Quiet Assurance

I’m using my “read through the Bible in a year” schedule to select passages on which to preach each Sunday. I’ve been trying to rotate between the three sections – Psalms, Old Testament, and New Testament. So far this year has been mostly bouncing between the Old and New Testament readings, but I have a bunch of passages to preach from the Psalms in the second half of the year (my reading schedule calls for a reading of the Psalms twice each year.) This Sunday, however, the Psalm reading won out.

I will be preaching specifically on Psalm 46. Notice how this Psalm ends –

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Ps. 46:10-11, ESV)

Have you ever noticed with what a quiet calm so many of the biblical writers faced their greatest fears and calamities? Now, to be sure there are many passages which speak of anxiety and concern. But, just off the top of my head these other passages came to mind as I was thinking about Psalm 46 –

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the LORD, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Such faith, such calmness, such beautiful literature!

We are truly living in unsettled times – our culture, our morality, our very democracy is being shaken to its roots. What can we do – to whom and to where do we turn?

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 121)

I have to honestly admit a sense of fear about the future. I fear for my daughter, and for the generation her generation will raise. When our government tells us that men have to be allowed into women’s restrooms, when high school girls have to sue the state of Connecticut in order to be allowed to compete in track events without the presence of male competitors, when presidential candidates openly promote abortion until the very moment of birth – and when a presidential candidate shamelessly promotes his marriage to his “husband,” I have to ask, “Where will it stop?” And, how did we get to this point anyway?

I think I was born without an optimism bone, or muscle. I am Captain Pessimism. Maybe Admiral Pessimism might be more accurate. So, in days like today, in times like these, I really need to hear these passages from the Psalms and Habakkuk.

I think I’m going to be preaching to myself this Sunday. All others are welcome to eavesdrop, if you wish.

Bible Reading Schedules Now Posted

Every year for the past several years I have posted “Bible Reading Schedules” that will allow you to read the Bible through either once or twice in a given year. The schedules for 2020 are now posted on their separate pages.

If you are familiar with these schedules, they are identical to past years. If you have never seen one of my schedules, a few notes are in order. One, you will notice that there is no reading for Sundays. I assume you will be attending a church service, and for that day I am also making the assumption that you will be provided with a text (or two) in the sermon and/or in your Bible class for you to read and to meditate upon for that day. Alternatively, you can use the lectionary reading(s) for that Sunday – something that I do in my own daily reading. (These are available in a number of sources – either print or on-line. Search for “Common Lectionary Readings.” Note that the liturgical year begins in December with Advent. There are three years of lectionary readings, and you will want to be sure you are reading for the appropriate year, either “A”, “B”, or “C.”

You will also notice that for the “Read the Bible Through Once” schedule, there is only a reading for the Psalms on Saturday. This will allow you to “make up” on Saturday for any days that you missed during that week.

In the “Read the Bible Through Twice” you will see that on Mondays and Saturdays there is only one chapter of the New Testament, and on all other days there are 2. There are always 5 chapters of the Old Testament.

In both schedules the Psalms are read through twice. This allows a constant presence in the praise, lament, and worship literature of the Israelites and the early church.

I guess it should go without saying, but any schedule that keeps you in God’s Word is a good one. Some individuals like to read slowly – taking several years to work through the Bible. Some prefer a chronological approach – attempting to place the books in the order in which they were written (to the best of our knowledge). Some prefer reading schedules such as the Moravian Brethren produce – and I have used those schedules and like them very much. (Search for “Moravian Brethren” on the internet. They have a number of different editions for you to choose from). These schedules posted here are just my attempt to work out a schedule to keep myself (and any others who are interested) in the text. Use them if they are useful, lose them if they are not.

Whatever schedule you prefer, the important thing is that we keep our hearts and minds in the text of God’s Word, and that we seek to apply his guidance in our daily lives.

Blessings on your study in 2020! Let us all ascend by climbing lower.

Another Word Concerning Jesus and Jewish Messianism

A brief follow-up to my last post (here The Danger of Imprecise Assertions of Truth).

