Friday, November 30, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part V

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

In this post I continue to critique this second level of anti-Christmas rhetoric:

Arguments Based on the Alleged Roman Catholic Character of Christmas

Q. 6. But what about the word "mass" in Christmas? Surely the presence of that word is enough to alert us to the tainted Papist origin of the celebration of Christmas.

Answer. I won't give an inch here. Anti-Christmas radicals don't even get the meaning of the word "mass" right, according to their own methodology. Those who argue against Christmas, because it contains the word "mass" might want to go back a little farther in history, back to the original use of the word "mass" in the early church. Christmas did not originate as a Roman Catholic holy day.

In their zeal to be "historical" our anti-Christmas crusaders don't go far enough back in history. Two can play at this game. Sure, the term "mass" was used in the pre-Reformation, medieval church to refer to the sacrifice of the mass. But what was the earliest meaning of the word "mass" in the Christian church? As it turns out, the word was not originally used this way.

Initially, the word "mass" had no connection with the doctrine of transubstantiation or the so-called repeated sacrifice of Christ on the altar by the priest. Before A.D. 1000, the theory of transubstantiation was unknown and the word mass was used as a simple shorthand description of the Christian worship service.

The English word "mass" is an Anglicized way of writing the Latin word misse. From our earliest records of Christian worship, the service ended with this dismissal: Ite misse est. Translated somewhat woodenly this means: "Go, it is the dismissal" or possibly "the sending"—from the Latin verb mittere, "to send." And the word missa also seems to have been connected with the word missio (mission) in the 4th century. For early Christians, the service concluded, even culminated, with a missa as the worshipers departed. In time the Christian worship service as a whole came to be designated from its final act of blessing the congregation as she leaves the church to perform her mission in the world. Misse. Missa. Mass. Go forth into the world with the blessing of God and make disciples of all nations.

Even at the time of the Reformation, to designate a Christian worship service as a "mass" was not necessarily to give away the farm to the distortions of late Medieval Roman Catholicism. Luther called his liturgies the Formula Missae (1523) and the German Mass, Deutche Messe (1526). This illustrates that the word mass, in Latin and German, only gradually came to be associated exclusively with Roman Catholic worship over against Protestant services.

So at the time when the church began to celebrate Christmas—in the fourth century A.D.—the word mass simply referred to a Christian worship service. The doctrine of transubstantiation and notion of the re-sacrificing of Christ on the altar by the priest were still six centuries or more in the future. Christ-mass meant a worship service that celebrated Christ's incarnation and birth.

Did I miss something? Whatever word we use to describe the celebration of Jesus' birth, what actually happens in Protestant Christmas services is determinative. Do we perform a Roman Catholic sacrificial mass on Christmas in honor of Jesus in our churches at Christmas? No. For Presbyterian and Protestant Christians Christmas certainly does not mean a Roman Catholic mass celebrated in honor of Christ. We perform no mass—as this is understood by the modern Roman church. This kind of argumentation is not only fallacious; it is irresponsible and misleading.

We do nothing distinctively Roman Catholic when we celebrate Christmas. Unless, of course, we are condemned simply because we do something similar to what the Roman Catholics do. Catholics celebrate Christmas, and so do we. But then where will this end? Shall we stop reciting the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, catechizing, praying the Lord's Prayer, reading Scripture, and calling the sky "blue" because Roman Catholics do these things?

This anti-Roman posture is strong in American Protestantism, especially in Baptist and Independent traditions. If Roman churches baptize babies, it must be wrong. If Rome builds beautiful sanctuaries for worship, we have to build ugly, white-washed auditoriums to be different. If Catholics pray using litanies and pre-composed prayers, all our prayers must be extemporaneous. Where will it end? Think about it. If you haven't thought about it much, then maybe a good place to start is chapter 8 of my book The Lord's Service.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part IV

Continued from Part I, Part II, and Part III.

We move now to a second level of argumentation:

Arguments Based on the Alleged Roman Catholic Character of Christmas

Q. 5. Doesn't the very word "Christmas" prove that the holiday is a Roman Catholic holy day?

Answer. Well, I guess I better surrender and admit that the word "Christmas" is a combination of the words "Christ" and "mass." Aha! That settles it. Christmas is about celebrating the mass! What more proof do we need? So says one Presbyterian pastor:
Think about the name Christmas itself. What does it mean? Many people do not even know that it is a combination of Christ and mass. Christmas is the Roman Catholic celebration of a particular mass in honor of the birth of Christ. Perhaps it would impress on our minds the real meaning of Christmas if we would refer to it as Christmass. What is the significance of the mass? At the heart of the Roman Catholic mass is a denial of the sufficiency of Christ's atonement. It professes to be a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ for sin. It is a denial of the gospel. The Roman Catholic Church has many other masses, such as Michaelmass, but it is their Christmass that Protestants have singled out for observance.
Where do I begin with this? First, this kind of argument assumes that the meaning of a word can be defined by analyzing its constituent parts. This is almost too easy to refute. Does "Thursday" mean Thor's day? Is Wednesday really, truly, actually Woden's Day because that's what the words mean?

This kind of analysis is erroneous. The meaning of words is found in their usage. Let me illustrate this with the word "Chapel." What does this word really mean? And why do Reformed Christians continue to use it? Presbyterian day schools even have "chapels." Well, don't they know the original meaning of the word "chapel"? It comes from the Latin word capella, and refers to a "cape." And, oh, what a cape it was.

According to legend, St. Martin of Tours once saw a cold beggar shivering at the city gate. Wanting to help the man, Martin ripped his military cloak (cappa) in two, giving one half to the beggar and draping the other half around his shoulders, making it into a capella or a cape. (The letter "c" in this Latin word should be spoken as "ch," according to its usage in ecclesiastical Latin).

St. Martin's cape was then preserved by the medieval church as a relic. French kings would take this cape with them in their military campaigns to insure their success. They transported it in a small, portable tent-like structure that they called a capella, because it housed the cape of St. Martin of Tours. And so, in time, the word capella or chapel came to describe a small building housing a relic or used for religious worship.

So, therefore, chapels are obviously Roman Catholic in origin. Protestants that have chapel services must be secretly venerating some relic. We must write letters to our Christian schools, seminaries, and churches that use the name "chapel" in order to warn them of their Romanism. Maybe some of these places are surreptitiously hiding sacred capes as relics.

What's the point? One cannot simply ignore how these words are used today and then point to some primitive meaning to accuse people of being pagan and idolatrous or Romanists. This is not the meaning of the word "chapel" today. To determine the meaning of the word today, one examines the way the word is used—what happens in chapels—and not the origin of the word. The same is true for the word "Christmas." The genesis of the word itself tells us little or nothing about the meaning of the word today. To know what Christmas means to Protestants we have to ask what they do on this day. The answer is not that they "celebrate a mass in honor of Jesus." Rather, Christmas means reading Scripture, praying, singing, feasting, and fellowship—all of which is tied together by a focus on remembering our Savior's birth.

(This chapel illustration comes from Ralph Woodrow's helpful little book Christmas Reconsidered. What is fascinating about Woodrow's defense of Christmas is that he changed his mind. His earlier book Babylon Mystery Religion: Ancient and Modern has been a favorite citation of the anti-Christmas crusaders for many years. In this new book he confesses his error and tries to correct the damage he did with his silly arguments in his earlier work. I commend him for his honesty. Although he is writing for independents and fundamentalists, his book is still worth reading.)

Simply put, in the 21st-century the word Christmas does not mean "a Roman Catholic mass celebrated to honor the birth of Jesus." Rather, it refers to the time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Of course, for some it is just a holiday when people exchange gifts and pretend to believe in the Santa Claus fairy tale. Even so, the most common meaning of the word today relates to the commemoration of Jesus' birth. Yes, Roman Catholics perform a mass on Christmas. But Protestants who observe Christmas do not do so.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

This is Embarrassing

Your Inner European is Irish!

Sprited and boisterous!
You drink everyone under the table.

I think it was all the beer and pubs. Thanks Wayne for another goofy test!

Motivate Your Employees!

Christmas & John Calvin

Is Christmas Christian - Part III

Continued from Part I & Part II

Q. 4. What did John Calvin think about Christmas?

Answer. If one is going to mount an argument based on Reformed tradition, one may as well go back to one of the initial sources of Reformed tradition--John Calvin himself. He approved of Christmas celebrations as long as they were purified from superstitious and idolatrous accretions.

Calvin did not condemn the annual celebration of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Furthermore, he believed that Reformed churches have the liberty to establish such feast days. In fact, it was Calvin's predecessor in Geneva, Farel, who had banned all such observances in the city. But when Calvin came he convinced them to reinstate the celebration of the five evangelical festivals (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost).

