Thursday, February 28, 2013

Set Free (part 7 of 7)

In this consideration of table fellowship and the life and freedom of the Spirit-ed people, we can see the Spirit of the Christ at work, as Paul forces us to reflect on the fact that the Spirit of the Christ was shown forth through His own breaking down of ancient barriers and boundaries, as he labored to bring diverse peoples---including people despised and looked down on by the Jews---into and under God’s covenant, based solely upon their relationship to Him (Jesus).  Understanding this then allows one to return to the subject at hand here in Romans, so as to enable a more firm grasp on what is meant when Paul writes, “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to Him” (8:9b). 

Following from that, one finds that “if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness” (8:10).  Here, Paul seems to affirm that, even though believers share in Christ’s eternal life in the here and now, their bodies will eventually deteriorate and they will die.  This is because of the sin (failure to bear the divine image, covenant violations) that was introduced into the world and still exists primarily as a failure to trust the Creator God and live up to what should attend that trust.  However, because of righteousness, that is, because of the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness, believers have the promise of life.  That Spirit of Christ that the believer has because of the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness is the guarantee that there will come a time of resurrection for each one that is in Christ (believing in Him and confessing allegiance to His claim of Lordship). 

That resurrection is not a dis-embodied existence restricted to an ethereal and heavenly realm (though heaven is one of the believer’s hopes as he or she await a final resurrection), but the resurrection that Paul has in mind is one in a world in which the kingdom of God has been set to work, and which merely awaits its final consummation at which the Creator God sets His creation to rights.  It would appear to be for that reason that Paul goes on to inform his hearers and eventual readers that “Moreover if the Spirit of the One Who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the One Who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through His Spirit Who lives in you” (8:11).  Just as Jesus was raised from the dead so as to walk in this creation, so too will His brethren.  If one desires to be like his Lord, then this is the hope that should take pre-eminence beyond that of heaven. 

There is a great deal of freedom at work here.  Because of the freedom from the exilic failure to be properly human that comes from being outside of God’s covenant, with an escape (exodus) from such through belief in Jesus as Lord, those that are in Christ are set free to be used as agents and ambassadors of the creation-restoring kingdom of God, and are given the immense privilege of being used by God to extend His blessings of renewal, re-creation, restoration, and resurrection with Christ to all peoples.  This occurs as His Resurrection power flows to and through those that call Jesus Lord, as they are used as conduits of His gift of eternal life through the Gospel.    

Set Free (part 6 of 7)

In addition to what has already been said, as one continues to contemplate the nature of these works of the flesh, it is incumbent upon those that ponder these things to not lose sight of the fact that the Creator God did not intend for His people Israel to be separate simply for the sake of being separate, but that through their being set apart for His purposes He could truly bless them by using them as a means to bless all peoples.  According to the covenant made with Abraham, which certainly colored the thinking of the Apostle Paul and all like-minded individuals, this was most certainly His intention for Israel, as well as for those that are considered to be renewed Israel through their union with Christ that takes the form of believing in Him as Lord. 

Building on his earlier thoughts concerning flesh, death, life, and peace, Paul goes on to write that “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (8:9a).  This is not a blanket statement that is addressed to his readers (or more likely those that would hear the letter read in the setting of a common meal) as some sort of broad-based compliment, but he qualifies this by writing, “if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you” (8:9b).  This begs the question as to how one knows, in this context, if the Spirit of God lives in him.  This, of course, is connected with the ability to please God, which one can imagine was something readily desired amongst those to whom Paul is writing this letter. 

How does one know if he or she does indeed have the Spirit of God?  It would seem that, in the context of the contrast between death (flesh) and life and peace (Spirit), that the evidence of the Spirit would be a willingness to fully embrace the tenets of the Abrahamic covenant.  The evidence of the presence of the Spirit is the ability to rejoice in the ending of the separation between God and man, and between man and man.  It would seem to be the case that, in this context, at least one evidence of the Spirit would be a vigilance against the reconstruction of any walls or boundaries that would be erected to separate those that believe in Christ from one another. 

Much of this can be discovered in the textual dealings concerning the considerably important issue of table-fellowship between Jew and Gentile, as this become a crucial issue, being highlighted in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, while also being a source of much criticism that is leveled against Jesus in the accounts of the Gospels.  When Paul confronts Peter in Galatians---because of Peter’s withdrawal from eating with the Gentiles---and rebukes Peter to his face, it is because Peter’s actions, by Paul’s way of viewing the post-Christ, post-Ressurection world, constitute the unfortunate and hardly intended resurrection of old and now meaningless cultural boundaries of separation. 

For Paul this erection of separating boundaries did nothing more than drag believers in Jesus back into the old age (flesh, death) rather than allowing them to fully live in the new age that began with Christ’s Resurrection (Spirit, life, peace).  For Paul, this resurrection of old standards by Peter nullifies the purpose of Christ’s Resurrection, and according to the record of the encounter that Paul provides, Paul will not tolerate it for a second.  Throughout his letters, Paul insists that Christ died and was raised to create a new humanity, a new creation.  Accordingly then, holding to old ideals and standards that now stood in obviously flagrant opposition to what God intended---as evidenced by Jesus’ own actions throughout His ministry, as He demonstrated what it meant to be fully human in the way that God intended through His own meal practice---was not going to be tolerated. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Set Free (part 5)

In the sixth verse of the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul relates that “the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace” (8:6).  Seizing on these terms of “death,” “flesh,” “life,” and “peace,” as well as putting them into a context that would have been familiar to his audience, one can’t help but think about the “pax Romana” (Roman peace) and the repeated attempts to overthrow foreign powers that had been undertaken by members of the nation of Israel throughout the years leading up to Paul’s day.

The nationalism that surrounded the traditions represented by the works of the flesh is the same nationalism that fomented and sustained the revolutionary fervor against the Roman oppressors that was so prevalent in Israel in the days of Jesus and Paul.  Paul, with an undoubted knowledge of the words of Jesus as were then being communicated as part of an oral tradition prior to the composition of the Gospels, and ears to hear, on multiple levels, the message that Jesus was communicating to His countrymen, makes the point to Jews here in Rome, who might be tempted to support or take up arms with their brethren in Judea against the Romans if and when the time would come, that a life outlook that is dictated by holding to those things of the flesh, especially those which ultimately represented a fervent and hyper-nationalism, is death. 

Conversely, the outlook of the Spirit---with its understanding that the kingdom of the Creator God was established through what Jesus the Christ and Lord had done, without the use of sword or shield, and in which He suffered all of the violence and death---caused a looking upon of all men that believed in Jesus as heirs of the blessings of that kingdom, infusing a Spirit-empowered love and missionary compassion to extend the kingdom of their God to all peoples by the preaching of the Gospel, and the eternal life and peace to be had in union with Christ.    

Finishing the thought that was begun in the sixth verse, Paul writes that “the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, not is it able to do so” (8:7).  If it is remembered that the law was designed to allow God’s covenant people to effectively bear His image and shine as lights in the world that would engender their God’s blessing and draw all men to their God so as to bring them under the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, while reflecting on the fact that Israel failed to uphold the minimum requirements of the law (resulting in destruction, deportation, and ongoing exile), and later turning the law into a barrier of hostility that effectively kept those that were not a part of Israel from entering into covenant, then one is able to understand why Paul speaks of the outlook associated with the works of the flesh as being hostile to God and not submitting to the purpose of God’s laws.  The law, which was not problematic in and of itself, was being perverted in its use, and could not serve in its intended capacity.   

So now it is better known why Paul would go on to write that “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7).  Based on this examination, one can be justified in reading this as “Those who insist upon the tradition-bound works of the flesh that serve to isolate the covenant God’s people, while serving to stoke revolutionary sentiment against the Roman rulers of the day, cannot please the Creator God.” 

