Jonah 2:6-9 – Jonah’s Prayer, Part II: Did Jonah Repent?

November 18, 2015

The first half of Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:2-6a) recalled Jonah’s plight in the sea—thrown into the water, engulfed in the waves, and sinking deep into Sheol—and his prayerful response, a cry for help. The second half of the prayer expresses thanksgiving for Yahweh’s deliverance (Jonah 2:6b-9). The two halves represent a typical Thanksgiving Psalm where the crisis and petition are remembered and the deliverance is received with thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 116).

A thanksgiving song is an appropriate response to Jonah’s experience. Hurled into the sea and sinking into its depths, God delivered Jonah in response to his petition.

However, something is missing, something we might expect in a penitent petitioner. The petition is present as well as the thanksgiving, but the penitence is missing. There is no explicit confession of sin or repentance in the song, which we might expect since Jonah’s circumstances were due to his resistance to the divine call. Instead, it is almost as if the song presumes an innocence. Jonah is delivered from death but nothing in the song identifies why the singer is in danger or why Yahweh hurled him into the sea. Jonah simply asks for mercy—deliverance from death, but not mercy for his decision to flee from God.

Jonah gives thanks for Yahweh’s saving act, which is sending the great fish to swallow him up and deliver him to land. The thanksgiving is authentic and pious, but the lack of sorrow or mourning for his flight suggests something else lies hidden in Jonah’s heart. Something is missing.

Jonah’s Thanksgiving

Following Kevin Youngblood’s structure for Jonah 2 (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 100) in the presentation of the text of 2:6c-9, the second half of the prayer stresses divine salvation.

Then you brought up my life from the pit,

O Yahweh, my God!

The contrast between “brought up” and Jonah’s descent is important. Though Jonah descended into the land of Sheol beneath the sea, God empowers his ascent from the pit (Sheol). This descent and ascent is resurrection language. Jonah goes down to the grave, but ascends to life. There is more to think about in that language, and I will offer something in a future post paralleling the sign of Jonah with the resurrection of Jesus.

This language also contrasts divine actions. Though Yahweh hurled Jonah into the sea (Jonah 2:3), now Yahweh restores life through the great fish Yahweh sent the fish to swallow Jonah in order to preserve his life. Yahweh disciplines Jonah and then redeems him.

The invocation, common in the Psalms (Psalms 7:1, 3; 13:3; 18:28; 30:2, 12; 35:24, etc.), expresses the deep connection between Jonah and God. Yahweh—the covenant God of Israel, the maker of land and sea—is, Jonah confesses, “my God.” Though hurled into the sea and brought near to death, Jonah does not give up his relationship with Yahweh.

As my life was ebbing way,

I remembered Yahweh!

“I remembered” articulates faith. While it is true “Yahweh remembered” (e.g., Exodus 2:24; 6:5) is more foundational to the faith of Israel and Israel even prays for God to “remember” (e.g., Exodus 32:13), Israel’s response to Yahweh’s pursuit is to remember Yahweh. This is not a reversal of divine initiative as if Jonah causes God to remember Jonah or Jonah thinks he has made the first move in some sense. Rather, it is Jonah’s response to Yahweh’s pursuit.

Jonah’s life is ebbing away because Yahweh hurled a wind upon the sea and Yahweh hurled Jonah into the sea. God is pursuing Jonah through a severe mercy, and Jonah responds by remembering Yahweh. Memory serves Jonah’s faith and propels his prayer (cf. Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18; 15:15; 16:3, 12; 24:22). This, again, is the language of the Psalter. In our distress and lament, psalmists often remember God (Psalms 63:6 [“think” is the verb “remember”]; 71: 16 [“praise” is the verb “remember”]; 119:55; 143:5). In particular, Psalm 77, which laments a troubled life, ultimately “remembers” God (77:3, 5, 11). To remember Yahweh is to call to mind Yahweh’s mercy, promises, and redemptive works. Jonah knows Yahweh.

My prayer came to you,

[it came] to your holy temple.

This is the middle or central affirmation of the second half of the prayer. The direct address, “You,” and “your holy temple” are parallel expressions. This is not some mere ritualized piety, which has lost connection with God. On the contrary, it embraces the promise articulated by the Solomonic prayer at the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles 6. The temple assures Israel of God’s mercy to those who seek Yahweh. When Israel prays toward the temple, they pray toward God’s dwelling place and thus to God.

Here Jonah claims the promise of God; he is not presuming on God’s grace but invoking God’s promise. Jonah knows where to turn when in distress, and he knows Yahweh is merciful.

Those who worship vain idols forsake [your] mercy,

but I will, with the voice thanksgiving, sacrifice to you;

what I have vowed I will pay.

Here Jonah surprises us a bit. He draws a contrast between his commitment and the commitment of idolaters. We might wonder whether Jonah has in mind the sailors on the ship, the Ninevites, or something more general.

The language echoes Psalm 31:6: those who worship (shamar) worthless (hebel) idols (shawe’). As such, it is typical language to describe those committed to false gods. While the language does not necessarily betray any kind of arrogance, Jonah’s use—given the context of the narrative—may reflect a kind of self-assured piety.

In Jonah 1, the sailors called on their gods, but they ultimately worshiped Yahweh and offered sacrificial vows to Yahweh, which is exactly what Jonah promises to do as well. Jonah, we might suppose, is unaware of their worship since they only worshiped Yahweh after Jonah’s expulsion. The narrator highlights the sailors’s worship while Jonah continues his merciless polemic against idolaters.

Indeed, we might see something of Jonah’s hatred for idolaters in his language. It expresses his unchanged attitude toward Nineveh, perhaps even for the sailors or all idolaters. His contrast between them and himself is an empty one since we know how the sailors worshiped Yahweh and we anticipate the repentance of the Ninevites in Jonah 3. Ironically, Jonah is the only one who does not have a change of heart in the narrative since he resents how God shows mercy to Nineveh in his prayer in Jonah 4.

Jonah does not want idolaters to receive God’s mercy (hesed). Translations vary, but it is best to take the term hesed (sometimes translated in Jonah 2:8 as “loyalty,” NRSV) as a reference to Yahweh’s mercy rather than the idolater’s loyalty. As Youngblood notes (p. 112), this important biblical term “never refers to human actions toward God, though it can refer to charitable acts towards one’s fellow-humans.” Idolaters, according to Jonah, have no stake in Yahweh’s mercy. Ironically, while giving thanks for Yahweh’s mercy to himself, Jonah glories in the lack of mercy for idolaters and, seemingly, prefers idolaters never experience that mercy. This is certainly the case for Nineveh since Jonah resents the mercy they ultimately receive (Jonah 4:2-3).

Consequently, though Jonah will appropriately praise, sacrifice to, and pay his vows to Yahweh at the temple when the time arrives (and rightly so, Leviticus 7 and Psalm 116 are examples—this is not Jonah exhibiting some kind of works righteousness!), Jonah does not want idolaters offered the same opportunity. He wants no mercy for idolaters.

Deliverance belongs to Yahweh!

Salvation and Yahweh often occur together in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Psalms (3:7; 6:4; 7:1; 18:2-3; 20:9; 24:5, etc.). More specifically, this exact phrase does not appear anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It affirms Yahweh’s sovereignty over salvation and deliverance; God alone will decide salvation. Yahweh’s salvation is not, as Youngblood notes (p. 114), “subject to human manipulation.”

Yet, Jonah attempted to manipulate Yahweh by fleeing from Yahweh’s presence. Jonah did not want to become the instrument of Nineveh’s salvation or Yahweh’s mercy. This confession, however, is perhaps an acceptance of Yahweh’s sovereignty: God will save whomever God has decided to save. In effect, Jonah bows before that sovereignty, though he does not like it, and accepts Yahweh’s commission to Nineveh. As we see in Jonah 3, the prophet carries out Yahweh’s mission, despite his misgivings about its justice.

Piety and Protest

James Bruckner uses this language in his NIV Application Commentary on Jonah. I think it is helpful.

Jonah’s prayer reveals authentic piety, but it also has a subtle (perhaps not so subtle) protest. Jonah is truly thankful for a new chance at life, but he is nevertheless reticent to show idolaters mercy. He acknowledges the sovereignty of God over salvation but his heart does not embrace mercy for Nineveh. He accepts his mission but ultimately resents its fruit. As Youngblood discerns, Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance and then to resentment; this is the book’s narrative flow from Jonah 1 to Jonah 4.

This tension–between piety and protest–is present, and we should not resolve it but let it stand since the narrative itself promotes it. Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance, but then his acceptance moves to resentment. Consequently, his acceptance is not full but conditioned. He accepts the mission but resents it.

At the same time, we should not overemphasize the protest. It is there, but some find it under every rock. For example, some find “works righteousness” or mere ritualism in Jonah’s commitment to sacrifice at the temple, or some think Jonah substitutes the temple for God for God. Some suggest Jonah’s frequent use of the first person singular (I, me, and my—seventeen times altogether) represents an egocentric orientation (possible but uncertain).

However, all this is present in the Psalter. For example, Psalm 116 uses the first person singular almost thirty times. Psalm 116 also expresses thanks through a thanksgiving sacrifice and vows, just like Jonah. And Psalm 116 intends to do this in the “courts of the house of Yahweh” at Jerusalem (116:19), just like Jonah.

While Jonah protests—by what is missing and somewhat by what is said, Jonah is also devoutly gives thanks for Yahweh’s deliverance. We see authentic piety in this prayer, but it also provides hints that Jonah’s heart toward Nineveh has not changed.

So, did Job repent? Yes and No. In one sense he repented. He accepted the mission. In another sense, however, he did not repent since he never fully bought into the goal of the mission. Jonah repents only in the sense he goes to Nineveh and carries out the mission whereas previously he fled from the presence of God. He does not repent of his theological animus towards Nineveh, that is, he does not want God to show them any mercy.


Jonah is thankful, and he will devote himself to the worship of Yahweh. But his heart is unchanged.

Perhaps this is a struggle we all have though about different things. We are committed, and we seek God. But some dimensions of our souls are unchanged, and we struggle to fully conform our hearts to God’s heart.

Parts of our hearts are unknown to us until God confronts us with a choice, as God did with Jonah. God’s severe mercy revealed something about Jonah’s own heart, which is as yet unresolved at the beginning of Jonah 4. Jonah did not think idolaters should be shown mercy, particularly the Ninevites.

Perhaps God chose Jonah for this mission to specifically reveal to Jonah how out of sync he was with Yahweh’s heart.  Just as Jesus called the Rich Young Ruler to give all he had to the poor as a way of revealing his heart, so God commissions Jonah for a mission of mercy to Nineveh.  Both had the same response–they walked away.

God sees the struggle in Jonah, and God pursues him with a severe mercy to reorient his heart. Jonah changes (repents) and accepts the mission, but his heart is unchanged. God still has some more work to do on Jonah….and on us.

Suggestions for Our Harvests

November 17, 2015

I have some suggestions for Christmas!

But first a little biblical theology….

Israel enjoyed their Spring and Fall harvests with week-long celebrations. In the Spring, seven weeks after Passover, Israel celebrated the Spring harvest with the “Festival of Harvest/Weeks” (Pentecost). In the Fall, Israel celebrated the Fall harvest with the “Festival of Booths/Tabernacles.”

These festivals did double-duty. Not only did they celebrated the Spring and Fall harvests, they were also tied to God’s redemptive acts within Israel’s history. Just as the Passover remembered the Exodus, so the Pentecost remembered the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the Feast of Tabernacles remembered the forty-year wilderness pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

The festivals, then, gave thanks not only for God’s present blessings in the harvest but also identified the present people of God with their ancestors. Through the festivals, Israel relived its history and received God’s gracious harvest gifts.

Embedded in Israel’s calendar, these annual events regulated Israel’s communal life. They provided a rhythm of identity, memory, and thanksgiving for Israel’s life with God.

In addition, they also provided a rhythm of generosity.

When Israel gathered to celebrate the harvest festivals, they were warned to “not appear before the Lord empty-handed.” They were to “give as they are able, according the the blessing of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Israel not only enjoyed its harvest, but it shared its harvest.

More specifically, they shared their harvest with “the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14).

This three-fold concern–the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow–is a recurring emphasis in Deuteronomy (10:18; 14:29; 24:17, 19; 26:12-13; 27:19) as well as within the rest of the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; Psalm 994:6; 146:9).

In particular, the call to bless and protect the “resident alien” within Israel receives special emphasis. The verb or nouns forms for this term occur 175 times in the Hebrew Bible. Variously translated as “sojourner,” “resident alien,” “foreigner,” or “stranger,” it describes a person who is not native to the land in which they live. Israel, for example, was an alien in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:7), and Israel should love aliens because they were aliens in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When Israel harvested its crops and celebrated God’s blessings, God expected they would share their blessings with the “aliens” among them. This is a rhythmic and ritualized generosity. Such ritual patterns not only symbolize Israel’s values, they also shape hearts and cultivate those values in the community.

Christmas has become that kind of ritual for Christians. It is a season in which we share with others. While as a cultural phenomenon the season is too often focused on consumerism and self-absorbed as well as extravagant family celebrations, it should be a time when families celebrate their lives together and share with each other while they also share with others.

Israel’s festivals were not self-focused or self-interested. They enjoyed God’s blessings as families, but they also included included the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  And, more to the point of recent days, they included the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, or immigrant.

So, here are my Christmas suggestions.

First, when we budget our Christmas spending, let us spend a significant percentage on people outside of our family and friends. My family budgets 1/3 of our Christmas spending on “Christmas giving.”

Second, when we share our Christmas giving with others, share with the immigrants in your community!  Just as Israel, include the immigrants in your festive generosity.

Third, identify immigrants in your world who work on the margins of your life–such as facilities workers, yard workers, etc.–and give them a Christmas gift.

Fourth, practice this as a communal (church) or family ritual so that its values are cultivated in your community or family as a regular, habitual, and annual festival analogous to Israel’s harvest festivals.

When God called Israel into this kind of ritualized, communal, and habitual practice, it seems to me God understood the practical effect this would have on their lives, characters, and communal life. It not only teaches us something but forms us into a particular kind of people.

That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.





Praying Now

November 15, 2015

Three prayer requests.

1. Pray for comfort and peace in Paris, but also in Beirut which was bombed the day before, families on the Russian airliner, and for Syria and Iraq where people suffer on a daily basis from the violence of ISIS. Let us serve them as we are able.

2. Pray God will “break their teeth” (Psalm 58:6) and defang their power; pray God will put things right and reveal a sense of divine justice amidst this violence. Let us give our anger to God.

3. Pray for a heart to love refugees, immigrants, and others who come to the West as they escape the violence of Syria and Iraq; pray God will give us a love for our neighbors rather than anger. Let us treat our neighbors with goodness and mercy.

May God have mercy!

Fuller article here.

Jonah 2:2-6 — Jonah’s Prayer, Part I

November 11, 2015

Jonah sings a thanksgiving song, even while in the belly of the great fish. Because the great fish rescued Jonah from death, the fish now gives him a “boat ride” back to land. Jonah is not terrified by the fish but thankful. God saved his life by providing a great fish to swallow him and return him to land. It was a three-day journey from Sheol back to life. Consequently, Jonah prays a thanksgiving song, even in the in the belly of the great fish.


The prayer’s genre is evident from its component parts. Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 101) identifies these parts, and they are typical for a thanksgiving psalm (for example, Psalm 116).

Element Occurrence
Introductory Summary Jonah 2:2

“I cried out, because of my distress, to YHWH and he answered”

Recollection of the Crisis Jonah 2:3, 5-6abc

“The waters had enclosed me, threatening my life; the deep had enveloped me; reeds had wrapped around my head.”

Cry out for Help Jonah 2:4, 7

“YHWH I had remembered. My petition had reached you; [it had reached] your holy temple.”

Description of Deliverance Jonah 2:6d

“Then you restored from the pit my life.”

Vows Jonah 2:8-9ab

“As for me, with a grateful voice I will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.”

Praise Jonah 2:9c

“Deliverance belongs to YHWH.”

Typically, thanksgiving psalms move from remembrance of the crisis and the petitioner’s cry for help to its resolution with gratitude, sacrifice, vows, and praise. In other words, they remember the crisis and the petition, and then they give thanks for the deliverance. This is exactly what we see in Jonah’s prayer: Crisis and petition (2:2-6abc) followed by thanksgiving and praise (2:6d-9).

Consequently, Jonah’s prayer is not a prayer for deliverance from the belly of the fish, but a remembrance of how Jonah cried out to God in the “womb of Sheol,” that is, in the belly of the sea where he was drowning. God answered Jonah’s cry for help by providing a great fish to bring him back to life and land. Jonah is rescued from Sheol, from the pit of death, and encounters God’s presence in the belly of the great fish as he journeys toward land.

As a result of this deliverance, Jonah promises a sacrifice—a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Leviticus 7), and pledges he will pay his vows, which are typically part of a thanksgiving sacrifice ritual. Jonah knows, beyond any doubt, Yahweh has rescued or delivered him.

Prayer Language

Jonah’s prayer is deeply immersed in the liturgical life of Israel as Jonah uses the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms. Almost every word and line has a counterpart in the Psalter. The below chart identifies similar, often the same, language (Hebrew) in both Jonah’s prayers and various psalms.

Jonah Psalms
2:2 I called to the Lord, and he answered me I called to the Lord, and he answered me 3:4; 120:1
2:2 Out my distress Out of my distress 118:5
2:2 I cried for help I cried for help 18:6;

28:2; 30:2; 88:14

2:2 Sheol Sheol 30:3; 88:3
2:2 You heard my voice You heard my voice 28:6; 31:22; 116:1
2:3 You have thrown me away You have thrown me aside 102:10
2:3 Into the deep…waves In the deep…waves 88:6f;


2:4 From your sight (eyes) From your sight (eyes) 31:22
2:4 Holy temple Holy temple 5:7; 138:2
2:5 Waters as far as my life (soul) Waters as far as my neck (soul) 69:1
2:5 Deep surrounds Deep surrounds 42:7; 88:17
2:6 You brought up the pit You brought up from Sheol 30:3; 71:20
2:6 Yahweh, my God Yahweh, my God 13:3; 30:12; 88:1
2:7 When my soul fainted When my life faints 142:3
2:7 I remembered I remember 42:4, 6



2:7 My prayer to you My prayer to you 69:13; 88:2
2:7 Holy temple Holy temple 5:7; 138:2
2:8 Worship worthless idols Worship worthless idols 31:6
2:8 Forsake steadfast love (hesed) Forsake faithful ones (hesed) 37:28
2:9 Thanksgiving…pay vows Thanksgiving…pay vows 50:14



2:9 Salvation belongs to the Lord Salvation belongs to the Lord 3:8;


What is the significance of this? One might suggest Jonah is vainly repeating phrases from his past piety. I see no reason to think this, however. To use standard liturgical phrases does not mean it is contrived piety. Rather, it might reflect how deeply ingrained this language is in the life of the singer. Sometimes pious repetition is the most effective way to express our hearts when our own words fail us. Further, the prayer perfectly fits the situation, and it is tailored to express Jonah’s journey from watery chaos to life on the land. Jonah is thankful for life.

What this language does tell us is how profoundly shaped Jonah is by the worship of Israel. As Bobby Valentine says, “The prayer shows Jonah to be a master of Israel’s liturgical tradition (he has memorized the hymns!).” He knows his prayer book; he knows how to pray, and he prays sincerely. He petitioned God while tossed about in the chaotic sea, and now, in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks and vows a sacrifice once he returns to the temple. This is the first (2:2b-6b) and second halves (2:6c-9) of the prayer itself. As Youngblood outlines the prayer, Jonah first remembers his petition and God’s response (2:2b-6abc), and then he expresses gratitude for God’s deliverance (2:6d-2:9).

Remembering the Petition (Jonah 2:2-6abc)

The prayer runs like this (in some cases I have taken Youngblood’s suggested translation; otherwise it is my own with some language from the NRSV. I have also underlined parallel ideas):

I called, out of my distress, to Yahweh,

            and he answered me.

I cried out for help in the womb of Sheol,

            you heard my voice.

Nearing death, perhaps confronted with a near-death experience, Jonah awakens to his situation. Near death, he finds himself in the “womb” of Sheol. The noun translated “womb” is often translated “belly,” but it effectively means “womb” since it is feminine in gender (so Youngblood). Sheol is the realm of the dead, and this is Jonah’s distress. When Jonah was about to die, he cried out for help and asked Yahweh to deliver him from death. God answered and delivered him by sending a great fish to swallow him. Now, in the belly of the fish, Jonah gives thanks for the deliverance.

You hurled me into the deep,

            into the heart of the seas

                        and the river overcame me.

            All your breakers and billows swept over me.

In the previous line, Jonah addressed God directly: “you heard my voice.” Now, remembering his predicament, he recognizes God’s hand in his distress. “You hurled me into the deep,” he says. “Hurled” is the same word used to describe what the wind God sent upon the sea, how sailors threw cargo overboard, and what the sailors did to Jonah in chapter one. Though the sailors “hurled” him, Jonah knows who lies behind their action. The sailors served God’s purposes; God hurled Jonah into the deep by the hands of the sailors.

The language of “deep,” “heart of the sea,” and the “river” as well as “breakers” and “billows” provide a vivid image of how chaos (perhaps alluding the Canaanite gods Yam [sea] and Nahar [river]) overwhelm Jonah. God gives Jonah over to the chaos, to the forces beyond Jonah’s control but not outside of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Yahweh maintains control over the chaos that surrounds and overwhelms Jonah.

Then I said,

            Though I have been banished from your sight,

                        yet I will look once more toward your holy temple.

In the midst of the chaos, Jonah decides—despite his sense that he is beyond hope, outside of God’s care and concern—to look again, at least one more time, toward God’s dwelling place, God’s holy temple. When Solomon consecrated the new temple in 2 Chronicles 6, he describes how Israel, when it sins, would “prayer toward this place” (the temple) for forgiveness (2 Chr. 6:21, 26). The temple always meant hope, forgiveness, and renewal. Jonah appeals for mercy by turning his face and prayer toward God’s dwelling place.

The waters engulfed me up to the neck,

            the watery deep overcame me,

                        and the reeds wrapped around my head.

The “waters,” “deep,” and “reed” (as in Sea of Reeds, or Red Sea) evoke the Exodus (Exodus 15:4, 8, 10, 19, 22, 25), but Jonah is not standing on the land. On the contrary, he is, like Pharoah’s army, sinking into the sea. When God flooded the path through the sea to destroy the Egyptian army, God released chaos. It is a form of “uncreation” (like the flood in Genesis 6-8) where God reverses the good order of creation and chaos takes over once again. Jonah feels like the Egyptian army at the bottom of the “Red Sea” (or Sea of Reeds). This is yet another description of Jonah’s near-death experience from the chaotic sea, which—in this circumstance—serves Yahweh.

I descended to the foundations of the mountains,

            to the land whose bars would trap me forever.

Youngblood is particularly insightful in these comments (p. 109):

In Israel, the sacred mountain is represented by Zion. Thus, the mountains to which Jonah descended are the inverse, the negative, of the sacred mountain here Jonah previously stood in YHWH’s presence. Jonah has just completed an “anti-pilgrimage” to the “anti-temple” of Sheol. Instead of a psalm of ascent sung by pilgrims during their climb to the summit of Zion, Jonah sings a psalm of descent inn anticipation of death and separation from YHWH.

Jonah, descending to the base of the mountains in the sea, entered an underwater “land,” the realm of the dead, which is Sheol. Jonah’s descent was into death, but God heard his prayer and delivered him.

Jonah’s Chaos and Our Own

While Jonah created his own chaos by fleeing from God’s presence–and we often do the same, we also experience chaos in so many other ways. Reading Jonah’s prayer, his language lives in our own experiences of chaos. In desperate times–drowning in the sea, as it were–we reach to God and cry out for God’s mercy.

In a real sense, we are all Jonah. We have all found ourselves, at times, engulfed in the waters, overwhelmed by the deep. Chaos often reigns in our livers, whether it is due to our own sin or due to tragic circumstances beyond our control.

What we learn from about God from the storyteller in the book of Jonah is that God is merciful. God hears our prayers, and God answers them with mercy and deliverance, even if we have created our own chaotic circumstances.

Jonah’s prayer language comes from the Psalter, and Jonah’s prayer is also our prayer as we find ourselves engulfed in chaotic waters. Israel teaches us how to pray in the Psalms, and Jonah teaches us to appeal to God’s mercy despite the messes we have created for ourselves.


The center of the first half of Jonah’s thanksgiving song is an expression of hope despite his circumstances. Hurled into the deep, Jonah knows Yahweh has banished him, nevertheless Jonah looks toward God’s dwelling place. Seeking in the depths of the sea and descending toward Sheol, Jonah turns toward the temple in prayer and hopes for deliverance. And God, who is full of mercy, heard his prayer and delivered Jonah from certain death.

Jonah 1:17-2:2 — A Great Fish “Tale”

November 5, 2015

But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God, from the belly of the fish, and said:

“Out of my distress, I called to Yahweh,

and he answered me.

From the womb of Sheol, I cried for help;

you heard my voice.”

(Jonah 1:17-2:2, my translation).

The sailors prayed, but Jonah did not. The sailors rowed toward land to save Jonah, but Jonah suggested they throw him into the sea. The sailors praised Yahweh, but Jonah did not. The sailors were rescued, and a “great fish” swallowed Jonah.

The Hebrew text has an accent in the middle of the first sentence (Jonah 1:17), which instructs the reader to pause. In other words, one follows “But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” with a dramatic pause. Jonah’s life is in the balance. Is the swallowing a mercy or death?

“Swallow” has a long history in biblical narrative. For example, the earth “swallowed” Pharoah’s army (Ex. 15:12). Korah and his allies were “swallowed” up, and they went down to Sheol (Num. 16:30-32).

The most interesting example is Jeremiah 51:34 which pictures King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon swallowing Judah “like a monster” and then vomiting Judah out. Jeremiah and Jonah use the same language for swallowing and vomiting (Jonah 2:1, 10). Theologically, Jonah’s experience in the great fish is analogous to Israel’s experience in exile. It is God’s judgment but for the sake of mercy and salvation. Like Israel in the exile, God sent Jonah on a journey to Sheol to reorient his life.

The pause gives the reader time to anticipate–is it death or life? And it was life; the “great fish” is Yahweh’s deliverance.

The “great fish” rescues Jonah from death by taking him on a journey from Sheol. The fish saves Jonah from drowning in the “womb” of chaos or Sheol, the realm of the dead. Jonah is “swallowed up,” and it appeared Jonah was headed for death, sinking into the “deep.” However, God appointed the fish to save Jonah from the chaos, from Sheol. It was purposed for deliverance rather than destruction, for salvation rather than death.

The “great fish,” whatever that is and we can only speculate, is the vehicle for deliverance. While the ship took Jonah away from the presence of Yahweh, the “great fish” becomes a rescue vessel, which carries Jonah toward Yahweh and the safety of the land. The “great fish” is a grace in the midst of the chaotic sea; it rescues Jonah. Whether the “great fish” refers to one of the great sea monsters or not, this large animal—no doubt a terror to sailors—is Yahweh’s appointed means of deliverance. Chaos, sea monsters, or a “great fish” do not threaten Yahweh. On the contrary, they serve Yahweh, the maker of land and sea.

Jonah was in the belly of the fish for “three days and three nights.” In the context of the Ancient Near East, the temporal indicator assumes a particular kind of journey. George Landes (JBL [1967] 446-450) illuminates this language in significant ways. In the Sumerian myth The Descent of Inanna to the Nether world,  “three days and three nights” is the time it takes for “Inanna to arrive within the nether world” from the land of the living (Descent, 173-175) It is a three-day journey there and a three-day return trip. In this case, “the fish is assigned the same time span to return Jonah from Sheol to dry land” (Landes, 449). The “great fish” carries Jonah from Sheol to land in “three days and three nights.” As Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 103), this three-day journey motif is also present in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:4) and Israel’s three days in the wilderness without water (Exodus 15:22). It also lies behind Hosea’s promise of restoration—though Yahweh has essentially killed Israel, nevertheless “on the third day” Yahweh will restore them (Hosea 6:1-2).

The “great fish,” then, is Jonah’s boat ride from the deepest parts of the sea (Sheol) to life on land. The “great fish” is a rescue animal rather than an “attack dog.” The “great fish” saves Jonah from death. Consequently, within the “great fish,” Jonah sings a thanksgiving prayer. He offers thanks for the rescue with his prayer in Jonah 2:2-9.

Jonah prays to God twice in this short book. The first time is Jonah 2:1, which highlights the fact Jonah did not pray in the first chapter though the sailors prayed. The second time is Jonah 4:2, which indicates Jonah’s heart has not changed since the opening of book. Jonah’s experience in Sheol did not transform Jonah’s heart, though he is thankful for Yahweh’s rescue from death.

Jonah 1-2

Jonah 4

Jonah prays (2:1) Jonah prays (4:2)
Jonah wants to die (1:12) Jonah wants to die (4:3)
Jonah resists mercy (1:2-3) Jonah resents mercy (4:3)

Jonah is still the same person with the same heart. He resists mercy for Nineveh by fleeing from the presence of Yahweh, and in the presence of Yahweh at the end of the narrative, Jonah resents mercy for Nineveh. As Bobby Valentine says, “Jonah sounds incredibly pious [in his prayer] but his heart is incredibly hard.”

What, then, did Jonah pray in the “belly of the fish”?

Though Jonah prays from the “belly of the fish,” his prayer recalls his experience in the deep, the chaotic sea. It is almost as if Jonah’s prayer has a flashback to drowning in the sea when he called upon the Lord and now gives thanks for his ride within the belly of the fish. He prays a thanksgiving hymn; it is not a prayer of lament or repentance (more on this in another blog post). Jonah is thankful but not penitent.

The first lines of the prayer parallel three ideas (Jonah 2:2):

  • Jonah called to Yahweh and cried for help
  • Out of his distress, out of the womb of Sheol
  • Yahweh answered and heard his voice

This language echoes the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms.

  • “called…answered” appears in Psalms 3:4; 120:1
  • “out of my distress” appears in Psalms 118:5
  • “I cried for help” appears in Psalms 18:6; 28:2; 30:2; 31:22; 88:14
  • Sheol appears often, see Psalms 30:3; 88:3
  • “You have heard my voice” appears in Psalms 28:6; 33:22; 116:1

Jonah is well-versed in the prayer and liturgical language of Israel. He knows how to pray, and this prayer evokes the best of that language for thanksgiving hymns. Nevertheless, it is also specific to his circumstance rather than a generalized prayer from the tradition. It uses traditional language but it is crafted as an expression of Jonah’s experience.

While often translated “belly of Sheol,” as if this a reference to the belly of the fish, the word is different and it is feminine rather than masculine (the gender of “belly” of the fish is masculine). The “womb of Sheol” provides the “image of Sheol as an entity with a rapacious appetite that indiscriminately swallows everyone (Prov. 30:15-16),” and the “hyperbole is that Jonah wonders if he might be too far gone” and “so close to death that he couldn’t even tell whether he was still alive or not, whether he was still within YHWH’s reach” (Youngblood, 105).

Reeling in the chaos of the sea and sinking into the depths of Sheol (the realm of the dead), Jonah finally calls out to Yahweh, “his God.” While on the ship the captain pleaded with Jonah to “call” on Jonah’s God (Jonah 1:6), but he apparently refused. While the pagan sailors had earlier called on their own gods, they actually “call” on Yahweh as they throw Jonah overboard while Jonah did not (Jonah 1:14). Only in the depths of Sheol does Jonah “call” on Yahweh.

And, astonishingly, Yahweh hears and answers! Yahweh does not resent Jonah’s flight or his fight (resistance). Rather, Yahweh shows mercy and rescues Jonah from the sea.

Jonah’s boat ride in the belly of the fish returns him to land and life! The Lord God is merciful.

Jonah 1:7-17a – Salvation Through Judgment

October 29, 2015

Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy is the title of Bryan Estelle’s book in The Gospel According to the Old Testament series (Presbyterian and Reformed). Judgment for Jonah is not retribution or revenge; it is the means of salvation. Through judgment, God saves Jonah from himself and renews Jonah’s missional call. God is not punishing Jonah; God is pursuing Jonah.

God saves Jonah through the mediation of wind, storm, and fish….and pagan sailors who learn about Yahweh through Jonah. The narrator tells the story through the dialogue and interaction between the sailors and Jonah.

Sailors Jonah
“Come, let us cast lots” The lot fell on Jonah
“Tell us why this calamity has come upon us” “I am a Hebrew and fear Yahweh”
“What is this you have done!” They knew he was fleeing from the presence of Yahweh
“What shall we do with you?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.”
They rowed hard for land. The storm grew in intensity.
“O Yahweh, do not let us perish…and do not make us guilty of innocent blood.” They picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea.
The sea ceased its raging and they worshiped Yahweh. A great fish swallowed Jonah.

The sailors move from terror to praise, and Jonah descends into the deep, into the belly of the great fish.

The sailors cast lots, which is a common form of discernment in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 16:8-10; 1 Samuel 10:19-21; Proverbs 16:33; 18:18). Their prayers, obviously, were not effective, and their gods had not responded. They sense, however, their situation is connected to someone on the ship who has offended Yam, the great sea god. Astoundingly, as Brent Strawn has argued, these pagan sailors engage in the Hebrew practice of casting lots (Biblica [2010] 66-76). Casting lots is unknown among nations other than Israel at this time. As Kevin Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 77), the sailors have moved away from praying to their own gods and practiced Hebrew divination, including casting lots and later praying, sacrificing, and making vows to Yahweh.

Jonah did not volunteer he was the one responsible for this calamity (literally, “evil”). He was not, apparently, going to identify himself until he was discovered. He was hiding and waited to see what would happen. He watched as the lot was cast, and Yahweh singled out Jonah.

The sailors then bagger Jonah with a series of questions, probably frustrated by his silence.

Why has this “evil” come upon us?

What is your occupation?

Where did you come from?

What is your nationality?

Who are you?

The questions probe Jonah’s identity—vocation, movements, and loyalties. At the heart of the questions is the “why” and the “who”? Jonah’s occupation, origins, and nationality might contribute to their primary interest, which was the initial question out of their mouths and the last one.

The first question laments their current situation—they are in the midst of a traumatic storm, which threatens their lives. They want to know, what we all might want to know at that point, “why?” They need an explanation, a rationale. If they knew what was happening, they might figure out how to respond. And while Job’s immediate recorded response does not answer this question (the narrative is telescoped), apparently Jonah did answer it since it becomes evident they did learn about Jonah’s flight from God. Consequently, we might imagine Jonah answered all their questions:

I am fleeing from the presence of Yahweh (the problem).

I am a prophet of Yahweh (occupation).

I came from the land of Israel (geography).

I am an Israelite (nationality).

I am a Hebrew (ethnicity).

The last question probes Job’s identity, “Who are you?” He gives an ethnic answer, “I am a Hebrew.” This is how an Israelite would answer a foreigner, the term the nations used to describe Jews. More importantly, he gives a religious answer: “I fear Yahweh.” This is his religious loyalty; Yahweh is his God. And Yahweh is the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah serves the Creator God who is sovereign over the sea and land, sovereign over Yam and Baal. In other words, Jonah serves the God who sent this storm. Yahweh wants Jonah!

Given Jonah’s responses (including what was not cited in the narrative), the sailors recognize their plight and their fear increases. Outraged, they exclaim: “What is this you have done!” Jonah has involved them in his disobedience to Yahweh. Jonah flees Yahweh, but Yahweh pursues Jonah, and the sailors are caught in the middle. Yahweh’s pressure on the sailors increases as the intensity of the storm increases. The sailors are at a loss as to what to do, and Jonah suggests they cast him overboard.

Why did Jonah offer this option? Jonah, we might say, is willing to die to save the sailors since he figures Yahweh will save the sailors if he is not on board. Jonah knows Yahweh is merciful, and he expected Yahweh would save these pagans just as Yahweh wants to save the Assyrians. Ironically, Jonah shows mercy to pagans even has he is running from proclaiming mercy to pagans (the Assyrians). This may indicate Jonah’s particular hatred for the Assyrians themselves.

However, Jonah could have simply prayed to Yahweh, accepted the commission, and Yahweh would have calmed the seas. Jonah, however, is not willing to accept the mission as yet. He would rather die than offer Assyrians mercy!

At the same time, Jonah is not willing to throw himself into the sea. He asks the sailors to oblige him. Perhaps this suggests Jonah will not act to save the sailors himself—he will wait it out on the boat until there is no choice. Perhaps Jonah still thought he could escape with the sailors. Whatever the case, the sailors do not immediately hurl Jonah into the sea.

Apparently, the sailors did not want to do that. They continued to row in an attempt to reach land, but their efforts were futile. The storm continued to intensify. The more they attempted to save themselves—and Jonah—the more the storm increased. Ultimately, if they were to secure their own salvation, they had no choice but to hurl Jonah overboard just as they had previously hurled cargo over the sides of the ship.

Reluctantly, they threw Jonah overboard, praying Yahweh would save them and forgive them. They held Yahweh accountable for this person’s blood rather than themselves; it was Yahweh’s storm. Yahweh had left them no choice. In this way, as at other times in Israel’s history, the nations became God’s instrument to discipline Israel—this time in the person of Jonah.

In the end, the sailors (the nations) praised Yahweh and offered sacrifices and vows to the God of heaven. Jonah’s sacrifice redeemed the sailors. The pagans were, in some sense, converted, and this is something Jonah refused to help the Assyrians to do.

Jonah, no doubt, expected to die. Surely there was no hope in the raging sea.

But, scandalously and despite Jonah’s persistent resistance, God showed Jonah mercy. God rescues (saves) Jonah through judgment (discipline). A severe mercy keeps Jonah alive.

Undeserving of mercy and not seeking any mercy, Yahweh, nevertheless, showed mercy. This is who God is.

Theodrama: Act I, Scene 3 – God Invests Humanity with Dignity and Mission

October 28, 2015

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

The Lord God took the adam and rested adam in the Garden of Eden to serve and protect it.

Genesis 2:15 (my translation)

These texts identify humanity’s vocation. They invite humanity into God’s goal for the creation. God invites humanity to flourish, fill the whole earth, subdue the cosmos, and protect the divine sanctuary. God intends for Eden to expand and fill the earth as humanity faithfully participates in God’s mission. We are God’s junior partners in that mission.

God created us as God’s own images in distinction from all other life. Humanity has a special role within the creation as the image of God within the cosmic temple, God’s house. As the living images of God within the creation, humanity represents God in the world, mediates God’s presence as priests, and reigns over the creation as royalty. When God finished the temple, God placed images within it. Human beings (both male and female) are those images.

Multiply and Fill

This is humanity’s expansionistic function.

God “rested” humanity in the Garden. The Hebrew Bible uses this word to describe divine and human rest on the seventh day (Exodus 20:11; 23:12; cf. Deuteronomy 5:14), God’s gift of rest to Israel in the land (Deuteronomy 25:19; Josh. 1:13, 15; 1 Chronicles 23:25; 2 Chronicles 14:6), and God’s habitation of the temple (2 Chronicles 6:41). God created adam (the human being) from the adamah (ground) and rested adam in the Garden to rest with God as a royal priest in Eden.

Eden, however, was not a static reality. God intended humanity to multiply and fill the whole earth, to expand Eden until it filled the earth, until everything was “Holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Humanity, as well as animal life, is to populate the earth, and God “formed” the earth “to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). God multiplies and fills the earth with glory through the praise of God’s creatures (cf. Genesis 1:22; 8:17; 9:1, 7). God multiplied Israel (Genesis 47:27; Exodus 1:7; Leviticus 26:9; Jeremiah 3:16) and later multiplied the church (Acts 6:1, 7; 9:31; 12:24) as an embodiment of this original vision.

Nevertheless, when humanity failed to cooperate, God scattered them. Yahweh scattered humanity at Babel, Israel through exile, and the church through persecution. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with God’s glory.


This is humanity’s creative function.

As Creator, God brought order out of chaos. Hovering over the waters enclosed in darkness, God brought order to an uninhabitable earth, a chaotic void. God subdued the earth to provide habitable space, and then God filled the space with life.

Unfortunately, some believe the call to “subdue” empowers humanity to exploit the earth and deplete its resources. On the contrary, “subdue” partners with God’s creative work to bring order out of chaos.

The seven days of creation did not rid the cosmos of chaos. Darkness still exists, the waters still exist, and a chaos figure—the serpent—entered Eden itself. God called the light good but not the darkness. God did not remove the waters but gave them boundaries. Outside of Eden, chaos exists within the creation.

Humanity partners with God to subdue the remaining chaos. This ordering includes things as diverse as domesticating a field for crops or goats for milk as well as developing software programs to bring order to a chaotic mass of data.

To subdue the earth means to partner in God’s creative work; it does not mean abusing or exploiting the creation. Whatever chaos remains in the creation, humanity is called to subdue it and order it for life in partnership with God.


This is humanity’s royal vocation.

Too often we hear “dominion” in tyrannical, oppressive, militaristic, or manipulative ways, but this is not how God rules. As images of God, we rule in the likeness of God.

For example, the kings of Israel, though they did not always effectively do so, represented God in the nation. God desired they rule with justice and mercy. Psalm 72 reminds Israel what “dominion” means, the humble exercise of power in the service of mercy (cf. Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53). Their rule was supposed to be more like how a shepherd “rules” (cf. Ezekiel 34:4) rather than how a dictator “rules.” Far from exploitation and abuse, God’s imagers rule as servants who give life. They benevolently care for the creation.

This gains greater clarity when we recognize we are co-rulers with God. God shares dominion with us. We are co-workers, junior partners. This is our identity, and it is part of our mission to develop the full potential of creation as we lovingly care for it and gratefully enjoy it. We pursue familial, social, and communal shalom as we embody the justice and mercy of God within creation.

This vocation involves every aspect of human life. The arts (music, literature, fine art) are expressions of human creativity. Technology manages resources; medicine serves wholeness; and social structures shape community. These are part of the human vocation, our partnership with God, as co-rulers and co-creators within the creation.

This means no work is “secular” as if it is disconnected from our missional identity. Every good work—no matter how “secular”—participates in the mission of God.

Human beings are called into multiple kinds of works or different vocational careers. As participants in community, we choose particular careers. We choose these careers as means to love God and serve our neighbors. Through these careers, we participate in the mission of God. Medical professionals partner with God in healing. Financial counselors partner with God as they mediate justice for creditors and mercy for debtors. Professionals in the legal community partner with God as they pursue justice. Environmental biologists partner with God as they preserve and care for the creation.

Partnering with God toward the fulfillment of the mission of God is ministry in the kingdom of God. Nurses, counselors, biologists, and lawyers co-rule with God. Through their careers, they are ministers and royal priests in God’s kingdom.

Serve and Protect

This is humanity’s priestly vocation.

We are priests in the temple of God. Though English translations often given an agricultural feel to these Hebrew verbs, such as “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), Ellen Davis (among others) has demonstrated this is priestly language (Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 192-194). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible when these two words occur to together, they describe the Levitical service of God’s appointed servants in the tabernacle (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:7).

The first verb normally describes ministering or serving the ground (Genesis 2:5; 3:23; 4:2, 12) or the garden (Genesis 2:15). The second verb is normally translated “keep,” “guard,” or “protect.” Priests protect or guard the holiness of the sanctuary. This may include agricultural dimensions, but given the temple and sanctuary language in Genesis 1-2, it stresses humanity’s priestly role within the creation. Like priests in the temple, we serve God’s creation and protect it from anything unclean.

As priests, we mediate the praise of creation to the Creator, and we mediate God’s rule over the world in the creation. We represent the creation in our praise of God, and we fill the material world with thanksgiving as we receive the creation from God with gratitude. As priests, we bless the creation and lead the creation in blessing God.

Priests are deeply connected with the parties they mediate. As images of God, we represent God to the creation. As part of creation, we represent creation to God. We are spiritual-material beings who participate in both the spiritual reality of God and the material reality of the creation. This is part of our human identity.


God placed humanity in the Garden of Eden as divine images in the cosmic temple of God to serve in God’s sanctuary. As living, breathing images of the living God, humanity was tasked to partner with God in ruling over life upon the earth, subduing the remaining chaos, filling the earth with God’s living glory through human flourishing, and serving and protecting God’s sanctuary.

Humanity is gifted to co-rule, co-create, and co-subdue in partnership with God. This is, at least in part, what it means to live as the image of God within God’s cosmic temple.

Jonah 1:4-6 – A Severe Mercy, God Pursues Jonah

October 24, 2015

Jonah refused God’s commission, but that was not the end of the story. God pursued Jonah.

The narrative begins with God’s call (Jonah 1:2), moves to Jonah’s refusal by flight (Jonah 1:3), and now God pursues Jonah through wind, storm, and fish. Back-and-forth, God invites and Jonah refuses until Jonah, in the belly of the fish, accepts God’s call. God’s pursuit is God’s mercy, and the wind, storm, and fish are not God’s punishment but God’s discipline, a severe mercy.

Jonah’s downward descent is the primary movement in the opening scenes of the first chapter, also noted in the previous blog.

  • Jonah descends to Joppa, a city under Gentile control (Jonah 1:3)
  • Jonah descends onto a boat, which is piloted by Gentiles (Jonah 1:3)
  • Jonah descends into the bowels of the boat, the lowest part of the boat (Jonah 1:5)
  • Jonah descends, ultimately, into Sheol, the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:6)

Jonah is descending into a pit, away from Yahweh, away from his commission. As Jonah descends, God pursues.

A Severe Providence

Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy) identifies this downward movement in Jonah 1:4-6 and also discerns another downward movement in the narrative, a movement from the heavens (sky) to the depths of the ship. This movement happens on the sea.

Sky – Yahweh hurls a great wind at the sea.

Sea – The wind whips a raging storm on the sea.

Ship – The ship threatens to disintegrate on the sea.

Deck of the Ship – Sailors are hurling cargo into the sea.

Bowels of the Ship – Jonah sleeps in the ship on the sea.

“The narrative,” Youngblood notes (p. 72), “descends, pulling the reader down to the depths with Jonah.” Entering the world of the narrative, we are caught in the descending cycle of Jonah’s flight. Though headed to Tarshish, he is actually going nowhere.

The sea is harsh place. Even the most experienced mariners faced the dangers with great anxiety. Ezekiel 27:25-36, describing the “ships of Tarshish,” provides a harrowing account of sea travel and its dangers. Life, wealth, and futures “sink into the heart of the seas on the day of your ruin” (Ezekiel 27:27). Rowers on an ancient ship were no match for an angry sea (Ezekiel 27:26).

Jonah’s ship faced such an angry, even raging, sea (Jonah 1:15). The narrator calls it a “storm,” which describes something akin to hurricane (Psalm 83:15), and such storms are often associated with divine activity, even wrath (Amos 1:14; Jeremiah 23:19). Indeed, the storm arises from a great wind Yahweh “hurled” across the sea. The storm is a divine act—it begins and it ends when Yahweh decides. The winds and the waves obey Yahweh, even though Jonah does not.

The “sea,” of course, is a dominant theme in chapter where the word yam (sea) occurs nine times. And this is more significant than mere vocabulary. The word also has a mythological background in Canaanite culture. Yam is the god of the sea, the chaos God, who battles Baal, the fertility god of Canaan. In ancient myths, Yam and Baal represent water and land, or sea and the earth.

This is why the sailors are crying out to their own gods, perhaps the gods of their homeland. Ancient deities were often local, regional, or national, and sometimes they were even personal or vocational (e.g, sailors, artisans, etc.). Even ships would have their own protectors, as their decorations sometimes indicated.

When Yam, it appears, as the god of the sea, threatens the ship with a storm, the sailors pray for their gods to rescue them. But, generally, upon the sea, they are impotent. They cannot fight Yam on that god’s own territory.

Yam, however, is not the source of this storm. Quite the contrary, neither Yam nor the chaotic sea is a threat to Yahweh who hurled the wind upon the sea to create the storm. Yahweh created the land and the sea (Jonah 1:9), Yam and Baal are nothing to Yahweh. God uses chaos, even Yam (as the sailors believed in such), as a tool of God’s own purposes. God uses wind, storm, and eventually a fish to pursue Jonah.

The storm, then, is God’s act; it is an act of divine providence. Providence is not always blissful; it is often disciplinary. Providence is not always “friendly,” though it may be misinterpreted as such at first. For example, Jonah had the money to hire a ship and he found one. We might wonder whether such “luck” (or providence) might have encouraged Jonah to flee. But even that providence becomes part of a larger story where God pursues Jonah’s flight. It is not so much a function of divine wrath as it is divine discipline, a severe mercy.

The Renewed Call

Jonah descended into the bowels of the ship, that is, to the furthest reaches of the baot. Perhaps Jonah is hiding, or perhaps Jonah is simply escaping—going to the extremities available. It is like going into Sheol, the place of the dead. The word here is found in parallel with Sheol in Isaiah 14:15 and Ezekiel 32:21. Whatever the case, there Jonah goes to sleep and in such a deep sleep, the storm does not awaken him.

How can Jonah sleep, or why is Jonah sleeping? Perhaps Jonah was content to die, content with his decision; perhaps Jonah was exhausted from stress. Or, as some have suggested, Jonah has fallen into a deep sleep occasioned by God. The Hebrew word may indicated a deep, hypnotic-like sleep (Genesis 2:21; Job 4:13), and often people, including prophets, receive revelation in their sleep or dreams (Genesis 15:12; Job 33:15; Daniel 8:18: 1 Samuel 25:12-25; Genesis 28:16; Zechariah 4:1). Perhaps in this moment God is once again bring a “word” to Jonah. Youngblood (p. 76) suggests the sleep is “preparation for his second calling.” Perhaps this is why the storm did not disturb Jonah’s sleep—God was coming to Jonah once again.

This is confirmed by what the captain says when he awakens Jonah. The commission, announced in Jonah 1:1-2, is renewed through the captain’s words.

The word of the Lord came… Arise! Cry out… 1:1-2
The captain came… Arise! Cry out.. 1:6

God calls. Jonah runs. God responds through wind and storm, and God renews the call through the captain. Jonah, however, continues to resist. As we will see, Jonah does not cry out to Yahweh. Instead, he runs again—this time he is “hurled” into the sea (Jonah 1:12, 15), just as Yahweh “hurled” the wind at the sea (Jonah 1:4) and the sailors “hurled” their cargo into the sea (Jonah 1:5).

The captain is astounded Jonah is sleeping rather than praying. The captain hopes for mercy, much like David hoped for such mercy when praying for his son (2 Samuel 12:22). Perhaps some god somewhere will show mercy and do something to help them.

Ironically, mercy is all Yahweh has shown and will show in this story.

Jonah refuses God’s call and flees from God’s presence. In response, God does not execute Jonah or zap him with lightning. On the contrary, God pursues Jonah! Through wind, storm, and tumultuous waves, God calls Jonah once again. Rather than punishing Jonah, God continues to invite Jonah into the divine mission. And Jonah continues to refuse. God, however, remains merciful, though it is a severe mercy.

The book of Jonah moves from one mercy to another, from mercy to mercy.

Mercy for Jonah.

Mercy for the sailors.

Mercy for Nineveh.

And mercy for Jonah again

The story of Jonah piles mercy upon mercy, which is God’s own identity (Jonah 4:3).



Jonah 1:2-3 – We are all Jonah

October 22, 2015

When Jonah, a prophet who stands before the face of Yahweh, is commissioned to cry out against the evil in Nineveh ascending before the face of Yahweh, Jonah flees from the face of Yahweh to Tarshish,  the opposite direction.

Divine Commission

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy) correctly suggests Jonah 1 is a commission narrative.

Probably the most famous commission narratives in the Hebrew Bible are Moses in Exodus 3, Isaiah in Isaiah 6, or Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1. The typical pattern of such narratives is something like this: God calls people, they object or resist in some way, God renews their call with assurances, and, finally, they accept the call. This happens with Jonah except his resistance takes the form of flight rather than fight. Nevertheless, God pursues Jonah as a kind of commission renewal until Jonah accepts the call.

Instead of zapping Jonah for his refusal to obey, God pursues Jonah with disciplinary mercy.

The prophetic “word of Yahweh” comes to Jonah (Jonah 1:1), which is a standard way to talk about Hebrew prophets to whom God has given a message. The commission itself comes in the form of three imperatives:

  • Arise! or Get up!
  • Go!
  • Cry Out!

Translations often merge the first two into something like, “Go at once” (NRSV). It is an earnest call–clear, urgent, and emphatic. God is sending Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah should go immediately. Jonah is invited into God’s mission for Nineveh. And this is more than an invitation, it is command (three imperative verbs). Jonah is commissioned as Yahweh’s representative to Nineveh.

Nineveh is not the administrative or capital city of the Empire in Jonah’s day. It would only become such under Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.E.). While this is anachronistic for post-exilic readers (a likely date for the literary work), it identifies Assyria with its most historic and prominent city within memory. Nineveh, in effect, stands for Assyria, which stands for the nations in general. Within Israel’s living memory, Nineveh is the first great city of Assyria (Genesis 10:11).

The occasion for this mission is the “evil” that ascends, like smoke from a fire, before the face (presence) of God. This evil, apparently, has become so great it demands Yahweh’s proactive attention. Jonah is sent because Yahweh’s permission of evil has limits. God permits but also eradicates evil. Yahweh had decided—with some urgency—now is the time for Nineveh to “face” Yahweh and give account of its evil.

At the same time, Nineveh—as a “great city” within the Assyrian Empire—represents all the nations. In the same way, Nineveh’s evil represents the wickedness with which the nations are saturated. And, also, Jonah’s resistance represents Israel’s own unwillingness to share God’s light with the nations.

Jonah’s Resistance

While evil “ascends” before Yahweh’s face, Jonah “descends” away from Yahweh’s face.

When God commands, we expect to see an obedient response. But here the opposite is the case. God said, “Arise!” and Jonah “arose” (the Hebrew uses the same verb), but Jonah arose to “flee to Tarshish” rather than to “go to Nineveh.” Jonah disobeys the call and refuses the commission. Jonah concretely resists God’s call.

Quite vividly, the narrative chronicles Jonah’s flight as a descent (using the same Hebrew verb).

  • He descended to Joppa (1:2).
  • He descended onto the ship (1:3)
  • He descended into the bowels of the ship (1:5)
  • He descended into the belly of a fish (2:7)

Jonah’s flight is a downward movement. Rather than arising and ascending to the task God gave him, he descends away from God’s presence.

Why does flee to Tarshsish? The first descending step was to go to Joppa, which is movement into non-Jewish territory at the time (king of Ashkelon), and he hired a boat (he did not simply pay a fare) with a non-Jewish crew for his trip to Tarshish. Jonah is escaping from everything Jewish, including the God of Israel, Yahweh.

Tarshish (whether it is modern Gibraltar or Sicily) lies in the opposite direction of Nineveh, and it is quite a distance, perhaps a three year round trip (2 Chronicles 9:21). Whatever its exact location, it is far west (Isaiah 23:6, 10; Psalm 72:10; 48:7). Some have suggested Tarshish may have been a paradise or utopia of some kind, but I don’t think that is the point.

Rather, perhaps Jonah thought he might escape God’s presence on the sea since in Canaanite (Baal) literature Yam is the chaotic Sea god who opposes Baal. Consequently, if Jonah takes flight on the sea perhaps he escapes Yahweh’s sovereign jurisdiction.

More likely—though not excluding the above point—Jonah fled to Tarshish because, according to Isaiah 66:19, no one has yet heard a word from Yahweh there and Yahweh’s glory is unknown there.  In others, he fled to a place where Yahweh is not, or at least where the “word of Yahweh” would not come to him. To put it another way, he fled to a place where the commission would not be renewed, so he might have thought.

Why Did Jonah Resist?

This is quite curious, isn’t it? Jonah, a prophet of Yahweh, refuses Yahweh’s commission. The contrast between Yahweh’s command, “Arise and go,” and Jonah’s response, “He arose and fled,” is quite startling, even astounding.

The reasons are probably quite complex. Whatever those reasons are, Jonah thinks they are compelling. He would rather flee Yahweh and die in a foreign land—even die on the sea—than to participate in God’s mission to Nineveh. That mission, to Jonah, was anathema; it was the opposite of his heart’s desire.

Later in the book, Jonah does tell us why he fled to Tarshish (4:2a):

“O Yahweh! Is not this what I said while I was still in my country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful.”

Jonah did not want God to show mercy to Nineveh. But why is Jonah opposed to mercy for the Assyrians (or the nations, for that matter)?

  • Perhaps he was concerned about reputation—would Jonah be counted a traitor for helping Assyrians who previously oppressed Israel?
  • Perhaps he feared retribution from his own people when he returned to Israel after visiting Nineveh.
  • Perhaps he was concerned about a renewed rise of power among the Assyrians, which would result in renewed oppression of Israel.
  • Perhaps he thought Assyria did not deserve mercy because they were a brutal and violent nation (from crucifixions to decapitations, enslavement of peoples, etc.).

Whatever the case, “No mercy for Nineveh!” is Jonah’s slogan. The commission exposes the heart beating in Jonah’s breast. That heart beats in many of us who feel, “he does not deserve mercy,” or “she is not worthy,” or “they must be punished!” We have all felt revenge rather than reconciliation, and sometimes prioritized retribution over mercy.

Sinclair Ferguson (Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah, 13) suggests the call is a form of divine heart surgery, to which we are all exposed when we hear God’s call on our lives.

We might wonder whether God was deliberately shining the spotlight of his Word into an area of Jonah’s life that had never been put to the test before, exposing a nerve, and then touching it to discover what response there might be….Like an instrument which can detect microscopic differences, it can penetrate in our consciences between the limits of our willingness to obey and the point at which we may turn from God’s commands.

We are all Jonah!

Reading Jonah

October 21, 2015

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (1:1)

Shipmates, this book containing only four chapters—four yearns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand!

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 9

Many of us know the story from Sunday school, but it is also part of Western culture. Everyone, it seems, has some familiarity with “Jonah and the Whale, the Great Fish Tale.” The wide appeal of Jonah’s story is evident. It is laced through the great American classic, Moby Dick, and it is also a favorite children’s story. From classic novels to children’s Bible stories, Jonah’s encounter with the “great fish” peaks our interest even if some don’t swallow the story.

Who is Jonah?

The first line of the book, quoted above, tells us next to nothing about Jonah. That we would know little about a prophet is not unusual, but what is rather curious is how the book, which bears his name, tells us relatively nothing about him unlike other written prophets (e.g., Amos).

Apparently, however, he was a well-known figure in his day. It is simply enough to say, “Jonah the son of Amittai.” His fame is confirmed by 2 Kings 14:23-27, which is the only other record in the Hebrew Bible about Jonah. We learn Jonah is a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II from the city of Gath-heper, which is located in the territory of Zebulun in the region of Galilee not far from what would become Nazareth in the Roman period.

In 2 Kings 14:23-27, Jonah affirms God’s intent to give Israel some rest in their land after several years of bitter suffering. The rise of King Jeroboam II (789-748 B.C.E.), the longest reigning King of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), would see the recovery of northern Israel’s Solomonic borders. Jeroboam II presided over prosperity and peace. Jonah is, according to the record in 2 Kings, a faithful prophet to whom the people listened during this period.

The literary work known as Jonah, however, is anonymous—no authorial credit is given, and it is undated. The composition may date anywhere from the 700s-300s B.C.E. Based on linguistics, many date the book in the post-exilic period, and that may be correct.


Jonah’s Context.

While there is no verifiable way to assign a date to the composition, the historical circumstances are firmly rooted in the eighth century B.C.E.

Jeroboam II was a fourth generation descendant of Jehu (842-815) who is mentioned in the Black Obelisk of the Assyrian Emperor Shalmaneser III (858-824): “I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and of Jehu, son of Omri.” This indicates Assyria was a dominant power about forty years before the reign of Jeroboam II. However, during the reign of Jeroboam II the Assyrian hegemony had receded due to internal strife though by the end of his reign the Assyrians were once again threatening the borders of Israel.

During the prophetic ministry of Jonah, it appears, Assyria was in a holding pattern, though its power was about to rise once again. We might imagine Jonah does not want to encourage them because they will oppress Israel. As 2 Kings 14:23-27 notes, God had renewed mercy and goodness toward Israel, and Jonah does not want to contribute to such a renewal of mercy and grace toward Assyria.

As Eli Wiesel wrote, Jonah “does not wish Nineveh to die, yet he does not wish Nineveh to live at the expense of Israel” (Five Biblical Potraits, 154). What Jonah perhaps feared is exactly what happened to Elijah. When Elijah was told to anoint Hazael as king over Aram (Syria), but Elijah did not (1 Kings 19:15). When Elisha, Elijah’s successor, finally did, Elisha wept (2 Kings 8:7-13), and Hazael ultimately did oppress Israel (2 Kings 13:22). This, perhaps, is what Jonah fears, as probably the whole nation of Israel fears the renewal of Assyrian power in the region.


The Plot of the Book

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 45) helpfully suggests the book has three major movements: resistance to acceptance to resentment.

  • Jonah resists his commission to call Nineveh to repentance, fleeing in the opposite direction to avoid the mission (Jonah 1-2).
  • Finally, through God’s pursuit and discipline, Jonah accepts the mission and obeys with God’s call (Jonah 3).
  • Afterward Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah resents God’s mercy (Jonah 4).

These movements provide a way of reading the story, which highlights God’s mercy, both to Jonah and the nations represented in the book. God pursues Jonah rather than abandoning him, God heals the nations rather than abandoning them, and God comforts Jonah despite his resentments.


Theological Meaning

While the story of Jonah and the whale is popular, what is the meaning of Jonah’s mission to the nations in the light of Jonah’s resistance, God’s mercy, and Jonah’s resentment?

Jonah, as portrayed in the story, is not an isolated prophet on an isolated task. Jonah represents Israel, and Jonah’s commission is Israel’s commission. God intended to bless all nations through Israel, and God intended Israel serve as a model for the nations. Through their priestly service to the nations (“light to the nations,” Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), Yahweh would draw all the nations into relationship as well (Deuteronomy 4:6-8; 28:8-10).

God did not choose Israel to exclude the nations but to include them through Israel. The nations are invited to the temple (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61) so that they might know God. As examples of God’s love for the nations, the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha include provision for the widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24) and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian (2 Kings 5).

Israel, however, failed to fulfill its mission. Instead, they warred with the surrounding nations, and the people and their prophets generally refused to herald the good news of the God of Israel to the nations. That this is a function of the prophets of Israel, as well as the people of Israel (who are royal priests among the nations, Exodus 19:6) is evidenced by the many addresses to the nations in the writing prophets (e.g., Isaiah 45:20-23) as well as the ministry of Elisha and Elijah among them.

Jonah represents Israel refusal to carry out God’s mission among the nations, and it provides the reason for their refusal. Just as Jonah resented God’s mercy to Nineveh, so Israel resented God’s mercy to the nations. Fearing the nations, they did not want them to know God’s grace, and when some came to know God’s grace, they resented God for saving them.

The book of Jonah, then, is a message about God’s mercy to both Israel and the nations. Just as Jonah was redeemed despite his refusal, so the nations are redeemed despite Israel’s failures. God’s mercy will win despite our stubbornness.


Youngblood’s Outline

I. From Silent Resistance to Jubilant Acceptance: The Compelling Nature of God’s Mercy (1:1-2:11).

  1. Silent Escape from God’s Mercy (1:1-4a).
  2. The Relentless Pursuit of God’s Mercy (1:5-2:1b).
  3. A Prayer of Praise for God’s Mercy (2:1c-11).

II. From Compliant Acceptance to Angry Resentment: The Offense of God’s Mercy (3:1-4:11).

  1. A Second Chance at Compliance with God’s Mercy (3:1-3b).
  2. Responsiveness to and Responsiveness of God’s Mercy (3:3c-10).
  3. Resentment of God’s Mercy (4:1-4).
  4. Object Lesson on God’s Mercy (4:5-11).

Theodrama: Act I, Scene 2: God Creates a Good, but not Perfect, World

October 20, 2015

The earth was a chaotic void,
and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while the Spirit of God hovered over the face the waters.

Then God saw everything made, and, Wow!, it was really good.

Genesis 1:2, 31a (my translation)

The title is a rather controversial one in the history of Christian theology. Many suggest the original creation was something akin to Platonic perfection, which resists any change because if one changes what is perfect, then it is no longer perfect. This kind of perfection has no room for change or development except devolution. One cannot improve on perfection.

However, this view actually undermines important features of creation within the biblical narrative. It fails to recognize the presence of chaos within the creation, the dynamic reality of creation, and the goal (telos) of creation.


From Chaotic Void to Really Good

When God finished creating, the creation was deeded “really good” (Genesis 1:31). However, the question to ask is, “Good compared to what?” What is the meaning of the word “good”? This can have moral, aesthetic, and functional connotations. Perhaps it means all three. God created good—not evil, God delights in the beauty of the creation, and God created the cosmos with a patterned regularity that works. Nothing in that language intimates perfection but only the fulfillment of God’s intent in creating.

Genesis 1:2 offers a clue to the meaning of the term. Taking Genesis 1:1 as a kind of section heading, Genesis 1:2 describes the earth before God begins to “make” the world as God intended. At that point, the earth is “without form and void” (tohu wabohu). Whatever the origin of this state, it is chaotic.

These words are only used together in the Hebrew Scriptures here, Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. Isaiah records a divine threat to devastate Edom (“a haunt of jackals and an abode for ostriches” in 34:13) and Jeremiah prophesies the desolation of Judah. In both cases the land is rendered inhospitable to life, an uninhabitable wasteland. These are “uncreation” texts where Yahweh threatens to undo creation and render a good land uninhabitable, that is, to return the land to a chaotic void

Genesis 1, then, describes the process by which God turned earth’s chaotic waters into good, habitable space suitable for life. God orders the chaos in such a way that life is potentially fruitful and creation may blossom into its full potential. Creation is “good” because it is suitable for life with all its diversity, regularity, and habitable space.


Creation is Good, Not Perfect

Tohu wabohu characterizes the disordered state of the cosmos before God begins the creative work of building and filling, which is one way to describe how God made the world. This is the pattern of Genesis 1:1-31.

Days     Built Habitable Space           Days   Filled Space for Life

1          Light                                             4      Sun, Moon, Stars

2         Sky                                                 5      Birds, Fish

3         Land and Sea                              6       Land Animals

God creates space and then fills it, which is the essence of wisdom in creation theology (compare Proverbs 3:19-20 with Proverbs 24:3-4). In this way, God ordered the chaos by making habitable space and then filling it with light and life. This is what God describes as “good.”

Though the creation is good, it is not perfect. Chaos still exists within the creation. God did not eliminate the chaos but rather limited it. For example, in Genesis 1:4 God calls the light “good,” but not the darkness.  It is a different formula than what appears in Genesis 1:10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, and 25b. Light is contrasted with darkness. Darkness is already present in Genesis 1:2, and it is part of the chaotic void. When God creates the light, God calls the light “good,” but the darkness is not called good. The light does not eliminate the darkness but puts a boundary on it. But in the new heavens and new earth, as pictured in the Apocalypse (22:5), darkness will no longer exist because God and the Lamb are the light of the new world: “night will be no more.”

Another example is how God bounds the waters rather than eliminating them (cf. Job 38:8-11). Just as God separated light from darkness, so God separates the waters from the dry land (Genesis 1:9). The watery “deep” in Genesis 1:2 (tehom) is part of the chaotic reality. The presence of the “deep” is a threat to the functionality of creation, and its destructive capacity is present in the Flood narrative where the “deep” is the source of the flood waters (Genesis 7:11). It is an act of “uncreation” and reverses the creative work accomplished in Genesis 1. But the new heavens and new earth envision a home where there is no more sea (Revelation 21:1).

At the end of the sixth day, chaos is still present within the creation. The world is not idealistic or perfect. Chaotic forces are present. They are not evil; nor are they necessarily hostile. Rather, they are the “stuff” out of which creation emerges, develops, and is dynamically ordered.

Chaos still exists within God’s good creation, and part of the dynamic process of God’s continuing work in the world is bounding, ordering, and ultimately eliminating that chaos.


Creation is Dynamic, Not Static.

God intended creation to grow, mature, adapt, and change. Creation was intended to develop into a future fullness—to become all it could be or to reach its potential. Genesis 1 is only the starting point; it was not the goal. Consequently, creation is always in process. Under God’s sovereign care and in partnership with humanity, the creation would emerge, grow, and develop till the divine telos was reached.

One indication of this divine intent is that humanity, like other creatures (Genesis 1:22), is blessed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill.” Humanity, like other creatures, is to populate the earth and the whole earth, as Isaiah confessed, God “formed to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). As every parent knows, having children changes things. Indeed, everything changes. Filling the earth is a process replete with change, development, and the scattering of human beings (and other creatures) across the planet—in much the same way Yahweh scattered humanity at Babel, scattered Israel through exile, and scattered the church through persecution.

Another indication of this divine intent is how creation participates in its own development. God created “light” by commanding it into existence, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). In contrast, God invited animal life to participate in their multiplication—not only in the command to “multiply” but also in addressing how the waters and the land “bring forth” living creatures (Genesis 1:20, 24). Unlike “let there be light,” which is an imperative command, let them “bring forth” is a jussive, which signals a participatory process.

These indicators, among others, suggest creation is a dynamic process rather than a static perfection, and creation participates and contributes to its own development. God and creation cooperate in the development of creation’s potential.


There is a Goal, a Telos

Creation’s dynamic character assumes God has a goal for the creation. God created with a purpose, and, therefore, creation has a telos. God, in partnership with humanity and in cooperation with creation, sovereignly and actively pursues that goal.

This pursuit is the outworking of God’s mission. Broadly, the missio Dei (mission of God) is to draw humanity into the circle of the Triune fellowship, unfold the full potential of the creation, and fully enjoy what has been created. Ultimately, creation’s goal is to become the home of the Triune God, in which God dwells and which God fills with divine glory.

God delights in, rejoices over, and communes with the creation, both humanity and everything else. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with glory so that God might rest in the creation where God will delight in the creation and the creation will delight in God.

Theodrama: Act I, Scene 1: God Builds a House

October 19, 2015

Thus says Yahweh:
The heavens are my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
where is the house you will build for me,
and where is my resting place?
My hand made all these things,
and all these things belong to me,
declares Yahweh.

