Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Apocrypha: Bel and the Dragon

January 22, 2020

Another writing associated with the Biblical Daniel’s life, but deemed non-canonical by Jews as well as modern Protestants.  It does not exist in Hebrew and was most likely composed in Greek.  It is considered canonical by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  It sometimes appears as Chapter 14 in the book of Daniel, though does not make sense there in terms of the overall flow of the book of Daniel.

The story itself involves Daniel’s interactions with the Persian King Cyrus over the matter of two revered idols – the first a statue named Bel and the second what was probably a very large snake.  The King inquires why Daniel does not worship Bel, and Daniel responds that Bel is simply a statue, not a god.  The King protests that Bel devours a great deal of food every single day – 12 bushels of wheat, 40 sheep and six measures of wine.  Daniel counters that it is the priests who attend to Bel along with their wives and children who are eating the provisions – the  statue does not eat them.

When interrogated the priests of Bel swear the statue is the only one consuming the provisions and offer for the King himself to set up the provisions and then lock and seal the temple with the priests outside of it.  Daniel agrees with this but secretly also has the king strew the temple floor with ash.  In the morning the food is gone as usual, despite the temple still being sealed.  However there are footprints everywhere from the priests and their children, proving they had a secret way into the temple and were themselves consuming the provisions.

The second event is very similar but apparently involves a large snake.  Daniel feeds this snake cakes made out of boiled fat, hair, and pitch.  These apparently clog the snake to the  point that it bursts open and dies.  This angers the people and the King, so Daniel is placed into a lion’s den with seven lions for six days.  At the end of that time, sustained in part by a visit from the prophet Habakkuk, Daniel is alive and vindicated.

This seems to best fit as a work of religious fiction.  It doesn’t necessarily contradict anything Scriptural but doesn’t  fit  well with the canonical accounts of Daniel.  Rather, it seems to exaggerate the existing account of Daniel in the lion’s den, something that certainly could be true but doesn’t seem to serve any great purpose.


Apocrypha: Susanna

January 21, 2020

This is a brief work intended as part of the canonical Hebrew book of Daniel, but it appears in none of the Hebrew copies of Daniel and is presumed to have been authored much later and in Greek.   It was contained in both the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) as well as the Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments (the Vulgate).  In some traditions this apocryphal  work is included as the last chapter of Daniel (Chapter 13), although in others it appears before the canonical material as Chapter 1.  It deals with themes of justice, righteousness, and the figure of a young Daniel emerging as wise beyond his years.

Susanna is relegated to apocryphal writings because it contradicts certain aspects of the canonical work of Daniel (such as portraying an already well-established Jewish community in exile, whereas the canonical Daniel begins with Babylon’s conquering of Jerusalem and taking people into exile, including Daniel) and because there are no examples  of it in any Hebrew Old Testament copies.

The story briefly is that a virtuous young wife is wrongly accused of adultery by two Jewish elders who are angry she rebuffed their demands that she sleep with them.  In a he-said-she-said situation, Susanna gets the worst of it and is sentenced to death based on the accusations of the elders. Enter young Daniel who suspects foul play and exposes the lies of the elders, leading to Susanna’s exoneration and their execution.

It would primarily seem to serve as a story introducing or further elaborating on the life of Daniel.  It demonstrates the very real dangers of misuse of power as well as God’s attention to his people.  It elevates the use of wisdom and our intellects in being able to discern truth, rather than relying exclusively or unhealthily on spiritual insight.

Reading Ramblings – January 26, 2020

January 19, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 26, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25

Context: The season of Ordinary Time begins this year with the start of Jesus’ public ministry and the calling of his first disciples. In these simple acts, Jesus continues to fulfill Old Testament prophecies. The location of his birth, the virgin birth, his sojourn as a toddler in Egypt, and now where He begins his ministry, in the regions of the original tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, now known as Galilee – Matthew sees it all as fulfiling words spoken centuries earlier.

Isaiah 9:1-4 – The end of Isaiah 8 pictures God’s unfaithful people wandering in the wilderness, blinded by the spiritual darkness they walk in. They seek out wisdom and insights from mediums and conjurers – forbidden to God’s people but now his people are desperate for guidance. They do not turn to God, but to those He has forbidden them. They find nothing. They hunger and receive nothing, and as they hunger they curse God and look everywhere while seeing nothing. Powerful words in light of the Gospel reading that follows Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Zebulun and Naphtali were tribes, descendants of the sons of Jacob, and this region stretched to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee. These regions ceased to be known by their tribal names in the days of Solomon. Now the area is known as Galilee. Once this area was cursed, destroyed by the Assyrians with the rest of the northern kingdom of Israel. But this ignomy will be done away with, and this region will again be called blessed. Those who struggled in darkness will receive a light, the light of God. Jesus is the light, as John’s gospel testified. Jesus who hungered in the wilderness after his baptism did not despise God and did not grow angry and bitter but remained obedient, so that He might start his formal ministry and be the light in the darkness of our sinful world.

