Faith That Moves Mountains: Matthew 17:14-20

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:14-20 (NRSV)

Although we are not specifically told, the flow of this story has Jesus and a few of his disciples coming down the mountain where they witnessed the Transfiguration.  We are not told which mountain this was.  Early church tradition suggests Mount Tabor, and some commentators have suggested Mount Hermon (as it is the highest mountain in the Caesarea Philippi area).

As they come down the mountain, a crowd is waiting for them, and that’s when the man tells Jesus about his son with epilepsy and how Jesus’ disciples (presumably the ones still at the base of the mountain who didn’t go up with Jesus) couldn’t heal him.

What follows is another wonderful snapshot of historical, human Jesus.  He gets very frustrated and says some things that he might not have in cooler moments.  I love it when the actual story shakes up our preconceived notions about what Jesus must have been like, which are often personifications of abstractions (e.g. Jesus was always kind, Jesus was always gentle, etc.).

Although this was in answer to the man’s story, we have to assume that it was directed to the disciples.  The man is not faithless; he brought his son to the disciples and, ultimately, Jesus for help.  Coming to Jesus for healing or bringing someone for healing has often been called out by Jesus as a sign of great faith.

The disciples, by contrast, seemed unable to help the man, and this is just too much for Jesus to contain.  He lumps them in with the faithless and perverse generation of the Pharisees, the scribes, the Temple regime – everything that embodies the unfaithfulness of Israel and that the coming kingdom of God will displace.  Jesus is, in effect, saying, “You’re just like them.  You’re just like the people who don’t believe – the people who oppose me.”

This may seem like a rather extreme accusation given the circumstances.  The disciples have tried and failed to miraculously heal a boy of epilepsy.  It’s hard to fault them for this.  Most people don’t succeed in miraculously healing anybody.  If I were sick, and you prayed over me, and I was not healed on the spot, I would probably not accuse you of belonging to a faithless and perverse generation.

In order to see how Jesus ended up where he ended up, we have to step into that first century Near Eastern worldview.

In the first century, the division between “natural” and “supernatural” was thin to nonexistent.  Yes, people experienced the same world we experience today.  They may not have always understood why the world works the way it does, but they experienced the same physical laws that we experience.  Gravity, liquids and solids, the positions of the stars, the day and night cycle, disease and death – even many centuries prior to the scientific method, people did not have illusions about what commonly happens in the natural world.

At the same time, behind all this mundane activity was a (normally) hidden, spiritual world.  What happened in the world was an external manifestation of what was happening in this invisible aspect of reality.  For example, if one nation defeated another, it meant the first nations gods were stronger that day than the other nation’s gods, even though nothing ostensibly supernatural may have happened.  The outcome we could see and experience had behind it a spiritual aspect that we could not see and could (usually) only determine after the fact.

It is this context that defines people who saw visions or dreamed dreams.  For them, the veil was pulled back, and they were allowed to see what was going on behind the scenes in a world that was so alien to them that they resorted to images, and what strange and powerful images those would be.

When it came to sickness, if you asked someone in Galilee or those northern regions, “Does this boy have epilepsy or a demon?” many would likely have told you, “Yes.”  Those were not separate explanations to them.  One was a physical manifestation of the other.

In the same way, the oppression of the Roman Empire was viewed as the external manifestation of a darker, spiritual phenomenon.  If Rome was the body, then Satan was the spirit.  He had his own kingdom, his own soldiers, his own power structures, and these things had their physical manifestations in the form of the things that oppressed Israel.

Because of this, when Jesus would heal a sick person or drive a demon out, it was more than just a kind act or a generic demonstration of God’s power.  It was an invasion of sorts.  Jesus’ authority over these things showed that the hoped-for kingdom was imminent.

Around this time of year, we sometimes talk about how Jesus defied everyone’s expectations of how the kingdom would come.  In some aspects, this is true, but it would be a big mistake to assume that Jesus did not come to change Israel’s concrete political situation.  That’s a division we make:  Jesus came to do spiritual good, not physical good.  Those are two, separate things.

But for first century Israel, he came, in God’s name, to displace the oppressive powers of the world with the kingdom of God.  It was holistic.  There was no separation.  And when people saw healing and the driving out of spirits, they saw the invasion and impending victory of God in the world that the prophets longed to see – a comprehensive victory that would result in the poor being made rich, those who had lost all they had receiving it back, the powerless judging the nations, the meek inheriting the land.

This is, perhaps, why Jesus is so frustrated with his disciples.  It isn’t that they didn’t have faith in some general sense or that they couldn’t “faith heal” someone; it’s that they did not believe that the kingdom was coming.

And if you don’t believe the kingdom is coming, then you don’t believe Jesus, because that’s all he’s been talking about.  And if you don’t believe Jesus, well, you’re just like everyone else in that faithless and wicked generation.

Remember some time ago when Jesus had sent his disciples out to do the very thing we’ve been discussing:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

After this, after all the signs, after all the teachings, they still struggle to believe that the kingdom is coming.

We’re not told why this was such a struggle for at least some of the disciples.  Maybe some of them have been on the fence this whole time.  Or, maybe, some of them are starting to get discouraged with time.  Jesus is spending a lot of time preaching and ministering, but not a lot of time bringing the Temple to heel and demanding fealty from the Emperor, and he just keeps… not doing that.

Maybe some of them (looking in your direction, Judas) were hoping for a Messiah who would deliver something fast, violent, and decisive.  Even John the Baptist himself seemed to struggle with this.  How could Jesus be the Messiah if Herod were still in power and John was in his prison, about to be executed?

As for Jesus’ part, he absolutely sees this work as vital to the salvation of Israel.  He has to free from everything that would prevent them from believing his gospel message, and he isn’t done with that, yet.

The man never says that his son has a demon, but that’s how Jesus cures him.  He rebukes the demon (who leaves) and the physical afflictions disappear.  Another demonstration that Jesus is who he says he is, that his message is true, and that he is exactly the person who can and will execute God’s current stage in the mission.  The powers of earth are right to fear this man, because even the forces behind them can’t defy his will.

Perhaps having been chastened enough in public, the disciples pull Jesus aside and ask him why they couldn’t heal they boy, and Jesus ties it back to their lack of faith.  He then makes a statement so dramatic that it has found its way into modern expressions: if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move this mountain, and nothing will be impossible for you.

A mustard seed is very small; a mountain is very big.  Hence the dramatic impact of the statement.

Mark has Jesus giving this statement at the Temple in Jerusalem.  And, interestingly, so does Matthew.  Jesus will say this again, later.

This is a very believable thing.  My employees can recite for you several of the stories I tell, because I tell them over and over again for different audiences to make different points.  It’s quite likely that Jesus would say similar things in different situations.

What’s interesting about this situation, though, is that when Jesus is on the Temple mountain in Jerusalem, he tells his disciples that they could tell that mountain to be thrown into the sea, and it would be.  In other words, Jesus is predicting the unthinkable – that the Temple will be destroyed when the kingdom comes.

Here, Jesus is talking about the mountain of Transfiguration, and he tells the disciples that it will be moved from here to there.

Significant?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just an offhand choice of words.

Or, maybe, the difference is significant.  Maybe Jesus is trying to tell his disciples, struggling to believe, that all it will take is for the barest smidgen of faith to take what they briefly saw in the Transfiguration and move it forward to a new location.

We can’t see where Jesus is pointing when he says this, but I wonder if he was pointing toward Jerusalem.

Consider This

  1. In the ancient world, people saw a very close relationship between the physical and the spiritual.  Is this an antiquated worldview we no longer need, injecting our natural world with a reality that simply isn’t there?  Or have we lost something important if we reduce the world to what we can empirically determine?
  2. Oppression continues to take various forms in the world, both overt and subtle.  If we claim to continue the story of God’s people, do we have obligations to confront them?  What does that look like?  What does that look like in your specific sphere of impact?

How Did We Create John MacArthur: An Anemic Gospel

This is Part Three of a series.  You can read Part One, here and Part Two, here.

An Anemic Gospel

“The gospel” is such an interesting phrase to me.  It is the one phrase that evangelical Christians will stake everything on, and also the one phrase that everyone would define somewhat differently.

“This belief is a threat to the gospel!  This person is preaching another gospel!  The phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ undermines the gospel!”

Yeesh, well, what is this “gospel” that everyone seems ready to kill for?

One of the complicating factors is that it actually means something different depending on where the concept shows up in the Bible.

Take, for instance, Isaiah 52:7 –

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news [gospel],
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

In this passage, the good news is that God will deliver Israel from Babylon as He did from Egypt and Assyria.  It’s not about heaven or hell.  It’s not about the afterlife.  It’s not about freedom from sin.  It’s not about the institution of  new covenant.  The “salvation” is quite literally God saving Israel from Babylon and liberating Jerusalem, and the “gospel” is the announcement that God is doing this.

This passage is also quoted by Paul in Romans 10 to establish the need for preaching salvation, again, to the Jews.  In Romans 10, the context is that God has defined a righteousness apart from the Torah, which only cursed Israel.  Through faith in Jesus, the condemnation of the Law no longer applies to Israel, and their situation which was a result of the curse of the Law would be overturned.  Just as Isaiah saw the need for the announcement of this good news among Israel in his day, so Paul says a similar proclamation is needed in his day (and will likely get a similar response).

This is a tricky concept, because we’re very used to injecting words like “salvation” or “gospel” with what’s in our heads and assume that’s what the writers must have meant.  It’s important that when we read about “the gospel” that we take the time to determine what the actual good news is that’s being talked about in that passage, or what being “saved” might mean in that particular context.

I would argue that the “gospel” that is nearest to us is the announcement that Jesus has been made Lord and Christ and that his people who have his Spirit show that the true, creator God has not given up on the world or His vision for it, and no matter what the world looks like now or how empty or broken your life is in it, the creator calls you into His world in the here and now.  And, one day, all the structures that threaten you will be judged and removed, including death itself.

Obviously, we can debate that.

However, I feel fairly confident that at no point in the Bible is the gospel ever defined as: You are going to Hell when you die because you have committed sins, but if you accept Jesus into your heart, you’ll go to Heaven when you die, instead.

