Monday, June 27, 2016

God's irregular leaders

Here is a sermon I had the opportunity to preach yesterday. I am, as you know, a lay preacher; so I do not get into the pulpit all that frequently. The sound quality could be better. I'll work on microphone positioning in future recordings.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Before your time is through

This week, 27 year old actor Anton Yelchin died in a freak accident. His parked car rolled into him and he suffered fatal injuries.

The reflexive emotion we typically feel is something like, “He died before his time.” What we mean is that his lifespan was much shorter than is generally typical – as far as lifespans go.

Many Christians have a sort of fatalistic perspective of a person’s lifespan. I have heard it discussed by people in waiting rooms... the kind of waiting rooms where people hang out while a loved one is having very dangerous surgery. I heard people say things like, “When your number is up your number is up. You can’t cheat it.” One lady said, “God has appointed the day of everyone’s death and there is nothing we can do to resist it. We might as well embrace it.”

I will not moralize about whether or not such talk is healthy. It is just not true. The day of a person’s death is not fixed at some point in the future.

Theologians who want to support the view that everyone’s death is fixed at some place in the future will typically go to Psalm 139:16.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (NRSV)
First, we should be very cautious of lifting theological facts from the Psalms. They are expressions of emotion and they usually express the way life feels to the psalmists rather than the way life really is. For example, in this psalm, the poet treats a person’s formation in the womb as the same thing as a seed growing in the earth (139:15). In ancient times, the womb was frequently pictured as a special garden where the man's "seed" grows into a baby.

In the case of Psalm 139:16, even if we read it as expressing a mathematical rule about life, it does not say what fatalists think it says. The psalmist speaks of something that was written (days?) that do not yet exist. So, something is given to the forming embryo that has yet to exist. The Hebrew at this verse (I am told) does not identify what was written in the book. If we take it to be “days” then what is happening to the embryo in the psalm is that it is growing with a certain kind of strength to have a long or a short life. We would identify it as genetics. Some people have really good genes and just naturally tend to be strong well into late life. Others have genetic weaknesses and have health problems when they are young. With good diet and exercise, we can increase our chances. With dangerous and careless living, we can decrease our chances.

For a clearer perspective on what the Psalms mean by a person’s “days,” consider:
But you, O God, will cast them down
into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you. (Psalm 55:23)
Notice that the people in this psalm who are bloodthirsty and treacherous have some days they are not going to get to live. Thus, just because God gave you days does not mean you get to live them. See also Psalm 102:23-24; 90:9-10; Job 21:21.

Sickness, accidents, murder and whatever else there is that may shorten a person’s life are simply a part of the human condition. We do not need to embrace them. We can work to resist them. We can develop medicines to treat and/or prevent disease. We can wear our safety belts and do our work with safety in mind. We can lock up criminals. These actions promote longer life. There is nothing wrong with that.

Friday, June 17, 2016

God hears crying


The Hebrew word זַעֲקַ֛ת, zoaqah, means a cry or crying. It almost always means sorrowful crying (with a rare exception). According to the Bible, God pays special attention when people cry. The first tears shed in the Bible were those of Abel when his brother Cain beat him to death. It was a painful and sorrowful event for Abel.
Genesis 4:10
And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
Abel’s crying lingered in God’s ears.
Israel’s sorrowful suffering is given as God’s reason for acting against the Egyptians in the book of Exodus.
Exodus 3:7-9
Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.”
God hears the crying of the poor when they are oppressed.
Exodus 22:26-27
If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if our neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.
When Ishmael, as a boy, was about to die of thirst his mother Hagar turned away because she could not bear to see him die. She wept. God’s agent told Hagar that God had heard the crying of Ishmael! So not only was Hagar crying but so was Ishmael.
Genesis 21:17
And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”
When a sinner cries out to God for grace, God hears the prayer (contrary to the view of the formerly blind man in John 9:31). Peter said as much to the Gentile Cornelius.
Acts 10:31
He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.”
God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of all the crying that was coming out of the cities.
Genesis 18:20
Then the LORD said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!”
When the angels came into Sodom they did not find anybody being treated in a way that would cause an outcry; but the townsfolk were ready to treat the angels in a very brutal fashion. They planned to subjugate the strangers evidently to death. The past victims of the two cities had not survived to cry again.
We might recall that God informed Abraham of his plans to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, concerned about the innocent being swept away with the guilty, persuaded God to spare the cities on the account of a few (ten) faithful.
The angels learned that the cities were indeed corrupt and there were not even ten righteous ones in them; so God destroyed the cities.
However, God did spare Lot and his family (minus Lot’s wife who disobeyed and “looked back”). We see that the sparing of Lot’s family was an answer to Abraham’s prayer, “Suppose ten are found there;” but not in the way he had specifically asked. Abraham pleaded with God on behalf of the innocent and his prayer was answered.
When righteous people are suffering, and indeed they are in this world, we must add our own voices to their cries to God. We must plead for mercy and divine justice.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

