Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Generous Charis

I grew up hearing and reading the Bible during the transition from KJV to NASB and NIV. In my church setting, the transition was mostly welcomed, except by a few pious old-timers who were certain that our prayers were more acceptable to God if they included a generous portion of thees, thous, and Elizabethan-era verb endings.

The KJV had the interesting effect of making some very ordinary words into technical religious terms, since the words dropped out of ordinary use in the centuries since the KJV was translated. One of those words is "grace." Interestingly, the NASB, the NIV, and even (often) the NLT continue to use this word to translate the Greek word charis, even though the meaning of "grace" in English has changed over the centuries.

In modern English, "grace" primarily means something like beauty, charm, or refinement - a meaning that rarely fits what the NT authors meant by charis. Of course, Christians usually learn to fill in a technical religious meaning for the word grace, but charis in Greek did not have a uniquely religious meaning.

Charis has a variety of meanings depending on the context (like all words), but in the sorts of passages where it is translated "grace," it normally means something like "generosity" or "generous gift" (the same meaning it had in English when the KJV was translated). As I have been reading the NT recently, I have been translating charis with "generosity" or "generous gift" wherever such a translation works. Look at some of the passages:

Eph 2:8-9 For by [God's] generosity you have been saved... it is the gift of God.
Gal 1:3 Generosity and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Phil 1:7 It is only right for me to feel this way about you... since you all are partakers with me of [God's] generosity.
1 Cor 15:10 But by the generosity of God I am what I am [that is, an apostle]; and his generosity towards me was not wasted, but I labored more than all of them; yet not I, but God's generous gift which was with me.

There are some other passages where "generosity" seems to be a less fit translation, expecially in Romans. I haven't yet checked what the standard references (BDAG, NIDNTT, EDNT, TDNT, etc.) have to say on this, but it seems that charis is used in these passages to describe God's generous forgiveness. For example:

Rom 5:20 The Law came in so that transgression might increase; but where sin increased, [God's] generosity overflowed even more.
Rom 3:24 ... being justified freely by his generous gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.

Although this started for me as a thought experiment in translation, it has resulted in a great deal of thought about God's generosity. It is striking that Christ's life and death on our behalf is described as a generous gift to us. Paul's calling as an apostle, and our calling to serve in the church today, is a generous gift. Paul chose to start most of his letters with a prayer for God's generosity and peace. I do not think often enough of God as a generous God, a gift-giving God, a God who is characterized by his beneficence. Yet he is.

Charis to you and peace from our generous God in 2009.

The picture: An altar piece, ca. 1260, by an unknown German master. The middle panel is a gnadenstuhle or "Pillar of Grace," a common way of depicting the Trinity. The side panels depict Mary and John.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

All Things Are Better in Koine

"All Things Are Better in Koine"

A video by some Biola students. Music written and recorded by Derek North, video produced by Nick Casucci. The profs in the video are Scott Yoshikawa, one of my former Talbot classmates, and Mickey Klink.

Here are some of the lyrics that may be a little obscure to non-Greek students:

K to the O-I-N to the E [KOINE]

D.W. bringing the Bs [Daniel Wallace, author of Beyond the Basics of Biblical Greek, commonly abbreviated as BBBG]

I'm busting out like Daniel Wallace / Watch me parse my verbs cuz my Greek is flawless.

legomai ego [common joke in Greek classes - means "I say" or perhaps "I say to myself" in Greek]

ti legeis en koine [= "what do you say in Koine?"]

The video mentions two evangelical NT scholars, D.A. Carson (prof at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Daniel Wallace (prof at Dallas Theological Seminary). I wonder if either of them ever suspected that they would one day be the admired objects of a rap video? I think that's my new goal in life.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Salvation in Luke's Christmas (Luke 1, Luke 2)

This weekend, I will be giving the sermons at my church, Hope Chapel West Oahu. For the three weeks before Christmas, we are (very roughly) following the outline of Rick Warren's new book, The Purpose of Christmas. This week, the sermon title is Christmas is a Time for Salvation, and I will be preaching mainly from Luke 1-2. As I studied, I was impressed with the amount of references to salvation in Luke's birth narrative.

Notice these lines from Mary, Zechariah, the angel, Simeon and Anna:
  • And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47)
  • His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— (Luke 1:67-71)
  • to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:74-75)
  • And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins… (Luke 1:76-77)
  • But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
  • And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him... Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:25, 28-30)
  • At that very moment [Anna] came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Salvation is a central theme in Luke's story of the birth of Jesus. Jesus is the "horn of salvation" and even salvation itself - and of course, Jesus' name means "salvation."

