Sunday Meditations: Being a Christian

Before I get rolling, I want to let you know about a new blog by my friend Colby called The Bible is a Story.  Colby also has a passion for interpreting the Bible historically and pastorally.  He’s more interested than I am about maintaining the Reformed tradition in biblical theology (following really insightful and creative exegetes like Meredith Kline, Geerhardus Vos, and Herman Ridderbos), so if you’ve ever read this blog and gotten a little nervous that it was coloring a little too much outside the lines, you will probably like Colby’s blog much better.  Either way, we agree on more than we differ, and I think it’ll be some good stuff.

Try not to visit his blog all at once.  I don’t want to bring the servers down from the tsunami of traffic this blog will send his way.

Getting back to Sunday Meditations, an Internet friend and discussion partner asked me sort of out of the blue what I thought it meant to be a Christian, and upon talking that through, what I thought the benefit was of being a Christian.  In my typical style, I turned what I believe were supposed to be five sentence answers into epic treatises.  I present them, here, with minor edits for clarity, audience, etc.

What makes one a Christian?

In terms of being specifically Christian, Paul writes about Jesus:

he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:20-23)

People who believe that and are willing to engage the life calling that entails (emulation of Jesus, faithfulness to God, putting off the old creation to live out the new creation, willingness to endure suffering for this calling, etc.) are, by my lights, Christians in the specific sense of the term.

I think Christians can genuinely disagree on the exact definitions of those terms, and it’s also true that someone doesn’t have to be specifically Christian to embody the ethics of new creation humanity. The sad state of affairs we have today is that many who identify as Christians do not seem to be very interested in being the new creation, and many who have no significant regard for Christianity do a pretty good job being what we should be and doing what we should do.

I think this raises a number of options when we talk about what God will do eschatologically with humanity as a whole, but in terms of specifically who I would define as Christians, I feel pretty good with the definition above. I think it defines both the earliest faith communities and works as a contemporary definition, too.

What about people who call Themselves Christians but seem to reject key issues like the Resurrection?

Well, keep in mind that I said that it’s quite possible for Christians to disagree on what the terms actually mean. I may have my own interpretations of what it means to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and affirm his resurrection, but others may differ in their interpretation and that wouldn’t necessarily make them not a Christian, in my opinion.

But the term has to mean something and that something, by nature of the case, revolves around the importance of Christ. I have some friends who are atheists who are very caring people. They take care of their families, they pursue justice, they spread compassion and healing in the world. In just about every way that counts, their behavior looks like Jesus and is what any Christian should aspire to. But they are not Christians by either my reckoning or theirs.

And that’s why I made the point that when we talk about being the new creation, that category can be broader than just Christians, and we might debate what the outcome of all that is, but I (not that anyone should care) would not label someone a Christian solely because their behavior was exemplary of what God wanted in the world. Abraham and Moses and David and Solomon weren’t Christians, either. There’s a belief/confession component to it as well.

But the converse is also true. I would not typically classify someone as a Christian who claimed the belief/profession piece and embodied things like the pursuit of power and prosperity and self-promotion over all, or the exploitation of the weak for their own gain, or hatred of other people, or wanton hedonistic excess – and in America, that’s where we’re really taking it in the teeth.

People of other religions and atheists who care for others, pursue justice and compassion, and live unselfishly for the benefit of their fellow man are a living indictment against the Christian church in America, and for every Christian who responds to this indictment by throwing themselves anew into the task of being a blessing to the world, there are nine who double down on why they shouldn’t have to do such a thing.

I do have to acknowledge that there can be differing interpretations of ethics just as there can be differing interpretations of doctrinal confessions, and just because someone doesn’t define “being Jesus in the world” the same way I do doesn’t make them not a Christian, but much like the doctrinal piece, eventually you get to a point that’s so far afield that it’s indistinguishable from not being a Christian at all. And, frankly, I would rather share a planet with people who embodied the new creation in the world but eschewed Christian doctrine than people who affirmed Christian doctrine and went right along perpetuating the evil structures of the age.

So, all that to say that I think it’s important to keep in mind that:

  1. People being what God wants people to be is not the exclusive domain of Christians.
  2. Christians can vary to a degree on what their core confession means or what ethics ought to look like, but
  3. “Christian” is a term that means something, such that people who are not Christians can recognize they are not Christians even though they may be living out an ethic that has lots in common with the ethics Christians also should aspire to.

What’s the advantage of being a professed Christian?

The God of Israel is the God who created the heavens and the earth, and as things began to go badly, He established a new creation in the midst of the old one in the form of a people He made agreements with. Today, being a Christian is being part of this people which puts us in covenant and relationship with this God in the manner in which He is providing this in history.

This people has His promises, the gift of the Spirit, and the consequent hope for the future. This is the people that God saves when they are threatened with extinction. He forgives their sins when they turn away from them to do better. Being a part of this people is a calling into being a priestly servant who is in a deliberate and focused relationship with God and also dedicated to be a blessing to the world.

In addition, we belong to a community that (we hope) embodies the new creation. Among the people of God, I experience justice, forgiveness, compassion, love, healing, comfort, and restoration even as we look forward to a renewal of the heavens and earth.

Additionally, Jesus is Lord over these people, which means that by the power of the Spirit he is our leader and shepherd and dwells among us and in us, and this not only steers us through our various historical crises but also produces Christ-like behavior among his people. Jesus running the show is a good thing and is good news.

In the biblical narrative, the differences between “the way the Christian community works” and “the way the Empire works” or “the way the corrupt Temple power structure works” are obvious, although there are also glimpses of the idea that the picture is not as simplistic as it seems. For example, a good portion of Jesus’ own people do not believe him, but a Roman centurion does. Still, the lines are fairly solid in the big picture. You have the powers of the age that run off oppression, self-exaltation, and self-gratification, and you have the people of God who run off self-sacrifice, love of neighbor, and devotion to God.

At our current point in history, long past the cultural-political background of, say, the book of Acts – we’re in a weird situation. There are some countries where the situation is analogous to that early community of believers – selfless, Spirit-filled bonds of sacrificial love pitted against the powerful boot of oppressive regimes. But in other countries, the communities of believers are truly a mixed bag, some of whom looking so much like the world powers Jesus was -against- that people outside the community of faith can sometimes end up looking more like Jesus than some of the people claiming his name.

This seems more analogous to Jesus’ ministry among his own people. They all shared a common religion, but some of them used that religion for power, prestige, wealth, comfort, and they didn’t care who they beat down with it, while others found this situation regrettable and longed for the consolation of Israel and found in Jesus a hope for what they could be and what the future might hold, while yet a third group was just tired of the whole thing and just wanted to make it through life the best way they knew how. In terms of air time in the gospels, Jesus spends the majority of his time calling people from that third group into the second one.

By doing this, Jesus creates a sort of dividing line between those who technically held to Israel’s religion (and maybe even performed it fastidiously) but who had cut the heart out of it and made it a mechanism for worldly power – and those who, in faith, came to Jesus believing he would show them the way to being better individuals, a better people as a whole, and having a better future after making it safely through coming calamity.

Jesus, the people he is forming around himself, and their future is better than anything that power, money, or hedonism can get you, and that’s still a message I have for people today.

These days, I do not believe being a Christian keeps someone from an eternity of torture in the afterlife. However, I do believe in a new creation and I do believe that anything that plagues mankind will not be present in that creation. I’m not a universalist; I don’t think we’ll see Antiochus Epiphanes in the new heavens and the new earth. However, I also acknowledge that we might! That’s God’s prerogative and I have a lot of sympathies with my universalist brothers and sisters.

What’s more, there are passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that people who behave as God’s people do and take care of people like God’s people do will share in the rewards that God’s people do even if they don’t know they are serving Jesus. So, I don’t feel like the message, “Become a Christian or God will ultimately destroy you,” is an accurate message, especially because I suspect there will be a chunk of Christians who will be very surprised at God’s evaluation of their lives.

But when I share Jesus with someone, it’s not to avert disaster they might suffer at God’s hands, but rather calling them out of a broken, empty, oppressive world that is passing away into a new world where love is the Law and the Spirit is real and the man in charge of the whole thing is Jesus who is both Lord and Christ.

