Reading Ramblings – July 30, 2017

July 23, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 30, 2017

Texts: Deuteronomy 7:6-9; Psalm 125; Romans 8:28-39; Matthew 13:44-52

Context: The readings today focus on God’s love and care for his people. This is love and care not based on population size or meritorious conduct, but solely on the love and grace of God. This love of God’s far surpasses our own capacity to love, and our deepest commitments pale in comparison to the sacrificial commitment of God to his creation.

Deuteronomy 7:6-9 – The reading starts with the declaration that God’s people are holy in the sight of God. We might expect that this would then proceed to a declaration of how good they have been or the particular actions and qualities that merit them this holiness in God’s eyes. Instead, the passage emphasizes not the people but rather God. It is God who has decided to make his people holy, based solely on his love and graciousness rather than on their merit. While much of contemporary worship seems focused on repetitious declarations of love and adoration for God, what makes us his people is not our love for him but rather his love for us. We more rightly emphasize his steadfastness rather than our own, his commitment rather than our own, and his glory rather than our own.

Psalm 125 – Those who put their faith in God oftentimes seem weak by the world’s standards. In the face of violent opposition, Christians have often gone to their deaths, been imprisoned, and suffered myriad smaller-scale persecutions. After all, our kingdom is not of this world, and those who are intent on claiming this world in the short term are apt to look at Christians as easy targets. But the reality is far different. God is always with his people. And while his people may be allowed to suffer and die, these things are only temporary inconveniences compared to the eternal joy we are promised in the grace of God. As such, God’s protection is not temporary but eternal (v.2), and evil will not be allowed to rule indefinitely over God’s people or they may be tempted to think that evil has won and there is nothing left to do but give in and participate in evil. While evil may hold the day – may hold the day for months and years and even decades at a time, it is not permanent, and its rule is always held in check by the power of God and his love for his people. It is in this assurance that we are to find our peace. Oftentimes peace on our own terms – financial, political, cultural dominance – is impossible. But our peace is in God who created us, redeems us, and has promised to bring us to his kingdom eternally.

Romans 8:28-39 – We come to the end of this section of Romans. In last week’s section, Paul had laid out the first two of three reasons why the Christian can endure the suffering of this world. The first is that the suffering of this world is momentary compared to the vast expanse of eternity. The second is that the Holy Spirit of God within us intercedes on our behalf in the midst of our suffering, even when we ourselves aren’t consciously able to find the words to pray. The last of his three reasons is that God works all things for good for those who love him (v.28). This is not saying that suffering is not real, or that there is not actual evil in the world. Rather, it says that while there is suffering and evil in the world, the Christian rests in the assurance that they are God’s, and as we have already received reconciliation and grace through the sacrifice of the Son of God, we know that our eternal condition has been declared. We might have to suffer here and now, but that suffering is for a limited amount of time (v.18), and we do not suffer alone (v.26). The Christian does not seek out suffering, but if and when it comes we don’t simply endure it but we look for God to be at work in, through, and despite it. Paul has already touched on this topic in 5:1-5. God can make us better and stronger through our suffering if we will trust in him and allow him to. This is working towards our good both here and now, as his children and as witnesses to his love and glory, and as we are shaped more and more, molded and prepared for the eternal weight of glory that we are promised through faith in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 13:44-52 – Throughout this chapter Jesus has been describing the kingdom of God, showing how it differs from our understanding of power and dominion. As this section of Matthew draws to a close Jesus concludes with three very brief metaphors for the kingdom of heaven – far briefer than the previous ones in this chapter.

It is tempting to hear these as descriptions of how we are to be about the kingdom of heaven, as though we are the active characters in each. However the last of the three parables makes it clear that this is mistaken. These are parables about the kingdom and rule of God and how He goes about things. In each case God is shown to be unlike any other king we might ever have heard about on earth.

In the first parable, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a field with a treasure buried in it. The confusion comes in when we presume that the kingdom of heaven is being described as something hidden in a field, waiting to be discovered by you and I who are glad to sacrifice everything in exchange for it. Traditionally this parable has been turned into an exhortation about what kind of disciple we are to be – what sort of citizen is worthy of the kingdom of heaven. Only the one who gives up everything else in order to possess that citizenship.