Zechariah talked about both salvation from enemies and from sin. In most of the NT, the emphasis is on deliverance from sin - in fact, sin is the enemy from which Jesus delivers us. The salvation that Jesus brings is also salvation to something - Zechariah rejoices that we are saved "to serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness." This is good to remember today - the message of salvation is not only deliverance from sin and its consequences but deliverance to a life of positive righteousness and usefulness to God.

Here, at the beginning of Luke, the emphasis is on salvation for Israel: "redeemed his people," "redemption of Jerusalem," "consolation of Israel." The angel's message is "good news for all the people" - but "people" (laos in Greek) refers to the nation of Israel, not the whole world. Luke doesn't leave out Gentiles (Jesus is "a light to the Gentiles," according to Simeon), but he downplays them at the beginning of his gospel. Luke raises the profile of Gentiles slowly in his story, culminating with his focus on Paul's mission to the Gentiles in the second half of Acts.

The picture: The Nativity, by Martin Schongauer, 1470s.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas in November?

In honor of the Christmas season, I am re-posting the following article on the date of Jesus' birth.

I just came across an excellent article about the date of Jesus' birth by Paul Meier, a prominent New Testament scholar. Since it is rather long and technical, I will summarize it here.

We celebrate Jesus' birthday on December 25, but it is quite unlikely that he was born on that day. That date was picked out in the fourth century, most likely as a replacement celebration for the winter solstice or other pagan holidays.

Paul Meier suggests a birthday in November. This is based on two pieces of data. First, Luke's nativity story begins with the account of Zachariah's service in the Temple at the assigned time for his priestly division (Abijah). A few weeks later, his wife conceives; six months later, Mary conceives; nine months after that, Jesus is born. Since Zachariah's priestly division served in late July to early August (according to some educated guesswork based on early rabbinic documents), Jesus would have been born in November.

By itself, that would not be very strong evidence. However, that date is backed up by the very earliest reference to Jesus' birth date. Clement of Alexandria, one of the church fathers, wrote in AD 194 that Jesus was born 194 years, one month, and 13 days before the murder of emperor Commodus - a significant event that occurred on December 31, AD 192. (By the way, Commodus is the same emperor fictionally depicted in the movie Gladiator). Although Clement seemed to get the year wrong, he may well have had the correct day - November 18.

Many people already know that Jesus was, ironically, born BC. The sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus, inventor of our BC / AD system, made two errors. First, he was off by about four to seven years; and second, he forgot to include a year zero. Our calendar goes directly from 1 BC to AD 1, which throws off computations.

How do we calculate the correct year? Herod the Great, who figures prominently in Matthew's birth account, died in March of 4 BC (a date pinned down by a lunar eclipse recorded in Josephus' history). Jesus must have been born before then. He may have been born as early as 7 BC, but several details suggest that 5 BC is the most likely year. If so, Herod died only four months after his attempt on Jesus' life.

So Jesus' birthday, by Paul Meier's cautious estimate, is November 18, 5 BC. Any one planning on moving your Christmas celebration to before Thanksgiving? If you do so this year, be sure to put 2012 candles on the cake (AD 2008 + 5 BC - 1 for Dionysius' mistake).

In the end, the day or even the year of Jesus' birth is not certain, like the birthdates of most other ancient people. Nor is that date terribly important. But it reminds us that Jesus is a real historical person; his life can be investigated using the normal methods of historical inquiry. He is not merely a convenient, timeless myth or an artificial object of faith.

The picture: the Adoration of the Magi, from The Brick Bible.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Agape / Phileo (again)

In some earlier posts, I wrote on the common belief that agape and phileo have different meanings, especially in John 21. To help people understand this better, I developed the following quiz. For each of the following verses, see if you can guess whether the Greek word for love is agape or phileo. I'll give the answers at the bottom.

  1. Mt 10:37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me."
  2. Luke 20:46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets."
  3. Jn 5:20 “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing."
  4. Jn 11:3 So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”
  5. Jn 12:25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal."
  6. Jn 16:27 "for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father."
  7. John 20:2 So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb..."
  8. 1 Cor 16:22 If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed.
  9. Titus 3:15 All who are with me greet you. Greet those who love us in the faith.
  10. Rev 3:19 "Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent."

To get the answer key, use your mouse to highlight the apparently blank lines below.

All of of the sentences use phileo in Greek. None use agape. Sneaky, huh?

