Thursday, December 31, 2020

Reflections on 2020

This is my annual reflection on the year that is passing. It has been quite a year indeed, the most turbulent of my life I would say. It was the year of COVID. It was (probably) the last year of Trump's presidency. I finished my first year at Houghton and began a second.  

1. I read a number of books this year, not least because of the seminars in which I participated on Race, Evangelicalism, and C.S. Lewis. Here are the main books I read:

  • Surprised by Joy by Lewis
  • Mere Christianity (I had read it before)
  • The Last Battle by Lewis
  • Screwtape Letters by Lewis
  • Perelandra by Lewis
  • The Four Loves by Lewis
  • A Grief Observed and most of The Problem of Pain.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • Chapters from Sin and Its Remedy in Paul, The Use of the OT in Hebrews, and many more.
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
  • Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
  • Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William Webb 

2. I became a runner again this year, changed my diet significantly, and lost about 25 pounds. Key was a virtual race across New York this summer in which I ran 500K. I continued to run in the fall. I have an informal goal of running 3 miles under 30 minutes each year and at each age. This year that pace became routine. In fact, I ran 3 miles under 27 once and regularly ran 5 miles under 50 minutes.

3. As I write this post, I have about 6,287 subscribers on YouTube, about 2500 more this year. As a hobby, I continue to post videos on the Bible, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, philosophy, science, and math. I do it for myself. I do get some pretty interesting comments sometimes.

4. When I look back on this year, the word that most comes to mind is blessing. I am enormously blessed. As I make this post, my mother is about to be discharged from the hospital after having COVID. At 94, we took the news of her infection gravely. I do not know why God has spared her and not so many others just as deserving. But we are thankful. It is a story of providence I may share later when things are clearer.

I have been blessed this year at Houghton College. I came here for many reasons last year, a convergence of blessings. I have remarked to a number of people that I have never had to rely on faith more. But God always walks the path with us. I repeatedly find myself looking back and thinking, "Why was I so pre-occupied with direction?" Everything always seems to find its way.

5. Certainly many will disagree with me, but I feel grateful that we have a change of US presidency. I believe history will reveal some sobering truths in the days ahead, truths that should prompt some serious reflection. I became an Independent this year, deeply unsatisfied with both political parties. Somehow it seems fitting to me that a citizen of heaven would sit very lightly to all parties of earthly citizenship.

In the midst of political and social unrest, the church has been deeply divided. This fact suggests that, one way or another, one part of the church has been deeply deceived and/or misguided these last four years. Once things are clear, I believe a major project for the church is to ask why this was the case. I think those of us involved in Christian higher education especially have some reflection to do.  

Onward into 2021!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Three Week Bible Crash Course

Starting Monday, January 4, I'm teaching a crash course survey of the whole Bible with Houghton College. Certainly, a person could take it for college credit, but it can also be audited for not too much. It's the kind of thing a small group or Sunday School class or could do together (possibly as one audit taken together). Here is the link to sign up, and the name of the course is BIBL 101 Biblical Literature.

The format is 1) two short videos to watch each day and 2) a live debrief session at 4pm ET each weekday. The live session is recorded for those who can't come at that time.

Here is the video schedule with Bible readings and (if you want), the textbook:

Week 1 (January 4-10)
1. Monday (Jan. 4)
• Video 1 – The Story of Salvation
• Video 2 – The History of Salvation
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Gospel of Mark.
• Read WN chapter 1.

2. Tuesday (Jan. 5)
• Video 3 – The Beginning of Israel (Exodus 1-19)
• Video 4 – The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20-40)
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Exodus 1-20.
• Read WN chapter 2.

3. Wednesday (Jan. 6)
• Video 5: The Laws of Leviticus
• Video 6: Numbers and Deuteronomy
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Deuteronomy.
• Read WN chapter 3.

4. Thursday (Jan. 7)
• Video 7: Genesis 1
• Video 8: Genesis 2-3
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Genesis 1-23.

5. Friday (Jan. 8)
• Video 9: Lessons from Genesis
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Genesis 23-50.

Week 2 (January 11-17)
6. Monday (Jan. 11)
• Video 10 – Joshua
• Video 11 – Judges, Ruth
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Ruth and 1 Samuel.
• Read WN chapter 4

7. Tuesday (Jan. 12)
• Video 12 – 1 and 2 Samuel
• Video 13 – 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read 2 Samuel.

8. Wednesday (Jan. 13)
• Video 14: Pre-Exilic Prophets
• Video 15: Exilic Prophets
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Minor Prophets.
• Read WN chapter 6.

9. Thursday (Jan. 14)
• Video 16: Post-Exilic Prophets
• Video 17: Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Isaiah 1-12, 40-66.
• Read WN chapter 5.

10. Friday (Jan. 15)
• Video 18: Worshiping through the Psalms
• Video 19: The Poetic Books
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Psalms 1, 3, 12, 18, 23, 42, 50, 51, 82, 97, 100, 105, 119, 121, 122, 136, 137.
• Read WN chapter 7.

Week 3 (January 18-22)
11. Monday (Jan. 18)
• Video 20 – The Mission of Jesus
• Video 21 – Passion Week
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Gospel of Luke
• Read WN chapter 8.

12. Tuesday (Jan. 19)
• Video 22 – The Sermon on the Mount
• Video 23 – Matthew and Mark
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Matthew 5-7.

13. Wednesday (Jan. 20)
• Video 24: Acts 1-12
• Video 25: Acts 13-28
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Book of Acts.
• Read WN chapter 9.

14. Thursday (Jan. 21)
• Video 26: Paul’s Early Letters
• Video 27: Paul’s Later Letters
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read 1 Corinthians, Romans.
• Read WN chapter 10 and Epilogue.

15. Friday (Jan. 22)
• Video 28: The Gospel of John
• Video 29: Hebrews and the General Letters
• Video 30: Hermeneutics
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Gospel of John and James.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Luke 1:39-56 Explanatory Notes (Visit to Elizabeth)

The Visitation,
Jacques Daret
The Visit to Elizabeth
1:39 Having arisen,
[1] Mary in those days went into the hill country with haste into a city of Judah. 40. And she entered into the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
We do not know exactly where Zechariah and Elizabeth are from, but it is not Jerusalem. They are from a "city of Judah," in the hill country. Mary's connection with them may suggest that Mary had a priestly lineage. In chapter 4 will we encounter the suggestion that she also had a royal one.

Hebrews 7 does not indicate that Jesus had a priestly lineage, but certainly as Christians we think of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king. The Gospels and Paul are explicit about his kingly role. Luke will explicitly call him a prophet. And Hebrews 7 calls him a priest, whether he descends biologically from Levi or not.

Elizabeth is sixth months pregnant, and Mary will stay with her till she is nine months pregnant. The Gospel does not say whether Mary stays all the way to the birth of John the Baptist. It is the first trimester of Mary's pregnancy.

41. And it happened as Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was full of Holy Spirit.
The model of Spirit-filling in the Old Testament is that the Spirit of God comes on individuals to give them the power to do specific tasks (e.g., Samson) or to prophesy (e.g., Saul). In such cases, the power of God's Spirit is not necessarily associated with goodness or godliness. On the Day of Pentecost, it will become normal for all of God's true people to receive the Holy Spirit and the expectation of godliness and purity will become universal for those filled with the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth is still under the old covenant, although Luke does not make that pattern clear here. She is filled with the Holy Spirit and called for a special purpose, to give birth and raise "Elijah," who will prepare the way for the Messiah. Interestingly, we are never told that Mary gets "filled" with the Holy Spirit, but we can assume she is both because Jesus is greater than John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her (1:35).

We have already seen in this chapter that the coming of the Spirit is not always connected to an act on the part of an individual. John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit from his mother's womb (1:15). The Spirit can come on a person before the person has any real understanding of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist will later confirm his membership in the people of God. Elizabeth's faith in what God is doing through Mary confirms hers.

42. And she called out with a great cry and said, "Blessed [are] you among women and having been blessed [is] the fruit of your womb!
Elizabeth recognizes Mary's honor among women. God has shown her favor and honored her. Blessedness is honor language, something it is difficult for Western minds to understand. Picture a room of people clapping while giving a standing ovation. 

Yet blessing goes beyond honor for something you do, although you can do things that bring you honor. Blessing is a gift of favor. A person can be blessed without doing something. They can be favored by God beyond their faithfulness. 

Mary is a faithful young woman, yes, but there were no doubt many faithful young women at that time. She is favored and honored and blessed beyond them not only because she was faithful but because God chose her beyond her faithfulness. She is blessed among the faithful. She is highly favored by God, chosen to do something no other woman in history will ever do.

