Sunday Meditations: O Death

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?

– “A Conversation with Death,” Lloyd Chandler

For as long as I can remember, I knew what would happen to me when I died.

When I was very young, I knew that, when I died, my spirit would go to Heaven where I would live forever in a paradise that was as varied as there were inhabitants.  One of my pastors talked about rooms full of banana pudding.

When I became older, Calvinistic, and more dour, I traded the rooms of banana pudding for the new heavens and earth.  With some help from N.T. Wright, I adjusted my focus to a bodily resurrection into a new earth, although my concept of what that would look like didn’t differ too much from Heaven.  What happens immediately after death became more of a mystery to me and, ultimately, not very relevant.

My senior year of college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy class on God and time where I argued that time was not an objective feature in the universe but a faculty of perception that helps us distinguish between events.  What set me on this path was the tension between the idea of an intermediate state and a final judgement.  Did God yank everyone out of Heaven and Hell only to send them back there?  I came to the conclusion that our death and the final judgement seem like two distinct events to us, but they do not to God.  I concluded that, after death, our next conscious experience would be the final judgement.

I’m still warm to that “time is a faculty of perception” idea, incidentally.

As you can see, these ideas changed over time, but at any given time, I felt very sure.  Death just seemed like a vaguely unpleasant thing that brought grief to those who remained, but was essentially a gateway into joy for believers.  Although I hated the grief that death brought to everyone around it, I did not fear death.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Although he may flourish among rushes,
the east wind shall come, a blast from the Lord,
rising from the wilderness;
and his fountain shall dry up,
his spring shall be parched.
It shall strip his treasury
of every precious thing.
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword,
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open.

Hosea 13:14-16 (NRSV)

The beginning of that passage will be quoted in the New Testament and put to very different use.

Here, we see God through the prophet bringing  a message of destruction to Israel who has become corrupt, unjust, and very much like all the other nations – allying with them, worshiping their gods, and mimicking their power structures.

Hosea still holds out hope if Israel will repent, but here, we see that the outcome of Israel’s behavior is destruction by another nation.  There is no Hell in this passage.  Simply widespread death at the hands of another national power is plenty bad enough.  This is very common in the Old Testament.

A few different Psalms have the writer pleading with God to spare the psalmist’s life, because who can declare God’s praises after they are dead?

We see this in Hezekiah’s prayer for healing:

O Lord, by these things people live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh, restore me to health and make me live!
Surely it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
For Sheol cannot thank you,
death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the Pit cannot hope
for your faithfulness.
The living, the living, they thank you,
as I do this day;
fathers make known to children
your faithfulness.

Isaiah 38:16-19 (NRSV)

Yes, death is plenty bad all on its own, and this sentiment extends into the New Testament as well.  Due to translations and popular connotations, a rather lot of the passages where we assume Jesus is talking about Hell, he’s talking about dying.

A few years ago, I turned 40, but it took a year to two to hit me.  I was now in striking range of dying of natural causes.

One of my managers at a previous job died when he was 47, and while that’s not typical, it’s not unheard of, either.  Unlike the days of my youth when I had the luxury of contemplating death from the standpoint of belief in my own immortality, I was now beginning to discern its form as it began to rise on the horizon.

This also happened at a time when my own convictions about faith were undergoing a fairly intensive degree of criticism and restructuring.  I felt very uncertain about what, if anything, would happen to me after I died, and the contemplation of the loss of myself and my relationships began to hit me in powerful ways they had not, before.

It extended as well to things like my children growing up – the inevitability of time and the permanent loss of those little people I knew.

It was a time of a lot of grief and anxiety for me, and I would reach out to the Lord and not find Him.  I didn’t know what would happen to me when I died, and now I was facing its possibility with my theological and psychological shields down, and I was not ready for it.

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (NRSV)

You see what Paul did there?  He took that thing from Hosea and turned it around.  In light of the resurrection of Jesus, that thing that was a manifestation of God’s wrath now has no force.  When Hosea asks those questions, he’s preparing for the onslaught of death.  When Paul asks those questions, he’s mocking the effectiveness of death.

At the risk of frustrating some of my friends who are more conservative theologically, I still don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die.  Nor do I know what’s going to happen when all this cosmic drama comes to an end.  I have doubts and fears about these things, sometimes, and I long sometimes for simpler days when I had an unshakable certainty in a very literal understanding of the Scriptures and knew exactly how all of this would pan out.

I don’t have those concrete understandings, anymore, and what I do think I understand, I’m never certain about it.  Always rethinking.  Always self-critiquing.  Always leaving behind things that no longer seem to serve and taking on new things that serve better or, in some cases, just coming to terms with not knowing.

But I do know that, if I allow the fear of death to be any kind of force in my life at all, it will cause me to sin.  I will seek self-preservation and immortality in all kinds of ways that will be empty and futile at best and harmful to others at worst.

So, what do we do then?  Denial?  Just pretend it isn’t out there?

Well, as Richard Beck helped me understand in his very, very good book The Slavery of Death, my identity – the inner being of Who-I-Am – my life, my psyche, my soul – it’s not mine.  I didn’t create it.  It was given to me.  It was thrust upon me, really.  It’s a gift.  I’m supposed to steward it, not grasp it for my own possession.

Because this me-ness was not really mine in the first place, I can give it away.  I can spend it for the benefit of others, and when my time is up, I can give it back to my Lord and say, “Here’s what I have done with your investment.”  I hope I do ok with it.

But the point is that I have given it back over to a trustworthy God – a master that Jesus says rewards good stewardship.  A master who does not leave His people to desolation but will carry them safely through all administrations of their enemies, and the last enemy is death.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:14 (NRSV)

You see, during that long, dark night of my soul, God was taking something away from me and replacing it with Himself.

I can’t place my trust in my theological understanding of death.  I can’t place my trust in my reading of Scripture.  I can’t place my trust in my ability to figure death out in palatable ways.  I used to trust in all those things, but those are not reliable and proper objects of trust.

My object of trust has to be God Himself – the original Conceiver of my identity and the Recipient of it when I pass on.  The Locus and Shepherd of the birth of stars, the heat death of the universe, and me.

The removal of the enslavement of death is not to cling to a specific idea of exactly how things are going to shake out, but to cling to God and say to Him, “I don’t know how You’re going to pull this off, or what You’re going to do, or when.  I don’t know what you’re going to do with me.  But I trust You, so here You go.”

I have never been able to shake my belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  I’m not sure I can confidently say exactly what that looked like or exactly what happened.  We just have stories written well after the fact and the stories do not agree on various details.  But no matter how skeptical I get, I can’t shake the idea that this must have happened, as completely ridiculous as it sounds.  It’s not even a matter of what happened in history afterwards with Paul’s conversion and the spread of the Church, although that’s worthy of consideration.  It’s a simple, embedded in my bones faith commitment.

Friends who make fun of me for it are probably right to do so.  It’s ridiculous.  People do not come back to life, again; I know this, and so did everyone in the ancient world.

I believe this happened at least once.

But Jesus, you know, he was a trailblazer for the rest of us.  He didn’t have Paul’s argumentation.  He prayed in Gethsemane to be spared, and God did not respond.  He anguished over his impending death, and God did not make him feel better.  He did not fall back on prooftexts or arguments about the immortality of the soul.  He was confronted with his extermination and he did not want it to happen.

But at the end, without any kind of sign or assistance, he threw himself into God’s arms.

And just look what happened.

Happy Easter, everyone, from the most fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, King James-onlyist of you to the most materialistic, naturalistic, atheistic, disenchanted universe of you.

This God I’m talking about loves all of you.

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Sunday Meditations: Holiness and Mission

This morning in worship, we sang a Matt Maher song.  I like Matt Maher, overall, and even burned myself a CD of Matt Maher songs for my commute.  But he does sometimes sling lyrics out there where I’m not sure what he means.

I have this experience fairly regularly with worship songs.  There’ll be a line in there (or a verse, or… the whole song) that has various keywords in it that sound good on the surface, but I’m unclear on what’s actually being communicated.  In some cases, I think this may be because the writer doesn’t actually mean anything in particular and is, in fact, stringing keywords together.

I don’t think this is the case, here, but here’s the bit that made me wonder:

Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
Where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me

– “Lord, I Need You” lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group (emphasis mine)

Holiness is Christ in me.

I would have understood the line if it had said, “Righteousness is Christ in me.”  Not only would that be a nod to the general evangelical/Protestant doctrine of imputation, but virtually all Christians believe that the presence of Jesus in us by the power of the Spirit is something that guides us into right behaviors.  This verse of the song seems to be pointed in that direction: I have sin, God’s grace is greater, this has set me free from my sins, so I am holy.

But holiness is not about right behaviors, moral purity, etc.  That’s what righteousness is primarily about – how faithful are we to a standard?  When we behave rightly/faithfully, we are righteous; when we don’t, we are unrighteous.

At first, I wondered if maybe this was just a simple equivocation.  A rather lot of Christians use the word “holiness” to mean “morally correct behavior.”  There’s even a Holiness Movement in American church history that is entirely concerned with whether or not a person can stop sinning.

And that may be the case with this song; I don’t know and Matt Maher is unlikely to call me up and explain it to me.

But it might also be capturing something important to our identity and mission.

What is Holiness?

I once wrote about a tangle of terms that often get conflated with one another, and holiness was one of them.

I’m not going to retread all that ground, here, but the upshot is that holiness is the state of being especially set apart from everything else that might otherwise be just like you.

For instance, some consider the Jordan River to be a holy site, because it’s where Jesus was baptized (among other things).  A river does not behave morally or possess any moral attributes, nor is it physically any different than rivers in general.  However, the Jordan River is considered to be a special, sacred river.  And if you consider the Jordan River to be a special, sacred river, then it is a holy site.

You can extend this to just about anything else.  Holy sites.  Holy books.  Holy relics.  Holy artifacts.  Holy days.  There is nothing physically about the things themselves that are any different than other similar things.  We have set them apart as special.  They have a special purpose.

Sundays or Easter is a complete rotation of the Earth just like the day before and the day after.  The bread we use in the Lord’s Supper is not physically any different than the bread in our pantries.  But they are holy because we have set them apart to be special and use them for a purpose distinct from other things like them.  They are sacred.  And because of that, we deal with them differently.  If they were treated just the same as everything else, they wouldn’t be holy at all.

When we talk about God being holy, we are saying that He is not like anything else that could be described as a god.  As Paul says to the Corinthians, the world is full of gods and lords.  But God is of an order very different than the other powers to which one might give allegiance.  In Paul’s day, you had the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities and rulers that claimed to be divine or human-divine hybrids, but God was not like them.  He was special.  He was sacred.  He was holy.

