Moffitt: Rethinking the Atonement

May 15, 2023

I have now read the fifth of twelve books suggested by FB friends. This one was recommended by Michael Asbell. This is my summary.

David Moffitt, Rethinking the Atonement: New Perspectives on Jesus’s Death, Resurrection, and Ascension (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2022).

While the term “atonement” is most often used to describe the cross of Jesus as the focus of God’s atoning activity, Moffitt suggests that “atonement” is more inclusive than the cross itself.  Rooting his argument in the homily we know as Hebrews, the work of atonement involves not only the cross but Christ’s resurrection and ascension.  God reconciled the world through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. This is a more wholistic picture.

Moffitt argues that Hebrews, while proclaiming the death of Christ as the sacrificial slaughter for our sins, focuses more attention on the ascension of the resurrected Christ into God’s holy sanctuary to present the blood offering and to take up residence in that holy space as the high priest who presently and continually intercedes for the saints. His point is that in addition to the cross, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus are “themselves fully and robustly salvific” (p. 5). All of these events in the life of Jesus are atoning. God saved us through the death of Christ “but even more by rising, ascending, and now interceding for them at the right hand of the Father” (p. 6).

Hebrews patterns the work of Christ on the model of the Levitical sacrificial system, though Christ is actually the archetype and Leviticus is the type.  The sacrifices were slaughtered, the blood was poured at the altar, and then the blood was taken into the most holy place and sprinkled on the ark of the covenant. Through the blood offering, the high priest interceded for the people.

The preacher in Hebrews understands the work of Christ in this way. Jesus is slaughtered on the cross and poured out at that altar, but then the resurrected Jesus ascends to the most holy place (the heavenly sanctuary) to present the offering before God. As high priest, Jesus remains in the presence of God to intercede for the people. Though Jesus could not be a priest on earth because he was from Judah and not Levi, he is a priest in the heavenlies according to the order of Melchizedek continually interceding for the people. In this way, Christ’s atoning work continues in the presence of God, and Christ is present to God as the embodied resurrected Messiah, our high priest. Consequently, the church lives with confident boldness as it journeys through the wilderness of life because it knows that its heavenly high priest stands before God as its intercessor.

Typically, the cross is understood as the singular place where Jesus offered himself as a bloody sacrifice and on the cross presented himself to the Father. Moffitt, based on Hebrews as well as a few other texts, wants to understand those two movements in a sequence. Christ first shed his blood on the cross and thus offered himself as one who bears the sins of the people, and then the resurrected Christ offered himself in the heavenly sanctuary when he ascended to the heavenly sanctuary. Hebrews teaches “Jesus is the one who died as the sacrifice, rose as the sacrifice, and ascended into the heavenly tabernacle to offer himself to God as the sacrifice” (p. 65).

Moffitt rejects claims that Jesus is the object of divine wrath. The function of the shedding of blood is not about turning away God’s wrath. Rather, the sacrifice suffers the covenant curses for the people, and so did Jesus. He suffered as a representative in solidarity and identification with the people. Jesus was the obedient representative of the people who renewed Israel’s covenant with God through the sin-bearing function of his death, and gave this renewed covenant eternal meaning through the presentation of his offering in the heavenly sanctuary as an eternal high priest, the resurrected Jesus, the Son of God.

While the Son came to earth to bear sins (as in bearing them away), he will come again without sin and for full salvation. The work of reconciliation (or atonement) is not done until Christ returns and fully deals with sin in all its consequences.

Through the lens of Hebrews, Moffitt’s book is a welcome acknowledgement that atonement is a fuller concept than simply the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus is both victim and priest, both sin-bearer and intercessor, both the offering and the offeror.  

The atoning, or reconciling, work of God in Christ by the Spirit is the full story of the gospel: incarnation, life, cross, resurrection, ascension, intercession, and return.   

Renewed Israel Assembled for Word and Table

April 12, 2023

Texts: Acts 2:42, 46-47; 5:42; 20:7-12

Days 59-61 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

The assembling of Israel at Mount Sinai and the renewal of Israel on the day of Pentecost are deeply connected.

  • At Sinai God inaugurated covenant with Israel, and on Pentecost God renewed covenant with Israel.
  • At Sinai God’s presence was revealed through lightning, thunder, and smoke, and on Pentecost it was revealed by wind, fire, and tongues.
  • At Sinai God came to dwell among Israel in the tabernacle, and on Pentecost God came to dwell in the hearts of Israel through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • At Sinai God gave the law through Moses, and on Pentecost God taught Israel through words uttered by the Spirit of God.
  • At Sinai Israel gathered to hear the word of God and sit at God’s table, and at Pentecost Israel gathered to listen to the apostle’s teaching and sit at table with Jesus.

Acts 2:42 records that this newly assembled group of 3,000+ baptized believers devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to fellowship, and that fellowship involved breaking bread and prayers. Instead of four separate and distinct items, I think it is two (teaching and fellowship) with the second identified by breaking bread and prayers.

When they listened to the apostles teaching in the temple, they gathered as a community. When they shared fellowship through breaking bread and prayers, they gathered as a community. Israel, in effect, assembled on Mt. Zion just as they had done at Mt. Sinai. The assembly of Israel is renewed as the assembly of the Messiah in whose name the 3,000 were baptized.

