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.

Here

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).

Consequently:

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!

Conclusion

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!

Structure

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.

Submission

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.

Conclusion

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. http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Miroslav%20Volf%201%20Peter.pdf). “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.

Conversion

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).

Conclusion

Discouraged? Oppressed? Feel like an alien?  Peter’s advice is:

Hope in the grace God will reveal.

Become holy as God is holy, as children of God.

Live in reverent fear, as a people liberated through faith.


1897 Graduation Program for the Nashville Bible School

June 10, 2015

The Nashville Bible School, founded on October 9, 1891 with nine students, steadily grew throughout the first years of its existence. At the end of October 1891, it would have nineteen students, and twenty-six by Feburary and conclude the year with thirty-two students In succeeding years it would have forty-two, fifty-three, eighty-eight, and then one hundred and ten.

The Nashville papers were impressed. “The Nashville Bible School, which has grown up so quietly in this city during the last five years, is becoming one of the mighty powers of this section” (The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2). The “verdict of a critical audience” at the 1895 graduation exercises “was that the institution has not only attained results which give to it eminent character in the community, but that the great good worked by it recommends it to the support and well wishes of the city and State” (The Nashville American, May 31, 1895, p. 8).

In addition–and more important to Lipscomb and Harding–was the fact that over that five years its graduates and students had baptized more than 3,400 people and planted over twenty-eight congregations (as reported by James A. Harding at the 1896 graduation exercises; The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2).

Given both the public assessment of the Nashville Bible School and the productive work of its students, the institution was regarded as a great success. It had fulfilled its two major purposes: (1) to provide a cultured education that equips young people as useful and successful citizens, and (2) to nurture them in the Christian faith that they might serve as Bible teachers, evangelists, elders, and deacons in their communities. (See Harding, Gospel Advocate, 21 October, 1891, p. 661 and Gospel Advocate, 7 June 1894, p. 362).

It was an education, however, that was designed for the poor and working classes (though not excluding the wealthy) since they had no other opportunity in the city. “We differ from many other schools,” Harding wrote, “in that we freely admit all who are not able to pay free of charge. Our Master preached the gospel to the poor; we are trying to imitate him” (Gospel Advocate, 3 June 1897, p. 338).

In 1897, the school graduated four (they had graduated five in the previous year). The Nashville American provided the details of the exercise (4 June 1897, p. 8).

Opening Song: “Somewhere”

Prayer: Elder J. W. Grant.

Reading: Miss Clara M. Benedict read her essay, “Unselfishness.”

Oration: “Lessons from the Past,” by A. B. Lipscomb.

Song: “Oh, Be Joyful in the Lord,” sung by Misses Clara Sullivan, Tennie McAlister and Woodson Harding, and Messrs. W. H. Sewell, J. M. Murphy, J. B. Bostick and T. H. Hales.

Address: “What is the Destiny of Man?,” David Lipscomb. “He said self-denial was the only way to be happy. The mission of all preachers should be to go among the sick and lowly.”

Diplomas, awarded by Superintendent J. A. Harding to Miss Clara Benedic, of Nashville; Miss Cynthia Gill, of Allensville, KY; J. B. Bostick, of Fresno, CA, and A. B. Lipscomb, of Nashville.

Song: “Gliding Away”

Benediction: Elder C. A. Moore.

 

 


1 Peter 1:10-12 — Prophets and Angels, and the Rest of the Story

June 4, 2015

Elect exiles, scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, are the heirs of Israel’s story, which means they participate in the trajectory of not only Israel’s history but also its hopes. Significantly, the “salvation” in which believers rejoice is what Israel, through its prophets, anticipated.

The living hope and future inheritance—“this salvation”—in which believers rejoice amidst their suffering is the subject of prophetic imagination in the Hebrew Scriptures. The present experience of believers in Christ is a privileged status because they are the heirs of Israel’s traditions and the recipients of the grace about which Israel’s prophets spoke. Peter assumes a radical continuity between Israel and present believers—they participate in the same story. But the story has moved into a new moment because history has now realized, at least in part, the prophetic word.

Christians are exiles, but they are graced and blessed exiles because of “this salvation.” They are privileged to experience that for which Israel in the past could only hope. Though marginalized by their culture and oppressed by Roman authority, they are the advance guard of new creation within the world as they anticipate their future inheritance—an inheritance promised to Abraham long ago.

What did Israel’s prophets “witness beforehand” (promarturomenon)? To what did they testify before it happened, even without fully understanding the reality to which they bore witness?

Peter describes this as “the grace that would come to you” (tes eis humas charitos) as well as the “the messianic sufferings and the glories that would follow” (ta esi Christon pathemata kai tas meta tauta doxas). Essentially, the two phrases are describing the same reality (e.g., notice their similar grammatical structure as if in parallel).

Grace is an important word in 1 Peter (occurring in 1:13; 2:19; 3:7; 4:10, 13; 5:5, 10). Most importantly, the word describes the content of Peter’s letter in 1 Peter 5:12. Peter characterizes his letter as a “witness” or testimony to the “grace of God” in which the elect exiles stand. Peter’s topic, in a word, is grace!

Peter, however, is not the first to declare this grace. Israel’s prophets also spoke of this grace. This affirms the continuity between Israel and the church—they have the same message, the grace of God.

In what does this grace consist? It, no doubt, is inclusive of “this salvation” (1 Peter 1:10), which is expressed in the doxology of 1 Peter 1:3-5. But Peter is more specific about that “grace” or “salvation.” Israel’s prophets also testified concerning the “messianic sufferings and the glories” to come, and that is the grace of God.

The plural nouns, “sufferings” and “glories,” are rather curious. One might expect—as is common in Christian parlance—“suffering and glory.” And precisely for that reason, the plurals are intentional and thus intend to say more than simply the “death and resurrection” of Jesus the Messiah.

The sufferings of the Messiah (cf. 1 Peter 4:13; 5:1) encompass the whole of his life and not simply his death. They are the sufferings of a servant who serves the mission of God in the world, which is the kind of suffering that elect exiles endure as well. Peter reminds us that Isaiah 53 provided just such a picture (cf. 1 Peter 2: 21-25).

The “glories” include the resurrection of Jesus, but much more. We can add the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, which is the inauguration of the kingdom of God within a new creation. Further, “glories” includes the fullness of the kingdom that is part of the Messianic mission, and this points to the inheritance yet to come (1 Peter 1:3-5). The glory of the Messiah is a renewed and remade world that fully mirrors the will of God in heaven. Hebrew prophets saw this future however imperfectly they understood it (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-5).

How were the prophets able to speak of this future before it happened? They saw it through the “Spirit of Christ” in the past, which parallels the “Holy Spirit” in the present. Their vision was empowered by divine movements in their life, or what we might call divine inspiration.

What is the “Spirit of Christ”? Is it the Messiah himself in some kind of pre-incarnate state? It seems to me the parallel with the “Holy Spirit” unites these two rather than differentiating them. There is more continuity than discontinuity here. The Spirit, known to Christians as the “Holy Spirit,” announces the message to Christians, and this is the same Spirit who stirred up the prophetic imagination. In her commentary, Karen Jobes summarizes it well: “The Spirit who had inspired the prophets was the same Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism, identifying him as the Messiah who would experience the foretold sufferings and glories that would follow. Peter thereby shows a continuity of the presence of the Spirit with the prophets and with the Christians.” In other words, the “elect exiles” share the same “Spirit” with Israel’s prophets.

Did the prophets fully grasp this? They did not understand the timing or the specific circumstances (or person) that would usher in the “grace.” The prophets sometimes asked, “how long” before their hopes would be realized (Jeremiah 12:6-13; Habakkuk 2:1-4). The prophets waited for the realization of their message, and—as Hebrews 11:39 says—they waited and often “did not receive what was promised.” They spoke, but they did not know the full ramifications or the ultimate fulfillment of their own words. They prophesied hope, but they did not fully comprehend how that hope would be realized and what form it would take.

The grace that Israel prophesied by the “Spirit of Christ” is the gospel now preached through the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit who revealed the future sufferings and glories of the Messiah to the prophets is the same Spirit that announces “this salvation” to believers in Christ as both fulfilled but not yet fully realized. And just as the prophets searched and investigated the meaning and future fulfillment of their prophecies, even now the angels sit on the edge of their seat in wonder as they hope to know more about what is happening.

The point is the privileged status of the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.” We occupy the back end of God’s story. Believers see and understand more than the prophets, and they experience more than the angels themselves. Though the surrounding culture marginalizes and oppresses them, they are graced with honor and glory in God’s story. The grace in which believers stand, the salvation they experience, and the messianic reality of suffering and glory are things into which the angels “desire to look.”

Charles Wesley’s hymn “Hosanna in the Highest” (cited by Allen Black from Selwyn) expresses the wonder of 1 Peter 1:10-12:

Angels in fix’d amazement

Around our altars hover

With eager gaze

Adore the grace

Of our Eternal Lover

The doxology that began in 1:3, “Blessed be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” ends with the wonder of the angelic hosts. The Triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit–have fulfilled the hopes of Israel’s prophets. This is praiseworthy, and the angels join in the praise even as they are–as are we–filled with wonder and amazement.

Look at what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Blessed be God the Father who has rebirthed through the suffering and glory of Jesus the Messiah and revealed it by the Holy Spirit.


1 Peter 1:6-9 — Joy in the Midst of Suffering

May 31, 2015

“Joy” and “suffering” are not two words that often belong in the same sentence, much less a blog title. Yet, this is exactly the case as Peter digresses from doxology (begun in 1 Peter 1:3) to commentary on his reader’s present circumstances (1 Peter 1:6-9).

1 Peter 1:3-12 is a single sentence in the Greek text. Peter begins with doxology (1:3-5), digresses into proclamation (1:6-9), and ends with wonder (3:10-12). Peter blesses God because the Father has rebirthed us, continues to preserve us, and will in the last time rescue us (1:3-5). This “salvation,” which is already present though not yet fully revealed, provides the ground for joy in the midst of suffering.

Joy arises out of the salvation rather than from the suffering. We do not rejoice because we are suffering, but our suffering is soaked with joy because of God’s saving work. This does not mean that we forsake grieving or tears. On the contrary, we weep, lament, and cry out to God because we suffer. What it does mean, however, even as our suffering is for a little while and for limited purposes, God is at work among us for our salvation. This is our living hope, and it will carry us through our darkest times.

This salvation, which is the subject of Peter’s doxology, is the reason why believers rejoice even as they “suffer various trials.” Peter lays out the reality of salvation first, and then situates suffering in the context of that salvation. As Peter illustrates, suffering is best framed by God’s narrative, by the story of God’s saving work among us. Despite the suffering, but because of our salvation, we rejoice in the midst of suffering, trust in Jesus, and love Jesus even though we have not see him.

In this brief digression, Peter offers some perspectives on suffering, which we might summarize in a few points.

Suffering is varied and brief.

What kind of suffering is Peter describing? It certainly involves the sort of suffering later described in the book, including what slaves suffer from their masters, how Christians are treated by Roman culture, and potential imprisonment on the part of political authority. In other words, Peter is primarily focused on suffering as persecution in one form or another.

But should we limit what Peter says about suffering to only persecution? I don’t think so.

It is important to remember 1 Peter is soaked with the theology, imagery, and language of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter addresses the “elect exiles of the Disapora” (1:1)—they are the people of God scattered across what is now modern Turkey. They are God’s “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

When 1 Peter describes the suffering of the exiles as “trials” or “testing,” this evokes diverse images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel endured various trials throughout its history—from persecution to wilderness wanderings. When Peter evokes the image of “trial,” he is drawing on the theology of Israel’s Scriptures. For example, Deuteronomy 8:1-4 characterizes the wilderness wandering by the children of the rebellious generation as a “testing” (trial), which becomes a type of Jesus own “testing” in the wilderness in Matthew 4 (Luke 3).

“Various trials,” I think, has a broad meaning, just as “salvation” is broadly considered as well (past, present, and future). The term “varied” itself gives the impression of different kinds of suffering or suffering that comes in many different forms, just as grace comes in many forms (“manifold grace” in 1 Peter 4:10—using the same term). Peter’s language is not restricted to persecutions but to all forms of suffering.

This suffering, however, is brief. It is for “ a little while.” Peter contrasts our unfading inheritance with the brevity of our suffering (similar to Paul in Romans 8:18ff). Suffering is limited; it will not last forever.

Suffering is necessary and meaningful.

Peter is quite explicit about this. Believers “have had (deon) to suffer various trials so that (hina) the genuineness of [their] faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Deon, a form of dei, entails necessary. We might translate this as, “it was necessary to suffer…” Of course, this is not an absolute statement about suffering but a relative one. It is necessary relative to the meaning or purpose of suffering. In other words, the significance of suffering is not arbitrary or chaotic; it is purposeful and significant.

The hina expresses purpose, and the specified purpose is testing, which bears fruit as believers are praised, glorified, and honored when Christ is revealed in the eschaton (or “last time”).

Suffering tests faith; suffering is a trial. It refines faith just as gold is refined by fire, and it demonstrates its authenticity or proves its worth. Suffering functions like a smelter where what is pure, good, and authentic emerges on the other side. As God preserves us through the fire, our faith emerges stronger and more deeply rooted in God’s own work in our lives.

“Testing” is a theme that reverberates throughout Israel’s story. God “tested” Abraham (Genesis 22:1), Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-5), and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:31). The Psalmists invite this testing (Psalms 26:2; 139:23), assume it (Psalms 7:9; 11:4-5), and recognize it in their own history (Psalm 66:10). Israel’s wisdom literature employs it (Proverbs 17:3). The prophet Jeremiah pictures God as one who tests hearts (Jeremiah 11:20; 12:3; 17:10; 20:12; cf. Zechariah 13:9). We might see “testing” as a core motif in God’s relationship with Israel and with humanity (as the example of Job illustrates as well; cf. Job 23:10).

The exiled elect of the Christian Disapora are also tested, and this is consistent with the story of Jesus and the early church (James 1:2-3, 12). Jesus himself is tested. Hebrews, quoting Psalm 95, situates Christians in the wilderness testing (Hebrews 3:8). God tests hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4). Indeed, the whole world is tested in the crucible of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan (Revelation 3:10).

Given the pervasive nature of this testing motif, the identification of followers of Jesus with Israel’s story, and the function of testing in God’s narrative, suffering has meaning. It is a refining fire and authenticator, and this is the reason—at least in 1 Peter—that suffering is necessary. Faith must be tested.

The result of a genuine faith is eschatological “praise, glory and honor.” Coming through the fire, we will emerge as refined gold, and God’s response to this is to praise us (e.g., “well done”—the applause of heaven, as one of Lucado’s books is entitled), glorify us (with a “crown of glory” in 1 Peter 5:4), and honor us. “Well done” are the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. In other words, through suffering, we are renewed and restored to the original vision of God for humanity whom God crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8). God will exalt those who have been humbled in their suffering.

This eschatological glory is, in fact, the “salvation of [our] souls” (1 Peter 3:9). Unfortunately, “souls” is sometimes misunderstood to refer only to the inner person, but this is too limited. Our living hope is both a resurrection and a landed inheritance (the meek shall inherit the earth, Matthew 5:5). “Soul” includes both the inner and outer person, both the spirit and body (in resurrection), just as eight “souls” were saved in Noah’s ark. “Soul” refers to the whole person, and it is the whole person who will be saved.

But this salvation is not simply future. While its full revelation awaits the “last time” (1 Peter 1:5), it is already received now by faith. The verb “receiving” in 1 Peter 1:9 is present tense; it is something located in the here and now. Our salvation is something we already experience through new birth and divine perseverance even though it is not yet fully realized, that comes when God grants our inheritance in the “last time.”

We endure suffering through love, faith, and joy.

Clearly Peter does not believe the Christian life is a bed of roses. It is filled with “various trials.” Suffering is part of the path that Christians tread.

Suffering correlates with the reality that we do not now “see” Jesus. Jesus is, in one sense, absent as he sits at the right hand of God. He is located in heaven with our inheritance. Suffering, then, entails a kind of blindness, even darkness. We do not see, but yet we endure. Suffering can often darken our horizons, and it creates a fog that blinds us. Yet, nevertheless we endure by the power of God.

Peter describes this endurance with three verbs (as translated by NRSV):

  • You love him
  • You believe in him
  • You rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy

Love, faith, and joy.

These are possible, in part, because even now we are receiving the telos (goal, end, or outcome) of our life with God. Through love, faith, and joy we experience the future in the present.

So, suffering does not destroy us. On the contrary, it strengthens and refines us. We love God—not for profit or reward but because God has loved us. We trust in God’s work within and among us because of Jesus—even in the midst of suffering. And, further, we do not despair, but we rejoice in our living hope.

Suffering—as difficult as it is to see in those dark times—refines us so that through love and faith we might rejoice in God’s work in and for us.


Enter the Water, Come to the Table

May 30, 2015

Below are summary statements that correspond to chapters or sections of chapters in my most recent book Enter the Water, Come to the Table (Leafwood, 2014). They summarize the theology present in the book, which is deeply rooted (I hope) in the story of God as given to us in Scripture.

I am grateful for Highland View Church of Christ (Oak Ridge, TN) and my friend Curtis McClane for requesting these summary statements for their own use this summer.

Sacrament:  God acts through appointed material (created) means to impart grace, assurance, and hope, and God uses these means to enjoy relationship with people and foster relationship among them.

Israel:  Liberated from slavery and baptized into a new community, Israel begins its journey to the land of promise.

Israel:  The sacrificed animal, along with bread and wine, becomes a joyous fellowship meal between God and Israel as well as with each other.

Jesus:  Jesus entered the water to unite with others in their journey toward the kingdom of God and to begin his own ministry in the kingdom of God.

Jesus:  Jesus shared table with others for the sake of witness, reconciliation, and justice; Jesus models table etiquette in the kingdom of God.

Acts:  As with the baptism of Jesus, Spirit-baptism and water-baptism are a united witness to the reconciling work of God that intends to transform the world.

Acts:  When disciples break bread together they eat in the presence of the resurrected Christ, which generates joy and comfort.

Paul:  Through baptism God raises the dead and calls us into a new life characterized by a righteousness empowered through the indwelling Spirit.

Paul:  Through eating and drinking together we participate in the reality effected by the body and blood of Christ wherein we commune with both God and each other.

Eschaton:  Through our union with the resurrection of Jesus in baptism we begin our participation in the new creation as new creatures in Christ.

Eschaton:  Through eating and drinking we experience the new creation in the present as a community nourished by the resurrection life of Jesus, who is the foundation and beginning of new creation.

Practice:  Through baptism we enter into God’s own story, which absorbs our story, and we become partners with God in God’s mission.

Practice:  The table of the Lord is a communal moment where God shares life with us and we share life with each other.


Five Lectures on the Book of Job: Midwest Preachers’ Retreat (2014)

May 28, 2015

In September 2014, I was honored to present some material on the book of Job to a group of dedicated and devout servants in the church at the Midwest Preachers’ Retreat in Wisconsin.  Here are the audio links to those presentations.

1.  The Text of Job as Dramatic Lament: The Dialogical Structure of the Book

2.  A Tension Within Job: The Righteous Sufferer and Divine Responsibility

3.  Jobian Faithful Lament: Learning to Voice Our Impatience to God

4.  Yahweh Speaks: Wisdom Encounters Job

5.  The Unsatisfying End to the Book of Job: Job’s Response and God’s Gifts

If you would like a copy of the handout for the retreat, click here: Faithful Lament — Midwest Retreat Outlines

For those interested in more detailed discussions of Job, see my twenty-two blog posts which walk through the book of Job.  They are under the menu “Serial.”

 

 


Our Pledge of Allegiance…to the Kingdom of God

May 24, 2015

The Sermon on the Mount is the epitome of Kingdom ethics and discipleship.

The Sermon opens with the Beatitudes, which begin and end with a promise that the blessed belong to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3, 10). The Sermon ends with a promise that those who “do the will of the Father” will “enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). At heart of the theology of the Sermon is the call to “seek first the kingdom and its righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Near the center of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers a model prayer for kingdom people. Christian tradition has typically called it “the Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” The prayer, however, is not simply pedagogical; it has a theological function. At its core, the prayer articulates a theology and ethic of the kingdom of God that should shape our lives.

While the Sermon begins with beatitudes and ends with a parable, at its center is a liturgical prayer. From the earliest times of which we are aware, this prayer has served Christians. The Didache, which was probably written in the late first century, suggests Christians pray this prayer three times every day (8:2-3), and in the early centuries the prayer became part of the weekly liturgy of the church.

As a daily prayer, it functions not only as a petition for God’s care, it also as a daily affirmation, a daily pledge of allegiance.

The prayer is a comprehensive, “big picture” view of relationship with God.  In the prayer–at the direction of Jesus–we address the Creator as one who is both immanent in relationship with us (“Father”) and transcendent beyond us (“in heaven”). The prayer proceeds to connect us to both dimensions.

In the first half of the prayer, we commit ourselves to the transcendent God.  We pledge allegiance to the divine name, will, and kingdom. We have no other allegiance. This is the heart of worship itself–a covenant loyalty that transcends everything else in our lives and orders the whole of lives under the sovereignty of God.  Anything else is idolatry. We call upon God to act so as to sanctify God’s name, accomplish God’s will, and bring the divine kingdom to the earth.

At the same time that we petition the Creator to reorder life on earth in conformity to divine purposes, we also commit ourselves to become the instruments of that work. We pray for the sanctification of the name, the accomplishment of the will, and the inbreaking of the kingdom but our prayer is no mere passive waiting for the divine act.  Rather, we pursue those goals as proactive agents of the name, will and kingdom of God. God works through us, and we testify to our willingness to be divine instruments. Empowered by God, we commit to cooperate with the redemptive grace of God at work to bring heaven to earth.

The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer affirm the petitioner’s commitment to God’s agenda. Prayer commits to the name of God, the kingdom of God, and the will of God. To pray this prayer is to subordinate our agendas and desires to God’s kingdom. We acknowledge that God’s will rather than our own is primary. We pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom rather than to the kingdoms of this world. We seek the will of God.

The prayer, however, is not simply about our allegiance to God, but it is also a testimony of God’s commitment (yes, even allegiance) to us. God is immanent, present to us, in our daily existence. The last three petitions assume God’s benevolence for us and claims God’s promises of daily material sustenance, reconciliation (forgiveness), and power against the evil one.  God is for us and he will not abandon us.

We seek God’s involvement in our daily–one day at a time–life in the world. God feeds us, forgives us, and protects us. We need the divine gift of life (physical, emotional, spiritual), and we need the divine power that overcomes the evil one. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer I sense the renewal of God’s promises in my life–God will sustain me in all my needs whether it is about bread, sin, or spiritual warfare.

However, in the very reception of these gifts is the obligation to share them. When we pray for bread, we commit to share the bread God gives.  When we pray for forgiveness, we commit to forgive others.  When we pray for protection, we commit to protect others.

This is most clearly present in the fifth petition. We seek God’s forgiveness just as we have forgiven others. It is a dangerous prayer to pray. Do we really want God to forgive us as we have forgiven others? Yet, to pray it is to be transformed by it.

Immaculee Ilibaguza, who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide, powerfully illustrates the transformative nature of this prayer. While over one million of her tribe (Tutsi) were slaughtered over three months, she hid in a bathroom with seven other women for ninety-one days. She prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, though she struggled with forgiveness. But through praying the prayer she learned to forgive those who killed her family and wanted to kill her. [See her books Led by Faith and Left to Tell].

The Lord’s Prayer, prayed daily with purpose and commitment, will transform us. Through this prayer, we acknowledge God’s transcendence, commit ourselves to God’s agenda, and embrace a new way of living in the world that conforms to God’s will, honor God’s name, and manifest God’s kingdom.

Through this prayer, we trust in God’s daily provisions for our lives, receive God’s forgiveness as we forgive others, and embrace God’s protection against the evil one.

The Lord’s Prayer is our pledge of allegiance.  I pledge allegiance to no other kingdom (including the United States of America).  And the Lord’s Prayer assumes God’s faithful commitment to me–God is for me and not against me.

Morning, noon and evening, I renew my pledge and embrace again God’s pledge to me.


When Friends Try to Help….On the Death of My Son

May 21, 2015

May 21 is an anniversary date for me. Joshua died on that day in 2001. SCAN1561

Many friends helped. Mark and Margo Black were there, Rubel and Myra Shelly were there, Mike Cope was there a few days before as well as John York, and we were surrounded by many others (including my Woodmont Hills Bible class). Gary Dodd painted a portrait of Joshua lying on his death bed; it still hangs in my home office. I am looking at it even as I type. My colleagues at Lipscomb University helped and many friends from Memphis (including Gary Ealy and Allen Black). There are too many to mention.

Many friends helped. They helped by their presence and actions. I don’t remember many words, but I do remember that they were there and what they did.

Words that express love and sympathy are welcome, but their presence spoke more than their words.  I am grateful for their friendship.

But friends don’t always help, and this is especially true when it comes to their words. Some words can sting and stir the pain rather than relieve it. Fortunately, that was rarely the case in my situation, though it is often the case for others.

For me, the memory of my friends on May 21 and the days following is comforting. They helped. They were present. But for others that memory is not as pleasant.

What do we do with unpleasant memories? What do we do with the anger we might feel towards those who mistreated–whether intentionally or unintentionally [which is usually the case]–us?

Those who know me also know that the Book of Job has significantly shaped my journey through grief ever since Sheila died in 1980. And that book speaks to the above question in a powerful way.

Job’s friends came to comfort him (Job 2:11), and they sat in silence with him for seven days. But they broke their silence when Job lamented that he had ever been born (Job 3). The dialogue between Job and his friends runs from Job 4 to Job 27.

  • The friends advise Job to repent (Job 4-14).
  • The friends insist that Job shut up (Job 15-21).
  • The friends give up any hope for Job’s faith (Job 22-27).

With friends like these, who needs enemies!

The depth of their “help” and “comfort”–Job calls them “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2)–reaches unimaginable proportions. For example, Bildad opines that Job’s children died because they had sinned (Job 8:4).  They accuse of Job of self-righteousness, arrogance, and hidden sin (see Job 22).

What do you do with friends like these?  What did Job do?

Job forgave them. Job prayed for them (Job 42:7-9).

Suffering creates a crisis for not only the sufferer but for his or her friends. Everyone struggles with the reality, and no one really wants to face it.

We seek explanations or rationales. We shield ourselves from as much pain as possible. We defend God or accuse God. Our emotions range from shock to anger to indifference. This is true for friends as well as the sufferer. In fact, good friends suffer with the sufferer. And like the sufferer, the friends don’t know how to handle or process the grief and loss.

Sufferers sometimes resent the way the friends responded–they were not present or they said the wrong thing. And this resentment adds to the pain.

Job prayed for his friends.  Job forgave them, even after the harsh things they said to him.

Resentment increases suffering–it is a poison pill we take in the hope that the other person will die. It actually kills.  Forgiveness is the balm that heals resentment.

Job forgave his friends, and we sufferers can forgive those who increased our pain rather than relieving it.

Forgiveness is a comfort God works in our hearts and enables us to move forward in life.

On this day, the anniversary of my son’s death, I remember the comfort my friends provided by their presence and actions.

Thank you, friends.


1 Peter 1:3-5 – Born Again, Preserved, and Rescued

May 18, 2015

Elect exiles.

Scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, these Christians are called “exiles” due to their social dislocation within a culture hostile to their new way of life. Though “exiles,” they are nevertheless elect. But for what or to what are they elected? What does this election mean?

In part, it means they have been born again, they are being preserved, and they will be rescued.

1 Peter 3:3-12, in Greek, is a single sentence that begins as a doxology, continues as proclamation, and ends in wonder. It winds its way through the whole narrative of salvation—past, present, and future—in order to locate its readers in God’s story. As the opening to the letter, perhaps as an exordium in Hellenistic rhetoric, it provides a theological frame for the rest of the letter by identifying the redemptive situation of believers. There are no imperatives or commands—only blessing, proclamation, and wonder. This single sentence introduces the whole letter.

Despite their present trials and sufferings, they are the recipients of the goal of God’s redemptive work throughout history. They have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus, continuously preserved by the power of God, and will be finally rescued from suffering in the last times (the Eschaton). They have been infused with hope. Though exiles, they are the heirs of God’s redemptive work.

Consequently, God is blessed, which is a typically Jewish way of praising God (Psalm 66:8; 103:1, 20-22; 104:1; 115:18; 134:1). Moreover, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” probably reflects a liturgical practice of the early church since the only other places where it appears are in New Testament doxologies (cf. Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3). The letter, then, opens with doxology, and its theology flows from the praise of God the Father.

But the letter also opens with the proclamation, embedded in the blessing, that Jesus is Lord. Its liturgical form emphasizes the importance of this phrase as something Christians regularly confessed in their communities. The God of Israel is the Father of Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord. That is a mouthful. Religiously, it affirms continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures. Politically, it is dangerous since Caesar is Lord within the Roman Empire. Socially, it becomes the object of derision. “Jesus is Lord” is the central confession of the Christian Faith.

Reborn According to the Mercy of God

Peter blesses the God and Father of Lord Jesus the Messiah who, according to (kata) God’s great mercy, “rebirthed” (regenerated) us into (eis) a living hope and into (eis) a sure inheritance.

New birth, or being born again, is an important theological word for Peter (used in 1:3 and 1:23). It is the starting point for a new way of life, a new kind of existence. Indeed, this is what renders us exiles or foreigners in the present world. We do not breathe the same air as others in the world.

New birth is grounded (kata) in the mercy of God, which is one of the most significant covenant terms for God’s faithful love in the Hebrew Scriptures (hesed in Hebrew; cf. Exodus 34:4-6). Our rebirth flows from God’s merciful and faithful initiative; that is, our election.

Our rebirth issues in two realities: (1) a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, and (2) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance. In other words, our rebirth gives us an eschatological perspective, and it ushers us into an eschatological reality. Born again, we already participate in the eschaton; our new life is eschatological life.

A living hope is a present hope. This is not escapism, but a hope that lives. Or, to put it another way, it is an empowering hope because it lives. The alternative is a life without hope, which is ultimately despairing. Indeed, the nature of this hope is defined by the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, which conquers death and promises life without death.

Resurrection is not simply life after death, but it is life in the wake of the annihilation of death. Resurrected life is the ultimate fruit of newborn life. Our new birth is the promise of this resurrection life as we are born into a new mode of existence. That new existence is ultimately the resurrected life of Jesus himself. We are birthed into a new creation, and new creation begins with the resurrection of Jesus because Jesus—raised from the dead—is new humanity clothed with an eternal body. The hope that lives within our hearts is the hope of sharing in that new humanity where our own resurrected bodies are patterned after the likeness of Jesus’s resurrection body.

Our rebirth also issues in an inheritance. This is, again, a word loaded with meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. Inheritance is about land. But that inheritance was lost through exile because it was defiled by sin. The inheritance of the new creation—of regeneration and rebirth—is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” which is a alliteration in the Greek text using the alpha-privative (each word begins with the negative “a-”). To put it another way—in the oft-quoted words of Beare that mirror the Greek alliteration—“untouched by death, unstained by evil, unimpaired by time.”

But what is this inheritance? Peter says it is “kept in heaven” for us. Our inheritance is in heaven, but it is not heaven. That is, our inheritance is not life after death where one ascends into the heavenly realms for their reward. Rather, our inheritance is connected with resurrection hope; our hope is new creation or resurrected life.

Jesus sits at the right hand of God in his resurrection body. The resurrected Jesus is the beginning of new creation, and new creation is our inheritance. It is now kept in heaven, but it—our ultimate salvation—will be revealed in the last time (1:5). At that time, as 2 Peter 3 makes clear, a new heaven and new earth will appear as the home of the righteous. This is our inheritance; it is the moment when we will inherit the new heaven and new earth as our homeland. Then, we will no longer be exiles or foreigners; we will be home.

Our living hope is resurrected life on a new heaven and new earth, and that is our inheritance. Even now—in the present—we experience that life through our rebirth, and it is that rebirth which gives birth to our hope and the promise of an inheritance. As people born again into the living hope of the resurrection, we are also born into an inheritance that belongs to the family of God.

Preserved by God Through Faith.

Our present experience, however, is often filled with trials and troubles. In fact, our rebirth—our new life—entails that trials will come since we are now exiles or foreigners. Rather than insulating us from hurts and hostility, this new life attracts them because it threatens the values and commitments of a hostile culture. So, in the present, we suffer.

This does not, however, eliminate our hope and inheritance. Rather, God presently preserves (protects, guards) us in the midst of this suffering through faith. Significantly, it is the power of God that preserves or protects. We do not protect ourselves; God protects us.

At the same time, however, we participate in this process. Faith is the means by which the power of God guards us. This is a divine-human movement; it is cooperative grace. God supplies the power, and we appropriate that power through faith. We do not generate the power, but we receive it through faith. Our preservation is not our own doing; it is God’s work in us and through us by faith. Without faith, however, there is no preservation.

The age-old debate between Calvinists and Arminians finds practical common ground here. Both theological traditions agree that we are elect through faith, and that the elect will persevere in faith. Whatever the dogmatic or theoretical frame, these statements affirm a shared perspective: God guards the elect through faith. At a practical level, the elect believe and the elect persevere in belief. In this, both traditions “bless God” as we recognize God’s initiative in our salvation and God’s empowering grace.

Rescued in the Eschaton

God preserves us for (unto, eis) salvation.

“Salvation,” in 1 Peter, describes the full reality of God’s redemptive work. It is both a present and future reality—it sums up the whole of what God is doing to redeem and rescue humanity from sin and death.

“Salvation” (or deliverance, rescue), in 1 Peter 1:5, is eschatological. It is linked to the “last time” (kairo eschato) and final revelation of God’s saving work in the second coming of Jesus. In other words, here salvation refers to the fulfillment of our hope and the arrival of our inheritance. God preserves us in order to bring us into the full experience of our salvation when our “living hope” is realized and we receive our full inheritance.

Conclusion

Blessed be God, Peter writes, because the Father, through Jesus the Messiah, has birthed us and preserves us for the future unveiling of our inheritance (salvation). God is praised for his past, present, and future saving work.

The doxology locates believers in the story of God rather than in the imperial story. God, through Jesus, is the savior of the world, not the Roman Emperor. Christians live in God’s narrative rather than in the imperial one.

According to Peter, that is the true story, and consequently this is the true and authentic location of Christians. Though they live as exiles in Roman culture, they are nevertheless God’s elect.


Reconciliation in the Gospel of John, Or Perichoretic Oneness

May 13, 2015

“I suggest that within the Farewell Discourse this ‘oneness’ is expressed in a Eucharistic love feast even where diversity continues. When believers gather together around the table with self-giving love, they experience in a concrete and sacramental way the common bond that unites them; that is, the perichoretic love of the Triune God. Unity, then, is not best expressed in forms, institutions, and extended theological declarations as much as it is in the reality of the Eucharist in a loving community where we are nourished by the life of divine perichoresis.”

One paragraph, near the end, from a recent paper I uploaded. I presented this paper at the Lipscomb Preaching Seminar in February 2014. The seminar was part of an academic course, and that is the reason why it assumes much and not everything is explained.

The full paper is linked HERE.


On Reading 1 Peter

May 12, 2015

This is a brief letter, but it packs a powerful punch.

It comes to us as a communication between Peter, one of the Twelve, and Christians (“elect exiles”) scattered throughout what is now western and northern Turkey (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter is in “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), which is a cryptic and common Jewish way of referring to Rome in the first century. Peter writes to “exiles” from “Babylon.” This association, which appears in the beginning and close of the letter, highlights an important theme in the letter; that is, Christians are a socially dislocated minority within Roman culture. They are aliens who have a different way of life than their surrounding culture.

There is a strong and ancient tradition that both Peter and Paul died in Rome. Consequently, it is most natural to read “Babylon” as Rome given that tradition and the apocalyptic use of the term within Judaism (as well as Revelation 17). It also accounts for why Peter might take up his pen to write to Roman provinces in what we now call Turkey. Perhaps Peter had previously visited that region at an earlier period, but there is no explicit evidence for that. Whatever the reason Peter addresses these scattered Christians, there is no reason to doubt Peter’s presence in Rome (other than some old Protestant polemics against Roman Catholicism).

Peter, writing from the center of Roman power and wealth—the origin of Roman culture, addresses the social location of Christians within the empire. They are aliens or foreigners; they are homeless within the empire. They live as exiles or refugees.

This offers the most significant key for reading 1 Peter as the author addresses his letter to the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.”

While some think—and not without some good reasons—Peter’s audience is primarily Jewish because the Diaspora refers to Jews living outside their Palestinian homeland, I think it better to read this as Christians who are not at home in Roman imperial culture. Christians are outsiders to Roman power; they do not belong. Christians are scattered throughout Roman culture and its provinces, but they live as aliens within that culture.

Consequently, one of the better ways to think about 1 Peter’s genre (literary form) is to categorize it as a “Diaspora Letter,” which was prominent within Judaism. Some of this genre’s best examples are Jeremiah 29, 2 Maccabees 1:10-2:18, and Elephantine letters 21 & 30.

These letters address Jewish communities displaced from the Jewish homeland. They encourage living well within cultures to which they do not belong and which are often hostile to their presence.

This is exactly what 1 Peter does. “I have written you this brief letter,” Peter says, “to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12). The letter is an exhortation—it encourages and testifies. Distressed in their uncertain circumstances as exiles and foreigners (“strangers in a strange land”), Peter encourages them to live faithfully in the grace of God.

The letter is apparently a circular one; that is, it is intended to circulate among congregations throughout the regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. We might suppose, as Peter hints in 1 Peter 5:12, that Silas (Silvanus) carried the letter to various churches where it was read to the assembly and probably copied. In other words, the letter was orally performed. It is a sermon or exhortation for these distressed and suffering communities, an encouragement to people living in hostile environments.

Peter does this with three major moves in the letter. First, he stresses their identity as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1:13-2:10). Second, he encourages them to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (2:11-4:11). Lastly, he commends their suffering for the sake of Christ, which is their greatest witness (4:12-5:11).

Peter addresses the “diaspora” of God’s elect living among Roman provinces whose faith is regularly tested by the hostility of the surrounding culture in which it lives. Their lives, Peter believes, will bear witness to the grace of God as they follow Christ in his suffering. In this way, they suffer as Christians rather thieves or murderers.

Our contemporary western culture has shifted. Christianity is no longer privileged (and it should never have been). Our culture is now post-Christian, even if it ever was “Christian.” In our present setting, Christianity is increasingly dismissed, treated as irrelevant, and sometimes hated.

Our world is becoming increasingly like Peter’s world. As a result, Peter’s letter is becoming even more relevant as Christians learn to live in a post-Christian culture.

So, we read 1 Peter—like its first readers read it—as aliens. We read it to understand our identity, seek encouragement in our way of life, and endure suffering as followers of Christ.


1 Peter 1:1-2 — Exiled, But Chosen

May 11, 2015

Everyone wants to be chosen, especially those who feel marginalized or undervalued. Many of us remember what it feels like to be the last one chosen in a pickup game of basketball or uninvited to the school party.

Sometimes we feel like outsiders, and sometimes we are treated like outsiders. Sometimes we simply are outsiders.

Yet, though unchosen by others, we are chosen by God.

Peter opens his circular letter to the “elect” (chosen) of what is now modern Turkey like any other letter in the ancient word:

  • Identification of the author: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
  • Recipients: to the “elect exiles dispersed” throughout northern and western Anatolia (modern Turkey).
  • Greeting: “may grace and peace be multiplied among you.”

While the form is typical, Peter’s language and further elaboration illuminates the pastoral focus of his letter.

The community is described as both exiled and chosen. They are both rejected and embraced. This is central to understanding how, as Peter puts it, this letter testifies to the “true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).

The community lives an exiled existence as aliens (foreigners) in cities throughout the Anatolian peninsula. Though settled in these Roman provinces, like Abraham before them, they are “sojourners and aliens” (paroikos kai parepidemos, Genesis 23:4). Peter uses both terms in this letter (paroikos in 1:17, 2:11; and parepidemos in 1:1; 2:11). Specifically, the term parepidemos (foreigners, aliens) refers to one who is not a citizen, and consequently those who are citizens view a parepidemos with suspicion, fear, and often hostility.

This is a displaced existence. The letter’s recipients are part of the Dispersion (NRSV) or Diaspora (1:1). Technically, in the first century, this describes ethnic Jews who no longer live in Palestine, their homeland. Combined with the language of exile and the use of “Babylon” as a metaphor for Rome (1 Peter 5:12), Peter addresses the people of God scattered among the provinces of Roman power and culture. This is not their home. They are exiles, foreigners, or aliens.

They are “resident aliens” (to use the title of significant book as well as The Epistle to Diognetus [5:4-5] in the second century). Their lives are different, and their relationship with Roman power and culture is different. Their community is a living contrast with their surrounding environment, and this creates tension in the communities where they live. So much so that the peaceful existence they desire is threatened by violence, incarceration, and local hostility. They suffer for the sake of Christ.

In other words, their “alien” status is not a contrast between earthly existence and heavenly hope, between present life and eternal life. Rather, it is their social location as a community whose values and interests are out of sync with the surrounding culture. They stick out like a sore thumb. They are regarded as “strange” or weird because they do not engage in the practices of their neighbors (1 Peter 4:4) or participate in the civil religion of the Empire like good citizens.

As a community, they are despised and rejected, much like the servant of Isaiah 53 (to which 1 Peter 2:21-22 appeals). They face intense questioning, hostility, and mockery from their culture. They are marginalized and oppressed. They are aliens in a culture that does not like aliens.

This is an alarming picture. This kind of life might generate a sense of unworthiness. Living on the margins, especially when the culture is hostile, might generate some questions about whether God also dislikes them. How might an alien feel beloved?

They are elect, chosen! Rejected by culture, they are chosen by God. Marginalized by culture, they are at the center of God’s project to redeem the world. They are God’s elect through whom God will transform the world.

Peter characterizes this election with three phrases:

  • according (kata) to the foreknowledge of God the Father
  • by/in (en) the sanctification of the Spirit
  • unto (eis) the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah

The triune nature of this statement is immediately obvious, though the order is rather unusual (even in Scripture, much less in the tradition of the church): Father, Spirit, and Jesus.

We are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Whatever this may mean (and there are historic debates about the relationship between foreknowledge and election), it at least means that God was focused on our election long before we were. Our status is a gift of grace driven by God rather than us. God takes the initiative in our salvation. We did not start the ball rolling. Instead, God has been moving toward this moment from the beginning. We are not an afterthought in God’s eternal purposes; we are the objects of God’s election.

We are elect by the sanctification of the Spirit. Sanctification may refer to the moment we were made saints (that is, we were set apart or consecrated at our conversion), or it may refer to the long process of becoming like Christ in our lives (that is, becoming holy as God is holy), or it may refer to God’s completed work in the end (that is, when God fully perfects us). Since the work of the Spirit here moves us toward obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, it probably refers to the initial work of the Spirit in separating us or setting us apart. But perhaps Peter has something broader in mind analogous to: “living in the space sanctified by the Spirit.” In other words, though we are exiles amidst the kingdoms of this world, God has gathered us as a people who live in the holy space of God’s Spirit. Living in the Spirit, we live in sanctified space, beloved by God. The Spirit consecrates us to God and separates us from the world. This is part of what it means to be one of God’s elect. Consequently, though exiles and aliens in a culture infused with hostility toward God, the elect live in space sanctified by God.

We are elect unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. Though a difficult phrase, it does represent movement toward a goal. We are elect on the ground of the Father’s foreknowledge, and we are elect through the consecration of the Spirit. Our election has a goal, that is, to lead us to obedience to the covenant and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant, which is the forgiveness of sins. The language probably echoes Exodus 24:4-8 where Israel entered into covenant through a pledge of obedience and a sprinkling of the blood. So, we are elect toward the goal of obedience and the cleansing reality of the blood of Jesus. Obedience, then, is part of the conversion narrative where we experience our election because of the work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. And obedience is also part of our ongoing life in the Spirit. We are elect so that we might become obedient people as a people holy to God. The sprinkled blood of the Lamb continually cleanses us as we progressively become what God has called us to be, that is, “You be holy as I am holy.”

The Father foreknows. The Spirit sanctifies. The Son cleanses. The Father, Son, and Spirit together participate in the movement to redeem humanity. We are elect because of what God has done for us, and our response is obedience as we live in the sanctified air of the Spirit, gracious predisposition of the Father, and the sprinkled blood of the Messiah.

Elect, but exiled. Foreigners, but chosen.

The echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures abound here.  This is Israel’s story–they are elect exiles scattered among the nations. They were exiled, yet loved (Malachi 1:1-4). They were despised by the nations but the apple of God’s own eye.

The elect scattered among the provinces of Anatolia occupy the same space as Israel: exiled but chosen. Standing in the grace of God, they are a displaced, but chosen, people.

This is our story: we are aliens in an increasingly post-Christian culture.

This is our joy: we are chosen; we are loved….foreknown by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.

 

 

 


Psalm 58

March 9, 2015

Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of “cultic prophetic lament.”[1] One might imagine a Jeremiah or some priestly leader voicing this complaint at the temple as Israel’s judges gathered to worship. Jeremiah may have appeared at the temple with Jehoiakim to protest his injustice before God (Jeremiah 22). When human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. And the people of God appeal for divine action against unjust judges.

Psalm 58 may be divided into three sections:  Complaint (1-5), Petition (6-9), and Praise (10-11). The complaint arraigns the wicked before God (1-2) and describes them (3-5). The petition invokes God’s action (6), and describes the effect of that action (7-9). The praise rejoices in God’s action (10) and confesses the justice of God (11).

The verb “judge” appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio. The so-called “imprecatory” petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament. Human judges, who sit in God’s judgment seat, act out of self-interest rather than for the sake of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Israel complains about injustice, appeals for justice ,and expects God’s righteous judgment.

The judges (“gods”) do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term (cf. also Pss 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4). God is the model for this equity. The Psalmist addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4, 6, 11, 52). They are like cobras with their lies–they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them–they are incorrigible. They listen to non one. As Mays comments, “They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence.”[2]

The Psalmist calls upon God to act—to defang the judges or take away their power. “Break the teeth” is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. Whoever has not kept their contracts are punished.[3] The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant. The “imprecation” is addressed to God who judges the judges. As the sovereign King, God exercises Lordship over earth and executes justice.

Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9 (cf. Psa 52:1-7). But the joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm’s call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut 32:42-43). The imagery of “feet in blood” does not relish cruelty, but victory (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:19-20; 19:13-14).

We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.”[4] The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.

The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.'”[5] Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”[6]

This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.

Consequently, Psalm 58 functions to call out the wicked who have rebelled against God’s kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God’s justice that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.

Israel’s struggle with injustice continues as our struggle. Just as this Psalm arose out of the narrative of Israel’s oppression by its own leaders, so our proclamation of this Psalm must be placed in our history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this Psalm only days after key church leaders, including Martin Niemoller, were arrested on July 1, 1937. He railed against the injustice that was sweeping his country and called upon God to act.[7] We can hear the cries of African-American churches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We can hear the cries of Palestinian mothers whose homes are blown up by Israelis because their sons were involved in illegal activities.[8]

If we proclaim Psalm 58, however, it will make demands on us. It will call us to stand with the oppressed and empathize with the victims of injustice. But as we share the experience of the marginalized, oppressed, and poor, the Psalm calls us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is God’s work, not ours. Bonhoeffer made this clear for his own church under Nazi oppression: [9]

It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God’s hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one’s own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God’s cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate” (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: ‘Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth’.

Even more dangerously, however, is how Psalm 58 calls us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life. Zengar offers an important perspective: [10]

In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings–as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God’s judgment.”

The cry for justice against injustice is not unchristian. On the contrary, we cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8). The parable of the persistent widow is particularly appropriate for the proclamation of Psalm 58 as a widow cries out for justice against an unjust judge.[11]

Further, should we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God’s kingdom is fully established (Revelation 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Revelation 6:10; cf. 18:20).

Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and believers will find rest in that justice. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ. Preaching “imprecatory” (or justice) Psalms needs both an eschatological perspective and a sense of the present in-breaking of the kingdom of God that establishes justice and righteousness in the earth.[12]

When we empathize with the oppressed, we must also stand in their place and pray for the revelation of God’s justice. Psalm 58 not only cries out for justice, but it invites hearers to stand with the oppressed and act on their behalf.

[1]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) and Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990) both quoting Jeremias.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 211.

[3]Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard, “On Breaking Teeth,” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 59-75.

[4]Gerald Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Form-Critical Study” (M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1992), 39; cf. Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Study of Psalm 54,” Direction 22 (1993), 75-86.

[5]Augustine, Psalm 58.1, available at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-08/npnf1-08-65.htm#P1565_1174137.

[6]Erich Zengar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 38.

[7]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. by Donald Bloesch, Theology Today 38 (1982), 465-71, available at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1982/v38-4-article3.htm

[8]See the homily on Psalm 58 by Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian minister in Israel, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/conferences/2003/psalmsermon.htm.

[9]Bonhoeffer, “Sermon,” 469.

[10]Zengar, God of Vengeance, 85.

[11]John Mark Hicks, “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991), 209-23.

[12]John Mark Hicks, “How to Preach a Curse,” Lipscomb University Preaching Seminar, May 5-7, 1997, available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=3913 and “Preaching Imprecatory Psalms,” in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=11789.

 

Powerpoint presentation on Psalm 58.  20 Psalm 58


Psalm 44: Communal Disappointment with God

March 4, 2015

Israel had recently experienced defeat. Though perhaps an exilic context, it probably reflects a military defeat in the pre-exilic period (e.g., the invasion of Zerah the Cushite during the reign of righteous Asa in 2 Chron 14:9-10, the invasion of the Moabites during the reign of righteous Jehoshaphat in 2 Chron 20:1, or some other unknown battle). The protestation of innocence does not fit the exilic community (cf. Lamentations). Though the voice of the Psalmist is sometimes singular (44:4, 15-16), the plural indicates it’s communal character though perhaps led by one who represents the people.[1] The king or priest speaks for the people. Israel is bewildered by Yahweh’s hostility and indifference despite their own relative faithfulness, but they nevertheless trust in God’s own ultimate faithfulness to Israel because this is God’s history with Israel. Their communal lament confronts God with complaint and accusation but at the same time appeals to Yahweh’s faithful love.

Psalm 44 may be divided into five stanzas.[2]

  1. Praise: Memory of God’s Past Acts (1-3)
  2. Trust: Present Community’s Orientation (4-8)
  3. Complaint: God’s Unfaithfulness Towards the Community (9-16).
  4. Protestation of Innocence: The Community’s Faithfulness (17-22)
  5. Appeal: Divine Aid in the Present (23-26).

The Psalm begins with the past history of God’s faithful acts and the community’s trust in their faithful God. At the center of the Psalm, however, is a complaint directed at God’s seeming unfaithfulness. God has acted against Israel even though the covenant community had been faithful throughout the episode. Despite this incongruence, Israel appeals to their God for redemption. Psalm 44 is the communal lament of a people who, though bewildered, even angry, nevertheless invoke the faithful love of Yahweh.

The stories of God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history shape this poem. They are the background for the communal lament. As Crow comments, “In Israelite thought the Heilsgeschichte [history of salvation, JMH] was not merely a story about the past, but a mythos [a narrative worldview that shaped understanding, JMH] which touched the life of every person.”[3] Israel’s story as a corporate people shapes the individual lives of each person. Israel’s story is their story. But more importantly, it is God’s story. To rehearse God’s acts is not only a mode of praise, but it also evokes expectation of divine action in the present and reminds God of the covenant made with Israel. Kraus rightly notes that the motive clause in verse 3 (“for you loved them”) is a “hidden appeal.”[4]

In contrast with God’s past history with Israel, the present stands in radical contrast (the adversative in verse 9—“but now”). The series of second-person addresses in 9-14 presents God as the actor in the disaster that befell Israel. “The verbal presentation of God as taking drastic action against his people,” Crow states, “is so surprising as to be doubly forceful. Its value is primarily shock.”[5] Israel accuses God and blames God!

The protestations of innocence (17-18, 20-21) are each followed by an adversative (“yet”) that describes God as the responsible party in their suffering (19, 22). The appeal is relational. It is not simply a matter of Israel’s covenant faithfulness, but it is an appeal to the relationship that the covenant formalizes and embodies. The appeal might be characterized as not only the logic of covenant obligations but also the emotional appeal of betrayed relationships. Israel feels betrayed. God has not been faithful to the covenant.

The tension is highlighted by the phrase “all the day” or “all the time” in verses 8, 15 and 22. Israel boasts in God “all day long,” but now their disgrace is before them “all day long” despite the fact that they have faced death for God’s sake “all day long.” Despite Israel’s “all day long” praise and sacrifice, they presently experience disgrace “all day long.” Israel is disappointed with Yahweh. This is also highlighted by the shepherd/sheep motif. The Shepherd watches the sheep slaughtered (44:11, 22), and this creates the question: “where is God?” (44:23-24).

The community appeals to their sleeping giant who is no longer pictured as the aggressor but is inattentive. The appeal, however, is made from the posture of “prostration or self-abasement” where the belly cleaves to the ground (25-26). As Israel prostrates itself, God is exhorted to “arise” on their behalf.[6] “Falling to the ground is the posture taken after Israel lost against Ai (Joshua 7:6), while the six men in Ezekiel’s vision were killing the people of Jerusalem (Ezek. 9:8), and when Pelatiah son of Benayah died (Ezek. 11:13). In all these cases the posture is accompanied by fervent prayer to Yahweh not to destroy his people.”[7]

The final appeal to God’s love brings God’s past salvific acts into the present as the motive or rationale for the petition. The appeal for redemption uses the language of the Exodus (cf. Exod 13:12; Deut 13:6; Micah 6:4; 1 Chron 17:21). God’s story is the norm by which God should act. God will eventually act out faithfulness to that norm which is Yahweh’s faithful love. The petitions (23, 26) frame the questions (24-25). The petitions remind Israel of God’s forever love for them, and this shapes the nature and function of their complaint. Israel complains, but it complains in faith as it appeals to God’s faithful love.

The Psalm is filled with rhetorical and theological tension. “God as the only savior (king) (2-9) is in tension with God as initiator of the disaster which the people experience (10-15).”[8] The covenant faithfulness of the people (18-19, 21-22) is in tension with God’s hiddenness (10-17, 20). This creates an appeal filled with questions, but yet rooted in God’s character.

National or communal disaster evokes disillusionment and disappointment. It should also arouse introspection and self-examination as a communal process. In the process, the community laments—sometimes perhaps in penitent confession, but sometimes (as in Psalm 44) with protestations of innocence. Doubt, frustration, bewilderment, questioning, and complaint often arise in the hearts and prayers of the faithful people of God when they suffer.

The confidence of God’s people is God’s own history with the covenant people. The history of salvation testifies to God’s faithfulness to the covenant even when Israel is disappointed or disillusioned. That history climaxes in Jesus Christ who is the testimony of God’s covenant loyalty. Nothing—no communal or individual disaster or tragedy—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how Paul applies Psalm 44 to the new situation that Christ creates. God has demonstrated faithfulness to the divine redemptive intent through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

Israel probably read Psalm 44 in times of national distress when there was no seeming reason for the disasters that befell them as in the days of Asa or Jehoshaphat. Narratizing Psalm 44 in the life of Israel is a helpful way of contextualizing it, and it provides a link with our own narrative. Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS during June, 1964. On the 17th of that month the African-American church was burned, and on the 21st James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by seven members of the KKK.

Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed by Christian churches in southern Sudan where the African Dinka people living in Bahr-El-Ghazal were raided in January 1996. Several of their daughters were taken into slavery.

Psalm 44 might be prayed by Syrian and Iraqi Christians are driven out or slaughtered by the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Psalm 44 is even now proclaimed, sung and prayed in memory of millions who died during the Nazi Holocaust, especially the six million Jews—a million of whom were children. The following is a contemporary Midrash on Psalm 44:[9]

“You desert and shame us” — as they cut our beards and mass-rape our women.

“You do not go out with our armies” — with our resistance.

“You put us to flight from our enemies” — in mass exodus and transports.

“Those who hate us tear us to pieces at will” — using our skins for lampshades and our flesh for soap.

“You hand us over like sheep to be devoured” — in the gas chambers, crematoria, and gang burning-pits.

“You cast us among the nations” — as stateless and displaced persons.

“You sell Your people for nothing” — we are worth less than slaves, less than animals.

“You do not make a profit on their sale price” — our value is precisely calculated for work, starvation, and death.

“You make us an object of shame for our neighbors” — so that no one touches us, in the camps and even after liberation.

“A thing of scorn and derision for those around us” — they toss scraps of bread into the trains of our starving people; they make us defecate in our clothing.

