That’s Why We Call Them “Elders”

Over the past several months I have come to appreciate certain things more deeply: health, a strong marriage, the love of a child. Our life’s circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and very rarely for the better. All too often we lose something, or have something taken away from us, and all we have left are some memories and a bunch of questions.

In regard to the church, I have also come to realize, and appreciate, the simple wisdom of something that many take to be a relic of history, just a curiosity of a bygone era that needs to be erased as well. That “relic” is the practice of having churches overseen by a plurality of senior disciples called “elders.” For so many that is a quaint but no longer useful tradition that is more harmful than helpful. For me, it is becoming just one more example of the immeasurable wisdom of our creator God.

I am growing impatient, and even somewhat disgusted, with individuals who heap endless praise on the generation that is just now coming of age, calling them the most spiritual and mature generation to grace the face of the earth. I saw it in a comment just this past week. “This generation is just so much in love with Jesus!” the speaker said. Hidden within the comment was a dagger – no other generation in recent memory has ever loved Jesus like this group!

Oh. Spare. Me.

I was born into a generation that really loved Jesus. My parents’ generation really loved Jesus. My grandparents generation really loved Jesus. I can look back in history and identify generations whose love for Jesus makes this coming generation look like a bunch of wallowing sycophants. Spare me the generational comparisons – at least until this generation has had enough time to prove themselves.

One thing my generation did accomplish – or shall I say destroy – was to separate our “love for Jesus” from a love for his church and those who were tasked with leading it. I was born at the tail end of the “Jesus people” generation, the ones who screamed “Jesus yes, church no” at the top of our voices. We were taught not to trust anyone over 40. What this coming generation has been able to accomplish is to lower that age down to 30. Or, maybe 20. They have taken the Boomer’s disdain for the church and raised it exponentially. I note with a genuine degree of fear that, especially within the church, the disdain for age and seniority has reached Promethean heights. The term “elder” has lost all meaningful significance.

There are just some things that cannot be obtained without the passage of time: the capacity for maturity, depth of wisdom, the skill to raise multiple children through the stormy waters of adolescence, the ability to maintain and to deepen a strong marriage, the tact and strength to deal with aging and declining parents. There is more than just a poetic reason why white hair is the crown of a life well lived.

The thought occurred to me the other day that twenty-somethings know all the answers to all the questions. Persons over the age of 65 have experienced the questions – they have seen it, felt it, heard it, lived it, cried over it, had their hearts broken over it, conquered it, been almost destroyed by it, and somehow have managed to survive it. Twenty-somethings walk with a strut. Seniors walk with a limp – for a good reason.

I am not discounting book smarts. I think I did some of my best work in the first years of my ministry. I also left behind some wrecks. And I am not suggesting that mere age is some guarantor of wisdom. There are a lot of seniors who never matured out of adolescence. The fruit of the poisonous tree of the “Me Generation” will be around for a long time.

But, as simply and as passionately as I can put it, there is a reason for 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  There is a wisdom and a maturity that those who have reached their sixth decade and beyond own that those who have only lived for two or two-and-a-half just cannot have. The practice of having a congregation overseen by senior disciples is not just a quaint artifact of a bygone era. It is rooted in the deepest wisdom of God. Congregations are hurting themselves – and possibly poisoning their future – by rejecting this divinely mandated practice.

There is a reason we call them elders. If we are wise, we will honor them, respect them, we will pay attention to and learn from their wisdom, and we will submit to their leadership.

The Church and the Idolization of Youth

“We have to do something to save our youth!” “We are losing too many of our youth!” “If we do not change our worship our young people will leave the church!” “We have to listen to our young people or they will not listen to us!”

On and on it goes. From what I hear the church is being strangled to death by a fear of young people leaving its membership. Preachers are hired and fired not on the basis of their wisdom and maturity, but on the basis of their attire and hair style. Churches want a “new voice” that will appeal to the younger generation. By some accounts the church is in a full blown panic over the fate of today’s youth.