They gathered, however, as a large community at the temple for teaching and prayers, and they gathered as smaller communities in homes for the breaking of bread. Their assemblies were not all the same sort of thing. Rather, they assembled in different ways in order to experience different dimensions of the reality of the Spirit. Perhaps thousands gathered in the temple to listen to teaching and participate in the prayers of the temple, and then they gathered in small groups in homes to eat together as they continued to praise God in prayer.

The standard was the teaching of the apostles. They were with Jesus for forty days after his resurrection. Those were days when Jesus clarified his mission, spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and help them read the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of his own work. If we wonder what the teaching of the apostles looked like, we only need read the sermons in Acts (e.g., Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, or his summary to Cornelius in Acts 10). It was the story of Israel, Jesus, and the renewal of Israel.

As renewed Israel, they continued table practices. They ate together, and they ate in the presence of God. The Messiah is the host of the table. The Gospel of Luke identified the meaning of breaking bread. It is a meal hosted by the Messiah to give life and enjoy fellowship. It is a resurrection of meal because in the breaking of the bread the living Messiah is revealed.

When Paul and the community in Troas broke bread, they broke bread with a resurrected Eutyches. But they not only ate with Eutyches, they ate with the resurrected one himself. This was a table of the living Messiah, and the community gathered in the presence of the Messiah who hosts his own banquet.

The baptized community assembled to hear the word of the Lord, and they assembled to fellowship, which included the breaking of bread and prayers. This was a continuation of Israel’s own life with God which began with a “day of assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:4; 18:16) and continued through the teaching of the law and eating at tables with God. The church, grafted into the tree of Israel, continues the same sort of practices: assembling, teaching, and table.

This is part of the process by which a community is formed, and in this case the formation of a community that embraces and participates in the mission of God.

Chosen Conversations

April 12, 2023

Season 1, Episode 1.

Available on Apple Podcasts here.

Available on Vimeo here.

Stan Wilson, Haley Villacorta, David Villacorta, and I have begun a series of podcasts/videos about “The Chosen” produced and directed by Dallas Jenkins.

These conversations seek to explore one dimension of “The Chosen” per episode. This week we focus on Mary in the first episode in the first season.

We see the dramatized interaction between Jesus and Mary in that episode as a proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus.

Join us for the conversation!

A Letter to the Body of Christ

February 13, 2023

This was first presented orally at the opening of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. It appears in the volume: Letters of Conscience to the Churches in America: A Courageous Christian Response to White Supremacy. I was invited by Jerry Taylor to offer a letter in support of the new Center, and this is what I sent him.

April 21, 2020, From Nashville, Tennessee

To my Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

At least two horizons are important for this moment in history.

One horizon is the heart of God, which is displayed throughout God’s story given to us in the Bible. The other horizon is the moment in which we live with its historical baggage, situated complexities, and systemic practices.

God created one humanity. Though it—as God intended—grew in diversity and culture as human beings spread across the globe, we are all one blood from one ancestor (Acts 17:28). Every human being is invested with dignity, honor, and glory as the image of God. Moreover, in the new creation—the body of Christ—we are one genos (1 Peter 2:9), a community bound together by the Spirit of God. We are a new race—a family of sisters and brothers in Christ. This new creation participates in the reality gathered around the throne of God where all languages, tribes, and peoples stand before the throne of God and the Lamb (Revelation 7:9). The body of Christ—expressed in our common human dignity, our shared life in the Spirit, and our future home together—ought to rise above all divisions in this evil age (Galatians 1:4) and cry out with one voice to proclaim the reconciling gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

But this evil age has a history. It is filled with slavery, violence, and discrimination. This history has a formative effect on people, families, and nations. Just as Israel could not escape the cumulative effect of its sins against the poor and its injustices, so no nation can escape them now. The evils in our history are a powerful debilitating presence, and they shape us in ways we do not even know. That history grounds and empowers the systemic evils of our nation’s laws, courts, and economic practices.

African Americans have experienced these evils over and over again. From slavery through Jim Crow segregation, from Jim Crow segregation to Redlining economic exclusion, and from Redlining to mass incarceration, the system—in all its facets—has oppressed African Americans economically, judicially, and relationally. The system created an atmosphere of suspicion, hostility, and prejudice.

White nationalism produced that system. White privilege maintains it.

The present times give new evidence of this evil age and its systemic hostility to African Americans in the United States. Armed white groups protest when African Americans cannot even kneel in protest at a football game. The Coronavirus is killing African Americans at a higher rate due, in large part, to years of neglect and poverty. Hate crimes are increasing. Racist language and practices are given space in the public square and in our government policies.

I suppose it is not much different than it has ever been, but its prominence, public expression, and prideful arrogance has leavened our public discourse with hate, bickering, and self-interest.

Sisters and brothers, hatred, violence, and unjust practices are not the prayer of Christ. We seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. We pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven. We give greater weight to faith, mercy, and justice. We follow Jesus to the cross in obedience to the will of God rather than seeking our own interests and ambitions.

Our politic is neither Republican nor Democrat. Our politic is the kingdom of God. The reign of God calls us to treat every human being with dignity and honor, eschew violence against others, and call for economic and judicial justice for every human being.

This is the time—as it has always been the right time—to pay attention to the systemic evil that is now raising its ugly head. Too often our national consciousness receives this as normal.  It is not, however, the way things are supposed to be.

When Christians do not raise their voice against racism, they betray their Messiah who unites all peoples in one community gathered around the throne of God. When we deflect and distract from the real problems and their systemic nature, we betray our Lord who confronted evil rather than making excuses for it. When we ignore the problem, we become part of the problem. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation rather than harbingers of evil.  When we are silent, we are complicit; when we are complicit, we participate in the evil.

