On this day about 1980 years ago, give or take a few, Jesus took three disciples up a high mountain. Many scholars think they climbed Mount Tabor. However I’m with those who believe they ascended a peak of Mount Hermon.*

At sunset this evening Sukkot begins. It’s the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, a time when people build temporary booths, entwining boughs and branches to make a ‘tent’. All to celebrate and remember their history, especially the time when God provided for them during their wilderness wanderings.

So, back almost two millennia ago, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what was going on in the head of Simon the fisherman. He was only just getting used to his nickname Cephas, the threshold stone. Some of the Greek–speaking disciples—including his own brother Andrew—had fun with the new name. Turned it to Petros, the rock. Ribbed him it’s a pun on the Hebrew word peter, the first–born—nicely symbolic for the first to announce the Messiah.

Simon’s not sure he’ll ever hear the end of it. He’s happy to be away from the jokes but he’s still concerned. It’s Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. He’s supposed to be building a little hut. But Jesus doesn’t look like he’s about to stop anytime soon to collect wood. And once they get above the treeline and into the snow, the building of a booth’s going to be even harder. Wait. This is Jesus. Five thousand people fed from a few loaves of bread. Perhaps just a dead twig will be enough: Jesus could make it sprout branches like Aaron’s rod once budded with blossoms.

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Today is Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people.

On this day about 1980 years ago, Jesus and his disciples were as far away from the temple in Jerusalem as it was possible to be while still remaining in Israel. They were at the entrance of another temple entirely—a pagan one.

While back in Jerusalem the high priest was entering the Holy of Holies, Jesus was in front of the ‘Gates of Hell’ at the temple of Pan, asking his disciples who they thought he was. Simon finally comes out with: ‘You are the Messiah.’

Whereupon Jesus gave him a new name: Cephas or Peter.

Peter from the Greek petros means ‘rock’. Cephas is Hebrew for a very specialised type of rock: the cornerstone on which a threshold sacrifice was offered.

Cephas is related to kippur, the name of the day. It is also related to Caiaphas, the name of the high priest who was then presiding on the Day of Atonement.

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The Belt of Truth 3

I didn’t do anything illegal.’

Over the last few years, as various officials in high office have been accused of criminal behaviour, I’ve listened carefully to their language.

Their defence is never ‘I didn’t do it.’ Instead it’s the subtly nuanced ‘I didn’t do anything unlawful.’ Or some variation on that theme which emphasises legality rather than morality.

This reaction is fascinating. No one has been prepared to add public lies to secret sins. There’s obviously a paramount desire to retain some personal integrity through a carefully–edited version of the truth. In fact, I’m sure many of the officials concerned would feel able to state with perfect conviction that they are scrupulously honest!

These situations highlight the importance of individual perception when it comes to the law.

Oftentimes I’ve read that the Ten Commandments are not substantially different from a multitude of ancient (and earlier) legal systems such as the Code of Hammurabi, Code of Ur–Nammu or Laws of Eshnunna. That the laws Moses gave the Israelites had precedents all the way across the Middle East.

Joel Hoffman, however, in his significant book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (with which I disagree passionately in parts) makes a very shrewd point. The Ten Commandments are unique. They are one–of–a–kind because they simply say: ‘Don’t lie.’ ‘Don’t kill.’ ‘Don’t steal.’

Because it’s wrong. Period. No arguments. No excuses.

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Send a Kiss to Central Australia

Has God ever told you to do something so strange you doubted your own mind?

Some years ago I was researching material for a novel set west of Alice Springs. Although I’d lived in Alice for several months a decade ago, I wanted to refresh my memory of the area.

Enter Google Earth.

As I was panning around, I zoomed in on an area just north of those ‘painted caterpillars’ which form the MacDonnell Ranges. Suddenly I felt an immensely strong compulsion to pray God’s will would be done at one unnamed hill near the junction of two remote outback roads.

It was a stupendously strong feeling, the like of which I’ve never encountered before or since. To pray for a smudge of a flyspeck in the middle of nowhere? Sure, I knew God is interested even in the fall of a sparrow but why would He be interested in a hill without a name in a place where almost no one goes?

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I had a great idea. At least it seemed like one at the time.

