Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year from Germany!

We brought in the new year with the Blakes over at their almost 20 story high rise. The fireworks were amazing all over the city. In fact, at 1:22am they are still going strong outside our flat. It struck me as what a war zone must sound like. I thought of "shock and awe" in Iraq, although it obviously wasn't quite that powerful. Never seen anything like it. Then I experimented with time travel and was successfully able to call into the past. I called my parents in last year. I'm thinking of patenting the time machine. Happy New Year, America, from the future year 2012!

Jesus in the temple (4)

... continued from yesterday.  This series is on Jesus and Judgment.
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3. Judgment of Israel
So far in the chapter, I've argued that Jesus did likely teach that judgment was coming to those alive on the earth, even if it was not the focus of his preaching.  Additionally, Jesus seems to have had a prophetic message of judgment against the temple leadership of Israel, at least in the final week of his ministry.  The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all understood Jesus' words and actions in this regard to predict the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

More than anything else, it was probably Jesus' action in the temple during passion week that set in motion the concrete political mechanisms that ended in the crucifixion.  Jesus certainly came into conflict with various people during his ministry, as we saw back in chapter 4.  But it doesn't seem likely that he tangled much with the temple leaders or chief priests until that day he walked into the temple courts and overthrew the tables of those who were changing money and selling animals for sacrifice.  More than anyone else, these were the people who had the kinds of connections with the Romans that could get a person killed.

On the one hand, it was generally necessary to have such a service. [1] It simply wasn't practical for someone to bring a goat or lamb with them for sacrifice from half way around the Mediterranean.  And to buy such things, money was needed (again, bringing something with you to trade from around the world wasn't practical) and it would need to be exchanged to the right currency.  Clearly something about the scene angered Jesus, but it surely was not the practice of buying and selling itself. Surely it was the way they were doing it--or where--that angered him.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all link Jesus' action to two Scriptures.  The first is Isaiah 56:7, "My house will be called a house of prayer."  Instead, what Jesus saw was Jeremiah 7:11: "a den of robbers."  Some focus primarily on the first verse to explain what angered Jesus.  The context of Isaiah 56:7 is all the nations of the world coming to worship at the temple.  In fact, Mark 11:17 gives the part of the quote that says the temple should be a house of prayer for all nations.

So some see Jesus angry primarily because of where they were selling things.  Foreigners who might otherwise worship God in the temple courts were instead confronted by buying and selling there.  At the same time, it is surely significant that neither Matthew nor Luke give the part of the quote that says, "for all nations."  They were likely using Mark as a source and yet seem to have deliberately left this part of the quote out.  Also, the Gentiles were arguably not the focus of Jesus' earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 10:5).

So others might focus more on the second Scripture from Jeremiah.  It comes in the context of the approaching destruction of the temple in 586BC.  There is of course a striking similarity here in the sense that Jesus is also remembered as predicting the destruction of the temple, which took place in AD70.  Jeremiah's complaint is the the priests of his day had made the temple into a "den of robbers."  Jeremiah accused the leaders of day of hiding their injustice behind the temple.  They were murderers, adulterers, thieves, perjurers, idolaters, and yet somehow thought the fact that they ran the temple would protect them from coming judgment (Jer. 7:9-10).

This second focus does indeed fit the emphases of Jesus ministry very well, as we have seen. Of course the gospels are not video recorders. They are unpacking the event.  One may or may not talk too much when you are angrily overturning tables and chasing people.  And the kinds of things that spark anger are usually more complex and emotional than a matter of logical argument and ideas.

Accordingly, both the answers above may have some truth to them.  Jesus is confronted by a scene of merchandising when the temple should be for worshiping God.  And it should be for everyone, not just for those who have the coinage necessary to buy sheep and doves.  The situation evokes key elements of his prophetic message for Israel, especially the way those who are rich and powerful couldn't care less about the vast majority of the people, the lost sheep of Israel...

[1] So E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism ***.

Friday, December 30, 2011

What should I read?

A number of blogs and sites have posted their best reads of 2011.  I thought I would ask you, whoever you are, what you would like me to read and blog through this year.  I'm up for a wide variety of possibilities but I want to spend some time this year reading.

Here are three I have in mind so far as an example of diverse interests:

Others have floated through my head.  What would you like to see discussed here?  No promises ;-)

Son of Man (3)

Yesterday I jotted down a few thoughts on Jesus and the judgment of the earth.  By the way, I edited the last couple paragraphs of yesterday's to fill out my impression a bit.  Today I continue that train of thought.
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... Perhaps the best evidence for a judgment on earth comes from the "Son of Man" imagery of the first three gospels.  There is a remarkable agreement among even many who are very skeptical that Jesus used this phrase as a way of talking about himself.  Take Luke 9:58: "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."  There is no special meaning to the phrase "Son of Man" here.  It just seems to be the way Jesus often referred to himself as if to say, "I have no place to lay my head."

And Jesus is almost the only one who calls himself "Son of Man" in the New Testament.  The phrase is almost never found outside Matthew, Mark, and Luke and even then it was not a title by which others referred to Jesus.  No one seems to get upset that Jesus calls himself this name, which probably means it was not a phrase widely used at the time for anything.  It is a puzzle.

However, it gets even more puzzling when we get to some of the connotations the phrase has in some parts of the gospels and some contemporary Jewish literature.  Take what Jesus says to the high priest when he is on trial in Mark 14:62, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."  This verse is a clear allusion to Daniel 7:13, where someone like a "son of man" comes with the clouds of heaven.  This figure receives power and authority from God so that all nations and peoples worship him and he brings a kingdom that will never be destroyed.

We find a lot of potentially troubling verses when we get to this topic.  What does Mark 7:1 mean, which says that some standing there with Jesus will not die before the kingdom has come with power?  What does Mark 13:30 mean when it says that generation will not pass before things like the coming of the Son of Man takes place?  It sounds similar to what Jesus tells the high priest: YOU will see it. What I want to point out here is merely that these pictures of things that are coming seem to involve the living on the earth.

One of the most striking Son of Man passages is in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31-46).  The Son of Man comes, the nations are gathered for judgment.  There is no mention of resurrection.  The picture is of the Son of Man coming from heaven to earth and gathering all those of the earth to be judged, with the kingdom of the Son of Man immediately commencing thereafter.  I mentioned this picture back in chapter 3 on Jesus and the Poor.

What is interesting is that the imagery here is very similar to something found in another Jewish book of the period, 1 Enoch. [1] In 1 Enoch 62, the "Son of Man" sits on a throne and judges the world as well.  It is such a strikingly similar picture that some connection seems almost certain.  Was Jesus alluding to this tradition when he called himself the Son of Man?  Did those who wrote this part of 1 Enoch know about Jesus?  Did Matthew paraphrase this passage because he knew this tradition or did those who wrote this part of 1 Enoch know Matthew?

These are difficult questions to answer.  On the one hand, the tradition of 1 Enoch could not have been widely known at the time of Jesus or it would have provoked more of a reaction and Jesus wouldn't have used the phrase casually so often.  Does Jesus' use of this expression fall in the category of hiding his messianic identity from the crowds?  The inner circle would know what Son of Man meant, but it would be an ambiguous phrase to most outsiders.

I merely want to draw two conclusions.  The one is that Jesus was remembered as preaching that a judgment was going to come to the earth.  The other is that at least the gospel writers compared Jesus' role in that judgment to the role of the Son of Man in the traditions of Enoch.  Jesus would be God's agent of judgment when he returned from heaven, the king-judge of Daniel 7.

[1] In particular, a section of 1 Enoch called "The Parables of Enoch."  This part of the book was not present among the Dead Sea Scrolls, leading most experts to think it was written later than the other scrolls, perhaps as late as the first century AD.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Coming Judgment 2

Yesterday I wrote on Judging Others.  Today I want to look on what Jesus likely preached about the coming judgment.
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Way back in chapter 1 I argued that John the Baptist's baptism of repentance was not only in preparation for the coming restoration of Israel but also to ensure salvation in a coming judgment.  I don't think Jesus' message to the crowds focused on this judgment nearly as much as John's did, but it was almost certainly part of his message.  After all, Jesus endorsed John's teaching when he was baptized, and we do find this teaching in the gospels.

It makes sense to think that most of Jesus' teaching on the coming judgment took place in his final days, particularly in Jerusalem.  This is how the first three gospels remember it. [1]  They connect Jesus' action in the temple with the impending destruction of Jerusalem and each includes a final sermon on coming judgment in Jesus' final week.

In fact, the Gospel of Mark is arranged so that it has a turning point just before Jesus heads for Jerusalem at the end of his ministry. Up to that point, the tone is optimistic and Jesus tells good news to the crowds that flock to him.  After Mark 8, however, Jesus looks toward Jerusalem and the gospel takes on a tone of foreboding.  Jesus seems to withdraw more from the crowds and spend more time privately with his key followers.