Let our churches pray for peace and reconciliation, but also let our churches act for peace and reconciliation. Let the white churches make the first move! Let us humble ourselves, making ourselves nothing, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with our African American sisters and brothers.

Who will make the first move? Who will confess their sin? Who will love their neighbor without conditions?

The white church must make that first move, confess their sins, and lovingly listen to its black neighbors. Only then may the healing begin, and only then will our white eyes open to the realities of this evil age for our black sisters and brothers.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

John Mark Hicks, Professor of Theology, Lipscomb University

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

February 3, 2023

Forgiveness is a choice, according to Desmond and Mpho Tutu, and there is no wholeness in humanity’s future without forgiveness. Since we are all broken, “forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again” (p. 3). Forgiveness is how we heal the world, according to The Book of Forgiving.

Often, we may want to forgive but don’t know how to do it. The process is mysterious and difficult, especially when we are trying to divest ourselves of resentment and bitterness toward others and their actions. “On this path,” they write, “we must walk through the muddy shoals of hatred and anger and make our way through grief and loss to find the acceptance that is the hallmark of forgiveness” (p. 4). They also addresses self-forgiveness as well as needing forgiveness ourselves.

Moreover, this father and daughter team raises the question how we pursue both forgiveness and justice. Tutu’s experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa informs his approach to this topic. His wisdom, gained both through theology and practice, has much to teach us.

At the heart of the book is the fourfold path. It is “simple, but it is not easy” (p. 5). They explore these practices through stories, personal experiences, and theological reflection.

  • Telling the Story
  • Naming the Hurt
  • Granting Forgiveness
  • Renewing or Releasing the Relationship

“Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed” (p. 71). The truth must be told, and the story must be heard. If we don’t tell the story to someone (family, friends, church, justice system, etc.), it will fester in our souls and damage the soul further. Listeners must create a safe space, listen attentively without cross-examination, acknowledge what happened, and sympathize with the pain.

When we name the hurt, we give a name to the emotion which helps understand how the hurt has affected us. Naming the hurt is the beginning of healing. This moves the story “beyond bare facts to the raw feelings” (p. 95). If we don’t express those feelings, they will come out in other, unhealthy ways. In this way, “grief is how we both cope with and release the pain we feel” (p. 102). Naming the hurt includes lament. Listeners don’t try to fix, minimize the loss, or offer advice. They listen well, sympathize, and love the one who names their hurt (p. 108).

Granting forgiveness is an act of spiritual formation; it is growth, and it is a process. The authors offer many examples of forgiveness by people deeply hurt by a loss or injustice. We choose to forgive as we recognize a “shared humanity” of brokenness (p. 125). When we can come to the point where we wish the other person well and when we can pray for their health and spiritual life, then we know we have forgiven. We can then tell a “new story” (p. 132).

We may either renew the relationship (which is a perpetual hope) or release the relationship (which is sometimes the only option). This step beyond forgiveness is important for healing since to forgive another is not the final step of healing. Renewal is not a return to what was before, but a new relationship borne out of the fruit of forgiveness (p. 148). Tutu offers some strategies for a renewal process. Sometimes, however, we must release the relationship; sometimes the person has already passed, or the person is impenitent (or refuses relationship). In such cases, “releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma” (p. 154).

This is a helpful book filled with real-life stories, practical wisdom, and a call for healing in our world without undermining the practice of justice. I highly recommend it.

Gender Ideology: “What is a Woman?”

January 9, 2023

Situation: the rise of trans people, especially among children (e.g., adolescent girls)

In 2007, there was only one pediatric gender clinic in the US; now, there are 300+ gender clinics (plus some services, like Planned Parenthood, dispense testosterone, depending on state laws, to minors without parental permission or a therapist note). Britain has seen a 4400%+ rise in incidences of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls (mostly teens) since 2014. This is called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD, teen girls with no prior history of gender dysphoria).

Gender Dysphoria: Severe discomfort with one’s biological sex.

  1. Classic/Typical Dysphoria:  appears in 1 in 10,000 (0.01%), overwhelmingly in males, begins in early childhood (2-4 years), persistent insistence on possessing the “wrong body,” and most experience same-(birth)-sex orientation. Typically, 75% become comfortable with their sex (most identify as Gay), while others transition to their desired sex (socially and/or medically).
  2. Social Contagion: “Trans Kids” (recently, they are mostly adolescent girls who have a long history of sharing their pain through self-harm, eating disorders, and anxiety about their bodies that is exacerbated by affirmation from authorities and social media influencers). In 2018, 2% of High Schoolers identified as transgender. Transition follows this form (not all fully complete it): (a) Self-identification and social transition (changing names, pronouns, gender expressions); (b) Puberty Blockers (when they have not yet gone through puberty); (c) Cross-Sex Hormones (androgens/antiestorgens; estrogens/antiandrogens); (d) Medical Transition (top surgeries; bottom surgeries).
  3. Activists: reshapes culture through the lens of gender ideology so that trans people are not only legally protected from harm but culturally affirmed and given space to flourish (e.g. sports, etc.).

Recommended Printed Resources

Abigail Favale (Roman Catholic), The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.

Helen Joyce (atheist), Trans: Gender Identity and the New Battle for Women’s Rights.

Abigail Shrier (Jewish), Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.

