What Conspiracy?

by Andrew Forrest

I hear the same canard all the time: “You know, the New Testament was actually put together by a group of men intent on perpetuating a conspiracy about Jesus.  Jesus was actually such-and-such a traveling prophet, but the early church started spreading incredible stories about him to justify their power claims.  The Gospels are a hoax.”

Here’s the problem with that theory (one of many problems, actually): if you were creating a conspiracy about Jesus, WOULDN’T YOU GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT BEFOREHAND?  Hasn’t it ever struck you how strange it is that there are four Gospels in the New Testament, and not just one?  Why include four similar but separate accounts of the life of your religion’s founder?

Today we began reading the Gospel of Mark in our Bible reading plan.  Mark is the shortest Gospel, and though it generally tells the same story as Matthew, you’ll see differences in detail and emphasis.  In fact, each of the four Gospels is different from the others in detail and emphasis.  The basic story is the same, but some of the details are hard to reconcile.  To cite one important example, although each of the Gospels tells the story of the Resurrection and the empty tomb, they each place a difference number of women actually there that first Easter Sunday morning as eyewitnesses .  Either there were one woman there, or there were two women there, or there were three or more women there, but the differences are irreconcilable.  Why would the early church permit those sorts of discrepancies to be included in the Bible?

The early church was okay with including those sorts of discrepancies in the Bible for the same reason that there are four Gospels in the Bible, and not just one: because that’s what had been passed down by the eyewitnesses.  It was so important that the early church preserve and not tamper with the testimony of the various eyewitnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that it decided to stamp all four Gospels as “official” and include them in the New Testament, even though that meant there would be slight discrepancies between accounts.  If you were creating a conspiracy, you would never do that–you’d get your story straight and clean.

But real life isn’t straight and clean–it’s messy.  And if you actually witnessed God-made-flesh walking among you as a man named Jesus, and if he did the amazing things that Jesus did, and if the tomb really were empty and you subsequently met and touched and ate with the Risen Jesus, you’d expect there to be some discrepancies between eyewitnesses.

The Gospels are not a sign of some ancient conspiracy; the Gospels are signs of an ancient certainty:

this stuff actually happened.

 

 

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There’s Nothing Else Like it

by Andrew Forrest

I don’t know of anything else in the history of the world’s literature that is like the passion narratives in the Gospels.  I’ve often wondered what it would be like to read that sorrowful story as an adult, without any prior knowledge of Jesus.

Then again, what would it be like to read about the Resurrection, never having heard that news before?

When those stories are read in church every spring, they are broken up–the Crucifixion on Good Friday, the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.  This morning, however, I read them together, back to back, as one story.

There’s just nothing else like it.

 

 

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And Neither Group Knows It

by Andrew Forrest

The pop culture version of Jesus meek and mild doesn’t conform to the Jesus we read about in the Gospels.  Jesus is not some kind of Semitic Santa Claus, who pats us all on the head, who tells us not to be too naughty, but who always ends up giving presents to everybody–Jesus is not tame, so to speak.  The teachings of Jesus are often extremely unsettling if you actually pay attention to what he says.

Nowhere is the gap between the pop culture idea of Jesus and the Jesus of history wider than in the terrifying parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25, the famous parable of the sheep and the goats:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdomprepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”  [Matthew 25:31-46]

This parable is often referenced in the media.  Here, Jesus gives a beautiful picture of what faith should look like–caring for “the least of these”–and it is right for the media to use this parable to point out the failures of the contemporary church.  All well and good.  However, it is also a parable about judgment, which is a detail that is usually overlooked–folks are loathe to acknowledge that the same Jesus who says such nice things about the poor would also speak so clearly about eternal punishment.  But, he does.  Jesus doesn’t conform to our expectations.

I think about this parable often; I find it terrifying.  Am I going to be held to account for the ways I’ve failed the least of these?  But there is one detail that’s particularly unsettling: neither the righteous nor the unrighteous are aware of what they’ve been doing–both groups are surprised by what Jesus tells them about themselves.

What does this mean?  It means that who we’re becoming matters.  Over time, righteous acts will become second nature to some of us, whereas selfish, self-centered acts will become habitual to others of us.  In other words, the righteous act righteously out of who they have become, while the unrighteous act unrighteously out of who they have become.  As Lewis famously puts it:

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.

