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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: April 2009

I’ve been meaning to blog regarding my thoughts on Christ’s words in Matthew 7:6,
Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before swine; otherwise they wll trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.In my experience, people have taken this as an excuse for not trying to persistently teach the unresponsive about God. The idea being that the “pearls” are “pearls of wisdom,” and that certain people are simply not capable of appreciating them.

You can read something of this typical interpretation here and here. Just google “dogs pearl swine” to find more.

The thing is, when read in context this really does not make much sense. Look at what is going on in the passage. Jesus is winding up His Sermon on the Mount. At the time, the Jews thought Jesus was a gifted rabbi who was reinterpreting the Torah. This happened from time to time, and such people were said to speak “from authority” [see Matthew 7:29]. In reality, we can see this as Jesus giving a portion of the new covenant’s law. Moses brought the old covenant’s law (the 10 commandments) down from mount Sinai, and Matthew portrays Jesus giving new commands on a mountain.This sermon was mostly a discussion of commandments for God’s people, but it also included reproaches upon the Jewish leadership who had warped God’s law (Matthew 5:20 being a pretty clear example). This is what we read in the verses immediately coming up to Matthew 7:6. In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus lambasts those who among the Jewish leadership who would attack people for breaking some of the lighter parts of the Law when they themselves were neglecting the “weightier points” of mercy, protection of the weak, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23 for another such example).

So, given this context, why on earth would Jesus be giving advice about whom to speak wisdom to? Everything in the context suggests Jesus does not see His listeners as having much in the way of wisdom. He just got through saying they had a plank in their eye! Evangelicals, in their quest to turn everything into a discussion of getting people into heaven, sometimes say Jesus is talking about spreading the gospel to people who are not receptive…how could Jesus possibly have that in mind here? The people listening to Jesus just thought they were hearing an enlightened teacher, and not even his disciples had been told of what would happen to Jesus in the future. No, this is not about evangelism.

There are several clues that point to what Jesus has in mind. First, He speaks of not giving what is holy to dogs. We have managed to bastardize what the term holy means, and Jews rightfully chide us for doing so. Holy does not mean perfect or sinless. Holy means set apart. It means special or dedicated to a particular purpose. The Jews were to be a Holy people because they were to be dedicated to God.

And “dogs” was a standard epithet for non-Jews. Jesus uses the term in this way in Matthew 15:26, and understanding this usage is the key to understanding the Parable of Lazarus.And what about “pearls” and “swine”? Matthew would later relate a parable where a pearl represents the coming Kingdom, and swine is, of course, yet another way of referring to those who were outside Judaism. Pigs are the standard example of an unclean animal, an animal only Gentiles would eat. Jews would not even eat at a table on which pork was served.When we put these together we see that Jesus is not merely giving some random wisdom about how to divvy up our words to different people. We’ve turned His words into that because we are trained to ignore the crucial Gentile-Jew issues pervading apostolic Christianity.No, Jesus is warning the Jews that their special place as God’s chosen people is in danger. His words are an admonishment presaging what would ultimately occur later when the Gentiles are allowed in due to the unfaithfulness of the Jews (Romans 11:20, and Romans chapters 9 through 11 in general). This is the same fate Jesus would later describe in Matthew 21:33-46 and Matthew 22:1-14.It turns out that this notion of Jesus warning the Jewish nation is further verified if we go back to the original passage and read further. What does Jesus say after this pearls before swine verse? Matthew 7:1-11 recounts Jesus’ exhorting the Jews to “Ask, Seek, Knock,” with the promise in 7:11

If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him?

But what does the “good gifts” refer to? People today assume this passage is about praying for things we need and having God give them to us. But the word “gift,” (as I described in a recent blog entry) was the term that referred to the Holy Spirit, the sign of the new covenant!

Once again we see Jesus pleading with the Jews to repent for the Kingdom is at hand (just as He did in Matthew 3:2). He is asking them to seek the inclusion in the new covenant by turning back to God.You probably think this is all just a little shaky… interpreting this “good gift” as the Holy Spirit here… and you will probably think that up until the time you read the parallel passage in Luke 11:13!

If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will {your} heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?

In Christ, God was reaching out to the unfaithful people who had spurned the Almighty for so long. The new covenant is about to commence through the power of the Spirit. This blessing is the birthright of the Sons of Jacob. However, they were in danger of rejecting that gift without realizing it through their lack of faith.

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: 2010

I was asked by the church I attend to write a short study/meditation for the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. It was part of a larger, 14-week study the entire congregation had been doing.Having just finished it, I wanted to post it here in case anyone is interested. Each day was supposed to have some specific reading, either from the Sermon on the Mount itself or from a separate passage relating to it. The guide was supposed to also offer opportunities for meditation, reflection, and response.

The Upshot: Concluding the Sermon on the Mount

Day 1: Matthew 7:7-28

What do you expect at the end of a sermon? We all give sermons to others, or at least we imagine giving them occasionally. How do you finish yours?

Matthew 7:24-28 is not really the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the conclusion of the conclusion. The larger passage from 7:7-28 is the conclusion of the sermon. In the body of the sermon (5:21 to 7:6), Matthew reports specific teachings and admonishments, the commands Jesus mentions in 5:19. The conclusion, though, includes no such specific requirements and possesses a different texture.

Does Matthew 7:7-28 incorporate the aspects you expect in a sermon’s conclusion? How?What do you consider the basic purpose of the Sermon of the Mount (either in Jesus’ ministry or in Matthew’s presentation)? Does your reading of the conclusion support this view or ask you to alter it?