Mark Yarhouse (evangelical), Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

Debra Soh (atheist), The End of Gender: Debunking Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society.

Preston Sprinkle (evangelical), Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has To Say

Recommended YouTube Lectures/Podcasts Abigail Shrier lecture Abigail Shrier and Jordan Peterson Helen Joyce Helen Joyce Helen Joyce Helen Joyce and Abigail Favale Abigale Favale and Preston Sprinkle Abigale Favale Abigale Favale Mark Yarhouse Lisa Littman (Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria) Debra Soh

Question:  What is “gender”? How is it related to biological sex?

  • a social construct that varies from culture to culture;

therefore, gender is a fluid state without objective boundaries.

  • a matter of self-identification based on a sense of self;

therefore, gender is grounded in a subjective sense of self (even “innate”).

  • a fixed biological reality;

therefore, gender is grounded in and tethered to one’s biological sex.

Gender Definition

Gender is a comprehensive word that includes (a) social elements (which are culturally fluid in so many ways) and (b) struggles to identify (as some wrestle with their discomfort with their bodies and their self-image), but (c) ought to include biology as its objective ground and basis.

Much of current discussion excludes the body from such grounding or collapses the body into social construction or self-identity (e.g., male brain in a female body). Yet, binary biology is part of the ground of gender, and social constructs mimic this to one degree or another across cultures.

Lovingly, we may care for and accompany adolescents who are caught up in this “social contagion” (just like female adolescents have been caught in other contagions exacerbated by social media, like cutting [self-harm] and eating disorders) in ways that compassionately and sympathetically address gender dysphoria. While there are genuine experiences of gender dysphoria (the classic cases), there is also such a thing as “social contagion” that rests on social constructions for gender fluidity and encourages adolescents who are uncomfortable with their bodies to reject their body’s sex and identity as another gender (nonbinary, trans, etc.).

We can lovingly process this dysphoria with people while, at the same time, affirming the biological grounding of gender in their embodied sex. It is a difficult decision to reject the reality of one’s body; I cannot imagine that struggle. I know it is terrifying for those who experience this struggle, and they want some peace about how to relate to their bodies. As people of peace, we listen, dialogue, and offer a vision of the gospel that heals wounds rather than creating them.

Theological Claim:  There are only two sexes (“male” and “female” per Genesis 1:27).

Biologically, male and female are binary because a body either has one type of gamete or another (sperm or egg). No known human being has ever produced fertility through both. This biological reality is affirmed in the Genesis identification of human beings as “male or female” as well as in the biology of creation itself. All mammals are either male or female. Intersexed persons (0.02% of the population) are not a third sex but variations within male and female sexes. There is no third sex. Some people (0.002%) are born with both ovaries and testicles, few are functional and never both.

Without biological grounding, “gender” (and even sex itself for some) becomes an internal sense that is expressed through social conventions or expressions. Consequently, not only gender but sex itself becomes a fluid category. As a result, there is no definition of male/female except one’s own internal sense of identification. Biological sex, then, is folded into gender such that “sex” is “assigned” at birth rather than a given, a gift from God.

People who transition, whether driven by classic dysphoria or by social contagion, sometimes detransition. Some who transition regret their decision; others happily embrace it. Whatever the case, the church may pursue a welcoming and healing strategy rather than exclusion, derision, and hate. The church must prepare for how it will help trans people and nurture them in the faith.

Struggling with God (Genesis 32:22-31)

October 16, 2022

[This is a guest post by Becky Frazier, who completed an M.Div. at Lipscomb University and is presently on staff at the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, TN. This is the sermon she delivered at the All Saints Church of Christ on October 16, 2022.]

This evening, I want to focus most of our time on the text from our Hebrew Bible, the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God. Let’s read it again together. Pay close attention and see what stands out to you from this passage: 

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,and he was limping because of his hip. 

Whew! There’s a lot to unpack here out of 9 short verses. Who is this man that Jacob wrestles with? In a lot of traditional art and church history, the man is called an angel, but in the text, he is simply called a man, until the very end, after he has left, and Jacob says that in wrestling with this man, he has seen the face of God. The text doesn’t say where he comes from, he just shows up in the narrative as wrestling with Jacob. Who started it? Why were they wrestling? What is happening here? And why does it not warrant a whole chapter and some details please! Why, Old Testament, do I need to know how old every man was and the names of all the sons he begot, but you won’t tell me who this man was, or where he came from, or why he was wrestling or why Jacob thinks this man is God!?

It’s so interesting to me that, even after what the text describes as an extended time of fighting, all through the night, after a point where Jacob’s hip has been pulled out of place, causing what must have been excruciating pain, he still clings to this man, entangling himself and not letting go. When the man cries uncle and asks Jacob to get off of him, Jacob refuses saying that he won’t let go until he gets a blessing. 

Why would he ask for a blessing? How does he know that this man even has the ability to bless him? 

To help answer this, let’s situate this story in the narrative timeline. Jacob at this point in the story has left his father-in-law, Laban’s, house and gets word that he is about to run into his brother Esau. Now, if you aren’t familiar with this story, Jacob and Esau are brothers, twins in fact, and there is some bad blood there. And come to think of it, Jacob seems to have a pretty long history of wrestling. While they were still in their mother’s womb, their wrestling with one another was so intense that their mother, Rebekah, cried out to the Lord, asking what in the world was going on inside of her. 