Isaiah 66:1-2a (my translation)

Yahweh, the God of Israel, announces some fundamental truths about creation. It is the house Yahweh built, it belongs to Yahweh, and it is where Yahweh lives.

This pronouncement follows the divine promise, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17), and anticipates the time when “all flesh shall come to worship” Yahweh when they inhabit the “new heavens and new earth” (Isaiah 66:22-23). Until that new cosmos emerges out of the story of redemption, humanity lives in God’s present house, the “heavens and earth.”

God is Creator

Isaiah’s text echoes Genesis.   The “heavens and the earth” describe what God has created (Genesis 1:1). The “heavens” do not refer to some heavenly divine sanctuary beyond the glimpse of the Hubble telescope or to a dwelling place outside of the cosmos itself. God created the “heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God created the cosmos; the “hand” of God “made” (‘asah) everything (kal). The divine “hand” is a metaphor for the exercise of power and involvement.

Yahweh’s affirmation is all-inclusive. The divine hand “made all these things.” This also echoes Genesis. When God rested on the seventh day, twice Genesis 2:2-3 uses the language of “all” (kal) God had “made” (‘asah). Everything between Genesis 1:1 and God’s rest in Genesis 2:2-3 is the object of God’s work, creating, and making. There is nothing within the cosmos—including the cosmos itself—which is not a product of God’s loving power. Whatever began to exist, God “made” it.

This entails two interrelated truths. God owns the cosmos; it belongs to the Creator. Nothing within creation can make a claim on God or place God in debt to it. Yahweh made this clear to Job (41:11, ESV).

Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.

This yields a second truth. God is sovereign over the creation, and God is ultimately responsible for what God created. Just as God’s “hand” made the “heavens and the earth,” so God’s “hand” is responsible for how the creation is not only ordered but how it continues to operate. This time, hear Job (12:7-10, NRSV):

But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will teach you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.

The “hand” of God “made” everything, and every breath in God’s universe is in God’s “hand.” The hands that “made” the cosmos are the same hands that continue to act within the cosmos (Job’s “done” in verse 9 is ‘asah).

The Creator is neither an eternal force within a pre-existent cosmos nor a hands-off spectator. God is neither a pantheistic monism nor a Deist. God created everything, and God is deeply involved in how the history of creation unfolds.

God is the owner, and God is responsible.

Creation is God’s House

Yahweh does not construct a house out of brick and mortar, but out of earth and sky. The sky is God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool. This metaphor points to not only the reign of God within the cosmos, it identifies the cosmos as God’s palace. The cosmos is God’s kingdom, even God’s throne room.

Architectural imagery is a common metaphor for creation in the Hebrew Bible. For example, when Yahweh interrogated Job, the initial questions are framed in architectural images (Job 38:4-10):

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?…
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone?…
Or who shut in the sea with doors…
and prescribed bounds for it,
set bars and doors…

In other words, God erected a building, a house, a temple—the creation is God’s cathedral.

The psalmist parallels the creation of the earth with the construction of the tabernacle. “He built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever” (Psalm 78:69). The tabernacle, though a poor representative of the earth, was the initial step toward the renewal of God’s redemptive presence. God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38) and then later the temple (2 Chronicles 6:40-7:3). When humanity was excluded from Eden, God’s sanctuary, God did not give up but pursued humanity through the calling of Abraham, dwelling in Israel’s tabernacle and then the temple. In time, God “tabernacled” in the flesh as Israel’s Messiah (John 1:14), and later dwelt within restored Israel through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:22).

While Israel, at God’s direction, built a “house for” God (2 Samuel 7:13; 1 Kings 8:17-20), no earthly house is sufficient because the cosmos itself is God’s house. God has already made God’s temple, and the earthly sanctuaries are only types of the one God had previously made.

Ultimately, though God is graciously and redemptively present in the earthly sanctuaries scattered throughout the biblical narrative, God “does not dwell in houses made with human hands”—as Stephen concludes, quoting Isaiah 66:1-2a (Acts 7:48)—because God dwells within the cosmos itself.

Creation is Where God Lives

When God finished the temple of creation, God rested in it. This is God’s “resting-place,” according to Isaiah.

This is temple language, and it describes how God took up residence within the temple and named it a “resting-place” (Psalm 132:14).

This is my resting place forever;
here I will reside, for I have desired it.

Though God resided in Israel’s temple, this did not limit God’s rest. God rested within the whole creation since the “earth” is God’s footstool (Isaiah 66:1) just as the ark of the covenant was God’s footstool in the Holy of Holies (Psalm 132:7; 1 Chronicles 28:2). Israel’s temple pointed to the larger reality of the universe as the temple of God, and God’s restful residence in Israel pointed to God’s rest within the cosmos.

God lives in God’s house. God came to dwell in it, to love humanity, walk with them in the Garden, and enjoy the shalom of Eden as a divine sanctuary. God’s temple is the heavens and the earth, and the whole creation is God’s home. It is where God rests with humanity in delightful fellowship (Gen. 2:2-3).

This is one reason Israel practiced Sabbath rest. Because God rested on the seventh day of creation within the creation (Exodus 20:11), so Israel rested from its work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:12). God intended to share the divine rest with Israel, both in their journey (Exodus 33:14) and in their land (Deuteronomy 3:20; 12:10; Psalm 95:11).

That rest, which is ultimately dwelling with God in the new heaven and new earth, awaits believers (Hebrews 4:8-11; Revelation 14:13) in the age to come.





1 Peter 4:12-19 – Suffering as Trial, Fellowship, and Blessedness

September 6, 2015

This is the third movement of the letter. In the first Peter stressed the identity of believers as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:13-2:10). In the second Peter encouraged believers to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (1 Peter 2:11-4:11). Now, in this last movement, which begins like the previous one with the vocative “Beloved,” Peter commends their suffering for the sake of Christ.

  • Identity as God’s Rebirthed People (1:13-2:10)
  • Exhortation to Live as Aliens and Exiles in a Hostile Culture (2:11-4:11)
  • Perspectives on Suffering (4:12-19)

Peter commends their suffering by offering some perspective on it. He speaks into their suffering so that they might endure it with grace and witness. He offers a way of living through suffering, and this enables believers to see their suffering in the light of God’s blessed activity in the world.

Suffering, for example, is no surprise—it is no stranger to Christian existence. For “exiles and aliens” (1 Peter 2:11) it is an expected and normal way of being in the world, just as it was for Jesus the Messiah, whom Christians follow.

Peter identifies two kinds of suffering, though that does not exhaust all kinds of suffering. There are those who suffer because they are murderers, thieves, and criminals (or, more generally, “evildoers”), and there are those who suffer because they are “Christians.” The former suffer punishment, but the latter suffer because they are marginalized within the culture. They are reviled, insulted, and verbally abused….and more. Christians may even suffer governmental action against them (such as Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome). Though this is not explicitly stated, it is probably implicit in the parallel Peter draws between those who suffer as murderers and those who suffer as Christians.

“Christian” is the name given to followers of the Christ by those who insulted and reviled them. It was, originally, a derogatory appellation. First applied to Jesus-followers in Antioch (Acts 11:26), the only other occurrence in the New Testament is found in Acts 26:28 on the lips of King of Agrippa, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” The name was more common on the lips of pagan opponents than it was among disciples of Jesus themselves in the early second century. Ultimately, however, Jesus-followers adopted the name as a badge of honor. Indeed, as Peter writes, the name (and the suffering attached to it) was an occasion of God’s glory rather than disgrace. Christians turned the derisive name on its head. They heard its shouts in the arenas—“Christians to the wild beasts!”—as honorable rather than shameful.

In addition to murder, theft, and criminality, Peter adds another occasion for suffering, and this is variously translated as “meddler” or “mischief maker.” This is the only time the word, allotriepiskopos, appears in the New Testament, and the first time it appears in Greek literature. A compound word, it literally means “bishop or overseer of another’s concern.” Or, perhaps another way of saying it is “people who makes another’s business their own business.”

This is not a criminal offense, but it is something for which someone might suffer some consequences. Christians, Peter thinks, ought to avoid this behavior. But what might Peter have in mind specifically? Or, what situation perhaps generated this additional comment? John H. Elliott (1 Peter, 788) offers an interesting suggestion. He believes some Christians may be “censuring the behavior of outsiders on the basis of claims to a higher morality, interfering with family relationships, fomenting domestic discontent and discord, or tactless attempts at conversion.” In other words, perhaps some Christians were obnoxious advocates for the faith in ways that subverted their intent and the divine mission. Peter cautions us to answer outsiders with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16), and meddlers certainly violate that advice.


Basic Response to Suffering (1 Peter 4:19)

Whoever “suffers in accordance with God’s will” are called to (1) entrust themselves to God and (2) continue to do good.

God’s will, in light of the previous description of two kinds of suffering, refers to righteous suffering—those who suffer for the sake of righteousness, those who suffer as “Christians.” Those who live by the will of God (1 Peter 4:2) will suffer because others find it “strange” and respond to such lives with hostility, insults, and sometimes violence.

What, then, should Christians do?

They entrust themselves to the “faithful Creator.” Peter’s description of God is important here: faithful and Creator. God is not absent, but faithfully present. God is not impotent, but the Creator. This is the only time Peter refers to God’s role as Creator. Significantly, “faithful Creator” reminds sufferers who is in control and whose purposes are not thwarted. This is the one in whom Christians trust, that is, they commit themselves to the care of the faithful Creator.

They continue to “do good.” Christians do not return evil for evil. They do not withdraw from culture. Rather, they love their neighbors, participate in public goods, and evidence the work of God in their lives through their ethical lives.


Suffering as “Judgment” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

Amazingly, Peter suggests the eschatological (last days) judgment has begun with the suffering of the people of God. Indeed, as many suggest, Peter refers to the historic Jewish understanding that “Messianic woes” will accompany the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom.

As the kingdom of God breaks into the world, the cosmos undergoes the throes of eschatological expectation, pain, and groaning. In particular—described in 1 Peter—the eschatological community, which is rebirthed Israel, experiences eschatological judgment. They experience the future in the present.

However, we must carefully note the meaning of this “judgment.” I remember hearing some describe it as the terror of the Lord judging the church, and the church is barely saved—saved, as it were, by the skin of its teeth. Salvation, therefore, is hard-won, precarious, and narrowly received.

Here, however, judgment is not about punishment or terror. It is a process of discernment. It is the eschatological distinction between authentic and inauthentic faith, or between belief and unbelief, between those who obey the gospel and those who do not. This is—even in the present—an eschatological separation of the sheep from the goats, much like the “last day” scenario in Matthew 25.

Now, in the present, judgment begins with the house of God because they are presently undergoing a fiery trial, which is a process of differentiation. The eschatological reality is breaking into the present and illuminating the current situation. The righteous are being distinguished from the wicked, even now.

The righteous, nevertheless, are saved “with difficulty,” or “it is hard for the righteous to be saved” (quoting the LXX version of Proverbs 11:31). This is not a statement about how difficult it is to be justified by the blood of Christ. Rather, it describes the difficult process of enduring the fiery trial; it won’t be easy and it isn’t easy. Living as a Christian in a hostile culture is a harrowing experience. Perseverance is a struggle, and those who persevere experience many hardships and difficulties. But their end (goal) is salvation, which is quite different from that of the “ungodly and sinners.”


Enduring Suffering (1 Peter 4:12-14).

What does Peter say about suffering? What is its function? How do Christians understand their predicament?

First, it is a “fiery ordeal” that tests faith. The reference to fire recalls the “refining” motif from 1 Peter 1:7 (cf. Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:1-3). Suffering refines and purifies to reveal authentic faith. This tests the reality of faith. Suffering, whatever its origin, is always a test.

Second, when Christians suffer, they participate in the sufferings of Christ. They suffer with Christ. This is a strong motif in Paul’s letters (cf. Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:10-11). Just as Christ suffered for us, so we also suffer with Christ. Our suffering does not stand alone. Rather, it is communion (fellowship) with the suffering of Jesus himself. Particularly, in the light of 1 Peter 2:21-25, as we follow the pattern of Christ’s suffering, we enact the same witness in the world as Jesus did.

In this sense, we may rejoice in our suffering. This does not mean “enjoy your suffering.” On the contrary, suffering is painful and it hurts. Yet, suffering–when viewed through a Christological lens–lends itself to joy when we see ourselves joining in the suffering of Jesus and recognizing the future joy we will enjoy with Christ when his glory is fully revealed on the last day.

Third, Christians are “blessed” in their suffering. This blessedness is not due to some kind of internalized positive thinking. Rather, it is an act of God. Sufferers are blessed, even when it does not feel like a blessing nor experienced as a blessing.

But what is this blessing? Peter identifies the blessing as the “Spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, resting” upon sufferers. This language comes from Isaiah 11:2, a Messianic text. The one who comes from the root of Jesse comes out in power, wisdom, strength, knowledge and godliness because the “Spirit of God will rest upon him.” On that Messianic “day,” the root of Jesse will dwell on the earth and assemble the remnant of Israel (Isaiah 11:10, 12). On that day, the remnant will become—as Joel Green notes (1 Peter)—“a reconstituted people” as the Spirit of God rests upon the remnant of Israel, which is new and living temple of God (1 Peter 2:4-9).

Sufferers are blessed because the Spirit of God rests upon them, and this is their glory. They share the blessed reality of the Messiah, the Christ, just as they share his sufferings. They share the trial of Christ as well.

So, suffering is Christological for Christians. They are refined in the trial, endure the ordeal as a fellow-sufferer with Jesus the Messiah, and are blessed with the Spirit of Glory in the midst of their suffering.


The contemporary world knows all too well Christians still suffer verbal abuse, marginalization, and governmental action, including martyrdom. The reports from parts of the Middle East confirm this on a daily basis.

Indeed, verbal abuse and marginalization are increasing in the West as well, though—thankfully—martyrdom is not on the horizon (in terms of governmental action). Nevertheless, cultural pressures are increasingly dismissive, perhaps hostile. When Christian morality, for example, is ridiculed, cultural pressure is apparent and it is applied through media and among peers.

While clearly Peter’s concern is hostile cultural pressure, his perspectives on suffering have wider application. This is evident when he identifies the suffering of believers with the suffering of Jesus. When believers suffer, they participate in the suffering of Jesus. Believers and Jesus share a common experience; they share a category of experience—they suffer. All righteous suffering belongs to the nature of all kinds of righteous suffering. What Peter says here about suffering in a hostile culture is equally applicable to all innocent suffering Christians endure. Peter applies the general principles to a specific situation, but the principles nevertheless have a broader application. Suffering is a means of “eschatological judgment,” as Peter assumes in this text.

For Christians, all suffering is Christological. All suffering is eschatological. All suffering is a fiery ordeal. All suffering is blessed.

1 Peter 4:7-11 — Communal Life in a Hostile World

August 29, 2015

Here is concluding counsel for a marginalized, victimized group. As exiles and aliens (1 Peter 2:11-12) within Roman society, Peter calls them to transcend their situation by living as an authentic community, which seeks only good for its surrounding culture.

This section concludes the major exhortation section of 1 Peter. It opened with the vocative “Beloved” (1 Peter 2:11), and Peter identifies the next movement of the epistle with another use of “Beloved” in 1 Peter 4:12. Also, the section begins with the purpose of faithful living—the glory of God (1 Peter 2:12) and ends with the goal of such a life—the glory of God (1 Peter 4:11). The glory of God functions as an inclusio, to which is attached a doxology: “To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

Eschatological Horizon

Given we are “aliens and exiles,” how, then, should we live? Peter’s first summary point is:

The end of all things is near.

We live, Peter writes, in the light of the “end of all things.” But what does that mean?

Some suggest it means Peter believed the final revelation of the kingdom of God would soon arrive. In other words, the second coming of Jesus was “near,” that is, it would happen soon, perhaps within his own generation.

However, there is another way of reading this. The term “end” (telos) also has the meaning of “goal.” As such, Peter envisions the goal of the kingdom of God, which is the arrival of the fullness God intends for the creation. That is the inheritance God promised in Christ (1 Peter 1:4).

But what does it mean to say it is “near?” This is the language Jesus himself used. For example, Jesus heralded the reality, “The kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:14). Both Peter and Jesus use the same verb, eggizo (to draw near, come near). In the ministry of Jesus, the verb embraces both the present (the kingdom is “breaking into” the world) and future (what is not yet fully realized) kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is imminent and spilling over into the present even as we wait for the future to arrive.

Peter has something like this in mind. The goal of God is near. That future is already present but has not yet fully arrived. It is here in the lives of “exiles and aliens” who embody the glory of God within Roman culture but the goal of God is not yet fully here such that a new world has emerged where peace, righteousness, and justice fill the cosmos.

Christians live as if the new world has arrived because it has arrived in their lives. They live with the hope and expectancy of the fullness of that new world in the future. It shapes how they live now. They live in the shadow of God’s final and full eschatological reality, the kingdom of God. They live under an eschatological horizon, and this shapes their values, ethics, and communal life.

Communal Life

There are many ways in which we might understand and apply Peter’s exhortations in this section. His counsel has a wide application, and it may have no specific focus. However, I want to suggest a possible Sitz im Leben for this text, a specific setting for hearing it.

Since this section concludes with a liturgical doxology to which the congregation responds with “Amen” and, given the nature of circular letters in early Christian congregations, this letter is read in the midst of a gathered people, an assembly, we might hear this language in connection with a gathered community rather than simply in terms of broad relationships (though it has application there as well).

First, there is a contrast between Christian gatherings and pagan association gatherings so prevalent in Roman culture (see the previous section, 1 Peter 4:1-6). Drinking parties, excessive wine, and inebriating feasts characterized association meetings, but Christian gatherings are “right-minded” (self-controlled) and “sober-minded” (disciplined). The former are chaotic and often erotic but the latter are ordered though earnest. This contrast is probably what Paul had in mind in Ephesians 5:18-21. “Prayers,” in fact, may reflect a communal activity, and those prayers reflect order rather than pandemonium or confusion.

Second, Christian gatherings are shaped by love. Just as Jesus talked about his disciples loving each other while at table with them in John 13, so Peter stresses this as part of their assemblies. It is what, above everything else, should shape Christian life and relationships.

To reinforce this, Peter quotes Proverbs 10:12b: “love covers all offenses” (or multitude of sins). The best way to understand this statement is to see with what it stands in contrast. The first line of the parallelism in Proverbs 10:12 reads, “Hatred stirs up conflicts.” The contrast between “covers” and “stirs up” illuminates the contrast between “love” and “hatred.” Love covers a multitude of sins in this sense: love does not stir up strife or conflicts within the community. Instead, love overlooks faults, which lead to strife and interpersonal conflict. Such love brings harmony to a community and enables assemblies to gather in peace; it enables community despite each others faults.

Third, Christian gatherings are made possible by hospitality in the apostolic period. While Peter may have in mind a broad sense of hospitality such as caring for traveling strangers, evangelists, and prophets (which was necessary due to the lack of public Inns in the ancient world), he may have in mind—more specifically—providing space for communal meetings. Christians needed safe places to gather, and that may have involved some cultural risk for their hosts. And it may have provided an occasion for grumbling within the community (like no one has ever complained about how the small group meeting is at their house, right?).

Fourth, community means serving each other out of their gifts and speaking to each other in ways that reflect God’s own speech. This is the grace of God within a community. God gifts a community for speech and service, and those gifts are for the sake of the community. The divine grace present in the community is God’s own strength, and this enables the community to excel in their God-given gifts. As “good managers” of this grace, the community must serve each other and speak to each other in gracious ways, which reflect God’s own work in the community.

Purpose: the Glory of God

As in 1 Peter 2:11-12, the purpose for Christian community, the goal of all things, and the meaning of Christian “good works” within the world is the glory of God. This is achieved “through Jesus Christ” and in the sanctifying work of the Spirit (1 Peter 1:2; 4:6, 14). God the Father is glorified through the work of the Son in the power of the Spirit, which points us back to the opening salutation of the letter (1 Peter 1:2).

Responding to his own point, Peter concludes his exhortations with a doxology. He himself breaks out in praise.

To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever.

The church, listening to the reading of the letter and hearing the doxology, is given their cue. Peter writes: Amen!   And we might imagine that the congregation responded with an “Amen” of their own.

And we, too, say, “Amen!”

1 Peter 4:1-6 — They Think It Strange, But Follow Christ

August 21, 2015

     1 Peter 3:18a: Christ suffered for sins.
            1 Peter 4:1a: Christ suffered in the flesh

1 Peter 4:1 resumes the primary topic: the suffering of Christ provides a model for living in a hostile environment. 1 Peter 3:18-22 underscores the victory of Christ over suffering and his enthronement over the powers and authorities, which powers create a hostile environment for Christians.

Suffering will come, and Christians must prepare for it and accept it as Christ did (1 Peter 3:13-17). But Christians also know the end of the story. Though Christ suffered and was put to death, he was also made alive and exalted to the right hand of God (1 Peter 3:18-22). The path of suffering, therefore, leads to glory as we follow Jesus in that suffering.

1 Peter 4:1-6 calls Christians into that life.


Arm Yourselves

Because Christ suffered in the flesh,
            arm yourselves also with the same resolve
                        to live by the will of God while you remain in the flesh.

Following Jesus entails “arming yourselves” (a militaristic term) with the same mind (resolve, intention) as Jesus. As Jobes, 1 Peter, notes, the term ennoia (resolve) appears in Proverbs to describe the wise person who is dedicated to the godly path (cf. Prov. 1:4; 2:11; 3:21; 4:1; 5:2; 8:12; 16:22; 18:15; 19:7; 23:4, 19; 24:7). This mind has a proper outlook on the world and is resolved to pursue it.

In the midst of their suffering, believers must have the same resolve or intention as Jesus. But what is that? It is this: “the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin.” Just as Jesus’s resolve meant he would pursue the will of God rather than sin, so Christians who suffer are resolved to pursue the will of God rather than sin.

Christians, like Jesus, are “finished with sin.” This does not mean Christians no longer sin at all, but their resolve or intent is done with sin. They are committed to live by the will of God rather than by human desires throughout the rest of their lives (the time they have left in the flesh). This commitment means they are willing to suffer for the will of God rather than pursue their own desires. They are resolved to live according to God’s will, and consequently they are finished with sin.


They Slander You

You have already lived by the counsel of the Gentiles,
            which is an excessive manifestation of fleshly desires.
                        They are surprised by your non-participation,
                                    so they slander and verbally abuse you.

Peter characterizes Gentile excesses with a list of words, and these give us a picture of how early Christians viewed the “party life” of their neighbors.

  • Licentiousness, or sexual sensuality (cf. Romans 13:13; 2 Corinthians 12:21)
  • Passions, or lusts or desires (1 Peter 2:11; 4:2)
  • Drunkenness, or wine excess, that is, to overflow with wine (only here)
  • Revels, or inebriating feasts (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:21)
  • Carousing, or drinking parties (only here)
  • Lawless idolatry, or abominable idol worship (phrase only occurs here)

Peter further characterizes their activities as “excesses of dissipation,” which is the only time this phrase appears in the NT. The term asotias, translated “dissipation” by the NRSV, is derived from the negative alpha (not, without) attached to the verb sozo, meaning to save. The word describes a kind of wasteful behavior, and here reflects an excessive sort of wasteful behavior. Some translations render it “debauchery” (as in Ephesians 5:18 where such behavior is contrasted with one “filled with the Spirit”). It is, in one sense, a dissolute or incorrigible life which revels in excess, a wasteful lifestyle.

Peter’s vice list is rather narrow when compared with others in the New Testament. Why is it so narrow? Perhaps it reflects a specific contrast, which results in the kind of hostility Christians experience from their neighbors. In other words, they no longer participate in particular kinds of activities, which were not only common but endemic to Roman culture. In fact, the language Peter uses describes such practices in the Greco-Roman world.

The Romans were known for their infamous drinking parties and excessive feasts, particularly in honor of Roman gods or at Roman temples. Typically, Roman associations—whether economic, social, funerary, or religious—would meet at temples for sacrifices, festivities, eating, and drinking. The term komoi (revelings) originally described a festive meal in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. The last word in Peter’s list indicates how these drinking parties and feasts were shaped by idolatrous gatherings.

These associations were voluntary but they were important t0 social, economic, political, and religious life within Roman culture. Associations buried people, cared for families, regulated economic practices and trades, and provided occasions for civic and religious life. To abstain from these associations might result in exclusion, trading boycotts, and social marginalization. It would like if an American citizen refused to participate in 4th of July festivities, or refused to say the pledge of allegiance at the Lion’s Club.

Christians no longer attended these gatherings, and this created tension between them and their Roman neighbors. As Donelson (I & II Peter and Jude, 122) notes, “to withdraw from these crucial groups and events was seen as a rejection of Roman civilization itself, as hatred…They are indeed rejecting Roman society even if they do not hate their neighbors.”

Romans “slandered” or “blasphemed” Christians who no longer participate in their “parties” or association celebrations. This probably functions on two levels. At one level, the rejection of their gods is deemed anti-Roman, and at another level, the assertion of the truthfulness of the Christian faith is regarded as blasphemous. Roman pluralism entailed no one should make an exclusive claim in religion, and whoever made such a claim was arrogant and dangerous. They were dangerous because this subverted Roman culture itself by its failure to acknowledge Roman gods and civic or imperial virtues. Pluralism cannot tolerate such exclusive claims. Consequently, exclusivists are slandered or blasphemed.

When Christians no longer participated in the associations or their celebrations and separated themselves from the mainstream of cultural virtues or practices, especially Rome’s civil religion, their neighbors felt judged. This probably, at first, puzzled their neighbors and later angered them, which led to tension and sometimes hostility. Their neighbors probably expected them to “give an account” of their behavior (1 Peter 3:15). As Achtemeier (1 Peter, 277) comments, “It is a problem that will recur whenever Christians are forced by their faith to oppose cultural values widely held in the secular world in which they live.”

When Christians live according to their values, others think it strange and others feel judged. For example, when a famous entertainment person in the United States commits to a celibate life before marriage, others think it “strange.” When Christians give most of their wealth to the poor and decide to live simply rather than in luxury, others think it “strange.”

When Christians live according to their values, others feel judged. We cannot prevent such feelings, and those feelings may generate hostility or marginalization. This, however, is the lot of Christians when they live in a counter-cultural way.

Following Peter’s advice in this letter, Christians do not respond to evil with evil or abuse with abuse. Rather, they “do good” when they are treated in harsh or abusive ways. Consequently, Christians do not speak evil of their neighbors or judge them (as Paul said, it is not our role to judge the world, 1 Corinthians 5:12).

Nevertheless, when Christians live out their convictions and decline to participate in the cultural patterns and lifestyles pervasive in a culture, the culture feels judged. They perceive judgment because Christians do not participate in such activities out of their ethical, Christ-like, and godly convictions. In such cases Christians must continue to embrace their commitments despite how others perceive them or how others treat them.

That commitment, however, means Christians do not judge their neighbors, they do not speak evil of their neighbors, and they do not abuse their neighbors. On the contrary, Christians–as Christ-followers–love their enemies, pray for those who abuse them, and leave judgment up to God, who alone knows the hearts and minds of people.


God Judges the Living and the Dead

The slanderers will give account of their words
            to the one who judges the living and the dead.
                        Consequently, the gospel was preached to those (now) dead,
                                    so that those judged in the flesh might live in the Spirit.

While Christians were slandered and mistreated by the surrounding Roman culture, Peter assures his readers the slanderers will face their own judgment in the future. God judges both the living and the dead.

The living are judged in the flesh, and this is especially noted for believers. Their culture judges them by their values and standards. They are judged “according to human standards” while they live in the flesh.

Though judged in the flesh, they will live in the Spirit or in the “spiritual realm.” Like Jesus before them, they are judged in the flesh (Jesus was put to death!), but they live in the Spirit (like Jesus). They may die, even at the hands of their persecutors, they will live—as Jesus lives—in the Spirit. Death is not the end of their story. Rather, they will live in the Spirit.

This is why the gospel was preached even to those who are (now) dead.

This is a rather controversial statement. It cannot mean those who are “spiritually dead” since this would use “dead” in two different senses in 1 Peter 4:5-6 and the sense is the same because of the connection between the sentences (“for this reason”).

Some connect it back to 1 Peter 3:19, but there are some significant differences which make this problematic. First, “dead” here are clearly dead humans since they are judged “in the flesh.” But the “spirits in prison” in 1 Peter 3:19 are not called “dead” and neither are they humans. They are angelic spirits imprisoned since the time of Noah. Second, the verb “preached” is different. In 1 Peter 3:19 the verb means “herald, announce, or proclaim,” but in 1 Peter 4:6 is to evangelize or preach the good news.

So, it seems best to understand Peter’s point as something like this: since God judges the living and the dead, it was important to evangelize everyone, including those who subsequently die and are now dead. They are now dead, but when they were evangelized they were alive. That evangelism means that though they were judged in the flesh by their culture, they will be made alive by God in the Spirit. Death no longer reigns over them, and the culture no longer judges them.

Just as they followed Jesus in suffering—even dying, they will follow Jesus by living in the Spirit.

Judgment belongs to God–it does not rests in the hands of the associations within Roman culture and neither does it rest in the hands of Christians themselves. Both must leave judgment to God.

When Shovels Break: A Review

August 18, 2015

Several weeks ago, Michael Shank asked—by email—if I would review his new book, When Shovels Break, on my blog. Since I reviewed his first book Muscle and a Shovel, I thought it brotherly to say “Yes” to his request, just as I have responded to all his communication with me in the wake of my review of his first book.

In his new book, Michael continues the narrative of his life story after his baptism. We follow him through several moves, jobs, and diverse circumstances. Michael tells how he lost his way—spiritually, emotionally, physically, and ethically. I will leave those details to his confessions within the book. Readers will discover them, and I do not need to rehearse them here.

What is important about such a confession is how Shank uses his own story to tell a story of restoration and renewal, to offer an example of how one deeply entrenched in their own despair might yet return with joy and experience God’s grace.

The book is intended for those who, like him, had left the faith and find it difficult—if not impossible—to return. In essence, just as he offered a plan of salvation for “alien sinners” in his first book, so here he offers a “plan for spiritual success in this life which will lead to our ultimate spiritual success—eternal life” (pp. 367-8). It is a “prevention” plan, which is the “power of God’s instructions” (p. 364). This “plan” (or “program, a blueprint, a syllabus, a game-plan, a living strategy” or “call it whatever you like”) provides a means for securing one’s calling and election based on 2 Peter 1:5-9.

This is a “success” book–a how-to-return-and-prevent-losing eternal life, and it is offered in several steps.  This book, in the way Shank frames it, is for those who want success.

Shanks suggests if we remember how God has purged us from sin and pursue the virtues Peter lists, we will walk a path of “success” spiritually, even if there are hard knocks along the way. His last seven chapters are the seven virtues: virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, goodness, brotherly kindness, and love. Indeed, the call to pursue these virtues is a welcome one, and it does provide a kind of “prevention” strategy.

The book is not only concerned with prevention. It is primarily an invitation for those who have left God to return to God (pp. 223, 364, 282, 302, 348, 416, 421). Everyone can appreciate the value of such an invitation.

On this point I have significant appreciation for some of the topics he addressed, and he addressed them out of his own experience. They appear in his five steps for “coming back to God”—yes, just as in the plan of salvation for “alien sinners,” there are also five steps in coming back to God. These steps are outlined in chapters 38-42, and to these steps God responds with “awesome love and grace” (p. 346, chapter 43).

His five steps are essentially: (1) confess your sins and forgive yourself, (2) forgive others for their inattentiveness and gossip about your past, (3) pray and release your resentment against and disappointment with God, (4) recognize how God has used circumstances—even negative ones—to bring you back to God’s self, and (5) seek out friends to help in your return.

These are helpful, especially self-forgiveness (see my post) and releasing our resentment against God (which I have called “forgiving God”). And just as the hypocrisy and gossip/slander of Christians often hinders others from returning to God, returnees must learn to forgive those who have mistreated them in their sin, whose hatred has hindered their return, and whose gossip has made it more difficult. These are good reminders.

So, I have an appreciation for how Shank correlates his own experience, the experience of those he has interviewed, and the reality of the church in our American experience with the process of emotionally and spiritually returning to God in the midst of fallible and imperfect communities, that is, churches.

Nevertheless, I do think the book is lacking in significant ways.

First, the theological atmosphere disturbs me. Shank emphasizes divine instructions, steps, and self-resolve, but does not give sustained attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and renewal. Indeed, there is little, if any, acknowledgement of the work of the Spirit other than the Spirit is the one who gave us the Scriptures or instructions. The “plan” appears as something we work toward “success” rather than a life the Spirit empowers us to live with the Spirit’s guidance through the Scriptures. The book, though couched in narrative, practically offers us a business plan for “success.”

Shank’s model is in danger of creating the kind of situation he rightly wants to avoid. He is concerned believers will become disappointed in God and despair over their circumstances, as he did himself. This is a legitimate concern, but the theology that drives Shank’s “plan” is one of self-reliance, that is, we have to work the plan, work it well, and only then will we succeed. That places tremendous pressure on the believer to achieve and perfect their lives rather than depending upon God’s empowering Spirit who works through us and in us as well as depending upon God’s gracious acceptance, even in our struggles. Of course, Shank believes God gives us all we need, but what we need is simply instruction rather than empowerment. In the end, it all depends on us working the plan, and then God’s “awesome grace and love” will be apparent.

Second, the hermeneutical (interpretative) lens through which Shank reads the Bible is the same as that which produced his first book, and I critiqued that in my first review. The same proof-texting of Scripture emerges here, and the same assumptions about reading Scripture are present. I will offer one perspective to illustrate this. Interested readers can read the first review to see more examples.

While rightly pointing out “the scriptures must remain in their intended context for the Truth to be found and understood properly” (p. 325) and “we must put effort into allowing the Bible to interpret itself (p. 326), he insists the “commands of God are easy to identify” and “no deep interpretation is needed” (p. 210). “The big things are easy to interpret” (p. 210).

These “big things” are: one body, the church; one baptism in water; Lord’s Supper every first day of the week; and singing without mechanical instruments (p. 210). Essentially, these items do not need interpretation, or at least “deep interpretation” (though, if we remember the first book, they do need a lot of muscle and a shovel to dig out since they are not readily available to the superficial reader).

Yet, it is exactly “interpretation” (hermeneutics) that is the key to reading Scripture well, and interpretation is necessary at every reading of Scripture.

Shank insists no one has a right to “private interpretation,” by which he means a “personalized” or “individual” interpretation. If he means Scripture should be read in community, I agree. But he does not say that. Rather, he quotes 2 Peter 1:20-21 to support his claim (pp. 326-7), and this is proof-texting itself. Peter’s point is that Scripture does not arise out of a prophet’s own interpretation (that is, out of his own autonomous thinking)—it is not about reading Scripture but about the origin and production of Scripture.

What Shank seems to want to say is something like this: there is a public, obvious, and clear meaning to Scripture to those who actually study it in context, and there should be little debate about it since “even the most uneducated can understand the Bible.” In other words, on the important stuff—though one needs muscle and a shovel (so maybe it is not so “clear”)—it is eminently clear what the Bible means, particularly the “big things.”

The problem, however, is discerning the “big things,” and Shank identifies these as church patterns (which are, strangely, the very ones Churches of Christ find unique to themselves in some sense—reading it through Shank’s eyes) rather than on the larger themes of mercy, justice, and humility. In the end, his legal hermeneutic is intended to defend church practices rather than encourage merciful, gracious, and humble living.

Third, his ecclesiology (the way he thinks about church) emerges in the context of liberal vs. conservative ideology. He wants to eschew both liberalism and conservativism within the “brotherhood.” Shanks simply wants to be nothing more than a “New Testament Christian” (p. 211).

He identifies the “liberal subset” with: wider fellowship than Churches of Christ, “some use mechanical instruments, some accept any previous baptism [the historic rebaptism controversy, JMH], some have this new ‘praise team’ thing….some of them disregard the Bible’s qualifications of an elder, and then there’s the whole DMR [Divorce-Marriage-Remarriage, JMH] situation” (p. 197). He identifies the “conservative subset” with “the non-institutional [particularly those who forbid treasury money for orphanages, JMH], the one-cuppers…” (p. 198). There are so “many factions that we lose count” (p. 199).

Now, of course, Shank positions himself in the middle, “Biblical” ground among these questions. Liberals and Conservatives are extremes—in the former “every religious person is saved” and in the latter “almost no one is saved except the tiny group that meets together” (p. 199). Shank occupies the right ground because he has correctly and rightly understood the Bible whereas these others have not.

Interestingly, Shank asks conservatives, “So why do our brethren feel as though they can make the kind of judgments they make on others in our brotherhood?” (p. 200).

That is a good question. Perhaps Shank should answer it in regards to those whom he calls “liberals,” especially since both are “good-hearted, God-fearing people who have been baptized into Christ and who are sincerely trying their best to do what God wants them to do” (p. 209).

It seems to me Shank might want to give the same grace to the “liberals” he offers to the “conservatives” in the previous quote. The difference for Shank, it appears, is something like this:  he has collected the “commands of God” that are “easy to identify” and labeled them essentials since “the big things are easy to interpret” (p. 210).

This ease is rooted more in his hermeneutical and ecclesiological presuppositions than the text of Scripture. He does not recognize his own interpretative moves and the “pattern” he imposes on the text.

What we both need is a dose of humility and grace to the other in our interpretations as we each do our best to read Scripture well and live out our faith in the present with mercy, justice, and humility.

Shank’s two books essentially provide a kind of 1950s theology of the church driven by a 1950s way of reading the Bible. His first book provides the “first law of pardon,” and his second book provides the “second law of pardon,” as those “laws” were typically described in Churches of Christ in the 1930s-1950s. With both, one is now fully instructed as to how to be “faithful to the church,” as his first book put it.

May God have mercy on both of our feeble hermeneutical attempts, and may we both rest in the grace of Jesus our Lord whose awesome love abounds for us of all.



1 Peter 3:18-22 — Suffering and the Meaning of the Christ Event

August 10, 2015

Because Christ also suffered…

If one suffers for “doing good” as an expression of the will of God, Peter writes, it better to suffer for that than suffering for doing evil (1 Peter 2:17).

Why is that? Because Christ also suffered…

The Christ Narrative—the story of God in which Christ suffers for sins—is the reason why it is better to suffer for doing what is right than suffering for doing what is evil.

The Christ Narrative

Christ suffered for sin in order lead others to God,

having been put to death in the realm of the flesh,

having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit

having gone [and preached]

having gone into heaven

having subjugated all powers to his rule,

he announced his victory to imprisoned spirits.

While there are many difficult exegetical and theological issues within this text, the basic point is clear.

Just as righteous Christians suffer for doing good, so Christ also suffered for doing good, and just as Christ was raised and ascended to the right hand of God, so also Christians will be raised and exalted before God.

I will not take the time to rehearse all the subtleties of the debates surrounding this text. However one reads it, Christ is victorious despite his suffering, and this encourages Christians in Peter’s time to endure their unjust suffering. Christ is not only the pattern or model for how we suffer, but the one whom we follow into the heavens as victors over suffering and death.

My understanding of the text stresses the past tense participles (italicized above in the narrative) as a progressive movement of Jesus from death to resurrection to exaltation.

Having been put to death in the realm of the flesh – death

Having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit – resurrection

Having gone – exaltation.

Having gone into heaven — enthronement.

“Having gone” occurs twice—once in 1 Peter 3:19 and once in 1 Peter 3:22. Clearly “having gone” (poreutheis) in the latter text refers to the ascension, exaltation, and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. In the history of the reading of this text, the former text is read in various ways. For example, some believe Christ “went” to Hades in his death to proclaim his victory to the imprisoned angels and/or human dead. Others believe Christ “went,” by the Spirit and through the voice of Noah, to preach to disobedient people at the time of the flood. Both of these views are strongly represented in the history of the Christian tradition.

However, I think it best to understand the second use of poreutheis (“having gone”) as resumptive, that is, he is continuing the story from which he digressed in verse 19. In other words, he uses poreutheis (“having gone”) in the same sense in verses 19 and 22. They both refer to the ascension, exaltation, and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God.

From there, Peter says, Jesus heralded his victory to the “imprisoned spirits.” The Greek verb here is not “preach the gospel,” but to announce, herald, or proclaim. His proclamation was not a evangelistic (revivalistic) sermon, but a judicial proclamation. Their fate was sealed, and it could not have been sealed until Christ was raised from the dead. (For a full defense of this understanding, see William J. Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 [Roma: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1989]).

Consequently, “made alive in the Spirit” is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus who entered into a new realm, a new existence. He became the standard of new humanity as the Spirit of God animates his resurrected body, just as Paul envisions in 1 Corinthians 15. Through death for sin and resurrection to life, Jesus becomes the pattern of new humanity, new creation.

But who are the imprisoned, disobedient spirits from the time of Noah? Some think this may include or specify human beings, but the contrast between “spirits” in verse 19 and “souls” in verse 20 suggests that “spirits” refers more to “angels” (verse 22) while “souls” refers to human persons. Nowhere in Scripture are postmortem human beings called “spirits” without qualification (and only once with qualification in Hebrews 12:23). “Soul” is Peter’s word for a human person, and here “spirits” most likely refers to disobedient angels in the time of Noah.

The backdrop is an ancient Jewish interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. 1 Enoch elaborately describes this. There the “Watchers” (angelic beings) are sent by God to care for human beings but they rebel, marry women, and give birth to “giants.” This story was well known in Jewish circles in the first century. Imprisoned angels, who in 1 Enoch are assured of their eternal captivity, are also referenced in 2 Peter 2:4. The Watchers disobeyed God, and the work of Christ has sealed their fate.

Through his victory, Christ subjugated “angels, authorities, and powers.” Enthroned at the right hand of God, all powers and rulers—both spiritual and imperial—bow before the authority of Christ. The enthroned Christ proclaims (announces) his victory to the imprisoned spirits.


The Noah Typology

Inserted into the Christological narrative, almost as a digression but importantly as a typology of the circumstances of Christians within Roman culture, is the story of Noah.

Christ suffered for sin in order lead others to God,

having been put to death in the realm of the flesh,

having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit

having gone [and preached]

having gone into heaven

having subjugated all powers to his rule,

he announced his victory to imprisoned spirit

because they were disobedient in the days of Noah

when God waited patiently

when God saved eight souls through water

and now baptism saves you

not by the removal of dirt from the flesh

but by a pledge of a good conscience

 through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

The story includes God’s patience, “disobedient spirits” now imprisoned, the building of the ark, Noah’s family (“few, that is, eight souls”), and their salvation through water.

Noah’s circumstances parallel those whom Peter addresses. They both find themselves living amid a disobedient generation, and they were both minorities. They both suffer abuse from their contemporaries. They are both righteous sufferers. They both need deliverance/salvation. They both bear witness to the coming judgment of God and experience God’s patience toward their generation. They are both saved, and salvation happens in the context of or by means of “water.” In other words, Peter’s readers should see their own story in the story of Noah.

Jobes (1 Peter), citing Elliott, 1 Peter (2000, p. 669) offers this parallel.

Noah in 3:20 Readers in 3:21
Few You
Were Baptism now
Saved Saves
Through Through
Water Resurrection of Jesus

[The following is from John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor, Down in the River to Pray, chapter 2.]

The succinct statement that “baptism…now saves you” is astounding. Indeed, it is scandalous for some. Peter attributes to baptism some kind of soteriological function, and his exact meaning has been the subject of considerable debate.

The Noahic Flood is typological of the saving function of baptism. The eight persons who found refuge in the ark from the destructive floodwaters were, in fact, “saved through water” (dieswthesan di’ hudatos), and this prefigured how Christians are also saved through water (that is, water baptism saves us). Baptism, just like the Flood, is a saving event. Just as God saved Noah through cleansing the old world with water, so God saves us from our old lives through baptism. In the Noahic Flood, water judged the old world and cleansed it, and baptism judges the old life and cleanses it. To use a Pauline metaphor, baptismal water (by the power of the Spirit, of course–not literally) kills the old person, buries it, and then renews it. Noah passed through the waters into a new world, just as Christians pass through baptism into a new life.

Peter, however, quickly qualifies his meaning. He does not want to foster a misunderstanding or misapplication of his point. The power of this salvation is not inherent in the water. The water does not literally save, but God saves through the water by the power of Christ’s work. The death of Christ, where the righteous died for the unrighteous, is the power of salvation. The resurrection of Christ, where life overcomes death, is the power of salvation. Baptism saves us, not by the power of the water, but “through the resurrection of Jesus,” just as—as Peter wrote earlier—God gave us a “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus” (1 Peter 1:3).

Peter’s qualification points us to the significance of baptism. It is no mere cleansing of the outer person. It is not a ritual bath that only cleansed the outer person from ceremonial impurities or like an ordinary bath that only removes the dirt from the body. On the contrary, it addresses the inner person. It is the “appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism has an inner dimension—it is a function of conscience.

The exact nature of this function, however, is debated. The Greek term behind the word “appeal” (eperotema) is ambiguous. While the NRSV translates Peter’s phrase as an “appeal to God for a good conscience,” the NIV translates it “the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” In other words, is baptism the appeal for a good conscience (thus, a cleansing of the inner person) or is it the pledge of a good conscience (thus, a commitment of loyalty to God). Is baptism a “prayer” (Moffatt’s translation) for a clean conscience or a pledge of allegiance? Or both, perhaps an intentional ambiguity? Both fit the inner/outer contrast in the text—baptism is not simply an outer act like removing dirt from the body, but it is an inner appeal or pledge of the inner person, the conscience. Both suppose baptismal candidates actively appeal or commit themselves to God through baptism. This would seem to exclude those who cannot make such an appeal or commitment.

The term itself is problematic. It only appears here in the New Testament. In the second century the word commonly appeared in legal contractual documents. It referred to the practice of “answering” the question of whether one would keep the contract. Viewed in this way, baptism is the “answer of a good conscience” which pledges to keep the baptismal covenant. If, however, the noun is viewed through the lens of its verbal form (eperotao), which means “request,” then the word refers to the believers’ request through baptism for a good conscience. This may be a better fit with Peter’s contrast. Baptism is not the cleansing of the outer body, but rather it saves through the cleansing of the inner person as believers address God in that moment. Baptism is the sinner’s prayer for a good conscience; a prayer for the application of God’s saving act to cleanse the conscience.[i] As Colwell writes, “what is a sacrament if it is not a human prayer and promise in response to a promise of God and in anticipation of its fulfillment?”[ii] We go down in the river to pray for a good conscience. We go down in the river seeking transformation.

What is the meaning of “now” in Peter’s statement? Some have thought that perhaps this was part of a baptismal liturgy so that at the moment of baptism this was the pronouncement over the candidate, that is, “baptism now saves you” as you are immersed. But it is better to see this “now” as a redemptive-historical term. It is an “eschatological” (or, apocalyptic) now where we experience the end-time salvation in the present. Just as the Flood was a cataclysmic event that destroyed the old world through cleansing, so the baptismal experience is a destruction of the old person through cleansing. Just as Noah and his family were “saved through water,” so we are saved through water. Just as Noah and his family transitioned from an old to a new world, so through baptism we move from an old world under judgment to a new beginning in a renewed life. The old passed away and everything became new—for Noah, and for us! Baptism is an apocalyptic, or eschatological, moment. We have been born anew (1 Peter 1:23).


Whatever we do with the subtle difficulties of this text, the gist seems rather clear.

Christ has suffered.

Christ has been raised.

Christ has ascended.

Christ has been enthroned.

Consequently, whatever “angels, authorities, and powers” might do to you–no matter how you suffer their abuse–Christ has won, and Christ will reign until, as Paul notes from Psalm 110, he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:26).

[i] See the discussion by Wayne Grudem, The First Epistle of Peter, TNTC (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 163-64.

[ii] John E. Colwell, “Baptism, Conscience and the Resurrection: A Reappraisal of 1 Peter 3:21,” in Baptism, the New Testament and the Church: Historical and Contemporary Studies in Honour of R. E. O. White, JSNTSup 171, ed. Stanley Porter and Anthony R. Cross (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 227.

What Will Become of the Earth: A Nashville Bible School Perspective

August 8, 2015



Second Advent.


New Heaven and Earth.

Nineteenth century Restorationists, from Alexander Campbell to David Lipscomb, spoke and wrote about these subjects. They often disagreed, however.

Alexander Campbell was a postmillennialist. James A. Harding was a premillennialist. Walter Scott changed his mind several times. David Lipscomb was uncertain.

However, these all agreed that the most important aspect of the Christ’s second coming was the regeneration not only of the soul, but the body and the whole cosmos. They believed God will refine the present cosmos by fire and transform (renew) it into a “new heaven and new earth,” just as God will raise our bodies from the grave and transform them into bodies animated by the Holy Spirit fitted for living on the new earth. They believed, as Alexander Campbell put it, that “the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life” in “the new earth and the new heavens” was essential to the Christian vision of life and hope, central to the gospel of grace itself (Millennial Harbinger, 1865, p. 494).

Many are surprised to learn this about our forbearers in the faith because they associate a renewed, material earth with fringe groups and strange ideas. But it was the dominant perspective among churches of Christ in the late nineteenth century, particularly as articulated by David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, co-founders of the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University).

What exactly did they mean by this, and why was it so important to them?

Creation. When God created the cosmos, God came to dwell upon the earth with humanity in the Garden of Eden. This was God’s sanctuary, and God enjoyed fellowship with humanity there. More than that, God shared dominion (rule) with humanity, and, made in God’s image, humanity was equipped to reign with God in the universe. Humanity was designed to reign with God forever and ever.

Fall. However, humanity turned the cosmos “over to Satan,” and a war began between the kingdom of God and the “kingdoms of this world, under the leadership of Satan” (Harding, The Way, 1903, p. 1041). God, in one sense, “left this world as a dwelling place” (Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin, p. 36), and now “Satan dwells upon the earth” to deceive the nations and devour Christians (Harding, The Way, 1902, p. 57).

Messianic Age. Beginning with Israel, but revealed in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, God sought to restore dominion over the cosmos through a kingdom people whose lives reflected the glory and character of God. God drew near to Israel by dwelling in the temple, then came to dwell in the flesh, and now dwells in Christians by the Spirit. God’s restorationist and redemptive mission are presently advanced through the church in the power of the Spirit. God battles the forces of Satan through the church.

New Creation. God’s mission is to fully dwell again upon the earth just as in Eden and restore the full reign of God in the cosmos. On that final day, when the heavenly Jerusalem descends to the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4), “God will take up his abode himself with his great family upon this new, this renovated and purified earth” (Harding, Christian Leader & the Way, 190, 1042). Then the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), and all children of Abraham—through faith in the Messiah—will inherit the cosmos (Romans 4:13).

The creation—both humanity and the cosmos (heaven and earth)—is lost, then contested, and ultimately won and purified. On that day, Lipscomb writes, “earth itself shall become heaven” (Gospel Advocate, 1903, 328). The creation will again become God’s home. This is the story that shapes the mission of the church for both Lipscomb and Harding.

God’s good creation, then, is regained and renewed. It is not annihilated or eternally lost. The creation, including the children of Abraham, is redeemed.

While there was much diversity on many questions regarding the “last days” among our Restorationist forbearers, they agreed on one thing: God will not give up on the cosmos—God will renew it and come again to dwell within it.

And this calls us to do battle with the forces of Satan for the sake of restoring God’s kingdom to the earth, which includes both a reconciled humanity and a purified, renewed earth. We are called to practice both reconciliation and sustainability. Christians are both peacemakers and environmentalists.

[This article first appeared in Intersections of Faith and Culture (Summer 2015), a publication of Lipscomb University.]


David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin (Nashville: McQuiddy, 1913).

David Lipscomb, “The Kingdom of God,” Gospel Advocate 45 (21 May 1903), 328.

James A. Harding, “For What are We Here?,” The Way 5 (3 December 1903), 1041-2.

James A. Harding, “Man Was Created to Reign for Ever and Ever, “ The Christian Leader and the Way 19 (6 June 1905), 8-9.

James A. Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 930-932.

The Power of a Biblical Story

August 6, 2015

Bible stories.

Many of us have heard them since we were children.

  • Daniel and the Lion’s Den.
  • Noah’s Ark.
  • Three Angels Visiting Abraham.
  • Moses and the Burning Bush.
  • David and Goliath.

And many more!

Bible stories are important. They do more than tweak the emotions or offer a moralism, as important as those dimensions are. Their power arises from something (even Someone) much deeper than human morality or emotion.

What is the power of a biblical story?

The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about God. Even when a biblical story does not name God (as in the case of Esther), it is still about God. As such, God is the subject of every biblical story, and that story says something about God’s identity and character.

Biblical stories reveal God’s goodness as well as God’s holiness. We see God’s faithfulness, a divine commitment to the divine goal among God’s people. We see God’s transcendence but also God’s immanence; we see God’s holy otherness but also God’s deep involvement in the world.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who God is and what God is doing in the world?

The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about the human condition. We locate ourselves in the human condition; we find ourselves in the story. We see our own frailty, weakness, and unbelief in the story. We also see courage, strength, and faith in the story.

Biblical stories reveal both the depravity and the dignity of human beings. As we hear these stories, we recognize how evil human beings can behave but also the heights to which their faith draws them. We see both the absurdity of life with all its brokenness, woundedness, and death, but we also see the good gifts of relationships, community, and family within God’s good creation. Biblical stories tell both sides of the human story.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who we are, what we have become, and the heights to which God is calling us?

The power of a biblical story is how it invites us to participate in the theodrama. As we read the stories in the Bible, we are invited to see ourselves in the story. This is not simply a matter of locating ourselves there. Rather, we engage the story as part of the larger theodrama, the dramatic history of God at work within creation and human history. We are participants. This story is our story.

Biblical stories are not isolated moral plays; they are part of a larger narrative, a metanarrative. The stories themselves participate in God’s mission within the world. Each story is an expression of the larger story, and we are invited to participate in that larger story even as we see ourselves in any particular story.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: how does this story invite us to participate in God’s larger metanarrative?

So, what do we do with that?

If we know who God is, and we know what our condition is, then we are enabled to discern how a story summons us to play our role in God’s grand redemptive drama.

The God of the burning bush is both redeemer and holy. The holy God encounters Moses, and invites Moses to participate in God’s redemptive movement within the world. We see in Moses our own reticence, fear, and inadequacies, but we also see God’s enabling power and summons. God includes Moses in the redemptive drama such that Moses partners with God in liberating Israel from Egyptian bondage. What Moses becomes is rooted in what God does.

Who is God? The Holy Redeemer.

What is humanity? Weak and fearful, yes. But the story also affirms human dignity by inviting Moses to participate in the divine mission.

What is our summons? To participate in God’s redemptive agenda in the world, pursuing God’s mission in dependence on God’s power. We are still on the same mission as Moses, as the redemption of Israel is part of the grand narrative of God’s redemptive work for all peoples.

Biblical stories have something to tell. They inform, moralize, and motivate.

But, more importantly, through them we also encounter Someone. We encounter the God who invites us into God’s own story, God’s theodrama.

At bottom, biblical stories are callings. God calls us.

1 Peter 3:13-17 — When Suffering Comes

August 1, 2015

In 1 Peter 2:11-3:12 Peter addressed how followers of Jesus live as “aliens and exiles” within a Roman culture which often abused others under its authority. In 1 Peter 3:13-4:11, he turns his attention to how Christians suffer faithfully and with hope in that same culture. In both sections, “doing good” is the primary Christian response to marginalization, abuse, and suffering. No matter what happens, Peter counsels, always “do good.”

Aliens and exiles, live honorably among the nations for the glory of God (2:11-12).

1.  Submit to the dominant order for God’s sake (1 Peter 2:13-3:12).

2.  Suffer with hope for God’s sake (1 Peter 3:13-4:11).

In this second major section of the letter (2:11-4:11), Peter shifts from the question of “submission” within Roman order to living triumphantly within that order.  While “submission” entails locating oneself with the dominant cultural order for the sake of God’s mission, living triumphantly entails living with hope as blessed people despite suffering for the sake of God’s mission. Aliens and exiles, submit and they suffer, but they are also blessed and hopeful.

Under the heading of 2:11-12, 1 Peter 2:11-4:11 forms a single unit, indicted by how the vocative address “Beloved” begins 1 Peter 2:11 and 1 Peter 4:12. Further, the doxology of 1 Peter 4:11 signals the end of the section, just as the doxology in 1 Peter 5:11 ends the next section. In this unit Peter calls Christians to live well (to do good) among the nations for God’s sake.

If you suffer….

The text curiously moves from the assurance of God’s care for the righteous based on Psalm 34 (God’s eyes and ears are turned toward their prayers and God’s face is set against evil) in 1 Peter 3:12 to 1 Peter 3:13-17 where suffering is a real possibility, perhaps inevitability, for those who seek God. How does one reconcile suffering with God’s gracious attention to the prayers of the righteous?

This is, we should remember, a particular kind of suffering. Peter addresses those who might suffer for doing good or “doing what is right” (righteousness). I write “might suffer” because the Greek verb here is in the optative mood, which indicates a possibility or potentiality. They might not be suffering now, but that potential exists.

If Christians actually “do good” and live peacefully among the nations in righteousness, Peter suggests, they might not suffer harm (though that “harm” is no ultimate harm). Perhaps there is sufficient cultural overlap between Christians and Romans to avert suffering to some degree because there is some shared understanding of “doing good” or shared value of what it means to live a good life. However, when we consider what “righteousness” is to Christians and what it is for Romans (in general), suffering or harm is a real possibility, if not inevitable.

Righteous behavior attracts undesired attention from those who feel judgment from such behavior. Christians don’t have to verbally judge others (much less verbally abuse them) in order for others to feel judged. This is because their values are so radically different. Romans, most probably, felt judged by Christians simply because of their lifestyle. Their hostility, then, is not due directly to anything Christians have said or done as much as it is to the life to which Christians are dedicated. Non-Christians may feel judged simply because Christians live by a different set of values and those values seem strange to them.

Peter recognizes the problematic nature of the question raised above (how to reconcile suffering with God’s gracious attention) and moves to assure his readers of God’s interest, involvement, and purposes. Their suffering is not due to divine inattentiveness, absence, or forsakenness. On the contrary, their suffering happens in relation to God’s will, whatever that relationship is (1 Peter 3:17). Far from disinterested, the Father is intensely engaged with God’s people in the midst of their suffering. They are not alone.

Several indicators point to this assurance.

First, righteous sufferers are blessed. This echoes Jesus’s own beatitude in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed, of course, involves divine action. It is not simply a happy state, but it is a present divine activity, including presence, hope, and comfort. Righteous sufferers are blessed since God acknowledges them as participants in the mission of God and works in their lives to prevent ultimate harm. As blessed people, they belong to God.

Second, Peter recalls the language of Psalm 34 just as he did in the previous section. As Joel Green (1 Peter) notes, there are important thematic and linguistic connections between 1 Peter 3:13-17 and Psalm 34. In other words, the tension exists within Psalm 34 itself, and the tension is “resolved” (in some sense) by divine presence and commitment to the believer. Peter, as Green writes, “identifies his audience as the suffering of the righteous of the psalm, in this way encouraging them to persist in their engagement in the wider world as those who embody goodness in character and practice.”

Third, Peter uses language from Isaiah 8, and consequently draws us into that story, along with its assurances. Jobes (1 Peter) helpfully describes the fuller picture. Not only does Peter quote Isaiah 8:12 (“do not fear what it fears, or be in dread”) in 1 Peter 3:14b (“do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated”), he also echoes Isaiah 8:13a (“sanctify him as Lord”) in 1 Peter 3:15a (“sanctify Christ as Lord”). The resounding assurance within Isaiah 8 is the prophetic word:  “God is with us” (Isaiah 8:10), or “Immanuel.”

The context of Isaiah 8 is important as Peter locates his readers there. Judah’s King Ahaz, along with the people of Judah, refused to trust God in the wake of military threats from Israel and Syria. Instead, Ahaz sought the help of Assyria, and consequently God unleashes Assyria upon both Israel and Judah. God tells Isaiah, “Don’t be afraid, don’t fear what they fear.” Yes, the future is brutal, and Assyria will roll like a flood over the land. In response, Isaiah must trust God and “sanctify” God in his heart so that God is his fear rather than the dread of Assyria’s advance.

Situating his readers in that story, Peter identifies them with Isaiah who must learn to trust God in their suffering. Christians are not intimidated by power, particularly when power assaults the righteous. Christians do not fear what others fear. Rather, they fear (trust) God and invest themselves in the divine mission. They sanctify Christ in their hearts; they are engaged in God’s mission.

Fourth, Peter links their suffering to the will of God (1 Peter 3:17). Exactly how the “will of God” figures into their suffering is ambiguous. At the very least, we might say something like: those who suffer for doing good, suffer according to the will of God since it is God’s will to suffer for good rather than to suffer for evil. Others suggest God wills the suffering of those who “do good” for whatever reasons, perhaps as a refining process. Whatever the case, God inhabits this suffering in some mysterious way; in some way, God is “behind” this suffering. Perhaps God is not the cause (at least that is not asserted here), but God shapes its reality and purpose. Though suffering does not yet exist in some sense, when it comes (the optative mood indicates its possibility rather than actuality), it does not come outside of God’s will. Suffering does not exist outside of God’s sovereignty but under it.

In essence, suffering does not mean God is absent, and neither does it suggest sufferers have lost their relationship with God. On the contrary, when one suffers because of righteousness, there is no ultimate or real harm. There is suffering, to be sure, but there is also the assured presence and care of God in the midst of that suffering.

How Do We Respond to Unjust Suffering?

No fear, but a holy focus; don’t be intimidated, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart. Christians, from one point of view, have something to fear.  When they confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, this places them in tension with a Roman world that acknowledges Caesar as Lord.

That contrast is important. Who is Lord? To whom do we devote our hearts? Who is the Holy One? These are questions of loyalty, allegiance, and commitment. Whom shall we serve? The emperor or Jesus? Peter’s answer is clear—the Messiah is Lord, and we wholly separate our hearts for Christ’s service and devout our hearts to him. We honor the emperor, but we fear (worship) God (1 Peter 2:17).

So, in a world where these contrasting allegiances butt heads, how do Christians respond?

They are prepared. They know who they are, and they live out that identity. This preparation is not only intellectual, but also includes–even emphasizes–spiritual formation and life habits. It is a good conscience and a good life.

They answer with gentleness and reverence (fear). Gentleness stands in opposition to “a stick” (weapon or disciplinary instrument) in 1 Corinthians 4:21, and the word is sometimes paired with “kindness” (2 Corinthians 10:1) or humility and patience (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12). This is the only time the word appears in 1 Peter. Christians respond to questions and challenges, even hostility, with patient kindness. We do not use sticks or weapons. Instead, we respond in love, and we respond in the fear of God (though some regard this as “respect” for the other). Green writes, “Peter does not engage in invective rhetoric against ‘the world at large,’ as though the essence of Christian identity and behavior is to opposed those who reject faith.” On the contrary, gentleness toward others and a reverence for God characterize our apologia.

Our answer (apologia, defense or apologetic) is not so much the intellectual content of the response (though that is part of it), but it is the life with which we respond and how we respond. Intellectual content, the manner of our response, and the nature of our lives constitute our “answer.”

They maintain a good conscience and a good lifestyle. Abuse will come, and some will speak evil of the good others do. Our response is to persevere; we continue to pursue “doing good,” and we embody the life of Christ sanctified in our hearts. In this way, those who abuse us will be put to “shame,” which does not refer to some kind of public shame. Rather, it reflects the kind of “shame” reflected in the prophetic tradition. The enemies of God are “shamed” in that their way of life stands in strong case to the “good deeds” of God’s people. As Jobes notes, “this does not refer to emotion but to standing.” In other words, “shame connotes a social status, often in referenced to utter defeat and disgrace in battle.” The point, then, is the contrast between the eschatological triumph of the people of God and the “shame” (defeat and loss) of those who refuse (and even revile) the way of Christ.

Followers of Jesus respond to cultural marginalization and opposition with trust (fearing God), hope, and gentleness toward others.

5 Anchors for the Soul during the Storms of Life

July 30, 2015

This is a presentation of the Five Anchors for the Soul in the Storms of Life at the Central Church of Christ in Athens, AL on July 8, 2015.


God loves, God listens, God understands, God reigns, and God wins.

The SCOTUS Decision on Same-Sex Marriage

July 30, 2015

My response to the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States regarding same-sex marriage has been published on the Lipscomb University College of Bible and Ministry page. Originally, it was two separate Facebook posts, but is now a single piece.

You may read it here.


1 Peter 3:8-12 — A Community Under Threat But Bound Together in the Fear of the Lord

July 27, 2015

As aliens and exiles, abstain from unhealthy desires and live among the nations as people who “do good” so that everyone may see your good life and glorify God (1 Peter 2:11-12).


Imperial residents, submit to political authority.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

Follow the model of Jesus in his suffering.

Wives, submit to your unbelieving husbands.

Everyone, [submit] to each other and encourage each other.

These are the basic elements of 1 Peter 2:11-3:12. 1 Peter 2:11-12 serves as a heading for the whole section and guides the rationale for “submission” when one is subject to abuse or hostile action by imposed power. We submit because we are aliens and exiles more concerned about the mission of God than a violent political or social revolution. We submit because we are disciples of Jesus who himself suffered for the sake of God’s mission.

The final segment, 1 Peter 3:8-12, does not begin with the word “submit” as previous sections did. I have supplied it in brackets even though the word is not actually there. However, the spirit is there. Perhaps Peter does not use”submit” because he has used it in the sense of “find your place in the dominant cultural order and live out God’s mission in that social location,” which is an accommodative sense. But he does not intend submission in an accommodative way in 1 Peter 3:8-12. Rather, submission, as articulated in 1 Peter 3:8-12, is a deeply Christian virtue, which Peter applied in a narrow sense in the previous sections. It is functionally equivalent to Paul’s call for “mutual submission” in Ephesians 5:21.

1 Peter 3:8-12 contains the essence of the submissive directives in the previous sections. Indeed, we may say 1 Peter 3:8-12 summarizes—in a general but pointed way—the broader and deeper meaning of submission. Imperial residents, slaves, and wives of unbelieving husbands each “submit” by “doing good” despite abuse, and this is exactly what 1 Peter 3:8-12 counsels and bolsters by quoting Psalm 34. And submission, as a Christian virtue, involves more.

Peter first addresses how the community should treat each other (1 Peter 3:8), and then reminds them how they should respond to hostility and abuse from outside the community or even from within the community (1 Peter 3:9), and then grounds these imperatives in Psalm 34 (1 Peter 3:10-12).

Communal Relationships

1 Peter 3:8 is a series of five adjectives introduced by a universal (“all”) address, and the adjectives state succinctly the meaning of “mutual submission.” “Finally,” Peter writes, “everyone” should share these values within the community of believers, not only or merely slaves or wives.

  • Unity of spirit (homophrones), that is, to have the same mind or way of thinking.
    • Sympathy (sympathies), that is, to share suffering together or to feel each other’s suffering.
      • Love for one another (philadelphoi), that is, to share a familial love one for the other, to live together as a caring, loving family.
    • Tender Heart (eusplagchnoi; literally, “good guts,” which is something like “good gut feelings”), that is, compassionate, or to have a good (tender) gut feeling toward each other, a soft heart for each other.
  • Humble Mind (tapeinophrones), that is, to have a mind or way of thinking where one considers oneself in a low position, or to take the humble approach rather than assuming everyone must agree.

The two bookends of the list share a similar idea, even using the same word in the compound term: phrones (way of thinking or mind). The first emphasizes “same” thinking, a kind of like-mindedness, and this points to the unity of God’s people. The fifth adjective expresses humility in our thinking; we do not approach each other in pride or arrogance. Rather, we live together in humble unity, a shared life with a shared mind. We have the “same mind” in the sense that we have the same goal, shared values, and are committed to living together in love. This does not entail uniform thinking, and certainly it does not entail an imposed uniformity since “humble mind” is also part of communal thinking as well.

The middle two—sympathy and tender-hearted—share a similar thought-world or semantic range. These words counsel compassion, sympathy, shared feelings, shared life, and openness to the other. We sympathize with each other; we approach each other and live together with “soft hearts.” We might imagine, for example, what it would mean for a congregation to sympathize or feel deeply for an abused slave or abused wife within the community.

The emphatic middle term is philadelphia (“brotherly love,” or familial love). Peter previously used this term in 1 Peter 1:22. It is a core value for community, especially as it comes under significant outside pressure and stress. Given the surrounding hostility, it is all the more imperative for love to abound within the community.

These words are rare or otherwise unknown in the New Testament: “same mind,” “sympathy,” and “humble mind” only appear here in the apostolic writings, and “tender-hearted” only appears elsewhere in Ephesians 4:32. However, they were common among moralists in the Greco-Roman world. This language is designed to secure familial bonds. This is communal language, and these virtues bind a community together in both mind and heart, body and soul. Peter, with good Greco-Roman rhetoric, seeks to build community.

Response to Abuse

Even if the Christian community displays the above virtues, Peter’s addressees find themselves situated in a hostile environment where believers are abused by governmental authority, slaves are beaten by their masters, and wives are controlled by unbelieving husbands. The community lives under a cloud of potential verbal and social abuse, even violence.

As followers of Jesus, however, believers are called into a different way of life then their surrounding culture. Like Jesus, they refuse to return evil for evil or abuse for abuse. This is our calling; it is our way of being in the world. We live nonviolently, without revenge, and without any need for “payback.”

Human beings tend to respond negatively to negativity. We tend to return abuse for abuse. We want to give people what “they deserve” and “return the favor.” This extends to the deep need many feel to “have the last word,” especially in a Facebook debate or in the blog comments. We don’t want to “let go” until people are “put in their place.”

Jesus models something else for us, and we are called to follow him. When we are persecuted, abused, or treated with hostility, we bless the other person. This does not mean we become doormats and take abuse when we have legal recourse, but it does mean we bless others when they mistreat us—even as we see legal justice or protection when possible.

If we want to “inherit a blessing,” we must bless others. Earlier Peter noted the future inheritance of believers, which is “kept in heaven for us” (1 Peter 1:4). Our future blessing empowers and expands our capacity to bless others in the present.

The blessed bless others, even when they are “blessed out” by others.

