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?
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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.

Sermon: “A Sign from the Lord” – Isaiah 7:10-17

Well, Thanksgiving has just passed us, and if the holidays teach us anything in America, it’s that we should always be thinking one or two holidays ahead of the one we’re actually celebrating.  If you play your cards right, this works out really well.  You can put up a tree for Halloween and decorate it with spiders and ghosts and whatnot, and you’re halfway home when Christmas comes around.  I’m thinking this year of hanging up heart-shaped wreaths around the house just to get the jump on Valentine’s Day.

But we know Christmas is near, and that means, along with the annual furor over what Starbucks is or isn’t doing with their cups, Christmas plays and Christmas specials are on their way.  And along with presenting the Christmas story, usually out of Luke’s gospel, it’s also common to talk about some Old Testament passages that we understand to tell us something about the Messiah who is to come that we (and the Apostles) believe is Jesus.  If you like Handel’s “Messiah,” as I do, you know a lot of it is around Old Testament passages.

The problem we run into, though, is that these performances don’t generally have the time to explain how these passages work.  And I can understand that.  When you’re trying to write a gripping Christmas play, it’s hard to find room for the character Bible Nerd #1 who explains to everyone what was going in the ninth century BC.  When Linus stands up and the spotlight comes on, every kid in America would fall asleep if he launched into an explanation of Second Temple Judaism and the political situation in Judea.  To me, that would make Linus even more awesome, but you can see how most kids, or human beings for that matter, wouldn’t care for it.

But unfortunately, this means we lose the original context and meaning of the passages themselves.  We lose the story.  The Apostles can quote those passages because they expect you to know the original story and apply it to the life of Jesus, but when we don’t know the original story, we lose all that meaning the New Testament depends on.  These passages just become raw predictions, and the Old Testament starts to look like a lot of unrelated material, but, sprinkled here and there are these secret code passages that reveal the future.  And we all know all the books that have been written that treat the Bible like this, right?  Like, if you hold it upside down and squint and read every third word, you’ll discover that the Old Testament predicts all the great disasters in the world like World War II and Justin Bieber’s music.

The Old Testament, though, is a story of a relationship between Israel and her God and what happened between them.  It is this story that the New Testament needs you to know so that you can know Jesus better – so that you can know God better and how we relate to Him better.  And that’s what I want to share with you this morning.  Allow me to magically transform into Bible Nerd #1.  You’ll notice that didn’t take very long.  And let me share this story with you so that we might see Jesus in all the ways he wants us to know him.

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

The time is the late eighth century BC in the region where Israel now sits.  Israel herself has had a split.  Most of Israel did not accept Solomon’s son to be their king and the majority of the tribes rebelled and formed a new kingdom.  The tribe of Judah, and Benjamin shortly afterward, decided to be loyal to David’s line and did not rebel.  So, Israel was divided, with the northern portion being the ten tribes who rebelled and the southern portion being the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

This may just seem like the way nations go.  In America, we also had a time when our nation was divided into the North and the South.  Many countries experience division like this.  But you have to keep in mind that, in the Old Testament, Israel is not just some nation.

Israel was the product of God’s promises to Abraham, that his descendants would fill the world and all the nations would be blessed by them.  God rescued the Israelites from Egypt because of the promises He’d made, and He made new promises to them – that He would be their God and they would be His people.  He gave them His laws and set up His priesthood in Israel.  If you belonged to another nation and wanted to worship the true God, you had to join on with Israel.  God promised that a descendant of David would rule Israel forever.  He promised them peace and prosperity in the land of their own.  He promised that rule would never depart from Judah.

So, you have to understand that, when disasters happen to Israel in the Old Testament, there’s a problem that we don’t have when we’re simply reading the history of nations.  The problem is: how can God be faithful to His promises when the situation looks so bleak?

Oh, we can point to Israel’s own disobedience.  This is, in fact, what the prophets spend most of their time doing.  Being an Old Testament prophet is ten percent predicting the future and ninety percent getting on to Israel for her bad behavior and urging her to repent.  The covenant, or “the deal” Israel had with God also outlined that there would be consequences if she decided not to keep her end of the bargain.  If she refused to be the faithful, righteous people in the world that God wanted to bear His name, and instead became power hungry, unjust, greedy, and idolatrous just like all the other nations, she would lose her place and prosperity.  So, yes, we can easily say this is the outcome of Israel’s sins.