Psalm 27:1-9 – The light imagery continues in the psalm selection. The Lord is the source of light; no one can extinguish this light nor can any other light eclipse it or displace it. The Lord’s light is steadfast and constant and reliable, the only true light to trust in. Satan lines up his forces against God’s faithful, but Satan has no power over us. He can kill and destroy but God can make alive again! He can afflict our lives for a limited span of time but God will summon us forth from death to life for eternity! The work of the enemy against us will fail. God alone can be trusted in all situations – not necessarily to do what we want him to do, but to save us from our sins and eternal separation from him. Jesus chose obedience even after 40 days without food. Jesus continued his faithful obedience in calling disciples to listen to his teaching and bear witness to what He would do during his short three years of public ministry. In all things, Jesus trusted the light of God rather than the boasts and temptations of Satan.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 – We continue from the thanksgiving portion of the letter into Paul’s broad summary of the problems plaguing the church in Corinth. The root problem is division. That division takes a lot of forms – disagreements about food, about what to wear to church or what is appropriate sexual behavior or whether believers in Jesus should divorce their unbelieving spouse, or even disagreements about whose teaching is best or most authoritative or impressive. Paul, having moved on from Corinth, is given report of dissension. Paul may have founded the congregation but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone there prefers his teaching. Some may have heard other preachers and teachers and now elevate them to a preferred status to Paul. Paul is not interested in arguing to defend his preeminence. Only Jesus matters – a theme he stressed in the opening of his letter as we read last week. Jesus must be the focus or else we inevitably will begin to fight amongst ourselves for that priority and importance. Instead of divisiveness Paul stresses unity – a unity that comes not simply from the exercise of our will (though that of course is involved) but from God the Holy Spirit’s presence and work. The word of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascending and coming again is the centralizing message of the Christian faith, and all Christians should consider ourselves and one another in the light of this message. Why worry about elegance or personal prestige? Jesus alone is worthy of our consideration. Our unity derives from Jesus only!

Matthew 4:12-25 – Continuing to be led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus moves from the waters of the Jordan to the wilderness and now back to his home turf of Galilee. Ah yes, here He is calling the disciples, like Andrew-wait a minute – John said in his Gospel last week that Andrew began following Jesus in Bethany Beyond the Jordan, not Galilee! What’s going on here?!?

The scene in John 1 is indeed by the Jordan River, far from Galilee. Likely at the end of a major festival in Jerusalem, when all of these natives of Galilee – far to the north of Jerusalem – would have been in the area. It’s possible they came specifically – and separately – to see John the Baptist and hear what he was saying but that seems more problematic for working men to take additional time off for such an excursion. Then again, the fact they are willing to follow John the Baptist and then Jesus may indicate an extreme personal interest in God and theology that would make such a sacrifice of time and money understandable.

In any event, it is here, far to the south of Galilee, where Andrew and Peter and James and John first meet Jesus and express a desire and willingness to become his disciples. This would be understood to mean giving up their current vocations (fishermen) and dedicating themselves to formal study with Jesus. This rather unexpected change in their life work would necessitate some level of coordination with family back home. The disciples and Jesus return to Galilee shortly after the account in John 1. John 1 details four days – the day of John the Baptists’ initial interrogation by religious leaders from Jerusalem (1:19-28), the following day when John begins to proclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God(1:29-34), the next day when John proclaims Jesus as such a second time (1:35-42) and a final day when Jesus begins the return trip to Galilee (1:43-51). By this point Jesus has at least six disciples – Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathanel, and by tradition, James and John (John not bothering to name himself in 1:37-40, as is his habit in his gospel). The return trek to Galilee likely could have taken six days or more, or might have been accomplished in one or two long days of travel depending on the starting and ending points. Whenever Jesus returned, He and his disciples on the third day (2:1) attended a wedding in Cana which is about a half-day journey from Nazareth, presuming this is where Jesus returns to. John’s gospel could mean that three days after returning to Galilee, Jesus now has his disciples and they head to Cana.

Jesus may have returned to Galilee separately from his disciples (likely with his brothers and mother), and so once Jesus has concluded his personal affairs in Nazareth He sets out in search of the men who committed themselves to be his disciples. They likely told him where they worked as fishermen so He could find them. Upon finding them He calls them, indicating it is time to follow. Having already made their own arrangements, they now do so. John and Matthew’s accounts are not contradictory, but together describe a reasonable transition for at least some of Jesus’ disciples from other vocations to that of being rabbinical students.

Reading Ramblings – January 19, 2020

January 12, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 19, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42a

Context: Although designated as the Sundays after Epiphany, we begin Ordinary Time this week, similarly to how we are in Ordinary Time during those Sundays also designated as being after Pentecost. As such, today the Epistle lesson departs thematically from the Old Testament and Gospel readings. Those readings (along with the psalm) continue to highlight to divine nature of Jesus, as is fitting to the season of Epiphany, drawing on various witnesses to this divine nature. The Epistle lesson continues the lectio selecta route by starting with 1 Corinthians. Unfortunately, we aren’t going to get very far into this book this year, which is tragic considering how crucial Paul’s words to the church in Corinth are for the church in America today.

Isaiah 49:1-7 – Who is this anointed Messiah, this servant of God, and what will this person do? Isaiah’s words (inspired by the Holy Spirit) are beautifully descriptive, making it clear this is no ordinary leader or prophet. The relationship of this servant to God begins before his birth (v.1) with particular intent to his purpose. Everything about him – including the details of his entry to this world – are coordinated by God according to his perfect plan, concealing him until the perfect moment. Yet he remains human, not above emotions and feelings of failure. Yet these won’t consume or derail him, rather he will continue to trust in God (v.4). In response to these struggles, God the Father affirms his purpose in his servant, a purpose that far exceeds human expectations, extending to the salvation of all peoples rather than just God’s chosen people Israel. All of creation, including those most powerful, will eventually bow in acknowledgment that the servant of God is the expression of God the Father’s willl and plan.

