Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Tragic Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in Luke 19:28–44

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before he was crucified is often called the triumphal entry, but how triumphal was it? Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry in Luke 19:28–44 (in comparison to the synoptic accounts in Matt 21:1–11; Mark 11:1–11) emphasizes an element of tragedy in this event.

Luke begins his account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with the words after he said this (Luke 19:28). This wording ties Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem closely in with what has preceded in the narrative, which is the parable of the ten pounds (Luke 19:11–27). Luke states in Luke 29:11 that Jesus told this parable because he was about to enter Jerusalem, and some of his disciples had mistakenly thought that the kingdom of God was about appear immediately.

Jesus understood God’s plan better than his disciples did. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem marks the end of a long journey during which he had been purposely on his way to Jerusalem. In Luke 9:51, after Peter’s declaration about Jesus being the Christ and Jesus’ foretelling his death for the second time to his disciples, Luke states that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In Luke 13:33 Jesus is recorded as saying to the Pharisees that he had to keep going on his journey because it was not possible that “a prophet die outside Jerusalem.” In Luke 18:31 Jesus takes the twelve apostles aside and tells them for the third time that he was going to die, but for the first time he pointed out specifically that his death would take place in Jerusalem.

In Luke’s narrative, Jesus had already told his disciples that dark clouds awaited his arrival in Jerusalem, but his disciples did not seem to have been able to comprehend how the Messiah could die. They were expecting a triumphal entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem.

This expectation of triumph is highlighted in Luke’s narrative. On reaching Jericho, some 22 kilometers from his final destination, Jesus healed the blind beggar, and people started praising God for the miraculous healing that Jesus had performed (Luke 18:35–43). It was this large crowd that caused Zacchaeus to climb the tree (Luke 19:1–10). The scene was one of jubilant disciples going up to Jerusalem. It is very interesting, however, that the person most eager to get there was none other than Jesus himself. He was leading the pack (Luke 19:28).

As the countdown continued, Jerusalem was getting ever closer. They reached the villages of Bethphage and Bethany, less than three kilometers from Jerusalem, so Jesus sent out two of his disciples to get a young male donkey. This detail emphasizes that Jesus came in fulfillment of God’s plan. Jesus knew that everything would happen just as God had revealed it in the Old Testament Scriptures. Luke 19:30–34 stresses how Jesus was in command of the situation. Everything was prepared. The colt upon which no one had yet ridden was there, ready for its spot in the limelight.

Luke assumes his readers know the significance of this detail about the donkey. It all goes back to the prophecy of Zech 9:9, which says: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; he is victorious and endowed with salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus knew that this prophecy applied to him, and so he knew that a donkey would be ready. The disciples who had been sent on the donkey mission found everything exactly as Jesus had said it would be (Luke 19:32). Everything was ready. The Scriptures must be fulfilled.

After the donkey was brought back to Jesus, the disciples in question threw their cloaks upon the colt’s back to form a humble saddle, and they helped Jesus sit on the donkey (Luke 19:35). As he was riding into Jerusalem, the crowd were spreading their cloaks out before his path to form the equivalent of a humble red carpet, acknowledging Jesus’ royalty (Luke 19:36). The crowd may have been slow to understand many things about Jesus, but this time they were spot on about one thing: this was the promised king of Zech 9:9. The prophecy commanded: “Shout in triumph, O inhabitants of Jerusalem!” And this is what they were doing. The King had come in fulfillment of Scripture.

Drawing ever closer to the city, as Jesus reached the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples were rejoicing and praising God for all the miracles that they had seen Jesus perform. Luke emphasizes the emotional condition of the disciples in Luke 19:37. Literally, they “began to praise God with a load voice, rejoicing.” The crowd was praising, shouting, rejoicing. The key content of their acclamation was taken from the victory hymn Ps 118: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord”(Ps 118:26); to which they added the words of praise: “peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!”

This is what the Jews had been waiting for. The Messiah, the second King David, who would save Israel from her enemies, had come! After so many years of humiliation and defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans, finally the King had come. The people of Israel had been waiting for this for so long. For over a thousand years they had been waiting for the true Davidic King to arrive. And now it had come to pass.

This was the time of the fulfillment of prophecies like Zech 2:10 –12, which reads: “Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming, and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord … and the Lord will possess Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” Some 550 years after that prophecy was made, the Lord, Israel’s God, was coming to dwell in the midst of his people through the agency of Jesus, the Messiah. The focal point of world history, when the promised Savior King came to reign in Jerusalem, the capital city of God’s kingdom on earth, had arrived. God’s messianic promises were being fulfilled before their very eyes. The dream had come true!

All of this meant that this was rightfully to be the party time of the millennia. But in the midst of such rejoicing, what Luke records in Luke 19:37 presents a truy discordant note. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

The Pharisees come across here as being massive party poopers. It is bad enough being a party pooper, but here the Pharisees showed themselves as being party poopers at the party of all parties. That takes some hide, or at least a great hardness of heart. The stubbornness of the Pharisees to praise God because of the coming of kingdom of God into the world through Jesus stands in great contrast with the enthusiastic joy of the crowd.

How painful it must have been to Jesus to see such an attitude (even though he knew it had to be that way). Jesus replied to the Pharisees: “If the crowd were to become silent, then the stones would cry out!” (Luke 19:40). There is great irony here. The Pharisees, the respected religious leaders of the people, were more brain-dead than a pile of inanimate rocks!

This was seriously saddening, and Jesus entered into the sadness of what this kind of attitude would mean for the Jews as a whole. As he drew closer, seeing the city, his beloved Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley, he broke up and wept for the city. Amidst the bitter tears, he muttered the words:
If only you knew this day what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you and surround you and hem you in from all sides, and raze you and your children within you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you (Luke 19:42–44).

According to Luke, Jesus viewed his coming as God’s coming to Israel. This was a momentous occasion, an event of supreme significance; but many did not recognize it for what it was … to their own destruction. From Jesus’ perspective, this was terribly sad.

All in all Luke draws for us an amazing and moving picture: from the exuberant joy of the crowd at this historic moment to Jesus’ tears at the hardness of people’s hearts. The triumphant joy all too soon turned to tragic sorrow. It is for those reasons that the triumphal entry, the way Luke paints it, might better be known as the tragic entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Ambiguous Meaning of Jonah 2:8

Jonah 2:8 [HB 2:9] is a tricky verse to understand because of its ambiguity. The 2011 NIV translates this verse as those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. Literally, the verse reads those who give regard to worthless vanities forsake their mercy (משמרים הבלי שוא חסדם יעזבו). The KJV translates this verse fairly literally as they that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. The English translations either effectively follow the KJV using the phrase their own mercy for חסדם (their mercy), which retains something of the ambiguity of the original Hebrew, or else they take the third person plural pronoun in חסדם objectively to mean the mercy that God could show to them. Apart from the NIV, the NLT, ESV, and ISV opt for this second approach.

Jonah 2:8 is actually ambiguous for two reasons: Is the phrase they who give regard to worthless vanities inclusive of Jonah; and is the phrase their mercy subjective or objective?

Regarding the first element of potential ambiguity, the phrase they who give regard to worthless vanities could be either inclusive or exclusive of Jonah. Does Jonah have in mind other people (perhaps even non-Israelites) who were idol worshipers, or does he see also himself (in his previously disobedient state) numbered among such idolaters?

Even though Jonah did not physically bow down to any idols, the key reason for Jonah running away from God lies in the fact that he did not want God’s mercy to be shown to the Ninevites. Jonah preferred a God who was not so merciful. And by having this preference, he had set up for himself a god of his own imagination. In addition, it makes sense in the wider context of Jonah showing some degree of repentance in Jon 2 to understand him in Jon 2:8 as including his disobedient self within the set of those who were worshiping worthless idols. It is as if he were saying: “If I had not turned back to God, then I would not have experienced his saving mercy.” It makes sense, therefore, to take the phrase they who give regard to worthless vanities as being inclusive of Jonah’s disobedient self, which contrasts in Jon 2:9 with his obedient self, who is dedicated to worshiping God appropriately.

The second element of ambiguity in Jon 2:8 has to do with the phrase their mercy. Is the third person pronoun in this phrase subjective (i.e., the phrase indicates the mercy that people are supposed to show to others, or perhaps even the faithfulness that people are supposed to show to God), or is it objective (i.e., the phrase indicates the mercy that people might be able to experience from God)? Is Jonah’s overall idea in Jon 2:8 the idea that idolatry causes people to forfeit God’s grace, or is it the idea that idolatry makes people less merciful to others or perhaps less faithful to God?

In the context, the main idea on the lips of Jonah is probably the idea that idolatry means that people will not get to experience God’s mercy, based on the understanding that the practice of idolatry leads to judgment. In the mind of Jonah, he was probably implying that it was a good thing that he had repented of his idolatrous and false thinking about God, because such repentance led to him experiencing God’s mercy.

However, even if it makes more sense in the context to understand the pronoun in question as being objective on the lips of Jonah, the subjective understanding is probably lurking in the background in the mind of the narrator. This can be seen from the thematic prominence of חסד in Jonah 3–4. The issue in chs. 3–4 is Jonah’s lack of mercy to the people of Nineveh, and his anger at God for showing mercy to them. Jonah might have repented of his false view of God when facing death in the middle of the ocean, but in reality his words in Jon 2:8 will end up condemning him for his own lack of mercy toward the Ninevites.

