Friday, March 31, 2017

The Cardionomographic Work of the Spirit

I have an article that has recently been published in the Westminster Theological Journal, entitled “The Cardionomographic Work of the Spirit in the Old Testament.” This article introduces the word cardionomography to the world of theological scholarship, and hopefully one day it might even find its way into the standard dictionaries of the English language ... perhaps.

For those unfamiliar with the Greek vocabulary that makes up the components of this word, cardio denotes heart, nomo stands for law, and graphy indicates writing. The term cardionomography simply denotes, therefore, the writing of the law on the heart. This word was coined during the process of preparing lectures on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and was first used in a public forum during my lectures on Romans at Christ College in Sydney, Australia, all the way back in early 2004.

Cardionomography is a lengthy word, but in my experience it has proven to be eminently useful in conveying in a succinct way the concept of the Holy Spirit’s work of writing the law on the hearts of God’s people, which is itself a very important concept in understanding the history of salvation as recorded in the Bible, and in particular, the relationship of the old and new covenants.

For those interested in reading the article, the full reference is “The Cardionomographic Work of the Spirit in the Old Testament,” Westminster Theological Journal 79 (2017): 77–95.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Christian Gospel and Gender Fluidity

Given the push by some in the community to define gender as purely a social construct, it is helpful to consider the issue of gender identity from the perspective of the gospel. According to the Bible, back in the beginning, the human race only had two genders: male and female. Adam was a male human, and Eve a female human. The first chapter of the Bible makes this clear:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen 1:26–27).

As originally created by God, the human race had only two genders: male and female. This is something that we can assume was clear to Adam and Eve in the garden. We know that God created Adam first, but when God created Eve by fashioning a woman from Adam’s rib, Adam was aware of the difference. In fact, on seeing Eve, he exclaimed: “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of a man” (Gen 2:23). It is interesting that in Hebrew, man is pronounced ish, and woman is isha, where isha is simply the feminine form of ish. So in Hebrew thinking, a woman is simply a female human. A similar kind of logic also lies behind the English word woman. The most likely derivation of the word woman is from the compound wife-man, where the word wife originally meant simply a female human. So in both Hebrew and English a woman is a female human.

Adam and Eve would have been aware of the gender differences between themselves. After the creation of Eve, the biblical record in Gen 3 consistently distinguishes the man from the woman. The Bible is clear on the difference between the two, and we can assume that Adam and Eve also knew the difference, and were happy with the sex that God had assigned to each one respectively.

But if as originally created by God only two genders existed (male and female), and those genders corresponded to the physical sex of the person in question, why do we have certain people today who claim that gender is fluid, asserting that gender does not necessarily correspond to the physical sex of one’s body?

This brings us to the impact of sin on human society, which affects gender in two ways.

Firstly, sin has consequences for the genetic and hormonal health of humans. Some of these consequences can have the effect of confusing gender in a small number of situations. Adam and Eve in the garden did not suffer from any genetic problems; but outside the garden of Eden, genetic problems in the form of genetic mutations arose in the process of the transmission of genes from one generation to the next.

Scientifically speaking, physical sex is determined by the kind of sex chromosomes that a person has. A pair of X chromosomes means that you are female, whereas an X chromosome together with a Y chromosome means that you are male. However, in a small number of cases, the typical XX or XY chromosome situation may be affected by some kind of genetic mutation, leading to various intersex conditions, where there is some ambiguity in a person’s physical sexual identity. Most times when this happens, a person is either XX or XY, but the hormones that are responsible for male or female sexual development do not kick in as expected. In addition, in rare situations, a person might be born with a genetic condition that is neither XX or XY. It is possible to be XXX or XYY. These particular conditions do not normally create any problems. However, it is also possible for a person to be XXY, XXXY, XXXXY, XO, XX male, and XY female. These conditions are more problematic.

