Sunday, June 06, 2021

Hebrews 1:1-4 Explanatory Notes

1:1 In many and various ways formerly God, having spoken to the fathers by the prophets, 2. in the last of these days spoke to us through a Son...
This is one of the most elegant Greek paragraphs in the NT. It is sometimes called the "exordium" or "proemium" of Hebrews. It is a single sentence in Greek periodic style. It speaks to the level of education of the author. The apostle Paul was no doubt educated, but he does not have a sentence of this eloquence in his letters. The style is more on the level of the author of Luke-Acts.

In Greek, the first verse has five words that begin with the Greek letter pi and thus a p sound. This artful technique is called assonance. It is a reminder to us that God is a God of beauty. God delights in more than just the practical take-away or the intellectual knowledge. God also delights in beauty.

The first two verses present a contrast between the previous age in which God spoke in many and various ways to the fathers through the prophets, and the way God is speaking now in the new covenant. Now God has spoken in a singular way, in a definitive way. God has now through a Son, who is of course the Son of God par excellence, Jesus the Messiah. This is the first of many contrasts between Jesus and various figures and institutions in the Old Testament. Jesus is greater than the Old Testament prophets.

So the old covenant involved a multiplicity of speakings. It involved prophets. The audience was the fathers. It was "formerly." By contrast, God's speaking through Jesus is singular. We and the audience of Hebrews are the audience. The time is the fulfillment of times.

The word Son does not have the article, probably indicating that the author is focusing on the kind of way God has spoken. God has spoken recently in a "Son" way. As we will see, a Son way of speaking is a royal way of speaking. Son language, more than any other sense here, likely refers to the kingship of Jesus and his royal identity as the anointed one, the Christ.

The phrase "in the last days" alludes back to the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, [1] especially the language of Jeremiah. It is no coincidence that Jeremiah is also the place where we hear the new covenant language that Hebrews also uses in chapter 8. By adding the word "these," the author makes it clear that these are the days of the new covenant to which the prophets of the OT were pointing in their prophecies.

... whom he placed heir of all things, through whom also he made the ages. [2]
The last part of verse two places Christ both at the beginning and end of the creation. The point may not be so much a matter of presence but of purpose. As the heir of all things, he has ultimate significance in relation to the destiny of the world. This implies that Christ is also the beginning of all things, the very purpose of creation.

The majority of scholars would see in 1:2 a reference to Christ's pre-existence. This is of course quite possible. It is also possible that the author is implying something even more profound. Elsewhere, the author seems to refer to God "the Father" as the creator in a way that distinguishes Jesus from him in creation. It is possible that the author is telling his audience that the creation finds its very purpose and destiny in Christ, the very reason for its existence.

There are a number of instances in the New Testament where Jesus is the agent of creation. 1 Cor 8:6 says of Jesus that "through him [were] all things and we through him." The Colossian hymn says, "In him were created all things... all things have been created through him" (1:16). John 1:3 says of the Logos, "All things through him came to be, and without him became not even one thing."

There is a Jewish background likely in play here, especially since John explicitly connects Jesus with the Logos. In Philo's writings, for example, the Logos is the instrument of God in creation, the tool "through which" God made the world. [3] So it is at least possible that Hebrews is saying something more profound about Jesus than merely that he was the creator. He reveals the meaning of creation.

The word ages might lead us in the direction of seeing Jesus as the creator of the new covenant, the inaugurator of the new age. However, the world is more often translated "worlds." We probably should not take the word in the way the Gnostics would later use it of the aeons as layers of heaven.

3. Who being a reflection of glory and an impression of his substance...
The statement that Christ is a "reflection of glory" is an allusion to Wisdom 7:26, where wisdom is said to be a reflection of eternal light and an image of God's goodness. [4] The book of Wisdom is the only place where this word "reflection" occurs in the Greek OT. Christ thus seems implicitly compared to God's wisdom, as in other parts of the NT (which could offer another piece of evidence that the reference to Christ as agent of creation is more profound in 1:2). [5]

Some argue that the word for reflection should be given an active sense "radiance" rather than "reflection." But given the passive nature of "impression" or "stamp," "reflection" seems more likely. We should likely use the translation of reflection in Wisdom 7:26 as well, where the word is used in parallel with a mirror, in which we see a reflection. The word image there also suggests a passive sense. Wisdom as the image of God's goodness fits well with Jesus as a "stamp" or "impression" of God's substance.

The point in both cases is that we have seen God when we have seen Jesus. We have seen God's glory when we we have seen Jesus, and he is leading many children to glory (Heb. 2:10). We have seen God's wisdom and goodness when we have seen Jesus, which is the substance of who God is.

and bearing the all by the word of his power...
This statement could refer to Christ as the sustainer of the creation ("bearer") or the agent of creation again ("bringer"). Both are possible translations.

The statement reminds us of the Colossian hymn, where allusions to Christ as the logos or word say that "in him all things hold together" (1:17). We could mention parallels in Philo to the logos having this sort of "glueing" function. [6] In Hebrews 1:3 the word for word is hrema rather than logos. This does not preclude a logos type interpretation of the statement. Christ would be the one compared to the logos and the word of power here could be the spoken word of the logos.

In general, Hebrews does not compare Christ to the logos. However, an allusion to the logos could support either the idea of Christ as agent of creation or of Christ sustaining the universe. Given that this participial phrase modifies "he sat down," it may also refer to Christ as eschatological creator of a new creation who as exalted Lord "brings" it by his powerful word.

... having made a cleansing of sins, sat on the right [hand] of Majesty in the heights,
The first four verses of Hebrews are known as the exordium. This mini-introduction gives us in many respects a brief overview of some of the material covered later in the sermon. We have already seen the author set the stage for the two ages--formerly/last days. This statement anticipates the main topic of Hebrews teaching--the full sufficiency of Christ's death to take away sins.

The order of events is fairly clear. Jesus makes a cleansing for sins (atonement). We will explore later whether this is a two part movement of sacrifice on earth and offering in heaven. Jesus ascends straight up through the skies to the highest sky, the highest heaven where God dwells (ascension, e.g., 4:14; 7:26). He sits on the right hand of God (session), here identified by his attribute of majesty. He is enthroned as king at God's right hand (exaltation).

This is the heart of the "who" clause that started in verse 3. As a reflection of God's glory, as an impression of his substance, bearing the universe by his all-powerful word, after he had made a cleansing for sins--under these circumstances, he sat at God's right hand. The grammatical implication seems to be that it is the exalted Christ who is the reflection of God's glory and the impression of God's substance.

The statement is of course an allusion to Psalm 110:1--"The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." This verse features significantly in other parts of the NT as a reference to Christ's enthronement as cosmic king after the resurrection. It is arguably the most important Old Testament verse in the background of Hebrews. Although he likely went too far, George Buchanan expressed the significance of Psalm 110 for Hebrews when he argued that Hebrews was a sermon based on Psalm 110.

4. ... having become as much better than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than them.
Verse 4 signals the theme that will preoccupy the rest of Hebrews 1, namely, Christ's superiority to the angels. We note the timing--it is after he is enthroned that he becomes greater than the angels. Hebrews 2 speaks of how Christ "was lower than the angels for a little while." [7] In the exaltation, he becomes greater than the angels. It is this exalted status over the angels that the rest of Hebrews 1 will celebrate.

His superiority to the angels corresponds to his more excellent name--Son. This is a name that reflects Christ's cosmic kingship. To say that he inherits this name at his exaltation is to say what Acts 13:33 and Romans 1:4 say. "Son of God" is a royal title that applies most fully to Christ as he is enthroned as king at God's right hand. He was heir apparent to the throne before then, but in the exaltation he is appointed "Son of God in power" (Rom. 1:4).

Names/titles other than "Son" have been suggested. Richard Bauckham suggests that the name Jesus inherits is YHWH. This is a tempting thought since YHWH is clearly the most important "name" we could imagine. However, we will argue from the rest of Hebrews 1 that the word "Lord" probably is not prominent enough to be the name in view in 1:4, and Son is the title or name immediately proclaimed in the following verse.

[1] The Roman numeral LXX, 70, is often used as an abbreviation for the Septuagint, given the tradition that seventy individuals translated the Pentateuch into Greek at Alexandria around the year 250BC.