“You make an example of us to the nations” — of degradation and dehumanization, a sign par excellence and a symbol of Jew-hatred.

“An object of head-shaking among the peoples” — in disbelief that something like this is happening to anyone, much less to us, Your chosen people.

In the midst of communal tragedy, the people of God are bewildered by God’s absence. We protest God’s inaction or, more potently, God’s violence against the covenant people, just as Israel did. However, as Israel models for us, we also remember God’s past redemptive deeds and appeal to them. We remember God’s faithful track record.

However, the present seems so incongruent with that past. Why does God sleep? Why does not the shepherd protect the sheep? Has God forgotten the covenant? The present and the past do not line up, and something seems terribly wrong, even wrong with God. Nevertheless, the people of God maintain their covenant commitment as they appeal to God’s faithful love. Given God’s track record, the bewildered and confused community trusts even as it accuses.

The homiletic point is that in the midst of our distress we lament God’s apparent hiddenness, but yet we appeal to the unfailing love that characterizes Yahweh. Our God has a track record—that history with Israel reveals God’s love, particularly the demonstration of that love in Jesus Christ.

[1]Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC 19 (Dallas: Word, 1983), 332.

[2]Based on Loren D. Crow, “The Rhetoric of Psalm 44,” Zeitschrift fur die Altestamentliche Wissenschaft 104 (1992), 394-401 and Ingvar Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 59.

[3]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 395.

[4]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 446.

[5]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 397.

[6]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 399-400.

[7]Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 57.

[8]J. H. Coetzee, “The Functioning of Elements of Tension in Psalm 44,” Theologia Evangelica 21 (March 1988), 4.

[9]David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox: 1993) 99-100; available at http://www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL/MidrashPs44.html;

*This is part of an essay that first appeared in Performing the Psalms (Chalice Press, 2005), edited by Dave Bland and David Fleer.


Psalm 139

February 19, 2015

This psalm is a favorite for many. The first eighteen verses are some of the most intimate and lofty descriptions of the God-human relationship in the Psalter. Most find it comforting, even affirming.

But then a jolt hits us when we read Psalm 139:19-22. What does that have to do with what came before it? Why does this meditation turn toward a passionate rejection of evil and a wish-prayer that God would destroy the bloodthirsty? Where does that come form?

For this reason, some liturgies ignore 19-22 and only use verses 1-18. Some simply stop reading at verse 18 as if verses 19-22 make no contribution to the point that verses 1-18 raise. As it stands, however, Psalm 139 is a unit, and there is some reason (at least to the mind of the author/editor) for verses 19-22 to follow verses 1-18. It is important, I think, to come to grips with what is happening in this psalm and make some sense of this transition which is not only appropriate but telling.

Allen (in his World Biblical Commentary commentary on the Psalms) suggests an interesting scenario which might account for this seemingly disturbing conjunction of thoughts (Brueggemann and Goldingay generally follow his suggestion.) He places the psalm in a setting where a person is falsely accused (as in Psalm 7) or where one is pursued by violent people who want him to participate in their activities. In other words, the psalmist is under such pressure that it is important that God know him/her so that God knows (and the community as well) that the psalmist remains committed to God’s agenda. This person will not be lured or pressured into evil.

Verses 1-18 explore the point that God fully and truly knows the psalmist.  The word “know” (in some form) occurs six times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, 23).  God knows this believer because:

  1. God has searched the heart thoroughly (1-6).
  2. No one cannot escape God’s presence (7-12).
  3. God created the psalmist (13-16).

The psalmist concludes that God is always with him/her, even thought the thought of this is more than the brain can contain. The wonder of divine knowledge and presence transcends the human capacity to fully understand (and perhaps even to appreciate).

The majestic descriptions in the first part of the psalm are often regarded as pleasant reminders of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibeneficence. God can even appear cute and cuddly in some readings of this section.

But perhaps it should be read with a bit more ambiguity.  Is the divine searching of our hearts something that comforts us or alarms us? When do we really want such? Do we really want anyone to know everything that is in our heart? Are we really comfortable with God probing every aspect of our being and discovering who we really are? This searching is open-ended, and it may have an uncertain end.

Nevertheless, the psalmist does take some comfort in God’s searching, presence, and creative intent. The reason, I suggest, is that the psalmist knows his/her own heart, and the psalmist wants to be known by someone given the circumstances. Yet the danger of self-deception remains, and this why the psalmist wants God to search the heart and root out any evil that lies in it. The psalmist knows his/her commitment to God, even if it is sometimes flawed and we are sometimes self-deceived. The psalmist seeks holiness and at the same time seeks vindication against those who would do him/her harm or corral him/her into violent and evil acts.

It is as if the heart cries, “please, somebody, know me…understand me…and be assured that I am committed to God!”  The psalm’s response is: God knows, and God understands. God knows the psalmist’s commitment and integrity.

The psalmist’s problem, however, is that his/her world is filled with violent and “bloodthirsty” (a lust for blood) people who want to involve the psalmist in their activities. They want the writer to join them and take up their way of life.

The psalmist’s response seems rather harsh to modern ears. The psalmist “hates” the wicked and hates those who hate God.

This is certainly not “polite” language. Some call it malicious language or hateful language. It is certainly intolerant language, and it is not surprising that one dedicated to God is intolerant of evil, especially bloodthirstiness.  But before we pour all our modern emotive dislike for the word “hate” into this language, it is important to remember that this language is about one’s priorities. To hate one thing and love another reflects one’s commitments and values. It is not necessarily a malicious personal dislike but an ethical commitment to a life void of violence and bloodthirstiness. It is a prov0ctive and emphatic way of saying, “I am a God-follower; and I will not follow you into violence.”  In other words, “I hate you” is a succinct and bold way of saying, “I have different ethical commitments than you and I will not participate in your activities.”

But how can “hate” your enemies here square with Jesus’ call to love our enemies? Just because “hate” and “love” stand in opposition in our common speech does not mean that this is the case in two widely different texts with different contexts. “Hate” and “love” are not necessarily opposites. Even Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we must hate our parents (cf. Luke 14:26). He did not mean that we must have a personal dislike for them. Rather, he was talking about priorities, just as Psalm 139 is doing.

Commitment to the divine agenda–seeking first the kingdom of God–involves both a hatred (rejection, opposition) of evil and a love for enemies.

So, how might we pray this prayer? Under what circumstances would it be an appropriate and right thing to do?

Imagine this scenario (and others come to mind as well). Suppose a young teenage believer, living in an urban environment, is pursued by a violent gang. They want him to join their group and participate in their next initiation evening, which includes a rape. He feels the pull of the gang since it is a protective community (at least for them), but he also knows it is not consistent with God’s intent for the world.

So, he prays. What does he pray?  He prays that God will thoroughly search his heart and know every aspect of his being so that whatever he prays is something that arises from his own integrity and commitment to God’s cause rather than out of personal vengeance. He recognizes God’s abiding presence and that no matter what happens, God is with him. And he trusts in God’s goals for him and knows God already knows the days that lie ahead for him.

On the strength of this intimate and trusting relationship, he prays that God will destroy this gang and keep them far away from him. They are violent people, and they seek to involve him in their cycle of violence, which always has negative consequences (it leads eventually to their own deaths in many cases). So, he passionately prioritizes the reign of God over the reign of this gang, and consequently “hates” them with a godly hatred that recognizes the evil that pervades their violent community.

On the one hand, he loves these gang members and would hope for a better life for them, and some of them are good friends whom he has known all his life. But, on the other hand, he hates them, that is, he hates the movement of their lives toward violence and intimidation.

His prayer is not about personal vengeance, and neither does he take violence into his own hands to destroy the gang. Rather, he entrusts this outcome to God and leaves it in God’s hands. Further, he asks God to search his own heart and to root out any evil motives or intent in his life or prayer. God is the ultimate arbitrator of both his own heart and the gang’s lifestyle. God alone knows the human heart, and God alone is the judge.

Psalm 139 is, in fact, an individual lament. It laments the violence of those who would drawn God’s people into their way of life, and it is a lament that contains an imprecation against evil.

Indeed, it is a prayer we might pray for all the victims of violence and for every woman enslaved by the sex-trade. It is a prayer for victims as well as a commitment to pursue justice.

With the psalmist, can we say, “I hate the bloodthirsty?” I think so.


Psalm 104

February 18, 2015

Psalm 104 is one of the great creation praise hymns of Israel. As worship, it blesses God as both creator and provider. As theology, it identifies creation in theocentric rather than anthropocentric ways. God is not only sovereign over the creation but is immanent within it. The creation is more about God than it is humanity.

Indeed, there is no hint in this psalm that humanity shares God’s dominion over the creation. While Genesis 1 looms large in the background of Psalm 104, the psalm does not allude to the role of humanity within the creation as the image of God (and does not deny it either; cf. Psalm 8). Instead, the hymn stresses that God is the central figure in a theology of creation. God creates for God’s self, rejoices in the creation for God’s own sake, and enjoys the creation to God’s own delight. God is the primary actor in this hymn, and no aspect of creation is without God’s presence.

Following some of Goldingay’s suggestions in his Psalms commentary, the psalm moves through various dimensions of creation and climaxes  climatically in the heart-felt worship of a believer. Psalm 104:31-35 is a liturgical response to the reality the psalmist envisions in 104:1-30.

In that vision the psalmist moved from divine transcendence to divine immanence, from God’s sovereign ordering of the chaotic waters to the use of those waters for the care of the plants, animals, and humanity. The psalm moves easily from God’s initiating acts (as in Genesis 1) to God’s ongoing acts in the care of the world.

God’s Sabbath rest in Genesis 2 does not entail inactivity. Rather, God created a world in which God would dwell with humanity and in the creation much like builders live in their houses.  Yahweh spread a tent–the heavens (sky) themselves–and came to dwell within the creation. God completed the divine work of building the home (bringing the creation into being and ordering so that it was now habitable space), but God’s work continues in the care, development, and enjoyment of what God has created. God is no couch potato lazily overseeing the world, but an active agent within the creation as an expression of God’s own joy.

I suggest, following Goldingay in many ways, the movement of Psalm 104 looks something like this:

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (1a)

God’s Transcendent Identity (1b-4)

God’s Ordering of the Chaotic Waters (5-9)

God’s Benevolent Use of Land and Water  (10-18)

God’s Ordering of the Cosmos (19-23)

God’s Ordering of Life (24-30)

Liturgical Response to God’s Creative Work (31-35ab)

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (35c)…and Praise Yah! (35c)

God’s transcendent identity is clear by the allusions to Genesis 1 in Psalm 104:1-4: light, heavens, waters. God towers above and beyond the creation; this is God’s greatness or transcendence.  This is clear in the images the psalmist utilizes. Yahweh wraps on light like a garment and stretches the sky like a tent. Yahweh dwells in the clouds; God has a luxury apartment in the heights (“in the waters”). Yahweh rides the clouds like a chariot as even the storms carry Yahweh back and forth throughout the creation.

The images, of course, are not literal; they are poetic. The language describes a God who fills the sky from one end of the earth to the other. Yahweh reigns over the earth and thus we ascribe honor and majesty to God. The poetry offers a picture God’s limitless power. The cosmos does not confine God, even light itself is a coat that God wears and the heavens are a tent Yahweh spreads. It does not limit God. Rather, God chooses to dwell in the tent.

Just as in Genesis 1, God orders the chaotic waters. At one time the earth was covered with water (cf. Genesis 1:2) and was uninhabitable. The waters represent chaos, that is, they are a threat to the existence of creation as a habitable space. But God is not threatened by chaos. On the contrary, God rebukes the waters and at the sound of divine thunder, the waters flee and gather together in the place God designed for them.

As the waters flee, the ground emerges with its mountains and valleys. Dry ground emerges from the waters, and the waters are given boundaries so that they will not cover the earth.  In other words, God creates habitable space for plants, animals, and humanity. God takes the initial chaotic watery world first created (Genesis 1:2) and orders it in such a way that now habitable land is present within the creation (thus, now it is “very good”). God takes the chaos and brings order to it.

God then makes benevolent use of this land, and the water satisfies the earth. Goldingay helpfully suggests that Psalm 104:10-18 has a kind of chiastic structure:

Mountains and Wild Animals (10-11)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (12-13)

Yahweh Provides for Animals and Humanity (14-15)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (16-17)

Mountains and Wild Animals (18)

Interestingly, water–though representative of chaos in the previous section–now becomes a blessing. God satisfies the earth with the rain, and the earth produces plants, which feed the animals.   The “circle of life” is present in the Psalm; life is situated in an ecosystem by divine design.

This “circle of life” involves birds in the branches of trees, goats on high mountains, badgers living in rocky crags as well as domesticated animals. God provides for animals that have no intimate connection with humanity, that is, animals that live in the wild or live in places inhospitable to humankind. Nevertheless, God cares and provides for them. God is interested in the creation even when it has no direct relationship with or connection to humanity!

The centerpiece of this structure, however, is the food God provides for animals and humans. Specifically, God provides humanity with

  • wine from vines to enjoy life
  • oil from trees to enhance human health
  • bread from grain to nourish the body

Each of these is subject to abuse (e.g., bread can lead to obesity and wine to drunkenness), but they are nevertheless fundamental goods which God gives to humanity through the creation. Each has its own purpose. Wine is for joy, grain is for nourishment (“strength”), and oil is for refreshed living (oil was used medicinally as well as to moisten the body after a hard day in the sun and scorching winds). These are creation’s goods that God intends for humanity to enjoy, even amidst the chaos that sometimes (even often) surrounds us (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

God orders the cosmos. The present creation has darkness and light, night and day. The sun and moon have their functions within that order, and there is regularity in their movements. They are predictable.  There are twenty-eight days in the lunar calendar, and the sun rises and sets at predictable times. At root, this means that science is possible because the universe functions in regular, predictable ways.

This order extends to the the function of night and day in the creation.  At night the lions hunt, and humanity works their fields by day. There is balance to life, and God values each.  God wants both the lions and humanity to have their food; God wants both to pursue life, and  God enjoys both.

The reality of darkness, however, is paralleled by the “tooth and claw” nature of the creation.  The psalmist does not idealize the present creation, or speak of the present creation as if is the future new creation. Rather, it is realistic–lions kill their prey. Eschatologically, this may not always be so, but it is true now. Chaos still exists, and creation has not yet reached its full potential or its eventual goal. Darkness yet exists though tempered by the light of the moon and stars, but one day there will be no night in the new creation. That day, however, has not yet come. So, lions still hunt their prey in the night, and humans–unfortunately–often do the same, and even bring their violence against fellow-humans and the creation itself into the light of day.

God’s orders life. Like Proverbs 8, the psalmist appeals to divine wisdom as the root of God’s creative work. The creation exhibits divine wisdom, even if perhaps we might not be able to discern it at times. And it is evidenced in the wide variety of life within the world–on the earth and in the sea, both small and great. Indeed, God has an aquarium the size of the earth’s oceans, and only God has seen most of those sea creatures.

In fact, this ordering of life is most famously exhibited in how God orders the chaos of the Leviathan, which is well-known in the ancient world as a (mythological) sea monster. The Leviathan represents the chaotic waters and lives in those waters. Often it is pictured as hostile to humanity, and certainly no human is able to tame it (Job 41; Isaiah 27:1).

Yet, God plays with the Leviathan (NJPS) or enjoys watching the Leviathan play in the oceans. God is not threatened by the chaos that the Leviathan represents. On the contrary, God enjoys and delights in the play of the Leviathan. Even “sea monsters,” which fostered dread and fear among ancient peoples, do not intimidate God because God created “sea monsters” (Genesis 1:21). The chaos within creation, the Leviathan, is yet under God’s sovereign control and so much so that God can enjoy the Leviathan’s playfulness.

The ordering of life, however, is not all play.  The psalmist’s realism emerges once again in the affirmation that both life and death are in God’s hands.  When God sends ruach (spirit, breath, wind), God gives life.  When God hides God’s face and withdraws ruach (spirit, breath, wind), then there is death. This is the nature of our creatureliness, and one we share with all life on earth.  Whether cattle or lions, or human beings, life depends upon God’s breath. Just as humans came to life through the breath of God in Genesis 2, so they return to the earth (the dust of the ground) when that breath is taken away. Life and death lie in God’s hands, and so it should be since God is the Creator.

The psalmist offers a liturgical response to this poetic narration of God’s creative work.  The creation serves the glory and delight of God, and the wish-prayer ascribes this to God.  Powerfully, God rejoices in creation; God enjoys what God has made! The creation is about God rather than humanity.

Humanity joins God in this joy and delight, and sings and offers musical praise to God in the light of this good creation.  We are grateful for what God has provided, and we admire the beauty, diversity, and order as well as the mysterious chaotic rhythms of creation. So, we sing and play.

The psalmist describes his reflection as a “meditation,” as most translations render it. The word is not exactly about meditation. Often it is translated lament, complaint, or protest.  Here, of course, it is used in a positive sense. The semantic point appears to be that this is a passionate and deeply held perspective. It arises out of the deepest regions of the soul, and the poem is a passionate outpouring of love and praise for the Creator.

If the praise and wish-prayers for God are a natural response to this passionate poem, Psalm 104:25a comes somewhat as a shock. From where does this wish-prayer for the destruction of the wicked arise? How is this congruent with the psalm as a whole?

The passion for the good things of creation is mirrored by the passion against those things that are toxic to the creation. The psalmist’s passion for creation is also a passion against those who would destroy it. The “wicked” and the “sinner” may have a general reference, but I think it probably relates more specifically to what spoils the earth, the goodness of creation, and the ends for which God created the world. In one sense all sin does that, but the prayer is that God will consume those who are committed to the subversion of God’s goodness in creation.

It should not surprise us, I think, that in passionate worship that we also display a passionate commitment to God’s goodness. Should we not be angry with poachers who endanger the Black Rhino? Should we not be angry about pollutants that render our air and waters toxic?

The prayer that God might rejoice in God’s own works is concomitant with the prayer that God would destroy those who destroy God’s creation.

The psalm ends on a final call to praise. Though the psalm begins and ends as an individual hymn of praise (“Bless Yahweh, O my soul”), its final words address the congregation. “Praise Yah” is a plural imperative. The psalmist invites Israel to praise God in the light of the poem the composer has just sung. It as if a soloist has asked the congregation to affirm his/her testimony of praise by singing the last verse with him/her.

This praise affirms that the creation is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric, but theocentric. God is the primary mover, goal, and agent in the creation, and God acts for the sake of the other (both animals and humans) in all that God does. God is Creator, and that is no mere ancient title.  God is still at work within the creation!

The creation is not about humanity, and it is not about the biosphere. It is about God.


Psalm 66

February 16, 2015

Some people enjoy hearing testimonies. Others do not.

As for the latter, their reasons vary.  Some testimonies appear superficial or lack discernment. Some believe testimonies are too subjective and individualistic. Some regard testimonies as private, a matter of personal interpretation rather than public proclamation. People should keep “testimonies,” according to some, to themselves, and they especially do not belong in the worship assembly.

On the other hand, Psalm 66 reflects the union of communal worship and personal testimony. The psalm combines a hymn of communal praise (66:1-12) and individual thanksgiving (66:13-20). The former shapes the latter, and the latter gives voice to the former. The community of Israel, gathered for praise, hears the testimony of an individual believer whose personal experience affirms the story of Israel.

At the heart of the hymn of praise is an invitation, “Come and see!’

The invitation is for “all the earth” and its “peoples.” They are invited to join the assembly of Israel in the praise of Yahweh. Israel’s story is not just about Israel. Rather, it calls all the nations scattered throughout the whole earth to join in song and music in order to shout God’s praise. Yahweh’s “name”–reputation, presence, character–deserves praise because of God’s “awesome” (fearsome, awe-inspiring) deeds. When Yahweh chose Israel, Yahweh chose them for the sake of the nations so that all the peoples of the earth might share in the inheritance of the kingdom of God.

Specifically, the psalmist has the Exodus and the entrance into the land of promise in view. The journey from the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan is Israel’s redemption by God’s mighty power.

All the earth is invited to come and “see” what God has done. But how can they “see” a past event? “See” probably means something like “to experience” or “to encounter.” When Israel gathers to praise Yahweh, it rehearses the story of redemption and through that story Yahweh encounters Israel once again as well as others who are gathered with Israel to praise God.  To “see” the mighty deeds of Yahweh is to experience them again and to encounter the holy God in the midst of the congregation.

The story of God with Israel, however, is not an easy one. In rehearing the story, they do not leave out the wilderness and neither do they forget their long years of bondage.  The God who redeemed them also tested them. Through slavery and the wilderness Israel was refined as a people so that they might become the holy people of God who would enter the land of promise.

The psalmist believes God led Israel into these times of testing; times when they were burdened, even enslaved. Israel was, at times, entrapped, as in a net. Others mistreated them, and they went through “fire and water.” God used these experiences to refine, like silver, a whole community, a whole people.

Ultimately, God redeemed, and though God led Israel through “fire and water,” Yahweh also led them into a place of abundance–the promised land.

As Israel praises God, they remember the slavery as well as the Exodus, and they remember the wilderness as well as the Jordan-crossing. The divine plot-line moved a people through trouble to redemption, and then through trouble again to redemption. The trouble has its purpose–it is refinement, a testing. The refining process prepares us for further redemption.

“Come and see” is an invitation to participate in the story of Israel, and we are reminded that the story is both one of refinement and redemption. It is not an easy path, but one that learns to trust and depend on God through the trouble. This is exactly what the personal testimony affirms in the next section of the psalm (66:13-20).

At the heart of the personal thanksgiving is also an invitation, “Come and listen!” The psalmist invites “all who fear God” to listen to his/her testimony, to listen to what God has done for him/her. The psalm moves from first person plurals to first person singulars–from us to me. A personal, individual testimony emerges in the midst of congregational praise.

First, the psalmist addresses God and remembers the vows made and the prayers prayed when he/she was in “trouble.” In gratitude, the psalmist now comes to the temple to return praise to God and fulfill those vows.

Specifically, the psalmist offers burnt offerings. Usually a thanksgiving sacrifice is a fellowship-offering where the worshiper eats the animal in fellowship with God and others. However, here the worshiper burns the whole animal before God. This is an intensification of the thanksgiving itself. The whole animal is given to God; the whole animal is burned up. By this the worshiper dedicates everything to God and thus symbolizes the intent to wholly dedicate himself or herself to God. To burn the whole animal to God is to dedicate one’s whole life to God.

The psalmist’s testimony is simply this:  I was in trouble, I prayed sincerely (without hiding sins in my heart), God heard me, and God delivered me.

The psalmist offers no details, and this is intentional. The psalmist offers a model for future testimonies and provides an entry point for others to insert their own story of renewal or deliverance in this song. In other words, testimonies are for everyone, and everyone can insert theirs into this story.

This story, however, is Israel’s story. The psalmist has lived in microcasm the macro-story of Israel. Just as Israel was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed, so this individual was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed. The personal story of believers in Israel relives Israel’s own story.

More to the point, the story of Israel becomes the lens through which believers interpret their own personal stories. Israel’s experience as a whole becomes their own individual experience. Testimonies are legitimized in Israel because they are interpreted and told within the framework of God’s history with Israel.

The same is true for Christian believers. Indeed, Jesus’ own story is interpreted in the context of God’s story with Israel. Jesus passed through the sea, entered the wilderness–even to the point of death, and was ultimately redeemed (resurrected). And this is true of followers of Jesus as well.

As disciples of Jesus, we interpret God’s work in our lives through the lens of what God has done in Jesus as well as what God did in Israel. We use this interpretative framework to understand our lives in relation to God’s mission, praise, and goals. We interpret our lives through the lens of God’s story  in Jesus, which is the fulfillment of God’s story with Israel.

Consequently, testimonies are important. They are just as important now as they were in Psalm 66.

When the community gathers to praise God and invites the nations to join in the praise, personal testimonies are an important part of that assembly.

We invite all the earth to “come and see,” and we invite all those who are gathered to praise God to “come and listen.”

That, indeed, is the essence of assembly. We “see” God anew, and we “listen” to what God is continuing to do among all those who fear God.

 

 


Psalm 88

February 15, 2015

Perhaps originally an individual lament by Heman, the Psalm became part of the repertoire of Israel’s communal worship at the temple. The faithful community sang and prayed these words. These words were not hidden in a corner, but heralded in the temple courts as the congregation of Israel worshiped God. Though they may have begun as a personal testimony, they became the community’s voice as well.

But the words are startling to many contemporary believers. It is almost unimaginable that any believer should pray these words much less that a worshiping community recite and sing them in their assembly.

Unlike other laments, Psalm 88 has no explicit praise, no commitment to trust, and no explicit hope that God will answer. It only has one petition, and it does not request healing, resolution, or redemption. It only asks God to listen (88:2)! The Psalmist wants to be heard, which is one of the great needs human beings have. We want to be heard, and most of all we want God to hear our hurts, pains, and concerns.

While Psalm 88 is traumatic for many believers, it is a prayer that arises from trauma. Perhaps that trauma was a long, chronic illness; one that has afflicted Heman from his youth. He has often lingered near the grave, on the edge of death. The prayer is the testimony of a dying person.

Three times–and this makes a  nice structural division of the Psalm into three parts–the Psalmist cries out to God:

  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (1-2), and Heman gives his reasons (3-9a)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (9bc), and Heman questions God (10-12)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (13), and Heman describes his lot (14-18)

Each time, however, Heman uses a different word for “cry out.” These terms overlap in their semantic meaning, but the emphasis is slightly different. As a structural key to the Psalm, we might see shifting (or developing) moods in the different verbs. The first has the sense of crying out for help in the midst of some kind of distress; it is an outcry, an emotionally charged plea for help.  The second has the sense of proclaim or call, which perhaps reflects a public pleading for help as if it is a pleading in court. The third is a plea, perhaps couched in deep saddness, for deliverance.

I see movement in the three sections of the Psalm.  Heman begins with an emotionally-charged plea for help where he details the tragic circumstances of his life, and then publicly questions God about death and divine faithfulness. In the final section, emotionally spent, Heman–with a sense of melancholy–faces the reality of the situation where darkness is his constant companion (88:18). We move from shock to anger, and from anger to resignation, but there is no deliverance in sight.

The shock is that God has not answered despite the persistent prayer of one who has served God faithfully for years (Heman is one of the Levitical musicians or singers–he is part of the temple musical complex). Rather than deliverance, which one might expect from the God of the Exodus, he has found himself near death as if God has abandoned him and cut him off from God’s protective care. This abandonment extends to his friends who regard him as “a thing of horror.”

Heman is alone. There is no community, and there is no salvation or healing. This has nothing to do with his prayer life–he prays every day, morning and night.  This has nothing to do with his service–he is a committed member of the praise team!  This has nothing to do with his confession–he knows Yahweh and speaks the name of God in his prayers. Consequently, Heman is bewildered, confused, and perplexed.  This does not make sense.

The Psalmist is shocked that God has not answered. He is shocked that God lies behind his condition, and his prayer is filled with accusation.  God is responsible for his situation! That itself is a shock.

This shock turns to questioning, perhaps even anger (88:9b-12). The questions are probably arguments, but also rhetorical.  Perhaps he knows the answer to them (do they assume a negative answer?), but perhaps they are more open-ended, a kind of grasping for hope in the midst of despair. Whatever the case, this prayer-warrior is bold and addresses the covenant God (Yahweh) with direct questions. He wrestles with God.

The questions contrast death and the character of Yahweh.

Does God work wonders for the dead?

Do the dead ones stand up to praise God?

Is steadfast love declared in the grave?

Is divine faithfulness declared in Abaddon?

Are divine wonders recognized in the darkness?

Is divine deliverance recognized where people are forgotten?

This is a dispute with God about death. What good is death? What good is there in Heman’s potential death? What does God gain from death?

The questions affirm life. This is where God’s steadfast love and deliverance are remembered and praised. This is the arena of God’s redemptive work, and it is where Yahweh loves and communes with the people of God. The living praise God.

As Andrew Peterson sings in “Come Back Soon,” “Every death is a question mark.” Every death raises questions about God’s character, about the meaning of life, and about the praise of God.

Heman feels these questions.  Perhaps the dead do praise God, but Heman does not know this or at least he is uncertain about it. In fact, his argument is that it is better for him to live and give testimony about God’s deliverance in the land of the living than to die and praise God (if he can) where the living will not hear. The steadfast love of God is about life, not death, and Heman appeals to this  in anger and frustration.

This anger, I think, turns to melancholy or sadness.  It still questions, “Why do you hide your face from me?” But resignation is present to some degree–the reality has set in, and no deliverance seems near. Instead, he feels assaulted and overwhelmed by a flood of terror. God has not released him from death, and God’s “terrors” have frightened his friends and neighbors.  He is alone, and only darkness is his companion.  Darkness is the last Hebrew word in the psalm.

His prayer asks, “Why?”  Sometimes one hears that sufferers should not ask why, but sufferers in the Psalms did, and Jesus even quoted one on the cross (“why have you forsaken me?”). “Why?” is a perfectly legitimate question but without satisfying answers. Heman does not know the answer, and neither do we.  Nevertheless, we still ask.  There is something deeply emotive about asking that question. We vent even as we inquire. We yearn for meaning and purpose even if we don’t see any possible meaning or purpose that could be given to some of our experiences.

“Why?” is the voice of despair, even anger. It is, however, primarily a way to cope. To ask–to voice the question–is to act, and to act is to search for meaning. Ultimately, we give the question to God who alone can answer it. But sufferers must lay it in God’s lap and ask! There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, there is something (spiritually) therapeutic about it.

In the midst of suffering–a chronic illness, the loss of death, or whatever it may be–we are first shocked, then we become angry, and then we feel the overwhelming torture of sadness or depression. This is the process of Psalm 88. There is nothing inappropriate about it. Indeed, Psalm 88 leads the congregation of Israel through that very process. It is important for healing, growth, and renewal.

But are there signs of renewal here?

Heman is overwhelmed with darkness. Even in that darkness, however, he has a glimer of hope though it is faint.

  • He continues to pray, day and night, unceasingly and persistently. He is still speaking to God; he has not given upon on God.
  • He calls God by the covenant name, “Yahweh.”
  • He approaches God as an intimate, that is, he questions God and boldly places his heart before God.
  • He knows the story of God’s covenant love, faithfulness, and past wonders, and he relies on those stories for the hope of deliverance.
  • He addresses God, in the first line of the Psalm, as the one who is able to deliver, “the God of my salvation.”
  • The prayer evidences an intensity and depth of relationship with God; Heman still trusts God and prays boldly.

And yet, there is only one petition in the whole prayer:  “incline your ear to my cry.” This is a different word for “cry” than the verbs present in verses 1, 9a, and 13.  This word involves groaning, distress, and agony.

Heman is in agony, and all he wants–as far as this prayer is concerned–is for God to listen.  Sometimes that is all we want from anybody….somebody to listen. Perhaps God answered Heman’s prayer when the whole congregation prayed with him in song and music.

Perhaps that happens even today when we are willing to listen to each other’s agony, and then darkness is no longer our closest companion.


Psalm 19

February 10, 2015

Words.

Some are voiceless, some form a narrative, and others offer a response.

Psalm 19 is a meditative response to words that make no sound and words that shape the life of Israel. The Psalmist offers a meditation on how God encounters Israel through creation and Torah and how believers respond to such gracious revelation.

Creation’s Words

In successive synonymous parallelisms, the poet describes the impact of creation’s voiceless words.  One cannot read “heavens” and “firmament” as well as day and night without thinking about Genesis 1. The “firmament” is the protective barrier that shields the habitable earth from chaos. It is not merely “sky,” but the word reflects God’s creative love.  God’s glory is that God has acrafted (God’s handiwork) a place that speaks without words.

Creation itself announces or proclaims, and it does this continually–day and night. Creation speaks unceasingly about the reality of God’s care for the creation. The intent of God’s glorious speech is to “reveal knowledge.”

In our post-Enlightenment world we might immediately think that this refers to some kind of deductive inference about the existence of God. In other words, some stress that Psalm 19 affirms natural revelation and that it assumes nature demonstrates the existence of God. That may be true to a point (and Paul in Romans 1:19-21 seems to think something similar), but “knowledge” here is more about relationship and encounter. The Hebrew conception of “knowledge” is more about intimacy than it is propositional information.

Creation is a place where God encounters humanity, and creation speaks in such a way that humanity experiences (“knows”) God. The kind of knowledge assumed here are not mere facts but the reality of God engaged with the human story. Many testify to their encounters with God through the creation. Whether it is a mountain top, a sunrise, or waves crashing against the rocks, many have experienced God within and through the creation itself. God communicates–creation speaks for God–in such moments.

That speech, though unheard, is unceasing (day and night!), and it is universal as it is heard “through the whole earth” and to the “ends of the world.” Everyone has access to this speech or revelation; everyone may encounter God through God’s good creation.

The sun is a prime example of this speech. It is universal as it moves from one end of the earth to the other. The sun’s heat is not hidden from anyone or anything. Everyone feels its heat–whether it is warmth on a cold day or scorching heat in a dry summer. One cannot miss the sun, and the sun declares the glory of God–it testifies to God’s unceasing presence.

This glory is like the glory of a bridegroom on his wedding day. As he emerges from the wedding canopy (or wedding night chamber), he faces the future with joy, excitement, and hope. Like a champion who wins a race, the sun races across the sky in triumph. The rising sun brings a new day with all the potential excitement of a new adventure.

The Psalmist focuses on the sun, and perhaps this is a mild polemic against Ancient Near Eastern sun-worship, or perhaps it is simply the grandest example of God’s glory day-t0-day. Whatever the case, the sun illustrates the grandeur, pervasiveness, and accessiblity of God’s speech through the creation.

Creation is God’s first act of self-revelation, and it is an act of gracious engagement. Humanity does not discover God as much as God speaks within and through the creation. God makes the first move.

Torah’s Words

Israel knows that God speaks in other ways than through the rising sun and the testimony of the heavens. God has spoken in history, and God has acted within history to enter into covenant (relationship) with Israel. That story is told in concrete ways–it is written in the Torah. These words are heard, and they are heard in the assembly of the people of God. Israel has been given the “oracles of God” (cf. Romans 3:2), and this comes in the form of Torah (often rendered “law”).

“Torah” heads the praise of this divine speech. It is, one might say, the controlling metaphor for the following descriptions:  decrees, precepts, and commandment. Those further terms are couched in the framework of Torah, and Torah is not primarily a legal code but a story that guides Israel in walking with God. Torah is instruction and guidance through narrative and story rather than merely specific case-law or isolated commands and rituals.

Embedded within God’s story with Israel are guidelines, directions, and formative practices that transform people into the image of God. This story:

  • restores the soul, that is, it renews life
  • makes the simple wise, that is, guides the inexperienced
  • gives joy to the heart, that is, enables a life free of burdens
  • enlightens the eyes, that is, enables us to see more clearly

The Torah–the story of God with Israel–provides a path for healthy, joyful and wise living.

The colon “making the simple wise” is particularly significant. This is the language of Proverbs 1:1-7. There are two paths in life–the foolish one and the wise one.  But the “simple” are often too inexperienced to discern the difference. The Hebrew term “simple” does not refer to a mental deficiency, but to the lack of life experience. The “simple” are easily deceived, easily driven by desires, and act on impulse rather than careful reflection (they react rather than respond to situations). Due to a lack of experience, their discernment is impaired or underdeveloped.

The Torah serves as a wise sage to help the “simple”discern good from evil, make choices, and understand the consequences of the different paths life can take. In other words, the Torah–God’s guidance–is for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live. It is not an oppressive legal chain, but divine wisdom spoken for the sake of human health and well-being.

As a result, the wise response is submission, that is, it is to fear (awe, reverence) Yahweh. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), and this humble submission and reverent respect for God calls us to embody the Torah’s wisdom in our own lives.

It is little wonder, then, that the Psalmist regards God’s speech as more valuable than gold or silver and sweeter than honey.  This speech is about life, authentic life. A discerning, wise life has better consequences than hoarding gold or silver, and it is much sweeter than the momentary taste of honey.

Our Words

The Psalmist confesses that Torah, God’s guidance, is both life-affirming (there is great reward in living a wise life) and a warning (there are dangers into which the “simple” might fall).

Indeed, the dangers are so pervasive that often they are hidden from our own eyes. The human ability for self-deception and self-delusion knows no practical limits. Most of our faults, I would guess, are “hidden” from us. We are unaware due to ignorance–ignorance both of the Torah and of our own selves.

The danger is that this self-deception can grow into an arrogance, and arrogance leads to presumptuous or defiant behavior.  It leads to willful sin, that is, sin that rebelliously lives outside the story. Arrogance presumes that the story (Torah) does not apply to them and they are the exceptions to the rules a community shares for the sake of the common good.

Because this danger looms large in every soul, the Psalmist asks God to forgive the hidden sins and prevent them from developing into a rebellious attitude. The Psalmist is committed to God’s story and wants to live within it. Yet, the poet knows the dangers and seeks God’s help in cleansing and self-understanding.

Yahweh is the Psalmist’s “rock and redeemer.” The fear of Yahweh is a stable place and a sure foundation upon which to build a life, and though our own self-deception often intrudes and disrupts that life, God is also a redeemer who forgives sin, renews life, and gives joy.

Let us offer our meditations–on creation and Torah–before the Lord, recommit ourselves to wise living in the fear of Yahweh, and humbly submit to God’s guidance.

 


From Mauthausen to Melk

February 8, 2015

On Friday, February 6, I traveled with our Vienna Study Abroad group to the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, and then we visited the Benedictine monastery in Melk. Geographically, the distance is not so great (about an hour bus ride), but the emotional distance is huge if not traumatic.

Mauthausen was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis in Austria after their annexation of country in March 1938. From its beginnings in August 1938 to its liberation by the U. S. Army in May 1945, the camp worked people to death (mining granite), and the regime summarily executed thousands (including a gas chamber). Over 100,000 people died at Mauthausen.

The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089, and its religious devotion is evidenced by fact that it was the center of Austrian monastic reform in the fifteenth century.  The present Baroque facilities were erected in the early 1700s, and its church is the burial place of St. Coloman, an Irish monk who was martyred near Vienna in the early eleventh century. The Abbey survived both Joseph II’s confiscation of monastic property in the late eighteenth century and barely survived Nazification even though most of its property was used for state education at the time.

The camp has a serene setting on a rise of above Mauthausen which presently has less than 5,000 people living on the Gusen river that flows into the Danube, and the abbey sits at the head of the beautiful Wachau Valley situated on the Danube above the village of Melk which is also about 5,000. Both the concentration camp and the abbey overlook their villages and sit on high points that offer magnificent views of their valleys. Their settings are similar, but their intents are radically different.

Mauthausen was a labor camp designed to kill its inmates. Their daily diet was only half the calories necessary for subsistence.  They were literally worked to death, and certain groups were simply executed. For example, Jewish inmates were sometimes, to the amusement of some of their SS guards, “parachuted” over the granite cliffs to their deaths.

Melk Abbey was an educational institution designed for life. It was a refuge on the borders of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria in the eleventh century, and it conducted a school from the twelfth century forward. The Abbey has been a center of service, education, prayer, and worship for almost ten centuries.

The two compounds, rising above their Austrian villages, represent two very different intentions. One arises out of a hatred for non-Germanic people groups (Jews, Slavs [including Soviet prisoners and Czech/Polish intelligensia], Roma), perceived social threats (same-sex orientation and Jehovah’s witnesses), and political dissenters (Social Democrats, Communists). The other arises out of a love for God and neighbor that devoted itself to St. Benedict’s Rule of work and prayer.

The two represent very different conceptions of human life. One uses forced labor and violence to secure its ends. The other practices humble submission and service to secure its ends. While they may share some similar ends, that is, security and community, the means by which these are pursued are very different–one by violence and the other by prayer.

Mauthausen and Melk symbolize–only miles apart–the “two ways” of biblical wisdom literature. There is a way that leads to death and destruction, and there is a way that leads to life.  The foolish choose the former while the wise choose the latter.

Nevertheless, there was something uneasy about seeing the two back-to-back. While the contrast in intention and work is stark and illuminating, the contrast between austerity and wealth was also shocking.

Melk’s Baroque buildings, golden reliquaries, and magnificent church pointed to the wealth of the eighteenth century empire that enriched it. The church and the majestic art, floors, and ceilings of the monastery reflect the glory of the empire (the Holy Roman Empire) as well as God.

I have no doubt that this wealth was dedicated to the glory of God, though it was also a testimony to the glory of the empire. The two were not easily separated in the minds of most in eighteenth century Austria. So, I do not question the intent (to glorify God) as much as the means.

We could raise all kinds of questions about how the empire acquired this wealth, how it was distributed, and what the life of the poor was like. We could question a hegemony where ethnic Germans ruled politically disenfranchised Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Serbians, Italians, etc. The empire enriched this monastery. So, even as I admire the beauty of Melk’s art and architecture, I pause to wonder about the roots of this wealth.

Coming from Mauthausen, I wonder abut the origins of the wealth that created this beauty at Melk. The Nazi empire (the Third Reich) created a monstrous and unambiguous evil–labor camps and death camps. The Holy Roman Empire, through the Habsburgs, created beauty, though it also had its share of atrocities in its history.

Nevertheless, I am amazed by the beauty of the art, the craftmanship of the woodwork, and the genius of the architect. In that beauty I see the reflection of the God who created beauty and loves beauty. I see the giftedness that enabled such art. The glory of God surely shines through it.

Whatever its origins, beauty–whether created by the Colorado river flowing through canyons for millions of years or Baroque buildings designed and built by Jakob Prandtauer over a thirty year period–testifies to the beauty of God’s own life and God’s love for diversity within the creation.

At bottom, is it possible to appreciate and enjoy beauty when places like Mauthausen exist in the world? Can we laugh and enjoy the good when evil surrounds us? Can we go from Mauthausen to Melk in one day without feeling sick to our stomachs?

I think so, but only with care. Indeed, an ancient Hebrew sage wrestled with this very question. We call his work Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth saw oppression, folly, and death in the world. He lived with a sense of frustration about how evil and senseless the world really is. Indeed, his motto was that “everything is absurd!” Life does not make sense!

At the same time, he saw goodness within the creation. He believed that God created the world and, though it is filled with evil, there is nothing better to do than to love, work, and enjoy creation’s gifts. He confessed that there was yet “good” in the world even though life was absurd.

I felt the same way on Friday.

Mauthausen bears witness to the absurdities of humanity! But Melk–both in terms of its medieval origins and its present beauty–testifies to the reality that beauty and goodness still exist in the world.

Melk and Mauthausen contrast–prayer and service battle violence and oppression.

I am grateful that Melk can serve as a response to Mauthausen, though we must be careful that Melk does not also lead us to sanctify empires.

 


The Closing Psalm (Psalm 150)

February 2, 2015

At some point Psalm 145:21 may have been the final doxology of Psalms. It makes a similar point to Psalm 150:6.

Psalm 145:21 appears as the concluding doxology of Book V in the Psalter.  Books I-IV conclude with independent doxologies attached to the final psalms in those books. It is natural that Book V would also conclude with a doxology.

However, there are five more Psalms (146-150). If Book V concludes with Psalm 145, what is the function of the final five? I think they are concluding doxologies (or praises ) for the whole book.

It is as if the final editor (whoever he/she/they may be) of Psalms was unwilling to end the Psalter on a two-line doxology. The journey through the Psalter is a difficult one. It is filled with lament and protest, but it moves toward praise and exults in the character and redeeming acts of God. The Psalter must end with praise…..and praise….and praise. There are not enough words.

Each of the final five Psalms begin and end with the Hebrew phrase often transliterated as Hallelujah (praise Yahweh, or praise the Lord). The word “praise” occurs thirty-six times in the final five psalms, and twelve times in the final psalm (150). The editor(s) concludes the Psalter with resounding praise–almost as if it is unceasing praise. So, the structure of the Psalter might look something like this.

Introduction: Psalm 1

  • Book I (Psalms 2-41) Doxology:  41:13
  • Book II (Psalms 42-72) Doxology: 72:18-19
  • Book III (Psalms 73-89) Doxology: 89:52
  • Book IV (Psalms 93-106) Doxology: 106:48
  • Book V (Psalms 107-150) Doxology: 145:21

Conclusion: Psalms 146-150

The final psalm–of the traditional Hebrew text–uses the verb “praise” twelve times. Every line in the psalm contains the verb. Eleven of them are imperatives (commands), but the next to last is a jussive, that is, an invitation to join the praise (150:6).

The repeated exhortation to praise constitutes a demand that arises from the story the Psalmists have told throughout their journey with God in the previous psalms, a journey with many hills and valleys. That journey ends, however, in praise.

God has sustained the Psalmists. God has not abandoned them, even though sometimes they thought God had. Yahweh is faithful, and from creation to Exodus to renewal in the post-exilic era, God has redeemed Israel and demonstrated the excellence of the divine character.

That praise begins in the the divine, heavenly sanctuary–in firmament that shields the earth–but it encompasses what God has done upon the earth, God’s “mighty deeds.”  The praise in Psalm 150 has no content. Instead, it has a standard.  We are called to praise God in ways that reflect God’s mighty deeds (God’s redemptive acts) and the excellence of God’s character.

The mighty deeds have demonstrated God’s presence and revealed God’s character. Our praise must be congruent with God’s story, the faithful and redemptive ways in which God has patiently continued to love Israel. We know who God is, and this demands praise.  Hallelujah, the call to praise Yahweh, is the call to engage the covenant God of Israel, the one who has acted in faithful love for the people called out of Ur and Egypt, and returned from Babylon.

In the divine sanctuary (which probably includes the temple court as a mirror of the heavenly one), how is this praise embodied?

Interestingly, nothing is explicitly said about the use of words, though I think the call to “praise” involves words.  Rather, the mood and atmosphere of praise is connected to instrumentation, to the sounds of artistic, exuberant, and bold string, percussion, and wind instruments. Israel praised God with (through or by) these instruments. They were no mere aids but means.

  • Trumpets–usually  used to mark movements within the liturgy, to announce significant moments, events, and transitions (much like bells are used in some liturgical churches).
  • Harp and lute, or “strings and pipe,”–the use of wind and string instruments as means of praise, as acts of praise of themselves.
  • Tambourines and dancing–we see the joy of the Exodus in the praise of God (cf. Exodus 15:20), and that joy continued in the celebration of God’s redemptive acts and faithful character.
  • Cymbals–perhaps also used to mark movements within the liturgy, but also to dramatically heighten the bold character of the praise. The cymbals are loud and resounding; this is no soft, solemn, or silent praise.

As one student commented, the instruments reflect how bold and enthusiastic this praise is. We might imagine the priests blowing the trumpets and clashing the cymbals at dramatic moments in the liturgy while a Levitical band (strings and pipes) provides the music that accompanies the words of praise are sung by a Levitical choir. In the midst of this offering by the priests and Levites, the congregation taps their tambourines and dances in the temple court in praise of Yahweh, their faithful covenant God.

This praise is the fruit of a life lived under the Torah of God and tutored by the prayers and thanksgivings of the Psalmists. Living in humble submission, absorbing the values and language of the psalms, and obedient to the Torah or story of God, praise is the fruit of such a life. Prayer leads to praise, and obedience leads to adoration.

Indeed, this is the fundamental identity of everything that breathes; humanity is homo liturgicus.  The final line of the Psalter, except the inclusio “Praise the Lord,” invites all creation (“every breath” as in Genesis 7:22), to join the chorus of praise.  As in Psalm 148, the cosmos–whether in heaven or on earth–is invited to praise God.

God gives breath, and that breath ought to return to God in praise. The breath in us is, in fact, the Spirit of God moving through us (see Job 27:1). As such, breath returns to God who gave it.

As the Orthodox theology Schmemann wrote, “every breath is communion with God,” and the Psalmist invites “every thing that breathes” to say, Hallelujah!

So, as people who sing, pray, and mediate on the psalms, we join the chorus of praise that reverberates throughout the cosmos,even though we have traversed many valleys and dark places to get to this point.

Our every breath is both an invitation to praise and a form of praise!


The Opening Psalm (Psalm 1)

January 31, 2015

Psalm 1, perhaps also Psalm 2, serves as a preface or introduction to the Psalter. It says something important about how we should read, sing, pray, and meditate on Psalms.

There is some text-critical evidence (variant readings) that Acts 13:33 calls Psalm 2 the “first Psalm,” and some medieval manuscripts write the first psalm in red. This suggests that some believed Psalm 1 introduces the whole book of Psalms. So the question is: how does Psalm 1 orient us to the practice of praying and singing the Psalms? That can only be answered by a close reading and focused understanding of the psalm.

Psalm 1 is neither a prayer nor a song. Rather, it is a teaching. Often classified as a Torah Psalm (that is, a Psalm that intends to teach, instruct, or guide in reflection of what Yahweh has revealed to Israel), it also serves as a Wisdom Psalm (that is, offering a general perspective on life), and both genres orient the worshiper who uses Psalms. The psalms become a way of life; they provide guidance in how to pray, what language to use about God, how to think about life in communion with God, and how to live with God in the midst of life. Psalms teaches people how to praise, pray (event protest), and give thanks (testify).

Psalm 1 is deeply rooted in both Torah and Wisdom as both teach there are two ways.  The righteous and the wicked take different paths. This kind of language is common throughout the Torah (obediently following God and refusing to obey God) and Wisdom (wise people and foolish people). Jesus reflects this same vision of “paths” in Matthew 7:13-14.  There is a path that leads to destruction (even self-destruction) and there is a path that leads to life (even the abundant life). The wise choose the latter while the foolish choose the former (Matthew 7:24-27). Can you sing the song? Upon what did are we building our houses–rock (wise) or sand (fools)?

As one student helpfully suggested, this sounds like “us versus them” thinking, or at least it sounds like a kind of arrogant “we are righteous” and “you are sinners” kind of thing. Certainly some might use Psalm 1 to reinforce their hostile and antagonistic attitudes towards others they believe are “sinners” (even if they are not). Clearly we neither want to claim any kind of sinless status, nor do we want to treat people with hostility in an “us versus them” sort of way.

However, I don’t think that is the picture here. Indeed, Jesus ate with sinners, and he loved sinners. We are all sinners in some sense. At the same time, Jesus also prayed the psalms (often quoting them) and recognized the distinction between the foolish and the wise.

So, what is the point of the Psalm 1? It is about the direction in which our life is oriented and the path we have chosen to take. Do we seek to live under God’s guidance, or do we choose the advice of those who live self-destructive lives? Do we choose to live out God’s story for our lives, or do we create our own story? We have a choice, and the crux of the decision is to choose whether we will humbly submit to God’s Torah (guidance, instruction, or story) or whether we will arrogantly create our own path. This is the choice Psalm 1 sets before us.

One path leads to death or destruction, even self-destruction. This path is like chaff in the wind. It leads nowhere and is blown away by the wind.  The path ultimately means that they cannot withstand the close scrutiny of life, that is, their life is ultimately empty and without substance. That path has no goal, and it ultimately has no place to stand. It is blown about by the winds of life.

The other path leads to life. It is a fruitful and productive life. Deeply rooted, it is stable. Planted by water, it is constantly refreshed and nourished. The path of wisdom results in a centered-life, and one that prospers.

But does the wise path always prosper? Surely we all know people, even the best of people, who suffer greatly despite their wise choices.

It is good to remember that we are reading poetry, and it is a wisdom poem at that. The psalm speaks in general terms. Within God’s good creation, a wise path tends toward life, while a foolish path tends towards self-destruction, which is the whole point of Proverbs 1-9.  But there are exceptions (Job is a memorable one within the canon), and the Psalter will remind us that they exist. In fact, the biblical psalms include the prayers of righteous sufferers, diseased devotees, and dying believers. The Psalter is not naive, and neither is Psalm 1.

Nevertheless, wisdom teaches that which we path we choose entails blessings or consequences. It says something about how life works within God’s created order. There are practices and habits that bring death, and there are those that bring life.

If we….

  • live (walk) by the advice (counsel) of the foolish (wicked),
  • choose (stand) the path of those who reject God’s Torah (sinners), and
  • participate (sit) in or join in the planning (assembly) of mockers hostile to God,

then we have chosen a path that leads to destruction.

The Psalmist has chosen a different path; he sits in the assembly of the righteous (disciples of God’s Torah) rather than in the assembly of the mockers.

The wise…

  • delight, love, and embrace the teaching (story, narrative) of Yahweh and
  • immerse themselves in that narrative through prayer, reflection, and worship

As we read, sing, and pray the psalms, we have a choice.  We may either submit our hearts and lives to the language, values, and story of Yahweh’s teaching through Psalms, or we may create our own language, values, and story by ignoring or rejecting Psalms.

Psalm 1 invites us to decide how we will approach the Psalter. Will we read in humility seeking to learn how to praise, pray, and give thanks, or will we read them in arrogant dismissal? Psalm 1 prepares us for a journey through the Psalter, and it recommends humble submission. Psalm 1, introducing the five books of the Psalms (which mirrors the five books of the Torah), invites us to worship and commune with God within the narrative that God has created.

Those who accept that invitation are “blessed.”  They are not simply “happy” like some kind of satisfied, consumerist state of consciousness. Rather, they are “blessed.” God has invested in their lives and provided a sense of “blessedness.” As they walk in the path of God’s story, God is actively shaping and transforming them so that they are trees planted by water yielding their fruit in every season of life. Blessedness is a divine act, and God gives it to those who walk wisely in the fear of the Lord.


Lament Prayer

January 20, 2015

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Psalm 74:11a

A Lament Prayer. http://t.co/NpomTUK0HC


Three Takeaways from “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

December 30, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings is filled with amazing special effects, wonderfully depicts the cultural situation (clothing, geography, architecture), and generally follows the biblical storyline.

Epic “biblical” movies are always imaginative creations. The Ten Commandments with the beloved Charlton Heston used a lot of imagination in telling the Exodus story, though it arguably followed  the biblical “script” more closely than did Gods and Kings.

When telling the biblical story visually, however, imagination is imperative and unavoidable.  Storytellers–whether verbal or visual or cinematic–tell the story in a particular way to make a contemporary point. We might hope that there is some degree of faithfulness to the overt lines of the story (and this is the case with Gods and Kings generally), but the intent is to tell the story in the present for a contemporary audience. In other words, if Exodus had been written last year, how might the story have been told while still retaining the main features of the reality it portrays? I suppose it could look like this movie. Maybe. At least one version of it.

Whatever one might think about the explicit divergences from the biblical story (e.g., the conversation at the burning bush is too limited in the movie, the omission of the opening confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, absence of Pharaoh-Moses interaction about the plagues, etc.), the story is told to make a point(s) for contemporary audiences.

I heard several points, but here are my major takeaways.

1. Israel wrestles with God. Nun, Joshua’s father, demonstrates a tenacious hopeful faithfulness as he expects divine deliverance though he is uncertain as to when. In the movie, Israel waits for God, prays to God, and hopes in God, even as their suffering abounds and increases.

At one point, Moses–still a prince of Egypt–reminds the viceroy, who supervises the slaves, of the meaning of the word “Israel” (one who wrestles or strives with God). Moses is fully aware of this, and when he encounters God this becomes a prominent theme which grows within the drama.

Moses both argues and cooperates (or even abstains from action) with God. Moses wrestles with God. He objects to God’s decision to kill the children of Egypt (and perhaps we even nod our heads in agreement), but ultimately Moses accepts God’s decision (even when confronted by Pharaoh as to why Moses serves such a God).

This wrestling reflects some of the best of Jewish tradition. We see it in Exodus 3-4 and Exodus 32. We see it in Psalms 30 & 88, as well as in Job 7:7-21 and other places. It is part of the history of Judaism.

Israel wrestles with God. There is tension, and there is faith as well as honesty. God seeks human cooperation and honors the dignity of human freedom. One of the final scenes highlights this when Moses buys into the divine regulations we know as the “Ten Commandments.”

Rather than depicting the God-Moses relationship as a sanitized submissiveness, Gods and Kings reflects the raw reality that the book of Exodus depicts.  Moses wrestles with God, and so do we.

2. Jewish Holocaust Relived.  Forced labor. Burning bodies. Racial slurs. Summary executions. Genocidal pogroms.

The movie allows us to enter into the experience of slavery. We remember not only that ancient slavery, but the Nazi Holocaust as well.  The parallels are vivid. We are incensed with a righteous indignation, and we cry with the Israelites for justice and deliverance.

God expresses this righteous anger more than any other character in the movie. In explaining why the plagues, and particularly the last plague, were necessary, God points to Pharaoh’s arrogance and the treatment of Israel. The plagues are not about vengeance but justice and to secure the release of Israel from the holocaust they were experiencing.

The cry for justice rebounds through the history of the world. The slave conditions remind us that Africans were enslaved as forced labor in the Americas. The movie reminds us that racial slurs, summary executions (lynchings) and genocidal pogroms (mob violence) are part of our own American story.