It might be a shock to some, then, to discover that back in the early days of 1930-33 a young German theologian set out to address this very issue. More than just about anyone in his generation, he was acutely aware of the crisis of youth – especially in a world that was literally crumbling around their feet. His generation, and especially those younger than him, were clamoring for the church to heed their demands, to change its stodgy ways, to conform to a “new” reality. Rather than approach the problem from the cloistered cell of some ivory tower, this young pastor went to work among the poorest of the poor in his city. The young men who were placed in his care were far more familiar with violence and prostitution than the parables of Jesus. When they threatened to wreck his classroom, he would put records of “Negro spirituals” for them to listen to. When his young charges were ready for the ceremony of confirmation, he realized they had no decent clothes to wear. So he bought enough material for each to have a suit, and paid for a tailor to make them one. He was no ordinary youth minister. He did more than teach. He washed feet.

So his words carry far more weight than some ivory-tower theoretician. I share that because he prepared what have been labeled as eight “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.” It is unknown when he wrote them, but probably before 1933. I share some pertinent excerpts:

  1. Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God: it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the word of God.
  2. Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
  3. . . . It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgement on the church-community.
  4. The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoy no special privilege in the church-community. . . God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with the youthful impulse to better the world.
  5. The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Gen. 8:21; Isa. 3:5; Jer. 1:6; Eccl. 11:10; 1 Pet. 5:5; 2 Tim. 2:2 et passim.
  6. Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
  7. It may well be that the youth have the right to protest against their elders. If that be the case, however, the authenticity of such protest will be demonstrated by youth’s willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
  8. There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. . . Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 12. Berlin:1932-1933. ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 515-517.]

The language is somewhat stilted, and the ecclesiology (baptism, etc) is Lutheran, but the theology is solid. I am constantly amazed that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and that questions that the church is asking today have been asked (and answered!) many times before. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What we do need to do, however, is to listen to the wisdom of ages past. But before we can do that we have to have the humility to accept that people who lived before us were actually smart enough to answer the questions.

Lord, save us from the sin of idolizing our youth.

** I am indebted to the work of Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) for providing an in-depth examination of Bonhoeffer and his ministry to young people. If you are interested in serving young people in an authentic way, or if you are just interested in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend this book. I think it will change your view of how the church is to hear, and to minister, to young people.

Of God and Guns

Public disclaimer #1 – I do not generally like to write on specifically political issues. Sometimes I will, but to the best of my ability I try to restrict myself to the point where politics intersects with theology. This is a theological blog, not a political one. However, political discussions often do intersect with theology, and when and where that occurs I feel justified to offer my opinion.

Public disclaimer #2 – I own a number of firearms myself. I rarely shoot them anymore, first because of the price of ammunition, and second because I do not have a place where I feel comfortable shooting. I hate professional “shooting ranges,” and would much rather shoot at a knot on a log or a coffee can sitting on a rock. The one gun I loved the most was a muzzle-loading rifle, and it was just a kick in the pants to shoot. However, it was equally a pain in the pants to clean up afterward.

With those two disclaimers acknowledged, I offer the following:

In the immediate aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the national conversation turned to the debate over the right of citizens to own weapons such as was used in the shooting, and to a lesser degree, the kind of ammunition that was used in the shooting. The responses were so typical as to be caricatures – the far left pushing for the banning of all firearms, the far right suggesting that every person (or at least, school teachers) be required to carry weapons. There is an increasing middle ground – with variations of the two extreme positions being suggested.

While having my own opinion about gun ownership, I want to state unequivocally that neither extreme presents a realistic solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States. The call to ban all weapons is simply ludicrous – far too many people use guns for sport shooting or hunting. Our system of justice does not allow for the confiscation of anything that is both legal and harmless, without clear and convincing proof that such an object is inherently dangerous. The undeniable evidence is that a gun, in and of itself, is not a dangerous object. It clearly can be used, and is used, in dangerous ways, but a gun properly used is no more dangerous than a vehicle – or most medicines for that matter.