[2] Here is the first of many superficial parallels to Philo. Philo has a treatise asking, Who is the Heir of All Things. His answer is the mind that is not focused on the senses but on the eternal ideas of reason, which is of course the logos

[3] Here is a second not as superficial parallel with Philo. In Cherubim 127, he unfolds a logic to prepositions that distinguishes between the source of something (the "from which"), the cause of something (the "by which") and the instrument (the "through which). The logos is the instrument, "through which" God created the world.

[4] Paul also likely engages with the content of Wisdom 12-14 in Romans 1.

[5] Wisdom would seem to fit well within the same Alexandrian milieu as Philo. The creation of the world through God's wisdom and through his word or logos is found in both Philo and the book of Wisdom (e.g., 9:1). An example is Philo's, Allegorical Interpretation 1.65.

[6] Planter 9.

[7] Thanks to G. B. Caird for making this connection.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Acts 1 Explanatory Notes

In honor of Pentecost Sunday, I thought I would write up my Explanatory Notes on Acts 1 and 2 in my current format.
Preface (1:1-5)
1:1 On the one hand, I made the first account concerning all the things, O Theophilus, that Jesus began both to do and to teach 2. until the day, having commanded to the apostles whom he chose, he was taken up.
Acts has the same recipient as Luke, Theophilus. He is called "most excellent Theophilus" in Luke, possibly suggesting that he is a Roman official or certainly someone of importance. We wonder if he is a patron who commissioned Luke to write this two-volume series. Such works were of course meant for broader consumption and brought honor to the patron.

The Gospel of Luke told about things Jesus began to do and teach, possibly suggesting that Acts will tell us about things that Jesus continued to do and teach through the Holy Spirit.

Those who previously were disciples now become apostles. An apostle is someone who is sent to officially represent someone else. Later in the first chapter, we will hear what Luke understood the criteria for one of these apostles to be. Luke notes that Jesus chose these apostles. Luke sometimes presents events as directed by God. Also noted here is that God the Father plays the active role in taking Jesus up in his ascension.

3 ... to whom also he presented himself by many proofs living after he suffered, being seen by them for forty days, and speaking things concerning the kingdom of God.
Acts tells us about forty days between Jesus' resurrection and ascension, a unique feature in Acts not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Luke 24 virtually gives the impression that Jesus ascended the same day that he rose from the dead. During these days he presented convincing proofs of his resurrection to his followers.

The author of Acts mentions two key aspects of this forty-day period. First, Jesus' appearances were compelling. "Many proofs" were given that Jesus indeed was risen from the dead. The sense is thus that Jesus was not continuously with them, but he appeared often and convincingly enough for it to be proven that he had indeed risen from the dead.

Second, the teaching of Jesus was the same as it had been before his crucifixion. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God. The rule of God was coming to the earth as it is in heaven.

4 And staying, he commanded them not to withdraw from Jerusalem but to "Wait for the promise of the Father that you heard from me, 5. because John baptized with water, but you with [the] Holy Spirit will be baptized after not many of these days."
They are told to stay in Jerusalem. The centrality of Jerusalem to the mission is a key feature of both Luke and Acts. The Gospel of Luke both begins and ends in Jerusalem. The book of Acts certainly begins in Jerusalem as we see in 1:8.

Within the world of Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit has not yet come. Some have suggested in the past that John 20:22 is a first coming of the Spirit on the disciples, but the world of Luke-Acts says nothing like that. [1] The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is thus the only fulfillment of Jesus' promise in Luke 3:16.

Getting Ready for Mission (1:6-26)
1:6 Therefore, after they had come together, they were asking him saying, "Lord, are you at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel?"
1:6-11 tell about the ascension of Jesus to heaven, forty days after his resurrection. These verses make it clear that the disciples had been expecting a political messiah. They did not expect Jesus to die because no one thought the Messiah was supposed to die.

They also did not expect the resurrection. But now that Jesus was resurrected, they returned to their former understanding. Was Jesus now going to restore Israel as a free, political entity?

7 And he said to them, "[It is] not for you to know times and seasons that the Father placed on his own authority...
Jesus does not contradict their expectation, only their timing. Luke-Acts seems to view this current age as the "time of the Gentiles" (cf. Luke 21:24), much as Paul seems to view this current phase of history in Romans 9-11. It is not time for Jerusalem to be free in God's economy.

We must be very careful when assuming that modern politics relating to Israel are the fulfillment of these expectations. In Romans 11, Paul does seem to speak of the ultimate salvation of Israel, but he is picturing an Israel that believes in Christ. No such Israel has yet arisen. From that perspective, modern Israel at least cannot yet be the Israel of promise and remains under the same critique as Paul gives in Romans 9.

8 ... but you will receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the land.
This is arguably the key verse of Acts. On the one hand, it gives us a map for the rest of Acts. They witness in Jerusalem in Acts 1-7. They are in Judea and Samaria in Acts 8-12. And Paul takes the message to the ends of the earth in Acts 13-28, remembering that Rome would have been the ends of the earth from their perspective.

The key manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Acts is power, especially power for witness. What they are witnessing to is the person and resurrection of Jesus. We will see the qualifications for an apostle in Acts later in the chapter. Such a person needed to have been with Jesus from the time of John the Baptist. Most importantly, they needed to have been a witness to Jesus' resurrection. Similarly for the apostle Paul, an apostle was someone to whom the risen Christ had appeared bodily and whom Christ had commissioned to go and testify to his risen lordship (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1).

We will see several illustrations of the power they receive. It will manifest itself in boldness. It will manifest itself in the performance of miracles. Three times in Acts it will manifest itself in the ability to speak in other "tongues" or languages at the moment when they receiving the Holy Spirit.

9 And having said these things, while they were watching, he was taken up, and a cloud received him from their eyes. [2]
God meets us where we are so that we can understand. Our understanding is always partial and generally fallen. Accordingly, God's revelation is usually partial and accommodates our understandings. The truth of God is always bigger than our understanding, so revelation tends to the metaphorical and figurative, so it can point beyond itself.

They believed the world was flat and that heaven was straight up through layers of sky. God accommodates this understanding as Jesus ascends straight up from the earth. By contrast, most of us could not make ourselves believe that the world is flat or that heaven is straight up through layers of sky. God takes Jesus straight up and when he is out of their sight, presumably he is transferred to whatever other "dimension" heaven is in.

We note again the passive language. God the Father is the one acting on Jesus. God takes Jesus in the language of Acts rather than Jesus raising himself.

10 And as they were looking intently into the sky, as he was going, even two men had stood by them in white robes, [3] 11. who also said, "Men, Galileans, why have you stood looking into the sky? This Jesus, the one having been taken up from you into the sky, [4] thus will come the way that you beheld him going into the sky."
The two men, presumably angels, predict the second coming of Christ, which we still await. We continue to get the impression that Jesus' followers do not really understand what is going on. They had hopes that the resurrection meant the immediate reinstatement of their previous goal of political revolution. Instead, God wants to save as many people in the world as possible. They wanted victory and an escape. Instead, Jesus has left them with mission.

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount being called "of Olive," which is near Jerusalem, having the road of a Sabbath.
Acts tells of ten days between Jesus' ascension and the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will come. Jesus has told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes (1:4). In the meantime, they will pray and replace Judas with a twelfth apostle.

The disciples return to Jerusalem from Mt. Olives, the location of Jesus' ascension. Luke 24:50 had merely said it was in the vicinity of Bethany. We should not confuse this event with the mount from which Jesus gives the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16, which was in Galilee, a three-day journey to the north.

A sabbath's journey was about a half mile. The Mount of Olives was directly east across the Kidron Valley from the Eastern Gate, with the temple immediately inside the gate.

13. And when they entered, they went up into the upper room, where they were staying: even Peter and John and James and Andrew. Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James [the son] of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas [the son] of James.
Here we have Luke's second listing of the disciples (cf. Luke 6:14-15). It differs from Matthew and Mark's list in having Judas, son of James, instead of Thaddeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18). They are staying in the upper room where the Holy Spirit will come in ten days. It is also at least possible that this is the place where they had eaten the Last Supper.

14 These all were devoted together in prayer with women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers.
Two of the special emphases of Luke are reflected in this verse. First, Luke pays more attention to the role women played in the Jesus movement and the early church than the other Gospels. Second, Luke emphasizes the role that prayer played in the life of Jesus and the early church.

