Changing Strategies for a Changeless Church

Read no further unless you consider the following texts: Isaiah 1:11, 16-17; Hosea 6:6 (and therefore Matthew 9:13, 12:7); Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; James 1:27.

As is so often the case, I write one post thinking it will be a stand-alone, one-off post, and then all of a sudden I think (or am reminded by someone) of a tangential point, and then a rabbit pops up that needs to be chased, and all of a sudden I’m up to my armpits in blog posts. So, here is the third in an un-planned series that started with me stating unequivocally that the church does not have to change. I am adamant about that point. The core doctrines and practices of the church do not have to change, and in fact, if we do change them, we cease to be the church. I will not give an inch on that belief.

But that got me to thinking about all the ways in which individual congregations are dying, and what little changes they could make in order to reverse some of the decline. So, yesterday I started with the easiest, and most visible, changes that a congregation can consider – those of the physical building in which they meet. I am just astounded by the the fact that so many people are oblivious to the state of their building, and how much that disrepair communicates an unwillingness to change, or an outright statement of indifference.

In all honesty, I have to say that in today’s culture the building probably accounts for only 10-20% of a guest’s opinion of the church – although it is a critical 10 – 20%. That figure varies depending on region of the country and size of the community. In some locations the physical state of the building may rate higher, in some places it might barely matter. Regardless, there is no excuse for a shoddy building. If you are going to meet in one, make it a priority to have that building as visitor friendly as you can possibly make it.

Today I venture into the 80 – 90% of what our culture views as important, and that is the philosophy or philosophies that drive the work of the congregation. It is popular today to say that the “attraction” model of the church is dead – that the only churches that are growing have moved past an “attraction” model to one of involvement or of being “missional” (whatever that means – all I’ve learned is that it is “insider” lingo that if you use it you are cool, and if you don’t use it you are just so 20th century gauche). I have come to believe that thinking is wrong. Every model of church growth is attraction – the difference is how you are doing the attracting. Are you attracting by saying, “Come to our building and join our little band of Christians because we have everything right” or are you saying, “Come join our assembly; we are trying to change both ourselves and our world and we invite you to join us by changing your life and by helping us in our journey.” Both are attractions models, it is just the methodology that has changed.

So, what drives your congregation? If you cannot say off the top of your head, I have one simple test: how big is your bank account, and by looking at the line items of expenditures, where does most of your money go? That, my friends, will identify whether you are tied to your building, or whether you are actually attempting to move outside the walls and impact your community.

I have a couple of “fer real” stories to illustrate my point. In one congregation where my wife and I attended, the elders had a simple strategy regarding their bank account. Every December they looked at how much money was in the congregational bank account, and they looked at their various ministries. Then, based on the nature of the ministry, they divided that money up and sent it off – to preachers, missionaries, community charities – whatever they supported. They started every January with a $0.00 balance in their account. Silly, you say? Irrational, you argue? Reckless, you harrumph? But what about emergencies, what about crises?

The elders were brilliant men, of that I have no doubt. But beyond that they were men of great faith. They did not trust in the church bank account. If there was an emergency – a flood, a tornado, a fire – they knew that the Smith family had a bank account, and the Joneses had a bank account, and widow Brown had a bank account, and so did every other family in the congregation. They knew that on a moments notice those bank accounts would fly open and every need and every crisis would be overcome. They did not worry about what was in the “church” bank account, because (1) they trusted in the power and love of God and (2) they knew and trusted the hearts of their members. There was no question about the vision of the church. It was present each and every Sunday for everyone to witness and to share.

Second, one of our neighbor families could be described as one of the “nones” that everyone is so worried about. They would attend a church, but they were not really looking for correct doctrine or whether the service was done “decently and in order.” They looked at the bulletin to see what the members were up to. They were especially concerned to note whether the church was open about its finances. They wanted to know if the church was active in the community – feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, housing the homeless. Once those questions were met, then they would consider what most of us would consider the more important issues of doctrine and practice.

You see, many congregations are going to have to change their model of attraction. I still believe in the theory of being an attractional church. Jesus said in John 12:32 that, when he was raised up, he would draw all people unto him. I believe that was both prediction and promise. If we raise Christ, HE will draw people to his church. The question is, are we going to attempt to raise Christ up with philosophies that died decades ago – or are we going to get out into the community, roll up our sleeves, and get our fingers dirty?