What, really, is Biblical inspiration?

 What is “Biblical inspiration?” How were the writers of the Bible inspired to write what they wrote?

The answer to this question is not as straightforward as most of us think. I have sat through countless Bible classes where the teacher explained Biblical inspiration and gave such a simplistic answer that the conclusion was not supported by the facts.

I am going to present what I see in the Bible as Biblical inspiration. I do not believe it is the simple explanation. I don’t think it is the comfortable explanation either; but if it is the truth, we should incorporate it into our individual belief systems.

Here is the usual format of a class on Biblical Inspiration. There will be a little introduction that says something like, “How do we know that the Bible is from God?” and then we all turn to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
The introduction plus the scripture reading moves the student to define inspiration as “from God.” That is a pretty good working definition. “All scripture” is assumed to be the Protestant cannon of scripture. That is definitely not what Paul meant by “All scripture,” but that is a topic for another article. The teacher will notify that the word “inspired” means “God breathed.” That’s good.

The class will then take a direction of assuming everything in the Bible is inerrant (doctrinally, theologically, historically and grammatically flawless). The rest of the class time may be devoted to examples of how Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in New Testament times. The assumption is that fulfilled prophecies prove the Bible is inerrant. The case is not made for inerrancy; but for most pew-sitters, it’s good enough.

I want to highlight inspiration as I find it in the Bible.

The first kind of inspiration I find in the Bible is divine word to a prophet. “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri” (Hosea 1:1). A word or vision of the LORD is the common kind of inspiration that Prophets received. Words from the LORD appear throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament book of Revelation. It is not transcribed into the Bible word for word. Each writer had a personal style; but we can feel comfortable that the gist of the vision was faithfully recorded.

The rest of the Bible came to be written by another kind of inspiration. It is the inspiration that is provided by the Holy Spirit working through writers. Many of us want to believe that the method of inspiration for all scripture writers is the same as that for the prophets who had visions. It is not.

The usual approach is to examine how the Spirit worked through people in New Testament times. There were Spiritual gifts such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and, of particular interest, prophecy (1 Corinthians 14). The New Testament Christian with the Spiritual gift of prophecy can speak the Word of God inerrantly, right? Wrong. Whenever a prophet spoke, the rest of the church (or the other prophets in the church) were supposed to weigh (judge) what was said (1 Corinthians 14:29)! That means, the church was supposed to scrutinize what prophets said rather than accept it hook, line and sinker.

The working of God’s Spirit in the Bible is expressed quite well in Isaiah 11:1-3.
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
Sometimes the Spirit of God manifested himself in a person by making him strong enough to kick the butts of a hoard of Philistines (Judges 15:14-15). Sometimes God’s Spirit caused a man to act crazy (1 Samuel 19:23-24). The usual way, in both testaments, that the Lord’s Spirit manifested himself in a person was by giving the person wisdom. That gift is described in the passage quoted above. We can see it in King Solomon’s gift of wisdom. In the Isaiah passage, the prophet is looking forward to a Davidic (or Jesse-esque) king who will have similar evidence of God’s Spirit.

Both testaments? Yes. Second Peter 3:14-16 is often quoted in classes about Biblical inspiration.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.
This passage is quoted to show that Peter considered Paul’s letters as properly belonging to the collection of documents called “the scriptures.” The word “scripture” just means “writing” but in a New Testament context it means the First Century Christian scriptures which is the Old Testament. There were different views in New Testament times of what documents had authority and what ones did not; but Peter definitely ranked Paul among the greats in the Old Testament.

