Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Genesis 22: God learns

As much as many theologians want to reject the notion, God learns the core of a person's character through testing.1 Any of us who have lived a few years know that a person does not really know the content of his/her own character until it is tested. We learn through experience to never make claims like "I would never do that" or "If it were me, I would... fill in the blank." We do not know the truth of those statements until we are tested.

Guess what. God does not know the truth of those statements either, until we are tested. We must not pass over the critical language of God ( = The Angel of Yahweh2):
Genesis 22:12, NRSV
He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Note the mix of first and second person. This "angel of the LORD" is reporting what God knows and what God just learned.

The only way this passage makes sense is that God knew something after an event that he did not know before the event.

There is a little saying that goes like this: I'm not a judge of the sheep but I am a fruit inspector (Matthew 7:15-20). God is also a fruit inspector.

I leave you with some questions to ponder today.
Genesis 22:3
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
Abraham's early start shows his determination to fulfill the requirement of the oracle. How did Abraham know this was a communication from God and not Satan?
Genesis 22:5-6
Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
How did Abraham know this? Does Hebrews 11:17-19 clarify or obfuscate?

1 More passages on God testing people: Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3; Judges 3:1-4; 2 Chronicles 32:31; Psalm 139:23

2 On the Angel of Yahweh = Yahweh, which is usually true, cf., Genesis 22:15; 16:7-13; Exodus 3. But sometimes the angel is more like an aid or ambassador, cf., 2 Samuel 24:16; Zechariah 1:7-17; 12:8.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Genesis 21: Wisdom of women; How God acts in history; God's tender heart

There are several neat nuggets of impact in Genesis 21.

Nugget 1: Us men ought to embrace women as sources of wisdom. In Genesis 21:12, God tells Abraham that Sara's word is the voice of wisdom. Obey it. Obviously, not everybody, man or woman, is wise; but there is wisdom in both sexes. Never close your ears to anybody's thinking based upon their sex (gender). If men will not listen to the wisdom of women, they are limiting their available wisdom by half (Proverbs 11:14; 24:6). It is not shameful for a man to obey a wise woman leader.

Nugget 2: God adapts his plans as reality changes. Ishmael was not in God's plan; but Ishmael was now a reality. God adapted (Genesis 21:13).

Nugget 3 has to do with how God responds to people's emotion. Check this out:
Gen 21:15-19
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 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. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
I am fascinated by what motivated God to act. All this sadness going on at the scene and God responds to the crying of the boy! It is interesting that God heard the voice of somebody who was NOT praying and God responded to it. We have seen this kind of sensitivity in God in at least two other places in the book of Genesis: Genesis 4:10; 18:20 (c.f., Deuteronomy 15:9; 24:15)! God is tenderhearted. God is sensitive to people's sadness.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Genesis 20: Ministry of reconciliation

Gen 20:6-7
Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”
It is fascinating that God tells Abimelech, a man of integrity, to have Abraham, who is showing lack of integrity, to pray for him.

It the duty of all believers to pray intercessory prayers for others.

It was the responsibility of a prophet not only to warn but also to plead with God for mercy (Jeremiah 18:20; Amos 7:2, 5; Ezekiel 22:30; Isaiah 62:6).

Our own intercession for the world must include persistent work to reconcile the world to God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21;  1 Timothy 2:1-2), even if it feels hopeless and if we feel unworthy.

Genesis 19: God's announcements are rarely the last word

Two angels (not three) entered into Sodom as they intended to investigate the truth about the cries Yahweh had heard about the city (Genesis 18:21). This chapter evidences a feature of the divine that is easy to miss.
Gen 19:17-22, NRSV
When they had brought them outside, they said, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.” And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” He said to him, “Very well, I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” Therefore the city was called Zoar.
The divine action against the cities of the valley had been determined. The judgment was going down in a determined way. Then, with Lot's input, the determined future was altered on the fly.

The God of the Bible reserves the right to alter his plans as situations change. When God announces his plans, the announcement is rarely the last word (Amos 3:6-8).

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Arguing from the Band Waggon: the critics of open theism

Sometimes it is wearying to read the terrible arguments that some writers offer. I just recently stumbled upon one example from a writer within my own faith tradition. In the article, the writer is analyzing the four views in the book Four Views of Divine Providence. When he commented upon the section promoting open theism he failed to properly critique it. He began with a tight and correct explanation of open theism:
Open Theists do not see God as being outside of time in any sense, and so future events are not yet real to God anymore than they are to us. It would then be logically impossible for God to know that which has not yet happened, that is, what is logically impossible to know. (Benjamin Williams, Four Views of Divine Knowledge, http://benpreachin.com, accessed 2018 09 16)
I don't think I could have said it better myself. Unfortunately, in critique he wrote:
The bad news is that – simply stated – Open Theism is heresy. It is a view of God’s nature which undermines and at times outright denies characteristics of God plainly attributed to God in Scripture, upheld in tradition, and demanded by philosophy. It rejects the conclusions regarding God of the ancient creeds and the philosophical work derived from them, specifically impassibility and aseity. For Open Theism, God’s providential plan is a “choose your own adventure” book. Open Theism states that the future is unknownable and that the outcome of God’s will for this world is equally uncertain (as in open ended). God is in genuine risk of losing his war with evil, though an Open Theist would state that God’s infinite intelligence assures him that he will not. Scripture on the other hand shows God mocking any counterfeit God who lacks the capacity to know the future with certainty: “Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. … Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods … Behold, you are nothing” (Isaiah 41:21-24). While I find Open Theism a “useful heresy,” one that helps me to ask difficult questions of my own view, it is ultimately unscriptural and false.
Here is what I believe Brother Williams just said (my paraphrase).
Open Theism is heresy. If there is anything that is abundantly and crystal clear in the Bible, it is that God is impassible (experiences no emotion) and self-existent (the meaning of "aseity"). Can I get an "Amen?" God is at risk of losing his war with evil, and nobody wants that; so we must reject any notion of God taking risks because, well, that's just inappropriate. Yes. The Bible is filled with details that show us that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Furthermore, all the theological philosophers and the most important church fathers (Augustine?) believed that God has this knowledge. While you can trust me that the Bible is full of examples of God's definite foreknowledge, I offer the most bullet-proof example in Isaiah 41:21-24 in which God mocks the idols for their inability to know the future!
This kind of argument fails with a great crash when cross examined. The Bible is my source for understanding the nature and character of God. Furthermore, in the Restoration Movement, the authority of the Bible is the highest authority on earth regarding God. It is difficult for me to care less what Augustine thought; and I am not too impressed with theological philosophy supporting some divine characteristic of God (e.g., deterministic) when another philosopher can highlight faults of the philosophy and present her own metaphysical arguments in favor of something else (e.g., open theism). I want to see the plethora of irrefutable Bible evidence that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge.

Let us, for example, look at Brother Williams' prime example scripture citation:
Isaiah 41:21-24
Set forth your case, says the Lord;
    bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.

Let them bring them, and tell us
    what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
    so that we may consider them,
and that we may know their outcome;
    or declare to us the things to come.

Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified.

You, indeed, are nothing
    and your work is nothing at all;
    whoever chooses you is an abomination.
The obvious point in this passage is that God is challenging the idols to do something they cannot do but God can do. And what does God mock the idols for not being able to do? Read, with comprehension, verse 23 again (emphasis mine):
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified.
God is not challenging the idols to predict something from simple foreknowledge. He is challenging them to report their plans and then to do them! Declaring God's plans and then fulfilling those plans is something God is able to do that the idols cannot do. God is able tell his people what is going to happen and what will come hereafter because God is going to do it (see Isaiah 46:11)! This is more than simple foreknowledge. It is God's plans. In fact, Isaiah 41:25-29 is quite specific that God has called by name (indicating Cyrus) the one who will overthrow Babylon (Isaiah 41:25). The point in this passage is that the Babylonian idols will not be able to save Babylon from God's messiah Cyrus (see Isaiah 45:1).