There was a widely held sentiment in that day that the Creator God’s people must act on behalf of their God.  Unfortunately, thoughts about that action generally took the route of a need for violent overthrow and expulsion of the Romans from their land of promise.  This would ultimately result in the destruction of Jerusalem, which Paul, readily understanding what he would have know of Jesus’ words to this effect, foresaw.  Furthermore, this belies an underlying lack of trust in the covenant faithfulness of their God, and His power to do that which He had promised.  The adherence to the flesh was the basis for their inability to please their God, as can be gleaned from the author of the letter to the Hebrews, when one reads that “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (11:6a). 

Set Free (part 4)

Moving along to the fifth verse of Romans’ eighth chapter, it can be read, “For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh” (8:5a).  One has to work hard to resist the temptation to turn these statements inward and begin thinking about them in personal terms, thereby turning “things of the flesh” into those things that are generally defined as “sin” based upon nothing more than personal biases, prejudices, and preferences.  Doing this would do damage to Paul’s message and to the message of Christ as a whole.  The “things of the flesh” do not take upon themselves a new constitution as one reaches this statement, but must be understood  in the context already presented. 

That context is the covenant, the law, and the works of the flesh in which a fair amount of the Creator God’s covenant people (at the time of Christ and of Paul’s writing) were engaged for the purpose of separation and the eventual elevation of national Israel over the nations as the establishment of the expected kingdom of their God.  Therefore, when one reads about those who live according to the flesh, and understand that as living according to the works of the flesh (traditions that served as national boundary markers), then it becomes quite simple to understand that their outlook is shaped by the things of the flesh.  For so many, their entire interaction with the world was based upon the specific, nationalistic construct that had been created. 

For Paul, this would appear to stand in sharp contrast with “those who live according to the Spirit,” who “have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit” (8:5b).  Those who live according to the Spirit are those, both Jew and Gentile, that have moved beyond the nationalistic boundaries and associated desires, doing so by and through their recognition of, and belief in Jesus as Lord and Christ (Messiah).  This position of belief, as far as Paul sees it, is the result and evidence of the activity of the Holy Spirit---the same Spirit that delivered the power that raised Jesus up from the dead. 

Paul rather often points out that it is this that becomes known as union with Christ that is all-important.  This union with Christ, which is the believing, faithful allegiance to Him because of Who He is as proved by the Resurrection, is the new boundary marker of God’s covenant peoples.  It transcends the flesh (the old boundary markers of the covenant).  Owing to that, the all-important works of the flesh to which Israel has been holding no longer has a place of service in denoting the people of the covenant-making God.  In and through the Christ, there is a worldwide unity of peoples that form the kingdom of Israel’s God, where no division is necessary or even tolerated.  This, of course, can be seen as the fulfillment of the Creator God’s covenant with Abraham to bless all peoples through his (Abraham’s) seed (the Christ, Who can be understood as the faithful Israelite). 

Because this breaking down of all divisions, which reminds the Creator God’s people of the removal of the wall of hostility that separated them from Him, in which all distinctions are erased is such a radical concept for the world of his day (and any day), the people that live inside this new construct are said to live according to the Spirit.  Indeed, Paul insists that it must be the case that their outlook is shaped by the things of the Spirit, with the main thing of the Spirit being the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and His being shown forth as Messiah of Israel and therefore the ruler of the world through the now-inaugurated kingdom of the Creator God.  Since, as Paul presumes, one can only come to believe in such a ridiculous thing (a crucified man, who has been raised from the dead, is the world’s true King) through the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, via a faith that is somehow transmitted and brought about through the preaching of the Gospel, the only conclusion to be reached is that such an outlook, and therefore the responses of life that are dictated by that outlook, are shaped by the Spirit of God.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Set Free (part 3)

At that time, Israel was, for the larger part, observing the requirements of the law, but because it was being used as a boundary (keeping non-Israelites outside of the covenant) rather than as an aid to blessing the nations (bringing non-Israelites into the covenant), their God was still not receiving the glory that He desired.  Indeed, they were falling short, and seemed to be doing it willfully and proudly.  Jesus comes on to that the scene and condemns this sin of what was then termed as the “works of the flesh” (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath keeping --- what the “big three” of the law had become), which were being ardently held to as a means of identifying those that were truly God’s people and who would be the beneficiaries of God’s expected action on behalf of His people.  This apparently continued to defeat God’s ultimate purposes for Israel, for His creation, and for the people of a renewed Israel (from every tribe and tongue) that He had chosen for Himself from before the foundations of the world. 

The condemning of this sin of the flesh was brought about “so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us.”  This “righteous requirement” pointed to the plan, rooted in God’s covenant faithfulness (first revealed to Abraham so as to reverse that which was wrought by Adam), to extend His blessings to all peoples, doing so through the medium of His covenant people, functioning properly.  Through His faithfulness, represented by the faithful actions of His Messiah (Jesus of Nazareth), the Creator God was able to fulfill what it was that was required by His covenant, which was the creation of a covenant family that would encompass the peoples of the world. 

This covenant family would represent the living, breathing, serving kingdom of God, as in union with His Messiah through a trusting allegiance and belief in Him as the crucified and resurrected King of the entire cosmos, they would be a people willingly submitted to Him as Lord.  This submission would work itself out in countless daily actions, and it crossed all boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, and social status, showing itself as the anti-thesis of that to which Israel had been holding to through that day.

Rounding out the thought of the fourth verse of Romans eight, it can be seen that the righteous requirement is fulfilled in those “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  This reinforces the point that has been being made, in that the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated, not in those who wanted to set up systems and hold to traditions of exclusivity, doing this in accordance with the flesh (works of the flesh ---- circumcision, food laws, Sabbath keeping --- and there is no sense here of earning God’s favor or earning heaven); but rather, God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated by those that walk according to the Spirit.  Those that are apparently brought to faith and belief by the activity of the Holy Spirit, believing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, are a new creation in union with Christ.  The works of the flesh (circumcision, etc…) were now irrelevant in identifying those that were in covenant with the Creator. 

It is this new creation, empowered by the same Spirit that raised up Christ from the dead, that are those through whom the Creator God now works to continue to extend His covenant and bestow His blessings, with this accomplished first and foremost through the preaching of the Gospel (which must include crucifixion and Resurrection), which of necessity includes the living out of the Gospel.  As one continues to think about the works of the flesh that made for a continual separation of Israel from other peoples, one must also acknowledge that part of the work of the Spirit is the tearing down of those walls, so that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female---for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).      

Monday, February 25, 2013

Set Free (part 2)

The Scriptures tell the story of how the Creator God of Israel wanted to free a family of people beyond national Israel from the effects of sin and death.  However, this could not be accomplished because the law that was meant to help accomplish this thing, and which would have allowed the covenant people to live as lights to the nations (blessed by their God, being a blessing to the world, and causing all peoples to glorify their God) was unable to be kept by those to whom it was given. 

Again, the Scriptural narrative points to the fall and man having lost the ability to be the creature that the Creator had created him to be.  Even when Israel may have sincerely believed that their law was being kept with a rigorous and scrupulous minutiae (or primarily the big three --- circumcision, reverence the sanctuary,  keep the Sabbaths --- were being upheld), in the years following the return from the Babylonian exile, through the time of Christ, this purpose of God for the world through His people was still left unaccomplished, because the intention of the law was being weakened through flesh.  It was not being used as a means of attracting the nations, in full display of the blessings of providence, but instead was being used to keep Israel separate from the nations. 

In that time, by and large as indicated by the historical record of that post-exilic, pre-Christ period, Israel was looking to its own house, looking for its own messiah, its own restoration, its own deliverance from exile through a new exodus, and its own new kingdom through which they would be set above all nations.  They were looking for and expecting their God to act on their behalf, and only on their behalf, so as to set the world right according to their view.  Because of that, the provisions of the law were being used as boundary markers and walls of separation.  Essentially, Israel was unwilling to carry out God’s purpose and plan for the law, which was to magnify Him before all peoples because of the blessings that He would bestow upon His people for their adherence to it.  Instead, they took that which was intended to make them a light to the world and essentially hid it under a basket.     