Psalm 34 as Peter’s Sermon Text

This “submissive,” non-retaliatory attitude is grounded in Peter’s reading of Psalm 34, and here he quotes Psalm 34:12-16. However, as is often the case, Peter’s interest is not limited to verses twelve to sixteen. In fact, Peter has not only previously alluded to Psalm 34 but quoted it (1 Peter 2:3, quoting Psalm 34:8). And, as Jobes points out, Psalm 34 provides an extensive background context for Peter: the people of Israel are exiles (paroikias in 1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:6) who are ransomed (lutroo in 1 Peter 1:18 and Psalm 34:22), and they are people who hope in (elpizo,1 Peter 1:13 and Psalm 34:22) and fear (1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:7, 9, 12) God. Consequently, we might think of Psalm 34 as Peter’s sermon text for this letter.

Psalm 34 is appropriate for Peter’s audience. As a didactic Psalm (it is an exhortation or teaching Psalm with no divine address), it testifies to how God delivers the righteous sufferer from the clutches of evildoers. The Psalmist, troubled by opponents and enemies, appeals to God, commits to a way of life, and God redeems the petitioner. It is as if Peter’s had written the Psalm for his audience since it so closely parallels the situation of his readers.

Particularly important for Peter’s extended quotation of Psalm 34 in 1 Peter 3:10-12 is the fear of the Lord, which is prominent in 1 Peter (1:17; 2:17, 18; 3:2, 6, 14, 16) in sections where Psalm 34 informs the letter. The “fear of the Lord” is prominent in Psalm 34. God delivers those who fear the Lord (Psalm 34:7; 33:8 in LXX). Those who fear the Lord will lack nothing (Psalm 34:9; 33:10 in LXX). The Psalmist intends to teach readers “the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:11; 33:12 in LXX).

Psalm 34:11 is particularly significant since it provides the purpose statement for the lines Peter quotes in 1 Peter 3:10-12. In other words, this is the fear of the Lord, that is, what is quoted (Psalm 34:12-16). What Peter quotes describes what it means, in part, to “fear the Lord.”

To fear the Lord is:

  • Control the use of one’s tongue, that is, tell no lies and abstain from speaking evil with it. We all know the use of the tongue is a major mode of “payback” in relationships, and its fire is difficult to put out.
  • To pursue a life of “doing good” rather than doing evil, that is, to turn away from evil and embrace the good. Psalm 34 highlights the contrast between two ways of life:  doing good and doing evil.
  • To seek and pursue peace, that is, to live peaceably with all people as much as it is within one’s power to do so. When living amidst hostility, seeking peace–becoming a peacemaker–expresses a trust (fear) in God.

It seems rather obvious why Peter quotes these verses from Psalm 34. They repeat the very counsel that Peter has given in 1 Peter 2:11-3:9—do good rather than evil, don’t speak evil when abused, and pursue peace. What Peter has counseled is essentially to “Fear God” (1 Peter 2:17).

Though Peter encourages peace, doing good, and blessing others, he also affirms—through this quotation—the prayers of the righteous who seek deliverance and justice from their God. God is listening, Peter reminds them in this quotation, and God—as Psalm 34 assures worshipers—will respond and deliver.

Their suffering is not interminable. It will end, and they will inherit a blessing. God will listen and ultimately God will put things to right. They suffer in hope, and they pray for justice in their suffering.

Those who desire life and “good days,” whether in the present or the future, will suffer in hope, pray for justice, do good, and return good for evil.



1 Peter 3:1-7 – Living as an Exile with an Unbelieving Spouse

July 19, 2015

Imperial residents, submit to the empire.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

Wives, submit to your husbands.

“In the same way” (homoios) heads the Greek sentence and connects Peter’s advice to the wives to the same ethic as his directives to slaves and imperial residents. This places the whole discussion under 1 Peter 2:12-13, that is, how to live as aliens and exiles among the nations so that the gospel has a witness within the culture.

Each of these “submissions” are shaped by the exilic and alien nature of the Christian existence within Roman culture. They submit as exiles and aliens (1 Peter 2:12-13). In other words, their lives respond to the imposed authority of emperors, masters, and unbelieving husbands over which they have little or no control.

Revolt was not an option in the empire for residents, slaves, or wives. Violence was not an option for Christians. What they could do—and did—was to “do good” and subvert the dominant culture by living exemplary, kind, and gentle lives without returning evil for evil. Since, generally, they had no legal recourse, Christian residents, slaves, and wives suffered abuse and they could not escape their circumstances. Instead, they suffered, following the model of Jesus.

Peter, is important to note, addresses key stress points for Christians living in a hostile environment. This is probably why normal “Household Code” elements are missing here–he does not address parents, children, or masters, and even husbands only get a brief word. He addresses groups who are living under particular stress given their powerlessness within the culture.

The Social Circumstance of Wives with Unbelieving Husbands

Within Roman culture, the general expectation was this: the household (including wives, children, slaves, and even employees) would follow the religion of the head of the household. The husband set the boundaries of acceptable faith and religion. When a wife converted to Christianity, for example, outside of her husband’s permission or authority, this generated an unacceptable circumstance, or at least it created tremendous tension within the household.

As Karen Jobes notes in her commentary on 1 Peter, Romans generally believed it violated good order if a wife “adopted a religion other than her own husband’s,” and the adoption of Christianity also involved conflict with the husband’s allegiance to the state where Caesar is Lord. Further, her association with other Christians in their familial community would probably violate standards of propriety where, as Plutarch advised (Advice, 19, writing about 90-100 A.D.), wives should have no friends independent of her husband and worship no gods but those of her husband (cf. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 99ff).

So, given this situation, what kind of “submission” does Peter intend? On the one hand, it is parallel to submission to the empire and masters. Given the cultural circumstances and mores, wives with unbelieving husbands must situate themselves appropriately within the cultural order. They “submit” in order to function within the prevailing order. This is not an endorsement of the prevailing order anymore than submitting to the emperor endorses imperial government or submitting to masters endorses slavery. Instead, it is a pragmatic, but missional, response within the system so that believers might bear witness to the reality of the gospel within the culture.

On the other hand, they subvert the prevailing order by how they live. Peter uses a key term, prominent in the first section of the letter and rooted in the paragraph heading this section. With their “lives” or by their “lifestyle” (anastrophes, 1 Peter 3:1-2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15, 18; 2:12)—their way of living within the culture—they will subvert the dominant “order” within a Roman household. In other words, their lives might even win their husbands to Jesus, even without words. They, then, might reverse the order within the household. Instead of the husband leading the embrace of religion, the wives will influence the husbands.

Peter’s exhortation is not absolute. Just as with the empire and slaves, so with wives, Peter is locating believers in their social situation. They submit for the sake of God’s mission, but they also live in such a way as to subvert the prevailing cultural expectations. In no way, then, does this legitimate male abuse or demand husbands force their wives into submission. Wives voluntarily submit for the sake of the gospel, but they do so in a subversive way.

In a different cultural setting, such as in the United States, women have more legal options and resources. They do not have to submit to abuse when they have peaceful and legal means to avoid such. “Submission” in 1 Peter does not legitimate abuse, and neither does it demand women to remain in abusive situations when they have other peaceful resources and legal options.

What does Peter expect unbelieving husbands to see (observe, or notice in a supervisory manner) in their Christian wives. He identifies two characteristics: (1) purity and (2) fear. A godly wife’s lifestyle is identified by these two particulars. It is a life “in fear [and] purity.”

Several translations render “fear” as respectful as if this is respect for the husbands. However, “fear” in 1 Peter is primarily, if not exclusively, directed toward God (cf. 1 Peter 2:17). It is reverential piety, a trusting disposition awed by God’s majesty. It is the path of wisdom in Hebrew literature. In other words, when a wife is both devout (fully surrendered to God) and pure (loyal to her husband, both emotionally and sexually), this kind of life has the potential to win the heart of an unbelieving husband.

Peter calls wives to live in such a way to win their husbands to faith is itself a rather significant confrontation with cultural expectations. Generally, such encouragement would have been regarded as subversive of the good order within a Roman household.

Peter Calls Wives to Inner Beauty Rather than Outward Show

Peter’s contrast between the inner life and touter appearance is fairly typical among Greco-Roman moralists as well as within the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Isaiah 3:18-26; Revelation 17:4; see also 1 Timothy 2:9-10). Gold, braided hair, and expensive clothing reflect one kind of “precious” commodity whereas a “gentle and quiet spirit” reflects another kind of “precious.” The former reflects ego, status, and power while the latter has “lasting beauty,” valued by God. The former assumes choices wealthy women enjoyed (unavailable to poor and enslaved women), while the latter assumes a pious devotion.

Some read this as a kind of absolute prohibition—Peter does use an imperative: “do not adorn yourselves outwardly” with braided hair, gold jewelry, or expensive clothes. However, that would absolutize what is actually quite contextual or relative to the situation addressed. These were symbols of wealth, power, and status in the Roman world. If they symbolize something else in another culture (gold wedding rings in Western culture or braided hair in many African cultures), then to apply the imperative without adjustment to the culture does not match Peter’s intent. The prohibition is relative to its cultural context. So, also, “submission” is relative to the societal order in which early Christians found themselves.

The true value is a “gentle and quiet spirit.” This is what is really “precious.” Indeed, this spirit is not unique to women, even submissive women. Rather, all believers are invited to pursue this lifestyle, especially those who suffer unjustly (1 Peter 3:160-17).

Like other moralists in his day, Peter invokes an example from an honored past.  Pete appeals to “holy women” in the past who hoped in God. Hope is an important feature here since the women Peter addressed were subject to significant fear (see the end of verse 6). God is our hope when injustice abounds and we have no resources of our own to address it. Sarah, the wife of the father of faith, is his example. She is the mother of women who live in a fearful and uncertain system or order.

Where did Sarah address Abraham as “Lord” in the Hebrew Scriptures? It is not there (though it is in the Testament of Abraham, 6). Sarah refers to Abraham as “Lord” (kyrios) in Genesis 18:12 (LXX), but she does not address him as such.

Why choose Sarah as a prime example? Other women might have suited Peter’s purposes better, if the point is submission in the abstract. But Sarah actually fits the circumstances of many women among the scattered believers in Anatolia.

Where did Sarah obey Abraham in circumstances where fear might have been a natural response (cf. verse 6)? Two occasions are rather obvious. Sarah obeyed when Abraham gave Sarah to two different rulers. He claimed she was his sister instead of his wife in order to preserve his own life. Those must have been frightful moments in Sarah’s life, but nevertheless she obeyed and followed Abraham’s lead, and she did this for Abraham’s sake, to save his life.

Sarah’s obedience in Genesis 12:13, when she cooperated with Abraham’s deceit, reflects her willingness to save her husband’s life even as Abraham fails to trust God with the situation. One can imagine Sarah, living as an alien and stranger in Egypt, was terrified by her situation, and this is exactly the sort of situation in which wives of unbelieving husbands found themselves. Though unbelieving husbands might abuse their wives or treat them in ways that demean them, Peter asks them to submit, and Sarah is their model.

Sarah’s example is not an absolute legitimation of a husband’s authority. Instead, it recognizes submission is a Christlike response, given certain circumstances. Just as Sarah submitted to Abraham, even when it was a fearful thing to do, so wives with unbelieving husbands, should do what is right despite potential fears. In other words, these wives should obey their husbands without fear in their circumstances because it is the right thing to do. They are to “do good” despite their fears, and they are called to act without fear because they are “doing good.” In this, they follow the example of Jesus.

Peter’s Call to Husbands

The primary burden of 1 Peter 3:1-7 addresses wives, and only a single verse addresses husbands. The relative space given to each identifies Peter’s focus.  Peter recognized the relationship of wives to unbelieving husbands as a significant issue among  “aliens and exiles” in Roman culture. Peter focuses on the potentially explosive situation of marginalized women in marriage relationships, but he does not ignore the responsibility of Christian husbands in relation to their own wives. Indeed, he reorients the cultural dominance of the husband toward mutuality within the relationship.

The cultural perception of a husband’s authority created the opportunity for spousal abuse, and few in the culture would question it. The husband, as the stronger sex (both physically and culturally), had the power to dominate and rule his wife.

Peter’s language, in its own way, subverts the dominant cultural perceptions of the relationship between husbands and wives.

  • Live in the house with (syn) your wife in an understanding way.
  • Show her honor as an heir with (syn) you in the kingdom of God.

Peter calls for shared life, that is, life together.

Two verbs describe Peter’s point. The first is “live with” (synvoikountes), which is derived from the combination of “with” (syn) and “house” (oikos). In other words, live in the same house with your wife, and treat her with honor as a “weaker” member. The description of women as “weaker” reflects ancient perceptions. Karen Jobes, for example, cites Xenophon (Oeconomicus, 7.23-28) who argued that men are stronger and more courageous. These attitudes are embedded in cultural expectations and traditions.

Peter’s specific point, however, is not to put down the woman by identifying her as weaker. In fact, he may mean it in a way that deserves quotation marks as if he is using it the way the broader culture does. Despite the denotations accompanying the word “weaker” within the culture, husbands should treat their wives “according to knowledge,” that is, according to what is true, real, and known within the Christian worldview. Marginalized, “weaker,” women should not be patronized as weaker, inferior humans. Instead, they should be treated according to the values of Christian ethics (“knowledge,” new life through new birth) so they are no longer regarded as “weaker” (inferior) or no longer marginalized in these relationships.

The second verb is “to show,” which means to apportion or to give. In other words, husbands are to honor their wives, to give them honor. The kind of honor is significant here. It is the kind of honor that entails a “withness” or “shared” reality because they are fellow heirs (sygkleronomois) of the kingdom of God. They are co-heirs. This kind of honor underscores their togetherness.

It appears Peter intentionally uses language to stress the shared life of husband and wife, that is, there is a “withness” in their relationship. Living with (syn) each other, they honor each other as co-heirs (syn). In other words, rather than the husband dominating his wife, he shares his life with his wife. This shared life, honor, and inheritance reflect mutuality. It transcends the expectations of Roman culture. Indeed, it actually subverts it!


Like imperial residents and slaves, wives are called to a submissive lifestyle where they accept their position within the prevailing cultural order for the sake of the gospel.

Likewise, holy women, according to Peter, do not adorn themselves with braided hair, gold jewelry, or expensive clothes in a culture where these are symbols of power and status.

Peter’s instructions are not absolute, timeless, a-cultural injunctions. Quite the opposite, they are pragmatic instructions for godly people living in a hostile order or environment. And his words are rooted in key theological values: inner beauty, the example of Jesus, and a missional motive.

1 Peter 2:21-25: Jesus as Model for Submission

July 17, 2015

Imperial residents, submit to the empire.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

This submission, Peter tells us, is grounded in our vocation or calling. We are called into a life of submission because Jesus is our model (pattern, example). Our vocational mission as the people of God is grounded in the life of Jesus as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, a calling he lived out in his own passion and death. Jesus, as the innocent or righteous sufferer, is a model for all believers.

While some think this Christological section only provides the ground for Peter’s exhortation to slaves, it is better to see it as grounding the lifestyle of all Christians who live as aliens and exiles in the world (1 Peter 2:11-12). When Peter writes, “into this you have been called,” he is not simply addressing slaves. Rather, he addresses the whole community. In other words, Peter’s exhortations to “submit” (explicit in 2:13, 18; 3:1, and implicit in 3:8) are modeled by Jesus and offer imperial residents, slaves, wives, and the whole community an example to follow.

Perhaps this is easier to grasp if we view this section (1 Peter 2:13-12) through the lens of a chiasm (as Joel Green, 1 Peter, suggests).

A – Submit to the empire (2:13-17)

            B – Submit to your masters (2:18-20)

                        C – Jesus as Model (2:21-25)

            B’ – Submit to your unbelieving husbands (3:1-7)

A’ – [Submit] to each other (3:8-12)

Even though the word “submit” does not appear in 1 Peter 3:8, the mutuality assumed there portrays a mutual deference and acceptance which is itself “submission” (much like Paul calls for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21).

The suffering of Jesus is multi-dimensional. It has several layers. The suffering of Jesus is

  • shared suffering,
  • exemplary suffering, and
  • representative suffering.

Just as Christians—given their vocation—have suffered, Christ also suffered, that is, Jesus shared their suffering. Believers do not suffer alone. They suffer as a community. They also suffer with Christ, and Christ suffers with them. In this way, Jesus empathizes with sufferers; he knows what it is like. He is an insider to suffering rather than a distant God looking in from the outside.

Further, Christ does not merely share our suffering, he is also a model for how Christians live out their faith in suffering. Jesus set an example (hupogrammon) to follow, or he plowed a path upon which believers are called to walk. The Greek term behind the word “example” only occurs here in the New Testament, but in Hellenistic culture it often referred to a writing tool, which helped students learn to write. The lines on the page were their pattern. By following the lines they could write well rather than badly. Jesus is such a pattern for how Christians endure suffering well.

This pattern for suffering involves:

  • do no evil (sin) and tell no lies (deceit)
  • do not return evil (abuse, threats) for evil (abuse, threats)
  • entrust yourself to the righteous judge for justice

This pattern of suffering—do good rather than evil, return good for evil, and trust [fear] God—is characteristic of a righteous sufferer. The outcome is not in the hands of the sufferer, but in the hands of the just judge.

Suffering is not pleasant, but it is endured with grace, kindness, and goodness. Sufferers overcome through doing good, showing kindness, and trusting in God’s justice.

More than a shared suffering and more than an exemplary suffering, the suffering of Jesus is also representative. More specifically, Jesus suffers in the role of the suffering servant of Isaiah who intercedes for the transgressions of others and pours himself out in death for the sake of the sins of others (Isaiah 53:12).

The connections between 1 Peter 2:22-25 and Isaiah 53 appear on almost every line. Below is one way to represent them by paralleling verses in the two texts.

1 Peter 2

Isaiah 53

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (2:22). “Although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (53:9).
“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (2:23a). “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (53:7).
“he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (2:23b) “by a perversion of justice he was taken away…he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days” (53:8, 10)
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (2:24a). “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he bore the sin of many” (53:4, 12).
“by his wounds you have been healed” (2:24b). “by his bruises we are healed” (53:5).
“For you were going astray like sheep” (2:25) “All we like sheep have gone astray” (53:6).

Isaiah 53, as utilized by Peter, describes—in part—the atoning work of Jesus the Messiah as God’s righteous suffering servant. This work, of course, includes more than than his death. Indeed, involves God becoming human to suffer with us, reversing the effects of death and disease in the world, victory of the powers of evil, and resurrection.  Here, however, Peter focuses on  the representative function of the cross in that atoning work.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross [literally, tree], so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24, NRSV).

“Tree” is a significant term theologically. For those soaked in the language of the Hebrew Bible, it would be difficult to miss the allusion to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 where those who are executed for a crime are hung on a “tree” as a symbol of God’s curse (cf. Galatians 3:13). The conjunction of “bear,” “sins,” and “tree” evokes a moment where, in some sense, the death of Jesus embodies the curse of sin and, in effect, removes that curse from us. The death of Jesus liberates us.

Through his death, we are “free,” but not simply free from guilt but free to live. This freedom calls us into a life of righteousness—it is our vocation in the world, that is, to live out the mission of God in such a way that we bear witness to the saving work of God in Jesus the Messiah. Consequently, we “submit” to the empire, masters, unbelieving husbands, and each other. We submit for the sake of God’s mission.

Recalling Isaiah 53, Peter then switches the metaphor to emphasize new life. Jesus’s wounds heal us. We are not simply forgiven, but healed; we are freed so that we might be transformed and made whole. This is new life; it is new birth.

Jesus’s representative atoning work is God’s way to move sheep back into the fold of divine protection. There God becomes the “shepherd (pastor) and guardian (overseer, bishop) of [their] souls” (1 Peter 2:25). The sheep have wandered away, but through Jesus, the Father brings them back, unites them with Israel, and forms them into a community shepherded and protected by God. Later, Peter will use similar language to describe not only Jesus the Messiah but also leaders within the Christian community itself (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Birthed into a new community with new life, Christians follow the model of Jesus as they encounter suffering. They submit and they suffer. They pursue good, eschew evil, fear God, and do not return evil for evil. They do this because they have redeemed by the Lamb, ushered into a new community, and live free as people shaped by God rather than by the dominant culture.

1 Peter 2:18-20 – Living as Slaves in the Empire

July 12, 2015

Even “slaves” in the empire are “free.”

They are “free” because they are bound to no authority other than God (cf. 1 Peter 2:16). But they “submit” as “slaves” within the empire because they fear (worship) God. This is the mystery of exiles living for the sake of Gospel within an oppressive empire:

free from worldly authority,

            but enslaved to God, and

                        therefore, submissive within worldly structures

                                    for the sake of the gospel.

As noted in the previous post, however, “submission” is not absolute. It is limited by Christian profession (often we obey God rather than human authority), and it is circumstantial. Slaves, generally, could do little to change their situation. This submission is missional, that is, for the sake of God’s mission, given the circumstances in which people find themselves within human authority structures (empire, slaves, married to unconverted spouses).

Slavery comes in many different forms throughout history. Not all slavery was like what existed in the New World (17-19th centuries). Slaves in the Roman world might be born into it, or the result of imprisonment (including prisoners of war), or even voluntary (for economic reasons). And not all enslavement was the same in the Roman world. Household slaves (oiketai), whom Peter addresses in 1 Peter 2:18, were sometimes rather privileged persons, and they could be well-trained doctors or teachers. Slaves who worked in the mines, however, essentially received a death sentence.

Scott Bartchy (Abingdon Bible Dictionary, 6:66), as quoted by McKnight (NIV Application Commentary), identifies the following differences between Roman and New World slavery. Unlike New World slavery, the following was generally true of Roman slavery.

  • Racial factors played no role.
  • Education was often encouraged.
  • Many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions.
  • Slaves could own property, including other slaves.
  • Religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn.
  • No laws prohibited the public assembly of slaves.
  • Majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate being emancipated by the age of 30.

Nevertheless, slavery was often harsh in the Roman world, including beatings, sexual abuse, and restricted freedoms. Whether New World or Roman slavery, neither represented the freedom envisioned within the Christian worldview where people are “free” from human authority and enslaved to God.

Yet, Peter writes, submit to both kind and harsh masters, and they submit because the have no other legal or peaceful recourse in the situation. Violent revolt is not an option, and while some could pursue available peaceful legal options, those options were few. Consequently, unless one embraced violence, there was little option other than to “submit” until such time they could secure freedom.

So, the question becomes, “how do we submit?” I think Peter’s answer is something like “peaceful resistance” or “subvesive conformity,” perhaps even “kill ’em with kindness.”

One might regard Peter’s specific address to slaves as a subversive act itself. Slaves are addressed as responsible human beings who must decide how to act in their slavery and how they will relate to their owners and supervisors. When Peter calls slaves to submit, he addresses them as people with dignity and choice.

This is the substance of Peter’s counsel for slaves:

Situation: unjust, harsh, painful suffering, including beatings.

Response: they endure such treatment

Behavior: they are called to do good rather than do evil.

Motivation: they fear God and are conscious of God

Result: grace (charis) from God

Rationale: Calling to follow Jesus

Peter has no allusions.  Slavery is dangerous and often harsh, though not always (some masters were gentle and kind). In fact, the term “harsh” (skoliois) literally means bent or crooked; it has the connotation of cruel or inhuman. This treatment might include beatings (1 Peter 2:20), and Peter probably mentions this particular in the light of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, who is his model for the endurance of suffering.

Their submission means they willingly (given their circumstances) endure such treatment. The word “endure” means to stand up under the pressure. They persevere under pressure and hardship.

They are empowered to do this because they “fear” God and they are aware of God’s presence in their lives. While some think the word “fear” refers to their masters (in the sense of respect for masters), every other use of “fear” in 1 Peter is directed toward God, including the contrast between “fearing God” and “honoring the emperor” in 1 Peter 2:17. It would be rather strange to draw that contrast, and then call slaves to “fear” their masters. “Fear” is Peter’s word for a submissive, reverent, trusting orientation toward God. It contributes to the sense of what it means to have a consciousness or awareness of God. Slaves live out their faith through the awe-inspiring presence of God rather than out of a terrifying fear of their masters. Their “subversive submission” is motivated by their trust in God rather than the lash of their masters.

Slaves are called to subversive behavior, that is, to do good. They are neither to wrong their masters nor do them evil. Rather, they embody goodness and kindness. In this way, they do good to overcome evil. “Doing good,” as slaves, is a subversive lifestyle against the unjust human system in which they find themselves. As righteous sufferers, as mistreated innocents, they bear witness to justice and goodness by their godly lives. This is itself a path to liberation, even if they cannot find legal means to secure their freedom otherwise. It is a leaven that will, eventually, leaven the whole lump. Unfortunately, that leaven did not fully displace slavery until the mid-19th century in the Western world, and still has not yet in many places in the world.

Even if they cannot eventually secure their freedom, they have God’s grace in their lives. Twice Peter uses the term charis or grace (1 Peter 2:19-20). This grace is divine favor, which is both present and future. Slaves, suffering unjustly, will experience God’s grace through godliness in the present, but they will also experience a future grace in the resurrection when their salvation is fully revealed (1 Peter 1:3-12).

Living in the empire, a slave’s options were limited. Some had the option to buy their freedom over time, but others had no other option than to stay and serve or revolt. Peter, we might surmise, would not dissuade a slave from purchasing their freedom if they had the resources to do so. In time, many “household slaves” did that, but not all. He might encourage the use of all legal means available to pursue freedom. But, given their gospel commitments, some options were not on the table (including violence).

Rather, given the inability to legally or practically change their circumstances, Peter calls them to follow Jesus who also endured unjust suffering for the sake of the mission of God (1 Peter 2:21-25). He calls them to “peaceful resistance” or “subversive conformity” shaped by the model of Jesus the Messiah (1 Peter 2:21-25).




Mark Taylor Interviews John Mark Hicks

July 7, 2015

In this video, Mark Taylor, who is the editor of the Christian Standard, interviews John Mark Hicks about his impressions of the North American Christian Convention of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (particularly church planting) as well as new developments among Baptists regarding “Baptist Sacramentalism.”

1 Peter 2:13-17 — Living as Exiles in an Empire

July 5, 2015

How do “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?

Accept.  Honor.  Love.  Reverence.

Those are the imperatives in 1 Peter 2:13-17.

The first, “accept” (NRSV; usually translated “submit”), heads a long sentence that runs from verse thirteen to verse sixteen. The difficulty of accepting or submitting to a hostile empire generates a long sentence to contextualize or explain what Peter means. In other words, to tell a group of marginalized people to accept (or submit to) a generally hostile imperial power needs some explaining!


1 Peter 2:13-17 is the first section in a series of four that applies what it means to live as “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11-12) within the culture readers find themselves. The first three address specific concerns. The fourth is more general.

  • Residents, accept (submit to) imperial authority (2:13-17).
  • Slaves, accept (submit to) the authority their masters (2:18-25).
  • Wives, accept (submit to) the authority of your husband (3:1-6), and, husbands, accept (submit to) the relationship with your wife (3:7).
  • Everyone, accept (submit to) everyone in the community (3:8-12).

Peter utilizes a common genre in ancient ethical texts called the “Household Code,” which lists the respective duties of people in a Roman household (including extended family, slaves, workers).  However, Peter’s interest is not an exhaustive delineation of roles and duties. Rather, he addresses “sore” points within the Christian community. In particular, how do members of a “household” (whether state or home) live within that “household” when the head of the “household” does not share their faith commitments?

  • How do we live in a hostile empire?
  • How do slaves live with hostile masters?
  • How do wives live with unbelieving husbands?
  • How do we live together as a marginalized community?

In effect, Peter does not offer a timeless set of immutable instructions to be reproduced verbatim across the history of Christianity. Rather, he answers this question–what does it mean for Christians to live in this moment in this situation? In other words, given the Christian narrative with its commitments and values, how does one relate to hostile authority (empire, masters, and unbelieving husbands)?  Given different circumstances, the answers might be different even though the same or similar principles would be employed, and given analogous situations, the meaning might be quite similar.  So, it is important to pay close attention to Peter’s advice for the “exiles” in Roman Anatolia in order to hear what the message might be for us.


The leading verb for the main sentence in 1 Peter 2:13-16 is hupotasso, which is usually translated “submit.” Etymologically, the verb means to “place under,” and carries a wide range of meaning including to yield, accept, defer, assume responsibility under another, or submit.

“Submission,” then, has a wide semantic range from absolute obedience to an imposed authority to deferential yielding to another. The former is often an external authority while the latter is voluntary submission for the sake of some greater purpose or interest. Its meaning, then, is shaped by both its literary context and the historical situation.

Padgett (As Christ Submits to the Church, Kindle location 1328) suggests Peter is operating in a social context where he calls for “a one-sided application of the ethic of servant leadership” present in the Gospels and Paul.  The external demands and expectations of empire, masters, and unbelieving husbands entail a deferential, accepting, and submissive attitude so that their “good lives” might receive a hearing and ultimately bring glory to God. Otherwise, overt resistance to these authorities would engender violence and subvert the gospel’s mission.  Nevertheless, though the term “submit” counsels against overt revolt, it does not preclude–as we will see–subversive, peaceful presence.

The NRSV renders hupotasso as “accept,” and this probably works best. In other words, given the situation, live under the authority of the empire or live within the established order. A marginalized community cannot change the reality, nor can they materially affect the situation. So, it is best for them to accept what they cannot change and to “do good” with their lives for the sake of the gospel.

This involves submission and obedience, that is, living as obedient people under imperial rule. This obedience, of course, is not absolute as if the well-being of the empire overrules their commitment to Jesus the Messiah. Rather, they submit “for the Lord’s sake.” In other words, they submit because they are committed to God rather than to the empire; they submit for the sake of God’s mission rather than to support the empire. There are limits to their “submission.”

Submission to Imperial Authority

Peter commands submission, literally, to “every human creation,” which probably means something like every human institution rooted in governmental or imperial authority. This “human creation” (or institution) is identified as “emperor” (basilei, or eing) or his “governors” (hegemon). Governors represent the emperor since they act “through him” (emperor).

Governments are human creations; they are social-political constructs. More specifically, the emperor is not God (whatever the Emperor might claim), and neither are his institutions cloaked in divine authority. They are human, and the Christian’s allegiance does not lie with human institutions. Whether constructed by autocratic power (like a Caesar) or democratic power (social contract theory), they are human creations or institutions. Given social realities, Christians “accept” this situation and live peaceably within it.

Government intends to praise those who “do good” and punish those who “do evil.”  Of course, the problem is that the government is not exactly working like that in this situation (is it ever?) as Christians are imprisoned, harshly criticized, and treated as criminals. Whatever their intent–and it probably reflects what God intends for human governments, that is, to restrain evil and promote the good, Peter’s readers do not have such assurances from Roman authority. Nevertheless, Peter counsels his readers to “do good” within the Empire and advert, as much as possible, any governmental action that is designed to punish those who “do evil.” They are to live within the order imposed by imperial authority.

This submission, however, is not resignation or acquiescence. Rather, it is a positive witness within the culture, and this is manifested by “doing good,” which has the potential effect of silencing ignorant fools (those who pursue folly in their lives). This positive approach–an approach which engages culture to one degree or another–offers a public witness in the presence of those who are invested in a different way of life than the wisdom God offers.  “Foolish” here does not mean “idiot” or “stupid,” but reflects Hebrew wisdom literature where the fool  chooses a path that leads to death in contrast to the wise person who chooses a path that leads to life. This is a moral rather than an intellectual characterization.

What does Peter mean by “doing good”? Some think that Peter is talking about public, cultural acts of benefaction where wealthy leaders of a community do something for the welfare of the city. They might lay a pavement, erect a gate, or fund a building for the benefit of the city. However, this is far too restrictive as this positive witness is also applicable, in principle, to slaves and wives who were impotent to do that kind of good.  Rather, “doing good” (like acting honorably in 1 Peter 2:11-12) describes a way of life that is salt and light in the community.  “Doing good” is the opposite of “doing evil” (1 Peter 1:14-15).

So, why submit? To potentially silence the critics, but also to pubically witness to their freedom.  They submit because they are free, which is paradoxical.

Grammatically, the verb “submit” from verse 13 should be supplied in verse 16 (which lacks a main verb) so that it reads: “Submit (or, accept) as free people and not as those who use freedom as a covering for evil.”

Christians, though slaves of God, are free from governmental authority, but they submit to governmental authority as a witness to what is good and right rather than using that freedom to hide in the darkness of evil. But they cannot be coerced into evil by governments since their allegiance is to God rather than the state, and God has freed them from such obligations. Christians are “free” of imperial authority, but they submit to it for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Christians accept imperial authority because their public way of life is designed for good, not because they are enslaved to human authority. In other words, Peter’s claim is that imperial authority is something Christians freely accept for the sake of their public witness, that is, for the sake of the Lord’s mission in the world. Christians accept imperial authority in order to further God’s witness and goodness in the world. They do not seek chaos, and neither do they seek power (in the context of 1 Peter). Rather, they only desire to “do good.”

Accepting or submitting to the governmental authority in the present United States of America is much more empowering, of course, than submitting imperial authority. In principle, believers may use all legal and peaceful means to adjust the order, which is–in a democracy–part of the nature of the order itself.  However, when the order is adjusted in ways that disturb believers, Peter call’s them to submit (accept) rather than revolt or disturb the peace of the order.

Four More Imperatives

The first imperative is “submit” or “accept,” which Peter elaborates in 1 Peter 2:13-16.

The next four imperatives (1 Peter 2:17) summarize the basic orientation that shapes life in the empire.

  • Honor everyone.
  • Love the extended family (“brotherhood”).
  • Fear God.
  • Honor the emperor (“king”).

“Honor” is the same word in Greek, and it applies to everyone and the emperor. Green (Two Horizon Commentary) perceptively comments on this parallel: “It is hard to imagine a more devastating critique of the Roman way, for with pairing of these two directives Peter has flattened the status pyramid of the Roman world.” Honor belongs to everyone, whether emperor or not. This parallel is essentially subversive and points to this reality: the community of God honors the emperor no more honor than anyone else. Honor belongs to slaves as well as emperors.

Sandwiched between these two uses of “honor” are two directives that call the community to love each other and to worship (fear) God.

This is also an implicit subversion of the empire. Christians “honor” the emperor (as well as everyone), but they “fear” God. They do not worship the emperor; they worship (fear) God. As Horrell notes (1 Peter [NT Study Guides], see chapter five for a discussion of polite resistance), this language appears in the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (8-9, ca. 180 A.D.):  “We have none other whom we fear (timeamus), save only our Lord God, who is in heaven…Honor (honorern) to Caesar as Caesar, but fear (timorem) only to God.” In the language of 1 Peter, the martyrs fear (worship) God, but honor the emperor. Peter’s address, then, is life and death. Honoring the emperor, but worshiping (fearing) only God could get you killed in the empire.

Believers function as an extended family, an adelpotetai (brotherhood). Peter has already called for a loving community earlier in the letter (1 Peter 1:22), which shares a common new birth, and thus are family. While everyone is honored (even loved–Christians love their neighbors), the Christian community is a family which fears God and loves each other (a familial love).

How do we treat everyone, including the emperor?  We treat them with honor, or we love our neighbors. How do we treat our own community? We love them as family. How do we treat God? We fear God, that is, we approach God in reverent awe, entrusting ourselves to God’s way of life. In other words, we love God. This is the way of wisdom since to fear God is the first step on the path of life (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Job 28:28; Ecclesiastes 12:13).

Contemporary Application

I find it rather distressing (saddened rather than distraught) that Christians in the United States live in such fear of the future, specifically the loss of a “Christian nation.” This fear generates anger, suspicion, hateful rhetoric, and despair. It is misplaced “fear,” and reflects misplaced allegiance (or authentic fear, the worship of God).

1 Peter called its first readers to live in hope, gentleness, love, and reverent awe among the nations. Without doubt, the imperial Roman culture was saturated with non-Christian values, commitments, and practices. These shaped every aspect of that culture–education, entertainment, and civic religion. Their children, nor anyone else, could escape that cultural reality and influence, and they won’t escape in our present culture. Yet, Peter–though realistic about the harsh criticism and hostility of that culture–calls believers to a way of life that is saturated with goodness and hope.

I suspect that the loss of the “Christian nation” within the United States of America (which was never “Christian,” since the church is God’s holy nation as a people rebirthed into Israel) has shocked some, generated fear among many, and led to despair for most.

We now live in a post-Christian culture, and this is an opportunity for believers to live authentically in the present as a people who bear witness to the future that God wants to bring into the present; that is, to bring heaven to earth. We find ourselves in an analogous situation as the original audience of 1 Peter, which Peter characterized as a fiery trial that will refine the people of God for the sake of authentic witness.

In some ways, we ought to welcome this. Christianity is exploding in China, and declining in the US. Perhaps the clarity of the cultural shift may help us refocus our message on what God has done in Christ. Perhaps Christians in China can focus on cross and community because they are truly “aliens” without the temptation to embrace political agendas. Perhaps we might consider such a focus and leave the political agendas to others. This is not a plea for withdrawal or isolation from culture, but the sort of presence within culture that bears witness to cross and community–including peace and justice–rather than a search for power and control.

Fellow Christians–let us pursue peace with all people, live lives shaped by the cruciformed God (the God who went to the cross for the sake of others), and bear witness through our good works to the coming future that God yearns to share with the creation.

Let us love God and love our neighbors.


So, how do “aliens and exiles” live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?

We accept or submit to human governmental authority for the sake of God’s mission in the world. We submit by “doing good.”

We honor both slave and Emperor; we honor everyone. We treat everyone with respect and dignity, which belongs to their humanity.

We love the family into which God has birthed us through the resurrection of Jesus. We are siblings who love each other.

We fear God. We reverently trust God and follow the path of wisdom, which Jesus has paved for us.

So, how do “aliens and exiles” live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?

We might call it “peaceful resistance” or “subversive conformity.”  But it is not so peaceful or conformist that Christian identity is lost, and it is sufficiently “resistant” and “subversive” that it does not escape suffering.

Peaceful resisters are still imprisoned, and subversive conformity is still “alien” to the culture.


Mark 16:9-20 — The Missional Kingdom

July 1, 2015

Though the present text is not original to the Gospel of Mark, it is ancient and became part of Mark’s Gospel at an early point. In fact, Mark 16:9-20 appears to be a composite of stories from the other gospels (appearance to Mary, two disciples traveling, appearance to the Eleven, the ascension of Jesus) and the book of Acts (speaking in tongues, snake bites), and the emphasis on “signs” is unlike anything else in the Gospel of Mark. Mark 16:9-20 appears dependent upon other texts in the Bible while the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are dependent upon the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:1-16:8).

Nevertheless, whoever our ancient writer is, this proposed ending to the Gospel of Mark has some significant features that supply a conclusion to the story of Jesus, if not necessarily the Gospel of Mark per se.

The ending provides three resurrection appearances of the risen Lord while the first half of Mark 16 only describes the empty tomb and the “young man’s” announcement.

  1. Mary Magdalene saw the risen Messiah and reported it to the disciples.
  2. Two unidentified disciples saw the Lord “in a another form” when they were walking in the country.
  3. The Eleven see Jesus when he appears to them while they are reclining at a table.

Following the lead of the other Gospels, Mark 16:9-20 highlights that it was not the Eleven who first believed and announced the good news of the resurrection. Rather, it was a woman, Mary, who first proclaimed that news. The second witnesses are not part of the Eleven either. Out of the gate, the story of the resurrection is entrusted to others than the Eleven.

What connects these appearance stories, however, is that the disciples resist faith. The disciples, the Eleven in particular, are “hard-hearted” (16:14). They do neither believe Mary’s testimony nor the testimony of two on the road. The text explicitly notes, “they would not believe it” (16:11; also 16:13).

This ending, then, picks up on the theme within the Gospel of Mark of how “dull” or “dense” the disciples were in coming to believe. While they wept and mourned the loss of Jesus, they would not believe that Jesus was alive. This is true even though Jesus himself predicted his own resurrection.

The disciples represent the struggle to believe, even in the post-resurrection world. Often we are like them; it is often difficult to believe. The good news is too good to be true.

The ending also has another version of the “Great Commission.” Both Matthew and Luke have their versions, but Mark 16:15-18 is different. There are similarities, but the emphasis here is connects with the thematic note of Mark 1:14-15. Just as Jesus came out of the wilderness “heralding the gospel,” so the disciples are to embrace the same mission.

No longer limited to Palestine, Jesus commands the disciples to move out into the whole world and herald the gospel to every creature (or, to the whole creation). Disciples have a global mission—every part of God’s creation needs to hear the gospel. Just as Jesus heralded the gospel among the villages of Galilee, so the disciples must spread out into the whole world to do the same thing. The disciples continue the ministry of Jesus.

The good news is that the kingdom has come! The response to the gospel is to believe and be baptized. “Believe the good news,” was Jesus’s call in Mark 1:15, and this belief was no mere intellectual assent. Rather, faith entailed discipleship; it committed one to the way of the cross. Baptism owns that commitment to the cross. We follow Jesus into the water, and we follow him as heralds of the kingdom of God.

The final note of Mark 16:9-20 announces the enthronement of the King at the right hand of God. The risen Messiah ascends to the throne, sits at the right hand of God, and empowered the disciples for the mission with which he had entrusted them. The disciples were not left alone and powerless. Rather, the risen Christ, though enthroned above, “worked with them” and “confirmed” their message through signs. Christ may have ascended to the throne, but he is not absent.

Mark 6:17-20 emphasizes the “signs” that follow “those who believe.” These particular signs, other than healing the sick, appear nowhere else in the Gospel of Mark. They only appear, except for speaking in tongues, incidentally in the Book of Acts, and one is found in no other text though it is part of ancient lore (drinking poison). The language sounds apocryphal, but whatever may be the case, the function of the “signs” is to demonstrate the presence of God. The signs are not manipulative tools. Rather, they point to God’s active involvement in the mission. Jesus has entrusted the mission to the disciples, but he has not them left alone. God is powerfully at work within the new community of believers.

Contemporary believers struggle with faith, and they often doubt the signs of God’s presence among them. But the confidence that Jesus has risen, ascended to his throne, and continues to work with his community empowers our mission. We are heralds of the kingdom of God, and this is good news for the whole creation. We announce the message, and we baptize believers.

This baptized, believing community has a mission. We follow Jesus into the world for the sake of the world. We are disciples of Jesus. That is our identity, and it defines our mission.

[This completes my series on the Gospel of Mark.]

1 Peter 2:11-12 – Living as Aliens and Foreigners Among the Nations

June 27, 2015

This is a key moment in Peter’s letter, both rhetorically and theologically.

Rhetorically, it heads the major body of the letter (1 Peter 2:11-4:11) as the letter moves from identity to exhortation. Theologically, it describes how disciples of Jesus live faithfully in a hostile culture.

In terms of identity, though exiles and aliens within Roman culture, they are children of God who have been born into Israel. They are now part of the narrative of God’s ancient people; they are a holy nation of priests who constitute God’s new temple within God’s good creation. They are “beloved.”

How, then, do they live faithfully in a hostile culture? This is the substance of 1 Peter 2:11-12.

The Letter’s Structure

Beloved (agapetoi) is how Peter addresses his readers. They are a beloved community; they form a family loved by God, called to love each other (cf. 1 Peter 1:22; 2:17), and one that loves God (1 Peter 1:8).

Peter uses “beloved” twice (1 Peter 2:11; 4:12), and it marks off three distinct sections of the letter, which constitute the letter’s main body (1 Peter 1:13-4:12). The first section defines Christian identity, the second section exhorts believers to live a particular kind of life, and the third interprets their suffering and hope occasioned by that life.

  • Identity: Children of God (1 Peter 1:13-2:10)
  • Exhortation: Live Faithfully (1 Peter 2:11-4:11)
  • Interpretation: The Meaning of Their Suffering (4:12-5:11).

In the light of this structure, 1 Peter 2:11-12 begins the exhortation, which carries the main burden of the letter played out in the middle section of the letter’s body. Given who they are, this how they should live in the culture in which they find themselves.

Part of this identity is their social and theological location as “aliens and exiles” (NRSV). Peter has previously used both identifiers: “aliens” (paroikous) in 1 Peter 1:17 and “exiles” (parepidemous) in 1 Peter 1:1. In 1 Peter 2:11 he brings them together, which carries an emphatic force. It is as if he is saying, “you are aliens and exiles in this culture, now live as such.”

This is part of the Christian identity—disciples of Jesus are different. They live by a different vision for the world, which is the intent God has for the creation. They are different—thus aliens and exiles—from their surrounding culture, and they are not at home in the Roman cultural worldview with its beliefs, commitments, values, and practices.

It is important to note that this word combination (paroikous kai parepidemous) duplicates the description of Abraham in Genesis 23:4. There Abraham says, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you,” by which he means that he owns no land. It is not his homeland, just as Roman cultural values are not home for disciples of Jesus.

The language, as in 1 Peter 2:4-10, once again identifies disciples of Jesus with Israel. They are like their father Abraham who before them lived as an alien and exile in the land that his descendants would inherit. So, too, Christians live as aliens and exiles in the earth that they will inherit since Abraham is the “heir of the cosmos” and the father of all believers in Jesus (Romans 4:13).

The Exhortation

At the end of the letter, Peter describes his effort as an exhortation and witness to the grace of God (1 Peter 5:12). 1 Peter 2:11-4:11 is the heart of the exhortation, and the term “I exhort” (1 Peter 2:11), which begins this paragraph, heads the whole section.

The exhortation is both negative (abstain from desires of the flesh) and positive (conduct yourselves honorably). The negative is resistance–a courageous perseverance in the face of opposition.  The positive is doing good–even when the situations are discouraging and difficult.

The “desires,” previously referenced in 1 Peter 1:14, are associated with a previous way of life, the time of their “ignorance.” These desires are rooted in the “flesh” (sarkikon). This is not a comment about how the body produces evil desires or passions, but rather about the cultural form in which those desires are expressed within Roman society, the world in which his readers live. These desires are driven by the “flesh;” that is, the human center of selfish interests. The “flesh” empowers ungodly acts.

This is a war—a war between human self-centeredness and sanctified soul. It is a contest between two powers—the flesh and the Spirit, who sanctifies the human person. This is not a battle between the body and the inner person, but a battle between human depravity and the human person (body and spirit). The Holy Spirit wages a war for the soul against the flesh. The contest is between two powers—the flesh and the Spirit, and the soul (the whole human person in body and spirit) is contested prize.

The positive exhortation is about one’s way of life or lifestyle (anastrophen). This is an important word in Peter, which occurs five times (1 Peter 1:15, 18; 2:12; 3:1, 16). Called to holiness in their way of life, disciples of Jesus have been ransomed from their former way of life (1 Peter 1:15, 18). Further, a believing wife’s “way of life” has the potential to win her unbelieving husband without a word (1 Peter 3:1). And live gently and reverently so that no one will be able to malign a “good way of life in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16)

The “way of life” is visible. It is something others see and from which they draw conclusions. This kind of life, despite its the malicious critics, will bring honor to God. It is a life that makes a difference in the world.

It is a public life among the nations or Gentiles. Interestingly, Peter separates the world into two categories here: Jews and Gentiles. Christians are part of the Jewish nation; they participate in the “holy nation,” which is the people of God. However, they live among the other nations or Gentiles.

It is important to note that they do not live in isolation from the nations, but they live among them. Disciples of Jesus do not withdraw from culture, but they live within it.

Twice Peter refers to how this is “good” conduct; it is living well. In 1 Peter 2:12 the term kalos (good, beautiful) is used twice: (1) literally, “having a good way of life among the Gentiles”(or nations) and (2) “your good works.”

While some suggest that this refers to public benefaction, where Christians contribute to the welfare or the common good of the society in which they are living, it is better to see this in the larger picture the letter itself. This “good way of life” is the content of the exhortation that fills 1 Peter 2:13-3:16, through which we will walk in future posts. The “good way of life” is a life filled with goodness, mercy, love, and works for the sake of the other (benevolence, for example).

This way of life has a purpose, and it is the glory of God. The question is when will it bring glory to God? Peter says it will happen on the “day of visitation,” which is interpreted in primarily two ways. Some suggest this that day is like a conversion, that is, some will see the good life, God will visit them, and they will glorify God as a result of their conversion. Others suggest that the day is the final judgment (NRSV), the eschatological “day” when Jesus is fully revealed and all nations will honor God.

The visitation language in rooted in the Hebrew Bible, and there it can be a divine visit in grace and blessing (e.g., Exodus 3:16) or a divine visit in judgment (e.g., Jeremiah 6:15), but almost all instances are corporate in character rather than individualistic. In other words, this is not about personal conversion, but it is about God’s visit upon a community. Since Peter often refers to the eschatological judgment (cf. 1 Peter 1:5, 7, 13; 4:7, 13, 17; 5:1), it seems rather certain that this is his meaning here.

The end-result, then, of a “good way of life” is the glory of God. As difficult as this life is in the present—especially as the nations “malign” the people of God and call them “evildoers”—its fruit is that on the day when Christ is fully revealed, even the nations who once maligned the people of God will glorify God.

There is a link between the Christians “good deeds”—living gently and reverently among the nations—and God’s glorification. The nations will “see” and they will, in the end, glorify God.

Consequently, while we may be easily disheartened by the slander, malicious talk, and hostile opposition, if we live gently and reverently, God will be glorified. The difficult path is worth the result!

Contemporary Word

I have found Miroslav Volf’s “soft difference” understanding of the relationship between state (culture) and church helpful in this regard (particularly as he understands the theology of 1 Peter; cf. “Soft” means “gentle and kind” rather than “weak.”

Our “difference” with any particular aspect of the culture in which disciples of Jesus live (where disciples of Jesus seem out of sync with their surrounding culture) is a “soft” one, that is, we seek to live in a peaceful, loving, kind relationship even though we have different understandings of any specific cultural practice or belief.

“Soft difference” is not about how the culture acts toward the church. That is sometimes hostile and harsh in the case of 1 Peter and Revelation within the New Testament, or even hostile to Jesus himself in the Gospels. [And we must remember–and confess–that the church has often been harsh and violent toward people within culture!] Rather, “soft difference” is how disciples of Jesus respond to culture, that is, we recognize differences (and do not yield our convictions to culture) but we live softly in relation to the culture (kindness, gentleness, love). A wave of some kind of cultural marginalization (even persecution as some are predicting) may come (but maybe not)—whether it does or not, but our response is a soft one. We neither revolt (as in some violent revolutionary takeover), nor assimilate (yield our convictions), nor withdraw (hide out and isolate), but we engage softly (with gentle love).

Recent cultural directions within the United States of America may constitute a fearful “difference” for many as fear, anger, and distrust emerge as the primary emotions and perspectives. However, given our status as “exiles” or “resident aliens” who live out of an eschatological hope and vision based on a new birth, we do not operate out of fear, hatred, or manipulation. We neither hate nor oppress any social group. Rather, we bear witness with gentleness, kindness, and love. We model life, and we resist evil (that is, persevering courageously though opposed), but we do not revolt, assimilate, or withdraw. We engage, but we engage in love; we engage softly.

So, let us live softly out of a vibrant hope rather than live harshly or anxiously out of fear.

The goal is not a “Christian nation,” as the church—rather than the human political structures—is itself a “holy nation.” The goal is that on the “day of visitation,” God will be glorified by all nations. And the disciples of Jesus move toward that goal through their “good way of life,” living gently and reverently among the nations.


1 Peter 2:4-10 — Identified with Israel

June 21, 2015

This section is soaked in quotations, allusions, and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter depends heavily on Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, Isaiah 8:14, Isaiah 43:20-21, Exodus 19:5-6, Isaiah 42:12, and Hosea 2:23. Out of the 126 Greek words that lie behind the English text, almost half of them are directly from the Hebrew Bible (quoted from the Greek translation or LXX). No other text in 1 Peter is as saturated with the language of Israel’s heritage as this one.

The “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), if they were not fully confident previously, learn that they are part of a larger story. Their heritage is God’s ancient people, Israel. Their honor, identity, and glory are rooted in God’s continuous work in history to redeem a people, one that is God’s own possession. The “elect exiles” discover that they are part of Israel, God’s redemptive community in the world.

Jesus and His People

Becoming part of Israel’s story entails exilic living, which means rejection by others but inclusion by God. We become part of Israel’s story by “coming to him,” that is, Jesus, the living stone with which God builds a new temple. The temple of God is the people of God, the living stones that compose the substance of the temple.

Rejected by Others but Chosen by God

Peter uses the “stone” metaphor because of three significant texts in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first is Isaiah 28:16 where Yahweh lays a “stone in Zion”—an elect and honored (or precious) “cornerstone.” The second is Psalm 118:22 where the “stone” Yahweh selected as the “cornerstone” is rejected by the builders. The third is Isaiah 8:14 where Israel stumbles over the “stone,” which becomes the sanctuary. The stone is rejected by others, but chosen by God.

It should be no surprise that the “elect exiles” are rejected and dishonored by the surrounding culture since that is exactly the experience of Jesus himself, the cornerstone. As we come to Jesus, we experience what he experienced, including rejection.

However, this rejection is a limited, one-sided perspective. The real truth is that the cornerstone Yahweh has laid is elect and honored, and this same honor will come to those believe. Believers, though humiliated by others, are chosen by God, and they will never be put to shame. Unbelievers—the disobedient—have no such promise.

[1 Peter 2:8 is a controversial text in Calvinist-Arminian discussions. Whatever the specific point, I think McKnight (NIV Application Commentary, 109) is correct: “God’s act of appointing Jesus as the living Stone has become both honor for believers and judgment for unbelievers; this was God’s design.”]

Formed into a Living Temple.

The cornerstone of the new temple is Jesus himself, and the other living stones are believers in Jesus. This is the “spiritual house” God is building; it is still under construction (“being built”), even into the present.

We should not think of this “spiritual house” as a kind of invisible house or house consisting of spirits. Rather, it is a house animated by the Spirit; a house sanctified and indwelt by the Spirit of God whose glory resides within us. The Spirit of God, Peter later writes, “rests” on us (1 Peter 4:14). The Holy Spirit is the animating life of this temple as the Spirit sanctifies us as God’s holy dwelling place, the temple of God.

In this house we are holy priests who offer sacrifices. We are not only the stones that form the material of the temple; we also have a function within the temple. Below we will note the meaning of priesthood here, but it is important to notice as priests we offer sacrifices. We do something.

What are these “spiritual sacrifices”? As with the house itself, which is animated by the Spirit of God (pneumatikos), so the sacrifices are also animated by the Spirit of God (pneumatikas). The sacrifices are empowered—given life and brought into being—by the Spirit of God. We participate (we offer), but the power belongs to God whose Spirit produces fruit in our lives. Our “spiritual sacrifices” are our holy (sanctified) lives before God, and those sacrifices are the result of cooperative grace as God works through our participation in the holy priesthood to which God has appointed us.

This picture offers another view of the Triune work of God: we offer “spiritual” sacrifices to God the Father through Jesus the Messiah. Our lives, our worship, are offered to God by the power of the Spirit through Jesus. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

Shared Identity with Israel

The “elect exiles,” a largely Gentile community spread across what is now modern Turkey, are deeply embedded in the story of Israel. Indeed, they are both the fruit and continuation of that story, which includes Jewish believers in the Messiah. Identified with the Jewish Messiah, they share the identity of Israel itself. Through Jesus the Messiah, God’s election of Israel and promises to Israel in the Hebrew Scripture also belong to them.

Chosen Race.

This language (genos eklekton) echoes Isaiah 43:20, which reads “my chosen race” (to genos mou to eklekton). Significantly, the context of Isaiah is God’s intent to ransom Israel from Babylonian exile, and the wilderness—the trek between Babylon and Palestine—will flourish with animals and water. God will provide for “my chosen race” in the wilderness on their journey back to their homeland

Genos refers to a common lineage; that is, a descent from Abraham in Isaiah 43. But now this “genos” language includes Gentiles. Though they have not physically descended from Abraham, they are now included as members of the genos. Their heritage is the same as Israel’s; they now carry the same “genes,” though these “genes” are rooted in the work of the Spirit through the Messiah (who is the seed through whom all become children of Abraham by faith, according to Paul in Galatians 3 and Romans 4). Like Israel, these Gentiles are also God’s chosen race.

Royal Priesthood.

This expression, along with the following two, is derived from Exodus 19:5-6.

The Exodus text is programmatic for Israel. When God gathered Israel at Mount Sinai, Yahweh announces Israel’s relationship to God and their mission in the world. This text, practically above all others, identifies Israel in the theology of the Old Testament. So, to link these expressions with the scattered “elect exiles” is to identify them with Israel at Mount Sinai.

To identify Israel as a “royal priesthood” is to recognize their royal and priestly functions, and this echoes the creation narrative where humanity is given a royal function (shared dominion with God) within the creation in Genesis 1, and humanity is given a priestly function (to guard and keep) in God’s Eden sanctuary in Genesis 2. In other words, Israel functions as a new Adam (humanity) in the world. Just as original humanity was commissioned to multiply and fill the earth with God’s glory, so Israel is also commissioned with such.

This is seen in the nature of Israel’s priesthood. They are not priests for themselves. Rather, they are priests for the nations. Just as the Levites mediated between God and Israel, so Israel (as a priestly people) mediate between God and the nations. They serve the nations and represent God before the nations. In this sense, all believers are priests because all believers mediate between God and the world; they exist for the sake of the world.

Their royal function, as an echo of Genesis, reflects their mission to bring order out of chaos, that is, to subdue and care for the earth. In relation to the nations, they represent the reigning light of God in the midst of darkness.

Holy Nation.

The “elect exiles,” though outsiders to the imperial interests of the Roman empire and its civil religion, are themselves a “holy nation,” appropriating the language that describes Israel in Exodus 19:6. As a “holy nation,” they are set apart by the sanctifying work of the Spirit and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, just as Israel was set apart by blood sacrifices. As a “holy nation,” they are a genos (race) that serves God as a community (or nation), just as Israel was a political as well as a communal reality in the Ancient Near East.

Consecrated to God and sanctified by the Spirit, they are a holy ethnicity—a people with a common bond in the Spirit, as God’s “spiritual house.” They are not a political entity, but they are a physical community that lives within the Roman Empire as a consecrated (holy) race (genos) or nation (ethnos). They are an alternative community, distinct from the Empire itself; but they are constituted by a new birth through the resurrection of Jesus.

God’s People.

Here I have combined 1 Peter 2:9 (“God’s own people” or “treasured possession”) with 1 Peter 2:10 (“now you are God’s people”). Literally, the former is God’s “special possession,” which quotes Exodus 19:5 (and also Isaiah 43:21). In other words, these are a people who belong to God and are highly prized or valued by God.

The latter (1 Peter 2:10) quotes Hosea 2:23. While Hosea speaks of the restoration of Israel and thus their inclusion in the people of God once again, Peter applies this language to the movement of Gentiles from darkness to light; that is, they were once excluded from the people of God, but they are now God’s people. In Hosea’s text, Israel is promised inclusion after the exile, and in Peter’s text the “elect exiles” are assured that they are even now included.

To belong to God as a treasured people and to be included in the “people of God” are deep affirmations of God’s gracious and redemptive disposition toward these “elect exiles.” They are counted among God’s people; that is, they are identified with Israel herself.

Shared Mission with Israel

God came to dwell with Israel who was chosen from among all the nations as God’s special possession. But this choice was never about Israel’s righteousness or its exclusive claim on God. Rather, Israel is chosen as a servant among the nations, as a priest for the nations. Israel is a light to the nations, and through Israel all nations were to be blessed. Israel was to lead the nations into relationship with Yahweh rather than ostracize and marginalize them.

The “elect exiles,” sharing the identity of Israel, now also share their mission. As a chosen race, they are servants to the nations. As a holy priesthood, they minister in the temple for the sake of the others. As a holy nation, they invite the nations to participate in their own, that is, to switch allegiances. As God’s people, they are the instruments by which others are included in the people of God, just as they were once outsiders who have now become part of God’s people. In other words, the “elect exiles” scattered across the world are missional communities that bear witness to God’s intent to redeem the world and include the nations within Israel through Jesus, the elect and honored cornerstone.

More specifically, 1 Peter 2:9 identifies this mission as “proclaiming the praises of the one who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This language, to announce or declare God’s “praises” or excellencies, comes from Isaiah 42:12. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (LXX) translates “praises” as aretas, which refers to moral excellence or virtues, and this is the word Peter uses. In other words, the mission is to announce the goodness (moral virtue) of God, which—in the Hebrew parallelism of Isaiah 42:12—is to give God the glory. It is, to put it another way, is to declare the mighty works of God that flow from God’s gracious and loving commitment to redemption.

The mission of the people of God, now inclusive of all ethnicities and nations, is to announce, proclaim, and tell of God’s wondrous redemptive activity in the world for the sake of the world. In other words, we tell the story of redemption. We tell the story of how God intends to move us from darkness to light, from outside of God’s covenant people to within God’s covenant people, from outside God’s mercy to within God’s mercy. To declare the moral excellence of God is to tell the story of redemption, and specifically to praise God for God’s inclusion of those who once not part of the people of God.

Conclusion: Israel and the Church

Through Jesus, who is the remnant of true Israel, God builds a living temple that includes Gentiles (those who were once not part of the people of God). This divine intent to include the nations, present in the Hebrew Scriptures, is actualized through Jesus the Messiah.

This community is called God’s people, race, nation, and priesthood, which is language that belonged exclusively to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Now Gentiles are included. This is not a new community, but a continuing community; it is an expanded community.

The “elect exiles” whom Peter addresses are the people of God. They are the temple of God. They are the Israel of God. They are God’s elect.

This is not some form of secessionism as if the church replaces Israel. Rather, it is the consummation of Israel. The mission, purpose, and goal of Israel is expressed  in the actual inclusion of other nations (Gentiles) into the people of God through Jesus the cornerstone of the living temple of God.

The First Advent (Exodus 40:34-38)

June 19, 2015

Mount Sinai must have been an impressive, even startling, sight. Enveloped in darkness with flashes of lightning, Israel heard the thunder and even, on one occasion, the voice of God. They felt the rumblings of God’s presence in tremors that rippled through the earth’s crust. This was Yahweh’s holy mountain. Yahweh descended upon it, and the glory of the Lord appeared as a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17).

We might imagine that this would have been the end of Israel’s journey. They had arrived at the holy mountain, the place where God lives. But it would, in fact, become the beginning of Israel’s real journey, the journey through the wilderness to the promised land carrying the presence of God among them.

Israel’s journey seemed stalled at the mountain, however. Israel arrived at the mountain only to pause. They waited. They waited forty days while Moses was on the mountain. And the wait was unbearable. They turned their wait into celebration when they fashioned their own gods out of the spoils of Egypt. They returned to Egypt in their hearts.

Moses interrupted their celebration and God’s consuming fire purged Israel of their last Egyptian fantasies. There was no going back to Egypt. Now was the time to choose. Will Israel continue its journey with Yahweh or will they whither in the wilderness? Israel chose Yahweh.

The story still seems stalled. Israel came from Egypt to Sinai, but for what? To meet Yahweh, to be sure. But now that they had met their God, what is next? When will they leave for the promised land, or will they? How long will they wait?

Their waiting, however, is no passive resignation. They wait but they also prepare. God gave Israel a task. They had a mission as they camped in the shadow of Sinai. They must build a tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Its portability was a hopeful sign. For seven chapters in Exodus (25-31) they are given detailed instructions as to its structure and content. Then for six chapters (35-40) they implemented those plans. They constructed God’s tabernacle. They waited and they worked. They waited and they prepared for they could not even imagine.

This was Israel’s Advent season. They were waiting for something and perhaps they were not even sure what it was. They prepared a sanctuary, a worship center. They prepared themselves as they listened to Moses and obeyed his every instruction. They consecrated themselves to the service of Yahweh. They did everything they were commanded (Exodus 39:42-43). They set up the tabernacle and finished the work (Exodus 40:33).

Then it happened. The Lord drew near. The glory of God, the redemptive and personal presence of the Lord, filled the tabernacle. A cloud hovered over the tent while the consuming fire of God’s presence filled the sanctuary. God now dwelt within Israel’s camp. In a sense God moved from the mountain to the tent. God moved from a permanent fixture to a portable one. The holy presence of the Sinaitic burning bush was now within a portable tent. God, too, was going on a journey, a journey with Israel.

Their wait was over. Advent had arrived. A new journey was beginning, but God, the consuming fire present in the cloud, would lead them and guide them. God would bring them to the promised land, and God’s presence was their assurance and their strength.

Years later, as Israel still prayed for the return of the glory-cloud to the temple, John the Baptizer came heralding the nearness of the kingdom of God. John prepared Israel for the first Advent of the Messiah and promised that someday God’s people would not only be baptized in water but also in the Spirit. The Messiah, too, promised that one day the Spirit would descend upon the people of God to empower their holiness and mission. The risen Messiah renewed John’s promise of baptism in the Spirit even as he ascended to the right hand of God. The disciples then waited in the upper room in prayer and praise for the realization of the kingdom of God in the pouring out of the Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, the day of first fruits, God poured out the Spirit upon all flesh. The church became a Spirit-drenched community in which everyone, male and female, slave and free, young and old, participated in the new life of the Spirit. The first Advent was complete with the advent of the Spirit who was now present within the church to commune, empower, and lead the community of Jesus.

We now live in that moment. God has descended into the temple that is now our own bodies. We, both individually and corporately, are the temple of the Holy Spirit. God dwells among us to empower, strengthen, and guide. God leads us through our own journey in the wilderness as we patiently wait for the second Advent of the Messiah.

We wait for the fullness of the kingdom of God to come. We wait for the moment when the New Jerusalem will descend out of the heavens on to a new earth. We wait for the glory of God to fill the earth, just as it once filled the tabernacle. We wait for heaven to come to earth; we wait for the earth to become heaven, the dwelling place of God with humanity within the new creation.

Like Israel at Mt. Sinai, in one sense Advent has arrived. God has come to dwell in the flesh among us and having ascended to the right hand of God has poured out the Spirit upon us. In other sense we still live in a season of Advent. We wait for the fullness of the reign of God upon the earth. We wait, but we do not wait alone. Like Israel in the wilderness, we carry the presence of God with us in our journey.

We wait, but we do not wait with resignation. We prepare for the coming reign of God. We are neither passive nor discouraged. We wait but we also announce and embody the presence of the kingdom of God even now. We wait and prepare for the final coming of God.


Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?

June 18, 2015

Yes and No.  Check it out at here.

1 Peter 1:22-2:3 — Identity Empowered by the Gospel

June 17, 2015

A marginalized, refugee community within a hostile culture is potentially filled with stress, suspicion, and selfishness. Communities sometimes turn on each other rather than caring for each other. Peter recognizes this possibility and addresses the need for this new community, living a new life, to grow in love for each other.

As children of God (1 Peter 1:14, 17), they belong to a new family, which calls for “brotherly love” (philadelphian, 1 Peter 1:22), a familial love. They are not children of God in some kind of isolation from others, but as children of God they belong to a new community whose new way of life renders them “aliens and strangers” in the land. In other words, they need to stick together, have each others back, and love each other.

1 Peter 1:22-2:3 is bounded by two imperatives with a quotation from Isaiah 40 at the center. The two imperatives are:

  • love one another deeply from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).
  • crave pure, spiritual milk (1 Peter 2:2).

Between these imperatives lies an important quotation from Isaiah 40 that gives theological shape and meaning to Peter’s exhortation.


The two imperatives are rooted in a past moment, which Joel Green identifies as “conversion.” Since “X” is true, then you ought to “Y.”

  • having purified your souls by obedience to the truth…love one another (1 Peter 1:22-23)
  • having put off all malice, all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander…crave pure, spiritual milk (1 Pete 2:1-2).

This past moment—“purified” (perfect tense) and “put off” (aorist tense), both past tenses in Greek—refers to their conversion. Some have seen baptismal allusions here—“putting” clothes before their immersion and “purified” (sanctified, set apart, or made holy) through the waters of baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-22). Perhaps “obedience” alludes to this, but it is difficult to specify in this limited context.

The past includes a marker moment, a beginning of their new life that reaches into the present (the significance of the perfect tense). The old way of life is left behind and a new adventure has begun. It was a “setting apart” (a distinct, even alien, way of life), a “putting off” (disrobing, taking off all the past ways of living), and also a “new birth” (born again).

Peter describes this conversion—the turning from one way of life for another, or the exchange of narratives—as a new birth (literally, in the perfect [past] tense, “having been born again” in 1 Peter 1:23). Since Peter introduced this language in his doxology at the beginning of the letter (1 Peter 1:3), it is a significant descriptor. It introduces familial language as well as conversion motifs. New birth entails a new beginning, a new family, a new narrative, and a new reality, a spiritual reality.

How did this happen? The text describes two means or instruments for this event. One stresses human participation and the other divine activity.

  • Having your souls purified “by (en) obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:21).
  • Having been born again “through (dia) the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:22).

Obedience may refer to a specific moment such as baptism, or it may refer to the exchange of narratives, that is, they changed the course of their lives to follow “the truth.” Either way, conversion involves human participation, which is characterized as “obedience.” What “truth” might envision here will entertain our attention in a moment.

New birth through the word of God focuses on divine power and activity. It is the “living and enduring” word, which is language that takes us beyond words on a page and points us to the One who lives and endures. It draws our attention to God’s own eternal nature, and this God births us. 1 Peter 1:3 makes this clear: God is blessed because we are birth by divine mercy through the resurrection of Jesus, that is, by God’s active power that inaugurates new creation and new life in the resurrection. God is our Father because God has begotten us through the living word–not simply words on a page, but a living word.

The new birth means they are nourished by “pure, spiritual milk.” Peter characterizes his readers as “newborns,” but this is not a contrast between “immature” and “mature” (as Hebrews 5:11-14 does). Here the point is that as newborns—people who have experienced new birth—they must crave “pure, spiritual milk.” They are nourished by the reality into which their new birth has brought them.

It is “spiritual” (logikon) milk. Logikon is a difficult word to translate. Translations vary from “rational” to “figurative” to “spiritual.” Consequently, it is uncertain exactly how to understand the term though the broad sentiment is clear: newborns in this community are nourished by God rather than by their own desires and former ways of life.

