gift. And I believe if you look at this life—and I tell people this all the time—the brevity of this life… If you had a cup of coffee this morning—and the Bible says that this life is like a vapor—if you saw that little vapor come up off the cup of your coffee, that’s what this life is in comparison to eternity. So if we understand that we need to live every day with the joy of the fact that God has given us life and love to share with one another and that’s the beautiful hope that we have for Christmas.
Bill: It’s a great hope. Pastor Jim Machen, thank you so much for spending time with me today.
Jim: God bless you.
Bill: God bless you as well.
Jim: And Merry Christmas to everyone.