What About Us?

When we talk about Christians being holy or cultivating the quality of holiness, we are talking about what makes us set apart.  What makes us different.  Certainly, behavior is a big part of this and is probably why it’s so easy to swap holiness and righteousness around.

But it’s important to note that holiness precedes the behavior.  Since we are holy, we behave in certain ways.  We are not holy because we behave in certain ways.

Consider our father Abraham.

God called Abraham out of all humanity to grow into a nation that would be special to God (and God would be special to them) and would bless the world.  He was set apart.  He was unlike everyone else at that moment.

But Abraham had done nothing remarkable, at least that we’re told about in the Scriptures.  God did not see that Abraham was special and then deal with him on that basis.  All we know is that God elected Abraham and, in doing so, Abraham was holy.

He was still a man just like any of us, but he had been set apart for special use by God.  He was not like everyone else and was not supposed to be like anyone else.  He was meant to be a holy patriarch of a holy family that would become a holy nation – a people distinct and set apart by God.

Many of the laws in the Torah reflect this holiness principle.  There’s not anything particularly immoral about mixing fabrics for your clothes or not wearing tassels on the hem of your robe.  These things are done to mark off the holiness of God’s people.  They are sacred, they are not like the other nations, and these things are symbols of that holiness.

In terms of being a people and a nation, they are not physically distinguishable from anything else.  In fact, God will point out through the prophets that there was nothing particularly great about Israel when He called her.  Yet, this calling made her holy.

We can see this trajectory progressively drop away as time goes on.

Israel wants a king so that she can be like the other nations, and God doesn’t approve.  It’s not that there’s something inherently immoral about having a king.  David was a king.  Jesus is a king.  It’s that the people began to want to run like everyone around them was running.  They wanted to be a “real” nation like everyone else, and all the other nations – many of whom were more powerful and prosperous – had kings.

As we watch the rise and fall of Israel’s prosperity, we see that this is intimately connected to how much they are like the other nations versus how unique they are.  They begin to worship the gods of the other nations and, as a corollary, take on their values and practices.  They ally with and combine their people with other nations for protection, rather than being devoted to God, maintaining their holiness, and trusting He will protect them.  Ultimately, the leadership ends up becoming despotic just like their neighbors, where the justice system becomes about how wealthy you are, the poor and the widow and the foreigner are oppressed, and the powerful use their positions to gain wealth and comfort for themselves at the expense of their people.

At that point, the nation had become just like everyone else.  Just another loaf of bread in the pantry or another rotation of the Earth on the calendar.  Nothing distinct about them at all, really.

Jesus’ mission could at least partially be described as the recovery of Israel’s holiness.

Jesus, like the prophets before, call Israel back to faith, back to devotion, back to true obedience to the key values the Torah contained, and away from a life of desperate dissolution that characterized everyone else in the Roman Empire.  He called them to trust God for their deliverance from oppressors.  In many ways, Jesus is calling them back to the project of being a special people in the world who would be special to God and through whom God would bless the world.

And as we move through the New Testament, we discover a mystery – God will accomplish this in history by grafting in the Gentiles who share the faith in Jesus that faithful Israel will have.

Now, Gentiles can be made holy.  Now, they can be set apart from the rest of the nations.  Now, they can be part of a community that looks different than all other power structures that surround them, in their ethics, their values, and even their composition that stretches across lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

This is something that happens from the outward command of our Lord and the inward, Spiritual journey of our lives living him out into the world and among one another.  And in that sense, yes, I think we can probably say, “Holiness is Christ in me.”

Practical Application Time

I think it’s entirely valid and necessary for the Church to look at herself and the rest of the world and see how we compare, not in the sense of judging anyone, but in the sense of seeing whether or not we’re actually a unique people.  Do we look any different than the organizations and power structures around us?

There are some complicating factors to this question.

One factor is that I’m not sure how often or how well the Church is reminded of her identity and calling in the world.  This is a large burden I have for the Church, and as I’ve told others, if I all of a sudden became independently wealthy, I’d visit any church that would have me and tell them our story, how they connect with it, and what it means for who they are and what that looks like.

Not that my ideas on that are super amazing or anything, but just the act of talking about it and making it a big part of how we think about how we spend our resources, etc. would be really helpful, I think.

Often, the church is told that she is a collection of “saved” people, and her job is to get other people “saved” as well.  The impulse here isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s anemic and bereft of any kind of context, and you end up with what we’ve got – a large group of people who assent to doctrines who have prayed a special prayer that are otherwise indistinguishable from any other organization.

The other complicating factor is that we’ve been so unfocused on our holy calling and purpose that, at least in some cases, “the world” is doing better at some things that we should actually be leading.

We had the beginnings of an egalitarian community literally millennia ago.  Where did that go?  How did we end up with a world where evangelical Christianity is a large prop to the power and wealth of white men?

We used to heal the sick.  We used to forgive sins.  We used to sell all we had to care for the poor.  Love didn’t look like condemnation; it looked like self-sacrifice for someone’s welfare.  We used to say things like, “Even if I can speak the languages of men and angels, if I don’t have love, I’m just a noisy gong when I speak.”

We used to be scientists.

The complication is, of course, when we fail to be the things we’re supposed to be, and the things we’re supposed to be bless the world, then eventually humanitarian folks will step in to fill the gap with the tools at their disposal, and that’s pretty much what’s happened in many areas.  This has led to the bizarro-world backwards practice of labeling the activities that bless the nations as “conformity to the world” and “holiness” as doing none of that stuff.  In fact, we should be on our guard that we do not find ourselves consumed with issues like love, justice, and the healing of suffering and instead make sure we stay focused on… other stuff, I guess.  Getting people to pray the Get Out of Hell Free prayer and not watching R rated movies.

But regardless of how complicated and tangled up the situation has become, it’s not an excuse for inaction.  We can remind ourselves who we are and we can call ourselves to holiness.

Such did the prophets of old, and I would say we need those prophets back.

Sunday Meditations: What Are We Doing?

Last week was an interesting week in the world of Blogs I Read.

On the exact same day, Kirk Leavens asked the question, “Has Christianity outlived its usefulness?” and Andrew Perriman wrote, “If the Bible is history, what are we supposed to do?”  Andrew’s blog wasn’t written to answer Kirk’s question, but they have interesting and complementary thrusts.

Kirk points out that, as Christianity has lost the traction Christendom provided, he observes a certain increasing commitment to authoritarianism, tribalism, and defensiveness that isn’t doing anybody any good, but those are now our primary characteristics, especially as they latch on to things like nationalism/racism.  If these are our primary “contributions” to the world, why even bother existing when we’re just making everything worse for everyone?

This is an extremely valid question.  I can’t speak for other countries, but in the USA, this is a big issue, and our non-Christian friends have picked up on this with a vengeance.  Rightly so, they point out that you can tie Christian commitments to many negative social forces.  Granted, there may be a tendency to overlook or minimize the positive social forces, but as Christians, this should not be an acceptable state of affairs.  We want to offer more than, “We’re not any worse than anyone else on balance.”

Kirk points out that one of the contributing factors to this is a view of life and Christian mission that is entirely spiritual.  All this other stuff like righting wrongs, healing hurts, etc. are all nice things but not really what the Church should be all about (so the story goes).  In fact, some evangelical leaders worry that such works are a distraction from the actual work of the Church, which is to save souls.

I’ll give the “saving souls” mission credit: it’s easy to understand and applies all the time in all contexts.  It also has the side benefit of isolating us from the powerful forces of evil at work in the world.  If people are starving to death, racked with disease, or treated unfairly because of their skin color, those are all regrettable things, but we should focus on getting souls saved until God supernaturally fixes all of this one day.

However, I’ve come to question the origins of this “mission” and the weight it receives in the biblical story.

It’s a hard thing to analyze very objectively, because once you have this mission in your head, it’s easy to find it in the biblical text.  If you start out with the belief that Jesus’ primary concern is people going to Heaven when they die instead of Hell, you can find plenty of Scriptural infrastructure for that.  And, of course, when you share your faith with someone, this is the framework you pass on, so they come to the Bible with the same framework already in place.

But I’ve come to the conclusion (for now) that, although we do see things in the New Testament’s agenda like spiritual conversion and questions of what happens to the faithful who die, these are notes in a much larger symphony.

For the bulk of the New Testament, the focus is on what will become of God’s people at a time in history when it seems like all the promises have failed.  The children of Abraham worship under a corrupt Temple power structure.  They are dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and under pagan dominion.  Most live lives of terrific poverty while land that had once belonged to their families is now the property of some wealthy Senator or Sadducee.  Israel has little time to pay attention to her God because she’s trying to live under this order of things and has turned to the kinds of things we all turn to when life is hard and we feel abandoned.

And this situation doesn’t happen to them overnight – it’s been going on for some time by the time we get to the New Testament.

It’s into this situation that God determines to save His people from their condition and sends Jesus to do it.  The plan is to convince Israel to trust God again and repent of her current ways of life, restore Israel’s faith(fulness), and overthrow the powers that currently dominate her and replace them with the line of David.

This is the critical situation the New Testament addresses.  How is God going about this?  What are the ramifications?  What’s going to happen to us as a result?  How should we live?  What should we hope for?  How do we understand what’s happening to us when it doesn’t look like victory is on the horizon?

All the key elements the New Testament lays out – a coming judgement, repentance, salvation, Jesus’ death and resurrection and exaltation, the coming of the Spirit, the inclusion of Gentiles, the hope of the age to come – all of these are developments in the story I just described.  They are best understood in the context of the concrete situation of the people of God in the first century.

But you may have noticed that my list of questions up there is remarkably similar to questions we might have as Christians in the West – perhaps even more so now that the cultural (and political) dominance of Christianity is fading into the distance.

We find ourselves, once again, as a people who are losing our power and our cultural centrality and respect.  While there are some exceptional bright spots, many of our leaders embody the worst of us and want to take everyone else with them.  We are losing numbers, not growing to fill the world (granted, this trend is reversed in other parts of the world, but it remains to be seen if secularism will simply stop at national borders).  We, who are the children of Abraham’s faith, look around us and see that not only are we not growing to fill the world, but discouragingly, there are many who do not share our faith who are doing a much better job at blessing the nations than we are.

And maybe that’s what this is all about.  Maybe we’ve been poor stewards of the cultural dominance we used to have.  Maybe we could have used that position to perform great acts of love and justice for our fellow man that would have been a shining beacon that manifested the will of our Creator in the world, but instead we became oppressors.  And now that’s being taken away from us.