It’s possible to identify seven hidden references to wildflowers in the Paul’s description of the armour of God in Ephesians 6. It might be tricky to translate the ancient names into modern botanical terms but we can be reasonably sure of the majority.

‘What if,’ I thought, ‘an anointing oil were created from the extracts of these flowers?’ An armorial oil, as it were, which uses the floral symbols of divine armour. I liked the idea immediately because oils generally mix together and that would also convey the idea of covenantal oneness.

The hunter-gatherer instinct in me kicked in and I began to scour the internet to see whether this was a viable idea. A web search was definitely an easier proposition than heading out into the fields and woodlands, looking for rare and hidden herbs that might be peeping out from the grass. Woods and fields in suburban south-east Queensland are in short supply anyway.

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The Helmet of Salvation 2

If you were stunned by multi–layered intricacy of the allusions in the helmet of salvation mentioned in the last post, it’s time to strap on your seatbelt. This is just the first sparkle of the treasure trove. Before we go on, it’s worth asking why — why the flowers, the gemstones, the kiss of heaven, the threshold, the covenant and all the rest of the dazzle?

In my view, it’s because the epistle to the Ephesians was written to a city of sorcerors. They knew about curses and charms, agreements with demons, gemstone amulets, the power of words, incantations as songs or musical invocations, arcane spells hidden in mathematics or within seemingly nonsensical phrases.

Before the riot in Ephesus instigated by the silversmith Demetrius which is recorded in Acts 19, many people turned to Jesus and burned their books of magic. This happened because the seven sons of the Jewish chief priest Sceva tried to cast out demons in ‘the name of Jesus whom Paul preached’.

In a town like Ephesus where magic was a way of life, there were no doubt many opportunities for a deliverance ministry such as that offered by the sons of Sceva. However they wound up seriously wounded and having to flee naked from a house when a man with an evil spirit jumped them and demanded, ‘Jesus I know and I know about Paul—but who are you?

As a result of this notoriety, Paul was able to spread the gospel message much more widely. Many Jews and Greeks repented of dabbling in the occult and threw their scrolls of magic on a huge bonfire. The value of these spells was a staggering fifty thousand drachmas—around 150 years’ wages for an average labourer.

Meantime, down in the Ephesus CBD, the silversmiths were getting agitated.

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The Helmet of Salvation 1

As we approach the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year—it seems appropriate to look at the armour covering the head which Paul wrote about his letter to the people of Ephesus.

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:17 NIV

The word Paul used for helmet is perikephalaia. Strictly it isn’t a helmet, just something that goes around the head. I guess it’s translated as helmet because Paul was talking about armour. Perikephalaia is formed from the prefix ‘peri-’, around, and from kephale, meaning head. It’s probably related in Paul’s thinking to the Aramaic word karbela’, a helmet, turban, mantle or robe—just something you wrap around yourself.

In fact, all these wraparound things were meant to remind Paul’s Ephesian readers of this nifty verse from Isaiah: He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; and He put on garments of vengeance for clothing and wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle.

Isaiah 59:17 NAS

Still, perikephalaia does specifically mention the head, ‘kephale’. But kephale goes further than just meaning head: it also encapsulates a sense of supreme, chief, principal, prominent and even cornerstone.

Surprise! Surprise! We’re back on one of my favourite topics and I didn’t even have to try hard. In ancient times, the cornerstone was not only the first part of a building laid down, it was also a most sacred place, the threshold. In Hebrew it is kaph, a word associated with atonement, but in this case meaning a shallow basinstone to catch the blood dripping from the lintels and doorposts when a guest was welcomed with a fatted calf or sheep.

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Tissue Territory

I got a lovely email today. I’d sent a sample copy of God’s Panoply to the director of a resource centre in the hope I’d get permission to put some advertising at an upcoming conference. He read the first chapters of the book just prior to this event. Here’s what he wrote:

I was in Townsville last weekend with Sandra and Peter at the Healing Shame seminar.  On the Saturday the Holy Spirit led Sandra to invite women to repent for their mistreatment of men and this was responded too with a couple of ladies taking the pulpit and repenting and asking for forgiveness.  Men were given the opportunity to respond and 4 did. I was one of them.