When someone attacks a conviction by calling it "just wrong" and saying that "it is obviously wrong" and saying "it violates crystal clear divine teaching," that critic is resorting to "begging the question" and "bandwagon" fallacies.

Open theism is just a coin term to describe what subscribers believe is the biblical description of God. It started with Bible study and eventually it was given a name. It did not start with philosophy and a subsequent combing of the scriptures for out-of-context verses to support the philosophy. The more popular theories actually did come about in that shameful way.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jeremiah 4: Break up the fallow ground

The central verse in Jeremiah 4 may be
O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness
    so that you may be saved.
How long shall your evil schemes
    lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4:14)
Washing the heart of wickedness denotes an overhaul of one's own character. It parallels the figures of breaking up the fallow ground and of circumcising the heart in vss. 3-4.
For thus says the Lord to the people of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
Break up your fallow ground,
    and do not sow among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn with no one to quench it,
    because of the evil of your doings. (Jeremiah 4:3-4)
We can see that failure to do this character adjustment risks God's wrath. Breaking up the soil of a fallow field denotes years of neglected relationship with Yahweh. Working a field after so many years means that a lot of work will go to getting the weeds out (Mark 4:7; 18-19). Judah had gotten used to bad habits and even pagan rituals. The religious leaders were no longer worried about them. Getting rid of them would mean making difficult changes to long-established bad habits. Circumcision of the heart denotes the same thing. It means to perform surgery on the heart ( = the mind) to get rid of whatever is separating one's self from God (Romans 2:28-29; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Colossians 2:11-14).

Notice in Jeremiah 4:14 that this self-reorientation results in salvation. God in the Old Testament is not all about wrath. God has always been about salvation. God's call to repent is always open (Jeremiah 4:8) and it always comes with a promise of salvation. And more importantly to God, a broken relationship is repaired.

In verse 14, we also hear a question.
How long shall your evil schemes
    lodge within you?
An atemporal god would not ask such a question. A god who practices Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace would never ask such a question. A God who desires a real relationship with a people wearing God's name would definitely ask this question; for that relationship is neither established or restored until such time as you and I respond to God's earnest appeals. Our response is required or else the relationship cannot be real.

This drawing near to God is not a first action on our part. God is already passionately moving in our direction and he is diligently working to repair a damaged relationship. Something frequently stops the desired reconciliation. That something is our failure to respond to God's work. God is reaching out to us but we often fail to respond. The relationship remains damaged. That dynamic is what James has in mind when he says
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. (James 4:8-9)
I love the words to the song "Reach Out to Jesus."
When you get discouraged, just remember what to do.
Reach out to Jesus. He's reaching out to you. (Ralph Carmichael, 1968)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Jeremiah 3: To God, restored covenant is more important than reputation

In Jeremiah 3, God compares his relationship to Israel, in part, to a marriage relationship. (The marriage metaphor is mixed up with figures of a Father and his children and also a chief shepherd with his flock of sheep).

God knows the rule about a faithless spouse. The faithful partner in the broken relationship is barred from receiving the faithless partner back into the marriage covenant. It pollutes the land. It shames the faithful partner.

Yet God is willing to set his own good reputation aside in order to receive back his faithless partner Israel.
 “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.” (Jeremiah 3:14, NIV)
What a wonderful God is the God of the Bible! God is willing to set aside his own good reputation in order to restore me into covenant relationship to God—even after I have sullied God's good name and I have violated that relationship to such a level that the damaged should have been permanent! Such a restoration could be compared to a husband receiving back his faithless wife knowing full well that receiving her back as his wife is unlawful and a pollution to the land!

While I dirtied the relationship and while restoration is invited, the choice is to return completely my own. In the metaphor, I must return and behave as a faithful wife. In the meaning of the metaphor, I must return with intent to be faithful. The ball is so much in my court that God often expects one response when he gets another. In Jeremiah, God remembers his hopes for Northern Israel that were never realized.
And I thought, "After she has done all this she will return to me"; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. (Jeremiah 3:7, NRSV)
With God's invitation, God was certain the people would return in a similar manner of a restored marriage; but God's expectation was not realized. God was surprised by Israel's and now Judah's faithlessness! In fact, this chapter features a verse that seems to be deliberately vague; but if it is read carefully, it becomes evident that the verse describes God in the figure of the estranged husband, standing outside the house of his wife's lover. He is weeping because his faithless wife in inside the house with her lover.
A voice on the bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping [because*] of Israel's children, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord their God. (Jeremiah 3:21)
It is no wonder the poet says
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices. (Isaiah 65:2)
If we have violated covenant against God, God calls us back with weeping. Though God's reputation may be damaged by taking us back, restored covenant is more important to God than a good reputation.

* The Hebrew word, almost universally translated as "of" is variously translated in other places as "that, because, for, if, surely, except, yea, doubtless" (Strong's, OliveTree resource). The word "of" can indicate either a consequence or an antecedent. In the context of God begging the people to return to God in covenant relationship, the weeping in verse 21 is to be understood as God's weeping for Israel rather than Israel's ritual weeping in the Baal cult. A case can be made that this weeping is the weeping God and Jeremiah expect from the people over their own apostasy. The text eventually goes there in Jeremiah 3:22b; but the strength of the case is indirect and the text is confusing to read that way. (See Alex Varughese, Commentary on Jeremiah, Beacon Hill Press, 73).

Saturday, July 14, 2018

She will be saved through childbearing - 1 Timothy 2:15

1 Timothy 2:15
Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
When we read this verse, even in context, in our own modern settings, we usually find ourselves scratching our heads in confusion. What on earth is Paul getting at about a woman finding salvation in bearing children? Gordon Fee, in his commentary on 1 Timothy, has some illuminating thoughts on this verse; but even his explanation takes a little wrestling. It helps to break it down in little bites. The chart below presents how I read Fee. Then, further down, I quote from Fee's commentary. I hope this method helps.

Fee's Comments, summarized by me
She will be saved through childbearingIf a woman is in transgression (like Eve in vs. 14), that is, if she is living out the Ephesian heresy of attempting to dominate men and to dress immodestly and jeopardizing her salvation, then she should return to a good Christian lifestyle of godliness. Godliness for a woman includes devotion in her marriage and in raising children (contrary to the Ephesian false teaching that promoted abstinence from marriage [1 Timothy 4:3] and, likely, bearing children).
provided they continue in faith and love and holinessThat is, the women (now plural) commit themselves to good works and, in general, good Christian living in all aspects of discipleship beyond the family duties they have been neglecting.
with modesty... which is where Paul began this subtopic (1 Timothy 2:9).

Gordon Fee, Hendrickson, 74-76. (Reprinted as Understanding the Bible Commentary, Baker):
There is a subtle shift here from Eve to the women in Ephesus. The subject of the verb will be saved is in fact the woman in verse 14. Obviously Paul is not talking about Eve's salvation but "the women" in Ephesus; hence the change back to the plural in the middle of verse 15.
  More likely what Paul intends is that woman's salvation, from the transgressions brought about by similar deception and ultimately for eternal life, is to be found in her being a model, godly woman, known for her good works (vs. 10; cf. 1 Timothy 5:11). And her good deeds, according to 1 Timothy 5:11 and 1 Timothy 5:14, include marriage, bearing children (the verb form of this noun), and keeping a good home. The reason for his saying that she will be saved is that it follows directly out of his having said "the woman came to be in transgression."
  But Paul could never leave the matter there, as though salvation itself were attained by this "good deed," so he immediately qualifies, "Provided of course that she is already a truly Christan woman," that is, a woman who continues in faith, love and holiness. This is obviously where her salvation ultimately lies, as is always true with Paul. It is assumed such a woman already has faith, which is activating love and holiness. But the whole context of the letter, and the present argument in particular, has generated this rather unusual way of putting it. Even at the end, however, he has not lost sight of where he began, so he adds, with propriety.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Anthropomorphism in Jeremiah 31:20

I recently stumbled upon a passage in Jeremiah that makes for a great discussion on the nature of a kind of figure of speech called anthropomorphism.
Jeremiah 31:20
Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the LORD.
An anthropomorphism is "an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics: HUMANIZATION" (Merriam-Webster software dictionary © 2018).