So what's the point? If agape means divine, unconditional, higher love, and phileo means only friendly affection (the usual explanation given), then anyone reading Bible verses with the English word "love" ought to be able to guess which Greek word it was translating. But as you can see, several of the above sentences describe a higher love, and some describe a defective love - but all use the same Greek word, phileo. I could have done the same thing with agape - give you multiple verses, some obviously about higher love, and others about defective love, but all translating agape. The two words, as you can see, have about the same range of meanings. For more on this, read my earlier posts on agape / phileo.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

OT quotes in Romans

The second ETS lecture I attended today was by Andrew Naselli, a doctoral student at Trinity. His paper was "Paul's Use of Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11a in Romans 11:34-35." I attended this because my special area of research is in the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Andrew did a very fine job of showing how Paul used two quotes from the OT as part of his praise to God. One section that I found very interesting was his explanation of the poetry of Paul's doxology:

O the depth of the riches
Both of the wisdom and knowledge of God
How unsearchable his judgments
How untraceble his ways
For "who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has become his advisor?" (Isaiah 40:13)
"Or who has given to him and will receive back from him" (Job 41:3)
For from him and through him and for him are all things;
To him be the glory forever, amen.

I didn't get a copy of Andrew's notes, so I may be missing something. But Andrew pointed out the chiastic layout, shown in color above. The outer layer (red) refer to God's wealth, then the next layer (orange) shows his wisdom, and the inner layer (green) shows his knowledge.

More to say here, but I am now running off to hear a set of lectures on aspects of the use of the OT in the NT.

Darrell Bock on Acts

This morning, I attended an ETS lecture by Darrell Bock, "Contemporary Claims on Ancient Historiography and Acts: Hengel or Penner: Which Model for Acts is Better?" This session dealt with the historical value of the book of Acts. Conservative scholars like Martin Hengel often point out that Luke imitates the style of ancient historians like Thucidydes and Xenophon, even writing an introduction much like standard introductions to ancient histories. This suggests that Luke was a careful historian like other ancient Greek historians. But Penner wrote a book pointing out that these "careful Greek historians" often were more interested in rhetoric or moralizing, calling their objectivity into question. Penner's conclusion is that Luke is like these other historians, and thus he is so interested in defending Christianity that he is not an objective historian. According to Bock, Penner's attack on Luke's historical value is worth paying attention to, becaue Penner does careful work in both Acts and in the work of ancient historians. Bock thinks there are two ways to address this: a) scholars need to carefully work through the works of ancient historians to address their level of objectivity and factuality; b) on the basis of careful study in both Acts and other ancient historians, demonstrate that is possible for a historian like Luke to be factual even while having rhetorical, political or ideological goals.

Gary in Theological Nerdvana

I am enjoying my week at two scholarly conventions. Right now I am at the annual convention for the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Providence, Rhode Island. On Friday, I will head over to Boston (not far from here) for the Society of Biblical Literature. There are probably a thousand or so members here at ETS to enjoy lectures on a variety of topics related to theology, biblical studies, apologetics, and pastoral ministry. We also have the opportunity to buy resources very cheaply from thirty or fourty Christian booksellers. For most of us, I think the opportunity to interact with other professors is the highlight of the conference. I have already enjoyed having two meals with old classmates who are now professors, and look forward to many more opportunities for fellowship and stimulating conversation. The next few posts will summarize some interesting (at least to me!) sessions that I attend.

Monday, November 3, 2008

More on Good Eye / Bad Eye (Matthew 6:22-23)

In my last post, I explained that the "good eye" and "bad eye" of Matthew 6:22-23 likely refers to generosity and stinginess. Here's a little more on that topic. (Warning! Bible nerdiness alert!)

The word for "good" here is haplos, which can be translated as simple, single, sincere, healthy, or generous. While haplos does not occur elsewher in the NT, the cognate words haplous (same meaning) and haplotetos (sincerity, simplicity or generosity) occur ten times. In Rom 12:8, 2 Cor 8:2, 9:11, 9:13, and James 1:5, haplotetos has the meaning of generosity. In the others (2 Cor 1:12, 11:3, Eph 6:5, Col 3:22), it means sincerity or simplicity. The LXX uses the word twice to refer to generosity, in 1 Chron 29:17 and Prov 11:25. Since the surrounding context, Matthew 6:19-34, is about money, it seems better to see haplos as a reference to generosity.