In Jesus’ day, and no less in Paul’s day, with the law having been turned into a boundary marker that separated Israel from the surrounding nations, Paul insists that the Creator God necessarily and effectively relieved the condemnation for sin which was death, “By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3b).  Here, we note Paul’s use of “Son of God” terminology, bearing in mind the introduction of his letter, in which he sets forth the Gospel message, writing about the Son “Who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh, Who was appointed Son-of-God-in-power according to the Holy Spirit by the Resurrection from the dead” (1:3b-4a).  This descent from David, appointment to King-ship (Son of God being a royal, kingly term for Israel’s messiah, and not necessarily the second person of the Trinity), and Resurrection from the dead, therefore showed Him to be “Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:4b).  Better said, He was shown forth to be Jesus, the anointed one of God (Christ/Messiah), Who is now the Lord of all the earth, with all authorities and powers subject to Him. 

Returning to the eighth chapter of Romans, it is found that “concerning sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3b-4).  One must carefully work through Paul’s thought process.  To begin, one is required to get a firm grasp on “sin” as it is here presented.  Sin is that which causes one to be less than fully human.  Sin is that which defeats a human being from bearing God’s image and thus not reflecting His glory into the world.  As has been said, among other things, His own glorification was the Creator God’s intention for those that He created to bear His image, so as to steward and remind the creation of its God at all times.  The law was given to aid His covenant people in this endeavor, but when given this opportunity, Israel failed. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Set Free (part 1)

For the law of life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. – Romans 8:2  (NET)

The Apostle Paul pens this statement as a follow up to the statement of the first verse of the chapter, where it is read that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).  In these two verses, he twice uses the extraordinarily important phrase “in Christ Jesus.”  It is in Christ Jesus, that is, in union with Christ Jesus, which can be summed up as a believing allegiance in Jesus the Christ as Lord of all, which has come about through the preaching of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord of all) that strangely transmits the power of God unto salvation.  That salvation (in its many facets and implications), indeed, is the setting free from the law of sin and death. 

In union with Christ, and therefore being made to share in the restorative, re-creating power of the Resurrection (the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven), the believer, like Israel from Egypt, is dragged out of his exile from God.  The one who believes in Jesus as Lord is converted, if you will, from being outside of His covenant family, to being inside His covenant family.  This conversion and new covenant status is based on allegiance to Him that is demonstrated through the confession of Jesus the Christ as Lord and Savior.  Outside of the covenant family, one is unable to rightly bear God’s image.  Inside the covenant family, because one is in union with Christ, as demonstrated by calling Him Lord, which is the mark of the renewed covenant people of God, the believer has ultimately overcome the final exilic curse of death, because Christ overcame death. 

In the next verse, Paul goes on to write “For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh” (8:3a).  Of course, it is understood it was God’s people, Israel, that were given the law.  Why were they given the law?  Ultimately, it was to bring the Creator God glory by rightly bearing His image into the world, which, according to the Scriptural narrative, was the charge laid upon Adam.  This would reflect the glory of the Creator God into the world, gathering up His praises from the whole of the creation.  Israel was given the law as a way to approach that which the Creator God had intended for humanity, but which had been rejected and lost in the fall. 

Unfortunately, at the fall, not only was mankind ejected from off of the path of God’s purpose for the beings that He created in His image, but the power necessary to adequately bear that image and properly steward the creation and shine the light of God’s glory into the world was lost as well.  Owing to their exodus and what accompanied it, Israel was in a better position to fully trust their God than was the rest of humanity, because of what they had seen and experienced at God’s hand owing to the covenant promises that had been made to Abraham, but their story is largely one of a failure to trust.  The covenant people (like Adam in a sense) failed to perform at the level of minimum expectation (no idolatry, reverence the sanctuary, keep the Sabbaths), and thus they failed to bear God’s image in the world. 

The Creator God had intended for His people to be a light to the nations, to illumine the world through the knowledge of the blessings that their God would pour out upon them simply for being people that were faithful to the their covenant responsibilities.  Owing largely to their idolatry (which resulted in their inhumane treatment of one another, according to the prophets) however, and the curses and exile that God brought upon His people---as promised if they succumbed to idolatry---Israel became a people that profaned the name of God.  The nations looked upon Israel’s experience and responded with mocking and ridicule.  Israel was to lead people to the knowledge of the providential, creative, and covenant God, and was to be a source of blessing not just for themselves, but for all the peoples of the world.  The law was to be a tool in their hands for this purpose. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Regarded As Nothing (part 2 of 2)

There were those in the synagogue in Ephesus who, as usual, rejected Paul’s preaching of “the Way” (19:9), so eventually Paul left the synagogue and took up his teaching “every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.  This went on for two years, so that all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the Word of the Lord” (19:9b-10).  Again, this Word of the Lord, as can be construed from the record of Paul’s preaching (as provided by Acts) and from his writing, would have been that Jesus is Lord.  That was the message of the Gospel, and that alone, as it seems according to Paul’s thinking, represents the message that would grow in power and prevail.  If one desires consistency with the text of the New Testament, there would need to be some level of agreement that there is no other message that could be described in such a way.    

Due to the apparent effectiveness of the preaching of the message of the Gospel, as it grew in power and prevailed, the previously mentioned Demetrius’ business was most likely suffering.  So he called a meeting of the craftsmen, “along with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that our prosperity comes from this business.  And you see and hear that this Paul has persuaded and turned away a large crowd, not only in Ephesus but in practically all of the province of Asia, by saying that gods made by hands are not gods at all” (19:25b-26).  This is where one comes upon his statement that “There is danger not only that this business of ours will come into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be regarded as nothing” (19:27a).  He concludes his statement with “and she whom all the province of Asia and the world worship will suffer the loss of her greatness” (19:27b).

In that day, this temple, which was considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world, had been in place for over five-hundred years.  As a significant place of worship, it drew thousands of pilgrims from all over the world.  It seems that the devotees of Artemis, as the goddess of Ephesus (whose temple was the source of much wealth and influence), could quickly fill a fifty-thousand seat theater, and when prodded, gladly shout “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34b) for two solid hours.  Nevertheless, the tireless preaching of the Gospel, of the foolish and confounding message of a crucified man that had been raised from the dead by the Creator God of Israel, was believed to be a threat to the temple and its goddess, with that threat thought to be able to reach the point that both would be “regarded as nothing,” and that the world would suffer the loss of her (Artemis) greatness. 

Surely, that speaks directly to the inherent, transformative, and world-shaping power of the preaching of the message of Jesus.  There is no message besides the message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised that has such power.  It is this message that goes forth by the Holy Spirit and transforms hearts and minds.  It is the message that Paul preached.  It was the message that Jesus’ disciples took into the world.  It is the message, supreme above anything else that could ever be preached or taught, that the devotees of the Jesus cult should be carrying into this world on a daily basis.  All other messages are secondary, and if the secondary message is not rooted in the Gospel proclamation (Jesus is Lord of all) and appended with the message of the cross and an empty tomb, then, at least according to the example of the Apostle, it may be considered to be rather frivolous.        

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Regarded As Nothing (part 1 of 2)

There is danger not only that this business of ours will come into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be regarded as nothing – Acts 19:27a  (NET)

The words above are reported to have been spoken by a man named Demetrius.  He lived and worked in the city of Ephesus.  According to Acts, his trade was that of “a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis” (19:24b).  With the way that his story is presented, it appears to be the case that Demetrius was quite the influential man in the city of Ephesus, as it was his instigating words that would nearly bring the whole of the city (using hyperbole) to the point of riot.  This influence, if it was indeed what it appears to be, was gained from the fact that he “brought a great deal of business to the craftsmen” (19:24c).  While also being a man of influence, he was also a man of awareness.  Like any good businessman, he kept abreast of current events that could have an effect on his business, whether for good or for ill.  Quite recently, as the story goes, an event had occurred in Ephesus that was of considerable concern to Demetrius.