Psalm 40:1-11 – We can read this as a psalm of David, who authored it. We can think back on his turbulent life and how God indeed was his rock and salvation through many difficult and trying times. But it’s also interesting to imagine the opening verses of this psalm ultimately not just being about David or you and I, but something Jesus himself would say. God delivers his suffering servant and Son from the very grip of death, raising him to life so that many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord (v.3). Jesus himself knows full well the blessedness of obedience. Not the ease of obedience, but the blessedness of it. He knows full well that obedience to God is always best because He lives this perfect obedience himself and can speak from firsthand knowledge. Jesus is the fullest expression of human obedience to God, and He calls us to participate in this through him. While our obedience will be imperfect, we are still blessed as we follow God’s will and Word in our lives because it leads us ultimately to eternal life and freedom not just from sin but from the death that sin brings.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – What strikes me first about these opening verses is what I know about the rest of 1 Corinthians. Paul is writing to a congregation he founded, but a congregation with some serious problems. Most of this letter to them will be spent in trying to correct errors in doctrine and practice. Yet Paul asserts here that despite their many and major problems, they are still the church, they are still the sanctified, and they are still saints. Their sins are many, but the grace of God in Jesus Christ is greater still. We can be recalled from our sins to repentance, and so our sins themselves are never adequate evidence we are not saints in Christ! Despite their sins, Paul can assert they still have received enrichment by God in every way regarding speech and knowledge. Those are strong things to affirm, knowing what he’s going to have to chastise them for shortly!

Sosthenes is mentioned in Acts 18, which has to do with Paul’s time in Corinth. When Paul first comes to Corinth the leader of the synagogue, Crispus, converts to Christianity along with his entire family. Paul stayed for 18 months there teaching and preaching. After his departure, Crispus is replaced with Sosthenes as the ruler of the synagogue. Whether this was a political move by the Jews because of Crispus’ conversion isn’t stated in the text, but Sosthenes apparently also becomes a believer and a fellow-traveler with Paul as he is named here. He is held by some to be an early Christian Bishop, though others are uncertain whether these traditions can be trusted.

John 1:29-42a – I’m not sure why John’s gospel is brought in at this point, though it follows on the theme of last Sunday (the Baptism of our Lord). And it certainly fits the Epiphany theme of the revelation of the divinity of Jesus, with John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament-style prophets pointing directly at Jesus and proclaiming him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John is apparently the first prophet or other person to use this term. But of course the first time a sacrificial lamb is mentioned is in Genesis 22 and the account of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac to God as a test. Abraham assures Isaac that God will provide the necessary lamb for the sacrifice. God does in that case, and God does through Jesus as well. Likewise, the passover lamb is the next type of lamb specifically described for sacrifice in Exodus 12, and it has to be a young lamb but perfect and without blemish. This sacrificial lamb saves the household from the angel of death, but Jesus offers his life on behalf of the ends of the earth (Isiaah 49:6).

John the Baptist thus begins his ministry as the last Old Testament-style prophet, telling people about the coming Messiah (John 1:26-27), and ends his ministry as the first evangelist, the first one to point others to Jesus as the source of salvation.

Book Review: The Price of Neglect

January 11, 2020

The Price of Neglect by A.W. Tozer

I was lent this book by a friend the other day.  It’s a quick and easy read, a compilation of various editorials written by A.W. Tozer as editor of Alliance Life.  Each editorial is almost uniformly between 2-4 pages in length.  His style is easy and straightforward, and his flow of thought is easy to track with.

I’m familiar with Tozer by name but have never read anything of his.  In reading this anthology, it’s important to remember they were editorials for a magazine and as such, short, to the point, and light on detailed support or explanation.  I would hope that the themes laid out briefly in these editorials were delved into in more depth in the publication as a whole, saving Tozer the time and space of elaborating and fleshing out his ideas more fully in these short pieces.

Overall, I appreciate his general view.  He was skeptical of modern theological trends and movements.  Skeptical of the revival associated with post-World War II America, viewing it as shallow and commercial in nature, something which definitely seems to have played itself out as true in the subsequent decades.

My biggest criticism – and this in light of  the strong characterizations of Tozer as a modern prophet on the back of the book  – is that he is light on specifics.  Again, I trust this is  in part due to the fact that these are editorials rather than full-fledged theological writings.  But he offers criticisms without supporting examples most of the time.  He is critical of American Christianity, exhorts American Christians to a truer Christianity, but provides few examples of what he means.

This is very un-prophetlike.

Read through Isaiah, and you’ll see he offers very specific criticisms and examples to demonstrate what he’s talking about.  Rather than just criticizing shallow faith and a greater concentration on worldly riches, he calls out vanity in specific terms, like tinkling jewelry (3:16).  In criticizing reliance on foreign policy and alliances rather trust in God, Isaiah  points to specific issues, like alliances with Egypt (31:1).

Tozer provides few specifics in his laments of American  Christianity,  but is always exhorting people to something better and truer and more authentic.  As such, his words will indeed be timeless, as there’s never a time or situation when the faithful could not be better – more faithful, more trusting, more fervent.  But therein lies the problem as well.  Tozer clearly has ideas in mind about how the modern Christian should look and act, but doesn’t specify what he means.  As such, his criticisms can never be vetted, and his criticisms will always stand valid.  And under his criticisms it’s pretty clear he doesn’t consider many people who call themselves Christian to actually be Christian.  And this is where it gets tricky.