As viewers sympathize with Israel in their suffering, perhaps we learn to sympathize with enslaved Africans, enslaved women in sex-trafficking, and the injustice pervasively present in the world even now. Perhaps our sense of righteous indignation is renewed.

3. Not by Israel’s sword, but by the Lord’s right hand. This biblical theme emerges in the movie. It is present in Psalm 44:3, Psalm 20:7, and Hosea 1:7 as well as other places.

I wondered early in the movie why Moses carried a sword rather than a staff after the burning bush encounter. Indeed, the staff is absent until after Israel crosses the sea.

Moses approaches the situation as a general who intends to train an army of freedom fighters. (The biblical story highlights Moses’s violent nature–he kills an Egyptian.) Moses will liberate Israel by his own might, ingenuity, and sword. He wages a guerrilla campaign against Egypt.  Of course, this is nowhere present in the biblical text.  This is a place where the script writer takes creative liberties in order to make an explicit point, which is nevertheless a theme in the canonical story and in the history of Israel.

God allows Moses to pursue his ineffective strategy until God decides to assume the reins and effectively move Pharaoh to liberate Israel. The plagues, depicted as natural events (though implausibly explained as such by Pharaoh’s own “scientist”), are divine acts that humble Egypt before Israel’s God. Egypt experiences horrors, and they now know how Israel feels in its horrendous bondage.

At bottom, violent revolution, which Moses chose as his strategy, is rejected. God uses the chaos of nature–a form of uncreation where God turns order into chaos when his creative activity turned chaos into order–to achieve the divine purpose.

The movie depicts human violence in negative terms, and in the biblical story human violence does not deliver Israel from Egypt.

Further, it is a purpose that is frustrated at times by Pharaoh’s own stubborness and idolatry (not only does he serve other gods but also thinks of himself as a god). Pharaoh’s hard heart increases the drama of the plagues. Human sin and rebellion creates further hardship (which is not unlike what sinful environmental practices do as well). Resistance to the will of God has consequences–for the nation, for people, even for children.

God delivers. We do not deliver ourselves. God remembers the promise to Israel and faithfully acts to redeem them from bondage. Moses’s freedom fighter strategy is discredited. Rather, Moses learns to trust in God’s mighty hand, and so we trust as well.

 

 


The Empathetic God

December 27, 2014

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”

 


Mercy Over Sacrifice: The Missing Principle in Muscle & a Shovel

December 2, 2014

I recently published a new article at Wineskins.org.  You can access it here.


Muscle and a Shovel: A Review

September 5, 2014

The full review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shanks is now available in a PDF file. Anyone may print and distribute this as they desire.

The text is also available on Kindle.

 


A Sacramental Journey

September 3, 2014

Creation is good, but new creation is better. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper on the journey http://t.co/BJ3dFKyidt


On Reading Lamentations

September 3, 2014

There is always reason to weep.

We don’t have to look too far into our world—whether through social media, television, or newsprint—to find reason to weep. Yet, too often we—especially the church—ignore, hide our eyes, or look past the pain in order to escape into fantasy, denial, or hope. We rarely sit in our grief and lament.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a testimony to the value of lament. The whole book is a series of laments, a total of five. Responding to the devastation of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. (described in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52), the heart-felt cries of sorrow and pain fill the air and ascend to the God of Israel.

However, though focused on a specific moment in Israel’s history, Jewish tradition has recited these poems every year on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). This annual fast day remembers the day when the Exodus generation was told they would not enter the promised land, the day when the first and second temples were destroyed, the day when the Romans finally defeated the last Jewish rebellion against the Empire in 135 C.E., and the day when the Romans plowed under Jerusalem to rebuild it as a pagan city. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year, and it symbolizes all the tragedies that have fallen the Jewish people.

Tisha B’Av is Israel’s day of mourning. There is no eating, drinking, or sex on that day. Normally every day is filled with God’s good gifts of creation. Even amidst our daily encounters with hebel (what Ecclesiastes calls the absurdities of life), people eat, drink, and enjoy their spouses (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). But not on this day! On this day, the day when Lamentations is read, there is no joy. It is a day of lament.

Lamentations, to use the title of Leslie C. Allen’s book, is a “liturgy of grief.” These five laments express the pain of tragedy, call believers to an introspective faith, and accept God’s work among them. The laments help believers walk through their grief. It does not ignore or suppress the pain. On the contrary, it voices it. The community neither walks around nor backs away from the grief. Instead, they walk through it.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a communal lament where the people of God remember their story, express their grief, and appeal to their God. Tisha B’Av provides Judaism with a rhythm that incorporates grief into their faith and thereby integrates their experiences of real pain with authentic faith. Sorrow is expressed rather than suppressed.

The historic liturgies of the church have used Lamentations during Holy Week in the light of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (Tenebrae Services). The laments express the sorrow for sin and grieve death. The Christian Church, then, has adopted this resource within the Hebrew Bible to provide a rhythm of sorrow, repentance, and humility within its own calendar. Lamentations is incorporated into the climax of Lent as Holy Week moves toward Easter.

We read Lamentations, then, to (1) learn to lament, (2) to practice lament, and (3) to move through lament into God’s mercy.

Lamentations is actually five laments; each chapter is its own self-contained lament. We do not know who wrote them (they are anonymous), though an ancient (as early as the Septuagint translation) and strong tradition attributes them to Jeremiah. Whoever the author, they have functioned as significant communal laments for the people of God.

  1. Lament One is a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses, which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet).
  2. Lament Two is also a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  3. Lament Three is a poem where the first letter of each colon (represented as verses) within the tricolon begins with the same letter of the alphabet and the tricolons form an acrostic (therefore, sixty-six verses).
  4. Lament Four is a poem where the first letter of each bicolon (two lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  5. Lament Five is a poem formed by a series of twenty-two bicolons but there is no acrostic pattern.

While the relationship between these five poems will require our attention in coming blogs, it seems rather obvious that the central poem (Lament Three) is the pinnacle of the book. There are several stylistic as well as theological reasons for such a judgment. It is appears at the center in a unique poetic form, and it reminds Israel of God’s everlasting mercy. Consequently, we might picture Lamentations as a rising crescendo in the first two chapters that is climaxed in the third and with a descending decrescendo in the last two chapters.

In this view, Lamentations begins with lament as the book opens with the word ‘ekah (how?)—as does 2:1 and 4:1. Indeed, this is the Hebrew title of the book (“Lamentations” comes through the Latin Vulgate.). But the book ends with a prayer to Yahweh, “Restore us to yourself” (5:21-22). Between the laments and the prayer is the bold assertion—and probably the most well-known line in Lamentations—“the steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases” (3:22) and the confession “Yahweh is my portion” (3:24).

Lamentations, then, has the classic elements of lament itself. There is (1) complaint, including a description of the horrible circumstances under which people suffer. There is (2) petition, which appeals to Yahweh to transform the situation. But there is also (3) praise, which comes in the form of confident confession and hope.

Lament is not simply wallowing in one’s sorrow as if it is a function of self-pity alone. It includes that as well as other forms of complaint. But it is much more. It is also petition and praise.

Lament moves us through the grief toward a confident hope in God. It takes time, and it takes practice, that is, it takes the practice of lament itself. We must take the time to talk it out with God and in community.

Lamentations provides a resource for the people of God to voice their hurts, offer their petitions, and express their faith.


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!

 

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)

August 11, 2014

 [Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Obeying the Gospel

In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).

He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).

Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.

In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.

The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).

Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:

            “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).

            “Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)

Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.

Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal

            Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.

            Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?

Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).

What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?

The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).

This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).

Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).

God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).

Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):

  • biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
  • non-denominational (25:4172)
  • autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
  • governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
  • “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
  • the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
  • singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
  • free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
  • teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).

The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.

In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.

This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.

“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).

What I Appreciate

I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.

I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).

I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.

What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.

In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).

One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.

Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.

The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.

In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.


Peace and Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

July 2, 2014

Inheritance (or, possession) occurs fifty times in the book of Joshua, and everyone of them, except for five (11:23; 23:4; 24:28,30,32), occur in chapters 12-21. Further, the verb “to possess or inherit” occurs nine times in Joshua, eight times in Joshua 13-21. So, fifty-three of the fifty-nine occurrences of this word group occur in Joshua 13-21 That is a fairly solid clue to the book’s major emphasis in its second half (and all but two occurrences are found in Joshua 13-24).

The first half of Joshua narrates the entrance of Israel into the land of Canaan and the successful northern and southern military campaigns that secured the land for Israel (at least much of it). The final line of chapter eleven signals the end of the “conquest” (at least in terms of major offensives): “And the land had rest from war.” Chapter twelve recounts the victories.

The last verse of Joshua 11, however, also introduces us to the major theme of Joshua 13-21.

So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Two ideas in this conclusion to the first half of Joshua are particularly significant for the theology of Joshua in the second half of the book, and they are intertwined.

First, “the land had rest from war” (also Joshua 14:15). This theme extends into Judges both positively (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28) and negatively (18:7, 18). In the former, God gives Israel “rest” through liberating them from oppressors. In the latter, the Danites slaughter a peaceful, quiet (“rest”) town for their own selfish ends; they seize what does not belong to their “inheritance.”

“Rest” appears in the Chronicler’s history. It is what God gives to Israel when they seek Yahweh (cf 2 Chronicles 14:1, 5-6; 20:30; 23:21). In those days of “rest,” there was “no war” (2 Chronicles 14:5).

“Rest” reappears in the prophets as part of the promises of God. The righteous will rest, but the wicked will not (Isaiah 14:7; 30:15; 32:17; 57:20). Ultimately, God’s people will find rest in the land once again without fear (Jeremiah 30:10; 46:27). Both Isaiah and Micah see a time when the nations will learn war no more, the earth will be at peace, and no one will be afraid (Isaiah 2; Micah 4).

The “rest” that God intended for Israel in Canaan is also the rest that God intends for all nations. God created the heavens and the earth for peace rather than war; it was for “rest” rather than chaos. God created and rested; God created and dwelt with humanity. The heavens and the earth are God’s home (Isaiah 66:1-2), and it is given to humanity as a “rest.” Chaos, sin, and the rule of the principalities and powers subvert God’s intent, but there yet remains a “rest” for the people of God (Hebrews 4:4, 8, 10).

Second, God gave the “land for an inheritance to Israel.” Joshua 11:23 is the first time the noun appears in Joshua. The land is Israel’s inheritance (cf. Numbers 34:2; Deuteronomy 4:21, 38; 15:4; 19:10; 20:16; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; Psalm 105:11; 136:21-22), just as Israel itself is God’s own “inheritance” (possession; Deuteronomy 4:20; 9:26, 29; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 8:51-53). God gives Israel (God’s own inheritance) an inheritance.

Joshua 14:2-3 summarizes the division of the land:

Their inheritance was by lot, as the Lord had commanded Moses for the nine and one-half tribes. For Moses had given an inheritance to the two and one-half tribes beyond the Jordan; but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.

 Joshua 19 is peppered with this line:  “This is the inheritance of the tribe….” Forty-five times in Joshua 13-21 the writer, by the use of this term, stresses the theological meaning of this moment. Israel’s possession of the land is an inheritance from Yahweh.

This language has both creational and eschatological meaning.  God’s gift of the land to Israel is analogous to God’s creation of the earth. God gave the cosmos to Adam and Eve, and “placed” (rested; Genesis 2:15) them in the Garden to serve and protect it (which is a priestly task). Adam and Eve were priests in God’s temple, God’s home. This was God’s inheritance for humanity. God created humanity so that it might reign with God within the creation–to live within the creation as God’s partner in the cosmos.

This is eschatological as well since the new heaven and new earth are what God creates as an inheritance for redeemed humanity. What Israel inherited in the book of Joshua is a type of the inheritance that God will give to humanity. A day is coming when not only Israel is the “heritage” of God, but also Egypt and Assyria are God’s people and the work of God’s hands (Isaiah 19:25). A day is coming when the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

God gives the land, and God gives rest. At the same time, Israel was an active agent in the process by which the land came to rest from its wars. Israel defeated many kings (Joshua 12), but there was yet much of the land that Israel had not yet taken possession of (Joshua 13). Israel was engaged in a process of clearing the land; a process of eliminating (subduing) the chaos (Joshua 18:1).

Just as God placed humanity in the Garden and they were told to subdue the chaos in the rest of the earth (Genesis 1:28), so God’s people (like Israel before them) are given the task of subduing the chaos. Within the story of Jesus and the church, this task is not a violent one but rather the pursuit of peace and righteousness. The church “subdues” the chaos (including sin and unrighteousness) through redemptive suffering rather than violent revolution. Through that pursuit “rest” for all nations will emerge as God renews all things through Jesus.

Our kingdom task is to subdue the chaos through practicing peace. God promises to renew the earth and create a anew heaven and new earth where righteousness and peace dwell (2 Peter 3:13).

In this way, God will fulfill the promise to Abraham. The land Abraham was promised was but a reflection of the promise to humanity in creation itself. Abraham, according to Paul, was mad the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).  In Abraham’s seed, in the Messiah, we have become the heirs of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). We are the heirs of the cosmos, and in the new heaven and new earth we shall inherit the earth and enter into God’s rest.

***This is the substance of a lecture given at Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration 2014***

Below is the handout I gave to the class:

Joshua 13-21
John Mark Hicks
Summer Celebration 2014
Lipscomb University

Claiming the Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

Brief Outline of Joshua (adapted from David Malick)

I. The Book of War
A. Preparation for Conquest (1:1-5:15).
B. The Prosecution of the War (6:1-11:23).
C. Battle Report (12:1-24).

II. The Book of Inheritance.
A. East of Jordan Inheritance (13:1-33).
B. Caleb’s Inheritance (14:1-14).
C. West of Jordan Inheritance (15:1-19:48).
1. Judah (15:1-63).
2. Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh (16:1-17:18).
3. The Sanctuary (18:1)
4. Remaining Tribes (18:2-19:48).
D. Joshua’s Inheritance (19:49-51).
E. Cities for Justice and Ministry (20:1-21:42)

III. Epilogue: Covenant Life in the Land (22-24).

Key Texts

Joshua 11:23 — So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Joshua 18:1 — Then the whole congregation of the Israelites assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.

Joshua 21:43-45 — Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

The Inheritance

Verb: Josh 1:6; 13:32; 14:1; 16:4; 17:6; 19:9, 49, 51 = nine occurrences.
Noun: Josh 11:23; 13:6-8, 14, 23, 28, 33; 14:2-3, 9, 13-14, 20; 16:5, 8; 17:4, 6, 14; 18:2, 4, 7, 20, 28; 19:1-2, 8-10, 16, 23, 31, 39, 41, 48-49, 51; 21:3; 23:4; 24:8, 30, 32 = fifty occurrences

Rest

One Word Group: Josh 1:13, 15; 3:13; 4:3, 8; 6:23; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1 [Gen 2:15; 8:4; Exod 16:23-24; 20:11; 33:14; Deut 3:20; 5:14; 25:19; Isa 14:7].
Another Word Group: Josh 11:23; 14:15 [cf. Isa 14:7; Jer 30:10].

Josh 1:13 — ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land.’

The Sanctuary – Renewed “Garden of Eden” (Joel 2:3; Ezek 36:35)

The whole congregation assembled (or, the whole assembly gathered, LXX)

“Whole congregation” (Exod 12:3, 47; 16:1-2, 9-10; 17:1; 35:1, 4, 20; Lev 4:13; 19:2; Num 1:2; 8:9, 20; 13:26; 14:7; 15:25-26; 16:5-6, 11, 16, 41; 25:6; 26:2; 27:20; Josh 22:12, 16, 18, 20; 1 Kgs 8:5; 2 Chr 5:6).

“Assembled” (Ex. 32:1; 35:1; Lev 8:3; Num 1:18; 8:9; 10:7; 16:3, 19, 42; 20:2, 8, 10; Deut 4:10; 31:12, 28; Josh 22:12; 1 Kgs 8:1; 2 Chr 13:3; 28:1; 2 Chr 5:2; 20:26).

Tent of Meeting

Exodus language for the Tabernacle (Exod 27:21; 28:43; 29:4; 29:10, 30, 32, 42, 44; 30:16, 18, 20, 26, 36; 31:7; 33:7; 35:21; 38:8, 30, 32, 40; 40:2, 6, 12, 22, 24, 26, 29, 32, 34). 135 usages of 146 are in the Pentateuch.
Only usages in Joshua are in reference to Shiloh (18:1; 19:51).

Land Subdued

“Subdued” is the language of Genesis 1:28 (word only occurs 13x in OT)
Subdued land/nations (Num 32:22, 29; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Chr 22:18)
Language of God’s grace (Micah 7:19; Zech 9:15)

Theological Perspectives

1. Israel was God’s third act of new creation—a renewed people.
2. God intended Israel to rest with God, become a light to the nations, and claim the whole earth as God’s dwelling place.
3. God intends to fill the whole earth with God’s rest, and God’s people are the instruments of that peace in the world.
4. We have been grafted into Israel, we are the heirs of Abraham in Christ, and the earth is our inheritance.


Stepping into God’s Future (Joshua 3:1-17)

June 30, 2014

[An audio version of this is available here.]

Contemporary visitors to Palestine rarely, if ever, find the Jordan River imposing. It seems relatively shallow, not very wide, and quite calm.  Wading across does not seem like much of a problem–except that it would take one from the modern state of Israel into the modern state of Jordan or vice versa. The ramifications of that move might not be very pleasant. Today, the Jordan River itself poses no threat and prompts no fear.

So, why did Israel linger three days at Jordan’s shore? Why were they intimidated by this river? And why is crossing the river such a big deal in the book of Joshua? In Joshua 3-4, the crossing is referenced twenty-one times! The Jordan River is mentioned seventy times in Joshua with twenty-eight of them in Joshua 3-4. It functions as a critical and significant moment in the story of Joshua.

Further, the songs and prophets of Israel regarded it as one of Yahweh’s great redemptive feats. In Micah 6:5, the movement from Shittim (east side of the Jordan) to Gilgal (west side of the Jordan) is one of the mighty acts of God! This moment in the history of Israel parallels the crossing of the Sea itself.

For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:23-24.)

The ancient river was very different from the one we now see.  Today, the river runs low because its water is used as a resource by the states of Israel and Jordan for drinking and crop irrigation. The flow of water has become so limited that the Dead Sea is drying up.

However, in the ancient world the Jordan River was intimidating. John Beck has assembled an impressive collection of evidence to demonstrate this (JETS 48.4 [2005] 689-99). Since there were no bridges until the Roman era, people crossed the Jordan in the dry season when they could wade across at points where tributaries flowed into the river  because silt builds up there or they floated across on animal skins or bundles of reeds. Israel, on the plains of Moab, probably crossed where the Wadi Qilt meets the river near the head of the Dead Sea.

However, when Joshua stood at the Jordan River, it was at flood stage. It was Spring (March-April) towards the end of the rainy season (Joshua 4:19). Coupled with the melting snows of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River became a formidable obstacle. Beck estimates that the water would have been 10-12 feet deep and as much as one hundred and forty feet wide. In those conditions, the Jordan’s “violent current” endangered lives. In fact, ancient Christian travelogues warned pilgrims that the current was strong, and occasionally pilgrims drowned in the Jordan. A thirteenth century letter complained that the Jordan was practically impassable. One nineteenth century explorer, William Lynch, related his harrowing experience on a riverboat where he feared for his life.

The crossing was so difficult and treacherous that the Greek general Bacchides refused to pursue the Jewish leader Jonathan across the river (1 Maccabees 9:48) while the Pereans decided to battle the Romans on the west bank of the river rather than cross it (Josephus, Wars, IV.7.5). Jonathan escaped but the Pereans were slaughtered.

Just as Assyrian generals listed river crossings as “renowned acts” in their reports, this crossing secures Joshua’s position as the successor of Moses. “That day,” Joshua 4:14 says, “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel.” More importantly, like at the Red Sea, Yahweh defeated the waters and redeemed Israel, and as a result Israel learned to “fear” the Lord (Exodus 14:31; Joshua 4:24).

But this is not the whole story. The imposing physical character of the Jordan creates a dramatic moment, like at the Sea, where Yahweh rescues Israel, but there is more.

J. Michael Thigpen points to the contest between Yahweh and Baal at the river (Trinity Journal 27ns [Fall 2006] 245-254). The Jordan River crossing demonstrates that Yahweh is a “living God” who is the “Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:10, 13). This is a polemic against Baal.

The Baal Epic was discovered in the 1930s at Ugarit. It dates from some time in the 1300s B.C (roughly the same era the Joshua account portrays). It tells the story of the god Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who was responsible for the fertility of the land and the seasons of rain. At one point in the story, Baal battles the god Yamm (sea) who is also called Nahar (river). Baal defeats Yamm (who represents both sea and river) and is hailed as king. He is given the title “Lord of all the earth.”

As Yahweh’s people approach the Jordan River at flood stage, they face the might of Canaan’s god.  Baal, after all, brings the rains, ensures the harvest, and the flood is a sign of Baal’s mighty power. The river Jordan was not only intimidating because of its natural obstructions, but more importantly it terrorized Israel because it was associated with the reign of Baal.  It is a sign that, as the Baal Epic describes Baal, that “mightiest Baal lives.” Baal rules Canaan.

When Yahweh creates dry land for the crossing, Yahweh defeats Baal. Just as he defeated the waters of chaos and the gods of Egypt at the Red Sea, so here Yahweh defeats “mighty Baal” so that “all the peoples of the earth” might know that Yahweh is the “Lord of all the earth.”

Israel steps into the water and experiences the power of Yahweh who holds back the waters so that they might cross into a new land, their inheritance. The crossing of the Jordan, then, is not only a defeat of chaotic waters (as in creation itself) but also the defeat of a competing power (Baal). At the Jordan, Yahweh exercises power over both chaos and other powers. God redeems Israel from the powers and secures their safe passage into their inheritance.

Israel crosses the Jordan to become a nation that will light up the world for other nations. They are to become a new Eden in God’s creation. They are to model life with God and how people live together in peace, joy, and righteousness. They enter Canaan commissioned by God to realize God’s kingdom on the earth. But, as we know (and as we well know in our own lives), they failed to fully realize that mission.

The biblical story invites us to see Israel’s Jordan River crossing as our own. This is not simply the history of Israel, it is the story into which we plunge as well. It is the story of Jesus.

We remember how Jesus passed through these waters in his own baptism. John the Baptizer immersed in these same waters–probably even in the same vicinity–where Israel crossed into the new land. For Jesus to step into those waters was to step toward the cross; the shadow of the cross hung over the waters of Jesus’s baptism. It was the moment when he embraced his future suffering for the sake of the future of the world.

Jesus, through his own baptism, experienced God’s redemptive love and heralded a new Exodus and a new inheritance for the whole world.  We follow Jesus into that same water. We, too, have stepped into the water in order to proclaim the one true, living God who defeats the powers that enslave and oppose us. Through our baptism we become God’s new creation and herald the coming of the new heavens and new earth, our own inheritance. Entering the waters of baptism is to take up our own cross, and consequently we must count the cost.

Jesus, through Jordan’s waters, entered into a new world, the world of the kingdom of God. Jesus embraced the ministry of the kingdom in order to bring the reign of God into the world so that the will of God might be done on earth as it is in heaven. We who have followed Jesus into the water also embrace this new world, the kingdom of God. We become the instruments of that kingdom. We, like Israel, embrace the mission of God in the world. We follow Jesus into the ministry of the kingdom for the renewal of God’s good creation and the transformation of the world. We are people who have stepped into the water with Israel, with Jesus, to embrace the newness of the Kingdom of God

The Jordan also represents something else in the story of God. It is where the people of God receive their inheritance.  Israel inherited the land by promise, and we who are also Abraham’s children share in that promise. God appointed Abraham the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).

Like Israel, we stand on the Jordan’s stormy banks. We crossed the Sea in our baptism and we have journeyed through the wilderness of life nourished by the bread and wine. We now face those stormy banks; we face death itself.  Like the Jordan in front of Israel, it is imposing and threatening. But we step into the water with confidence and boldness. We pass through the waters of death in order to embrace the promised inheritance. We pass through the waters where we rest from our labors (Hebrews 4:1-13).

When Israel looked across that water, they saw an imposing current and the walled city of Jericho. It looked inhospitable. It engendered terror, uncertainty, and anxiety. There was no one on the other side to assure them or quiet their fears.

However, this is not true with us. We look across the Jordan and we see the resurrected Jesus enthroned at the right hand of God and holding the keys to Death and Hades. We step into God’s future and trust that God reigns in the world.

We no longer fear. We are not afraid to step into the water. We look forward to the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 3:13). Neither the depths of its waters nor the gods that claim its power hinder our approach.

We step into the water because of the one who beckons us from the other side. We step into the water because of the one who has cleared a path for us. We step into the water because it has become dry ground. Death (water) has become life (a dry path to our inheritance).

***This is the substance of a keynote address at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration on June 30, 2014 in Nashville, TN***


Groaning, Weakness, and the Holy Spirit

June 28, 2014

The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.

See my new post at Wineskins.org. http://wp.me/p4a1Ft-oN


In Memoriam: The Obituary of David Lipscomb (1917)

May 26, 2014

The death of David Lipscomb was front page news in Nashville, Tennessee. This article appeared in the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American (November 12, 1917, p. 1).

DAVID LIPSCOMB, NOTED PREACHER AND EDITOR, DIES

End Comes to Founder of Nashville Bible School at Age of 86 Years

by Wayne W. Burton.

Silencing an evangelist’s voice familiar in Tennessee a half century ago and stilling an editor’s pen that made a record of not one failure to contribute weekly to the press for a period of forty-five years, death came at 11 o’clock last night to David Lipscomb, founder of the Nashville Bible school, teacher, preacher and author, editor of the Gospel Advocate for a period of fifty-one years, and perhaps the most widely known representatives of the Church of Christ of his day. The end came at his home on the Nashville Bible school campus, from general infirmity and old age.

The end came not unexpected. The venerable evangelist passed his eighty-sixth milestone January 21 of this year, and during the past several months of a general decline in health thousands in many states who have long known him through his writings and through the press had been led to realize that the end was not far away. Several months ago, for a period, his death was momentarily expected. But he rallied again, and soon again was in his chair reading his Bible from two to five hours a day, which those about him say has been his practice, and perhaps not an over-estimated reading average for him over a half century. Wednesday night he suffered a relapse, attended by effects scarcely other than a continued deep sleep. From this sleep he never awoke.

Elder Lipscomb is survived by his wife, who was Miss Margaret Zellner of Maury county, and to whom he was married July 23, 1862. Their only child died in infancy. One half brother, John Lipscomb of Franklin county, and two half sisters, Mrs. L. J. Woods of Franklin county and Mrs. Ellen Gardner of Winchester, also survive him. His only full brother was William Lipscomb, well-known Christian church evangelist who died in 1908. Granville Lipscomb, another prominent minister of the same church, who died in 1909, was a half brother. The deceased was a half brother also to Horace G. Lipscomb of the Lipscomb Hardware company, who died a few years ago.

He was an uncle of A. B. Lipscomb, pastor of the Russell Street Church of Christ, and managing editor of the Gospel Advocate, and of Horace S. Lipscomb, assitant principle of the Nashville high school.

Elder Lipscomb, until only a few years ago, led an unusually active life. As early as the spring of 1909, however, he suffered a severe attack from colds, followed by a general breakdown. From this time the decline was gradual, hastened by some two or three paralytic strokes. Often on Sundays, however, as long as strength permitted, he preached somewhere in the city, usually at the Bible school chapel or Third and College church, though he did so sitting in a chair. Soon his waning powers limited his strength of voice to sermons of fifteen to twenty minutes, and for a year or more past he made no pulpit effort, being confined to his home. On the first day of each week, however, though not strong enough to meet with the congregation, he observed the communion service with his family at home, as he taught the church should observe the institution each Sunday, emulating the practice of the New Testament churches.

Founds Churches; Active in Missionary Work

Aside from the Bible School, Elder Lipscomb was one of the founders of the Gospel Advocate, and of the Fanning Orphan school, and mainly through his pioneer efforts were established nearly one-half of the thirty-odd congregations of the Christian church of this city. A complete list from his early work to the present shows fifty-odd congregations through his own efforts. Most of these were in Middle Tennessee. For many years he had been a moving spirit in the work of the Nashville Christian church congregations toward sustaining several missionaries and certain publication work in and around Tokio [sic], Japan, and other points in the foreign missionary field.

In the 50s, when he came to Nashville, there were only three congregations of the Disciples in Davidson county, one being on Church street at the present site of the Vendome theater; another at the Fanning Orphan school, then Franklin college, and another at Owen’s chapel. In South Nashville Elder Lipscomb preached, first to an audience of five, resulting in the establishment of the Third and College church, of which he was the senior Elder to the time of his death. He preached in the army barracks in North Nashville, resulting in the establishment of the Eighth Avenue church. He started the work that resulted in the establishment of the Woodland street congregation, in the late 70s; also that of Foster street, that of old Line street an that of Reid avenue. He was one of the few of the old guard remaining who remembered the preaching of Alexander Campbell, in the building at the present site of the Vendome theater, and that of President James A. Garfield, in later years, at the same place. From this building the congregation moved to the present Vine Street church. In his early work Elder Lipscomb was associated with Elder F. M. Carmack, father of Senator E. W. Carmack; J. W. McGarvey and other distinguished leaders in the work of reformation as inaugurated by the Campbells, Barton W. Stone, and others.

Was Profound Writer; Plea for Christian Unity

Widely known in many states, Elder Lipscomb’s prominence and influence was attained, not through official position in the church, the Disciples having no general church organization, and hence no official church position with further power and authority than that of the elder and deacon of the local congregation. Elder Lipscomb, in fact, especially emphasized this doctrine, of the organic independence of several congregations, urging congregational organizations with elders and deacons after the pattern of the New Testament congregations, but urging against general or denominational organizations with power to write creeds of church government or for overhead control of the congregation, separating the congregations into denominations. He urged a strict adherence to the practice and worship, as well to form of organization, of the New Testament churches, opposing instrumental music in connection with the worship. This was his plea of Christian unity, and on this point, as well as on other tenets of the Disciples, he was regarded throughout the north and the south, for some years, as perhaps the strongest authority, or at least had written more along these controverted points than any other living man.

Sketch of Life of Elder Lipscomb

David Lipscomb was born in Franklin county, Tennessee, January 21, 1831, and was a son of Granville Lipscomb, who had removed to Tennessee from Virginia in 1826. In young Lipscomb’s early life the family removed to Illinois, but returned to Franklin county a year or two later. The father held strong convictions against slavery, adn upon going to Illinois freed his own slaves at his own expense. Young Lipscomb attended school a while in Virginia, going to and from the state a number of times on horseback.

In 1846 he entered Franklin college under the presidency of Tolbert Fanning, for whom the Fanning Orphan school was named. He graduated in 1849. He then entered farming and business life, going to Georgia for awhile, where he managed a large plantation. He returned to Franklin county and later to Nashville.

During the war of the sixties he emphasized his view against the right of Christians to go to war, and in behalf of those who adhered to the belief, he negotiated with Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy, and the federal government, obtaining relief on such grounds from army service as had been granted to Quakers.

In 1866 Elder Lipscomb, associated with Tolbert Fanning, revived the publication of the Gospel Advocate, which had been established ten years before, but suspended during the war. In 1870 Elder E. G. Sewell became associate editor, so remaining to this day. Elder Lipscomb has contributed freely to other religious journals, including the Christian Leader of Cincinnati, and is author of a  number of volumes. Among the volumes are his commentaries on acts of the Apostles, John’s Gospel and the epistles of Jude, Peter and John, in separate volumes, “Queries and Answers” and “Salvation From Sin,” the last two being compiled from his writings by J. W. Shepherd, and his “Civil Government–Its Origin, Mission and Destiny and the Christian’s Religion to It.”

A quarter of a century ago, associated with James A. Harding, E. A. Elam, William Anderson and others, Elder Lipscomb founded the Nashville Bible, his purpose in view being to establish an educational institution in which the Bible, along with the other literary branches, should be used as a textbook and a daily study by every pupil. To this he donated the greater part, of all that he had, including a site of sixty acres, and in the school he taught for twenty years, refusing any monetary consideration whatever. The establishment of other similar schools followed, carrying out the Bible textbook idea, one at Bowling Green, Ky., one at Odessa, Mo., another at Berry, Ala., and several others in Texas, Oklahoma and Canada. How well this feature succeeded, from a literary point of viewpoint is attested to by the fact that all the state educational institutions now give the pupil full credit on this feature, as well as others, of the Bible school work.

Early Life and “Call” to Ministry

Until well along in manhood Elder Lipscomb had not entered the ministry, nor had he seriously thought of doing so. But the story runs this way: There were few preachers and fewer churches. An eminent evangelist of the day well known to Lipscomb and one of the most popular pulpit orators of the south had labored extensively with the Tennessee congregations. This evangelist adopted views extremely radical, however, according to the Brotherhood, losing his doctrinal bearings and making “shipwreck of the faith.” The result under the existing conditions was widespread confusion and general discouragement among the congregations. Lipscomb had greatly admired the brilliant but erratic preacher, but now needly recognized the need of the congregations for teaching and encouragement. If the treasure was committed to “earthen vessels,” he reasoned, now was the time to defend it. This realization of such duties devolving upon him, he accepted as his “call” to preach to them and rally them to more effective work. From the work he never retired. Had the evangelist not made this misstep, Elder Lipscomb said, I might never have preached–a score of others might not. And thus in every apparent calamity he reasoned that some good may somehow result, overbalancing its ill effects.

Story of His First Sermon

A trace of Elder Lipscomb’s optimism and perseverance of later years might be observed in a story told of his first sermon. The place was a schoolhouse near McMinnville. The appointment had been made; the time came; the young preacher had his text ready. He had his sermon ready–he thought. In the audience was an elderly evangelist, Elder Stroud: thrilled with feelings of anxiety for the young man as great as the parent feels for son or daughter at the graudation address. The young preacher found the text, and read it.  It didn’t connect, however, with the prepared sermon. It would not do to stop, so there was nothing to do but keep on reading. The chapter was finished, and still nothing led to the sermon. The young preacher then said, “Brother Stroud, will you please preach the sermon today.” Elder Stroud arose to the pulpit. He was discouraged. He tried, but the sting of disappointment and sympathy for the young preacher was having its effect. It was too much; the speaker was overcome, and as confused as young Lipscomb had been, he left the pulpit, calling on the third man to finish the day’s sermon. En route home from the church Elder Stroud and young Lipscomb had ridden some miles before approaching the delicate subject.  The former, still discouraged at Lipscomb’s failure–not thinking of his own–sympathetically said, “Brother Lipscomb, don’t be discouraged at today’s results.”

“I’ll try not to be,” the young preacher replied, “but I must confess that it is a little discouraging to see one become so confused and have to leave the pulpit who has been preaching as long as you have.”

First Acquaintance with E. G. Sewell

It was early in the 50’s that the two men first met each other, who were destined to labor in such fellowship, in a common cause, for so many years to come, down to an old age for both–David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell. They were about the same age–Elder Sewell a few months older. Elder Sewell had commenced preaching; Elder Lipscomb had not. Their first acquaintance was formed at a business meeting of a country congregation, near McMinnville, the meeting having been called to discuss some plans for the ensuring year. Elder Sewell had been attending school at Burrett college. Later, when he entered Franklin college, the two became further acquainted, both stopping often with William Lipscomb, one of the pillars of the college. Within a few years the two were associate editors on the Advocate, associates in the evangelistic field and co-laborers together in a new history of church development in Nashville and throughout Middle Tennessee.

Highly Charitable; Lipscomb, the Man

A single trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character that left upon every associate its indelible impression was his man-to-man attitude and personal frankness. As in manner he was composed and sedate, his conversation was earnest, direct and business-like. He was little inclined to the humorous; his conversation directed along other lines of sober and earnest thought. His straight-forward attitude of openhearted frankness begat the confidence that every word came from the heart. The man’s judgment he addressed; never his self-pride. Though ever ready to commend for a good dead done he did so on the ground that the doer of the act appreciated more its real worth than the more compliment paid. He never sought to praise unduly or magnify another’s virtues. He was too true to the man himself for that; too full of that sane, sober, openhearted frankness of man-to-man friendship.

Another trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character which along would have ranked him among men was his gentle firmness and indomitable courage of convictions. In preaching or writing upon any subject, or in any course he saw to be right, he was absolutely immovable at the hand of criticism or the wave of popular sentiment, while against the tidal wave of criticism, solitary and alone, if need be, he moved on, unswerving and undisturbed. He was cool, though aggressive. Though aggressive he was considerate and kind, and though considerate he was uncompromising. He was plain and direct without harshness, yet charitable and gentle without weakness. While liberal and kind-hearted–even tenderhearted, yet he sought not to allow the more even tenor of his way to restrain him from the advocacy of the right or from combatting error from the course he saw to be good.

Another trait of Elder Lipscomb in a marked degree, strong and contagious to those coming in contact with him, was his optimism. He was persevering and untiring, and in the face of discouraging consequences or even failure maintained an attitude of cheerful indifference. At apparent failure of any task undertaken he yet maintained aspirations of hope, or either took courage in the fact that his full duty was done in the undertaking.

Elder Lipscomb was among the men who are truly charitable. He delighted in helping the worthy needy and poor, standing ever ready to contribute of his means or his personal service. His largest single donation was that of sixty acres as a home for the Bible school. He contributed freely also to the Fanning Orphan School, and to church missionary work, home and foreign.

Elder Lipscomb was not oratorical, but impressivo and clear. The former he never sought to be; the latter needed not the effort. His bearing in the pulpit was as gentle and considerate as it was frank and unreserved, and as natural as the sunshine. His diction was clear and his motive to clearly establish his position with the arguments at hand. Further than this he relied on the merits of his cause and the honesty and intelligence of the mind addressed. For those who came in contact with him it appeared as but natural to say that he was among all men the most tolerant. To those who differed from him whether in private conversation or public controversy, he was ever charitable and never unpleasantly combative. Years ago, with denominations of other religious views, he engaged in many public oral religious debates and it was ever said of him by those who differed from him that he was ever kind and considerate. “See how much you can find to agree on,” he said, “and not how widely you can differ.” He possessed absolutely not a semblance of that blustering, bull-dozing, dominating, domineering air of driving or forcing an opinion on others.

Another characteristic highly marked in the  man was his unpretentious manner of doing things. He was bold, but retiring and unassuming. In his daily walk and manner there was never the least discernible effort on his part to appear striking or spectacular, and not the least indication of any susceptibility to praise or flatter in any form. In his entire nature was absolutely not a trace of anything that could have been interpreted as a desire for “vain glory.”

To him the realization of a good deed done was more than the more praises of men. Others he treated as on the same plane; flattery he knew not the use of, nor appeared he in the least susceptible to it. He sought no notoriety and never tried to inflate his undertakings by advertising. He cared not for front page position; he rather shrunk from publicity. Even previous publication of his biographical sketches did violence to his feelings.

Elder Lipscomb never despised the day of small things. He never counted the day lost that accomplished a good deed, whether toward the strong and the wealthy or the man of lowly station. In all his work, religious, editorial and otherwise, his paramount purpose was the upbuilding of the church and the furtherance of the gospel which he maintained as the only promised “power of God unto salvation,” and more to him than all else was the welfare of the cause for which eh gave his greatest labors. He loved to associate with the poor, and much, if not the greater part, of his preaching was to small audiences in destitute places. He preferred the quiet, unassuming walk, and his life was free and far from ostentation in any form. There was no desire for the outward show, no attempt at pomp, nod display, no form of ostentation in the life of David Lipscomb.

The funeral of Elder Lipscomb will be held from the South College Street Church of Christ this afternoon at 3:30 o’clock. The services will be conducted by Elders C. A. Moore, E. G. Sewell, J. C. McQuiddy and E. A. Elam.

The following nephews and friends will serve as pallbearers: David C. Lipscomb, Horace S. Lipscomb, H. Leo Boles, John E. Dunn, Sam H. Hall of Atlanta and John T. Lewis of Birmingham. Internment will be at Mt. Olivet.

 


Joel 3:18-21 — The Lord Dwells in Zion

May 24, 2014

Joel begins with lament over the famine and drought as Yahweh’s army threatens Jerusalem with desolation, but it ends with abundance and water-filled ravines as Egypt and Edom become a wilderness. This reversal happens because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

“In that day,” Joel announces, the fortunes of Israel are reversed. “That day” links Joel 3:18 with Joel 2:28 and 3:1. “That day” is an eschatological day. It may have some historical referent as Judah experiences renewal on occasion, but the picture is apocalyptic. The vision here is similar to Ezekiel’s new temple (Ezekiel 47) and Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision of Jerusalem (Zechariah 13:1; 14:1-8). “That day” is the day of new creation when “all flesh” is saturated with the Spirit of God; this is the day that has been in Joel’s “mind’s eye” since Joel 2:18. It is the day when God makes all things new.

That day includes both judgment and blessing.

Egypt and Edom, two traditional enemies of Israel like Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia (Joel 3:4), are judged. Egypt, with its Nile-based culture, and Edom will become a “desolation” or a “desolate wilderness” (both words derive from the same Hebrew root).  Joel previously used this language to contrast a desolate wilderness with the Garden of Eden (2:3). In other words, Egypt’s desolation is their uncreation, and consequently, like the northern army in Joel 2:20, Egypt is driven into “a parched and desolate land.” It is a land without water, without the Nile.

The lands surrounding Israel–north (Tyre, Sidon), southwest (Philisia), south (Egypt), and southeast (Edom)–will experience the “uncreation” that followed the exile from Eden in Genesis 3. God will set things right; Yahweh will execute justice on the earth. These nations had shed “innocent blood” and violently mistreated Israel, and consequently they will become like a people exiled from the Garden of Eden, that is, exiled from the presence of Yahweh.

That day is also a day of blessing. The wadis which thirst for water on the east side of Jerusalem will flow with water.  The rainwater that sometimes filled these wadis (or ravines) ultimately flowed into the Dead Sea, and they contained water only when it rained. That is why the vegetation along these wadis is sparse and includes only plants and trees that can survive without much water. Joel describes these wadis as the “Wadi of the Acacias” (or Shittim). Acacia trees grow in dry places. God promises, however, that even the dry places will be filled with water.

This water will flow from the temple of God, just like in the visions of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Israel will no longer depend on rain, but rather a river will flow from the throne of God. At present there is no river in Jerusalem; it is wholly dependent upon rain. But this vision, where water flows from God’s dwelling place, assures Israel that there will be no more dry places in Israel and no more fear of droughts. The once dry stream beds will flow with water from God’s presence.

The water God supplies will generate prosperity.  Just as the drought brought famine, so a plenteous water supply will bring abundance. The mountains, with their growing vines, will drip with “sweet wine,” and the hills, where the cattle graze, will “flow with milk.” The harvests will return and the animals will rejoice. No more drought, and therefore no more famine. Never again will Jerusalem suffer. God will provide because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

This is vision is dear to the heart of Christians as well. We know it through John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22.

When the new heavens and new earth appear, the new Jerusalem will descend upon the new earth. Within that city is a Garden where the tree of life grows by a river that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb. There is no temple there because the city is itself the temple. This is where God and the Lamb dwell.

There is no more chaos, no more night, no more threatening waters or armies, and there is no more death. God is the light of the city, and we will see God face-to-face.

On that day, the land will rejoice, and the animals will rejoice, and the people of God will serve their God because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

 


On Children, Baptism and David Lipscomb (1914)

May 23, 2014

While there are many variations along a continuum, credobaptists (that is, those who baptize believers) approach children within the faith community in two major ways. On the one hand there are the revivalists, but on the other hand there are those who emphasize nurture.

Revivalists believe that children within the faith community, at some point, become sinners (some might think they are born such or at least guilty of Adamic sin) when they reach an age of accountability (however that is defined). They believe children are objects of evangelism. So, many credobaptists encourage children to say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and those among Churches of Christ baptize only those who confess they are sinners. The latter are baptized in order to be saved, and they would (according to many) be lost without that baptism, though identifying the age at which they became lost is ambiguous (and often worrisome for parents).

Those who emphasize nurture believe children grow up in faith as part of a faith community. They are maturing disciples rather than lost sinners. They are baptized, then, in order to affirm their faith, own their discipleship, and receive God’s promised blessings. They are baptized because Jesus was baptized and because Jesus told them to be baptized.

I have previously argued in a couple of books on baptism, an article in the Christian Standard, and on this blog that the latter approach is the better one. I will not rehearse those arguments here, but I did want to point to a historical precedent within Churches of Christ.

David Lipscomb did not think one had to impose “a heavy weight of guilt” upon those who were “reared in the training and instruction of the Lord.” When those so nurtured want to be baptized, it is sufficient that they want to obey the Lord.

When one reared in the training and instruction of the Lord like Timothy desires to enter Christ, his case is divine inspiration to guide him. The little girl’s wish to be baptized because Jesus wanted her to be, is as much the direction of the Spirit of God as for the murderers of the Lord to ‘be baptized into the remission of sins.’ Those desirous to learn and do the will of God while children cannot be oppressed with a heavy weight of guilt, but find direction into the body of Christ, where all evils are banished and all blessings abound. Were one as faithful as the Son of God to be found, it would only be necessary that he be baptized to fulfill the will of God. [David Lipscomb, “A  Summary. No. 2,” Gospel Advocate 56 (1 January 1914), 11.]

I think Lipscomb offers some godly advice for parents, ministers, and youth leaders.


Nashville Tension — 1892 General Christian Missionary Convention

May 20, 2014

The Nashville Tennessean, in an article entitled “ALL DELIGHTED,” described the proceedings of the General Christian Missionary Convention’s 1892 annual meeting (October 21, 1892, p. 8). This was a highwater mark in the tension within the Stone-Campbell Movement (or, American Restoration Movement). The missionary societies held their convention in the capital of its opposition. There were three:  the domestic (American Christian Missionary Society), the foreign (Foreign Christian Missionary Society), and the Christian Women’s Board of Mission.  David Lipscomb and others considered this an affront to the good feelings of members who sincerely opposed the society on biblical grounds. The Convention appeared in the Gospel Advocate‘s backyard!

The Convention

The Convention was held at the Vine Street Christian Church, and “Rev. G. A. Lofton, the pastor of the Central Baptist Church” gave the Convention a “hearty greeting.” The attendees heard reports of mission work from around the world, including India, China (Edward F. Williams), Australia, England, and Japan (particularly C. E. Garst) among other nations.  Some of those who spoke included women as, for example, “Miss Judson, of Dunburg, Conn., a voluntary missionary to India.” “Miss Minnie Henley, of England,” was “preparing for missionary work in Africa” as a medical doctor and spoke to the convention about her plans. The meeting’s worship times included a solo by “Miss Kate Gillespie, of Nashville,” and Mrs. Garst sang a solo in Japanese as well. And The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement also had a prominent role in the meeting; their work was described as “working for purity everywhere, and for constitutional prohibition. Their purpose was to protect the home.”

The membership of the Convention counted twenty-eight states and five countries among its ranks. The Presidents of Drake and Bethany Colleges were present and addressed the assembly.

The Convention in 1892, through the arm of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, supported “104 missionaries–33 males, 23 females and 48 native helpers,” including China, India, Japan, Turkey, Scandinavia, and England.  And Miss Bonner, of Fayetteville, met with potential supporters from Tennessee after the close of the meeting to garner support for her Paris (France) mission. The Convention inspired her commitment.

On the closing night, C. C. Loos, the president of the Convention, remarked that this was the largest attendance in the Convention’s history and that Nashville had received them cordially and enthusiastically. There were full houses at practically every session. “What a grand brotherhood there was at Nashville!” The paper reported that the convention had been “remarkably quiet,” and that it “had made a profound impression on the city and the people for the missionary cause.”

The Loyal Opposition

However, not everyone in Nashville was happy. Indeed, the Convention–in many ways–was the last straw for David Lipscomb and others. They thought it was intrusive and simply unchristian manners to bring the convention to Nashville.  Moreover, the many ways in which women participated in the convention and their prominent role in the missionary work disturbed the hearts of Nashville’s conservatives. The way women were highlighted and promoted was a turning point for many.

They did not remain silent. Several leaders prepared a statement for the Convention, which was “introduced by C. M. Wilmeth.”  Here is the text of the statement:

“To the General Christian Missionary Convention, Assembled in Nashville, Tenn.

Dear Brethren in Christ:

Inasmuch as your body is now in session in this city purports to represent the churches of Christ, untrammeled by creeds, and there is a conspicuous absence of many myriads of brethren whose sentiments are voiced in such periodicals as the Gospel Advocate, Christian Leader, Octographic Review, Firm Foundation, Christian Messenger, Christian Preacher, Primitive Christian and Gospel Echo; and,

Inasmuch as your [sic] assembled in the State of Tennessee, which contains about 40,000 Christians who profess to practice the primitive order of things, and perhaps not more than 1,000 of these thoroughly sympathize with your organization; and,

Inasmuch as arguments and appeals have been made on the floor of your convention to win these brethren over to your ways, we respectfully submit to your august body this memorial.

1. That we, believe as we do, that all should be one in Christ, of the same mind and of the same judgment, speaking the same things and endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, cannot countenance the corruption of the pure speech of the Bible, and do deeply deplore the grievously divided state of the church; whereby brethren are embittered against each other, congregations are torn asunder and sections are arrayed one against another.

2. That, believing as we do, that whatsoever is not of faith is sin, we cannot conscientiously co-operate in the organization or workings of any missionary society, home or foreign, with officers unknown to the New Testament and terms of membership at variance with the spirit and genius of the Gospel, it being our firm and abiding conviction that in building up such societies we are pulling down that which our fathers labored to build up and are sapping the strength of the church for which Christ died.

3. That, believing as we do, that the scriptures furnish us unto all good works, and that preaching the gospel stands pre-eminent as a good work, we bodily affirm and earnestly contend that the Bible contains a divine system of evangelism, powerful enough to shake the Roman Empire in its day and perfect enough to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth; and we modestly submit that, putting this faith into practice; we have demonstrated in our [sic] this divine plan is effectual, in that without other organization the primitive gospel has been planted in this region, a mission among the Indians has been sustained for many years, a mission in Turkey has been established and the Volunteer Band in Japan supported.

4.  That we, in consideration of the aforesaid truth and facts, come before you with brotherly love and beseech you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you abandon these organizatoins that found no necessity or recognition in apostolic times, and that you concentrate your zeal and energies in the churches of God, under the direction of their heaven-appointed officers, which we all admit to be common and scriptural ground, thereby removing a cause of wide spread division and bringing about that union and co-0peration in which there is strength and which will enable us to make more rapid conquest of the earth for Christ, and to this end we present this memorial and for this consummation devoutly to be wished shall we ever pray.

C. M. Wilmeth
David Lipscomb
E. G. Sewell,
J. A. Harding,
M. C. Kurfees,
and others

 Comments on the Above

This statement by the “loyal opposition” represents a unifying force within what became known as the “Churches of Christ.” This united the Texas  (Firm Foundation), Indiana  (Octographic Review), and Tennessee Traditions (Gospel Advocate). The opposition to the missionary society staked out an identity for Churches of Christ.

They opposed the missionary society on several grounds.  Hermeneutically, there was no support for the human institution within the apostolic record.  Theologically, the society supplanted the local congregation as the highest organization of Christ’s body, which was charged with God’s mission. Practically, it was unnecessary (evangelism and missions happen without it through churches) and misdirects the energies of the body of Christ (supporting the society rather than focusing on the mission).

The appeal for unity is rooted in both the biblical text and in the common ground between the two parties in practically the same way that Alexander Campbell argued for unity through immersion. The common ground is that everyone agrees that mission through the local congregation is biblical (just as all agree immersion is baptism); so the church should do and unite upon what they all agree is biblical. If one loved unity and Scripture is sufficient, why not simply divest ourselves of all questionable practices and unite upon what everyone agrees is biblical?

Conclusion

Alas, rather than unity and mission, the 1892 Nashville Convention marked the beginnings of a clear organizational, ecclesiological, and theological divide between the “Christian Church” (ultimately Disciples of Christ) and the “Churches of Christ.”

This became apparent in Nashville itself. While previously congregations in Nashville were known as the “Christian Church,” by the late 1880s and 1890s congregations were increasingly distinguished as “Christian Church” and “Church of Christ.”  In 1887, according to the Daily American [April 10, 1887, p. 9), there were five congregations, each named “Christian Church” in Nashville (Church Street [800 members], Woodland [250], North Edgefield [150], North Nashville [250], and Gay Street [African American, 850]). Soon, however, the name “Church of Christ” began to appear with regularity as new congregations were planted. [The South College Street Church, planted in 1888, was the mother church for 35 other congregations in Nashville through the use of tent meetings during the first 20 years of its existence. See David Lipscomb, “South Nashville Church of Christ,” The Nashville American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.]

The distinction is apparent in this blurb in Daily American (Oct 2, 1892, p. 6) regarding the Green Street church which was a church plant of the South Nashville Church:

The non-Christian Church on Green street is nearing completion. It is located on the lot that was used by Elder John T. Poe recently with the tent meeting. When completed it will be used by the Filmore-street congregation and be known as the Green-street Church of Christ.

Thus the distinction between the Christian Church and the Church of Christ appears in Nashville.


Joel 3:1-17 — The Nations Held Accountable

May 16, 2014

In the first half, Joel called Israel to lament and repentance, to fasting and assembly (Joel 1:1-2:17). In the second half, Joel assures Israel that their gracious and compassionate God will “restore their fortunes.”

Yahweh promised a new creation where even the soil and animals as well as the people will rejoice (Joel 2:18-27). Yahweh promised to saturate “all flesh” with the Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). And in this section, Yahweh promises to hold the nations accountable for how they have treated Israel (Joel 3:1-17).

“In those days and at that time” is how the text continues the story of God’s renewal. The judgment of the nations–the judgment of evil itself (Joel 3:13)–is part of that future which renews creation and saturates “all flesh” with the Spirit. The timing, then, is dependent upon how the previous texts are interpreted.  I have suggested that they have both historical and an eschatological or apocalyptic meaning. In other words, while the text addresses the situation of the original audience, it also envisions a future reality. It addresses the nations that surround Judah, but it also anticipates (even promises) a day when all the nations will be judged in the context of a new heaven and a new earth (something analogous to Revelation 20:11-21:5).

Consequently, Joel addresses Tyre, Sidon and Philistia, and alludes to Egypt and Edom, but ultimately “all nations” are in view, including present ones. God will hold all nations accountable; Yahweh will put every one of them on trial and render a verdict. In essence, then, Joel assures his audience that God has noticed how the nations have treated Israel and that God will act in judgment against them, and this assurance also carries an eschatological assurance that one day–in the coming days or the last days–God will “restore the fortunes” of Israel.

To “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (3:1) is to end the exile. The phrase literally means “return the captivity.” Exact dating is unavailable for Joel. This potentially could be the end of the Assyrian or Babylonian exiles, but the names of those peoples are absent from Joel’s account. Most likely, Joel’s work appears in the post-exilic period (after the return from Babylonian exile), but the people of Israel are still awaiting the end of the exile.

They were still waiting under Roman oppression when John the Baptist appeared to announce a new Exodus (quoting Isaiah 4o), and Jesus suffered as the Servant who was wounded for the sake of Israel (Isaiah 53), and God put out the Spirit upon a restored (renewed) Israel (Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32). The appearance of Jesus the Messiah was the beginning of the end to Israel’s exile, and the appearance of the new heaven and new earth will end the cosmic exile that reaches back to when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden.

The Lawsuit (3:1-8)

As Dillard’s commentary on Joel recognizes (Minor Prophets [Baker]), this lawsuit proceeds according to form:

  • the accused are summoned (3:1-2a)
  • the accusations are read (3:2b-3)
  • the accused are interrogated (3:4a-b)
  • the verdict is announced (3:4c-8)

Yahweh gathers “all the nations” to the “Valley of Jehoshaphat.” While moderns sometimes refer to the Kidron Valley (what lies between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives) as the “Valley of Jehoshaphat,” there is no ancient identification of this valley. This is an unknown geographical reference, and perhaps we are not supposed to think geographically but metaphorically.  “Jehoshaphat” means “Yahweh  judges.” Yahweh brings the nations to a “valley of decision” (Joel 3:14) for “judgment” (from the verb shaphat). God has summoned the accused to hear a divine verdict.

The nations are summoned because they (1) scattered Israel among themselves (the diaspora), (2) divided the land God had given Israel among themselves (annexed to their own nations), and (3) sold the people into slavery for the sake of their own immoral pursuits (prostitutes and drunkenness). The nations are judged for what they have done to Israel, and in this judgment their unjust acts also judge how they have treated others as well.  When the nations scatter people (including refugees), annex land that does not belong to them (whether by fiat or violence), or empower the slave trade (including sex-trafficking), God holds nations accountable.

