The Promise to Abraham

June 24, 2019

Whereas the empire of Babel determined to make its own name great, God decided to make Abraham’s name great.

This contrast illustrates the two paths humanity might pursue. Babel chose ambition, pride, and self-actualization, but humanity’s authentic path is found in God’s promise and gracious work. Abraham heard God’s call, believed God, and trusted God’s leading.

When God called Abraham to leave his home country in Mesopotamia and led him into an unknown land, God initiated a new story to redeem humanity’s tumble into imperial violence and idolatry. God called Abraham to inaugurate a new humanity in a new land. Rather than giving up the goal of communion with human beings, God renewed the mission to effect that goal. God chose Abraham; God chose redemption rather than annihilation.

But how will God do this through Abraham? While there are different ways to parse out God’s promise to Abraham, there are three essential components.

First, God will multiply the descendants of Abraham so that they will be as innumerable as the sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky. Second, God will give the descendants of Abraham a land to inhabit where God will dwell with them. Third, God will bless all the peoples of the earth through the descendants of Abraham.

When God called Abraham, this mission was not exclusively for Abraham or his children. It was for the sake of the nations as well. Abraham is blessed so that he, through his descendants, might bless all peoples. God was never simply concerned about Abraham; rather, God chose Abraham for the sake of the nations. Embedded in the Abrahamic promise is a mission with both universal and cosmic purpose.

As we rehearse this promise, we see a new act of divine creation. What God promises Abraham is present at the beginning in creation. There God blessed humanity that it might be fruitful and multiply. There God gave humanity land not only for their own habitation but also as a divine dwelling place. There God intended to fill the earth and include all humanity. The Abrahamic promise is the continuation of God’s purpose in creation. 

The Abrahamic promise seeks to redeem what had previously degenerated into evil and violence. Ultimately, the promise will bless the nations through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, prepare a new heaven and new earth as a home for the righteous, and include all nations and peoples within the redeemed community. The Abrahamic promise finds its fulfillment in the work of Jesus the Jewish Messiah.

The Abrahamic promise is, well, a promise. It has no conditions; it is God’s commitment to humanity through Abraham. God will accomplish what God had always intended to achieve, that is, the communion of God and humanity through life together upon the earth.

God promised Abraham gifts, Abraham believed God, and God remained faithful to those promises. God’s faithfulness is the rest of the story.

Humanity Degenerated: Creating an Alternative Story

June 20, 2019

It seems God is a realist when it comes to humanity. The power of sin is deeply entrenched in human hearts. Even when God rebooted the creation through a flood, it did not cure the human heart of its ancestral sin. God knew violence would reappear because of sin’s strong grip. God, therefore, issued a warning: whoever sheds blood, their blood is at risk as well. Jesus offered a similar caution: whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword. Violence is a dead-end. No one wins.

But violence continued in many forms. Ham raped his father Noah. Civilizations rose and fell, and empires emerged. Babel is one of those ancient empire stories. The people decided to build a monumental city with a tower reaching to the heavens in order to establish their reputation.

The tower is no military lookout. It is a Ziggurat.  Many still exist in modern Iraq. They began to appear no earlier than the fourth millennium before Christ and were continuously built into the first millennium before Christ. The great city of Babylon, Babel’s namesake, featured a massive Ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk.

These structures were religious sanctuaries. They were temples for the gods where earth touched the heavens. The problem with the Tower of Babel is neither its technology nor the unity of its people. Rather, they erected a new sanctuary for the gods, gathered themselves around that sanctuary, and divested themselves of the divine mission to fill the earth. They replaced Eden with a Ziggurat. Babel stays put, builds an empire, and stokes its own ego. They committed idolatry, and God, therefore, ended their cohesive civilization.

Humanity hit rock bottom. They reversed the divine mission to serve their own interests. Whereas God’s words were “let us make humanity in our own image,” Babel said, “let us make a name for ourselves.” Whereas God’s mission was to fill the earth, Babel wanted to fill the heavens with its own presence. Humanity moved from violence to overt idolatry, from destroying fellow-imagers with the sword to substituting themselves for God. They progressed in their depravity. Sin did its work, and humanity tumbled further east of Eden until it hit its nadir.

We all live east of Eden. Death reigns over us, and sin lurks in our hearts. Violence continuously erupts, empires still rule the earth, and idolatry is pervasive. In some sense we are still tumbling as violence and idolatry are perpetually invigorated by the power of sin in our lives. We stumbled out of the Eden and tumbled from anger to violence, and then from violence to idolatry. We find ourselves mired in the muck of our own moral chaos despite God’s persistent presence, coaxing, and mercy.

Due to God’s mercy, however, hope is not lost. God’s mission is still in play, and we create art and literature as well as new technologies, build cities, marry, bear children, domesticate animals, grow crops, and spread across the globe. God’s grace still empowers us with gifts and tools even though sin often distorts them.

The mercy of God persists, and the story is not yet finished. God’s mission has not reached its goal. By God’s grace, the creation will realize its full potential, humanity will flourish, and the glory of God will fill the earth. That is the rest of the story, and it has only just begun.

Humanity Tumbled: Violence Entered the World

June 17, 2019

East of Eden death lies ahead for everyone in Genesis except Enoch. It seems we’ve already hit rock bottom with nowhere to go but into the grave.

Death isn’t good, but it isn’t the whole story. There is more to this picture. Things can get worse. Some things are worse than death.

Sin is worse than death. This word was not used to describe what happened in Eden. The word sin first appears when God confronts Cain about his anger.

Cain is angry with God and envious of his brother because God did not accept his offering from the produce of his crops though he did accept Abel’s offering from the flock. We don’t know for certain why God didn’t accept it. Whatever the reason, Cain’s anger puts him at risk. “Sin,” God says, “is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Sin, like a predator, stalks our hearts. It is an indwelling alien power. Sin wants to take hold of us, enslave us, and render us powerless. Sin wants to dominate, even devour, us. We all sense this; it is why we sometimes do things we don’t want to do and perhaps never thought we would actually do.

When sin overpowers, we lose sight of God’s purposes. We miss the mark. We fail to image or represent God in the creation. Sin turns our purpose and vocation toward something or someone other than God.

Sin makes things worse. Cain moved from anger to violence because sin mastered him. When anger is conceived, it gives birth to violence. Jesus understood this. Whoever is angry with another, he said, has already committed murder. Sin erupted in violence when Cain’s angry heart lashed out at Abel, whose name means futility or nothingness. Cain made his brother’s name come to life when he killed him. In the wake of Abel’s murder, frustration and futility hovered over life east of Eden.

Violence breeds violence. Cain feared this. He thought others might take matters into their own hands and kill him. His fear recognizes the inner dynamic of violence. Fueled by anger and generating fear, violence has no stopping point.

Yet, hope is always present within God’s good creation though it sometimes dims beyond recognition. We heard hope when Eve gave birth to Cain and gave him a name which expressed vitality and life. She blessed God with her confession, “I have created a man with the help of the Lord.”

Adam and Eve were not bound over to evil by their exclusion from Eden. By the grace of God, they bore children, raised crops, herded flocks, and worshipped the Lord. God did not remove grace from the creation. The Lord did not execute Cain but protected him; the Lord showed mercy. God’s blessing continued, even in Cain whose marriage produced children, and Cain built a city. Though living east of Eden, God’s purposes for the world were still at work, and humanity not only multiplied but also created music, smelted metals, and built cities. Cain’s violence did not end the story any more than Adam and Eve’s immature choice did. The story continued, and God continued to pursue them.

Humanity Tumbled: A Disordered World

June 13, 2019

When God began to create, God took what was unordered and ordered it to make a good, habitable space. God filled it with life, blessed it for growth and development, and gave humanity a choice.

This choice is highlighted by the presence of the snake in the garden. The snake is clever but is also a symbol of chaos in the ancient world. This crafty snake is the presence of chaos in the garden.

But why does God permit chaos in the garden? Perhaps it highlights freedom. The man and woman may choose, and chaos gives them space to choose. The snake probes them and offers what they want. They want to be like God. Not because they are rebels but because their destiny is to be like God.  God created them to become divine-like. God wants them to be able to discern between good and evil because this is part of what it means to be like God.

The snake, however, asks them to distrust God and take a shortcut to maturity. Like all children, they want to grow up fast. They grasp for wisdom as the snake outwits and deceives them. In their immaturity, they choose folly, and consequently, they fail to grow up. They circumvent the process that makes authentic wisdom and human flourishing possible. They do not maliciously rebel but as immature children they fail to trust their parent, as all children have done since.

When they eat what was forbidden, they fall upward. They gain knowledge but they aren’t ready for it. It burdens them with toxic shame, and they realize they are naked. Their distrust generates fear and mutual accusation. They gain knowledge but at a cost.

Consequences follow.  Shortcuts sometimes have dire outcomes, and any shortcut to maturity is strewn with potholes and obstacles. Ill-equipped for knowledge, their choice introduces anxiety, brokenness, and fear.

While harmony once existed within Eden, now hostility emerged between the serpent and the woman. While childbearing was originally free of anxiety, now the woman will bear children with great fear. While the original couple once knew harmony in their marriage, now they will experience conflict. While in the garden the man enjoyed a bountiful provision, now he will anxiously struggle with the ground to produce food.  While in Eden the man and woman were nourished by the tree of life, now they will experience death.

These transitions are not so much punishments but what follows from foolish decisions. Folly leads to self-destruction and death. The original couple did not trust God’s timetable for maturity and rushed headlong into knowledge for which they were unprepared. As a result, they created a different world for themselves than the one God provided in Eden. This brought disorder and moral chaos into God’s good, ordered creation. These consequences are fully realized when they are exiled from the garden. Due to their folly, life was no longer innocent. But God responded with honesty and grace. God described the consequences and then graced them with clothing, preserved their lives east of Eden, and blessed them with children. They now became Adam and Eve as the man named Eve as the mother of all living. This is no angry God but a loving parent who practices tough love with children who must learn how to live the hard way. Adam and Eve must now attend the school of hard knocks east of Eden.

Extending the Kingdom Theology of Lipscomb and Harding

June 12, 2019

2019 Christian Scholars Conference Presentation, Lubbock, Texas

Part of my academic work has sought to identify and characterize the theological dynamic that shaped students at the Nashville Bible School (now known as Lipscomb University) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This dynamic has its roots in Barton W. Stone and Tolbert Fanning prior to the Civil War, and David Lipscomb and James A. Harding subsequent to the war. The latter two co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. I have labeled this the “Nashville Bible School Tradition” or the “Tennessee Tradition” in contrast to traditions which arose in Texas (represented by Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation) and Indiana (represented by Daniel Sommer and the Octographic Review). These were competing ideologies engaged in a struggle for the soul of Churches of Christ who emerged as a distinct sect at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 2006, Bobby Valentine and I published a book entitled Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding. We accentuated the positive in that book because we wanted to propose a way forward for Churches of Christ and highlight some positive dimensions of the Nashville Bible School Tradition. We did not critique the aspects of their legacy that hindered that way forward, and some of those hinderances are still present among Churches of Christ.  In this paper, I will briefly summarize what lies at the heart of the positive agenda in their theology, and then I will identify two critical dimensions that hinder its witness.

Central Convictions

“The chief end” of divine rule, according to Lipscomb, “is to reestablish the authority of God on earth as the rightful ruler of the world, to so bring the world back into harmonious relations with the universe that the will of God shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

We might characterize this Tennessee theology as fundamentally an eschatological struggle for the full reign of God in the creation. In other words, we are, as Harding put it, “foreigners” living in our own home.[2] We are foreigners because we do not belong to the evil powers that presently reign over the creation, but the creation is still our home (both now and eschatologically), and it is worth the struggle to fill it with the glory of God. This is, on the one hand, a high view of creation—God created something good, will redeem it from evil, and renew its future. At the same time, this process of redemption and renewal is apocalyptic. This means the future is, in some sense, already present and in process but its fullness involves a future divine act of redemption. This apocalyptic vision is a form of inaugurated eschatology, which calls us to live in the present as if the kingdom of God has fully arrived in anticipation of that fullness. The looming shadows of the reign of God filled the Nashville Bible School with a powerful ethical vision. Biblical faith, according to Lipscomb and Harding, is lived as if the future is already present, as if the heavenly city has already been planted on the earth. And the present church on the earth is that heavenly city.

For Lipscomb and Harding this meant that there was an inherent conflict between the kingdom of God and the powers that currently rule the earth. According to Lipscomb, “the two are essentially antagonistic.”[3] Each has their role, but “they must forever remain distinct.”[4] They are mutually exclusive because the origins and spirit of each are radically different. The two cities, a divine polis and a human polis, are in perpetual conflict. “Who shall govern the world?” was the question that formed their ministry, ethics, and eschatology.[5]

This conflict is not between heaven and earth per se but between two kingdoms on the earth that seek sovereignty over the earth and the hearts of its peoples. Both kingdoms are earthy, that is, they exist upon the earth in order to rule the earth. The contrast lies in their origins, missions, weapons, spirits, and destinies.[6] History is the story of the conflict between these two kingdoms, these two cities. They serve different masters, imbibe different spirits, use different weapons, and one must come to an end for the other to fill the earth.

Consequently, the question “who governs” is really a question about allegiance or worship. “The Christian,” according to Lipscomb, “owes no allegiance” to the civil powers but only “to God.”[7] Just as Jesus responded to Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of this world, so the Christian must respond: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:10). The question “who shall govern the world” is more fundamentally the question “whom shall we worship?”

R. C. Bell, a student at the Nashville Bible School in the 1890s and a colleague of Harding at Potter Bible School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, taught in higher education among Churches of Christ for close to fifty years. In his 1951 autobiographical article he observed that Churches of Christ had lost this apocalyptic trajectory (though he did not call it that). He believed the church needed a strong infusion of that transformative perspective in order “to save [it] from changing divine dynamics to human mechanics.”[8] Bell not only saw the church increasingly align itself with patriotic nationalism and the cultural patterns of the nation, he also observed how the church now lived out its calling through the mechanical implementation of prescribed patterns within the New Testament. Faith was no longer a dynamic life empowered by the Spirit that envisioned the kingdom of God but conformity to an ecclesial blueprint. The loss of pacifism, kenotic service, kindness and gentleness as well as the opposition to evil cultural forms was due to the loss of Lipscomb and Harding’s apocalyptic vision.

Two Hindrances

While Bell saw the loss of this apocalyptic dynamic in his own day, and there was a time when it was vibrant and regularly articulated, there is also a sense in which it was hindered by other convictions that shaped the Nashville Bible School and Churches of Christ as a whole. If we are to recover this apocalyptic vision, something for which I advocate, we must also seek a corrective to what hindered it in the past.

Before I address the two hindrances I have in mind, I want to provide a specific context in which these hindrances emerged and essentially subverted the kingdom agenda. I have in mind, particularly, the problem of racial reconciliation. At one level, Lipscomb saw the mission clearly.  For example, he wrote:

The true mission of the Christian religion is to raise [humanity] above all these narrow, selfish, sectionalizing influences—to break down these middle walls of separation and strife erected by human selfishness, human ambition, and human wickedness, and to bind all the dissevered, broken, discordant and belligerent factions and fragments of Adam’s fallen and sinning family, irrespective of race, language or color, into one peaceable, fraternal and harmonious body in Christ.[9]

When it came to the church, Lipscomb had a strong, mostly consistent, voice and loudly opposed the segregation of congregations along racial lines.

At another level, Lipscomb provided little, if any, social witness. The pages of the Gospel Advocate rarely (almost never) discuss racial injustice as a social question, and only occasionally refer to the frequent lynchings in the South.[10] Lipscomb thought that if the church would become what God intended as a witness to the kingdom of God, then social practices would gradually reform society through the church’s moral leavening. He believed over time a healthy “religious spirit and practice” would “gradually work out the social duties and relations.”[11] As Christians live out their witness and “cultivate kindly and Christian relations,” he believed “the social conditions will adjust themselves.”[12]

What, however, generates this lack of social witness? And, particularly, why is Lipscomb so socially vocal about war and political relations but is virtually silent about social relations, especially on racial questions? I suggest there are at least two dimensions to this, though most certainly others could be named as well.

First, Lipscomb and Harding, as well as Churches of Christ as a whole, were too ecclesiocentric and anti-institutional. Their ecclesial vision excluded participation in or cooperation with any non-ecclesial institution. Consequently, churches did not partner with social movements or political agendas, even where Lipscomb’s ethics fully supported the agenda, including the Temperance Movement as well as movements toward racial equality. In other words, Lipscomb’s other-worldliness and his conflict with the world excluded any cooperative partnership, including those he thought were doing good work in the social arena. Lipscomb had little sense of how the relative good in which government participates or the good that social institutions promote might contribute to the fullness of the kingdom of God.  His radical separation from all institutions, whether governmental or otherwise, isolated the church from any sort of participation in any kind of Civil Rights Movement.

Second, the historic pneumatology of Churches of Christ has limited our vision for God’s work in the world. While Harding, and to some degree Lipscomb, embraced a robust theology of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer, they did not appreciate how the presence of the Spirit empowered the mission of church for corporate action within the world. For example, though Harding helpfully articulated a vision of the Spirit’s work in guiding, leading, and empowering believers in their daily life, he did not see how the Spirit also called the church as a corporate body into the mission of Jesus to liberate the oppressed and speak for the powerless. Their ecclesiology has little social vision, and this is due, in part, to their limited pneumatology.

For example, the work of the Spirit, according to John 16, is to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment,” which are social realities as well as personal ones. However, both Lipscomb and Harding, along with the vast majority of Churches of Christ, limited this empowerment to the apostles. The Spirit gave these truths to the apostles, and the apostles passed them to the church, and thus the church understands its relation to, for example, social justice through the teachings of the apostles or, as we have it now, the New Testament. The New Testament, then, prescribed the limits of social action, which, in their view, was ecclesiocentric and non-institutional.

These ecclesiological and pneumatological hindrances empowered Lipscomb to sincerely, though naively, affirm: “The Christian religion did not break up social or political relations. It laid down the principles of religious duty, and left them to gradually conform the social and political relations to the principles of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[13]

I think we need to enlarge Lipscomb’s vision without subverting his basic theological insight. We do not expect the kingdoms of this world to serve their peoples as the kingdom of our Lord, but we do hope that the kingdom of our Lord will subvert the evils of these worldly kingdoms both now and in the future.

[1] David Lipscomb, “Difficulties in Religion” in Salvation from Sin, by J. W. Shepherd, ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913) 341.

[2] Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Christian Leader and the Way 5 (15 October 1903) 931.

[3] Lipscomb, “Questions for the Editor,” Gospel Advocate 10.2 (January 14, 1869) 30.

[4] Lipscomb, “Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 6,” Gospel Advocate 8.10 (March 6, 1866) 146.

[5] Lipscomb, “The Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 5,” GA 8.9 (February 27, 1866) 129.

[6] This is the burden of David Lipscomb, On Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation To It (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Co., 1913).

[7] Lipscomb, “Reply to Bro. Lipscomb’s Long Article on Politics and Voting,” Gospel Advocate 18.32 (August 17, 1876) 799.

[8] R. C. Bell, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” Firm Foundation 68 (6 November 1951), 6.

[9] Lipscomb, “The Advocate and Sectionalism,” Gospel Advocate 8.18 (May 1, 1866) 275 (emphasis added).

[10] This is one of a few examples.  David Lipscomb, “General News,” Gospel Advocate 34.52 (December 29, 1892) 828: “Another stone was toppled from the wall of good order, Dec. 19, by the lynching of a negro at Guthrie, Ky., charged with attempting to assault a woman in that vicinity.”

[11] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.31 (August 1, 1907) 489 (emphasis mine).

[12] Lipscomb, “Are the Negroes Neglected?” Gospel Advocate 68.24 (June 14, 1906) 377 (emphasis mine).

[13] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.27 (July 4, 1907) 425 (emphasis mine).

Keith Stanglin’s Letter and the Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: Some Reflections

June 11, 2019

Keith D. Stanglin, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). 274 pages.

Presentation at the 2019 Christian Scholars Conference in Lubbock, Texas.

I welcome this book on several levels.

For me, and for others who have worked vocationally in historical theology, it is a welcome reacquaintance with past figures. I found myself renewing friendships with Gregory of Nyssa, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Calvin of Geneva, and even the Dutch Remonstrants whose influence was much greater than their numbers.

In addition, the purpose of this nostalgic journey is the rehabilitation of the spiritual sense of Scripture or theological hermeneutics. Stanglin, following Paul, calls it the “letter” and the “spirit,” or the literal and spiritual, senses of Scripture. The spiritual sense seeks theological understanding beyond, though not irrespective of, the literal sense, especially where the literal sense is equated with the authorial intent of the human writer.

Both of these concerns are germane to my own work, and I noted a kinship between Keith’s interest and my teaching over the past thirty-seven years.  This interest commits Stanglin to an exercise in “retrieval exegesis” (211) or “retrieval theology” (11). By this, he intends to “provide critical understanding of and appreciation for both premodern and modern exegesis” in search of “a balanced and fruitful interaction between the letter and the spirit” (11).

I applaud this goal, and in pursuing it, Stanglin highlights the spiritual while not vacating the literal sense. In other words, one agenda of the book is to sanction theological interpretation and propose it as a healing balm for the woes of the splintered and chaotic practice of modern historical-critical exegesis.

My old friends appear one after another in Stanglin’s analysis. Such a survey is, of course, selective and Keith acknowledges this. I have no significant misgiving about his choices. Irenaeus, Origen, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Spinoza, and Lessing are obvious and important, even necessary, choices. I found three particularly significant because they intersect with my own interests.

First, Irenaeus is foundational to Stanglin’s reading of the patristic tradition. A central conviction, which lies at the heart of a theological hermeneutic, is present in the bishop. Keith characterizes it in this way: “the Scriptures display a fundamental unity that allows this kind of typological and intertextual play within the bounds of this grand story of redemption” (31). Irenaeus knew that everyone reads the text against the background of a hypothesis, which norms what the text can mean or gives boundaries to the meaning of a text. Received through catechism, baptism, and liturgy, the church wears the Regula Fidei as a set of glasses through which Scripture is read, and with this lens even the illiterate are able to discern between the illegitimacy of the Gnostic hypothesis and the truth of the received narrative (34). Irenaeus, then, establishes two key principles that are part of Stanglin’s ultimate conclusion about theological hermeneutics: analogia scripturae and analogia fidei (206, 222-3).

Second, though seemingly a minor character in the narrative (three pages in the text, 141-144), Stanglin’s attention to William Perkins—arguably the primary influence on seventeenth century English Puritans—is important for several reasons. On the one hand, Perkins represents Reformed scholasticism, and, on the other hand, anticipates a modern reading of Scripture through a rational lens, though that rationality serves a different purpose than critical exegesis.  As Keith notes, Perkins believed there was only one sense of Scripture, the literal one, but he subsumed other traditional senses under that rubric. For Perkins, the literal sense, with his attendant use of typology and allegory, served the theological agenda of Scripture, that is, to deduce a system of theology. Perkins practiced a theological hermeneutic that accentuated the unity of Scripture through an eminently rational lens. Assuming a theological system as part of the text, Perkins employed positivistic distinctions between generic and specific, between explicit and implicit teachings of Scripture in order to deduce that system. Later, mid-20th century leaders among Churches of Christ, as heirs of the Puritan Reformed tradition, would do the same with generic and specific, with explicit and implicit distinctions, though they sought an ecclesial pattern more than a systematic theology. In this way, Perkins is like a hinge upon which the church swings from premodern to modern exegesis but without being fully committed to either.

Third, I cannot fail to comment on Alexander Campbell, who takes up four pages in Stanglin’s narrative (169-172).  I think Keith is fundamentally correct. Campbell embraced nuda scriptura, which seems to undermine the Irenaean function of the Regula Fidei. Campbell does not have a regulated reading in the sense of a Rule of Faith external to the text of Scripture, but he does read Scripture with a hermeneutic regulated by an inductive sense of God’s narrative which Campbell thought was helpfully summarized in the Apostles Creed. For Campbell, the rule of faith is the internal dynamic of the narrative itself. This inscripturated narrative functions as a canon within the canon and renders the Rule of Faith as an external summary unnecessary, though it might be helpful as a rehearsal of facts.  In this sense, we might say, he read Scripture through his own inductively inferred rule of faith.

Also, Scripture, according to Campbell, is subject to “all the rules of interpretation which we apply to other books” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 111). He follows Moses Stuart on this point, who—more than any other writer—shaped Campbell’s historical-grammatical consciousness. Campbell published Stuart’s article entitled, “Are the same principles of interpretation to be applied to the Scriptures as to other Books?” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 64.) It was a rhetorical question. For Campbell this is rooted in the nature of language itself, and if one wants to understand the “doctrine of the New Testament,” one must understand the “proper meaning of words, whether literal, allegorical, typical, or parabolical.” In other words, as Campbell says, “The Bible means what it says.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 490.) And, we might add, only what it says. This hermeneutical commitment, along with his linguistic and hermeneutical optimism, grounded his pursuit of the restoration of the ancient order towards the goal of ecclesial unity.

While Scripture’s proper meaning is singular, it is sometimes “literal” and sometimes “figurative” (parabolic, allegorical, typological). Campbell is willing to name this “figurative” meaning as “spiritual,” but he fears the word carried the baggage of “Origen” where “every word” in the Bible had “a spiritual sense.” This gave the term “spiritual” a negative appearance (a “malem partem”) and thus it was “discarded even where it might have been tolerable.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 491.) Stanglin is correct. “Campbell takes the classic Protestant angle of folding the spiritual sense into the literal” (171). There is no “double sense” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 111), but every text has a particular sense, which may be literal or spiritual (figurative). “We object not,” Campbell wrote, “to the allegoric, parabolic, and typical sense; or, to express it in one word, the figurative sense. But we do not expect to find any other than the literal sense except where figures are used.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 491-2.).  In other words, every text of Scripture has only one meaning or sense (he quotes both Luther and the Westminster Divines in support). If the literal does not yield that single sense, we look to the figurative (which is the spiritual sense). We can only move to the spiritual sense when the literal is non-sensical, or where there is a specific indication that a figurative meaning is in view. In other words, we cannot read the Old Testament the way the apostles read it. In this way, Campbell represented the rise of modern exegesis and expected to find no legitimate meaning in text other than what is accessible by its plain words.

Stanglin grounds the legitimacy of theological hermeneutics in the historic practice of the church that has lived under the Rule of Faith (analogia fidei) for almost two thousand years, the unity of Scripture (analogia scripturae), and the primacy of the literal sense to which any spiritual sense is tied. Keith also rejects several significant modern presuppositions, including (1) the neutrality of reader and (2) the single sense of the text limited to the intent of the human author. I wondered, however, whether he also rejected the modern assumption of the passivity of the reader. I don’t think so, but I want to press the point a bit.

For example, Stanglin suggests the spiritual sense of Scripture is not merely an application of the text but “in some sense meant to be found in the text” (217) and, at the same time, it is an interpretation or “appropriation” (217). I presume this meaning is intended by the divine author and discerned by the human reader. The reader is not passive but is the means by which God opens up new meaning so that a kind of “this is that” appears “when ’that’ is something new and apparently far removed from the original ‘this’” (217).

Theological hermeneutics, then, is where ecclesially-formed, believing readers co-create meaning with the text (1) within liturgical life of the church, (2) in the confidence of the sacramental function of Scripture, and (3) the transformative presence of the Holy Spirit. Such readers, inhabited by the indwelling Spirit, listen to hear how “this is that” and see what is not explicitly there. It seems to me that Stanglin’s proposal could use more emphasis on these three points, particularly the hermeneutical role of the Spirit. Though these three points are present in one form or another, his proposal is more epistemological than sacramental or liturgical. Nevertheless, the seeds of a fuller sacramental and liturgical picture are present in his work.

By way of illustration, permit me to probe one of Keith’s examples. Might “bread” in the Lord’s Prayer refer to Eucharistic bread? Tertullian thought so (On Prayer, 6).[1] In fact, Tertullian preferred what he called “the spiritual understanding”—Jesus is the bread of life who “authoritatively ranked” his body “as bread” when he said, “This is my body.”

Keith asks, “Did Jesus or Matthew intend” eucharistic bread? “Does it matter?” (240). I appreciate the controls Keith suggests on theological interpretation. They give theological interpretation a wide berth, perhaps too wide for modern historians. But I don’t think too wide for ecclesial theologians.  

In terms of the Lord’s prayer, “bread” is literally present, and Eucharistic bread does not subvert or contradict the literal meaning.  Further, “bread” is an important theme in redemptive history, which often has a double sense. Manna, for example, is both physical and spiritual nourishment since Christ is the spiritual food Israel consumed in the wilderness, according to Paul. Eucharistic bread in the Lord’s Prayer is not only consistent with the Rule of Faith but, given the liturgical context of its practice, points us toward the Eucharistic bread.

If we read the Lord’s Prayer in this way as part of the liturgy of the church where it is recited just prior to the distribution of the bread and wine, we see spiritual interpretation doing its good work. It illustrates how the church legitimately co-creates meaning that is beyond the explicit statements in the text. It illustrates how Scripture is multivalent and capable of new meaning in new situations irrespective of the human author’s intent.

But is the spiritual meaning in the text? In one sense, yes, because it is situated within a grand story that gives such meaning to bread. And we might surmise that the divine author intended it as a meaning inherent in the text. But in another sense, it is not, but that is okay. The church—as a faithful reader—is called to co-create meaning with the text for the sake of the formation of the people of God into the image of God. This is Scripture’s sacramental function within the liturgical life of the church. Given God’s history with God’s people and given the confession of the Rule of Faith and its practice within the church, the text itself gives rise to meaning beyond the human author’s intent.  The church hears the word of God, understands its depth and profundity, and performs it liturgically and ethically.

Stanglin’s contribution identifies an overlapping harmony between modern and premodern interpretation though differences remain. There is a common ground between the methods where they might mutually enrich each other. The exploration of this common ground while recognizing how the differences entail quite distinct hermeneutical practices will be an ongoing task of the contemporary church.

[1] E. Evans, Tertullian’s Tract on Prayer (London: S.P.C.K., 1953) 11-13.

Theodrama #9: Two Trees–A Wisdom Story

June 10, 2019

Humanity, created out of the dust of the earth, is placed in the Garden to protect it and serve it, much like the priests of Israel protected and served the temple. This is another aspect of our human vocation: we are priests and priestesses. We lead the creation in the praise of God, and we serve God in God’s holy space and protect that space.

Within God’s cosmic temple, God created a place called Eden, and this holy sanctuary had a garden. But don’t imagine backyard tomatoes, but visualize something like the garden of Versailles, a royal garden with manicured trees, flowers, and water. Agriculture and horticulture are not the point. God planted this garden for communion, joy, and rest. It is the holy of holies of the cosmic temple, and the place where God walks with humanity.

In the heart of the garden are two trees:  the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One tree gives life, and the other, if eaten before its time, leads to death. These trees are symbols in Hebrew wisdom literature. The tree of life represents the wisdom to live long upon the earth. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents a maturity to live wisely in the world by discerning the difference between two paths, between good and evil, between life and death. Children, or the inexperienced, do not yet have this wisdom, and therefore they must not eat from it too quickly.

Eden is like a wisdom play. Adam and Eve are inexperienced, like children who do not know how to live wisely in the world. They lack maturity, knowledge, and discernment to make appropriate life-giving decisions, like what Proverbs calls the “simple.” What they need is wisdom. As children, learning to grow into wisdom, Adam and Eve are not yet prepared for knowledge. To download that knowledge without wisdom learned through life experience is like giving a ten year-old a nuclear weapon. It leads to disaster. God, therefore, forbids eating from the tree of knowledge. They are not yet mature enough for such knowledge.

The garden is a safe place but it has risks. One is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why is this tree in the garden at all? It represents both choice and the goal of maturity, that is, to be like God. Adam and Eve are free to choose; they can grow into the likeness of God by trusting, listening to, and walking with God, which ultimately leads to the knowledge of good and evil, or they can act foolishly by eating too soon, and that leads to death. The choice is theirs.

The story of Adam and Eve is our story. We all begin innocent, inexperienced, and immature. We grow by making choices, and we each, in some sense, have this freedom. These choices have real consequences.  When we listen to wisdom and trust God’s direction, there is life. When we listen to folly and distrust God’s wisdom, there is death.

This is the human condition. Life and death lie before us, and we must choose a path. When we build on the sand of folly, our lives will collapse. When we build on the rock of wisdom, our lives will flourish. Alas, we typically don’t know how to build well, and that is the next part of the story.

A Pentecost Sermon: Race, Slaves, and Women

June 9, 2019

Acts 2:17-18

Only seven weeks ago the future looked bleak. The one whom they thought was the Messiah was dead. The disciples of Jesus hid in fear, and their spirits were broken. They had lost all hope.

But that changed when God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus began to appear to his disciples on different occasions over a period of forty days. When he appeared to them, he ate with them, studied the Hebrew Scriptures with them, and taught them about the good news of the kingdom of God.

At the end of these forty days, Jesus told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which was the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who had listened to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God over those past forty days, recognized that the coming of the Spirit is also the coming of the kingdom of God. They knew God had promised to restore the kingdom, and the promise of the Spirit meant that God was about to inaugurate it.

Jesus did not say their expectation was wrong or misguided, but that they should not concern themselves about the timing of its coming. Jesus told them to wait, and God would send the Spirit in God’s own good time.

Then Jesus left. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. While we tend to think of this in spatial terms (as in “Jesus went up to heaven”), the primary point is not spatial but royal. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, was escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days by the angelic hosts and was given authority, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of God, and now ruled over a kingdom that would never end. He will reign until all the principalities and powers upon the earth are defeated, and the last enemy he will defeat is death itself.

But the disciples must wait. We must all wait for the final defeat of death. But the disciples, one hundred and twenty of them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus), waited in Jerusalem for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel though the gift of the Holy Spirit. They waited for the promised descent of the Spirit from the one who ascended to the throne.

They waited, and God waited…until Pentecost. God decided to restore the kingdom to Israel during the festival of Pentecost. This harvest festival celebrated God’s gracious provision. Pentecost actually begins on the second day of the Passover celebration, continues for seven weeks, and is celebrated in a climactic way on the 50th day of the festival, which is the eighth first day of the week since the beginning of the Feast of Weeks (or the Pentecost Festival). In Acts 2, Pentecost happened on the last day of the Festival, the first day of the week.

On Pentecost, God, through the enthroned Messiah, poured out the Spirit upon these disciples. They reaped the harvest of the resurrection and enthronement of the Messiah. Though Roman power and Jewish authorities, with the consent of a mob at Passover, killed the Messiah, God had raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father. In this way, God restored Israel through the reign of Jesus whom God declared both “Messiah and Lord.” God had restored the Davidic dynasty, a son of David now ruled in Israel once again. And the harvest of this new reign of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Israel had hoped for this moment for centuries. The prophet Joel, centuries earlier, wrote a word of hope in the midst of Israel’s lament. Their land had experienced a horrific destruction. So much so that even the land lamented. And Joel injected a word of hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel.  Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28),

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,

            your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

                        your old men shall dream dreams,

                                    your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves,

                        in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And Peter, on the day of Pentecost after the Spirit had descended on the disciples, announced, “This is that!”

The significance of this moment is difficult to overestimate. Whatever we say about it is less than what it fully means. It is a surprising work of God that explodes all expectations, anticipations, and limitations. What Joel envisions is the veritable shaking of the cosmos to its core; it is as if the universe has reversed its course. The light of the sun has been darkened, and the light of the mood has become blood red. Heaven and earth are on fire! What has ignited the cosmos?

At Pentecost, God poured the Holy Spirit upon Israel!

But what, exactly, does that mean in the light of Joel’s words. This Pentecostal moment is too significant, too important, and too meaningful to encapsulate in a single, brief homily. For this moment, I want to simply focus on Joel’s words, which Peter quoted and said, “This is that!”

But before we focus on Joel, an important piece of Israel’s history needs attention as part of the context of Peter’s pronouncement.

During Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Canaan, God gave Moses some help. God took “some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25). Surprisingly, some thought this was a threat to Moses, and they objected; even Joshua wanted Moses to stop them from prophesying. How did Moses respond? He anticipated Joel’s words: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

Now, that day had come. At Pentecost, God pours the Spirit upon Israel, all of Israel. On that day, everyone who committed to Jesus as Lord, repented of their sins, and was immersed in water for the forgiveness of their sins received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). God gives the Spirit to everyone in Israel who follows the Messiah.

But Joel’s words say more than this. Not only does Peter declare that all Israel now receives God’s Spirit, he also—even without his own full understanding—announces the seismic change that has begun on this day.

God now includes “all flesh” within the kingdom of God. Though Peter could not see this very clearly in the beginning (as we learn from his experience at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10-11), Joel envisioned a moment when God would pour out the Spirit on “all flesh,” which includes the Gentiles. It includes all nations, all races. In fact, this is part of the purpose of Israel itself. The promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all nations, and that promise is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Paul, for example, wrote in Galatians 3:14 that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” came “to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All flesh includes all nations, all ethnicities, all colors, and all cultures. That God pours out the Spirit on all flesh means that God includes all, no matter what their race or nationality. The kingdom of God includes all languages, peoples, and nations.

This was difficult for Peter to see, and it is still difficult for us to see. Hundreds of years of racism in the church testify that it has been difficult for the church. There was a time when some believed black people had no human soul and the native Americans were but savages. There was a time, during the Jim Crow era, that black Christians were told to worship in separate congregation, and I myself have seen Christians walk out of an assembly the first time an African American lead singing. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it has taken over 1900 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of racism. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The Gentiles are now included! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

God also makes no distinction between slave and free in the pouring out of the Spirit. Slavery, from the beginnings of human culture, was part of human economic and governmental systems. The social fabric of both the Ancient Near East and the Roman world was a top-down system with emperors and kings sitting at the top and slaves at the bottom. Slavery was not something the church could abolish in the first century; it was at the heart of the imperial system and the church was powerless to rid the empire of slavery.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of slavery. Even slaves will receive the Spirit of God, and they will be empowered to minister in the power of the Spirit just as any free person would be. In this principle, we see how the presence of the Spirit subverts cultural norms and rails against the empire. Slaves are people, too, and because they are Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt human beings, the Spirit sows the seed of slavery’s destruction. The Spirit will teach us that slavery is a great evil, and no human being may steal another human being, own another human being, or exploit another’s labor for their own selfish interests. When God poured out the Spirit on slaves, it spelled the end of slavery even though it only ended in this country a little over 150 years ago and still exists in various forms throughout the world today, particularly in the sex slave industry. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1800 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of slavery. How could we have been so blind? Are not still blind to economic and social injustice, which are also forms of slavery?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The slaves are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

And there is a third group in Joel’s words. God makes no distinction between male and female in the pouring out of the Spirit. The oppression of women, so dominant in the Ancient Near East and the Roman world, was an accepted reality. We don’t have to look very far in the ancient world to see how men abused, used, and marginalized women. They had little to no power, and the only exception would be those whose husbands had wealth and power. Even in Judaism, women were outsiders. They could not be disciples of Rabbis, even though they could be disciples of Jesus. They were marginalized, but Jesus empowered them. They could not testify in court, but Jesus told the women at the tomb to testify to other disciples. The women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of the marginalization of women. Women are empowered by the Spirit. God gifts women with the Spirit, and by the Spirit women, like men, prophesy. They dream dreams and have visions. In other words, God communicates with women in the same way God communicates with men. There is no distinction here; there is no hierarchy here.

There were occasions when women prophesied in Israel’s Scripture. Miriam, for example, prophesied alongside of Moses and Aaron as one of the leaders of Israel (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). Indeed, she led all Israel in worship after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21, Miriam sang to them [where “them” is masculine]). But such women were few though not rare (we could add Deborah and Huldah, for example, and Anna in Luke 2).

But now women will prophesy and experience visions alongside of men; and just as all men are included in Joel’s prophecy, so are all women. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). In this we see, in principle, how the Spirit’s presence is a planted seed within oppressive human culture. God intends to liberate women from past oppression, exploitation, and limitation. Unfortunately, and to our shame, the church has participated in this evil. Did you know that many among churches of Christ used 1 Timothy 2:12 to oppose women’s suffrage, the right to vote? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used silence as a way of denying women any kind of public voice whether in the church or in society (including opposing their entrance into legal and medical careers)? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used some texts to silence women from praying even in the presence of their husbands? When God poured out the Spirit on women, it spelled the end of their marginalization even though women only gained the right to vote in his country a hundred years ago. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1900 years for Christian people to recognize how their view of women limited their opportunities and careers as well as their voice in the church. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” Women are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

Peter says, “This is that!” All races, slaves, and women will prophesy. Surprise! Prophesying is not a minor gift.

Lest some minimize the gift of prophecy or think it a subjective and private matter, let us remember that this gift is ranked above evangelists, teachers, and elders in Ephesians 4:11, and Paul explicitly says it is first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers in terms of the importance and significance of their gifts within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28). Prophets speak the word of God in ways that transcend evangelists, teachers, and elders. God gifts prophets with encouraging words, and God gifts all races, slaves, and women as prophets.

Over the centuries, the church has had to learn and tease out the meaning of Pentecost. We have had to learn that God includes all races and nations, though many Christians throughout history have oppressed and subjugated various nations and races. We have had to learn that God intends to free the slaves, though many Christians throughout history have owned slaves, traded in the buying and selling of slaves, and defended slavery as a moral good. We have had to learn that God intends to empower women to prophesy, though many Christians throughout history have silenced that gift in their assemblies so that women have had no voice and could share no word from God.

It is time, it seems to me, to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all nations and races. God has poured the Spirit upon all flesh. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all believers and free all slaves and liberate people from every form of slavery. God has poured the Spirit upon the enslaved as well as the free. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of women in the church. God has poured the Spirit upon women as well as men.

Paul said it long ago, and we can’t say it much better. In the spirit of Joel 2 and in the spirit of Pentecost and in the light of God’s promise to Abraham (which is the gift of the Holy Spirit), Paul announced the meaning of Pentecost in a surprising and culture-shattering statement (Galatians 3:28-29),

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah. And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

Today is Pentecost, and today the Spirit fills the church, and the Spirit is still at work within the Church to illuminate our blinded and troubled hearts to free all people—all nations and races, slaves, and women—from their exclusion and oppression, even at the hands of church people.

May God have mercy!

