More on How the New Testament Weirdly Interprets the Bible

I really should try to turn this into a series, but homework and other obligations have prevented me from sitting down too long to write about all the weird ways in which the New Testament uses the Old. So, you’re getting my posts when you get them, and I hope for now they’re at least interesting.

I’ve had this recurring theme in my head: the way that Scripture is used by Jesus and the early church is pretty creative … and very weird, by modern evangelical standards. If Matthew had been alive today and used Isaiah 7:14 to “prove” Jesus was virgin-born, we’d say he didn’t really understand how to interpret the text. But, he made this argument two thousand years ago, the church considers it authoritative (and, for the record, so do I), and that’s why we’ve come to see Isaiah’s verse as being a messianic prophecy.

Tonight, another example occurred to me, and this one is attributed to Jesus himself (by, again, Matthew). Our Lord is confronted by the Sadducees on the matter of the Resurrection, a doctrine of which they don’t believe, unlike their counterparts, the Pharisees.

(Tangent: of all of Jesus’ enemies, he appears to have had the most in common with the Pharisees. Many Christians view the world as an “us” and “them” divide, while rarely paying attention to the fact that sometimes, the most dangerous threats of all are the teachers who confess your creed. End of tangent.)

The Sadducees pose a problem for Jesus, one that’s designed to make the prospect of a resurrection sound silly. Jesus, in turn, tells them that they don’t understand the Bible or the power of God. At this juncture, you’d expect him to point to verses in the Old Testament that sound like they’re talking about people being raised from the dead. And Jesus does appeal to a passage, but it’s not the one you’d think:

Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. … And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:23-33)

Now, the likely reason Jesus appealed to Exodus and not, say, Daniel or Ezekiel–two pretty strong contenders for having resurrection passages–is that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible as Scripture. They don’t see the other books as “biblical”. For a modern-day comparison, imagine a Catholic trying to convince a Protestant that praying to the saints is biblical on the basis of what they read in 2 Maccabees. Protestants don’t consider that book “biblical” and so they won’t consider the doctrine to be Scripturally based.

So Jesus is playing on the Sadducees’ turf here, but he seems to bend a lot of interpretive rules to make the case. In what world do you read Exodus 3 and come away thinking that this is an argument in favor of resurrection or life after death? There’s nothing in the context to suggest that. God is only affirming His commitment to the agreement he made with Moses’ forefathers. Reading resurrection into this text seems, quite frankly, to be a matter of eisegesis and just bad interpretation.

But Jesus did it, so we accept it.

That’s the thing about studying the early church and the New Testament: you pretty quickly realize that the church, and even the Lord himself, are playing by a different set of rules than we do. So what now?

If anything, I think that should make us shut our mouths from time to time and realize that we are not the first ones to have this book figured out.

We also should be wary of thumbing our noses at church fathers whose interpretations of the Scriptures ranged from creative to nutty. For instance, I think that the “two swords” argument, in which the church and state are said to be two different swords for the world, is kind of ridiculous. But then, by my standards, so is appealing to that passage in Exodus to make a case for the resurrection.

I honestly don’t know where these posts and thoughts are leading me; I’m just writing as I go. But if you have anything to add or corrections to be made, the comments section is yours. In the meantime, I’m going to practice that “shutting my mouth” thing.

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Bible Jesus vs. Movie ‘Jesus’

Recently on Twitter, someone complained about a blogger trying to read too much into Breaking Bad–specifically, that this person was trying to find parallels to Jesus in the show.

And this got me thinking about evangelicalism’s approach to finding Jesus in TV shows and movies.

For example: one time, I thought that Jax Teller (the protagonist of Sons of Anarchy) was a Jesus-type, the would-be savior of his club/people who would accomplish this mission by listening to the words of his father that had been written down in a book a long time ago. As far as Jesus comparisons go, I suppose I could do worse.