As an example–or, better, as a metaphor for all nations, Yahweh interrogates Tyre & Sidon as well as Philistia. These are historic, traditional enemies of Israel on their northwestern and southwestern borders. They have troubled Israel from the beginning to the time of Joel (presumably, post-exilic era; cf. Zechariah 9:1-8). The Phoenicians, particularly, were known for their slave-trading (Amos 1:6-9; Ezekiel 27:13). But who are they to Yahweh? They are not Yahweh’s heritage. Why, then, do they presume to act against Yahweh’s people so arrogantly and without fear?

Because of their injustices, God will turn their deeds back on them. As they enslaved Israel, so God will enslave them. Indeed, when Alexander the Great destroyed Tyre in 332 BCE, he enslaved 30,000 people, and the same happened to those living near Gaza (Philistia) at the time. In other words, God executes a lex talonis, that is, God does to them what they did to others. This is the verdict that God announces to the nations. This is divine justice–it permits evil to sow its own seeds of destruction.

The nations pursued violence and greed (silver, gold, and treasures), and enslaved the people of God. Yahweh, however, will not let such enslavement stand. The one who liberated Israel from Egypt will also liberate them from their forced exile.

The Oracle (3:9-17)

The prophet, given the dynamics of a trial, speaks for the court. Joel calls the opposing parties to battle.

To the Nations:  “Stir up the warriors!” (Joel 3:9)

To Yahweh:  “Bring down your warriors, O Lord!” (Joel 3:11)

The prophet summons each to battle (Joel 3:9-11). In one sense Yahweh gathers the nations (3:2), but in another sense they arouse themselves for battle (3:11). The nations will enlist everyone–even the weak must become warriors. Farmers must become warriors–using the language that reverses great prophetic texts that proclaim peace; they will turn their farming implements into weapons instead of the reverse (cf. Micah 4; Isaiah 2). This is a full scale effort–everyone, all the nations against Yahweh’s host.

And then Yahweh speaks (Joel 3:12-17). This section of the oracle begins and ends with the voice of Yahweh (note the first person singular).

The nations will stir–they will gather for battle, but there is no battle. It is a harvest of judgment as Yahweh “sit[s] to judge all the neighboring nations.” This is a courtroom scene rather than a battlefield. The valley is not a piece of geography, but the place where God decides the fate of the nations.

God’s judgment is uncreation–it is the reversal of creation itself. The nations may gather, but the ice will crack beneath their feet. The sun is darkened and the stars no longer give their light. The “heavens and the earth” (a la Genesis 1:1) shake! The creation convulses as the the nations fall before the voice of the Lord. This is apocalyptic language to describe the ultimate shaking of the nations on the day of Yahweh.

While the nations crumble, Zion and Jerusalem are a refuge for the people of Israel because it God’s home, God’s dwelling place. God dwells within Israel. The promise of the Exodus–that God would dwell with Israel–is fully realized when God dwells on the holy hill of Zion in Jerusalem and “strangers shall never again pass through it.”

“Never again”–similar to the promises in Joel 2:26-27–lingers in the ears of Israel. “Never again” is eschatological language among the prophets. It is the language of the new heavens and new earth in Isaiah 65:  “no more”…not again…will Israel hear the sound of weeping, or an infant live but a few days.

When that day comes–when the nations are judged, creation renewed, and the Spirit is fully poured out on God’s people–we will “know” that the Lord our God dwells among us.

In the new Jerusalem upon the new heavens and new earth, God will dwell with humanity. There will be no night there–nothing will be darkened.  There will be no chaos, no death. And there will be no temple since God and the Lamb will make their home in that new city.

 


David Lipscomb: A Sermon at the Penitentiary (1900)

May 14, 2014

This sermon by David Lipscomb appeared in The Nashville American (February 21, 1900, p. 5). I thought it was interesting to read what Lipscomb said to those incarcerated at the “State Prison.”

I thought the reference to “character” rather than status, place or position was a veiled reference to looking at the heart of a person (or as MLK put it “the content of their character”) rather than the color of their skin.

Lipscomb is also interested in obedience as it leads to transformation. We love God through obedience so that we might experience gradual transformation, and this includes the ordinances, of which assembling on the Lord’s Day is one. All of God’s commandments (ordinances, ways) are designed to transform us into the image of Christ.

Character makes a difference in life, and a transformed character is the goal of the Christian “religion,” which “rebinds” (restores) us to God.

Here is the text in full.

What the Lord Requires of Israel.

Sermon by Elder David Lipscomb at the State Prison.

The following sermon was preached Sunday by Elder David Lipscomb at the State penitentiary:

He read Deut. x., 12-13: “and now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all they soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statues which I commend thee this day for thy good.”

The speaker, said in part, that God through Moses spoke this to the Israelites, but that the principles upon which God deals with man are always the same. He is spoken of in this connection as the Lord God who is the God of Gods and Lord of Lords, a great God, a might and terrible God, who regardeth not person nor taketh reward.

He spoke of how difficult it was for men to treat impartially their fellow-man without regard to place or position, and not solely in respect to their characters. But this was characteristic of God, who regards not the persons of men whether they be in high or low stations, but as they are in their characters before him, whose judgment is righteous and impartial. He said the Christian religion was designed by its divine Author to lift mankind from sin and shame to the attainment and cultivation of the Christian character.

The speaker said, being once interrogated as to what is religion, at the time he was puzzled to give a satisfactory answer to his querist or even to himself. The world religion means a rebinding. As applied to Christianity it means to rebind man to his Maker, from whom he had been separated by disobedience. Man could only be rebound to God by returning in obedience to God, retracing, as it were, the steps which had separated him from God. This could be effected through Christ, whom God had sent into the world for this purpose. He only could restore man to union and harmony with God. We were taught in this text to “fear God,” but this fear meant not to dread God in terror and alarm, but to reverently regard his holy name, his word and his ordinances.

The speaker alluded to a common popular error which taught that every man should walk in his own ways, but that God commanded man to walk in God’s ways, and in all of them, not to add to nor diminish aught from them. He said to select such ways of God as pleased us and reject those which did not suit us was not to obey God at all. To do only what pleased us and reject other commandments of God was but to walk in our own way and not God’s. It was a fatal error. God often gave tests of faith by requiring us to do things not agreeable to us. This was well illustrated in the case of Abraham who was commanded to offer up Isaac, his only child of promise. God might have foreknown that Isaac would be spared, but Abraham did not. His faith was increased by this test. So every test of our faith should result in our good, to give us stronger faith.

This text also teaches us to love God. God said to the Jews that he loved even strangers. He would do them good. Love was intensely practical. God’s love is manifested in what god does. So our love for God must be manifested in obeying the commandments of God in what we do.

The speaker said all our love, fear and service of God was not to benefit God, but as taught in this connection was “for thy good.” God was omnipotent and needed not this help of man, as many vainly suppose.

He said to shirk or doge a duty to God did not cheat God, but him who avoided the duty, and it would soon be manifest by an incompetency that would put one to shame. The pupil who dodged his lessons at school did not cheat the teacher, but himself. Some church members chose the Lord’s day to visit the sick instead of going to the assembly as God required. They could visit the sick at other times. They, too, cheated themselves and not God.

It was the design of all our worship and service of God to make us more and more like God in spirit and character. In proof of this the speaker read and explained II Corinthians iii.18, in which it is said, “We all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord.” This image was spiritual. It was of gradual formation. It was the result of a constant adoration and worship of God as seen in the life and character of Jesus Christ. This growth of the inner or spiritual man to the image of Christ, though certain and sure, we were yet unconscious of it at any particular time. This was illustrated by the youth who, however anxious to grow to manhood, was never able to see the growth of one day. Measurements at longer intervals would clearly indicate growth. It was so in the Christian life.

This image was never perfected while in the flesh. Although the flesh became weaker day by day and the inward man stronger day by day, it was yet impossible for the weak eyes of mortality to behold Christ in his glorious perfections. Now, we could only see him, as it were, in a glass, in mere outline. A perfect vision of Christ to the eyes of flesh would be too blinding, as the disciples experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration or Saul saw on the road near Damascus. But we shall be strengthened to behold him in his glory. We are “now” the sons of God, but it doth not yet appear what we shall be.

The afflictions of life are the chatisements of a kind Father who feels more than his children the strokes of correction. The afflictions of life are brief and light, however severe in themselves, in comparison with the glory which shall be revealed in us. He will change this vile body and fashion it like unto his glorious body.

The gospel of the Son of God, by its transforming grace, can make the lowest and most degraded of earth to be the peer of the brightest angel that vies around the throne of God.

All were urged to make an earnest effort for a higher and nobler life.


David Lipscomb: South Nashville Churches of Christ (1906)

May 10, 2014

While doing some research in Nashville newspapers, I encountered this piece by David Lipscomb:  “South Nashville Church of Christ,” Daily American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.

I thought it was interesting for several reasons.

1.  It illustrates that Lipscomb thought church planting was the way to grow the kingdom.

2. It illustrates the use of tent meetings in the planting of churches, and how other churches supported the planting of those communities.

3. It illustrates the use of “lay” (my term) preachers, that is, bi-vocational ministers, in the growth and maturing of congregations.

4. It illustrates why Nashville has so many Churches of Christ. Lipscomb promoted the planting of many small congregations who managed their own affairs (did their own teaching, missions, evangelism, etc.) rather than consolidating into large congregations. Small but many was better than few but large, according to Lipscomb.

Here is the piece in full:

“South Nashville Church of Christ

BY ELDER DAVID LIPSCOMB

To the Editor of the American:

An item in The American, Monday morning, concerning the South Nashville Church of Christ and its work, is so full of mistakes that it is easier to write a new account than to correct it.

The South  College-street Church was first organized in its present house of worship eighteen years ago. After a few years of successful work, the Green Street, the Carroll Street, and the Flat Rock churches were begun by a number withdrawing from this church to do so. The old Bible School  Church, Highland avenue and West Nashville churches were formed largely by members from this church.

Since the formation of the church eighteen years ago nine or ten preachers have been developed in the church. Tents have been greatly used by the congregation in its work in reaching the non-church going and the people generally. A tent is sent, with a preacher, to hold a meeting, receive what contributions are offered, without asking any, report to the church, and what is lacking in these contributions to sustain the work is supplemented by the churches engaged in the work. Oftentimes the sending of the preacher and tent a few times will arouse such an interest in the place or in some neighboring church that they will support the meeting without cost to those sending, except for the use of the tent. Yet, if the tent had not been sent it is most probable nothing would have been done.

The first tent meeting was held in South Nashville by J. A. Haring, principal of Potter Bible College, of Bowling Green, Ky. He also held very successful meetings in East Nashville, out of which grew largely Foster-street Church.

For  four or five years past the South College-street Church, the old Bible School, the Tenth, West Nashville and Green-street churches have kept two or three tents at work. One has been kept almost constantly at work in and around Nashville. A church has been established on the Dickerson pike, and one at the New Shops within the last year. Churches have been established by the use of these tents at Monterey, Baxter, Erin, Dayton, Graysville, with others in Rutherford, Cannon, Warren and Montgomery counties, Tennessee; Trion and Atlanta, Ga.; Huntsville and Wilsonville, Ala.

Counting the churches formed out of the South Nashville Church, we count thirty-five congregations planted by this work, two of which have dissolved and united with other contiguous churches. There are eight or ten other mission points that promise churches at an early day. During the past summer over 500 persons were baptized through this work. During the last few years as many as 2,000 have been baptized.

Elder E. A. Moore, of South Nashville, has looked after the collecting and disbursing of funds. S. W. Morrow, of the old Bible School Church, has largely done the purchasing and managing of the tents. A number of churches established by the tent work have purchased tents, and become centers of operation for doing similar work around them. Dayton, East Tenn., and Trion, Ga., are examples of this. Other churches in West Tennessee, Arkansas, Canada and California have been moved by the example of this work to do likewise. Much of this work has been done by working men, who have, by conducting the worship, looking after the affairs of the church and studying the Bible, become good, efficient teachers of the word, while following their ordinary avocations for a living. They can more effectively reach their fellow-workmen than can those who rely on preaching as a  means of support. When a preacher can say to his congregation: “I know you are all tired with your day’s work, as I am and I will try to not weary you,” he touches a chord of sympathy in that audience that is worth more than learning, to lead them to good.

With the hours of labor per day the earnest working man can find time for study, and preparation, that will enable him to appear with credit before any audience. There are a number of such preachers in Nashville. It has not been the policy of the South College-street Church to encourage the collecting of a large membership in one body. This with a fine house may flatter the preacher and attract numbers, but to scatter the large congregations into a number of worshipping bodies and leave them greatly to depend on themselves, will call out the activities, develop the talent, give practical experience to the religious lives of the masses of the people, and give the most reliable class of religious people to be found in any community.


Joel 2:28-32 — I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

May 7, 2014

Joel’s lament liturgy in the first half of the book envisioned the devastation of Israel by a locust plague (or perhaps an invading army). That impending disaster also represented a future apocalyptic disaster. Joel is working at two levels–the immediate moment but also a future cataclysm.

Israel’s response to such news, as with all other human beings, is to lament. The prophet calls them to assemble, repent, and pray. They cry out to the Lord because they know Yahweh is gracious and compassionate. Yahweh will save those who call on the name of the Lord.

In the second half of Joel, Yahweh responds to the prayers of the people. Yahweh promises a fruitful land (Joel 2:18-27), a new Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), and a judgment of hostile forces (3:1-19). The promised land includes not only a renewal of Israel’s Edenic life in the land (a restoration of Israel) but also a new creation itself (a renewal of Eden).  That same dual aspect is present also in the promise of a new Spirit.

Poured Out Spirit

Concomitant with the renewal of the land is the pouring out of the Spirit. While the language is sequential, they are nevertheless tied together. God’s new creation is saturated with the Spirit. The restoration of Israel–when it is fully restored–will include the presence of God’s Spirit among the people.

The significance of this text is difficult to overestimate. It stands in stark contrast with Numbers 11 where in the face of tremendous burdens God helps Moses by equipping seventy elders (“old men”) with the Spirit. Though Joshua is puzzled by this, Moses hopes that a time would come when “all” Yahweh’s “people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). This is that moment! Joel envisions a time when God will answer Moses’s prayer.

Numbers 11:24-25

Joel 2:28-29

Seventy

All

Prophesy

Prophesy

Men

Men and Women

Old

Old and Young

Free

Free and Slave

The Spirit of God will rest upon “all flesh,” and so fully led by the Spirit that everyone will “dream dreams,” “see visions,” and “prophesy.” This language means that everyone will experience God’s life as they all see the world through God’s vision. The Spirit–poured out on “all flesh–will saturate the community of God, and the Spirit will give life, power, and vision to “all flesh.”

This is a radical vision. Israel’s life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable “exceptions” (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way:  all, old/young, male/female, and free/slave. The young, enslaved, and female will now also fully experience the Spirit. God will live in and through “all” rather than only through seventy older free males.

Apocalyptic Vision

When would this happen? When would God pour out the Spirit upon all flesh?

The text locates this outpouring “after” the emergence of Edenic Israel in Joel 2:18-27, that is, after the restoration of Israel. Within the context of Joel this is difficult to identify with any historical specificity.

If we regard Joel as a liturgical lament, then the divine response of (1) renewed land, (2) renewed [Spirit-led] people, and (3) divine judgment is something happens after Israel’s repentance (their calling on the Lord). It is a general liturgical form, but it also has an apocalyptic meaning and intent.

Apocalyptic language appears in Joel 2:30-31. This describes a cosmic shake-up. It is the appearance of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” God, in effect, uncreates! In other words, what Joel describes is a disturbance that resembles the undoing of creation itself. The sun, for example, turns into the darkness. The creation (heavens and earth) revert back to chaos. Darkness, fire, and blood fill the creation rather than light and life.

In that great cataclysmic moment God will pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, and those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A remnant will survive the uncreation.

But what exactly are we talking about?

The Spirit and the Church

Luke narrates the story of Jesus and the church in such a way that the appearance of Jesus is the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. Indeed, the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost (the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest) is the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32a in Acts 2:17-21, and identifies the events of that day as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is that,” Peter says.

Exalted at the right hand of the Father, the resurrected Messiah received the promised Spirit from the Father and the Messiah poured out the Spirit upon restored Israel, which begins with the one hundred and twenty gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 1. The Spirit saturates and renews Israel. And this is only the beginning.

Luke tells the story of how renewed Israel expanded to include the Gentiles (“all flesh”) and how women prophesied in this new community (Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9). The Book of Acts is not so much the “acts of the apostles” as it is the “acts of the Holy Spirit” who leads and guides the church in its mission as a witness among the nations and the full inclusion of women within the community. The inclusion of women is present among the one hundred and twenty in Acts 1:14, and their presence in the community is consistently highlighted in Acts (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36-39; 16:13; 17:4, 12). In the light of this emphasis, Luke’s seeming aside about Philip’s daughters (prophetesses) is particularly significant. Joel’s prophecy is progressively realized within the church.

Paul quotes Joel 2:32a in support of the inclusion of the Gentiles. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” Paul writes, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Moreover, Paul’s inclusion of women in Galatians 3:28 also seems to echo Joel 2:28-29. The children of God include Jews and Gentiles, males and females, and slave and free. They are all heirs of Abraham, heirs of the new creation. They are, as the renewed Israel of God, the new creation (Galatians 6:15-16).

Galatians 3:26-28

Joel 2:28-29

Jew/Greek

All Flesh

Male/Female as Children of God

Sons/Daughters

Free/Slave

Free/Slave

These children of Abraham are the people into whose hearts God has sent the Spirit (Galatians 4:6). They have received the promised Spirit. Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave, this new creation is indwelt by and saturated with God’s Spirit.  The effect is that some are gifted with prophecy, including both men and women, Jew and Greek, and slave and free.

The heart of Joel’s vision of restored Israel is that God’s Spirit will empower women as well as men, slaves as well as the free, the young as well as the old, to prophesy. The community, in terms of its prophetic leadership and inSpirited experience, will “no longer” (to use Paul’s phrase in Galatians 3:28) be male, free, and Jewish. Rather, female prophets as well as enslaved and youthful ones will lead the people of God through their prophetic work.

Joel’s vision, as applied by Peter and echoed by Paul, still speaks to the church, and calls the church to lean ever more heavily into the new creation that the Spirit is working among us.

New Creation and the Spirit of God

But there is more. Joel’s vision is not limited to the story of the church working its way through history as new creation emerges within God’s ongoing story with creation. Rather, it speaks to the fuller reality that is yet to appear–the creation of the new heavens and the new earth itself.

Just as Joel 2:18-27 anticipates a renewed Eden upon a new heaven and new earth (a new creation), so Joel 2:28-32 anticipates a pneumatic (Spiritual) existence.

A Spiritual (pneumatic) existence? Yes, but let me explain.

At present the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is busily transforming us into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:18-20). In this sense we are already pneumatic (Spiritual) people, that is, we are people whose inner life is animated and renewed by the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18) even though our outer life–our physical bodies–are decaying day by day.

Pneumatic existence, however, is not simply for the soul. God intends it for our bodies as well. Consequently, the Spirit who now indwells us will also raise our mortal bodies from the grave and give them immortal life (cf. Romans 8:11,23). Paul describes the resurrection body as a “spiritual” (pneumatic) body. It is a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit; it is immortal life in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57).

The final act of new creation–when new creation fully emerges as God renews heaven and earth–is the resurrection of our bodies, and we will live a pneumatic existence in a new heaven and new earth. When the Spirit is fully poured out, our inner and outer lives will be fully conformed to the inner and outer life of Jesus the Messiah, our resurrected Lord.  Our souls will be perfected by the Spirit so that we are conformed to the image of the Son, and our bodies will be conformed to the image of the Son’s resurrected body. We will be like the resurrected Messiah–fully led, empowered and animated by the Spirit of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 


Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.

 


Joel 2:18-27 — The Promise of New Creation

April 23, 2014

Joel’s propehtic liturgy previously announced the coming of the great “day of the Lord,” which functions at multiple levels. On the one hand, it envisions any impending disaster that is coming upon Israel–whether it is a locust plague, an invading army, or some other communal crisis. On the other hand, it describes an apocalyptic event that will transform human and planetary existence. I think we must read Joel at both levels–the liturgy responds to present crises but also anticipates a future “day of the Lord.”

Joel 1:2-2:11 described a national disaster that prefigured the “day of the Lord.” In the light of such impending doom, Joel implored Israel to return by assembling for a communal fast and prayer (Joel 2:12-17). This is the turning point in Joel’s iturgy. The second half of Joel turns to thanksgiving for and the joyful anticipation of the future. The prophet sees new creation (2:18-27), spiritual renewal (2:28-32), and the defeat of all hostile powers (3:1-21) in Israel’s future.

Just like the “day of the Lord,” these promises function at two levels. They are present realities in the life of Israel that anticipate a future. However or whenever Israel experienced these promises in their history, they also yearned for the day of their full realization. Their present experience of renewal promised a fuller (even eschatological) future. In this sense, Joel’s language is both historical and apocalyptic; it addresses the present and the future.

The liturgy of lament, then, moves to a liturgy of thanksgiving, and the thanksgiving is rooted in God’s promises, that is, what God will do (Joel 2:18-27). The thanksgiving (2:21-24) is the centerpiece of the liturgy, but it is surrounded by a word of grace about God’s gracious and wondrous mighty acts.

A.  The Lord Removes the Dangers (2:18-20)
B.  The Land, Animals and People Rejoice (2:21-24)
A.  The Lord Supplies Israel (21:25-27).

Yahweh’s first concern is Israel’s life in the land or, more broadly, human existence on the earth.  God is “jealous,” and consequently “compassionate,” for the land and its people. Both the land and people belong to God; they are God’s own possession. God acts out of deep emotion for the sake of the land and the people.

Yahweh’s mercy yields a crop in the land (“grain, wine, and oil”) and removes the shame of the people. God drives the invading army into the sea and wasteland, and the stench of the dead locusts reminds Israel that God has delivered them from the disaster.

In other words, God renews the land and brings it peace. God renews Eden in Israel. What was once a “Garden of Eden” (2:3) has become so again. God renews the promise of creation itself, as well as the promise to Israel, that humanity would dwell with God in the land and thrive in harmony with creation. This renewed promise means that all creation celebrates with thanksgiving.

Consequently, God addresses the

soil (2:21)
animals (2:22)
children of Zion (2:23-24)

Fear has disappeared and joy has emerged within the renewed creation. “Do not fear, O soil…you animals of the field.” The soil and animals will “be glad and rejoice”  because the soil will no longer thirst and the animals will no longer starve. God ends the drought. As a result, the trees bear fruit, the vines and figs “give their full yield,” and grain, wine, and oil are abundant. Creation itself, as well as Israel, will rejoice in God’s renewal.

In effect, God renews covenant with both creation and Israel by sending the early and latter rains “as before.” The autumn (early) rains prepare the ground for planting, and the spring (latter) rains enable a rich harvest (cf. Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; James 5:7). This was the planting cycle of the land of Canaan, which is still the case today. God covenanted with Israel that the rains would come in their Eden as long as they loved their God, but should they love other gods, Yahweh would shut off the rain (Deuteronomy 11:17; 28:12, 24). The seasonal rains give life to the land, food for the animals, and prosperity to Israel.

This renewal, Yahweh promises, will bring peace to Israel. The verb, translated “repay” by the NRSV, is the verb form of the noun shalom. As in Eden, God will bring peace to the land; God will “restore” (ESV) the years of plenty that were lost in the locust years, the days of the invading army. God will make the land whole once again.

Israel, at peace in a restored Eden, will “eat in plenty and be satisfied,” and “praise the name of the Lord your God” because of what God has done. They will know (Joel 2:27):

that I am in the midst of Israel (divine presence),
and that I am the Lord your God (covenantal relationship)
and there is none else (monotheism).

This knowledge is no mere cognition; it is intimacy. God’s presence within Israel is like God’s presence in Eden, which is God’s presence in the Temple in the midst of Israel. This presence is covenantal, that is, Israel lives in relationship with God. Yahweh is their God and they are Yahweh’s people.  But this is not one God among others. Rather, there is no other God. Yahweh alone is God. This is the heart of Israel’s faith: Yahweh, their God and the only God, dwelling in their midst. Israel is a new Eden, and God lives and walks among them.

The result is that “my people shall never again be put to shame”–and this line is repeated twice in Joel 2:26-27.

But when did that happen? Has it happened yet? It might be hyperbole, but it also might be a kind of already/not yet reality.  Israel has experienced moments of renewal, but they still await the fullness of the promise. There will come a time when Israel will “never again be put to shame,” and this is the hope of God’s people.

A day will come when Israel will live unashamed within the creation, just as Adam and Eve lived in the garden. It is a day when creation itself will rejoice and be freed from the fear of drought and starvation. It is a day when God will dwell in the midst of Israel as God makes a home within the creation. That day is the day when heaven and earth itself will made new, and God and the Lamb will make their home in the new Jerusalem.


Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014.  It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.

However, you can judge for yourself.  They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?

 


Joel 2:12-17 — Assemble and Pray

April 17, 2014

Sometimes assembly is more important than a wedding night.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is the message of Joel 2:12-17. The impending disaster, the day of the Lord, created an urgency within Israel that prioritized the gathering of God’s people over wedding celebrations. A penitent people, according to Joel, should assemble to pray for Yahweh’s mercy, and it must be a corporate act rather than the isolated prayers of scattered individuals.

There is something about corporate prayer that is more important than individual prayer.

The first part of the text is the prophetic call to “return” to God (Joel 2:12-14), and the second half rouses the people to prayerful assembly (Joel 2:15-17). The first half invites Israel to return, and the second summons Israel to assemble as a witness to their return. To assemble, in this context, is to return to God with broken and contrite hearts.

The call comes with the voice of Yahweh, “Return to me with all your heart!” And then it comes with the voice of the prophet, “Return to the Lord, your God.” The double use of “return” (a metaphor for repentance) highlights the reality that Israel had turned away from God, and this is the cause of divine judgment. Joel, however, never identifies any particular sin among the people. Instead, the prophet offers a liturgical form for all sorts of occasions (which is whole book itself, especially Joel 1-2).

Summon the People to Lamentation.
Call the People to Return.
Gather the People in Assembly.
Lead the People in Prayer.
Testify to People about Hope.
Envision a Future for the People.

But first the people must “return,” and return with their “whole heart.” They must “tear” their “hearts” and not just their clothing. Their return must be heart-based rather than an external, ritualistic show. Their lament and fasts must arise from a contrite and broken heart. An external demonstration is not sufficient. Worship–through assembling, fasting, and lamenting–must arise from the heart or it is worthless.

Why should Israel even try? Because of who God is. They seek God because they confess that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” They return to God for the same reason Jonah ran away to Tarshish (Jonah 4:2), that is, because God loves, forgives, and renews. This is Israel’s “God Creed.” First revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), it is pervasive in Israel’s preaching and liturgy (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 145:8). Israel repents because they know Yahweh is merciful and loyal.

However, like the Ninevehites (Jonah 3:9), Israel must not presume upon God’s mercy. “Who knows,” the prophet asks, “whether [Yahweh] will not turn and relent”? Israel’s repentance does not put God in a box; it does not manipulate God or force God into a corner. However God responds to Israel’s “return,” it is God’s decision or else the forgiveness is not gracious.

But the hope is that God will relent, that is, that God would have a change of mind. The term does not mean “repent” as if there is sorrow for sin or evil intent. Rather, in the light of repentance, God may chose an alternative course of action. This is the dynamic that Moses experienced in Exodus 32 where Moses seemingly persuaded God to continue with Israel rather than starting over with Moses. God is dynamically engaged with the creation. God responds Israel’s choices.

The summons comes in a series of imperatives (eight in all).

Blow the trumpet!
Sanctify a fast!
Call a solemn assembly!
Gather the people!
Sanctify the congregation!
Assemble the aged!
Gather the children!
Leave the bridal chamber!

Assembly language piles up in the text. The Shofar (rams’ horn) trumpet signals the time of assembly (cf. Leviticus 25:9; Jeremiah 4:5; even the assembly of all who live upon the earth in Isaiah 18:3). “Call a solemn assembly” is repeated from Joel 1:14, and this language describes other assemblies in Israel (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:9; Nehemiah 8:18). Gathering the people, like gathering in the harvest or gathering armies for battle, evokes a picture of heaping up people in one place. It recalls earlier gatherings in Israel as when Joshua gathered the people at Shechem (Joshua 24:1; cf. Psalms 47:9; 50:5; Nehemiah 9:1; 1 Chronicles 23:2). “Assemble” is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible for the assembling before the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:20; 48:14), and often refers to how God will assemble or gather together Israel with compassion and renewal (cf. Isaiah 54:7; 56:8; Ezekiel 11:17; Micah 2:12, 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19, 20), including gathering the nations with Israel (Isaiah 66:18).

Everyone is called to the assembly! From young (even infants) to the aged. Nothing should hinder their attendance. Even the wedding night or the wedding should not prevent attendance. Stop the honeymoon! All Israel  must assemble! The urgency of this assembly as a way returning to God in the face of impending disaster demands everyone’s presence.

What happens at this assembly?  Israel fasts, mourns, and weeps. They approach the presence of God at the temple, and through the priests Israel cries out to God. The priests, as intercessors and mediators between God and the people, stand between the temple and its altar–between the presence of God and the sacrifices. They speak for the people and on behalf of the people. They make their case before God; they make an argument.

The priestly prayer in Joel 2:17 is a plea for mercy, and the plea is made on the basis of God’s reputation among the nations (like Moses did in Exodus 32) and on the the ground that Israel’s is God’s heritage. The priests remind God that God’s kingdom is tied to Israel. This is God’s promise to the world itself and so Israel as the heritage of God is the hope of the world. Don’t, they plead, destroy your heritage! The priests argue on the basis of God’s glorious reputation and on the basis of God’s own inheritance within the creation. Their cry for mercy is both dependance on God’s graciousness and a call for God to remain true to God’s own intent for the world.

Through the priests, the assembly confesses, laments, and petitions. The people, gathered at the temple to pray, return to God and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

Sometimes assembly is more important than any other human activity.


Joel 2:1-11 — Eden Despoiled

April 9, 2014

The “day of Yahweh,” or the “day of the Lord,” reverses creation. Through creation God subdued the chaos and gave it boundaries, but divine judgment releases chaos. The “day of Yahweh” uncreates. Eden is despoiled. Or, more specifically in the context of Joel, Israel is threatened with the prospect that the land flowing with milk and honey–the promised land–will turn into a wasteland.

The situation, similar to chapter one, is that some kind of an army is approaching Israel. Some think it is a literal army, such as the Babylonians who besieged Jerusalem in 586 BCE and others think it is another locust plague (perhaps an extension of the one described in chapter one). Most probably, the army–described as a locust swarm–is a metaphor for divine judgment, which is a “day of the Lord” that comes in various forms. It may or may not involve a literal army, but may simply represent divine discipline or judgment. The army is Yahweh’s army; Yahweh rides at the head of this host. Whether literal or metaphorical, the discipline comes from Yahweh.

Dillard (modifying a proposal by Keller) suggests that Joel 2:1-11 has a chiastic structure, and this is particularly illuminating (The Minor Prophets, ed. McComiskey,p. 278).

A. The day of the Lord nears (2:1-2a).

B. Arrival of the army (2:2b).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:3).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:4-6).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:7-9).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:10).

B. Yahweh’s army (2:11a).

A. The day of the Lord (2:11b).

The chiasm contains four elements: (1) the event is identified as the day of Yahweh, (2) it is described as an army, (3) the result of the invasion is chaos (uncreation), and (4) the army is unstoppable.

In Joel 2:4-9 it is as if someone is watching the army approach from the city walls. They see the war-horses appear on the surrounding mountains, they hear the rumble of the chariots, and they watch the army trample everything in its path like a fire burning through stubble.  Fear fills the city as they watch disciplined warriors stay in formation during their advance and march over defending armies. The soldiers leap up onto the walls and enter homes. Like locusts, they infect every part of the city.

The terror that accompanies the army’s movements is heightened by the fact that this is Yahweh’s army. Yahweh stands at the head of this army, and it is the voice of Yahweh that commands it. This is the Lord’s host, and it is a moment in history when God has decided to act. It is a day when God has decided to uncreate what God created.

The “day of Yahweh” causes the inhabitants–as well as the earth itself–to tremble or quake. It is a day when darkness dawns rather than light (Joel 2:2). The descent of darkness upon Israel reminds them of other great events in its history, including darkness upon Egypt in Exodus 10:22. This darkness, however, is theophanic language; it is the appearance of Yahweh for judgment against a sinful nation (only Zephaniah 1:15 uses the four terms for darkness in this text in exactly the same order). Darkness is often associated with divine appearances or theophanies (cf. Exodus 20:18, 21; Deuteronomy 4:11), and here–like the locust in Egypt in Exodus 10:14–the day is described in hyperbole in order to accentuate its significance. Israel will remember this moment of judgment just like they remember the Exodus except this memory will fill them with fear rather than joy.

Uncreation reverses God’s intent in creation. The images of uncreation are startling. The land of Israel is turned from the “garden of Eden” into a “desolate wilderness.” In Genesis 1-2 God creates Eden out of a formless void that was wrapped in darkness (Genesis 1:2). Eden emerged from that chaos as a divine sanctuary in which humanity could rest with God.

When God created Israel, they were given a land that was like Eden itself. God dwelt among them, rested with them in the land, and protected Israel from even the wild animals. The rhythm of the rainy seasons would provide food, and Israel would live at peace with its neighbors. But Israel did not live by the covenant, and now in Joel (as at other times in its history; cf. Jeremiah 4:22-26) God disciplines them. God despoils Eden. Israel will become a “desolate wasteland.”

Human sin has cosmic ramifications, and the day of the Yahweh causes the whole cosmos to tremble before the Lord. Whereas God placed the sun, moon, and stars as lights in the skin in Genesis 1, during the day of the Lord their lights are extinguished. Darkness will reign upon the earth. Chaos will govern the heavens and earth.

Through creation God orders the chaos, but sin unfetters chaos. Indeed, God even comes at the head of the chaos to discipline and punish those who choose chaos over God’s good order. When humanity lives in covenant with God, order, peace, and tranquility prevail. But when humanity chooses a different agenda–one where they seek their own interests–Eden is despoiled, and God’s good creation is enveloped in darkness.

Israel repeated the story of the original couple. Just as Genesis 3 opened the floodgates of chaos, so Israel’s sin did as well.  And we still do.

The day of the Lord will come again…and again…and again, until that day when God will create anew and fill the earth with the glory for which the creation was intended.

 

 

 


Joel 1:15-20 — Even Creation Groans

April 8, 2014

After opening with a call for lamentation, the text presents two laments (1:15-18 and 1:19-20). The first laments the day, and the second cries out to Yahweh. The first weeps over the  devastation of the land and the suffering of the livestock. In the second both the people and the animals cry out to God because both the pastures and the waters have dried up.

Creation itself laments, not just Israel! Humanity and creation lament together.

First Lament. The first word in Joel 1:15 is “Alas!” (‘ahah). A cry of anguish, it appears in other troubled circumstances (Joshua 7:7; Judges 6:22; 2 Kings 3:10; Jeremiah 4:10; 14:13; Ezekiel 11:13; 20:49). The present crisis–whatever it is–is a day of despair and loss. “Alas” is the voice of lament.

Given the losses that surround them, the people recognize that the day of Yahweh is coming, even near at hand. The “day of Yahweh,” which appears in Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14, is paralleled with “destruction” that comes from the “Almighty.” The “day of Yahweh” is judgment day, and it appears throughout Israel’s history and other nations as moments of divine refinement, discipline, and punishment. It does not necessarily refer to a specific day, but to those times in history where God moved within history to accomplish the divine purpose. In this context, Israel laments the coming “day of Yahweh” in their midst.

The lament is communal. The first person plurals (“our eyes” and “our God” in Joel 1:16) reflect this. The very place where Israel gathered before Yahweh–at the temple–is destitute. Its storehouses and granaries are empty because the fields have yielded no food. As a result, there is no joy in the courts of the temple. The temple has become a place of lament rather than celebration.

The lament is also cosmic. Creation is the subject of verbs in Joel 1:18. The beasts “groan,” the cattle “wander about,” and the sheep “are dazed.” The animals mourn just as Israel groaned in Egypt (Exodus 2:23) or like women in childbirth (Jeremiah 22:23). The cattle are, more literally, perplexed or confused. The sheep are desolate or wronged. The sheep suffer because of the guilt of others.

This cosmic groaning uses the language of breaking hearts and bitter grief (cf. Ezekiel 21:6). The moaning of the animals becomes their prayer to the Creator to whom they look for everything (cf. Psalm 104). When Israel sins, the land and its animals suffer; when humanity sins, creation suffers. As Paul notes, creation itself groans for liberation (Romans 8:18-23), and creation mourns its own devastation.

Second Lament. The first word in Joel 1:19 is “to you” (that is, Yahweh) to whom the prophet addresses the lament. The prophet here intercedes for the people as Joel speaks in the first person (“I”). He cries out (kara’) to Yahweh. While the verb is a general one (normally translated “call”), the context gives it a more distressful meaning. The verb regularly appears in lament Psalms (cf. Psalm 3:4; 18:6; 22:2; 27:7; 30:8; 42:7; 57:2; 69:3; 86:3, 5, 7; 88:9). The verb expresses utter dependance; there is no one else to whom the prophet can turn.

Like the first lament, the second also gives voice to creation, this time the beasts of the field or wild animals (same word as in Joel 1:18). All creation is affected, not just the domesticated livestock of Joel 1:18. The wild animals “long for” God, just as the deer longs for water and humanity longs for God in Psalm 42:2. The verb is from the same root as the Hebrew word for “bed,” so that it represents a desire for intimacy or relationship. The land’s chaos bespeaks a disruption of the communion between the creation and its Creator.

Fire, rather than locust, is the cause of this devastation. Perhaps fire results from stripped plants and drought caused by locusts, or perhaps it is another metaphor (in addition to the locust) for the disaster that has come upon the land. Whatever the case, it is not only the crops that are lost, but the pastures and trees, and the sources of water are also dried up.

Lament is personal, communal, and cosmic. When the earth is devastated because humanity fails to live in ways for which we were designed (that is, to image God in the world), the whole cosmos groans. Creation, like humanity, looks to God for the good things of life, but it also, like humanity, laments when life is frustrated. Like us, creation groans.

Humans have the power to make creation weep!


Joel 1:1-14 — A Call for Lamentation

April 4, 2014

Whether Joel calls for lament in a specific historical situation or provides a liturgical frame for communal lament (or both!), the opening calls the people of God to cry out to God as they weep and wail in their despair.

There are times to lament, and the people of God need the regular rhythms of lament and hope to endure their tragedies, to seek forgiveness for their sins, and to implore Yahweh for justice. Whatever the circumstance here, Joel invites Israel to weep (bacah; 1:5), howl (yalal; 1:5, 11, 13), mourn (‘abal; 1:9), lament (saphad; 1:13), and cry out (za’ak; 1:14).

The first imperative, however, is “hear” or “listen.” The elders (city leaders) and the inhabitants of the land (those who “dwell” in the land) are told to pay attention and notice what is happening among them. The moment has significance. It is something they will tell their children and their children.

Some may read the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?,” as a wholly unique event. But perhaps it is hyperbole to highlight the importance of the moment. Israel finds itself in a lamentable circumstance, one of considerable consequence. As a liturgical document, this may not refer to any specific moment but rather anticipates those moments in a people’s history that appear with some regularity. The United States remembers, for example, Pearl Harbor, the death of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. The invitation, then, does not so much announce a unique event as it emphasizes the depth of the lament occasioned by the circumstance, whatever it may be.

In this case, Joel identifies the occasion as a locust plague. In the ancient world, and up until very recent history, locust swarms devastated huge tracts of land. Locust devour everything and leave nothing in their wake. Famine, disease, and poverty follow.

Interpreters differ on how to understand Joel’s use of the plague. Some think it is a metaphor for an invading army (e.g., Babylonians or some other power). Others think it is a literal locust plague. Still others believe the locust function as a metaphor for weighty moments of lament. In other words, if Joel functions as a lament liturgy, the locust plague is a figure for every tragedy that might devastate a nation. Whatever the case may be, lament is the primary concern.

Lament is described in several ways.

  • Wine-makers and drinkers lament the loss of the vines and the lack of new wine (1:5).
  • The priests mourn the lack of crops and vines that would provide drink offerings and grain offerings at the temple (1:9, 13).
  • The farmers, who till the soil and dress the vines, weep over the loss of their crops (1:11).

Nothing is left. There are no resources for a prosperous life; there are no gifts for the temple.  Everything is dried up. Life has lost its joy; it has dried up just like the vines, fruits, and trees (1:12). The lament is so great it is compared to a bride who never had the opportunity to enjoy her husband (1:8); she remains a virgin and her husband is dead.

There is reason to lament.

Religious leaders–the priests–must “consecrate a fast” in a “solemn assembly” (1:14). They are to gather the people–both elders and those who dwell in the land–at the temple, and there the whole assembly will “cry out to Yahweh.” Joel opened his oracle by addressing the “elders and inhabitants of the land,” and the call to lament concludes with the “elders and inhabitants of the land” crying out to God. The whole community gathers to lament.

The call to lament involves several elements which are important for our own practices today:

  1. Take note of the significance of the moment. We should not look past our pain too quickly nor underestimate the importance of our tragedies and hurts.
  2. Take account of the devastation involved that occasion the lament. We should notice the pain people endure and how widespread the pain is.
  3. Gather in a solemn assembly; covenant to fast as an expression of lamentation. We do not have to weep alone. Rather, we should encourage communal forms of lament that give voice to our hurt.
  4. Cry out to Yahweh. We may weep over our losses, but we also seek God in those moments. We address God with our needs; we intercede for ourselves and others. We voice our distress to God.

Lament is a common human experience. It is not about whining or even complaining, but weeping over our hurts, our sins, and the brokenness that fills the world. Rather than isolate, we gather. Rather than silence, we speak. We lament, and God listens.


On Reading the Prophet Joel: A Lament Liturgy

April 2, 2014

The prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God,” taught Judah to lament and hope. His message announces the coming “day of the Lord,” which entails both judgment–for the impenitent among God’s people and among the nations–and the renewal of God’s vision for the reign of God in the world. Lament and hope.

No one really knows when Joel prophesied or when the literary work that bears his name was written. Scholars have postulated every era of Israel’s history after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. Some think he was a contemporary of Elijah or Elisha, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Zechariah, or even after Malachi. The temple stands, but no kings are mentioned. Some enemies are identified, but none of them are the superpowers Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. We don’t have many clues.

The words of the prophet Joel come to us undated and without any specific historical context. But perhaps that is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is unusual in some ways but perhaps intentional, that is, its lack of specificity has a purpose.

The clue to this ambiguity is the topic itself: lament and hope. For example, the Psalms often lack historical context, but this is often a good thing. It means the language of the Psalms may fit any number of circumstances; it is not limited to the particulars of a specific moment in history or a narrow experience. Instead, the Psalm is open-ended in its application. It can be used over and over again in similar circumstances.

Joel fits this pattern.  Joel is a poetic, liturgical lament. In the opening two chapters, the prophet calls the people together to lament (1:5, 8; 2:12-14), fast (1:13-14; 2:15-16), and wait for the day of the Lord (1:15; 2:17). Hope, then, is located in God’s gracious response to such lament (2:18. 23, 28-29; 3:1, 18). Lament is followed by hope.

The biblical narrative identifies many occasions when Israel gathered in sacred assembly to lament, repent, and await God’s answer (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:1-17). Joel is a prophetic call for such an assembly (Joel 1:14; 2:15). Consequently, it functions something like Psalm 12 where the liturgy cries out in lament (12:1-4) but waits in hope (12:5-6).

The message of Joel is lament, repent, and hope. Since no specific historical situation is identified or perhaps intended, it becomes a liturgical text that serves Israel in diverse circumstances. It calls the nation to assemble for lament, to confess sin, and to hear the word of hope that God offers.

The people of God need that rhythm in their life. We need lament liturgies to voice our hurts, confess our sins, and embrace the promises of God. We need lament assemblies where as a community we gather in the face of tragedy, national sin, or impending doom in order to draw near to God and seek God’s redemptive mercy. Joel provides such a liturgy.

In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season of lament, repentance, fasting, and prayer….but also hope. Lent follows in the footsteps of Joel, and as Christians embrace the season of Lent they can also give voice to the words and message of Joel.

We lament, but we never lament without hope.

[See my Ash Wednesday Graduate Chapel presentation at Abilene Christian University on March 5, 2014.]

 


Noah the Movie, Part III: There are Biblical Themes There

March 31, 2014

When the filmmaker of Noah described it as “the least biblical biblical movie” ever made [he did not say it was the “least biblical movie”], he was probably referring to the fact Noah the movie is not a mirror image of Noah the biblical figure. Genesis is not the script for the movie. Rather, the script includes 1 Enoch and Jubilees among other ancient Jewish traditions, as well as some postmodern imagination and styled in the genre of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, there are dimensions of the movie that are robustly “biblical.” Here are a few.

  • There is a transcendent Creator of the earth
  • The Creator invested humanity with the care of the earth as the image of God.
  • Humanity failed to image God.
  • Cain-Tubal (and the line of Cain in general) is the anti-image of God; represents Cain who killed Abel.
  • The line of Seth represents those who honor the Creator (including Enoch and Methuselah).
  • Humanity is invested with the choice to image God or to create their own world.
  • Humanity pursued its own violent agenda–against creation and against each other.
  • The Creator justly judges humanity’s violence and evil with water–“making it right.”
  • The water is the uncreation of the creation; it is a return to the chaos that existed when God first began to create a habitable space on the earth.
  • The Creator gives life to those on the ark.
  • The Creator’s mercy preserves humanity.
  • The Creator renews life after the flood.
  • The Creator renews the human vocation to care for the earth and fill it.
  • The Creator is “unnamed”–the name of the Creator was not revealed until Moses inquired in Exodus.

Certainly more could be added to this list, but this gives us plenty to ponder!

See Part I for a perspective on the biblical story, and Part II for a review of the movie.

 


Noah the Movie, Part II

March 29, 2014

In my last post, I offered a reading of the biblical flood story, and now I offer an interpretation of Noah, the movie.

Like the biblical story itself, the movie is not a children’s movie.  It is about violence, ecological disaster, and the struggles of a man to fully discern God’s intent as the Creator judges humanity.

The movie has clear links to the biblical story–there is an ark, Noah is the main character, the Creator is judging the world, violence has filled the earth, and there is a flood to cleanse the evil–but the movie is not a “biblical movie,” that is, it does not intend to retell the flood story within the boundaries of what is known in Scripture or even how Scripture interprets the story.  The biblical story “inspires” the movie, but the movie is not the biblical story. Nevertheless, it is an imaginative retelling of themes that are part of the biblical story.

The movie functions, existentially (and thus theologically), as social commentary on human injustice against both the creation and humanity itself. It highlights ecological disaster and human violence. These are the great evils that grieved the Creator and for which the Creator will push the reboot button on the cosmos.

Due to human violence, the earth had become an environmental wasteland. The once green and beautiful earth had become a barren rock with little vegetation. The Creator invested humanity with dominion, and humanity used that dominion for its own sake. Humanity devoured the resources of the earth (including eating the flesh of animals), and this spiraled into violence against each other (including cannibalism). Human dominion was exercised through violence and injustice rather than through loving care.

Noah appears in the movie as a defender of the earth, the animals, and of mistreated humans (he rescues a young girl from death and raises her as his own). He lives within the chaos of a barren (rather than “good” earth) as a righteous person who remembers the story of the Creator and passes it on to his children. His family is light within the darkness, but it is threatened by the darkness. And though yet faithful to the Creator, the family wonders whether or when the Creator “will make things right.” When will the Creator put an end to human violence?

The flood is the Creator’s answer. Noah discerns this through dreams, and with the help of some “transformer rock angels” (my wife’s phrase) the family builds an ark for the preservation of the animals and, seemingly, humanity. But this is where the story takes an awkward though existential turn.

The second half of the movie focuses on Noah’s angst that arises from his perception of the divine intent. Noah, thoroughly disgusted with human evil, believes that the Creator intends to annihilate humanity even as the Creator preserves the creation. In Noah’s mind, the creation is more important than humanity, and humanity has not only been dethroned but must also be eliminated as a threat to the creation. Noah believes that God preserves his family only for the sake of the animals, and once the animals are safely in the new world after the flood, then the Creator will watch over the slow death of humanity itself as Noah’s line dies out (Shem’s wife is barren, and the other two sons have no wives).

The moviemaker adjusts the biblical story in order to create Noah’s angst, and this enables the second half of the movie to focus on the drama of mercy over justice. Noah, as the one in whom the Creator has invested the future (as the Creator originally did with Adam and Eve–who failed!), will not fail his Creator. He will complete the task and ensure that humanity will die out. He knows–he thinks–what the Creator wants, and he will obey. He is, after all, from the line of Seth.

As a result, Noah becomes what the flood judges. He becomes an unmerciful and violent man, which is exactly why the Creator is flooding the earth! He leaves Ham’s woman to die, trampled by humanity’s rush for self-preservation. He violently protects the ark from assault. He announces his intent to kill any female child born from the union of Shem and his wife. He destroys any hope that Shem and his wife might escape the ark. Noah has no mercy, which is exactly how he understood the Creator. He thinks he is fulfilling the Creator’s desire.

The climax of the movie is when Noah holds a raised a knife above his twin granddaughters. Here he struggles to do the will of God, as he understands it. And here he defies the Creator. He cannot kill his granddaughters. He ultimately fails to do the will of God; he fails like his ancestors Adam and Eve. Consequently, once upon dry ground where humanity can flourish once again, Noah drinks himself into a stupor and shames himself. He medicates his guilt with wine.

In time, however, Noah realizes that God never intended to destroy humanity. He should have learned this from his own grandfather, Methuselah, who healed his barren daughter-in-law. He should have listened to the different and merciful interpretation of the Creator’s intent that his wife voiced–she thought in terms of both justice and mercy. He should have seen the gift of life in his daughter-in-law’s womb as the Creator’s new beginning rather than a threat to the new creation. Noah was so blinded by the human condition–so blinded by humanity’s inhumanity–that he could not see the Creator’s gracious gift to his own family and the Creator’s merciful intent to preserve humanity.

In the end, however, Noah does recognize this. He renews covenant with his wife, and he invests in Shem the lineage of Seth. Noah now understands that creation has been renewed, and the Creator has graciously offered a new beginning. Noah tells his children to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” The Creator has given humanity a second chance!

But as we look at the world humanity has created since that time, have we done any better? I think the movie asks this question. Will human violence against the environment and each other once again call for judgment? Is humanity headed toward an apocalypse, or will we learn to balance justice and mercy? Will we embrace the vision of creation embedded in the film’s storyline? Not a bad question to raise!

Clearly, the filmmaker did not intend to follow the biblical script. That would’ve been a short movie! He made the story more about Noah than the Creator.

The biblical story, however, is about the Creator rather than Noah.  It is the Creator who grieves humanity’s violence. The Creator acts to end human violence. The Creator remembers Noah. The Creator remembers the creation, and the Creator preserves it and renews it. The Creator redeems Noah and his family. The Creator covenants with creation and humanity, and the Creator places the covenant sign of the Creator’s mercy and grace in the sky, the rainbow. And the Creator, once again, rests within the new creation!

While I understand why a filmmaker would focus on Noah’s existential angst, human blindness to divine intent, and the struggle to do the will of God, that is not the focus of the biblical story. In this sense, the film does not tell the biblical story but rather tells the story of postmodern angst. “Noah” may be a way of telling that story, but we should not confuse it with the function of biblical drama itself.

Personally, I did not much like the movie. My dislike is not due to the adjustments to the biblical story (I fully expected that). Rather, I thought the film tried too hard to create a dramatic storyline, which ultimately made it implausible (e.g., Cain-Tubal stealing aboard the ark, Ham aiding Cain-Tubal, the transformer rock angels or Watchers). I was left more awed by the special effects than engrossed in the story.

Nevertheless, the story has a point. What will humans do with the earth? How will we treat each other? Can we have a new beginning?

The biblical answer to those questions is rooted in God’s drama rather than in the human drama. We can’t, ultimately, find our hope in humanity. Didn’t the 20th century teach us that? Rather, humanity’s only hope is the merciful God who calls us to a story of redemption, justice, mercy, and reconciliation. That is the story of Jesus.


Noah the Movie: Part I

March 29, 2014

Before the movie, first the biblical story…or at least my reading of that story….

This is not a children’s story. The animals going into the ark two by two do make a classic VBS song and it certainly makes a great flannel graph. But this story is more like a horror movie than a Disney cartoon.

The story is important for our author. It takes up more space than the creation itself and is full of repetition. Why is this that important?

The flood narrative overlaps two sections of Genesis. It is at the end of the “generations of Adam” (5:1-6:8) which carries the human line from Adam through Seth to Noah, and it is the main event in the “generations of Noah” (6:9-9:29) which starts with the approaching flood and ends with the rainbow sullied by Noah and Ham. Both of these generational stories begin with great hope but they both end with disaster. The hope is found in Adam begetting Seth (5:1-5), which recalls creation itself and is found, in the next generation, in Noah’s walk with God (6:9).

Disaster, however, follows.  The line of Seth (“sons of God”) ultimately mixes with the line of Cain (“daughters of men”) and God’s good creation is filled with evil (6:1-7). Noah’s walk with God turns to drunkenness and shame (9:20-27). Both new beginnings have bad endings.

The flood story bridges these two sections in Genesis. The flood is a divine response to evil in the world, but also a new beginning. It is divine judgment but also divine renewal.

Why should the flood story figure so prominently in Genesis? Israel lived in an ancient culture that was saturated with stories about gods, creations and floods. There were multiple creation and flood stories in the surrounding cultures, and many even predate Moses. Many are very similar to the one in Genesis. For example, the family of one human is saved, a large boat, a great flood, the release of a raven and dove, etc.  Israel shared a common “story” about a past great flood with its culture.

However, there was (at least) one significant difference. The Ancient Near East (ANE) stories locate the reason for the flood in the capriciousness of the gods. They are fickle and easily annoyed. They send the flood upon the earth because humans are too noisy!

That is not Israel’s God. Israel reinterprets the flood story in order to say something about Yahweh (or Elohim). Their version is a counter-story that intends to subvert ANE culture itself.  The focus of the flood story is not on how many animals are in the ark or whether the dimensions are large enough for the animals. Its focus is the reason for the flood and what happened to the earth as a result.

God was not annoyed with humanity but grieved by them (Genesis 6:6). God was so grieved that God changed God’s mind (regret) about how the earth would continue. Humanity interrupted God’s sabbath (seventh day) rest.

When God finished the sixth day of creating in Genesis 1, God “rested” (Genesis 2:1-3). This seventh day was not a twenty-four hour period of relaxation and recreation. Rather, God “rested” in the earth, communed with humanity and the rest of creation, and rejoiced over his works. The sabbath rest of God is the communion God has with the creation–it is God resting (dwelling) within the creation. The seventh day is the continued existence of creation itself in communion with God. The seventh day is God’s rest!

But humanity (and “all flesh”) disrupted that rest by filling the earth with “violence.” This is an important term as its repetition highlights the rationale for God’s judgment.  God saw that the earth was full of “violence” (Genesis 6:11, 13). This is the opposite of God’s sabbath shalom. Just as “all flesh” contributed to the “violence” now pervasive upon the earth, so “all flesh” will suffer consequences (Genesis 6:13, 17, 19).

The judgment is the reversal of creation itself. The “waters” (7:6-7) arise from the “deep” and from the “windows of heaven” (7:11). This language comes from Genesis 1 where the waters are given boundaries so that dry land might appear. Now God releases the chaos of the waters. He sends the earth back to its original, uninhabitable state when the waters of the deep covered the earth (Genesis 1:2). The chaos out of which God shaped a habitable earth returns to destroy “all flesh.”

Israel tells the flood story as a polemic against violence rather than as the whims of fickle gods. God judges violence through the flood. Israel takes the flood story and uses it to subvert the culture of violence that dominated the ANE (especially an Israel living in Babylon who had recently suffered from that violence). The flood story tells us what God thinks about violence in the good creation.

At the same time, the flood story tells us about the patience, forbearance and grace of God. Yahweh does not “fly off the handle” in this story. Rather, God is patient with the creation. God strives with humanity for a 120 years (plus however long before that counting began). This is no flippant decision by a whimsical deity. On the contrary, it is a deliberate decision slowly made in the wake of God’s love for the creation.

That love is not only expressed in the grace God demonstrated to Noah, but it is also expressed in God’s gracious renewal of the creation itself. Genesis 8 begins with hope:  “God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals.” This remembrance is God’s gracious orientation toward humanity and the rest of creation. It is God’s determination to renew what he has just destroyed or, to put it another way, “wiped clean.”

