Saturday, 27 December 2014

The (So-Called) Three Kings in Matthew's Nativity Story

Who were “the three kings” who came to worship Jesus? A few meditative reflections prompted by a comment in a sermon preached by Oliver O'Donovan and reprinted in The Word in Small Boats (Eerdmans, 2010), pages 16-18, on the wise men as intruders.

First, (verse 1) they seem to be the wrong people from the wrong place.
Magi from the East = magicians / astrologers, likely from Arabia or maybe Babylonia or Persia. The translation “wise men” may be an attempt to make them more respectable than they would have been in the eyes of loyal Bible readers at the time (Daniel 1:20; Isaiah 47:12-13). And note that the only other reference in the NT to someone of that profession is in Acts 13 (verses 6 and 8) and it’s not complimentary.
It is more than 1200 km from Babylon to Jerusalem, and another 800 km, if you came from further East, say Esfahan; in these cases it would have been a long, difficult, perilous and expensive journey. Even from Arabia it is a major journey. 
We, too, may consider some fellow worshippers the wrong sort of people from the wrong place. This report questions such an attitude and maybe encourages us to remember that for some the journey to Christian worship has been a very difficult one.

Secondly, (verses 1-3) they seem to be asking questions in the wrong place.
What are they doing in Jerusalem? Maybe their reasoning got in the way (“surely a child born to be king of the Jews must be in Jerusalem!”). Maybe the star had left them to their own devices for a moment, or maybe the star first led them to Jerusalem in order to get another part of the story going.
Certainly the confrontation with Herod highlights some of the implications of the kingship of Jesus. A different sort of king but one that does threaten (and frighten) the existing political establishment.
We may be tempted to but Jesus in a separate box, reserved for Sundays maybe. No, he must affect everything everywhere, not only in Bethlehem but also in Jerusalem.

Thirdly, they arrive in Bethlehem in a roundabout way and apparently at the wrong time.
If they had been truly wise, they could have gone to the Jewish Scriptures in the first place to find out that they had to go to Bethlehem. No need for a star, king Herod  and chief priests and scribes. Ok, they did need the star for the timing of the fulfilment of the prophecy. Except that they arrive not to find a newborn but a “child” (verses 9 and 11) already one year or so old. Too late to congratulate the parents on the birth of a child; too early to see the child enthroned.
But then our own journey to Christ was likely roundabout and in a sense we, too, arrive in the midst of time. The decisive event has happened (not only the birth but for us also the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ) but we do not see Jesus enthroned yet. The magi did not come to congratulate the parents but to offer homage to Jesus and it’s not too late for that. They offer homage to one who does not yet command homage.
We are in a similar situation. We have better reason, and maybe even a command, to pay homage to Jesus but he does not yet command worship with force. He invites worship and like the magi we need to trust the testimony before we see the full reality of his kingship and indeed divinity.

Fourthly, they are apparently doing the wrong thing.
They bring gifts. They are the only ones in the biblical nativity stories to bring gifts. And gifts which most people consider to be not particularly practical. In other words, they are responsible for the commercialisation of Christmas. All these gifts – all these things we don’t truly need…
I’m of course not entirely serious. Gifts that communicate joy are great, and the less they are needed the more they speak of grace.But gifts can be problematic.
If you’ve seen the Christmas Special of the BBC drama series Call the Midwife, you will have seen how Cynthia struggles with her call to the religious life in Nonnatus House, a High Anglican mission in the East End of London. She wants to become one of the sisters, but simply can't understand why Christ would want her when as she admits, “I have nothing to give, nothing to sacrifice, nothing to offer up in exchange for all his love for me.” But that is grace, and we are closer to grasping it, if we realise that there is in reality nothing we can give Jesus that is not already his.
He could just take all the gold, frankincense and myrrh of the world, all the time and money we have, and he would not even need to ask our permission, but he loves to receive them as a gift because at its best giving and receiving presents is about relationships.

Finally, they are apparently still the wrong people on the wrong track.
If Jesus is “born king of the Jew” (verse 2), the Messiah (verse 4) “who is to shepherd my people Israel” (verse 6), what’s that got to do with people who are not Jews? What’s their relationship? And if they have a relationship with this king, why go back to their own country at all?
Matthew puts a lot of emphasis on Jesus being the son of David, the son of Abraham. It’s because the promises belong to the Jews but Gentiles can be fellow-heirs. And that is of course very encouraging for us who are not Jews. We don’t have the first claim on Jesus but we, too, have a claim. And we don’t have to become Jewish, we don’t have to be in a particular place with a particular people to belong to king Jesus. From now on every journey we make can be a route taken with Christ.


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Three Kings of Luke’s Second Nativity Story

Prefatory remark 1: The three kings of our nativity plays have their origin in the Gospel of Matthew where they are wise men and not necessarily three.
Prefatory remark 2: Luke’s first nativity story is that of John the Baptist.

The first king to be mentioned looks more than just a king – he is in fact an emperor. He was born as Gaius Octavius on 23 September 63 BC and came to power after a period of political unrest following the murder of his maternal great-uncle Julius Caesar who in his testament designated Octavian as his heir. Soon after his death, Julius Caesar was officially deified and Octavian began to style himself “son of the divine”.
“Celebrated as a hero after the strife of civil war, Augustus was considered the great source of peace for Rome. After defeating the enemies of Rome, he was celebrated as a great “saviour” to the people who would have likely been hopeless had victory not been achieved. The themes of freedom, justice, peace and salvation permeated his reign. Whenever the great deeds of Augustus were proclaimed, they were presented with the Greek term euangelion, which is translated, “good news” or, “gospel”.”[1] 

He looks like the one in charge because it is desire for a census that gets our story going. And, indeed, is it not one of the marks of a king or any comparable ruler that they determine the movements of little people even at great distance? There he is in Rome, a long way away from the backwaters of his empire here in Syria, Galilee and Judea but his decree impacts directly on the daily life of Mary and Jospeh and countless others.