However, and here is where my theological brain kicks in, the extreme promoted by the National Rifle Association is just as erroneous as the extreme calling for the banning of all weapons. I offer three succinct reasons for this conclusion:

  1. The NRA and many adherents argue that gun ownership is necessary in order for citizens to protect themselves from the government. However, the 2nd Amendment was ratified when virtually every firearm (private or military) was of flint-lock construction. Each round had to be carefully loaded from the end of the muzzle, and the firing mechanism depended upon a hammer hitting a small piece of flint, which would then create a spark that was directed to a small pan of gunpowder, which would then ignite the powder that had been carefully loaded into the muzzle of the gun. Each “reload” took quite a bit of time, and if done too quickly, could result in some fairly significant damage if the powder was poured down a barrel that still had a smoldering spark. And – this is the kicker – for many years there was no “military grade” weapons. There was no “army.” The military was comprised of state militias, and each man brought his own rifle to fight with. Even as late as the Civil War, many soldiers used their own gun, not a government issued weapon (that did quickly change, however, during the course of the war). If the NRA wants to go up against today’s highly trained and expertly equipped army with a bunch of shotguns and deer rifles, be my guest. To equate today’s weapons to a 17th or 18th century muzzle-loader is simply to argue from false pretenses -and in my way of thinking that is to lie. If the NRA wants to defend firearm ownership based on 17th century technology and military practices – then fine, let them restrict gun ownership to flintlocks – and not even percussion cap muzzle-loaders.
  2. Conspicuously absent from most, if not all, arguments defending the unrestricted use of firearms, is Paul’s message to the Roman Christians in Romans 13. Let’s just be blunt here: there is no support for armed rebellion against the government in Romans 13. The American Revolution was, in terms of Paul’s teaching, completely unjustified. That really is a hard pill to swallow if you enjoy the fruit of the revolution as much as I do. But – the truth is sometimes hard medicine. The founding fathers had no scriptural right to take up arms against England – and in fact the Declaration of Independence makes no such claim. The call to become independence from the King of England is based entirely upon reasons founded in the Enlightenment, not the Bible.
  3. The most egregious claim made by the leader of the NRA is that the right to “bear arms” is a right granted, not by any human government, but by God himself. This is just so scandalously wrong – and profoundly heretical. Nowhere in God’s word is there any defense of gun ownership. It is plainly and unequivocally an act of government that grants its citizens the “right to bear arms.” Any who agree with the NRA in this regard have no knowledge of either the Bible nor the Constitution. It is a shameful thought to even consider.

As I said above – I consider myself a responsible gun owner. I have hunted in the past (although comically unsuccessful), I have some guns that are deeply special to me, and given the right circumstances, I do love to shoot them. My plea is that those who share my convictions about the Bible and about responsible gun ownership will think long and hard and deep and careful about the defenses we present to justify our ownership and use of such guns. In my opinion, there simply is no justifiable reason to own a weapon whose designed purpose is to kill people, and to kill a large number of people quickly. Even if such a weapon is justifiably only used for sport (target) shooting, there is absolutely no reason for the availability of ammunition so powerful that it can penetrate a kevlar (bullet-proof) vest worn by law enforcement officers. To categorically defend the use of such guns and ammunition is to reject the sanctity of human life.

Dear Christians, we can do, we must do, so much better. There is room in this debate for the passionate defense of our cherished freedoms, but there is also room for the realization that far too many people are being murdered by people using weapons that have no other purpose than to destroy the life of God’s most special creation – another human being.

An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

In my essay yesterday I pointed out that Barton Stone, and just a generation later David Lipscomb, grasped something about New Testament Christianity that Alexander Campbell either could not see, or rejected. Campbell was an ardent post-millennialist: he believed the movement of which he was a part would usher in the “millennium” and at the end of a long period of human perfection, Christ would come and establish his reign in heaven. He even named his second journal the Millennial Harbinger to emphasize that point. In a semi-related footnote, the Civil War destroyed that belief for Campbell, and he died as so many prophets of human exceptionalism die, disappointed.

Stone, and later Lipscomb, saw things differently. They were just as committed to the restoration principle (just return to the pages of the New Testament in order to restore the church to New Testament simplicity), but they recognized something else. The New Testament has an undeniable forward looking dimension, but it is not created by the wisdom or strength of mankind. For Stone and Lipscomb, if the world is to become a better place, it will only happen by the power of God, and that will only occur through the working of the body of Christ on earth, the church! Lipscomb was especially adamant on this point, writing clearly and passionately that Christians are to avoid every form of contamination with politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Christians could not participate in the army (Lipscomb was horrified at the thought of Christians killing Christians in the Civil War), nor were they to serve in any civil positions. Christians are to live as kingdom citizens, and it is the reign of God in heaven that draws disciples of Christ into living in and promoting the reign of God on earth.

