Cherry-Picking and Proof-Texting Favorite Scriptures

I saw something the other day that kind of ruffled my feathers. It was another one of those appeals to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV translation) Now, I know nothing of the person who made the appeal, or the setting. But, I just wonder, was the appeal made in context – and did the speaker have the entirety of Jeremiah in mind as he made the appeal?

You see, very, very rarely will anyone include v. 10 in the quotation of v. 11 – “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Note the sequence – you are going to be led captive into an exile in a place you think is absolutely godless and degenerate -and you are going to have to stay there for 70 years while I punish you for your misbehavior. Then, I will bring you back because I know of the plans I have for you . . .”

In the entire pantheon of misquoted, cherry-picked and proof-texted Scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 has to rate in the top 10, maybe the top 5, and maybe even higher.

The prophecies of Jeremiah are rife with warnings that would limit, or even supersede, 29:11. I wonder, for example, if the speaker who so proudly appealed to 29:11 has ever read, or considered, 18:5-11,

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and deeds.”

I know this may just be me, but all of the trite little memes and what-not that you see on social media quoting Jer. 29:11 get really old, especially if you know the story of Jeremiah, and the impassioned pleas that God made through the prophet that were utterly ignored by the leadership, and most of the population, of Jerusalem. Yes, Jer. 29:11 is a wonderful and grace-filled promise. But – taken in context – it is just the silver lining to a very dark and destructive cloud. I am just not at all certain that those who teach this verse so glibly really understand the depth of the verse.

This is just one more example of my almost never-ending mantra – we have to stand under Scripture, not over it, and we have to humbly submit ourselves to the entirety of the meaning of a passage for us to “rightly divide” the truth intended by the Holy Spirit.

Let us continually strive to climb higher by ascending lower.

Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.

The Inescapable Destiny of the Age of Narcissism

Once again I delve into the philosophical . . .

There can be no doubt but what we are firmly entrenched in the age of narcissism. A person could argue when this age began – my guess is back at least as far as the 1960’s – but these shifts in worldview rarely come with crystal clear transitions. We don’t snap our fingers into a new way of thinking, we mostly just sort of ooze into them.

You really do not have to look any further to see the decline of community and a civics oriented approach to life than to look at the decline in the office of the presidency of the United States. I only know of the presidency pre-Ronald Reagan mostly from history books – although I was alive during the Nixon and Carter presidencies. A person could argue that Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and then Reagan all made the presidency about them (in increasing measure), but you can also argue that each of those presidents focused primarily on the health of the nation. Certainly with Reagan you can identify a growing sense of “celebrity” status about the presidency – he was an actor, to be sure. George H.W. Bush got in on Reagan’s coat-tails, but clearly with Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and now with Trump, the decline has been precipitous and, in my humble opinion, cataclysmic. The health and well being of our nation is but a talking point – the race to the White House now is all about the cult of personality, and the narcissism of Obama and Trump in particular was and has been, not to be too inflammatory, obscene. Judging from the crop of Democratic contenders for the right to oppose Trump in 2020, the fall from civility and civics will even be worse (if that’s possible).

But, let’s not just throw stones at the politicians. In every aspect of our American life, the self has utterly and completely replaced the concept of sacrifice and service for the community. In fact, there really is no concept of “community.” Look at the hideous condition of our judicial system. The victim of a crime is brutalized twice – once by the offender and once again when his or her “trial” only serves to minimize the offense and to call into question the legitimacy of the accusation and the right of the victim to obtain justice. Our entire judicial system has devolved into the protection and immunization of the accused, while the legitimate rights of the community, not to mention the victimized, to be protected from such criminals has long since been abandoned.

Consider as well our educational system. Education is, by definition, the acquisition of knowledge and experience that a person has previously not had the opportunity to obtain. In order to be educated, you had to have your ignorance exposed and either corrected, or completely eliminated. Or, at least, that used to be the definition of an education. Now, education is simply the reinforcement of previously held opinions and biases. Colleges and universities are no longer institutions where you attend to have your worldview challenged and expanded, they are now simply places where you go to have your prejudices given official sanction. Primary and secondary schools have become the principle avenue of leftist indoctrination. We no longer teach our children the basics of civics, and “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic,” we teach social Marxism, gender fluidity, and the skill of demanding one’s personal opinions as absolute rights.