So what was this coming judgment?  The next section looks at Jesus and the judgment of Israel.  In this one, I'm arguing that Jesus focused on the coming judgment of the earth.  The final section of this chapter looks at what Jesus might have said about the afterlife.  But I don't think that Jesus actually preached much on that topic.  Rather, like the rest of the New Testament, he focused on something that was going to happen on earth.

Some of the verses I most enjoy in the Bible are the weird ones.  The reason is because I suspect that these are the passages that most expose the spots where our own assumptions are slightly off, where our own glasses make it difficult for us to see the original meaning as it actually was.  Take Mark 9:47: "If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell."  A couple things strike me about this verse.

First, will the kingdom really involve one eyed people?  To be sure, Jesus is not speaking literally here.  It's hyperbole--making a point with exaggeration.  Paul makes it clear that we will have transformed bodies in the kingdom (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:50).  But the very concept of entering into the kingdom with one eye sounds like my body is entering in right here from earth.  It doesn't sound like I'm going up to heaven to enter it and it certainly doesn't sound like something that happens after I die.

In other words, the judgment sounds like an event that will take place on earth.  I get the same impression from the other person with two eyes who is thrown into hell, into "Gehenna." It reminds me of another verse in Matthew where Jesus says that his followers should not fear the person who can only kill their bodies.  Rather they should fear the God who can destroy both their souls and bodies in Gehenna (Matt. 10:28).  We at least get the impression that the judgment starts right here on earth and involves the physical bodies of the wicked. [2]

[1] John does not have an "end times" sermon like Matthew, Mark, and Luke do.

[2] Most translations rightly translate Gehenna as hell, but it is interesting to wonder if any of Jesus' audience thought of the valley gehinnom just outside Jerusalem, where they burned the trash of the city.  This is the place from which Gehenna in fact got its name.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

To Judge or Not to Judge 1

I've been thinking about what Jesus had to say about the afterlife, so I thought I would jump to my thoughts on Jesus and judgment, maybe the second to last chapter. It seems a chapter like this one should start with the well known passage in Matthew 7 on not judging.
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In the not too distant past, Matthew 7:1 was probably one of the best known sayings of Jesus in all the gospels: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."  I say "past" because the tone of much of American Christianity has arguably changed in the aftermath of 9-11 and other events thereafter.  Very many Christians today feel quite comfortable drawing conclusions about the righteousness of others, especially those in the public sphere.

However, there was a time not too long ago when many Christians were at the opposite extreme.  The logic went like this.  Jesus tells us not to judge others.  After all, we're all sinners and "all sin is sin," so I'm as guilty as the next person.  I have no right to be down on others for the problems I think they have because my problems are basically the same.  I would be a hypocrite to point out someone else's sin.

There was a great deal of truth in this line of thinking.  While there are a few problems with the logic, it does indeed capture the spirit of Jesus fairly well.  Human nature being what it is, we are more prone to be judgmental and critical in our spirit than to be generous and forgiving.  In that sense, Jesus would surely rather us err on the side of not judging than on the side of judging.

But Jesus does judge and Paul also judges.  That is, they draw conclusions about whether others are in the right or wrong.  Matthew 23 is an incredibly strong pronouncement about the hearts of the Pharisees. And "discipline" is part of Christian community.  Matthew 18 gives a process by which a member of the community is confronted and potentially shunned.  Whatever it means not to judge in Matthew 7, it does not preclude the judgment of Matthew 18 and 23.

For example, you can know that someone has done something wrong and be loving about it, or you can know others have done wrong and have a bad attitude toward them.  Similarly, a person can enjoy paying back someone who has done wrong or you can discipline with the sincere desire that a person be redeemed, reconciled and reclaimed.  If we witness a murder, it is not judgmental to draw the conclusion that the murderer has done wrong.  The difference is that Jesus is sad for the murderer as well as the victim, while the "judger" enjoys the thought of the murderer frying.

So there are both truths and problems with the popular interpretation of Jesus' instructions not to judge.  You will not find anywhere in the Bible where it teaches that "all sin is sin."  Some sins are worse than others because sin is primarily a matter of intent, not of the act itself.  The more defiant your intent is against God or the more hateful your intent is against your neighbor, the greater the sin. [1]

Similarly, "judging" others is either good or bad depending on our intent.  Here it gets very tricky.  We are prone to lie not only to others but to ourselves about our intentions.  "I'm talking about what they did because I'm concerned, not because I'm judging."  If we are in doubt, we are best not to talk about the possible sins of others at all.

And this is a particularly important point.  While in many cases we observe someone doing something wrong or perhaps they even confess to us that they have done something wrong, in far many more cases we do not know for sure what the motives or intentions of someone were.  It is in such cases that Jesus' instructions not to judge become particularly important.  We may know what we would have been thinking if we did something, but other people are different from us.  We need to be very careful not to assume we know what someone else intended.

At the same time, the excuse that "we are all sinners" won't cut it with the New Testament.  There is no verse in the New Testament, when rightly interpreted, that indicates that intentional wrongdoing is normal in the life of a Christian.[2]  The words of Hebrews are some of the strongest in the New Testament: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left" (10:26).  The "Christians are just as much sinners" line doesn't work for Paul and it certainly doesn't work for Jesus.

In the end, we take away at least three things from Jesus' instructions not to judge.  First, we as humans are prone to hypocrisy.  This is really what Jesus' statement is most about.  The problem is that those who most like to point out the faults of others often have the same or worse problems themselves. Psychologists call it "projection."  When we feel guilty for some fault, we may be very hard on others who have the same or similar ones.  We make ourselves feel better by putting others down.

So Jesus tells the crowds in Matthew to take the "plank" out of their own eye before they worry about the "speck" in someone else's.  Someone else once put it this way, for every one finger you point at someone else there are usually at least three pointing back at yourself.  While we should never consider sin normal for a Christian, we all have faults and weaknesses.  We would be wise not to spend too much time dwelling on the faults of others.

A second take away is to be extremely careful about how we "fill in the blanks" about the intentions and motives of others. We usually think we're smarter than we are when it comes to such things.  And those of us who are used to being lied to can get hardened to where we don't trust anyone.  Jesus surely doesn't want us to be gullible and stupid in our dealings with others ("be as shrewd as snakes," Matt. 10:16).  But surely even more he wants us to look for the best in others and to give them the benefit of the doubt when at all possible.

Finally, as followers of Jesus we should be more interested in mercy than in justice.  To be sure, it is not loving always to let someone out of the consequences of their actions.   Justice can be loving when it is meant to protect society at large and when it tries to steer the lives of those off track in the right direction.  But a Jesus follower should have no interest in justice for its own sake.  "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13).

So there is a time to draw conclusions and administer discipline in the church.  There is a time to draw conclusions about the actions of others.  There is a time to confront, especially when we are in authority.  However, most of the time we should presume the best of others and leave to others their own relationship with God.  Most of the time the urge to judge comes from hypocrisy and faulty priorities.

I should spend significant time searching my own heart and motives before I ever confront.  I should examine carefully whether it is my place to confront.  Most of the time it is not my job.  I must be aware that different Christians have different understandings and that in many respects I stand before God as an individual conscience.  Am I willing for my motives and intentions to undergo the same scrutiny that I would bring to bear on others?  If not, then I had best be silent.

[1] An easy example of this fact is 1 John 5's distinction between a "sin to death" and a "sin not to death."  In addition, there is the differing way Paul treats different sins.  The man sleeping with his step-mother is immediately kicked out of the church in 1 Corinthians 5, while the carnal Corinthians of chapter 3 merely are told to grow up.

Ultimately, the "all sin is sin" position likely comes from the popular belief in eternal security combined with Paul's "all have sinned."  Before we believe, all sin means we need God's grace.  The situation does not change after believing for those who believe in eternal security, for no sin knocks you out.  However,  Paul does not teach eternal security (cf. 1 Cor. 10).

[2] The case is quite to the contrary.  Most experts on Romans now agree that Romans 7 is a dramatized expression of a Jew who wants to keep the essence of the Jewish Law but does not have the power of the Spirit to do so. Paul's position is rather that believers are no longer slaves to sin (Rom. 8:1), do not fulfill the desires of their sinful nature (Gal. 5:16), and that those in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:8).  1 John 3:9 similarly says that those who are born of God will not live a life full of sin.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reflections on John the Baptist

Follows on yesterday.
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Probably the thing that strikes me most about John the Baptist is how much differently things must have seemed to him than they seem to us.  Our understanding of John as the "opening act" before Jesus arrived is crystal clear.  John was also clear that the messiah would follow him, but John probably wasn't expecting the messiah to get crucified.

John probably was looking for the almost immediate restoration of Israel as a political kingdom with its own king.  It didn't happen.  Even after Jesus rose from the dead, his followers were still expecting this sort of kingdom (Acts 1:6).  It still hasn't happened some two thousand years later. [1] Some of the New Testament may still look to such a kingdom of Israel after Christ returns (e.g., Rom. 11:26).