Living in a fallen world, it is a fact that a small minority of people might suffer from an intersex condition, where our chromosomes or hormones might not function as they should. In such situations, it should be left up to the parents in consultation with the medical professionals to work out what gender (if any) a particular child should identify with. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that these are exceptional situations. In the vast majority of circumstances, humans are either XX female, or XY male. It is important for Christians to be aware that some people, through no fault of their own, might have been born with an intersex condition. Such situations should be treated with understanding, compassion, and concern.

However, it is necessary to distinguish between intersex conditions that have some objective basis in biology versus intersex conditions that are purely the result of a distorted way of thinking about gender. which brings us to the second way in which sin affects human gender.

The Bible teaches that sin also results in distorted and unnatural thinking about sexuality, which includes mental confusion about gender. For example, In Rom 1 the Apostle Paul identifies some of the consequences of sin on human thinking. Sin results in futile thinking and foolish, darkened hearts, and this impacts upon human sexuality through unnatural thinking regarding sex (Rom 1:21). One of the effects of sin is that human thinking is often characterized by stupidity. And the concept of gender fluidity is an excellent example of such irrationality.

If you are genetically XX and have all of the standard female body parts, then it flies in the face of biology and the gender that God has graciously gifted you to pretend that you are not female. Likewise, if you are genetically XY and have all of the standard male body parts, you should not pretend to be anything other than a man. Boys should be boys, and girls should be girls. It is not for us to pretend to be what we are not according to God’s design.

The idea of accepting the gender that God has given you found expression in the law of Moses. Deuteronomy 22:5 legislated that “a woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” Our Creator clearly does not accept that men should pretend to be women, or vice versa. Having created two genders (male and female), clearly God does not want that distinction to be blurred.

Overall, we can say that the fall of the human race has introduced an element of gender confusion into what was originally a system of two clearly distinct genders. But it is significant at this point to realize that redemption in Jesus affects the issue of human gender in three major ways.

The first difference that Jesus makes is that as he saves us, he sanctifies us so that we can start thinking correctly about gender. Instead of having darkened minds, we can start to have clarity on the issue, and understand that there are fundamentally only two genders for the human race, the male gender and the female gender; and that these correspond (in normal circumstances) to the physical gender of our body as it has been assigned to us by God. The concept of gender fluidity is not just irrational; it also constitutes a rejection of God, and it is not consistent with how we should be thinking about gender as people who have been saved by Christ. If you pretend that you are a female even though God has created you as a male, then that is a form of idolatry. It is wrong for us to refuse to accept the gender that God has given us, which is the gender that in the vast majority of situations is obvious from the design of our body, and is written on our birth certificate.

Secondly, redemption in Jesus has implications for those who unfortunately suffer with a genuine intersex condition. Jesus has come to set us free from all of our genetic imperfections. He has come to heal all of our diseases. For those Christians who find themselves with a genuine intersex problem, Jesus promises therapeutic benefits. He promises to heal you of your condition. On the day of resurrection, your imperfect genes or chromosomes will be replaced by a perfect set of genetic material, and you will be the person that God has intended you to be, either male or female. In this way, Jesus gives hope to everyone who is genuinely suffering from an intersex condition, who turns to him in faith.

Thirdly, redemption in Jesus also helps to put the issue of gender identity into eternal perspective. Even though the Bible suggests that male and female will still exist in the kingdom of heaven after the day of resurrection, in the end, the Bible also tells us that salvation in Jesus means that the difference between male or female (which is so important and fundamental to each individual’s self-understanding in this life) will lose its significance in the world to come. Jesus teaches in Matt 22:30 that marriage is only for this life. In the resurrection, humans “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven,” which in their right station do not engage in sexual activity. In other words, redemption in Jesus ultimately renders the distinction between the sexes useless. Redemption does not do away with gender or remove distinctions between gender, but it will ultimately consign those differences to human history. In the new heavens and the new earth, it will not matter whether you are male or female. More than anything else, we all will be human. There will be a unity between the two different genders based on our common humanity which has been saved and sanctified through Jesus.