Backing up a bit in the nineteenth chapter of Acts, one discovers the report that “God was performing extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands, so that even when handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his body were brought to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them” (19:11-12).  These things are taking place in Ephesus.  As would be imagined, such events would make quite the impression on those that were their witnesses. 

Apparently, these things that were taking place at the hands of the apostle Paul also served as something of an inspiration, as Luke reports that “some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were possessed by evil spirits, saying, ‘I sternly warn you by Jesus Whom Paul preaches’.” (19:13)  The reader can go on to learn, in fact, that it was seven brothers that were doing this very thing.  Fascinatingly, “the evil spirit replied to them, ‘I know about Jesus and I am acquainted with Paul, but who are you?’  Then the man who was possessed by the evil spirit jumped on them and beat them all into submission.  He prevailed against them so that they fled from that house naked and wounded” (19:16). 

What happened following this rather interesting event?  Again, not surprisingly, “This became known to all who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; fear came over them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised” (19:17).  Though the aspiring exorcists had failed in their invocation of the name of Jesus in order to cast out the evil spirit, the subsequent occurrences of their being overpowered still, oddly, seeing as how it was the voice of the evil spirit itself, had the result of bringing praise to Jesus.  This provoked a response on the part of the people which enables one to go on to find that “the Word of the Lord continued to grow in power and to prevail” (19:20b).  Naturally, this leads to the question, which must be answered according to the context of the narrative of Acts and Paul’s over-arching message, was what “Word of the Lord” was it that was growing in power and prevailing? 

That seems to be a rather simple question to answer, as it was obviously the Gospel that Paul was preaching.  The Lordship of Jesus was the sum and substance of Paul’s message, and it was highlighted by talk of the crucifixion (which would militate against Lordship) and Resurrection (which would aid in vindicating that Lordship).  Earlier in this same chapter, it is said that “Paul entered the synagogue and spoke out fearlessly for three months, addressing and convincing them about the kingdom of God” (19:8).  Paul’s preaching of the kingdom could not possibly be disconnected with His preaching of Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel, Who was the Son of God, Lord and King of the world (the Gospel).  Paul would not be preaching a kingdom without its King, that being Jesus; and apart from His crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus could not be spoken of as King.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Paul's Customary Preaching

Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he addressed them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, saying, “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” – Acts 17:2-3  (NET)

As the preaching of the Apostle Paul is examined, as it is presented by the book of Acts, it becomes fairly clear that his preaching of the crucifixion and Resurrection was the most important aspect of his message.  In this verse referenced above, the word “customarily” is used.  It probably has a four-fold application, in that it was Paul’s custom to go to the synagogue, as he did here in Thessalonica; that he addressed them from the Scriptures; that the purpose of his addressing them from the Scriptures was to explain and demonstrate that the Christ had to suffer and also rise from the dead; and that Jesus of Nazareth, the Man whose death had been ordered by Pilate, was the Christ. 

Paul preached the Gospel (Jesus is Lord).  It is the witness of the New Testament that it is the preaching of this message that changes hearts and minds.  The writings of the earliest believers and followers of Jesus seem to make it clear that in the preaching of the message that Jesus is the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel and Lord of all, the power of the Creator God goes forth for salvation (deliverance, forgiveness of sin, exodus, new creation, etc…).  It is insisted that it is in the preaching of this message that faith (allegiance to Jesus) is stirred and belief is established.  That is why the specific message of the Gospel is foundational.  That is why, echoing the statement from Acts, this message can be seen to be the single most important theme in all of Paul’s writing (the written version of his preaching), and why it ultimately forms the basis for one’s ability to understand the message of the entire Bible. 

For some reason (Paul insists that it is the power of God), preaching Christ crucified and resurrected, regardless of how ridiculous this may seem, is the message that persuades people.  This can be seen when one goes on to read that, following Paul’s proclamations concerning the Christ, “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (17:4).  This, of course, is deemed to be the work of the Holy Spirit, as it is the Holy Spirit that moves one to a confession of Jesus as Lord (which is part of what the declaration of Him as Messiah entailed), as well as to a place of believing something so absurdly foolish (especially for the Greeks) as a man rising from the dead after being subjected to a Roman crucifixion.  Nevertheless, the believer is forced to realize that it is the preaching of this Gospel message, owing to the power  that lies trangely therein, that persuades and inspires this cherished, all-important belief.

Naturally, not all were persuaded, as one immediately discovers that “the Jews became jealous…and set the city in an uproar” (17:5).  After the meeting in the synagogue had disbanded, because of their purported jealousy, they went looking for Paul and Silas, but were unable to find them.  Not being able to locate those dangerous preachers, the mob instead dragged Paul and Silas’ host (a man named Jason) “before the city officials, screaming, ‘These people who have stirred up trouble throughout the world have come here too…  They are all acting against Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king names Jesus!’” (17:6b-7) 

This serves well to point out the nature of the message of Jesus as Messiah.  This was not just a spiritual proclamation in which Jesus reigns in heaven and in somebody’s heart.  This message of Jesus as the Christ included the proclamation that Jesus was indeed King --- the King of Kings.  The Jews said this to the city officials, not because they believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but because they were well aware of everything that was implied by the title of Messiah, which included his being the ruler of all the earth.  Those that preached Jesus as King were presenting Him as the King of God’s kingdom that had been ushered into existence at the Resurrection, with that kingdom composed of all those that believed the message of Jesus.  Furthermore, the message was not that there was “another king,” but that Jesus was “the King,” and that all kings were now subject to Him.

Because of the uproar, and quite understandably, “The brothers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea at once, during the night” (17:10a).  Not surprisingly, “When they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue” (17:10b), as that was Paul’s custom.  What did he do at the synagogue?  It is most likely, again because this was his custom and his call, “he addressed them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, saying, ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ’.” (17:2b-3)  We are told that “These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the Scriptures every day to see if these things were so” (17:11). 

This hearkens back to the foundational message, demonstrating the supreme importance of the preaching and understanding of the pure Gospel message of Jesus crucified and resurrected and shown forth to be the Son of God (a kingly term, then applied to the Caesar) in power.  The Bereans are said to have searched the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said about the Christ, and therefore about Jesus, was true.  It appears that nothing was more important than understanding Who Jesus was, along with the fact of, and what was implied by His being raised from the dead.  Together with this, one must be sure to note the power of God that is once again on display through the singular preaching of this message, together with the searching of Scripture, as it is said that “many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men” (17:12).          

Monday, February 18, 2013

This Man's Blood (part 2 of 2)

As Acts reports, the disciples having been instructed by the angel of the Lord in association with their being freed from the jail, these appointed apostles of Christ were said to have “entered the temple courts at daybreak and began teaching” (Acts 5:21b).  This was in obvious contradiction to the directive that had been given to them by the council.  The apostles are reminded that “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this Name” (5:28a).  That is followed by the declaration of “Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this Man’s blood upon us” (5:28b).

Peter and the others responded to this statement by saying “We must obey God rather than people” (5:30a).  Then, taking every opportunity to preach Christ and His Resurrection, the response continues with “The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, Whom you seized and killed by hanging Him on a tree.  God exalted Him to His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (5:30b-31).  Most importantly, they added “we are witnesses of these events” (5:32a).  Not only were they literal witnesses of these events, but they were called to be witnesses to these events---giving their lives (in life or death) to proclaim these things. 