Genesis 8 follows the path of Genesis 1.  The wind (or, Spirit, ruach) of God blows over the waters (just as in Genesis 1:2; 8:1). The waters separate–closing the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven–so that dry land might emerge (Genesis 1:6-10; 8:2). The dry land yields trees and fruit (Genesis 1:11-12; 8:11). And then the animals and humanity walk upon the dry land again (Genesis 1:25, 29-30; 8:15-119).

And God rests once again. This is an important part of the story that most miss. It is easy to miss because the connections of the Hebrew language are lost in English translation. Noah comes out of the ark and worships by offering dedicatory offerings. It is an act of thanksgiving (Genesis 8:20). Significantly, the odor of these sacrifices are “pleasing” (nichocha) to God. This is the important word. It is derived from the same root that describes God’s rest (nuach) in Exodus 20:11. The odor is restful to God. Just as God placed (yanach; rested) humanity in the Garden (Genesis 2:15), so God now rests within the creation once again.

God’s rest in the good creation–the seventh day rest is renewed and continues–is underscored by God’s commitment to the creation. God makes a covenant that renews Sabbath rest for the creation. God will never again destroy every living creature as he did this time even if humans do not change  their violent ways (Genesis 8:21-22). While chaos still exists within God’s creation (humans are there, for example!), the order of God’s creation will remain and the good creation will continue despite the chaos that surrounds it and lives within it. God will never again abandon the creation.

Israel tells this story, in contrast to the stories of the ANE, as both a judgment against violence and as a reminder of God’s commitment to the creation. God is not annoyed with humanity but rather loves them. People live within the grace of the creation even though they despoil it and often treat it violently just as they treat each other. Nevertheless, despite the violence, God sustains the earth, graces it with divine presence, and continues the seventh day through redemptive graces.

God still grieves the sin and the violence, just as God grieved over Israel (Isaiah 63:10), and God grieved in Jesus over Jerusalem. But–thanks to be to God!–the new creation has begun in Jesus Christ. Raised to the right hand of God, he is the firstborn of the new creation. One day, God will renew the creation as God strips the old things (like sin, violence and death) from the earth and makes everything new. On that day, there will be no more sea (no more “waters”) and no more night (“darkness”). God will reign upon the earth and dwell (rest) with humanity in the new creation (Revelation 21:1-5). Everything will be made new again through a refining fire.

[This is a summary of my July 3 (2012) presentation at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration as part of the Hazelip School of Theology series on Genesis 1-11.]


3 John: When Love is Abused

December 18, 2013

This small letter is the tale of two house-church leaders, Gaius and Diotrephes. One demonstrates love for God’s family while the other seeks a preeminent place in the family. One supports those who are traveling “for the sake of the name” while the other refuses to welcome them.

“The elder”—the same one who authored 1 & 2 John—is connected to both of them. He writes Gaius to commend him but was recently rebuffed by Diotrephes.  Gaius welcomes the leadership of “the elder” while Diotrephes resents it and seeks to limit it.

This brief letter is part of “the elder’s” attempt to deal a situation where Diotrephes has abused his leadership position. Rather than loving the family of God, he has dominated his own house-church.

Setting

Apparently, “the elder” ministers to a number of churches from a central location. Tradition places John in Ephesus where he spent the last years of his life. From Ephesus, it seems, John exercised pastoral care over a number of house-churches in the region. The letter suggests that “the elder” would send out “brothers” among the churches “for the sake of the name,” and he hoped that the house-churches would welcome them, give them a hearing, and support them. He expected that family would show hospitality to other family members (“brothers”) even if they were “strangers” (personally unknown to the host church).  John expected churches to support them because they are “fellow workers for the truth.”

Gaius did exactly this. He did the “faithful” thing, as he loved the “brothers” who came to him. His church welcomed them and supported their work. He accepted John’s pastoral care and sent the “brothers” on their way that they might continue to minister among the churches.

However, Diotrephes did not welcome the “brothers” and apparently resented John’s pastoral care. He not only refused to help but prevented others from helping as well. The “elder” sees this as a power play between him and Diotrephes.

So, the question is whether a house-church and its leadership should support the mission of these “brothers” whom the “elder” sent as his representatives.

Gaius

The “elder” regards Gaius as one of his “children.” Whether this means Gaius was brought to Jesus by the elder or whether it simply means Gaius is under John’s pastoral care is uncertain. Whichever the case, the “elder” assumes a strong relationship between them. He writes to him, prays for him, rejoices over the news of his physical and spiritual health (he is concerned about both!), and praises him for his good works.

Gaius is characterized by several significant phrases, which are absent from the characterizations of Diotrephes and, in fact, stand in strong contrast with how Diotrephes is described. Gaius “walks in the truth” (2x in 3-4), is “faithful” in his efforts (literally, works), and acts in love.

The elder stresses the act of love, a reflection of his “walking in truth.” Gaius acted to support the traveling ministers (“fellow workers”). In this the ministers testified to Gaius’s love as well as his devotion to the truth. The focus of verses 5-8 is his support, which is his act of love for the “brothers.” The question is not one of heresy (that is, truth versus the antichrists of 2 John). Rather, the question is the practice of Christian hospitality that supports the mission of the “elder.” The contrast is not between heretics and faithful believers but between faithful believers and “Gentiles” (unbelievers). The brothers, apparently, are engaged in both pastoral care and evangelistic mission.

Diotrephes

There is some debate about the nature of the problem Diotrephes represents.  Some think that Diotrephes is one of the “antichrists” (Docetics) that 2 John condemns. The emphasis on “truth” in the brief letter may support this as the noun is used seven times. However, the “truth” here may not refer to orthodox teaching but rather loving praxis. To “walk in the truth” is to love the family and support the mission. Further, when John describes his problem with Diotrephes he does not use the term “truth” and neither does he point to any particular doctrinal teaching by Diotrephes. The “elder” is not skittish about identifying heretical teaching (as 2 John demonstrates) and consequently it seems unlikely that he would not identify a specific heresy in this letter if that were the problem.

Instead, the “elder” specifically identifies his ambition as the problem. Diotrephes (whose name means “nourished by Jupiter”) loved to be first. The verb John uses to describe him makes its first appearance in known Greek literature here—philoproteuon.  He loves being first; he loves the preeminence. (Paul uses the term proteuon [first] to describe Jesus in Colossians 1:18.) The problem is not his doctrine but his abuse of power, his selfish ambition. Rather than loving the family, he loves himself.

Apparently, he has some position of power or influence already. We may presume that he leads a house-church. He occupies a position that can refuse John’s emissaries, prevent others from supporting them, and excommunicate (disfellowship or “cast out”) those who do. He seems to exercise autocratic power within his community. We do not know the nature of this position though some think it is the sort of authority selflessly exercised by Timothy or Titus, and others think it may be something similar to the one-Bishop practice of Asia Minor congregations in the early second century (called monoepiscopate). Whatever the nature of his position, he wields an authority that rejects “the elder.” And he exercises it with an authority driven by ambition.

“The elder” will deal with this problem face-to-face when he visits Diotrephes’s house-church. But until then he wants Gaius to know that Diotrephes is headed down the wrong path. While he may be a renowned (or infamous) leader—since Gaius knows him—this is not the person Gaius should imitate.

God and Evil

The problem is not superficial, according to “the elder.” It is the difference between “good” and “evil.” Gaius has acted well but Diotrephes has done evil. The former reflects a relationship with God but the latter is disconnected from God. To live within the love of God is to love the “brothers,” but “whoever does evil has not seen God.” This language reminds us of 1 John where the writer tells us to love not only in word but in deed, and whoever fails to love the family of God does not know God. One cannot say they “have seen God” if they do not love God’s family.

John offers Gaius a different model than Diotrephes. Perhaps Diotrephes was creating quite a name for himself in the region through his own self-promotions and creating doubts in Gaius about his course of action. Whatever the case, John points Gaius to Demetrius who also, apparently, was well known in the region.  Not only does John commend him but also everyone commends him. He has the “testimony”—he has the witness of the church, John, and the truth.

Conclusion

Diotrephes, while no doubt claiming to love the family of God, loved himself more. Selfish ambition shaped his decisions. He abused his power; he abused the love entrusted to him.

John concludes his brief letter with a mutual greeting:  the friends (philoi) greet Gaius and Gaius is to greet the friends (philoi). The one who loved to be first lost sight of the reality that love and friendship are a communal reality.  It is not about preeminence but about shared love in the truth.

Questions

  1. Identify the positive descriptions of Gaius in this letter.  What does this say about the character and life of Gaius?
  2. Who are the traveling “brothers”? What are they doing? Why is it important to support them?
  3. What problem does John have with Diotrephes? What motivates Diotrephes? What power/position does he have within the church?
  4. Is “abused love” a good, helpful or problematic, unhelpful characterization of the situation Diotrephes represents?
  5. Identify some analogous situations in the church or home where love is abused by selfish ambition. What is the root problem? How do the Epistles of John address this problem?

2 John: Discerning Love

December 11, 2013

“The elder” writes to the “elect lady” about “truth and love.” The brief three-verse salutation of the letter (1-3)—a feature that 1 John did not have—uses the term “truth” four times and “love” twice. This signals the theme of the letter as the two major sections in the body of the letter exhort the church to love (4-6) and truth (7-11). The first section reminds the church that the fundamental “command” of the faith is to love each other. The second warns that “many deceivers” (that is, docetists) are seeking an opportunity to influence the church, and they have, in fact, denied the “Truth” (the reality of God in the flesh). The writer has a deep personal interest in the health of the “elect lady.” He is protective but also encouraging. He intends a future visit though he is uncertain when that might happen.

“The elder,” in effect, calls for a discerning love. Love is the command that shapes the church from the beginning and it is still central for communal life. But this love is neither blind nor pluralistic. The community must learn to “love in truth” as they “walk in love.” The community does not believe everything it hears or welcome everyone who comes. The church, because it loves in truth, must discern between “deceivers” and those in whom the truth abides.

Greetings

Who is “the elder” and who is the “elect lady”? The letter’s language is most naturally associated with the author of 1 John. The style, vocabulary, and topics are clearly the same as 1 John. We may assume that elderly apostle John is “the elder.” The title is probably more a term of respect and honor than identification as the leader of a particular congregation. He is “the elder,” that is, he is a senior leader of the Christian movement in that region.

The “elect lady” may refer to a particular woman, perhaps the patroness (even leader?) of a house church, but it seems more likely that it refers to a particular congregation or house church. The letter refers to “your house” (11), which identifies the recipient of the letter with a specific community of believers. They are the “children” of the “lady,” that is, they are the members of that congregation. Consequently, “the elder” warns the congregation (house church) to be discerning about whom they welcome and whom they do not.

“Truth” is important for “the elder.” He “loves” in truth as does everyone who “knows” the truth. Those who “know” the truth love in truth because the truth lives (abides, remains) in them as this same truth is eternally with the community of believers (“us”). The Father and Son are present in grace, mercy and peace with those who live “in truth and love.”

But what is this “truth”? Generally, we should read this term against the background of 1 John itself, which gives a fuller exposition of the “truth” that is assumed in this brief letter. More specifically, we should probably understand “truth” here in contrast to the “deceivers” that carrying a different message to various “house” churches. In other words, the truth is the reality of God’s eternal life incarnated in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the truth, that is, he is the love of God enfleshed for our sakes. In this one God loved us and the truth of eternal life was revealed, embodied, and lived out in Jesus.

Great Joy

The great “truth” of the gospel is embodied in Jesus. The children of the elect lady (house church) walk in this truth when they love just as Jesus loved. This is the “command” which shapes “the elder’s” understanding of how to live the truth. When the truth abides in us we love each other, and this is the command that we obey.

The “command” is both “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” This language points us to the person of Jesus himself who is also “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” When Jesus came in the flesh, he not only embodied this life of love, but commanded his disciples to love just as he loved. The command from the beginning was to walk in love and live in loving community with each other. This language not only reflects the themes of 1 John, it is also a brief summary of John 13 where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. There he not only modeled this love but encouraged them to love each other as a sign of discipleship. This was no new command; it is as old as God’s own life since God is love.

The “truth,” then, is not a series of ideas or a list of subscribed teachings. The truth is the reality of God’s love demonstrated in Jesus that calls us to love just as Jesus loved. God demonstrated that love in the incarnation itself! In obedience to the model of Christ and living in fellowship with the Father and Son, we are called to participate in the love that characterizes the life of God. The “truth” is seen when we love each other.

Warning

This truth, however, has a definite referent. It is rooted in the reality of the incarnation, that is, that Jesus Christ truly came in the flesh. The Word of Life, as 1 John 1 describes Jesus, became flesh. The Son authentically and fully participated in the physical creation. The Son became fully human. This conviction is so central to the Christian faith that anyone who denies it is the “antichrist.” It is so important that no house church should welcome anyone who denies it.

What makes this so central? Why is the incarnation a crux for the Christian community? The incarnation is the claim that the eternal became particular in such a way that the particular revealed the eternal. The incarnation is the presence of God in the flesh; is eternal life enfleshed. God becomes one with us in the flesh so that we might become one with God in the fellowship of the divine community. Coming in the flesh, the Son united the creation with God so that we might participate in the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Without incarnation—or denying the incarnation—there is no authentic union between God and humanity, and consequently there is no authentic communion.

This union is rooted in love. Through it we experience the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. God is love. When the Son unites with humanity as a demonstrative act of love—both through incarnation, ministry, and death—humanity is enabled to participate in the oneness of the Father and Son. To deny this is to deny the very nature of salvation itself since salvation is fundamentally the mutual indwelling of humanity and God (John 17:20-26).

Consequently, the church must guard itself against the antichrists, the deceivers. They go beyond the boundaries of the truth, that is, they teach something that does not conform to the reality enfleshed in Jesus. The truth is the love of God incarnated in Jesus, but the deceivers deny the incarnation. As such, they transcend the boundaries of what is in fact the case. The “teaching of Christ” does not refer to a broad collection of teachings. Rather, is the “teaching about Christ.” The particular point at stake is whether Jesus came in the flesh or not. The deceivers say he did not but the truth is that he did. To deny this truth is to deny Christ and undermines one’s relationship with the Father and the Son.

In effect, the Christian community has boundaries. One cannot deny the reality of the incarnation and receive the sanction of faithful house churches. “The elder” forbids the house church (“elect lady”) to welcome them or give them status in the church. While some think this refers to hospitality in the home (supporting missionaries)—and it may include that, it seems preferable to think in terms of what welcoming or receiving an itinerant teacher meant in the late first century. The author seems concerned that the church might give this “deceiver” a hearing or give them a teaching role in the church. It is about more than hospitality; it also about leadership within the community of faith.

If the church is to walk in truth and to love in truth, it cannot sanction the teaching of these deceivers who deny the reality of the incarnation that is a definitive revelation of God’s love.

Conclusion

“The elder” wants to visit the church. He knows the value of a pastoral visit and personal encouragement. The brevity of the letter probably indicates that this was written hurriedly in light of an emergency situation. He quickly fires off a letter to encourage the perseverance of the church in the truth as he knows that “many deceivers” have “gone out into the world” to dissuade others. It seems he has received reports that this church rejected the deceivers—perhaps under criticism—and he wants to reassure them that they did the right thing. They do not stand alone. “The elder” supports them and a whole community of believers (perhaps in Ephesus?) supports them.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Imagine the scenario that this letter assumes? Given the contents of the letter, what has happened or is happening in this community? What are the dangers?
  2. What does “the elder” mean by “love” and “truth”? How might we define those terms contextually and against the backdrop of 1 John?
  3. Does the “teaching of Christ” refer to everything Jesus taught or does it refer to what is taught about Christ (specifically, the incarnation)? Why is one interpretation more preferable than the other? How might either be abused in application today?
  4. What does it mean to say that the Christian community has boundaries today? Is this exclusivistic and unloving? What does it mean for the church to be unwelcoming of another? What are the dangers latent in such a discussion? What are the truths that are nevertheless important in such a discussion?
  5. How would you define and illustrate the idea of “discerning love”?

Micah 4 – Hope Despite Injustice and War

October 17, 2013

While the Jerusalem Micah knew was built by blood, destined for destruction, and soaked with injustice (Micah 3:9-12), the future Jerusalem is exalted above the mountains, committed to God’s agenda for the world, and enacts peace within the world. Rather than present injustice and war, the future Jerusalem secures justice and peace. The contrasts are stark.

Micah 3:9-12

Micah 4:1-5

Leaders despise justice. Yahweh will arbitrate justice.
Leaders empower themselves through violence. Nations will no longer train for war.
Leaders give false messages. Jerusalem teaches Yahweh’s ways.
Jerusalem will be plowed under. Jerusalem will be exalted above the mountains.
The temple will be overgrown with weeds. Yahweh’s house will receive the nations.
Nations will bring disaster upon Judah Nations will flow into Jerusalem to learn of Yahweh.
Injustice means economic oppression for the people. Every person will experience prosperity.
Fear abounds due to injustice and war. No one is afraid.

Micah 4:1-5 is a classic salvation text paralleled in Isaiah 2:2-4. Who borrowed from whom or whether they were both dependent upon another source is uncertain, but it is clear that the message stands in stark contrast with the injustices of Judah and the Assyrian invasion. Both prophets, Isaiah in Jerusalem and Micah probably in rural southwest Judah, ministered in a time of injustice and war. Micah, despite the predication of Jerusalem’s destruction, envisions a time when Jerusalem will become the center of the kingdom of God that draws the nations into relationship with God. This is not the case in the present (Micah 4:5), but it is a future hope.

The picture is idyllic. Notice the elements:

  • Mt. Zion is the highest mountain even though it is not now.
  • Nations will come to the mountain of the Lord.
  • Jerusalem will teach the nations God’s ways.
  • God will arbitrarte between nations with righteous judgment.
  • Nations will respond by giving up war and pursuing peace.
  • Everyone will enjoy life and prosperity without fear.

The exaltation of Jerusalem attracts the attention of the nations. They come to Jerusalem for divine judgment (“shall judge between many peoples”) and God settles the disputes among the nations.  The nations, in response, give up their war implements, choose agricultural production, and no longer train for war. The result is that every person will enjoy prosperity and peace because the nations no longer wage war against each other. Everyone will sit (rest, be at peace) under their own vine and fig tree, that is, they have sufficient leisure, food, and drink. This is not merely the absence of war but the actualization of peace. It is a life without fear.

When will this happen? Micah locates it in the “latter days.” Some identify this with a return from exile. But the postexilic community does not fit this description. Nations still waged war and they did not flow to Jerusalem to become disciples of Yahweh.

Others identify it with coming of Jesus into the world or the present reign of the kingdom of God in the world. One might point to Peter’s identification of the “latter days” Joel anticipated with the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost as evidence that Micah’s “latter days” are also fulfilled in this moment (Acts 2:21ff). Nations came to Jerusalem at Pentecost, God poured out the Spirit on all flesh, and the church heralded a message pf peace. In other words, if Micah 4 is fulfilled in Acts 2, then Micah 4 is a spiritualized description of the church. But does this do justice to what is said about the nations (political entities)? Do the nations no longer train for war? This does not seem to be a description of the present world, and the interpretation overspiritualizes what does not seem intended as such.

It seems best to understand Micah’s vision along the line of Isaiah’s “new heavens and new earth” vision in Isaiah 65-66 (also Isaiah 9, 11). Micah envisions a time when nations will live in peace, learn from God, and enjoy life upon the earth. Some place this in a future millennium (a limited 1000 years), but I think it belongs to the New Creation itself, the new heaven and new earth upon which the New Jerusalem will descend. There the nations will receive healing, enjoy the light of God, and live upon the new earth. This, I think, is also the vision of Isaiah. It is the description of Revelation 21-22.

However, we should not think that because this is a description of the new heaven and new earth (if indeed it is) that it has no meaning or application to our present situation. It is important to remember that our present age is the presence of the “already/not yet” kingdom of God.  Even though we do not yet experience the fullness of the kingdom in the new heaven and new earth, we do experience new creation in Christ by the presence of the Spirit. We live in the present reality of the kingdom of God even though it has not yet fully arrived and fully transformed the present old creation into the fullness of the new creation. Or, another way of saying this is that we advocate and bear witness to the coming fullness of the kingdom in the present age. We live, then, as new creatures in Christ whose citizenship ilies with the kingdom of God. We live out the new creation within the old one.

What, then, might this mean in terms of this text? It seems to me that several points are pertinent.

We invite all nations to enter the kingdom of God, that is, to come learn of God. The message of the kingdom is inclusive. The kingdom of God transcends the nations and is not identified with any specific nation. There is no nationalistic exceptionalism within the kingdom of God.

We invite all nations to learn war no more. If the kingdom of God, when it has fully come, includes the destruction of weapons of war and the pursuit of peace, then if the church is the presence of the kingdom within the world it must advocate and pursue peace. The church, as the proleptic presence of the kingdom, is a peaceable kingdom; it is a reconciling and peace-making presence in the world.

We invite all nations to seek peace and prosperity without fear. The vision is that every person will have their own vine and fig-tree, that is, every one will have food and drink. Poverty is not part of the kingdom of God. Even within Israel there was to be no poverty (Deuteronomy 15; cf. 1 Kings 4:25), and the kingdom of God–when it has fully come–will rid the earth of poverty. The church, if it is the presence of the kingdom in the present, must advocate for the poor, call the nations to peaceful prosperity, and seek to develop strategies that deal with poverty upon the earth.

Micah’s kingdom vision–his new heaven and new earth vision–calls the church to live as if the future has already come, as if the fullness of the kingdom of God has already arrived. The church leans into Micah’s vision and owns it as their own.


Revelation 16 – Armageddon

October 14, 2013

The second vision (Revelation 4-16) now comes to a climatic conclusion. Taken up in the Spirit (Revelation 4:3) to the throne room of God, John saw the heavenly worship of the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb who took the book out of God’s hand (Revelation 4-5). Then John saw all seven seals opened (Revelation 6:1-8:5) and then heard the seven trumpets sounded that announced the coming judgment (8:6-11:19). After an interlude which identified the players in the drama (Revelation 12-14), seven angels emerged from heaven’s temple with seven plagues to complete the wrath of God (Revelation 15). These are the seven bowls of wrath that are poured out upon the earth in Revelation 16, and that sequence includes the reference to Armageddon.

The seven bowls of wrath follow a similar pattern as the previous sevens seals and seven trumpets, but with a different purpose. While the seven seals affected one-fourth of the earth and the seven trumpets affected one-third of the earth, the seven bowls of wrath affect everything. The seals and trumpets functioned as warnings in the hope that the inhabitants of the earth might repent, but they did not. The bowls of wrath are God’s final word; there is no reprieve from the seven plagues.

Though the purpose is different, the pattern is the same. The first four plagues (like the seals and trumpets) are grouped together and the final three fall together. The first four bowls are cosmic in nature. God’s wrath is poured out on the earth (16:2), sea (16:3), fresh water (16:4), and the sun (16:8). This is not cosmic destruction but rather apocalyptic descriptions of the dissolution of the imperial persecuting power. The earth is not destroyed but those who worship the beast are afflicted. As the hymn makes clear, the object of judgment is those who “shed the blood of the saints and prophets” (16:6); the cosmos itself is not the object of destruction. The cosmos does not deserve destruction but rather the empire that made war against the saints. The inhabitants of the earth who bear the mark of the beast refuse to repent and rather than giving God glory (as opposed to giving the Emperor glory) they cursed (blasphemed) the name of God. Their stubborn impenitence is the reason for divine judgment.

The last three plagues are focused on the empire itself rather than its earthly servants. The first plague is aimed at “the throne of the beast and its kingdom” (16:10). The second plague is aimed at drying up the Euphrates in order to release “the kings of the east” to do battle against the dragon, the monster from the sea, and the false prophet who is the monster from the earth (16:12-13). The third plague is aimed at the air…and it is over…mission accomplished (16:17). The total effect is what many have identified as Armageddon though actually only the sixth bowl is Armageddon itself.

Before looking closely at the final three plagues, it is important to notice how the seven plagues remind us of the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus. The bowls of wrath infect people with sores, turn water into blood, and plunge the beast’s kingdom into darkness. The Apocalypse describes the collapse of an empire in apocalyptic language that recalls how God defeated the Egyptian empire.  Just as the dragon had empowered the Egyptian empire, so the dragon empowered the Roman empire. Likewise, just as God defeated the Egyptians through plagues and judgments, so God will now overthrow the Roman power. God will avenge and end the persecution of the saints just as he liberated Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Why should we identify this moment with the end of Roman imperial persecution? Several factors are important. One is that the Apocalypse addresses the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia. This is a message for them. It calls for their patience and pertains to their martyrs. Moreover, the prologue and epilogue of the Apocalypse make it clear that the drama the book describes was something that would happen in the near future, not the distant future (Revelation 1:1, 3; 22:10). The promise of Jesus’ coming in Revelation 16 is not primarily the second Advent but the appearance of God’s justice–the wrath of the Lamb itself–within history to defeat the hostile powers that make war against the saints. In effect, the content of the Apocalypse is directly connected to the experiences, trials, and hopes of the seven churches of Asia. The drama does not describe 21st century events.

Another factor is the identity of the beast. He is identified as Nero Redividus. This cannot be Nero in the early 60s, but rather a Nero who would live again or return after being deposed/killed. Nero was a persecuting emperor and the beast is his rebirth as another persecuting emperor.  Moreover, it is the rise of a persecuting power where Christians live in a hostile environment. This hostility is not merely the threat of martyrdom but the danger of cultural accommodation and syncretism. The beast forces the inhabitants of the earth to worship him. Christians in thee second to early fourth centuries lived in that Roman world.

Another immediate factor in this context is the identification of the great city as Babylon. Revelation 17 clearly identifies Babylon with Rome since Babylon rests on seven hills. Babylon is a common late Second Temple Judaism metaphor for Rome since Rome oppressed the Jewish people just as Babylon did. 1 Peter 5:13 also identifies Babylon and Rome. That letter addressed churches in the region of the seven churches of Asia in the first century.

So, what is Armageddon? Etymologically, it is the “mountain (hill) of Megiddo” which is located in the Jezreel Valley. The hill (now Tel Megiddo) over looks the largest valley in Israel (the triangular valley is approximately 20x20x20 miles). Its history includes significant battles both before Israel’s occupation of the land and afterwards (including the defeat of Josiah at the hands of the Egyptians in 2 Chronicles 35:22). In Revelation 16 Armageddon is the place where two great armies assemble for battle.

An army headed by kings east of the Euphrates gather to do battle with the army made up of the “kings of the whole earth” assembled by the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. Clearly the “kings of the whole earth” does not literally mean the “whole earth” as the “kings of the east” are arrayed against the “kings of the whole earth.” Would not the “kings of the whole earth” include the “kings of the east?” The language is accommodated to the claims of the Roman empire who considered themselves the rulers of the “whole earth.” The statues of Roman Emperors held a globe in their hand as a symbol of their power over the “whole world.” Consequently, the imagery describes the armies of Rome assembled to do battle with their dreaded Parthian enemies from the east. This was the great fear of the Roman empire, that is, that another empire would replace it from the east.

But, and this is an important “but,” there is no battle. No battle is described. The seventh bowl of wrath is poured out and it is simply over; it is fini! The apocalyptic drama abruptly concludes, and the armies–though arrayed against each other–never engage. The battle scenario is simply an apocalyptic picture of God’s defeat of the Roman empire.  Just as God plunged the kingdom of the beast into darkness (the fifth plague) and destroyed Babylon with an earthquake (the seven plague), so here God pictures the fall of the empire through the metaphor of a battle, an Armageddon. Much like we might say that Nixon had his Waterloo, so the Roman empire has its Armageddon.

In other words, there is no battle of Armageddon any more than the empire is plunged into a literal darkness or literally destroyed with a great earthquake (or that islands literally fled or mountains disappeared or 100 pound hailstones dropped from the sky). These are all symbols for the catastrophic fall of imperial powers hostile to the kingdom of God in the Roman world. Armageddon is a symbol for the “great day of the Lord,” but it is only one of the symbols; it is only one of the seven bowls of wrath.

The “great day of the Lord” is like other past days in the history of Israel where nations or cities fell (e.g., Babylon in Isaiah 13:6,9; Jerusalem in Lamentations 2:22; cf. Joel 1:15; Amos 5:18; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14, 18). The fall of powers hostile to the kingdom of God within history are all moments of divine judgment. Those are each a “day of the Lord” as the Lord’s justice and righteousness is revealed against evil.

What, then, is the meaning of Armageddon for contemporary readers of Revelation? It is the confidence that God is at work in history to reveal divine justice and righteousness. While hostile powers will rise at various times and moments, God will ultimately–either within history or at the “end” of history–set things right. Ultimately, the kingdom of God will fully come and a new heaven and new earth will appear where God and the Lamb will reign upon the earth in justice and peace throughout eternity.

There have been multiple “Armageddons” and there will be more. Powers hostile to the kingdom of God come and go, but they keep coming because the dragon is still alive and active (as much as God permits the dragon to be). Saints are called to patient endurance and faithful witness as these times come and go. The assurance the Apocalypse offers is that the God of the Exodus is still active within history and the hostile powers will not win. God may permit them for a time but God will also set things right even though trying times will come again…and again…until God creates a new heaven and new earth.


Revelation 15:1-8 — A New Exodus

October 12, 2013

The harvested followers of the Lamb now sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. They, like Israel before them, celebrate liberation and redemption as they stand by the sea. They have conquered (overcome) the beast and its image and they sing with harps in hand a new song of redemption. Like Israel they celebrate an Exodus, a liberation from bondage. Standing by the sea before the throne of God, they rejoice with praise (both harping and singing).

This is a new Exodus. Just as Israel was delivered from the powers of Egypt, so the church is delivered from the powers of Rome. The dragon has stood behind both and wielded both powers in the service of a demonic agenda, that is, to defeat the kingdom of God in the world. Standing by the sea, singing the song of Moses and the Lamb, the martyred hosts along with all those who have overcome and assembled around the throne of God celebrate their freedom just as Israel did on the other side of the sea in Exodus 15.

Exodus language dominates this chapter. Here are a few connections.

  • Martyrs stand by a sea like Israel did.
  • God poured out plagues on Rome just as was done to Egypt.
  • Rome experiences the wrath of God just like Egypt.
  • Martyrs sing the song of Moses just as Israel did in celebration.
  • There is a sanctuary within the tent of witness just as Israel had a tabernacle in the wilderness.
  • The seven angels are dressed like priests in Israel.
  • The glory of God filled the sanctuary just as it did in Exodus 40.
  • No one could enter the sanctuary just like in Exodus 40.

There is no mistaking the sense of a new Exodus in Revelation 15. The question is what kind of Exodus is this? It is, given the pouring out of the bowls of wrath in Revelation 16, a saintly celebration of the battle of Armageddon. This effects a new Exodus. Armageddon is the equivalent of the battle between Yahweh and Pharoah. Armageddon defeats the powers–the dragon and the two monsters–and liberates the saints.

But when is the battle of Armageddon? That is a question that must await Revelation 16. What is clear is that this chapter anticipates that outcome as God is about to act. Through the seven plagues which are seven bowls filled with God’s wrath, God will complete the judgment of the powers that have threatened the people of God, the powers that have made war against the saints.

We cannot mistake the reality of divine wrath in this picture. The term “wrath” (thumos) appears twice in Revelation 15 (1, 7) but was used twice as part of the judgment descriptions of Revelation 14 (10, 19). This passionate anger is directed toward those who worshipped the beast and persecuted the saints. Indeed, the sea before the throne of God which was so calm and placid in Revelation 4 is now mingled with “fire” (Revelation 15:2) which probably alludes to the fire from the altar that is poured out in judgment upon the earth (Revelation 8:5). It is the fire of God’s wrath (cf. Revelation 14:10,18). God is stirred to action; God is now ready to avenge the blood of the saints. The prayers of the saints, particularly the lament of the martyrs (Revelation 6:10), are now about to receive a final answer from God. The wrath of God is about to be “complete” (or finished; Revelation 15:1)

The hymn–the song of Moses and the Lamb–praises God’s righteous acts. Just as Israel praised Yahweh for the exercise of God’s “burning anger” against Pharoah (Exodus 15:7), so the saints praise God for righteous judgment. Just as the Exodus was the defeat of Egyptian powers that terrified the nations (Exodus 15:14-16), so this divine judgment will move the nations to fear and glorify the name of God. Now that God’s righteous acts have been revealed, “all nations will come and worship you.” The Lord God Almighty is, in the light of these just and righteous judgments, revealed as the “king of the nations!”

God’s acts, while certainly an expression of divine wrath against powers hostile to the kingdom of God, are also redemptive. These acts reveal the reign of God and become means by which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God (cf. Revelation 11:15). Through God’s righteous deeds the nations will learn to worship God.

Israel had sung this hope for centuries.  The nations are the inheritance of Israel as they belong to God. Psalm 2 rejoices in the hope that the rulers of the earth will serve Yahweh and that Yahweh’s anointed will rule the nations.  This hope lies in the background of the Apocalypse. The Messiah reigns over the nations and will share that reign with the saints (cf. Revelation 2:26-27 which quotes Psalm 2:9). The Messiah will exercise the “rod of iron” over the nations, defeat the powers, and ultimately heal them (cf. Revelation 19:15; 22:2).

Part of the story of Revelation is that God executes justice within history as well as at the “end” of history. Israel’s exodus from Egypt was both the liberation of slaves and the execution of justice against oppressive powers. God has continued, throughout history, to liberate and execute justice. The Apocalypse, specifically this second vision in Revelation 4-16, is another example of a recurring pattern in history.  Powers, incited by the dragon, wage war, persecute saints, and practice injustice until their cup is full and then God through the processes of history brings justice to bear upon the situation. God, at times, sets things right within history just as he will ultimately make all things new in the new heaven and new earth.

The Apocalypse describes, in apocalyptic language, a process of history by which God patiently tries the powers (seeking their repentance) but ultimately judges their evil. God did it to Egypt, Assyrian, Babylon, Greece, and now, in the Apocalypse, to Rome.  Each, however, was a proleptic moment (one within history anticipating the “end” of history). In each of these divine movements is the embedded promise that God will, one day, set the world right and create a new world of justice and peace.


Sermon on the Mount in Seven Hours

October 11, 2013

Check out some of the Lipscomb Bible faculty taking you through the Sermon on the Mount in seven lessons.  Here is the link. Hope you enjoy them.


Luke 15: Jesus Seeks “Sinners”

October 8, 2013

The book unChristian alerted Christendom that it had an image problem with millennials. Christians are perceived as insensitive, judgmental and hypocritical. Some responses to the book  were skeptical and defensive. Others not only agreed that Christianity had an image problem but they went further. Christianity has a reality problem, that is, contemporary discipleship is often skin-deep and profoundly shallow.

This is not to say that there are no Jesus-followers whose discipleship is deeply rooted in practicing the kingdom of God. It is to say that Christianity’s image problem is often created by Jesus-followers who only know Jesus through the lens of American consumerist religion (“how will this benefit me?”), or American civil religion (“let’s get this country back on track!”), or isolationist separatism (“let’s withdraw from this God-forsaken world!”). Most importantly, this image is created by “disciples” who don’t really know Jesus and thus can’t follow him.

The clash between Christianity’s reality-based image problem and an authentic discipleship is perhaps best illustrated in how Christians tend to approach “sinners.” unChristian claims that it is precisely in this area that Christians are perceived as arrogant, insensitive and judgmental.

I know my reaction is immediately defensive, but my reflection tends to confirm the perceptions.

But before I proceed further, let me focus for a moment on what I mean by “sinners.” I place the word in quotations marks because I want to think about its meaning in the context of the Gospel of Luke. This is Luke’s language for outsiders. They are a class of people who are marginalized, ostracized and avoided by the religious elite who, in turn, influence the devoted faithful to distance themselves from such. They include not only prostitutes and tax collectors but also the poor, the prisoner, and the enslaved. These are the “last” of Jewish society who are intentionally and pervasively shunned by the most devout.

“Sinners,” then, in the Gospel of Luke refers to outsiders, to the unclean, to the powerless within the religious culture of Judaism. And this is the group which Jesus seeks; he seeks “sinners.” This, then, becomes the sore spot, the point of intense critical comment, on the part of the Pharisees and scribes.

This, they think, is Jesus’ weak spot. Cultural perception is on their side. Everyone resents favorable treatment of tax collectors.  Religious folk can make no sense of associating with prostitutes. The powerful wealthy fear any encouragement of the poor. Few might not begrudge a kindness for these groups on occasion, but few would honor the kind of hospitality Jesus shows them. Jesus “welcomes and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

At bottom the parables of Luke 15 defend Jesus approach to “sinners.”

Jesus is the wealthy shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine to find the one that has wandered away. He is the impoverished widow who will turn the house upside down to find a lost silver coin. He is the fleet-footed father who runs to embrace a returning “sinner.”

Jesus is the good shepherd who joyfully slings the found sheep on his shoulder and calls his neighbors together to rejoice with him. Jesus is the excited woman who calls her friends to share her joy in finding her silver coin. He is the exuberant father who slaughtered the fattened calf to celebrate his son’s return.

What was lost has been found. This is reason to celebrate. Jesus underscores this by highlighting the joy heaven itself feels when “sinners” are found. Friends and neighbors rejoice with the shepherd, the woman and the father. The angels in heaven rejoice with them. God rejoices with them. But there is only one person who is not happy. The older brother….and, we should add, the Pharisees and scribes.

The shepherd rejoices….the woman rejoices…the father rejoices, but the brother is angry. Whereas the parables, up to this point, stress jubilation, the brother introduces a contrast that now becomes the climactic focus. It becomes the point. It becomes an invitation.

But the contrast is more dramatic that we realize with our traditional, western and American eyes. Like the Pharisees and scribes, we can certainly see the point of the first two parables. We may be somewhat surprised that a shepherd would leave ninety-nine in the “wilderness” (eremo) to search for only one. And we might be a bit surprised that a woman would turn her whole house upside down for a single coin. But we understand the joy and excitement that comes from the two finds.

What Jewish culture would not understand, however, is the behavior of the father. The division of property before the death of the father was severely discouraged in Second Temple Judaism as it put the family at risk should the family assets come under stress at a later time. The father risked his future by giving the inheritance early. This shamed the father as well as the son in the eyes of the village and clan.

Further, the father is willing to humiliate himself for the sake of his son. The Jerusalem Talmud says that anyone who loses their wealth to the Gentiles should be cut off from the people. The Talmud describes a ritual where a bowl filled with burnt nuts is broken in front of such offenders and the people announce their ban. While the village and clan would exclude this son, the father runs to meet him and welcomes him to a banquet table. The father humiliates himself by running and shames himself by receiving him when one might expect the patriarch of the family to wait in the shadows to receive his son in private. The father is willing to risk cultural critique for the sake of his son.

Why does the father cross these boundaries? Why does the father shame himself? The answer is a single word found in our text: compassion. Compassion moves the father to risk humiliation. It moves him to bear the shame his son deserves. It moves him to rejoice over what has been found. There is no anger. There is no suspicion. There is no dressing down. There is only surprising joy that does not care what others think.

Two different occasions in my memory bring this home for me. On one occasions I confessed sin to a small group of people. One of my elders was in that group and when he heard my confession he came over to me, hugged me, kissed me and kneeled before me in loving forgiveness. That brother knew the father’s compassion. On another occasion, a person whom I deeply loved confessed sin to a couple of his preacher friends and after that confession they never spoke to him again. They did not understand the father’s love. They were more like the elder brother who thinks differently about this situation.

The elder brother is angry. At one level, this makes sense. Indeed, culturally, we would have expected the father to show a bit of anger himself. The young son had shamed the family, put the family at risk, wasted his inheritance, and returned home as a beggar. Can we trust him again? Does he not need to learn a lesson? Should he not have to prove himself? Anger makes sense.

Anger makes sense when there is no compassion. The elder brother reveals his heart when he confronts his father. His relationship with his father is not rooted in love but in servile fear. He has slaved for his father, resented how the father has seemingly withheld gifts from him, and now envies what the father is doing for the younger son. His anger attacks the younger son by particularizing the nature of his lustful waste (he was with prostitutes–he was with “sinners”!). The elder brother served his father out of fear in the hopes that he might be rewarded. He is angry because he fears the loss of his father’s love, or perhaps he fears the further diminishing of his inheritance. He is angry because he is afraid, and he is afraid because his relationship with his father is founded on reward rather than love.

The father, however, also has compassion for his elder son. He humiliated himself for his sake as well as for the younger son. The father leaves his place at the banquet to go out to plead with him. Where he might have demanded his son’s obedience, instead he affirms his love for him. He sees no distinction between what he has and what belongs to the son–the inheritance is all his. The father loves both his sons and wants nothing more than their reconciliation.

The father has two lost sons but one of them stayed home while the other went into the “far country.” The Father loves both lost sons and welcomes both to the table.

Jesus is the father. Jesus welcomes “sinners” (like the returning son) to the table. He runs to them, embraces them, shares gifts with them, and leads them to the table. He seeks them. He approaches them with hospitality, grace and joy. This angers the Pharisees and scribes. They think it inappropriate, unholy and dishonorable.

The difference is that Jesus loves “sinners.” He humbles himself in approaching others; he incarnates himself to join humanity at the table. He is sensitive to their shame as he bears the shame of their meeting and walk together just as he would bear the shame of the cross. He is forgiving as he eats with them in reconciling hospitality just as even now Jesus meets us at the Eucharistic table of joy and mercy.

Indeed, in the larger Christian story, the Father sends the Son into the far country to retrieve and reconcile sinners. The Son becomes a prodigal himself. The Son follows us into the brokenness of the world, is baptized with us, sits with us in the wilderness, goes to the tables of Pharisees and “sinners” alike, and dies in obedience to the way of the Father. We, too, are called to follow the Son into the prodigal far country to be with “sinners.” We are called to be the father in this story just as we have been the prodigal child as well.

Unfortunately, we are too often the elder sibling.  unChristian describes the elder sibling. Rather than demonstrating hospitality we tend to shun “others.” Rather than showing sensitivity we erupt in anger or we are at least indifferent to their situation. Rather than humbling ourselves to bear their shame we arrogantly demand they cross the street to meet us.

It is little wonder that Christians have an image problem. It is acute because we fail to image Jesus himself. Gandhi was right. The problem with Christianity is Christians.

Nevertheless, in his compassion Jesus endures the shame to invite us, the elder siblings, to join the celebration where we might learn to imitate his seeking so that heaven itself might be filled with joy.

*The essence of a sermon delivered at the ACU Summit on September 18, 2013.


A Lament Homily

October 7, 2013

Last week Lipscomb grieved through a student’s death on campus. The University responded wonderfully and in every way. I was asked to speak in chapel last Tuesday. Here is the link if you wish to hear it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMc39Go6d7Q

Micah 2 – Confronting Economic Greed and Injustice

October 3, 2013

While the first half of Micah’s first oracle assured Judah that God was serious in treating them much like he did their northern neighbor Israel. Yahweh, Micah warned Judah, is about to appear at the gates of Jerusalem with the Assyrian army after they devastate the cities of southwestern Judah. In response to the message, Micah modeled lament and encouraged repentance. But Judah’s wound is infected and the transgressions of Israel abound in her.

At the center of this first oracle, found in Micah 1-2, is a specific rationale for Yahweh’s actions against Judah. Micah 2:1-5 identifies the pervasive economic greed and injustice that existed in Judah. This is a significant reason for Judah’s fiery trial. “Therefore,” Yahweh says, “I am devising disaster against this family” (Micah 2:3).

Micah draws a picture of a powerful elite who plot evil in their sleep and then act on it in the morning. What they want is a man’s inheritance, that is, they want his land. More than likely what is envisioned is a scenario where the man of a household has died or suffered some economic loss which has made his land vulnerable to seizure. Wealthy land-grabbers, exploiting the situation of a widow or an economic downturn, illegally (“oppress”) obtain the family’s inheritance. They seize their land which impoverishes the family but enriches the wicked.

“Therefore,” Micah prophesies, just as they had “devise[d] wickedness” (2:1), so Yahweh is “devising disaster” for them. Their elitist and powerful positions will amount to nothing in that day. Instead of strutting around in their pride and haughtiness, Yahweh will humble them. They will lose their status, power, wealth and inheritance. They will lose their “portion” and others (even the captors or “faithless”) will parcel out their land. What they intended to steal from others will be taken from them. Their taunts will come back to haunt them. Instead of boasting in their acquisitions, they will “wail with bitter lamentation.”  As a result, no one will represent them when the lands are divided; there will be “no one to cast the line by lot in the assembly of the Lord.” Their inheritance will be lost…totally. The first will become last.

Such a message is unbelievable; the wealthy will not hear it. They have a counter message. Demanding that Micah stop preaching such nonsense, they can’t imagine that God’s would be so impatient with them as to bring such a disaster upon Judah.  The wealthy ask….

  • Has the Spirit of the Lord grown impatient? Surely Yahweh would not give up on Judah, the Lord’s own people!
  • Are these God’s doings? Surely Yahweh would not do such a thing!

Micah’s response? Oh, yes, God would. Yahweh is already “devising disaster” for Judah. There is no doubt, Micah notes, that God “do[es] good” to those who “walk uprightly.”  But….

This is an important “but.”  The NRSV translates it nicely.

But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses; from their young children you take away my glory forever.

The “you” are the powerful who “devised wickedness” in the night that they might implement it during the day. In other words, Micah once again specifies the rationale for the disaster that Yahweh is now devising for them. The powerful treated their own people as an enemy.

What did they do?  The stripped the peaceful–those who were adverse to war–of their dignity and power.  They took advantage of the peace-makers and turned their power against them. They evicted women and children from their homes as they seized their property. In so doing they have stripped the land of God’s glory since the inheritance of the people was now lost, an inheritance God gave them. These powerful land-grabbers stole from God!

But God will treat them just as they have treated others. Just as they evicted women and children and despoiled peaceful men, so now the powerful will “arise and go” from the land God gave them but without any place to rest. Rather than resting in the land of their God-given inheritance, they will now have nowhere to rest or live. Their actions have corrupted that land and brought down upon themselves a “grievous destruction.” They may soothe themselves with false prophets who promise wine and beer, but their messages are “empty falsehoods” though it scratches the itching ears of these powerful Judeans.

Their wealth and power will not matter. Their prophets are deluded. Their future is sealed. Yahweh will assemble Judah like sheep in a pen and Yahweh himself will lead them in captivity. Judah is going into exile.

Micah 2:12-13 is often read as a message of hope where Yahweh gathers and leads the people out of exile. That is possible and is the majority view. However, some (including Harold Shank in the College Press NIV Commentary series) suggest that the text refers to God’s leading Judah into exile.

This answers the question of whether God would do such a thing. Would  God lead Judah into exile? Did not God send Israel into exile? The answer is that Yahweh will gather them, put them in a pen, and break out of the pen as they break through the gate of a city.  Like a king before his army, so Yahweh will lead the people into captivity.

Yahweh has devised disaster for Judah. The false prophets dismiss the idea. Surely Yahweh would never do such a thing, they think.  But God will, Micah says.

In contemporary Christianity we often imagine the sorts of things that God could or could not do. In fact, some theologies limit God’s hand. God would never bring disaster on a city, right? Does God do such things?

Micah says, Yes, God would, did, and does.

Perhaps we should measure our words carefully lest we agree with the false prophets of Judah.


A Lament Prayer: I Hate Death

October 1, 2013

You, God, who made the heavens and the earth and have promised to remake them, hear my voice.

I plea for a hearing because you often seem so distant to me and sometimes I fear that you do not listen. Awake, O God, and hear my prayer for I struggle once again with death. Death has again invaded my world.

God, I hate death. I trust that you hate it, too. Death is my enemy; it is your enemy as well. It rips apart the very fabric of peace, hope and trust. Where are you in the midst of death, O God? Why, O Lord, do you stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

How, God, does death bring any meaning to your world? Would it not be better…would it not be to your glory…that you would rescue us from death so that we might praise you in the land of the living? Where is your praise in the grave? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?

Lord God, every death raises questions about you, about the meaning of life, and your purposes. I confess that I cannot answer them, and “every death is a question mark”*. Death is like a fog that blinds me.

How Long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever? How long must we have sorrow in our hearts every day? How long must we live with these questions, doubts and tears? When will you rid us of this shroud?

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Arise, O Lord, and destroy this enemy. Redeem us, O God, according to your unfailing love!

God, you are my God, and I entrust my life, including my eventual death, to you.

  • I confess that you, Father, are the maker of heaven and earth.
  • I confess that you, Jesus, were born of woman, lived among us, died with us, rose again for us, and now reign at the right hand of the Father interceding for us.
  • I confess that you, Spirit, are present to transform us and comfort us.

I confess the story is not yet over, and that you, God, will yet rise up and destroy the enemy, and you will give birth to a new world without death and without tears.

Rise up, O God, and give birth to your new world. Create your new world, Father. Comfort us, O Spirit, and come back soon, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

Given in the Gathering (Lipscomb University Chapel) on October 1, 2013 in Nashville, TN in mourning over the death of Isaac Phillips.

*From the song “Come Back Soon” by Andrew Peterson on his “Lost Boys” album.


Micah 1:8-16 – A Lament for the Towns of Judah

September 26, 2013

The fate of Samaria is reason enough to weep (Micah 1:6-7), but Micah’s symbolic act of lament is because Samaria’s incurable wound has come to Judah, even to the gate of Jerusalem itself (Micah 1:9). Micah laments the future of Judah, especially the towns in the southwestern region. This is the region of Micah’s own hometown, Moresheth-Gath.  These are the cities of his childhood and the homes of his own people.

Micah’s lament language is vivid and his actions are symbolic. The word “lament” in Micah 1:8 refers to the act of beating one’s breast. The pain is so deeply felt in the chest that lamenters beat it to express the hurt. The term “wail” may also be translated “howl,” and this makes more sense of the parallel with the jackals and ostriches who are known for their loud, screeching mourning songs.

Micah will not only voice his sorrow, but he will act it out. He will walk barefoot about these cities in a loin cloth (the probable meaning of “naked”). There may be a double meaning here as such attire characterizes captives and slaves as well as mourners.  The prophet’s behavior may not only be an act of lamentation but also a prophetic symbol. Micah preaches, like other prophets have and will, in both word and deed.

Indeed, these towns in the Shephelah of Judah will soon be overrun by Sennacherib’s army in 701 B.C. The Assyrian king established a permanent encampment in Gaza which borders the Shephelah. That army, joined by another that marched down the coast from Tyre to Ashkelon, will defeat an Egyptian force and then march through southwestern Judah. Before it settles at the gate of Jerusalem to lay siege, the Assyrians will destroy 46 walled cities and take over 200,000 captives. The immediate future of these Judean cities is bleak.

Micah’s lament is prophetic warning, but it is also a divine grieving. This is the word of Lord. Micah laments because God laments. The message gives God no pleasure; it carries a bitter taste.

The lament itself (Micah 1:10-16) names eleven cities affected and characterizes their doom in some way. Each characterization is a play on words which is not apparent to English readers but is obvious to those who know Hebrew.

  • Gath — sounds like the Hebrew word for “tell” and might mean something like don’t tell the enemy of our misfortune or don’t speak of the disaster; it is so horrible that we won’t even weep over it.
  • Beth-le-aphrah — means “house of dust” and the city is told to roll itself in the dust as the city will become dust.
  • Shaphir — means “pleasant or beautiful” such that the inhabitants of the beautiful-town will experience devastation; they will experience the nakedness and shame of captivity and lament.
  • Zaanan — sounds like the Hebrew word for “come out;” the inhabitants of the “going out” city will not get away or perhaps that they will “go out” as slaves.
  • Beth-ezel — means “house of another” but the Assyrians will take away any support or help so that they stand alone.
  • Maroth — sounds like the Hebrew word for “bitter;” bitter-town will wait for something good but it will not come.
  • Lachish — sounds like the Hebrew word for “team” (as in a team of horses); Lachish, a fortified city with chariots, is about to do battle as they must hitch up their horses to the chariots.
  • Moresheth-gath — sounds like “dowry;” the inhabitants of the “dowry” town will depart to live with their new husband the King of  Assyria.
  • Achzib — means “deception” and she will prove deceitful to the kings of Israel (Judah?) who depend on her; she will fail to live up to the king’s expectations.
  • Mareshah — sounds like the Hebrew word for “conqueror” and its verbal root means “possessor;” perhaps the pun is that those in the “possessor town” will be possessed by the king of Assyria.
  • Adullam — reminds Judah of the stories of David who hid in the region’s caves; now the glory of Israel will hide in the caves.

The list contains several elements of theological commentary on the devastation of these cities. Lachish, for example, is the beginning of Samaria’s idolatry in Judah. We know that some of kind of idolatrous temple was erected in Lachish and the text probably refers to that (though some think it was the introduction of chariots and horses as a form of military security rather than trusting in Yahweh). Whatever the case, this region–where the invasion of Judah begins–is where the sins of Judah began.

The “disaster” that has come to the “gate of Jerusaelm” is from Yahweh. The term “disaster” literally means “evil,” but it does not necessarily entail a kind of moral evil. Rather, it refers to trouble. Yahweh introduces chaos into Judah and up to the gate of Jerusalem because of Judah’s sins.

After moving through the Shephelah city by city, Micah’s lament ends with a final piece of advice. Parents should join Micah in his mourning ritual. They should cut their hair because their children are going into exile. The “disaster” is devastation and exile.  The wound of Israel is coming to Judah.  It is time to lament.

Nations and communities must learn to lament over their sins and the self-destruction sin brings to a nation or community. Sometimes all we can do is lament as the consequences of sin are inescapable.


New Creation: A Theological Summary

September 24, 2013

“There is the earnest preaching of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come; the development of the guilt of man, the grace of God, the love of Christ, the mystery of the Cross, sin pardoning mercy, adoption into the family of God, with the unction of the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life, of the new earth and the new heavens, &c., &c. These are the soul-stirring, the soul-subduing, the soul-transforming themes of the gospel of the grace of God.”[1]

Alexander Campbell (1865)

Eschatology, epitomized in the idea of “new creation,” is not so much about what happens last and the order in which it happens as much as it is about the future that is already present and at work in the world.

Creation is good, but new creation is better. The creation, though it retains its inherent goodness, is presently frustrated because it is bound over to corruption. It awaits something better; it awaits a glorious liberation. The present bondage will pass away even as the creation itself is gloriously transfigured when the new heavens and new earth appear.

As the present form of the world is even now passing away, the new creation is already present. The children of God experience the first fruits of the new creation through the presence of the Spirit who transforms them from glory to glory. By this the children of God are new creatures renewed in the image of their Creator. Yet the children of God, along with the creation itself, groan for full adoption through the redemption of their bodies. This new humanity, already present by the Spirit through sanctification, will fully appear in the resurrection.

New humanity is grounded in the new human, Jesus the Messiah. The glorified Lord is new creation. He reversed the curse under which creation groans as the kingdom broke into the world through his ministry in the power of the Spirit. He transformed death as the firstborn from the dead by the will of the Father. His Adamic body was transformed into a new body animated by the Spirit of God through which the ascended Messiah reigns in the heavenlies. At the right hand of the Father, ever interceding for the people of God, he has poured out the Spirit upon the church in order to transform them into new community, a new creation. Jesus, as glorified human, will return to redeem humanity and inaugurate the new heavens and new earth so that the glory of the God may fill the creation.

This new humanity embodied in Jesus is the ground of new creation. That new life is our life. Jesus’ new creation kingdom ministry is our ministry. The second Adam’s life-giving body is our future body. Just as the old Adamic life passed away in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, so our lives—inwardly renewed and outwardly redeemed—participate in the new life revealed in the new humanity of the ascended Lord. Just as our old Adamic life is transformed into a new and glorious freedom, so the creation itself will share in the joy of the children of God.

This story—the movement from the old age to the new age—is pregnant with meaning for church, ministry, and life. As new creatures, we live by the ethic of the new creation. As people translated into the kingdom of God, we live as if the kingdom of God has already come. Anticipating the renewal of creation, we pursue environmental care. We embrace the vision, ethic, and mission of the new creation embodied in the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.

This year Harding School of Theology will explore the significant themes, implications, and applications of “new creation” through chapel and special events throughout this academic year. The richness, depth, and visionary importance of this theme define Christianity.

This piece was authored for HST’s Bridge (Summer 2013).


[1] Alexander Campbell, “Orthodox Regeneration,” Millennial Harbinger 4th Series, 5 (September 1865) 494.


Micah 1:2-7 — Yahweh is Coming!

September 9, 2013

The small-town prophet receives a big-time message from Yahweh. Micah announces that Yahweh is coming to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom Israel. This, however, is about more than Israel. It is  Yahweh’s witness against the nations even though it is the nations who devastate Israel.

