Thursday, April 30, 2009

I admit it: I'm a Mark-Neglector, are you?

I hope I'm not the only one who sorta sees Mark as a subset of Matthew. I end up reading Matthew much more than Mark for that reason. And then when I read Mark again, I realize how wrong I am to have such a mentality. Reading Mark after having read Matthew so much is sorta like an easter-egg hunt the weekend after all the kids have had their whack. There are all these gems that stick out at you because you have this idea that "hey, that wasn't there before" (because the "before" was when you read Matthew's account).

Are you a Mark-Neglector?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Putting into practice

Mike, an anonymous commenter on an earlier blog entry, asked how I put into practice those things I have learned in my scripture reading. I had begun to respond to him when I realized the comment I was writing was going to get pretty long pretty fast. Instead I sued for a bit more time to answer it properly, and that is what I was hoping to do here.

It's never easy to answer these types of questions. Obviously, it does not do to "sound a trumpet" about your own work. [Side note, the actual background behind that phrase is rather interesting. Evidently it was an idiom for dropping so many coins into the conical receptacles in the temple that it made a great sound. This was called "sounding the trumpet"] In addition to that, while I'm not a very private person, I do somehow see my various responses to study and the Spirit as something that does not seem appropriate to discuss publicly. If I were a better disciple of Christ, I might feel there was something to be gained by presenting my path as a model to others. But I'm not, so I don't.

Given the above, I'd like to speak in generalities without hiding behind them. I see my life as shaped by two particular spiritual priorities:

i) The importance of truly relying on God.
ii) The importance of hearing the Spirit.

Now, the above is a rather dubious separation...I'm not suggesting there are clean boundaries here, but I would perhaps say the first forms a type of "passive" informing while the latter forms an active one. Perhaps one is the gentle pressure of the spirit, and the latter is the more severe prick when needed.

In any event, I have learned that much of Christian practice comes down to truly relying on God, and understanding what that means. In my book I call this facet of salvation "Imperial Salvation." It is Christ viewed not merely as a king (who has the authority to make laws and execute power) but rather as "Emperor" (where the focus is on Christ as Provider). That understanding of a providing emperor is something our western culture has trouble fully getting, especially in America where self-actualizing is of huge interest.

In 1st century AD, the emperor was a major source of providence. The emperor also had his own church (though most emperors had the good sense not to be considered an actual god, but rather merely the Son of god). Much of what Paul was getting at in his letters has to do with the idea that "Jesus is Lord(, and Caesar is not)." That not only came down to who had the right to rule, but also whom was to be relied upon for sustenance. And that is one (getting back to Paul again) one of the reasons why Paul was so upset with certain Gentiles who were being circumcised. He found it almost an affront that believers were not relying merely on Christ but felt a need to hedge their bets by trying to be joined to the Temple and Mosaic covenant as well..a type of "back-up plan" of sorts.

In any event, the notion of relying on God is a very deep well that Christians have the opportunity to drink from. It is at its root an indication of faith. Not only faith in God's power, but also faith in God's benevolence. It also represents willingness to abide in God's desire by consenting to whatever state such reliance causes one to be in.

For that reason, I suggest to Christians to develop a healthy apathy toward their own bank account. I'm against mortgages (or any other situation where someone borrows money to obtain a personal possession). When I got into an accident (my fault), I determined the amount I was willing to pay for a car by simply looking at what I had in the bank at the time.
I don't lock my doors. I don't lock my car (unless asked to do so, or in a rare case where I think leaving my car unlocked my tempt someone into a crime). I don't believe in retirement accounts. I believe things we own end up owning us, and I strive to only buy things I actually have a real use for.

I think if Paul were alive today, he might well have some things to say about those who put their trust in their IRAs or their possessions. Just as he had some remarks about those who put their trust in the circumcision, rituals, or human philosophies (see Colossians).

None of the above is meant as casting judgment on others. But I do think that these things end up being a blessing [just as the Jews consider the Law a blessing when others might regard it as a burden]. Obviously, if someone wants to borrow money to buy a large home to start an orphanage, I'm certainly not going to criticize them.