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the situation addressed by the New Testament is extremely relevant to us these days, not all in the same concrete ways, but in principle if nothing else.  We’re on the fringes, now.  We’re the ones making our way through the world either by compromise with the values of power or by keeping our heads down under it.  We’re the ones becoming a minority.  We’re the ones being dominated by another world system.

And we have the same discouragement.  And the same questions.

And this is where Andrew’s list is so helpful.  He may have left out some things you think should be on there, or maybe you would have stated something differently, but he took our present situation and place in the story and asked what it meant to be the people of God at this time in history and came up with, what I think, is a pretty good list worthy of meditation and discussion.

Maybe it’s time for us to repent of what our forefathers did with their power when they had it.  Maybe we’re supposed to lose it, at least for a time, for our own good and the good of the rest of the world.  Maybe the active ethics we see in our counterparts of other religions (and no religion at all) are meant to challenge us – to remind us of what we could have been and what we might yet be.  Maybe all these things around us are a catalyst for a reformation where our hearts turn back to God and we embrace, again, our calling in the world, which is not to be right or be powerful or win but to be a blessing to the nations.

I’m discouraged, too.  But I’m excited.

Taking Up Your Cross: Matthew 16:24-28

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Matthew 16:24-28 (NRSV)

Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been teaching his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer under the authorities there, be killed, and rise on the third day.  When Peter protested that these things should never happen to Jesus, Jesus corrected him in very strong terms.  This idea – that Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and rise – provides us the necessary context for understanding Jesus’ follow-up comments, here.

Basically, Jesus says that anyone who would be his follower must walk that same path.  They, too, must suffer under the religious and civil authorities of his day.  They, too, will be killed.  And they, too, will rise from the dead.

Matthew’s Gospel was written after Jesus’ crucifixion, but this event is portrayed as happening before the crucifixion, so the disciples in this story are hearing “take up their cross” without any reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.  What would such a phrase mean to them?

Well, the cross was the instrument of the Roman Empire to execute criminals – specifically, criminals that the government wanted to make an example of.  The cross was an instrument to show the people under Rome’s dominion that you don’t mess with the Empire.  You don’t take their stuff.  You don’t rebel.  You don’t turn people against them.  It was a weapon of intimidation and suppression.  People are less inclined to rebel when a group of rebels is discovered and hung publicly on crosses for all to see.

And as people go by these crosses – these signs of Rome’s absolute power over the life and death of her subjects – you can see their loyalties.  The people who want to “get in good” with their oppressors mock, scorn, and spit on the people on those crosses.  Those crosses hold Rome’s enemies, and if you wanted to stay on Rome’s good side, they were your enemies, too.

This is the destiny Jesus holds out for his followers.  He isn’t saying “my follower” in a general, spiritual, ethical sense; he means it in a very concrete fashion.  The people traveling with and learning from Jesus are going to have to go with him to Jerusalem and face the wrath of the authorities who will destroy Jesus.  This is probably a hard truth for Peter and the rest to hear – everyone who trusted that Jesus would be the salvation of Israel – that not only was their Messiah traveling to his own execution, but they would be executed along with him for their commitments to him.

This has come up in Matthew, before.  It’s interesting to see this facet of Jesus in play.  Jesus is basically thinning the herd of his followers, which is something we don’t normally associate with Jesus.  He doesn’t turn away anyone, no matter how feeble their faith or other gifts, but he is very clear what will happen to anyone who signs up.

This, naturally, raises the question of why anyone would do this.

After all, what Jesus’ followers want is a new world, one in which Israel is back on top.  Land is returned.  Power shifts dramatically.  Oppression ends.  The Temple becomes righteous.  The kingdom comes.  This vision is risky and improbable to begin with, but it becomes even moreso if the very people who are supposed to bring it about are killed by the very powers they hope to overthrow.  It’s hard to be committed to that vision when you are imagining yourself hanging on a cross, suffering and dying, while people walk past you mocking you for your hubris – the very thought that you could challenge the Empire.

But Jesus tells them that the people right now who are trying to preserve their lives and make themselves comfortable will lose their lives, and what good will their efforts do them on the day that their life is taken?  But those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will receive their lives, again.

Jesus is not describing something purely spiritual or metaphorical, here.  He’s talking about people actually dying and people actually living.  There is an imminent event where those in Israel who have allied themselves with Rome and built up wealth for themselves will lose their lives, and there will be those who have died for the sake of Jesus’ mission who will receive it, as well as those who were willing to give up their lives who will find themselves surviving the coming judgement to life in the next age.

Jesus describes this day as the day when the Son of Man (the figure who receives an everlasting kingdom from God in Daniel 7) will come with his angels in the glory of his Father to judge the world.  He will repay everyone according to what they have done.  In the narrative, here, Jesus foresees that he, too, will still accomplish his Father’s mission even if he is killed.  He, too, hopes in resurrection.

And we know this day is soon to come, because Jesus says that some people who are present in the audience will not die before this event happens.  Since he’s speaking to the disciples, it’s probably fair to say he doesn’t expect all of his followers to be executed, but they definitely need to be willing to meet that fate.

But what’s interesting is the time frame this imposes.  Whatever this event is where the Son of Man comes repaying everyone for what they have done, it’s going to happen before all the disciples die.  Elsewhere, Jesus will describe this as happening in “this generation.”

What are we to make of this claim?

Well, one option is that Jesus is just wrong about this.  He expected these world-changing events to happen with him at the helm in a very short amount of time, and this didn’t work out.  This is the option generally taken by people who aren’t Christians as well as Christians who may greatly revere Jesus but think his apocalypticism may have been a little overzealous.  It’s not my option, but it has the benefit of being consistent with what Jesus is saying, here.

Another option is that Jesus meant this in some non-empirical sense.  The events he describes are metaphors, perhaps for “spiritual realities*” such as a judgement that occurs in heaven or events that occurred in people’s hearts in response to the work of Jesus.  The “spiritual realities” option is popular among some Christians who tend to see most of the apocalyptic language in the New Testament as descriptive of “spiritual realities,” and the latter is a common tack for people who respect the Bible and Jesus but find the more supernatural or apocalyptic claims untenable.  In this way of thinking, what Jesus is proposing is actually not as radical as it sounds.  This isn’t my option, either, but it does have the benefit of recognizing that apocalyptic language isn’t really meant to be taken very literally.

A third option is to keep the events described reasonably literal, but the timeline becomes metaphorical.  Through the use of things like the intermediate state and questionable variations of Greek articles, Jesus is talking about an indeterminate timeline that could potentially stretch into the distant future.  This is all explained through the use of a simple diagram:

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So, hopefully, that clears things up.

But a fourth option, and probably the most popular option with Christians, is to figure out what seeing “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” is actually talking about.

One very popular view is that Jesus is referring to the Mount of Transfiguration, which is described in the very next passage, which takes place six days later.  The Transfiguration, it is said, is a preview of the glorified Son of Man, and therefore qualifies as “seeing the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” and fits within the timeline.  In fact, since it happens only six days later, all of the disciples are alive to see it, so Jesus’ prediction works out even better than he let on.  Some objections to this view are that the Transfiguration is not Jesus coming in his kingdom, it leaves out elements such as coming with angels to repay people what they have done, and that it would be silly to announce “some standing here will not taste death” when describing an event that happens in less than a week.

Another view is that Jesus is talking about Pentecost.  I think this does a lot better in the consistency department.  True, there is no judgement that happens on nonbelievers, although it could be argued that it does happen for the faithful gathered who receive the Spirit.  And, technically, Jesus just said some wouldn’t taste death until they saw “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the judgement part has to happen then.  Also, this does justice to the facet of the kingdom that is spiritual.  Also, at least one of the disciples who was with Jesus in Matthew has died (Judas), so Jesus’ prediction that some would not taste death technically works out.

I’m ok with all that, but I think Matthew’s Gospel is most likely referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

This post has already gone on very long so I won’t make a detailed argument for this, but certainly this event has been the referent for a lot of apocalyptic imagery in Matthew as well as language of a coming judgement.  It’s a natural fit for that language to apply here, as well, and it fits the time frame.  By the time 70 A.D. rolls around, some of the disciples are dead and some are not.  It also fits other timelines given in Matthew like, “You will not pass through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes” and “this generation will not pass away until.”

One might object that, in the destruction of Jerusalem, we do not literally see Jesus and his angels.  Well, on the one hand, I would say the other views have similar problems.  No angels show up in the Transfiguration, and nobody sees Jesus or angels at Pentecost.  We all have to recognize that apocalyptic language is both cosmological and nebulous.  The Old Testament fulfillments of apocalyptic prophecies were much more mundane than the dramatic imagery suggested.

On the other hand, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, we might have:

Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night… Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence’.

Josephus, The Wars of the Jews

It’s interesting that the historian Tacitus also comments on these signs, and he interprets them as signs portending Vespasian’s victory – which is what happened.

I realize that these are tricky issues, and two or three paragraphs isn’t going to be enough to sway someone from one view on them to another.  I don’t expect that.

But whether you agree with me or not, I want to underscore how tied to concrete history the gospels are.  The events in them could not be dropped into any point in history.  Jesus had to come then to those people in their world living through their circumstances.  The people of God were in trouble, and Jesus intended to save them.  That had a certain form and a certain look because of what was actually going on at the time, just as God’s acts of salvation always had throughout the Old Testament.

This doesn’t mean these Scriptures have nothing to say to us, but if we want these Scriptures to be our Scriptures in a meaningful sense, we have to engage with what it meant for them to be someone else’s Scriptures two thousand years ago, look for how we have been drawn into that story, and listen to what the Spirit has to say to us as we continue that story from age to age.


* I put the phrase “spiritual realities” in quotes because I find it problematic.  It’s unfortunate, because I do think there are passages in the New Testament that describe what we might call “spiritual realities,” and I don’t have a problem with that per se.  But the phrase is commonly used to divorce the New Testament from concrete history, and rather than let such passages challenge our theological narrative, we can just chalk them up to “spiritual realities” and keep our narrative intact.  In this way, the New Testament becomes both transhistorical and transempirical.  And honestly, a doctrinal scheme that has no visible impact in concrete history probably suits a lot of churches just fine, but I don’t care for it.