It is significant in this regard that God is described in the Old Testament as being a God who does not forsake his mercy (see Gen 24:27; Ruth 2:20; Ezra 9:9). Yahweh is merciful and compassionate. His character stands in great contrast to the character of Jonah that is revealed in Jon 3–4. Jonah will forsake his mercy. He chooses not to show compassion. This lack of compassion means that the god that he really worships is an idol. Jonah’s preferred god is a god who is different from the compassionate and merciful God revealed in the Scriptures. The ambiguity of the phrase חסדם, therefore, is seemingly deliberate.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Identity of the Dogs in Philippians 3:2

In Phil 3:2, Paul says: “Beware of the dogs; beware of the workers of evil; beware of the mutilation!” Who did Paul have in mind when writing such strong words? What is the identity of those that he described as dogs?

To call someone a dog is an insult in many cultures. From the Jewish perspective, dogs were considered to be unclean animals. Dogs usually roamed around the streets looking for rubbish to eat. To call his opponents dogs, therefore, was a serious insult.

These opponents are also described in Phil 3:2 as workers of evil. This suggests that these false teachers were into works. Specifically, it seems that these works were the works of obedience to the law of Moses. It can be concluded from Paul’s description of them in Phil 3:2 as κατατομή (literally cutting in pieces, hence the idea of mutilation) that these opponents were Judaizers. The word κατατομή here is a play on the word περιτομή (circumcision) that is mentioned in Phil 3:3. The Judaizers taught the necessity of circumcision for salvation. They taught that Gentile Christians must be circumcised. They did this out of a belief that Gentiles must become Jewish and follow the law of Moses in order to be saved. The Judaizers believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they also believed that people had to become citizens of the nation of Israel before they could be saved. This meant males had to be circumcised, and everyone (whether male or female) had to live according to all of the teachings of the law of Moses (see Acts 15:1, 5).

Even though they were Christians in the sense that they confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, in reality the Judaizers taught that being and living as a Jew was the way of salvation. But this understanding was wrong according to the orthodox wing of the early church. It is true that the old covenant spelled out that keeping the law of Moses in the context of grace was the way of salvation for those who were members of Old Testament Israel. But with the coming of the Messiah, a person’s relationship with God was no longer mediated through Moses but through the Messiah. With the coming of Christ, a greater revelation of the word of God had come. And this revelation of the word of God in Christ takes priority over the revelation given previously through Moses.

The coming of the supreme revelation of God in Christ means that in the new covenant age whoever receives the gospel and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord comes directly into the state of salvation without needing to go through the law of Moses. Failing to understand this, the Judaizers had misunderstood God’s plan of salvation. They thought that the new covenant was exactly like the old covenant, that salvation ever only comes by following the law of Moses in the context of divine grace.

Paul, however, following the orthodox Christian position, understood that the Christian gospel proclaims the lordship of Christ and the priority of his revelation over the revelation that had been given to Israel previously through Moses. Therefore, in the age of the new covenant, all that is required for people to be saved is submission to the lordship of Christ, which implies actively following Christ and his teaching.

The identification of Paul’s opponents in Phil 3 as being Judaizers explains why Paul rejects his Jewish credentials in Phil 3:4–8. The Judaizers taught that being and living as a Jew was the way of salvation. Like the Judaizers, Paul had also once upon a time thought this way. As a Jewish rabbi, committed to Judaism as the way of salvation, he had prided himself in the badges of Jewishness that we see listed in Phil 3:5–6: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, the Hebrew of the Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

As a Jew, Paul had been zealous for God; and he showed his zeal for God by being committed to the law of Moses. As far as being and living as a Jew goes, a person could not do much better than Paul. The problem was, however, that, for all his devotion to the law of Moses, Paul had failed to see the very person to whom Moses and the law had been pointing. He had mistakenly thought that devotion to Moses meant persecuting the “so-called” Messiah Jesus. Paul believed that his persecution of the Christian church was a measure of his zeal for God and the law of Moses. But in this he was gravely mistaken. On the road to Damascus, his encounter with the risen Jesus seated at the right hand of God in heaven (i.e., on the throne of Messiah) was enough to convince him of his error.

Having met the risen Messiah Jesus, Paul saw everything that he had once prided himself in in a new light. The proofs of his zeal for the law were all useless. All the Jewish badges that he had once prided himself in, which he had once considered to be gain, he now came to see these as getting in the way of salvation. Instead of being gain, they were actually loss (Phil 3:7). Indeed, Paul writes in Phil 3:8 that he counted “everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.” Paul was even prepared to call all of his previous achievements in Judaism rubbish (Phil 3:8). This is why Paul could call the Judaizers dogs: both of them like rubbish!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Significance of the Word Becoming Flesh in John 1:14

Through Jesus’ birth into the world, the Word became flesh (John 1:14). The idea of the Word becoming flesh means that a key part of the theological significance of Jesus’ birth is divine communication with humanity.

To understand the significance of the Word becoming flesh, we can imagine what the world would be like without the possibility of human communication. Imagine a world in which we humans could not speak, move, or show any emotion. Like slabs of concrete, it would be basically impossible for anyone be able to know anyone else. Without a person expressing himself or herself through language, whether that be body, sign, written, or spoken language, there would be little opportunity for mutual understanding or friendship. Without the ability of communication, there would be virtually zero knowledge of other people, and little opportunity for love. The ability of human beings to communicate is, therefore, very important; and the possibility of divine communication with humanity even more so.

When the Bible teaches that Jesus being born into the world is equivalent to the Word or Logos becoming flesh, we need to understand that the Word in question in John 1:14 is God’s Word (see John 1:1). But how are we to understand the concept of the divine Logos or Word? The answer is straightforward. What do we do with words? We use words to communicate. We express ourselves through words. As we express the thoughts of our soul through words spoken to others, we reveal ourselves; we share ourselves with others.

The fact of the Word becoming flesh means that the Creator of this universe has made this world for the purpose of his own communication and sharing. The purpose behind God creating the universe, and especially the Earth and the human race, is because God wants humanity to get to know him and to be his friends. God created us precisely because he wants to reveal himself to us. He wants to share the thoughts of his mind, thoughts that would otherwise remain hidden unless he revealed them.

Just like us human beings, God reveals himself through his word. Human communication through the transmission of words is an amazing process. When it comes to human language, linguists estimate that there are over 6,900 languages spoken in the world today. English has over a million different words in its vocabulary, but even the most educated will only know just over 20,000 words (according to E. B. Zechmeister, A. M. Chronis, W. L. Cull, C. A. D'Anna, and N. A. Healy, “Growth of a Functionally Important Lexicon,” Journal of Reading Behavior 27, no. 2 [1995]: 201–212). The variety of sounds and words that we speak, the variety of characters that we write, is truly amazing. So is the variety of methods that we use to communicate. We can speak face to face, or over the telephone; we can write letters, send cards, send SMSes, do video calls, or simply chat online. But where does this ability and interest of ours in communicating come from? The Bible expresses the view that it has been built into us by God. We human beings are into communication because God is into communication. In fact, God created us to be his communication partners.

But what language does God use to communicate with us? God actually uses lots of languages to speak to humanity, but his favorite and most important method of communication is … the Word becoming flesh! The truth of the Word becoming flesh tells us that God chose to take on the form of a human being, entering into our world to speak with us face to face. God not only speaks our language, but he has become one of us in order to speak with us! His divine Word has taken on human form in the person of Jesus. God’s revelation of himself in Jesus is his ultimate method of communication.

But if it is true that God has come into our world in the person of Jesus to speak to us, the question that we have to ask in the light of this is: Are we listening to Jesus? Do we spend time regularly getting to know him? Are we keen to understand his teaching? To ignore Jesus is to reject God’s communication to us. If it is important in the process of education for learners to listen to those with greater knowledge and experience than themselves in particular fields of study, then it would be foolish for us to ignore the information that the Creator of this universe wants to convey to us.

Through the birth of Jesus, God has come into our world to speak to us. It is very important, therefore, that we listen to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus. The Word has became flesh for the purpose of divine communication with the human race. As God proclaimed from heaven to Peter, James, and John regarding Jesus: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Are Christians Allowed to Bow to People?

Is bowing to a human being permissible for a Christian? There are some verses of the Bible that on the surface might suggest that we should bow to no one except God. The second commandment reads: “You shall not bow down (חוה) to [images] or serve them, for I, Yahweh, am a jealous God” (Deut 5:9). We also have examples of particular people in the Bible who request that they not be bowed down to. When Cornelius bowed down to Peter, Peter told him to stand up on the basis of the fact that Peter himself was merely human (Acts 10:25–26). A number of angels also appear in the book of Revelation, requesting that the Apostle John abstain from bowing down to them (Rev 19:10; 22:8–9).

There are a number of different terms used in Hebrew to describe bodily postures of respect. ברך is used to denote kneeling. כרע can be used of bowing, crouching, or kneeling. שׁחח implies lowering one’s body by bending down in some way. קדד is used of bowing one’s head or the upper part of one’s body. ‎קדד is always followed in the Hebrew Bible by the verb חוה. In the Hishtafel stem חוה indicates a form of prostration. This usually involved either kneeling then bowing one’s head forward to face the ground, or kneeling then lowering the part of the body which is above the knees fully forward so as to lie with one’s body totally flat against the ground. The idioms נפל על פנים and נפל על אפים (to fall on one’s face) are also used to denote prostration.

