Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Son of Mary

      The New Testament Gospels provide four independent accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Since they all deal with the same subject matter, there is understandably a great deal of overlap. Nevertheless, as each inspired author writes from a unique perspective, there are also a number of observable differences.
      According to the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus returned to his home community and taught in the local synagogue, the following sentiment was expressed about him: "‘Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?’ So they were offended at Him" (6:3 NKJV). In the other Gospels Jesus is referred to as "the carpenter’s son" (Matthew 13:55), "Joseph’s son" (Luke 4:22), and "the son of Joseph" (John 6:42) respectively. Only in Mark’s account is he identified as "the Son of Mary." While all of these statements were no doubt made, why has Mark chosen to record this particular expression? Its significance depends on the perspective with which it is viewed.
      From the standpoint of those who originally made the observation, it may have been intended as an insult. Within Jewish culture, one’s lineage was almost always linked to his father and/or other male ancestors (cf. Matthew 10:2-3; 16:17; Luke 3:23-38; etc.). An exception would be when there was a question about the moral integrity of one’s parentage (cf. Gen. 21:9-10; Judges 11:1-2). The residents of this particular community knew Jesus and his family, and the older generation would surely have remembered the alleged scandal of about three decades earlier.
      Mary, betrothed to a local carpenter named Joseph, seemed to be a virtuous young lady. But one day, after a visit to the hill country of Judah, she returned pregnant, and Joseph wasn’t the baby’s father! Now we have the advantage of knowing what was going on behind the scenes (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-45), but the contemporary locals presumably did not. You can imagine the shameful reports generated by the small-town rumor mill! Fast forward 30+ years as the hometown folks pondered: "Is this not . . . the Son of Mary?" Could there have been an undertone of contempt in these words? When Mark goes on to say that they were "offended" at him, the term he uses is skandalizō, the source of our English word "scandal." From this vantage point, Jesus is treated with disrespect and summarily dismissed. Is the prevailing world view of modern times any different?
      From a purely historical perspective, another connotation emerges. The fact that Mary is specifically named and her husband conspicuously unnamed may indicate that Joseph was no longer around, having died and leaving behind a widow with at least seven children. The last time in scripture Joseph is depicted alive is Luke 2:41-51, when young Jesus was merely twelve years old. Afterwards there are numerous references to Mary, almost always in the company of her children (Luke 8:19; John 2:1, 12; etc.), but Joseph is nowhere to be found. By the time the Lord’s public ministry had begun, if his mother was in fact a widow left to care for her family alone, what responsibilities did Jesus have toward her and his younger siblings? And did he fulfill these domestic obligations or did he forsake them?
      If certain texts are read in isolation (e.g. Mark 3:31-35; 10:29-30), one might get the impression that Jesus neglected or even abandoned his temporal family, thereby giving others permission to do the same. But nothing could be further from the truth! As the Lord’s earthly ministry was carried out, his mother and his brothers (and sisters) remained in his company (John 2:12), and before his death he ensured that they would continue to be taken care of (John 19:25-27; cf. Acts 1:13-14). From this perspective we learn the divine expectation of fulfilling family duties (cf. 1 Timothy 5:8), exemplified in the life of Christ.
      When Jesus is called "the Son of Mary," there is a third consideration. From a theological standpoint, the fulfillment of messianic prophecy is indicated. God had spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [i.e. ‘God with us’]" (Isaiah 7:14). Seven centuries later, when baby Jesus is supernaturally conceived in Mary’s womb without a human father, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled (Matthew 1:21-23). Having been "born of a woman" by divine decree, Jesus is thus recognized as the Son of God (Galatians 4:4). Seeing that he is linked to humanity through his biological mother while maintaining his union with divinity ("God with us"), he serves as the perfect mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5).
      Who is the Son of Mary? From a worldly point of view, he is someone to be ridiculed and disregarded. From a historical standpoint, he is seen as a real person with a real family who took seriously his responsibilities as a devoted son and older brother. From a theological viewpoint, he is God in the flesh, providing redemption for mankind and reconciliation to the heavenly throne. How is the Son of Mary viewed from your perspective?
--Kevin L. Moore

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Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christ's "Inner Circle"

     Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, along with James and his brother John, are always mentioned first in the biblical record whenever the apostles are listed together by name (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13). They were the first to be called by Christ to comprise his immediate band of followers (Mark 1:16-20), and both sets of brothers appear to have been present when Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:29-31). Throughout the remainder of the Gospel narratives, with the single exception of Mark 13:3-4, Andrew essentially fades into the background as the other three rise to prominence.
     Peter, James, and John were the only disciples allowed to accompany Jesus when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Mark 5:37). On the mountain where Christ was transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah, none of the apostles was invited to witness this glorious event except Peter, James, and John (Mark 9:2). In the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before his arrest and eventual execution, the Lord selected only Peter, James, and John to accompany him to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 14:32-35).
     Why were these three men consistently singled out and set apart from the others? Why were they given unique opportunities that were unavailable to anyone else? What was so special about them to be allowed into Christ’s most inner circle? The following observations may be of interest.
UNLIKELY REPRESENTATIVES
     Peter, James and John were among the most unlikely representatives of Christ. As Galilean fishermen, skilled in handling boats, nets and fish, what did Jesus see in them as prospective teachers and spiritual leaders? They were clearly not men of polish, prestige, and influence. They lacked formal education and rhetorical training (Acts 4:13) and were certainly not the brightest and most refined that could have been chosen. Each had significant character flaws as well. Peter was erratic and impulsive, slow to listen and quick to react. He regularly misread situations and misunderstood the Lord’s purpose, requiring constant rebuke and correction (Matthew 14:31; 16:22-23; 26:33-35; John 13:6-8; 18:10-11; et al.). James and John, apparently due to their fiery temperaments, earned the unenviable title "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17). They were impatient, intolerant, and quick to judge (Luke 9:54), not to mention prideful and self-seeking (Mark 10:35-44).
     As Jesus looked beyond their glaring imperfections and saw extraordinary potential, these unimpressive and profoundly flawed human beings went on to become effective evangelists and capable leaders in the early Christian movement. As a matter of fact, it is precisely because of their heightened fallibility that the power of God is more clearly evident in all they achieved. And the same Lord is still capable of accomplishing the unexpected through imperfect people like you and me.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, NKJV)
NICKNAMED BY CHRIST
     Another intriguing observation is that Peter, James and John are the only three apostles to have been nicknamed by Christ. Petros ("Peter"), the Greek equivalent of the Aramaic Kēphas ("Cephas"), is the designation Jesus gave to Simon (Mark 3:16; John 1:42). Such a respectable name, meaning "a stone" and thus signifying firmness and stability, is clearly not descriptive of what Simon was like when he first received it. Nonetheless, it is precisely what he was expected to become (see Jesus Called Him 'Peter' Only Twice). The Lord designated James and John Boanērges, Aramaic for "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17). As noted above, this appears to have been indicative of their volatile dispositions at the time but certainly not what they were expected to be.
     We see here the use of two different approaches to achieve comparable goals. Peter’s name was a constant reminder of the rock-solid character he needed to develop, whereas James and John’s less-than-flattering moniker highlighted what they needed to overcome. Different people are motivated by different things. While the ultimate aim of all that Paul and his colleagues did was "to be well pleasing to [the Lord]" (2 Corinthians 5:9), other motivating factors included the coming judgment (v. 10), the terror of the Lord (v. 11), and the love of Christ (v. 14). What compels you might not have as strong of an influence on me, and vice versa. As we "exhort one another daily" (Hebrews 3:13), we ought to utilize whatever works most effectively for each person.
THE WEAKEST DISCIPLES?
     Although Peter, James and John have historically been acknowledged as the Lord’s "inner circle," this does not necessarily mean they were his favorites. It may rather suggest that they were among the weakest disciples and needed the extra attention. In view of the extreme importance of the work they were being called to do, and considering their significant shortcomings and the fact that Jesus was not one to show partiality, this seems to be a reasonable deduction.
     The lesson here is that each member of Christ’s body is not only different but has unique potential with accompanying needs. None is without importance, all have God-given responsibilities, and every disciple should be directed accordingly.
No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schims in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:22-24)
RESPECTIVE LENGTHS OF SERVICE
    Peter, James and John were prepared by the Lord for active roles in his kingdom and for different lengths of service. After only fourteen years of preaching the gospel, the apostle James was killed in AD 44 by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2). The apostle Peter reportedly suffered martyrdom at the hands of Nero in the mid-60s (cf. 2 Peter 1:14), ending approximately three and a half decades of missionary activity. Traditionally the apostle John is believed to have died near the end of the first century after seventy notable years of apostolic ministry.
     Here we learn that what really matters to the Lord is not longevity of service but faithfulness to the task. The parable of the vineyard workers likens the kingdom of heaven to a landowner employing laborers for his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Those hired early in the morning agree to the customary daily wage, whereas others recruited throughout the day end up receiving the same amount. From a worldly point of view, those who labored for the shorter periods were in a favorable position compared to the ones who worked the longest. But from the heavenly perspective, what a blessing it is to serve God on earth for as long as possible! The later in life one puts off obeying and serving Christ, the more he/she misses out on what is truly worthwhile. James was blessed with a few good years of productive ministry, and while he went on to his eternal reward comparatively early, Peter had the greater honor of serving for a longer period of time. But it was John who had the greatest privilege of laboring in the Lord’s vineyard the longest.
CONCLUSION
     Can you in any way relate to Peter, James, and/or John? Are you an unlikely representative of Jesus? Have you discovered what effectively motivates you to faithfulness? Are you weak and in regular need of spiritual support? Do you possess a sincere willingness to remain committed to the Lord until the end? If so, welcome to Christ’s inner circle!