But this is problematic, in that in our sinful nature we are incapable of giving up everything else and wholeheartedly embracing the kingdom of God. We can never be deserving of citizenship there if that is what the parable is saying. But I side with those scholars (few in number) who interpret this parable in reverse. It is we who are the buried ones (as in death), that God gives up everything (his Son) in order to possess us forever. In this way, the parable really is about the kingdom of God and the sacrificial love of our God for us. Some object that we would be compared with a treasure, but isn’t this how God sees us? Isn’t this why He sends his Son to die on our behalf, because He loves us and his love is what conveys value?

Similarly in the next parable, it is God seeking out valuable pearls and selling everything in order to possess it. In both cases the parable is not literal – God does not give up everything, but He did give up a great deal to cause his Son to become one with us and to suffer and die.

The final parable makes it clear that these interpretations of the previous two are reasonable, if not historically popular. It clearly describes the active work of God and his angels in sorting through humanity like fish, keeping the righteous ones and casting out the evil ones. What determines righteousness vs. evil? Whether we recognize how God has sought us out and died in order to claim us as his own forever.

Unlike earlier parables, Jesus’ disciples are able to understand these. Jesus seems pleased, as it is his job – and will be their job – to continue to share truths both known and unknown. This continues to be the role of the Church in the world – witnessing to the outrageous love of God for each person as attested to by his Word to us in the Old and New Testaments.

Smarty Pants

July 22, 2017

With graduation season safely behind us, I guess it’s OK to start questioning at least some of the celebrations.  I mean, now that there are graduation ceremonies at every grade level, rewarding as extraordinary what not-so-long-ago was just expected for nearly everyone (and which is still just as un-extraordinary as ever), maybe we should talk about some of those report cards.  The fact that junior got a 4.0 GPA last year may not entirely be due to their diligence.  It could be the fact that lots more people are getting A’s now.  Nearly 50% of students, in fact.

Were this not so endemic, I would think that the top students would be making a big fuss about this, since it is their efforts that are ultimately being demeaned.  Showing love and care and respect to students is not the same as handing out A’s to everyone.  And as the article alludes to, this builds a false sense of expectation for college and the world beyond.  I’m pretty positive that we haven’t evolved to a state where now half of all students in the US are geniuses.  I’m also pretty positive that it’s in our best interests to let them know that they aren’t all geniuses, and help them plan accordingly.

And, to be clear, this is coming from a non-straight-A-student.  I’ve never had that drive – not on any consistent basis.  I’ve always been more than happy with B’s sprinkled with A’s and even a C or two.  I feel like I’ve always learned just as much as the folks with higher grades, I just didn’t care enough about it to prove it.  Throughout high school my peer group consisted of mostly upper echelon GPA folks, and I never mistook myself for being the same caliber as them, academically.  But I felt I could hold my own with them intellectually.  Sometimes.  I like to think this is more a testament to my laziness than any intellectual deficiency, but long-time readers are apt to draw their own conclusions on that topic.

Eat & Run

July 21, 2017

I thought this was an interesting article about how recipients of food stamps tend to run out of money for food within a week or two, meaning that for at least half the month, they don’t have any of these funds to purchase food with.  The article purports to explore how and why this is, and emphasizes that because funds are dispersed in a single installment, people have trouble budgeting properly and therefore spend too much immediately and run out of funds.

What it doesn’t explore is what people are buying with this assistance.

For three years, as part of a Christian communal living experiment, my family lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Louis.  My observations are anecdotal rather than deliberate, but have stuck with me all the same.  What we saw the neighborhood children eating constantly was junk food.  Sodas, hot fries, Cheetos.  Constantly.  We never saw them with fresh fruit or vegetables or any other sort of food (unless we shared ours with them).  We know that these children lived in households that depended on food stamps – the vast majority of our neighborhood did.

Certainly the issue of telling people how to spend their assistance is a tricky one at best, but if the issue of running out of money is due not just to budgeting problems but also spending that assistance on low-nutrition snack food instead of food that can actually improve your health and last more than a few minutes, then doesn’t our government (who created and funds the food stamp program using taxpayer dollars) have a duty to at least help people know how to spend their assistance wisely?

When I looked into our state’s web site for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program I didn’t see any information about good ways to spend the assistance wisely.  Perhaps that information is provided in another format beyond the web site, but perhaps it’s not being provided at all.