Later Christians took John's message and made it universal, which may very well be what God wants us to do as well.  For example, John's message was not directed at non-Jews.  It is doubtful the thought ever popped into his head that a Gentile might get baptized.  We now see his message of baptism played out in Christian baptism, where we prepare not for the restoration of Israel but we act out our inclusion in God's kingdom.

For the moment, this kingdom is not political but is a spiritual kingdom.  We live in two kingdoms, the kingdom of our God and the kingdom of this world.  Our loyalty is solidly to the first, and we choose it over the second when the two are in unresolvable conflict.  But we also live in the second kingdom and we render to Caesar what is Caesar's.

The situation with baptism is slightly different than it was with John.  When the movement started, no one was baptized.  He called all Israel to baptism, even those trying to keep the covenant.  After all, he was looking to the repentance of a whole people, even more than mere individuals.  This is one reason we can participate in confessions of sin in church even when we have not intentionally done wrong all week--it is a corporate confession of the church as a whole.

Now of course we have children born into families of faith.  Some thus would have them baptized as children, to claim them for Christ from the very beginning, knowing of course that they will have to appropriate that act personally as well later.  Others focus on the individual and want the child to wait until he or she can understand at least a little of what baptism signifies. The eternal destiny of the child is of course something separate from these debates.

When we look at how differently our situation is than John's, it is a bit sobering to wonder how much of what we think we have figured out might be a little off on the details or out of perspective.  Certainly most of us as Christians will believe that something unique was happening at the time of Jesus, a new revelation that will never come again.  Someone might also point out that we now have the New Testament, which transcends the misunderstandings of any one early Christian.

But if we're honest with each other, Christians probably disagree more with each other today over what the Bible means than the early Jesus followers disagreed with each other.  It calls for a certain humility.  And it calls us back to first principles.  Jesus would both express and model the two basic principles of Christian life, to which all our specific beliefs must submit.  These are the twin principles of complete surrender to God's will, which more than anywhere else is seen in the second principle of concretely loving all others as we would normally want others to treat us.

[1] While a nation of Israel is currently restored, it is not a kingdom that affirms Jesus as messiah, which from a New Testament perspective would be an essential part of a truly restored Israel.

Visit to Dachau

Went to Dachau with the family yesterday. Third time I've visited but had a guide this time. I shouldn't be surprised that a people could do such things. After all, it still goes on around the world today. It could happen anywhere under the right conditions--economic despair, someone who comes along and makes you feel special as a nation, someone who feeds your insecurity about all the foreigners around, a need to bring order to society and squelch rampant liberalism.

Then a communist burns down parliament.  There's a declaration of martial law. Camps are set up to remove the lawless from the flow of society, to re-educate those who can be re-educated and put the rest to work. The sadists who are always present in society gravitate to such camps. Doctors do experiments on criminal guinea pigs for the benefit of the troops.

No modern society is so evolved that it could not happen again anywhere.

Monday, December 26, 2011

After John the Baptist...

Continued from here.
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We know what happened to John.  Herod Antipas arrested and then beheaded him.  Rulers don't take nicely to those who announce that another king is coming who is going to replace their kingdom with a better one. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are sometimes called the Synoptic gospels, Jesus does not start proclaiming the kingdom until John is arrested.

But the impact of John the Baptist seems to have continued for decades after he died. For example, there were some people who were still following his teaching at Ephesus in Acts 18-19.  The first is Apollos in Acts 18:24-28.  He is instructed in the "Way of the Lord" and proclaimed the coming of Jesus, but was only aware of the baptism of John. Apparently, John the Baptist must have proclaimed "the way of the Lord."  It is interesting that both Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3 use the word "way."  These are the passages the gospels remember in relation to John's prophetic ministry.  So it is not a stretch to say that John must have proclaimed quite literally "the Way of the Lord" as one of his key messages.

Followers of the Way were thus individuals who believed John's message--whether they believed in Jesus or not.  Apollos could be a follower of the Way and know very little about Jesus.  What he knew was John the baptizer's prediction that the "anointed one," the messiah, was coming.  The Gospels also remember this message as part of what John proclaimed: "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals" (Mark 1:7, NRSV).

Acts 19:1-7 reinforces this interpretation.  Paul finds certain "disciples" at Ephesus.  These individuals only know the baptism of John.  They do not seem to know much of anything about Jesus.  When Acts calls them "disciples," it must not mean followers of Jesus but followers of the Way, followers of the movement started by John the Baptist.

For Acts, receiving the Spirit is the big distinction between the two movements.  The Jesus movement was part of the Baptist movement.  Both were followers of the Way.  But the Jesus movement believed Jesus was the messiah John predicted, and it involved the Holy Spirit.  Jesus' followers received the Holy Spirit.  At some point, John's baptism became distinguished from baptism "in the name of Jesus," so much so that Paul has the followers of the Baptist get re-baptized so they will receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 19.

The Gospel of John indirectly supports interpretation.  One of the intriguing features of the Gospel of John is the extent to which it downplays John the Baptist in relation to Jesus.  John never actually mentions John baptizing Jesus.  John's presentation implies that the Baptist's mission is basically over once Jesus arrives (e.g., 1:36-37; 3:30).  Only John's gospel tells of Jesus' followers baptizing at the same time as the Baptist.  Finally, in contrast to Matthew 11:14, the Gospel of John denies that John the Baptist is Elijah (1:21).

Why would the Gospel of John downplay John the Baptist so much more than the other gospels?  A possible answer is that, as we see in Acts 18-19, there were followers of John the Baptist at Ephesus who not only did not follow Jesus. There may have been followers of the Way there who opposed the Jesus movement, who opposed the idea that Jesus was the messiah.  John and Acts are thus written in such a way as to make it clear that Jesus is the one John predicted. [1]

So not only did John proclaim the coming judgment of God and the potential restoration of political Israel.  He was one of those Jews who also predicted the coming of a king to rule Israel in this coming kingdom, the messiah. [2] In preparation, he called Israel to repent and to wash themselves in the Jordan, symbolizing the washing and forgiveness of their sins.

What a massive movement he must have started!  We do not know much about it apart from those of his followers who went on to believe Jesus was the messiah John was predicting.  But at the time his movement must have paralleled that of Jesus and may have been even bigger.  Some in this movement of the Way may have known very little about Jesus at all.  It must not have been clear at the time that John endorsed Jesus as the one he predicted.

In fact, we can read passages like Matthew 11:2-6 as the Baptist himself having some uncertainty.  John is in prison but sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he is the one.  The things he is doing make him a prime candidate.  But John must not have been entirely certain. [3] Perhaps John was expecting Jesus to be more "political" and "military" than he was.

What is clear is that all four gospels see Jesus' ministry in continuity with that of the Baptist.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is baptized by John, which indicates that Jesus at least mostly endorsed John's message.  As many Jesus scholars have argued, this fact has enormous implications for how we understand Jesus' own mission and message. [4]  We must understand Jesus' words not as wise sayings a philosopher might say but as words said against this historical background.

[1] The incident in Acts 19 is thus not about entire sanctification (as many holiness revivalists preached in the late 1800s/early 1900s).  Still less is it about the necessity of tongues as evidence of truly being converted (certain Pentecostal groups).  Acts 19, including its added evidence of tongues, was originally a polemic against followers of John the Baptist who did not believe Jesus was the messiah.

[2] Again, if we have to pick a Jewish group his message best fits, it would be the Essenes.

[3] This scene has of course given rise to much speculation as to John's motives, especially if you bring Luke 1 and John 1 into the conversation.

[4] One of the first to point out this fact was A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History E. P. Sanders' Jesus and Judaism then built on this approach.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Reflections

I was listening to a very old Christmas CD the other day and it had "Go Tell It on the Mountain" on it.  One line in the recording explicitly mentioned Jesus being born on December 25.  I suspect most people who would read this know that is not the real date, just the date we celebrate.

This piece in BAR is very interesting (I think I got the link from Allan Bevere).  It suggests that some early Christians before Augustine  started using the dates January 6 and December 25 because they were nine months after suggested dates for Jesus' crucifixion, the assumption being that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date.  It argues that some Christians were already celebrating Christ's birth on Dec. 25 prior to Constantine.

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are quite different.  They do have a common core.  They both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and ended up in Nazareth as a child.  They both agree that Mary was a virgin when the Holy Spirit brought about her conception.  That's about it.

Each gospel emphasizes in its presentation the kinds of things we would expect them to, given their emphases elsewhere.  Matthew has overtones of Moses, which fits since Jesus gives the fulfilled understanding of the Law.  As Pharaoh killed Israelite babies, Herod kills the boys of Bethlehem.  Moses came out of Egypt; Jesus comes out of Egypt.  Matthew connects Jesus' birth to the OT.  The Magi remind us that the gospel is for the Gentiles too and that Jesus would become a king.

Luke gives prominence to women in the story of Jesus' birth, as he does elsewhere. Lowly shepherds come, fitting with Luke's emphasis on the poor and lost sheep. The temple features prominently, as it does elsewhere in Luke's presentation.