--Kevin L. Moore

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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Leaving All to Follow Jesus

      After Jesus’ warning of the potential dangers of earthly riches, Simon Peter exclaims: "See, we have left all and followed you" (Mark 10:28).1 What did Peter mean by this lofty statement, what all did it entail, and what implications does it have for followers of Christ today?
      When the Lord first called Simon Peter and his brother and companions, "they forsook all and followed Him" (Luke 5:11). Yet soon afterwards Jesus "entered the house of Simon and Andrew," where Simon’s ailing mother-in-law was healed (Mark 1:29-31). Whatever was involved in leaving "all" to follow Christ, Simon Peter still kept his house (cf. John 20:10), his mother-in-law, and apparently his bride. In fact, years later the apostle Paul appeals to Peter’s marital status as indicative of his own "right to take along a believing wife" (1 Corinthians 9:5). As a disciple of Jesus, therefore, Peter kept his marriage and family intact.  
      When Peter first became Christ’s follower he also owned a fishing boat, which the Lord had used as a teaching platform (Luke 5:3). Later Jesus instructed his disciples to keep a small boat handy in case he needed it (Mark 3:9), and on another occasion he once again boarded a boat to teach (Mark 4:1-2). As the Gospel narrative continues, there are recurring references to "the boat," suggesting a particular vessel that was readily available for the Lord’s use. The disciples took Jesus along in the boat (Mark 4:36) as they encountered a storm that required his miraculous intervention. Jesus sent his disciples ahead in the boat (Mark 6:45) and joined them by walking on the sea. Throughout his ministry he crossed the Sea of Galilee multiple times in the boat (Mark 5:2, 18, 21; 6:32; 8:10, 14).2 And after the Lord’s death and resurrection, when Simon Peter decided to go fishing, he and others "got into the boat . . ." (John 21:3).3
      When Peter reportedly "left all" to follow Jesus Christ, he did not abandon his wife, his family obligations, his house, or presumably his boat (used often in the Lord’s service). Therefore to fully appreciate the implications of Peter’s statement in Mark 10:28, the surrounding context must be considered.
      In Mark 10:17-22 Jesus had encountered a wealthy young ruler whose earthly riches were of greater value to him than heavenly treasure.4 The Lord’s instruction to sell the material possessions and give the proceeds to the poor was not a universal pronouncement. Knowing this particular individual’s heart and misplaced priorities, Jesus simply identifies what he needed to do to remove the spiritual impediments in his life (cf. 9:43-48). No one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24) and have one foot in the Lord’s kingdom while keeping the other stubbornly planted in the world.
      As Christ goes on to explain the extreme difficulty of the rich entering God’s kingdom, the disciples are "astonished" (Mark 10:23-26a). Such a concept, so different from the rabbinic teaching that wealth is allegedly an indicator of divine favor, causes them to wonder, "Who then can be saved?" (v. 26b). The bottom line is, no one can be saved by human effort, achievement, or prosperity. The good news is, as Jesus affirms, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible" (v. 27).
      Here is where Peter responds: "See, we have left all and followed You" (Mark 10:28). Nevertheless, as noted above, he had not given up his wife, his house, or his boat, not to mention his sandals, clothing, staff, sword, et al. (cf. Mark 6:8-9; John 18:10; Acts 12:8). Leaving all and following Jesus clearly does not call for physically impoverishing oneself. The fundamental requisite, then, is an inner detachment from earthly ties. This includes one’s house, siblings, parents, spouse, children, and lands (Mark 10:29; cf. Matthew 19:29; Luke 18:29). In other words, absolute loyalty and commitment to the Lord Jesus ought to surpass one’s connection to all earthly possessions and even the closest of human relationships.
      If I own a house, it shall be considered the Lord’s possession to be used for his purpose.5 If I have a vehicle, it will be readily available for God’s work.6 If I have parents, they will be respected and cared for.7 If I am married, I will love and honor my spouse and promote heaven as our mutual destination.8 If I have children, they will be trained in Christ’s service.9 If I have a job, I will work with diligence and integrity as to the Lord.10 If I have financial means, I will be generous in accordance with the divine will.11 Consequently, with this kind of priority list, the resulting blessings are manifold – both "now in this time . . . and in the age to come" (Mark 10:30).
      From a worldly perspective this may not make a lot of sense and is completely foreign to how sinful men operate. But seeing that "the world is passing away . . ." (1 John 2:17), we must put our complete trust in the Lord when he says: "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:37-39). What is more important to you than following Jesus and thereby leading your loved ones into eternity?
– Kevin L. Moore
 