The phrase "evil eye" (ophthalmos poneros) has much more certainty about its meaning, since it always means stingy or greedy (Deuteronomy 15:9, Proverbs 23:6, Proverbs 28:22, Matthew 20:15). In the OT, the Hebrew raa ayin (evil eye) is translated as selfish or stingy. (The LXX translates the phrase with baskanos, stingy, in Proverbs, but leaves it as poneuresetai ho ophthalmos sou, your eye does evil, in Deuteronomy, probably because Proverbs and Deuteronomy were translated by different translators.)

Not all gospels scholars agree exactly with this interpretation, although most mention it as a possibility. There seem to be two reasons to doubt. First, the saying has an exact parallel in Luke 11:34-36, and there the context is not about money, but rather is connected to another saying about light (although note the mention of greed in Luke 11:39). In many cases, Matthew and Luke arrange the same sayings of Jesus in different contexts, so some scholars feel that Jesus' good eye/bad eye saying was not necessarily originally about money. Second, although haplos can mean generous, the phrase haplos opthalmos is not found elsewhere, so its exact meaning cannot be confirmed. Some scholars suggest a meaning for eye here that approximates heart, or draws on Greek biological conceptions of how the eye works.

To be honest, despite the doubts of some gospels scholars, I think this one is a slam dunk. I think that the more well-known metaphorical phrase "evil eye" caused Jesus to coin a new phrase, "good eye." The phrase "good eye" already existed in Prov 22:9, but Jesus used haplos instead of agathos (Heb. tov), probably to create an image of health vs. sickness. Even if Matthew is the one who placed the saying in this context (which is not certain), it illustrates that Matthew thought that the saying was about money.

The hard part, as usual with the sayings of Jesus, is obedience. Being generous is often hindered or completely stopped by our slavery to "mammon" or our worry about our own needs.

The picture: The Sermon on the Mount, from Kurtze Postill Herrn Phillippi Melanthonis vber die Euangelia der furnemesten Fest, 1545. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good Eye / Bad Eye (Matthew 6:22-23)

The following is a short article that I was asked to write for the January 2009 edition of New Hope magazine. It's aimed at a lay magazine audience, so it simplifies things a bit. I need help on the last paragraph - as it stands, it is too trite. Any suggestions?

Good Eye / Bad Eye
What I love most about being a professor at Pacific Rim Bible College is the opportunity to help young leaders learn how to better interpret and apply the Bible. Today in class, a student asked about a difficult passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “… if your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23). What did Jesus mean?

It turns out that having a “good eye” or a “bad eye” was a common manner of speaking when Jesus taught. The phrase “bad eye” is often translated as “stingy” or “greedy” in other places in the Bible (Deuteronomy 15:9, Proverbs 23:6, Proverbs 28:22, Matthew 20:15). And the word for “good” in this verse is translated as “generous” in some other passages in the Bible (1 Chronicles 29:17, Romans 12:8, James 1:5). So Jesus was using the ordinary language of his day to point out how much better generosity is than stinginess.

If you read this whole section of Jesus’ sermon (Matthew 6:19-34), you can tell that Jesus is giving several key principles about handling our money. First, he tells us that an act of generosity is like making a deposit in heaven (6:19-21). Then he tells us that having a “good eye” (being generous) lights up our whole lives, while having a “bad eye” (being stingy) makes our whole lives dark (6:22-23). Next, he warns us that we must choose God as our master, not money (6:24). Finally, Jesus teaches us how to avoid worry so that we will use our money generously to advance God’s purposes (6:25-34).

We ended our discussion not only with a good Bible lesson, but also with a challenge: am I being generous with the resources God has given me? Do I have a “good eye” or a “bad eye?”

I'm looking forward to your comments and suggestions on the wording of the final paragraph.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Trinity for Toddlers

A conversation overheard between Ian, our seven-year-old, and Andrew, our three-year-old (of jelly bean fame). (At right: Caleb, Andrew, Ian)

Ian: No, there's only one god.
Andrew: Oh!
Ian: Actually, there are two gods, God and Jesus.
Andrew: Yeah, God and Jesus.
Ian: Actually there are three gods: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
Andrew: Yeah, he's the bad guy.
Ian: No! They are all good guys. The Holy Ghost is a good guy.
Andrew: Yeah, all good guys.
Ian: Actually, there are four gods: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and Satan. He's the bad guy.
Andrew: Yeah, he's the bad guy.
Ian: Andrew, you know why the world isn't perfect? It's because of Satan.
Andrew: Oh.
Ian: That's why grass is so itchy, because of Satan.
Andrew: Yeah.