Day 2: Matthew 28:18-20

What common themes can be found by comparing the end of the Sermon on the Mount (verses 7:24-29) to the end of Matthew’s gospel (28:18-20)?What imperatives are given in both? What justification is given for the commands discussed in both?How does the wording of Matthew 5:19 connect the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount to the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel?

Jesus asks Peter, John, and the rest to make disciples of all nations. What does this word mean to you? Is this meaning reflected in the passage? Are there ways you see yourself fulfilling the call to make disciples? Are there endeavors you are considering that would fulfill Jesus’ call to make disciples of others?

What aspects of the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel (28:18-20) do not appear to have counterparts in either the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount or its conclusion?

Day 3: Luke 11:9-13

Comparing Matthew 7:7-11 to Luke 11:9-13 reveals something interesting. The “good things” that the Father will give according to Matthew’s gospel are rendered as “The Holy Spirit” in Luke’s account.How does this relate to the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel mentioned in yesterday’s meditation? In particular, how does it relate to those aspects that might not have obvious parallels in the introduction or conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount?

Very rarely, a rabbi would arise who was said to have “authority” (Jewish term: semikhah, though many other transliterations are possible.) Such a rabbi had the right to promulgate new interpretations or rabbinical traditions. These teachings would then be passed down to later rabbis. This practice maintained a certain degree of consistency among the teachings of Judaism since rabbis were not generally free to make up their own interpretations.

But occasionally someone received special revelation for a short time and would do or say things while being “in the Spirit.” We normally think of this in terms of prophecies, but often it was for instruction. An utterance made while “in the spirit” was cherished and given special authority. The biblical writers use this idiom in Matthew 22:43, Luke 2:27, and Acts 19:21 to describe actions or words provoked by God’s call. The idea that the Spirit of God would be available to everyone all the time was probably incomprehensible, and it is unsurprising that the apostles spoke in such humbled terms of the Spirit’s availability. It is called the “gift” and the realized “promise” multiple times in Acts, and chapters 13-16 of John put the Spirit in the spotlight as well.

If we temporarily set aside the mental pictures Matthew 7:7-11 plants in our Western, individualistic minds, we can grope for how Jesus may have intended this message on a community-wide scale. The Sermon on the Mount repeatedly speaks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” that the Jews were expecting to come upon them as God’s people. The Jews of Jesus’ day commonly prayed for their national salvation. If Matthew 7:7-11 is an allusion to that, we see in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount the first hints at one of the most amazing nuances of the coming Kingdom: that it would be a revolution by spiritual revelation. Instead of suggesting his Jewish brothers ask for an army to bring about their deliverance, he asks them to pray for the Spirit to come.

Just imagine living in a faith society where the Spirit of God had been almost silent for centuries, very rarely possessing anyone and only for short periods of time. How amazed early Jewish Christians must have been to find the Spirit pervading their community and touching all believers! That which was once desperately rare had become abounding, as though diamonds were falling like rain.What role does the Spirit have in your life?

Day 4: Matthew 7:1-6 and Romans 11:11-21

In the sermon’s conclusion, Christ discusses the twin dangers of following those who should not be followed and failing to follow those who should be.

Christ’s final admonition, Do not judge lest you be judged, leads into this conclusion by suggesting the Jews in general are not being a good example to others. He tells them to remove the plank from their eye so they can see to remove the specks from their brothers’. And he follows that up with a curious statement: Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs, otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.

When this phrase is quoted today, people often think Christ is saying “don’t waste your time on those unreceptive to your message,” but there is nothing anywhere near Matthew 7:6 that suggests he has this in mind. It would be rather strange for Jesus to ascribe pearls of wisdom to those he had just called hypocrites and accused of having planks in their eyes. Furthermore, the idea that we should not engage those we do not believe are receptive would go against Christ’s own model. He debated the scribes and Pharisees in his own ministry and even addressed the aristocratic Sadducees, who were probably even less receptive to his views. His later disciples would similarly engage all manner of people, not allowing their prejudices determine who was fit to hear the gospel.

Instead, Matthew 7:6 is probably a reference to the danger of God’s favor passing to the Gentiles [“pigs” and “dogs” were both Jewish epithets for Gentiles, the former emphasizing their living outside God’s law, the latter emphasizing their idolatry]. By continuing in disobedience, the Jewish nation risked having their inheritance retracted and given to someone else. This theme has already come up earlier when Jesus asks in Matthew 5:13 (the only other place where “trampled” appears in his gospel): You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. This concern shows up several times later as well, in Matthew: 21:33-41, 22:1-10, 23:37-39, and perhaps 25:28.

We might think that his concern for the Jews is an academic one, irrelevant to us today. However, Matthew saw fit to capture this concern (as did Luke) in gospels many believe were written long after the Jewish leadership rejected Christ. How do Paul’s words in Romans 11:11-21 interpret the loss the Jewish nation suffered? Do Christians run the same risk?Do you see the modern Christian church prone to dangers like those Christ and Paul warned their audiences against?

