Monday, September 30, 2013

Only Son (part 15)

When a teacher of Israel, be it Nicodemus or Jesus, spoke of their God’s son, such language would not be restricted to thoughts of messiah and kingship, or to Adam alone.  Speaking in such a way would also direct one’s thoughts to Israel itself.  This would be in connection with Israel’s most powerful, popular, and deterministic story---that of the Egyptian exodus, which was believed to have been personally conducted by the Creator God via the instrument of Israel’s greatest leader, that being Moses. 

In the fourth chapter of Exodus, Moses is given his instructions.  He is said to have been told by the Lord God of Israel, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put under your control.  But I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go” (4:21).  This is the pretext for the especially important statement (for purposes of this study) that follows, which is “You must say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My firstborn, and I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’”’” (4:22-23a). 

So here, quite importantly, as it relates to the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, and what it is that Jesus seems to be attempting to communicate to Nicodemus about Himself and about His place within the Creator God’s long running redemptive plan for His creation, Israel can be found being referred to as the son of God.  With this, Israel, in a sense, is picking up the narrative from where it was left off by the first being to be recognized as the son of God, that being Adam. 

The son of God that was Adam, according to the story of Israel, was exiled from the garden and dragged all of humanity and creation down with him.  Here in Exodus the reader meets up with the son of God that is Israel, as they find themselves in an exilic state of oppression and subjugation.  This son, Israel, is going to be liberated from his bondage.  Following the liberation (essentially a restoration and a resurrection), this son of God is going to be brought under a covenant and given responsibilities related to that covenant.  That covenant comes to be known as “the law”; and the responsibility with which they have been charged, in essence, is to rightly bear the divine image and reflect their God’s glory into the world in such a way that it will cause all men to seek their God, especially as they see the blessings that are enjoyed by this particular people, Israel (understood as the “only son” of the Creator God). 

Israel was to be the representative of the Creator into the world.  Like Adam, they were given a realm of dominion that they were to occupy, in which they were to have dominion, and which they were to steward as a foretaste of the renewed creation to come.  Whereas for Adam the realm of dominion was the whole of the creation, Israel’s realm of dominion was the land that had been promised to them through the Creator God’s covenant with Abraham---the firstfruits of an entire creation that was to be redeemed (a microcosm of what would eventually come to be true, again, of the entire cosmos). 

There, in that place of dominion, they were to be fruitful and multiply.  Their successful occupation of their land, and all that went with it, would be accomplished by their adherence to the basic premises of the covenant, which were to avoid idolatry, to reverence the sanctuary, and to keep the Sabbaths that their God had ordained for them.  It was understood to be the case that if they succeeded in these areas, they would be blessed.  On the other hand, if they failed they would be cursed. 

On the whole then, this was a matter of trust.  In this area, Israel (son of God) would stand alongside Adam (son of God).  Adam’s successful occupation of the land would be accomplished by adherence to the premises of the covenant that the Creator God gave to him, which was to freely eat of all the trees of the garden, save one.  Blessing or cursing would result.  Of course, the narrative record indicates that Adam chose to violate the covenant, so it would be the curse (rather than the blessing) that came upon him and the creation. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Only Son (part 14)

Eternal life, therefore, must be understood to be a part of the Creator God’s intentions for the beings that He created in and as His image, as well as the creation over which that being was set in rule.  For man, this can be extrapolated from the existence of the tree of life and the point made to bar the way of the fallen image-bearer from accessing the tree.  For the creation, this can be extrapolated from the insistence that all of the creation fell from a state of eternality of life when Adam (its steward) fell. 

The Apostle Paul would seem to be making an explicit reference to this type of understanding in the eighth chapter of Romans, when he writes that “creation was subjected to futility---not willingly” (8:20a), while also going on to make the point that the creation awaits a time of restoration when it “will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:21).  If only Adam had believed the Creator---trusted, relied upon, adhered to the commandment while believing in the associated promise---it could be surmised that neither he nor the creation would have experienced decay and death.  If he had believed, he would not have perished. 

Having covered so much ground, and having done so much to at least partially construct a more appropriate mindset in which to hear the words of Jesus, it is now possible to connect some of the dots, discovering part of what is being communicated in the Nicodemus/Jesus dialogue, and interpreting John 3:16 in light of the experience of Adam as revealed in the Hebrews Scriptures and as told as part of Israel’s historical self-understanding and as part of their God’s overall purposes for mankind, to which Jesus appeals in order to legitimate His mission as that of the promised and long-awaited Son of Man. 

The Creator God indeed loved the world that He is understood to have created and set in order.  He loved it so much that He made a being in His own image (as His image)---a son---and placed that being in the world.  As part of His creation, He also loved this son.  He is understood to have given that son responsibilities and a commandment, asking that son to believe in Him, so as to be able to faithfully and rightly perform His duties in the world, before his Creator.  If that son did in fact believe in the God that had created Him and given him his position, then we would have eternal life.

If he did not believe in his Creator, and did not exhibit trust in His word such that he did not live up to the terms of the covenant that had been set for and with him, then the result of that dis-belief and the forsaking of His expressed purpose in and for the world, would be that He would perish.  His fate would be shared by the much loved realm over which he had been set.  He would be exiled from that place of purpose, forfeiting access to that which granted eternal life, which, in reality, is the unbroken relationship with the Creator as His exact image, and thereby losing eternal life itself.  What ultimately perished was trust, and therefore his union with his Maker, which was the source of that life.  Quite naturally then, to perish at the hands of death was the only logical result.  Such was the history of the Creator God’s initial sending of His son into the world.  Coming to grips with this provides a portion of the much-needed framework for an understanding of Jesus’ mission. 

With all of this said and hopefully absorbed, one becomes able to more effectively peer into the historical context that surrounded these famous words of Jesus, reflecting on the fact that the Creator God’s love for the world, His sending of His Son, the necessity of belief, and the subsequent reception of eternal life, could and would cause Nicodemus to hearken to the “beginning of the story,” and the story of Adam and his fall.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Only Son (part 13)

In the twenty-sixth verse of the first chapter of Genesis, after God has pronounced everything as good and established an order in this world that He so obviously loved, He takes one final step and says “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). 

Yes, the Creator God loved the world, and He showed forth that love by creating a being in and as His own image that would reflect His glory into the creation and be a reminder of His creative power and His rule.  He created Adam.  He sent the one originally understood, as part of the story of the covenant people, to be His one and only son into the world to rule the creation in proxy for Him.  If this is understood, then the one that has that understanding is one step closer to appreciating the full impact of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. 

Genesis insists that “God created humankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them” (1:27).  Furthermore, in relation to being created in and as the image of the Creator God, so as to bear that image in and for the whole of the creation, the language of covenant is employed when the author confirms that “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply!  Fill the earth and subdue it!” (1:28a)  What follows from that report is rounded off with “God saw all that He had made---and it was very good!” (1:31a) 

So humankind (Adam) is given a charge by their Creator.  It could easily be said that the covenant God of Israel loved His good creation (world).  Owing to that love, He created a son (Adam) in His own image and sent that son into the world with a specific purpose.  What was that purpose?  It was to rule and steward and subdue and represent the Creator to the world.  Ultimately though, there was something underlying all of that.  The foundation on which those purposes rested was belief.  It was trust. 

Trust in what?  “The Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:16-17a).  This was an obvious commandment and a test.  The Creator God loved the world and sent His one and only son into the world, and set up a perimeter to see whether or not His Son would follow the commandment as part of the charge to be reflect his Father’s glory into the world.  Would the word of the Creator be believed?  Of course, all live with the sad result of the failure associated with this relatively simple commandment, which was that it was not something to which Adam (the one originally thought of as the son of God) adhered. 

The corollary to the Creator God’s commandment to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is well known, as it was said “for when you eat from it you will surely die” (2:17b).  Genesis reports that Adam, as the divine image-bearer, had been offered up the fruit of every tree of the garden, save one.  One of those trees was the tree of life (2:9).  When Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden after violating their God’s clear commandment (thereby finding themselves outside of their God’s purpose for them), careful attention is paid to this tree of life. 