Human Vocation: Rule the Earth

June 6, 2019

As the image of God, we represent God in the world, and therefore we are called to partner with God in what God is doing in the creation. Our identity shapes our vocation.

We are called to multiply and fill the earth with the glory of God, and we are also called to continue the divine work of creation by ordering the remaining chaos within the creation. And, thirdly, we are invited to share God’s dominion over the creation, that is, to rule the earth. 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 a way that mirrors God’s own rule.

For example, Israel’s royalty, though they did not always effectively do so, represented God to the nation. God wanted them to rule with justice and mercy. Psalm 72 reminds Israel what this “dominion” means. It is the humble exercise of power in the service of mercy for the sake of others. Their rule was supposed to be more like how a shepherd rather than like a dictator. Far from exploitation and abuse, God’s imagers rule as servants who give life and empower life. They benevolently care for the creation rather than exploit it.

This gains greater clarity when we recognize we are co-rulers with God. God shares God’s own dominion with us. We are co-workers, junior partners, in God’s enterprise.

Our mission is to develop the full potential of creation as we lovingly care for it and gratefully enjoy it. We pursue familial, social, and communal peace as we embody the justice and mercy of God within creation.

People are called into multiple kinds of work or different careers. As co-rulers with God, we choose particular careers. We choose these careers as ways to love God, serve our neighbors, and shepherd the earth. Through these careers, we participate in the mission of God.

Medical professionals partner with God in healing the sick. Teachers partner with God through imparting knowledge and wisdom. Debt collectors partner with God as they mediate justice for creditors and mercy for debtors. Sanitation workers serve the earth and the human community through its care for a clean earth. 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 as God reigns over the creation. We share God’s rule, and we exercise dominion or power within the creation. We use this power to serve rather than dominate. Nurses, teachers, counselors, biologists, sanitation workers, and, yes, even lawyers co-rule with God. Through our careers, we are ministers and royal priests in the kingdom of God, which is  God’s creation. 

We are the image of God, and as imagers we partner with God in filling the earth with the glory of the Lord, ordering the remaining chaos within the creation for the sake of life, and shepherding the earth so that life might flourish.

Human Vocation: Subdue the Earth

June 3, 2019

As the image of God, we represent God in the world, and therefore we are called to partner with God in what God is doing in the world. Our identity shapes our vocation.

We are called to multiply and fill the earth with the glory of God, and we are also called to continue the divine work of creation by subduing the earth.

To subdue the earth 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, which was a chaotic void at the time. God subdued the earth to provide habitable space, and then God filled that space with life.

Part of our human vocation is to continue this creative work, which Genesis calls, subduing the earth.  Unfortunately, some believe “subdue” empowers humanity to exploit the earth and deplete its resources. But to “subdue” is not a destructive task where the earth is scorched but a creative one where the earth is ordered and its habitable space is enriched so that life might flourish.

The seven days of creation did not rid the cosmos of chaos. Even after the seventh day of creation, darkness still existed, the waters still existed, 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, and outside of Eden, the universe was yet unordered. In fact, not until the new heaven and new earth appear will chaos disappear from the earth, when there will be no more waters or sea and no more night.

Until then, we partner 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 mass of data. We use technology to enrich our lives while, at the same time, we do no permit it to destroy the earth.

This vocation extends to every aspect of human life. The arts (from music to literature to fine art) are expressions of human creativity that bring beauty and order out of what was previously unordered or even chaotic.

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, in partnership with God, to subdue it and order it so that life might flourish.

This means no work is secular as if it were disconnected from our missional identity and vocation.  Every good work participates in the mission of God if it is engaged in the process of ordering the chaos. Technology manages resources; medicine serves wholeness; and social structures shape community. This is our human vocation. We co-create with God.

Human Vocation: Fill the Earth

May 30, 2019

As imagers of God, humanity represents God within the creation, and that is our identity. And that identity includes a vocation, a calling.  God invites humanity to participate in God’s mission. Our identity equips us to partner with God as we execute that mission.

In the beginning, God blessed humanity as male and female and directed them to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, and also to subdue the earth, and exercise royal dominion over every living thing upon the earth. That is our human vocation.

Our first calling is this: God blessed humanity so that we might fill the earth.

This is a biological function, and it is most often heard as a divine invitation to have children. It means, of course, that sex is good, and creating children is good, and God wants to populate the whole earth with human beings. Consequently, we partner with God through procreation as we co-create children with God’s help.

Moreover, God wants to fill the whole earth, and the diversity of the earth entails the diversification of humanity. For example, people who live in Alaska cannot wear the same clothes, eat the same foods, or even develop the same rituals as people who live in Guatemala. The spread of humanity across the globe meant the rise of diverse cultures and people groups. This, too, is good.

At the same time, there is something more going on here than population explosion and geographical expansion.

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill” is important language in the rest of the Bible’s story. When God called Abraham, God multiplied his descendants and filled the land of Palestine with them. While this involved biology, it’s also significant that as Israel filled the land given them, they became a witness to the glory of God among the nations. God filled the land so that the glory of the Lord might permeate it through a people who imaged or represented God in that land!

God’s goal is to fill the whole earth with that glory, and that glory is not found in mere population explosions but is found in human flourishing.  As the late second century Christian martyr Irenaeus wrote, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  When we live out our identity as divine imagers, when human beings flourish and fill the earth, the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.

Later in the Biblical story, at Pentecost God will pour out the Spirit upon Israel, and Israel will begin once again to be fruitful and multiply. As Israel grows and includes the nations in their community, the glory of the Lord will fill the earth. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, will, one day, fill all things with the glory of God.

Our human vocation is to fill the earth with God’s glory. When humans image God and flourish, God is glorified. And this is our vocation, our first calling.

Human Identity: The Image of God

May 27, 2019

Every temple needs an image.

The creation, which is God’s cosmic temple, is no different. At the climactic moment of creation God placed an image in that temple. Humanity is the image of God. This is our fundamental identity as human beings.

But what does that mean?

At one level, it involves our embodied existence. We are the walking, talking, breathing, presence of God in the world. We don’t live in the heavens or walk around in celestial bodies. We are earthy, made of the dust of the earth. We belong to the earth; we live material, physical lives. We are not made of gold and silver, or wood and stone, like the idols that populate other temples; we are flesh and blood, and it is as flesh and blood that we image God.

At another level, it involves our capacities for relationship, creativity, rationality, morality, spirituality, among a host of other qualities. We are equipped to mirror God’s own life. When we create, we mirror God’s creative activity.  When we live in intimacy with another, we mirror God’s own community of love. When we act in love and seek justice, we mirror God’s own nature. We are created to be like God, and God gave us the capacity to participate in that life.

God forbade Israel to make any idols or images of God. Those images have no breath in them. God does not want any human-made images because God has already made God’s own image. God does not need an image because we are the image of God.

As divine image-bearers, we represent God within the creation. Everything about us images or mirrors God’s own life. It is not one or two aspects of us that image God but our whole selves represent God. Whether it is our creativity, our intellects, or our relationships, we are designed to represent God in every respect and equipped to participate in God’s mission.

This is our human identity. This is the status God gives us. We are God’s representatives on the earth.

This means every human being participates in the life of God. We share the divine nature to the extent that we participate in God’s own nature. We love because we are the image of God. We reason because we are the image of God. We know intimacy because we are the image of God. Our every breath is the breath of the Spirit of God who gives us life, dignity, and status within God’s good creation.

This means that every human person, no matter their ethnicity, nationality, gender, or age, has intrinsic dignity and worth. Every human person is crowned with glory and honor as the image of God. Everyone possesses royal nobility.

Every human being is valuable because they are God’s representatives. Consequently, we love every human being because we love God, and we honor every human being because we honor God.

From Empty and Void to Good, Very Good

May 23, 2019

The first line of the Bible is a bold confession, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

The earth began, however, as an uninhabitable mess. The earth was a chaotic void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, as the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.

At first, God created a mess. This is no moral judgment; God does not create evil. Rather, the mess was unordered, lacked arrangement, and was unsuitable for life. It was empty, void of all life and characterized by darkness and the waters, which are terrifying images to ancient peoples.

Though the darkness and the waters covered the earth in the beginning, God was not absent but present. The Spirit of God, who is the giver of life, hovered over the waters like a mother bird over her nest. The Spirit moved over this chaos in order to bless it and pour life into it.

God created space for life by introducing the light of divine presence, by separating the sky from the waters, and by separating land from the waters. God ordered the mess so that there was light, a sky above the earth, and dry land upon it. God created habitable space where life might flourish. The Spirit of God, the giver of life, ordered the chaos.

Then God filled the space. God filled the sky with luminaries: the sun lit up the day, and the moon and stars illuminated the night. God filled the waters with life, and God filled the land with creatures, including human beings.

According to Genesis, God created the original chaotic mess, and then God formed, ordered, and crafted it into something good, very good.

God is a royal architect and artisan. God commanded, and it happened. The word of God accomplished whatever God intended. God erected a new structure, a cosmic temple, and filled it with life and everything that makes life possible. God weaved the cosmos in such a way that it is a diverse, vibrant, and beautiful place. And what God erected and weaved was good, that is, a space where life could flourish.

Good, however, does not mean complete or even perfect or ideal. God wanted the cosmos to grow and progress. New species would emerge, and humans would have children, fill the earth, and develop multiple cultures. The creation is a dynamic rather than a static reality. Change is built into fabric of the universe, and that is good.

The creation is good, but God is not yet done with it.  When God came to rest within this cosmic temple, God invited human beings to participate in the work to come. Though God finished creating the space and filling it, God was not yet done with what the creation was yet to become. The creation had a future, and that is the rest of the story.

A Mother’s Day Homily

May 22, 2019

This homily was delivered by Melanie Smith at the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 12, 2019. It was her first time to sermonize before an assembled people of God. She is a public school teacher. Characteristic of her heart, she will spend a month in Costa Rica learning Spanish so she can communicate better with her students.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.

God Builds a House

May 20, 2019

When Israel agonized over what sort of house or temple they should build for God, God clarified something for them.  “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah 66:1-2 testifies, “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.”

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

The divine hand made everything. This echoes Genesis 2 where it says that God rested from all that God had made. Everything between Genesis 1:1 and God’s rest in Genesis 2 is the object of God’s creating and making. Everything in the universe—including the cosmos itself—is the product of God’s loving power. Whatever began to exist, God made it.

Moreover, God is enthroned within the heavens and the earth.  The “heavens” do not refer to some celestial divine sanctuary beyond the glimpse of the Hubble telescope or to a dwelling place outside of the cosmos. God 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. The cosmos is God’s palace or temple, a cathedral of God’s own making. It is God’s house.

And God dwells in that house. It is the place where God came to rest. This is temple language, as we know from Israel’s history. When God came to dwell in Israel’s temple, it was called God’s resting place (Psalm 132:14). The temple is where God dwells, and creation is God’s temple. When we say God rested within the temple, we do not mean God became a couch potato or a passive observer. Rather, God dwells within the creation in order to enjoy it and share life with it.

While God was graciously present in Jerusalem’s earthly temple, God does not—first and foremost—dwell in houses made by human hands because God dwells within the cosmos itself. God is so present to the creation that every breath is the movement of God’s Spirit, and every breath is communion with God. Though, as Creator, God is transcendent to the creation and is not dependent upon the creation, God is nevertheless graciously and immanently present within the creation to sustain life, commune with it, and enjoy it. God loves the creation.

Perhaps we should remember that we live in God’s house, and therefore we should treat the creation with respect and care. And, at the same time, God invites us to commune with God within the creation and revel in its joy and beauty. 

Perhaps God is like an AirB&B owner who says, enjoy my resting place but don’t trash it. This is God’s temple, so let us enjoy it with reverence and respect.

Why Did God Create the World?

May 19, 2019

TThis question stretches across all age groups, from toddlers to graduate students.

To be sure, it is precarious, even presumptive, to answer this question. We cannot get into God’s head and identify motives. However, the theodrama does not leave us clueless. But before we enter the world of the drama, let’s consider a few ideas. 

On the one hand, some suggest God was needy. In other words, there was a hole in God’s psyche.  Perhaps, for example, God was lonely, or God needed companionship, or a playmate, or—worse—someone to control. I remember my daughter, for example, wanted my wife and I to have another child, and her rationale was that she needed someone she could boss around. In effect, this sort of God is co-dependent, a God who needs the divine ego stroked or a deficiency healed. Here creation arises out of self-interest rather than as a gracious gift to us.

On the other hand, some suggest that God acted arbitrarily. God had no reason to create. It was a bare assertion of sovereign power or ego. Sometimes people worship God simply because God is powerful, and in that case. God may be worshipped, but God is not adored because terror drives that worship. 

Reading the whole story—from beginning to end—suggests an answer to the question. While creation is the first act of God, we learn something about God’s motive by reading the rest of the story.

Christians confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not lonely. Rather, God enjoys a communion of love within the Triune community. God does not need someone to love because, as Jesus prayed in John 17:24, the Father already loves the Son, and the Son already loves the Father even before the foundation of the world.

Further, the purpose of redemption suggests the purpose of creation. Jesus prayed that disciples would come to know the Father so that the love with which the Father loves the Son might be in them and Jesus in them (John 17:26). In other words, God acts, whether in creation or redemption, to include us within the orbit of God’s own communal love. God created a people to share God’s own loving communion, a community that predates the creation itself.

Perhaps an analogy might help. Why do we have children? There is no economic benefit, and it does not relieve family stress. However, in the best of circumstances, we have children because we want to share our love with them. We want to include others in the orbit of the family’s love. We love, and therefore we create.

In a similar way, God does not create because God is lonely or needy. God creates to include others in the communion of God’s own loving family.  God loves, and therefore God creates.

Theodrama in Five Acts

May 18, 2019

The video is available here.

The Bible tells the story of God. There are many threads within that story and many rabbit trails which one might pursue, but there is one overarching plot to the drama. There is, in essence, one story.

This story has an arc that begins with creation and moves to new creation, the goal of the drama. The arc has a climax, but the climax is found in the middle. That climax is Jesus the Messiah, who is God in the flesh. This same one who was present at the beginning and through whom God created all things is also the same one God raised from the dead as the beginning of new creation. The first and final acts of the drama are performed in the person of Jesus. Jesus, then, is the pinnacle of the arc, the one in whom both the beginning and the end find their meaning and fulfillment.

Between creation and Jesus lies the story of Abraham’s descendants, Israel. They are the people of God whom God led into a new Eden, but they did not embrace God’s mission. God invested in Israel the hope of the nations, but they did not pursue this hope. Nevertheless, God pursued them and accomplished that hope in Jesus. 

Jesus, the instrument of God’s creative work in the beginning and now the reality of the new creation at the right of God, descended from Abraham. Jesus is a Jew, and through him, God will bless and give hope to all nations.

Jesus invites the nations into the community of Israel. This fourth act in the story is the church, which is the renewal of Israel’s identity and vocation in the world. Moreover, it is the renewal of human identity and vocation. God recreates humanity in order to give the world hope. Through the church, God will bless all nations.

This divine drama has five acts.  It has a beginning and a goal, and it has a means.  Creation is the beginning, the first act of God. New creation, the new heaven and the new earth, is the goal, the fifth act of God. Jesus the Messiah is the means, who is the third act of God. Between the first and third acts, and between the third and fifth acts, God creates community. The second act is the story of Israel, and the fourth act is the story of renewed Israel, which invites all peoples into the life of Israel.

I call this a theodrama because it is God’s story. It is the story of God’s work, of God’s acts.  God creates a good world!  God elects Israel as a people for the sake of the nations!  God becomes human for our salvation! God calls the nations into the life of Israel in the church!  And God renews the creation!

Over the coming weeks, we will retell this story, and through it God will invite you to make it your own, to participate in the life and mission of God, the one who created you, loves you, and redeems you.

Woe to You Who Are Rich (Luke 6:24)

February 24, 2019

[Message by Jared Randall at All Saints Church of Christ, February 17, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee.]

Today, I want to start by listing the basic ideas that make up Darwinian thoughts about Survival of the Fittest. Don’t worry, you’ll see why later. There are three basic ideas.

  1. Domesticated plants and animals show a tremendous range of variation. That sounds right, my cats are both cats yet only one feels the need to bite my toes in the morning to make sure I’m up.
  2. A similar range of variation exists in nature among wild species. Kinda simple, elephants in India are different than Elephants in Africa. There’s variation.
  3. All living things are engaged in a struggle for existence. X2. Everything wants to survive for as long as possible, that’s obvious. And if we need the same things to survive, we’re going to have to share; and if there’s not enough to share than one of us is going to have to die, and who ever dies doesn’t get to make more mouths to feed.

That’s basically it. That’s basically what Darwin noticed that no one else at the time did. Something that any gardener here instinctively knows, that there’s a web of dependence and competition that makes sense of everything that we do.

One of my favorite parts of Richard’s book, Myths America Lives By, is the section on the Gilded Age, where social Darwinism is on full throttle. I love that section because it basically shows how people applied those three building blocks of natural selection to an entire economic system that crushed the weakest people in society and wrote it off as “only natural.” It’s only natural- this is how the world works: you eat the same food as me, I need all the food, you fend for yourself.

People like Andrew Carnegie in 1889, one of the earliest, strongest millionaires, recognized that this is how nature was set up, which means this is how God had set the system up, which meant that those who were at the top of the pile were the ones living by God’s system.

Let me read this quote, “While the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as condition to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment and the concentration of business… in the hands of a few…” and then later “Such, in my opinion, is the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined someday to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring “Peace on earth, among men Good Will..”

This is the game that we play- in America especially. Because there are only so many jobs. There only so many seats in the University lecture hall- only so many spots in the parking lot. There are only so many offices at the Capitol building in Washington DC.

So I got a headache today after reading Luke chapter 6 over and over noticing that no one is going to put these words across the doorways of the admissions building. No one’s going to move their family across the country because the company offered a smaller paycheck. No doctors have asked me if I have considered taking medication that would make me more sad.

I don’t know what world Jesus is living in. You know, Luke has this way of just shoving it in our faces. He just wants you to know. Reading Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, he’s kind of content to let you figure it out for yourself- but Luke just holds it up: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Doesn’t that give you a headache? I can imagine Andrew Carnegies head popping off if someone read him that text. I can imagine my own head popping off if I could understand it. I don’t know what world Jesus is living in, but it’s one that doesn’t make any sense. I guess it’s just one where The Origin of Species hadn’t been written yet. Because now we know about how the game works.

I think that I’m realizing lately that Jesus isn’t just the best hope for the world, but he’s the only hope for the world. And it’s because he’s the one who barges in on game night, clears the table and rips up our precious little rule book. Jesus is the only one with the guts to check the soil and taste the salt. Jesus looks around and says that surely there is some river where we can plant our shrubs.

Luke points to us and he says that either the poor are blessed or Andrew Carnegie is. It can’t be both. But with that said, Paul writes the scariest thing that we’ve read today. I got a headache when I read Luke, and I got shivers when I read Paul. Because he makes it clear; we are either living in a world where Christ is raised from the dead and the poor are blessed, or we aren’t. Jesus either flipped the board and cleared the table, or we lost the game. Jesus’s death on the cross was either the new way towards new life, or it was the non-survival of the not-so-fit.

We cannot be sure which is correct. But we can trust. And blessed are those who trust in the Lord, even between the headaches and shivers. No, better yet, as Jeremiah says, blessed are those whose trust is the Lord. Blessed are the poor and the hungry and the sad, for they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream that only the trusting can taste.

Moses and Deborah Compared

May 29, 2018

Deborah is a judge, and the judicial activity is the same word used to describe Moses (Exodus 18:33) and Samuel (1 Samuel 17:6) as well as rulers/judges appointed throughout the tribes of Israel (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) as representing God’s own authority (Deuteronomy 17:12

Deborah exercise authority analogous to Moses. She is pictured as a second Moses.

Action Moses Deborah
Judge Exodus 18:13 Judges 4:4
People Came to Them Exodus 18:13 Judges 4:5
Proclaimed Word of Lord Exodus 7:16 Judges 4:6
Prophets Deuteronomy 18:5 Judges 4:4
Pronounced Blessings Exodus 39:43 Judges 5:24
Pronounced Curses Deuteronomy 27:15 Judges 5:23
Both had military generals Joshua Barak
Instructed Israel about how to defeat enemies Exodus 14:14 Judges 4:6
Lord caused enemies in chariots to panic and flee Exodus 14:24 Judges 4:15
God’s victory told in prose Exodus 14 Judges 4
Then told in poetry Exodus 15 Judges 5
Led people in worship Exodus 15:1 (& Miriam) Judges 5:1 (& Barak)

Reading Strategies:

  1. Deborah usurped authority illegitimately? But there is no indication in the text this was illegitimate; in fact, there are positive indications that she is an honored prophet.  She speaks and her words come true; they are confirmed. Her song, celebrating the victory (like the song of Moses), takes up the whole of chapter 5, which is unique in the story of Judges. This affirms her role and authority.
  2. Deborah’s ruling was private rather than public? But “tree of Deborah” is a public place where she “judged” (using the same word as Samuel) Israel (the nation).
  3. Deborah was a substitute for weak men who would not lead? But see Judges 5:2, 9 where leaders are commended for following Deborah’s lead, and men were not faulted for the reality of Deborah’s leadership but affirmed for following it. The parallels between Moses and Deborah confirm this.
  4. Deborah only exercised political authority? But Israel is a theocracy under the rule of God, and Deborah commands in the name of the Lord (Judges 4:6) and Israel’s rulers led on the basis of the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 17:18).
  5. “Since God himself raised up Deborah as a judge, and that which God chooses to do can not [sic] be intrinsically wrong, it cannot be intrinsically wrong for a woman to exercise authority over a man” within a covenant community. But that may live in tension with 1 Timothy 2:12, or does it?

Based on John Jefferson Davis’s article here:

New Book on the Holy Spirit

May 22, 2018

“The mission of the Spirit…is equal in importance to the mission of the Son.”

This is probably the most provocative as well as evocative sentence (p. 107) in Leonard Allen’s new book entitled Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (ACU Press, 2018).

The mission of God (missio Dei) involves a “double sending—two missions: the mission of the Spirit and the mission of the Son.” One is incomplete without the other. Allen suggests the “mission of the Son,” who is the “central content of the gospel,” becomes “operative and effective through the mission of the Spirit,” which empowers the ministry of the church, gives the church the experience of divine life, and forms the church into the image of Christ (p. 108). While the Father is the source of life, and the Son is the model of life, the Spirit is the one who brings life “so that we actually experience it” (p. 70). Consequently, “the missions of the Son and of the Spirit are equal, each according to its distinct function” (p. 108), as both the Son and the Spirit are sent by the Father into the world to accomplish the divine mission (which includes the functions of both the Son and the Spirit).

Allen’s book seeks to restore the place of the Holy Spirit in the church’s theology of Trinity, mission, and formation. While there are significant and rather comprehensive discussions of the latter and the former, the heart of the book is the relationship between Spirit and mission.

Allen provides a nice summary of the fundamental point of the book (p. 179):

I have developed a three-part thesis: (1) with the receding of (neo-) Christendom, a strong new focus on the mission of God has been emerging; (2) at the same time an unprecedented focus on the Holy Spirit has also emerged [especially in the Global South, JMH]; and (3) the renewal of mission and the Holy Spirit go hand in hand.

This conjunction means that every Christian is a missionary in our new post-Christian context (particularly in the West), and it means that every Christian is a charismatic, that is, indwelt and gifted by the Spirit for mission.

I highly recommend this book for study in small groups, congregational classes, and personal reflection as well as a guide for a homiletic foray into a congregational focus on the Holy Spirit in the assembly’s worship and learning of God.

To my mind, this is the most significant book to appear on the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ since Robert Richardson’s 1873 A Scriptural View of the Office of the Holy Spirit.

Millennials and Churches

March 5, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeff Wischkaemper, who holds a Ph.D. electrical engineering, and he lives in Knoxville, TN, where he attends a relatively new church plant that is affiliated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.


It’s been six years since my wife and I left the Churches of Christ. Shortly after we left, I wrote extensively about some of the reasons for our departure, and some of the problems I thought Churches of Christ faced moving forward. In a recent discussion with John Mark on the topic of what churches (of Christ) can do to navigate multigenerational contexts – specifically those where Boomers are in charge and millennials make up an increasing number of congregants – I had the opportunity to revisit those posts and reflect on how I see connecting with millennials in a somewhat different faith community.

A note before I begin: Jeremy Marshall’s post here is absolutely worth reading. Because he’s already covered a lot of things I would want to say, I’d encourage you to reflect on his thoughts before reading this. Instead of rehashing everything he covered, I’ll try to supplement what he wrote with a few thoughts of my own.

First, a bit about myself by way of introduction: I was born in 1980, a member of the “micro-generation” that straddles Gen X and the Millennials. I spent 12 years earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees at a state university with a large campus ministry, and actively participated in leadership during that time. During my time in college, I overlapped with friends ranging from the college class of 1996 to the college class of 2013. And yes, I do see a significant shift in the social, political, and religious attitudes of people who are just a few years older than me compared to the people who are just a few years younger than me.

Why do they not want what we wanted?

Because the initial question was addressed specifically to congregations with Boomer leaderships, I’ll start with a pretty bold declaration of what I think the problem (still) is not, namely worship styles. I spent a lot of time beating a dead horse on this when we left, but loud, flashy instrumental music will not help you retain millennials.

My sense is that church leaderships have a tendency to look at worship styles as a solution to millennials leaving the church for a couple of reasons. First, they remember the time when they were young adults who thought worship was bland and stale. For Boomers, creating a dynamic worship experience was a major priority, and to be perfectly fair, a lot of the changes they made were both welcome and needed. But believing millennials are primarily interested in instrumental music is, in a very real sense, Boomers projecting their own desires for increasingly dynamic worship onto millennials, rather than an actual groundswell of desire from millennials themselves.

The more practical reason I think leaderships often gravitate to changes in worship style is that these changes are relatively easy to implement. Most changes to the way we do worship are straightforward, so long as the political will and capital exists. Worship services are something we plan and can exert some measure of control over. Consider the relative difficulty between 1) changing your worship service to include “newer” songs or 2) creating a broad culture of hospitality at your church. The first is a matter of planning and execution. The second requires a new imagination about your church’s identity. It’s easier to preach a sermon about kindness than it is to be kind.

Unfortunately, many of the changes I see as necessary for engaging millennials are changes of the second type. They are changes that aren’t easily controlled or executed, take a long time, and require a lot of introspection both from leadership and laity. To be frank, they are changes many of our churches simply aren’t equipped to make.

Keeping millennials in church requires more than turning down the lights and turning up the volume. Millennials are not adolescents who need to be placated with highly stimulating environments – and ironically, treating them that way tends to push them away, rather than drawing them in.

Three challenges

Difficulty connecting with changing demographics

If you grew up in a Church of Christ, attended a Christian college/university, were married when you were 19-21, and had your first child when you were 22-23 (or at least 3 of those things are true), there is a good chance that you feel accepted and at home in a Church of Christ. Churches know what to do with you. You’re likely to have a group of peers in most congregations you attend. There will be people in most life stages whose experience is/was more or less like yours, and the programs of a typical Church of Christ are oriented around being attractive and enriching to people like you. You are, we might say, on the fast track for eldership.

If you are in the 18-40 age range and you don’t fit this template, though, most churches really don’t have a good idea of what to do with you, other than try to get you “back on track.” If you happen to be single, for instance, most singles ministries – where they exist at all – are structured to be dating factories (because obviously singles’ primary goal in life should be to get married). Most adult classes for married couples under 50 in Churches of Christ tend to be oriented around parenting (because obviously all married couples should have children). And we haven’t even started to discuss a lack of awareness of single mothers, or people recovering from a divorce, or any number of other groups that traditionally haven’t been on our radar.

The challenge going forward is that demographic trends are moving away from the traditional template: 1) people are not getting married until later in life 2) married couples tend to be waiting longer to have children and 3) couples, even within churches experience divorce at higher rates than in the past. In spite of these trends, churches continue – overtly and covertly – to message that if you aren’t happily married by 25 with one kid in the nursery and another on the way, there is probably something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.

Ironically, a survey of Church of Christ members isn’t likely to pick up on this. Most churches would self-report as inviting and welcoming for young people, and church leaderships often cite the abundance of young families in their churches, along with the overcrowding of nurseries and children’s classes as evidence that everything is just dandy. And from the inside, this makes sense. People who “fit” this narrow profile and know the secret handshakes find Churches of Christ to be welcoming, friendly places with people who are warm, caring and understanding.

But people who are even a little bit away from an expected template often feel so unwelcomed and unvalued that they leave before they are noticed at all. The result is that many Churches of Christ have become culturally homogeneous, and increasingly unable to understand, care for, or even notice people whose lives aren’t on a similar trajectory.

“Gospel” as “sin management”

The traditional story most churches have told for several generations goes like this (forgive the huge oversimplification): “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God, in the person of Jesus Christ, died so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be able to live in heaven with God after we die.” The goal of churches, then, is to help people transition in status from “sinner” to “saved,” and then to help “saved people” manage their sin problem until they can go to heaven. (We would never say this so crassly, of course, but I think that’s a fair characterization of how many churches operationalize their purpose and mission.)

Now, there’s a sense in which that story may be “true,” but it’s a story that presents a solution to a singular problem that an increasing percentage of the population isn’t convinced they have. It’s a story that’s only “good news” if you can first convince people they are sinners in the hand of an angry God. Not surprisingly, the first move in the standard church playbook is to convince individuals of their personal guilt before a righteous and judgmental God – an approach which turns out to not work very well with people who didn’t grow up as nominal Christians.

Notice how much Jeremy in his article talks about story (spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about it below too). Think about how the same series of events and characters can be transformed by what Hayden White calls different modes of emplotment. For example, consider how differently the narrative of the French Revolution can look when written alternatively as a romance, a comedy, a tragedy, and a satire.

The story of God – told primarily as a tale of how to be forgiven and go to heaven after you die – isn’t an epic that captures the hearts and minds of many millennials. That’s not to say they aren’t interested in the story of God; far from it. But we need to take a step back and consider the mode of emplotment we bring to the text and ask ourselves whether a different approach to storytelling might resonate more in today’s world.

Justice, equality, hospitality

Justice, equality, and hospitality are words that Christians ought to have no problems with. And yet, if you ask non-Christians, the church is the last place they expect to find these virtues lived out. In an increasingly pluralistic society, faith communities are judged not by their benefits to insiders, but by how they act toward their non-adherents – those who do not believe.

How does your church (and its members) act toward immigrants (documented and undocumented)? How does your church (and its members) act toward members of the LGBTQ+ community? How does your church (and its members) act toward people of other faiths, (e.g. Muslims, Sikhs)?

Unfortunately, if we take an honest look, I think we will all find that our actions and intentions as Christians fall well short of the challenging words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did it for me.”

In the wake of World War II, European philosophers and theologians struggled to understand what had gone so horribly wrong with ethics and morality that millions of “good Christian people” in Germany – in a church that was in many ways more theologically articulate than the American church has ever been – could have been quietly complicit in the deaths of millions of their fellow human beings. One French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas – who survived the Holocaust only because he was protected as a prisoner of war – tried to reground ethical discussions not on an abstract notion of human rights or contractual political arrangements, but on our obligations to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

I don’t believe churches are at the point, yet, where we have been forced to undertake the same reckoning with regard to our complicity in the suffering of others. But we should be aware that even now, we are judged by a watching world on how we respond to the least of these. To the extent that our religion functions as a way to preserve and extend our cultural power at the expense of outsiders, particularly the marginalized and oppressed, we are weighed in the scales and found wanting.

Three ways we can do better…

If you change your story, you change your life

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his prophetic work After Virtue (1981) said this: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Millennials don’t need another self-help book. They know how to listen to TED talks. But they are a generation whose apparent life trajectory is not optimistic; they will likely be the first generation in America to not enjoy a standard of living greater than their parents.

What they want, desperately, is to be part of a community with a story of hope – and we have a story that speaks to that desperation. Scripture tells of a story that says, “God is doing something amazing in the world! God wants to repair all of the brokenness you see around us and set things right again! You have the opportunity to join in a community that is partnering with God to bring about justice and peace and restoration and wholeness?” It’s story that says my identity is not wrapped up in how much I earn, in what my job title is, or in how much I consume; that it doesn’t depend on my gender or race or economic status. Instead, the story of God promises that my identity is grounded in the reality that I am created by God, and that God wants me to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s a story people want to be a part of!

The recently deceased Yale theologian George Lindbeck argued that in a pluralistic age persuasion involving fundamental beliefs and ultimate concerns is not simply a matter of dispensing information but is, rather, an invitation to participate in an alternative story. Part of the reason millennials are so turned off from many churches is that the story most churches tell by their lived existence is basically indistinguishable from the story told by the world. At most churches, “being a good Christian” doesn’t look all that different from a vaguely spiritualized version of “living the American Dream.”

If the “good news” your church preaches is, in the words of one Christian author, “primarily information about how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success in God, with a small footnote about character development, with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, with an almost illegible footnote about social/global transformation,” you are going to have a very difficult time retaining people under 40. You can be hip, cool, and high-quality in your programming while at the same time offering an incoherent and disconnected story. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a Michael Bay movie; possibly entertaining, lots of explosions, action and special effects, but very little substance.

Millennials are looking for a story. The story of God is an epic that has the capacity to animate their lives. But we need to learn to tell that story in a way that connects with their passions and desires, anxieties and fears.

Embracing women

To quote Sojourner Truth, “I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”

Let me pose a hypothetical to you. I know someone who is an expert in couple’s therapy. Literally wrote the book on helping couples get past an affair. They lead seminars all over the world about how to have a better marriage, how to communicate better as a couple, about how to forgive those who’ve wronged you. They’re a past-president of the Division of Couples and Family Therapy at the American Psychological Association. And they are a person of deep faith. And for the cost of gas, I could probably get them to spend a morning strengthening the marriages and relationships of anyone in your church who wanted to come.

How in the world could you say no to something like that?

You could (and many of our churches would) say no, because that person is a woman.

The recent, attention-grabbing Nashville Statement included the following sentence in Article 3: “We deny that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.” One of my female friends replied, “You wouldn’t have to explicitly deny that females are unequal in dignity and worth if it weren’t implied by the entire history of [your organization].”

I know that for this audience, addressing this issue is poking a bear, and I know there are a lot of complementarians who will push back against me on this, but as a husband, brother, and friend of dozens of highly educated women let me make this abundantly clear: when you argue that women aren’t “less than men,” but that they “just have different roles (like teaching children’s classes and baking casseroles and sending sympathy cards),” these women would reply in a similar way to my friend above – you wouldn’t have to assert that women aren’t less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice. 

I want to say that again: you wouldn’t have to assert that women are not less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice.

My wife and I will never attend another church that doesn’t respect her talents and gifts, and the talents and gifts of other women, and doesn’t give women the opportunity to use the talents God has given them in settings where men are present. And we’re far from alone. In my small group, there are two women with Ph.D.’s (one of them a New Testament professor) and one medical doctor. Each of them grew up in small, conservative churches where their talents were dismissed and devalued, or worse still appropriated by boys who passed the girls’ work off as their own. Each of them has a story of hurt and resentment that is not only a barrier between them and most Christian communities, but sometimes a barrier between them and Christ.

You can jump up and down on any verses you like, but I will tell you that the lived experience of an increasing number of women suggests that the way complementarian theology is enacted is frequently damaging, not only spiritually, but on a deeply personal level. If you ignore that pain, or worse still perpetuate it, you will find an increasing number of millennial couples who will be unwilling to listen to you about anything else.

Our churches have to find ways of recognizing, valuing and listening to the talents of all members of God’s family. Spiritual wisdom, teaching Christ, and congregational leadership are not the sole domain of humans with a Y chromosome. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

Stop trying to be relevant. Start thinking about formation.

Too many churches get caught up in a never-ending quest to be “relevant.” If you want to connect with people under 40, think instead about how your church changes the people who are in it. Klyne Snodgrass writes: “[W]hen people asked Jesus ‘What do I have to do?’ he asked in return, ‘What kind of person are you?’ The answer to the second question answers the first.”

Stories are identity-forming. They are how we organize the world around us. Again – if you change your story, you change your life.

MacIntyre’s phrase for people who live without a grounding story is “anxious, unscripted stutterers.” Because of a long series of choices I don’t have space to go into, many churches have lost their organizing story, leading many of their members to become anxious, unscripted stutterers.

Imagine if you asked your church the following three questions:

1) Who do you/we believe God is?
2) What do you/we believe God is up to in the world?
3) If God is doing something in the world, what should your/our response be to that?

My guess is that regardless of whether your church is “conservative” or “progressive,” your members would have a difficult time answering those questions without resorting to “Sunday school” answers (e.g. “God is love!”). These questions are a good baseline for understanding the direction that your church is headed, and the direction your members are being formed. James K.A. Smith has written extensively about how all of us are constantly being formed. It’s worth asking in the context of this question, “What is the direction of formation in most Churches of Christ?” Or, as I asked myself when we were in the process of leaving, “If I take the values and beliefs of this church to be my own, what kind of person am I going to be in 5 or 10 years?” Ultimately I didn’t leave because of personal disagreements, ineffective leadership, or vapid teaching (though those things were all present). I left because when I took a hard look in the mirror, I didn’t like the person being formed by the values of that church.

Wrapping up

I was listening to an interview with the CEO of a tech startup a couple of weeks ago, and he made a very interesting statement: “You get the investors you deserve. … If you’re trying to attract investors by going around saying, ‘We’re going to blow it up on every street corner!’ then you’re going to get investors who have those expectations of you. On the other hand, if you say, ‘We’re trying to build something that’s going to survive for the long haul,’ you’ll get investors who are more patient and willing to let you take time to do things right.”

My general observation is that many times, churches get the members they deserve. If your church is trying to attract people based on your flashy worship service, it shouldn’t surprise you when you lose members to a flashier worship service. If you’re trying to attract people because you have good preaching or children’s programs, it shouldn’t surprise you when those people jump to the next church that comes along and “out churches” you. But if you’re building for the long haul – and if you’re really taking the time to create a community around an identity-forming story, a story that changes the world – then you have the potential to not just weather the storm, but thrive within it.

Seeing the Spirit

February 28, 2018

For many the Holy Spirit is an impersonal, imperceptible, and indiscernible force.  Cloaked in mystery, many find it difficult to “get a handle” on the Spirit. The Spirit has no “face” like Jesus nor any personal metaphors, such as parent, mother, or husband, like Israel’s God.

Our desire, of course, is not so much to control or manipulate the Spirit as much as it is to have a way of conceiving or visualizing the Spirit’s identity. Without any framework for understanding, we are at a loss to even identify what the Spirit does in our lives much less experience God through the Spirit.

Our pneumatic imagination needs a little help. Paul, I think, offers such. The Spirit appears in practically every chapter of Paul’s letters, and saturates his theology. While “God in Christ” is the center of Paul’s theology, the Spirit is a living, enabling, and enriching presence that connects redeemed humanity with the Redeemer God. We have access, Paul says, to God in Christ “by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

Without some understanding of the Spirit, then, our experience of God remains in a conceptual wasteland. That is not only lamentable but dangerous. Spiritual discernment entails that we “see” the Spirit at work in our lives or else we will mistake other spirits for the Holy Spirit.

So, what does Paul offer us by way of a conceptual landscape that will help identify the Spirit in our lives. I “see” in Paul a three-fold typology for thinking about the Spirit’s work. This typology is not a box in which to enclose the Spirit, nor is it a gizmo to manipulate the Spirit. Rather, it is a tool to unmask our eyes so that we might “see” what the Spirit is doing–to recognize the Spirit in our lives.


The Spirit’s foundational function is to facilitate communion between God and us. Our communion with God is the “communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:12).

Jesus did not leave us as orphans; instead, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church. This out-pouring is the gifting of God’s presence among us. We are inhabited by God through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22); we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:19). The Spirit is the one through whom we experience God in the present. The Spirit’s presence enables our communion with God; more than that, communion in the Spirit is communion with God.

This presence, which is the fulfillment of God’s presence in the temple in Israel and anticipates the fullness of divine presence in the new heaven and new earth, is how we now live in fellowship with God. We worship in the Spirit (Philippians 3:3), we pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18), and we are washed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11).  We are “in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells” in us (Romans 8:9). The Spirit is the air we breathe, and every breath is communion with God.

This communion, of course, is not merely vertical. It is also horizontal, that is, we commune with each other by what we share in the Spirit (Philippians 2:1). We love each other in the Spirit (Colossians 1:8). Because we have all been baptized in the Spirit and have drunk of the same Spirit, we are one body where ethnic, economic, and gender barriers are transcended (1 Corinthians 12:13;  Galatians 3:28).

We “see” the Spirit when we enjoy the sweet fellowship of others, experience the peace and joy of the Spirit in communion with God, and encounter God in the assembly of God’s people as we worship in the Spirit. We must not secularize these moments as if they are produced by our own internal powers. Rather, we relish them and delight in them because we know, by God’s promise, that the Spirit is present to generate them. They are moments where heaven and earth meet in the Spirit.


The Spirit communes with us, and this communion is transformative. The Spirit is no passive presence. On the contrary, the Spirit is an active, enabling and transforming presence. The Spirit dwells within us so that we might live in the Spirit.

Salvation involves transformation. Because we are children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts and we experience the intimacy of divine communion. But this is not the end game; it is not God’s goal. This intimacy includes a shared life, and it transforms us. We are increasingly, by the Spirit, transformed (metamorphized!) into the image of Christ from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Holy Spirit is the presence of divine holiness within us, and this holiness bears fruit. Paul called it the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). This is what it means to “live by the Spirit,” that is, it is to manifest a life of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit leads us into a such a life by renewing our hearts, empowering our souls, and moving our wills.

The presence of the Spirit is a necessary first step for such a life, and without that presence there is no transformation that images Jesus who himself was led and empowered by the Spirit. The reality of that presence, however, is evidenced in a holy life as we are “sanctified by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

We “see” the Spirit when we are patient with the stubborn, when we are kind to the ungrateful, when we are at peace in the midst of the storm, when we are generous with the poor, and when we are gentle with those who disagree. We must not secularize these moments as if they are self-actualizations. Rather, we give thanks that the Spirit is at work in our lives to empower them. We credit the Spirit rather than our programs, our will power, or our own goodness.


God gives the Spirit as a communing and transforming presence. God created to commune with us, and God redeems to transform us. And God goes one step further. God gifts us so that we might participate in the transformation of the world.

