Sunday Meditations: White-Out

I was going to write about something else, today, but a good friend and brother in the Lord texted me a link to this article and asked what I thought, so this is literally a Sunday morning meditation for me.  What follows is what I sent him with some minor edits based on reading it a second time and keying it to a (marginally) wider audience:

In my own opinion, I think the article is right on for the most part.  Biblical interpretation is something that happens in our brains, and our brains have been shaped by our experiences, and our experiences have been shaped by race, socioeconomics, nationality, culture, zeitgeist, etc.

One powerful example that comes to mind is the time in America’s history when the white theological conservatives were not only 100% certain that the Bible condoned slavery, but that any suggestion that the Scriptures did not condone slavery (or opposed slavery) was nothing more than liberal capitulation to the culture.  Presbyterians were especially bad about this.  Black theologians, however, argued that slavery was incompatible with the Bible.  It is amazing how so incredibly certain our Presbyterian forefathers were that the Bible was pro-slavery and how strident their critiques of cultural relativism were to anyone who argued otherwise.  I almost wonder if the very accusation of relativism isn’t a white thing, and by it we mean “interpretations that aren’t ours.”

Furthermore, we also recognize that Scripture will hit different people in different ways and have significance to them in different ways, even if these ways were not originally intended or envisioned by the author.  For example, in the American black church, many identified with Israel in Egypt, and the story of God’s liberation of Israel from her slavery was a great hope and encouragement to them.  We might look at that and say that was illegitimate, but why?  Is it any more arbitrary than viewing Israel in Egypt as an allegory for being in slavery to sin and death?  Is it any more arbitrary than a Christian reading a Psalm that David wrote about his experiences as king of an embattled Israel and finding a resonance there with their own emotions regarding spiritual struggle?

Understanding that different people groups will read the Bible in different ways is how God can speak in the church; listening to other groups to help us with our blind spots.  White Presbyterians should have listened to Black Methodists in the 1800s.

This is not the same, however, as saying that all readings are equally cogent, valuable, or likely.  This is something we acknowledge with every commentary we read, right?  Christians disagree about almost every point of doctrine you can imagine, and while some of these views can be complementary or corrective to one another, they can’t all be 100% correct.

But what we can’t do – and this is where I think we go wrong – is evaluate the validity of a reading based on how well it conforms to our existing reading, and this is more or less the whole story of Western theology.  When this happens, biblical interpretation is just a power struggle.  Whoever’s paradigm is on top gets to dictate orthodoxy.  And, honestly, this is a big part of the Western church’s history.

If we reject that idea – if we believe there is truth in the Bible that does not depend on a single group’s controlling narrative – then we really owe it to ourselves to listen to these diverse readings and allow them to speak to us.  Are we less influenced by our culture than other cultures?  Do we have more of the Spirit than they?  I would say the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no,” and that means we need to be in a receptive posture when it comes to hearing from quarters of the church that are not going to read the Bible like we do.

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Sheep Among Wolves: Matthew 10:16-23

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Matthew 10:16-23 (NRSV)

Jesus is commissioning his disciples to go into the Jewish towns in the area announcing that the kingdom of God has come, confirming this state of affairs by overturning Israel’s curse with healings, removal of oppressive spirits, and even resurrection from the dead.  This is part of his plan to scale up the deliverance of Israel.  The time is here and the people are ready, but there aren’t enough workers.  So, in response, he picks disciples and sends them out to replicate his message and works.

As he sends them, he instructs them what to do in towns where they are received and towns where they are not believed or ignored.  This doesn’t sound so bad.  I’m a Lean Operations consultant, and organizations pay me a good chunk of money to ignore what I have to say (although this is actually something people can do for free).

But here, Jesus ratchets up the warning.  The real opposition will not be from the common folk not listening; the opposition will come from the people who will drag them before the religious and political rulers of the day.  “I send you out as sheep among wolves,” Jesus says, and the metaphor is apt.  The disciples are going out amidst those who will want to kill them, and the disciples themselves will be powerless to stop them.  This isn’t just some thug with a knife – it’s the engine of the Temple power structure and the Roman government.

In the face of this opposition, the disciples are to be as cunning as serpents, but harmless as doves.  This, in fact, follows the pattern of Jesus, himself, who has proclaimed this message and done the work of the kingdom, but has also tried to keep off the radar of the powers of the age by trying to avoid both publicity and any hint of an insurrection.  This is how the disciples are to be as well.  They are in an environment that is about to turn destructively hostile.  They are to navigate this environment with wisdom and avoid anything that might be an excuse for the powers that be to crush them.

Jesus presents this as an inevitability.  It is not an “if,” but a “when.”  The irony, however, is that this persecution will get the disciples in front of crowds and powerful people.  They will be a testimony (martyrion) to the proclamation of the coming kingdom before not just the Jewish powers, but the Gentile ones as well.  The persecution, Jesus predicts, will actually spread the good news rather than snuff it out.