This reliance on God transcends pecuniary issues. I rely on God for my self-concept as well, and the Almighty has blessed me with a wonderful fiancee who reminds me that I have some value. I believe much of the material-centric nature of our world is based on people turning to new cars and home-ownership not for the security they offer but as proof to themselves of their own success. This is once again a faith issue. Your place on the corporate latter, your car, your home, etc. these are always there staring you in the face to remind you of what you have accomplished or what you have that others want... and so they make an easier source for self-concept building than relying on knowing (or hoping) that your life is a pleasing aroma to God.

The same goes with our relationships, right. Much of the damage we do to others, either in romantic relationships or casual ones, comes from self-concept issues and a desire to be convinced of things about ourselves we do not believe but wish were true. Back-biting, insults, gossip, etc. much of how we treat others comes down to our own insecurities. Relying on God means not using our social interactions for our own affirmations, etc.

I might have wandered a bit from the topic now...but I did want to give some taste about how I see the "relying on God" notion as creeping into our lives in so many ways. I see two worlds co-existing at the present time: the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Mammon. I try to rely on the former for those things I need, and I"m hopeful I'll get better at that. I believe my soon-to-be-wife is better at that than I, so in marriage I'm buying free tutoring in this. ;)

Mike, if this does not answer your question, I trust you'll let me know.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thrown out of a Church


A few weeks ago, Nancy and I went to a new church near my house. In the sermon given, the pastor said some pretty horrible things. (Example: "Our country is a Christian country because its founders were Christians." --- Israel was founded by God speaking personally to Moses, did that make them a godly nation? Would a "Christian Nation" commit genocide against the American Indians out of lust for more territory, more lebensraum?)

Anyways, I went back there today and noticed in the bulletin that the upshot of the Lost Sheep parable was turned into a call for evangelism. I have written on this parable elsewhere (6-page .pdf) and went to speak to him about it. He was right next to the front door of the church (this was before the service began) and I literally got maybe one sentence out (that sentence being something like "I noticed what appears to be a misapplication of this parable ") before he said "we cannot have this," opened the door, and directly his lay leader to take me outside.

I then tried to discuss why the parable was really an exhortation for the Jews to make piece with Israel (at that time, Israel had been subsumed, so it came to be a representative of the Gentile nations at large). He soon had to go give the opening address, and after I told him that his pastor's behavior was inexcusable he asked me to leave.

And then he told two other men who were outside to make sure I left, as though I were one of those theologian-pipe bombers you hear about in the news all the time!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Salvation: A one-page description

I have also placed on my excerpts page a one-page summary describing what the New Testament (when read in the contexts of the Old Testament and 1st century Judaism) indicates Jesus saved us from.

The Gospel in Three Pages

I have placed a 3-page summary of my understanding of the gospel on my excerpt page This perspective is based on reading the New Testament in the contexts of the Old Testament and 1st century Judaism.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pearls Before Swine

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 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.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

TGYNH --- The Gospel You've Never Heard

A visitor who had downloaded my excerpt sent me a question asking what, exactly, this "Gospel You've Never Heard" was. The excerpt covers the first two chapters, which are really intended only to show why how the message most people are told is "The Gospel" appears to chafe against everything Matthew, Mark, and Luke actually present.

It is impossible to read, for example, the gospel of Matthew and come away thinking "I need to go tell everyone about Jesus to save them from the hellfire that all are, by default, deserving of." That notion,which one would expect to find stated in no uncertain terms, is not only completely absent but would appear totally unnatural when placed next to the teachings of Christ Matthew included. Whatever "the gospel" is that Matthew is trying to get across, it certain is not that.

So, what is TGYNH?

The answer is best understood by understanding the state of God's people in the centuries leading up to Christ. Too often people present a 4-stop gospel that starts in the Garden of Eden, jumps amazingly (and absurdly) to Christ on the Cross, then skips to when a believer comes to faith, and ends at its 4th stop where the believer is pictured in heaven. You won't find anything like that portrayed by the writers of the gospel narratives, nor will you find it in the evangelism describes at length in Acts, exactly where you would expect to find such a message were it correct.