“Through the Spirit,” Paul writes, God gives the body of Christ the capacity to serve each other and the world. These “manifestations of the Spirit” are for the “common good,” and the gifts are “activated” and distributed by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:7-8, 11).

It is important, however, to note that presence comes first, then transformation, and finally giftedness. We might think of this as a spiral of activity where there is reciprocity but also movement toward a goal. God dwells in order to commune. That communion transforms us, and, as people in the process of transformation, God gifts us so that we might participate in the mission of God. The gifts are best used by transformed people. This is why 1 Corinthians 13 comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Giftedness without love is useless; more than useless, it is detrimental. Transformation must shape the use of the Spirit’s gifts.

Too often the lists of 1 Corinthians 12 become the focus when talking about gifts. Romans 12 also has a list of gifts. The two lists are not the same; in fact, there is little overlap. Neither are exhaustive, and together they are not exhaustive. They are illustrative.

Gifts are whatever capacity we have to participate in the mission of God. Whatever “talent” we use to further the mission of God–whether it is software programming, musical ability, environmental passion—they are divine gifts. Too often we talk about “talents” as if they are natural dispositions independent of God’s work among us. One of the reasons we feel so distant from the Holy Spirit is because we secularize our gifts; we minimize the Spirit’s role. Giftedness, inclusive of “talents,” is a manifestation of the Spirit!

We “see” the Spirit when transformed people (or, better, people in the process of transformation) use their gifts in service to the mission of God, which is the transformation of the whole world. We “see” the Spirit when an environmental biologist cares for the creation, when a nurse compassionately cares for the sick, when a debt mediator reconciles a creditor and a debtor, and when an actor embodies the gospel in a drama (even if the drama never mentions God at all). We “see” the Spirit’s gifts in action when brokenness is healed.


Often we don’t “feel” the Spirit in our lives, and sometimes we misinterpret what the Spirit is doing. There is no promise that we will always “feel” the Spirit, and there is the persistent danger that we will misinterpret what the Spirit does. This is why is it is important to “see” the Spirit through the lens of the biblical narrative, the story of God. Whether we feel the Spirit or not, God has promised the Spirit’s presence, and God has provided a narrative that frames our understanding of the Spirit’s work so that we might “see” the Spirit.

The most significant danger we face, I think, is the minimization of the Spirit. We minimize the Spirit when we secularize what is, in fact, the Spirit’s work. We often fail to “see” the Spirit because we attribute whatever goodness, joy, or warmth we experience to powers other than the Spirit. We fail to “see” the Spirit because we are blinded by our own pride.

The Spirit is personal, discernible, and visible. The Spirit is God among us to transform us into the image of Christ and to gift transformed people with good works for the sake of the body and the world. We “see” the Spirit every day, if only we have eyes to see what God is doing.

The Segregation of Black and White Churches of Christ in the Postbellum South

February 26, 2018

S. W. Womack (1850?-1920), father-in-law to Marshall Keeble and a leader in the African American Church in Nashville (particularly the Jackson Street Church of Christ, which he helped plant in 1896).

When A. B. Lipscomb, who was the managing editor of the Gospel Advocate at the time, asked Womack whether he would help put together a special issue of the Advocate “for the colored people,” he agreed and hoped “it would help to correct the attitude that now exists in some places toward blacks.”

Womack continued: “I think a more friendly attitude by the white people toward us would help [in the present, JMH]. I will never forget the grand privilege that the white church of Christ at Lynchburg, Tenn., gave the colored people during their first protracted meeting just after the Civil War, in 1865, held by Brethren Brents, Lee, and Trimble. We were invited to attend and seats were found for us. In this meeting I heard my first gospel sermon and a lasting impression was made on my heart. A short time after that, in the fall of 1866, I was baptized by a white preacher, old Brother T. J. Shaw–‘the man with the old Book in his head,’ the people called him. We were allowed to meet and worship with them for a number of years. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we were all waited on just alike; the wine and bread were not brought to us at the same time it is brought to us in some of the churches that I meet with for worship now. The attitude of the white people of that church toward the colored people was then, and is now, a great uplift to me” (GA, 1915, 1326).

At the conclusion of his article, he wrote: “Only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none; and the blacks seem to stand that way toward the whites. I am proud to say, however, that it is not that way with the writer. When I begin with the year 1865 and think of such men as Dr. Brents, Lee, Trimble, T. J. Shaw, Darnell, Dixon, Bolding, Barrett, Fanning, the Sewells, the Lipscombs, and many others, who, in holding their meetings, would ask for room and seats for the colored people, and, after preaching would come around and shake our hands, I am made to feel very grateful. These things were a great help to me; and what has been helpful to me will be helpful to others also, if put into practice. I hope you will not only write and say many good things, but do as those good old men did—show your faith by your works” (p. 1327).

In other words, something happened between 1866 and 1915. Apparently, churches were more segregated, and there was more animosity toward African Americans.

American history helps us a bit here—the reconstruction South and the Jim Crow South dramatically shaped the story of black and white churches in the South.

In 1874, Daniel Watkins, an African American from Nashville, TN, asked David Lipscomb to publish his request for the use of “meeting-houses” so that he might teach Christianity to “the more destitute of my people as are willing to hear and receive the truth” (GA, 1874, 281). Unfortunately, to the dismay of Lipscomb, “white brethren in some places refused the use of their houses at times when unoccupied by themselves.” “We do not hesitate to say,” Lipscomb added, “that such a foolish and unchristian prejudice should be vigorously and eagerly trampled under foot, and all persons who are driven from the church because the house is used by the humblest of God’s creatures, in teaching and learning the Christian religion would bless the church by leaving it” (GA, 1874. 282). Further, “If the houses are too fine for this, they are entirely too fine for Christian purposes” (GA, 1874, 283).

Later that year, on October 9, a “consultation meeting” was held by disciples in Murfreesboro, TN, which included one African American named Daniel Watkins, who was commended as a preacher and church planter, among the thirty or so participants.

On the morning of October 12, the “ordination” committee proposed this resolution: “Resolved, that we recommend to our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own, believing that by so doing they will advance the cause of Christ among themselves, and when it not practicable so to do, that they receive the attention of their various congregations” (GA, 1874, 1017-8, to which Michael Strickland alerted me).

There is no indication that the resolution was adopted, but the resolution itself reflects a movement among white churches to encourage segregation.

David Lipscomb, who was present at the consultation, took exception to the segregationist resolution. “The resolution in reference to colored brethren forming separate congregations we believe plainly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Jews and Gentiles had as strong antipathies as the whites and blacks. They were never recommended to form distinct organizations. The course we believe to be hurtful to both races and destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (GA 1874, 1020).

When, in 1878, David Lipscomb heard about an African American who was refused membership in a white church, he wrote this: “Nothing is more clearly taught in the Bible than that Christ came into the world to break down middle walls, family prejudices, natural animosities, race antipathics, and to unite the different kindreds, tongues and tribes into one undivided and indivisible brotherhood. The race prejudices in the days of the Savior and of the apostles were just as strong as they are to-day…We believe it is sinful to have two congregations in the community for persons of separate and distinct races now. The race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love and brotherhood in Christ Jesus. We believe it sinful to do otherwise now..For the whites to reject the negro is to make the whites self-righteous, self-sufficient, exclusive and unchristian in spirit…[Those who resist the participation of African Americans in white congregations] show a total unfitness for membership in the church of God. A church that will tolerate the persistent exhibition of such a spirit certainly forfeits its claims to be a church of God…Our treatment of the negro at best is that of criminal indifference and neglect. To discourage and repel him, when, despite that cruel neglect on our part he seeks membership in the church of God, is an outrage that ought not for a moment to be tolerated.”.” (GA, 1878, 120-1).

While Lipscomb opposed segregated congregations, he also had a paternalistic and assimilationist attitude toward African Americans in those congregations. He thought, given their proclivities to “over-much religiousness or superstition” created obstacles to their “knowing the truth,” and it was “a misfortune” that “the colored population ever attempted separate religious organizations or separate worshiping assemblies,” which he regarded as “unscriptural” despite the “difficulties” that “might have arisen in their worshiping together” (GA, 1874, 281). Indeed, “the negroes needed the care, the counsel, the oversight, the instruction of their white brethren” (GA, 1874, 282). Since “in the providence of God they were freed,” it is a Christian “ambition and desire to encourage, instruct, and elevate them” (GA, 1874, 283).

In other words, even Lipscomb—who was beloved by many African Americans in Nashville and in other places—was shaped by the assimilationist and paternalistic racism of his time (see Kendi’s history Stamped from the Beginning). That is quite a somber warning for all of us, especially if we claim there is not a racist bone in our bodies.

Lipscomb, nevertheless, has harsh words for the whites who encouraged separate congregations. It seems to suggest that northern whites encouraged and promoted this tactic as part of their agenda during Reconstruction, and then this was continued during the Jim Crow era. “The whites who came into the country to use the blacks for selfish ends, encouraged the forming of separate churches that through these organizations they might control the blacks. The white members of the churches of this country, when themselves not guilty of a narrow and unworthy prejudice against church association with the colored members, gave way to a cowardly fear of the prejudices of others.”

By 1915, times had changed. Womack noted that “only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none.” African Americans now worshiped in congregations segregated by the attitudes that formed by the Jim Crow south.

There were, of course, segregated churches before the Civil War, including Nashville where the first African American congregation in Nashville was planted in 1859. But these increased throughout the lifetime of David Lipscomb and S. W. Womack and much to their disappointment. The influence of Reconstruction and Jim Crow shaped how churches segregated themselves into white and black.

We are still dealing with the effects of that history today.

May God have mercy!

Millennials and the Oregon Trail Generation: Suggestions for Doing and Being Church with Them

February 8, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeremy Marshall who is the Minister of the Word at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. He is married to Megan. He holds a B.A. in Bible and M.A. in New Testament Studies from Freed-Hardeman University, Henderson, TN. He enjoys exploring the intersections between biblical theology and popular culture, especially music and film.

I commend these suggestions for your consideration, and they are open for discussion rather than prescription.


In recent years there’s been ample discussion and debate about how churches can reach and retain Millennials—those born from about 1984 through about 2001. A neglected micro-generation in these discussions is the so-called “Oregon Trail Generation,” or Xennials, those born roughly between 1977 and 1983—a cohort of which I am a member, and which I believe has significant gifts and a helpful outlook that can be very useful to the church moving forward. Many in both of these cohorts have fled their churches in recent years. But now some of those who’ve left are considering a return to some sort of church. Below are fourteen observations for doing ministry and life with and among Millennials and Xennials, many of who could rightly be classified as “Nones” and “Dones” when it comes to church experience.

1) You can’t assume they know “basic” Bible stuff. Even some of them who’ve been “in church” their whole lives. You may meet who grew up in church who don’t know Noah from Moses, or the story of Elijah and the ravens, or that Hebrews is a book in the New Testament. Don’t look down on them for this. And never put down their previous church experience, deficient as it seems to you. Something about Jesus has captured their imagination, and we ought to celebrate that.

2) Number 1) is actually a blessing. First off, it means they may be coming to us with less baggage, in terms of old denominational and hermeneutical squabbles. But it also means God is blessing us with an opportunity to tell our story afresh–to tell God’s story afresh. Isn’t that awesome? This permits us to be simply who the church was always meant to be: a people with a wondrous story to tell. A story as old as the heavens and the earth, and which will echo in the new heavens and earth.

3) If you’re blessed enough to have God guide these contingencies into your congregation, know that they do want to hear a story that makes sense to them; that makes sense of their lives and their world. They’re longing to be part of a larger story in a world that has forgotten the stories that make us truly human. I’d suggest you get a copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Read it. Meditate on it. Internalize it. These Xennials and Millennials, these Nones and Dones, are rabbits looking for a safe and supportive warren to build their lives in.

4) It’s really time to brush up on the best of historical theology, because the questions these folks will bring to you have already been answered well by faithful saints of old. some titles I’d suggest up front include: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection; the Anabaptist martyr stories in The Martyrs Mirror; Augustine, Luther, and Calvin on the Psalms; Jonathan Edwards on Religious Affections; Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System; and the Unspoken Sermons of George MacDonald. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find them incredibly relevant, and you’ll probably learn a few things, too. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Remember observation 3), above: they want to be part of an ongoing story, a long-standing conversation about things that really matter.

5) Related to all of the above: I’m finding that they don’t like topical sermons full of proof-texts. They don’t want or need scattershot preaching. But they do want to be led into a story by a tour guide whom they can perceive as a peer. Not as an “authority” telling them “what to do.” Detailed eschatological timelines (complete with maps) and waxing didactic and pedantic over the intricacies of the psallo argument will tend to turn off folks from these cohorts.

6) Related to 5): Why don’t they tend to appreciate topical sermons? Because they’re smart enough to know how easy it is to manipulate the text to favor a preconceived idea. These young people–especially the ones who might come with church baggage–have been trained well in the hermeneutics of suspicion. Proof texts just don’t work on many of them. Thank the Lord!

7) Related to all of the above: I’m not saying to be an exclusively “expository” preacher, either. But I am strongly suggesting preaching textual sermons. Gently guide them into the old, old story. Make helpful observations along the way. And maybe give them one application to take home with them based on the story. And then let the story and the Spirit do their work.

8) Related to all of the above, but especially 1). This might be especially a paradigm-shift for those of us in Churches of Christ, though I’m thankful to observe this practice has been waning the past couple of decades. “Turn in your Bibles to …” used 20, 30, 50 times in your sermon will not work anymore, because you can’t even assume they know where Genesis or Esther or 2 Thessalonians is. It really wasn’t a great strategy to begin with. Probably we should thank the Lord for this: it means God has given us a generation that renders moot the strange idea that the more you quote from the Bible, the more “biblical” a sermon is. It’s not “biblical” when you’re ripping many of those passages out of context; ignoring whole swaths of scripture because they don’t fit your “pattern”; and overloading people to the point that they can’t be noble Bereans who search the scriptures to see if these things be so. Why should they have to look up 40+ scriptures and make sure you were preaching them correctly?

9) Preach the whole Bible, even the weird parts. Even especially the weird parts. I recommend using a lectionary–at least for a season. And deliberately preaching the unfamiliar passages. (I prefer Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary, but the Revised Common Lectionary is also great for preaching all the Bible. Both also get the church back into the discipline of the public reading of scripture having an essential role in the church’s worship.)

10) Put the scriptures in their place. They’re supposed to lead to Jesus (through the nudges of the Spirit), who shows us the Father. Make sure you say that out loud from time to time, if for no other reason than to keep yourself honest.

11) They neither want nor need propositions, a checklist, or a list of demands. They need a story to live by, and they need a supportive community to live it with. They may ask difficult questions about this story, and you may be tempted to just “tell them what to do.” Please resist that temptation. (I’m preaching to myself first, because I’m wired to be a “fixer.”) They will come to you (or someone else in the congregation) with the questions provided they experience the church as a safe place to explore, with safe people to explore with. Be that safe place. Be those safe people.

12) The church will need to provide a more casual, family-like environment for these folks. However, that doesn’t mean circle up the wagons and be all insular. Should the church be a “haven in a heartless world”? You bet! But we also must be open to the world. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between a church that feels like family, and cult. Don’t be culty. (Hint: sectarian is culty.)

13) Because of student loans and the general gutting of the middle and working classes, the Millennials and Xennials will probably not be able to contribute nearly as much financially as previous generations. This is a reality we’ll all need to accept. I’m going to be rather blunt: This is the new normal. Deal with it. But here’s the upshot: These cohorts are also generous with their time and talents and whatever possessions they have provided you send them on a compelling mission. The church of the 21st century will need to be lithe, streamlined, efficient, supple, pliant, and not program-heavy. So give them a compelling vision. Equip them. And crowd-source the dickens out of your ministries. Tips: be simple. Collaborate with other churches, ministries, non-profits, and even local government to do good. Focus on people, not programs. Be situational. Focus more on one-time or ongoing, simple, contextual, local opportunities for ministry that make sense for your church and arise organically.

14) Above all, resist the temptation to present the Bible as a source for “life-hacks.” We’re finding out now that most “life-hacks” don’t actually make your life better or easier, and can actually cause harm. Real life is messy and complicated; and so is scripture, sometimes. When I say resist the temptation to Bible-based life-hacks, resist trying to craft one-size-fits-all “solutions” from the scriptures. Resist theological platitudes. For every Matt. 7.14 (“the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult”); there’s also a Psalm 119.45 (“I will walk around in wide-open spaces, because I have pursued your precepts”). Is the way narrow and difficult; or is it wide-open spaces? According to scripture, the answer is somewhere between, “Yes”; and, “It depends.” Tension is life-affirming.

This isn’t meant to be read as an exhaustive or systematic checklist. It isn’t Fourteen Simple Steps to Reaching Millennials. These are suggestions and starting points, based on my own experience as a minister; as a member of one of these generational cohorts; and dozens of hours of conversations with people of these generational cohorts, both within and without the church. To put these into practice may take considerable work, sacrifice, and a willingness to examine our churches and make changes. But I’d also add, I believe it’s worth it. Because I don’t intend these fourteen observations just as a gimmick to reach and retain a certain generation. I believe many of these are simply best practices for a healthy, functioning church.

The Weak, the Strong, and #MeToo: A Homily on 1 Corinthians 8

January 29, 2018

This is a guest post by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler who delivered this homily on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 at the All Saints Church of Christ on January 28, 2018.


When I read Corinthians, I am struck by how many times Paul connects weakness to holiness. It’s as if the whole letter, peppered with missives to keep the weak in mind—to even change our behavior in favor of the weak—values those who struggle. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that Jesus’s ministry was to the sick, wounded, and burdened, and that Paul, a former Pharisee and Persecutor, was literally weakened by God in order to fully know Christ. The weak is where God resides. The weak is where God shows up. So to God, shaming and shunning the weak isn’t to be taken lightly.

I wonder if this is how we typically read this passage in Corinthians? Do we see the “weaker brother” as an opportunity to be compassionate and empathetic, or do we see him as a chance to be self righteous and arrogant? Paul says that wounding another’s conscience while it’s weak is tantamount to sinning against Christ. These are harsh words, and the fact that we typically brush by them aside in a rush to proof-text and condemn, should give us anxiety. We see the “weak” as “sinners” who just can’t control their urges or ignorant children who don’t understand God like we do. But we totally miss the fact that these individuals aren’t any less faithful or spiritual—they are just…burdened. Wounded.

In youth group, I remember ministers using these words to describe people who drink or swear. That was the extent of the exegesis of these verses, and even as a teenager, I felt it was missing the spirit of what Paul’s saying. And I believe that’s because it’s easy to use this passage address sins, but it is harder to see it as addressing woundedness.

Because that requires more work than just “not drinking”—it requires a deep sense of empathy and the ability to take another’s perspective. It requires putting aside one’s arrogance, and adopting the difficult stance of embracing another’s pain, woundedness, and weakness—walking alongside it and recognizing that any actions that would further wound that person are condemned by Christ.

When we talk about this, we’ve got to define our terms. Who are the wounded? Who are the weak and powerless? And why do they deserve our consideration over those who see themselves as enlightened and unburdened?

We can reframe this as understanding power dynamics. When we examine any situation, we have to ask ourselves, “Who has the power?” Weak people don’t have power. Wounded people aren’t historically centered in these conversations. Keeping in mind the weak means that we recognize this social fact. Socially, in Paul’s day, the weak were the disadvantaged, the oppressed, women, minorities, and the underclass. In our day…it’s the same.

I am compelled to address the #metoo movement and the plethora of women finding their voices and speaking out about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. The church has been deeply lacking in prophets and protests addressing these issues, and while the secular world is experiencing a much-needed reckoning, our sanctuaries are silencing these stories. Women are being pushed out of the church for speaking out. Silence is being disguised as forgiveness, and victims are being shamed into welcoming back their abusers with open arms. Toxic theological teachings are being spouted as truth and used as tools of shame to protect the leadership structure. And the prevailing narrative is, “I know better than you. God wants you to forgive. Just get over it.”

And that narrative is a death sentence for someone’s faith.

We are bombarded by powers and principalities that constantly wound and weaken humanity. Racism and sexism exist deep within the fabric of our society, and abuse runs rampant in our world. We cannot sit in a congregation without coming into contact with at least one person deeply touched by this evil.

So we can’t walk away from people, puffed up in a false knowledge that says, “Just get over it. It’s not a big deal. We all know this world is not our home.” That is not empathetic, compassionate, or accurate. It does nothing except exert arrogant power over the wounded individual. And, according to Paul, it is sinful.

Paul is calling for empathy. And this empathy must flow in the direction of the weak and wounded. Not the abuser. Not the privileged or advantaged or rich or powerful. It must surround like a gushing river the souls and consciences of those hurting. In these instances, we must think to ourselves: “Does my treatment of this issue lead someone closer to or further away from Christ?” “Does it further wound them, or does it grant them healing?” And our priority is always to the least of these.

With that in mind, allow me to present an alternative reading of this passage.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning racism, sexism, sexual assault, and all those other worldly evils: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know it all actually doesn’t; but anyone who loves God is intimately known by God.

Hence, as to these evils, we know that “Christians are transformed by the renewing of their mind,” and that we “forgive as God forgave us.” Indeed, even though there may be evil in this world—as in fact there is hate and prejudice and abuse— for us there is none, for all are equal in the eyes of the Lord.

It is not everyone, however, who has this experience. Since some have been abused and persecuted and harmed (and in fact, are still suffering the effects of this), they still see these evils as realities and hear the dismissal of them as approval of their suffering. Their souls and bodies, being wounded, are weakened. We are no worse off if we do not “forgive and forget”, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty and privilege of yours to ignore these evils and focus on “things of above” does not somehow become a stumbling block to those who have been wounded by the here and now. For if others see you, who live a life free of these experiences, making light of them and acting as if they don’t have any impact on people, might they not, since they are wounded, be encouraged to the point of harming themselves and their faith? So by your arrogance those wounded and hurting believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their faith when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if denying their experience, if inviting those who caused them pain to break bread with them, if asking them to forgive and forget is a cause of their falling, I will never do these things, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

God is a God of the weak and wounded, and he will not forsake them. He will not tolerate an arrogance that dismisses their experiences or devalues their existence. This passage is not about eating or drinking—as Paul says, that is beside the point. This passage is about compassion and empathy and the ability to take the hurting into our community and show them that they are more important than a theological debate or a self-righteous posturing. This exists as a warning to us: God’s heart is wounded. Christ was made weak. Worldly power has no place in the church. We are called to bear with one another. Not doing so is not bearing with Christ.

May we be spurred to the good work of embracing the wounded and weakened, and by our actions and support, bring them closer to God and the hope of a world free from oppression and abuse.





Transforming Encounter: Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Assembly

November 6, 2017

On October 28, 2017, the Central Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas, hosted me for a morning of study.  I introduced their Sunday curriculum entitled “Transforming Encounter: Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Assembly.”

The lesson outlines for the series are available here: Transforming Encounter Amarillo 2017.

My audio introductions to the lessons are available:  Audio Session 1, Audio Session 2, Audio Session 3, and Audio Session 4.


I’m Confident You Will Do More Than I Ask (Philemon 21-22)

November 2, 2017

Paul has set a high bar for Philemon.

Given Philemon’s social world, Paul’s requests are astounding. As Philemon’s slave, Onesimus has neither social status nor civil rights. Onesimus cannot sit at the same table with his master. He cannot marry whom he chooses, and he has no real options other than what Philemon decides.

As this letter is read in the context of Philemon’s house church, there is enormous cultural (even political) pressure on Philemon to conform to conventional Roman social norms. His neighbors are watching. His peers, in and outside of his small Christian community, live in a social world that cannot imagine any sort of equality between masters and slaves. Their relationship is asymmetrical. The master literally holds all the cards, and any chink in that armor has the potential to tear apart Rome’s social fabric and economic power. The memory of Spartacus still looms large in the first century A.D.

Nevertheless Paul’s requests assume a different kind of community where slaves are equals before God; where both slave and free are heirs of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:28-29). Paul himself places enormous pressure on Philemon from within the Christian community to (1) regard Onesimus as a fellow-member of the family of God, a brother, (2) welcome him just as Philemon would welcome Paul, (3) charge any debt to Paul, and (4) refresh Paul’s ministry by receiving Onesimus in peace. What Paul asks is extraordinary in the social world in which Philemon lives as the head of a household. This is a high bar for Philemon given the several levels and intersecting realities at work here: (a) Philemon’s Roman world; (b) Philemon’s own household; and (c) Philemon’s house church. This is a complicated situation.

We might say Paul is manipulative, but Paul’s intent is to apply this brotherly pressure without apostolic demand. How else might Paul persuade Philemon without commanding him? It seems to me Paul does this rather well.

We might say Paul is passive-aggressive, but Paul is overt in his requests and rationale. Paul intends to influence Philemon; he is active rather than passive.

Yet, Paul thinks this is a matter of Philemon’s “obedience.” What is the nature of “obedience” here? One might suggest Paul is demanding Philemon to obey his requests and make good on Paul’s expectations, but this runs counter to the kind of response Paul wants to nurture and cultivate in Philemon’s life. Paul does not use his apostolic authority to compel Philemon’s “obedience.” I don’t think Paul wants Philemon to obey his apostolic authority.

On the contrary, it seems to me, Paul wants Philemon to live out the story he confesses to believe. In other words, the “obedience” Paul envisions is Philemon’s embodiment of the Christian narrative in this situation. Does Philemon truly believe the story he confesses? Is he willing as a master to serve the slave, even to become a slave in the eyes of his social world, including his public, household, and church realities? Is he willing to be Jesus to Onesimus?

Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a cruciform narrative, that is, a kenotic Jesus who suffers for the other and empties oneself for the other. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a familial reality between people who live together in this new community. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a common partnership for the sake of the gospel rather than social rank or rights. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a Christocentric life in which both slave and free participate as family, as members of God’s household.

Obedience means Philemon will receive Onesimus as first and primarily a member of God’s household rather than his own household. This is how, in the first century world, the gospel transforms slave/free relationships within the Christian community. Within God’s household both slave and free sit at the same table; there is no distinction as they are both heirs of the Abrahamic promise.

I also think Paul believes this relationship—as family within God’s household—will transform how slave and free interact within the social household. In the ancient world, the household included the immediate family and also slaves, workers, and extended family. It was, in many ways, a small village that was supported by the head of the house.

What are the implications for the Roman household when shared by members of God’s household?

For whatever reason (and we imagine some below), Paul did not demand or necessarily envision the manumission of slaves in a Roman household shared by members of God’s household. He certainly thought it should transform how masters treat their slaves (e.g., Colossians 4:1) since those masters are part of God’s household (they themselves also have a master). At the very least, Paul believed their Christian commitments demanded fair and equitable treatment of their slaves, and this treatment was not simply a higher standard than the Roman social world but the standard of Christ’s own cruciform life.

While it is possible Paul hoped that Philemon would free Onesimus (which how N. T. Wright reads the “more” in Philemon 20), it seems more likely that the “more” is Paul’s desire for Onesimus to share the burdens of ministry with him during his imprisonment (and perhaps beyond). Paul hopes for “more” in that he hopes Philemon will send Onesimus back to Paul.

But why doesn’t Paul ask (even demand) Philemon free Onesimus? We might wish he had done that explicitly and forcefully. As modern readers, we would certainly be more comfortable with that, and we are disturbed it is lacking in this letter as well as other Pauline letters (as well as the whole New Testament).

Why is not Onesimus’s freedom, then, the main thing? Justice would seem to demand that. I wonder what Paul would say to our question.

Perhaps it was not an option. The social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse resulted in freedom for slaves. But the social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse confessed a Lord who was not Caesar or subverted Caesar. Christians did the latter but not the former. Why?

I wonder if the rationale might be something like this. To confess Jesus as Lord is the fundamental orienting commitment of the Jesus movement. It is essential and necessary to its existence; it is the primary confession. There is no movement without it.

Paul intended, it seems to me, for this confession to function as a leaven in the lump of his social world. First, and primarily, it must transform how the house church functions: the poor and rich, the slave and free, male and female eat at the same table there. There can be no compromise on this point. The heart of the gospel is at stake if table fellowship within the Christian community is interrupted by such distinctions.

Secondly, Paul intended to, as a matter of process and progress for the gospel (confession of Jesus as Lord), transform the social world of the household within Roman society. There Paul regulates behavior and motives, and there he also plants seeds that will transform the household so that it no longer conforms to Roman social expectations but to gospel ones.

Third, we might guess—but there is nothing certain here—Paul hoped for the transformation of society as well through the gospel’s witness. Perhaps Paul thought the whole world would be made new through the gospel, but there is also a Pauline realism that recognizes the world lies in evil and will not bend to the gospel easily or quickly. Ultimately, however long the world continued, God would transform and redeem the world through God’s own act. Perhaps, then, Paul had no concrete expectation that the world would be rid of slavery though the gospel embodied this hope in the Messiah who liberates slaves. The one who was free became a slave so that the one who was enslaved might be free—that is the gospel (Philippians 2:5-8).

Perhaps Paul does not demand Philemon free Onesimus because Paul begins at the level of personal reconciliation within Philemon’s house church. This is his primary objective so that Philemon and Onesimus live together as reconciled brothers in the church and eat at the same table of the Lord.

Perhaps this will also lead to the transformation of Philemon’s own household itself where slave and free share life together in love and mutual respect, even if does not entail—given the social context—Onesimus’s freedom. That witness would glorify God and serve the mission of Jesus. Perhaps it will lead to “more”….maybe even Onesimus’s freedom and the freedom of other slaves in Philemon’s household. We don’t know.

What we do see is Paul’s desire for a reconciled community in Christ, and we know Paul hopes this reconciled community will, one day, include the whole world. There, we might imagine, the full justice of the kingdom of God would emerge and the kingdom would realize the honor due to all God’s imagers.

In our contemporary social context, we have more opportunities (e.g., voting) and mechanisms (e.g., legislative democracy) to peacefully effect change as we embody the gospel. That was not Paul’s social world, and he could not effectively and peacefully start a social revolution that included freedom for slaves. Instead, he planted churches—missional communities—where the goals of the kingdom were embodied as a witness to the coming reign of God over all the world when all slaves would live as free human beings.

I do wonder, however, how Onesimus thought about all this. He takes a great risk in returning to Philemon’s household because he has no assurance that Philemon will act “Christianly.” I assume Onesimus volunteers to return, and he assumes the risk. As such, Onesimus himself initiates reconciliation with his own kenosis as he gives himself over to the other for the sake of reconciliation as a brother in Christ. That seems unimaginable to me, but this may be exactly the sort of way in which the gospel transforms us.

Paul does not ask for Onesimus’s freedom. He asks for something more important—reonciliation. And, at the same time, Paul believes reconcilation will transform their relationship….perhaps including, ultimately I think, freedom.

What this demands is mutual kenosis, a self-giving that surrenders to the other for the sake of the other. Paul surrenders to Philemon, Onesimus surrenders to Paul in returning, and Philemon is now called to surrender to Onesimus. In this way, the gospel works reconciliation, and reconciliation will bring transformation.

October 31, 2017 –500th Anniversary of the Reformation

October 30, 2017

The Reformation in a nutshell: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone as taught by Scripture alone.

• Grace alone (sola gratia) means that God took initiative, supplies grace for every good work, and completes God’s work in us, and this includes a cooperative grace by which human persons partner with God in God’s mission in the world.

• Faith alone (sola fidei) means that trust in God’s work in Christ is the exclusive, orienting, and foundational root of every good work God completes in and through us, and this is expressed and given concrete form in both sacraments and life.

• Christ alone (solus Christus) means that God elected Christ as the sole ground of our salvation, and this entails that all spiritual blessings are found in Christ and only in Christ.

• To the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria) means all things come from the Father through the Son in the Spirit and everything returns to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and this excludes any kind of boasting except in what God does.

• Scripture alone (sola scriptura) means that the oracles of God handed down to us through the church are the sole norm for Christian faith and practice, and this Scripture is interpreted in the bosom of the church which is committed to the canon of truth, who is God revealed in Christ.


I actually think these principles find common ground in the Great Tradition of the church, including Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Roman Catholic theology. There is a substance to each of these points that is affirmed by all three great traditions of the church–Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Their interpretations vary to one degree or another, but the common ground is also substantial.

Three Requests (Philemon 17-20)

October 25, 2017

Up to this point, Paul’s letter has greeted the community where Philemon serves, thanked God for Philemon’s service in that community, and described his relationship with Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Only now, in verses 17-20, does Paul get to the point. What does Paul want Philemon to do? Why is he writing him?

Paul only uses the imperative mood—typically commands or requests—four times in Philemon. Three are in this section (verses 17-20) and one in verse 22.

  • welcome him as you would me (v. 17)
  • charge that to my account (v. 18)
  • refresh my heart in Christ (v. 20)
  • prepare a guest room for me (v. 22).

This litany of requests—one on top of the other—is focused on the central reality Paul wants to emerge within Philemon’s believing community. Probably the best word for this, which itself epitomizes the central focus of the Christian Faith, is reconciliation.

As this letter is read at Philemon’s house church where Philemon’s other slaves, his family, and other believers are present along with Onesimus himself, Paul envisions this community as a reconciled one, where slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and male and female share life together as a family, the body of Christ. The question remains, however, whether Philemon will express the heart of his own faith by reconciling with Onesimus.

The three requests present in verses 17-20 build on each other. The first lays the foundation for the others.

If you consider me your partner (koinonon), welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.”

Paul assumes a partnership or fellowship in the gospel. Philemon and Paul are co-workers and dear friends in the shared life of the family of God. If this communion is real—if Philemon is authentically committed to this shared life—then Paul not only requests but expects that Philemon will welcome Onesimus.

Welcome is a significant theological word. Paul uses it three times in Romans 14-15 to describe how believers should treat each other, that is, strong believers should “welcome” weaker believers (Romans 14:1, 3; 15:7). Paul roots this “welcoming” in how both God and Jesus have welcomed us into God’s own life. We welcome—or “accept”—each other because God has already welcomed us. We welcome each other because Christ has already welcomed us. We do not pursue this course out of some self-interest but “for the glory of God.”

To welcome the other, and for Philemon to welcome Onesimus, is at the heart of the gospel. If the gospel means anything, it means the Christian community must reflect God’s own welcoming, and if God has welcomed Onesimus into the family, so must Philemon. In other words, Onesimus appears in Philemon’s house church as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave. Within the Christian community, his status is family rather than slave; his status is heir rather than servant. Whatever status Onesimus bore in the social world of Roman, in the familial world of the body of Christ he is a brother.

Indeed, Paul requests Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. In other words, Onesimus status—as part of the family of God—is no longer one of a slave but a brother. And Onesimus is no second-class brother but one who should be received, as per Paul’s request, as if he were Paul himself. Paul identifies Onesimus with himself and expects that Philemon will receive and treat Onesimus like he would receive and treat Paul. This elevates Onesimus’s status—it is the status that belongs to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, a member of the body of Christ.

Moreover, “if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” With his own signature (“I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand”), Paul signs an “I owe you” over to Philemon.

Though Paul could have asked Philemon to forgive any debt since Philemon owes Paul his own life (perhaps because Paul is Philemon’s father in the faith), he does not exercise that right or privilege. Instead of seeking an equal exchange, Paul assumes whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon. Paul forgoes his rights (what Philemon owes him) in order to assume the status of debtor to Philemon.

In this Paul embodies the gospel itself. This is a kenotic move. I allude to the word Paul uses in Philippians 2:7 to describe the move the Son makes when he becomes incarnate. Though the Son was existed in the form of God as an equal with God, he “emptied himself” when he took on the form of a human being. This “emptying” is kenosis; it is self-giving.

Paul does the same here. He “empties himself” by taking on a debt that does not belong to him. Instead of asserting his status or exercising his right, Paul embodies the gospel in this self-giving or self-emptying. In this moment Paul embodies Christ for Onesimus’s sake.

When Paul asks for Onesimus’s debt to be charged to him, Paul models the gospel in a way that calls Philemon into that same way of living. Just as Paul is willing to live kenotically, so Philemon is called to live in a self-emptying and self-giving way as well. Even though Paul is willing for Philemon to charge everyting to Paul’s account, Paul’s own self-emptying example, which is an imitation of Christ, also calls Philemon to empty himself as well.

This leads to the third request: “refresh my heart (splagchna) in Christ.” His request renews Paul’s thanksgiving where Paul expresses joy and hope for Philemon’s consistent practice of his faith as he continually “refreshed” the “hearts (splagchna) of the saints” (verse 7). Paul is grateful for Philemon’s faithful history, and Paul asks Philemon to continue his faithful walk by refreshing his own heart. Paul’s heart, we should remember, is Onesimus himself (verse 12).

In other words, refresh Onesimus! The word carries the meaning of rest, renewal, and rejuvenation. It is as if it were a new beginning or a new start. Refreshment is reconciliation.

It is difficult to imagine exactly how this might have looked on that day when this letter was read to the church at Philemon’s house. One can imagine the looks, the tension, and the anticipation.

Did Philemon welcome Onesimus as a brother within the community, or did he treat him as a slave who must honor his superior? Did they embrace as family members or did Onesimus kiss his ring?

We know Paul’s hope and expectation but we don’t know what happened. The letter is open-ended. We don’t know the rest of the story. We don’t have any postscript which says, “And Philemon…..”

What we have, however, is a narrative that challenges us as it challenged Philemon. And the question for us is what will we do? How do we receive each other?

No Longer Just a Slave (Philemon 12-16)

October 16, 2017

Listening to this letter within the community of his own house church, Philemon hears Paul’s affection for Onesimus. He is not only Paul’s child but Paul’s own “heart.”

“I am sending my heart back to you,” Paul writes.

This simple statement has several significant rhetorical functions. First, Paul not only does not secretly hide Onesimus from Philemon by keeping him in Ephesus (presumably) but returns Onesimus to Philemon. Paul holds nothing back. He is, we might say, “above board” with his “beloved co-worker” (verse 1).

Second, rather than hiding this from Philemon, he fully invests in their relationship by returning Onesimus to him. Paul makes the first move toward reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon to which—I presume—Onesimus is fully committed as well. Onesimus seeks reconciliation, too, as I imagine a scenario where Onesimus approached Paul as a mediator between himself and Philemon (in contrast to a runaway who happened to meet Paul in prison—but we don’t know the real situation).

Third, Paul commends Onesimus. Not only is Onesimus now “useful” to both Philemon and Paul, he is Paul’s own “heart.” This is not the normal word for “heart” in Greek; it is a word similar to our metaphorical use of “guts.” It is the emotional center of a person—their guts (in Greek, splagchna). This communicates both Paul’s affection and hints toward Paul’s hopes for the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Earlier Paul commended Philemon for how he had habitually refreshed “the hearts (splagchna) of the saints.” Clearly, Paul wants Philemon—and will request such in a few moments—to refresh his own splagchna, who is Onesimus.

“I am sending my heart back to you” is how Paul initiates the reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. It is a first but risky—for Paul but more especially for Onesimus—step toward reconciliation, which is the central purpose of this letter.

Voluntary, Not Out of Necessity

Given the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon (presumably Onesimus is Philemon’s slave), Paul regards Onesimu’s “service” to him as something that Onesimus renders in the place of Philemon. This is substitutionary language; Onesimus stands in for Philemon. This is how Philemon serves (diakone) Paul during Paul’s imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. We might even say this is part of what Paul may have meant by calling Philemon his “co-worker” in verse 1, though more is probably intended (such as past relationships as well).

Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him to continue this service. We presume he could have kept this secret from Philemon, though that seems unlikely given their relationship. He may have retained Onesimus and simply informed Philemon by letter about the fact or askedPhilemon to consent to what Paul had already decided to do.

Paul, however, chooses to return Onesimus, initiate a process of reconciliation, and make his request in a way that applies the least possible demand upon Philemon (given the power/authority relationship implicit in their history). Paul wants Philemon to act out of love rather than duty (verse 9) and to act as one committed to the story he believes rather than under the pressure of an obligation without authentic, heartfelt consent.

Paul wants Philemon fully involved in the decision. He does not want to do anything without Philemon’s knowledge (gnomes) because he wants Onesimus’s service to arise out of Philemon’s decision rather than out of some kind of necessity. This is something Philemon must decide voluntarily, that is, what Philemon truly wants. It cannot be forced or arise out necessity (anagken).

Interestingly, Paul makes exactly this same point when seeking to persuade the Corinthian church to share their resources with the poor, Jewish saints in Jerusalem in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8. Because God loves a cheerful giver, God does not want any gifts that arise from “compulsion” or “necessity” (anagkes). As in the letter to Philemon, Paul does not “command” but requests, and the request is not an apostolic imposition of authority but an appeal to the Corinthian’s investment in the story that they claim to believe.

That is what Paul wants and it is that for which he prayed earlier in the epistle. In verse 6, he hoped that their shared faith would give Philemon eyes to see the “good” (agathou) that the community (the whole church) is doing “for Christ.” Now, Paul offers Philemon the specific opportunity to participate in the “good” (agathon) Paul is doing for Christ as a prisoner for the gospel.

What will Philemon do? Paul has not yet made any specific requests.

Something Has Changed

Whatever Paul might actually request, verses 15-16 reflect the ground for the request. Something has changed.

We don’t know exactly what precipitated the separation of Onesimus from Philemon. Perhaps Onesimus ran away. Perhaps a problem arose between Onesimus and Philemon—apparently, Onesimus is indebted to Philemon in some way (v. 18)—and Onesimus went looking for Paul to moderate the dispute or help with the problem. Perhaps Onesimus is not a runaway but seeks to resolve a problem by enlisting Paul’s help. We don’t know, though it appears Onesimus initiated the separation.

But the separation has a serendipitous result. Onesimus has become a believer. Though Paul uses the word “perhaps” to soften the pain of the separation as he prepares to make his requests, the word seems to indicate that Paul himself believed that this was a “God-thing” (we might say today). His strategy may be more rhetorical than theological. In other words, Paul uses the word to open the eyes of Philemon to a possibility without making any assertive claim (though Paul may have believed the claim itself). In Paul’s mind, the separation resulted in good, and God is the one who works all good things and brings good out of broken circumstances. God is at work here, and the “perhaps” reflects Paul’s humility as well as his rhetorical approach characteristic of the whole letter.

Relationship between Philemon and Onesimus



Separated Returned
For a while Forever
In the Flesh In the Lord
Slave Brother


What changed? In a word: status.