I’m sure that there is money used to lobby against any type of restriction on how food assistance is spent (beyond current limitations on alcohol, cigarettes, etc.).  I’m sure that companies that manufacture potato chips and soda would take issue with having their products declared off-limits for food stamp monies.  But if the issue is actually how to help people and make sure they’re getting the food they need, does it make sense to ignore the issue completely?

Romans 8:18-30

July 20, 2017

The Epistle lesson in Year A of the 3-year lectionary cycle in use with many Christian congregations and denominations is this section from St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians.  Actually, it overlaps slightly with the reading for next week, as the section is broken (atrociously!) in the lectionary cycle between verse 27 and 28.  But for this discursus, I’ll deal with what the proper section should have been – verses 18-30.

Paul has masterfully developed his theme of justification exclusively by the grace of God the Father through faith in the atoning sacrifice of God the Son, Jesus the Christ.  He’s laid out how the Old Testament clearly shows this has always been God’s way of working.  He’s discussed the role of the Law now for Christians, not as a condemning force that consigns us to death in our sins, but as the good and holy Word of God that guides and protects us as we live out our lives of faith.  He’s made it clear that the Christian life is fundamentally different than whatever life we might have led before being brought to faith in Jesus.  This may necessitate some rather major changes in how we think, speak, and act.  Paul does not preach cheap grace – whereby we keep doing what we want trusting in Jesus as our Get-out-of-hell-free card.  The Christian is able to strive towards holier living because of the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit within them.

But the reality is that we will never be fully freed from sin in this lifetime.  There will be a war within us every day of our lives between the sinful desires that are still part of us and the righteous and holy part of us made possible through faith in Jesus the Christ.  Yet we struggle on!  And part of that struggle, Paul mentions at the end of verse 17, is that we will suffer in this world.  Suffering is a topic Paul has already briefly mentioned back in Chapter 5:1-5, where he discussed that for the Christian, suffering is never fruitless because God who is with us and in us and for us will use periods of suffering to further define and refine our character.  While we don’t crave suffering, if and when we encounter it we do so in the knowledge that God is with us and working in and through us.

Now in Chapter 8 Paul comes back to the topic of suffering.  It might seem that we who are striving after God should somehow be protected from suffering and persecution in our faith, but this is not the case.  Suffering for the faith or because of the faith is often part of the Christian life (despite the historical anomaly that is America over the past 200 years).  How is the Christian to deal with this suffering?  Certainly in part, she should remember what Paul said back in Chapter 5 – that God is working in and through and despite our suffering and therefore we should actively look for and expect such work, not simply the elimination of our suffering.

Here in this section of Chapter 8, Paul lays out three reasons why the Christian should be able to endure suffering while still praising God.  Firstly, whatever suffering we endure is brief compared with the vista of eternity that we continually cast our gaze towards.  Our culture insists that our life is really just the timespan of life as we know it, maybe 100 years or so if you’re lucky, so you better make it count.  More accurately, our culture says that really the most important and vital part of that lifespan extends from about 16 to 30, so you need to make those years count.  Have fun!  Experiment!  Follow your bliss!  Ignore the massive damage this can do to you and those around you!  Don’t stop to think about the long term!

But the Christian seeks to maintain the Biblical perspective – our life is a gift of God that we seek to enjoy but more specifically to use as an opportunity to praise and worship him.  This life does not end at death but continues into eternity.  So if in this life we practice restraint and self-discipline, it is not a waste – it leads us towards something far better!  Likewise, if our existence here and now entails suffering, we know that it is only for a period of time.  By keeping this perspective, we have one means by which to endure the suffering in our life.

Secondly, the Christian can endure suffering is brought out in verse 26 – we do not suffer alone.  The Holy Spirit of God is always with us and doesn’t simply passively abide within us but is active in his intercessions on our behalf.

In the midst of suffering we may be bewildered, frustrated, angry.  We may be unable to focus or concentrate our thoughts, to the point where we aren’t even able to pray!  This might be a terrible thought for us – are we abandoning God because of the suffering in our lives?  Because we’re too frazzled or absorbed in our pain to pray?  By no means!  God the Holy Spirit himself is praying and interceding on our behalf.  Beyond the level of words and articulations, without our actual involvement, even.  We are never left alone, and God himself knows – because of the suffering of Jesus – how deeply suffering can affect us and disrupt our routines and abilities.  So we endure suffering knowing that God is with us and for us and within us at all times!