The opening address functions as a lawsuit where the prophet stands as a prosecutor who represents Yahweh’s interests. The nations and the whole earth are the witnesses. But the nations are also defendants as the Lord’s witness against Israel is also a witness against the nations. If the Lord will not spare Israel, God’s own covenant people, the Lord will not spare the nations. The sins of Israel are also the sins of the nations, and therefore the judgment of Israel is also the judgment of the nations. So, the nations will not only hear the prosecution as witnesses they will also recognize that the lawsuit equally applies to them. When Yahweh comes to Israel, the Lord also sends a message to the nations.

Yahweh comes from the heavenly “holy temple” (cf. Psalm 11:4; Habakkuk 2:20) to “tread upon the high places of the earth.” Micah describes a theophany. God shows up. The movement from the heavenly dwelling place (“holy temple”) to earth is described in apocalyptic terms. The mountains melt like wax before the fire and the valleys split open like rushing water down a steep embankment. God appears as a consuming (melting) fire and terrifies the earth as we are frozen in fear before a rapid gushing down a ravine.

The “high places” are not merely mountain tops. Rather they are the location of mountain sanctuaries for the gods of the nations and the idols of Israel. God is coming to “tread upon the high places of the earth.” Yahweh will appear at the sanctuaries of the gods and the mountains will melt.  God will “tread” or trample those high places and wash them away as with water.  Yahweh’s judgment is directed at the high places.

This is the transgression of both Israel and Judah, both the northern and southern kingdoms. “Transgression” and “high place” parallel each other in Micah 1:5 just as Samaria and Jerusalem do. The whole of God’s people are under judgment; Yahweh is coming to deal with both.

The emphasis, however, is on Israel. This opening section is the only place where Micah mentions Samaria. The rest of the book will address Judah. It is as if what happened to Samaria is Micah’s object lesson not only for the nations but more particularly for Judah. Jerusalem should learn the lesson of Samaria. Their sins resulted in their exile and if Jerusalem does not return to the Lord, Judah will experience the same judgment as Samaria.

Micah 1:6-7 details the reasons and consequences of this judgment.  The consequence is the metaphorical dismantling of Samaria as a city. While the language is often taken as literal in Micah 1:6, there is no archeological evidence for the total destruction and depopulation of the city. There is evidence of a layer of burnt materials as if the city was assaulted, but the city was inhabited until destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 107 B.C.E. The language, like mountains melting, is metaphorical as it describes the social and political devastation that Samaria experienced in 722 B.C.E. at the hands of the Assyrian King Sargon II.

The sins of Israel that invited this judgment are identified in Micah 1:7. “Carved images” and “idols” are parallel with “wages.” The fire that will consume Samaria will also destroy her idolatry. Samaria cannot trust her gods. “Wages” refer to what Israel paid these gods (as if they were paying prostitutes). They used their resources to serve these idols, even perhaps engaging in cultic practices with prostitutes. But the language is probably metaphorical. Israel prostituted herself by using her “wages” to pay for idols and their worship. Idolatry had infected Samaria. This is her sin.

MIcah’s ministry under the reigns of Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah included the time when Samaria fell. The catastrophe appears future but the lament that follows (1:8-16) is more suited to the invasion of Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. It seems most likely that Micah is using a past event (Samaria’s fall) to heighten the drama of Sennacherib’s march through the towns of Judah.  It is as if Assyria marches from the devastation of Samaria to the gates of Jerusalem (even though it is separated by 20+ years). The rhetoric underscores the common sins and plight of Samaria and Jerusalem.

Remember, however, this is not simply about Israel and Judah. It is a “witness” against the nations as well. God may well use Assyria to punish Samaria and Jerusalem, but in so doing they bear witness against themselves. They spell their own doom for the same sins.

Empires may trample others and think themselves justified, even blessed. But their violence bears the seed of their own destruction. “Hear, O peoples,” and watch how the Lord works among the nations.


Revelation 12:7-12 — How Might This War Be Won?

September 6, 2013

Then a war broke out in heaven!

That does not seem a likely place for a war. How can there be a war in heaven? Part of the answer is the two signs that appeared “in heaven” (Revelation 12:1-4). One sign represented the faithful people of God and the other Satan. One represented Israel and the other the powers of Rome. One gave birth to the Messiah while the other sought to devour him. The Messiah was born and when he ascended to the throne, a battle ensued.

The accession of the Messiah to the throne, in principle, spelled the doom of the dragon. He was already defeated. The son cannot be knocked off his throne. Nevertheless, there was a war.

While the fight, like in Daniel 10, is described as taking place in heaven between angelic beings–between Michael’s angels and the dragon’s angels, it was really a war fought upon the earth. The war in heaven is no contest, but the struggle on the earth is a test. But the contest on earth wins the war in heaven!

The dragon–Satan, the devil, the ancient serpent–is cast out of heaven. He has no power there; the throne is already occupied. The dragon, wearing diadems, seeks power. Satan wants to rule, but there is “no longer any place for [him] in heaven.” The struggle has moved from heaven to earth. The son assumed the throne through faithful obedience. Heaven is decided, but the earth is still contested. Consequently, this calls for “endurance” on the part of the saints (Revelation 14:12). Their faithfulness is the key to the battle on the earth (Revelation 13:10).

When the throne of the son was secured and the dragon was thrown back to earth, “a loud voice in heaven” heralded the situation. The announcement is significant as it lays out the stakes in the war that continues upon the earth even though heaven is at secure.  Here is what the voice said (Revelation 12:10-12):

Now have come the salvation
and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah!
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They have overcome him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony.
They did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who inhabit them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows his time is short.

Similar to Revelations 11:15, this announcement proclaims the reality of the kingdom of God. Heaven is secured. The salvation of the martyrs is accomplished, and God has effected the reign of God in heaven. This is true because the accuser (Satan) is no longer present. Through the faithful obedience of the son and the martyr the accuser has been booted.

Zechariah 3 portrayed an angelic figure who stood before the Lord to accuse Israel of unfaithfulness which, in effect, prevented Israel’s restoration. That accuser, present in the heavenly court, was like a prosecuting attorney. God dismissed the accuser then and does so now as well. Once Satan accused the people of God “day and night” in the heavenly throne room, but no longer. He has been cast out, hurled down to earth.

But how was Satan defeated? Was it a mere exertion of divine power? Was it pure might rather than right? Quite the contrary. It was not power in the conventional sense at all. Rather, it was through the weakness of the cross. It was by the blood of the Lamb and the testimony of the faithful. This does not refer to some kind of penal blood atonement. Rather, it refers to martyrdom which is the result of faithful obedience. It is the suffering of both the Lamb and the martyrs–together they have defeated the accuser. They gave their lives in obedience to God. They were faithful even to the point of dying; their death was their testimony.  The martyrs–including the Lamb–defeated the powers of Satan. Faithfulness defeats the accuser.

In the same way Job defeated the accuser. Does Job serve God for nothing? (Job 1:6), the accuser asked. There is no one who serves God out of love; they all serve him for reward.  But Job proved the satan wrong.  While Job lamented and wailed (like the martyrs in Revelation as well), Job neither cursed nor forsook God. Evil is defeated by doing good; good overcomes evil. Faithful obedience subverts evil.

This is how the victory is won in Revelation. The message of the book calls saints to faithful endurance, to the faithful witness of martyrdom. There is no battle cry except the willingness to sacrifice their lives. There is no call for violent revolution but only the willingness to suffer violence from the kingdom of this world for the sake of the kingdom of God. While faithful witness defeats the dragon, violence would only serve the dragon’s interests.

Heaven rejoices because the saints do not take up the sword but put their necks under it. The “heavens” and its inhabitants (the angelic hosts) are invited to rejoice.  Heaven has been cleared of Satanic powers by the faithful obedience of the Lamb and his followers.

But…and this is an important “but”…the drama is not over. The dragon has been cast out of heaven but still stalks the earth. The earth and the sea are yet subject to the dragon’s hostile activity. The destroyers of the earth (Revelation 11:18) are still at work within the creation. The devil is angry and is looking to make the most of the short time given him.

The “short time” is the same as the 1260 days (or 42 months or 3 1/2 years) that the godly woman hides in the wilderness and the two prophets witness to the nations. It represents the time God has permitted for the persecutors. It is a short time; it is not forever. But it is a deadly test, a time when the followers of the Lamb will be tried by fire.

Heaven has been cleared. The earth awaits redemption. What is our witness?


Revelation 12:1-6 — Two Signs in Heaven

September 5, 2013

The drama of the second (Revelation 4:1-16:20) has not yet ended. We are yet in the middle of it. Heaven has opened the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:5) and sounded the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19) but we have not yet seen the final, climatic bowls of wrath (Revelation 15-16).  sandwiched between the trumpets and the bowls is the dramatic story of war in heaven and war upon the earth. It functions similar to the interludes that came between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7) and trumpets (Revelation 10:1-11:14). This “interlude” identifies the players in the drama.

It is as if someone has hit the pause button on one screen–the drama of the unfolding sevens–and our attention has been arrested by another screen. The “interlude” of Revelation 12-14 will take us back to the beginning of the story as it reminds us that the conflict between God and the kingdom of this world is a long one.  The conflict was waged in the Garden of Eden, on the shores of the Red Sea, and in the birth and ministry of Jesus. What the followers of the Lamb experience is nothing new; the world powers have always opposed the kingdom purposes of God. The “interlude” identifies and describes the “war.”

John introduces the conflict by describing two signs that appear “in heaven.” The first sign is a woman clothed in creation itself–robed in the sun, standing on the moon and the twelve stars on her head in the form of a victory wreath (stephanos).  The second sign is a blood-red dragon whose seven heads were diadems and whose tail creates havoc on the earth by showering it with a third of the stars. The woman affirms creation while the dragon destroys it. The woman wears a victory wreath like the martyrs while the dragon rules the earth as a destroyer of the earth (cf. Revelation 11:18). The woman is God’s beloved while the dragon is God’s enemy.

Startlingly, the woman is pregnant and feels the birth pangs. She is about to give birth. The dragon menacingly stands in front of her ready to destroy whatever comes out of her. The birth is part of God’s redemptive story and the dragon opposes it.

A son is born. The son, protected by God, inherits a throne when he ascends to God. The dragon’s purpose is frustrated. Though the dragon wears seven royal diadems, the son assumes the throne. The son will reign rather than the dragon. The woman flees the anger of the dragon; she flees from the dragon into the wilderness for safety, a place prepared by God.

God delivers the son by snatching him up to heaven, but the woman is left upon the earth. She hides in the wilderness where she will stay for 1260 days or three and one half years (42 months).

Who are these “people”? What is happening?

The one certain identification in the text is the identity of the son. John gives us an interpretative key. He is the one who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This alludes to Psalm 2 where God’s anointed king will inherit the earth and the nations will experience God’s wrath. Revelation 11:18 also alluded to Psalm 2. The reign of the kingdom of the anointed (Messiah) began when the son was ascended to the right hand of God to sit upon his throne. The birth and ascension of Jesus are described in Revelation 12:5; the rest of the story–what filled the pages between those two events–is assumed. The readers know the history of the faithful witness who went to the cross in obedience to the Father and was raised from the dead to ascend to the throne. The son reigns.

Who is the woman?  We might say Mary and this would be partly correct but not mainly correct. The woman represents something much greater than Mary herself. The woman appears “in heaven.” The woman wears the martyrs victory wreath. The woman is those who have overcome, but those who overcame before the birth of the Messiah. The woman is faithful Israel. She gives birth to the Messiah. Mary, of course, represented Israel as the one through whom the Messiah came. So, at one level–a literal level–the woman is Mary, but the point is symbolic. Mary represents Israel. The chosen people of God gave birth to Jesus. Perhaps at even deeper level the woman represents Eve from whom the whole of humanity has come; she is the mother of all. She is the one whose seed would crush the serpent’s head. So, we might read this at three levels–Eve, Israel and Mary.

Who is the dragon? As with Mary, we might say that at a literal level the dragon is Herod who sought to destroy the Christ child in Bethlehem. But again the dragon is “in heaven” and the seven crowns and ten horns describe something much larger than Herod himself. The symbolic picture at least leads us to Roman power. Rome, as a world power, opposes the kingdom of God. In Revelation 17 we will see “seven heads and ten horns” explicitly identified with Roman imperial authority. It is not only Herod who seeks to destroy Christ; it is Roman power itself. But there is a cosmic dimension to this figure. The dragon is “in heaven” and is an enemy of the cosmos itself. Indeed, the dragon is identified in Revelation 12:9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan.” This is the one who opposed Eve herself and led the original couple astray even as he now leads the “whole world astray.” So, we might read this at three levels as well–Serpent, Rome and Herod.

Who, then, is the woman who flees?  She flees into the wilderness just as Israel fled from the armies of Pharoah into the wilderness for safety. But the woman is more than Israel at this point. The woman represents the whole people of God. This is indicated by the length of time she will stay in the wilderness.  It is the same length of time that the two witnesses in Revelation 11 prophesied against the ruling powers. Just as the two prophets represent a witnessing church, so here the hiding woman symbolizes the one people of God, now composed of Jew and Gentile.

The trial that has come upon the whole earth is the result of a cosmic battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. The cosmic powers of evil are warring against the faithful people of God. This was true in the Garden. It was true at the Red Sea. It was true at the cross. It was true in first century Asia Minor. It is still true. The war is not yet over.


On Reading Micah (Micah 1:1)

September 4, 2013

Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, was from a small town 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem called Moresheth near the Philistine city of Gath. Micah was a rural prophet while Isaiah was close to the seat of power in Jerusalem. Ministering during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (ca. 750-686 B.C.), he lived in momentous times.

During the time of these Judean kings, the northern part of Israel is annexed by Assyria. By 740 B.C. Tiglath-Pileser (745-727 B.C.) had conquered all of Syria (Aram). In 734 B.C., the Assyrian Emperor acquired a permanent foot in Palestine by annexing what was northern Israel (essentially the Galilee region) and setting up a base of operations near Gath. By 732 all the nations in the Levant were paying Assyria tribute.

When Israel foolishly thought they might remove Assyria’s yoke and refused to pay the tribute, Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.) besieged and sacked Samaria in 723/722 B.C. Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) then subjugated Palestine as the smaller states paid tribute as well as putting down a revolt in Egypt in 720 B.C. He had to put down another revolt among the small states in 711 B.C.

When Sargon was assassinated in 705 B.C., the king of Judah–Hezekiah– rebelled along with some of the small states in the region as well as Babylon. They were all hopeful that Egypt would rebel as well. But Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) ended their hopes by 701 B.C. While Sennacherib did not sack Jerusalem, he decimated the Judean countryside.

In 1830 a six-sided clay prism inscribed on six sides was found in Nineveh in 1830. It is now in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.  prism1It describes how Hezekiah “would not submit to my yoke” and so he “took forty-six of his strong fenced cities” along with “smaller towns.” He “plundered a countless number.”  He took 200,156 prisoners, “old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude.” As for Hezekiah, he shut him up “in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage.” Eventually, he claims, Hezekiah paid a high tribute, including “thirty talents of gold and 800 talents of silver” along with other “rich and immense booty.”

As a result of this, Sennacherib established a policy (along with his successor Esarhadon [681-669 B.C.]) of non-interference with Judah–as long as Judah did not interfere with the “Via Maris” (the trade route by the sea).  Consequently, Judah remained an independent state.

Micah lived through these turbulent times. He probably experienced numerous Assyrian incursions (including the exile of Israel and its capital Samaria) and especially the devastating invasion of 701 B.C. when Judah was raped by Assyrian power.

What does a prophet say to a people who lived under such powerful threats and through such devastation? This is the message of Micah. It is a filled with warnings and woes, but also hope and witness. Micah laments the fall of Samaria  and warns Judah that they are next if they do not renew their covenant with Yahweh. Micah wants to turn Judah back to God.

The text, as we have it, easily divides into three sermons or homilies. Each begins with the summons to “Listen” ( The first (Micah 1-2) moves from lament over the fall of so many Judean cities (1:2-16) to a rationale for their destruction (2:1-11) but leaves Judah with a hopeful future (2:12-13). The second sermon (Micah 3-5) pronounces judgment upon political and religious leaders (3:1-12) and then glories in Yahweh’s return to his people through a new David (4:1-5:14).  The third sermon (Micah 6-7) begins with a covenant lawsuit (6:1-8) along with a rationale for the judgment of Judah (6:9-16) followed by a lament (7:1-6) but again ends in hope (7:7-20).

Micah’s sermons have a similar pattern. He begins with a lawsuit or judgment oracle, expresses lament, and then offers hope.

Surrounded by the nations and living under the threat of imperial pressure, Judah must choose in whom she will trust. The political dynamics are addressed by Isaiah but Micah, presumably speaking to the rural people of the land in Judah, calls for a faithful life that trusts in the promises of Yahweh. This is where Judah will find hope, peace and security.

The final verses of Micah tell the underlying story. God forgives and delights in steadfast love (hesed). God has not forgotten. God is faithful. God will remember his promise to Abraham.

Though the days are dark, the story is not over.


Revelation 11:15-19 — A Climactic Announcement

August 31, 2013

The drama of Revelation’s second vision (Revelation 4:1-16:21) comes to a climactic moment when the seventh trumpet sounds. The whole of heaven–the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, myriads of angels and the great multitude–have seen the seven seals opened and all seven trumpets sounded. Heaven anticipates something dramatic.

The seventh horn is trumpeted and “loud voices in heaven” announce the coming reality.

 “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

The significance of this announcement is difficult to overestimate. It is the goal of God’s work in the world, that is, that the reign of God through the Messiah would destroy hostile powers and fill the earth. It is the essence of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.”

The announcement comes as an accomplished fact to which the twenty-four elders respond. The “loud voices in heaven” are apparently the heavenly host, or perhaps God’s own inner circle (such as the four living creatures).  The redeemed, represented by the twenty-four elders, respond by getting off their thrones, falling prostrate before God and worshipping the one who sits on the throne.

We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
     who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
     and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
     and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
     and for rewarding your servants the prophets
          and your saints and those who reverence your name
both small and great
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

The thanksgiving hymn explains the meaning of the announcement. It is a eucharistic offering to the Pantokrator (Almighty) Lord God–the one who sits on the throne as the who always has been and continues to be–who now has begun to execute his reign on the earth through his great power. The “time” has come and God’s “wrath” has come.

This timing is about the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and promises. It is for what the church has prayed. Psalm 2 forms the backdrop for the hymn. The nations have raged against God, but now the time of God’s wrath has come (cf. Psalm 2:1-5). The nations have raged against God’s anointed (God’s Christ), but now God’s reign will defeat the kingdom of this world (cf. Acts 4:24-30). The hopes of Psalm 2 are now realized.

The transformation of the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God’s Christ is the moment when the world is set right, when God’s righteousness prevails. This “setting right of the world” involves judging the dead–the righteous (holy ones [saints], prophets and those who fear God’s name) are rewarded and those who destroy the earth are themselves destroyed. The hostile powers to the kingdom of God are overthrown because they are bent on destruction. They have martyred the saints of God but the martyrs have overcome through martyrdom.  The church–the martyred witnesses of Revelation 11–is not delivered from martyrdom but through martyrdom. This is victory.

What, however, is the meaning of this announcement at this point in the drama of Revelation? Many readers of the Apocalypse divide the book at this point into two halves, chapters 1-11 and 12-22. I think this ignores the literary and visionary divisions within the book (“in the Spirit” at 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). The recurrent theophanic description (“peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake”) unites the second vision (4:5; 8:5; 11:19 and 16:18) as it concludes the seven seals, thunders and bowls of wrath. Chapters 4-16 function as a unit that progressively describes the disintegration and end of an empire (the seals only affect 1/4 of the earth, the trumpets 1/3, and the bowls of wrath the whole earth).

The climatic announcement at Revelation 11:15, then, comes in the middle of this progression within the second vision. Even though it announces an accomplished fact, the drama is not yet complete. The final battle has not yet been won. The temple of God is still in heaven (Revelation 11:19) rather than coming to the new earth as the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-5). The drama has not yet reached its final stage; the story is not over.

So, what is the point of the announcement if it has not yet happened in the flow of the drama? In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, heaven itself announces the future as if it has already happened. Among Hebrew prophets this is known as the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as it if it were a past event; the future is as certain as the past.

Heaven is certain, and consequently the saints on the earth who are suffering and dying may be certain as well, that the future reign of God will fully come. The nations (including Rome) will be defeated, the martyrs will be rewarded, and the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of God and the Christ. God will win.

The church is encouraged to follow the Lamb like the two witnesses in Revelation 11. Even though the nations rage against God’s anointed people, God’s wrath will one day destroy those who are destroying the earth. Empires will fall, and the kingdom of God will fill the earth.

That future is as certain as the past.  Thanks be to God!


Revelation 11:1-14 – The Witnessing Church

August 24, 2013

On the heels of John’s prophetic commission in Revelation 10:8-11, he is tasked with measuring the temple of God but not its outer court. The prophetic message of Revelation 11 envisions a period of time when God’s people will faithfully witness before the nations. Indeed, the “two witnesses” will imitate the pattern of the Lamb–they will prophesy, they will be martyred, and they will be vindicated through resurrection and ascension. The faithful witness of the church follows the pattern of the Lamb and God does not abandon the witnesses.

Just as the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals focused on sealed but suffering believers (Revelation 7), so this interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets reveals a measured but suffering church. The interludes address the situation of the church in the midst of a hostile but collapsing empire. The hope of believers is victory and their role is faithful witness.

There are some difficult problems of interpretation in Revelation 11. What is the temple? What is the outer court? Who are the “two witnesses”? What is the “great city” that, in part, collapses? One’s general approach to Revelation will, in large measure, determine the answers to these questions. There is little need to argue this in detail in a brief blog, but it is important to understand the flow of the drama pictured it.

The first moment in the drama is the measurement of the temple. This imagery is drawn from Ezekiel 40:3 and Zechariah 2:1-5. God declares ownership; the temple belongs to the one who sits on the throne. The owner measures the temple. But where is this temple? The only other use of “temple” is in Revelation 11:19 which places the temple “in heaven.” Temple imagery in Revelation is always located “in heaven,” that is, in God’s throne room. Much like Revelation 7:9-17, God’s temple and its worshippers are protected and victorious. Nothing will assault the throne room of God. The temple, then, is–analogous to the 144,000 in Revelation 7–are the sealed people of God whose suffering will overcome the enemy.

However, the “outer court” is unmeasured. Rather, it will be given over to the nations who will trample not only it but the whole “holy city for 42 months.”  The adjective “holy” indicates that we are still talking about the people of God. In one perspective, they are protected and victorious (in the throne room of God), but from another perspective they are under attack.  Indeed, the beast from the Abyss kills the two witnesses (11:7). The imagery is drawn from Daniel 7:21-25. In the second century B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes waged war against the saints and trampled the temple in Jerusalem for a “time, times, and a half” (or 3 and 1/2 years; cf. Daniel 12:5-6). In Revelation 11 the beast makes war against the outer court and the holy city, including the two witnesses. This war will last only for a limited time (1260 days is half of seven years, which is a complete number). The beast wages war against the church and is able to inflict suffering (martyrdom) upon it. The beast (the nations) trample the people of God (the outer court) but the beast cannot destroy the temple (the inner court or sanctuary).

The “two witnesses” are clearly prophetic figures (called “prophets” in 11:10). Their description draws heavily on prophetic images in the Hebrew Bible.  Like Elijah (and John the Baptist) they wear sackcloth. Like Moses they turn water into blood and strike the earth with plagues. Like Elijah they stop the rain. Like Jeremiah they breathe fire (Jeremiah 5:14). Like Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest they are God’s anointed olive trees to serve the whole earth (Zechariah 4). They are lampstands. They are the church. The number two is chosen because the Torah required two witnesses for convicting testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15). The church has a prophetic role in the world.

Their testimony, however, comes at a cost. The two witnesses are killed by the beast and their bodies are left exposed in the “great city.” Every use of the “great city” in Revelation refers to the hostile empire that oppresses the followers of the Lamb (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21). This “great city” is not the “holy city.”  The “holy city” is the church which is trampled by the nations while the “great city” is the hostile empire–empires like Sodom, Egypt and Rome. The reference to “where also their Lord was crucified” does not mean the literal city in which Jesus died but rather the “great city” that killed Jesus, that is, Rome. The two witnesses will suffer the same fate as their Lord; they will die at the hands of a cruel empire, Rome. Just as Rome crucified the Lamb in Jerusalem, so Rome will display the death of Christian martyrs as spectacles of its power within the empire (the “great city”).

“The inhabitants of the earth,” that is, the followers of the beast, who come from every “people, tribe, language, and nation” (like victorious believers in Revelation 7 who also come from every people, tribe, language, and nation) rejoice over the death of the two witnesses. They glory in the death of the martyrs. It is part of their festive activities as they give gifts to each other. One might hear an allusion to the games in which Christians were martyred during the Roman empire.

One also might hear in Revelation 11 the echo of the cry of the martyrs.  “How long, O Lord” (Revelation 6:9-11). Some believe that Psalm 79 provides a backdrop for the theology of this chapter. The Psalmist laments the destruction of the temple and asks “How Long, O Lord?” They plead for God to pour out wrath upon the nations and to “pay back” their “neighbors seven times.”

Indeed, in Revelation 11 one tenth of the city collapses and seven thousand are killed. 7,000 is a symbolic number (perhaps an allusion to the 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal during Elijah’s prophetic ministry). The city suffers a major disaster but it is not complete. God judged the “great city” (Rome) for its injustice and it appears many turned to God as a result (“feared and gave glory to the God of heaven”). The witness of the faithful martyrs in the context of God’s transformative work of judgment has a positive effect on some.

But the church itself–the two witnesses who ae martyred–is vindicated. The dead witnesses are raised and they ascend into heaven in a cloud.  The witnesses follow the pattern of the Lamb–witness, death, resurrection and ascension. In other words, like the 144,000, as they pass through the trials and overcome through faith, they are received into the throne room of God as victors (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). The witnesses defeat the empire through martyrdom. The witnesses join the assembly around the throne in God’s heavenly temple. This is their “resurrection.” This is not a picture of their literal bodily resurrection, but–like Revelation 7–the movement of the witnesses from earth to heaven, from suffering to victory in the throne room of God (that is, the heavenly temple).

The church is God’s prophetic witness against empires. This is part of its role in the present chaotic world. The witness is not about predicting specific facts or imperial history about the future, but it is a witness that proclaims that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God. It is a witness that opposes violence, idolatry, and immorality. It is a witness that God will judge the empires because of their greed, violence, and oppressive power.

But empires kill peacemakers. Rome crucified Jesus and martyred his followers. Empires still kill peacemakers. Empires still oppose the church’s witness. Unfortunately, the church often silences its own witness in the wake of imperial holidays, pledges of allegiance, and imperial benefaction (giving credit to the empire for peace and safety rather than to God).

Followers of the Lamb oppose empires and bear witness against its imperial designs. Like the Lamb, they may suffer and die for that witness, but like the Lamb, God will vindicate them and receive faithful witnesses into the throne room as victors in the conflict between good and evil.


Psalm 3: Yahweh is My Shield

August 22, 2013

Israel read this Psalm against the backdrop of David’s flight from Absalom whose coup d’etat had removed David as King.  The fears and uncertainty aroused by that event provide an emotional context for reading this Psalm. While others may fear for the Psalmist, the Psalmist has no fear. Rather, the Psalmist trusts.

The three-fold use of “many” in verses 1-2 stress the enormous obstacles that this believer faces. Many foes have risen against the Psalmist and many are voicing their doubt about whether God’s faithfulness. The central taunt is that God will not rescue this believer.  Many say that the believer should expect no victory, no salvation, no deliverance. All is lost as far as they are concerned. They believe that God has abandoned the Psalmist.

This fear is common for believers. We often find reason to doubt God’s good intentions for us. We often feel abandoned. Fear often thrives rather than faith, and we sometimes lose our assurance that God is good. This may be particularly true when we hear what “many” are saying. We listen to other voices rather than trust God’s good intentions.

The Psalmist, however, turns to Yahweh in prayer. Three times the Psalmist addresses Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel (3:1, 3, 7).

  • Yahweh, you know how many are against me!
  • Yahweh, I will trust your care for me.
  • Yahweh, rise up and deliver me!

Just as the “many” see no hope for the Psalmist, Yahweh heard this believer’s cry and answered from Zion, God’s holy hill. This response and the assurance of God’s care enables the Psalmist to sleep as Yahweh provides sustenance.  Believers can rest when they are confident that God loves them. This eradicates whatever fear the Psalmist feels about the “thousands” (the “many”) and what they are saying or doing.

Surrounded by hostile powers and living in a hostile environment, believers may very well doubt God’s presence and care. We are sometimes overwhelmed with “thousands” of problems and circumstances that hinder us from living in trust without anxiety. We know this situation well. We have a daily struggle with worry or fear.

The Psalmist trusts Yahweh who is both a shield and the glory of believers. Yahweh protects like a shield; Yahweh defends believers. Moreover, Yahweh is the glory of believers. Rather than shamed by opposition or defeated by fears, we know that God lifts our heads. God raises us in glory and removes all shame as our heads are lifted up. Rather than defeated and shamed by the enemy, God glorifies and honors us.

What does it mean for God to lift up our heads? Life bows our heads sometimes in fear, sometimes in shame. Sometimes we don’t want to face life because we are filled with fear. For God to lift our heads is to enable us to look life in the eye without shame or fear because God’s glory shines in our faces. God honors us. Yahweh lifts our heads so that we might experience God’s gracious presence and loving protection.  Knowing God’s care for us–Yahweh is our shield, we trust that God will hear our cry and answer our prayer. Consequently, we rest peacefully at night and awake in the morning with renewed strength.

The Psalmist’s first prayer was that Yahweh would recognize how hostile and troubled the situation had become. The second prayer affirmed Yahweh’s presence and good intentions for the Psalmist.  The third prayer, however, calls God to act against those hostile to God’s purposes.

The imprecation in 3:7 is quite vivid. The Psalmist prays that God would break the teeth of the wicked. This is covenantal language as “breaking teeth” is the punishment given to those who break covenants (agreements or contracts). It is a prayer for justice against covenant-breakers.

What the “many” supposed is reversed. Yahweh will save (deliver) the Psalmist through setting things right and God will act justly against the wicked who opposed the Psalmist.

“Salvation belongs to Yahweh”–the Psalmist appeals to the God of Israel and seeks God’s blessing on upon God’s people. The ending is not dissonant with the Psalm itself since the “salvation” which belongs to God’s people is the very thing that “many” said was denied to the Psalmist but for which the Psalmist prayed.  God responds out of covenant faithfulness to deliver the covenant people. The Psalmist trusts Yahweh who is Israel’s covenant God, and God keeps covenant promises.

Salvation belongs to Yahweh!


Revelation 10: John’s Prophetic Call

August 16, 2013

After the fourth trumpet an eagle soared across the sky to announce the first of three woes (Revelation 8:13). The second woe followed the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:12). As readers we expect to hear the third woe after the sixth trumpet in order to  transition to the seventh trumpet. Instead, the third woe does not appear until Revelation 11:14.  Like the pause between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7), the drama again pauses between the sixth and seventh trumpets (Revelation 10:1-11:13). The pauses have similar functions.

The “interlude” of Revelation 7–coming between the sixth (6:12-17) and the seventh seals (8:1-5)–answered the question who could stand in day when the wrath of God and the Lamb is poured out on the inhabitants of the earth? The answer is those whom God has sealed and when those whom God has sealed pass through the trials of life (particularly the martyrs) they stand before the throne of God in victory.

The “interlude” of Revelation 10:1-11:13–coming between the sixth (9:13-21) and the seventh trumpets (11:14-19)–affirms John’s prophetic call and blesses the faithful witness of the church. In other words, the drama of judgment pauses to again describe the condition of the church as it endures the consequences of Roman hostility and God’s judgment of Rome. More specifically, it describes the function of the church during this cataclysmic period of history, that is, to bear witness to gospel and proclaim God’s message.

The first half of the “interlude” or “pause” affirms John’s prophetic call. John stands in the tradition of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, especially–as several allusions confirm–Ezekiel and Daniel. The first half of Revelation 10 is modeled after Daniel while the second half of Revelation 10 follows the lead of Ezekiel. John appropriates the apocalyptic images and prophetic acts of these two prophets.  In effect, this not only confirms John’s call, but it also says that his message participates in the tradition of those prophets, that is, apocalyptic messages of judgments against nations. John has been given the apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah that God’s people might know the end to which the empire will come in answer to their prayers for justice.

Revelation 10:1-7 reflects the apocalyptic and prophetic traditions of Daniel 10:5-6 and 12:4-7.  Like Daniel, John sees a great or mighty angel(s) who appears for dramatic announcements. John sees an angel (1) robed in a cloud, (2) crowned with a rainbow, (3) a bright sun-like face, and (4) legs like fiery pillars. Each of these images are divine metaphors drawn from both apocalyptic literature and the Hebrew Bible.  For example, the cloud and fiery pillars remind us of the divine presence in the wilderness during Israel’s wanderings. The rainbow was previously seen in the divine throne room (Revelation 4:3) and the bright face reminds us Roman images of their gods. The angel (messenger) brings a divine message dressed in the metaphors of a divine commission.

Further, the angel is holding a “little book” (biblaridion). What is this “little book”? As is clear from the rest of the chapter, it contains a prophetic message that John is to announce to the nations. But the difficult question is the relation of this “little book” to the “book” (biblios) whose seals the Lamb has opened.  The book lies open and unsealed in the hand of the angel. It seems reasonable to connect the two without identifying them. In other words, it might be that the “little book” is part of the “book” though not necessarily the whole of it.  Whatever the case, the angel brings the book as part of John’s prophetic commission and it stands in continuity with the book the Lamb opened if not part of it.

The appearance of the scroll in the hand of the angel may also mean that further warnings are issued through the seven thunders before the message of the book will be fully implemented. When the angel descended to earth, the angel shouted and the seven thunders roared.  They are about to roll through the earth just as the trumpets. The angel may have appeared to release the thunders. But a “voice from heaven” shut down their revelation. God decides that the voice of the thunders will be sealed up; they will go unheard. John is forbidden to write them down.  In effect, there will be no more warnings.  The seals and the trumpets were sufficient warning.

If the purpose for sealing the thunders was unclear, the mighty angel clarifies so no one will misunderstand. The picture here is foreboding–the angel has one foot on the earth and one on the sea. The angel represents power over all chaos, over the whole planet.  The angel then swears or declares an oath with the right hand raised to heaven (God). The God by whom the angel swears is the everlasting Creator of everything that exists and the language reminds us of Revelation 5:13. The whole creation worships the one who sits on the throne and the angel swears by the Creator.

The message is significant:  “There will be no more delay! But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”

The message is good news. What God “announced” to the prophets was, more literally, “gospeled”  to them. It was a proclamation of good news.  God has good news for the faithful witnesses who have struggled against the empire and refused to compromise. The announcement,then, is encouragement for the faithful; God has not forgotten their cry for justice.

The good news is the accomplishment of the mystery of God. The good news, over which the angels themselves rejoice, is that the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God which is heralded when the seventh trumpet sounded (Revelation 11:15).  The good news is that the faithful witness of the martyrs will be vindicated, and God will set things right. The empire will fail to destroy the people of God and the empire will collapse under the weight of its own sin. The mystery of God–what the martyrs wanted to see but was hidden from them–will be revealed when the martyrs are vindicated.  There will be no more delay; judgment is coming.

Revelation 10:8-11 reflects the apocalyptic and prophetic traditions of Ezekiel 2:8-3:3. John is told to do what Ezekiel was told to do, that is, to eat the scroll. To eat the scroll is to digest the message of the book. It is to accept the commission to prophesy the message of the Apocalypse, or to declare the fulfillment of the mystery of God.

Like with Ezekiel, the book tastes sweet on the tongue but is bitter to the stomach. The commission is received with joy and hope but the message is a sour one. It is a message of woe, mourning, and judgment.  It is good news for God’s faithful witnesses, but it is judgment for the inhabitants of the earth. But the message, as we will see in Revelation 11, contains a sour note even for the followers of the Lamb as many are yet to suffer for their witness.

The significance of eating the book is clear from the words of commission in Revelation 10:11:  “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.” John will speak a divine message regarding nations and kings, against empires and Caesars.  God has heard the cries of the martyrs and now commissions John to speak the truth about empire. John stands in relation to the Roman empire just as Ezekiel stood in relation to Jerusalem–he is given a prophetic, even apocalyptic, message of judgment.

John eats the book, and therefore he “must prophesy.” John must proclaim the judgment given him. This is his prophetic call.


Psalm 2 – God Reigns Over the Nations

August 14, 2013

Psalm 1 counseled wisdom. Worshippers, as they pray, mediate and sing the Psalms, align themselves with the way of righteousness. Psalm 2 assures these worshippers that Yahweh reigns and even the nations must ultimately submit to the God of Israel. Psalm 2, then, as a further introduction to the Psalter, grounds the worship of and prayers to Yahweh in God’s universal reign. Yahweh provides wisdom through the Torah (Psalm 1) and Yahweh rules the cosmos (Psalm 2). With these themes in hand, the door is open to walk through the hills and valleys of the Psalter.

Psalm 2 offers its theological vision in four strophes. The first depicts the nations in rebellion (1-3) while the second identifies Yahweh as the true locus of sovereignty in the world (4-6). The third affirms the role of Yahweh’s king among the nations (7-9) while the fourth offers some advice for the kingdoms of the earth (10-12). The outer strophes focus on Yahweh’s relationship to the nations while the inner two strophes focus on Yahweh’s own sovereignty.

This is the voice of faith. Israel royal history gives no evidence that other nations (especially empires) should fear Yahweh’s king. Israel (and later the much smaller Judah) are surrounded by vast empires like Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Their power dwarfs that of Judah. Like Jerusalem (Zion), the nation itself is a small ridge surrounded by higher mountains. In the larger scheme of things, Jerusalem is nothing but a small regional power. Judah’s territory would easily fit between Nashville and Knoxville, TN!

The Psalm’s boldness is profound. It is little wonder that the nations mock Yahweh’s anointed. The nations will simply throw off whatever shackles that Israel might suppose enslaves them. There is no contest.

But the Psalmist, and Israel’s gathered worshippers, see the world through the lens of faith. They envision Yahweh enthroned in the heavens. God reigns over the nations. Eyes of faith can see this when Israel is gathered for worship. Singing and praying the Psalms they see the world as faith envisions it. Yahweh is enthroned and the nations will serve Israel’s God.

Yahweh’s enthronement also means that God’s anointed represents the reign of God in the world. Yahweh anoints a king, calls him “Son,” and gives him an inheritance which is the whole earth. The reign of the king in Israel, then, is a sign of hope; it is the covenant faithfulness of God. The king symbolizes God’s commitment to the Abrahamic promises. Consequently, the enthronement of the king is something to celebrate, and that may be the origin of this Psalm originally. It is one of the “royal Psalms.”

The nations will be judged by how they treat God’s anointed. Cautioned and warned, the nations should serve Yahweh and “kiss the son.”

An Assyrian general or an Egyptian Pharoah must have laughed at such language. Perhaps they were enraged by such claims. In either event, Israel, they must have thought, has lost touch with reality.

Yet, someone placed this Psalm at the beginning of the Psalter. It reminded Israel that as they sang and prayed these Psalms they do so with the confidence that God reigns over the nations and that God’s anointed will inherit the earth itself. Such faith is only nurtured through worship.

It is the kind of worship we find in the Apocalypse. Marginalized in a hostile culture, dwarfed in size by Roman religions, and surrounded by magnificent temples dedicated to Roman gods, goddesses and Caesars, the seven churches of Asia Minor envisioned God and the Lamb, the Messiah, on thrones in heaven. The climax of the Apocalypse (pictured in both 11:18 and 19:19) embraces the vision of Psalm 2 as the Lord’s Anointed defeats the powers of evil in such a way that the earth itself becomes the kingdom of the Lord (11:15). The nations become the heritage of God’s Anointed.

The language of Psalm 2 is our language. We worship the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb (God’s Messiah). We confess that God reigns even though evil and chaos still abound. We hope for the coming of the kingdom of God when the meek will inherit the earth. We live those moments by faith and when we gather to worship God and the Lamb we see it with the eyes of faith, just like Israel in Psalm 2.

So, we boldly pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Come, Lord Jesus!


Psalm 1 – Two Ways, a Wisdom Poem

August 13, 2013

The opening Psalm functions as a kind of preface or introduction to the whole collection. It orients the worshipper to a particular path and the value of pursuing the life the Psalter envisions. Indeed, it offers us a choice.

There is the way of the wicked (sinners, scoffers) and the way of the righteous. There are two ways, two paths, or two directions. One scoffs at life, misses the point of life, and is openly hostile to God. The other yearns to practice the Torah, follow God’s instruction, and incessantly repeats the words of the Torah. Often, however, life is much more ambiguous than that, but our basic orientation is nevertheless pointed in one of two directions.

One way will prosper like a fruit tree by water while the other will disappear like dust in the wind.  As a piece of wisdom this does not mean that there are no exceptions. The rest of the Psalter tells us otherwise as laments and imprecations abound. Rather, wisdom inculcates character development, and, generally, good character will bear good fruit while an evil character will suck the life out of us.  Wisdom orients us even though in tragic moments it may frustrate us (as in the case of Job). Nevertheless, wisdom guides choices, especially in midst of tragedies.

At the same time, the orientation is valuable because every human being must make a choice. Even indecision is itself a choice. We live and we choose. Wisdom provides a far-sighted horizon for choices that lie in front of us. Instead of plunging into waters of immediate gratification, wisdom invites us to walk a long path towards wholeness. It is, in fact, the long path of praying, singing, and even murmuring the Psalms under our breaths.

We choose this long, hard road because we seek transformation rather than gratification. We seek deep-seated joy rather than fleeting happiness.  Even though we know this path has many bumps in the road–and the laments of the Psalms testify to them–we pursue it because we know that Yahweh “knows the way of the righteous.”

We embrace this difficult path because we know that Yahweh is committed to those who pursue it. God is deeply and intimately connected to those who follow the “way of the righteous.”

This introductory Psalm provides essential wisdom for navigating the diverse and wide-ranging emotions that will bubble up as worshippers rehearse, practice, and live out the Psalter. Those who truly hear this wisdom are blessed because Yahweh knows the way they have chosen.


Revelation 9: Imagine Your Worst Nightmare

August 10, 2013

The fifth and sixth trumpets announce the ancient world’s worst nightmares. The terrifying images of Revelation 9 are worthy of our most horrifying apocalyptic movies. It seems 21st century western culture loves apocalyptic movies, whether it is the earth destroyed by a meteor, large armies battling for Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the end of the world in 2012.  We have a fascination with apocalypses…whatever they may be. Perhaps, however, that is no different from first century culture.

Revelation 9 paints two apocalyptic, cataclysmic and terror-inducing pictures. One image arises out of nature and the other from humanity, though they are both in this text the result of angelic movements. One is a destructive swarm of locusts while the other is a huge invasion force. Both were the worst nightmares of ancient peoples as locusts destroyed crops while armies pillaged human treasures (including people). These are nightmares from which one hopes to wake up.

The opening of the fifth and sixth trumpets in Revelation 8:13 is the flight of an eagle soaring overhead and shouting, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.” The three woes announce the next three trumpets, and the announcement serves as a warning to the inhabitants of the earth.

An eagle pronounces the woe (“angel” in NKJV is based on inferior manuscripts). This is culturally significant in several ways. First, the “eagle of God” (aetos dios) is associated with Zeus (Jupiter) and it was a sign of power and immortality. It was often thought the messenger to/for the gods as the eagle could soar above storm clouds and fly into the presence of the gods.  Second, the eagle was a symbol of Roman power. Every Roman egion had a standard headed by an eagle (aquila). Consequently, this eagle that comes from the one who sits on the throne contrasts with the eagle of Roman power and religion.

The woe, however, is not for everyone. As we will see, the events associated with the fifth and sixth trumpets will not harm those who belong to God (the sealed 144,000). The “those who dwell on the earth,” then, are distinguished from those who are sealed with God’s name. This is the Apocalypse’s language for those who follow the beast rather than God (Revelation 13:8; 17:8). The contrast is between those who “dwell in heaven” (those who belong to God; cf. Revelation 12:12; 13:6) and who “dwell on the earth.” In other words, this is technical language for those whose citizenship is upon the earth rather than in heaven. They are part of the socio-political, anti-Christian powers (cf. Revelation 6:10; 11:10). They look to the powers rather than to one who sits on the throne in heaven for their guidance and life. This is the essence of idolatry.

The Fifth Trumpet

As in Revelation 8:10, a star falls from heaven in response to a trumpet blast, but in Revelation 9:1 this star is personified as one who is given the key to the Abyss. Some identify this star with Satan who fell from heaven. The problem, however, is that what is released from the Abyss opposes the reign of Satan in the world. The locusts attack the inhabitants of the earth who serve Satan’s beasts. It seems better to think of this “star” as an angelic messenger who does God’s work by releasing the locusts. God will use evil (demonic?) to afflict evil (empire).

What is the Abyss or “bottomless pit”? It is clearly a place of evil (Revelation 11:7; 17:8); a kind of prison for evil forces. We might compare it cosmically to “black holes,” though the symbolic language does not intend to identify this as a specific place in the cosmos. Rather, it is apocalyptic language for anti-creation and chaos. The “black hole” of God’s good creation are the forces of darkness, chaos, and destruction. These arise from the deep recesses of both human hearts and the cosmic chaos (good creation arose out of the “waters” of chaos).This anti-creation motif is present in the darkening of the sun.

The scoripion-tailed locusts were given power (divine permission) to torture rather than kill the inhabitants of the earth for torture.  The earth itself, devastated in the first four trumpets, is unharmed by the locusts. This reversal of expectation (we expect locusts to harm the grass, plants and trees) emphasizes the human devestation that the locusts will infllict. They will increase the pain of life for humanity. The inhabitants of the earth will prefer death over life because of their sting. Life will become unbearable. THe plague of locusts, of course, reminds of the similar plague upon Egypt though apocalyptic language is note used in Exodus as it is here (Joel 2 is also serves as a backdrop).

The detailed description of the locusts is the most thorough in the Apocalypse. They are large horse-like creatures with human heads but lion-like teeth. The are armoured and their wings sound like a chariot assault. Their weapon is their sting which does not kill but inflicts unimaginable pain.  But it only lasts five months–a limited amount of time and probably defined by the natural life cyle of locusts. The leader of this horde is Abaddon (Hebrew) or Apollyon (Greek) and both names mean “Destroyer.” This is neither a Roman Emperor nor Satan since the object of destruction is the empire and the inhabitants of the earth. Rather, this is more reminiscient of the “angel of death” (as in 2 Baruch 21:23) who rules God’s realm of the dead (cf. Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 65). Abaddon was a name for the place of the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Job 31:22; Psalm 88:11; Proverbs 27:20).

These are not modern attack helicopters but an apocalyptic image for a series (five months) of terrifying experiences. The nature of the experience is undefined. It does not have to be defined–it is a nightmare. It is life in a collapsing empire where the security and prosperity of the empire is disappearing. Whatever forces engender that collaspe seem like a plague of locusts. It is a picture of destruction.

The Sixth Trumpet

The sixth trumpet is the second woe announced by the eagle. This trumpet announces the massing of a huge army on the borders of the empire. This is a nightmare that every nation fears, especially when the assembled warriors more than tripled the population of the Empire itself. While the Roman Empire may have been between 50-60 million, the army gathered at the Eurphrates is 220 million. A 220 million man army on the frontier of the Empire dwarfs the size of the Roman legionaries (possibly around 150,000).

This army gathers at the command of God. The voice “from the four horns of the golden altar before God” has divine sanction if it is not God’s own voice.  This voice gives the order to release the four angels who manage the grand army of the Euphrates. That the angels were “bound” may indicate that they are demonic, but this may only refer to how they had been previously limited in their use of the army. They had waited and prepared for this moment. It is an angelic action at the command of God. The army moves against the empire; it moves against the powers or the forces of Satan and evil.

It is actually a mounted calvary–220 million strong. But it is not ordinary calvary. The horse’s heads were like lions’ heads, their tails like the heads of sakes, and they breathed smoke, fire and sulfur. Their breath alone killed one-third of humanity.

For readers within the Roman empire the image of a mounted calvary at the Eurphrate conjures up the terror of a Parthian army which was Rome’s greatest enemy. Rome never defeated the Parthians except to a stalemate on their eastern border. Parthia was an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to what is now eastern Iran. The threat of an invading army from a competing empire has always generated fear whether it is the Mongols in Russia, or the Turks in Europe, or Cold War fears not many years ago. The threat is a constant one in human history.

The apocalyptic image, which includes an exaggerated armed mass of humanity, represents the fear of invasion and massive violence. The voice from the altar assures the seven churches of Asia that the Roman legions are not the real power in the world, and that same voice assures us that no earthly power–no empire–controls their own destiny. God holds the cards and when God plays out the hand, no empoire can stand.

Conclusion

On occasion, it appears, God releases chaos upon the earth for warning and judgment. God is sovereign over the chaos. God permits and even empowers it to disrupt the peace of the empire.

Why does God churn the waters? Revelation 9:20-21 provide one reason. It is the same reason present in many of the prophets of Israel (cf. Amos 4). God releases choas in order to warn humanity about coming judgment. Their choices and lives have moral significance–a reckoning will come. Divinely permitted chaos reminds humanity that God is paying attention to their works and lives. God uses chaos to prompt repentance but it is often ineffective because human hearts are so committed and bound to their own black holes.

Just as the drama pauses again for another interlude, John editorializes on the sins that provide the rationale for divine judgment. He identifies two broad categories: (1) human allegiance to idolatry (“works of their hands”) and (2) human selfishness.

Idolatry is misplaced allegiance. It substitutes something else in the place of God. It worships demons rather than God. Idolatry identifies the source of life and peace with something other than the Creator God. John equates the whole pagan religious system with the demonic and irrational (worshipping gods that cannot “see or hear or walk”).

Human selfishness is at the root of the second category.  The second commandment (the second half of the Ten Commandments) is to love one’s neighbor. Murder, sorcery, sexual immorality, and theft violate that love. It abuses and exploits the other for the sake of one’s own interests.

Love God and love your neighbor. These are the greatest commandments. When humanity pursues a different agenda, God releases chaos as a warning but with a transformative intent. God is not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance. Unfortunately, as is the case so many times throughout history, humanity does not repent.


Revelation 7: Who Can Stand in the Day of Wrath?

July 29, 2013

Who can stand on the days when the wrath of God and the Lamb are poured out on empires? That is the question asked when the sixth seal is opened in Revelation 6:12-17. The shaking of the Roman empire, as with all empires, will affect everyone from rich to poor, from free to slave. Who can escape God’s anger as judgment falls upon the empire?

The natural disasters, violence, economic hardship, and war that fall upon empires affects everyone. But this raises the question of what happens to the followers of the Lamb? What will happen to those who bear faithful witness throughout the unleashed chaos that accompanies the opening of the seals in Revelation 6?

Revelation 7 answers that question. Instead of moving to the seventh seal, which the reader eagerly anticipates, the drama pauses to answer the question. The followers of the Lamb are sealed before the seventh seal is opened. This chapter functions as a kind of “interlude” between the sixth and seventh seals in order to illuminate the circumstances of the God’s servants as the seals proceed. Though the empire is undergoing convulsions, the faithful witnesses are “sealed.”

John’s vision identifies two groups of people: (1) the 144,000 in 7:4-8 and (2) the “great multitude” in 7:9-10. Who are theses groups and how are they related to each other? How, then, does this answer the question of Revelation 6:17?

144,000 — The Church Militant

Before the destructive forces of the four winds are released upon the earth, God seals the 144,000.  Four angels were “given power to harm the earth and sea,” but they are restrained from releasing the winds until the 144,000 are sealed. We might imagine that the judgment that the seals represent are  delayed until arrangements are made for the servants of God. In other words, the opening of the seals and the sealing of the servants are  contemporaneous events. As the Lamb opens the seals and judgment begins with the empire, at the same time the servants of God are sealed. God is sovereign over this process.

An angel from the east, an angel with the “rising sun” which bore cultural images of power, comes with a signet ring to seal the servants of God. Animal and slave branding was common in the Roman world, and these are God’s “slaves” (doulous). This seal contrasts with the “mark” that the followers of the beast will receive in Revelation 13:16-17. The nature of the seal might reflect the engraving that was on the headdress of the high priest that functioned “like a seal” which stated “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36-38). Indeed, eschatologically, everything–even the pots and the pans–will be engraved (sealed) with “Holy to the Lord” (cf. Zechariah 14:20-21). The “sealed” belong to the Lord; they are consecrated to God’s purposes. In other words, the seal is a mark of ownership.

They are “sealed” for protection. This does not mean they will not suffer as the empire convulses and dies, but that they are identified as God’s people throughout the suffering. They are “sealed” in the sense that they will not experience divine judgment (cf. Ezekiel 9:3-10) even as they too experience the travail of the empire’s fall. They are protected in that their faithful witness will usher them into the throne room of God. They will not experience the Lamb’s wrath but the Lamb’s loving embrace.

But who are these 144,000 and what do they represent? Some (like Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 216-218) suggest that this is depicted like a military census (cf. Numbers 31:4-6). The servants of God–the “sons (males) of Israel”–are numbered for battle.  It is, in the context of this second vision (Revelation 4-16), a small number compared with the 200,000,000 mounted troops that will gather in Revelation 9:16.

Some believe the 144,000 are either a literal or symbolic number of ethnic Jews who have converted to Christianity, and some even think they are 144,000 Jewish-Christian evangelists in the last days. But there are reasons to doubt that this number describes ethnic Jews. Rather, it appears as a symbolic number for the church (whether ethnic Jews or Gentiles) upon the earth. If this is literal Israel, the tribe of Dan is missing. Are we to believe that literally no one from the tribe of Dan would be represented among faithful Israel? The absence of Dan is probably due to Dan’s association with idolatry (Judges 18:30; 1 Kings 12:29; Testament of Daniel 5:6).

The “servants” of God in Revelation are consistently described as Christians, that is, the term describes all believers (cf. Revelation 1:1; 2:20; 6:11; 10:7; 11:18; 19:2, 5, 10; 22:3, 6, 9). The number 144,000 servants are only male (like an ancient army) and their seal is something shared by all believers in Revelation (Revelation 3:12; 22:4). All believers in Revelation are heirs of Israel as the church–God’s new creation–is a kingdom of priests ransomed by the Lamb (Revelation 5:9-10 with Exodus 19:6).

It is the church upon the earth that is sealed, that is, the church militant. The angel from the east delays the four winds that will “harm the earth and sea” until the church is sealed. Consequently, this must be the church on the earth that is numbered as 144,000. The number is symbolic 1,000 x 12 x 12–the whole church is sealed.

Who can stand the wrath of God and the Lamb? The sealed servants of God who are the faithful witnesses that live in the empire as it begins to crumble.

An Innumerable Host — The Church Triumphant

Question: Who can stand in the day of the Lamb’s wrath (Revelation 6:17)? Answer: The “great multitude” stands before the throne of God and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

There is continuity between the 144,000 and the innumerable host. Indeed, there is movement between them. The 144,000 are the sealed servants of God upon the earth who become part of the innumerable host through their faithful witness, that is, through “overcoming” just as the Lamb overcame. When saints die in the Lord as part of the 144,000, they join the innumerable host from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” that stand before the throne of God and before the Lamb. Who can stand the wrath of God and the Lamb? Faithful witnesses. They stand before the throne of God rather than hiding in the mountain caves (this is the contrast between the end of Revelation 6 and the status of those before the throne). They are the church triumphant, that is, the church that has overcome through faithful witness rather than through violent revolution.

This seems clear from the question elder asks and the elder’s answer. The innumerable host has come out of the “great tribulation” and they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The “great tribulation” refers to the convulsions which the earth experiences. The word “great” does not mean the biggest or necessarily the climatic tribulation, but a severe one (like Jezebel’s in Revelation 2:22). Tribulation is something which John shares with the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:9) and which the churches have constantly experienced under imperial pressure (Revelation 2:9). In other words, these are those who have shown themselves faithful during their trials and tribulations living in the Roman Empire. They have moved from earth to heaven, from among the “sealed” 144,000 to join the innumerable host.

The innumerable host is described in Revelation 7:9-12.  The descriptors are illuminating.

