Friday, July 29, 2016

Abusing the Scriptures

Many in the brotherhood in reading the Scriptures believe they have found authorization to be mean to one another. They have discovered their calling in emulating some of the more aggressive deeds of Jesus. If we study those Scriptures more closely, we would realize that we are not correctly emulating Jesus’ example.

Here is an example verse that Christians sometimes quote against each other when they are hashing out a doctrinal disagreement.
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29, NIV)
This little verse does not carry an implied license to toss the same language at other Christians whenever we suspect them of doctrinal error. They are pretty strong words. Jesus levied them against a group of Sadducees when they tried to trip him up with what they believed was a logical contradiction held in the hope of a resurrection. Jesus explained to them and all the nearby listeners why there was no contradiction and what about the Scriptures the Sadducees failed to understand.

If we take this verse as a license to regularly call people out for error and for not knowing the Scriptures, we should quote it only to people who are advocating that there is no resurrection.

Jesus used strong language with many in his day—language we rightfully hesitate to direct at others. We do not regularly call people “hypocrite” like Jesus did, for example. For some, cleansing the temple and telling people they are are “in error because [they] do not know the Scriptures” are two things Jesus did that they feel most called to emulate. There is more that can be said about these two examples; but space is limited. Before we feel some divine calling to follow them, we should carefully understand them.

We should follow Jesus in his character as it is very clearly presented in the Gospels.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45, NRSV)
Some people find justification for seek-and-destroy methods in the book of 2 John.
Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person. (2 John 9-11, NRSV)
Do we think this verse means to disfellowship everyone who we identify as holding a false doctrine? We are missing the context. The “teaching (or doctrine) of Christ” is not something Jesus taught. It is a teaching about Christ's nature. Heretics were teaching that Jesus did not come in the flesh (2 John 7)! That is a far cry from two people disagreeing about the meaning of a Bible verse!

Christians - laymen and preachers alike - apply 2 John 9-11 as a recipe for handling anybody who is identified as teaching a false doctrine. They are certain that if everybody read the Bible the same way, there would be no doctrinal variance among the brethren (2 Peter 1:20?). We are told that we should not spiritually interact with anybody who harbors what we believe is a false doctrine. We have no right, some say, to interact with such ones beyond shallow conversations about the weather. They may quote a smörgåsbord of passages (Acts 1:4-5; 2:42; 6:1-8; 20:22-24; 21:1-15; Romans 1:16; 8:14; 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:14-17; Galatians 1:6-12) which are unrelated to the claim but nevertheless give the injunction a sort of authoritative air.

If we cannot work with each other when we have some doctrinal disagreements, we are not the church that Jesus built.
John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50, NRSV)
If I am with someone who is a disciple of Christ yet he does not perform his discipleship precisely the way I have studied, I can still have spiritual fellowship with him and I can try to be a spiritual encouragement to him.

We should be looking for ways to minister to believers rather than to burn them.
“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:54-55)

Monday, July 25, 2016

Forgiving: God's job?

I sometimes suspect the way some of us relate to God is as if God is who he is because it is his job to be God. We ascribe to God certain duties that we expect him to do because it is his job.

Oh, I know that nobody would describe his personal theology in those terms; but sometimes we approach God with a posture suggesting just such a theology.

I first began thinking about this anomaly one day when I heard the words to a song by a band called Muse. The song is called Knights Of Cydonia.
Come ride with me
Through the veins of history
I'll show you why God
Falls asleep on the job
What does the lyricist mean by God falling asleep on the job? What does he mean by God having a job?

We sometimes expect God to confine himself to some kind of job description. Many in the world have expectations of God. Unfortunately, in our world, we see atrocities. Some see atrocities as evidence of a weak God who cannot do anything about evil in the world. Others see those atrocities as evidence that there is no such thing as a perfectly righteous God. The problem here is not that God does not exist or that he is weak or that he is not morally perfect. The problem is that we think that being God is a job—and we know the job description.

God is supposed to prevent atrocities. Right? Talk about putting God in a box! God has freedom too; and he has character. It is not in God’s character to overrule anybody’s freedom to choose, no matter how evil those choices.