It is true that the Bible teaches that the one true God alone is to be worshiped. Nevertheless, there are examples of godly people in the Bible bowing down to humans. While negotiating the purchase of a burial plot for his family, Abraham bowed (חוה) to the local Hittite people on two occasions (Gen 23:7, 12). Joseph bowed down (חוה) to his father, Jacob, just before Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:12). When Moses met his father-in-law in the vicinity of Mount Sinai after the exodus, he bowed down (חוה) and kissed him (Exod 18:7). Ruth, thankful at Boaz’s kindness, bowed down (נפל על פנים plus חוה) with her face towards the ground (Ruth 2:10). A similar action was exhibited by David (נפל על אפים plus חוה) when saying goodbye to Jonathon (1 Sam 20:41). David also bowed down (קדד plus חוה) to Saul when he greeted him after sparing his life (1 Sam 24:8). Abigail bowed down (נפל על פנים plus חוה) to the ground when greeting David (1 Sam 25:23). Queen Bathsheba bowed down (קדד plus חוה) to King David (1 Kgs 1:16). The prophet Nathan also bowed down (חוה) to King David (1 Kgs 1:23). God made David’s enemies bow at his feet (Ps 18:39 [MT Ps 18:40]). King Solomon also greeted his mother, Bathsheba, by bowing down (חוה) to her (1 Kgs 2:19). In 2 Kgs 1:13 a pious military commander bowed down (כרע) to the prophet Elijah.

There are also verses in the Bible that indicate that humans bowing before other humans is appropriate or expected. Isaac’s mistaken blessing of Jacob pictures peoples bowing down (חוה) to him (Gen 27:29). Jacob’s blessing foresaw the other tribes bowing down (חוה) to Judah (Gen 49:8). In Ps 45:11 the wife of the king of Israel is instructed to bow down (חוה) to the king. According to Prov 14:19, the wicked will bow down (שׁחח) before the good. Israel’s ultimate victory over her enemies is also pictured in terms of people and kings and queens of the other nations coming and bowing down (חוה) to the people of Israel (Isa 45:14; 49:23). The sons of Israel’s oppressors are spoken of as coming to bow down (שׁחח plus חוה) at their feet.

In conclusion, the biblical prohibition against bowing only applies to the situation of bowing down to worship or show respect to false gods or images. But where the purpose is to express respect or submission to individual human beings who in a position of authority (such as kings, prophets, or parents), then the Bible treats bowing in such a situation as being an appropriate action for believers to engage in.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Paul’s Teaching on the Reality of Temptation in 1 Corinthians 10:12–13

As a believer in Jesus, are you confident that you have already been saved, and will never lose your salvation? The perseverance of the saints is a biblical doctrine, but at the same time Paul teaches in 1 Cor 10:12 that “the person who thinks he stands” should “be careful lest he fall.”

The biblical doctrine of the salvation of the elect needs to be held together with the biblical doctrine of the need for the perseverance of individual Christians in the faith. Saving faith is not a once-off transaction. Saving faith is an ongoing positive orientation to the word of God that needs to be defended and developed in the midst of daily temptations throughout one’s life. It is good to be confident in our salvation, as long as our faith is genuine. But we need to be careful not to allow such confidence to lead to spiritual arrogance or spiritual laziness.

There were many people in the Corinthian church in Paul’s day who were spiritually arrogant. They emphasized their privileges and authority that they had in Christ. They emphasized how they had authority to rule over creation (1 Cor 4:8), and how they had been blessed with powerful spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor 1:5, 7; 12; 14). But Paul’s message to them was that they should not start to think that were beyond the possibility of falling into temptation and missing out on salvation.

No one in this world (including Christians) is beyond being tempted. This is why Paul states: “let the person who thinks he stands beware lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). According to Paul, the faith that saves is a faith that overcomes temptation. In 1 Cor 10:13 Paul reminds us that all human beings are subject to temptation. If Jesus, who was perfectly dedicated to God, was subjected to temptation, then everyone else will be tempted too. In this world temptation is an ever-present reality, and none of us is beyond its power.

However, Paul also says in 1 Cor 10:13 that no temptation has overtaken us except what is common to all of humanity. The good news is that God controls Satan’s attempts at temptation. “God is faithful, who will not let you be tempted beyond what you are able, but will also provide with the temptation an exit to be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13).

God’s plan in creating this world was for this world to experience his blessing. As part of this plan, many human beings would know what it is to live in such a world. Because God’s plan is ultimately for the blessing of this world, he will not allow Satan to take too many of people down to hell. Therefore, God does not allow us human beings to be tempted beyond what we can bear, for otherwise we would all be doomed. In his faithfulness, God always provides (in the midst of the temptations that come) a way by which we can escape those temptations.

The way of escape from temptation, as it was for Jesus, is faith in the word of God (see Matt 4:4, 7, 10). We need, therefore, to model ourselves on Jesus, take God at his word, and simply trust in God to provide everything that we need for life and blessedness. If we are confident in God’s love and provision for us, then there is no reason to give into temptation.

By way of analogy, just imagine that you are a hungry fish living not in the ocean but in a fishing pond. You have been told by the builder and owner of the pond (because you are one of his favorite fish) that all of the food that does not come from the owner’s hand is dangerous. It might look like food, and smell like food; but it is not food, unless it comes from the pond owner’s hand. Any other food is either chum or bait, a type of food that has been designed to attract your attention, to get you to strike at the bait, get caught, and lose your life. If that then is the case, as a hungry little fish, what do you need to do? You might be very hungry. You might be starving. You might see all the other fish going after food or what looks like food, but to be safe what do you need to do? You need to constantly remind yourself: “Don’t go for the bait. Don’t go for the bait. I need to wait for owner’s provision!”

On a spiritual plane, we need to control our desires, and not allow ourselves to be baited by the enemy. But that is not to say that Christians will always make use of the way of escape that God provides in every single instance, but a way of escape is always there, and Paul’s words in 1 Cor 10:13 encourage every Christian to make use of the escape route that God provides.

Therefore, when it comes to the question of the state of our salvation in the future, the Bible encourages us not to worry about what the future might hold, but to be confident in the faithfulness of God to us both now and in the future. Christians can be totally confident that those whom God has chosen for salvation will indeed be saved, and that God will make sure that no temptation will arise that will necessarily result in our destruction. But at the same time as being confident in the faithfulness of God, we also need to avoid becoming spiritually arrogant to the point that we start to think that the victory is ours already without the need for endurance in the future.

True saving faith needs to be an ongoing reality in life of every Christian. The faith that God has given us must always be defended and developed in the midst of daily temptations. So be confident! But at the same time, if you think that you stand, just be careful you do not crash and burn.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Significance of Circumcision in the Bible

In the 1984 NIV Bible, the verb circumcise occurs 60 times, the noun circumcision 21 times, the adjective uncircumcised 38 times, and the noun uncircumcision four times. Why is the Bible interested in circumcision, and what is the significance of circumcision as a religious practice? How can we explain the Bible’s interest in the strange custom of the cutting away the foreskin of the penis?

The Bible’s concern with circumcision goes back to the covenant of circumcision that God made with Abraham in Gen 17. This covenant required that Abraham and each of his male descendants should be circumcised (see Gen 17:10–14). Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:11), according to which he would greatly increase the number of Abraham’s descendants (see Gen 17:2, 4–6).

But what is the link between circumcision and the promised population increase of Abraham’s descendants? Even though recent scientific studies have identified a number of health benefits associated with circumcision, circumcision was not given by God to Abraham for reasons of hygiene, but for three main reasons.

The first main reason is that circumcision functioned as a sign that individual (male) members of the family of Abraham were in covenant with God in accordance with God’s command to Abraham in Gen 17:10 that the covenant of circumcision was to be kept by “every male” within Abraham’s family by “every male” being circumcised, and also in accordance with the teaching in Gen 17:14 that “any uncircumcised male … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Circumcision was a sign of being in covenant with God and belonging to God’s people. Not to be circumcised was to reject membership within God’s people. So when it came to circumcision, it was either be cut or be cut off.

Circumcision also functioned as a sign distinguishing the Israelites from some of the surrounding nations who did not practise circumcision. Although circumcision was also practised among the Egyptians, Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites (see Jer 9:25–26), uncircumcision was considered within Israel to be a mark of being a foreigner (Ezek 44:7, 9; see also Eph 2:11). The Philistines, for example, were commonly characterized in a derogative way as being “uncircumcised” (1 Sam 17:26, 36; 2 Sam 1:20). From the instructions concerning the eating of the Passover in Exod 12:43–49, it can be seen that circumcision functioned to nationalize foreigners. Once a foreigner had been circumcised, he was considered to be “as a native of the land” (Exod 12:48), as part of “the congregation of Israel” (Exod 12:47).

The third main reason for circumcision its spiritual significance. The spiritual significance of circumcision has three aspects: physical circumcision and uncircumcision symbolize the state of a person’s heart with respect to God; physical circumcision symbolizes purity and dedication to the service of God; and physical circumcision symbolizes humility and dependence on God.

Concerning the first aspect, a parallelism exists in the Scriptures between circumcision in the flesh and the circumcision of the heart. Circumcision in the flesh was meant to be a symbol of circumcision of the heart. In Israel, therefore, both forms of circumcision were required (compare Paul’s argument in Rom 2:28–29). Physical circumcision counted for nothing without spiritual circumcision (see Jer 9:25–26; see also Rom 2:25). In Deut 10:16 Moses calls upon Israel to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts. In the middle of the prophecy of Deut 30:1–14, Moses speaks of the new covenant restoration of Israel in terms of Yahweh circumcising the hearts of the people of Israel, so that they would “love Yahweh [their] God with all [their] heart and with all [their] soul” (Deut 30:6). The Mosaic call for spiritual circumcision was later echoed by Jeremiah in Jer 4:4: “Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh; remove the foreskins of your hearts.” Physical circumcision was meant to symbolize a heart that was clean and dedicated to the service of God, a heart from which uncleanness had been removed.