Peter and the apostles were accused of attempting or intending to bring the blood of Jesus upon those whom were accused of putting Jesus to death.  When these “blood-bringing” words are read, the mind should be catapulted to Matthew’s Gospel and the scene of Jesus’ trial.  Standing before the people, Pilate says, “What should I do with Jesus Who is called the Christ (the Messiah)?” (27:22a)  The response was “Crucify Him!” (27:22b).  Pilate’s rejoinder was “Why?  What wrong has He done?” (27:23a).  However, “they shouted more insistently, ‘Crucify Him!’” (27:23b)  “When Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but that instead a riot was starting, he took some water, washed his hands before the crowd and said, ‘I am innocent of this Man’s blood.  You take care of it yourselves!’” (27:24).  How did the people reply to this act and statement of Pilate?  They said, “Let His blood be on us and our children!” (27:25b)  Clearly then, Luke (the author of Acts), was aware of the Matthean narrative of the trial of Jesus. 

So in both the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Acts, this statement about blood being upon them carries the same connotation.  In both cases, there is the implication of guilt, with either a willingness to bear it or a desire to escape it.  In Matthew, the people effectively say, “If we’re wrong about this, we’ll bear the responsibility.”  In Acts, the council seems to be saying, “We don’t want to bear this responsibility, but you are attempting to assign blame to us where none exists.”  Ironically however, when the council declares that “you intend to bring this Man’s blood upon us,” we can understand that as precisely what Peter and the apostles intended to do. 

The apostles, who are shown to be effectively spurred on by the Holy Spirit as witnesses, wanted to bring the men of the council under the blood.  They did not want to condemn them, or even get them to admit that they had made a huge mistake by condemning Jesus to death and allowing Him to be crucified.  They wanted the council to believe that this Jesus, who had been crucified, was now raised and exalted.  If they were to come under this blood themselves, by confessing Jesus as Lord and Leader and Savior, then the fact that they had been participants in His crucifixion would become irrelevant.  This belief and confession would be the mark of repentance from their opposition to the ways of God that had been espoused and pronounced by Jesus Himself.  This belief and confession would represent forgiveness of sins (an important concept for Israel), thus bringing to an end the exile from God’s blessings, because they were not in line with the new covenant requirement---believing in Jesus---in which these men found themselves. 

Yes, in effect, the Creator God wanted the blood of Christ to come upon them.  Here, one could borrow language from Ezekiel and hear God, through His witnesses, saying to these men, “I will make you pass under the shepherd’s staff; and I will bring you into the bond of covenant” (Ezekiel 20:37).  If one calls upon Christ as shepherd, and looks to His cross as His staff, then when His blood comes upon that person, the God of Israel brings that individual into the bond of His new covenant.

So yes, the apostles intended that the blood of Jesus come upon all people, be that the council, or the people of Jerusalem, or Judea, or Samaria, or the ends of the earth.  This would be accomplished in one way, which would be the power of the Creator God’s Spirit working transformation in hearts and minds, bringing people into alignment with His kingdom program, through “teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ” (5:42b). 

This Man's Blood (part 1 of 2)

Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this Man’s blood upon us! – Acts 5:28b  (NET)

As the book of Acts tells it, the statement above was ostensibly provoked by the fact that “many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles” (5:12).  In the very city in which Jesus was crucified, in which there would have been hundreds, if not thousands of witnesses to the fact of His crucifixion, “More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women” (5:14).  This is remarkable indeed!  The man that had been crucified, which was always the sure sign of failure when it came to messianic hopes, continued to have those that came to believe in Him as the Messiah.  Accordingly then, there must have been some type of tremendous and monumental evidence at hand to account for the fact that Jews in great numbers were coming to believe this thing, especially in light of the fact that, as Israel’s history repeatedly showed, the mark of a failed and illegitimate messiah was death at the hands of the enemies of the people of the Creator God. 

Consequently, this seems to clearly point in the direction of the fact that there had been a Resurrection from the dead; and thus, though it was well known that Jesus had been condemned by both the Jewish authorities (for the blasphemy that accompanied His messianic claims) as well as the Roman authorities (for confessing Himself as a King and therefore as a rival to Caesar and potential threat to the pax Romana), and had been executed as a result of the sentence of condemnation passed by both parties, the Resurrection served as His vindication.  Among other things, the Resurrection demonstrated that the God of Israel, by raising Him from the dead, had reversed the judicial decrees that had come down against Him. 

The reasonable conclusion to be made, therefore, was that since Jesus had openly confessed these things concerning His Messiah-ship and His King-ship, it was not a matter of Him being cleared from the guilt of the charges that had been leveled against Him.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Resurrection seems to have proven that what He had said about Himself was true.  According to Acts, it was the preaching of the Resurrection (following the ignoble crucifixion) that brought about the belief in Jesus, as the disciples of Christ “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the Word of God courageously” (4:31b).  The preaching of the Gospel---declaring that Jesus was the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel and Lord of the world---by the Holy Spirit, was and is the showing forth of the very power of God that manifests itself in faith’s confession of allegiance to Jesus and belief in His claims and way of bringing about the kingdom of God.

The apostles were jailed for making these claims.  Previously, they had been warned “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:18b).  Interestingly, we find that “the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy.  They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail” (5:17-18).  There is a depth of detail that asked to be noticed here, in that the apostles were obviously preaching the Resurrection of the dead, and it was the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection” (Matthew 22:23b), that had them jailed. 

In stark contrast to their being placed in jail for preaching Jesus and His Resurrection (for without a Resurrection, His teaching did not matter, as He would have been just another failed messianic pretender in a long line of failed messianic hopefuls), “during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple courts and proclaim to the people all the words of this life’.” (5:19-20)  They were specifically instructed to preach the words of this life, meaning, in all contextual probability, the fact that Jesus was alive, though the way of life presented by Jesus could certainly be indicated here as well.  They were not instructed to go and tell people about living a “Christian life,” but to preach the Gospel (Jesus is Lord), which is rooted and given its substance in the Resurrection of Jesus.          

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Solomon's Idolatry (part 2 of 2)

The fact that idolatry was one of the primary  the issue at hand in the tearing away of the kingdom from the line of Solomon, and its eventual division into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms, is reinforced by the message delivered to the man who would become the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel.  The prophet Ahijah speaks to Jeroboam, a man whom Solomon had made a leader of a work crew (11:28) and was thus one of Solomon’s servants, and says, “I am taking the kingdom from him because they have abandoned Me and worshiped the Sidonian goddess Astarte, the Moabite god Chemosh, and the Ammonite god Milcom.  They have not followed My instructions by doing what I approve and obeying My rules and regulations, like Solomon’s father David did” (11:33). 

Furthermore, Jeroboam is told, “I will select you; you will ruler over all you desire to have and you will be king over Israel.  You must obey all I command you to do, follow my instructions, do what I approve, and keep My rules and commandments, like My servant David did.  Then I will be with you and establish for you a lasting dynasty as I did for David; I will give you Israel” (11:37-38).  Naturally and not unexpectedly, following in the well-worn path of politically motivated assassinations that was (according to the Scriptural narrative) traveled heavily by his father, “Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam” (11:40a).    

So with the example of Solomon presumably fresh in his mind, and with the report of the receipt of clear instruction from the Lord through His prophet, what did Jeroboam do?  What was his first act as king of Israel?  “After the king had consulted with his advisers, he made two golden calves.  Then he said to the people, ‘It is too much trouble for you to go up to Jerusalem.  Look, Israel, here are your gods who brought you up from the land of Egypt’.” (12:28)  With this mention of Egypt, not only does he invoke memories of the disaster of the golden calf at Sinai, but couches the introduction of idolatry in the language of exodus, suggesting that Israel’s deliverance from real and potential enemies, and their deliverance from dominance by the tribe of Judah, was and will be connected with their worship of these idols, their newly minted gods. 

Thusly, it appears to be the case that the covenant people of the Creator God rarely ever learn.  With what seems like tremendous irony, it is almost immediately that Jeroboam engages in idolatry, while encouraging the people to do the same.  This is essentially the very thing that Solomon had done, and which had produced the result of Jeroboam becoming king in the first place.  We read, quite plainly, that this action by Jeroboam “caused Israel to sin” (12:30a).  That is, Israel is here reported to have traveled the same path that Solomon (and Adam) had traveled, submitting in worship to that which was created, willingly giving up their image-of-God-bearing-stewardship-over-God’s-creation.  Thereby, it would be impossible for them to fulfill their covenant responsibilities to be lights to the surrounding nations (as Solomon and Israel had been for a time) that would bring glory to their God.            

