Friday, December 23, 2011

The Fulfillment of Micah 5:1–5a in Jesus of Nazareth

One of the strongest proofs of the truth of Christianity is the fulfillment of prophecy. There are at least fifty specific prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, not to mention the many people or objects that function as prophetic parallels to Christ.

Micah 5:1–5a is a particularly good example. Micah is one of the eighth century prophets. He lived in Moresheth-Gath, a town in the south of Judah, about 35 km south-west of Jerusalem. The second half of the eighth century B.C. was a time when the Assyrian empire was exerting increasing pressure in the region. Israel was forced to pay tribute to the king of Assyria, and over time lost territory to the Assyrians until finally, in the year 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered, and its citizens deported.

Conducting his ministry in this context, Micah was prophesying at significant time in the history of the people of Israel. His basic message was that the military defeat of Israel was coming as a result of Israel’s rebellion against God. As part of the covenant that God had entered into with Israel at Mount Sinai, God had promised to bless Israel on condition of obedience; but if they didn’t obey, instead of receiving blessing, Israel would experiences the curses of the covenant, bad things like disease, drought, defeat, death, and expulsion from the Holy Land.

Some 700 years after the exodus, God had finally had enough. After 700 years of rebellion and repeated unfaithfulness on the part of Israel, God’s judgment was going to come down against Israel in a serious way. The northern kingdom of Israel would be defeated and deported by the Assyrians, and over a century later the southern kingdom of Judah would be destroyed by the Babylonians.

Micah 5:1 speaks of this judgment. Micah 5:1 goes with the preceding five verses (i.e., Mic 4:9–13). In these verses Micah predicts that Jerusalem, also called the daughter of Zion, will be attacked; Jerusalem’s king will perish; the city will writhe in agony; and her inhabitants will be forced off into exile in Babylon. This is why in Mic 5:1 Micah calls upon Jerusalem to marshal her troops, to get ready for war. Jerusalem would be besieged, and the people would defend the city, but their effort would end in failure.

This defeat is pictured in Mic 5:1 with the ruler of Israel being struck on the cheek with a rod. Israel’s ruler being struck on the cheek with a rod is a picture of the king of Jerusalem being captured and mistreated by his captors. As a result of the sin of God’s people, the king of Israel would suffer. This verse is not primarily a prophecy about Jesus; but it is significant that, when Jesus was arrested, the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus by making him wear a royal robe and a crown of thorns (Matt 27:28–29). They made him hold a rod as his royal scepter; then they knelt down and mockingly hailed him as the king of the Jews before snatching away the rod, and spitting on him, and striking him on the head with the rod many times (Matt 27:29–30). The treatment of the king of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonians would foreshadow the treatment of Jesus at the hands of the Romans some 600 years later.

God’s judgment was coming down upon Israel because of her covenant rebellion. The curses of the covenant (including military defeat and exile) were going to be realized against her. But in the midst of judgment, Micah also proclaimed salvation. In fact the book of Micah itself alternates between sections of judgment and salvation. The book contains three cycles with every cycle beginning with oracles of judgment, followed by an oracle or oracles of salvation:

                                            cycle 1: judgment (1:2–2:11); salvation (2:12–13)
                                            cycle 2: judgment (3:1–12); salvation (4:1–5:15)
                                            cycle 3: judgment (6:1–16); salvation (7:1–20)

Micah preached the reality of judgment, but he also proclaimed that after the time of judgment God’s favor would return to Israel. Death and destruction would not be the end of the story for God’s people. Beyond the time of trouble, there would be a time of restoration. But what would this restoration look like, and how would it happen?

Micah 5:2–5a provides a few clues as to what the future restoration of God’s people would look like. It begins with Bethlehem, a small agricultural town, 9 km south of Jerusalem. Micah moves from his concern with Jerusalem to turn to address Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, small among the clans of Judah” (Mic 5:2a).

But why this sudden focus on Bethlehem? Micah 5:2b tells us the reason: “from you [i.e., Bethlehem] will come forth for me one who will be a ruler in Israel.” At the time of the restoration of God’s people, there would be a ruler who would come from Bethlehem, the home town of King David. Micah seems to be prophesying about a second King David who would arise in the future to rule God’s people. This interpretation is confirmed by the common Jewish interpretation of this verse, an example of which is found in Matt 2:6. When Herod wanted to know where the Messiah was supposed to be born, the Jewish chief priests and scribes quoted Mic 5:2 as biblical proof that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

So there was going to be a future ruler of Israel who would be born in Bethlehem, yet (quite amazingly) Micah prophesies that “his origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Mic 5:2c). How can this be? Who can be yet to come in the future, but at the same time someone who has been around for ages, since ancient times? Micah is talking about a second King David who would be at the very least thousands of years old by the time he became the ruler of Israel. How is this possible?

