Read the Bible With Me in 2017

Can I suggest a New Year’s resolution for you?  Make the commitment to read through the Bible with me in 2017.  At Munger, 2017 is our Year of the Bible, and we’re launching something called The Bible Project.  Here are 3 reasons why I hope you’ll join me in reading through the Bible in 2017.

 

The Bible is Difficult to Read Alone

Lots of folks struggle to understand the Bible, which shouldn’t be surprising: the Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written by strange people in strange languages–of course it’s difficult to read and understand all by yourself.  Through the Bible Project (we’ve taken the name from some folks in Portland with whom we’re partnering), however, we’ll be updating our blog every day with explanatory notes, videos, charts, etc.  To give you an example of the kind of resources available, check out this great intro video to the Book of Genesis:

The Bible is difficult to read alone–so don’t.  Read along with me.

The Last Time You Tried It, You Quit in February

Many of you have probably tried to read through the Bible in a year, only to abandon your resolution in February when you got to Leviticus (if you made it that far).  You’re much more likely to complete marathon training in a group, and in the same way you’re much more likely to read through the Bible along with other people.  I’m preaching through the Bible in 2017, we’ll have a weekly Bible study, a daily blog, podcasts, etc.  All these resources are to help you persevere.  Good things come to those who persevere.

Nothing Has More Potential to Change Your Life

I guarantee you that 2017 holds unexpected challenges for you.  How will you prepare?  There is nothing you can do that will have greater potential to change your life and prepare you for the future than the daily discipline of spending time in silence and scripture.

So, Here’s What to Do

If you are a Mungarian, pick up one of the free One Year Bibles we’re handing out at church; if you don’t live in Dallas, get one of these from Amazon.  (We’re using the ESV translation, but they are currently out of print.)  You could also use the Bible app on your smart phone and pick the One Year Bible reading plan, but I recommend using the hard copy.

Follow along with our blog: bibleproject.mungerplace.org.

Watch my sermons: http://www.mungerplace.org/sermon-library/.

Start on Sunday morning.

Of all the New Year’s resolutions you could make, reading through the Bible is the most important.

So, are you in?

 

The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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Why Is the Bible So Difficult?

Why is the Bible so difficult to understand?  Anyone who has ever tried to read the Bible has probably wondered why God didn’t just make the whole thing a lot clearer.  The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis wondered the same thing, so you and I are in good company.  Here’s his answer.

 

In his fine little book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes:

“We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form–something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table….

“[However] we may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself [i.e., Jesus], in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired.  He wrote no book.  We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context.  And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system.  He preaches but He does not lecture.  He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the “wisecrack.”  He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another.  His teaching cannot therefore be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be “got up” as if it were a “subject.”  If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers.  He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question.  He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down.”  The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.

Descending lower, we find a somewhat similar difficulty with St. Paul.  I cannot be the only reader [He’s definitely not alone in this, as I have asked this EXACT same question many times!  –AF]  who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition….

“Since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best.  It may be that what we should have liked would have been fatal to us if granted.  It may be indispensable that Our Lord’s teaching, by that elusiveness (to our systematizing intellect), should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and tempter, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him, in His own way, to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself.”  [My emphasis.  –AF]

from Reflections on the Psalms, by C.S. Lewis, pp. 112-114

In other words, the Bible is not so much to be learned as to be experienced.  Perhaps the truth that the Scripture conveys can’t be truly learned in any other way.  Perhaps the difficulty is part of the point.

So, the next time you stumble across something in the Bible you don’t understand, don’t give up: God is trying to tell you something important.

 

 

 

 

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Does Old Testament Law Apply to Christians?

Does Old Testament law apply to Christians?  A large portion of the first 5 books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is dedicated to laws governing how Israel was to live, eat, and worship.  Should Christians follow those laws?

The Old Testament is Obsolete, Right?

I’ve heard and read something like the following argument countless times:

No sane person thinks that there is any problem wearing clothes made of different fabrics [Leviticus 19:19], nor would any sane person think capital punishment appropriate for a child who curses his parents [Leviticus 20:9].  Since we don’t abide by these or many other Old Testament laws any more, isn’t it clear that modern Christians shouldn’t abide by ANY Old Testament laws?