The second king is easily overlooked because he has long ceased to be on the throne by the time our story begins. But David is in fact mentioned three times in the story. Bethlehem is said to be the “city of David” (twice) with regard to his origins (Jerusalem also holds a claim to being city of David, as the place from which he ruled over all of Israel) and Joseph is introduced as being of the family of David. No longer being on his throne, David’s impact on the story is more indirect but no less significant for it. In fact, the divine promises made to David got all this going to a more significant extent than a mere Roman decree. The Roman decree was the starting pistol but David, his life and the words he said, the words that were given to him, and the words attributed to him were the training over many years that preceded the race.

But who runs the race? It is of course the third king; “a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” When his birth had been announced to Mary he was introduced as Jesus (Saviour), the one who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33). Jesus is of course not yet enthroned as king within the nativity story but he is born to be king and the only one of the three who is still on the throne.

How does kingship work? I think we can say that all kingship is mediated through words. The King of the universe created the world through his word (Genesis 1) and upholds it through his word day by day (cf. Hebrews 1:3). We and everything else exist because of his command. He put what we call “natural laws” in place and he created humanity in his image to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28). If God’s kind of rule is mediated through words, it is maybe no surprise that one of the key differences between humans and other animals seems to be our quantitatively and qualitatively different use of language but that’s for another day.

Augustus is introduced to us as an emperor who rules by his word. His decree is the starting pistol, as we have observed. The other two kings in the story are very closely related with words as well, even if not in the nativity story itself. Kind David is most famous for his psalms. They remind us that proper rule is exercised relationally, and especially in relation to God. Those are the best rulers who know themselves servants of God and are in a genuine relationship with him. (Religion, knowing oneself bound to God, like every good thing, has been put to wicked purposes. Not everyone who is or claims to be religious is in a genuine relationship with the living God. But, again, that’s for another day.)

David’s kingship is superior to the rule of someone who does not know himself accountable to God. True kingship does not rest on brute force to back up commands people have to obey but with words inspires others to follow.

Augustus is counting people so as to get the most out of them – both in terms of taxes, it seems, and in terms of propaganda. (Augustus seems to have been keen to show that during his rule the population decline was reversed.[2]) David governed God’s people by inspiring them to follow in God’s ways. His exercise of authority was not flawless but in many ways exemplary nevertheless.

So what about baby Jesus? He is of course, as John’s Gospel tells us, the Word of God that came to tabernacle among us.Words can be powerful, especially when backed up with force. It seems that God’s Word cannot but be powerful, given the unlimited resources at his disposal. But what seems impossible to us has been made possible in Christ. God takes on human flesh, becomes vulnerable, mortal.

To be sure, there is a great deal of power at work in Christ. Not for him meek acquiescence to demonic forces or gentle tolerance of illness and disease. He has taken on flesh to allow himself to be victimised but he decides when and how. (He was not going to die falling down a cliff in Nazareth.) Yes, there is power at work in Jesus and never more so than in his resurrection (and ascension) which is the moment at which he became king (e.g., Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4; Ephesians 1:20). If his word were not powerful, we would have no hope of resurrection life being spoken into us.

But the power is creative rather than coercive. If, put simplistically, Augustus ruled by counting people and David ruled by inspiring people, Jesus rules by drawing people to himself, the source of life. David prefigures Jesus in his vulnerability (especially during the significant period between anointing and enthronement) and in using words to inspire as much as command. But Jesus inspires by drawing people to himself, promising eternal life. While Augustus used the threat of death to secure obedience and David’s rule was limited by death (cf. Acts 2:29), the rule of Christ gathers his people in resurrection life.

As we stand again before the crib, we may reflect on our own use of words. Do we use words mostly to get what we want? Do we encourage and inspire others? Do we make room for the voice of others by our vulnerability?

Even more importantly, we may reflect on what it is that governs our lives: the demands out upon us by other forces, the inspiration offered to us, or the promise held out by the one born to be king? Where for us the emphasis lies will shape our experience of 2015 and beyond.



[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/articles/unpublished-papers/behind-lukes-gospel-the-roman-empire-during-the-time-of-jesus/. One spelling mistake corrected (“Augustus”) and one instance of US spelling changed to UK spelling (“saviour”).
[2] Augustus counts his censuses among his great achievements, see http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Believing in God and believing in fairies

Believing in God and believing in fairies are two completely different things. David B. Hart puts it well:
To speak of “God” properly, then—to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baháí, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something poised over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. …
Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God—especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side—is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact. …
At a trivial level, one sees the confusion in some of the more shopworn witticism of popular atheism: “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden,” for instance, or “All people are atheists in regard to Zeus, Wotan, and most other gods; I simply disbelieve in one god more.” … Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found. … God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for either photons or (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principle; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.
The question of God, by contrast, is one that can and must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. … Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us. (The Experience of God, pp. 30, 32, 33-34)
Cited from https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/god-elves-and-silly-atheists/

Friday, 28 November 2014

Studying Theology

“Theology is primarily speaking about God; but, since God is by definition not available for inspection as an object in the laboratory, this entails speaking about the imprint of God on human lives – and thus what humanity looks like when exposed to an active, intelligent transcendent reality. Many who study theology may not believe for sure that this sort of language describes a real state of affairs in the universe rather than just a state of affairs in the human mind; but they study because the images of humanity and its world that come from such language remain fertile, provocative and significant at many levels.


For those who do believe, for whom the biblical languages and the history of religious reflection and action still represent a world to inhabit, theology has the added excitement of being the exploration of a relationship more comprehensive and transforming for human beings than anything else.”

The Right Reverend Dr Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, in a letter dated 26th November 2009 commending the first issue of The Oxford Theologian. He expresses “the conviction that what is done here in the name of theology really has the capacity to help build that critical and creative spirit without which no culture can live – and, for those of us who do think it’s about a reality greater than the human mind alone, the capacity to open us further to a transfiguring grace, a worship of intellect and heart together.”

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dreams in the Joseph Story

There are three sets of dreams in the Joseph narrative. Each set contains one dream relating to grain (bread/wheat) because the provision of food plays a key role in the story.