Christians point to Jesus as the only possible fulfillment of this prophecy. The historical record is clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And after growing up, Jesus went around all of Israel, claiming to be the new Davidic king of Israel, who had existed even before Abraham: “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The early Christians believed that Jesus was the divine Word of God who had existed back in the beginning, back when the world was created, who took on human flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 14). Micah 5:2c implies that the future ruler of Israel would be human (born in Bethlehem) yet divine (being of ancient origin).

Micah 5:3 confirms the idea that sees Jesus as being the fulfillment of Mic 5:2. Micah 5:3a states that (because this king was coming) God would give Israel over to their enemies “until she who is giving birth has given birth.” Israel would be under the power of her enemies until a birth had taken place. Linking Mic 5:2–3 together the implication is that Israel would be under the thumb of her enemies until this future ruler of Israel was born into the world by his mother in Bethlehem.

Once again Jesus makes sense of this prophecy. The Christian gospel proclaims that Jesus came to set God’s people free. Jesus’ birth into the world via Mary in Bethlehem marked the beginning of the end of Israel’s slavery. And Mic 5:3b seems to indicate the time when Israel would be fully free, when “the rest of his brothers return to be beside the sons of Israel.” The language here is intriguing. Who are these brothers of Israel who would join Israel? This could refer to the return of the Israelite exiles, but it could also be a prophecy about the conversion of the Gentiles. A similar ambiguity in the word brothers exists in Isa 66:20, a verse to which Paul seems to allude in Rom 15:16 when writing about his ministry to the Gentiles. If Mic 5:3b is a prophecy about the conversion of the Gentiles, then this is consistent with the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Rom 11 that the salvation of all Israel would not take place until the full number of the Gentiles had “entered in” (Rom 11:25–26).

This salvation of Israel from slavery to her enemies is associated in Mic 5:4 with this ruler of Israel standing to “shepherd his flock in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God.” The language of standing can have overtones of resurrection in the Old Testament (e.g., Dan 12:13), and the image of shepherding a flock is an image in the Old Testament language of exercising (ideally benevolent) rule over a people (see Ezek 34:1–10, 23–24; 37:24). After his standing up, this ruler of Israel would rule God’s people with the strength of God himself to the glory of God, the great I Am. This would result in the flock of God’s people dwelling securely, because “he [would] become great to the ends of the earth” (Mic 5:4b).

The idea of his greatness extending out to the ends of the earth is a picture of the Messiah’s rule being extended out from Israel to all the nations of the earth. Christians believe that this is what is happening as the gospel is preached throughout the world. As the message of the lordship of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to the nations, many people from all of the nations on earth are believing the message, and coming into submission to Jesus as Lord. In this way the rule of Christ is being extended throughout the world, even to the ends of the earth.

According to Mic 5:5a, “this is peace.” According to the Old Testament, the peace that this world needs is the peace that only Christ can bring. This is why Mic 5:5a identifies peace with “this” ruler. The masculine singular Hebrew pronoun זה this in Mic 5:5a [MT 5:4a] most likely refers back to the masculine singular subject in the final clause of the preceding verse, which refers back ultimately to one who will be ruler over Israel in Mic 5:2 [MT 5:1]. Hence, the translation: he is peace or he will be peace. This is consistent with the message proclaimed by the angels at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace to those upon whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The angels understood that this baby lying in a manger was the agent of true peace for God’s world.

Overall, Mic 5:1–5a prophesies that Israel would be under God’s judgment until this ancient ruler born in Bethlehem stood up to rule and bring security for the people of God, as his rule extended to the ends of the earth.

This is a very detailed prophecy that was given over 700 years before the birth of Jesus. If we compare this prophecy with what is known about Jesus in the New Testament, then it is hard to imagine who else could the fulfillment of this prophecy apart from Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Word of God, born to the virgin Mary in Bethlehem. An objective examination and comparison of the content of this prophecy with what is known about Jesus is rather convincing provided that the New Testament record about Jesus is accepted as being more or less historically accurate.