Day 5: Luke 6:46-49 and Exodus 23:20-32

Luke’s version of the conclusion to Christ’s sermon (note how Luke 6:37-49 matches up with Matthew 7:1-27 if verses 6-14 are omitted) can aid our interpreting of Matthew’s account. Fitting together Luke 6:46-49 with Matthew 7:21-27 suggests that Luke 6:46, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I tell you? is Luke’s version of Matthew 7:21-23.How does Luke 6:46 guide your interpretation of Christ’s words in Matthew 7:21-23?In addition to comparing Matthew’s version to Luke, we can compare it to the scripture Matthew undoubtedly had in mind when portraying Jesus preaching laws on a mountain, an obvious reference to Moses on Sinai. The commandments given there composed the statutes for the Mosaic covenant, a “lease” of sorts between God and Abraham’s descendents for their occupation of the promised land.Covenants between rulers and vassals in ancient times shared a common structure. After the stipulations describing what was required of the vassal came a set of blessings, a set of curses, and provisions for the ongoing validity of the covenant. In the case of the Mosaic covenant, the stipulations were the Mosaic Law (e.g. Exodus 20:1 – 23:19) and a short version of the blessings, curses, and continuity provisions can be found immediately afterward (Exodus 23:20-32). (A longer version can be seen in Deuteronomy, where the Laws span from chapter 5 through 27, the blessings, curses, and provisions for the continuity are found in chapters 28-32.)The body of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:2) parallels the commandments given on Sinai, the stipulations for Israel’s occupation. It is unclear if the conclusion of the sermon is intended to be analogous to the blessings, curses, and provision for continuity typical for a covenant. Still, there are interesting parallels between Exodus 23:20-32 and Matthew 7:7-29.What points of contact do you see between these two passages?In the Exodus passage, the Israelites were told to destroy the altars of their pagan neighbors, and God promised to drive those idolaters from the land. How does this apply to us today? What altars are you called to smash down? What do you yearn for God to drive out from within you?

Day 6: Matthew 5:13-20

A common formula for public speaking is “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them what you told them you would tell them, and then tell them what you told them,” referring to the introduction, body, and conclusion of a speech. So far, we have looked at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount as its own entity, in comparison to Matthew’s conclusion to his gospel, in comparison to Luke’s account, and in comparison to the account of Moses giving the Torah. The final place to look for confirmation that we understand the sermon’s meaning is in its introduction.How do specific sections of Matthew 5:13-20 match up with Matthew 7:1-29?We tend to read the Bible in a piece-meal fashion, often remembering just a verse or short passage that speaks to us without reference to what part it plays in the writer’s overall design. When we see individual passages as relating to common themes in a letter, it can change our views on a passage’s intended meaning. Verses we assumed meant one thing we can find were really aimed at a different objective entirely. For each match-up you find, explain how seeing the introduction and conclusion in parallel modifies how you have viewed/interpreted the individual parts.

The Sermon on the Mount is a well known phrase. Many people have heard of it without being able to identify any particular part, other than perhaps the Beatitudes. If you overheard a group of people in a coffee shop laughing about how they all knew the phrase “Sermon on the Mount” without really knowing anything about it, what would you tell them?

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Paul

It took a while, but I finally finished E.P. Sanders “Palestinian Judaism and Paul” text. The first portion of it was fantastic, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity. The second half was not nearly as good. Perhaps I was not an ideal audience for the 3rd quarter (on Qumran) because I had already been reading a bunch on the dead sea scrolls, so I didn’t see much new in Sander’s book. The last portion, on Paul, was mostly frustrating because the author ended up just repeating himself over and over again in ways that did not further substantiate his argument.

One point that the author made very early was that Paul’s letters could not possibly be seen as refuting the Jewish understanding of salvation because he never discusses repentance. It was one of those “why didn’t I see that earlier” moments. Repentance is the most important aspect of practical salvation in the Jewish ethos, so a discussion that so clearly omits any mention of it cannot be primarily meant as a critique against Jewish salvation-theory. It would be like a Soviet political theorist criticizing the entire American system of government without ever mentioning democracy or separation of powers.

Another thing I took from Sanders was a nice way to articulate an idea that I have had for a long time but could not put eloquently. It is related to the point made in the last paragraph. Christians often present the Law as a false path to salvation…that is to say a path that:

  • Someone might believe to lead to salvation

 and
The problem with this is the first statement, the presumption that the Jews actually suggested that the law was a path to salvation. In reality, the Jews saw salvation as something that was already promised to them. The intention to keep the Law functioned as a marker of who was within the scope of that promise, but not because it made someone righteous. Rather the intention to keep the law indicated that the person accepted Israel’s God as the rightful King of creation. If someone disavowed the Law, he could lose the inheritance promised to Israel not because he became unrighteous but because he failed to recognize God as the genuine article and thus was no longer part of the covenant.

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Curse

What is the point of the Garden of Eden story? Many Christians believe the point of the story is to explain how humanity fell into sin. While there may something to that, it must be always kept in mind that NONE of the New Testament evangelism even mentions the fall of Adam. If the Garden of Eden is a key part to the story of Christina salvation, you would never know it from reading the Gospels and the many evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts. In fact, I claim the text makes clear in flashing neon lights what the story is about, and we only fail to see it because we have been taught to read Protestant theology into the story.

It is true that the Garden of Eden story is linked to man’s mortality (which is different from his damnation), but not in the way people often are taught. Even after sinning, humanity could have had immortality had Adam eaten from the tree of the fruit of life. [Genesis 3:22] and the principal reason God kicks Adam out of the Garden is that (for whatever reason) God did not want Adam to both know the difference between good and evil and be immortal.

