Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Interpreting the Prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:9-10) in its Context


Yesterday I referenced Bruce Wilkinson’s book, The Prayer of Jabez, centered around 1 Chronicles 4:9-10.

“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.”

I mentioned that since that book came out in 2000, the criticisms of its theology have become well-known. It has been called an evangelical health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim it type of doctrine. Because too many people want to understand this passage in terms of the Prosperity Theology, a proper understanding is lacking. It is my purpose to set the Prayer of Jabez in its proper context and interpret it appropriately.
                                                      
1 and 2 Chronicles were originally one book. The author wrote a very theological interpretation of history from Adam to the Decree of Cyrus in 540 BCE, focusing on God working through history to bring about his divine purposes through the one, true family of Israel. Special emphasis is placed on David, the Temple, and the cultic practices of Israel. The theological approach is similar to that found in Deuteronomy that emphasizes the cause and effect relationship between God and his covenant people. If Israel maintains their part of the covenant, they can expect blessings. If they fail, they can expect curses. It was the purpose of the covenant that God made with Abraham (and Israel) that the world would be blessed and the curse of the Fall of Man would be reversed. The first nine chapters are genealogies showing how God worked through the families of the earth from Adam to Abraham and eventually to the Davidic line. In chapter four we get a snippet from the unknown life of Jabez. Why does the author of the Chronicles include the anecdote in his work? What purpose does it serve?

This two verse story opens with the knowledge that Jabez’s birth was troubled, and his mother named Jabez (sorrowful) because of the pain (jozeb) of the childbirth (reversing the last two consonants). The ancient Israelites believed in the power of words to shape reality under certain circumstances (i.e., blessings and curses), particularly when it came to the naming of children. The naming of a child at birth could affect its destiny. This is why Jacob immediately renames Benjamin to something more positive when Rachel calls out a sorrowful name and dies giving birth (Genesis 35:18). A bad name could leave a curse on one’s life. This appears to have been the case with Jabez. In his prayer, Jabez asked God to bless him so that evil would not bring him pain. He was seeking a reverse of the curse.

Now admittedly Jabez’s prayer was an immature one. He wanted to escape the pain of his life through material possessions. This attitude was not uncommon for a people that did not believe in an afterlife and conceptualized divine blessings in terms of children, land, and its produce.

Of course, many people today seek to escape the pain of their lives and the results of their characters and actions through the accumulation of material possessions. Jabez may have been more honorable than his brothers, but he was still very spiritually immature. Indeed, it is unadvisable for any Christian to pray such a prayer in this manner. Nevertheless, God did grant the request. I am reminded of Romans 8:26 when Paul says that “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” In this incident, God answered the weakness of Jabez’s prayer for relief and reversed the curse with a blessing.

Knowing that this passage is about turning a curse into a blessing, it makes sense why the author of the Chronicles wanted to include it. The history that he unfolds is about the curses and the blessings that follow from Israel’s behavior towards the covenant. This reaches a head in the ultimate curse: expulsion from the land in the Babylonian exile (2 Chronicles 26). Yet, in the final three verses of the book, the Lord reverses the curse through the decree of Cyrus, and God’s people return to their homeland. God turned a curse into a blessing. Therefore, the Prayer of Jabez is an early example of what God would do with Israel. Ultimately, God uses Jesus to reverse the curse of the Fall and bless the whole world. But, again, the blessings of the covenant and the covenant itself were for the purpose of blessing the entire world.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with praying to God to relieve one’s pain or prevent pain from occurring (see Luke 22:42). 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 shows us a God who can reverse the curses in our lives and turn them into blessings. However, it should be noted, it’s God’s intention that the blessings he sends your way be used for the purposes of his Kingdom. The purpose of a blessing is to bless others. As both Jesus and Paul will teach, the major problem of Israel is that they wanted to keep that blessing for themselves. This selfishness with the blessing brought a curse. Therefore, pray to God to relieve your pain, but pray that God can use you to be a blessing for others.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Defending Joel Osteen in Light of Incipient, Evangelical Prosperity Theology



As many people know, Pastor Joel Osteen was pilloried in the media recently when he was wrongly accused of heartlessness with regards to the plight of the people suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. The accusations against him were completely unfounded and EASILY disproved, but – once again – people ignorantly piled on in a complete rush to judgment. As Ed Stetzer wrote, “The response from many people spreading false information shows their character, not Osteen’s. The irony for some in this moment is clear: they hate Osteen because they believe he distorts the truth—and then they do the same when they critique him with false information.”

Now I’ve heard people hate on Joel Osteen since I was at seminary. It seems like people love to do so. Why? Basically, I think this is because he is a well-known, popular pastor who preaches sermons with prosperity gospel theology. I’ve never jumped on this hate train, though I certainly don’t mind honest critique of his so-called theology. I have lightly kidded him in the past but all in good fun. Now why haven’t I felt the need to attack Joel Osteen? Three reasons:

First, the Word of Faith movement, with which Osteen belongs, is not within my sphere of influence. I tend to fall within mainstream evangelical Protestantism (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc). I don’t touch upon Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Word of Faith and others much unless, maybe, the Pope makes some grandiose pronouncement that he intends for us all to follow (snicker). For the most part then, I follow the principle of Luke 9:50 (“Leave him alone. For whoever is not against you is for you”) and John 21:22 (“What is that to you?”). I call this the Biblical doctrine of minding your own business.