While some identify the “milk” with Scripture, the written word of God, it is better to regard “spiritual” as a reference to the new reality into which they have been born (see Jobes commentary). They are nourished by new creation, by a new life, which does not originate in their past but draws on their future (“salvation” or the living hope of resurrection). Their new life is a radically new one that is fueled by the future world rather than the present one; that life is nourished by “spiritual” milk.

Isaiah 40 and the Word of God

Sandwiched between the imperatives in 1 Peter 1:22 and 1 Peter 2:2 is the quotation from Isaiah 40:7-8.

The quotation, however, is no mere proof-text about the “word of God.” On the contrary, Peter quotes the text as a way of recalling the whole backdrop, meaning, and significance of Isaiah 40 (see the extended discussion by Jobes). For Peter it has a new significance in the new setting in which these “elect exiles” find themselves.

Isaiah 40 is addressed to “elect exiles” as well. It addresses Israel in Babylonian exile, and seeks to comfort them with a promise that God will bring about a new exodus through the wilderness. Indeed, the word of the Lord is the heralding of “good tidings” (euangelizomenos, preaching the gospel in Isaiah 40:9). The good news is that God has not forgotten the exiles, is working redemption or liberation for the exiles, and is present among them to give them strength to endure. In fact, God is a shepherd who will lead the flock (Isaiah 40:11), just as Jesus is the chief shepherd who will appear to grant glory to his flock (1 Peter 5:4). The connections between Isaiah 40 and 1 Peter are too numerous to enumerate in this brief post. Peter’s readers find themselves in a similar situation as Israel in Isaiah 40, and just as the “word of the Lord” assured Israel so it now also assures his readers.

What is this “word of the Lord”? 1 Peter 1:22-2:3 has two identifiers—“the truth” and “the good news” (euangelisthen, gospel). Both terms, in context, are Christological in character, that is, they point us to the work of God in Jesus the Messiah. The truth or good news is the revelation of Jesus “at the end of the ages” (1 Peter 1:20), which ushers in new life or new creation through the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection and glorification of Jesus, after his sufferings and death, are the good news, and obedience to this truth is the means by which we are reborn through the implanted seed, which is the enacted word of God—the event of Jesus the Messiah who has worked salvation for us by the Spirit.

While many suggest that the “word of the Lord” is Scripture itself, it is actually that to which Scripture points, that is, the promise of a future through the work of Christ. That is the good news, which is the word of the Lord. Scripture records that good news, bears witness to it, and interprets it, but the good news is not Scripture itself. The good news is Jesus the Messiah, and he is the message of God to a broken world.

A New Community

This new family, empowered by the word of Lord, is called to act as a family.

  • To love each other deeply from the heart, and
  • To get rid of all negative attitudes that might disrupt the community.

The positive statement—love each other (1 Peter 1:22)—is paralleled with the negative one—get rid of malice, etc. (1 Peter 2:1). Love means that we no longer act in malice, treat each other with deceit, live as hypocrites, nurture envy in our hearts, or speak slanderously about each other.

The pressures of a marginalized community might affect it negatively or positively. They may turn toward each other for love and support, or they may find opportunity for malice and deceit. Will the pressure turn them against each other or will it turn them for each other?

Conversion is supposed to transform us so that we are for each other. If our souls have been purified, then it should lead to a “genuine mutual love” for each other, that is, philadelphian. If we have rid ourselves of all disruptive behaviors, then together—as a community—we can “grow into (eis) salvation,” which is communal, progressive sanctification.

Salvation here is a goal, something toward which we move and something into which we grow. Extending the agricultural metaphor, just as the imperishable seed has been planted in us for new birth, so we will also grow (plants grow) into salvation. Peter has used “salvation” in this first chapter in an eschatological sense, that is, the future full revelation of Jesus. Salvation is something that lies ahead even though we already experience it in particular ways. Salvation is something we “grow” into—we are newborns who grow up into maturity, into the fullness of the reality that God will bring about in the eschaton.

This is true, however, only “if” we have “tasted that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). “Tasted,” as a past tense verb (aorist), once again references conversion, which is described as tasting the goodness (chrestos) of the Lord. More than likely, the play on words—chrestos (goodness, gracious) and christos (Christ)—is intentional. Through our conversion, we taste the grace and goodness of what God has done for us in Christ.

Actually, this is a quotation from Psalm 34, which has already factored into the background of 1 Peter 1:13-21 and is quoted in 1 Peter 3:10-12. The Psalm expresses the confidence that God is gracious to the brokenhearted, protects those who live in reverent fear, and ransoms the servants of the Lord from trouble. It is a reassuring Psalm for exiled people, and Peter intends that his readers hear this Psalm in their own context.

Living their new life within their new family with a new Father, “elect exiles” can live in the confidence that Psalm 34 exudes. Just as they have tasted that the Lord is gracious, so they can feed on the spiritual milk, the God whose protection is promised in Psalm 34.

Luke 7:1-10 — Amazing Faith!

June 15, 2015

This is an amazing story. Even Jesus is amazed.

It is amazing because it involves a Roman centurion, who symbolizes occupying power. Luke’s readers, thirty to forty years later than the story itself, are probably amazed that the story’s central character is a Roman soldier. Rome, at that time, still occupied Israel, and Rome was emerging as a major antagonist of the new Christian movement.

Much about this person is intimidating within first century Palestine.

  • Gentile—outsider to the Jewish community.
  • Roman—represents imperial power.
  • Career Soldier, a legionnaire—part of an oppressive occupying force.
  • Ranked Soldier, a Centurion—the commander of a hundred soldiers whose primary role is to enforce imperial power
  • Governmental Liaison—one who mediated problems and enforced imperial interests within the local village; he was probably he leading imperial authority in Capernaum.

There is no indication that he is a God-fearer, as Luke usually notes this in his stories. The lack of any such a designation probably indicates that he is not an active participant in the Jewish faith, certainly not a proselyte.

The previous chapter in Luke contains Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus said, “Love your enemies” because God is gracious and merciful (Luke 6:35-36). Now, in Capernaum where Jesus has encountered opposition, Jesus hears the request of a Roman Centurion, Israel’s enemy.

Yet, Luke offers a positive picture of this particular centurion. Note some of the positives we might enumerate:

  • Generous—he funded the building of a Jewish synagogue
  • Humble—he does not think himself worthy to address or invite Jesus into his home or even address him directly
  • Open—he displays no bigotry or bias toward Jews
  • Loving—he valued the life of his slave (doulos), whom he affectionately calls his “child” (pais)
  • Intercessor—he pleads (even begs) for the life of his slave
  • Culturally Sensitive—he did not intend for Jesus to enter his home

Perhaps this should remind us not to let stereotypes determine how we think about people. Roman? Bad, right? Centurions? Violent oppressors, right? Gentile? Unbelievers, right? Not necessarily, and apparently not in this case.

But the quality that Jesus identifies is faith. It is the punch line of the whole story, and it amazes Jesus!

It contrasts specifically with the Jewish elders of the local synagogue, but also with Capernaum itself, and with the nation of Israel as a whole.

In this case, the Jewish leaders think relationship is a matter of patronage and worth—the centurion is worthy because of his generosity toward and care for Jewish people in Capernaum. They do not request on the ground of kinship, shared faith, or shared religion. They ask because he is a benefactor, and they want to continue the good political-cultural relationship they have with this powerful centurion.

Patronage was built into the Greco-Roman system. Wealthy authority figures built or funded, for example, temples, altars, buildings, and roads as a way of securing loyalty, good relations, and a good reputation. This is how “authority” operated in Greco-Roman culture, and Jesus himself alludes to this (cf. Luke 22:25).

So, the Jewish elders, working within that system, want to keep a good relationship with this centurion. He has scratched their backs, and now they need to scratch his. This is a quid pro quo relationship, “I’ll do for you because you have done for me.” Consequently, the centurion is “worthy” of Jesus’s kind attention.

This is not, however, what the centurion himself thinks, as reported by his “friends” (not the Jewish elders). He does not feel worthy; he is not worthy in his own estimation (contra the Jewish elders). Healing—the inbreaking of redemptive wholeness—is not a matter adjudicated by patronage or by being a benefactor. The centurion recognizes that Jesus’s authority is not subject to such manipulations. Instead, he submits to Jesus’ authority, which though analogous to his own is quite unlike his own.

Jesus’s amazement at the centurion’s faith highlights the contrast between the Jewish elders (as well as the Jewish nation) and this Gentile centurion. The Jewish leaders approach Jesus in the context of the cultural values of honor and shame, but the centurion approaches Jesus in faith.

Worthiness is not required for healing; only a submissive trust, faith. Faith, in this context, is a trust in the authority or word of Jesus. He speaks, and it happens.

Centurions understand authority. Vegetius, a fourth century Roman military author, described centurions as leaders “more ready to do things ordered of him than speak” (Epitome of Military Science, quoted from Cotter, The Christ of Miracle Stories, p. 114). The whole military Roman camp is ordered by an authority structure. Josephus, for example, writes, “nothing is done without a word of command” from the “respective centurions” to “rank and file” (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 3.98, quoted from Cotter, The Christ of Miracle Stories, 106).

Faith is expressed in the centurion’s willingness to hear a word from Jesus, trust it, and act on it. He did not have to verify it or test it. He believed it, and he believed it because he knew that Jesus had authority, that a word from Jesus counted. A word from Jesus is a performative word; it enacts the reality it imagines.

This echoes the creation story. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The word is performed; it is enacted. When God speaks, something happens. When Jesus speaks, something happens.

The authority structure in the Roman army was one of control. The centurion controlled his soldiers, just as his own commanders controlled him. He could tell them what to do, and they did it. They obeyed without question and without hesitation.

But he was not always in control, and neither are we. He could not save his beloved slave, his “child.” And neither can we.

We all want to think we are in control; we want to have control. We fear because we know we are not in control. We could lose a job. We are powerless over addictions. We can do nothing in the face of cancer. Powerlessness stops us in our tracks, and instead of feeling in control, we feel fear.

But here is the point. The centurion did not rely on his own authority or control. Instead, he trusted Jesus. He believed. He trusted that the authority of Jesus was for the sake of the other, that Jesus would use his authority to heal, redeem, forgive, and love.

Jesus’s power is the authority to reverse the curse, to redeem what is broken, to heal the wounded. We do not submit to tyranny but to God’s redemptive authority. We trust God’s redemptive purposes in Jesus, and we trust that God has given authority to Jesus to heal a broken world and reconcile God and humanity.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed by the faith of a Roman centurion whether we might, too, be surprised at times. Perhaps it should not surprise us that we are sometimes surprised. Nevertheless, faith shows up in some unlikely places. God often—even regularly—shows up in unexpected ways and places, and when God shows up, God often surprises us!

  • Faith shows up at funeral homes.
  • Faith shows up in pediatric critical care units.
  • Faith shows up in families with job losses.
  • Faith shows up in abject poverty.
  • Faith shows up in people with chronic pain.

Faith shows up in places where we don’t expect faith. God surprises us, and such faith amazes us.

May we never lose our sense of wonder and amazement!


1 Peter 1:13-21 — Identity: Children of God

June 11, 2015

This salvation, for which we bless God, in which we rejoice, and which fills prophets and angels with wonder (1 Peter 1:3-12), is the foundation and ground for everything else Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:13-2:10. “Therefore” (1 Peter 1:13) introduces the first section of the letter’s main body and roots it in God’s saving work. This salvation gives believers a startling identity; an identity that places a demanding call on their lives.

Five imperatives in 1 Peter 1:13-2:10 stress the ethical nature of this high calling. Elect exiles may be exiles (resident aliens in their culture) but they are nevertheless elect (chosen, given an identity, and called for a purpose). The five imperatives are:

  • Set your hope on the grace that is to be revealed (1:13).
  • Be holy in all your aspects of life (1:15).
  • Live in reverent fear during the time of your exile (1:17).
  • Love one another deeply from the heart (1:22).
  • Crave pure, spiritual milk (2:2).

These imperatives characterize the kind of life into which God has called “elect exiles.” Hope. Holiness. Reverent fear. Love. Passionate Desire. These virtues not only flow from their election but they also testify to their identity as God’s children.

The elect are God’s children, and they invoke God as “Father” (1 Peter 1:14, 17). This is their fundamental identity. Though aliens in their culture, they are beloved children of God. As children of God, they are called into a particular way of life. Since God has rebirthed them—they were born into the family of God, they are called to mirror God’s life in their own lives. “Therefore,” because of “this salvation,” Peter directs them toward a particular way of living in their exile.

1 Peter 1:13-2:10 easily divides into three sections:

  • Identity as God’s children (1 Peter 1:13-21).
  • Identity Empowered by the Word of God (1 Peter 1:22-2:3).
  • Identified with Israel (1 Peter 2:4-10).

The first section calls them into a new life, the second urges growth in that new life, and the last identifies this new life with God’s ancient people, Israel.

Following Joel Green (New Horizons Commentary), one may read 1 Peter 1:13-21 through the lens of how Peter locates these “elect exiles” within God’s history. Green identifies six moments in time, though I have renamed and adapted them into five moments:

  • Christ is foreknown before creation (1:20).
  • Unbelievers lived in an ignorant, empty life l (1:14, 18).
  • Christ appears at the “end of the ages” (1:20).
  • Believers presently live as exiles (1:17-19).
  • Christ is revealed in the last times (1:13).

This time sequence locates the readers within the story of God, between God’s eternal intent (God’s foreknowledge of Christ) and the second coming of Jesus. The redemptive-historical frame moves between creation and new creation with the appearance of Jesus the Messiah within history occupying the middle. With the appearance of Christ, humanity experiences redemption but the redeemed live an exilic life in a hostile culture. Christ is foreknown, manifested in the midst of history, and will be fully revealed in the last times. This places Christ at the beginning, middle, and end of history, and our story rests within his. God has acted in Christ to liberate humanity from its empty way of life and now calls redeemed humanity to live a life that mirrors God’s own.

Three imperatives, in three separate Greek sentences, direct the lives of these “elect exiles.” 1 Peter 1:13-21 is only three sentences in Greek.

Set your Hope on the Grace to be Revealed (1 Peter 1:13)

The first sentence directs believers to fix their hope on the future grace (probably referring to the salvation already described) that Jesus will reveal when he comes again. That future grace is the Christian’s hope.

Surrounded by a hostile and suspicious culture, Peter advises hope—to fully (teleios, completely) hope in God’s grace. While they live as marginalized exiles, they hope in God’s favor, which is assured to them by their own experience of grace in Jesus the Messiah. They are an elect, rebirthed, and sanctified people, and therefore they hope in future grace (salvation).

This complete fixation on hope, however, involves discipline. It is all too easy to lose hope or to become discouraged by their surroundings. Two participles modify the verb “set your hope,” and these describe the circumstances in which hope might have its fullest effect within the community. It is a disciplined community—their minds are prepared (they have girded up their loins, that is, they are ready to run), and they are sober-minded or self-controlled.

They have a purpose, and they are committed to the values of this new community. Ready, disciplined, and hopeful, they are prepared to fully lean into a new way of life.

Be Holy as Obedient Children (1 Peter 1:14-16)

The second sentence directs believers to live holy lives as children of God.

Peter draws a contrast between a past way of life (“desires of your former ignorance”) and their new way of life (“to be holy in all your conduct”). In the past they lived an empty or futile life in ignorance (cf. 1 Peter 1:18), but now they live with a clear identity as children of God. The “empty” or “ignorant” nature of their previous life reflects a purposelessness or a meaninglessness. Life, ultimately, had no value or significance because they had no firm or lasting identity, and they had no hope. They did not know God (thus, “ignorance”).

As children of God—with a firm identity—their lives have meaning, but it also has a calling, a vocation. As children of God, they must become like God. Instead of conforming to past desires, which resulted in an emptiness, they are called to embody the holiness of God in their new way of life.

This vocation—to be holy as God is holy—is Israel’s vocation, and Peter quotes Leviticus 19:2. These “elect exiles,” mostly Gentiles, have the same vocation as Israel. Indeed, we might say that this is fundamentally a human vocation since all human beings—made in the image of God—are called to become like God. This is part of Israel’s creation theology, and it was Israel’s own identity. Now, we see, it is the identity of these Gentile “elect exiles” as well.

Live in reverent fear as people who call God “Father” (1 Peter 1:17-21).

The third sentence directs believers to “live in reverent fear during the time of [their] exile.”

“Fear” is an important motivator in 1 Peter (my friend Van Robarts wrote his thesis on this at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis). It also appears in 1 Peter 2:17; 3:2, 14, 16. We miss the point if we think of “terror” or “being afraid.” Rather, this language arises out of Israel’s wisdom literature and its liturgy. In particular, as Jobes points out, this language probably reflects the context of Psalm 34, where Israelites as exiles (paroikias in 1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:6) are ransomed (lutroo in 1 Peter 1:18 and Psalm 34:22) as people who hope in (elpizo,1 Peter 1:13 and Psalm 34:22) and fear (1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:7, 9, 12) God. Further, Peter later quotes Psalm 34 extensively in 1 Peter 3.

“Fear,” in 1 Peter, is thoroughly saturated with a Hebrew theology and meaning. The word reflects a basic trust, awe, and wonder. It is a word that encompasses worship, fundamental (“gut-level”) orientation, and reverence. “Living in fear” in 1 Peter is not about living a terrified existence waiting for the next shoe to drop. Rather, it is a fundamental description of how human beings relate to a transcendent God in trust, hope, and worship. As Hebrew wisdom says many times, the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” or authentic knowledge (Proverbs 9:10; cf. 1:7). A holy, reverent, and obedient life begins with a basic awe, wonder, and trust in the God.

Just as God called us into a holy life, so we call upon God as “Father,” and those who call God “Father” must orient their life around the “fear of the Lord,” just as the wise ages of Israel advised.

Peter, once again, situates his readers (“elect exiles”) in the story of Israel—they are to live out the values of Israel’s wisdom. But more than that, they are also a liberated (ransomed) people, just as Israel was. They, too, have experienced an exodus—a liberation from bondage, from slavery.

“Ransom” is the language of slave manumission where slaves could buy their own freedom. In this case, however, God buys the freedom of these exiles, a freedom from a past way of futile living. The price is the blood of Jesus, rather than silver or gold. The language of “blood” and “lamb” as well as “ransom” evokes images of the Passover liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage. In other words, the “elect exiles” are a liberated people—free from futility and ignorance and free to live holy lives as God’s children.

This liberation is no momentary decision on God’s part. Rather, God has “foreknown” this moment when Jesus would liberate people from their futile ways. This was God’s intent from the beginning, even before the creation of the world. Even as God foreknew that humanity would sin, so God also knew that Christ would redeem them. God has taken the initiative, from the beginning, to ransom humanity from their own self-inflicted wounds and bondage. God revealed this intent in the work of Jesus the Messiah.

Faith and hope, when set on God, are the means by which the work of Christ becomes ours. Just as God raised him from the dead (liberating him from the bondage of death) and gave him glory (exalting him to the right hand as King and Lord), so God, through faith, will raise us from the dead and exalt us when we reign with Christ in the new heaven and new earth. Even now, however, we experience this grace of God as we live in reverent fear and reign with Christ as a priestly, royal nation (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10).


Discouraged? Oppressed? Feel like an alien?  Peter’s advice is:

Hope in the grace God will reveal.

Become holy as God is holy, as children of God.

Live in reverent fear, as a people liberated through faith.

1897 Graduation Program for the Nashville Bible School

June 10, 2015

The Nashville Bible School, founded on October 9, 1891 with nine students, steadily grew throughout the first years of its existence. At the end of October 1891, it would have nineteen students, and twenty-six by Feburary and conclude the year with thirty-two students In succeeding years it would have forty-two, fifty-three, eighty-eight, and then one hundred and ten.

The Nashville papers were impressed. “The Nashville Bible School, which has grown up so quietly in this city during the last five years, is becoming one of the mighty powers of this section” (The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2). The “verdict of a critical audience” at the 1895 graduation exercises “was that the institution has not only attained results which give to it eminent character in the community, but that the great good worked by it recommends it to the support and well wishes of the city and State” (The Nashville American, May 31, 1895, p. 8).

In addition–and more important to Lipscomb and Harding–was the fact that over that five years its graduates and students had baptized more than 3,400 people and planted over twenty-eight congregations (as reported by James A. Harding at the 1896 graduation exercises; The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2).

Given both the public assessment of the Nashville Bible School and the productive work of its students, the institution was regarded as a great success. It had fulfilled its two major purposes: (1) to provide a cultured education that equips young people as useful and successful citizens, and (2) to nurture them in the Christian faith that they might serve as Bible teachers, evangelists, elders, and deacons in their communities. (See Harding, Gospel Advocate, 21 October, 1891, p. 661 and Gospel Advocate, 7 June 1894, p. 362).

It was an education, however, that was designed for the poor and working classes (though not excluding the wealthy) since they had no other opportunity in the city. “We differ from many other schools,” Harding wrote, “in that we freely admit all who are not able to pay free of charge. Our Master preached the gospel to the poor; we are trying to imitate him” (Gospel Advocate, 3 June 1897, p. 338).

In 1897, the school graduated four (they had graduated five in the previous year). The Nashville American provided the details of the exercise (4 June 1897, p. 8).

Opening Song: “Somewhere”

Prayer: Elder J. W. Grant.

Reading: Miss Clara M. Benedict read her essay, “Unselfishness.”

Oration: “Lessons from the Past,” by A. B. Lipscomb.

Song: “Oh, Be Joyful in the Lord,” sung by Misses Clara Sullivan, Tennie McAlister and Woodson Harding, and Messrs. W. H. Sewell, J. M. Murphy, J. B. Bostick and T. H. Hales.

Address: “What is the Destiny of Man?,” David Lipscomb. “He said self-denial was the only way to be happy. The mission of all preachers should be to go among the sick and lowly.”

Diplomas, awarded by Superintendent J. A. Harding to Miss Clara Benedic, of Nashville; Miss Cynthia Gill, of Allensville, KY; J. B. Bostick, of Fresno, CA, and A. B. Lipscomb, of Nashville.

Song: “Gliding Away”

Benediction: Elder C. A. Moore.



1 Peter 1:10-12 — Prophets and Angels, and the Rest of the Story

June 4, 2015

Elect exiles, scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, are the heirs of Israel’s story, which means they participate in the trajectory of not only Israel’s history but also its hopes. Significantly, the “salvation” in which believers rejoice is what Israel, through its prophets, anticipated.

The living hope and future inheritance—“this salvation”—in which believers rejoice amidst their suffering is the subject of prophetic imagination in the Hebrew Scriptures. The present experience of believers in Christ is a privileged status because they are the heirs of Israel’s traditions and the recipients of the grace about which Israel’s prophets spoke. Peter assumes a radical continuity between Israel and present believers—they participate in the same story. But the story has moved into a new moment because history has now realized, at least in part, the prophetic word.

Christians are exiles, but they are graced and blessed exiles because of “this salvation.” They are privileged to experience that for which Israel in the past could only hope. Though marginalized by their culture and oppressed by Roman authority, they are the advance guard of new creation within the world as they anticipate their future inheritance—an inheritance promised to Abraham long ago.

What did Israel’s prophets “witness beforehand” (promarturomenon)? To what did they testify before it happened, even without fully understanding the reality to which they bore witness?

Peter describes this as “the grace that would come to you” (tes eis humas charitos) as well as the “the messianic sufferings and the glories that would follow” (ta esi Christon pathemata kai tas meta tauta doxas). Essentially, the two phrases are describing the same reality (e.g., notice their similar grammatical structure as if in parallel).

Grace is an important word in 1 Peter (occurring in 1:13; 2:19; 3:7; 4:10, 13; 5:5, 10). Most importantly, the word describes the content of Peter’s letter in 1 Peter 5:12. Peter characterizes his letter as a “witness” or testimony to the “grace of God” in which the elect exiles stand. Peter’s topic, in a word, is grace!

Peter, however, is not the first to declare this grace. Israel’s prophets also spoke of this grace. This affirms the continuity between Israel and the church—they have the same message, the grace of God.

In what does this grace consist? It, no doubt, is inclusive of “this salvation” (1 Peter 1:10), which is expressed in the doxology of 1 Peter 1:3-5. But Peter is more specific about that “grace” or “salvation.” Israel’s prophets also testified concerning the “messianic sufferings and the glories” to come, and that is the grace of God.

The plural nouns, “sufferings” and “glories,” are rather curious. One might expect—as is common in Christian parlance—“suffering and glory.” And precisely for that reason, the plurals are intentional and thus intend to say more than simply the “death and resurrection” of Jesus the Messiah.

The sufferings of the Messiah (cf. 1 Peter 4:13; 5:1) encompass the whole of his life and not simply his death. They are the sufferings of a servant who serves the mission of God in the world, which is the kind of suffering that elect exiles endure as well. Peter reminds us that Isaiah 53 provided just such a picture (cf. 1 Peter 2: 21-25).

The “glories” include the resurrection of Jesus, but much more. We can add the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, which is the inauguration of the kingdom of God within a new creation. Further, “glories” includes the fullness of the kingdom that is part of the Messianic mission, and this points to the inheritance yet to come (1 Peter 1:3-5). The glory of the Messiah is a renewed and remade world that fully mirrors the will of God in heaven. Hebrew prophets saw this future however imperfectly they understood it (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-5).

How were the prophets able to speak of this future before it happened? They saw it through the “Spirit of Christ” in the past, which parallels the “Holy Spirit” in the present. Their vision was empowered by divine movements in their life, or what we might call divine inspiration.

What is the “Spirit of Christ”? Is it the Messiah himself in some kind of pre-incarnate state? It seems to me the parallel with the “Holy Spirit” unites these two rather than differentiating them. There is more continuity than discontinuity here. The Spirit, known to Christians as the “Holy Spirit,” announces the message to Christians, and this is the same Spirit who stirred up the prophetic imagination. In her commentary, Karen Jobes summarizes it well: “The Spirit who had inspired the prophets was the same Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism, identifying him as the Messiah who would experience the foretold sufferings and glories that would follow. Peter thereby shows a continuity of the presence of the Spirit with the prophets and with the Christians.” In other words, the “elect exiles” share the same “Spirit” with Israel’s prophets.

Did the prophets fully grasp this? They did not understand the timing or the specific circumstances (or person) that would usher in the “grace.” The prophets sometimes asked, “how long” before their hopes would be realized (Jeremiah 12:6-13; Habakkuk 2:1-4). The prophets waited for the realization of their message, and—as Hebrews 11:39 says—they waited and often “did not receive what was promised.” They spoke, but they did not know the full ramifications or the ultimate fulfillment of their own words. They prophesied hope, but they did not fully comprehend how that hope would be realized and what form it would take.

The grace that Israel prophesied by the “Spirit of Christ” is the gospel now preached through the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit who revealed the future sufferings and glories of the Messiah to the prophets is the same Spirit that announces “this salvation” to believers in Christ as both fulfilled but not yet fully realized. And just as the prophets searched and investigated the meaning and future fulfillment of their prophecies, even now the angels sit on the edge of their seat in wonder as they hope to know more about what is happening.

The point is the privileged status of the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.” We occupy the back end of God’s story. Believers see and understand more than the prophets, and they experience more than the angels themselves. Though the surrounding culture marginalizes and oppresses them, they are graced with honor and glory in God’s story. The grace in which believers stand, the salvation they experience, and the messianic reality of suffering and glory are things into which the angels “desire to look.”

Charles Wesley’s hymn “Hosanna in the Highest” (cited by Allen Black from Selwyn) expresses the wonder of 1 Peter 1:10-12:

Angels in fix’d amazement

Around our altars hover

With eager gaze

Adore the grace

Of our Eternal Lover

The doxology that began in 1:3, “Blessed be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” ends with the wonder of the angelic hosts. The Triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit–have fulfilled the hopes of Israel’s prophets. This is praiseworthy, and the angels join in the praise even as they are–as are we–filled with wonder and amazement.

Look at what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Blessed be God the Father who has rebirthed through the suffering and glory of Jesus the Messiah and revealed it by the Holy Spirit.

1 Peter 1:6-9 — Joy in the Midst of Suffering

May 31, 2015

“Joy” and “suffering” are not two words that often belong in the same sentence, much less a blog title. Yet, this is exactly the case as Peter digresses from doxology (begun in 1 Peter 1:3) to commentary on his reader’s present circumstances (1 Peter 1:6-9).

1 Peter 1:3-12 is a single sentence in the Greek text. Peter begins with doxology (1:3-5), digresses into proclamation (1:6-9), and ends with wonder (3:10-12). Peter blesses God because the Father has rebirthed us, continues to preserve us, and will in the last time rescue us (1:3-5). This “salvation,” which is already present though not yet fully revealed, provides the ground for joy in the midst of suffering.

Joy arises out of the salvation rather than from the suffering. We do not rejoice because we are suffering, but our suffering is soaked with joy because of God’s saving work. This does not mean that we forsake grieving or tears. On the contrary, we weep, lament, and cry out to God because we suffer. What it does mean, however, even as our suffering is for a little while and for limited purposes, God is at work among us for our salvation. This is our living hope, and it will carry us through our darkest times.

This salvation, which is the subject of Peter’s doxology, is the reason why believers rejoice even as they “suffer various trials.” Peter lays out the reality of salvation first, and then situates suffering in the context of that salvation. As Peter illustrates, suffering is best framed by God’s narrative, by the story of God’s saving work among us. Despite the suffering, but because of our salvation, we rejoice in the midst of suffering, trust in Jesus, and love Jesus even though we have not see him.

In this brief digression, Peter offers some perspectives on suffering, which we might summarize in a few points.

Suffering is varied and brief.

What kind of suffering is Peter describing? It certainly involves the sort of suffering later described in the book, including what slaves suffer from their masters, how Christians are treated by Roman culture, and potential imprisonment on the part of political authority. In other words, Peter is primarily focused on suffering as persecution in one form or another.

But should we limit what Peter says about suffering to only persecution? I don’t think so.

It is important to remember 1 Peter is soaked with the theology, imagery, and language of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter addresses the “elect exiles of the Disapora” (1:1)—they are the people of God scattered across what is now modern Turkey. They are God’s “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

When 1 Peter describes the suffering of the exiles as “trials” or “testing,” this evokes diverse images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel endured various trials throughout its history—from persecution to wilderness wanderings. When Peter evokes the image of “trial,” he is drawing on the theology of Israel’s Scriptures. For example, Deuteronomy 8:1-4 characterizes the wilderness wandering by the children of the rebellious generation as a “testing” (trial), which becomes a type of Jesus own “testing” in the wilderness in Matthew 4 (Luke 3).

“Various trials,” I think, has a broad meaning, just as “salvation” is broadly considered as well (past, present, and future). The term “varied” itself gives the impression of different kinds of suffering or suffering that comes in many different forms, just as grace comes in many forms (“manifold grace” in 1 Peter 4:10—using the same term). Peter’s language is not restricted to persecutions but to all forms of suffering.

This suffering, however, is brief. It is for “ a little while.” Peter contrasts our unfading inheritance with the brevity of our suffering (similar to Paul in Romans 8:18ff). Suffering is limited; it will not last forever.

Suffering is necessary and meaningful.

Peter is quite explicit about this. Believers “have had (deon) to suffer various trials so that (hina) the genuineness of [their] faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Deon, a form of dei, entails necessary. We might translate this as, “it was necessary to suffer…” Of course, this is not an absolute statement about suffering but a relative one. It is necessary relative to the meaning or purpose of suffering. In other words, the significance of suffering is not arbitrary or chaotic; it is purposeful and significant.

The hina expresses purpose, and the specified purpose is testing, which bears fruit as believers are praised, glorified, and honored when Christ is revealed in the eschaton (or “last time”).

Suffering tests faith; suffering is a trial. It refines faith just as gold is refined by fire, and it demonstrates its authenticity or proves its worth. Suffering functions like a smelter where what is pure, good, and authentic emerges on the other side. As God preserves us through the fire, our faith emerges stronger and more deeply rooted in God’s own work in our lives.

“Testing” is a theme that reverberates throughout Israel’s story. God “tested” Abraham (Genesis 22:1), Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-5), and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:31). The Psalmists invite this testing (Psalms 26:2; 139:23), assume it (Psalms 7:9; 11:4-5), and recognize it in their own history (Psalm 66:10). Israel’s wisdom literature employs it (Proverbs 17:3). The prophet Jeremiah pictures God as one who tests hearts (Jeremiah 11:20; 12:3; 17:10; 20:12; cf. Zechariah 13:9). We might see “testing” as a core motif in God’s relationship with Israel and with humanity (as the example of Job illustrates as well; cf. Job 23:10).

The exiled elect of the Christian Disapora are also tested, and this is consistent with the story of Jesus and the early church (James 1:2-3, 12). Jesus himself is tested. Hebrews, quoting Psalm 95, situates Christians in the wilderness testing (Hebrews 3:8). God tests hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4). Indeed, the whole world is tested in the crucible of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan (Revelation 3:10).

Given the pervasive nature of this testing motif, the identification of followers of Jesus with Israel’s story, and the function of testing in God’s narrative, suffering has meaning. It is a refining fire and authenticator, and this is the reason—at least in 1 Peter—that suffering is necessary. Faith must be tested.

The result of a genuine faith is eschatological “praise, glory and honor.” Coming through the fire, we will emerge as refined gold, and God’s response to this is to praise us (e.g., “well done”—the applause of heaven, as one of Lucado’s books is entitled), glorify us (with a “crown of glory” in 1 Peter 5:4), and honor us. “Well done” are the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. In other words, through suffering, we are renewed and restored to the original vision of God for humanity whom God crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8). God will exalt those who have been humbled in their suffering.

This eschatological glory is, in fact, the “salvation of [our] souls” (1 Peter 3:9). Unfortunately, “souls” is sometimes misunderstood to refer only to the inner person, but this is too limited. Our living hope is both a resurrection and a landed inheritance (the meek shall inherit the earth, Matthew 5:5). “Soul” includes both the inner and outer person, both the spirit and body (in resurrection), just as eight “souls” were saved in Noah’s ark. “Soul” refers to the whole person, and it is the whole person who will be saved.

But this salvation is not simply future. While its full revelation awaits the “last time” (1 Peter 1:5), it is already received now by faith. The verb “receiving” in 1 Peter 1:9 is present tense; it is something located in the here and now. Our salvation is something we already experience through new birth and divine perseverance even though it is not yet fully realized, that comes when God grants our inheritance in the “last time.”

We endure suffering through love, faith, and joy.

Clearly Peter does not believe the Christian life is a bed of roses. It is filled with “various trials.” Suffering is part of the path that Christians tread.

Suffering correlates with the reality that we do not now “see” Jesus. Jesus is, in one sense, absent as he sits at the right hand of God. He is located in heaven with our inheritance. Suffering, then, entails a kind of blindness, even darkness. We do not see, but yet we endure. Suffering can often darken our horizons, and it creates a fog that blinds us. Yet, nevertheless we endure by the power of God.

Peter describes this endurance with three verbs (as translated by NRSV):

  • You love him
  • You believe in him
  • You rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy

Love, faith, and joy.

These are possible, in part, because even now we are receiving the telos (goal, end, or outcome) of our life with God. Through love, faith, and joy we experience the future in the present.

So, suffering does not destroy us. On the contrary, it strengthens and refines us. We love God—not for profit or reward but because God has loved us. We trust in God’s work within and among us because of Jesus—even in the midst of suffering. And, further, we do not despair, but we rejoice in our living hope.

Suffering—as difficult as it is to see in those dark times—refines us so that through love and faith we might rejoice in God’s work in and for us.

Enter the Water, Come to the Table

May 30, 2015

Below are summary statements that correspond to chapters or sections of chapters in my most recent book Enter the Water, Come to the Table (Leafwood, 2014). They summarize the theology present in the book, which is deeply rooted (I hope) in the story of God as given to us in Scripture.

I am grateful for Highland View Church of Christ (Oak Ridge, TN) and my friend Curtis McClane for requesting these summary statements for their own use this summer.

Sacrament:  God acts through appointed material (created) means to impart grace, assurance, and hope, and God uses these means to enjoy relationship with people and foster relationship among them.

Israel:  Liberated from slavery and baptized into a new community, Israel begins its journey to the land of promise.

Israel:  The sacrificed animal, along with bread and wine, becomes a joyous fellowship meal between God and Israel as well as with each other.

Jesus:  Jesus entered the water to unite with others in their journey toward the kingdom of God and to begin his own ministry in the kingdom of God.

Jesus:  Jesus shared table with others for the sake of witness, reconciliation, and justice; Jesus models table etiquette in the kingdom of God.

Acts:  As with the baptism of Jesus, Spirit-baptism and water-baptism are a united witness to the reconciling work of God that intends to transform the world.

Acts:  When disciples break bread together they eat in the presence of the resurrected Christ, which generates joy and comfort.

Paul:  Through baptism God raises the dead and calls us into a new life characterized by a righteousness empowered through the indwelling Spirit.

Paul:  Through eating and drinking together we participate in the reality effected by the body and blood of Christ wherein we commune with both God and each other.

Eschaton:  Through our union with the resurrection of Jesus in baptism we begin our participation in the new creation as new creatures in Christ.

Eschaton:  Through eating and drinking we experience the new creation in the present as a community nourished by the resurrection life of Jesus, who is the foundation and beginning of new creation.

Practice:  Through baptism we enter into God’s own story, which absorbs our story, and we become partners with God in God’s mission.

Practice:  The table of the Lord is a communal moment where God shares life with us and we share life with each other.

Five Lectures on the Book of Job: Midwest Preachers’ Retreat (2014)

May 28, 2015

In September 2014, I was honored to present some material on the book of Job to a group of dedicated and devout servants in the church at the Midwest Preachers’ Retreat in Wisconsin.  Here are the audio links to those presentations.

1.  The Text of Job as Dramatic Lament: The Dialogical Structure of the Book

2.  A Tension Within Job: The Righteous Sufferer and Divine Responsibility

3.  Jobian Faithful Lament: Learning to Voice Our Impatience to God

4.  Yahweh Speaks: Wisdom Encounters Job

5.  The Unsatisfying End to the Book of Job: Job’s Response and God’s Gifts

If you would like a copy of the handout for the retreat, click here: Faithful Lament — Midwest Retreat Outlines

For those interested in more detailed discussions of Job, see my twenty-two blog posts which walk through the book of Job.  They are under the menu “Serial.”



Our Pledge of Allegiance…to the Kingdom of God

May 24, 2015

The Sermon on the Mount is the epitome of Kingdom ethics and discipleship.

The Sermon opens with the Beatitudes, which begin and end with a promise that the blessed belong to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3, 10). The Sermon ends with a promise that those who “do the will of the Father” will “enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). At heart of the theology of the Sermon is the call to “seek first the kingdom and its righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Near the center of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers a model prayer for kingdom people. Christian tradition has typically called it “the Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” The prayer, however, is not simply pedagogical; it has a theological function. At its core, the prayer articulates a theology and ethic of the kingdom of God that should shape our lives.

While the Sermon begins with beatitudes and ends with a parable, at its center is a liturgical prayer. From the earliest times of which we are aware, this prayer has served Christians. The Didache, which was probably written in the late first century, suggests Christians pray this prayer three times every day (8:2-3), and in the early centuries the prayer became part of the weekly liturgy of the church.

As a daily prayer, it functions not only as a petition for God’s care, it also as a daily affirmation, a daily pledge of allegiance.

The prayer is a comprehensive, “big picture” view of relationship with God.  In the prayer–at the direction of Jesus–we address the Creator as one who is both immanent in relationship with us (“Father”) and transcendent beyond us (“in heaven”). The prayer proceeds to connect us to both dimensions.

In the first half of the prayer, we commit ourselves to the transcendent God.  We pledge allegiance to the divine name, will, and kingdom. We have no other allegiance. This is the heart of worship itself–a covenant loyalty that transcends everything else in our lives and orders the whole of lives under the sovereignty of God.  Anything else is idolatry. We call upon God to act so as to sanctify God’s name, accomplish God’s will, and bring the divine kingdom to the earth.

At the same time that we petition the Creator to reorder life on earth in conformity to divine purposes, we also commit ourselves to become the instruments of that work. We pray for the sanctification of the name, the accomplishment of the will, and the inbreaking of the kingdom but our prayer is no mere passive waiting for the divine act.  Rather, we pursue those goals as proactive agents of the name, will and kingdom of God. God works through us, and we testify to our willingness to be divine instruments. Empowered by God, we commit to cooperate with the redemptive grace of God at work to bring heaven to earth.

The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer affirm the petitioner’s commitment to God’s agenda. Prayer commits to the name of God, the kingdom of God, and the will of God. To pray this prayer is to subordinate our agendas and desires to God’s kingdom. We acknowledge that God’s will rather than our own is primary. We pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom rather than to the kingdoms of this world. We seek the will of God.

The prayer, however, is not simply about our allegiance to God, but it is also a testimony of God’s commitment (yes, even allegiance) to us. God is immanent, present to us, in our daily existence. The last three petitions assume God’s benevolence for us and claims God’s promises of daily material sustenance, reconciliation (forgiveness), and power against the evil one.  God is for us and he will not abandon us.

We seek God’s involvement in our daily–one day at a time–life in the world. God feeds us, forgives us, and protects us. We need the divine gift of life (physical, emotional, spiritual), and we need the divine power that overcomes the evil one. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer I sense the renewal of God’s promises in my life–God will sustain me in all my needs whether it is about bread, sin, or spiritual warfare.

However, in the very reception of these gifts is the obligation to share them. When we pray for bread, we commit to share the bread God gives.  When we pray for forgiveness, we commit to forgive others.  When we pray for protection, we commit to protect others.

This is most clearly present in the fifth petition. We seek God’s forgiveness just as we have forgiven others. It is a dangerous prayer to pray. Do we really want God to forgive us as we have forgiven others? Yet, to pray it is to be transformed by it.

Immaculee Ilibaguza, who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide, powerfully illustrates the transformative nature of this prayer. While over one million of her tribe (Tutsi) were slaughtered over three months, she hid in a bathroom with seven other women for ninety-one days. She prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, though she struggled with forgiveness. But through praying the prayer she learned to forgive those who killed her family and wanted to kill her. [See her books Led by Faith and Left to Tell].

The Lord’s Prayer, prayed daily with purpose and commitment, will transform us. Through this prayer, we acknowledge God’s transcendence, commit ourselves to God’s agenda, and embrace a new way of living in the world that conforms to God’s will, honor God’s name, and manifest God’s kingdom.

Through this prayer, we trust in God’s daily provisions for our lives, receive God’s forgiveness as we forgive others, and embrace God’s protection against the evil one.

The Lord’s Prayer is our pledge of allegiance.  I pledge allegiance to no other kingdom (including the United States of America).  And the Lord’s Prayer assumes God’s faithful commitment to me–God is for me and not against me.

Morning, noon and evening, I renew my pledge and embrace again God’s pledge to me.

When Friends Try to Help….On the Death of My Son

May 21, 2015

May 21 is an anniversary date for me. Joshua died on that day in 2001. SCAN1561

Many friends helped. Mark and Margo Black were there, Rubel and Myra Shelly were there, Mike Cope was there a few days before as well as John York, and we were surrounded by many others (including my Woodmont Hills Bible class). Gary Dodd painted a portrait of Joshua lying on his death bed; it still hangs in my home office. I am looking at it even as I type. My colleagues at Lipscomb University helped and many friends from Memphis (including Gary Ealy and Allen Black). There are too many to mention.

Many friends helped. They helped by their presence and actions. I don’t remember many words, but I do remember that they were there and what they did.

Words that express love and sympathy are welcome, but their presence spoke more than their words.  I am grateful for their friendship.

But friends don’t always help, and this is especially true when it comes to their words. Some words can sting and stir the pain rather than relieve it. Fortunately, that was rarely the case in my situation, though it is often the case for others.

For me, the memory of my friends on May 21 and the days following is comforting. They helped. They were present. But for others that memory is not as pleasant.

What do we do with unpleasant memories? What do we do with the anger we might feel towards those who mistreated–whether intentionally or unintentionally [which is usually the case]–us?

Those who know me also know that the Book of Job has significantly shaped my journey through grief ever since Sheila died in 1980. And that book speaks to the above question in a powerful way.

Job’s friends came to comfort him (Job 2:11), and they sat in silence with him for seven days. But they broke their silence when Job lamented that he had ever been born (Job 3). The dialogue between Job and his friends runs from Job 4 to Job 27.

  • The friends advise Job to repent (Job 4-14).
  • The friends insist that Job shut up (Job 15-21).
  • The friends give up any hope for Job’s faith (Job 22-27).

With friends like these, who needs enemies!

The depth of their “help” and “comfort”–Job calls them “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2)–reaches unimaginable proportions. For example, Bildad opines that Job’s children died because they had sinned (Job 8:4).  They accuse of Job of self-righteousness, arrogance, and hidden sin (see Job 22).

What do you do with friends like these?  What did Job do?

Job forgave them. Job prayed for them (Job 42:7-9).

Suffering creates a crisis for not only the sufferer but for his or her friends. Everyone struggles with the reality, and no one really wants to face it.

We seek explanations or rationales. We shield ourselves from as much pain as possible. We defend God or accuse God. Our emotions range from shock to anger to indifference. This is true for friends as well as the sufferer. In fact, good friends suffer with the sufferer. And like the sufferer, the friends don’t know how to handle or process the grief and loss.

Sufferers sometimes resent the way the friends responded–they were not present or they said the wrong thing. And this resentment adds to the pain.

Job prayed for his friends.  Job forgave them, even after the harsh things they said to him.

Resentment increases suffering–it is a poison pill we take in the hope that the other person will die. It actually kills.  Forgiveness is the balm that heals resentment.

Job forgave his friends, and we sufferers can forgive those who increased our pain rather than relieving it.

Forgiveness is a comfort God works in our hearts and enables us to move forward in life.

On this day, the anniversary of my son’s death, I remember the comfort my friends provided by their presence and actions.

Thank you, friends.

1 Peter 1:3-5 – Born Again, Preserved, and Rescued

May 18, 2015

Elect exiles.

Scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, these Christians are called “exiles” due to their social dislocation within a culture hostile to their new way of life. Though “exiles,” they are nevertheless elect. But for what or to what are they elected? What does this election mean?

In part, it means they have been born again, they are being preserved, and they will be rescued.

1 Peter 3:3-12, in Greek, is a single sentence that begins as a doxology, continues as proclamation, and ends in wonder. It winds its way through the whole narrative of salvation—past, present, and future—in order to locate its readers in God’s story. As the opening to the letter, perhaps as an exordium in Hellenistic rhetoric, it provides a theological frame for the rest of the letter by identifying the redemptive situation of believers. There are no imperatives or commands—only blessing, proclamation, and wonder. This single sentence introduces the whole letter.

Despite their present trials and sufferings, they are the recipients of the goal of God’s redemptive work throughout history. They have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus, continuously preserved by the power of God, and will be finally rescued from suffering in the last times (the Eschaton). They have been infused with hope. Though exiles, they are the heirs of God’s redemptive work.

Consequently, God is blessed, which is a typically Jewish way of praising God (Psalm 66:8; 103:1, 20-22; 104:1; 115:18; 134:1). Moreover, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” probably reflects a liturgical practice of the early church since the only other places where it appears are in New Testament doxologies (cf. Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3). The letter, then, opens with doxology, and its theology flows from the praise of God the Father.

But the letter also opens with the proclamation, embedded in the blessing, that Jesus is Lord. Its liturgical form emphasizes the importance of this phrase as something Christians regularly confessed in their communities. The God of Israel is the Father of Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord. That is a mouthful. Religiously, it affirms continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures. Politically, it is dangerous since Caesar is Lord within the Roman Empire. Socially, it becomes the object of derision. “Jesus is Lord” is the central confession of the Christian Faith.

Reborn According to the Mercy of God

Peter blesses the God and Father of Lord Jesus the Messiah who, according to (kata) God’s great mercy, “rebirthed” (regenerated) us into (eis) a living hope and into (eis) a sure inheritance.

New birth, or being born again, is an important theological word for Peter (used in 1:3 and 1:23). It is the starting point for a new way of life, a new kind of existence. Indeed, this is what renders us exiles or foreigners in the present world. We do not breathe the same air as others in the world.

New birth is grounded (kata) in the mercy of God, which is one of the most significant covenant terms for God’s faithful love in the Hebrew Scriptures (hesed in Hebrew; cf. Exodus 34:4-6). Our rebirth flows from God’s merciful and faithful initiative; that is, our election.

Our rebirth issues in two realities: (1) a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, and (2) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance. In other words, our rebirth gives us an eschatological perspective, and it ushers us into an eschatological reality. Born again, we already participate in the eschaton; our new life is eschatological life.

A living hope is a present hope. This is not escapism, but a hope that lives. Or, to put it another way, it is an empowering hope because it lives. The alternative is a life without hope, which is ultimately despairing. Indeed, the nature of this hope is defined by the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, which conquers death and promises life without death.

Resurrection is not simply life after death, but it is life in the wake of the annihilation of death. Resurrected life is the ultimate fruit of newborn life. Our new birth is the promise of this resurrection life as we are born into a new mode of existence. That new existence is ultimately the resurrected life of Jesus himself. We are birthed into a new creation, and new creation begins with the resurrection of Jesus because Jesus—raised from the dead—is new humanity clothed with an eternal body. The hope that lives within our hearts is the hope of sharing in that new humanity where our own resurrected bodies are patterned after the likeness of Jesus’s resurrection body.

Our rebirth also issues in an inheritance. This is, again, a word loaded with meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. Inheritance is about land. But that inheritance was lost through exile because it was defiled by sin. The inheritance of the new creation—of regeneration and rebirth—is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” which is a alliteration in the Greek text using the alpha-privative (each word begins with the negative “a-”). To put it another way—in the oft-quoted words of Beare that mirror the Greek alliteration—“untouched by death, unstained by evil, unimpaired by time.”

But what is this inheritance? Peter says it is “kept in heaven” for us. Our inheritance is in heaven, but it is not heaven. That is, our inheritance is not life after death where one ascends into the heavenly realms for their reward. Rather, our inheritance is connected with resurrection hope; our hope is new creation or resurrected life.

Jesus sits at the right hand of God in his resurrection body. The resurrected Jesus is the beginning of new creation, and new creation is our inheritance. It is now kept in heaven, but it—our ultimate salvation—will be revealed in the last time (1:5). At that time, as 2 Peter 3 makes clear, a new heaven and new earth will appear as the home of the righteous. This is our inheritance; it is the moment when we will inherit the new heaven and new earth as our homeland. Then, we will no longer be exiles or foreigners; we will be home.

Our living hope is resurrected life on a new heaven and new earth, and that is our inheritance. Even now—in the present—we experience that life through our rebirth, and it is that rebirth which gives birth to our hope and the promise of an inheritance. As people born again into the living hope of the resurrection, we are also born into an inheritance that belongs to the family of God.

Preserved by God Through Faith.

Our present experience, however, is often filled with trials and troubles. In fact, our rebirth—our new life—entails that trials will come since we are now exiles or foreigners. Rather than insulating us from hurts and hostility, this new life attracts them because it threatens the values and commitments of a hostile culture. So, in the present, we suffer.

This does not, however, eliminate our hope and inheritance. Rather, God presently preserves (protects, guards) us in the midst of this suffering through faith. Significantly, it is the power of God that preserves or protects. We do not protect ourselves; God protects us.

At the same time, however, we participate in this process. Faith is the means by which the power of God guards us. This is a divine-human movement; it is cooperative grace. God supplies the power, and we appropriate that power through faith. We do not generate the power, but we receive it through faith. Our preservation is not our own doing; it is God’s work in us and through us by faith. Without faith, however, there is no preservation.

The age-old debate between Calvinists and Arminians finds practical common ground here. Both theological traditions agree that we are elect through faith, and that the elect will persevere in faith. Whatever the dogmatic or theoretical frame, these statements affirm a shared perspective: God guards the elect through faith. At a practical level, the elect believe and the elect persevere in belief. In this, both traditions “bless God” as we recognize God’s initiative in our salvation and God’s empowering grace.

Rescued in the Eschaton

God preserves us for (unto, eis) salvation.

“Salvation,” in 1 Peter, describes the full reality of God’s redemptive work. It is both a present and future reality—it sums up the whole of what God is doing to redeem and rescue humanity from sin and death.

“Salvation” (or deliverance, rescue), in 1 Peter 1:5, is eschatological. It is linked to the “last time” (kairo eschato) and final revelation of God’s saving work in the second coming of Jesus. In other words, here salvation refers to the fulfillment of our hope and the arrival of our inheritance. God preserves us in order to bring us into the full experience of our salvation when our “living hope” is realized and we receive our full inheritance.


Blessed be God, Peter writes, because the Father, through Jesus the Messiah, has birthed us and preserves us for the future unveiling of our inheritance (salvation). God is praised for his past, present, and future saving work.

The doxology locates believers in the story of God rather than in the imperial story. God, through Jesus, is the savior of the world, not the Roman Emperor. Christians live in God’s narrative rather than in the imperial one.

According to Peter, that is the true story, and consequently this is the true and authentic location of Christians. Though they live as exiles in Roman culture, they are nevertheless God’s elect.

Reconciliation in the Gospel of John, Or Perichoretic Oneness

May 13, 2015

“I suggest that within the Farewell Discourse this ‘oneness’ is expressed in a Eucharistic love feast even where diversity continues. When believers gather together around the table with self-giving love, they experience in a concrete and sacramental way the common bond that unites them; that is, the perichoretic love of the Triune God. Unity, then, is not best expressed in forms, institutions, and extended theological declarations as much as it is in the reality of the Eucharist in a loving community where we are nourished by the life of divine perichoresis.”

One paragraph, near the end, from a recent paper I uploaded. I presented this paper at the Lipscomb Preaching Seminar in February 2014. The seminar was part of an academic course, and that is the reason why it assumes much and not everything is explained.

The full paper is linked Handout for Lecture.

On Reading 1 Peter

May 12, 2015

This is a brief letter, but it packs a powerful punch.

It comes to us as a communication between Peter, one of the Twelve, and Christians (“elect exiles”) scattered throughout what is now western and northern Turkey (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter is in “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), which is a cryptic and common Jewish way of referring to Rome in the first century. Peter writes to “exiles” from “Babylon.” This association, which appears in the beginning and close of the letter, highlights an important theme in the letter; that is, Christians are a socially dislocated minority within Roman culture. They are aliens who have a different way of life than their surrounding culture.

There is a strong and ancient tradition that both Peter and Paul died in Rome. Consequently, it is most natural to read “Babylon” as Rome given that tradition and the apocalyptic use of the term within Judaism (as well as Revelation 17). It also accounts for why Peter might take up his pen to write to Roman provinces in what we now call Turkey. Perhaps Peter had previously visited that region at an earlier period, but there is no explicit evidence for that. Whatever the reason Peter addresses these scattered Christians, there is no reason to doubt Peter’s presence in Rome (other than some old Protestant polemics against Roman Catholicism).

Peter, writing from the center of Roman power and wealth—the origin of Roman culture, addresses the social location of Christians within the empire. They are aliens or foreigners; they are homeless within the empire. They live as exiles or refugees.

This offers the most significant key for reading 1 Peter as the author addresses his letter to the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.”

While some think—and not without some good reasons—Peter’s audience is primarily Jewish because the Diaspora refers to Jews living outside their Palestinian homeland, I think it better to read this as Christians who are not at home in Roman imperial culture. Christians are outsiders to Roman power; they do not belong. Christians are scattered throughout Roman culture and its provinces, but they live as aliens within that culture.

Consequently, one of the better ways to think about 1 Peter’s genre (literary form) is to categorize it as a “Diaspora Letter,” which was prominent within Judaism. Some of this genre’s best examples are Jeremiah 29, 2 Maccabees 1:10-2:18, and Elephantine letters 21 & 30.

These letters address Jewish communities displaced from the Jewish homeland. They encourage living well within cultures to which they do not belong and which are often hostile to their presence.

This is exactly what 1 Peter does. “I have written you this brief letter,” Peter says, “to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12). The letter is an exhortation—it encourages and testifies. Distressed in their uncertain circumstances as exiles and foreigners (“strangers in a strange land”), Peter encourages them to live faithfully in the grace of God.

The letter is apparently a circular one; that is, it is intended to circulate among congregations throughout the regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. We might suppose, as Peter hints in 1 Peter 5:12, that Silas (Silvanus) carried the letter to various churches where it was read to the assembly and probably copied. In other words, the letter was orally performed. It is a sermon or exhortation for these distressed and suffering communities, an encouragement to people living in hostile environments.

Peter does this with three major moves in the letter. First, he stresses their identity as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1:13-2:10). Second, he encourages them to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (2:11-4:11). Lastly, he commends their suffering for the sake of Christ, which is their greatest witness (4:12-5:11).

Peter addresses the “diaspora” of God’s elect living among Roman provinces whose faith is regularly tested by the hostility of the surrounding culture in which it lives. Their lives, Peter believes, will bear witness to the grace of God as they follow Christ in his suffering. In this way, they suffer as Christians rather thieves or murderers.

Our contemporary western culture has shifted. Christianity is no longer privileged (and it should never have been). Our culture is now post-Christian, even if it ever was “Christian.” In our present setting, Christianity is increasingly dismissed, treated as irrelevant, and sometimes hated.

Our world is becoming increasingly like Peter’s world. As a result, Peter’s letter is becoming even more relevant as Christians learn to live in a post-Christian culture.

So, we read 1 Peter—like its first readers read it—as aliens. We read it to understand our identity, seek encouragement in our way of life, and endure suffering as followers of Christ.

1 Peter 1:1-2 — Exiled, But Chosen

May 11, 2015

Everyone wants to be chosen, especially those who feel marginalized or undervalued. Many of us remember what it feels like to be the last one chosen in a pickup game of basketball or uninvited to the school party.

Sometimes we feel like outsiders, and sometimes we are treated like outsiders. Sometimes we simply are outsiders.

Yet, though unchosen by others, we are chosen by God.

Peter opens his circular letter to the “elect” (chosen) of what is now modern Turkey like any other letter in the ancient word:

  • Identification of the author: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
  • Recipients: to the “elect exiles dispersed” throughout northern and western Anatolia (modern Turkey).
  • Greeting: “may grace and peace be multiplied among you.”

While the form is typical, Peter’s language and further elaboration illuminates the pastoral focus of his letter.

The community is described as both exiled and chosen. They are both rejected and embraced. This is central to understanding how, as Peter puts it, this letter testifies to the “true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).

The community lives an exiled existence as aliens (foreigners) in cities throughout the Anatolian peninsula. Though settled in these Roman provinces, like Abraham before them, they are “sojourners and aliens” (paroikos kai parepidemos, Genesis 23:4). Peter uses both terms in this letter (paroikos in 1:17, 2:11; and parepidemos in 1:1; 2:11). Specifically, the term parepidemos (foreigners, aliens) refers to one who is not a citizen, and consequently those who are citizens view a parepidemos with suspicion, fear, and often hostility.

This is a displaced existence. The letter’s recipients are part of the Dispersion (NRSV) or Diaspora (1:1). Technically, in the first century, this describes ethnic Jews who no longer live in Palestine, their homeland. Combined with the language of exile and the use of “Babylon” as a metaphor for Rome (1 Peter 5:12), Peter addresses the people of God scattered among the provinces of Roman power and culture. This is not their home. They are exiles, foreigners, or aliens.

They are “resident aliens” (to use the title of significant book as well as The Epistle to Diognetus [5:4-5] in the second century). Their lives are different, and their relationship with Roman power and culture is different. Their community is a living contrast with their surrounding environment, and this creates tension in the communities where they live. So much so that the peaceful existence they desire is threatened by violence, incarceration, and local hostility. They suffer for the sake of Christ.

In other words, their “alien” status is not a contrast between earthly existence and heavenly hope, between present life and eternal life. Rather, it is their social location as a community whose values and interests are out of sync with the surrounding culture. They stick out like a sore thumb. They are regarded as “strange” or weird because they do not engage in the practices of their neighbors (1 Peter 4:4) or participate in the civil religion of the Empire like good citizens.

As a community, they are despised and rejected, much like the servant of Isaiah 53 (to which 1 Peter 2:21-22 appeals). They face intense questioning, hostility, and mockery from their culture. They are marginalized and oppressed. They are aliens in a culture that does not like aliens.

This is an alarming picture. This kind of life might generate a sense of unworthiness. Living on the margins, especially when the culture is hostile, might generate some questions about whether God also dislikes them. How might an alien feel beloved?

They are elect, chosen! Rejected by culture, they are chosen by God. Marginalized by culture, they are at the center of God’s project to redeem the world. They are God’s elect through whom God will transform the world.

Peter characterizes this election with three phrases:

  • according (kata) to the foreknowledge of God the Father
  • by/in (en) the sanctification of the Spirit
  • unto (eis) the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah

The triune nature of this statement is immediately obvious, though the order is rather unusual (even in Scripture, much less in the tradition of the church): Father, Spirit, and Jesus.

We are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Whatever this may mean (and there are historic debates about the relationship between foreknowledge and election), it at least means that God was focused on our election long before we were. Our status is a gift of grace driven by God rather than us. God takes the initiative in our salvation. We did not start the ball rolling. Instead, God has been moving toward this moment from the beginning. We are not an afterthought in God’s eternal purposes; we are the objects of God’s election.

We are elect by the sanctification of the Spirit. Sanctification may refer to the moment we were made saints (that is, we were set apart or consecrated at our conversion), or it may refer to the long process of becoming like Christ in our lives (that is, becoming holy as God is holy), or it may refer to God’s completed work in the end (that is, when God fully perfects us). Since the work of the Spirit here moves us toward obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, it probably refers to the initial work of the Spirit in separating us or setting us apart. But perhaps Peter has something broader in mind analogous to: “living in the space sanctified by the Spirit.” In other words, though we are exiles amidst the kingdoms of this world, God has gathered us as a people who live in the holy space of God’s Spirit. Living in the Spirit, we live in sanctified space, beloved by God. The Spirit consecrates us to God and separates us from the world. This is part of what it means to be one of God’s elect. Consequently, though exiles and aliens in a culture infused with hostility toward God, the elect live in space sanctified by God.

We are elect unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. Though a difficult phrase, it does represent movement toward a goal. We are elect on the ground of the Father’s foreknowledge, and we are elect through the consecration of the Spirit. Our election has a goal, that is, to lead us to obedience to the covenant and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant, which is the forgiveness of sins. The language probably echoes Exodus 24:4-8 where Israel entered into covenant through a pledge of obedience and a sprinkling of the blood. So, we are elect toward the goal of obedience and the cleansing reality of the blood of Jesus. Obedience, then, is part of the conversion narrative where we experience our election because of the work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. And obedience is also part of our ongoing life in the Spirit. We are elect so that we might become obedient people as a people holy to God. The sprinkled blood of the Lamb continually cleanses us as we progressively become what God has called us to be, that is, “You be holy as I am holy.”

The Father foreknows. The Spirit sanctifies. The Son cleanses. The Father, Son, and Spirit together participate in the movement to redeem humanity. We are elect because of what God has done for us, and our response is obedience as we live in the sanctified air of the Spirit, gracious predisposition of the Father, and the sprinkled blood of the Messiah.

Elect, but exiled. Foreigners, but chosen.

The echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures abound here.  This is Israel’s story–they are elect exiles scattered among the nations. They were exiled, yet loved (Malachi 1:1-4). They were despised by the nations but the apple of God’s own eye.

The elect scattered among the provinces of Anatolia occupy the same space as Israel: exiled but chosen. Standing in the grace of God, they are a displaced, but chosen, people.

This is our story: we are aliens in an increasingly post-Christian culture.

This is our joy: we are chosen; we are loved….foreknown by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.




Psalm 58

March 9, 2015

[For more on imprecatory Psalms, see this link or this link.]

Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of “cultic prophetic lament.”[1] One might imagine a Jeremiah or some priestly leader voicing this complaint at the temple as Israel’s judges gathered to worship. Jeremiah may have appeared at the temple with Jehoiakim to protest his injustice before God (Jeremiah 22). When human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. And the people of God appeal for divine action against unjust judges.

Psalm 58 may be divided into three sections:  Complaint (1-5), Petition (6-9), and Praise (10-11). The complaint arraigns the wicked before God (1-2) and describes them (3-5). The petition invokes God’s action (6), and describes the effect of that action (7-9). The praise rejoices in God’s action (10) and confesses the justice of God (11).

The verb “judge” appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio. The so-called “imprecatory” petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament. Human judges, who sit in God’s judgment seat, act out of self-interest rather than for the sake of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Israel complains about injustice, appeals for justice ,and expects God’s righteous judgment.

The judges (“gods”) do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term (cf. also Pss 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4). God is the model for this equity. The Psalmist addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4, 6, 11, 52). They are like cobras with their lies–they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them–they are incorrigible. They listen to non one. As Mays comments, “They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence.”[2]

The Psalmist calls upon God to act—to defang the judges or take away their power. “Break the teeth” is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. Whoever has not kept their contracts are punished.[3] The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant. The “imprecation” is addressed to God who judges the judges. As the sovereign King, God exercises Lordship over earth and executes justice.

Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9 (cf. Psa 52:1-7). But the joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm’s call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut 32:42-43). The imagery of “feet in blood” does not relish cruelty, but victory (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:19-20; 19:13-14).

We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.”[4] The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.

The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.'”[5] Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”[6]

This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.

Consequently, Psalm 58 functions to call out the wicked who have rebelled against God’s kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God’s justice that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.

Israel’s struggle with injustice continues as our struggle. Just as this Psalm arose out of the narrative of Israel’s oppression by its own leaders, so our proclamation of this Psalm must be placed in our history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this Psalm only days after key church leaders, including Martin Niemoller, were arrested on July 1, 1937. He railed against the injustice that was sweeping his country and called upon God to act.[7] We can hear the cries of African-American churches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We can hear the cries of Palestinian mothers whose homes are blown up by Israelis because their sons were involved in illegal activities.[8]

If we proclaim Psalm 58, however, it will make demands on us. It will call us to stand with the oppressed and empathize with the victims of injustice. But as we share the experience of the marginalized, oppressed, and poor, the Psalm calls us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is God’s work, not ours. Bonhoeffer made this clear for his own church under Nazi oppression: [9]

It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God’s hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one’s own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God’s cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate” (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: ‘Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth’.

Even more dangerously, however, is how Psalm 58 calls us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life. Zengar offers an important perspective: [10]

In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings–as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God’s judgment.”

The cry for justice against injustice is not unchristian. On the contrary, we cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8). The parable of the persistent widow is particularly appropriate for the proclamation of Psalm 58 as a widow cries out for justice against an unjust judge.[11]

Further, should we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God’s kingdom is fully established (Revelation 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Revelation 6:10; cf. 18:20).

Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and believers will find rest in that justice. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ. Preaching “imprecatory” (or justice) Psalms needs both an eschatological perspective and a sense of the present in-breaking of the kingdom of God that establishes justice and righteousness in the earth.[12]

When we empathize with the oppressed, we must also stand in their place and pray for the revelation of God’s justice. Psalm 58 not only cries out for justice, but it invites hearers to stand with the oppressed and act on their behalf.

[1]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) and Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990) both quoting Jeremias.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 211.

[3]Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard, “On Breaking Teeth,” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 59-75.

[4]Gerald Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Form-Critical Study” (M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1992), 39; cf. Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Study of Psalm 54,” Direction 22 (1993), 75-86.

[5]Augustine, Psalm 58.1, available at

[6]Erich Zengar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 38.

[7]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. by Donald Bloesch, Theology Today 38 (1982), 465-71, available at

[8]See the homily on Psalm 58 by Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian minister in Israel, at

[9]Bonhoeffer, “Sermon,” 469.

[10]Zengar, God of Vengeance, 85.

[11]John Mark Hicks, “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991), 209-23.

[12]John Mark Hicks, “How to Preach a Curse,” Lipscomb University Preaching Seminar, May 5-7, 1997, available at and “Preaching Imprecatory Psalms,” in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), available at


Powerpoint presentation on Psalm 58.  20 Psalm 58

Psalm 44: Communal Disappointment with God

March 4, 2015

Israel had recently experienced defeat. Though perhaps an exilic context, it probably reflects a military defeat in the pre-exilic period (e.g., the invasion of Zerah the Cushite during the reign of righteous Asa in 2 Chron 14:9-10, the invasion of the Moabites during the reign of righteous Jehoshaphat in 2 Chron 20:1, or some other unknown battle). The protestation of innocence does not fit the exilic community (cf. Lamentations). Though the voice of the Psalmist is sometimes singular (44:4, 15-16), the plural indicates it’s communal character though perhaps led by one who represents the people.[1] The king or priest speaks for the people. Israel is bewildered by Yahweh’s hostility and indifference despite their own relative faithfulness, but they nevertheless trust in God’s own ultimate faithfulness to Israel because this is God’s history with Israel. Their communal lament confronts God with complaint and accusation but at the same time appeals to Yahweh’s faithful love.

Psalm 44 may be divided into five stanzas.[2]

  1. Praise: Memory of God’s Past Acts (1-3)
  2. Trust: Present Community’s Orientation (4-8)
  3. Complaint: God’s Unfaithfulness Towards the Community (9-16).
  4. Protestation of Innocence: The Community’s Faithfulness (17-22)
  5. Appeal: Divine Aid in the Present (23-26).

The Psalm begins with the past history of God’s faithful acts and the community’s trust in their faithful God. At the center of the Psalm, however, is a complaint directed at God’s seeming unfaithfulness. God has acted against Israel even though the covenant community had been faithful throughout the episode. Despite this incongruence, Israel appeals to their God for redemption. Psalm 44 is the communal lament of a people who, though bewildered, even angry, nevertheless invoke the faithful love of Yahweh.

The stories of God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history shape this poem. They are the background for the communal lament. As Crow comments, “In Israelite thought the Heilsgeschichte [history of salvation, JMH] was not merely a story about the past, but a mythos [a narrative worldview that shaped understanding, JMH] which touched the life of every person.”[3] Israel’s story as a corporate people shapes the individual lives of each person. Israel’s story is their story. But more importantly, it is God’s story. To rehearse God’s acts is not only a mode of praise, but it also evokes expectation of divine action in the present and reminds God of the covenant made with Israel. Kraus rightly notes that the motive clause in verse 3 (“for you loved them”) is a “hidden appeal.”[4]

In contrast with God’s past history with Israel, the present stands in radical contrast (the adversative in verse 9—“but now”). The series of second-person addresses in 9-14 presents God as the actor in the disaster that befell Israel. “The verbal presentation of God as taking drastic action against his people,” Crow states, “is so surprising as to be doubly forceful. Its value is primarily shock.”[5] Israel accuses God and blames God!

