Monday, 17 December 2018

War, Pacifism and Love - Pt 3

Welcome back to Part 3 of my discussion on War and Pacifism. Sorry it has been a while but I have been devoting my spare time to writing my next book and I am trying to keep the momentum going. I did today though feel that I needed to finish up this series as well and so I will quickly be returning to it once again. For those who don’t know, I am using one of David Servant’s blogs which was critical of those who embrace non-violence as a resource and I encourage you to read part one and two of my response to get up to speed with us over here.

Today, I want to focus on Jesus’ commands to love ones enemies and to love ones neighbors. Let’s use the two portions of scripture below to frame the conversation.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. – Matthew 5:43-45

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:36-40

David’s post, which I think represents well those who support just war theory, has essentially argued that Jesus’ commands to love ones neighbors and to love ones enemies cannot be taken as umbrella statements for all peoples. In his post he argues that because these principles can be found in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18) alongside other commands to kill ones neighbors and enemies, that they cannot possibly be all-encompassing statements made by Jesus pertaining to ALL peoples.

Accordingly, loving ones neighbors and enemies does not apply to people who are not among you or are aggressive toward you. Amazingly, David uses the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 to define ones neighbor as those whom we are in contact with. By this definition though, we side with the Priest and the Levite who passed on the other side of the road and essentially buried their heads in the sand to the suffering of their fellow man. The whole point of Jesus’ parable was that the one who was different, reviled and separate from their own tribe fulfilled the law by being a neighbor to the man who was left for dead.

When Jesus said that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, He did not have in mind your neighbor who plays his music to loud or the guys at work who takes credit for your ideas. His listeners would have had their Roman oppressors in mind as the Greek word used for enemies (echthroi) would include religious and political enemies. Not only that, but the word Jesus used for ‘love’ was agape, He is not saying love your enemies like you love pizza but love your enemies like God loves us with a self-sacrificial kind of love. When Jesus follows up by saying that if your enemy causes you to walk one mile with him go two miles, He is referring to an old right that Roman soldiers had over the Jews where they were legally permitted to force a civilian to carry their loads for them for up to one mile.

The only enemy that a Christ follower has a right to war against is the principalities, authorities, cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil, our enemy is never ever flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12) and both Christ and the early church demonstrated this through their own deaths when they prayed that their executioners would be forgiven rather than fight back to save themselves. Peter encouraged us to suffer for doing good rather than retaliate (1 Peter 2:18-23). Jesus said that the peacemakers will be called the children of God, to be called a child of God or a son of God means that we are reflecting His image. He even went as far as to say that because His kingdom was not of this world or one defined by lines drawn in the sand that His followers would NOT fight. Here is the bottom line, at the end of the day we either trust in the power of the sword or we trust in the power of the cross. We can only choose to carry one as they are mutually exclusive and represent two different kingdoms.

This surely still leaves a lot of questions about all of that divinely sanctioned violence in the Old Testament though. In my last post, I will suggest an alternate approach to scripture than the one David has promoted which I believe waters down the teachings of Jesus in an attempt to harmonize them with some of the darker parts of the Bible.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Making America Great Again - book review

I have to admit that I have never been all that into politics. Sure I recognize that those who govern our lands have the capacity to do a lot of good and a lot of harm and our voices matter but generally speaking, I find that politics can be pretty boring and there is always a suspicion that those in power are more focused on looking out for themselves than the people they are meant to be serving. And besides, the Kingdom of God operates in such a contrary manner to the kingdoms of men that trying to play their game can be like trying to figure out how to play water polo from a manual for rules of soccer. I must confess though, that Donald Trump's presidency got me flipping through the news channels every so often which is something that I normally would avoid. It's just been pure TV drama from day one (on both sides of the fence) and like road kill, it's hard to look away.

So I was intrigued by Pastor David Moore's new book entitled, 'Making America Great Again' and had to have a look, I didn't know who he was beforehand but when an African American Pastor writes a book with a foreword by Brian Mclaren I figured that this had to be interesting. I must say though, I presumed that this book would be more theological than it is, maybe highlighting the sharp contrast between greatness through the eyes of many American evangelicals to what greatness looks like in the life of Jesus and those who imitate Him. I was kind of wrong and right in my assumptions...

The book is indeed about power, on our relationship with it and with Jesus but it is not really a book with neat little theological arguments in it at all. Rather, this read offers something powerful and unique to us in that it opens up a conversation that invites us to see America through the eyes of the poor, the disadvantaged, people of color and outsiders. Something that middle class white men like myself can be oblivious to because our life experiences can look very different in similar circumstances. I appreciated that Dr Moore spoke of his time in South Africa as well which is certainly more familiar to me than the USA.

For anyone who wants to better grasp the things that divide a society or understand the social and economic inequality that society, including modern evangelicism, not only ignores but oftentimes promotes then this is a great book to pick up and digest. It will help in your quest to be less ignorant and more Jesusy to your neighbors. The Kingdom of God will not come through political campaigning, through coercion or by standing on the heads of others but rather through men and woman who are prepared to be the hands and feet of Christ and lifting others up.

*I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.
You can pick up a copy of Making America Great Again by clicking over here.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

War, Pacifism and the New Testament - Pt 2

In my previous post I started to talk about war and pacifism and why Christians cannot seem to agree on this topic. One could be forgiven for reading the Bible and concluding that Jesus is the Prince of Peace but His father a God of War. Yet these same scriptures testify that Jesus is the perfect representation of His Father, His express image and purest expression revealed to man. So how do we get around this dilemma? One ancient heresy called Marcionism simply discarded the Old Testament and followed the New. The problem with this though is that Jesus Himself drew greatly from the Old Testament in his own teachings, they clearly had His stamp of approval on them and so anyone who claims to ‘follow Jesus’ needs to approach their OT with the same degree of respect and seriousness. Another far more common method of solving the problem is to simply water down both Testaments until they fit neatly together. So verses like the two below are interpreted rather liberally or ignored entirely. These verses come from Numbers 31:17-18 where Moses is angry with his soldiers for not having killed the Midianite woman and the children when slaughtering the men as well, this was part of his instructions to his army.

Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately.

In other words, kill all the male children and women but you can keep the virgins as the spoils of war. We often hear and are shocked and disgusted that Pharaoh had all of the young boys murdered when Moses was a baby and likewise when Herod tried to kill Jesus and did the same in Bethlehem. But when we get to Numbers 31 we come up with something like, yeah but you need to understand the context and so killing children, babies and ladies of another faith is actually merciful or Gods judgment etc.