The second aspect to the spiritual significance of circumcision is that physical circumcision symbolizes the removal of spiritual uncleanness. This aspect underlies the aspect described above. The fact that being uncircumcised is paralleled with being unclean in Isa 52:1, and that allowing uncircumcised foreigners into the temple was equivalent to “profaning [God’s] temple” in Ezek 44:7, suggests that uncircumcision was viewed in the Old Testament as being symbolic of uncleanness. This symbolism was most likely derived from the view that the foreskin is an unclean part of the body. This is confirmed in Col 2:11 where Paul links the Christian’s spiritual circumcision in Christ with “the putting off of the body of the flesh.” This equates to putting off “the old self with its practices” (Col 3:9). The removal of the foreskin, therefore, symbolizes the removal of uncleanness, which allows the individual in question to be dedicated to the proper service of God. The idea that circumcision also symbolizes the proper service of God is backed up in Phil 3:3, where Paul speaks of Christians as those who are the true circumcision, who serve God through his Spirit as a result.

The third aspect to the spiritual significance of circumcision that is found in Scripture is that physical circumcision is also symbolic of humility and dependence upon God. This aspect derives from the historical context in which the covenant of circumcision emerged. When we consider the point in time when God commanded Abraham to get circumcised, it is significant that the establishment of the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17:1–14) occurred just after the incident of Abraham sleeping with Sarah’s slave, Hagar (Gen 16). God had promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a son, but they had been in the promised land for ten years (compare Gen 12:4; 16:16), and no children had been born to them, so Sarah came up with the idea of Abraham sleeping with her maid, Hagar (Gen 16:2). Hagar functioned as a surrogate so that Sarah could have a child. Ishmael was born as a result of this union of Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16:15). But this child was not the promised seed (Gen 21:12; see also Gen 17:18–21). God’s plan was that the promised child would come through the union of Abraham and his wife, Sarah (Gen 17:16). By arranging for Hagar to be a surrogate, Sarah and Abraham had sought to “help” fulfill God’s plan for Abraham to sire offspring. But in doing this, Abraham and Sarah had overstepped the mark. In order, therefore, to teach Abraham a lesson, when Ishmael was thirteen (on the point of becoming an adult), God told Abraham that he and the male members of his household had to be circumcised (see Gen 17:10, 12–13, 25). The fact that the institution of the covenant of circumcision is recorded in Genesis straight after the incident of Abraham sleeping with Hagar suggests, therefore, that God was teaching Abraham a lesson. In effect God was saying that the fulfillment of his plan was not dependent on the initiative and action of ordinary human beings. Abraham and Sarah had basically decided that Abraham could use his sexual organ to obtain the promised blessing. But to remind them and their descendants of the fact that the fulfillment of God’s plan is not ultimately up to human schemes—salvation is not by human effort but by the gift of God—God commanded that the sexual organ of each of the males in Abraham’s household be circumcised. In effect, Abraham and his male descendants would carry around in their bodies the mark of this lesson in spiritual humility. It is true that Abraham would have to use his sexual organ later on to help fulfill God’s promise by impregnating Sarah. Consistent with this, God did not command for Abraham’s sexual organ to be completely chopped off. Physically circumcision is only a snip (albeit a painful one), but symbolically it represents the removal of the male sexual organ in toto. Circumcision is a sign that speaks, therefore, of the need for humility in relation to God and of total dependence on God for his own fulfillment of his plan of blessing and salvation.

The fact that circumcision parallels not stiffening one’s neck in Deut 10:16 (where stiffening one’s neck is a Hebrew idiom for being obstinate and disobedient), and that an uncircumcised heart needs to be subdued or humbled according to Lev 26:41 (see also Acts 7:51 where being “stiff-necked” is paralleled with being “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” and being resistant to the Spirit), supports the idea stated above that physical circumcision symbolizes spiritual humility. It is also significant that the Apostle Paul views true circumcision as involving boasting in Christ rather than placing confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:3). Sarah asking Abraham to sleep with Hagar was a case of Sarah and Abraham putting confidence in the flesh (i.e., in human effort) rather than trusting in God to provide. The fact that Abraham received circumcision as a sign and seal of the righteousness that he had before God as a result of his faith (Rom 4:11) also links circumcision to faith, which itself implies both humility and obedience.

Overall, therefore, the significance of physical circumcision under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants was that it symbolized membership within the covenant with God, and the ideal spiritual state associated with this: an attitude of humility and trust in relation to God, which involves the removal of all forms of spiritual impurity, and total dedication to the service of God.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

When Knowledge Can Be Harmful: An Interpretation of Paul’s Teaching in 1 Corinthians 8

Knowledge can be harmful. If used incorrectly, it can hurt other people. Christians believe that we have a knowledge of the truth, but we need to be careful how we use this knowledge.

The members of the church in Corinth valued knowledge. They knew that Christians have been privileged to have a knowledge of the truth in Jesus; but Paul reminds them in 1 Cor 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge has a tendency to puff people up with pride, but love builds others up. Knowledge without love is destructive. Knowledge helps our brains to develop, but the knowledge that we have will not help others unless we act towards others in love.

Paul applied this principle of knowledge guided by love to Christian behavior generally, but the particular issue that this applies to in 1 Cor 8 is the issue of the eating of meat offered up to idols. Most of the meat produced for consumption in Corinth was associated with pagan rituals or pagan temples. A practical question for Christians in such a context was: “What meat, if any, is okay for us to eat?”

There were some Christians who argued that all meat could be eaten. Their argument is summarized in 1 Cor 8:4–6. They rightly believed that because there is only one true God, all other so-called gods and idols are false and not real. There are lots of so-called gods and lords that people believe exist in heaven or on earth, but as far as Christians are concerned, “there is one God, the Father, from whom all things are, and to whom we belong”; and there is also only “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6). These Christians were arguing that everything belongs to the one true God as the source of all things, and to the one true Lord as the agent of all things; therefore, every type of meat also belongs to God; consequently, Christians can eat whatever we want to eat.

These Christians rested upon orthodox Christian theology to justify their practice when it came to eating meat, regardless of its origin. Paul fundamentally agreed with this theological argument. What they were saying about there being only one true God was true. What they were saying about every type of meat being permissible to eat was also true.

The problem was, however, that “this knowledge does belong to everyone” (1 Cor 8:7). There were some Christians for whom eating such meat was problematic. These were Christians who had grown up in the pagan environment, and who associated eating meat with the pagan rituals that often accompanied the slaughter and the eating of such meat. For all their belief in Jesus as Lord, these Christians still had a weak conscience; and eating such meat would feel to them as if they were doing something wrong.

To resolve this issue, Paul applied his principle of knowledge guided by love. His argument applying this principle is found in 1 Cor 8:8–13.

Paul’s first point is that food, in and of itself, is neither here nor there (1 Cor 8:8). Christians are no more presentable to God whether we eat beef, chicken, dog, or even whale. What matters to God is our hearts; and what we eat does not affect our hearts spiritually. So the issue is not food per se. The issue is people’s conscience, and especially the conscience of those whose conscience is weak.

This then leads to Paul’s second and main point: Christians need to make sure that whatever knowledge or authority or freedom that we have does not end up becoming a stumbling block to people who might have a weaker conscience (1 Cor 8:9). A stumbling block is any impediment that stops a person from progressing on the pathway to salvation. A stumbling block is anything that encourages someone else to sin or to give up on following God. The danger for those who said that they had the authority to eat whatever they wanted (because of the knowledge that all food belongs to only one true God) is that by eating meat that had been offered up to idols, they could encourage those with a weaker conscience to sear their own consciences by doing the same thing while believing that such action was sinful.

The example that Paul gives in 1 Cor 8:10 illustrates this. Paul mentions how if someone with a weak conscience saw a fellow brother eating meat in a temple, then the former might be encouraged to copy the practice of the latter even though that went against the latter’s conscience. And so, by exercising one’s freedom in Christ to eat anything, a Christian could actually be causing spiritual harm (or even the spiritual death) of a brother or sister, someone for whom Christ has died (1 Cor 8:11).

True knowledge, therefore, can be dangerous if it is not guided by love. Whatever we do in the presence of fellow Christians will have some effect on them. Obviously if we do something bad, we present a bad example to those around us. But Paul here is talking about eating meat, which in and of itself is not sinful. In other words, sometimes even doing something that is not wrong can have a negative effect on fellow Christians. We should always do what is good, but some of the things we do are matters of personal choice rather than strictly being a matter of what God has explicitly commanded. For example, what we eat, what we drink, what job we do (for the most part), what clothes we wear (within reason), how we pray, whether or not we fast, are all basically matters of personal freedom and preference. In Christ, Christians have freedom to engage in these activities according to personal choice; but if the way in which we exercise our personal choice could prove to be spiritually troublesome for any Christian brothers or sisters that possess a weak conscience, then to insist on acting according to our own understanding and freedom is actually to wound the conscience of a weaker brother or sister. And, according to Paul, to act in such a way is actually to sin against the brother or sister in question. And to sin against a brother or sister in Christ is to sin against Christ himself (1 Cor 8:12). This is why Paul can conclude in the way that he does in 1 Cor 8:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, in order that I might not make my brother stumble.”

Paul’s teaching challenges Christians to be considerate and tolerant of one another. Consider how this teaching might apply to the issue of prayer by way of example. If our heart is right with God, then there may be a limited number of body postures that we might avoid, but there are also many potential body postures that could be employed when praying to God: eyes open, eyes closed; head bowing down, head looking up towards heaven; hands together, hands open; hands by your side, hands raised towards the sky. Or even laying hands on others, or not laying hands on others. But is there more power involved if you lay hands on the person that you are praying for compared to if you do not? No. Jesus did not have to be physically present with people in order for them to feel the effects of his prayers. So it is our heart that matters more than the manner in which we actually pray. We have freedom in a sense to pray how we want to, as long as our heart is right with God. But if the manner in which we pray makes someone else feel uncomfortable, or perhaps even feels wrong to another Christian (whether rightly or wrongly), then it is much better to curb our freedom, to use our knowledge with love, and to avoid that activity in the presence of those for whom it is troubling, than it is to wound the conscience of a fellow brother or sister in Christ for whom Jesus has died.