The fruit of her womb is obviously blessed beyond all other humans. As Christians, we believe that Jesus was the eternal second person of the Trinity, God himself come to earth. We have the benefit of the Gospel of John and centuries of unpacked Christian understanding. In that light, the greeting seems like an understatement. Of course Jesus is worthy of honor! 

43. "And why to me [is] this, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, behold, as the sound of your greeting came into my ears, the baby in my womb leaped in rejoicing!
The baby John the Baptist leaps in the womb as a sign of what Mary represents. Mary is the "mother of my Lord." This is the first time in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus is referred to as "Lord," although he has already been referred to as the "Son of God" (1:32, 35). The title has been used ten times previously in the chapter but in every case in relation to God the Father.

Acts 2:36 will use "Lord" and "Messiah" as royal titles like "Son of God" and locate Jesus' assumption of them most poignantly after his resurrection from the dead and exaltation to God's right hand in heaven. That moment is like Jesus assuming the throne of the cosmos. The use of the term Lord in relation to Jesus comes especially from Psalm 110:1--"The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand.'" 

45. "And blessed is the one who has believed that there will be a fulfillment to the things that have been spoken to her from the Lord!"
Elizabeth's words began with a blessing to Mary and here they end with that same blessing again. Mary is the one on whom God has not only shown unmerited favor and blessing. She is the one who has believed or had faith in the things spoken to her by the angel.

There is a tendency in Protestantism to make faith and works into opposites or contradictories. The New Testament knows nothing of that. The favor shown Mary is not earned but her actions are consistent with that favor. She is worthy without deserving. Her honor fits her faithfulness although she could have never earned it.

Grace is unmerited favor. We think of it especially when God forgives our sins. It does involve a "work" of sorts, because we normally "trigger" grace by our prayers and faith. [1] Blessing is a specific kind of grace, not one that relates to our sin but to our faithfulness. It is God's gift beyond our faithfulness.

Mary's Song
46. And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47. and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...
This is the "Magnificat." Both Luke's Gospel and Acts are filled with songs and sermons. Magnificat is the Latin for "it magnifies." This hymn has been set to various music over the centuries.

This hymn is in the style of Hebrew poetry, which utilized "parallelism." The most basic form of parallelism is synonymous parallelism, where you say something and then say it again in similar terms. So "my soul magnifies the Lord" is very similar in meaning to "my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

This parallelism helps us with interpretation. For example, if we wonder which "Lord" Mary is thinking of, the mention of "God my Savior" in the second suggests she is thinking of God the Father. Interestingly, expressions that describe God the Father and Jesus the Son are often interchangeable, sometimes making it difficult to determine which is in view. Jesus is the "Savior, Christ the Lord" (2:11), but God the Father is also our Savior and the LORD.

The word soul would be difficult to interpret without the parallel. In the Old Testament and Hebrew, "soul" refers to the whole living being, so we would be tempted to translate this verse as "My person magnifies the Lord." But the parallel of the word spirit suggests Mary is referring to her inner being rather than her whole person, a part of her rather than the whole. 

Her soul in this case is her truest self inside, who she really is. It is the essence of her personhood, the part of her that makes choices. It is the part of her where the longings that aline with her choices come.

That inner essence of her praises the Lord and rejoices in God's goodness. God alone is deserving of worship, and she gives God some small bit of what God deserves--God's "worth-ship." God alone is truly worthy of our honor, praise, and glory.

48. "... because he looked upon the humble state of his servant girl. For, behold, from now all generations will bless me.
God in himself is worthy of our praise. Yet we can also praise God in the context of things he has done. Mary magnifies God not only for who God is but for what he has done in relation to her. All generations will now "bless" her, give her praise and favor. And to this day her prediction has come to pass.

One of the major themes of the Gospel of Luke is an emphasis on God's favor toward the poor. God seems to have chosen Mary not least so that he could exalt the humble. He intentionally did not choose a famous or wealthy girl. He did not choose a woman of privilege from a powerful family. It is clear from the rest of Mary's song that he chose her in part specifically to take someone who was marginal in society and exalt her.

We will see time and time again in Luke that Jesus targets those on the edges of society. He targets the "sick" not the "healthy." He focuses on the "lost sheep," the poor. He ministers to those society does not see, like women and the sick. He looks on Mary in her "humble state" and exalts her above the most "significant" of people in that day, including the Herods and Pilates.

The parallelism here is more "synthetic" rather than synonymous. The second line builds on the first one. God favored a humble girl, therefore, all generations will call her blessed.

49. "... because the Powerful [One] did great things for me--and holy is his name-- 50. and his mercy [reaches] into generations and generations to those who fear him.
The parallelism of these two verses centers on the fact that God is a God who does great things for his people. He has done something great for Mary and blessed her--she will be the mother of the Messiah. Similarly, God's mercy reaches to generation after generation to those who "fear" him like Mary did. And of course his mercy continues to our generation today.

Three characteristics of God are featured in these two verses. God is powerful. God's name is holy. God is merciful. The first two with out the last would definitely be fearful, and we are to "fear" the Lord. God is a God who can "fry us alive." An elephant may mean us no harm, but we might "fear" it if it is prancing around. A million volt fence would have nothing against us, but we would not dare touch it. 

God is all-powerful. There should be a healthy fear of him. His name is holy. It is set apart from all other names. To say that something is holy is to say it belongs to God and should be treated special, not like something that is common or ordinary. To say God is holy is to say that God is God and as a result to fall on our faces in unworthiness.

Yet God is a God of mercy. God wishes us well. As one of my Old Testament professors once said, "The God who can fry me alive loves me." As God we should fear him. As God has revealed himself to us, we need not.

51. "He performed strength with his arm. He scattered the proud in the intention of their heart.
The alignment of God with the humble instead of the proud becomes clearer and clearer as we proceed through the song. Pride was specially offensive in the ancient world, because it suggested that a person was on the same level as the gods. A proud person was just asking for a god to put them in their place by knocking them down a notch.

God is the one with true strength. The proud might be tempted to think themselves strong or lofty. They might make plans thinking that they are in control of their fate. But the intentions of their hearts cannot bring blessing or certainty of outcome. It is God's arm that performs strength. The "arm of the Lord" is a theme in the later chapters of Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 53:1). 

52. "He brought down powerful rulers from thrones and exalted humble [ones].
Rulers are among the proud. You probably know the saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is indeed difficult not to let power go to your head. Often you do not realize it until the time comes to step down from power. Many struggle to give up power and do so too late, after they have begun to unwind the legacy of their good years. Others try to resort to immoral means to try to maintain power after their time is up.

God is always in power. Rulers fall at God's hand, yet he remains forever enthroned. Meanwhile, God loves to exalt the lowly. David was the least of Jesse's sons when God anointed him. God loves to take the lesser and make it the greater.

53. "Those hungering he filled with good [things], and those who are wealthy he sent away empty.
This verse may sound downright socialist, but we should resist interpreting the New Testament through modern lenses and categories. Nevertheless, the statement means what it seems to say to us. The Gospel of Luke repeately emphasizes God's favor on those who lack and his general displeasure with those who have too much.

The economy of the ancient world was quite different from ours. They dealt more with goods, with coinage less central to the world's operations. The basic unit of Greek money, the drachma, was linked to a day's wage, and a day's wage was largely linked to the subsistence needs of a day. Your average person lived from hand to mouth.

Those who stored wealth were unusual and often thought as a more grandiose kind of thief. An old Arab saying suggests that, "every rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief." It is no surprise that the New Testament has very little positive to say about the wealthy. The Gospel of Luke is especially this way, all the more striking since it is dedicated to Theophilus, who was probably a wealthy Roman official.

Mary celebrates that God reverses the fortunes of people in this world. God is portrayed as a sort of divine Robin Hood, who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. There is no sense that the wealthy deserve or actually own their excess. There is a sense that it is unjust for anyone to be hungry. God is a God who sets these imbalances straight.

54. "He helped Israel, his servant, mercies to be remembered, 55. just as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever."
Lest we take these comments in an overly individualistic way, Mary's song ends with a reminder that all these words have to do with the restoration of Israel. God is keeping his promises to Abraham long ago. In Israel, all were meant to prosper. None were meant to be knocked off track into poverty or abject humility. Israel was never meant to be overcome by powerful outside political forces.

In Jesus God was remembering the faithful of the past. In Jesus God was showing mercy to Israel to bring everything back into balance. The lost sheep will be found. The poor and humble will be brought back to economic health. Those who have hoarded power and wealth will be brought down to size.