Now, most evangelicals, probably including John MacArthur, would say that sounds too reductionistic.  But if they were to “flesh it out,” most would just add more backstory.  They would talk about Adam and the Fall.  They would talk about God’s holy nature.  Some of them would talk about how accepting Jesus into your heart also means that your life needs to change (ironically, some would argue this is actually not at all the gospel).  A few of the more biblically astute might even point out that “Heaven” isn’t the end destination, but resurrection in a new heavens and new earth is (which is entirely correct).

But this is just more meat on the bones.  The core assertion is that the gospel is about an individual’s destiny after they die.

The consequences of this are twofold:

  1. Because this is the story, it gets read back into any and all passages that seem to mention it whether this would be intelligible to the authors or not.
  2. Anything unrelated to producing the conversion experience which transitions someone from Hell to Heaven is viewed at best as a secondary matter and at worst something Satan is using to take the church away from her mission.

I’m not going to belabor that first consequence.  The Isaiah passage I quoted illustrates how this happens and actually creates a lot of distance between us and the biblical text.  The good news Isaiah proclaims is not, “Hey, I know you’re exiled and under Babylon’s power right now, but if you accept Jesus, you’ll go to Heaven when you die,” and if you read the passage in that way, not only do you miss what Isaiah was trying to communicate to those faithful saints under persecution, you also potentially miss what comfort that passage might offer you, which is that God will not abandon His people to their circumstances no matter how dire those circumstances may appear in the world (or how long they may go on).

But the second consequence explains so much.  If it’s not about an individual’s conversion, then it has nothing to do with “the gospel.”  Under this way of thinking, the church should simply not be distracted with issues like poverty, disease, racial or gender inequities, psychological health, or corruption in the halls of power.

One of the chief obstacles to this, unfortunately, is Jesus himself, who seems reasonably interested in addressing these things as they appear in his circumstances.  In terms of air time, personal conversion certainly gets mentioned, but this is just one facet of Jesus’ ministry in which he embodies and enacts the holistic restoration of a people.  The kingdom of God isn’t simply about the afterlife but an entire, competing world system.  It is literally a new kosmos.

It is the rise of this kosmos with Jesus as the king that threatens the Temple power structure and the Roman Empire and why they want to snuff it out.  People’s afterlives are no threat to any power structure, ever, and one could argue that some power structures have effectively harnessed an interest in the afterlife to preserve the political status quo (not naming names).  But the incursion of a new concrete, historical, political reality into the here and now is quite the potential threat, especially as it mobilizes large groups of people.

But the popularity of the conversion/afterlife-centric version of the gospel is immense and John MacArthur is a product of it.  If you think of the gospel primarily in terms of converting to secure a good afterlife, then you’re going to consider things like social justice and reevaluating women’s roles to be at best secondary concerns, but more likely an actual danger that keeps the church from doing her “real work.”

How Did We Create John MacArthur: Tribalism

This is Part Two of a discussion of how forces in evangelicalism produced the influence that John MacArthur has.  You can read Part One hereHere’s Part Three.

Tribalism

Here, I’m thinking of tribalism in the sense of defining your “tribe” over and against other possible “tribes.”  It’s Us versus Them, so we need to be vigilant about who is Us and who is Them.

This may come as a surprise or a disappointment to some of my more progressive friends, but I actually think a certain degree or variety of tribalism can potentially be healthy for the church.

When God calls Abraham (or Abram initially – Genesis 12), He calls him out of the rest of the world.  He selects Abraham to be His specific representative and progenitor of a people in the world who are going to be different from their neighbors.

These people are going to be a priestly people – a new creation people – an advance guard of what God would reveal was His desire for the whole world in the midst of a world that was not very much like that.

This would be a people who had a special agreement with God: they would be His people, and He would be their God.  Their destinies in the world would be intertwined.  It was the family of Abraham’s job to live in faithful service to God, and in return, God would not only preserve them in the world, but increase their number until they filled it.

And what would the outcome of all this be?  That all the families in the world would be blessed through what God would do through Abraham’s family.  Their job was not to destroy the other families until only they remained or oppress the other families of the world or rule them with an iron fist or even think badly of them.  Their job was to be God’s people in the world with an eye toward blessing everyone.

So, you do have a tribe.  You have a people who are defined against the canvas of a broken world to be a community of light.  And what characterizes this community?  Love of God and love of neighbor.

It is this kind of tribalism that I think is beneficial.  It’s the kind that looks at the principles at work in the world to hate God and hate our neighbors (and hate ourselves) and, instead, decides to run off of different principles.  Pro-God and pro-human principles.  Love, justice, mercy, healing, fidelity, wisdom, joy, restoration, peace.

We are a people who is meant to embody a certain thing in the world for the benefit of the world, and in that sense, it is helpful to focus on what kind of people we ought to be in the world and trying consistently to help each other be that thing.  Oh, if we spent half the energy on blessing the nations that we spent on critiquing them.

It is perhaps this principle of tribalism Jesus articulated in Matthew 12:30, when he talked to the Pharisees accusing him of being in league with Satan about his mission to deliver Israel from the evil that oppressed them: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  In other words, “Pharisees, you’re supposed to be helping in this project, and if you aren’t using your position to help get this done, then you’re just making the oppression worse.”

And this leads us into the kind of tribalism that is endemic to evangelicalism, and that is the desire to vilify Them and constantly make sure that anyone in the Us is “truly” Us and not secretly or partially Them, because Them are just the worst.

This principle is all over John MacArthur’s labors.  The man has spent so much time and money fighting against what he (and by extension all True Christians) is against that you sort of have to dig a little to find out what he’s for.

His “Strange Fire” conference was not about a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit; it was about how wrong Charismatics are.  His statement on social justice wasn’t about comprehensively defining the good news of Jesus Christ for the world, but rather about how people pursuing social justice are wrong to do so (the “greatest threat to the gospel” as he said at the time – sorry, Satan).  He hasn’t carefully combed exegetical, historical, and scientific data and arrived at the position that the Earth must be 6000 years old; he’s against non-literal readings of the Bible.  This latest “Truth Matters” fiasco wasn’t about bold, vibrant definitions of ministry that could change the world; it was about how wrong everyone was that thinks women should be able to participate – especially the women, themselves.

One wonders how many of MacArthur’s positions are not the product of careful thought, prayer, and searching the Scriptures and are more just the end result of opposing things he thinks are terrible.  He has to take those positions, because if he doesn’t, the Evil will get in.

This describes an awful lot of evangelicalism.

Because the way we tend to see the world is that we are beacons of light surrounded by a night that is dark and full of terrors.  But worse than that, the ally at your side could, at any time, become seduced by that darkness and stab you in the back.  Every friend is a potential foe waiting to happen.

We all know this trope; it happens in every zombie movie, right?  You have the rag tag band of warriors fighting off the zombie hordes and, inevitably, someone gets bit.  And then it’s just a matter of time before the zombie plague is now inside the perimeter, destroying mankind’s last hope for salvation.

And this is why evangelicalism is not only at war with the world (and we might discuss whether or not that’s the best disposition to have toward the world) but at war with itself.  Have the wrong belief, and you’re out.  Show tolerance for the wrong group of people, and you’re out.  Vote for the wrong candidate, and you’re out.  Claim that something we think is a sin isn’t so black and white, and you’re out.  Any of that reeks of the little compromises that will turn you into a zombie that will kill us all.  Or, you know, at least turn you into someone who might write a book about it.

We are like this, and when we are like this, the people who are our heroes are the people walking among us, culling out the diseased so the rest will be safe.  They are the ones ferreting out the double agents and the heretics and the weak-minded who, if allowed to live inside the compound with the rest of us, will end up with the whole camp slaughtered by the evil outsiders.

John MacArthur incarnates this.  He has defined his ministry by it, and that’s why people love him.

How Did We Create John MacArthur: Conflating the Bible with My Reading

This is Part One of a series.  Here’s a link to Part Two. Here’s Part Three.

I realize the whole John MacArthur rage has died down a little and John Crist is the big thing, currently, but I don’t have a lot to say about John Crist since I only found out who he was last night.  I watched a compilation of “The Best of John Crist” last night, and if that’s the best, I’m not real impressed.  I think more of the jokes would land if you’re white, conservative, and marginally racist.

On the other hand, I sure wish evangelicals held their Presidents to the same standards as their comedians.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I talked about John MacArthur and how nobody really needs to care what this guy says about anything.  He has a collection of deeply flawed positions and bullies people with them.

But that got me thinking: how is it that such an obviously ridiculous person ends up being a hero and a leader for so many in evangelicalism?  Granted, there are a decent chunk of evangelicals who think that guy should take a long walk, but his influence in evangelicalism as a whole is disproportionately large.

How does this happen?  How did we create a man like this and make him an icon?

There are many things that have occurred to me as I’ve pondered that issue, but I’m just going to pick three, lest this turn into an epic saga.  My three are: conflation of the Bible with my reading, tribalism and an anemic gospel.

Conflation of the Bible with My Reading

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

Why do you hate God’s word? Why must you twist the acts of the faithful women mentioned in scripture into something they are not?

That was a quote from a comment thread discussing an article arguing that there were women leaders in the early churchScot McKnight wrote the article in question, and if you have any familiarity with Scot McKnight, you know he’s hardly a bastion of theological liberalism and most certainly does not hate the Bible.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I assure you this kind of thing is a very common feature of evangelical discourse.  It may not be stated as overtly as the quote I used, but the sentiment is very present: if you disagree with me, you disagree with the Bible, ergo God Himself.

No evangelical would claim that they are God’s direct mouthpiece or that they have been gifted with infallibility.  Many evangelicals functionally operate this way, however, because they do not make a distinction between the content of the Bible and their understanding of that content.  The Bible, to such people, is crystal clear on various matters that comprise evangelical theology, so to disagree with an evangelical theological position is functionally the same as saying that you don’t care what the Bible says.

Take the quote above, for example.  This person has a passage of Scripture in mind that they believe is crystal clear and authoritative and no other thinking needs to be done.  It says what it says, that’s the end of the discussion (“Period,” some might add).  It’s impossible that someone else might also consider that passage authoritative but come to a different conclusion, perhaps in light of other Scriptures, historical context, genre, copyist notes about source text, etc.

When you cannot make a distinction between your understanding of the Bible and the Bible, itself, this by nature of the case makes an enemy and a rebel out of anyone who might understand the Bible differently than you do.  The only “logical” explanation for why someone might not agree with you is if they held the Bible in disregard or contempt.