The statement "The breeze through the trees moaned in deep grief" is an anthropomorphism because a breeze is not something that can literally experience grief.

Is God really "deeply moved" or is that description of God an anthropomorphism?

The vast majority of English translations translate the clause to express deep emotions on God's part. The English Standard Version is typical.
Therefore my heart yearns for him.
There are many in Christianity who will teach that, since God does not really feel emotions, the whole notion that God is "deeply moved" has to be an anthropomorphism. Indeed, a Christian might argue that being deeply moved by anything is undignified for a being such as God. There is a word for this theory of theology.
Impassibility: The characteristic, usually associated with God, of being unaffected by earthly, temporal circumstances, particularly the experience of suffering and its effects (Grenze, Guretzki, Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, IVP, OliveTree version).
We must remember that an important aspect of symbolism is that the symbol has real meaning. When somebody says that something in the Bible is a figure of speech, then the figure must carry with it an evident meaning. The symbol needs to denote something. For example:
John 15:1
​ “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
Jesus is not literally a vine nor is the Father a vinegrower (well, maybe the Father is a vinegrower; but that is not the point of this passage). Jesus being a vine is a figure of speech. It is not an anthropomorphism in this case but it is nevertheless a metaphor. The meaning becomes apparent with further reading of John 15. It means that Jesus provides a kind of spiritual nourishment to the branches (his disciples) so that they can thrive and bear fruit. His point is that the disciples should draw from Christ their spiritual nourishment and they are thus expected to use that energy to bless the world.

Do you see how a figure of speech denotes meaning? If there is no evident meaning to a speech figure, then one must reject that a description of something is a figure at all without real strong evidence.

What is the meaning in Jeremiah 31:20 when God says "I am deeply moved?" The clause denotes no meaning relative to the figure; so we strongly come out in favor of the clause not being a figure at all but rather, it is a literal description of God having grievous emotions!

But it gets better!

Jeremiah 31:20 has a hidden anthropomorphism that most translations do not translate literally. They instead translate the obvious meaning that is denoted by the figure.

Here are a few translations that are more literal at Jeremiah 31:20 (italics mine).
Is Ephraim a dear son unto me? is he a child of delights? For whilst I have been speaking against him, I do constantly remember him still. Therefore my bowels are troubled for him: I will certainly have mercy upon him, saith Jehovah (Darby).
Surely Ephraim is an honourable son to me, surely he is a tender child: for since I spoke of him, I will still remember him. Therefore are my bowels troubled for him: pitying I will pity him, saith the Lord (Douay-Rheims).
A precious son is Ephraim to Me? A child of delights? For since My speaking against him, I do thoroughly remember him still, Therefore have My bowels been moved for him, I do greatly love him, An affirmation of Jehovah (Young's).
The New Beacon Bible Commentary on Jeremiah 26-52 reports "The Hebrew phrase literally means, therefore, my bowels moan for him" (Alex Varughese, Mitchel Modine, Beacon Hill Press, 2010, print 140).

What we have in this verbiage is an anthropomorphism! The description of God's bowels making noise is a figure of speech. It denotes something. It describes God's real deep emotions about the trouble Ephraim suffered for the people's (nation's) sin.

The figure (growling bowels) denotes the meaning of deep emotional grief.

Let me draw a picture:

Growling bowels ⸻> deep emotion

Theologians that promote the doctrine of impassibility tend to prefer to call God's deep emotion here a figure of speech and then to move quickly along. More often, they see the weakness in their position and just avoid comment.

The NIV Study Bible provides only crossreferences to the verse.

The Reformation Study Bible (2015) completely avoids any comment on the verse.

Those who resist the notion that God has emotions are indeed forced to try to explain that this passage describes God having growling bowels (anthropomorphism) which denotes deep emotion which is itself an anthropomorphism which denotes... well, they don't know. It must be a mystery; but surely we should not accept that God is ever grieved about anything, right? A figure of speech denotes another figure of speech which denotes some mysterious meaning.

Growling bowels ⸺> deep emotion ⸺> unknown meaning

Just how gullible are we supposed to be?

I think this passage really helps us to appreciate the application of anthropomorphism. We don't just call it an anthropomorphism and quickly move on to something else. If we cannot discern an intended application of the figure, then we are strongly reluctant to accept the description as a figure at all.

John Calvin provides a good explanation of the meaning in this passage in his commentary on Jeremiah:
So also when God expresses the feelings of a tender father, he says that his bowels made a noise, because he wished to receive his people again into favor. This, indeed, does not properly belong to God; but as he could not otherwise express the greatness of his love towards us, he thus speaks in condescension to our capacities. (OliveTree version)
God wishes for things that do not ever come to be realized. God feels strong unrequited love. Exactly!

Monday, June 25, 2018

When is a church right to censure a teacher?

I am sometimes fascinated by the efforts people sometimes take to bend Scripture into the service of their own narrative. There are many contemporary examples I can cite but I am most interested in the biblical justification some leaders put forward for combating doctrinal error. I am seriously interested in your feedback on what I am about to write.

As a parallel example for what I will argue, I cite King Solomon's murder of Joab.

When King David was old and on his deathbed, Prince Adonijah, made a move for the throne. Adonijah collected some high-profile supporters in this move including David's military general Joab and David's priest Abiathar. The prophet Nathan recognized that Adonijah becoming king would threaten the lives of himself, Solomon and Solomon's mother Bathsheba (1 Kings 1:12). As we know, Solomon finally became king and his coronation became a threat to Adonijah's life.
1Ki 1:50-53
Adonijah, fearing Solomon, got up and went to grasp the horns of the altar. Solomon was informed, “Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon; see, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not kill his servant with the sword.’ ” So Solomon responded, “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” Then King Solomon sent to have him brought down from the altar. He came to do obeisance to King Solomon; and Solomon said to him, “Go home.”
It turns out that Solomon watched Adonijah closely for any hint of intrigue. He found intrigue when Adonijah asked for David's concubine Abishag the Shunammite to be his wife (1 Kings 1:3; 2:21). Solomon ordered Adonijah's death and he banished the priest Abiathar. When Joab heard of it, he feared for his own life; so he ran to the altar and took hold of its horns (1 Kings 2:28). Indeed, Adonijah's execution set off a bloodbath of those who allied themselves with Adonijah during the struggle for succession of King David. Here is the text of the account:
1 Kings 2:28-34
When the news came to Joab—for Joab had supported Adonijah though he had not supported Absalom—Joab fled to the tent of the LORD and grasped the horns of the altar. When it was told King Solomon, “Joab has fled to the tent of the LORD and now is beside the altar,” Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada, saying, “Go, strike him down.” So Benaiah came to the tent of the LORD and said to him, “The king commands, ‘Come out.’ ” But he said, “No, I will die here.” Then Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.” The king replied to him, “Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him; and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause. The LORD will bring back his bloody deeds on his own head, because, without the knowledge of my father David, he attacked and killed with the sword two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah. So shall their blood come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever; but to David, and to his descendants, and to his house, and to his throne, there shall be peace from the LORD forevermore.” Then Benaiah son of Jehoiada went up and struck him down and killed him; and he was buried at his own house near the wilderness.
This account is fascinating to me and, I think, instructive. Solomon had decided to kill Joab because Joab had been a political ally of his devious brother Adonijah. Solomon was not able to execute Joab for political reasons because Joab had taken hold of the horns of the altar (Exodus 21:12-14)! What was Solomon to do? Here is what he did. He changed the reason for ordering Joab killed. Joab was protected from execution as long as he held on to the horns of the altar; but if Joab had blood guilt, he could be executed even while he grasped the altar horns (Exodus 21:14)! Thus, Solomon ordered Joab's execution because he had murdered Abner and Amasa (2 Samuel 3:23-27; 20:10). Just to make the point clear: Solomon wanted Joab killed for political reasons; but for scriptural reasons, he could not order the execution. Yet, Solomon found a scriptural reason to have Joab killed: blood guilt. Solomon had politics for his personal reason to kill Joab; but he gave a different reason to actually have the execution carried out: blood guilt!