Paul’s third reason that the Christian can endure suffering is in verse 28 – we know that God works all things for good for those who love him.  This is a restatement or summary in some ways of Paul’s discussion in Romans 5:1-5.  God is at work in us constantly and pervasively, and suffering does not change this but in fact may offer unique opportunities for such divine work.

We need to be careful in our interpretation here.  Verse 28 is not saying that suffering is not real, that evil is not real, that we are simply deluded or misinformed about what goes on within and around us.  The Bible never denies the reality of suffering and persecution and evil, and we never should as well!  But if we suffer in such a way, the Christian rests assured that the suffering cannot separate us from God’s love.  It does not eclipse his goodness to us.  And if we trust in him, one day we will be able to see how He was at work in us during our suffering – upholding, shaping, molding, pruning.  Again, we don’t look for suffering, but when we encounter it, we do so knowing that God is not absent in our suffering, and therefore our suffering has actual meaning – a meaning exactly contrary to the intent of that suffering when it is imposed upon us by those antagonistic to God and to our faith in Christ.

The Christian suffers as no other person can or does suffer, because we can endure it through our faith.  We do so knowing that the suffering will only last so long, and then we will be free of it – perhaps temporarily but certainly eternally!  We endure knowing that God the Holy Spirit is within us interceding on our behalf even when we are unable to pray.  And we endure trusting that regardless of the type or source of our suffering, God is capable of working good things in and through and despite it.

All of this leads Paul to a concluding section of praise and confidence to and in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, before he moves on to a different topic in his letter.  This is such an important thing to me as a pastor, and as I come alongside people in the midst of very real suffering.

Today I visited one of our elderly, home-bound members.  I’ve been calling on her since I arrived at this parish seven years ago.  And in that time she has transitioned from a somewhat independent and mobile woman, full of the confidence and capability that I believe marked her whole adult life, to first a homebound woman and now a woman in her upper 90’s who requires 24-hour care and is physically a shadow of her former self.  She is often confused, and sometimes bewildered.  She speaks often of how she just wants to die and go to be with God.  I’ve talked about our times together before.

I wonder why it is that God has not called her home.  But Paul’s words in Romans 8 are important to me as I minister to her, and as I imagine spectres of my own future as I talk and pray with her.  He has not abandoned or forgotten her.  And while she and I may not know his reasons and timing, we need never trust his goodness and love.  I trust He has his reasons, and one day I’ll be at least better able to understand them and see their perfection.

Good News

July 16, 2017

This morning I stopped, as usual, for my early Sunday morning tea and bagel and the final push towards finalizing preparation for worship.  This particular morning started earlier than usual.  A knock on our bedroom door roused me from sleep to discover one of our exchange students describing in confusion and distress a leak in their bathroom.

I thought that perhaps she had been doing laundry the night before.  If the loads are too big, the washer will sometimes leak water out.  It’s a nuisance but it seems a bigger nuisance than replacing or repairing the washer, and it doesn’t happen very often.  I assured her that I would take care of mopping it up.  She was still distressed, worried about how bad the situation would be by later in the morning.  A brief view of their bathroom indicates why.  It isn’t the washer that’s leaking, it’s the toilet that is overflowing.  Backed up and overflowing.  And let’s just say that the water is not clean.

I send her off to bed assuring her that I’ll take care of it.  I have no idea how, but I know it’s not her problem to handle.  She let me know the bad news and now it was my job to deal with it.  An hour or more later and I had the bathroom cleaned up and sterilized and we were awaiting a plumber to come and clear the line.  As I bought my tea and bagel I didn’t know the scope of the problem or the cost to fix it yet.  I was a tad preoccupied.

As he handed me my bagel and tea, the owner said something, and in my early morning fog and the fumes of bleach clinging to me and my increasing problems with hearing, it took me a few seconds after walking away to process.  Go out and save some lives, he had said.

It might be the world’s most succinct pep talk, and I appreciated his statement since I know he doesn’t probably share my faith (he’s someone who considers himself very spiritual but not religious).  As I put the cream and sugar in my tea, the thought that came into my head quickly was that I wasn’t going to be saving lives today.  Not because there aren’t lives to be saved, but because that’s not my job.