But the story answers other questions as well. For example, it explains why snakes have no legs [Genesis 3:14], more importantly it explains where our conscience, our ability to determine right and wrong, comes from [Genesis 3:5-7, and Genesis 3:22 again].

Most importantly, it acts as a key lead-in to Noah’s story!!

Yes, I believe it is not an over-estimation to say that the single most important theme of the Garden of Eden is that it acts as a prequel to Noah’s work. It does not appear that way to us because we focus on the least important aspect of Noah and miss a key point to the Garden of Eden story. When you think of Noah, you think of the flood. And when you think of the flood story, the conclusion everyone remembers is the rainbow as a proof that God will not destroy the Earth by flood. To us Americans living in the land of plenty, where true poverty and hunger are extremely rare, the dramatic story of the flood and the destruction it wrought on the Earth is the key point. But to the Israelites/Hebrews reading the story of Noah, the flood is not the real point. When we look at the passage where God makes a covenant with Noah [8:21-22] we note two blessings given to Noah. The one everyone knows (the rainbow, etc.), and another one “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the intention of his heart is evil from his youth.”

Recall that in Genesis 3:17-19 the ground is cursed because of Adam’s sin. Prior to this curse Adam was still expected to work in the garden and tend it [Genesis 2:15]. The curse made the work much harder. Indeed, Noah gets his name because he was appointed to reverse this curse: Genesis 5:29 reads “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” [The Hebrew word Noah sounds like the word for “bring us relief” and there are several puns made on this in the ensuing story of the flood.]

This reference to agriculture is also found in Noah being the first person to plant a vineyard.  In fact, Noah more than reverses the curse because not only does God remove the curse on the ground, but for the first time God allows humanity to eat animals rather than only plants. [Genesis 9:3] This is another reason why the curse on the ground was so onerous: humanity depended completely on agriculture rather than ranching. So I think the most significant part of the Garden of Eden, at least for the original readers, was its role in the general drama of sustenance. Before the garden, no plants were cultivated because it had not rained and there was no one to tend them. Adam is made and put in the garden to tend the plants there. Adam’s sin causes the ground to be cursed, making life hard. Noah gets his namesake from the hope that he will break the curse, and sure enough that is what happens. He more than breaks the curse because the ground is no longer cursed and humanity can now eat animals as well. How very different we read the story.

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: November 2008

Think about “the Gospel” for a moment. Whatever that means to you.

Now, remove anything related to Christ’s death and resurrection. [[Note, this is a thought experiment, I’m not actually advocating that we remove such things from the gospel. Just work with me a bit…]

Now, remove anything related to Jesus being the Messiah.What do you have left?I think for most Christians the answer is “not much.”I’d like to challenge those Christians and everyone else to ponder a bit the gospel message of Jesus and His apostles.The Bible indicates a wide variety of instances where Jesus and others spread “the Gospel” prior to His death. This includes John the Baptist preaching “the Gospel” before Jesus’ public ministry. It includes Jesus preaching the Gospel throughout His three years of ministry on Earth [the word “Gospel’ is not used in John’s account, but “Word” is more or less his equivalent.] The disciples are sent out partway through Jesus’ third year of ministry to preach the gospel to the surrounding areas.What were these people preaching…and why is it called “The Gospel”?At this point you might be looking at me like I have a third eye or a “I love Twisted Sister” tattoo on my forehead. But I’m serious…what do you think Jesus and His disciples preached as “The Gospel” during that time?

The reason why this is an interesting question is that no one knew Jesus was going to Die. Of course Jesus knew He was going to die, but the disciples didn’t. Luke 24:26-27 and John 20:9 makes very clear that none of His disciples had realized that He was going to die, so what kind of Gospel were they preaching if no one had figured this out?

Note, I’m not saying Jesus never alluded to His coming death. It’s sad I have to write this disclaimer, but you would not believe how many people read the last two paragraphs and immediately attack me for saying that Jesus never said He was going to die. I’m not saying Jesus never alluded to this event, I’m saying that it could not have played a role in the Gospel He and His disciples taught because no one understood His teaching.We are told of many people who “believed” the message Jesus gave, and the apostles took that message to everyone else…which means whatever that message was, it couldn’t have anything to do with Jesus’ death. It would be hard for disciples to take a message to everyone that they themselves did not know!Furthermore, whatever this message, this “Gospel” was, it couldn’t have anything to do with Jesus being the Messiah either. It was not until rather late that even His own disciples identified Him as the Messiah, and that was not due to Jesus’ instruction but by divine intervention [as Matthew 16:17 makes clear.] Furthermore, after Jesus verifies this, He tells them not to tell anyone!!

And that brings up another great question. It’s easy to see why the gospel the modern Christian church preaches counts as “good news.” But that message more or less disappears once you remove any reference to Jesus’ death…that means that not only do we have to wonder what the message Jesus and His disciples taught was, but we have to wonder why it was good news (which as most know, is what “gospel” means)!

To add to the bizarre state of things, we see that even the message Jesus tells His apostles to take to “all nations” is not at all like the gospel Christians teach today. If you read Matthew 28:18-20 carefully, you’ll note that Jesus is not saying “Go tell everyone about me in order to save them from Hell.”

Instead Jesus says “Go teach them to obey the commands I have already given you, because I have been made Lord over Heaven and Earth.”