The picture: The Trinity, 1414, from the workshop of the Master of the Gerona Martyrology. It follows the pattern of a gnadenstuhle, or "pillar of grace," which includes a cross, the Son sitting in the Father's lap, and the Spirit as a dove (usually resting on the cross or descending towards it).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Restoring a Fisherman (John 21:15-17)

In a recent post, I pointed out that we should not read too much into the variation of Greek words (such as agape and phileo) in the account of Simon Peter's restoration in John 21:15-17. The passage is very poetic, and uses a number of synonymous words for stylistic reasons.

One of my beefs with Bible professors (and I am one of them) is that sometimes we take a perverse delight in skewering common misinterpretations of Scripture, but then we leave people with nothing. We take away meaning, rather than adding understanding. My goal, as a professor who regularly skewers bad interpretation, is to replace bad interpretation with better - and that better interpretation is (or ought to be) more attractive because it is truer and more powerful.

In John 21:15-17, there is much to learn after we remove bad interpretation. First, we find seven disciples fishing. Since fishing was not primarily for recreation, it seems that Peter is returning to his old career. Nothing wrong with fishing for a living - but Peter had been called to be a full-time disciple of the rabbi. Peter probably felt that his failure disqualified him to serve or lead.

The miraculous catch of fish in John 21 is a reminder of Peter's initial call to be a "fisher of men." (Nerd note: this version of Peter's initial call is found only in Luke 5:1-11, and not in John. But I think that we have here an example of what Johannine scholars call "interlocking," where John refers to things that the readers would only know if they were familiar with the Synoptic gospel stories, and especially Luke). The repeat of the miracle puts Peter in a state of mind to be re-summoned to service.

The miracle also contains a minor allusion to an OT prophecy about the new covenant age. Ezek 47:1-12 describes a river of healing water flowing from the Temple (compare to John 7:37-39, where the river comes from Jesus), which bring a multiplication of fish. Some ancient rabbinic sources specifically located Ezekiel's multiplication of the fish at the Sea of Tiberias (cp. John 21:1).

Jesus further prepares Peter for restoration by cooking breakfast over an anthrakia, a charcoal fire, perhaps in a metal brazier. The only other time that anthrakia occurs in the Bible is in John 18:18, where Peter denied that he knew Christ three times. This explains the repetition in John 21. Peter now has the chance to do it right. Just as three times he denied Jesus before enemies, he now can affirm his love for Jesus three times before friends.

Jesus' goal is to restore Peter to self-sacrificial service, to help him become a shepherd like Jesus (see John 1o). Part of the reason that Peter had denied Jesus was that he had wanted to die with Jesus, and followed Jesus into a place where he was unable to remain loyal. He was more concerned with his own personal loyalty to Jesus, and less concerned with shepherding his brothers.

Peter took his re-appointment to shepherding seriously. Thirty years later, he wrote this to church leaders: "Shepherd the flock of God among you, not grudgingly, but willingly, as God wants you to... be examples to the flock. Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive a glorious and unfading crown." (1 Pet 5:2-4)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy Birthday, Bagginses!

Aur Onnad Meren, elendili o periannath! (Happy Birthday, Elf-friends among Hobbits!). Bilbo and his cousin Frodo (or, as Hobbits are fond of pointing out, "his first and second cousin, once removed either way, as the saying is, if you follow me") share a birthday on September 22. Bilbo was born in 2890 of the Third Age of Middle-earth (Shire-reckoning, 1290). His better-known cousin, Frodo, was born in 2968 TA (1368 SR).

The epic Lord of the Rings begins with the preparations for Bilbo and Frodo's birthday: "When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton." Frodo was also turning thirty-three, the coming of age for Hobbits. Fans of LOTR will remember that Frodo's involvement in the Tale of the Ring begin with Bilbo's astonishing disappearance at the end of his birthday speech, one of my favorite scenes in LOTR. "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like half of you half as well as you deserve" - just one of many memorable lines from the slightly tipsy Bilbo.

If you have only watched the movies, you don't know that after the great birthday party, Frodo settled down as the master of Bag End for the next seventeen years before the events of the War of the Rings began to unfold. Frodo continued to hold dual birthday parties, although Bilbo was long gone, and there were several rowdy parties where it "rained drink and snowed food", as Hobbits say.

Frodo left Hobbiton on his fiftieth birthday (TA 3018), and handed Bag End over to his grasping relations, the Sackville-Bagginses. Although he knew that Sauron was now looking for the Ring, he did not know that the Nazgul were already inside the Shire, and that Gandalf was busy escaping from Saruman and trying to get a horse to come to the Hobbits' aid.