Because in those moments, the Spirit of the Father will speak through them, making the proclamation God wants them to make about the work God is doing in Jesus Christ.  They do not need to fear their (literal) trials because God will be present with them and God’s message will get out as a result, though it may take their own blood to do it.

Once the cat is out of the bag, Jesus foresees a rapid movement of these wolves, creating an environment of oppression such that even family members will sell each other out to save their own skins and squash the movement.  They will become collaborators with the present age – people who turn against their own people in a conflict because they want to be on what they perceive as the winning side.  Their own survival and prosperity is more important to them than their own flesh and blood, and certainly more important than a cause on their behalf.

Obviously, Jesus is telling them the worst because this is exactly the level of heat that causes even the most zealous to waver.  Who wants to be a follower of Jesus when their own son will secretly rat them out to the government as an insurrectionist?  Who wants to be a follower of Jesus when it will mean being publicly shamed, property seized, and a cross waiting for you to remind you that Augustus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and the King of the Jews is whomever Augustus appoints to that position – not this poor, vagrant Nazarene.

For all our colossal whining about “persecution,” there is nothing a Christian in America undergoes that even minutely approaches the stakes for these early Jesus followers, although some Christians in other countries know.

This is why Jesus has to remind them of the promise – endure to the end, and you will be saved.

Because, you collaborators, the Empire is not the winning side.  The High Priest and the Sanhedrin, they are not the winning side.  God opposes those proud and, instead, will exalt the humble.  A catastrophe that will bring these powers crashing down is right at the doorstep.  The kingdom will come.  Jesus will be Lord.

And on that day, if you have been driven from the land, you will return.  If you have been put in prison, you will be set free.  If you have been injured, you will be healed.  And if you have been martyred, then you will live again to reign with the true King you were loyal to with your last breath.  Endure to the end, and you will be saved.

And is this day far off?  No, because they will not get through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.  The Son of Man, that great figure from Daniel 7, the holy ones who receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days – that day is coming faster than the disciples can possibly work, even if they have to flee from every town in Israel.

The hope of deliverance is contingent on faith.  Do you believe Jesus is the King?  Do you believe his kingdom is coming?  Then you will be persecuted by the present kings and kingdoms, but you will endure to the end, and the reward of your loyalty will be with him.

This was the scenario held out to those disciples so long ago.

Do we find kinship with them?  Are they our brothers and sisters in faith?  Do we hope for the renewed creation?  Do we hope for the resurrection?  Will our trust in God’s promise produce endurance?

Consider This

  1. What situations have you been in that tried your faith?  Was it tempting to give it up, even for a little while?  What sort of circumstances do you think would produce such a test of your faith?
  2. What are the powers of this world that claim to rule it?  What does claiming the lordship of Jesus look like in the face of those powers?

Sunday Meditations: The Individual

Usually, my Sunday “meditations” (and we use the word loosely) are prompted by conversations during the week, but this is something I’ve thought about this week as a result of my daily recovery work – a lot of which has revolved around God’s dealings with me as an individual.

I was raised in a relatively small Baptist denomination, which was more Arminian and a hair more fundamentalist than evangelicalism at large tends to be these days, but the main pulse was similar.  The main story was that everyone was going to Hell, and the main task was to keep people from going to Hell, and the main way to do this was to get as many people as possible to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it.  Church, then, was a group of people who had done this and were now focused on trying to get as many other people to do it as possible, all while avoiding a list of various practices designated as immoral.

At the core of this operation was the “gospel message” that went something like this:

You, as an individual, have sinned and, as a result, you are destined for Hell.  But God loves you as an individual such that He sent Jesus to die a death that appeased His wrath toward you as an individual, and if you will accept this on faith and pray a prayer to ask Jesus into your heart, you as an individual will go to Heaven, instead.

You may have noticed this story is heavily centered around you as an individual, mostly because I said “you as an individual” about a dozen times.  You have broken God’s laws.  God will send you to Hell.  God loves you.  Jesus died for you.  You can invite Jesus into your heart.  You will go to heaven.  You, you, you, you, you.  Everything is about you.  The whole story of the Bible ultimately spins around you as an individual and this all-important individual decision.

This plays very well in America, where individualism and self-determination are our highest virtues, and if we isolate certain passages (say, for instance, the Romans Road), and temporarily suspend the notion that these were written to a group of people and not to us as individuals, the Bible can be read this way.

But is this really what the Bible is?  Is this where the center of gravity of the story is, if we take the Bible as a whole?

Because the Bible, to me, seems to be telling the story of a people.