Overall, we need to realize that the modern trendy talk of gender fluidity and gender queer is basically nonsense from God’s perspective. It is really just a perfect example of how human pride and autonomy can lead us into irrationality. The Bible rejects all such talk of gender fluidity. What it promotes instead is a fundamental gender staticity. In the beginning it was Adam and Eve, male and female. The original situation was gender static, not gender fluid. The original static situation has been confused to some extent as a result of the fall, but redemption in Jesus means the restoration of gender clarity in the context of an overarching unity of male and female, who in Christ share in a common humanity. In the vast majority of cases, our wobbly bits (to quote a phrase) determine our gender, and that is simply the way that God has made us. Instead of indulging in biological fancy, the vast majority of us who are either XX or XY should wholeheartedly accept the gender that God has graciously given us at conception: female if XX, and male if XY.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Gender Fluidity: Political Correctness and the Safe Schools Coalition

I don’t know about you, but back when I was growing up there were only two genders, male and female. But these days, apparently, gender identity is not so simple. Following on from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, feminist-inspired social scientists in the 1970s challenged the traditional view that a person’s gender reflects a person’s physical sex. The traditional view that boys are boys and girls are girls was replaced with a view that believes that gender is a social construct, that gender differences are basically just an invention of society.

The view that gender is just a social construct that is potentially subject to change is held by increasing numbers of people today. And so we have a significant number of people in Western nations in particular who subscribe to the view that gender is a person’s self-representation as either male or female or anything in between, depending on how that person feels. As a result, you do not have to go far these days to hear people talking about being gender diverse, gender fluid, inter-gender, gender neutral, a-gender, non-gendered, non-binary, gender queer, or bi-gender.

The most famous gender fluid person in the world today is probably Miley Cyrus. The girl who became famous in the role of Hannah Montana now describes herself as being gender fluid. To quote Cyrus, gender “has nothing to do with any parts of me or how I dress or how I look. It’s literally just how I feel.”

And it is not just sexually emancipated American celebrities who are promoting this kind of view. Here in Australia, gender fluidity has seemingly become a concept that is politically correct. This can be seen especially in the agenda of the ironically named Safe Schools Coalition, which (as of 28 February 2016) boasts that they have 515 schools signed up to their program, over 15,000 trained school staff, covering over 400,000 students. Taking a leaf out of the book of the advocates for marriage equality, they have chosen a positive but polarizing term by which to identify their organization, a name that implies that anyone who opposes their views must be in favor of unsafe schools. But regardless of their name, it is necessary to recognize their agenda, and to bring it under scrutiny. Just how safe or healthy are the policies of the Safe Schools Coalition?

A quick perusal of the resources page of the Safe Schools Coalition website is enough to understand their agenda. “Gender is not uniform,” they say, meaning boys can wear girls’ uniforms if they want to, and vice versa; or as they say: “everyone should be able to wear the uniform that makes them comfortable.” What though if a certain student feels more comfortable not wearing any uniform at all? What’s to say that that also isn’t a valid option? They also call upon students to “Stand out” against discrimination based on gender. They proclaim that “Change is coming.” Now that their program has arrived at your school, apparently everyone will be safe! They also promote LGBTI-friendly activities in school, such as “Our school is celebrating IDAHOT” where IDAHOT stands for the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. They even suggest that students can celebrate IDAHOT by wearing rainbow colors to school, or by dressing up as a queer for a day. Furthermore, they advocate making your school safe by being more inclusive of gender diversity such as asking what pronouns students want to be called by (whether he, she, e, or ze). Students are also actively recruited by this program to promote the concept of gender fluidity through various means within the school community. For example, students are encouraged to put up posters with messages such as “It’s okay to be gay,” and to promote discussion about gender inclusivity by inserting equal marriage rights into school assignments, or by getting guest speakers who support LBGTI issues to address the school assembly.