You can call out specific sins, but to question the faith of someone who doesn’t meet your undefined standard of what a Christian ought to be is unfair.  I’m struck in contrast by Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth.  As he greets them at the start of his letter, he unhesitatingly calls them sanctified and saints, giving thanks for the outpouring of God’s blessings on them.  This despite the fact he’s going to have to criticize them for some very specific things in this letter.  Sexual misconduct and an acceptance or resignation to this reality.  Uncharitableness and false faith and understanding concerning the Lord’s Supper.  Some pretty major issues that would undoubtedly lead Tozer to claim the Corinthians are not true Christians – but St. Paul doesn’t make that move!

In other places Tozer’s theology is questionable.  Fair enough, as all of us fall short in that department in one place or another!  For example  he claims that Satan was not able to stir Jesus to  sin during his temptation in the wilderness because there was no evil in Jesus to respond to the temptation.  Tozer’s overall point is that when people react poorly in situations it is because their true character is being revealed.  The problem is that God the Father declared Adam and Eve to be good – free from evil – and yet they succumbed to temptation.   Is this because there was evil in them before the Fall?  I’m pretty sure most traditional theologians would not take this stance.  Further, if Jesus was not capable of sinning, then his temptations were not really temptations at all.  He was just going through the motions, as it were, which is a problem with Christology in making it sound as though Jesus wasn’t truly and fully human as well as divine, as though his human will didn’t exist, that it was replaced with the divine will of the Second Person of the Trinity.  Problematic on multiple levels.

Finally, for all his talk about the primacy of the Gospel, he spends an awful lot  of his time and effort talking about the Law, asserting that Christians are not living up to their name and therefore are not really Christians.  Rarely does he spend any appreciable time elaborating grace and forgiveness and mercy.  This might be part of the nature of the publication he edited and the purpose he saw for it, but as a conglomeration his editorials are decidedly Law-oriented while criticizing Christians for not living up to their potential in accepting the grace of God in Jesus Christ!

Again, I agree with much of what Tozer asserts, I just wish  he was more specific.  Again, I try to  remember what these writings represent, and assume they are only one part of a larger publication that could better elaborate on his themes.  God uses many different voices to communicate his Word, each voice at times focusing more on one issue than another.  But it’s a good reminder to me to be more specific and to make sure I’m not just critical but also acknowledge the grace of God at work in even the worst of repentant sinners.

Including myself.



Apocrypha: 1 Maccabees

January 9, 2020

This is perhaps one of the  most  useful apocryphal writings I’ve read thus far.  It provides practical, detailed historical information for changes in the Holy Land in the centuries between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus.  It is not considered canonical for several reasons, the most  obvious one being the Jewish people did not consider it canonical.  It was authored sometime after 134 BC and written in Greek rather than Hebrew, which many consider reason to rule it out of canonical status as an Old Testament book.  The apostles and Jesus do not refer to this book either.  St. Jerome and others assert Flavius Josephus as the author but there is considerable skepticism of this claim.

As a historian, the overall  arch of these events has been known to me for years, but it was wonderful to finally read the actual material itself.  It goes into great detail, outlining multiple battles with multiple different powers and personalities.  It is bound together by the figure of Mattathias and his sons – John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar (to a lesser extent) and Jonathan.  We are witness to the initial interactions between God’s people and the Roman Empire – a relationship that would prove fateful for the next several hundred years.  We hear about the institution of what we know today as Hanukkah as well as several other festivals that don’t appear to be observed any longer.

This is definitely a worthwhile read as a historical document.  Certainly it has value as such whether or not it is considered canonical, and I have no difficulty seeing how this could be a valued part of Hebrew history without being given canonical status in the Old Testament.  Theologically it demonstrates powerful faith in God against overwhelming odds, and details in very straightforward, non-theological terms how God miraculously enabled his people  to triumph against far more numerous and powerful enemies.

Reading Ramblings – January 12, 2020

January 5, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after the Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord – January 12, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 3:13-17

Context: If the season of Christmas calls us to contemplate the divine becoming human, the season of Epiphany calls us to affirm the divinity of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Properly distinguishing and maintaining the divinity and humanity of Jesus has traditionally been one of the central doctrinal battlegrounds. What does it mean that Jesus was both true man and true God? As soon as we attempt to say much more than this, we are likely to stray off the Biblical path into one heresy or another. We struggle to affirm the reality that Jesus is a true person in the fullest sense of the word – not just physically but in terms of his mind and will. Thus, He can be tempted, and if tempted, then it is possible for him to sin, just as Adam did. But we also maintain that in Jesus is also the full divinity of God the Son – He truly is the Word made flesh to dwell among us. Most properly, we bow in praise and adoration of God the Father who could envision such a means of victory for us, God the Son who in obedience came to be the Son of God made flesh, and God the Holy Spirit who directed and guided not just Jesus but you and I still today.