We have not seen the family of Jesus involved in his mission up to this point in Luke-Acts. Mary features prominently in the birth story of Jesus but is not mentioned in the Gospel of Luke thereafter. In Luke's story-world, we only hear of her re-engagement post-resurrection. The impression we get from Mark is that Jesus' family was not greatly engaged or supportive during his earthly mission (e.g., Mark 3:31-35).

1:15 And in these days, Peter, having arisen in the middle of the brothers [and sisters] said (and the crowd of names in the same [place] was about one hundred twenty),
The canonical New Testament texts remember Peter as the lead apostle. Here he takes the lead on the replacement of Judas. If you visit Jerusalem today, you can visit a place known as the "Cenacle" that is the traditional upper room. However, that part of Jerusalem was thoroughly burnt when Rome burned the city in AD70. It is thus unlikely to be the precise structure, at least not in its current form.

Luke suggests that the kernel of the early church consisted of about 120 people in Jerusalem. A room big enough to hold this many people would need to be the home of a fairly wealthy person. This home could be that of John Mark's parents, Mary and perhaps Cleopas.

16 "Men, brothers [and sisters], it was necessary for the Scripture to be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouth of David concerning Judas, the one who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus, 17. because he was numbered [5] among us and received the lot of his ministry."
The author of Acts and Peter understood David to have written the psalms. This was the understanding of the time, and God met the early church within this understanding. Internal evidence suggests that David did not write all of the psalms that have that heading, as we will see in 1:20. The headings of the psalms were added at some point after they were collected, not principally when they were written. In Acts, the authorship of the psalm arguably was not the point of the revelation but rather the framework within which the revelation came. Working within that framework, the Holy Spirit revealed to Peter that God wanted them to replace Judas.

The mention and use of "lots" in this passage reminds us that the ancients spoke about the world in a fated way with deterministic language. Luke probably was not making a precise theological or philosophical statement. He was using language that affirmed what all Christians would affirm--that God was involved in the direction of the early church. Some Christians believe that God directs everything that happens in the manner of pre-ordination. The problem there is that God directly becomes the author of evil. It would be better to say that nothing ever happens that God does not allow.

18. (Therefore, this man on the one hand bought a field from the reward of wickedness and, having become headlong, the middle burst and all his guts poured out. 19. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, with the result that that field was called in their own dialect, "Akeldama," that is, "Field of Blood.")
Luke's account of what happened to Judas and the blood money differs a little from Matthew's. Both agree that Judas received money from betraying Jesus. Both agree that the money was used to purchase a field called Akeldama. Both agree that Judas met a gruesome end.

However, in Matthew 27:3-10, Judas tries to return the blood money and the chief priests buy the field. Then Judas hangs himself. In Acts 1, Judas buys the field, falls headlong, and his bowels gush forth. 

It is possible that these two accounts can be harmonized, but it also is not necessary to harmonize them. There was room for some artistic license in ancient history writing, and we can actually miss the inspired point sometimes if we don't let narratives stand as they are. If varying accounts are easily coordinated, by all means do it. But when it requires going significantly beyond what the texts actually say, it is best to let each stand alone.

20. "For it has been written in [the] book of Psalms, 'Let his dwelling become deserted and do not let the one dwelling be in it and let a different [person] take his office.'
The Lord spoke to Peter, Luke, or someone in the early church through Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. As is always the case, these psalms had an original meaning in their original context. The New Testament authors then sometimes heard the Holy Spirit give extended or spiritual meanings to the words that went beyond the original meanings.

In the case of Psalm 69, we have a psalm of lament and imprecatory psalm that was widely read by the early Christians in relation to Jesus. However, in Psalm 69:5, the psalmist speaks of the wrongs he did, making it clear that the original meaning was not about Jesus, since Jesus was without sin. Yet several verses from the psalm were applied to Jesus by the early Christians, such as the "zeal for your house" verse (69:9) and the verse mentioning vinegar of 69:21. As the Holy Spirit does to many Christians today, he "quickened" these verses in relation to Christ, even though the original psalm was not about Christ.

Further, the internal evidence of the psalm more likely suggests an original context in the late 500s BC rather than the time of David. The cities of Judah were not destroyed in the time of David (69:35), nor was the house of the Lord built yet (69:9). But we can easily see a Haggai or Zechariah having zeal for God's house and for the rebuilding of Judah around the year 516BC.

In one translation of Psalm 109:8 (NRSV), the person whose place is being called for replacement is not that of the wicked person. Rather, the wicked are calling for the place of the righteous to be replaced. None of these observations should bother us, although they are a needed corrective to the frequent insistence that the Holy Spirit must only speak through the original meaning of biblical texts. The Holy Spirit, it would seem, is far more a holiness or Pentecostal interpreter than a neo-evangelical one!

21. "Therefore, it is necessary, of the men who have accompanied us in the whole time that the Lord Jesus came and went among us, 22. beginning from the baptism of John until the day that he was taken from us, for one of these to become a witness of his resurrection with us."
The qualifications for a replacement for Judas are that the person must have been with Jesus from the time of John's baptism. The apostle Paul thus did not qualify. There was an innermost circle of apostles, the twelve, in which Paul did not fit.

Of course we must also keep in mind the principle that "description is not prescription." That is to say, Acts may be describing what Peter thought--describing what happened--without prescribing this definition for an apostle. It would seem, however, that this is Luke's perspective, the "evaluative point of view" of the book of Acts at this point.

23. And they caused to stand [6] two--Joseph who is called Barsabbas, who was called Justis, and Matthias.
They cast lots to decide on the replacement, and it falls on Matthias. Here is probably a point where we would all agree that description is not prescription. Casting lots may be how they decided such things, but we probably should not use that method, unless Luke means simply to say that they voted.

This is the only place where these two individuals are mentioned, a reminder that we know only the tiniest bit of the life of the early church.

24. And having prayed, they said, "You, Lord, knower of the hearts of all, show the one of these two whom you have chosen [7] 25. to take the place of this ministry and [the] apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go into his own place."
We note again the importance of prayer in Acts. Peter is not clear as to whether he is praying to God the Father or Jesus the Lord. In general, the earliest Christians seem to have prayed to God the Father through the authorization of Jesus' name.

God is a "knower of the hearts of all." This theme goes back to the Old Testament...

26. And they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was added with the twelve apostles.
Although we never hear about Matthias again, we never hear of most of the apostles again. We should assume that they continued to spread the good news throughout the rest of their lifetime. Tradition suggests that all of the original apostles died a martyr's death, except possibly John the son of Zebedee. Even in his case, it is possible that he was martyred. [8]

[1] We should probably think of John 20:22 as John's version of Pentecost, not a separate event.

[2] genitive absolutes in this and the next verse

[3] pluperfect

[4] aorist passive participle

[5] several periphrastics in these verses

[6] causative active

[7] aorist middle second person singular in omega

[8] See my Explanatory Notes on the book of Revelation.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

After Whiteness by Willie James Jennings

I don't have time to review it, but I wanted to keep record here of my reading. I have finished After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings. 

Jennings is brilliant, of course. I was privileged to meet him briefly at a conference at Yale in 2018 when IWU was incredibly graced for Sarah Farmer to come teach for us in STM. Jennings' commentary on Acts is incredible, superb. I am somewhere in the middle of his, The Christian Imagination.

He is a poet, which makes his writing difficult to move through. After Whiteness at this point is more of an experience, and its relevance is not lost on me to the announcement of Houghton's new president today. Houghton has shown itself again to be a leader in the "building up that glories in the crumbling." Paradox

My main take-away is the need for true conversation between true partners. Humility on the part of the masters of education to submit to unraveling of the academy ideals, the ideals of the old man of the academy.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Appearance of Yahweh 4

continued from here


Still, he knows he is an Israelite. After he defends an Israelite and kills an Egyptian, he flees. Finally, when he has been away for some time, after he has married and had children, Yahweh appears to him.

Exodus 6:3 seems very important. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know God by the name Yahweh. They knew God as "El Shaddai," "God Almighty." They likely knew God as "El Elyon," "God Most High." God met them where they were and took them from there.

Now God will have a new name, Yahweh. Of course, even here, it is probably the meaning of the name in Hebrew that is important, not the particular sounds that one makes with one's mouth. Moses sees a bush that is burning but is not burned up. He encounters God. God reveals who he is--"I will be who I will be" (Exod. 3:14). The "I AM" has sent him. Later Christians like Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages will contemplate God as Existence and Being itself.