Unfortunately it’s not that simple.  Here’s the problem:

The Old Testament, while containing some laws that no longer apply to Christians, also contains the Ten Commandments and other components of the ethical foundation of the teachings of Jesus.  For example, Leviticus, the book everyone loves to ridicule, contains beautiful ethical teachings:

Did you know that “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus? (Leviticus 19:18.)

Rather than being obsolete, the Old Testament contains much that is more relevant than ever for the people of God.  But, it also contains elements that no longer apply.  Which is which?  How do we know which parts of the Old Testament law we should follow, and which are no longer binding on God’s people?

The Epic of Eden

Sandra Richter, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, has an excellent book on the Old Testament called The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the Old Testament.  In the epilogue to the book she includes some Frequently Asked Questions, one of which is What Role Does the Law of Moses Play in the Christian’s Life?  (pp. 225-229)  I found her answer so helpful that I publish it below, with permission from her publisher.  I’ve added my own remarks throughout.

What Role Does the Law of Moses Play in the Christian’s Life?

Most everyone recognizes that simply abolishing the entire Mosaic law contradicts the New Testament (what do you do with the Ten Commandments?).  Most equally recognize that imposing the law in its entirety on the Christian also contradicts the New Testament (what of God’s instructions to Peter in Acts 10 to embrace unclean foods as clean?).  So most have concluded that there must a middle-of-the-road position.  The most enduring approach to defining this middle-of-the-road position has been the attempt to somehow delineate the law according to “moral” versus “civil” (or “ethical” versus “ritual”) categories.  The claim is typically that the moral/ethical features of the law are still in force for the Christian, but the civil/ritual features are obsolete and can be put safely aside.  For example, some would claim that the Ten Commandments can be cataloged as “moral” and are therefore still binding, but the law requiring tassels on the four corners of a person’s garment is to be catalogued as “civil/ritual” and is not (Num 15:38-39).  The problem with this sort of delineation, however, is that in Israel’s world, there was no distinction between the civil/ritual and moral/ethical aspects of the law.  All of these laws were deemed as the imperatives of God’s divine will.  Moreover, to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) was both a moral expectation and the civil requirement of a patriarchal society to provide for the elderly of one’s clan.  And proper worship in a theocracy was an expression of both a moral/ethical and civil/ritual expectation.  So what to do? [Emphasis mine.  One of the mistakes we make in reading the Bible is to put our own categories on top of it.  As Professor Richter points out, unlike us the ancient Israelites did not divide the world into the sacred and the secular, the religious and the legal: it was all one.  –AF]  In the end, most assume that the Mosaic law is generally annulled as regards the Christian but hold onto those aspects of the law that are either reiterated by Christ (a good idea) or those that generally just seem “right” (obviously not a satisfactory response to the question).  [We see this all the time: people decide what’s right beforehand and bring that decision to the Bible.  Here’s the problem, though–Where and how do we decide what’s right?  What are the sources we use to decide what’s right?  Aren’t we in danger of just blessing whatever feels good to us, or whatever the dominant culture tells us is right?  The reason for the Mosaic Law in the first place was to give Israel a way of knowing right and wrong that was distinct from the surrounding pagan Canaanite cultures.  –AF]  Although I cannot offer a complete solution to the conundrum, let me at least contribute to an answer.

First, it is important to realize that as covenantal administrations change, so do the stipulations of those covenants.  So, yes, the rules can and do change.  And they change according to the will of the suzerain.  [The suzerain is the king making the covenant, as she explains earlier in the book.  For the Israelites, their king was the Lord.  –AF]  Hence, the first question we want to ask is, how does Jesus (our suzerain and mediator) change the rules with the new covenant?  We find the answer to that question as we read through the Gospels.  Here Jesus regularly calls his audience back to the intent of the Mosaic law.  Was the sabbath created for man, or man for the sabbath (Mt 12:10)?  Is adultery the problem or unbridled lust (Mt 7:27)?  Is it more important that a person keep themselves ritually clean, or serve a neighbor in need (Lk 10:30-37)?  So one thing Jesus tells his audience is to look beyond a legalistic adherence to particulars and see the goal of the law.  This is clearly articulated in interactions like Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments depends the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Galatians 5:14 says the same: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Thus, whereas the detailed message of the Mosaic law embodied the love of neighbor and God in concrete, time- and culture-bound expressions, Jesus finds a way to articulate the transcultural and all-embracing message of that same law to a new audience.  [Emphasis mine.  I think this is a perceptive analysis of the ethical teaching of Jesus.  –AF]  Moreover, he makes it clear that this message is still binding upon us new covenant adherents as well.