First, a qualification. I want to reassure everyone that, while I feel it critical to speak as precisely as possible, in no way should you think I would jump up and down and criticize anyone who made the statement, “Such and such is a prophecy concerning Jesus.” Sometimes we make statements that we would not make upon further reflection, and more often than that we are guilty of making statements that exceed our level of learning. So, I cringe when I hear these statements, and given the opportunity to correct in private I would (or I might just let it go, depending of the maturity of the speaker) or, more preferably, when given the opportunity to teach correctly I would do that. So, here in this space I can speak as loudly as I want, and I hope to stir my readers’ conscience a little so that when they go to make statements that sound true, but cannot be defended by Scripture, that they back up a little and reconsider their verbiage.

A second issue when we speak of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah that are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus is the fact that, at least in Matthew, quite a few of them are not messianic at all, and at least one is not a prophecy! When Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 he is not quoting a prophecy – Hosea is making a historical reference! But, here is a critical clue – Matthew does not call this text a prophecy. He simply said that the events he recorded of Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaping to Egypt “fulfilled” what the Lord had spoken. Now, we subconsciously interpret that to be a prophecy, but note that Matthew never calls it a prophecy.

Here is where we fall into a series of false assumptions. False assumption number 1 – that the word “prophecy” means a “prediction” that is only “fulfilled” when every aspect of the prophecy is met. False assumption number 2 – if a prophet speaks or writes, everything he says or writes is a prophecy (meaning prediction) that has to be fulfilled 100%. False assumption number 3 – if that prophet is quoted (or referenced) in the New Testament, what is being referenced is a prophecy (prediction) that has to be fulfilled 100%.

So, Matthew quotes (or references) Hosea, and since Hosea is a prophet, and since prophets say or write pure predictions, then what Hosea said or wrote is a prophecy that is fulfilled 100% in Jesus. Except, Hosea said and wrote a lot of things that were not prophecies, especially messianic prophecies, and what we read in Hosea 11:1 is just simply not a prophecy. Matthew (guided by the Holy Spirit) did see in that text a fulfillment of “what the Lord had spoken,” but is careful never to mention that it was a prophecy.

Check me on this – Matthew is very guarded in his language regarding the texts he uses to buttress his argument that Jesus is indeed the messiah. In 1:22 he quotes Isaiah 7:14, but once again does not use the word prophecy. Indeed, how could he, since Jesus was named Jesus, not Immanuel? In Matthew 2:5-6 he quotes Micah 5:2, and once again refrains from making specific reference to a prophecy. [Note: in all of these texts this is the one that fits our definition of a prophecy the best, but still, it is not specifically called a prophecy.] Then in 2:18 he quotes Jeremiah 31:15, and yet again refrains from making a specific claim to a prophecy. Indeed, once again, this is a reference to a current, or past, event, not a future “prediction.” Yet, he uses each of these texts to support his ultimate claim that Jesus is the messiah.

How can he say that Jesus fulfills these texts if they are not “prophecies?” Simply because he is working with one concept of Scripture, and we are working from another. We are working under the assumption that a text can only be “fulfilled” if it is a “prophecy,” because to us a “prophecy” is a “prediction” that demands a 100% one-to-one equivalency.

To me it is clear beyond any question that Matthew is using Old Testament texts to demonstrate (“prove”) Jesus is the messiah. Yet, Matthew was unquestionably aware of the multitude of varying views of the messiah that were current in his day. He was careful to use language that communicated his point, without unduly clouding his gospel with extraneous misunderstandings. In my most humble opinion, his gospel is a beautiful example of the use of precise language. We cloud and disrespect that language when we make the text say what WE want it to say, and not allow Matthew to speak clearly.

Once again with emphasis – the Old Testament authors spoke (and wrote) about a coming Messiah. Jesus fulfilled all of those passages, and the New Testament writers, guided by the Holy Spirit, took those passages and demonstrated how Jesus is the answer to the question, Who is the Messiah, and what will his reign look like?

Let us proclaim Jesus is the Messiah, let us do it fearlessly, and, above all, let us do it precisely, as Scripture calls us to do.

The Danger of Imprecise Assertions of Truth

Good morning gentle readers, today’s rant is brought to you by anyone and everyone (the humble Freightdawg himself) who has ever uttered something with absolute certainty that was, at to some degree or another, dead wrong.