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Traditions of the Elders: Matthew 15:1-9

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Matthew 15:1-9 (NRSV)

Today’s passage takes us into an area where most of our stereotypes about Pharisees come from as hypocritical legalists.  It’s good to note that not all Pharisees were this way, however the ones that oppose Jesus’ ministry in the gospels certainly have this tendency.  But as usual in Matthew, there’s a bigger picture behind this little incident, and the quote from Isaiah gives us the clue.

First, let’s start with the offense.

In our passage, Jesus and his disciples are being confronted over a tradition that comes from the Talmud – you’re supposed to wash your hands before eating any meal that has bread.  Some scholars believe this tradition was instituted so the people would remember the priestly washing rituals that had to be performed before accepting certain kinds of offerings.

This tradition was held in very high esteem, as Sotah 4b tells us:

R. ‘Awira expounded sometimes in the name of R. Ammi and at other times in the name of R. Assi: Whoever eats bread without previously washing the hands is as though he had intercourse with a harlot; as it is said, For on account of a harlot, to a loaf of bread.

and later

R. Zerika said in the name of R. Eleazar: Whoever makes light of washing the hands [before and after a meal] will be uprooted from the world.

There is precedent for bread being treated as unclean food, as we read in Ezekiel 4:12-13 where the bread is baked over human dung.  So it was with the the tradition of washing hands before eating meals with bread.  As Sotah 4b states:

R. Abbahu says: Whoever eats bread without first wiping his hands is as though he eats unclean food; as it is stated: And the Lord said: Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean.

So, this was a traditional practice, not one that is actually found commanded in the Law, but you can see how highly esteemed this tradition was among the rabbis.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with this.  The concern behind this tradition is the symbolic holiness of Israel to God, and this is the same concern behind a rather large chunk of the Torah laws.  Jesus does not criticize having traditions or declare this tradition as bad, although he will later criticize some of the foundational ideas behind it.

What sets Jesus off is that the very religious leaders and teachers who are criticizing him for not following this man-made tradition are themselves in hypocritical violation of God’s actual Torah for His people.

For the past several centuries of Israel’s history, the corruption of her leadership had led the nation into unfaithfulness.  God sent prophet after prophet to warn Israel about this and the curses that would fall on her because of the covenant she made to be God’s people and be faithful to Him.  Always the hope of repentance and restoration was held out.

But this was not to be, as Israel did not listen to her prophets and often persecuted them and even put them to death.  Instead of those being opportunities to turn things around, they were opportunities for the nation to plug up their ears and blind their eyes that they might not respond to the warnings in faith.

It is this dynamic that brought Israel through exile from their land, the dominion of several pagan empires, the predations of Antiochus Epiphanes, and finally the oppression of the Roman Empire.

It would be a mistake to think of every individual in Israel during this time as incurably sinful.  Instead, we are to see them as a nation being steered by their leaders, and it is the corruption of their kings, teachers, priests, etc. that come into the crosshairs of the prophetic critiques.  Yes, this unfaithfulness does characterize the people in general, but it’s the leadership that takes them there.

This is why Jesus’ words to your common Israelite are generally gentle and kind, but his clashes with religious leaders or the rich and powerful tend to have a lot of animosity behind them.  Those in power in Israel should be doing what Jesus is doing – calling the nation to repentance and pursuing new lives of faithfulness to God so that they might be restored and saved through the judgement that is to come (or perhaps even avert it altogether).

It is those with authority in Israel who should be sacrificially giving of themselves, seeing that the sick and the poor are cared for, seeing that those who are spiritually struggling are made whole, seeing that neighbors are treating each other justly in love, and seeing that their people’s hearts are captured with the love of God.

But they have not done this.  Instead, they have allied themselves with the power structure of that age.  They have used their position to get money, comfort, and fame for themselves even at the expense of their own people.  And they have been at this for a very long time.

During this time, Israel’s religious leaders continued to observe certain measures of the Law (usually the religious ones – the ones that gave them their authority), even as they ignored important parts of the Law like justice and mercy, caring for the poor, the widow, the oppressed, and the foreigner.  These are all longstanding items in prophetic indictments against Israel’s leadership.

Here’s a small sampling:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
    What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
    I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But at Adam they transgressed the covenant;
    there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    tracked with blood.
As robbers lie in wait for someone,
    so the priests are banded together;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    they commit a monstrous crime.
In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
    Ephraim’s whoredom is there, Israel is defiled.

Hosea 6:4-10 (NRSV)

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Know, then, that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being, which I gave him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.

Malachi 2:4-9 (NRSV)

And we could go on and on.  Most of the prophetic writings are full of stuff like this.  If they aren’t going after Israel’s enemies, they’re going after Israel herself.  It is clear that the unfaithfulness of the leadership has led the nation as a whole astray and, as such, she is subject to the curse of the Law, even though she may be technically observing portions of it.

In this passage, Jesus points to a practice where religious officials, instead of using their wealth to support their parents, offer it “to God” instead.  This sounds very pious, right?  Well, that’s exactly the problem.

Jesus points out that what God wants in the Law is for Israelites to honor, respect, and care for their parents.  That’s what He asked for.  The Law serves love, here.  In this case, these aren’t just Israelites in general, but your own parents.

Here, the Pharisees and scribes escape this obligation by declaring their money to be “corban” (sacrifice) – in other words, the money was donated as a consecrated offering given to the Temple for its ornamentation or operations.  Basically, this is like the money you give in your church offering with more of an official connotation.  Money given as corban was like a vow or a pledge.  That money was to be used for the Temple and could not be used for anything else.

As far as I know, there is no specific rabbinical writing that spells out that you can take the support you normally would have given to your parents and consecrate it for the Temple, thereby removing your obligation to provide for them.  Corban is talked about both in the Talmud and the Mishnah particularly underscoring how binding that vow is when you declare something as corban, and I found one passage in the Mishnah that describes the situation where someone may declare their financial benefit as corban.

So, this practice Jesus is criticizing seems to have sprung up.  Through a complex path of systematic theology, the religious teachers of his day were holding that you could take money you would have normally used to support your parents and declare it to be for the Temple’s special use, instead.  And this was honoring to God.

It doesn’t take much imagination or cynicism to figure out what interest “Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem” would have had in this practice.  Perhaps it enabled a public show of piety by giving lots of money to the Temple.  The odds are also pretty good that these exact people benefitted financially from money given to the Temple.

Whether the Pharisees do this to promote the public image of themselves as pious and faithful, or whether they do it to line their own pocketbook, the facet of the problem Jesus brings into focus is that they have neglected something the Law requires – for them to care for their parents who can no longer care for themselves.

By saying this, Jesus does what he has done countless times in Matthew.  He reveals the religious leaders of the day to be lovers of their own selves and not at all interested in the welfare of the people under their charge, while he and his disciples are working their butts off and sleeping in fields healing the sick and feeding the hungry.

In this case, Jesus’ accusers try to demonstrate his lack of faithfulness by pointing out a violation of a tradition, but Jesus shows how they have used a tradition to violate the actual Law of God – specifically, laws that would require them to give sacrificially for the care of Israel.  It is a massive failure to keep the covenant that has plagued Israel’s leadership for centuries, has led to their current state of affairs, and keeps them trapped in their current state of affairs.

It is here that Jesus quotes Isaiah 29.

Scholars are in agreement that, when you see a quotation of the Old Testament in the New, that the quotation is meant to imply the surrounding context.  In other words, those quotes entail the much larger section they came from.

Isaiah 28, interestingly enough, is about judgement coming to Israel’s leadership.  They have made themselves prosperous and drunk and they teach “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”

It is this chapter that contains the well known passage:

Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers
    who rule this people in Jerusalem.
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
    it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
    a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
    “One who trusts will not panic.”

Isaiah 28:14-16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

I doubt this was lost on the Pharisees.

Isaiah 29, then, begins to describe a siege against Jerusalem as a result of what these leaders were doing, and the passage Jesus quotes is right in the middle of it, offering the reasons why Jerusalem is being destroyed.

I mean, how on the nose does this need to get?

Jesus is appropriating these observations about Israel for his own day.  In Jesus’ own day, the leadership is doing what Isaiah described – right that very second in fact, and in Jesus’ own day, a destruction of Jerusalem is coming in response.  This is not just an occasion to point out the hypocrisy of Jesus’ opponents, it is a warning of a coming destruction.