Whatever we may say about slavery in the Roman empire, the status of an enslaved human being was at the bottom of the social ladder. Slaves had no inherent legal rights; they had no power within the social order, which was fundamentally a top-down, hierarchical system. This extended to all facets of their lives, including who they might marry, to whom their children belonged, and their inability—except by the grace of the master—to change their situation. Slaves were powerless within the Roman social order. However some might mitigate the reality of Roman slavery by comparisons with other social situations or slave conditions, life as a slave in the Roman world was dehumanizing.

As I read verses 15-16, Paul contrasts the slave world of the Roman society with the familial world of the house church (or, the fellowship). In the flesh, Onesimus was separated from you and useless (v. 11). I take “flesh” here to mean not only a kind of physicality but also a kind of existence in the social order of the Roman world. We live “in the flesh,” that is, we still live in this broken, sordid order that characterizes social relationships in wider society. In that order, Onesimus is a slave. It is a social reality.

At this point in the letter, he still is a slave, though not (just) a slave. Paul has made no request that Philemon release or free his slave. Onesimus is returned as a slave, not as a free person. The “in the flesh” relationship still exists.

But something has changed.

Onesiumus is now a brother, a member of the family. He is more than a member of Philemon’s household as a slave. Now Onesimus is a member of God’s household, the fellowship of the body of Christ, which is fundamentally relational and mutual in character.  It is a shared life; it is a fellowship (koinonia), a family or relationships that are mutually enriching and reciprocal.

This move is powerfully significant. Though the Roman social order still exists as part of the old creation (“in the flesh”), new creation has broken into that order through a familial relationship of sister and brother “in Christ.”

This new creation, though its presence is incipient within “the flesh,” is a subversive element for the social order not only for the Roman world but for the old creation itself.

However, at this moment, Paul does not employ this new creation theology to make a specific request but only to not the change of status. His requests will follow in the next few verses.

Imagining the Change

We might imagine this change of status in the context of the social world of this house church in Colossae in this way in order to illustrate the significance of Paul’s announcement.

In the Roman world, slaves did not eat with their masters. They served them during their meals. They would stand around the tables or prepare food elsewhere, but they did not sit at the table with them.

In Philemon’s house church, we might imagine that slaves sat at the same table with their masters as they ate the Lord’s meal together—not simply bread and wine but a meal honoring the risen Lord where communion was shared across all the social barriers that are part of “the flesh” (old creation).

In contrast to the surrounding Roman social order, what we would see at the Colossae house church was a table where men and women, slave and free, and Jew and Gentile would eat a meal together at the same table.

Onesimus was more than just a slave; he was now a brother.  In one world, he is powerless to sit at the table; in another world, he is invited.

How Can I Ask for This Favor Without Wrenching it from You? (Philemon 8-11)

October 9, 2017

Paul could demand it.

Paul is “bold enough” to “command” Philemon to grant Paul’s request—whatever that is—because “in Christ” Philemon has a “duty” to obey. Paul could assert his authority, whether that is apostolic (though Paul nowhere uses that title in this letter) or relational (as if “you owe me”). Paul resists asserting his authority.

I suppose one could read his unwillingness to assert that authority as an assertion itself. In other words, it is a kind of back-handed manipulation. When Paul says he does not want to assert his authority, some say, Paul is actually asserting that authority. This puts Philemon in an impossible situation. If he acts contrary to Paul’s wishes, he will find himself outside Paul’s righteous wishes. If he complies, then he submits to that authority…perhaps for the very reason Paul does not want him to do so, that is, because Paul—in so many words—demanded it.

Paul himself is in a difficult position.

What Paul wants is for Philemon to act out of love (agape) rather than prescriptive coercion. He wants Philemon to internalize this decision so that it arises out of a shared love rather than out of a begrudging submission to authority.

In other words,Paul wants Philemon to internalize his acting so  that it is formed by the central story of God in Christ rather than imposed by some external authority. Paul gives Philemon the opportunity to humble himself by loving another in a way that cost himself something rather than to merely comply with an apostolic command.

Paul hopes Philemon will perform the story of Jesus the Messiah in his situation, that is, to have the mind of the Messiah (cf. Philippians 2:5). What I mean is this: just as Jesus, though he shared equal divine status with God as he existed in the form of God, emptied himself in order to take on human form and participate in the human condition. This emptying is kenosis; it is self-giving for the sake of the other at a cost to the giver. That is Christian love (agape).

Will Philemon himself perform that story? Does he believe it that deeply? Will it shape his actions?

Paul lays it on thick. He reminds Philemon of his age (“old man”—probably in his 50s) and of his imprisonment for the sake of Jesus the Messiah. Perhaps this is about “pity” or “wisdom,” but I tend to think it is about relationship. Paul is an “old man” in the faith as well as old chronologically. Paul has status in the community as an elder statesman in the community. This is furthered by his willingness to suffer for the cause of the Messiah; he is a prisoner. What I hear in this message is the encouragement to imitate Paul’s own performance of the story. Paul has lived this story for a long time (“old man”) and he is willing to empty himself for others by suffering imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.

But is this not further manipulation?

There is little doubt Paul intends to persuade, and he uses this rhetorical strategy toward that end. But that is not necessarily manipulation.

Suppose a particular authority figure wanted to encourage a person to act out of their own internal convictions rather than because of imposed authority. They might request the action without mentioning the authority, but the authority would be assumed. To ignore that authority is its subtle imposition. To name the authority and to disavow its application  is to clear the air, acknowledge the “elephant in the room,” and perhaps effectively rid the situation of any subtle imposition.When we want to encourage authentic action, it is better to name the authority relationship and not apply it than to be silent about it. Silence is as much a potential manipulation as naming it. Indeed, I think naming it takes away the imposition.

For example, how might a parent ask his/her child to do something for them but not in  a way that assumes the parent asks out of their authority status? I can imagine that I might say something like, “Son, I don’t want you think that you have to do this because I am your father; I want you to do this because you know it is right. And I will not force you to do it.” My hope is that my son would act out of the principles I have cultivated in his life rather than out of fear of whatever consequences he might imagine I would impose if he did not do what was right.

In the same way, Paul named the “authority” option in order to set it aside as a motive for action, and the best way to call Philemon to act out of love rather than duty was to name it and thereby nullify it. To not name it has a greater subtle manipulative power than naming it.

Paul is clear: he wants Philemon to act out of love. And Philemon will need it because Paul’s request is about Onesimus.

This is the first time Onesimus is named in the letter.

It must have been a tense moment when that name was heard in the reading of this letter to the church in Philemon’s house. Consider who was there—Philemon, Apphia, Archipus, neighbors and friends, and other slaves in Philemon’s household. Onesimus is there, too. Perhaps Tychicus was also there. Perhaps he read the letter to the church (cf. Colossae, Colossians 4:10). This was a communal moment. Everyone’s eyes were on Philemon, then Onesimus, and then back-and-forth!

Whatever the problem between Philemon and Onesimus, the whole community hears Paul’s appeal. I wonder when Onesimus was named whether everyone turned their eyes to him and wondered why Paul is so concerned about Onesimus (presumably—at this point in our study—a runaway slave).

Onesimus, Paul writes, has become a Christian; he has become Paul’s child (teknou). Paul was his father, which is a common image Paul uses for the relationship between himself and his converts (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 1 Timothy 1:2).

How did this happen? We don’t know.

What we do know is Paul is in prison (in my opinion, Ephesus). We might imagine that for whatever reason Onesimus sought out Paul as a mediator between Philemon and himself. It seems unlikely—though, of course, possible—that Paul and Onesimus “happen to meet” in prison (which presumes Onesimus was himself a prisoner). I think it more likely Onesimus knew Paul from his relationship to Philemon and therefore wanted Paul to help him in the situation he found himself. Ultimately, however, we don’t know.

Whatever the case, Paul and Onesimus met, Paul led Onesimus to trust in Jesus the Messiah, and now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.

As Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, the situation has been transformed. Absent from Philemon’s house, Onesimus was useless to him but now is useful for both Philemon and Paul. Where value was once lost, it has now been restored. But Onesimus’s value is much greater now than it was previously because Onesimus is now also useful to Paul as well as Philemon.

We still don’t know what the request is. We only know that Paul wants Philemon to accede to it out of love rather than duty, and he wants Philemon to recognize Onesimus is now living in a different story than previously.

Philemon and Onesimus now share the same story; they are both children of God (cf. Philippians 2:15) and both are committed to the story of Jesus the Messiah.

What difference should that make in how Philemon treats Onesimus?

We shall see.




I Give Thanks: Paul on Philemon’s Faith and Love

September 27, 2017

For those familiar with Paul’s letters, it is no surprise that Paul follows his opening salutation with a thanksgiving. Like the opening itself, we should read this thanksgiving as more than formulaic. Rather, it introduces themes and concepts upon which Paul builds in the body of the letter, including his three requests or hopes. Paul’s thanksgiving, like his opening and closing, lays some groundwork for those requests and cultivates an atmosphere where Philemon (and the church in Colossae) might live out the narrative of Jesus in this situation.

Thanksgiving (Philemon 4-5)

“I give thanks to God” are the first words Paul addresses to Philemon specifically in isolation from others. When we start a difficult conversation with someone in gratitude, we start with common ground, humility, and appreciation. When we start with the positive, focus on the good, and embrace what is shared, then we are empowered to talk about the difficult dimensions of our lives together. Moreover, when this gratitude is oriented toward God for others, then we humble ourselves before God’s gifts to us in other persons, and we situate both them and ourselves under the reign of God.

Paul’s letters offer small windows into his prayer life. While those windows don’t tell the whole story, of course, they do suggest a habit of prayer in which thanksgiving and intercession figure prominently. His prayers were, apparently, filled with people as he remembered his associations in the gospel. He named them and stayed connected through prayer if not also through presence and letters.

More specifically, Paul is particularly grateful for two things. First, he gives thanks for Philemon’s faith toward the Lord Jesus, who is Israel’s Messiah. This is a way of describing Philemon’s most basic orientation toward life—faith (trust, allegiance) to the Lord Jesus. Faith is the conviction that Jesus is Lord rather than Caesar; it is a commitment to love the God of Israel above all else. One might say it is one way in which Paul affirms the first commandment, that is, to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. Philemon loves God through his allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

Second, Paul affirms Philemon’s love for people, specifically for “all the saints.” This, of course, expresses the heart of the second greatest commandment, which is to love your neighbor. In this light, Paul is grateful for Philemon’s commitment to loving God and loving neighbor. Apparently, Philemon lives this.

Faith in Jesus and love for others is the heart of Christianity. 1 John summarizes it in exactly the same way: faith and love (1 John 3:23). Paul’s thankfulness recognizes Philemon’s participation in the story of God revealed in Jesus.

I wonder if Paul anticipates his requests when he stresses how Philemon not only loves the saints but “all the saints.”

Intercession (Philemon 6)

When Paul remembers Philemon, he gives thanks and he also intercedes for him. He petitions God will actively accomplish the purposes of the kingdom in Philemon’s life.

There are some difficult translation problems in verse six. For example, does “fellowship of the faith” (NASB, literal translation) mean the “sharing of faith” (NRSV, as in evangelism, the spread of the kingdom), a “common faith” (NEB, as in a shared commitment to Jesus), or participating in the faith (HCSB, as in Philemon’s active generosity). Whatever the precise meaning, the term koinonia (fellowship, commonality) signals a shared community or something shared with others in the community, and “faith” is the content or context of that sharing and commonality. The point, however construed, reflects the partnership and community Paul and Philemon share.

Paul prays that this common faith—if we read it that way—would become “effective” or “come to expression” (NJB) as Philemon recognizes all the “good” that they—Paul and Philemon together (“us”)—do for Christ.

Paul’s request pushes for a deeper understanding of this commonality that yields positive goods within the community for the sake of Christ. Paul prays God will work in Philemon in such a way that Philemon will comprehend and embrace the good God is doing within the community, including Paul. He wants God to show Philemon the good that God is accomplishing “among us” for Christ. The “us” assumes a deep connection between Paul and Philemon, a shared mission. They both see the good God is doing, and how they both participate in what is happening “for Christ” (literally “toward, for” rather than “in” Christ) or “for Christ’s sake” (NASB).

Paul prays for Philemon’s growth and development. Everything is about Jesus; it is for the glory and honor of Christ. God is working good through Paul’s ministry and in Philemon’s life for sake of the kingdom. Paul wants their “common faith” to become even more “effective” (energized or operative) as Philemon’s grasp of what God is doing expands and deepens. Philemon, Paul desires, must see beyond his own circumstances and see everything through the lens of what is “for Christ.”

Refreshment (Philemon 7)

Paul has high hopes because he knows Philemon’s faith and love has already been effective within the community. Paul sees his own intercession coming to fruition because Philemon already has a track record of loving the saints.

Philemon has “refreshed” the “hearts of the saints” in so many ways. We can only speculate what that refreshment was. Perhaps it is Philemon’s generosity, or perhaps it is patronage of the church through hosting the community in his home, or perhaps it is some other acts of love and kindness toward the people in his community (“the saints”). We don’t know, but it is sufficient to bring Paul “great joy and encouragement.”

Paul writes this letter—and thus makes his requests—out of this basic experience with Philemon: joy and encouragement. Philemon’s life has put a smile on Paul’s face and reassured his heart.

This is who Philemon is, Paul believes. He is a person of faith who loves the saints and generously refreshes their hearts. The people of God, as Paul represents them, rejoice over Philemon’s work and are encouraged by his life.

May God, Paul prays, deepen Philemon’s grasp of the good God is doing in the world among us for the sake of Christ.

The Opening and Closing of the Letter to Philemon

September 19, 2017

As is common in ancient letters from the first century, the letter to Philemon has an identifiable opening (vv. 1-3) and closing (at least 23-25, some say 19-25).

Though brief, they are significant for several reasons.

First, they introduce us to the people connected to this letter. This includes not only the letter’s primary author (Paul) and its main recipient (Philemon) but also the community that surrounds them. Those communities are, apparently, deeply integrated in a common life and narrative.

Second, they introduce use to key theological ideas that shape the world in which these communities live. What appears in the opening and closing is not simply formulaic but arises out of the worldview that shapes these communities.

The Community

Interestingly, whether calculated or not, there are five names in the opening of the letter and five names in the closing of the letter. The symmetry is fascinating, and, if nothing else, balances the brief letter in an interesting way.

The names in this letter unite it with the letter to Colossae. Paul and Timothy are the authors of both letters, Archippus (Colossians 4:17) and Epaphras (Colossians 1:17; 4:2) are prominent in both, and the same four coworkers are named by Paul in both Colossians and Philemon: (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Colossians 4:10, 14).

Due to this shared milieu, most have believed Philemon lived in Colossae, and Epaphras and Archippus were ministry leaders in the church there. One ancient commentator, Theodoret of Cyrhus in Syria (d. 466?), reported that Philemon’s house had “remained to this day” in Colossae (a translation of his commentary is available in the Westminster Theological Journal [Spring 1999]).

If Philemon lived in Colossae, where was Paul a prisoner? Most have suggested Rome, but a strong case can be made for Ephesus. Onesimus is more likely to have met Paul in Ephesus than in Rome. Ultimately, we don’t know.

Either way, Paul emphasizes his imprisonment throughout the letter (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23). He calls himself a “prisoner of Jesus the Messiah” (cf. Ephesians 3:1). Though this might be claimed as an honorific title, socially it was a shameful situation. This emphasis probably intends to socially locate Paul with Onesimus rather than assert some kind of authority over the community. Paul shares the social location of a slave as a prisoner in the Roman system.

Paul, with Timothy, addresses the letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and to the church in “your” (singular) house. Philemon is Paul’s “dear (or, close) friend” (literally, beloved) and “coworker.” This suggests a kind of intimacy as well as shared mission. Coworker, in fact, is probably a technical term for some kind of known or gifted ministry (cf. Romans 16:3, 9, 21; Philippians 2:25; 4:3). Paul, Timothy, Luke, (John) Mark, Demas, and Aristarchus—along with Philemon—are “coworkers.” They are, in a broad sense, a ministry team.

Apphia is the only woman mentioned in the letter. Some suggest she is Philemon’s sister (some manuscripts read “his sister”), a few suggest she is Paul’s biological sister, but most think she is Philemon’s wife. They are addressed as a couple or a husband-and-wife team, much like Priscilla and Aquila (cf. Acts 18:18, 26). The fact that she is named probably intimates that she, along with Philemon and Archippus, are leaders in this house church. Much like “Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” in Micah 6:4 or like Priscilla and Aquila, she is a leader in the community.

Archippus is called a “fellow soldier.” This metaphorical expression reflects his devotion to his vocation or the work he shares with Paul. Some think Archippus is the son of Philemon and Apphia, but it is probably best to regard him as a leader in the church at Colossae, which is also suggested by Colossians 4:17 (“complete the ministry that you have received from the Lord”).

The church—the gathered assembly—meets in someone’s house. The language is singular, but whose house? The most natural suggestion is Philemon, and if Apphia is his wife, then this reflects her interest in the situation as well. Some think it is Archippus’ house since his name is the closest referent and that Philemon and Apphia were members of the congregation. Some suggest the “your” refers to Apphia because when Paul mentions women it is typically because they are leaders in the community in some fashion (cf. “Chole’s people” in 1 Corinthians 1:11). It is impossible to tell though it seems most likely that “your” (singular) refers to Philemon since he is the main addressee in the letter and the other singular second person references are to him throughout the rest of the letter.

Among Paul’s coworkers named in the closing of the letter, four appear as part of Paul’s seemingly regular entourage at this moment in his ministry: (John) Mark, Demas, Luke, and Aristarchus. The latter is the most interesting because Aristarchus is identified as a fellow prisoner in Colossians 4:10. If this is the same person that appears in Acts (19:29; 20:4; 27:2), Aristarchus was involved in the disturbances in Ephesus, traveled with Paul to Jerusalem, and accompanied Paul to Rome as well. Wherever Paul is imprisoned, Aristarchus shares that fate with him.

He was not, however, the only one imprisoned with Paul. Epaphras was as well. Colossae knew Epaphras who, presumably, was a leader in the church at Colossae and was sent by the church there to minister alongside Paul or even to minister to Paul in his adversity (Colossians 1:7; 4:12).

This is an impressive group of people—on both the receiving and sending ends of the letter. Their names loom large, and their names lend weight to the letter’s purpose and request. This is a communal moment about a communal concern; this is no mere personal concern.

A Common Narrative

The opening and closing of the letter project (and assume) a shared worldview, a common narrative. We may recognize this in what is repeated in both the opening and closing, particularly in the language of the “grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

Shared Lord, Jesus the Messiah. This is such familiar language we may miss its world-shattering significance. It signifies, at least, two major points that identify the narrative of the early Christian movement.

First, Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. This is, in part, a political statement. It sets allegiance to Jesus over against allegiance to the Roman Emperor. As such, it marks this community as an alternative one that is different from the surrounding imperial world. The fuller meaning of this confession is lived out in the day-to-day political and economic values of the Roman world, and we see the ramifications of that conflict in the Apocalypse (the book of Revelation) in particular. The believer’s fundamental allegiance is to Jesus.

Second, Jesus is the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One). To call Jesus the Messiah is to link this community with the story of Israel and Israel’s God. The narrative, then, is shaped by all sorts of values, history, and liturgy that constitutes Philemon’s community as part of Israel itself. This confession is not about a Greek “Christ,” but a Jewish Messiah. The church at meets in Philemon’s house is a missional outpost of Israel, part of the diaspora.

Shared Grace. This is the grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah as well as the grace of God the Father. Grace is the fundamental disposition of God toward Israel, toward those who confess Jesus as Lord. This is the atmosphere the church breathes. We are gracious toward each other because God is gracious toward us in Jesus the Messiah. This community is originated in grace, is rooted in grace, and lives that grace. It begins and ends the letter just as it shapes every aspect of the believer’s life in God and with each other.

Shared Mission. “Coworker” appears in both the opening and closing sections of the letter. Practically everyone named is a “coworker,” and we might think of all those named as such. They work together in the same field toward the same goal for the same God whose Messiah is the Lord Jesus.

Shared Hardship. Though it is not the same word, the shared social condition of imprisonment is highlighted in both the opening and closing. Paul is a prisoner, but so is one of Colossae’s own—Epaphras. Paul and the church in Colossae share the same hardship or affliction. They share the same risks as believers. Their common faith places them in a common danger.

Essentially, the opening and closing say, “We are family; we share the same story, mission, and grace.”

The question is, and it remains with us to this day, will we act like family?

The Narrative World of the Letter to Philemon

September 11, 2017

This brief letter contains its own narrative world. What it offers is partial, often ambiguous (to us), but nonetheless profound. I begin this series on Philemon by simply (though it is not all that simple) observing the world this letter evinces.


Paul’s letter presumes a relationship with Philemon who was, presumably, the host of a church in the city where he lived. The letter does not tell us where Philemon lived. Most think he probably resided in Colossae or Laodicea. Paul had never visited these cities (at least at the time when Colossae was written) but peopled frequently traveled between those cities and Ephesus.

Paul spent several years in Ephesus some time in the mid-50s. Through this missional outreach he became acquainted with Philemon whom he led to faith in Jesus the Messiah. Paul regarded him as both a son in the faith and a co-worker.

When Paul wrote the letter, he was in prison. No one is certain where, though the most common identification is Rome. Possibly, perhaps likely in my estimation, Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus. We know Paul endured severe risks in Ephesus (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:8-9) and may have been imprisoned there at some point.

At some point, Paul met Onesimus while in prison. We don’t know much about Onesimus except that he had some kind of relationship with Philemon and was indebted in some way to Philemon. We don’t know how he and Paul met except that when they did, Paul led him to faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Some speculate Onesimus knew something about Paul because of Paul’s relationship with Philemon and sought out Paul because of that. Perhaps he thought Paul might serve as a mediator or peacemaker between Philemon and himself. Or, perhaps Onesimus was also a prisoner when he met Paul. We don’t know. Either way, Paul ultimately sent Onesimus to Philemon with this letter in hand (perhaps also with the letter to Colossae as well).

The letter does not unambiguously tell us what the precise relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was. The traditional suggestion is that Onesimus was a runaway slave (Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrhus both assume this in the early fifth century). Others, though few, suggest the two are biological brothers involved in some kind of quarrel. No one can say with absolute certainty.

The letter’s narrative backstory, then, is “simply” something like this. Paul converted Philemon while in Asia Minor. Then Paul was imprisoned when Onesimus and Paul met. Paul converted Onesimus. Then Paul acted mediated some kind of conflict between Onesimus and Philemon toward reconciliation.

The Plot of the Letter

Community. Paul invites Philemon’s community into this story.

On the one hand, Timothy—whom Philemon presumably also knows—is the “co-author” of this letter with Paul, though the letter uses the first person singular throughout (“I”). Further, Paul sends greetings from others who are present with him, including Epaphras who is imprisoned with Paul as well as (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke who are all identified as “co-workers” just like Philemon is also Paul’s co-worker. In one sense, a whole community addresses Philemon, a community that knows both Onesimus and Philemon. We might even say, the letter carries the weight of that Christian community, and, consequently, its request is a loaded one.

On the other hand, Paul addresses the letter not only to Philemon but also Apphia (“our sister”), Archippus (“our fellow-soldier”), and the whole church that meets in someone’s (“you” is singular) house. Paul’s salutation wishes grace and upon upon the community (“you” is plural in verse 3). Paul addresses the whole community, though Philemon is the principal addressee, which is indicated by the singular second person (“you”) used throughout the rest of the letter. The addressees, however, reflect that Paul’s request is a public one, and the weight of Philemon’s own community is also in play.

These communities are important to the plot of the story. They function as witnesses; they represent the living community or fellowship of believers who will watch what happens. They are, in fact, a gentle peer pressure of sorts since they all share the same communion or fellowship (koinonia). Philemon is no isolated believer who receives a mere individual request. He is part of a community—both in his own home city and in other places. He is a believer in Jesus, and this means he is part of a community larger than his own household.

Reconciliation. Whatever the problem is—which is not unambiguously identified—Paul seeks to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. Since Paul appeals to Philemon, Philemon is, apparently, the offended party. Paul recognizes some kind of debt Onesimus owes Philemon, and Paul is willing to credit this debt to his own account.

What’s at stake is communion or fellowship (koinonia or koinonon) and mutual hospitality (or, welcoming), which lies at the heart of this new movement of believers in Jesus. Fellowship and welcome are the theological values that shape how believers treat each other, and the Philemon-Onesimus-Paul relationship becomes a case in point. Can this new community make peace within its own narrative world? Does it really believe its own story?

Moreover, reconciliation not only serves fellowship but also utility or participation in the work of God in the world. Paul desires Onesimus (whose name means “useful”) to become “useful” in Paul’s ministry. Philemon can make this happen through not only reconciliation but also missionality, that is, Philemon can send Onesimus back to Paul for the sake of ministry.

Further, Paul anticipates more than reconciliation and missional usefuleness. He does not say what that it is explicitly, but it is beyond mere peace and utility. Paul seems to think that if Philemon captures the full story, Philemon will do more than reconcile and send Onesimus back. The gospel, in essence, calls us beyond the boundaries of what is normally expected or even requested. What that might be is something we will consider in later posts.


We don’t know what happened. Did Philemon welcome this letter and respond positively? Were Philemon and Onesimus reconciled? Did Onesimus return to Paul?

Paul invites himself to Philemon’s home, but did Paul ever get the opportunity to go? We don’t know if Paul ever visited Philemon or Colossae. If he is imprisoned in Ephesus, perhaps he did sometime after writing this letter and its companion, the letter to Colossae. We wonder what that reunion might have been like. Perhaps he never had the opportunity.

We don’t know what happened to Onesimus. We would like to know. Some think the Onesimus in this letter is the same as the Onesimus who was bishop of Ephesus in the early second century (see Ignatius’ letter to Ephesus, chapter 1). No one is certain, however.


Ultimately, from where we sit, the letter does not fill out the backstory completely. Our retelling will have to fill in some gaps—sometimes best guesses, sometimes probabilities, rarely certainties.

But that is OK. This is the nature of literature itself. Indeed, it is what we are supposed to do. We enter this world in order to see our own more clearly.

Who are we in this story? Paul, the reconciler? Philemon, the creditor? Onesimus, the debtor? What is our relationship with each other like? What is the goal? Where is the peace? Where is justice? What is the bond between us? What is the conflict? Do we believe our own story? Are we willing to live our own story, even if it costs us?

How will we live together so that faith in Jesus the Messiah is honored, communion is authentic, and shared ministry bears fruit for the sake of the reign of God in the world?

That is the real story of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon, whatever the precise historical factors actually were. That is the story I hope to pursue in this series on Philemon.







Eating with Jesus: Only Once a Week?

September 8, 2017

We pray for daily bread, and we eat daily meals. Yet, some restrict the Lord’s Supper—the meal where we eat at the table of the Lord—to only and exclusively the first day of the week, Sunday. This restriction is a rather unique dimension of Churches of Christ. Is eating with Jesus (Matthew 26:29) restricted to only Sunday?

I think this exclusive approach is misguided. I will offer a few brief reasons. I have no intent to fully air the point here but only offer another approach, which I regard as more rooted in the story of God.

  1. Jesus himself instituted this meal as a continuation of and fulfillment of Israel’s Passover. When Jesus instituted it, it was not on a Sunday but most likely on a Thursday (though some say Wednesday). It seems rather strange that we can only do what Jesus did on Thursday when it is Sunday.
  2. The Passover celebration itself extended beyond a single day. It involved a whole week of feasting at the table of God. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was a daily meal with God from Sabbath to Sabbath (Leviticus 23:6-8). Israel ate their feast daily throughout a whole week of celebration. It was not limited to a single day. Israel, which is renewed in the church, knew ate with God during whole weeks of celebrations.
  3. Israel ate with God regularly, even daily, throughout its history through its sacrificial system. For example, the “fellowship” (well-being or peace offerings), whether as thanksgiving offerings or vow offerings, were offered regularly, sometimes daily (Leviticus 3 & 7). Whenever anyone had a thanksgiving to offer or a vow to make, they offered a fellowship offering, which involved eating with God at the table. They were also part of the weeklong celebrations of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Tabernacles, and Feast of Pentecost (Harvest) as daily meals with God in the community of faith. When talking about the Lord’s table, Paul advised the church to “consider the people of Israel” (1 Corinthians 10:18).
  4. On the day of Pentecost when God poured out the Spirit upon the church for the renewal of Israel (as Joel 2 promised), they continued in the apostle’s teaching and in fellowship, particularly in the breaking of bread and prayers (Acts 2:42). The Jerusalem church broke bread daily (Acts 2:46); it was not simply a weekly event nor only for Sunday.
  5. When Paul guides the church in Corinth in how to eat with God at the Lord’s table in 1 Corinthians 11, he does not specify any particular time but simply says “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:26). He does not say, “as often as you do this every Sunday.” His language is “whenever you do this…” (the same meaning as the only other time this language appears in Revelation 11:6).
  6. When we break bread at the table of the Lord, we eat with Jesus who hosts the table, and we commune with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Eating with God is a grand privilege, and there is nothing inappropriate with eating a daily meal with God.

Some restrict eating with God to Sunday because they read Acts 20:7-12 as an exclusive example that prescribes a weekly breaking of bread.

  1. On one hand, I strongly favor weekly communion. The intersection of the first day of the week, breaking bread (eating with Jesus), and the resurrection is a significant one. The first day of the week is the day of our deliverance because it is the day God raised Jesus from the dead by the Spirit. The same reason the church gathers every first day of the week is the same reason it should want to eat with Jesus every first day of the week. Eating with the living Jesus who hosts the table of the Lord is a celebration of the resurrection, and if that is so, why omit the divine ordinance God has given to the church to celebrate it when we gather on the first day of every week?
  2. On the other hand, the fact that the early church ate with Jesus every first day of the week does not mean this is the only day the church can eat with Jesus. Indeed, the Jerusalem church ate with Jesus every day (Acts 2:46).
  3. The prescriptive and restrictive use of Acts 20:7 assumes (a) the church did this every Sunday [which is not stated], (b) that action excludes any other time [this assumes that what it does not include it must exclude], (c) there are no other texts that indicate other times as well as Sunday [though Acts 2:46, in the same book of the Bible, notes another time], (d) implies a command to eat only and every first day of the week [though no such command appears anywhere in the New Testament], and (e) a hermeneutic that since Jesus commanded us to eat the Lord’s Supper Scripture must tell us exactly when to do so [thus dictating what Scripture must tell us, and if it must tell us, then we will find it].
  4. Acts 20:7 is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it is not a law. It describes what the church in Troas did but not necessarily what it had to do. It provides a good model which has theological import (the coordination of the first day of the week, resurrection, and breaking bread just like Luke 24), but it does not exclude other times when we might eat with Jesus.

The church participates in the story of Israel. Just as Israel, from its opening day assembly in Exodus 24:9-11 (“day of assembly in Deut 9:10), ate with God weekly and daily, so the church may also eat with Jesus weekly and daily.

One of my great joys is to eat with Jesus in the company of my students, home guests, and assemblies. I think we should eat with Jesus at least every week, and I enjoy it more often than that.


On Reading Philemon

September 7, 2017

Philemon is a brief letter with only 335 words in the Greek text, and it appears in the New Testament without any specific context. Philemon and Onesimus, the main characters in the letter’s story, are unknown elsewhere in the New Testament. Many, if not most of the details, are lost to us as readers to whom this letter appears as a stranger walking out of the fog.

But we are not totally lost.

The letter arises out of a community that confesses Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah. This lies at the letter’s core; it is its fundamental narrative. The letter does not defend or develop this confession in terms of its content, but it assumes it, builds on it, and calls others to live within it.

That world is centered on Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord.

  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 1)
  • “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
  • “for (into, toward) Christ” (v. 6)
  • “in Christ” (v. 8).
  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 9)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 16)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 20)
  • “in Christ” (v. 20)
  • “fellow prisoner in Christ” (v. 23)
  • “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 25).

This is a world where believers belong to Jesus, suffering as prisoners for the sake of the Messiah (3x); where believers live “in the Messiah/Lord” (4x); where grace and peace are gifts of God and Jesus the Messiah (2x); and where everything one does is oriented toward (eis) the Messiah.

The Christian narrative sees the world through the Messiah. It sees the world through grace (v. 3, 25), peace (v. 3), and love (v. 2, 4, 7, 9, 16) from which flow joy (v. 7) and encouragement (v. 7, 9) as the hearts (guts; v. 7, 12, 20) of believers are refreshed within the family of God. In this world, fellow believers are family—brothers, sisters, and children (1, 2, 7, 10, 16, 20). They are co-workers (v. 2, 24) and partners (v. 6, 17) who welcome each other (v. 17). This community is rooted in the gospel (v. 13); it is what the gospel produces. It is the fruit of the Spirit.

Whatever the exact issue or concern Paul addresses in this letter, he does so out of a narrative world centered on his conviction that Jesus is Lord, Israel’s Messiah. The God of Israel has poured out grace upon Israel, renewed peace, and saturated Israel with love.

Paul addresses a community grounded in that work of God. Paul includes the gathered people of God (ecclesia) that meets in Philemon’s (?) house among his addressees. He also sends greetings from other believers who are known to that community. Stretching from Paul’s community to Philemon’s, Paul assumes a shared life (koinonia, v. 7) rooted in familial love, mutuality, and faith.

Paul (and Timothy!) writes from a community to a community about a situation between two believers (Philemon and Onesimus). The church overhears Paul’s requests. Paul attends to the situation—whatever it is—in the context of the whole church. What may have been strictly personal becomes public because Paul assumes that the nature of the Messianic community in Christ involves the whole community when facing this particular issue (whatever it is).

Philemon, then, must respond—not as an isolated individual—but as a person who lives in the Messiah’s community; he must respond as a member of the family.

The gospel drives this; indeed, the gospel demands this (“obedience,” v. 21).

Consequently, when we read this brief letter, we enter a world that assumes a narrative about how the world is different because Jesus is Lord. And the letter says something about what a difference that makes.

The letter to Philemon is a window into the relationality and mutuality of the early Christian church, and the letter evinces what values ground that life together.

Out of the Mouth (Matthew 15:10-28)

August 23, 2017

Lesson preached at All Saints Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, on August 20, 2017 by Taylor Bonner.

Εκ του στόματος

A few years ago I was reliving my high school football glory days on the intramural flag football fields at Lubbock Christian University. This was one of my favorite events to participate in with my social club! There were crowds of fans, about ten people, who would huddle together in the blistering Lubbock wind to come watch the social clubs play. We had just finished a game one night and I was talking with one of my good friends. I do not remember what we were talking about, but I do remember that during the course of this conversation I made a vulgar joke. I do not remember what the joke was about, but what I do remember, quite plainly, was my friend calling me out. I remember my friend asking “Why did you say that?” I did not know why I said it, but I was more taken aback by the fact that I had been called out for saying something that was hurtful and wrong. I apologized to him, told him that he was entirely correct, and walked away feeling convicted. To this day I still remember him calling me out, afterwards telling me that he thinks a lot of me and has the utmost respect for me, and that it was this respect and love that caused him to confront me in the first place.

Did my friend love me in this moment? I believe my friend knew the importance of critically analyzing what comes out of our mouths, and how what comes out of our mouths reflect the nature of our hearts. To put a different way, our voices which animate and give life to our words, are signposts to who we really are. Do not get me wrong actions are important, and it is because of this that I often question the dichotomy we sometimes erect between words and actions, as if speaking or not speaking cannot be seen as an action? Jesus knew this all too well. Jesus knew the action of speech is an indicator of the content of our character.

In Matthew 15:10-20 we find Jesus fleshing this idea out. He says, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles him.” In verse 18 and following, after Peter asks Jesus to elaborate because of Peter’s confusion, Jesus explains that the heart is the origin for that which comes out of the mouth. What comes out of the mouth, can say a lot about what is occurring in one’s innermost being. Jesus does not view speech and action as a dichotomy, I believe Jesus sees the two as intertwined, because someone can “do” the right actions; the Pharisees could observe the proper dietary restrictions and ritual cleansing that must occur prior to eating. How do they speak of others, though? How do they witness to others? Are their words burdensome to the oppressed? Jesus is concerned with the heart, who we really are.

It is indeed interesting that right after this passage we encounter the story of the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon possessed daughter. A story in which I believe Jesus’ prior comments about speech come heavily into play. The identification of this woman as a gentile should not be overlooked and might provide some insight into why Jesus seemingly appears to be so callous. The identification of this woman as a Canaanite would immediately set Matthew’s Jewish audience on edge. This very specific identification would recall, for this Jewish audience, their history and story. Within this story they would remember the tremendous amount of conflict they had with the Canaanites. This group of people were viewed more or less as dogs; looked down upon because they weren’t “fully human”, they were the ones who tried to stand in direct opposition between Yahweh and his chosen people. I believe what we have here in Matthew 15:21-28 is an issue of race, an issue between Jew and Gentile. In this story we have an inferior Canaanite woman who is approaching the Son of David. Yet what comes out of this woman’s mouth is surely shocking. This gentile woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…” This woman has referred to Jesus as her Lord and the Son of David, a direct identification of his royal lineage. This is hardly something a Canaanite woman juxtaposed with the Kingdom of God should have said, and yet it came out of her mouth.

Almost immediately the disciples enter into the scene. These are the disciples of the Son of David, the living Messiah! These are the ones who were with Jesus in Matthew 8 witnessing Jesus’ affirmation that the Centurion’s faith was greater than anyone he has found in Israel! What will these disciples of Jesus Christ say to this woman whose daughter is experiencing a demonic event?! They came to Jesus and implored him, “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us.” Then Jesus does something incredible, he momentarily adopts the racism of his disciples in order to allow the woman to rhetorically dismantle that very racism. I must make this clear, I am not saying Jesus is racist! What I am saying is that Jesus is bringing out the racism the disciples are operating under. Much like a wound that requires the infection to be brought forth and then cleansed, Jesus himself is exposing the infectious modus operandi of the disciples. What is particularly interesting about this story is that though Jesus brings to light this racist ideology, he will allow the gentile woman to cleanse it. It will not be Jesus who teaches the disciples in this episode; rather, it will be the crying, begging, inferior “dog” right across from them. Jesus says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel!” I can see the disciples nodding their heads in agreement saying, “This is our Messiah. We are the chosen people, this is our inheritance, the promises of God are for us alone, go back to where you came from!” The woman begs “Lord, help me!” Jesus responds, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” The necks of the disciples are suffering from whiplash at this point from nodding so furiously in agreement! “Yes Jesus! We are the children, she is the dog, the promises of God revealed, embodied, and actualized by you are for us alone!” Then this “inferior” woman stops the vehement nodding of heads and says, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.” Even the so called dogs are rightful partakers of the kingdom of God and the promises contained therein. This woman has demonstrated that the Kingdom of God is not determined by geographic location or racial prejudices. This woman has correctly identified what the Kingdom of God and this Messiah are all about. I can picture Jesus smiling when he says, “O woman, your faith is indeed great…” What came out of her mouth? What came out of the disciple’s mouths? How did the disciples respond to this woman? What does this indicate about their hearts? Just as the woman challenged the disciple’s response to her demonic event, a response born out of racism, I believe this woman can challenge us today in our response to demonic events.

Church, our nation experienced a demonic event a little over a week ago. In response to this event we had many things coming out of our mouths. I read and heard of many pastors calling out this event for what it was, hate-filled, domestic terrorism, and a demonstration of the erroneous and devastating belief that some are better than others. Yet I also heard and read of many other things coming from the mouths of disciples. This past week I heard preachers speak of waiting, to allow time for growth to occur and work towards preparing the ground to become ripe for the harvest, as if the most bountiful yield any farmer has ever seen did not at first begin with the difficult but necessary work of plowing and tilling the hard and unprepared soil of potentiality.

I have heard it said, “be like Jesus”, as if Jesus himself did not carry harsh words and critiques towards the oppressive and burdensome religiosity of the Pharisees.

I have heard it said that we must continue to love, as if love is the antithesis of speaking out against those who are striving to strip others of not only their humanity, but also their divine right to daughtership and sonship.

These are not only wrong because they are full of fallacies, but they are wrong because they all advocate for Christians to wait. In regards to the events of last week, there can be no delay in response from the church, there must not be passivity in our voice when it comes to racism and white supremacy. If we wait, if we are passive, and if we do not raise our voice against the evils we witnessed, then we have proclaimed quite loudly who we truly are. If, in response to this event, our sermons sound more like the sermons of white pastors during the Civil Rights era advocating for passivity and waiting for a more opportune time to take action, then we, too, side with the oppressor.

So did my friend love me when he directly called me out for my vulgar joke? Did my friend love me even though I walked away feeling convicted and ashamed. Did my friend love me when he chose to say something then and there, instead of waiting for a more opportune time? My friend loved me more in that moment than anyone else who had chosen to listen to this joke and say nothing.

I have witnessed a teaching that is growing in the church. A teaching that either explicitly or implicitly identifies love as the absence of confrontation. I do not know where this teaching came from, but it certainly did not originate from the very confrontational Jesus of Nazareth revealed in the scriptures, nor did it derive from the early history of the church and its direct confrontation with many of the social norms and policies of the Roman Empire. The problem with this philosophy of love is that if you are able to define love as that space in which confrontation does not occur, love becomes incredibly safe. When love becomes incredibly safe, we as the church and disciples within the body of Christ are able to hide under a self-constructed safety net of pseudo-love. And isn’t it quite interesting whenever we speak of “love” it just so happens, it’s a curious thing really, to by chance coincide with what is politically, theologically, and financially safest for our congregations at the current moment? Love is not safe, love is not in the business of self-preservation and complacency. Christian love is a dagger cutting through our natural instincts to protect ourselves and an outright challenge towards our timidity in risking ourselves for others. And what we love, how we love, and how we respond to what is happening in our country and the domestic terrorism instigated by white supremacists will show others the contents of our hearts and with whom we really identify. So who are we Church, what are the contents of our hearts? What will we say to these events and the events that unfortunately seem as if they are bound to follow? Will we be passive, or will we love? Will we wait, or will we love? Will we be silent, or will we love? For to do nothing, to say nothing, to call for waiting instead of action is to look into the eyes of the incarnate Christ and say to him “you were wrong.” What will we say? What will come out of our mouths?


Suffrage, Women, and Creation

July 6, 2017

In 1917, only a mere one hundred years ago after fifty years of suffrage in the state of New York, women voted in state elections.