I suppose that different Christians take different things from Christmas.  For me, Christmas is the incarnation.  It is God coming to earth.  It is the beginning of salvation for the whole world.

For me it is also Jesus being born amid scandal, yet another identification of Jesus with the lost sheep of the world.  Was he ridiculed as a child for being born before his parents were married?  Did his younger brother James think himself a little purer than his older brother?

For Matthew, the birth story revealed that Jesus birth was in continuity with who he came to be in life later.  This was the expectation of ancient biography.  So there were signs he was a king from the start.  Did Luke want to balance this out, if Luke knew Matthew?

Interestingly, the New Testament does not make much of the virginal conception. [PS]  Even Matthew and Luke themselves never mention it again and they give no interpretation to its meaning. It does not seem required for Jesus to be divine, since he is not half man and half God but fully human and fully divine.

So what do you celebrate at Christmas?  I celebrate "the beginning of the gospel" (Mark 1:1), even though Mark is referring to Jesus' baptism.

[PS] We informally refer to the virginal conception as the virgin birth.  Catholics do believe Mary miraculously remained a physical virgin even in birth, as well as that Joseph never had sex with her thereafter.  Most Protestants believe Mary went on to have other children--James, Jude, etc...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Oh Holy Night

Was struck by this verse to Oh Holy Night yesterday:

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

Christ is the Lord
Oh praise his name forever
His power and glory evermore proclaim
His power and glory evermore proclaim

Merry Christmas all!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christians, Women, and Leadership

I think I make a post like this one at least once a year.  Here's a summary of my argument for total egalitarianism.

1. If we were starting from scratch, what would we think given only a few starting points like
  • God does not show favoritism.
  • God is love.
  • God wants the world to be reconciled to him.  
Let's also throw in some obvious truths about men and women from experience and reason as well:
  • Gender is not a predictor of spirituality, insight, or leadership capacity.
  • Some women are more spiritual, have more insight, and have greater leadership gifts than some men.  In other words, general trends in terms of gender are irrelevant when it comes to individual persons and situations.  Even if you could show certain trends relating to gender in terms of spirituality, insight, and leadership capacity, such a finding is irrelevant to the question of whether an individual woman or man is more spiritual, has more insight, or is more gifted as a leader either in general or in terms of a specific.
  • In cultures where "the gig is up" on the idea that men are always smarter than women, that women can never lead as well as men, to take a position that assigns leadership roles purely on the basis of gender likely creates an obstacle to the gospel.  If we take this position, we had better have a good reason. 
So the stakes are high before I even come to the gospel.  Male genitalia are not particularly known either for their spirituality, insight, or leadership capacity.  Quite the contrary.  And since "God is no respecter of persons," a person who starts without any bias would come to the Bible expecting it to affirm a fully egalitarian position.

2. Everyone finds some things strange in the Bible.  Christians have always found some verses in the Bible that are "unclear."  So you're telling me Jacob put striped branches in front of sheep and goats when they were mating so that they would have striped and speckled offspring?  Whaaaat?  So you're telling me a woman should veil her head when she is praying or prophesying because of the angels?  Whaaaaat?

If a person really understands #1 above, passages like 1 Timothy 2:12-15 should have the same effect.  So you're telling me that women have come to be in transgression because of the sin of Eve but they will be saved through childbearing?  Whaaat?  I thought we were saved through the blood of Jesus Christ!

When there are examples of women ministering in Acts and Paul (you know the drill--Priscilla, Phoebe, Junias...) and Paul lays down the principle that men and women are equally sons of God, when Acts 2:17 puts the prophesying of women as a sign of the age of the Spirit, verses are at hand for us to find "clear" on the principles.  We know the original context impacts how we apply some verses.  When #1 is so overwhelming, what perversity would lead us to see 1 Timothy 2:12 as the clear verse, when the principle of the kingdom is at hand?

3. We know where it's headed.  In the kingdom, there will not be marriage.  Women will not be "given" to men (Mark 12).  In other words, there will be no differentiation of gender authority in the kingdom.  If we can move things closer to the kingdom now, especially when it is makes overwhelming sense, why wouldn't we?

4. No verse prohibits a woman from leadership over men in general.  I'm arguing for complete egalitarianism, but I want to start by separating out the argument.  The household codes of Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter have to do with, well, the household.  They are about the relationship between wives and husbands.  I believe the most likely interpretation in fact of all the notorious women passages in the New Testament fall into this category.

a. The only OT passage that explicitly subordinates wives to husbands is Genesis 3.  This is a consequence of Eve's sin.  Since Christ atoned for all sin, this is not a good argument for anything.  You could argue that it is built into the creation but, as in #1, this is simply not the case.  Naturally speaking, many individual women are regularly more intelligent, more spiritual, and have greater capacity to lead than many individual men.  "Let's stick with the Fall when we can transition to the kingdom."  That makes no sense at all.

b. I'll assume for the sake of argument that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were originally in 1 Corinthians (there is an issue).  "Let them ask their own husbands at home."  Mention of the Law and subordination.  OK, we're talking about wives here.

But what kind of talking are we talking about here?  In 1 Corinthians 11, women prophesy in church.  They are to veil their heads to show they are under their husband heads.  So apparently, whatever silence 1 Corinthians 14 is talking about is not spiritual speech but disruptive speech.  They are asking questions, questions they should ask their own husbands... rather than someone else's?

Whew.  I'm glad I have an answer for that verse, because #1 is really making me sweat.  I mean, I don't think God is stupid, but it's really hard to see any intelligence in the "men can only fly the plane because they have a penis" argument.

What's even more important about 1 Corinthians 11 is that wives are both speaking for God to a congregation while also being in proper relationship to their husband-head.  This implies that subordination of a wife to a husband does not preclude women in spiritual leadership.

c. When we then see that 1 Timothy 2 is likely also talking about the husband-wife relationship, we reach our first egalitarian goal.  We see that the Bible does not prohibit a woman from taking leadership--spiritual or otherwise--over men in general.  We of course see women even in supreme leadership in the Bible.  Huldah is the supreme spiritual authority in 2 Kings 22.  Deborah is the supreme "political" leader in Judges 4-5.

1 Timothy uses words for man and woman in 2:12-15 that normally mean husband and wife when they are used in close proximity.  Adam and Eve were husband and wife, and they are the supporting argument, both in terms of birth order and who was deceived.  Wives are the ones who have babies.  The relationship that 1 Timothy uses to support its instruction is thus framed in terms of a husband wife relationship.

I can't think of any verse that prohibits women from leading men in general elsewhere--the subordinate issue is always a husband-wife issue.  I'm frankly puzzled that so many interpreters of this verse can't see it.  It's pretty obvious if you're thinking like people thought in the first century.

Whew.  I'm glad I have an answer for that verse, because #1 is really making me sweat.  I mean, I don't think God is stupid, but pretty much anyone on the street is going to think he is if he sees genitals as the secret to competent leadership.

5. The real issue is thus the husband-wife relationship.  With the previous point, there is no more argument against allowing those women whom God calls into leadership to take any role to which God calls them.  "What if their husband-head disagrees?"  Then he'd better repent because he has to obey God first.  His soul is in danger.  We have to be wise in the working out of principles.  Sometimes the gospel is hindered when we are unbending--even when we are right!

In fact, Jesus says that God allowed divorce to be "on the books" in the OT because Israel was not ready.  I guess God is pragmatic even in Scripture sometimes.  I suppose that makes sense if he actually wanted to help the people he first sent Scripture to--ancient Israel, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Romans.  I know from cultural anthropology that they didn't think like me and that actions had different meanings in different places.  I guess, whether I like it or not, I can't just blindly apply the words of Scripture directly to me without considering such things, because it explicitly tells me it was written to them... and I'm not them.

My argument for full egalitarianism, including the home, involves many of the same points I made above:
  • the kingdom trajectory--There will be no husbands and wives in the kingdom.
  • spiritual common sense--In other words, #1 applies here just as much as in the previous section
  • the cultural argument--There was nothing distinctly Christian in the first century about wives being subordinate to their husbands.  In fact, it won't be so in the kingdom.  This was the assumption of the ancient context of the Bible.  It is when the Bible empowers women and equalizes men to them that it was being unique.
  • the blinders argument--Those who argue against egalitarianism are blind to their own cultural situation.  
a) Sincere opponents would be appalled if they heard the arguments against egalitarianism made 100 years ago and are thus blind to the fact that their position has already shifted considerably, in keeping with the common sense of #1.  In other words, they have already violated their own "no accommodation" rule historically.  They are now more sophisticated than before, but this is just feet dragging on the inevitable egalitarian conclusion.
b) The husband-wife subordination issue was massively impacted by the post WW2 era when women were empowered.  So called "secular feminism" has pushed traditions like mine away from its historical positions and practices because of the association of egalitarianism with social groups its people tend to oppose.  In short, complementarians are riding cultural waves every bit as much as egalitarians--they are simply riding a different wave.
c) They are unaware of the way in which we can get verses out of focus.  I used to do this with jewelry verses.  "No woman could possibly wear an earring without it being a matter of ungodly pride."  "Any man wearing a wedding ring must really be proud of that gold jewelry."  The truth is, I was so focused on an individual tree (verse) that I couldn't see the forest.  I now realize how absurd my thoughts were.  Complementarians are so fixated on some rather "Whaaat?" verses that they can't see the bigger principles of Christianity and how they would most naturally play out.
  • the stumbling block argument--It's a hindrance to the gospel.
I'm not worried.  Our grandchildren will wonder why this was an issue.  Were we stupid?  We feel the same way about those fundamentalist Christians who argued for slavery as an institution 100 years ago.  What were they thinking?  How could they not see the obvious ideal?