Years ago many Churches of Christ shied away from community outreach because they believed (erroneously, I might add) that to do so was to participate in the “social gospel.” I believe that fear has to be firmly and finally eradicated from the mindset of many congregations if they are to stem the exodus of young families, and if they are to ever attract non-Christians to their worship services. Stated bluntly, but to borrow an old adage, people today do not care what you believe, unless and until they see you living what you believe. If we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to learn how to live that gospel. I am not saying we have to change our view of the roles of men and women, that we have to turn our worship services into three-ring (or three screen!) circuses, that we have to become “open and affirming” of sinful practices, that we have to change our view of salvation, church leadership, or our worship practices such as the Lord’s Supper. I repeat, the church cannot change certain immutable truths and practices.

But, returning to those texts I listed at the start of this post – can anyone seriously question that community outreach and care for those who cannot care for themselves is not a part of the gospel? That justice and mercy are any less important than baptism and the sanctity of marriage? That false (vain) worship is any less of a sin than homosexuality?

After one of my earlier posts, a good friend suggested that churches need to learn how to church. I know “church” is not a verb, but I like that thought. It’s brilliant, actually, even allowing for the grammatical imprecision. We need to learn how to church – beginning with personal discipleship (blog post #1) and moving through congregational re-alignment and re-dedication to serving their communities with the flesh and blood of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us never surrender an inch of what the church is, and should be. But let us always be alert to ways in which the church can be the body of Christ in the community of which it is a part.

In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)

In my post entitled “No Strength to Answer” I wrote a paragraph the gist of which was that the Pharisees were in a better position to defend their view of the Sabbath than we are to defend some of our cherished traditions. I want to expand on that thought.

The Pharisees are our favorite whipping boy(s). If we need a villain to preach against, we never have to look farther than the Pharisees. In our common understanding they were vain, pompous, hypocritical, obnoxious – all the things we love about hating others. And, to be sure, some of those characteristics can be deciphered from the many mentions of conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees as a general group.

But, I want to step back a little and try to view the world from the perspective of the Pharisees, hopefully without becoming Pharisaical.

No one knows for sure exactly when and how the Pharisees as a religious group came into existence. For sure it had to have been at some point during the Babylonian exile – or perhaps shortly after the return from that exile. They were not referenced in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament their influence is unmistakable. So, this much is fairly certain – they were “born” during a time of extreme spiritual hardship and questioning. Without a doubt, the number one question that would have given birth to such a spiritually elite group would have been, “What caused this catastrophe upon our people, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?”

The Pharisees would not have had far to look to find an answer. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention a number of the “minor” prophets) addressed that very question. The answer was clear and unambiguous. The answer was spiritual compromise and moral laxity. Ergo, the solution was spiritual rigorism and moral perfectionism. The links from cause to effect are not that difficult to see in the formation of the sect of the Pharisees.

Where I want to crawl out on a limb (metaphorically speaking) and offer a defense of the Pharisees is in regard to their “rigorism” regarding Sabbath keeping. There is no way you can read Jeremiah and Ezekiel without coming away with the realization that one issue that burned in the prophets’ hearts was the manner in which the Jews were profaning the Sabbath. For evidence, simply read Ezekiel 20 – but that is not the last, or only, word on the subject. It really does not take a Ph.D. to realize that the honoring of the Sabbath was really an important issue to the exilic, and post-exilic, prophets.

So, let us look at Jesus’s actions through the eyes of the Pharisees. He was, in the most strictest sense, violating the Sabbath by performing “works.” They did not have to depend on oral tradition in order to be horrified by this. The Jews had been devastated and thrown into foreign captivity for, among other things, profaning the Sabbath. They had numerous “thus saith the LORD” passages to back them up. They had not one, but many, “book, chapter, and verses” to point to.

And, yet, they were utterly, completely, and totally wrong.

They were perfectly accurate and correct readers of Scripture, and entirely erroneous in interpretation. They believed with all their heart, and with good technical reason, that Jesus was doing the very thing that God punished their fathers for doing. In their day they were the good, “Bible toting, Scripture quoting” conservative believers, and Jesus was the wild eyed, long haired, hippie progressive.

Okay – let’s move on to today. One of the things that terrifies me as I ponder this situation is how might I be a Pharisee – someone who is perfectly correct and without spot or blemish in my reading of Scripture, and yet someone who is utterly bereft of understanding how to interpret it. The example of the Pharisees is instructive on many different levels – certainly we do not want to miss the surface level where Jesus warns us repeatedly not to follow their hypocrisy and pomposity. Yet, is there not another level, a deeper level, that we completely miss? Are we not the great-grandchildren of these Pharisees when we quote “book, chapter and verse” and utterly, totally, and completely miss the point?