It’s God’s job to save lives, and that’s what He has done in Jesus.  Fixed what we can’t.  Opened a way for anyone who wants to be reconciled to the God who created them but whom they have been in rebellion against (whether actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously) since before they were born.  It’s not my job to save lives in the spiritual sense – I don’t have that power in me.

But I am blessed to be the bearer not of bad news like our poor student in the wee hours of this morning, but rather the proclaimer of good news.  What amazingly good news!  In a world that markets and manufactures despair and vitriol, that constantly seeks an angle for exploitation and manipulation, what a blessing to be able to share unmitigated good news.  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ! (Romans 8:1, and part of the Epistle lesson I am preaching on this morning).  Whatever else may go wrong in my life, from toilets exploding to unforeseen health issues and struggles in relationship, at least I know that I am no longer condemned by God for my sin!  What a relief!  How simple everything else seems when I remind myself of this glorious message of promise and hope!

Reading Ramblings – July 23, 2017

July 16, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 23, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 119:57-64; Romans 8:18-27; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Context: If last week the theme was the reliability of God’s Word as something that we can thoroughly and completely trust, this week that reliability is contrasted with the foolishness with which we often neglect God for other sources of comfort and hope. We so easily find ourselves devoting great amounts of time to planning and arranging the aspects of our lives to our satisfaction, often times leaving God on the margins. Yet as we soak in his Word He is able to guide and lead us, his Word forming the path we walk both consciously and subconsciously. And in his Word we are able to better contextualize and make sense of the difficulties of life. Difficulties that are not evidence of God’s absence or lack of care, but which are opportunities to see God’s strength and love sustaining and nurturing us in the midst of our pain.

Isaiah 44:6-8 – Back in Chapter 41, the Lord calls his people to task over the issue of idolatry. He then goes on in the ensuing chapters to describe his people’s unfaithfulness and his own faithfulness, interspersed with promises of what He will yet do on their behalf. But now He comes back to the topic of idols, beginning with these verses questioning his people as to what other gods they think there are. God invites any other gods that might exist to step forward and make themselves known. He invites them to prophesy and tell of things yet to be as God has. The question is rhetorical. There are no other gods. Silence answers his invitation, leading God to give a detailed description of the ridiculousness of worshiping an image made by human hands in vs. 9-20.

Psalm 119:57-64 – The great acrostic psalm, each section begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and each line in that section begins with a word that starts with that letter. The overarching theme of all of the sections of the psalm is the blessedness and beauty of God’s Word. Here the psalmist acknowledges that God’s Word is sufficient for our needs. In v.59 the psalmist acknowledges that his steps are not naturally aligned as they should be – he needs God’s Word to guide his steps. Of course not everyone is so inclined, and at times the plots and schemes of the wicked try to waylay and throw him off course. Even in the midst of such struggles God’s Word is foremost in his thoughts, and there is no time of the day when it is not appropriate to dwell on God’s Word, allowing it to fill him and guide him. This perseverance creates a community – a community of those faithful and trusting in God’s Word. We who spend so much time listening to the news or reading papers and magazines should consider the beauty and promise of allowing God’s Word to fill us each day, providing us with a steady and secure peace in the midst of whatever joys or struggles we encounter!

Romans 8:18-27 – Moving the major theme and subject of his letter to a close, Paul stops to deal with the issue of suffering. If we are the heirs of such eternal and divine blessings in Christ, are our lives perfect and beautiful? No. Firstly, we continue to struggle against the sin inside of us as Paul explained in Chapter 7. Secondly, we struggle in the midst of a broken and sinful world. We face real struggles like sickness and disease, old age and death, not to mention the possibility of persecution and ridicule on account of our hope in Christ.

However Paul gives three reasons why such trials and struggles can be endured. First, the struggles we face in life are small in comparison to the eternal joy and glory we look forward to. We carry within us new life in Christ, but that life is not fully revealed yet. We await it’s full revelation – indeed all of creation waits for that day along with us! And oh, how wonderful that day will be! In that day the struggles of this life will melt away like a bad dream that dissipates by the time we reach the breakfast table!

Secondly, we have the Holy Spirit of God himself within us interceding on our behalf. When we don’t know what to say to God, what to pray, what to ask. When we are exhausted emotionally or physically we are not cut off from God, but rather the Holy Spirit of God speaks on our behalf.