Esau was born first which meant that he would receive the larger inheritance. But Jacob was right on his heels…literally. He followed Esau immediately with his hand wrapped around his brother’s foot. Jacob means “heel grabber”. Later in their life, Jacob twice wrests away from Esau what belonged to him through trickery: his birthright and his father’s blessing. After receiving this ill-begotten blessing, Jacob hightails it out of there to a far away land, knowing his brother was furious and would try to get vengeance. 

Jacob settles down and gets married to two sisters and has children… a lot of them…and grows his wealth (using some trickery again). But now it’s time to leave off on his own and in order to do that, he has to first encounter Esau, his brother who he hasn’t spoken to in perhaps decades, and who may or may not still have it out for Jacob (understandably in my opinion). So Jacob divides his family and all his wealth into two parties, thinking that if Esau attacked one, he at least wouldn’t be left with nothing, and sends them off ahead.   

And here’s where we find Jacob. Alone and in the dark. Wait… did you catch that? The text says, and I quote “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Jacob is alone and also wrestling with someone else. So…what’s going on here? In many Hebrew Rabbinic texts, they suggest that perhaps the person Jaocb is wrestling with, is himself. Jacob has been fighting his whole life. His brother (again and again), his father, his father-in-law. And now this man, all the while, demanding a blessing. He already had the birthright that had originally belonged to someone else and he already had his fathers blessing and he left his father-in-law with his blessing. And now here he is again. Desperately seeking another blessing. 

But here’s the thing. Jacob had already been blessed from the very beginning. When he and his twin were somersaulting in utero, his mom talked to God and God made it clear that there were two nations in her womb and that the older would serve the younger. He fought his whole life for what God had already given him. After fleeing his home in the aftermath of swindling his father and brother, God visited him in a dream and blessed him, saying that his descendents would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and that God would be with him in whatever he did and would never leave him. He had already been blessed. And blessed by God. 

I think that is one of the themes of the book of genesis and all of scripture. In Genesis 1, we read that God made humans in God’s image and called them very good. And then, not long after a deceiver comes in and makes the humans question what God had already told them was true. If you eat this, he said, you will be like God. So they stole something that wasn’t theirs to take and then lied and finger-pointed and hid in shame, when the truth was that they were already like God, having been made in God’s image. And haven’t we been doing the same thing all this time. 

I am more and more convinced that this is at the root of all of our sin. We do not believe that what God said about us is true. We do not believe that we have been blessed. We do not believe that we are worthy. We do not believe that we are God’s beloved. So we lie and we steal and we hoard resources.  We perform and we perfect and we pretend. We numb and chase highs and we lash out, all in an attempt to hide our unworthiness or prove our worthiness instead of resting in the blessing that God has said was true about us before we even drew our first breath. You are good. You are beloved. You are worthy. You were made out of divine dust. God dwells in you. 

And so we return to Jacob. Who, in the darkness and in the loneliness, was wrestling with himself. Who, for once, was perhaps willing to take a cold hard look at the darkest parts of himself. To stop pretending. To stop fighting everyone else. To let go of this need to seek approval and blessing from others and to find the blessing that already existed within himself. I can say from some experience that this is not a fun place to be. When we bring out into the light all the things that think we have been hiding from others and even from ourselves, it hurts. It’s painful. It’s exhausting. But it’s also necessary. 

In confronting himself, Jacob received a double blessing. In facing what he had done to his brother and his father, in facing the shadow side of himself and the person that he had become, he came away changed. Walking with a limp and a new name. Nevermore to be the same.

But Jacob also walked away declaring that he had also found God in the struggle. In wrestling with the darkness within, the very place that we assume is furthest from God, he actually ran smack dab into God. 

Thomas Merton writes “Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”

So today, I bless you. May you struggle. May you wrestle. May you experience the pain and the loneliness that comes from being willing to truly face yourself. May you lay down the lies that you have believed about yourself and surrender to the truth that God has spoken over you. May you have the courage to face the darkest parts of yourself, knowing that God is with you in the wrestling and in the hurting and that nothing that you find there can invalidate what God has already said is true. May you walk away changed, even if it means you limp a little. And may you, at last, walk away with the knowledge that you have come face to face with God. 

Introduction to the Story of God

September 26, 2022

Day One in Around the Bible in Eighty Days

Texts: Romans 16:25-27; Luke 24:44-49

The message is called gospel (good news) and the announcement (heralding) of Jesus the Messiah. Like an imperial proclamation of good news for the Empire, God announces good news for both Israel and the nations. Before this revelation of the work of God in Jesus by the Spirit, it was a mystery. This does not mean mysterious but unknown. Now, however, it has been revealed–it is now known.

This revelation comes through the appearance of Jesus the Messiah. At the same time, it is also made know through an exposition of the prophetic Scriptures. The prophets anticipated this moment, and we read the Scriptures in order to understand the outworking of this mystery in Christ.

God’s eternal purpose is to generate an obedient faith among the Gentiles. Paul heralds this good news about Jesus for the sake of bringing the salvation of God revealed to Israel to the ends of the earth and strengthening the faith of the disciples of Jesus. For this work, among many other things, God is worthy of praise.

The commission at the end of the Gospel of Luke affirms that the Scriptures—the Torah, the prophets, and the Psalms—tell this story, and we ought to search those texts for an understanding of how what was revealed there came to its fullness in the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth. We listen to the story of Scripture to hear a word about God’s Messiah and the salvation God’s servant brings.