The account of Joab's death is a case example of conscripting scripture into the service of one's own private agenda.

Christians seem to love total agreement. They love certainty about all things Bible. They want to be a part of a faith community (church) that agrees in lock-step on everything. They say they believe that minor disagreements can be treated as "We can disagree without being disagreeable." But if there are any other difficulties included—such as personality conflicts, then the minor disagreement inflates to a new perception of serious doctrinal error. They then go to the Bible to show that they are in the right to rebuke the error.

This bait-and-switch tactic rears its head again when Christians from different denominations try to work together in a ministry. Sage leaders on the side-lines are quick to point out the doctrinal disagreements and argue that joint effort ministry cannot happen until the doctrinal disagreement (read: error) is resolved!

I am not certain why the motivation is there to put doctrine in the forefront of any contact with people from other denominations. It really looks like the motivation is to keep everybody at the home church walking in doctrinal lock-step with one another. The real reason may have more to do with jealousy against the one(s) that are working together in God's work. If jealousy is involved, I must warn, that bad attitude can get a person in trouble with God (James 3:13-18).

In either case, or for any other reason that someone harps on doctrinal differences that must be resolved before any ministry can be done, Scripture is enlisted to support such fussing.

Here is an example of how it is done.
Gal 1:6-9
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
The contemporary exegesis continues something like this: "There is only one gospel; so if somebody is preaching something different from what is in the Bible, then that preacher is teaching a different gospel and therefore should be accursed. Yes, Paul has in mind the Judaizing teachers; but by extension, any doctrinal error should be treated the same way. We can have no fellowship with anybody who teaches doctrinal error until such time as the error is corrected."

One problem with that exegesis is the assumption that the speaker has figured out the right way to read every doctrine that is in the Bible.

The larger screw-up in that narrative is in misunderstanding the word "gospel" to apply to the whole New Testament. Gospel means "good news" and it applies to the message of salvation. "Gospel" is articulated best by 1 Corinthians 15:3-9; 20-23.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
How much more concise can you get? How about
1 Timothy 1:15
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
Acts 1:9-11
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
John 3:16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Acts 17:30-31
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Gospel is not a terribly difficult concept. If the message of salvation is so central to Christianity, how can we refuse to share ministry with people from other denominations?

Returning to the text in Galatians 1, we ought to reconsider what Paul's real concern was: Judaizing teaching. The problem with that teaching was that the teachers said converts to Jesus must be circumcised! No wonder Paul said, "It's really not another gospel" (Galatians 1:7, CEB). It is not good news at all! By requiring circumcision, the false teachers were actually compromising the truth of the gospel. Teaching that compromises the gospel really needs to be handled. That is the role of the church.
1 Timothy 3:14-15
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.1
It is also the role of church leaders to refute doctrines that compromise the gospel.
Acts 20:28-30
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.
We must stop assuming that when two people draw different conclusions from their Bible study, then one is in error and must be corrected. Doctrines that demand correction are doctrines that compromise the gospel.2

1. It is worth noting that the error Paul means for the church in Ephesus to resist taught that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Timothy 2:16-18), that believers must not marry (1 Timothy 4:3, and maybe that they should behave as though they were not married), and they were developing doctrines based upon speculations about genealogies (1 Timothy 1:3-4). This odd collection of doctrines was a direct affront to the gospel. In fact, Paul even began his epistle by confronting the post-eschatology feature of the heresy (1 Timothy 1:1) by asserting that Christ Jesus is our hope (that is, the resurrection is yet future).

2. I am not advocating a reunion of all the denominations. There are some conflicting doctrines that are very difficult to coexist under the same roof. For example, Premillennialism and Amillennialism have difficulty mixing in a single congregation. Calvinism and Arminianism/Wesleyism don't mix very well. I am advocating that people who hold conflicting doctrines ought to still be able to enjoy gospel fellowship together and work together in ministry. The apostle Paul would agree.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Attributes of God

I wish to compare two contrasting views of the attributes of God. The standard Christian view generally is a list of attributes based somewhat on Scripture and to a large extent on what seems appropriate for someone like God (dignum deo).

I refer you to sample lists here and here.

I wish to focus on five attributes that people in general seem to accept without question: Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Omniscience, Immutability and Impassibility. In the first three, people tend to get defensive when somebody else says, "Really?" They often question the motives of the questioner as if there were some surly goal behind the question. "You don't accept omnipotence? You are trying to limit God!"

Anyway, it is my goal in this article to present two contrasting lists. One is the standard Christian list of divine attributes. The other comes from the article on "God" by Terence Fretheim in the Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible. I wish to highlight the features of this lists that do not overlap. In the interest of time, I will present an edited list from Fretheim as well.

Theopedia, et. al.
Omnipotence: God is all powerful. Matthew 19:26
Omnipresence: God is everywhere. 1 Kings 8:27; Jeremiah 23:24; Psalm 139:7-10
Omniscience: God has all knowledge. 1 John 3:20; Romans 16:27; Psalm 147:5; Hebrews 4:13
Immutability: God does not and cannot change. Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 6:17
Impassibility: God has no emotions. (no Scriptures, but it follows from omnipotence and Immutability)
Simplicity: God is not composed of parts. (no Scriptures, but it follows from the dignum deo assumption)

Active: God acts within the world. Romans 3:29; Genesis 1:1-11; Romans 11:36; Hebrews 2:10; Amos 9:7
Effective: God's actions are effective. Creation; Exodus; Incarnation; Cross; Pentecost; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Genesis 22:12; Deuteronomy 8:2
Present: God fills heaven and earth. Jeremiah 23:24; Psalm 139:1-24; 33:5; 36:5; Romans 8:38-39; Ephesians 4:6; Acts 17:28
Intentional: God acts from his own will. 1 Timothy 2:4; Genesis 12:3; Romans 11:32
Situational: God's actions are situationally appropriate. Galatians 4:4; Exodus 3:7-10; 9:16; Isaiah 43:25
Relational: God is interested in relationship. Psalm 31:2; Isaiah 65:1-2; Genesis 8:21-22; Psalm 8:1-9; Hebrews 8:8-12; Genesis 15:7-21
Vulnerable: God's activity is not inevitably successful. Ezekiel 2:7; Zechariah 7:11; Jeremiah 6:10; 23:17; 3:19-20; Luke 8:12; Hosea 11:1-9

Saturday, May 19, 2018

How may I know if I am a false teacher?

Most of the false prophets in the Bible seem to be aware that they are charlatans. Most. There are some who seem to be certain that they are preaching the truth while they are in gross error on some points. There are no clearcut rules for identifying false teachers, or prophets, in the Bible. There are some indicators; but they are more in the category of "evidence" than proof. What I have been interested in doing is turning the false-teacher-detection scrutiny inward on myself. Are there ways I can know whether or not I am a false teacher? Trying to answer that question will be the burden of this article.