The protestations of innocence (17-18, 20-21) are each followed by an adversative (“yet”) that describes God as the responsible party in their suffering (19, 22). The appeal is relational. It is not simply a matter of Israel’s covenant faithfulness, but it is an appeal to the relationship that the covenant formalizes and embodies. The appeal might be characterized as not only the logic of covenant obligations but also the emotional appeal of betrayed relationships. Israel feels betrayed. God has not been faithful to the covenant.

The tension is highlighted by the phrase “all the day” or “all the time” in verses 8, 15 and 22. Israel boasts in God “all day long,” but now their disgrace is before them “all day long” despite the fact that they have faced death for God’s sake “all day long.” Despite Israel’s “all day long” praise and sacrifice, they presently experience disgrace “all day long.” Israel is disappointed with Yahweh. This is also highlighted by the shepherd/sheep motif. The Shepherd watches the sheep slaughtered (44:11, 22), and this creates the question: “where is God?” (44:23-24).

The community appeals to their sleeping giant who is no longer pictured as the aggressor but is inattentive. The appeal, however, is made from the posture of “prostration or self-abasement” where the belly cleaves to the ground (25-26). As Israel prostrates itself, God is exhorted to “arise” on their behalf.[6] “Falling to the ground is the posture taken after Israel lost against Ai (Joshua 7:6), while the six men in Ezekiel’s vision were killing the people of Jerusalem (Ezek. 9:8), and when Pelatiah son of Benayah died (Ezek. 11:13). In all these cases the posture is accompanied by fervent prayer to Yahweh not to destroy his people.”[7]

The final appeal to God’s love brings God’s past salvific acts into the present as the motive or rationale for the petition. The appeal for redemption uses the language of the Exodus (cf. Exod 13:12; Deut 13:6; Micah 6:4; 1 Chron 17:21). God’s story is the norm by which God should act. God will eventually act out faithfulness to that norm which is Yahweh’s faithful love. The petitions (23, 26) frame the questions (24-25). The petitions remind Israel of God’s forever love for them, and this shapes the nature and function of their complaint. Israel complains, but it complains in faith as it appeals to God’s faithful love.

The Psalm is filled with rhetorical and theological tension. “God as the only savior (king) (2-9) is in tension with God as initiator of the disaster which the people experience (10-15).”[8] The covenant faithfulness of the people (18-19, 21-22) is in tension with God’s hiddenness (10-17, 20). This creates an appeal filled with questions, but yet rooted in God’s character.

National or communal disaster evokes disillusionment and disappointment. It should also arouse introspection and self-examination as a communal process. In the process, the community laments—sometimes perhaps in penitent confession, but sometimes (as in Psalm 44) with protestations of innocence. Doubt, frustration, bewilderment, questioning, and complaint often arise in the hearts and prayers of the faithful people of God when they suffer.

The confidence of God’s people is God’s own history with the covenant people. The history of salvation testifies to God’s faithfulness to the covenant even when Israel is disappointed or disillusioned. That history climaxes in Jesus Christ who is the testimony of God’s covenant loyalty. Nothing—no communal or individual disaster or tragedy—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how Paul applies Psalm 44 to the new situation that Christ creates. God has demonstrated faithfulness to the divine redemptive intent through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

Israel probably read Psalm 44 in times of national distress when there was no seeming reason for the disasters that befell them as in the days of Asa or Jehoshaphat. Narratizing Psalm 44 in the life of Israel is a helpful way of contextualizing it, and it provides a link with our own narrative. Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS during June, 1964. On the 17th of that month the African-American church was burned, and on the 21st James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by seven members of the KKK.

Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed by Christian churches in southern Sudan where the African Dinka people living in Bahr-El-Ghazal were raided in January 1996. Several of their daughters were taken into slavery.

Psalm 44 might be prayed by Syrian and Iraqi Christians are driven out or slaughtered by the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Psalm 44 is even now proclaimed, sung and prayed in memory of millions who died during the Nazi Holocaust, especially the six million Jews—a million of whom were children. The following is a contemporary Midrash on Psalm 44:[9]

“You desert and shame us” — as they cut our beards and mass-rape our women.

“You do not go out with our armies” — with our resistance.

“You put us to flight from our enemies” — in mass exodus and transports.

“Those who hate us tear us to pieces at will” — using our skins for lampshades and our flesh for soap.

“You hand us over like sheep to be devoured” — in the gas chambers, crematoria, and gang burning-pits.

“You cast us among the nations” — as stateless and displaced persons.

“You sell Your people for nothing” — we are worth less than slaves, less than animals.

“You do not make a profit on their sale price” — our value is precisely calculated for work, starvation, and death.

“You make us an object of shame for our neighbors” — so that no one touches us, in the camps and even after liberation.

“A thing of scorn and derision for those around us” — they toss scraps of bread into the trains of our starving people; they make us defecate in our clothing.

“You make an example of us to the nations” — of degradation and dehumanization, a sign par excellence and a symbol of Jew-hatred.

“An object of head-shaking among the peoples” — in disbelief that something like this is happening to anyone, much less to us, Your chosen people.

In the midst of communal tragedy, the people of God are bewildered by God’s absence. We protest God’s inaction or, more potently, God’s violence against the covenant people, just as Israel did. However, as Israel models for us, we also remember God’s past redemptive deeds and appeal to them. We remember God’s faithful track record.

However, the present seems so incongruent with that past. Why does God sleep? Why does not the shepherd protect the sheep? Has God forgotten the covenant? The present and the past do not line up, and something seems terribly wrong, even wrong with God. Nevertheless, the people of God maintain their covenant commitment as they appeal to God’s faithful love. Given God’s track record, the bewildered and confused community trusts even as it accuses.

The homiletic point is that in the midst of our distress we lament God’s apparent hiddenness, but yet we appeal to the unfailing love that characterizes Yahweh. Our God has a track record—that history with Israel reveals God’s love, particularly the demonstration of that love in Jesus Christ.

[1]Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC 19 (Dallas: Word, 1983), 332.

[2]Based on Loren D. Crow, “The Rhetoric of Psalm 44,” Zeitschrift fur die Altestamentliche Wissenschaft 104 (1992), 394-401 and Ingvar Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 59.

[3]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 395.

[4]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 446.

[5]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 397.

[6]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 399-400.

[7]Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 57.

[8]J. H. Coetzee, “The Functioning of Elements of Tension in Psalm 44,” Theologia Evangelica 21 (March 1988), 4.

[9]David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox: 1993) 99-100; available at;

*This is part of an essay that first appeared in Performing the Psalms (Chalice Press, 2005), edited by Dave Bland and David Fleer.

Psalm 139

February 19, 2015

This psalm is a favorite for many. The first eighteen verses are some of the most intimate and lofty descriptions of the God-human relationship in the Psalter. Most find it comforting, even affirming.

But then a jolt hits us when we read Psalm 139:19-22. What does that have to do with what came before it? Why does this meditation turn toward a passionate rejection of evil and a wish-prayer that God would destroy the bloodthirsty? Where does that come form?

For this reason, some liturgies ignore 19-22 and only use verses 1-18. Some simply stop reading at verse 18 as if verses 19-22 make no contribution to the point that verses 1-18 raise. As it stands, however, Psalm 139 is a unit, and there is some reason (at least to the mind of the author/editor) for verses 19-22 to follow verses 1-18. It is important, I think, to come to grips with what is happening in this psalm and make some sense of this transition which is not only appropriate but telling.

Allen (in his World Biblical Commentary commentary on the Psalms) suggests an interesting scenario which might account for this seemingly disturbing conjunction of thoughts (Brueggemann and Goldingay generally follow his suggestion.) He places the psalm in a setting where a person is falsely accused (as in Psalm 7) or where one is pursued by violent people who want him to participate in their activities. In other words, the psalmist is under such pressure that it is important that God know him/her so that God knows (and the community as well) that the psalmist remains committed to God’s agenda. This person will not be lured or pressured into evil.

Verses 1-18 explore the point that God fully and truly knows the psalmist.  The word “know” (in some form) occurs six times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, 23).  God knows this believer because:

  1. God has searched the heart thoroughly (1-6).
  2. No one cannot escape God’s presence (7-12).
  3. God created the psalmist (13-16).

The psalmist concludes that God is always with him/her, even thought the thought of this is more than the brain can contain. The wonder of divine knowledge and presence transcends the human capacity to fully understand (and perhaps even to appreciate).

The majestic descriptions in the first part of the psalm are often regarded as pleasant reminders of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibeneficence. God can even appear cute and cuddly in some readings of this section.

But perhaps it should be read with a bit more ambiguity.  Is the divine searching of our hearts something that comforts us or alarms us? When do we really want such? Do we really want anyone to know everything that is in our heart? Are we really comfortable with God probing every aspect of our being and discovering who we really are? This searching is open-ended, and it may have an uncertain end.

Nevertheless, the psalmist does take some comfort in God’s searching, presence, and creative intent. The reason, I suggest, is that the psalmist knows his/her own heart, and the psalmist wants to be known by someone given the circumstances. Yet the danger of self-deception remains, and this why the psalmist wants God to search the heart and root out any evil that lies in it. The psalmist knows his/her commitment to God, even if it is sometimes flawed and we are sometimes self-deceived. The psalmist seeks holiness and at the same time seeks vindication against those who would do him/her harm or corral him/her into violent and evil acts.

It is as if the heart cries, “please, somebody, know me…understand me…and be assured that I am committed to God!”  The psalm’s response is: God knows, and God understands. God knows the psalmist’s commitment and integrity.

The psalmist’s problem, however, is that his/her world is filled with violent and “bloodthirsty” (a lust for blood) people who want to involve the psalmist in their activities. They want the writer to join them and take up their way of life.

The psalmist’s response seems rather harsh to modern ears. The psalmist “hates” the wicked and hates those who hate God.

This is certainly not “polite” language. Some call it malicious language or hateful language. It is certainly intolerant language, and it is not surprising that one dedicated to God is intolerant of evil, especially bloodthirstiness.  But before we pour all our modern emotive dislike for the word “hate” into this language, it is important to remember that this language is about one’s priorities. To hate one thing and love another reflects one’s commitments and values. It is not necessarily a malicious personal dislike but an ethical commitment to a life void of violence and bloodthirstiness. It is a prov0ctive and emphatic way of saying, “I am a God-follower; and I will not follow you into violence.”  In other words, “I hate you” is a succinct and bold way of saying, “I have different ethical commitments than you and I will not participate in your activities.”

But how can “hate” your enemies here square with Jesus’ call to love our enemies? Just because “hate” and “love” stand in opposition in our common speech does not mean that this is the case in two widely different texts with different contexts. “Hate” and “love” are not necessarily opposites. Even Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we must hate our parents (cf. Luke 14:26). He did not mean that we must have a personal dislike for them. Rather, he was talking about priorities, just as Psalm 139 is doing.

Commitment to the divine agenda–seeking first the kingdom of God–involves both a hatred (rejection, opposition) of evil and a love for enemies.

So, how might we pray this prayer? Under what circumstances would it be an appropriate and right thing to do?

Imagine this scenario (and others come to mind as well). Suppose a young teenage believer, living in an urban environment, is pursued by a violent gang. They want him to join their group and participate in their next initiation evening, which includes a rape. He feels the pull of the gang since it is a protective community (at least for them), but he also knows it is not consistent with God’s intent for the world.

So, he prays. What does he pray?  He prays that God will thoroughly search his heart and know every aspect of his being so that whatever he prays is something that arises from his own integrity and commitment to God’s cause rather than out of personal vengeance. He recognizes God’s abiding presence and that no matter what happens, God is with him. And he trusts in God’s goals for him and knows God already knows the days that lie ahead for him.

On the strength of this intimate and trusting relationship, he prays that God will destroy this gang and keep them far away from him. They are violent people, and they seek to involve him in their cycle of violence, which always has negative consequences (it leads eventually to their own deaths in many cases). So, he passionately prioritizes the reign of God over the reign of this gang, and consequently “hates” them with a godly hatred that recognizes the evil that pervades their violent community.

On the one hand, he loves these gang members and would hope for a better life for them, and some of them are good friends whom he has known all his life. But, on the other hand, he hates them, that is, he hates the movement of their lives toward violence and intimidation.

His prayer is not about personal vengeance, and neither does he take violence into his own hands to destroy the gang. Rather, he entrusts this outcome to God and leaves it in God’s hands. Further, he asks God to search his own heart and to root out any evil motives or intent in his life or prayer. God is the ultimate arbitrator of both his own heart and the gang’s lifestyle. God alone knows the human heart, and God alone is the judge.

Psalm 139 is, in fact, an individual lament. It laments the violence of those who would drawn God’s people into their way of life, and it is a lament that contains an imprecation against evil.

Indeed, it is a prayer we might pray for all the victims of violence and for every woman enslaved by the sex-trade. It is a prayer for victims as well as a commitment to pursue justice.

With the psalmist, can we say, “I hate the bloodthirsty?” I think so.

Psalm 104

February 18, 2015

Psalm 104 is one of the great creation praise hymns of Israel. As worship, it blesses God as both creator and provider. As theology, it identifies creation in theocentric rather than anthropocentric ways. God is not only sovereign over the creation but is immanent within it. The creation is more about God than it is humanity.

Indeed, there is no hint in this psalm that humanity shares God’s dominion over the creation. While Genesis 1 looms large in the background of Psalm 104, the psalm does not allude to the role of humanity within the creation as the image of God (and does not deny it either; cf. Psalm 8). Instead, the hymn stresses that God is the central figure in a theology of creation. God creates for God’s self, rejoices in the creation for God’s own sake, and enjoys the creation to God’s own delight. God is the primary actor in this hymn, and no aspect of creation is without God’s presence.

Following some of Goldingay’s suggestions in his Psalms commentary, the psalm moves through various dimensions of creation and climaxes  climatically in the heart-felt worship of a believer. Psalm 104:31-35 is a liturgical response to the reality the psalmist envisions in 104:1-30.

In that vision the psalmist moved from divine transcendence to divine immanence, from God’s sovereign ordering of the chaotic waters to the use of those waters for the care of the plants, animals, and humanity. The psalm moves easily from God’s initiating acts (as in Genesis 1) to God’s ongoing acts in the care of the world.

God’s Sabbath rest in Genesis 2 does not entail inactivity. Rather, God created a world in which God would dwell with humanity and in the creation much like builders live in their houses.  Yahweh spread a tent–the heavens (sky) themselves–and came to dwell within the creation. God completed the divine work of building the home (bringing the creation into being and ordering so that it was now habitable space), but God’s work continues in the care, development, and enjoyment of what God has created. God is no couch potato lazily overseeing the world, but an active agent within the creation as an expression of God’s own joy.

I suggest, following Goldingay in many ways, the movement of Psalm 104 looks something like this:

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (1a)

God’s Transcendent Identity (1b-4)

God’s Ordering of the Chaotic Waters (5-9)

God’s Benevolent Use of Land and Water  (10-18)

God’s Ordering of the Cosmos (19-23)

God’s Ordering of Life (24-30)

Liturgical Response to God’s Creative Work (31-35ab)

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (35c)…and Praise Yah! (35c)

God’s transcendent identity is clear by the allusions to Genesis 1 in Psalm 104:1-4: light, heavens, waters. God towers above and beyond the creation; this is God’s greatness or transcendence.  This is clear in the images the psalmist utilizes. Yahweh wraps on light like a garment and stretches the sky like a tent. Yahweh dwells in the clouds; God has a luxury apartment in the heights (“in the waters”). Yahweh rides the clouds like a chariot as even the storms carry Yahweh back and forth throughout the creation.

The images, of course, are not literal; they are poetic. The language describes a God who fills the sky from one end of the earth to the other. Yahweh reigns over the earth and thus we ascribe honor and majesty to God. The poetry offers a picture God’s limitless power. The cosmos does not confine God, even light itself is a coat that God wears and the heavens are a tent Yahweh spreads. It does not limit God. Rather, God chooses to dwell in the tent.

Just as in Genesis 1, God orders the chaotic waters. At one time the earth was covered with water (cf. Genesis 1:2) and was uninhabitable. The waters represent chaos, that is, they are a threat to the existence of creation as a habitable space. But God is not threatened by chaos. On the contrary, God rebukes the waters and at the sound of divine thunder, the waters flee and gather together in the place God designed for them.

As the waters flee, the ground emerges with its mountains and valleys. Dry ground emerges from the waters, and the waters are given boundaries so that they will not cover the earth.  In other words, God creates habitable space for plants, animals, and humanity. God takes the initial chaotic watery world first created (Genesis 1:2) and orders it in such a way that now habitable land is present within the creation (thus, now it is “very good”). God takes the chaos and brings order to it.

God then makes benevolent use of this land, and the water satisfies the earth. Goldingay helpfully suggests that Psalm 104:10-18 has a kind of chiastic structure:

Mountains and Wild Animals (10-11)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (12-13)

Yahweh Provides for Animals and Humanity (14-15)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (16-17)

Mountains and Wild Animals (18)

Interestingly, water–though representative of chaos in the previous section–now becomes a blessing. God satisfies the earth with the rain, and the earth produces plants, which feed the animals.   The “circle of life” is present in the Psalm; life is situated in an ecosystem by divine design.

This “circle of life” involves birds in the branches of trees, goats on high mountains, badgers living in rocky crags as well as domesticated animals. God provides for animals that have no intimate connection with humanity, that is, animals that live in the wild or live in places inhospitable to humankind. Nevertheless, God cares and provides for them. God is interested in the creation even when it has no direct relationship with or connection to humanity!

The centerpiece of this structure, however, is the food God provides for animals and humans. Specifically, God provides humanity with

  • wine from vines to enjoy life
  • oil from trees to enhance human health
  • bread from grain to nourish the body

Each of these is subject to abuse (e.g., bread can lead to obesity and wine to drunkenness), but they are nevertheless fundamental goods which God gives to humanity through the creation. Each has its own purpose. Wine is for joy, grain is for nourishment (“strength”), and oil is for refreshed living (oil was used medicinally as well as to moisten the body after a hard day in the sun and scorching winds). These are creation’s goods that God intends for humanity to enjoy, even amidst the chaos that sometimes (even often) surrounds us (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

God orders the cosmos. The present creation has darkness and light, night and day. The sun and moon have their functions within that order, and there is regularity in their movements. They are predictable.  There are twenty-eight days in the lunar calendar, and the sun rises and sets at predictable times. At root, this means that science is possible because the universe functions in regular, predictable ways.

This order extends to the the function of night and day in the creation.  At night the lions hunt, and humanity works their fields by day. There is balance to life, and God values each.  God wants both the lions and humanity to have their food; God wants both to pursue life, and  God enjoys both.

The reality of darkness, however, is paralleled by the “tooth and claw” nature of the creation.  The psalmist does not idealize the present creation, or speak of the present creation as if is the future new creation. Rather, it is realistic–lions kill their prey. Eschatologically, this may not always be so, but it is true now. Chaos still exists, and creation has not yet reached its full potential or its eventual goal. Darkness yet exists though tempered by the light of the moon and stars, but one day there will be no night in the new creation. That day, however, has not yet come. So, lions still hunt their prey in the night, and humans–unfortunately–often do the same, and even bring their violence against fellow-humans and the creation itself into the light of day.

God’s orders life. Like Proverbs 8, the psalmist appeals to divine wisdom as the root of God’s creative work. The creation exhibits divine wisdom, even if perhaps we might not be able to discern it at times. And it is evidenced in the wide variety of life within the world–on the earth and in the sea, both small and great. Indeed, God has an aquarium the size of the earth’s oceans, and only God has seen most of those sea creatures.

In fact, this ordering of life is most famously exhibited in how God orders the chaos of the Leviathan, which is well-known in the ancient world as a (mythological) sea monster. The Leviathan represents the chaotic waters and lives in those waters. Often it is pictured as hostile to humanity, and certainly no human is able to tame it (Job 41; Isaiah 27:1).

Yet, God plays with the Leviathan (NJPS) or enjoys watching the Leviathan play in the oceans. God is not threatened by the chaos that the Leviathan represents. On the contrary, God enjoys and delights in the play of the Leviathan. Even “sea monsters,” which fostered dread and fear among ancient peoples, do not intimidate God because God created “sea monsters” (Genesis 1:21). The chaos within creation, the Leviathan, is yet under God’s sovereign control and so much so that God can enjoy the Leviathan’s playfulness.

The ordering of life, however, is not all play.  The psalmist’s realism emerges once again in the affirmation that both life and death are in God’s hands.  When God sends ruach (spirit, breath, wind), God gives life.  When God hides God’s face and withdraws ruach (spirit, breath, wind), then there is death. This is the nature of our creatureliness, and one we share with all life on earth.  Whether cattle or lions, or human beings, life depends upon God’s breath. Just as humans came to life through the breath of God in Genesis 2, so they return to the earth (the dust of the ground) when that breath is taken away. Life and death lie in God’s hands, and so it should be since God is the Creator.

The psalmist offers a liturgical response to this poetic narration of God’s creative work.  The creation serves the glory and delight of God, and the wish-prayer ascribes this to God.  Powerfully, God rejoices in creation; God enjoys what God has made! The creation is about God rather than humanity.

Humanity joins God in this joy and delight, and sings and offers musical praise to God in the light of this good creation.  We are grateful for what God has provided, and we admire the beauty, diversity, and order as well as the mysterious chaotic rhythms of creation. So, we sing and play.

The psalmist describes his reflection as a “meditation,” as most translations render it. The word is not exactly about meditation. Often it is translated lament, complaint, or protest.  Here, of course, it is used in a positive sense. The semantic point appears to be that this is a passionate and deeply held perspective. It arises out of the deepest regions of the soul, and the poem is a passionate outpouring of love and praise for the Creator.

If the praise and wish-prayers for God are a natural response to this passionate poem, Psalm 104:25a comes somewhat as a shock. From where does this wish-prayer for the destruction of the wicked arise? How is this congruent with the psalm as a whole?

The passion for the good things of creation is mirrored by the passion against those things that are toxic to the creation. The psalmist’s passion for creation is also a passion against those who would destroy it. The “wicked” and the “sinner” may have a general reference, but I think it probably relates more specifically to what spoils the earth, the goodness of creation, and the ends for which God created the world. In one sense all sin does that, but the prayer is that God will consume those who are committed to the subversion of God’s goodness in creation.

It should not surprise us, I think, that in passionate worship that we also display a passionate commitment to God’s goodness. Should we not be angry with poachers who endanger the Black Rhino? Should we not be angry about pollutants that render our air and waters toxic?

The prayer that God might rejoice in God’s own works is concomitant with the prayer that God would destroy those who destroy God’s creation.

The psalm ends on a final call to praise. Though the psalm begins and ends as an individual hymn of praise (“Bless Yahweh, O my soul”), its final words address the congregation. “Praise Yah” is a plural imperative. The psalmist invites Israel to praise God in the light of the poem the composer has just sung. It as if a soloist has asked the congregation to affirm his/her testimony of praise by singing the last verse with him/her.

This praise affirms that the creation is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric, but theocentric. God is the primary mover, goal, and agent in the creation, and God acts for the sake of the other (both animals and humans) in all that God does. God is Creator, and that is no mere ancient title.  God is still at work within the creation!

The creation is not about humanity, and it is not about the biosphere. It is about God.

Psalm 66

February 16, 2015

Some people enjoy hearing testimonies. Others do not.

As for the latter, their reasons vary.  Some testimonies appear superficial or lack discernment. Some believe testimonies are too subjective and individualistic. Some regard testimonies as private, a matter of personal interpretation rather than public proclamation. People should keep “testimonies,” according to some, to themselves, and they especially do not belong in the worship assembly.

On the other hand, Psalm 66 reflects the union of communal worship and personal testimony. The psalm combines a hymn of communal praise (66:1-12) and individual thanksgiving (66:13-20). The former shapes the latter, and the latter gives voice to the former. The community of Israel, gathered for praise, hears the testimony of an individual believer whose personal experience affirms the story of Israel.

At the heart of the hymn of praise is an invitation, “Come and see!’

The invitation is for “all the earth” and its “peoples.” They are invited to join the assembly of Israel in the praise of Yahweh. Israel’s story is not just about Israel. Rather, it calls all the nations scattered throughout the whole earth to join in song and music in order to shout God’s praise. Yahweh’s “name”–reputation, presence, character–deserves praise because of God’s “awesome” (fearsome, awe-inspiring) deeds. When Yahweh chose Israel, Yahweh chose them for the sake of the nations so that all the peoples of the earth might share in the inheritance of the kingdom of God.

Specifically, the psalmist has the Exodus and the entrance into the land of promise in view. The journey from the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan is Israel’s redemption by God’s mighty power.

All the earth is invited to come and “see” what God has done. But how can they “see” a past event? “See” probably means something like “to experience” or “to encounter.” When Israel gathers to praise Yahweh, it rehearses the story of redemption and through that story Yahweh encounters Israel once again as well as others who are gathered with Israel to praise God.  To “see” the mighty deeds of Yahweh is to experience them again and to encounter the holy God in the midst of the congregation.

The story of God with Israel, however, is not an easy one. In rehearing the story, they do not leave out the wilderness and neither do they forget their long years of bondage.  The God who redeemed them also tested them. Through slavery and the wilderness Israel was refined as a people so that they might become the holy people of God who would enter the land of promise.

The psalmist believes God led Israel into these times of testing; times when they were burdened, even enslaved. Israel was, at times, entrapped, as in a net. Others mistreated them, and they went through “fire and water.” God used these experiences to refine, like silver, a whole community, a whole people.

Ultimately, God redeemed, and though God led Israel through “fire and water,” Yahweh also led them into a place of abundance–the promised land.

As Israel praises God, they remember the slavery as well as the Exodus, and they remember the wilderness as well as the Jordan-crossing. The divine plot-line moved a people through trouble to redemption, and then through trouble again to redemption. The trouble has its purpose–it is refinement, a testing. The refining process prepares us for further redemption.

“Come and see” is an invitation to participate in the story of Israel, and we are reminded that the story is both one of refinement and redemption. It is not an easy path, but one that learns to trust and depend on God through the trouble. This is exactly what the personal testimony affirms in the next section of the psalm (66:13-20).

At the heart of the personal thanksgiving is also an invitation, “Come and listen!” The psalmist invites “all who fear God” to listen to his/her testimony, to listen to what God has done for him/her. The psalm moves from first person plurals to first person singulars–from us to me. A personal, individual testimony emerges in the midst of congregational praise.

First, the psalmist addresses God and remembers the vows made and the prayers prayed when he/she was in “trouble.” In gratitude, the psalmist now comes to the temple to return praise to God and fulfill those vows.

Specifically, the psalmist offers burnt offerings. Usually a thanksgiving sacrifice is a fellowship-offering where the worshiper eats the animal in fellowship with God and others. However, here the worshiper burns the whole animal before God. This is an intensification of the thanksgiving itself. The whole animal is given to God; the whole animal is burned up. By this the worshiper dedicates everything to God and thus symbolizes the intent to wholly dedicate himself or herself to God. To burn the whole animal to God is to dedicate one’s whole life to God.

The psalmist’s testimony is simply this:  I was in trouble, I prayed sincerely (without hiding sins in my heart), God heard me, and God delivered me.

The psalmist offers no details, and this is intentional. The psalmist offers a model for future testimonies and provides an entry point for others to insert their own story of renewal or deliverance in this song. In other words, testimonies are for everyone, and everyone can insert theirs into this story.

This story, however, is Israel’s story. The psalmist has lived in microcasm the macro-story of Israel. Just as Israel was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed, so this individual was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed. The personal story of believers in Israel relives Israel’s own story.

More to the point, the story of Israel becomes the lens through which believers interpret their own personal stories. Israel’s experience as a whole becomes their own individual experience. Testimonies are legitimized in Israel because they are interpreted and told within the framework of God’s history with Israel.

The same is true for Christian believers. Indeed, Jesus’ own story is interpreted in the context of God’s story with Israel. Jesus passed through the sea, entered the wilderness–even to the point of death, and was ultimately redeemed (resurrected). And this is true of followers of Jesus as well.

As disciples of Jesus, we interpret God’s work in our lives through the lens of what God has done in Jesus as well as what God did in Israel. We use this interpretative framework to understand our lives in relation to God’s mission, praise, and goals. We interpret our lives through the lens of God’s story  in Jesus, which is the fulfillment of God’s story with Israel.

Consequently, testimonies are important. They are just as important now as they were in Psalm 66.

When the community gathers to praise God and invites the nations to join in the praise, personal testimonies are an important part of that assembly.

We invite all the earth to “come and see,” and we invite all those who are gathered to praise God to “come and listen.”

That, indeed, is the essence of assembly. We “see” God anew, and we “listen” to what God is continuing to do among all those who fear God.



Psalm 88

February 15, 2015

Perhaps originally an individual lament by Heman, the Psalm became part of the repertoire of Israel’s communal worship at the temple. The faithful community sang and prayed these words. These words were not hidden in a corner, but heralded in the temple courts as the congregation of Israel worshiped God. Though they may have begun as a personal testimony, they became the community’s voice as well.

But the words are startling to many contemporary believers. It is almost unimaginable that any believer should pray these words much less that a worshiping community recite and sing them in their assembly.

Unlike other laments, Psalm 88 has no explicit praise, no commitment to trust, and no explicit hope that God will answer. It only has one petition, and it does not request healing, resolution, or redemption. It only asks God to listen (88:2)! The Psalmist wants to be heard, which is one of the great needs human beings have. We want to be heard, and most of all we want God to hear our hurts, pains, and concerns.

While Psalm 88 is traumatic for many believers, it is a prayer that arises from trauma. Perhaps that trauma was a long, chronic illness; one that has afflicted Heman from his youth. He has often lingered near the grave, on the edge of death. The prayer is the testimony of a dying person.

Three times–and this makes a  nice structural division of the Psalm into three parts–the Psalmist cries out to God:

  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (1-2), and Heman gives his reasons (3-9a)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (9bc), and Heman questions God (10-12)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (13), and Heman describes his lot (14-18)

Each time, however, Heman uses a different word for “cry out.” These terms overlap in their semantic meaning, but the emphasis is slightly different. As a structural key to the Psalm, we might see shifting (or developing) moods in the different verbs. The first has the sense of crying out for help in the midst of some kind of distress; it is an outcry, an emotionally charged plea for help.  The second has the sense of proclaim or call, which perhaps reflects a public pleading for help as if it is a pleading in court. The third is a plea, perhaps couched in deep saddness, for deliverance.

I see movement in the three sections of the Psalm.  Heman begins with an emotionally-charged plea for help where he details the tragic circumstances of his life, and then publicly questions God about death and divine faithfulness. In the final section, emotionally spent, Heman–with a sense of melancholy–faces the reality of the situation where darkness is his constant companion (88:18). We move from shock to anger, and from anger to resignation, but there is no deliverance in sight.

The shock is that God has not answered despite the persistent prayer of one who has served God faithfully for years (Heman is one of the Levitical musicians or singers–he is part of the temple musical complex). Rather than deliverance, which one might expect from the God of the Exodus, he has found himself near death as if God has abandoned him and cut him off from God’s protective care. This abandonment extends to his friends who regard him as “a thing of horror.”

Heman is alone. There is no community, and there is no salvation or healing. This has nothing to do with his prayer life–he prays every day, morning and night.  This has nothing to do with his service–he is a committed member of the praise team!  This has nothing to do with his confession–he knows Yahweh and speaks the name of God in his prayers. Consequently, Heman is bewildered, confused, and perplexed.  This does not make sense.

The Psalmist is shocked that God has not answered. He is shocked that God lies behind his condition, and his prayer is filled with accusation.  God is responsible for his situation! That itself is a shock.

This shock turns to questioning, perhaps even anger (88:9b-12). The questions are probably arguments, but also rhetorical.  Perhaps he knows the answer to them (do they assume a negative answer?), but perhaps they are more open-ended, a kind of grasping for hope in the midst of despair. Whatever the case, this prayer-warrior is bold and addresses the covenant God (Yahweh) with direct questions. He wrestles with God.

The questions contrast death and the character of Yahweh.

Does God work wonders for the dead?

Do the dead ones stand up to praise God?

Is steadfast love declared in the grave?

Is divine faithfulness declared in Abaddon?

Are divine wonders recognized in the darkness?

Is divine deliverance recognized where people are forgotten?

This is a dispute with God about death. What good is death? What good is there in Heman’s potential death? What does God gain from death?

The questions affirm life. This is where God’s steadfast love and deliverance are remembered and praised. This is the arena of God’s redemptive work, and it is where Yahweh loves and communes with the people of God. The living praise God.

As Andrew Peterson sings in “Come Back Soon,” “Every death is a question mark.” Every death raises questions about God’s character, about the meaning of life, and about the praise of God.

Heman feels these questions.  Perhaps the dead do praise God, but Heman does not know this or at least he is uncertain about it. In fact, his argument is that it is better for him to live and give testimony about God’s deliverance in the land of the living than to die and praise God (if he can) where the living will not hear. The steadfast love of God is about life, not death, and Heman appeals to this  in anger and frustration.

This anger, I think, turns to melancholy or sadness.  It still questions, “Why do you hide your face from me?” But resignation is present to some degree–the reality has set in, and no deliverance seems near. Instead, he feels assaulted and overwhelmed by a flood of terror. God has not released him from death, and God’s “terrors” have frightened his friends and neighbors.  He is alone, and only darkness is his companion.  Darkness is the last Hebrew word in the psalm.

His prayer asks, “Why?”  Sometimes one hears that sufferers should not ask why, but sufferers in the Psalms did, and Jesus even quoted one on the cross (“why have you forsaken me?”). “Why?” is a perfectly legitimate question but without satisfying answers. Heman does not know the answer, and neither do we.  Nevertheless, we still ask.  There is something deeply emotive about asking that question. We vent even as we inquire. We yearn for meaning and purpose even if we don’t see any possible meaning or purpose that could be given to some of our experiences.

“Why?” is the voice of despair, even anger. It is, however, primarily a way to cope. To ask–to voice the question–is to act, and to act is to search for meaning. Ultimately, we give the question to God who alone can answer it. But sufferers must lay it in God’s lap and ask! There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, there is something (spiritually) therapeutic about it.

In the midst of suffering–a chronic illness, the loss of death, or whatever it may be–we are first shocked, then we become angry, and then we feel the overwhelming torture of sadness or depression. This is the process of Psalm 88. There is nothing inappropriate about it. Indeed, Psalm 88 leads the congregation of Israel through that very process. It is important for healing, growth, and renewal.

But are there signs of renewal here?

Heman is overwhelmed with darkness. Even in that darkness, however, he has a glimer of hope though it is faint.

  • He continues to pray, day and night, unceasingly and persistently. He is still speaking to God; he has not given upon on God.
  • He calls God by the covenant name, “Yahweh.”
  • He approaches God as an intimate, that is, he questions God and boldly places his heart before God.
  • He knows the story of God’s covenant love, faithfulness, and past wonders, and he relies on those stories for the hope of deliverance.
  • He addresses God, in the first line of the Psalm, as the one who is able to deliver, “the God of my salvation.”
  • The prayer evidences an intensity and depth of relationship with God; Heman still trusts God and prays boldly.

And yet, there is only one petition in the whole prayer:  “incline your ear to my cry.” This is a different word for “cry” than the verbs present in verses 1, 9a, and 13.  This word involves groaning, distress, and agony.

Heman is in agony, and all he wants–as far as this prayer is concerned–is for God to listen.  Sometimes that is all we want from anybody….somebody to listen. Perhaps God answered Heman’s prayer when the whole congregation prayed with him in song and music.

Perhaps that happens even today when we are willing to listen to each other’s agony, and then darkness is no longer our closest companion.

Psalm 19

February 10, 2015


Some are voiceless, some form a narrative, and others offer a response.

Psalm 19 is a meditative response to words that make no sound and words that shape the life of Israel. The Psalmist offers a meditation on how God encounters Israel through creation and Torah and how believers respond to such gracious revelation.

Creation’s Words

In successive synonymous parallelisms, the poet describes the impact of creation’s voiceless words.  One cannot read “heavens” and “firmament” as well as day and night without thinking about Genesis 1. The “firmament” is the protective barrier that shields the habitable earth from chaos. It is not merely “sky,” but the word reflects God’s creative love.  God’s glory is that God has acrafted (God’s handiwork) a place that speaks without words.

Creation itself announces or proclaims, and it does this continually–day and night. Creation speaks unceasingly about the reality of God’s care for the creation. The intent of God’s glorious speech is to “reveal knowledge.”

In our post-Enlightenment world we might immediately think that this refers to some kind of deductive inference about the existence of God. In other words, some stress that Psalm 19 affirms natural revelation and that it assumes nature demonstrates the existence of God. That may be true to a point (and Paul in Romans 1:19-21 seems to think something similar), but “knowledge” here is more about relationship and encounter. The Hebrew conception of “knowledge” is more about intimacy than it is propositional information.

Creation is a place where God encounters humanity, and creation speaks in such a way that humanity experiences (“knows”) God. The kind of knowledge assumed here are not mere facts but the reality of God engaged with the human story. Many testify to their encounters with God through the creation. Whether it is a mountain top, a sunrise, or waves crashing against the rocks, many have experienced God within and through the creation itself. God communicates–creation speaks for God–in such moments.

That speech, though unheard, is unceasing (day and night!), and it is universal as it is heard “through the whole earth” and to the “ends of the world.” Everyone has access to this speech or revelation; everyone may encounter God through God’s good creation.

The sun is a prime example of this speech. It is universal as it moves from one end of the earth to the other. The sun’s heat is not hidden from anyone or anything. Everyone feels its heat–whether it is warmth on a cold day or scorching heat in a dry summer. One cannot miss the sun, and the sun declares the glory of God–it testifies to God’s unceasing presence.

This glory is like the glory of a bridegroom on his wedding day. As he emerges from the wedding canopy (or wedding night chamber), he faces the future with joy, excitement, and hope. Like a champion who wins a race, the sun races across the sky in triumph. The rising sun brings a new day with all the potential excitement of a new adventure.

The Psalmist focuses on the sun, and perhaps this is a mild polemic against Ancient Near Eastern sun-worship, or perhaps it is simply the grandest example of God’s glory day-t0-day. Whatever the case, the sun illustrates the grandeur, pervasiveness, and accessiblity of God’s speech through the creation.

Creation is God’s first act of self-revelation, and it is an act of gracious engagement. Humanity does not discover God as much as God speaks within and through the creation. God makes the first move.

Torah’s Words

Israel knows that God speaks in other ways than through the rising sun and the testimony of the heavens. God has spoken in history, and God has acted within history to enter into covenant (relationship) with Israel. That story is told in concrete ways–it is written in the Torah. These words are heard, and they are heard in the assembly of the people of God. Israel has been given the “oracles of God” (cf. Romans 3:2), and this comes in the form of Torah (often rendered “law”).

“Torah” heads the praise of this divine speech. It is, one might say, the controlling metaphor for the following descriptions:  decrees, precepts, and commandment. Those further terms are couched in the framework of Torah, and Torah is not primarily a legal code but a story that guides Israel in walking with God. Torah is instruction and guidance through narrative and story rather than merely specific case-law or isolated commands and rituals.

Embedded within God’s story with Israel are guidelines, directions, and formative practices that transform people into the image of God. This story:

  • restores the soul, that is, it renews life
  • makes the simple wise, that is, guides the inexperienced
  • gives joy to the heart, that is, enables a life free of burdens
  • enlightens the eyes, that is, enables us to see more clearly

The Torah–the story of God with Israel–provides a path for healthy, joyful and wise living.

The colon “making the simple wise” is particularly significant. This is the language of Proverbs 1:1-7. There are two paths in life–the foolish one and the wise one.  But the “simple” are often too inexperienced to discern the difference. The Hebrew term “simple” does not refer to a mental deficiency, but to the lack of life experience. The “simple” are easily deceived, easily driven by desires, and act on impulse rather than careful reflection (they react rather than respond to situations). Due to a lack of experience, their discernment is impaired or underdeveloped.

The Torah serves as a wise sage to help the “simple”discern good from evil, make choices, and understand the consequences of the different paths life can take. In other words, the Torah–God’s guidance–is for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live. It is not an oppressive legal chain, but divine wisdom spoken for the sake of human health and well-being.

As a result, the wise response is submission, that is, it is to fear (awe, reverence) Yahweh. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), and this humble submission and reverent respect for God calls us to embody the Torah’s wisdom in our own lives.

It is little wonder, then, that the Psalmist regards God’s speech as more valuable than gold or silver and sweeter than honey.  This speech is about life, authentic life. A discerning, wise life has better consequences than hoarding gold or silver, and it is much sweeter than the momentary taste of honey.

Our Words

The Psalmist confesses that Torah, God’s guidance, is both life-affirming (there is great reward in living a wise life) and a warning (there are dangers into which the “simple” might fall).

Indeed, the dangers are so pervasive that often they are hidden from our own eyes. The human ability for self-deception and self-delusion knows no practical limits. Most of our faults, I would guess, are “hidden” from us. We are unaware due to ignorance–ignorance both of the Torah and of our own selves.

The danger is that this self-deception can grow into an arrogance, and arrogance leads to presumptuous or defiant behavior.  It leads to willful sin, that is, sin that rebelliously lives outside the story. Arrogance presumes that the story (Torah) does not apply to them and they are the exceptions to the rules a community shares for the sake of the common good.

Because this danger looms large in every soul, the Psalmist asks God to forgive the hidden sins and prevent them from developing into a rebellious attitude. The Psalmist is committed to God’s story and wants to live within it. Yet, the poet knows the dangers and seeks God’s help in cleansing and self-understanding.

Yahweh is the Psalmist’s “rock and redeemer.” The fear of Yahweh is a stable place and a sure foundation upon which to build a life, and though our own self-deception often intrudes and disrupts that life, God is also a redeemer who forgives sin, renews life, and gives joy.

Let us offer our meditations–on creation and Torah–before the Lord, recommit ourselves to wise living in the fear of Yahweh, and humbly submit to God’s guidance.


From Mauthausen to Melk

February 8, 2015

On Friday, February 6, I traveled with our Vienna Study Abroad group to the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, and then we visited the Benedictine monastery in Melk. Geographically, the distance is not so great (about an hour bus ride), but the emotional distance is huge if not traumatic.

Mauthausen was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis in Austria after their annexation of country in March 1938. From its beginnings in August 1938 to its liberation by the U. S. Army in May 1945, the camp worked people to death (mining granite), and the regime summarily executed thousands (including a gas chamber). Over 100,000 people died at Mauthausen.

The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089, and its religious devotion is evidenced by fact that it was the center of Austrian monastic reform in the fifteenth century.  The present Baroque facilities were erected in the early 1700s, and its church is the burial place of St. Coloman, an Irish monk who was martyred near Vienna in the early eleventh century. The Abbey survived both Joseph II’s confiscation of monastic property in the late eighteenth century and barely survived Nazification even though most of its property was used for state education at the time.

The camp has a serene setting on a rise of above Mauthausen which presently has less than 5,000 people living on the Gusen river that flows into the Danube, and the abbey sits at the head of the beautiful Wachau Valley situated on the Danube above the village of Melk which is also about 5,000. Both the concentration camp and the abbey overlook their villages and sit on high points that offer magnificent views of their valleys. Their settings are similar, but their intents are radically different.

Mauthausen was a labor camp designed to kill its inmates. Their daily diet was only half the calories necessary for subsistence.  They were literally worked to death, and certain groups were simply executed. For example, Jewish inmates were sometimes, to the amusement of some of their SS guards, “parachuted” over the granite cliffs to their deaths.

Melk Abbey was an educational institution designed for life. It was a refuge on the borders of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria in the eleventh century, and it conducted a school from the twelfth century forward. The Abbey has been a center of service, education, prayer, and worship for almost ten centuries.

The two compounds, rising above their Austrian villages, represent two very different intentions. One arises out of a hatred for non-Germanic people groups (Jews, Slavs [including Soviet prisoners and Czech/Polish intelligensia], Roma), perceived social threats (same-sex orientation and Jehovah’s witnesses), and political dissenters (Social Democrats, Communists). The other arises out of a love for God and neighbor that devoted itself to St. Benedict’s Rule of work and prayer.

The two represent very different conceptions of human life. One uses forced labor and violence to secure its ends. The other practices humble submission and service to secure its ends. While they may share some similar ends, that is, security and community, the means by which these are pursued are very different–one by violence and the other by prayer.

Mauthausen and Melk symbolize–only miles apart–the “two ways” of biblical wisdom literature. There is a way that leads to death and destruction, and there is a way that leads to life.  The foolish choose the former while the wise choose the latter.

Nevertheless, there was something uneasy about seeing the two back-to-back. While the contrast in intention and work is stark and illuminating, the contrast between austerity and wealth was also shocking.

Melk’s Baroque buildings, golden reliquaries, and magnificent church pointed to the wealth of the eighteenth century empire that enriched it. The church and the majestic art, floors, and ceilings of the monastery reflect the glory of the empire (the Holy Roman Empire) as well as God.

I have no doubt that this wealth was dedicated to the glory of God, though it was also a testimony to the glory of the empire. The two were not easily separated in the minds of most in eighteenth century Austria. So, I do not question the intent (to glorify God) as much as the means.

We could raise all kinds of questions about how the empire acquired this wealth, how it was distributed, and what the life of the poor was like. We could question a hegemony where ethnic Germans ruled politically disenfranchised Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Serbians, Italians, etc. The empire enriched this monastery. So, even as I admire the beauty of Melk’s art and architecture, I pause to wonder about the roots of this wealth.

Coming from Mauthausen, I wonder abut the origins of the wealth that created this beauty at Melk. The Nazi empire (the Third Reich) created a monstrous and unambiguous evil–labor camps and death camps. The Holy Roman Empire, through the Habsburgs, created beauty, though it also had its share of atrocities in its history.

Nevertheless, I am amazed by the beauty of the art, the craftmanship of the woodwork, and the genius of the architect. In that beauty I see the reflection of the God who created beauty and loves beauty. I see the giftedness that enabled such art. The glory of God surely shines through it.

Whatever its origins, beauty–whether created by the Colorado river flowing through canyons for millions of years or Baroque buildings designed and built by Jakob Prandtauer over a thirty year period–testifies to the beauty of God’s own life and God’s love for diversity within the creation.

At bottom, is it possible to appreciate and enjoy beauty when places like Mauthausen exist in the world? Can we laugh and enjoy the good when evil surrounds us? Can we go from Mauthausen to Melk in one day without feeling sick to our stomachs?

I think so, but only with care. Indeed, an ancient Hebrew sage wrestled with this very question. We call his work Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth saw oppression, folly, and death in the world. He lived with a sense of frustration about how evil and senseless the world really is. Indeed, his motto was that “everything is absurd!” Life does not make sense!

At the same time, he saw goodness within the creation. He believed that God created the world and, though it is filled with evil, there is nothing better to do than to love, work, and enjoy creation’s gifts. He confessed that there was yet “good” in the world even though life was absurd.

I felt the same way on Friday.

Mauthausen bears witness to the absurdities of humanity! But Melk–both in terms of its medieval origins and its present beauty–testifies to the reality that beauty and goodness still exist in the world.

Melk and Mauthausen contrast–prayer and service battle violence and oppression.

I am grateful that Melk can serve as a response to Mauthausen, though we must be careful that Melk does not also lead us to sanctify empires.


The Closing Psalm (Psalm 150)

February 2, 2015

At some point Psalm 145:21 may have been the final doxology of Psalms. It makes a similar point to Psalm 150:6.

Psalm 145:21 appears as the concluding doxology of Book V in the Psalter.  Books I-IV conclude with independent doxologies attached to the final psalms in those books. It is natural that Book V would also conclude with a doxology.

However, there are five more Psalms (146-150). If Book V concludes with Psalm 145, what is the function of the final five? I think they are concluding doxologies (or praises ) for the whole book.

It is as if the final editor (whoever he/she/they may be) of Psalms was unwilling to end the Psalter on a two-line doxology. The journey through the Psalter is a difficult one. It is filled with lament and protest, but it moves toward praise and exults in the character and redeeming acts of God. The Psalter must end with praise…..and praise….and praise. There are not enough words.

Each of the final five Psalms begin and end with the Hebrew phrase often transliterated as Hallelujah (praise Yahweh, or praise the Lord). The word “praise” occurs thirty-six times in the final five psalms, and twelve times in the final psalm (150). The editor(s) concludes the Psalter with resounding praise–almost as if it is unceasing praise. So, the structure of the Psalter might look something like this.

Introduction: Psalm 1

  • Book I (Psalms 2-41) Doxology:  41:13
  • Book II (Psalms 42-72) Doxology: 72:18-19
  • Book III (Psalms 73-89) Doxology: 89:52
  • Book IV (Psalms 93-106) Doxology: 106:48
  • Book V (Psalms 107-150) Doxology: 145:21

Conclusion: Psalms 146-150

The final psalm–of the traditional Hebrew text–uses the verb “praise” twelve times. Every line in the psalm contains the verb. Eleven of them are imperatives (commands), but the next to last is a jussive, that is, an invitation to join the praise (150:6).

The repeated exhortation to praise constitutes a demand that arises from the story the Psalmists have told throughout their journey with God in the previous psalms, a journey with many hills and valleys. That journey ends, however, in praise.

God has sustained the Psalmists. God has not abandoned them, even though sometimes they thought God had. Yahweh is faithful, and from creation to Exodus to renewal in the post-exilic era, God has redeemed Israel and demonstrated the excellence of the divine character.

That praise begins in the the divine, heavenly sanctuary–in firmament that shields the earth–but it encompasses what God has done upon the earth, God’s “mighty deeds.”  The praise in Psalm 150 has no content. Instead, it has a standard.  We are called to praise God in ways that reflect God’s mighty deeds (God’s redemptive acts) and the excellence of God’s character.

The mighty deeds have demonstrated God’s presence and revealed God’s character. Our praise must be congruent with God’s story, the faithful and redemptive ways in which God has patiently continued to love Israel. We know who God is, and this demands praise.  Hallelujah, the call to praise Yahweh, is the call to engage the covenant God of Israel, the one who has acted in faithful love for the people called out of Ur and Egypt, and returned from Babylon.

In the divine sanctuary (which probably includes the temple court as a mirror of the heavenly one), how is this praise embodied?

Interestingly, nothing is explicitly said about the use of words, though I think the call to “praise” involves words.  Rather, the mood and atmosphere of praise is connected to instrumentation, to the sounds of artistic, exuberant, and bold string, percussion, and wind instruments. Israel praised God with (through or by) these instruments. They were no mere aids but means.

  • Trumpets–usually  used to mark movements within the liturgy, to announce significant moments, events, and transitions (much like bells are used in some liturgical churches).
  • Harp and lute, or “strings and pipe,”–the use of wind and string instruments as means of praise, as acts of praise of themselves.
  • Tambourines and dancing–we see the joy of the Exodus in the praise of God (cf. Exodus 15:20), and that joy continued in the celebration of God’s redemptive acts and faithful character.
  • Cymbals–perhaps also used to mark movements within the liturgy, but also to dramatically heighten the bold character of the praise. The cymbals are loud and resounding; this is no soft, solemn, or silent praise.

As one student commented, the instruments reflect how bold and enthusiastic this praise is. We might imagine the priests blowing the trumpets and clashing the cymbals at dramatic moments in the liturgy while a Levitical band (strings and pipes) provides the music that accompanies the words of praise are sung by a Levitical choir. In the midst of this offering by the priests and Levites, the congregation taps their tambourines and dances in the temple court in praise of Yahweh, their faithful covenant God.

This praise is the fruit of a life lived under the Torah of God and tutored by the prayers and thanksgivings of the Psalmists. Living in humble submission, absorbing the values and language of the psalms, and obedient to the Torah or story of God, praise is the fruit of such a life. Prayer leads to praise, and obedience leads to adoration.

Indeed, this is the fundamental identity of everything that breathes; humanity is homo liturgicus.  The final line of the Psalter, except the inclusio “Praise the Lord,” invites all creation (“every breath” as in Genesis 7:22), to join the chorus of praise.  As in Psalm 148, the cosmos–whether in heaven or on earth–is invited to praise God.

God gives breath, and that breath ought to return to God in praise. The breath in us is, in fact, the Spirit of God moving through us (see Job 27:1). As such, breath returns to God who gave it.

As the Orthodox theology Schmemann wrote, “every breath is communion with God,” and the Psalmist invites “every thing that breathes” to say, Hallelujah!

So, as people who sing, pray, and mediate on the psalms, we join the chorus of praise that reverberates throughout the cosmos,even though we have traversed many valleys and dark places to get to this point.

Our every breath is both an invitation to praise and a form of praise!

The Opening Psalm (Psalm 1)

January 31, 2015

Psalm 1, perhaps also Psalm 2, serves as a preface or introduction to the Psalter. It says something important about how we should read, sing, pray, and meditate on Psalms.

There is some text-critical evidence (variant readings) that Acts 13:33 calls Psalm 2 the “first Psalm,” and some medieval manuscripts write the first psalm in red. This suggests that some believed Psalm 1 introduces the whole book of Psalms. So the question is: how does Psalm 1 orient us to the practice of praying and singing the Psalms? That can only be answered by a close reading and focused understanding of the psalm.

Psalm 1 is neither a prayer nor a song. Rather, it is a teaching. Often classified as a Torah Psalm (that is, a Psalm that intends to teach, instruct, or guide in reflection of what Yahweh has revealed to Israel), it also serves as a Wisdom Psalm (that is, offering a general perspective on life), and both genres orient the worshiper who uses Psalms. The psalms become a way of life; they provide guidance in how to pray, what language to use about God, how to think about life in communion with God, and how to live with God in the midst of life. Psalms teaches people how to praise, pray (event protest), and give thanks (testify).

Psalm 1 is deeply rooted in both Torah and Wisdom as both teach there are two ways.  The righteous and the wicked take different paths. This kind of language is common throughout the Torah (obediently following God and refusing to obey God) and Wisdom (wise people and foolish people). Jesus reflects this same vision of “paths” in Matthew 7:13-14.  There is a path that leads to destruction (even self-destruction) and there is a path that leads to life (even the abundant life). The wise choose the latter while the foolish choose the former (Matthew 7:24-27). Can you sing the song? Upon what did are we building our houses–rock (wise) or sand (fools)?

As one student helpfully suggested, this sounds like “us versus them” thinking, or at least it sounds like a kind of arrogant “we are righteous” and “you are sinners” kind of thing. Certainly some might use Psalm 1 to reinforce their hostile and antagonistic attitudes towards others they believe are “sinners” (even if they are not). Clearly we neither want to claim any kind of sinless status, nor do we want to treat people with hostility in an “us versus them” sort of way.

However, I don’t think that is the picture here. Indeed, Jesus ate with sinners, and he loved sinners. We are all sinners in some sense. At the same time, Jesus also prayed the psalms (often quoting them) and recognized the distinction between the foolish and the wise.

So, what is the point of the Psalm 1? It is about the direction in which our life is oriented and the path we have chosen to take. Do we seek to live under God’s guidance, or do we choose the advice of those who live self-destructive lives? Do we choose to live out God’s story for our lives, or do we create our own story? We have a choice, and the crux of the decision is to choose whether we will humbly submit to God’s Torah (guidance, instruction, or story) or whether we will arrogantly create our own path. This is the choice Psalm 1 sets before us.

One path leads to death or destruction, even self-destruction. This path is like chaff in the wind. It leads nowhere and is blown away by the wind.  The path ultimately means that they cannot withstand the close scrutiny of life, that is, their life is ultimately empty and without substance. That path has no goal, and it ultimately has no place to stand. It is blown about by the winds of life.

The other path leads to life. It is a fruitful and productive life. Deeply rooted, it is stable. Planted by water, it is constantly refreshed and nourished. The path of wisdom results in a centered-life, and one that prospers.

But does the wise path always prosper? Surely we all know people, even the best of people, who suffer greatly despite their wise choices.

It is good to remember that we are reading poetry, and it is a wisdom poem at that. The psalm speaks in general terms. Within God’s good creation, a wise path tends toward life, while a foolish path tends towards self-destruction, which is the whole point of Proverbs 1-9.  But there are exceptions (Job is a memorable one within the canon), and the Psalter will remind us that they exist. In fact, the biblical psalms include the prayers of righteous sufferers, diseased devotees, and dying believers. The Psalter is not naive, and neither is Psalm 1.

Nevertheless, wisdom teaches that which we path we choose entails blessings or consequences. It says something about how life works within God’s created order. There are practices and habits that bring death, and there are those that bring life.

If we….

  • live (walk) by the advice (counsel) of the foolish (wicked),
  • choose (stand) the path of those who reject God’s Torah (sinners), and
  • participate (sit) in or join in the planning (assembly) of mockers hostile to God,

then we have chosen a path that leads to destruction.

The Psalmist has chosen a different path; he sits in the assembly of the righteous (disciples of God’s Torah) rather than in the assembly of the mockers.

The wise…

  • delight, love, and embrace the teaching (story, narrative) of Yahweh and
  • immerse themselves in that narrative through prayer, reflection, and worship

As we read, sing, and pray the psalms, we have a choice.  We may either submit our hearts and lives to the language, values, and story of Yahweh’s teaching through Psalms, or we may create our own language, values, and story by ignoring or rejecting Psalms.

Psalm 1 invites us to decide how we will approach the Psalter. Will we read in humility seeking to learn how to praise, pray, and give thanks, or will we read them in arrogant dismissal? Psalm 1 prepares us for a journey through the Psalter, and it recommends humble submission. Psalm 1, introducing the five books of the Psalms (which mirrors the five books of the Torah), invites us to worship and commune with God within the narrative that God has created.

Those who accept that invitation are “blessed.”  They are not simply “happy” like some kind of satisfied, consumerist state of consciousness. Rather, they are “blessed.” God has invested in their lives and provided a sense of “blessedness.” As they walk in the path of God’s story, God is actively shaping and transforming them so that they are trees planted by water yielding their fruit in every season of life. Blessedness is a divine act, and God gives it to those who walk wisely in the fear of the Lord.

Lament Prayer

January 20, 2015

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Psalm 74:11a

A Lament Prayer.

Three Takeaways from “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

December 30, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings is filled with amazing special effects, wonderfully depicts the cultural situation (clothing, geography, architecture), and generally follows the biblical storyline.

Epic “biblical” movies are always imaginative creations. The Ten Commandments with the beloved Charlton Heston used a lot of imagination in telling the Exodus story, though it arguably followed  the biblical “script” more closely than did Gods and Kings.

When telling the biblical story visually, however, imagination is imperative and unavoidable.  Storytellers–whether verbal or visual or cinematic–tell the story in a particular way to make a contemporary point. We might hope that there is some degree of faithfulness to the overt lines of the story (and this is the case with Gods and Kings generally), but the intent is to tell the story in the present for a contemporary audience. In other words, if Exodus had been written last year, how might the story have been told while still retaining the main features of the reality it portrays? I suppose it could look like this movie. Maybe. At least one version of it.

Whatever one might think about the explicit divergences from the biblical story (e.g., the conversation at the burning bush is too limited in the movie, the omission of the opening confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, absence of Pharaoh-Moses interaction about the plagues, etc.), the story is told to make a point(s) for contemporary audiences.

I heard several points, but here are my major takeaways.

1. Israel wrestles with God. Nun, Joshua’s father, demonstrates a tenacious hopeful faithfulness as he expects divine deliverance though he is uncertain as to when. In the movie, Israel waits for God, prays to God, and hopes in God, even as their suffering abounds and increases.

At one point, Moses–still a prince of Egypt–reminds the viceroy, who supervises the slaves, of the meaning of the word “Israel” (one who wrestles or strives with God). Moses is fully aware of this, and when he encounters God this becomes a prominent theme which grows within the drama.

Moses both argues and cooperates (or even abstains from action) with God. Moses wrestles with God. He objects to God’s decision to kill the children of Egypt (and perhaps we even nod our heads in agreement), but ultimately Moses accepts God’s decision (even when confronted by Pharaoh as to why Moses serves such a God).

This wrestling reflects some of the best of Jewish tradition. We see it in Exodus 3-4 and Exodus 32. We see it in Psalms 30 & 88, as well as in Job 7:7-21 and other places. It is part of the history of Judaism.

Israel wrestles with God. There is tension, and there is faith as well as honesty. God seeks human cooperation and honors the dignity of human freedom. One of the final scenes highlights this when Moses buys into the divine regulations we know as the “Ten Commandments.”

Rather than depicting the God-Moses relationship as a sanitized submissiveness, Gods and Kings reflects the raw reality that the book of Exodus depicts.  Moses wrestles with God, and so do we.

2. Jewish Holocaust Relived.  Forced labor. Burning bodies. Racial slurs. Summary executions. Genocidal pogroms.

The movie allows us to enter into the experience of slavery. We remember not only that ancient slavery, but the Nazi Holocaust as well.  The parallels are vivid. We are incensed with a righteous indignation, and we cry with the Israelites for justice and deliverance.

God expresses this righteous anger more than any other character in the movie. In explaining why the plagues, and particularly the last plague, were necessary, God points to Pharaoh’s arrogance and the treatment of Israel. The plagues are not about vengeance but justice and to secure the release of Israel from the holocaust they were experiencing.

The cry for justice rebounds through the history of the world. The slave conditions remind us that Africans were enslaved as forced labor in the Americas. The movie reminds us that racial slurs, summary executions (lynchings) and genocidal pogroms (mob violence) are part of our own American story.

As viewers sympathize with Israel in their suffering, perhaps we learn to sympathize with enslaved Africans, enslaved women in sex-trafficking, and the injustice pervasively present in the world even now. Perhaps our sense of righteous indignation is renewed.

3. Not by Israel’s sword, but by the Lord’s right hand. This biblical theme emerges in the movie. It is present in Psalm 44:3, Psalm 20:7, and Hosea 1:7 as well as other places.

I wondered early in the movie why Moses carried a sword rather than a staff after the burning bush encounter. Indeed, the staff is absent until after Israel crosses the sea.

Moses approaches the situation as a general who intends to train an army of freedom fighters. (The biblical story highlights Moses’s violent nature–he kills an Egyptian.) Moses will liberate Israel by his own might, ingenuity, and sword. He wages a guerrilla campaign against Egypt.  Of course, this is nowhere present in the biblical text.  This is a place where the script writer takes creative liberties in order to make an explicit point, which is nevertheless a theme in the canonical story and in the history of Israel.

God allows Moses to pursue his ineffective strategy until God decides to assume the reins and effectively move Pharaoh to liberate Israel. The plagues, depicted as natural events (though implausibly explained as such by Pharaoh’s own “scientist”), are divine acts that humble Egypt before Israel’s God. Egypt experiences horrors, and they now know how Israel feels in its horrendous bondage.

At bottom, violent revolution, which Moses chose as his strategy, is rejected. God uses the chaos of nature–a form of uncreation where God turns order into chaos when his creative activity turned chaos into order–to achieve the divine purpose.

The movie depicts human violence in negative terms, and in the biblical story human violence does not deliver Israel from Egypt.

Further, it is a purpose that is frustrated at times by Pharaoh’s own stubborness and idolatry (not only does he serve other gods but also thinks of himself as a god). Pharaoh’s hard heart increases the drama of the plagues. Human sin and rebellion creates further hardship (which is not unlike what sinful environmental practices do as well). Resistance to the will of God has consequences–for the nation, for people, even for children.

God delivers. We do not deliver ourselves. God remembers the promise to Israel and faithfully acts to redeem them from bondage. Moses’s freedom fighter strategy is discredited. Rather, Moses learns to trust in God’s mighty hand, and so we trust as well.



The Empathetic God

December 27, 2014

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”


Mercy Over Sacrifice: The Missing Principle in Muscle & a Shovel

December 2, 2014

I recently published a new article at  You can access it here.

Muscle and a Shovel: A Review

September 5, 2014

The full review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shanks is now available in a PDF file. Anyone may print and distribute this as they desire.

The text is also available on Kindle.


A Sacramental Journey

September 3, 2014

Creation is good, but new creation is better. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper on the journey

On Reading Lamentations

September 3, 2014

There is always reason to weep.

We don’t have to look too far into our world—whether through social media, television, or newsprint—to find reason to weep. Yet, too often we—especially the church—ignore, hide our eyes, or look past the pain in order to escape into fantasy, denial, or hope. We rarely sit in our grief and lament.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a testimony to the value of lament. The whole book is a series of laments, a total of five. Responding to the devastation of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. (described in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52), the heart-felt cries of sorrow and pain fill the air and ascend to the God of Israel.

However, though focused on a specific moment in Israel’s history, Jewish tradition has recited these poems every year on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). This annual fast day remembers the day when the Exodus generation was told they would not enter the promised land, the day when the first and second temples were destroyed, the day when the Romans finally defeated the last Jewish rebellion against the Empire in 135 C.E., and the day when the Romans plowed under Jerusalem to rebuild it as a pagan city. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year, and it symbolizes all the tragedies that have fallen the Jewish people.

Tisha B’Av is Israel’s day of mourning. There is no eating, drinking, or sex on that day. Normally every day is filled with God’s good gifts of creation. Even amidst our daily encounters with hebel (what Ecclesiastes calls the absurdities of life), people eat, drink, and enjoy their spouses (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). But not on this day! On this day, the day when Lamentations is read, there is no joy. It is a day of lament.

Lamentations, to use the title of Leslie C. Allen’s book, is a “liturgy of grief.” These five laments express the pain of tragedy, call believers to an introspective faith, and accept God’s work among them. The laments help believers walk through their grief. It does not ignore or suppress the pain. On the contrary, it voices it. The community neither walks around nor backs away from the grief. Instead, they walk through it.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a communal lament where the people of God remember their story, express their grief, and appeal to their God. Tisha B’Av provides Judaism with a rhythm that incorporates grief into their faith and thereby integrates their experiences of real pain with authentic faith. Sorrow is expressed rather than suppressed.

The historic liturgies of the church have used Lamentations during Holy Week in the light of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (Tenebrae Services). The laments express the sorrow for sin and grieve death. The Christian Church, then, has adopted this resource within the Hebrew Bible to provide a rhythm of sorrow, repentance, and humility within its own calendar. Lamentations is incorporated into the climax of Lent as Holy Week moves toward Easter.

We read Lamentations, then, to (1) learn to lament, (2) to practice lament, and (3) to move through lament into God’s mercy.

Lamentations is actually five laments; each chapter is its own self-contained lament. We do not know who wrote them (they are anonymous), though an ancient (as early as the Septuagint translation) and strong tradition attributes them to Jeremiah. Whoever the author, they have functioned as significant communal laments for the people of God.

  1. Lament One is a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses, which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet).
  2. Lament Two is also a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  3. Lament Three is a poem where the first letter of each colon (represented as verses) within the tricolon begins with the same letter of the alphabet and the tricolons form an acrostic (therefore, sixty-six verses).
  4. Lament Four is a poem where the first letter of each bicolon (two lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  5. Lament Five is a poem formed by a series of twenty-two bicolons but there is no acrostic pattern.

While the relationship between these five poems will require our attention in coming blogs, it seems rather obvious that the central poem (Lament Three) is the pinnacle of the book. There are several stylistic as well as theological reasons for such a judgment. It is appears at the center in a unique poetic form, and it reminds Israel of God’s everlasting mercy. Consequently, we might picture Lamentations as a rising crescendo in the first two chapters that is climaxed in the third and with a descending decrescendo in the last two chapters.

In this view, Lamentations begins with lament as the book opens with the word ‘ekah (how?)—as does 2:1 and 4:1. Indeed, this is the Hebrew title of the book (“Lamentations” comes through the Latin Vulgate.). But the book ends with a prayer to Yahweh, “Restore us to yourself” (5:21-22). Between the laments and the prayer is the bold assertion—and probably the most well-known line in Lamentations—“the steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases” (3:22) and the confession “Yahweh is my portion” (3:24).

Lamentations, then, has the classic elements of lament itself. There is (1) complaint, including a description of the horrible circumstances under which people suffer. There is (2) petition, which appeals to Yahweh to transform the situation. But there is also (3) praise, which comes in the form of confident confession and hope.

Lament is not simply wallowing in one’s sorrow as if it is a function of self-pity alone. It includes that as well as other forms of complaint. But it is much more. It is also petition and praise.

Lament moves us through the grief toward a confident hope in God. It takes time, and it takes practice, that is, it takes the practice of lament itself. We must take the time to talk it out with God and in community.

Lamentations provides a resource for the people of God to voice their hurts, offer their petitions, and express their faith.

Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!



Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)

August 11, 2014

 [Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Obeying the Gospel

In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).

He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).

Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.

In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.

The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).

Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:

            “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).

            “Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)

Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.

Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal

            Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.

            Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?

Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).

What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?

The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).

This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).

Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).

God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).

Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):

  • biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
  • non-denominational (25:4172)
  • autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
  • governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
  • “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
  • the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
  • singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
  • free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
  • teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).

The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.

In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.

This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.

“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).

What I Appreciate

I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.

I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).

I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.

What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.

In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).

One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.

Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.

The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.

In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.

Peace and Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

July 2, 2014

Inheritance (or, possession) occurs fifty times in the book of Joshua, and everyone of them, except for five (11:23; 23:4; 24:28,30,32), occur in chapters 12-21. Further, the verb “to possess or inherit” occurs nine times in Joshua, eight times in Joshua 13-21. So, fifty-three of the fifty-nine occurrences of this word group occur in Joshua 13-21 That is a fairly solid clue to the book’s major emphasis in its second half (and all but two occurrences are found in Joshua 13-24).

The first half of Joshua narrates the entrance of Israel into the land of Canaan and the successful northern and southern military campaigns that secured the land for Israel (at least much of it). The final line of chapter eleven signals the end of the “conquest” (at least in terms of major offensives): “And the land had rest from war.” Chapter twelve recounts the victories.

The last verse of Joshua 11, however, also introduces us to the major theme of Joshua 13-21.

So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Two ideas in this conclusion to the first half of Joshua are particularly significant for the theology of Joshua in the second half of the book, and they are intertwined.