Take another look at the quote, above.  The question isn’t, “Why don’t you understand this passage to be prohibiting women ministers,” the question is, “Why do you hate God’s word?”

In a similar vein, I once pointed out to someone that some of Paul’s advice to churches reflects a concern for scandal and survivability in a first century world, and someone asked if I was an atheist.  In their minds, because a scholarly concern led me to a different reading than their own, the only other possible option is that I must actually be an atheist trying to undermine the Christian faith.

Anyone who holds a different position is automatically caricatured as someone in open defiance of God who hates the Bible, even in cases where this is obviously ridiculous.  Scot McKnight does not hate the Bible.  I am not an atheist.  Yet, evangelicals (#NotAllEvangelicals) find themselves forced into ludicrous claims like this because that’s the only alternative they’ve allowed themselves.

In this way of seeing the world, your opponents are not thoughtful people.  They do not have the Spirit.  They do not love the Bible.  They are a group of people who have invented values that they prefer and do not care what the Bible has to say about them, because, in your mind, that’s the only other possible option.  The one option that is not possible is that the Bible actually means something different than how I understand it.

I believe what “the Bible teaches,” ergo, if you disagree with me, then you are directly flaunting Scripture, which means you are directly flaunting God Himself.  You can see how, if this is your thought pattern, any kind of discussion is virtually impossible, and the only way to handle disagreement is to treat it as rebellion and an incursion of the Enemy.

I blame modernism, although I will also say in the era of the Internet and sound bites and people being sharply divided on various issues, we seem to have lost the ability to believe we are right while also acknowledging that we might be wrong and making that a genuine possibility.

You can absolutely believe your position is completely correct and maintain it with passion while also acknowledging that you could be wrong (and mean it).  You can acknowledge that “the other side” has good points without having to surrender your position.  There have been plenty of times where I’ve had to acknowledge, “That’s a very good point, and I don’t really have any good response to that.  Overall, though, I’m still not convinced.”

This is one of the privileges of being an adult human being; you don’t actually have to justify your positions to anyone else’s satisfaction but your own.

But getting back to the issue, this dynamic of assuming that my position is the clear, biblical one, and therefore everyone who disagrees with me just doesn’t care what the Bible says is a major, major issue in evangelical discourse.

So, you can see how this dynamic leads us to a John MacArthur.  This is John MacArthur’s take on almost anything you might imagine.  Pentecostals are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who understand certain passages differently than you do; they are possessed by Satan.  Christians working for social justice are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who believe Jesus teaches us to address social evils; they are threats to the gospel.

In many ways, his words and life’s work, really, are the logical conclusion of a failure to differentiate between a reading of the Bible and the Bible, itself.

Sunday Meditations: John MacArthur Is Not Very Smart

If you’re not aware of big news in the world of Christian evangelicalism, that sounds pretty great, actually.

But if you are, you probably heard this past week about John MacArthur, at his own church’s “Truth Matters” conference, making some dismissive and insulting comments about Beth Moore in specific and people wanting to allow women to be ministers in general.  Throughout, the audience laughed along with his blunt dismissals, which is the sort of thing that happens when you fill rooms with people who think exactly like you do for the purposes of reaffirming each other in your collective rightness.  I’m not going to link to the video because A) I don’t want to give it more press, B) you can easily find it via search, and C) I like to keep my blog reasonably porn free.

Many quarters of evangelicalism and not-so-evangelicalism reacted with varying degrees of outrage or at least disapproval, seeing as large amounts of evangelicals actually agree with his positions but considered his tone harsh and unloving and indicative of him not taking other arguments seriously.  Most of us were aware that this is pretty much how the J-Machine always runs, but this seemed particularly egregious to many.

So, there were two main prongs of dissatisfaction: his tone and his content.

His Tone

When Trump was on the campaign trail, a tape surfaced where, in an interview, he talked about how women let him have his way with them because he was so famous, and he could even grab them by their genitalia and they were totally fine with it.  This incident has a lot of interesting parallels with John MacArthur, but two points in particular stand out: 1) he made this comment in what he considered a safe space where he could speak freely, and 2) public outrage spiked – people still talk about this comment, today.

First off, whatever a person says when they are with people who they think agree with them, that’s who they really are.  It’s not a show.  When people think everyone around them will support them in what they say, they’ll say it.  You are getting an unfiltered look at what they really think.

For those of us who are Christians, take note!  What do we say in environments where we assume everyone agrees with us?  What kinds of comments or jokes do we make about other groups of people?  Would we make them if members of that group were sitting across from us at our dining room table?  If the answer is “no,” that means we harbor views that are intrinsically insulting and unloving and we should probably be seriously working on those.

Secondly, when everyone got so mad at Trump for that interview (as well they should – those were terrible things to say), I kept thinking, “Why are you so mad now?”

Because, all of a sudden, there was this huge segment of people who didn’t really express much of an issue with Trump up until that point.  Yet, prior to that point, his campaign was littered with incompetence and offensiveness.  That guy should not have been allowed to hold something with a sharp point on it, but somehow, certain segments of the population seemed to be totally fine with his bid for the presidency until they were shocked by his offensive comment about women.

Where was the outrage before that?  Why weren’t (some) people shocked at the gross ineptitude and overt classism, racism, and sexism before then?  It’s not that the “grab ’em” comment wasn’t offensive – it was terrible!  The outrage and disgust was well-deserved.  But the comment was also characteristic.

I admit a certain amount of similar dissonance at the wave of outrage against this latest incident with J Mac.

John MacArthur has always been a poor exegete, has always held untenable and destructive positions, and has always been mean about it.  For years and years.  His insulting dismissiveness to anything that is not his position is on display in countless videos and writings.

His fanbase is not repelled by this, but drawn to it.  They like it when he makes fun of opponents and pretends like there is no reasonable alternative to his views.  It makes them feel right and safe and superior – the noble vanguard against the forces of sin and foolishness in the world – the last defenders of the True Gospel – and everyone else is worthy of contempt whether they have the Spirit of Christ or not.  And if you disagree with J Mac, you probably don’t.

This has been his consistent message.  For years.  Why are all these evangelicals suddenly upset about it?

For years, he’s been saying that Pentecostals are servants of Satan.  For years, he’s been saying that God shows racial partiality.  For years, he’s been saying that the pursuit of justice undermines “the gospel.”  And if anyone has argued to the contrary, he treats them like a joke and encourages his disciples to treat them like a joke.

Why are we so angry, now?  All we’re seeing is classic John MacArthur.

Is this latest round of comments worthy of outrage and correction?  Absolutely.  Absolutely, no question.  But this isn’t an aberration.  This isn’t a normally thoughtful, loving man who is interested in struggling through biblical issues with the body of Christ whom he loves, and he just so happened to let some bad feelings out in an inappropriate fluke.  This is a consistently unloving, contemptuous man who couldn’t exegete his way out of a wet paper bag showing his typical contempt for most of those for whom Christ died because they have the audacity to understand the Bible differently than he does.

That, I might add, is a description of a not insignificant segment of evangelicalism.  It’s no surprise to me that JM has the influence that he does.  He’s not just a hero; he’s an incarnation of all of evangelicalism’s darker spirits.

In all honesty, I’m very forgiving of snark.  None of us should be snarky, but we all are.  We are all dismissive and contemptuous of the wrong people at the wrong times.  It’s definitely not a characteristic to admire, which is probably where I part ways with J Mac and Da Boyz, but it’s almost universal.  I do it.  You do it.  We don’t always do it in front of TV cameras, but we probably would if we had that kind of influence.  It doesn’t make it ok, but it’s easy to understand how it happens.

Whether you agree with Jahizzy about women pastors or not, what he said was wrong.  He should repent of what he said, and everyone calling for that is right to do so.

But where have those calls been for the past ten or twenty years?  This is just MacArthur doing MacArthur things, not some bold new escalation of his rhetoric.  He is always like this.  And the irony of all this – an even bigger irony than calling his ministry “Grace to You” – is that this is what he thinks it means to be Jesus in the world.

His Content

A long time ago, when I had the luxury of such discussions, a friend of mine and I were discussing the impact of Carl McIntire on Presbyterian history.

Carl signed up with J. Gresham Machen who had started the denomination known, today, as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  This denomination was started in response to increasing theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church USA.

This still wasn’t fundamentalist enough for Carl, though, and he shortly broke from the OPC to form the Bible Presbyterian Church where they could emphasize clear, biblical distinctives like total abstention from alcohol, premillennial dispensationalism, and total disassociation from any group who might disagree with you.  Or, as my friend put it, “It’s like he dug through the OPC’s theological trash can and thought, ‘Hey, some of this stuff is pretty good!'”

I’m not sure I could put together a better description of John MacArthur’s strange collage of theological positions.

That’s not to say he’s wrong about literally everything, but the sheer volume of things he propounds as clear biblical truth has a high degree of overlap with “positions widely discredited by anyone with even a modicum of biblical scholarship.”

“Oh,” but you say, “he’s the founding president of a seminary!”

This is true, but you have to understand that seminaries, like martial arts schools, are not regulated in any way.  You could start a seminary right now.  Anyone could.  Whether anyone would recognize your credentials as valid is another story, but you don’t have to meet any level of qualifications to open a seminary.

Further, as someone who perennially considers seminary, I can tell you that many of them were not founded to further inquiry, scholarship, debate, and vital pastoral skills necessary to care for hurting people and help them rebuild their lives.  Most of them are focused on passing down a collection of theological distinctives.  Being associated with a seminary or having a seminary degree does not make you a serious scholar of the Bible, although it can help in that journey quite a bit.

“Well,” you might reply, “just because he holds to many biblically shallow positions and reads the Bible basically the same way people read newspapers does not mean he’s wrong about this one.”

Also quite true, but let me tell you where I’m going with this.

When I was younger, I worked in a college’s physical plant.  One time, I had to attend a seminar on a new fire suppression system.  It was just as exciting as it sounds.

The vendor explained the various statistics and operations of the system.  When he got to the smoke detectors you installed in parking garages, he took some time to explain some of the differences, one of which is that cigarette smoke would not set off the parking garage smoke detectors, even though the internal building smoke detectors would react to cigarette smoke.

At this point, a gentleman in the front row sat back in his chair, crossed his arms, and declared, “Well, all someone would have to do is set fire to your garage using a lot of cigarettes,” and grinned cleverly while looking around the room, convinced that he had discovered the fatal flaw in this vendor’s system.