Friday, February 15, 2013

Solomon's Idolatry (part 1 of 2)

When Solomon became old, his wives shifted his allegiance to other gods; he was not wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord his God, as his father David had been. – 1 Kings 11:4  (NET)

As Solomon is reported to have “had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines” (11:3a), even though he was the king in a deeply patriarchal society, it is wholly unsurprising to find that “his wives had a powerful influence over him” (11:3b).  Israel’s God had warned His people that such entangling relationships “will surely shift your allegiance to their gods” (11:2b), but Solomon, unfortunately, is said to have not taken heed to this warning. 

He had been very much a king in the mold that the God of Israel had intended for His covenant people.  According to the Scriptural narrative, the Creator God had made Solomon something of a shining light.  It can be read that God had granted him “firm control of the kingdom” (2:46b), while also giving him “supernatural wisdom to make judicial decisions” (3:28b).  During his reign, “The people of Judah and Israel were as innumerable as the sand on the seashore” (4:20a), which is a hearkening voice to God’s covenant with Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth, reminding the reader that all of Israel’s history must be viewed within the falling shadow of the covenant promises to Abraham.  In what is most likely designed to be another allusion to the promise that Abraham’s descendants would bless all peoples, we find that “People from all nations came to hear Solomon’s display of wisdom; they came from all the kings of the earth who heard about his wisdom” (4:34). 

With that, the eyes of the reader (and the ears of the hearer) can be rightly drawn (and alerted) to the second Psalm, where it is read, “So now, you kings, do what is wise; you rulers of the earth, submit to correction!” (2:10).  In many ways, it is Solomon that provides the model for Israel’s messiah; and the reported flourishing of the Creator God’s people under his rule points to the blessings bestowed upon the people of God in union with His anointed Messiah (Jesus the Christ).  Yes, “King Solomon was wealthier and wiser than any of the kings of the world.  Everyone in the world wanted to visit Solomon to see him display his God-given wisdom” (10:23-24).  Thus, Solomon was indeed a shining light of the God of Israel’s glory, on display for all of the world to see.

But then, the story of Solomon breaks from this glorious path, with a descent into idolatry.  This is not unlike the story of Adam (who is often looked to as a microcosm of Israel), who was created to be, and initially function as a shining light for the glory of the Creator God, rightly bearing His image, but who can be understood to have descended into an idolatry of self.  Thus it could also be said that Solomon too is a microcosm of Israel.  This makes sense and provides a natural symmetry, at it is Adam, Israel, and then Solomon who are referred to in the Scriptural narrative as sons of the Creator God. 

Looking at Solomon specifically, it is seen that “The Lord was angry with Solomon because he had shifted his allegiance away from the Lord, the God of Israel, Who had appeared to him on two occasions” (11:9).  By his idolatry, Solomon had broken faith (shifted allegiance).  He had violated the primary terms of God’s covenant with His people, which were to avoid idolatry, to reverence His sanctuary, and to keep His Sabbaths.  His entrance into idolatry is the context for his God coming to him and saying, “Because you insist on doing these things and have not kept the covenantal rules I gave you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant” (11:11b).  With that, “The Lord brought against Solomon an enemy” (11:14a).  It becomes quite clear that this can be looked upon as a repetition of the stories of Adam and Israel

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In My Distress (part 2 of 2)

The Psalmist continues, writing “For I have lived temporarily in Meshech; I have resided among the tents of Kedar” (120:5b).  Not that we mix the Gospel stories and interpret one according to another (though John’s Gospel almost certainly comes well after Matthew’s Jesus narrative has been established and relatively fixed, and could thus be influenced by its telling), but recognizing that all of the Gospels would almost certainly have drawn from and been shaped by the traditions of the Psalms, in John’s Gospel it is written that “the Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (1:14a).  A literal translation could read that the Word, that being Jesus for the Johannine community of believers, “tabernacled among us.”  Thus, “temporarily” and “tents” takes on added significance.

The tabernacle, of course, was the temporary tent in which the God of Israel took up His residence among His people.  When that God took up temporary though necessary residence in a tent of flesh, “by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature” (Philippians 2:7b – a pre-Gospel composition understanding of who Jesus was, that would have undoubtedly shaped the way that the Gospels would have been composed, preserved, and transmitted), He would become that which He had created in His own image.  So it became understood, quite early, that the God of Israel, the Creator God of the whole of the cosmos, temporarily took upon Himself the form of that which was precious in His sight.  This is reflected in the use of the Hebrew word “Meshech,” which has the meaning of “precious.”  He also took flesh upon Himself and “resided among the tents of Kedar.”  “Kedar” means “dark” or “darkness.” 

With all of this said, one can now look to this particular Psalm armed with an overt understanding that Jesus’ mindset, as a member of Israel, would have been at least partially shaped by the Psalm-ic tradition, and hear the Lord Jesus speaking directly as it is read, “For too long I have had to reside with those who hate peace” (120:6).  In considering this hatred of peace, one must contemplate the recent history of Israel in the time of Jesus.  That history, leading up to, during, and following the time of the presence of the Christ was littered with those that attempted to accomplish God’s will through force of arms.  A large part of that history shows that Israel did not want to love their enemies, pray for those who persecuted them, or go the second mile when the Roman soldier legally requisitioned them to carry his pack for one mile.  Peace, as Jesus saw it and pronounced it, would have been anathema to many that would hear His message and observe His acts.   

For too many of the people, Jesus represented little more than another chance at revolution and overthrow.  He was indeed that chance, but not in the way that so many of His fellow citizens desired.  He was there to overthrow death and to deliver God’s people from the exile of failing to bear Him image and to be lights for His glory, through the ushering in of the kingdom of heaven on earth.  The way that He intended to bring this about, which encompassed an act of self-sacrifice, was truly revolutionary. 

One can only imagine how many times the people, having heard the words and experienced the miracles of Jesus, attempted to make Him king by force.  To that, those that are committed to hearing and living the words of Jesus, can regretfully hear Him join with the Psalmist and say, with great frustration and wrenching of heart, “I am committed to peace, but when I speak, they want to make war” (120:7).     

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In My Distress (part 1 of 2)

In my distress, I cried out to the Lord and He answered me. – Psalm 120:1  (NET)

Because those that believe in Jesus properly read and interpret the message of Scripture through the lens of the Christ-event, in this Psalm, it is possible to see and hear Jesus.  The Psalm begins plaintively.  As these words are read in the searching light of the life of the one that is called both Lord and Savior, He can be heard saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you!  How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!  Look, your house is left to you desolate!” (Matthew 23:37-38)  Surely, these words that are presented as part of Matthew’s Gospel, and as part of his particular presentation of the Christ, can be heard as something of a cry of distress on the part of Jesus.

The Psalmist writes, “I said, ‘O Lord, rescue me from those who lie with their lips and those who deceive with their tongue’.” (120:2)  With that heard, a turning again to the Matthew will allow for Jesus to be heard saying “Hypocrites!  Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, and they worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’.” (Matthew 15:7-9) With these words, not only is Jesus calling the prophecy of Isaiah to mind (not simply quoting Scripture to make a point), but it is quite possible that He is also, like Isaiah, drawing from the tradition of the Psalms as well.  