This is the polar opposite of “pie in the sky by and by” theology whereby Christians simply try to be “good people” until they die so that they can float around on little clouds playing their golden harps. This apocalyptic worldview almost got Lipscomb killed, and it was his adamant refusal to participate in politics that has resulted in his influence basically being expunged from the history of the Churches of Christ. On the first point, during a severe outbreak of a deadly epidemic (cholera, if I remember correctly) in Nashville, while Christians fled the city in droves, Lipscomb stayed and used his horse and buggy to drive Roman Catholic nuns around the city so they could minister to the sick and dying. Regarding the second point, it was during World War I, and ultimately World War II that the pacifistic view of Lipscomb was violently rejected (pun intended) so that the members of the Churches of Christ could be viewed as “good patriotic Americans.” Today, among the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ, patriotism is virtually identical to Christianity. Lipscomb, and I believe Stone, would be aghast.

As any reader can probably guess, I am deeply indebted to Stone (what I can read of him, although he did have some weird ideas). I am even more indebted to Lipscomb. I have read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and I am impressed with two things: Lipscomb’s profound biblical knowledge, and his theological insights. Those who disagree with Lipscomb very rarely ever actually engage Lipscomb, they simply defend their love of country and their political commitments more loudly. Which, in an ironic manner, simply proves Lipscomb’s point: you cannot promote God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan at the same time. Jesus said it this way, you cannot serve God and man.

A truly apocalyptic worldview has profound implications for the church. I’m not even sure I understand all of them – no, I am certain that I do not understand all of them. I have lived my entire life in an ethos where Christianity and Americanism were considered identical. America was God’s chosen land, and he blessed it with prosperity and peace. I do not think I have ever seen, and I have certainly not worshipped in, a church that is so fully immersed in the kingdom of God that it seeks to literally overturn the rule of Satan in its community. A congregation that exists so that its members can float around on little clouds when they die is inherently crippled – it has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and certainly no arms or hands to help. Conversely, a church that lives each and every day empowered by God’s indwelling kingdom not only sees, not only hears, but intentionally and actively works to alleviate human misery and to promote that indwelling kingdom.

As America sinks deeper and deeper into moral depravity and violence, I am growing more and more convinced that only this apocalyptic worldview will save the church. We must, we absolutely must, accept the reality that those who deny the lordship of Christ will never be able to think or legislate themselves out of the quagmire that those who deny the lordship of Christ have thought and legislated themselves into. Only when we learn to live, to utterly and totally exist fully immersed in God’s kingdom of love and justice, will the church be able to be the light set on a hill, to be the salt that purifies and preserves this generation.

N. T. Wright – An Author Every Minister Needs to Read

Nicholas Tom (N.T.) Wright is one of those authors that everyone has been influenced by, whether they have read him or not. This is because those who have read him either agree with him completely and spread his teachings far and wide; or they disagree with him, imagine him to be the anti-christ with horns on his head and a pointy tail behind him, and therefore caricature what he has written, and spread that caricature far and wide. What makes him so controversial is that he is a retired Anglican bishop who holds many conclusions that are strikingly opposite to that of the majority of members of the Anglican, and especially the American Episcopal, church. [I might add as a snarky aside, that because that number is dwindling so quickly, it really should not matter.] I obviously believe both positions to be false, but I also believe N.T. Wright is an author that every minister, and every concerned church member, should read. Let me explain why.

I read theological books for two reasons. One, I like to read books written by authors who hold positions similar to mine, but who are more advanced in some areas that I am not familiar with, for the purpose of comfort and reassurance. It is just nice to curl up with a nice cup of tea and read a book and not have to parse out every phrase and paragraph to decide whether I agree with the author or not.