9. God leads Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Moses is reluctant at first when God calls him. He does not feel up to the challenge. God gives him help. God gives him his brother Aaron to help speak for him, although Moses does just fine speaking to Pharaoh in the end it seems. God gives him a rod with which he can do signs.

It takes ten plagues to get the Pharaoh to let them go. The Nile River turns to blood. There are frogs, lice, flies, and locusts. Cows die. People get boils. There is hail from the sky and darkness. Finally, the plague that convinces the Pharaoh is when all the firstborn sons of Egypt die.

It is often suggested that the various plagues would have indicated Yahweh's power over the various gods of Egypt. For example, the sun god Ra was very important in the Egyptian pantheon. If Ramses II is the king in mind, the name of the god Ra is actually in his name. The three days of darkness would thus show the Egyptians and Pharaoh that Yahweh was more powerful than Ra.

On the night when the firstborn sons of Egypt die, the Israelites eat what would become known as the Passover meal. They take some of the blood of the lamb for the meal and smear it on the doorposts of their houses. Thus the "destroyer" passes over their houses that night (12:23), but the firstborn sons in Egyptian homes die. The English word "pass-over" tries to capture the sense of the Hebrew word it translates as God's "sparing" of Israel or the "exemption" they had from suffering. 

The Passover is significant for the New Testament as well. The four books about Jesus, the Gospels, all put Jesus' crucifixion around the time of Passover. Mark 14 indicates that Jesus' "Last Supper" was actually a Passover meal. The Gospel of John, a more symbolic presentation of Jesus, seems to picture Jesus being crucified at noon when the Passover lambs were being killed for the Passover meal (John 19:14). John explicitly calls Jesus the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (1:29).

A New Testament Christian named Paul actually calls Jesus the Passover lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7. Symbolically, the New Testament is telling us that Jesus' death brings salvation to those who are trusting in him. We might even say that Jesus' death is a means by which God is leading his people out of the bondage and slavery of our current human situation.

10. Israel never forgot that they had once been slaves in Egypt (e.g., Exod. 20:2; Deut. 6:21). Israelites were not to be treated as permanent slaves to one another, although they might serve for a time for various reasons (Lev. 25:39-40). A person could voluntarily choose to serve another person for their lifetime (Deut. 15:17). If Israel followed these Scriptures, it would never have had anything like the permanent, race-related slavery of America.

Israel was not to oppress the immigrant or the "stranger" living in the land. Exodus 22:21 tells them, "You will not trouble or oppress a stranger, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt." It was very important in the values of Israel to treat well those who were not Israelites in their midst. We have a horrible example of inhospitality to strangers in Judges 19, leading to the decimation of one of Israel's tribes. 

The ancient world was a dangerous place, and those who did not belong to the dominant social group of an area generally had reason to be paranoid about their situation. Welcoming and protecting outsiders was considered a great virtue and duty, and we have stories of the gods harshly judging those who treated strangers harshly. [2] In the mindset of the biblical world, Abraham was greatly virtuous to entertain the angels who visited him, and he does so before he even knows who they are (Gen. 18). By the same token, the judgment of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah connects at least in part to the horrible way they treat these same visitors in Genesis 19.  

Our culture pushes us to focus on the same-sex rape that these men want to commit. From the standpoint of the ancient world of the text, that attempted rape is only part of their abominable behavior. In the mind of the biblical world, it is the embodiment, the specific manifestation of their overarching treatment of the strangers. It is the attempted act that demonstrates their overall attitude toward the outsiders. Unlike Abraham and Lot, who welcomed these strangers into their homes, the men of Sodom and Gomorrah want to do violence to them. 

It is thus a biblical value to treat those who are not the "in-group" with respect and welcome. By contrast, it is part of our natural, sinful tendency to want to dominate the group in the minority or the group that "does not belong." It is fallen human nature to abuse and even do violence to such groups living among the dominant group. The majority group enjoys a kind of privilege of which it may not even be aware. 

The Law told Israel not to treat the strangers in its midst in this way. There are obvious applications to our world today. There are applications today with regard to race, and there were many applications to the institution of slavery back when it was practiced. There are applications with regard to how we treat immigrants and people who are different from us when we are in the group with more power.

11. Soon after Israel leaves Egypt, the Pharaoh changes his mind and begins to pursue them...

[2] For example, the story of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is possible that the story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14 has overtones of this story. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Exodus and History 3

continued from here


I might also add that, while I have been referring to God as a "he," we all know that God does not have genitalia. The literal sense of a male or a female has to do with certain physical anatomy. Since God does not have a body, God is not "literally" male or female. Accordingly, we are speaking metaphorically when we refer to God as a "him" or a "he." The Bible also uses female metaphors for God as well, such as when God compares God-self to a woman giving birth (Isa. 42:14).

6. The bulk of Genesis presents the stories of Abraham, his son Isaac, his son Jacob, and his son Joseph. Genesis ends with Jacob and his descendants going down to Egypt, where they will live for over 400 years. This is the point where Exodus begins. The book of Exodus begins with the birth of a man named Moses after the descendants of Jacob (who was also named Israel) have been in Egypt for hundreds of years.

These "Israelites" live as slaves in Egypt. When they went down to Egypt, they had a place of honor because Joseph had helped save Egypt during a time of famine. This situation changed during those centuries there. The Egyptians became hostile and enslaved them.

7. Although there are no artifacts from Israel's sojourn in Egypt, the story fits some features of Egyptian history that we do know. For example, we know that a Semitic people known as the Hyksos were generally in control of Egypt in the 1600s and 1500s BC. In the Genesis story, we think of Semites as descendants of Shem, the oldest son of Noah. Historically, we can identify Semitic peoples by the relatedness of their languages.

The Egyptians were happy to expel the Hyksos in the mid-1500s. We can at least imagine that the Israelites had a more pleasant time in Egypt with distant kin in charge than afterward.  

We can identify other aspects of parallel between Egyptian history and Exodus that are interesting. For example, for a very brief window of time, Egypt had a Pharaoh who only worshiped one god, the sun god Aten. His name was Akenahton, and he ruled Egypt from around 1353-36. Depending on when one dates the Israelites leaving Egypt, he either came about a century after or a century before the "exodus," their departure from Egypt. Once again, the Egyptians hated him and more or less expunged him from their history until he was rediscovered by archaeology in the nineteenth century. 

Most scholars date the exodus to the 1200s BC based on when the Israelites begin to get mentioned in the material of that period. The first mention of Israel discovered thus comes from that time. However, the years mentioned in the Old Testament itself have led others to see the exodus in the 1400s. One way or another, you could see Akenahton as taking the idea of worshiping one God from the Israelites. Or you could see God using Akenahton to reinforce Israel's worshiping of just one God.  

The name Moses is also curious. The king who ruled Egypt throughout most of the 1200s BC was named Ramses (ruled 1279-13). You will notice the letters m-s-s in his name, with Ra (the sun god) on the front. His name meant, "son of Ra." Since the consonants were the core of ancient words, there is an intriguing parallel between the name of Moses and the name of this king.

8. The book of Exodus begins with the birth of Moses. The Pharaoh is killing young Israelite boys when they are born. The Egyptians are afraid they will become too numerous and become a threat. They are keeping them down. But Moses' mother hides him. He then is cleverly introduced to Pharaoh's daughter, who takes him in and raises him in Pharaoh's house.

Still, he knows he is an Israelite. After he defends an Israelite and kills an Egyptian, he flees. Finally, when he has been away for some time, after he has married and had children, Yahweh appears to him...

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Starting with Abraham 2

continued from here


3. Nevertheless, although we are reading Exodus for the next two weeks, we should dip back into the story of Genesis briefly to get a sense of how we got to Exodus 1. As we said, the thread of Israel's story begins with a man named Abraham. For Abraham, we go back in time to around 1800BC, when there were massive migrations of people going on in the middle east.

While there is no record of Abraham outside the Bible, the path the Bible mentions fits the time in which he is set. His journey starts in Ur, in the very south of what is modern-day Iraq. This is where the two great rivers of the "fertile crescent" meet, the Tigris and Euphrates. This is the birthplace of civilization, where earlier hunter-gatherers first settled down and became stationary, farming the land and starting the first kingdoms.