In 1874, D. G. Porter, a minister within the American Restoration Movement, wrote an article entitled “Republican Government and the Suffrage of Women” (“Christian Quarterly” [October 1874] 489-90) in which he concluded that women do not have the right to vote “unless, indeed, it is proposed to proceed upon what seems the absurdest of all principles; namely, subordination at home and in the Church, but independence and equality abroad. We call this proposition absurd, because it would seem that if woman can be equal to man in authority anywhere, it must be at home and in the Church; and that her equality here, if indeed that ought to be her position, must be the foundation of her equality in external affairs.”
According to the argument, 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women to have authority over men because this is the order God instituted in creation. If this order is rooted in creation, it is universal. It cannot apply simply to the home or church, but it must apply to society as a whole. Consequently, women do not have the right to exercise the authority of voting or have authority over men in any situation in human culture.
This was a common argument in the late nineteenth century, and we can see something similar in some of the most respected leaders among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
James A. Harding wrote in 1903 (“The Way” [5 March]):
Paul lays down the general law under which he makes the special legislation concerning women speaking in church…it is wrong for her so to usurp authority anywhere…the same principles that prevent her from teaching in the church, prevail in the schoolroom or anywhere else; it is a question of women usurping authority over men and becoming leaders of them.”
David Lipscomb also wrote:
For women to enter the work of public speaking or of leadership in the affairs of this world is to cut them off from childbearing (Gospel Advocate [3 July 1913], 635)
Woman’s work in life is to bear and train children. No higher, holier, more sacred work has ever been committed to human beings. This is her chiefest work in life. If there were not a passage of scripture on the subject except to indicate this, it would forbid her engaging in any work incompatible with this. Public speaking in any of the callings of life that demand a constant strain on the mind, a constant anxiety and care in reference to the public affairs of church or state, an excitement of the ambitions for place and power, not only destroy her taste for and cause her to neglect the home and family duties, the duties of wife and mother, but such a strain on the mind destroys the ability for childbearing (Questions Answered, 739).
R. C . Bell (The Way, 1903, 776):
woman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for woman’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly….Every public woman—lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all—would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them….You are now no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power
History enlightens us.

Embracing Creation

April 27, 2017

The Ray Evans Seminar, an annual event at the Alameda Church of Christ in Norman, Oklahoma, was held March 31-April 2, 2017.

The general topic was Embracing Creation, which is also the title of the book I co-authored with Bobby Valentine and Mark Wilson. The book is available here.

I gave six presentations as well as conducted a question and answer session.  You can download audio or video to your ITunes or listen online here.  You will need to scroll down to the appropriate date (March 31-April 2, 2017).

These are the titles of the presentations:

  1.  A Cathedral of Praise:  God, Creation, and Humanity.
  2.  The Joy of Creation: The Testimony of the Psalms.
  3.  Jesus: The Agent of Creation and New Creation.
  4.  The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth: The New Heaven and New Earth
  5.  Question and Answer Session
  6.  Creation and New Creation in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  7.  Why “Go to Church?”- Joining Heaven and Earth in the Praise of God

I provided this meager handout for the first four sessions.

Alexander Campbell’s Relationship to Protestantism

April 19, 2017

The following is three paragraphs from a paper which I have just placed on my Academic page.

The paper is entitled “The Unfinished Business of the Protestant Reformation: Alexander Campbell’s Relationship to Protestantism.”  It was delivered on April 8, 2017 at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference held at Johnson University. You may read the full paper here: Unfinished Business Paper.

“The function of the “restoration of the ancient order,” therefore, was not the restoration of Christianity as if Christianity itself had not existed for the 1000 years prior to 1809 (or 1804). Rather, it was a reformation through restoration which adjusted the present order so that it might more faithfully practice the ancient order, that is, to practice Christianity the way the apostles and their converts did.

But if this has no creedal function as a test of communion, what is accomplished by an exposition of the ancient order? Campbell answered that question in the series’s first article. “A restoration of the ancient order of things,” he wrote, “is all that is necessary to the happiness and usefulness of Christians.” The ancient order is a means to the comfort and practical vitality of a Christian community, which is a kind of perfecting or sanctifying of the community. This is communal sanctification rather than foundational Christian identity. The restored order functions as a means of grace that enables believers to more fully experience their faith in community, actualizes the visible unity of the church as congregations conform to it, and tends toward the conversion of the world. A united church—in both faith (evangelical core) and practice (ecclesial forms according to the ancient order)—is equipped for mission, which is the primary task of the church.

In other words, Campbell’s project for the restoration of the ancient order as well as the ancient gospel is an agenda within “Evangelical Protestantism” rather than in opposition to it. Campbell never intended his ancient order to become a particular version of Protestantism around which a sect would emerge. That is the very thing Campbell adamantly opposed as sects were built upon what is unique. Rather, the ancient order practiced Christianity minus the particularities of modern Protestantism without unchristianizing Protestants.”


Holy Saturday, Graves, and the Abundant Life

April 14, 2017

Every life visit graves, and every life ends with a grave.

Where is the abundant life when we are standing beside a grave?

I imagine that question passed through the minds of the disciples as they hid behind locked doors after Jesus died. From their vantage point, “Good Friday” was not good. It squashed their dreams and dashed their hopes. The abundant life ended with the death of Jesus.

The disciples had invested everything in Jesus. They left everything and followed him. They thought he was the Redeemer of Israel, the Messiah. Hope filled their lives, and they had some amazing experiences filled with joy and expectation. The abundant life was theirs, but now it had disappeared; it had evaporated before their eyes in a matter of hours.

Holy Saturday is the day we sit with the disciples in their fear, grief, and disillusionment. We sit with them because those days are also part of our lives. We don’t live on a mountain peak of praise and joy every day. Some days we have to face pain, hurt, and even death.

To skip Holy Saturday minimizes death and the world’s pain. To rush from Friday to Sunday fails to hear the victims, hurts, and the dark realities present in the world. We must listen, and we must weep with those who weep. We must weep for our own hurt as well as the hurts of others.

Jesus suffered with us in death, and his death reminds us that death is part of life. Suffering comes before glory; death comes before resurrection.

Abundant life faces life’s challenges, acknowledges the reality of suffering, and follows Jesus through suffering into life.

The abundant life does not avoid or escape suffering. On the contrary, it endures it, and the abundant life triumphs over it. Like Jesus, we must first suffer and then enter into glory. Only those who have suffered or suffered with others know authentic life.

Let us sit with the disciples this day; let us sit with the hopeless, the weary, the hurting, and the victims. Let us await the dawn of Easter with them.

Dry Bones Live (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

April 3, 2017

GUEST POST:  This is a homily delivered by Mackenzie Steele at All Saints Church of Christ on April 2, 2017.  Thanks, Mackenzie!


There are two realities present in the season of Lent: One, I am a broken person dependent upon God for redemption. Two, the world is a broken place, created for good and dependent on God through the work of the Spirit to return to that intended good. In the first, I am defined by my sinful nature; indeed I view myself entirely bad and in need of the grace of God each day. This may be true, and I would not discount the need for this reminder through the season of Lent. But, as a recovering fundamentalist, being defined by my sinfulness creates a legalism that I find unhealthy in my relationship with God. Which leads me to the second reality of Lent: the world is indeed a broken place, where the story of God has been replaced by stories of consumerism and greed and a false sense of happiness and security. Although it was created for good, it has fallen prey to brokenness. This is the world in which the church finds itself. In both of these realities, Lent is understood as the recognition of sinfulness and brokenness in preparation for the glorious celebration of Easter.

So I have found myself in tension this week in preparing for today because the texts from the Lectionary this week, as we have heard them already, are resurrection texts. The turn towards resurrection life, although typically reserved for Easter Sunday, is a necessary reality this afternoon. It would be impossible to read Ezekiel 37 and not hear the beautiful language of new life coming up from the dust. The desperate nature of Lent is important, but I think it can be heard in this resurrection text as much as anywhere else.

In my initial reading of this text, it was easy to focus on myself as the dry bones, the broken person in need of God’s redemption. And for the purposes of Lent, this is one good reading of this passage. However, I would suggest that we focus on that second reality of Lent as I mentioned before: we are resurrection people, who live in a broken world in desperate need of God’s promise of resurrection life from Spirit-empowered people. So we look forward to the second coming of Jesus, in which all things are made new. And we wait in the season of Lent, recognizing our dependence on God as new-creation people to partner with God for the sake of the world.

I would like to read this passage again, and allow you to imaginatively experience this text in light of this truth: the world is the valley God has placed the redeemed church within. God desires for the church to speak new breath into the world as Ezekiel does for the bones. Allow yourself to enter the scene of this text: a valley full of dry bones, lying in wait for the mighty work of the Spirit through Ezekiel. Let me read this again as you enter into your imagination, recognizing that our imaginations are animated by the Spirit who is at work in all things:

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.

Imagine this scene. Take in the sights, smells, sounds. Allow yourself to enter into this moment as Ezekiel did, with the hand of the Lord resting upon you.

And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Imagine how you would react to this request. What thoughts go through your head? What emotions do you feel? How is your body responding to this command from God?

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.

Can you hear the surprised tone? Everything had happened exactly as God had commanded. And yet, the actual life hadn’t been breathed into the bodies yet.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Recognize the power of this moment. Life was returned to the death of the valley. We were allowed to partner with God in the act of making things new. God chose us to be vessels for his power, and the display of his power created a reality within us that we didn’t know existed. God answers his own question that he poses to us. “Can these bones live?” Yes, and they will be a sign of the power of God for the rest of the world to see. More than that, the embodied experience of making new life is a reality that we now carry; we have confidence that we can partner with God in redeeming creation again.

Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

The Lord promises to meet us in our graves and pull us out. God meets us in our humanity, in our frailty, and gives us the Spirit of life. By this we know that he is God. And by this we desire for others to know that he is God.

We are partners with God for the sake of the world. We have been called to breathe the Spirit of life into the death of the world, where pain and suffering and brokenness reign and where hope seems lost. We the church are called to live lives animated by the Spirit, experienced in our own resurrection from the dead in our baptism into new life. Just like Ezekiel, we have been given the power of an embodied experience of new life. Just think of the moment when you surrendered your life to Jesus. That lived experience of dying to ourselves and being raised into the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation upon which we recognize the power of God in our lives and in the world. Think of the other aspects of assembled worship:

We sing songs that remind us who we are and who we worship, and that transformation of identity shapes the ways we think and speak during our week. We give of ourselves financially, and that creates a discipline of generosity that we practice in more ways than monetarily throughout our week. We listen to the word of God proclaimed, and this grounds our knowledge in Scripture as a participatory narrative for our week. We take communion, participating in the sacrifice and power of God as a sending into the world, that we may live as children of God redeemed by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit.

In our gathering, we breathe in the life of community and we are reminded of our sending out into the world. These are the experiences through which we are trained to worship God in our week, and in our worship we are aware of the presence of God at work and our calling to partner with God for the redemption of all things. In this we place our hope, even as we recognize the brokenness of the world. This is the tension we live in, particularly in the season of Lent. And this is what makes our celebration of Easter that much more important: in Easter, we celebrate our resurrection in the present and the hope of the resurrection to come for all of creation.

May we the church, who claim resurrection power through the Spirit at work within us, partner with God to breathe life into the valley of the dry bones around us, and hope in eager expectation for the fullness of resurrection life in the Kingdom to come. Amen.

Nicodemus (John 3:1-17)

March 23, 2017

GUEST POST:  Becky Frazier delivered this sermon at the All Saints Church of Christ on March 12, 2017. Becky is an M.Div. student at Lipscomb University.  Thanks for sharing, Becky!


In this passage, we meet a man by the name of Nicodemus; he’s a Pharisee, and a well-respected leader, possibly even a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a good Jew. He’s very well read, and knows the scriptures backward and forward. And he’s likely heard some of the inflammatory things that Jesus has said and seen the miraculous works that he has done.

So he comes to talk to Jesus, and John tells us that he does this at night. Most scholars will agree that he’s coming under cover of darkness so no one, specifically his Pharisee friends, will catch him talking to Jesus. He addresses him: Rabbi- Teacher- a sign of respect, saying “we know that you are from God, because we’ve seen the signs you do.”

Jesus’s response to this is “Truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is confused; after all, he hadn’t asked what he needed to do to see the Kingdom of God. He hadn’t asked anything at all. Really, he had just come in and said a respectful hello when Jesus responds with this statement about being born again. Though it might seem like Jesus is abruptly changing the subject, I don’t think he is. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Nicodemus asks “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answers, “Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  Jesus tell Nicodemus, “Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

But despite Jesus’s admonishment not to be, Nicodemus is surprised and says incredulously “How can this be?!”

In other places, Jesus tells his followers and the crowds that the Kingdom of God is like salt, or light, or leaven, but here, Jesus tells Nicodemus, you can’t even SEE the Kingdom of God until you take a step back and come at this from a different angle, until you see if from above.

It’s important to understand that the phrase that we translate as “born again” actually has a dual meaning in the original Greek. It could mean born again or it could also mean born from above. Nicodemus, the great scholar that he is, choses the most basic meaning of this phrase “born again” and doesn’t consider the possibility of a deeper, more spiritual understanding of being “born from above”.

You can see why he would be so oblivious. After all, he’s a prominent Jewish teacher. The text refers to him as THE Teacher of Israel: Well-read, highly knowledgeable, respected in the community. He has all of the right letters after his name, went to the best school, attends synagogue every week. He doesn’t even need to be born again physically. He’s a Jew. He was born right to begin with. He was born into the covenant community, into God’s chosen people.

Even today, the term “born-again Christian” refers to someone who has a great conversion story. Someone who left behind a life of drugs, or alcohol, or another type of addiction. Someone who was sexually immoral. Someone who was on a self-destructive path but has now come to know Jesus and turned their life around. But Nicodemus is exactly the kind of person that does NOT need to be born again and he knows it.

So, back to my earlier point, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, we can see that you are a teacher come from God”, and then abruptly Jesus tells him that he needs to be born again, to be born from above, Jesus is not introducing a new subject to their conversation. What he’s saying is, Nicodemus, you don’t need another teacher. You don’t need another book to read or another idea to discuss and develop. Nicodemus, you don’t need more education, you need a savior.

Jesus references a scene from the old testament where poisonous snakes are sent to the Israelites who are wandering in the desert. Moses petitions God to save the Israelites from this terror and so he made a bronze snake on a staff and anyone who had been bitten just needed to look at the snake and the poison would vanish and the victim would live. Jesus is comparing himself to that snake, and foreshadows his own death on the cross. Jesus knew that Nicodemus needed to be saved from the poison that was spreading inside him, but this poison didn’t look like a life of sin and debauchery. It looked like a life of strict conservative religion that had lost the plot somewhere along the way.

In the words of Tim Keller, Jesus isn’t calling Nicodemus to morality and religion. He’s challenging the established morality and religion. He’s reminding him that God loves all of his creation and has always been trying to move us closer and closer into relationship with him. Verse 16 is probably one of the most well-known verses in the entire bible: children in Sunday school memorize it, athletes write it on their faces, it’s on bumper stickers on our cars: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

You see, Nicodemus’s, like his other Pharisee friends, had been guilty of trying to put the Spirit into a box, to contain it and give it structure and pass judgement on who was allowed to have it. Jesus says, “No, the Spirit is like the wind, which blows wherever it chooses.” If you try to close all of the doors and windows to keep in the wind, it’s just going to end up musty and airless in the room while the breeze dances with the trees outside. The same is true when we try to box in the Spirit and put rules around it, and keep it for ourselves.

Many of the Jews, like Nicodemus, had forgotten that their entire purpose, the whole reason that they were God’s chosen people to begin with was to be a blessing to the world, as we saw from the reading in Genesis earlier. But they had gotten so focused on being special that their navel-gazing kept them from this holy work. I think I may identify a bit too much with Nicodemus here. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of thinking that “those people” need a rebirth, need salvation, but not me. I grew up a Christian. I read the Bible. I’ve never done anything too bad. I’m going to school to be a preacher and I’ve done a lot of reading about God. I wonder how many times I’ve hindered the work of the Kingdom by thinking that the Spirit couldn’t possibly work in that way, or in that place, or in those people.

It seems that Nicodemus ended up having his re-birth after all. We hear of him again briefly, twice more in the book of John. In one case, he was standing up to the Pharisees who were trying to arrest Jesus. And, after Jesus’s death, we see him one last time, bringing oils and spices to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. His re-birth from above came when he truly saw Jesus and what he had come to do.

This week, as we see signs of spring and rebirth all around us, I hope that you will be challenged by Nicodemus to see what areas in your life need a rebirth from above. Maybe it’s in how you view other people. Maybe it’s in how you view your call, your part in the work of the kingdom. And maybe it’s in how you view God and what he can and is doing among us to bring about reconciliation and redemption to the whole world. Birth isn’t easy. It’s long and painful and scary and just when it’s over, the task of nurturing that new life is just as long and painful and scary, but when the end result is that we are finally able to see the Kingdom of God, we know that it was all worth it in the end.


St. Photini of Samaria – Woman, Evangelist, and Martyr

March 20, 2017

GUEST POST:  Claire Frederick of Nashville, TN, earned an M.Div. graduate from Lipscomb University and is presently the  Program Director of Engage at Lipscomb University.  Yesterday, March 19, 2017, she delivered this sermon at the All Saints Church of Christ yesterday.  I wanted to share it with you on this Feast day of St. Photini of Samaria (March 20).  Thanks for sharing, Claire!   JMH

 Text:  John 4:5-42

Last week we heard an excellent sermon here at All Saints Church of Christ on the Pharisee, Nicodemus, of John chapter 3. And I’d like to compare and contrast the Samaritan Woman and Nicodemus just a bit this evening.  

Nicodemus was a man, a Jew, a teacher of Israel, a member of the religious elite. He was an insider to the covenant community, and yet, he did not fully grasp (at this point anyway) what the Spirit of God was up to concerning Jesus.

Jesus had told Nicodemus that the Spirit (like a wind) blows wherever it pleases. It cannot be kept in a box, contained, controlled or predicted. For followers of Jesus, it’s simply our job to try and keep up with the movements of this Spirit.

Well, this week the Spirit is about to blow Jesus right through the region of Samaria, which is an unusual move on Jesus’ part because most Jews, as we well know, avoided Samaritans like the plague due to longstanding racial hostilities.

There was an unspoken travel ban on crossing this border.

But the text says Jesus HAD to go through Samaria; there was some radical boundary crossing Jesus HAD to do; and some walls the Spirit HAD to break down concerning certain categories of who is invited to fully participate in the Kingdom of God.

But more about that in a minute.

Last week, Jesus and Nicodemus spoke at night under cover of darkness. This week we find Jesus sitting beside a well at high noon in broad daylight, conversing with a Samaritan woman.

As someone who questions Jesus, her story in some ways parallels that of Nicodemus. For example, Nicodemus was thinking too literally about being “born again” and how to accomplish that exactly; the Samaritan woman is thinking too literally about “living water” and how she can get her hands on enough of it so that she will never again go thirsty. They both need to take their thinking to another level, a spiritual level.

Nicodemus thinks that his physical birthright as a Jew gives him correct standing with God. The Samaritan woman thinks that worshiping at the correct location in the correct temple is what makes a person right with God, and both desire clarity and insight into these matters.

Jesus will have to open up both of their minds to a deeper understanding of the work of the Spirit and how a time is coming and is already here—when the Spirit of the Most High God will not live in “temples made by human hands” (Acts 7:48), but will be, as the prophet says: “poured out upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28), upon “all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

You see, people’s bodies are meant to be temples where God’s Spirit resides (1 Cor. 6:19). And because of that democratizing, eschatological reality, true worshippers can worship the Father in spirit and in truth anywhere and everywhere — under an oak tree, in a field, on a mountaintop, or right here in this chapel today.

And likewise, anyone can become a mouthpiece for God, can prophesy about God—regardless of gender, class, age, race, or status. In many ways, the Samaritan woman here is Acts 2:17-18 and Galatians 3:28 personified and prefigured.

There are many similarities between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, but there are important differences too. She is not the preferred gender in a patriarchal society; she is not of the chosen people, the pure-bred Jewish race; she is without social power or standing, particularly considering the fact that she has no husband.

And yet, Jesus makes time for her, HAD to go through Samaria to speak with her.

If you look at the icon above, you will see an Eastern Orthodox image of the Samaritan woman from our story today. Church tradition relates that the Apostles baptized her with the name “Photini” or “Photine” meaning “enlightened one.” Her feast day is celebrated on Feb. 26 in the Greek tradition and is celebrated today, March 20, in the Slavic tradition.

Now we know from the text, that after her life-changing conversation with Christ, she went and told her entire town that she had met the Messiah. And because of her testimony, many of the townspeople came to a saving belief in Jesus. For this reason, she is sometimes hailed as the “first female evangelist” or the “first to proclaim the good news or gospel of Jesus.”

But the history of Western interpretation for Photine has been unkind and unfair, because of her five husbands. I wonder how many sermons we’ve all heard condemning her adulterous lifestyle, her promiscuity. I’ve often heard that the reason why she was at the well at high noon was to avoid the gossip and the finger-pointing of other morally superior women who would’ve come to get their water at a decent hour of the morning, in cooler temperatures.

Yet nothing in the tone of these verses conveys that Jesus is condemning the woman and her history. That tone belongs to centuries of commentators, not to Jesus. Jesus’s words here appear to be more a statement of fact than of judgment. I hear a note of empathy and compassion here, rather than condemnation.

You see, the Samaritans followed the same Laws of Moses that the Jews had in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). And so, according to those laws, women could not initiate divorce, but a husband could. We have assumed that divorce was something she chose or caused, but that’s not necessarily true. It could have been something done to her.

According to Deuteronomy 24:1, “If a man’s wife becomes displeasing to him, because he finds something indecent about her, he could write her a certificate of divorce, and send her away from his house.” This left the woman in a vulnerable position. The reasons for a husband’s displeasure were expanded over the years to include everything from infertility to the quality of her cooking.

There is then the possibility that this woman had been passed around from man to man because of some defect in her.

There is also the possibility that the Samaritan woman had been widowed multiple times. With high mortality rates in the ancient near East, what are the odds that Photine was caught in a situation of Levirate marriage, where one brother dies and another brother is made to marry her; then another dies, and then another, and so on.

A serial widow would struggle to remarry—some men might fear that a curse or a demon was associated with her, and that his own life would be in danger if they wed. This could be why the last male of the family has refused to marry her, but has at least provided her a situation of co-habitation.

In many ways, Photine seems like the hypothetical woman of Matthew 22:28 personified. Remember when the Sadducees asked Jesus about such a woman, who had had 7 husbands, all of whom had died. They asked Jesus: “Therefore, at the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be, since they all had her?”

Whose wife will she be? I thought about this question all week as I thought about Photine. And then it hit me. At the resurrection—at the eschatological marriage feast of the Lamb—she (like we) will be the bride of Christ, because she heard his words and, like her townspeople, believed that he really was the Savior of the world.

Isn’t it ironically symbolic that she meets Jesus at a well?

If you know your Old Testament, then you know that when a man and a woman meet at a well, a wedding usually follows. Wells were kind of like ancient pick-up joints or singles bars. Moses met his wife Zipporah at a well in Midian, remember? Eleazar found Rebekah, Isaac’s future wife at a well also.

And today Jesus meets Photine at a well, and it is the same well where Jacob met his first wife Rachel in Gen 29 also at midday, high noon. And as if to solidify the symbolism in John 4, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus whether he is greater than their common ancestor Jacob, an obvious nod to the earlier story.

But her encounter with Jesus is unlike any encounter she’s ever had with a man, because he is no ordinary man. He is not looking to pick her up or pass her around or use her for unseemly means. Rather, he speaks truth, takes her seriously, looks her in the eye, acknowledges her dignity, answers her questions and challenges her assumptions.

She asked this man to give her life-giving water and theological answers. And instead, Jesus gives her himself, the faithful Bridegroom (an image already used by John the Baptist to describe Jesus in John 3:29).

Jesus, who is greater than Jacob, has come to call all of us to be part of a royal priesthood. Jesus came to reconcile all people to one another and to God. He came to gather together Nicodemus, and Photine, and people like you and me—from all races, and nations, and tribes—to worship and transcend the distinctions that have historically kept us apart. Because God’s Spirit lives in us, we are no longer Jew/Greek, male/female, slave/free. Rather we are “all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

As a woman in Churches of Christ, it took me some 40 years to finally hear my own voice in a house of worship. For that reason, Photine inspires me. I admire the way she doesn’t wait, doesn’t hesitate, but uses her voice to engage the Savior, to proclaim the truth that Messiah has come, and to invite her whole town to get to know him better… and they do.

May we remember her for these things, and not for her five failed marriages.  Let us pray…

O Almighty God,

You did pour forth water for the Hebrews from a solid rock:

You did come as one of us to the Land of Samaria, and addressed a woman,

Whom you did attract to faith in you, and she has now attained life with you eternally.

May we become more like St. Photine, the “enlightened one,”

Who drank deeply from your living water,

And then experienced a holy spring welling up inside herself…

She went and quenched the thirst of her townspeople

With news of the living Word made flesh—The Messiah.

She saw that the fields

Were ripe for harvesting

And did not delay to bring in many sheaves to you.

May we bravely go, and tirelessly do likewise.


The Shack: The Movie

March 6, 2017

My wife and I, with some friends, saw “The Shack” last night.

Paul Young telescoped his 10 year journey of spiritual recovery into a parabolic weekend experience with the Trinity.

The movie pictures this weekend in 2 hours.

What I appreciate is the joyous interaction among the participants in this loving dance, the serious dialogue between Mack and the Trinity, and the hopefulness that does not dismiss pain.

What I fear is that if one only sees the movie, without reading the novel, the dialogue will sometimes seem superficial. A movie cannot capture the depth of the theological dialogue in the novel anymore than a novel (parable) can capture the depth of a 10 year journey.

Spiritual recovery, just as our journey with God, is always a process, and it needs time and depth in order to fully blossom. A movie may jump-start that journey but it cannot carry it, nor can a novel (though it can move it along), and even 10 years is insufficient. We are all on this journey, and this is a story (whether movie, novel, or Young’s own personal testimony) that can enrich everyone who takes time and energy to watch, read, and listen.

The movie introduces key themes important for spiritual recovery: anger, lament, forgiveness, companionship, accountability, compassion, hope, and love.

It is a good start for a conversation, and the conversation will inevitably probe more deeply than any movie is able to do.

May God have mercy on all who face their shacks, are willing to enter them, and meet God there.

For those interested, I interact with the Shack in my own personal story here.

Lent and Following Jesus into the Water

March 4, 2017

Text:  Luke 3:21-22.

In obedience to the Father, Jesus went down into the water and came up out of the water praying.

Jesus followed sinners into the water as they repented and confessed their sins. Jesus identified with sinners by sharing this water ritual with them. He underwent a ritual designed for sinners! He shared in this communal moment when Israel experienced the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of the end to their exile.

In response the Father anointed the Messiah with the Holy Spirit, affirmed the Son, and expressed delight over the Son.

This is our experience as well.

Through baptism we join other sinners in the water, confess our sins, and pray for God’s work in our lives. In response, the Father anoints us with the Holy Spirit, affirms our adoption, and expresses delight over us.

Our baptisms are moments when we follow Jesus into the water in obedience to the Father.

Our baptisms are moments when the Father says over us, “You are my child in whom I delight.”

Our baptisms are moments when the Father sends the Spirit into our hearts so that we, along with Jesus, might cry, “Abba, Father.”

Our baptisms are moments when we follow Jesus out of the water committed to the ministry of the kingdom.

We follow Jesus, led by the Spirit, from the water into the wilderness. During Lent, we sit with Jesus in the wilderness for forty days.

May our 40 days of Lent enrich our relationship with God.

An African American Female “Papa”–Say What?

March 2, 2017

One of the most striking features of Paul Young’s parable entitled The Shack is his depiction of the Father. This has occasioned criticism at several levels.

[This post is chapter 15 in my book Meeting God at the Shack: A Journey into Spiritual Recovery.]

Is it idolatry to portray the Father in such a manner? Does the female metaphor undermine the biblical image of the Father?

Admittedly, the imagery is startling. To picture the Father as a gregarious African-American woman is counter-intuitive to most Western Christian sensibilities. Is the Father really so gregarious? Is the Father female? Is the Father African-American? Is the intimacy too chummy, too familiar? Is the holiness—the transcendent distinction of the divine—trumped here?

My take on this literary move by Young is shaped by my understanding of what he is doing in The Shack. Young is weaving a story that will help wounded people come to believe God really loves them. Many, like Young himself, were wounded by their fathers. Mack was physically abused by his father and wants nothing to do with him.

A critical moment in the parable is when the door of the shack swings open and Mack meets God. Whose face will he see? What kind of face will he see? How will God greet Mack? If Mack sees his father, then shame, hurt, anger, and pain would fill his heart. Instead, Mack sees a woman of color.

This arises out of Young’s own experience when his earliest memories of love and acceptance were shaped by the dark-skinned women of New Guinea. Those memories and some subsequent relationships with African-American women explain why Young portrays Papa as an African-American woman. Young is not trying to be politically correct or promoting some kind of “goddess” motif. Rather, he writes out of his own experience of love—where he himself felt loved.

The African-American form of the Father in the parable is a metaphor; it is not a one-to-one image of the Father, as if it were an idolatrous substitute for God. It functions as a theophany, not a digital photo. It comes in a vision (a dream; Mack had cried himself to sleep on the floor of the shack).

God appears to Mack as an African-American woman because this metaphor or form communicates to Mack how delighted God is to spend time with him. The metaphor overturns some mistaken conceptions of God in Mack’s mind—conceptions more rooted in his abusive earthly father than in the God of Scripture. It is a theophany—the appearance of God in a particular form—for the sake of encounter, communication, and connection.

Theophanies are common in Scripture. God comes as three visitors to Abraham’s tent. God, in human form, wrestles with Jacob. God comes as a dove descending out of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus. God appears as a burning bush. God is even pictured with hands and feet, sitting on a throne in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

I don’t find a theophanic depiction of the Father disturbing. It would be more disturbing (and indebted to Greek philosophy) to ascribe to the Father a kind of transcendence that cannot appear to human beings in a theophany, vision, or dream. This does not detract from the revelation of God in Jesus. In fact, it is consistent with that revelation, as incarnation (God coming in the flesh) moves beyond theophanies.

God comes to people in a way that communicates something about the divine identity. This does not mean the form in which God comes is actually who God is. To identify the form with God is idolatry and fails to recognize how God transcends any form in which God appears. A theophany reveals the divine nature through a particular medium, but the divine nature is not limited to that medium.

This is a brilliant move. I know people who cannot connect with the Father’s love because their own fathers were so abusive. If they opened their shacks and saw their fathers, they would hesitate, doubt, and reject the love offered. Their hearts would leap with fear rather than delight. But if they open their shacks and see how God has come to them in a form (theophany, metaphor) which connects with loving experiences in their own life, then they would more readily embrace the love offered. God meets us in our personal experiences in ways that best communicate divine love and in ways that we might best experience that love.

That God appears as a woman is not a huge stretch. Jesus himself told a parable that pictured the Father as a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8–10), analogous to the father who waited for his lost son to appear in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Scripture often uses feminine metaphors to describe God’s love for Israel (cf. Isaiah 49:15; 66:13) and even describes God as both the One who fathers us and the One who gives us birth (Deut. 32:18). Young simply uses the metaphor in an extended way to make the same point biblical authors make. It is a theophany of divine love.

God, of course, is neither African-American nor Asian nor Western. God, of course, is neither male nor female; neither black nor white. God transcends and at the same time encompasses such categories. Masculinity and femininity are both aspects of the divine nature since we—both male and female—were created in the image of God. Whether black or white or red or yellow—as we sing in the children’s song, the diverse ethnicity and colors are also aspects of God’s own diversity (the Trinity) and divine love for the diverse character of the creation. God created diversity! It is part of God’s original intent for the world.

Young recognizes the relative way in which God appears as an African-American woman by changing the form when Papa leads Mack to Missy’s body. On that day Mack needed a father, that is, he needed the human—even male—qualities fathers represent, and Papa comes to him as male. The form in which God appears to Mack is relative to Mack’s needs as God seeks to commune and communicate with him.

The truth is this: God is delighted to meet us at our shacks. Young communicates this through a feminine African-American metaphor for the Father, because it is what Mack needs (and how Young experienced recovery as he connected with those early experiences of love from the indigenous women of New Guinea).

I find it helpful to use different metaphors for God as I envision God’s delight for me and experience the comfort of God’s enveloping love—something I am still learning to do. Whether it is crawling into my mother’s lap or a bear-hug from my brother, it communicates something true about the Father where an image of a male parent might not always do the same thing emotionally and spiritually. My favorite metaphor for the God who greets me at my shack is the image of Joshua sleeping in my arms as he rests on my lap in my big chair.

The Shack’s metaphor is bold and daring, but enriching and redemptive, for those who connect with it, given their own particular experiences.

Our imagination, guided by Scripture and sanctified by the Spirit, is an important tool for letting the truth that God loves us sink into our hearts, into our gut. During my devotional time, I envision the Father, Son, and Spirit meeting with me. They are delighted that I have come to listen to them and talk with them. They welcome me. My imagination becomes a means by which I experience, by the power of the Spirit, the love of the Triune God.

The Shack has given many believers the resources to imagine—to visualize in their minds—their own encounter with God for the sake of imbibing God’s love and letting it settle into their hearts. The Spirit uses our imagination—our dreams, art, and poetry—for that purpose just as the Spirit uses preaching, assembled praise, and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as well. The Spirit, through metaphors, images, other people, and the sacraments, impresses our hearts with the truth that the Father loves us and that we are God’s beloved in whom God delights.

Samaritan Hospitality

February 23, 2017

Text: Luke 10:25-37

One of my favorite questions Jesus asks in the Gospel of Luke is, “How do you read it?”

An expert in the law (one of the “wise and learned” in Luke 10:21 to whom spiritual depth is often hidden) asked Jesus a question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (or, our parlance, what must one do to be saved?). The expert knew the answer—it was a good question, and the expert gave a good answer. Jesus and the expert were in total agreement: love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Life flows from loving God and neighbor. This is salvation.

But that was not the point the expert wanted to make. So, wanting to “justify himself” he sought clarification on who exactly is the neighbor one is obligated to love. Is “neighbor” restricted in some way? Does it mean the one who lives beside me? Does it mean only those of my own ethnicity? Does it mean only those of my own faith? Does it mean only those who follow the strictures of my religion? Should I love the Gentiles….the Romans….the Samaritans?

The expert had the “law” right—the first and second greatest commandments. But “how did he read it?” What did it mean to say “love your neighbor”?

The parable, with which many are so familiar, answers the expert’s question, and it illuminates not only who is our neighbor but also what it means to love. Some readings of the parable are so focused on the idea of neighbor that it is easy to miss the equal stress on the “love” or the “mercy” (10:37) that was shown in the parable.

Clearly the introduction of a “Samaritan” is a shocker, especially since Jesus three closest disciples had recently wanted to rain fire and brimstone on some Samaritan villages (Luke 9:51-56). Whereas the priest and Levite (upstanding moral representatives of the Jewish faith) “passed by,” the Samaritan did not. Whatever the rationale of the priest and Levite (and we are not told what it was though we might speculate it has something to do with ritual purity or perhaps the danger [risk] involved in helping), they avoided the hurt man. The Samaritan—the one least expected to help a presumably Jewish victim—loved the man.

The contrast in the parable is this: we will avoid the hurting or love the hurting. It is the choice we make as “Samaritans”—can we help those who hurt even when they dislike us? Can we love our neighbors who hate us?

Loving neighbor in this parable is risky and expensive. Stopping was a risk. Tending to an unknown victim was a risk. Slowing down his travel through such dangerous territory was a risk. Funding his stay at the Inn was expensive. There were, potentially, good “rationales” for avoidance. Loving a neighbor is an act of vulnerability and it costs something.

The words pile up in this text to illuminate the act of loving. It involved “compassion” (10:33), like Jesus for the widow at Nain or the Father for his son upon his return from the “far country.” He “took care of him” (10:34) as he focused his attention on him to the exclusion of other concerns. He had “mercy” (10:37) which is the word Luke only uses in the songs of Luke 1 (vv. 50, 54, 58, 72, 78). There they express divine care, the love of God. Loving our neighbor involves compassion, mercy, and focused attention.

In this parable, loving a neighbor meant hospitality (that is, loving a stranger)—involvement, connection with another person.

We have “Good Samaritan” laws. Seinfeld even ended their series on the premise of the “Good Samaritan” law—the Seinfeld characters were so lacking in compassion and mercy that they joked at the misfortune of another. They were tried and convicted without ever understanding neighborliness. “Good Samaritan” laws reflect how deeply this parable is embedded in our cultural consciousness.

Mostly, we think of the “Good Samaritan” calls in terms of extreme situations. We stop to help a motorist who has broken down on the road. We call 911 when we see an accident or witness an act of violence. We rush to contribute money to Tsunami, Katrina, or Pakistani disaster relief.

And, yet, the hurting are lying all around us. We don’t’ see them. We tend to avoid them or don’t even know they are there. We would rather—and I must admit  my tendency is this direction—go to our homes, insulate ourselves from other people, and stay uninvolved. We are individual homes in suburbia rather than part of a community. Even the church is rarely church other than at church. People are lonely and disconnected.

Hopsitality is almost an extinct art. We are too busy, and we have too many irons in the fire. It is easier and less expensive to avoid the hurting. It is more comfortable to stay insulated from others than to become involved in relationships that might prove demanding, involving, and time-consuming.

Community, however, is built through hospitality—through loving strangers, building relationships, and committing what we owe to “common” (read “communal”) use.

The word “hospitality” in Greek means to “show friendship [philo] to strangers.” It is to love your neighbor, and neighbor does not mean those who live next door or even those who “go to church” with you. Neighbor includes even strangers. Even in the Torah, loving your neighbor mean to love the “alien” even as if he were “one of your native born” (Lev. 19:34).

Perhaps it would be good to recover hospitality as a contemporary virtue. Community is built through relationships, and hospitality is one means of building that community. Perhaps it would be good  to open our homes to strangers. It might be good to learn  again what “Sunday dinner” used to be  in our culture—the inviting of strangers to share a meal with us.

I remember my “Sunday dinners” growing up. Roast, carrots and potatoes—every Sunday! But what I remember most was that there was always a stranger at the table. My parents always invited someone home from church who did not have place (a community) to spend the afternoon. We would eat, talk, play games, watch the ballgame together, and then return to the Sunday evening service. To this day I still have people ask me if “Mark or Lois Hicks” were my parents, and then remind me that they ate with us one Sunday. They were Samaritans—to white, black, Asian, and others—in their time. We need to be Samaritans in our time.

“How do you read it?”

How does the parable of the “Good Samaritan” challenge our lifestyles? Yes, we may be good “emergency Samaritans,” and thus we keep the law of the land with its “Good Samaritan” laws. But do we love our neighbors? Do we live hospitable lives of mercy and compassion to the stranger and alien in our land?

“How do you read it?”

I Will Go See “The Shack: The Movie”

February 17, 2017

While some have perhaps read The Shack as an actual account, the title page identifies the piece as a “novel.” This is a fictional story. But…it is nevertheless true. The movie, too, is fictional…but true.

Read The Shack, watch the movie, and walk with me into the world of spiritual recovery, a journey into my shack and your shack (Meeting God at the Shack, my new book). That is what The Shack is about.

The book, as well as the movie, is a modern parable. Like a parable, the events described are fictional though possible (that is, it is not science fiction). And, like a parable, it becomes a world into which we step to hear something true about God, life, and the soul. 

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15), for example, is a fictional but true story. As fiction the story has no correspondence in fact, that is, it is not a story about a specific, actual family. No one walked up to Jesus after the parable to ask the name of the son, which family he came from and into which “far country” he went. Whether it is actual history or not is irrelevant. It is a fictional tale. But the story is nevertheless true. The Prodigal Son says something true about God and his relationship with his children.

A parabolic story draws the listener or reader into the world of the parable so that we can see something from a particular angle. A parable is not comprehensive theology, but a story-shaped way of saying a particular thing. As a piece of art rather than didactic prose, it allows a person to hear that point in an emotional as well as intellectual way. It gives us imagery, metaphor, and pictures to envision the truth rather than merely describing it in prose. Rather than analyzing propositions, we become part of a parable’s narrative. We are free to experience our own life again as we are guided by the storyteller.

Parables, as the parables of Jesus often do, sucker-punch us so that we begin to see something we had not previously seen about ourselves, God or the world. They speak to us emotionally in ways that pure prose does not usually do, much like music, art and poetry are expressive in ways that transcend discursive or academic descriptions. This enables the right side (the artsy side) of our brains to connect with what the left side (the analytical side) of our brain thinks about. We can feel these truths rather than simply think about them. As a result those truths can connect with our guts (our core beliefs about ourselves) in ways that our intellect cannot reach. The truths, then, can settle into our hearts as well as our minds.

The Shack is, I think, a piece of serious theological reflection in parabolic form. It is not a systematic theology. It does not cover every possible topic nor reflect on God from every potential angle. That is not its intent. That would be too much to expect from a parable. The “Prodigal Son,” for example, is not a comprehensive teaching about God.

Rather, the focus of The Shack is rather narrow. Fundamentally, given my own experience and hearing Young talk about his intent, I read the book as answering this question:

How do wounded people journey through their hurt to truly believe in their gut that God really loves them despite the condition of their “shack”?

The parable is about how we feel about ourselves in our own “shacks.” Do we really believe—deep in our guts, not just in our heads—that God is “especially fond” of us? How can God love us when our “shacks” are a mess? The parable addresses these feelings, self-images and woundedness.

The theology of The Shack engages us at this level. It encourages us to embrace the loving relationship into which God invites us. Consequently, it does not answer every question, address every aspect of God’s nature or reflect on every topic of Christian theology. Instead, it zeros in on the fundamental way in which wounded souls erect barriers that muzzle the divine invitation to loving relationship.

So, I invite you to reflect on these themes—to process them within your own journey, out of your own woundedness, and in relationship with your own God. I invite you to walk with me through my own spiritual journey of recovery and perhaps illuminate your own walk with God.

May God hear our prayers for healing, meet us in our shacks, and love us so profoundly and deeply that our wounds become scars rather than festering sores.