Paul’s principle of knowledge guided by love applies to all of those areas of freedom where Christians have not been given a specific command from God, or where we have been commanded specifically by God but the details as to how to implement that command are a matter of individual choice.

Overall, Paul’s point in 1 Cor 8 is that Christians are meant to be encouraging one another in the faith rather than discouraging one another. Instead of forcing our opinions on others in areas of personal freedom, out of love we should be mindful of how our actions might impact negatively on those around us, even if there is nothing wrong in and of itself with what we are doing. Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 8 is a challenge for Christians to be mindful of exercising our knowledge and freedom in Christ in accordance with brotherly love.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Same-Sex Marriage: A Case of Dodgy Science and Theology

On 2 September 2013, Kevin Rudd, in his role as the prime minister of Australia seeking to be re-elected, appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program (see Kevin Rudd on Q&A between minutes 55:23 and 59:33). Mr Rudd is a Christian, but has recently become a political advocate for same-sex marriage. On the program he was asked a question by Matt Prater, a Christian pastor, about how Mr Rudd could support same-sex marriage while claiming to be a Christian.

Mr Rudd responded as follows: “Number one: I do not believe that people when they are born choose their sexuality. They are gay if they are born gay. You don’t decide at some later stage of life to be one thing or the other. It is, it is how people are built. And therefore, the idea that this is somehow an abnormal condition is just wrong. I don’t get that. I think that is just a completely ill-founded view.”

“Secondly, if you accept that it is natural and normal for someone to be gay because that’s the way they are, then it follows from that that I don’t think it is right to say that if these two folk here who are in love with each other and are of the same gender should be denied the opportunity for legal recognition of the duration of their relationship by having marriage equality.”

After this response, Matt Prater was given the opportunity to present his own view. He pointed out to Mr Rudd that Jesus’ definition of marriage (in passages like Matt 19:4–6) involved a man being married to a woman, and he politely asked Mr Rudd: “if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?” Mr Rudd answered quite vigorously as follows: “Well mate, well mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition. Because St Paul said in the New Testament, ‘slaves be obedient to your masters.’ And therefore we should’ve all fought for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. I mean for goodness’ sake! The human condition and social conditions change! What is the fundamental principle of the New Testament? It is one of universal love, loving your fellow man. And if we get obsessed with a particular definition of that through a form of sexuality, then I think we’re missing the centrality of what the gospel, whether you call it a social gospel, a personal gospel, or a spiritual gospel, is all, is all about. And therefore, I go back to my question. If you think homosexuality is an unnatural condition, then frankly I cannot agree with you based on any element of the science; and therefore, if a person’s sexuality is as they are made, then you’ve got to ask the second question: Should, therefore, their loving relationships be legally recognized? And the conclusion I’ve reached is that they should.”

Mr Rudd asserted three fundamental points in his answer. Firstly, he believes that science has found that homosexuals are born gay; secondly, that the New Testament’s teaching on homosexuality was culturally conditioned; and thirdly, that the fundamental principle of the New Testament is universal love for one’s fellow man. On all three points Mr Rudd’s opinions are deficient.

Regarding what science has found, I wonder whether Mr Rudd has actually read any of the research. It is fashionable following Lady Gaga and others these days to assert that homosexuals are born that way. The problem with this view is that current scientific research does not actually assert this. While the studies into genetic influence on sexual orientation vary in their results, there is a growing consensus, based mainly on studies into the degree of concordance of sexual orientation in twins, that genetics only plays a minor role in sexual orientation. The major factor seems to be individual environmental factors (see Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner, “Opposite-sex twins and adolescent same-sex attraction,” American Journal of Sociology 107 [2002]: 1179–1205; and N. Långström, Q. Rahman, E. Carlström, and P. Lichtenstein, “Genetic and environmental effects on same-sex sexual behavior: a population study of twins in Sweden,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 39 [February 2010]: 75–80). The 2010 study cited above, which studied more than 7,000 twins, concludes that genetics accounts for at most around 40% of the variance in sexual orientation in men, and less than this in women. A 40% genetic predisposition, for example, is similar to or slightly weaker than the genetic predisposition to aggression. If certain people are born with an aggressive personality, surely, following Mr Rudd’s logic, they should also be able to claim to have been born that way. Why, therefore, should their aggression not be legally recognized as a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing at law, for example? We do not hear Mr Rudd making this argument.

Regarding Mr Rudd’s assertion that the biblical teaching against homosexuality was culturally conditioned in a similar way to how the early church thought about slavery, this manner of argument is also incorrect from an orthodox Christian point of view. It is true that the Apostle Paul taught that slaves should be obedient to their masters (e.g., Eph 6:5). But contrary to Mr Rudd’s assertion, the Bible does not teach that slavery is “a natural condition.” Mr Rudd has been selective with what the Apostle Paul actually taught. Alongside of teaching that slaves should be obedient to their masters, the Apostle also taught that human slavery is fundamentally incompatible with Christ’s redemption of individual Christians.

This can clearly be seen in Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 7:21–23. Paul argues firstly in 1 Cor 7:21 that Christian slaves should continue on in their current situation. Short of rising up in rebellion, running away, saving up enough money to buy back their own freedom, or gaining manumission, slaves were in no real position within the Roman empire to gain their own freedom, so Paul’s instruction at this point makes sense in the society of his day. At the same time, however, Paul states that Christian slaves should avail themselves of any legitimate opportunity to gain their freedom (1 Cor 7:21). He also asserts the value of every individual who found himself or herself enslaved by reminding Christian slaves of their freedom in Christ (1 Cor 7:22). Furthermore, in 1 Cor 7:23, Paul asserts that, because all Christians (including those who are slaves) have been redeemed through the precious blood of Jesus on the cross, then Christians should not literally be slaves to anyone. Through his death on the cross, Jesus has purchased every individual Christian. It is as if spiritually every Christian has become a slave of Christ. Being free as a slave of Christ is incompatible with being a slave to anyone else. Therefore, Paul supported the emancipation of slaves where it was possible to achieve this. This is borne out in Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Paul asks Philemon to receive back his runaway slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a slave, but … as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). He asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as he would have welcomed Paul himself (Philemon 17), and to charge any debt owed to him by his runaway slave to Paul’s own account (Philemon 18). Paul also strongly hints that he wanted Philemon voluntarily to set Onesimus free, and to allow Onesimus to help him while he was in prison for the sake of the gospel (Philemon 13–14, 20–21). Mr Rudd has seriously misrepresented, therefore, the Apostle Paul on the issue of slavery. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, may have argued that some people are “by nature slaves” (Aristotle, Politics, 1.5–7); but it is incorrect to attribute this view to the Bible.

Regarding the fundamental principle of the New Testament being universal love for one’s fellow man, there is some irony in Mr Rudd’s language at this point. Presumably Mr Rudd does not think that on the lips of New Testament Christians the teaching of love for one’s fellow man included homosexual love, but at the very least he is suggesting that the Christian teaching on love should be supportive of same-sex love relationships. But Mr Rudd has overlooked an important consideration at this point. The New Testament concern with love comes from Jesus. And Jesus’ concern with the love of human beings for one another is linked to the importance of human love for God. In fact, according to Jesus, human love for one another is only the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). The greatest commandment is love for God (Matt 22:37–38); and as Jesus has said: “if you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Loving God involves being obedient to what God has instructed. How we fulfill the second greatest commandment, therefore, must be consistent with our obligations under the greatest commandment. The greatest commandment requires us to follow God’s instructions on how we are to love other people, and not to reject or ridicule God’s instructions in the face of contrary human opinion.

What then is God’s instruction concerning marriage? As Jesus clearly states: “Have you not read that in the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and unite with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not humans separate” (Matthew 19:4–6). In advocating same-sex marriage, Mr Rudd has clearly rejected Jesus’ definition of marriage, which involves a man leaving his father and mother to be united to his wife (literally his woman—the word for wife and woman is the same word in Greek). Mr Rudd may claim to be a Christian, but he has in effect separated what God has joined together. His view on same-sex marriage is inconsistent with the teaching of Christ and the New Testament. If Mr Rudd were honest, he should acknowledge his disagreement with Jesus and the Bible rather than misinterpreting the Bible or chiding Christians who still hold to a view that he also supposedly believed in as recently as only three months ago.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Value of Singleness for Christians according to 1 Corinthians 7

Most Christians probably tend to think that the default situation of people when they grow up is to be married. Most Christians view marriage as being an institution of great value that is to be protected and promoted. But not much is said in the Christian church generally about the value of singleness.

The Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Cor 7 that celibacy is good for those who have that gift. He says in 1 Cor 7:1 that celibacy is actually good: “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The word touch here is a euphemism for sexual relations. Abstaining from sexual relations in order to live as a celibate person is good if God has given you that gift.

In fact, in 1 Cor 7:25–35, Paul argues that virgins (i.e., young unmarried people) should not get married unless they really have to. The preferred option is actually to stay celibate, unless of course the virgin in question does not have that gift. The default situation for Christians who are unmarried is to stay in their current state (see 1 Cor 7:17, 24), which is the state of singleness. If a person, having considered the gift that God has given to him or her, wants to get married, then there is no shame in getting married. It is not a sin to marry someone who is of the opposite sex who is eligible for marriage (1 Cor 7:28). In fact, if a person does not have the gift of celibacy, then that person should get married, “for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion]” (1 Cor 7:9).