I think I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog or its predecessor how my father gave me some deep and wonderful gifts. One of them is an awareness of the peculiarities and precision of the English language, used correctly. He was an architect, and there were a number of things that just really set him off – like when an architectural student confused a roof with a ceiling. True, they are both over your head, but apparently for some students the difference was much further over their heads than mere space. My father taught me, for instance, the difference between shade and shadow. When we sit in the cool side of a tree on a hot summer day, we are actually sitting in the shadow of the tree, not its shade. The shade is that which is connected to the bark as the tree stands. Nit-picking, you say? Harumph and pffft to you. Many words and expressions in our vocabulary carry life and death meanings, and to confuse them can have disastrous results. For an aviation example, pilots are always cleared for takeoff, and cleared to land. Arcane? Perhaps, but knowing the difference keeps a lot of people alive every day.

So, I am going to make a statement that, I’m sure, is going to upset some people, but here goes –

There is not one single prophecy concerning Jesus in the Old Testament.

None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. As in, zero.

You probably think I am enjoying some of the flora that has been recently decriminalized in my fair state, but no – and you can check me on this. I’ll wait.

Now, let me make another statement that is also 100% true –

The Old Testament contains many statements (I refuse to label them all as “prophecies”) about the coming Messiah, and Jesus fulfills every one of them as precisely as the New Testament writer intends.

You see, one thing I have learned in my study of Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (the books that most protestant groups do not consider to be Scripture) is that there was not one, single, monolithic, universal concept regarding who and what the Messiah was to be. When we make statements like, “The Jews expected the Messiah to be . . . ” (and believe me, I have done so many times) we generally limit that expectation to be of a warrior, military king. And, to be sure, that was one picture of what the Messiah was supposed to be. But, I really do not think that was the picture of the Messiah that the Essenes espoused. The truth is the Jewish people at the time Jesus was born were an eclectic people, with many thoughts and ideas and concepts and religious and political and cultural beliefs – and all of those religious and political and economic and cultural (Hebrew as well as Greek) components combined to make for a number of Messianic expectations.

So, what does this have to do with reading the Bible and making theological conclusions? Just this – when we say that an Old Testament passage was a “prophecy concerning Jesus” we are just as wrong as the architectural student pointing to the ceiling and saying that the roof needed another coat of paint. The Old Testament passage may or may not be a prophecy (depending entirely upon how you interpret the word “prophecy”), but you will never find the name “Jesus” in the Old Testament. The Old Testament passage may or may not have originally been viewed as messianic (and many were not, which subsequent Jewish writers did view as messianic), but, once again, Jesus was never mentioned. For us, the critical thing to accept is that through the Holy Spirit, the New Testament writers did see in a number of Old Testament passages a fore-telling of the coming Messiah, and that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled those word pictures fully.

I know that many of my readers view my posts as picky, sometimes to an extreme. Sorry – it’s inborn and instilled deeply. I am, as my father said (proudly, I think), a nut. I can’t help it. I believe that when we speak of spiritual things, and especially when we speak of textual passages, we need to be careful lest we inadvertently say or write something that is generally accepted, but factually incorrect. I am guilty of over-generalizations and careless speech far more often than I would like to admit, and it is this carelessness that I want to avoid.

We can argue that Jesus is the fulfillment of every passage in the Old Testament that refers to the coming of a messiah without making the incorrect statement that the Old Testament makes many prophecies about Jesus. To argue the first is to be on solid biblical and theological ground. To argue the second is to put on the Old Testament passages a precision that they simply did not have – and, at least in my humble opinion – did not even intend to have.

As the old sergeant said when he concluded roll call on the early episodes of Hill Street Blues, “let’s be careful out there.” Let us speak where the Bible indeed does speak, and be very careful when we make derivative conclusions based on those clear statements in Scripture.

It is all a matter of ascending by climbing lower.

The Cycle of Accepting and Promoting a False Teaching

Some while back I posted an article about the triviality of Sunday School answers The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers” I want to expand a little on that thesis today.

How do these Sunday School answers get started, and, particularly troubling, how do incorrect Sunday School answers get started and promoted? I think the cycle goes something like this: a person hears or reads something that was said or written by someone they have no reason to doubt, and may even trust sincerely. Thus, whatever is said or written is accepted wholesale, with no questions asked. Then, they share what they see or have heard. Maybe they see or hear it again from another source, and maybe the particular group they are in accepts the teaching with open arms (ears). The cycle then becomes self-repeating.