“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

“To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

– C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”

What kind of creature are you becoming today?  Every choice matters.

 

 

 

P.S.  Note to my Subscribers

I had my blog crash a few more times over the weekend, so I’ve been slow in posting recently and am still working out the kinks to the newsletter I want to send out.  Stay tuned.

How to subscribe:

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What This Picture Means to Me

by Andrew Forrest

From Tuesday evening through Wednesday afternoon, my website went down.  I know you folks have been worried sick that the Russians got to me.  Good news: I’m okay, and it appears we fixed the problem.  The eagle will fly again.


Last night, we had a youth ministry volunteer vision dinner.  I was really worried about it–would anybody show up, and if they did, would it even be worth it?

We ended up having a great turnout and a great time, and we closed the evening by having folks circle up in small groups and pray for our students and our church.  I took the photo above while folks were praying.

I’ve been worried about taking over the leadership of our youth ministry this fall.

  • Is the additional responsibility going to drive me into the ground?  Will I be able to keep up my energy?  Will this commitment hurt my family?
  • Will anyone step up to help?  Are we going to get buy-in from parents?
  • Will any families show up at our kickoff?  Will any students show up after that?
  • Will any of this even work?

Seeing all those folks praying last night was a good reminder:

Everything is going to be all right.  We are so blessed.

 

 

P.S.  Note to my Subscribers

I’m still working out the kinks to the newsletter I want to send out.  Right now, you’ll still receive an email when I post an article, and I’m still planning on blogging daily through the Gospel of Matthew.  Stay tuned.

How to subscribe:

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Just Who Exactly is a “Sinner”?

by Andrew Forrest

Just who exactly is a “sinner”?  If you are anything like me, you get this wrong all the time.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:9-13)

One of the striking things about Jesus–repeatedly mentioned in all four Gospels–was that he deliberately reached out to the people despised by the religious establishment of the day.  These “tax collectors and sinners” were people who were WRONG: they were collaborators with the hated Romans, they deliberately betrayed their fellow Jews, they totally disregarded the Torah.  They were WRONG.  And yet Jesus graciously reached out to them, even having dinner with these sorts of people.  It’s an amazing example of what love looks like.  We should go and do likewise.

But there is a problem, and that problem is that we often misunderstand who the “tax collectors and sinners” are in our own day.  In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the religious establishment, and in the Gospels they are outwardly pious, but inwardly self-righteous and hard-hearted.  They despised the tax collectors and sinners.  Disregarding their good opinion, Jesus deliberately reached out to the people the Pharisees despised.  In diagram, it goes like this:

X→Y→Z

where

X is Jesus→Y are the Pharisees, who are enemies of Jesus→and Z are the “tax collectors and sinners.”

Jesus→hated by the Pharisees→reached out to the people whom the Pharisees despised

Or, to put it another way, Jesus reached out to the people that the people who didn’t like him didn’t like.

So far so good.  The problem comes when we try to determine who the “tax collectors and sinners” are in our day.  Who is Z?

Here’s what we do: we decide that the “tax collectors and sinners” in our day are the people that are despised by the people that we don’t like.  We’re X, our enemies are Y, and “tax collectors and sinners” become Z, who are despised by Y.  When we read the gospels, our “tax collectors and sinners” become the people we don’t like don’t like.  For example:

  • If we are a secular liberals, our “tax collectors and sinners” are the people that Trump voters supposedly despise.
  • If we are a social conservatives, our “tax collectors and sinners” are the people that the New York Times editorial board supposedly despises.

What we do today is we take groups that we feel are unfairly marginalized or despised, and we put them in the place of Z, “tax collectors and sinners.”  But this gets the example of Jesus backwards; we draw the wrong conclusion because we misunderstand where to place ourselves in the diagram.  When Jesus talks about showing mercy to the tax collectors and sinners, we do this subtle thing where we place ourselves in the position of Jesus and start shaking our head and clucking our tongue at the Pharisees, these wicked self-righteous people who just don’t get it.  It’s as if we think

X→Y→Z

where

X is Jesus AND us→Y are the Pharisees, who are enemies of Jesus AND us→and Z are the “tax collectors and sinners.”

But this is the point: we are not with Jesus–we are not X; rather, we are Y.