Later the Genevan council decided to abolish these observances. Calvin was blamed for this action, even though he had nothing to do with it and he himself objected to the decree. Nevertheless, inflammatory accusations were circulating about Calvin's indefensible rigorism, which forced Calvin to respond. People were accusing him of backing the prohibition against these feasts.

Calvin's first response was to write a letter to his friend Haller, a Reformed minister at Berne. His letter makes it very clear that he did not support the city council's decision to ban Christmas celebrations. Calvin wrote:
Since my recall [from Strasbourg] I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ's birthday as you are used to doing. [The Reformed churches of Berne, Strasbourg, and Zurich celebrated the five evangelical feasts.] There were even extraordinary days of prayer on other days; the shops were shut in the morning, and every one returned to his individual calling after dinner. There were, however, in the meanwhile, certain inflexible individuals who did not comply with the common custom from some perverse malice or other. . . . Let me say this, that if I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon. There is no reason why men should be so much provoked, if we use our liberty as the edification of the church demands.
Those of you familiar with his writing will recognize this as classic John Calvin. We can sum up Calvin's position like this: churches have liberty to celebrate these festivals with moderation, as long as the practice will genuinely edify Christian people.

Of course, Calvin had serious reservations about the way in which Christmas and other Christian celebrations were conducted in his own day. Late medieval Roman Catholic superstitious and even idolatrous practices often mucked up what might otherwise have been a rather simple and joyous feast of Scripture, hymns, and prayers commemorating the birth of our Lord. If the annual celebration of the incarnation of our Lord could be stripped of late medieval piety's unedifying and silly excesses, Christmas might be observed with moderation and great benefit.

Calvin also wrote to Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1574), Zwingli's successor and city pastor of Zurich. In that letter he carefully distances himself from the rash decree of the city fathers in Geneva. Once Bullinger heard that Calvin had not slipped into the cultish repudiation of the great feasts of the church, he was relieved. Bullinger wrote back:
You have just given the answer that I expected, my dear brother. For I know that in matters of this sort, where duty is but little heeded, and much ill-will is engendered, you have never been morose. I am anxious, indeed, in such matters, to see that liberty preserved, which I perceive to have flourished in the churches from the very days of the apostles.
It is a matter of historical record that some of the churches under Geneva's jurisdiction observed the Lord's Supper on December 25th, even when it did not fall on the Lord's Day. And whatever one makes of the ambiguous record that remains of the complex political and ecclesiastical struggles over the church calendar in Geneva during Calvin's time, one thing at least is clear from the record of Calvin's preaching schedule. On the major feasts days, like Christmas, he interrupted his normal practice of preaching through books of the Bible in order to preach on passages and themes related to those feasts.

My point is not to elevate Calvin to the level of a doxological litmus test. Just because Calvin did it, doesn't mean we should. But when the anti-Christmas crusaders cry "Reformed Tradition! Presbyterian Tradition!" I reply: What Reformed tradition? Which Reformers? What Presbyterians? Which Reformed theologians? If you want to appeal to the Reformed tradition, at least be honest about the diversity of opinions held on this subject.

Yes, certain Scottish Presbyterians opposed Christmas and all annual celebrations. One of the most referenced is George Gillespie's A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies, Obtruded Upon the Church of Scotland (1637). But there are all sorts of issues that called forth Gillespie's polemic that do not apply to most of our Reformed churches today. Neither the Church of England nor the Roman Catholic Church seeks to impose unwanted ceremonies on our churches. Moreover, Protestant churches are able to celebrate Christmas without all the superstitious paraphernalia that clung to the festival in the 16th and 17th centuries. We don't say a mass, pray to any saints, or make Christmas "a holy day of obligation." Abstaining from celebrating these feasts was for some Scots and Reformed English of that day a way of distinguishing themselves from the hated Romanists and the persecuting establishment of the Church of England.

The bottom line is that our Reformed tradition is divided on this issue, and the divide is by no means down the middle. The majority of Reformed churches have celebrated Christmas joyfully and with moderation.

Monday, November 26, 2007

This Much At Least

This lecture is worth careful consideration.

I agree with his conclusion. In the past I've made my own guarded attempts at grounding the cross in the eternal intra-trinitarian personal relations. I have stated it a bit more provocatively than Joel. But I think his formulation is the least we can do. Here's his conclusion:
Even if we cannot strictly speaking say that God, in his own being “suffers,” there yet remains an eternal analogue to suffering in which the redemption of the cross is already provided for and included in the eternal offering, self-surrender and—may we even say—sacrifice among the divine Persons within the Trinity. This is what Hans Urs von Balthasar terms the “supra-suffering” of the impassible God.

The Trinitarian God of Scripture, therefore, is also the God of classical theism who, as being itself and pure act, remains immutably and impassibly transcendent over creation as Trinity. It is precisely in the plentitude of the intra-Trinitarian relations that God already is passionate, loving, and responsive to his creation, even, in some sense, taking up the suffering of his creatures for their redemption. This divine weakness and vulnerability is, paradoxically, the fullness of the saving power of God, that dynamic and over-abundant love that lies beyond passibility and, indeed, beyond any shadow of turning.
If you are interested in theology proper, read the entire lecture.

The Sequence of the Gospels

There is a scene in Prince Caspian, the second in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia that helps explain why it is we have four Gospels, that is four accounts of the Good News of Jesus Christ—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is the account of Lucy’s longed-for experience of Aslan, the Lion, remember, who symbolizes Christ in these stories. Finally, Aslan appears to Lucy.
The Great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large, wise face.
“Welcome, child,” he said.
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” he answered.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.

This is a form of the old scholastic maxim adaequatio rei et intellectus—”the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing known.”

Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the one receiving it.”

This “adaequatio” principle can be applied to our understanding of Jesus Christ. But not only is this true of individuals, but it is true of the church as a whole.

The community of Christians grew in their understanding of the person and work of Christ. As the Spirit led them through their experience of suffering and victory after Jesus departure they gradually came to appreciate something of the fullness of the story of Jesus. This growth, this maturing and filling out of the meaning and implications of the story of Jesus can be seen in the progression of the four Gospels. They are all different. But they are not just different; they build on each other.


And without question, not to take anything away from the other three Gospels, John gives us the most profound and sublime perspective on the Person and work of Jesus.

The order & perspective of the four Gospels:

1. Matthew. First Gospel written. Written in the mid-late 30’s. Probably penned just a few years after Pentecost. Priestly Gospel. The first face of the cherubim: the ox. Lot’s of instruction. Priests teach. Jesus is new Moses. Five great discourses correspond to five books of Torah. The Mosiac period. Jesus called out of Egypt. Associated with apostle Peter, the leader of the fledgling church in Jerusalem. The church needs a solid foundation. Matthew provides it. No Gentile/Jew controversy yet. Persecution sporadic from local Jewish authorities. Ends with the Great Commission. But the big question at the end of Matthew is how will the Great Commission be accomplished?

2. Mark is written next. He has a copy of Matthew. Mark’s perspective is that Jesus is the Lion (second face of the cherubim). King. Jesus is new David. Kingship means service. The Kingdom period. The ultimate service of a king is to die for his people. The kingdom comes by means of the faithful self-sacrificial service of Jesus, the Son of God. The title "Son of God" is a Davidic/royal designation. Mark's Gospel answers the question raised at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus said, “Go” at the end of Matthew. Then we read over and over in Mark about the “way” of Jesus. Mark was written during the 40’s, a time of great suffering and persecution for the church (Acts 7 & 8; James and 1 Peter). Jesus keeps his identify secret for a long time. Like David had to hide before Saul and build up his followers. Jesus is finally confessed as the Son of God by the centurion at the end when he sees the way Jesus dies. That's true kingship. Mark ends with questions about the disciples and their fearful response to the resurrection (what about the disciples, the Centurion, the women?) How will the fear be resoved?

3. Luke (has Matt. & Mark before him). Cheribum face: Eagle. Prophetic. Jesus is new Jeremiah & Daniel. Prophet to Jerusalem, but also to the nations/Gentiles. The return from Exile. Luke associated with Paul and his missions. Written in the 50's. Jews and Gentiles are being knit together into one body. Answers the question left unanswered at the end of Mark about the disciples and the women. Emphasis on “joy” and “gladness” and “rejoicing.” Luke ends with a revelation of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples, remember, on the road to Emmaeus. The ending raises questions that long to be answered about Jesus’ identity and about the “what the Father has promised to send” (Luke 24:49). John fulfills our desire to know more.