Jesus, Psalm 22:1, and the Cross

February 4, 2017

Early Christians in the second century understood the cry dereliction as Jesus’s feelings of despair in the face of death in view of the fact that the Father had abandoned (forsaken) him to death. The Father did not rescue him from death, even though ultimately God rescues him through death when the Father raises Jesus from the dead

The cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), is an authentic expression of Jesus’s emotions and heart. It gives witness to the depth of his human experience. It is an honest exclamation and an authentic question. However, it does not accuse; it laments. This arises from the intimacy Jesus shares with the Father as the Son is willing to express his heart fully while dying upon the cross.

Some hear the cry as a kind of relational abandonment where the Father “turns his back” on Jesus because Jesus had become sin at this moment or because he bore the weight of sin in this moment. This is important, for example, in some popular articulations of penal substitutionary atonement.

Some hear the cry as an expression of some sort of tear or pathos within the Triune God where God experiences alienation within God’s own life as the Son experiences a “Godforsakenness” and the communion between the Father and Son is, in some real sense, broken. This is important for some because in this way the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) suffers as God as well as the incarnate Son, and through this the Triune God becomes fully empathetic with humanity in its suffering.

On the one hand, I affirm the reality of divine suffering through the cross. The Father mourns the death of the Son. Further, through the experience of the Son who shares fellowship and intimacy with the Father, the Father also suffers with the Son through the Son’s suffering. Also the Spirit, who rests upon the Son, groans with the Father and the Son in this moment. The pathos of suffering is not alien to God, that is, God is not incapable of suffering. Through the Son, God suffers, and God suffers as Father, Son, and Spirit. The cross is the mourning of God.

On the other hand, the unity and relational fabric of the Trinity is not ripped apart in this moment. Their communion does not waver. The Son trusts the Father, and, as Luke clarifies, the Son commits himself to the Father (Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:6). The Father does not abandon Jesus in death, and neither does the Son lose faith in the Father. The Triune communion remains in tact.

Rather than relational abandonment, the cross is the moment where the Son is embraced by the Father’s love through the resting of the Spirit upon him. This is wonderfully depicted by Masaccio’s fresco (1425-1426) in the Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy.

The fresco is high on the wall, and the work is viewed from a low point rather than directly. Consequently, we raise our eyes to view it, and as we lift our eyes we first see Jesus hanging on the cross, then we see the Spirit (as a dove), and then finally the Father who stands facing the cross within the sacred space of the chapel. We see, then, the Holy Trinity gathered—one on the cross, one resting on the head of crucified one, and one towering over the scene. The three occupy the same space, engaged in the same moment in time, and fully invested in the event itself.

The Father stands behind the cross with his arms stretched out practically embracing the Son as he hangs on the cross. Far from turning his back on the Son, the Father loves the Son, encircles—as it were—the Son, and thus assures the Son of the Father’s love. The Father is not distant but occupies the same space as the Son. Indeed, the Father supports the Son with his arms as if he is holding him up. There is no abandonment or rejection here.

The Spirit is represented as a dove, which rests upon the Son. Just as the dove descended on the Son at his baptism and anointed him with power, and just as the Spirit led the Son into the wilderness and throughout his ministry, so now in death the Spirit is still with the Son. There is no abandonment or rejection here.

The Father, indeed, abandoned the Son to death, but the Father did not abandon him on the cross. The Father abandoned the Son to death, but the Father did not abandon him in death. The Father abandoned the Son, just like the Father does us, to the grave, but he did not abandon the Son in the grave. By the power of the Spirit, who rests upon the Son, the Father raised the Son from the dead, just as the Father by the power of the Spirit will raise us from the dead in the likeness of his Son.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Allelujah.


The Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

January 17, 2017

1 John is organized around two central truths: “God is light” and “God is love.” Both are known through the manifestation of the “Word of Life,” which is the central message of the Christian Faith.

This is the message (aggelia): God is light (1 John 1:5).

This is the message (aggelia): God is love (1 John 3:11; 4:8, 16).

This is what we proclaim (apaggellomen): the Word of Life (1 John 1:1-3)

God is light; therefore believers walk in the light. God is love; therefore believers love each other. And we know God is light and God is love because “the Word of Life” was revealed those truths in the enfleshed life of the Son of God, who is Jesus the Messiah.

1 John 1:1-3 is a single sentence in Greek (as well as many English translations). The main sentence is this: “That which we have. . .we proclaim to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us.” The object is the “what,” the action is the act of proclaiming or announcing, and the purpose is fellowship or communion (koinonia). In other words, John writes this is what we proclaim so that you might enjoy the fellowship we enjoy, and, importantly, our fellowship is with the Father and the Son!

What is the what?

What was from the beginning,

            what we have heard,

            what we have seen with our eyes,

            what we have beheld, and

            what we have touch with our hands,

                        that is, the Word (logos) of Life!

What we proclaim is “from the beginning,” and “it” has entered creation and participates in the empirical reality of creation itself. That which is “from the beginning”—from the beginning of creation itself or from the beginning of the Christian movement—is part of creation and shares in its creatureliness. Humanity heard “it,” saw “it” with its physical eyes, and touched “it” with its hands. “It” was tangible; it was really here, both seen and touched. And it was not momentary. We “beheld” it, that is, we took in its presence with long gazes. This was no blimp on a screen; it was a presence within the creation that we saw, heard, touched, and over which we lingered.

What is “it”? It is the “Word of Life;” it is the Logos, which is the same language we find in John 1:1 as well as John 1:14 which describes how humanity “beheld (gazed upon) the glory” of the enfleshed Logos.

The “it” is the incarnation of the Logos (Word), who is Life, the life of God or “eternal life” (1 John 1:2). This i the central proclamation of the Christian Faith. God has come in the flesh; the Word became flesh.

This is such an astounding claim that John interrupts his sentence in order to elaborate what he means by the “Word of Life.” When Word becomes flesh (what we saw, heard, and touched), “eternal life” was revealed. The incarnation is the revelation of God’s own life within the creation as a creature.

This “eternal life” was “with (pros) the Father. This statement echoes John 1:1, which describes the Word as “with (pros) God.” When the Gospel of John affirms the Word was “with God,” it means the Word was “with the Father,” as 1 John 1:2 states.

Significantly, the word “pros” (with) reflects an important aspect of divine life. The One God—the Word is God just as the Father is God, according to John 1:1-18—includes a relationship where the Son (Word) is pros the Father. Pros involves movement; it is not about spatial proximity in the sense of “alongside of” but relationality. The Father and the Son are “with” each other, that is, they are engaged in dynamic movement toward each other. In other words, they share a fellowship or communion, a koinonia.

This one, whom we saw, heard, and touched and who was “with the Father” from the beginning, is “eternal life.” This is a clear statement of the eternal nature of the Son, and that the shared life between the Father and the Son is an eternal one, which now the Father and Son share with humanity. Their communion (koinonia) is eternal.

The central message of the Christian Faith is that the One who shared life with the Father became flesh—what we could see, hear, and touch—so that we might participate in the fellowship of the Father and the Son, which was “from the beginning.” God became flesh so that we might participate in the eternal life of God. God became flesh so that we might share in the fellowship of the Father and Son.

The incarnation of the “Word of Life” reveals the truths that “God is light” and “God is love.” Because God became flesh as Jesus the Messiah, we understand what it means to walk with God who is light. Because God became flesh as Jesus the Messiah, we understand what it means to love one another as God has loved us.

The incarnation, then, is the foundational and fundamental revelation of God; particularly, “God is light” and “God is love.” Because we believe God became flesh as Jesus the Messiah, we love as God loves and we walk as God walks because Jesus showed us how God walks and how God loves.

In this way, when we walk in the light and love as God loves, we know authentic joy.

Traditional, Complementarian, or Egalitarian?

January 11, 2017

[An audio version is available here (under January 8)]

In this post I have no interest in advocating for any position, and my taxonomy is primarily applied to the historically controversial question about what function/role may women serve in the public assembly of the church gathered to communally praise/worship God. Rather than advocating a position, my goal is to further mutual understanding, that is, what positions have Christians typically held, and what hermeneutical reading strategies have grounded these positions in Scripture?

For me, the “labels” simply facilitate discussion by providing a way to locate particular understandings. I attach neither a pejorative nor an affirming meaning to any of these terms. They are only descriptors.

There is, of course, much more one could say about each of these positions both historically and theologically as well as exegetically (what do the biblical texts actually say?). My goal is to summarize rather than to fully articulate these positions in all their nuances.

1.  Traditionalists assert a “strong” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) and interpret this to mean that women are not permitted a “leading” voice in the assembly. This not only includes reading Scripture, preaching, or presiding at the table but also excludes women from making announcements, audibly requesting prayers, voicing a prayer, asking questions, or testifying about an answered prayer.  In other words, women must be “silent” in the public assembly of believers; women may not audibly lead the assembly in any way. Consequently, women have no “voice” in the assembly other than singing with the congregation (including, for some, responsive readings) or their public confession of faith before baptism (which usually consists in a brief answer to a question, such as, “Yes” or “I do”).   This is also extended beyond the assembly as women are excluded from other leadership functions in the church structure or ministries. For example, typically and historically, women cannot chair committees on which men sit, teach in any setting where men are present, or  vote in “men’s business meetings.”

Among Traditionalists, there are some variations and exceptions.  For example, in some congregations (particularly African American ones) women are encouraged to make prayer requests or offer testimonies in the assembly.  Generally, however, women may not “speak” (audibly lead) in the public assembly.

This is an historic position among Churches of Christ.  For example, both David Lipscomb and James A. Harding believed women should not speak in any public way when the church was assembled for worship because they thought the Bible taught such. However, they did encourage women to teach all who would listen (male, female, children) privately in classes and homes. They believed the distinction between public and private settings was key for the application of traditionalist principles (for more on this, see this blog).

For Traditionalists, like Lipscomb and Harding, women were also excluded from the vote, public leadership of any organization, and some even objected to their entrance into some professors (e.g., Lawyer or Doctor).  They believed the “order of creation” (Adam was created first, then Even) applied not only to home and church but also to society and culture as well. (For more information on this, see this link or this blog).

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology?  Essentially, it is something like this. Biblical texts are timeless and normative statements to which every situation and culture must conform. Every statement in Scripture is absolute and is never relative to or dependent upon the circumstances, situations, or occasions in which they are written except those that apply to dispensational distinctions (e.g., “Mosaic Law” in contrast to “New Testament” instructions). Thus, every application contained in Scripture should be reproduced in our situation.

As a result, texts like 1 Corinthans 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are understood as normative, timeless statements of God’s intent for women in the public assemblies of the church.  These function as explicit directives or “positive laws” (to use Harding’s phrase) to which the church must conform in order to remain faithful to its calling, and these laws are rooted in creation itself since God created man as the head of woman from the beginning, which is reflected in the order of creation as well as the reason for creation (woman was created for man, not man for woman).

2. Complementarians assert a “soft” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) in terms of role and function. Typically, they think of this leadership or headship in terms of responsibility and accountability rather than some kind of strict authority. Men are not empowered to order women to conform as much as men are accountable for the spiritual health of the community. As such, men, as Christlike “heads,” should  serve women, empower them, and sacrifice for them. Consequently, it maintains many traditional practices are oppressive and deny women the freedom God permits and encourages. As a result, this group is open to more significant and visible participation by women in church life and in the assembly since, importantly, not every form of leadership bears a “headship” function.

For example, Complementarians do not regard every function in the assembly as a “headship” function.  When Scripture is read, the authority lies in the text; when prayers are prayed, this serves the community rather than exercising authority over it; and whoever passes the trays, serves the community rather than standing over it.

There are a wide range of applications within this group.  Some are fairly limited in this permission and stand closer to Traditionalists while some encourage a broad inclusion, including exhorting the church, teaching in its theological schools, teaching Bible classes in the church, etc. Some churches encourage the participation of women in the assembly in every way except as senior minister (the “regular preacher,” some might say) and as (ruling) elders within the community.

Churches of Christ have known such Complementarians in its history. For example, the churches north of the Ohio who were influenced by Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Sommer regarded the participation of women as both a privilege (the honor to participate) and a right (a matter of justice). They encouraged women to read Scripture, lead singing, and exhort the church on occasion, though preaching as well as ruling as elders was not permitted. There were also similar congregations in Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (For more information, see this link.)

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Essentially, it is something like this.  Biblical texts contain the principles (theology) to be applied though the application of those principles may vary from culture to culture. We read Scripture to discern theological principles. Today we apply the principles rather than necessarily duplicating the applications. The same principle may yield different applications given different circumstances (both in the past and the present).

A key principle for Complementarians is “headship.”  Their understanding of the principle, however, does not entail exclusion from all leadership functions in the assembly. For example, they believe 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 addresses an assembled community where women audibly prayed and prophesied even while they honored their “heads.”  In other words, male headship–drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:3–does not deny women all forms of leadership.  Women in Corinth, for example, prayed and prophesied in the assembly without subverting headship or dishonoring their heads. This means women may have a voice in the assembly as long as they honor their heads when they do so, and men–when they are Christlike heads–empower women to participate because it is their privilege and gift to participate.

The principle of headship is rooted in creation. Complementarians believe the original vision for humanity included male headship, which is then played out in the history of God’s people (priests are men, Jesus called only male apostles in his ministry, and men serve as elders in the early church), and when this leadership is abdicated (as in the case of Adam and Eve) serious consequences follow.

Though the principle is the same (male headship), the application is both different and the same.  While head-coverings are no longer required, women still have the privilege of exercising their gifts in the assembly as long as they honor their heads.

3. Egalitarians assert the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position opens all functions in the church/assembly to women according to their gifts though the intent is to advocate for such with cultural sensitivity and deference to local customs or traditions.

Egalitarians seek to open all facets of the church to the inclusion of women. While some couch this primarily in the language of rights and justice, others frame it in the light of gifts and privileges, and still others emphasize both. At the very least, Egalitarians suggest the inclusion of women’s gifts is for the common good of the body, and if the Holy Spirit gifted women in  particular ways (just as the Spirit gifted men as well), then the Spirit calls the church to use these gifts for the edification of the body of Christ.

To what degree cultural sensitivity comes into play is difficult. On one hand, some assert a kind of justice which demands inclusion irrespective of local customs and subcultures.  However, many affirm, for the sake of love and unity, a more sensitive approach which calls for mutual formation toward the goal of full inclusion. This acknowledges that the cultural path to equality in some congregations is a long one.

On the other hand, the cultural situation in the United States calls for the full inclusion of women. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture of the early Roman Empire, the inclusion of women is not a cultural scandal, which biblical writers both accommodated and subverted to some extent. Rather, the exclusion of women is a cultural scandal in the present United States, and if Egalitarians are correct in their understanding of biblical theology, it is the church who oppresses women when it should be liberating them.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Egalitarians typically read Scripture as a witness to the goals of God.  Scripture points us beyond its own circumstances and specific applications through “seed” texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28), paradigm shifts in the story (e.g., the pouring out of the Spirit on women in Acts 2), and the original vision of equality in creation fulfilled in new creation (Genesis 1-2). This approach suggests God calls us to live in the future Scripture imagines.

Scripture address people within a culture. For example, the Torah addresses what to do with women who are captured in battle, or how women inherit from their parents (which they do not unless there are no male heirs). These encultured case laws assume cultural values (e.g., patriarchy) while at the same time seeking to subvert them in mild ways, and contemporary Christians recognize the problematic patriarchy in such texts. Yet, the mild subversion of some patriarchy in some of these texts point us to something beyond culture.  Deborah is an example of this kind of “seed” vision within the text which empowers women beyond cultural (patriarchical) constraints.

Egalitarians believe Scripture points us toward a new vision of humanity–a new creation–where humanity is one. This captures the original vision of creation itself, and it moves us into a new age (new creation) where men and women are equally empowered for ministry and service in the community of God as expression of the priesthood of all believers. Some in Churches of Christ now advocate this perspective (see this blog), and some congregations have embraced it.

Slavery was accommodated in the biblical text (and subverted in significant ways), yet we understand that the gospel contains the seeds for its abolition. In a similar fashion, Egalitarians believe patriarchy was also accommodated (and subverted in significant ways as well), yet the gospel contains the seeds and vision for its abolition. Consequently, the seed texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28) and vision texts (e.g., Acts 2) call us into a future where God’s people are one rather than divided by gender in the ministry of the body of Christ.

I imagine within many congregations of the Churches of Christ Traditionalists, Complementarians, and Egalitarians live side-by-side in their communities.  Congregations vary in their practice, and discussions will become ever more explicit as culture raises the questions for us and presses the church for a response.

Our first task, it seems to me, is mutual understanding. We must first listen and listen carefully. Do I understand what the other is saying, how they read Scripture, and what their desire for the church is in love and unity? We cannot talk if we do not first listen.

May God have mercy!

Below are some questions for possible use among those who want to discuss these thoughts in their community.

  1. How do you see these same three positions mirrored in various cultures throughout the world? For example, in some cultures, “Traditionalism” is still practiced in society. How has this changed in US culture over the years?
  1. Given these three positions, how has this changed in “church” cultures in the last few centuries or even decades?
  1. What do you regard as the key point—whether biblical text, cultural situation, or theological idea—in each of these positions?
  1. In what ways are you able to appreciate each position? State how you may complement each position and value something in each?
  1. One goal is “mutual understanding,” that is, we understand why each holds the position they do and we can appreciate the reasons why they do. How is that working for you?

On Reading 1 John

January 10, 2017

Though 1 John is anonymous, tradition associates it with the Apostle John or perhaps Elder John who are both connected to churches in Asia Minor in the late first century. Whatever the case (and I will call the author “John”), it is rather immaterial to the themes and meaning of the text.

1 John begins and ends like a “tract,” or even homily (sermon). It does not have the form of a letter (unlike 2 John and 3 John). It is more like a community handbook intended for a region of congregations. We might imagine the author seeks to provide perspective given the recent turmoil congregations in Asia Minor (or a larger region) have experienced. Consequently, the “letter” (I use term accommodatively) functions as a handbook for communities as a way of orienting them toward the central truths that should shape their communal life.

These congregations have recently suffered a division where some left and established alternative communities. They seceded from the original congregations in order to maintain their own theological agenda. At the core of this secession was the belief that Jesus did not come in the flesh, or what is called “Docetism” in the early church (1 John 2:19-22; 4:1-2, 7). Interestingly, when Ignatius of Antioch pens letters to several congregations in Asia Minor around 112 CE, he recognizes there were competing congregations in the area, and some of those congregations were “Docetists,” that is, they denied the Son of God had come in the flesh. The author of 1 John considers this a denial of a central truth of the Christian community, and bids the secessionists farewell as long as they persist in this belief.

John addresses this situation by reminding these churches of two important truths, which fundamentally ground Christian communities. These two truths organize the “letter,” which is an exposition and application of these truths to the post-secessionist situation in which these churches find themselves.

The first truth is: “God is light” (1 John 1:5). This is, as John writes, “the message we have heard from him and declare to you.” It is, literally, “the announcement” we “announced.” It is a fundamental message of the Christian community.

This is intimately connected to the claim that Jesus has come in the flesh. God, in whom there is no darkness, has entered the world through the incarnation (taking on flesh) as light in the midst of darkness. Through this light, God reveals eternal life, shares eternal life, and cleanses humanity from sin so that humanity might participate in that life and light. John believes the claim that “Jesus has come in the flesh” is essential to the revelation of this truth, that is, “God is light.”

1 John 1:5-3:10 develops this theme. The light of God is revealed in the incarnate Jesus, who calls us into a life of purity, truth, and righteousness as we walk in the light as Jesus lives and reveals that light. Consequently, we recognize the Christianity community is fundamentally different in its values and mission than the rest of the “world” (as John uses the term) precisely because this community is founded on the light that Jesus revealed through coming in the flesh.

The second truth is: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). The second “announcement,” that “we should love one another,” is grounded in this truth (1 John 3:11). Indeed, this is the “new commandment” that shapes the Christianity community (1 John 2:7-8).

We love one another because we participate in the life of God who is love. We know the love of God because God sent the Son into the world by which God loved us so that we might learn to love others. When the love of God fills our hearts, we love each other; when we know God, or experience God, or participate in the life of God, then we also love each other as God has loved us. The second “announcement,” then, is actually an exposition of this truth: “God is love.”

1 John 3:11-5:12 develops this theme. The love of God is revealed in the life and death of Jesus, who calls us to love each other just as he has loved us. In fact, this is fundamentally what it means to walk in the light because just as God is light so also God is love. When we walk in the light, we love one another. Again, this is how the community of Jesus is fundamentally different from the “world.”

These two truths—“God is light” and “God is love”—are revealed in the incarnation, ministry, and death of Jesus the Messiah. The church confesses Jesus as the Messiah who came in the flesh, and this coming revealed the light and love of God. This is the heart of the Christian faith, and it is this message (“announcement”) that makes a community an authentic, living embodiment of God in the world.

Indeed, as the prologue (1 John 1:1-4) and epilogue (1 John 5:13-21) make clear, Jesus is the “eternal life” through whom God is revealed and through whom we participate in the life of God. We enjoy “eternal life” as we participate in the light and love of God experienced and known through Jesus. Consequently, we “know” that light and love when we entrust ourselves to God through Jesus and become children of God (1 John 5:13). As children, we walk in the light of God, and we love each other.

May 21 — A Day of Grief Shared Between My Family and John and Maggie Dobbs

May 21, 2016

May 21, 2001 and May 21, 2008 have something in common, and I remember that today, May 21, 2016. Those are the days on which our children died–my son Joshua and John & Maggy Dobbs’ son John Robert. The memories are painful and today we will each remember, commemorate, and reflect.

I pray for peace for John & Maggy today, but I know it will come with great difficulty. They will remember in their own way. I will remember today in my own way.

In memory of Joshua Mark Hicks and John Robert Dobbs, I am republishing a post from May 24, 2008 which expresses my own protest, pain, and disillusionment after I learned of John Robert’s accident. It still rings true for me, though I have revised it a bit.

May the God of peace and comfort be with you all–the world is much too broken to live in it alone. Romans 15:13

John Mark Hicks

Defending God

When a cyclone kills over 130,000 in Myanmar and an earthquake snuffs out the lives of 80,000 more in China, I have little interest in defending or justifying God.

When my son (Joshua Mark Hicks) dies of a genetic disorder after watching him slowly degenerate over ten years and I learn of the tragic death of a friend’s son (John Robert Dobbs)–both dying on the same date, May 21–I have little interest in defending or justifying God.

How could I possibly defend any of that? I suppose I could remove God from responsibility by disconnecting God from creation but I would then still have a God who decided to be a Deist. That’s no comfort–it renders God malevolent or at least disinterested. Or, I could argue that God has so limited God’s own self that God becomes impotent in the face of evil, especially particular evils over which the people of God have prayed. But that cuts the heart out of prayer in so many ways. I would prefer to say God is involved and decides to permit (even cause–though I would have no way of knowing which is the case in any particular event) suffering. I would prefer to hold God responsible for the world God created and how the world proceeds.

I’m tired of defending God. Does God really need my feeble, finite, and fallible defensive arguments? Perhaps some need to hear a defense–maybe it would help, but I also know it is woefully inadequate at many levels. God does not need my defense as much as God needs to encounter people in their existential crises. My arguments will not make the difference; only God’s presence will.

I know the theodices and I have attempted them myself (see my old “rational” attempt which is on my General Articles page; I have also uploaded the companion piece on the Providence of God). A free-will theodicy does not help me with earthquakes, genetics and cyclones; it certainly does not explain why God does not answer the prayers of people with compassionate protection from such. A soul-making theodicy does not explain the quantity and quality of suffering in the world; suffering sometimes breaks souls rather than making them. There are other theodicies and combinations, but I find them all existentially inadequate (which is an academic understatement!) and rationally unsatisfying.

At the same time, I am not the measure of the universe and God cannot fit inside my brain. I must rest in the reality that the reality of suffering is something beyond my rational abilities to justify God, but that does not mean God does not have reasons. It only means I don’t know them, and human finitude, fallibillity, and egos are to limiting to know them or even understand them.

My theodic rationalizations have all shipwrecked on the rocks of experience in a hurting and painful world. My theodic mode of encounter with God in the midst of suffering is now protest.

Does God have a good reason for the pervasive and seemingly gratutious nature of suffering in the world? I hope God does–I even believe God does, but I don’t know what the reasons are nor do I know anyone who does. My hope is not the conclusion of a well-reasoned, solid inductive/deductive argument but is rather the desparate cry of the sufferer who trusts that the Creator has good intentions and purposes for creation and within creation.

Lament is not exactly a theodicy, but it is my response to suffering. It contains my complaint that God is not doing more (Psalm 74:11), my questions about “how long?” (Psalm 13:1), my demand to have my “Why?” questions answered (Psalm 44:24), and my disillusionment with God’s handling of the world (Job 7:9ff; 21; 23-24). It is what I feel; it is my only “rational” response to suffering.

I realize that I am a lowly creature whose limitations should relativize my protest (as when God came to Job), though this does not minimize it. On the contrary, God commended Job’s honesty and his willingness to speak “right” to God (Job 42:7-12).

Learning from Job and the Psalmists, I continue to lament–I continue because I have divine permission to do so! Of all “people,” I must be honest with God, right? I recognize that my feeble laments cannot grasp the transcendent glory of the one who created the world and I realize that were God to speak God would say to me something of what he said to Job. But until God speaks….until God comforts…until God transforms the world, I will continue to speak, lament, and protest.

But that response is itself insufficient. I protest, but I must also act.

As one who believes the story of Jesus, I trust that God intends to redeem, heal, and renew the world. As a disciple of Jesus, I am committed to imitate his compassion for the hurting, participate in the healing, and sacrifice for redemption. I am, however, at this point an impatient disciple.

Does this mean that there are no comforting “words” for the sufferer? No, I think the story itself is a comfort; we have a story to tell but we must tell it without rationalizing or minimizing creation’s pain. We have a story to tell about God, Israel, and Jesus.

God loves us despite the seeming evidence to the contrary. God listens to our protests despite our anger and disillusionment. God empathizes with our suffering through the incarnation despite our sense that no one has suffered like we have. God reigns over his world despite the seeming chaos. God will defeat suffering and renew creation despite its current tragic reality. The story carries hope in its bosom and it is with hope that we grieve.

My love-hate relationship with God continues…I love (trust) him despite my unbelief. God, I believe-I trust; help my unbelief–heal my doubts. Give light to my eyes in the midst of the darkness.

May God have mercy.

“Say Among the Nations” (Psalm 96:10)

May 16, 2016

It is rather distressing to see Christians wringing their hands over the state of the nation. Facebook is populated by “Christian rants,” which reflect a state of anxiety, anger, and angst. Many live in fear.

Believers, however, worship God.

Perhaps the contrast is not apparent. Perhaps Christians are so filled with fear, it is difficult to see how faith-filled worship subverts fear and projects confidence.

It is not, however, a confidence in whether a particular political party will win an election, nor is it a confidence that a particular law will be enacted or reversed. It is not confidence in the political system.

It is confidence in God, which is reflected in Psalm 96.

The people of God gather to worship–to sing “a new song” (because God is always doing new things), and they invite “all the earth” (both nations and creation itself) to join in the chorus. In this worship, we declare the God’s glory and saving works, and we confess God is the “maker of heaven and earth.”

This worship bears witness and addresses to the nations (Psalm 96:10):

  • Yahweh, the Covenant Lord of Israel, is king.
  • What God has created remains secure.
  • God will establish justice among the peoples.

In other words, God is sovereign, God upholds the creation by God’s power, and God will set things right.

The future of creation and justice among the nations are not, ultimately, in human hands. This rests in God’s hands.

Worship, when we are gathered with others to honor and praise God, reorients our anxieties. In community, among fellow-believers, the lenses through which we see the world are corrected. Instead of wallowing in the turmoil that envelops the nations, we approach the face of God to see the enthroned Lord who assures us that the earth is secure and justice will prevail.

Amidst the anxiety and angst of the political season as well as the distress that fills the world with terror, violence, and economic pain, we affirm the sovereignty of God, the stability of the earth, and the certainty that God will set things right when God comes to judge the earth.

In response to this assurance, the heavens and the earth rejoice, the seas–and everything in it–celebrate with a roar, and the animals, who fill the fields, along with the trees of the forest sing for joy!

God is coming to judge the earth; not only to rescue humanity from its own chaos and injustice but also to rescue the earth from its bondage to decay.

Yahweh is king!

Yahweh secures the earth!

Yahweh will set things right!

This is the confidence in which believers rest, and, therefore, we are not afraid.

A Call to Worship in a Day of Fear (Psalm 33)

May 11, 2016

Psalm 33, a hymn of praise, expresses hope and joy in a time of fear.

Israel’s circumstances, whatever their precise character, generated a deep need for God’s help and protection (“shield”) in the face of death and famine (Psalm 33:19-20). This fear was possibly occasioned by the threat of war or battle (Psalm 33:16-17).

Given recent terror attacks and the threat of ISIS, fear abounds. The US political situation has also generated fear among many. Some respond with threats; others respond with hate. Still others respond with despair and worry. Psalm 33 calls for worship.

The Psalmist responds to Israel’s dire situation with a call to joyful praise. This is appropriate for the people of God who are characterized by a rightful trust in Yahweh (Psalm 33:1, 21-22) and place their hope in their Creator and Redeemer.

The Psalm opens with five imperatives, each a different verb (Psalm 33:1-3).  Each one is a call to worship because “praise” (tehilla) adorns and befits God’s people, even amidst their worst fears.

  • Sing joyfully in Yahweh (v. 1)
  • Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre (v. 2)
  • Sing praise to Yahweh with the harp (v. 2)
  • Sing a new song to Yahweh (v. 3)
  • Play music skillfully on the strings with loud shouts (v. 3)

While fear seems the most prudent response to difficult circumstances–and we all experience such fear, the Psalmist calls Israel to worship.

Why this call to worship when we are surrounded by fear? Psalm 33 explains.

We worship because….

  • The word of Yahweh is upright, and all Yahweh’s “doing” (making) is done in faithfulness (Psalm 33:4-9).
  • The plans of Yahweh stand forever, and Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts” extend to all generations (Psalm 33:10-12).
  • The eye of Yahweh is set upon those who trust and hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:13-19).

We worship, even in times of fear, because Yahweh’s word is powerful and faithful, Yahweh’s intentions are permanent, and Yahweh’s care is interminable.”

First, the word of Yahweh” does not describe inscripturated propositions. The Psalmist is not talking about the Torah, though other Psalms do. Instead, the “word of Yahweh” is God’s active presence as Creator and Redeemer.  The “word of Yahweh” here is God’s performative speech

Performative speech actualizes something. For example, when the officiant says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” that language actualizes the union’s reality. The language has power; it does something.

God speaks, and it is done. What God speaks is done, and what is done is established as a firm, immovable rock. What God does is characterized by faithfulness (Psalm 33:4) and it stands (Psalm 33:9).

The word of Yahweh, then, is an active, living voice which actualizes what God intends, and nothing can resist it. God made the heavens and gathered the waters. God’s speech acts actualized the heavens and the earth. These words are the breath of God, which yield life, order, justice, and righteousness.

This creative work, and the redemptive work in the Exodus which this language also echoes (cf. Exodus 14:31; 15:6-8), arises from God’s love for righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5). The divine goal, expressed as a confident reality in hopeful worship, is to fill “the earth” with “Yahweh’s steadfast love” (Psalm 33:5).

Israel worships Yahweh because the word of Yahweh accomplishes what it speaks by its powerful love.

We do not fear because the living word of God effects God’s righteousness and fills the earth with God’s steadfast love.

In the light of this, “let all the earth fear Yahweh” because Yahweh’s love is universal and Yahweh’s work is awe-inspiring.

Second, the plan of Yahweh is permanent. Yahweh’s intentions are evident to Israel; every generation knows what Yahweh plans will happen. Nothing can frustrate Yahweh’s goal, Yahweh’s “thoughts” (Psalm 33:11).

The nations believe they control their own destiny. They use their power to secure their own ends. What the nations plan, however, is no match for Yahweh’s plan. Yahweh “breaks” and “frustrates” the “plan of the nations.”

Whatever it may seem, however it may appear, the plans of the nations are subservient to the “counsel of Yahweh,” Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts.” Ultimately, Yahweh’s intentions are realized no matter what the nations may do. God is sovereign over the nations.

When fear pervades a people, they have lost their trust in God’s sovereignty. When worship fills our hearts, we trust in God’s powerful, redemptive, and loving work.

This is our blessedness. When we confess Yahweh as our God, we confess God’s election. Yahweh loved us, and Yahweh chose us, and we are Yahweh’s inheritance or heritage (Psalm 33:12).

This is not simply the confession of Israel. It is, in fact, the hope of the nations. One day, Isaiah promises, even Egypt and Assyria will be a “blessing in the midst of the earth,” and Yahweh will call them “my people” and “my heritage” (Isaiah 19:24-25).

Consequently, we do not fear because God’s intent is to bless all the nations so that the whole earth becomes Yahweh’s inheritance.

Third, the eye of Yahweh covers the earth to deliver from death those who hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:18-19).

This “eye” is not passive but active. Yahweh is no mere observer. On the contrary, the eye of Yahweh (Psalm 33:13-15):

  • looks down from heaven
  • sees all humankind
  • watches all the inhabitants of the earth
  • forms every human heart
  • discerns every one of their deeds

In other words, Yahweh is intimately engaged with human hearts and lives. Yahweh “forms” hearts just as Yahweh “formed” adam from the ground in Genesis 2:7 (same Hebrew term). Further, God “understands” or “discerns” humanity’s deeds. God not only knows what is going on, but God also discerningly considers what humanity does. God is attentive–shaping human hearts and probing their deeds.

This is a function of God’s sovereignty since Yahweh is enthroned above the earth from where Yahweh “watches” and “forms” all humanity.  The repetitive use of “all” (kal), used three times in Psalm 33:13-15, underscores the universal reach of God’s work.

Consequently, no king, army, warrior, or war horse can “save” by its own “great might” (Psalm 33:16-17). This once again echoes the Exodus narrative where no king or warrior saved Israel from Egypt’s mighty army. Instead, Yahweh redeemed Israel and delivered her from death.

The Yahweh of the Exodus is still Israel’s God, and Yahweh will yet deliver those who “fear him” and “hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18).

Therefore, we do not fear because Yahweh reigns over the earth, forms human hearts, and acts to redeem those who trust in God’s love.

We are not afraid because we know and have experienced God’s redemptive love in our lives, and we trust the one who has loved us.

The Psalmist dispels fear through worship because worship calls us into God’s story.

  • Yahweh’s word is powerful and actualizes what it commands.
  • Yahweh’s plan is firm and immovable.
  • Yahweh’s eye is squarely upon us for our redemption.

As a result, we “wait for Yahweh” because our God is our “help and shield” (Psalm 33:20).

We even learn to rejoice in the middle of fearful circumstances “because we trust in Yahweh’s holy name” (Psalm 33:21).

This patient endurance (“waiting”) and hopeful worship spawns a wish-prayer. It is the only word addressed to Yahweh in the whole Psalm. It functions like a blessing, a benediction, or a corporate response from the assembly. It is a prayer we should make our own.

Let your steadfast love, O Yahweh, be upon us, even as we hope in you.



Four Means of Grace (Acts 2:42)

April 23, 2016

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42, NRSV.

harding-profile“Our greatest trouble now is, it seems to me, a vast unconverted membership. A very large percent of the church members among us seem to have very poor conception of what a Christian ought to be. They are brought into the church during these high-pressure protracted meetings, and they prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. They neglect prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the Lord’s day meetings, and, of course, they fail to do good day by day as they should. Twelve years of continuous travel among the churches have forced me to the sad conclusion that a very small number of the nominal Christians are worthy of the name.”

James A. Harding, Gospel Advocate (1887) [1]

As a summary of early Christian steadfastness, Acts 2:42 has served as a influential reference point in the Believer’s Church tradition, and it has been especially important to the Stone-Campbell Movement. As early as the 1830s some even regarded it as the biblical “order of worship.” Others simply emphasized its fundamental orientation. James A. Harding, co-founder of Lipscomb University and namesake of Harding University, called them “means of grace,” that is, four spiritual disciplines that form believers into the image of Christ.

Harding identified the four as (1) reading and studying the Bible, (2) ministering to others (especially the poor) as we share (“fellowship”) our resources, (3) participating in the Lord’s day meeting at the Lord’s table as a community, and (4) habitual prayer.[2] Sometimes Harding identifies these with the Lord’s Day assembly or communal gatherings but generally understood Bible study, missional engagement with the poor, and prayer as daily spiritual disciplines. According to Harding, believers should adopt a kind of rule of life which involves daily Bible reading, “doing good” daily as they have opportunity, and pray every morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.

But these are no mere duties. Rather, they are “four great means of grace—appointed means by which God dynamically acts among, in, and through the people of God.[3] They are not modes of human self-reliance but means of divine transformation by which God graciously sanctifies believers. They are spiritual disciplines through which God conforms believers to the image of Christ.

Harding stressed how “the life of a successful Christian is a continual growth in purity, a constant changing into a complete likeness to Christ.”[4] To “grow more and more into the likeness of Christ” should be the Christian’s “greatest” desire. [5] In other words, Harding believed discipleship was the central dimension of practicing the kingdom of God. Consequently, one of the dangers of revivalism (“protracted meetings”) was the immediate interest in a larger number of conversions where the main concern was “escaping hell and getting into heaven” as opposed to discipling people to lead “lives of absolute consecration to the Lord.” As a result, these “converts are much more anxious to be saved than they are to follow Christ.”[6]

Harding’s antidote recommended the “four habits” of Acts 2:42 as expressions of both communal and personal piety. Whoever neglects them will falter and their “falling away is sure.”[7] But if one will pursue these spiritual practices, “he will surely abide in Christ. These four are god’s means of grace to transform a poor, frail, sinful human being into the likeness of Christ.” Whoever “faithfully uses these means unto the end of life can not be lost.” Specifically, in response to the question, “Will God hold us responsible for little mistakes?” Harding answered: God “holds nothing against us” whether we sinned “in ignorance, weakness or willfulness” as long as we live in Christ as people who faithfully practice these spiritual disciplines with a heart that seeks God.[8]

God in Christ through the Spirit is graciously active through these communal and personal faith-practices. God actively transforms believers into God’s own image, and believers who pursue these gifts of grace will experience transformation by divine power rather than by human effort.

**This is adapted from John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene: Leafwood Press, 2006), 75-77. One chapter is devoted to each of these means of grace.

[1]Harding, “Scraps,” Gospel Advocate 27 (9 February 1887), 88.

[2]Harding, “Questions Concerning the Way to Heaven,” The Way 4 (12 February 1903), 370.

[3]Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 (17 July 1902), 123.

[4]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (23 July 1903), 735.

[5]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 945.

[6]Harding, “About Protracted Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 27 (14 September 1887), 588.

[7]Harding, “Ira C. Moore on the Validity of Baptism,” Christian Leader and the Way 23 (18 May 1909), 8.

[8]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 4 (26 February 1903), 401-2.

What Does it Mean to Eat “Unworthily”? (1 Corinthians 11:29)

April 22, 2016

What does it mean to eat and drink “worthily”?

The church has variously interpreted the term “worthily.” A primary misunderstanding has been to read the term as an adjective rather than an adverb. Some believe they must be “worthy” to approach the supper, that is, they must have lived a pure, exemplary life before coming to the table. Indeed, some church traditions have emphasized the need for extensive introspective examination or ecclesial examination (e.g., examination by a Pastor) before coming to the table, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It can be a good practice. Nevertheless, it may unintentionally create a culture where many refuse to eat the supper because they feel “unworthy” due to their weaknesses or they may not come to the table unless they receive sanction or absolution from another.

But the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:29 is “unworthily” or “in an unworthy manner.” The adverb describes the way in which a person eats; it does not describe  the status of the person who is eating. In one sense, everyone is unworthy to approach the table. No one deserves to sit at the king’s table. Everyone should approach the table with humility and gratitude, and we must never approach the table out of a sense of our own worthiness. We are not worthy, if we mean by that we have secured a place at the table because of our goodness.

Unfortunately, this has led many people to stay away from the table because they are unworthy rather than approaching the table under God’s grace and mercy. Luther’s words are particularly helpful in this connection (and many Protestant traditions often later functioned like Luther describes as “under the pope”):

But suppose you say, “What if I feel that I am unfit?” Answer: This also is my temptation, especially inherited from the old order under the pope when we tortured ourselves to become so perfectly pure that God might not find the least blemish in us. Because of this we became so timid that everyone was thrown into consternation, saying, “Alas, I am not worthy!” Then nature and reason begin to contrast our unworthiness with this great and precious blessing, and it appears like a dark lantern in contrast to the bright sun, or as dung in contrast to jewels. Because nature and reason see this, such people refuse to go to the sacrament and wait until they become prepared, until one week passes into another and one half year into yet another. If you choose to fix your eye on how good and pure your are, to work toward the time when nothing will prick your conscience you will never go…He who earnestly desires grace and consolation should compel himself to go and allow no one to deter him, saying, “I would really like to be worthy, but I come not on account of any worthiness of mine, but on account of thy Word, because thou hast commanded it and I want to be thy disciple, no matter how insignificant my worthiness”…If you are heavy-laden and feel your weakness, go joyfully to the sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort and strength.[1]

When we feel unworthy or despair over our “worthlessness,” this is the moment to run to the table to receive grace, mercy, and encouragement. We don’t stay away from the table but we run to it when we are burdened with guilt and grief.

At the same time, we should eat and drink “worthily.” The specific context in 1 Corinthians 11 is the divisive character of the assembly. The rich are eating without the poor. The assembly is divided by socio-economic factors. The Corinthians ate “unworthily” when they ate in groups opposed to each other or divided from each other. Paul does not suggest some kind of private introspection as a resolution to this problem. On the contrary, eating “worthily” is a communal concern. The church eats and drinks “worthily” when it eats and drinks as one body.

Unfortunately, some think “unworthily” refers to the private thoughts of the individual. Believers eat and drink “unworthily” when they do not, for example, sufficiently concentrate on the death of Christ, or they do not “discern” the body of Christ in the bread, or they do not meditate in silence, or they let their mind wander during the passing of the elements, or they do not reflect on their sins and ask God’s forgiveness. In other words, “unworthily” becomes a bottomless pit into which we can throw anything that we think is inappropriate during the Lord’s supper.