Some people relate to God as if it is God’s job to forgive. Some people go on with life doing whatever they want and they fully intend to ask God to forgive. And they expect God to forgive because that’s his job (contra Hebrews 10:26; Jeremiah 4:14; Zechariah 1:3; Malachi 3:7).

Treating God like he is amenable to some human expectations is nothing short of sorcery. Sorcery is a craft that assumes God (or, the gods) are subject to certain human actions or words.

Expecting God to respond in a certain way based on a rule or a concept of God’s job is simplifying God to something as predictable as an insect. Poke an ant with a stick and the ant will get mad. Every time.

God’s forgiveness does not come down from a job description. It comes down from his character. There are certain features of God’s character that are consistent. One of those character traits is loyalty to a loving relationship (John 3:16). He has always provided a way by which sinful humans can enter into loving relationship with him. One of those ways is through God’s forgiveness.

Christ was provided by God because of God’s character, not because of God’s prescribed duty. People prefer to relate to a predictable god. It makes us comfortable. Worshipping a predictable god is the sin of idolatry. We like a deity who has a job description.

The God of the Bible is free. He is consistent in character. He keeps his promises. He is a forgiving God. He is also free to respond as he sees fit to the actions of other free agents—even human beings.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Acts 2:38 on baptism

To a restorationist, Acts 2:38 is one of the most simple verses in the Bible. The verse very clearly makes repentance AND baptism conditions for forgiveness of sins.
And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38, RSV)
To an evangelical, Acts 2:38 is one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament. I am often amazed to witness the efforts evangelicals will exert to neutralize the force of the verse. The doctrine that baptism is a requirement for salvation cannot be tolerated by an evangelical.

The motivation behind this article is that I recently heard yet another effort at refuting the clear meaning of Acts 2:38. I hope to present the most common arguments; but first I will share with you the new (to me) offering.
Claim:
Peter uses two imperative verbs "repent" and "baptize". But these verbs are not the same. Repent is 2nd person plural, and Baptize is 3rd person singular. From this it should be seen that the the preposition is really the adverb of repent. The clause "be baptized each one of you in the name of Jesus" is the governed clause of "repent that you might be forgiven of your sins". So it would really read like this: "Repent (and be baptized each one of you upon the name of Jesus Christ) that your sins may be forgiven and receive..." (quoted from a Facebook thread).
This argument borders on the ludicrous. This person is suggesting a sentence structure for Peter’s answer so complex that it wouldn’t have possibly made any sense to the hearers. How many ways can I butcher a straightforward sentence to make it say something different than what it was intended to say?

Anyway, the usual attack on Acts 2:38 has to do with the preposition “for” (eis, in Greek). The usual understanding of eis is as follows. A sentence, “A eis B” is translated “A for B.” It means “A results in B.” There is a rare way to understand “A eis B” and that is “A because of B.” Evangelicals want to read Acts 2:38 as “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ because of the forgiveness of sins....”

The only motivation to read this verse with the reverse meaning of eis is because the altered reading safeguards the evangelical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. There is, however, some support that can be dragged out of near obscurity.

The Enhanced Strong’s Dictionary by OliveTree Software has this to say.
If you saw a poster saying “Jesse James wanted for robbery”, “for” could mean Jesse is wanted so he can commit a robbery, or is wanted because he committed a robbery. The later sense is the correct one. So too in [Acts 2:38], the word “for” signifies an action in the past. Otherwise, it would violate the entire tenor of the NT teaching on salvation by grace and not by works.
In other words, the above writer sees a doctrinal problem with the plain meaning of Acts 2:38; so in order for it to harmonize with what he understands as the “teaching of salvation by grace” he argues for an awkward and contextually unrequired reading. Furthermore, the wanted poster example does not even use similar language as Acts 2:38.

There are, however, a few verses in the Bible that almost certainly require the reverse meaning of eis. Matthew 3:11.
"I baptize you with water for [eis] repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
In this passage, John says he baptizes for (because of, not resulting in) repentance.