This demonstrates that the tree of life is of special concern to the Creator God, thus it is said that “When He drove the man out, He placed on the eastern side of the orchard in Eden angelic sentries who used the flame of a whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life” (3:24).  This is explaining in the report of the Creator saying “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (3:22).  Clearly then, it is being communicated that the covenant God did not want His now fallen image-bearer to live forever in a state of corruption, so He made a move to limit access to the tree of life.  Apparently, it is to be taken that the fruit of this tree was designed to render possible such an eternal existence. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Only Son (part 12)

Not only would these things be foreign concepts, but they also represent something of an inward, anthropocentric focus, whereas Israel, and especially Jesus, had a theo-centric focus, being fully concerned with what their Creator God had done, was doing, and was going to do for His people and for the world that He had created and that they understood He had promised to redeem and renew (beginning with their own land). 

Though it’s often difficult for the contemporary, western, individualistic mind to grasp, their eyes were cast upon their God and His plans and purposes, rather than upon themselves.  A “personal relationship with God” would have been an odd thought, and the notion that “God has a special plan for my life” would likely not have been on the table.  The covenant people were defined by, and defined themselves by the community, the role of the covenant people, and what their God was doing to do for and through the covenant people.  Naturally, the presence and operation of an honor and shame culture, in which one’s status was defined by the community, did not lend itself to isolated individualism. 

So even though Israel as a generalized whole thought about their God from inside the context of a separation from the nations, they certainly did not think about their God inside a counter-intuitive isolated individualism that was extremely personal in scope.  Now this is not to say that personal improvement, achievement, reflection, and excellence is not something that should be encouraged, or that it should not be valued, or that it is unbecoming for a believer (as individuals do indeed comprise a community), but it should be recognized that such thinking would not serve the purposes of their God that loved the world and sent His Son into the world because of that love. 

So if Adam is the son of God, how is one to think about him in light of Jesus’ statement which is so routinely thought of as nothing more than a self-referential evidentiary proposition that Jesus thought of Himself as the Son of God, and merely used this meeting with Nicodemus to inform him (with the author also informing his readers) that He was indeed the second person of the divine trinity?  Well, the answer lies in Genesis.  Israel’s God created the world. 

Regardless of what it was that was happening and is recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis, the fact of the matter, which was well-accepted by Israel and obviously by Jesus, was that Israel understood and insisted that their God was the Creator of this world, and that He was a providential God that held all things together by His power.  To them, He evidenced His presence by dramatic and powerful interventions in the affairs of the world, doing so primarily because He was a covenant-making-and-keeping God.  To that way of thinking, the very first verse of Genesis show forth a God that created the heavens and the earth (i.e. everything).  Together with that, the narrative goes on to present, over and over again, a God of restoration.  There is a consistent pronouncement, throughout the Genesis account and beyond (if one is attentive to it), that the Creator God saw His work as being good. 

In addition to that, from the very beginning one finds a God that speaks in the language of covenant.  In the first chapter, when God repeatedly says “Let there be,” this can be understood as an approximation of covenant language.  To get one’s mind around that, it is possible to think of the Creator God’s covenant with Abraham and hear Him saying “Let it be so,” as He declares the covenant that sets forth His purpose for Abraham, for His descendants, and for the world.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Only Son (part 11)

With Adam?  Is the reader of the Gospel supposed to think that when Nicodemus heard Jesus speaking of the Creator God’s love for the world, the Son of God, belief, and eternal life, that he was not only supposed to be having ruminations along the lines of the exodus (because of the reference to Moses), but that he was also supposed to connect Jesus’ words all the way back to the beginning of Genesis?  Is this what Jesus had in mind? 

The case has been made that Jesus is grounding this conversation with Nicodemus in the history of Israel.  Since Israel’s history and purpose is wrapped up with the Creator God’s purpose for the world, one can be fully justified in understanding that Jesus grounded His mission within His God’s purposes and plans that He would certainly have believed stretched all the way back to Adam, from whence His mission derives the fullness of its purpose.  Naturally, Jesus’ statement is multi-faceted, and this study is now positioned to explore the Adamic-oriented premise of these wonderful words. 

So how is it that Nicodemus is going to connect all of these things to Genesis?  How can it be insisted that Jesus is making the same connection?  It has to do with Jesus’ use of the “one and only Son.”  Turning then to the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke (though John is not relying on knowledge of Luke, Luke presents material that would have been familiar to a member of the nation of Israel, thus a modern reader needs to be able to position himself or herself to operate with the same type of knowledge that would have certainly been held by a Pharisee and member of the ruling council), the first piece of the puzzle can be found.  There, Luke provides the genealogy of Jesus. 

For purposes of the point being here made, it is not Jesus’ genealogy that is important, but rather the information communicated in the presentation of the genealogy that reflects what would have then been general knowledge within the defining narrative of the covenant people.  Luke’s genealogy begins with Jesus and works its way backwards.  For what it’s worth, there is another genealogy in Matthew.  It begins with Abraham and makes its way to Jesus.  Luke’s genealogy is more extensive, as it traces Jesus’ lineage beyond Abraham, taking it all the way back to Adam. 

Significantly, in his genealogy, Luke refers to Adam  as “the son of God.”  If Luke refers to Adam in such a way, one can rest assured that this is not a novel concept.  It is quite likely (and probably certain) that Adam is widely thought of in this way by those that fill the role of teachers of Israel.  If Adam is thought of as the son of God, then is it possible that Jesus is referring to Adam when He speaks of God sending His “one and only Son”?  One would have to respond that it is absolutely possible that Jesus is making such a reference.  This is especially so in light of the historically grounded lens through which Jesus is causing Nicodemus to look at Him and to consider the mission of the Son of Man, as He answers the questions that have been posed to Him by Nicodemus.  This is even more obviously the case when one takes the time to think about the fullness of Jesus’ statement, and that with which it begins, which is “For this is the way God loved the world,” which is followed by “He gave His one and only Son.” 

Again, it simply cannot (and should not) be imagined, when Jesus says this to him, that Nicodemus is supposed to connect the statement exclusively to Jesus.  If that is so for Nicodemus, then those that would hear these words through John’s report of them are most definitely not supposed to think solely along the lines of a personal salvation experience.  This would not have been the mental framework of Jesus, of Nicodemus, or of the author.  Such thinking would make no sense, as a personal, world-escaping salvation experience, contexted by the usual, short-sighted dichotomy between the alternative eternal choices of either heaven or hell, carried absolutely no theological weight inside the Judaism of that day.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Only Son (part 10)

How so?  What thoughts would Nicodemus have had upon Jesus’ use of these words?  Well, reference has already been made to the long-standing Jewish hopes of the kingdom of God, the resurrection of the righteous dead, and their God’s restoration of the fallen creation, but there is more.  It has been made quite clear that eternal life, as Jesus uses it (as a first century Jew) and as Nicodemus understands it (as a first century Jew), has nothing to do with the idea of escaping the physical world so as to enjoy eternity in a state of dis-embodied bliss that could only be enjoyed by soul and spirit.  No, that was Greek thought.  That was pagan thought.  To whichever culture such thinking is assigned, and though Jesus and Nicodemus (and the author of John) could certainly have been aware of that worldview, Jews were highly resistant to such ideas, and in general were fervently opposed allowing such ideas to creep into their particular worldviews.   

The dominant Jewish worldview affirmed the absolute goodness of their God’s perfectly created (though fallen) physical world, whereas the other dominant worldviews of the day (Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, etc…) largely held the physical world to be sub-standard and second rate.  Judaism, in large part (though there were groups like the Sadducees that denied this worldview, though their denial may not have been completely legitimate and deeply held, perhaps owing to the fact that they were in collusion with the Roman powers---this is significant because they were partially charged with keeping peace and tranquility in Israel, whereas the hope of resurrection and restoration was very much a motivating factor for Israel in their long-running opposition, both passive and active, to foreign dominance) stood against “other-worldliness,” and embraced a “this-world” view. 

It could be insisted upon with a great degree of certainty then, that when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God and eternal life, He is decidedly not speaking to Nicodemus about going to heaven.  In that same light then, the author would most certainly not be asking his readers to consider the possibility that Jesus is speaking about going to heaven, and thereby promoting an escape from this world---an idea rooted in so much anti-Jewish, anti-Biblical thought. 