Matthew (priest)→Mark (king)→Luke (prophet)→John (fulfillment of the entire old world history)

4. John (has Matt., Mark, Luke before him). Man (the image of God) face of the Cherubim. No more animal faces, now the face of a man. We move beyond the Old World of animal symbolism and sacrifice into something new. Now we find out how the work of Jesus fulfills, but breaks through and goes beyond the Mosaic, Davidic, and Prophetic OT stages. In John we find out how Jesus reveals the Father and how he lives and sets the pattern for human life as well. Written in the late 60’s. Written by the “beloved disciple.” The end of John gives us one of the fullest accounts of the commissioning of the disciples, especially Peter, for the continuation of the work of Jesus.

As the church was led by the Spirit to experience in stages what Jesus meant when he called her to "follow him" she was given the Gospel narrative she need for that stage in her development. Each Gospel was written to address the needs of the church at that time. She wasn't read for it all at once. She would not have been able to hear and understand it. Jesus had much more to teach his first disciples, but they had to wait for the appropriate time, when they themselves would be "adequate" to that which needed to be known.

I should say here also that many Patristic and Medieval authors note the connection between the four Gospels and the four faces of the Cherubim, but I believe they don't properly identify each face with the proper Gospel.

Of course, these are just a few bread crumbs thrown out onto the water.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part II

Continued from Part 1

In the next two posts I'll deal with anti-Christmas arguments based on the supposed historic practice of presbyterian and Reformed churches.

Q. 1. Have Protestant churches historically celebrated Christmas?

Answer. I'm on safe ground saying that historically most Protestant churches have cheerfully celebrated Christmas. Of course there are some that have not. But those who have not are in the minority.

So what do we do with Kevin Reed's astonishing claims?
Following an initial look at the origins of Christmas, we will note historic opposition to its observance, with special emphasis on Protestant objections to the holiday. We will see that Protestants, and especially Presbyterians, have rejected Christmas celebration . . .
Well, there's only one thing to do with it. Denounce it as a blatant falsehood. The facts are spread all over the history of the Protestant church. How can any one dare suggest that Protestants have rejected Christmas celebrations? The author is either ignorant or deliberately twisting what is readily available from the historical record.

The Reformers and their churches were first called Protestants at the council of Speyer in 1529. They were mostly followers of Luther's reforms. Even so, the term Protestant has come to refer to those churches in opposition to Rome and associated with the Reformation. This includes Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and independent churches. Even if one finds cause to dismiss the Lutheran churches as "compromising with Romanism"—as is often done in anti-Christmas fundamentalist literature—they are the original Protestants! And Luther and the Lutherans have never had any problems with Christmas. They glory in Christmas! This is so well known that a citation proving it is unnecessary.

This is to say nothing of the other Protestant churches that use a church year calendar and observe Christmas—Anglicans, Methodists, and yes, even Reformed and Presbyterian churches, as we shall see.

Reed's assertions are simply erroneous, if not downright ridiculous. Protestants as a whole have not rejected Christmas celebrations.

Q. 2. But what about Reformed and Presbyterian churches? Have they historically observed Christmas?

Answer. Yes, the majority of Reformed churches have indeed observed a moderate celebration of Christmas. This is especially true for what has been called "the continental Reformed tradition." Since the 16th century, most Reformed communities have celebrated Christmas. This would include the German Reformed, the French Reformed, the Dutch Reformed, the Swiss Reformed, and the English Reformed churches.

Q. 3. Has the celebration of Christmas ever been a test for Reformed orthodoxy in the Reformation tradition?

Answer. I can't say that it has never been, because presently there are some Reformed authors that indeed believe that it should be. And they can refer to individual authors in the past that spoke as if the observance of Christmas ought to function as a litmus test for orthodoxy. There are tracts and pamphlets, mostly from the 17th- and 18th-century Scottish Presbyterians, that seek to persuade churches to condemn, even discipline those who practice the celebration of Christmas. But officially the church has never taken this radical stand.

Unfortunately, Reed writes as if opposing Christmas has always been a mark of Reformation orthodoxy:
The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy.
Once again, please remember that phrase "the Protestant Reformers" includes Luther and the Lutherans who have never repudiated Christmas celebrations. Nevertheless, the repudiation of Christmas has never been "the legacy of the Reformation." This is a shameless untruth. But even if we narrow the horizon and include only Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, Reed's categorical pronouncements are still inaccurate. Most Reformed churches have not considered Christmas observance a matter of "hard-won" orthodoxy. At the most, it is the legacy of a very small selection of radical Puritans and some Scottish Presbyterians.

Furthermore, celebrating Christmas is not a "retreat" from orthodoxy. How can we retreat from something that was never advanced? The majority of Reformed churches have never made the presence or absence of Christmas a matter of orthodoxy! As far as I know, Christmas has never been a litmus test for orthodoxy in any official Reformed or Presbyterian confession, catechism, or book of church order. You will find nothing of the sort in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles, the First or Second Helvetic Confessions, the Scot's Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the Belgic Confession, or even the Westminster Standards.

One of the most respected and widely received Reformed confessions in the 16th century was the Second Helvetic Confession (A.D. 1566). It explicitly praises the celebration of the central feasts of the church year.
The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian Liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly.
I commend to you Mark Horne's excellent little article called Celebrating a Calvinist Christmas with a Clear Conscience. Some of the historical data is there for you to see. He discusses the Westminster Assembly, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Synod of Dortrecht (1619), the great Genevan Theologian of the 17th Century, Francis Turretin, and others.

To be continued. . .

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Two Words. . .

Chase Daniel

Is the Gospel in the Gospels? Part 4

Continued from Part 3.

The third and last thing to say about the Good News of the Kingdom, according to Jesus in Matthew 5, is that righteousness— true and genuine righteousness—is not what the scribes and Pharisees say that it is. That's good news. Read what Jesus says in Matt. 5:20, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

This statement is exceedingly provocative. It is hyperbole designed to make a memorable impression.

But the sentence is difficult to translate. Most translations suggest that Jesus is doing math. That one has to add something to what the scribes and Pharisees do in order to qualify. But it's not about mathematics—accountant ledgers and ticking off how much as been done.

The words Jesus uses here are notoriously difficult to translate: perisseuo, "to abound, to overflow." It's often used with reference to eating and food in the NT. Then, too, Jesus uses the word pleion here and we cannot help but hear echoes of pleireo in v. 17. Jesus' life will "fill out" the Law and Prophets, and his disciples' lives will also abundantly fill out the instruction of God!

It's not that the Scribes and Pharisees needed to add this or that, but that their "righteousness" their covenant faithfulness was paltry, meager, anemic, slim pickins, not anything like the rich fare laid out as food for God's people in my kingdom, Jesus says. And you are about to see what that is, Jesus suggests, because my life will fulfill it all.

Unless your righteousness overflows the bounds set by the Scribe and Pharisees. . . like mine, Jesus says. Watch me. Learn from me. Listen to me.

And Jesus is most certainly not talking about earning one's way into heaven. This is not a disguised hypothetical "covenant of works" theological pronouncement. These statements by Jesus are not really about priming people to hear about the grace of God by means of setting the bar so high that everyone will know how bad they are. Rather, these statements are the grace of God. Of course, of course, there's a place for meditating on the prefect standard of moral perfection given by God and evaluating our miserable, sinful lives in terms of it. But that's not Jesus's point here.

Entering the kingdom of heaven is about becoming a subject of Jesus' reign, of his kingdom on earth, the one he is inaugurating at this point in history. He's talking about the way his subjects ought to live—not like the Scribes and Pharisees—but according to the true standard of righteousness. Jesus is not trying to induce guilt and helplessness in order to teach people they need to be saved by God's grace. He does that in other places. Here he's making the point that the standards for life in his kingdom are different than what they are used to under teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees.

What Jesus means is that Pharisaical righteousness is only skin deep, superficial, ostentatious maybe, but it's not genuine conformity to the Law of God properly understood. Jesus is saying here that the self-appointed guardians and teachers of Israel's tradition must be abandoned. They do not teach the true meaning of God's law. This is exactly what Jesus will do when he sets out his six "antitheses" at the end of this chapter: "You have heard that it was said. . . but I say to you."

Jesus' word is Good News only in relation to the horrible distortions of the Pharisees and Scribes.

And so too today! We have to wonder what Jesus would say if he were to show up in American Evangelical wonderland: You have heard that it was said. . . but I say to you.

You should think carefully about this as you read through the sermon on the Mount. To do less would be to slip into the errors of the Scribes and Pharisees.

I believe people today need to be told something like this (v. 20). Don't think that the righteousness of this or that Christian church defines God's righteous requirements. Unless your behavior, your faithfulness, breaks out of the bounds of the Presbyterian tradition, for example, you shall be no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

Each ecclesiastical tradition has developed distinctive behavioral expectations for church members—these can be healthy and helpful, but they can also obscure the depth of commitment and loyalty that Jesus expects of his disciples. This was the problem with the Pharisees.