56. And Mary remained with her about three months, and she returned to her house.
Mary stays with Elizabeth up until the time she is ready to deliver. Luke does not say that she is there when Elizabeth gives birth, but the months add up to nine. Perhaps there is something symbolic here. John the Baptist is preparation for Jesus. When Jesus begins, John the Baptist ends. So Mary leaves as the preparation ends, and John the Baptist begins.

[1] aorist participle, feminine nominative singular

[2] Theologically, both Wesleyans and Calvinists believe that there is grace prior to our prayers, faith, and repentance. This construct makes sense, although it goes beyond what the biblical texts say.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Luke 1:26-38 Explanatory Notes (Appearance to Mary)

The Annunciation, fresco
by Fra Angelico
convent of San Marco, Florence
Announcement of Jesus' Birth (1:26-38)
1:26 And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee to which the name [was] Nazareth...
In the birth story of Matthew, which presumably existed in the church prior to the Gospel of Luke, the story of Jesus' birth begins in Bethlehem. If all we had were Matthew's Gospel, we would assume that Joseph and Mary started out in Bethlehem and only ended up in Nazareth because of Archelaus ruling in Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 2:22).

While this tension might be seen as problematic by some, it actually provides an argument for the historicity of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. It is a common point of agreement in Matthew and Luke in the midst of a great deal of diversity in the birth accounts in general. The typical Christmas play is a splicing together of quite different and unique elements in the story, but the birth in Bethlehem is in common.

Gabriel once more is the messenger angel who brings the announcement or "annunciation" of what is about to come to Mary, the soon-to-be mother of Jesus. A Greek audience would have thought of Hermes and a Roman audience of Mercury. Hermes/Mercury was the one who brought messages to people from Zeus and the gods. It is no surprise, then, that the people of Lystra in Acts 14:12 think that Paul is Hermes because he is the main speaker.

In Matthew, Joseph has a dream, but Mary is the focus in Luke's Gospel. This focus on women, both Mary and Elizabeth, is uncharacteristic of the ancient world, which was overwhelmingly male-oriented. One of the special emphases of the Gospel of Luke is Jesus' focus on the role that women played in the Gospel story. This is also a feature of the book of Acts. It fits with Luke's sense that Jesus' earthly mission primarily focused on the "lost sheep," those knocked off track by the world, the marginalized of Israel.

Elizabeth lets people know that she is pregnant in her fifth month. In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Gabriel now comes to Mary. If Elizabeth is in Judea in the south. Mary is in Galilee in the north. At this time, the three primary regions of what used to be Israel were Galilee in the north, Judea in the south, and Samaria in the middle.

The village in which Mary lives is Nazareth. It was an unremarkable location, a small place of no world significance. We wonder if most of the Jews living in Jerusalem would even have heard of it. Certainly, no one outside of Israel would have known it. It is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament. 

It was "Nowheresville," another indication that God cares for the most insignificant. Those who are from someplace other than big cities will know of these small little towns and villages that you drive through when you are in the middle of nowhere. God came to earth in such a place.

27. ... to a virgin having been engaged to a man whose name [was] Joseph, from the house of David and the name of the virgin [was] Mary.
The Greek parthenos may or may not focus on the virginity of Mary. Certainly, the assumption of the word is that she is a virgin, although it might also be translated as "young maiden" or "young woman." It simply would not be a question that this young woman was also a virgin.

The story assumes that Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus without ever having sex. There have been some who have argued that Luke does not assume a virginal conception since the text does not explicitly say she never has sex with Joseph to become pregnant. [1] However, this argument seems very difficult to make. While it may be possible to read the text that way, it seems a highly improbable reading, as we will argue below.

Mary is engaged to Joseph in the village of Nazareth. If we make the normal assumptions about such an arrangement, we expect that Joseph might be a bit older than she is. He might actually be much older. She may not be his first wife or marriage although she seems to be his only wife. She is probably in her early teens, perhaps as young as fourteen. 

The marriage may be arranged. Either his parents or, if he is older, perhaps he arranged the marriage with her before she was old enough to be fully aware of her destiny. A betrothal was binding and to break such a betrothal would be tantamount to a divorce, although no sexual relations took place during that period. 

He is a descendent of David. At first, it might seem puzzling that such a descendant would be living in Galilee, but we soon find out that his family is ultimately from Bethlehem. We might infer then that his arrival in Nazareth may have taken place in his lifetime or not long before. Certainly, a number of Judeans had moved to Galilee in the century before Christ during the time of the Maccabees.

28. And having entered to her, he said, "Hail, having been favored [one], the Lord [is] with you!" 29. But she at this word was terrified and was debating what sort of greeting this would be. [2]
This is the verse from which the "Hail, Mary" takes its name. Roman Catholics often ask Mary to intercede for them saying, "Hail, Mary, full of grace. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." The full statement includes material from verse 42 below. [3]  

Gabriel says that she is "having been favored." This is in the perfect tense suggesting that God's favor came upon her at some point in the past and that it remains upon her. The word "to favor" is charitoō, which is related to the word for "grace," charis. God's disposition is to show favor to Mary, to give graciously to her.

The Lord is with her. What a blessing to have the Lord on your side! Of course, the Lord is always on our side, but the Lord is not always "with us" on every venture or plan that we conceive. Mary has not conceived of the plan that God has for her in this instance, but she will be a willing participant.

Her willingness does not of course keep this situation from being terrifying. As with Zechariah, her natural response is one of terror. The young Mary is understandably confused and uncertain as to what is happening.

30. And the angel said to her, "Do not fear, Mary, for you have found favor before God. 31. And, behold, you will conceive in womb and will bear a son, and you will call his name, 'Jesus' ...
On cue, Gabriel tells her not to be afraid. The visit is not one of judgment or peril, but one of blessing. it is a visit of "favor" or "grace" (charis). God is about to give her a great blessing.

Luke 1:31 echoes Isaiah 7:14 without quoting it--"A young woman will conceive and bring forth a son, and you will call his name, 'Immanuel.'" Matthew of course quotes the verse. Luke may be aware of Matthew and feel no need to quote the verse, perhaps thinking that his audience would already know it. The similarity is striking, with only the name Jesus switched out for Immanuel.

Christians of course believe that Jesus was "God with us," the Word become flesh. The name Jesus is the Greek for Joshua. In Hebrew, Joshua means, "Yahweh saves" and so implies that in Jesus Yahweh is with his people, saving them. 

Although Luke does not state it explicitly, his readers understand that this will be a virginal conception. A virgin can of course conceive by becoming pregnant the first time she has sex. But that is not what Luke has in mind. She is not married and she is not yet having relations with Joseph. As Matthew 1:25 indicates, they will not have sexual relations until after Jesus is born.

32. "This [one] will be great and he will be called, 'Son of the Most High,' and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father. 33. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will not be an end."
The expression, "Son of God" is a royal, kingly title in the Old Testament as well as in the Roman world. As we will mention in the next chapter, Augustus thought of himself as the son of a god. In Psalm 2, God declares the king of Judah to be his Son and tells the other kings of the nations to "kiss" the Son. Several other Old Testament texts refer to the king as God's son, as well as other Jewish literature of the day. [4]

The announcement thus declares that Jesus will be the Messiah, the king of Israel. That is his destiny. God is going to give him the throne of David. As David was called to be king in Bethlehem, Jesus the Son of David will be born in Bethlehem on a path to become king of God's people. It will not happen on earth during his first coming, but it will happen over the whole cosmos at his second coming.

David was also promised that his kingdom would never end (2 Sam. 7:16), but in his case the sense was that of a dynasty. His descendants would rule after he himself passed. It is not that way with the kingdom of Christ. He is risen from the dead and will come again and he will reign forever and ever in person (cf. Rev. 11:15).

34. And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am not 'knowing' a man?"
Here is Luke's indication that Mary's pregnancy will not take place on the basis of human sexual relations. She is not having sex with any man, whether Joseph or otherwise. Her question has an arguably different tone than Zechariah's. As one pastor has said, Zechariah asks "if" it will happen. Mary asks "how" it will happen.

35. And, having answered, the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy [child] that is being born will be called, 'the Son of God.' 
The answer to Mary's question is "the Holy Spirit." A man will not come upon her but the Holy Spirit will lead her to be pregnant supernaturally. This is not an event like in Greek mythology where Zeus has sex with a human. This is a spiritual conception. It is a matter of God's power.

We would call this event a miracle, "super" natural, above nature. God has created the world to operate by certain rules. This event breaks the rules, the most helpful understanding of a miracle. It is an instance of God stepping into the flow of history and interrupting it with a power that goes beyond what is naturally possible.