By Frodo's next birthday, Sauron was defeated. Frodo and the other hobbits were on their return trip. They arrived in Rivendell in time to celebrate Frodo's 51st and Bilbo's 129th birthday. They did not know that this was the day that Saruman had entered the Shire, intending to wreak his vengeance on the homeland of the Hobbits.

The last birthday recorded is in 3021, the last year of the Third Age. Frodo and Bilbo, 54 and 132, are granted permission to sail with the Elves over the Sea as a reward for their great sacrifice and to give them a place to heal.

One of the great bitter ironies of the Lord of the Rings shows up in this account of the birthdays. The first birthday shows us what is worth saving from Sauron - the beautiful, pastoral, and defenseless Shire, and the absurd but innocent Hobbits and their customs. On his thirty-third birthday, Frodo has great hopes of becoming the heir of Bilbo and living out life as one of the Shire's landed gentry. But on each noted birthday, he must give up something of great value - perhaps related to the Hobbit custom of giving gifts to others on one's birthday? His beloved uncle Bilbo leaves on his 33rdbirthday. Frodo gives up his lovely hobbit-hole on his 50th. Saruman despoils the Shire on his 51st. And Frodo must leave his beloved Shire forever on his 54th. Frodo's great sacrifice, the burden of the Ring and his wounds are ultimately unhealable on this side of the Great Sea.

By the way, yesterday was another important Tolkien day. The Hobbit was published on Sept 21, 1937, with the subtitle There and Back Again. The picture: Alan Lee's portrait of Gandalf and Frodo in Bag End, as Gandalf reveals the history of the Ring.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Do You Love Me (Now that I can Dance) (John 21:15-17)

In my last post, I explained that, contrary to popular Christian belief, the Bible does not use the Greek words agape and phileo in significantly different ways. Agape (and its verb form, agapao; I use agape throughout since most Christians are more familiar with it) is a fairly generic word for love, and does not necessarily imply divine, unconditional, or higher love. Phileo, although used less often in the Bible, is not a lower type of love, as revealed by the times it is used to describe love between Father, Son and disciples (see, for example, John 5:20, 16:27, 20:2).

So what is happening in John 21:15-17? Here's the conversation between Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection:

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know (oida) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Feed my lambs... Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know (oida) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Shepherd my sheep... Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?
Peter (grieved because Jesus had said "Do you love (phileo) me?" three times): Lord, you know (oida) all things, you know (ginosko) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Feed my sheep.

After reading it carefully, you can see that the usual pulpit interpretation doesn't work. Peter isn't grieved because Jesus switched verbs; he is grieved because Jesus keeps asking him. In fact, Peter is "grieved because Jesus had said 'Do you love (phileo) me?' three times." But Jesus, in fact, had used agape twice and phileo once - another piece of evidence that the two words mean basically the same thing. Note also that Peter did not answer, "No, I don't love (agape) you, but I do love (phileo) you." Instead, he said "Yes, I love you," indicating agreement with Jesus. Finally, if the standard pulpit interpretation is correct, Jesus caves in at the end and says that a lesser form of love towards him is just fine - not the sort of thing you are likely to find anywhere in the New Testament, and especially not in John.

So what is going on? In one of the most poetic passages in his gospel, John varies words for style. Within John 21, notice the amount of synonyms or near-synonyms used: Know: oida, ginosko. Sheep: arnion, probaton. Tend: bosko, poimaino. Fish: ichthus, opsarion, prosphagion. Boat: ploion, ploiarion. Shore: aigialos, ge. Some of these words can have slightly differently meanings in other contexts, but don't have different meanings in this passage. The same fish are called all three words, and the same boat is called two different words. The variation in words, including the words for love, adds to the beauty of the description.

By the way, the view presented here, that the alternation between agape and phileo in John 21:15-17 is only for stylistic variation, is not some strange view that can only be found in this corner of the blogosphere. It is the standard view held by most ancient and modern commentaries on John. (The exceptions are primarily some nineteenth-century commentaries and, strangely, the NIV).

I don't intend to only take away your favorite (mis)interpretation! Next post: once we get over the agape/phileo bit, what can we learn from this passage?

The picture: Follow Me, from Das Plenarium oder Ewangely Buoch, 1516, courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University. The picture is composite, containing elements from the tomb in John 20 and the beach appearance in John 21.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Make Me a Higher Love? (agape/phileo)

Here's a question posted last week: "In John 21:15-17 Jesus asks three times if Simon Peter loves him. The first two times Jesus uses agapao for love and in both Simon Peter's replies phileo is used. Then the third time Jesus asks he uses phileo as well and so does Simon Peter. Is there any significance to this?"