The Good News is that you will know the true way in which to live in God's kingdom when you see and follow Jesus. In him we learn of the righteous requirements of the Law. We see God's righteousness, that is, his faithfulness to his covenant promises, enacted in his radical service to humanity. In Jesus we see God's purposes for Israel come to fruition - he truly serves the world as priest and king as Israel was called to do but never truly did. In him we learn to appreciate the radical nature of God's instruction (radical in the sense of getting at the root). And in him we discover that life in his kingdom, ordered according to the genuine meaning of God's law, is the way of true fulfillment, satisfaction, joy and peace. All this is Good News.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Christmas Time is Here Again

Every year about this time I revise and repost my essay defending the celebration of Christmas. I do it because there's so much confusion about the whole thing. A friend of mine just got a nasty letter from someone who read one of his essays on this subject. The correspondent was livid, accusing him of having
the audacity to proclaim Christmas as being okay even though every tradition related to Christmas right down to the last pine needle is historically documented as being of Pagan origin. Except the part about Jesus being born. Oh wait. Yeah, that's right. The Roman Catholics changed the original estimated time of the birth of Christ date to coincide with the Pagan holiday of Noel.
Historically documented? Hmm. We'll have to see about that.

For some Christians this is not the season to be jolly; rather, it's open season on churches and Christians that celebrate Christmas. Almost every year about this time I get handed or emailed the same anti-Christmas essays. Well-meaning brothers are "concerned" that our church puts up a Christmas tree in the foyer of our church, light Advent candles in December, and decorate the church with garland and holly for the season.

Yes, we do these things. We also arrange our Scripture readings to highlight the themes of Advent, use prayers and hymns that focus the church's petitions on the coming of the Lord, and actually encourage our members to rejoice and feast during the holiday season to commemorate our Lord's incarnation and birth. All of this, I have been solemnly warned, is either blatant anti-Christian paganism or quite un-Reformed and therefore an offense to God.

Consider this author's summary judgment:
This may be a shocking thought to some: but . . . I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing Christian about Christmas; that in its present observance, as well as in its origin, Christmas is basically and essentially pagan.
Another Christian, in an article called Tis the Season for Pagan Worship, intensifies this indictment:
What many in Christendom have been celebrating--Christmas--is a thoroughly pagan holiday--in its origin, in its trappings, and in all its traditions . . . . The modern conservative cry to put Christ back into Christmas is absurd. Jesus Christ was never in Christmas.
I'll admit upfront that I am angered by this kind of rhetoric. Let me be clear. I'm not angry with people who don't celebrate Christmas. Individuals and churches have the liberty to celebrate or not. What is troubling is to hear those of us within the Reformed church that do commemorate the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas labeled as compromisers, crypto-Romanists, idolaters, second-commandment breakers, and worse. Beyond the fact that the anti-Christmas rhetoric is inflammatory, what is worse is how pitiful the arguments are.

If we were bowing down to Christmas trees, praying to or lighting candles before icons of St. Nicholas, or adding some strange ceremonies to the Sunday morning service, I might understand these sorts of accusations. But as it is, all we are doing is ordering our Scripture readings to highlight the theme of Jesus' coming, focusing our prayers on the faithfulness of God and his covenant promises, meditating on the significance of the Son of God's incarnation, and decorating our homes and churches with symbolic reminders of these themes. Does an annual focus on the theme of the Lord's coming warrant the charge of idolatry?

I will do my best to refrain from impugning the motives of these anti-Christmas crusaders, but I honestly don't know what is gained by making such provocative accusations. Some of them, no doubt, actually believe that Christians who simply celebrate Christmas are "idolaters," that we violate the second commandment when we decorate Christmas trees, trim the house with holiday decorations, erect manger scenes, and exchange gifts. For them Christmas is a "monument to idolatry"!

Simple Christians who read these inflammatory accusations against Christmas and see their own churches enacting and encouraging these "idolatrous" activities are quite understandably bewildered. What faithful Christian wants to be called an idolater? It's only natural that an accusation of idolatry should cause the accused to pause and reflect on the practices that are labeled as such. But if the accusations turn out to be false, then a degree of righteous anger is surely justified.

Is there really nothing Christian about Christmas? Is it true that Christmas is essentially pagan? Should we believe that "God is offended" by Christians celebrating Christmas? That God commands loyal Christians to get rid of Christmas because it is a wicked "monument to idolatry?" Do the fiery warnings of the Old Testament prophets against compromise and religious syncretism apply to simple Christians who enjoy decorating their Christmas trees with lights and ornaments?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "No!" I hope the reader will come to understand my reasons at the end this series of posts.

We can conveniently subsume most of the arguments against Christmas under the following 4 categories:
1. Arguments based on the supposed historic practice of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

2. Arguments based on the alleged Roman Catholic character of Christmas.

3. Arguments based on presumed pagan roots of Christmas symbols and ceremonies.

4. Arguments based on the so-called regulative principle of worship and the absence of a biblical commandment to celebrate Christmas.
The first three arguments, usually the most prominent with anti-Christmas crusaders, all turn on a proper understanding of history, both the history of Reformed worship and liturgy as well as the history of the development of Christmas celebrations in church history, especially the development of the church year in the early centuries of the post-apostolic church. The fourth depends on a proper understanding of how the Bible informs and regulates our worship and devotional practices.

I will work my way through the arguments using a question-and-answer format. Hopefully, this will allow the reader to navigate the whole debate with greater ease.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Grain & Grapes?

Jesus instituted his Supper when he took hold of bread and gave thanks. After he broke the bread, distributed it, and everyone ate he also took hold of a cup of wine and gave thanks.

He could have just as easily taken hold of some grains of wheat and a bunch of grapes. But he didn't. He grasped a loaf of bread and a cup of red wine, giving thanks for both.

Bread is the product of human ingenuity and effort. Wine takes even more skill to make. In the Eucharist we don't simply give thanks for raw, unprocessed nature. Rather, we are reminded that both our "daily bread" and the luxury of enjoying good wine both come to us as gifts of God by means of human community.

We include one another – not just raw nature – in our thanksgiving. God doesn’t simply gift us with wheat and grapes. God gifts us with people to grow them, harvest them, store them, sell them to others who then sell them to others who add ingredients, skill, etc. The end result is the tasty bread and satisfying wine for which we bless God.

This thanksgiving thank God for the division of labor and the cooperation of human communities that result in all the useful and luxurious products we enjoy as Americans.

Is the Gospel in the Gospels? Part 3

Continued from Part 2

The second thing to learn about the Good News of the Kingdom from Jesus' explanation in Matthew 5 is that those who teach and live according God's instruction as laid out in the Law and Prophets and embodied in Jesus' life will be called great. I'm only using the words that Jesus uses here: read Matt. 5:19. ". . . whoever does and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Okay. So how is this good news?

Whether anyone in this life recognizes it or not, those who seek to be scrupulous about their conformity to God's instruction are blessed by God.

This is not to say that they merit God's favor or that they earn their position of greatness by means of brownie points with God. Rather, remember, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, to the Israel of God who have been chosen by God, graciously redeemed by God, favored by God's unmerited love and grace, and made part of his kingdom.

Part of the problem here is the way we have used the words "commandment" and "law." We've reduced these to the "moral law," but the words refer to everything in the Pentateuch and Prophets. That includes all the instruction about humility, promises of forgiveness, and the encouragement of the people to seek restoration and forgiveness from God by means of prayer and the sacrificial system. That's part of the Law. Yes it is. More than being just "part" of the law, the sacrificial system is foundational in the Law.

In fact, most of the OT revelation is given over not to moral laws and commandments, but to instruction (torah) about confessing one's sins and seeking regular restoration and renewal at the Tabernacle and Temple. Remember, the bulk of the "legal" instruction in the Pentateuch is about priesthood, Tabernacle, sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, etc. What did Moses receive on Mt. Sinai? What is most of the book of Exodus taken up with, moral law or instruction about priests, sacrifices, and tabernacle maintenance?

But Jesus point here is: God has not given us the right to pick and choose which commandments we will follow. You cast off a part of God's law and you throw off the Lord's yoke entirely. You reject his Lordship and authority over you. Some of us are really sticklers about certain commandments, especially when it comes to other people breaking them; but then we are very quick to excuse ourselves from obeying the commandments that we have concluded don't apply to us.

If you seek to actively undermine someone's faith in any portion of the Bible, you are in serious trouble. If you help them find excuses for not submitting to a portion that they don't like, you are the least in the kingdom of God. This was what the scribes and Pharisees were doing, as we shall see. And this happens all the time in our churches. It's not Good News.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Is the Gospel in the Gospels? Part 2

In my last post I said that the Gospel was about the law. Jesus teaching cleansed God's law (=instruction) of awful distortions and restored it to it's proper function in the life of God's people.