But the end of Isaiah 29 tells us what is to be hoped for when the smoke clears:

 

Shall not Lebanon in a very little while
    become a fruitful field,
    and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?
On that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant shall be no more,
    and the scoffer shall cease to be;
    all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
    who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
    and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

No longer shall Jacob be ashamed,
    no longer shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
    the work of my hands, in his midst,
    they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
    and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who grumble will accept instruction.

Isaiah 29:17-24 (NRSV)

Consider This

  1. What are some instances you’ve seen in out in the world or even in your own life where a particular practice or interpretation of “what God wants” seems to actually obscure or interfere with what God has revealed He wants, especially in Jesus?
  2. How much of modern Christian expression would you classify as “tradition?”  Given that traditions are not intrinsically bad, which traditions do you think keep us pointed in the right direction, and which ones have perhaps steered us wrong?

The Hem of His Garment: Matthew 14:34-36

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Matthew 14:34-36 (NRSV)

Kinneret (Gennesaret) was a prominent city going all the way back to the Old Testament stories of Israel’s flight from Egypt.  It was nearby springs, fertile lands, and rich soil.  It has been the site of several archaeological excavations that are ongoing to this day.

There is not much about this little episode that is different than other “healing the crowds” stories that we have found in Matthew.  This story does not mention casting out demons, but in Matthew’s gospel, healing the sick and driving out evil spirits are commonly found together and, I would argue, roughly the same phenomenon as seen through first century eyes.

As with the other stories, our attention is drawn to the fact that Jesus is restoring Israel.  The healing miracles are signs that the kingdom of God has come, Israel’s sins are being forgiven, and she is being reclaimed by God and restored to an esteemed state.  This is being done through Jesus.

We need to keep this in mind because the point of a miracle story is never to emphasize the miracle.  We don’t get these stories simply to show that Jesus was powerful or cool or different in some unusual way.  The miracles are signposts, and when we see a miracle story in the gospels, we should ask, “What does this miracle tell us?”

In this case, the healings tell us that Jesus is about the work of overturning Israel’s curse and restoring her fortunes, because the great day of salvation is at hand for Israel.

It’s hard not to think of Isaiah 35, which is a passage Jesus cited in response to John the Baptist when John began to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah:

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35:3-6 (NRSV)

 

After the destruction of Edom in Isaiah, God will have rescued His people and will return them to their land, reborn to begin being what Israel was always meant to be – a holy people bound faithfully to her God and enjoying all the benefits of that.

This is the work that Jesus is doing, and the healing miracles show us this.  They are an indicator of mission as well as timing.

This is reinforced somewhat by the crowd asking to touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment to be healed.  The fringe Jesus was wearing is an article that is required by the Torah:

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

Numbers 15:37-41 (NRSV)

The fringe is a reminder of the covenant.  It’s like a spouse wearing a wedding ring.  In this case, the tassels are a sign and a reminder to Israel that she is to follow God’s commandments and is set apart especially for Him.  After all, he is the God who rescued her from Egypt.

In Jesus’ day, Israel is suffering from the curse of the Law.  As a nation in history, she had been unfaithful to those commandments.  She was not holy to her God, but rather behaved just as all the other nations did, put her trust in them, and assimilated into their religions, ethics, and values.

One may look at people grasping at Jesus’ fringes to be healed and see here a picture of the faithfulness of Jesus bringing healing and restoration to a sinful Israel.  This is certainly appropriate.  While this is not a picture of imputed righteousness or any particular systematic theology of justification, we will see that Jesus’ faithfulness unto death is the catalyst that moves the hand and heart of God to forgive and save His people.

But it isn’t simply a picture of people passively receiving Jesus’ benefits.  They believe in what God is doing in Jesus, and because they believe, they reach out and touch and grasp.

You see, part of restoring Israel is calling her to return to faithfulness to her God and being a special, unique people before Him, distinct from the corrupt, money-hungry, accommodationist power structure of the Temple and the pagan Roman Empire ruling by might and wealth, living out their wildest excesses.

This is what it meant for John the Baptist to call people to repent and be baptized.  They were to turn away from their present lives – die to them – to be cleansed and risen to a new life – a life of faithfulness that produced the fruits of repentance.  This is what Jesus called them to, as well.

Repentance is not primarily a feeling, although it involves your feelings.  Repentance is not primarily praying for forgiveness or confessing your sins to someone, although that may be part of it.  Repentance is turning aside from one way of life to embrace a new one.  It is about leaving an old world for a new.  It is about dying to the values, practices, goals, and machinations of the world’s powers and living unto God, taking upon yourself a new calling with new values and practices and hopes for the future.  It is about stopping certain behaviors that do not match who you are and embracing new ones that do.

Jesus does not just provide a path for Israel out of her misery; he leads her on to be what she was always meant to be.  He dusts off the gem that she is and shows her that she has dignity and worth and is God’s own treasured possession, and he calls her to be that very thing.

Consider This

  1. What do the Scriptures tell us about the church (Jew and Gentile)?  What does God think of her and what has He done for her?  Who is she supposed to be in the world?
  2. There may be sins that you are sorry for and have asked forgiveness for.  Have you considered how you might make things right?  Repair damage you may have caused?  Have you thought about what new, different practices you could pursue?

Sunday Meditations: Can’t Do Anything Right

I run a software development / guerrilla Lean operations consulting company with my good friend Travis.  Our developers work pretty closely with our clients, many of whom have other software developers that we team up with.

One of the things we’ve noticed in team dynamics over the years is when a consultant ends up in “the box.”  This can happen if someone makes a very bad first impression, or it can build up over time, but if you aren’t paying attention to staying relational and putting your relationships above other issues, you can find yourself in a position where pretty much everyone in a client organization hates working with you.

When this happens, it’s almost impossible to turn that situation around, and one of the reasons is that you’re already pegged.  No matter how much of a team player you try to be going forward, you are now “that guy who thinks he’s so much smarter than everyone else” or “that guy who flies off the handle every time he doesn’t like something” or whatever.  People will remember the things you do and say that are consistent with that box and they will overlook the things you do and say that might change their opinion of you.

This situation can be turned around, but it requires immense amounts of time and effort, dramatic displays of repentance, and a willingness to change convictions on the part of the observers.  Once a person has ended up in a “box,” it’s usually easier for all parties concerned to give them a fresh start with a different group of people.

Travis and I refer to this zone as a person “can’t do anything right.”  That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing something right; it means that, no matter what they do, it won’t be perceived as right.  The right things they do won’t be noticed and the wrong things they do will just reinforce the predicament.

You probably have people in your own life you have pegged this way.  If you think about the person you know is a flake, or you know you can’t trust, or you know gets angry way too easily, what would have to happen in order for you to change your category for that person?  The odds are good that, at some point, they did do something dependable or trustworthy or kept their cool, but by that time, you’d already defined them as a certain sort of person.  Maybe your definition is even right on, but just imagine what they would have to do to make you think differently about them.  In some cases, it might not even be possible.

I have discovered that I have put evangelicalism in general and sometimes even my own church (in general as an organization – folks from my church that read this blog, I totally don’t mean you) in this box.

I know that, as people get older, they sometimes get more set in their ways and their preferences and, as a result, get more cantankerous and codger-y.  “That Snoop Doggy Doggy and the rap the kids listen to these days,” and all that.  I wish that’s what the issue was.

But the hard truth is that I’ve been like this in some form or fashion for most of my adult life.  When I became a Calvinist in college, I was all ready to show all those Arminian Christians how wrong they were.  I was a Grade A jerk to my parents and most of my friends who, unsurprisingly, did not see the glories of the Reformed faith as I did.  All those Arminian churches had their dumb, unbiblical theology that showed up in their dumb songs they sang in their dumb worship services.

But at least I was fine with other Reformed Christians, right?

Well, no, not exactly.

Now that I had become Reformed, I spent my time becoming more and more Reformed until my Reformed Level was over 9000.  I became what the Reformed community sometimes calls a “TR,” which is actually meant to be an insult unless you are actually a TR, in which case it’s a badge of honor.

TR stands for “Truly Reformed.”  TRs believe the Westminster Confession of Faith is basically the Bible in shorthand form.  TRs observe the Sabbath.  TRs are reading the Puritans in their spare time.  TRs are very, very concerned about tight distinctions between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.  TRs know what the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace are.  TRs are not ok with choruses.  TRs do not celebrate holidays because the only holy day is the Sabbath.  TRs will, upon being introduced to new Christian friends, find out how they feel about limited atonement.  You get the idea.

