A Little More Theological Doodling

Yesterday I did a little thinking out loud about the references in Leviticus 11-27 regarding the God’s call for his people to be holy. It seems to me to be pretty obvious that God expected his people, the nation of Israel, to be a peculiar, a holy people. I am also equally convinced that God fully expects his “New Testament” people to be equally holy, peculiar. But let me doodle just a little more.

If I may participate in a little speculation, it would not be far wrong to suggest that many people in today’s culture reject the claims of Christianity because, in their mind, so much of the Bible (even the New Testament) is focused on negativity – you can’t do this, you will go to hell if you do that. I would also suggest that most of the things that are prohibited are things that this culture really wants to participate in, such as having absolute autonomy over their sexual nature. Of course, there are a lot of other prohibitions in the Bible, but it seems like the only ones that really provoke people are the ones that regulate with whom and how one might exercise his or her sexual nature.

As I view this phenomenon, I would suggest that this reaction is not against the Bible, but rather a humanistic understanding of what an idol is.

You see, an idol has to be placated. You have to sacrifice to a god in order to implore him or her for a good result, or to alleviate one or more of his more obvious personal animosities. You could never really be on good terms with a god – you were always on the ragged edge of angering him or her, or at the very least, failing to perform some checklist with 100% accuracy. So, you sacrificed in the hopes that your actions and incantations were perfect so that your crops would produce, or that your cows would bear healthy young, or that the rains would come in season. If you messed up, you sacrificed to placate the god’s irascible anger.

Let us then return to Leviticus 11-27 and discover why God called his people to a living holiness –

For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. (11:45)

Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you. (20:8)

But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. (20:24)

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (20:26)

So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the LORD. And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD. (22:31-33)

And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (26:12-13)

“I delivered you from slavery. I have sanctified you. I have separated you from the other peoples of the earth to be my special possession. I will walk among you (have a personal relationship with you). I have broken the bars of your slavery and have made you walk erect.”

Doesn’t sound like an angry, vicious, temperamental god to me. It sounds to me like a loving, benevolent God who acts in grace first and only demands obedience later. It sounds to me like a father who wants what is best for his children, but knowing that children will often act to their own harm, sets beneficial limits to their behavior to protect them. It sounds to me like the kind of God that most people would love to get to know, if they could push past their own understanding of slavish obedience to a malevolent, capricious god.

Now, if that is the picture that God gave us of himself in the Old Testament, under the Old Law, and limited by a national allegiance, how much more should we view God as a loving, gracious, benevolent father who, more than anything, desires a close personal relationship with his redeemed people  under the shadow of the cross?

The more I read the Old Testament, the more I am convinced that we have seriously misjudged its message and significance for Christians. I think it is no small wonder that perhaps one of the most understudied books in the New Testament is the book of Hebrews, the one book that quotes from the Old Testament most frequently. Yes, it teaches us the Old Law (the national law) has been superseded, but it does so in such a way as to magnify the message of grace and redemption as foreseen in the Old Law.

Hmm. Perhaps some more doodling in this subject would be appropriate.

Just Doodling With a Little Theology

Getting some early thoughts down for my sermon on Sunday. Here is an interesting little tidbit of trivia for you to amaze your friends and family – (by the way, all stats are purely hand generated, none of that fancy computer generated, highly accurate kind of statistic).

Between chapter 11 and 27 (the end) of Leviticus, the phrase “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God” or “you shall be holy because I am holy” is used at least 47 times. Forty-seven usages in 17 chapters, which is just shy of three times per chapter. But, if you dig a little deeper, you find that 15 of those 47 occurrences are in chapter 19 alone. That is 15 usages in 37 verses.

Why the emphasis on the being of God?

Because, just interestingly enough, chapter 19 is the one chapter that focuses most completely on the holiness of God. And, Leviticus is the book that focuses on the holiness of God’s people vis-a-vis the being of God. If God is a holy God, then his people are to be a holy people.

And, I know this is tough stuff, but if you are going to be a holy people you have to be holy in everything that you do – which includes worship, but extends to how well you treat your servants and your livestock.

You even let your land rest for one year out of every seven.

Some people argue that we do not preach from the Old Testament because it no longer matters for believers after the cross. I’m not entirely convinced.

I think we do not preach from the Old Testament because we are too scared to think that God might actually expect us to obey him – to be holy – in everything that we do.

(Oh, by the way, that phrase is used in the New Testament too – 1 Peter 1:15, look it up.)

The Danger of Imprecise Assertions of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is all a matter of ascending by climbing lower.

The Value of Systematically Marking Your Bible

Last year I started doing something that many, many people already do, and almost immediately I started seeing things in Scripture that had earlier eluded me. The practice is inexpensive, and totally flexible – there are no set rules and each reader can adjust the process to fit his/her needs. What is this magic elixir of Bible reading?

I started marking my text with different colored markers. (Duh.)