The definition of a prophet is itself difficult to determine. I want to touch on the definition of a prophet because I suspect there is little difference between a prophet and a teacher. I believe the two terms are nearly synonymous. We can safely talk about "false prophets" and "false teachers" together.

There are indicators that a person is a prophet; but several indicators have exceptions. For example, a prophet
  1. has had a divine calling experience in the form of a vision or supernatural visitation. There are the examples of Isaiah 6:1-8; Jeremiah 1:7-10; Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; John in Revelation 1:9-17. The problem is, several prophets didn't have these experiences (that we know of).
  2. has made prophetic predictions that came true (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). The problem here is that not all prophets made predictions. How can you test a prophet who does not predict anything? Furthermore, several prophets made predictions that did not come true; but the Bible treats those prophets as true prophets. It's not a dependable test.
  3. has never taught the people to follow other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). That is a pretty solid one. If the prophet teaches the people to follow other gods, he is a false prophet. It does not matter how powerfully he testifies to the truth of his false message.
The office of prophet, it seems, is a skill-set that could be taught. Elijah and Elisha ran prophetic schools. There was some sort of prophetic guild in the time of Samuel (1 Samuel 10:9-13; 19:18-24). Prophets seem to base a lot of their oracles on how they perceive God's character. For example, when David talked to the prophet Nathan about an idea to build a temple for the ark of God, Nathan said Yahweh would be with David in this enterprise (2 Samuel 7:3). Nathan's answer was based upon his knowledge of God. Later, Nathan received different instructions. The writer says "the word of the LORD came to Nathan." Nothing in the Bible explains what is meant by the expression, "the word of the LORD came." It is possible that the meaning has more to do with the prophet's wisdom than with some kind of ecstatic experience, after all, in several places, the word of God is described as coming through much effort and study on the part of the prophet (e.g., unknown prophets in 1 Peter 1:10-12; Paul in 2 Peter 3:15). Whatever is meant by "the word of the LORD came," Nathan had to change his answer to David.

It appears that a good deal of teaching and prophesying, especially in Biblical times, involved circumstances in which people in the faith community saw a teaching need and realized that they were in the right place and time to fill that need. Today, some people may refer to that realization as a "divine calling." I think of it as recognizing an unmet ministry need.

When I find myself in the role of Bible teacher, am I there for the right reason or for the wrong reason? If I am teaching because I saw a need and realized that I was in the right place to fill that need, then I think that reason is pretty good.

I now return to the main purpose of this article. How do I know that I am not a false teacher?

If I know that I am faking it, then I already failed the test. Most of the false prophets in the Bible were prophets for hire. They knew they were charlatans; however, there are several examples of prophets who were false prophets but they did not know they were false prophets. I offer two parade examples.
1 Kings 22:24
Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?”
Zedekiah had delivered a prophecy about an upcoming battle. He was certain he had delivered a correct oracle; but another prophet, Micaiah, had contradicted Zedekiah's prophecy. In Zedekiah's case, Micaiah determined that Zedekiah had delivered a false prophecy out of his inadequate knowledge of God. Micaiah had better knowledge of the divine council than Zedekiah.

If we were to apply this principle today, we would make every effort to teach correct things about God. Such effort would be invested in study. When something we teach is challenged, we would solicit good Biblical arguments against our own view and examine those arguments carefully. That principle is seen in 1 Corinthians 14.
1 Corinthians 14:29
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
Paul says to in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21,
Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.
Just because the person speaking has been identified as a prophet does not mean what the prophet says today is correct. Everything must be received through critical ears.

Another really good example of a false teacher is a prophet named Hananiah. He and Jeremiah had different prophecies to tell; and Jeremiah truly hoped Hananiah's prophecy was the correct one.
Jeremiah 28:11
And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way.
Both prophets believed they were true prophets; but later, Jeremiah learned that Hananiah was a false prophet.

The book of Jeremiah suggests several rubrics by which we can measure the truthfulness of our own teaching ministry. I want to come back to Jeremiah's tests after I look at the Pharisees of Jesus' day. The Pharisees believed themselves to be true teachers. It took another prophet (Jesus) to point out the error of their teaching. If they had the right attitude, they would have taken Jesus' criticisms to heart and made adjustments to their teaching.
Matthew 23:23
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! 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."
There is much that is right about tithing. What the Pharisees missed is that justice, mercy and faith are more important. They neglected those important topics in their teaching. If they had made adjustments to their teaching, they would have quit being false teachers.

The book of Jeremiah points out that any prophecy that preaches only peace is false. There is always the risk of calamity, especially when there is no interest in repentance.
Jeremiah 23:16-17
Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”
The false prophets did not base their teachings on knowledge of God but rather on what the people wanted to hear. If you are preaching nothing but good news, you will have people who want to hear what you have to say. That's a problem.
Jeremiah 6:13-14 ( = Jeremiah 8:10-11)
For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 14:13-14
Then I said: “Ah, LORD God! Here are the prophets saying to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true peace in this place.’ ” And the LORD said to me: The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.
False teaching is all about peace. If there is no balance of teaching that includes strong messages of repentance, then it is false prophecy. If we look back on Hananiah's prophecy in Jeremiah 28, his message was all about peace but nothing about repentance. He preached salvation without repentance. That is false teaching.

When you examine yourself and try to determine if you a true or a false teacher, ask yourself, "Is there balance in what I teach, or is it all feel-good teaching? Is there a strong ingredient of challenge for people to grow in the Lord or do I try to comfort them with their current level spiritual maturity?"

Paul's teaching had balance and it made people nervous.
Acts 24:25
And as he discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.”
False prophets offer peace even for the wicked. They never tell the wicked that they need to change. True prophets announce Yahweh's judgment.

People are often quick to identify other people as false teachers in order to resist their challenging teaching. Indeed, promoting a challenging message is one of the marks of a true teacher!

Some people are quick to identify people as false teachers because they teach something they don't agree with. When two teachers disagree it does not mean that one (or both) is a false teacher. It means they merely disagree. They should be able to study together on the point of disagreement. Maybe they will come together or maybe they will continue to adhere to their divergent views. That does not make one (or both) of them a false teacher. Quite possibly, it may not mean that either one is in error.

Yes, there are some points of doctrine that are really difficult to come together on. For example, it may be difficult for amillennialists and premillennialists to work together. It may be difficult for Calvinists and Open Theists to work together. The answer is not to avoid those topics in the interest of unity. The answer is to try to disagree without being disagreeable. I mean that. It is not a cliché. I am interested in your thoughts on this one. What do teachers do when they promote contradictory doctrines?

Friday, May 18, 2018

What to do with passages in which God says he will harden Pharaoh's heart?

What to do with passages where God says, "I will harden his heart?"
Exodus 4:21
And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
Exodus 7:3
But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 14:4
I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. And they did so.
We need not make much of these predictions of divine hardening when we study divine hardening. What, exactly, hardening means is not at all clear. And if we are not able to determine what hardening is, we can indeed determine biblically what hardening is not. Divine hardening is not divine control. Contrary to general assumptions, it is also not some sort of "locking in" to a particular course of action. For a detailed blog-style treatment of the meaning of divine hardening, see this article. At this point in my study, I believe we can safely understand divine hardening as something God does for a person who is reluctantly obedient. The person strongly desires to act contrary to God's oracles; but, no matter how long he searches, cannot find a good enough reason to act in the way he desires. When a man wants to misbehave that badly and all he is lacking is an excuse, God is willing to provide that excuse or rationale.