Another somewhat persuasive comparison is with Matthew 12:41.
The men of Nin'eveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at [eis="for" meaning "because of"] the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
In these cases, the reverse (and rare) meaning is required by the context.

You see, people generally see baptism as a work; and salvation is not by works (Ephesians 2:5, 8). This assumption (that baptism is a work) seems to force the reverse meaning of eis in Acts 2:28. That recasting of the verse is not necessary. Baptism is not a work - at least in the sense that it somehow earns something. Salvation is indeed by grace alone. The Biblical doctrine that baptism is necessary does not come close to implying that baptism is sufficient for salvation.

The question for us is, how would Peter’s answer have sounded in the ears of those people who asked, “Brethren, what shall we do” (Acts 2:37)? Those people had not been through the Protestant Reformation and they did not know about “salvation by grace alone.” What did they hear?

Consider the following crystal clear example:
for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for [eis] the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)
Was the blood poured out because of or for the forgiveness of sins? The meaning is very clear (even in the New World Translation)!

What did the people in Acts 2:37-38 hear? They heard exactly what we plainly hear. Repentance and baptism are for the forgiveness of sins!

There is yet another very common argument. That is, the Philippian Jailer was told to “believe.”
and brought them out and said, "Men, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." (Acts 16:30-31)
The natural conclusion (if these are the only two verses you read in the entire book of Acts) is that belief alone is all that is needed. However, all it takes is a little careful reading. Why wasn’t the jailer given the same answer Peter gave in Acts 2:38? Clearly, the jailer didn’t even believe in Jesus! What would have been the point of repenting or being baptized into a name he didn’t even believe in? I could ask the same question about Acts 2:37-38. Why didn’t Peter tell the crowd, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved?” The people in Acts 2 interrupted the lesson to ask what they must do. They were acting on their belief by announcing their eagerness to do something! There is a logical progression to salvation and the progression involves objective steps. It would have been absurd for Peter to tell the people to “believe.” They already believed. It would have been absurd for Paul and Silas to tell the jailer to repent and be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus—a name the jailer had yet to believe!

Incidentally, to argue that salvation comes by believing also imposes a requirement upon the one who desires salvation. If salvation is by grace alone (which it is!) then why is belief required? Is not belief a work? It is, but not a work that earns salvation. Neither is baptism a saving work. Belief, repentance and baptism are necessary but not sufficient.

ADDENDUM:
Another criticism of baptism as being a condition for salvation is that it smacks of being overly symbolic. Baptism is definitely symbolic (Romans 6:3-5). While baptism symbolically unites us with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, it also gives certainty of our part in the final resurrection (Romans 6:5, 8). We are comfortable with many symbols (worshipping on a particular day of the week, taking the Lord's Supper/Eucharist) but many are uncomfortable with baptism since it has a very strong symbolic component to it. I don't know what to tell you. The doctrine of baptism is very prominent in the New Testament; but Reformationism has rejected works so strongly that many Reformists outright reject direct Biblical teaching. If we are honest, we are rejecting Biblical teaching in favor of Reformist conclusions.

It is fascinating to me that baptism(s) is one of the doctrines the Hebrews author calls a "basic teaching" (Hebrews 6:1-2); but sometime around the 15th century, it got complicated.

Bullies

Acts of terrorism remind me of a historical incident that occurred in the Judges period. The account in Judges 18 makes for a terrific commentary on current events.

The land of Canaan had long been conquered; but there were some Israelites who had yet to receive an inheritance from the conquered territory. The tribe of Dan, for example, had not received an inheritance.

The Danites sent out some scouts to find some territory they could settle. On the way, some scouts stayed with a friendly and hospitable man named Micah.
Later, they found a community called Laish. Laish was the ideal soft target. They were wealthy, civilized and trusting that others are equally good natured. The defense of Laish was not their military (they didn’t have one) or their tall rock wall (didn’t have that either). They were allied with the Sidonians who lived far away down by the Mediterranean coast. The protection of Laish was the threat of retaliation against their enemies by their friends over at Sidon. While Aram was their nearest superpower neighbor (by primitive standards), Aram was not allied with Laish.