Consider This

  1. The martyrdom that Jesus asked his followers to accept is a reality for Christians in many places in the world.  Some international ministries even ask new converts if they are prepared to die prior to baptizing them.  For people who live in countries where this isn’t really a risk, have you considered this?  I mean, truly considered this?  Have you truly considered what it might be like to be tortured or killed because of your commitments?  What things would carry you through those moments?
  2. What are the commitments that Christians have that would provoke the wrath of the powers in the world?  What are the risks of allying with those powers or trying to earn their good graces?

Get Behind Me, Satan: Matthew 16:21-23

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Matthew 16:21-23 (NRSV)

That didn’t take long, did it?

We have Peter recognizing that Jesus is the Son of Man, the hoped for Messiah, etc. via insight that has been given to him from the divine, not through natural contemplation.  Here, Peter reverses all that.

In fairness to Peter, we should avoid what I call “narrative compression.”  When two events are placed in close proximity, even if they are connected with “and then,” it doesn’t mean the latter event happened immediately afterward.

It works this way in English as well.  I could say, “I put on my socks and then I put on my shoes,” and most days those things happen pretty closely together.  I could also say, “Abraham Lincoln was elected president and then slavery was abolished in America,” but we all know that didn’t happen on the same Tuesday.

Narrative compression is something that can happen when reading any writing, but our general familiarity with the Bible can sometimes make it worse.  We think, for instance, of the stories of the Fall, then Cain and Abel, and then Noah all happening in relatively short sequence because the stories are very close together, but according to the short verses that describe intervening generations, we’re meant to understand that centuries pass between these things.

So, in Peter’s defense, he probably didn’t say this ten minutes after his famous confession.  Matthew describes Jesus as teaching them “from that time on” about his upcoming arrest and death and resurrection as being part of what the Messiah needs to undergo.  We don’t know if this went on for hours, days, weeks, or months before Peter finally felt like he should say something.

Peter’s distress is not simply concern for his friend, although that very well may have contributed to it; it’s a theological and eschatological problem for him.

The Son of Man hearkens back to Daniel 7 as the figure to whom the Ancient of Days will give an everlasting kingdom.  The Ancient of Days sets up His throne, destroys His enemies, then gives the kingdom to the Son of Man to rule over.  Daniel is told by an angel that the Son of Man are the faithful saints of God.  So, you have this single figure that represents a group of people (cf. the “suffering servant” of Isaiah).

Peter has come to realize that Jesus is this figure who will secure the kingdom for the faithful and is deservedly excited about this.  Jesus is able to forgive sins and perform miracles, this validating his message that the longed-for kingdom of heaven is right on the doorstep and he’s the king through whom God will bring it about following a judgement on the present kingdoms that rule over Israel.

That is what the Bible says.

So, you can imagine Peter’s consternation when he hears that Jesus will be captured, tortured, and executed by the very power structures that God is supposed to remove.

We, on this side of the New Testament, might shake our heads and say, “Well, Peter doesn’t really know his Old Testament, because if he did, then he might know….”

This is partially correct.  Peter doesn’t know his Old Testament.  Peter is a fisherman.  It’s unlikely Peter knows how to read, and we don’t know how observant a Jew Peter was prior to meeting Jesus.  Peter might know in general the Jewish cultural expectations for the Messiah and the Son of Man and that might be it.

But even if Peter did know his Old Testament, we have to be honest that the idea that the Messiah will accomplish his goals by getting captured, tortured, and executed is not an idea that just leaps off the pages of the Old Testament.  In fact, the New Testament paints a picture of this having to be revealed.

When we think back to Peter’s confession, he didn’t identify Jesus as the Messiah because it was an obvious conclusion from the Old Testament; he identified Jesus as the Messiah because God showed it to him.

We might think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  They believe Jesus’ messianic aspirations came to an end.  Jesus himself has to explain to them how he fits into the Old Testament story, and when he does, their hearts confirm that this is true.

Paul, who knew his Old Testament pretty well, did not conclude that Jesus must be the Messiah.  Instead, he concluded that Jesus was a seditious blasphemer and his crucifixion was the proof – on the basis of the Old Testament.  It was only when the risen Jesus confronted him directly that Paul decided he needed to reinterpret everything, and he did so in dramatic ways not readily suggested by the texts themselves.

So, let’s cut Peter some slack, here.  The narratives we’ve received from the early church do not show that people could just exegete their way to the idea that Jesus fulfilled the messianic promises – something we need to keep in mind as we have respectful dialogues with our Jewish brothers and sisters.  It takes an encounter with the risen Lord to see it.  Maybe we should be thinking more about how we can show people the risen Lord and less about arguing Old Testament hermeneutics.

Peter could have been any of the disciples (or any of us, for that matter) in the story.

What we have is a clash between Peter’s (or any sane person’s, really) expectations for how the Messiah will receive their kingdom and how Jesus foresees what’s going to happen to him.  If God is going to overthrow the kingdoms who oppress the faithful and give those kingdoms to the faithful, it’s crazy to think this would happen by the mechanism of those kingdoms achieving their victory.

But consider the radical reinterpretation Jesus presents us with – not just of his own life, but of Israel’s experience as well.  The power of Rome and the Temple are not unfortunate accidents about which God can do nothing; their ascension is the very mechanism through God will operate to restore the kingdom to the faithful.

Jesus, for his part, does not have time for Peter’s insights, here.  Peter is actually rebuking Jesus over his theology of the Messiah, which is pretty gutsy when you think about it.

Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” which seems harsh, but in order to understand why Peter earns the title in this passage, we have to think back to an earlier story in Matthew’s narrative – specifically, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.

In this time of testing, Satan tries to talk Jesus into turning away from the path of suffering in little ways, like turning stones to bread to sate his hunger, and in big ways, like taking possession of the kingdoms of the world from Satan’s hand in exchange for allegiance.

The contrast Satan draws is a powerful one.  God’s way has you starving in the wilderness until you eventually end up crushed by the kingdoms of the world.  Satan’s way gives you food and power right now; all you have to do is play by his rules.

This is the same path Satan offered to Israel as well, and some went one way and some went another.  Some endured the wilderness all the way through the dominance of the world’s powers in faith, hopeful that God would see Israel resurrected at the end.  Others decided that way was for chumps and took the route of becoming those world powers by allying themselves with the forces that oppressed God’s people.

Jesus, in the wilderness, took the road of faithful Israel.  He would struggle through the wilderness and suffer under the hands of oppressors just like his people, and he would rise again from the dead, thus displaying among other things that this was the destination awaiting the faithful who followed him.

In our passage, Peter has taken the role of Satan, trying to dissuade Jesus from walking this road.  Surely, being squashed under the world powers is not what God wants for His Messiah – He wants victory and exaltation!

But Jesus will have none of this temptation from Peter.  Following that road is the road of the world that is passing away.  Jesus has his sights on a harder, narrower, riskier road that only makes sense to the heart of faith.

And if he can successfully navigate that road, his people whom he loves can follow after him.

Consider This

  1. Has your Jewish friend seen Jesus from you?  No?  Whose job is that?
  2. Knowing the route that God took with Jesus to save His people, how does that help us understand the present circumstances of the Church?  Did we end up where we needed to end up?  What does our road forward look like?

Sunday Meditations: The Bible and the Myth of Julius Caesar

Every so often, when I talk about the hurdles to understanding the Bible, I refer to the plays of William Shakespeare.

The reason for this is that we all acknowledge that, when it comes to Shakespeare, we usually need a little help.  Yes, someone can read Shakespeare’s plays without knowing anything about Shakespeare or the plays and get benefit from them, maybe even insight.  But we all agree that, if you really want to get the most out of a Shakespearean play, we usually need a little help understanding what’s going on.

Why is this?  Because the language is from the sixteenth century, which makes it a challenge even for English speakers.  Also, we are unfamiliar with many of the idioms, jokes, and references of the time.  We’re unfamiliar with the historical circumstances.  We may be unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s sources.  There are these large, contextual gaps between us and Shakespeare, and we’re talking about documents written four hundred years ago in English by an English man.

We all realize how much help we need to really get something out of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet we think an English translation of a collection of Hebrew and Greek documents written in the Near East 2000 – 2500 years ago is instantly intelligible to anyone who picks it up.

There are other ways the analogy of Shakespearean plays can help us understand the Bible, and one of these is the play “Julius Caesar.”

First of all, Shakespeare is not making all of this up, but he also was not present for the events he writes about.  He’s working from a source – Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (which is also working from sources).  While some of the biblical writings were written by people who were present for the events they describe, many were not.  The authors worked from stories, traditions, and other writings.

Second, Shakespeare does not stay strictly with the source material.  He dramatizes conversations.  He changes some details for effect.  He combines two Battles of Philippi into one.  He changes locations (once to avoid having to create another set).  He does these things because his goal is not to present a raw sequence of events as we might see them on videotape of what happened to Julius Caesar.  His goal is to produce a play.  It’s a story that is meant to communicate themes that Shakespeare wants the audience to encounter.

So, we do not accuse Shakespeare of fraud, here, or all the material in the play of being something he just made up.  It was never Shakespeare’s intent to produce a bio-pic.  Julius Caesar was a real person and the events in the play are essentially what happened to him, but there’s a degree of license taken with “the facts” for the purposes of communication.

Third, and this is the main point of this post, is that what Shakespeare has done is presented us with a myth.

I don’t mean “myth” in the careless sense we sometimes use it to mean “something wholly untrue.”  Disturbingly, we typically contrast “myth” and “fact,” where myth is a pervasive story or belief that is untrue versus fact which is what’s real.

I mean “myth” much closer to its ancient sense, which is a story that is more concerned with communicating a true meaning than reporting true facts.

In “Julius Caesar,” we are given insight into a much larger struggle in both the characters of Caesar and Brutus.

On the one hand, we have Caesar who has defeated the sons of Pompey.  Flush with victory over his political and military rival, he hungers for the crown of Rome, but even moreso, he hungers for the approval of the people and is enraged to discover they do not want him as their ruler.

On the other hand, we have Brutus, who could arguably be the main character.  Brutus is Caesar’s friend, but he fears Caesar may abuse his power, and the other conspirators (who are killing Caesar for financial and political gain) use this to lure him into the conspiracy.  He struggles powerfully between feelings of duty, love, patriotism, and loyalty.

Looming over all is the spectre of chaos as Rome’s leadership descends into a cauldron of violence and squabbling.

Shakespeare is not interested in creating a chronicle of the details of Caesar’s assassination.  Shakespeare wants the audience to experience what all this means.  By focusing on that level, by crafting a true myth of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare pulls his audience into the event.  We may not have been there for the assassination, but we very well may have observed these same powerful forces at work in our own leaders, or perhaps they have been at work in our own heart, and thus the play becomes both something we can identify with and a warning for us if we do not untangle these knots in our own situation.  The play becomes both powerful and useful for the people who read it, not just a presentation of facts.

