Stop Trying to Defend God!

Add the name Andy Stanley to the list of “mega-church pastors” who feel like they have to defend God from himself. The list is long and shameful. Poor God – without guys like Stanley and Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (and a few others who hit much closer to home) – God would not stand a chance in this world. But, with their apologies and explanations, God can sleep comfortably at night, knowing his honor is well protected.

C.S. Lewis was much more than a Christian defender. He was also a prophet, of sorts. He recognized that in his day something profound had occurred, and whether Lewis knew it or not, it was only going to get worse. What Lewis observed was that prior to the Enlightenment (and really maybe even closer to his day), man lived with the reality that God was right, and therefore mankind had to adjust its understanding of “right” to line up with that of the Divine. However, Lewis noted, in his day it was not God as the judge and man as the accused, but it was Man that was the judge and God that was in the dock (in our judicial system, at the defense table). Today, more than ever, God has to be defended, protected, and absolved of many pernicious crimes.

This is exactly what so many “Christian” leaders espouse today. God might not be wrong, per se, but he is clumsy, rash, intemperate. He has a really bad P.R. department, and it is up to this new generation of preacher/apologists to set the record straight. They do this by “explaining” the text in such a way that it really doesn’t say what it says. So, God “really” did not destroy Sodom because of sexual deviancy – it was because of social injustice. God did not “really” command the Israelites to destroy nations – he only wanted them to nudge them out of the land a little. And, if they cannot set the record straight – they simply expunge the record. If the Old Testament is embarrassing, simply “un-hitch” the Old Testament from your Christianity and then you will not have to carry around all that excess baggage.

Of course, none of this can fit the definition of biblical Christianity – it is decidedly unbiblical. The sad thing is that these mega-pastors have such a star-struck and devoted following that the issue, the teaching, cannot be questioned because to do so casts aspersions against the teacher – and that simply cannot be allowed.

I worry a lot about the church. I worry because I see and hear so much that resembles this noxious teaching – that somehow or another we have to sanitize the Bible, that we have to make the church “relevant” or we have to “make the gospel appealing” to our culture. I hear and read so much about how we have to change our message. All of this ultimately puts the blame on God and the biblical writers for our unbelief or outright rebellion.

Let’s face it – at the core of the biblical message there is a very unpleasant and disagreeable fact – all men and women have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. There is only one way for God to deal with this sin, and it is through his divine judgment. For those of us living today, the central event of that judgment was the cross of Jesus where he took our guilt and shame and paid the price for our rebellion. The light and beauty of the sacrifice of Jesus can only be properly understood in the depth of the darkness of human sin. God does not have to be justified or defended – man does. This is what the Old Testament and the New Testament both attest. To be embarrassed by the Old Testament – or for the New Testament, for that matter – is to be embarrassed by God himself.

Just stop trying to defend God! He doesn’t need your help, and you only make yourself look like a fool when you try. If what you read in the Bible does not line up with your sensibilities – who is wrong? You, or God? Before you accuse God of sin, I think you had better review your facts.

Let us ascend by descending lower.

Book Review – Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (John H. Walton)

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 334 pages plus and appendix listing Ancient Near Eastern gods.

I like some books because they are rich and satisfying. I like some books because they challenge and goad me. I like some books because they explain in far greater detail or provide the evidence for what I already intuitively believe to be true. I like some books because when I finish with them I consider myself to be a wiser, or at least more knowledgable person. This book by John Walton elevates each of those reasons to heights I rarely experience.

In phraseology of common digital conversation, My. Mind. Is. Blown.

Many books written on subjects as esoteric as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought can be, and are, so specialized that they are virtually opaque to the average reader. Thankfully, this is NOT one of those books. I do have to admit to a certain degree of eyes-glazed-over and bewildered response to part 2  of the book (a summary of the literature of the ANE) because in my very limited exposure to such literature, it all seemed so repetitive. However, the remaining sections of the book (and the first, for that matter) are simply wonderful in terms of content, ease-of-reading, and application.

A couple of disclaimers are appropriate: first, if you are looking for a book that simply equates the Old Testament with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. Second, if you are looking for a book that proves the Old Testament has nothing in common with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. What Walton sets out to do, and in my opinion accomplishes with great success, is to demonstrate both the similarities and differences between the Old Testament and ANE thought. Here the reader must take careful notice of the title: this is book that examines the Old Testament in light of the conceptual world of the ANE.