Of course slavery continued for 1800 years after Christ.  There is no guarantee of inevitable movement toward the kingdom.  But let me speak prophetically.  Even the Roman Catholic Church will be ordaining women by the year 2050.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jesus Begins 2

... continued from yesterday.
______
John was baptizing people, dipping Jews in the river Jordan to symbolize the washing of their sins.  I would have heard the message: we Jews need to prepare ourselves for what is coming.  We need to clean ourselves to be ready or else we'll be swept up in the judgment along with everyone else.

Such ritual washings were of course a normal part of Jewish life.  There were miqvaot around Jerusalem, for example at the temple.  You purified yourself before offering sacrifices.  The Essenes at the Dead Sea had a miqveh at each entrance to their camp.  You walked down one side unclean and came up the other clean.  If I had seen John as an onlooker, I probably would have pegged him to be an Essene of some sort.

What was different about John's baptism is that he wasn't dipping people as usual.  His baptism wasn't something you did each year or each month.  This was a preparation for a one time event, the coming judgment of God on the world in preparation for the restoration of Israel, God's coming kingdom.

Part of that message was a new king, a new "Son of David" to resume ruling Israel just like the kings of old.  This "anointed one" or messiah (Christ in Greek) was an intimate part of the restored kingdom.  It may take a little doing to get into the heads of the people alongside the Jordan and what they were expecting in a messiah because not everyone was.

First, the people by the river were not expecting the messiah to be divine in the normal sense of that word.  True, there were Old Testament texts that referred to kings like Solomon as the "Son of God" (2 Sam. 7:14) and other texts that used very exalted language of the kings of Judah on various occasions (e.g., Ps. 2:7; 45:6-7; 89:27; 110:1).  But no one took these verses to mean that the king was literally a god or that the messiah would be a god.  They took it poetically.

It was perhaps the Essenes who first starting expecting God to anoint some special people in the process of restoring Israel.  Some of their key documents look forward to two "messiahs," two anointed ones.  One would be the new king of Israel.  The other would be the new priest of Israel.  But the group called the Sadducees weren't necessarily looking for a new king.  For them, Israel had done just fine with the high priest basically in charge for five hundred years.

As for the rest of Israel, from time to time revolutionaries would crop up, probably with hopes of turning out to be the new "anointed one" of Israel.  Acts mentions some of them. [1]  A book called Psalms of Solomon, especially chapter 17, very strongly hopes for a messiah to come and destroy the Romans. [2] But we really can't say how prevalent the expectation of a messiah was at the time John baptized.  Obviously he believed that a king was coming.

And here it is important to recognize that the Jews at the time of Jesus largely didn't read the verses of prophecy you might have learned in Sunday School the way we do.  The New Testament authors, by and large, read the Old Testament "spiritually" rather than for what the words originally meant.  It was only after the fact that Christians saw most of these Old Testament verses the way we do now.  In other words, it was not at all obvious to everyone either that a messiah was coming and certainly not that he would come in the way Christians now believe Jesus did...

[1] E.g., Acts 5:36-37; 21:38.

[2] It was written not long after the Romans defiled the temple and took over Israel in 63BC.

Pharisees, Afterlife, Paul

I have been writing yesterday and today on what Pharisees likely believed about resurrection at the time of Paul.  My argument is that Pharisees and the populace were moving toward a general resurrection of all the righteous in all history but that it is also likely that some Pharisees at the time only pictured a resurrection for those who died prematurely out of faithfulness to the Jewish Law.

My argument is also that while we find an increasing sense that the wicked suffer in the afterlife from about 200BC on, belief in a resurrected return to the land of Israel was at first restricted to those who died as "martyrs," so to speak.  The premise is, for Essenes and others, that the "normal" righteous have a blessed afterlife under the earth or, perhaps for some, in the stars.  Resurrection belief arises as a function of the problem of evil, against the backdrop of deuteronomistic theology, to explain how the righteous can die because they are righteous.

The question then comes to Paul.  Does he think of resurrection in terms of Old Testament people like Abraham or only in terms of those "in Christ"?  Does he picture a time when the wicked will return to the earth for judgment?  It is a question of silence.  He makes no comment on either topic.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When Jesus was baptized...

So following from Sunday, I start the book over.  Thanks to everyone for things I had missed or needed to be sure to cover under other headings!
___________
We don't know the exact year. Luke 3:1 says it was the 15th year of the Roman emperor Tiberius, around the year AD29. John "the baptizer" started baptizing people in the river Jordan just a few miles east of Jerusalem.  Of course dating things is really complicated in the ancient world, so this is not a slam dunk.

Tiberius was the second Roman emperor (AD14-37), after Augustus (31BC-AD14).  You probably remember that Augustus was emperor when Jesus was born.  You've probably heard the verse at least at Christmas, "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken" (Luke 2:1).  Our best guess is that Jesus was born sometime around 6-4BC because Matthew 2 says Herod (the Great) was still king, and Herod the Great died in 4BC.

That means that Jesus would be about thirty, maybe a little older, when he showed up at the Jordan River to be baptized by John (Luke 3:23; cf. John 8:57).  It is a little irritating not to know these things for certain, but that's just the way it is with the evidence we have.  People can get really angry when you mention uncertainty about things they've seen in every Christmas play since childhood. But the gospels do not always say exactly the same thing when it comes to minor details, so we just can't know for sure on some of these questions. We just have to deal with it.

What was John doing out there in the middle of nowhere, baptizing?  Jesus presumably came all the way from Galilee to see him, to participate.  It’s about a three day journey.  Jesus must have agreed with most or all of what John was saying to go through and get baptized by him.

The gospels tell us that John the Baptist was preaching a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (e.g., Mark 1:4).  The Jewish historian Josephus, as we would expect, presents John’s message in more general terms.  John was urging the crowds to become more virtuous. [1]

It's hard for us to get into the heads of John or the crowds.  We've heard so much in church and other places.  What would we have thought if we had been in those crowds who came to see John and maybe get baptized?

I think we would have heard something distinctly political both in John's message and symbolic action of baptism.  It is no coincidence that a new Herod, Herod Antipas, arrested John and eventually beheaded him.  He was no fool.

For example, where was John baptizing?  He was baptizing on the east side of the Jordan River, right around the place where Joshua had led Israel to occupy the land.  In the light of the rest of John's message, it was all too easy to see that John was preparing Israel for its restoration as a free kingdom.

The goal of repentance was to get the hearts of Israel ready for the return of God's kingdom on earth in Israel.  It is again no coincidence that the gospels remember John in the light of Old Testament passages like Isaiah 40:1-3.  While New Testament authors do not always read the Old Testament in context, the context of Isaiah fits John's message very well indeed: "a voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'" (Mark 1:3, quoting Isaiah 40:3).

The original context of Isaiah 40 was the return of Israel from captivity in Babylon.  Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and taken many Israelites back as slaves.  But in 538BC, a new conquering king--Cyrus, king of Persia (cf. Isa. 45:1)--let those Jews who wanted to return go.  Isaiah 40 originally was about making a straight line through the desert home to Jerusalem from Babylon.  Flatten the hills, lift up the valleys, and straighten out any crooked roads because we're going home! [2]

So if we were there with John by the Jordan, I think we would have heard similar overtones in what he was doing.  In a sense, Israel is still in exile.  The Romans are in control.  These texts in Isaiah point toward Israel regaining its independence and being restored (cf. Acts 1:6).

John probably also criticized the current leadership of Jerusalem.  His message of repentance was a message of hope for those who participated.  But it was a message of judgment for everyone else, including the current leaders in Jerusalem and people like Herod Antipas.  For them it was a message of impending doom...

[1] Antiquities 18.5.2.

[2] Accordingly, in its original context, the Lord Isaiah has in mind is Yahweh, the LORD, rather than a king.  However, as we will see, it was perfectly legitimate for the New Testament authors to read the Old Testament in a "spiritual" way that differed from the original meaning.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Just Five Languages...

I've been away all day so wasn't able to put finishing touches on this morning's post.  But on the way home I was asking myself this question.  If a person was going to travel the world or be involved in the whole world in some way, maybe you were Secretary of State or something, what would be the most important languages to know?  If a university had a "World Languages" major consisting of five languages, what would they be?

Here were my choices:

1. English
English seems the best single language to know.  Not only is it the most important internet language, but it gets you North America, western Europe, Africa, and India better than any other language.