Thirdly, you have to wait until next week’s reading for the third reason and the conclusion of this section of Romans!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 – Jesus tells another parable and then explains it to his disciples. For those who question the existence of evil, this isn’t a bad parable to take them to. Does God have the power and wisdom to take out evil? Yes, He does. But in the process, apparently his faithful might be endangered. Some on their way to faith might never reach that safe harbor. The problem of evil is not one to be laid at God’s doorstep but rather at Satan’s. It is he that tempted Adam and Eve to sin, knowing that if he succeeded untold suffering would ensue. It’s like an enemy that hides behind civilians to avoid being targeted. Ultimately, it isn’t that Satan won’t be brought to account. It isn’t that evil won’t be reckoned with and judged appropriately. God is not delaying out of some perverse joy in our suffering. Rather, in his perfect knowledge and wisdom, He waits so that as many people as possible can respond to the good news of Jesus Christ and be reconciled to him. He is intent on depriving Satan of as many people as possible, to the glory of God and our benefit and salvation.

Path to Success

July 15, 2017

Thanks to Gene Veith’s always-excellent blog for steering me towards this study and this commentary on it.  The Reader’s Digest summary is this – if you want to avoid poverty, the best thing you can do is complete the following steps.  Complete all of them and complete them in order.  Skipping or rearranging them could be disastrous:

  1. Graduate at least from high school
  2. Start working full-time
  3. Get married
  4. Only after getting married do you have children

Once upon a time this was common sense and it was reinforced culturally.  Nowadays these steps are likely to be dismissed out of hand, but the statistical data presented in the study is pretty impressive.


Contradictions – Jesus in the Wilderness or at a Wedding?

July 14, 2017

The final contradiction I’ve been asked to deal with is this one – Mark’s Gospel (1:12-13) says that Jesus was sent into the wilderness immediately following his baptism to be tempted by Satan, and that He remained in the wilderness 40 days.  This is allegedly contradicted by John’s Gospel (2:1), which allegedly says that Jesus was in Cana three days after his baptism to attend a wedding.  Matthew (4:1-2) and Luke (4:1-2), although not as imperative as Mark’s account, clearly indicate that Jesus goes to the wilderness pretty quickly after his baptism.   Which means that John appears to be the odd man out on this one, and we should focus on his account.

First off, we need to note that John does not describe Jesus’ baptism in a narrative sense, but rather only by John’s recollection of the event (1:29-34).  And as John recounts his experience at Jesus’ baptism, he is speaking about it in the past tense – something that has already happened prior to John pointing Jesus out in v.29.  John’s account therefore mentions three days, but not the three days immediately following Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus is baptized on Day X, which could easily have been 40-some days earlier.  But John’s Gospel begins numbering days based on when he is interrogated about his own identity.  He is interrogated on day 1 (1:19-28).  The day after his interrogation he points out Jesus (1:29) and testifies about Jesus’ identity.  Thus the third day mentioned in 2:1 is the third day after John’s interrogation, not after Jesus’ actual baptism.

Once again, an alleged contradiction is based on a superficial reading of the texts, without any interest or effort in attempting to make sense of them.  If there is a reasonable explanation for the apparent contradiction, it is unfair to insist it is a contradiction.


Contradictions – Saul’s Conversion

July 13, 2017

A contradiction is alleged because there are slightly variant reports of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  Acts 9:7 indicates that Paul’s associates – likely soldiers and perhaps religious officials accompanying to Damascus to arrest Christians – saw the light which blinded Paul and heard a voice but did not see the person speaking.  Yet Paul claims in 22:9 that his companions saw the light but did not hear a voice.  Additionally, in Acts 26 Paul claims (or at least implies) that his companions saw the light but he does not state whether or not they heard the voice or not.

We should first define our context.  Luke writes the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is in fact the second of two writings of Luke that were originally one text and later separated into his Gospel account of Jesus’ life and the book of Acts which details early Church history and apostolic activity.  Luke states at the beginning of his Gospel that he is drawing on multiple sources for his material.