How can this be known?  It can be known because “eternal life” is the language of exodus.  Exodus meant more than simply leaving Egypt.  Exodus, for Nicodemus (and for all who count themselves among the covenant people) meant rescue, deliverance, liberation, redemption, salvation, resurrection, restoration and more.  Eternal life as exodus was a powerful notion.  Exodus meant that Israel’s God was establishing His kingdom, through and for His chosen people, for the purpose of accomplishing His purposes for the world, through and for them.  Exodus meant that Israel’s God was not only rescuing, delivering, liberating, redeeming, saving, resurrecting, and restoring the beings that had been created to bear the image of the Creator and reflect His glory into His world, but it meant that He was doing the same thing for the whole of His world (and by extension the cosmos) as well. 

Therefore, it must be insisted upon that all of these things, for a first century Jew, when spoken and heard inside a long-running narrative by which a people defined and understood themselves and their place in the world, had a decidedly this-worldly reference.  Thus, when Jesus said these words, and when Nicodemus heard these words, the entire scope of the Creator God’s plan of salvation (exodus) was brought into the picture.  This plan did not begin with Jesus, but rather, with Adam.    

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Only Son (part 9)

When one speaks of Israel and the idea of resurrection, it is to be remembered that the resurrection of the righteous dead, which went hand in hand with the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth (of which Jesus has already spoken), was a prominent hope of the people of Israel.  There must be an awareness of the fact that the covenant people were not looking for an escape from this world, with an eye to joining their God in some type of far-off heavenly abode.  They were looking for their creative, providential, covenant God to fulfill His promises to His people, establish His kingdom with and through and for them, and in so doing begin the long-expected restoration of His creation. 

This is what Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, would have been thinking when Jesus spoke of eternal life, especially as Jesus did so in the context of the kingdom of God.  Eternal life was not something that was to be enjoyed after one’s life was over, “over there,” but in the midst of the creation.  The fact that Jesus puts an emphasis on His being lifted up, so that belief could be properly placed and that eternal life could be had, and doing this in connection with the Moses story, simply reinforces the long-treasured Jewish hope that was apparently shared by both Nicodemus and Jesus (probably along with the rest of Nicodemus’ compatriots).  
Jesus has couched the entirety of the reported part of His conversation with Nicodemus in the history and hope of Israel.  Naturally, this is the only way that it is possible to understand Jesus and His mission.  He has broached the subject of eternal life with Nicodemus, with this eternal life being connected to a trust in, essentially, the covenant faithfulness (according to the promises) of Israel’s God.  Having done this---set His words in the context of the long history of Israel, of Israel’s hope, and of the working of Israel’s covenant God, it would only makes sense that He is continuing to do that very thing when He goes on to say “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

In essence, this is a repetition of what was said in the previous verse, with the addition of “will not perish.”  It is very much akin to what happened in the story of Moses and the serpent.  It is for that reason that it is impossible to separate out this verse so as to make it seem as if it is only a reference to Jesus Himself, independent of what comes before and after, and independent of the entire story of Israel.  It is impossible to imagine that Nicodemus would have thought in this way (John 3:16 being isolated and standing on its own), and it is impossible to imagine that Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand it in this way.  It must, however, be a component of what Jesus wants to be understood, but if it is to be comprehended correctly, it must also fit well with the story that would have been playing out in the mind of Nicodemus as he converses with Jesus and hears these words. 

Removing this popular and important verse from its surroundings (both in the text and its historical context) devalues its content, as it rips Jesus’ life and ministry away from the roots from which it grows, is nourished, and is almost entirely dependent if it is to have true meaning and efficacy.  If this verse is removed from the historical context that has been provided, and seen only as Jesus saying that it is He that must be believed, so that eternal life (in the way that so many generally think of eternal life---going to heaven when upon death) can be had, then those that hear it or read it will miss out on the over-arching purpose and plan of salvation that the Creator God has for His world and His image-bearers.  Just as certain “trigger words” have been used throughout the conversation---words that would have assuredly sparked certain thoughts and ideas in the mind of Nicodemus (as a Pharisee, member of the ruling council, and “teacher of Israel), Jesus’ use of “eternal life” (twice) is another one of those trigger words. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Only Son (part 8)

The promise communicated to and through Solomon, long-cherished by the covenant people of the Creator God and recorded in the second book of the Chronicles, follows from the Creator God saying to Solomon “When I close up the sky so that it doesn’t rain, or command locusts to devour the land’s vegetation, or send a plague among My people” (7:13).  Significantly, this causes the promise to fit into the overall narrative, thus providing a context that is so often lost in much popular use, because when these things are mentioned, Solomon and those to whom these words would be communicated would naturally think of Egypt and the exodus. 

Connected to that, (and regardless of when these works reached their final form, as Nicodemus and his contemporaries, like the modern reader, would have been familiar with these texts as part of Israel’s historical narrative) it is likely that such things would also call to mind the Levitical and Deuteronomic curses that were offered up as Israel’s fate, principally for the sin of idolatry.  Because of that, these words would ultimately be tied to the idea of exile. 

So, making the connection, when the serpents (as recorded in the book of Numbers) attack the people, a people in the process and state of exodus becomes, briefly, a people in exile.  Returning to that story then, after Moses prayed for the people, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole.  When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.’  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived” (Numbers 21:8-9). 

Now, getting back to Nicodemus and Jesus, it would not be unreasonable to think that Jesus expected Nicodemus to have all of these things in mind, and that Nicodemus did, in fact, have such things in mind.  Otherwise, why would the author include this exchange in a story that itself would be so thoroughly dependent on the Israel narrative for its own meaning?  That considered, one is also reminded that Jesus spoke of believing in Him and having eternal life, just as was the case with Moses and the serpent (eternal life understood as the life of the age to come entering into the present---the idea of living forever in heaven would not here be present). 

Those that looked at the serpent did so, presumably, because they then believed their God and believed Moses.  Those who looked were healed.  They were snatched away from their brief state of exile, experiencing a new exodus.  Though many were said to have died, and though, to be sure, many more were going to die if their God did not mercifully intervene, those who looked at the serpent received something akin to a resurrection.  Their movement from exile, as they regained their exodus, was a movement from death to life. 

This analysis then helps to provide some context for Jesus’ usage of the story.  With this reference to the story of the poisonous serpents that were said to be a dramatic memory of Israel’s wilderness experience, Jesus would seem to be informing Nicodemus that the covenant people of Israel, in their own day, were in the same position as the Israel that was suffering from the bite of poisonous serpents.  They were not truly trusting their God.  They were not believing Him and aligning themselves with His kingdom ways.  They were a people in exile, in need of another exodus---a resurrection. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Only Son (part 7)

Returning to Jesus making reference to Moses and the serpent (John 3:14), it is in connection with this that Jesus first makes mention of believing in Him and having eternal life (3:15).  Jesus, who would appear to be referring to Himself as the Son of Man, compares His own coming time of being lifted up to that of the serpent in the wilderness.  Because of that, it is very much worthwhile to pay a visit to that story.  Not only is it worthwhile, but it seems to be highly necessary, as it would be well-nigh impossible to grasp what Jesus is communicating about Himself and about the eternal life that is on offer through allegiance to Him, without a basic understanding of that story. 

Even though Jesus mentions the story of Moses and the serpent to somebody that He refers to as a “teacher of Israel” (3:10), one can be quite confident that this was another one of those stories with which the whole of the people of Israel were quite familiar, and which they probably told quite often.  This should not be terribly surprising, as it is a story of which there is a general knowledge even in this day, as it is quite the dramatic tale.  Of course, it is often thought of as a story of rebellion and judgment and merciful healing, making it all the more memorable.  Assuredly, Israel remembered the story as well.  However, because it is ensconced within the narrative of Israel’s Egyptian exodus, it undoubtedly meant a great deal more to them.  

In the twenty-first chapter of Numbers one  is able to find the story of the “fiery serpents” and read “Then they,” meaning Israel, “traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient along the way.  And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we detest this worthless food’.” (21:4-5) 

Here is where the rebellion portion of the story is to be found.  The rebellion was against both their God and Moses.  It occurred in the midst of their exodus-related “wanderings” in the wilderness.  They had promises from their God and they had repeatedly seen mighty displays of His power, yet they are said to be complaining.  This, of course, is while they have the promise of a land of their own which had been long since promised to Abraham; and their exodus out of Egypt, with its attendant movement towards that promised land, was taken to be the realization of the very sign that had been promised to Abraham.  Still, they are shown to have doubted. 