Listen to Jesus in Matt. 5:17-20 as he introduces the wonderful news concerning life in his kingdom:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The first thing to say about this is that the Good News of the Kingdom is that Jesus fulfills everything revealed in the Law and Prophets.

Matt. 5:17 is something of a thesis statement for everything that follows in chapter 5 and indeed in the rest of story of Jesus.

Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. " But why would anyone think that? Well, remember what Jesus has said in vss. 14-16. He looks at his disciples and proclaims:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Surely at this point people would have been scratching their heads in wonder. Well, what's the problem? Israel has teachers and we've gone all over the world with the Lord's torah. Our light is shining. The light of the law. Our seminaries pump out bright young rabbis regularly. We've been trumpeting the law of God around the known world. Surely the light shines in Israel! We are not hiding our righteousness! The nations see our good works? Are you, Jesus, suggesting our good works are not good works? What do you mean by this, Jesus? A new law? Are you going to abolish the Torah?

And surely the scribes and Pharisees listening to Jesus teach so far would also wonder: what about the Law? All this talk about YOUR kingdom, Jesus, but not yet one word about the Law. So what about the Law, does it have a place, Jesus, or are you abolishing it?

Add to this the fact that Jesus was not living scrupulously according to accepted legal traditions and rituals—multiple washings, staying away from contact with Gentiles, multiple tithes, extreme Sabbath observances, and the like— then it's not too hard to see that he might be mistakenly hailed as a radical, a revolutionary, one bent on overthrowing the Law and the Prophets. One who was bringing in something novel.

People listening to Jesus teach would have heard something different than what they were being taught. Maybe not altogether different, but different enough to wonder. People were curious: this is not what we have heard our teachers and theologians emphasize in their teaching. Most first-century Jews would have thought that the traditional instruction of the Rabbis, especially that of the conservative Scribes and Pharisees embodied the true interpretation of the Law and Prophets. The Pharisees taught that their traditions, the oral law, was the end, the goal of the torah, and and that they had uncovered the true meaning of the law and the prophets. Everything was fulfilled when people ordered their lives according to the tradition of the elders as the Pharisees taught it.

So if Jesus is not saying exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were saying, then what is he saying?

Jesus says, first of all: NO, not to abolish (smash, tear down, destroy, nullify, make useless) "the law or the prophets" = the entire older revelation of God—Pentatuech and Writing and Preaching Prophets (Joshua- Malachi). Not to abolish, but to fulfill.

We might put it like this: the Gospel is NOT that Jesus tears down everything in what we call the OT and replaces it with something novel and different, but that Jesus' life and teaching makes sense of it all, brings it all to completion, makes its meaning crystal clear, for those that have ears to hear and eyes to see! This is Good News.

Jesus is the "end" or "goal" of the Law and Prophets. He interprets it, and it is only interpreted rightly when done so in terms of him.

The only legitimate way to understand the OT today is by means of Jesus' life and words. After all, the Law and the prophets always pointed to something, indeed, someone beyond themselves. To the future. The OT instruction could not stand on its own. The Pharisees believed that it pointed to their oral tradition, that everything was fulfilled in their way of living out the implications of the Torah. But Jesus didn't think so. The Law and Prophets come to completion in me, he says.

So to read and interpret the OT as if Jesus wouldn't come or hasn't come is to miss its divinely intended fullness of meaning.

This would be like trying to understand baseball by reading the rules, but never having played baseball or seen a baseball game. One might get some things right, but one really does need to see it played, lived out and embodied in the players. So also with the law and the prophets. Without Jesus' life the OT Law and Prophets are opaque and enigmatic.

Israel knew that her Law as well as her existence pointed to something, someone greater. She knew that she could not fully understand her own mission and character without reference to some future fulfilment. But until Jesus came, all she could do was grope around in faith or substitute faith in Yahweh's work in the future for something else—the oral law, for example.

To be continued. . .

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Reading Level

cash advance

Well, according to Wayne (who alerts me to all these goofy tests), I must be a dang good writer!

Is the Gospel in the Gospels? Part 1

Not if the Gospel is defined narrowly as the doctrine of justification by faith. Think about it.

I believe the Gospel is clearly stated in the Gospels and that we are often in danger of misunderstanding Paul's teaching because we have marginalized the Gospels. Otherwise stated, the Gospels ought to constrain our reading of Paul. To reverse this is backwards. For example, Matthew tells us that Jesus preached the "Gospel of the Kingdom" (Matt. 4:23), then he gives the content of his preaching of the Gospel in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. If we don't like that, then we ought to change our narrow definition of the Gospel.

And there's more to say about this. I believe that some construals of the law/gospel dichotomy have blinded us to the Gospel dimension of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels. Over the past 11 years I have preached through Matthew, Mark, and John and have tried to pay careful attention to the text itself, without importing unhelpful categories.

We modern Christians have created a problem that first century Christians would have marveled at. I don't think they would have even understood the conundrum. What is it? We have a hard time finding the Good News in the first 3 books of the NT—Matthew, Mark, and Luke! We ask: where is the Gospel, the Good News in Matthew? In Mark? In Luke?

I have sat in graduate seminar classes at Concordia Seminary (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) where professors and students have debated about IF and WHERE the Gospel is found in these three books. Do you see the irony, the weirdness of this? Let me put it like this: Where can we find the Gospel in the Gospel According to Matthew? Or: where is the Good News in the Good News According to St. Matthew? Is it really there? Pretty weird, if you ask me.

This is partly because since the Reformation, when everything became polarized, we have tended to reduce the Gospel to something very narrow and specific—the teaching about how individuals get to heaven when they die? Our Gospel presentations perpetuate that reductionism. What's the big diagnostic question? If you were to die tonight, would God let you into his heaven? and why? and how?

Now let me be quick to say: preparation for dying is important. We will all stand before the Judgment seat of Christ! It is appointed for men to die once and after that comes the Judgment—Hebrews 9, etc. So the Good News does indeed prepare one for death and judgment before the throne of God. We must know that trusting God's grace in Jesus, accepting his work on our behalf, is our only hope in death. So far so good.

But. . . the Gospel is also our hope in LIFE. And we live before we die, unless I've missed something.

The Good News has to do with how we live before God in the world, how we order our lives in God's world. How we live in Jesus' Kingdom—which is the entire world and life under Jesus' reign and rule.

So just where is the Good News, the Gospel, in the Gospel According to Matthew? Seriously. The early church would want us to read the entire story, including Jesus' teaching on how to live as Good News, Wonderful News, the Announcement that brings happiness, blessing, peace and power for living our lives! And nowhere is the Good News more clearly announced and explained than in the Sermon on the Mount. If I might be permitted to put it like this: The Gospel is about the Law.

What? Outrageous heresy! How can you say that? How dare you say that! Simple. The sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaching about the genuine meaning and significance of the Law and the Prophets, is Great News. Life in his kingdom is explained and clarified and purified of all of the misinterpretations and awful legalisms of the Scribes and Pharisees in first century Judaism.

Matthew tells us that Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matt. 4:23), then he gives the CONTENT of the Gospel in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. If we don't like that, then, like I said above, we ought to change our narrow definition of the Gospel.

This is a major challenge for us modern Reformation Christians as we read through the Gospel according to Matthew.

Recovering the Good News of life in the Kingdom means reading the Gospels in a new, refreshing way.

To be continued. . .

Saturday, November 17, 2007


I haven't been able to participate much in this discussion, but I sure do appreciate Rich Lusk jumping in and helping out. Even though it's a few days old now, this is a discussion/debate worth following.

Friday, November 16, 2007

How James Came to Be Written

This first appeared in the August 2006 Biblical Horizon's newsletter in conjunction with two other essays by James Jordan "How Matthew Came to Be Written" (June 2006) and "How Mark Came to be Written" (July 2006). We are such weirdos that we believe the canonical order of the Gospels is the order in which they were written.

Matthew was written a few years after the ascension of Jesus. It answers the needs of the emergent apostolic church composed almost exclusively of Jews living in Jerusalem and Judea. Jesus is the new Moses and the Gospel has a priestly character with extended teaching (which is what priests did). Mark was written in the early 40's after the outbreak of the persecution against the church (Acts 8:1-3; 11:19). In Mark's Gospel Jesus is the Greater David and his community must follow him, moving around quickly and quietly, serving others while waiting to be elevated by God. Mark portrays Jesus as King, serving as the Son of God, giving his life for his people. That's what kings do. The epistle of James was written by the apostle James during this same time period, sometime before he was martyred by Herod (Acts 12:2). But you can read the parable to get a feel for how the letter addresses the challenges and temptations set before the fledgling Christian community at that time.