But more popular places that American Christians have “found” Jesus have included Braveheart and Gladiator–two pretty good movies in which the good guy’s sole mission is to kill the person or people responsible for making his life hell. Or Jesus is Neo in The Matrix. Or Jesus is Liam Nesson’s character in Taken.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: not a single one of the characters in those movies resembles the Jesus of the Bible. So I’ve started to wonder if many of us are hoping to find Jesus characters in movies and TV shows not because we desperately want to find the biblical Christ in those stories–but because we don’t really like the biblical Christ who dies for his enemies. Instead,  we kind of wish that Jesus would act more like William Wallace and open a can of you-know-what on his enemies. (Because this, in turn, would give us justification to do the same.)

Thoughts?

When Disciples Realize Their Faith is Stupid

Doubters are people who question today what defined their entire life the day before.

Speaking from my vantage point in the world of Christianity, I can’t think of a single person I know who either used to doubt or continues to do so whose period of uncertainty wasn’t preceded by a time in their life when everything they’re now questioning was solid. They were the people for whom the love of God came easy, so easy that they didn’t care about not having all the answers to particular questions. They could shrug off things like, “Why does the God of Joshua seem at such violent odds with Jesus, God-in-the-flesh?” They could not be bothered about questions that keep other people up at night because if they had to use another word to describe “faith”, it would be “certainty”.

They were so sure of themselves, of God, of Jesus, of the Bible.

They were Thomas.

Peter always gets the most attention of the Twelve. Judas is remembered as the traitor. Bartholomew, well, we’re assuming that at some point, the man actually talked. (He’s like Ronnie in the first few seasons of The Shield–a constant presence that requires no dialogue.) Thomas is known as the doubter, thanks to the fact that he was the only member of the inner circle who didn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

But before he was a doubter, Thomas was in. I mean, he was really in it. At some point, he had made the decision to leave what he had to follow Jesus. He was like so many of the people I know who used to be so sure of what they believed. And the reason I think that is because of this episode, recorded in John’s gospel, long before Thomas expressed his world-famous doubts:

Then after this [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” … Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When everyone else questions the latest plan that Jesus has come up with, Thomas is the only one in their number who argues that they should go. I think there’s some negativity in his voice, to be sure. Thomas could very well be that guy who complains a lot but, in the end, follows through for you. Either way, there’s devotion here. The kind of devotion that makes a person lay down their life for what they believe.

Because Thomas believed Jesus would rescue Israel. All the disciples did. They were so certain of this, they would argue with each other about who would the greatest among them in Jesus’ kingdom. Even after the Resurrection, the Eleven wondered if this was going to be the moment when Jesus rescued his country.

Thomas carried in his heart all sorts of beliefs about the God he’d grown up believing and the Scriptures he’d heard at every synagogue. They defined who he was, and eventually, his faith came to be centered around Jesus himself.

And at the Crucifixion, Thomas realized that he’d been wrong the entire time.

Jesus wasn’t going to rescue anyone; who could he save from the grave? (Now that you mention it …)

Thomas had been devoted. He’d given his life for what he believed, and it turned out that what he believed hadn’t been worth believing. So it’s no wonder that this poor guy reacted with such skepticism when the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus again, two days after the Romans had killed him.

Thomas wasn’t a doubter because he just didn’t want to believe.

I think he doubted because he had burned for placing too much faith in Jesus and just didn’t have it in him to try it again. 

He doubted because he just didn’t have faith in him anymore. He didn’t have the will. He’d had faith, and because of that, he’d been made to look like an idiot. Why go down that road twice?

I’ve been in that position before. So have a lot of my friends. I think this is one of those things that’s required of you, if you’re really intent on following Christ and making him the epicenter of your life. You’re eventually going to have one of those moments where the Lord asks, “Do you want to leave to?” And you’re going to feel a strong inclination to go, because at that moment, everything you believe is going to feel foolish.

You’re going to realize that people have good arguments for not becoming a Christian, and you don’t have good answers for them. You’re going to realize that there are ways in which the Bible doesn’t appear as reliable as you were promised by your church leaders that it is. You’re going to encounter differing interpretations of Scripture and wonder how you can know any of this is true when so many churches can’t agree on what their own holy book is supposed to be saying.

Something will get you. It’s unavoidable.