We define “unworthily,” then, by our preconceived ideas of what we think the supper is. This move means we must first have a good theological understanding of the supper before we decide how “unworthily” might be applied in our contemporary setting. Thus, if we think the supper is a silent, private, meditative act of piety, then we would eat “unworthily” if we acted in a way that violated that piety (including “singing during the Lord’s Supper,” “talking during the Supper,” or engaging in communal prayer or reading during the Supper).

Contextually,  the emphasis of “unworthily” is communal. It eats the supper in a way that denies the gospel which the table is to proclaim. To eat “unworthily” is to eat in a way that undermines the gospel. In Corinth, they denied the gospel through their economic factions where the rich ate before and without the poor. They also denied the gospel by sitting at two tables—the table of demons and the table of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Though they ate at the table of the Lord, they denied the gospel through their immorality and idolatry.

“Unworthily,” then, is not a matter of private psyche at the moment we bite down on the bread. The consequence of that perspective is that we oppress ourselves with interminable questions (“Am I thinking about the death of Christ?” “Am I too distracted?” “Did I pray?” “Should I read a scripture?” “Did I drink damnation to myself because I had to pay attention to my children rather than the bread?” “Can I pray with a friend during the Supper?” “Can I speak with the person next to me about what I am experiencing in the Supper?” “Can we sing during the Supper?”).

Rather, it is about the manner of eating in relation to the community and our lifestyle. Do we eat with a double mind? Do we eat in commitment to the Lordship of Jesus as his disciples? Do we eat with prejudice and bias against another group within the church (racial or socio-economic)? Do we eat knowing we will pursue our own interests on Monday through Saturday? Do we eat on Sunday knowing we will deny the gospel through our lifestyle on Monday by cheating in our business, committing adultery, or denying justice to minorities? To eat “unworthily” in such way is to eat and drink condemnation.

Fundamentally, to eat “worthily” is similar to living “worthily” (Philippians 1:27). When we live, we must live out and embody gospel values as disciples of Jesus. When we eat, we must eat in a way that embodies gospel values as disciples of Jesus. The table must reflect the gospel; it must embody the character of its host. When we sit at the table in a way that denies the gospel, we eat “unworthily.” We eat “worthily” when we embody thegospel at the table, and at the table we are received by God’s gracious host, Jesus the Messiah and we experience the communion of the Holy Spirit as we eat and drink with Jesus at table in the presence of the Father.

[1] Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 471.

**Adapted from John Mark Hicks, Come to the Table (Leafwood Press, 2001)**

I am Peter (John 21:15-19)

April 17, 2016

[Listen to the sermon here, from April 17, 2016]

Shame. Guilt. Grief.

I know those feelings. I’ve been overwhelmed by them at times. They have felt like a ton of bricks on my chest, and I couldn’t breathe.

I’m feeling them now. Sitting with Jesus on the beach, eating the fish he grilled and the bread he baked, I keep staring at the charcoal fire. Its burning my eyes and scorching my heart.

When Jesus was arrested, I followed him. John had connections in the household of the High Priest, by which we were able to gain entrance to its courtyard. I will never forget that courtyard. Even as I entered it, the servant girl recognized me and said, “You are one of them, aren’t you? You are one of Jesus’s friends.” And I said, “No, I don’t know him.” John looked at me, and I looked at the ground. What came over me? Why would I deny Jesus? It sort of just happened, and the words came out of my mouth before I could grab hold of them and stuff them back in. I never thought I would do that, but I did.

I moved over to the fire to keep warm but also to get closer to what was going on. I thought I might be able to see or hear something about Jesus. Gathered around the charcoal fire, they recognized me. Someone said, “You are one of his disciples. You are one of his friends!” “No,” I answered, “I am not!” I don’t think they believed me, and I didn’t even believe myself. Why am I denying I know Jesus? What is happening to me? Where is this coming from?

Then a relative of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest, whose ear I had severed in the Garden, recognized me. “Yes, you are one of his disciples! You were in the Garden; you tried to kill Malchus.” “No,” I yelled, “that was not me. I was not in the Garden! I don’t even know this Jesus.”

And then the rooster crowed, and I hit the wall. I came to myself and recognized what I had done. I left the courtyard and cried my eyes dry. I hated myself; I hated what I did. How could I ever forgive myself? How could Jesus ever forgive me?

The charcoal fire on the beach flooded my soul with those horrible, horrendous memories. I wish I could make them go away. I want a “do-over,” but that don’t exist. It is hanging out there in the air, at least that is how I feel. It is the elephant in the room at our breakfast table. And no one is saying anything about it, not even John.

Then Jesus looked at me. I though to myself, “Oh, no, here it comes! I don’t know what to expect. What will he say?”

The first words out of his mouth crushed me! “Simon, son of John,” he said. He did not say “Peter” but “Simon, son of John.” When we first met on these same shores several years ago, he called my name, “Simon, son of John.” But then he renamed me, “Cephas” (“Peter” in Greek), which means “Rock.” He called me a “Rock,” but not today.

This not-so-subtle address forced me to face myself. I thought of myself of a “Rock” among the disciples. I had a heroic self-image laced with arrogance and impetuousness. I thought my role to play the hero, but several nights ago I learned I was no hero. It was a façade, an illusion. I’m no hero; I have feet of clay.

I was so startled by the address that I almost did not hear the question. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these other disciples?” I looked around the fire at my fellow disciples and friends, including John. There was no way I could say I love Jesus more than them. I knew myself well enough to know that. At least the arrogance was gone…at least for the moment.

Several weeks earlier I would have anointed myself the greatest. I boasted I would follow Jesus whenever he went. I told him in front of all the disciples that I would die for him. I thought I loved him more than the others. But no longer. I will not overstep this time.

In fact, I realized the question is confrontational. Jesus knows the contrast. He knows what I did. He forced me to face myself, to look at myself in the moment, and to take inventory. Who I am? Whom do I love?

I responded, “Yes, Lord, I love (philo) you,” but I dropped the comparsion. And I made one other adjustment to Jesus’s question. While Jesus asked, “Do you love (agapas) me?” I responded, “I love (philo) you.” I did not mean I loved Jesus less as if agapao is a greater or more devout love than phileo. “Yes,” I said, “I agapao you but I also phileo you.” In effect, I said, “I dearly love you,” or “I love you as a friend.”

Why did I change the verb? I wanted to stress to Jesus how deep my love was. I wanted to assure him that now I would die for him.

Several weeks ago, when we were sitting at the table with Jesus, he called us his “friends” (philous) rather than his servants. He told us there is no “greater love (agapen) than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (philous). Jesus asked me if if Ioved him, and I told him I would die for him.

Then Jesus startled me. “Feed my lambs,” he said. What? I couldn’t imagine feeding lambs; I couldn’t imagine participating in your flock. I was so ashamed and so grieved; I only wanted to sit in the back unobserved and unnoticed. I feel so unworthy to feed Jesus’s lambs. And I remembered how several months ago Jesus told us a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The invitation stung me.

Jesus did not let up. He asked another question. This time he dropped the comparison, and the question became more pointed and more direct. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me at all?” It is almost as if he was asking me if I have ever loved him, and I understood why he asked. I failed him in the most crucial moment of my life and his. In the crucible I showed myself faithless. Do I even love Jesus at all much less love him more than the other disciples?

Jesus was probing me. He was performing a kind of heart surgery on me. Do I know myself as Jesus knows me? When I denied Jesus, I loved myself, and maybe that is still true.

But I responded, “Yes, most certainly, Lord; you know I love (philo) you. I love you dearly, as a friend, and I will die for you, Lord.”

Again, once again, Jesus invited me into his community; he invited to participate. He said, “Tend my sheep.” I can’t even go there now. That seems so distant to me; I feel so unworthy of such a charge.

Then, for a third time—yes, a third time, Jesus asked another question, a different question. Every question has been different. This time he changed the verb. He shifted from agapas to phileis. He asked the same question but this time used my language. “Simon, son of John, do you love me dearly? Do you love me as a friend for whom you would die?”

The question cut me to the heart. It grieved me. The question hurt but not because it was a bad question. It hurt because I knew my own actions had occasioned the inquiry. My heart rate tripled, burdened with anxiety and grief. I wish I could change the past. I wish I had a “do-over.”

“Lord,” I responded, “you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you. You know I will die for you.” I know Jesus knows. He knew my heart several weeks ago, and he knows my heart now.

In all these questions, Jesus’s voice was strong and stern. I knew Jesus was confronting me with my sin, but I also knew he was inviting me into his community again. Again, he welcomed me to “feed his sheep,” to live as a shepherd among his flock. Again, I recoiled.

But then it dawned on me what Jesus was doing. Jesus was not torturing me or rubbing it in. The three questions paralleled my three denials. Jesus gave me the opportunity to reverse my denials as a way of repairing my past. He gave me a “do-over.” He walked me through a kind of repair therapy, moral repair. I re-enacted my denial. Jesus helped me repair my past.

With each question, I looked my past in the eye and acknowledged what I had done. With each question, Jesus embraced me in the present. With each question, Jesus offered me a new future.

Jesus walked me through a process of moral repair, a kind of spiritual therapy where I looked in the mirror and faced myself. Through that confrontation, I confessed my failure, recognized my woundedness, and Jesus reoriented my life toward healing.

Jesus did not say to me, “Its okay; it didn’t matter. No worries.” Just the opposite. I had to face what I had done, and I had to see myself for truly who I was. Even as I professed my love for Jesus, I tasted the bitter fruit of the denial. I recognized my false self, my heroic self-image, and I reached out for my authentic self in professing my love for Jesus.

This did not erase my past. It really happened; it’s not going away. But the grace Jesus offered in this moment—as painful as it was to hear it and embrace it—reframed my past. It is like it rewired my experience. I still acknowledge the past, but I now see it through the lens of grace and how Jesus calls me into a new future. The past is no longer debilitating; the shame is no longer incapacitating. I have a future with Jesus.

Jesus confronted me in order to embrace me, and he embraced me to offer a new future, a future without shame, guilt, and grief over my past.

And Jesus really does know me. He knows I will face my next crucible without wavering. When I am old, someone will bind my hands and take me where I do not want to go. Jesus knows when that day comes I will die for him.

Jesus knows my sin, and he knows my love for him. He welcomed me with the invitation I longed to hear, “Follow me.”

My name is John Mark Hicks, a disciple of Jesus. I am Peter….and so are you.


John 21:15-19: An Amplified Reading

When Jesus and his disciples had finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter (intentionally avoiding calling him the “rock,” which he wasn’t): “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these other disciples?” Peter, recognizing his allusion to his previous insistence on dying with Jesus and his subsequent denial, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my lambs; care for my little ones as a good shepherd.”

Then again, a second time Jesus looked at Peter and asked (again without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me at all?” Peter, feeling the hurt of his recent failure to go to the cross with Jesus, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Tend my sheep; protect my people with your life as a good shepherd.”

Then Jesus asked a third time (without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?” Peter, deeply grieved by Jesus’s persistent questioning for the third time, responded, “Lord, you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you dearly. You know I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my sheep; care for my people as a good shepherd.”

Jesus continued, “You can be certain of this, when you were younger, you fastened your own belt and went wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.”

[Note: Jesus said this because he knew Peter would, one day, die for him as a martyr. Jesus knew Peter loved him.]

After he said this, Jesus said to Peter: “Follow me—follow me even to a cross. I know you love me dearly and I know you will lay down your life for my sheep.”

Resurrection Sunday: The Emmaus Experience (Luke 24:35)

March 27, 2016

On Resurrection Day, almost two thousand years ago, two disciples were transformed by their experience of the risen Messiah at a table in Emmaus.

While walking to Emmaus, they heard the story of a Messiah who must first suffer and then enter glory. The stranger who walked with them expounded Scripture, and their hearts burned as they saw the story of God in new ways. As the Scriptures were opened, so were their hearts.

At a table in Emmaus, on that resurrection day, the risen Messiah was “made known” to these disciples “in the breaking of the bread.” We know from reading Acts (2:42, 46; 20:7, 11) “the breaking of bread” continued as an ongoing table experience among the followers of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.

What happened in the “breaking of the bread?” What continues to happen “in the breaking of the bread?”

The living Messiah is “made known” within the community of disciples. When disciples of Jesus are gathered around the table, Jesus is present, and—more than present—Jesus is revealed.

Jesus said as much earlier in Luke:

  • “This is my body” and
  • “This cup…is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

Of course, the problem is the meaning of “is”? It depends on what the meaning of “is” is, right?

Paul expands the “is” in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “is it [the breaking of the bread] not a sharing in the body of Christ” or “is it [the cup] not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we participate, share in the blessing of, and commune with the one who gave himself for us. We share in the benefits of God’s work in Christ; we experience the reality the body and blood of Jesus effects. We experience peace with God, and at the table we are not only assured of God’s grace but God also gives grace there.

Luke also provides his own explanation in Luke 24:35. At the table, the living Jesus is “revealed” or “made known.”

What exactly does that mean? I think the Eastern Orthodox theologian Schmemann illuminates this a bit (For the Life of the World, 142).

In the early tradition, and this is of paramount importance, the relationship between the sign in the symbol (A) and that which it signifies (B) is neither a merely semantic one (A means B), nor causal (A is the cause of B), nor representative (A represents B). We called this relationship an epiphany. “A is B” means that the whole of A expresses, communicates, reveals, manifests the reality of B (although not necessarily the whole of it) without, however, losing its own ontological reality, without being dissolved in another “res” [another “thing,” JMH]. But it was precisely this relationship between the A and the B, between the sign and the signified, that was changed. Because of the reduction of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge there appears between A and B a hiatus. The symbol may still be means of knowledge but, as all knowledge, it is knowledge about and knowledge of. It can be a revelation about “res” but not the epiphany of the “res” itself. A can mean B, or represent it, or even in certain instances, be the “cause” of its presence; but A is no longer viewed as the very means of “participation” in B. Knowledge and participation are now two different realities, two different orders.

The bread and wine (the signs) remain bread and wine—their nature as bread and wine does not change. The relationship between the sign (bread and wine) and the thing signified (body and blood) is not merely symbolic or representative, but neither is it a change of nature or ontology (such that the bread becomes the body or the wine becomes the blood as different substance so that the bread and wine are annihilated).

Instead, the bread and wine become a means by which the living Christ is revealed. It is an “epiphany,” which “expresses, communicates, reveals, [and] manifests the reality” of the living Christ in the midst of the community. The table becomes more than a cognitive remembrance where we learn something about Christ. The table becomes a means by which we experience the living Christ and participate in the reality of the new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus.

At the table, Jesus reveals the future, we remember the future, and we experience the future. The table is an “ephipany”—we see the future! Death will not win; Christ has already won!

On Easter Sunday, like Resurrection Day itself, disciples all around the world gather around a table, and there the living Christ is “made known.” We not only learn about Christ, we experience Christ. We not only learn about the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, we taste it!

O Happy Day—the day God announced the future of the world through the resurrection of Jesus.

O Happy Day—the day we gather at the table to taste that future!

Blessed be the name of the Lord, who did not leave us in the dust of death but has given us new life through Jesus, who is our life.


Easter Morning: From Joshua’s Grave to Joyous Assembly

March 27, 2016

This Easter, before assembling with other believers, I visited Joshua’s grave.


For me visiting graves has rarely been comforting. In fact, it is the opposite. The graveyard seemed too permanent. It contained too many granite stones which testified to both the pervasiveness and intransigence of death.

I have found in recent years visiting graves is good grief therapy for me. It can become a moment of spiritual encounter with God as I learn to face the grief and live through it rather than avoid it.

As I drove to the grave on Sunday morning early, I listed to some lament Psalms (including several musical versions of Psalm 13). I imagined the journey of the women to the grave that morning. I felt the lament, the sadness, and the disappointment (lost years, what could have been, he’d be 31 now). The women and I shared something.

At the grave I remembered, prayed, and protested.

But the grave does not have the final word. It seems like it does. Death overwhelms us–it looks permanent, immutable, and hopeless.

But that is why I assemble with believers on Easter (but also every Resurrection day, every Sunday). When we assemble, we profess our hope, encourage each other, and draw near to God. We encounter the living God who is (yet still, even now, and forevermore) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The hope of the resurrection is a future one. God did not leave us without a witness to the future. The resurrection of Jesus is our resurrection. His victory is our hope. His empty tomb is the promise of our own.

That hope, for me, is experienced not so much at the grave (though God may be encountered there as well), but in the assembly. When I assemble with other believers to praise, pray, and profess. In that moment the assembly of believers becomes one–one with the past, present and future, heaven and earth become one, and God loves on those gathered. In that moment, I stand to praise with Joshua rather than without him; we are one for that moment at least.

We continue to lament–both Joshua and I. We both yearn for the new heavens and new earth. We both pray for the day, like the souls under the altar in Revelation 6, when God will put things back to right and make everything new.

But for now the journey from the grave to the assembly is no easy one. It is filled with obstacles. Faith is a struggle and the walk is arduous. But at the end of the journey is an empty grave rather than a filled one.

Holy Saturday–Sitting By the Grave

March 26, 2016

Good Friday, and then Easter.

But a day is missing in that story. To move from Friday to Sunday we must walk through Saturday.

Saturday, however, is a lonely day. Death has won. Hope is lost. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a tomb. His disciples are afraid, hiding, and deeply depressed. Everything in which they had invested for the past three years seems pointless now.  They forsook their Master; they lost faith in that moment. They are leaderless, hopeless, and aimless.

On Holy Saturday we sit by the grave to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself. It is a day to weep, fast, and mourn. The late second century church (e.g., Irenaeus) fasted from all food on this day because it was a day of mourning. They did not break the fast until Easter morning.

Those of us who have spent time at graves–in my case the grave of a parent, wife, and child–understand this grief, the despair of the grave. I have spent much of my life running away from graves, and I have rarely spent much time thinking about Holy Saturday.

It is much easier to skip from Friday to Easter than to dwell on Holy Saturday. As what happened in my life, we skip grief as much as possible. It is easier to run from grief. We prefer to escape it rather than face it or endure it.

Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament. It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity. It reminds me to protest death and renew my hatred for it. It reminds me to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.

Indeed, to sit with the disciples is to sit with humanity in the face of death. When we sit at the grave we recognize our powerlessness. We cannot reverse death; we cannot defeat this enemy. Holy Saturday creates a yearning for Easter. We need Easter for without it we are dead.

But Easter is a faint victory if we do not fully recognize the horror of death. Death threatens us with non-being, and it dismantles life so that there is no meaning, purpose, or joy that lasts. Easter is God’s gift; it is God’s “Yes” to Death’s “No.”

Yesterday we remembered the death of Jesus on Good Friday, today we sit at the grave, but tomorrow, Sunday, we are renewed by the hope of the resurrection.

Jesus walked that path, and we follow him.  We, too, will have our Friday; one day we will be entombed and loved ones will mourn at our graves. However–by the grace and mercy of God–on that great day we will rise again to walk with Jesus upon the new heaven and new earth.

That is the meaning of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

“I Thirst” (John 19:38)

March 26, 2016

Brief words often speak volumes. They say so much, and no other words are needed. “I thirst” is exactly that.

While, at first, we may think this is primarily about physical thirst—and we should not discount that dimension, the words are more about the situation in which Jesus finds himself.

“I thirst” is the cry of several lament Psalms in the Hebrew prayer book.

• “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:2).
• Enemies gave righteous sufferers “poison for food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69:21).
• “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:15).

This language, in one respect, arises out of isolation and desolation. The righteous sufferer agonizes over the reality of death and is disheartened by the loss of friendships.

And it is also  a cry for God to quench the thirst of the sufferer. It is not so much a thirst for water as it is a thirst for God. In effect, this is another way of calling upon God for help, seeking God in the midst of suffering. It is a cry for God’s presence; it is John’s version of the cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Today is “Holy Saturday.” On this day, Jesus lies in a tomb, the disciples are hiding, and Israel’s hope in this Messiah is gone. All seems lost.

“I thirst” is the cry of a dying Messiah. It is the cry of disciples who have lost hope. It is, often, our cry. We cry, “we thirst,” when we sense God’s absence in the midst of our experiences of terror, death, and injustice.

Where are you, God? We thirst for the living God. Where is our hope?

The cry, “I thirst,” receives a divine response on Sunday, but we must endure “Holy Saturday” before Sunday comes.

We endure it, in part, by crying with Jesus and the Psalmists, “I thirst.”

The Real Political Struggle

March 14, 2016

To which polis do you belong?

I’m not asking in which geographical cities do we live, nor am I asking which nation-state do we inhabit? I am asking which polis shapes our identity, drives life, and defines our telos (the end toward which we live life)? Which polis gives our lives meaning and purpose?

Paul explicitly addressed this question with overt political language.

Philippi was a political settlement; it was a Roman colony, filled with retired legionaries.  This was a precarious situation for a new, fledgling community that confessed “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” We might imagine political and personal harassment from neighbors, perhaps even economic oppression of various sorts. Living in this polis (Philippi) entailed hardship for those who professed and acknowledged they belonged to a different polis.

Paul identifies the Christian polis in Philippians 3:20. “Our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven.” The term politeuma has the word polis (city) embedded in it.

We might render the term “commonwealth” or “state,” and it identifies a political relation. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” while others find their “citizenship” on earth. The contrast is stark. The Christian community derives its identity from the reality of God’s new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus who reigns at the right hand of God.

More particularly, politeuma was often used, as Silva writes (WBC, cv. Phil. 3:20), “to designate a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans (BDAG) whose purpose was to secure the conquered country for the conquering country by spreading abroad that country’s way of doing things, its customs, its culture, and its laws.” In other words, it is a missional outpost whose purpose is to transform the surrounding culture. In other words, the heavenly politeuma breaks into the earthly politeuma for the sake of bringing heaven to earth. This is, in fact, the essence of the Lord’s Prayer:  “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This, then, is the real political struggle–the transformation of the earthly politeuma by the in-breaking of the heavenly politeuma.

How does this happen? What kinds of practices serve this purpose? How do people, who belong to a different polis, live in the midst of another polis?

We might imagine all sorts of possibilities. These are but a few, and the list does not advocate for any but simply identifies possibilities.

  • violent revolution where we achieve a new polis by violence, thinking that we are doing this for sake of the heavenly polis.
  • democratic processes where we fully participate in the earthly polis, including its passions (whether good or evil).
  • isolationism where we disengage from the earthly polis and hope for others to join us.
  • prophetic witness where we speak to the earthly polis out of the values of the heavenly polis, advocating for the interests of the weak.

We might find ourselves attracted to one of these, or perhaps several of them, possibilities (or another unidentified possibility). There are  many options.

The heavenly politeuma is our identity as disciples of Jesus, but it does not disconnect us from life. On the contrary, it calls us to live a particular kind of life amidst the earthly polis.

This is the real political struggle–which polis will shape our attitudes, actions, and practices.

Paul addresses the point in Philippians 1:27:  “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NRSV).

This plea–imperative!–is more significant than the translation “live your life” offers. The root verb is politeuesthai, “to live as a citizen” (the word polis is present in the verb). This is a call to live out one’s citizenship; to live out of the polis to which they belong.

In the broadest sense, according Brockmuehl (Philippians, p. 97), this is a “deliberate, publicly visible, and…politically relevant act which in the context distinguished from alternative lifestyles that might have been chosen instead.” This is God’s politics. Belonging to a different commonwealth, a different kingdom, and a different polis, those who embrace the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah embody a different ethic, a different way of being, a different political agenda.

This is not dual citizenship. Disciples of Jesus, in contrast to others, belong to the new creation, to the heavenly polis. Our commitment is not to the nation-state in which we live, but to God’s new creation.

We have a political imperative:  “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (NLT).

How do we so live? Paul does not leave us without some direction. Fundamentally, it is not about self-interestedness. Rather, it is about serving the other, considering others better than ourselves, and dismissing vain conceits for the sake of the other (Philippians 2:1-4).

This is embodied in the life of Jesus the Messiah, and we are called–as a community and a people–to become the gospel (see the recent book by Michael Gorman by that title), which is the life and ministry of Jesus.

We are called to serve others just as Jesus did, who–though he existed in the form of God–did not consider his equality with God something to use to his own advantage (NIV, NRSV). Instead, he poured himself out as a servant; he humbled himself and became obedient to the will of God, even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is more concerned about the other than they are themselves.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is just as concerned about Guatemala as it is the United States.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is not interested in grabbing and holding wealth for the United States rather than sharing wealth with others.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks up for the weak, oppressed, and persecuted, including the unborn.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that loves their enemies rather than spewing hatred against then and demonizing them, even when those enemies are political opponents in the United States.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks kindly and gently rather than with violent anger or through disruptive intrusions.

The list could go on.

I don’t expect the earthly polis to conduct political campaigns by the values of the heavenly polis, but I do hope Christians who participate in the earthly polis do so with with the values of the heavenly polis.

Disciples of Jesus must clarify to what polis they belong, commit to how that polis supercedes all others, and–in the long run–no earthly polis can fully embody the heavenly polis.

We live in tense times, but the tension arises because self-interests war with each as they seek control of the earthly polis.

The real political struggle for disciples of Jesus is to engage the earthly polis with the values, attitudes, demeanor, and love of the heavenly polis. When disciples of Jesus become what they oppose, then the heavenly polis has no witness.

At bottom, whatever one’s earthly commitments to the political process are (whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc.), as disciples of Jesus our commitment to the heavenly polis is more fundamental, greater, and–in some sense–exclusive.

As Paul says, “live out your heavenly citizenship in such a way that you embody the good news of Jesus who poured out himself for the sake of others.”

Where we see hate, violence, intrusive disturbances, name-calling, war-mongering, bigotry, and fear, we know it arises from the earthly polis rather than the heavenly one.

“Our citizenship is in heaven.”

May it be evident for all to see!

May God have mercy.



In Defense of “I’ll Fly Away”

February 24, 2016

This past weekend, on February 20, I was honored to participate in the memorial service of a godly woman in Colonial Heights, Virginia.

Rose Marie Paden–the beloved mother of the Paden boys and girls, and the second mother of the Hicks boys and girl–passed from this life on February 12, 2016. In 1953, Rose Marie and her husband Lowell Paden, along with their three boys at the time (L. V., Mike, and Dan), joined the Hicks family in Colonial Heights, Virginia, to assist in the nurture of a new church plant. The Padens and Hicks were extended families for each other as both were so far from their West Texas roots, and we shared many occasions but especially every Thanksgiving where we would play games, sing songs, and eat together. Rose Marie was a pillar for the church in Colonial Heights for over sixty years! Her works will follow her (Revelation 14:13).

The most moving moment in the memorial service was singing some of her favorite hymns as a congregation, led by three of her grandsons. Those hymns opened our hearts and minds to her faith, and we wept and were comforted.

One of the songs was, “I’ll Fly Away.”

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

I’ll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

Oh. How glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

I have been known, at times, to chuckle about this song and sometimes to oppose it. There are several reasons the song makes me a bit uncomfortable.

For example, I believe our final resting place is the new heavens and new earth, when heaven and earth become one. Then God will dwell with the redeemed on a renewed earth, fitted for eternal habitation. I don’t believe our final state is some celestial home outside of the present cosmos beyond the lenses of the Hubble telescope.

Another reason for discomfort is the implied assumption that “flying away” is the final journey or goal. This tends to say something like, “When I die, I go to heaven, and that is all I desire.” This leaves out the resurrection from the dead, which is the hope of the Christian faith, and it lends itself to a dualistic understanding of the human being as the physical (material) is laid aside to inherit a wholly “spiritual” (immaterial) realm.

But in this moment I want to offer a defense of the song.

It expresses a deep faith in God’s victory over death.  In other words, death does not win, though it may appear to do so. Human identity does not cease. We are carried away into the bosom of Abraham. Rose Marie flew away into the arms of God. It is her home…for now.

It expresses a deep sense of the chaos in this present world. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “everything is hebel” (or absurd, enigma, a breath, vanity). This present cosmos is enslaved and shackled, and the creation itself longs for redemption and renewal, according to Romans 8. The song expresses joy of release from this present bondage to a place where Rose Marie awaits the full redemption of the cosmos, including her own resurrection.

It also expresses a truth about the state of the dead, which is dear to my heart. While death destroys the unity of the human person–separating body and spirit–human identity remains (“I’ll fly away”), and human persons, despite death, escape to a place of joy without end in the presence of God. It goes to the question, “Where are the Dead?” (A question I addressed in a series of blogs, which you can find in my serial index; here is the link to the first one.) In particular, I regard Revelation 7 a fairly clear statement about those who were once upon the earth but have now crossed over into the throne room of God where every tear is wiped away (see my blog on this text). I believe when we die, though we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord. In some sense we are at home, sheltered by God and the Lamb. And there we wait with the whole creation for the redemption of both the cosmos and our bodies. While we wait, however, we enjoy God’s presence and join the chorus around God’s throne.

I don’t imagine that most people think about all this when they sing the song. Most likely many (if not most) simply think about going home to heaven and never returning to the earth or they don’t think about the resurrection of the dead.

But on February 20th, I sang “I’ll Fly Away” with gusto because it expressed what I knew was true about Rose Marie Paden.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”

Amen, and Amen.  Rest in peace, Rose Marie.  Say “Hello” to Lowell for me.

Visibly Practicing the Unity of the Spirit: What Shall We Do?

February 23, 2016

Many have heard about the “five steps of salvation,” but here are  my “five steps” toward visibly embodying the unity the Spirit has already created.

  1. Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).
  1. Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
  1. Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).
  1. Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).
  1. Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).

See the fuller article here.

Jesus Wept (John 11:35)

February 8, 2016

[Hear this sermon at here.]

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

 John 11:33-37 (my translation)

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus felt all those emotions when he encountered death and deep grief among his close friends.

“Lazarus is sick” is the way the story opens (John 11:1). The sisters, Mary and Maratha, send for Jesus because they know Jesus can heal their brother, and they have every reason to believe Jesus will come quickly because Lazarus is a dear friend whom Jesus loved. Rather than rushing to his aide, Jesus lingered for two days and arrived four days after Lazarus died.

His delay is deliberate. The death of Lazarus will serve a greater purpose. If Jesus had arrived earlier to heal the sickness, he would only confirmed his reputation as a healer. Jesus wants them to see something more; he wants his disciples to believe (John 11:14).

But believe what? Not that Jesus was a miracle-worker. More than that. He wanted them to believe something much deeper and more profound.

As Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha runs out to meet him. She voices what Jesus has already discussed with his disciples. If he had arrived earlier, Lazarus would not have died.

Now we hear the profound truth Jesus wants his disciples and Martha to believe:

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Martha,” Jesus asks, “do you believe this?” Disciples, do you believe this? Church, do you believe this?

This is why Jesus did not rush to heal Lazarus. He had healed the blind, the lame, and the diseased. He had even cast out demons. Such healings, wondrous as they are, do not threaten death. Death still reigns, and life itself is enslaved by it.

But Jesus is the “resurrection and the life.” He is the great liberator who frees us from the bondage of death. He brings life and conquers death.

Church, do you believe this?

Martha retrieves Mary, and Mary expresses the same sentiment as the disciples and her sister, “if only you had been here, Lazarus would not have died” (John 11:32). For the third time Jesus hears the misgiving, even an implied complaint. We can hear in her voice, “Why didn’t you come? Why weren’t you here to heal my brother and your friend?”

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus sees Mary’s grief, and he experiences the communal grief that surrounds her. Jesus enters into a grieving community. He has walked into a funeral home where grieving family and friends have gathered.

And he is angry.

Jesus is greatly disturbed in his spirit. The Greek term (embrimaomai) is an intense one. It describes the snorting of a horse in battle, or a personal scolding (Mark 14:5) as well as stern rebukes (Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43). The word is about anger rather than compassion. The point is not sentimentality but emotional irritation. Jesus is on the verge of rage; he is upset, emotionally disturbed.

He is not annoyed by their grief as such. Jesus himself will also weep. Perhaps he is angered by the reality of death itself. He may even be angry with himself as if he “rebuked himself.” If he had come earlier, Lazarus would not have died and he would have spared this whole community such grief. Jesus is angry about the situation.

Jesus is annoyed by what death brings, angry at how death rules humanity, and recognizes that he opened the door for this grief in the case of Lazarus.

And he is agitated.

Literally, “Jesus stirred himself.” He troubled himself. It is the same language as in John 5:7 where an angel stirred the waters, and it is the same language that describes troubled hearts (John 13:21; 14:27). Jesus is disturbed, but determined. He turns to his firm purpose as he asks where they laid him. Jesus has stirred himself to action; he is determined to face the reality of death and act.

And he is sad.

Hearing the invitation to the grave site, Jesus burst into tears. It is similar to bursting into tears when one sees the grave of a loved one or the first time you see them in the casket.

We don’t want to sentimentalize his emotions here—they are raw, real, and deep! There are visible tears. Jesus weeps openly, visibly—real tears. The verb comes from the same root for “tears.” We might say Jesus sobbed.

Even though he knows what he has determined to do, and he knows the raising of Lazarus from the dead will reveal the glory of God, he is nevertheless still sad. The grieving community affects him, and the trauma of Lazarus’s own death grieves him. Jesus does not minimize the bitterness of death. He feels the sadness.

And he raises Lazarus from the dead.

Yes, Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died, but the death of Lazarus serves the glory of God. It reveals Jesus as the “resurrection and the life.” It bears witness to the reality that life has come into the world, and this life overcomes death and will ultimately release the creation from its bondage to death.

Jesus asks, “Do you believe?”

Nevertheless, until that day, human beings live with death. Death and chaos fill our lives, and we wonder—at times—how to respond, especially since we also have a great hope.

Jesus shows the way: anger, agitation, and sadness.

  • We might express a holy anger against humanity’s great enemy, death. Sometimes we are angry with ourselves, sometimes with the one who died, and sometimes with God. We lament and ask, “Why?” Anger is good.
  • We face the reality of death with a determination to live in its shadow. Lean into grief, walk through it, and head towards the light. It is good to “stir ourselves” to action.
  • We weep, grieved by the reality of death and how it affects humanity. Tears are good; they are cleansing. Let’em flow.

And….we believe:  Jesus is the resurrection and the life!

“Do you believe?”

Yes, we believe.

Death will not win!

Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace

February 1, 2016

Review of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, by Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.  This review first appeared in Restoration Quarterly 56 (2014): 258-259.

This book is long overdue. While the shelves are filled with scholarly summaries of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, this is the first book-length rigorous exposition of the theology of Arminius. MCall and Stanglin intend their work as a complement to the magisterial 1971 Arminius biography by Carl Bangs. They write within the framework of a renaissance of Arminius scholarship (whaich began in the 1980s) that is more objective (as opposed to polemical) and contextual (recognizing a Reformed scholastic setting) than previous studies that heralded him as either saint or sinner.

The subtitle reflects their specific intent. They explain Arminius’s theology of grace in the light of the topics that most consumed his attention in the first decade of the seventeenth century and what “recent scholarship has found to be central.” Through a “constructive synthesis,” McCall and Stanglin “attempt to show what “makes him tick” (21). Grace is a pevasive theme that drive his pastoral and theological interests. This stands in contrast with some interpreters who think Arminius subverted the Reformed understanding of grace by “elevating autonomous human free will and introducing anthropocentrism into Protestantism” (22). On the contrary, Arminius consistently maintained the necessity and sufficiency of grace.

While developing his perspectives within the heart of the Reformed faith, the authors argue that Arminius had a “different theological starting point” from that of his opponents. Arminius begins with a theology of creation whose central feature is a love for the creation as well as a love for righteousness (God’s faithfulness to God’s own self). Out of this dual commitment, God “free–not of necessity–obliged himself to creation and set limits for his own actions” (93). The drama of redemption, then, is driven by God’s love for creatures coordinated with God’s own sense of justice. Arminius’s understanding of predestination, sin, and salvation arise from this fundamental theological orientation.

McCall and Stanglin place Arminius in the trajectory of Irenaeus, the Eastern Orthodox, Aquinas (Jesuit interpretation), and Molina (whose “middle knowledge” he adopts) in contrast with the line that begins with Augustine, continues through Aquinas (Dominican interpretation), and finds expression in Calvin.

The authors have succeeded. Their work will become a standard resource for the theology of Arminius in the foreseeable future, just as Bang’s biography has been for over forty years. Historical theologians, students of Arminianism and Calvinism, and those engaged in contemporary discussions of neo-puritanism (the young, Reformed, and restless) owe to themselves as well as to fair sense of history to digest this book carefully.


Jonah 4:5-11 — Jonah Learns a Lesson, or Did He?

January 14, 2016

Jonah thought Yahweh’s mercy to Nineveh was unjust and “evil.” Consequently, Jonah prayed–he lamented, complained, and essentially petitioned Yahweh to reverse the decision, to relent from mercy and apply wrath.

Yahweh’s response did not reject or dismiss the prayer. The prayer was heard. In fact, Yahweh responded: “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” God did not slap Jonah in the face for his request, but gently questioned whether Jonah had sufficiently thought it through. God heard the complaint and responded. God did not abandon Jonah but pursued him.

There is nothing wrong in speaking our hearts to God and expressing our honest feelings. God already knows what we think and feel; we might as well give it voice. Indeed, this is a divine invitation for intimacy with God, and through this intimacy we  find healing and reorientation. I think this is what Yahweh intended for Jonah.

Jonah Leaves the City

Yahweh’s question, “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” was an invitation to dialogue, but in response Jonah fled again. This time he fled to the “east,” which has significant biblical echoes. Lot went east toward Sodom (Genesis 13:11), and Cain settled “east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16). “East” is probably a theological commentary on Jonah’s flight from dialogue with God rather than simply a geographical reference. Jonah fled to the east, away from God’s presence (dialogue), just as earlier in the book Jonah had fled to the west, away from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:2).

He left the city and went out into the desert to a place where he could see what would happen to the city. Jonah does not go to the desert because he is afraid of going home. On the contrary, he erects a temporary shelter, a booth, which is—we might suppose—not only shelter but also a religious act. During the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), Israel erected booths as temporary dwelling places in order to celebrate the festival (Leviticus 23:42). In the same way, Jonah erects a booth in the wilderness (outside the city). Perhaps he intends to wait seven days, just as Israel lived in booths for seven days. Whatever his intent, it was not a permanent dwelling. Jonah was waiting to see what God would do with Nineveh.

We might wonder why Jonah is waiting to see what will happen. He already knows God intends to spare it, or does he? His prayer was designed to persuade God to relent; Jonah wanted God to “change his mind” (nacham) again. He hoped his prayer might be as effective as Moses’s prayer in Exodus 32. Consequently, he waits for the answer to his prayer.

God’s Object Lesson for Jonah

Even though Jonah had constructed his own shelter to shade him from the sun, it was apparently insufficient. God graciously provided further shade for him through the growth of a plant. [We don’t know what kind of plant this was since this word is only used here in the Hebrew Bible.]

Just like the “great fish” (Jonah 2:1), “Yahweh God” (only time the two words are together in Jonah, Jonah 4:6) appointed a large plant to shade Jonah. Like the “great fish,” this was an act of mercy. The “great fish” rescued Jonah from the chaotic seas and saved him from drowning. Now the plant rescues Jonah from the heat and scorching sun of the chaotic wilderness.

Jonah’s response is joy, great joy. In fact, the narrator uses the same grammatical structure as in Jonah 4:1. In the same way that God’s mercy to Nineveh was “exceedingly evil” (it was evil, a great evil), so God’s mercy to Jonah is “exceedingly joyous” (Jonah was joyous, a great joy).  Jonah has two different responses to God’s mercy: what God did for Nineveh was evil but what God did for Jonah was good. Jonah hated the former but was grateful for the latter.

But God “changes his mind.” God relents. God appointed (same verb as previously) a worm (a figure associated with death in the Hebrew Bible) to attack the plant to destroy Jonah’s shade, and God appointed (same verb as previously) a strong east wind to cause Jonah discomfort under the hot sun. Jonah’s discomfort was so great Jonah wanted to die. He would rather die than suffer the intense heat; he would rather die than experience the withdrawal of God’s mercy.

In effect, God did to Jonah what Jonah asked God to do to Nineveh. God showed mercy with a shady plant and then took it back, pouring “judgment” upon Jonah through the worm and the east wind. God gave Jonah a taste of his own medicine. He wanted God to withdraw mercy from Nineveh, and now Jonah knows how that feels.

But did Jonah get the message?

Resumed Dialogue

Yahweh renews the dialogue by raising the same question as in Jonah 4:4 but with a twist. “Is it right (good) for you to be angry about the bush?”

Apparently, Jonah’s death-wish is a reflection of his resentment toward God’s withdrawal of the mercy the bush represented. Jonah is so angry he could die, which is probably a metaphor for the intensity of his anger. Jonah is upset with God for providing mercy and then withdrawing it.

Now comes the punch line, and it has many layers. Indeed, it is the presupposition of the whole Jonah narrative. Mercy arises out of God’s character, the divine nature. God has compassion for what God has created, including Nineveh.

Jonah did not create the plant, and it did not even exist very long. Yet, he is angered by its disappearance.

The people of Nineveh, however, are God’s own creation! This includes a great number of people. [120,000 is probably a metaphorical expression for a large count; the number appears often in the Hebrew Bible, cf. Judges 8:10; 1 Kings 8:63, etc.] And God’s concern is also for the “many animals” (which were also part of Nineveh’s repentance in Jonah 3:8).

In fact, God’s compassion is, in some sense, greater for Nineveh because they are wanderers without a compass. They do not “know their right hand from their left,” which identifies their lack of direction. They do not have the Torah, as Israel does, and the Torah is what enable people to know their right and left, good and evil. God recognizes and adjusts in the light of a people’s lack of guidance and knowledge when distributing mercy among the nations.

If Jonah had compassion on a single plant—which he did not create and did not exist more than a day, might not God have compassion on Nineveh, which God did create and where numerous people and animals are present? “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” rings in the ears of readers as the book ends.

God drops the mike and moves off stage!


This is how the narrative ends. God responds to Jonah, enters into dialogue with him, and seeks to reorient him. God intends to teach Jonah. The story, however, ends without any suggestion about how Jonah responded to God’s teaching. The narrative is open-ended—will Jonah embrace God’s direction or will Jonah resist it as he has up to this point in the story?

That is where the story ends. Yahweh has the last word, but we have no response from Jonah. We don’t know what Jonah does next.

It is like the elder brother in the story of the Two Sons (often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15. Just as we don’t know how the elder son responded to his father’s plea to join the party, we don’t know how Jonah responded to Yahweh’s last words in this book.