Isaiah 42:1-9 – John the Baptist likely had this passage in mind when he inquired of Jesus if He was the Messiah or not, one of our Gospel readings for Advent last year. Certainly this passage points to a special servant with a special relationship to God the Father as well as God the Holy Spirit (v.1), through which this servant will be divinely enabled to bring justice to the nations. Moreover, God the Father promises that this special servant will be a covenant (v.6) to the nations, evoking Exodus language when God created a covenant specifically with the Hebrew people. This new covenantal relationship brings about a fundamental change in the created order – bringing light, sight and freedom (vs.6-7). God communicates his intentions through Isaiah nearly 700 years before the birth of Jesus. The Word by which creation came into being will itself enter into creation as the Word made flesh, promised by God the Father himself.

Psalm 29 – A call to praise the God of creation, acknowledging him as the source of all strength and power, and therefore accorded highest glory and praise in his holiness. God’s power is described in a series of comparisons. God is more powerful than the great waters that thunder. God’s voice is greater and therefore can exert control over even this least controllable aspect of the natural world. God’s voice is also stronger than mighty trees as well as strong animals. Kadesh is a wilderness area in the north-central area of the Sinai Peninsula, yet even here God’s voice is supreme. All created order is dependent upon the voice of God that continues to create and sustain all things, so that the most appropriate response is to glorify and praise him. Because this powerful creator God is not anonymous or distant, but rather rules over his people, providing them with strength and blessing and peace in his protection. This all-powerful creator God need not be feared because He has expressed his love in relationship to his creation and particularly to his people who trust in him and praise him.

Romans 6:1-11 – What does the victory achieved by the servant of God bring to us? For Paul’s critics, his repudiation of the Law as a means to salvation must have meant Paul advocated for a libertine freedom from the Law, so that sin would be embraced because of the grace of God which alone provided forgiveness. Paul makes it clear this is not what he advocates, and any such effort to abandon the Law as a guide and protector in life is not just dangerous but foolish. Jesus has died for us and we through faith participate in that death. That death frees us from sin, not for sin! Because it isn’t simply Jesus’ death we participate in, but his resurrected life. Our life in eternity is one guided and governed by the Law, because the Law is not an arbitrary addition to creation but is woven into it and by extension, into us. It is an expression of what holiness means and looks like, and as we are now holy in the death and resurrection of Christ, we should cling to the Law not as a hope for salvation but as our future, holy reality. We are dead to the mastery sin once exercised over us as we failed to keep the Law perfectly. Jesus extends to us through faith his perfection, so that we have fulfilled the requirements of the Law and our sin is forgiven us until it is finally and eternally removed from us!

Matthew 3:13-17 – Jesus comes to be one with us, one of us, and specifically to save us from our sin, our condemnation under the Law that Paul claims we are free from in Christ. Thus Jesus arrives where John the Baptist is calling people to repentance, and where people are confessing their sins (v.6). John as the last of the Old Testament prophets well knows that Jesus alone of all people has nothing to confess, and John rightly protests Jesus’ intentions to receive his baptism of repentance. Jesus simply tells John to allow it now, in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus’ response acknowledges that what is about to happen is not necessary because of any sin of Jesus, but because Jesus has come to bear our sin. The one who is without sin will become the perfect, sacrificial lamb upon which the sins of all humanity will hang and die. Together, John and Jesus play their parts in this reality, and it is not necessary that John fully understand the why of it all. Isaiah conveyed the word of God that prophesied his special servant would be called in righteousness (Isaiah 42:6), and Jesus and John participate in that righteousness as they stand in the Jordan River together.

Further, Matthew asserts through his account of the Holy Spirit’s descent that Jesus is indeed the prophesied special servant. Jesus is the one who will accomplish all the prophesied renewals in the created order. God the Father picks up again the language He expressed to Moses (Exodus 4:22) and through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 11:1), as Jesus becomes all of Israel, all of God’s people in one person. One person, no less, called out of Egypt as Matthew earlier pointed out. Jesus comes to take the sins of the world upon him and offers in exchange his own holy righteousness and perfection. Through the one perfect sacrifice, atonement is made for all, and those who respond in faith to this promise receive that atonement in full.

God’s people could not be perfectly obedient, but Jesus can and will be perfectly obedient on their behalf, ultimately delivering them not just from political and economic slavery, but from sin and Satan and death. God the Father here is likely making less of a statement about Jesus’ Davidic ancestry (Psalm 2:7), and not a random statement of Trinitarian mystery and reality, but rather an assertion that Jesus now assumes all of humanity upon his shoulders. His obedience becomes the obedience of all, and Jesus stands in as the perfect son Adam was created to be but failed to be.

Jesus’ baptism then, ultimately, is for us, not for him. It marks the start of his public ministry and denotes the particular type of ministry Jesus will perform – that of saving the people of God from their sin by being the faithful son no other person in all of creation can be. John the Baptist calls people to repent of their sins and receive baptism as a sign of their sincerity and the reality of their forgiveness. Jesus enters the waters as the means through which that forgiveness will be granted. Jesus is the One with us and the One for us.

Reading Ramblings – January 5, 2020

December 29, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday after Christmas, January 5, 2020

Texts: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52

Context: The readings this morning all stress the wisdom inherent in God’s Word. God as the author of all creation obviously can reveal wisdom to us in many ways, whether through the order and diversity of creation, or through his revealed, sacred Word, and most importantly through his Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. As we consider the birth of our savior we cannot consider it rightly apart from this relationship, made clear in the prologue to John’s Gospel. It is not possible to receive the Wisdom of God in his Word separate from his Incarnate Wisdom, nor is it possible to somehow separate Jesus from the revealed Word of God. The two are one in the same, and both together provide us all we need to know about the world and ourselves and who we are created to be.