This man was smug and convinced of his own cleverness and rightness.  He had seen what others had not seen and was able to point out the insidious danger of this evil vendor trying to sell us a bill of goods.

It did not occur to him that his observation was colossally stupid.

If you’ve ever been in a parking garage, you know that it is almost entirely made of metal and concrete.  In order to have a destructive garage fire using cigarettes, you would have to import a truly massive amount of cigarettes and somehow set the whole thing ablaze.  Further, unless you used other huge amounts of flaming cigarettes to light your imported huge amount of cigarettes, the detectors would detect your flames.

He might as well have said, “What if aliens set your garage on fire with lasers that don’t set off smoke detectors?  Answer THAT, you shyster.”

A scenario where someone would 1) want to burn down your parking garage, 2) realize the best way to do this was to burn it down with cigarettes so the detectors wouldn’t go off, 3) sneak in multiple truckloads of cigarettes, 4) place this massive quantity of cigarettes around the garage without anyone noticing, and 5) successfully set all these cigarettes ablaze without being detected is all just so crazy as to be astounding, and yet, this man was smugly self-assured that he was right and good – a protector of the less intelligent.

This is, more or less, the way I see John MacArthur: someone whose conclusions are so massively ill-founded that it makes their smugness both ludicrous and intolerable.  It’s offensive when someone calls you stupid; it’s intolerable when a stupid person calls you stupid.

When JM says that there is “no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher, period, end of discussion,” we have to understand the phrase “no case” entails “no case that I am capable of understanding or interacting with in any way.”  Obviously, people can and have made biblical cases for women preachers, but addressing them seriously is not something JMac is equipped to do, so he pretends they don’t exist.

A couple hundred years ago, white theologians were saying that no biblical case could be made against slavery.  Turns out that you can actually make that case!  Whether it’s convincing to a slave owner is another matter, but the arguments do exist.

Another analogy is when certain mythicists say things like, “There’s no evidence that Jesus existed!”  Well, yes there is.  You may not find the evidence convincing, but it does exist.  It’s not an assertion that came out of thin air.

But, like our man warning us about the Hypothetical Cigarette Arsonist, it’s hard to take someone’s claim about there being “no case that can be made biblically” seriously when this same person contends that the Earth is 6000 years old and, one day, all Christians will mysteriously vanish.  He also says things like this: “The New Testament talks about the fact that the twelve tribes of Israel will be identified. Over each of the tribes will rule in the behalf of Christ, one of the twelve Apostles and we as believers having been glorified coming back to earth will even under the leadership of Jesus Christ rule over the earth and over the living people of Israel as well.” (Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist, Part 2)

Do you remember that passage of Scripture that says an Apostle will rule each of the twelve tribes of Israel that will somehow be reconstituted in the future?  You DON’T?  Or how about when the church comes “back to earth” and rules “over the living people of Israel?”  You don’t remember that passage?

This is the man who says no biblical case can be made for women pastors.

Now, I think premillennial dispensationalism is what you get when you read the Bible with virtually no knowledge about the actual Bible while someone is teaching you premillennial dispensationalism.  When you don’t know anything about the ancient world or the historical events and concerns of the day or what a “genre” is, you get premillennial dispensationalism.

But even though I think J-Mac’s eschatology is the mathematical product of the raw text of the Bible and a massive amount of ignorance and cherry-picking, I’d never be bold enough to say that no biblical case could be made for premillennial dispensationalism.  You can make it.  People have made it.

Far more scholarship and respect for the Bible and awareness of its world have gone into the case for egalitarianism than in the entirety of J-Mac’s works put together.  He just has neither the authority nor the chops to make statements about the credibility (or in this case, the raw fact of existence) of biblical cases for women preachers.  Whether you agree with his position or not, he’s definitely not capable of speaking authoritatively on the state of the discussion.

Other than the fact that his arguments for complentarianism are bad, though, there was a point in his diatribe that really stood out to me.

He accused women wanting to be pastors of seeking power.  He even used the example that these women didn’t want to be plumbers; they wanted to be senators and pastors.  “They don’t want equality; they want power,” he said, and apparently the push for egalitarianism proves it.

This is just the dumbest line of argument ever.

Let me give you a slightly different situation.  I’ll even use J-Mac’s beloved plumber scenario.

Let’s say you have a group of plumbers, both men and women.  They have the same job title, same responsibilities, do the same work, operate the same complexity of scenarios – from a work perspective, they are completely indistinguishable.  However, the men make double the hourly rate that the women do.

If Johnny’s logic is correct, then if these women asked for equal pay, they wouldn’t be interested in equality.  They’d be interested in money.

Obviously, this is a ridiculous conclusion.  The money is where the inequity is.  You gain equality in this scenario by increasing compensation.  That’s what you’d ask for because that’s where the inequality is.  But I can hear J-Mac speaking out to those women, “You don’t just want a living wage, you want double your hourly rate!  You don’t want equality, you want money!  The Good Book tells us the love of money is the root of all evil, right after the story about the fox and the grapes!  A Christian woman shouldn’t be asking for higher salaries.”

This is a ludicrous criticism when the inequality is based in an unequal distribution of “power.”  (Incidentally, it says a lot about what MacArthur thinks about his role when he identifies “seeking to be a pastor” as a power grab.)  What else should they ask for?  Rubber ducks?  Free tickets to “Truth Matters?”  They have to ask for “power” because that’s what’s creating the inequality.

Now, you may think they shouldn’t have it.  That’s your opinion, but it’s idiotic to say that the fact that they’re asking to be allowed to hold a “power” position shows that they’re seeking power and not equality.  THAT’S WHERE THE INEQUALITY IS.

Women who want to be pastors (and senators, I guess) are only asking for something that men already have.  That’s seeking equality.  You can say they shouldn’t have it, but it makes zero sense to say asking for power means that they’re power-hungry and not interested in equality when the power is the thing that’s unequal.

When women ask for equal pay, does that make them money-hungry and not interested in equality?  When ethnic minorities wanted to use the same bathrooms, restaurants, bus seats, water fountains, and (gasp) colleges as white people, did that make them bathroom-hungry and not interested in equality?

John MacArthur has constructed a narrative where, if there’s an inequality, and you ask for that inequality to be rectified, that proves you aren’t interested in equality.  You’re only interested in whatever the heck you’re asking for that would make you equal.

I’m sorry; this is just the dumbest man in evangelicalism, and he considers himself the brightest.  He is the meanest, and he considers himself the most gracious.  If you are a complementarian, you need to find a new hero.

Sunday Meditations: Lover of Mankind

Last week, I was in Boston conducting a workshop for one of our clients.

Normally, I would have just flown in, done the workshop, and left, but the hotel they wanted me to stay at wouldn’t let me book for just one night.  So, I ended up having basically the morning free in Boston before my flight, and I headed downtown to see the two things everyone wants to see when they’re sightseeing: the public library and a very old church.

The Boston Public Library was unlike the public libraries in my own town, as was readily visible from the entrance.

public-library-front

We need more lanterns on our library!  Now, make them spikier!  Spikier, I say!

The library was full of art, sculpture, secluded alcoves, and tranquil courtyards.  I wandered aimlessly through both old and new sections.  There was a gallery of maps, several meeting rooms that would be terribly distracting simply due to the art and architecture, and a gift shop that I could observe through windows but never figured out the right path through the labyrinth to get there.

As I wandered, I walked up a flight of stairs to see this:

public-library-stairway-to-mural

I wasn’t really expecting this sort of thing in the library.  This was the entrance into the Sargent Gallery, where I spent a very long time.

The entire hall (including the vaulted ceiling) is covered in murals depicting various biblical and theological scenes, broken up only by doors or cases of very rare books.

Even the arrangement was striking, as one wall is occupied by the oppression of the Israelites just prior to the Exodus, and the other wall is occupied by the crucified Jesus Christ.

My favorite mural, however, was the Church, where she is depicted as a woman taking up the robe of the crucified Jesus.  What a striking visual representation of the Church and her mission.

All of this is probably due to the heavy, early Episcopalian influence on Boston, but you could also find traces of early American mysticism, such as the floor tiles with all the signs of the Zodiac or the occasional Masonic symbol.

The fusion of all these things struck me.  To some extent, it was all a physical embodiment of something I tried to express some weeks ago.  There is no reason a passionate pursuit of God and the refinement of the spirit in the way of Jesus Christ is antithetical to reason, knowledge, or inquiry.  And should we discover truths that shake our dogmatic certainty (dogmatic slumbers?), then we press into them, integrating and re-envisioning and re-evaluating.

Being at the library was a profoundly religious experience for me, confronted with both art and writing around every corner proclaiming the “sacred” and the “secular” without any awareness that a distinction should be made.  I spent a long time, there, just watching and thinking and praying and reading and meditating until I could no longer discern the difference.  It was definitely my kind of temple.

Speaking of spiritual experiences, I then grabbed a cold brew from the coffee shop in the library (why don’t all libraries have this?) and hiked across the square to visit Trinity Church.

trinity-church

An event truck, just as our spiritual forefathers had.

The church was like someone had magically taken the entirety of Episcopalian heritage and culture and made a building out of it.  Everywhere you turned was stained glass, lofty vaulted ceilings, and minute carvings and designs too numerous for the brain to take in at once.

trinity-church-sanctuary

I had gotten a little device that was supposed to give me an audio tour of the building, but since a gentleman was playing the pipe organ the entire time, I quickly abandoned the thing and just wandered around the building, myself.

I was particularly drawn to this panel – the Good Samaritan opposite Dorcas.

trinity-church-samaritan

As I left the building and was making my way around the outside to hike over to the Boston Common, I came across a statue of the church’s first rector, Phillips Brooks.  He’s probably most famous as the lyricist for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

trinity-church-philip-brooks

He was 6’4″ in real life, so this statue probably isn’t far off.

The plaque below the statue reads:

Preacher of the Word of God
Lover of Mankind

I didn’t know who Phillips Brooks was at the time I saw this plaque, but all I could think of was what a wonderful way for people to remember you.  I’m not a preacher by trade, but I hope people remember me this way.  Someone who shared the Word of God with them and was known as someone who loved their fellow man – not loved in some generic feeling of beneficence, but someone who actually valued, pursued, and was committed to the welfare of their fellow human beings.