I believe one way modern people view the Old Testament is through the idea that the Israelites lived in a protective bubble – that God’s covenant with Abraham through Moses and extending through David and the monarchy somehow protected and insulated the writing of the Old Testament from any outside influences. What Walton demonstrates is that while there are marked differences between Israelite culture and the surrounding nations, the authors of the Old Testament were fully aware of the thought world in which they existed, and that this familiarity shows up in in the text of the Old Testament. By more fully understanding the conceptual thought world of the ANE, both the similarities and the differences between the pagan cultures and the Israelites becomes more explicit.

While my “book reviews” are not actual reviews in the technical sense of the term, I do want to share one aspect of the book that I thoroughly appreciated. Walton devotes the majority of each chapter to the thought world of the ANE (hence, the title of the book). However, within each chapter he pauses to draw attention to a specific aspect of the Old Testament that has a bearing on the subject at hand. These discussions are set off in a grayed-out “side-bar” type of arrangement, and come with their own footnotes. In a pure lecture format, it is as if Walton is stepping back from his main topic and saying, “Okay, that is what the thought of the ANE is, now let’s see how the Old Testament either reflects, or does not reflect, this particular aspect of ANE thought.” While the basic text provides the meat and potatoes of the book, these shorter illustrations provide the icing on the cake, so to speak.

I have honestly rarely been so engrossed in a technical book to the point that I did not want to put it down, and actually looked forward to continue my reading. Maybe I am a nut (okay, that point is not up for debate), but this book was just that good. If I was an instructor in a course of Old Testament study, this book would be mandatory reading. I assure you, if you take Walton’s thesis seriously, you will never read the Old Testament the same way you have always read it (unless, of course, you already accepted Walton’s thesis without knowing it.)

Do not be put off by the technical nature of the subject. This book is easily understandable. All foreign language words are transliterated into English, and if I can follow the author’s train of thought with my embarrassingly limited understanding of ANE literature, anyone can. With all of the usual caveats duly noted (“you are not going to agree with everything the author says,” etc., etc.), I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I so wish I had this material presented to me when I was either in my undergraduate or graduate studies. But, I am thankful I have it now, and I plan on making further examination of this material a point of emphasis in my continued growth in biblical studies.

Definitions – “Church”

The word “church” illustrates what has to be one of the greatest, yet possibly most misunderstood, issues in dealing with translation and interpretation processes – some words can obtain such significant (and unintended) secondary meanings that the primary meaning is often obscured or completely erased. It happens frequently (the word “baptize” is another example) and the results can be profound. There is, however, a simple remedy (I like simple – I specialize in simple – I am simple minded).

The derivation of the word “church” is complex – I will leave it to the reader to search the internet for the history of the word. For this space suffice it to say that the word comes to us from the Greek via the Latin and German and thence to the Old English, and ultimately to the King James Version and thus to virtually every English translation. However, the great-grandparent in Greek is really just a very simple word that means “assembly.” For proof of this consider Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 – where the word is used to describe a near riot, a political/judicial meeting, and an large gathering of people (the same riotous group found in v. 32).

First, a little history. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, there were two words that could be used for the idea of assembly, and sometimes congregation. One is the word from which we get our synagogue, the other was ekklesia. By the time of the first century, the word synagogue had a secondary meaning attached – the specific meeting place of Jews. The other word, ekklesia, did not acquire this “theological” freight, and therefore was the natural word for the authors of the New Testament to use in order that the New Testament assembly of Christians would not be confused with the Old Covenant meeting of Jews. (Significant note: the word synagogue IS used in James 2:2 in reference to a Christian assembly – the word is actually translated instead of being transliterated – which just goes to prove my point by way of a different direction.) There is no “Holy Spirit” meaning attached to the Greek word ekklesia – the word that ultimately ends up being translated as “church” in our English translations.

The problem is that the English word “church” has become so overloaded with theological, confessional, and even denominational freight as to be almost useless. To a Roman Catholic the word refers to the entire Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. To many Protestants, the word refers to the “invisible” church which would include believers of every stripe, color, and description (never mind that many of the creeds that define these groups are diametrically opposed to one or more of the others). To a great many others, the word “church” simply refers to a building – “. . . bye mom, I’m going to the church to play some basketball . . . ” (which, sadly calls for another blog post, but that will have to wait).