As I said – it scares me. On one level I do want to be spiritually rigorous and as morally perfect as I can. Those are NOT inappropriate goals. But, along the way, I never want to fall into the trap of becoming so technically perfect that I miss the heart of God revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus was NOT  violating the Sabbath. In God’s eyes he was fulfilling the Sabbath – note Isaiah 58:1-7 (although the word “Sabbath” does not appear here, the passage defines true fasting and “rigorous” spirituality).

It all goes back to the question of whether we are standing above Scripture, trying to fit it into our ideas of perfection, or whether we are standing under Scripture, and allowing it to shape our lives.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Living in a Negative Image World

Showing my age here – the title of this post is not about negativity (although, that is a part of it). What I am thinking about relates to the world of photography when you actually had to expose an image onto film, then take that film into a darkroom and develop it onto a sheet of photographic paper. The image on the film was the negative, the final product was the picture, or print. It’s just mind-boggling how we live in a negative image world today. Consider:

  • If a criminal resists arrest and is forcefully detained, it is the policeman’s fault.
  • If a child does not perform adequately on an exam, it is the teacher’s fault.
  • If a worker is lazy, unproductive, uncooperative, and is therefore fired, it is the employer’s fault.
  • If a person drinks to the point of drunkenness and then goes out and kills someone in a car, it is the victim’s fault for causing the drunk person’s mental anguish.
  • And, as I have pointed out in my last couple of posts, if someone rejects the message of Jesus, it is the church’s, or more specifically, the preacher’s fault.

Somewhere along the line we have reversed truth and error, cause and effect. It is as if we have reversed our magnetic poles – positive is now negative, and the negative has now become the print. When I was growing up my peers and I rebelled against what we thought of as an oppressive truth, but at least we had a uniform concept of what that truth was. Today there is no truth – or, to be more accurate, truth is whatever the single, solitary individual decides it to be.

If you can choose your own sex, if you can reject anything that displeases you as “fake news,” if your entire concept of reality begins and ends with what you are feeling in the moment, then what is to become of a society that depends on some form of permanence, some reality that transcends the ghetto of this rampant narcissism?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20, ESV)

How we as a culture arrived at this point is instructive, but I’m not sure it is entirely prescriptive of how we are going to recover – if that recovery is even possible. This journey into negative images spans at least a half-century, and the case could be made that it extends much further back than that. But, the reality is that at least one entire generation, and maybe a second, is alive that only views the world through a reversed image – they have no concept of what the final, and true, picture is. All they see is the negative.

In the darkness that this reversed-reality world creates, I am reminded of what I believe to be the three central themes of the book of Revelation: Endure Patiently, Overcome Faithfully, and Worship Joyfully. I cannot change an entire culture by myself. But I can, and must, worship the One who sees and knows and ultimately controls all.

Let us show the world the beauty of the real image – the print that the negative is designed to reveal! Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry

I don’t know what got me started on this, but something dawned on me the other day. The Bible says absolutely nothing about a topic that, you would think from the amount of ink (and pixels) it receives, is the most important subject in the entire canon. That subject is making the message of the Bible relevant, or “contextualizing” it, to the culture to which it is spoken. You can search from Genesis to the maps in the back of your Bible and you just will not find God telling his prophets (or authors) to make sure they write, and speak, so as not to offend or criticize their audience. Yet, again, you would think that the greatest offense of the church in the twenty-first century is doing just that.

I guess I started thinking about this because in my daily Bible reading I am reading through Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both of these prophets are just brutal when it comes to pillorying their opponents, the idolaters. Or, if you would like, read Ezekiel and see what he thinks of those who say they are married to God and yet sleep with other gods. Keep going and see how Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the other “minor” prophets deal with apostasy, idolatry, and social injustice. I think Amos calling the aristocratic ladies of Israel a bunch of “fat heifers” (in the West Texas translation of the Bible) was a brilliant stroke of political correctness (not!).

Yet, in today’s limp-wristed, namby-pamby world of emotionally insecure snowflakes, such language is just atrocious (see what I did there?). Preachers have to be “culturally sensitive” lest they be accused of being “tone deaf,” “judgmental,” and “unfeeling.” Grrrr. If you remove all the “tone deaf, judgmental, and unfeeling” sections out of the Bible, what are you left with? Remember Jesus called his opponents a bunch of snakes? I am not suggesting we today have the same kind of clairvoyance that Jesus had, but honestly . . . to think that he never offended anyone is just ludicrous.