First, “the land had rest from war” (also Joshua 14:15). This theme extends into Judges both positively (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28) and negatively (18:7, 18). In the former, God gives Israel “rest” through liberating them from oppressors. In the latter, the Danites slaughter a peaceful, quiet (“rest”) town for their own selfish ends; they seize what does not belong to their “inheritance.”

“Rest” appears in the Chronicler’s history. It is what God gives to Israel when they seek Yahweh (cf 2 Chronicles 14:1, 5-6; 20:30; 23:21). In those days of “rest,” there was “no war” (2 Chronicles 14:5).

“Rest” reappears in the prophets as part of the promises of God. The righteous will rest, but the wicked will not (Isaiah 14:7; 30:15; 32:17; 57:20). Ultimately, God’s people will find rest in the land once again without fear (Jeremiah 30:10; 46:27). Both Isaiah and Micah see a time when the nations will learn war no more, the earth will be at peace, and no one will be afraid (Isaiah 2; Micah 4).

The “rest” that God intended for Israel in Canaan is also the rest that God intends for all nations. God created the heavens and the earth for peace rather than war; it was for “rest” rather than chaos. God created and rested; God created and dwelt with humanity. The heavens and the earth are God’s home (Isaiah 66:1-2), and it is given to humanity as a “rest.” Chaos, sin, and the rule of the principalities and powers subvert God’s intent, but there yet remains a “rest” for the people of God (Hebrews 4:4, 8, 10).

Second, God gave the “land for an inheritance to Israel.” Joshua 11:23 is the first time the noun appears in Joshua. The land is Israel’s inheritance (cf. Numbers 34:2; Deuteronomy 4:21, 38; 15:4; 19:10; 20:16; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; Psalm 105:11; 136:21-22), just as Israel itself is God’s own “inheritance” (possession; Deuteronomy 4:20; 9:26, 29; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 8:51-53). God gives Israel (God’s own inheritance) an inheritance.

Joshua 14:2-3 summarizes the division of the land:

Their inheritance was by lot, as the Lord had commanded Moses for the nine and one-half tribes. For Moses had given an inheritance to the two and one-half tribes beyond the Jordan; but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.

 Joshua 19 is peppered with this line:  “This is the inheritance of the tribe….” Forty-five times in Joshua 13-21 the writer, by the use of this term, stresses the theological meaning of this moment. Israel’s possession of the land is an inheritance from Yahweh.

This language has both creational and eschatological meaning.  God’s gift of the land to Israel is analogous to God’s creation of the earth. God gave the cosmos to Adam and Eve, and “placed” (rested; Genesis 2:15) them in the Garden to serve and protect it (which is a priestly task). Adam and Eve were priests in God’s temple, God’s home. This was God’s inheritance for humanity. God created humanity so that it might reign with God within the creation–to live within the creation as God’s partner in the cosmos.

This is eschatological as well since the new heaven and new earth are what God creates as an inheritance for redeemed humanity. What Israel inherited in the book of Joshua is a type of the inheritance that God will give to humanity. A day is coming when not only Israel is the “heritage” of God, but also Egypt and Assyria are God’s people and the work of God’s hands (Isaiah 19:25). A day is coming when the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

God gives the land, and God gives rest. At the same time, Israel was an active agent in the process by which the land came to rest from its wars. Israel defeated many kings (Joshua 12), but there was yet much of the land that Israel had not yet taken possession of (Joshua 13). Israel was engaged in a process of clearing the land; a process of eliminating (subduing) the chaos (Joshua 18:1).

Just as God placed humanity in the Garden and they were told to subdue the chaos in the rest of the earth (Genesis 1:28), so God’s people (like Israel before them) are given the task of subduing the chaos. Within the story of Jesus and the church, this task is not a violent one but rather the pursuit of peace and righteousness. The church “subdues” the chaos (including sin and unrighteousness) through redemptive suffering rather than violent revolution. Through that pursuit “rest” for all nations will emerge as God renews all things through Jesus.

Our kingdom task is to subdue the chaos through practicing peace. God promises to renew the earth and create a anew heaven and new earth where righteousness and peace dwell (2 Peter 3:13).

In this way, God will fulfill the promise to Abraham. The land Abraham was promised was but a reflection of the promise to humanity in creation itself. Abraham, according to Paul, was mad the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).  In Abraham’s seed, in the Messiah, we have become the heirs of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). We are the heirs of the cosmos, and in the new heaven and new earth we shall inherit the earth and enter into God’s rest.

***This is the substance of a lecture given at Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration 2014***

Below is the handout I gave to the class:

Joshua 13-21
John Mark Hicks
Summer Celebration 2014
Lipscomb University

Claiming the Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

Brief Outline of Joshua (adapted from David Malick)

I. The Book of War
A. Preparation for Conquest (1:1-5:15).
B. The Prosecution of the War (6:1-11:23).
C. Battle Report (12:1-24).

II. The Book of Inheritance.
A. East of Jordan Inheritance (13:1-33).
B. Caleb’s Inheritance (14:1-14).
C. West of Jordan Inheritance (15:1-19:48).
1. Judah (15:1-63).
2. Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh (16:1-17:18).
3. The Sanctuary (18:1)
4. Remaining Tribes (18:2-19:48).
D. Joshua’s Inheritance (19:49-51).
E. Cities for Justice and Ministry (20:1-21:42)

III. Epilogue: Covenant Life in the Land (22-24).

Key Texts

Joshua 11:23 — So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Joshua 18:1 — Then the whole congregation of the Israelites assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.

Joshua 21:43-45 — Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

The Inheritance

Verb: Josh 1:6; 13:32; 14:1; 16:4; 17:6; 19:9, 49, 51 = nine occurrences.
Noun: Josh 11:23; 13:6-8, 14, 23, 28, 33; 14:2-3, 9, 13-14, 20; 16:5, 8; 17:4, 6, 14; 18:2, 4, 7, 20, 28; 19:1-2, 8-10, 16, 23, 31, 39, 41, 48-49, 51; 21:3; 23:4; 24:8, 30, 32 = fifty occurrences


One Word Group: Josh 1:13, 15; 3:13; 4:3, 8; 6:23; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1 [Gen 2:15; 8:4; Exod 16:23-24; 20:11; 33:14; Deut 3:20; 5:14; 25:19; Isa 14:7].
Another Word Group: Josh 11:23; 14:15 [cf. Isa 14:7; Jer 30:10].

Josh 1:13 — ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land.’

The Sanctuary – Renewed “Garden of Eden” (Joel 2:3; Ezek 36:35)

The whole congregation assembled (or, the whole assembly gathered, LXX)

“Whole congregation” (Exod 12:3, 47; 16:1-2, 9-10; 17:1; 35:1, 4, 20; Lev 4:13; 19:2; Num 1:2; 8:9, 20; 13:26; 14:7; 15:25-26; 16:5-6, 11, 16, 41; 25:6; 26:2; 27:20; Josh 22:12, 16, 18, 20; 1 Kgs 8:5; 2 Chr 5:6).

“Assembled” (Ex. 32:1; 35:1; Lev 8:3; Num 1:18; 8:9; 10:7; 16:3, 19, 42; 20:2, 8, 10; Deut 4:10; 31:12, 28; Josh 22:12; 1 Kgs 8:1; 2 Chr 13:3; 28:1; 2 Chr 5:2; 20:26).

Tent of Meeting

Exodus language for the Tabernacle (Exod 27:21; 28:43; 29:4; 29:10, 30, 32, 42, 44; 30:16, 18, 20, 26, 36; 31:7; 33:7; 35:21; 38:8, 30, 32, 40; 40:2, 6, 12, 22, 24, 26, 29, 32, 34). 135 usages of 146 are in the Pentateuch.
Only usages in Joshua are in reference to Shiloh (18:1; 19:51).

Land Subdued

“Subdued” is the language of Genesis 1:28 (word only occurs 13x in OT)
Subdued land/nations (Num 32:22, 29; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Chr 22:18)
Language of God’s grace (Micah 7:19; Zech 9:15)

Theological Perspectives

1. Israel was God’s third act of new creation—a renewed people.
2. God intended Israel to rest with God, become a light to the nations, and claim the whole earth as God’s dwelling place.
3. God intends to fill the whole earth with God’s rest, and God’s people are the instruments of that peace in the world.
4. We have been grafted into Israel, we are the heirs of Abraham in Christ, and the earth is our inheritance.

Stepping into God’s Future (Joshua 3:1-17)

June 30, 2014

[An audio version of this is available here.]

Contemporary visitors to Palestine rarely, if ever, find the Jordan River imposing. It seems relatively shallow, not very wide, and quite calm.  Wading across does not seem like much of a problem–except that it would take one from the modern state of Israel into the modern state of Jordan or vice versa. The ramifications of that move might not be very pleasant. Today, the Jordan River itself poses no threat and prompts no fear.

So, why did Israel linger three days at Jordan’s shore? Why were they intimidated by this river? And why is crossing the river such a big deal in the book of Joshua? In Joshua 3-4, the crossing is referenced twenty-one times! The Jordan River is mentioned seventy times in Joshua with twenty-eight of them in Joshua 3-4. It functions as a critical and significant moment in the story of Joshua.

Further, the songs and prophets of Israel regarded it as one of Yahweh’s great redemptive feats. In Micah 6:5, the movement from Shittim (east side of the Jordan) to Gilgal (west side of the Jordan) is one of the mighty acts of God! This moment in the history of Israel parallels the crossing of the Sea itself.

For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:23-24.)

The ancient river was very different from the one we now see.  Today, the river runs low because its water is used as a resource by the states of Israel and Jordan for drinking and crop irrigation. The flow of water has become so limited that the Dead Sea is drying up.

However, in the ancient world the Jordan River was intimidating. John Beck has assembled an impressive collection of evidence to demonstrate this (JETS 48.4 [2005] 689-99). Since there were no bridges until the Roman era, people crossed the Jordan in the dry season when they could wade across at points where tributaries flowed into the river  because silt builds up there or they floated across on animal skins or bundles of reeds. Israel, on the plains of Moab, probably crossed where the Wadi Qilt meets the river near the head of the Dead Sea.

However, when Joshua stood at the Jordan River, it was at flood stage. It was Spring (March-April) towards the end of the rainy season (Joshua 4:19). Coupled with the melting snows of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River became a formidable obstacle. Beck estimates that the water would have been 10-12 feet deep and as much as one hundred and forty feet wide. In those conditions, the Jordan’s “violent current” endangered lives. In fact, ancient Christian travelogues warned pilgrims that the current was strong, and occasionally pilgrims drowned in the Jordan. A thirteenth century letter complained that the Jordan was practically impassable. One nineteenth century explorer, William Lynch, related his harrowing experience on a riverboat where he feared for his life.

The crossing was so difficult and treacherous that the Greek general Bacchides refused to pursue the Jewish leader Jonathan across the river (1 Maccabees 9:48) while the Pereans decided to battle the Romans on the west bank of the river rather than cross it (Josephus, Wars, IV.7.5). Jonathan escaped but the Pereans were slaughtered.

Just as Assyrian generals listed river crossings as “renowned acts” in their reports, this crossing secures Joshua’s position as the successor of Moses. “That day,” Joshua 4:14 says, “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel.” More importantly, like at the Red Sea, Yahweh defeated the waters and redeemed Israel, and as a result Israel learned to “fear” the Lord (Exodus 14:31; Joshua 4:24).

But this is not the whole story. The imposing physical character of the Jordan creates a dramatic moment, like at the Sea, where Yahweh rescues Israel, but there is more.

J. Michael Thigpen points to the contest between Yahweh and Baal at the river (Trinity Journal 27ns [Fall 2006] 245-254). The Jordan River crossing demonstrates that Yahweh is a “living God” who is the “Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:10, 13). This is a polemic against Baal.

The Baal Epic was discovered in the 1930s at Ugarit. It dates from some time in the 1300s B.C (roughly the same era the Joshua account portrays). It tells the story of the god Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who was responsible for the fertility of the land and the seasons of rain. At one point in the story, Baal battles the god Yamm (sea) who is also called Nahar (river). Baal defeats Yamm (who represents both sea and river) and is hailed as king. He is given the title “Lord of all the earth.”

As Yahweh’s people approach the Jordan River at flood stage, they face the might of Canaan’s god.  Baal, after all, brings the rains, ensures the harvest, and the flood is a sign of Baal’s mighty power. The river Jordan was not only intimidating because of its natural obstructions, but more importantly it terrorized Israel because it was associated with the reign of Baal.  It is a sign that, as the Baal Epic describes Baal, that “mightiest Baal lives.” Baal rules Canaan.

When Yahweh creates dry land for the crossing, Yahweh defeats Baal. Just as he defeated the waters of chaos and the gods of Egypt at the Red Sea, so here Yahweh defeats “mighty Baal” so that “all the peoples of the earth” might know that Yahweh is the “Lord of all the earth.”

Israel steps into the water and experiences the power of Yahweh who holds back the waters so that they might cross into a new land, their inheritance. The crossing of the Jordan, then, is not only a defeat of chaotic waters (as in creation itself) but also the defeat of a competing power (Baal). At the Jordan, Yahweh exercises power over both chaos and other powers. God redeems Israel from the powers and secures their safe passage into their inheritance.

Israel crosses the Jordan to become a nation that will light up the world for other nations. They are to become a new Eden in God’s creation. They are to model life with God and how people live together in peace, joy, and righteousness. They enter Canaan commissioned by God to realize God’s kingdom on the earth. But, as we know (and as we well know in our own lives), they failed to fully realize that mission.

The biblical story invites us to see Israel’s Jordan River crossing as our own. This is not simply the history of Israel, it is the story into which we plunge as well. It is the story of Jesus.

We remember how Jesus passed through these waters in his own baptism. John the Baptizer immersed in these same waters–probably even in the same vicinity–where Israel crossed into the new land. For Jesus to step into those waters was to step toward the cross; the shadow of the cross hung over the waters of Jesus’s baptism. It was the moment when he embraced his future suffering for the sake of the future of the world.

Jesus, through his own baptism, experienced God’s redemptive love and heralded a new Exodus and a new inheritance for the whole world.  We follow Jesus into that same water. We, too, have stepped into the water in order to proclaim the one true, living God who defeats the powers that enslave and oppose us. Through our baptism we become God’s new creation and herald the coming of the new heavens and new earth, our own inheritance. Entering the waters of baptism is to take up our own cross, and consequently we must count the cost.

Jesus, through Jordan’s waters, entered into a new world, the world of the kingdom of God. Jesus embraced the ministry of the kingdom in order to bring the reign of God into the world so that the will of God might be done on earth as it is in heaven. We who have followed Jesus into the water also embrace this new world, the kingdom of God. We become the instruments of that kingdom. We, like Israel, embrace the mission of God in the world. We follow Jesus into the ministry of the kingdom for the renewal of God’s good creation and the transformation of the world. We are people who have stepped into the water with Israel, with Jesus, to embrace the newness of the Kingdom of God

The Jordan also represents something else in the story of God. It is where the people of God receive their inheritance.  Israel inherited the land by promise, and we who are also Abraham’s children share in that promise. God appointed Abraham the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).

Like Israel, we stand on the Jordan’s stormy banks. We crossed the Sea in our baptism and we have journeyed through the wilderness of life nourished by the bread and wine. We now face those stormy banks; we face death itself.  Like the Jordan in front of Israel, it is imposing and threatening. But we step into the water with confidence and boldness. We pass through the waters of death in order to embrace the promised inheritance. We pass through the waters where we rest from our labors (Hebrews 4:1-13).

When Israel looked across that water, they saw an imposing current and the walled city of Jericho. It looked inhospitable. It engendered terror, uncertainty, and anxiety. There was no one on the other side to assure them or quiet their fears.

However, this is not true with us. We look across the Jordan and we see the resurrected Jesus enthroned at the right hand of God and holding the keys to Death and Hades. We step into God’s future and trust that God reigns in the world.

We no longer fear. We are not afraid to step into the water. We look forward to the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 3:13). Neither the depths of its waters nor the gods that claim its power hinder our approach.

We step into the water because of the one who beckons us from the other side. We step into the water because of the one who has cleared a path for us. We step into the water because it has become dry ground. Death (water) has become life (a dry path to our inheritance).

***This is the substance of a keynote address at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration on June 30, 2014 in Nashville, TN***

Groaning, Weakness, and the Holy Spirit

June 28, 2014

The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.

See my new post at

In Memoriam: The Obituary of David Lipscomb (1917)

May 26, 2014

The death of David Lipscomb was front page news in Nashville, Tennessee. This article appeared in the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American (November 12, 1917, p. 1).


End Comes to Founder of Nashville Bible School at Age of 86 Years

by Wayne W. Burton.

Silencing an evangelist’s voice familiar in Tennessee a half century ago and stilling an editor’s pen that made a record of not one failure to contribute weekly to the press for a period of forty-five years, death came at 11 o’clock last night to David Lipscomb, founder of the Nashville Bible school, teacher, preacher and author, editor of the Gospel Advocate for a period of fifty-one years, and perhaps the most widely known representatives of the Church of Christ of his day. The end came at his home on the Nashville Bible school campus, from general infirmity and old age.

The end came not unexpected. The venerable evangelist passed his eighty-sixth milestone January 21 of this year, and during the past several months of a general decline in health thousands in many states who have long known him through his writings and through the press had been led to realize that the end was not far away. Several months ago, for a period, his death was momentarily expected. But he rallied again, and soon again was in his chair reading his Bible from two to five hours a day, which those about him say has been his practice, and perhaps not an over-estimated reading average for him over a half century. Wednesday night he suffered a relapse, attended by effects scarcely other than a continued deep sleep. From this sleep he never awoke.

Elder Lipscomb is survived by his wife, who was Miss Margaret Zellner of Maury county, and to whom he was married July 23, 1862. Their only child died in infancy. One half brother, John Lipscomb of Franklin county, and two half sisters, Mrs. L. J. Woods of Franklin county and Mrs. Ellen Gardner of Winchester, also survive him. His only full brother was William Lipscomb, well-known Christian church evangelist who died in 1908. Granville Lipscomb, another prominent minister of the same church, who died in 1909, was a half brother. The deceased was a half brother also to Horace G. Lipscomb of the Lipscomb Hardware company, who died a few years ago.

He was an uncle of A. B. Lipscomb, pastor of the Russell Street Church of Christ, and managing editor of the Gospel Advocate, and of Horace S. Lipscomb, assitant principle of the Nashville high school.

Elder Lipscomb, until only a few years ago, led an unusually active life. As early as the spring of 1909, however, he suffered a severe attack from colds, followed by a general breakdown. From this time the decline was gradual, hastened by some two or three paralytic strokes. Often on Sundays, however, as long as strength permitted, he preached somewhere in the city, usually at the Bible school chapel or Third and College church, though he did so sitting in a chair. Soon his waning powers limited his strength of voice to sermons of fifteen to twenty minutes, and for a year or more past he made no pulpit effort, being confined to his home. On the first day of each week, however, though not strong enough to meet with the congregation, he observed the communion service with his family at home, as he taught the church should observe the institution each Sunday, emulating the practice of the New Testament churches.

Founds Churches; Active in Missionary Work

Aside from the Bible School, Elder Lipscomb was one of the founders of the Gospel Advocate, and of the Fanning Orphan school, and mainly through his pioneer efforts were established nearly one-half of the thirty-odd congregations of the Christian church of this city. A complete list from his early work to the present shows fifty-odd congregations through his own efforts. Most of these were in Middle Tennessee. For many years he had been a moving spirit in the work of the Nashville Christian church congregations toward sustaining several missionaries and certain publication work in and around Tokio [sic], Japan, and other points in the foreign missionary field.

In the 50s, when he came to Nashville, there were only three congregations of the Disciples in Davidson county, one being on Church street at the present site of the Vendome theater; another at the Fanning Orphan school, then Franklin college, and another at Owen’s chapel. In South Nashville Elder Lipscomb preached, first to an audience of five, resulting in the establishment of the Third and College church, of which he was the senior Elder to the time of his death. He preached in the army barracks in North Nashville, resulting in the establishment of the Eighth Avenue church. He started the work that resulted in the establishment of the Woodland street congregation, in the late 70s; also that of Foster street, that of old Line street an that of Reid avenue. He was one of the few of the old guard remaining who remembered the preaching of Alexander Campbell, in the building at the present site of the Vendome theater, and that of President James A. Garfield, in later years, at the same place. From this building the congregation moved to the present Vine Street church. In his early work Elder Lipscomb was associated with Elder F. M. Carmack, father of Senator E. W. Carmack; J. W. McGarvey and other distinguished leaders in the work of reformation as inaugurated by the Campbells, Barton W. Stone, and others.

Was Profound Writer; Plea for Christian Unity

Widely known in many states, Elder Lipscomb’s prominence and influence was attained, not through official position in the church, the Disciples having no general church organization, and hence no official church position with further power and authority than that of the elder and deacon of the local congregation. Elder Lipscomb, in fact, especially emphasized this doctrine, of the organic independence of several congregations, urging congregational organizations with elders and deacons after the pattern of the New Testament congregations, but urging against general or denominational organizations with power to write creeds of church government or for overhead control of the congregation, separating the congregations into denominations. He urged a strict adherence to the practice and worship, as well to form of organization, of the New Testament churches, opposing instrumental music in connection with the worship. This was his plea of Christian unity, and on this point, as well as on other tenets of the Disciples, he was regarded throughout the north and the south, for some years, as perhaps the strongest authority, or at least had written more along these controverted points than any other living man.

Sketch of Life of Elder Lipscomb

David Lipscomb was born in Franklin county, Tennessee, January 21, 1831, and was a son of Granville Lipscomb, who had removed to Tennessee from Virginia in 1826. In young Lipscomb’s early life the family removed to Illinois, but returned to Franklin county a year or two later. The father held strong convictions against slavery, adn upon going to Illinois freed his own slaves at his own expense. Young Lipscomb attended school a while in Virginia, going to and from the state a number of times on horseback.

In 1846 he entered Franklin college under the presidency of Tolbert Fanning, for whom the Fanning Orphan school was named. He graduated in 1849. He then entered farming and business life, going to Georgia for awhile, where he managed a large plantation. He returned to Franklin county and later to Nashville.

During the war of the sixties he emphasized his view against the right of Christians to go to war, and in behalf of those who adhered to the belief, he negotiated with Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy, and the federal government, obtaining relief on such grounds from army service as had been granted to Quakers.

In 1866 Elder Lipscomb, associated with Tolbert Fanning, revived the publication of the Gospel Advocate, which had been established ten years before, but suspended during the war. In 1870 Elder E. G. Sewell became associate editor, so remaining to this day. Elder Lipscomb has contributed freely to other religious journals, including the Christian Leader of Cincinnati, and is author of a  number of volumes. Among the volumes are his commentaries on acts of the Apostles, John’s Gospel and the epistles of Jude, Peter and John, in separate volumes, “Queries and Answers” and “Salvation From Sin,” the last two being compiled from his writings by J. W. Shepherd, and his “Civil Government–Its Origin, Mission and Destiny and the Christian’s Religion to It.”

A quarter of a century ago, associated with James A. Harding, E. A. Elam, William Anderson and others, Elder Lipscomb founded the Nashville Bible, his purpose in view being to establish an educational institution in which the Bible, along with the other literary branches, should be used as a textbook and a daily study by every pupil. To this he donated the greater part, of all that he had, including a site of sixty acres, and in the school he taught for twenty years, refusing any monetary consideration whatever. The establishment of other similar schools followed, carrying out the Bible textbook idea, one at Bowling Green, Ky., one at Odessa, Mo., another at Berry, Ala., and several others in Texas, Oklahoma and Canada. How well this feature succeeded, from a literary point of viewpoint is attested to by the fact that all the state educational institutions now give the pupil full credit on this feature, as well as others, of the Bible school work.

Early Life and “Call” to Ministry

Until well along in manhood Elder Lipscomb had not entered the ministry, nor had he seriously thought of doing so. But the story runs this way: There were few preachers and fewer churches. An eminent evangelist of the day well known to Lipscomb and one of the most popular pulpit orators of the south had labored extensively with the Tennessee congregations. This evangelist adopted views extremely radical, however, according to the Brotherhood, losing his doctrinal bearings and making “shipwreck of the faith.” The result under the existing conditions was widespread confusion and general discouragement among the congregations. Lipscomb had greatly admired the brilliant but erratic preacher, but now needly recognized the need of the congregations for teaching and encouragement. If the treasure was committed to “earthen vessels,” he reasoned, now was the time to defend it. This realization of such duties devolving upon him, he accepted as his “call” to preach to them and rally them to more effective work. From the work he never retired. Had the evangelist not made this misstep, Elder Lipscomb said, I might never have preached–a score of others might not. And thus in every apparent calamity he reasoned that some good may somehow result, overbalancing its ill effects.

Story of His First Sermon

A trace of Elder Lipscomb’s optimism and perseverance of later years might be observed in a story told of his first sermon. The place was a schoolhouse near McMinnville. The appointment had been made; the time came; the young preacher had his text ready. He had his sermon ready–he thought. In the audience was an elderly evangelist, Elder Stroud: thrilled with feelings of anxiety for the young man as great as the parent feels for son or daughter at the graudation address. The young preacher found the text, and read it.  It didn’t connect, however, with the prepared sermon. It would not do to stop, so there was nothing to do but keep on reading. The chapter was finished, and still nothing led to the sermon. The young preacher then said, “Brother Stroud, will you please preach the sermon today.” Elder Stroud arose to the pulpit. He was discouraged. He tried, but the sting of disappointment and sympathy for the young preacher was having its effect. It was too much; the speaker was overcome, and as confused as young Lipscomb had been, he left the pulpit, calling on the third man to finish the day’s sermon. En route home from the church Elder Stroud and young Lipscomb had ridden some miles before approaching the delicate subject.  The former, still discouraged at Lipscomb’s failure–not thinking of his own–sympathetically said, “Brother Lipscomb, don’t be discouraged at today’s results.”

“I’ll try not to be,” the young preacher replied, “but I must confess that it is a little discouraging to see one become so confused and have to leave the pulpit who has been preaching as long as you have.”

First Acquaintance with E. G. Sewell

It was early in the 50’s that the two men first met each other, who were destined to labor in such fellowship, in a common cause, for so many years to come, down to an old age for both–David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell. They were about the same age–Elder Sewell a few months older. Elder Sewell had commenced preaching; Elder Lipscomb had not. Their first acquaintance was formed at a business meeting of a country congregation, near McMinnville, the meeting having been called to discuss some plans for the ensuring year. Elder Sewell had been attending school at Burrett college. Later, when he entered Franklin college, the two became further acquainted, both stopping often with William Lipscomb, one of the pillars of the college. Within a few years the two were associate editors on the Advocate, associates in the evangelistic field and co-laborers together in a new history of church development in Nashville and throughout Middle Tennessee.

Highly Charitable; Lipscomb, the Man

A single trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character that left upon every associate its indelible impression was his man-to-man attitude and personal frankness. As in manner he was composed and sedate, his conversation was earnest, direct and business-like. He was little inclined to the humorous; his conversation directed along other lines of sober and earnest thought. His straight-forward attitude of openhearted frankness begat the confidence that every word came from the heart. The man’s judgment he addressed; never his self-pride. Though ever ready to commend for a good dead done he did so on the ground that the doer of the act appreciated more its real worth than the more compliment paid. He never sought to praise unduly or magnify another’s virtues. He was too true to the man himself for that; too full of that sane, sober, openhearted frankness of man-to-man friendship.

Another trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character which along would have ranked him among men was his gentle firmness and indomitable courage of convictions. In preaching or writing upon any subject, or in any course he saw to be right, he was absolutely immovable at the hand of criticism or the wave of popular sentiment, while against the tidal wave of criticism, solitary and alone, if need be, he moved on, unswerving and undisturbed. He was cool, though aggressive. Though aggressive he was considerate and kind, and though considerate he was uncompromising. He was plain and direct without harshness, yet charitable and gentle without weakness. While liberal and kind-hearted–even tenderhearted, yet he sought not to allow the more even tenor of his way to restrain him from the advocacy of the right or from combatting error from the course he saw to be good.

Another trait of Elder Lipscomb in a marked degree, strong and contagious to those coming in contact with him, was his optimism. He was persevering and untiring, and in the face of discouraging consequences or even failure maintained an attitude of cheerful indifference. At apparent failure of any task undertaken he yet maintained aspirations of hope, or either took courage in the fact that his full duty was done in the undertaking.

Elder Lipscomb was among the men who are truly charitable. He delighted in helping the worthy needy and poor, standing ever ready to contribute of his means or his personal service. His largest single donation was that of sixty acres as a home for the Bible school. He contributed freely also to the Fanning Orphan School, and to church missionary work, home and foreign.

Elder Lipscomb was not oratorical, but impressivo and clear. The former he never sought to be; the latter needed not the effort. His bearing in the pulpit was as gentle and considerate as it was frank and unreserved, and as natural as the sunshine. His diction was clear and his motive to clearly establish his position with the arguments at hand. Further than this he relied on the merits of his cause and the honesty and intelligence of the mind addressed. For those who came in contact with him it appeared as but natural to say that he was among all men the most tolerant. To those who differed from him whether in private conversation or public controversy, he was ever charitable and never unpleasantly combative. Years ago, with denominations of other religious views, he engaged in many public oral religious debates and it was ever said of him by those who differed from him that he was ever kind and considerate. “See how much you can find to agree on,” he said, “and not how widely you can differ.” He possessed absolutely not a semblance of that blustering, bull-dozing, dominating, domineering air of driving or forcing an opinion on others.

Another characteristic highly marked in the  man was his unpretentious manner of doing things. He was bold, but retiring and unassuming. In his daily walk and manner there was never the least discernible effort on his part to appear striking or spectacular, and not the least indication of any susceptibility to praise or flatter in any form. In his entire nature was absolutely not a trace of anything that could have been interpreted as a desire for “vain glory.”

To him the realization of a good deed done was more than the more praises of men. Others he treated as on the same plane; flattery he knew not the use of, nor appeared he in the least susceptible to it. He sought no notoriety and never tried to inflate his undertakings by advertising. He cared not for front page position; he rather shrunk from publicity. Even previous publication of his biographical sketches did violence to his feelings.

Elder Lipscomb never despised the day of small things. He never counted the day lost that accomplished a good deed, whether toward the strong and the wealthy or the man of lowly station. In all his work, religious, editorial and otherwise, his paramount purpose was the upbuilding of the church and the furtherance of the gospel which he maintained as the only promised “power of God unto salvation,” and more to him than all else was the welfare of the cause for which eh gave his greatest labors. He loved to associate with the poor, and much, if not the greater part, of his preaching was to small audiences in destitute places. He preferred the quiet, unassuming walk, and his life was free and far from ostentation in any form. There was no desire for the outward show, no attempt at pomp, nod display, no form of ostentation in the life of David Lipscomb.

The funeral of Elder Lipscomb will be held from the South College Street Church of Christ this afternoon at 3:30 o’clock. The services will be conducted by Elders C. A. Moore, E. G. Sewell, J. C. McQuiddy and E. A. Elam.

The following nephews and friends will serve as pallbearers: David C. Lipscomb, Horace S. Lipscomb, H. Leo Boles, John E. Dunn, Sam H. Hall of Atlanta and John T. Lewis of Birmingham. Internment will be at Mt. Olivet.


Joel 3:18-21 — The Lord Dwells in Zion

May 24, 2014

Joel begins with lament over the famine and drought as Yahweh’s army threatens Jerusalem with desolation, but it ends with abundance and water-filled ravines as Egypt and Edom become a wilderness. This reversal happens because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

“In that day,” Joel announces, the fortunes of Israel are reversed. “That day” links Joel 3:18 with Joel 2:28 and 3:1. “That day” is an eschatological day. It may have some historical referent as Judah experiences renewal on occasion, but the picture is apocalyptic. The vision here is similar to Ezekiel’s new temple (Ezekiel 47) and Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision of Jerusalem (Zechariah 13:1; 14:1-8). “That day” is the day of new creation when “all flesh” is saturated with the Spirit of God; this is the day that has been in Joel’s “mind’s eye” since Joel 2:18. It is the day when God makes all things new.

That day includes both judgment and blessing.

Egypt and Edom, two traditional enemies of Israel like Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia (Joel 3:4), are judged. Egypt, with its Nile-based culture, and Edom will become a “desolation” or a “desolate wilderness” (both words derive from the same Hebrew root).  Joel previously used this language to contrast a desolate wilderness with the Garden of Eden (2:3). In other words, Egypt’s desolation is their uncreation, and consequently, like the northern army in Joel 2:20, Egypt is driven into “a parched and desolate land.” It is a land without water, without the Nile.

The lands surrounding Israel–north (Tyre, Sidon), southwest (Philisia), south (Egypt), and southeast (Edom)–will experience the “uncreation” that followed the exile from Eden in Genesis 3. God will set things right; Yahweh will execute justice on the earth. These nations had shed “innocent blood” and violently mistreated Israel, and consequently they will become like a people exiled from the Garden of Eden, that is, exiled from the presence of Yahweh.

That day is also a day of blessing. The wadis which thirst for water on the east side of Jerusalem will flow with water.  The rainwater that sometimes filled these wadis (or ravines) ultimately flowed into the Dead Sea, and they contained water only when it rained. That is why the vegetation along these wadis is sparse and includes only plants and trees that can survive without much water. Joel describes these wadis as the “Wadi of the Acacias” (or Shittim). Acacia trees grow in dry places. God promises, however, that even the dry places will be filled with water.

This water will flow from the temple of God, just like in the visions of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Israel will no longer depend on rain, but rather a river will flow from the throne of God. At present there is no river in Jerusalem; it is wholly dependent upon rain. But this vision, where water flows from God’s dwelling place, assures Israel that there will be no more dry places in Israel and no more fear of droughts. The once dry stream beds will flow with water from God’s presence.

The water God supplies will generate prosperity.  Just as the drought brought famine, so a plenteous water supply will bring abundance. The mountains, with their growing vines, will drip with “sweet wine,” and the hills, where the cattle graze, will “flow with milk.” The harvests will return and the animals will rejoice. No more drought, and therefore no more famine. Never again will Jerusalem suffer. God will provide because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

This is vision is dear to the heart of Christians as well. We know it through John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22.

When the new heavens and new earth appear, the new Jerusalem will descend upon the new earth. Within that city is a Garden where the tree of life grows by a river that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb. There is no temple there because the city is itself the temple. This is where God and the Lamb dwell.

There is no more chaos, no more night, no more threatening waters or armies, and there is no more death. God is the light of the city, and we will see God face-to-face.

On that day, the land will rejoice, and the animals will rejoice, and the people of God will serve their God because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”


On Children, Baptism and David Lipscomb (1914)

May 23, 2014

While there are many variations along a continuum, credobaptists (that is, those who baptize believers) approach children within the faith community in two major ways. On the one hand there are the revivalists, but on the other hand there are those who emphasize nurture.

Revivalists believe that children within the faith community, at some point, become sinners (some might think they are born such or at least guilty of Adamic sin) when they reach an age of accountability (however that is defined). They believe children are objects of evangelism. So, many credobaptists encourage children to say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and those among Churches of Christ baptize only those who confess they are sinners. The latter are baptized in order to be saved, and they would (according to many) be lost without that baptism, though identifying the age at which they became lost is ambiguous (and often worrisome for parents).

Those who emphasize nurture believe children grow up in faith as part of a faith community. They are maturing disciples rather than lost sinners. They are baptized, then, in order to affirm their faith, own their discipleship, and receive God’s promised blessings. They are baptized because Jesus was baptized and because Jesus told them to be baptized.

I have previously argued in a couple of books on baptism, an article in the Christian Standard, and on this blog that the latter approach is the better one. I will not rehearse those arguments here, but I did want to point to a historical precedent within Churches of Christ.

David Lipscomb did not think one had to impose “a heavy weight of guilt” upon those who were “reared in the training and instruction of the Lord.” When those so nurtured want to be baptized, it is sufficient that they want to obey the Lord.

When one reared in the training and instruction of the Lord like Timothy desires to enter Christ, his case is divine inspiration to guide him. The little girl’s wish to be baptized because Jesus wanted her to be, is as much the direction of the Spirit of God as for the murderers of the Lord to ‘be baptized into the remission of sins.’ Those desirous to learn and do the will of God while children cannot be oppressed with a heavy weight of guilt, but find direction into the body of Christ, where all evils are banished and all blessings abound. Were one as faithful as the Son of God to be found, it would only be necessary that he be baptized to fulfill the will of God. [David Lipscomb, “A  Summary. No. 2,” Gospel Advocate 56 (1 January 1914), 11.]

I think Lipscomb offers some godly advice for parents, ministers, and youth leaders.

Nashville Tension — 1892 General Christian Missionary Convention

May 20, 2014

The Nashville Tennessean, in an article entitled “ALL DELIGHTED,” described the proceedings of the General Christian Missionary Convention’s 1892 annual meeting (October 21, 1892, p. 8). This was a highwater mark in the tension within the Stone-Campbell Movement (or, American Restoration Movement). The missionary societies held their convention in the capital of its opposition. There were three:  the domestic (American Christian Missionary Society), the foreign (Foreign Christian Missionary Society), and the Christian Women’s Board of Mission.  David Lipscomb and others considered this an affront to the good feelings of members who sincerely opposed the society on biblical grounds. The Convention appeared in the Gospel Advocate‘s backyard!

The Convention

The Convention was held at the Vine Street Christian Church, and “Rev. G. A. Lofton, the pastor of the Central Baptist Church” gave the Convention a “hearty greeting.” The attendees heard reports of mission work from around the world, including India, China (Edward F. Williams), Australia, England, and Japan (particularly C. E. Garst) among other nations.  Some of those who spoke included women as, for example, “Miss Judson, of Dunburg, Conn., a voluntary missionary to India.” “Miss Minnie Henley, of England,” was “preparing for missionary work in Africa” as a medical doctor and spoke to the convention about her plans. The meeting’s worship times included a solo by “Miss Kate Gillespie, of Nashville,” and Mrs. Garst sang a solo in Japanese as well. And The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement also had a prominent role in the meeting; their work was described as “working for purity everywhere, and for constitutional prohibition. Their purpose was to protect the home.”

The membership of the Convention counted twenty-eight states and five countries among its ranks. The Presidents of Drake and Bethany Colleges were present and addressed the assembly.

The Convention in 1892, through the arm of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, supported “104 missionaries–33 males, 23 females and 48 native helpers,” including China, India, Japan, Turkey, Scandinavia, and England.  And Miss Bonner, of Fayetteville, met with potential supporters from Tennessee after the close of the meeting to garner support for her Paris (France) mission. The Convention inspired her commitment.

On the closing night, C. C. Loos, the president of the Convention, remarked that this was the largest attendance in the Convention’s history and that Nashville had received them cordially and enthusiastically. There were full houses at practically every session. “What a grand brotherhood there was at Nashville!” The paper reported that the convention had been “remarkably quiet,” and that it “had made a profound impression on the city and the people for the missionary cause.”

The Loyal Opposition

However, not everyone in Nashville was happy. Indeed, the Convention–in many ways–was the last straw for David Lipscomb and others. They thought it was intrusive and simply unchristian manners to bring the convention to Nashville.  Moreover, the many ways in which women participated in the convention and their prominent role in the missionary work disturbed the hearts of Nashville’s conservatives. The way women were highlighted and promoted was a turning point for many.

They did not remain silent. Several leaders prepared a statement for the Convention, which was “introduced by C. M. Wilmeth.”  Here is the text of the statement:

“To the General Christian Missionary Convention, Assembled in Nashville, Tenn.

Dear Brethren in Christ:

Inasmuch as your body is now in session in this city purports to represent the churches of Christ, untrammeled by creeds, and there is a conspicuous absence of many myriads of brethren whose sentiments are voiced in such periodicals as the Gospel Advocate, Christian Leader, Octographic Review, Firm Foundation, Christian Messenger, Christian Preacher, Primitive Christian and Gospel Echo; and,

Inasmuch as your [sic] assembled in the State of Tennessee, which contains about 40,000 Christians who profess to practice the primitive order of things, and perhaps not more than 1,000 of these thoroughly sympathize with your organization; and,

Inasmuch as arguments and appeals have been made on the floor of your convention to win these brethren over to your ways, we respectfully submit to your august body this memorial.

1. That we, believe as we do, that all should be one in Christ, of the same mind and of the same judgment, speaking the same things and endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, cannot countenance the corruption of the pure speech of the Bible, and do deeply deplore the grievously divided state of the church; whereby brethren are embittered against each other, congregations are torn asunder and sections are arrayed one against another.

2. That, believing as we do, that whatsoever is not of faith is sin, we cannot conscientiously co-operate in the organization or workings of any missionary society, home or foreign, with officers unknown to the New Testament and terms of membership at variance with the spirit and genius of the Gospel, it being our firm and abiding conviction that in building up such societies we are pulling down that which our fathers labored to build up and are sapping the strength of the church for which Christ died.

3. That, believing as we do, that the scriptures furnish us unto all good works, and that preaching the gospel stands pre-eminent as a good work, we bodily affirm and earnestly contend that the Bible contains a divine system of evangelism, powerful enough to shake the Roman Empire in its day and perfect enough to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth; and we modestly submit that, putting this faith into practice; we have demonstrated in our [sic] this divine plan is effectual, in that without other organization the primitive gospel has been planted in this region, a mission among the Indians has been sustained for many years, a mission in Turkey has been established and the Volunteer Band in Japan supported.

4.  That we, in consideration of the aforesaid truth and facts, come before you with brotherly love and beseech you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you abandon these organizatoins that found no necessity or recognition in apostolic times, and that you concentrate your zeal and energies in the churches of God, under the direction of their heaven-appointed officers, which we all admit to be common and scriptural ground, thereby removing a cause of wide spread division and bringing about that union and co-0peration in which there is strength and which will enable us to make more rapid conquest of the earth for Christ, and to this end we present this memorial and for this consummation devoutly to be wished shall we ever pray.

C. M. Wilmeth
David Lipscomb
E. G. Sewell,
J. A. Harding,
M. C. Kurfees,
and others

 Comments on the Above

This statement by the “loyal opposition” represents a unifying force within what became known as the “Churches of Christ.” This united the Texas  (Firm Foundation), Indiana  (Octographic Review), and Tennessee Traditions (Gospel Advocate). The opposition to the missionary society staked out an identity for Churches of Christ.

They opposed the missionary society on several grounds.  Hermeneutically, there was no support for the human institution within the apostolic record.  Theologically, the society supplanted the local congregation as the highest organization of Christ’s body, which was charged with God’s mission. Practically, it was unnecessary (evangelism and missions happen without it through churches) and misdirects the energies of the body of Christ (supporting the society rather than focusing on the mission).

The appeal for unity is rooted in both the biblical text and in the common ground between the two parties in practically the same way that Alexander Campbell argued for unity through immersion. The common ground is that everyone agrees that mission through the local congregation is biblical (just as all agree immersion is baptism); so the church should do and unite upon what they all agree is biblical. If one loved unity and Scripture is sufficient, why not simply divest ourselves of all questionable practices and unite upon what everyone agrees is biblical?


Alas, rather than unity and mission, the 1892 Nashville Convention marked the beginnings of a clear organizational, ecclesiological, and theological divide between the “Christian Church” (ultimately Disciples of Christ) and the “Churches of Christ.”

This became apparent in Nashville itself. While previously congregations in Nashville were known as the “Christian Church,” by the late 1880s and 1890s congregations were increasingly distinguished as “Christian Church” and “Church of Christ.”  In 1887, according to the Daily American [April 10, 1887, p. 9), there were five congregations, each named “Christian Church” in Nashville (Church Street [800 members], Woodland [250], North Edgefield [150], North Nashville [250], and Gay Street [African American, 850]). Soon, however, the name “Church of Christ” began to appear with regularity as new congregations were planted. [The South College Street Church, planted in 1888, was the mother church for 35 other congregations in Nashville through the use of tent meetings during the first 20 years of its existence. See David Lipscomb, “South Nashville Church of Christ,” The Nashville American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.]

The distinction is apparent in this blurb in Daily American (Oct 2, 1892, p. 6) regarding the Green Street church which was a church plant of the South Nashville Church:

The non-Christian Church on Green street is nearing completion. It is located on the lot that was used by Elder John T. Poe recently with the tent meeting. When completed it will be used by the Filmore-street congregation and be known as the Green-street Church of Christ.

Thus the distinction between the Christian Church and the Church of Christ appears in Nashville.

Joel 3:1-17 — The Nations Held Accountable

May 16, 2014

In the first half, Joel called Israel to lament and repentance, to fasting and assembly (Joel 1:1-2:17). In the second half, Joel assures Israel that their gracious and compassionate God will “restore their fortunes.”

Yahweh promised a new creation where even the soil and animals as well as the people will rejoice (Joel 2:18-27). Yahweh promised to saturate “all flesh” with the Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). And in this section, Yahweh promises to hold the nations accountable for how they have treated Israel (Joel 3:1-17).

“In those days and at that time” is how the text continues the story of God’s renewal. The judgment of the nations–the judgment of evil itself (Joel 3:13)–is part of that future which renews creation and saturates “all flesh” with the Spirit. The timing, then, is dependent upon how the previous texts are interpreted.  I have suggested that they have both historical and an eschatological or apocalyptic meaning. In other words, while the text addresses the situation of the original audience, it also envisions a future reality. It addresses the nations that surround Judah, but it also anticipates (even promises) a day when all the nations will be judged in the context of a new heaven and a new earth (something analogous to Revelation 20:11-21:5).

Consequently, Joel addresses Tyre, Sidon and Philistia, and alludes to Egypt and Edom, but ultimately “all nations” are in view, including present ones. God will hold all nations accountable; Yahweh will put every one of them on trial and render a verdict. In essence, then, Joel assures his audience that God has noticed how the nations have treated Israel and that God will act in judgment against them, and this assurance also carries an eschatological assurance that one day–in the coming days or the last days–God will “restore the fortunes” of Israel.

To “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (3:1) is to end the exile. The phrase literally means “return the captivity.” Exact dating is unavailable for Joel. This potentially could be the end of the Assyrian or Babylonian exiles, but the names of those peoples are absent from Joel’s account. Most likely, Joel’s work appears in the post-exilic period (after the return from Babylonian exile), but the people of Israel are still awaiting the end of the exile.

They were still waiting under Roman oppression when John the Baptist appeared to announce a new Exodus (quoting Isaiah 4o), and Jesus suffered as the Servant who was wounded for the sake of Israel (Isaiah 53), and God put out the Spirit upon a restored (renewed) Israel (Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32). The appearance of Jesus the Messiah was the beginning of the end to Israel’s exile, and the appearance of the new heaven and new earth will end the cosmic exile that reaches back to when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden.

The Lawsuit (3:1-8)

As Dillard’s commentary on Joel recognizes (Minor Prophets [Baker]), this lawsuit proceeds according to form:

  • the accused are summoned (3:1-2a)
  • the accusations are read (3:2b-3)
  • the accused are interrogated (3:4a-b)
  • the verdict is announced (3:4c-8)

Yahweh gathers “all the nations” to the “Valley of Jehoshaphat.” While moderns sometimes refer to the Kidron Valley (what lies between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives) as the “Valley of Jehoshaphat,” there is no ancient identification of this valley. This is an unknown geographical reference, and perhaps we are not supposed to think geographically but metaphorically.  “Jehoshaphat” means “Yahweh  judges.” Yahweh brings the nations to a “valley of decision” (Joel 3:14) for “judgment” (from the verb shaphat). God has summoned the accused to hear a divine verdict.

The nations are summoned because they (1) scattered Israel among themselves (the diaspora), (2) divided the land God had given Israel among themselves (annexed to their own nations), and (3) sold the people into slavery for the sake of their own immoral pursuits (prostitutes and drunkenness). The nations are judged for what they have done to Israel, and in this judgment their unjust acts also judge how they have treated others as well.  When the nations scatter people (including refugees), annex land that does not belong to them (whether by fiat or violence), or empower the slave trade (including sex-trafficking), God holds nations accountable.

As an example–or, better, as a metaphor for all nations, Yahweh interrogates Tyre & Sidon as well as Philistia. These are historic, traditional enemies of Israel on their northwestern and southwestern borders. They have troubled Israel from the beginning to the time of Joel (presumably, post-exilic era; cf. Zechariah 9:1-8). The Phoenicians, particularly, were known for their slave-trading (Amos 1:6-9; Ezekiel 27:13). But who are they to Yahweh? They are not Yahweh’s heritage. Why, then, do they presume to act against Yahweh’s people so arrogantly and without fear?

Because of their injustices, God will turn their deeds back on them. As they enslaved Israel, so God will enslave them. Indeed, when Alexander the Great destroyed Tyre in 332 BCE, he enslaved 30,000 people, and the same happened to those living near Gaza (Philistia) at the time. In other words, God executes a lex talonis, that is, God does to them what they did to others. This is the verdict that God announces to the nations. This is divine justice–it permits evil to sow its own seeds of destruction.

The nations pursued violence and greed (silver, gold, and treasures), and enslaved the people of God. Yahweh, however, will not let such enslavement stand. The one who liberated Israel from Egypt will also liberate them from their forced exile.

The Oracle (3:9-17)

The prophet, given the dynamics of a trial, speaks for the court. Joel calls the opposing parties to battle.

To the Nations:  “Stir up the warriors!” (Joel 3:9)

To Yahweh:  “Bring down your warriors, O Lord!” (Joel 3:11)

The prophet summons each to battle (Joel 3:9-11). In one sense Yahweh gathers the nations (3:2), but in another sense they arouse themselves for battle (3:11). The nations will enlist everyone–even the weak must become warriors. Farmers must become warriors–using the language that reverses great prophetic texts that proclaim peace; they will turn their farming implements into weapons instead of the reverse (cf. Micah 4; Isaiah 2). This is a full scale effort–everyone, all the nations against Yahweh’s host.

And then Yahweh speaks (Joel 3:12-17). This section of the oracle begins and ends with the voice of Yahweh (note the first person singular).

The nations will stir–they will gather for battle, but there is no battle. It is a harvest of judgment as Yahweh “sit[s] to judge all the neighboring nations.” This is a courtroom scene rather than a battlefield. The valley is not a piece of geography, but the place where God decides the fate of the nations.

God’s judgment is uncreation–it is the reversal of creation itself. The nations may gather, but the ice will crack beneath their feet. The sun is darkened and the stars no longer give their light. The “heavens and the earth” (a la Genesis 1:1) shake! The creation convulses as the the nations fall before the voice of the Lord. This is apocalyptic language to describe the ultimate shaking of the nations on the day of Yahweh.

While the nations crumble, Zion and Jerusalem are a refuge for the people of Israel because it God’s home, God’s dwelling place. God dwells within Israel. The promise of the Exodus–that God would dwell with Israel–is fully realized when God dwells on the holy hill of Zion in Jerusalem and “strangers shall never again pass through it.”

“Never again”–similar to the promises in Joel 2:26-27–lingers in the ears of Israel. “Never again” is eschatological language among the prophets. It is the language of the new heavens and new earth in Isaiah 65:  “no more”…not again…will Israel hear the sound of weeping, or an infant live but a few days.

When that day comes–when the nations are judged, creation renewed, and the Spirit is fully poured out on God’s people–we will “know” that the Lord our God dwells among us.

In the new Jerusalem upon the new heavens and new earth, God will dwell with humanity. There will be no night there–nothing will be darkened.  There will be no chaos, no death. And there will be no temple since God and the Lamb will make their home in that new city.


David Lipscomb: A Sermon at the Penitentiary (1900)

May 14, 2014

This sermon by David Lipscomb appeared in The Nashville American (February 21, 1900, p. 5). I thought it was interesting to read what Lipscomb said to those incarcerated at the “State Prison.”

I thought the reference to “character” rather than status, place or position was a veiled reference to looking at the heart of a person (or as MLK put it “the content of their character”) rather than the color of their skin.

Lipscomb is also interested in obedience as it leads to transformation. We love God through obedience so that we might experience gradual transformation, and this includes the ordinances, of which assembling on the Lord’s Day is one. All of God’s commandments (ordinances, ways) are designed to transform us into the image of Christ.

Character makes a difference in life, and a transformed character is the goal of the Christian “religion,” which “rebinds” (restores) us to God.

Here is the text in full.

What the Lord Requires of Israel.

Sermon by Elder David Lipscomb at the State Prison.

The following sermon was preached Sunday by Elder David Lipscomb at the State penitentiary:

He read Deut. x., 12-13: “and now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all they soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statues which I commend thee this day for thy good.”

The speaker, said in part, that God through Moses spoke this to the Israelites, but that the principles upon which God deals with man are always the same. He is spoken of in this connection as the Lord God who is the God of Gods and Lord of Lords, a great God, a might and terrible God, who regardeth not person nor taketh reward.

He spoke of how difficult it was for men to treat impartially their fellow-man without regard to place or position, and not solely in respect to their characters. But this was characteristic of God, who regards not the persons of men whether they be in high or low stations, but as they are in their characters before him, whose judgment is righteous and impartial. He said the Christian religion was designed by its divine Author to lift mankind from sin and shame to the attainment and cultivation of the Christian character.

The speaker said, being once interrogated as to what is religion, at the time he was puzzled to give a satisfactory answer to his querist or even to himself. The world religion means a rebinding. As applied to Christianity it means to rebind man to his Maker, from whom he had been separated by disobedience. Man could only be rebound to God by returning in obedience to God, retracing, as it were, the steps which had separated him from God. This could be effected through Christ, whom God had sent into the world for this purpose. He only could restore man to union and harmony with God. We were taught in this text to “fear God,” but this fear meant not to dread God in terror and alarm, but to reverently regard his holy name, his word and his ordinances.

The speaker alluded to a common popular error which taught that every man should walk in his own ways, but that God commanded man to walk in God’s ways, and in all of them, not to add to nor diminish aught from them. He said to select such ways of God as pleased us and reject those which did not suit us was not to obey God at all. To do only what pleased us and reject other commandments of God was but to walk in our own way and not God’s. It was a fatal error. God often gave tests of faith by requiring us to do things not agreeable to us. This was well illustrated in the case of Abraham who was commanded to offer up Isaac, his only child of promise. God might have foreknown that Isaac would be spared, but Abraham did not. His faith was increased by this test. So every test of our faith should result in our good, to give us stronger faith.

This text also teaches us to love God. God said to the Jews that he loved even strangers. He would do them good. Love was intensely practical. God’s love is manifested in what god does. So our love for God must be manifested in obeying the commandments of God in what we do.

The speaker said all our love, fear and service of God was not to benefit God, but as taught in this connection was “for thy good.” God was omnipotent and needed not this help of man, as many vainly suppose.

He said to shirk or doge a duty to God did not cheat God, but him who avoided the duty, and it would soon be manifest by an incompetency that would put one to shame. The pupil who dodged his lessons at school did not cheat the teacher, but himself. Some church members chose the Lord’s day to visit the sick instead of going to the assembly as God required. They could visit the sick at other times. They, too, cheated themselves and not God.

It was the design of all our worship and service of God to make us more and more like God in spirit and character. In proof of this the speaker read and explained II Corinthians iii.18, in which it is said, “We all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord.” This image was spiritual. It was of gradual formation. It was the result of a constant adoration and worship of God as seen in the life and character of Jesus Christ. This growth of the inner or spiritual man to the image of Christ, though certain and sure, we were yet unconscious of it at any particular time. This was illustrated by the youth who, however anxious to grow to manhood, was never able to see the growth of one day. Measurements at longer intervals would clearly indicate growth. It was so in the Christian life.

This image was never perfected while in the flesh. Although the flesh became weaker day by day and the inward man stronger day by day, it was yet impossible for the weak eyes of mortality to behold Christ in his glorious perfections. Now, we could only see him, as it were, in a glass, in mere outline. A perfect vision of Christ to the eyes of flesh would be too blinding, as the disciples experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration or Saul saw on the road near Damascus. But we shall be strengthened to behold him in his glory. We are “now” the sons of God, but it doth not yet appear what we shall be.

The afflictions of life are the chatisements of a kind Father who feels more than his children the strokes of correction. The afflictions of life are brief and light, however severe in themselves, in comparison with the glory which shall be revealed in us. He will change this vile body and fashion it like unto his glorious body.

The gospel of the Son of God, by its transforming grace, can make the lowest and most degraded of earth to be the peer of the brightest angel that vies around the throne of God.

All were urged to make an earnest effort for a higher and nobler life.

David Lipscomb: South Nashville Churches of Christ (1906)

May 10, 2014

While doing some research in Nashville newspapers, I encountered this piece by David Lipscomb:  “South Nashville Church of Christ,” Daily American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.

I thought it was interesting for several reasons.

1.  It illustrates that Lipscomb thought church planting was the way to grow the kingdom.

2. It illustrates the use of tent meetings in the planting of churches, and how other churches supported the planting of those communities.

3. It illustrates the use of “lay” (my term) preachers, that is, bi-vocational ministers, in the growth and maturing of congregations.

4. It illustrates why Nashville has so many Churches of Christ. Lipscomb promoted the planting of many small congregations who managed their own affairs (did their own teaching, missions, evangelism, etc.) rather than consolidating into large congregations. Small but many was better than few but large, according to Lipscomb.

Here is the piece in full:

“South Nashville Church of Christ


To the Editor of the American:

An item in The American, Monday morning, concerning the South Nashville Church of Christ and its work, is so full of mistakes that it is easier to write a new account than to correct it.

The South  College-street Church was first organized in its present house of worship eighteen years ago. After a few years of successful work, the Green Street, the Carroll Street, and the Flat Rock churches were begun by a number withdrawing from this church to do so. The old Bible School  Church, Highland avenue and West Nashville churches were formed largely by members from this church.

Since the formation of the church eighteen years ago nine or ten preachers have been developed in the church. Tents have been greatly used by the congregation in its work in reaching the non-church going and the people generally. A tent is sent, with a preacher, to hold a meeting, receive what contributions are offered, without asking any, report to the church, and what is lacking in these contributions to sustain the work is supplemented by the churches engaged in the work. Oftentimes the sending of the preacher and tent a few times will arouse such an interest in the place or in some neighboring church that they will support the meeting without cost to those sending, except for the use of the tent. Yet, if the tent had not been sent it is most probable nothing would have been done.

The first tent meeting was held in South Nashville by J. A. Haring, principal of Potter Bible College, of Bowling Green, Ky. He also held very successful meetings in East Nashville, out of which grew largely Foster-street Church.

For  four or five years past the South College-street Church, the old Bible School, the Tenth, West Nashville and Green-street churches have kept two or three tents at work. One has been kept almost constantly at work in and around Nashville. A church has been established on the Dickerson pike, and one at the New Shops within the last year. Churches have been established by the use of these tents at Monterey, Baxter, Erin, Dayton, Graysville, with others in Rutherford, Cannon, Warren and Montgomery counties, Tennessee; Trion and Atlanta, Ga.; Huntsville and Wilsonville, Ala.

Counting the churches formed out of the South Nashville Church, we count thirty-five congregations planted by this work, two of which have dissolved and united with other contiguous churches. There are eight or ten other mission points that promise churches at an early day. During the past summer over 500 persons were baptized through this work. During the last few years as many as 2,000 have been baptized.

Elder E. A. Moore, of South Nashville, has looked after the collecting and disbursing of funds. S. W. Morrow, of the old Bible School Church, has largely done the purchasing and managing of the tents. A number of churches established by the tent work have purchased tents, and become centers of operation for doing similar work around them. Dayton, East Tenn., and Trion, Ga., are examples of this. Other churches in West Tennessee, Arkansas, Canada and California have been moved by the example of this work to do likewise. Much of this work has been done by working men, who have, by conducting the worship, looking after the affairs of the church and studying the Bible, become good, efficient teachers of the word, while following their ordinary avocations for a living. They can more effectively reach their fellow-workmen than can those who rely on preaching as a  means of support. When a preacher can say to his congregation: “I know you are all tired with your day’s work, as I am and I will try to not weary you,” he touches a chord of sympathy in that audience that is worth more than learning, to lead them to good.

With the hours of labor per day the earnest working man can find time for study, and preparation, that will enable him to appear with credit before any audience. There are a number of such preachers in Nashville. It has not been the policy of the South College-street Church to encourage the collecting of a large membership in one body. This with a fine house may flatter the preacher and attract numbers, but to scatter the large congregations into a number of worshipping bodies and leave them greatly to depend on themselves, will call out the activities, develop the talent, give practical experience to the religious lives of the masses of the people, and give the most reliable class of religious people to be found in any community.

Joel 2:28-32 — I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

May 7, 2014

Joel’s lament liturgy in the first half of the book envisioned the devastation of Israel by a locust plague (or perhaps an invading army). That impending disaster also represented a future apocalyptic disaster. Joel is working at two levels–the immediate moment but also a future cataclysm.

Israel’s response to such news, as with all other human beings, is to lament. The prophet calls them to assemble, repent, and pray. They cry out to the Lord because they know Yahweh is gracious and compassionate. Yahweh will save those who call on the name of the Lord.

In the second half of Joel, Yahweh responds to the prayers of the people. Yahweh promises a fruitful land (Joel 2:18-27), a new Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), and a judgment of hostile forces (3:1-19). The promised land includes not only a renewal of Israel’s Edenic life in the land (a restoration of Israel) but also a new creation itself (a renewal of Eden).  That same dual aspect is present also in the promise of a new Spirit.

Poured Out Spirit

Concomitant with the renewal of the land is the pouring out of the Spirit. While the language is sequential, they are nevertheless tied together. God’s new creation is saturated with the Spirit. The restoration of Israel–when it is fully restored–will include the presence of God’s Spirit among the people.

The significance of this text is difficult to overestimate. It stands in stark contrast with Numbers 11 where in the face of tremendous burdens God helps Moses by equipping seventy elders (“old men”) with the Spirit. Though Joshua is puzzled by this, Moses hopes that a time would come when “all” Yahweh’s “people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). This is that moment! Joel envisions a time when God will answer Moses’s prayer.

Numbers 11:24-25

Joel 2:28-29






Men and Women


Old and Young


Free and Slave

The Spirit of God will rest upon “all flesh,” and so fully led by the Spirit that everyone will “dream dreams,” “see visions,” and “prophesy.” This language means that everyone will experience God’s life as they all see the world through God’s vision. The Spirit–poured out on “all flesh–will saturate the community of God, and the Spirit will give life, power, and vision to “all flesh.”

This is a radical vision. Israel’s life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable “exceptions” (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way:  all, old/young, male/female, and free/slave. The young, enslaved, and female will now also fully experience the Spirit. God will live in and through “all” rather than only through seventy older free males.

Apocalyptic Vision

When would this happen? When would God pour out the Spirit upon all flesh?

The text locates this outpouring “after” the emergence of Edenic Israel in Joel 2:18-27, that is, after the restoration of Israel. Within the context of Joel this is difficult to identify with any historical specificity.

If we regard Joel as a liturgical lament, then the divine response of (1) renewed land, (2) renewed [Spirit-led] people, and (3) divine judgment is something happens after Israel’s repentance (their calling on the Lord). It is a general liturgical form, but it also has an apocalyptic meaning and intent.

Apocalyptic language appears in Joel 2:30-31. This describes a cosmic shake-up. It is the appearance of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” God, in effect, uncreates! In other words, what Joel describes is a disturbance that resembles the undoing of creation itself. The sun, for example, turns into the darkness. The creation (heavens and earth) revert back to chaos. Darkness, fire, and blood fill the creation rather than light and life.

In that great cataclysmic moment God will pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, and those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A remnant will survive the uncreation.

But what exactly are we talking about?

The Spirit and the Church

Luke narrates the story of Jesus and the church in such a way that the appearance of Jesus is the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. Indeed, the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost (the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest) is the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32a in Acts 2:17-21, and identifies the events of that day as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is that,” Peter says.

Exalted at the right hand of the Father, the resurrected Messiah received the promised Spirit from the Father and the Messiah poured out the Spirit upon restored Israel, which begins with the one hundred and twenty gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 1. The Spirit saturates and renews Israel. And this is only the beginning.

Luke tells the story of how renewed Israel expanded to include the Gentiles (“all flesh”) and how women prophesied in this new community (Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9). The Book of Acts is not so much the “acts of the apostles” as it is the “acts of the Holy Spirit” who leads and guides the church in its mission as a witness among the nations and the full inclusion of women within the community. The inclusion of women is present among the one hundred and twenty in Acts 1:14, and their presence in the community is consistently highlighted in Acts (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36-39; 16:13; 17:4, 12). In the light of this emphasis, Luke’s seeming aside about Philip’s daughters (prophetesses) is particularly significant. Joel’s prophecy is progressively realized within the church.

Paul quotes Joel 2:32a in support of the inclusion of the Gentiles. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” Paul writes, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Moreover, Paul’s inclusion of women in Galatians 3:28 also seems to echo Joel 2:28-29. The children of God include Jews and Gentiles, males and females, and slave and free. They are all heirs of Abraham, heirs of the new creation. They are, as the renewed Israel of God, the new creation (Galatians 6:15-16).

Galatians 3:26-28

Joel 2:28-29


All Flesh

Male/Female as Children of God




These children of Abraham are the people into whose hearts God has sent the Spirit (Galatians 4:6). They have received the promised Spirit. Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave, this new creation is indwelt by and saturated with God’s Spirit.  The effect is that some are gifted with prophecy, including both men and women, Jew and Greek, and slave and free.

The heart of Joel’s vision of restored Israel is that God’s Spirit will empower women as well as men, slaves as well as the free, the young as well as the old, to prophesy. The community, in terms of its prophetic leadership and inSpirited experience, will “no longer” (to use Paul’s phrase in Galatians 3:28) be male, free, and Jewish. Rather, female prophets as well as enslaved and youthful ones will lead the people of God through their prophetic work.

Joel’s vision, as applied by Peter and echoed by Paul, still speaks to the church, and calls the church to lean ever more heavily into the new creation that the Spirit is working among us.

New Creation and the Spirit of God

But there is more. Joel’s vision is not limited to the story of the church working its way through history as new creation emerges within God’s ongoing story with creation. Rather, it speaks to the fuller reality that is yet to appear–the creation of the new heavens and the new earth itself.

Just as Joel 2:18-27 anticipates a renewed Eden upon a new heaven and new earth (a new creation), so Joel 2:28-32 anticipates a pneumatic (Spiritual) existence.

A Spiritual (pneumatic) existence? Yes, but let me explain.

At present the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is busily transforming us into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:18-20). In this sense we are already pneumatic (Spiritual) people, that is, we are people whose inner life is animated and renewed by the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18) even though our outer life–our physical bodies–are decaying day by day.

Pneumatic existence, however, is not simply for the soul. God intends it for our bodies as well. Consequently, the Spirit who now indwells us will also raise our mortal bodies from the grave and give them immortal life (cf. Romans 8:11,23). Paul describes the resurrection body as a “spiritual” (pneumatic) body. It is a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit; it is immortal life in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57).

The final act of new creation–when new creation fully emerges as God renews heaven and earth–is the resurrection of our bodies, and we will live a pneumatic existence in a new heaven and new earth. When the Spirit is fully poured out, our inner and outer lives will be fully conformed to the inner and outer life of Jesus the Messiah, our resurrected Lord.  Our souls will be perfected by the Spirit so that we are conformed to the image of the Son, and our bodies will be conformed to the image of the Son’s resurrected body. We will be like the resurrected Messiah–fully led, empowered and animated by the Spirit of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!



Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.


Joel 2:18-27 — The Promise of New Creation

April 23, 2014

Joel’s propehtic liturgy previously announced the coming of the great “day of the Lord,” which functions at multiple levels. On the one hand, it envisions any impending disaster that is coming upon Israel–whether it is a locust plague, an invading army, or some other communal crisis. On the other hand, it describes an apocalyptic event that will transform human and planetary existence. I think we must read Joel at both levels–the liturgy responds to present crises but also anticipates a future “day of the Lord.”

Joel 1:2-2:11 described a national disaster that prefigured the “day of the Lord.” In the light of such impending doom, Joel implored Israel to return by assembling for a communal fast and prayer (Joel 2:12-17). This is the turning point in Joel’s iturgy. The second half of Joel turns to thanksgiving for and the joyful anticipation of the future. The prophet sees new creation (2:18-27), spiritual renewal (2:28-32), and the defeat of all hostile powers (3:1-21) in Israel’s future.

Just like the “day of the Lord,” these promises function at two levels. They are present realities in the life of Israel that anticipate a future. However or whenever Israel experienced these promises in their history, they also yearned for the day of their full realization. Their present experience of renewal promised a fuller (even eschatological) future. In this sense, Joel’s language is both historical and apocalyptic; it addresses the present and the future.

The liturgy of lament, then, moves to a liturgy of thanksgiving, and the thanksgiving is rooted in God’s promises, that is, what God will do (Joel 2:18-27). The thanksgiving (2:21-24) is the centerpiece of the liturgy, but it is surrounded by a word of grace about God’s gracious and wondrous mighty acts.

A.  The Lord Removes the Dangers (2:18-20)
B.  The Land, Animals and People Rejoice (2:21-24)
A.  The Lord Supplies Israel (21:25-27).

Yahweh’s first concern is Israel’s life in the land or, more broadly, human existence on the earth.  God is “jealous,” and consequently “compassionate,” for the land and its people. Both the land and people belong to God; they are God’s own possession. God acts out of deep emotion for the sake of the land and the people.

Yahweh’s mercy yields a crop in the land (“grain, wine, and oil”) and removes the shame of the people. God drives the invading army into the sea and wasteland, and the stench of the dead locusts reminds Israel that God has delivered them from the disaster.

In other words, God renews the land and brings it peace. God renews Eden in Israel. What was once a “Garden of Eden” (2:3) has become so again. God renews the promise of creation itself, as well as the promise to Israel, that humanity would dwell with God in the land and thrive in harmony with creation. This renewed promise means that all creation celebrates with thanksgiving.

Consequently, God addresses the

soil (2:21)
animals (2:22)
children of Zion (2:23-24)

Fear has disappeared and joy has emerged within the renewed creation. “Do not fear, O soil…you animals of the field.” The soil and animals will “be glad and rejoice”  because the soil will no longer thirst and the animals will no longer starve. God ends the drought. As a result, the trees bear fruit, the vines and figs “give their full yield,” and grain, wine, and oil are abundant. Creation itself, as well as Israel, will rejoice in God’s renewal.