Anyway, I am getting a bit side tracked here and will return to the Old Testament in my fourth and final post in this series but for now let me refocus on the point that I want to raise. Many Christians, knowing the stories of the flood, the genocide of the Canaanites, a one man army called Samson, a mighty warrior named David and so on, have concluded that Jesus words of love for your enemies and neighbors, responding to evil with goodness, showing forgiveness and mercy and grace cannot be absolutes. Because if they were, then we need to ask some hard questions around the Old Testament and start apologizing for things like the Crusades and the burning of heretics and witches and the drowning of the Anabaptists and for the thousands of dead and orphaned children in the Middle East in the last century. Using David Servant’s post mentioned in my previous blog, I would like to look today at how Christians have tried to soften Jesus‘ words by depicting Him more like the warrior God that many people seem to prefer in an attempt to reconcile the violent and meek portrayals of God in scripture.
The New Testament

Almost everyone is quick to admit that The New Testament could be stamped with a far lighter age restriction for violence than the Old but there are some portions that always get highlighted which I would like to look at. Apart from Jesus commands to love ones neighbor as he loves himself and to love and bless your enemies which David argued in his post cannot be taken as umbrella statements extended to all people which I will address in my next post, there are four other arguments that he and others generally use to try and justify violence.

The sword

The first argument against non violence and non resistance is taken from a verse where Jesus tells His disciples to buy swords. I used this verse myself a long time ago when I was on the other side of the fence on this debate. Let's read it in Luke 22:35-38:

And [Jesus] said to [His apostles], “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough” (Luke 22:35-38).

I'm not the only one to use this verse before, David mentions it in his article as well but here is the thing. Why did Jesus tell His disciples to get some swords and what was the purpose for carrying them? Were the swords for self defense as many presuppose? They cannot be and here is why, the section above itself tells us why Jesus told them to get 'a couple' of swords, it was simply to fulfill what was previously written in order that He would be 'numbered with the transgressors'. Two swords is not enough if you intend on using them against the Roman soldiers or a band of thieves but it is enough to fulfill a scripture as Jesus sees it. Moreover, when Peter actually does go and pull one of them out and chops a guys ear off with it, Jesus intervenes and heals the man, in other words, He repays evil with kindness. If that is not enough, He rebukes Peter and says to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). If we are going to justify godly violence through Jesus' words and actions then this certainly is not the scene to build your case on. There is of course one more time when Jesus Himself is portrayed with a sword which I will address when I get to the book of Revelation.

Jesus' violent outburst in the Temple

"The pacifist claim that Jesus never used force to achieve His objectives is also patently untrue. Jesus at least once “made a scourge of cords” (John 2:15) and violently drove money changers from the temple while overturning their tables. “Gentle Jesus” was not always so gentle".

This was David's statement regarding Jesus' actions when He 'cleansed' the temple but I think that he is wrong about this one as well. I have written about this before so instead of repeating everything here I will post a link to that article (click here) and make just a few simple observations about Jesus' 'cleansing' of the temple.

1 - His actions were not spur of the moment rage but premeditated and deliberate. Before Jesus even enters the temple or the city He wept over it (Luke 19:41-44), John 2 mentions that He made a whip, that would have taken Him at least a few minutes. Note here that if you have ever worked with farm animals like bulls and sheep the sound of a cracking whip is a great way to steer them, Jesus didn't go all Indiana Jones on anyone or use it as a weapon. Anyone who claims that is reading into the text what simply is not there.

2 - According to John 2:18 the Jews did not interpret the turned over tables as the actions of an out of control man, rather, they saw them as the symbolic actions of a prophet.John 2:18 says, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things"? We have all watched movies recreating this scene before but does this statement maybe cause you to envision it a little differently?

3 - If not, then consider this, in the Gospel of Matthew this account ends with the blind and the lame coming to Jesus and Him healing them while the children around him rejoiced and sang "Hosanna to the Son of David" (Mathew 21:14-15). One has to wonder, if Jesus' actions were really that violent then you would expect the children to be scattering and the lame to keep their distance but that is not what happened. Perhaps the prophet got it right when he wrote in Isaiah 53:9 that there was no violence or deceit found in Him.

The war imagery

Good Christians tend to distance themselves from things that are seemingly bad. So the argument here is that if war was something bad and unchristian then the New Testament writers would have distanced themselves from the terminology that we find in some of the epistles. For example, Paul encouraged believers to “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11-17). He also referred to Epaphroditus and Archippus as his “fellow soldiers” (Phillipians 2:25; Philemon 2), and admonished Timothy to “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3). This is a fairly odd argument to make since Paul also reminded us that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. The analogies simply can't be used to endorse actual military actions. Jesus on occasion used odd examples Himself, the parable of the unjust steward or the shrewd manager, the good Samaritan, He told us to be as wise as serpents as well... No one assumes that Jesus approves of unjust stewardship or that serpents like the one in Genesis 3 should be commended for their wisdom, neither should we assume that Paul endorsed war because he drew from the imagery around it. 

The Book of Revelation 

The first time Jesus came as a lamb but next time He will return as a lion right? I have heard that saying as I am sure that you have as well. If anyone is going to make a case for a violent, blood thirsty, vengeful god then Revelation is certainly your best bet in the New Testament. As David once again put it, 'And when Jesus returns, Scripture foretells us that “in righteousness He judges and wages war.” (Rev. 19:11)'. This is another point which I have addressed elsewhere before and so I would rather point you toward that article (over here) than rehash everything here once again. But let me once again make just a few points on the book of Revelation.

1 - The Jesus of the Gospels is the same yesterday, today and forever. He did not abandon His values laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.

2 - Revelation 5 tells us that Jesus won not by killing His enemies but by dying for them. The lion that John hears about in Revelation 5 he is startled by when he looks and sees as a slain lamb. Paul said that this message sounds foolish to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved the cross reveals the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).

3 - Revelation only once refers to Jesus as a lion and then turns the imagery on its head by proclaiming Him as the lamb, a title used a further 27 times for Him during the remainder of the book.

4 - John cleverly uses violent imagery in Revelation to contrast it with the way of the Lamb. For example, the sword Jesus carries is not in His hand but in His mouth, meaning that His weapon is truth. Jesus wears a robe into battle with His own blood on it while His 'soldiers'  are all dressed in white.   

Of course there is more that could be discussed with all of these points and feel free to bring up any questions, rebuttals or insights in the comments but I hope that I have laid sufficient ground to open some readers up to a different way of thinking about war and violence and the disciples relationship to them. Stay tuned for part 3 in this series, for now let me leave you with one more verse to reflect on.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. - Matthew 5:9.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

War and Pacifism

I am a fan of David Servant's blog which means that I regularly receive and read the articles that he posts. To this day I think that he has written one of the most well rounded introductions to conditional immortality there is and I have often referred people to it and have read it more than once myself. Recently however, he posted an article challenging the Anabaptist stance on military service, war and pacifism which has prompted this post or rather, series of posts. I figured that this may get long and so I would like to address his post with a series of four of my own, each highlighting a specific topic relating to the overall theme. This blog will attempt to set the stage for the rest of the discussion, the second post will deal with what the New Testament says about violence, military service and pacifism, the third with Jesus' commands to "love your neighbor" and your enemy and why I think that David is wrong in his interpretation. The last post will be on two different approaches to the Bible which I believe is essentially why David and the Anabaptists, a person and a people both devoted to Christ and serious about scripture, can land on such polar opposite positions on such an important topic.