But, but, but – what about Paul and the Athenians, you ask? Okay – let’s go there. First, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, not because he was espousing Plato and Aristotle. Second, it did not take Paul long at all before he got to the point about God’s judgment and the need for the Athenians to repent. And finally, while he did have some success in Athens, Luke leads us to believe that the majority of Paul’s audience either mocked or just ignored him. The problem was not Paul – it was the Athenian refusal to hear God’s word.

God never berates his spokesmen (and women) because they do not “contextualize” their message. In fact, it is the very opposite. God only blames the hearer, not the preacher, for unbelief. Such audiences have “ears to hear, but do not hear, and eyes to see, but do not see.” If the message is God’s message, then the responsibility is on the hearer, not the preacher, for acceptance. God never  reprimanded Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other prophet because the people’s ears were plugged up or because their hearts were hard as stone.

I don’t think today’s problem in the church is that we do not contextualize the message.

I think the problem today is we don’t believe the message ourselves – so why should the world think any different?

Lord, Deliver Me From Little Prayers

Have you noticed how prayer has been cheapened, belittled, trivialized? And that from those who should be holding it in the highest honor? I mean, in the Bible when people entered into God’s throne room with a request or a challenge, things happened. Mighty things. The dead were raised, nations fell, the waters parted, and enemies died. Prayer was awesome, and changed individual lives as well as the course of history.

Now, we use prayer to start football games. Really? How many of you have heard the language or the epithets being spewed on the field, or from the sidelines? Or we start some meeting in which God’s will doesn’t stand a chance of being heard – let alone of being obeyed. Or really big things like starting and stopping our “worship services.” I remember the first time someone dismissed a service with a song instead of a prayer. It took a full fifteen or more seconds before it dawned on people that he actually said, “we are dismissed.” It felt like we were cheated. Not that a closing prayer changed anything really, its just that if nobody prayed for God to “guide, guard and direct us until we meet again,” would we really be guided, guarded and protected until we met again?

All of this came flooding into my thoughts this week. I am preaching a series on (of all things) prayer. This week’s lesson crystalized into a topic I titled, “When Prayer Seems to Fail.” When everything was all thought out, I realized that the biggest reason why it seems that prayer fails is that we have utterly and totally gutted what it means to pray.

We pray to a god that is really, in the long run, just too small to do anything about what we are praying for – if he even cared. We mouth the words, but our heart is saying, “I know this is futile, but Christians are told to pray, so here goes.” In my work as a hospice chaplain I heard on many, many occasions the wonderfully faithful saying, “well, we’ve done all we can do – all that’s left is prayer.” How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it? All we can do is pray – as a form of resignation to the inevitable, not as an entry into the palace of the one who created the world from nothing.

Or, we use prayer as a bully stick. We have no intention of changing our thoughts or actions, but our little god sure needs to straighten out our relative, or friend, or spouse, or child. So we whip out the ol’ “put ’em on the straight and narrow” prayer and then if our relative, friend, spouse, or child doesn’t change – well its that little god’s fault, not mine, because I prayed.

Or we put our little god in a Republican or Democrat or American or conservative or liberal box, and every prayer is viewed as a way for that special interest group to achieve power and prestige. I know many may tire of my Dietrich Bonhoeffer stories, but there is one anecdote that always puts a lump in my throat. He was asked, on at least one, but apparently several occasions, what would happen if the world were to fall into another world war. He said that if that event were to happen, he would pray for Germany to be defeated so that Christianity could survive. I don’t know about you, but I do not know many Americans who could, and would, pray for a foreign nation to defeat us in a war so that Christianity could survive. For many of us, Americanism is Christianity, and we cannot see any difference.

I can’t even begin to identify the irony of that concept.

Or, we pray perhaps what has become my default prayer – the complaint. This year I started keeping a record of my prayers, and after a couple of months I went back and reviewed them. It was the pathetic record of a whiny little toddler. “God, this is not right, fix this, stop this, make that happen, give me this, and give it to me now.” It was nothing but pure, unadulterated narcissism. I had completely rewritten Scripture – “Lord, not thy will, but mine be done.”

I’m sick, I’m tired, I want to be done with little prayers.