This salvation begins with the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the name of Jesus, it produces repentance and the forgiveness of sins for all nations. The story of Israel is not confined to the Scriptures of Israel but continues in the work of heralding the coming of the Messiah and God’s salvation. That work continues in a community, first gathered at Jerusalem, scattered among the nations empowered by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The story continues through the witness of the church.

When we read Scripture, we are looking for that story. It is the main plot in Scripture. While we may become interested and even distracted by many particulars in the story, the main thrust of the story is the revelation of God’s mighty acts of redemption and salvation, which are first present in Israel, then fulfilled in Christ, and proclaimed by the church.

It is a drama on the world stage. It began in creation, was entrusted to Israel, climaxed in Jesus, is embodied by the church, and will be restored in new creation. These are the five acts of the drama: Creation, Israel, Christ, Church, and New Creation. I call it a theodrama because the main plot is the work of God, that is, what God is doing for the sake of the creation. God creates. God choses Israel. God becomes human in Jesus. God dwells in the church. God renews creation as a new heaven and new earth.

That is the story Around the Bible in 80 Days seeks to unfold. But the goal is not only for information but for formation into the image of God and participation in the mission of God.

Day One is the first step in the journey.

Obadiah, the Day of the Lord, and Juneteenth

June 18, 2022

[A Version of What was Delivered at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, on June 19, 2020.]

Continuing a series on the “Day of the Lord” in the Hebrew prophets, the text selected for this morning is Obadiah, and today is June 19, historically regarded as Jubilee Day or Emancipation Day in African American communities for over a century. To my mind, there is a connection. But first, we turn to Obadiah.

It is only a single chapter, twenty-one verses. It is the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible. It is often forgotten, and it doesn’t even appear in the lectionary cycle of the liturgical churches. It is, to say the least, a neglected book.

However, it is not only its brevity that accounts for this. It is also its topic. It has been received as a word of judgment against the nation of Edom, the nation who descended from Esau. As a word of judgment against a specific nation that had a specific history with the nation of Israel, it might seem a bit irrelevant to us. What does contemporary life have to do with the destruction of Edom over 2500 years ago?

This is where the theme of the Day of the Lord becomes important because that theme establishes contemporary relevance. The Day of the Lord does not only come to Edom, but the prophet Obadiah also tells us it comes for “all nations.” What happened to Edom—and the reasons it happened to Edom—lies in store for “all nations” (v. 15).

So, what happened to Edom? What happened to Edom is what happened to Judah at the hands of Edom. The rivalry between the nations of Israel and Edom go back to their ancestors Jacob and Esau. Though those two reconciled, the rivalry deepened and turned to hostility. When Israel wanted to pass through the land of Edom on the way to the promised land, Edom refused. Even when Israel promised to pay for any water or food they used along the way, Edom refused. At times, the nations warred with each other. Israel subjugated Edom during the reign of David, and Edom invaded Judah at other times. Sometimes they were allies but never friends. Finally, when the Babylonian empire invaded Judah three times over a period of 20 years and laid siege to Jerusalem three times, finally destroying the city in 586 BCE, Edom joined forces with Babylon to humiliate Judah.

Edom cooperated with Babylon, assisted them, and took advantage of Judah’s subjugation. As a consequence, on “that day”—the day of the Lord—the wise in Edom were destroyed, her warriors shattered, and everyone was cut off from Mount Esau (vv. 8-9). The day of the Lord came to Edom as judgment, destruction, and exclusion from God’s future story.

Why did it happen to Edom? Fundamentally, Edom mistreated his brother (vv. 10-14).

  • Edom stood aside and watched Jerusalem robbed and subjugated without helping or showing pity.
  • Edom gloated over the misfortune of Judah and rejoiced over their ruin.
  • Edom boasted about their own security and power on the day of Judah’s distress.
  • Edom participated in the calamity of Judah by entering its cities, including Jerusalem, and violently subduing the city and its land.
  • Edom prevented the escape of refugees and handed over survivors to the ruling power, the Babylonians.

In other words, Edom used their secure position in relation to Babylonian power to pillage, seize, and abuse their brothers in Judah. Rather than using it to show mercy, assist, and welcome their brothers, they used it to inflict power for their own benefit. Fundamentally, they failed to love their neighbors and honor the common brotherhood of Jacob and Esau as children of Abraham and Isaac.

They used their power—the privilege afforded to them as Babylonian allies—to enrich themselves, secure their own position in relation to that power, and take revenge against Judah for past offenses. And what drove this was a “proud heart” (v. 3). Their arrogance—their seeming invincibility (“who will bring me down to the ground?” in v. 4)—emboldened them, and they stole from and murdered their own brothers as a tool of Babylonian power.

For this reason, the Day of the Lord came upon Edom, and it meany their destruction. God judges the nations for their violence, arrogance, and cruelty. God sent out a messenger among the nations, the prophet Obadiah, to announce that the Lord will do battle against Edom for his sins. The Day of the Lod comes as judgment against Edom.

But not just Edom, and this is how Obadiah’s message about Edom is also relevant for us. Obadiah 15 says, “For the day of the Lord is near against all nations.” The standard of measurement for all nations is their own actions. Just as they have done, it will be done to them, and their “deeds shall return on” their “own head” (v. 15). What nations do to other nations, the Day of the Lord will bring to those nations.

This is a message not only about Edom, but it is a warning and a promise to all nations. When nations do what Edom did, when they gloat over the ruin of others, boast of their own power and standing in the world, mistreat others through violence and enslavement, punish refugees rather than help them, and participate in the calamity of other peoples, then the Day of the Lord will come for them as it did for Edom.