So, not only were Arminians dumb, but a great deal of Calvinists were as well, by my lights.  This got so bad that I came to a shocking realization about two years after graduating college.  I told a friend, “I don’t want my spirituality defined by how many things I have a problem with.”

That realization set me on a very uneasy balancing act.  On the one hand, I wanted to be true to my convictions.  On the other hand, I knew that the sheer number and extremity of my convictions were likely to have misled me.  If everything in the world looks crooked to you, the problem might be your own eyesight.

Since then, I have mellowed considerably on a number of things and been humbled by some big life experiences.  I have grown less certain about a wide array of things and learned to be ok with that.  I have come to see my beliefs (generally speaking) as less of a collection of true facts about God and more of a journey with God through which I am being transformed.  This has, I’m happy to report, done a decent although not complete job of moderating how I handle or even define theological disagreement.

But that substratum of patterns in my brain is still there, and it doesn’t take much for me to trip over something that shows I’m not done with the fine art of thinking everyone is wrong but me.

“These song lyrics are so stupid.  These concepts don’t even relate to each other.  It’s like they just wrote down everything they thought about God at the time.  Oh, inverted syntax – the last refuge of bad poetry:  ‘In You is where I will place my trust.’  I think they just confused members of the Trinity, in this verse.  Oh, here’s something about ‘sin.’  I wonder if they’ll say ‘and shame’ afterward.  Oh, they did!  Big surprise.”

“This devotional is so stupid.  Where did this guy go to seminary?  There are plurals in Genesis 1 because God is a trinity?  Oh, come on.  ‘God longs for you to spend time with Him?’  How do you know that?  What does that even mean?”

I could go on, but you probably get the idea.

In my defense, there’s a lot of things that go on in evangelicalism that are pretty dumb.  I mean, come on, right?  And these days, there’s even a component where I’m not sure we’re even on the same page morally.  I was telling a friend the other day that I don’t tell people that I’m an evangelical and unless they ask directly, I’m cagey about where I go to church.  And that’s entirely because I’m afraid of what kinds of things they might associate with me, either theologically or politically or what have you.  But on the other hand, describing myself as “a theist to whom Jesus is specially important” doesn’t really seem to capture it, either.

So, yes, there are certainly reasons especially these days to be wary of what bubbles up from the center of American evangelical Christianity.

But it’s gotten to the point that, whenever my church announces some new program or curriculum or activity or whatever that I just assume it’s going to be dumb and wrong.  Whenever the worship leader introduces a new song, I assume it’s going to be terrible.  That doesn’t mean I will stubbornly continue to insist those things are dumb or terrible, but I’ve already created an uphill climb.  These things now have to prove themselves to me that they’re not dumb or terrible, and good luck with that.

I wonder if I haven’t gotten to the point where American evangelicalism simply cannot do anything right, no matter what they do.

If that’s true, then this bothers me about me.  Deep cynicism is the love child of distrust and pride.  Everyone else is terrible; I’m always right.  My life is a testimony to the massive untruth of both of those clauses, and I don’t need them, and I don’t want them.

But it’s a very difficult situation when there’s a pretty good streak of things that come out of conservative American Christianity that are highly problematic, and I don’t just mean poorly thought out song lyrics.  There are things that should be called out.  There are statements and stances that should be criticized.

Many people I respect have decided to just leave the train altogether, and I understand that.  They’ve gone to mainline churches or formed small groups that get together or gone nowhere in particular.  I had an atheist friend several months ago ask me point blank, “Why do you even bother with those people [meaning evangelicals in general]?  Why don’t you just distance yourself from all that?”  I’ve been tempted to do that, sometimes.

But what else would I do?  I have a feeling that this dissatisfaction would not go away in a mainline church, although it may shift to new issues.  Besides, at this rate, there’s not going to be any mainline churches in America in ten years, so….  Starting my own thing seems like a disaster waiting to happen for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which being I don’t think the Holy Spirit would be behind an operation that started because of the conviction that they were more right than everyone else.  On the other hand, Protestantism.

I sometimes feel a lot of connection with Luke:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV)

Yes, most Gospels were written so that you might believe, but Luke wrote his because he thought he could do a better job than everyone else.  But you can probably get by with that when you’re authoring a Gospel.

For my own part, this continues to be a struggle, and the struggle is within me, so it won’t go away just because I changed churches or moved to South Korea or whatever.

I have to find that delicate balance between identifying the things that are truly not profitable and the things to which I have a personal aversion but are actually from God or are at least harmless.  I have to learn how to see the value in things that, overall, I might find a lot of fault with.  I have to be wise about what battles need fighting and what things are just flotsam and jetsam in the stream that will pass on their own with time.

But above all this, whatever I think or speak or whatever I do must be of faith, and therefore of love.

Walking on Water: Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)

There are a lot of images coming together in this little story.  I won’t do any of the connections justice because there are so many possible ones, so I encourage you to look more into them and meditate on them for yourself.  I actually encourage you to do that with any of my devotions, but perhaps especially this one.  The themes are very large.

Water in general and the sea in specific play a big role in Old Testament songs and stories, and I believe Matthew may be drawing from several.

As most commentaries will point out, the sea is a symbol of untamed chaos.  At creation, everything was chaotic waters.  We sometimes talk about creation out of nothing, but the Genesis 1 narrative actually presents us with God hovering over the surface of formless waters.

Apart from the capricious nature of what could happen to you in the ancient world while you were out at sea, the sea was believed to be home to giant serpents that were cast as embodiments of the sea, itself.

For example, in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Baal does battle with Yam, a primordial sea dragon.  After defeating her, the cosmos is restored to pristine harmony and Baal builds himself a house in six days.  These themes undoubtedly show up in Genesis 1, however El does not battle with Yam, El commands Yam and Yam obeys.  El does not only build His house but an entire cosmos in six days.

But the point is that the waters represent that untamed, dangerous dark chaos that God Himself must put to rights.  This image is one of the reasons why John does not see a sea in the new heavens and earth.

By showing Jesus walking on the water, we see that Jesus has control over these primordial dark, chaotic forces similar to his ability to cast out demons.  One particular parallel of interest comes from Psalm 74:13-14:

You divided the sea by your might;
    you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    you gave him as food for the people.

Psalm 74:13-14 (NRSV)

This is an interesting image considering Jesus has just finished feeding the 5000 with bread and fish.

It also ties in with the preceding story that Jesus calls Peter out to walk on the water with him and, at least initially, Peter does.  This shows that, by the power and authority of Jesus, his disciples also have power and authority over these dark forces.  Like the earlier story where Jesus’ disciples feed the 5000, here we have a disciple walking on the water with him, once again showing that Jesus’ power and ministry is being handed to the disciples.  Peter, who walks on the water with Jesus, is also the disciple that Jesus commands to feed his sheep.

We do, however, see Peter faltering because his faith fails when he looks at the stormy sea around him.  This is perhaps a foreshadowing of Peter’s denial that Matthew will tell us about in chapter 26.

To tie all this together, this story shows us a Jesus who wields God’s power and authority displaying sovereign control over even the most elemental forces that threaten his people.  He can walk on the water and command the wind.  Demons and corrupt Temple officials and pagan empires are nothing before this King.  And what’s more, he delegates this to his disciples.

There are many, many references to God commanding storms and waters in the Psalms.  If you’re looking for something to do in your own Bible study, you might look them all up.  One particularly famous one that gets brought up with regard to this passage is Psalm 107:

Some went down to the sea in ships,
    doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
    his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
    which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
    their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
    and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.

Psalm 107:23-30 (NRSV)

Here, God causes the storm to arrive, and when this causes some of His redeemed to panic, He calms the storm for them.  This is not really that different than the picture in our passage, today, although Jesus did not cause the storm that we know of.

This Psalm ends with:

When they are diminished and brought low
    through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
he pours contempt on princes
    and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but he raises up the needy out of distress,
    and makes their families like flocks.
The upright see it and are glad;
    and all wickedness stops its mouth.
Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
    and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 107:39-43 (NRSV)

This has the overtones of Jesus having compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd, but this is the grand finale of a Psalm that celebrates the many ways God has helped His redeemed: bringing down the empires that oppress His people.

This, too, accurately captures some of Jesus’ mission as Matthew sees it.