What an amazing way to be remembered.  Surely, this is how we remember Jesus.

I was so stricken by the commemoration of this man in this way that I bought a couple of collections of sermons and letters by him.  I wanted to know what this man was like such that the people of Boston remembered him in this way.

As I began to read his sermons, it became clear.

I should note that Brooks and I would probably not agree on much about how to write a sermon.  He definitely comes from the “what does this verse make me think of” school of writing a sermon.  But unlike the unfocused meanderings or fiery rants against culture that such sermons often produce, Brooks’ sermons reveal someone who has spent a lot of time grappling with the larger truths of God and bringing them directly to bear into the struggles of his parishoners.

For example, his sermon on John 8:12 compares Jesus to the light of the sun that wakes up the world.  But he then presses on to drive the point home that Jesus, in his humanity, shows us the potential for what humans can be.  Humans are good, preaches Brooks, and evil is an intruder that, if we are to be saved, must be fought so that the goodness God has built into humans can shine forth.  Jesus is both our example and power that allows us to move closer to this, and we can see others moving closer to this as well, whether they are Christians or not.

In this way, Brooks says, all history is church history, because every advance humanity makes toward compassion and justice and away from selfishness and suffering is the advance of the victory of God in the world.  We are called to this mission and are indwelt with the power of Christ, should we choose to take it up, to follow.

I could easily see how even the most skeptical of Brooks’ religion could not deny that here was a man who was for mankind.  Here was a man who, by the Spirit, envisioned a world where mankind was ever reaching for its potential, and that potential was not just defined by technological advancement, but moral advancement in love for one another and ourselves.

Brooks didn’t see this humanism as eclipsing a love for God, but rather a very natural progression of it.  For him, there was no division between spiritual and social salvation.  The Jesus-ward life isn’t about escaping Hell, but embarking on a deliberate journey into a new way of life that results in a new world.  If that isn’t biblical eschatology, I don’t know what is.

I am not much in the world, but I hope I can be a man who is remembered as someone who preached the Word of God and loved mankind.

Will Elijah Come Back Before the Second Coming?

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a pastor and a good friend about John the Baptist’s denial that he is Elijah in John 1:21.  It is sheer coincidence that this happened to dovetail with my latest devotional entry.

Although we had similar takes on why John the Baptist said “no,” he also offered that the actual Elijah will actually show up prior to the second coming of Jesus, citing Jesus in Matthew 17:11 saying that Elijah would come to “restore all things” (and John the Baptist did not do this) and Malachi’s prophecy in 4:5 stating that Elijah would come before the final judgment.

By contrast, I offered that the Gospels’ portrayals of John the Baptist and his ministry present him as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophetic expectation, and there’s no Scriptural indicator that we should be looking for a future appearance of the actual Elijah.

What follows is my explanation to him of why I think the way I do with some minor edits for clarity.  While it is maybe more scholarly than 97% of the emails I send, it’s also not a scholarly paper and is meant to serve as an explanatory overview than a thorough defense of a hypothesis.


1. Malachi

Malachi is a revelation to Israel, and Chapter 1 begins with Israel’s election – preferred by God over her close relatives.  But Israel is accused of not showing the honor a son should show a parent, and this is illustrated mostly by the carelessness of their religious ceremonies.  It should be noted this reveals a heart condition, but it is illustrated in how little the priests and leaders care about how God is worshiped.  They use blemished sacrifices, etc.  In chapter 2, this gets into some very vivid imagery, such as God spreading the dung from the animals in the priests’ faces.

Malachi continues to show how good the covenant was and how God was faithful, but Israel continues to do evil, broadening the picture to include excusing evil behavior, adultery, accusing God of not keeping up His end of the bargain – a faithlessness that has made them a mockery even among pagan nations.

In chapter 3, God says he will send a messenger to prepare the way before Him, and this messenger will bring a refiner’s fire, judgement, etc.  This imagery is largely how John the Baptist depicts the coming Messiah in the synoptics.  The list of Israel’s crimes grows to include sorcery, oppression, and a variety of sins.  God notes that, if Israel will return to Him, He will return to them, but they seem to not know how to do that.  This chapter does note that the faithful few will be spared on this day of judgement.

In chapter 4, God describes this day as a terrible day of fire that will destroy the wicked, but those who are faithful will survive and rejoice and flourish in the aftermath.  God reminds them to remember their covenant, and there says that Elijah will come before this day, turning the hearts of the sons to the fathers so that God will not smite the land with herem – a total destruction.

So, the context throughout the book is Israel.  A day of judgement will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the faithful remnant of Israel will survive it.  Before this day comes, Elijah will appear to turn these descendants’ hearts back to their ancestors and vice-versa.  They will remember their covenant, and then God will not utterly destroy the land and everyone in it.

There is no textual indicator that anything in Malachi is talking about the end of history or a final judgement, and this bounding historical context is important.  If I say, “I’m going to drive to my office.  When I get there, I’m going to fire all the slackers,” the context sets the parameters.  No one would think I was going to fire every slacker everywhere, because I established that this was going to happen at my office.

This will be a judgement in history that will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the righteous will be liberated, and before that day comes, Elijah will be sent to turn people’s hearts to avoid a total destruction.

2. Jewish Views Before Christ

Perhaps the oldest view we have of the future role of Elijah is Sirach 48, which is an entire chapter on Elijah.  This would have been written around the 2nd century BC.  The key verse that talks about his future role is verse 10:

designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

This is very similar to the text in Malachi with the addition that Elijah will “restore the tribes of Jacob.”  In other words, restore Israel.  Indeed, the entirety of Sirach is concerned with the destiny of Israel and the troubles she is suffering because of her treatment of these holy men of God and failure to keep the Law.  The author looks for a time when God will fulfill these prophecies and clear out the wicked from Israel, restoring her to righteousness.  Later rabbinic writings seem to confirm this understanding,

Again, there are no textual indicators about the fate of other nations or the world or this being the end of history.

It is noteworthy that there are other expectations that crop up over time.  For instance, one popular view is that Elijah would put to rest all disputes about the Torah and explain it clearly to everyone to produce unity (thus turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and so on).  This view shows up in at least three early sources (such as the Mishnah’s Eduyot 8 (redacted in the 3rd century AD but contents are much, much older)) and the Zohar says that Elijah will be like Aaron was to Moses.

There was also a view that Elijah would change the minds of people and lead them to repentance, although this seems to be a later, minority view.  The earliest account of it I can find is a short passage in the Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer which would have been 8th or 9th century AD.

I could only find one reference to Elijah raising the dead, and this is in the Shir haShirim Zuta (10th century A.D.) which says that, in order to prove his identity, Elijah will raise the dead of people known to the people who see him.  Sort of like Jesus’ miracle with Lazarus.

So, when we see Jewish thoughts on Elijah that might have influenced Jesus or been “in the air” at the time, it seems like the understanding is that Elijah will come and turn Israel back to her covenant, thus restoring Israel.

3. Matthew 11:4

and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen

Here, Jesus directly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who is to come.  The addition of the “He who has an ear, let him hear” language tells us that this is happening in a non-literal manner.  We have to spiritually discern Jesus’ meaning.  John the Baptist is not the literal Elijah everyone was expecting, but he was the Elijah who was to come all the same.

Also, John the Baptist is still alive when Jesus tells everyone this.

4. Matthew 17:10-13

And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

This passage is fun from a translation standpoint because the “is indeed coming” is erchontai which is translated as “came” the vast majority of the time it appears.  Matthew 25:11 for instance.  It is most commonly translated to mean something happened in the past, but it is sometimes translated as present or future, depending on the context.

Here, it is probably translated in the future because “will restore” (apokatastesei) is in the future, although obviously Elijah can have come and cause a future effect.  “I showed up an hour ago, and I’m about to get some food.”  This verb means to “reconstitute.”  Something was broken up, and he will reform it.  The word for “all things” is panta which just means “all.”

This seems to fit Malachi’s picture and the early Jewish rabbinical understanding of what it meant for Elijah to return.  God is going to send a terrible day of calamity on Israel to remove the wicked, but He will save the faithful.  So, prior to that day, God will send Elijah to turn people’s hearts back to each other and their covenant, and by doing so will restore Israel (as Sirach has it).  This is what John the Baptist did.

Again, there’s no reason to think Jesus is talking about the end of the world or a final judgement of the world.  Malachi isn’t, and no Jewish interpreter is either.  It is certainly possible that Jesus is bringing a new meaning to these ideas.  Wouldn’t be the first time Jesus did that with a traditional Jewish understanding.  But the burden would be to prove that’s what he’s doing.

Perhaps the greatest argument that this is what Malachi and Jesus had in mind is that this is what actually happened in history.  God’s judgement did fall on Israel and destroy their power structure, resulting in the deaths of an immense amount of Jewish people on that terrible day.  And yet, those who repented escaped.  Before this happened, God sent John to turn the hearts of the people so that they might repent and become the new Israel, and it was out of these people – the poor, the blind, the lame, and the sinners – that Israel was restored, while their priests and scribes and politicians and legalists were destroyed.

5. Mark 9:11-13

Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”

In Mark’s version, the English translation is very similar to Matthew, but the Greek is a little different.  Get to that in a moment.

It’s also interesting that, here, Jesus anticipates the objection that, if Elijah is coming / has come, then why will the Son of Man suffer?  This is interesting because it shows us that, in Jesus’ mind, the coming of Elijah is before the Son of Man and it will not fix everything.  Elijah comes, and the Son of Man will still be mistreated, and to prove his point, he highlights the fact that Elijah was mistreated “as is written about him.”

So, whatever it means for Elijah to “restore all things,” this act is not comprehensive enough to stop the mistreatment of the Son of Man.

When we look at the Greek, the “is indeed coming first” is elthon proton (in contrast to the tense the disciples use in their question – elthein proton).  Elthein is consistently translated as “to come,” whereas elthon is consistently translated as “came” or “having come” – past tense – even more consistently than the erchontai of Matthew.  The “restores” is apokathistanei which is present tense, not future.  Elijah, having come, restores all things (panta is the same).

6. Luke 1:16-17

He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke does not contain a story where Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah, but it does contain this prophecy of John’s birth, which has a hint of the Isaiah passage in it, but is obviously a direct reference to the Malachi prophecy.  I think Luke is the bridge that resolves the tension between John the Gospel and the other synoptics.  John is not literally Elijah come back.  But he has Elijah’s spirit and power and fulfills the prophetic expectation of what Elijah was supposed to accomplish.