What is my simple solution? Let’s retire the word “church” to a nice pasture somewhere where it can live out its remaining days in peace and tranquility, and replace it with the idea for which it was originally intended to convey, and that is “assembly,” “gathering,” or perhaps even “congregation” (although, even that last option comes with some extraneous meanings attached).

Notice, just one simple (that word again) example that has some fairly significant hermeneutical implications. In the modern worship wars over the “role” of women, one problematic text is 1 Corinthians 14. As simply (arrrgh) as I can explain it, the argument is that because Paul seemingly allows women to pray in public in 11:1-16, the apparent prohibition against women speaking in chapter 14 must be modified in some form or fashion (either softening it, or by eliminating it altogether). But this interpretation falls apart when it is recognized that Paul makes a significant change in 11:17 – prior to v. 17 there is no mention of a public gathering at all (the reference in v. 16 to churches of God is a rebuttal to the Corinthian view that theirs is the preferred practice!) But at v. 17 Paul starts talking about the public assembly of the Corinthian Christians – in chapter 11 his topic is that of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 14 he continues with the assembly language, but this time in regard to manifestations of the Spirit – notably the speaking in tongues. Consider the following –

14:4 – the one who speaks to the assembly must do so for the edification of the people assembled.
14:5 – interpretation of tongues is necessary for the edification of the assembly.
14:12 – the gifts of the Spirit are to build up the assembly.
14:19 – Paul would rather speak five intelligible words in the assembly than ten thousand unintelligible words.
14:23 – when the whole assembly comes together . . .
14:26 – when you come together (the word ekklesia is not used here).
14:28 – if there is no interpreter in the assembly, let the tongue speaker be silent.
14:33 – as is the customary practice in every assembly of the saints.
14:34 – the women are to remain silent in the assembly.
14:35 – for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.

In every verse listed above (except for v. 26) the word ekklesia is used for the idea of assembly or gathering. The argument made by egalitarians (those arguing for complete equality of women in public worship) is that Paul establishes his basic teaching in chapter 11, and only modifies it in chapter 14 to limit obnoxious or unruly women taking over the worship. As I said, this argument cannot be sustained because (a) Paul never mentions the appropriateness of women praying in the public assembly in chapter 11; and (b) he repeatedly and specifically ties his teaching, which includes the limitation of women speaking (and therefore exercising authority over men) in chapter 14 to the assembly of the Christians! This is in perfect agreement with his teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12. The entire discussion changes significantly if we eliminate the heavily freighted (and therefore susceptible to twisting) concept of “church” with the very simple (arrrgh) usage of the word assembly.

There really is nothing wrong with the word, “church,” if we understand it as it was intended. But, the meanings of words change, and what was understood 200 or more years ago is frequently not the meaning of the word today. Try this experiment – every time you read the word “church” in your English Bible, substitute the word “assembly” and see if the meaning is not clarified – or at least a richer meaning is thereby provided (yes, even Matthew 16:18!).

An Easter Morning Meditation

Being a minister (preacher) and dreading Easter might sound like a kid who dreads Christmas. Who could possibly dread the biggest day of the Christian calendar? Who in his right mind would just as soon stay in bed during the day that so many others have been looking forward to for at least 40 days, if not a majority of the year? What preacher would just like to ask for a day off on the day when the pews are more likely to be filled than for any other day (except Mother’s Day, but don’t get me started on that one)?

Me.

Mind you, I am not against remembering Jesus’s resurrection. It’s just that I do it every week – on the Lord’s day. And I am not one of those cranky misfits who preaches on the resurrection on or about December 25, and on the birth of Jesus while everyone else is thinking about Easter eggs. I may be a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, but I’m not THAT obtuse.

It’s just all the hype, all the hoopla, all the build up. How many batters hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and runners on the corners? It might happen every once in a while, but to expect it to happen every time is just ridiculous. But every year the same thing happens – everybody gets all gussied up and excited because “today we remember the resurrection of Jesus.”

I don’t remember ever forgetting it, but never mind.