And it is not unlikely that Shakespeare was thinking of England at exactly that time as an aging Queen Elizabeth had refused to name someone to take the crown.  Perhaps it is not just an accident of budget that Caesar is wearing an Elizabethan doublet in the play and not a toga.

It is not in spite of, but precisely because, Shakespeare has given us a myth of Julius Caesar that the play can continue to speak to our hearts and be useful to us as we contemplate ourselves and our leaders, today.  Yes, we have to reframe the meanings for our context.  The leaders of America are not Roman Caesars (right?) or English queens.  Their allies are not people who have received forged letters from Senators inspiring them to conspiracy (uh, right again?).  But what happened to Caesar as Shakespeare presents it to us can be used to understand and perhaps be of some help in our present situation, and this is the power of operating at the mythological level.

Perhaps the power of Scripture is lessened if we strip everything out to get at the “real history” behind it, as interesting as that might be to historical studies.  But perhaps the power of Scripture is also lessened if we treat it as though it is a factually perfect history book interested primarily in factual news reporting.

Perhaps the power of Scripture to pull us into its world, speak to our hearts, and provide us usefulness in our present situation and for generations to come, lay in its character as myth.

A true myth.

Sunday Meditations: Prophecy and History

Recently, Andrew Perriman made the provocative statement that “distant future” views of eschatology keep us from prophetically and apocalyptically engaging with our present, which is something he claims eschatological language was intended to do.  This is, he says, a “failure of nerve” on behalf of the church, today.  All that eschatological stuff is end of history stuff, many might say, but this would be in contrast to Jesus and Paul who used such language to describe the trajectory of their present circumstances that would work out in the future, but in the near future.  Their eschatology was a description of current events and where these events would lead, their hopes for God’s intervention, and what the ramifications were for life now in light of these soon to come events.

I largely agree with that, but I’ve had a few different conversations recently that remind me that the key premise there is highly contested in Christian circles: was the eschatology and apocalyptism of the early church primarily about their relatively immediate future expectations of what would play out on the world stage, or were they “end of the world” expectations slated for some indeterminate point in the future?

In order to give an example for us to consider, I’d like to turn to the Old Testament – for several reasons, really, but the most important one to this discussion is that the Old Testament has prophetic and apocalyptic descriptions of things that have already happened.

One example I like to use is Isaiah 34 – a prophecy of the destruction of Edom:

Draw near, O nations, to hear;
    O peoples, give heed!
Let the earth hear, and all that fills it;
    the world, and all that comes from it.
For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
    and furious against all their hordes;
    he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out,
    and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
    the mountains shall flow with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
    and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
    like a leaf withering on a vine,
    or fruit withering on a fig tree.

When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
    lo, it will descend upon Edom,
    upon the people I have doomed to judgment.
The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood,
    it is gorged with fat,
    with the blood of lambs and goats,
    with the fat of the kidneys of rams.
For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah,
    a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
Wild oxen shall fall with them,
    and young steers with the mighty bulls.
Their land shall be soaked with blood,
    and their soil made rich with fat.

 

For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
    a year of vindication by Zion’s cause.
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
    and her soil into sulfur;
    her land shall become burning pitch.
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
    its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
    no one shall pass through it forever and ever.
But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it;
    the owl and the raven shall live in it.
He shall stretch the line of confusion over it,
    and the plummet of chaos over its nobles.
They shall name it No Kingdom There,
    and all its princes shall be nothing.
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
    nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
    an abode for ostriches.
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
    and find a place to rest.
There shall the owl nest
    and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow;
there too the buzzards shall gather,
    each one with its mate.
Seek and read from the book of the Lord:
    Not one of these shall be missing;
    none shall be without its mate.
For the mouth of the Lord has commanded,
    and his spirit has gathered them.
He has cast the lot for them,
    his hand has portioned it out to them with the line;
they shall possess it forever,
    from generation to generation they shall live in it.

In the first bit, we have the image of all the “host of heaven” withering away and the sky being rolled up like a scroll.  When God has finished destroying the sky, he will level a sword against Edom that will kill them and their livestock.  Their rivers will be turned into pitch and the soil to sulfur and the land will be turned into a burning wasteland whose fires will never go out.

Edom was destroyed in the sixth century B.C. by Babylon, not too long after this prophecy was likely made (somewhere between the mid-700s and 600s B.C.).  After this, the Edomites who remained were pushed out of territories where they’d settle, harassed by other nations and armies, becoming a small, wandering people who took the wrong side in the Jewish Wars and just disappeared as a distinct people after that.

However, the land that Edom occupied is not currently on fire.  Smoke is not going up from her.  The rivers are not pitch and the soil is not sulfur.  Also, the sky was not destroyed in the sixth century B.C.  Also, there was nothing overtly supernatural about the whole thing – it was another army at work.

So, the way I see it, we have three, basic options:

One, the prophecy is wrong.  People expected God would tear the sky apart and turn Edom into a sulfuric, flaming wasteland for ever, and this clearly didn’t happen.  This just shows how gullible ancient people were and is evidence for how unreliable the Bible is, or at least how unreliable anything like “prophecy” is.

Two, the prophecy is correct but has not happened yet.  At some point in the future, Edom will be reestablished and God will destroy it in a manner that more literally matches the imagery – perhaps in a nuclear war.  We should all be on the lookout for a new Edom or current events that might somehow tie to the restoration of Edom, as this will be a sign of the end times.

Three, the prophecy is correct, but the imagery is not meant to be understood as a literal description of what would happen.  Rather, it vividly communicates the thorough extent of Edom’s destruction and the impact this would have on the world stage.  Edom was destroyed and their power was shattered and the world for them and their neighbors was never the same after that.  The literal descriptions didn’t happen, but nobody was literally expecting them to happen in the first place.  They are meant to describe world-shaking political events, but ones that do not involve the sky being destroyed or something set on fire forever, and the somewhat more mundane versions of these things actually happened.

Personally, I find option three to be likely.  We had a prophecy full of destroyed skies and stars killed with a sword and eternal fires and rivers of pitch – and in history, this nation was more or less wiped off the board as a power within a hundred years or two of the prophecy and eventually dwindled into nobody.  The prophecy was imagery describing that event and its impact.

If this is so, then it stands to reason that the apocalyptic perspectives of Jesus and Paul and John (and Ringo) would work in a similar way.  They are speaking of things within the radar of a few hundred years that occur on the world stage, and they are using images that are not necessarily intended to communicate a literal play by play of events that could only describe the end of the world.  They are doing this so that the people who are hearing them would understand their own times, have hope for the future, and know what they needed to do right now as they lived with those expectations.

If this is so, then why aren’t we doing it?

I know that there’s some leeriness to this because of all the end of the world predictions that have not come to pass or hyper-charismatic predictions about Donald Trump that he would cure cancer and shoot lasers from his eyes.

But keep in mind that prophecy in the Bible is neither used to discuss the end of the world nor unmistakably supernatural events.  They are used to discuss the threats that the people of God face in their age and how they believe God will respond to those threats and what practical implications this has for how they conduct themselves in the world.  The hopes for the future are used to shape an engagement with the present, which is the whole reason eschatological teachings are given to a people – they are meant to do something with it, and it’s not holing up in a bunker waiting for the world to end.

Who Is the Son of Man: Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matthew 16:13-20 (NRSV)

I may be making a mistake biting off this entire passage for one post.  On the other hand, I’d like to get through Matthew before I turn 80, so here we go!

Because of our theologizing, there’s one part of this narrative we tend to get wrong from the get go.  Because we identify Jesus as “the Son of Man,” we read this passage as a contrast between who people in general say Jesus is and who Jesus’ disciples say that he is.  But that’s not what Jesus is asking.

Jesus begins by asking his followers who people say the identity of the “Son of Man” is.  The Son of Man, while sometimes just being a poetic designator for a human being, is an apocalyptic figure featuring most prominently in Daniel 7.  Daniel has a vision of four, terrible empires in the form of beasts who rule the world, then the “Ancient of Days” sets up thrones, takes up rule, and destroys the empire who rules the world.  But he doesn’t keep this rule all to himself:

I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV)

Daniel 7 clearly identifies the “one like a son of man” as the “saints of the Most High” more than once.  It’s neither the first nor the last time that faithful Israel is represented by a single figure in prophetic imagery.

At the same time, rabbinical commentary on the image points out that the use of the phrase “son of man” means that a human being will appear representative of these saints – the King Messiah.  This is how the image is used in the Similitudes of Enoch and in 2 Esdras – a figure who is an individual who is the ruler and representative of the faithful.

Needless to say, people would have their views on who this person would be, and that’s what Jesus is asking in his initial question.  “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and he gets back a list of opinions that people have as to who this figure might turn out to be.  Here, we can tell that Jesus is not asking who people say he is, because while we might be able to understand Jesus as a revisitation of Elijah or Jeremiah, it would be bizarre for people to be saying that Jesus is John the Baptist, since they were contemporaries.

However, Jesus probably intends to tie the “Son of Man” identity to himself with his follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?”  You’ve told me who people are saying the Son of Man might be; who do you think I am, while we’re on the subject?

In an uncharacteristically insightful move, Peter makes the connection right away.  “YOU are the Messiah,” he says, identifying Jesus as the Son of Man.  Jesus is the one to whom God will give rulership when God overthrows the fourth beast/empire.  Jesus is the saint of the Most High par excellence whose exaltation will mean that the saints receive the kingdom.  Matthew’s Gospel is full of this very theme.

Mark’s Gospel stops there, but Matthew includes the phrase “the Son of the living God.”

In Caesarea Philippi, where this story takes place, was a temple to Augustus that was built by Herod.  Josephus records that Herod built three such temples, apparently in response to authority granted to Herod over regions that had been Parthian.  These temples were built to worship Augustus as a living god.  Much like the confession that, “Jesus is lord,” is a challenge to Caesar’s authority, so is this phrase in Peter’s confession.  Augustus is not the living God; Israel’s God is the living God, and Jesus is His true Son.  It’s a challenge both to Augustus’ divinity and the authority of Tiberias (and possibly Caligula) who would succeed him.