The "Most High" is an Old Testament way of referring to God (el elyon; cf. Gen. 14:18), possibly dating back to a time in Israel's history before they more fully understood the oneness of God. Someone in the Greco-Roman world would likely have thought of Zeus, the king of the gods. While this conception is quite different from that of Zeus causing the birth of Perseus, a Greek or Roman would understand well enough that Jesus was indeed in this way the son of God.

Conceived of the Holy Spirit, the child Jesus will be holy, set apart to God and pure. This will not be an ordinary child. And as we have mentioned, "Son of God" is a royal title. Jesus is heir to the Father's throne as well as heir to the throne of David. He will become the "Son of God in power" after his resurrection (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:4), then installed in office as Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). 

36. "And, behold, your kinsman Elizabeth also herself has conceived a son in her old age, and this month is the sixth to her who is called, 'barren.' 37. For with God, no word will be impossible from God."
Now Gabriel tells Mary about Elizabeth, and she will then set out to visit her. The miracle of Elizabeth's conception supports the power of God in Mary's own situation. Elizabeth was called, "barren," sterile. But the matters that seem impossible from a human perspective are not impossible to God. Elizabeth is two-thirds of the way through her pregnancy. God has triumphed over the natural.

"Every word will not be impossible from God." The wording is Greek idiom but is fascinating. Mary has just received a word (hrēma). It may seem like a word that is not possible, but every word is possible with God. And it is "from God." It is a word from God, and it is possible from God.

God is all powerful. God has the power to do anything in this world. God created the world out of nothing. You cannot create something out of nothing without having all power in relation to what you create. God thus has the power to do anything in this universe.

Christian philosophers sometimes debate whether God can do what is logically impossible. Can God make 1 + 1 = 3? Far be it from us to think we know the answer to that question. Certainly, God can multiply loaves and fishes. However, many aspects of logic are matters of definition rather than matters of true impossibility. 

In the end, God created this universe out of nothing and so created the rules for this universe. Who is to say that God has not created other universes with different rules and different logics that we could not possibly comprehend? 

38. And Mary said, "Behold the servant girl of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word." And the angel went away from her. [5]
Mary submits to the divine revelation. She is God's servant. She will do whatever God asks her to do. God would not have chosen her otherwise. Gabriel's task is accomplished. 

[1] John Meier

[2] A potential optative.

[3] Some later manuscripts, splicing the two verses together because of later tradition, include "blessed are you among women" in verse 28 as well.

[4] E.g., 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 89:27.

[5] An optative of wish.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Luke 2:1-20 Explanatory Notes

The Nativity,

The Census
2:1 And it came to pass in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus for all the inhabited world to be registered.

Luke's account places the birth of Jesus squarely within the reign of the first Roman emperor. Augustus Caesar became the first emperor of Rome an ruled from 27BC-AD14 at the end of a period of great civil unrest. As the Roman empire is beginning, so too the salvation of the world was set in motion by the birth of Jesus. The contrast between the two kingdoms is striking, and the book of Revelation will bring out this contrast starkly.

Augustus considered himself to be a "son of God," as one account of his deeds remarks, "Divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god..." [1] The inscription goes on to call him a savior as well. Another inscription speaks of the "good news" or "gospel" of Augustus. [2] The coincidence between the language Luke uses of Jesus and that known to be used of Augustus is quite striking and leads us to wonder if Luke intentionally wanted Theophilus and his audience to contrast Jesus as Lord of the cosmos with Augustus, savior of the Roman world.

Of course, this language comes straight from the Old Testament as well and thus pre-dates Augustus. Psalm 2 referred to the king of Judah as God's son. Isaiah 52:7 speaks of the good news of God's coming reign. The name Joshua means "Yahweh saves." However, Luke's use of these terms in a Greco-Roman context with explicit mention of Augustus may suggest he wanted Theophilus--possibly a Roman official--to pick up on the subtext that Jesus is Lord on a much bigger scale than Augustus was.

The word, "inhabited world" (oikoumenē) refers to the Roman world as opposed to the "barbarian" world that existed outside of it. The implication is thus a Roman census rather than a census of regions beyond the empire. As of the moment, we have no evidence outside Luke of a worldwide census under the reign of Augustus.

We thus find debate between 1) those who would say that the evidence simply has not survived, 2) those who would say Luke confused a later regional census with an earlier worldwide census, 3) those who would say that Luke is trying to explain how Jesus could be born in Bethlehem when he was from Nazareth, and 4) those who would say Luke is intentionally using the idea of an Augustinian census to bring Jesus into clearer contrast with Augustus. [3]

2. This first registration came about while Cyrenius was governing Syria. 3. And all were going to be registered, each to his own city.
We do have evidence of a regional census that took place when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. This census took place after the son of Herod the Great, Archelaus, stopped ruling Judea as client king in AD6. There is not currently any evidence outside of Luke for an earlier governorship of Cyrenius in this area or an earlier census. See the options mentioned above under verse 1.

It is also not clear that the Romans would have expected someone like Joseph to go to Bethlehem for such a census. However, if Joseph had only recently come to Nazareth, returning to Bethlehem might have killed two birds with one stone. The pregnancy of Mary would have been sensitive and quite probably considered shameful by the village. It might have been convenient to be "out of sight" until Jesus was born.

4. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem because he was from the house and lineage of David [4] 5. to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, being in the round.
Jesus was from the lineage of David. Although the genealogy of Matthew 1 and Luke 4 are different in some respects, they both agree that Jesus was a descendent of David. This fact is significant because it qualifies Jesus to be the Messiah. We find record of this fact even in Paul, who was in direct contact with the earliest disciples (cf. Rom. 1:3).

It should not be a concern that Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph. For one thing, some have argued that the genealogy of Luke 4 traces Jesus' lineage through Mary. If so, then Jesus would also trace his lineage to David through her. However, adoption in the ancient world was considered just as "real" a lineage as biological lineage. In fact, adopted sons were sometimes given a greater status than biological ones. We see this in the case of Julius Caesar, whose adopted son Augustus became emperor while his biological son did not.

Bethlehem was not a large village at this time, about four miles southeast of Jerusalem. It was not a place of any significance at the time in the same way that the birth town of Abraham Lincoln is not particularly significant in the United States. It was, of course, the place of king David's birth. Micah 5:2 celebrates Bethlehem as the place from which the kings of Judah originate whether an individual king was born there or not. In the case of Jesus, he was actually born there.

Joseph takes Mary with him. As mentioned above, taking her shields her from the potential disgrace of being pregnant in Nazareth before the two have completed their marriage.

The Shepherds
6. And it came to pass while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her to give birth. [5] 7. And she bore her son, the firstborn, and she wrapped him and laid him in a manger because there was no place in the guest room.
This verse arguably has long been misread in terms of an "inn" and a stable. This misreading largely comes because we try to fit the scene into categories that make sense to us in our world. But the word kataluma would seem to be a guest room rather than an inn (cf. Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11), and it was common for a family's animals to stay in the house on a lower split level. [6]

This guest room of sorts could have been a makeshift addition to a smallish house, possibly added when Joseph and Mary came to town. Presumably they would have stayed with relatives of Joseph. However, it would not likely have been a large add-on, perhaps only large enough for Mary and Joseph to fit. The birth of the child would thus have exhausted the space, making it necessary for the baby to be elsewhere. Thus, a manger on the lower level was used.

The placement of the king of Israel in a manger with animals coheres well with Luke's emphasis on Jesus' mission to the marginal, the poor, and the powerless. Contrast his presentation with that of Matthew, which has significant royal overtones. In Luke, Jesus' birth goes unnoticed by the powerful. From a human perspective, it is completely insignificant.

8. And there were shepherds in the same country, living out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock.
Instead of wise men with gifts like gold, instead of Herod the king taking notice of Jesus, Luke emphasizes shepherds. Shepherds were not high on the social scale. They are not even sleeping under a roof but outside at night. Again, Luke's emphasis on such lowly witnesses fits with his sense that Jesus came primarily for the poor and the marginalized in his earthly mission.

9. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and glory from the Lord shown around them, and they feared a great fear.
Despite the lowliness of the setting from a human perspective, something of cosmic and everlasting significance is taking place here. The spiritual realm knows well enough what is happening, even though the earthly realm may not notice. An angel appears to the shepherds. 

The angel is called an "angel of the Lord." We hear of the angel of the Lord in a few places in the Old Testament. For example, the angel of the Lord appears to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:2. Such an angel is fittingly accompanied by glory. Perhaps we are to picture such glory in terms of great light. As we saw in Luke 1, fear is a normal human response.