It occurred to me this week as I was preparing for yet another bottom-of-the-ninth-with-two-outs plate appearance that the first witnesses of the empty tomb were anything other than what we have traditionally pictured them. We all want to picture them jumping with joy, bursting out with eleven choruses of “Up From The Grave He Arose” while clutching their Easter lilies and then scurrying off to their feast of ham and mashed potatoes. (They were Jews, so I don’t think that part happened, but never mind)

But, with the exception of Mary, I just do not see much euphoria or the passing out of chocolate covered eggs. The apostles, for the most part, were confused, disoriented, and even afraid. They knew the tomb was empty, and they were amazed and “marveled,” – but even when Jesus showed up behind locked doors they didn’t really catch on. Fear was more of the emotion of the day, far from frolicking.

We have come to transfer our feelings of euphoria and triumphalism onto the first witnesses – but if you read the gospel accounts carefully and by trying to see that first Sunday through the eyes of those first few observers, we see a very different picture. That first “Lord’s Day” was a great day of victory as seen from the perspective of heaven (and what would eventually become the view of Christians of all ages), but that first, “First Day of the Week” was actually one of confusion, anxiety, and – not to overuse a word – amazement.

So, just like a bazillion other preachers have done, and will do, I will stand and preach another resurrection lesson this morning. I just wish that for once we would come into the auditorium with a feeling of wonder, of dread, of amazement, of confusion, of doubt, and maybe even of fear. We are just far too glib, too triumphalist on this day every year. Maybe that is why our churches are so full every Easter, and are becoming so empty for the other 50 Sundays (Mother’s Day excepted, see above). People like base clearing home runs. Very few stay to cheer the crew sweeping up the popcorn.

I may be the only preacher who will admit this – but I’ll say it anyway: I just do not care for Easter Sunday.

The Disappearing Art of Communication (Or, Why it is Important to Listen/Read Carefully)

The digital world has increased our ability to communicate with each other, and has also made exponentially easier to totally misunderstand each other. Never before in the history of mankind has it been this easy to talk around and beyond those who are supposedly our communication partners. To illustrate, I will use myself as an example.

I am on record as saying I do not believe the Bible can be used to prove the age of the earth. Because I have said (or written) that, I have been accused of denying the inspiration of Scripture, of being an evolutionist, of having my Christianity questioned, and worse. I have never said I do not believe in a young earth, or that I believe in evolution; I certainly have never denied the inspiration of Scripture (quite the opposite, in fact); and, to be honest, I do not know any human who is qualified to judge what is in another person’s heart. So, what did I say (or write) that was so controversial?

To repeat – I do not believe the Bible can be used to support either a young earth, or an old earth. It matters not one little bit to me that people believe one way or the other – what bothers me is that the Bible is being used in a manner in which it was never intended to be used. And, in that sense, I feel like God’s word is being abused.

I am a stickler for consistency. I would much rather argue with someone who is tediously consistent than someone who constantly changes the rules of the discussion. And, to a large extent, I believe that is what is happening in the current debate over whether Genesis should be read “literally” or not. For many, the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of creation in six days means that you have to accept six literal, 24 hour periods of time, or you deny the inspiration of the Bible. But here is the fly in that ointment – the sun was not created until the fourth “day.” Now, logically and scientifically, you cannot have a “day” without a literal, physical sun. Without a solar time-table you cannot have a 24 hour cycle. It is true that light was created before the sun, and that you do not have to have the sun in order to have light. But you cannot have an “evening” and a “morning” without a sun.

So, in order to have creation in six, 24 hour periods, there has to be a suspension of literal, “scientific” accuracy – you have to suggest that a method of keeping time existed before the only method of keeping time that the ancients were aware of. Now, this is perfectly acceptable to me – but it has to be clearly understood that a suspension of a literal and scientific understanding of time has been suggested here. If there was a method of keeping time before Genesis 1, it was not mentioned or described in Genesis. Therefore, a “literal” and scientific 24 hour “day” did not exist before the fourth “day.”

So, in order to prove that the world was created in six, literal 24 hour periods, you have to re-define the meaning of the word “literal” (or, “scientific”) to mean something that supersedes literal, scientific precision.

Which is exactly the point I am making when I say that you cannot use the Bible to prove the age of the earth. In order to do so you have to make some statements that were never intended to be used with scientific precision to be scientifically precise, and you have to take some other statements that appear to be “literal” in very non-literal (i.e., metaphorical) ways.

How old is the earth? It simply does not matter! I cannot stress that fact enough. The Bible nowhere states how old the earth is, and to make a belief in the age of the earth a measure of someone’s faithfulness is to become the most pharisaic of Pharisees. It goes way beyond straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. There are really good Christians who believe in a 6,000 year-old earth, and there are really good Christians who believe in a millions-of-years-old earth.