7. The End (Finally)

Malachi prophecies a day of destruction that is about to come upon Israel where the righteous will be saved.  Prior to that day, Elijah will come to turn people’s hearts so that not everyone will be destroyed.

Sirach (and others) expect that this will be the restoration/reformation of Israel.

Jesus proclaims that Elijah has come and will restore all, but this will not stop the suffering of the Son of Man.  He identifies John the Baptist as the person who is doing this thing.

In history, the day of calamity falls on Israel, destroying many, but the repentant and faithful are saved.

To me, this all wraps up pretty neatly.

When we start with Malachi and move forward in history, this provides us a context for understanding Jesus’ teaching, and when we do this, we see that John the Baptist fits the bill and what God said would happen happened.  There’s no particular reason to expect that a literal Elijah will appear before another calamity.  This could happen, of course; there’s just no particular reason to look for it.  The things that God said would happen did happen.  Not necessarily in the exact way everyone expected, but that’s Jesus for you, and he explains to us that it did happen if we have ears to hear.

In my opinion, the only way to say that John the Baptist didn’t fulfill this role in prophecy is if we begin with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about – i.e. a final judgement of the whole world at the end of history and a restoration of everything in that world – and then carry that backwards through the texts.  Obviously, that did not happen and John the Baptist didn’t do that, so our only option with that understanding is that it must be happening at some point in the future.

But that direction seems less sound to me.  I don’t want to start with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about and then project that backwards.  I want to understand Jesus against the background of his context and the continuity of what God was doing at the time.  I don’t see anywhere in that chain of thought or history where a final judgement and restoration of the entire world is in view.

I do believe in a final judgement and restoration of the world from other passages.  Paul especially develops this idea as he begins to realize the ramifications of what Jesus did for the nations, and John himself describes this picture at the end of Revelation.  But I don’t think that’s what’s in view in Malachi and the subsequent passages that build on Malachi.

Elijah Must Come: Matthew 17:9-13

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:9-13 (NRSV)

The vision Jesus is referring to is what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, where some of the disciples saw a foreshadowing of the success of Jesus’ mission.  Jesus appeared to them as a glorified saint – a citizen of the victorious kingdom of God – discussing the exodus event he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem with the great prophets and deliverers from Israel’s history.

Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone about what they saw until after his resurrection, identifying himself as the Son of Man figure that Daniel’s visions look forward to: the one who will receive the kingdom from God on the day when God destroys His enemies.

This isn’t the first time in Matthew that Jesus has asked the witnesses to keep what they saw under wraps.  It’s not always clear why Jesus wants them to do this, but I think we can say, generally, that Jesus is concerned that he and his nascent movement don’t get snuffed out before it has a chance to take hold.  When you start telling everyone that you saw the man Jesus transform into a glorified deliverer promised by God, authorities are going to take notice.

Rome may not believe in Jesus’ claims, but she certainly believes in the effect these claims may have on an oppressed population, and the experience of Jesus and the disciples (and the faith communities established by their testimony) will look very different if there’s a contingent of soldiers waiting for them in Capernaum.

But the disciples have seen a vision of the imminent arrival of a victorious kingdom with Jesus as the leader.  They know what’s supposed to happen to the Son of Man.  And Jesus has made a shocking claim that he will die and rise from the dead – a claim so absurd that it seems like none of the disciples take it seriously until after it happens.

All these things point to the fact that the day of the Lord is at hand, and this raises a question for the disciples.  They have heard the scribes teaching that Elijah must appear before the day of the Lord can occur.

This may just be something that some of them have been taught as Jews.  It may also be that this is a specific apologetic the scribes are using to discredit the idea that Jesus is the Messiah and that the hoped-for kingdom of God is at hand.  Jesus can’t be the man and this can’t be the time because Elijah hasn’t appeared.

This expectation comes from a portion of Malachi:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4 (NRSV)

I once heard a really outlandish, but well-intentioned, sermon at an off-the-beaten-path Baptist church where the pastor said that the allusion to stubble, here, was beard stubble, and this showed us how important it was to keep up our cleanliness and grooming.  “The point is: you just can’t let yourself go,” he said.

Needless to say, that’s not really what Malachi is getting at.  What we’re seeing here is a prophesied day that will utterly wipe out the wicked so that the faithful will flourish.  Notice, also, the role of Moses in this day as the one who gave the Law to Israel.  But before this day comes, Elijah has to appear preaching repentance so that there is a faithful to flourish and all Israel doesn’t perish in the day of judgement.

Both Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, but when Jesus says that Elijah has already come, he’s talking about John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was doing the exact thing that Elijah was supposed to do before the day of the Lord.  He even dressed up like Elijah.  He was preaching repentance to Israel so that they might be saved in the day of judgement.  He baptized them, demonstrating the cleansing of their sin and entry into the renewed people of God.  He was preparing the way for the Messiah who would enact the judgement described in Malachi 4.  He was so committed to this vision that, when Jesus failed to start violently overthrowing the government and John ended up imprisoned by them, he questioned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.

And that last bit is what makes it click for the disciples.  When Jesus says that Elijah wasn’t recognized but was instead persecuted and killed by the powers that be, they know right away who he must be talking about.

Jesus also slips in that the Son of Man will have the same experience.

When we look at the prophets God sent to Israel to proclaim a coming judgement (and encourage repentance in order to avoid it), we don’t see a whole lot of success.  What we see, instead, is an increasingly hostile leadership who isn’t keen on the criticism.  The prophets point out how Israel’s leaders fail to shepherd their people and practice righteousness.  They lay the blame for rampant oppression and corruption at the feet of the leaders.  The prophets say that Israel’s troubles (exile, rule by pagans) are the leadership’s fault, and their circumstances are only going to get worse, culminating in an eventual destruction.  The only way out is to repent of all of this madness and restore faithfulness, compassion, justice, and mercy.

But the leaders of Israel actually like things the way they are.  They are prospering off the backs of their people even in the midst of exile and pagan rule.  They ingratiate themselves with the political powers of their day and are rewarded with power and prosperity of their own.  They really want the prophets to quit stirring up the people.  They want them to shut up.  Their responses move from mockery and discrediting into flat out violence.

This happened to the prophets.  It happened to John the Baptist.  It will happen to Jesus.

This is a crazy juxtaposition with what the vision of glory and success that the disciples have just seen on the mountain.  How can Jesus successfully lead a deliverance of Israel and bring the kingdom of God to fruition if he will just follow the other prophets into imprisonment and death?

This is the value of that tantalizingly absurd claim: “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Consider This

  1. Jesus clearly indicates that the ministry of the John the Baptist is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah returning.  What implications does this have for how we might understand Old Testament prophecy, especially the apocalyptic sort?
  2. The prophets all the way up through Jesus called people out of an old way of life and into a new one that marked a new membership in a new Israel.  What does this mean for you?

Someday Meditations: Intellectualism, Skepticism, and Mysticism

My journey through faith hasn’t always felt good.  It’s sometimes been terrifying.  It’s sometimes been profoundly sad.  But it’s never been boring.

The relationship of faith to doubt or critical thought is a troubled one, at least as far as American Evangelicalism is concerned.  It definitely hasn’t always been this way in church history, but it seems like it might be here, now.

You know as well as I do that the people on this campus who talk the most about theology have the most active spiritualities.

If you approach your faith with intellectual rigor, there is a danger of faith becoming a religion of the “head” rather than the “heart.”  While I understand this is a theoretical risk, I’ve almost never seen it play out this way.

I find that the people most drawn to intellectually examine their faith often have deep spiritual lives.  They can’t put it down.  It’s a topic of every conversation, the subject of the books they read, always on their minds.  It may not be a contented spiritual life, but it’s serious and ever present.

I’ve never met a group of people who would argue theological truths and their favorite scotch with equal passion – in an Irish pub.

In fact, I’d say an intellectual disinterest in the faith has a tendency to lead to a “head” religion.  American Evangelicalism is almost entirely about right belief, and the content of those right beliefs.  This is usually not due to some veneration of the intellect (although it can be that for certain individuals or congregations), but rather a definition of faith that involves being presented with cognitive content, assenting that content is true, and then never questioning it, again.

This is where the person with an intellectual interest in their faith starts to part ways.  It can’t be left alone, and if someone starts poking hard enough, eventually something happens that rocks the boat.

It doesn’t mean the boat capsizes or takes on irreparable damage, but you begin to realize that you’re not pointed in the same direction, and you can’t really go back.

For me, as a dyed in the wool fundamentalist Christian going to college, that moment was learning Greek.

When you learn Greek, you get exposed to the idea that we have competing manuscripts.  Nobody has the originals of the biblical texts.  We have copies of copies.  In most cases, we have quite a few to choose from.

So, let’s say you’re translating a verse, and you get to a point where our oldest copy says one thing, but almost all the other copies say something else.  Who wins?  Do you go with the oldest assuming that it’s the closest to the original?  Or do you go with the most numerous and assume the older text is an error?

And you’re translating into English.  What if there’s an idiom in the Greek that doesn’t exist in English?  Do you translate it into the literal equivalent and hope people will just figure out what it means, or do you pick a similar English idiom knowing that those words aren’t the translations of the Greek words?

Granted, some people have made a much bigger deal of this problem than it actually is.  If you read Ehrman when he’s on a roll, you might get the idea that biblical manuscripts are a Da Vinci Code-esque wasteland of irreconcilable differences, and that is not at all close to the reality.

But still, once you begin to realize that the text of your English Bible is to some extent based on judgement calls by translators, and even your “Greek New Testament” is the product of a selection process, you can’t really go back to where you’d been, before.

Now, some uncertainty has been introduced.  The chain of God’s mouth to the written page has been complicated, somewhat.

When people tell me that I don’t take the Bible seriously because I don’t believe in Hell, I tell them that I had to sit through a class on ancient Roman provinces.  That was the entire class subject.  I took that class because I wanted to understand the Bible better.  Did you sit through a class on Roman provinces?  You didn’t?  Maybe you don’t take the Bible seriously.

As you begin to make inquiries into biblical scholarship, historical studies, the history and current state of philosophy, the rise and fall of other religions, the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors, early Greek histories, the evidence progressively unearthed by the natural sciences, and so forth, you begin to realize that nothing is as simple as you thought it was.