I think people survive these life-changing episodes in different ways. Some find the answers they were looking for; some don’t. For me, I’ve never found that one apologetic argument to end all doubts. What I’ve found–and what I hope might help you when you find yourself in this horrifying situation–is that I needed an encounter with the resurrected Christ.

I needed to see His scars. Not to get objective proof, but because I needed to see Him.

I needed to see the scars and the Man who had them and be reminded that there are things I can’t explain, no matter how hard I try. Thomas wasn’t won over with any clever apologetic argument. (Can you picture one of the disciples using a modern Christian defense and saying, “Well, we were all cowards on Friday and now we’re boldly proclaiming Jesus to you, Thomas. What else would have caused that, if not the Resurrection?”)

Thomas was won over by Jesus, who invited him to touch the scars that he bore from the cross. Thomas didn’t. He didn’t need to. Jesus told him to stop doubting and believe. It’s probably a rebuke of Thomas’ lack of faith, but I also wonder if there’s something else here.

I wonder if Jesus is inviting Thomas to start again and reclaim the faith that had led him to this moment.

I don’t worry about my friends who used to believe but now don’t. (In some cases, I suspect that what they’re really doubting is a crooked religious system, in which case they may now be standing closer to Jesus than even they themselves realize.) I even think that in whatever future periods of doubt I have, I’ll be okay. And that holds the same for you, too. Not because I can explain why.

Because there’s a God out there who still bears scars on His arms.

Because if our faith is going to be Christ-like, then at some point it’s going to have to die before it can rise again.

When Fighting for God’s Glory Puts You at Odds with Christ

At first, the tweet below didn’t bother me. But the more I sit with it, the more I felt like I needed to write something in response.

Here’s the questionable, 140-characters-or-less message with which I have an issue:

Driscoll Tweet on Not Forgiving Oneself

I understand what Driscoll is trying to say here. His concern, like that of his neo-Reformed colleagues–and, really, the entire church of Christ–is to defend God’s glory in the face of human betrayal. God is the most beautiful being imaginable, and to spite Him is a crime. (Or, as the Bible would put it, “sin”.) So when someone like Driscoll is confronting what he sees as an erroneous attitude, I think he’s responding this way because he cares about God being honored as He deserves to be honored.

That said, I think Driscoll’s post is misguided, if not toxic. While I can see good intentions behind it, a person’s intentions don’t always translate into that person being helpful.

Let’s say someone comes to you and says that they can’t forgive themselves for something they’ve done. If they’re genuinely at this point, then you know they feel bad. People who don’t struggle with self loathing typically don’t have much of a problem giving themselves a pass on their shortcomings. So when you encounter someone who’s actually in the place where they feel they could never let the past stay that way, you’re not dealing with someone who’s taking a lighthearted approach to their sin.

And using that opportunity to tell them they’re even WORSE than they thought because they questioned God’s offer of forgiveness isn’t going to help.

Yes, God’s glory is important and should be defended, but we have to ask ourselves, what type of God are we looking to defend? Because if we’re talking about Jesus–the Word made flesh, the Immortal who died, the Crucified King who was raised to life–then we have to defend God’s glory on His terms. We can’t operate in a way that was completely foreign to how God acted and what He’s like and still (rightfully) claim that we’re serving Him.

Fortunately for us, we know what God is like because He gave us Christ. And this same Christ never took the opportunity to beat down sinners because they had a hard time believing that grace could be extended even to them.

When Jesus encountered the woman whose perpetual bleeding had resulted in her losing her savings, and she refused to identify herself after touching his cloak, he didn’t take the first chance he got to accuse her of having another god because she didn’t immediately come forward to brag about how God had healed her. Jesus didn’t accuse her of pride or of letting her fear get in the way of giving God glory.

Instead, Jesus told her that her faith had made her well and to go in peace.

When the woman (most likely a prostitute) interrupted Jesus’ dinner with a Pharisee, weeping and wiping his feet with her tears, the Lord didn’t berate her for not trusting God enough to ask for forgiveness. (In spite of all her tears, she never once requested to be forgiven of her sins.)