We also read that Jesus redefines the major institutions of Israel’s theocracy: the temple and the theocratic government.  The temple is first re-defined as Jesus’own body, and then as the individual believer and the church (Jn 2:19-21; Eph 2:19-22).  Jesus is identified as the final sacrifice (Heb 9:24-26) and as the church’s new high priest (Heb 2:17).  Thus, with the new covenant we learn that Israel’s temple cultus is obsolete.  [A “cultus” is a system of worship.  –AF]  And if this theocratic institution is obsolete, I believe it is safe to conclude that the complex processes dictated by the Mosaic law that directed the function of this institution (e.g. the design and décor of the building, the cleanness of priest and worshipper, sacrifice, mediation and the calendar of cultic celebration) are now obsolete as well.  This means that in the new covenant the specific Mosaic regulations regarding these issues are annulled: our buildings of worship are no longer required to bring sacrifice, the laws of “clean and unclean” are abrogated, the mediation of human priests is unnecessary, and the holidays of Israel’s cult have become “a mere shadow of what is to come” (Col 2:16-17).  [Emphasis mine.  Did you get that?  Because the Temple is obsolete for Christians (the entire book of Hebrews is essentially about this topic), then it follows that all the Old Testament laws pertaining to Temple worship are also obsolete.  –AF]

And what of Israel’s theocratic government?  Keep clearly in your mind that Israel was a nation that was directly ruled by God.  Yahweh was enthroned in the temple in Jerusalem, “between the cherubim,” and carried out his ordinances by means of his officers, the prophet, the priest and king.  Israel was a political entity with national territory.  Its citizenry were, exclusively, the people of God.  Foreign oppression, drought and famine were God’s communiqués that his people had somehow broken covenant; national prosperity was the sign that they had kept covenant.  Thus the nation of Israel could justly go to war in the name of Yahweh, slaying Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites to defend the national boundaries of God’s kingdom.  But Jesus makes it clear that his only throne will be in heaven (Mk 16:19; Heb 8:1; etc.).  And as we’ve seen, the new citizenry of his kingdom will come from every tongue, tribe and nation.  As opposed to the land of Canaan being the Promised Land, now all of the recreated earth is.  Thus, in the new covenant there is no longer any single nation that can lay claim to being “the people of God” nor any single piece of real estate that is promised to them. [Emphasis mine.  This is HUGE.  Whereas before Jesus you had to be a member of Israel to be part of the people of God, now the church–the new Israel–is open to people of all ages, nations, and races.  –AF]  There are new officers for this new kingdom too.  Even a cursory glance at Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:28 or 1 Timothy 3 lets us know that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, deacons and teachers have replaced the prophet, priest and king of the Mosaic covenant.  The only title that survives into the new covenant is that of “prophet,” but even this office is substantially transformed. Thus the very literal political realities of Israel’s theocracy are abrogated by the new covenant, and I believe we can safely say that the complex list of laws and regulations that governed the theocracy are abrogated as well.  [Update: This is why capital punishments for crimes such as blasphemy and sorcery, etc., no longer apply: those rules were part of the Old Covenant theocracy.  The offenses themselves are still sinful, but now that we live under the New Covenant of grace and no longer under the Israelite theocracy, the way the people of God deal with those offenses has changed.  –AF] 

Then, of course, there are those aspects of the Mosaic law that the writers of the New Testament specifically address as being changed or terminated.  A few examples would be the necessity of circumcision (1 Cor 7:19), the regulations of kashrut (Acts 10:15), the rabbinic restrictions regarding the sabbath (Mt 12:1-9) and even divorce (Mt 19:3-9).