2. Russian
It may be of decreasing value in the days to come, but at the moment Russia will get you Russia, all the eastern European countries, and all the -istan countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.  It's the single biggest region covered by any language.

3. Spanish
Spanish gets you most of South America and Latin America.  You can usually make yourself known in Brazil, Portugal, and even Italy if you know Spanish.

4. Chinese
I could be wrong but it seems to me that Chinese is the most important of the languages in Asia to know. It is also in the ascendancy and will likely take the place of Russian in the future as a lingua franca.

5. Arabic
Arabic will get you around in northern Africa and the Middle East all the way to Pakistan.  If you were going to travel the whole world, Arabic is your best bet throughout the Muslim world.

I wonder if any university has a degree like this.  I doubt it, since the university way is to focus on one language at a time...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Essential Jesus

I've been part of some online discussions recently that have made me really sad (and at times angry).  It's one of those things where God's will seems pretty obvious to me and a lot of Christians but not to a number of others. But what most struck me is the differing picture of Jesus we have.

Since I've been trying to write a book on Jesus here, it struck me that I really need to stop writing the book I want to write and write the book my church needs me to write.  I need to start over.  Here's some brainstorming (not in the order I'll write them).

1. I need to write about Jesus and divorce.
2. I need to write about Jesus and money.
3. I need to write about how Jesus viewed rules, especially how he weighed them against people.
4. I need to write about Jesus and hell.
5. I need to write about Jesus' obedience to God's will when it wasn't easy.
6. I need to write about how the heart was more important to Jesus than the head.
7. I need to write about how Jesus was a liberal compared to his opponents.
8. I need to write about how Jesus discipled his followers.
9. I need to write about what the good news was for Jesus and what it wasn't (bringing people to a moment of decision before baptism).
10. I need to write about Jesus as an example of what we can be as humans.
11. I need to write about how much more important mercy was for Jesus than justice.
12. I need to write about how essential it was for Jesus that people live out loving others, even to the end of a person's life, and that your final destiny depended on it.
13. I need to write about Jesus and the poor.
14. I need to write about Jesus and women.
15. I need to write about Jesus' missions.
16. I need to write about Jesus' power.
17. I need to write about Jesus' death and resurrection.

What have I missed?

 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Parable of the Prodigal 3

... continued from sometime.
_______
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a case in point (Luke 15).  In its current form in Luke, we hardly notice anything Jewish about it.  If we know that Jews did not eat pork, then the fact that the prodigal ends up in a place where there are pigs might stand out to us (15:15).  But the story in Luke very nicely reaches out to us across time without its original overtones having to do with Israel.

So we read the story in relation to how eager God is to forgive those who have left him.  Any sinner, no matter how far he or she has strayed, can come back to God, and God will welcome them with open arms. It is absolutely true.  It is a story about a God who is more interested in seeing us healed and restored than in making sure justice is done.

Many of us barely notice the elder brother.  He might represent justice to us.  It is not fair that the sinful son should get such an easy path back.  He should have to pay.  Of course the elder brother is really more concerned about himself.  Where is his party?  He deserves one.

This way of reading the parable is perfectly legitimate.  It is perfectly Christian and fits with our values and thinking.  At the same time, this parable likely had a much more specific and concrete meaning originally, in whatever exact form Jesus told it.

We hear hints of it in Luke 15.  The Pharisees are upset that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners (15:2).  This is the context from which the parable springs.  The sinners are the "lost sheep" (15:3-7), the "lost coin" (15:8-10), and the "lost son" (15:11-32).  The implication is thus that the Pharisees are the elder brother, the sheep that stayed, and the coins the woman had not lost.

It is hard for us to take what Jesus says here as it is.  We want to put "sinners" in quotation marks.  Are we all not sinners?  Were not the Pharisees sinners too?  We want to do that, but Jesus did not, and Luke did not.

In a similar context in Luke 5:31-32, Jesus flatly tells the Pharisees that "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." Jesus does not contest that the tax collector was a sinner, and he places the Pharisees on the healthy/righteous side of the equation.

This is hard for us to handle.  Surely Jesus was being sarcastic.  We know the end of the story, so aptly captured in a mini-version of this parable.  In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus speaks of a man who had two sons.  One said he would go work in the field but did not.  Another said he would not, but did in the end.  The one who did the will of the father was the one who ended up going in the end.

This is a parable of the reaction to Jesus' ministry.  The Pharisees and others like them were like the son who said he would work, but did not in the end.  We have such a bias built up against the Pharisees that it is hard for us to see that most of them were actually trying to do God's will.

We should not criticize the Pharisees for trying to keep the Law.  Many of them were no more legalists than some of us are.  You might say you do not observe Halloween out of conviction. They did not do certain things on the Sabbath out of conviction.

Of course some of them had their priorities out of order too, just like some of us do.  Some of them were more interested in the rules than in people.  And some of us are more interested in the rules than people to.  However, as far as Matthew 21 is concerned, their problem was that they did not accept Jesus or the kingdom God was bringing through him.

But at the point of Luke 15, Jesus is still putting the Pharisees on the healthy, righteous side of the equation.  Meanwhile, the tax collectors and prostitutes really are sinners.  Jesus never accepted the sins of these individuals as okay.  What he accepted was the possibility of their repentance and their importance to God.

Jesus was decades before Paul would write, "all have sinned."  When Jesus calls them sinners, he reflects the fact that they were not even trying to keep the Scriptures.  The father asked them to work in the fields, and they said no.  What is important is that in the end they accepted Jesus and stopped sinning.

So the Parable of the Prodigal Son both speaks to us today powerfully and it had an original meaning in relation to the earthly ministry of Jesus.  The earlier meaning had to do to the focus of Jesus' ministry and its end result.  Jesus saw the "lost sheep" of Israel as the main target of his ministry.  He meant to reclaim the sinners of Israel for the kingdom.  They accepted.  But ironically, those who initially were not lost, ended up lost.

We read it as a statement of God's willingness to forgive and reclaim us no matter how far we have strayed.  It is also a warning for us not to begrudge others to whom God shows mercy.  "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13).

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christianity in a Christopher Hitchens world

Christopher Hitchens died early this morning.  Notoriously outspoken on everything, notorious political conservative, those in my circles will know him most for his vocal role in the new atheism.

Figures like the triumvirate of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris are on the poster of post-Christendom.  Mind you, most Americans still believe in God.  And a simple listening to the GOP debates will confirm that Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism are far from dead.  Those who like to tout how cool they are because they know we are now in an age of post-Christendom are likely a bit premature.

Belief of all kinds is persistent.  It usually is not rational.  People will believe in things they hold dear in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  No, I do not want to use Hitchens as an argument for post-Christendom.

What he and the other new atheists represent is a powerful force in Western society.  They will not convince those over 30.  The most long-standing front in the battle of ideas is with our children, teens, and twenty somethings.  What impact will people like Hitchens have on them?

At one time, we could shield our children from ideas we didn't like.  We still have home schooling, Christian high schools, and private Christian colleges.  Then there's the internet, the great leveler.  And there are movies and satellite.

Here are my suggestions, for what it's worth:

1. Focus on what is really central and important in Christian faith.  Major on the major.  God exists, loves, and is active in the world.  Christ reconciles us to God and shows us how to love our neighbor.  The rest is the details.

2. Learn something.  Let's face it, we've earned the reputation we have for being stupid.  Start listening to the experts on whatever subject--that's why they're called experts.

Don't get me wrong.  Anger driven ignorance goes a long way.  But you have to keep feeding the anger, and you have to work constantly to dodge the experts.  Anger runs out and leaves you feeling empty.  You get tired of trying to come up with new counter-experts.

It's your choice.  I'm betting the strategy above has more staying power.  I'm betting we'll keep more of our children in the faith.  I'm betting we'll have healthier churches.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Parables of the Kingdom 2

... continued from yesterday.
_____
Given the fact that these parables have traveled from Jesus through decades of Jesus-followers to the individual gospel writers, it is not surprising sometimes to find a "layered-ness" to them.  For example, it is no coincidence that parables involving money and women stand out in Luke, because these are some of its emphases.  It is not surprising to find more pronounced parables about judgment in Matthew, because Matthew specializes among the gospels in weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Similarly, it is not surprising that we do not always pick up on the "political" overtones Jesus' parables probably had originally in terms of Israel as a "nation." In the next volume, I will argue that all four of the gospels in their current form likely date to after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, so it is no surprise if we have to dig a little to hear them as the Galilean peasants on the countryside would have.  The gospels were written to present Jesus to their audiences and so understandably focus on Jesus' ministry in terms that apply most to their communities of faith in the late first century.

For Luke, this was the "times of the Gentiles" (cf. Luke 21:24).  For Matthew, this was the time when the mission had shifted to all the nations (cf. Matt. 28:19).  By contrast, Jesus' primary focus on earth was surely on Israel and the Jews (cf. Matt. 10:5-6), and even then only on a subset of Israel. [1] The last chapter showed how likely it was that the restoration of Israel politically was part of John the Baptist's message, and it is not hard to find hints of this dynamic in the gospels even as they now stand (e.g., Matt. 19:28).