In effect, God renews covenant with both creation and Israel by sending the early and latter rains “as before.” The autumn (early) rains prepare the ground for planting, and the spring (latter) rains enable a rich harvest (cf. Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; James 5:7). This was the planting cycle of the land of Canaan, which is still the case today. God covenanted with Israel that the rains would come in their Eden as long as they loved their God, but should they love other gods, Yahweh would shut off the rain (Deuteronomy 11:17; 28:12, 24). The seasonal rains give life to the land, food for the animals, and prosperity to Israel.

This renewal, Yahweh promises, will bring peace to Israel. The verb, translated “repay” by the NRSV, is the verb form of the noun shalom. As in Eden, God will bring peace to the land; God will “restore” (ESV) the years of plenty that were lost in the locust years, the days of the invading army. God will make the land whole once again.

Israel, at peace in a restored Eden, will “eat in plenty and be satisfied,” and “praise the name of the Lord your God” because of what God has done. They will know (Joel 2:27):

that I am in the midst of Israel (divine presence),
and that I am the Lord your God (covenantal relationship)
and there is none else (monotheism).

This knowledge is no mere cognition; it is intimacy. God’s presence within Israel is like God’s presence in Eden, which is God’s presence in the Temple in the midst of Israel. This presence is covenantal, that is, Israel lives in relationship with God. Yahweh is their God and they are Yahweh’s people.  But this is not one God among others. Rather, there is no other God. Yahweh alone is God. This is the heart of Israel’s faith: Yahweh, their God and the only God, dwelling in their midst. Israel is a new Eden, and God lives and walks among them.

The result is that “my people shall never again be put to shame”–and this line is repeated twice in Joel 2:26-27.

But when did that happen? Has it happened yet? It might be hyperbole, but it also might be a kind of already/not yet reality.  Israel has experienced moments of renewal, but they still await the fullness of the promise. There will come a time when Israel will “never again be put to shame,” and this is the hope of God’s people.

A day will come when Israel will live unashamed within the creation, just as Adam and Eve lived in the garden. It is a day when creation itself will rejoice and be freed from the fear of drought and starvation. It is a day when God will dwell in the midst of Israel as God makes a home within the creation. That day is the day when heaven and earth itself will made new, and God and the Lamb will make their home in the new Jerusalem.

Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014.  It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.

However, you can judge for yourself.  They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?


Joel 2:12-17 — Assemble and Pray

April 17, 2014

Sometimes assembly is more important than a wedding night.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is the message of Joel 2:12-17. The impending disaster, the day of the Lord, created an urgency within Israel that prioritized the gathering of God’s people over wedding celebrations. A penitent people, according to Joel, should assemble to pray for Yahweh’s mercy, and it must be a corporate act rather than the isolated prayers of scattered individuals.

There is something about corporate prayer that is more important than individual prayer.

The first part of the text is the prophetic call to “return” to God (Joel 2:12-14), and the second half rouses the people to prayerful assembly (Joel 2:15-17). The first half invites Israel to return, and the second summons Israel to assemble as a witness to their return. To assemble, in this context, is to return to God with broken and contrite hearts.

The call comes with the voice of Yahweh, “Return to me with all your heart!” And then it comes with the voice of the prophet, “Return to the Lord, your God.” The double use of “return” (a metaphor for repentance) highlights the reality that Israel had turned away from God, and this is the cause of divine judgment. Joel, however, never identifies any particular sin among the people. Instead, the prophet offers a liturgical form for all sorts of occasions (which is whole book itself, especially Joel 1-2).

Summon the People to Lamentation.
Call the People to Return.
Gather the People in Assembly.
Lead the People in Prayer.
Testify to People about Hope.
Envision a Future for the People.

But first the people must “return,” and return with their “whole heart.” They must “tear” their “hearts” and not just their clothing. Their return must be heart-based rather than an external, ritualistic show. Their lament and fasts must arise from a contrite and broken heart. An external demonstration is not sufficient. Worship–through assembling, fasting, and lamenting–must arise from the heart or it is worthless.

Why should Israel even try? Because of who God is. They seek God because they confess that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” They return to God for the same reason Jonah ran away to Tarshish (Jonah 4:2), that is, because God loves, forgives, and renews. This is Israel’s “God Creed.” First revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), it is pervasive in Israel’s preaching and liturgy (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 145:8). Israel repents because they know Yahweh is merciful and loyal.

However, like the Ninevehites (Jonah 3:9), Israel must not presume upon God’s mercy. “Who knows,” the prophet asks, “whether [Yahweh] will not turn and relent”? Israel’s repentance does not put God in a box; it does not manipulate God or force God into a corner. However God responds to Israel’s “return,” it is God’s decision or else the forgiveness is not gracious.

But the hope is that God will relent, that is, that God would have a change of mind. The term does not mean “repent” as if there is sorrow for sin or evil intent. Rather, in the light of repentance, God may chose an alternative course of action. This is the dynamic that Moses experienced in Exodus 32 where Moses seemingly persuaded God to continue with Israel rather than starting over with Moses. God is dynamically engaged with the creation. God responds Israel’s choices.

The summons comes in a series of imperatives (eight in all).

Blow the trumpet!
Sanctify a fast!
Call a solemn assembly!
Gather the people!
Sanctify the congregation!
Assemble the aged!
Gather the children!
Leave the bridal chamber!

Assembly language piles up in the text. The Shofar (rams’ horn) trumpet signals the time of assembly (cf. Leviticus 25:9; Jeremiah 4:5; even the assembly of all who live upon the earth in Isaiah 18:3). “Call a solemn assembly” is repeated from Joel 1:14, and this language describes other assemblies in Israel (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:9; Nehemiah 8:18). Gathering the people, like gathering in the harvest or gathering armies for battle, evokes a picture of heaping up people in one place. It recalls earlier gatherings in Israel as when Joshua gathered the people at Shechem (Joshua 24:1; cf. Psalms 47:9; 50:5; Nehemiah 9:1; 1 Chronicles 23:2). “Assemble” is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible for the assembling before the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:20; 48:14), and often refers to how God will assemble or gather together Israel with compassion and renewal (cf. Isaiah 54:7; 56:8; Ezekiel 11:17; Micah 2:12, 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19, 20), including gathering the nations with Israel (Isaiah 66:18).

Everyone is called to the assembly! From young (even infants) to the aged. Nothing should hinder their attendance. Even the wedding night or the wedding should not prevent attendance. Stop the honeymoon! All Israel  must assemble! The urgency of this assembly as a way returning to God in the face of impending disaster demands everyone’s presence.

What happens at this assembly?  Israel fasts, mourns, and weeps. They approach the presence of God at the temple, and through the priests Israel cries out to God. The priests, as intercessors and mediators between God and the people, stand between the temple and its altar–between the presence of God and the sacrifices. They speak for the people and on behalf of the people. They make their case before God; they make an argument.

The priestly prayer in Joel 2:17 is a plea for mercy, and the plea is made on the basis of God’s reputation among the nations (like Moses did in Exodus 32) and on the the ground that Israel’s is God’s heritage. The priests remind God that God’s kingdom is tied to Israel. This is God’s promise to the world itself and so Israel as the heritage of God is the hope of the world. Don’t, they plead, destroy your heritage! The priests argue on the basis of God’s glorious reputation and on the basis of God’s own inheritance within the creation. Their cry for mercy is both dependance on God’s graciousness and a call for God to remain true to God’s own intent for the world.

Through the priests, the assembly confesses, laments, and petitions. The people, gathered at the temple to pray, return to God and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

Sometimes assembly is more important than any other human activity.

Joel 2:1-11 — Eden Despoiled

April 9, 2014

The “day of Yahweh,” or the “day of the Lord,” reverses creation. Through creation God subdued the chaos and gave it boundaries, but divine judgment releases chaos. The “day of Yahweh” uncreates. Eden is despoiled. Or, more specifically in the context of Joel, Israel is threatened with the prospect that the land flowing with milk and honey–the promised land–will turn into a wasteland.

The situation, similar to chapter one, is that some kind of an army is approaching Israel. Some think it is a literal army, such as the Babylonians who besieged Jerusalem in 586 BCE and others think it is another locust plague (perhaps an extension of the one described in chapter one). Most probably, the army–described as a locust swarm–is a metaphor for divine judgment, which is a “day of the Lord” that comes in various forms. It may or may not involve a literal army, but may simply represent divine discipline or judgment. The army is Yahweh’s army; Yahweh rides at the head of this host. Whether literal or metaphorical, the discipline comes from Yahweh.

Dillard (modifying a proposal by Keller) suggests that Joel 2:1-11 has a chiastic structure, and this is particularly illuminating (The Minor Prophets, ed. McComiskey,p. 278).

A. The day of the Lord nears (2:1-2a).

B. Arrival of the army (2:2b).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:3).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:4-6).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:7-9).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:10).

B. Yahweh’s army (2:11a).

A. The day of the Lord (2:11b).

The chiasm contains four elements: (1) the event is identified as the day of Yahweh, (2) it is described as an army, (3) the result of the invasion is chaos (uncreation), and (4) the army is unstoppable.

In Joel 2:4-9 it is as if someone is watching the army approach from the city walls. They see the war-horses appear on the surrounding mountains, they hear the rumble of the chariots, and they watch the army trample everything in its path like a fire burning through stubble.  Fear fills the city as they watch disciplined warriors stay in formation during their advance and march over defending armies. The soldiers leap up onto the walls and enter homes. Like locusts, they infect every part of the city.

The terror that accompanies the army’s movements is heightened by the fact that this is Yahweh’s army. Yahweh stands at the head of this army, and it is the voice of Yahweh that commands it. This is the Lord’s host, and it is a moment in history when God has decided to act. It is a day when God has decided to uncreate what God created.

The “day of Yahweh” causes the inhabitants–as well as the earth itself–to tremble or quake. It is a day when darkness dawns rather than light (Joel 2:2). The descent of darkness upon Israel reminds them of other great events in its history, including darkness upon Egypt in Exodus 10:22. This darkness, however, is theophanic language; it is the appearance of Yahweh for judgment against a sinful nation (only Zephaniah 1:15 uses the four terms for darkness in this text in exactly the same order). Darkness is often associated with divine appearances or theophanies (cf. Exodus 20:18, 21; Deuteronomy 4:11), and here–like the locust in Egypt in Exodus 10:14–the day is described in hyperbole in order to accentuate its significance. Israel will remember this moment of judgment just like they remember the Exodus except this memory will fill them with fear rather than joy.

Uncreation reverses God’s intent in creation. The images of uncreation are startling. The land of Israel is turned from the “garden of Eden” into a “desolate wilderness.” In Genesis 1-2 God creates Eden out of a formless void that was wrapped in darkness (Genesis 1:2). Eden emerged from that chaos as a divine sanctuary in which humanity could rest with God.

When God created Israel, they were given a land that was like Eden itself. God dwelt among them, rested with them in the land, and protected Israel from even the wild animals. The rhythm of the rainy seasons would provide food, and Israel would live at peace with its neighbors. But Israel did not live by the covenant, and now in Joel (as at other times in its history; cf. Jeremiah 4:22-26) God disciplines them. God despoils Eden. Israel will become a “desolate wasteland.”

Human sin has cosmic ramifications, and the day of the Yahweh causes the whole cosmos to tremble before the Lord. Whereas God placed the sun, moon, and stars as lights in the skin in Genesis 1, during the day of the Lord their lights are extinguished. Darkness will reign upon the earth. Chaos will govern the heavens and earth.

Through creation God orders the chaos, but sin unfetters chaos. Indeed, God even comes at the head of the chaos to discipline and punish those who choose chaos over God’s good order. When humanity lives in covenant with God, order, peace, and tranquility prevail. But when humanity chooses a different agenda–one where they seek their own interests–Eden is despoiled, and God’s good creation is enveloped in darkness.

Israel repeated the story of the original couple. Just as Genesis 3 opened the floodgates of chaos, so Israel’s sin did as well.  And we still do.

The day of the Lord will come again…and again…and again, until that day when God will create anew and fill the earth with the glory for which the creation was intended.




Joel 1:15-20 — Even Creation Groans

April 8, 2014

After opening with a call for lamentation, the text presents two laments (1:15-18 and 1:19-20). The first laments the day, and the second cries out to Yahweh. The first weeps over the  devastation of the land and the suffering of the livestock. In the second both the people and the animals cry out to God because both the pastures and the waters have dried up.

Creation itself laments, not just Israel! Humanity and creation lament together.

First Lament. The first word in Joel 1:15 is “Alas!” (‘ahah). A cry of anguish, it appears in other troubled circumstances (Joshua 7:7; Judges 6:22; 2 Kings 3:10; Jeremiah 4:10; 14:13; Ezekiel 11:13; 20:49). The present crisis–whatever it is–is a day of despair and loss. “Alas” is the voice of lament.

Given the losses that surround them, the people recognize that the day of Yahweh is coming, even near at hand. The “day of Yahweh,” which appears in Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14, is paralleled with “destruction” that comes from the “Almighty.” The “day of Yahweh” is judgment day, and it appears throughout Israel’s history and other nations as moments of divine refinement, discipline, and punishment. It does not necessarily refer to a specific day, but to those times in history where God moved within history to accomplish the divine purpose. In this context, Israel laments the coming “day of Yahweh” in their midst.

The lament is communal. The first person plurals (“our eyes” and “our God” in Joel 1:16) reflect this. The very place where Israel gathered before Yahweh–at the temple–is destitute. Its storehouses and granaries are empty because the fields have yielded no food. As a result, there is no joy in the courts of the temple. The temple has become a place of lament rather than celebration.

The lament is also cosmic. Creation is the subject of verbs in Joel 1:18. The beasts “groan,” the cattle “wander about,” and the sheep “are dazed.” The animals mourn just as Israel groaned in Egypt (Exodus 2:23) or like women in childbirth (Jeremiah 22:23). The cattle are, more literally, perplexed or confused. The sheep are desolate or wronged. The sheep suffer because of the guilt of others.

This cosmic groaning uses the language of breaking hearts and bitter grief (cf. Ezekiel 21:6). The moaning of the animals becomes their prayer to the Creator to whom they look for everything (cf. Psalm 104). When Israel sins, the land and its animals suffer; when humanity sins, creation suffers. As Paul notes, creation itself groans for liberation (Romans 8:18-23), and creation mourns its own devastation.

Second Lament. The first word in Joel 1:19 is “to you” (that is, Yahweh) to whom the prophet addresses the lament. The prophet here intercedes for the people as Joel speaks in the first person (“I”). He cries out (kara’) to Yahweh. While the verb is a general one (normally translated “call”), the context gives it a more distressful meaning. The verb regularly appears in lament Psalms (cf. Psalm 3:4; 18:6; 22:2; 27:7; 30:8; 42:7; 57:2; 69:3; 86:3, 5, 7; 88:9). The verb expresses utter dependance; there is no one else to whom the prophet can turn.

Like the first lament, the second also gives voice to creation, this time the beasts of the field or wild animals (same word as in Joel 1:18). All creation is affected, not just the domesticated livestock of Joel 1:18. The wild animals “long for” God, just as the deer longs for water and humanity longs for God in Psalm 42:2. The verb is from the same root as the Hebrew word for “bed,” so that it represents a desire for intimacy or relationship. The land’s chaos bespeaks a disruption of the communion between the creation and its Creator.

Fire, rather than locust, is the cause of this devastation. Perhaps fire results from stripped plants and drought caused by locusts, or perhaps it is another metaphor (in addition to the locust) for the disaster that has come upon the land. Whatever the case, it is not only the crops that are lost, but the pastures and trees, and the sources of water are also dried up.

Lament is personal, communal, and cosmic. When the earth is devastated because humanity fails to live in ways for which we were designed (that is, to image God in the world), the whole cosmos groans. Creation, like humanity, looks to God for the good things of life, but it also, like humanity, laments when life is frustrated. Like us, creation groans.

Humans have the power to make creation weep!

Joel 1:1-14 — A Call for Lamentation

April 4, 2014

Whether Joel calls for lament in a specific historical situation or provides a liturgical frame for communal lament (or both!), the opening calls the people of God to cry out to God as they weep and wail in their despair.

There are times to lament, and the people of God need the regular rhythms of lament and hope to endure their tragedies, to seek forgiveness for their sins, and to implore Yahweh for justice. Whatever the circumstance here, Joel invites Israel to weep (bacah; 1:5), howl (yalal; 1:5, 11, 13), mourn (‘abal; 1:9), lament (saphad; 1:13), and cry out (za’ak; 1:14).

The first imperative, however, is “hear” or “listen.” The elders (city leaders) and the inhabitants of the land (those who “dwell” in the land) are told to pay attention and notice what is happening among them. The moment has significance. It is something they will tell their children and their children.

Some may read the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?,” as a wholly unique event. But perhaps it is hyperbole to highlight the importance of the moment. Israel finds itself in a lamentable circumstance, one of considerable consequence. As a liturgical document, this may not refer to any specific moment but rather anticipates those moments in a people’s history that appear with some regularity. The United States remembers, for example, Pearl Harbor, the death of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. The invitation, then, does not so much announce a unique event as it emphasizes the depth of the lament occasioned by the circumstance, whatever it may be.

In this case, Joel identifies the occasion as a locust plague. In the ancient world, and up until very recent history, locust swarms devastated huge tracts of land. Locust devour everything and leave nothing in their wake. Famine, disease, and poverty follow.

Interpreters differ on how to understand Joel’s use of the plague. Some think it is a metaphor for an invading army (e.g., Babylonians or some other power). Others think it is a literal locust plague. Still others believe the locust function as a metaphor for weighty moments of lament. In other words, if Joel functions as a lament liturgy, the locust plague is a figure for every tragedy that might devastate a nation. Whatever the case may be, lament is the primary concern.

Lament is described in several ways.

  • Wine-makers and drinkers lament the loss of the vines and the lack of new wine (1:5).
  • The priests mourn the lack of crops and vines that would provide drink offerings and grain offerings at the temple (1:9, 13).
  • The farmers, who till the soil and dress the vines, weep over the loss of their crops (1:11).

Nothing is left. There are no resources for a prosperous life; there are no gifts for the temple.  Everything is dried up. Life has lost its joy; it has dried up just like the vines, fruits, and trees (1:12). The lament is so great it is compared to a bride who never had the opportunity to enjoy her husband (1:8); she remains a virgin and her husband is dead.

There is reason to lament.

Religious leaders–the priests–must “consecrate a fast” in a “solemn assembly” (1:14). They are to gather the people–both elders and those who dwell in the land–at the temple, and there the whole assembly will “cry out to Yahweh.” Joel opened his oracle by addressing the “elders and inhabitants of the land,” and the call to lament concludes with the “elders and inhabitants of the land” crying out to God. The whole community gathers to lament.

The call to lament involves several elements which are important for our own practices today:

  1. Take note of the significance of the moment. We should not look past our pain too quickly nor underestimate the importance of our tragedies and hurts.
  2. Take account of the devastation involved that occasion the lament. We should notice the pain people endure and how widespread the pain is.
  3. Gather in a solemn assembly; covenant to fast as an expression of lamentation. We do not have to weep alone. Rather, we should encourage communal forms of lament that give voice to our hurt.
  4. Cry out to Yahweh. We may weep over our losses, but we also seek God in those moments. We address God with our needs; we intercede for ourselves and others. We voice our distress to God.

Lament is a common human experience. It is not about whining or even complaining, but weeping over our hurts, our sins, and the brokenness that fills the world. Rather than isolate, we gather. Rather than silence, we speak. We lament, and God listens.

On Reading the Prophet Joel: A Lament Liturgy

April 2, 2014

The prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God,” taught Judah to lament and hope. His message announces the coming “day of the Lord,” which entails both judgment–for the impenitent among God’s people and among the nations–and the renewal of God’s vision for the reign of God in the world. Lament and hope.

No one really knows when Joel prophesied or when the literary work that bears his name was written. Scholars have postulated every era of Israel’s history after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. Some think he was a contemporary of Elijah or Elisha, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Zechariah, or even after Malachi. The temple stands, but no kings are mentioned. Some enemies are identified, but none of them are the superpowers Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. We don’t have many clues.

The words of the prophet Joel come to us undated and without any specific historical context. But perhaps that is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is unusual in some ways but perhaps intentional, that is, its lack of specificity has a purpose.

The clue to this ambiguity is the topic itself: lament and hope. For example, the Psalms often lack historical context, but this is often a good thing. It means the language of the Psalms may fit any number of circumstances; it is not limited to the particulars of a specific moment in history or a narrow experience. Instead, the Psalm is open-ended in its application. It can be used over and over again in similar circumstances.

Joel fits this pattern.  Joel is a poetic, liturgical lament. In the opening two chapters, the prophet calls the people together to lament (1:5, 8; 2:12-14), fast (1:13-14; 2:15-16), and wait for the day of the Lord (1:15; 2:17). Hope, then, is located in God’s gracious response to such lament (2:18. 23, 28-29; 3:1, 18). Lament is followed by hope.

The biblical narrative identifies many occasions when Israel gathered in sacred assembly to lament, repent, and await God’s answer (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:1-17). Joel is a prophetic call for such an assembly (Joel 1:14; 2:15). Consequently, it functions something like Psalm 12 where the liturgy cries out in lament (12:1-4) but waits in hope (12:5-6).

The message of Joel is lament, repent, and hope. Since no specific historical situation is identified or perhaps intended, it becomes a liturgical text that serves Israel in diverse circumstances. It calls the nation to assemble for lament, to confess sin, and to hear the word of hope that God offers.

The people of God need that rhythm in their life. We need lament liturgies to voice our hurts, confess our sins, and embrace the promises of God. We need lament assemblies where as a community we gather in the face of tragedy, national sin, or impending doom in order to draw near to God and seek God’s redemptive mercy. Joel provides such a liturgy.

In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season of lament, repentance, fasting, and prayer….but also hope. Lent follows in the footsteps of Joel, and as Christians embrace the season of Lent they can also give voice to the words and message of Joel.

We lament, but we never lament without hope.

[See my Ash Wednesday Graduate Chapel presentation at Abilene Christian University on March 5, 2014.]


Noah the Movie, Part III: There are Biblical Themes There

March 31, 2014

When the filmmaker of Noah described it as “the least biblical biblical movie” ever made [he did not say it was the “least biblical movie”], he was probably referring to the fact Noah the movie is not a mirror image of Noah the biblical figure. Genesis is not the script for the movie. Rather, the script includes 1 Enoch and Jubilees among other ancient Jewish traditions, as well as some postmodern imagination and styled in the genre of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, there are dimensions of the movie that are robustly “biblical.” Here are a few.

  • There is a transcendent Creator of the earth
  • The Creator invested humanity with the care of the earth as the image of God.
  • Humanity failed to image God.
  • Cain-Tubal (and the line of Cain in general) is the anti-image of God; represents Cain who killed Abel.
  • The line of Seth represents those who honor the Creator (including Enoch and Methuselah).
  • Humanity is invested with the choice to image God or to create their own world.
  • Humanity pursued its own violent agenda–against creation and against each other.
  • The Creator justly judges humanity’s violence and evil with water–“making it right.”
  • The water is the uncreation of the creation; it is a return to the chaos that existed when God first began to create a habitable space on the earth.
  • The Creator gives life to those on the ark.
  • The Creator’s mercy preserves humanity.
  • The Creator renews life after the flood.
  • The Creator renews the human vocation to care for the earth and fill it.
  • The Creator is “unnamed”–the name of the Creator was not revealed until Moses inquired in Exodus.

Certainly more could be added to this list, but this gives us plenty to ponder!

See Part I for a perspective on the biblical story, and Part II for a review of the movie.


Noah the Movie, Part II

March 29, 2014

In my last post, I offered a reading of the biblical flood story, and now I offer an interpretation of Noah, the movie.

Like the biblical story itself, the movie is not a children’s movie.  It is about violence, ecological disaster, and the struggles of a man to fully discern God’s intent as the Creator judges humanity.

The movie has clear links to the biblical story–there is an ark, Noah is the main character, the Creator is judging the world, violence has filled the earth, and there is a flood to cleanse the evil–but the movie is not a “biblical movie,” that is, it does not intend to retell the flood story within the boundaries of what is known in Scripture or even how Scripture interprets the story.  The biblical story “inspires” the movie, but the movie is not the biblical story. Nevertheless, it is an imaginative retelling of themes that are part of the biblical story.

The movie functions, existentially (and thus theologically), as social commentary on human injustice against both the creation and humanity itself. It highlights ecological disaster and human violence. These are the great evils that grieved the Creator and for which the Creator will push the reboot button on the cosmos.

Due to human violence, the earth had become an environmental wasteland. The once green and beautiful earth had become a barren rock with little vegetation. The Creator invested humanity with dominion, and humanity used that dominion for its own sake. Humanity devoured the resources of the earth (including eating the flesh of animals), and this spiraled into violence against each other (including cannibalism). Human dominion was exercised through violence and injustice rather than through loving care.

Noah appears in the movie as a defender of the earth, the animals, and of mistreated humans (he rescues a young girl from death and raises her as his own). He lives within the chaos of a barren (rather than “good” earth) as a righteous person who remembers the story of the Creator and passes it on to his children. His family is light within the darkness, but it is threatened by the darkness. And though yet faithful to the Creator, the family wonders whether or when the Creator “will make things right.” When will the Creator put an end to human violence?

The flood is the Creator’s answer. Noah discerns this through dreams, and with the help of some “transformer rock angels” (my wife’s phrase) the family builds an ark for the preservation of the animals and, seemingly, humanity. But this is where the story takes an awkward though existential turn.

The second half of the movie focuses on Noah’s angst that arises from his perception of the divine intent. Noah, thoroughly disgusted with human evil, believes that the Creator intends to annihilate humanity even as the Creator preserves the creation. In Noah’s mind, the creation is more important than humanity, and humanity has not only been dethroned but must also be eliminated as a threat to the creation. Noah believes that God preserves his family only for the sake of the animals, and once the animals are safely in the new world after the flood, then the Creator will watch over the slow death of humanity itself as Noah’s line dies out (Shem’s wife is barren, and the other two sons have no wives).

The moviemaker adjusts the biblical story in order to create Noah’s angst, and this enables the second half of the movie to focus on the drama of mercy over justice. Noah, as the one in whom the Creator has invested the future (as the Creator originally did with Adam and Eve–who failed!), will not fail his Creator. He will complete the task and ensure that humanity will die out. He knows–he thinks–what the Creator wants, and he will obey. He is, after all, from the line of Seth.

As a result, Noah becomes what the flood judges. He becomes an unmerciful and violent man, which is exactly why the Creator is flooding the earth! He leaves Ham’s woman to die, trampled by humanity’s rush for self-preservation. He violently protects the ark from assault. He announces his intent to kill any female child born from the union of Shem and his wife. He destroys any hope that Shem and his wife might escape the ark. Noah has no mercy, which is exactly how he understood the Creator. He thinks he is fulfilling the Creator’s desire.

The climax of the movie is when Noah holds a raised a knife above his twin granddaughters. Here he struggles to do the will of God, as he understands it. And here he defies the Creator. He cannot kill his granddaughters. He ultimately fails to do the will of God; he fails like his ancestors Adam and Eve. Consequently, once upon dry ground where humanity can flourish once again, Noah drinks himself into a stupor and shames himself. He medicates his guilt with wine.

In time, however, Noah realizes that God never intended to destroy humanity. He should have learned this from his own grandfather, Methuselah, who healed his barren daughter-in-law. He should have listened to the different and merciful interpretation of the Creator’s intent that his wife voiced–she thought in terms of both justice and mercy. He should have seen the gift of life in his daughter-in-law’s womb as the Creator’s new beginning rather than a threat to the new creation. Noah was so blinded by the human condition–so blinded by humanity’s inhumanity–that he could not see the Creator’s gracious gift to his own family and the Creator’s merciful intent to preserve humanity.

In the end, however, Noah does recognize this. He renews covenant with his wife, and he invests in Shem the lineage of Seth. Noah now understands that creation has been renewed, and the Creator has graciously offered a new beginning. Noah tells his children to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” The Creator has given humanity a second chance!

But as we look at the world humanity has created since that time, have we done any better? I think the movie asks this question. Will human violence against the environment and each other once again call for judgment? Is humanity headed toward an apocalypse, or will we learn to balance justice and mercy? Will we embrace the vision of creation embedded in the film’s storyline? Not a bad question to raise!

Clearly, the filmmaker did not intend to follow the biblical script. That would’ve been a short movie! He made the story more about Noah than the Creator.

The biblical story, however, is about the Creator rather than Noah.  It is the Creator who grieves humanity’s violence. The Creator acts to end human violence. The Creator remembers Noah. The Creator remembers the creation, and the Creator preserves it and renews it. The Creator redeems Noah and his family. The Creator covenants with creation and humanity, and the Creator places the covenant sign of the Creator’s mercy and grace in the sky, the rainbow. And the Creator, once again, rests within the new creation!

While I understand why a filmmaker would focus on Noah’s existential angst, human blindness to divine intent, and the struggle to do the will of God, that is not the focus of the biblical story. In this sense, the film does not tell the biblical story but rather tells the story of postmodern angst. “Noah” may be a way of telling that story, but we should not confuse it with the function of biblical drama itself.

Personally, I did not much like the movie. My dislike is not due to the adjustments to the biblical story (I fully expected that). Rather, I thought the film tried too hard to create a dramatic storyline, which ultimately made it implausible (e.g., Cain-Tubal stealing aboard the ark, Ham aiding Cain-Tubal, the transformer rock angels or Watchers). I was left more awed by the special effects than engrossed in the story.

Nevertheless, the story has a point. What will humans do with the earth? How will we treat each other? Can we have a new beginning?

The biblical answer to those questions is rooted in God’s drama rather than in the human drama. We can’t, ultimately, find our hope in humanity. Didn’t the 20th century teach us that? Rather, humanity’s only hope is the merciful God who calls us to a story of redemption, justice, mercy, and reconciliation. That is the story of Jesus.

Noah the Movie: Part I

March 29, 2014

Before the movie, first the biblical story…or at least my reading of that story….

This is not a children’s story. The animals going into the ark two by two do make a classic VBS song and it certainly makes a great flannel graph. But this story is more like a horror movie than a Disney cartoon.

The story is important for our author. It takes up more space than the creation itself and is full of repetition. Why is this that important?

The flood narrative overlaps two sections of Genesis. It is at the end of the “generations of Adam” (5:1-6:8) which carries the human line from Adam through Seth to Noah, and it is the main event in the “generations of Noah” (6:9-9:29) which starts with the approaching flood and ends with the rainbow sullied by Noah and Ham. Both of these generational stories begin with great hope but they both end with disaster. The hope is found in Adam begetting Seth (5:1-5), which recalls creation itself and is found, in the next generation, in Noah’s walk with God (6:9).

Disaster, however, follows.  The line of Seth (“sons of God”) ultimately mixes with the line of Cain (“daughters of men”) and God’s good creation is filled with evil (6:1-7). Noah’s walk with God turns to drunkenness and shame (9:20-27). Both new beginnings have bad endings.

The flood story bridges these two sections in Genesis. The flood is a divine response to evil in the world, but also a new beginning. It is divine judgment but also divine renewal.

Why should the flood story figure so prominently in Genesis? Israel lived in an ancient culture that was saturated with stories about gods, creations and floods. There were multiple creation and flood stories in the surrounding cultures, and many even predate Moses. Many are very similar to the one in Genesis. For example, the family of one human is saved, a large boat, a great flood, the release of a raven and dove, etc.  Israel shared a common “story” about a past great flood with its culture.

However, there was (at least) one significant difference. The Ancient Near East (ANE) stories locate the reason for the flood in the capriciousness of the gods. They are fickle and easily annoyed. They send the flood upon the earth because humans are too noisy!

That is not Israel’s God. Israel reinterprets the flood story in order to say something about Yahweh (or Elohim). Their version is a counter-story that intends to subvert ANE culture itself.  The focus of the flood story is not on how many animals are in the ark or whether the dimensions are large enough for the animals. Its focus is the reason for the flood and what happened to the earth as a result.

God was not annoyed with humanity but grieved by them (Genesis 6:6). God was so grieved that God changed God’s mind (regret) about how the earth would continue. Humanity interrupted God’s sabbath (seventh day) rest.

When God finished the sixth day of creating in Genesis 1, God “rested” (Genesis 2:1-3). This seventh day was not a twenty-four hour period of relaxation and recreation. Rather, God “rested” in the earth, communed with humanity and the rest of creation, and rejoiced over his works. The sabbath rest of God is the communion God has with the creation–it is God resting (dwelling) within the creation. The seventh day is the continued existence of creation itself in communion with God. The seventh day is God’s rest!

But humanity (and “all flesh”) disrupted that rest by filling the earth with “violence.” This is an important term as its repetition highlights the rationale for God’s judgment.  God saw that the earth was full of “violence” (Genesis 6:11, 13). This is the opposite of God’s sabbath shalom. Just as “all flesh” contributed to the “violence” now pervasive upon the earth, so “all flesh” will suffer consequences (Genesis 6:13, 17, 19).

The judgment is the reversal of creation itself. The “waters” (7:6-7) arise from the “deep” and from the “windows of heaven” (7:11). This language comes from Genesis 1 where the waters are given boundaries so that dry land might appear. Now God releases the chaos of the waters. He sends the earth back to its original, uninhabitable state when the waters of the deep covered the earth (Genesis 1:2). The chaos out of which God shaped a habitable earth returns to destroy “all flesh.”

Israel tells the flood story as a polemic against violence rather than as the whims of fickle gods. God judges violence through the flood. Israel takes the flood story and uses it to subvert the culture of violence that dominated the ANE (especially an Israel living in Babylon who had recently suffered from that violence). The flood story tells us what God thinks about violence in the good creation.

At the same time, the flood story tells us about the patience, forbearance and grace of God. Yahweh does not “fly off the handle” in this story. Rather, God is patient with the creation. God strives with humanity for a 120 years (plus however long before that counting began). This is no flippant decision by a whimsical deity. On the contrary, it is a deliberate decision slowly made in the wake of God’s love for the creation.

That love is not only expressed in the grace God demonstrated to Noah, but it is also expressed in God’s gracious renewal of the creation itself. Genesis 8 begins with hope:  “God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals.” This remembrance is God’s gracious orientation toward humanity and the rest of creation. It is God’s determination to renew what he has just destroyed or, to put it another way, “wiped clean.”

Genesis 8 follows the path of Genesis 1.  The wind (or, Spirit, ruach) of God blows over the waters (just as in Genesis 1:2; 8:1). The waters separate–closing the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven–so that dry land might emerge (Genesis 1:6-10; 8:2). The dry land yields trees and fruit (Genesis 1:11-12; 8:11). And then the animals and humanity walk upon the dry land again (Genesis 1:25, 29-30; 8:15-119).

And God rests once again. This is an important part of the story that most miss. It is easy to miss because the connections of the Hebrew language are lost in English translation. Noah comes out of the ark and worships by offering dedicatory offerings. It is an act of thanksgiving (Genesis 8:20). Significantly, the odor of these sacrifices are “pleasing” (nichocha) to God. This is the important word. It is derived from the same root that describes God’s rest (nuach) in Exodus 20:11. The odor is restful to God. Just as God placed (yanach; rested) humanity in the Garden (Genesis 2:15), so God now rests within the creation once again.

God’s rest in the good creation–the seventh day rest is renewed and continues–is underscored by God’s commitment to the creation. God makes a covenant that renews Sabbath rest for the creation. God will never again destroy every living creature as he did this time even if humans do not change  their violent ways (Genesis 8:21-22). While chaos still exists within God’s creation (humans are there, for example!), the order of God’s creation will remain and the good creation will continue despite the chaos that surrounds it and lives within it. God will never again abandon the creation.

Israel tells this story, in contrast to the stories of the ANE, as both a judgment against violence and as a reminder of God’s commitment to the creation. God is not annoyed with humanity but rather loves them. People live within the grace of the creation even though they despoil it and often treat it violently just as they treat each other. Nevertheless, despite the violence, God sustains the earth, graces it with divine presence, and continues the seventh day through redemptive graces.

God still grieves the sin and the violence, just as God grieved over Israel (Isaiah 63:10), and God grieved in Jesus over Jerusalem. But–thanks to be to God!–the new creation has begun in Jesus Christ. Raised to the right hand of God, he is the firstborn of the new creation. One day, God will renew the creation as God strips the old things (like sin, violence and death) from the earth and makes everything new. On that day, there will be no more sea (no more “waters”) and no more night (“darkness”). God will reign upon the earth and dwell (rest) with humanity in the new creation (Revelation 21:1-5). Everything will be made new again through a refining fire.

[This is a summary of my July 3 (2012) presentation at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration as part of the Hazelip School of Theology series on Genesis 1-11.]

3 John: When Love is Abused

December 18, 2013

This small letter is the tale of two house-church leaders, Gaius and Diotrephes. One demonstrates love for God’s family while the other seeks a preeminent place in the family. One supports those who are traveling “for the sake of the name” while the other refuses to welcome them.

“The elder”—the same one who authored 1 & 2 John—is connected to both of them. He writes Gaius to commend him but was recently rebuffed by Diotrephes.  Gaius welcomes the leadership of “the elder” while Diotrephes resents it and seeks to limit it.

This brief letter is part of “the elder’s” attempt to deal a situation where Diotrephes has abused his leadership position. Rather than loving the family of God, he has dominated his own house-church.


Apparently, “the elder” ministers to a number of churches from a central location. Tradition places John in Ephesus where he spent the last years of his life. From Ephesus, it seems, John exercised pastoral care over a number of house-churches in the region. The letter suggests that “the elder” would send out “brothers” among the churches “for the sake of the name,” and he hoped that the house-churches would welcome them, give them a hearing, and support them. He expected that family would show hospitality to other family members (“brothers”) even if they were “strangers” (personally unknown to the host church).  John expected churches to support them because they are “fellow workers for the truth.”

Gaius did exactly this. He did the “faithful” thing, as he loved the “brothers” who came to him. His church welcomed them and supported their work. He accepted John’s pastoral care and sent the “brothers” on their way that they might continue to minister among the churches.

However, Diotrephes did not welcome the “brothers” and apparently resented John’s pastoral care. He not only refused to help but prevented others from helping as well. The “elder” sees this as a power play between him and Diotrephes.

So, the question is whether a house-church and its leadership should support the mission of these “brothers” whom the “elder” sent as his representatives.


The “elder” regards Gaius as one of his “children.” Whether this means Gaius was brought to Jesus by the elder or whether it simply means Gaius is under John’s pastoral care is uncertain. Whichever the case, the “elder” assumes a strong relationship between them. He writes to him, prays for him, rejoices over the news of his physical and spiritual health (he is concerned about both!), and praises him for his good works.

Gaius is characterized by several significant phrases, which are absent from the characterizations of Diotrephes and, in fact, stand in strong contrast with how Diotrephes is described. Gaius “walks in the truth” (2x in 3-4), is “faithful” in his efforts (literally, works), and acts in love.

The elder stresses the act of love, a reflection of his “walking in truth.” Gaius acted to support the traveling ministers (“fellow workers”). In this the ministers testified to Gaius’s love as well as his devotion to the truth. The focus of verses 5-8 is his support, which is his act of love for the “brothers.” The question is not one of heresy (that is, truth versus the antichrists of 2 John). Rather, the question is the practice of Christian hospitality that supports the mission of the “elder.” The contrast is not between heretics and faithful believers but between faithful believers and “Gentiles” (unbelievers). The brothers, apparently, are engaged in both pastoral care and evangelistic mission.


There is some debate about the nature of the problem Diotrephes represents.  Some think that Diotrephes is one of the “antichrists” (Docetics) that 2 John condemns. The emphasis on “truth” in the brief letter may support this as the noun is used seven times. However, the “truth” here may not refer to orthodox teaching but rather loving praxis. To “walk in the truth” is to love the family and support the mission. Further, when John describes his problem with Diotrephes he does not use the term “truth” and neither does he point to any particular doctrinal teaching by Diotrephes. The “elder” is not skittish about identifying heretical teaching (as 2 John demonstrates) and consequently it seems unlikely that he would not identify a specific heresy in this letter if that were the problem.

Instead, the “elder” specifically identifies his ambition as the problem. Diotrephes (whose name means “nourished by Jupiter”) loved to be first. The verb John uses to describe him makes its first appearance in known Greek literature here—philoproteuon.  He loves being first; he loves the preeminence. (Paul uses the term proteuon [first] to describe Jesus in Colossians 1:18.) The problem is not his doctrine but his abuse of power, his selfish ambition. Rather than loving the family, he loves himself.

Apparently, he has some position of power or influence already. We may presume that he leads a house-church. He occupies a position that can refuse John’s emissaries, prevent others from supporting them, and excommunicate (disfellowship or “cast out”) those who do. He seems to exercise autocratic power within his community. We do not know the nature of this position though some think it is the sort of authority selflessly exercised by Timothy or Titus, and others think it may be something similar to the one-Bishop practice of Asia Minor congregations in the early second century (called monoepiscopate). Whatever the nature of his position, he wields an authority that rejects “the elder.” And he exercises it with an authority driven by ambition.

“The elder” will deal with this problem face-to-face when he visits Diotrephes’s house-church. But until then he wants Gaius to know that Diotrephes is headed down the wrong path. While he may be a renowned (or infamous) leader—since Gaius knows him—this is not the person Gaius should imitate.

God and Evil

The problem is not superficial, according to “the elder.” It is the difference between “good” and “evil.” Gaius has acted well but Diotrephes has done evil. The former reflects a relationship with God but the latter is disconnected from God. To live within the love of God is to love the “brothers,” but “whoever does evil has not seen God.” This language reminds us of 1 John where the writer tells us to love not only in word but in deed, and whoever fails to love the family of God does not know God. One cannot say they “have seen God” if they do not love God’s family.

John offers Gaius a different model than Diotrephes. Perhaps Diotrephes was creating quite a name for himself in the region through his own self-promotions and creating doubts in Gaius about his course of action. Whatever the case, John points Gaius to Demetrius who also, apparently, was well known in the region.  Not only does John commend him but also everyone commends him. He has the “testimony”—he has the witness of the church, John, and the truth.


Diotrephes, while no doubt claiming to love the family of God, loved himself more. Selfish ambition shaped his decisions. He abused his power; he abused the love entrusted to him.

John concludes his brief letter with a mutual greeting:  the friends (philoi) greet Gaius and Gaius is to greet the friends (philoi). The one who loved to be first lost sight of the reality that love and friendship are a communal reality.  It is not about preeminence but about shared love in the truth.


  1. Identify the positive descriptions of Gaius in this letter.  What does this say about the character and life of Gaius?
  2. Who are the traveling “brothers”? What are they doing? Why is it important to support them?
  3. What problem does John have with Diotrephes? What motivates Diotrephes? What power/position does he have within the church?
  4. Is “abused love” a good, helpful or problematic, unhelpful characterization of the situation Diotrephes represents?
  5. Identify some analogous situations in the church or home where love is abused by selfish ambition. What is the root problem? How do the Epistles of John address this problem?

2 John: Discerning Love

December 11, 2013

“The elder” writes to the “elect lady” about “truth and love.” The brief three-verse salutation of the letter (1-3)—a feature that 1 John did not have—uses the term “truth” four times and “love” twice. This signals the theme of the letter as the two major sections in the body of the letter exhort the church to love (4-6) and truth (7-11). The first section reminds the church that the fundamental “command” of the faith is to love each other. The second warns that “many deceivers” (that is, docetists) are seeking an opportunity to influence the church, and they have, in fact, denied the “Truth” (the reality of God in the flesh). The writer has a deep personal interest in the health of the “elect lady.” He is protective but also encouraging. He intends a future visit though he is uncertain when that might happen.

“The elder,” in effect, calls for a discerning love. Love is the command that shapes the church from the beginning and it is still central for communal life. But this love is neither blind nor pluralistic. The community must learn to “love in truth” as they “walk in love.” The community does not believe everything it hears or welcome everyone who comes. The church, because it loves in truth, must discern between “deceivers” and those in whom the truth abides.


Who is “the elder” and who is the “elect lady”? The letter’s language is most naturally associated with the author of 1 John. The style, vocabulary, and topics are clearly the same as 1 John. We may assume that elderly apostle John is “the elder.” The title is probably more a term of respect and honor than identification as the leader of a particular congregation. He is “the elder,” that is, he is a senior leader of the Christian movement in that region.

The “elect lady” may refer to a particular woman, perhaps the patroness (even leader?) of a house church, but it seems more likely that it refers to a particular congregation or house church. The letter refers to “your house” (11), which identifies the recipient of the letter with a specific community of believers. They are the “children” of the “lady,” that is, they are the members of that congregation. Consequently, “the elder” warns the congregation (house church) to be discerning about whom they welcome and whom they do not.

“Truth” is important for “the elder.” He “loves” in truth as does everyone who “knows” the truth. Those who “know” the truth love in truth because the truth lives (abides, remains) in them as this same truth is eternally with the community of believers (“us”). The Father and Son are present in grace, mercy and peace with those who live “in truth and love.”

But what is this “truth”? Generally, we should read this term against the background of 1 John itself, which gives a fuller exposition of the “truth” that is assumed in this brief letter. More specifically, we should probably understand “truth” here in contrast to the “deceivers” that carrying a different message to various “house” churches. In other words, the truth is the reality of God’s eternal life incarnated in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the truth, that is, he is the love of God enfleshed for our sakes. In this one God loved us and the truth of eternal life was revealed, embodied, and lived out in Jesus.

Great Joy

The great “truth” of the gospel is embodied in Jesus. The children of the elect lady (house church) walk in this truth when they love just as Jesus loved. This is the “command” which shapes “the elder’s” understanding of how to live the truth. When the truth abides in us we love each other, and this is the command that we obey.

The “command” is both “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” This language points us to the person of Jesus himself who is also “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” When Jesus came in the flesh, he not only embodied this life of love, but commanded his disciples to love just as he loved. The command from the beginning was to walk in love and live in loving community with each other. This language not only reflects the themes of 1 John, it is also a brief summary of John 13 where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. There he not only modeled this love but encouraged them to love each other as a sign of discipleship. This was no new command; it is as old as God’s own life since God is love.

The “truth,” then, is not a series of ideas or a list of subscribed teachings. The truth is the reality of God’s love demonstrated in Jesus that calls us to love just as Jesus loved. God demonstrated that love in the incarnation itself! In obedience to the model of Christ and living in fellowship with the Father and Son, we are called to participate in the love that characterizes the life of God. The “truth” is seen when we love each other.


This truth, however, has a definite referent. It is rooted in the reality of the incarnation, that is, that Jesus Christ truly came in the flesh. The Word of Life, as 1 John 1 describes Jesus, became flesh. The Son authentically and fully participated in the physical creation. The Son became fully human. This conviction is so central to the Christian faith that anyone who denies it is the “antichrist.” It is so important that no house church should welcome anyone who denies it.

What makes this so central? Why is the incarnation a crux for the Christian community? The incarnation is the claim that the eternal became particular in such a way that the particular revealed the eternal. The incarnation is the presence of God in the flesh; is eternal life enfleshed. God becomes one with us in the flesh so that we might become one with God in the fellowship of the divine community. Coming in the flesh, the Son united the creation with God so that we might participate in the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Without incarnation—or denying the incarnation—there is no authentic union between God and humanity, and consequently there is no authentic communion.

This union is rooted in love. Through it we experience the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. God is love. When the Son unites with humanity as a demonstrative act of love—both through incarnation, ministry, and death—humanity is enabled to participate in the oneness of the Father and Son. To deny this is to deny the very nature of salvation itself since salvation is fundamentally the mutual indwelling of humanity and God (John 17:20-26).

Consequently, the church must guard itself against the antichrists, the deceivers. They go beyond the boundaries of the truth, that is, they teach something that does not conform to the reality enfleshed in Jesus. The truth is the love of God incarnated in Jesus, but the deceivers deny the incarnation. As such, they transcend the boundaries of what is in fact the case. The “teaching of Christ” does not refer to a broad collection of teachings. Rather, is the “teaching about Christ.” The particular point at stake is whether Jesus came in the flesh or not. The deceivers say he did not but the truth is that he did. To deny this truth is to deny Christ and undermines one’s relationship with the Father and the Son.

In effect, the Christian community has boundaries. One cannot deny the reality of the incarnation and receive the sanction of faithful house churches. “The elder” forbids the house church (“elect lady”) to welcome them or give them status in the church. While some think this refers to hospitality in the home (supporting missionaries)—and it may include that, it seems preferable to think in terms of what welcoming or receiving an itinerant teacher meant in the late first century. The author seems concerned that the church might give this “deceiver” a hearing or give them a teaching role in the church. It is about more than hospitality; it also about leadership within the community of faith.

If the church is to walk in truth and to love in truth, it cannot sanction the teaching of these deceivers who deny the reality of the incarnation that is a definitive revelation of God’s love.


“The elder” wants to visit the church. He knows the value of a pastoral visit and personal encouragement. The brevity of the letter probably indicates that this was written hurriedly in light of an emergency situation. He quickly fires off a letter to encourage the perseverance of the church in the truth as he knows that “many deceivers” have “gone out into the world” to dissuade others. It seems he has received reports that this church rejected the deceivers—perhaps under criticism—and he wants to reassure them that they did the right thing. They do not stand alone. “The elder” supports them and a whole community of believers (perhaps in Ephesus?) supports them.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Imagine the scenario that this letter assumes? Given the contents of the letter, what has happened or is happening in this community? What are the dangers?
  2. What does “the elder” mean by “love” and “truth”? How might we define those terms contextually and against the backdrop of 1 John?
  3. Does the “teaching of Christ” refer to everything Jesus taught or does it refer to what is taught about Christ (specifically, the incarnation)? Why is one interpretation more preferable than the other? How might either be abused in application today?
  4. What does it mean to say that the Christian community has boundaries today? Is this exclusivistic and unloving? What does it mean for the church to be unwelcoming of another? What are the dangers latent in such a discussion? What are the truths that are nevertheless important in such a discussion?
  5. How would you define and illustrate the idea of “discerning love”?

Micah 4 – Hope Despite Injustice and War

October 17, 2013

While the Jerusalem Micah knew was built by blood, destined for destruction, and soaked with injustice (Micah 3:9-12), the future Jerusalem is exalted above the mountains, committed to God’s agenda for the world, and enacts peace within the world. Rather than present injustice and war, the future Jerusalem secures justice and peace. The contrasts are stark.

Micah 3:9-12

Micah 4:1-5

Leaders despise justice. Yahweh will arbitrate justice.
Leaders empower themselves through violence. Nations will no longer train for war.
Leaders give false messages. Jerusalem teaches Yahweh’s ways.
Jerusalem will be plowed under. Jerusalem will be exalted above the mountains.
The temple will be overgrown with weeds. Yahweh’s house will receive the nations.
Nations will bring disaster upon Judah Nations will flow into Jerusalem to learn of Yahweh.
Injustice means economic oppression for the people. Every person will experience prosperity.
Fear abounds due to injustice and war. No one is afraid.

Micah 4:1-5 is a classic salvation text paralleled in Isaiah 2:2-4. Who borrowed from whom or whether they were both dependent upon another source is uncertain, but it is clear that the message stands in stark contrast with the injustices of Judah and the Assyrian invasion. Both prophets, Isaiah in Jerusalem and Micah probably in rural southwest Judah, ministered in a time of injustice and war. Micah, despite the predication of Jerusalem’s destruction, envisions a time when Jerusalem will become the center of the kingdom of God that draws the nations into relationship with God. This is not the case in the present (Micah 4:5), but it is a future hope.

The picture is idyllic. Notice the elements:

  • Mt. Zion is the highest mountain even though it is not now.
  • Nations will come to the mountain of the Lord.
  • Jerusalem will teach the nations God’s ways.
  • God will arbitrarte between nations with righteous judgment.
  • Nations will respond by giving up war and pursuing peace.
  • Everyone will enjoy life and prosperity without fear.

The exaltation of Jerusalem attracts the attention of the nations. They come to Jerusalem for divine judgment (“shall judge between many peoples”) and God settles the disputes among the nations.  The nations, in response, give up their war implements, choose agricultural production, and no longer train for war. The result is that every person will enjoy prosperity and peace because the nations no longer wage war against each other. Everyone will sit (rest, be at peace) under their own vine and fig tree, that is, they have sufficient leisure, food, and drink. This is not merely the absence of war but the actualization of peace. It is a life without fear.

When will this happen? Micah locates it in the “latter days.” Some identify this with a return from exile. But the postexilic community does not fit this description. Nations still waged war and they did not flow to Jerusalem to become disciples of Yahweh.

Others identify it with coming of Jesus into the world or the present reign of the kingdom of God in the world. One might point to Peter’s identification of the “latter days” Joel anticipated with the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost as evidence that Micah’s “latter days” are also fulfilled in this moment (Acts 2:21ff). Nations came to Jerusalem at Pentecost, God poured out the Spirit on all flesh, and the church heralded a message pf peace. In other words, if Micah 4 is fulfilled in Acts 2, then Micah 4 is a spiritualized description of the church. But does this do justice to what is said about the nations (political entities)? Do the nations no longer train for war? This does not seem to be a description of the present world, and the interpretation overspiritualizes what does not seem intended as such.

It seems best to understand Micah’s vision along the line of Isaiah’s “new heavens and new earth” vision in Isaiah 65-66 (also Isaiah 9, 11). Micah envisions a time when nations will live in peace, learn from God, and enjoy life upon the earth. Some place this in a future millennium (a limited 1000 years), but I think it belongs to the New Creation itself, the new heaven and new earth upon which the New Jerusalem will descend. There the nations will receive healing, enjoy the light of God, and live upon the new earth. This, I think, is also the vision of Isaiah. It is the description of Revelation 21-22.

However, we should not think that because this is a description of the new heaven and new earth (if indeed it is) that it has no meaning or application to our present situation. It is important to remember that our present age is the presence of the “already/not yet” kingdom of God.  Even though we do not yet experience the fullness of the kingdom in the new heaven and new earth, we do experience new creation in Christ by the presence of the Spirit. We live in the present reality of the kingdom of God even though it has not yet fully arrived and fully transformed the present old creation into the fullness of the new creation. Or, another way of saying this is that we advocate and bear witness to the coming fullness of the kingdom in the present age. We live, then, as new creatures in Christ whose citizenship ilies with the kingdom of God. We live out the new creation within the old one.

What, then, might this mean in terms of this text? It seems to me that several points are pertinent.

We invite all nations to enter the kingdom of God, that is, to come learn of God. The message of the kingdom is inclusive. The kingdom of God transcends the nations and is not identified with any specific nation. There is no nationalistic exceptionalism within the kingdom of God.

We invite all nations to learn war no more. If the kingdom of God, when it has fully come, includes the destruction of weapons of war and the pursuit of peace, then if the church is the presence of the kingdom within the world it must advocate and pursue peace. The church, as the proleptic presence of the kingdom, is a peaceable kingdom; it is a reconciling and peace-making presence in the world.

We invite all nations to seek peace and prosperity without fear. The vision is that every person will have their own vine and fig-tree, that is, every one will have food and drink. Poverty is not part of the kingdom of God. Even within Israel there was to be no poverty (Deuteronomy 15; cf. 1 Kings 4:25), and the kingdom of God–when it has fully come–will rid the earth of poverty. The church, if it is the presence of the kingdom in the present, must advocate for the poor, call the nations to peaceful prosperity, and seek to develop strategies that deal with poverty upon the earth.

Micah’s kingdom vision–his new heaven and new earth vision–calls the church to live as if the future has already come, as if the fullness of the kingdom of God has already arrived. The church leans into Micah’s vision and owns it as their own.

Revelation 16 – Armageddon

October 14, 2013

The second vision (Revelation 4-16) now comes to a climatic conclusion. Taken up in the Spirit (Revelation 4:3) to the throne room of God, John saw the heavenly worship of the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb who took the book out of God’s hand (Revelation 4-5). Then John saw all seven seals opened (Revelation 6:1-8:5) and then heard the seven trumpets sounded that announced the coming judgment (8:6-11:19). After an interlude which identified the players in the drama (Revelation 12-14), seven angels emerged from heaven’s temple with seven plagues to complete the wrath of God (Revelation 15). These are the seven bowls of wrath that are poured out upon the earth in Revelation 16, and that sequence includes the reference to Armageddon.

The seven bowls of wrath follow a similar pattern as the previous sevens seals and seven trumpets, but with a different purpose. While the seven seals affected one-fourth of the earth and the seven trumpets affected one-third of the earth, the seven bowls of wrath affect everything. The seals and trumpets functioned as warnings in the hope that the inhabitants of the earth might repent, but they did not. The bowls of wrath are God’s final word; there is no reprieve from the seven plagues.

Though the purpose is different, the pattern is the same. The first four plagues (like the seals and trumpets) are grouped together and the final three fall together. The first four bowls are cosmic in nature. God’s wrath is poured out on the earth (16:2), sea (16:3), fresh water (16:4), and the sun (16:8). This is not cosmic destruction but rather apocalyptic descriptions of the dissolution of the imperial persecuting power. The earth is not destroyed but those who worship the beast are afflicted. As the hymn makes clear, the object of judgment is those who “shed the blood of the saints and prophets” (16:6); the cosmos itself is not the object of destruction. The cosmos does not deserve destruction but rather the empire that made war against the saints. The inhabitants of the earth who bear the mark of the beast refuse to repent and rather than giving God glory (as opposed to giving the Emperor glory) they cursed (blasphemed) the name of God. Their stubborn impenitence is the reason for divine judgment.

The last three plagues are focused on the empire itself rather than its earthly servants. The first plague is aimed at “the throne of the beast and its kingdom” (16:10). The second plague is aimed at drying up the Euphrates in order to release “the kings of the east” to do battle against the dragon, the monster from the sea, and the false prophet who is the monster from the earth (16:12-13). The third plague is aimed at the air…and it is over…mission accomplished (16:17). The total effect is what many have identified as Armageddon though actually only the sixth bowl is Armageddon itself.

Before looking closely at the final three plagues, it is important to notice how the seven plagues remind us of the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus. The bowls of wrath infect people with sores, turn water into blood, and plunge the beast’s kingdom into darkness. The Apocalypse describes the collapse of an empire in apocalyptic language that recalls how God defeated the Egyptian empire.  Just as the dragon had empowered the Egyptian empire, so the dragon empowered the Roman empire. Likewise, just as God defeated the Egyptians through plagues and judgments, so God will now overthrow the Roman power. God will avenge and end the persecution of the saints just as he liberated Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Why should we identify this moment with the end of Roman imperial persecution? Several factors are important. One is that the Apocalypse addresses the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia. This is a message for them. It calls for their patience and pertains to their martyrs. Moreover, the prologue and epilogue of the Apocalypse make it clear that the drama the book describes was something that would happen in the near future, not the distant future (Revelation 1:1, 3; 22:10). The promise of Jesus’ coming in Revelation 16 is not primarily the second Advent but the appearance of God’s justice–the wrath of the Lamb itself–within history to defeat the hostile powers that make war against the saints. In effect, the content of the Apocalypse is directly connected to the experiences, trials, and hopes of the seven churches of Asia. The drama does not describe 21st century events.

Another factor is the identity of the beast. He is identified as Nero Redividus. This cannot be Nero in the early 60s, but rather a Nero who would live again or return after being deposed/killed. Nero was a persecuting emperor and the beast is his rebirth as another persecuting emperor.  Moreover, it is the rise of a persecuting power where Christians live in a hostile environment. This hostility is not merely the threat of martyrdom but the danger of cultural accommodation and syncretism. The beast forces the inhabitants of the earth to worship him. Christians in thee second to early fourth centuries lived in that Roman world.

Another immediate factor in this context is the identification of the great city as Babylon. Revelation 17 clearly identifies Babylon with Rome since Babylon rests on seven hills. Babylon is a common late Second Temple Judaism metaphor for Rome since Rome oppressed the Jewish people just as Babylon did. 1 Peter 5:13 also identifies Babylon and Rome. That letter addressed churches in the region of the seven churches of Asia in the first century.

So, what is Armageddon? Etymologically, it is the “mountain (hill) of Megiddo” which is located in the Jezreel Valley. The hill (now Tel Megiddo) over looks the largest valley in Israel (the triangular valley is approximately 20x20x20 miles). Its history includes significant battles both before Israel’s occupation of the land and afterwards (including the defeat of Josiah at the hands of the Egyptians in 2 Chronicles 35:22). In Revelation 16 Armageddon is the place where two great armies assemble for battle.

An army headed by kings east of the Euphrates gather to do battle with the army made up of the “kings of the whole earth” assembled by the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. Clearly the “kings of the whole earth” does not literally mean the “whole earth” as the “kings of the east” are arrayed against the “kings of the whole earth.” Would not the “kings of the whole earth” include the “kings of the east?” The language is accommodated to the claims of the Roman empire who considered themselves the rulers of the “whole earth.” The statues of Roman Emperors held a globe in their hand as a symbol of their power over the “whole world.” Consequently, the imagery describes the armies of Rome assembled to do battle with their dreaded Parthian enemies from the east. This was the great fear of the Roman empire, that is, that another empire would replace it from the east.

But, and this is an important “but,” there is no battle. No battle is described. The seventh bowl of wrath is poured out and it is simply over; it is fini! The apocalyptic drama abruptly concludes, and the armies–though arrayed against each other–never engage. The battle scenario is simply an apocalyptic picture of God’s defeat of the Roman empire.  Just as God plunged the kingdom of the beast into darkness (the fifth plague) and destroyed Babylon with an earthquake (the seven plague), so here God pictures the fall of the empire through the metaphor of a battle, an Armageddon. Much like we might say that Nixon had his Waterloo, so the Roman empire has its Armageddon.

In other words, there is no battle of Armageddon any more than the empire is plunged into a literal darkness or literally destroyed with a great earthquake (or that islands literally fled or mountains disappeared or 100 pound hailstones dropped from the sky). These are all symbols for the catastrophic fall of imperial powers hostile to the kingdom of God in the Roman world. Armageddon is a symbol for the “great day of the Lord,” but it is only one of the symbols; it is only one of the seven bowls of wrath.

The “great day of the Lord” is like other past days in the history of Israel where nations or cities fell (e.g., Babylon in Isaiah 13:6,9; Jerusalem in Lamentations 2:22; cf. Joel 1:15; Amos 5:18; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14, 18). The fall of powers hostile to the kingdom of God within history are all moments of divine judgment. Those are each a “day of the Lord” as the Lord’s justice and righteousness is revealed against evil.

What, then, is the meaning of Armageddon for contemporary readers of Revelation? It is the confidence that God is at work in history to reveal divine justice and righteousness. While hostile powers will rise at various times and moments, God will ultimately–either within history or at the “end” of history–set things right. Ultimately, the kingdom of God will fully come and a new heaven and new earth will appear where God and the Lamb will reign upon the earth in justice and peace throughout eternity.

There have been multiple “Armageddons” and there will be more. Powers hostile to the kingdom of God come and go, but they keep coming because the dragon is still alive and active (as much as God permits the dragon to be). Saints are called to patient endurance and faithful witness as these times come and go. The assurance the Apocalypse offers is that the God of the Exodus is still active within history and the hostile powers will not win. God may permit them for a time but God will also set things right even though trying times will come again…and again…until God creates a new heaven and new earth.

Revelation 15:1-8 — A New Exodus

October 12, 2013

The harvested followers of the Lamb now sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. They, like Israel before them, celebrate liberation and redemption as they stand by the sea. They have conquered (overcome) the beast and its image and they sing with harps in hand a new song of redemption. Like Israel they celebrate an Exodus, a liberation from bondage. Standing by the sea before the throne of God, they rejoice with praise (both harping and singing).

This is a new Exodus. Just as Israel was delivered from the powers of Egypt, so the church is delivered from the powers of Rome. The dragon has stood behind both and wielded both powers in the service of a demonic agenda, that is, to defeat the kingdom of God in the world. Standing by the sea, singing the song of Moses and the Lamb, the martyred hosts along with all those who have overcome and assembled around the throne of God celebrate their freedom just as Israel did on the other side of the sea in Exodus 15.

Exodus language dominates this chapter. Here are a few connections.

  • Martyrs stand by a sea like Israel did.
  • God poured out plagues on Rome just as was done to Egypt.
  • Rome experiences the wrath of God just like Egypt.
  • Martyrs sing the song of Moses just as Israel did in celebration.
  • There is a sanctuary within the tent of witness just as Israel had a tabernacle in the wilderness.
  • The seven angels are dressed like priests in Israel.
  • The glory of God filled the sanctuary just as it did in Exodus 40.
  • No one could enter the sanctuary just like in Exodus 40.

There is no mistaking the sense of a new Exodus in Revelation 15. The question is what kind of Exodus is this? It is, given the pouring out of the bowls of wrath in Revelation 16, a saintly celebration of the battle of Armageddon. This effects a new Exodus. Armageddon is the equivalent of the battle between Yahweh and Pharoah. Armageddon defeats the powers–the dragon and the two monsters–and liberates the saints.

But when is the battle of Armageddon? That is a question that must await Revelation 16. What is clear is that this chapter anticipates that outcome as God is about to act. Through the seven plagues which are seven bowls filled with God’s wrath, God will complete the judgment of the powers that have threatened the people of God, the powers that have made war against the saints.

We cannot mistake the reality of divine wrath in this picture. The term “wrath” (thumos) appears twice in Revelation 15 (1, 7) but was used twice as part of the judgment descriptions of Revelation 14 (10, 19). This passionate anger is directed toward those who worshipped the beast and persecuted the saints. Indeed, the sea before the throne of God which was so calm and placid in Revelation 4 is now mingled with “fire” (Revelation 15:2) which probably alludes to the fire from the altar that is poured out in judgment upon the earth (Revelation 8:5). It is the fire of God’s wrath (cf. Revelation 14:10,18). God is stirred to action; God is now ready to avenge the blood of the saints. The prayers of the saints, particularly the lament of the martyrs (Revelation 6:10), are now about to receive a final answer from God. The wrath of God is about to be “complete” (or finished; Revelation 15:1)

The hymn–the song of Moses and the Lamb–praises God’s righteous acts. Just as Israel praised Yahweh for the exercise of God’s “burning anger” against Pharoah (Exodus 15:7), so the saints praise God for righteous judgment. Just as the Exodus was the defeat of Egyptian powers that terrified the nations (Exodus 15:14-16), so this divine judgment will move the nations to fear and glorify the name of God. Now that God’s righteous acts have been revealed, “all nations will come and worship you.” The Lord God Almighty is, in the light of these just and righteous judgments, revealed as the “king of the nations!”

God’s acts, while certainly an expression of divine wrath against powers hostile to the kingdom of God, are also redemptive. These acts reveal the reign of God and become means by which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God (cf. Revelation 11:15). Through God’s righteous deeds the nations will learn to worship God.

Israel had sung this hope for centuries.  The nations are the inheritance of Israel as they belong to God. Psalm 2 rejoices in the hope that the rulers of the earth will serve Yahweh and that Yahweh’s anointed will rule the nations.  This hope lies in the background of the Apocalypse. The Messiah reigns over the nations and will share that reign with the saints (cf. Revelation 2:26-27 which quotes Psalm 2:9). The Messiah will exercise the “rod of iron” over the nations, defeat the powers, and ultimately heal them (cf. Revelation 19:15; 22:2).

Part of the story of Revelation is that God executes justice within history as well as at the “end” of history. Israel’s exodus from Egypt was both the liberation of slaves and the execution of justice against oppressive powers. God has continued, throughout history, to liberate and execute justice. The Apocalypse, specifically this second vision in Revelation 4-16, is another example of a recurring pattern in history.  Powers, incited by the dragon, wage war, persecute saints, and practice injustice until their cup is full and then God through the processes of history brings justice to bear upon the situation. God, at times, sets things right within history just as he will ultimately make all things new in the new heaven and new earth.

The Apocalypse describes, in apocalyptic language, a process of history by which God patiently tries the powers (seeking their repentance) but ultimately judges their evil. God did it to Egypt, Assyrian, Babylon, Greece, and now, in the Apocalypse, to Rome.  Each, however, was a proleptic moment (one within history anticipating the “end” of history). In each of these divine movements is the embedded promise that God will, one day, set the world right and create a new world of justice and peace.

Sermon on the Mount in Seven Hours

October 11, 2013

Check out some of the Lipscomb Bible faculty taking you through the Sermon on the Mount in seven lessons.  Here is the link. Hope you enjoy them.

Luke 15: Jesus Seeks “Sinners”

October 8, 2013

The book unChristian alerted Christendom that it had an image problem with millennials. Christians are perceived as insensitive, judgmental and hypocritical. Some responses to the book  were skeptical and defensive. Others not only agreed that Christianity had an image problem but they went further. Christianity has a reality problem, that is, contemporary discipleship is often skin-deep and profoundly shallow.

This is not to say that there are no Jesus-followers whose discipleship is deeply rooted in practicing the kingdom of God. It is to say that Christianity’s image problem is often created by Jesus-followers who only know Jesus through the lens of American consumerist religion (“how will this benefit me?”), or American civil religion (“let’s get this country back on track!”), or isolationist separatism (“let’s withdraw from this God-forsaken world!”). Most importantly, this image is created by “disciples” who don’t really know Jesus and thus can’t follow him.

The clash between Christianity’s reality-based image problem and an authentic discipleship is perhaps best illustrated in how Christians tend to approach “sinners.” unChristian claims that it is precisely in this area that Christians are perceived as arrogant, insensitive and judgmental.

I know my reaction is immediately defensive, but my reflection tends to confirm the perceptions.

But before I proceed further, let me focus for a moment on what I mean by “sinners.” I place the word in quotations marks because I want to think about its meaning in the context of the Gospel of Luke. This is Luke’s language for outsiders. They are a class of people who are marginalized, ostracized and avoided by the religious elite who, in turn, influence the devoted faithful to distance themselves from such. They include not only prostitutes and tax collectors but also the poor, the prisoner, and the enslaved. These are the “last” of Jewish society who are intentionally and pervasively shunned by the most devout.

“Sinners,” then, in the Gospel of Luke refers to outsiders, to the unclean, to the powerless within the religious culture of Judaism. And this is the group which Jesus seeks; he seeks “sinners.” This, then, becomes the sore spot, the point of intense critical comment, on the part of the Pharisees and scribes.