She didn’t have to, because Jesus assured her that her many sins were forgiven.

Maybe, back then and even today, the best way to defend the glory of God is to exhibit and show the things that make God glorious and beautiful–and if God is anything, He is love.

Again, I understand Driscoll’s desire to uphold God’s glory. But when that desire puts you at cross purposes with how Jesus actually lived and interacted with people, you need to pause and reconsider your approach.

Let No One Fear Death (John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily)

John Chrysostom:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived therefor. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

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Let There Be Darkness (A Meditation on Good Friday)

This was the hour of darkness, Jesus told his disciples only moments before he was arrested by his enemies, who were aided by one of his closest friends.

During his execution, the sun gave out its light and proved the Lord’s point.

It’s as if the world reverted back to the chaotic state in which the Lord God had found it when He first whispered the words, “Let there be light.” There was no life, no abundance, no joy, no amazement at the rising and setting of the sun. That is, until the universe’s most masterful Artist, from whom our own sense of creativity flows, decided He had had enough of a blank canvas. With nothing more than a word and, as Job tells us, the bare hint of His power, He brought forth light.

And in his death, that light was taken away.

Let there be light.

It had been.

Now there was darkness.

Maybe creation was in agony. The King of the world had handed Himself over to usurpers, and in their rebellion, they sought nothing less than to bring Him to an end. Maybe creation was allowed to go dark to physically manifest the true intentions of our hearts. This is what it looks like when humanity forsakes its true purpose and instead tries to sit on a throne for which it was never suited.

Humanity got its way over God.

And when it did, it chose to kill, not give life.

It chose to take, not to give.

It chose injustice over justice, lies over truth, hatred over love.

In that fateful moment, humanity acted honestly.

The hour of darkness, indeed.

Fortunately, its hour came to an end.

If Heaven Exists, Then Maybe You Can Give Yourself a Break

One of the trends that’s taken hold of the evangelical world has been to downplay talking about heaven, hell, and the afterlife because such discussions tend to leave people day-dreaming about their future home of eternal bliss instead of doing their part to dismantle the “hells” here on earth.

I don’t necessarily agree with this view, but it is there.

I want to talk about heaven for just a bit (and no, critics, it’s not because I hate poor people).

I’ve been thinking this weekend about the prospect of eternal life, which Jesus promised us can begin now but will reach its full potential in the world to come. This is the life in which our identity is rooted in knowing God, who has been revealed in His Son and whose love has been revealed through His life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection. This is the life Christ has promised for everyone who gives their loyalty to them, however weak it may be.

That life can be enjoyed now, even with our imperfections. In the world to come, when Jesus has saved the world from evil and healed within us what was broken, we will experience this life in ways we never thought possible. (Even our best imaginations can only go so far.)

And that’s when it hit me: the promise of heaven has been given to us to get us to give ourselves a break every now and then.

By that, I don’t mean that we should be complacent or blind to the evil in the world. Loving God means loving people around us, and we can’t very well love someone when we allow them to be the victims of evil at both an individual or a systematic level. I also don’t mean that we should be blind from acknowledging the ways in which we participate in evil.

We need to give ourselves a break from thinking that our best days are behind us and that our mistakes have robbed us of the joy we could have had.

We need to stop beating ourselves up for our mistakes.

That includes the relationship you didn’t save.

That includes the risk you didn’t take.

That includes the guy or girl to whom you didn’t commit yourself.

That includes anything that makes you afraid that your one wrong turn means you’ll never be able to take a right one.

Look into the future. Christ has promised life for all who want it.

That means, among many other glorious things, that our best days are yet to come.

That means that you don’t have to worry that you’re never going to have the happiness you want but are afraid you missed because of a poor choice.

That means you are eventually going to become the person you were always supposed to be.

You don’t have to beat yourself up over your past choices. Your mistakes won’t define you and the consequences of your actions won’t forever haunt you.

Heaven is going to be full of people who needed second, third, and even three-thousand chances.

Not by people who made it on their own, but by the people who trusted Jesus and realized that they couldn’t.