I want to highlight something else in the above passage that is rarely observed. Paul wrote “according to the wisdom given him.” Thus, what moved Paul to write what he wrote is God given wisdom. He did not have a “The word of the Lord that came to Paul.” Paul was able to know God’s will in the church by applying his knowledge of the scriptures.

I think the best example of Paul’s application of Spirit given wisdom occurs in Acts 13:13f. Paul and his companions had been sent by the church in Antioch to do mission work. They did not seem to know how they were going to go about it. They just kind of hit the road. They hopped a boat and did some preaching in Cyprus. They hopped a boat again and came to a place called Antioch of Pisidia. They attended synagogue there and Paul was invited to speak. Paul’s sermon was strongly Jewish, showing how Jesus’ ministry was validated by the history of the Old Testament and by events surrounding John the Baptist, Galilee and Jerusalem—including Jesus’ death and resurrection. He concludes that Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, something that the law of Moses could not accomplish.

Everyone liked the message so much that Paul and Barnabas were invited to speak again the following week. Much to the surprise of everyone, including Paul, was that the Gentiles in attendance had been especially moved by Paul’s message. They must have been particularly impressed by the points that “descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message this salvation has been sent” and that Jesus freed everyone from the law of Moses.

The following Saturday, almost the entire town showed up to hear Paul’s message. The Jews did not like that many Gentiles around. They were happy to have a token collection of Gentiles in their synagogue; but they didn’t want the church to be overrun by Gentiles. It’s just too much of the wrong kind of element, you know. They turned against Paul and Barnabas. Paul got the message. Gentiles were interested in salvation for all through Jesus. Jews were willing to add a little Jesus teaching to their Jewish religion. As you read Acts 13, you can see that Antioch Pisidia was a turning point for Paul. Something happened there that was a learning event for Paul. He did not expect that much interest from Gentiles and now he knew that they were more interested than were the Jews. His ministry from that point forward gave equal or more than equal time to preaching to Gentiles.

As you read through the book of Romans you will observe that every doctrine promoted by Paul is supported by scripture. He never says, “God told me in a vision” or “God appeared to me and said this.” Rather, it looks like he scoured the Bible (Old Testament) to see if it supports such an aggressive mission to Gentiles. Paul quotes a lot of scripture in Romans 15. Everywhere the Old Testament passage says “nations” Paul sees “Gentiles.”

Something happened to Paul in Antioch Pisidia that he needed to interpret. Through his God given wisdom and his hard earned knowledge of scripture he was able to determine God’s will regarding salvation to the Gentiles. It was Paul’s conclusions (and Peter believes it was by wisdom Paul received from God) that appear in Paul's letters.

The bulk of Biblical inspiration is the “wisdom” kind. Writers were able to interpret events of their times and apply what they knew of God’s character as well as what was available to them in written form. They preached in person and in writing God’s will by the wisdom (inspiration) that God gave them.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Lord’s crucifixion was NOT predestined: a case study

Was Jesus aware from very early on that he was going to be crucified? Suppose we are unable to prove from the Scriptures that Jesus had a long-term foreknowledge that he would be martyred by crucifixion? If we cannot, then minimally, we may accept that even the nature of the Lord's martyrdom was a feature of the then-future that remained open until the time actually drew near. On a larger scale, we may be motivated to consider the possible alternatives to the way the Lord's ministry could have played out.

Did Jesus come to die on the cross? Did God send Jesus to earth to die on the cross? In this article, I intend to show that the Bible does not support the position that the Lord's crucifixion was predestined. Nor was the crucifixion divinely foreknown to any long-term degree.

I know of just a few Bible passages that are typically or occasionally offered as proof that the crucifixion was long foreknown. I will handle them in the order of what I perceive to be the strongest evidence to the weakest evidence.