In sum, I think we can identify at least three categories of Mosaic law which, in their specific expectations, no longer apply to the Christian: those involving the regulations of Israel’s government, those involving the regulation of Israel’s temple, and those laws that the New Testament specifically repeals or changes.  I would still argue that the values that shaped these regulations express the character of God and therefore must be attended to by the Christian, but the specifics of their application are no longer our responsibility.  Thus my contribution to the conundrum named above is that rather than attempting to delineate the law of Moses based on categories foreign to that law itself (“more/ethical” and “civil/ritual”), perhaps we should address the question through a lens that is more native to both Old and New Testaments—Jesus’ redefinition of certain major institutions of the Mosaic covenant.  And for all the Mosaic law, be it superseded or not, we need to recognize that we can (and must) still learn a great deal about the character of God through these laws, even if we can no longer directly apply them to ourselves in this new covenant.  [Emphasis mine.  Rather than being irrelevant to the church today, even those Old Testament laws that have been abrogated by the New Covenant have much to teach us about the Lord.  –AF]  So rather than thinking in terms of the Mosaic law as being obsolete except for what Jesus maintains (as has been the predominant view), perhaps we should begin to thing in terms of the law being in force except for what Jesus repeals.

Taken from The Epic of Eden by Sandra L. Richter. Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.

 

 

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A Framework for Understanding the Bible

I’ll be the first to admit that the Bible is a difficult book.  One of the reasons it’s difficult is that it’s not really even one book, but rather a collection of books.  (That’s what “bible” actually means: a collection of books.)  Over and over again people will say to me, “I’d like to read the Bible, but I just don’t understand it.”  I hope the following simple framework helps you get a little more clarity and understanding.

All of History in 3 Acts

The Bible tells the story of the great drama of History in 3 acts, with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end.

Prologue

Subject: Beginnings.  Adam to Abraham.  The Prologue tells us why the world is the way it is.  After a beautiful beginning (“And there was light….”)  the story quickly becomes a story of blood and betrayal: Cain kills Abel, and we’ve been killing our brothers ever since.

Scripture: Genesis 1-11

Act 1

Subject: Israel.  The Lord’s plan to save all of humanity begins with one man–Abraham–and it culminates in one of Abraham’s descendant’s: Jesus of Nazareth.  Act 1 is about God’s chosen people Israel, and Israel’s slavery, exodus, kingdom, exile, and return.

Scripture: Genesis 12-Malachi

Act 2

Subject: Jesus.  Act 2 is all about Jesus, from his birth to his death to his Resurrection.

Scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Act 3

Subject: The Church.  Act 3 is about how the church is God’s means to redeem the world.  It begins with a small group of disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost Sunday and it’s still going, right up to and including the present.  We are living in Act 3.

Scripture: Acts-Revelation 20

Epilogue

Subject: Forever and Ever Amen.  The Epilogue is about History’s culmination, when Jesus returns and all the bad things come untrue and evil is finally ended.

Scripture: Revelation 21-22

Conclusion

I realize that the above doesn’t answer most of our good questions about the difficult parts of scripture, but it does give us a framework within which we can at least get our bearings when reading scripture.  Keep reading–it’s worth it.

 

 

 

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Who Cares if Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Lots of folks are asking that question these days, and though it is an important question (and one that I will not be answering in this post), I don’t think the question is as helpful as other people seem to think.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Some people say yes, and these people imply that Christians are therefore under obligation to show compassion to Muslims because of their theological commonalities.  After all, aren’t Christians and Jews and Muslims all “people of the book?”  (That phrase comes from the Qu’ran.)  And, since we are all people of the book, shouldn’t Christians treat Muslims with compassion?

I do not agree with this implication.

The Problem With Saying Yes

As Mark Tooley points out in Newsweek, if you stress that Christians are obligated to show compassion to Muslims because they are theological cousins, you are inadvertently implying that Christians are not under the same obligation to show compassion to other peoples with whom they don’t have any theological commonalities.  Hindus, for example, are not “people of the book,” and yet that fact should not affect Christian treatment of Hindus (or Sikhs or Jains or Buddhists or atheist communists, etc.)

A Christian’s compassion for another does not depend on that other’s theological commitments.  Whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether a Christian should show compassion towards his Muslim neighbor.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  What if the answer is no–should that change how a Christian treats her Muslim neighbor?

Love Isn’t Conditional

Christians are not required to only love people with whom we agree (or partially agree).

Jesus, after all, told his followers to love their enemies.

 

 

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My Daily Media Diet

What are the books, podcasts, websites, blogs, and newsletters that make up your media diet?  You are what you eat, and that includes the information you consume.  Today’s post is about what I read daily as part of my media diet (part 1 of a 3 part series).