You have to replace some old understandings or let some things go altogether.  You have to admit there are answers you don’t have.  That there are good counterpoints to which you cannot respond.  That some things have been offered to you as evidence that only holds together if you already believe the conclusions the evidence is supposed to support, and some of that evidence was never true to begin with.

And so, the intellectual pursuit of the faith begins to introduce uncertainty, criticism, skepticism, and doubt of a certain variety.

But the thing is – this is the byproduct of a passionate pursuit of the faith.  If you never went poking around, you’d never have found all that stuff.  You went poking around because you wanted to understand it better, because you loved it, because you couldn’t put it down.  The intellectual pursuit that ultimately led to greater uncertainty was a mark of a serious, passionate faith.

We should thank liberal Christians because they move the window of acceptability to include atheism.  And we have to be patient with this process.  Conservative Christians become liberal Christians who become agnostics who become atheists.  This is often how it goes.

This process is sometimes too much for people.  Once they are confronted with uncertainty or the uncomfortable fact that some of their beliefs are just flat out false, they can’t take it.  They give it up.  Their only choices were unshakable certainty in Christianity or unshakable certainty that Christianity is utterly false.

This is, of course, not at all the only reason Christians become atheists.  I’m not trying to make it sound like all former-Christian atheists were people who couldn’t hold a worldview together.

But for many of them, this was the choice we ourselves offered them.  We set them up for this.  They never learned to see the intellectual pursuit of their faith and the subsequent, unsettling uncertainty as spiritual growth and maturity.  They saw it as falling away.

And we do it right from the ground up with youth.  Do we teach them how to integrate an organic search for truth into faith that is genuinely their own, or do we teach them how to accept uncritically what they are taught and warn them of the dangers of getting too far outside the lines, or portray it as a waste of their time?

I mean, this just happened in a youth worship service I attended.  The casual contempt for learning and trivialization of knowledge, portraying these things as obstacles or at least irrelevant to true faith.

The paradigm for American evangelical faith is someone who believes all the right things unswervingly, never questioning.  Utterly credulous and intellectually disinterested.

That may be a way to have faith.  I’m certainly not trying to say my own journey is the only legitimate one or that the only way to be truly spiritual is to learn ancient languages or read controversial books all the time.

Certainly, knowledge for its own sake puffs up, as Paul warns us.  But static dogma is neither knowledge nor a remedy for pride.  It’s just assertions, typically tribal ones.

What I am saying is that our idea of what constitutes a passionate spiritual life may be backwards, or at least far too limited.

People learn all they can about something because they love it.  It’s a pursuit.  And when this gives rise to uncertainty, that’s love as well, because you love it for what it actually is.

To me, there’s always unexplored territory with no fences or signs telling me to keep out.  If we trust God, there’s no reason not to throw ourselves into the pursuit of our faith with all parts of our being.

It doesn’t always feel good.  Honestly, sometimes, it can feel pretty terrible.  But it’s always new.

Luke 19:11-28 – While You’re Waiting

Let me ask you folks a question: what are some things you like to do while you’re waiting?  Do you sit quietly with your thoughts?  Do you strike up conversations with the people around you?  Do you pull out your phone and start texting?  Do you call someone?  Which, incidentally, is kind of the same as talking to the people around you.  People seem to think some invisible sound shield surrounds them when they’re on their phone, but it doesn’t.  Everyone in the room knows all about your cyst or whatever you told your sister.

Most of the time, I read.  It used to be that I had to take a book with me everywhere I went, but thanks to technology, I have the Kindle app on my phone, which is great.  Now, if there’s a book I really want to read in ten-minute increments, I just fire up the app, and presto – five years later, I’ve read that book.

It’s a common part of our lives.  We show up for something, and then we have to wait.  Flights, doctor’s appointments – this is such a common phenomenon that we even have “waiting rooms.”  Isn’t that interesting?  That’s not very optimistic, is it?  We’re so confident that most people are going to have to wait that we built a special room for it.

In the military, we even had a special phrase for this.  Do you know what it is?  “Hurry up and wait.”  The idea is that it’s vitally important for you to arrive and be fully prepared as soon as you possibly can, but the military as a whole does not feel a similar obligation toward you, and you’re probably going to have to wait for the thing you were rushing to get to.  And then you play spades for the next three hours.

Our passage, today, is about something the disciples were sure was about to happen right away, but Jesus knew that they were going to have to wait, and how they spent that time was very important.

Please stand with me as we read the Word of God together:

As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.

He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’  And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ ”

And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Whenever Jesus talks in parables, he’s talking in a secret code.  Back in Luke chapter 8, when his disciples asked him why he didn’t speak more plainly, Jesus told them he taught the secrets of the kingdom in parables so that only the faithful would understand him and everyone else wouldn’t.

This is a very smart policy when you’re surrounded by the Roman Empire.  You can’t just walk around with a large group of people talking about a new kingdom overthrowing earthly kingdoms with yourself as the king.  Certain people will have feelings about that.  But if you’re walking around telling stories about seeds and sons and banquets and vineyards – nobody’s going to get into trouble for that.

But it’s a code.  It’s like those coded radio transmissions during World War II.  “The black cat sings by moonlight.  The turkey is on fire,” or whatever.  To the outside listener, that’s just someone saying random things about cats and turkeys.  To the people for whom the message is intended, however, secret and vital information is getting to them.

In fact, if you heard a spy say, “The black cat sings by moonlight,” and you went around looking for an actual cat, you would have missed the point, completely.  The message is not about cat noises.

In this parable, Jesus tells a story about a royal figure who is going away to receive a kingdom, but his own people don’t want him.  While he is away, he has servants invest some of his money.  When he comes back, he evaluates each of them on how well they did, and then destroys his enemies.

But this story is not about money management or the importance of investing or good ways to deal with your political opponents, and if we try to make this story about those literal things, then we’ve missed the point, just like the spy looking for a black cat.

So, I want to talk to you about the message that Jesus wanted his followers to hear, and then I want to talk about how that message might be useful for us, today.

First, what did Jesus want his followers to hear?

Luke tells us that Jesus has been traveling toward Jerusalem.  He’s just been through Jericho where the event happens with Zacchaeus.  A big crowd is around Jesus, Zacchaeus repents of how he’s cheated his fellow Israelites – and the repentance is not just him being sorry, but he works to repair the damage, which is important for understanding biblical repentance – and Jesus announces that he will be saved.

As he continues toward Jerusalem, the people around Jesus begin to think that the kingdom of God is about to fully happen right then and there.  All the ingredients are here.  The true descendant of David is here, the city of the king is here – time for the true king to overthrow the impostors and take the throne and usher in a new era.  If you’re a Tolkien nerd like I am, you might think of Aragorn coming to Gondor in The Return of the King.  It’s time for Isildur’s true descendant to reign in the city of the king.  Tolkien was a Christian, and it’s no accident that many parts of his stories sound very much like Bible stories.

Jesus wants to correct this idea, but he can’t just come out in front of everyone and spell out his plans for the kingdom.  This would be crazy dangerous and… well… just crazy in general, really.  Nobody stands in front of the gates of the enemy and announces their strategy and timetable to everyone who happens to be standing around at the time.  So, instead, Jesus tells a story in secret code.  But as we interpret the code, we have to keep in mind the context: the issue that Jesus is talking about is the expectation that he is going to bring the kingdom of God right then and there.

In this story, the nobleman does not receive his kingdom right away – he has to travel far away, leaving his servants to manage things in his absence.  He receives his kingdom after his journey.

This is the first thing Jesus wants his true followers to know: the kingdom isn’t going to appear right this second.  It will come, and Jesus will receive it, but it will not be at that moment while he is with his disciples.  He will have to go away to receive it.

The disciples, by the way, never really do get keen on the idea that Jesus has to leave them in order for this kingdom plan to work.  They keep expecting and insisting that Jesus will stay with them, be victorious right then, and set them on thrones and so on.  This is an ongoing obstacle with Jesus’ disciples until after his resurrection and ascension.  At one point, Peter even rebukes Jesus for saying things like this, which is pretty gutsy, if you ask me.

The next thing the nobleman does in the story is give his servants some money and command them to conduct business for him while he’s away.

So, the second thing Jesus wants them to know is that, while he is gone, they will have to manage without him, and he expects they will take what he has given them and multiply it.  At the time, they don’t know what this will look like, but on this side of the book of Acts, we do.  The sharing of the gospel, the performing of Jesus’ miracles, the establishment of believing communities taking care of one another – these are things Jesus’ followers do in the days after he leaves them.

Then, in the story, our nobleman runs into a snag.  Some of his own people begin to subvert him.  They start telling these new kingdom people that they don’t want this man to be their king.

Jesus is telling his followers that this will happen to him as well.  Some of the very people who should be rejoicing that their king has come will be the same people who work to stop it, namely the political and religious leaders of Israel at that time, and they will seek to turn the people who would enter the kingdom against their prospective king.

We might expect, then, that this nobleman in the story is in a bad spot.  He’s away from his servants and some of his own people are working to turn everyone against him.  But that’s not at all what happens.  The nobleman receives his kingdom and comes back!  Safe and sound!  No trouble at all.  He’s got the kingdom, and he’s back with his servants.

Jesus wants his followers to know that even though he has to go away, and even though there will be opposition, that this cannot stop his plans.  It doesn’t hold them up at all, and these efforts to stop them amount to something like a bug trying to stop a van.  Jesus wants his followers to have hope and be comforted during that time.  He will receive his kingdom, and he will come back to them.

Then the nobleman asks how each of them did with his money, and the first couple of servants report successes.  Note that, in the story, he rewards them with authority over cities.  He has a kingdom, now, and can do these sorts of things.  The little of his money that they were entrusted with shows him that they can be trusted with much greater power and authority.  Because they were faithful with what they had been given, their lord can trust them with much, much more.

Jesus wants his followers to know that, when he returns, their faithfulness in his absence will show that they are worthy of receiving authority in his kingdom.  He expects that they will obey him while he is gone and do the things that he did in the world, and this will result in more and more people turning their hearts to him.  Because they are faithful with a little, great will be their reward.  Their stewardship of the gifts of the gospel and their spiritual gifts and the people under their care and leadership will result in them ruling the kingdom with Jesus.