Somewhere In Jerusalem. . .

". . . and just when are you guys going to live up to your Sons of Thunder reputation? Huh? A lot of us are wondering about you two. We want action!” With that, the young man got up, climbed down the ladder, and stalked up the street toward the old city.

Jacob [James in English] turned from watching the man and looked at his brother. This was not the first time he saw that expression on Johanan’s face. What was it? Bewilderment mixed with sadness maybe, but then too a hint of fear. Jacob empathized. For months now they had been hearing similar angry speeches. The younger men especially were given to reacting to the persecution with a show of strength, even force. Every apostle in Jerusalem has been approached with similar proposals. But now the situation appeared to have gotten worse. This man reported on activity that crossed the line. He actually urged them to join with the resistance.

“Johanan, do you think his report is credible? Or might he have been exaggerating in an attempt to get us to join the cause, so to speak? What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t think he’s making it up. Perhaps he’s embellished the incident somewhat, but I’ve heard similar stories this week from other brothers who’ve been driven out of Jerusalem.”

“Wait. Similar stories? Do you mean different accounts of this one incident or similar incidents in different places?”

“The latter, Jacob. Many of the brothers are losing patience. They tell me that they are no longer able to control angry disciples. I guess we should have seen this coming. As you know, since the tribulation began last year there has been a steady deterioration of order in our assemblies. . . . Look, Jacob, here comes brother Levi, Peter, and Peter’s deacon Mark. They don’t look very happy.”

Jacob went to the ladder and called the three up. After arranging a few more cushions for their friends to recline with them, Johanan called down to his wife and asked if there was an extra jar of wine downstairs for the five of them. She said there wasn’t, but that she would send Joseph down to the market before it closed to purchase a bottle of that wonderful vintage port from the Negev. “Thank you, dear,” Jacob said.

Jacob then turned toward the three visitors. “Why the dour looks, brothers?”

Levi spoke. “You would think that as my account of our Lord’s life circulates, the disciples would connect the dots with their own situation. But I don’t see it happening. The brothers that do see the connection are being drowned out by these loudmouthed young wannabes who counsel violent action against the persecutors.”

“Violent action. You’ve heard about it, too? We just heard a report from a brother who claims it has moved beyond mere talk. Johanan just now tells me that he’s heard similar reports. I can see from your expressions that it must be true.”
Peter said, “Yes, it’s awful. In Bethel the servant of an agent of the Sanhedrin on a mission to find disciples has been killed. I don’t know all the details. But the reliable word on the street is that the deed was done by disciples that are being described as zealots.”

“We’ve also heard,” Mark added, “that some brothers are cursing the persecutors in their assemblies and privately organizing bands of men bound by oaths to establish the righteous rule of Jesus. What a mess!”

Everyone was quiet for a while. Then Peter spoke up.

“Too many brothers apparently believe that the success of the Lord Jesus’ cause must be measured the way our apostate nation measures success. If their assembly has no political influence or power, no material wealth or visible signs of prosperity, then how can they claim to be the Messiah’s new people? So they mimic their rich persecutors and think that by responding in kind they will prevail.”

Jacob said, “But this kind of attitude and behavior is diametrically opposed to the way of our Lord Jesus! If we disciples are going to covet the power and wealth of apostate Jerusalem, then we may as well just become pagan Romans. After all, Jerusalem simply mimics Rome these days. I’ve just read an insightful essay on this by a young brother named Rene ben Girard from the Gadarene region. Can’t the brothers at least discern what’s going on? Such pride will cause the Lord’s judgment to fall on us, not just on Jerusalem and Rome. Friendship with the world is enmity with God!”

Peter said, “So we are all feeling the same way, I see. This is a sign from the Spirit to us that something needs to be done.”

“I agree,” said Levi. “Remember how we came to a consensus about this when I was commissioned to write my account of Jesus’ ministry?” Everyone nodded. “Okay. I believe we need to write something to the churches now, specifically to our brothers who are shepherding the assemblies that have been formed outside of Jerusalem since the persecution and dispersion. Do you men agree?”

Peter: “Yes, Levi, I believe this is exactly the right thing to do. And since your account of our Lord’s ministry is now being copied and circulated, the new work ought to draw out the implications of our Lord’s life and teaching for the persecuted church. People should be able to see the connection between Levi’s account and this new work’s presentation of proper behavior for disciples of Jesus. Does everyone agree?”

Johanan said, “Yes, I think the Spirit is moving us in precisely that direction. Let me add that I think this work ought to be a circular letter written to our brothers, the pastors and leaders of the persecuted assemblies. Every disciple will be able to learn from it, of course, but if we write the leaders and ask them to read and explain it to their people, we will be addressing the source of the most of our problems. These brothers are supposed to be mature, able to lead their people with meekness and mercy. They seem to want to rule like the Gentiles. Someone needs to remind them of the royal instruction given by our Lord in his mountainside sermon! If we want to continue to reign with the Lord Jesus, we better start acting like true kings and leave off imitating apostate Jewish blowhards and pagan Roman warmongers.”

Peter: “Good idea, John. We need to make sure that this concern for how the brothers lead the congregations by means of their words is at the heart our exhortation. Words are powerful, but words will not save us. Our Lord told us ‘wisdom is justified by her works.’ We need to make sure that our appointed teachers understand this.”

“Speaking of words,” Jacob interjected, “I would like to see us address the true heart and soul of faithful Christian piety – caring for the poor and needy, especially widows and orphans. The churches are being sidetracked from this by our persecutors. Stephen was a great example of this. But I gather that some bigmouths think that Stephen’s death proved his ministry was ineffective. They don’t seem to remember that Stephen was following in the footsteps of our Lord. They were both murdered by envious Jewish rulers whose own failures were illuminated by Jesus’ and Stephen’s righteous service to the poor. Our people can talk about faith all they want, but putting one’s faith in Jesus means doing the kinds of works he did. Perhaps we need to remind everyone of the uselessness of empty talk, even empty confessions of faith.”

“Well, men, do we have anyone more passionately concerned about this than our brother Jacob?” Peter asked. “I think not. I think it is especially appropriate that Jacob write this pastoral letter given that he now functions as the lampstand of the assemblies in Jerusalem. Most of the men and congregations that have been displaced last year were under his shepherding care. It only makes sense to have him write these brothers. What do you all think?”

Everyone nodded vigorously, while Jacob looked a bit apprehensive. “I’ll need your help, men. For I’ll need to avoid just the kind of angry speech that I wish to warn the brothers against. This is an honor, but I don’t feel up to it.”

Peter then got to his feet and motioned everyone to gather around Jacob. They did so, laying hands on him, and praying fervently. Peter petitioned the Lord to grant them all humility and patience in the midst of these great trials. He prayed that they would have the grace to count even these tribulations as blessings. Mark prayed that the Lord would judge those apostate Jewish leaders who failed to honor the apostles and disciples of the Messiah. He prayed that the cries of the laborers that were sent to harvest the fields of Israel would reach the Lord of armies and that he would act swiftly to bring in the reign of righteousness he promised. Levi prayed that the disciples of the Messiah would remember the suffering and patience of the prophets, and that the Lord would reward their steadfast faith with the harvest of righteousness they all longed for. Finally, Johanan prayed for his brother, that God would grant that through his words many who are wandering from the truth might be rescued and that this pastoral letter might be the means whereby the Lord would cover a multitude of sins.

When they had finished praying, Jacob got up from his knees and saw his son Joseph standing by the ladder with the promised bottle of wine. After everyone had a glass, he raised his cup and blessed the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Everyone shouted amen. They enjoyed each other’s company for a little while longer, but Jacob’s mind was already busy with the letter he would begin to write early the next morning. He kept hearing the prayers that were spoken over him a few moments ago. His letter was taking shape in his mind.

Biblical Horizons (ISSN 1050-0588) is published occasionally, funds permitting, by Biblical Horizons, P.O. Box 1096, Niceville, Florida 32588-1096. Anyone sending a donation, in any amount, will be placed on the mailing list to receive issues of Biblical Horizons as they are published. The content of all essays published in Biblical Horizons is copyrighted, but permission to reprint any essay is freely given provided that the essay is published uncut, and that the name and address of Biblical Horizons is given.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Space - The Final Frontier

This is, like, totally awesome, man. And, dude, it's Paul Johnson!

More Open Minded Than You

You Are 56% Open Minded

You are a very open minded person, but you're also well grounded.

Tolerant and flexible, you appreciate most lifestyles and viewpoints.

But you also know where you stand firm, and you can draw that line.

You're open to considering every possibility - but in the end, you stand true to yourself.

HT: Not-Quite-As-Open-Minded-As-Me Wayne

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Congratulations to Me!

Just got back. I'm tired. Very tired. Shot this eight pointer early this morning.