Rather than jumping from the Garden to Christ on a cross, we should look at the conditions of Israel during the time when the Messiah was prophesied. A reading of the prophets who foretold the Christ's coming and the kingdom He would create describe in detail what was wrong with Israel and Judah:

  1. People had turned away from God. In this they acted as their ancestors. Indeed, from the beginning, humans have shown an inability to be faithful to God on a large scale. There were certainly righteous people here and there, but as a nation Israel had failed to remain faithful.
  2. Special blame was placed on the rulers, the priests, and the false prophets. The rulers were blamed for failing to model righteousness, instead leading their subjects to faithlessness. The priests were blamed for misconstruing and abusing God's Law for their own personal gain. The false prophets were blamed for telling people it was okay not to repent because they were God's people and God would be kind to them even if they sinned.
  3. This behavior provoked God to allow first Israel and eventually Judah to be captured and enslaved. This caused even more problems because those who captured them mistreated them, causing God's anger to burn against all creation, both Israel and the Gentiles.
  4. To make matters worse, part of the punishment against Israel/Judah was to harden them, making them less able to repent until God's wrath had been assuaged over time.
  5. The behavior of Israel, and God's punishment of them, had failed to convince others to worship the Living God. Rather than being a light to the nations, the Gentiles blasphemed the Living God, assuming the fate of Israel was due to their God not having any power.
Given all the above, God declares the coming of a new era, an epoch in which all the above would be dealt with:

  1. God's people would strengthen the spirit of believers so that they would no longer find it so impossible to remain faithful to God.
  2. The unfaithful rulers would be replaced by a righteous Lord, who would be given power over all creation.
  3. The corrupt priests would be replaced by a righteous High Priest.
  4. The teachers who had warped God's law by self-aggrandizing interpretations and the false prophets would all be put to shame because God would write God's Will upon our hearts. As Matthew says "We have one Rabbi." As Jeremiah writes, "I will write My Law upon their hearts... and no man will have teach his neighbor to know God, for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest."
  5. The cup of wrath that burned against all creation [setting it up for another total destruction] as well as the cup of wrath that had made Israel drunk, unable to repent, would be downed by Christ, not only saving creation but drawing people to repent.
  6. God would remove the wall of division between Jew and Gentile, allowing anyone to join the kingdom of the Almighty.
Now, for many of you, the above might cause you to scratch your heads, saying "That's all true, but that's not the gospel." To understand why exactly the above is truly "Good News," (and why what you probably have heard instead has no foundation in scripture or apostolic evangelism), you should grab a copy of the book.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Gospel of the Gospels

A useful exercise is to put ourselves as original readers of the gospel narratives and ask ourselves what message those writers were trying to convey. The reasoning is that anything that really counts as being fundamental to Christianity or should be considered part of the "gospel message" should be found clearly in each gospel narrative since the point of the narratives were to either spread the news about Christianity or clarify a sound message from a false one in the early church.

In other words, what items are clearly presented and obvious from any reading of each Gospel?

A list that comes to my mind:

i) Jesus was raised from the dead [the fundamental belief of all biblical Christianity]
ii) Jesus has authority given by God and elevated to God's right hand in power. (indeed Psalm 110 is supposed to be the most often quoted OT passage in the NT.)
iii) Jesus was sent by God
iv) Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit at His baptism [one of the very few items described explicitly in all four Gospels.]
v) The existence of Hell and importance of repentance to avoid it. (Do all the gospels describe that Jesus will be the Judge? Matthew, Luke and John do...not sure about Mark.)
vi) Jesus will return.
vii) Jesus has the power to forgive sins.

I think everyone could agree that each of these:
A. Appears and is emphasized by every gospel
B. Is made absolutely clear in every gospel without any interpretation. (or any interpretation that is needed is aided by the gospel writer, Like John 2:21.)

Are there other items that are made absolutely clear in all four gospels that any reader would come away from?