Walter Brueggemann (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Abingdon, OliveTree) explains it this way:
God does wonders that shatter all present reality, but God also sponsors resistance to the newness on behalf of the status quo. The juxtaposition makes perfectly good sense, even if we judge only by what is visible and conventional. Gestures and acts that violate the present and anticipate newness do indeed evoke resistance in defense of the status quo. Moreover, the response of resistance tends to be proportionate to the threat of the “wonder.” As the pitch of wonder intensifies, so the intensity of resistance is sure to increase as well. The text shows that Yahweh intends to escalate both the wonder and the resistance.
The additional factor below the surface, and which changes everything, is the fact that the “hardening” does not just happen, is not merely chosen by Pharaoh, but is caused by Yahweh, who is the subject of the active verb harden. The narrator is willing to entertain the awareness that Yahweh operates negatively to heighten the drama, to make the clash between oppressor and victim as pointed as is bearable in the narrative.
James Bruckner (Understanding the Bible Commentary, Baker, OliveTree) has this fascinating comment:
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is sometimes a red herring for interpreters. Pharaoh’s heart was already “hard” enough—he had harshly enslaved a whole people. The theological problem is not that Pharaoh was compassionate and the Lord made him “hard.” The more difficult issues arise from the fact that the hardening prolongs the enslavement of the children of Israel and eventually requires that the Lord kill the firstborn of Egypt.
I strongly suspect that there is very little difference between divine hardening and self hardening. Pharaoh's heart was already hard. It would be easy to anticipate his answer to Moses' first "Let my people go." When God offers an opportunity to "do right" but the invitation is rejected, there is a hardening effect. Every time Pharaoh said "No" to God, he grew harder. God hardened Pharaoh by repeatedly sending Moses with another message to "Let my people go." Bruckner further comments on Exodus 7:3,
Throughout the plague cycles Pharaoh expresses his hardness of heart in three different ways: Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34), Pharaoh’s heart was hardened or became hard (Exodus 7:13–14, 22–23; 8:19; 9:7, 35) and God hardened it (Exodus 9:12; 11:10; 14:8). God had also promised to harden it (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 14:4, 17). There are no special distinctions between these expressions. It may be concluded that God calcified Pharaoh’s own stubbornness and cruelty to accomplish divine purposes.
Now, when we look at the first text of Exodus 4:21, it appears that God anticipates hardening Pharaoh even before Pharaoh has the opportunity to obey God.

There are several ambiguities in this text which prevent us from being too certain of ourselves about what God is predicting. The ambiguities begin to surface when we look at a little context.
Exo 4:21-26
And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”
On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”
The general wisdom of most Bible readers is that God's threat to kill Pharaoh's firstborn son refers to the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, as is indicated by Thomas B. Dozeman (New Interpreter's Study Bible, Abingdon, OliveTree).
The divine prediction to harden the heart of Pharaoh probably refers to the death of the Egyptian firstborn, since it is followed by the divine claim that Israel is the Lord’s firstborn. The firstborn status of Israel signifies kinship between the Lord and Israel and the divine claim on all firstborn (Exodus 13:1).
If Dozeman (and most other readers) are correct in this assessment of the saying, "I will kill your firstborn son," then the predicted hardening of Pharaoh refers specifically to the tenth plague. That means that the other divine hardenings of the king are not predicted this early in the drama.

There is another way to read "I will kill your firstborn son." Since God refers to enslaved Israel as God's firstborn, the nation of Egypt could very well be understood to be Pharaoh's firstborn son. If I am correct that Egypt is Pharaoh's firstborn son, then what is being predicted is the total ruin of Egypt. Such an understanding would motivate us to apply the predicted divine hardening in Exodus 4:21 to be something that happens in Pharaoh much earlier in the account.

Furthermore, it is fascinating that, in the verse following God's plan to harden Pharaoh, God attacks Moses and tries to kill him! Moses' wife Zipporah takes action and saves Moses' life. Nevertheless, the reader is shocked that the whole plan to send Moses to Pharaoh is jeopardized by God's own action against Moses. The narrative placement of this attack shows that God does not necessarily make divine plans in meticulous detail. God makes adjustments along the way. What would have happened had Moses died in this attack we can only speculate. Perhaps God would have selected somebody else to complete the mission. The narrative disruption of this attack strongly suggests that the divine plan to harden Pharaoh was a contingent prediction, no matter how strong the language, "but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go."

Finally, it is important to notice that the NRSV is correct in translating,
But you refused to let him go. (Exodus 4:23, also RSV, KJV, NKJV, MEV, REB, ESV, LXX)
Now, God may be telling Moses, word for word, what to say to Pharaoh after the execution of the ninth plague and in anticipation of the tenth plague. More likely, this statement is verbalized in the past tense because readers already know, even at this point in the account, that Pharaoh refused to let the Israel go. Not surprisingly, the reader also knows that Pharaoh's heart is going to grow more and more hard throughout the ordeal. The writer is right to anticipate these hardenings early in the account.

It is interesting to study the sequence of events in the book of Exodus; but we must return to the fact that divine hardening is not divine control of a person; nor is divine hardening a "locking in" of a person's preferred course of bad action.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Luke 22:22. What is the meaning of "determined?"

Luke 22:22
For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!" (NRSV)

The burden of this article will be to explain what Luke's Jesus meant in this verse by the word "determined."

Luke adapted his own reading from Mark's account. It is interesting and instructive how Luke adapted Mark. Here is Mark 14:17-25.
17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve.
18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me."
19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, "Surely, not I?"
20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.
21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born."
22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body."
23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.
24 He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."
Matthew 26:20-29 quotes Mark almost verbatim except for a few clarifying improvements (Matthew's Jesus says the blood of the covenant is "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins;" and Mark's "kingdom of God" becomes Matthew's "my Father's kingdom").

In both Mark and Matthew, Judas fades off the stage, either after the prediction of betrayal or between the time Jesus' Institution of the Lord's Supper and the time of Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. John adds some clarity to his account of the Last Supper my describing Jesus as indicating Judas by giving him a piece of bread (John 13:26). As soon as Judas received the bread, he left the intimate assembly. Since John does not document the Institution of the Lord's Supper, we still do not know if Judas participated in the sacred part of the meal. (However, in John, Jesus washed Judas' feet).

While Mark and in Matthew are not clear whether Judas participated in the memorial part of the supper, Luke is very clear. Here is Luke 22:14-22.
 14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.
15 He said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;
16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."
17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves;
18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."
19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.
22 For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!"

The fact that Luke reversed the order of Mark by placing the Lord's Supper before the betrayal prediction highlights the importance Luke placed on Judas' choices and upon his later invitation for redemption. The cup of the new covenant of the Lord's blood was poured out for Judas too! In Luke,the mention of a betrayer is an invitation for Judas to repent of the evil he is planning. Furthermore, if he goes ahead with the betrayal (and he indeed did) he is invited to repent after the fact. Thus, Luke softened Jesus assessment of the betrayer by omitting Mark's "It would have been better for that one not to have been born."

This understanding will help us to drill down on the meaning of Luke's use of the word "determined" in verse 22.

For clarity, let us scrutinize Mark 14:20-21.
20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.
21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born."
It may escape our notice that there is deeper meaning to verse 20 than just sharing a meal. John 13:18 helps us out.
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 fact that Judas shared bread with Jesus was widely connected with Psalm 41:9. First Century Christians knew that Judas shared the bread with Jesus and they knew that he eventually betrayed Jesus. They correlated those events with the passage in Psalms. For a detailed discussion of John 13:18, see this article. Psalm 41 is about the psalmist's betrayal by a close friend and confidant. The psalmist is very sick and might die. The psalmist's close friend comes to comfort the sick psalmist and says he hopes he gets well; but privately, the friend hopes the psalmist dies. Many Bible readers consider the psalmist as possibly David and the close friend as David's adviser Ahithophel who became usurping Absalom's adviser against David. For convenience, I will call the psalmist's fair-weather friend "Ahithophel."