Starting with a story

I would like to start by retelling a story from World War 2 that happened at the Battle of the Bulge which I first read about in Keith Giles' book, Jesus Untangled. In the war there was a special army unit whose  job it was to each day go out and kill German soldiers who were wounded but still alive on the fields from the previous days fighting. One morning a soldier came across a German sitting against a tree, the man was not wounded but simply to exhausted to have retreated back to safety. When he was spotted a man raised his rifle to kill him but the German requested in English if he could please first have a moment to pray. His would be executioner lowered his rifle and asked him if he was a Christian to which the man replied yes. The man then said that he too was a Christian and then sat down next to the other man under the tree, pulled out a Bible and the two started to read and pray together. After they finished praying and the German said amen, the American (I am assuming, I suppose that he could have been British or something else as well) stood up and said, "well, I guess that we will meet again in heaven", and shot his German brother in the head.

This is an extreme, even absurd, example but it is perfect to illustrate the dangers involved when a church believes in just war. If you are not familiar with Just War Theory, it is a philosophical attempt to reconcile three things:

 - Taking human life is seriously wrong.
 - The state has a duty to defend its citizens.
 - Protecting innocent human life and defending important moral values sometimes requires       willingness to use force and violence.

Just War Theory then proceeds to lay out certain guidelines as to when it is okay to kill another person or to harm them in some other way. The Anabaptist position which rejects participation in violence and war for Christians would be that of Pro-Life as opposed to the more common Christian position which is better defined as Pro-Birth or Pro-those -we -deem-deserving -of-life (which makes allowance for things like the death penalty). Yet I need to stress that Anabaptists still acknowledge the validity of point number two, that the state has a right to defend itself, they simply believe that they, personally, are to obey Christ, their master and commander, over that of the state (which is why they do not choose to partake in the military) when the two are at odds.

"No (Christian) soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier" -2 Timothy 2:4

The Anabaptist mindset, and those who agree with them, is that the kingdoms of the world coexist alongside the kingdom of God for now. We are not to get caught up in the affairs and agendas of worldly kingdoms, even though God has established them that their can be order in a fallen world. Instead Christ followers are to devote themselves to the Kingdom of Heaven and to establish Gods will here on earth and follow the decrees of King Jesus. These are mostly laid out in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus famously says things like "turn the other cheek" and "blessed are the peacemakers".

To the Anabaptist mind, our weapons are not made of iron or steel and used to cut down people. But rather they are metaphorical, the armor of God is to clothe yourself with Christ Himself. The breastplate of righteousness, having feet shod with the gospel of peace, your shield is faith, your helmet is salvation and your sword is truth, held not in you hand but swinging out of your mouth. These are terrible weapons for soldiers on a physical battleground but nevertheless they are essential weapons in the army of God. The book of Revelation essentially tells us how Christ conquered not by slaying His enemies but by laying down His own life for them as a lamb. The book continues by encouraging Christians to follow the Lamb wherever He goes, even to the point of death (14:4).

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. - Ephesians 6:12

To reiterate, this is not to say that Anabaptists and like-minded Christians do not believe that the state has a right to defend itself, they do and Romans 13 essentially makes provision for that. The view simply states that while Governments have certain rights and functions the Christian is not to be entangled in them. We should obey them and live at peace with all men as far as possible. But we, as Christians, are to be led rather by Romans 12, to bless those who persecute us, to feed your hungry enemy and to repay evil with good.

Of course Anabaptists cannot and do not use a 'cut and paste' approach to scripture and believing that Jesus modeled 'non-violent resistance' (not pacifism so much) needs to be reconciled with the violent parts of the Bible as well. So in my next post I will look at the New Testament. I will address the war imagery that is often used there, Jesus' moment of turning over tables in the temple and more. Check back soon for part 2.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Why did God accept Abel's offering and not Cain's?

This months synchroblog topic invited us bloggers to write about something that Christians do not necessarily always agree on. I decided to write about Cain and Abel and what we can take away from the story. Now this may not seem like a hotly debated topic in Christian circles though perhaps it's time to give it a bit of a rethink. Almost everyone that I know believes that Cain's sacrifice was rejected because God prefers blood over fruit baskets but as I'll try to argue, the common interpretation is a bit of a stretch and clouded by preconceived misconceptions surrounding the atonement. Here goes...

In Genesis 4 we read that Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a worker of the ground. At some point Cain brings an offering to the Lord of his fruit and Abel does the same thing but with the firstborn of his flock, namely the fat portions. The assumption often laid on the text here is that these were not merely offerings but sacrifices to atone for their sins and therefore God accepted the one with the blood in it. I have also heard the argument made that Cain's offering was rejected because it was from 'the work of his hands' but I don't really get that explanation. Tell any cattle farmer that they don't work hard and you'd get a slap on the side of the head (if they had the energy to do it). Let us not get side tracked though, back to blood...

 Firstly, nowhere in Genesis does it suggest that Cain and Abel's offerings were sacrifices for sin, though Youngs Literal Translation has a clever word-play in verse 7 which warns Cain that should he not master his temptation it would lead to sin (this verse is directly linked to Genesis 3:16 as well by the way, check it out). Rather, it seems reasonable to me that both Cain and Abel brought their offerings to God as a sort of firstfruits-thanksgiving to the LORD. Later on, we see that grain offerings certainly had a place under the Law so I am not convinced that it was what Cain brought before God that made the LORD reject it.

Secondly, it is highly doubtful that Abel actually killed an animal at all. It wasn't until after Noah's flood that God said that people could start eating animals so why would Abel think that God would like a good piece of steak? If Abel was a shepherd before people started eating meat then it's likely that he was in the business of producing milk and wool but certainly not lamb chops. As Jeremy Myers points out, the consonant for the Hebrew word for fat is the same as it is for the words milk and curds. So the most likely understanding would be that Abel's sacrifice was probably dairy related. That may sound strange to modern ears but it makes perfect sense if Abel the dairy farmer wants to dedicate the firstborn of his flock to God and offer up some of the produce. To further make my point consider what the Jewish historian Josephus wrote in Antiquities 1.2.1,  “Cain brought the fruits of the earth, and of his husbandry; but Abel brought milk and the first-fruits of his flocks”.

So if there was no blood involved in the offerings being made then why did God reject one and not the other? The author of Hebrews uses the story to make a point about faith (11:4) and Genesis itself uses the story to warn us against the dangers of entertaining jealousy and rivalry in our hearts. One must conclude though that the story simply does not attempt to answer the question of "Why Abel and not Cain?" directly at all though which should tell us that we are probably missing the point of the story if that question is our starting point.