The Safe Schools Coalition website also features prominently materials produced by Minus18, which claims to be “Australia’s largest youth-led organisation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transexual youth.” A booklet created by Minus18 called OMG I’m Queer tells teenagers that “Sex is your physical aspects (ie your wibbly wobbly bits),” but “Gender … is how you feel in your mind” in terms of your sexuality. It goes on to say that what gender label a person uses to describe himself, herself, or zemself is totally “up to you.”

The overall message of the Safe Schools Coalition is: “Believe what you want, and be who you want to be. If you want to be a boy, then be a boy. If you want to be girl, then be a girl. If you want to be something else, then that is totally up to you, and everyone should respect your choice.”

The views of the Safe School Coalition are a great example of the idea of sexual freedom taken to the nth degree, but the amazing thing is that this is being taught in schools across Australia with government approval and support in the way of funding. Overall, the doctrine of gender fluidity is the latest example of political correctness that totally rejects biological and biblical norms. The wider community will definitely be hearing more about gender fluidity in the years to come, and Christians need to be aware of this growing sexual radicalism.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Paul’s Argument in Galatians and Romans Is Salvation-Historical, Not General in Nature

It is a big statement to make, but I believe that the vast majority of Christian interpreters of Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans have failed to understand Paul’s argument in the historical context of his day. The major theological issue for the early church (as the calling of the Council of Jerusalem proves) was the Judaizing issue. The issue was basically: Can Gentiles be saved as Gentiles, or do they have to come under the framework of the Mosaic covenant to be justified?

The key to understanding Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans lies in realizing that his argument is a salvation-historical argument. That is, Paul was attempting to answer the question: How are people saved now that the new covenant in Christ has come? Reflecting the covenantal particularism of the orthodox Judaism of the day, the Christian Judaizers believed that, even though the new covenant had come in Jesus Christ, the new covenant fit neatly into the framework of the Mosaic covenant, leaving the law of Moses fully intact, and thereby restricting faith participation to those who were members of Israel. This is why they put pressure on Gentile Christians to be circumcised (if male) and to follow the law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5). Paul’s argument is that the new covenant in Christ is actually co-extensive with the still yet earlier Abrahamic covenant, under which a gentilic faith response to God was possible (as proved by the faith of uncircumcised, gentilic Abraham himself).

In Galatians and Romans, Paul was concerned to contrast the requirement of faith under old covenant with the requirement of faith under the new covenant. The term law was Pauline and Jewish code for the Mosaic covenant, and the expression the works of the law was the standard Jewish way of referring to the covenant faithfulness that God required of Israel under the terms of the Mosaic covenant as per Ps 119:30, where the writer speaks of faith in terms of setting his heart on torah. Paul was primarily contrasting the old way of covenant faithfulness under the Mosaic covenant (which was required as the proper response under the old covenant, but had recently been superseded with the coming of Christ) with new (Abrahamic-type) way of covenant faithfulness to Jesus as revealed in the gospel, which Gentiles could participate in.

Paul sought to prove that the new covenant is more Abrahamic in nature than Mosaic. His main proof at this point was the evidence of word association in the Scriptures that linked the new covenant with the Abrahamic covenant. Employing a common rabbinic method of exegesis, Paul noted (as we see in Rom 1:16–17; 4:3, 9, 22; Gal 3:6, 11) that the word והאמן and he believed is used of Abraham in Gen 15:6, and the related word אמונה faith is used of the new covenant in Hab 2:4 (which is part of an eschatological prophecy). That common terminology allows us to link the Abrahamic and new covenants together, the implication being that, if Abraham could believe in God and be justified as a Gentile (i.e., before he was circumcised), then the same thing applies under the new covenant: Gentiles can be justified under the new covenant apart from submission to the law of Moses. Paul also argued that the Sinaitic covenant was just a temporary, intervening covenant (a kind of narrowing down of the Abrahamic covenant for the purpose of regulating the singular nation of Israel until the coming of Christ). Therefore, with the coming of Christ, the old covenant has been subsumed by the new covenant, thus allowing Gentiles to participate in salvation through faith in the Messiah. The new covenant is not just a continuation of the old covenant. The new covenant actually eclipses and supersedes the old, allowing righteousness to be opened up to the nations, in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Gen 12:3).

Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans is a salvation-historical argument that deals specifically with the major historical issue for the church in his day: the Judaizing problem. It is not a general argument about believing versus doing (as many Christian interpreters have traditionally taken it). We need to read and understand Paul’s argument in the historical context of his day, which also requires that we appreciate the Hebraic background of the key (Greek) terms that Paul employed. A greater sensitivity to the orthodox Hebraic concepts underpining Paul’s terminology, and a greater understanding of how the Mosaic covenant actually functioned, would greatly aid the Christian church in understanding the genius of this great apostle of faith.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Pete Cabrera Jr: A False Prophet?

Here is a screenshot of a Facebook discussion involving me and Pete Cabrera Jr earlier today. It emerged as a result of an article by me entitled “A Critique of Pete Cabrera’s View on Sickness and Healing.” The screenshot was taken just in case Pete decides to delete the discussion (which it looks like he already has).

Pete claims that he has the authority of Christ to be able to heal people. I genuinely asked Pete to perform a long-distance healing for a disabled boy I know, called Ryan, on analogy with what Jesus did for the official’s son in John 4:43–54. In the end Pete claimed that the Holy Spirit told him that I was playing games, and that my story “doesn't hold water.”

For those of you who know Ryan—a number of my readers do—what should we conclude? Is Ryan and his condition fake? If the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, then sadly I really do wonder what spirit Pete has been in communication with.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Church in the Old Testament

It is fairly common within Christian circles to come across the view that the church is an organization that only came into existence at the time of the New Testament. People believe that the church was established by Jesus, and that before the time of Jesus there was no such thing as the church. This view is understandable, particularly given the use of the word church in our English translations of the Bible. In the ESV translation, for example, the word church occurs 109 times, and all of those uses occur in the New Testament.

The problem at this point is the choice of words that translators have used when translating the Bible into English. Traditionally translators have chosen to translate the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) in the New Testament as church. The equivalent of the Greek word ekklesia in the Hebrew Old Testament is the word qahal (קָהָל), but the translators have generally chosen to translate qahal as assembly or congregation rather than use the word church. This is rather strange given that ekklesia and qahal are virtual equivalents in terms of meaning. If the translators had chosen to translate qahal as church, then it would have been obvious to English readers that the Old Testament people of Israel were also a church.

Even though the traditional English translations do not help the reader to understand that old covenant Israel was a church, the first Christians did not encounter such linguistic confusion. The Hebrew word qahal was usually rendered in the LXX (except in the Pentateuch) as ekklesia. We also have the example of Acts 7:38 where Stephen in his final sermon spoke about the ekklesia of Israel in the wilderness. Stephen spoke Greek, and influenced by the language of the LXX, he naturally used the word ekklesia of the people of Israel. It is interesting at this point, however, that, even though ekklesia is normally translated in the New Testament by the word church, the translators of the Bible into English have usually translated it in Acts 7:38 using the word assembly or congregation. The translators may have used a different word than church, but in Stephen’s mind the people of Israel constituted a church in the wilderness. In the mind of the first Christians, ekklesia and qahal were effectively interchangeable.

The church is simply God’s people viewed either as being gathered together or as forming a sacred community together. The people of Israel at the time of the Old Testament were the people of God. As such, they constituted a church, the old covenant church. It is a misreading of the Bible, therefore, to think that the church did not exist prior to Jesus coming into the world. Indeed, it is because Old Testament Israel was a church that the Christian church today can learn lessons from the experience of Old Testament Israel. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 10:11: “these things happened to them [i.e., to Israel] as an example, but they were written down for our warning, on whom the end of the ages has come.” The historical record of God’s dealings with the old covenant church of Israel in times gone by is meant in God’s plan to teach the new covenant church of Christ today many important lessons about God and the proper manner of relating to him.

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).