Consequently, “the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died” (21:6).  This is the judgment, and it fell because the people were questioning the covenant faithfulness of their God that had already done so much to reveal to them His mighty hand.  “Then,” it can be read, “the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.  Pray to the Lord that He would take away the snakes from us.’  So Moses prayed for the people” (21:7). 

This should put the modern reader in mind of the famous words of 2 Chronicles 7:14.  Now, these words had not yet been spoken or written at the time of the serpent incident, as they were connected to Solomon and the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, but just as they are familiar to the modern reader, they would have been quite familiar to Israel and to the Pharisee Nicodemus at the time of Jesus.  The promise said to be made to and through Solomon was “if My people, who belong to Me, humble themselves, pray, seek to please Me, and repudiate their sinful practices, then I will respond from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.”  This is what can be seen from the people of Israel when they were being afflicted by the serpents, which demonstrates that the promise that the Creator God made to Solomon was already well-rooted in Israel’s history. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Only Son (part 6)

Now, putting aside the statements about being born from above and born of water and spirit, what would probably have been more significant for Nicodemus was Jesus’ multiple use of the term “kingdom of God.”  This would have been Nicodemus’ concern.  It is likely that this is what he was after---that which he desired to see.  To that end, he would be asking “Was Jesus the Messiah?”  Was He the One through Whom the Creator God of Israel was going to work to usher in His kingdom and set all things right? 

As one ponders the thoughts and emotions that these possibilities would have been potentially stirring in Nicodemus, his seemingly ludicrous response about a man entering into his mother’s womb and being born a second time (John 3:4b) almost comes off as an effort to focus on something besides Jesus’ talk about the great Jewish hope, with this being an attempt to obfuscate his own tremendous excitement at what this might very well mean for him, for his people, for their land, and for the world. 

The same thing could possibly be said about Nicodemus’ question of “How can these things be?” (3:9a)  Remember, Nicodemus was not necessarily there for a theological and philosophical dissertation.  He came, based on his relationship with Jesus, for a conversation concerning expectations.  He came for information.  The Gospel record attempts to make it obvious that Nicodemus wanted to know what Jesus thought about Himself.  His concern was the kingdom of God, and whether the God of Israel was now and finally fulfilling His long-standing promise through this man that had quite recently been so incredibly demonstrative at the Temple, and who was said to have done many signs while at the feast of Passover. 

This too is significant.  Passover is always crucial, and due to the crowds that the celebration would bring to Jerusalem, the events of Passover would regularly be seized upon for those wishing to draw attention to themselves and their causes by making grand, symbolic statements.  Thus, one should not lose sight of the fact that the signs to which Nicodemus is referring were being performed by Jesus in association with Passover.  Passover, of course, was the yearly celebration of the Creator God intervening on behalf of His oppressed people, conquering their enemies, and leading them out of Egypt (in dramatic confirmation of His promise to Abraham) under the leadership of their great deliverer, Moses. 

The juxtaposition of performing signs at Passover, combined with His actions in the Temple, would not have been lost on anybody who was in the least bit culturally and religiously aware, especially a Pharisee who was also a member of the ruling council.  A person doing what Jesus was said to have done, in conjunction with the feast that was conducted on an annual basis in celebration of the time when the covenant God gave His people liberation from their oppressors who were keeping them outside of the promised blessings of their God, was effectively declaring that he was, at the least, a messianic figure.  This could very well serve to inspire great hope and arouse great passions among a significant portion of the people. 

Naturally, this sparking of hope and passion could take different paths.  One path would be the establishment of the heaven-come-to-earth kingdom of the God of Israel, through a glorious display of His saving power against the enemies of Israel (not unlike that which was said to have been witnessed by the Egyptians).  The other way would be a rebellion that would inevitably result in being crushed by Rome, along with an executed messiah.  Accordingly, Nicodemus needed to know more from Jesus.  That is why he was there.        

Friday, September 20, 2013

Only Son (part 5)

Before one can attempt to delve into what Nicodemus is supposed to think when he hears Jesus say “This is the way God loved the world…” (John 3:16a), it is necessary to examine other parts of the conversation, as this is a building process.  Jesus does not just make this lone statement, but gets there over the course of a relationship and a conversation (of which we have only a glimpse).  In the Gospel record, Nicodemus has already spoken to Jesus about the signs that He is doing, with an indication of an assent on his own part that Jesus “has come from God” (3:2b).  Again, it cannot be said enough that this was a time of great expectation.  Israel is expecting their God to act on their behalf.  They are expecting some type of a messiah to make his presence felt. 

A widely-held (though certainly not exclusive) understanding about the messiah was that he would somehow be the physical embodiment of Israel’s God.  When Nicodemus speaks of Jesus as coming from God, Nicodemus speaks from within this expectation.  Nicodemus seems to be making a rather subtle inquiry as to whether or not Jesus was (or at least thought He was) the messiah.  His own words about the Creator God of Israel being with Jesus would seem to indicate that he believes that this is a strong possibility. 

How does Jesus respond to what Nicodemus says?  He responds by making reference to the Jewish, messianic hope that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was certainly going to fulfill His promise and establish His kingdom.  Keeping things simple, this would entail firstly the removal of Roman oppression, and secondly the subjugation of Rome to Israel, as Israel was to be elevated above all nations, with its messiah installed and recognized as king.  Jesus, presumably, is fully aware of the Jewish hope and would have shared in that hope.  Indeed, by His own words that are to come, one can see that He believes that He is fulfilling the Jewish hope of kingdom. 

In demonstration of this awareness of the kingdom hopes harbored by Himself and by His people, Jesus says to Nicodemus: “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3).  After a response from Nicodemus which serves to reveal just how truly puzzling this statement was, with its inclusion of being “born from above,” Jesus continues and says, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:5). 

Clearly, Nicodemus is confused by Jesus’ speech here, and one would have to imagine that he would not be alone in his confusion.  Even Jesus’ own disciples, though they are with Him all the time and had the chance to hear Him speak (and likely expound on His thoughts) on a regular basis, as He likely made similar intriguing and potentially confusing statements on that same regular basis, were routinely perplexed by what He had to say and found themselves in need of private explanations. 

Granted, as a Pharisee and an esteemed member of the Jewish ruling council, Nicodemus was no doubt part of the elite and educated citizens of Israel.  It is unlikely that he was an intellectual and theological slouch.  However, the Gospels report that Jesus routinely stumped even the most elite with His statements and His questions.  As he hears the words of Jesus, one can surely envision the confused expression that rested upon Nicodemus’ face, prompting Jesus to say “Do not be amazed” (3:7a) at these things that I have said to you. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Only Son (part 4)

As one attempts to gain a more thorough and properly rooted understanding of what Jesus means with the words that have come to be designated as John 3:16, it must be borne in mind that not only are the words offered in the context of what must be a larger discourse and long-running relationship between Jesus and Nicodemus (of which the author surely provides only a small portion), but that they are offered in a political, historical, cultural, social, and theological context as well.  So understanding the context will take quite a bit more than simply examining the verses that come before and after.  The context is far more complex than that.  Rather, the entire setting in which the words were spoken must be taken into consideration, which will allow the reader to gain an insight into the potential mindset of Nicodemus. 

This is to be done so that one can understand first what Nicodemus may have thought when Jesus spoke these words, and along with that, the things to which Jesus might be referring upon speaking these words.  Then, if this material has been traversed correctly, though relatively briefly (and certainly not exhaustively), the words will have a more correct and perhaps deeper meaning for the reader as well, as the way in which they fit into what it is that it is the great and over-arching plan of the Creator God for this world and for the beings that had been made in and as His image can now be properly grasped.

In the story as presented in this Gospel record, the very first thing that Nicodemus says to Jesus is “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him” (3:2b).  There is, of course, a great tradition of the giving and receiving of signs within Israel’s history.  Abraham asked for a sign from his God.  Moses asked for a sign that would demonstrate that the One speaking to him was truly the God of his forefathers.  Gideon would request and receive a sign from Israel's God.  There are numerous other instances of people asking for signs, so this was not simply limited to Jesus’ day and to the people of the time.  With his statement then, Nicodemus fits neatly into this long tradition.  First, he acknowledges that Jesus seems to be quite special, and then makes his reference to signs.  It is worth noting that, up to this point, the record of the Gospel of John does not have Jesus performing a large number of “signs.” 