In no way do I want to suggest we should not take our cares and concerns to God – he tells us to take our cares and concert to him, and to do so relentlessly. But I just want to be done with the whiny little narcissistic, vindictive prayers that has become the staple of so much of our common culture. I want to have the faith of the psalmists who were so utterly and totally convinced of the righteousness of their position that they could honestly demand God to hear them – and to act on His promises. I want to be a part of a church that when it prays, the walls shake and everyone is empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out and speak the word of God – after having been specifically told by the legal authorities not to do so! (Acts 4:23f)

Have you ever stopped to consider that our prayers could be repugnant to God? Three times in the book of Jeremiah, God specifically tells the prophet not to pray for his people. “Just stop – don’t do it, because I won’t listen anyway.” (see Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11) Repeatedly in the other prophetic books God tells his people that their worship – specifically commanded by God – is repugnant to him and he has ceased to pay any attention to their sacrifices or prayers.  (Isa. 1:10-17; Hosea 8:11-13; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Malachi 2:13-17; by no means a complete list)

I have heard the statement that America needs to turn back to God so many times it has become a cliche. While it would be wonderful if America turned to God (the word “back” is problematic, seeing as how for so much of our history we have rejected his basic ethical requirements), I am more concerned that the church turn to God. And maybe the first step in transforming the church into what Christ intended it is for its members to regain the sense of praying big prayers.

I confess – I am so guilty. But I am just tired of praying and hearing little prayers to a little god that are focused on my petty little wants and temper tantrums.

Lord, deliver me from little prayers!

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.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, #2

Continuing my explanation of my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” –

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

Um, this should be painfully obvious. I guess for some, pain just does not work. I was tempted to add, “. . . by the original audience” but I decided not to, for the very real reason that if the Scriptures are inspired (and I believe wholeheartedly that they are), then the authors of the Bible intended that their words could be understood years, even hundreds of years, after they were completed.

I find this truth being violated most frequently in terms of the prophetic and apocalyptic writings in the Bible. There seems to be among many theologians an unwritten rule of interpretation: “If you can point to an obvious fulfillment of a prophecy, the prophecy has been fulfilled; if not, then it relates to the second coming of Jesus.” Just a curious question, but don’t you think Isaiah was writing to his fellow countrymen in the “. . . days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”? If so, don’t you think that his hearers, or readers, could understand what he preached and wrote? Now, I have no doubt that Matthew (and other N.T. authors), writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not see a “fuller” and “more complete” fulfillment of many of his prophecies. Matthew’s vision does not erase Isaiah’s original intended purpose, however, and it is especially dangerous to read the Old Testament ONLY through the glasses of a New Testament perspective.

My biggest issue with this “misinterpretation” of Scripture relates to the book of Revelation. The piecemeal manner in which passages are used as proof-texts for virtually every bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible theory of the end-times is just infuriating. It is almost as if people think that John muttered to himself, “I have no idea what all this means, but I’m going to write it down and somebody living in the 21st century will be able to figure it all out.” Hogwash and balderdash, I say. John intended his readers to know EXACTLY what he was writing, or he never would have put pen to paper.

All of this relates specifically to Undeniable Truth #1. If we do not approach Scripture with humility – if we just treat the Bible as some ancient book of folklore and whimsy – then we will completely miss its intended purpose. In other words, we must first come to Scripture with the question, “What did it mean?” before we can ask the question, “What does it mean?” How did Isaiah’s hearers (and readers) hear and read his prophecies? How would a church reading the gospel of Matthew understand his use of Isaiah? And, how would one of the seven churches in Asia have interpreted John’s majestic apocalypse? Only after we come to the Bible with those questions answered can we sit down and say, “Okay, what does this have to say to me today?”

If the meaning of a passage of Scripture we derive is completely foreign to the meaning that it’s original audience would have derived, then I would suggest that our interpretation is completely wrong. Jeremiah was not prophesying that God has mapped out every single detail of our human existence (Jer. 29:11). Jesus was not prophesying about the rise of Muslim terrorism in Mark 13. And the anti-Christ has absolutely nothing to do with Adolph Hitler or Ronald Reagan. (1 John clearly states who the anti-Christ is, to the chagrin of many Christians).

As the old sergeant on Hill Street Blues used to advise his officers at roll-call, “Let’s be careful out there.” Let us be extremely careful with the words of Scripture, because they are God’s words, not ours. Let us ascend higher, by first descending lower, that we might know as fully as possible what God intended for us to know.