The Danites decided to go down and take Laish from the people living there. On the way, they robbed the house of Micah who had earlier provided generous hospitality to the Danite spies.

Then, the Danites continued their mission to Laish. The Bible says they “came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, and put them to the sword, and burned down the city. There was no deliverer, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with Aram” (Judges 18:27, NRSV).

The inspired historian does not moralize about this action; but he clearly did not approve. Dan set up a shrine there which was furnished with stuff stolen from Micah’s house. This sanctuary is contrasted against the legitimate sanctuary of the Tabernacle in Shiloh (vs. 31). A Levite from the family of Moses (not Manasseh, as some translations read) presided in Laish (now called Dan).

It is striking that the Danites got away with this atrocity. Sidon did not respond, possibly because there was no one left in Laish to defend or possibly because Sidon was reluctant to go up against the entire confederacy of Israel. Israel itself did not respond either. We cannot know why but the reasoning might be that the territory of Laish was seen as inheritance for Israel. It could be that the people of Laish were unrelated and therefore not a concern of Israel.
The Danites were bullies and people tend to avoid confronting bullies.
 In those days “... there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Terrorists look for soft targets that have very little retaliatory power. There are bullies in the world, in communities and in the church. It is the duty of the larger community to stand up to them (Deuteronomy 14:29; 16:19-20; 24:17; Isaiah 1:17; Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; James 3:1-18 and many more).

Article originally published March 27, 2016

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The grace of God is not a license to sin

It is a common claim. “Nobody is perfect.” Sometimes the claim is accompanied by a Scripture:
... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
The above passage is misapplied to mean that all must sin and that sin is inevitable; so don’t worry about sin.

God’s view of sin is that it is a big deal. The sacrifice of Christ is evidence of the very high price of sin. Because we are under grace now and not under Law, some believe (as evidenced by their actions), our own sinful habits are continuously covered—no matter how carelessly we engage in them. This comfortable deception is nothing close to reality. God notices when we are getting comfortable with our sin and thus we are in danger of rejecting God’s grace (Hebrews 10:26-27 with context).

In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, the nation of Judah was threatened by a new and destructive empire. The empire of Babylon was boosting its economy by conquering smaller nations and making their people into slaves. Judah and all her neighbors were threatened by Babylon. Jeremiah’s message to Judah was that the people would be brutally conquered and many of the young and educated survivors would be deported to Babylon to serve Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king.

The priests and false prophets rejected Jeremiah’s message and criticized him for not preaching a more optimistic message. Jeremiah challenged the message of the false prophets as dishonest.
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace” (NIV2011).
As Taylor Swift says, “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes.”

Jeremiah’s invitation was to repent and turn back to God. Babylonian captivity is not inevitable. The people can be beneficially thwart the prophecy by turning back to God.

The people were comfortably that the presence of the temple in Jerusalem would provoke God to act against Babylon. God would not permit the destruction of the city where the temple is (Jeremiah 7:4). They saw the presence of God’s temple as a kind of unconditional grace. As long as the temple was in Jerusalem and the people approached God’s presence there, in full reverence, it did not matter how they behaved the rest of the time (they thought).

God, through Jeremiah, reminded the people that an authorized shrine to God, and all the correct worship the people could muster would not save them if they continuously neglected godly living. A center of God’s presence once existed at a monument called Shiloh. The Tabernacle was once located there. According to Jeremiah 7:12, Shiloh was destroyed. The fact that Shiloh was a place for God’s name did not save it. The people of Shiloh were comfortable with their sin. Sin was a big deal to God!

There is definitely a lesson for us in Jeremiah 7. Do we think we are the only ones who are right with God simply because we do our corporate worship correctly? How healthy is each of our souls? Is there anything more to our relationship with God than correct worship? or is our faith only in the correctness of our worship and right doctrine?

In numerous places in the Bible, we are reminded that righteous living is what God wants, in addition to proper corporate practices (“doing church”).