These people begin in Abraham, whom God chooses (as an individual, sure, but you’ve gotta start somewhere) to be the father of a nation that will grow immensely numerous.  God will be the faithful God of this nation, and they will be His faithful people.  The growth, prosperity, and the faithfulness of these people will bless all the other nations, and they, too, will turn to the true God.

And so the process begins.  Abraham’s sons become families that become tribes that become Israel.  She has her first big crisis when she is imprisoned by another nation, and God – keeping His promise to Abraham – sets her free to bring her out of Egypt into her own land.  She is able to fight off nations much larger than herself because God is with her, and she gains her own land and, eventually, is ruled by a series of kings.

This is not an unbroken line upward, however.  Israel is seen to be sort of flighty.  Sometimes, she is faithful to her God and all is well.  Other times, her national sins and disobedience end her up in very precarious situations while her prophets call her to repentance and to return to the Lord who will restore her.  Some kings are righteous and faithful and lead the nation in that direction; others are corrupt and breed faithlessness and injustice in the nation, and she suffers as a result.

As we move further in the story, Israel’s unfaithfulness as a nation finally provokes the curse of her covenant, and she is exiled from her land and brought into captivity to another nation.  Even in this situation, though, the story isn’t over.  Prophets continue to call Israel to repentance.  Sometimes, ground is gained.  Israel ends up being able to send people back to her land and rebuild her Temple.  But overall, the nation slides into a desperate sort of dissipation and dissolution.

But God will not let this be the end of the story.

He sends Jesus to Israel – His own Son – to call them to repentance and faithfulness and restoration.  Jesus begins to undo the curse and re-form the people into what God had always intended for them.  Israel’s leaders do not care for this development and, in conjunction with Roman authorities, have Jesus executed.  But this does not stop God, either, who raises Jesus from the dead and apocalyptically pours out His Spirit into this new Israel Jesus had been building around Himself, and the apostles carry on the mission.

But there is still so much rejection and opposition at work that God makes a drastic move to ensure the growth and restoration of His people – He grafts in Gentiles who believe, and they come in droves.  This phenomenon occupies the bulk of the New Testament until we get to John’s Apocalypse, which shows us in very graphic terms an end to persecution, vindication of these faithful people, and the overthrow of the Roman Empire itself – a huge explosion whose echoes resonate against the far-flung picture of a renewed creation.

It seems to me, and obviously I could be way off, here, that the overwhelming bulk of the biblical story is about God’s relationship to a people in history – specifically the history of the people who are the children of the promise made to Abraham.  It is God’s creation of this people, love for this people, the sins of this people, the salvation and restoration of this people, and the survival and growth of these people into the future that dictates the things that end up in the Bible.

Now, obviously, you can’t have a people without the individuals who compose it.  You can’t have national sins without individual sins.  You can’t have corporate repentance without individual repentance.  You can’t have a faithful people without having a faithful person.

But the individual experience with God has context, definition, meaning, and expression inside the story of the corporate people of God, not the other way around.

We can’t have the Army without individuals who have decided to join the Army.  However, when America deploys troops, the whole reason you get sent somewhere is because you’re in the Army.  It’s not like someone made an announcement, “Hey, everyone with a gun and a desire to pursue American interests in other nations, get on this plane and we’ll take you to Afghanistan so you can do your thing.”  You as an individual sign up to become part of a people, and it is this entity that is trained, equipped, and sent into the world to accomplish the mission.  Your life becomes defined by a larger, corporate context.

When the Kansas City Royals play, it isn’t a game played by whatever individuals show up to Kauffman Stadium that night wanting to play baseball (although, I admit, it does look that way some games).  No, you try out for the Royals and train with the Royals.  The Royals get scheduled to play games against other teams, and you go with the Royals to play these other teams because that’s what the Royals do.  If you were not a member of the Kansas City Royals, you would not take the field against Tampa Bay.  If you are, then you will.  If you retire from the Royals or get traded to another team, you no longer get on the bus with the Royals and play the baseball games the Royals are supposed to play.  Your corporate identity defines your experience.  It is your participation (or lack thereof) in that group of people that dictates what happens to you.

So, certainly, the Bible does not leave out individuals or their experiences, but individuals and their experiences derive from and are defined by their relationship to the group.  God makes a covenant with, pursues, redeems, protects, and glorifies a people.  If you belong to this group, you experience their highs and lows and historical relationship with God along with everyone else in that group.  If you don’t, you don’t.  Obviously, this experience affects us as individuals in our individual, daily lives (or it ought to) just as it did for Joe Israelite in the Old Testament, but the movie isn’t “God and I,” it’s “God and His People,” and this has some very practical ramifications for our priorities and mission and daily practice.

It affects how we understand and present the gospel.  It affects what we do as the church and what we do as individual believers and how we make coherent sense of that two thousand years after Jesus.

Sunday Meditations: The Ages

A few parallel conversations have had me thinking about the word “age” in the New Testament and its corollary “eternal.”