In the 1700s BC, the old Babylonians become the force with which to reckon, with the famous king Hammurabi ruling the day. Interestingly, Abraham goes to battle in Genesis 14 at the time when an "Amraphel" is ruling in the region of Babylon. If you look at the consonants of this name, they are the same as Hammurabi.

Joshua 24:2 tells us that Abraham's family at that time were "polytheists"--they worshiped other gods "on the other side of the River," meaning the Euphrates. Abraham's path to Canaan, the land that would become Israel, was a two-step process. First, his family went northwest to a place called Harran, which is where modern-day Syria is located. Then God calls Abraham south to Canaan, which is where Israel will eventually be located.

4. One of the themes we will explore as we read is the notion that God meets us where we are. That is, God does not expect us to come up to his level to understand something. Rather, God is patient. God speaks our language. God finds a way to move us forward starting within our categories.

If you think about it, how could it be any other way? First, we surely could not understand God on God's own terms. I am frankly amazed at how arrogant we often are without knowing it, thinking we understand so much about God. Perhaps at some point you have studied something that has put you in your place. Maybe it was a math or a science course. What you may not realize is that there are puzzles that even the smartest people cannot solve. Even the great Einstein went to his grave without figuring out things he spent decades working on.

Now think of God. How often people like you and me think we have God figured out. I often preach and teach things about God. Scholars write books about God. Yet I am convinced the most "learned" among us are going to be horribly embarrassed in heaven to realize how stupid we were.

The bottom line is that we really have no hope unless God "stoops to our weakness" and comes to us in our categories. This is what some people call "incarnational" revelation. Remember that Jesus took on human flesh when he came to earth (John 1:14)? So when God speaks to us and when God spoke to people in the Bible, he takes on our intellectual "flesh." God speaks our language and then moves us from there.

5. We may see hints of this fact in the names of God in Genesis. At the very beginning of Abraham's story, he is met by a mysterious priest by the name of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18), just after the battle mentioned above. Some think this priest may have been a "cameo" by Jesus in the Old Testament, although the Bible never says this. [1]

Melchizedek is the priest of "El-Elyon" or "God Most High." In other words, he is the priest of the highest god. Peoples in this phase of history worshiped many gods, just like Abraham's parents. At the top of these "pantheons" or collections of all the gods, was a chief god, a king of the gods. In Greek mythology, it was Zeus. In the Babylonian pantheon, it was Marduk.

If we ask ourselves, how might these people have worshiped God before there was a Bible, surely this is a strong possibility (cf. Ps. 82). Someone like Abraham, who had no Bible, could certainly have worshiped God by worshiping "God Most High." This is at least a good possibility for how God might have met someone like Abraham within his understanding of the world at that time.

Exodus 6:3 tells us that Abraham did not yet know God by his first name--Yahweh. This is the name that God reveals to Moses later on, at the burning bush. Whenever you see the word LORD in all capitals in the Old Testament, that is a translation of Yahweh, the proper name of God. My name is Ken. God's revealed name in the Old Testament is Yahweh.

Exodus 6:3 says that Abraham, then his son Isaac, then Isaac's son Jacob, all knew God as "El Shaddai," God Almighty. It says they did not know him as Yahweh. Notice the word "El" again, which means "god" in Hebrew. They might easily have known El Elyon as El Shaddai, "God Almighty." 

A clever person might then say, "But why does Genesis call God Yahweh all over the place? Genesis acts like Abraham knew God as Yahweh." My answer is that this is "after the fact" language. 

Let's say your name is Ken, but you later get the nickname "Flick" because of something you do with your hair when you teach. Someone might still talk about Flick doing things as a child even though you did not yet have that nickname at that time. Joshua refers to Jerusalem several times, even though it probably was not yet called that (e.g., Josh. 10:1; cf. Judg. 19:11). In the same way, Genesis can refer to God as Yahweh even though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not yet know God by this name. The author and reader of Genesis knew well enough the name by which God would later reveal himself.

6. I might also add that, while I have been referring to God as a he... 

[1] The idea of the appearance of Christ in the Old Testament is called a "Christophany." However, this idea is an early Christian tradition. The Bible nowhere says this happened.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Birth of Israel 1

continued from here


For the next two weeks, we are going to read the book of Exodus, the second book in the Bible. If you read three chapters a day, you will only have one chapter left to read on the last day.

1. Again, you may ask, "Why are we going to Exodus rather than Genesis, the actual first book of the Bible?" There are two reasons. Both have to do with our quest to be able to read and hear the Bible on its own terms.

First, we mentioned in the first chapter that Adam is hardly mentioned in the Old Testament outside of Genesis 2-3, and Eve is never mentioned elsewhere. In the New Testament, Adam features prominently in two chapters of Paul's writings, barely elsewhere. Eve is similarly mentioned only twice. [1]

The situation is quite different if you do a word search on Abraham. Abraham is mentioned 42 times outside of Genesis in the Old Testament and 69 times in the New Testament. This observation takes us back to something we mentioned in the first chapter--there is more than one way to tell the same story. In the way the authors of the Bible themselves tell the story, Abraham is much more central than Adam.

Why is this the case? Why is Abraham more important to the story for the biblical writers than he probably is for Christians today in the way we tell the story? The answer is that almost all the writers of the Bible were either Israelites or Jews. (On a side note, we use the word Jew from the time Israel returned from captivity in 538BC on. More to come.) The only possible exception would seem to be Luke.

In the Jewish telling of the story, the story really gets going from Abraham on. Abraham is the father of the people that would become Israel. What we call the "Old Testament" is really the Scriptures of Israel. What we called the "Old Testament" is really the Bible that the earliest believers used. The Scriptures of Israel are the Scriptures that Jesus used while he was on earth.

Jesus and his opponents in the Gospel of John do not argue over who is a child of Adam. They argue over who the true children of Abraham are (John 8:31-59). The biblical story, as the Bible itself predominantly tells the story, really gets going with Abraham. Everything before Abraham has somewhat of the nature of preface or "prolegomena" (things you say beforehand).

2. So one reason to start with Exodus is to make it clear to us that we are reading the Scriptures of Israel. Most of those who will read this book are not Jews but non-Jews or "Gentiles" as we are called. The Bible is Scripture for us as well, but it is easy for us to "take the Bible over" and narcissistically ignore the fact that the Old Testament was first collected as the Jewish Scriptures. 

Even the New Testament was predominantly written by Jews for Christians who either were Jewish Christians or non-Jews who understood themselves to have become part of Israel. Even the Gentiles of the New Testament understood themselves to have become children of Abraham (Rom. 4:11-12). Again, we start with Exodus so that we can better begin to read the Bible on its own terms rather than our own.

Why then start with Exodus? Why not start with Genesis 12? In part for convenience. In part because Exodus really brings out the centrality of the Old Testament as the Scriptures of Israel. Although Abraham is the father of Israel he is also the father of Ishmael. There is a sense in which all of Genesis is prolegomena to Israel, which only becomes the people of God fully with the exodus and the covenant at Mt. Sinai.

However, another reason we are postponing Genesis is so that we can begin to get our hermeneutical legs under us. Genesis 1-3 especially are so familiar to so many of us that we may have a difficult time reading them with fresh eyes. Perhaps more than any other part of the Old Testament, we are likely to think that we already know Genesis 1-3. We may think their meaning is obvious because we have heard so much about them. We already have our ideas formed.

Accordingly, it will be hard to hear Genesis 1-3 with all those voices in our head. Our thoughts are clouded by modern arguments and fights in the church. It will do us well to stay in the less trodden paths of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy before we go back to Genesis. Then when we look at them, we will have a little more familiarity with the world to which God was speaking when he inspired those chapters.

3. Nevertheless, although we are reading Exodus for the next two weeks, we should dip back into the story of Genesis briefly to get a sense of how we got to Exodus 1...

[1] Adam: Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15; Eve: 2 Corinthians 11: 3; 1 Timothy 2:13.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Chapter 1: The Story of Salvation 6

This would finish the first chapter of a "read through the Bible in a year" and "learn how to read the Bible" book. Posts in the first chapter include:

continued from here

... Jesus casts out demons. This fact not only shows Jesus' power. It indicates that the kingdom of God is arriving. If Sin and Satan have been running wild on the earth, then the arrival of the kingdom of God is the reclaiming of that territory for God. Jesus puts it this way: "If by the finger of God I am casting out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20).