But here’s the snag: God – because He is merciful and faithful, and His word is His bond no matter what, and His promises are sure, and He is deeply in love with His people – will make good on His promises no matter what.  He will keep up what He said He would do even if everyone else goes back on their word.  What’s more, God promises that Israel will get her glorious future back!  And so we have a problem – how can this possibly happen?  How can God have a righteous descendant of David ruling over a prosperous, just, and faithful kingdom of Israel when Israel is split in two, has two, different rulers, and is notoriously unfaithful?  God said one thing, but everything in the world at the time looked very much like those things simply could not come to pass.

It gets worse.

You see, the northern kingdom of Israel (which is usually just called “Israel” at this point in history, because it’s 10/12ths of the nation) and the southern kingdom (usually just called “Judah”) are not living peaceably together.  Yes, they share a border and the land, but they are not getting along as you might imagine.  They resent each other for what has happened.  And both believe they are the rightful owners of the Promised Land and are the rightful rulers of it, and this leads to all kinds of troubles.

By the time we get to our passage, Israel, in the North, has allied themselves with what we would call Syria, and they are marching on Judah, trying to figure out a way to take the city of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, obviously, is not just the capital, but God has made several promises to and about Jerusalem.  Occupying Jerusalem is not just about good strategy; it’s about who gets to be the true Israel and all the rights and promises that come from that.

We read earlier in Isaiah 7 that when Judah’s leaders heard this was happening, “the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

I want you to take a minute and really try to put yourself in ancient Judah.

The armies of Ephraim and Aram are not abstract concepts to the people of Judah.  Those people in Jerusalem are not besieged by a metaphor.  No one is walking the walls going, “You know, this is sort of an allegory for life.”  When you are in Judah at this point in the text, soldiers are coming to kill you.  Lots of them.  They will take your city, take your house and belongings, and probably do terrible things to your spouse and your children.  You could look out and, around the city, see sunlight glittering off spears and shields like it glitters off the ocean.  The campfires at night would fill your vision – multitudes surrounding you with only one goal in mind.  You can taste the grit in your teeth from the dust that has risen up and blows through the streets from the marching of a great army.  Somewhere in that camp is someone with brown hair and hazel eyes who is stronger than you, faster than you, and his sword has your name on it.  Under the hot sun, in those dusty streets, everywhere you look, you can only see the inevitability of death staring back at you, and there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening.

It’s hard to come up with a modern scenario that would help us really feel what they felt.  You know, there was a time when people in the United States thought this might happen with Russia.  There’s even a movie about it called “Red Dawn,” which I understand they remade.  I guess Hollywood felt this was a timeless tale that future generations needed to experience.  But that didn’t pan out, and we couldn’t really think of who else might have the manpower to invade us, so we went to zombies, I guess.  All our apocalyptic movies of America being overrun are about zombies, now, and if that helps you to imagine how these people felt, then go with it.  Imagine looking out your bedroom window to find that you are surrounded by a horde of the living dead.  It’s only a matter of time for you.  It’s inexorable.  You can’t stop it.  In one of these movies, one of those zombies is going to figure out how to use a doorknob or a gun, and then we’re really in trouble!

I’ve taken a long time to set this up, but that’s because this is the part we don’t hear about.  These people are staring at their own very real, very imminent destruction.  The only thing that can quite literally save them is their God, and where is He?  Prayer and obedience seem like a very thin shield against the very real spears and the very real people who wield them making their way to your gates.

I want to say right now that it is common for a good, faithful follower of God to be faced with very real and terrible circumstances and feel like God is not there for you.  Let me say that again: it is common for a good, faithful follower of God to be faced with very real and terrible circumstances and feel like God is not there for you.  It does not mean you do not have faith or are a bad Christian to survey the terrible realities around you and feel as though you are on your own and are about to get steamrolled.