The first set are Joseph’s dreams. They foreshadow his eventual rule (cf. Genesis 37:8). The first dream has sheaves of grain bowing to Joseph's bundle of sheaves. Its duplicate reinforces the aspect of rule by featuring sun, moon and stars (cf. Genesis1:16; see also Psalm 136:8-9).

The second set of dreams belong to people who used to serve the king. The dreams feature bread and wine. Given that the dreamers used to be Pharaoh’s baker and chief cupbearer, this is not surprising. But bread and wine are significant in their own right (cf. Genesis 14:18). They speak of sustenance and gladness (cf. Psalm 104:15). There is arguably nothing in Biblical theology that encapsulates God’s provision for his people better than bread and wine.

Pharaoh’s dreams are the final set. They feature cows and grain. As with the previous set, grain/bread comes in the second position, as if to underline that the theme introduced in the very first dream of the narrative is the one towards which everything is heading. But why does its duplicate feature cows? Most likely because the Hebrew word for cow relates to the word for being fruitful (already used ten times in the book of Genesis; see also 41:52; 47:27; 48:4). The final use of the root in the book of Genesis is to describe Joseph as a fruitful vine (49:22, twice).


The dreams tell a fuller story than it might at first appear to the eye. Joseph’s dreams are not simply about him ruling over his siblings, let alone ruling it over them. The dreams speak of God’s provision being offered in leadership that is fruitful for others.

PS: "Pharaoh" comes from the Egyptian for "great house" but this designation of the king of Egypt sounds a little like the Hebrew for "fruitful".

NB: When the King gives life, he gives abundanlty (wine), hence the cupbearer is restored. When the King withdraws life, even the basics (bread) are gone, hence the baker is executed.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Arguing with Oneself about Charity

Colin Kruse argues against mainstream interpretations of 1 John 3:19-22 as a digression. First, treating “heart” as a synonym for “conscience” is unprecedented in the NT [but there are examples in the OT, see 1 Sam. 24:5; 2 Sam. 24:6 – English verse numbering].

Second, there is no clear example in the NT where the Greek verb translated “set at rest” or “reassure” takes this meaning rather than its standard meaning “to persuade, convince” [other commentators point to Matt. 28:14].

Third, the opening “by this” in the other dozen instances in 1 John “carries forward the preceding discussion” which should lead as to expect a close relationship with the preceding [not merely a key word connection such as with “truth”].

“Bearing these three things in mind, and taking note of Deuteronomy 15:7-9 as the probable background to this passage, Court says that the interpretation offered by Sir Edwin Hoskyns [1928] ought to be explored once more. Court argues
The demand for sacrificial charity has been made towards ‘a poor man, one of your brethren’ (Deut xv.7, cf. 1 John iii.17); but a base thought arises in the heart of a Christian which condemns the sacrifice demanded as unnecessary, and suggests that it can be avoided and that love can be maintained apart from a definite surrender of life or goods. The writer of the letter insists that this impulse, however natural, must be eradicated. The heart must be reasoned with and persuaded in the presence of God to make the sacrifice willingly. The demand of God is greater than the base and ignorant impulse of the human heart (cf. iv.4). Moreover, His knowledge is infinite, and no motion of the heart escapes his notice.[1]
This approach provides a satisfactory resolution to the difficulties presented to the reader by verses 19-22, and makes way for an interpretation which takes full account of the integral nature of the whole section 3:11-24, and the place of verses 19-22 within it.”

We must persuade our hearts in the presence of God whenever they object to legitimate calls upon our generosity, when we are in fact in a position to respond.

“To assist his readers to persist in the necessary process of self-persuasion, the author provides them with a compelling reason for doing so…’because, if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and knows all things’…God does not share in the meanness that is so often found in human hearts. His generosity is far greater, his compassion towards the needy much greater, than theirs. This fact should function as a reason for them to overcome the meanness of their own hearts and to seek to be like their God. When the author continues, ‘and he knows everything’, he is reminding his readers that any meanness of heart on their part will not go unnoticed by an omniscient God. As was the case in Deuteronomy 15:7-9, so too here, God knows what his people do, and judges them accordingly.
     In summary, verses 19-20 function as a stern warning against that meanness of heart which objects to our expending material resources to meet the needs of fellow believers, and provide a foil for the positive reinforcement of generosity offered in verses 21-22.”

Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 140-141.



[1] John M. Court, "Blessed Assurance?," Journal of Theological Studies  33 (1982): 508-517, 512.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

God of Weal and Woe

What is going on in Isaiah 45? The covenant God of Israel wants his people to be settled again in their homeland. This is a political event requiring political power, as George Adam Smith points out. Cyrus is the greatest political power of the day and so becomes God’s means to accomplish the divine purpose. G. A. Smith contrasts the biblical picture with Greek writers who extol the virtues of Cyrus. In the Bible, “Cyrus is neither chosen for his character nor said to be endowed with one.” He is a tool endowed with strength and swiftness. “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.” (Isaiah 44:28).
“God chose Cyrus, the king of Persia, to overwhelm kings, subdue nations, and free Israel from their Babylonian oppressors. (On October 29, 539 bce, the priests of Marduk opened the gates of Babylon to the conqueror, and the city capitulated without raising a weapon.) Moreover, God’s objectives for selecting Cyrus are threefold: personal—that he will come to know the God of Israel; national—for the sake of Israel; and universal—to be the means whereby the entire world will acknowledge God’s uniqueness (emphasized by the fourfold repetition of the formula: “I am the Lord”—vv. 3, 5, 6, 7, and repeated again in the next pericope, vv. 8, 18, 19, 21, 22).”[1]
And so, strikingly, even a pagan king can be (temporarily) God’s anointed (“Christ”), designated to do God’s will. “For God is able to weave that tyrant’s wickedness and follies into the grand unfolding purpose which he has continually in mind.”[2] “God may disapprove of idolatry but use an idolater for some good purpose. The fact that he uses someone in a specific way does not mean that he approves of that person’s total lifestyle.”[3]