So what should we be looking for then over and above the example Cain provides of someone who fails to heed a warning from God? I believe that there is another reason why this story was included with certain details that is important to the bigger picture of the Bible. here is my thinking...Genesis 4 starts by pointing out that Eve first gave birth to Cain and then conceived again and gave birth to Abel. In ancient cultures, even those of the patriarchs, being the oldest kid came with all sorts of privileges, the oldest kid always got a double portion of the inheritance when the father passed away. The oldest was married off first and so on. But despite this tradition the pattern we see in the Bible does not stick with the program. God chose Isaac over Ishmael and the two have been at war ever since. Abraham blessed Ephraim over Manasseh, Jacob was blessed over Esau and their descendants fought tooth and nail for generation after generation. Jacob chose Rachel over Leah and the sisters sibling rivalry is documented in Genesis  chapter 30. Joseph, the youngest of twelve brothers is chosen by God for great things and his brothers try to kill him before calming down and selling him into slavery instead. God chose Moses over Aaron. David, the youngest son of Jesse, is chosen to lead Israel, his family though thinks so little of him that they never even bothered inviting him to line up with his seven older brothers when Samuel was going to anoint one of them as king. David chose Solomon to succeed him rather than Adonijah before Solomon had Adonijah killed which you can read in 1 Kings 1:25. The Southern Kingdom, made up of Judah (youngest son of Leah) and Benjamin (youngest son of Rachel) follows God while the Northern Kingdom falls into captivity (eventually Judah falls as well). More politics and friction ensues in that story as well.

It should be really obvious by this point that God accepting Abel over Cain is part of a much larger narrative which the Bible's authors were keen to point out. The firstborn, those with the inheritance and all of the authority had a way of getting pushed to the side in favour of the younger siblings. But with all the names mentioned above, if we go back chronologically we actually stopped one generation too early didn't we? What about Adam? What was his inheritance? What dominion and authority did he have? Did he blow it as well and is there a second Adam mentioned in scripture that stepped up in His place? Who does scripture reveal to be the true firstborn of all creation, even the firstfruits? I hope by now that you have the name Jesus on your lips. But there is more, Jesus is the end of this long and strange progression in scripture, better yet, He is the culmination of all the various images that we see in the Old Testament, the substance. Everything points toward Him. A new Adam in whom God is well pleased, a new Israel better than the first and a new covenant superior to what was prior.

So why did God accept Abel's sacrifice and not Cain's? I'm not sure, though I'm pretty certain that the usual answers are inadequate. I don't think the Bible really is trying to answer that question for us anyhow, rather, a far better question to ask is what is the significance of God choosing Abel's offering over Cain's? That is what I have attempted to answer above. What we discover upon closer inspection is that the bigger picture leads us straight into a deeper revelation of Christ which the scriptures are keen to point out and that to me is a win! Yes, scripture is a collection of different stories and different books but they are also part of one larger story pointing us to Jesus.

This post was part of a monthly Synchroblog, be sure to check out what other people wrote about on the links below.

What God May Really Be Like – Why Can’t Even God-Followers Get Along?

Friday, 20 July 2018

Love Expressed

Love Expressed - Tristan Sherwin Book Review

I do not get to read as many books as I would like to at the moment, such is I am pretty fussy with the ones that I do pick up and consider worth my time. But when Tristan's book, Love Expressed, crossed my path I was intrigued to say the least. More specifically, it was the back cover that grabbed my attention which says:

This isn’t another one of those ‘self-help’ manuals.
This isn’t a book about romance and sex, or feelings and cuddles.
This isn’t a guidebook offering relationship advice, giving tips on how to find ‘love’ and ‘look after’ it.
In those senses, this isn’t even a book about love.
It’s a book about life—every part of it. About how it should be lived, how it should be explored, how it should be expressed. This is a book about meaning, about life’s trajectories. It’s about God. It’s about you. It’s about them.

The world does not need another guilt laden 'should' manual and thankfully this was not one of them. Rather,  Love Expressed is a book that takes eight words, namely obedience, learning, mercy, service, worship, Sabbath, prayer, and humility and shows us not just in theory but what love actually looks like when it works its way out in our everyday lives as a natural overflow of a life centered in Christ. Tristan's approach is refreshing and reveals how powerful these religiousy sounding words can be when they emanate from a place within us that is natural and not forced or coerced. Much of what is written in this book reminds me of the basic idea that when we begin to see how God loves us, it becomes easy to reciprocate this onto others. Love Expressed is full of humour and personal stories that are easy to relate to which also lend credence to the authors points.

I particularly enjoyed some of his insights and out of the box approaches to stories in scripture like the one that takes place at Pool of Bethesda. There is a lot here for the theology nerds such as myself but mostly, Love Expressed is a book about faith and the generous self-giving love of God manifest through those who abide in and follow Him.

You can pick up a copy of Loved Expressed on Amazon by clicking over here.

*I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Five Misconceptions about Annihilationism

In the future I hope to publish a book exploring the three views of hell as well as two differing perceptions of heaven. The main reason for this is that I find that most people have astonishingly little knowledge of the views outside of what they themselves hold to and therefore most arguments could be avoided if we were to clarify exactly what others believe and teach and avoid any and all false assumptions being made against one another. And because the topic of hell just happened to be the theme for this months resurrected (pun intended) synchroblog group, I thought that I would share what I believe to be five misconceptions that people often accuse those who hold to annihilation of that are simply not true.

For those who do not know, annihilationism  is a term used to describe those that believe that people who are not in Christ will one day be raised up for judgment and ultimately perish and cease to exist rather than be granted eternal life or immortality in hell. Thus, another label and one that I prefer for this position is Conditionalists, which means that they believe that immortality or eternal life has a condition attached to it (belief in and union with Christ). Or to state it negatively, people who are thrown into the Lake of Fire will experience a second death literally as opposed to experiencing an eternal, ongoing state of consciousness separated from God. So without further ado, here are five misplaced accusations that are often made against those who believe in annihilationism. If you are going to argue against the merits of annihilationism, then avoid these points.

1 - Annihilationists don’t believe in hell

This argument can be an emotional, knee jerk reaction against conditionalists. While many people, regardless of which of the three views of hell they believe in, acknowledge that the English word hell comes from a Latin word which is a translation of the Greek word Gehenna which in turn is a transliteration of the Hebrew name for the ‘Valley of Hinnom’, a literal place outside the old walls of Jerusalem where the Hebrew people sacrificed their children to Molech, it does not mean that the concept of a place of punishment in the afterlife is denied. Essentially, the difference between the three camps is not whether or not a place of punishment which we commonly refer to as hell exists in the afterlife or not but rather what the nature of the ‘fire’ is. Universalists believe that the fire is refining and that all who are in it will eventually repent and be saved. Those who believe in eternal conscious torment believe that the fires of hell will torment its inhabitants forever, either because sin against an eternal God deserves infinite punishment or because it somehow glorifies God to do this. Likewise annihilationists do not deny the concept of punishment, there is still room for weeping and gnashing of teeth in this view but ultimately they believe that the goats separated from the sheep that do not inherit the kingdom will go into the fire and be destroyed.
2 - Annihilationists believe in limited punishment

Some people accuse annihilationists of believing in limited, rather than eternal punishment. Matthew 25:46 therefore becomes a proof text charged against them as it says, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. While some annihilationists do believe that there will be a measured amount of physical punishment to endure before death, this is not really the central point as ultimately conditionalists believe that death itself is the punishment and that death is everlasting. Dozens of scriptures can be pointed to which contrast the fate of the wicked with the inheritance of those in Christ. Consider John 3:16, one group receives eternal life, the other perishes, In Romans 6:23 the wages of sin (the punishment) IS death but the gift of God is eternal life (living forever). Matthew 25:46 itself even contrasts everlasting punishment (being dead forever) with eternal life.