Remember one of the Lord’s criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees:
For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23)
We must daily live Christian lives and not neglect the formal practices and doctrines that the Scriptures teach us.

Reprinted from a bulletin article published 2016 March 13.

It’s all a part of God’s plan?

Have you ever heard someone tell another who is going through a nasty life circumstance that “It’s all a part of God’s grand plan?” If that theory were even true, I don’t see how it would be comforting. I don’t see how the theory would make God out to be more trustworthy than if nasty circumstances were not in God’s plan!

The burden of proof that God sends nasty circumstances to the righteous is extremely steep while the view that nasty circumstances for the righteous happen against God’s will is quite evident in the Bible.

Consider Exodus 5 (World English Bible).
1 Afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh, "This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says, 'Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.'" 2 Pharaoh said, "Who is Yahweh, that I should listen to his voice to let Israel go? I don't know Yahweh, and moreover I will not let Israel go." … 4 The king of Egypt said to them, "Why do you, Moses and Aaron, take the people from their work? Get back to your burdens!" 5 Pharaoh said, "Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens." 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, 7 "You shall no longer give the people straw to make brick, as before. Let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 The number of the bricks, which they made before, you require from them. You shall not diminish anything of it, for they are idle; therefore they cry, saying, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God.' 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men, that they may labor therein; and don't let them pay any attention to lying words." 10 The taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spoke to the people, saying, This is what Pharaoh says: "I will not give you straw. 11 Go yourselves, get straw where you can find it, for nothing of your work shall be diminished." 12 So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. 13 The taskmasters were urgent saying, "Fulfill your work quota daily, as when there was straw!" 14 The officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, "Why haven't you fulfilled your quota both yesterday and today, in making brick as before?" 15 Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, saying, "Why do you deal this way with your servants? 16 No straw is given to your servants, and they tell us, 'Make brick!' and, behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people." 17 But he said, "You are idle! You are idle! Therefore you say, 'Let us go and sacrifice to Yahweh.' 18 Go therefore now, and work, for no straw shall be given to you, yet shall you deliver the same number of bricks!" 19 The officers of the children of Israel saw that they were in trouble, when it was said, "You shall not diminish anything from your daily quota of bricks!" 20 They met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh: 21 and they said to them, "May Yahweh look at you, and judge, because you have made us a stench to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us." 22 Moses returned to Yahweh, and said, "Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Why is it that you have sent me? 23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people; neither have you delivered your people at all." 6:1 Yahweh said to Moses, "Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for by a strong hand he shall let them go, and by a strong hand he shall drive them out of his land."
The above (rather lengthy) reading reinforces in the Book of Exodus the great need the Israelites had for deliverance. The people’s suffering, as emphasized by the additional suffering imposed in this chapter, was never God’s will. God did not want this situation at all (cf. Exodus 3:7; Isaiah 30:1; Hosea 8:4)! God, beginning here, worked through Moses and Aaron to turn the difficult situation into a powerful deliverance.

But (says someone) what about Genesis 15:13 (NRSV)? “Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years....’" God told Abraham about the Egyptian slavery way back in Genesis 15!

There is much that can be studied about that little prophecy in Genesis 15. I will just say for now that the prophecy does not come close to implying that slavery in Egypt was all part of God’s grand plan.

God grieved with the Israelites over their plight and he worked through appointed human agents to solve the problem.

When nasty circumstances come our way, know that God is grieved along with us and he is working with us and through us to bring about healing.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

How is scripture fulfilled?

When we read in the new testament, "This happened to fulfill the scripture that says...," we typically read it in a way that the first century readers did not. We read the passage supposing that the way the New Testament writer used it is the same way the Old Testament writer intended it. If we read it that way, we are reading it wrongly. This conclusion came crashing down on me one day when I was sitting in on a Bible class on the book of Matthew. Then the text came to Matthew 2:14-15 (NRSV).
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
The teacher said, "When you are doing your private studies and you encounter something that fulfills an Old Testament Scripture, you should look it up. You will see how the events in New Testament times were truly foretold in the Old Testament. It is a real faith builder."