This probably explains why Jesus is very gratified by Peter’s confession but also keen to have everyone keep it to themselves.  This has happened several times in Matthew’s Gospel, and I believe it makes sense that Jesus is trying to forestall premature persecution.  If you go around first century Judea saying Jesus is the Son of Man of Jewish eschatological expectations and the Son of God in opposition to Roman authorities, you are inviting swift retribution.  Both Jewish and Roman authorities would consider those claims blasphemous and treasonous, and both you and your disciples should be put down before your movement gets out of control.  This is, in fact, what eventually happened.

Here is where Jesus calls Simon “Peter,” which is the Greek name for “rock,” and declares that Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build his church.  I think it is highly unlikely that the “rock” Jesus refers to is Jesus himself or Peter’s confession – those are exegetical maneuvers largely designed to undermine the claims of the Roman Catholic church.  We are quite fine recognizing that Jesus deliberately calls Simon “the rock” and says “upon this rock, I will build my church” without also accepting papal authority and attached claims.  We ought not to let later controversies control our reading of Scripture.

But keeping in mind the narrative, the focus is on Peter being a steward in a time of crisis of what Jesus has begun to do.  This time of crisis will involve persecution of the faithful in the near term, but Jesus is constantly thinking about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem.

Our first indicator is Jesus calling Simon the “rock,” which is an Old Testament image commonly used for God’s protection of Israel in times of trouble.  Deuteronomy 32, for instance, makes a great deal of this image, and verse 30 is one that I use in my prayers to this day: “How could one have routed a thousand, and two put a myriad to flight, unless their rock had sold them, the Lord had given them up?”  Jesus has, in Matthew, already used this metaphor specifically to talk about believing and following him as a way to make it safely through the upcoming catastrophe about to befall Israel.

Our second indicator is the bit about the “gates of Hades.”  A lot of theological hay has been made out of this portion of Jesus’ teaching, but the “gates of Hades” is an Old Testament image that simply means the proximity of death (just a couple out of several examples: Psalm 107:18 and Isaiah 38:10).  Death is near to the faithful, but it will not “prevail” over the church.  In other words, the faithful who follow Jesus won’t be overcome by the death that is so near them – the impending destruction of Jerusalem.

Our final indicator is Jesus giving the keys of the kingdom to Simon/Peter for opening and shutting the kingdom.

This image comes to us from Isaiah 22 where, lo and behold, Jerusalem is about to be destroyed.  This impending destruction was supposed to bring about repentance in Israel, but instead, the people decided to wine and dine themselves in comfort.

I want to pause here, for a minute, to contrast this with Jonah and Nineveh.  Jonah announces to Nineveh that God will destroy their city, and it produced nationwide repentance that averts their fate.  Jesus has already contrasted Nineveh with the Israel of his day.  It is possible this is why Jesus chooses to refer to Simon, here, as “son of Jonah.”

But getting back to Isaiah, in the midst of a Jerusalem that is about to destroyed and a people who refuse to repent, God rebukes Shebna who is the steward of Israel, saying that He will remove him from office (and uses a great image of God whirling around and throwing him away like a track and field hammer).  In his place, God will do this:

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.  I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house. 

Isaiah 22:20-23 (NRSV)

God will replace the unfaithful rulers with a faithful one who will have the authority of the house of David.  However, all the sins of Israel will be laid on this servant, and the peg will fall, and Jerusalem will still be destroyed.  This image of being able to open and shut with the authority of the house of David is specifically used to describe Jesus in Revelation 3:7.

Jesus, here, is granting Peter this authority.  Jesus has arisen at a time of impending crisis for Jerusalem.  Israel is largely unrepentant.  The stewards are being replaced.  Jesus will soon fall, bearing the weight of Israel’s sins, but he passes this stewardship of the faithful over to Peter.

John captures this sentiment in a different way:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

John 21:15-19 (NRSV)

And Peter, for his part, passes this stewardship to the faithful leaders of the early church:

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

1 Peter 5:1-4 (NRSV)

And this brings me to today.

God has replaced the corrupt leaders of His people with the Lord Jesus, who loves His people with a thoroughly self-sacrificial love – a great King who will put Himself between the sheep and the wolves to keep them safe in her time of crisis.  And this King has commissioned apostles after Him to do the same, and they have commissioned elders after them to do the same.

There is still a church, there are still elders, and there are still crises.

And here we see in the cross a fundamental dynamic of what it means to have authority in the Kingdom of God – it means sacrificing your own life for the saving of the people under your authority.

See what a contrast this is with the degenerating leadership of Israel leading up to Roman occupation!  Their leaders used their position for their own comfort and welfare, growing rich while the poor they should have been be caring for were deprived.

Jesus, by contrast, shows another way – a way that has God’s approval – a way of giving up your own life for the welfare of the people under your authority.  Your authority has been given for their welfare, not yours.  Their prosperity, not yours.  If someone under your authority is struggling to pay their grocery bill and you are adding a wing to your house, God’s, to quote Johnny Cash, gonna cut you down.

Can you imagine the transformative power this dynamic would have for the church?  Our families?  Our corporations?  Our nations?  If leaders would look at their own comfort and prosperity and consider it a failure if their followers were suffering?  If authority asked, “How can I use my power for the welfare of the people under me?”

At minimum, those who would be leaders in Christ’s church ought to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus.  What crises does the church face in our present day, and how can leadership safely bring us through those crises even at the expense of their own welfare?  That is what it means to be a leader in the church.  That is what it means to have the keys of the kingdom.

It isn’t your church, after all.  It belongs to Jesus.  You’re taking care of it for a time.  What sort of accounting will you give of yourself when that time is up?

Consider This

  1. What are the crises that face the church in the present age?  What would it look like for leaders to respond to those crises in ways that ensured the welfare of the church?
  2. We confess that Jesus is Lord over the church.  What does this look like, practically speaking?  What impact does that lordship have in the present, lived-out experience of the church?

Sunday Meditations: Unbelievable

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read two books that share a title.  Each of these books was written by Christians, but they approach the subject in very different ways.

The first book is Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley, bearing the subtitle: Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.  The second is Unbelievable by Bishop John Shelby Spong, with a slightly different tack for the subtitle: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.

You can tell the influence of the Puritans on American theology by the fact that you have to cram your book’s entire thesis into the subtitle.

Justin Brierley is a brother in the UK who, for ten years, has been running a radio show (also called “Unbelievable?”) that pairs Christians and atheists to discuss various topics.  Not every show features a big, famous name, but whatever names you might recognize from Christian theologians and apologists or notable atheist authors and speakers that have produced works about Christianity, they have probably ended up on the show at some point.  (For you young folks out there, a radio is a device that detects audio transmitted via “radio waves” that are broadcast from large antennae.  Your “radio” device picks up these waves and translates them back into sound.)

I have to say, I love this project, and it’s available via podcast for those of you who don’t live in the UK and/or have no concept of what a radio is or how you might get hold of one.

One of my friends who is an atheist of the New variety used to hold a small gathering at his house that was very similar – a small group of Christians and a small group of atheists would assemble on his patio to talk about stuff.  It wasn’t topically structured or anything, but the conversations were still good and generally congenial.  So, I had a lot of warmth in my heart for Justin’s stories about his experiences facilitating these kinds of things in radio.  Honestly, if more thoughtful, kind Christians just spent time chatting with thoughtful, kind atheists, I think both parties would end up with a lot more thoughtful, kind regard for one another and their positions, and the world would be a better place.

The book is organized by topic: God, Jesus, Original Sin, Miracles, Resurrection, etc.  Each topic has some stories about how this topic played out in discussions on the radio show.  They also describe the points that have been most meaningful to Justin on that topic as well as the more common objections raised to those points and how Justin has thought through those.

I’m not sure this book would be an onslaught of unanswerable points for anyone, and the author says as much.  People who are looking for books to buy their atheist friends to convince them (BTW: If this is you, we need to talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish and why you think buying books is the way to do it.) may not find this to be the book.  I think about this book more along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  It’s more of a thoughtful, armchair articulation of the Christian view of various things in a defensible, thought-provoking way, but not with the rigor of thoroughgoing argumentation.

Personally, I enjoyed the stories about the radio show.  The author has a lot of warmth for both the atheist and Christian guests he’s talked with over the years, and you can tell he’s not gone unchanged from the conversations.  The book was inspirational to me on that point.  It affirmed what my own experience has borne out, that a lot of good conversation can happen within the context of mutual respect and people who believe walking away on friendly terms may be more important than rhetorically destroying the other person.  After all, Christians and atheists have to share a planet, and Christians in particular have a biblical mandate to be at peace with everyone and supply their reasons for hope with gentleness and respect.  Wouldn’t it be great if people could disagree and honestly and passionately express themselves without letting their brains treat the discussion as a threat to their survival?

It was also interesting to me some of the theological positions the author put forward, which I believe may have been influenced by his dialogues with atheists.  For example, he does not have a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis and, although he does not explicitly state this, seems to be operating from an evolutionary understanding of the development of life.  He obviously holds to a Big Bang view of beginnings and has some interesting things to say about how it was originally a theistic argument and was labelled the “Big Bang” by atheist detractors.  He does explicitly express that he is an annihilationist, and I appreciated this because – mostly due to getting more in touch with the first century world and early Jewish theology – I’m in that neighborhood, myself.

If you’re a Christian and you enjoy books like Mere Christianity, I think you’d enjoy this book as well.  Frankly, I think it’s worth a read if it helps Christians be more respectful and thoughtful about atheists and atheism.  If you’re an atheist, you might enjoy the book as well on similar grounds, and maybe Justin will point out a thing or two you haven’t run across, before, but again, this is not really a rigorous defense of Christianity.  You might find interesting the stories he tells of people who were atheists who found reasons to convert.

Bishop Spong’s book is organized very similarly to Bierley’s book – the chapters are topical and based on fundamental points of Christian doctrine.  In contrast to Bierley, Spong argues that each of these points simply are no longer viable for contemporary Christians to actually believe and, therefore, must be reformulated into more believable versions.

I was actually excited for this project.  People who know me or who have read this blog for a long time know that I’m not really a fan of most evangelical theological beliefs and formulations, although mostly on exegetical grounds.  I also have an avid interest in how Christians should act and speak in an increasingly secular West that actually does good, helps people, and is intelligible and winsome in that world.  I think that Spong is correct that the Church cannot simply state sixteenth century dogma in a world where empiricism and the scientific method have shown us so much truth about our world and has made at least a very highly-literalized way of understanding the Bible somewhat untenable.

But although I was warm to the project, I was fairly unimpressed with the execution.

Spong generally begins each section with the reasons a given Christian point of doctrine (again, organized into things like God, Jesus, the Virgin Birth, etc.) is “unbelievable” in its traditional form.