But it is interesting how marriage is not the preferred option as far as Paul is concerned. Even though most people grow up to have an active sex drive, Paul provides three reasons as to why celibacy is the default and preferred option.

The first reason is mentioned in 1 Cor 7:26. Paul says that in the light of “the present suffering … it is good for a man to stay as he is.” It is not obvious what the expression the present suffering refers to, but it is presumably related to what Paul says in 1 Cor 7:29 about the time being short. Paul also speaks in 1 Cor 7:28 about trouble or difficulty that married people have in this world (literally: in relation to the flesh). Life in a fallen world means that marriage is not easy at the best of times. There is the pain of conflict in the relationship between husband and wife. No matter how united a married couple may be, there will be times when they hurt each other. There is also the pain of childbirth that the majority of women who are married experience. There is also the suffering that comes with worrying about and caring for one’s spouse and children. And in a changeable world, with disasters, droughts, famines, and wars, a parent’s ordinary cares and concerns can easily be multiplied. These are the normal difficulties of married life. In addition, if the expression the present suffering is to be linked with the shortness of the time, Paul’s concern here also includes the increased possibility of suffering and persecution as a result of the current age in which Christians live, which is the final stage in the history of the world prior to the eternal state. The first coming of Christ has ushered in the end of the age and the birth pains associated with this (see Matt 24:7–8). Being married and having a family in such circumstances has the potential to bring a married person extra pain and suffering.

The second reason why marriage is not the preferred option is because, as Paul states in 1 Cor 7:29, “the time is short.” In other words, the day of judgment is coming. If the time was short back when Paul was writing to the Corinthians, it must be shorter now. According to Paul, the reality of the impending end of the current stage of world history should influence our attitude to marriage and life in general. In relation to marriage, Paul says that if a man has a wife, he should virtually live as if he did not have one (1 Cor 7:29), “for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). This means that even if a person is married, one day soon that person’s relationship with his or her spouse will change, the presumption being that marriage no longer applies in the world to come. So the closer that the end of the world is, and the more that a person is aware of that, the less relevant marriage effectively will be. And it may be for some of God’s people that the knowledge of the shortness of the remaining time will be sufficient to keep them happily celibate.

The third reason for not getting married has to do with how devoted a person can be to serving God. Paul wants Christians to be free to serve God to the maximum of their ability. When you are single, you have a greater degree of freedom in how you can serve God. But once married, things change. A married person has to think about the things of this world in addition to the things of God (1 Cor 7:33–34). Instead of simply considering what you can do for God today, once married, you have to consider what your spouse and family need. If you are married, you need to spend a lot of time interacting with and understanding your husband or wife; and when you have children, you spend a lot of time and energy in providing for the family. So being married can affect how we serve God. On the whole, being married means that a person does not have the freedom to serve God in a full-on sense in the way that a single person can.

So, according to Paul, celibacy is the preferred state for a Christian. At the same time, however, it is true that not everyone has the gift of celibacy. That is why Paul says in 1 Cor 7:35 that his teaching on celibacy as being the preferred option is for our benefit and not designed to be burdensome. What Paul desires is that every Christian should be serving God according to his or her gifts. The ideal is celibacy, which allows the person in question to be devoted to the Lord without distraction; but if you do not have the gift of celibacy, and you try to follow a celibate lifestyle as the preferred option, you will not succeed. In fact, trying to live as a celibate person while having sexual desires is a recipe for distraction and potential failure in one’s service of God. In the end, therefore, it comes down to each person’s gifting in relation to marriage and celibacy; but while acknowledging this, the value and benefits of singleness should also be taught by the Christian church alongside the value and benefits of marriage.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Parallelism within 1 Corinthians 6:13–14: The Hemeneutical Key to Unlocking Paul’s Argument

Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 6:13–14 is a little difficult to follow, and there are a few possibilities for interpretation. It is rather common for interpreters to suggest that the third clause in 1 Cor 6:13 (i.e., the clause but God will abolish both) as being Paul’s opinion, which effectively contrasts with the relationship between food and the stomach in the first two clauses of 1 Cor 6:13, which are a quotation of the opinion of a group of people in the Corinthian church who had a wrong understanding about their freedom to eat any kinds of food. This emphasis on freedom from the Jewish food laws is mirrored in their attitude of freedom in relation to sexual issues.

The problem with the interpretation stated above is that it cannot really explain why Paul mentions resurrection in 1 Cor 6:14, and it also overlooks the parallel structure of 1 Cor 6:13a (i.e., the first three clauses in v. 13) and 1 Cor 6:13b–14. Paying attention to the parallel structure of these verses gives us some clues to what is most likely to be Paul’s argument at this point.

What then are these parallels? They are easier to see in the original Greek, than in our modern translations. There are three clauses in v. 13a that are matched respectively by three propositions in vv. 13b–14. Firstly, the expression food is for the stomach in v. 13a is paralleled by the statement but the body is not for fornication but for the Lord in v. 13b. Secondly, the clause and the stomach is for food in v. 13a is matched by the clause and the Lord is for the body in v. 13b. Finally, the statement but God will abolish both this [referring to the stomach] and these [referring to food in the plural] in v. 13a is paralleled by the whole of v. 14 where Paul says but God raised both the Lord and will raise us up through his power. This can be captured graphically as follows:


What then is the significance of these parallels? In the first instance, the parallel structure of v. 13a in relation to vv. 13b–14 suggests (contrary to the NIV and ESV) that all of v. 13a is is effectively a quotation of the words of those people in the church at Corinth who had a wrong opinion about the human body and sex, and that all of vv. 13b–14 constitutes Paul’s response, which presents the proper way to think about the human body and sex. It is interesting in this regard that the NRSV states in the margin that the quotation may extend to the end of the third clause in v. 13, which is the view that I am arguing for here.

If what has been stated above is correct, then the situation can be explained as follows: a number of people in the Corinthian church (reflecting the broader Greek culture of the day) were of the opinion that sex is a bodily function in the same way as eating is, and it does not matter what we do with our bodies (what we eat and who we have sex with), because in the end when we die we will leave our bodies behind, and live free as spiritual beings. In saying that “food is for the stomach, and the stomach for food,” they were talking about how eating is a bodily function. Furthermore, there could well be some sexual innuendo present in that saying, because the word κοιλία (translated here as stomach) in the LXX can also indicate a woman’s womb (e.g., Gen 25:23–24; 30:2; Deut 7:13; 28:4, 11, 53; 30:9) or a man’s sex organ (e.g., 2 Sam 7:12; 16:11; 1 Chr 17:11; Ps 132:11 [131:11 LXX]). Paul counters this wrong thinking about the body and its functions by saying “but the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord” (v. 13). This is consistent with what Paul says in 1 Cor 6:20: “you have been bought with a price.” The price of salvation was the price of Jesus’ precious blood. Being saved by God, we Christians no longer belong to Satan; we do not even belong to ourselves. Rather, we belong to God. God has bought us, and our bodies are included in that transaction. In other words, because Jesus bought our bodies and souls at the cross, what we do we our bodies also has a spiritual dimension. Because our bodies belong to Jesus, we are to serve God with our bodies, not sexual desire.


It was common among the Greeks to believe that the human body is not eternal, and as a consequence it does not ultimately matter what we do with our bodies. Whatever it took to fulfill the sexual function of the body was considered to be natural and legitimate ethically, as long as one stayed in control of one’s spirit or emotions. As a result, visiting prostitutes was quite natural for many in the Gentile world, and this was the cultural context of the day in which the Corinthian Christians operated. Despite being converted, some of them found it hard to break the habit of regular sex with prostitutes. The Christians who were doing this were rationalizing away their sinful behavior by assuming that our bodies are temporary containers for our soul from which we will be set free when we die.

It should be noticed how Paul counters this view about the human body and its functions in v. 14. These people were saying that God would abolish both the stomach and food. In other words, in their way of thinking, the body and its functions would one day cease to be relevant. The both … and (καὶ … καὶ …) grammatical structure in the third clause in v. 13 is significant. They held that God would abolish both the stomach and food, but Paul counters this with his own both … and (καὶ … καὶ …) argument: God has raised both the Lord Jesus and us he will also raise from the dead through his power.

The effect of Paul’s response is as follows: Some of you Corinthians think that the body will one be jettisoned. You are wrong! Sure, our bodies are temporarily abandoned when we die, but it is not forever. At the heart of Christianity stands the truth and reality of resurrection. Thus our bodies are not going to be done away with eternally; hence the fact that we are to serve God with our bodies just as much as we serve him with our spirit!”

The reality of the resurrection of the body means that our bodies and what we do in our bodies and with our bodies are very important. Uniting our bodies with the body of a prostitute is, therefore, inconsistent with being a member of Christ’s body (1 Cor 6:15–16).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Critique of Pete Cabrera’s View on Sickness and Healing

At my church some members have recently had a discussion about Pete Cabrera Jr’s view of the sovereignty of God in healing. In a video entitled If God heals then why am I sick?, Cabrera seeks to explain why, if God is in control and loves us, bad things (like sickness) happen to Christians. Cabrera’s basic answer is that God has nothing to do with sickness; sickness is totally the work of the devil; and it is the job of every Christian to use the legal authority of Christ’s victory over the devil to command disease to leave our bodies whenever it affects us.