The last Psalm I want to look at is Psalm 77.  In this Psalm, the author is crying out because it seems as though God will never be favorable again to Israel.  He wonders if God will ever turn His love toward her again and grieves that God’s fundamental disposition toward Israel has been changed forever.

But, then, the Psalmist reflects on how God has treated Israel in the past and reflects that God has always acted to save His people in great ways for the sake of His own holiness and reputation.  The Psalm ends with this example:

When the waters saw you, O God,
    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
    the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
    the skies thundered;
    your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
    your lightnings lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Psalm 77:16-20 (NRSV)

This, too, captures Jesus’ mission as Israel suffers under foreign dominion.  The faithful of Israel share the Psalmist’s despair.  God has let this go on for a long, long time.  Is He done with them?  Has He forgotten them?  Have her sins finally turned Him away for the last time?

In answer to this question, the Psalmist gives us the story of God’s dominion over the seas and how He led his people “like a flock” through it.  Though God Himself did not leave footprints, he led the people with Moses and Aaron.

When we looked at Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, we noticed that Jesus miraculously feeding the people was a Moses miracle.  Jesus the new shepherd Moses was leading the flock of Israel through the wilderness and providing food for them, miraculously.  This is an act he does through his disciples.

Here, we see another parallel.  God fed Israel in the wilderness through the shepherd Moses.  God fed Israel in the wilderness through the shepherd Jesus.  God saved Israel through the stormy sea through the shepherd Moses.  God saved Israel through the stormy sea through the shepherd Jesus.  And in both stories, Jesus passes this to his disciples.

I don’t know if Matthew intended all of these things.  Maybe he intended to call to mind one of them, some of them, or all them and some passages I didn’t even mention (seriously, tons of Psalms talk about this).

But through all these possibilities, we see a central overlap that keeps coming up.  Jesus has God’s own dominion over the forces that threaten His people, Jesus will use it to save them, and Jesus will pass this power and responsibility on to his disciples.

Consider This

  1. The very next story in Matthew is Jesus healing large numbers of sick people in an important Israelite town.  What do you think the connection might be to the themes in this story?
  2. Has there been a time in your life when either you or someone else seemed, through their prayers, to affect circumstances that should have been out of anyone’s control?

Sunday Meditations: Holiness, Righteousness, Sanctification, Justification, and Moral Behavior

Holiness

Holiness is the state of being set apart, special, not like the others.

For example, many Bibles are printed as “the holy Bible,” literally “the holy book.”  We say this because of our belief that the Bible is in some sense not like other books.  It is a special book.  It is God’s own book for His purposes.  In many senses, the Bible is exactly like other books, but it is holy in that it is set apart from other books.  It is special among books.

Many religions have things they consider holy – holy writings, holy women and men, holy sites.  Externally, there is nothing to distinguish these things from others of the same kind of thing, but they have been set apart.  They are special.  There is some spiritual sense in which these things are not like the others of their kind.  They are treated with a certain, special regard.

In America, we ascribe a certain amount of holiness to the American flag.  It is not allowed to touch the ground.  You have to fold it a certain way.  When you play Taps in the military, you have to face it.  You salute it.  We treat it as a flag different from all other nations’ flags or pieces of cloth with designs on them.

At our most common level, you might think about your favorite shirt or your favorite mug – some object you have that you think about and treat differently than every other object that is like it.  That is a sense of what it means for something to be “holy.”

You will notice that nowhere in that definition is moral behavior, because many things that we consider holy are incapable of any kind of behavior at all.  Holy Scriptures and holy sites and holy water do not behave morally.  It is their set-apartness that makes them holy.  In some sense, these things are all special and distinct from other things that would normally be like it.

Where the issue becomes foggy is when we talk about what it means for a person to be holy, because a person does behave.  God behaves.  Israel behaved.  Christians behaved.

But when we talk about behaving in a holy manner, it goes back to the root concept of being different than everything else.  When say that God is holy, we are not saying that He is perfectly moral.  We are saying that He is unlike everything else, including other powers and gods.  He is ultimately special.  There is no being like Him.  He is unique.  He is set apart from other things we might normally compare to Him.  Perhaps God’s moral characteristics are part of what it means for Him to be unlike other powerful beings, but being moral is not what makes Him holy.  Being different, special, other, set apart is what makes Him holy.

Israel was not a holy nation because they behaved morally all the time; they were holy because God set them apart.  Structurally, they were very similar to other people in the Levant, but they were God’s special people, and God was their special God.

Part of being special in the world meant behaving differently.  If Israel behaved just like everyone else, how would she be any different?  So, morality was a -component- of her being set apart, certainly.  But it’s part of a much larger picture of being something set apart.  When God says to her, “Be holy as I am holy,” he means, “Be as different from the other nations as I am from other gods.”  It is a sentiment picked up by Jesus when he calls his followers the “salt of the earth” and asks what salt is good for if it loses its saltiness.

If we would think of ourselves as holy and be holy, we cannot and should not define this as simply improving our moral consistency.  Being holy means being something set apart.  It’s about our values, mission, identity, and purpose.  How we choose to behave is part of that picture, but being holy is less about how morally we perform and more about consistently being different.

Sanctification

Sanctification is not the process of sinning less.  Sanctification is the process by which something is made holy – the process by which something is set apart.

For example, Moses sprinkled sacrificial blood on the objects of the tabernacle.  He sanctified them.  He marked them off as “special” bowls and books and lampstands and tables.  Incidentally, Moses sprinkled blood on the people of Israel as well.

When you sanctify something, you mark it off from other things like it.  When we take the Lord’s Supper, ministers bless the elements.  For the purposes of that ceremony, the bread and wine are holy (what happens to them physically or mystically depends on your theology), which is why you don’t grab a handful of the bread, slather honey butter on it, and complain that you didn’t get enough wine to give you a buzz.  That’s all stuff for you to do with the bread and wine at your house.

In churches that have holy water, a minister consecrates the water and it is kept in a special font.  It has undergone a certain process that has set it apart from regular water.

The New Testament describes believers as being sanctified as well.  This does not mean they magically sin less.  It does mean they have been set apart.  A process has been undertaken to consecrate them to God’s special service, specifically the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood and the baptism of water and the Spirit.

It is true that the New Testament does describe us going through a process of putting aside our old ways of life and embracing new, Christlike ones.  But sanctification is not talked about in this way.  People may use the word sanctification as a useful label for becoming more morally consistent in our behavior, but the idea of the New Testament is that believers have been set apart; they are already sanctified.  The task is to live out consistently with what has been done.  Sanctification means set apart for special use, not made more morally consistent.

Righteousness

Righteousness is the quality of being in the right.  When we’re talking about behavior, we’re talking about acting rightly according to some standard or expectation that defines right behavior.

This can and often does include moral behavior, but it includes any kind of being/behaving rightly.

For example, if I agree to mow your lawn for $25, and I mow your lawn and you give me $25, we are both righteous, at least with regard to our agreement.  If you’re introduced to someone and you hold out your hand and they shake it, you are both righteous with regard to social protocols (at least in the United States).  You are acting rightly – behaving in line with expectations, promises, and standards.

As you can see, this is very tightly related to moral behavior, so much so that they are almost synonymous, but it is helpful to realize that righteousness is a broader concept than what we might consider being ethical or moral.  It means that you are on the right side of things.  If you were brought to trial, you would be found innocent.

Righteousness, then, is something that can only be possessed, pursued, or determined if there is some kind of standard or expectation.  You can’t be unrighteous if there’s not a “wrong.”  If we didn’t agree you would give me $25 to mow your lawn, and I mowed your lawn, and you did not give me $25, you would not be unrighteous.  You might be kind of an ingrate, but you would not be unrighteous.  There was no agreement, so there was no violation.  I have no case against you.

For Old Testament Israel, righteousness was determined by the Law.  You lived by it.  This included doing what the Law said to make things right if you messed up.  When Paul, for example, tells the Philippian church that he was blameless before the Law, he did not mean he never sinned; he meant that he did what the Law required when he did sin, so he could not be accused by the Law.

This is why Paul can contrast the righteousness he had with regard to the Law and the righteousness he had by faith in Christ.  It isn’t that one is immoral and the other is moral; he’s contrasting two different standards.  Two ways of defining what righteousness is and acting that out.