Thank goodness the church is not affected, you say. Ahem, cough, cough. The church is probably one of the worst promoters of our age of narcissism. Consider the average “worship” song these days. Worship is all about “my” relationship with Jesus, my “bff”. We sing and talk about how Jesus died to save “me” and to make “my life” all better. Funny, but you rarely read the New Testament authors write such things. For them, Christ died to save the church – the community of God. While “I” am certainly a part of “us,” the emphasis in the New Testament is on the community, the church, the entire people of God. And, yes, there have always been songs such as “Amazing Grace” which focus on the “I,” (as do a majority of the Psalms). The emphasis of those songs, and Psalms, is on the collective “I.” In other words, there is a community that speaks as the “I.” This is made clear in any textbook that discusses the Psalms. It is a fascinating, and prevalent, viewpoint of the Israelite people. Then there is the purely narcissistic use of the personal pronoun, and what I hear in most contemporary Christian music is entirely that of the latter Americanized version, and not the ancient Israelite version.

The last three or four decades of church growth curriculum has focused entirely on the individual and his or her wants. This is nauseatingly evident in the “Seeker Sensitive” churches spawned by Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek phenomenon. However, it is just as present, although somewhat more hidden, in the “Emergent Church” folly of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Both the “Seeker Sensitive” church and the “Emergent” church reaction were focused on the wants and preferences of the individual. In the case of the “Seeker Sensitive” church the goal was to remove any aspect of “religiosity” from the church (a bizarre and irrational move, if you ask me), and the reaction of the “Emergent Church” was to restore the outward symbols of Christianity while gutting it of its most exclusive (and thus, embarrassing) claims. Thus, a person could be a member of a “Seeker Sensitive” church or an “Emergent” church and have all of their personal needs met, while not even remotely being confronted with the life changing and culture shattering aspects of New Testament christianity.

So, if we are firmly entrenched in the age of narcissism, what is our destiny? Consider, if you will, the parallels between our narcissism and the narcissism of the Roman empire. The emperors increasingly came to view themselves as divine – as gods. It started with their deification after they had been dead for a while, but soon that was not good enough. What good is being declared a god if you are not alive to enjoy divine worship? So, over time the emperors allowed themselves to be declared “gods” (or did so on their own) so they could enjoy the perks of divinity. Also, as the empire grew and became more diverse (losing its sense of “community”) it became more brutal, especially in regard to conquered peoples. Further, strict sexual taboos were weakened to the point of nonexistence. Finally, “Religion” became a matter of publicly placating local deities and was of utter inconsequence beyond matters of personal conscience.

As I see American culture, we are following in the footsteps of Rome almost exactly. Our politicians are increasingly demanding we submit to their cult of personality. In other words, we are to elect them, not for the service they have in the past or can in the future provide to our commonwealth, but simply because they are “divine” individuals and we owe our fealty to them. Our culture is growing more brutal by the year – note, for example, the stratospheric growth of the phenomenon of Mixed Martial Arts gladiatorial fights. We abort babies by the millions, and leave our elderly to die unattended and unloved. Sexual barriers are being dismantled wholesale. We now allow men and boys unfettered access to women’s restrooms and locker rooms just because they “feel” like they are women. The concept of religious belief has been eviscerated. It is okay to be religious, so long as you worship the pagan gods of modern culture, and if you keep your religion to yourself. Do not even dare to make the claim that Christ and his cross destroys the culture of the “prince of the power of the air” as Paul describes it in Ephesians 1.

So, what is our destiny? Where is the Roman empire? Or the Greek? Or the Persian? Or the Babylonian? Or the Egyptian? Yeah, I thought so.

Book Review – The Recovery of Mission (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 284 pages, with extensive endnotes and comprehensive bibliography.

I get my book suggestions/recommendations mostly from my social media feeds, primarily Twitter (I follow a couple of major book publishers) and through blogs and other odds and ends kinds of sources. This book was recommended personally by a “digital” friend – someone I’ve never met in “3-D” but someone who corresponds with me via this blog. I was extremely hesitant at first because (hangs head in shame) I just was not convinced anyone with the last name of “Ramachandra” could write anything of substance regarding Christianity and the plague of pluralism. To my friend’s great credit he kept asking if I had read the book, and so I finally put it on my “wish list.” I eventually had the time slot and the money to buy the book, and I am very, very, grateful to my friend for consistently pushing me to consider it. It is worth every penny, and a significant addition to the conversation regarding where Christianity is headed. I have to note here that the publication date is 1996 – what would the author’s opinion be today?!