What were the signs, according to what has been presented by the author, of which Nicodemus would be aware, and to which he would be making reference?  In the second chapter is the story of Jesus turning water into wine, which was not only miraculous on the surface, but was also a dramatic social and cultural statement by Jesus, centered upon meal practice, that did much to upend the honor and shame culture while also forever providing a cue to the followers of Jesus and what was to expected of them (the truly miraculous occurrence was not the transformation of liquid).  John reports that “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs, in Cana of Galilee.  In this way He revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11).  Following that, the Johannine narrative presents Jesus’ dramatic actions in the Temple.  It was this that drew the attention of the Jewish leaders to Jesus.  They said to Him, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” (2:18b) 

In response, Jesus speaks about the destruction of the Temple and its being rebuilt in three days.  He offered this as a sign.  The reader then goes on to find that “while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in His name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing” (2:23).  So it is possible to come to the conclusion that it is His activities in the Temple, together with the signs (symbols of Messiah-ship?) that He was performing during the feast, that prompts this particular conversation with Nicodemus.      

Only Son (part 3)

So what was it that Nicodemus was supposed to understand from these famous words of Jesus?  Almost undoubtedly, when Jesus speaks these words about the lifting up of the Son of Man, he is being self-referential.  However, two thousand years of familiarity with the story of Jesus should not be allowed to cause one to imagine that the self-referential nature of the statement was supposed to be immediately clear to Nicodemus.  To think such a thing would be an unreasonable assertion on the part of the reader. 

Additionally, to treat Nicodemus as anything less than a well-learned, well-respected individual, simply because of what seem to be odd responses on his part to the questions and statements that Jesus is reported to be putting to him, would be an unwarranted reading based on theological and doctrinal pre-suppositions (and unfortunately ill-informed prejudices), along with the tangible benefit of the theological treatise of the Gospel of John, back on to the Scriptures. 

One of the bottom lines that must here be recognized is that Nicodemus is no fool, though some want to take the path of portraying him as such.  When he is first introduced into the story, he is identified as a Pharisee.  Not only that, the reader is informed that he a “member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1b).  Too often, a caricature of Nicodemus as something of a less-than-fully-aware fool in the presence of Jesus, produces a similarly unfortunate caricature of the Jewish ruling council, all of which were too dense to recognize what was slapping them in their face in the person and ministry of Jesus.  It is to be remembered, that even Jesus’ disciples are shown to have failed to grasp who and what Jesus was. 

So as a Pharisee, Nicodemus would not only have been well-versed in the history of Israel, but he would have also stood as a guardian of its covenant-related identity markers.  At the very least, he would have seen himself as a guardian.  Accordingly, he would have been very much concerned and very much looking forward to the time at, and the means by which, Israel’s God would intervene on behalf of His chosen and faithful people, delivering them from their long-running exile (foreign subjugation, which was connected to their God’s curses upon His people for their failure to obey His commands and to fulfill His purpose for them). 

As a Pharisee, and therefore as a member of the group of people that was informally charged with the maintenance of the faithfulness of the people when it came to the marks of Jewish identity (covenant markers: circumcision, food and purity laws, Sabbath-keeping), it is likely that he would have found the existing situation, with Israel suffering under the oppressive heel of Rome and its Caesar, to be an untenable and highly undesirable circumstance.  This was likely to have been the case regardless of how many benefits Rome might bring (or claim to provide), and no matter how much “freedom of religion” was offered to them by their Roman overlords.  Ultimately, anything short of total autonomy, with Israel ruling itself and determining its own place in the world, was unacceptable. 

As a member of the Jewish ruling council, Nicodemus would have been in an officially sanctioned position of religious and civil influence among the people, walking in the world of Judaism (religious) that was somewhat desperately attempting to keep the people faithful to their covenant God as they lived in a state of great expectation, while also attempting to keep those same expectant people from running afoul of Rome and its power (civil), while they awaited another exodus (with the foreign powers leaving the land of Israel this time) similar to that which Israel experienced under Moses.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Only Son (part 2)

The brief answer to that important question is found in chapter twelve of Genesis.  There, the Creator God instructs Abraham (Abram) to “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you.  Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (12:1-3). 

So yes, the covenant God is demonstrated to have chosen Abraham so that through Abraham the nations and families and the whole of the earth could be blessed.  This becomes, for all time, the explicit charge of the covenant people.  Naturally, a person that is recognized as a “teacher of Israel” would have been quite familiar with the answer to this question.  This, however, it should be recognized, is not a sufficient answer. 

The Creator God’s words to Abraham merely beg the question as to “why.”  Why did the sovereign God of the cosmos need to choose Abraham?  Why did this God have a need or desire to make Abraham into a great nation?  Why did the one who, as indicated in the story of Scripture, repeatedly showed Himself as the God of covenants want to bless him?  Why make Abraham’s name great?  Why was there what seems to be a pressing need to exemplify divine blessing through Abraham?  Why is there all this talk of blessing and cursing in association with Abraham?  Why indeed? 

The reason for all of these things is to be found in what comes before the introduction of Abraham.  In the narrative structure, what comes before, of course, is the presentation of the ordering of the creation as the Creator’s cosmic temple, the pronouncement at every stage that this ordering was “very good,” and the placement of man, created as the divine-image, into that creation-as-cosmic-temple so as to steward it, to be a reflection of the glory of its Creator into it, and to stand as a constant reminder to the whole of the creation of its Ruler, that being the Creator God of Israel (Genesis 1 & 2). 

This record of the ordering of creation is quickly followed by the report of the divine image-bearers’ first act of idolatry, rebellion, and violation of their God’s commandment.  This is swiftly followed by the exile of the now marred image-bearers from the role to which they had been assigned by the Creator.  What accompanied this, as pointedly and painfully indicated by Scripture, is the exile of the creation from the condition and state in which it had been created (very good, perfection), as it came to share in the cursing brought about by the one appointed to its rule and stewardship (Genesis 3). 

Subsequent to that the first murders are to be found (Genesis 4), along the fathering of a son in the likeness of the fallen image-bearer rather than in the image of the Creator God (Genesis 5), the growing wickedness of the collectively fallen image-bearers (Genesis 6), a worldwide flood of judgment (Genesis 7), the curse of Canaan (Genesis 9), and the culmination of man’s self-idolatry, rebellion, and defiance of the Creator, which was the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). 

It is at this point that the Creator God is said to have reached down into His creation for the purpose of choosing and appointing Abraham, as something of a project manager charged with the task of the restoration of the fallen creation.  Undoubtedly, accurately and purposefully communicating this definitive story would be part and parcel of being a “teacher of Israel,” and it would have to in such a context that Jesus delivers the words of what have come to be the most famous words in the whole of Scripture.   

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Only Son (part 1)

For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16  (NET)

Jesus is said to have spoken these words to a man named Nicodemus, referring to this man as a “teacher of Israel” (3:10).  With such words, the reader of the Gospel of John is reminded that Israel had a story, and that its teachers communicated a vast, vitally important, and powerful story to the group of people that rightly thought of themselves as the chosen people of the one true Creator God.  That story of a special people charged with covenant responsibilities (together with the blessings and curses thereby implied) took root in the tale of the exodus.  This is partly evidenced by the fact that, within his communications to Nicodemus, Jesus makes it a point to specifically mention Moses, saying that “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (3:14). 

According to Israel’s historical narrative (by which they defined and understood themselves and their place in the world), the lifting up of the serpent took place while the nation made its way to its land of promise, following their Egyptian exodus.  They were operating on the understanding that this land had been promised to them in the promise that their God had made to Abraham.  In all of the talk of the importance and significance of the very land of Israel, one can be sure that the reported word of the Creator God to Abraham had a prominent place: “The Lord said to him, ‘I am the Lord Who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess’.” (Genesis 15:7)  Therefore, though the story of Israel was deeply rooted in exodus, the exodus story is defined by, and would have very little meaning apart from, the story of Abraham and of the promises that were understood to have been made to him by the covenant, creative, and providential God of Israel. 