What does matter, and what should concern all of us, is how the Bible is being used, both by its “friends” and its enemies. Those who claim to believe in the Bible, yet use that Bible solely to promote a conservative political or social agenda, are no more friends of the Bible than those who openly ridicule it. In both cases the result is the same – the Bible simply becomes a pawn in a vicious power struggle.

I have a much better solution: let us speak where the Bible speaks, as the Bible itself speaks, and for the purpose for which the Bible speaks. That way we can hold our private opinions, and can even try to convince others of the correctness of our opinions, without treating the Bible with contempt or disrespect.

Speaking of communication – I think that is the way God wants his word to be read and understood – as HE intended it, not as any old way we want it to be understood!

The Gordian Knot of Hermeneutics

I have been pondering something so much lately I have a headache. Mind you, my mental capacity could never be described as excessive, and it is dwindling by the year – but still, I have a couple of synapses that are still firing.

My conundrum is this: how can people who hold to virtually the same concept of the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture come to such varied, and sometimes even diametrically opposed, interpretations of some passages of that Scripture? I get it that classic liberals and hard-core fundamentalists should be at each others’ throats. But what disturbs me is that I have acquaintances who, at least on a surface level, agree that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, and they and I are so far apart on some issues that we cannot even worship together.

As Ricky would say to Lucy, “‘Splain me.”

What I have decided is that the problem is not one’s view of inspiration (although, at one level it might certainly be). It is certainly not one’s love for the Bible, or for Jesus, or for his church. The problem, as I see it, is the issue of hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is one of those words for which there are probably as many definitions as there are individuals who use it. For me there is a very simple definition, although some might find it lacking: hermeneutics is the process by which we apply, or interpret, Scripture. It is differentiated from exegesis in that exegesis is the process by which we determine what the passage meant in its original, historic context. Therefore, while some disagreements are narrowly focused on matters of exegesis (meanings of words, aspects of grammar, specific details of historical setting), I am growing more convinced that it is actually the process by which we selectively apply Scripture that is the cause of most problems.

As honestly as I can say it, we are all hermeneutical sinners. We all violate certain hermeneutical principles that we demand others obey. None of us are entirely, perfectly consistent. All of us selectively use or dismiss passages that support or challenge our interpretation. All of us come to the Bible with preconceptions (even believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God is a preconception!) None of us are entirely successful in removing, or bracketing out, those preconceptions. Some are certainly better than others, but the minute you declare perfection you have just violated the principle of approaching the Scripture in humility.

In other words, in the immortal  words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I reflect on this as I consider an interview conducted with Ken Ham, he of the Noah’s Ark museum and a staunch believer in “young earth” (approximately 6,000 years old) creationism. He said in so many words that if Christians challenge the “literalness” of Genesis, they have no means of supporting their doctrine.

Well, I hate to burst Ken Ham’s bubble, but I am one of the committed believers in the divine and authoritative inspiration of Scripture, and I cannot now, nor will I in the foreseeable future, ever accept the conclusion that the Bible scientifically proves the earth to be not much older than 6,000 years. It may, in absolute fact, only be that old. That is not my main disagreement with Ham. What I object to, in the most emphatic of ways possible, is the proposition that we can use the Bible as some sort of a chronological textbook to ascertain the age of the earth. This number was first arrived at through the prodigious effort of Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher (d. 1656), who determined that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. (I have seen the book which documents Ussher’s work – it is ponderous!) The problem with this, and many other efforts to date the age of the earth, is that you have to depend on genealogical lists that were compiled, not as literal, physical lines of lineage, but for specific political and/or theological reasons. That, and then you have to work with some incredibly difficult comparisons and computations of ancient calendars (which, if I remember correctly, comprises the bulk of Ussher’s work).