Ramachandra begins with a critique of three authors who, independently and with different emphases, seek to blend Christianity into what they would consider a healthy pluralistic religious amalgamation. They each object to any claim of exclusivism by Christians, and in varying ways attempt to prove that every religion has a common core that should be accepted and valued by everyone, and that no one single religion has a monopoly of what is true, or right, or normal. I have to say that this first part was extremely difficult for me to follow, as I am not at all familiar with Hinduism or Buddhism, and the writers the author critiques are related primarily to those East Indian religions. The main culprit of religious intolerance, according to each of the authors Ramachandra critiques, is clearly Christianity, and each of them suggests that it is Christianity that has the most to repent of in terms of humanity reaching a consensus of religious truth and tolerance.

In part II, Ramachandra draws parallels between the three authors and addresses those parallels more generically. It is in this part that he introduces Lesslie Newbigin, which was enlightening to me. Having just recently started reading Newbigin, it was interesting to me to read a critique of Newbigin, although it is a favorable (and constructive) critique.

It was in the third part that I feel the value of this book lies (although, to grasp what Ramachandra says in part III you have to work through the first two parts!) In part III discusses “The Scandal of Jesus,” “A Gospel for the World,” and “Gospel Praxis” (a fancy word for ‘work’ or ‘practice.’) Here Ramachandra specifically points out that in order to be genuine, the Christian message must be scandalous. It is exclusive. It is not authoritarian (as in the mistaken form of Constantinian “Christendom,” but it is most certainly exclusive). The more acceptable a person tries to make Christianity in relation to the major world religions, the less Christian it becomes. In other words, you cannot make Christianity merely a sub-specie of the generic word “religion.” The belief in Jesus of Nazareth is unique, exclusive, and therefore exclusionary of the major tenets of these world religions.

I should add here that Ramachandra does a good job of pointing out a necessary corollary – people who insist that Christianity can be made compatible with other world religions (especially the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism) do not fully understand those religions, or intentionally misrepresent them. The deeper one understands those religions it becomes apparent that they are just as exclusive, and that they are completely incompatible, with Christianity. Stated another way, you really have to  change those religions as much as you would have to change Christianity in order to make each of them compatible with each other.

This point to a huge issue I have with so many proclaimers of Christian pluralists today. One, they utterly misunderstand Christianity. Two, they utterly misunderstand the world view that they claim is superior to Christianity, and that they try to make Christianity conform to. I believe most Christian pluralists today loathe Christianity, and their complete unwillingness to view the Christian faith from the pages of the New Testament, choosing rather to cherry-pick obvious failings of the Christian centuries (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, etc.) makes it obvious their critiques are not genuine. Their blindness to the moral failings of the major world religions is equally disastrous for their agenda. You simply cannot overlook the atrocities committed by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others against persons of differing faiths.

Okay, I apologize for getting a little preachy here, so I have to get back to Ramachandra’s book. He does raise some questions (and points to answers I am not sure I can accept), but in general he remains faithful to what most would consider “creedal” Christianity – the Christianity of the first two or three centuries. Perhaps his most critical question is this – what is the eternal destiny of those who have never had a chance to hear of the saving work of Jesus? The pluralist wants to say that all roads (and religions) lead to God and heaven. Ramachandra will not go there – but he does suggest that the blood of Christ is effectual even for those who have not specifically heard of Jesus. This is a question that is just above my pay grade for me to answer, but as most pluralists will begin with this question in order to push their agenda, it is one that must be addressed by every disciple of Christ.

At over twenty years, this book is just beginning to get a little “long of tooth,” but it is contemporary enough to be valuable for Christians, and especially Christian teachers (preachers, elders, Bible school teachers) to read. Whether you agree with his answers or not, you need to hear and to consider the questions he raises. His deft, and in my opinion, powerful, responses to three different, but common, objections to the exclusiveness of Christ are important to consider.

This book is a valuable addition to the section of my library that includes Os Guinness and Lesslie Newbigin. They write from entirely different points of view, but each in his own way points in the same direction. The faith of Jesus Christ is exclusive, and to be faithful to Jesus his disciples must honestly and fearlessly present that exclusiveness. Any attempt to marginalize or minimize the message of the cross is simply heretical.

Why is that such a hard message for ministers of the church to understand?

A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it gets even more fascinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fascinating.