10. And the angel said to them, "Do not fear, for behold, I am announcing good news to you--a great joy that will be for all the people 11. because was born to you today a Savior, which is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
If fear is the normal response to angelic activity, it is also normal for the angel to tell those visited not to fear. This angel follows that script as expected.

The angel brings "good news" or a "gospel." The good news is the birth of a Savior. Again, to a Roman like Theophilus the overtones of Augustus' good news would likely have been obvious. 

We are prone to see the good news in terms of our individual salvation from hell. Certainly that is good news! But we should note that such is not the focus here. For one, Luke thinks of salvation more in corporate than individual terms, and he barely mentions hell (cf. 12:5). Salvation in Luke is primarily about the restoration of God's people as a whole, especially Israel.

Even more, the good news is far more about Jesus than it is about us. The focus of the good news is that Jesus is king. The focus is not on me being saved but on Jesus being the Savior. He is "Christ," the Messiah, the anointed one, the king. He is "the Lord," the one who will rule over everything.

Yes, it will bring great joy to Israel. Yes, it will bring joy to the world. The good news is for everyone, well beyond the inhabited Roman world. But the good news is about Jesus. I as an individual am not the center of the universe.

12. And this to you [is] a sign: you will find the baby, having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Signs were a significant aspect of the ancient world. The Romans looked for omens, portents from the gods or of the Fates, telling of momentous events. In this case, the sign is not an owl, an earthquake, or thunder. The sign is a lowly baby in an animal's manger. God stands with the lowly.

It is of course possible that Luke means to echo Isaiah 7:14. In this verse, quoted in Matthew 1:23, God gives a sign to king Ahaz that involves a virgin conceiving a child. Perhaps Luke wants his audience to remember that Jesus' birth embodies this sign as well.

13. And immediately came with the angel a multitude of a heavenly army, praising God and saying, 14. "Glory in the highest [places] to God and upon earth peace among people of [God's] good pleasure."
The angel of the Lord is now joined by the angelic hosts. The number of angels is so great that it can only be summarized as a "multitude." The heavenly hosts appear occasionally in the Old Testament (e.g., 2 Kings 6:17). They are most of the time invisible to human sight, but God opens the eyes of the shepherds to see the heavens.

The angels make it clear that Jesus' birth is a matter of celebration on the highest levels of the cosmos. And just as the reign of Augustus ushered in the "pax Romana," the Roman peace, so Jesus' birth heralds the arrival of peace to the earth. Augustus ended civil war. He cleared the seas of pirates and the roads of robbers and violent men. Jesus would also bring peace to the earth.

For those raised on the King James Version or who have sung choir pieces from that era, the ending of the verse may be a little unfamiliar. You may be used to singing, "good will toward men." That is the way that most medieval copies or manuscripts of the New Testament read.

However, older manuscripts that have been discoved in the last few hundred years suggest that the original text read, "to people of good pleasure" rather than "good will toward people." The original sense seems to have been "peace on earth to those on whom God shows favor." Not all of course will experience the reign of Jesus as one of favor.

15. And it came to pass as the angels went away from them into the sky, the shepherds were saying to one another, "Let us go indeed into Bethlehem and let us see this word that has come to pass, that the Lord has made known to us." [7] 16. And they came, hurrying, and they found both Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.
The angels then withdraw back into the sky. In keeping with the fact that God meets us where we are, Luke and his audience would no doubt have thought of them going straight up to the top of the cosmos, where God's presence dwelt, the Most Holy Place of the cosmos.

The shepherds do not need to be told what to do next. They must go see. They want to go celebrate in person. They go to nearby Bethlehem, since they are in the fields between villages. God has shown them something. Is it just for information? No, it is for action!

If we are to fit the Gospels together, we should note that Matthew's wise men will not arrive for some time, probably over a year in fact. The shepherds hear of Jesus' birth almost immediately after it happens. Presumably space will be added in the house so that Jesus does not have to remain long in a manager. 

17. And having looked, they made known concerning the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child. [8] 18. And all who heard marveled concerning the things that had been spoken by the shepherds to them.
It was expected in that world that the birth of someone who would later be significant would be foreshadowed with events of significance. Jesus' birth combines these seemingly paradoxical elements. On the one hand, it is a lowly birth, showing that God is a God of the lowly, the poor, the outcasts and cast aside. 

Yet it is accompanied by angelic hosts from the heavens. Jesus' entrance to the world involved the glory of heaven, despite its earthly insignificance. Those who hear marvel at the knowledge, no doubt unable to process the event in their normal categories and ways of thinking.

19. And Mary was collecting all these words, pondering in her heart.
Mary is also trying to process what is happening. She will not be able to put it all together without new categories. She knows something momentous is happening. She believes. Her heart is fully on board. Her head cannot quite process it.

20. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God at all the things that they heard and saw, just as it was spoken to them.
The shepherds return to their normal lives. It is not the time for the kingdom to be restored to Israel. We do not know what happens to them. Would they still be alive thirty years later when John the Baptist started his ministry?

We do not always get to participate in the things that God announces or promises. We certainly cannot wait around for them. We must live our lives till Jesus returns. The shepherds did so, glorying in the knowledge of things they did not get to experience.

[1] An incription text known as the res gestae has been found in more than one place in Turkey (e.g., the Myrian inscription) celebrating the rule of Augustus in these categories. 

[2] The Priene inscription.

[3] The last two are not mutually exclusive.

[4] This is actually the place where I started making Greek grammatical notes in my posts. I then backfilled them into earlier passages in Luke. In this verse is an infinitive of cause.

[5] Interesting infinitive constructions.

[6] Cf. Stephen Carlson, "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7," NTS 56 (2010): 326-42.

[7] two hortatory subjunctives, relative clauses resulting from articular participle and relative pronoun

[8] aorist passive articular participle

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Luke 1:5-25 Explanatory Notes

The Annunciation,
Leonardo da Vinci

The Birth Narrative (1:5-2:52)

Announcement of John the Baptist (1:5-25)
5. And there came to be in the days of Herod, king of Judea, a certain priest by [the] name of Zechariah, from the order of Abijah, and his wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name [was] Elizabeth.

1. The first two chapters of Luke present the story of the birth of both Jesus and John the Baptist. Mark does not say anything about Jesus' birth, nor does it indicate any familial connection between Jesus and John the Baptist. Matthew also adds the story of Jesus' birth to its source material in Mark, but its presentation is quite different from that of Luke. Our Christmas plays would be interestingly different if we were lacking either one.

The birth and childhood of a person were viewed differently in the Greco-Roman world than we view them today. We have learned from Freud and modern psychology that childhood is a highly formative time, where a person is formed. If a person is somehow separated from parents or a context of love and nurture, it will be almost impossible for them to grow up and have normal loving relationships. [1] If their parents have certain unique or emphatic characteristics, those can have a major impact on the habits and patterns of later life. 

By contrast, the ancient Mediterraneans viewed childhood not as formative but as indicative. If a person became great, they must have always been destined for greatness. Therefore, there would have been signs of greatness as a child, omens and hints. Identity was something that was generally considered fixed throughout one's life rather than something formed. [2]

When God reveals Godself, when God speaks and inspires, God does it within the categories of our understanding. This is the principle of incarnation in revelation--God "takes on the flesh" of those to whom he is speaking. Otherwise we either would not understand or we would not understand nearly as well. God does not expect us to come up to his level--we cannot! God "stoops to our weakness." God comes down on our level and speaks in terms we can comprehend, because God is actually trying to communicate with us. God wants us to understand. [3]

So the function of the childhood narratives in Luke and Matthew are to foreshadow who Jesus and John the Baptist will become. Their births came with dramatic omens that point to the greatness we will later seen in their lives and indeed, in eternity. There are signs beyond anything anyone has ever or will ever experience again.

2. Luke 1 gives us the announcements of their births, focusing on their mothers. This focus on women in the story is highly unusual in the ancient world and is a signature of Luke. When revelation fits neatly within its world, that is not usually a main take-away. When revelation is unusual or unique for its world, that is usually a key point of revelation.

One also wonders if somewhere close to Luke is an influential woman speaking into his narrative.  Some have even suggested that Mary herself could have been a major source for Luke at this point. It is of course hard to say, but there are traditions that Mary came to Ephesus in later life. For the story of John the Baptist, we know that there were followers of him at Ephesus in the late first century. They would no doubt have inherited traditions about his origins. [4]

In Luke-Acts, the attention to the women of the story suggests that part of the new covenant and a distinctive feature of the good news is the elevation of women. In Acts 2:17, Luke will indicate that the Day of Pentecost brought a day when "daughters will prophesy." The elevation of women to equal status with men is a key part of the good news. In Christ, the curse of Genesis 3:16 is undone and the complete equality of women with men in every way is made possible, including leadership and ministry.