Every demon Jesus casts out not only shows that the power of God is flowing through him. It not only shows that Jesus has power over the spiritual realm. It also shows that God is restoring the earth. Jesus is the Normandy invasion to retake enemy territory occupied by Satan.

12. Mark does not talk explicitly about another very important aspect to Jesus. Christians call it the "incarnation." It relates to our Christian belief that Jesus existed before he came to earth. "In-carnation" means "into flesh." Jesus took on our human flesh when he was on earth. For this truth, we best turn to the fourth book of the New Testament, the Gospel of John.  John 1:14 says, "The Word became flesh and tented among us." 

The Gospel of John is the clearest book in the Bible in relation to the fact that Jesus existed before he came to earth. In fact, Christians believe that Jesus was actually God come to earth. Although it took a few centuries of discussion to work through the details, Christians believe that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, the eternal Son of God the Father.


13. This chapter had three main goals. The first was to get acquainted with the overall flow of the story within the Bible from a Christian perspective. We suggested you might think of the story as having six acts. In Act I, God creates the world and humanity. In Act II, Adam and Eve disobey God, leaving us with death as our lot and the power of Sin as our reality.

In Act III, God begins his mission to reclaim, to "save" the world. This is the story of Israel in the Old Testament, to which we will turn in the next chapter. It culminates in Act IV, the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Act V is the in-between time in which we currently find ourselves, the age of the church and the time of the New Testament. We are waiting for Act VI, when Jesus will return and the world will be made as it was originally meant to be.

The second purpose of this chapter was to introduce us to Jesus, the hero of the story and the focus of Act IV. This week we read the Gospel of Mark to get a basic sense of what Jesus did when he ministered on earth. Jesus is the solution to the story's problem. He is the mechanism of "salvation," which is both escape from the power of Sin now and escape from death and God's final judgment in Act VI. As we turn to the Old Testament in the next chapter, we should keep in mind that Jesus is where the story is headed.

The final purpose of this chapter was to begin to give you a sense of what it means to read the Bible in context. The study of how to interpret the Bible is called "hermeneutics." It is the study of interpretation. We do not usually start reading the Bible with an awareness of the "glasses" we are wearing. By default, we read meanings from our world into the biblical text without even realizing it. Seeing the Bible in its own contexts is a journey that we have only just begun.

A key hermeneutical concept we introduced in this chapter is the idea of "paradigm shifts." A paradigm shift is when your perspective on a particular topic fundamentally changes. In particular, we discussed four such changes in this chapter:

  • First, we mentioned that the Bible was not originally one book. It is a library of books, written at different times and places to people who have been gone for thousands of years. When Revelation 22:19 talks about taking words out, it was only talking originally about the scroll of Revelation, because the rest of the Bible was not yet attached to it.
  • Second, what a book is about does not tell you when it was written or who wrote it. Why would a book about Joshua have to be written by Joshua? And why would it have to be written at the time of Joshua?
  • Similarly, the books of the Bible are not arranged in the order they were written. Paul's letters were written before the Gospels about Jesus, and Paul's letters are arranged from longest to shortest.
  • A final paradigm shift is the realization that the books of the Bible have a perspective. They are not videotapes or transcripts of what happened. They tell the stories with a purpose.
These hermeneutical shifts are just the beginning.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Mission of Jesus 5

continued from here

The Mission of Jesus

9. One goal of this book is for you to read through the Bible this year as you read through these chapters. This week, the goal is to read through the Gospel of Mark. You may think, "Why would we start reading through the Gospel of Mark? Why not Genesis, the first book of the Bible? Mark isn't even the first book of the New Testament."

The first reason is that Jesus stands at the center of any Christian reading of the Bible. From a Christian perspective, the Old Testament has a direction, a goal, and that "telos" or goal is Jesus. Similarly, the New Testament looks backward to Jesus' time on earth and forward to Jesus' return to earth. Whichever way you turn in Scripture, you are looking to Jesus, "the author and one who completes our faith" (Heb. 12:2).

The Gospel of Mark was written at a particular place and time. It had a reason. It had a perspective on Jesus that overlaps but is also distinct from the other presentations of Jesus in Matthew, Luke, and John. However, our purpose in this first chapter is not to think about Mark's distinctive themes but more about Jesus as the center of Scripture.

We are starting with Mark because we want to get a brief, core sense of Jesus before we go back to the beginning. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. It is thus a great place to get the big picture of Jesus' earthly mission.

Mark tells us that Jesus' mission was "to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). The cross is indeed central to Mark's presentation of Jesus. Jesus offers himself to satisfy the order of things. He offers himself to liberate those who want to be reconciled to God. In the rest of the New Testament, we will also see that his resurrection from the dead signals victory over death and the defeat of the powers of evil in the world.

10. However, Jesus does much more than offer himself as a sacrifice in Mark. His core message is the arrival of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). The Old Testament gives us the key background here. For reasons God only knows fully, God has allowed Sin and Satan to wreak havoc on the earth for a very long time. Mark does not mention when this situation began. Mark is only concerned with its solution.

Jesus is the solution. When the Gospel of Mark begins, the people of God from the Old Testament, Israel, is alienated from God. In a sense, Israel is not in possession of its land. Its land is occupied by the Romans. Its leaders are not godly, even though they put on an appearance of righteousness. 

John the Baptist starts washing people in the Jordan River, "baptizing" them. He asks them as a people and as individuals to realign their hearts toward God once again. The water symbolizes the cleansing of their sins. He sets himself up on the east side of the Jordan River at the very place where, over a thousand years earlier, a leader named Joshua had led Israel into the possession of this same land. He is calling on Israel to turn, to "repent," in anticipation that God will restore his people once more. John the Baptist was symbolically enacting the return of Israel from exile.

11. John the Baptist was just the opening act. The real show is Jesus. After John is arrested, Jesus begins his ministry. Although he does not proclaim himself as king openly, everyone is thinking it. Could this be the king who will restore the kingdom of Israel? Could this be the "Son of David," the descendent of our ancient royal line? Will he kick the Romans out of our land?

But they have no category for a king who would die on a cross. That is just not what they thought Messiahs did. So Jesus does not openly proclaim himself as king. Instead, he works as a servant. He works on the edges. He begins reclaiming those in Israel who have fallen by the wayside, the "lost sheep" of Israel.

Jesus heals the sick, restoring those who are physically and mentally on the edges. This shows his heart of compassion toward others. He does not focus on the "whole." He does not spend his time around religious or political leaders. Although they take an interest in him, Jesus spends little time around the rich and powerful. He is interested in the poor, the widow, the orphan, the blind (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus casts out demons...

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Books within History 4

... continued from here


6. So if we can speak of the overarching story within the Bible, we can also speak of the history of the books of the Bible. In my twenties, as I began to study the Bible more intensely, there was a shift in my understanding. We call these sorts of shifts, "paradigm shifts." You looked at a particular topic one way. Then you have this "aha moment," this moment where your perspective flips or shifts to another way of seeing the topic. And you may wonder how you didn't see it that way before. Sometimes these shifts seem so obvious in hindsight.

We have already hinted at one such paradigm shift. If you grew up thinking of the Bible as one book written by God to you, it is a paradigm shift to realize that the Bible is a library of books that were not originally bound together and that they were written at different times and places. It is a paradigm shift to think of these books as written first to other people. This is, after all, what the Bible actually says. It says it was written to ancient Israelites, ancient Romans, ancient Corinthians, and so forth.

Our initial reaction is often, "But it was written to all people in all times and places, including them," and "God was just speaking through ancient authors--they weren't significant in the thinking of what they wrote." Hold onto those thoughts. No one is pushing you to change your thinking on these things, but I think you will experience paradigm shifts on them as we read the Bible and listen to it. It will become obvious.

In the meantime, it is clear that the books of the Bible were written at different times and places. The New Testament authors mention the Old Testament books as they write, so clearly the Old Testament books were written before the New Testament books. It is a different way of thinking to realize that these books were written at particular times and places in history. For example, there is a tendency to confuse the time a book talks about with the time when that book was written, but these are two different things.

For example, the book of Joshua is about Joshua. The book of Jonah is about Jonah. For some reason, it is not uncommon for some to think that Joshua wrote Joshua or that Jonah wrote Jonah. And it is common to assume these books were written at the time of Joshua or at the time of Jonah. But these assumptions are not at all obvious. After all, I could write a book about Joshua or Jonah too, thousands of years later. 