I decided to go ahead and follow the teacher's advice right then and there. I checked the cross reference in my Bible and looked up Hosea 11:1-2.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
    the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
    and offering incense to idols.
Wow, I thought. That's not about Jesus. The writer of Matthew completely misquoted Hosea! This is not really helping my faith, teacher. I did a quick mental "inspiration" adjustment with, "Well. While it is true that we don't use scripture that way, the inspired writer of Matthew was better qualified than I to stretch it the way he did." In the mean time, I kept a close eye on the New Testament - watching for "fulfilled Scripture."

One passage in James really helps to clarify our thinking on the phrase "was fulfilled."
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. (Jam 2:21-23)
James quoted Genesis 15:6. It is not a prophecy and it is not something that needed to be "fulfilled." James is not implying that Abraham fulfilled a prophecy when he believed God. What he is doing in this case is quoting the passage in order to conclude his argument and also to give it more weight.

"Fulfill" does not mean that the current point is a prophecy that is now coming true. The usual meaning is that the current point can be rephrased in classical Old Testament language. It is quoted for its rhetorical impact.

Today, instead of saying "fulfilled" we would probably say "We might verbalize the current point in classical Old Testament verbiage" or, "I am reminded of the text" or "This idea gives new meaning to the Old Testament saying."

We often say contemporary things in phrases that have become classic. When I make an elaborate plan and it fails, I often say, "Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men." I don't mean the original poet had my situation in mind. I am recycling his excellent verbiage and applying it to my situation.

You may have heard an energetic preacher speaking of a difficult situation and calling upon the church for prayer and then start quoting the poetry, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." He does not mean that he hopes the Civil War will soon be over. He means he hopes God will speed up the end of a current problem.

So, what was the writer of Matthew doing by applying Hosea 11:1 to Joseph, Mary and Jesus' trip to Egypt? In simple terms, the Egypt trip reminds the writer of the words he read in Hosea. On a slightly more sophisticated level, he may be thinking of the Egypt trip as a kind of reenactment by Jesus of the Exodus.

I will take a look at a few more just so you can get a feel for it. There are some "it was fulfilled" passages that are a little more complex to dissect and will thus make this article cruelly lengthy. (I am thinking of Luke 4:18-19).
Mat 1:21-23
"She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
The original passage (Isaiah 7:14) is a sign for King Ahaz. In that day, Judah was threatened by a war against an alliance of Syria and Israel. Isaiah informed Ahaz that the Syrio-Ephraemite threat would be no longer a threat. God would remove the threat soon. Isaiah challenged Ahaz to ask for a sign connected with God's intention. Ahaz refused, so Isaiah indicated a young woman, possibly a woman they both knew. Maybe she was on her way to her wedding. Isaiah said she would get pregnant and have a child. By the time the boy is weaned, God will have removed the treat of the alliance (Isaiah 7:16).

The writer of Matthew connected Isaiah 7:14 to what the angel told Joseph in his dream. The language fits while the situation does not. Joseph received news about an important pregnancy and Isaiah's words are fitting even if not a perfect match. The writer quoted the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 because the Greek uses the word "virgin" and Mary was a real virgin - not just a young woman. The writer invoked classical Old Testament out-of-context language because it fit the current situation. It is not a precise fit. Otherwise, Joseph and Mary would have named the child "God-with-us" (Emmanuel) instead of "Deliverer" (Jesus).

Here is an interesting one.
Mat 2:3-6
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Herod's aids identified the location of the birth of the Messiah as Bethlehem. The passage they quoted is Micah 5:2. Micah 5 is kind of Messianic but not necessarily. Bethlehem is definitely connected with the family of King David. The deliverer in Micah 5 is described as a war hero. It looks like the Jews' expectation of a war-hero Messiah was anticipated by their reading of Micah 5. Jesus was, in fact, born in Bethlehem because he was from the family of David. It strikes me as almost coincidental that Herod's aids correctly located the birthplace of the Messiah by quoting Micah 5. Their reasons were different from the actual reasons for Bethlehem being the birthplace of Jesus. (Not all Gospel writers agree on this detail, by the way. That gives me an idea for another article.)