Second, Joel Osteen seems like a nice, humble guy. I’ve never gotten the idea or heard any rumor that he acts inappropriately behind the scenes. I once saw video of a preacher being interviewed behind the scenes at a Christian speakers’ conference. At the back of the shot, in the distance, was Joel Osteen in a candid moment, not realizing he was on camera. He was thanking the various people who were working behind the scenes at the conference (the “little people”). Granted, that was only a snapshot, but even his demeanor suggested to me that he wasn’t walking around thinking he was a big shot. Believe me, there are far too many preachers and pastors out there who are jerks, bullies, and egotists. The Bully Pastor is a far bigger problem with which the Church in America has to deal. It’s refreshing to see a minister not behave in such a manner.

Finally, and this gets to the heart of the matter, in terms of Osteen’s poor theology, well, let’s face it: half the pastors in this country preach sermons with poor theology. And that half estimate is probably being generous! Granted, much evangelical theology is bad and most people, including most pastors, just accept what they hear without considering whether or not it’s true. But even by that standard, the sermons being preached out there are cheap. These preachers just aren’t studying. Granted, God is still using these preachers for evangelism and discipleship, but only just enough that the Kingdom of God chugs along. God still works through weakness. So when I hear various preachers condemn the theology of Joel Osteen I think, “Take the plank out of your own eye first.” But let me be more specific at the hypocrisy.

Osteen is known for advocating Prosperity Theology. Here is a good definition: “Prosperity Theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth.”

Naturally, I think the Prosperity Theology is wrong. It’s unscriptural and relies on a poor hermeneutic for understanding what the Bible does say about blessings. Many other Christians and theologians have explained why it’s bad, so I have no desire to explain why that is the case. Most mainstream evangelical preachers and pastors will state clearly that they are against the whole “health and wealth” theology. In fact, they will state unequivocally they are against the Prosperity Gospel and will denounce it in no uncertain terms. But then …

But then a preacher will want to do a Bible study series on Bruce Wilkinson’s book, The Prayer of Jabez, and do a sermon on 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 using Wilkinson’s interpretation: “bless me and enlarge my territory!” Of course, since that book came out in 2000, the criticisms of its theology have become well-known. It has been called an evangelical health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim it type of doctrine. Wilkinson says that “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers” and “I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.” The book suggest that this passage in 1 Chronicles is some kind of secret key that unlocks all the blessings God has in store for believers. Indeed, it treats Jabez’s prayer as a mantra to be recited word for word and portrays divine blessings in terms of miracles, material blessings, and mundane popularity. As one person wrote, “For Wilkinson, the prayer has become the secret to success in every endeavor. God is viewed as a butler who responds in a mechanical manner when certain words are recited.” To say that reciting someone else’s prayer gets God to give you what you want like some magic words (“Accio Moolah!”) is ludicrous. As I’ve said before, “Pray the Prayer of Jabez and God will expand your territory; pray the Prayer of Jonah and you will be vomited up onto a beach.” This understanding of the Prayer of Jabez is not just a poor interpretation of Scripture or simply spiritual immature; it’s plain prosperity theology. Yet many preachers who denounce Osteen’s theology will preach 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 in a like manner.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, my pastor doesn’t preach the Prayer of Jabez in such a manner.” Good. I should hope not. But how does he preach Malachi 3:10? “’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’”

As I’ve written before, this verse, as it is commonly preached, has been taken severely and unnecessarily out of its context. While the Bible does talk about giving for ministry, the tithe itself does not apply to Christians. Malachi 3:10, as a reading of the whole chapter makes clear, concerns the ongoing faithlessness of Israel to meet its covenantal obligations, particularly the requirements of the Torah, which includes the tithe. The purpose of the covenant was to solve the problem of evil and through Israel be a blessing to the world (Genesis 15, 17, 18, 22; Malachi 3:12). Faithfulness to the covenant brought blessings, but faithlessness brought a curse (Deuteronomy 28). Malachi is warning the people that they are cursed for their disobedience (3:9). Yet, the prophet does so within the context of the prediction of the coming Messenger (3:1) who will enable the people to fulfill the covenant and the purpose of the Law (see Deuteronomy 30). The early Christians saw this prediction fulfilled with the appearance of Jesus (Mark 1:2). This verse (3:10), this chapter, is about how God is saving the world; yet we’ve reduced it to “Give money to the local church so God will give even more money to you.” That is how this verse is regularly preached. What is the nature of such an interpretation other than prosperity theology? At best, you can apply Malachi 3:10 by saying “Give to ministries not in order that God will bless you, but so God will use it to bless the world through you.”

So, in light of this incipient Prosperity Gospel, of whom do you think I should be more critical? Osteen who preaches health and wealth according to his Word of Faith theology or the preachers who criticize Osteen but teach similarly health and wealth sermons contrary to their own stated theology? I prefer to focus my energies on furthering the Kingdom of God within my own sphere of influence.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Race, Division, and the One Family of God



We’ve seen violent riots erupt in various places across the country for at least six years now in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. We’ve seen individuals kill police officers, shoot up churches, topple statues, drive over protestors, and attempt to assassinate congressmen. We’ve seen racial hoaxes and rushes to judgment. And for the past two weeks since the events in Charlottesville, I’ve seen Christian ministers and pastors speak about the evil of racism. That is true, of course, but the problem I have with many of the pronouncements I’ve heard and read was that they were too simplistic, too on-the-surface. Such orations seemed to me to be the frequently heard, anybody-can-say clichés that have become dulled with repetition. Occasionally, someone would note that all humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26) and are thus equally worthy of honor, but that was as deep as anyone would go. It was like these pastors simply said what everyone says just so they could be seen to have said it. It was more thoughtless virtue-signaling than penetrative analysis. We need to go deeper.