I had only had opportunity to read your book on the Wednesday before I flew to Townsville on the Thursday afternoon. I devoured the first chapter and loved it. As I approached the pulpit on Saturday, your book in hand, I explained you had just not long ago published it and sent it to me. I felt the need to repent, as a minister of the Gospel, for the suffering placed on women from the pulpit through the misuse and misinterpretation of scripture and read a few portions of the book about the real meaning of being the head and the heart Paul was writing from when talking about submission and the true meaning of lifting one another up and being a covenant defender.

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To Boldly Go…

I’m single. I always have been.

From time to time across the years, a well–meaning (invariably married) friend would warmly commend a book or a seminar on singleness to me.

Once upon a time, I’d act on the recommendation but after a while I learned better. Books and seminars tended to regard ‘singleness’ as that temporary state of being between two marriages. They had nothing for a girl twenty years, thirty years, forty years… and more… unmarried.

In the end, I couldn’t stand this kind of book. What, I asked, could someone who had been single for the eternity of five years after a divorce tell me about the topic?

Not long after beginning to write God’s Panoply, I realised that one of the sweeping themes in it was marriage. I was horrified. I mean: if I hated people telling me about singleness when the most they knew about it was a couple of years prior to a re–marriage, how could I dare to write about marriage?

I delayed when it came to the writing, talked to God, pleaded with Him, argued that He must have called a married person to write the same ideas… All I got by way of answer was: ‘No one can ever accuse you of having a hidden agenda.’

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The Story of a Cover

I’d been looking for the ideal cover for my latest book, God’s Panoply—The Armour of God and the Kiss of Heaven, for over a year. I’d narrowed my options slowly, wanting to make sure my choice and God’s choice coincided.

Eventually I decided that the soft focus stock photograph of a mounted knight in armour that I’d been looking at for three months was the one. Imagine my horror when the day I got around to buying it (always a good option when trying to persuade my publisher) it had disappeared from the Dreamstime website. Not to worry. I’m sure I’d seen it on istockphoto, though a little more expensive. It was gone from there too!

Wait! There were other stock photo sites where I’d seen the same shot. All gone!

I was in shock. I’d been praying about the perfect cover for a year—and I felt like I’d been robbed. I looked at my secondary choices. None of them were anywhere near as good.

So I had a long anguished chat with God. Not long after, He directed me to a picture that, I have to say, was not my idea of panoply. It was a daffodil—nothing like armour. However the more I looked at pictures of shields and bucklers, swords and banners, the more I felt the Holy Spirit pulling me back to the daffodil. ‘But it doesn’t mean anything!’ I wailed. ‘At least the rose on God’s Poetry symbolises the essence of names. The whole rose-by-any-other-name question raised by Shakespeare as to whether a name has any effect on anyone.’

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Two Kinds of Submission

During the conflict in Syria, refugees have been pouring into Wadi al–Nasara, the Valley of the Christians.

In the middle of my prayers for this nation in crisis, the word ‘nasara’ struck me as a very unusual name. It doesn’t look anything like the western word Christian. So what sense did it have for the Arabs?

Now Christians have been called by many names over the last two millennia. It’s a bit trendy to be a Christ–follower these days, rather than a Christian. A couple of decades ago, Jesus–freak was by no means a derogatory term.

The names change, even while the Lord remains the same. Even back in the first century, there was no standard terminology. Luke, for instance, uses seven different names in the Book of Acts:

  1. Saints
  2. Believers
  3. Disciples
  4. Brethren
  5. Followers of the Way
  6. Those being saved
  7. Christians

Still, I’ve got to admit I pricked up my ears at Nasara. In the book I’ve been working on most recently, God’s Panoply, the Hebrew word ’nasa takes prominent place. As soon as I heard of Wadi al–Nasara, I wondered whether there was any connection between the two words.

As it turns out, nasara is an Arabic word. It’s old. So old it’s used in the Quran, the Islamic holy book. Subsequent commentary on the passage which refers to Christians as nasara is exceedingly interesting. The expected word for Christians should be Masihiyyun (followers of the Messiah) but it’s not.

Rather, nasara is used 18 times in the Quran. By contrast, Christian is only used 3 times in the New Testament.

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