Indeed, these books tell us about Joshua and Jonah. They are written in what is called "the third person." "Joshua did this." "Jonah did that." They are not written to say, "I, Joshua, will tell you about my adventures at Jericho. First we crossed the Jordan..." If we were talking about any other book, no one would think for a second that Joshua and Jonah wrote these books. We are just often programmed to read the Bible differently. 

So even if Job lived around the time of Abraham, this fact would not mean that the book of Job was written at the time of Abraham and Job. After all, I could write a book about Abraham and Job almost four thousand years later. And we certainly should not assume that Job wrote the book just because it is about Job. 

These things would be obvious if we were talking about any book but the Bible. We just tend to think differently about Scripture than we do other books. That fact is not bad, but we are trying to deepen our reading of the Bible, so hopefully our eyes will be opened to these sorts of unexamined assumptions as we read. You do not have to believe me now. It will become obvious as we keep reading. Just listen and see what you think.

7. Another unexamined assumption is a tendency to read the stories of the Bible as if we are watching a video or reading a transcript of these events. There are a couple unexamined assumptions here. One is our self-deception in thinking that we are not coming to the text with assumptions and perspectives that color the way that we are reading the text. It is easy to think that the problem with Christians who disagree with my interpretations are their problem. Almost certainly they are, in part.

But they are also my problem. I do not see the Bible any more objectively than I see anything else in the world. Otherwise, I would have to conclude that I'm the only Christian listening to the Holy Spirit. And how likely is it that the problem is that all those other Christians just aren't as spiritual as I am?

There is yet another unexamined assumption though. We are going to realize quickly that the books of the Bible also bring particular perspectives to the events about which they tell us. Consider the four books in the New Testament about the earthly ministry of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We call these four books "Gospels" because they tell us about the good news Jesus brought. While they often tell us about the same events, they do so with different emphases and flavors.

Consider the Gospel of Mark, which you are reading this week alongside this chapter. It was written at a particular time and place, and this fact had an impact on how it was written. Take Mark 7:3: "All the Jews, unless they wash their hands to the fist, do not eat." [2] This comment is meant to give some background to the story to the people listening to Mark being read aloud to them. 

Notice that the comment explains what Jews do. What can we infer from this comment? Since the Gospel explains what "all the Jews" do, we can fairly conclude that the audience was not primarily made up of Jews. Otherwise, the Gospel would not have to explain what Jews do to them.

The more we know about the context in which a book like Mark was written, the more we will likely have insight into why the story was told in the way it was. We will see this aspect of the Bible more and more as we read through it. Don't worry about fully getting what I'm saying now.

8. It is a different way to read the Bible when you see each of its books as moments in history. There is the story within the Bible, that we have already discussed. This is the story that takes events from here and there within the books of the Bible and glues them together from some Christian perspective from outside the Bible looking on. We see a whole story from the Christian glasses we are wearing, a Christian "metanarrative."

Then there is the history of the books of the Bible themselves, the books of the Bible within history. One paradigm shift is to realize that the books were not necessarily written in the order in which they appear. For example, all of Paul's letters were written before any of the Gospels were written about Jesus. Paul's letters are arranged by how long they are--longest to shortest--not in the order in which they were written.

So in the story within the Bible, Jesus comes before Paul. But in the history of the Bible, Paul's writings were written before the Gospels about Jesus were written. You do not need to fully see what we are talking about here now. It will become clearer and clearer as we proceed through the Bible. The goal is not necessarily to take away the way you read the Bible now, but to add to that reading the ability to hear the books somewhat as God first inspired them. The goal is to add an understanding of their first meanings, what they actually meant when God spoke through them to their actual first audiences...

[2] All translations of the Bible in this book are mine.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Story Inductively 3

continued from here


4. This gives one general sense of how Christians have understood the overarching story or metanarrative of Scripture. However, even here there are variations. One popular presentation of the biblical story emphasizes the story of the Flood and the Tower of Babel in Genesis, then pretty much omits the rest of the Old Testament. [1] Different tellings of the biblical story emphasize different events and glue them together differently.

Here we want to introduce the idea of reading the Bible "inductively." When you read the Bible inductively, you are trying to read it on its own terms and with its own emphases. For example, although the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is very important in most Christian tellings of the story, Adam and Eve are barely mentioned in the vast majority of the Old Testament. Adam is barely mentioned outside two chapters of the New Testament. Inductively speaking, Adam is not a central character in the books of the Bible.

I mentioned a version of telling the biblical story that emphasizes the Flood and the Tower of Babel. Yet the Flood is barely mentioned in the Bible outside Genesis, and the second story is not explicitly mentioned anywhere else. From an inductive perspective, on the books of the Bible's own terms, these stories are not central to the Bible at all. 

This fact does not necessarily invalidate these readings of the whole Bible. The point is that these perspectives do not come from the Bible alone. There is a whole lot more "glue" that comes from us in these overarching readings than we probably realize. We are wearing "glasses" as we read and quite probably do not even realize it. These glasses affect what we see, in some cases even more than the biblical texts themselves. These are often the glasses of church traditions.

5. In the end, the Bible is a collection of books. God did not inspire one person to sit down one day and write from Genesis to Revelation. The scrolls of the Bible were written over a thousand-year period by dozens of authors in three different languages to numerous different contexts. While it was the same God speaking, the language styles of the books are not the same. Words are not used in the same ways. These dynamics will become clearer and clearer as we read along.

When God speaks, he wants to be understood. So God inevitably speaks our language. When God spoke to ancient Israel in the books of the Old Testament, their "language" was full of concepts from the Ancient Near East of three thousand years ago. When God spoke to the early Christians in the books of the New Testament, their "language" was full of concepts from the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world. When we do not realize this fact and bring our own concepts from our twenty-first-century cultures, we will inevitably "misread" these texts on at least one level without knowing it.

The Bible is thus more of a library than a single book. Most of these books existed alone and apart before they were put together. When Revelation 22:18-19 warns about adding or taking away words from "the scroll of this prophecy," it was originally referring only to the scroll of Revelation. After all, none of the other books of the Bible were attached to it at that time. When 2 Timothy 3:16 first said that "all Scripture is God-breathed," there was as yet no New Testament. It was only referring originally to what we now call the Old Testament.

As we read through the Bible together, we will keep track of what turns out to be two different ways of reading the Bible, both of which are arguably valid. The first is what these books actually meant, their original, "real" meanings. The second approach relates to the meanings these books took on and take on when we read them together with each other and then bring our Christian traditions of reading with us. Often when Christians talk about what God was saying through the Bible, we are really referring to later Christian traditions about how to glue the content of the Bible together. 

6. So if we can speak of the overarching story within the Bible, we can also speak of the history of the books of the Bible...

[1] Answers in Genesis. Seven Cs of History

Saturday, April 10, 2021

An Overview of the Story 2

 ... continued from here


For this reason, our first fly over Scripture will have a lot of Christian glue in it. As Christians, we tend to stick the stories and teachings of the Bible together in particular ways. For example, although it may seem obvious to us, we consider the second half, which we call the "New" Testament, to be the fulfillment or consummation of the first half. We call the first half the "Old" Testament. 

You can see even in the way we have named these two halves that we would say the first half is somehow incomplete without the second half of the story. In theory, someone could label or glue them together differently. For example, a person who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah might see the second half as a kind of appendix telling about a Jewish group that got it wrong.

2. A story typically has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The beginning of the story sets up some sort of situation or problem that will play itself out in the rest of the story. The ending then sees that situation reach some sort of resolution or destination for the initial situation in some way. The middle of the story is the process of reaching that ending point.

In the story within the Bible, the story starts and ends with God. God is the main character. The story begins with creation in Genesis 1 and it ends with new creation and "forever" in Revelation 22. Mind you, the books of Genesis and Revelation were not written at the same time. Hundreds of years separate the two "scrolls." The people who wrote the words in these books down had no idea these two scrolls would one day be bound together. God knew, of course.

Many Christians would see Adam as the culprit who sets up the biblical story to play out the way it does. Adam and Eve create the problem at the beginning of the story that the rest of the plot is trying to solve. They "sin" in the Garden of Eden. Humanity was meant to live forever from the very beginning, but Adam disobeys God and all is initially lost.