Yes, the exodus gains a great deal of its meaning from the story of Abraham, as it was believed that Abraham received word from the Lord that the promise being made to him would ultimately be confirmed by another promise.   The book of Genesis reports that Abraham (then still Abram) had said to the Lord, “O sovereign Lord, by what can I know that I am to possess it?” (15:8)  In the record of this exchange, the Lord’s response was the aforementioned promise, as He is said to have replied to this query by saying “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country.  They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.  But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve.  Afterward they will come out with many possessions” (15:13b-14). 

This promise is dramatically fulfilled in the events of the exodus (that are set forth in the book of the same name), as the Creator God’s powerful judgments are said to have veritably rained down on those that dared to oppress His people.  Exodus reports that following the tenth and final blow of judgment to fall upon Egypt (the death of the firstborn), Israel was quickly ushered out of Egypt.  Tying the narrative tightly to the Abraham promise concerning possessions, the author reports that before leaving Egypt, “they had requested from the Egyptians silver and gold items and clothing” (Exodus 12:35b).  In response, “The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and they gave them whatever they wants, and so they plundered Egypt” (12:36).  Again, the exodus story gathers meaning from the Abraham story.  

However, a “teacher of Israel” would not only teach a story of Israel that had the exodus as its foundation, which also looked to the story of Abraham as the foundation of the exodus, but he would also look further back, to the story that provided context for their God’s choosing of Abraham (and ultimately his descendant(s)) as His personal representative(s) in this world.  To be sure, Abraham had been called out of Ur and promised a land and given promises in association with that land, but why was it that this had occurred in the first place?  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Calling Down Fire (part 6 of 6)

Beyond the action of wiping the dust from their feet (a fairly common action in their day and culture, by which one dis-associates themselves from a way of life or course of action), Jesus instructs them to say these words, “Nevertheless know this: The kingdom of God has come” (10:11b).  Even in rejection, they were to reiterate the message of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord).  There is no forcing.  Naturally, the contrast to this is that Caesar did not ask for anybody to accept him, nor did he request allegiance to his kingdom.  Rather, acceptance and allegiance was demanded at the point of a sword and the threat of the cross, as death was the only power that he truly had at his disposal. 

While the reader goes on to find Jesus saying, in regards to the rejection of the kingdom and Gospel message: “I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (10:12), that falls squarely into the prerogative and business of the Creator God.  If the Creator God wants to call down fire (echoing James and John) in judgment, then it is He that will do that.  This is not the role of the disciples.  At the same time, along with this mention of Sodom and Gomorrah in association with the rejection of the Gospel message and the action of wiping the dust from the feet, it is worth noting that, for all practical purposes, Lot wiped the dust of those cities from off of his feet when he fled with his family.  

To these words Jesus adds: “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects the One Who sent Me” (10:16).  For what it’s worth, there are echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah in this statement as well.  Of course, Caesar could say much the same thing, and he could then justify his murderous actions to the people of his kingdom (empire) by saying that those that he slaughtered (or ordered to be slaughtered) had rejected Rome and the people of Rome (the one who had sent him).  In his eyes, this would be something akin to a cardinal sin.   

So no, the job of the disciple was not to pronounce judgment and call down fire and condemn, but rather, to preach the kingdom of God while caring for and bringing healing to the sick and those that perhaps have been cast off by the world.  The job of the disciple is to preach that Jesus of Nazareth was, is, and forever will be the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel and Lord of all, while consciously recognizing that it is the Creator God, through the mysterious activity of His Spirit, that goes to work to make that message effective and impactful and transformational in the hearts, minds, and lives of those who hear it and see it in action, doing so according to His purposes for them and for the world. 

When one desires to call down fire, urging “conversion” or “acceptance” through the coercive preaching of hell’s eternal fires of judgment, or act as if he or she is functioning as the God of Israel’s duly appointed representatives when propositionally calling down said fire through referencing the judgment that the covenant God Himself brought to Sodom, it would seem that such is an act of simply rejecting Jesus and asserting that His Gospel message lacks any true functional power. 

Is Jesus as weak as Caesar?  Is death the only tool at those that believe in Him and His disposal when it comes to extending His kingdom?  Are those that believe in Him, call Him Lord, and order their life accordingly, not charged to speak the words of life in Resurrection?  When these things are grasped, and believers are brought to the point at which they fully and truly believe that there really is a power in the very proclamation of the Gospel, that there really is a Spirit that brings, activates, and works within that power, and that there really is a God in heaven that has a purpose and a plan for His creation, it is then that they can hear Jesus speaking and saying, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (10:23b-24).      

Calling Down Fire (part 5 of 6)

So, given the prevailing sense of the “Roman peace” (pax Romana) when Jesus’ disciples arrive in a village and in a house and say “May peace be on this house,” one can almost imagine them being met with some trepidation.  Again, this is not un-familiar.  It is not difficult to envision the people, as they receive this greeting, thinking “Great, more peace,” as they entertain what they know and perhaps have experienced to be Caesar’s notion of peace. 

Then, when those same disciples go out into the public square and begin speaking of the kingdom of the Creator God that has come upon them (heaven has invaded earth and the Creator God is ruling the world through the true Son of God, Jesus the Christ of Nazareth), that message of peace, coupled with kingdom, could very well continue to invoke thoughts of Rome’s crushing domination and their means of establishing peace and extending their kingdom.  This, of course, is where attentiveness to the sick comes in as being dramatically important to the kingdom message, as it was and would never cease to be a distinctive badge worn by the disciples of the Christ. 

Naturally, the distinction is drawn because the usual, traveling preacher would pay little if any attention to the sick, as there would be almost nothing to be gained from them financially.  Similarly, the Caesar or his representative also cared little to nothing for the sick, as those that were sick to the point of being an unproductive subject of the empire, could very well be looked upon as nothing more than a burden that members of the local populace were all to happy to shift to Rome. 

Still, even with the healing of the sick (conscientiously serving them and attending to their basic needs so that they might recover their health and so be healed, and this alongside recoveries that could be described as nothing short of miraculous) accompanying the message of the rule of the Christ on earth, this preaching of the kingdom of God that had come, as indicated and proved out by the Resurrection, could create a natural skepticism and induce a “here we go again” attitude amongst the populace, as they would be fully cognizant of the Caesar’s methods that would be meted out to those that rejected the message. 

In this light, what is it that Jesus tell His disciples?  He says, “whenever you enter a town and the people do not welcome you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you’.” (10:11a)  This was a different approach.  This was certainly not a calling down of fire.  Far from it.  When heard within the appropriate context, it hardly even sounds like the invoking of a curse.  Where Caesar would have whetted his sword with blood (which would then need to be wiped off) and left men, women, and children lying in the dusty streets for their rebellion in rejecting him, Jesus suggests a different though significant, symbolic action.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Calling Down Fire (part 4)

In addition to what would have been a widespread cultural familiarity with the method that was employed, the message of “The kingdom of God has come upon you” would not have been unfamiliar.  Though it held particular and incredibly significant meaning to those that dwelled in the land of Israel, not only was it the case that Jesus’ disciples would not be the first to go out heralding the arrival of a messiah, and thus the arrival of the kingdom of God, but it was also the case that this was largely the same message that Caesar’s representatives dutifully carried into the world that he had conquered as well. 

Those that would come to hear this message of the kingdom of God, whether inside or outside of Israel as it was shared before and after the ordeal of the cross and the vindication of the Resurrection, were likely to have been familiar with the “gospel of Caesar.”  This “gospel” was, among other things of course (as the Caesar cult aided in the spread of imperial propaganda), that the Caesar was lord of all and the savior of mankind.  This message could easily be presented as the “kingdom of the son of god has come upon you; and you do not need to feel conquered, as Caesar extends his realm of peace and security to you.”  This should serve as a reminder that one would do well to always consider the setting into which the message of the Christ had come.   
Before continuing to move forward, it is necessary to back up just a bit so as to continue what one hopes is an effective contextualization and historical integration.  Included within Jesus’ commands to His appointed disciples, He can be heard to say: “Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house!’” (Luke 10:5)  There would have been a number of reasons for giving this particular greeting, but there is one particular reason to which has already been alluded, which is that of the Caesar and Rome’s notion of peace. 