Last night I was party to a discussion about a conclusion that I personally disagree with, but do not consider it to be of such importance as a salvation issue or a fellowship issue. I just cannot accept it, based on my education and on my exegesis of the relevant texts. What I found interesting as I sat (kind of like that fly on the wall) was that there was virtually universal acceptance of the teaching in question. As the class progressed, and after about 40 minutes or so of discussion, a later portion of the text was read which at the very least called the earlier assumptions into question (and, in my very humble opinion, flatly rejected those assumptions). At this point the class had basically two options: they could revisit their earlier conclusions, or they could attempt to somehow massage the later verses so that those verses could fit the earlier (again, imho) incorrect conclusion. They strove mightily to accomplish the second, while blissfully ignoring that their earlier conclusion might have been wrong, and so they might need to revisit the meaning of the first section of the passage.

It was a fascinating example of group-think, and how we will move mountains to justify a position we initially hold, rather than stop to consider we might be wrong to begin with, and therefore need to “start over from scratch” to correct an invalid conclusion.

Regarding the passage in question, I am absolutely convinced of the correctness of my conclusion. The class members are equally convinced of the correctness of their position. The thing is, the two positions are diametrically opposed, and cannot in any way, shape, or form, be harmonized. One of us (or perhaps both?) are clearly wrong. Who is to judge?

I’m not going to pontificate here – as I said, based on the context, and on other relevant passages, and on related theological issues, I will hold firmly to my conclusion until someone can convince me based on solid exegetical methods that I am wrong. As I said earlier, I do not hold the two interpretations to be a salvation issue – although I would hasten to add that the “other” interpretation does come with some very serious theological baggage attached.

I do not write this to condemn, but only to identify a systemic and profoundly human problem – How do we correctly identify this cycle of accepting and promoting a shallow “Sunday School Answer” so that we can challenge it, and reject it when necessary?

Well, at the risk of redundancy and beating a dead horse – we do so by standing under Scripture, not above it, and by ascending by climbing lower.

Cherry-Picking and Proof-Texting Favorite Scriptures

I saw something the other day that kind of ruffled my feathers. It was another one of those appeals to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV translation) Now, I know nothing of the person who made the appeal, or the setting. But, I just wonder, was the appeal made in context – and did the speaker have the entirety of Jeremiah in mind as he made the appeal?

You see, very, very rarely will anyone include v. 10 in the quotation of v. 11 – “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Note the sequence – you are going to be led captive into an exile in a place you think is absolutely godless and degenerate -and you are going to have to stay there for 70 years while I punish you for your misbehavior. Then, I will bring you back because I know of the plans I have for you . . .”

In the entire pantheon of misquoted, cherry-picked and proof-texted Scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 has to rate in the top 10, maybe the top 5, and maybe even higher.

The prophecies of Jeremiah are rife with warnings that would limit, or even supersede, 29:11. I wonder, for example, if the speaker who so proudly appealed to 29:11 has ever read, or considered, 18:5-11,

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and deeds.”

I know this may just be me, but all of the trite little memes and what-not that you see on social media quoting Jer. 29:11 get really old, especially if you know the story of Jeremiah, and the impassioned pleas that God made through the prophet that were utterly ignored by the leadership, and most of the population, of Jerusalem. Yes, Jer. 29:11 is a wonderful and grace-filled promise. But – taken in context – it is just the silver lining to a very dark and destructive cloud. I am just not at all certain that those who teach this verse so glibly really understand the depth of the verse.

This is just one more example of my almost never-ending mantra – we have to stand under Scripture, not over it, and we have to humbly submit ourselves to the entirety of the meaning of a passage for us to “rightly divide” the truth intended by the Holy Spirit.

Let us continually strive to climb higher by ascending lower.

Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.