This next example highlights the true writing art of the Gospel writer.
Mat 2:16-18
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
By now, you expect me to tell you that Jeremiah 31:15 has nothing to do with Herod's evil act. Your expectations are not in vain. Jeremiah, it turns out, is doing something very similar to what the Matthew writer is doing. He is connecting something classical to an immediate situation. Jeremiah is weeping over the devastating destruction of Judah by the Babylonians. In that section of Jeremiah, God is revealing his plan to restore Judah to her land. Thus, Jeremiah should feel some encouragement. Why does Jeremiah use words that describe Ramah and Rachel's weeping?

Well, that tradition goes back to Genesis 35:19-20. Rachel died in childbirth. With her last breath, she named her son "Son of sorrow" but Jacob altered the name to "Son of my right hand" (Benjamin). She was buried just outside of Bethlehem and the writer says the grave was there "to this day." Thus, Rachel's grave was a lasting monument and people visiting the site would remember her sorrow. Her burial site, we suspect, became a monument to sadness. There is also a town town near Bethel by the name of Ramah that was part of the Benjamin tribal inheritance; but Ramah is also a descriptive title of any small town that is built on a hill. Judges 20 details a civil war that nearly exterminated the tribe of Benjamin. The Israelites wept for the loss of their brethren (Judges 20:26-28; 21:2). So, Ramah became known for weeping for Benjamin, Rachel's last child.

Jeremiah combines Rachel's weeping in connection to Benjamin's birth and Israel's weeping for the tribe of Benjamin. He applies that grief to the grief he feels for the loss of Judah to the Babylonians.

Then, the Matthew writer invokes Jeremiah's poetry and applied it to the Herod's atrocity.

So, Matthew 2:17-18
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
can be paraphrased as...
This terrible thing that Herod did brings new meaning to the words of Jeremiah:
"A voice was heard in Ramah...."
The connection is even more poignant since there is a monument to weeping just outside of Bethlehem.

Here is one that is applied to Judas.
John 13:18
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’
The quote is from Psalm 41:9. In that Psalm, the psalmist has a disease. Bosom friends from his own household are visiting him, acting like they hope he gets better; but secretly, they hope he dies. The Psalm is clearly not about Jesus. Jesus did not die from a nasty disease (Psalm 41:8) and he was not a sinner (Psalm 41:4). Judas fulfilled the scripture because the scripture is easily quoted out of context to apply to Judas.

There are many examples and I have probably worn out my welcome by citing so many already. It is worth observing that this kind of Scripture citation was effective in persuading Jews of God's work in their day, as evidenced, for example, by Peter's sermon in Acts 2. On the other hand, New Testament preachers did not spend a lot of time arguing from the Scriptures when they were trying to persuade Gentiles (Acts 17:22-31).

Today, we need to acknowledge the Jewish appreciation of "fulfilled" Scripture and try not to bend the Old Testament into our own expectations. Having a Bible study with an unbeliever and pointing out all the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus "fulfilled" is dishonest. By Western academic method, such arguments are really unpersuasive, unless you obfuscate the original meaning of those passages.

One of the themes in the John Gospel is belief. In particular, a very strong reason for people to believe in Jesus is because of his good works. The man Jesus healed of a lifelong blindness told the council of Pharisees,
Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. (John 9:30-33)
Jesus told the Jews,
If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. (John 10:37-38)
We are encouraged to believe Jesus because of his works; and that's a pretty good reason to believe!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Zechariah prophecy of Yahweh on the Mount of Olives

All I have ever heard about Zechariah 14:4 has been baloney. Here it is (NRSV):
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward.
Most of the time when I have heard this verse cited, it was in a context of "Jesus will fulfill this prophecy" as in, sometime in the yet future.