3 - Annihilation is what the cults (and atheists) teach

Normally one of the first responses to the annihilationist view is that it sides with what some of the cults and atheists teach. This is not entirely true either though. What atheists and some of the cults teach is that there is nothing beyond this life whereas conditionalists believe that every person will be raised for judgment before God. Some will inherit eternal life while the rest will suffer the ‘second death’. Much speculation surrounds the reason for God raising the wicked only to see them die once more. Some might say that they need to give account of themselves before God; others might say that they will be punished according to their works before they can die. There could be several other reasons as well but in the end Annihilationists would answer that the theories for this should be discussed in a non-dogmatic way, they can only be sure that all will be raised and appear before God because they see it in the Bible, even if the reason for it is not abundantly clear.

4 - Annihilation is an emotional argument

Another favourite accusation against conditionalists is that people are letting their emotions persuade their theology. I find this strange because annihilationists are in no way minimizing the seriousness of sin or downplaying its destructive force. To hear people say that death is not a punishment and that people can therefore just live as they wish because there are no serious consequences for ones actions is utterly bizarre. Moreover, it has been my experience that people who have rejected the traditional view of hell have done so knowing that they would suffer because of it. Generally speaking people tend to be pretty convinced doctrinally of their position before they are prepared to go public with it so I would suggest that emotions are more likely a deterrent than a motivator when going against the status quo. Truthfully, people in all three groups are probably susceptible to being influenced by their emotions. Some people reject eternal conscious torment because they cannot reconcile the idea of a loving God torturing His enemies forever while others may hold on to the view simply because most people around them believe it to be true or maybe they need to feel that without the threat of unimaginable and eternal torments people won’t be motivated to follow God or perhaps some people even feel the need for God to hurt those who have hurt them and others without mercy. At the end of the day, all three positions on hell should be assessed by what scripture says on the topic rather than by what may or may not drive any individual persuasions.
5 - Annihilationism negatively affects evangelism

Another response to the idea of annihilation that I have often heard is that if conditionalism is true then why should people repent and follow Jesus? This is another bizarre accusation to make. Firstly, because annihilation does not suggest that rejecting Jesus is without consequences, far from it! But more importantly, this accusation worryingly reveals that for many people Christianity is not about knowing God or about following Jesus but about escaping punishment. It blows my mind that we don’t think that Jesus is sufficient in Himself to draw people to God. Instead we rely on the threat of hell, “If you die tonight where will you go?” type evangelism. The reason I believe that this modern evangelistic technique is absent from the New Testament scriptures is because they didn’t believe in it either. Paul said in Romans 2 that it is the goodness of God that leads people to repentance.

That is my list, do you agree or disagree with it? What other points would you have added to it?

PS – This post was part of a Synchroblog on the topic of hell, be sure to check out what other people wrote about on the links below.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

How the Cross makes sense of the Justice of God

Over Easter I wrote a blog about why I prefer union or identification over the more traditional language of substitution when it comes to understanding how the death and resurrection of Jesus saves us. One question that came out of that post was around a comment I made distancing the atonement from the concept of it being a legal transaction made with God. I received several proof texts showing how judicial language is found throughout the Bible, terms like court, witness, judge, justice, advocate and so on are all found in scripture. this is a fair question and deserves a proper response, however, I felt, and still do, that simply addressing those passages would not have accomplished anything.

The problem I believe is that people interpret the Bible through different lenses. Some people believe that each and every word carries the same weight and authority. Others read it through the lenses of the law, or grace, most people read it through a 21st century Western lens which carries with it the influence and interpretations (both good and bad) of men like Augustine, Calvin, Piper and others. Personally, I believe that we should approach scripture through what some would call a Jesus lens with the ultimate revelation of who God is revealed most clearly through the cross. Included in this Jesus lens I would submit is the task of trying to understand the scriptures as a first century Easterner would have. For example, 1 Timothy 2:9 says that woman should dress in modest apparel. Today many would assume this means not to dress provocatively but that would not have been an issue for Pauls audience, what he was getting at is that woman should dress plainly. This leads us into today's topic and the penal substitutionary doctrine which reduces the gospel to a legal transfer of debt from one person to another. The main point that I want to make with this article is that I believe that, for the most part, the church has a false perception of Gods justice and my goal herein will be to try to offer a better perspective.

The gospel through 21st century Western eyes

The modern understanding of Christ’s sacrificial death looks something like this. People are sinners and we are all guilty before God. Because God is holy and just all sin must be punished, a single infraction of Gods perfect law is worthy of eternal conscious torment in hell. But God is also loving and doesn’t want people to go to hell. To solve this dilemma He sends His Son as an innocent substitute to incur our punishment on our behalf. Thus, Gods justice is satisfied as His wrath has an avenue of release, the blood of His Son releases His forgiveness toward us and His love is satisfied in that, as many as will believe in Christ, will avoid the punishment that He bore on our behalf and be saved.

Overcoming false concepts

Before moving forward let me clarify that I am not arguing against the idea that God is just. Neither am I saying that sin does not bear consequences or that Jesus did not need to die on our behalf. Scripture is clear that we were in need of a savior and that the blood of Christ redeems us. Before presenting a better way of understanding the atonement and dealing with some of the judicial sounding passages though, let me first highlight some of the problems with the modern approach to the gospel.  

1 – The legal transaction understanding of the atonement portrays God as one who is incapable of forgiving others. Let me explain, if you owed me a large sum of money that you could not pay but one of your friends stepped in and settled the debt and I came to you and said, “Hey, your friend paid me on your behalf so I am going to be the bigger man here and release you of your debt”, what would you think of me? I did not pardon you at all, I merely collected the money elsewhere and then proceeded to make myself look good by saying that I showed mercy and forgiveness toward you when in fact, I received my payment in full. But it gets worse because if God is bound by a legal duty to act justly as a judge would in a court of law; then really there is no room for forgiveness at all even if God was so inclined.

2 - The modern understanding of the atonement portrays the work of Christ as fixing a problem in God rather than with man. That is to say that the fundamental problem that the cross solves lies with Gods inability to forgive without the shedding of blood. Despite the examples of God forgiving several people, even whole cities like Ninevah in the Bible, without spilling any blood and the fact that Jesus did so constantly, even when hanging on the cross; and despite the fact that not all sin offerings in the Old Testament were done with blood and that even those that were, were only for unintentional sins, we have this idea that Jesus was appeasing God’s wrath in His death rather than accomplishing something else.