It is worth pointing out here that these apostles that were told to make disciples of all nations only went to the Jews. No one preached to the Gentiles until nearly ten years after Jesus’ resurrection. Anyone who believes the original Gospel was about “saving souls” is instantly making villains out of Peter, John, and the other apostles. Do we really think these holy men of God desired to abandon all gentiles to Hell? That is the logical deduction one is led to if we believe the early Gospel was about “saving souls from Hell.”

But that isn’t what the early Gospel was about. In fact, the word “hell” doesn’t even appear in all of Acts. Not one time. Acts is the most abundant repository of early teachings to new believers by the original apostles, and the word Hell never even comes up in the nearly 20 passages describing their teachings in Acts.

So, regardless of what we teach as the Gospel today, we owe it to all Christians and anyone else to point out the original apostles never thought they were “saving souls” in the way the Gospel is described today. While we’re at it, it might prove worthwhile to consider what the Gospel Jesus and His apostles preached really comprised.

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: October 2009

I’m reading David Flusser’s “The Sage from Galilee” and a verse was pointed out that I find incredibly important.Micah 2:13 speaks of the Messiah leading God’s people out of a gate after having the strength to break it. The interesting part of the verse is its emphasis on the Messiah going out before them, in advance. John 10:4 holds much the same idea.This is important to me because I claim the earliest Christians saw Christ as a “trail-blazer” or “pioneer,” giving proof of blessings available to them by experiencing them first. Christ was baptized. Christ received the Holy Spirit. Christ put his trust in God (“He who judges righteously” in 1st Peter 2:23) rather than call on angels to save Him, providing an example of how Christians should live. And then Christ was resurrected with a transformed body. These are the elements of Christian salvation as understood by the early Christians (in particular the receipt of the Holy Spirit and then resurrection with a transformed body).This idea of “trail-blazer” or “pioneer” for the purposes of providing example is, in fact, what the Greek word “archēgos” means. The one used in Acts 3:15, Acts 5:31, Hebrews 2:10 and Hebrews 12:2, but most translations do not convey the notion of “trail-blazer” or “pioneer” because there is a general interest in under-playing Christ as an example or seeing Him as the first Christian martyr.Instead, the word is translated as “Prince” or “Author” in these verses [the other two meanings according to Thayer’s Lexicon.

This discussion of the first verse is linked to another verse shown to me when reading a completely different book. I am also reading the apologies of Justin Martyr. He pointed out a verse commonly used by early defenders of the faith to refer to the idea of Jesus submitting to unjust death out of confidence that God, being good, would not allow a righteous man to be ashamed. This is the idea found in the 1st Peter 2:23 verse I mentioned earlier, but is found throughout that letter.

A crystal clear OT prophecy of Christ submitting to suffering for that purpose is given in Isaiah 50:5-7 !

I really love this aspect of Christ’s submission. It really speaks of Christ’s faith rather than merely His faithfulness to God’s plan. If we think of Christ as merely going through the whole suffering and death for purposes of fulfilling God’s plan, it really speaks nothing at all about faith. Faith is confidence in something unseen. If we picture Christ as being absolutely certain of the aftermath [in the way that the Almighty Father was], there is nothing to have faith in because there is nothing unseen to rely on.

However, if we allow Christ to have the dimension of a righteous follower of God who believed so strongly that the Father, being righteous and good, would not allow the extremely shameful crucifixion to be the end of the story, then we see Christ having faith in the unseen…faith in God’s attributes. This is exactly the kind of faith Christ calls for in others: “you believe God is powerful, cares about the poor, and is inclined to reward those who do His will…then why don’t you act like it?”

I could see that the above depiction of Jesus might seem a bit too humble for some. A “middle road” would be that Jesus had been told by God what would happen and then we see Jesus not having faith in God’s attributes but rather God’s willingness to do what He said.

However, I think the above is both absurd and very close to what might be reality: Christ had faith in God’s Word as shown in the Old Testament. He believed the sketch portrayed there was authentic and could be trusted. Note that this is precisely the kind of faith He attacks His disciples for not having in Luke 24:25-27.

Given that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s Word, it would be (in some way I cannot fully wrap my head around) fitting for this latter type to be the kind of faith Jesus had.I realize this whole discussion may grate on some people who feel it makes Jesus too human by claiming there were things he did not know [in the sense of have evidence for rather mere confidence in.] But He has no problems evincing His ignorance of some aspects of the Father’s plan in Mark 13:32 (and note Luke 2:52).

P.S. The content of this passage is not meant to suggest that the only reason Christ submitted to death was for purposes of example.

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: March 2013

(Note to anyone who got here by Google search: This post is not a discussion of whether hell is eternal or not. That debate does not interest me. It is a discussion of what “aionios” means in general, with particular interest in what the phrase “aionios zoe” (generally translated “eternal life”) means in the New Testament.)

The Greek word aion originally simply referred to life, and later came to mean “life span.” From this usage it became a general word for a “length of time.” By the time of Christ it more commonly referred to longer time-spans, and is often translated as “age” in the New Testament. It is where we get our word “eon”(or aeon). 

When Christ speaks of those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit not being forgiven “in this age or in the age to come” [Matthew 12:32], the background Greek is aion. About 75% of the time you read “age” in the New Testament, the background Greek is aion. Unfortunately, there is simply no English equivalent to the essential meaning of aion, but “age” is the most accurate of several unsatisfactory choices. Indeed, if translators were more literal, we would read “age” more frequently in our Bibles, but often aion gets translated as “world” or “forever.” Instead of “forever,” a more accurate translation would be “throughout this/the age.” To capture the notion of something transcending the/this age, writers often use the plural, as in the common reference to glory being to Jesus “forever and ever” (e.g., Hebrews 13:21) which is literally “into the ages.”