Obadiah’s message, though specifically targeting Edom, also speaks to all nations throughout all history. It speaks to our own nation. Juneteenth reminds us one of our nation’s original sins, the enslavement of people for the enrichment of plantations and the nation. Juneteenth celebrates the moment on June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger posted and publicly read throughout Galveston, Texas, General Order No. 3 which freed the remaining enslaved people and granted them the rights of a free people.

But before Juneteenth was a version of the Day of the Lord. The Civil War cost this nation over 625,000 lives, one out of every 50 people alive in 1860 died in that war. Abraham Lincoln recognized a divine judgment in his Second Inaugural Address.  It was a nineteenth century “Day of the Lord” for the United States.

“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, H now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

American slavery did to Africans what Edom did to Judah. When the Day of the Lord comes, it liberates the oppressed and judges the evil that oppressed them.

The Day of the Lord is a recurring event throughout history. It is not simply one day, but many days where the righteous judgment of God moves in history to deliver the oppressed, judge the wicked, and renew the hope of the righteous. Those days are part of history, both biblical and subsequent to the Biblical history. We don’t often see them clearly as we are so bound up in the wickedness and the wounds of this world that we are blinded by our own power and privilege.

I am no prophet, and I cannot discern the movement of God in the world to identify this is that, and that is this. However, we are all called to pay attention to the righteousness, justice, and mercy (e.g., Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23). We are called to seek the kingdom of God first and God’s righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We judge the nations in the light of the kingdom of God, a kingdom where power humbles itself and privilege serves the other; a kingdom that advocates mercy over sacrifice, love of neighbor over ambition, and empowerment of the power over the enrichment of the wealthy. We seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness–is is our allegiance as disciples of Jesus.

And that day—the day when the kingdom of God comes—is coming and is already here though it has not fully arrived. A day is coming when Mount Edom will belong to the Lord, and all the kingdoms of the earth will become the kingdom of our Lord (v 21).

The Day of the Lord has two edges to it. It will judge the nations for their violence, exploitation, and self-enrichment, and that day will also fill the earth with the righteousness, justice, mercy, and peace. On that day, the eschatological Day of the Lord, the earth will belong the Lord, the meek will inherit the earth, and the glory of God will fill and renew all things as an inheritance for God’s people. Until that day comes when God will set everything right, we continue to pray “Your kingdom come,” and we give ourselves to God as disciples of Jesus who pursue God’s kingdom and become instruments of that kingdom life in the present.

Until that day, perhaps that call of Lincoln in his second inaugural still rings true: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” let us pursue righteousness, justice, mercy, and compassion as we bind up the wounds, care for the poor, and seek the kingdom of God above all else.

2  Corinthians 13:11-14 – A Final Exhortation and Blessing

May 14, 2022

“Finally,” Paul writes. He has come to the end of the letter. In this letter, he has attempted to (1) help the Corinthians understand both the importance and nature of the ministry of reconciliation inaugurated by a crucified but risen Messiah, (2) encourage the Corinthians to renew their commitment to sharing their wealth with the poor saints in Jerusalem as they had promised they would, and (3) confront the claims of the super-apostles and warn the Corinthians that Paul’s third visit will test their commitment to the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah.

Paul’s letter ends with optimism, loving intent, and blessing. That seems rather strange in the light of what immediately preceded these final words, but it signals Paul’s authentic intentions. He does not want to beat up the Corinthians. Rather, the final exhortations reach back into the letter and invite the Corinthians to respond positively to Paul’s message, the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

Final Exhortations

These final exhortations—including six imperatives (commands) and two indicatives (declarative statements)—summarize how Paul hopes the Corinthians will respond to his lengthy letter. These statements are not throw-away, meaningless formulaic endings to a letter but an invitation to embrace the message Paul has attempted to communicate.

It is rather typical for Paul to conclude his letters with a series of admonitions (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22), but they seem to relate, in some way, to the content of the letter—almost like a summary of sorts.

Six Imperatives.

Rejoice! Though some translations render this word “farewell,” Paul has just used this same word in 2 Corinthians 13:9, and it appears in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 at the head of a list of brief imperatives with the meaning “rejoice.” Though Paul’s ministry is filled with suffering, it is his joy that the Corinthians are strong though he is weak. The ministry itself is a source or joy rather than gloom and despair. The ministry of reconciliation is an occasion for joy. Paul works for their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24; cf. 2:3; 7:4, 13; 8:2). Joy, deep-seated peace and calm, arises from the reconciling ministry of God at work in Christ.

Put Things in Order! Just like “rejoice,” this word also occurs in 2 Corinthians 13:9 where Paul prays for their sufficiency, competency, or even restoration. Some render it, “mend your ways,” or “be restored” to God (as in “Be reconciled to God” in 2 Corinthians 5:20). It seems to refer to a sense of wholeness or completeness. Paul wants the Corinthians to embrace God’s restorative and transformative work in their lives, which is effected through faith and repentance but dependent upon God’s reconciling work.