John 3:14-15 is the passage that most strongly supports divine foreknowledge of the Lord's crucifixion. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (NRSV). This passage does appear to support the claim that Jesus knew of the means of his death even at this early stage (in the book of John). There are a few features of this passage that cause us to not place too much stock on when the words in the passage were said. First off, the evidence for the reading of the KJV, NKJV and MEV translations of John 3:13 is very strong. “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13, NKJV). The problem with this reading is that it is difficult. Most readers assume that Jesus is still talking in this verse. Why would Jesus tell Nicodemus that he (Jesus) is in heaven. The difficulty in this reading strongly suggests the reason for the wide variations in the textual evidence (such as, “who was in heaven,” “who is from heaven,” and the omission of the clause altogether). If it is the case that “who is in heaven” belongs in verse 13, what does that mean? What it means is that somewhere along the line the words of Jesus transitioned into the words of the evangelist (the Gospel writer). If the evangelist began soliloquizing in this text, where did he begin? It looks like the beginning of the narrators words are at verse 11. On the other hand, the words “very truly, I tell you” (“Amen, amen, I say to you,” NABRE) are more typical of the Lord than of the evangelist. One solution to that little difficulty is to place the voice-change at the end of verse 10 and understand the evangelist to begin speaking with “We speak....” What is said in John 3:11 is definitely typical of Johannine writing. “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us...” (1 John 1:3). It is also consistent with the evangelist's conclusionary remarks at John 20:30-31.

I think it is appropriate to understand that the evangelist adapted Jesus' remarks to Nicodemus—along with a few phrases of his own—as a preliminary outline, or the first part of a lengthy chiasmus that ends at John 20:31. The book of John focuses from the beginning on the crucifixion, as evidenced by the early allusions to it in that particular gospel. The writer of this great literature is signalling to the reader that the theme of the Lord being "lifted up" will occur again in the Gospel.

Nevertheless, the claim that John 3:14 is actually Jesus' words and not the evangelist's is not conclusive and so interpreters should not make too much of its appearance of supporting Jesus' foreknowledge of the crucifixion.

John 12:32-33 reads, “‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” So at this place in the gospel, Jesus was able to make statements that would indicate the kind of death he would die. This passage does not support divine foreknowledge as well as some people might hope. Let us observe where in the Johannine gospel this statement falls. John 11:53 reports that the chief priests and Pharisees (John 11:47) planned to kill Jesus. John 12:9-11 reports that the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many Jews were believing in Jesus on account of Lazarus. Jesus’ motivation for avoiding public places was this very threat (11:54). How did Jesus know? Some, by reflex, conclude that Jesus knew by divine means; but it is just as reasonable to accept that he heard about it. Jesus often learned about things by hearing about them (John 9:35; Matthew 14:13). If he heard about the plot of the priests, surely he also heard about WHAT k were planning (to get the Romans to crucify Jesus). This knowledge is not clairvoyant foreknowledge. It is current-events knowledge.

This line of reasoning is equally valid when analyzing Mat 20:17-19 (NRSV)
17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”
The conspiracy to destroy Jesus, in Matthew, began in Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6.

Furthermore, the verse is copied from Mark 10:34. Matthew "improved" the reading by changing Mark's "kill" to Matthew's "crucify." Luke 18:33 goes with Mark's "kill." When Jesus predicted crucifixion in chapter 20, the plot to destroy him was already in motion. My aim in this article is to argue that crucifixion was not in the works (either by determination or foreknowledge) at the early stages in Jesus' ministry.

In Acts 2:23 Peter says, “This man, hand over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” By modern Reformist standards, this verse seems to say that God not only foreknew the crucifixion, he planned it! There are some very strong exegetical problems with this interpretation. Firstly, it was this claim here and in 2:36 that convicted Jews such that they were “cut to the heart” (2:37). If they heard Peter say that it was God’s plan to have Jesus crucified, Peter would have had to do a lot more explaining to try to convince the Jews that it was their fault! What John 2:23 actually says is that Jesus was surrendered to the Jews by God’s plan. That’s all it says. We cannot read more into it by any kind of sound exegesis. Peter uses a stronger word (surrendered) than he could have, such as “came” (John 1:11), to show that Jesus gave himself over to the power of the Jews. What they did next was a choice they made on their own.

Acts 4:27-28 reads, “For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (NRSV).