Originally, Jesus' audiences would not have distinguished the kingdom of God from the kingdom of re-established Israel, and it would have been understood undoubtedly as a kingdom to come on earth.  In the period after Easter, it no doubt was clear to Jesus-followers that only those who accepted Jesus as the messiah would be part of this kingdom.  Nevertheless, even Paul argues that the vast majority of Israel would eventually come to have this faith (cf. Rom. 11:25-32).

These observations remind us of how differently we read the Bible than its first audiences would have heard them.  We tend to think of the church as something completely separate from Israel as a nation.  Similarly, over the centuries Christians have tended to think more in terms of heaven and hell than in terms of a coming kingdom on earth.  Recent days have seen a movement to recognize that the Bible primarily teaches about eternity on a restored earth after a resurrection of our bodies. [2]

And there is an increasing recognition that Christianity did not become a separate religion from Judaism perhaps until after all the books of the New Testament were written, [3] with some arguing they were not completely distinct even in the early 300s. [4] In the thinking of the New Testament, Gentiles were added to the kingdom of (true) Israel.  Christianity was not some new religion, and Gentiles who converted to Christianity saw themselves converting to a form of Judaism.  It was not until around AD200 that the Gentile Christian Tertullian made his famous comments about Christianity being a "third race," neither Jewish or Gentile. [5]

The point is that we can usually read Jesus' parables in more than one way.  Originally, they had much to say to the Galilean Jews who came to hear him from the surrounding villages.  Yet the gospel writers also "translated" them in ways that spoke to increasingly Gentile audiences in the late first century.  And the way the gospels have sometimes generalized them has also helped us to hear truths that apply directly to us even today...

[1] The "lost sheep" of Israel, and even then, primarily the lost sheep in Galilee.

[2] E.g., N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008) and Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).  Wright and Green may at times overstate their case, but their fundamental argument seems beyond reasonable doubt.

[3] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2011).

[4] Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed, The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007); also Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006).

[5] To the Gentiles 1.8.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

White Rose vs. Hitler

Often mid-morning, I take the underground one station south of the university to Odeonsplatz, where I get my daily grande Filtercaffee at Starbucks with "kleinen Platz" for Kondensmilch.  I liked Odeonsplatz the first time I saw it, with its gaudy gold church and the palisade behind Starbucks where there is the start of the Englisher Garten.



What I didn't realize till today was that it was here at Odeonsplatz that Hitler's fumbled "putsch" came to an end in 1923.  And I also didn't realize that an area I regularly cross on my way to Starbucks was a cafe Hilter used to frequent before he came to power.

The garden with the palisades is the Hofgarten, which has a monument to the White Rose movement, a group of students (and a philosophy professor) from the University of Munich who distributed leaflets against Hitler from 1942-43.



All three of these were beheaded by guillotine after they were caught (Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst), along with others.  A stupid janitor turned them in.  Let his name stand here in disgrace: Jakob Schmidt.  Sophie flung a last bit of leaflets into the air in the atrium of the university, again, a place I walked through even today.  Janitor probably didn't like her making a mess... turned them into the Gestapo.



I thought it was a story worth telling.  And how bizarre to move through places with such significance for three months and not know it!  I think I'll seek out the White Rose monument tomorrow when I go for my daily Starbucks...

Parables of the Kingdom 1

It has been October 6 since I posted on Jesus and the kingdom.  I had been writing on "The Essential Jesus" before getting quite distracted.  I now want to resume blogging about Jesus from now till the time he returns... or until I finish or am otherwise distracted ;-)
________
Parables of the Kingdom
Mark has this to say about the way Jesus taught the crowds that followed him: "he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples" (4:34, NRSV).  It goes against the way most of us think about parables, but Jesus tells his disciples that his parables are meant to be something like riddles to the crowds, "in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand'" (4:12, NRSV).  These stories, that some use as an illustration of how clearly Jesus taught, sometimes had the effect of confusing, of distinguishing those who had faith from those who did not.

Now this way of looking at Jesus' parables fits especially with one of the special themes of Mark--the hiddenness of who Jesus was and the misunderstanding of his followers.  Luke does not treat Jesus' parables in this way.  The second Jesus volume in this series will explore unique features in each gospel like these.  What I take away from Mark for now is that Jesus' followers--including his disciples--may have looked back at his teaching in hindsight with a somewhat different understanding than they had when he was on earth. Looking back, his parables may have looked somewhat like riddles that they could only really understand now.

Mark tells us that these parables or riddles were the main way Jesus spoke publicly. [1]  The kinds of parables Jesus told are exactly the kinds of stories that fit an agricultural world: stories about seeds, farming, day laborers, feasts, muggers, not to mention economic and religious pressures from "outsiders."  The parables in the gospels range from very short stories to one line comparisons (called similes). [2]  Sometimes the same basic parable varies a little from gospel to gospel, a fact worth a quick moment of reflection.

It is true that Jesus likely retold the same parable on more than one occasion and that he may very well have varied them himself from time to time.  However, this fact does not likely account for all the variation among the gospels for two reasons.  First, these stories were likely told and retold from the moment Jesus shared them. [3] It seems almost certain that the gospel writers were not bothered by the sorts of minor variations that come from oral tradition. It is simply wrong to demand they follow modern expectations about how to do "investigative reporting."

A second factor is that they also felt free to edit their sources themselves in order to emphasize certain things. [4] They were oriented around the message.  They were not antiquarians whose main goal was to make sure they told it exactly how it happened or to get the quotes exactly as they were originally said.  The gospels are more like The Message than the King James Version.  Detailed comparisons of the gospels demonstrate this fact over and over again beyond any reasonable doubt.

We cannot critique them for their focus on the message rather than on precise historical reconstruction.  That is our problem and our hang-up, not theirs.  They were not in error to do so. We are in error if we insist that our standard is the only correct standard!

...

[1] On the parables, I want to suggest two books that I consider very helpful: Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990) and Klyde Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).  Older classics that are now less helpful include C. H. Dodd's, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961) and Joachim Jeremias' The Parables of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972 [1958]).

[2] In an earlier day, the German scholar Adolf Jülicher put some very strange restrictions on what Jesus could or could not have really said based on the form a parable might take (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu 2 vols. [Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1888, 1899]).  Famously, he thought a parable that really went back to Jesus could only have one point and certainly could not be in the form of an allegory, where the various elements of the story had some figurative significance.  Scholars now rightly recognize that these claims, which were strangely influential for almost a century, have little basis at all.

[3] This is a key insight from the work of Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).  A nice overview of some of the implications is in James D. G. Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).

[4] I will show why this is almost certainly the case in the second volume of this series.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christ's death for all the past...

I finished the main text of a chapter on Hebrews I hope to send off to a publisher later in the week.  The publisher invited me to submit seven months ago--I hope they'll still take it. ;-)  It needs a footnote glazing and then I'll send it off.

My argument prior to this chapter is that most scholars read Paul anachronistically to believe that Christ's atonement covered all people past, present, future.  It's not that Paul says anything that contradicts this idea...

(which might get us into some interesting discussions of what meaning of Scripture is important.  Is it what is in the bubble above Paul's head or the potentialities of the text in front of us?  Others might say that such a discussion in itself is already too bibliolatrous.  I'm happy to announce I will not be discussing any of these issues ;-)

My argument in this chapter is that Hebrews represents a crucial step in the development of early soteriology (thinking about salvation).  I'm arguing that, in part catalyzed by the destruction of the temple, Hebrews argues shockingly that the Levitical system was never intended actually to take away sins.  The audience need not be troubled by its destruction or by mainstream Jews enticing them to engage in synagogue means that, until the temple is rebuilt, serve as a kind of temporary substitute.

Christ's death was not merely an atonement for the recent sins of Israel, yet another reset button on God's relationship with Israel.  Christ's death was not merely an atonement for anyone alive (or recently alive) who was baptized into his name, Jew or Gentile.  Christ's death was an atonement for all the sins of all the Jews in the past who ever lived and were in right relationship with God.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The "Palestinian" Gag

From The Associating Press:

In one of the longest running gags of recent times, the "Palestinians" have finally admitted to a joke started in 1948 when the United Nations created the nation of Israel.  "We had just been hanging out in the countryside at the time," said one of the many Arabs who was in on the joke.  "We saw that the 'Jordanians' had made up a name for themselves... (Don't tell anyone but they're really Arabs with a made up name too)... and the Jews were calling themselves Israelis.

"So my Dad and some other guys got together at a pub in Jericho and had this great idea of calling ourselves, 'Palestinians.'  Get it, we were in Palestine," he continued with a chuckle.  "For a while we thought we might actually get a whole country out of it.

"Then some crazies started bombing things and killing people and it all went Ramallah.  Frankly, I'm glad it's all over.  It's been hard keeping up the joke all these years.  We'll all be abandoning the desert and going back to Arabia in the next week or two."