Listen to My Appeal! Either Paul is asking the Corinthians to listen attentively to his letter, or perhaps he is asking to them to find encouragement from what he has said. Perhaps the language is sufficiently ambiguous to include both so that Paul has a fuller meaning here:  listen and be encouraged! Paul’s letter is filled with the language of exhortation or encouragement. He uses this verb in 2 Corinthians 1:4, 6, 2:7; 5:20; 6:1; 7:6, 13; 8:6; 9:5; 10:1; 12:8, 18. Paul does not intend to destroy but to edify and encourage. He calls the Corinthians into relationship, repentance, and renewal. His continuous call to encouragement throughout the letter receives its final mark here at the end of the latter.

Have the Same Mind! This is the only time Paul uses this verb in 2 Corinthians, though he did use it in 1 Corinthians 13:11 where he describes how Christian growth entails moving beyond a childish mind toward a mature one. This is a key point in Philippians: believers are called to have the same mind as Jesus and unite in thinking the same way about discipleship and life in the kingdom of God (Philippians 1:7; 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2, 10). This does not mean there is absolute conformity in terms of opinions and varied understandings, but it is a shared approach to life in Christ, particularly where we have the same mind Jesus had (that is, the one who was rich became poor so that we who are poor might become rich). It is a life of service and care for others; it is living worthy of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, who emptied himself in order to become a servant.

Live in Peace! Paul uses this verb in three places: here, Romans 12:18, and 1 Thessalonians 5:13. Peace is something the Corinthian church lacks, it appears. Perhaps it is improving as Titus’s report to Paul in Macedonia indicates. But the church is still disturbed. Peace is an essential quality for the living church of God but one it often lacks due to internal strife, disagreements, and varied practices. Yet, peace is not found in conformity but in being conformed to the life of the Messiah.

Greet One Another with a Holy Kiss! This is also a common imperative in Paul’s benedictions or endings to his letters. It appears in three other letters: 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 16:20; and Romans 16:16 (see also 1 Peter 5:14). The kiss is a holy (non-erotic) greeting—a sign of peace and welcome between family members. It is a sign of fellowship and communion.

Two Declarations.

The God of love and peace will be with you! Paul uses “God of peace” often (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Romans 15:33; 16:20; Philippians 4:9), and this is the only occurrence of the phrase “God of love” in Scripture. This is not a wish prayer but a promise. God responds with love and peace to communities that embrace the way of the gospel and pursue the ministry of reconciliation  with joy, peace, and restorative practices. Paul assures the Corinthians that God has not abandoned them but is still at work among them as they seek reconciliation and peace.

All the saints greet you! The Corinthian congregation is part of a larger community. They are not alone in the world, and it is important to remember that we are joined together in mutual welcome, love, and peace through mutual greeting.

Blessing, or Benediction

In English, we supply the verb to 2 Corinthians 13:14 (in some translations, the final verse is 13). There is no verb in the Greek sentence. It is legitimate to supply the verb “to be” as in “to be with” or to be present with, even to be overwhelmed by. It is about our existence in the life of the Triune God who is active and engaging. The Triune God is pouring out love, grace, and communion (fellowship). God’s activity is constant and dynamic. This sustains our relationship with the Triune God. We enjoy, experience, and are empowered as well as enriched by the life of the Triune God as that God pours into us grace, love, and communion.

In other words, by supplying the  verb “to be” we see the empowering and enriching presence of God’s mighty acts among us, the God who loves, the Christ who graces, and the Spirit who communes. This divine presence is “with us all”—a constant and abiding presence that secures our hope, empowers our ministry, and enriches our lives. This is Paul’s blessing, even benediction, for the Corinthians and all believers in Christ.

In Paul’s benediction, grace is associated with the Lord Jesus the Messiah, love is associated with God the Creator, and fellowship (koinōnia) with the Holy Spirit. This language, of course, is not unique to each because we can also speak of the “love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14; Ephesians 3:19; Romans 8:35), or the “grace of God” (2 Corinthians 1:12; 6:1; 8:1; 9:14), or the “love of the Spirit” (Romans 15:30).

Nevertheless, though this language is not exclusive, perhaps Paul reminds us of the economic (the way the Triune God manages the world) work of the Triune persons in the world for the sake of the world. The love of God is the source of all redemptive work, the grace of Jesus is the means by which God accomplishes this work, and the fellowship of the Spirit is how we experience this redemption in both community and in our own lives.  This is the activity of the Triune God, the tri-personality of God (for the Threeness of God, see Galatians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 2:18; 4:4-6).

The divine work is sourced from God the Creator, given through the Messiah, and poured out into our lives by the Spirit who unites us with God and the Messiah. Perhaps one way of saying this, without any attempt to be exhaustive, is the following hymn-like expression of the work of the Triune God.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ

  • Forgiveness for our transgressions
  • Mercy in our brokenness
  • Compassion for the poor and sick
  • Liberation for the oppressed
  • Peaceful reconciliation between enemies

The love of God

  • The source of creation and redemption
  • God’s delight in our belovedness
  • The unspeakable gift of Jesus for the life of the world
  • An unrelentingly pursuit to include us in God’s own loving community
  • Passion to form us into God’s own loving image

The communion of the Spirit

  • God’s love poured into our hearts
  • God experienced in the communion of community
  • The mercy and forgiveness we extend to each other by the power of the Spirit
  • A rich shared life together in the Spirit
  • The Spirit who groans with us and plants hope in our hearts

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Paul began this letter with a reminder that the God who raises the dead is the God of all comfort and ends the letter with a benediction that blesses the Corinthians with the love, grace, and communion of the Triune God. This is the community into which believers are called and where they experience authentic joy, peace, and restoration.

Glory to Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning and ever shall be worlds without end. Amen!