One man who understands this better than anyone is Jesus, himself.  Jesus, who prayed about his upcoming execution for hours.  Hours!  He did not get a sense of peace about the situation.  An angel did not visit him.  He kept at this for hours, at one point telling his disciples that he was distressed even to death.  He was staring at his own torture and death and praying his guts out to God into that night sky and got back… nothing, as far as we know, just like Israel had experienced before him at times.

And in that moment, he had a decision to make.  All he had to do was abandon ship.  “I’m sorry I gave anyone the idea that I was actually the king of the Jews and that the kingdom of God had come in the midst of the Roman Empire.  I’m sorry I let anyone think I was the promised Messiah.  None of that is true.  I’m sorry for the confusion, and I think we should all get back to our families and shows, and I’m just want to say how glad I am that I live in an Empire like Rome with a Caesar who is so great and lets us have our own Temple and everything.”  All he had to do was stop.  That’s it.  And all these real crosses with real wood and real nails would go away.

In that moment, when he was pouring out his anguish and not getting any response back, he said, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”  He decided he would be faithful, anyway, regardless of what did or did not happen.  We can look at a lot of episodes from Jesus’ life that seem godlike to us, but that moment seems very godlike to me.  No matter what anyone else will or won’t do, I will be faithful.  I will see this through to the end.

The story of faith, beloved, is the story of people being surrounded by terrible circumstances that constantly preach the anti-sermon that God is not there, and if He is, He obviously can’t do what He said or He doesn’t care.  And there is very little evidence that steps in to counter that message.  We are the counter to that message.  We have a choice.  We continue by faith, regardless of the outcome, and it is those moments that the God who was there the entire time will use in ways that we may not even be able to anticipate.

In this case of our text this morning, although not in all cases, God will give a sign that He is with His people.  Immanuel – God with us.  The “el” is God’s name, and “immanu” is a weird Hebrew word from which we derive words like “immanent” – something that is right there on your doorstep.  A child will be born to a girl who would not normally have a child, and the birth of this special boy will be a broadcast to God’s people that He is not done with Judah.  He is about to do a great thing that will change Isaiah’s world forever – he will sweep away the northern kingdom and her allies with Assyria.  And when this has happened, God will raise up a mighty, righteous king of Israel.  This disaster that she faces, now, is the stepping stone to a victory that, at the moment, seems unlikely.  But God has said it, He will do it, and the birth of little Immanuel is the sign!  God is not absent.  He is not uncaring.  He is not unable.  He is here, and amazing things are about to happen!

Hundreds of years later, long after this situation is a matter of ancient history even to Israel, she will find that she is also surrounded by those kinds of circumstances we talked about.  The Promised Land is ruled by Rome – a nation of pagans who worship other gods and their own leader.  Israel’s religious leaders, for the most part, have sold out to this regime so they can keep their jobs.  The High Priest is on the government’s payroll, and the position gets passed down to whoever is rich and socially mobile.  Israel is not prosperous, but is ground under by taxes to pay for buildings and statues, such that most of them barely eke out a survival.  Many of them are sharecroppers on land that used to belong to their family, but now belongs to a soldier or a governor or the Sanhedrin.  This once great nation that God had made so many glowing promises to was in captivity.  The nation of kings and priests was the flotsam and jetsam in the backwaters of a far superior Empire whose strength knew no bounds.

But there was a man who went among those people and stirred their hearts.  He reminded them of their God who loved them, showed them how to turn away from their lives to new lives of faithfulness.  He healed their sick and cast out spirits.  He brought a new kingdom to them in the midst of the one that held them down, and he showed them that for those who were steadfastly faithful, even in the face of a cross, that not even death could end them.  And that kingdom grew, and generations later, the Caesar of Rome would declare that Jesus Christ was Lord of the Empire.  You and I are here, today, because of this man, Jesus Christ, and I proclaim to you that He is lord, and though it is not without hardship and setbacks, his kingdom continues to roll out to all corners of the world, pushing back the darkness in favor of a people who live with compassion, justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

And it started with the sign – the sign that dropped right in the middle of a waiting Israel, ground under the thumb of the nations around her.  The birth of a special baby, the Immanuel of the first century AD.  Jesus, whose special birth told the world that God was not silent, that He was there, and that He was for and with His people.  And no matter how it might appear to you, He still very much is.