When Mark's Jesus says, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me," he means to say that the betrayer (Judas) is another Ahithophel. The betrayer is fulfilling Scripture by conspiring against his master, as Ahithophel did. So, in Mark, what Jesus means by "The Son of Man goes as is written of him" he means to say that he is going to fulfill Scripture by means of parallel actions. Luke means the same thing but he uses the word "determined." Luke talks about these parallels with much stronger language.
Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." (Luke 24:44)
Luke's citations of Scripture that are fulfilled are many; but all of them are understood as parallels (another Ahithophel) or as adaptations of old language to a new situation ("he was numbered with the transgressors"). The fact that Jesus fulfilled classical Scripture even in that non-direct way testified to his authenticity as the Messiah to a First Century Jew (or Jewish proselyte).

One more observation: When Luke changed Mark's "it is written" to "it has been determined" he may have intended to communicate that events have been set in motion that will be very difficult to derail. At this point, what is about to happen is essentially unavoidable. Determined.

Let us review.

14:20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me." 22:21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.The betrayer is another Ahithophel, like the betrayer in Psalm 41.
14:21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born. 22:22 For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!"Events are in motion now that will soon be seen as fulfilling Scripture.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Jeremiah 26: Anatomy of a Religious Attack

Jeremiah 26 is a typical example of what happens when a person is attacked for what he believes.

Jeremiah's main message was that Jerusalem is going to be destroyed by Babylon; yet, if the people of Judah repent, God will change his mind and spare the city of destruction by the Babylonians.

A summary of Jeremiah's central sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-15) appears in Jeremiah 26:4-6. Notice what Jeremiah said:
4 You shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you,
5 and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded—
6 then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.
In sum, the terrible thing that God will do to Jerusalem is conditioned ("If," vs. 4) upon the people NOT repenting.

The priests and prophets quickly caught onto something they believed to be heresy.
8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, "You shall die!
9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the Lord, saying, "This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant'?" And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord. (Jeremiah 26:8-9)
The problem that the priests and their supporting prophets saw was a violation of temple ideology. They believed that salvation was by temple and not by repentance. (Today, we might verbalize it as, "We are saved by temple, not by works of faithfulness"). This temple ideology is expressed in Psalm 132:13-14.
13 For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation:
14 "This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it."
In other words, the priests, et. al. believed it did not matter how the people approached covenant relationship with Yahweh. The presence of the temple in Jerusalem would keep the city safe. The warrior God (Yahweh) would not permit his house to be destroyed by a foreign enemy. The favorite sermon of the profits who promoted the temple ideology was "Peace, peace" (Jeremiah 6:14).

That is why the priests were comfortable to misquote Jeremiah as saying, "This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant." Jeremiah preached the judgment as conditional but the priests considered the city's safety to be unconditional.

They wanted covenant relationship with God except with no covenantal expectations.

Any preacher whose sermons only make people feel good about themselves without challenging them to see their spiritual failings and to make personal improvements is preaching lies. "Peace, peace" without "Repent, repent" is a lie.

Thus, they did not hear the conditional "if" in Jeremiah's sermon. We are the same way if we are not careful. If we do not agree with somebody on any issue, we tend to listen carelessly. We hear only part of what was said and repeat it back in a way that turns what was actually said into something heinous. We remember only half of what was said, and by itself the half sounds really bad.

Notice the content of the accusation with which the priests et. al. formally charged Jeremiah at trial.
Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, "This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears." (Jeremiah 26:11)
People tend to regard as heresy any preaching against what they hold to be sacred (church or church's leadership). It is almost like church and church leadership have a pass from being called to repentance. I have personally heard the following verses cited in support of censoring people who make hard challenges to church and church leaders.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
Obviously, if you want to conscript these verses into the service of supporting the censoring somebody's preaching, you cannot read them too carefully.

The princes and the people recommended acquitting Jeremiah on some fascinating grounds.
Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, "This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God." (Jeremiah 26:16)
They believed that any prophet who spoke in the name of Yahweh could not possibly be preaching against Yahweh's people or his city or his temple. This statement clearly parallels Luke 9:49-50.
49 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."
50 But Jesus said to him, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you."
The passage from Luke is really loaded with meaning. One very important lesson is that anybody who is ministering for Christ is not an enemy. He is on your side and you should find a way to work together. Quit practicing the politics of exclusion in the church!

Jeremiah was not the enemy of Jerusalem. People who preach tough lessons against spiritual lethargy are not the enemy of the church. If they bring "shame and reproach" on the church, perhaps the church is acting shamefully and in ways that invite reproach. Instead of censoring hard and upsetting teaching, maybe we should listen.

The elders, who were acting as judges in Jeremiah's trial, quoted Micah 3:12. They noted that Micah's preaching was very similar to Jeremiah's; but Micah's king Hezekiah instituted religious reforms and Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster Micah predicted. It is fascinating to me that Micah's disaster prediction did not include a conditional clause; but there clearly was one and Hezekiah worked with it. Jeremiah's disaster prediction clearly did include a conditional clause but the priests could not hear it. The elders pointed out that, unless the city respond as Hezekiah did, Jeremiah's prediction of disaster will actually happen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Genesis 18, It ain't easy being God

Quite often, when we read something about God in the Bible, we find the presentation to be difficult to reconcile with our view of God in our own minds. One such reading is the account of God's visit to Abraham in Genesis 18.

In the account, Yahweh personally visits Abraham. The visit happens in the event of three men who came upon Abraham's camp. God can either be understood as appearing in the form of three men or he is one of the three. A straight read of the text gives a very strong case for Yahweh being one of the tree men. Verse 22 pretty much makes this arrangement clear:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before Yahweh. (Genesis 18:22, WEB)
An alternative reading is:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while the LORD remained standing before Abraham (NRSV footnote)
Indeed, this alternative reading is supported by the New Living Translation and it makes pretty good sense in light of Gideon's experience in Judges 6:11-24 which seems to treat the "Angel of Yahweh" and "Yahweh" as two different persons. Read that text and try to figure out what is going on. Who is whom?

In Genesis 18, Abraham discusses with Yahweh about the outcome of the divine investigation of Sodom. Yahweh agrees to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there are fifty righteous. Through several suggestions by Abraham, Yahweh eventually reduces the required number to ten righteous.

If Yahweh already knew how the investigation would conclude, this whole conversation in Genesis 18:23-32 has no integrity at all. For the conversation to actually have integrity, it cannot be that either party knew how the investigation would conclude. If Yahweh really is, as the text reports, weighing his options, then we must consider something possibly surprising about his experience. God often has to make tricky decisions. He has to decide between several difficult courses of action, neither of which is very good.

This description of God is entirely consistent with the way the whole Bible presents God but it clashes with the usual traditional view of God.

While God hears our prayers—even silent prayers—he does not go around reading people's minds. He knows people's thoughts by testing and by investigating (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3). That means God is not so much a judge of thoughts as he is a fruit inspector. In order to be certain we will act righteously when we are tested, we must grow righteousness in our hearts.

It is interesting that Yahweh's visit to Sodom was motivated by crying. God hears crying and we should add our voices when we hear about it. For a dedicated treatment of God's response to crying, see this article.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Selections from the First Nations Version of the Bible

I have been watching with interest the development of a new translation of the Bible. It is called First Nations Version. It is an English translation of the Bible but with a cultural emphasis on sensitivities of Native Americans. Progress is kind of slow and the end-goal is a translation of the New Testament. Progress is a bit slow but I sure approve of their efforts! I wish them the best. I recently laid my hands on a copy of this Bible. So far, they have translated the four Gospels, Acts and Ephesians. That's about all you need for a young church's spiritual nourishment (for a while). Reading from this translation is quite moving—almost shocking—emotionally for me. I am interested in how it reads for a Native American. Is it a welcome effort or is it offensive? I intend to find out.