One of the results of the Fall of Man, sin and evil entering the world was the fracturing of humanity. This fracturing, as it is related in the story of Babel (Genesis 11), represented in the breakdown in communication, is immediately followed by God calling Abraham (Genesis 12). God established a covenant or agreement with Abraham saying that he would give him a large family and that the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 15, 17). This covenant with Abraham and his family (Israel) was made specifically for the purpose of dealing with the problem of evil and sin and putting humanity back on track. One of the prophecies of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Messiah was that non-Jews would come to God (Isaiah 2:1-5; 60:4-14) and be a part of God’s people, this one family of Abraham. When the Kingdom does come we first get a symbolic reversal of the effects of the Babel when the Gospel is miraculously able to be preached to numerous languages at Pentecost (Acts 2). This is followed by numerous examples of non-Jews accepting Jesus as Lord and believing in God (Acts 8, 10, 13, 16). The prophecies come true and non-Jews, races and ethnicities of all kinds, come into this one family God promised to Abraham. This is the part of the general idea preached by Paul in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans. For the sake of space I will focus primarily on Galatians.


In Galatians, Paul is responding to a crisis in the church. A group of Jewish Christians have arrived in Galatia and have begun to tell the Gentile Christians that they must adopt Jewish ethnic-cultural practices (circumcision, exclusive table fellowship, ritual cleanliness, kosher diet, cultural holidays, etc.) in order to be regarded as a member of God’s people. Basically, they are telling the Gentiles that they must become ethnic Jews in order to be a part of the one family that God promised Abraham. Paul will have none of it. He argues that 1) God’s original purpose was to create one family, one people (3:27-29), 2) the coming of the Kingdom of God and the work of Jesus has fulfilled the purpose of the Jewish Law (Torah) (3:24-26), 3) it is by faith and not by becoming a Jew that people are regarded as members of this one family (2:16), and 4) the extreme focus on ethnic differences divides this one family and runs counter to God’s purpose (3:27-29). Not that there is anything wrong with cultural differences in of themselves (5:6; 6:15). Yet when racial, cultural, and ethnic differences are used to divide, exclude, and marginalize, they become contrary to the Gospel and the plan of God: that one, renewed family that is to revive creation.


So what does this mean for us? Basically, as stated, while there is nothing inherently wrong with differences in race, culture, and ethnicity, when those differences seek to divide, exclude, persecute, and marginalize, they become contrary to the Gospel. The most obvious examples are the various forms of racial supremacy (white supremacy, black supremacy, etc.) and racial nationalism (black, white, etc.). These movements seek to elevate one race or ethnicity over others. Again, the fault in this, with its inherent divisiveness and exclusion, is obvious. So obvious, in fact, that such attitudes exist only on the fringe of the fringe in American society and is virtually non-existent. Paul touches upon this subject in Romans 1-2 in which he argues against the Jew who boasts of his ethnic superiority. Some Jews believed that because God had chosen Israel for the task of saving the world and had given them Torah that they were therefore exalted in their ethnicity. Again, Paul will have none of that, arguing that God shows no partiality (2:11). In Christ, there is no superiority among the races.


More common, though, is the idea of racial and ethnic separation. While this is largely condemned when it takes the form of segregation, apartheid, anti-miscegenation, and racial separatism, such separation can nevertheless be either supported or ignored when it takes the form of identity movements and identity politics. Naturally, the Alt-Right is rightfully condemned with its focus on white identity and racial marginalization. But also contrary to the Gospel are other racial identity movements (black power, chicano power, etc.) that seek to over-emphasize their identity to the exclusion or distrust of others. Often times this emphasis is a result of hatred, distrust, and emotional wounds directed at other races and ethnicities. Indeed, the focus on identity groups by politicians is an attempt to play one group off another, seeking grievances, reparations, and revenge over perceived injustices and victimhood. What starts off as ethnic and racial “pride” (and cultural heritage!) can descend into racial solidarity and ethnocentrism. What starts off as justified causes for acceptance and assimilation can spiral downward into erratic emphases on false narratives of privilege, unscientific assertions of micro-aggressions, and ludicrous positions on cultural appropriation. For someone who saw the focus on circumcision, eating practices, and cultural holidays as divisive to the one family of God, I can imagine how bewildered Paul would be today to see people argue that it’s a cultural crime for particular races to eat tacos, wear hoop earrings, and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. He would consider it exclusionary and racist. Paul would see it as a form of marginalization that runs contrary to the Gospel.


It was historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who wrote that “basing politics on group marginalization fractures the civil polity and therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization” and that "movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than ... perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference." I’ll even note Marxist theorist Brendan O’Neill who writes that “we have the politics of identity, which invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over the body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral forcefield to protect their worldview—which has nothing to do with the world—from any questioning.”


This latter analysis is interesting. When God gave the Jews the Law part of its purpose was to create guardrails to keep God’s covenant people in check until the time when the Messiah would come (Galatians 3:22-25). Yet many Jews used it as a means of looking inward, of excluding, of becoming ethno-centric to the point that they were no longer the light of the world. They took the gift of cultural distinctives and made it a weapon of exclusion and a badge of ethnic privilege. This is what Jesus is getting at when he talks about not hiding a light under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).


It’s interesting to see some progressives embrace the Marxist theory of intersectionality as a practical means of uniting the disparate parties of perceived victimhood under the shared identity of the state. In this practice, the “proper”, orthodox socio-political views on race, sex, and wealth are the cultural badges one wears to identify oneself as a progressive in good standing. Paul, on the other hand, saw the disparate groups of humanity coming together,not under the Law with its cultural distinctive as identity badges, but forming together as one family under the Lordship of Christ with faith in him as the means of identity signifying a member in good standing. This is why Paul can write the following:


“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).