Remember, Luke still has the reader of his work situated within the mental context of that which he has previously written, as chapters nine through nineteen (which includes chapter ten) of his Gospel narrative are presented as a lengthy, single story.  As would have been familiar to the Roman government official (most excellent Theophilus) for whom Luke is presumed to have constructed his two-part series, Caesar’s peace---Roman peace, or the “pax Romana,” would have been part and parcel of the message of the herald of the Caesar, as Caesar (as Jesus would also be shown to do) “sent messengers on ahead of him… to make things ready in advance for him” (9:52a,c). 

What would happen if Caesar’s peace and gospel message about himself and his kingdom was rejected?  As has been previously indicated, it is quite likely that death would come upon those that rejected the message.  This death would have fallen until there were either no more rejecters, or until all willingly bowed the knee to accept his “peace.”  This is the context, as has been seen, for James and John wanting to call down fire from heaven and consume those that rejected Jesus. 

This would also be the context for Jesus’ rebuke of them for wanting to adopt Caesar’s forceful and deadly way and contra-kingdom-of-heaven way of establishing his rule and authority.  It would seem to be clear that, at that point, they did not understand Jesus’ true power or the nature of the kingdom and peace that He was bringing to the world, as they were likely to have been steeped in messiah and kingdom expectation that was rooted in forceful overthrow of a foreign oppressor by violent means and awe-inspiring displays of power. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Calling Down Fire (part 3)

Yes, the messengers that had been charged with their task by Jesus Himself, were to go out and preach the Gospel.  The coming of the kingdom of God to earth, with all that this implied for the overlap of the realm of the Creator God and the realm of the divine image-bearers, meant the arrival of the Messiah.  What it meant was that the long night of exile in their own land and foreign oppression was coming to an end.  This was portended by the healing of the sick.  Together with this, the declaration that the kingdom of God was at hand meant that the Lord was at work, redeeming His people. 

This was to be the sum and substance of the message and activity of those sent by Jesus.  Though these that Jesus then sent out were instructed to limit their ministry to the house of Israel, these instructions do indeed sound very much like those which are reported at the end of Matthew, where Jesus says “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19a).  This making of disciples would include informing all nations about the kingdom of the Creator God that had come to earth in and through Jesus’ death and Resurrection, and that “all authority in heaven and earth” (28:18b) had been given to Him. 

Then and now, this message---the Gospel message---was a message of power, somehow carrying the Creator God’s power to accomplish His missional purposes for His world and His people in this world, with the mission carried out through His people.  It would seem that such is what the Apostle Paul believed, and to that end he wrote what are regarded to be some of the most beautiful words ever penned, making the declaration that the Gospel “is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16b).  Jesus’ demand that this message of the kingdom be preached, along with the appropriate response to the response of those that hear and possibly reject the message, stands up as a daily challenge as to whether or not presumptive believers truly believe in the message and in the power inherent within it. 

As these things are considered, it is incumbent upon those that claim allegiance to Jesus to always, always, always historically contextualize Jesus’ words and actions as presented in the Gospels so that they may be better understood and applied by those that do indeed wish to live by them.  In that time, people will have seen actions such as these and heard words not completely unlike those of Jesus.  Neither the mode of preaching nor the message was entirely new, either in the Israel of Jesus’ day or in the world into which His disciples would later travel.  One can ascertain that the method of preaching was not new, because Jesus is said to have provided directives that were designed to insure that His disciples looked different from all of the other traveling preachers---thus the restriction on the bags and sandals and greetings, along with His insistence that they not move around from house to house. 

The cultural familiarity with the practice that Jesus’ disciples were to undertake probably has a hand in the Apostle Paul referring to the foolish method of spreading the Gospel of the kingdom of the covenant God of Israel that had been established in Jesus (and this completely apart from the apparent foolishness of the message of a crucified and resurrected man being the Lord of all, rather than the Caesar that was ultimately responsible for the state-sanctioned execution).  It is to be understood that the Creator God did not ordain a new practice that would somehow make it easier to preach the message of the Gospel of Christ.  He did not give a new tool that would make the Gospel’s gaining of attention a much more simple task.  Mysteriously, the Creator God took something familiar and imbued it with the confounding power of the Resurrection.   

Friday, September 13, 2013

Calling Down Fire (part 2)

The followers of Jesus would also be aware of the strong possibility that if the Caesar had sent messengers ahead of himself, to prepare a city for his arrival there, and that city (or town or village) rejected him for any reason whatsoever, that the Caesar’s response would likely be to make an example of that village.  The Caesar, in a show of force that proved his power and rule, could very well take the step of killing those who did not bow the knee.  If this was done, the killing would probably be done in a fairly dramatic and attention-getting way (a crucifixion may not be out of the question), so that it would not be necessary to repeat such a thing upon reaching the next city during the course of his travels.  Though lacking the power of the Caesar, the question about calling down fire from heaven (invoking Elijah), it would seem that James and John are expressing a desire to follow the same pattern. 

One could understand the way of thinking, however misguided.  Truly, if this King is greater than Caesar, than all should be made to bow the knee.  Calling down fire from heaven to consume those that refused to show honor would be the way of insuring that such would happen.  Jesus’ response is well known and in line with His character as revealed in the Gospels.  He “turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55).  It is to be noted that He did not turn and rebuke the villagers that rejected Him.  Rather, He rebuked His disciples that wanted to go about commanding allegiance in the way that Caesar and all other kings had commanded allegiance, which was ultimately the threat of pain and death.  In consideration of this of course, one cannot help but think of the regular “calling down of fire”---that of death and the eternal fire of hell---that is employed to convince people to bow the knee to Jesus. 

Rather than stay in that village in an attempt to defy the rejection, “they went on to another village” (9:56).  Jesus was not going to be side-tracked in His mission to preach the Gospel of His kingdom, which is what is to be understood as that which truly carries power.  To that end, chapter ten of Luke begins by saying, “After this,” thereby connecting it with the words and events of chapter nine.  Luke writes, “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others (possibly seventy) and sent them on ahead of Him two by two into every town and place where He Himself was about to go” (10:1).  This is quite similar to what can be seen taking place in the ninth chapter, when Jesus “sent messengers on ahead of Him… to make things ready in advance for Him” (9:52a,c).  Observing these instructions in this context, it would seem that Jesus sees Himself in the role of the world’s true Caesar, sending out evangelists to announce His coming and to prepare His subjects for an appropriate reception.   

With the sending, Jesus included instructions, saying “Do not carry a money-bag, a traveler’s bag, or sandals, and greet no one on the road”  (10:4).  This sounds like rather unusual instructions, but it is possible that Jesus wants His disciples to be distinctive from other wandering teachers in those days.  He added a demand that once they find a hospitable response from a household, that they stay in that one house, and “not move around from house to house” (10:7b).  Again, without getting too bogged down in details, suffice it to say that this practice will continue to set His disciples apart from other roving teachers of that day.  Ultimately, those that came across the representatives of Jesus are to be made to realize that the visitors are there for a single mission, which would be to “Heal the sick in that town and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come upon you!’” (10:9) 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Calling Down Fire (part 1)

Now when the days drew near for Him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem.  He sent messengers on ahead of Him.  As they went along, they entered a Samaritan village to make things ready in advance for Him” – Luke 9:51-52  (NET)

This action of sending messengers ahead of Himself, so as to make things ready in advance for Him, as can be here read about in relation to the Samaritan village, is a Caesar-like action.  Undoubtedly, as the recipient of Luke’s writing (who was likely a Roman government official) is borne in mind, these words were meant to draw a contrast between the Caesar (the man that was then honored and widely worshiped as the world’s savior and son of god) and Jesus the Christ.  It is also possible that Luke’s use of “taken up” in reference to Jesus is a subtle allusion to the “apotheosis” of the Caesar, which is the recognition of Caesar’s deification as a god (making a son that would follow him on the throne the “son of god”). 