  • Size — we have no way of knowing how many Christians populated the Roman Empire at the end of the first century, but this description is surely beyond the imagination of those early believers. They probably saw themselves as small and rather insignificant, but in this vision they see that they participate in a larger and grander assembly than they could have imagined.
  • Multi-cultural — different national identities, different languages, different ethnicities. The Roman Empire included such differences, and the kingdom of God expands the borders of the Empire as “every nation” is part of this heavenly assembly. “Every nation” echoes the promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:5).
  • Liturgical Robes — the assembly is a worshipping assembly gathered before the throne and the Lamb in white robes (which is the Roman color for temple priests and participants). It is the same robe given to the martyrs at the altar in Revelation 6:11 and given to those who come out of the 144,000 and join the assembly in Revelation 17:13-14. Those who wear these robes have access to the tree of life (Revelation 22:14). These robes belong to all faithful believers.
  • White Robes — they are white because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. This may refer to the expiatory sacrifice of the Lamb, but it may also allude to the blood of their faithful witness, that is, martyrdom.
  • Victory Palms in their Hands — palm branches represent victory and were a regular part of triumphal entries into a city by returning armies and victors. These are those who have “conquered” or “overcome.”
  • Worshipping Assembly — “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Their victory (deliverance or rescue) belongs to God and the Lamb; they did not achieve it themselves.

This innumerable assembly is then joined in praise by the angels, twenty-four elders, and four living creatures as they fall prostrate before the throne to worship God. They echo their previous praise in Revelation 4 & 5.

The difference between the scenes in Revelation 4 & 5 and here in Revelation 7 is the presence of the victors, that is, the innumerable host. Though all creation is present in some sense in Revelation 5, the victors are not specifically identified. But here we now know–through the progress of the drama and the unfolding vision–that gathered with the living creatures, twenty-four elders, and myriads of angels are the redeemed of the ages as well. The faithful witnesses, including the martyrs (perhaps especially the martyrs), are present in the throne room of God and they join the heavenly host in worship around the throne.

Where is this innumerable host? They poem beautifully describes their present experience and eschatologically anticipates the full reality of the new heaven and new earth. This is not yet that as here the redeemed serve God in a temple when there is no temple in the new heaven and new earth. The earth is still undergoing conflict so this gathering is not the final one but the present one. Revelation 7:9-17 depicts the present experience of saints who have died in the Lord.

So, where is this?

before the throne of God
serving in the temple
sheltered by the presence of God

This is a liturgical picture. The word “serve” (latreuousin) is the term used to describe the role of the Levites in Israel’s temple. Before the throne of God and in God’s temple, the multi-cultural assembly is gathered to worship. Their worship is covered by God’s tent (tabernacle) which is the dwelling presence of God–the shekhinah glory that led Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34-38) and dwelled in Israel’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:12; 7:1). This presence will fill ultimately heaven and earth in the new Jerusalem so there is no need for a temple in the Eschaton.

Those before the throne, however, already experience the future. Already they experience the promises of Isaiah 49:10 and Isaiah 25:8–no more scorching heat and no more tears. But, along with the rest of us, they await the fullness of God’s promises in the new heaven and new earth in the new Jerusalem. They yet await the resurrection of their bodies and the transformation of a groaning creation; they yet await the final victory as even more martyrs are continually added to the innumerable host (cf. Revelation 6:9-11).

Before the throne of God, the Lamb is also present as the shepherd of God’s people who guides and waters the people of God so that they no longer suffer. They no longer experience the thirst and heat of the earth but rather drink the living water of God’s presence. There are no more fears and no more tears though they yet await, like the martyrs at the altar, the fullness of the kingdom of God upon the earth.

So, where are those who die in the Lord? They are before the throne of God, they serve God day and night in God’s temple, and the one who sits on the throne shelters them with his presence.

Where are the dead? They are with the Lord.


Revelation 6 – Divine Judgments on Empires

July 20, 2013

The Lamb, having taken the book of prophetic judgment from the hand of God, now begins to open it by breaking the seals. Systematically, the Lamb breaks one seal after another–six in Revelation 6. As each seal is opened John hears and sees a variety of images that evidence divine judgment or are related in some way to that judgment. These images are not the content of the book but rather a series of symbolic enactments that dramatize the process of opening the book. The Lamb is only breaking the seals at this point rather than opening the book itself. The symbolic enactments, however, point to the disintegration of world order and the (re)introduction of chaos into human society. At one level, the Pax Romana is on the verge of dissolution.

The vision unfolds in a pattern of 6+Interlude+1. Six seals are broken in consecutive fashion, but then there is a lengthy interlude (7:1-17) before the seventh seal is broken (8:1-5). While the first six seals portray divine judgment, the interlude answers the question “who can stand the day of wrath” that appears in the last words of chapter 6 (6:17). The prospect of divine wrath (chapter 6) is followed by the assurance of divine love for the people of God (chapter 7).

The Symbolism of the Six Seals

At this point interpretations begin to vary widely. Historicists believe the seals picture the fall of the Roman Empire while Preterists attempt to identify specific seals with specific events relating to the destruction of Jerusalem or the fall of the Roman Empire (depending on how they date the Apocalypse). Futurists generally connect the seals to the Great Tribulation that occurs prior to the second coming of Jesus and many interpreters see allusions to specific contemporary realities (e.g., “red” = Russia or “large sword” = nuclear weapons). Idealists understand the dramatic progression of the seals, trumpets, and bowls as apocalyptic symbols of the recurring conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers without attempting to identify any specific relation to any particular Empire though the battle at the time of the Apocalypse is between Rome and the kingdom of God.

Some futurists, for example, believe the first seal is the beginning of a yet future Tribulation period (based on 7:9ff). But this isolates the text from its first century moorings and disconnects the martyrs in 6:9-11 from the setting of the seven churches of Asia. The seals must, in some way, relate to the social setting of the seven churches rather than merely predict some  specific distant future moment in history.

How one interprets the six seals depends on how one approaches the Apocalypse as a whole and how one understands the unfolding drama.  My own perspective is that the seven churches of Asia Minor find themselves in conflict with Roman claims, power, and imperial religion. Our interpretation must begin with that. The power of the language and its meaning must connect with the immediate audience of this book. As an Apocalypse, however, it addresses a wider audience in terms of its theology, philosophy of history, and the world conflict between God and Satan. My perspective, therefore, is a combination of a preterist-idealist vision.

The Apocalypse offers thoroughly apocalyptic and theological account of the conflict between the church and Rome, but it embedded in that account is the recurring conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers in the future. The Apocalypse offers a theological account of how the kingdom of God relates to world powers by confronting the late first century church with a call to faithful witness in the midst of Roman Empire. Consequently, the Apocalypse is not so much interested in the recounting of history (and thus we should not seek to identify specific symbols with historical events in the first century or twenty-first century) as it is describing the world in which we live where world powers oppose the kingdom of God.

1. The Archer on a White Horse: Conquest.

When the Lamb opens the first seal, one of the four living creatures thundered “Come.” Or, perhaps better rendered, “go and do your thing” as a passive imperative (Fair, Conquering with Christ, 187). This is this divine permission for what is about to happen as is also indicated by the phrase “was given.” Though what follows in the six seals is chaotic, violent, and destructive, God nevertheless is sovereign over it. God permits it, oversees it, and delimits it (only a 1/4 of the earth is affected).

Since it is the Lamb who opens the seal, the rider on the white horse is not the Lamb himself. Though Christ appears on a White horse in Revelation 19:11, this scene is not that one. Rather, this is one of four horses, and this rider carries a bow rather than a sword. The scene in Revelation 19 is climactic, but here the judgment of the six seals is just the beginning.

Instead, the rider on the white horse represents a conquering ruler. This is clear from the conquest language (6:2) and the victory wreath (stephanos). The picture is conquest. It is the disturbance of the Pax Romana, and it is the destiny of all empires–they, too, will be conquered. The bow may allude to Rome’s enemies as the Parthians in the East were a major threat to the Empire in the first centuries CE, but this would only symbolize all of Roman’s opponents rather than identify any specific one.

2.  The Sword-Wielding Rider on a Red Horse:  War.

The second living creature releases (“Come”) a rider on a red horse. The red horse symbolizes bloodshed as the presence of the sword-wielding rider indicates. The rider is given a “large sword” which does not remain inactive. Rather, the rider “was given” (divine permission) the ability to foment war. He removes peace with the result or for the purpose that human beings will kill (slaughter) each other.

3.  The Inflationary Rider on a Black Horse: Famine.

The third living creature releases (“Come”) a rider on a black horse. Since the rider has a pair of scales in his hands, the color probably represents the economic hardship which includes inflationary prices. The amount of wheat and barley available for a day’s wage would only feed a single mouth. Day laborers and their families, then, would ultimately starve. At the same time, the wealthy would continue to feast with their wine. The symbolism might point us to the economic oppression that the wealthy inflict on the poor as they control the markets and prices.

4.  Death Riding on a Pale Horse: Hades.

The fourth living creature releases (“Come”) death itself on a pale horse with Hades close behind. Death exercises control over 1/4 of humanity through a variety of means: sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. In some ways the fourth rider summarizes the effect of th first three and extends it to other dimensions (pestilence and beasts). The first four seals, then, form a unit of sorts where the primary point is the release of chaotic forces that undermine the “peace and safety” of the Pax Romana, and that of all Empires. No Empire controls the chaos of disease, natural disasters, or even war. Death always comes, even to the greatest Empires.

5.  Martyrs Seek Justice at the Altar: Lament.

When the Lamb opens the fifth seal, nothing is released but rather John sees something that he had not previously noticed. He sees martyred saints “under the altar.” Like the Lamb himself, they had been slaughtered (same Greek verb as in Revelation 5:6, 9). Though many have seen the altar as a reference to the martyr’s sacrifice of their lives, it is better to see the altar as an allusion to the ancient practice of asylum where victims seek justice on the horns of the altar (cf. Oster; Stevenson, Slaughtered Lamb, 143-9). Stevenson suggests that the altar imagery includes the idea of protection for the innocent, justice for the victim, and punishment for the guilty. The souls under the altar, then, are present to claim innocence, justice and vengeance.

Their lament, then, is imprecatory. It not only raises the question of when God will finally act but it also seeks justice for victims. The lament question (“How long?”) resonates with so many biblical laments (e.g., Psalms 6:2-3; 13:1-2). The desire for justice also resonates with many prayers in Scripture (including imprecatory requests in the Psalms, e.g., Psalms 7, 58). The continued cry for justice indicates that the seals are not the final answer to the problem as lament continues both in heaven and on earth.

God listens and God answers. However, the answer is not what one might expect. Rather, the seals do not end the injustice; they do not avenge the blood of the saints. More martyrs are yet to come and join the souls under the altar. The time has not yet arrived for the end to martyrdom, injustice, and oppression. Justice has been delayed until a time of God’s own determination. God is sovereign over the chaos and the persecution; it will end when God decides it is time. God has a purpose for continued persecution.

6.  Humanity Hides: The Wrath of the Lamb.

The sixth seal functions as a response to the martyr’s cry, “How long?” The sixth seal does not answer the question of when God will respond but rather whether the Lamb is indifferent to the suffering of his people. Answer? The Lamb is angry (Revelation 6:16-17).

This anger is expressed in cosmic terms–earthquake, solar eclipse, blood-stained moon, falling stars, devastated crops, a rolled up sky, sinking islands, and removed mountains. Often these are interpreted as end-time eschatological events, but this does not appreciate how the language of the Hebrew prophets has shaped the vision. This language is no different from what one finds in the prophets regarding the fall of empires and nations (cf. Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Jer. 4:23-28; Ezekiel 32:6-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15-16; Amos 8:8-10; cf. Ian Fair, Conquering with Christ, 195-196.). The cosmic shake is another way of describing the upheaval of nations which, in many ways, felt like the destruction of the earth itself. More specifically, the language is theophanic, that is, it pictures the appearance of God in the world to destroy evil and enact justice (Stevenson, 150-151). God has showed up and the cosmos shakes. God is beginning to answer the lament of the saints.

It is cosmic in the sense that every human person within the nation or empire is affected by what happens. From the greatest (“kings of the earth”) to the lowest (“slave”), no one can escape the consequences of such national and imperial devastation. The drastic effects of a fallen empire felt by everyone and it creates fear. At the same time, however, only 1/4 of the earth is affected by the seals. The seals are not the final act in the drama; they are only the beginning of divine judgment.

Fear drives humanity to hide from the “face of the one who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” The heavenly throne room is evoked–the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb, but this is no comfort for those the inhabitants of the earth. God will seek justice for the martyred saints and the Lamb will avenge their blood. Neither God nor the Lamb are indifferent; they are already responding through breaking the seals, and they will ultimately defeat the powers and redeem creation. But only when the time is right.

The Prophetic Meaning of the Six Seals

The second vision (Revelation 4-16) intends to show its original readers “what must take place” in the future (4:1). There is a futurist dimension to the vision, but it is fundamentally future to the original readers (the seven churches of Asia in the late first century).

How, then, should we read this “futurist” picture? Many interpreters–of whatever hermeneutical stripe (Historicist, Preterist, Futurist)–attempt to tie the specifics of the text with concrete historical events. While this may be sometimes appropriate, the overwhelming movement of the drama as prophetic literature is to dramatize the judgments of God against the nations. Specific historical events are not necessary for that and the search for specifics draws attention away from the broad sweep of the drama itself. Further, specifics are always uncertain about the past and speculative about the present or future. Such uncertainty and speculation does not serve the interests of the book well since it introduces fruitless discussions. More importantly, it is better to hear the theological message that warns believers of accommodation to cultural idolatries than to argue about specific historical correlations (which are always uncertain at best).

The drama narrates through symbolism and apocalyptic language the conflict between the world powers and the kingdom of God. This is the fundamental point rather than a chronological sequence of historical events. The cycles of human rebellion and divine judgment, of empires and their fall, are present throughout all human history. Each is an act in the drama which tells the story of the conflict. To treat this literature otherwise is to remove it from its own setting as apocalyptic literature.

So, how do the six seals inform us theologically? At least three points are clear whatever hermeneutical approach one takes.

1. Chaos is present within human history.

The description of the six seals underscores the reality of evil and chaos in the world. We cannot deny the reality of war, famine, injustice, pestilence, and death. We should not too quickly look past that reality to some future hope but rather acknowledge the chaos that fills the present world. This is why the world needs redemption; it is why it needs the book opened. The world needs renewal.

The Christian response to such chaos is at least (1) lament and (2) faithful witness. We cry out for justice and we practice justice.

2.  God is sovereign over history and its chaos.

God permits the chaos. God permits war, pestilence, and famine. This is not an arbitrary permission as we will see in future texts (cf. Revelation 9:20). The seals describe past and present reality but they are also divine acts (God releases the riders through the voice of the living creatures) intended to renew the nations unto repentance. God is so sovereign that he limits the damage (1/4 of the earth) and limits the numbers of the martyrs. God has a purpose and that purpose is present even in the midst the chaos.

3. God listens and responds to the lament of the saints.

Lament is an essential dimension of human experience. Humans question God (“how long?”) and they yearn for justice (“avenge our blood”). Lament is not unchristian since martyred saints are present in the heavenly throne room voicing their lament. Even heaven itself is incomplete and unfinished as long as injustice and chaos exist upon the earth. The anticipation that the Lamb will finally defeat evil and eradicate injustice is the cause of celebration in heaven but it is as yet unrealized. So, lament continues…even in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Conclusion

The Lamb takes the book from the hand of the one who sits on the throne and begins to open it by breaking the seals…one at a time. Each seal depicts the experience of the Empire and believers within the Empire. It is the beginning of divine judgment upon the Empire and it announces the stark reality that chaos will ultimately envelope all empires, even the ones to which people now pledge allegiance.


Revelation 5 – Worthy is the Lamb!

July 14, 2013

While Revelation 4 focused on the worth of the Creator who sits on the throne, Revelation 5 turns our attention to the dramatic investiture of the one who is worthy to break the seals and unroll the scroll. Revelation 4 portrays the reality of the heavenly throne room where the sovereign God, sitting on the throne, receives worship as the great benefactor of the cosmos–the one by whom all creation exists and to whom belong all creation’s gratitude. Revelation 5 portrays the story of redemption as the one who is worthy to open the book is worshipped because that one has redeemed creation from the powers of evil that enslave it. In essence we move from creation to redemption, from the sovereign enthroned one who invests another with redemptive authority, honor and power.

The heavenly liturgy (the service of worship) is interrupted for John when he notices that there is a scroll (book) in the the right hand of the one who sits on the throne. It is an extremely important document as it is sealed seven times, positioned in the right hand of God, and written on the front and back. Further, only one who is worthy may break the seals and open the book, and there is no one worthy present in the heavenly throne room (angelic hosts), or on the earth (living creation), or even under the earth (e.g., Hades). The document has such cosmic significance and importance that no one in heaven and earth (all creation) is able to open the seals. No one has the right or worth to do so.

What is this book? Some think it might be the “Book of Life” in which the names of the redeemed are written. But there is nothing in the context to indicate that identification. Rather, the allusion is to Ezekiel 2:9-10 where Ezekiel is told to speak the words of the book that contain “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” As one reads further into this second vision (Revelation 4-16), it is evident that the breaking of the seals involves lamentation, mourning, and woe for the inhabitants of the earth. The book is a prophetic word against the powers that have oppressed the people of God and thus contains God’s destiny for them. The book symbolizes God’s intent to redeem the church from the powers even as God judges those powers. The book contains the answer to the question that the oppressed ask: will God ever act to overturn this oppression? The answer is “Yes,” and it is contained in the book.

But, as John observes, no one is worthy to open the book.  A mighty angel asks heaven and earth for anyone to come forward to open the book, but no one comes. As a result John begins to wail in lament. This is no mere wimper, but is the lament of the oppressed; it is the weeping of a people who seemingly see no end to their suffering. John weeps for the church; he weeps for his own flock in Asia. The church laments as the powers continue to oppress.

Lament, however, comes to end in the victory of the one who has overcome (conquered). “Weep no more,” one of the twenty-four elders around the throne tells John. Instead, the elder continues, “look at this!” The elder announces the victory of the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.” The Lion has conquered.

The elder’s description evokes deeply rooted Messianic images from the Hebrew Scriptures as well as from the literature of Second Temple Judaism. These images are triumphalistic and militant. The “root of David” is found in Isaiah 11:1-10 (cf. Sirach 47:2) which envisions a Davidic conqueror that subjugates Edom, Moab and Ammon. The lion image comes from Genesis 49:8-10 (cf. 4 Ezra 12:31-32) where the nations serve the royal predator. The elder paints a verbal picture of a conquering king who defeats the powers (nations).

But when John turns to see this lion he only sees a small lamb. The Greek term for “lamb” is diminuitive in form, that is, it refers to a small lamb. Expecting to see the powerful king of the beasts, John turns to only see the weakest and most vulnerable of animals, a small lamb. That vulnerability is borne out by the reality that the animal is a slaughtered lamb.

This slaughtered Lamb, however, assumes a position of power, authority and honor. Though once slaughtered (thus killed), the living Lamb now stands next to the throne (at the “center,” in fact) and is encircled by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. He has seven horns (representing strength and power) as well as seven eyes (he sees everything). Indeed, the seven eyes are the seven spirits of God, that is, the Lamb is invested with the Holy Spirit and thus is empowered to act throughout the earth. The imagery derives from Zechariah 4:2, 6, 10.

It is the once slaughtered but now living Lamb that is worthy to take the book from the hand of God and reveal its contents; indeed, to execute its contents as the throne’s agent within the world. The slaughtered Lamb is a sacrifical victim, but it was voluntarily assumed rather than a victimization of the Lamb.  The Lion of Judah became a slaughtered Lamb for the sake of redemption. Jesus defeated the powers through faithful witness rather than by violent revolution; the Lion became a Lamb.

The heavenly dignitaries recognize the significance of this moment. Someone, but not just anyone, is now worthy to open the book. When the book is taken from the hand of the one who sits on the throne, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall prostrate before the Lamb. They worship the Lamb and recognize his worthiness.

If we had any doubt whom the twenty-four elders represented, what they hold in their hands removes it. Enthroned around the throne, they hold harps (kithara)  and bowls of incense.  They perpetually worshipped the one who sits on the throne, and their worship includes musical praise (symbolized by the instruments) and prayer. The kitharas and bowls of incense remind us of temple worship in Israel as they were part of the liturgical cultus (cf. Psalms 33:2-3; 141:2; 147:7; 150:3-5), and this worship continues in the heavenlies. The twenty-f0ur elders are gathered in the Holy of Holies to worship God. They embody Israel’s temple worship in which the twenty-four (both Israel and the church) participate.

These heavenly dignitaries break out into a “new song,” a song of redemption, that declares the worthiness of the Lamb. The Lamb is worthy because

(1) “you were slain,”
(2) “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,” and
(3) “you made them a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth.”

This three-fold rationale echoes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. The slain Passover lamb ransomed Isreal from Egyptian bondage in order to make them a kingdom of priests. God had ransomed Isreal from slavery (Deuteronomy 7:8; 13:5) in order to anoint them a royal, priestly nation (Exodus 19:5-6) which would bless the other nations. In other words, God intended Israel to become a shining light in the world–the new image of God in the world–so that all people might come to know God. God defeated the Egyptian powers in order to release Israel into the world to bless the world.

The “new song” praises the lamb for a new exodus, an “eschatological exodus” (as Bauckham calls it, Theology of Revelation).  In the Apocalypse, the powers (while it was Egyptian for Israel, it is Roman for the church in Asia) oppress, persecute, and enslave the people of God. By the Lamb’s faithful witness through death–he was faithful unto death–he has earned the worth to purchase a people for God. This people will not only come from Israel, but from every nation under heaven. This people will reign on the earth just as God created humanity to reign as divine images from the beginning of creation. They will become a kingdom of priests who will minister in the eschatological temple of God which is God’s good creation. This people will fulfill not only God’s intent for Israel but God’s intent for humanity itself.  They will share God’s dominion over the earth, care for creation, and bless the creation as God’s vice-regents (Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8).

In response to this “new song” of redemption, the whole angelic chorus breaks out in praise, ascribing all the honor, wealth and power within creation to the Lamb (rather than to Caesar!). In concentric circles of praise, the four living creatures, then the twenty-four elders, and then the myriads of angels give honor to the lamb. The praise moves from the center of the throne room to its outer edges as all of heaven praises the Lamb.

But the praise does not end there. The praise extends to all creation–“every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea and all that is in them.” The whole creation is filled with the eternal praise of God and the Lamb.  While the Apocalypse always remains thoroughly theocentric (“the one who sits on the throne”), the liturgical scenes do not hesitate to include the Lamb who is worshipped alongside the one who sits on the throne.  The Lamb, at the “center of the throne,” deserves worship and is ascribed divine “worth.”

This heavenly liturgical scene, reflective of Israel’s temple, invites the readers of the Apocalypse to enter the throne room to praise and pray. We praise God and the Lamb while we also pray for the eschatological coming of God’s kingdom.

We join the angels and all creation around the throne. We confess the sovereignty of God. We confess the worthiness of the Lamb. We praise both and ascribe (bless) to them praise, honor, glory, and power. And we continue to pray for the fullness of the kingdom of God when the whole earth will reflect the glory and presence of God and the Lamb. We pray for the end to oppression, injustice, slavery, and persecution. We sing and we pray, and this we do every time we gather as the people of God and participate in the eschatological assembly envisioned in Revelation 4 and 5.


Revelation 4 — Bowing Before the Throne

July 7, 2013

Revelation 4-16 gives us eyes to see the conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers with the eyes of God. We see the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this earth from a heavenly perspective; we see it from the throne room of God. John, “in the Spirit,” is take up into “heaven” in order to overhear and witness the conflict from God’s own perspective.

Where is this “heaven?” The Apocalypse describes it as “up” there rather than down here. But this spatial language is probably metaphorical. Rather than thinking about “heaven” which celestial beings occupy as “over yonder” or somewhere outside of the space-time continuum, or outside the reality of the cosmos, perhaps we should of “heaven” as a dimension that occupies the same space that our own eyes see. We don’t have the eyes to see the heavenly dimensions of this present space. John is given eyes to see the heavenlies and this is represented as an “ascent” (going up) to “heaven.”

Whatever the case may be, John enters the throne room of God, and this is highlighted in several ways. The centrality of the “throne room” is underlined by the use of the Greek term for “throne” fourteen times in this chapter. The chapter is about who reigns and rules over the cosmos. The elaborate description of the throne room (jewels, rainbow, flashes of lightning, etc.) depicts the presence of the Holy One of Israel, the God who indwelt Israel’s temple. The glory of the temple with its own gold and jewels reflected the glory of God’s heavenly dwelling. The lightening, rumblings and thunder echo the presence of God at Sinai (Exodus 19:16). The rainbow reminds us that the God of creation–the God who redeemed Noah–is enthroned here (cf. Ezekiel 1:28; Genesis 9:13). John has entered the Holy of Holies where the angels still sing, as they did in Isaiah 6, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This is the God who reigns over the whole earth (cf. Ezekiel 1:26-28). John has entered the sanctuary of the one whose temple is the cosmos itself (cf. Isaiah 66:1).

This, however, is a point of contention in the imperial world of first century Rome. The beast, according to Revelation 13:1-2, is given power, authority, and a throne which the whole world worshipped. John’s readers lived daily with the claims and actions of imperial power. For them it looked as if the whole world worshipped the Emperor and Caesar wielded uncontested power over their lives. For Caesar there was only one throne, and it was his.

John’s visionary experience contests Caesar’s claim. This is foundational for the unfolding drama of Revelation 4-16 (the second vision). God sits on the throne, not Caesar, and God remains on the throne despite Caesar’s attempts to unseat the Creator.

Revelation 4 identifies two sets of “celestial” participants around the throne of God. One set–the four living creatures–probably represents angelic figures while the other set–the twenty-four elders–represents human figures. In sum, angelic and human communities are present before the heavenly throne. They surround the throne with their worship, submission, and obedience.

The description of four living creatures before the throne is drawn from Ezekiel 1:4-21 and Isaiah 6:2-4. We may describe them as cherubim (look like Ezekiel) or seraphim  (sing like Isaiah) though they are not so identified by John. Rather, as close to the throne, they may represent a kind of angelic hierarchy. Whatever the case, they represent God’s all-seeing (lots of eyes!) activity in the world who are never inactive in God’s cause or mission. They continuously praise the one “who was and is and is to come.”

hb_32.143.2The Ancient Near Eastern backdrop for these figures are the Babylonian Shedu (human headed winged bulls) or Assyrian Lamassu (human headed winged lions, pictured to the left). These figures are usually positioned at doorways that guard the entrances to temples, palaces, or holy places. Cherubim, we might remember, tower over the ark of the covenant in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 6:23-35). One of the best examples of such winged variously headed animals are the Megiddo Ivories discovered from pre-Israelite Megiddo in Palestine (ca. 14th century BCE, pictured below). These are pictured below. Sometimes these animals are represented as carrying royal figures.  Perhaps the four living creatures that surround the throne in heaven function to set off the throne of God, guard access to it, and serve the mission of the enthroned One.MegiddoIronIaIvorySphinx

The twenty-four elders are enthroned humans who are clothed in white and crowned with golden wreaths. Their humanity is indicated by their dress, honors, and number.  The number twenty-four represents the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (as in Revelation 21:12-14). This is the unity of Israel and the Church before the throne–there is one people of God. Their dress is what is promised the faithful saints of Sardis in Revelation 3:5. White garments represent their religious (perhaps priestly) function in the throne room of God. They are holy servants in God’s Holy of Holies. Their golden laurel wreaths are what are promised to  faithful saints in Revelation 2:10 and 3:11. These are the victory wreaths given to those who have overcome.

The throne before which these celestial figures worship is sovereign. God rules the cosmos, including the chaos of evil. The “sea of glass, like crystal” before the throne probably alludes to chaos and evil within the creation though before the throne it has been smoothed like glass. The sea in the life of Israel represented the chaotic waters that destroyed and out of which evil arose. Even in creation the waters are only bounded and limited rather than eliminated. The sea is the source of evil in Revelation as the beast arises out of the sea in Revelation 13. This sea, however, is placid and smoothed. As Beal notes (Revelation, 328), “John sees the chaotic powers of the sea as calmed by divine sovereignty.” God rules even the chaos of the creation, and consequently God also rules the beasts of Revelation (that is, the world powers). In the presence of God there is no fear of the chaos; God smooths the chaos and ultimately eliminates it in the new heaven and new earth (“there was no more sea,” Revelation 21:1).

Greg Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb, interprets the action present in this setting through the lens of benefaction. Benefactors donated wealth, skills and resources to cities and communities for the common good. They did this with the expectation of reciprocity. The community, in gratitude, would honor the benefactors with inscriptions, preferred status, exemption from taxation, or the best seats at the theater.  Often they would be awarded a golden victory wreath (stephanos) to honor their gift.

At the end of this chapter, the four “living creatures given ‘honor and thanks’ ‘to the one on the throne and the twenty-four elders lay their golden wreaths (stephanous) before the throne and then declare God ‘worthy’ to receive ‘honor’.” According to Stevenson, “the message of Revelation 4:9-11 is that God is the ultimate benefactor by virtue of his role as the Creator” (p. 127). There is no other real benefactor; God alone is worthy to be praised as the giver of good gifts and the creator of all that is.

The problem is that within the Imperial world of first century Rome the gods and Emperor were considered the ultimate benefactors.  For example, an Egyptian inscription calls Nero the good guardian of the world (agathos daimon tes oikomenes) and the god Neilos the great benefactor (doreas) of Egypt. The Emperor is the empire’s benefactor who gifts the Empire with what it needs. Revelation 4 stands in stark contrast with such claims and allegiance.

Revelation 4 is a worship text. The heavenly celestials worship the one who sits on the throne. They cry “Holy, Holy, Holy” (the old song of Isaiah 6 which affirms that there is nothing holier than God). This is the Holy One of Israel who has “created all things.” God is worshipped because of God’s being (identity=Holy) and action (creation).  Yahweh is the enthroned benefactor of creation. Only God deserves “glory and honor and power,” and it is only before this throne that the twenty-four elders lay their golden wreaths.

Imagine for a moment Christians emerging from their humble house church after a Sunday assembly to witness the procession to the temple of the Emperor Domitian in Laodicea. Romans visited the imperial temples (including the worship of the Goddess Roma) to acknowledge their benefactor and affirm their allegiance to Rome’s civil religion. The contrast is stark. The humble worship of a Christian assembly gathered in a home paled in comparison to the extravagance of the Imperial cult. While Romans worshipped their benefactor, Christians envisioned the throne room scene of Revelation 4 as they assembled to worship their Benefactor. While the temples of Rome lie in ruins, the Christian assemblies continue to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in chorus with the heavenlies.

Let us be warned that Christian assemblies should not mix the worship of the enthroned one with civil religion, whether in Rome or America. We assemble to pledge allegiance to the One who alone is the great benefactor and acknowledge God’s holiness and creative work.

Despite how the world looked to the persecuted Christian communities in the Roman province of Asia, God was still on the throne. The hostile powers have not dethroned God. The enthroned God is worshipped by the heavenly hosts just as the earthly churches continue to worship the Creator of all things.


The Second Vision: Revelation 4-16

July 5, 2013

When the seventh angel sounded the seventh trumpet, “voices” (note the plural) announced:

The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.

This, I believe, is the fundamental agenda of the Apocalypse, that is, to announce the coming of the kingdom of God which consumes the kingdoms of this world. The kingdom of God is breaking into the world and ultimately destroys the principalities and powers (to use Paul’s language) that presently de facto rule the cosmos. God will not let that stand since it de jure belongs to God’s reign.

The Structure of the Apocalypse

Revelation 4-16 is the second of four visions.  A superficial reading of the Apocalypse will notice how often John uses the language of “then I saw” or “I looked,” etc. John is a seer–he sees what God will do; he sees the present and coming reign of God.

The four visions in Revelation are highlighted by the four-fold use of “in the Spirit.” This is the language of Ezekiel 37:1 when Ezekiel was carried to the valley of bones. This phrase appears in the following places in Revelation:

  • Revelation 1:10 — John sees the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos.
  • Revelation 4:2 — John watches events unfold from the heavenly throne room
  • Revelation 17:3 — John watches events unfold from an earthly wilderness
  • Revelation 21:10 — John inspects the New Jerusalem from a high mountain on the New Earth.

This visionary notation structures the Apocalypse into four visions (a fuller schematic outline is available here):

  1. Vision One – The Kingdom Begun: Jesus Has Overcome (Revelation 1:9-3:22)
  2. Vision Two — The Kingdom Comes: The Heavenly Perspective (Revelation 4-16)
  3. Vision Three — The Kingdom Comes: The Earthly Perspective (Revelation 17-21:8)
  4. Vision Four — The Kingdom Fully Realized in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-22:7)

The Structure and Progress of the Second Vision

The Apocalypse’s second vision (Revelation 4-16) has a well-defined literary structure. The structure shapes the plot and progression of the drama’s movement.  Below is a way of picturing this structural development:

The Heavenly Throne Room: The Sealed Scroll is Seized (4-5)

The Seven Seals are Opened (6:1-8:1)

The Seven Trumpets Herald the Opening of the Scroll (8:1-11:19)

Pause: Seven Participants in the Drama are Identified (12-14)

The Seven Bowls are Poured Out (15-16)

John watches this drama from the setting of the heavenly throne room. He is taken up into the heavenlies in order to observe how God will defeat the kingdom of the beasts (the world powers) and at the same time redeem the followers of the Lamb. John has a “God’s eye view” of the events–he sees them from above rather than from below (he sees the third vision in Revelation 17:1-21:8 from below; he is taken to the wilderness to experience the brokenness of the world).

The sevens, a number that symbolizes wholeness or completeness, link the drama together. This begins in the throne room where the “seven spirits of God” (Revelation 4:5; a reference to the Holy Spirit, I think, given the parallel with Revelation 1:4) are present before the throne of God. Then there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders (which are silenced), seven actors in the drama and seven bowls. The number unites the vision.

Further, the drama is progressive. The judgments associated with the opening of the seals affect only one-fourth of the earth (Revelation 6:8), but the judgments associated with the heralding of the trumpets affects one-third of the earth (Revelation 8:12). The seven bowls, however, envelop the whole earth (Revelation 16:14). The transitions between the scenes are headed/ended by the language of “thunders, voices, lightnings, and an earthquake” (Revelation 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). This is the language of divine presence and action; it is the language of Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). The covenant God reigns and acts. The God of Sinai is still active in the world.

Some, at least in my experience, tend to think that the God of the Old Testament was more involved in the history of the world than is the God of the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, God raises up kings and brings them down. Yahweh moves nations, orchestrates their boundaries and times, and is actively purusing a divine agenda in their relationships (even when those relations are hostile). The God of the Greek Scriptures, it is said, is no longer involved in that way. Indeed, perhaps God is not involved at all except for encouraging the spread of the gospel.

The Apocalypse undermines any such Marcionite dichotomy. History–perhaps symbolized by the scroll–is in the hand of God and the one who sits on the throne is calling the shots in the unfolding drama of the Apocalypse. Like Yahweh, the God of Jesus Christ uses nations, kings, and powers for a divine agenda. They serve God; God does not serve them.

The throne in heaven initiates the drama within human history that will culminate in the kingdom of God. The Lamb opens the seals, seven angels who stand before God sound the trumpets, and the seven plagues (bowls) come from the heavenly temple itself. The beasts of the Apocalypse are given power–empowered but also limited by the one who sits on the throne–and then defanged.

God is an active agent and power within human history. Yahweh still sits on the throne and rules the cosmos. That reign, within the drama of the second vision, is increasingly and progressively manifested until Babylon (the kingdom of the beasts) falls and the Lamb is enthroned on Mount Zion (e.g., the New Jerusalem).

The Lamb is God’s agent in the world. The Lion is a slain Lamb who has overcome or triumphed over evil. The followers of the Lamb overcome as well. Followers of the Lamb overcome through faithful witness (including martyrdom) rather than through violent revolution. The Kingdom of God shows up through a suffering lamb and slaughtered followers.

God will avenge the blood of the saints, but the saints follow the Lamb as faithful witnesses in a hostile world.  God protects those who have the Father’s name stamped on their forehead and God will defeat the kingdom of the beast. God will fully realize his kingdom just as we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” The followers of the Lamb overcome through endurance, faithfulness, and prophetic witness.

This does not mean that followers of the Lamb are passive in their relation to the kingdom of the beasts. They actively pursue the agenda of the heavenly kingdom in terms of righteousness, peace, and joy, but they are not violent revolutionaries. They follow the Lamb that was slain and leave the rest to God.

We are followers of the Lamb. We follow him wherever he goes (Revelation 14:4). We follow him to martyrdom, to self-sacrifice. Indeed, we are the sacrifical firstfruits that God has purchased and offered (Revelation14:4).  We follow the Lamb to the slaughter, but also into a new life. We follow the Lamb into the grave but into a new creation. We follow the Lamb to the cross and into the joy of the New Jerusalem.

We are lambs–just as Jesus was as he walked upon the earth suffering for our sakes. We follow the path of sacrifical suffering, redemptive suffering. But God has not forgotten. God will redeem and avenge his lambs. Though lambs are still led to the slaughter, the kingdom of God is coming and will come. God will remember his covenant.

The Second Vision as the Heart of the Apocalypse

The second vision is the bulk of the book and, in many ways, its heart.  This section literally unveils (reveals) the work of God in the world. Sitting on the isle of Patmos and living in the urban centers of Asia Minor, the imperial power of Rome appears dominant and controlling. Who can oppose it? And where is God when the saints are martyred and the church has been placed under a hostile siege? While the first vision encourages the faithful and confronts the problems in the seven churches, the second vision pulls back the curtain to peer into the heavenly throne room. Taken up into that throne room, John sees what is really real, what the true state of affairs is.

The second vision announces that God is on his throne and Ceaser has not deposed him. It announces that the Lamb has made the redeemed a kingdom of priests. It dramatizes the opening of the scroll that contains the destiny of the cosmos itself–the scroll is taken by the Lamb from the hand of the one who sits on the throne, its seven seals are opened, seven trumpets hearld its opening, and the seven bowls of wrath are poured out upon the kingdoms of the world (partial content of the scroll).

The second vision encourages readers to believe what they cannot see. God is enthroned even though the world looks chaotic and hostile. The kingdom of God will fill the earth even though the kingdoms of the world look impregnable. The Lamb is also a Lion–a king–who will defeat the enemies of God and secure the realm for God. The Lamb and his followers will sing a new song, a song of redemption, as they celebrate the victory of God in the world.

The second vision is not simply about Rome but it is the fight (war, struggle) that has been played out within the fallen world ever since the kingdom of darkness first entered God’s good creation. It is the struggle of the children of Seth against the children of Cain in Genesis. It is the struggle of Israel against the nations, the struggle of Yahweh against the gods of the nations. It is the struggle of Jesus against the demons, and it is the struggle in which believers are engaged against principalities and powers (and not simply against flesh and blood). It is a struggle that continues today in multiple forms.

The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is embedded in the biblical story from beginning to end. The Apocalypse, through the eyes of John, unveils the progression and conclusion of that struggle. The significance of the Apocalypse for contemporary believers is not the specific prediction of specific historical events but the assurance that the struggle is not in vain. God’s kingdom is coming, is even now present, and will ultimately triumph over the kingdoms of this world.


Revelation 3:14-22: Prophetic Oracle for Laodicea

July 5, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Laodicea was part of a tri-city area in Lycus Valley of the Roman province of Asia that included Hierapolis (six miles south) and Colossae (ten miles west). Through the influence of Paul’s co-workers, Christian communities were established in all three cities (Colossians 4:13-15). However, only Laodicea is addressed in Revelation 1-3.

Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs while Colossae was watered by cold springs. Laodicea received much of its water via aqueduct from the surrounding hills. Some think this factors into how Laodicea is addressed by Jesus. Whatever the case, Laodicea was located on the crossroads of the north-south and east-west trade routes as well as situated in a fertile valley. This enabled its wealth which is indicated by two large amphitheaters and a hippodrome. The city even boasted a medical school. As a large comerical, agricultural and manufacturing center, the city appeared practically self-sufficient.

Addressor: “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”

This threefold identification–none of which appears in the Christophany of Revelation 1–is an astounding claim. The only parallel in the biblical canon to the first (“Amen”) is Isaiah 65:16 where, literally, “one will bless by the God of Amen.” This is the one by whom the people of God swear and take loyalty oaths. This leads to the identification “faithful and true witness” as the “Amen” (so it is!) is the one who has borne a faithful and authentic witness in the world as God’s loyal one. This is the one who was obedient to death, even death on a cross. At the same time, this faithful martyr (witness) was also present at the origins of creation as the very agent of creation itself. The risen, enthroned Messiah is also the very beginning (arche) of creation, or–as Colossians 1:15 states it–the “firstborn of creation.” Like God himself (Revelation 21:6), the Messiah is the “beginning and end” of all things (Revelation 22:13). Consequently, this self-identification gives the Messiah divine status, power, and authority. Once again, it is a counter-claim to those made by the Caesars.

Warning: “I know your works…”

For Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-12) this statement was an encouragement. For Laodicea it is an indictment. Their works are neither hot nor cold. Hot and  cold drinks are pleasant and useful at the right time. But lukewarm water is unsuitable for drinking; it is useless and unpleasant. The metaphor Jesus employs is not about hot=good or cold=bad, but rather that hot and cold drinks have a usefuleness while lukewarm drinks are spit out of the mouth.

Laodicea’s works are like a lukewarm drink when a hot or cold one is expected. We reject lukewarm coffee when we expect it to be hot and we wince at lukewarm coke when we expect it to be cold. Like a lukewarm drink, Jesus will spit Laodicea’s works (thus the body itself) out of his mouth.

What is the problem? They boast wealth, prosperity and self-sufficieny. Their problem is their pride. “I” heads the self-descriptions…I…I…I. They abhor dependance on another and see themselves as fully equipped with what they need. But in reality they are very broken people. “Wretched” evokes images of one who has hit rock bottom. Rather than self-sufficient, they are “poor, blind, and naked.” They are destitute and powerless.

The resolution is to turn toward Jesus and “buy” from him gold, garments and salve for the eyes. The metaphor of “buy” is probably drawn from Isaiah 55 where the people of God are invited to “buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). In other words, though commerical language is used, people may obtain this for the asking. It is an invitation to renew relationship with Jesus. They can become rich, clothed, and seeing, but only if they seek this from Jesus rather than from the commercial culture in which they live.

Jesus’ acknowledgement of their works is a warning about self-deception. They think they are healthy but they are not. So, Jesus confronts (rebukes, reproves) them. This form of discipline arises out of love. Proverbs reminds us that God disciplines those whom he loves (Proverbs 3:12; also quoted in Hebrews 12:6). Discipline intends to disciple or train. It has the potential of bearing fruit that we might share in God’s holiness (Hebrews 12:10). But how we respond to discipline is a choice. One must open the door when God is knocking.

Invitation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

“Behold” calls attention to the announcement to follow. This is something to which the Laodiceans should pay particular attention. Jesus offers an invitation. Jesus wants to enter the lives of the Laodiceans so that he might eat with them.

The goal is fellowship which is symbolized by eating a meal together. The table has always been a place of fellowship in the history of God’s people. Israel ate their sacrificial meals in the presence of God (Deuteronomy 27:6-7), the church eats the Lord’s Supper in the presence of the living Christ, even eating “with” Jesus (Matthew 26:29), and we anticipate the eschatological Messianic banquet when the Messiah will serve us at the banquet table (Luke 12:35-37). Jesus wants relationship with the Laodiceans and he knocks at the door waiting for them to enter.

We must remember, however, that the one who is knocking here is not the sweet, mild, perhaps even timid Jesus who carries a lamb on his shoulder, but the Christ who appears as the imperial Lord (the Christophany of Revelation 1). The one knocking at the door is the Amen, the faithful witness and the “beginning and end” of creation itself. Be careful when you open the door to this Lord as he will make demands on your life even as he sits down at the table with you.

Promise: “”The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne.”

Jesus is the faithful witness; he is the model of the one who overcomes or conquers. He bore witness to the truth even to the point of death. He is the faithful martyr. His death, however, was not a defeat. Rather, through his witness, he was enthroned with the Father. In the same way, we are promised that if we overcome through faithful witness, we, too, will be enthroned and reign with Christ. Just as the Son sits with the Father on his throne, so we will sit with the Son on his.

Admonition: “Whoever has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 3:7-13 — Prophetic Oracle for Philadelphia

June 28, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities addressed in these oracles. As an agricultural center located at the intersection of major trade routes, it was an important city though its significance was less than other major areas such as Ephesus or Smyrna. The region was known for is vineyards and wine.

When destroyed by an earthquake in 17 CE imperial interests assisted in the rebuilding of the city (specifically Tiberius who exempted it from taxes). The city was renamed Neocaesareia (New Ceasar) and later, after Emperor Vespasian (69-79) honored the city, it was further named “Flavia.” Ultimately, over a hundred years after the writing of Revelation, Philadelphia also received the title of Neokoros (guardian of the temple) which indicates the strength of the imperial cultus in the city.

Philadelphia, then, was an important agricultural and economic center that was also significantly invested in the imperial cult. Syncretistic accommodation was a strong temptation for Christians in this city as their economic interests were tied to the city’s status and indebtedness to the Emperors.

Addressor:  “the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who pens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”

As “holy” and “true,” Jesus is the “real deal;” he is wholly authentic. But more fundamentally he is what is truly real in the cosmos. Holiness projects justice and truth embodies reality (how the cosmos really is). As the holder of the “key of David,” this one will do what is just and right.

While many interpreters connect the “key of David” with the “keys of Death and Hades” in Revelation 1, this is a misidentification. The latter is plural but the former is singular. The latter is about death, but the former is about authority. The keys of Hades open the door of death, but the “key of David” opens for some and locks out others.

The “key of David” alludes to the function of the royal administrator in Isaiah 22:22. Eliakim was clothed with a robe and sash to symbolize his status in the kingdom and God placed “authority” in his hands. He controlled access to the house of David, perhaps much like a Chief of Staff does for the US President. In other words, no one has access to the king except through Eliakim who has the “key of the house of David.”

In the same way, no one has access to the throne room of God–to the kingdom of God–except through or by the permission (authority) of the one who is holy and true, Jesus the Messiah. With the key, Jesus will open the door so that some might enter (like Philadelphia), but he will shut the door to prevent access to others (like Sardis).

Acknowledgement:  “I know your works.”

Unlike Sardis, Jesus affirms what he knows about Philadelphia’s works. He knows they have “kept [his] word,” confessed his name, and endured the struggles of living in a hostile culture as a small, powerless group of believers. In response to their faithfulness (even “because” of their faithfulness), Jesus announces his blessing. He signals this with the double use of “Behold” (once in 3:8 and twice in 3:9). “Behold” calls our attention to something significant to which the reader is to pay special attention.

“Behold, I have set before you an open door.” Unfortunately, many have understood this in terms of Philadelphia’s grand opportunities like an “open door” for evangelism or something like that. But this ignores the previous mention of the “key of David” which opens and shuts doors. The open door has been unlocked by the key of David, that is, it gives Philadelphia entrance into the fullness of the kingdom of God. They have access to the King, even entrance into the throne room of God.

“Behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet.” Apparently, there was a synagogue in Philadelphia that was particularly hostile to Christians. To describe this synagogue as “of Satan” (perhaps belong to or is empowered by Satan) is not a general description of Jews but reflects the local hostility present in Philadelphia. This synagogue, like the Roman powers themselves, is dominated by Satanic impulses that oppose the kingdom of God. Satan represent the powers in the world that oppose God’s reign.

The promise, however, is that though these Jews claim to be the people of God and the heirs of the prophetic promises, they will discover otherwise. The prophets envisioned the nations coming to Jerusalem to honor the Jewish nation and learn about God from them (e.g., Isaiah 60:14). Jesus reverses this here. Instead the Jews will come to the believers in Philadelphia (representing the nations) to honor them and learn about God. In that moment they will learn that God has loved the nations in Christ. Like the prophet Hosea (1:9), this oracle envisions a role reversal. Though hated by their culture, the believing Philadelphians are loved by God.

There is yet, however, one more promise for Philadelphia given their past endurance and faithfulness to Jesus’ message. “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”

Richard Oster’s discussion of Revelation 3:10 is particularly enlightening (Seven Congregations, 177-180). This promise is directed specifically to Philadelphia (“you” is singular); it does not apply, for example, to Sardis. The believers in Philadelphia are promised special care here because of their faithfulness. When God tries the “whole world,” he will protect Philadelphia through it.

The divine trial is not an eschatological one in the sense of some end-time event. Rather, it is a trial through which Philadelphia will be protected as the world experiences divine judgment within history, that is, within the history of the original audience addressed in this oracle. The “hour of trial” is not about length of time as much as it is about the nature of the event–God will test the hearts of the inhabitants of the earth.

The “whole world” should not be read to include Asia, Africa, North America, etc. Rather, it is the Roman world. This what Oster calls “fictive globalism” (pp. 213-215) rather than a literal globalism. It is the way the Roman world referred to itself as they regarded themselves as the “whole world” even though they knew others lived beyond their borders. In other words, the “whole world” addresses the imperial reality of the Roman empire. This is the world, at least in this oracle, that is tried and through which the believers in Philadelphia will be protected.

As Oster notes, “the inhabitants of the earth” is a way of describing pagans within the Roman empire, or more generally, those who oppose the kingdom of God (p. 179-180). It is the way the Septuagint describes the Canaanites who inhabited Israel’s promised land (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:7). The language is apocalyptic as it describes those who oppose the kingdom of God and, consequently, will be tried and judged.

The theological idea of “trial” or “testing” is a significant theme in the biblical narrative. God tested Abraham (Genesis 22:1), Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-4), and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:31). The Psalmists pray for it (26:2) and biblical authors assume God is constantly testing hearts (Proverbs 17:3; Jeremiah 17:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Testing is part of spiritual formation. When God tries the world–whether persons like Abraham or the pagans of the Roman empire)–God discerns what is truly in human hearts and responds accordingly.

Encouragement:  “I am coming soon.”

While for Sardis this announcement was a warning, for Philadelphia it is an encouragement. Like with Sardis this is not about an eschatological end-time event but is rather about how Jesus will come to protect and comfort Philadelphia during the “hour of trial” that the Roman empire is about to undergo. In consequence, Jesus calls them to hold on and continue in their present course. Otherwise someone may steal their laurel wreath (crown; 3:11). Victory is within their grasp but they must stay the course and endure the “hour of trial.”

Promise:  “The one who conquers, I will make a pillar in the temple of God.”

The promise embraces an eschatological perspective as it looks forward to the descent of the new Jerusalem out of heaven onto a new heaven and new earth (cf. Revelation 22:1-4). Indeed, they will become part of the temple of God itself; they will stand as pillars in the temple. They will stand in the sanctuary of God as a permanent fixture.Erechtheum1

Greg Stevenson points out that sculpting human figures as pillars in sacred architecture was common in the ancient world (cited by Oster, 181-2). The most famous example is the Erectheum on the acropolis of Athens (Greece). The figures are Caryatids on what is known as the “porch of maidens.”

The promise, illustrated by these figures, incorporates the people of God into the temple. Porch_of_MaidensIn some sense, the people of God become the temple. We are the temple of God, or, to put it in words that reflect the picture in Revelation 21, we live in the New Jerusalem which is the temple of God since that is the eternal dwelling place of God among redeemed humanity.

As pillars in the temple of God, we are inscribed with the name of God, the name of God’s city, and the “new name” of the risen One. The picture is similar to the end of Zechariah when everything in the whole city, in the whole world, will be inscribed “Holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Everything in the new heaven and new earth will be dedicated to and participate in the life of the God of Israel.

Admonition:  “whoever has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 3:1-6 — Prophetic Oracle For Sardis

June 27, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

At one time Sardis was a wealthy and powerful city. Its citadel, located on an acropolis, was thought impregnable. However, the ancient historian Herodotus tells us that the fortress fell to the Persians in 546 BCE as the Sardians slept comfortably secure on their mighty hill (and again later by the Greeks). The citadel also fell as they slept in 214 BCE during a Lydian revolt. Vigilance, apparently, was not a Sardian virtue. By the Roman era, Sardis had lost its leadership in the region, particularly to Smyrna as it was awarded the imperial temple rather than Sardis. Though still a relatively wealthy city, its power was curtailed by that growing vitality of other Asian cities. One might say that the city had a reputation based on its history of wealth and power in the region but by the first century the city had lost its fangs. It had little bite left.

Addressor:  “the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”

To hold (literally, “have”) the seven stars in his hand is not only a sign of relationship to the churches but also a declaration of imperial relation to these churches (see comments on Revelation 2:1). It is a statement of care but also of supervision; he holds the seven angelic representatives of the churches in his hand and he speaks prophetically and imperially to each.

What is different in this text, however, is that Jesus also holds the “seven spirits of God” in his hand. Some identify the “seven spirits” with the “seven stars” and thus the seven congregations. That is possible, but it seems more likely that the “seven spirits” are the seven-fold Spirit that speaks to the seven churches (just as every oracle ends with the admonition to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches).

Acknowledgement:  “I know your works.”

Actually, it is no acknowledgement; it is not an affirmation. Rather, it is ironic.  “I know your works,” Jesus says, but those works are lifeless and incomplete. They are no (good) works at all.

The church is like the city. It has a reputation but it is dead. We might surmise that they live in the afterglow of a glorious beginning or they live in the nostalgia of the past. Jesus calls them back to their beginnings–what they had “received and heard” at one point. They are living off their rep rather than living in the present through their works.

Jesus, in rather quick succession, fires off five imperatives to the church at Sardis:

  1. Become Alert or Wake Up – like their city in the past, this church is asleep at the wheel; they need more vigilance.
  2. Strengthen — firm up or support what remains so that the church might again live
  3. Remember — this is not nostalgia but renewing what lies at the roots of this congregation’s beginnings.
  4. Keep — guard and maintain what gave the congregation its lively origins.
  5. Repent — turn away from the dead works and renew the good works that inaugurated the Christian community in Sardis.

These imperatives provide a gird for a congregational restart. It involves (1) remembrance, (2) repentance, and (3) renewal through appropriating past values and strengthening present life.

Warning: “I will come like a thief…”

Since this directed at Sardis, this does not refer to the eschatological coming of Jesus. Rather, eschatological language (“coming”) is used to describe a proleptic event in the life of the church of Sardis that anticipates the eschatological reality. Jesus will come suddenly and unexpectedly to remove their candlestick but it is not at the same time the “end of the age.” Rather, the future judgment will potentially break into the present life of the Sardis church if they do not repent. Jesus will come to Sardis in a proleptic way rather than in a cosmic sense.

Nevertheless, there is some life in the church at Sardis; there are a few who have not “soiled their garments.” Apparently, they have not accommodated the culture or denied the name of Jesus. They are “worthy” to walk with Jesus. Dead churches sometimes have people with living faith.

Promise: “The one who conquers will be clothed in white garments.”

The promise is threefold:  (1) clothed in white garments; (2) permanent inscripturation in the book of life; and (3) the son’s affirmation before the Father. Those are powerful images, but they applied only to those who persevere, that is, those who overcome or conquer. They apply to faithful witnesses, faithful followers of the Lamb.

White garments represent not only clothes washed in the blood of the Lamb, but also they are holy garments which reflect the sanctity involved in walking before the throne of God. White garments are part of both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultic heritage, that is, one wears white in the presence of God. The garments, in effect, reflect the glory of God as well as the consecration of the one who wears it. They are, in effect, priestly garments.

Those who persevere–those who are faithful even to death–will never have their names blotted out of the book of life. This promise is conditioned on “overcoming” and assumes that blotting out is a possibility just as the removal of the candlestick from the presence of Christ is also possible. However, those who overcome are promised that their names are permanently inscribed in the book, never to be removed.

When people follow Jesus as a faithful witness, Jesus will affirm them by confessing their names before the Father in the presence of the heavenly host. This is a powerful image. We all love affirmation, and we love to be affirmed in the presence of greatness. Indeed, some sacrifice everything for the glory of national affirmation. But the Son’s affirmation is cosmic in nature; it is the grandest of all affirmations. Should we not sacrifice everything for it, even our very lives as faithful witnesses?

Admonition: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 2:18-29 — Prophetic Oracle for Thyatira

June 17, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thyatira, a city which began as a military outpost in the third century BCE, grew into a thriving financial center during the Roman era. A biblical example is Lydia of Thyatira who was a seller of purple (Acts 16:14). There are a large number of inscriptions and monuments that verify the pervasive influence of trade guilds (similar to unions) in the city. This is natural for a commercial center. These guilds, however, were often associated with particular gods, temples, political allegiances, and/or festivals.  This created tremendous social and economic pressure to participate in the various activities in order to maintain social standing and financial opportunities.

Addressor: “the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.”