There is good information in there, and I don’t want to give the impression that everything about it is poorly thought through.  In fact, much of it is worthy of Christians who are trying to be intellectually honest to grapple with.  However, he also does two things that make me crazy when critiquing traditional Christian thought.

One is knowing enough history to make a criticism but not enough to get it right.  You only need to check out the plethora of New Atheist memes to see this phenomenon in action.  Jesus is a recycling of the Horus (or Baldur or Mithras or Ra) legends.  Jesus is a “dying and rising god” of which there are many.  Romans kept meticulous records and we don’t have a record of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Christians destroyed the library at Alexandria.  The Church killed cats in Europe and that contributed to the spread of the Plague.  And on and on.  All common critiques, all wrong.  That’s not to say Christianity doesn’t have its historically critique-able episodes – it absolutely does – but in the zeal to critique it, it’s easy to get the history wrong and subscribe to either a very shallow account of events or total fabrications.

For Spong’s part, especially given the thesis of the book, he depends some on the Conflict Thesis – the idea that the Church and science have historically been at odds with Christianity using its cultural and political power to actively suppress science until recently.  This is so wrong that atheists are calling out other atheists on it (as well they should, just as Christians interested in speaking the truth should call out other Christians when we misrepresent history and not leave it up to the atheists to do that job for us).  But it’s this sort of surface-y understanding of history that gets used at times to present why Christian doctrines are suspect.

The second thing that makes me crazy is closely related, and that’s being uncritical about critique.  If it calls a traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine into question, Spong will cite it as absolute truth.  Christianity does not get the benefit of a doubt, and the sources of the criticism do not get subjected to the same scrutiny.  This cropped up a number of times where “biblical scholarship” allegedly undid the viability of a doctrine, but that scholarship itself was highly debatable.

Another area where this happened was his marshaling of Judaism.  I am all about bringing the Jewish understanding of things to how we understand the Scriptures.  Spong has long had an active collaboration with the Jewish community, and I have no doubt he knows more about contemporary Jewish theology than I do.  However, he will tend to cite a contemporary (and usually more progressive) Jewish view on something as if that is how an author or original reader of Scripture would have understood that same concept, and then use that to demonstrate that our traditional readings are incorrect – as if the views of the rabbis that he knows were the views of an Old Testament writer or Second Temple Judaism.

For instance, Spong talks about how Jesus’ death shouldn’t be understood as an atonement for sin because Judaism did not understand sacrifice as an atonement for sin, but rather an offering to God of our full potential as human beings.  From my own readings of early rabbinical writings, I feel fairly confident this was not at all an early Jewish understanding of sacrifice.  It may very well be a strain of contemporary Jewish thought on the meaning of Old Testament sacrifices, but it would be inaccurate to take that contemporary Jewish theological outlook, project it back into the first century or beyond, and go, “See?  We’ve never understood this correctly.”

Not everything in the book suffers from those criticisms, but they are thoroughly marbled in with the material that does not.  So, you have to be sort of discerning when going through the critical portions of the book, and my fear is that people who perhaps do not know history, biblical scholarship, or the progression of Jewish theology very deeply will simply take his word for it and consider the state of Christian belief to be very dire, indeed, not realizing that a fair amount of the critique is suspect.

Then, each chapter moves on to Spong’s recommendations for the reformulation of the doctrine under examination.  This was at the same time the most thought-provoking part of the book as well as the least compelling.

For instance, Spong offers that we should stop thinking of God in traditionally theistic terms – an omniscient, omnipotent person – and instead think of God as the ground of existence, itself.  In other words, God is existence.  God is being.  When we look at a lion or a rock or another person, we should see God there because those things exist and that principle of being is God.

To some of you, that may sound silly, but not to me.  The fact is that anything existing at all is highly improbable, and yet, here we are.  There have been many religions and philosophies that have posited that God to some degree or another is embodied in the physical universe that exists.  It builds our respect for all created things and underscores our connection with them.  Further, by relieving God of actual personhood, we’ve just crossed off some of the greatest objections to the existence of God like the problem of evil.  Why does God allow suffering?  God doesn’t allow or disallow anything, because God is the ground of all that exists, not a being interacting with it.

Furthermore, this way of defining God makes sense to a secular West currently in a love affair with positivistic empiricism.  How do I know God exists?  Well, you exist, right?  Things exist, right?  There you go.  God is the fact of that existence.

And, honestly, I’m very sympathetic to thinking of that as an aspect of God.  All our understandings of God are analogies, anyway, and a lot of trouble comes from a concept of a God who is basically just like us except all-powerful, all-knowing, and gooder.

But to exhaustively define God this way seems to carry its own problems, not the least of which being that… there’s no particular reason to define God this way other than personal preference.  And this is my basic problem with most of Spong’s recommendations.  There’s nothing to recommend those recommendations except for the fact that Spong came up with them and they are more amenable to a secular worldview.

Virtually all the world’s religions testify to a concept of the divine that somehow has knowledge of the world and interacts with it in some way, even if it’s just thoughtful regard.  And these testimonies continue.  If Spong is correct, then I have to write off all that testimony as not just flawed or limited but actually completely fictional – every last account.  I’m not even just talking about the Bible, here, although obviously the Bible becomes completely incomprehensible if we think of the God who appears in those stories as the bare fact of existence.  At that point, I’m not exactly sure what value there is in even positing this as God at all.  Why not just say, “Isn’t it amazing that anything exists?  Existence is great, and I feel a strong kinship with everything that shares existence with me?”  That would make you a fine person who probably did many ethical and caring things for your fellow man and also an atheist – atheism, by the way, also circumvents many of the philosophical problems with God’s existence.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to redefine Christianity solely in terms that are amenable to a materialistic way of understanding the universe, and that redefinition is just coming from your own preferences, anyway, what are you getting out of that enterprise?  The dedication to Jesus’ social message?  You can do that, anyway.  The ability to claim that you’re a Christian and Christianity is now demonstrably correct?  I guess I just don’t care enough about claiming victory for that to be worthwhile.

So, anyway, I’m not sure what audience I’d recommend Spong’s book to.  Atheists will read it and go, “Well, yes, this is all stuff I agree with.  Not sure why I need to tie it to Christian categories,” and Christians will read it and either wonder similar things or, if they buy into the project, construct a Christianity that – at least to me – doesn’t seem to have a reason to be.  You can be a principled, caring atheist full of wonder at the universe and even acknowledge that there are mysterious aspects of human experience; there’s no need to dress materialism up as Christianity so you can continue to maintain that you’re a Christian.  I mean, why would you do that?

And that may be my failure as a reader.  Obviously, Spong is a smart man and a spiritual man and has his reasons, and the fact that I cannot divine them (no pun intended) may be an indication of my own prejudices.  I did enjoy the challenging ways of thinking about these topics and even found some thought-provoking points that made me think I ought to incorporate some of those insights into my own thoughts about these topics, but I didn’t find the overall mission of the book to be a compelling solution to the problem it was trying to solve.

Anyway, two books that both confronted the idea that Christian belief has become unbelievable in the contemporary world and took very different paths as a result.  Surprisingly, to myself, I found myself more impressed with the evangelical apologist.

Sunday Meditations: What to Do with Bible Knowledge

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I’d been thinking about our/my overestimation of the value of knowledge about the Bible and its contents.  Knowledge about the Bible’s contents, its historical context, the languages, exegesis, hermeneutics – these things are just not the big deal we tend to make them in the West.  There are several things the Bible itself holds up as more valuable than knowledge and even has its fair share of warnings that knowledge carries a serious – nearly inevitable – danger of producing pride.  Yes, pride: a top-tier sin in its own right that gives birth to innumerable others.

This has been an uncomfortable phase of my journey because I have a lot of identity, self-worth, and ego wrapped up in knowing and teaching stuff about the Bible.  For most of my life, it’s the main asset I’ve had to offer the church.  When I’d read Paul’s analogy of the church as a body, I’d think of myself as an eye or an ear, and I’d take care to make sure I wasn’t devaluing some “elbow” or “spleen” gift like encouragement or helping.

Well, joke’s on me.  Turns out that Paul doesn’t stop thanking saints who were an encouragement or helpers, but he never includes in his letters, “And give my thanks to Argus, who shared so many insightful facts about the Old Testament to so many of you.”  And if declaratory gifts are your thing, Paul holds out prophecy as a high gift to desire.

It turns out that doing the works the Father is doing is more important than knowing things about what the Father has done.

So, I’ve been thinking through this a lot, because knowing the Scriptures and being able to communicate that knowledge to others has value.  It may not be the peak of the mountain we’ve sometimes made it out to be, but it’s still part of helping the Church accomplish her mission.

This meditation is not about the value of personal Bible study or sermons; that’s a different topic.  Rather, I want to explore what it means for someone to be gifted in the study and teaching of the Bible and what benefits they can bring to the Church with that gift.

I should say at the outset that, like pretty much all of the Sunday Meditations (and probably everything on this blog), this is just me working through this issue.  I hope it’s useful to you.  You can probably think of things that I haven’t or even better things than I have, and I hope so.  If you know how to get in touch with me, I’d like to hear them and learn from you.

Making the Bible Strange Again

You know how easy it is to “peg” someone, right?

Let’s say you have a co-worker at your job as a bank teller – we’ll call him Joe (sorry, Joe).  You’ve worked in the booth next to Joe for a year, now, and the thing that stands out the most to you about Joe is that he has no patience with customers who aren’t ready to be helped.  If they have to fumble around to find their checkbook (people still use their checkbooks for things, right?  I feel like I’m losing control of this analogy) or don’t have their account number and ID ready when they get to his booth, he becomes very curt and snappy with them until they leave.  That’s Joe – the guy who get’s all crabby with people who delay him.

Because Joe is the “crabby with slow customers” guy, that framework you have in place for perceiving Joe makes it almost impossible for him not to be that guy.  Every time he’s crabby with a slow customer, you chalk that up as evidence that Joe is who you thought he was.  Every time he just deals normally with a slow customer, you won’t even see it.  It doesn’t register on your radar because it doesn’t get caught in your framework.  Maybe Joe is only crabby with 60% of slow customers.  Or 40%.  Or 10%!  But every instance where he is consistent with your expectations reinforces those expectations, and every instance where he is not tends to be dismissed.

If you are a Christian in the West, chances are you “knew” what the Bible “said” before you’d even read any of it.  If you grew up in the faith, then you were passed down child-sized stories and teachings (maybe even with Flannelgraph).  If you converted later in life, someone probably explained the Bible’s message to you.  In both cases, you were probably exposed to actual Scripture, but you weren’t exposed to it outside of someone’s summary of its teachings, which they passed along to you.  You had it pegged.