1 Kings 3:4-15 – Solomon is in his 40’s when he comes to the throne – hardly a little child! Yet he is wise enough to be humble, knowing the task he has inherited is massive, and even for someone raised in the court and familiar with matters of state there can never be enough wisdom for proper decisioin-making. Solomon’s request is not simply for wisdom in matters of state, but the underlying, deeper wisdom to discern good and evil. His response demonstrates a wisdom as well as humility, and God responds by rewarding Solomon with even greater wisdom and favor. But we should be cautious to treat God’s benevolence as arbitrary. Only with the possession of great wisdom, and the ability to discern good and evil can any other blessing really be received. Riches and honor are fleeting without wisdom, and many would argue length of days is also dependent on wisdom, if recent Internet trends of eating Tide pods and trying to swallow spoonfuls of cinnamon are any gauge! In blessing Solomon with divinely-given wisdom, God equips Solomon to handle the other blessings well. Not perfectly – as we know from Solomon’s full story – but better than many in his position would be expected to!

Psalm 119:97-104 – Studying the Word of God is never a pursuit without tangible benefits. Wisdom, understanding, self-discipline, obedience – these are the natural fruits of making the Word of God our primary emphasis and focus in life. Notice the blessings inherent with such study are all personal – they do not guarantee us any situational, external benefit over those who are less wise. It remains very true that sometimes those with the greatest power are the least wise. But wisdom is not dependent on external power. Wisdom and understanding can still be ours even if physical power is not. Self-discipline and obedience can be ours, even if we are denied full agency to carry them out. Likewise, the benefits of such wisdom and understanding cannot be stripped away. They remain sweet regardless of how others might try to tear us away from them. Study of God’s Word remains ever with me (v.1), a promise not simply for this life but all eternity.

Ephesians 1:3-14 – Paul packs a lot (again!) into a few number of verses, and it pays to take our time in making our way through it. Verse 3 asserts that only in Jesus, the Christ, do we receive the fullest blessings of God the Father. Apart from Jesus it is not possible to receive all of God’s blessings, though even those who reject and deny God often are blessed through his sustaining of all creation. Those who receive the full blessings of God in Jesus Christ recognize that God has chosen us from the beginning of creation. Here is where interpretation can go astray. Does the fact that God predestined you and I to faith mean He has done so while intentionally excluding others? No! It was God’s good will and pleasure – his predestination – that all be saved, all be included in his Kingdom. You and I in faith are evidence of that, as we certainly could not find or seek God out on our own! This is inclusive language, not exclusive. All are intended to receive the blessings of God. But not all will. That is not because God willed it to be so, but because of the sin at work in us and around us that prevents some from receiving the fullness of God’s grace and love.

Verse five continues this theme. God predestined that all should receive his grace and love, and only our explicit rejection of this intention and offer can exclude the grace of God the Holy Spirit from being ours. In other words, yes, we can reject the predestined grace of God. This idea offends some Christians, who insist that what God intends can never be thwarted, and leading them to extrapolate from these verses something they do not say – that only some are predestined for grace, while others must – logically – be predestined not to receive it. While this may retain the absolute sovereignty of God (by a particular definition), it unfortunately not only says more than what Scripture says here, it also contradicts other passages of Scripture that explicitly tell us God desires that all would be saved, and therefore, logically, could not possibly have only prepared some for salvation (Ezekiel 18:23 always comes to mind here). Jesus is the means by which God makes his grace available to all, and we in faith are privileged to give God the praise and honor He deserves!

Luke 2:40-52 – Certainly the Word made flesh would understand the value of studying God’s Word. Caught up in the thrill of engaging the Word of God with others, Jesus remains behind at the Temple rather than joining his family for the return trip to Galilee. In the jostle of extended family it would be easy for Mary and Joseph to assume Jesus was with cousins or others in a different part of the caravan. But after a day’s travel, they realize this is not the case and hurriedly return to search for him. They backtrack over all the places they were, and the place they stayed, hoping to find him. The three day delay before finding him may not be three days in Jerusalem, but may also include the day they traveled away and then rushed back (well into the next day). Finally they go to the Temple – perhaps to pray for God’s mercy in returning their son to them! Imagine their surprise to see Jesus in discussion with the greatest minds in Judaism

While Jesus was not willfully disobedient (a violation of the fourth commandment), his fervor for the Word of God distracted him from obedience to his parents. When reminded of this filial duty, Jesus submits to their authority (in obedience to the fourth commandment) and returns home with them. Jesus does not use his divine nature to override the requirements of his human nature – his divinity does not exclude him from obedience to the Law because perfect obedience to the Law is precisely why Jesus has come in the first place. He must do what Adam did not – remain obedient to God. The Incarnate Word cannot contradict the revealed Word because they are one in the same!

Reading Ramblings – December 29, 2019

December 22, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after Christmas, December 29, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-14; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 2:13-23

Context: Mercy and grace. Undeserved. Not as a reward but a gift. That is the theme that runs through the readings for this Sunday. The gift of the Christ-child was certainly neither deserved nor earned, neither before or after his arrival. The history of humanity is one long litany of failure, of sinful brokenness and cruelty and outrage against God, other, and self. Only in God do we find faithfulness that is breathtaking. We worship the baby in the manger because He alone of all human beings deserves such worship, because He alone of all human beings is not merely human, but divine.