This is why Isaiah 64:6 can make a seemingly paradoxical statement that the nation’s “righteous deeds” are like unclean rags.  It’s not to point out the shortcomings of “works righteousness;” it’s to point out that even when people do things in compliance with the Law, they are still grievous sinners.  You can behave righteously according to at least portions of the Law and still be in flagrant violation of what God desires from His people.  This is the very charge the prophets lay at the feet of Israel’s leaders in the Old Testament.  This is not unlike the accusations Jesus levels at the Pharisees – they maintain a form of external obedience to the Law (righteousness) while conveniently overlooking their obligations to love sacrificially, forgive, and restore the people.

Proverbs 21:2 comes to mind, here, that a person can be righteous in their own eyes (i.e. they behave rightly according to their own standards they set for themselves), but God weighs their hearts.

While the New Testament does talk about people who are unrighteous (i.e. they are in the wrong, behave wrongly, etc.), there is a strong focus on how you are determined to be righteous.  What is the source of your right-ness?  Is it the Law?  Is it faith in Jesus?  Is it your own standards?  What standard does God use, and who will be shown to be right when it is revealed to all?

Justification

Justification is being declared righteous.  In other words, justification is a declaration/demonstration that you were in the right.

What do we mean when we say a person is trying to “justify themselves?”  What are they doing when they do that?  They’re trying to show that they were in the right.

Justification is not forgiveness, and it most definitely is not the guilty being declared innocent.  It is the people who were in the right being vindicated, declared and demonstrated to have been in the right no matter how circumstances might appear or what anyone might be saying.

If I am brought to court on charges, the law is the standard of righteousness.  My behavior will be examined.  If my behavior is found to be in accordance with the law, I will be found righteous, and the judge will justify me.  She will declare me innocent.  If I have broken the law, I will be found unrighteous, and the judge will not justify me.  She will justify my accuser.  We call this “justice.”

This is why the standard of righteousness is so important to Paul.

As long as the standard is the Law, Israel cannot be justified.  She’s broken the Law, persistently.  She will remain in her sins and their consequences.  What’s more, Gentiles can’t be justified, either, because they don’t have the Law to begin with.

But if a righteousness has appeared from heaven apart from the Law, then there is hope.  What is it?  It is faith in Jesus.  If our righteousness can be evaluated by that standard, then both Jew and Gentile have hope, and salvation from sins for both Jew and Gentile is truly a gift from God.

It is important to note, however, that Paul believes genuine faith in Jesus produces genuine actions in line with that conviction.

Why I Care

In terms of systematic theology, I don’t.  I often think our efforts at systematic theology tend to ask the wrong questions and therefore yield answers that may or may not be valuable or arbitrary.  I’m not that concerned about this from the standpoint of making sure we use the right theological terms for the right concepts.

The reason I care comes back to how the Church sees herself, her identity, her mission, her hope, and her experience in the world.

Holiness is not a goal to achieve; holiness is something that has come upon you, already, and you are to be on a quest to conform your character, values, and behavior more consistently with what has happened to you.

If you are a Christian, then you have been called into the service of the God who made the heavens and the earth.  You have been marked off, set apart.  And you have been set apart to be a blessing and a light to everyone around you.  You are a priest serving in the temple of creation with your actions being a ministration to the rest of creation, a persistent witness to the reality of the Creator, and gentle call to all to leave behind the world systems that are passing away and embrace the new heavens and earth that will last for countless ages.

Our lives are not defined by escaping judgement, although that may be entailed in this calling.  Our lives are not defined by the rigor or consistency of our morality, although that also may be entailed in this calling.

The justification Paul was hoping for happened.  A righteousness has appeared from heaven apart from the Law to which you can attain.  You have been sanctified to be holy stones in God’s living temple.  This is who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing, and it is a gift to you from a God who calls you to be holy as He is holy.

Feeding the Sheep: Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

Jesus has just been informed that John the Baptist has been executed by Herod.  Understandably, he wants to be alone and gets in a boat and heads off to some deserted location.

Part of this may simply be the grief and loneliness anyone would feel at the death of a friend and a mentor.  I had an English teacher in high school who had a big impact on me, and when I heard that he had died, it certainly affected me, even though we had not spoken in years.  Jesus is not a stoic.  When his friends die, he cries, as he did when Lazarus died.

Part of this is also what John’s death means.  It means Jesus’ own execution can’t be far behind.  Jesus has been proclaiming John’s message for some time and, because of Jesus’ miracles, he has gained a following and a notoriety that John did not.  Jesus already has powerful people upset with him, and we know that Jesus has already warned his disciples that these powers are coming for him and will come for them as well.

We also know Jesus has taken some pains to keep the opposition from building too quickly too soon.  In his early career, when he does miracles, he asks people not to tell anyone.  He wants to keep the heat low.  It’s possible that Jesus’ retreat on a boat here may be more than just his desire for solitude; it may be to get out of the public eye for a little while.

John’s execution is an escalation.  Now, these forces are not just debating with him or trying to turn the crowds against him.  Now blood is being spilled.  Jesus is next on the block, and he knows his disciples will follow not long after.

But just as it was many times in the past when Jesus tried to lay low, this plan fails.  People somehow figure out where he must be going, and they all race over there so that, when Jesus finally rows the boat ashore (hallelujah), the crowd is waiting for him.

If it were me, this is where I would mutter, “You’ve gotta be f’in kidding me.”  Jesus probably handled the situation more gracefully than that, but I can only imagine what his initial reaction must have been as he heads out on a boat to get away from everyone for a while, only to find they are waiting for him at his destination.  He must have seen them while he was still a little ways out, right?  “Wait, is that… they… oh no.”

I think it says a lot about Jesus that he didn’t start rowing in the other direction.

No, Jesus sees them and has compassion on them.  This is not the first time Matthew has used this phrase.  In fact, it shows up soon after Jesus has told the blind men he healed to keep it quiet.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:35-36 (NRSV)

I’ve already discussed this passage, so I won’t repeat it all here.  It’s important to today’s passage, though, to keep in mind that this language is Old Testament imagery that calls to mind a lost and forsaken Israel who has been oppressed by her own leaders such that God Himself is going to punish her leaders and reclaim the people for His own, leading them Himself.

Jesus goes about healing their sick, which is a sign of their deliverance, and the hour grows late and the people need food.  The disciples want to send everyone home so they’ll have time to eat, but Jesus has them all stay in that deserted place so that he can feed them, miraculously.

Does that make you think of anything else?  The scattered Israelites in a deserted place being fed miraculously?

The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” 

Exodus 16:31-32 (NRSV)

By the miraculous power of God, Moses feeds Israel in the wilderness.  Lest we think this is just a conceit of Old Testament lovin’ Matthew, this story appears in all four Gospels, including the weird one (John).

This miracle is a sign pointing to Jesus as the deliverer who will rescue Israel from her bondage and lead her safely through the intervening wilderness, just as Moses had done ages before.

But there is a twist, here.  Did you notice it?  It’s very subtle.

Jesus does not actually feed the five thousand.  He gives the food to his disciples, and they do it.  When the people are done, the disciples also collect all the leftovers, and they collect twelve baskets – a basket for each disciple.

The need to have twelve disciples as representatives of Israel is known to the New Testament and to the disciples themselves, so much so that, when they lose Judas, they quickly need to get a twelfth disciple, again.  There has to be twelve, faithful disciples because there are twelve tribes of Israel.  This is made explicit in the image of the new Jerusalem in John’s Apocalypse, where the gates of the city bear the names of the twelve tribes and the foundations bear the names of the twelve apostles.

But what is even more interesting to me than the numerical symbolism is the act itself.  Jesus has the disciples feed Israel.

What I think we may be seeing here, right on the heels of John’s execution, is Jesus transitioning his position to his disciples.  Jesus knows his days are numbered, and it is time for his disciples to start gathering and caring for the lost of Israel in Jesus’ name.

Back in Matthew 9 when Jesus had compassion on the crowds, he lamented that he had so little help.  He wanted God to send him more helpers and, immediately after that, he sent the disciples out to cast out demons and heal the sick – the very acts Jesus was doing among Israel.

Here, Jesus blesses the food and gives it to the disciples, but the food miraculously multiplies as they hand it out and gather it back up.  While Jesus is certainly behind this miracle, the disciples actually perform it.  The headings in your Bibles should read, “The Disciples Feed the Five Thousand.”

It is hard to avoid thinking of the story in John’s Gospel when the risen Jesus is talking to Peter and tells him that, if he loves Jesus, he should feed Jesus’ sheep.  Also in John’s Gospel is the theological version of this:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 14:10-12 (NRSV)

And in the book of Acts, this is what we see portrayed.