Sending a messenger ahead of himself was a common practice for the Caesar.  Those messengers, who could be referred to as “evangelists,” went out proclaiming the “good news” (evangelion) concerning Caesar, regularly going ahead of him for the purpose of preparing a town or city within his realm to welcome the Caesar with all appropriate honor.  In this role, the evangelist prepared the people in subjection to the son of god to bow the knee to the Caesar as their lord and master and the giver of all good things.  This is the likely interpretive framework within which the reader/hearer of Luke’s narrative is asked to understand Jesus’ sending of messengers on ahead of Himself---Jesus is the world’s true Savior, Son of God, King, Lord, Master, and giver of all good things. 

In the case of the particular instance reported here by Luke, though Jesus had sent these messengers to make ready things in advance for Him and presumably to prepare the people for His visit, “the villagers refused to welcome Him” (9:53a).  Luke adds what he must have thought was a necessary explanatory statement, indicating that the refusal to welcome Jesus stemmed from the fact that “He was determined to go to Jerusalem” (9:53b). 

The Samaritans, of course, were looked down upon by the Jews, though clearly, according to the record in the Gospels of His interactions with them, not by Jesus.  However, apparently owing to the ill-will between Jews and Samaritans, the Samaritans refused to honor one that had determined, within His messianic mission, to simply use their city as a stopping point on the way to Jerusalem.  Regardless of the reason or motivation behind their refusal to receive Him, the significant fact to observe is that Jesus was not welcomed. 

Because of this, Luke writes: “Now when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” (9:54)  Why would they say such a thing?  It would seem to be clear that Luke is pointing out the fact that James and John were well aware of the very Caesar-like nature of what was Jesus had done in sending messengers ahead of Him to prepare various places to welcome Him as King. 

To go along with this, if Luke’s record is accurate, Jesus’ disciples have already repeatedly heard Him use royal titles for Himself, such as Son of Man.  In the course of the linear progression of the narrative, they have also seen him cast out demons, heal the sick, raise a man from the dead, still a storm, and feed a multitude.  They rightly interpret these things within the messianic, kingly context in which they are performed, and which Jesus had provided to them by the very words of His mouth, so the sending of an advance team, in the mold of the Caesar, is not at all surprising to them.  Human nature being what it is, it is not difficult to imagine that these followers enjoyed being a part of the chosen entourage of the King that was now traveling the path to Jerusalem. 

Describing David, Seeing Jesus (part 3 of 3)

The Psalmist insists, however, that “a violent oppressor will not be able to humiliate him.”  It may have appeared that Jesus had been successfully oppressed and humiliated by death, but this was not the case.  There was a Resurrection.  Those that commented on it saw it as a vindication.  They saw it as a glorification.  They perceived it as an exaltation.  By His Resurrection, it came to be understood that Jesus was made to defeat death.  Now, with that defeat, the oppressor has become the oppressed, with Jesus having gained victory for Himself and for the kingdom of God that was now to extend itself forth upon the earth.  Jesus has been shown forth to the appointed Son-of-God-in-power by the Resurrection.  With this, He comes to be recognized as the unquestioned King and Lord of all. 

Though it will still be unfortunately at work in the world, because there is a hope for a general resurrection because of Jesus’ Resurrection, the once powerful oppressor that had ruled the thoughts and minds and emotions of mankind, has been stripped of its power and holds sway over the lives of the Creator God’s people no more.  Indeed, because of the Resurrection, the New Testament authors insist that the Holy Spirit, through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus (He is Lord) that is and tells of the Creator God’s power and faithfulness, somehow gifts a faith that shows forth as a public and trusting allegiance to Jesus as Lord of all.  The attendant renewal and transformation of the mind, so that the place once occupied by death and all that death brings in its train, is now occupied by Jesus.  Accordingly, it is thoughts of Him and being in His service, along with a contemplation of the Creator God’s mission for the world, that now rules the thoughts, the minds, and the emotions of men and women that are now understood to stand free. 

With the Resurrection and the hope for resurrection that it sparks, together with no real fear of death as exhibited by countless willing martyrs down through the centuries, it can be said that death has lost its sting and the violent oppressor is de-toothed and de-clawed.  The enemy that sought to humiliate, is now itself humiliated, as the covenant God speaks through the Psalmist and says “I will crush his enemies before him; I will strike down those who hate him” (89:23). 

Though the Psalmist presents the reader with these words in association with David, the ultimate view that is provided, as the Psalms are viewed through the apex of the Scriptural narrative that is the Christ-event, is most definitely that of Jesus, as one is able to find a portion of the Gospel message when the Psalmist goes on to report the Creator God, following the defeat of this once vicious and all-conquering enemy, as saying “I will appoint him to be My firstborn son, the most exalted of the earth’s kings” (89:27).  Is Jesus not referred to as the King of kings?  In regards to the statement concerning the firstborn son (a royal title), of that son the covenant God of Israel says, “I will always extend My loyal love to him, and My covenant with him is secure” (89:28). 

Jesus is to be understood as the culmination of the covenant that began with Abraham, and the restoration of the covenant that God made with Adam.  In Him, that covenant remains secure, and all those that call Him Lord, and who order their lives according to that approbation, can stand secure in the knowledge of their redemption and the hope of their joining Him in the restored creation at the final consummation of the kingdom of God, in which the Creator God’s people are allowed to humbly participate in this day.  God’s promise, to “give him an eternal dynasty, and make his throne as enduring as the skies above” (89:29) was sealed by the Resurrection, and made manifest by His people, in believing union with Him as He works through them to be the people of His kingdom, so that the will of the Creator might be done on earth as it is in heaven.    

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Describing David, Seeing Jesus (part 2 of 3)

How should one frame this issue of Jesus offering tribute to His enemy?  Jesus does not say “You take the bodies, I only want the souls.”  Jesus did not experience merely a spiritual, soul-ish Resurrection, nor will those that stand in the union of trusting allegiance to Him, calling Him Lord.  Jesus did not say to His enemy, “You take this world (the creation), we’re just going to heaven.”  No, with man’s fall came the fall of all of the covenant God’s good creation and the flood of death and corruption into the world.  The Creator God’s promise is to redeem all of His creation, defeating death in its entirety and ending corruption.  Indeed, the creation is described as groaning for this redemption to occur, as it was subjected to futility through no fault of its own, and hopes for a resurrection like that which will come upon the Creator God’s children (Romans 8:20-21). 

The Resurrection is taken to be the sign and the promise that the enemy exacts no tribute whatsoever from Jesus.  If there was to be no physical resurrection and no restoration of the creation---if believers are just waiting to be whisked away into heaven so that they can watch the world be destroyed---then they can know that a tribute (sign of subservience to His enemy) was exacted from Jesus, that death was not truly defeated, and that they have no true reason to hope in Him.       

As believers continue to see their King Jesus through the Psalmist’s description of the anointed, supported, and strengthened one referred to as “David, My Servant,” they read that “a violent oppressor will not be able to humiliate him” (89:22b).  Death, of course, is the greatest of all oppressors.  It is and has been the constant, stalking, baneful enemy of man from the time of the fall.  It has crowded in upon his thoughts, and in some way, covered the majority of his waking moments. 

For Jesus, as a man, death stood in the same role.  When the Gospels are read, the reader finds that death surrounded Jesus on a regular basis.  Not only did it surround Him because people were constantly coming to Him for healing from maladies that were often productive of death, and not only did He raise people from the dead, but quite often, the Gospel stories reveal that his own life was threatened, with reports of there being a relatively consistent existence of plans, from nearly the beginning of His ministry, to silence Him through assassination.  Sometimes, these plans were well thought out and deliberated, and sometimes, such as that which occurred in Nazareth, they seem to be a spur-of-the-moment thing. 

When death finally caught up with Him and had Jesus in its grasp, not only was it going to be an oppressor, but it was going to be a violent oppressor.  Jesus was going to experience the full weight of death’s might as He underwent the scourging and the cross, which represented the pinnacle of man’s corrupted creativity, as it was one of the most torturous and painful means of death ever devised. 

The cross, along with its attendant punishments, was designed to not only induce the utmost of painful deaths, but also to humiliate, and to demonstrate the shamed victim’s utter powerlessness against the nearly omnipotent power of Rome.  This is that which Jesus underwent.  To all appearances, it seemed that He was made to succumb to the same fate as all that had been sent down the path of the cross, sharing in its shame and its humiliation, violently oppressed by death at the hands of Rome.