Finally, the most common form of racism is that of false assumptions about morality. I’m not specifically talking about the all-too repeated scenario in which as soon as a racial incident occurs people automatically assign guilt, innocence, and intent before all the investigated facts are known. That is bad enough. We’ve had numerous racial hoaxes in recent years that could’ve been avoided if people would’ve had patience and not assumed the position of their lesser angels.  No, rather, more specifically, I am referring to the racist practice of having either lower or higher standards of morality towards individuals or groups depending upon racial and cultural differences. For example, we shouldn’t excuse or rationalize the behavior of KKK members, dismissing it as the natural behavior of redneck, uneducated hicks. Similarly, we shouldn’t excuse the behavior of minority or “oppressed” groups when they riot and loot and say “we must understand their anger.” Rubbish! Far from being simply condescending and paternalistic, it is inherently racist to assume that one racial or ethnic group has a lower standard of morality than another. Such an assumption necessarily implies that another group has a higher standard. More importantly, two or more standards of morality create division within the community. It’s moral segregation. It’s ethical apartheid.


Consider Paul in Galatians. Even as the apostle is warning the church that the heavy emphasis on cultural distinctive causes divisions within the one family of God, he nevertheless calls for a singular standard of moral behavior for both Jews and Greeks based upon what is revealed in Scripture (Galatians 5). Paul reiterates this single standard in Romans 1:18-2:16 (see also Ephesians 4). At no point do racial and ethical distinctives nullify the common standard of Christian morality. So when we excuse immoral behavior by other races and ethnicities we run contrary to Scripture and place divisions among us.


Paul deals with the subject of racial and ethnic differences by putting it squarely within the context of God’s promised plan to redeem creation through a united family. This one family is a redeemed humanity of all races and ethnicities in Christ. While there is nothing inherently wrong with cultural differences they can become divisive if used as a means of separation. At the same time, while cultural distinctives are relative, there is a common standard of morality that exists for everyone. Again, the emphasis is on unity.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Lies, Licentious, and the Renewal of the Mind: A Study of Romans 12:2


“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)


I’ve been thinking recently about the problem of there being so many immature Christians within the church (in the pews, in leadership, and in the pastorate) who are unable to grow in their faith and, most importantly, discern the truth. In the process of my thoughts, I recalled the verse above and decided to give it some study.


In the previous chapter, Paul has argued that God has used the general Jewish rejection of their Messiah (Jesus) in order to bring non-Jews into the family of God. He then argued that God is using this great influx of non-Jews into the family of God as a means of bringing Jews into that family. This is all by the design of God and Paul refers to it as a great mystery (11:25). Indeed, in 16:25-26, Paul refers to the Gospel and the entire plan of God that is now being revealed as a great mystery (cf. 1:1-2). Up to this point (chs. 11-12), Paul has been explaining how God fulfilled his promise to renew creation by renewing mankind through Israel, the Law, and ultimately Jesus himself. So when he gets to 11:33-36, Paul openly marvels at the unfathomable wisdom and knowledge of God that has constructed and worked out this divine plan. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (v. 34)


What follows is a pragmatic teaching on how the Christian should practice and live out their faith, specifically in the context of the faith community. The individual Christian’s walk and way of life is always understood in that relation. We are never to be separate. Indeed, Paul will expand on the idea of Romans 12:2 in Ephesians 4, again within the context of the overall faith community.


So now coming to 12:2, Paul writes this amazing sentence about the renewing of the mind. The word for “conformed” is syschēmatizō and it means “to fashion oneself to a pattern”. The word for” world” is aiōn. It’s the word we get “eon” from and means “age” as in the “Age of Man” or the “Age to Come”. The Israelites conceived of life as consisting of two ages: this present evil (Galatians 1:4) and the age to come (Matthew 12:32). The present age is one of evil, idolatry, and sin and in which corrupt power rules and dominates through fear and lies. The future age is one in which God’s Kingdom is brought fully to fruition and his Spirit has flooded creation with the love.


So what are the patterns of this present age? The answer is voluminous. Here we are talking about worldviews, ways of thinking, basic assumptions, everything from what socio-economic systems we follow to how we treat employees to how we treat our kids, how we perceive sexuality. Some false patterns are generally obvious (thievery), others are more particularly contentious (taxation), and others are generally, if not near universally, unobvious (the inherent violence of government). Of course, the Bible is full of passages that deal with such patterns. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is one of the most famous. And, most importantly, I would add Romans 1:18-32 as well. The former challenges the underlying preconceptions of the reader by showing a better way, the latter showing how such underlying preconceptions appeared in the first place. Indeed, as will become clear, I think Paul in 12:2 is referencing back to his argument in 1:18-32. This becomes more apparent in light of the similar subject matter in Ephesians 4:17-25. We need to avoid falling into the patterns of this world, but we also need to be liberated from the false patterns we are already in. Again, some of these patterns are obviously wrong but many more are so ingrained in our worldview and basic assumptions that we don’t know that they are wrong.


We avoid such patterns and are liberated from them by being “transformed” (metamorphoō). Elsewhere Paul speaks of the Christian believer being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). The liberation from the patterns of this world is towards becoming more like Jesus. And this is accomplished by the “renewing of the mind”. The word here for “renewing” is anakainōsis and means “to make new” (see 2 Corinthians 4:16 and Colossians 3:10).