It is the disciples who begin to explain present events and how they fulfill events in the Old Testament.  It is the disciples who carry the gospel to the nations and see many come to faith, both Jew and Gentile.  It is the disciples who heal the sick, cast out spirits, and even raise the dead.  The fact that they can do these things, they say, proves that Jesus is alive and the last days have come.

Along with these things, it is also the disciples who organize the believers into communities that serve one another.  It is the disciples who make sure that wealthier congregations send money to poorer congregations.  It is the disciples who make sure that factions, divisions, status differences, etc. do not exist in these communities.  It is the disciples who send people to visit the sick and those in prison.  It is the disciples who urge their people to care for widows and orphans.  In many ways that Jesus could not during his brief but powerful ministry, the disciples care for his sheep in their day to day needs and struggles.

It is also the disciples who appoint elders to care for these congregations.  Notice how Peter closes the loop:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 

1 Peter 5:1-4 (NRSV)

Jesus is the Great Shepherd of God’s flock.  He raised up the disciples to be shepherds after him.  They raised up elders to be shepherds after them.  And on this goes.

What we see in our passage, today, is a humble Jesus emptying himself and, in doing so, all his little lambs are fed.

Consider This

  1. How important to God is the care for the people of God?  Is it more important than evangelism?  Equally important?  A secondary priority?
  2. Is there room for “authority” in the church along the lines of those early church elders?  If not, what happened to that concept?  If so, what should that authority look like?  How should it be different from authority and power as the rest of the world defines and uses it?

Sunday Meditations: Hip Hop is Dead

A few weeks ago, Nas released his new album: Nasir.  This made me think of my favorite Nas album, which is “Hip Hop is Dead” released at the end of 2006.

“Hip Hop is Dead” is an album constructed around a central theme and all the songs support it.  Remember when albums used to do that?  Because of the ability to buy individual digital tracks instead of whole albums, you don’t see that too much anymore.  Most albums could be called “A Collection of Songs This Artist Hasn’t Released Yet” and capture the essence of the collection just fine.

But “Hip Hop is Dead” has an unmistakable central message and various facets of that message were communicated in different ways, ranging from symbolic imagery to straight out indictments against the music establishment that had taken control of the content away from the rappers, thus neutering hip hop as a political platform.  Also, he pointed out the rise of rappers who were in pursuit of a hustler lifestyle and just crafted their music around what would get them their money instead of expressing the pain and struggle that were the roots of hip hop and made it powerful.

I got to thinking about how Nas was presenting a prophetic voice to the hip hop community in 2006.  Like when other prophets made their pronouncements, a lot of people got offended, a lot of people thought he was making mountains out of molehills, etc.  But whether you agree with the message or not, “Hip Hop is Dead” is a prophetic work, and I thought it would be interesting to point out some features of the album that look like prophetic literature in the Bible.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Depends on the Historical Circumstances at the Time

While principles like artists controlling their content and being authentic instead of selling out for cash may be timeless, Nas is talking about these problems in concrete historical circumstances facing the community he’s addressing.

Probably the most directly historical is the track “Where Are They Now?” that almost reads like a genealogy of rappers representing what Nas considers the true heartbeat of hip hop, then points out that few of these people are still making records and being successful with their art.

In “Money Over Bullshit,” Nas talks about violence in specific locations he assumes will be familiar to his listeners and pulls in the ubiquitous presence of drugs sold by pushers in the community and even mentions the spread of AIDS.  These are lived out experiences he says are behind hip hop and young rappers have not lived through these experiences that they’re rapping about.

In “Black Republican,” Jay-Z and Nas talk about their feud.

Probably one of the more pivotal references to current events as it relates to the album’s message is one of my favorite lines from my favorite song on the album.  In the actual song “Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas asks his listeners, “So, n____, who’s your top ten?  Is it MC Shan?  Is it MC Ren?”  Not only does this take us back to rappers who, for many, represent the spirit of original hip hop, it also indirectly pulls in the Queensbridge / South Bronx feud over where hip hop actually began.  If you don’t know who these people are or the events around them, you wouldn’t know why their mention is significant.

These are all events and people that the audience would be familiar with, and the message arises from these circumstances.  Nas is not concerned with hip hop as an abstract concept; he’s concerned about these events, these artists, this industry, and what’s going to happen to it.  The album isn’t just generic truths about commercialism and authenticity in music, but is rather about a historical crisis (as Nas sees it) affecting those particular hip hop artists in the here and how (or there and then, in this case).

Prophetic literature in the Bible starts here as well, and it’s good to know that we won’t know what the “song” means if we don’t know the historical circumstances that gave rise to the prophets and the concerns they have.

Imagine someone telling you that “Hip Hop is Dead” is a great album that had a lot of meaning for them, and you should listen to it as well.  “But don’t worry about all the people mentioned or the social issues or the feuds or what the record companies were doing at the time.  That’s all interesting trivia that might add to your enjoyment, but really the album is about general principles for you to apply to your life, or maybe it’s about the distant future.  I don’t know; I found a lot of it confusing, actually.”

Yeah, if you ignore the concrete history, then it will seem very strange to you and you may not know what to do with it.

One of the easiest cherries to pick, here, is Jeremiah 29:11 –

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

You can’t read a Christian college’s yearbook without running into this verse about five bajirillion times.  This verse is regularly brought out as a promise by God to you as an individual believer that God has a specific plan for you that will bring you a wonderful future.

Unfortunately, understanding the verse this way requires you to completely overlook all the historical circumstances mentioned in the passage:

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

Jeremiah 29:1-3 (NRSV)

Oh, hey, that changes things a little, doesn’t it?  This is a letter from Jeremiah to exiles who had been taken to Babylon.  You have to understand those people, that location, and what’s happening to them at that time.

That whole thing up there is Jeremiah’s way of saying, “South BX all day!  You know what it is!”  Except, you know, for Babylon.

The passage immediately before Jeremiah 29:11 tells us –

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

Jeremiah 29:10 (NRSV)

So, Jeremiah 29:11 is not a general sentiment that means God will make everyone’s life awesome.  It’s meant to be an assurance to Babylonian captives that, when Babylon’s reign has ended, God will bring the exiles back to Jerusalem.

Now, even knowing this, we might decide to extrapolate from it what sort of God God is and how He feels about His people and His commitments and what that might mean for His followers today or you as an individual, but my point is: do you see how the concrete historical circumstances are so important to the meaning?  It addresses a group of people who are in the middle of the actual circumstances of what the prophecy is about.

This is especially important, I think, when reading passages in the Bible that are often assumed to be about the distant future.  It helps us understand them better if we can understand the actual historical circumstances the prophet is writing into.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Uses Symbolism and Assumes the Audience Will Know What It Means

In “Who Killed It,” Nas opens with rappers killing each other over a woman.  Nas runs across this woman, finds out who she is and her history, and then she vanishes into thin air leaving Nas with a pile of money.

This woman is hip hop.

Nowhere in the song does Nas ever say, “This woman is hip hop” or “This woman is a metaphor” or anything like that.  When you read the lyrics literally, it sounds like the kind of thing that could just normally happen except for maybe the vanishing at the end.

But the listeners are meant to realize this is a symbol.  How?  The text does not spell it out for us, but it gives us clues:

What are ya born 77 or 78?
She says, Nah it goes way to an earlier date
Slave times, claims the slaves said rhymes
But she fell in love with some fella named Clive

Who? Clive Campbell from Sedgwick Ave, the Bronx
Now she shows me the cash
I said who’s Clive, don’t play with me skirt
She said Clive Campbell
He’s Kool Herc.

“Who Killed It,” Nas

The woman was born back in slave times when slaves were creating songs and poetry about their situation, but then she fell in love with Clive Campbell aka DJ Kool Herc – a Jamaican-American DJ who many believe was a key person in the launching of hip hop.

Listen up sweetheart
Now we gettin somewhere
As she’s talkin, she starts vanishing in thin air
But before she drops the money bag on the floor and died
She said if you really love me I’ll come back alive

“Who Killed It,” Nas

We are clued in that this is not a literal woman by the fact that she vanishes, leaving behind money.  She also dies, but she tells Nas that, if he really loves her, she’ll be alive again.