To begin, I will make the dubious assumption that these disciples were praying under divine inspiration. If it is true that they prayed under divine inspiration, and if the passage is properly translated, then what was predestined was the death of Jesus and not the means. The particular actors and the means of the death were yet open features of what God had generally predestined. This verse appears to be the only one in the Bible that seems to strongly point to the Lord’s martyrdom as being predestined at all.

I have made the case that there is no Bible passage that conclusively shows that the Lord’s death by crucifixion was predestined. Thus, Biblically, the means by which the Lord was to die was a feature of the future, early in the Lord’s ministry, that was open and not predestined.

I have made the case against the crucifixion being predestined? The case has been made. I believe the conclusion is solid. The pillars of my argument are stated above. I will, below, make a few further comments that warrant further study. The comments below are on a related topic.

Are we really certain that Acts 4:28 shows the Lord’s martyrdom was predestined?

Recall above when I addressed this verse that I made a big assumption. I assumed that these disciples were praying under divine inspiration. The verse appears in the middle of a prayer offered up by Peter, John and their friends. This prayer is a reaction to the events earlier in the chapter in which Peter and John were arrested and made to testify before the counsel of the Jews. The counsel ordered the apostles to quit preaching about Jesus and then released them. I question if it is appropriate to draw bullet-proof theology from a corporate prayer recorded in the Bible. Just because somebody is quoted in the Bible as saying something does not mean we should accept what the person said as absolute truth. There are many examples (think: Job’s “friends”) but I submit John 9:31. “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.” Ah! God doesn’t listen to sinners, right? But this statement did not come from prophet, Jesus or the evangelist. It came from a man Jesus had healed of blindness. The man was giving a defence to some Pharisees about what he thought about the man (Jesus) who had healed him of his blindness. This man was just trying to make sense of what had happened and he made the statement in John 9:31. This passage does not show that God is deaf to the sinner’s prayer. God does hear the sinner’s prayer (Acts 10:31)! So what the once-blind man said is contradicted. My point is, it is unstable ground to assign too much truth value to what uninspired people in the Bible say. Could it be the case that these disciples were not praying by direct divine inspiration? If so, then the only verse that can possibly show that Jesus’ death was predestined is based upon dubious exegesis.

But what if the prayer was divinely inspired? Does it prove the Lord’s death was divinely foreknown?

Furthermore, it is not clear from the text that the Lord's crucifixion was what the disciples had in mind with their prayer. Look very carefully at Acts 4:27-28. It is not clear in NRSV if it was Herod, Pilate and the Gentiles who were carried out God’s plan or if Jesus was anointed to do God’s plan.

For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (NRSV)

All one has to do with the NRSV is question the placement of the comma after the word “anointed.” Then, Jesus was was doing something God anointed him to do but these other free agents (Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles and Jews) thwarted the plan. To get to the NRSV reading, the Greek wordage needs to be rearranged. The Greek word order more closely follows the RSV which reads, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place.” RSV and similar translations (e.g., KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB) place the fulfillment of God’s plan squarely in the hands of Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles and Jews. The word order of the NRSV and similar translations (HCSB, MEV, NET, NIV) leave open question of who was fulfilling God’s plan. It is not unusual to rearrange the English equivalent words if keeping the Greek word order is misleading.

Greek scholar Adam Clarke is certain that part of this passage should be parenthetical. He translates it thusly: “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, (for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done,) both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and people of Israel, were gathered together.” Clarke further comments, “These gathered together to hinder what God had before determined that his Christ or Anointed should perform” (emphasis Clarke’s).

This understanding is consistent with the whole context of the prayer. In this prayer, the disciples quoted Psalm 2:1-2 (in Acts 4:25-26) and applied it to Jesus. The application of this Old Testament passage means that the agents mentioned in Acts 4:27 were in fact attempting to thwart God’s plan. Unfortunately for them, they could not thwart God’s plan (of redemption). Nor could the Jewish leaders who had just threatened Peter and John thwart God’s plan to spread the Gospel through preaching. It is not the case that, by resisting God, they were unknowingly acting to fulfil God’s plan. They were resisting in vain. In other words, whatever Herod, et. al., were attempting to thwart of God’s plan, they failed. We could just as accurately see what God planned was redemption (= the Gospel) rather than the Lord’s death by crucifixion.