Cabrera’s teaching on healing is problematic. His analogy of a robber robbing a bank as a way of explaining that God does not allow or cause bad things to happen is unbiblical. God is not like a human government, and it is simply wrong to compare him to one in the way that Cabrera does. Human governments are limited in power, because they are made up of human beings, who have limited power. But God’s government is unlimited in power. God is not a human being (even if he subsequently becomes one in Jesus Christ)! God is all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for him (Dan 4:35; Luke 1:37). In using this analogy, Cabrera is giving expression to a low view of God’s sovereignty.

Cabrera teaches that Satan attacks our body with sickness and disease, not God. This also is unbiblical. The Bible teaches that all things (including bad things like sickness and disease) ultimately come from God. This stems from the fact that the effects of sin (such as hardship, pain, disease, and death) are punishments from God (Gen 3:16–19). These punishments are consistent with the way that God has structured the world. Genesis 1 indicates that God initially created a world that was formless and empty and covered in darkness; but Gen 1 also tells us that God’s word creates light where once there was darkness, order where once there was disorder, and life where once there was no life. The ethical implication of Gen 1 is that disobedience to the word of God takes the world back to the default situation of chaos and darkness. In other words, God has built darkness, disorder, and death into the very structure of the universe. Darkness, disorder, and death are the natural consequences of disobedience to God’s word. This moral structure of the universe is why the Bible views all things, even negative things like disease and death, as coming ultimately from the hand of God.

Understanding that God created the universe with a moral dimension, it comes as no surprise to find a large number of verses in the Bible that speak of God as causing diseases, disabilities, and disasters. When Moses was initially worried about becoming a prophet, God asked him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exod 4:11). According to God’s own words, he is the one who causes muteness, deafness, and blindness. Cabrera’s teaching completely contradicts God’s words in Exod 4:11.

That God can and does cause sickness and disease is also clear from the curses of the old covenant. The covenant curses are what God “will do to [Israel]” upon Israel’s violation of the covenant (Lev 26:16):

“if you … break my covenant … I will visit you … with wasting disease and fever … if you walk contrary to me, and disobey me, I will continue to strike you sevenfold for your sins” (Lev 26:15–16); “if you will not obey the voice of the Lord, your God … the Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat … the Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, from which you cannot be healed. The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind … the Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils, from which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head … the Lord will bring upon you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, severe and lasting afflictions, grievous and lasting sicknesses. And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt … and they will cling to you. Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in this book of the law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed” (Deut 28:15, 22, 27–28, 35, 59–61).
The curses of the old covenant were negative actions on God’s part, directed against Israel. According to the curses of the old covenant, clearly God can and does cause disease.

But punishments such as sickness and disease are not the sole domain of the old covenant. Sickness and disease also exist as curses within the new covenant. When Ananias and Sapphira lied about the amount of money that they had donated to the church from the sale of their land, they were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–10). In his discussion of abuses at the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle Paul wrote that many of the Corinthian Christians had become “weak and ill, and some [had] died” as a result of failing to value the unity of the body of Christ (1 Cor 11:29–30). The new covenant has curses, just as much as the old covenant does. This is why Christians are warned not to break covenant with God (e.g., Heb 10:26–31; 12:14–29). God’s character and the dynamics of his covenantal relations with humanity have not fundamentally changed in the crossover from the old covenant to the new.

Leaving covenant curses aside, there is plenty of alternate evidence in the Bible that shows that God sometimes allows bad things to happen to people. For example, God sometimes “allows” manslaughter. Exodus 21:13 speaks of the situation of a person who had no prior intention of killing anyone, but God allowed or caused the killing to happen (וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ; literally: yet God causes it to happen to his hand). The illegitimate killing of a human being is always against God’s moral will. It is not something that God wants to happen from a moral point of view. But if it does happen, it does so according to God’s will that determines what happens in history. Thus, it is important, when speaking about God’s will, to distinguish between God’s moral will and God’s decretive will. God’s moral will determines what is morally right or wrong, but God’s decretive will determines what actually takes place in history. The stoning of Stephen was morally wrong, but God allowed it to happen as part of his plan for world history.

According to the Bible, God does not just allow bad things to happen; at times he actively does things that impact negatively on particular people. In Deut 32:39, in the context of divine judgment against Israel, God says: “There is no god besides me. I put to death, and I bring to life. I have wounded, and I will heal.” In 1 Sam 2:6–7, speaking more generally about the character of God, Hannah says: “The Lord brings death, and makes alive. He brings down to the grave, and raises up. The Lord makes poor, and makes rich. He humbles and exalts.” The only way that God can bring people back to life is if he first allows them to die. According to Hannah, life and death, wealth and poverty, exaltation and humiliation, all equally come from the hand of God. The Old Testament saints had an extremely high view of God’s sovereignty. They understood that God was the ultimate cause of any disaster that happens. The prophet Amos asks: “If evil comes upon a city, has not Yahweh done it?” (Amos 3:6). Reflecting on the terrible destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the author of Lamentations asks the question: “Who can say it, and then it happens? Is it not the Lord who commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that bad things and goodness come?” (Lam 3:37–38). Reflecting on the exile and Israel’s eventual return from Babylon, God states that one of the reasons for the judgment and restoration of Israel is so that “people might know from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting that there is no one besides me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other” (Isa 45:6). But what does this knowledge of Yahweh involve? It includes what God pronounces about himself in the very next verse: “I form the light, and create darkness. I bring peace, and create evil. I, Yahweh, do all these things” (Isa 45:7). When Job’s wife called upon him to curse God, Job replied: “Shall we accept good from God, and not accept evil?” (Job 2:10). And the Bible states that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). Good things and bad things ultimately come from God. When bad things happen, we are to accept those things as God’s will for us while longing and praying (like Job) for God to restore his blessing to us as soon as possible according to his timetable. “‘Yahweh gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.’ In all this Job did not sin, and did not complain against God” (Job 1:21–22).

God, therefore, is the ultimate cause of all things, including the bad things that happen in our world. Satan obviously has a key role in bringing about evil; but, as the story of Job illustrates, Satan can only do what God allows him to do (Job 1:12; 2:6). Even when Satan requests God’s permission to harm Job, he does so knowing that it is ultimately God who will stretch out his hand and strike him. Satan did not ask for permission for himself to harm Job. He actually requested for God himself to harm Job (see Job 1:11; 2:5), and in response God permitted Satan to exercise a degree of authority over Job for the accomplishment of Satan’s plans for evil and God’s plans for good. Satan is simply an instrument in God’s hands through whom God displays his glory, as he works to bring good out of evil. According to the Apostle Paul, “God is faithful; he will not permit you to be tempted beyond what you can bear, but will also provide together with the temptation a way out, for you to be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13). God is intimately involved in our temptations. He does not tempt us, but he permits the temptations that come our way to come, while proscribing the limits to which Satan can go in tempting us. Cabrera’s view that God is totally good, and has nothing to do with evil, because evil is totally a work of Satan, is far from the biblical presentation on this issue. In effect, Cabrera has a dualistic theology where God and Satan are (for all intents and purposes) equal but opposite forces. The Bible never allows Satan that much power. Satan is always under God’s control. The only reason that Jesus can cast out demons is because he is stronger than Satan (Luke 11:22). God allowed the strong man, Satan, to take possession of the world; but the new covenant is the time in God’s good plan when the rule of God has come (Luke 11:20). The coming of God’s kingdom rule involves the stronger man, Jesus, coming to attack and overpower Satan, in order to put an end to the rule of evil over the world (Luke 11:22). God is stronger than Satan. Satan could only take over the world in the first place because God allowed him to. This is similar to what we see in Rev 20:1–3. With the coming of the new covenant in Christ, an angel was sent down from heaven to seize and bind Satan up for 1,000 years (i.e., the majority of the new covenant age), breaking the hold of Satan’s deceptive rule over the nations, and allowing the gospel of salvation to go out to the Gentile world. But after the 1,000 year period, “Satan will be released from his prison” (Rev 20:3, 7). This is not a case of jailbreak. It is a case of God giving the order for Satan to go free. But God will do this in order to give Satan the opportunity to deceive the nations once more (albeit briefly) with a view to God proving his power over Satan by completely defeating him and his forces in a final battle (Rev 20:8–10). Satan is merely a pawn in the sovereign purposes of God.

Cabrera has a simplistic view that God only brings blessing and never refuses anyone who asks him for healing. But contrary to what Cabrera implies, Jesus did not heal everyone who asked for healing straight away. A classic case in point is Lazarus. Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to ask him to come and heal their brother, Lazarus, who was sick (John 11:1–3). Jesus responded by saying that “this sickness … is for the glory of God, so that God’s Son might be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, “yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days” so that Lazarus would die (John 11:5–6). Jesus even told his disciples that he was “glad” for their sake that Lazarus had died, so that their faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life might be established through them subsequently witnessing the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:15, 25). In a similar way, the man born blind was born that way so that God’s power and glory might be revealed through him, and not because of his own sin or his parents’ sin (John 9:2–3). God often allows sickness and death to happen in order to create the conditions against which he then subsequently acts in order to display his energy and power.

Cabrera teaches that every Christian legally has a right to healing, and that we can claim and experience the fullness of such healing in the world today. But the Bible’s view is that, while we legally have the right to healing in Christ, the degree of blessing that is realized for us in this world is dependent on God’s will and timetable. It should always be remembered that God’s will is for the fullness of blessing and healing to come when Jesus returns, not before. When Jesus returns, the final enemy of death will be totally defeated (1 Cor 15:26). Only when Jesus returns will the negative things of the world be totally removed (Rev 21:1–6). The fact that the right to partake of the tree of life in paradise is given to those who have overcome (Rev 2:7), and that the leaves of the tree of life will be for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2), also suggest that full healing will not ordinarily be experienced by any of God’s people until the new Jerusalem has come.