Isaiah 63:7-14 – Mercy and grace follow judgment. The gift of forgiveness from God requires both that He judge sin for what it is, and that we acknowledge sin as what it is, seeking forgiveness from it. So we always look forward to that mercy and grace, regardless of what we find ourselves in the midst of at the moment. Like Job, we may not understand the Lord’s ways but we can declare his goodness, knowing his final Word to us is made flesh in Jesus the Christ, a word of hope and life and restoration through forgiveness. Weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30). The Incarnate Son of God in the manger is the first faint hues of light on the edge of the horizon, heralding the coming day and the joy of the Lord that is ours in faith and trust.

Psalm 111 – This psalm does a beautiful job of giving God proper credit, something we often fail to do. We are trained to see the world as a system of cause and effect, natural consequences, impersonal laws. But the psalmist sees everything as it is – the direct and ongoing work of God, for which God is to be praised. For which He is to be given thanks. His power sustains all things and his Word remains the foundation of the cosmos. We may probe creation until our Lord returns and never plumb the depths of it fully nor surmount the heights. All we discover and learn should lead us not to glory in our intelligence or ingenuity, but to give glory to the Creator of all things, including us. Moreover, God is more than just the sustainer of a now-broken creation, He is the one who provides salvation and redemption (v.9), a miracle of such proportions it seems ludicrous to so many, and yet so easily taken for granted by the faithful. This psalm is a beautiful meditation launching point for our lives.

Galatians 4:4-7 – Paul touches on the profound mysteries of God made flesh, the Son of God entering into creation to become one with humanity so that He might redeem us. In so doing, the Christ replaces the Law. Not that the Law disappears or has no value or purpose still – it is the fiber of which creation and we are woven. But the Law could only do so much and was only intended to do so much. To watch over us until the Christ could deliver us. The Law acted as our guardian, so that we were obedient to it because otherwise we would have been lost to such depths we can’t even imagine. But now that the Christ has come, we are delivered from mere obedience, as a servant would obey a master, and made sons and daughters of God. The redemption of Jesus – which the psalmist just proclaimed nearly 1000 years earlier – frees us from the punitive aspects of the Law, so that we might live the Law by choice rather than necessity, out of thanks and joy rather than fear and loathing. We have been given the ability to see the Law for what it is and who it is from, and to know we will one day be perfectly attuned to that Law in every thought, word and deed. We are heirs to the kingdom of heaven where the Law will be restored perfectly and we will once again be perfectly obedient. God chose to accomplish this in the most unexpected of ways, from the inside out, so the requirements of the Law could be fulfilled in the Christ, and then extended to you and I in faith. The justice of God is maintained, but his mercy prevails in those who trust his gift to us in the Word made flesh.

Matthew 2:13-23 – What would we be without the Law? It isn’t difficult to imagine. We can flip through the newspaper or review history to see what people have resorted to by flouting the Law or presuming to be exempt from it. For this reason God alone is to be praised, as the psalmist exhorted us, because all others have fallen short of the deliverance or redemption they might have set out to provide. Words and promises are cheap but very expensive and ultimately impossible to fulfill. It is not in the creature to exceed his nature, and we, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot put ourselves or one another back together again. Cycle after cycle, ruler after ruler, empire after empire, program after program – all promising deliverance if we will only turn a blind eye to the Law for a few uncomfortable lifetimes. All in ruin, all drenched in blood.

Such promises fall short of delivering the good they depict, but they rarely fail to deliver the brutality that inevitably results when the Law is set aside. So Herod sets aside Thou Shalt Not Murder and dozens of babies and toddlers die. Families ripped apart in horror and grief, never to be the same in this life. We can’t hear the echoes of their screams of rage and loss, but we hear that same rage and loss in countless places around the world today as the Law continues to be pushed aside in the name of progress or whatever other term is thrown around. People continue to demand exemption from the Law, and therefore people suffer under the loss of the Law. Loneliness where relationship was to be preserved. Filth where holiness was to be preserved. Exhaustion where rest was to be preserved. Anarchy where order was to be preserved. Death where life was to be preserved. Betrayal where fidelity was to be preserved. Loss where property was to be preserved. Distrust where integrity was to be preserved. Gnawing, insatiable hunger where contentment was to be preserved.

Children are the closest we can imagine to being free of this lawlessness, the closest thing to innocent we can imagine, though of course they aren’t really innocent. A lack of agency is not a sign of purity, and dependency never displaces the self-centeredness that is the black rot that fills our hearts. We call this account the massacre of the innocents, but the real massacre of innocence occurred in Genesis 3, when Satan tempted Adam and Eve into disobedience and death. In Christ we are promised a certain peace in our own mortality, but we look forward to the ultimate restoration of order and perfection and innocence.

If we cry for these children we should cry for those around us today. If we spend our outrage on these long dead we shortchange the living. The Law of God cannot be circumvented or superseded, and we must be always watchful of our own hearts and the words of others when a claim to the contrary is made. Those children in Matthew 3 are dead. But so are their parents and siblings who weren’t murdered, and so are the soldiers who followed orders and the king who gave them. Only the King who gave himself freely over into death still lives, and in his life alone is both the fulfillment of the Law and the promise of eternal deliverance from Satan and all those who would insist along with him that the Law is evil and wrong.