3. The Herod in question is of course Herod the Great. He does not feature in Luke's story but, if the Gospel of Matthew is also in the background of Luke, people would know of his cruelty from Matthew 2 where he kills the infants in Bethlehem. Since Luke is writing to a Roman official, it is perhaps not surprising that he does not highlight Herod's cruelty as a Roman proxy. 

It is a little surprising that Luke calls Herod the king of Judea, since he ruled a much larger area than just Judea. Herod also ruled Samaria and Galilee, as well as Idumea and Peraea. But perhaps at the time of writing, Luke believed it would be communicative to speak of the focal area.

In addition to the main priests like the high priest, there were many other priests and Levites throughout the land. Zechariah is a lower level priest who probably did not even live in Jerusalem. There were fifty-two orders of these lower level priests, and they served two weeks out of the year in the temple. Of course only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place of the temple and even then only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). His order is identified as the order of Abijah.

Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are from priestly lines. They are descendants of Aaron in the Old Testament, the first high priest. The fact that Elizabeth is of a priestly lineage may suggest that Mary also had some priestly blood in her background. If so, it would suggest that Jesus was not only of royal blood but also priestly in lineage. It would corroborate the sense that he was a king-priest (cf. Heb. 7). 

6. But they were both righteous before God, going in all the commandments and righteous requirements of the Lord blameless.
The New Testament knows nothing of the sense that "I'm not perfect, just forgiven." The New Testament authors expect that actual, lived-out righteousness will be true of God's people. There is no "legal fiction" about Zechariah and Elizabeth having some righteousness on paper that they do not actually live out. They are actually righteous. 

They obey the commandments of God, period. They keep the righteous expectations of the Jewish Law. Indeed, they are blameless in their keeping of the Law. Paul will say the same thing of himself in Philippians 3:6. He realizes that, while God expects righteous behavior, this is not how God has chosen to justify us, to declare us right with him. Only Christ is the way to that.

7. And there was not to them a child because Elizabeth was barren, and both had advanced in their days.
There was of course a huge stigma on a woman who did not bear a child. In their world, they assumed the woman was always the cause. A woman's womb was viewed as something like an oven in which the seed from the man was cooked. Any failure of the system was attributed to her.

We now know, of course, that this is not always the case. The man is just as likely to be the reason why pregnancy does not occur. And of course we know that the man and woman both contribute equally to the genetic material of the child.

The barrenness of Elizabeth invokes the stories of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, as well as Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2. We find echoes of both those stories in the birth story of John the Baptist. Elizabeth would have had difficulty ever being valued as a woman in that world. God is about to take away her stigma. 

Indeed, this is one of the key messages of Luke-Acts. God lifts the status of the marginalized. God takes those who are shamed in their world. He lifts them and gives them places of great honor.

8. And it happened while he was serving in the order of his division before God, 9. according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him [by lot] to offer incense, having entered into the temple of the Lord. 10. And all the multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of the incense.
1. A team of five priests served each day in the outer room of the temple, the "Holies" or "Holy Place." This is a great honor, usually a once in a lifetime honor. In their worldview, God chose by the casting of lots who was supposed to do it. We can assume that, in this instance, God did indeed choose Zechariah.

Christians debate whether God micromanages the world on this level all the time, with some believing God determines every last event. The Wesleyan tradition of which I am a part believes that God also empowers humans to make at least some decisions, particularly those relating to salvation. I personally believe that God has built freedom into the creation on the quantum level. You might say that God has given the universe some degree of "free will."

So this was likely the first time that Zechariah had ever offered incense in the temple. This took place twice a day, in the morning at dawn and in the evening at dusk. Perhaps we should picture evening prayer here because there seem to be more people present than we might expect at dawn. They are praying, waiting on a blessing after the crew of priests is finished.

In Revelation 8:4, we get the sense that incense was associated with the prayers of the people. It was not an animal sacrifice but generating special smells that likely symbolized originally God smelling something good. God inhaled, as it were, the prayers of the people, and he smiled with a delight like we have when we smell our favorite foods. Incense is thus like a symbolic catalyst to carry our prayers up to God. 

2. A couple key features of Luke-Acts again linger in the background here. First, Luke-Acts both emphasize the importance of prayer even more than the other Gospels. These first two chapters of Luke, unique to his Gospel, are full of prayers.

We also see the centrality of the temple within the "map" of Luke-Acts. The story begins in the temple, and Paul will visit the temple in Acts 21 at the end of the storyline as well. Jerusalem is the center of Luke's universe. Jesus will ascend to heaven from Jerusalem in Acts 1, and it will be from Jerusalem that the witness to Jesus begins in Acts 1:8.

11. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him on the right hand of the altar of incense. 12. and Zechariah was terrified when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 
No doubt the appearance of an angel would be terrifying. Fear is the universal reaction in Scripture and Jewish literature at the appearance of an angel. The response of the angel in the next verse is also common, "Fear not."

Who knows what picture of an angel is in Luke's mind here. Does Zechariah see a humongous figure, an other-dimensional figure? We will soon find out that the angel in question is none other than the Gabriel of Daniel 8-9. The right side was understood in that culture to be a favored side and would be perceived as befitting a messenger from God. The word angel means "messenger."

The altar of incense was located in the outer room of the two-part sanctuary. In the book of Revelation, it symbolizes the prayers of God's people (Rev. 5:8). Perhaps it is no coincidence that Zechariah is assigned to the altar of incense at the very time that the long term prayers of him and his wife Elizabeth are about to be answered.

13. But the angel said to him, "Do not fear, Zechariah, because your petition was heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to a son, and you will call his name 'John.'"
Presumably, the petitions in question are the prayers for a child because of their inability to have a son. At this stage of their life, those prayers were probably long in the past. Clearly, even when God answers prayers, he does not always do so on our preferred time schedule. The prediction is made, and the name of John is instructed.

14. And joy will be to you, and rejoicing, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15. For he will be great before the Lord. And wine and strong drink he will never drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. [5]
Joy is of course one of the themes of Christmas, and the joy of the birth narrative starts with the promise of children. There will of course be puzzlement as well. Zechariah will not likely be the only one to question whether this is really going to happen, and Elizabeth will not publicize her blessing immediately. But there will be great rejoicing at the birth to be sure.

There is also the foreshadowing of the great role John the Baptist will play. We know of John the Baptist even today, after all. But we have reason to believe that there were followers of John the Baptist who did not believe in Jesus even in the late first century. [6] His role will be as the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who prepares the way of the Lord (Luke 3:4; Mal. 3:1; 4:5).

John the Baptist would apparently be a Nazirite. Nazirites did not drink any form of alcohol and did not cut their hair as an indication of sanctification to God (cf. Num. 6:1-6). Most Israelites were not Nazirites, including Jesus himself. 

Interestingly, John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. This is an indication that Luke does not think that being filled with the Holy Spirit requires the conscious involvement of a person. This observation is often used as an argument in support of infant baptism, since John is "in" the people of God even before he can consciously choose God.

16-17. And he will turn many of the sons [and daughters] of Israel to the Lord their God. And he himself will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers [and mothers] to [their] children and disobedient [ones] with the prudence of the righteous, to prepare for the Lord a people having been equipped. 
While we are prone to spiritualize the mission of Jesus and John the Baptist, it had a clear political and "real world" overtone for Jesus' day. In the minds of those who heard the message of Jesus and John the Baptist, the restoration of Israel as a free, political entity on the earth was a central point. They did not hear the message in terms of their individual relationships with God but in terms of Israel's corporate relationship with God.

John the Baptist would turn Israel as a people back to God. His mission was to prepare the way for the Messiah to rule a restored people and a restored "nation." He was to get everything ready for the restored kingdom. This task required turning the allegiance of the Jews back to God. 

Parents needed to resume teaching their children to serve the Lord. Those who have strayed from the covenant of God with Israel needed to learn from the "prudence," from the practical wisdom of the righteous. The righteous are those who have kept the covenant, who have followed the Jewish Law. The people of God need to be "reconstructed," "equipped," "furnished" with the tools needed for the re-auguration of the kingdom.

You generally do not move into a house until it is built. You do not sleep in a structure without a roof. You do not move in until there is a front door to close. John the Baptist was Elijah, whose task was to get the building in order before the king would move in for good.