The Christian perspective holds that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. Micah prophesied of a ruler born of a woman in Bethlehem, yet whose origins go back into eternity, who would extend his rule throughout the world, to bring all of God’s people back to live securely in the presence of God, to experience peace. This is the truth about Jesus that Christians celebrate at Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Meaning of Soothsayers and Observers of Times in the King James Bible

I have been asked a question about the meaning of the expression soothsayers and observers of times in the KJV.

The word sooth is an Old English word that means truth. In terms of English usage, a soothsayer is therefore a truth teller, i.e., someone who tells the truth about the future. The word soothsayer or soothsayers occurs seven times in the KJV.

There are four references to soothsayers in the Aramaic part of Daniel (Dan 2:27; 4:7; 5:7, 11). The relevant Aramaic word is a Peal participle of the root גזר. This root conveys the idea of cutting, dividing, hence determining. The soothsayers in Daniel were viewed, reflecting the Babylonian perspective, as being determiners or analysts of the future.

The remaining three references to soothsayers in the KJV involve the Poel (and possibly Qal) participle of ענן (Isa 2:6; Mic 5:12 [MT 5:11]) and the Qal participle of קסם (Josh 13:22). The underlying meaning of the root ענן is uncertain. Some have suggested that it originally indicated humming or something to do with appearing. The root קסם appears to convey the idea of dividing or assigning, from which has been derived, in cultic contexts, the meaning of divination, i.e., foretelling the future or what is unknown by means of signs or omens given by the gods.

The expression observer of times occurs in the KJV in Deut 18:10, and the plural equivalent in Deut 18:14. In both instances the Hebrew word is based on the Poel participle of the root ענן. The translation observer of times suggests that the translators took the root ענן here as conveying the idea of someone who sees the future. The LXX translation (based on κληδονίζω) simply indicates someone that tells omens.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Identity of the Weak and the Strong in Romans 14–15

In Rom 14:1–15:13 Paul distinguishes between the weak and the strong within the Christian community in Rome (Rom 14:1–2; 15:1). The identity of these two groups of people has long been debated.

Paul gives some clues in Rom 14:2 of the identity of these groups: “One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats [only] vegetables.” In Rom 14:5 the strong believe that all days are the same, whereas the weak believe that some days are more important than others. In 14:14 it is apparent that the issue distinguishing the strong and the weak from each other has to do with food and drink that is common and uncommon, or profane versus holy.

The practice of abstaining from certain foods, and keeping various days, in the context of a concern with things that are profane or holy fits in with what we know concerning Jewish religious practice defined by the law of Moses (see Acts 10:9–15). Therefore, the obvious conclusion concerning the issue that is in view in Rom 14:1–15:13 would be to link to the issue of the place of the Jewish food laws, and the Jewish practice of observing certain days as holy, within the Christian community in Rome.

But is this conclusion justified? When the wider context of Paul’s argument in Romans is taken into consideration, I believe that the evidence definitely supports the conclusion that the issue of the weak and the strong in Rom 14:1–15:13 revolves around the problem of Jewish and Gentile relations within the Christian community in Rome.

Historically at the time of the writing of the epistle to the Romans, Jewish exiles returning to Rome were bringing back into the Roman churches their traditional Jewish views of the necessity of keeping the law of Moses. The impact of this was to create division between Jews and non-Jews. The law of Moses was a body of laws and stipulations that were part of the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai after Israel had been rescued out of Egypt. This covenant was a covenant made exclusively with Israel (see “The Monoethnic Nature of the Mosaic Covenant”). As part of this covenant there were many laws that functioned to keep Israel separate from the other nations.

Certain foods (such as pork) were unclean to the Jews. But the Gentiles had no such restrictions. From the orthodox Jewish point of view, the law of Moses implied that the Gentiles were unclean; and this is why the Jews of Paul’s day traditionally could not eat or socialize together with Gentiles (see Acts 11:2–3). To do so would taint them with Gentile uncleanness. This was problematic for the early church. When a Jew and a Gentile believed Jesus, and came together as believers in church, what kind of fellowship could they have together if they could not eat or socialize with each other?

In order to deal with this problem some Jewish Christians were saying, “Look, force the Gentiles to become Jews. Circumcise them (if male), and make them keep the laws of Moses, to keep the Sabbath and to keep the food laws, etc. If they do that, there can be unity between us” (see Acts 15:1, 5). These Jewish Christians were called Judaizers because they wanted to make Gentiles Jewish.