God’s main purpose now is the renewal of his creation by renewing humanity back into its proper role (2 Corinthians 5:1; Galatians 6:15; Revelations 21; 2 Peter 3:12-13; Isaiah 66:22; Ephesians 4:24; Ezekiel 11:19). This particularly and necessarily involves the renewal of the human mind (nous), specifically into the mind of Christ. In 11:34, Paul has already alluded to Isaiah 40:13: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” In 1 Corinthians 2:16, he does so again, adding, “But we have the mind of Christ” (see also Philippians 2:5). So the transformation is becoming like Christ by renewing the mind into one like Christ’s. Thus, in the parallel passage in Ephesians 4:22-24, the transformation into a new self is connected with the renewal of the mind.


But how did humanity get into this position in the first place? In Ephesians 4, again on a treatment of the same theme, Paul talks about not walking in the futility of the mind (4:17), darkened in understanding, ignorant, with hardened hearts (4:18), not being given over to given over to sensuality, every kind of impurity (4:19), and the lusts of deceit (4:22). Instead, we are to walk in truth and reject falsehoods (4:24, 25). Here the need for mental renewal stems both from a rejection of the truth and licentiousness. Again, Ephesians 4 is an expansion of the idea Paul touches upon in Romans 12:2. However, as stated above, I think that while Paul speaks about the renewing of the mind in 12:2, he has first talked about its corruption in Romans 1:18-32.


Here, in the most haunting passage of the Bible, Paul lays out the lot of mankind. They suppress the truth (v. 18), they are futile speculations (v. 21), their hearts are darkened (v. 21), they profess to be wise but are fools (v. 22), and they exchange truth for lies (v. 25). What is more, they are given over to lusts of their hearts and impurity (v. 24) and to degrading passions (v. 26-27). Lies and licentiousness are to blame, just like in Ephesians 4. The result is that “God gave them over to a depraved mind” (v. 28). And God giving them over (cf. 1:25; Ephesians 4:19) is God letting them go, releasing his providential hand, allowing them to reap the inevitable results of their free choices. The result is a depraved mind. While there are many ways in which the human mind can become corrupted in its thinking, I believe Paul focuses on lies and licentiousness because these, more than others, have a more profound effect upon the mind.


So mankind can be liberated from the false patterns of this world, from the depravity of our thinking by being transformed by the renewing of our minds. This mental renewal allows us to prove (dokimázō) what the will of God is. This word dokimázō means to discern, examine, analyze (see Romans 1:28, 2:18). Essentially, the renewal of the mind enables us to understand what God’s will is in this world: things that are good and acceptable and perfect. Belief in lies, false patterns of thinking, and licentious behavior (and approving of such behavior [Romans 1:32]) will impair your ability to understand the truth and figure out what God’s will is.


But how do we get there? Too often we in the Church have approached discipleship in terms of simply teaching doctrine, reciting catechism, topical studies, and requiring assent to fundamental propositions. All of this can be important and can have its place, but it’s not what will renew the mind. There are people out there who have been abused, exploited, and scarred. Their life circumstances have led them to make poor life choices. They are seeking to justify those choices and escape guilt and condemnation by embracing whatever lie, worldview, and thought pattern does the trick. And here’s the thing: they are not fully conscious of it. They are embracing lies and false patterns not because they know they are lies but because they really really want them to be true. They are using falsehoods as a gate protecting who they think they are, while it’s actually a cage preventing them from being who they are suppose to be. That’s how depravity of the mind works. And what is more about these lies and patterns: THEY. GO. DEEP. Telling people they shouldn’t sin isn’t going to cut it. Giving believers a list of propositions of which to assent isn’t enough. A thirty-week series on the top ideas of the Bible won’t get you there. You cannot expect that when a person becomes a true believer that the Holy Spirit will automatically renew their mind without their participation.


True discipleship must involve challenging the underlying assumptions that undergird the thought patterns, the lifestyles, and the worldviews of average Christians. This must be done within the faith community (Romans 12; Ephesians 4), and the best method is to do so by addressing the immediate needs of the people. Most importantly, it requires church leaders (pastors, staff, teachers, etc.) that have already had their minds renewed from the false patterns of this world.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Mark 13 and the Coming of the Son of Man


I just finished reading Jesus and the Future: An Examination of the Criticism of the Eschatological Discourse, Mark 13 with Special Reference to the Little Apocalypse Theory, by G.R. Beasley-Murray. The book, as its title states, is an examination of 120 years of criticism on the “Apocalyptic” Discourse of Jesus as it is recorded in the book of Mark, chapter 13. Mark 13 has been called the most analyzed passages in the whole of the Gospel of Mark.  Essentially, Mark 13 gives Jesus’ prediction about the coming of tribulation to the nation of Israel in the first century (vv. 5-25), followed immediately by what people interpret to be his Second Coming (vv. 26-27). What Biblical scholars noted was the obvious problem that though the predicted tribulation did occur (66-70 CE), Jesus did not immediately return. How to solve this problem?


If you are more traditional evangelical then you just assume the entirety of Mark 13 is a prediction that has not yet occurred. However, there are some problems with that interpretations of which I will mention below. If you are of a more progressive bent then you reason that either Jesus was wrong about his return or that the Gospel writers have unintentionally misrepresented him. There are many historical, exegetical, and logical reasons why neither of these two progressive options even if you reject the miraculous or the inerrancy of the Scripture. This is why the issue even among liberal Biblical scholars was not satisfactorily resolved.


Now before I read the book I had already previously rejected the conservative interpretation and solved the liberal one. My interest was simply about how various people had approached the problem and how they reasoned the issue out. I was very interested to see that no scholar in this examination had arrived at my conclusion. Granted, this book was compiled in 1954. There has been a lot more scholarship on the subject in the past 60 years and has been, at least for me, satisfactorily solved. So what it is the solution?