That Terrible, Exclusivist, Divisive Apostle Paul

Getting ready to preach on Ephesians 4:1-6. For those not familiar, this text reveals just how exclusive and divisive the apostle Paul was. I mean, really, how mean and provincial can you get? In today’s world where I get to make my own rules, decide on my own truth, even get to decide whether I am a male or a female – how can we even read these words, let alone use them as some kind of standard for how the church is to behave itself? Just consider how “unchristian” the apostle Paul is:

  • There is only one body – one and only one church.
  • There is only one Spirit – not a Spirit for each worldly religion.
  • There is only one hope.
  • There is only one Lord – Jesus, not Mohamed nor Buddha nor some angel that claims to have a latter-day revelation from God.
  • There is only one faith – only one road leads to God, all others lead to destruction.
  • There is only one baptism – the death that is focused on Jesus and begins the new life.
  • And, finally, there is only one God and Father.

Wow, you would think that the apostle Paul was some kind of radical or something. And you would be right.

The apostle Paul lived in a time – much like ours – where there were literally hundreds of gods and dozens of competing philosophies and religions. Even within his “home” faith of Judaism there were a number of sects that all claimed to be primary. He lived his early adult life as one of the most strict – the Pharisees. But, on that road to Damascus Paul had his entire worldview torn down. God let him think about things for three days (I just wonder if there was not a subliminal message here – Paul had to spend three days in the darkness of blindness just as Jesus had to spend three days in the darkness of the tomb. God is really good at making these little “coincidences” occur at the most opportune times!) Anyway, Ananias comes and preaches the gospel to Paul, and from that point on Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul/Paul the Christian evangelist, apologist, and author.

The book of Ephesians, I am coming to learn, is really a manifesto for Paul’s new life. Where the world in which he lived had dozens of societal divisions – Roman/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, slave/free – Paul only saw two – those in Christ and those outside of Christ (the “world”). Those in Christ constitute one body, the church of God through Christ. It is not that Paul now views all mankind as saved (the inclusivity or universalist view), but that all mankind can be one through the blood of Christ.

Today we live in a world where individualism and individuality reign supreme. The defining term for our culture is tolerance, but in reality it is a mis-definition of the word tolerance to which we must submit. To be precise, tolerance means that one must identify and actually disagree with the viewpoint of another, yet allow that person to hold that viewpoint however mistaken or ignorant that viewpoint may be. Today, tolerance means that we must validate and even agree with the viewpoints of others, which basically means that we cannot even disagree with the other person. To disagree, and especially to label another’s viewpoint as “wrong,” “ignorant,” or (heaven forbid) “sinful” is to commit the most grievous of societal prohibitions.

Which takes me right back to Ephesians 4. The apostle Paul is utterly, completely, and totally exclusivist. There is only one road to God. One Lord means just that – any person who claims equality with Jesus or to be Jesus’s latter-day prophet is simply a charlatan and deceiver. There is just one body, one church, and all the claims that the divisions we see in Christianity are somehow blessed by God are just ludicrous. There is just one faith, not dozens or hundreds of equal “roads to heaven.” There is just one baptism, not one for the forgiveness of sins, and one for admission to a church, and one for the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, and one for the gifting of special talents and abilities. And, just to top everything off, there is just one God.

Even for many in the church today, the claim of exclusiveness is a troubling and divisive one. Our culture has so absorbed the doctrine of individualism and “equality” that to suggest a differing viewpoint is wrong, and especially worthy of being condemned by God, is just, well, so unchristian. But it is exactly that fear, that uncomfortableness, that reticence, that we must overcome if we are going to fairly and truthfully present the gospel of Christ.

I am in no way suggesting we do so in a rude, hateful, or condescending manner. Within the Churches of Christ I am reminded almost daily of our history of shameful rhetoric. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way, and never to challenge an incorrect or dangerous belief is no more loving than it is to ridicule that belief. I am reminded of Alexander Campbell’s practice (which infuriated some of his supporters) of spending time, and even eating several meals, with his debate opponents during his long, and lest we forget, vigorous debates. Campbell never surrendered an inch to those he disagreed with (and, sadly, his prodigious verbal broadsides became the model for far less charitable disciples), but it appears to me that he viewed those he debated as erring opponents and not enemies. There is a huge difference.

Ephesians 4 is a great passage of Scripture, to be sure. But it has a sharp edge – and Paul will go on to say some very harsh, and condemning, words about those who are outside of Christ (walking in futility, darkened in their understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart). We must learn to handle that edge carefully and wisely. But, let us never be fearful of that edge to the point that we bury it.