And then we get to the next servant, and, I’m not going to lie, things get a little awkward.

This servant has done absolutely nothing with his lord’s investment.  He’s hidden it.  And why?  Because he was afraid.  He knew his master was a savvy investor, a hard-driving businessman, and a strict evaluator.  He was afraid that, if he did something with his master’s money, he would lose what he had and the master would be angry with him.

Makes some sense, right?  We’ve probably all had bosses like this.  Maybe you are a boss like this; I don’t know.

And if the lord’s instruction had been, “Make sure I don’t lose any money,” this line of reasoning might have worked out.  If he had said, “Please do what you can to hold on to what I gave you,” this plan might have been all right.  Unfortunately, the lord had asked his servants to risk the money – to put it out there like he did and see what happened.  This is the irony of this servant: by trying to protect his lord’s interests, he ended up completely disobeying him.

Let that sink in for a minute.  He tried to protect his lord’s interests, and he ended up not doing what the lord said he wanted.

The nobleman in the story does not take this well.  He tells the servant that, if he knew all those things about him, then he should have been motivated to multiply the money.  If he was so worried about losing the money, he could have at least put it in the bank to gather interest.  That at least would have been something!  That at least would have been obedient, even if it was in a cautious, small way.  His return may have been small, and perhaps his reward would not have been as great as the others, but he would have done what his master said to do.  Just putting out the barest amount of thought and effort on his part to do something – anything – that would have increased what the master entrusted to him.

This is an important truth for Jesus’ disciples.  The days are coming when they will have to risk what they’ve got, perhaps even their own lives.  The command is not to hide.  The command is not to keep safe until Jesus returns with the kingdom.  The command is to risk and grow what they have been given; even the smallest effort will be worth something.

In the story, what has been given to the servant is taken away and given to the one who had made a lot of money.  Not all the servants were ok with this, but the master reminded them of the principle: the one who is faithful with what they have been given will be rewarded accordingly.  If someone is unfaithful, even what they have been given will be taken away and, in this case, given to the servant who showed they could do something profitable with it.

Jesus wanted his followers to know that some who would call him Lord, today, would do absolutely zero about it.  They would blend into a pagan Roman Empire and live safe lives.  When people asked about following Jesus, they would say, “Well, yes, Jesus was pretty great, but the Emperor is pretty great, too.  Thank goodness he’s still in charge.  I’m voting for him next time, too.”  When sick people came to them, they would say, “You know, I’m not sure God still works in that way.  I hope you feel better!”  When poor people came to them, they wouldn’t give of their food or clothing, but they would say, “I hope God clothes you and feeds you!” and send them on their way.

In other words, they would hide their advance share of the kingdom, and when Jesus returned, he would take it from them and give it to those who were, frankly, more like him.

Now, some of you may wonder if I’m aware this is a Protestant church.  We believe in justification by faith alone, and not faith plus works.  That’s certainly true.  And it may be noteworthy in the story that the unfaithful servant does not suffer the same fate that the lord’s enemies do.

But let’s not theologize the teeth out of Jesus’ story, here.  The servant doesn’t get cities because he believed the right things about his lord (which he clearly did), and he doesn’t get cities for the intent of his heart being in the right place.  He doesn’t get cities because he didn’t do what the lord asked him to do with what he had been given.

And then we have the end of the parable: the nobleman’s enemies are brought before him to be executed.

And now we see why Jesus might be telling a parable, here, instead of speaking plainly.  He wants his disciples to know that everyone who subverts him, now, will get their comeuppance when he returns.  I admit, this is a side of Jesus that makes us uncomfortable, but it’s part of his story.  When the disciples don’t see the kingdom occurring right in front of them the way they want it to, Jesus wants them to know that it will not be put off forever.  They will have to wait, and there are expectations of what they do while they’re waiting, but their waiting will have an end.

And when that day comes, the opponents of king Jesus will receive a judgement from him, and on that day, the judgement will be their destruction.

We know from history, church, that this story is what played out.

Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the kingdom did not appear.  He was killed.  Then, God raised him from the dead and exalted him to His right hand.  The faithful followers of Jesus were given his Spirit, and they said the things he said and did the things he did, and the fire spread throughout the ancient world.

And those who subverted Jesus?  Herod?  The power structure of the Temple?  The high priest?  The Sanhedrin?  In 70 AD, they were destroyed by the Roman Empire while the followers of Jesus had left the city.  And the Roman Empire?  The gospel spread and spread until Christians brought the pagan powers of Rome to a close, put a stop to persecution, and declared that Jesus Christ was the Lord over the Empire.

This is not the end of the story, of course.  And that brings me to my closing point: what message does Jesus’ story have for us?

Well, at the personal level, this may have challenged you to think about what you’ve been given and what you’re doing with it.  What spiritual gifts do you have?  What resources have you been given?  What are you doing with your house or your car in Jesus’ name?  Your money?  Your time?  Your skills?

If you’re thinking about these things, don’t shut that down.  That’s likely the Spirit.  And the Spirit is not a spirit of shame.

But like a loving Father, we want to hear God’s encouragement to move from strength to strength, and maybe this is an area the Spirit is urging you to grow in.  Don’t shut that off!

And I will tell you this is a huge area for me.  When it comes to spending my time and money and skills on dumb stuff to make myself feel better, I’m not just in the boat with you, I’m the captain of that boat.  I am the captain of the S.S. Waste o’ Resources.

Along with however the Spirit is speaking to you personally, I also want us to give attention to how we might hear this story as the people of God in the world, collectively.  As a group.  That’s how the Bible was written, after all.

Christianity in the West is at a point it hasn’t been for a very long time.  For literally centuries, we have been used to being on top.  Political aspirants needed our approval.  Cultures and even laws were dictated by our practices and values.  Did you know you can’t buy alcohol in Kansas before noon?  Let’s not talk about how I know that.

We have had a very long run of dictating the pace of politics, education, laws, media, culture, public morality.  Not everyone has let this go unchallenged, and I’m not saying everything has always pandered to Christians, because that’s not true.  But our culturally dominant place in Western society is something that has just gone without saying for a long time.

But today is somewhat different, isn’t it?

We feel like we are losing our grasp everywhere and at an alarming pace.  For lack of a better word, secularism is on the rise in virtually every social institution you can imagine, and Christianity is seen as irrelevant at best and actively harmful to society at worst.  It’s a fairy tale.  It’s something that has no place in a world that should be run by empiricism and rationality.

And you can see every aspect of the culture throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity.  Heck, you can even see Christianity throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity, sometimes.

And, you know, not all of this is necessarily bad.  Love rules the world, and where Christians impede it, we should move out of the way.  We’re not growing as the people of God, or even being the people of God in new contexts, if we look exactly the same as we did in the first or fifth or fifteenth century.

When we see this happening around us, it’s a natural instinct to panic.  And panic we have.  There is a full court press in America to try to reclaim the social influence and power we used to have, and we’ve been very indiscriminate about whom we ally with to get it.

But maybe instead of asking ourselves what we can do to get back on top, maybe we should ask ourselves: what did we do when we were on top?  Were we a model of compassion, justice, and mercy for the rest of the world?  Were we a blessing to the nations?

Maybe, just maybe, the reason we’ve lost our status in the world is because we proved irresponsible with it.  Maybe we used our power for our own benefit.  Maybe we used it to get our way.  Maybe we didn’t think about anyone’s welfare but our own.

Were we Jesus in the world?  Did people in all nations marvel at how sacrificially Christians loved?  Or did we look like something very different?

You know, the whole reason Israel was under Roman rule in the first place was that, instead of being a model for the rest of the nations – instead of doing justice, being merciful, spreading compassion, dispensing wisdom, promoting peace and healing and forgiveness and restoration – instead of doing those things, her leaders oppressed the poor and the outsider, they forgot the widow and the orphan and the prisoner, they chased money and allied themselves with the political powers of their day.

And God through His prophets warned them.  He told them that their religious obedience was offensive to Him, because they had neglected the weightier matters of the Law.  He wanted them to be merciful, not their sacrifices.  Eventually, what they had was taken away from them.

It is because of Scripture that I can tell you that Sundays being sacred and singing worship songs and fighting for our moral values is all offensive to God if we are not being Jesus to each other and to the world.

If someone in a congregation is having trouble buying enough food and someone else is trying to decide what wood their new entertainment center should be made of.  If we cover up sexual abuse to avoid looking bad.  If people of color try to tell us their experiences and we tell them they are wrong and their feelings don’t matter.  We cannot expect to be prominent in the world if this is what we have to offer the world.  If we are not leading with love, justice, compassion, wisdom, and peace – incarnating those precious fruits of the Spirit – then what we have will be taken away from us.

God does not care about our numbers, our buildings, or our programs if we are not going to be what His people are supposed to be.  He does not care what legislation we defeat or what politicians we get elected if we are just another group looking for power in the world like every other group.  We are supposed to be a light.  We are supposed to be a new heavens and a new earth right now.  We are supposed to be a vision of Spirit-filled community that is so full of love and restoration and hope that people should be beating our doors down to get in.

Have we been that?  What did we do with power and influence when we had it?  What did we do with the resources the master gave us?  Did we do what he would have done?  What he asked us to do?

Well, none of us want to see the Church lose influence or credibility, but maybe there is a blessing to be found, here.  Maybe when we have lost our influence, we won’t invest so much in trying to secure it at all costs.  Maybe this period will turn our eyes back to who our Lord is and what he asked us to do in his name.  Maybe this is our chance to wait well and not waste this time.

This is how we begin to turn the ship around.  Get into healing hurts, both physical and emotional.  Get into bringing forgiveness to those tormented by their sins.  Get into bringing safety and care to people who live lives at risk.  Seek ways to increase the well-being of this city.  Bring family to people who don’t know what true family is like.  Know each other fully and love each other sacrificially.

And who knows?  With efforts like this that grow over time, who knows what the returns on that investment will be?  Who knows how the Church will be seen by the world ten, fifty, a hundred, or five hundred years from now?  Who knows what God will entrust to our care if we dedicate ourselves to being good stewards of the gospel and the Spirit?

I can tell you, from how God has dealt with His people in the past, that the road to victory is faithful obedience – being who we’re supposed to be no matter what our circumstances are.  Someday, this road will come to an end, and what wonders will wait for us in God’s hands when we turn over to Him what we have done with His gifts?