Let’s pray.

Sunday Meditations: On Interpretation and Being Smart in General

Imagine with me an elderly widow of a Christian congregation.  Every morning, she meets with other widows for a cup of tea and prayer over the sufferings of the people they know and shared by others in the world.  She volunteers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to help take care of children at an orphanage.  Although she lives in a small apartment, she invites students over on holidays who have nowhere else to go and cooks a meal for them.  She has a small sofa that folds out into a bed that she frequently offers to people who need a place to stay due to some traumatic experience, and that bed has held everyone from foster children needing short-term care to visiting preachers to families evicted from their apartments.

She has never gotten any awards for any of this.  Her name has never been announced from the pulpit, nor does it appear as the head of any committees or in the bulletin or newsletter, anywhere.  She just quietly serves with what she has.

Now, imagine that same woman being lectured in Sunday School by a young man about how grossly she has misinterpreted a Bible verse about “humility.”

As ironic as such a thing sounds, that scene and scenes very much like it play out in churches all over America.  I have no doubt that, especially in my youth, I have taken center stage in such scenes.

The irony is, of course, that this woman understands humility.  She literally embodies it.  She gives humility skin and bones.  She is a walking sermon in humility and her life is a program of instruction – an intensive series of courses on walking humbly.  The young man who “knows the Bible” needs to learn from her what humility means.  Whatever skill or knowledge he might possess in exegesis or the context of texts has done nothing but make him proud and blind to the fact that, for all the hours he spent on the Greek morphology of the text, he might have invested in a friendship with this widow and learned more of godliness than he ever could have in his own reading – godliness that is etched on that lady’s bones.

One of the more uncomfortable realizations I have had over the last few years is how little value “Bible knowledge” has both to me as an individual and in the consistent life and witness of the Church.  That is not to say such knowledge is not valuable, but rather that its actual value is often far out of proportion to the value we place on it in the American church.

This realization is very uncomfortable for me because it’s one of the few aspects of faith that I’m any good at and largely defines what I have to offer a body of believers.  It’s very uncomfortable to sign up for the pot luck with grand thoughts of dishes that will make everyone “ooh” and “aah” and then realize that you’re the one bringing the bags of ice.  Yes, everyone can use the ice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the centerpiece you thought it was.  And, funny thing, if you failed to bring the ice, somehow people would still benefit from the host who was providing the water.

On the way to worship this morning, it occurred to me that I may possess the least of all spiritual gifts – the spiritual gift of knowing stuff.  If you read the New Testament for any length of time, you will discover that the spiritual gift of knowing stuff is not held in very high regard – at least the type of knowing stuff that comes from study and intellectual rigor.

The New Testament is not against study or intellectual rigor and, in fact, illustrates the place for this among the Church.  We might think of Paul, for instance, and his knowledge of the Old Testament, the Greek classics, plays, politics, and philosophy – and how his ability to be conversant in those topics helped him address different audiences, be conversant with various groups, and open up the Old Testament for those who were struggling to reconcile it with what was happening in those first decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But however useful these things were to Paul, they were not why God called him to be an apostle.

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Paul wasn’t called to service because of his education (although God used that); he was called to service because he was initially a terrible person.  The terriblest, to hear him tell it.  The fact that he received mercy and not judgement from the Christ he persecuted was intended to be an example to everyone.

And when you think about Paul’s persuasive power in the early church, or even to this day, what do you think of – some particularly clever argument or insight into an Old Testament passage?  Or the fact that someone who thought they were on a mission from God when he imprisoned and killed those early Christians ultimately poured out his life so that Christianity might grow and flourish?  Which one of those things indicates that Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord?  Which one of those things testifies most powerfully that Jesus is alive and is the Lord?  Paul’s insightful teachings or his life?