The mention of Elijah is again an allusion to the words of Malachi, especially 4:5-6. [7] There, God speaks of sending Elijah before the Day of the Lord. Malachi speaks of Elijah turning the hearts of the children to their parents to save Israel from judgment. Gabriel thus connects the prediction of Malachi with John the Baptist.

18. And Zechariah said to the angel, "In what way am I to know this, for I am an old man, and my wife having been advanced in her days?"
Zechariah seems to doubt the message. Certainly he is given the mild chastisement of silence as a reminder of the need for faith. As I have heard said, Mary questions the "how" it will happen, Zechariah questions "if" it will happen.

From a human perspective, his doubt is not unreasonable. However, the appearance of an angel in the Holy Place suggests that he should have suspended his sense of the normal. From a human perspective, the birth is impossible. She is too old; he is less than likely. This will be a true miracle because it will contravene the laws of nature.

19. And answering, the angel said to him, "I myself am Gabriel, the one who has stood before God, and I was sent to speak to you and to announce the good news of these things to you...
We now find out the name of the angel. This is Gabriel, the messenger angel, whom we know from Daniel 8 and 9. Perhaps we are meant to see a connection between the prophecy of Daniel and the births of Jesus and John the Baptist. Although in general Luke is less apocalyptic, less oriented around cataclysmic events of the second coming than Matthew and Mark, the presence of Gabriel may allude to the arrival of John the Baptist and Jesus as the beginning of the end. 

Gabriel proclaims good news (euangelizomai). In the first instance, the good news would seem to be the birth of John the Baptist. The birth of a son after barrenness is good news. The birth of a son at such an age is a miracle. The birth of a son in that world is good news period. 

But of course we must suspect that the good news is even greater. The good news is that God is going to restore his people. The good news is that God is sending the Messiah. God is sending Israel its king.

20. "... And behold, you will be silent and not able to speak until the day these things come to be, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." [8]
Zechariah did not respond in faith, so his mouth is sealed. It is a mild punishment but also a sign to those around him. They will know that something significant has happened and is happening. It builds suspends for the arrival of John the Baptist.

21. And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they marveled at him delaying in the temple. [9] 22. And having come out, he was not able to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he himself was signaling to them and was remaining unable to speak.
It was conventional for a priest to give a blessing to the people after the service in the temple was complete. But Zechariah cannot speak when he emerges. Not only is he unable to give the blessing, but he is delayed in coming outside. The task presumably would not have taken too long normally. All these factors again indicate that something different and striking has happened and is about to happen.

Zechariah motions and presumably would like to share what has happened with the people, but he is unable. He motions with his hands but cannot communicate it. They realize that he has had a vision in the place where God touches the earth. This is the nexus of God's communication with the earth at this time in history, and God has presumably spoken. 

23. And it came to pass, as the days of his ministry were fulfilled, he went away into his house.
The work that Zechariah is doing is "leitourgia." It is not just ministry but a ministry of worship that is done in relation to God rather than humanity. The English word liturgy is derived from this Greek word. It is service to God rather than service toward others. Zechariah has had the job of a lifetime, and it is now fulfilled. He returns to whatever village outside of Jerusalem he may be from. 

24. And after these days, Elizabeth his wife conceived and was hiding herself for five months, saying, 25. "For thus the Lord has done for me in the days that he looked on to take away my reproach among people."
One of the special themes of Luke-Acts is its attention to the role women played in the story of the gospel. Elizabeth is the first of these women. Whereas Matthew's birth story focuses on the royalty of Jesus and features kings and wise men, Luke's birth story has a lowly priest and his wife, a lowly virgin from Galilee, and hardly noticeable elderly people who come regularly to the temple.

These "nobodies" fit with Luke's teaching that Jesus came to reclaim the marginal rather than the powerful and central. He came for the lowly, not the exalted. He came for the sick and not the healthy.

Elizabeth apparently does not let anyone know that she is pregnant for five months. People would probably have doubted her if she had said, but at five months it will become clear. Those who have had miscarriages in the past are also sometimes more cautious about sharing their pregnancies because of their past experiences.

Barrenness was a matter of reproach in that world. Elizabeth's central identity as a woman in that world was the production of a male heir. Although we know that Zechariah may actually have been the cause, they did not. They blamed the woman, viewing her as a sort of incubator of the man's seed. A woman's womb was like an oven in which the seed was cooked. If there was a problem, they thought it was the wife's fault.

She would have lived her whole married life with this social stigma. No matter how much love Zechariah might have given her, she would have inevitably experienced social shame. His family may even have treated her with some contempt. She had failed at the very reason for her existence in the family. God was now taking all of that shame away, as he did with Sarah and Hannah in the Scriptures. 

[1] This was seen in the Romanian orphans under the communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu, where babies were not held as infants. Even the best developed of these children have difficulty today relating to other people. We can hope that the intentional policy of separating children from parents at the southern US border under the Trump administration will not have such long-lasting effects on those children.

[2] Of course we also believe that "nature" plays a role in our personalities in addition to "nurture." It is a both/and--genetics and environment.  

[3] Even referring to God as "he" is a tool to help the patriarchal worlds of the Bible understand. God has no genitalia and in fact also uses feminine imagery in the Bible to reveal "herself" to the world (e.g., Isa 49:15). There is a significant implication--to take the Bible too "literally" is to tie God down to ancient worldviews, the parts of the Bible that were the ancient clothing rather than the message. 

[4] For followers of John the Baptist at Ephesus around the year AD58, see Acts 19:3. Many think the de-emphasis of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John may reflect that followers of John the Baptist who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah may have continued in Ephesus until the 90s.

[5] I have decided to record grammar of interest as it appears. This verse has a subjunctive of emphatic negation.

[6] Acts hints at this in 19:3-4, and the way the Gospel of John presents John the Baptist may imply the situation at Ephesus in the late first century. 

[7] Malachi 2:6-7; 3:1, 18; 4:5-6.

[8] This verse has a future periphrastic construction.

[9] This verse has a temporal infinitive construction and an imperfect periphrastic.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

C.S. Lewis -- End of Course

 The C.S. Lewis webinar is now in the history books. The schedule was:

1. This week we read Book IV of Mere Christianity. We read A Grief Observed. And we read two shorter pieces: "Petitionary Prayer" and "Learning in War Time."

I sense it could be a very long time till I would read something else from Lewis so I want to use the Christmas Break to finish some of his key writings. I think I'll work on the Problem of Pain next and post on A Grief Observed at that time. Then The Abolition of Man and Miracles then we are done.

2. "Petitionary Prayer" was an interesting little piece. Lewis presents an age-old conundrum. Sometimes we are to pray, "Thy will be done" and at other times we are to pray with confidence, "to move mountains." The first expresses uncertainty about what God will do. The second has the faith of complete certainty. 

Lewis' possible solution, as I understand it, is that you will know when God wants you to pray the second kind of prayer. Otherwise it's the first. I liken the sentiment to dreaming. When you're dreaming, you can be uncertain whether you are awake. When you are awake, you know you are awake.

So when it is time to pray with absolute faith you will know it is time. Otherwise, "thy will be done."

The question of Jesus' "uncertainty" in the Garden was brought up in class. Was it more an expression of feeling than uncertainty about God's will? It would not be unbiblical to suggest that Jesus was still not fully accessing his omniscience at this point. There is great certainty but still a lack of access to complete knowledge. And there is genuine dread.

Here's a quote I liked from this short essay: "Wisdom must sometimes refuse what ignorance may quite innocently ask."

3. The essay, "Learning in War Time" basically said, "We are in World War II, why study?"

This is an interesting piece because it argues for a space for knowledge for its own sake despite other things that are more urgent. This is a timely question for me. Education of necessity is increasingly utilitarian--"What job can I get with this major?" Similarly in the church, "If winning souls is the most important thing, why would we do anything else?"

Lewis' argument is that humanity doesn't work like that. We will not be saving souls all the time. Even on the front line in war we will read books. The human mind cannot just do the urgent all the time or we will burn out. We need sabbath.

I have taken a different approach. History, philosophy, religion, literature, art, music, wellness, math, science are actually utilitarian, but not everyone realizes it. A liberal arts education, when it works, does something to you. It chops off the extremes that come from ignorance. There will still be variation, but hopefully it will be a variation that is somewhat in the middle rather than at the extremes. I may write on this.

A quote I liked: "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered."