While “age” is the closest English word to what aion means, it fails to capture its philosophical trappings. Indeed, our modern understanding of time forms a real barrier to understanding the Greek notion of an “age.” We see time as a type of coordinate system that complements space. Space bounds the universe and every point in that universe travels through time. In this way, locations and events can be designated by their place and date much like points on the Earth’s surface are designated by latitude and longitude. For the Greeks, though, time was bound up with the idea of motion and (more generally) the type of gradual change perceived in the world as it evolves.

When I say aion means “age” I don’t mean to emphasize the chronological time interval moving from one date to another. In fact, the philosophical meaning of aion contrasts with the notion of chronological time. Chronological time (as understood by the Greeks) is bound to the realm of our senses. We see and apprehend events occurring in time and we mark time off from one solar cycle to another. The notion of aion is rather a “timeless present” that captures the abstract properties of the world. A new aion is marked out when the characteristics of the previous one cease to be and are replaced by new characteristics.

One example given by Philo [(On the Changing of Names (267)] is the aion signified by the birth of Isaac. The world prior to Isaac’s birth is somehow fundamentally different from the world afterward because Isaac’s birth marks the fulfillment of a promise by God. This was an aion that was, in Philo’s words, truly “strange, marvelous, and new.” So the point of an aion is not that it marks off some interval of time but rather that it represents an apprehension of abstract qualities of the world, an apprehension that does not change gradually (as the world seen through the lens of time does), but is rather a timeless present that endures until the next age commences.

Linguistically, the word “aionios” is just the adjective formed from aion. Thus, if we were using strict etymology, aionios would mean something like “pertaining to (a/the) age.” Its actual meaning (or range of meanings) has been much debated.

It is an odd word. We don’t have one in English. The words “age-y” or “time-span-y” don’t exist. The closest we come is when we say something like “That outfit is so 80s.” Words are created because of practical needs, and it is not clear why one needs an adjective form of “age.”

For this reason, the adjective aionios came rather late. The Greeks got along perfectly well for several centuries prior to Plato coming up with the word. He is the first person known to use the term aionios, most notably in Timaeus, where he describes the creation of the universe. 

The thing that makes aionios so difficult to understand is that it is very often used to refer to “unceasing” or “constant,” and hence is often read as “eternal.” Yet, the Greeks already had a word for “eternal” [adios], so why did Plato feel the need to create this other word?

More important to my study is “What did John, Paul, and the other Jews responsible for the NT mean when they wrote aionios?” If they just wanted to say “eternal” or “unending,” then the Greek word that clearly means that is adios. Yet aionios is used very frequently in the NT while adios is only used twice (in Romans 1:20 to refer to God’s eternal power, and in Jude 6 to refer to the eternal chains binding the rebellious angels for punishment). Aionios is a more obscure word, so why was it favored so heavily? What did the apostles mean by it?

Much of the interest in the meaning of aionios comes from people who want to argue against the idea of hell lasting forever. This strikes me as a rather silly debate. First, whether or not hell lasts forever, the Bible is clear it should be avoided at all costs. Second, claiming that God could not possibly choose to punish people for eternity seems too much like judging the Creator. Third, those who argue for a temporal hell generally (though not always) do so as part of a Universalistic theory that claims all eventually go to heaven. This further claim seems decidedly unbiblical based on Matthew 10:28. (Luke 13:24 ff also seems to suggest that once the door is closed it won’t be reopened.)

The reason I care about the meaning of aionios is its use in the key phrase aionios zoe, generally translated “eternal life.” I claim that it rather refers to “life in the age (to come)” or “life in the (Messianic) age.” In other words, the life we have in the New Covenant. We have a type of this life now with the advent of the Holy Spirit, and it will reach fullest flower when we receive our full inheritance of a purified flesh in the resurrection (Romans 8:23).

The problem is that it is hard to tell what aionios is intended to mean in general because the life of the next age is supposed to be unending/eternal (see Luke 20:36) as well, and the life of the New Covenant is understandably linked to that life as described above. Thus, it is hard to untangle what aspect of the life we have in Christ the New Testament writers referred to with aionios. Was it intended to refer to the new creation, the “life of the new age.” Or was it intended simply to refer to immortality?

Often this is when people who don’t like theology say something like “can’t it be both?” Or, similarly, “why does it matter which meaning they actually intended if both meanings apply?”

The reason I’m pursuing the question is that our understanding of what the apostles meant by aionios zoe (typically translated “eternal life”) directly influences how we think about other topics because the idea of aionios zoe is fundamentally linked to salvation and Christ’s work in general. If you think of aionios zoe as referring to the life we have in the New Covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit, then the gospel story of Christ’s work revolves around the question of “what did Christ have to do to allow me to receive the Spirit?” In other words, it becomes centered on verses like John 16:7. This is quite a different gospel story than what many Christians are used to. Note that this question includes the key idea of the resurrection as well because the resurrected flesh is the most perfect form of this life in the New Covenant. It is the completion of the work Jesus has already begun, the final inheritance for which the Holy Spirit is a portion.