Paul, well-educated rhetorician that he is, also offers us this little gem in the midst of a practical and theological controversy about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols:

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 (NRSV)

And this is easily the most intellectual of Jesus’ followers we read about in the New Testament.  Apollos is probably in there, too, and he almost managed to cause a church split because he was so brilliant.  Maybe bringing up the end of the “educated” pack is Matthew, a tax collector, who was making money off the oppression of his own people.  Most of Jesus’ disciples were uneducated peasants who couldn’t read the Old Testament if you glued it to their faces.

But Paul’s education and sharp mind were used in the Church, as were Apollos’ and Matthew’s (probably)!  As you say, but it was not these things that brought the living presence and power of Christ to the Church:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (NRSV)

But Paul, you might respond, is talking about worldly wisdom and philosophies.  Surely he doesn’t mean the truths found in the Bible.

Well, the thing is, understanding the Bible in a way that makes a difference doesn’t really come from fancy book learnin’, neither.

In Jesus’ day, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests – these people all knew the Scriptures better than any of Jesus’ disciples.  Easily.  They could out-Hebrew, out-Greek, out-commentary, out-original-context, out-historical-studies, out-exegete any of Jesus’ disciples with one hand tied behind their back.  There were no teachers of the Bible greater than these people.

But what did that gain them, in the end?

In a passage where a group of people at a Jewish festival refuse to help a sick man because it was the Sabbath, Jesus issues diatribe against them including:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.

John 5:39-41 (NRSV)

All that Bible knowledge did was provide them a nice buffer between themselves and the actual Jesus, not to mention the things that God actually wanted them to be doing.  The fisherman who helped carry an injured Israelite to where he needed to go was so much closer to “understanding the Bible” than the people who actually understood the Bible, because God was in him and not simply an object of study.

The picture we get in the New Testament is that God has to open our eyes to the Scriptures to see in them the mysteries of the kingdom, and this is not something that comes from greater study but an actual encounter – an etching of God’s truth on pages of the heart that leads to a life of humble and faithful obedience.

Study, I can tell you both from the Bible and from personal experience, has a devastating tendency to create pride and self-satisfaction and turn you from the very path of lived-out suffering and redemption that you need to walk to have God’s words written on your heart.

You will never learn to fish until you fish.  You can read every book about fishing.  You can learn the history of fishing.  You can learn everything about the equipment.  You can learn about great fishermen through history.  All of that could possibly help you in fishing or increase your enjoyment of it.  You might even glean a helpful thing or two from it.  And that knowledge would certainly be useful if someone were going around teaching about those topics and was full of crap and needed correction.

But none of that – NONE OF THAT – is fishing, and you will never be a good or even passable fisherman unless you are fishing.  And the funny bit is someone who doesn’t know the first academic fact about fishing can be an awesome fisherman.  There is no correlation between how much you know about fishing, and how much you know fishing.

When I look at the history of the Church in the world, it’s hard to come away from that believing that God’s primary concern is that everyone understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way.  And if you believe there was a time when everyone did understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way and we’ve gradually drifted from that, or if you believe we’re getting closer and closer to that ideal – well, you’re both wrong.

It may very well be that God’s desire is not increased knowledge of a book, but that He is known and His people look like Him and the world look like He intended – one that runs off the engine of love because God is love.  Insofar as biblical knowledge helps that project, that knowledge is good and useful.  But the life of the ages is not found in the Scriptures; that life is found in Jesus and the Scriptures testify to him.

None of this should be taken as a rant against the intellect or a greater understanding of the Bible.  Like I said, this is kind of a lot of what I’ve got and I don’t want to waste it, and I regularly think about how I could help bring God’s great vision for the world to pass by using it.

But, people of God, we were not called out of the world to increase Bible study.  “Biblical teaching” is not what your congregation was designed to produce in your community.  You were designed to produce embodied acts of love and forgiveness, examples that Christ can save sinners and is still saving them, calling them from one world into another one that exists in its very midst in the here and now.  Calling them with your voice.  Healing them with your hands and prayers.  Alleviating their poverty with your money and your time.  Setting them free from self-destructive lives with your example and, yes, your teaching – pointing them to the one who will ultimately set all things to rights and is setting them to rights as we speak.