Afternoon at the Museum...

Yesterday afternoon we checked another thing off our "do before leaving Munich" list.  We went to the Deutsches Museum, which is full of actual planes, boats, submarines, space craft, etc.  You could actually climb into a lot of them.  I would have loved it as a child.

Maybe it's because I'm a little stressed in general but I was thoroughly depressed by the time I left for several reasons.  Here are just a few:

1. My kids won't be going/didn't go on field trips to anything like this from Justice/McCullough, or Marion High School.
2. The vast majority of American kids don't care about this sort of stuff... meaning America has no future in the world.
3. The accumulated knowledge this museum represents is way beyond anything I know... and I mean pick any point in time from some 1800 ship to the 1960 jet to the 1980's space craft.

Just thought I'd cheer everyone up on a Monday morning. ;-)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Paul the Apostle 2

Finishing up this intro to Paul, finishing up this section from yesterday.

... It is conventional to speak of Paul's three missionary journeys, although Acts does not actually number them.  At some point while Paul was part of the ministry at Antioch, he and another apostle named Barnabas embarked on a missionary journey west to the island of Cyprus and then north to the south central part of Asia Minor--modern day Turkey.  These cities in Asia Minor seem to be the places to which Paul would later send his letter to the Galatians.

But in between this "first" missionary journey and his second, several key things would happen.  First, the question of whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised to be saved came to a head.  Both Paul and the leaders of Jerusalem--James and Peter--agree that they do not.  Acts 15 portrays this decision as a fairly public one, while we get more the of a somewhat private agreement from Galatians 2.

However, this question was only one among many.  Even if Gentiles could be saved without fully converting to Judaism, how could Jewish and Gentile believers fellowship together if Gentiles did not follow at least some purity rules?  I believe that conflicts along these lines were also part of the reason why Paul and Barnabas did not embark on their second journey together, in addition to disagreement over whether Mark should accompany them.  The Jerusalem church also seems to have disagreed with Paul as well.

So Paul embarked on his "second" journey with another co-worker, Silas, along with a young man called Timothy.  The journey started with villages that they had visited before but before long they found themselves in Macedonia and Greece, where they founded churches in Thessalonica and Corinth.  It was probably at Corinth that Paul wrote what would be the first of the letters we now find in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians. [1] Paul would spend a year and a half in Corinth.

Paul did not likely write letters because he preferred to communicate in that way.  Rather, his letters were a substitute for his presence and he sent them in the hands of individuals he knew would represent him well as they read them.  The vast majority of people at the time could not read, so they would be dependent on others reading the letters out loud publicly, probably in worship.  Paul's letters were thus "oral documents," written but meant to be read aloud.

On Paul's so called "third" journey focused on the city of Ephesus, on the west coast of Asia Minor. Paul would spend almost three years there.  From there he certainly wrote 1 Corinthians, but I have argued that Paul also wrote Galatians and perhaps Philippians from Ephesus as well.  I side with those who think Paul was actually imprisoned at Ephesus at least once and perhaps even twice, even though Acts does not mention it.

After leaving Ephesus, Paul would write both 2 Corinthians and Romans.  He wrote 2 Corinthians on his way to Corinth and then Romans once he was there.  He was on his way ultimately to Jerusalem with an offering he had been collecting for the church there.  We do not fully know what happened, except that in Jerusalem he was arrested and that he used his Roman citizenship to get to Rome.  This is the point of Paul's story where the previous volume ended and where this one begins.

[1] Many of course consider Galatians to be Paul's first letter, thinking he wrote it not long before the "Jerusalem Council" of Acts 15.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Paul the Apostle 1

Paul may have described himself as a "Hebrew of Hebrews" and a Pharisee before he believed (e.g., Phil. 3:5; 2 Cor. 11:22), probably meaning that he spoke Aramaic as a first language.  But we learn from Acts that he was born in Tarsus (Acts 22:3), in the Diaspora, among those Jews scattered throughout the world.  Accordingly, Greek was also a first language for him.

We also learn from Acts that he was a Roman citizen (e.g., Acts 16:37), which probably meant that he came from a family of some wealth.  He speaks of working with his hands as a step down for the sake of the gospel (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:12).  He might have worked with leather and tent making in the mission field, but back home in Tarsus he more likely was the boss.

These elements in his background no doubt helped equip him to be the formidable apostle that he turned out to be.  Paul was not one of the twelve apostles.  For example, he did not fit the list of qualifications for Judas Iscariot's replacement in Acts 1:21-22.  He had not followed Jesus from the time of John the Baptist.

However, he considered himself an apostle of equal status to the other apostles (cf. 2 Cor. 12:11).  "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" he told the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:1).  An apostle is someone sent on an official mission representing a greater authority.  Paul received this commission, this role as ambassador, from Jesus himself.  Jesus appeared to him and sent him to be a witness of the good news that Jesus is king (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-8).

Paul would eventually understand his specific mission as apostle to the Gentiles, to non-Jews (e.g., Gal. 2:7). Acts regularly shows Paul going first to the Jewish synagogue when he entered a new city, but we know from Paul's own writings that the Jews in these synagogues were never his primary target (Rom. 15:16).  He also felt led to places where the good news about Jesus' kingdom had not yet taken hold.  For this reason, he never planned to spend long in Rome, because faith in Jesus was already well established there (Rom. 15:20).

It is hard to know exactly when Paul fully understood the nature of his calling, even though in hindsight Paul clearly understood this to be God's purpose for him from the start (cf. Acts 22:21; 26:17).  It is possible it was very early indeed.  He says that after Christ revealed himself to him, he went to the Nabatean kingdom of Arabia even before he returned to Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 1:17).  Since he apparently stirred up controversy while he was there (cf. 2 Cor. 11:32-33), it seems likely that he was preaching to Gentiles from the very beginning.

Paul tells us it was about three years after he believed that he finally went back to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18).  Both Paul and Acts tell us he then spent about ten years thereafter back around his home city of Tarsus (Gal. 1:21; Acts 9:30).  We can presume that he was preaching the good news during these years, even though we know very little about them.  At some point, he became part of the exciting developments at the church of Antioch in Syria (cf. Acts 11:19-30)...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Simon the "Zealot"

I'm intrigued again this morning by the epithet in Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13 that one of Jesus' core disciples is called Simon the "Zealot."  The majority position is that this term was used specifically of a group of the populace that played a key role in the Jewish War, not least taking over the temple (contra Hengel).  It seems to me that it is not enough to argue that Simon had this epithet when it did not have this connotation because 1) the word had the connotations of the revolutionaries at the time when Luke wrote (post AD70) and 2) Luke specifically edits his Markan source with this word.

Why would Luke choose a word that specifically referred to a revolutionary party and do so at a time when that would have been the primary connotation unless Simon had been one?

Paul the Christ-Follower 2

... continued from the previous post.
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At least initially, Paul seemed to expect Christ to return within his lifetime.  We who are alive and remain will be caught up in the air, he tells the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:17).  He advises the Corinthians that it is best not to marry because "the time is short" (1 Cor. 7:29).  The question of what happens to believers who die does not even seem to have come up in the months he was at Thessalonica (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13).  He must have focused almost entirely on escaping the coming judgment on the living (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:10) and hardly mentioned the dead. His focus was thus almost the opposite of many today, emphasizing Christ's return to the earth rather than what happens after you die.

Language of "salvation" in Paul thus focused overwhelmingly on an event that was coming rather than on some internal experience.  The gospel was also the positive truth that God had enthroned Jesus as king and that God's kingdom was coming--it did not focus on some individual experience.  Believers would still on the Day of judgment give an account for how they had lived, even after God had forgiven their sins (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:10).  While there was no promise of salvation if a person did not continue in faithfulness (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:26-27; Phil. 3:11), other believers might only get a bit burned in that judgment, while still making it into the kingdom (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:13-15).

On the day when Christ returned, the material creation, including our physical bodies, would be transformed to become like Christ's body after he was resurrected (1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21).  Currently, the creation is enslaved to corruption and decay (Rom. 8:20), probably since the time of Adam's sin.  Our physical flesh, because it is a part of the creation, is also in its default state in subjection to the power of Sin.  This is why those without the Spirit cannot do the good, even if they want to do so.

However, the Spirit frees us now from this power of sin, and when Christ returns the whole creation will be liberated.  Paul likely located eternity on this renewed earth.  This eternal kingdom of God on earth, where Christ would reign would thus not be a matter of "flesh and blood" (1 Cor. 15:50), but of transformed bodies.

In the meantime, believers live on earth as the "body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:12-31).  We each have different roles to play, but each is important.  The Spirit lives in the local assemblies (churches) collectively as the temple of the Lord (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16) far more importantly than within each person individually.  Collectively as well as individually, a church presents its bodies to God as a singular living sacrifice (Rom. 12:2).  Together as well as individually, the God of peace sets us apart and makes us his, "sanctified" and blameless (1 Thess. 5:23).

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