For evidence, I offer two genealogies. One, the lineage of Zadok, found in 1 Chronicles 6:1-15 and in a much abbreviated form in 1 Chronicles 9:11, and in Ezra 7:1-5. The genealogy in Ezra has a six generation gap – which is interesting in and of itself, but is even more interesting if it is true that the author of the books of the Chronicles was Ezra himself, as many scholars believe. Now, if you want to argue that the list in 1 Chronicles 6 is the full and complete list, go ahead. But here is the problem: the list in Ezra 7 is just as inspired, and just as authoritative, and just as theologically important for Ezra’s readers as the list in 1 Chronicles was for those original readers, and the two lists are significantly different! You cannot elevate the Chronicles list as being more historically accurate without denigrating the historical accuracy of the Ezra list. Yet, if you accept that both lists are inspired and accurate for the purpose for which the author’s intended, you have just accepted my premise – you cannot use the biblical genealogies as scientifically perfect specimens of biological lineage. (Critical exegetical note here: the word “father” in ancient Semitic languages can mean anything from one’s own specific human father to a grandfather, or even more remote male relative. Here is where exegesis can, and should, inform hermeneutics).

The second genealogy is far better known – that of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Even a cursory glance reveals significant differences between the two lists. These differences have been summarily dismissed as the result of the Matthean genealogy being that of Joseph, and the Lukan genealogy as being that of Mary. I will wager a year’s salary to anyone who can prove to me from Scripture that Luke intends his genealogy to be through Mary and not Joseph! It cannot be done, and I have tried every which way from Tuesday to do it. The only way you can arrive at that conclusion is to assume it from the beginning – and as I compare the two lists that is just not a valid assumption, for while they have significant differences, they share a remarkable level of agreement.

But, let’s say I am wrong (and that would not be the first, or the last time), so let’s look at Mathew’s genealogy more closely: he has arranged it in three groups of 14. This in itself lends toward a theological, and not purely historical, arrangement. But look even more closely: in the first two sections there are 14 generations, the first beginning with Abraham, the second beginning with Solomon. But the only way you can come up with 14 in the third set is to count Jeconiah twice – once as the last generation in the second section and once as the first generation of the third set. (David is not so counted in the second group). I’m not making this up – you can count for yourself and, besides, it has been documented and discussed thoroughly in critical commentaries. So – are the lists false? Did Matthew not know his history or his theology? NO! and NO! But he did create his “genealogy” with a specific purpose in mind, and if we are going to stand under Scripture instead of standing over Scripture, we must first accept Matthew’s listing as being different from Luke’s, and then proceed to attempt to determine the historical and theological reasons for the discrepancies.

Artificially harmonizing differing accounts in Scripture in order to prove a debatable theory is dishonest. To do so, and then to demand that everyone accept your conclusion, is even more than dishonest. Those who do so to gain a following do great damage to the cause of seeking the truth.

So, how are we going to untie the “Gordian Knot” of hermeneutics? I’m afraid that solution is beyond my limited mental capacity. There is one thing about which I am absolutely convinced, however: no Christian should be afraid of seeking the truth of any matter. God has nothing to fear from human inquiry.

Let us begin with a proper posture before the text, however, and remember we stand under it, not over it!

Luke 22:35-38

In the seemingly never-ending debate over guns and gun ownership and how to curb gun violence, one passage of Scripture keeps showing up. There are some remarkable aspects to this passage, and I have been working for some time on how to properly interpret and apply the passage. I have come to the conclusion that there is one interpretation that I emphatically reject, one interpretation that makes sense on one level, but which I ultimately conclude is not satisfactory, and then I have my own tentative (as much as I can be tentative) interpretation.

To begin, let us put the passage before us:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered wit the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment. And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)

Let me begin with the interpretation that I flatly reject. It has been suggested that this passage provides clear support for the concept of arming oneself to the teeth for the purpose of self-protection. I simply cannot accept that interpretation for this passage. I have a number of reasons for making that statement.

  1. This teaching of Jesus is only found in one gospel, and in only one place. I am exceedingly nervous about single-text theology, and anytime anyone wants to build a huge platform on one single text I get suspicious – even if I am leaning toward accepting the conclusion of what is being discussed.
  2. In regard to the above point, when single-text interpretation is necessary, a person must always ask, “Is there (or are there) any text(s) that teach the opposite of what I believe this text is teaching?” In this case I believe there is not just one, but actually a number, of texts that refute the above interpretation. (1) Matthew 5:39, which the ESV translates as “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil…” That phrase is better translated, “Do not resist by evil means*.” Jesus clearly resisted evil people! The apostles resisted evil people, and Christians of all generations have resisted evil people in their world. But Jesus never used the evil tactics of the individuals he was resisting – same with the disciples. Using a sword to defeat a sword would be in clear violation of Matthew 5:39. (2)  Matthew 26:52 – “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If Jesus wanted his disciples to be armed, he certainly prohibited the use of those weapons. (3) John 18:36 – “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Swords are weapons to defend worldly kingdoms – either personal or national. Jesus repudiated the idea that his kingdom was this-worldly. So there are actually a number of passages that contradict the interpretation that Jesus was condoning the use of weapons for self-protection.
  3. The book of Acts, the letters of Paul, James, and Peter, and subsequent church history demonstrate the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which the disciples of Christ submitted to abuse and even martyrdom rather than defend themselves with offensive weapons.