Maybe the answer to being the people we need to be has more to do with emulating the people who are those things and less to do with reading more books about those things.

Sunday Meditations: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I wouldn’t say I’ve been meditating on this, per se, but I’ve been recently in conversation on this topic with my friend, Matthew.  What follows comes mostly from email, but I’ve adapted it somewhat to fit as a blog post and included a little additional stuff.  Still, this isn’t a comprehensive overview of the issue.  I don’t really dig into the textual references or deal with objections or anything like that.

For those of you who aren’t up on your fancy theological terms, the penal subtitutionary theory of the Atonement (PSA) as it’s held to by Christians, today, looks something like this:

  1. Every individual has sinned.  It should be noted that there is also a theology of original sin that has all human beings inheriting the penalties of the sin of Adam.  Either way, you as an individual have sinned.
  2. When an individual sins, they incur the death penalty from God whose justice demands both their physical death and eternal torment in Hell.
  3. Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell to some extent, thus taking the penalty for sin that you deserve onto himself.
  4. Because Jesus paid the penalty for your sins, himself, anyone who believes in this receives the benefits of it, which are the rewards Jesus received for His obedience – eternal life in the presence of the Father.

This form of PSA is relatively modern, although some of the ideas back of this were present in the early church fathers.  Anselm in the 11th century made a version of it that described mankind’s lack of giving the obedience that God is due as a “debt” that needed to be paid.  The Reformers made the point that this debt was more specific – it was disobedience to the Law.  John Calvin sharpened this point very thoroughly, and this is probably where we get some of the ambiguity between words like “debt” and “trespass” when we talk about sin.  We possibly owe the development of theology in America for the radical individual orientation of these ideas.

Anyway, PSA is one of those things that I don’t think is right, but I don’t think is totally wrong, either.  The death of Jesus is substitutionary for sins, but I don’t think it’s according to the calculus that PSA lays out.  On the other hand, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to jettison all those concepts back of PSA and replace them with modern sensibilities, which is my perennial problem with the way some might do progressive theology – there’s a danger of not correcting old ideas with better exegesis or reasoning, but rather simply discarding those ideas in favor of a view of God or man that fits our preferences and concerns.

At the heart of PSA is the notion that God hates sin so much that, when someone sins, someone has to die to make restitution for it.  The redemptive problem, then, with the Old Testament sacrificial system is that they aren’t able to kill enough to meet the demands of God’s justice.  All those animals just sort of mollified Him for a while until the death of Jesus could finally pay the whole tab and exhaust the penalties that God had to incur.

There’s a certain simple, mathematical elegance to this story, and that’s what I think accounts for its persuasive power.  It offers an explanation that is syllogistically tight and explains a lot of data.  Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of biblical data that doesn’t fit the model.

For example, there are instances in the Old Testament where atonement is given for the sacrifice of things that are not alive (Lev. 5:11-13, Exodus 30:14-15, Numbers 31:30, Numbers 16:46-50, Isaiah 6:6-7) as well as instances where forgiveness of sins was given without any sacrifice of any kind, such as with Nineveh when Jonah preached to them.  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance of their ways (accompanied by a national period of fasting) was enough for God to forgive them.  So, given that we have instances that God doesn’t need something or someone to die in order to forgive sins, that seems to undermine a key term in the PSA equation.

It appears that God’s forgiveness ultimately comes down to His decision to forgive, which is exactly what happens in the parable of the indebted servants in Matthew 18:21-35.  The forgiving king isn’t paid off by someone else – that’s arguably not forgiveness of the debt at all; he just decides to forgive the debt.

When I was a little more Westminstery than I am, today, a teenager in my church was very grieved over the idea that God would send someone to Hell for any offense.  What I explained to him was that God did not make a choice to do this, but rather God was forced to act out of His nature, which was both holy and just.  You wouldn’t morally critique a hungry lion for killing a person because the lion isn’t making a choice; they are doing what lions do out of their nature.  So it is with God and sin.

There are a number of issues, today, that I see with this explanation, although there are some truths there, as well.  But one of the problems is that we see instances of a God who chooses to forgive, and He can do so without someone paying for it with death.