First of all, how do we know that Jesus’ prediction of Mark 13:5-25 was fulfilled in the first century CE? We best begin by understanding Jesus’ Mark 13 discourse in its context. Jesus has finished proclaiming judgment upon the Temple in Mark 11. He does so by citing Jeremiah 7:11. If you read the entire prophetic oracle of Jeremiah 7, you learn that it’s about God preparing to bring down judgment upon the whole of Judah for its sins against God and man. This prophecy was fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Put together with his actions to temporarily halt the legitimate business of the Temple, it seems that Jesus’ intention was to enact a prophetic oracle announcing God’s imminent judgment upon the Temple itself and Israel in general. This prophecy was fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.


Jesus has further bracketed his prophetic action in the Temple with the example of a fig tree that he purposely withered because it bore no fruit (karpos) (11:13-14, 20-21). Jesus has already used the common metaphor of fruit representing positive works in Mark 4:7-8 with the Parable of the Sower and the soils that yield and don’t yield crops/fruit (karpos). This bracketing technique is designed to indicate that God has returned to his Temple (Mark 1:1-3, quoting Malachi 3:1) and has found it wanting.


When Jesus next returns to the Temple in chapter 12, he gives the Parable of the Vine-growers. This parable is a history of Israel, referencing God’s sending of prophets and ultimately his Son to the people only to see them all murdered. The parable ends with the warning that God is going to destroy the “vineyard” in response. I would also add that in Mark 12:36, in discussion with religious leaders, Jesus references Psalm 110 which is a coronation psalm about a king receiving a vast dominion and sitting at the Lord’s right hand. Remember this.


 So we have these warnings about impending destruction building up when, as Jesus is leaving the Temple, his disciples point out the magnificent buildings of the Temple complex (13:1). Jesus responds that these specific buildings of the Temple complex are going to be torn down (v. 2). This prediction was fulfilled in 70 CE, some 40 years after Jesus predicted it would happen. These are specific buildings that existed in the first century that are being referenced. The disciples then ask what the signs are that this destruction will occur. Jesus then proceeds to give prediction of the persecution his disciples will face (including being flogged in synagogues [v. 9]). This is followed by the prediction of a time of great tribulation that will befall Judaea, in which Jesus warns his followers to flee. These are the events that occurred when Rome attacked and destroyed Jerusalem in 66-70 CE. Indeed, Jesus specifically states that this generation will not pass away until these things occur (v. 30). All the evidence supports the conclusion that the events predicted by Jesus and recorded in Mark 13:5-25 refer to events that occurred within a generation of his prediction. These events are not about the end of the world but more about political upheaval. Images of the sun, moon, and stars are regularly used as code for such events. The poetic language used for the predicted Fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13:24-25 is similar to the language used for the predicted Fall of Babylon in Isaiah 13:10.


But then what do we make of verse 26 that in those days “Then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN CLOUDS with great power and glory”? Most people (both liberals and conservatives) have interpreted this verse as referring to Jesus’ second coming. If, as I have demonstrated, the previous events refer to the first century, then the immediacy of the “coming” poses a problem. Was Jesus wrong?


The solution to the problem lies in the acknowledgement that this verse is a quotation from an apocalyptic prophecy in Daniel 7:13.


“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him.”

This is important. The “coming” referred to in this verse is not the Son of Man coming from heaven to earth, but him a coming up to the Ancient of Days, i.e., God. It’s a more of a coming from earth to heaven than a heaven to earth. But why is the Son of Man coming up to God? The answer comes in the following verse 14:

“And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”

These are verses about the establishment of the Kingdom of God with Jesus as the King. These are verses about his enthronement, albeit in symbolic, apocalyptic language as befits the genre. And this is an enthronement that occurred in the first century. This is why Jesus can cite this verse to the high priest at his trial telling him that “you shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN” (Mark 14:62). This is why the Gospel of Mark can begin with Jesus’ pronouncement that the Kingdom of God is at hand (1:15). This is why Jesus can say there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mark 9:1). And, to reference the book of Acts, this is why Stephen can see a vision of “the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (7:56). So the reference to the “Coming of the Son of Man” in Mark 13:26 is not about the Second Coming of Jesus but about Jesus’ enthronement as King of this world, his exaltation, his vindication by God.


Of course, there is a “Second Coming” of Jesus when he will make his appearance (parousia) known to the entire world and bring the Kingdom of God to consummation. Paul references this future event in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. Also, the “two men” predict his return in Acts 1:11. It’s just that Mark 13:26 is not referencing or predicting that event here. The Gospels themselves are not very interested in the second coming as much as they are in Jesus becoming King of the world.

From a Discussion on the Biblical Concepts of Rape and Exploitation


The next claim is that rape was only condemned because women were considered property. No, the reason both the Bible and the Israelites condemned rape is because they considered it a moral atrocity on the same level as murder. Verse 26 states this explicitly. Consider it: do you really think that if their child is raped a parent’s first thought was “oh, no, my property”? Do you really think that the Israelite people en masse didn’t care about their children? Do you really think men didn’t love their wives and only thought bad about their rape because of property? When Amnon raped Tamar in 2 Samuel 13, did her brother Absalom only become angry because of property rights? No, because of how the Hebrews conceived reality on a psychical level, they fundamentally had a very serious understanding of sex and how it affected the soul. This is why they equated rape with murder.