A few weeks ago, my son's soccer coach advised the boys to put on jackets so that they wouldn't catch cold after practice. He believed that you could catch a cold if you got chilly after exercise. This belief was once so widespread that people just knew it to be true, even though doctors and scientists agree that colds are caused by viruses, not chill. OK, I know that rhinoviruses thrive better in cold, dry air, but you get my point - sometimes something that everyone knows is untrue.

I mention this story because many Christians in America just know that agape is a Greek word that refers to divine, unconditional love, a higher love than any other. But as a matter of fact, agape does not have this special meaning in Greek, and is only slightly different in meaning from phileo. Agape means "love," and it has about the same range of meaning as the English word "love." It can refer to loving people, food, God, money, or anything else. It can refer to selfless love or selfish love, depending on the context. Surprisingly, Greek scholars and New Testament scholars widely agree on this conclusion, but most other Christians, including many pastors, are unaware of it. I am not aware of any living Greek scholar who accepts the view of agape that is widely proclaimed from the pulpit. (By the way, agapao is the verb form of agape, and phileo is the verb form of philia; I use them interchangeably in this post).

Here's some of the evidence:

1) Philosophers in ancient Greece could not agree on the precise difference between agape and philia, and could not agree on which one was higher. Most philosophers actually asserted that philia was a higher love, because of the high value that philosophers placed on friendship.

2) The translators of the LXX (an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) regularly used agapao to translate the Hebrew word ahav, which is also a very generic word for love in Hebrew.

3) While agape is often used to describe positive forms of love, it is also used to describe defective forms of love (Luke 6:32, John 3:19, Deut 21:15 LXX), the love of money (2 Pet 2:15, Isa 1:23 LXX), the love of sin (Rev 22:15, Jer 14:10, Hos 12:7 LXX), the love for honor (Luke 11:43, John 12:43), legitimate sexual desire (Song of Solomon 1:3, 4, 7, 3:1-4 LXX) and even lust (Gen 34:2-3, Jdg 16:4, 2 Sam 13:3-15 LXX). In other words, agape is like the English word love - it can have a positive or negative meaning depending on its context.

4) Although there are some slight differences in usage between agapao and phileo, they are used interchangeably at times in the Bible. Take a look at Luke 11:43/20:46; John 3:35/5:20; John 11:3/11:5/11:36; John 14:21/14:23/16:27; and Heb 12:6/Rev 3:19. In each of these cases, almost identical sentences use phileo or agapao with no apparent difference in meaning. In some cases, phileo is used for very high forms of love, such as the love between the Father and the Son.

For some people, this information is bad news. They like the idea that the Bible has a special word that means divine, unconditional love, and it disturbs them that the evidence does not support this view. But here's the good news: although Greek and Hebrew words for love do not have this special nuance, God's love is divine, giving and unconditional, no matter which word we use to communicate it. It's not the word for love that matters, but the many sentences, paragraphs, and stories about God's love that matter. Ideas don't have to be found in single words to be valid - in fact, most ideas require multiple words to be communicated.

Next post: if agapao and phileo mean almost the same thing, what was John trying to say at the breakfast scene in John 21:15-17?

The picture: The Miraculous Draught of Fish, by Konrad Witz, 1443.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Random Smatterings - Nimrod

We have a small group Bible study that meets in our home under the name "Wananada Wednesdays." We have been studying the book of Genesis during this season. Although I think we have generally been focusing on matters of greater import, this week a question about "Nimrod, the mighty hunter before the Lord" in Genesis 10 came up. Why is Nimrod a heroic figure in Genesis, but a term of derision in modern English slang?

Turns out that etymology experts are uncertain. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that hunters have sometimes been called nimrods as an allusion to the biblical hunter, and sometimes incompetent hunters have facetiously been called "nimrod," starting with a literary reference in 1933.

It may be Bugs Bunny that popularized this ironic use of "nimrod" (although the OED doesn't mention it). Bugs was known to occasionally call Elmer "poor little nimrod." The biblically illiterate audience was probably unaware of the allusion and picked it up as an insult for an incompetent person.

The pictures: above, Sargon I of Assyria, whom some identify with Nimrod; below, Elmer Fudd of Warner Brothers, whom Bugs Bunny identifies as "nimrod."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

American Revolutionary War - more

Keoki asked a question concerning my earlier post on the American Revolutionary War.