This image is basically the central message of “Hip Hop is Dead.”  Hip hop has left behind money, but died in the process.  If artists rediscover their love for hip hop as Nas has seen it, hip hop will live again.

One parallel that comes readily to mind is Revelation 12.  Here, the prophet sees a woman “clothed with the sun” who is about to give birth to a child who is destined to rule all nations.  A great dragon is waiting to devour her child, but before he can, God takes the child to Himself and the woman flees while a mighty angel fights the dragon (who we are told is Satan) and defeats it.

The dragon is pretty upset at all this and tries to kill the woman, but she grows eagles wings and flies away.  The dragon tries to kill her with a flood, but the earth helps the woman and swallows up the water.  The dragon, foiled at last, decides to go after the rest of the woman’s children, whom we are specifically told are “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”

Folks, this is not a prophecy about an actual woman who grows eagle wings being chased by an actual dragon.  These are all symbols that meant something to the audience.  The woman is faithful Israel who gives birth to the Messiah, but is also the mother of all who would believe (the rest of her children).  She is persecuted by Satan who will give all his power to the Beast (Rome).

We may disagree on what the symbols correspond to, but I hope we can agree that these are symbols and not a literal description of future events where an actual woman grows wings and flies away from a Satan dragon.

Sometimes, the symbol is greatly exaggerated to make a point.

For instance, hip hop was not dead when Nas made his album.  Hip hop is not a living person who can die, although it could potentially die out as a musical genre.  Even so, it’s often portrayed in the music as dead, and Nas’ reaction is apocalyptic:

If hip hop should die before I wake
I’ll put an extended clip inside of my AK
Roll to every station, murder the DJ
Roll to every station, murder the DJ

“Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas

It turns out that, as upset as Nas was, he did not literally drive to every radio station in existence and shoot the DJ.  This is imagery meant to communicate Nas’ anger and the intensity of his response.

We find this same thing at work in biblical imagery in prophetic literature as well.

Look, for instance, at Isaiah’s prophecy about the destruction of Edom:

All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
like a leaf withering on a vine,
or fruit withering on a fig tree.

When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
lo, it will descend upon Edom,
upon the people I have doomed to judgment.

Isaiah 34:4-5 (NRSV)

This is God’s version of saying he’s going to roll to every station and murder the DJ.

It is true that Edom was destroyed, but the sky and stars were not literally destroyed, nor did God drop a literal sword on it.

And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch.
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
no one shall pass through it forever and ever.

Isaiah 34:9-10 (NRSV)

This did not literally happen.  The land of Edom does not have streams made out of pitch and the soil is not sulfur.  It is not on fire today nor has it been in perpetuity.

Edom was conquered by a foreign power.  They were dispersed, and eventually they died out as a distinct people.  The imagery here refers to this.  Edom is being removed from the world stage and will cease to be a power and a people.  But very extreme imagery is used to communicate, poetically, how destructive this will be.

It is sometimes the tendency of our futurist brothers and sisters to point to passages like this and state that, since this did not literally happen to Edom, there will come a day in the future where Edom will be restored and these things will literally happen to it, then.

Well, the strength of this gambit is that you can never say what definitely can’t happen in the future, but it ignores the nature of the literature.  It’s very common in ancient, Near Eastern descriptions of this sort to go over the top with the imagery and even talk about people groups being completely obliterated, even though this isn’t precisely what happens.  It’s a way of communicating the impact and severity of what happened.

By comparison, there are Moabite tablets that talk about how they killed every last Israelite in battle.  So, that’s probably not what literally happened.  They may have defeated Israel in some key battles, but it turns out that they did not roll to every station, per se.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Offers a Conditional Message of Hope

The death of hip hop is so imminent to Nas that he describes it both as a present and future situation.  The album is called “Hip Hop is Dead,” not “Hip Hop Will Be Dead If We Don’t Do Something,” although the latter title more accurately captures the message.

As we saw at the end of “Who Killed It,” Lady Hip Hop offers the hope that, if she is truly loved, she’ll come back to life.

The beginning of the track “Hope” says in the introduction that hip hop will never die.  Nas reflects on the life experiences that inspire his rap, and he testifies that these life circumstances are still shared by his community, so hip hop can still live.  The track ends with Nas hoping desperately that hip hop will not die.

So, is hip hop dead or can this crisis be averted?  Nas seems to be saying both things.

Well, there’s quite a bit of biblical prophecy that also works this way.

As one example (among many), here’s Jeremiah again:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Jeremiah 18:5-11 (NRSV)

So, is Israel doing evil and judgement is about to come upon her?  Yes.  If she repents, will God stop His plans for judgement?  Yes.

In Jonah 3, Jonah tells Nineveh, “In forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  He does not say anything else.  But Nineveh repents and God decides not to do this.

More often than not, prophecy in the Bible does not predict a fixed future, but rather predicts a contingent future – one that can change if the audience hears the prophecy and responds accordingly.  The response (which is usually repentance) itself will produce a new outcome.  While this means the prophecy will not “come true,” it will absolutely have served its purpose as creating the outcome God hoped for.

Nas does not want hip hop to die, but by portraying it as dead, he hopes the community responds in such a way that it won’t die after all.  His prophecy is designed, not to predict a fixed future, but produce a response.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Can Be Repurposed to Explain Future Situations

The other day, I was driving my son to taekwondo and playing hip hop on the radio.  As we drove home, I turned the radio back on and he said, “Oh, wow, it’s the same song we heard on the way up.”

But it wasn’t.

The sad fact is that there’s a lot of hip hop these days that’s indistinguishable from each other and, in many cases, indistinguishable from atonal mumbling over a trap or some arrhythmic sample, usually involving some edgy, dark instrumental to add sophistication and gravity.

You hear people talk about the Golden Age of hip hop and contrast it to today’s “mumble rap,” and while that might be some nostalgia talking, I get it because I was there for the late 90s and early 2000s of hip hop, and while it wasn’t all deep and amazing stuff, it was by and large definitely real and aimed at communication, typically an artistic scream, “This is the way life is for us!”

That still happens, but it seems rarer by the day.

If someone were so inclined, they might easily call up Nas’ old words and sing them, thinking about today.  Is hip hop in crisis, again?  Will it snap out of it if enough people remember the roots and bring it back to authenticity?  While the historical particulars are different, can we use Nas talking about his own experiences in his day to give us an explanation for our current day?  If someone pays you a million dollars to mumble irregularly about your jewelry for three and a half minutes, is that what hip hop is to you?  Are we seeing similar things play out?

We could debate that, I guess, but it turns out that prophetic literature is used this way in the Bible as well.

Let’s close with an example from Jesus, himself:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 (NRSV)

This is a passage from Isaiah 61.  In it, Isaiah has talked about God’s promised deliverance of Israel from her oppressors.  God will remove the corruption from Israel and redeem her, overthrowing the powers that have conquered her, gathering her together from exile, and restoring her as a nation.  Edom, specifically, comes in the crosshairs in this extended bout of prophecy.  All of this is coupled with a call for Isaiah’s audience to put away idolatry and selfish and unjust practices.  Best as we can tell, this comes around the return from Babylon.  The prophet is talking about himself, not a future person.

Edom fell under Babylonian invasion in the 6th century BC and the remaining nation were driven out of their land by nomadic tribes over the next few centuries.  The remnant ends up settling in southern Judea until they disappear as a people after the Roman-Jewish war in AD 70.

This prophecy is for that Babylonian remnant.  It’s set in their circumstances and deals with their enemies.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon the prophet speaking, not someone hundreds of years later.

But Jesus takes up this prophecy to describe himself speaking in his own day.  In Jesus’ day, Israel is under another pagan government and troubled by unjust rulers.  They are living in Jerusalem, but all is not well.  They are still oppressed, their leaders are still corrupt, unrighteousness fills the land, and they still suffer the curse of the Law.

If you understand the circumstances of Isaiah 61, then you are in a position to point to another circumstance and say, “This is that.”  And that’s what Jesus does.  He points to his own situation in history and Jesus’ announcement of God’s deliverance as bringing to fullness what the prophet was doing in Isaiah 61 for his audience.  All that meaning gets brought forward to Jesus to help his audience understand what is happening, what Jesus is doing, and why they have reason to hope.

In this way, could these biblical prophecies tell us something about our own situation?  Give us direction as to what we could be doing?  Give us a reason to hope?

I think so, but it all starts with understanding the prophetic literature as it was written.