When you already know what the Bible says, it’s incredibly difficult to hear it.  Things that fit the framework add to it, strengthen it, and flesh out the details, but things that don’t fit the framework tend to slide on by.

Note, I’m not talking about having the “right” framework.  The issue of our interpretations being corrected is a different issue than what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is the ability to even hear something the Scriptures have to say because our existing familiarity with the Scriptures screens out the other stuff as irrelevant.

Take, for example, the book of Romans and the infamous Romans Road to Salvation.  You may notice that the Romans Road leaves out a passage or two from the book of Romans.  In fact, it leaves out virtually all of the book of Romans, instead constructing a theology from a half dozen verses.

Granted, part of this is due to the time constraints envisioned by someone sharing the gospel.  But I would also offer that part of this is that the vast majority of the book of Romans is irrelevant to a narrative about individual sin and reconciliation with God.  It’s not that those things aren’t in there, but saying the book of Romans is about how an individual gets right with God is like saying a symphony orchestra is about the woodwinds.  But, if you know what Romans is “about,” then Paul’s comments about Jews and Gentiles are just not relevant to anything really meaningful, and the examples involving Abraham are kind of weird, and so on.

I believe that Christians today have a hard time truly hearing God speak through the Scriptures because they already know what He has to say to them.  The Scriptures are familiar.  We don’t even have to crack a Bible open to tell you the gist.

People who know the Bible in-depth, though, know that this collection of writings is complex and strange.  Such people are in a position to shake up the pre-existing narrative – not for the purposes of destruction or looking smart, but for the purpose of helping people read with fresh eyes and listen with fresh ears.  You are in a position to gently, lovingly, cause people to second guess.  There are even new translations of the Bible that are being specifically written to use uncommon words and turns of phrase to provoke people into engaging the reading instead of being on autopilot.

Maybe they don’t know what the Bible is saying, here, or at least shouldn’t assume that.  Maybe the Greek doesn’t lend itself well to the standard way of reading a text.  Maybe the historical circumstances around a text make it unlikely an author is talking about what we see when we read it.  Maybe this obscure, weird little passage actually throws the whole chapter into a different light.  When you take away the safety of the familiar (again, slowly with love and gentleness), people have to reengage these Scriptures and are actually in a position to hear them.  It generally takes someone with a good degree of Bible knowledge to facilitate this.

Making the Bible Familiar Again

Being a Jew in the first century was no guarantee that you’d understand Jesus.  We sometimes talk about knowledge of Second Temple Judaism as if it’s the Rosetta Stone for finally understanding Jesus rightly.  But the narratives of the Gospels and Acts demonstrate for us that this is not the case.  A listener had to approach Jesus in humble faith, and God would open their eyes and ears to understand.  A fisherman might understand a great mystery about Jesus that eluded the Torah scholars of the day.

At the same time, it can’t be stressed enough how much foundational influence the historical context of a writing has on its contents.  Jesus’ disciples spoke the same language, traveled together through the same towns, attended the same religious services, had the same day to day elements of life, lived under the same government, experienced the same newsworthy events, small talked about the same circumstantial and environmental kinds of things that we talk about with our co-workers, and generally shared all the same foundations for communication and understanding.

We, as an audience, are very distant from all of those things, but all those things form the basis for understanding the way people of a time talked to each other.

Consider the plays of William Shakespeare.  When the audiences of his time saw his plays, they understood the turns of phrase.  They understood the people and things he was parodying.  While there may have been some wit or some particularly poetic expression that a common audience might have trouble with, everyone who saw one of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have trouble for the most part knowing what was being said and what was going on.  Why?  Because that was the way they also talked.  The people and institutions Shakespeare parodied were people and institutions they were familiar with.  His way of communicating via drama was conditioned by and for 16th-17th century England.

By contrast, we often have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s plays without any help.  If you just grabbed some random people and took them to see “Hamlet,” they might pick up the gist, but a lot of the communication would pass them by.  The language seems arcane to us.  The historical people and places back of Shakespeare’s critiques are not part of our day to day world.  It would be like people in the year 2500 watching a “Saturday Night Live” skit about Sean Spicer; what meaning would such a thing have to them without any explanation?

Shakespeare’s plays are documents that were produced only four hundred years ago by an Englishman for England.  I’m an American, and Americans, today, still need a lot of help understanding those texts.  How much more so, then, do we need help understanding documents produced in the Near East millennia ago?  How is it that Shakespeare or Sartre or Freud are difficult texts to work with, but the Bible is a straightfoward, simple collection of documents that can be understood just like reading the newspaper?

People with Bible knowledge can help bridge this communication gap.  It doesn’t mean we can dictate that communication, but it does mean we can help communication be possible.

For example, in the first act of “Hamlet,” two guards meet each other.  One of them challenges, “Who’s there?” and the other responds, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”

If you didn’t know anything about older versions of English or Shakespeare’s world, the second guard’s response probably seems very weird.  He makes the same sound a horse makes, and then he tells the other guard to “unfold” himself like a contortionist.  If that’s all I had to go on, I’d probably come up with a very unique interpretation of that line.

But someone who was more familiar with the forms of communication in Shakespeare’s day could explain that “Nay” means “no” and “unfold yourself” was a phrase meaning “reveal yourself.”  She might also explain that guards did not have walkie-talkies or IDs, so if visibility were poor, this sort of situation might easily take place where two guards did not recognize each other at first and had to figure out if there was a threat.  And, sure enough, subsequent lines of text show that it’s late at night.

Now, that information does not dictate to me all the things I might glean out of that passage, but now communication is possible.  Now I know what I need to know to be able to read those lines closer to the original audience and get a better grasp on what Shakespeare was trying to do, there.

I think Bible scholars are in a position to help the Church come further across that bridge.  It’s not the same thing as telling someone what they can and can’t get out of a passage, and it’s not the same thing as telling someone their view is wrong, but it clarifies important contextual information and clues that can help an ancient passage communicate to us – information that is available through knowledge of the time.  This is an obstacle the earliest believing communities only had to leap for Old Testament writings, and even then, they still had some cultural continuity with the original authors.  We have to leap it for everything, and depending on who you are, you may have exactly zero cultural continuity with the original authors.

Bible scholars can help light the path for us.  We still have to walk it ourselves and make it our own journey, and we may even decide to hack our way through some bushes instead of going down the paved road, but the illumination is helpful.

Bringing Knowledge of the Way

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

 

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)

 

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:10-17 (NRSV)

I love that Nehemiah 8 passage.  For all the times I’ve seen “the joy of the Lord is your strength,” quoted, I’ve never seen it quoted in reference to the grief or fear one feels when they realize how far short they fall of God’s requirements, which is exactly what happens in the original context.

Nehemiah and Ezra are helping Israel understand the Law.  As a result, the Israelites are grieved at how disobedient they’ve been.  These Torah scholars tell these people, in essence, “Hey, what are you upset about?  Now you understand how to live in a way that pleases God!  This is a day of celebration!”  These scholars help the people understand, not just the content of the Scriptures, but also give them some healthy perspective.  The people had interpreted the Law as simply pointing out how terrible they were, but Nehemiah and Ezra helped them see that this information was actually a reason to rejoice in what their lives could look like going forward instead of wallowing in the past.

The Scriptures say of themselves that they are useful for teaching and reproof and correction and training in righteousness for the end purpose that all the people of God would have what they need to do good works.  In 2 Timothy, Timothy is the guy facilitating that.

Timothy is supposed to know and understand information about what Jesus has done so that he might guide his congregation into a proper way of life – a way of life that is defined and incarnated by Jesus our King.

On the one hand, Paul is very clear that the Spirit is who gets us where we need to go, ethically.  This is the crux of Paul’s message to the Galatians – why would you turn to the Torah to keep its obligations that will only curse you when you have the Spirit who will lead you in the ways of the life of the ages to come?

On the other hand, Paul knows by practical experience that the Spirit doesn’t force someone into right behavior, and for all kinds of reasons, people will still pursue a way of life suited to their fleshly desires and even construct doctrine to help them do it.

People need the freedom to be led by the Spirit, but they also need help in being brought back to center when they start pursuing the paths of their desires and ego, and being brought back to center is really about bring them back to Jesus – the living Word.  The Scriptures are a way to do this.

Does this mean Bible teaching is only about ethics?  Well, no.  If all of this was about the list of things we should do and the list of things we should avoid, that could have probably been done in a single writing.  No, the biblical writings bring us the story of God’s relationship with His people through history, and this story is a fully-orbed, incarnate story that describes the creation and re-creation of worlds and worlds within worlds in which Jesus is a watershed moment.  We don’t just figure out what we’re supposed to do, but we learn things about who God is and what His intentions are for the world and how we fit into that.  We learn about what values are important, what our thoughts should be, the disposition of our heart, and, yes, our practice and how all of that is derived from and pointing to what God Himself is doing, displayed for us in widescreen surround-sound by Jesus Christ.

But the sticking point is that the goal of all this is not to possess and affirm correct information.  Demons possess and affirm correct information.  The goal of this information is to be useful in producing a people that God wants who is instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that God wants – to wit, a divine and earthly family where the true God is known by all and our unity and love with one another is a reflection of the unity and love we enjoy with the Father.

This is action.  This is being.  You do not love if you are not doing loving things.  The knowledge we acquire equips us for the purpose of doing the Father’s work in the world.  There is a connection between knowing rightly and acting rightly, but the knowledge is in service to producing a people who are what God wants doing the things God wants done.

This knowledge that equips comes from our special stories of the past.  Historically, the things that the Bible describes are, for the most part, events that have long gone by.  But they are revelatory of the things we need to know and they form a trajectory that keeps us moving in the right direction – ultimately a trajectory that leads us to and is defined by Jesus Christ, who should be the point of exaltation of any spiritual pronouncement.

This is, perhaps, what it means for a scribe trained for the kingdom to bring new treasures out of old.  Not that we are to slavishly confine ourselves to what has gone before in every jot and tittle, but that we use that knowledge to understand who we are, how we got here, and where we need to be going.  The Scriptures should not blind us to what God is doing in our day, but rather help us understand it and take part in it.  They should help us understand our world.  Their events should become our events, and we should find ourselves in those stories even as we bring those stories forward into our present circumstances.

This sort of thing, I think, is a noble and valuable goal for those who have been gifted with knowledge of the Bible.