We are the Pharisees, which means Jesus is asking us to love the people that we know to be WRONG.

A few examples:

  • If we are secular liberals, our “tax collectors and sinners” are NOT the people that Trump voters supposedly despise.  Our “tax collectors and sinners” are TRUMP VOTERS.  They are the people we are supposed to love.
  • If we are social conservatives, our “tax collectors and sinners” are NOT the people that the New York Times editorial board supposedly despises.  Our “tax collectors and sinners” are THE MEMBERS OF THE NY TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD.

Do you see what this means?  I get the story of Jesus and the “tax collectors and sinners” EXACTLY backwards when I think it applies to the people I don’t like.  In fact, it applies to me, and how I love the people that I personally don’t like, even the people I think are morally WRONG.

So, who are your “tax collectors and sinners” today?  Who are the people that you don’t like, the people that are wrong?  In the Gospels, we read that Jesus reached out to the tax collectors and sinners–the people who were wrong–with love and kindness.

Go and do likewise.

 

 

 

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Of Pigs and Human Nature

by Andrew Forrest

Do you actually want to change, or would you rather wallow in the filthy status quo?

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.  (Matthew 8:28-34)

Jesus performs an astounding miracle in their village, freeing these two men from filth and misery, and the villagers would prefer he leave than cause any more changes to the way things are.

You don’t think that those villagers had parts of their lives that needed healing?  But rather than begging Jesus to stay and work among them, their immediate response is to beg him to leave and never come back.

How true of human nature–so often we prefer the pain we know to the possibility of change.

 

 

P.S. How to Subscribe To My Blog

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“I’m Basically a Good Person”

by Andrew Forrest

People say that all the time: “I’m basically a good person.”  What I think they mean is that they are basically moral.  They don’t lie or steal or cheat or murder.  But, when you read the Sermon on the Mount, you see how inadequate that idea of goodness is.  For Jesus, goodness is not primarily moral, but spiritual–it’s about being like God, who is even kind toward those who are evil: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

It is possible to be perfectly moral and at the same time remain selfish, contemptuous, and resentful.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is explaining that true goodness is active love toward others–it’s not refraining from doing evil–it’s actively doing good, even towards those who are doing evil.

I’ve read the Sermon on the Mount many times, but each time I read it I am reminded that there is nothing else like it in all of human history.

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“Immediately”

by Andrew Forrest

18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  20Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  21And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.  22Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.  [Matthew 4:18-22]

I’ve always thought that the calling of Andrew and Peter, James and John was a strange story, but recently I read something somewhere that made a lot of sense to me.  Twice, Matthew tells us that the brothers left their nets “immediately,” i.e., when Jesus calls, they respond totally: they don’t hedge their bets or halfway follow him.  What’s Matthew trying to tell us?

Either we follow Jesus, or we don’t: there is no place for a half-hearted discipleship.

Jesus says, “Follow me.”  In response, what do you need to “immediately” leave, drop, or do today?

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I’m going to be blogging regularly this fall as I read through the New Testament.  (I’m going to commit to blogging each day as we read through the Gospel of Matthew, and see what that’s like.  Each day’s Bible post will go live at 4:30 AM.)  Below are some quick thoughts on our first day’s reading, Matthew 1-2.

Two important things to keep in mind as you read The New Testament:

  1. The story of Jesus only makes sense in the context of the Old Testament.  Lots of what Jesus does is a conscious fulfillment of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham’s family (which started way back in Genesis 12).  This means when something Jesus does doesn’t make immediate sense to you, it’s probably because you’re missing the Old Testament connection.
  2. Even more than the other Gospel writers, Matthew is particularly concerned with connecting Jesus to Israel’s story.

This is why Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus–the family tree he provides shows that Jesus is related to the family of Abraham.  More than that, each name is shorthand for all the times and places in which that person lived.  The genealogy seems boring to us because the names might not mean anything us–like reading random entries in a phone book–but to the 1st century Jews who were Matthew’s original readers, each name was a touchstone to family stories that were cherished by the descendants of Abraham.

“Jesus and Genealogies”

On The Bible Project site I’d recommend you read “Jesus & Geneologies,” an article I found really helpful.  For example, did you know?