I have a book idea that has affected how I have been studying the Bible. One thing I need to do is get a handle on some of those really difficult scriptures. You know, the ones that nobody agrees on. Zechariah 14:4 has bothered me for decades. It is time I get a handle on it. So I studied it. I have studied on my own through Zechariah and most of it makes sense on a regular read through; but Zechariah 14:4 needs some explaining. I needed a little help from actual scholars.

Here is an example of the baloney.
This phenomenon will occur on a day known only to YHWH (v. 7; cf Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:7), one unlike any other in that it will have no day or night. (Eugene Merrill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Biblical Studies Press, 2003, p. 307)
In other words, Zechariah 14:4 predicts the second coming of Christ, or possibly, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Ba-lo-ney!

That meaning is totally out of the theme of Zechariah! According to Ezra 6:14-15, Zechariah was interested in issues surrounding the completion of the Second Temple. The destruction of the temple is off topic. The final wrap-up of history with the coming of Christ is WAY off topic.

In the context of Zechariah 14:4, there is an expectation of a war similar to the Babylonian contact when Judah went into exile. In this experience, many Jews will die and the rest will go into exile. That's when Yahweh shows up. He does not defeat the Gentiles. Instead, he provides a way of escape for the faithful.

As the chapter goes on, Jerusalem becomes a source of blessing for the nations, with Yahweh as her king. This fulfills the expected vocation of Israel (Genesis 12:13).

Whatever this passage is about, it is not about the final coming of Christ. Some read it that way and came up with a psudo-premillennial eschatology. I can't help them with that.

Here's what I think is going on. Zechariah sees injustice going on in Jerusalem. The people in Jerusalem were not properly recognizing their vocation of opening up the religion to the Gentiles. The prophet expects another turnover of power much like what happened during the Babylonian contact. The faithful are defined as those who get on board with completing the temple project. Once it is complete, the presence of Yahweh will return to Jerusalem as it had been before the Babylonian exile. The description of Yahweh in Zechariah 14:4 recalls his description in Ezekiel 43:1-5. Zechariah's listeners would have recognized Ezekiel's description and meaning.
Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory.  The vision I saw was like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision that I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
Zechariah expected a return to God's rule through temple presence but with a priesthood that is open to Gentile worshippers. Zechariah did not expect an end to the Davidic kingship. In fact, he expected the return of the throne of David through the governor (Zechariah 4:6-14).

To put it straightforwardly, just because something in a Biblical prophet is sufficiently bizarre so as to have never been literally fulfilled does not mean it is to be fulfilled in the yet future.

I will show in a future article that prophecies don't have to be fulfilled ever; but that's a topic for later.

Practical applications:
(1) This is one of a multitude of scriptures in which the standard rhetoric about it is cool and maybe even faith-building in a childish sort of way. When the actual meaning of the passage is scrutinized we might feel a massive let-down. The special effects are all gone. The light show is a dud. Understand this! Your and my personal salvations are rooted in surrender to and trust in Jesus. My understanding of eschatology will not help. In fact, some eschatolical models can seriously distract us from living for Jesus. I can get so distracted trying to figure out the meaning of prophecy that I neglect the weightier matters (Matthew 23:23).
(2) You should not swallow what the preacher says, hook, line and sinker (Acts 17:11). Check it out. Look up writings of people who disagree... especially believing Christians who take a different view. Otherwise, you may hear it from an unbeliever on PBS or the History Channel and that person may not care a hill of beans about your faith. That very problem is one of the reasons for this blog. I am a believer and I have struggled through some difficult faith adjustments and I am still a believer. I am not going to try to insulate you from challenging facts. It is better for you to hear it from a believer than from an atheist.

In the mean time, I must give gracious credit for clarifying my mind on Zechariah 14:4 to the writer Pamela J. Scalise who co-wrote the Understanding the Bible 2nd volume commentary on the Minor Prophets (Baker, 2009). I was so appreciative, I looked for any other books she may have written. Unfortunately, I didn't find much. She co-wrote the second volume of the Word Biblical Commentary on Jeremiah. I try to stay away from that particular commentary series unless the scholar is just too venerable to not read even in the Word Commentary format. Bummer. She's pretty smart.