Endnotes:
        1 See also Matthew 19:27; Luke 18:28. All scripture quotations are from the NKJV (1985).
      2 While the NKJV does not append the definite article ("the") to "boat" in Mark 5:21, the article does appear in the Greek text.
      3 See also Matthew 8:23; 9:1; 13:1-2; 14:13, 22; 15:39; Luke 8:22, 37; John 6:17, 24; 21:6. Note that the "little boat" of John 21:8 is comparable to the "small boat" of Mark 3:9.
      4 While all three synoptic accounts inform us of the man’s great wealth (Matthew 19:22; Mark 10:22; Luke 18:23), it is Matthew alone who reveals that he was "young" (19:20, 22) and only Luke who says that he was a "ruler" (18:18).
      5 Matthew 9:28; 13:1, 36; 17:24-25; Mark 2:1-2; 9:33; 14:14-15; Romans 12:13; 16:5, 23; etc.
      6 Luke 10:34; Mark 4:36; 11:2-3; Acts 8:28-31; 13:4; etc.
      7 Matthew 15:3-6; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 5:4-8, 16; etc.
      8 1 Corinthians 7:3-4; Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1-7; etc.
      9 Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Proverbs 22:6; Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21; etc.
      10 Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-13; etc.
      11 Luke 6:38; Romans 12:8; 15:24-26; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 9:6-7; etc.