The Greek word usually translated “age” is aion from whence we get our English word “eon.”  It is a word that means a period of time that is characterized by some distinguishing characteristic or prevailing set of conditions.  We use the word this way many times when referring to historical periods like the “Bronze Age” or the “Industrial Age” or “the Middle Ages.”  The word doesn’t specify a period of time, but rather segments of time defined by a particular characteristic.  We can talk about the “age of the atomic bomb” or an “ice age.”

In Jewish thought, “age” has that meaning.  It doesn’t mean a set period of time, it means a period of time defined by a particular characteristic or circumstance.  The reign of a certain king, for example, or the Babylonian Exile.  Those are ages.  Probably the use of the word to describe the shortest amount of time is Jonah 2:6 in the Septuagint.  That phrase “the bars closed on me forever” is actually “the bars closed on me for ages (aionioi)” and is something of a hyperbolic way to describe three days and nights.  But the use of the word doesn’t mean a certain period of time; it means a period of time defined by being in this fish.  In Jonah chapter 2, he doesn’t know how long he’s going to be in there, and he refers to the period of time in the fish as “ages” even though it actually turns out to be a relatively short period of time (I say as someone who has not spent any length of time in a fish).

This is a good segue, then, into the concept of “eternal.”  Generally, the word translated as “eternal” is some variant of the word aionion, which means “of the ages.”  The idea here is something that will last beyond a specific age and into the future succession of ages to come, indefinitely.

This is one area where I wish translators had been a bit more literal, because there is a subtle difference between “a single, infinitely extensible period of time” and “a potentially endless succession of ages.”

The idea of an age grounds us immediately into history.  In order to call an age an age, you have to have some content to define it.  What makes this time period an age in contrast to other ages?  What defines the age?  How would you know when this age was up and a new age had come?  By nature of the case, we have to think about an age or the passing of ages as definitive historical events and circumstances.  This way of looking at time and eschatology is much closer, I would argue, to the mindset of the biblical authors than a more Greek philosophical static conception of a single period of time that has no bounds.  In both cases, we may end up with a period of time with no discernible end, but in the case of ages, that endless period of time is made up of an endless succession of historically definitive periods of time – ages – as opposed to just being an endless time with no particular historical progression in it.

This has particular implications for how we understand the New Testament and the various talk about ages.

For instance, Jesus tells his followers that he will be with them until the end of the age.  His disciples ask what the signs of the end of the age will be, and Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple.  Perhaps my favorite reference is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he says the Old Testament happened to the saints of the past, but it was written down “for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

It is a popular understanding that “end of the age” means “end of all time,” but this does not seem to be the intent.  The end of an age is a drawing to a close the things that define that age, and this will give way to another age that is defined by something else.  In English, we sometimes use the expression “the end of an era.”  It doesn’t mean the end of all time – it means a definitive period has come to a close and things will be drastically different, afterward.

This has some deep ramifications for our understanding of the New Testament.

For instance, if you think “end of the age” means “end of the world” or “end of time,” then passages like Matthew 24 are in the distant future.  The destruction of the Temple will refer to some distant future destruction of the Temple that will happen near the end of the world.  The persecution, wars, famine, etc. and the instructions to avoid catastrophe by fleeing to the mountains all refer to something that happens at the end of the world.  And then we run into trouble with statements like, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” so we have to push the referent for that statement out until the end of the world, too, so “this generation listening to me right now” becomes “that generation that is alive in the future whenever these things happen.”  And Jesus’ warnings to his immediate audience to be watchful for these things is only applicable in the sense that nobody knows when these things are going to happen.

It is, in fact, this understanding of “age” that drives a lot of the criticism that Jesus was just plain wrong about the future.  The Temple was destroyed and the world did not end.  That generation he was talking to did pass away, and the world kept on turning.

However, if an “age” is to be understood as a period of time defined by a certain state of affairs, these passages work naturally.  The “end of the age” isn’t the end of time, it’s the end of the present system of things.  It’s the end of this era.  It’s not the end of the world – it’s the end of the world as we know it (apologies to Michael Stipe).  The things that define this period in history will collapse and give way to a new period defined by other things.  If we consider that the disciples are asking when this big historical transition they’ve been expecting will happen and what the signs will be, then Jesus’ answer makes sense, not only in its own context, but also in terms of what actually happened, historically.

This also affects our understanding of things like “eternal life.”  Here, we have a succession of ages.  The idea is not that time stops and we all sit around on clouds or whatever.  The idea is that the life Jesus offers is life that carries into the next age – whatever that age happens to look like – and countless ages to come.  It contains promise both for the here and now and in a renewed heavens and earth and general resurrection.  It is a promise that God will keep you through history’s highs and lows, tribulations and blessings, and ultimately raise you from the dead.