Like any servant of God, Cyrus is taken by his right hand (cf. 41:13) and called by name (cf. 43:1). Having been grasped by God to subdue nations, Cyrus will find kings helpless before him, their weapons’ belt loosened with robes hanging freely where they can entangle legs, and doors wide open.
“It is tempting to find in these lines very specific references to Cyrus’s conquests as reported by Herodotus and Xenophon. Babylon was supposedly guarded by hundreds of bronze gates that were thrown open to the conqueror as he came. Both authors make much of the endless fortunes that Cyrus captured from Croesus in Lydia and again in Babylon. But while this kind of specificity may be intended, one must also recognize that this is poetic language that could be generally appropriate to almost any conquest of a city in the ancient world (cf. Ps. 107:15-16). The point is, as above, that it is not the conqueror’s might or virtue that gives him the benefits of conquest but the grace of God that is extended to fulfill his saving purposes.”[4]
Cyrus was given the honorific titles “shepherd” and “God’s anointed” when he knew nothing about the God of Israel and even when he fulfilled his commission there is no reason to think that Cyrus converted to exclusive worship of Yahweh. “It is not necessary for the Creator to have the permission of someone’s faith before that person can be given a front-rank position in God’s plans.”[5]

“That an Israelite prophet should view the conquests of Cyrus purely as directed to the restoration of Israel may seem an intolerably narrow view of history. But it is a fact that the restoration of a Jewish community in Palestine has had a more lasting effect than anything else accomplished by Cyrus.”[6]

Is God’s desire that Cyrus (verse 3), Israel (verse 4) and the whole world (verse 6) might know him mere self-interest? No. “What is condemning the world to its depressing round of human arrogance, oppression, and cruelty? It is a failure to submit to, to acknowledge, the truth. So long as we continue to make God in our own image, so long as we continue to believe that we can insure our own security and comfort by manipulating the psycho-socio-physical world without the surrender of our own autonomy, just so long will we continue in darkness, destruction, and despair.”[7]

יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע
אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה׃
Shaping the light and creating the dark,
making well-being and creating calamity,
I am Yahweh, making all these things.

“What Isaiah asserts is that God, as creator, is ultimately responsible for everything in nature, from light to dark, and for everything in history, from good fortune to misfortune. No other beings or forces are responsible for anything.”[8]
“None of these count: Babylonian gods have no voice in the future of Babylon. Cyrus has no clout in the rise of his empire. Israel has no vote on its destiny. Everything is settled on Yahweh’s terms, for Yahweh is without rival, adviser, competitor, or aide. What is now to happen through Cyrus is sure, because it is the resolve of Yahweh.”[9]
 “Without question such a sweeping assertion raises some serious problems, especially as we try to puzzle out issues of justice and fairness. At the same time, we must take into account the point being made and the alternative. The point is that everything which exists, whether positive or negative from our perspective, does so because of the creative will of God. The alternative to this view is that things happen in the world of nature or history that have their origin in some being or force other than God, things that he is powerless to prevent. If that alternative is correct, then God is but one of the gods and is as powerless to save us from ourselves as they are. Furthermore, he is no more the expression of ultimate reality than they are. Since he is limited, we must look beyond him for whatever is final in this world. Given that alternative, it is easy to see why Isaiah makes his point in such an unqualified way. To be sure, one can and should make qualifications, given the rest of Scripture. But that is the correct direction to move: from principle to qualification. If we start with qualification, we will never reach the overarching principle.”[10]

The principle is this: On the most basic level, reality is unified, not divided.[11] “It is a harsh aspect of faith to accept that the God of love and justice not only allows woe but creates it! How much simpler to claim that the source of darkness is some other sinister, evil power. But those who share the tenacious faith of the prophet can hold to this severe confession because of their unswerving conviction that God’s final plan is light and weal. This empowers them to seek out the human evils that afflict their communities. And it allows them, in the places where others only see the gloom of war, to recognize rays of light.”[12]

“But what is the purpose of this absolute assertion of God’s transcendence and uniqueness? Is it to prove some dry and rationalistic point about ontology? Far from it, as [verse 8] shows. Once again the author joins nature and history, but now in a lyrical call to nature to bring forth the historical deliverance that the Creator has planned…If Israel is in the darkness and trouble [רָע] of exile, it is solely because of the Lord. Therefore it is to the Lord alone that Israel should look in order for the darkness to be turned to light and the trouble to well-being [שָׁלוֹם].”[13]




[1] Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 251.
[2] George A. F. Knight, Servant Theology: A Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 40-55 (Edinburgh: Handsel Press and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 88.
[3] Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 182.
[4] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 201. Cf. John Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40-55 (London: T & T Clark International, 2005), 264-65.
[5] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 202.
[6] The words are McKenzie’s, as cited by Goldingay (Message, 266), but the point was already made by G. A. Smith.
[7] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 203, pointing to his earlier comments on Isaiah 8:11-22; 14:4-21; 28:1-6.
[8] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 204.
[9] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: WJKP, 1998), 77.
[10] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 204.
[11] Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 103. See Goldingay, Message, 270-72, for a brief summary of the reception history of this verse. Shalom Paul notes (Isaiah 40-55, 258) that the Rabbis were hesitant to attribute evil to God and emended this formula in the liturgy to: “He who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything” (b. Ber. 11a).  
[12] Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 104. Hanson points to Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela as servants called to specific tasks, having been enabled to see rays of light in the darkness of oppression.
[13] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 205.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Violence in 2 Kings 1

2 Kings 1 was in the lectionary provision for yesterday and offers food for thought following on from the previous post.

The narrative tells us that twice a captain and his fifty soldiers were destroyed by fire from heaven after Elijah the Tishbite said, "If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty." The third company was spared because their captain requests that the man of God would value the life of the soldiers and their captain.

Readers are not commanded here to resort to violence or encouraged to take up their swords. There can only have been a few people in the history of reading this story who seriously contemplated imitating Elijah; those who did would have quickly discovered that their words are not quite as powerful.

The most thunderous of the twelve disciples of Jesus (Mark 3:17), James and John, felt the urge on one occasion and even they recognised that it would be a good idea to ask Jesus' permission first (Luke 9:54) which of course he did not grant. Read as part of the biblical canon, which includes its reception in the Gospels, the passage can hardly be read as an invitation to violence.