Speaking of glue, most Jews at the time of Jesus probably would not have focused on Adam in their telling of the story. At the time of Jesus, most Jews would probably have started the story more with Abraham, who first appears at the end of Genesis 11. What Christians tend to see as a subplot--the story of Abraham and his literal descendants--is the main plot for a Jewish reader who may or may not see Jesus as the goal of the story. 

In the Christian telling of the story, Jesus is the solution to the problem set up by Adam. Jesus is the "last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45). Jesus is the climax of the story, the goal toward which the plot is moving. Everything in the story before Jesus is headed toward its fulfillment in him. 

3. One way to tell the overarching story from a Christian perspective is thus to give a story in six "acts." Again, this is the way we are telling the story, gluing the material in these books together from the outside looking in. They were all separate scrolls originally. Someone put these scrolls together and bound them in one big book. If we are to believe in the Bible, we have to believe not only that God directed or "inspired" the writing of them but that God also directed the later collection and putting of them together as a whole.

The first act is the creation, just as the final act is new creation and "forever." Then the second act sets up the problem of the story, the sin of Adam and the situation in which humanity now finds itself. We find ourselves separated from God. We find ourselves encumbered with evil and suffering. We find ourselves surrounded by death. The world is not yet at God planned for it to be. 

Part of the final act is not only eternity, but the final resolution of the problem. In this sixth act, humanity and the world become as God planned for them to be. This resolution of the plot involves both the judgment of humanity but also the salvation of many from that judgment. Judgment and salvation go together because salvation in part is escaping the consequences of the Judgment. 

The middle of the story is thus the movement toward this ending point. If Act I is the creation and Act II is the problem created by Adam and Eve, Act III gives the Old Testament, the time when God works with one specific people group, Israel, to begin to reconcile the world to himself. God reveals himself to this people. He makes a special arrangement or "covenant" with them. This first covenant looks forward to a more complete or "new covenant" that God will make with all humanity through Jesus.

Act IV is the turning point of the story, the point where God actually comes down to earth as a human, as Jesus. Jesus comes to fix the human problem. Through his death and resurrection to life again, Jesus defeats all the forces of evil and suffering in the story. He not only defeats death, but he defeats the strongest villain in the story, the Devil. Jesus satisfies the order of things and makes reconciliation with God finally possible.

Finally, Act V is somewhat unexpected. The Jews might have expected Act VI to be part of the initial coming of Jesus or at least to follow immediately after his resurrection from the dead. Instead, we have two thousand years of intervening time, the age of the Church. About two-thirds of the New Testament is about the beginning of this part of the story. The earliest Christians had no idea this part of the story would last so long.

Act VI thus begins with the "second coming" of Jesus. In Act VI, Jesus completes the mission that he started with his first coming. He brings judgment to those who have not given their allegiance to him, and he brings salvation from judgment to those who have confessed him as their Lord. For those who have confessed him as the Christ, as their "anointed" king, Act VI ends with a blessed forever. They not only escape the judgment, but they are transformed into the humanity we were always meant to be.

4. This is the way Christians generally understand the overarching story or metanarrative of Scripture...

Thursday, April 08, 2021

An Invitation to Scripture 1

I want to invite you to read through the Bible with me. 

This week, as you read this first chapter, you might read through the Gospel of Mark. Read two chapters during each weekday, then read three chapters each day of the weekend.

1. The Bible is a many-splendored thing. It has many layers. My parents and grandparents read the Bible countless times into their eighties and nineties, and they made new discoveries every time. I am going to argue that one reason for this dynamic is the fact that words are so flexible, and God uses that flexibility to keep the words of the Bible a living word.

However, as we will see, the books of the Bible did have first meanings. These meanings were meanings that had to do with the people to whom God first spoke them. They had a "context," and context sets the rules for what words mean to someone hearing or reading them. You will see what I mean soon enough.

For now, I want to start with a first reading of the Bible. I want you to get in a helicopter with me and fly over the whole territory of Scripture to start. Mind you, we are getting in a Christian helicopter. Anyone with a family that tells stories will know that the same events can be told from more than one point of view. Do you have an uncle who tells the family story differently than your mother does? Or perhaps your father tells it differently than your grandmother.

Similarly, a Christian would tell the story of the Bible differently than an atheist. A Jewish person who does not believe Jesus is the Messiah would tell the story differently than a Roman Catholic. Frankly, there are thousands of different Christian groups who would tell the overarching story of the Bible a little differently from each other.

So our first fly over Scripture will just be one reading, a fairly historic reading. "Orthodoxy" means "right belief," and right belief with regard to Christianity is usually considered a basic understanding that developed in the first few centuries after Jesus. Christians arrived at a sort of agreement or consensus on the overall story. There is a sort of agreed storyline that focuses on one event in one book and then another event in another book. It then puts these events in different books into a plotline, the story of how God is saving the world.

You will not really find that whole story in any one place in the Bible. It is an overarching version of the story--or "metanarrative"--put together by Christian readers looking on the whole Bible from the outside looking in. This dynamic will be one of our earliest take-aways from our reading. We glue the pieces of the Bible together in our interpretations, typically without even knowing it. Without some reflection, we often have difficulty telling the difference between what part of our reading is the Bible and what part of our reading is the glue we bring to the text.

For this reason, our first fly over Scripture will have a lot of Christian glue in it...

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday School: Lessons on Unity from 1 Corinthians 1

 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

1. Prayer

2. Background

  • Founded church on second journey
  • Apollos followed
  • Paul's third journey -- at Ephesus
  • Divided church (letters, visits)

3. Read Scripture

4. Breakout rooms (What are some of our divisions in the church today?)

5. Divided over cliques

  • I am of Paul.
  • I am of Apollos.
  • I am of Cephas.
  • I am of Christ.
  • What are the groups in the church that we fight over--denominations? churches in town? Christian colleges?

6. Divided over status

  • taking each other to court (1 Cor. 6)
  • The rich getting drunk at communion
  • What are examples here? racial privilege, the haves over the have nots

7. One group thinks they know more.

  • eating at the marketplace, eating at a pagan temple
  • Probably didn't know as much as they thought
  • The key was building each other up

8. One group thinks they're more spiritual

  • tongues versus prophecy
  • women without coverings
  • self-contradictory, to boast of spirituality
  • about building each other up

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"Face toward the Cross" (sermon starters)

"Set Your Face Toward the Cross"

March 21, 2021

McCrae Brook Wesleyan Church

Text: Luke 9:18-25, 51


The unfolding of COVID. Fever, symptoms on Day 3. Most who go into the hospital do so on Day 7. If you make it with oxygen high enough by Day 10, you probably are going to survive. 

Long job searches where you know the process is going to take months. Your future hangs in the balance while you watch the hour hand move slowly around.

Jesus sets his face toward the cross in Luke 9, but he doesn't get to Jerusalem until Luke 19.

I. The Anxiety of Jesus

John 12:27 -- There's a whole lot that is summarized very briefly here. John gives us the superJesus, the super-confident, super-powerful, super-knowing Jesus. This verse gives only a hint of what we know from the other Gospels:

  • "Now is my soul sorrowful, even to the point of death" (Matt. 26:38).
  • He prayed that, if it were possible, he wanted the hour to pass from him. He asked the Lord to remove the cup from him. (Mark 14:34-36)
Let's think on this. This is the same Jesus who spoke Matthew 6:25-34. 

Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was tempted like us. He felt anxiety about his death. It's not about the feelings. It's about the moment of decision.

II. The Temptations of Emotions

Emotions in themselves are neither good or bad, it's what we do with them that counts. It's the choices we make. Casablanca -- we don't know exactly what the Captain is going to decide when Rick shoots the Nazi. Harry Potter -- for a moment I thought I wasn't either

  • Anger -- in your anger do not sin (Ephesians 4:26) -- press pause, journal, vent to others, pray
  • Doubt -- find others to be faith for you, revisit moments of God's visitation in the past
  • Sadness -- read psalms of lament, get it out, then tune into joy, get around people
  • Anxiety -- when fear keeps us from acting in faith or wronging others -- choose courage, take the next step of courage

III. The Lord will Provide

The story of Abraham and Isaac. Jehovah Jireh. No matter what, God gives grace (James 4:6) -- he gives more grace when the burdens grow greater


Set your face toward the cross. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Do it one step, one choice at a time.