If so, then Luke may be relying on a different account for his account in Chapter 9, an account that doesn’t come directly from Saul/Paul – or at least solely from him.  In Chapters 22 and 26 Luke is quoting Paul as he describes his own experience.  Could it be that Luke in his collection of accounts spoke with one of the other travelers with Paul, who indicates that they could hear the voice?  Is it possible that Paul was not aware of this fact, since the person may not have mentioned it to him initially out of fear – prior to Paul’s conversion – that he might be prosecuted as a Christian sympathizer?  Perhaps.

And perhaps Paul, becoming aware at a later point that his compatriots could indeed hear the voice, omits this from his description of the events in chapter 26.  IF this is the case, Paul became aware of this new information in a relatively short window of time – a matter of a few weeks at most between his testimony in Chapter 22 and his recounting in Chapter 26.

Grammatically the same Greek verb is used both in Chapters 9 and 22.  From what I can tell, this verb has both the connotation of to hear, but also the possible connotation of to understand.   Is it possible that Paul knows that the men heard a voice but couldn’t understand what it was saying, and that Luke highlights the first aspect of the verb in Chapter 9, while Paul more explicitly intends the secondary connotation in Chapter 22?  This seems a bit more likely to me than the idea that Paul is operating with insufficient knowledge but then suddenly is enlightened (although this certainly could be possible).

In any event, it clearly doesn’t have to be a contradiction, but could be a matter of interpretative definition.  Indeed, some translations (such as the ESV) render the verb in Chapter 9 in terms of hearing, and in Chapter 22 in terms of understanding.  To call this an example of Biblical contradiction or error seems far heavier-handed than the details warrant.

Contradictions – Marriage

July 12, 2017

I’m nearly through the list of alleged Biblical contradictions that was gifted me some time ago.  It’s been a fascinating process, and one that has strengthened my appreciation of God’s Word rather than weakened it.

The next contradiction alleges that the Bible is contradictory because sometimes it states an affirmation of something and then in another place denounces it.  In this case, the issue is marriage, with Solomon set up as the proponent for marriage in Proverbs 18:22, while St. Paul is arguing against marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.  Is this a contradiction?  Is God giving contradictory advice to his people?

Hardly.  Is marriage a good thing?  Is it a blessing to have a good spouse?  Of course!  And clearly, from Genesis onwards, marriage is intended as a blessing for God’s creation through intimate relationship and the creation of family.  I think we can say pretty authoritatively that the Bible as a whole is pro-marriage (with the Biblical definition of one husband and one wife for life).

So what do we make of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7?  First, we need to understand context.  Paul is responding to something to questions or concerns about something he previously wrote to the Corinthian church (but which we don’t have a copy of – at least yet!) – that it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.  No, this is not a tacit endorsement of homosexuality – Paul understands the Biblical idea that the only appropriate sexual conduct is between a husband and a wife, so he is being asked to clarify his position on marriage.

As he is writing this, Paul likely presumes that Jesus is due back at any time.  It seems from the apostolic writings that this was their assumption – Jesus’ promised return in glory would happen soon.  Within their lifetimes.  While Jesus never gave a timeframe, and in fact asserted that they wouldn’t know when it would happen, this idea of an imminent return permeates Paul’s responses to issues like should I get married or not.  From Paul’s perspective, for a couple to be worried about getting married was pretty irrelevant in light of the imminent return of Jesus and the need to be about the work of the Church.  With those assumptions, Paul could advise not to get married unless you just can’t remain chaste.  If that impulse is so strong, then by all means get married!  Not just reluctantly but enthusiastically.

Later in the chapter he revisits the basic question of how the imminent return of Jesus should affect marriage decisions.  Are you married?  Stay married!  Are you single?  Stay single (again, unless you can’t do so without sinning sexually).  Marriage refocuses our attention (and rightly so) on our spouse, and this might be an unnecessary distraction if Jesus is returning any day.  He clarifies this in verses 29ff.  Time is short.  We should view not just marriage in this light, but our approach to all of life.  Our sorrows are not as deep and our joys less giddy and our economics less all consuming in light of the unparalleled joy that we anticipate when our Lord returns.  Paul is not against marriage per se, but marriage in light of the imminent return of Jesus.

So the Bible is not contradictory about marriage.  Paul’s advice does not contradict God’s created order.  For those who don’t feel compelled to get married, his advice remains sound.  And for those who can’t conceive of not getting married, his advice remains sound.