So what is the violence doing? Injured king Ahaziah wanted to consult "Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron" about his life expectancy. According to consistent biblical witness trusting in idols is a sure way to death. The angel of Yahweh makes sure that the king's messengers are intercepted by baal-sear ("a hairy man," verse 8) whose proper name is Elijah ("Yahweh is my God").

This man (ish) is responsible for the fire (esh) but so is the king. It is because the king orders Elijah to "come down" that fire "comes down" on his soldiers ("going up" is used seven times in this chapter, "coming down" ten times; see Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, 169, for more on the significance of this). The hundred men are a casualty of a war the king of Israel started.

The violence has a positive purpose as well. It demonstrates that the "man of God" has greater power than the king of Israel or the Baal-zebub of Ekron. Arguably this serves to encourage all its readers to trust the word of the prophet even when there is a conflict between the word and government authorities. It also points Christian readers to the incarnate Word of God that is stronger than Beelzebub, the prince of demons.

We see that violence is not inevitable. The captain who humbly submits to Elijah, truly recognising him as a man of God rather than blindly following the orders of his totalitarian king, saves not only himself but his whole company. (We are reminded that much of what we experience is corporate whether it be violence or protection from harm.)

Finally, intriguingly, the angel of Yahweh tells Elijah, "Go down with him; do not be afraid of him." This suggests that the earlier violence may have been an expression of fear. Unlike some other story-tellers in antiquity, biblical narrators are often reticent in offering evaluation and comments, except that 1-2 Kings has one-line summaries which offer a broad evaluation of the various kings. We are not told that Elijah was afraid and therefore called for fire from heaven but we are maybe invitd to contemplate the possibility. We also know that God identifies with his messengers even in some cases in which they overstep the mark, most notably in divine use of Nebuchadnezzar; the readiness with which fire comes from heaven in this story is therefore not unequivocally a divine endorsement of Elijah's call.

2 Kings 1 suggests that there may not be a simple answer to the question of violence. The narrative does not spell out but implies that rebellion against God and fear of powerful people may have something to do with it, as well as the need for people to know where true power lies.

All of this should reduce our potential for violence rather than increase it. If violence is ultimately the result of rebellion against God, we have foresworn this in our baptism. If violence is an expression of fear of others, we have repeated encouragement in the Scriptures to fear God rather than powerful people. If we are concerned about where true power is found we know that the power of Christ is manifest in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). There is no encouragement for us here to rsort to violence, nor reason to overlook this chapter.


Dark Passages in the Bible and the Quran

A few months ago I enjoyed reading Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity (2009), so I was intrigued when I saw a link to an essay in the Boston Globe on harsh passages in the Koran and in the Bible.

Jenkins opens by reporting that the September 11 hijackers had been instructed to meditate on two lengthy suras from the Quran which “make for harrowing reading”. 
God promises to “cast terror into the hearts of those who are bent on denying the truth; strike, then, their necks!” (Koran 8.12). God instructs his Muslim followers to kill unbelievers, to capture them, to ambush them (Koran 9.5). Everything contributes to advancing the holy goal: “Strike terror into God’s enemies, and your enemies” (Koran 8.60). 
He then points out that at a more domestic level Sura 4.34 has been used to justify violence. This is how the text reads in a translation offered by Ahmad Shafaat who offers a commentary on the passage:
Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) guardians of women because God has favored some more than others and because they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear ill-will and nasty conduct, admonish them (first), (next) separate them in beds (and last) beat them. But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great. (4:34)
I am not a Quran scholar nor even a Quran reader and hence reluctant to say much about these passages. But the following comment by Jenkins prompts me to stress one of what are probably quite a few key differences between the Bible and the Quran:
The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery.
Is that so? I don’t know. But while Jenkins is right to stress that all Scriptures need interpretation and maybe even right to claim that there is a process of forgetting and remembering passages, he seems to overlook the simple fact that the Bible contains a variety of books and genres which individually and as a canonical whole function very differently from the suras of the Quran.

What is the evidence for the statement above? Jenkins thinks of “frightful portions of the Bible...ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races - of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted.” But can we find any such passage in the Bible? I am not so sure. 

There are narratives in which God orders or expects the extermination of a people. Most of these belong to the traditions about the conquest of Canaan. How these stories relate to historical events is much debated today, as is their role and significance for biblical faith. But what is clear is that they are not commands to the reader. They can only be read as “ordering the total extermination” of contemporary “enemies” by an act of imagination and interpretation which is far from obvious.

Jenkins then refers us to Psalm 137 which “begins with the lovely line, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept’” and “ends by blessing anyone who would seize Babylon’s infants and smash their skulls against the rocks.” It is a frightening prayer, to be sure, but again this pained outcry of an oppressed nation is not a call to arms

Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35) is not a passage Christians should suppress and forget but one we ought to remenber and treasure as a warning against taking vengeance into our own hands (Romans 12:19). 

The Quran was written over a comparatively short period of time with individual suras addressing readers on pretty much the same level, except for the hermeneutical principle that chronologically later passages can abrogate earlier verses. (This is a complicated matter, given that the suras are not arranged in the chronological order of their origin.)

The Bible by contrast was put together over a very long period of time and speaks to readers in many and different ways and only rarely by way of direct command. It has its centre in Jesus Christ who is spoken of as the Lion from the tribe of Judah and presented as a slaughtered Lamb. 

Much, much more would need to be said here, not least because there are other passages to which Jenkins appeals. But my point is that Jenkins seems to have paid no attention to genre and genre is critical for all interpretation. Here is the summary Philip Jenkins offers:
Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions . . . all are in the Bible, and occur with a far greater frequency than in the Koran. At every stage, we can argue what the passages in question mean, and certainly whether they should have any relevance for later ages. But the fact remains that the words are there, and their inclusion in the scripture means that they are, literally, canonized, no less than in the Muslim scripture.
The majority of biblical passages to which he refers are not in fact commands to readers of the Bible but commands within Biblical stories and some are not even commands at the level of the narrative. Even texts that may legitimately be called commands to the readers implied at first, albeit embedded in narratives (Exodus to Numbers) and speeches (Deuteronomy), are not now canonized as commands, not when we talk about the Christian Bible. There is therefore no need for a “holy amnesia” with regard to “dark passages” in the Bible. Even “texts of terror” are “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The LORD is Christ's Shepherd

Notes from Douglas J. Green, “‘The Lord is Christ’s Shepherd’: Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy,” in Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: Essays in Honor of J. Alan Groves (eds. P. Enns, D. J. Green and M. B. Kelly; 2010), 33-46. 