The next claim is that the Bible teaches that a woman who is raped is required to marry her rapist. This is absolutely not true. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 concerns men who take women for the purposes of sex without the responsibility of marriage. No sense of sexual assault is stated or implied. The word in the NASB for “seize” is taphas and can mean “handle” or “take”, as in when a pastor asks a bride, “Do you take this man …?” We know this to be true because in verses 25-27 above, which is clearly about rape, the word used for “force” is chazaq which is used for rape (see 2 Samuel 13:11 and Judges 19:29). The purpose of the law recorded in 22:28-29 is to prevent the exploitation of women.


The next claim is that “starting in verse 22 it pretty much assumes a married woman can’t be raped.” That is a notion completely absent from the text. I think you are doing the assuming.


The final claim is that the Scripture here implies that if a woman doesn’t scream she wasn’t really raped. It implies no such thing. This is completely absent from the text. You are assuming again. These verses are about protecting women from sexual assault and false accusations.


The oddity is that all these verses (22-29) are specifically designed to prevent the exploitation of and violence towards women. This shouldn’t surprise us. The Israelites believed their god was highly moral, concerned with justice, and hated the exploitation of the poor.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Cross and Pacifism


The Southern Baptists recently adopted a resolution supporting the “doctrine” of penal substitutionary atonement. This is the belief that God punished Jesus for the sins of humanity instead of humanity itself. Supposedly this action satisfied God’s sense of justice. One of the resolution’s authors noted that Christians today are rejecting this view of the Cross because of the growing popularity of pacifism and non-violence. I’m sure there is some truth to this assertion in some places though I do not know how widespread such thinking is. Speaking for myself, I reject the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement for several reasons:

-          The Bible does not teach this doctrine.

-          It conflicts with Old Testament conceptions of sacrifice.

-          It misunderstands key concepts in the Bible (justice, grace, forgiveness).

-          It conflicts with the purpose and ethic of the Cross.

-          It is contrary to the nature and intention of God.

God created a good world based on peace and life for humanity, but, instead, humanity brought evil, sin, violence, and death, throwing creation into futility. Part of the purpose of the crucifixion, and the ethic of Jesus, was that love, forgiveness, peace, and life were superior and more powerful than such futility. In order to set creation right and prove its ultimate goodness, the solution must not fight fire with fire. Death and violence must not be used to fight death and violence. When death and violence attacked Jesus on the Cross, he turned the other cheek, forgiving his attackers, exhibiting self-sacrificial love, and in his resurrection proved that his ethic, the way of God, and the purposes of creation were stronger. The story of the cross is one of love, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, non-violent resistance, revealing the very person of God, and defeating the powers of evil. For me, it is because of the Cross that I am a pacifist and support non-violence.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Government, Violence, and the Gospel