Notably absent from the above is any discussion of the Final Judgment, which I do not believe is directly linked to salvation. Jesus judges both Christians and non-Christians alike, but not as a judge assesses a defendant (who is only on trial for supposed crimes). Rather Christ judges everyone based on all their works (both evil and good) to determine whom He will choose for the New Kingdom. (This is indicated many times in scripture, some clear examples being Matthew 14:47-50; Matthew 25:31-46. Paul says it in three different ways within the Romans 2:5-16 passage and repeats it in Romans 14:10-12. 2nd Corinthians 5:11 is also notable.)

Recently I found a couple of particularly interesting passages in Philo where aionios is used in a way that completely settles the question as to the basic meaning of aionios for Hellenized Jews around the time of Christ. Before going into the details, I want to give an English hypothetical that mirrors Philo’s discussion of aionios.

Imagine you are a 5th grade student, and your science teacher says “The academic name for our Sun is Sol. I say ‘academic’ because it is not a universal name for our ‘sun.’ Our sun doesn’t have a universal name, and it does not need a universal name. People just say ‘the sun’ and most people have no knowledge of the name ‘Sol.’”

Now, as a 5th grade student, you may not know what “academic” means, but from the above discussion it absolutely cannot mean “universal” or “used everywhere” or “unlimited in space.” The teacher has specified that the whole point of her use of “academic” is to limit the scope of the term under discussion. If “academic” could in any way have “everywhere” or “universal” as its base meaning, then her statement becomes sheer lunacy.

Philo makes a statement very similar to the above, except instead of discussing something containing all of space (everywhere/universal), the discussion refers to time.

Philo comments on passages in the Old Testament where the name of God is discussed. The Greek version of the Old Testament uses the term aionios to refer to this name. Philo explains that the use of the word aionios tells us that this name is not the eternal name for God. It does not apply to the age that came before this one, but is only given in this age so man would have a term to use in prayer. Philo indicates that aionios is a fundamentally limiting term (with respect to time) and specifies that it is not only a limiting term, but it is used precisely for the purpose of specifying that God’s absolute name is not in view because God has no absolute name. Philo says that the word aionios is used to “relativize” the name of God, indicating that the name given to Moses is God’s name relative just to this age, not one that is applicable beyond or before this age. Clearly, if aionios had “eternal” as a base meaning, it could hardly be used with the purpose of limiting the noun it is modifying.

In discussing the well-known “I am who I am” passage where God is said to have given God’s aionios name, Philo says (On the Changing of Names, section 12):

For this, says he, is the “[aionios]” name, as if it has been investigated and discerned in the age [aion] in which we live, and not in the age [aion] that was before.

In another passage (On Abraham, section 51), Philo makes a similar remark. He quotes Scripture where God says “This is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Here, Yong’s classic translation of this passage:

…appropriating to himself an appellation composed of the three names: “For,” says God, “this is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” using there the relative term instead of the absolute one; and this is very natural, for God stands in no need of a name. But though he does not stand in any such need, nevertheless he bestows his own title on the human race that they may have a refuge to which to betake themselves in supplications and prayers, and so may not be destitute of a good hope.

This discussion is not intended to suggest that aion or aionos can never imply or give rise to the notion of eternity.  As mentioned above there are certainly phrases using this term (“from age to age” and “into the ages”) that convey the notion of “forever and ever.” However, these very phrases indicate that aion itself cannot refer to “forever” in the philosophical sense. There cannot be multiple “forevers.” These terms can get across the notion of “ceaseless” or “enduring” because the notion of aion embodies those properties of the world that are not subject to the gradual effect that time has on the world. However, this does not mean “changeless” per se, but rather “constant within this age.” (Of course, there is nothing saying that the age in question has to end…)

The point of this discussion is to claim that when Jesus or one of the apostles used the term aionios to refer to the life made possible to us through Jesus, they were not referring to the “unendingness” of that life but are rather referring to the character of that life. The aionios zoe is the life in the age of the New Covenant and is fundamentally different from the life of those who never received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Just as the birth of Isaac ushered in a new age fundamentally different from that which came before it, the ascension of Jesus as High Priest who sends the Holy Spirit, brings about a new age, and those who believe in Jesus have access to the special life of that age.

Under this reading, Christ’s claim in John 17:3 makes perfect sense: “This is the aionios zoe, that they know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom You have sent.” This verse defines the aionios life not in terms of its duration but in terms of its nature.Note that the special linguistic structure John uses in 17:3 is the same he uses elsewhere when he wants to give a definition or exact description of something or someone. See John 1:19, John 3:19, John 15:12, 1 John 1:5, and 1 John 3:11 for further examples of this grammatical structure and John’s use of it.

The life in this new age is one typified by knowledge of God, knowledge which Jesus says will be brought by the Holy Spirit. It is the sending of the Holy Spirit that Jesus claims is the reason He had to die (John 16:7).