The ending of the book is invitational. It is open-ended. It is an altar call, we might say. We are each Jonah. Have we learned what Yahweh was trying to teach through this brief narrative?

  • Have we embraced the mercy of God for others?
  • Have we heard God’s missional call and obeyed?
  • Have we submitted to God’s sovereignty?
  • Have we left justice in God’s hands?
  • Have resented God’s mercy for others “less deserving”?
  • Have we presumed upon God’s gracious election?
  • Have we loved others, including God’s creation, as God has?

We don’t know what Jonah did, and we will never know. But that is not our real problem. The appropriate question is more about us.

We are all Jonah. Have we learned the lesson God taught Jonah?

Jonah 4:1-4 — Jonah’s Angry Resentment

January 7, 2016

This is the peak moment in the story of Jonah.

God commissioned Jonah, but Jonah fled. God pursued Jonah, and Jonah relented and accepted the commission (after almost drowning). Jonah proclaimed hope/warning to Nineveh, and Nineveh repented. God “repented,” and Jonah…

One might expect Jonah to rejoice, but this is not what Jonah does. Instead, Jonah burns with resentment. Jonah is miffed with God because God showed Nineveh mercy! Jonah, like so many in Israel before him, now wrestles with God in prayer.

Jonah and Yahweh Contrasted

Yahweh responded to Nineveh, and so does Jonah. But their responses are quite opposite.

Jonah 3:10 reads:

  • God saw what Nineveh did (‘ashah).
  • Nineveh turned from their evil (ra’ah) ways.
  • God relented (nacham) from the “evil” (ra’ah) intended for Nineveh.
  • God “did not do (‘ashah) it.”

Jonah 4:1-3 contains:

  • It was exceedingly evil (ra’ah) to Jonah
  • That Yahweh would relent (nacham) from punishing.

When Nineveh turned away from its “evil,” God turned away from the “evil” God intended to do to Nineveh, but to Jonah this was “exceedingly evil” (ESV note). The translation “exceedingly evil” is expressive but still does not capture the emotion of the Hebrew. Literally, the text reads, “it was evil, greatly evil, to Jonah.” The root ‘ra (evil) is used as both a noun and a verb in the Hebrew.

What God saw as mercy to Nineveh, Jonah saw as a great evil. While God rejoiced over Nineveh’s repentance and compassionately poured out mercy, Jonah thinks God’s response is a great injustice (“evil”). Ninevites, in Jonah’s estimation, did not deserve God’s mercy, and God was unjust or unfair in providing it. Centuries of violence, in Jonah’s mind, cann0t be simply swept away with 40 days of repentance. As Youngblood, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 152 perceptively comments: “Ironically, just as YHWH quenched his wrath, Jonah has kindled his. The reader is reminded of how out-of-step Jonah is. The event that calmed God’s wrath is the same event that has provoked Jonah’s wrath.” Jonah and Yahweh are not on the same page.

Jonah has a theological problem, if not a heart problem. He has no mercy for penitent Nineveh, and he thinks God has acted unjustly or inconsistently with the divine name, Yahweh, which is the covenant name of God. How is Israel’s God, who is Yahweh, able to show mercy to Nineveh? It makes no sense to Jonah. In fact, it seemed “evil” to Jonah.

Consequently, Jonah is angry. The root of the verb means to “burn.” In other words, Jonah is steaming hot about God’s mercy to Nineveh.

Jonah’s Prayer

As the author of Jonah described the relationship between Nineveh and Israel’s God, only “God” was used. “God saw what they did” and “God changed his mind.” But when Jonah turns to pray, he addresses God as “Yahweh.” This name represents Israel’s covenant relationship with the creator of heaven and earth. Jonah addresses the creator as one of the covenant people of God. This is a significant shift because “God” describes the relationship between the Creator and the nations, but the name “Yahweh” assumes the covenant relationship between the creator and Israel. Jonah, therefore, invokes the name of the one with whom he has a covenant relationship. The importance of this point will emerge more clearly in a moment.

The Hebrew verb for prayer occurs twice in Jonah: here (4:2) and in Jonah 2:2. In the latter, Jonah finds himself in the belly of the great fish and offers a thanksgiving prayer. However, here his prayer is a complaint. While in the first prayer Jonah is grateful for God’s steadfast love (hesed, which appears in 2:8), here Jonah complains about God’s mercy (hesed, which appears in 4:3).

Jonah’s lament prayer includes rather typical components. Jonah (1) invokes the name Yahweh, (2) complains (almost like, “I told you so”), (3) confesses the “God Creed” of Israel rooted in Exodus 34:6-7, and finally (4) petitions Yahweh to do something.

Jonah feared Yahweh might be merciful—perhaps Yahweh told Jonah this was the goal of his commission—and fled to the west (Tarshish). “I knew this would happen, and I told you it would happen” is the effect of Jonah’s complaint. It is, in fact, an implicit accusation of divine injustice (“this not what should happen!”), or at least an expression of Jonah’s anger (“I can’t believe you involved me in this injustice!”). Jonah knew what the result would because Jonah Knows who Yahweh is.

He knows Israel’s greatest confession, the “God Creed” (some call it). It is found in Exodus 34:6-7, and Jonah quotes the heart of it.

Exodus 34:6-7 Jonah 4:2
Gracious God Gracious God
Merciful/Compassionate God Merciful/Compassionate God
Slow to Anger (‘af) Slow to Anger (‘af)
Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed) Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed)

When Moses asked to see God and thus know who God truly is, Yahweh passed before him, proclaiming,

Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

Yahweh is Israel’s God, and this God is committed to a gracious and merciful disposition toward Israel. As the rest of the “God Creed” states, Yahweh still disciplines the people, even for generations, but though the discipline extends to the third and fourth generation (a short time), Yahweh’s steadfast love extends for a thousand generations (forever). This is who Yahweh is; the creed describes Yahweh’s character. Consequently, this confession is frequently present in the liturgical life of Israel in both expanded and shortened forms (cf. Psalm 86:15; 99:8; 111:4; 112:4; 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; 2 Chronicles 30:9).

At the same time, Jonah adds to the “God creed,” as does Joel 2:13. This addition highlights Jonah’s problem with what God did. Jonah confesses God is “ready to relent (nacham) from punishing,” that is, God is willing to “change his mind” and forgive sin. This is, of course, exactly what God did in Jonah 3:10. God “changed his mind” and forgave Nineveh of its “evil.”  Jonah regards this mercy as an “evil.”

Youngblood believes this addition is derived from Exodus 32:12 where Moses is wrestling (arguing) with God. Moses pleads, “Turn from your fierce wrath (‘af); change your mind (nacham) and do not bring disaster (ra’) on your people.” The language of Exodus 32:12 is prominent in Jonah 3:9-4:3.

What Jonah feared has happened. He feared God would “change his mind,” turn away his wrath against Nineveh, and fail to bring disaster upon the city. While this was the great “mercy” for which Moses pleaded at Mt. Sinai on behalf of Israel, Jonah regards it as a great “evil” when applied to Nineveh. Jonah might give thanks for God’s mercy to Israel, but he has no room for mercy to Nineveh.

Jonah’s prayer is not complete at this point. As with all complaint prayers, it includes a petition. Jonah asks God to end his life

This is a rather strange request. We might compare it to Job’s requests for God to leave him alone and let him die (Job 7:16). Perhaps Jonah cannot live with this reality; he would rather die than witness the renewal of Nineveh’s life. Perhaps he fears for his own life when he returns to Israel since many would object to his mission and its results.

But I think the clues within the prayer indicate something more. Jonah is arguing with God and is making a theological point. Jonah uses the plea for death as a way of saying, “Which is it going to be God? Me or Nineveh?” Youngblood (p. 156) puts it succinctly, “Jonah’s real goal is not death, but a reversal of YHWH’s decision to spare Nineveh.” Jonah is exercising some covenantal leverage here and assumes (perhaps) his life—as one of the covenant people—is more important to Yahweh than that of the Ninevites. I think is becomes clearer once we recognize what the real theological problem is, and we will get to that momentarily.

Yahweh’s initial response to Jonah is a brief question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Using the same word for anger in 4:1, Yahweh questions Jonah’s resentment. Why should Jonah be resentful? Why is Jonah angry? When Jonah questions Yahweh’s justice—calling God’s mercy “evil”—Yahweh questions where Jonah’s anger is itself good (yatab) or fair/right/just?

Yahweh, we should notice, does not execute Jonah or split him apart with lightning for his complaint prayer. On the contrary, Yahweh gently nudges Jonah to contemplative introspection. Yahweh asks Jonah a simple question (three words in Hebrew).

Yahweh has still not given up on Jonah. Rather than granting his request, Yahweh pursues Jonah by engaging in dialogue and, as we will see in Jonah 4:4-11, continues to teach Jonah rather than punish him.

What’s the Problem?

Jonah is angry. He believes God has done “evil.” He asks God to kill him.

This is a desperate situation. What has Jonah so out of sorts?

Perhaps Jonah is bitter about the “evil” Nineveh has committed against Israel; he finds it unforgiveable. Perhaps Jonah holds some kind of personal grudge (e.g., did some Assyrian kill Jonah’s father?). Perhaps Jonah has a racial prejudice against non-Jews. I suppose any of these might be true but we would have no way of knowing. Instead, we must look for the clues within the text itself.

Jonah, I think, has a theological problem with God’s mercy towards Nineveh. Youngblood’s analysis is illuminating (pp. 156-158). Jonah’s problem is the same one that emerges in renewed Israel within the pages of the New Testament. It is the question Paul addresses in Romans 9-11. How can the covenant God of Israel show mercy to non-covenant people? What does this say about God’s faithfulness to Israel if Israel has no advantage over the nations?

The “God Creed” is about Yahweh, and Yahweh is Israel’s God with whom Israel lives in covenant. God’s faithfulness entails God’s commitment to Israel. This is the people to whom God shows mercy. Apparently, Jonah thought this was an exclusive covenant. Once God entered into covenant with Israel, then all others were outside that covenant and therefore beyond the mercy of God since God’s mercy and steadfast love are fundamentally covenantal in character. Exodus 34, for example, is God’s commitment to Israel within a covenantal framework.

But Jonah—as were the Judaizers who infected the Galatian churches—was mistaken. God’s mercy flows not from the covenant alone but out of God’s character. God is gracious, compassionate, and merciful; or, as John put it, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). This is God’s character, God’s very nature. Covenants are God’s free expression of mercy and love, but God’s mercy is not limited to such covenants.

While Yahweh lives in covenant with Israel, this does not preclude God’s mercy for the nations. Indeed, God elected Israel for the sake of the nations. God will treat the nations just like he treats Israel, which has no special claim on God’s mercy. They are elect to serve the nations rather than elect because they are the sole objects of God’s mercy.

God, who is the maker of the sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9), is not only Israel’s covenant God but also the God of the whole earth whose mercy flows not only to Israel but also to the nations.

There is, then, such a thing as the “uncovenanted” mercies of God. Yahweh may show mercy to whom Yahweh desires to show mercy, whether in the covenant or outside the covenant.

Covenant people are always at risk of thinking they are the only ones to whom God shows mercy. Their “election” becomes a presumption, and consequently they think God unjust when God shows mercy to those outside the covenant….whether they are outside the covenant because they are uncircumcised or unimmersed.

May God have mercy!

Jonah 3:7-10 – God Repents!

January 5, 2016

The only Hebrew word for repentance used in Jonah—to turn (sub)—appears only in this section of Jonah. Twice it describes the Ninevites (Jonah 3:8, 10) who turn away from evil, but twice God is the subject of the verb (Jonah 3:9). God also turns.

Nineveh repented, and—in response–so did God.

Nineveh’s Repentance

From the time Jonah first entered the city, his message was well-received. People “believed God,” and they responded with acts of mourning and repentance. When the news reached the king, he responded in the same way. Jonah 3:7-9 provides a window into the heart of the king (and presumably the people as well) as we see the nature of this repentance and its hope.

We might characterize the repentance as (1) public, (2) communal, (3) radical, (4) demonstrative, and (5) prayerful.

Nineveh’s repentance is no private confession but a public acknowledgment. It comes in the form of a royal proclamation, which applies to the whole city and everything (including the animals) in the city. As such, this is a communal act of repentance as the whole city participates in these acts of repentance.

It is radical in its practice. Fasting comes in many forms. Some fasting is only for a specific part of the day (such as daylight), and other fasting only restricts particular foods or drink. The proclamation enjoins a radical fast: no food, no water, no taste! The exchange of dress is not only radical but demonstrative. Everyone—high and low, the king and his subjects—wore the same clothes. This is radical and demonstrative humility before God, and it symbolized the city’s equal status before God. No one was privileged due to social status.

This repentance is also vocal—the city prayed, they “cried out mightily” (that is, the prayed with vigor, strength and energy). What Jonah refused to do on the ship (Jonah 1:6) and what the sailors themselves did do (Jonah 1:14), Nineveh now does. They cry out to God. Once again, it is the nations who model for Israel how to repent and turn to God rather than vice versa.

The object of their repentance, and thus a confession as well, is their own “evil ways” and “the violence” of their “hands” (Jonah 3:8). Nineveh confesses the “evil” (ra’) that Yahweh saw when Jonah was commissioned (Jonah 1:2). Their confession even particularizes this evil—“violence.” This word often describes the human condition in Scripture from the Noahic world (Genesis 6:11-13) to Israel’s own land (Jeremiah 20:8; Ezekiel 7:23; 8:17; Amos 3:10; Micah 6:12; Habakkuk 1:2). For Assyria it was the sin of their empire, which was well known and feared for its brutal violence.

Despite their history of evil and violence, including the disasters they wrought upon other nations, Jonah’s message offered hope. They repent, confess, and pray for mercy in the light of this hope. Yet, they recognize that their repentance does not obligate God nor does it put God in their debt. If God saves, it is because of God’s mercy and not their repentance. Their repentance does not dictate to God but it opens a door for God’s mercy. “Who knows?” Perhaps God will save. God is sovereign, and it is God’s choice whether God will save or not. Nothing penitent sinners do will ever put God in a box or bound God’s sovereignty.

Cosmic Repentance

One of the curious features of this story is the inclusion of the animals in these penitent acts. Herds and flocks are not only to fast along with the Ninevites but they are also to wear sackcloth as well. This is, however, more of a curiosity to modernity than it is to readers of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible consistently includes animals in both the praise of the Creator and the lament for the human condition as well as the environmental devastation humans bring to the world. An example of praise is Psalm 148, a classic text where all creation is called to praise God, and this was popularized by the old hymn “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” An example of lament is Joel 1:10 where the “ground mourns” just as the priests do (Joel 1:9). Scripture is filled with images of cosmic praise as well as cosmic groaning.

Given this biblical narrative, it is not surprising animals are included. They, too, participate Nineveh’s mourning over the violence of their culture. Creation groans over human evil, and it mourns over human violence because creation is devastated by that violence. The earth perishes because of what humans do (Hosea 4:1-3).

Consequently, the animals fast and wear sackcloth along with the Ninevites.

Divine Repentance

God repents (turns, sub).

Nineveh hopes God may “turn and change his mind” (Jonah 3:9)

Nineveh hopes God “may turn from his fierce anger” (Jonah 3:9)

Further, God not only “turns,” but “changes his mind” (nacham). This is affirmed twice as well.

Nineveh hoped God might “change his mind” (Jonah 3:9).

And, in fact, “God changed his mind” (Jonah 3:10).

Of course, none of this language entails a “repentance” which involves a turning away from some moral evil as if God had sinned. It is not “sorrow for sin.” Rather, it describes how God “turned” from one course of action to another course of action. In this sense, God “changed his mind.” God decided to do something different due to changing circumstances than what God was previously going to do if the circumstances remained the same.

“Repent,” then, is a misleading term when applied to God. God neither turns away from committing sin nor does God “change his mind” about sin. Rather, God turns away from judgment upon sin, which comes in the form of a “calamity” or “disaster” God might bring upon a sinful, rebellious people. Literally, “calamity” is a Hebrew word often translated “evil” (ra’) but the word has a broad meaning of anything disastrous, tragic, or catastrophic. Often the word is simply translated “trouble.”

Consequently, many translations use the concept of “relent” rather than “repent” when talking about God. Given a rebellious, obstinate people, God intends to bring upon them calamitous events (“evil”) as a matter of divine judgment. However, when the people repent—like Nineveh—God relents. Instead of judgment, God shows mercy.

This, according to the narrative, constitutes a “change of mind,” which is the basic meaning of the Hebrew verb nacham. God has a change of mind in response to a new situation. Given Nineveh’s repentance, God shows mercy whereas previously God was determined to “overthrow” Nineveh if they persisted in their sin.

Prophetic preaching is often conditioned upon the response of the people. The classic example of this is Jeremiah 18:5-11 (NRSV; see also Jeremiah 26:3, 13, 16):

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

This, we might say, is God’s modus operandi, that is, the way God engages the nations. How God treats a nation is conditioned, in part, on how that nation responds to God’s prophets.

The divine “turning” (“repentance”) or “change of mind” is a function of God’s relational nature; God responds to humanity as God lives in relationship with humanity.

However one construes the theological point regarding God’s “change,” the narrative emphasizes God’s response. God “did not do it”! God showed mercy rather than judgment. God rescued Nineveh, just as God had rescued Jonah.

Divine Openness

In recent Evangelical theology, this text—as one among many such texts—has become the focus of some discussion as “open theists,” “classic Arminians,” and “Reformed theologians” debate the nature of God’s relationship to contingent events (events like Nineveh’s repentance and God’s response to it).

Open theism claims to take this language seriously and suggests the language is “plain and straightforward”—God “changed his mind.” God is interactive with the situation and God’s plan changes as the situation changes. In this sense, God faces “a partly open future.” God “does not control and/or foreknow exactly what is going to happen” (Greg Boyd, God of the Possible, pp. 14, 85). To say the future is open is to say the Ninevites had a choice of whether they would repent or stubbornly refuse, and God, in response, had options from which to choose as well. The future was not determined, but open. In other words, God had not foreordained Nineveh would repent or not repent. When Jonah entered Nineveh, even God did not know how the Ninevites would respond.

Reformed theology regards this language as accommodative such that God does not literally “change his mind” but only appears to “change his mind” from our situated, finite perspective. Ultimately, for Reformed theology, God has already predetermined and decreed what was going to happen in this situation and, consequently, God did not literally “change his mind” but executed the plan as God had previously determined. When Jonah entered Nineveh, God not only knew how the Ninevites would respond, God had actually decided how they would respond.

On the one hand, Reformed Theology has a point. All language about God is accommodative since nothing within human language can fully and comprehensively tell us what is actually happening within God’s own mind or life. That God “changed his mind” or “relented” from a prior purpose may be as accommodative as the “Lord came down to see the city and the tower” (Genesis 11:5). The former may no more mean that God was surprised by nor did not know how the Ninevites would respond than the Lord did not know what Babel was doing when they were building tower. God did not literally have to “come down” to see the tower and neither does it necessarily mean that God literally “changed his mind.” The language does not mean God did not know how the Ninevites would respond; it only indicates how God responded to their repentance.

On the other hand, the function of the narrative is to affirm God’s authentic response to Nineveh’s repentance. It affirms God’s relational nature and illustrates how God engages humanity within history. Jonah’s preaching, Nineveh’s repentance, and God’s mercy do not appear predetermined. On the contrary, the narrative highlights the relational engagement of the parties within the story, and it does so emphatically by repeating language for that emphasis.

Open theism assumes divine foreknowledge precludes authentic relational engagement, and Reformed theology excludes authentic contingency (freedom) because it is deterministic (in the sense that God had decreed all events). I think we can shoot the horns of that dilemma by affirming contingency and divine foreknowledge (which is what classic Arminianism does).

Though God knew how the Ninevites would respond, it was the Ninevites who actually responded (God did not determine it). When the Ninevites responded appropriately, the circumstance changed and thus God “changed his mind” and “turned” from judgment to mercy. The change of mind reflects a different situation, which is part of the divine intent embedded in the narrative and in the story of God, even in the “mind” of God. This is part of God’s character, and it is exactly what God knew God would do if the Ninevites responded in repentance.

Even if God knew what the Ninevites would do before they did it (which is the nature of divine knowledge), God knew it because the Ninevites did it. God did not determine they would do it. And God knew what God would do if the Ninevites repented.

Thus, in one sense, the future was open. The Ninevites had a choice. When the Ninevites changed their mind, God had a change of min in response.

In another sense, the future was not open. God responded to their choice consistent with God’s own character. God’s character does not change, and in this sense the mind of God does not change like human beings “change their mind” (cf. Numbers 12:19; 1 Samuel 15:29).

In one sense, the narrative is accommodative. God is described from within the horizon of the narrative itself. God is not described from the perspective of divine eternality or infinitude. In other words, this text is about relationality rather than foreknowledge. It does not deny foreknowledge or God’s transcendent qualities. Rather, it simply operates within a narrative frame that describes how God responds to human beings.

In this way, the narrative says something true (in an analogous way) about God. God authentically and truly engages human beings in their contingency as one who lives in relationship with others. God responds to human choices, and these choices make a real difference in how God responds.

Whether God foreknows these choices is immaterial to the point of the text. If one, however, decides—philosophically or theologically—that foreknowledge entails determinism (as both open theists and Reformed theologians do), then we must move the discussion to another level. I don’t think it does entail such, but that debate has a long and stormy history through the centuries.

As far as the text before us, however, it affirms “God changed his mind.” This does not deny foreknowledge but it does affirm divine relationality. God responds to human choices out of God’s own character and sovereignty.

Jonah 3:3b-6: Nineveh Repents!

December 10, 2015

Perhaps it is the shortest sermon in the Bible, but it might also be the most effective: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Only five words in Hebrew, it is terse, and it also appears rather unenthusiastic. It appears in Jonah more like a wish-announcement rather than one delivered with evangelistic fervor. But it is only five words, and it was effective.

Jonah Enters Nineveh

Why is Nineveh the chosen audience? Several factors may account for this.

  • Empire—the oppressor of many nations
  • Evil—infamous for their cruelty and brutality.
  • Extent—massive city size

The narrator stresses the size of the city by describing it as “a three days’ walk across.” This is an idiomatic expression, which is not intended as a literal description (cf. Charles Halton, Bulletin for Biblical Research 18 (2008) 193-207). A city that takes three days to cross would be something like 50-60 miles wide. Nothing close to that exists archaeologically. Rather, “three days” stands in contrast to “one” as the difference between “long or large” and “short or small.”

Jonah 3:4 literally describes Jonah’s entrance into the city as “one day’s walk.” The contrast between “three” and “one” is the contrast between a long distance and a short distance. Just as Jonah 3:4 indicates Jonah began to preach shortly after entering the city, Jonah 3:3 only indicates how large the city is rather than specifying a particular actual distance. In other words, both expressions are idiomatic.

Another way to understand “three day’s walk” is to hear it as a description of Jonah’s trip to Nineveh, that is, it was a “three day’s journey” to Nineveh (David Marcus in On the Way to Nineveh, pp. 42-53). Of course, Nineveh is more than a three day’s walk from Israel since it is over 600 miles. In this view, as above, the phrase is idiomatic, and is used as a correlate of Jonah’s “three day” journey in the belly of the great fish. Just as Jonah traveled in the belly of the fish for three days, so Jonah traveled to Nineveh for three days. In other words, both expressions are idiomatic.

However one understands the “three days,” the general point is clear: Nineveh is huge and heavily populated, and it lies at some distance from Israel itself. It is the major city of an imperial power whose evil is well-known and whose size is impressive. In the eighth century BCE, no other Gentile city would have compared to this one in Israel’s imagination, and no other imperial power threatened its existence more than Assyria. And, as Jonah personally represents, no other city would have been as hated and dreaded as Nineveh.

But the most astounding statement in Jonah 3:3 is often missed in translation. The Hebrew text literally reads: “Nineveh was a great city belonging to God” (le’lohim). Most translations render this something like “an exceedingly large city” and understand le’lohim as a superlative. However, given other emphases in the text, it is best to hear a word about God’s sovereignty over the nations in this description. While Israel belongs to God through covenant, in reality all nations belong to God. The Creator of the “sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9) is also the God of the Gentiles as well as the God of Israel.

Jonah’s Message

Just as Yahweh called Jonah to “cry out” to Nineveh (Jonah 3:2), upon entering the city Jonah “cries out,” saying: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

This is a brief but profound summary of the message. As readers of the narrative thus far, we understand Jonah “cries out against” Nineveh because of its “wickedness” (Jonah 1:2). Nineveh’s evil lies in the forefront.

At the same time, the possibility of mercy through Nineveh’s repentance is embedded in the narrative. The sailors, the other pagans in the story, received mercy when they turned from crying out to their gods and cried out to Yahweh (Jonah 1:5, 14). The narrative, then, offers hope, and certainly Jonah 4 makes this explicit. Jonah was fully aware that Yahweh might show mercy to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2-3).

As many have suggested, Jonah’s message is probably a double entendre, and consequently is a bit ambiguous. Jonah uses the verb “overthrow,” which has either a destructive or a transformative meaning. In other words, it may refer to the destruction of the city (cf. Genesis 19:21, 25, 29; Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19) or it may refer to their repentance (in the sense of “turning” to God; 1 Samuel 10:9; Jeremiah 31:13). We might wonder if Jonah’s ambiguity reflects his emphasis on destruction (the “destruction of Sodom” theme runs throughout Scripture) while at the same time holding out the possibility of repentance. The emphasis, it seems, is on destruction, and the Ninevites appear to understand it in that way.

“Forty days” is the allotted time. “Forty,” of course, is an important number in the biblical narrative. It rained forty days and nights during the Noahic flood (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6). Moses was on the mountain of God for forty days and nights where he fasted in the presence of God (Exodus 24:18; 34:28). Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33-34). Interestingly, these were all moments of judgment as the flood washed away the earth’s violence, Israel built a golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and pleaded with God to not destroy Israel, and Israel was tested in the wilderness for their refusal to enter the land. “Forty,” then, is symbolic of a judgment, probation, or testing. Nineveh has entered their probation period, their “forty days.”

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, p. 133) suggests that Jonah is not invested in his message. Instead, he is ambivalent, and the reader suspects “Jonah’s obedience is not all that it appears to be.” His heart is not in it, and his message is rather terse, ambiguous, and unenthusiastic.

Several elements point to this reading. First, there is no “word of the Lord” accompanying the message, which is what one expects when a prophet speaks. Jonah, as Youngblood notes (p. 133), “included no such marks of validation” in his word to Nineveh. This omission is rather suspicious. Second, the ambiguity of the message may reflect Jonah’s intent to condemn rather than redeem Nineveh. He would rather threat Nineveh like Sodom and Gomorah rather than like Jerusalem. Third, curiously, the “king of Nineveh” does not hear the message from Jonah directly. Instead, he apparently hears about it as the news spreads throughout the city. One might expect a prophet would go directly to the leader and work from the top-down.

Whether this language reflects Jonah’s hesitancy and begrudging participation or not, the message has God’s desired effect. God empowered this message even if Jonah was not fully committed to God’s gal in the message. Jonah preaches, and Nineveh repents.

Nineveh Repents

Though the word “repent” is not used in Jonah 3:6, their actions embody repentance. Explicitly, “the people of Nineveh believed God.”

This is significant for several reasons. First, they believed God. The Ninevites recognize Jonah’s preaching as a word from God, even though the text does not use the prophetic phrase “the word of the Lord.”

Second, they believed God (not Yahweh). This is a subtle but important difference. They did not believe in the covenant God of Israel as if they were part of the people of Israel. Rather, they believed God, who “made the sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Like the sailors, the Ninevites trust the Creator God. They are addressed by the Creator; they are not addressed as the covenant people of Yahweh.

Third, they believed God. As Youngblood (p. 135) points out, this alludes to Genesis 15:6 where uncircumcised Abram is credited with righteousness through faith. Abram “believed Yahweh.” Abraham was justified through faith, and so are the Ninevites. Circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, and salvation comes to Nineveh just as it did for Abraham….through faith. Even the nations live by faith, just like Israel. All the righteous live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17).

Nineveh demonstrates its penitence through several rituals: fasting and sackcloth. Fasting is a time of prayer, self-denial, and seeking. Sackcloth typically reflects mourning. This included everyone—small and great. In other words, it transcended social hierarchies and equalized everyone before God. Even the “king of Nineveh” participated. He arose, removed his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. The verbs describe a movement from a privileged and honored status to a humble and penitent abasement. The whole city humbles itself before God in response to the preaching of Jonah.

Just as Jonah represents Israel, so the repentance of Nineveh serves “as a foil to indict Israel indirectly for her own lack of repentance” (Bryan Estelle, Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy, p. 110). Israel was supposed to model repentance for the nations but here Nineveh models repentance for Israel. The nations, therefore, teach Israel. Their roles are reversed.

God’s Mercy for the Nations

Drawing on Youngblood’s reading of this section in Jonah, it seems evident a considerable number of echoes and allusions in the text reflect the narrator’s intent to highlight God’s mercy to “uncovenanted” people, that is, the nations who have no share in Israel’s covenant with Yahweh.

Though “uncovenanted,” the Creator intends to show mercy to the nations. This is indicated by how the language of the narrative echoes the Genesis narrative. In each echo the narrator compares Nineveh with God’s relationship with the nations in Genesis.

Jonah Genesis
Nineveh belongs to God Israel belongs to God (17:7-8)
Forty Days to Repent Forty Days of Flood (7:4)
Overturn Nineveh Overturn Sodom (19:25)
They Believed God Abram believed Yahweh (15:6)
“King of Nineveh” “King of Sodom” (14:21)

Whatever the exact meaning or value of these echoes, the overall point is clear: God is sovereign over the nations, calls the nations to account, and offers the nations mercy through faith and repentance.

God loves the nations, and God uses Israel to bless the nations. Yahweh sent Jonah to show mercy to Nineveh, and thus Israel blesses Nineveh.

The problem, of course, is Jonah is not all that enthused about Yahweh’s intent.

“Uncovenanted mercies,” a phrase used in the history of Christian theology, is often a begrudging recognition that God may save people outside the covenant. James A. Harding, for example, used it to describe how might save those who are unimmersed (Gospel Advocate, November 30, 1882, p. 758). Others use it to describe those who have never heard about Jesus.

Whatever the application, the story of Jonah reminds us how God intends to show mercy to all people and God has the sovereign to do so outside the covenant. Indeed, God not only has that right, but in the story of Jonah God exercises that right and saves Nineveh through “uncovenanted mercies.”

We must not limit God from doing the same today.

Jonah 2:10-3:3a – The God of Second Chances

December 4, 2015

Jonah got a second chance. Yahweh commissioned him a “second time” even though Jonah willfully, deliberately, absolutely, and defiantly told God “No!” and rejected the first commission.

Yahweh said, “Go to Nineveh,” and Jonah got on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction.

Yahweh said, “Be my messenger of grace to lost souls,” and Jonah refused to become an instrument of God’s grace to an evil people.

Yahweh said, “Show Nineveh the same kind of mercy I have shown Israel,” and Jonah thought Nineveh was undeserving and snubbed God’s call.

But Jonah got a second chance, a second commission.   On dry land again, Jonah got up and went to Nineveh and God used Jonah despite his abject refusal of the first call.

God is merciful.

On Dry Land Again

Jonah’s poetic thanksgiving prayer is book-ended by narrative prose, which highlights a significant move in Jonah’s story.

The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish (Jonah 1:17-2:1).

The Song of Thanksgiving (2:2-9).

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land (2:10).

The movement from (1) the sea to (2) inside the belly of the fish to (3) the dry land is Jonah’s deliverance. Jonah is rescued from drowning in the chaotic sea through the great fish and travels to dry land in the belly of the fish. Grateful for deliverance, Jonah gives thanks while still in the belly of the fish as he anticipates his eventual deliverance, that is, walking again on dry land.

The narrator’s word choices are interesting. While describing Jonah’s deliverance, the author uses language that typically describes a shattering experience rather than a liberating one. “Swallow up” (cf. Exodus 15:12; Numbers 16:30-32; Hosea 8:8) and “vomit out” (Leviticus 18:25; 20:22) are most often metaphors for destruction rather than salvation. These two ideas—though not the same Hebrew words—are connected in Jeremiah where Yahweh makes Bel, a Babylonian god, “vomit what he swallowed” (Jeremiah 51:44).

In essence, as readers we expect these words to serve as metaphors for destruction and rejection. However, in the narrative of Jonah, they are metaphors for deliverance. This serves the narrator’s ironic bent. When the great fish swallows Jonah, it rescues Jonah. When the great fish vomits up Jonah, it delivers Jonah to dry land. God reverses Jonah’s fight and flight, and the narrator uses ironic language to describe it. Jonah is swallowed up and spit out on dry land….and this for his own good and salvation.

“Dry land” is also loaded language in the Hebrew Bible. This is creation language where “dry land” emerges from the waters (Genesis 1:9), and we remember Jonah himself confessed he worships the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Moreover, Israelite readers would hardly miss the allusion to Israel’s liberation from Egyptian bondage as they walked on dry ground across the Red Sea (Exodus 15:19).

Jonah is liberated. Jonah experiences a new Exodus. Jonah is given a new beginning, as in the act of creation itself. And Jonah represents Israel. What will Israel do? What will Jonah do? What will Jonah do with his “second chance”?

Jonah Accepts the Commission

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, p. 45) describes the movement within the narrative in this way: Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance and then from acceptance to resentment.

When Yahweh issued the first commission, Jonah resisted, but now when Yahweh re-commissions Jonah, he accepts. However, his acceptance is rather apathetic. It is more begrudging than enthusiastic. Ultimately, Jonah resents the commission.

In both commissions “the word of the Lord comes to Jonah,” and the two commissions are exactly the same except in their final words.

Jonah 1:2

Jonah 3:2

Arise (or, Get up!) Arise (or, Get up!)
Go! Go!
to Nineveh, that great city to Nineveh, that great city
Cry Out! Cry Out!
against it to it
because their wickedness has come up before me the message that I tell you

The primary difference in the commission is where the first one stresses the “wickedness” of Nineveh (1:2), but the second stresses the message God will given Jonah. The first underscores the need for the commission, and the second emphasizes the message (literally, cry out the crying out or proclaim the proclamation).

Jonah’s responses to the two commissions are polar opposites.

Jonah 1:3 Jonah 3:3
Jonah got up Jonah got up
to flee and went
to Tarshish to Nineveh
from the presence of the Lord according to the word of the Lord

In both instances, Jonah “got up” (arose), which is a direct response to Yahweh’s call to “get up” (arise), but then Jonah goes in different directions. In chapter one, Jonah resists the commission and flees from God by going to Tarshish (towards the east). In chapter three, Jonah obeys the commission and goes to Nineveh (towards the west) as directed by the Lord. In the former, Jonah disobeys but in the latter Jonah complies.

In this sense, Jonah repents. He epitomizes Jesus’s parable of the two sons where a father asks his sons to “go and work” in the vineyard. One son said he would and then he did not go. Another son said he would not, but then “changed his mind and went” (Matthew 21:29). Like the latter son, Jonah “changed his mind and went.” In this sense, he repented—he changed his mind and submitted to God’s call.

At the same time, given how the story ends, Jonah did not have a change of heart. In this sense, Jonah did not repent. In other words, Jonah changed his mind and went to Nineveh, but his heart was not in it. He resented every moment he proclaimed God’s message (cf. Jonah 4:2-3).

Outwardly, Jonah repented in response to a second call. Inwardly, Jonah resented the call.

Nevertheless, for a second time, despite Israel’s loathing of Nineveh, Yahweh calls Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the great city. Jonah’s response to the first call was no doubt typical, and Jonah’s response to the second call is astounding—a Hebrew prophet is going to Nineveh!

God is merciful….and that, according to Jonah, is the problem!

The God of Second Chances

Despite Jonah’s problem with God’s mercy, the mercy of God sustains Jonah. Jonah got a second chance.

Should we ever doubt Yahweh as a merciful God, we might simply return to the story of Jonah. This Hebrew prophet defied Yahweh when he fled from the presence of the Lord. He directly, deliberately, and willfully disobeyed God.

According to most renderings of Israel’s God, Jonah should have been zapped with lightning the moment he turned his face to Joppa, or at least when he hired a boat, or at the very least when he was hurled into the sea. Jonah was a willfully disobedient prophet. If any deserved annihilation, it was Jonah.

Jonah, however, got a second chance…and even more if we include Jonah 4 as well.

Youngblood (p. 127) draws a helpful canonical comparison between Jonah and Peter. Even though Peter denied the Lord, he got a second chance, and even more. So also with Jonah.

Yahweh is the God of second chances!

God is merciful—even willfully disobedient prophets get second chances.

God is merciful.

Thank you, God.

Unto Us A Child is Born: Hope in the Darkness (Isaiah 9:1-7)

November 28, 2015

[Listen or watch the sermon on Isaiah 9 here.]

Isaiah spoke into a world analogous to our own, one soaked in darkness.

When  night descended upon Judah, people saw only “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish” (Isaiah 8:22). Uncertain of where to turn, people sought guidance in all the wrong places, including false gods, the dead, and their political leaders (Isaiah 8:19-2o). Overwhelmed by the darkness, people look to anyone or anything for light and hope.

Judah had been thrust into the middle of war when their northern kinsmen (Israel) joined with Syria to try to force Judah into an alliance against Assyria. Judah, however, appealed to Assyria to stave off their invasion. War ensued, and darkness descended upon the land.

Ultimately, Israel, the northern kingdom, caught the brunt of this war when Assyria annexed “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” in the “Galilee of the nations.” Exile, which would later envelop all Israel (by Assyria) and Judah (by Babylon), came to Galilee first.

Darkness enveloped Galilee, and it still envelopes much of the world. Recent weeks have seen the rise terror and violence with a greater rise in fear and anxiety. Suspicion reigns, and violence–already so prevalent in so many ways in the United States–continues to erupt across the goble. Darkness surrounds us, just as it did ancient Israel and Judah.

In the biblical theodrama (the story of God), darkness precedes light.  In the beginning the Spirit of God hovered over the waters covered in darkness, but then God said, “Let there be light.” Following this pattern, God has continuously injected light into the darkness. Israel itself, as a nation, was intended to be light within the darkness, which engulfed the nations. And in war-torn Israel and Judah in the 730s BCE, when the land was soaked in “deep darkness” and the people “walked in darkness,” they saw a “great light.”

Isaiah heralds a time when this “great light” would dawn on the “way of the sea,” which ran through Galilee. With this light, the nation would multiply and rejoice as if celebrating a great harvest. With this light, the rod of oppression would be lifted and all military gear would be burned as fuel for fires. The land would be filled with great joy and light while oppression and war would no longer exist.

The turning point is the birth of a child. Light dawns with a birth announcement. The fortunes of Israel and Judah, as well as the whole earth, will turn on the birth of this child. This birth announces hope!

Isaiah 9:6 announces the birth of a new king who is invested with the authority of the throne of David, and the child is given royal names similar to Ancient Near Eastern kings..

  • Wonderful Counselor — a wise guide who gives good counsel
  • Mighty God — a powerful hero invested with God’s strength and representing God in the nation
  • Everlasting Father — a benevolent, enduring benefactor whom the people trust
  • Prince of Peace — a peacemaker who reigns in prosperity

These titles identify the function of this new ruler and how he will serve the people of God.  He is a wise sage, the image of God, a gracious parent, and the forger of peace. This one, who sits on the throne of David, is a benevolent ruler who enacts peace and justice as God’s representative.

Who is this? At the historical level of Isaiah’s original audience, the prophet is probably referring to Hezekiah, whose reign after the slackening of Assyrian oppression resulted in years of peace and prosperity. But the language does not quite fit with Hezekiah’s reign. Something larger is in view as the authority of this king grows “continually” and provides “endless peace” as well as “justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”

While the prophet has an immediate word of hope and encouragement for Judah, his language envisions more than what Hezekiah provided. Isaiah anticipates a time when “the throne of David and his kingdom” will fully establish peace and justice upon the earth, and this is something Yahweh will effect; Yahweh “will do this.”

Enter Jesus, the Messiah.

Matthew, quoting Isaiah 9:1-2, believes Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s hopes (Matthew 4:12-17).

After his baptism (his own “red-sea” experience parallel to Israel’s), the Spirit led Jesus into the Judean desert for forty days (his own “wilderness” experience parallel to Israel’s), and in the face of opposition to John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.” Making “his home in Capernaum by the sea,” Jesus located his ministry in the land of “Zebulun and Naphtali.” There Jesus begins his ministry, heralding the good news of the kingdom of God, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The light has dawned in the darkness. The ministry of Jesus enacts the presence of the kingdom in the world, and this is the light Jesus brings into the darkness. The shadow of death is dispelled by the light of Jesus’s ministry where the dead are raised, the sick are healed, the demons are expelled, and chaos is subdued.

The ministry of Jesus reverses the curse!

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

“…people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24b).

The conjunction of the words and deeds of Jesus proclaim the kingdom of God.  Jesus heralds the good news of the kingdom through teaching in the synagogues and then enacts the good news of the kingdom through a healing ministry.

The phrase “good news of the kingdom” is quite significant.  This is the gospel.  Is this about the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is the common definition of the gospel among many? Is Jesus already talking about that? Not yet.  The narrator makes it clear that Jesus does not begin to talk about his death and resurrection until after his transfiguration (Matthew 16:21) and then only to his small circle of disciples.

When Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom in the synagogues of Galilee–providing light in the darkness–he is not talking about his death and resurrection.  So, what is the good news?  It is the good news of forgiveness, of blessing, of compassion, of healing…it is the good news embodied in the very deeds of Jesus himself; it is the good news of his ministry.. The good news is the curse is being reversed in the lives of people.

His deeds are themselves a parable of the kingdom; they are a witness to the presence of the reign of God.  They are a reversal of the curse. The miracles are not primarily about authenticating his Messianic claim though they do serve that function.  The miracles are not primarily about compassion though they convey the love of God.

The miracles are about hope–the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, peace, justice, and life. Hope is light in the darkness, and it is embodied in the presence and ministry of Jesus the Messiah.

Hope changes everything. It dispels the darkness. It frees the captive. It releases debts. It gives life.

The darkness is yet with us, but the light disperses the darkness. And one day it will totally eliminate it because in the new heaven and new earth, “there is no night there.”

“Unto us a child is born.” That is hope.

“There is no night there.” That is hope fulfilled.

Consequently, even while the darkness remains, hope is a ray of light, and we are people of hope as we live as lights within the darkness.

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 make 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 th