Looking a bit forward again to the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus can be heard repeatedly pronouncing “Woe to…experts in the law and you Pharisees,” doing so before reaching the words of that chapter that are quoted above (in the first paragraph).  Having uttered these cries of “woe” throughout chapter twenty-three of Matthew, the twenty-fourth chapter begins with Jesus’ declaration in regards to the Temple, that “not one stone will be left on another.  All will be torn down!” (24:2b).  With that, one could revert back to the Psalm, where the question is posed, in regards to those who lie and deceive, as to “How will He severely punish you, you deceptive talker?” (120:3) 

The answer given is “Here’s how!  With the sharp arrows of warriors, with arrowheads forged over the hot coals” (120:4).  The experts in the law and the Pharisees (really the Temple authorities when the sweep of Matthew’s presentation is taken into account)---the blind guides that continued to lead the people of Jerusalem and all of Israel astray as they ultimately stood against Jesus---would most certainly come to experience the arrows and the arrowheads of Rome’s re-subjugation of their land during the revolt of 66-70 A.D.  In that time, Jesus’ words of “All will be torn down” were certainly brought to pass.  As Jesus looked forward to these things (foreseeing the inevitable result of the path that Israel continued to travel), the Psalmist’s simple declaration of “How miserable I am” (120:5) can certainly ring true.  Matthew presents Jesus as one who mourned over Jerusalem, and as one who wept for His people.  He wanted His people to understand His message and the privileges of their covenant, but they did not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Christ's Peace (part 2 of 2)

It is possible to see further evidence that Jesus might very well have been thinking of “peace” in the context that has been suggested when He appears before Pilate.  While standing before the man who represented Rome and its might, and having been questioned as to whether or not He was “the King of the Jews” (John 18:34), Jesus replied by saying, “My kingdom is not from this world” (18:36a).  Just as the peace He was going to provide was not going to come in the way that the world provided, so He was also not going to establish His kingdom as the world does. 

Elaborating on the point made, Jesus thus continued on to say, “If My kingdom were from this world, My servants would be fighting to keep Me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities” (18:36b).  Had they fought to establish Jesus’ kingdom, then the “peace” of that kingdom would have been achieved in the same way as the Roman peace had been achieved.  This peace, as can be seen when one glances through the history of the Roman empire, was not terribly peaceful outside of the city of Rome itself, as the years at which Rome was not at war or putting down rebellions in order to extend or preserve its peace were few and far between. 

Finally, providing a significant underscore to what He has insisted concerning His kingdom and the nature of what it brings, Jesus adds, “But as it is, My kingdom is not from here” (18:36c).  With this, He reinforces the point that He has just made, saying, “As you can see, I have no servants fighting for Me.  So yes, though I am a King, as you have said, My kingdom is dramatically different from any that has come before, is going to be established and inaugurated in a radically different way than you could possibly imagine, and it will be extended through the foolish means of telling people about the fact that I was crucified and raised up from the grave.”   

After His Resurrection, when Jesus appears to His disciples, the author of the Gospel calls attention to the theme that has been created, as Jesus revisits His talk of peace (with its underlying kingdom sensibility) says, “Peace be with you.  Just as the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (20:21).  Could this not have served as a reminder of words that He had previously spoken to His disciples in regards to the peace that He was leaving with them and giving to them?  His crucifixion had just taken place at the hands of the Romans, so it would have been quite natural for His disciples to be harboring a substantial measure of hostility towards them, hardly thinking of peace nor desiring peace to be visited upon them. 

In the midst of that possible mindset, Jesus comes to remind them that His kingdom was to be established according to His means.  He came and reminded them that they were to extend the knowledge of the Creator God, and of the Creator God as demonstrated through the mission of the Christ, to the peoples of all nations, including those very Roman soldiers that had nailed Him to His cross.  Indeed, to that end, the disciples would have had the very example that Jesus had provided them, not only in remembrance of His daily course of life in which He routinely engaged with Gentiles, but in that He had asked the Father to forgive those that were involved in the terrible ordeal. 

How could they do this?  How could they extend His peace?  At this point, all indications are that they were fearful of the Jews and angry at the Romans.  Clearly, Jesus was special.  Sure, it was easy for Him to say that they needed to put aside their fear and their anger, and to go out of that place with Jesus’ mindset of “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”  For them, doing this was going to be a bit more difficult.  It is understandable that Jesus would know this, so “after He said this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.” (20:22)  With that, a new creation (heavy Genesis/garden/Adam imagery at work here) springs forth, and His disciples were covenanted to carry the Gospel message of Jesus as Lord of all, representing the Creator God and His purposes of renewal and recreation, and of peaceful submission to Him and His claim to rule.  This would stand in stark contrast to the Caesar of Rome’s demand, at the point of the sword, to bow the knee in exchange for his version of peace.   

Christ's Peace (part 1 of 2)

Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world does. – John 14:37a  (NET)

In the Gospel of John, which is the only one of the Gospel records of the life and ministry of Jesus in which we hear these words, we find this statement from Jesus in the midst of what is considered to be a portion of His “parting words” to His disciples, before beginning what was going to be His arduous trek to the cross and the grave.  What would Jesus’ disciples have heard Him telling them with these words?  To what was Jesus referring to when He spoke here of “peace,” and what did He mean when He said that He would give it to them, but not “as the world does”?  Remember, Jesus Himself provides context for understanding what is meant by “peace,” as He insists that it is a “peace” that is not going to be given to His followers (those that believe Him to be the Messiah) in the same way as the world of His time commonly experiences “peace” and is made to understand the term.  

We need to be careful not to import modern or idealistic notions of “peace” into the text or the setting, thus it can be said that “peace” would not necessarily have been used here as some type of existential term, denoting a certain type of internal feeling about one’s situation in life or place in the world.  Indeed, “peace” would have had a more concrete referent.  It would have had a more substantial, robust, and true to life definition.  Most sensibly, the immediate context for its use would have been the way the word and notion was understood at that time. 

Perhaps most importantly, the “peace” of the day was the “pax romana,” or the “Roman peace.”  It was a day in which “peace and security” were much heralded.  That peace and security, however, was brought about through Rome’s military might.  It was a peace primarily achieved through violent conflict and bloodshed (though some would surrender to Rome before hostilities would take place----this only because of the knowledge of what Rome would do to those that stood against them).  Hence, this understanding of “peace” would certainly have been lurking in the background of Jesus’ words.    

There would also have been a widely held notion amongst Jesus’ fellow citizens concerning the shape that would be taken by peace.  In that day, it was the great desire of many Jews that their ancestral land be emptied of the hated Romans.  Consequently, many (but obviously not all) were looking to the miracle-worker and food-provider known as Jesus of Nazareth to lead the revolution (Jesus fit the mold in many ways---beginning in Galilee, the seedbed of revolutionary activity, announcing an agenda, and then moving on to Jerusalem), that would bring peace to their land that would materialize in the form of the expulsion of their subjugating enemies. 

To the great disappointment of many, not only would Jesus not bring this supposed form of peace to His people, saying that “I do not give it to you as the world does,” but He was intent on bringing a different type of peace, which would still have the effect of allowing all of His people---the ones that He said that the Father had given to Him---to overcome the subjugation of their greatest enemy, which was the one with which they would do constant battle.  That enemy bore the name of “death.”  Ironically, in order to bring about this different type of peace, Jesus would Himself succumb to death, apparently defeated at the hands of Rome and their means of capital punishment used against rebel groups that was designed to “keep the peace” amongst subject peoples, which would cause a great many to view Him as another failed messianic aspirant who had been overcome by the Roman “peace”.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Let Nature Sing! (part 2 of 2)

Believers eagerly await their adoption and redemption, when they will also finally be declared to be the sons of God (a name with a long history---Adam,  Israel, Jesus---which speaks a great deal as to the ideal that stands behind this usage), with this declaration becoming final when the believer fully experiences the power for resurrection that raised up Christ from the dead and gave Him a new, glorified body.  This is the ultimate hope of those that confess Jesus as Lord. 

When will this take place?  It will take place when the one called Lord, Jesus the Christ, the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel and Lord of the world (this is the essence of the Gospel message), finally consummates His kingdom and its attendant renewal of the Creator God’s once good creation.  This kingdom and renewal was inaugurated and set in motion when Jesus stepped forth from out of the grave.  This kingdom and this renewal will take place when the words of the Psalmist are taken up throughout the world, and it is truly and finally said among all nations, “The Lord reigns!  The world is established, it cannot be moved.  He judges the nations fairly” (Psalm 96:10). 