The problem, however, with this “solution” is that it made salvation, righteousness, and church membership possible only for Jews! According to this view, Gentiles could not be members of God’s people, and share in the benefits of salvation, unless they gave up their Gentile citizenship, and became Jews. But Paul and the orthodox Christians in the early church refused to accept this Judaizing solution as biblical. Paul understood that the new covenant would bring salvation to the Gentiles as well as the Jews, but how could the new covenant bring salvation to the Gentiles if the Gentiles were forced to become Jews?

To argue his case for the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, and no longer on the basis of keeping the law of Moses, Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. After explaining God’s plan of salvation in Rom 1–11, Paul turns in Rom 14:1–15:13 to give advice about how Jews and Gentiles could live together in harmony. This is particularly evident from the way that Paul concludes his appeal in this section of his letter. His concern with the weak and the strong living together in harmony is due to the fact that he desires that “with one heart and one mouth you might glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6). Following straight on from this, Paul appeals to his readers: “Therefore, receive one another, just as Christ has received you to the glory of God” (Rom 15:7), which Paul then explicates in Rom 15:8–9 in terms of what Christ has done for “the circumcision” (i.e., Israelites) and for “the Gentiles.” Mention of “the circumcision” and “the Gentiles” here at the end of his integrated argument in Rom 14:1–15:13 shows that the issue between the weak and the strong was basically an issue involving the relationship of Jews and Gentiles within the Christian community. Paul’s quotations in Rom 15:9–12 from Ps 18:49; Deut 32:43; Ps 117:1; Isa 11:10, proving that the Gentiles would join together with Israel in singing praises to God in the new covenant age, also supports the idea that in Rom 14:1–15:13 Paul is primarily concerned with how Jews and Gentiles can live together harmoniously within the church.

The strong, therefore, were those who (like Paul) believed that in Christ Jesus “nothing is profane in itself” (Rom 14:14). That is to say, these people understood that, as a result of the coming of Jesus, the stipulations in the law of Moses that distinguished profane from holy, clean from unclean, no longer applied in the way that they once did. Those laws were simply illustrations until the time of the coming of the Messiah of the difference between holy and unholy, clean and unclean. They were illustrations that spoke of the need for God’s people to be free from the taint of sin, free from the taint of the “strange” customs of the people of the nations who did not know God. The strong, therefore, were those Christians who understood that the law of Moses no longer regulates the life of God’s people in the way that it during the old covenant age. The weak, on the other hand, were those Jewish Christians and Judaizing Gentiles who still kept the Mosaic food laws and the Mosaic religious calendar with its Sabbaths and regular feast days.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Participation of Gentiles in the New Covenant

I have been asked a question about how Gentiles can be viewed as participating in the new covenant given that Jer 31:31–33, the key new covenant prophecy in the Old Testament, only mentions God making this new covenant with Israel.

It is true that the members of the new covenant in Jer 31:31–33 are God and Israel, and that the Gentiles are not mentioned in these verses. But Jer 31:31–33 is not the only place in the Hebrew Bible that talks about the new covenant. Basically any prophecy in the Old Testament that talks about events belonging to the time of the eschatological restoration of God’s people is a prophecy of the new covenant.

Jeremiah 31:31–33 needs to be read in the light of the total picture of all of the other Old Testament prophecies that speak about the new covenant; and when we do that, we can see fairly clearly that the Hebrew prophets taught that Gentiles would participate on ultimately an equal footing with Israelites in what God was going to do as part of the future restoration of God’s people.

Some examples (by no means exhaustive):

In Deut 32:21 Moses prophecies that following the covenantal rebellion of Israel, God will make unfaithful Israel jealous “with those who are no people,” that Israel would be provoked to anger by “a foolish nation.” In other words, the calling of the Gentiles to be God’s people would play a part in making disobedient Israel realize what she had forfeited. The Apostle Paul notes this verse in Rom 11:11, arguing that the conversion of the Gentiles will lead in turn to the conversion of Israel.

In Isa 2:1–4 “all the nations” and “many peoples” will come to the exalted Zion to learn and do torah. The idea of Gentiles doing torah implies a change in torah such that it is doable by Gentiles as Gentiles, and not as proselytes to Judaism.

In Isa 11 “the root of Jesse” will be “a signal for the peoples” which will result in the ingathering of “the banished of Israel” and “the dispersed of Judah.”

In Isa 49:5–7 the Messiah will not only restore Israel but bring salvation to the Gentiles, resulting in the submission of Gentile rulers to the Messiah.