3 - The modern understanding of the atonement misrepresents the symbolism of blood in the Bible. Leviticus 17:11 tells us that blood represents life. Blood elsewhere, especially when it comes to scriptures about sacrifice is symbolic of cleansing and sanctification. Consider the language of Hebrews 9 and 10. “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscious from dead works to serve the living God” (9:13-14). And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission (9:22). He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (9:26). Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for Me (10:5). Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin (10:18)...having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:22). Can we see that the idea behind blood is expiation rather than propitiation? That is to say that the blood makes amends rather than appeasement, the subject is us,not God.  Blood therefore should not be thought of in the pagan sense that the gods are angry and need a sacrifice in order to be appeased. Blood represents the life of Christ and our union and victory in Him and through Him.

4 - The modern understanding of the atonement downplays the resurrection. Yet the resurrection is central to Christianity, Paul said that were it false we would be the most pitiful of all men. If there were no resurrection then we are not heirs with Abraham in Christ. But in a legal sense the death of Christ settled an outstanding debt and the resurrection gets reduced merely to a ‘happily ever after’ ending to the story. Not realizing that death has been conquered and is the final enemy that Christ destroys, many have assumed that the resurrection is nothing more than Gods validation of His Sons offering.

 5 – A legal transaction understanding of the atonement promotes cheap grace. Salvation becomes available for the unbelievable price of a quick prayer. No need to pick up your own cross and follow Jesus. Mental ascent to the idea that confession will buy you fire insurance for life is all you need, after all, when God looks at you, He only sees Jesus. This doctrine essentially means that how we live our life in the here and now is of little consequence, we are just sinners saved by grace. This theory says nothing of how Christ’s death changes us. It is no secret that the world views Christians as hypocrites, we speak of family values but our divorce rates are as high, if not higher than those of non-Christians, we speak of honesty but no one wants to do business with a Christian man. We speak of love but we devour our own. I cannot help but wonder if our faulty view of the atonement has contributed to the lackadaisical lifestyle of many in the church.

6 – The Judicial understanding of the atonement means that God is bound by ‘justice’. Unlike the old Hebraic law, the modern legal system is not ontological in nature. What I mean by that statement is that modern law is there to keep society running in a fairly orderly manner. The constitution has no place for relational interpretation. A judge would not be able to arbitrate in a case were he to have a personal connection to the accused, it would be unethical. It does not care about people or the nature of things, in fact, relationship and emotional attachment are seen as a hindrance to fair judgement. But when speaking of the death of Christ, the Bible says “For God so loved the world...”, this is because God is a relational being and seeks connection with us.  Yet if we believe that God is bound by the modern the rules of a human justice system then we have to accept that mercy does not triumph over judgement. For a merciful judge is not a just judge, at least in the way that most would understand it.  

7 - The modern understanding of the atonement separates Father and Son. Jesus was called a friend of sinners, the Father has been said to be too holy to look upon sin. Jesus said if you have seen me you have seen the Father. The author of Hebrews said that Jesus is the express image of the Father. Not only does penal substitution teach that God actually forsook Jesus on the cross (please read Psalm 22 and John 16:32) but that they are driven by very different motives. Ones seeks to save, the other seeks vengeance, one seeks mercy, the other judgement. One forgave His enemies when He was beaten and executed, the other requires execution in order to forgive. If a different set of attributes pop into your head when you think of the Son than when you think of the Father then alarm bells should be ringing because if Jesus is not the image of God that one holds to then it means that we have created an image of our own in its place.

8 - The Judicial understanding of the atonement portrays God as unjust. Imagine for a moment that a serial killer has been captured but the judge lets him go free and executes a good man in his place. The world would be up in arms because this would be a great injustice and that is exactly how the Bible portrays Christs’ crucifixion. Isaiah 53 says that WE despised and rejected Him (not God), WE hid our face from Him (again, us not God), WE did not esteem Him (there again), yet WE esteemed Him stricken by God (which is what penal substitution still teaches). Every sermon in the book of Acts presents the cross as a great injustice.

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” –Acts 3:15

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. -  Acts 2:23-24.

Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. - Acts 2:36.

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.  - Acts 3:15.

…Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead… Acts 4:10.

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.  - Acts 5:30.

They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day.
 - Acts 10:39-40.

 I would like to highlight that the cross reveals a great injustice in that an innocent man died as a thief but Gods justice was revealed in that He used the travesty to overcome evil and make things right (which is the true meaning of justice). 

9 - The Judicial understanding of the atonement portrays God as a lousy mathematician. By the way, did you know that there are three kinds of people in the world? Those who are good at math and those who are not. Sorry, I just had to throw that in there...What I mean by the statement that God is terrible at math is that if the just punishment for sin is eternal conscious torment in hell then how does a few hours of suffering on earth and three days in the grave equate to the same punishment of every unbeliever for all of eternity in hell? Many have tried unsatisfactorily to answer this question but this post is long enough as it is for me to go down this rabbit hole.

10 – I will end this section with one last question (just to make it a nice round figure). Forgive me for not referencing where I first read it, it is not my own question and I cannot recall where I first saw it. The question I mean to ask though is where do we find God on Good Friday? Is He found in Caiaphas or in Pontius Pilate or is He in Jesus? Perhaps He was with the chief priests and all the council that sought to bear false witness against Jesus. Does He stand over the Christ and shout ‘Guilty!” or was He “in Christ reconciling the world to Himself”?

What about Mercy

Through the lenses of the 21st century legal system God must execute retributive justice on people for us to consider Him just. Even though He desires that none would perish and that He wants mercy and not sacrifice, He is somehow bound by this legal code to do so. Mercy and forgiveness are a problem for a just God because justice, when we define it as tit-for-tat, eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth justice, is actually the opposite of mercy and forgiveness. You can either exact revenge or you can show mercy and forgiveness but you cannot do both because they are polar opposites and as we have already discussed. Playing Jesus as a substitute (condemning the innocent and pardoning the guilty) does not solve the problem it just creates more questions about His justness, mercy and forgiveness.

But what if Gods justice is not retributive but restorative? What if making things right is more about restoring both the victim and the perpetrator to a right standing with God and with each other? One of the things that struck me recently while reading through Exodus is how the law included a sense of making things right with the one who was harmed. In today's society if you steal someone’s sheep you go to jail but under the law you had to repay the owner double. Thus the victim was compensated and the perpetrator had the opportunity to make amends for his crime. Although justice required punishment and death was reserved for the more serious crimes this idea of restitution runs throughout the Law of Moses.

I’ll put my neck out here and suggest that the idea behind the “eye for an eye” concept in the law was not merely to limit retribution but to discourage it entirely. Ghandi rightly perceived that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Some people believe that Jesus was overturning the Law of Moses when He said in Matthew 5:38-39, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also”. I believe that Jesus was giving us the proper interpretation of the law of Moses. Isn't this what Paul is teaching us in Romans 12 as well, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).  Coal here represents cleansing or healing as it does in Isaiah, “He touched my lips with the burning coal and said, "This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven” (Isaiah 6:7). So the bigger picture I believe is justice, whether it contains punishment or not, is ultimately meant to bring repentance and healing to both the victims and the perpetrators. Thus mercy is not the opposite of true justice but its companion.