I purchased a set of 8 markers, marketed as the “Inductive Bible Study Kit” packaged by G.T. Luscombe, and I bought mine through Christian Book Distributors. This particular set has a .01 fine line black and red markers, and .05 fine line markers in yellow, pink, green, blue, orange and purple. If you so desire they have a rather complicated (and in my opinion, far too busy) system of marking the text, so, being as simple-minded as I am, I came up with my own system.

Not that it matters, but I use the black marker for simple emphasis kind of texts, and for making notes in the margin. The red I use for translation kind of notes, and to underline words where translation issues can affect the meaning of a verse or verses. I use the yellow to highlight words that seem to be central or key themes in a book or chapter (fer instance – the words “believe” “live” and “sent” in the gospel of John, the word “righteousness” in the gospel of Matthew). I use green to underline references to God’s people, the church, or God’s kingdom (more on that later). I use blue to underline references to God’s Spirit or the Holy Spirit. I have not really found a use yet for pink (too close to red), orange, or purple, but their use may come later.

A couple of really interesting things have occurred as I do this (and I try to keep all of my physical texts marked identically, which is taking some time). First, specifically in regard to marking all the texts that refer to God’s people, the church, the kingdom of God, or God’s kingdom, or His kingdom, etc., I came to a rather profound conclusion (at least for me, profundity is measured in small containers). The prevailing attitude among the teachers and preachers of my youth was that the New Testament church is the kingdom of God. Ergo and therefore, good Christians cannot pray for the “kingdom of God to come” as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:10, because it already came on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. To pray for the kingdom to come (as in some future sense) was to be either a closet premillennialist, or worse, a flaming premillennialist. (A brief historical aside here – in the days of my youth, to be a premillennialist was somewhat to the left of being a Baptist, and being either one endangered your soul. To be a Baptist and a premillennialist was especially dangerous. Times have changed, and I don’t think many members of the Churches of Christ even understand what a “premillennialist” is; and we have even started having conversations with the Baptists, so long as they are not premillennialists, or Dallas Cowboy fans. Well, maybe that last one only applies to me.)

So, as I worked through the New Testament, merrily marking passage after passage in green, something occurred to me. In the overwhelming number of passages where the kingdom is specifically mentioned, there was no way I could substitute the word “church” and have the context remain intelligible. In plain English, in the overwhelming number of passages, the kingdom and the church are not equal, they are not interchangeable, they are not the same. Now, in a few passages it is possible to interchange the words kingdom and church, but they are indeed few.

I am not a closet, and certainly not a flaming, premillennialist, but thems are the facts.

Something else I noticed – there are a LOT more passages that have blue under them in the Old Testament than I ever expected there would be. Now, I am not suggesting that the Holy Spirit as is specifically discussed in the New Testament can be read back into the Old Testament, but there is a much higher number of references to “God’s Spirit” or “my Spirit” when God is the speaker, than I had otherwise caught on to. So, it just got me to thinking . . . a commonly held belief is that the “Holy Spirit” (especially as Luke describes him) is a New Testament being – not really present in the Old Testament. However, the number of references to the Spirit of God or, as I indicated, “my Spirit” would seem to contradict that. If we read the Bible in a “New Testament Centric” model, I think our reading is therefore distorted. Perhaps if we read Luke after considering these texts in the Old Testament, we could arrive at a more well rounded view of the Holy Spirit. Something to think about, anyway.

So, anyway, if your Bible reading and study has  reached a stale plateau, try this very simple and inexpensive experiment. Buy a new copy of the Bible (if you do not want to mark up your “old faithful” copy), and create your own system of marking the text. The markers I have purchased do not bleed through the pages, and I have used them on several different copies. I think creating your own system has a far greater value than using some pre-packaged system, but to each his own, I guess.

Blessings on your study, and may you find a precious nugget in your daily Bible reading!

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.

The Mysterious Missing Word in Peter

I recently did a concordance search for the Greek word ekklesia, the word that is almost always translated “church” in our English New Testaments. I discovered a rather curious fact. I do not want this little nugget of minutiae to be overblown, but I think it is is fascinating to say the least.

The fact is the Greek word is never used in the writings of Peter. The concept of the church is found throughout 1 Peter, although not quite so obvious in 2 Peter. There are probably a number of reasons Peter never used the word ekklesia. There is no hard and fast law that says if a word exists you have to use it. But – considering the theological mountain we have built upon the little word ekklesia, it is at the very least noteworthy that the word never appears in either letter attributed to Peter.

I’m just thinking out loud here – but could it be possible that because Jesus’s pronouncement in Matthew 16:18 was so directed to Peter that he purposefully refused to use the word? Peter’s view of the church is extraordinarily high – in terms of New Testament ecclesiology his is probably the highest. My guess is his omission of the word ekklesia cannot have been accidental (note the frequency with which Paul uses the word, and it is found also in John’s writings, James, and the letter to the Hebrews). Although I would argue Peter intentionally does not use the word, I have no conclusive evidence as to what that intention might have been.

Once again, I am not trying to build a theology on the absence of a term. I am suggesting, however, that maybe, just maybe, we need to pay attention to what is not said, especially when what is said is so emphatic.