The risen Messiah identifies himself with three lines but only the last two come from the Christophany in Revelation 1:12-17. This first identification is the only time “Son of God” appears in Revelation. Rather than a theological identification with deity (though it may have that ring when read in the churches), the primary referent–because it is part of the agenda throughout the Apocalypse–is a contrast with Caesar who was often given the title “son of God.” For example, a statue of the Emperor Trajan in Ephesus had an inscription containing the attribution “son of God” (see the picture at Richard Oster’s blog where the title is underlined in red). This understanding of the title accords well with the promises to Thyatira (discussed below).

The firey eyes and bronzed feet are most likely taken from Daniel 10:6 where they describe heavenly figures. The eyes function to highlight a discerning, even judging, gaze (see “searches mind and heart” in 2:23) while the bronze feet probably represent stability and certainty. This Caesar–this “son of God”–stands firm and sees what is happening at Thyatira.

Commendation: “I know your…”

  • works
  • love (agape)
  • faith
  • service (diakonian)
  • patient endurance (hupomonen)

This is an impressive list. Unlike Ephesus, the church is commended for its “love.” The acknowledgement of it works is amplified in terms of their ministry (service) which probably specifies their benevolent activities. They  care for others, and they endure the hardships of their situation. Their works are further commended because they are increasing–they are greater than at the beginning. From appearances, this is a vibrant, ministering,  and loving congregation despite their hardships.

A further commendation appears in 2:24 as some (or many?) have maintained sound (healthy) teaching. They have not bought into the rhetoric of those who follow Jezebel.  It seems that some claimed that they have “learned the deep things of Satan” as some call it. But who names it such? If it is the Jezebel party, then perhaps they claim some “deep” knowledge that rationalizes their practices as if they know how to discern the workings of Satan. If so, they excuse their immorality and idolatry as people who can discern between what is indifferent and what is truly Satanic. Perhaps, then, the claim is to some insight or knowledge that justifies their behavior.  If it is what those who reject the Jezebel party say, then they associate the practices of the party with Satan. If this is so, then Satan once again lies behind this assimilation to paganism, according to the prophet. In either case, the practices of the Jezebel party are deeply rooted in the powers of Satan and thus reflect assimilation to the imperial culture.

There are,  however, a significant number in the congregation who have remained faithful in their witness against accommodation. They reject the Jezebel party and are commended for their faithfulness. Indeed, as the oracle says, Jesus lays no “other burden” on them than “hold[ing] fast” till he comes. perseverance is a key theme among the letters and for the whole Apocalypse. Christ-followers must continue their works, love, and faith until the final realization of God’s new creation emerges in the Eschaton.

Warning:  “But I have this against you…”

Jezebel is probably a metaphor for a particular prophetess in Thyatira who is seducing members of the congregation with her teaching. Two particulars are identified:  sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols. Apparently, this was previously addressed in some way in the hopes she might repent (God is gracious in giving “time to repent”) but she refused. Consequently, Christ will act against her.

The Jezebel imagery is significant as it connects us with the story of Israel’s queen (1 Kings 18-21). She incited her husband to follow Baal and lead Israel into immorality and idolatry. Her leadership in pagan assimilation forms the typology that the prophet employs here.

The specific practices are similar to those found at Pergamum. It is the same problem of cultural accommodation to pagan idolatry and immorality. Here, however, there is a specific leader with a significant following (“her children”). The result for both is the same–death. There is no reason to think this is a form of Christian violence but rather that her (and her children’s) end will be the same as Jezebel as the metaphor of the biblical story is continued. Here it is metaphorical in the same way that the threat against the churches is. Just as Jesus will remove the lampstands from his presence if the churches do not repent, so now Jesus will act to remove Jezebel since she has refused to repent when she had the opportunity.

Christ’s eyes are fixed on his congregations. He searches “mind and heart” and intends to give to everyone what their works deserve. This underscores the significance of faithful witness through persevering in good works. The commendation of Thyatira is the model for this perseverance, but they must also reject the influence and presence of Jezebel. They can tolerate her no longer.

Promise: “I will give…”

  • authority over the nations
  • the morning star

The first gift highlights a major theme in the Apocalypse. The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world (or world powers) is central to the drama which will unfold in the second vision (Revelation 4-16). The prophet utilizes Psalm 2 in which God addresses the son (king) and promises him the inheritance of the nations as the son will exercise authority over the kingdoms of the earth. The Apocalypse identifies this son with the risen Christ who, enthroned in heaven, now exercises authority over the nations through the unfolding apocalyptic drama. The promise is that those who follow Christ (who overcome and persevere in their works) will share in his reign over the nations; they will rule with Christ. The promise entails the defeat of the world powers that now war against the kingdom of God. [There is a question whether 2:26b is part of the quotation from Psalm 2 and thus addressing only the Messiah or whether it is an application of Psalm 2 to all Christ-followers. I think the latter, but Aune (Revelation) and Oster (Seven Congregations, 154-6) argue for the former.]

The two gifts are connected though it is not obvious to 21st century readers. The “morning star” is explicitly connected with the Davidic dynasty in Revelation 22:16. Further, the morning star (the planet Venus) often appears on Roman coinage and is deeply embedded in imperial and Roman mythology. Oster (Seven Congregations, 160) suggests that the connection between Julius Caesar and the worship of Venus as well as the association of the founding of Rome with Venus generated a strong association between the “morning star” and Roman Emperors (see also Oster’s discussion of this along with some sample coins on his blog). In other words, “John’s use of the ‘morning star’ christology would place  Christ in competition with Caesar.” It is the risen Messiah who holds the stars in his hands and who can dispense Venus as a gift to his followers. Christ, rather than Caesar, reigns and shares his reign with those who overcome and “keep [his] works to the end.”

Admonition: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 2:12-17 — Prophetic Oracle for Pergamum

June 14, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Pergamum competed with Ephesus and Smyrna for importance as all three had imperial temples (Neokoros). It the first city to build a temple dedicated to a Roman Emperor (Augustus in 29 BCE, which was also dedicated to Roma). Pergamum was city alive with pagan spirituality and dedication. Its temple to Asclepios (the Roman god of healing) was renowned and the god adorned the city’s coinage in the late first century. 250px-Pergamonmuseum_PergamonaltarThe large altar of Zeus which is now in the Berlin Pergamum museum (pictured here) was a magnificent marble structure. Pagan and Imperial vitality was as pervasive and healthy as in any city in Asia. As an administrative center, Neokoros of the imperial cult, and medical center based in the Temple of Asclepios as well as the second largest library in the world (next to Alexandria) it was a religio-cultural center for Asia and beyond.

Addressor:  “the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.”

Revelation 1:16 pictures Christ with a two-edged sword coming out his mouth. The sword probably represents the discerning message that pierces hearts and opens up their secrets before God. The sword can heal or destroy; it can regenerate (renew) or devastate. Christ has some sharp words for Pergamum that entail the potential use of the destructive power of this sword.

Commendation:  “I know where you dwell.”

This is practically a concessive. The prophet recognizes the serious situation in which Pergamum Christians live. This church has already experienced legal pressure to renounce the name of Christ and suffered at least one martyr for their resistance. Antipas, about whom we know nothing else, is the only named martyr (“faithful witness”) in Revelation other than Jesus himself.

Pergamum is the location of “Satan’s throne.” This is not a reference back to the “synagogue of Satan” in Smyrna. Rather, this refers to the pagan environment in which Christians lived. Identifying the specific “throne” has proved rather fruitless so perhaps it is best to simply associate it with the vibrant pagan religious life present in Pergamum (including all the features noted above; Oster, Seven Congregations, 135). This city, like others but even more so in Pergamum, was immersed in its dedication to pagan deities and the imperial cult. At one time the capital city of Asia and the virtual center of the imperial cult, perhaps that is sufficient to identify it as “Satan’s throne.” The “throne” here contrasts with the other thrones that appear in Revelation, particularly the “throne” of God in heaven (Revelation 4:2, etc.)

The reference to Satan anticipates how significant his role is in the apocalyptic drama. He is the power behind the Empire as he makes war on the saints of God.

Warning: “But I have a few things against you.”

  • “you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam.”
  • “you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”

While the saints in Pergamum may not have denied the name of Christ, they have compromised it through a syncretistic tolerance.  Balaam is a well-known symbol of syncretism, assimilation, and compromise as he attempted to subvert the faith of Israel (Numbers 22-24). Beale (Revelation, 248-51) notes that the “sword language” that begins and ends the oracle to Pergamum reflects the language of Numbers 31:8 (also Joshua 13:22) that Balaam himself was killed with the sword.

Whatever the specific teachings of these two groups, the prophet focuses on two practices that compromise the faith:  (1) eating food sacrificed to idols, and (2) practicing sexual immorality. Oster (138) observes that “the combination of idolatry and immorality is part of the stock Jewish characterization of pagan existence (cf. Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom 14:22-27)” and the specific target of Paul’s call to ethical purity in 1 Corinthians 10:1-21. Like some in Corinth, some believers did not think it inappropriate to participate in the idolatrous festivals and eat food sacrificed to idols (presumably at the temples in connection with their artisan guilds or political associations) as well as pursue sexual lust.

Imperative:  “Therefore, repent.”

Cultural and religious assimilation as well as the toleration of aberrant Christian ethics spelled the doom of the Pergamum congregation. The Imperial Lord Jesus the Messiah warns that he will draw the sword against them and wage war against their practices.  “I will come to you soon,” he announces. This coming is neither redemptive nor eschatological. Rather, it is a divine visitation to remove the lampstand of Pergamum from his presence. Jesus will not tolerate their tolerance for Baalam-like syncretism. Instead, they will experience the wrathful sword of the Lamb that will ultimately destroy the nations in Revelation 19:15

Admonition:  “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

This is a warning not only to Pergamum but also to the other churches overhearing the message to them. It is time to listen and respond accordingly.

Promise: “I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone.”

Given the pressure-cooker in which they live and the suffering they have endured, the promises are significant: (1) hidden manna and (2) a white stone with a new name.

The hidden manna probably alludes to the story in 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 that describes how Jeremiah hide the ark of covenant (containing manna) in the Transjordan region at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. This manna was to remain hidden until God gathered his people in an eschatological harvest. Manna is a symbol of God’s provision, and to receive the “hidden manna” is to experience the eschatological banquet, that is, to eat at the table of God. This stands in strong contrast with eating at idolatrous tables.

It seems we ought to see some connection between eating the manna and receiving a white stone with a new name.  The stone probably refers to some kind of invitation since a general custom was to use stone as entrance tokens to banquets and other events. The new name probably refers to a victory name, a conquering name which is given in light of the victory. Consequently, the total picture probably anticipates our invitation to and entrance into the victorious Messianic banquet. As victors–those who have overcome–the faithful witnesses sit at the banquet table and share in the “new name” that Jesus himself has received (cf. Revelation 3:12; cf. 19:12). Probably the “new name” alludes to Isaiah 62:2 and the newness promised in the later chapters of Isaiah (e.g., Isaiah 65:17; 66:22) which is the “new heavens and new earth.”

The contrast, therefore, is strong. Instead of eating at idolatrous banquets and participating in the fleeting pleasure of sexuality immorality, Christ-followers anticipate eating the manna of God at an invitation-only banquet in the New Jerusalem.


Alexander Campbell, Gratuitous Evil and Meticulous Providence

June 11, 2013

Yesterday I received my copy of J. Caleb Clanton’s new book entitled The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013). I had previously read the manuscript in early 2012 and am pleased to see it in print.

Caleb taught philosophy at Pepperdine for several years but now teaches at Lipscomb.  I am grateful that Lipscomb has secured his services as a philosopher, and a philosopher who is interested in mining the resources of the Stone-Campbell tradition.

I deeply appreciate his engagement with the resources of the Stone-Campbell Movement, particularly Alexander Campbell, in the discipline of Philosophy of Religion. Of all the early Reformers, Campbell is the best—perhaps the only choice—for such a project.  However, my appreciation not only extends to the subject matter, but also for how Clanton brings Campbell’s philosophy of religion into dialogue with contemporary discussions. In the language of Vatican II’s aggiornamento, Clanton brings the Campbellian philosophical tradition “up to date.”

Clanton’s work is impressive. His analysis of Campbell’s ideas are fair, clear, and illuminating. His re-contextualization of Campbell’s thought is insightful. He demonstrates that Campbell squarely faced the questions that philosophy of religion raised in the early nineteenth century. Campbell was well-acquainted with the philosophical issues of his day. Not only does this demonstrate that the Stone-Campbell Movement has its own “philosopher,” but that the philosophic tradition Campbell represented may yet still provide some guidance in our current context. And, yet, I think it remains clear—as Clanton’s discussion of the Campbell’s ideation argument for the existence of God indicates—that Campbell, as a philosopher of ideas, is a deeply rooted empirical Biblicist who only ventures into metaphysical waters as a negative apologetic while always staying within sight of the empirical shore.

At the 2012 Christian Scholars Conference I offered a response to Caleb’s manuscript regarding Campbell’s understanding of Arminian-esque theodicy. Campbell’s theodicy, as Clanton unfolds it, is focused on the Free Will Defense, responds to the “Divine Hiddenness” problem, and articulates a high view of providence (even meticulous providence) that denies gratuitous evil.  My response to Clanton is available here.


Revelation 2:8-11 — Prophetic Oracle for Smyrna

June 10, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Smyrna, the modern city of Izmir in Turkey, was a long-time ally of Rome, even during its wars with Carthage (North Africa). It boasted a temple to the goddess Roma as early as 195 BCE and won the honor of building a temple to honor Emperor Tiberius in 26 CE.IzmirSmyrnaAgora20004 Consequently, Smyrna had the civic honor of Neokoros (Temple Guardian) as well as Ephesus and Pergamum (cf. Friesen, Twice Neokoros, 57-59). The Emperor cult was alive and well in this city of between 100,000-200,000 people. (The photo shows the remains of Smyrna’s agora  or marketplace where a statue of Zeus was prominent.)

One of the most significant early Christian leaders was from Smyrna–Polycarp. He was martyred in 156 CE. (identified as the “twelfth” martyr from Smyrna) and claimed that he had served Christ for eighty-six years (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9, 19) which would place him among those addressed in this letter (assuming he lived in Smyrna at the time). We know he was the “Bishop of Smyrna” when Ignatius wrote his letter to Smyrna and subsequently wrote a letter to Polycarp himself (around 112-115 CE). Polycarp’s reputation in the history of the early church is parallel to Smyrna’s reputation in this letter–a faithful, suffering witness to Jesus.

Addressor:  “The words of the first and last, who died and came to life.”

The language comes from the Christophany in Revelation 1:17-18. The first phrase identifies him with Yahweh who is so described by Isaiah (44:6) and the latter identifies him as the one who returned from Hades. This return to life, however, was not simply a resuscitation, but a resurrection or transformation, that is, he is the “firstborn from the dead” (1:5). The language underscores his presence as a divine figure who has overturned the powers of Hades and Death. The reference to death is particularly appropriate as the church at Smyrna will face a testing that will bring them to the edge of death in their faithful witness.

Commendation:  “I know….”

  • “your tribulation”
  • “your poverty”
  • “the slander”

Probably these three are linked in some way. Their troubles are partly economic perhaps brought on by the slander of hostile neighbors. The picture is larger than that, of course, but the interconnection of economics, slander, and troubles is part of the drama in the next vision (Revelation 4-16). Christians were sometimes boycotted and denied economic access; at other times they refused to participate in idolatrous rituals which would have been economically beneficial. Their faithful witness has exacted a heavy price. But their wealth is not found in Roman materialism but in the richness of God’s community.

The risen Christ identifies the source of the slander (literally, blasphemy).  They “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Oster’s discussion of this line has been one of the more helpful ones to me (Seven Congregations, 120-125). Some believe this refers to Jews who reported some of their former synagogue members to the authorities on the grounds that they no longer contributed the tribute tax demanded by Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem (the Fiscus Judaicus; cf. Suetonius,  Domitian, 12.2; Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 7.6.6). In other words, some Jews may have incited legal proceedings against some Christians on the part of the Romans.

Others, like Oster, believe it is more likely that this is a matter of sectarian hostility between Christians and Jews. Just as Jews began to exclude Christians from the synagogue, so Christians regarded Jews hostile to Jesus as representatives of the powers that lie behind the evil in the world. Satan is the power that lies behind the Empire but Satan also slanders Christians at the synagogue.

This is not a function of anti-Semitism as if Christians hated Jewish ethnicity or hated them as “Christ-killers.” Rather, it is tension born of different loyalties and sectarian division (a tension evident in the Martyrdom of Polycarp [12-13] when Jews are described as those who collect the wood to burn Polycarp). The Satanic image reflects a broad apocalyptic understanding that the risen Messiah is engaged in a cosmic conflict with Satan and whoever opposes the Messiah serves the purposes of Satan. Consequently, Paul referred to his opponents in Corinth as “servants” of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

There is also a claim here that true Jewishness is not found in ethnicity. Rather, it is found in following the Messiah. Revelation will describe the faithful in terms of Jewish theological roots, even the twelve tribes of Israel (Revelation 7:1-5). For Revelation authentic Jewishness is faith in the Messiah–following the Lamb rather than ethnicity or Torah-keeping.

Imperatives:  “Do not fear…Be faithful unto death.”

The context for these imperatives is the impending “tribulation.”  They have already suffered some trouble, but more is coming, perhaps an escalation. Imprisonment is coming for some and maybe some will even suffer to the point of martyrdom (“faithful to the point of death”). The faithfulness demanded here is not merely a faithfulness until one dies but a faithfulness that might lead to death itself like Jesus himself.

The prophet characterizes this period as a “testing” or some kind of probation. Theologically, God will permit a time of testing. This is a consistent trajectory in Scripture (Genesis 22:1; Psalm 81:7; Jeremiah 11:20; 20:12; Proverbs 17:3; 2 Chronicles 32:31; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). It is one of the ways the people of God are refined. God tries us to see what is in our hearts, that is, where our treasure lies (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2).

The most curious dimension of this probationary period is its length. What does “ten days” symbolize? Some think it identifies a short period of time in contrast to, say, a thousand years. Given the context of probation and testing, it seems more likely that we find the roots of this image in a significant moment of testing that lasted ten days in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Daniel four Hebrew young men are “tested” for “ten days” (1:12-15). The Greek Scriptures (LXX) use the same language that we find in Revelation 2. The “ten days” is probably a metaphor for a period of testing analogous to Daniel’s own testing (cf. Beale, Revelation, p. 242). The question is whether Christ-followers will refuse assimilation just as Daniel and his friends did or will they compromise their faith.

Death as a faithful witness, however, is victory; it brings a “wreath (stephanon) of life.” 747px-Lorbeerkranz_Zypern_remDeath is not defeat as the faithful witness is awarded a victory wreath. A stephanos was given to victors in athletic contests as well as on other occasions (military victories). This is not a royal crown of authority but a victory celebration. The laurel wreath was commonly depicted in Greco-Roman art, even on tombstones where it depicts the reward for a life well lived (see the image at  Oster’s site). 1470091 The coin on the right, minted in Thyatira during the reign of Domitian, pictures Nike holding a victory wreath.

Admonition: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

The “testing” is coming; indeed, it is already here. Who is listening?

Promise: “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”

The one who was once dead but is now alive promises the same for those who overcome or conquer. The “second death” is the fiery lake described in Revelation 20:14 or, in common parlance, “Hell”. In other words, there will be no second death for those who die in faith. They will, like the Messiah, live forever. This is the Christian hope–resurrected life.


Response to “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”

June 6, 2013

The 2013 Christian Scholars Conference is currently in progress. Gary Holloway asked me to present a paper that would respond to the ecumenical 1982 Lima “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.”

I have uploaded the paper on my Academic page and it is now available here.

The paper suggests that the great strength of the document is its fundamental theological orientation but that its weakness is its strongly institutional character.

To figure out what that means I guess one will have to read the paper.

Blessings

John Mark


Revelation 2:1-7 — Prophetic Oracle for Ephesus

June 4, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Ephesus was named the provincial capital by Augustus Caesar in 29 BCE and an imperial cult center dedicated to Roma and Divus Julius was established in the city and later followed by a temple dedicated to Augustus. Ephesus was the first city to build a temple to the Emperor Domitian though it was renamed for Vespasian after the death of the unpopular Emperor (the Roman Senate wanted to rid themselves of Domitian’s legacy). Its remains are still visible today, built 89-91 CE. ephesus-domitian-templeA 50×100 meter two-story structure, Ephesus thought it a great honor to be the first city to honor the Emperor (neokoros, a Temple guardian) as a provincial center of the imperial cult for Domitian. As a center of Imperial civil religion Ephesus stressed its allegiance to the Emperor (a statue of Domitian stood in the Sabastoi Temple) as well as to Greco-Roman deities through multiple temples. One could not live in Ephesus without the constant reminder of how religion pervasively shaped daily life (from coinage to festive processions) and was, in effect, a civil religion for the culture.

The interconnection between commerce, religion and public fidelity to the gods is part of the story in Acts 19 when a mob demonstrated at the theatre because Paul’s new faith was diminishing the devotion of Ephesus to the goddess Diana (Artemis). theatre2The theatre could hold 25,000 people and the mob was only quieted after hours of demonstration and the pleading of officials. This illustrates the kind of excitement that civil religion could generate in a Roman city.

Addressor:  “who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Jesus addresses the angel as a representative of the church–all usages of the English “you” are singular.

The significance of the “seven stars” should not be underestimated. Domitian minted a coin in memory of his dead son. 97-79001089The inscription read: “the divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian.” The image of the son is encircled by seven stars as he sits upon a globe.

In other words, it is Christ rather than the Emperor who holds the stars in his hand. He speaks as one whose authority is unquestioned and one who “walks” among the churches. This is the language of living God dwelling among Israel (Leviticus 26:11-12). Christ dwells among his people.

Commendations:  Ephesus is commended for multiple positives.

  • good works and toil (difficult labor)
  • patient endurance and “bearing up” without growing weary
  • tested false “apostles”
  • intolerant of evil (e.g., they “hate” the works of the Nicolaitans)

We might summarize this list under two headings. First, though the Ephesian church was suffering under the pressures of living in a hostile culture, they persevered in good works. Twice John describes their “patient endurance” (hupomone) which means that they have stood up under the pressure. Instead of giving up, they continued their hard work (kopon). Their ministries were ongoing and laborious.

Second, they have resisted the pressures to abandon the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of their faith. They “hate” the works of the Nicolaitans, as does Christ, and they did not accept the message of some itinerant teachers who claimed to be apostles. The Ephesian church was discerning. They recognized the error of both.

Whatever the exact problem the Nicolaitans (probably sexual immorality and idolatry as we will see in future oracles) and false apostles exemplified, Ephesus is commended for its intolerance. I don’t think we should read “hate” as a kind of maliciousness but rather as an ethical resistance to immorality. This is no commendation for malice, abuse, or violence, but a commendation for commitment to the values of the kingdom of God in opposition to what might subvert those values.

The Nicolaitans are identified as an independent group in Ephesus. They have been excluded from the Christian community there and the Christians are commended for it. Ignatius alluded to groups against which the church must guard itself (cf. Ephesians 7:1). The struggle in Ephesus against such groups has been a long one from Paul’s warnings (Acts 20:28-31) to Timothy’s struggles with insidious teachings (1 Timothy 6:3-5). The church, it appears from Revelation 2, had remained faithful in their teaching and their works.

Problem: “you have abandoned the love you had at first.”

It is difficult to know how to interpret what it means to “abandon” or “leave behind” your “first love” or the “love you had at first.” We do not have much in the way of context to identify the specific problem. Love, however, is the key. Given the orthodoxy and orthopraxy for which they are commended, some think their teachings and practices had lost a sense of loving fervor and had degenerated into a kind of formality. They lost their “love.” Perhaps they failed to love each other as tensions rose in discerning false teaching and external pressures. Perhaps it is about whom they love. In other words, perhaps they had lost their focus in terms of loving Christ. Whatever the case their faithful teaching and works were insufficient. The church also needed “love.” Multiple positives do not balance out a loss of “love.”

Warning:  Remember and repent.

There are two imperatives in the text:  remember and repent.  The church is to regain its original vision and return to their original (“at the first”) practices (works).  Presumably this means, in some sense, an infusion of “love” in their practices and communal life.

True to the prophetic genre, the call to repent is significant to the future of the community. The explicit warning is that Jesus will “come” and remove the lampstand from his presence if they do not repent. It is, in effect, a casting out of the church. Though their orthodoxy and orthopraxy is laudable, their lost “love” (should it continue) means that they can no longer expect the comforting presence of the Lord. In that situation, the Lord’s coming is neither redemptive nor eschatological (“end-time”)–it is the present loss of Christ’s presence. They would be cast from his presence when their lampstand is removed.

Admonition:  “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are you listening? Do you hear me? The Spirit of God is speaking through the oracle in order to form the church, but the church must listen and respond to effect the kind of spiritual formation envisioned by the oracle. Other “churches” are also overhearing the message to Ephesus–it is not for them alone but for all believers.

Promise:  “I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

The promise anticipates the eschatological picture of Revelation 21-22. The “tree of life” is located in the Garden of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:2 (cf. 22:14, 19). Here the oracle locates the “tree of life” in “Paradise” which means “garden.” This is a clear allusion to the Garden of Eden in Genesis, but it is not a longing for a return to the Garden of Eden. Rather , it is a promise of entrance into the eschatological Garden in the New Jerusalem. The promise is a peaceful and satisfying life. No matter what the Empire threatens, Jesus will give to life to the one who “overcomes.”

The term “conquer” or “overcome” is an important one in Revelation. The promised is conditioned on “overcoming.” The verb is nikao which we know in our culture as Nike (or, victory). To overcome is to gain the victory; it is to successfully persevere or patiently endure as a faithful witness.

Oster (Seven Congregations, 109-113) calls attention to the pervasive symbolism of the goddess Nike (Latin, Victoria) present in the Greco-Roman world. While the term certainly embraced the idea of martyrdom (cf. 4 Maccabees 1:11), Oster suggests that the larger Greco-Roman spirituality of victory is a more important backdrop. The goddess was the source of success, wealth, health, power, and victorious battles. She handed the victors of athletic contests their laurel wreath. goddess-nike-from-whichThose who wanted victory (wanted to “overcome”) sought her blessings. [Nike is here pictured holding a wreath–from a monument in Ephesus.] But for the church at Ephesus “overcoming” is resisting cultural assimilation; it is resisting the cultural turn to the goddess Nike. To “overcome” is faithful witness whether it leads to martyrdom or not. The victory wreath does not come from Nike but from the Lord Jesus. To “overcome” is to persevere in faith.

In the case of Ephesus, victory lies in returning to their beginnings and renewing their “love” while maintaining their orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Resisting cultural assimilation and syncretism, they will share in the victory of the one who has himself overcome (Revelation 5:5).


The “Letters” to the Seven Churches

May 29, 2013

Though almost universally called “letters” to the seven churches of Asia, this is rather insufficient to capture the urgency and message of these words from the risen and enthroned Messiah. The salutation of the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:4-8) bears all the earmarks of a letter, but the subsequent visionary markers (“in the Spirit”) remind us that this is no letter. It is, as identified in the superscription, a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3).

As a prophecy located in the tradition of the canonical Hebrew prophets but at the same time an Apocalypse, we expect prophetic oracles that address the situation of the original hearers. This is exactly what we have in the “letters” to the seven churches. They are prophetic oracles rather than simple letters (though, of course, they appear in the genre of letters). They are filled with apocalyptic imagery, allusions to prophetic literature, and confront and/or comfort the people of God in an increasingly hostile environment. John, through the voice of the risen Messiah, speaks like an Amos, or an Isaiah, or a Jeremiah. He calls the people of God to account even as he also offers them hope.

Almost every commentary on these “letters” notes their repetitive structure, and rightly so as the structure highlights (1) the authority of the risen Messiah, (2) the situation of each church (whether good or bad), and (3) the hope of the new heaven and new earth. This is all couched in the language of an apocalyptic prophet.

In his recent commentary on Revelation 1-3, Richard E. Oster, Jr. discerns a sevenfold pattern for each of the prophetic oracles (Seven Congregations, 91-92). I have adapted his arrangement in this way:

  1. “To the angel of the church” (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14)
  2. Command to “write” (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14)
  3. Christophany connection (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7 (?))
  4. Acknowledge–“I know” (2:2; 2:9; 2:13; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15)
  5. Warnings and Imperatives (2:2-6; 2:9-10; 2:13-16; 2:19-25; 3:1-4; 3:8-11; 3:15-20)
  6. Eschatological Promise (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21)
  7. Admonition–Call to Hear (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22)

It is important to note several significant features of this sevenfold pattern in the light of their function as prophetic oracles.  First, the oracle arises from the divine council, that is, from a heavenly figure who delivers a message from the divine throne room.  The risen Messiah received a “revelation” from God and now delivers it to the (angel of the) churches through John. This, in effect, is like the Hebrew prophets to whom “the word of the Lord came” (Hosea 1:1; Zechariah 1:1) or the “vision” they saw (Isaiah 1:1).

Second, the message of the prophet confronts the people of God. The overwhelming danger for the churches in Asia is cultural assimilation through idolatry, syncretism, and heterodoxy. This is the same problem Israel faced throughout its history and which the prophets constantly addressed. The emphatic and mostly climactic line in the oracles is the call to listen–whoever has an ear. let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  It is important to notice the plural (churches; cf. 2:7). This indicates the audience is wider than simply the particular church addressed. Rather, whoever has an ear–whoever is within earshot, whoever hears the words read–they should listen to the message. The warnings, promises and imperatives apply to every church and not simply to the specific one addressed (though, of course, it has an acute relevance to the community addressed). The prophetic message, then, is for a broad audience though socially and contextually located.

Third, while the prophet commends and warns, Jesus through John also offers hope through the promise of a future eschatological reality. This binds Revelation 2-3 with Revelation 21-22 as the language of the former anticipates the latter. Hope changes everything and hope enables endurance as a faithful witness. It does not minimize faithful witness but provides a horizon for ordering our lives as disciples of Jesus. Greg Stevenson in his new book A Slaughtered Lamb (p. 120) summarizes it well:

Some have criticized the idea of an end-time resolution to the problem of human suffering, believing that it downplays the need to remedy injustice in the here and now. Eschatology, however, is not about taking our eyes off the needs of this world and focusing them instead on some ultimate consolation. One who embodies the pattern of the Christ must also embody his compassion for the poor, his concern for justice, his outrage at evil, and his actions to reduce human suffering. What eschatology does, what the seven promises concluding these letters do, is challenge our assumptions that God is not faithful unless he provides blessing and comfort in this life. They are a reminder that God’s vision encompasses much more than ours and this material world–as important as it is–is not the totality of existence. The messages of the seven letters are strongly counter-cultural in that they dare to suggest that it is not wealth or comfort or pleasure achieved within the kingdom of the world that matters, but a life lived according to the pattern of a crucified messiah, a slaughtered Lamb, and that that pattern reinterprets all our cultural assumptions.

Though I think Greg introduces the image of the slaughtered Lamb too early (it does not appear till Revelation 5), the point is on target given the whole of the theology of Revelation. The function of hope is not to diminish the present or release us from our commitment to care for others. Rather, its function is to open a window into the fuller nature of reality and glimpse the goal God has for the creation. This hope empowers discipleship and comforts the afflicted.


Revelation 1:9-20 — An Imperial Christophany

May 28, 2013

The Christophany–the appearance of Jesus to John–sets the tone for the letters to the churches (Revelation 2 & 3) and provides the ground for patient endurance through the dramatic conflict that the Apocalypse will unfold in the second and third visions (Revelation 4-16 and Revelation 17-21). It is, therefore, important to pay close attention to how Christ comes to his churches as the first vision opens.

This introduction to the letters to the seven churches easily falls into three sections:  (1) Prophetic Commission (1:9-11); (2) Christophany Described (1:12-16); and (3) Divine Speech (1:17-20).

1.  John is commissioned to write what he sees “in a book” (or on a scroll) and send it to the seven churches.

John has shared  in the suffering of the Christians in Asia Minor. The language of “tribulation” and “patient endurance” reflects the shared experience of cultural hostility. John is on Patmos because he was willing to bear witness to the word of God and Jesus. There is no need to speculate about the horrors of Patmos (or mines, etc.). Rather, John probably suffered from the common practice of exiling or deporting anti-government prophets and astrologers (see Oster, Seven Congregations, 66). John’s insistence on allegiance to the kingdom of God, his warnings about assimilation, and his prophetic denouncement of idolatrous Roman imperialism (all seen in the Apocalypse itself) probably landed him in exile (deportation or banishment). Partners in the kingdom of God will share in its tribulations and will need to persevere in faith. John identifies with his audience.

On a particular “Lord’s day,” John was “in the Spirit.” Since the “Lord’s day” has a specific referent–his audience would know what that is, it appears that it is the common day of worship among Christians. Second century Christians identified this as Sunday (cf. Didache 14.1; Ignatius, Magnesians 9.1; Gospel of Peter 12.50; Barnabas 15.9). Calling it the “Lord’s day” probably contrasts with other days associated with the Emperor or cultic rituals. John fell into a trance on the day of the Lord’s resurrection which is quite appropriate for what he will see.

Given John’s description of his work as a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3), “in the Spirit” refers to a prophetic vision or experience. The model is Ezekiel who received a prophetic visions while he was “in the Spirit” (Ezekiel 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 8:3; 11:1; 37:1).

But John hears something before he sees anything. A loud voice sounded like a trumpet behind him. The imagery is important here since trumpets were both Jewish and Greco-Roman symbols for the entrance of the divine.  Trumpets are associated with theophanies in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Isaiah 18:3; Joel 2:1; Zechariah 9:14; Exodus 19:16; 20:18) and in Greco-Roman literature the voices of the gods are compared with the sounding of trumpets (see Aune, Revelation). This language, then, announces a theophany (in this case a Christophany).Seven Churches of Asia

What John hears is a commission to write a book. John the prophet (“in the Spirit”) is commissioned to write a prophecy (1:3) based on what he sees. The book, however, has a specific audience, that is, the seven churches of Asia. The message of this prophecy is specifically tied to the experience and life of the churches in Asia (the “seven” probably represents the whole church in Asia). Several of these cities were part of the Koinon (Fellowhsip or League) of cities in Asia that were particularly dedicated to “the local practices of the imperial cult, emperor veneration, and patriotic enthusiasm, ” specifically Laodicea, Pergamum (with imperial temple), Ephesus (with imperial temple), Smyrna (with imperial temple), and Sardis (Oster, Seven Congregations, 71-2). The cultural pressure to participate in the guilds, the processions, the oaths of allegiance, and the sacrifices would have been enormous within this Koinon. The prophecy of this book is designed for and geared toward the situation of these seven churches in Asia.

2.  John describes the first thing he “sees” and it is an appearance of the risen Christ among his churches.

It is important to appreciate the dramatic nature of the Christophany. The description of the risen Christ is both connected to the authority with which he addresses the churches and his appearance as a divine figure. Jesus is the Lord who addresses his congregations in contrast to the Emperor; the church must listen to their Lord rather than to Caesar.

Concerning the first point, parts of the description of Jesus appear in the introduction to each letter to the seven churches as we will see in future posts. But the second point is more significant in terms of the overall impact upon the original audience.

The risen Christ appears in symbols that are heavily grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures and Greco-Roman cultural forms. The Hebrew symbols are drawn from various visionary and theophanic texts, that is, where God appears to the prophets (cf. Zechariah 4:2, 12; Daniel 7:9, 13; 10:5-6; Isaiah 11:4; 49:2). The Hebrew contexts identify what John sees as a heavenly (even divine) figure who bears great authority (speaks with a “great voice”). The Greco-Roman connections, from depictions of Caesar’s own brilliant radiance emanating from his crown (or the Sun-god Helios) and the deity of the Emperor represented by “seven stars” on coinage, depict a reigning god whose authority is unquestioned (Oster, Seven Congregations, pp. 77-80). Consequently, what John sees radiates divine authority and presence that contrasts with that of Caesar and the Greco-Roman gods.

The risen Christ is the “Son of Man.” This is not an allusion to his humanity, but to his glory. The Son of Man is an eschatological title; it belongs to the one who will bring judgment to the earth and set things right. This is the one who comes on the clouds with the power to subdue the enemies of God. The Christophany is a judgment scene. Christ has come to judge the churches and then the empire. st_john_beholding_the_seven_candelabra

This picture of Jesus, represented on the left by Albrecht Durer (d. 1528), is no cuddly friend or a shepherd who carries a lamb on his shoulders. On the contrary, this is an imperial figure–the Messianic Lord Jesus–who comes to address the congregations of Asia.

3.  John is reassured and recommissioned by the living Christ.

The Christophany was terrifying. Like other prophets who encountered the divine, John–perhaps involuntarily–fell down as if he had fainted (cf. Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 1:28; Daniel 8:17; 10:9-11). In this instance the glory of the risen Christ was not intended to comfort the churches but to confront them. The vision and John’s response, like Isaiah’s before him (Isaiah 6), prepares us to hear the prophetic oracles (the letters to the seven churches) that will follow. They are, in large measure, judgment oracles that call for repentance, non-conformity, and a counter-cultural commitment to the kingdom of God.

The theological announcement is astounding. There is no reason to fear because the risen Christ is the “first and the last, and the living one.” The first claim associates him with Yahweh, the one who was, is and is to come (cf. Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; Revelation 22:13). The second is theological elaboration of what it means to be “firstborn from the dead”–the foundation of new creation itself.  He is the one who lives! GATE-HELL

The resurrection of Jesus is the ground of eternal life. The resurrection inaugurated a new creation where death no longer reigns but Christ reigns. He has the keys–the power to open the doors (gates)–of Hades (the realm of the dead) and Death itself. The “gates of Hades” had a well-known portal (called Plutonium) in what is now southwestern Turkey (see also this re-creation).  On sarcophagi and other depictions, the “Gates of Hades” are locked and closed.  Whoever enters never returns. But the risen Christ announces that he has returned and he has the keys to unlock Hades.

The powers of Hades and Death symbolize the cosmic forces arrayed against the kingdom of God. But they have no ultimate power anymore. The risen Christ has authority over the principalities and powers that presently engulf the earth.

On the authority of the risen Christ, John will write his prophetic message. He will confront the churches and the empire, and he will announce the judgment that is to come against both.

As if to reinforce both the authority of the message and the specificity of the audience, Jesus identifies the seven stars and the seven lampstands. The risen Christ walks among his churches; he is present among them (the seven lampstands). And he holds “the angels of the seven churches” in his hand. The seven stars are some times identified with church leaders (bishops?), or the messengers that brought the letters to the churches, or (most probably) the angelic representatives of the churches before the throne of God. Whatever the case may be, the emotive impact is that the risen Christ has a vested interest in these congregations. They are his and he has come to deal with them.

The function of this Christophany is similar to function of the theophany in Psalm 50. There Yahweh shows up among the assembled people of Israel, but Yahweh does not come to comfort but to judge. Yahweh calls Israel to faithfulness. That is the point of the Christophany.

The opening vision of Revelation is not the slaughtered Lamb who redeems but the Imperial (Lordship) presence that holds the church accountable.


Five Years of Blogging

May 24, 2013

I have been blogging for over five years.  My purpose in blogging has been basically two-fold:  (1) to provide resources for Stone-Campbell history and biblical study that are connected to what I am researching at the time (or teaching in my Bible classes at Woodmont Hills) and (2) to reflect our common journey of faith through the various trials we all experience (pastoral theology).

I have never thought of my blog as one where I engage contemporary controversies, debates or “hot topics” (though I have occasionally ventured there only to confirm that I need to stay focused on my original purposes).

Given my five years of blogging that so many have encouraged (and I thank you!), here are the top five blogs since February 2008.

5.  A Reflection on Psalm 84 for those Grieving Loss

4.  The Egyptian Hallel and the Lord’s Supper (Psalm 113-118)

3. “I Will Change Your Name”

2.  Women in the Assembly: 1  Corinthians 14:34-35

1. Psalm Lines that Comfort Me

Thank you for reading, but most often I write for my own benefit rather than others.  I’m kind of selfish in that way.  :-)


The Structure of Revelation: Four Visions

May 24, 2013

Interpreters have offered varied “outlines” of Revelation as they attempt to understand how the drama of the Apocalypse unfolds. There are some significant areas of consensus (such as recognizing the cohesive nature of the  septets, particularly the seals, trumpets and bowls). Given the diversity of “outlines,” no single outline can claim certainty and certainly not my own.

Nevertheless, readers organize what they read as a way of making sense of the movement within the drama, seeking its coherence, and understanding its prophetic call. This is unavoidable. Sometimes the recognition of formal structures helps us to hear the message more clearly. There is value, then, in recognizing a structure and paying attention to how others have understood the structure.

In previous posts, we have noted how the book has begun with (1) an entitled superscription (1:1-3) and (2) an extended salutation (1:4-8). While these both set the tone for hearing the book and root us theologically, the body of the book begins with the first vision.

My own sense of the structure is based upon four-fold use of “in the Spirit” as it appears in the Apocalypse.  The “revelation” is something John “saw” while he was “in the Spirit.” This language identifies four distinct (but overlapping) visions similar to how Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones is introduced with the same language (Ezekiel 37:1).

“In the Spirit” appears in the following places in Revelation:

  • Revelation 1:10 — John sees the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos.
  • Revelation 4:2 — John watches events unfold from the heavenly throne room
  • Revelation 17:3 — John watches events unfold from an earthly wilderness
  • Revelation 21:10 — John inspects the New Jerusalem from a high mountain on the New Earth.

This visionary notation structures the Apocalypse into four visions (a fuller schematic outline is available here):

  1. Vision One – The Kingdom Begun: Jesus Has Overcome (Revelation 1:9-3:22)
  2. Vision Two — The Kingdom Comes: The Heavenly Perspective (Revelation 4-16)
  3. Vision Three — The Kingdom Comes: The Earthly Perspective (Revelation 17-21:8)
  4. Vision Four — The Kingdom Fully Realized in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-22:7)

In the first vision John, exiled on the isle of Patmos, encounters the risen Christ who gives him a message for the seven churches. John records the messages and sends them to the seven churches. The vision calls the church to repentance, commitment and faithful endurance.

In the second vision John is transported into the heavenly throne room of God. There he sees the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb who enters the throne room to open the sealed book in the right hand of God. The drama of the book unfolds through the opening of the seven seals, the sounding of the seven trumpets, and the pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath. The seventh bowl is the climax of the vision. John watches the whole series of events from the throne room of God; he has a front row seat in the heavenlies.

In the third vision John is placed in an earthly wilderness. No longer in the divine throne room, John is now on the earth. He sees (and identifies) the whore of Babylon, the complicity of the kings and merchants in her rape of the earth, rejoices over the destruction of earthly powers and the binding of Satan in anticipation of the final judgment. The climax of the immediate drama is the millennium preceded by the defeat of the enemies of God and followed by the Great Judgment.

In the fourth vision John is placed on a high mountain in the new heaven and new earth. From this lofty vantage point, John sees and is thus able to describe the New Jerusalem where God dwells with humanity.

We might think of these four visions as four acts in a play or four movements in a piece of music. They each contribute to the full effect of the work but they also have a certain independence, that is, they are to be read in a self-contained way. They each tell their own story that contributes to the whole.

However, we should not read them as autonomous. Rather, they are intimately integrated with each other.  For example, the first and fourth visions have many overlapping themes, shared language, and similar points. In the same way, the second and third visions are actually two perspectives on the same reality, that is, they overlap  or the second tells the same story from a different perspective.  The second vision views the drama “from above” while the third vision views it “from below.”

So, we might think of it this way:

  • Vision 1: Addresses the specific concerns of the seven churches and calls for their commitment to the kingdom of God in the hope of the New Heavens and New Earth.
  • Vision 2: God acts in justice against the kingdoms of the earth as the seven seals, trumpets and bowls of wrath are released.
  • Vision 3: The kingdoms of the earth are described in terms of their sins and destruction as the kingdom of God rejoices and reigns.
  • Vision 4: The new heaven and new earth are opened for those among the seven churches who have overcome and defeated the powers in their own lives and communities.

Visions 2 & 3 are not disconnected from 1 & 4. On the contrary, John’s address to the churches is assumed in 2 & 3 as the call for faithful witness and endurance are repeated. It is the seven churches of Asia that will endure the drama that is about to unfold. They hear the call in the first vision and embrace the hope of the fourth vision, but they must live through the drama of the second and third visions.

This does not mean that these visions have no significance or meaning for the contemporary church. Quite the contrary, the position that the seven churches of Asia occupy in relation to their culture is the same position the present church occupies in relation to her culture. The dangers, temptations, and powers are the same. The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the earth is ongoing and incessant until the fullness of the reign of God is realized upon the earth. The drama continues as it repeats itself in culture after culture, in epoch after epoch.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.


Remembering Joshua: Life is Hebel

May 21, 2013

Hebel

That is an important word for the writer of Ecclesiastes. It is a word that comes to mind on May 21 every year since 2001.  That was the day Joshua died. It was also the day John Robert died in 2008. Indeed, it is a day on which many people have died.joshua-1990-or-so

Hebel

You may not recognize the word, but it is used 37 times in Ecclesiastes (only 70x in the whole Hebrew Bible). At a literal and formal level it might be rendered “breath” and thus allude to the brevity of life.  At a metaphorical level it might be rendered “vanity, empty, meaningless” and thus allude to the pointlessness of life.

Hebel

The word has much more of a punch than even “meaningless” or “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. It encompasses the unfathomable nature of life, the deep impenetrable mystery of life….and death. Bartholomew’s commentary suggests “enigma.” Life is enigmatic because we simply don’t know; we are limited in perspective and we can’t figure it out.

Hebel

But the word has more punch than that. This is why some, like Michael Fox and Peter Enns, suggest “absurd.” Life is frustrating. The seemingly ceaseless, circular, and pointless merry-go-round of life has no goal, no meaning, and no worth. Life–because of death–is simply absurd.

Hebel

What lies behind Ecclesiastes is a whole Hebrew tradition, including the Torah, and more particularly the opening narrative of Genesis 1-11. When Qohelet probes life he finds the narrative world of Abel (the same Hebrew word hebel). The seemingly pointless, absurd and unjust death of Abel at the hands of Cain is a symbol for human existence. Our lives are like Abel’s.

Hebel

We have to give Qohelet his due. We must sit with him–and it would do us good to sit with him for a season rather than move on too quickly. Sometimes we are forced to sit with him as we are overwhelmed with the horror of human existence. We recoil at death of children at nature’s hand in Oklahoma as well as the hand of the mentally ill in Connecticut. Sometimes all we can do is agree with Qohelet, “Everything is absolutely absurd!”

Hebel

Paul alludes to this word (Romans 8:20). He uses the term that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used to translate hebel. He recognizes the frustration and futility of the present bondage which enslaves the creation. Life is not as it should be. The creation groans and the children of God lament. We lament days like May 21.

Hebel

And, without forgetting that life is hebel, we also recognize the good and the joys God has provided today. Life is both hebel and filled with the gifts of the Creator.

So today, we lament and we remember that life is hebel.

But we also, today, accept God’s gifts with gratitude and joy.

How do we do both? Some days, I don’t know. Other days, it is obvious. Ask me tomorrow.


Revelation 1:4-8: Jesus is Coming

May 20, 2013

Titled as an “Apocalypse” and described as a “prophecy” in the superscription, the text begins like a letter. It has all the typical elements of standard letter openings from that era but it is also thoroughly Christian, even with a Triune salutation.

Author:   John
Audience:   Seven Churches of Asia
Salutation:   Grace and Peace from

    1.  the One
    2.  the Seven Spirits
    3.  Jesus the Messiah

Doxology:   Eternal Glory and Power to Jesus
Theme:   Jesus is coming
Declaration:   Thus says the Lord God, the All-Powerful

The audience knows the author. He simply introduces himself as “John” which means that he was well known in the Roman province of Asia. Early Christian tradition in the second century identifies him as the Apostle John, the beloved disciple (e.g., Irenaeus, Justin Martyr [according to Eusebius],  Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian).  That is impressive late second and early third century evidence and geographically diverse.  But other early Christians (e.g., Dionysius in the mid-third century and Eusebius in the 4th century) thought the language wasso different from the Gospel of John that it could not be the same person. Whatever the conclusion, it does not substantially affect how we read the Apocalypse. John–known in Asia Minor–is a fellow-sufferer, a leader of the Christian movement who has seen a vision, and has been given the Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah.

The audience situates the context of the Apocalypse in the Roman province of Asia Minor. The seven churches are identified in chapters two and three, but these are not the only churches in the province (e.g., Colossae). Why these seven? Some suggest it because they were all connected by a circular road or perhaps they were particularly under fire in ways others were not. But it seems more consistent with the nature of an Apocalypse that seven churches were chosen because the number is symbolic (one of many septets in the book)–these seven churches represent the whole church in Asia Minor, perhaps the universal church itself. The Apocalypse, in effect, is addressed to the whole church though specifically contextualized by the life and experience of the churches in Asia Minor.

The salutation, unlike any other in the New Testament, is triune: Father,  Son and Spirit (cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation). Each is characterized in a plurality of ways.

  • “The one who is, who was and who is coming” (ESV). The Greek is not standard grammar (apo should be followed by a genitive rather than a nominative), but John does this in order to reproduce the Greek translation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14. In other words, John identifies the Father with Yahweh, the God of Israel. The threefold characterization underscores that Yahweh knows the beginning from the end (the Alpha and the Omega in 1:8), eternally God and eternally present.
  • The identity of the “seven spirits before His throne” is more disputed though I think the Triune context clarifies it. While some identify the spirits with the seven angels of the churches or the seven principal angels around the throne (as in some early Jewish literature) the context here–as part of the inner divine circle (cf. Revelation 4:5) and sandwhiched between Father and Son–points us to the Holy Spirit (cf. the language of Isaiah 11:2-3; Zechariah 4:2, 6. 10). “Seven” reminds us of the fullness of the divine presence in the person of the Spirit.
  • Jesus the Messiah is characterized in three ways. The total effect is to underscore the significance of his death (martyrdom), resurrection (firstborn from the death), and ascension (present reign). This is the firm ground upon which the drama is built–the identity of Jesus means that the kingdoms of the earth have no power over him, and ultimately over his followers. While Ceasar may claim power, it is the Messiah who truly exercises divine power.
    • the faithful witness” — while “witness” (martus) certainly includes his death, it also points to the living witness of his faithful obedience to the Father. He was faithful even unto death (cf. 2:10).
    • firstborn from the dead” — this does not necessarily mean he was the first one to be raised from the dead (though that is true in terms of new creation), but may also mean that among those raised from the dead he is the preeminent one. He is the “firstborn” in terms of inheritance, authority, and power as well as the first to emerge from the grave as a new creation.
    • ruler of the kings of the earth” — probably an allusion to Psalm 89:27, Yahweh’s “firstborn” king rules over all other kings. This description is particularly apt as the conflict within the Apocalypse is between the reign of God and earthly powers (kings). Jesus is the true king, not Caesar.

The doxology is offered to Jesus which reflects an early worship of Jesus as a participant in the divine fellowship. Jesus is praised because he is the one who has acted redemptively on behalf of the people of God. He is the one who loved, freed (by his blood), and appointed us a kingdom of priests. The eternal (“forever and ever”) glory and dominion (power) belong to him. The focus of the doxology is Christocentric though the goal (telos) is the Father.  Jesus acts so that he might offer (or, we might become) a kingdom of priests to “His God and Father.” The ultimate goal is the Father but this is accomplished through Jesus the Messiah. The doxology draws attention to Jesus as a central figure in the drama of redemption.

The language of love, freedom (release from sin), and constituting a priestly kingdom stand in contrast to the kingdoms of the earth. While Caesar may claim a benevolent disposition toward his subjects, praise belongs to the one who has actually loved, freed, and created us. This is something Jesus did by “his blood” (that is, by his faithful witness). The church is a priestly kingdom just as was Israel (Exodus 19:6). The language assumes a continuity between Israel and the Church as the reign of God within the world.

Revelation 1:8 (the thus “says the Lord God” or declaration) functions as an inclusio as it repeats the identity of Yahweh (“who is, who was, and who is coming”). But it also serves to ground the reality and certainty of the “motto” or “theme” present in Revelation 1:7. Yahweh, the eternal God, is the beginning (Alpha) and the end (Omega). Yahweh is sovereign and will accomplish whatever is promised. God is Almighty (pantokrator); the Lord is all-powerful who rules all other powers. Revelation 1:7 is the promise guarenteed by God’s omnipotence.

The dramatic (and thus thematic) nature of the oracle is announced by the interjection–“Behold!” In other words, pay attention to this! Watch this! The presence of the interjection in the salutation underscores the significance of what follows for not only for this section but for the whole book. This is a thematic announcement soleminized by the word of the Lord God Almighty.

John constructs a poetic announcement built on Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10. Jesus is coming with glory (clouds) and the tribes of the earth will mourn. The motto is as simple as this: Jesus is coming. But that is also complicated. What does the text mean by “coming” and how is this played out in the rest of the Apocalypse?

When Jesus addresses the seven churches, twice he promises to come in judgment upon their sins–not in a distant eschatological future, but in the immediate present (Revelation 2:5, 16). The present coming of Jesus anticipates the future coming, but it appears that the “coming of Jesus” is, as Beale (Revelation, 197) argues, “a process occurring throughout history” that culminates in the final eschatological coming of Jesus. Each coming (or visitation) within history, however, is a proleptic experience of the final one (what Christians normally call the “second coming”). Each coming, then, as Fair notes in his commentary, is described in eschatological language as a prolepsis of what is to come.

The theme (motto) is focused on the coming of Jesus in judgment against the “tribes of the earth.” They will lament his appearance, and the “tribes” lament the judgment of God throughout the Apocalypse (cf. Revelation 11:9; 13:7; 14:6) though there are also “tribes” that rejoice in the victory of the Lamb (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9). This fits with the context of Zechariah 12 since it envisions a day when God will judge the nations and pour out grace on the righteous.

The motto, then, anticipates the final eschatological coming of Jesus, but also prepares us to hear the Apocalypse in its setting. When God comes in judgment–whether against the church or the “tribes of the earth” within history–it is a proleptic experience of the final coming of Jesus. The seven churches, then, will experience within their own history the mercy and judgment of God in the present as a manifestation of God’s ultimate goal–to cleanse the earth and redeem it. The nations of the earth, particularly imperial Rome within the situation of the seven churches, will also experience the mercy and judgment of God. Each of these, however, bear witness to the final victory of God in the promised eschatological return of Jesus.

Yahweh–who was, is, and is coming–is coming in the person of Jesus who is the resurrected, ascended, and enthroned Lord that rules the kings of the earth. God is continually coming, visiting, acting, judging, and redeeming. As Jesus executes his reign, he comes again and again. No one will escape his notice (eveyone will experience this continual presence of God) and he will judge all the tribes of the earth.

The one who loved us, freed us and made us a priestly kingdom is also the one who judges the earth. His people will praise him and the nations will lament “on account of him.”

Living in a hostile culture, threatened on every side, and tempted to accomodate the pressure through compromise and syncretism, the church may have felt abanonded. God’s response is the “Apocalypse of Jesus,” and the primary theme is:  Jesus is coming. This is no mere distant future promise to a struggling chruch in the late first century. Rather, it is the assurance that Jesus is and will continue to act on behalf of his people as he exercises the reign of God in the world and will ultimately set things right in the creation despoiled by evil.

“Jesus is coming” is a theodic statement–God is present within history and God will set things right. The church can trust this promise both now and for the future.


Stone-Campbell Research Tools

May 18, 2013

I have two good friends who have invested time, money and effort in making some valuable texts and tools available to researchers and those who are interested in reading original texts of significant Stone-Campbell works.

Barry Jones has made available the following texts for PDF searching. You can find them here.

  • Bible Banner
  • Christian Baptist
  • Millennial Harbinger
  • Gospel Guardian
  • Lard’s Quarterly
  • Millennial Harbinger

I have used his PDF files in recent weeks.  I have found them extremely helpful and could quickly find material that otherwise would have taken me weeks to discover through reading hard copies or microfilm.  The state of the scanning is quite good and searchable though with the usual problems of searching these kinds of files.  Nevertheless I have found the PDF files  invaluable.

Bob Lewis is another longtime friend who has been publishing Stone-Campbell original texts through the Web or on Kindle for several years now.  His Stone-Campbell e-Print Library provides Kindle access for several significant works (such as Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, Richardson’s Memoirs of Alexander Campbell and W. T. Moore’s Comprehensive History of the Disciples of Christ).

Bod has links to significant journals and works on his Stone-Campbell.org website (including Stone’s Christian Messenger).

I recommend supporting and patronizing both of Dr. Jones and Dr. Lewis. They are providing a wonderful service for researchers and those who love reading in Stone-Campbell history and theology.

Blessings on both their efforts!


Revelation 1:1-3 — The Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah

May 17, 2013

The title, “Revelation of Jesus the Messiah,” is ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so. It m