It is with this declared that the sky is encouraged to rejoice, that the earth is instructed to be happy, and the sea and everything in it are commanded to shout.  When this time of renewed creation takes hold, under the eternal Lordship of the Creator God and His Christ, which will be plain for all to see as every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, that all who long for that day will say along with the Psalmist, “Let the fields and everything in them celebrate” (96:12a).  Again, why will they celebrate?  They will celebrate because they will have been freed from their subjection, their thorns, and their thistles. 

Those that participate in the kingdom of the Creator God come to earth (which is happening whenever and wherever people speak and live as if Jesus is already Lord, and will happen in consummation on some great day) will say, “let the trees of the forest shout with joy before the Lord, for He comes!” (96:12b-13a)  Why does He come?  Not only does He come to finally bring in what is expected to be the glorious freedom of those that have come to be called His children, but “He comes to judge the earth!” (96:13b).  That said, it must be said that, according to the expectation of the Psalmist and covenant people of the Creator God (Israel), the Lord’s act of judging is not merely a casting down in condemnation, for their Lord also judges with liberation! 

The Lord judged Israel and delivered them from the bondage of Egypt.  The Lord sent forth His judges in Israel to deliver them from their bondage.  The Lord poured out the judgment of His wrath upon Jesus as He hung on the cross (Jesus representing Israel and so taking its curses upon Himself so as to fulfill Israel’s purpose and so usher in the new age), so as to deliver the whole of the world from the inescapable bondage of death.  Yes, when the Lord judges the earth, it is the final consummation of the judgment against death that was delivered through the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.  In that judgment, His children and His creation will be finally liberated from their long, dark night. 

Along with Paul, the Psalmist saw this clearly, as he would go on to write, “Let the sea and everything in it shout, along with the world and those who live in it!  Let the rivers clap their hands!  Let the mountains sing in unison before the Lord!  For He comes to judge the earth!” (98:7-9a)  If one has eyes to see, and are willing to put aside notions of the destruction of the earth in some type of cosmic conflagration, the message of God’s restoration and renewal of creation, because of His judgment, is written large upon the pages of His Word. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Let Nature Sing! (part 1 of 2)

Let the sky rejoice, and the earth be happy!  Let the sea and everything in it shout! – Psalm 96:11  (NET)

Let the sky rejoice?  Let the earth be happy?  Let the sea and everything in it shout?  We could probably agree that this is rather odd language.  Can the sky rejoice?  Can the earth be happy?  Can the sea and everything in it actually shout?  In the way we would think of such things, of course not.  So is this hyperbole?  Of course it is.  However, this use of hyperbole, and its use here in the Scriptures, also points to the eternal plan of the Creator God, and is an interesting contrast to what can be read in the eighth chapter of Romans.  There, the reader is given a glimpse into a situation in which the sky is not rejoicing, the earth is not happy, and the sea is not shouting.  We read “For we know that whole creation groans and suffers together until now” (8:22). 

This is more hyperbole, as it is understood that the creation does not literally groan (though natural disasters and plagues could certainly be looked upon in such a way).  Why does the creation groan?  It groans because “it was subjected to futility---not willingly but because of God who subjected it” (8:20).  As this is heard, one should not forget the exodus connotation to the text, with Paul alluding to the groaning of the Israelites under Egyptian bondage. 

Why was the creation subjected?  The Creator God subjected it because He gave dominion over creation to the being that He had created in His image, to tend the creation, to reflect His glory into the creation, to remind the creation of its Lord, and to gather up the praises of the creation (rejoicing, happiness, shouting) and return them to that Creator.  Man, however, by not trusting God and living up to his calling (covenant), brought the curse of death and decay upon his race, while also foisting that curse upon the creation.  So yes, the creation was subjected to futility.  It was cursed with thorns and thistles.  So it groans, as the Apostle says, “in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:20b-21). 

What is the glorious freedom of the children of the Creator God?  The glorious freedom is the eternal life (the life of the age to come) in which believers participate upon their confession of Jesus as King (the Gospel), and which his fully and finally consummated in their being resurrected from the dead in the same way that Christ was resurrected from the dead, as was understood by the earliest of Jesus believers. 

The glorious freedom, among other things, is a glorified body (animated by the life of the age to come) that experiences the Resurrection power of God, just as was experienced by Jesus the Christ, here in the midst of God’s creation (again, just like Jesus the Christ).  This is a state in which the believer is free from death and decay---free from sorrows, pain, and suffering (just like Jesus the Christ)  Paul insists, reflecting widespread and fairly standard Jewish hope concerning the eschaton, that the creation itself hopes for that freedom, in the same way that those “who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Light Of The World (part 2 of 2)

As one progresses through the eighth chapter of John, the final day of the feast is reached.  It is that day on which it is said that “Jesus stood up and shouted out, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me, and let the one who believes in Me drink.  Just as the Scripture says, “From within Him will flow rivers of living water”’” (7:37b-38).  With these words, Jesus quotes prophecies (and calls to mind entire sections of the writings as they are set within Israel’s historical narrative) from Isaiah and Zechariah that would have been considered to be unmistakably messianic in nature, as they were connected to God’s redemptive actions on behalf of His people. 

Accordingly, because of the messianic overtones of the pronouncements, along with what was known about Jesus, and the generalized expectation of a long-hoped-for divine intervention on behalf of His people, “When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, ‘This really is the prophet!’  Others said, ‘This is the Christ!’  But still others said, ‘No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does He?’” (7:40-41)  The record of this particular Gospel indicates that it was words like these, with their clear messianic underpinnings combined with Jesus’ seeming reluctance to conform to messianic ideals or to solicit the support of the rulers of the people, that prompted the chief priests and Pharisees to want to seize Jesus with the intention of putting Him to death.  In addition, it seems that, for them, this issue of Jesus’ place of origin was a sticking point.  With that piece of information alone, believing themselves to be fully cognizant of the full story when it came to Jesus place of birth and residence, His opponents seized on this piece of information.      

From there, the reader/hearer of the Johannine Gospel will go on to read about Nicodemus, who first made an appearance in the third chapter of John.  Nicodemus, who had obviously become a believer (probably owing to his interactions with Jesus), defends Jesus, saying “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” (7:51).  The response offered to this was “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you?  Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” (7:52)  There was a relative certainty amongst those that were taken to be learned in these things that the Messiah would not spring from that region, which brings us to our main point, and the fact that, with the elimination of the story of the woman caught in adultery, it is immediately following these words that the author has Jesus diffusing the entire “Galilee issue” by saying, “I am the light of the world.  The one who follows Me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12).  How so? 

Turning to Matthew (while acknowledging that John does not depend on Matthew, and that the two authors, or authorial communities, had different purposes for the story of Jesus that they told (though we could certainly expect the sweep of the Jesus tradition to have been in the mind of all of the authors, especially John, which is taken to have come last of the four Gospels), we find him quoting from Isaiah in regards to Jesus and the fulfillment of messianic hopes as he writes, “Galilee of the Gentiles---the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who sit in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned” (4:15b-16).  To “Galilee of the Gentiles” and the associated “great light,” could be added Simeon’s prophecy that is recorded in the second chapter of Luke, in which he calls the Messiah “a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel” (2:32). 

Thus, considering the passage in John again, while a believer is certainly likely to confess a certain knowledge that Jesus is the light and hope of the world, Jesus’ words concerning light in this context, provided further context by talk of Galilee,  were pronounced with a clear, prophetic and historical referent.  Thus, this was not simply a spiritual saying as it is so often taken to be, and it is not to be disconnected from the very realistic situation that Jesus was addressing.  By saying what He said, Jesus should be understood to have been making it clear that He was, in fact, the Messiah.