"From a grammatical-historical perspective, the psalm describes Yahweh's relationship with Israel (or Israel's king, David). The Christological interpretation develops in various ways out of this original meaning."

The traditional reading has the opening words to mean "my shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ" (cf. Augustine). "My sense is that the undergirding rationale for this classic Christological interpretation of Psalm 23 is not so much that Jesus fulfills a direct prophecy concerning the identity of Yahweh in his eschatological role as Israel's shepherd, but rather that there is an analogy between Yahweh's relationship with an individual Israelite, David, and Christ's relationship with individual Christians."

"Even if there is uncertainty concerning the intentions of the Psalter's redactors, it is clear that in the Second-Temple period many Jews did read the psalms in a prophetic and eschatological direction."

"I propose...a Christotelic interpretation in which Jesus fulfills the role played by the psalmist David, the sheep."

"Beginning at the grammatical-historical, or compositional, level, the psalm testifies to the Lord's faithfulness to David...[and] can be identified as a pilgrimage psalm. It tells a story about a journey -- not just any journey, but one that reaches its goals as the psalmist enters 'the house of Yahweh,' the temple in Jerusalem."

"More specifically, the psalmist's metaphorical journey passes through three spatio-temporal points: (1) it passes from a time and place of sufficiency and safety, depicted in the imagery of pasturage in springtime (v. 2), (2) it moves into the quasi-exilic condition of life under the threat of death, portrayed as a descent into a deep ravine in the Judean wilderness during summer (v. 4), and (3) finally, after safely passing through the 'valley of the shadow of death,' the pilgrimage -- or is it a return from exile? -- ends in the temple in Jerusalem in early autumn at the Feats of Tabernacles (v 5)."

"Read as a movement from pasturage to wilderness to temple, Psalm 23 gives specific expression to the most basic outline of the story of redemption. In its simplest form, this recurring 'redemptive pattern' can be described in terms of the development 'Good à Bad à Better' This can be restated in a variation such as 'Life à Death à Abundant Life,' 'Promised Land à Exile à Restoration,' or even more broadly, 'Eden à Exile from the Garden à New Jerusalem' and 'Life à Death à Resurrection and Exaltation.' This pattern will provide the framework for the different ways of reading the psalm."

"Messiah's story will conform to the pattern 'Life à Death à Life Plus.'"

The first episode offers a window into "the ordinariness of life" of Messiah Jesus who knows that the heavenly Father supplies his needs (cf. Luke 4:3; 11:3).

"He restores my life" (v. 3a) offers "a short summary of what will transpire in the following narrative of verses 4 and 5: Yahweh will 'restore' the psalmist's life by bringing him safely through the threat of death (v. 4) into the blessed life described in verse 5."

"Yahweh leads me in path of his righteousness, paths where he fulfills his obligations to the psalmist-sheep and does so in order to maintain his reputation as a covenant-keeping God."

"If Jesus Christ is indeed the telos, or goal, of Israel's story...then Christian interpretation of the OT must be an exercise in reading backwards, of reading earlier texts so that their meanings cohere with what God has actually done in history in Jesus Christ."

The Messiah walks "into the valley where death metaphorically casts a shadow" but "we discover that eschatological David actually keeps walking...into the next valley, into Death's own valley." Nor does he merely enter the temple in Jerusalem at the end of his journey but moves to "the reality of God's heavenly dwelling and ultimately to the eschatological reality of heaven on earth."

The traditional translation "I will dwell" towards the end of the psalm reflects the old Greek rather than the Hebrew text. The Hebrew text would be better rendered "I will keep coming back into the house of Yahweh" but "I will dwell" is "an excellent translation of the gospel...the eschatological David has been brought from the valley of death into the heavenly house of the Lord, to reside there."

And while the psalm only leads us to expect long life for the psalmist, "God has in fact granted Messiah Jesus a lengthening of days that stretches out into eternity. So in the end, while the KJV tradition ("I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever") may not be quite true to Hebrew grammar, it is true to the grammar of the gospel!"

"Psalm 23, read as fulfilled messianic prophecy, tells the story of Jesus Christ from the perspective of God's shepherd-like care for him: in life, through death, and on to glorious entry into the heavenly temple. Moreover it tells the story of those who have been united to Christ by faith. Jesus' story has become our story; his pilgrimage has become our pilgrimage."

"In fact, we face the valley of (the shadow of) death without fear because God has already brought the lead Sheep from his great flock safely through that dark valley. Because the Great Shepherd has led Jesus from the valley of death to the Temple Mount, he will provide the same death-defeating, life-restoring protection to all who follow in Jesus' tracks."

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Self-Retiring Covenant

A quote from Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God's Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 249, mostly for the sake of the phrase which forms the title of this post.
Careful reading of the text of Deuteronomy reveals it to be, in a sense, a self-retiring covenant. Although life through the Deuteronomic covenant was a theoretical possibility (Deut 30:15-19), both God and Moses knew and declared that, in fact, death and exile would result (Deut 30:1). Then, there would be a new initiative on God's part: a regahering of the exiles and a supernatural "circumcision" of their hearts (30:4-6). This new initiative of God involving the cleaning of the heart is what Jeremiah identifies as the new covenant (Jer 31:31).
Commenting on Galatians, Hahn continues:
For Paul, those who commit themselves once again to follow the "book of law" are attempting to rehabilitate a covenant that has failed and was -in a sense- intended to fail and thus evoke a new initiative of mercy (the circumcision of the heart) from God, which Paul sees realized in Christ. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Bronze Serpent in Numbers 21

The following is an excerpt from David L. Stubbs, Numbers (SCM Theological Commentary; London: SCM Press, 2009; published in the USA by Brazos Press in the Brazos Theological Commentary series), pp. 166-169. [I  think the so-called "bronze serpent" was more likely a copper serpent but this is by the way.]