Personally, I think the Old Testament sacrifices for atonement are best explained by giving up something of value.  Taking something that is valuable to you and offering it to God shows how much you want that relationship restored.  This is a rabbinical understanding of sacrifice and also makes sense of a lot of the data, not the least of which is Paul’s command to present our bodies as living sacrifices – an image that is difficult to understand if “sacrifice” means “something you kill because God’s justice demands it for satisfaction of His wrath.”  If the center of gravity changes to “something valuable you offer to God to demonstrate your commitment to restoring a right relationship,” that makes more sense of Paul’s imagery.

In addition, we have to keep in mind that God’s wrath against sin in the Old Testament was at a national level by and large.  He gave commandments to the people and punished them as a people.  Individuals brought sacrifices, so there is this idea of individuals atoning for their sins or families atoning for their sins, but this was all under the larger umbrella of the people.  God did not prosecute His wrath individually; when the nation broke the covenant, they invoked the penalties of the covenant, and that is the form God’s wrath against sin took.

It’s important, I think, for both conservatives and progressives to view categories like “God’s wrath” the way the Bible presents them.  When we think of wrath, we think of someone driven by absolute rage.  We think of someone taking retribution because of their great anger.  This is, indeed, a very fearsome way to think about God because, if PSA is correct, this is how God is about anything that anyone could possibly do, no matter how big or how small.  In this picture, any sin throws God into an all-consuming rage that won’t abate until someone dies.

But in the Bible, “God’s wrath” describes the concrete, historical, political outcomes of a people and, in virtually all cases, it results in the liberation of another group of people who are suffering under the sinful behavior of the first group.  Both the Old and New Testaments present God’s wrath as a correction (granted, a destructive one) to the state of affairs that national sins have produced in the world, and we lose all of that if we boil away all the historical particulars of Scripture and end up with a picture of a God who is filled with eternal-torment-style rage if someone cusses at their parents.

Even with the individual penalties in the Law, only some of those are the death penalty.  The Old Testament perspective does not seem to be that every sin merits the death penalty, which is another key presupposition in PSA.  You commit a sin and God has to kill you.  If this is so, then why does the Torah explicitly illustrate that some sins are worthy of death while others are not?  All sins require restitution, which is designed not just to restore a right relationship with God but also with the neighbor who was hurt by your actions.  But they don’t all require your life as restitution.

At the same time, we do have God’s displeasure with sin and a system by which individuals can make things right by offering up something they’ve got to demonstrate their contrition.  This is an issue I have with some folks who criticize PSA; they find the idea of the seriousness of sin or God’s wrath against sin to be distasteful concepts, period.  But they are biblical ones, and I think our theology has to make room for them.  I would encourage people who may be struggling with the idea of how a loving or Christlike God could also demonstrate wrath to forget the way you and I might use the words and look at how, historically, the biblical writings present these concepts to us.  I think you might find that Jesus also displays this concept of “wrath,” but he is obviously a long way from a rage-fueled demander of vengeance.

The problems I have with PSA are not the concepts of sin and wrath per se, but rather the ideas that:

  1. Any individual sin invokes the death penalty from a just God.
  2. God’s anger toward individual sins is placated as long as something or someone gets killed for it.

The biblical data does not seem to bear that out.  Furthermore (although this isn’t the last word on whether something is true or not), it does paint God in a very unflattering color.  Under this way of looking at things, concepts like “grace” and “mercy” look less like unmerited forgiveness out of love and more like, “God will kill something or someone else instead of you.”

Well, if God doesn’t -need- someone to die to forgive sins, then what does Jesus’ death accomplish?  In my opinion, the answer lay in leaving the mathematical abstractions behind and looking at the concrete history.

In Jesus’ day, Israel was under the curse of the Law.  Because of a very long spiral of national disobedience (toward both God and her own people) through which God patiently sent warning after warning, she ended up defeated by a pagan empire (i.e. the wrath of God) ruling her in her own land.  This conquering nation even installed their own High Priest in the Temple.  Israelites sharecropped land that used to belong to them and lived lives of poverty and servitude under this foreign empire.  They were all but destroyed as a nation.