This, they think, is Jesus’ weak spot. Cultural perception is on their side. Everyone resents favorable treatment of tax collectors.  Religious folk can make no sense of associating with prostitutes. The powerful wealthy fear any encouragement of the poor. Few might not begrudge a kindness for these groups on occasion, but few would honor the kind of hospitality Jesus shows them. Jesus “welcomes and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

At bottom the parables of Luke 15 defend Jesus approach to “sinners.”

Jesus is the wealthy shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine to find the one that has wandered away. He is the impoverished widow who will turn the house upside down to find a lost silver coin. He is the fleet-footed father who runs to embrace a returning “sinner.”

Jesus is the good shepherd who joyfully slings the found sheep on his shoulder and calls his neighbors together to rejoice with him. Jesus is the excited woman who calls her friends to share her joy in finding her silver coin. He is the exuberant father who slaughtered the fattened calf to celebrate his son’s return.

What was lost has been found. This is reason to celebrate. Jesus underscores this by highlighting the joy heaven itself feels when “sinners” are found. Friends and neighbors rejoice with the shepherd, the woman and the father. The angels in heaven rejoice with them. God rejoices with them. But there is only one person who is not happy. The older brother….and, we should add, the Pharisees and scribes.

The shepherd rejoices….the woman rejoices…the father rejoices, but the brother is angry. Whereas the parables, up to this point, stress jubilation, the brother introduces a contrast that now becomes the climactic focus. It becomes the point. It becomes an invitation.

But the contrast is more dramatic that we realize with our traditional, western and American eyes. Like the Pharisees and scribes, we can certainly see the point of the first two parables. We may be somewhat surprised that a shepherd would leave ninety-nine in the “wilderness” (eremo) to search for only one. And we might be a bit surprised that a woman would turn her whole house upside down for a single coin. But we understand the joy and excitement that comes from the two finds.

What Jewish culture would not understand, however, is the behavior of the father. The division of property before the death of the father was severely discouraged in Second Temple Judaism as it put the family at risk should the family assets come under stress at a later time. The father risked his future by giving the inheritance early. This shamed the father as well as the son in the eyes of the village and clan.

Further, the father is willing to humiliate himself for the sake of his son. The Jerusalem Talmud says that anyone who loses their wealth to the Gentiles should be cut off from the people. The Talmud describes a ritual where a bowl filled with burnt nuts is broken in front of such offenders and the people announce their ban. While the village and clan would exclude this son, the father runs to meet him and welcomes him to a banquet table. The father humiliates himself by running and shames himself by receiving him when one might expect the patriarch of the family to wait in the shadows to receive his son in private. The father is willing to risk cultural critique for the sake of his son.

Why does the father cross these boundaries? Why does the father shame himself? The answer is a single word found in our text: compassion. Compassion moves the father to risk humiliation. It moves him to bear the shame his son deserves. It moves him to rejoice over what has been found. There is no anger. There is no suspicion. There is no dressing down. There is only surprising joy that does not care what others think.

Two different occasions in my memory bring this home for me. On one occasions I confessed sin to a small group of people. One of my elders was in that group and when he heard my confession he came over to me, hugged me, kissed me and kneeled before me in loving forgiveness. That brother knew the father’s compassion. On another occasion, a person whom I deeply loved confessed sin to a couple of his preacher friends and after that confession they never spoke to him again. They did not understand the father’s love. They were more like the elder brother who thinks differently about this situation.

The elder brother is angry. At one level, this makes sense. Indeed, culturally, we would have expected the father to show a bit of anger himself. The young son had shamed the family, put the family at risk, wasted his inheritance, and returned home as a beggar. Can we trust him again? Does he not need to learn a lesson? Should he not have to prove himself? Anger makes sense.

Anger makes sense when there is no compassion. The elder brother reveals his heart when he confronts his father. His relationship with his father is not rooted in love but in servile fear. He has slaved for his father, resented how the father has seemingly withheld gifts from him, and now envies what the father is doing for the younger son. His anger attacks the younger son by particularizing the nature of his lustful waste (he was with prostitutes–he was with “sinners”!). The elder brother served his father out of fear in the hopes that he might be rewarded. He is angry because he fears the loss of his father’s love, or perhaps he fears the further diminishing of his inheritance. He is angry because he is afraid, and he is afraid because his relationship with his father is founded on reward rather than love.

The father, however, also has compassion for his elder son. He humiliated himself for his sake as well as for the younger son. The father leaves his place at the banquet to go out to plead with him. Where he might have demanded his son’s obedience, instead he affirms his love for him. He sees no distinction between what he has and what belongs to the son–the inheritance is all his. The father loves both his sons and wants nothing more than their reconciliation.

The father has two lost sons but one of them stayed home while the other went into the “far country.” The Father loves both lost sons and welcomes both to the table.

Jesus is the father. Jesus welcomes “sinners” (like the returning son) to the table. He runs to them, embraces them, shares gifts with them, and leads them to the table. He seeks them. He approaches them with hospitality, grace and joy. This angers the Pharisees and scribes. They think it inappropriate, unholy and dishonorable.

The difference is that Jesus loves “sinners.” He humbles himself in approaching others; he incarnates himself to join humanity at the table. He is sensitive to their shame as he bears the shame of their meeting and walk together just as he would bear the shame of the cross. He is forgiving as he eats with them in reconciling hospitality just as even now Jesus meets us at the Eucharistic table of joy and mercy.

Indeed, in the larger Christian story, the Father sends the Son into the far country to retrieve and reconcile sinners. The Son becomes a prodigal himself. The Son follows us into the brokenness of the world, is baptized with us, sits with us in the wilderness, goes to the tables of Pharisees and “sinners” alike, and dies in obedience to the way of the Father. We, too, are called to follow the Son into the prodigal far country to be with “sinners.” We are called to be the father in this story just as we have been the prodigal child as well.

Unfortunately, we are too often the elder sibling.  unChristian describes the elder sibling. Rather than demonstrating hospitality we tend to shun “others.” Rather than showing sensitivity we erupt in anger or we are at least indifferent to their situation. Rather than humbling ourselves to bear their shame we arrogantly demand they cross the street to meet us.

It is little wonder that Christians have an image problem. It is acute because we fail to image Jesus himself. Gandhi was right. The problem with Christianity is Christians.

Nevertheless, in his compassion Jesus endures the shame to invite us, the elder siblings, to join the celebration where we might learn to imitate his seeking so that heaven itself might be filled with joy.

*The essence of a sermon delivered at the ACU Summit on September 18, 2013.

A Lament Homily

October 7, 2013

Last week Lipscomb grieved through a student’s death on campus. The University responded wonderfully and in every way. I was asked to speak in chapel last Tuesday. Here is the link if you wish to hear it.

Micah 2 – Confronting Economic Greed and Injustice

October 3, 2013

While the first half of Micah’s first oracle assured Judah that God was serious in treating them much like he did their northern neighbor Israel. Yahweh, Micah warned Judah, is about to appear at the gates of Jerusalem with the Assyrian army after they devastate the cities of southwestern Judah. In response to the message, Micah modeled lament and encouraged repentance. But Judah’s wound is infected and the transgressions of Israel abound in her.

At the center of this first oracle, found in Micah 1-2, is a specific rationale for Yahweh’s actions against Judah. Micah 2:1-5 identifies the pervasive economic greed and injustice that existed in Judah. This is a significant reason for Judah’s fiery trial. “Therefore,” Yahweh says, “I am devising disaster against this family” (Micah 2:3).

Micah draws a picture of a powerful elite who plot evil in their sleep and then act on it in the morning. What they want is a man’s inheritance, that is, they want his land. More than likely what is envisioned is a scenario where the man of a household has died or suffered some economic loss which has made his land vulnerable to seizure. Wealthy land-grabbers, exploiting the situation of a widow or an economic downturn, illegally (“oppress”) obtain the family’s inheritance. They seize their land which impoverishes the family but enriches the wicked.

“Therefore,” Micah prophesies, just as they had “devise[d] wickedness” (2:1), so Yahweh is “devising disaster” for them. Their elitist and powerful positions will amount to nothing in that day. Instead of strutting around in their pride and haughtiness, Yahweh will humble them. They will lose their status, power, wealth and inheritance. They will lose their “portion” and others (even the captors or “faithless”) will parcel out their land. What they intended to steal from others will be taken from them. Their taunts will come back to haunt them. Instead of boasting in their acquisitions, they will “wail with bitter lamentation.”  As a result, no one will represent them when the lands are divided; there will be “no one to cast the line by lot in the assembly of the Lord.” Their inheritance will be lost…totally. The first will become last.

Such a message is unbelievable; the wealthy will not hear it. They have a counter message. Demanding that Micah stop preaching such nonsense, they can’t imagine that God’s would be so impatient with them as to bring such a disaster upon Judah.  The wealthy ask….

  • Has the Spirit of the Lord grown impatient? Surely Yahweh would not give up on Judah, the Lord’s own people!
  • Are these God’s doings? Surely Yahweh would not do such a thing!

Micah’s response? Oh, yes, God would. Yahweh is already “devising disaster” for Judah. There is no doubt, Micah notes, that God “do[es] good” to those who “walk uprightly.”  But….

This is an important “but.”  The NRSV translates it nicely.

But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses; from their young children you take away my glory forever.

The “you” are the powerful who “devised wickedness” in the night that they might implement it during the day. In other words, Micah once again specifies the rationale for the disaster that Yahweh is now devising for them. The powerful treated their own people as an enemy.

What did they do?  The stripped the peaceful–those who were adverse to war–of their dignity and power.  They took advantage of the peace-makers and turned their power against them. They evicted women and children from their homes as they seized their property. In so doing they have stripped the land of God’s glory since the inheritance of the people was now lost, an inheritance God gave them. These powerful land-grabbers stole from God!

But God will treat them just as they have treated others. Just as they evicted women and children and despoiled peaceful men, so now the powerful will “arise and go” from the land God gave them but without any place to rest. Rather than resting in the land of their God-given inheritance, they will now have nowhere to rest or live. Their actions have corrupted that land and brought down upon themselves a “grievous destruction.” They may soothe themselves with false prophets who promise wine and beer, but their messages are “empty falsehoods” though it scratches the itching ears of these powerful Judeans.

Their wealth and power will not matter. Their prophets are deluded. Their future is sealed. Yahweh will assemble Judah like sheep in a pen and Yahweh himself will lead them in captivity. Judah is going into exile.

Micah 2:12-13 is often read as a message of hope where Yahweh gathers and leads the people out of exile. That is possible and is the majority view. However, some (including Harold Shank in the College Press NIV Commentary series) suggest that the text refers to God’s leading Judah into exile.

This answers the question of whether God would do such a thing. Would  God lead Judah into exile? Did not God send Israel into exile? The answer is that Yahweh will gather them, put them in a pen, and break out of the pen as they break through the gate of a city.  Like a king before his army, so Yahweh will lead the people into captivity.

Yahweh has devised disaster for Judah. The false prophets dismiss the idea. Surely Yahweh would never do such a thing, they think.  But God will, Micah says.

In contemporary Christianity we often imagine the sorts of things that God could or could not do. In fact, some theologies limit God’s hand. God would never bring disaster on a city, right? Does God do such things?

Micah says, Yes, God would, did, and does.

Perhaps we should measure our words carefully lest we agree with the false prophets of Judah.

A Lament Prayer: I Hate Death

October 1, 2013

You, God, who made the heavens and the earth and have promised to remake them, hear my voice.

I plea for a hearing because you often seem so distant to me and sometimes I fear that you do not listen. Awake, O God, and hear my prayer for I struggle once again with death. Death has again invaded my world.

God, I hate death. I trust that you hate it, too. Death is my enemy; it is your enemy as well. It rips apart the very fabric of peace, hope and trust. Where are you in the midst of death, O God? Why, O Lord, do you stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

How, God, does death bring any meaning to your world? Would it not be better…would it not be to your glory…that you would rescue us from death so that we might praise you in the land of the living? Where is your praise in the grave? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?

Lord God, every death raises questions about you, about the meaning of life, and your purposes. I confess that I cannot answer them, and “every death is a question mark”*. Death is like a fog that blinds me.

How Long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever? How long must we have sorrow in our hearts every day? How long must we live with these questions, doubts and tears? When will you rid us of this shroud?

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Arise, O Lord, and destroy this enemy. Redeem us, O God, according to your unfailing love!

God, you are my God, and I entrust my life, including my eventual death, to you.

  • I confess that you, Father, are the maker of heaven and earth.
  • I confess that you, Jesus, were born of woman, lived among us, died with us, rose again for us, and now reign at the right hand of the Father interceding for us.
  • I confess that you, Spirit, are present to transform us and comfort us.

I confess the story is not yet over, and that you, God, will yet rise up and destroy the enemy, and you will give birth to a new world without death and without tears.

Rise up, O God, and give birth to your new world. Create your new world, Father. Comfort us, O Spirit, and come back soon, Lord Jesus.


Given in the Gathering (Lipscomb University Chapel) on October 1, 2013 in Nashville, TN in mourning over the death of Isaac Phillips.

*From the song “Come Back Soon” by Andrew Peterson on his “Lost Boys” album.

Micah 1:8-16 – A Lament for the Towns of Judah

September 26, 2013

The fate of Samaria is reason enough to weep (Micah 1:6-7), but Micah’s symbolic act of lament is because Samaria’s incurable wound has come to Judah, even to the gate of Jerusalem itself (Micah 1:9). Micah laments the future of Judah, especially the towns in the southwestern region. This is the region of Micah’s own hometown, Moresheth-Gath.  These are the cities of his childhood and the homes of his own people.

Micah’s lament language is vivid and his actions are symbolic. The word “lament” in Micah 1:8 refers to the act of beating one’s breast. The pain is so deeply felt in the chest that lamenters beat it to express the hurt. The term “wail” may also be translated “howl,” and this makes more sense of the parallel with the jackals and ostriches who are known for their loud, screeching mourning songs.

Micah will not only voice his sorrow, but he will act it out. He will walk barefoot about these cities in a loin cloth (the probable meaning of “naked”). There may be a double meaning here as such attire characterizes captives and slaves as well as mourners.  The prophet’s behavior may not only be an act of lamentation but also a prophetic symbol. Micah preaches, like other prophets have and will, in both word and deed.

Indeed, these towns in the Shephelah of Judah will soon be overrun by Sennacherib’s army in 701 B.C. The Assyrian king established a permanent encampment in Gaza which borders the Shephelah. That army, joined by another that marched down the coast from Tyre to Ashkelon, will defeat an Egyptian force and then march through southwestern Judah. Before it settles at the gate of Jerusalem to lay siege, the Assyrians will destroy 46 walled cities and take over 200,000 captives. The immediate future of these Judean cities is bleak.

Micah’s lament is prophetic warning, but it is also a divine grieving. This is the word of Lord. Micah laments because God laments. The message gives God no pleasure; it carries a bitter taste.

The lament itself (Micah 1:10-16) names eleven cities affected and characterizes their doom in some way. Each characterization is a play on words which is not apparent to English readers but is obvious to those who know Hebrew.

  • Gath — sounds like the Hebrew word for “tell” and might mean something like don’t tell the enemy of our misfortune or don’t speak of the disaster; it is so horrible that we won’t even weep over it.
  • Beth-le-aphrah — means “house of dust” and the city is told to roll itself in the dust as the city will become dust.
  • Shaphir — means “pleasant or beautiful” such that the inhabitants of the beautiful-town will experience devastation; they will experience the nakedness and shame of captivity and lament.
  • Zaanan — sounds like the Hebrew word for “come out;” the inhabitants of the “going out” city will not get away or perhaps that they will “go out” as slaves.
  • Beth-ezel — means “house of another” but the Assyrians will take away any support or help so that they stand alone.
  • Maroth — sounds like the Hebrew word for “bitter;” bitter-town will wait for something good but it will not come.
  • Lachish — sounds like the Hebrew word for “team” (as in a team of horses); Lachish, a fortified city with chariots, is about to do battle as they must hitch up their horses to the chariots.
  • Moresheth-gath — sounds like “dowry;” the inhabitants of the “dowry” town will depart to live with their new husband the King of  Assyria.
  • Achzib — means “deception” and she will prove deceitful to the kings of Israel (Judah?) who depend on her; she will fail to live up to the king’s expectations.
  • Mareshah — sounds like the Hebrew word for “conqueror” and its verbal root means “possessor;” perhaps the pun is that those in the “possessor town” will be possessed by the king of Assyria.
  • Adullam — reminds Judah of the stories of David who hid in the region’s caves; now the glory of Israel will hide in the caves.

The list contains several elements of theological commentary on the devastation of these cities. Lachish, for example, is the beginning of Samaria’s idolatry in Judah. We know that some of kind of idolatrous temple was erected in Lachish and the text probably refers to that (though some think it was the introduction of chariots and horses as a form of military security rather than trusting in Yahweh). Whatever the case, this region–where the invasion of Judah begins–is where the sins of Judah began.

The “disaster” that has come to the “gate of Jerusaelm” is from Yahweh. The term “disaster” literally means “evil,” but it does not necessarily entail a kind of moral evil. Rather, it refers to trouble. Yahweh introduces chaos into Judah and up to the gate of Jerusalem because of Judah’s sins.

After moving through the Shephelah city by city, Micah’s lament ends with a final piece of advice. Parents should join Micah in his mourning ritual. They should cut their hair because their children are going into exile. The “disaster” is devastation and exile.  The wound of Israel is coming to Judah.  It is time to lament.

Nations and communities must learn to lament over their sins and the self-destruction sin brings to a nation or community. Sometimes all we can do is lament as the consequences of sin are inescapable.

New Creation: A Theological Summary

September 24, 2013

“There is the earnest preaching of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come; the development of the guilt of man, the grace of God, the love of Christ, the mystery of the Cross, sin pardoning mercy, adoption into the family of God, with the unction of the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life, of the new earth and the new heavens, &c., &c. These are the soul-stirring, the soul-subduing, the soul-transforming themes of the gospel of the grace of God.”[1]

Alexander Campbell (1865)

Eschatology, epitomized in the idea of “new creation,” is not so much about what happens last and the order in which it happens as much as it is about the future that is already present and at work in the world.

Creation is good, but new creation is better. The creation, though it retains its inherent goodness, is presently frustrated because it is bound over to corruption. It awaits something better; it awaits a glorious liberation. The present bondage will pass away even as the creation itself is gloriously transfigured when the new heavens and new earth appear.

As the present form of the world is even now passing away, the new creation is already present. The children of God experience the first fruits of the new creation through the presence of the Spirit who transforms them from glory to glory. By this the children of God are new creatures renewed in the image of their Creator. Yet the children of God, along with the creation itself, groan for full adoption through the redemption of their bodies. This new humanity, already present by the Spirit through sanctification, will fully appear in the resurrection.

New humanity is grounded in the new human, Jesus the Messiah. The glorified Lord is new creation. He reversed the curse under which creation groans as the kingdom broke into the world through his ministry in the power of the Spirit. He transformed death as the firstborn from the dead by the will of the Father. His Adamic body was transformed into a new body animated by the Spirit of God through which the ascended Messiah reigns in the heavenlies. At the right hand of the Father, ever interceding for the people of God, he has poured out the Spirit upon the church in order to transform them into new community, a new creation. Jesus, as glorified human, will return to redeem humanity and inaugurate the new heavens and new earth so that the glory of the God may fill the creation.

This new humanity embodied in Jesus is the ground of new creation. That new life is our life. Jesus’ new creation kingdom ministry is our ministry. The second Adam’s life-giving body is our future body. Just as the old Adamic life passed away in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, so our lives—inwardly renewed and outwardly redeemed—participate in the new life revealed in the new humanity of the ascended Lord. Just as our old Adamic life is transformed into a new and glorious freedom, so the creation itself will share in the joy of the children of God.

This story—the movement from the old age to the new age—is pregnant with meaning for church, ministry, and life. As new creatures, we live by the ethic of the new creation. As people translated into the kingdom of God, we live as if the kingdom of God has already come. Anticipating the renewal of creation, we pursue environmental care. We embrace the vision, ethic, and mission of the new creation embodied in the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.

This year Harding School of Theology will explore the significant themes, implications, and applications of “new creation” through chapel and special events throughout this academic year. The richness, depth, and visionary importance of this theme define Christianity.

This piece was authored for HST’s Bridge (Summer 2013).

[1] Alexander Campbell, “Orthodox Regeneration,” Millennial Harbinger 4th Series, 5 (September 1865) 494.

Micah 1:2-7 — Yahweh is Coming!

September 9, 2013

The small-town prophet receives a big-time message from Yahweh. Micah announces that Yahweh is coming to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom Israel. This, however, is about more than Israel. It is  Yahweh’s witness against the nations even though it is the nations who devastate Israel.

The opening address functions as a lawsuit where the prophet stands as a prosecutor who represents Yahweh’s interests. The nations and the whole earth are the witnesses. But the nations are also defendants as the Lord’s witness against Israel is also a witness against the nations. If the Lord will not spare Israel, God’s own covenant people, the Lord will not spare the nations. The sins of Israel are also the sins of the nations, and therefore the judgment of Israel is also the judgment of the nations. So, the nations will not only hear the prosecution as witnesses they will also recognize that the lawsuit equally applies to them. When Yahweh comes to Israel, the Lord also sends a message to the nations.

Yahweh comes from the heavenly “holy temple” (cf. Psalm 11:4; Habakkuk 2:20) to “tread upon the high places of the earth.” Micah describes a theophany. God shows up. The movement from the heavenly dwelling place (“holy temple”) to earth is described in apocalyptic terms. The mountains melt like wax before the fire and the valleys split open like rushing water down a steep embankment. God appears as a consuming (melting) fire and terrifies the earth as we are frozen in fear before a rapid gushing down a ravine.

The “high places” are not merely mountain tops. Rather they are the location of mountain sanctuaries for the gods of the nations and the idols of Israel. God is coming to “tread upon the high places of the earth.” Yahweh will appear at the sanctuaries of the gods and the mountains will melt.  God will “tread” or trample those high places and wash them away as with water.  Yahweh’s judgment is directed at the high places.

This is the transgression of both Israel and Judah, both the northern and southern kingdoms. “Transgression” and “high place” parallel each other in Micah 1:5 just as Samaria and Jerusalem do. The whole of God’s people are under judgment; Yahweh is coming to deal with both.

The emphasis, however, is on Israel. This opening section is the only place where Micah mentions Samaria. The rest of the book will address Judah. It is as if what happened to Samaria is Micah’s object lesson not only for the nations but more particularly for Judah. Jerusalem should learn the lesson of Samaria. Their sins resulted in their exile and if Jerusalem does not return to the Lord, Judah will experience the same judgment as Samaria.

Micah 1:6-7 details the reasons and consequences of this judgment.  The consequence is the metaphorical dismantling of Samaria as a city. While the language is often taken as literal in Micah 1:6, there is no archeological evidence for the total destruction and depopulation of the city. There is evidence of a layer of burnt materials as if the city was assaulted, but the city was inhabited until destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 107 B.C.E. The language, like mountains melting, is metaphorical as it describes the social and political devastation that Samaria experienced in 722 B.C.E. at the hands of the Assyrian King Sargon II.

The sins of Israel that invited this judgment are identified in Micah 1:7. “Carved images” and “idols” are parallel with “wages.” The fire that will consume Samaria will also destroy her idolatry. Samaria cannot trust her gods. “Wages” refer to what Israel paid these gods (as if they were paying prostitutes). They used their resources to serve these idols, even perhaps engaging in cultic practices with prostitutes. But the language is probably metaphorical. Israel prostituted herself by using her “wages” to pay for idols and their worship. Idolatry had infected Samaria. This is her sin.

MIcah’s ministry under the reigns of Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah included the time when Samaria fell. The catastrophe appears future but the lament that follows (1:8-16) is more suited to the invasion of Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. It seems most likely that Micah is using a past event (Samaria’s fall) to heighten the drama of Sennacherib’s march through the towns of Judah.  It is as if Assyria marches from the devastation of Samaria to the gates of Jerusalem (even though it is separated by 20+ years). The rhetoric underscores the common sins and plight of Samaria and Jerusalem.

Remember, however, this is not simply about Israel and Judah. It is a “witness” against the nations as well. God may well use Assyria to punish Samaria and Jerusalem, but in so doing they bear witness against themselves. They spell their own doom for the same sins.

Empires may trample others and think themselves justified, even blessed. But their violence bears the seed of their own destruction. “Hear, O peoples,” and watch how the Lord works among the nations.

Revelation 12:7-12 — How Might This War Be Won?

September 6, 2013

Then a war broke out in heaven!

That does not seem a likely place for a war. How can there be a war in heaven? Part of the answer is the two signs that appeared “in heaven” (Revelation 12:1-4). One sign represented the faithful people of God and the other Satan. One represented Israel and the other the powers of Rome. One gave birth to the Messiah while the other sought to devour him. The Messiah was born and when he ascended to the throne, a battle ensued.

The accession of the Messiah to the throne, in principle, spelled the doom of the dragon. He was already defeated. The son cannot be knocked off his throne. Nevertheless, there was a war.

While the fight, like in Daniel 10, is described as taking place in heaven between angelic beings–between Michael’s angels and the dragon’s angels, it was really a war fought upon the earth. The war in heaven is no contest, but the struggle on the earth is a test. But the contest on earth wins the war in heaven!

The dragon–Satan, the devil, the ancient serpent–is cast out of heaven. He has no power there; the throne is already occupied. The dragon, wearing diadems, seeks power. Satan wants to rule, but there is “no longer any place for [him] in heaven.” The struggle has moved from heaven to earth. The son assumed the throne through faithful obedience. Heaven is decided, but the earth is still contested. Consequently, this calls for “endurance” on the part of the saints (Revelation 14:12). Their faithfulness is the key to the battle on the earth (Revelation 13:10).

When the throne of the son was secured and the dragon was thrown back to earth, “a loud voice in heaven” heralded the situation. The announcement is significant as it lays out the stakes in the war that continues upon the earth even though heaven is at secure.  Here is what the voice said (Revelation 12:10-12):

Now have come the salvation
and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah!
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They have overcome him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony.
They did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who inhabit them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows his time is short.

Similar to Revelations 11:15, this announcement proclaims the reality of the kingdom of God. Heaven is secured. The salvation of the martyrs is accomplished, and God has effected the reign of God in heaven. This is true because the accuser (Satan) is no longer present. Through the faithful obedience of the son and the martyr the accuser has been booted.

Zechariah 3 portrayed an angelic figure who stood before the Lord to accuse Israel of unfaithfulness which, in effect, prevented Israel’s restoration. That accuser, present in the heavenly court, was like a prosecuting attorney. God dismissed the accuser then and does so now as well. Once Satan accused the people of God “day and night” in the heavenly throne room, but no longer. He has been cast out, hurled down to earth.

But how was Satan defeated? Was it a mere exertion of divine power? Was it pure might rather than right? Quite the contrary. It was not power in the conventional sense at all. Rather, it was through the weakness of the cross. It was by the blood of the Lamb and the testimony of the faithful. This does not refer to some kind of penal blood atonement. Rather, it refers to martyrdom which is the result of faithful obedience. It is the suffering of both the Lamb and the martyrs–together they have defeated the accuser. They gave their lives in obedience to God. They were faithful even to the point of dying; their death was their testimony.  The martyrs–including the Lamb–defeated the powers of Satan. Faithfulness defeats the accuser.

In the same way Job defeated the accuser. Does Job serve God for nothing? (Job 1:6), the accuser asked. There is no one who serves God out of love; they all serve him for reward.  But Job proved the satan wrong.  While Job lamented and wailed (like the martyrs in Revelation as well), Job neither cursed nor forsook God. Evil is defeated by doing good; good overcomes evil. Faithful obedience subverts evil.

This is how the victory is won in Revelation. The message of the book calls saints to faithful endurance, to the faithful witness of martyrdom. There is no battle cry except the willingness to sacrifice their lives. There is no call for violent revolution but only the willingness to suffer violence from the kingdom of this world for the sake of the kingdom of God. While faithful witness defeats the dragon, violence would only serve the dragon’s interests.

Heaven rejoices because the saints do not take up the sword but put their necks under it. The “heavens” and its inhabitants (the angelic hosts) are invited to rejoice.  Heaven has been cleared of Satanic powers by the faithful obedience of the Lamb and his followers.

But…and this is an important “but”…the drama is not over. The dragon has been cast out of heaven but still stalks the earth. The earth and the sea are yet subject to the dragon’s hostile activity. The destroyers of the earth (Revelation 11:18) are still at work within the creation. The devil is angry and is looking to make the most of the short time given him.

The “short time” is the same as the 1260 days (or 42 months or 3 1/2 years) that the godly woman hides in the wilderness and the two prophets witness to the nations. It represents the time God has permitted for the persecutors. It is a short time; it is not forever. But it is a deadly test, a time when the followers of the Lamb will be tried by fire.

Heaven has been cleared. The earth awaits redemption. What is our witness?

Revelation 12:1-6 — Two Signs in Heaven

September 5, 2013

The drama of the second (Revelation 4:1-16:20) has not yet ended. We are yet in the middle of it. Heaven has opened the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:5) and sounded the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19) but we have not yet seen the final, climatic bowls of wrath (Revelation 15-16).  sandwiched between the trumpets and the bowls is the dramatic story of war in heaven and war upon the earth. It functions similar to the interludes that came between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7) and trumpets (Revelation 10:1-11:14). This “interlude” identifies the players in the drama.

It is as if someone has hit the pause button on one screen–the drama of the unfolding sevens–and our attention has been arrested by another screen. The “interlude” of Revelation 12-14 will take us back to the beginning of the story as it reminds us that the conflict between God and the kingdom of this world is a long one.  The conflict was waged in the Garden of Eden, on the shores of the Red Sea, and in the birth and ministry of Jesus. What the followers of the Lamb experience is nothing new; the world powers have always opposed the kingdom purposes of God. The “interlude” identifies and describes the “war.”

John introduces the conflict by describing two signs that appear “in heaven.” The first sign is a woman clothed in creation itself–robed in the sun, standing on the moon and the twelve stars on her head in the form of a victory wreath (stephanos).  The second sign is a blood-red dragon whose seven heads were diadems and whose tail creates havoc on the earth by showering it with a third of the stars. The woman affirms creation while the dragon destroys it. The woman wears a victory wreath like the martyrs while the dragon rules the earth as a destroyer of the earth (cf. Revelation 11:18). The woman is God’s beloved while the dragon is God’s enemy.

Startlingly, the woman is pregnant and feels the birth pangs. She is about to give birth. The dragon menacingly stands in front of her ready to destroy whatever comes out of her. The birth is part of God’s redemptive story and the dragon opposes it.

A son is born. The son, protected by God, inherits a throne when he ascends to God. The dragon’s purpose is frustrated. Though the dragon wears seven royal diadems, the son assumes the throne. The son will reign rather than the dragon. The woman flees the anger of the dragon; she flees from the dragon into the wilderness for safety, a place prepared by God.

God delivers the son by snatching him up to heaven, but the woman is left upon the earth. She hides in the wilderness where she will stay for 1260 days or three and one half years (42 months).

Who are these “people”? What is happening?

The one certain identification in the text is the identity of the son. John gives us an interpretative key. He is the one who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This alludes to Psalm 2 where God’s anointed king will inherit the earth and the nations will experience God’s wrath. Revelation 11:18 also alluded to Psalm 2. The reign of the kingdom of the anointed (Messiah) began when the son was ascended to the right hand of God to sit upon his throne. The birth and ascension of Jesus are described in Revelation 12:5; the rest of the story–what filled the pages between those two events–is assumed. The readers know the history of the faithful witness who went to the cross in obedience to the Father and was raised from the dead to ascend to the throne. The son reigns.

Who is the woman?  We might say Mary and this would be partly correct but not mainly correct. The woman represents something much greater than Mary herself. The woman appears “in heaven.” The woman wears the martyrs victory wreath. The woman is those who have overcome, but those who overcame before the birth of the Messiah. The woman is faithful Israel. She gives birth to the Messiah. Mary, of course, represented Israel as the one through whom the Messiah came. So, at one level–a literal level–the woman is Mary, but the point is symbolic. Mary represents Israel. The chosen people of God gave birth to Jesus. Perhaps at even deeper level the woman represents Eve from whom the whole of humanity has come; she is the mother of all. She is the one whose seed would crush the serpent’s head. So, we might read this at three levels–Eve, Israel and Mary.

Who is the dragon? As with Mary, we might say that at a literal level the dragon is Herod who sought to destroy the Christ child in Bethlehem. But again the dragon is “in heaven” and the seven crowns and ten horns describe something much larger than Herod himself. The symbolic picture at least leads us to Roman power. Rome, as a world power, opposes the kingdom of God. In Revelation 17 we will see “seven heads and ten horns” explicitly identified with Roman imperial authority. It is not only Herod who seeks to destroy Christ; it is Roman power itself. But there is a cosmic dimension to this figure. The dragon is “in heaven” and is an enemy of the cosmos itself. Indeed, the dragon is identified in Revelation 12:9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan.” This is the one who opposed Eve herself and led the original couple astray even as he now leads the “whole world astray.” So, we might read this at three levels as well–Serpent, Rome and Herod.

Who, then, is the woman who flees?  She flees into the wilderness just as Israel fled from the armies of Pharoah into the wilderness for safety. But the woman is more than Israel at this point. The woman represents the whole people of God. This is indicated by the length of time she will stay in the wilderness.  It is the same length of time that the two witnesses in Revelation 11 prophesied against the ruling powers. Just as the two prophets represent a witnessing church, so here the hiding woman symbolizes the one people of God, now composed of Jew and Gentile.

The trial that has come upon the whole earth is the result of a cosmic battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. The cosmic powers of evil are warring against the faithful people of God. This was true in the Garden. It was true at the Red Sea. It was true at the cross. It was true in first century Asia Minor. It is still true. The war is not yet over.

On Reading Micah (Micah 1:1)

September 4, 2013

Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, was from a small town 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem called Moresheth near the Philistine city of Gath. Micah was a rural prophet while Isaiah was close to the seat of power in Jerusalem. Ministering during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (ca. 750-686 B.C.), he lived in momentous times.

During the time of these Judean kings, the northern part of Israel is annexed by Assyria. By 740 B.C. Tiglath-Pileser (745-727 B.C.) had conquered all of Syria (Aram). In 734 B.C., the Assyrian Emperor acquired a permanent foot in Palestine by annexing what was northern Israel (essentially the Galilee region) and setting up a base of operations near Gath. By 732 all the nations in the Levant were paying Assyria tribute.

When Israel foolishly thought they might remove Assyria’s yoke and refused to pay the tribute, Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.) besieged and sacked Samaria in 723/722 B.C. Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) then subjugated Palestine as the smaller states paid tribute as well as putting down a revolt in Egypt in 720 B.C. He had to put down another revolt among the small states in 711 B.C.

When Sargon was assassinated in 705 B.C., the king of Judah–Hezekiah– rebelled along with some of the small states in the region as well as Babylon. They were all hopeful that Egypt would rebel as well. But Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) ended their hopes by 701 B.C. While Sennacherib did not sack Jerusalem, he decimated the Judean countryside.

In 1830 a six-sided clay prism inscribed on six sides was found in Nineveh in 1830. It is now in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.  prism1It describes how Hezekiah “would not submit to my yoke” and so he “took forty-six of his strong fenced cities” along with “smaller towns.” He “plundered a countless number.”  He took 200,156 prisoners, “old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude.” As for Hezekiah, he shut him up “in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage.” Eventually, he claims, Hezekiah paid a high tribute, including “thirty talents of gold and 800 talents of silver” along with other “rich and immense booty.”

As a result of this, Sennacherib established a policy (along with his successor Esarhadon [681-669 B.C.]) of non-interference with Judah–as long as Judah did not interfere with the “Via Maris” (the trade route by the sea).  Consequently, Judah remained an independent state.

Micah lived through these turbulent times. He probably experienced numerous Assyrian incursions (including the exile of Israel and its capital Samaria) and especially the devastating invasion of 701 B.C. when Judah was raped by Assyrian power.

What does a prophet say to a people who lived under such powerful threats and through such devastation? This is the message of Micah. It is a filled with warnings and woes, but also hope and witness. Micah laments the fall of Samaria  and warns Judah that they are next if they do not renew their covenant with Yahweh. Micah wants to turn Judah back to God.

The text, as we have it, easily divides into three sermons or homilies. Each begins with the summons to “Listen” ( The first (Micah 1-2) moves from lament over the fall of so many Judean cities (1:2-16) to a rationale for their destruction (2:1-11) but leaves Judah with a hopeful future (2:12-13). The second sermon (Micah 3-5) pronounces judgment upon political and religious leaders (3:1-12) and then glories in Yahweh’s return to his people through a new David (4:1-5:14).  The third sermon (Micah 6-7) begins with a covenant lawsuit (6:1-8) along with a rationale for the judgment of Judah (6:9-16) followed by a lament (7:1-6) but again ends in hope (7:7-20).

Micah’s sermons have a similar pattern. He begins with a lawsuit or judgment oracle, expresses lament, and then offers hope.

Surrounded by the nations and living under the threat of imperial pressure, Judah must choose in whom she will trust. The political dynamics are addressed by Isaiah but Micah, presumably speaking to the rural people of the land in Judah, calls for a faithful life that trusts in the promises of Yahweh. This is where Judah will find hope, peace and security.

The final verses of Micah tell the underlying story. God forgives and delights in steadfast love (hesed). God has not forgotten. God is faithful. God will remember his promise to Abraham.

Though the days are dark, the story is not over.

Revelation 11:15-19 — A Climactic Announcement

August 31, 2013

The drama of Revelation’s second vision (Revelation 4:1-16:21) comes to a climactic moment when the seventh trumpet sounds. The whole of heaven–the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, myriads of angels and the great multitude–have seen the seven seals opened and all seven trumpets sounded. Heaven anticipates something dramatic.

The seventh horn is trumpeted and “loud voices in heaven” announce the coming reality.

 “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

The significance of this announcement is difficult to overestimate. It is the goal of God’s work in the world, that is, that the reign of God through the Messiah would destroy hostile powers and fill the earth. It is the essence of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.”

The announcement comes as an accomplished fact to which the twenty-four elders respond. The “loud voices in heaven” are apparently the heavenly host, or perhaps God’s own inner circle (such as the four living creatures).  The redeemed, represented by the twenty-four elders, respond by getting off their thrones, falling prostrate before God and worshipping the one who sits on the throne.

We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
     who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
     and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
     and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
     and for rewarding your servants the prophets
          and your saints and those who reverence your name
both small and great
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

The thanksgiving hymn explains the meaning of the announcement. It is a eucharistic offering to the Pantokrator (Almighty) Lord God–the one who sits on the throne as the who always has been and continues to be–who now has begun to execute his reign on the earth through his great power. The “time” has come and God’s “wrath” has come.

This timing is about the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and promises. It is for what the church has prayed. Psalm 2 forms the backdrop for the hymn. The nations have raged against God, but now the time of God’s wrath has come (cf. Psalm 2:1-5). The nations have raged against God’s anointed (God’s Christ), but now God’s reign will defeat the kingdom of this world (cf. Acts 4:24-30). The hopes of Psalm 2 are now realized.

The transformation of the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God’s Christ is the moment when the world is set right, when God’s righteousness prevails. This “setting right of the world” involves judging the dead–the righteous (holy ones [saints], prophets and those who fear God’s name) are rewarded and those who destroy the earth are themselves destroyed. The hostile powers to the kingdom of God are overthrown because they are bent on destruction. They have martyred the saints of God but the martyrs have overcome through martyrdom.  The church–the martyred witnesses of Revelation 11–is not delivered from martyrdom but through martyrdom. This is victory.

What, however, is the meaning of this announcement at this point in the drama of Revelation? Many readers of the Apocalypse divide the book at this point into two halves, chapters 1-11 and 12-22. I think this ignores the literary and visionary divisions within the book (“in the Spirit” at 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). The recurrent theophanic description (“peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake”) unites the second vision (4:5; 8:5; 11:19 and 16:18) as it concludes the seven seals, thunders and bowls of wrath. Chapters 4-16 function as a unit that progressively describes the disintegration and end of an empire (the seals only affect 1/4 of the earth, the trumpets 1/3, and the bowls of wrath the whole earth).

The climatic announcement at Revelation 11:15, then, comes in the middle of this progression within the second vision. Even though it announces an accomplished fact, the drama is not yet complete. The final battle has not yet been won. The temple of God is still in heaven (Revelation 11:19) rather than coming to the new earth as the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-5). The drama has not yet reached its final stage; the story is not over.

So, what is the point of the announcement if it has not yet happened in the flow of the drama? In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, heaven itself announces the future as if it has already happened. Among Hebrew prophets this is known as the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as it if it were a past event; the future is as certain as the past.

Heaven is certain, and consequently the saints on the earth who are suffering and dying may be certain as well, that the future reign of God will fully come. The nations (including Rome) will be defeated, the martyrs will be rewarded, and the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of God and the Christ. God will win.

The church is encouraged to follow the Lamb like the two witnesses in Revelation 11. Even though the nations rage against God’s anointed people, God’s wrath will one day destroy those who are destroying the earth. Empires will fall, and the kingdom of God will fill the earth.

That future is as certain as the past.  Thanks be to God!

Revelation 11:1-14 – The Witnessing Church

August 24, 2013

On the heels of John’s prophetic commission in Revelation 10:8-11, he is tasked with measuring the temple of God but not its outer court. The prophetic message of Revelation 11 envisions a period of time when God’s people will faithfully witness before the nations. Indeed, the “two witnesses” will imitate the pattern of the Lamb–they will prophesy, they will be martyred, and they will be vindicated through resurrection and ascension. The faithful witness of the church follows the pattern of the Lamb and God does not abandon the witnesses.

Just as the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals focused on sealed but suffering believers (Revelation 7), so this interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets reveals a measured but suffering church. The interludes address the situation of the church in the midst of a hostile but collapsing empire. The hope of believers is victory and their role is faithful witness.

There are some difficult problems of interpretation in Revelation 11. What is the temple? What is the outer court? Who are the “two witnesses”? What is the “great city” that, in part, collapses? One’s general approach to Revelation will, in large measure, determine the answers to these questions. There is little need to argue this in detail in a brief blog, but it is important to understand the flow of the drama pictured it.

The first moment in the drama is the measurement of the temple. This imagery is drawn from Ezekiel 40:3 and Zechariah 2:1-5. God declares ownership; the temple belongs to the one who sits on the throne. The owner measures the temple. But where is this temple? The only other use of “temple” is in Revelation 11:19 which places the temple “in heaven.” Temple imagery in Revelation is always located “in heaven,” that is, in God’s throne room. Much like Revelation 7:9-17, God’s temple and its worshippers are protected and victorious. Nothing will assault the throne room of God. The temple, then, is–analogous to the 144,000 in Revelation 7–are the sealed people of God whose suffering will overcome the enemy.

However, the “outer court” is unmeasured. Rather, it will be given over to the nations who will trample not only it but the whole “holy city for 42 months.”  The adjective “holy” indicates that we are still talking about the people of God. In one perspective, they are protected and victorious (in the throne room of God), but from another perspective they are under attack.  Indeed, the beast from the Abyss kills the two witnesses (11:7). The imagery is drawn from Daniel 7:21-25. In the second century B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes waged war against the saints and trampled the temple in Jerusalem for a “time, times, and a half” (or 3 and 1/2 years; cf. Daniel 12:5-6). In Revelation 11 the beast makes war against the outer court and the holy city, including the two witnesses. This war will last only for a limited time (1260 days is half of seven years, which is a complete number). The beast wages war against the church and is able to inflict suffering (martyrdom) upon it. The beast (the nations) trample the people of God (the outer court) but the beast cannot destroy the temple (the inner court or sanctuary).

The “two witnesses” are clearly prophetic figures (called “prophets” in 11:10). Their description draws heavily on prophetic images in the Hebrew Bible.  Like Elijah (and John the Baptist) they wear sackcloth. Like Moses they turn water into blood and strike the earth with plagues. Like Elijah they stop the rain. Like Jeremiah they breathe fire (Jeremiah 5:14). Like Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest they are God’s anointed olive trees to serve the whole earth (Zechariah 4). They are lampstands. They are the church. The number two is chosen because the Torah required two witnesses for convicting testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15). The church has a prophetic role in the world.

Their testimony, however, comes at a cost. The two witnesses are killed by the beast and their bodies are left exposed in the “great city.” Every use of the “great city” in Revelation refers to the hostile empire that oppresses the followers of the Lamb (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21). This “great city” is not the “holy city.”  The “holy city” is the church which is trampled by the nations while the “great city” is the hostile empire–empires like Sodom, Egypt and Rome. The reference to “where also their Lord was crucified” does not mean the literal city in which Jesus died but rather the “great city” that killed Jesus, that is, Rome. The two witnesses will suffer the same fate as their Lord; they will die at the hands of a cruel empire, Rome. Just as Rome crucified the Lamb in Jerusalem, so Rome will display the death of Christian martyrs as spectacles of its power within the empire (the “great city”).

“The inhabitants of the earth,” that is, the followers of the beast, who come from every “people, tribe, language, and nation” (like victorious believers in Revelation 7 who also come from every people, tribe, language, and nation) rejoice over the death of the two witnesses. They glory in the death of the martyrs. It is part of their festive activities as they give gifts to each other. One might hear an allusion to the games in which Christians were martyred during the Roman empire.

One also might hear in Revelation 11 the echo of the cry of the martyrs.  “How long, O Lord” (Revelation 6:9-11). Some believe that Psalm 79 provides a backdrop for the theology of this chapter. The Psalmist laments the destruction of the temple and asks “How Long, O Lord?” They plead for God to pour out wrath upon the nations and to “pay back” their “neighbors seven times.”

Indeed, in Revelation 11 one tenth of the city collapses and seven thousand are killed. 7,000 is a symbolic number (perhaps an allusion to the 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal during Elijah’s prophetic ministry). The city suffers a major disaster but it is not complete. God judged the “great city” (Rome) for its injustice and it appears many turned to God as a result (“feared and gave glory to the God of heaven”). The witness of the faithful martyrs in the context of God’s transformative work of judgment has a positive effect on some.

But the church itself–the two witnesses who ae martyred–is vindicated. The dead witnesses are raised and they ascend into heaven in a cloud.  The witnesses follow the pattern of the Lamb–witness, death, resurrection and ascension. In other words, like the 144,000, as they pass through the trials and overcome through faith, they are received into the throne room of God as victors (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). The witnesses defeat the empire through martyrdom. The witnesses join the assembly around the throne in God’s heavenly temple. This is their “resurrection.” This is not a picture of their literal bodily resurrection, but–like Revelation 7–the movement of the witnesses from earth to heaven, from suffering to victory in the throne room of God (that is, the heavenly temple).

The church is God’s prophetic witness against empires. This is part of its role in the present chaotic world. The witness is not about predicting specific facts or imperial history about the future, but it is a witness that proclaims that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God. It is a witness that opposes violence, idolatry, and immorality. It is a witness that God will judge the empires because of their greed, violence, and oppressive power.

But empires kill peacemakers. Rome crucified Jesus and martyred his followers. Empires still kill peacemakers. Empires still oppose the church’s witness. Unfortunately, the church often silences its own witness in the wake of imperial holidays, pledges of allegiance, and imperial benefaction (giving credit to the empire for peace and safety rather than to God).

Followers of the Lamb oppose empires and bear witness against its imperial designs. Like the Lamb, they may suffer and die for that witness, but like the Lamb, God will vindicate them and receive faithful witnesses into the throne room as victors in the conflict between good and evil.

Psalm 3: Yahweh is My Shield

August 22, 2013

Israel read this Psalm against the backdrop of David’s flight from Absalom whose coup d’etat had removed David as King.  The fears and uncertainty aroused by that event provide an emotional context for reading this Psalm. While others may fear for the Psalmist, the Psalmist has no fear. Rather, the Psalmist trusts.

The three-fold use of “many” in verses 1-2 stress the enormous obstacles that this believer faces. Many foes have risen against the Psalmist and many are voicing their doubt about whether God’s faithfulness. The central taunt is that God will not rescue this believer.  Many say that the believer should expect no victory, no salvation, no deliverance. All is lost as far as they are concerned. They believe that God has abandoned the Psalmist.

This fear is common for believers. We often find reason to doubt God’s good intentions for us. We often feel abandoned. Fear often thrives rather than faith, and we sometimes lose our assurance that God is good. This may be particularly true when we hear what “many” are saying. We listen to other voices rather than trust God’s good intentions.

The Psalmist, however, turns to Yahweh in prayer. Three times the Psalmist addresses Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel (3:1, 3, 7).

  • Yahweh, you know how many are against me!
  • Yahweh, I will trust your care for me.
  • Yahweh, rise up and deliver me!

Just as the “many” see no hope for the Psalmist, Yahweh heard this believer’s cry and answered from Zion, God’s holy hill. This response and the assurance of God’s care enables the Psalmist to sleep as Yahweh provides sustenance.  Believers can rest when they are confident that God loves them. This eradicates whatever fear the Psalmist feels about the “thousands” (the “many”) and what they are saying or doing.

Surrounded by hostile powers and living in a hostile environment, believers may very well doubt God’s presence and care. We are sometimes overwhelmed with “thousands” of problems and circumstances that hinder us from living in trust without anxiety. We know this situation well. We have a daily struggle with worry or fear.

The Psalmist trusts Yahweh who is both a shield and the glory of believers. Yahweh protects like a shield; Yahweh defends believers. Moreover, Yahweh is the glory of believers. Rather than shamed by opposition or defeated by fears, we know that God lifts our heads. God raises us in glory and removes all shame as our heads are lifted up. Rather than defeated and shamed by the enemy, God glorifies and honors us.

What does it mean for God to lift up our heads? Life bows our heads sometimes in fear, sometimes in shame. Sometimes we don’t want to face life because we are filled with fear. For God to lift our heads is to enable us to look life in the eye without shame or fear because God’s glory shines in our faces. God honors us. Yahweh lifts our heads so that we might experience God’s gracious presence and loving protection.  Knowing God’s care for us–Yahweh is our shield, we trust that God will hear our cry and answer our prayer. Consequently, we rest peacefully at night and awake in the morning with renewed strength.

The Psalmist’s first prayer was that Yahweh would recognize how hostile and troubled the situation had become. The second prayer affirmed Yahweh’s presence and good intentions for the Psalmist.  The third prayer, however, calls God to act against those hostile to God’s purposes.

The imprecation in 3:7 is quite vivid. The Psalmist prays that God would break the teeth of the wicked. This is covenantal language as “breaking teeth” is the punishment given to those who break covenants (agreements or contracts). It is a prayer for justice against covenant-breakers.

What the “many” supposed is reversed. Yahweh will save (deliver) the Psalmist through setting things right and God will act justly against the wicked who opposed the Psalmist.

“Salvation belongs to Yahweh”–the Psalmist appeals to the God of Israel and seeks God’s blessing on upon God’s people. The ending is not dissonant with the Psalm itself since the “salvation” which belongs to God’s people is the very thing that “many” said was denied to the Psalmist but for which the Psalmist prayed.  God responds out of covenant faithfulness to deliver the covenant people. The Psalmist trusts Yahweh who is Israel’s covenant God, and God keeps covenant promises.

Salvation belongs to Yahweh!

Revelation 10: John’s Prophetic Call

August 16, 2013

After the fourth trumpet an eagle soared across the sky to announce the first of three woes (Revelation 8:13). The second woe followed the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:12). As readers we expect to hear the third woe after the sixth trumpet in order to  transition to the seventh trumpet. Instead, the third woe does not appear until Revelation 11:14.  Like the pause between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7), the drama again pauses between the sixth and seventh trumpets (Revelation 10:1-11:13). The pauses have similar functions.

The “interlude” of Revelation 7–coming between the sixth (6:12-17) and the seventh seals (8:1-5)–answered the question who could stand in day when the wrath of God and the Lamb is poured out on the inhabitants of the earth? The answer is those whom God has sealed and when those whom God has sealed pass through the trials of life (particularly the martyrs) they stand before the throne of God in victory.

The “interlude” of Revelation 10:1-11:13–coming between the sixth (9:13-21) and the seventh trumpets (11:14-19)–affirms John’s prophetic call and blesses the faithful witness of the church. In other words, the drama of judgment pauses to again describe the condition of the church as it endures the consequences of Roman hostility and God’s judgment of Rome. More specifically, it describes the function of the church during this cataclysmic period of history, that is, to bear witness to gospel and proclaim God’s message.

The first half of the “interlude” or “pause” affirms John’s prophetic call. John stands in the tradition of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, especially–as several allusions confirm–Ezekiel and Daniel. The first half of Revelation 10 is modeled after Daniel while the second half of Revelation 10 follows the lead of Ezekiel. John appropriates the apocalyptic images and prophetic acts of these two prophets.  In effect, this not only confirms John’s call, but it also says that his message participates in the tradition of those prophets, that is, apocalyptic messages of judgments against nations. John has been given the apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah that God’s people might know the end to which the empire will come in answer to their prayers for justice.

Revelation 10:1-7 reflects the apocalyptic and prophetic traditions of Daniel 10:5-6 and 12:4-7.  Like Daniel, John sees a great or mighty angel(s) who appears for dramatic announcements. John sees an angel (1) robed in a cloud, (2) crowned with a rainbow, (3) a bright sun-like face, and (4) legs like fiery pillars. Each of these images are divine metaphors drawn from both apocalyptic literature and the Hebrew Bible.  For example, the cloud and fiery pillars remind us of the divine presence in the wilderness during Israel’s wanderings. The rainbow was previously seen in the divine throne room (Revelation 4:3) and the bright face reminds us Roman images of their gods. The angel (messenger) brings a divine message dressed in the metaphors of a divine commission.

Further, the angel is holding a “little book” (biblaridion). What is this “little book”? As is clear from the rest of the chapter, it contains a prophetic message that John is to announce to the nations. But the difficult question is the relation of this “little book” to the “book” (biblios) whose seals the Lamb has opened.  The book lies open and unsealed in the hand of the angel. It seems reasonable to connect the two without identifying them. In other words, it might be that the “little book” is part of the “book” though not necessarily the whole of it.  Whatever the case, the angel brings the book as part of John’s prophetic commission and it stands in continuity with the book the Lamb opened if not part of it.

The appearance of the scroll in the hand of the angel may also mean that further warnings are issued through the seven thunders before the message of the book will be fully implemented. When the angel descended to earth, the angel shouted and the seven thunders roared.  They are about to roll through the earth just as the trumpets. The angel may have appeared to release the thunders. But a “voice from heaven” shut down their revelation. God decides that the voice of the thunders will be sealed up; they will go unheard. John is forbidden to write them down.  In effect, there will be no more warnings.  The seals and the trumpets were sufficient warning.

If the purpose for sealing the thunders was unclear, the mighty angel clarifies so no one will misunderstand. The picture here is foreboding–the angel has one foot on the earth and one on the sea. The angel represents power over all chaos, over the whole planet.  The angel then swears or declares an oath with the right hand raised to heaven (God). The God by whom the angel swears is the everlasting Creator of everything that exists and the language reminds us of Revelation 5:13. The whole creation worships the one who sits on the throne and the angel swears by the Creator.

The message is significant:  “There will be no more delay! But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”

The message is good news. What God “announced” to the prophets was, more literally, “gospeled”  to them. It was a proclamation of good news.  God has good news for the faithful witnesses who have struggled against the empire and refused to compromise. The announcement,then, is encouragement for the faithful; God has not forgotten their cry for justice.

The good news is the accomplishment of the mystery of God. The good news, over which the angels themselves rejoice, is that the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God which is heralded when the seventh trumpet sounded (Revelation 11:15).  The good news is that the faithful witness of the martyrs will be vindicated, and God will set things right. The empire will fail to destroy the people of God and the empire will collapse under the weight of its own sin. The mystery of God–what the martyrs wanted to see but was hidden from them–will be revealed when the martyrs are vindicated.  There will be no more delay; judgment is coming.

Revelation 10:8-11 reflects the apocalyptic and prophetic traditions of Ezekiel 2:8-3:3. John is told to do what Ezekiel was told to do, that is, to eat the scroll. To eat the scroll is to digest the message of the book. It is to accept the commission to prophesy the message of the Apocalypse, or to declare the fulfillment of the mystery of God.

Like with Ezekiel, the book tastes sweet on the tongue but is bitter to the stomach. The commission is received with joy and hope but the message is a sour one. It is a message of woe, mourning, and judgment.  It is good news for God’s faithful witnesses, but it is judgment for the inhabitants of the earth. But the message, as we will see in Revelation 11, contains a sour note even for the followers of the Lamb as many are yet to suffer for their witness.

The significance of eating the book is clear from the words of commission in Revelation 10:11:  “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.” John will speak a divine message regarding nations and kings, against empires and Caesars.  God has heard the cries of the martyrs and now commissions John to speak the truth about empire. John stands in relation to the Roman empire just as Ezekiel stood in relation to Jerusalem–he is given a prophetic, even apocalyptic, message of judgment.

John eats the book, and therefore he “must prophesy.” John must proclaim the judgment given him. This is his prophetic call.

Psalm 2 – God Reigns Over the Nations

August 14, 2013

Psalm 1 counseled wisdom. Worshippers, as they pray, mediate and sing the Psalms, align themselves with the way of righteousness. Psalm 2 assures these worshippers that Yahweh reigns and even the nations must ultimately submit to the God of Israel. Psalm 2, then, as a further introduction to the Psalter, grounds the worship of and prayers to Yahweh in God’s universal reign. Yahweh provides wisdom through the Torah (Psalm 1) and Yahweh rules the cosmos (Psalm 2). With these themes in hand, the door is open to walk through the hills and valleys of the Psalter.

Psalm 2 offers its theological vision in four strophes. The first depicts the nations in rebellion (1-3) while the second identifies Yahweh as the true locus of sovereignty in the world (4-6). The third affirms the role of Yahweh’s king among the nations (7-9) while the fourth offers some advice for the kingdoms of the earth (10-12). The outer strophes focus on Yahweh’s relationship to the nations while the inner two strophes focus on Yahweh’s own sovereignty.

This is the voice of faith. Israel royal history gives no evidence that other nations (especially empires) should fear Yahweh’s king. Israel (and later the much smaller Judah) are surrounded by vast empires like Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Their power dwarfs that of Judah. Like Jerusalem (Zion), the nation itself is a small ridge surrounded by higher mountains. In the larger scheme of things, Jerusalem is nothing but a small regional power. Judah’s territory would easily fit between Nashville and Knoxville, TN!

The Psalm’s boldness is profound. It is little wonder that the nations mock Yahweh’s anointed. The nations will simply throw off whatever shackles that Israel might suppose enslaves them. There is no contest.

But the Psalmist, and Israel’s gathered worshippers, see the world through the lens of faith. They envision Yahweh enthroned in the heavens. God reigns over the nations. Eyes of faith can see this when Israel is gathered for worship. Singing and praying the Psalms they see the world as faith envisions it. Yahweh is enthroned and the nations will serve Israel’s God.

Yahweh’s enthronement also means that God’s anointed represents the reign of God in the world. Yahweh anoints a king, calls him “Son,” and gives him an inheritance which is the whole earth. The reign of the king in Israel, then, is a sign of hope; it is the covenant faithfulness of God. The king symbolizes God’s commitment to the Abrahamic promises. Consequently, the enthronement of the king is something to celebrate, and that may be the origin of this Psalm originally. It is one of the “royal Psalms.”

The nations will be judged by how they treat God’s anointed. Cautioned and warned, the nations should serve Yahweh and “kiss the son.”

An Assyrian general or an Egyptian Pharoah must have laughed at such language. Perhaps they were enraged by such claims. In either event, Israel, they must have thought, has lost touch with reality.

Yet, someone placed this Psalm at the beginning of the Psalter. It reminded Israel that as they sang and prayed these Psalms they do so with the confidence that God reigns over the nations and that God’s anointed will inherit the earth itself. Such faith is only nurtured through worship.

It is the kind of worship we find in the Apocalypse. Marginalized in a hostile culture, dwarfed in size by Roman religions, and surrounded by magnificent temples dedicated to Roman gods, goddesses and Caesars, the seven churches of Asia Minor envisioned God and the Lamb, the Messiah, on thrones in heaven. The climax of the Apocalypse (pictured in both 11:18 and 19:19) embraces the vision of Psalm 2 as the Lord’s Anointed defeats the powers of evil in such a way that the earth itself becomes the kingdom of the Lord (11:15). The nations become the heritage of God’s Anointed.

The language of Psalm 2 is our language. We worship the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb (God’s Messiah). We confess that God reigns even though evil and chaos still abound. We hope for the coming of the kingdom of God when the meek will inherit the earth. We live those moments by faith and when we gather to worship God and the Lamb we see it with the eyes of faith, just like Israel in Psalm 2.

So, we boldly pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Come, Lord Jesus!

Psalm 1 – Two Ways, a Wisdom Poem

August 13, 2013

The opening Psalm functions as a kind of preface or introduction to the whole collection. It orients the worshipper to a particular path and the value of pursuing the life the Psalter envisions. Indeed, it offers us a choice.

There is the way of the wicked (sinners, scoffers) and the way of the righteous. There are two ways, two paths, or two directions. One scoffs at life, misses the point of life, and is openly hostile to God. The other yearns to practice the Torah, follow God’s instruction, and incessantly repeats the words of the Torah. Often, however, life is much more ambiguous than that, but our basic orientation is nevertheless pointed in one of two directions.

One way will prosper like a fruit tree by water while the other will disappear like dust in the wind.  As a piece of wisdom this does not mean that there are no exceptions. The rest of the Psalter tells us otherwise as laments and imprecations abound. Rather, wisdom inculcates character development, and, generally, good character will bear good fruit while an evil character will suck the life out of us.  Wisdom orients us even though in tragic moments it may frustrate us (as in the case of Job). Nevertheless, wisdom guides choices, especially in midst of tragedies.

At the same time, the orientation is valuable because every human being must make a choice. Even indecision is itself a choice. We live and we choose. Wisdom provides a far-sighted horizon for choices that lie in front of us. Instead of plunging into waters of immediate gratification, wisdom invites us to walk a long path towards wholeness. It is, in fact, the long path of praying, singing, and even murmuring the Psalms under our breaths.

We choose this long, hard road because we seek transformation rather than gratification. We seek deep-seated joy rather than fleeting happiness.  Even though we know this path has many bumps in the road–and the laments of the Psalms testify to them–we pursue it because we know that Yahweh “knows the way of the righteous.”

We embrace this difficult path because we know that Yahweh is committed to those who pursue it. God is deeply and intimately connected to those who follow the “way of the righteous.”

This introductory Psalm provides essential wisdom for navigating the diverse and wide-ranging emotions that will bubble up as worshippers rehearse, practice, and live out the Psalter. Those who truly hear this wisdom are blessed because Yahweh knows the way they have chosen.

Revelation 9: Imagine Your Worst Nightmare

August 10, 2013

The fifth and sixth trumpets announce the ancient world’s worst nightmares. The terrifying images of Revelation 9 are worthy of our most horrifying apocalyptic movies. It seems 21st century western culture loves apocalyptic movies, whether it is the earth destroyed by a meteor, large armies battling for Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the end of the world in 2012.  We have a fascination with apocalypses…whatever they may be. Perhaps, however, that is no different from first century culture.

Revelation 9 paints two apocalyptic, cataclysmic and terror-inducing pictures. One image arises out of nature and the other from humanity, though they are both in this text the result of angelic movements. One is a destructive swarm of locusts while the other is a huge invasion force. Both were the worst nightmares of ancient peoples as locusts destroyed crops while armies pillaged human treasures (including people). These are nightmares from which one hopes to wake up.

The opening of the fifth and sixth trumpets in Revelation 8:13 is the flight of an eagle soaring overhead and shouting, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.” The three woes announce the next three trumpets, and the announcement serves as a warning to the inhabitants of the earth.

An eagle pronounces the woe (“angel” in NKJV is based on inferior manuscripts). This is culturally significant in several ways. First, the “eagle of God” (aetos dios) is associated with Zeus (Jupiter) and it was a sign of power and immortality. It was often thought the messenger to/for the gods as the eagle could soar above storm clouds and fly into the presence of the gods.  Second, the eagle was a symbol of Roman power. Every Roman egion had a standard headed by an eagle (aquila). Consequently, this eagle that comes from the one who sits on the throne contrasts with the eagle of Roman power and religion.

The woe, however, is not for everyone. As we will see, the events associated with the fifth and sixth trumpets will not harm those who belong to God (the sealed 144,000). The “those who dwell on the earth,” then, are distinguished from those who are sealed with God’s name. This is the Apocalypse’s language for those who follow the beast rather than God (Revelation 13:8; 17:8). The contrast is between those who “dwell in heaven” (those who belong to God; cf. Revelation 12:12; 13:6) and who “dwell on the earth.” In other words, this is technical language for those whose citizenship is upon the earth rather than in heaven. They are part of the socio-political, anti-Christian powers (cf. Revelation 6:10; 11:10). They look to the powers rather than to one who sits on the throne in heaven for their guidance and life. This is the essence of idolatry.

The Fifth Trumpet

As in Revelation 8:10, a star falls from heaven in response to a trumpet blast, but in Revelation 9:1 this star is personified as one who is given the key to the Abyss. Some identify this star with Satan who fell from heaven. The problem, however, is that what is released from the Abyss opposes the reign of Satan in the world. The locusts attack the inhabitants of the earth who serve Satan’s beasts. It seems better to think of this “star” as an angelic messenger who does God’s work by releasing the locusts. God will use evil (demonic?) to afflict evil (empire).

What is the Abyss or “bottomless pit”? It is clearly a place of evil (Revelation 11:7; 17:8); a kind of prison for evil forces. We might compare it cosmically to “black holes,” though the symbolic language does not intend to identify this as a specific place in the cosmos. Rather, it is apocalyptic language for anti-creation and chaos. The “black hole” of God’s good creation are the forces of darkness, chaos, and destruction. These arise from the deep recesses of both human hearts and the cosmic chaos (good creation arose out of the “waters” of chaos).This anti-creation motif is present in the darkening of the sun.

The scoripion-tailed locusts were given power (divine permission) to torture rather than kill the inhabitants of the earth for torture.  The earth itself, devastated in the first four trumpets, is unharmed by the locusts. This reversal of expectation (we expect locusts to harm the grass, plants and trees) emphasizes the human devestation that the locusts will infllict. They will increase the pain of life for humanity. The inhabitants of the earth will prefer death over life because of their sting. Life will become unbearable. THe plague of locusts, of course, reminds of the similar plague upon Egypt though apocalyptic language is note used in Exodus as it is here (Joel 2 is also serves as a backdrop).

The detailed description of the locusts is the most thorough in the Apocalypse. They are large horse-like creatures with human heads but lion-like teeth. The are armoured and their wings sound like a chariot assault. Their weapon is their sting which does not kill but inflicts unimaginable pain.  But it only lasts five months–a limited amount of time and probably defined by the natural life cyle of locusts. The leader of this horde is Abaddon (Hebrew) or Apollyon (Greek) and both names mean “Destroyer.” This is neither a Roman Emperor nor Satan since the object of destruction is the empire and the inhabitants of the earth. Rather, this is more reminiscient of the “angel of death” (as in 2 Baruch 21:23) who rules God’s realm of the dead (cf. Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 65). Abaddon was a name for the place of the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Job 31:22; Psalm 88:11; Proverbs 27:20).

These are not modern attack helicopters but an apocalyptic image for a series (five months) of terrifying experiences. The nature of the experience is undefined. It does not have to be defined–it is a nightmare. It is life in a collapsing empire where the security and prosperity of the empire is disappearing. Whatever forces engender that collaspe seem like a plague of locusts. It is a picture of destruction.

The Sixth Trumpet

The sixth trumpet is the second woe announced by the eagle. This trumpet announces the massing of a huge army on the borders of the empire. This is a nightmare that every nation fears, especially when the assembled warriors more than tripled the population of the Empire itself. While the Roman Empire may have been between 50-60 million, the army gathered at the Eurphrates is 220 million. A 220 million man army on the frontier of the Empire dwarfs the size of the Roman legionaries (possibly around 150,000).

This army gathers at the command of God. The voice “from the four horns of the golden altar before God” has divine sanction if it is not God’s own voice.  This voice gives the order to release the four angels who manage the grand army of the Euphrates. That the angels were “bound” may indicate that they are demonic, but this may only refer to how they had been previously limited in their use of the army. They had waited and prepared for this moment. It is an angelic action at the command of God. The army moves against the empire; it moves against the powers or the forces of Satan and evil.

It is actually a mounted calvary–220 million strong. But it is not ordinary calvary. The horse’s heads were like lions’ heads, their tails like the heads of sakes, and they breathed smoke, fire and sulfur. Their breath alone killed one-third of humanity.

For readers within the Roman empire the image of a mounted calvary at the Eurphrate conjures up the terror of a Parthian army which was Rome’s greatest enemy. Rome never defeated the Parthians except to a stalemate on their eastern border. Parthia was an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to what is now eastern Iran. The threat of an invading army from a competing empire has always generated fear whether it is the Mongols in Russia, or the Turks in Europe, or Cold War fears not many years ago. The threat is a constant one in human history.

The apocalyptic image, which includes an exaggerated armed mass of humanity, represents the fear of invasion and massive violence. The voice from the altar assures the seven churches of Asia that the Roman legions are not the real power in the world, and that same voice assures us that no earthly power–no empire–controls their own destiny. God holds the cards and when God plays out the hand, no empoire can stand.


On occasion, it appears, God releases chaos upon the earth for warning and judgment. God is sovereign over the chaos. God permits and even empowers it to disrupt the peace of the empire.

Why does God churn the waters? Revelation 9:20-21 provide one reason. It is the same reason present in many of the prophets of Israel (cf. Amos 4). God releases choas in order to warn humanity about coming judgment. Their choices and lives have moral significance–a reckoning will come. Divinely permitted chaos reminds humanity that God is paying attention to their works and lives. God uses chaos to prompt repentance but it is often ineffective because human hearts are so committed and bound to their own black holes.

Just as the drama pauses again for another interlude, John editorializes on the sins that provide the rationale for divine judgment. He identifies two broad categories: (1) human allegiance to idolatry (“works of their hands”) and (2) human selfishness.

Idolatry is misplaced allegiance. It substitutes something else in the place of God. It worships demons rather than God. Idolatry identifies the source of life and peace with something other than the Creator God. John equates t