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Sunday, 9 December 2012

One of the Worst Things About Hell

      About fifteen centuries before Christ, the Israelites were led into the Sinai Wilderness where they received the Law of Moses. Included in these guidelines were prohibitions against following after false gods, particularly Molech (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5). Molech was an Ammonite deity served by burning children alive as human sacrifices. When I read these regulations, I can’t help but wonder why God’s people, or anyone else for that matter, would have to be told not to do this! But the Lord, in his infinite wisdom and foreknowledge, determined that it was necessary for such warnings to be issued.
     After four decades in the wilderness, when the Israelites entered, conquered, and inhabited the land of Canaan, the territory was divided among the twelve tribes. Within Judah’s allotment the city of Jerusalem was established, to the west of which was a valley called ben Hinnom or the Valley of the Son (or Children) of Hinnom (Joshua 15:8; 18:16). For the next five centuries Israel thrived in the Promised Land, reaching the pinnacle of her national glory under the leadership of King David and on into the reign of his son Solomon.
     Unfortunately Solomon was not the man after God’s own heart that his father was (1 Kings 9:4; 11:4), and among his numerous transgressions was the setting aside of a place of worship for Molech (1 Kings 11:7). It is unlikely that Solomon ever envisioned the horrific atrocities that would occur once these flood gates were opened, but within the next couple of centuries Solomon’s own descendants were offering their children to Molech as burnt sacrifices (2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:1-6). Fifty years ago, at least among most civilized nations, who would have imagined that the mass killing of unborn babies in government-financed abortion clinics would be approved by society’s mainstream and demanded as an intrinsic right of pregnant mothers?!
     The place where the Jews committed these abominations was called Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom (Jeremiah 7:31). The name Topheth is believed to have come from the Hebrew toph (meaning "drum"), seeing that drums were used to drown out the torturous cries of the burning children. As God’s Law was ignored and neglected for generations, such heinous sins became commonplace among the Jewish people.
     Then around 622 BC, when the Book of the Law was rediscovered in the temple, King Josiah set forth to bring about repentance and to restore pure religion. Among his many reforms was the defilement of Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Kings 23:10), desecrating the hallowed place with unclean things to render it unfit for any kind of religious activity. From that time onward the valley became a refuse dump for putrid waste, rotting animal carcasses, decaying corpses of executed criminals, and all manner of filth. It was a place where fires burned continually in the futile attempt to deplete the amassing mountains of garbage and to mask the horrid stench.
     Fast forward to the time of Christ. In Mark 9:42-48 three times the Lord graphically emphasizes the importance of ridding oneself of whatever leads to sin in order to avoid ending up in the place he describes as Gehenna (Greek geenna). While this term is rendered in most English versions as "hell," it is derived from the Aramaic Gēhannā and its Hebrew equivalent Ge Hinnom, meaning "Valley of Hinnom." Similar to picturing heaven with the most beautiful and precious things known to man (e.g. Revelation 21:11-21), the Lord portrays the destination of the wicked with imagery familiar to his listening audience. The most disgusting place imaginable was the rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem, with its decomposing cadavers covered in maggots ("where their worm does not die") and its perpetual smoldering ("and the fire is not quenched").
     Other biblical descriptions of hell include, "eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence" (2 Thessalonians 1:9); "furnace of fire" (Matthew 13:42a, 50a); "outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12a; 25:30a); "the wailing and the gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12b; 13:42b, 50b; 25:30b); "everlasting fire/punishment" (Matthew 25:41, 46); "vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7); "tormented in fire and sulphur," "the smoke of their torment forever and ever goes up," "no rest day and night," "the lake of fire burning with sulphur," and "tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 14:10-11; 19:20; 20:10, 15).1 As horrible and as terrifying as these images seem, there are other despicable things about hell not specifically mentioned in scripture but certainly implied.
     One of the worst things about hell is that it is a place where there are no children. In fact, both before and after Christ’s warning about Gehenna (Mark 9:43-48), children were the topic of discussion. In Mark 9:33-37 Jesus teaches his disciples an important lesson about meekness and humility by taking a small child in his arms and saying, "Whoever receives one of these children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, not only receives me but the one having sent me." Then in Mark 10:13-16 the Lord seizes another opportunity to impart a similar object lesson. Upset by the disciples having rebuked certain ones for bringing young children to be blessed by him, Jesus says, "Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child, by no means will enter into it."
     The Lord obviously considers children to be the epitome of spiritual purity, innocence, humility, eagerness to learn, receptivity, trust, and among the best examples of what it means to be nonjudgmental. During the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s, there was a television commercial depicting two boys in a room (a Croat and a Serb) sitting on either end of a sofa. It didn’t take long for the youngsters to start looking at each other, then talking and moving closer together, and finally laughing and playing together. By the end of the one-minute scene they were the best of friends, while their adult family members and neighbors were at war. No further comment necessary.
     I have always loved children. But when my wife and I had our own, it gave me a whole new perspective. Most of us understand the joy that comes into a family when a child is born or adopted (cf. Luke 1:14; John 16:21). As we "receive the kingdom of God as a child," are we not to be harbingers of joy? (John 15:11; 16:24; 17:13; Acts 8:8, 39; 15:3). There is nothing more peaceful than a sleeping baby. I remember all the stress and anxiety in my life disappearing whenever I held one of my infant daughters as she slept. "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9; cf. Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14). We also learn patience from our little ones. Most parents have to admit that we are much more patient now than before we had kids. While the Bible tells us to be patient (1 Corinthians 13:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:14), our children teach us to be patient (see Love is Patient).
     What about crying babies and noisy youngsters in the worship assemblies? I must confess that I am more sympathetic and less distracted now than I was before having my own kids. I really appreciate conscientious parents who understand the importance of nurturing their children in the training and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). What an encouragement to see entire families (little ones included) regularly attending church services. We could probably have a quieter environment with fewer disturbances if we banned all the children from coming to church, but I’m pretty sure the Lord would not approve of such an alternative!
     "And [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither sorrow, nor crying, nor pain . . . . But as for the cowardly, unbelieving, detestable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, these will have their part in the lake burning with fire and sulphur, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:4, 8).
     Heaven will be filled with children, including all those sacrificed to pagan gods, all who have been slaughtered in abortion clinics, all who have been stillborn, and all who have died from accident, sickness, or abuse. Yes, heaven will be full of children, but not a single one will be in hell. Where do you want to spend eternity?
–Kevin L. Moore

Endnote:
       1 Scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation.

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