Update: Okay. More details. Had about three and a half hours sleep Friday night. Poker and all that. Got up before dark and got out to the stand. View from stand is half in the woods and half out into the cornfield (in the picture). After about 45 minutes on the stand I was dozing off. Not a good thing mostly because a drop to the ground wouldn't be all that pleasant. Glanced over at the cornfield and saw the buck's rack moving around. Hello. Where did you come from? The thing with deer hunting: you almost never hear them, they just show up out of nowhere. (That's why you can listen to a book on your ipod, but not read a book while in the stand. Gotta keep looking. But don't necessarily need to hear.) The shot was on my right. Because I'm right-handed I couldn't turn sitting, so I had to stand up and pivot 180 degrees in order to bring my rifle up and check him out. Couldn't see how many points he was right away. Kept looking but the drying corn was making it hard. Can't take a 6-point buck. Illegal in Gasconade county. All I could see was 6 points. Not good. The buck kept walking and zig-zagging away from me heading to the other side of the cornfield. Finally, when he was on the other side of the field and out of the corn I saw the 2 extra points I was looking for. He was ready to head into the woods when I aimed and squeezed the trigger. Boom. 94 yards away (used rangefinder afterwards). Deer jumped up (as they usually do when you have a good shot) dashed into and over a wood pile and down a draw. I thought I had a good shot, so I got down immediately and went to see the blood trail. Followed it for a few feet and saw the buck down about 10 yards away. Turned out that it was a perfect heart shot. Yeah, I know. I'm good. That's what my wife says anyway. Oh yeah, rifle used: Weatherby Vanguard 30-06 w/3x9 Leupold VX-II scope.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Wisdom Literature & Ecclesiastes

The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes in Context - Part II

Everything I've said so far is important background for understanding the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. We noted earlier that Israel was given rather straightforward directions in the Mosaic law. She was also promised abundant blessing when she obeyed the law and frightening curses if she chose to transgress God's covenantal stipulations (Deuternomy 27-29). This, too, corresponds with how children learn. For example, a little boy learns that it is wrong to do something that puts a sibling or friend in danger of harm. "Don't do that!" the Parent commands. But when the boy grows up and is put in a place of leadership, say, in the military, he will discover that it is often necessary to send some of his men on a dangerous, even fatal mission, in order to accomplish a greater goal. The wisdom literature of the Bible recognizes that ruling involves wise discernment and decisive action in life and death situations. After asking for and receiving wisdom from God Solomon's first dilemma called for him to decree death to the infant son claimed by both prostitutes (First Kings 4:16-28). The decree was not carried out, of course. But, on the face of it, for a king to command such a thing seems to violate the law of God. And yet it was the wisest thing to do in that situation.

As Israel matures and begins to reflect up the complexities of life and the challenges of ruling a nation, she discerns that everything is not so black and white, and that God does not simply reward obedience with material blessings and disobedience with poverty and calamity. No, life is more complex than that and God's ways are often quite paradoxical because his explicit intentions are not available to us.

The riddle character of life reflected in the use of riddles in the wise man's reflection on the world and life. Solomon's explanation of the purpose of his proverbs includes a summons to the wise: "Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a dark saying, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6). The word "proverb" translates the Hebrew word maschal, which is a rather broad term that is used to describe short, pithy riddle-like sayings (what we call "proverbs") as well as longer, more complex stories—what we might call "parables." In every case, however, this maschal literature of the wise has an enigmatic dimension to it. The meaning lies beneath the surface. The fool, who only looks at the superficial, surface meaning, will not understand. One must be wise to understand the sayings of the wise, or maybe better, if one diligently ponders and searches for the meaning of these dark sayings one will attain wisdom (Proverbs 2:1-9).

This means that the dominant literary mode of expressing the reflections of the wisdom teachers requires more than a superficial reading. Riddles take time and effort to solve. Unfortunately, some who comment on Ecclesiastes don't move beyond a superficial reading and conclude that Solomon has become despondent and given up on life or that he has written what amounts to an exposé of the unbeliever's perspective on the world and life. But this is a failure of the imagination. Such an interpretation may also say more about the interpreter than the text. A wise man will resonate to Solomon's frustration with the ephemeral character of life under the sun. The superficially pious calls for positive attitudes and cheery one-dimensional slogans about life and the world. But the wise man knows better. He has experienced Solomon's theme: "Everything is vapor." And armed with this, therefore, the wise man is ready by faith to rule the world.

Nouthetic Counseling

I love Bob Newhart's kind of humor.

HT: Blog & Mablog

Thursday, November 8, 2007

More Cool Stuff on Christendom

I'm back. Fixed my computer problems. Turned out they were all my fault. I hate reading manuals and "read first" documents. My MO with software upgrades is to click first and ask questions later. Sometimes that causes problems. Sometimes. But everything is fine now. And Leopard is really a quite a snappy operating system upgrade.

But back to the discussion about Christendom.

Someone challenged us with this question: if one had the option of living in a Christian culture that was experiencing a temporary setback with all the attendant problems and another culture that was dominated by Islam, what would you want for your wife and children? Only an insane person in the USA would choose to live in an Islamic state (unless, of course, one is going there to work for Christianization and change). That led to these comments by Rich Bledsoe:
To once again quote the Famous Father Herman, "Many Hindus are happy children, but Moslems are never happy, no matter where they are." Father Herman is from the very southern tip of India, and according to him, his family have been Christian since the days of Thomas the Apostle. He also says that "Allah is Lucifer." Strong language from a man who, as far as I can see, knows more about the workings of Satan than any other soul in my acquaintance.

I can still remember that before my trip to India, I had the very distinct opinion that surely it would be India that would be the
demon possessed nation, being essentially Hindu, and a nation that worshipped what must be demons (snakes, trees, animals, the sun, anything anywhere) and that the Islamic nations at least had a portion of the truth being monotheistic and a people that shared something of our Bible.

Alas, in practice, I was all backwards. India is a nation that is a feast to the senses, the streets filled with the world's most beautiful women dressed saris of every color imaginable. "Many Hindus are happy children..." something I heard Father Herman say long after I was back from India, but exactly true to my experience.

Then, we visited Pakistan to visit friends who were working for the Agha Khan in developing 200 schools for girls in that nation. The husband was an old church friend of ours and grew up in Pakistan, an MK of Pakistani Missionaries. The best kind of Missionary Kid who knew the Middle East in the deepest part of his gut. From the moment we flew into the country, we were overwhelmed with a sense of oppression and darkness that I have never experienced before or since. Women are never seen. White is the one drab color worn by the men. When we returned to India, we spoke with the missionaries about our experience. They laughed, and said, "Yes, quite so. But if you really want to feel oppressiveness, go to Saudi Arabia. That is the worst in the world."

Islam jet fueled the death impulse inherent in all of paganism. It fuel injected it with a simple monotheism and no atonement. Death has not been conquered, death is supreme. Far worse than paganism. Simple paganism is pretty innocent compared to what Islam is. Islam is a horror. Our ancestors were not wrong.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Vacation Blues

I'm on vacation this week, but I'm mad. I installed Leopard yesterday. When I restarted the system I was shut out. My login names and passwords didn't work. Argh. I spent way too much time yesterday trying to figure it out. I searched the support pages and discussions for some answers, but nothing there helped. I just talked with Apple support and did an Archive and Install. I'm waiting for it to be done.

I had hoped to continue with daily blog posts while on vacation, but I don't have access to what I need on this laptop.

I've been doing Mac OS upgrades since 1984. This is the first time I've had this kind of problem. I guess that's pretty good, but I'm still mad.

And, Bob, don't say a word about Linux or I'll. . .

Monday, November 5, 2007

Cool Stuff on Christendom - Part I

Loconte's essay critiquing N.T. Wright's views about America was the occasion for a long, productive discussion among some friends on a private discussion list. I've asked some of he contributors for permission to post some of their comments and they have graciously consented. I'll give just a bit of context for each item, but I believe most of them can stand on their own.

A lot of people want to dump on Christendom and forget that the extension of the rule of Christ brought great benefits even if there were problems. Christendom is not the source of our current problems. Questions about the secularization of Christendom's ideals were discussed. And we spent a great deal of time talking about whether all of America's problems mean that we can say that we are no better than Islamic cultures. Weston Hicks made some telling comments:
We don't live in the world of ideas, hence "secular capitalism" doesn't actually exist. What exists is a Christianized Western Civilization that grew up in the church and when she went off to college she was seduced by pagan professors named Descartes and Marx.

So she thinks she's a "secular democrat". And if she doesn't return to her loyalty to Jesus, she'll eventually be destroyed. You can see her getting wrinkles beyond her age already.