Reading Ramblings – December 22, 2019

December 15, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 22, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Context: The final Sunday of Advent and the Christmas story begins to emerge in earnest. The Old Testament reading from Isaiah is the context understanding the virgin birth of Jesus – in both cases an unlikely event precedes the rescue of God’s people. The psalm calls us to prepare for the king’s entry, while Paul writing to the Roman Christians emphasizes the continuing work of Jesus as King in commissioning his ministers and evangelists. Matthew details Joseph’s preparation and call to obedience in continuing his engagement and marriage to Mary despite her pregnancy. God is with us, true uniquely in the incarnation of the Son of God, and true to God in the abiding presence of our Lord through his Holy Spirit!

Isaiah 7:10-17 – The news is bad – the northern kingdom of Israel has allied with Syria to fight against Judah in order to force Judah into an alliance against Assyria, the empire growing in dominance to the east and north. However Judah has already made a treaty with Assyria, recognizing the futility of trying to fight against Assyria. But she faces the very real and present threat of a combined Israel and Syria here and now, a coalition which could be disastrous against the much smaller Judah. What is to be done? King Ahaz of Judah counts on Assyria to protect Judah. But God sends Isaiah with another message to King Ahaz, a message of reassurance. God protects his people, and Israel and Syria will not succeed in their efforts against Judah. God offers King Ahaz the rare option to request a sign from God to give him greater confidence. In false humility Ahaz declines, but God will not be thwarted. He gives a sign of a virgin giving birth. Some think this refers to a young woman present in the group Isaiah is speaking with. Perhaps a wife or consort of the king, or a well-known young woman of marriageable age. If the sign is to be of value to Ahaz, it must be demonstrably, measurably true. It can’t simply be a promise of Jesus’ birth 700 some years later. Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, sees this however as also prophetic of the Son of God’s birth, a connection earlier Jewish scholars and rabbis did not make.

Psalm 24 – This psalm deals with the kingship of God. It begins with an assertion in vs.1-2 that God’s sovereignty is grounded in his unique and absolute role as creator. God rules because God created. By definition then, any other claims to ownership are false. Verses 3-6 deal with the confessing congregation. Verse 3 questions who has the right to stand in the presence of God the Creator and absolute sovereign. Verse 4 answers the question – only the righteous may do so. Verse 5 is a promise of God’s blessing to and on such a person, and verse 6 is an affirmation of this blessedness. God’s people are always to strive for cleanness of hands and pureness of heart, but our confidence lies not in our imperfect efforts but the perfect obedience of the Son of God conveyed to us through our faith in his atoning death and resurrection on our behalf. The final four verses of the psalm form an entrance liturgy, a call and response exchange identifying the king of glory. The king seeks ceremonial entrance to his people, and is identified by his strength and power. As the sole creator and therefore the only and ultimate king, no other power or rival can stand against him and his victory is demonstrative of his identity. The people of God are to take comfort and courage from our God’s strength and dominion!

Romans 1:1-7 – Paul introduces himself to the community of Christians in Rome, some of whom he knows from other settings, and all of whom he hopes to meet when he arrives in Rome to have his case heard by the emperor (Acts 25). As such he sends this letter as a means of introduction that they might better know him and what he preaches. Every word in this introduction is laden with meaning we easily overlook! To summarize, Paul both identifies with the Roman Christians (as a servant of Christ) but also as one with apostolic authority. That authority is directed towards sharing the gospel which belongs to God, and which God himself promised and disclosed beforehand through the prophets and their words that foreshadowed and prophesied Jesus and his work and ministry. It is this Jesus that gives Paul his authority, authority Jesus derives from his dual identity as a descendant of David as well as his divine nature as the Son of God. Paul, furthermore, is directed in his apostolic work to speak the gospel to those beyond and outside God’s chosen people the Hebrews. An introduction that says immense amounts in very sparse terms, and which foreshadows Paul’s great theme in Romans of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25 – Joseph is in an awkward position. To marry a woman suspected of infidelity would be a dark blot on his good name. He could ask for her to be punished, which at one point in time would have meant death for her (Leviticus 20:10) as well as her paramour if he could be identified. Under Roman occupation she likely could not have been given a death sentence even if that practice was still expected by the Jews. Given the turn of events in John 8, it is likely more a matter of public humiliation and shame rather than execution. And Joseph wanted to spare her even that. But in what might be one of the most compelling dreams in all of recorded human history, Joseph is assured by a messenger from God to go ahead with the plans to finalize his marriage to Mary. Part of this is via an unlikely passage in Isaiah 7, a passage that no Jewish authority apparently ever viewed as relevant to the Messiah prior to Matthew’s gospel. But it is given to Joseph as evidence Mary’s situation is not a matter of lust but rather prophetic, divine action.

Joseph, convinced the message was real, responds in obedience. He goes through with the marriage but refrains from consummating it until after Jesus is born. Joseph takes on the responsibility of earthly father to the Son of God, providing for Mary and Jesus and their other children. He disappears from the Biblical narrative very soon after Jesus’ birth and childhood in Luke 2. While there are many apocryphal stories elaborating what happened to Joseph beyond what Scripture mentions, there is no way to corroborate them. Despite assertions of a long life by the apocryphal document The Story of Joseph the Carpinter as well as be St. Epiphanius in the 4th century, and despite claims by the Venerable Bede writing in the 7th century that Joseph was buried in the Valley of Jehosophat, it is far more likely he died prior to Jesus’ public ministry (less than 30 years after Jesus’ birth) and was buried in Nazareth.