In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the Lord one departs from iniquity – Proverbs 16:6.

Mercy and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed – Psalm 85:10.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother – Zechariah 7:9.

But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. – Matthew 9:13.

See also Psalm 89:14, 1 Kings 3:6, Psalm 25:7, 101:1, 103:17, Isaiah 16:5, 30:18’ Hosea 12:6 and Micah 6:8.

A better way

I hope that it is clear that even though the Bible is full of judiciary language, reading it through a 21st century Western concept of justice which we have largely inherited from a 16th century lawyer named John Calvin, presents us with more questions than it does answers. It is time for me to offer a better perspective on justice that will allow us to see it at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s start by considering the story of Mary and Joseph, I remember as a teenager being confused by this passage. One day Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant. The law required that she be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) but here is the catch, in Matthew 1:19 it says that “because Joseph was a just man”, rather than expose her, he sought to divorce her quietly. From a legal perspective (had she fallen pregnant the way people normally do), she was guilty, but Matthew considered Josephs actions, which circumvented the letter of the law to be just. Justice, according to Matthew and Joseph, had the well being of Mary in mind.

In Jesus, we are saved from our sins and from our burden of guilt for having participated in it. Communion, which is central to the story of fallen man is once again restored with God. His justice, which is true justice, is ontological in nature which means that it is not merely a set of rules devoid of relational values. To act justly is to be faithful to the people one is committed to by covenant or simply because it is who you are. To justify someone therefore includes a sense of making things right, of straightening or restoring a relationship. Atonement means to become At-one-ment yet again through the restoration of the relationship.

Sin therefore is not a crime that needs to be sentenced as much as it is a terminal disease that man carries with Him and that God seeks to heal us from. Jesus came as the great physician to heal, to save and to restore what was lost; thus showing us the true justice, the great mercy and the everlasting love of God. The cross therefore is not payment to a wrathful God but God in Christ, healing humanity, conquering death, defeating Satan and more. Jesus does not save us from God but reveals God as savior. It is not what God requires in order to forgive but what God endures in Christ while He forgives (John 23:34). In the penal model the resurrection, the central hope of believers, is hardly necessary because in murder God’s wrath was satisfied. A sounder picture reveals that those who deny themselves and follow Jesus will rise like Him and be united together forever in Him.

In Conclusion

Does the Bible use legal imagery? It sure does, verses with words like judge, law, accuser, justice and advocate are too many to respond to individually, but I hope that when reading them in future one  is better equipped to interpret them in light of the just God that has been revealed to us in Jesus. A God motivated by love, full of mercy and grace; One who is not bound and subject to a human concept of justice but faithful even when we are not. This is what is revealed through the cross of Christ. A debt has not being settled with God but rather the wage of sin has been taken into Himself and paid on our behalf that we may have restored life and relationship in Him.     

Monday, 2 April 2018

How Transliterations Change How We Read the Bible

there has always being a lot of conversation around the way certain words are translated in the Bible. Very little seems to have been written about Bible transliterations so I thought that it may be beneficial to dedicate a post to it. I find that understanding the true meaning of transliterated words can drastically change the way one reads specific passages in the Bible. Before I provide some examples though, let me explain what a transliteration is for those who do not know.

Normally Bible translators like to take Hebrew and Greek words and replace them with the equivalent in our language, when a sentence is being translated they usually stray from a direct translation to a paraphrase, as a literal word for word translation hardly ever makes sense going from one language to another. To use an example in the only two languages that I know, a word for word translation of the Afrikaans sentence, “Hy woon by nommer drie en dertig maar ons kan nie daar vandag verby gaan nie” would be, “He live by number three and thirty but we cannot there today past go not”. So translators would change this to something like, “He lives at number thirty-three but we cannot go past there today" for clarity sake. Sometimes though a word in one language does not exist in another, this is where transliterations come in. Translators did not want to (or could not) use a particular word or phrase to convey the meaning of the original and instead made up a new word that looks and sounds similar to the original. The word ‘Bethel’ for example is a combination of two Hebrew words, “Beth” (meaning house) and “El” (which is God), a literal translation would have been ‘House of God’ but the translators chose instead to make up a new English word. This is done a lot in the Bible, most often with the names of people and places.
There are some interesting places in the Bible though where using a transliteration instead of a translation can potentially change the way in which we understand a passage. For example, the word deacon today is used to describe a specific office in the church, it is a transliteration of the word diakonos and literally means servant. Now where I live the office of deacon is held in high regard, while most people know that it means ‘one who serves or ministers’ we certainly don’t think of deacons as ‘servants’. The same is true for the word apostle which comes from the Greek word, apostolos. It simply means ‘one who is sent’ and is the modern equivalent of a missionary.

There are numerous other passages that we might see in an entirely new light if we understood the meaning behind certain transliterations. Heretic (aihretikos) as used in Titus 3:10 in the KJV speaks of one who is divisive or schismatic and not necessarily of one who teaches something false. The context is far broader and implies that one can speak the truth and yet still be divisive (a heretic) and a danger to the church. Angel also comes from the word angelos and literally means messenger and can refer to spiritual beings as well as humans depending on context. There are a few instances in the Bible where the word messenger would make far more sense if it were translated that way, the messengers to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 and those who have entertained angels (messengers) unwittingly by showing hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) both come to mind. Baptism (baptisma) is a word that simply means immersion and was often used in ancient times without religious connotations. While it can refer to water baptism it was often used in other ways as well. One can be immersed in their work or soak up as much information as they can about a particular subject. While I agree with water baptism I think that Jesus had more than that in mind when He gave the great commission. I think that He was telling His disciples to immerse people in the life of the Father, son and Holy Spirit. That they would be not just physically get wet but saturated with the knowledge of God and fully identified with Him.

There is one last transliteration that I wish to address and I believe that it is the most important to be aware of. It is the word Christ which comes from the untranslated word Christos. Christos means anointed one and speaks of Jesus as God’s eternal King, the ruler of all nations (see Psalm 2). We use the word as though it was His last name but in reality the scriptures are referring King Jesus. I find it interesting that Jesus constantly spoke of the gospel of the kingdom. 135 of the 158 times the word kingdom is used it appears in the first 5 books of the New Testament. The epistles thereafter only use it 23 times. At a glance it seems like the New Testament writers might have lost track a bit until we see that the word Christ (God’s anointed King) is used 511 times in the epistles! To illustrate how this can add depth to what we read, I randomly opened up my Bible yesterday and the first thing I read was 2 Corinthians 5:20 which says, “Now then, we are Christ’s (the Kings) ambassadors, as though God were pleading through us, we implore you on Christ (the Kings) behalf, be reconciled to God”. Can you see how it relates to Jesus’ teachings of the gospel of the kingdom?