4. This week we also finished Mere Christianity, Book IV. Here are some quotes:

  • Lewis' delineation of the Trinity seems right--We pray to the Father, through the Son, powered by the Holy Spirit within us.
  • He espouses a now common trope. For God to be love, there must be more than one person before the creation. Perhaps so, but this overreads the verse, "God is love," which is a metonymy.
  • Book IV is largely about sanctification. There is a lot of commonality between Lewis' theology and Wesleyan-Arminian theology. I even wrote "entire sanctification" in the margin at one point.
  • We "dress up" like Christ (chap 7). Eventually, when we take off the mask, we will find that we actually look like Christ.
  • "Men are mirrors, or 'carriers' of Christ to other men."
  • "It is God who does everything," that is the actual sanctification.
  • "The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs."
  • "If you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones."
  • "If Christianity was something we were making up... we could make it easier. But it is not... We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about."
  • "Mere improvement is not redemption."
  • "I cannot help thinking that the Next Step will be really new; it will go off in a direction you could never have dreamed of."
  • "Just as they are patting down the earth on its [Christianity's] grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place."

Sunday, December 13, 2020

C.S. Lewis -- The Four Loves

The C.S. Lewis webinar is almost over. I am behind on my blogging, but I thought I would quickly post a summary of The Four Loves from this week.

But here is the schedule so far.

I. Summary

The Four Loves was one of his last and, to me, it definitely had a mature feel to it.

He would say there are three "natural loves": affection (a bond such as between mother and child, storge), friendship (which is more than companionship, phileo), and eros (which is more than sex).

They can all play out in good and bad ways. The good ways all resemble God, especially when they function in a "gift" way, for God is the great Giver. They can also function in a "need" way which is not like God.

Being "like" God, however, is different from moving us toward God. The latter is far more important.

Finally, these three natural loves are lower loves. The higher love is God's "charity" or agape. His gift of agape fills and perfects the other loves, and it moves them back to God and toward others.

II. Thoughts

1. I feel like I have entered into Lewis' world here enough that it will take me a little disentangling to get out enough to look at it critically. I have been wrestling with Lewis' metaphysic quite a bit this module, which is to a large extent an Augustinian metaphysic. Lewis' writings have a tendency to shame the non-Platonist, it seems to me. 

He treats ideas and values as real and implies that those who do not are in a sense denying the reality of God. No doubt he received his fair share of mocking at Oxford, so I don't begrudge him portraying his detractors as two-dimensional people who could not perceive the spiritual dimension, the most real dimension. Certainly atheists do tend to be reductionists who do not allow for a reality beyond the empirical.

2. So what is love? I wrestled with this a bit in college. Do I love my girlfriend? I concluded more or less that love is what Lewis calls "affection" or storge (στοργή). It is an attachment to someone. As he says, you don't even have to like someone to be attached to them. They can even be abusive and yet you love them. You are connected to them, drawn to them, attached to them.

Do you wish them well? I suspect a person can have mixed feelings toward someone they love. They may want to "kill them" sometimes. But you find it hard to leave them. You would not want them to die. They are part of you.

3. There are usually feelings attached to such affection. They are feelings of desire. Love, it seems to me, is often a kind of desire for someone. Friendship is a form of this desire when the attachment is very positive. Eros is a form of desire that is more physical in nature and relates to certain kinds of human urges. A number of desires come from our bodies, perhaps all of them are based in our bodies. Lewis calls these "need desires."

There are higher human desires, like the desire for beauty. Lewis calls this "appreciation love." I personally have a strong desire for knowledge. Is the desire to give a different kind of love, a "gift" love, a "grace love"? We can categorize it as different but who is to say that it is not also based in underlying human needs?

4. Then there is Christ's command to love. Most of what I have said so far is not too different from what Lewis says. But it is when he begins to talk about "charity" that his metaphysic begins to come into play.

The Christian command to love is a command to treat other people in a particular kind of way. It means to "do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matt. 7:12). This is not about feelings necessarily. It could involve an attachment to others, but it is in the end about how you behave toward others. The fundamental Christian ethic is to behave in such a way that benefits others.

The New Testament tells us that such a behavior orientation sums up all of God's requirements of us toward others. Again, we do not have to like others to love them in this way. We do not have to desire them or feel attached to them to love them in this way, although I suspect a thoroughgoing attitude of love toward others will create attachment over time. Motion can bring emotion.

Similarly, Paul's theology would suggest, like Lewis, that we cannot consistently exhibit such love without the power of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, we will fail to demonstrate love to others in the manner God commands. This is the plight of Romans 7. There is thus an empowerment from God to love, to behave lovingly toward others. 

Lewis puts it like this: "Only those into which Love Himself has entered will ascend to Love Himself." This is thick language and thus fraught with the potential for extraneous meaning. I have simply said that without God's empowerment, we will find it difficult to behave to the benefit of others and as befits our submission to God--more on this latter category in a moment. 

So we have two senses of love thus far. There is love as a desire of various degrees and kinds toward others. Then there is love as the moral command to act in such a way as to benefit others. [1]

I should also stop here and say that it is the "root" fallacy to think that there must be some common core meaning of love in all these instances. This is a fallacy of hermeneutics. Words often have distinct meanings. They may have historically common origins of meaning we can trace, but meaning is always "synchronic" (a snapshot of usage at a particular place and time) rather than "diachronic" (where past meanings would always be involved in present usage). [2]

The varied meanings of a word are a sort of "word cloud" of meaning. These varied meanings may have some relation to each other, some family resemblance, but they don't have to. Over time, meanings to a word can diverge so extensively that a dictionary will list the words separately rather than as one word with multiple definitions. The fallacious understanding of meaning is very pervasive and especially comes into play in discussions like this one.

5. Our next consideration is what we mean when we say that God is love (1 John 4:8). This is not an ontological statement. It is a metonymy. Love is so associated with God that we can say that "God is love." Any attempt to say, "but it says God is love" and therefore that this must be some sort of statement about God's being is sheer ignorance of language, laughable, linguistic incompetence.

The point is that God behaves thoroughly lovingly toward us. Love so typifies God's orientation toward us that we can say God "is" love. Such a metonymic statement suggests that God is also attached to us. God "desires" us beyond behaving in a certain way toward us. Of course, Lewis is right theologically that God does not "need" us. [3] 

As Lewis says, however, "We had better not follow Humpty Dumpty in making words mean whatever we please." When John says that God is love, we should understand love in normal ways. God wishes our benefit. This is true not only of those who serve him but of his enemies as well (Rom. 5:8). He is "attached" to those who do not serve him.

6. The last dimension of this discussion is the most difficult. What does it mean to say that we must love God with all our being? If God is self-sufficient, it makes little sense that we would act in a way that literally benefits God. Hopefully, the love of God does involve an affection and attachment to God, a desire for God, but I doubt this is what the Old Testament meant. Let's just say that the Ancient Near East was not a touchy-feely place.

So it is doubtful that God commands us to have certain feelings toward him. Feelings are epiphenomena. In themselves they are neither good nor bad. They just are. We can feed them inappropriately. There are ideal emotions to go along with our actions. But raw feeling is amoral and to a large extent biochemical.

The command to love God is a command to orient our behavior in complete allegiance to God. It is thus rooted in an orientation of our behavior. We act in such a way that conforms to his "benefit," understood as that which pleases him. [4]

The vast majority of that which pleases God is the love of our neighbor and enemy, but we probably cannot exhaust the biblical onus in this way without remainder. So we have love as desire. [5] We have love as acting in the benefit of others. The final sense is love as allegiance.

7. So there you have Ken's "three loves," with subcategories: love as desire, love as orientation of action toward the benefit of others, and love as allegiance to God. Since these last two are rooted in action, we could even reduce the list to two kinds of loves: love as desire and love as a type of moral choice toward action.  

[1] To the extent that we do not want ourselves to be harmed and that we are attached to ourselves, we "love" ourselves, a root assumption of the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (e.g., Matt. 22:39).

[2] We had an instance of this dynamic in the Lewis Q & A session. A high school student was puzzled at Lewis' use of the word charity for the highest love. Since meaning is synchronic, she only knew the sense of the word as beneficent giving to those who are in need, sometimes involving pity. Lewis, of course, was operating off the King James Version, where charity is the highest love and translates agape (e.g., 1 Cor. 13:13). The meaning of the word charity changed over the course of the twentieth century.   

[3] These things are theologically messy because of the degree to which metaphor is involved.

[4] It is almost impossible to convey these things without resorting to human analogies that are not quite literal.

[5] With desire perhaps subcategorized into 1) attachment desire, 2) physical desire (e.g., sexual, nourishment, nurture--"need" desires), and perhaps what Lewis calls "gift" loves are more subtle human desires as well-- 3) appreciation and 4) beneficent desires.