In Isa 49:22 Gentiles will bring Israel back to Yahweh. Thus, Gentiles would participate in the eschatological restoration of Israel.

In Isa 51:4–5 it is prophesied that God’s torah and righteousness will go out the the Gentiles.

In Isa 55:1–5 the Messiah calls upon “everyone who thirsts”—note the similarity with Jesus’ language in John 7:37—to come, in order to enter into an everlasting covenant that will function as a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. As part of this, the Messiah will be “a witness to the peoples” and “a leader and commander for the peoples,” which involves “a nation that you did not know … run[ning] to you.”

Following on from the new covenant of the Messiah spoken of in Isa 55, Isa 56:3, 6 clearly speaks of foreigners who will “join” themselves to Yahweh. They are assured that they will not be separated from “his people,” and they are described as holding fast to God’s covenant. As Gentiles join Israel, the temple will become “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:7). For the temple to be a house of prayer for all peoples, this implies that Gentiles would not lose their status as Gentiles as they became members of Israel.

In Isa 66:18–23 “all nations and tongues” will be gathered to see the glory of Yahweh, and from the Messianic sign people will go out declaring the glory of Yahweh such that “all your brothers from all the nations” will be brought as an offering to Yahweh in Jerusalem. The expression all your brothers from all the nations seems to include Gentiles and not just Israelites within its purview. The preaching of the glory of God in the gospel of the Messiah will bring exiled Israel and the nations back to the Lord. At this time of the new heavens and the new earth, “all flesh” will come to worship Yahweh.

In Zech 8 it is prophesied that at the time of the eschatological restoration of Israel  “many peoples and strong nations will come to seek Yahweh of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of Yahweh … In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (vv. 23–24). It is evident from this that Gentiles would join together with Jews in going up to worship God in Jerusalem as part of the new covenant restoration.

Therefore, when Jer 31:31–33 is read in the light of prophecies such as those listed above, it is clear that the Hebrew prophets understood that Gentiles would participate together with Israelites in the blessings of the new covenant.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Problem of Bad Language among Young Christians

One of the problems that is currently impacting on younger Christians is the kind of language that these young believers use when talking with their friends. This is particularly evident in the kind of language that appears on social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Young believers can sometimes be found imitating the language of their peers, using language such as OMG, WTF, faarken, fkng, f***, and other unsavoury kinds of derivatives and abbreviations.

Language does change with time, and the prevalence and tolerance of swear words in popular culture is much greater than it used to be, but just because this is the kind of language used by their peers is not a good enough reason for Christians to speak the same way.

The Apostle Paul says the following in Eph 5:3–4:
Do not let any kind of sexual immorality and impurity or greed even be spoken of among you, just as is proper for saints, or that which is shameful, or foolish talk, or coarse jokes, which are not fitting, but rather thanksgiving.
By writing as he does in v. 3 that sexual immorality, impurity, and greed are not even to “be spoken of among you,” Paul is probably not just forbidding the practice of these particular sins. Instead of taking v. 3 as an oblique way of saying “these sins should not exist among you,” it seems that Paul is saying in v. 3 that it is not fitting for Christians to be talking about ungodly deeds as if they were an appropriate topic of conversation, let alone something that should ever happen within the Christian community. I would argue that Paul seems to have speech acts particularly in mind in vv. 3–4, because the verb νομαζέσθω let it be named is implied in v. 4, where three out of the four nouns listed are clearly speech acts.

Misusing God’s name (whether in abbreviated form or not), or using coarse words referring to the act of sex (whose historical origin lies in taking the act of sex, which in the context of love is a special gift from God, and turning it into a form of abuse), is simply inappropriate for those who are called to be “saints” (i.e., holy ones) in Christ.

According to the Apostle Paul, the process of sanctification involves us putting to death the earthly things (Col 3:5), and this includes getting rid of “blasphemy” and “foul language from your mouths” (Col 3:8).

Apart from the disrespect to God that is shown in mindlessly abusing his name, along with the disrespect that is shown to God as the one who has given us sex as a special gift whenever we use in an unnecessary way coarse words that refer to sex, there is the problem of the use of such language leading to an impaired witness for Christ. Whilesoever there are people in the community who regard this kind of language as crude or rude, the presence of such language of the lips of Christians brings disrepute to the name of Christ. It can also be a source of discouragement to other Christians, and a barrier to fellowship among Christians who find such language unacceptable.

Christ has saved us to be clean and pure, and he desires that our language be clean and pure as well.