What Is a “Media Diet?”

“Media diet” is a phrase I came across several years ago in a web series by The Atlantic.  A reporter would interview public figures about how they stayed informed and what they regularly read and watched and make a simple post out of it.  (I still remember Malcolm Gladwell‘s comment about his daily reading habits: “Since my brain really only works in the morning, I try to keep that time free for writing and thinking and don’t read any media at all until lunchtime.”  I totally identify….)

In part 1 of this series (parts 2 and 3 coming on the next two Mondays) about my media diet, I’ll focus on what I read daily (or at least regularly).

What I Do First Thing in the Morning

I’ve written before about the importance of the First 15, i,e., spending at least the first 15 minutes of your day in prayer, scripture, and silence.  So, I’ve been getting up really early recently in order to have an unhurried time of prayer first thing, before I workout.

Currently this is what I use in my prayer time:

FullSizeRender 9

 

Breakfast: The Dallas Morning News and NPR

After working out and while eating breakfast and getting ready:

  • I get the print version of The Dallas Morning News delivered at home, and read it every morning (except Sundays, when I don’t get to it until late afternoon, if at all).  I have come to really like The DMN and get more locally-focused and sports news from it than anywhere else.
  • I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition radio program most mornings.

Blogs: Rod Dreher (and Not Much Else)

I used to read Andrew Sullivan’s blog almost every day.  Now that he has stopped blogging, almost the only blogger I read regularly is Rod Dreher.  Rod Dreher is a fascinating and unique writer: a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy living in his native rural South Louisiana who writes about culture from a social conservative point of view.

One of the topics Rod Dreher writes about that I find most intriguing and persuasive is the so-called “Benedict Option”: the idea that Christians in the West today may need to follow the 5th century example of St. Benedict and spend less time participating in politics and the culture wars and more time deliberately cultivating the practices that will “thicken” our faith and deepen our witness.  Here is a post from Rod’s blog in July that summarizes his thoughts on the Benedict Option.

Websites I Read Almost Daily

  • I read The New Yorker almost every day.  I like the short form pieces from folks like John Cassidy and Amy Davidson, but I really prefer The New Yorker for its long-form essays like this one about Northern Ireland that I wrote about in April.
  • I also browse The Atlantic‘s website regularly, though I believe that The Atlantic is a much worse magazine since it expanded its online footprint.  Many of the online articles seem to be merely a slightly (sometimes very slightly) more serious version of the kind of thing that I suppose you find on Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post, and I do not mean that as a compliment.  The Atlantic these days seems to feature quick-reaction pieces on hot-button topics that lack nuance and wisdom.  (I’ll say more about my complaints with The Atlantic in part 3 of this series.)
  • I browse the Yahoo! main site and scroll through the headlines, particularly about sports and politics.
  • I check out the BBC Sport’s soccer page almost daily.

Online Newsletters and Other Sites

  • I read movie reviews on Plugged In every few weeks or so.  I’m interested in movies, but I like reading reviews from a conservative Christian perspective (a perspective you don’t get from mainstream reviewers).  I rarely have time to see movies in the theater anymore, so I find myself reading many more reviews of movies than actually seeing movies.
  • I’ve recently discovered Book Notesa free newsletter from Byron Borger, owner of Hearts and Minds bookstore in central Pennsylvania.  Through Book Notes, I’ve stumbled across books that I would never have heard of elsewhere–it’s a great resources.
  • I read articles and watch videos the videos on the CrossFit main site several times a week.

Coming in Parts 2 and 3….

Parts 2 and 3 will be about what I regularly listen to and watch and read in print.  The above is what I read online on a  regular basis.  What about you?  What makes up your daily media diet?

 

 

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Why Did God Permit the Charleston Murders?

We don’t know.  “We don’t know” is the honest answer to any question about why God permitted Dylan Roof to murder the Charleston Nine.  No one knows.  But though we will never have a definitive answer this side of the grave, a strange parable Jesus tells does offer an interesting perspective on the perennial “Why?” we ask whenever innocent people suffer.

