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.

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.

A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

Book Review – Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Duane Litfin)

Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) 359 pages plus 27 pages of bibliography)

I have been struggling with how to create an appropriate introduction for my review of this book. This morning I finally settled on what I think is the best way to communicate how I feel about not only the content of the material, but the manner in which it was presented: this is the book I wish I had available to me when I was a young man considering becoming a preacher.

First, for want of a better term, I will address the “style” of the writing. Many authors are absolutely brilliant in their field of study, but seem to be genetically prohibited from getting that brilliance out of their heads and onto paper so that others can share their illumination. Litfin’s book is the polar opposite of that obtuseness. I love reading this book because it was just such a joy to read. Once again, some authors are so in love with their thesis that they do not take the time to explain why their thesis is important to begin with. Litfin begins (part 1), not with explaining what he thinks Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 1-4, but rather by explaining the cultural understanding of rhetoric and the power of persuasion (Greco-Roman rhetoric) that Paul would be familiar with in Corinth. Then, in part 2 he turns to 1 Corinthians 1-4 and demonstrates that Paul was specifically rejecting this view of persuasion. Litfin could have cut the length of the book in half by simply arguing his position from 1 Corinthians 1-4. However, the value of the material would have been reduced by far more than 50 percent. Litfin’s knowledge of, and presentation of, the material in part 1 is, hopefully not to be too effusive, magisterial. When he moves to part 2, the reader (student) is thoroughly conversant with the basic understanding of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Here I must also praise Litfin’s use of primary writings. He quotes ancient writers at length, but not so many and so long as to make the material unreadable. I repeat what I said at the beginning, this book is so well crafted, so well written, that whether you want to be a preacher or not, just reading this book is an education in how to present your arguments.

But, let us move on to the content. Litfin’s thesis boiled down to a simple sentence is this: the apostle Paul was well aware of the prevalent culture of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but he (Paul) made the conscious decision to reject the art of that rhetoric in order to present the gospel message as an obedient herald, a simple proclaimer of the cross. On a simple reading, one might be tempted to say, “ho, hum, next . . .” But this message cuts against the grain of so much of what is taught in preacher training courses that it demands to be heard. I could not help but think as I read and digested this material – “wow, if Litfin’s thesis was widely promoted and accepted, hundreds of instructors in preaching trainings situations would suddenly be unemployed.” The reason for such a response is simple – we are training preachers to do exactly the opposite of what the apostle Paul presented as his guiding theology for both ministry and preaching.

Today preachers are taught the art of communication (we do not use the word rhetoric anymore, but that is what it is). Preachers are taught how to evaluate an audience (age, economic background, educational level, etc) and to decide how to “get under the audience’s skin” (my words) so as to manipulate the audience’s feelings in order to generate the greatest amount of positive response. The preacher may be after conversions or a greater commitment to giving, or to motivate people to become a short-term missionaries. But the process is all basically the same – how do I take my message to this audience and what tools do I use in this setting to achieve my greatest goals? That, in a very crude way, is to use the “art” of rhetoric. It is the basic skeleton of the process I was taught in my speech and preaching classes.

Litfin argues persuasively that Paul takes all of that and throws it out the window. Paul was well aware of that theory and all of the tools of rhetoric. However, Paul’s theology, Paul’s foundational motivation, was not to be an accomplished speaker/preacher/rhetorician. Paul’s goal was to be an obedient herald. Paul simply wanted to preach the message of the cross. The result was up to the Holy Spirit. Paul preached, God converted. Paul’s goal was not to be successful, it was to be obedient. Success, in other words, for Paul was not in the number of conversions, but it was to be measured in how faithful he was in presenting the gospel.

Now, to be sure, Paul was aware of his audience, and to Jews he referred to the law of Moses and to cultured Greeks he referred to secular poets. But this was not to use (or abuse) the art of rhetoric – Paul was simply adapting his presentation of the gospel message to the level of understanding of his audience. He was educating his audience, not manipulating them. There is a significant difference, and one that I believe is lost in much of contemporary preaching classes.

I will leave it to the reader to follow Litfin’s argument. I found it to be both profound, and profoundly significant. The author’s style is not elegant in the sense of flowery language, but it is indeed elegant in the sense of its structure and presentation. I think I am being redundant here, but this book provides an education in not only the content of what is being argued, but in the very essence of how it is being argued.

Although Litfin’s main purpose is not to write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4 per se, I must add that his treatment of these four chapters is as fine a commentary as I have read on Paul’s introduction to this critical letter. If I had my druthers, I would have two copies of the book, and I would put one on my library shelf dedicated to 1 Corinthians, and one in the section I have dedicated to preaching and homiletics. I will probably keep the book in my preaching section, but the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1-4 is an education in its own right.

No book is absolutely perfect, and I do have to share one caveat for a reader who does not know Greek. Litfin’s use of Greek terms is frequent, and in about 95% of the cases he does provide an English translation. However, when he repeats a Greek word he does not always repeat the translation, and there are a number of times in which he assumes that the reader knows how to read Greek (the terms are never transliterated) and even knows the meaning of the words. In terms of editing, I would have liked IVP Academic to have demanded a little “dumbing down” for those who do not have a background in Greek, but this is a relatively small quibble, and if you do not know Greek the overwhelming majority of the book is still valuable. I would suggest that due to the inclusion of the Greek terminology this book is probably written for a 2nd or 3rd year college student, or seminary student, so buyer beware. On the other hand, the language is decidedly written, and the argumentation is so well defended (repeated appropriately, but never to the point of obnoxious redundancy) so that even if you have to “bleep” over the Greek words, the book would still be of inestimable value.

I end with how I started. I so wish I had this material back when I was starting my school work, back when the crust of the earth was first starting to cool. I’m just glad I have read it now, and over the next few weeks and months I am going to re-evaluate all of my preaching and teaching to see if I am being faithful to Paul’s theology of preaching, or if I am falling prey to the less faithful, but much more highly praised, skill of Greco-Roman rhetoric.