But what she really is is an apostatized Christian kid who has no idea how much she is shaped by the Bible, and how much that training benefits her. Her Christian training and inheritance provide the strength and stability in her life, which she uses to live in all kinds of sin. That's sad.

But her invisible Christian inheritence also make her far more civil and human than she would otherwise be if she were a standard world-pagan, where a human life is worth about $.10 when the market is good.

And it seems to me that those enjoying the humanity that the gospel has brought to western civilization should be less flippant about denigrating it.

Just because our dads aren't all they could have been, is it okay for us to go around saying he's as much of a deadbeat as the worst dad we've ever seen?

The third way, as I see it, is work for something better and be thankful for what we've been given. That includes being realistic about the superiority of America to the Muslim world, however much that offends our cosmopolitan sensibilities.
James Jordan says
By siding with the thugocracies of the UN, N.T. Wright continues to blow it. If we offered free passage to anyone in the world who wanted to come to America, there would be a giant sucking sound as 95% of the world's population instantly moved here, leaving the thugs and the "nations" (that we "imperialize") and their Pharisee/Sadducee rulers (whom NTW seems to want to grant legitimacy to) with nothing to rule. You see, the Common People heard Jesus gladly, and the Common People hear America gladly also. We see all our faults; they still see something wonderful.

All over Eastern Europe, they waited for American to come save them. We failed, but still they hoped.

When American planes flew over Liberia a few years ago, the people cheered: The Marines were coming to save them. We didn't, but we might have. Of course, NTW would have said we are "imperialists." But a lot of Little People who are DEAD right now would be ALIVE if the US government had had the cojones to do what is right instead of what is PC.

All those people were much better off under Western imperialism. What's wrong with imperialism? God set up an empire. It's a legitimate phase of history. Western imperialism ended wife-murder in India (it's back now, of course); brought medicine, Jesus, and clean water to Africa (medicine and clean water are now gone, of course); and moved thugs and murderers and rapists out of power. In fact, when Europeans ruled Africa, PIGMIES WERE NO LONGER ON THE MENU, as they are once again, of course.

When God gives you strength, He expects you to use it to help the poor and the helpless.

The West failed the "third world" by giving up its colonies to the worst kinds of people.

NTW should learn to care about common, poor, helpless people, and stop caring about UN bureaucrats.
More to come. Stay tuned.

Peggy at Her Best

"John Edwards seems like a furry animal on a wheel, trying so hard, to the point he's getting a facial tic, and getting nowhere, failing to get his little furry paws on his prey, not knowing you have to get off the wheel to get to the prey. You have to stop the rounded, rote, bromidic phrases, and use a normal language that cannot be ignored."

But this Wall Street Journal article is really about Hillary and well worth reading.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Adam & Wisdom

Continued from The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes in Context, Part 1

Back to the Garden

Before we move on to the next phase of Israel's story—kingship—we should stop and return to the beginning of human history. Since we are reflecting on biblical wisdom and about to embark on a study of the wisdom of Solomon expressed in Ecclesiastes, it would be helpful for us to go back to the "book of beginnings" and think about the way in which wisdom is first presented to us. The Hebrew word "wisdom" does not itself occur in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3, but it is evident from the details of the story that God promised kingly wisdom to Adam if he would but be patient and wait for God's to mature him.

The promise of royal wisdom God held out to Adam was embodied in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This perspective is not often appreciated. But a little investigation into how the Bible later uses the notion of the "knowledge of good and evil" reveals that it is the wise discernment exercised by those placed in positions of authority and responsibility. Knowing or discerning between good and evil has to do with making mature judgments. It is a precious gift of God sought by those called to rule. Those given the gift to discern good and evil possess the wisdom necessary for deciding life and death issues for those whom he serve as rulers. So the woman of Tekoa recognizes that King David is a "messenger of God to discern good and evil" (Second Samuel 14:17). Indeed, David is able to unravel in this story a very convoluted situation that ultimately concerns the life and death of his son Absalom.

But the best illustration of the meaning of "knowing good and evil" is found in the story of young Solomon's prayer for wisdom. Knowing that he is too young to have the weight of the kingdom on his shoulders, Solomon petitions God for the wisdom he needs to rule. He is not presumptuous like Adam. He does not prematurely seize power. Rather, when given the opportunity to ask anything of the Lord, Solomon makes this request:
And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people? (1 Kings 3:7-9)
God commends Solomon for his appropriate request and gifts him with "a wise and discerning mind." Solomon, the Son of David, is a new Adam. The text of First Kings calls attention to this shortly after Solomon's prayer for wisdom, recounting his Adamic accomplishments (First Kings 4:29-34).

Children do not know "good and evil" in this judicial sense (Deuteronomy 1:39), which is why elders not young people are given the privilege of adjudicating cases in the community. Even though Adam and Eve began their biological life as adults, they were nonetheless children in their experience of life and the world. It seems evident that God's program for them was to gain wisdom through their experience of life and the world, patiently waiting for God to grant them the gift of royal judicial authority symbolized by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

As Adam faithfully ate of the Tree of Life, giving thanks to God for his life, and as he diligently guarded and served the Garden and his new wife situated in the midst of the Garden he would slowly mature into the kind of man qualified to rule over God's creation. That was the plan anyway.

The tragedy recorded for us in Genesis 3, however, is that Adam failed to guard the Garden and his new bride from the attack of the Serpent. They seized what God had asked them to wait for and as a result they were banished from the Garden. With fatal consequences Adam presumptuously and prematurely snatched what would have been his if he had trusted God’s promise—the authority to judge good and evil. He listened to the Serpent and decided that he didn't want to wait for God's permission to rule. The seductive power of being "like God" now and ruling like him "judging good and evil" overcame our original parents.

But God's plan was not thereby thwarted. God's program for the maturation of humanity continued. Now, however, after the fall, mankind would learn and grow into a mature image of God only through intense suffering and the curse of death. But the path to maturity, although now more difficult and frustrating, was nevertheless the same. Whether it was Abraham and his descendents or Israel's own story, they experienced life first as priests (guarding and serving the worship of God) and then were graciously given the privilege of "discerning good and evil" as kings. Abraham and his altars give way to Jacob ruling over his large family and finally Joseph's wise administration of the entire world in Egypt. From priesthood to kingship—that is the flow of God's program of maturity for his people.

Just as God intended Adam and Abraham's family to mature from priest to priest-king, so also the kingdom is envisioned in the priestly law for Israel (Deut. 17:14-20). As the Lord's new humanity (new Adam) Israel was to patiently wait for the Lord to bestow the responsibility of kingship on them when they were ready. If they would but faithfully guard God's house and serve at his Table, they would grow in wisdom and eventually mature into a nation capable of the larger responsibility of kingship. Israel begins with service at the altar and Tabernacle of God until she is ready to administer the kingdom some 500 years later. When David and Solomon rule, they also write. The law was given through Moses, but Psalms and wisdom literature came through David and his son.

This has been a rough and ready summary of the story of mankind and Israel from the perspective of their maturation from priesthood to kingship. A great deal more could be said. We have not even discussed the prophetic climax of maturity. Since the prophetic stage of the story is not directly germane to the study of the book of Ecclesiastes I'll only point out that becoming a prophet means even greater responsibility and authority. Contrary to popular notions, prophets are not merely God's errand boys, simply delivering messages they here in the heavenly court. Rather, prophets have been elevated to the rank of advisor and council member. God allows them to participate in the heavenly courts deliberation before He makes a decision to act. The prophet's words, then, have a power beyond that of kings. They have the ear of the Almighty. When they speak history changes, nations are alternately delivered or uprooted and destroyed.

This, then, is the basic outline of the story of humanity's maturation according to God's own pedagogy. We see it in the story of Abraham and his family as well as in the story of Israel as a whole:
Priest (Abraham) → King (Jacob) → Prophet (Joseph)
Note how the story of the Bible begins with priests who have a limited service in God's sanctuary, then progresses so that the priests become kings who rule in their own land, and finally ends with a flurry of prophetic activity relating to the whole of world history.
Priestly service in the sanctuary (Mosaic)
→ Kingly rule in the land (David & sons)
→ Prophetic advisors who change the world (Daniel).
The education and maturity of humanity would culminate in the God the Son assuming our human nature and living as a man among us. Jesus, the Last Adam, would not fail to serve and guard his bride, the church. He is flawlessly faithful in his priestly service. Indeed, Jesus did not grasp for kingship as Adam did, but allowed God to bestow it upon him (Philippians 2:5-11). He did what Adam would not do. He refused the Serpent's temptation to seize prematurely what his Father had promised him (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus knew that the path to wisdom was learning maturity through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). And "being made mature" the writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was granted the Davidic promise to sit down at the Father's right hand (Hebrews 1; Psalm 2 and 110).