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!