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Today’s Eat This Book Portion

The Eat This Book campaign at my church provides folks a scripture reading schedule to follow.  Right now, we are reading through the Gospel of Matthew (about a half chapter a day), and today’s reading comes from Matthew 13, one of my favorite passages in scripture.  Reading the strange parable of the wheat and the weeds this morning has got me thinking about last week’s murders in Charleston.

The Wheat and the Weeds

wheat-fields-nature-landscape-sunrise

Surrounded by a crowd by the shore of the Sea of Galilee one day, Jesus told the following parable:

 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn….” 

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!'”

(Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Parables are meant to unsettle, to make you think.  So go read this strange parable again, slowly.  (In other words, don’t scan the way you normally do on the Internet.)

Some Quick Observations

  • Jesus points out that evil and good are so tightly mixed together in this world that no man or woman can perfectly separate one from another.  I know this is true, because I know it is true in me.
  • Jesus reminds us that, though evil seems to be growing stronger, so is good.  This is an evil world, but evil is not stronger than good.
  • Jesus says that, this side of Judgement Day, it is impossible to root up all the evil in the world without also destroying the good.  For reasons only known to God, if there is to be good in the universe, there must also be the freedom for evil.
  • Jesus makes it very clear that evil, though it seems strong today, will one day be utterly destroyed by God.
Emmanuel AME Zion Church member Kevin Polite helps members into the church for the service on 6/21/15 [David Goldman/Getty Images].

Emmanuel AME Zion Church member Kevin Polite helps members into the church for the service on 6/21/15 [David Goldman/Getty Images].

Let Me Know What You Think

I find this parable strangely comforting.  What about you?  What do you think this parable is about, and how might it relate to the evil that was done in Charleston last week?

 

 

Did the Resurrection Really Happen?

Did the Resurrection actually happen?  The Apostle Paul, writing in sometime in the 50’s A.D., had this to say: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).  In other words, Christianity rises and falls with the Resurrection of Jesus.  But, the issue for many modern people is that though the Resurrection seems like a nice story, we know that dead people stay dead and that it couldn’t possibly have happened.  So, did the Resurrection happen, or not?  I think it did, and here are three reasons why.

(By the Way: It Wasn’t a Spiritual or Emotional Resurrection)

As a way around the difficulty of the Resurrection, some people say that what the Gospels report is some kind of spiritual or emotional sense that Jesus was still with his disciples after his death.  This view does not at all match what the Gospels themselves say, namely that after the Resurrection:

The Gospels are very clear: the Resurrection was a bodily resurrection, and not a vague spiritual sense that Jesus was still alive.

So, what reasons do we have to believe that the Resurrection happened?

Reason 1: The Women Witnesses

All the canonical Gospels agree that the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the Resurrection of Jesus were women.  In our world, that detail doesn’t surprise us, but in the ancient world this would have been a shocking detail because women weren’t considered reliable witnesses in the ancient world.

If you were making up a resurrection hoax in the 1st century Mediterranean world, you would never say that women were the first witnesses of your story.  So, why do all the gospels insist that women were the first witnesses?

The simplest reason for the inclusion of the women witnesses: because the Gospels are merely reporting what actually happened.  The inconvenient truth of the women witnesses is a detail that argues for the plausibility of the Resurrection.

Reason 2: The Deaths of All Involved

Many people have died for lies that they believed were true, but groups of people do not die for what they know is a lie.

Virtually all the disciples of Jesus were martyred for their faith in him.  If they were making up the Resurrection, then they would have recanted their stories at the point of death.  But they didn’t.

Chuck Colson

Chuck Colson [image credit: http://goo.gl/iDpjun]

Chuck Colson, one of the Nixon men involved in the Watergate break-in, had this to say:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

Chuck Colson

The martyrdom of the early Christians is a strong argument in favor of the truth of their claims.

Reason 3: It Was Testimony, Not Legend

Modern people will say that the Resurrection is a legend, a folktale that took shape over generations and that consequently grew in the telling, like George Washington and the Cherry Tree.

The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t fit the facts: the letters of Paul began to be circulated around 20 years after the death of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark within 40 years, and the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John within 60 years (at the latest).  In other words, Christians were publicly talking about the Resurrection within the lifetime of its witnesses.  Anyone who wanted to investigate the truth of the Resurrection merely had to talk to its witnesses.