Second, I read authors who hold views differing from mine (in varying degrees) because I want to learn. It is an axiom of mine that you simply cannot learn anything from a teacher with whom you agree 100%. For one example – in regard to the book of Revelation I hold an a-millennial position – neither pre-millennial nor post-millennial. I simply cannot learn anything by reading the arguments of other a-millennials. I can be encouraged by them, or reassured by them – but I cannot say that they teach me anything. Same with the subject of baptism. I have eight books on the subject of baptism in my library – and while some present the subject of believer’s baptism in ways I have not fully considered, they really teach me nothing of which I have not already been convinced. If I want to learn something about infant baptism, for example, I have to go to someone who holds that position. Same with virtually every subject in my library.

Which brings me back to N.T. Wright. I was basically ignorant of Wright’s writings up until a couple of years ago, and then it seemed like everywhere I turned there was someone referencing Wright’s work, either in fawning praise or scathing rebuke. I decided to see what all the fuss was about so I bought one of his books, Surprised by Hope. I quickly understood what all the fuss was about. I recently added one other book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. I have not been disappointed with either purchase.

The most important thing I learned about Wright is that he is a scholar – a preeminent scholar. Reading his book on the resurrection of Jesus I was blown away with the depth of scholarship involving pagan and second temple Judaism views on the afterlife. That book has profoundly questioned my previous understanding of how we view our life after death – and while I may not agree with every point Wright makes, I cannot simply dismiss him because he actually presents solid evidence, and not just pious suppositions, for his conclusions.

Reading Wright first-hand has allowed me to draw some conclusions about his opponents. I have come to realize that people dislike or reject Wright for the following reasons:

  1. They have not read his books first-hand, and are simply parroting other criticisms. This I find to be the most ridiculous and childish of responses. In what is both a marvelous example of irony and a pathetic display of theological illiteracy, I saw someone attack Wright by approvingly quote John Piper – one of the most hard-core Calvinists to ever write a book. I know this particular opponent of Wright would reject every aspect of Calvin’s (and therefore, Piper’s) teaching, and yet, there he was, gleefully parroting Piper’s rejection of Wright, just because it was someone who disagreed with Wright. I guess the enemy of my enemy is my friend – at least if my enemy is N.T. Wright.
  2. They are intensely jealous of his scholarship and his popularity. This is especially true of a petulant group of theological Lilliputians who simply cannot stand the thought that some people can actually think on their own, and who admire Wright, even while disagreeing with him on some significant issues.
  3. They simply do not understand him. I find Wright to be very easy to read, but I have about 14 years of theological education behind me. Some might be put off by Wright’s scholarship and the depth of his learning. I’m sure some of his books are written for a more “popular” audience, but there is nothing in the two books I have that cannot be understood if you read carefully.
  4. They have read Wright carefully, and genuinely disagree with him for what they believe to be solid biblical/theological reasons. This number is sizable, but even his academic peers disagree with him in far more respectful tones than most of the churlish invective I read from those who occupy reasons 1 and 2.

For the record, I do not agree with every position Wright holds. After all, he was a bishop in the Anglican Church, and therefore he approaches Scripture and certain ecclesiastical questions from an entirely different perspective than I do. I especially disagree with him on the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. But even there I learned something from him.

I oppose both a sycophantic adoration of Wright and a petulant rejection of him. He is one of the most prolific and preeminent scholars writing today, and so his conclusions must be carefully considered. Whether you know you are dealing with Wright or not, chances are some of the arguments you hear being discussed come from his pen. So – that is why I suggest that every minister, as well as every concerned member, needs to read at least some of his works.

Those Mysterious “Rolling” Sins [Uncertain Inferences Series]

When we examine inferences made from Scripture, whether ours or those of others, we can note that some are sound and legitimate, some are kind of squishy, although not necessarily wrong or dangerous, and some are just flat out wrong. When we make inaccurate inferences it is either due to simple ignorance (we are not aware of other passages that bear on the subject we are discussing, or we misinterpret the verses we use to defend our inference) or due to a blatant disregard for opposing Scriptures in an effort to make our inference unassailable, or “necessary.” The results can be anything from amusing to dangerous. Regardless, an incorrect inference is incorrect, and I do not believe anyone wants to promote falsehood.