I’ve noted for some time the tendency of progressive Christians to support the idea of a growing, expansive government to regulate society, albeit for the purposes of properly administering economics and social welfare. While this is a noble cause and Christians should be concerned about proper economics and the social welfare, there is a fundamental problem with such support that conflicts with the very heart of the Christian Faith: large, expansive government is contrary to the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and is anti-Christian. What is more, there is an irony in those Christians who support an expansive government but also reject war in general.
I readily appreciate that the claim that large government is anti-Gospel runs counter to many generations of progressive Christian thinking. But let it be said that the Gospel runs counter to the way all of humanity is naturally inclined to think. Thus the conclusions drawn below are going to make conservative Christians uncomfortable as well.
We need to start off by acknowledging that there are two ethics at work in the Bible: the “eye for an eye” ethic and the “turn the other cheek” ethic. The first ethic is predominately found in the Old Testament and is spelled out in Leviticus 24:19. It is basically the ethic that states that a person who has injured another person is to be penalized to a similar degree. While you can find this ethic throughout the Old Testament, the legality of it has its antecedent in the Code of Hammurabi and in almost every society that has come before and after in every place society exists. Its near universality should not surprise us. This is the ethic of justice, of equality. This is how the world works and this ethic works very well. And, as my Old Testament professor stated, this ethic is still grace. It is grace because it mandates that a person or a society cannot mete vengeance upon the guilty party beyond the crime they have committed. This is grace. Nevertheless, it is an ethic of retribution, violence, and the implied threat of violence.
This ethic finds its fullest expression and most organized principle in government. The purpose of government is to hold back evil through violence and the threat of violence. Paul talks about this in Romans 13 where government is seen as an instrument of violence whose purpose is to fight against evil. And this is seen as a purpose ordained by God.
Government fights evil, first, by protecting society from external threats and, second, by maintaining order within that society, but both through violence and the threat of violence. Max Weber famously formulated that government has a regional monopoly on violence. This is a core concept of modern public law going back to Jean Bodin and the Enlightenment political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that the sovereign must be invested with the exclusive right to commit violence, the alternative to that being violence, bellum omnium contra omnes. This is the defining conception of the state and what its purpose is on a fundamental level. Indeed, in the Western world, there near universal consensus that if any person or entity in society is to have such power, then it should be the exclusive right of the state.  And government does violence very well. That’s its purpose. It doesn’t do economics or social welfare very well. Government by its very nature is fundamentally incapable of properly administering economics and social welfare without highly negative results. This is why the standards of living and social welfare are always higher in societies with more limited government. Those areas are far too complex for government to manage. But violence is simple. The purpose of a military is simply to kill people and break things. Or at the very least to threaten to. The same goes for the national guard and the police. The government uses violence and the threat of violence to protect society from external and internal evil. Ultimately and fundamentally, government is about violence and the threat of violence. And whether it is socialism, communism, Marxism, or dictatorships, what one finds is that massively increased governmental control simultaneously brings a higher increase in governmental violence. The American Founders knew this through both experience and Enlightenment philosophy. They rightfully saw government a necessary evil but took steps to limit the scope and ability of its violence. Thus we have the U.S. Constitution with its checks, balances, and limitations designed to make it harder for the US government to inflict violence on its own people. As George Washington said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.”
We see the purpose and problem of government played out through the Old Testament. Originally, Israel was designed to be a more theocratic community without a king or a hierarchal, governmental system. Yet the sinful nature that infected the world was also found in God’s covenant community. The primary purpose of the Book of Judges is to explain why it became necessary for Israel to adopt a king (Judges 21:25). Each successive story shows a further descent into evil and chaos culminating with chapter 19, in which Israel was shown to be as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah (oppression of the poor exemplified by sexual violence). Those cities were destroyed. In order to keep the plan and purpose of Israel underway, God gave his people a monarchy but warned them of the violence inherent within it as well as the accompanying loss of freedom, corruption, and seizure of property (1 Samuel 8). And the government did keep evil at bay for a time. It did work as it does in every other society. However, while government can hold back evil, it cannot defeat evil itself. Evil and sin creep in and corrupt. Israel’s government grew and oppressed the people, enacting violence upon them, seizing their property, and over-regulating their society. God continued to send prophets with a constant warning to Israel and its government not to go the way of Sodom. But the end and inevitable result was corruption and destruction by the Assyrians and Babylonians.
So government is a necessary evil ordained by God and fundamentally designed to administer violence in order to hold back evil. Yet, the more expansive and controlling it is, the more violent it becomes. But while it can hold back evil, it cannot defeat evil itself.
This brings us to the second ethic is which is found predominately in the New Testament and is spelled out in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matthew 5:38-5:42. However, the antecedents of this ethic are found in the Old Testament. In the second century BCE, the Jews were engaged in a violent struggle against the Seleucid Empire for political and cultural control over Palestine. In this time of cultural persecution and violent resistance, we have the production of the Book of Daniel that teaches a response to governmental persecution through prayer, service, and non-violent resistance. This is a later, higher ethic than that is found in the earlier books of the Bible like that of Esther with its retributive justice. At the same time, the Book of Daniel predicts that God is going to deal with these persecuting nations and governments through a “Messiah” and through resurrection. You can see much earlier in the Old Testament that God is going to establish his Kingdom through a Messiah (Isaiah 11) and that a time and ethic of peace will follow where the wolf will lie down with the lamb (verse 6) and people will no longer need their swords (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:10, Micah 4:3). It will be a time of freedom (Isaiah 61:1) and forgiveness (Jeremiah 31:34). This is an ethic of forgiveness, non-violence, and non-retribution. And it flows from the character of God himself. In the first case of human violence recorded in the Bible, God gives Cain grace for murdering his little brother even when Cain deserved death (Genesis 4). This is who God is. And this is who Jesus is. And Jesus taught an ethic where abuse, persecution, and violence are to be dealt with by love, forgiveness, and non-violence. Again, you can see this prominently in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is the ethic Jesus took all the way to the cross where he rejected violence (Matthew 26: 52-54; Luke 22:51) and proclaimed forgiveness (Luke 23:34). The power exhibited and unleashed on the cross is that is that of self-giving love and forgiveness. This is the heart of the Gospel.  You cannot fight force with force because, either way, force wins. You cannot fight defeat with violence because, either way, violence wins. The real power lies in self-giving, turn-the –other-cheek love. On the cross, evil and sin were drawn to Jesus. The political parties of Israel’s government (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, elders, and chief priests) and the Roman government itself attacked him with full force and violence, exhausting themselves upon him. Yet, God raised Jesus from the dead, proving that evil could do its worse but still stand impotent before God’s Kingdom. This is what victory means and this is how it is achieved. This is the ethic that God wants for his people. This is the ethic God wants for the world and will eventually get. This is the superior ethic over that of “eye for an eye”. While the kingdoms of this world run on the basis of force, the Kingdom of God runs on the basis of forgiveness. While the governments of this world run through violence, the government of God runs through non-violence. One is about death, the other is about life.
This is why Christians, progressive or otherwise, should abandon support for large, expansive government. Government is necessarily and essentially violent on a fundamental and unchangeable level. Violence is its raison d’être. It is a beast that cannot be tamed, only unleashed. And it is because of this inherent violence that it runs contrary to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God which is centrally about love, forgiveness, and non-violence. Government must be kept limited in order to limit violence. And while economics and social welfare are very important Kingdom goals and essential to the Gospel, the use of government to achieve them not only fails to work, it utilizes an ethic that is contrary to the Gospel. This is one reason why it doesn’t work. The irony is that those who too often support a big government to administer social change will simultaneously reject government’s essential purpose: to hold back evil through violent war and the threat of violent war.
So what are progressive Christians supposed to do?
1)      Abandon support of a large, expansive, controlling government.
2)      Seek the goals of the Kingdom of God through non-governmental means.
3)      Appreciate that war in general is necessary for a government to hold back evil. Such violence is also necessary for national guards and police.
What are conservative Christians to do?
1)      Do not support war and do not attach Christianity to it. Be sure to state publicly that war is a necessary evil used to hold back evil, but steadfastly maintain that it, and all other forms of violence, are contrary to the Gospel.
2)      Do not fall into the trap of expecting government to be the method by which you advance the moral aspects of the Gospel.
The fact of the matter is that government needs to be put in a proper perspective and limited to its specific, fundamental role. While it is by its nature contrary to the Gospel and at odds with how God intends the world to work, government does fulfill a divine role of holding back the forces of evil. But if government grows and expands beyond its proper role, it becomes a source of violence meted out amongst a fearful populace. Ultimately though, it is the ethic of Jesus, not the ethic of government, that defeats evil.