To say that we can have full healing now while death will only be fully dealt with when Jesus returns is also scientifically problematic in that it denies the causal connection that exists between disease and death. Those who die a natural death do so because of aging or disease. Indeed many in the field of medical science today hold that aging is a disease, because it is caused by damage done over time to the DNA within our cells. Why then do Christians with views like Cabrera not pray for the DNA damage in people’s cells to stop so that the aging process might no longer continue?

Another issue with Cabrera’s teaching is that he teaches that all Christians have received authority from Jesus to heal the sick and to cast out demons. The problem with this is that the Bible only records that such authority was explicitly given to the twelve apostles (Matt 10:1; Mark 3:14–15; 6:7; Luke 9:1–2) and to the seventy (Luke 10:1, 9, 17, 19). Without any specific teaching to the effect that this authority was also given to every Christian, then it remains an assumption to say that all Christians have exactly the same authority as the twelve and the seventy. Apart from the twelve and the seventy, the only other healings that are recorded in the New Testament are linked to Philip (Acts 8:6–7), Paul (Acts 14:8–10; 19:11–12; 20:9–12; 28:8–9; see also Acts 16:16–18; 28:3–6), and possibly also Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Barnabas (Acts 14:3). A key principle of the interpretation of Scripture is that description is not necessarily prescription. The fact that the apostles and the seventy had authority to heal all sorts of diseases is not proof sufficient to establish the doctrine that all Christians have the ability to heal. The explicit teaching of Paul on the issue of healing strongly suggests otherwise. Paul teaches that the ability to heal in a miraculous way is a gift that is given to some Christians, but not all Christians: different gifts are distributed to different people according to God’s determination (1 Cor 12:9, 11, 28). Paul explicitly denies that every Christian will possess all of the gifts: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Do all perform miracles? Do all have gifts of healing?” (1 Cor 12:29–30). Paul, therefore, denies that every Christian can have the gift of healing. Finally, in 2 Cor 12:12, Paul speaks of “signs and wonders and miracles” as being “the signs of an apostle.” Miracles are not the sign of being a Christian; but a sign of being an apostle, or else simply a sign that one has been blessed by God with a particular spiritual gift.

How then should we understand Jesus’ statements that “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and he will do greater works than these” (John 14:12); that Jesus will do whatever we ask if we pray for it in his name (John 14:13–14); that if we have faith as little as a mustard seed, we can do anything, even commanding a mountain to move (Matt 17:20; Mark 11:23)? The term works in John’s Gospel denotes more than just miracles. Works are simply whatever someone does (e.g., John 3:19–21; 7:7; 8:39, 41). Jesus’ works are the things that God the Father has shown or given him to do (John 5:20, 36); and these included his miracles, his words (John 14:10), and also his death on the cross (John 19:30 read in the light of John 17:4). Jesus defines doing the works of God for us human beings primarily in terms of believing that Jesus has been sent by God to be the divine Messiah (John 6:28–29). So when Jesus said to the apostles that believers will do the works that he did, and even greater works than those that he did, we should not think of these works as being solely miraculous in nature. The phrase greater works also appears in John 5:20, where it seems to be a reference to resurrection and the giving of life (see John 5:21). The phrase works also occurs immediately prior to John 14:12 in John 14:10, where the term works includes “the words which [Jesus] speak[s].” Putting all of this together suggests that the greater works that Jesus speaks of in John 14:12 have to do primarily with accomplishment of God’s mission on earth, which involves the spread of the gospel, taking the possibility of eternal life out to the nations. In other words, Jesus has in mind the role of Christians in the task of world evangelism by way of contrast to his own work of evangelism which was primarily limited to Israel and unsuccessful in terms of the numbers of people who came to faith. Any miracles that take place in the process of believers co-operating with God in achieving his mission for the world are subservient to the bigger purpose of evangelism and building the kingdom of God. Regarding Jesus granting whatever we ask for in prayer, the prayer that Jesus has in mind in John 14:13 is prayer prayed in the name of Jesus. Jesus’ name is his title and his authority as Messiah, the Lord of all. Whatever we pray for must be respectful of Jesus’ authority and also consonant with his will and timetable. In John 14:13, Jesus simply says that he “will do” whatever we ask for in his name. There is a difference between will do and will do immediately. This point also applies to Jesus’ words about moving mountains in Matt 17:20; Mark 11:23. “For [those] who fear the name of the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings” (Mal 4:2); but Malachi ties this time of healing in ultimately with the day of judgment, when “the wicked” will have become “ashes under the soles of your feet” (Mal 4:1, 3). We should understand, therefore, that our prayers for healing may not be fully realized until the day of resurrection.

In relation to the issue of doing greater works than Jesus, we need also to make sense of Jesus’ teaching in John 9:3–5, where Jesus speaks of a time when night will come, corresponding to when he is no longer in the world, during which “no one can work” (John 9:4–5). Given that Jesus was about to heal the man born blind, and that this was one of “the works of the one who ha[d] sent [him]” (John 9:4), the idea seems to be here that, after Jesus has left the world to go to the Father, no miracles will be able to be performed. The fact, however, that some miracles took place in the apostolic age after Jesus had ascended into heaven suggests that Jesus’ comment about the impossibility of work being done during his absence is a general statement rather than one that is intended to be taken as being historically precise in the strictest sense. Yet, at the very least, we can say that this statement on the part of Jesus suggests that miracles will not be as common during his absence as they were during the time that he was present in the world.

It is important to pray for healing where there is genuine need (Jas 5:14–16), but to promote healing by teaching that every Christian has received authority from Jesus to heal the sick is a weighty inference that is not supported by the wider teaching of Scripture. The passage that comes closest to supporting Cabrera’s view is Mark 16:17–18. The main problem with this passage is that most scholars consider the longer ending of Mark (i.e., Mark 16:9–20) to be a later addition to the text, dating from at least earlier than the middle of the second century. But even if the longer ending of Mark were considered to be genuine, the wording these signs will accompany those who have believed still falls short of being an explicit statement which proves that all Christians can or will perform miracles in Jesus’ name. If such authority had been given to all Christians as a key consequence of their identity in Christ, it is strange that this teaching was not emphasized in the letters of Paul, James, or Peter, or in the letter to the Hebrews. In fact, such a teaching is nowhere to be found. The emphasis in the New Testament is on love (our love for God and our love for each other) rather than on our identity in Christ and any supposed authority to perform miracles.

Overall, therefore, there are many problems with Cabrera’s teaching on sickness and healing from a biblical point of view. His view of God is too small; his view of Satan too big. The biblical position is that God is in control of all things (Satan included); and that God’s plan in world history involves a movement from darkness, disorder, and death to light, order, and life, in which God is intimately involved. Instead of listening to the totality of Scripture, Cabrera has picked out a few verses from the New Testament and sought to tie them together with the use of human logic. A selective reading according to human logic is not the proper way to treat God’s word. Respect for God’s revelation requires that every individual verse in Scripture needs to be interpreted in the light of the whole of Scripture. God is not merely a God of love. He is also the God who humbles and exalts. The true character of God is beautifully captured in the voice of the afflicted man of the book of Lamentations: “For the Lord does not reject forever. Even though he causes suffering, he will show compassion according to the abundance of his mercy. For he does not willingly [literally: מִלִּבּוֹ from his heart] afflict or cause human beings to suffer” (Lam 3:31–33). God does not enjoy seeing people suffer, but part of his plan for the world involves using suffering as the context for the revelation of his mercy and compassion. And this is exactly what we see at the cross. Jesus was afflicted, “stricken, smitten by God” (Isa 53:4); and “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa 53:10). Yet “out of the anguish of his soul he will see and be satisfied” (Isa 53:11), and “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa 53:5). It is the will of God to bring healing out of affliction, and life out of death. To deny this is to deny the character of God as expressed through the cross of Christ.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Christ Crucified: A Counter-Cultural Concept

In 1 Cor 1:22 Paul summarizes what the people of his day were basically looking for in the realm of religion and philosophy. According to Paul, the Jews as a whole were into miraculous signs. They wanted God to do something spectacular, like what God had done to Pharaoh at the time of the exodus. They wanted God to act to save his people from the oppression of their enemies, and they understood that this required the exercise of powerful miracles. The Greeks, on the other hand, were into philosophy. They were lovers of wisdom. They had their schools of philosophy and rhetoric. They had their centers of learning and science.

But countering the Jewish desire for power and the Greek desire for wisdom, God deliberately did something incredible from the cultural perspective of both Jews and Greeks: God came into the world in human form as the Christ, only to be nailed to a cross. At the heart of the gospel stands Christ crucified. And this is the message that Paul and the apostles proclaimed: God incarnate was nailed to a Roman cross.

As an idea, this was literally incredible to most Jews and Greeks. To the Jews who wanted miraculous signs of God’s power to save, a crucified messiah was no better than a dead dog. A crucified messiah is both useless as well as scandalous. So scandalous in fact that the majority of the Jews of Paul’s day simply could not accept the idea. The idea of a crucified messiah was a stumbling block to them (1 Cor 1:23). And to the Greeks who were into wisdom, the story of a god (who is supposed to be the one true God) dying on a cross was pure foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). Do you Christians really believe that stuff? Do you really believe that the one true God came into the world in order to be crucified? What an absurd philosophy!

But to those whom God has called, to those whose eyes God has opened to understand the truth, whether Jewish or Greek, or whatever nationality, Christ crucified is indeed God’s power and wisdom (1 Cor 1:24). The Jews were looking for power; the Greeks for wisdom. But they were looking for these things in all the wrong places. The cross is where they should have been looking, for Christ crucified is the answer. In Christ crucified, we have God’s power and God’s wisdom on display.