One common inference is based on Hebrews 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” From this verse, taken by itself and entirely out of context, it would appear that no one was ever forgiven of their sins by the sacrifice of any animal. Now, this misunderstanding could be rectified if 10:4 was read in the context of 9:13-14, and 9:22. But the idea that the sins of the Israelites were not forgiven until the death of Christ became an entrenched teaching – and to explain it the idea of the sins of the Israelites being “rolled forward” was promoted. [cue the theme to “Rawhide” here, “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, keep those doggies rollin’, rawhide!] First let’s examine the teaching of the forgiveness of the sins of the Israelites under the Mosaic covenant:

The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf, and you shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.

You shall confess the sin that you have committed . . . and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement . . . and you shall be forgiven.

The priest shall make atonement on your behalf with the ram of the guilt offering, and you shall be forgiven.

You shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it . . . The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the LORD, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby.

(Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:5-6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:5-7, NRSV; See also the chapter on the Day of Atonement, chapter 16)

Color me silly here, but I just do not understand how anyone can read these passages and come up with the conclusion that the sins of the Israelites were not forgiven at the time that they went to the priest, confessed their sins, and provided the appropriate sin offering. These passages are in perfect agreement with Hebrews 9:13-14.

Now, let’s examine the passages that teach that the sins of the Israelites were “rolled forward.”

[ . . . ]

That was fun, wasn’t it?

You see, someone, or a bunch of someones, wanted to emphasize the importance of the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. Who would want to minimize it? So, taking Hebrews 10:4 as their proof-text, they had to “explain” how the sins of the Israelites could be forgiven by Jesus. This person, or persons, came up with the idea that these sins were “rolled forward” to the day of the crucifixion. There is no passage that teaches such an idea, and even Hebrews 10:4 does not teach such an idea. Never-the-less, the belief has become as undeniable for some people as the nose on their face.

I do not believe there is any profound ethic or behavior that would result from a misunderstanding of Hebrews 10:4. But the inference that the Israelites were NOT forgiven, when God repeatedly and emphatically told them that they WOULD BE forgiven, is to twist, and even deny, Scripture. If you were able to ask a faithful Israelite who was leaving their sacrifice if they had been forgiven of their sins, they would have looked at you as if you were crazy. Of course they had been forgiven. They had been promised the forgiveness of their sin, they believed in the promise of God, they had obediently followed the command of God – why would they think they had been denied that which was promised?

Let’s be blunt here. The idea that what was effective for the Israelites is somehow effective for us is just plain falsehood. The author of the book of Hebrews makes that point in a number of ways. Christ’s sacrifice is superior to the Mosaic sacrifices as the sun is superior to my little flashlight. The Mosaic code provided for the temporary, (the Hebrew writer called it “fleshly” forgiveness), while Jesus provided for “once-for-all” (forgiveness of the conscience) forgiveness. The two are profoundly different in the mind of the author of the letter to the Hebrews, and we should not try to put them back together.

The idea that the sins of the Israelites were “rolled forward” is certainly a possible deduction from Hebrews 10:4; it has been taught and defended with the greatest of fervor. But, is it a correct inference or deduction? I do not believe it is, and I am convinced that the book of Leviticus and even Hebrews 9:13, 14, and 22 all teach quite clearly that while the forgiveness under the Mosaic system was temporary, and therefore imperfect, it was none-the-less effective for that covenant.

I am profoundly thankful that we have the covenant established by Christ and sealed with his sacrifice on the cross to trust for our salvation. As the writer to the Hebrew Christians encouraged, let us not trivialize nor forsake that great sacrifice!

Reading the Bible Through Fresh Eyes

I am experiencing some wonderful things in my Bible reading this year, and as a result I believe I am doing some of the best work of my life in terms of Bible study. If you have seen my daily Bible reading plan, you know that I try to read the Bible through twice every year. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, but this year just seems to be different.

This year I am trying to approach my daily Bible reading through what I have come to call “fresh” eyes. Some people speak of reading the Bible “as if they have never read it before,” but that is really impossible. Our brains just do not work like that. Once we have read something, especially if we have spent any time studying it, our initial conclusions will always affect our subsequent reading. But, I think it is possible to hold those first thoughts and conclusions and still approach the text through eyes that are “fresh” (or perhaps “refreshed” might be the better term.) We do not seek to erase those prior conclusions; rather, we hold them close, but realizing their presence, we read the text again, looking to see if those first (and often powerful) impressions are indeed the most beneficial.