I hope that this proves to be a useful tool for you in your time in the Bible. Next time you read a transliterated word, pause and reread it with the English equivalent and see if it adds any perspective to the text. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Is it something you have considered before? Does it change anything for you? Are there other words where you think the transliterations have robbed us of the author’s original thought?

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Crucified with Christ

Two weeks ago I had a bit of an awkward experience. I shared some thoughts with a bunch of folk who we gather regularly with around the the atoning work of Christ and why I believe that it is better suited to the language of union or identification than it is with the more traditional language in the Western church of substitutionary atonement. What made the message awkward is that it completely went over everyone's heads. It was met with a little skepticism, some family friendly banter and a lot of confusion. So I am hoping to do better here on the blog with the same message that I shared last week.

I don't want to repeat what I have said in previous posts before so let me just start by laying a quick foundation. it might come as a surprise, but the Bible never uses the word substitution, neither does it refer to Christ's sacrificial death by using phrases like 'instead of' or 'in the place of' either. There are a few places where people with a substitutionary mindset might read the concept into certain texts (like Isaiah 53 or 2 Corinthians 5:21) but in reality, it's simply not there. What we do see however are phrases like 'in Christ', 'in Him', 'together with' and 'through Him' hundreds of times.

Christ never died for us in the sense of a substitute, for everyone one of us must still face death as well. Neither did Jesus take a cup of the Fathers wrath for us on the cross in our place. What He did do is that He took upon Himself our cup of suffering (as well as our curse, sin, shame and death) and then promised that we too would drink from that same cup (see Luke 12:49-50 and Mark 10;35-39). The early church not only understood this, but they rejoiced in it (Acts 5;40-41, Romans 8;16-17, 3 Timothy 3:12, Philippians 1:27-29, 3:8-10). The cross is not the story of a divine pardon but of a glorious union between God and man. The true message we should be hearing over Easter is that God, in Christ, has reconciled us to Himself, Jesus has identified with man and joined us in death that by Him, in Him and through Him, we may be raised with Him in glory.

The reason that I feel so strongly about this message is that if one were to follow the logic of substitutionary atonement deep down the rabbit hole then your personal conduct in this life means nothing. Who needs deliverance from sin if you can just be forgiven? Any teaching that tells you NOT to pick up your own cross and follow Jesus is extremely dangerous and contrary to the words of Jesus (Mark 8:34-35). As followers of Christ, we in no way avoid the shame of the cross, everything we read in scripture points us toward union with His death (Romans 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 6:17, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:4-6, Colossians 2:12, 3:3, Hebrews 2:14, 2 Peter 1:4, Revelations 12:11-12).

Let me today encourage you to think of the cross in a different light than the one so many churches will be speaking on this morning. Jesus has died for us. He has taken our death into Himself and made it His death. He becomes our dying that our dying might become His life. He has taken our sin into Himself that we might take His righteousness into ourselves. The forgiveness of God is wonderful but it is not attained by blood sacrifice as it was with the pagan deities. God has always shown forgiveness and mercy to people. The cross does not point us to the wrath of God but to the love of God (John 3:16). What we needed was life and deliverance from the power of sin. This has being granted to us through the victorious Christ who now lives in us.

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy. Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.  - Philippians 2:1, 5, 8 , 12, 13.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

The Trinity in Second Isaiah

I normally try to avoid writing posts that sound too academic, I am not sure that I will be able to do that today but I will try my best. Not so long ago I wrote a review of Anthony Bartlett’s book Seven Stories – How to Study and Teach theNonviolent Bible. It was and is an incredible book that opened me up to so many new ideas. For today specifically though I want to share something from Second Isaiah which he brought to my attention. If referring to a second book of Isaiah looked like an error on my behalf, it was not, I know that there is only one book called Isaiah in the Bible but Isaiah is actually three separate books. First Isaiah is chapters 1-39, Second Isaiah chapters 40-55 and Third Isaiah 56-66. There are many reasons for believing this and it is well known in theological; circles but let’s not get side tracked and just play along with me here.
What I want to share today is that the tone of Second Isaiah is very different from First Isaiah, it reveals God as gentle and compassionate while the message is one of consolation to the people. But there is something else as well which is incredible and quite unique to this portion of scripture in that God often uses two first-person pronouns and one third-person pronoun when speaking. One would think that the One True God would speak using first person singular pronouns but He does not. Instead of saying “I”, He says, “I, Myself, He” or  “Me, Myself, He”. We don’t pick it up in our Bibles because our translations have changed the literal Hebrew words to more comprehensible and readable phrases. So “I, Myself” becomes “I AM” and “I, Myself, Myself” becomes “I, I am he” (see Exodus 3:13-14 for example). Before getting to my main point let me share some examples.

Who has performed and done it, Calling the generations from the beginning?
‘I, the Lord, am the first; And with the last I am He.’”– Isaiah 41:4

You may notice in your Bible that the word ‘am’ here is in italics because it has been added, a literal translation of the verse here would read , “The last, I, He, who has worked and done it, calling the generations from the beginning, I, the Lord, the first.”

“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins.- Isaiah 43:25

In Hebrew here the phrase should read, “He, Myself, Myself” and the wording is ‘anoki, anoki’.

“Listen to Me, O Jacob, And Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last. – Isaiah 48:12

The Hebrew here is literally, “I, He, I, the First, I and the Last”.

“Listen to Me, O Jacob, And Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last. – Isaiah 51:12

This is literally “Myself, Myself, He who comforts you” (anoki, anoki, hu).

The only other place in the Bible where this language is repeated is in Deuteronomy 32:39 (I, myself am He which literally says “I, I, He” (ani, ani, hu))

These verse might look strange but what makes them worth mentioning? As Anthony Bartlett notes in his book, “The tripled pronouns become the name God gives himself. They signify a deeply personal address. The same style of address is repeated several times”. What I personally find interesting in these phrases though is how they link to the teaching of the Trinity. Bartlett notes these texts and highlights how the repeated pronouns emphasize the statements made. In this particular context, it is that God’s compassion is intensely personal. He states on page 136, “It is like the very heart of God is a relationship, his very identity”. I could not agree more with his statement but I would like to take it one step further. I believe that the very heart of God is relational because He Himself exists as the community of the Father, Son and Spirit. Before anything was spoken into being, God was love and God was relational because the reality of it was already being lived out within the Godhead. As my friend Mako Nagasawa has pointed out, Allah cannot claim love or relationship to be at the heart of his being because before creation, there would not have being anything to love. This is not so with the God of Christianity in whom love and relationship have always existed. I find the language of Second Isaiah interesting not only because I believe that the tripled pronouns point us to a triune God (I don’t think the repetition is necessarily only for emphasis) but also because a triune God and a gospel centered on union with Him in Christ invites us into that community grounded in love, relationship and more.  

The focus of many of my future posts will be on union (as opposed to substitutionary atonement) and on how an understanding of the Trinity enlightens all areas of theology. I hope that you will find them as meaningful as I am finding them as they have begun to shape my own thinking.