In an interesting parallel, one of the rulers over Israel before Rome was Antiochus Epiphanes – a tyrant who regularly perpetrated institutional blasphemies and persecutions against the Jews.  The book 4 Maccabees reflects on this time via a story of seven righteous sons who are being tortured to death by Antiochus, and one of the themes you see are some of the brothers asking God to accept their martyrdom as an atonement sacrifice for Israel so that He will put his wrath (i.e. life under this tyrant) aside and deliver Israel.

I think this gives us insight into the death of Jesus.  These brothers are not saying that their deaths pay for some death penalty everyone has accrued.  They’re being killed as a indirect result of the curse God has brought upon disobedient Israel, but they themselves are righteous.  They don’t deserve to be killed by the curse because they have been faithful this whole time, and they want their deaths to move God’s heart.  They want God to see their faithful, obedient lives that they have lived even unto death by this tyrant, and they hope God will decide that things have gone on long enough.  Because of the willing offerings of these righteous servants, they want God to accept them as sacrifices, forgive Israel of her sins, and save her from her situation.

So, these sons are not “paying” for Israel’s sins in the sense that Israel’s sins incurred the death penalty and these sons are offering to die in everyone else’s place to satisfy God’s wrath.  Instead, they are hoping that their faithful deaths will make a plea to God to forgive.  They are offering up the most valuable things they have – their own faithful lives – to move God to restore His relationship with Israel.  To make atonement for Israel’s transgressions.  To make things right again.

In this way, their deaths are a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they want their sufferings and death to avert the penalties Israel is experiencing, but they are not a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they think their deaths will satisfy God’s just requirement to kill someone if they sin, and once the sacrifice is made, He’s obligated to let the people they died for go free.

I think this very Jewish theology is behind the death of Jesus.

If Jesus’ death is a substitutionary payment for the sin of all mankind, then it doesn’t matter when he shows up in history.  He could have come immediately after Adam’s sin and accomplished exactly the same thing.  But Jesus comes when he comes because of what Israel is experiencing, and with his faithful death, his sacrifice is an appeal to God to forgive the sins of His people and save them from the penalties their sins have brought about.

God is absolutely convinced by this.  He accepts the sacrifice of Jesus, raising him from the dead, thus demonstrating (among other things) that He will forgive Israel’s sins and save her.  Although, it should be noted, this appears to have been God’s intent the whole time, because Jesus was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of Israel before he was crucified.

So, Jesus’ death is substitutionary for sins in the sense of him offering himself as an atonement sacrifice.  He’s trying to make things right between God and Israel and motivate God to save her.  But I don’t think his death satisfies a need or demand in in God to kill someone because of their sins.

Now, so far, all of that is very Israel-centric.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a Gentile.  What’s more, the New Testament seems to indicate that Jesus’ death was necessary to save the Gentiles from God’s wrath as well, so how does that work?

Well, one of the things the death and resurrection of Jesus means is that Torah-compliance no longer determines who the faithful people of God are; faith in what God has done in Jesus is.  Gentiles can have this faith as well and, by doing so, become part of the people of God.  Part of this, too, means repenting of our past ways of life and embracing a new life of faithfulness defined by following the path of Jesus.  In this way, God not only saves Gentiles from their sins, but He saves Israel, too.  By forming a new people out of the two where righteousness is defined by faith and not Torah, believing Israel is freed from her condemnation under the Law and Gentiles are redeemed from their fruitless ways of living to which they were enslaved into a priestly service to God.

Additionally, God’s faithful remnant who might otherwise have been snuffed out as time went on suddenly received a massive influx in membership.

God’s judgement expanded to the nations as well, and those who had faith in Jesus were saved.  And we see that there will be a final judgment on the distant horizon, too.

In this way, Jesus’ death brought about a very different situation for both Jews and Gentiles and changed the trajectory of history such that Israel’s God became Lord over all the nations.  Jesus’ death was not only necessary for all this, but it had to happen -at the time that it happened-.

What we see, I would argue, is a much richer drama around Jesus’ death that is far more relational and covenant-oriented than PSA has to offer.