Many modern interpreters understand the bronze serpent to be a kind of healing idol or cultic symbol fashioned by Moses in the wilderness in response to attacks by snakes, probably drawing from Egyptian practices of “sympathetic magic” or else drawing upon association of the serpent with gods of healing.

Alternatively, given that the serpent was revered among many ancient Near Eastern peoples as “a potent symbol of life and death,” other interpreters reason that, at the command of God, israel coopted this symbol of life and death and used it as a symbol for YHWH or YHWH’s power, the God who holds both life and death in his hands.

In contrast to these modern interpretations, serpent imagery elsewhere in the Bible leads one to see the serpent as a symbol associated with evil and sin. Thus the sending of the serpents and the lifting up of the bronze serpent become revelations or symbols of Israel’s sin. This basic meaning opens up the episode in a  different way, ultimately showing that God’s healing occurs in conjunction with the people’s confession and repentance of their sinful ways...

Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, serpents appear in two other crucial passages, both of which give the serpent a more-than-physical sense. In the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh (Exod. 4:3; 7:9, 10, 15), the serpent likely symbolized Egypt and its gods. In that episode, the power of God triumphs over the power of the gods of Egypt. In our passage, then, perhaps snakes represented God’s punishment of Israel by a symbol of their object of desires – life back in Egypt under the rule of the snake, Pharaoh, and the gods of Egypt. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” is part of the people’s complaint. They seem to prefer life under the power of Egypt, the serpent rather than life under YHWH. There, their freedom, vocation, and worship of God were prevented, but at least their stomachs were filled.

The other key reference in the Pentateuch is to “the serpent [who] was more crafty than any other wild animal,” who tempts Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1,2,4,13,14). God’s judgment and punishment of Adam and Eve is a result of their failure to resist the temptation of the serpent. The punishment of Israel by God in Numbers might also reveal that they have succumbed to the poisonous lies of the deceiver, who tempts them to both doubt that God’s provision and ordering are really for their good (as seen in this passage) and creates envy in them for the power of God to morally order the world (as evidenced in the other rebellions.) … In sum, the serpents can be seen to be a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin...

The bronze serpent represents to the people all that the fiery serpents represent. In it they can see the sufferings of their journey. But in it they can also see the judgment of God about them. Like the raising of a battle standard, this action ironically represents who the people are truly following: the serpent, rather than God…It is a fitting symbol for all the rebellions of the people.

But the raised serpent is more than a sign of judgment. It is also a sign of God’s victory over the serpent. Like the head of an enemy placed on the tip of a spear and shown to the people, the serpent lifted up shows that God is more powerful than the serpent. God is able to cure the physical effects of the serpents’ poison. By offering to the people this symbol of victory over the serpent, it also becomes a symbol of God’s compassion and desire to heal them and do them good. It is a symbol that God did not send Moses to his people in Egypt to condemn them, but to save them and bring them to life…

The act of turning and looking at a symbol recognized as a symbol of their sin and God’s judgment on them amounts to a confession or acknowledgement of their sin. Furthermore, turning to this symbol of sin and judgment in order to live required faith in God, in God’s mercy and desire for their good…


The bronze serpent lifted up suggests that, for those bitten by the serpent in the wilderness, the way to the promised land is one of confession, repentance, faith, and recommitment to God’s difficult yet healing ways.

The Israelite king and worship

The following is from Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (transl. John McHugh; London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961), pp. 113-114 (abbreviations for Bible books modified but spelling of names retained; formatting mine):

The fact remains that the king, sanctified by his anointing and adopted by Yahweh, is a sacred person and seems thereby to be empowered to perform religious functions.  One often hears of the royal priesthood in Israel.  We recall that the kings of Egypt, Assyria and Phoenicia were priests.  In the Bible, Melchisedech is both king of Salem and priest of El Elyon.  And it is precisely Psalm 110:4, which we have interpreted as an enthronement psalm, which says: ‘Thou art a priest forever in the order of Melchisedech.’

In the historical books, the king appears several times as the leader in acts of worship.

David sets up the first altar for Yahweh in Jerusalem (2 Sam 24:25); it is David, too, who conceives the project of building him a temple (2 Sam 7:2-3), and, according to 1 Chr 22—29, plans in detail how this is to be served. It is Solomon who actually builds the temple directly opposite his own palace, and who dedicates it (1 Kg 5—8). It is Jeroboam who founds the sanctuary in Bethe], recruits its clergy and arranges its calendar of feasts (1 Kg 12:26-33); hence it is a ‘royal sanctuary’ (Am 7:13). The chief priests are officials nominated and dismissed by the king (2 Sam 8:17; 20:25; 1 Kg 2:26-27; 4:2). Joas publishes ordinances concerning the Temple (2 Kg 12:5-9), and Josiah supervises their enforcement (2 Kg 22:3-7). The same Josias takes the initiative in the reform of worship and directs it in person (2 Kg 23). The priest Uriyyah carries out the modification introduced by Achaz in the sanctuary and its worship (2 Kg 16:10-18).

But the kings go even further: the historical texts show them personally performing priestly acts.

They offer sacrifices: e.g. Saul at Gilgal (1 Sam 13:9-10), David at Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:13, 17-18; 24:25), Solomon at Gibeon (1 Kg 3:4, 15), at Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple (1 Kg 8:5, 62-64), and then at the three great feasts of the year (1 Kg 9:25).Some of these texts can, of course, be taken in a factitive sense, that the king ‘had sacrifice offered’, but not all are capable of this meaning. And other texts in fact exclude it: in 2 Kg 16:12-15, Achaz goes up to the new altar he has had made, offers the first sacrifice, and then commands the priest to continue the liturgy there; in 1 Kg 12:33 it is said that Jeroboam ‘went up to the altar to offer sacrifice’ (cf. 13:1f). Again, David and Solomon bless the people in the sanctuary (2 Sam 6:18; 1 Kg 8:14), which is a rite reserved to the priests by Num 6:22-27 and 1 Chr 23:13. Solomon consecrates the middle of the court (1 Kg 8:64).David wears the loincloth which is the vestment of officiating priests (2 Sam 6:14). Neither the prophets nor the historical books before the exile make any protest against these intrusions by the king into liturgical worship. It is only after the end of the monarchy that they become a stumbling-block, and 2 Chron 26:16-20 says that Ozias was struck with leprosy because he had dared to burn incense at the altar, thus usurping a privilege of the sons of Aaron (2 Chr 26:18, cf. Num 17:5; 1 Chr 23:13).