A legend takes generations to develop, but the Gospels (and other New Testament materials) were written down and circulated within a generation or two of the events of that first Easter Sunday, i.e., way too soon a time for a legend to develop.

Rather than being a legend, the Resurrection was testimony.

Miriam Ziegler, 79, Paula Lebovics, 81, Gabor Hirsch, 85, and Eva Kor, 80, point themselves out on a photo taken at Auschwitz at the time of its liberation

Miriam Ziegler, 79, Paula Lebovics, 81, Gabor Hirsch, 85, and Eva Kor, 80, point themselves out on a photo taken at Auschwitz at the time of its liberation. [image credit: http://goo.gl/80LkhW]

Testimony is a valid form of historical memory.  People who experienced the events say, “I was there.  I saw it.”  January was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and there are thousands of people who lived through the Nazi concentration camps who can still testify today to their experience, 70 years later.  One of the reasons Holocaust deniers have a hard time gaining a hearing is because there are people who can point to their blue tattoos and say, “No, it did happen: I was there.”

US survivor Jack Rosenthal shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm as he visits the former Auschwitz concentration camp

US survivor Jack Rosenthal shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm as he visits the former Auschwitz concentration camp. [image credit: http://goo.gl/80LkhW]

Just as the remaining Holocaust survivors’ testimony is available to anyone wanting to investigate the Holocaust today, so the Resurrection witnesses’ testimony was available to anyone wanting to investigate the Resurrection at the time that the New Testament was taking shape.

Conclusion: the Resurrection is Plausible

The Resurrection cannot be proved in a laboratory.  But, we can examine the facts and decide that it is more plausible that the Resurrection happened than that it did not happen.

Now, some people will accept the above and yet still insist: “We know that dead people stay dead, and therefore the Resurrection could not have happened.”  The problem with that position is that history is full of events that seemed impossible and that actually happened.  I admit that the Resurrection is unique as an historical event, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily impossible.  In any historical inquiry, we have to look at the evidence and see where it takes us.  In this case, I believe the evidence argues in favor of the Resurrection.

The reason discussions like this are important are not because they can bring anyone across the threshold of faith (only God can do that), but because I’ve found that some people won’t even approach the door of faith if they believe that the claims of the faith cannot possibly be true; arguments can’t cause someone to believe, but they can knock down bad reasons for not believing.

Here’s hoping this little post might help someone somewhere come a bit closer.

 

Take the Abraham Quiz

The Bible is mysterious and difficult, but it’s not impossible.  With a little bit of background knowledge about the ancient cultures of the Bible, ordinary people like you and me can learn to read scripture in such a way that even some of its mysterious parts offer important insights.  Below is a bit of background information about a very strange episode in Genesis.  Read the background, take the quiz, and let me know what you think.

"Butcher's Shop," by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]

“Butcher’s Shop,” by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]

 

You “Cut” a Covenant

In the ancient middle east, the way 2 parties formalized an agreement was through a covenant ceremony.  In Hebrew, you “cut” a covenant, because covenants involved taking animals and sacrificing them, and then walking between the carcasses.

And Say, “I’ll Become a Slaughtered Calf”

Here’s the point: when you walked between the pieces of the slaughtered animals, you were saying, “May I become like these dead animals if  I don’t keep my end of the agreement.”

(I think our wedding ceremonies would be much more interesting and divorce much less frequent if we adopted the same practice….)

beefmap

So, Abraham Gets Ready

In Genesis 15, Abraham, on the Lord’s instructions, prepares one of those covenants:

The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” [Genesis 15:9-11]

It’s obvious what will happen next: Abraham will pass between the carcasses, showing his commitment to the Lord’s plan.

Abrahamic-Covenant-890x713

[www.tillhecomes.org]

But Something Strange Happens

But, that’s not what happens:

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him….17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.18On that day the Lordmade a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’” [Genesis 15:12, 17-21, my emphasis].

 

Take the Quiz: What Does Genesis 15:17 Mean?

What’s the point of the covenant ceremony recounted in Genesis 15?  What does this mean?

(Hint: The best way to read the Bible is to read backwards, i.e., to read the Old Testament in light of what we have in the New Testament. To put it another way, use Jesus as the interpretive key.  In light of what the Church believes about Jesus, what’s going on in Genesis 15?)