So, if Jesus was not condoning the use of weapons for self-defense, what was he doing? I now turn to the interpretation that at least on one level makes sense, but on further reflection just does not convince me. That is that Jesus was making sure there was at least one sword among the eleven remaining disciples so that the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 could be fulfilled. After all, isn’t this the interpretation that Jesus himself provided? Well, yes and no.

First, there is no indication anywhere in any of the gospels – especially Luke – that the disciples were included in the arrest or trial of Jesus. How could he be “numbered with the transgressors” if the disciples were not considered to be “transgressors”? Second, consider the context of the saying – it was well after dark on the night of one of the highest feast days of the Jews. Where in the world would any of them be able to “sell his cloak and buy a sword?” But if the saying was meant to be in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 it would have to be fulfilled that night – Jesus could hardly be considered to be “numbered with the transgressors” if his disciples went out and bought a bunch of swords weeks or even days after his death. And, just to carry that thought one step further – where exactly were they supposed to by such swords? The Romans? Jewish zealots? The local pawn shop? Third, the events of the evening flatly contradict the idea that Jesus was arrested for insurrection. No charge of armed rebellion was brought against Jesus – treason yes (before Pilate), but armed rebellion, no. In fact, the attempt to do so strikes me like that of a Monty Python skit:

Accuser – “This man is an anarchist. His slave chopped off the ear of your servant!”
Chief Priest (examining the ear of his servant) – “He did?”
Accuser – “. . . well, yes, . . . but then this terrorist put it back on .”
Chief Priest – “Thanks a lot!”

It just seems to me that Luke is far too precise an author to make these kinds of factual, and even theological, mistakes. So, while I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was reminding his disciples of the prophecy of Isaiah 53, I just do not think he was using his disciples as the “transgressors” to which the prophecy referred. So, if not option number two, is there a third choice? I believe there is.

I believe that this exchange between Jesus and his disciples was recorded by Luke to demonstrate (1) Jesus’s acceptance of his immediate fate, and (2) the disciples continued misunderstanding of not only Old Covenant prophecy, but Jesus’s own explicit teaching.

I have already said that I do not believe Jesus was somehow surrendering his disciples to use the weapons of the world to defend themselves. In point of fact, in John 15-16 Jesus makes it clear that when the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples, they would be better armed and protected than even when he, Jesus, was present with them. I reject the idea that the “transgressors” with whom Jesus was to be numbered were the disciples – I believe that the two thieves/robbers with whom Jesus was crucified fulfilled Isaiah 53. If those two options are removed, and if we grant that Luke was a precise and deliberate author (guided by the Holy Spirit, no less) then we have to explore the idea that what Luke recorded in 22:35-38 was an ironic conversation, one that the disciples utterly, completely, misunderstood.

As one last, but I believe significant, bit of evidence, I suggest that Jesus’s response – “It is enough” has enough biblical background to support this interpretation. Consider Genesis 45:28, Deuteronomy 3:26, 1 Kings 19:4, 1 Chronicles 21:15. In these texts the expression is used as a command to stop the conversation – a point of absurdity had been reached and there was no sense in continuing any further. The disciples response, “Looky here, Jesus, we have two swords!” demonstrated their lack of understanding. Jesus just put a stop to the conversation. It was as if saying, “I give up. I’m not even going to try to explain.”

There are many passages of Scripture that we want to turn to as a “proof text” to defend what we already want to believe. When that occurs we must be extraordinarily careful that we slow down, apply all of our tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, and especially consider if there are other passages that suggest an alternate interpretation. I believe Luke 22:35-38 provides such an example. I freely admit my interpretation may be in error, and so in conclusion I would simply suggest that it is far better in the long run to say, “I do not know” what a passage means, and be absolutely correct, than to defend interpretations that are absolutely wrong.

*I am indebted to Glen Stassen for this insight. See Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 137-138, 186.