All this evidence calls for a balanced solution. The part played by the king in the regulation and supervision of worship or the nomination of the clergy does not mean that he himself was a priest; it does not exceed the prerogatives which the head of State may have over the State religion.

It is quite another thing when he performs actions which are properly sacerdotal. But we must note that the instances where the king’s personal action is beyond question are all very special or exceptional: the transference of the Ark, the dedication of an altar or sanctuary, the great annual festivals. Ordinarily, the conduct of worship was left to the priest (2 Kg 16:15). Anointing did not confer on the king a priestly character, since, as we have seen [p. 105] priests were not anointed in the days of the monarchy; but it did make him a sacred person, with a special relationship to Yahweh, and in solemn circumstances he could act as a religious head of the people. But he was not a priest in the strict sense.


But, it may be objected, Ps 110 is a royal psalm, and it calls the king a ‘priest’. It has recently been suggested that this verse (Ps 110:4) was addressed, not to the king, but to the priest whom the newly enthroned king (vv. 1-3) was confirming in his functions, and these words were originally addressed to Sadoq, the psalm being composed in David’s reign. It is an interesting hypothesis, but without foundation. The text can be explained otherwise: it could mean that the king was a priest, but in the only way in which an Israelite king could be: that is, the way we have described. He was a priest in the same way as Melchisedech, who it was thought, had been king and priest in that same Jerusalem where the new king was being enthroned. It was the starting point of the Messianic interpretation to be given to the verse in Heb 5:6.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Feedings of the Thousands

Pastor Rich Lusk made the point in a recent sermon that Jesus’ miraculous feedings of 5000 and 4000 have everything to do with Jew-Gentile issues. Jesus feeds the 5000 in Jewish territory, and the numbers 5 and 12 are linked with Israel - the first the number of Israel’s military formation coming out of Egypt the second the number of tribes. Jesus feeds 4000 in Gentile territory, and the number 4 and the number 7 are global numbers, pointing to the peoples, nations, tribes, and tongues of the Gentiles.

http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2014/09/consuming-jews-and-gentiles

Friday, 15 August 2014

Effective Preaching

In the final chapter of his very worthwhile Leading God's People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) Christopher A. Beeley cites a passage from St Augustine that in his words "deserves to be framed and displayed in the study of every preacher" (119):
Just as our hearers are delighted if you speak agreeably, in the same way they are swayed if they love what you promise them, fear what you threaten them with, hate what you find fault with, embrace what you commend, deplore what you strongly insist is deplorable; if they rejoice over what you say is a cause for gladness, feel intense pity for those whom your words present to their very eyes as objects of pity, shun those whom you proclaim in terrifying tones are to be avoided; and anything else that can be done by eloquence in the grand manner to move the souls of the listeners - not merely to know what is to be done, but to do what they already know is to be done.
Christian Teaching 4.12.27 (pronouns for the hearer altered from singular to plural) 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

What It Means to be Oppressed

We too readily forget, however, what it means to be “oppressed.” Liberation Theology has made it fashionable to speak of “the poor” and “the disempowered.” But this approach is too narrow. Hegel, Heidegger, Gadamer, Pannenberg, and others have shown that humans may be imprisoned by their historical finitude or “thrownness.” In other words, society and their situation in history have foreclosed certain options. A thoroughly “rationalist” or evidentially “scientific” society may make Christian belief more difficult, and this becomes therefore a force of oppression. Sometimes churchpeople may become a little complacent about their privilege of not being among unbelievers. But if God’s vindication of the oppressed includes those weighed down with constraints imposed upon them, by their race, gender, or society, who is to say how far God’s act of vindication can reach? To be born outside of the heritage of the Christian Church or a Christian family is thereby to be exposed to the dominating and oppressive structures of “principalities and powers,” whether in the form of aggressive secularism or religious paganism.

Anthony C. Thiselton, Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 182


Graded Rewards in the Final Judgement?

Some passages may seem at first sight to suggest "grades" of rewards or penalty, as when Paul speaks of builders who build with different types of materials (1 Cor. 3:10-15). But the text makes it clear, as James Dunn insists, that there are not six types of work (gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw), but simply combustible and noncombustible material (gold, silver, marble). This will survive the fire. Dunn comments, "Those who have Christ as the foundation of their lives will be saved...(even if in some cases) saved only by a whisker." God is faithful in completing what he has begun. The Last Judgment will reveal that those in Christ are in a right relation with God.
          On the subject of graded "rewards" and penalties, we must refer back to what we asserted about "internal" consequences when we discussed the wrath of God in the last chapter. Clearly there will be no "external" distribution of these Christians. Any external "reward" would pale into insignificance compared with the privilege of being admitted to the glory and presence of God in Christ. If "heaven" means perfect bliss, there is hardly room for personal comparisons of achievement. But this may not preclude the "reward" of knowing that God's grace and gifts have been effective in unimagined ways. When Isaiah declares, "His reward is with him, and his recompense before him" (Isa. 40:10; 62:11), the meaning is that the very presence of God is his reward. Yet whether each believer will have the special satisfaction of knowing that his work had borne fruit and remains a significant factor, or will be eclipsed by the sheer glory of God and privilege of justification, is difficult to say with certainty. Certainly Paul suggests that deeds done "in the body" will feature somehow; but whether in individual terms or as contributory to the new creation as a whole is not clear. On the other hand, being in Christ cannot imply any sense of regret without questioning the all-sufficiency of the work of Christ.

Anthony C. Thiselton, Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 181-82. Thiselton's citation of Dunn is from James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 491.