 

 

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3 Don’ts When Reading Genesis

Genesis is hard enough as it is; here are three things NOT to do when reading the first book of the Bible.

"The Tower of Babel," by Pieter Brueghel

“The Tower of Babel,” by Pieter Brueghel [c. 1563]

Don’t Mistake “Is” for “Should”

Genesis is descriptive, not prescriptive, i.e., it describes the world as it is, not as it should be.  Subsequent to The Fall described in chapter 3, every situation, family, and life is corrupted by sin.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are sinful men, and their families are a mess.  Don’t be surprised when great heroes of the faith turn out to be seriously flawed.  And don’t confuse descriptions of sin with approval of sin, even in the lives of the Patriarchs.

The good news?  God writes straight with crooked lines.

Don’t Draw Conclusions Before the End

The Bible is not a series of disconnected stories; rather, it is one long drama in three acts, with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end:

  • The Prologue: Genesis 1-11 (Creation, Fall, and the Flood)
  • Act 1: Genesis 12 through the rest of the Old Testament (Covenant and Israel)
  • Act 2: the Gospels (Jesus)
  • Act 3: the book of Acts up through the present day (the Church)
  • The Epilogue: the Book of Revelation (the End).

Each small story in the Bible fits into the larger whole.  You wouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the author of a story from the first page of a novel or the director of the movie from its first five minutes.  In the same way, reserve judgment until you see how the story resolves.  Yes, there are parts of the story that are troubling, but reserve judgment until you see where everything is going.

Don’t Fill the Gaps with Suspicion

The Bible is filled with gaps.  All we usually get are big broad strokes, and it’s left to our imagination to fill in the gaps about why or how.  For example, in the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel, why does the Lord God approve of Abel’s gift but not Cain’s?  Isn’t that rather arbitrary and unfair?

Mind the gap

Here’s the true answer: no one knows why God preferred Abel’s gift to Cain’s.  In the face of such a gap, then, we have to fill it with our own conjectures.

Unfortunately, in the modern, cynical world, we are quick to fill gaps in the Bible with our own suspicions.  But suspicion is a choice, and there is another approach:

Don’t fill gaps with suspicion; fill gaps with trust.

It’s true that deciding ahead of time to fill the gaps in the Bible with trust is a faith decision, but deciding ahead of time to read with a hermeneutic of suspicion is itself a faith decision.  If you decide ahead of time that the Bible can’t be trusted and that God is cynically setting up people for failure so he can punish them, then nothing you read will ever change your mind.

A better way is to decide to fill the gaps in Genesis and elsewhere with trust and humility.  Then, when you encounter things you don’t understand, you’ll admit what you don’t know and assume that what you don’t understand has a purpose in God’s redemptive plan.

P.S.  What About the Bizarre Stuff in Genesis 6:1-4?

If you ever tried to read through Genesis, chances are that Genesis 6:1-4 caused you some trouble.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”

-Genesis 6:1-4 [NRSV]

Here’s the truth: nobody really understands this passage.  Here’s how Terence Fretheim puts is:

This brief segment is one of the most difficult in Genesis both to translate and interpret.  Certain words are rare or unknown…; issues of coherence arise on many points.  These verses may be a fragment of what was once a longer story, or scribes may have added to or subtracted from the text.  The fact that the text presents ambiguity may be precisely the point, however: the mode of telling matches the nature of the message….

“Consistent with other sections in chaps. 1-11, this material reflects an era no longer accessible to Israel. [That is, the ancient Israelites who were the original readers of Genesis.  –AF] The text does not mirror a typical human situation…but speaks of a time long past when God decreed a specific length to human life.”

-Terence Fretheim, from Genesis, in vol. I of The New Interpreter’s Bible

So, who are the mysterious “sons of God” mentioned in v. 2?  Three options:

1. They are sons of Seth, mentioned in chapter 5, mixing with unbelievers.

2.  “They may be royal or semi-divine figures who accumulated women in their harems” (Fretheim).

3.  They are some kind of angelic beings.  This seems most likely in context, and most troubling and bizarre to think about.

But, basically, as mysterious as this passage is, it fits with the larger context: before the Flood, things were going from bad to worse, spinning out of control.

The good news is that Genesis 6:1-4 doesn’t affect any important Christian doctrines or beliefs.  (Which doesn’t mean it isn’t really strange.)