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: May 2012

I recently read much of “Perspectives on Election,” one of those books where four or five different theologians/pastors each defend a view on a controversial topic and then respond to each other. There are several biblical passages that appear to clearly support this or that view on election, but arguments over election also become arguments over God’s attributes. Those arguing for pre-destination might say, “If God is omnipotent, God can bring about any end God wishes, so anyone who is not ‘saved’ must (at least in some regard) be that way by God’s choice (either omissive or comissive).” Of course, true Calvinists argue something much stronger than that. Conversely, Thomas B. Talbott points to “God is Love” (1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16), meaning not merely that God “happens to love,” but rather that love is an essential aspect of God. Talbott uses this to defend Universalism because God must be loving in all God’s acts, precluding eternal damnation. One thing that irks me about this type of debate is the careless logic involved when we begin using terms like “omnipotent” or “all-loving.” If we say “God can do anything” we must be leery about what we mean by “anything.” For example, a careless interpretation of that would say it means God is able to sin. But saying that God has the “power” to sin is illogical on its face, for it unravels any reasonable definition of “sin.” Nor does it mean “God has the power to create a rock that God cannot lift.” Saying “God is omnipresent (everywhere)” does not mean “God exists in the homeland of Adam’s Grandfather.” Nor would it mean “God is in hell,” assuming one takes the absence of God as one essential aspect of hell. Similarly, saying “God is omniscient” should not suggest that “God knows the name of the integer between 1 and 2,” as no such integer exists.

These observations do not violate a belief in God’s “omni-” attributes. Saying “X is everywhere” means “X is every where,” so a place has to qualify as a “where” before X can be said to be there. Certain “places” are not “where”s at all because they don’t exist. Similarly for things like “God can do any thing.” There are certain feats that don’t qualify as “things” because they involve a logical inconsistency and hence do not exist. Sometimes these are logical inconsistencies relating specifically to the item under discussion (Adam’s Grandfather’s homeland does not exist), and in other cases they are logical inconsistencies because of some other attribute of God (like the notion of God sinning).

This naturally extends to such things as God’s love. To determine whether an act is loving or not, one has to consider the logical boundaries provided by God’s other attributes, such as God’s righteousness and justice. One also has to consider that an act may seem unloving toward one person while being loving toward another.

None of the above is meant to push for one or another view on election, but I will say I’m intrigued by a view I read where “election” is cast in terms of how God saves rather than who God saves. In other words, this view suggests that certain people are elected to be God’s ministers to others, bringing God’s word and love to the world so all may praise God. As interesting as this sounds, I don’t see how it gets around Acts 13:48, which clearly describes some as being “appointed” to a portion in the World to Come.

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: July 2010

I know I have not been blogging much recently [understatement].I’ve been working on a science book that is now about 6 months past due. However, I’ve also begun much-needed revisions to WRGTH.If you are interested in being a volunteer reader for the new edition, please send me an email. You would receive PDFs with new material in red so you can see quickly what has been changed and comment on it.

Thanks!

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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: What is the point of the Garden of Eden story?

What is the point of the Garden of Eden story? Many Christians believe the point of the story is to explain how humanity fell into sin. While there may something to that, it must be always kept in mind that NONE of the New Testament evangelism even mentions the fall of Adam. If the Garden of Eden is a key part to the story of Christina salvation, you would never know it from reading the Gospels and the many evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts. In fact, I claim the text makes clear in flashing neon lights what the story is about, and we only fail to see it because we have been taught to read Protestant theology into the story.

It is true that the Garden of Eden story is linked to man’s mortality (which is different from his damnation), but not in the way people often are taught. Even after sinning, humanity could have had immortality had Adam eaten from the tree of the fruit of life. [Genesis 3:22] and the principal reason God kicks Adam out of the Garden is that (for whatever reason) God did not want Adam to both know the difference between good and evil and be immortal.

But the story answers other questions as well. For example, it explains why snakes have no legs [Genesis 3:14], more importantly it explains where our conscience, our ability to determine right and wrong, comes from [Genesis 3:5-7, and Genesis 3:22 again].

Most importantly, it acts as a key lead-in to Noah’s story!!

Yes, I believe it is not an over-estimation to say that the single most important theme of the Garden of Eden is that it acts as a prequel to Noah’s work. It does not appear that way to us because we focus on the least important aspect of Noah and miss a key point to the Garden of Eden story. When you think of Noah, you think of the flood. And when you think of the flood story, the conclusion everyone remembers is the rainbow as a proof that God will not destroy the Earth by flood. To us Americans living in the land of plenty, where true poverty and hunger are extremely rare, the dramatic story of the flood and the destruction it wrought on the Earth is the key point. But to the Israelites/Hebrews reading the story of Noah, the flood is not the real point. When we look at the passage where God makes a covenant with Noah [8:21-22] we note two blessings given to Noah. The one everyone knows (the rainbow, etc.), and another one “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the intention of his heart is evil from his youth.”

Recall that in Genesis 3:17-19 the ground is cursed because of Adam’s sin. Prior to this curse Adam was still expected to work in the garden and tend it [Genesis 2:15]. The curse made the work much harder. Indeed, Noah gets his name because he was appointed to reverse this curse: Genesis 5:29 reads “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” [The Hebrew word Noah sounds like the word for “bring us relief” and there are several puns made on this in the ensuing story of the flood.]

This reference to agriculture is also found in Noah being the first person to plant a vineyard.  In fact, Noah more than reverses the curse because not only does God remove the curse on the ground, but for the first time God allows humanity to eat animals rather than only plants. [Genesis 9:3] This is another reason why the curse on the ground was so onerous: humanity depended completely on agriculture rather than ranching. So I think the most significant part of the Garden of Eden, at least for the original readers, was its role in the general drama of sustenance. Before the garden, no plants were cultivated because it had not rained and there was no one to tend them. Adam is made and put in the garden to tend the plants there. Adam’s sin causes the ground to be cursed, making life hard. Noah gets his namesake from the hope that he will break the curse, and sure enough that is what happens. He more than breaks the curse because the ground is no longer cursed and humanity can now eat animals as well. How very different we read the story.