Just think about the separated sections of the genealogy of Matthew. It is broken up into three parts that cover 14 generations each, but why 14?

Within the written language of Hebrew, the letters are also used as their numbers, and so each number is assigned a numerical value. The name of David in Hebrew is “דוד,” and from here you just do the math. The numerical value of the first and third letter “ד” (called dalet) is 4. The middle letter “ו” (called waw) has a numerical value of 6. Put it into your mental calculator: 4+6+4=14, the numerical value of the name of “David.”

Matthew has designed the genealogy, so it links Jesus to David explicitly, and also in the very literary design of the list. In fact, Matthew wants to highlight this “14=David” idea so much that he’s intentionally left out multiple generations of the line of David (three, to be exact) to make the numbers work.

Wait, Matthew has taken people out of the genealogy?

Yes, and this is not a scandal. Leaving out generations to create symbolic numbers in genealogies is a common Hebrew literary practice, going all the way back to the genealogies in Genesis (the 10 generations of Genesis 5, or the 70 descendants of Genesis 11). Ancient genealogies were ways of making theological claims, and Matthew’s readers would have understood exactly what he was doing and why.

Read the whole thing.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire”

This opening genealogy has got me thinking about Billy Joel.  Each name meant something to Matthew’s audience, in the way that the names in Billy Joel’s song mean something to a certain type of Baby Boomer:

(By the way, I love this related scene from “The Office:”

That’s from when The Office was still funny….)

 

The Quiet Divorce

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly”

I’ve always found that to be a quietly moving line: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  That decision of Joseph’s was a small, selfless act of kindness on which the fate of the world turned.

Don’t underestimate the importance of a small, unnoticed act of selfless kindness today.  Who knows what hangs in the balance?

 

 

 

P.S.  Changes to this Blog

This is the last post that my subscribers will receive as a standalone email.  Starting Friday, August 24 through Monday, December 24, at Munger we are going to be reading through the New Testament.  I’m planning on posting more frequently in this space, including regular (daily?) commentaries on what we’re reading.  Right now, subscribers get an email every time I post, but I don’t want to fill up your Inbox, so tomorrow I’m going to be switching to a weekly newsletter that will contain links to the previous week’s posts, as well as some other original content from me not available anywhere else.

If you are already a subscriber, you don’t need to do anything else.  (If you want to be sure and read each post as it comes out, subscribe to my blog’s RSS feed.  There are lots of tutorials online to explain how to do that.)

If you are not a current subscriber, here’s how to subscribe:

I’ve written a very short whitepaper on a subject I care a lot about–communication.
Subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll send it to you for free:
The Simple Technique Anyone Can Immediately Use To Become a Better Communicator.
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The Death Rate

by Andrew Forrest

There’s something just so strange about death, even though it’s entirely predictable.  I had this thought last week, after hearing about the death of a young mother in our congregation and thinking about her surviving husband and three school-aged sons: we are all so grieved at the loss, and yet every single one of us is also going to die.  Not all of us will die by violence or disease or accident, not all of us will die young, but every single person hearing of the loss of this woman and grieving for her husband and three sons is also going to die.  And it just struck me how strange this all is, both our shock at death (which shouldn’t be any more shocking than the sunrise) and the mystery that is death itself.

What’s that old saw?  “The death rate hasn’t changed: it’s still one per person.”

 

 

 

P.S.  Changes to this Blog

Starting Friday, August 24 through Monday, December 24, at Munger we are going to be reading through the New Testament.  I’m planning on posting more frequently in this space, including regular (daily?) commentaries on what we’re reading.  Right now, subscribers get an email every time I post, but I don’t want to fill up your Inbox, so tomorrow I’m going to be switching to a weekly newsletter that will contain links to the previous week’s posts, as well as some other original content from me not available anywhere else.

If you are already a subscriber, you don’t need to do anything else.  (If you want to be sure and read each post as it comes out, subscribe to my blog’s RSS feed.  There are lots of tutorials online to explain how to do that.)

If you are not a current subscriber, here’s how to subscribe:

I’ve written a very short whitepaper on a subject I care a lot about–communication.
Subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll send it to you for free:
The Simple Technique Anyone Can Immediately Use To Become a Better Communicator.
(If you are already a subscriber, drop me a line and I’ll send you the whitepaper.)
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