This translation is the work of Native American Bible Scholars. There is an effort in every verse to render it is clearly as possible for a Native American reader. Everyone's name is given descriptively rather than technically. Jesus (meaning "savior") is written as "Creator Sets Free (Jesus)." Peter ("rock") is written as "Stands On The Rock (Peter)." For a taste, here is a short quote from Matthew:
Matthew 1:1-3
Here is the record of the ancestry of Creator Sets Free (Jesus)—the Chosen One—a descendant of Much Loved One (David) and of Father Of Many Nations (Abraham).
From Father Of Many Nations (Abraham) to Much Loved One (David), his ancestors were:
2 Father Of Many Nations (Abraham), He Made Us Laugh (Isaac), Heel Grabber (Jacob), Give Him Honor (Judah) and his brothers, 3 He Breaks Through (Perez) and his brother First Light (Zerah) whose mother was Fruit of Palm Tree (Tamar),
Circle of Teepees (Hezron), He is Lifted Up (Ram),...
This method has made one of the most boring chapters in the Bible into a good read!

The translation sometimes supplements the text with italicized notes that are intended to add clarity to a passage that is confusing if taken too literally. Here is an example:
Ephesians 6:16-17
Then you must raise high the shield of trusting in Creator; this will put out the flaming arrows of the evil one. Don't forget to 17 put on the headdress of Creator's power to rescue and set free, and use the long knife of the Spirit—which is the word of Creator coming from your mouth.
Ah. So the sword of the Spirit is not supposed to be used to hurt people but to hurt spiritual forces of evil. That helps.

So, I think that I would like to look up and quote a few choice passages to see what I think and what you think. Any typographical errors are my own.
Acts 16:30-31
He then took them outside and said, "What must I do to be set free and made whole?"
"Put your trust in Creator Sets Free (Jesus), our Honored Chief," they said to him. "He will make you whole and set you and all your family free to follow him."
Acts 22:16
What are you waiting for? Rise up and participate in the purification ceremony, washing you clean from your broken ways, as you call out to him, trusting in all that his name represents.
John 14:6
"I am the Great Spirit's pathway, the truth about who he really is, and the life of beauty and harmony he offers to all. There is no other guide who can take you to the Father.
Acts 2:32-47
"Creator Sets Free (Jesus) is this Chosen One who has been raised to life from death! We have seen him with our own eyes. He has now returned to his place of honor in the world above to sit at the right hand of Great Spirit. The Father above has gifted him with the Holy Spirit that he promised to send. This Spirit has now been poured out upon us like the rain from above. This is the meaning of what you see and hear happening to us.
"Much Loved One (David) did not go up into the world above, so when he says, 'The Great Chief said to my Great Chief, "Sit down beside me at my right hand, my place of greatest honor, until I bring your enemies under my loving power,"' he was not talking about himself. He was talking about the Chosen one.
"So let all the tribes of Wrestles with Creator (Israel) have no doubt about what the Great Spirit has done. He has made Creator Sets Free (Jesus), the one you put to death on the cross, to be both Chief of all the tribes and the Chosen One, the one he promised to send long ago."

The Crowd Responds
37 When they heard this, the words pierced their hearts like a long knife. With troubled hearts they lifted their voices to Stands On The Rock (Peter) and all the message bearers.
"Fellow Tribal Members," they said, "tell us what we must do."
Acts 2:38 Change your thinking," Stands On The Rock (Peter) instructed them, "and participate in the purification ceremony that is done in the name of Creator Sets Free (Jesus), the Chosen One, representing him and initiating you into his right ways. You will then be healed from your bad hearts, released from your broken ways and gifted with the Holy Spirit who will give you the strength to walk the Good Road with him. He has promised this to all generations of the tribes of Wrestles With Creator (Israel), and to all the Nations who live far away. For the Great Spirit, our Creator, is calling out to all who will, to share in this life of beauty and harmony."
Stands On The Rock (Peter) said many more things to the ones who were listening. With strong words he kept telling them, "This is how you will be set free and rescued from the bent and twisted ways of this generation."
The ones who believed the words of Stands On The Rock (Peter) became a part of Creator's new Sacred Family and participated in the purification ceremony. About three thousand people were added on that day!
A New Family is Formed
42 This newly formed family continued daily to learn from the twelve message bearers. They lived together in harmony, ate ceremonial meals and prayed with one another. Great respect and awe came down upon all, and the message bearers performed many powerful signs. As the new followers lived together in peace, their harmony grew stronger and they shared all things. Many of them had a give-away to provide for all who were in need.
Acts 2:46 Each day they gathered at the Sacred Lodge. With good and pure hearts they feasted together in their homes and shared the ceremonial meal of bread and wine given to them by Creator Sets Free (Jesus). Acts 2:47 They gave honor and thanks to the Great Spirit and were respected by the people. Each day Creator sent more people, who were being set free, to join with them.
Sometimes the italics is a bit overly interpretive in my humble opinion. What do you think:
Matthew 28:19-20
"So now I am sending you into all nations to teach them how to walk the road with me. You will represent me as you perform the purification ceremony with them, initiating them into the life of beauty and harmony represented in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You will then teach them all the ways that I have instructed you to walk in."
Creator Sets Free (Jesus) then looked into their faces with love and great affection. He lifted his hands toward them and spoke these final blessing words over them.
"Never forget," he said as he began to rise up into the world above. "I will always be with you, your invisible guide, walking beside you, until the new world has fully come."

Monday, March 12, 2018

Jeremiah 17:9-10. The heart is devious above all else; and is perverse—

Jeremiah 17:9-10
9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?
10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

This passage is often conscripted (often without verse 10, see carm.org) into the service of proving that everyone is totally depraved.

The actual meaning of this verse can be understood by looking at a little context.

Jeremiah 17:1 says that the people have become so comfortable in their sin that their hearts have hardened to it. The writing on their figurative hearts is etched with a hard stylus. It cannot be erased and written over with right teaching. As we read on (Jeremiah 17:2-3) we learn how this heart hardening happened. The people had become accustomed to worshiping idols. They even taught their children how to practice this worship when they should have been teaching them about covenant with God (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).

The problem was in where they placed their trust (Jeremiah 17:5). Instead of trusting God (Jeremiah 17:7) they have trusted themselves‒their own strength and wisdom.

Contained in this context is invitation to reorient their misplaced trust back to God. The ones who trust God thrive (Jeremiah 17:7-8) while those who trust in themselves harden themselves like a shrub in the desert that has become adapted to lack of nourishment (Jeremiah 17:6).

Jeremiah 17:9 is directed at a particular segment of Judah that was unfaithful to God and had become comfortable with it. The point is that people can easily justify in their hearts that it is okay to do evil if it is for a good cause.

The poet goes on to explain the means by which God knows people's hearts. He knows by testing (see Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3). What is on a person's heart is evidenced by what he/she does. He does not search the heart by reading people's minds. He observes their actions. He is not a thought cop but he is a fruit inspector; and what they are doing produces nothing useful, as a partridge that broods her eggs but nothing hatches (Jeremiah 17:11, NABre, or they accumulate from other people's hard work like a partridge collecting chicks from other birds).

Jeremiah 17:9 does not mean that everybody is totally depraved. The writer means to express that he is astounded people can engage in error to the extent that they become comfortable with it. They convince themselves that what they are doing is right. What an astonishing thing that some people's hearts have grown that hard.

They were not born that way. They became that way by misplacing  their trust.