Anyway, this has been a particularly fruitful couple of weeks. I will illustrate with two examples, one from each Testament.

I am teaching the book of Revelation again, so I have been reading and thinking about that great book in preparation for my classes. So, as I was in the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading I was struck by the phrases in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31. These verses all speak of the sons of Noah, their sons, and in particular their lands, languages, clans and nations. A light bulb went off in my mind, “Boing!” (My light bulbs go “boing” when they light up). That is remarkably similar to John’s language in the book of Revelation as he speaks of “tribe, language, people and nation” (see 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 10:11; 14:6 and 17:15). I have an idea about why John is using that phraseology, but never mind. Back to Genesis, I immediately thought, “wait, up until the confusion of languages at Babel there was only one human language.” Bingo! Chapter 11 describes the confusion of languages at Babel. You see, the author of Genesis (Moses in my way of thinking) introduces some events, and then backs up to explain in greater detail how, and sometimes why, those events occurred. Now, I have studied Genesis academically and read it dozens of times, yet this year for some reason this passage jumped out at me (a lot of it had to do with my preparation for the book of Revelation, I admit).

Could it be, in fact is it not highly probable, that Moses does exactly the same thing with the creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2? Even a cursory reading shows some differences in the two accounts. I know many try to “harmonize” the two chapters, but to me that seems to be Scripture twisting in the worst possible way. Why not allow Moses’s style to lead us to accept the two chapters as different, but equally instructive, ways to understand God’s creation? Why do we have to make them the same?

Hence, I turn to the New Testament. On Sunday nights I am teaching the gospel of John. This past week we studied chapter 12. John says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus went to Bethany where a feast was provided, and Mary anointed his feet with a costly perfume. A quick check of Matthew and Mark, however, reveals that this same event took place two days before the Passover, and that the unnamed woman anoints his head. (Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:1-9). Now, there are some ways to attempt to “harmonize” the accounts. You could say that John is reporting that Jesus went to Bethany six days before the Passover, but is not specifically saying the feast took place six days before the Passover. That works until you get to v. 12, when John describes the triumphal entry on “the next day.” If you use Matthew’s and Mark’s chronology, that would place the “triumphal entry” the day before the Passover (unless, of course, you want to argue for more than one “triumphal entry.”) Another attempt to harmonize the accounts is to suggest there were two feasts four days apart, with two women basically doing the same anointing, with the same response by the apostles, and with the same rebuke by Jesus. Possible? Yes; but realistically? Would not the apostles recognize the value of the second anointing and praise the sacrifice?

Or, is John trying to tell us something different using this story? John appears to be using chronological markers (days, feasts) in a different way than what we expect chronological markers to be used. Once again, because of my daily Bible reading, I was drawn back to Genesis. What happened on the sixth day of creation? It was on the sixth day that God finished his work. What is the last statement of Jesus on the cross in the gospel of John? “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus rested on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection begins a new week, “on the first day of the week” Mary went to the tomb, while it was still dark.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read John 12, nor is it necessarily the best way to read John 12. I am suggesting it is a possible way to understand John 12, and one that opens fresh ways to understand the entire gospel (why, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early in the ministry of Jesus, while the synoptics place it in the final week of Jesus’s life).

You see, if we are desperate to make the gospel accounts “harmonize,” we are faced with a discrepancy – six days or two days before the Passover, anointing the feet or the head. Some differences in parallel passages can be easily harmonized. With others it appears we have to resort to using crow-bars and a can of axle grease to make the separate accounts “agree” with each other.

I have a better solution: let’s let the text speak exactly as the author intended, not as we think the author should have intended based on some other text we find in the Bible. That means occasionally we have to deal with some ambiguity, as there are passages where we cannot crawl into the author’s mind and know for certain what he intended.

As I said, we cannot read the Bible every time “as if we had never read it before.” But we can read it through fresh eyes – eyes open to discover new truths, and to re-discover new light in old truths. We need to read the Bible expectantly, not with the intent to justify our previous conclusions, but to challenge us and to draw us closer to the one who gave it to us in the first place.

What an amazing book – and what an amazing God who gave it to us!