Suppose for a moment that the American Revolution was an unjust war. [Since]... Americans fought it anyway and won it, what does that say about the legitimacy of America’s sovereignty in the eyes of God?
In addition to the stipulations of just war (which are not exclusively Christian), we should also reflect on this question in light of the biblical prohibition against taking up arms against legitimate government.

Almost all nations have skeletons in their closets. If the practice of unjust wars invalidates a nation's sovereignty, then all nations have lost their sovereignty, except maybe Iceland. When Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7, he was referring to the Roman Empire, much of which had been founded on wars of aggression. However, this did not invalidate Rome's authority, according to Paul - he argued that we should submit to existing authorities. And of course, America has had other wars that are of much greater concern. The Indian Wars, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War were far more unjust than the Revolutionary War. If we use the 1-100 "just war scale" I mentioned in the first post, then I give the Revolutionary War about 60 or 70, the Indian Wars about 10, and the Mexican and Spanish Wars about 20 or 30.

If you have the (mistaken, in my mind) belief that America was somehow founded by God as a chosen nation, then analyzing the Revolutionary War by just war or biblical criteria will certainly shake that belief.

We need to avoid what philosophers call the genetic fallacy - the false idea that origins determine everything. If, as some Christians claim, America was properly and justly founded as a Christian nation, that does not say anything - positive or negative - about the country's later actions. If, as I am suggesting, the founding war of America was less than fully just and biblically questionable, then that also says little about the later actions of the country. America has demonstrated that it is capable of both just and unjust wars, regardless of the status of its founding war.

Maybe I am biased as an American, but I think that America has been more just in many of its wars (in both causes and in practices) than many other nations. The Indian Wars seem to be the most notable exception (we haven't talked about Iraq yet - that will be the next and hopefully last just war post).

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Just Actions in War

Just war theory not only stipulates just reasons for going to war, but also just actions within war (jus in bello). The guiding principle is that war is not a good thing, even if the cause is just or the war is necessary. Since war is not a good thing, it is vital to have guidelines to restrain the evil effects of war.

The idea of restraint in war is very ancient. The Old Testament gives guidelines for accepting surrender, for the treatment of captives, and for restraining the destructiveness of war (see Deut 20:1-20, 21:10-14). In times even less civilized than today, many countries had the practice of only allowing a conquering army to loot a city for three days to control the amount of damage done to civilians.

Just war theory has two main guiding principles for just practices in war. The first is obvious: war must be waged against soldiers, not civilians. Civilians must never be targeted. Armies must take great pains to avoid accidentally harming civilians, especially because of the use of explosives. While clear enough, several factors can complicate this criteria. When a country completely mobilizes for war, the civilians end up being a crucial part of the war effort. For example, ordinary factory workers end up being an essential part of producing tanks, airplanes, and supplies. This was the reason why British and American forces intentionally targeted civilian neighborhoods around German factories in WWII. While the Allies had just reasons for going to war, the practice of killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians - men, women and children - to stop the German war effort was certainly not in accordance with just war theory.

The second principle is restraint. During war, armies must use the appropriate amount of force to achieve the desired goals in the war. For example, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, American forces used enough force to cause the Iraqi army to retreat or surrender. It would have been possible to annihilate the entire army, but that would have been more violent than necessary to achieve the goal of the war. In WWII, the Allies decided that they needed to go further than defeating Axis armies - they needed a complete defeat of the government of Germany. This was likely in accordance with just war principles, because the Nazi government had demonstrated that it was completely incapable of keeping a treaty, and was of course guilty of crimes against humanity.

Why do countries otherwise committed to just war principles occasionally violate them? In any war, some soldiers will violate just war principles and attack civilians. In some cases, enemy soldiers use population centers as shields or use civilians as combatants, making soldiers get trigger happy. In the case of WWII, the Allies decided to target German civilian populations partially in retaliation for Germany's bombing of civilians in London. More importantly, the Allies violated just war principles because they saw what happened to the captive countries of Germany (especially Poland) and decided that they must win, no matter what the cost.

This is one of the reminders of the just war principle that war should always be a last resort. Once in war, nations are often faced with horrible moral dilemmas and may have difficulty staying faithful to other just war guidelines.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Just War - the American Revolution

In honor of Independence Day, I want to continue the Just War series, but in a slightly different direction. Based on just war theory, what should we say about the American Revolutionary War? Just war theory suggests that America's revolt against England falls short of a fully just war, but was not totally unjust either.

If you look at my last post on this topic, you can see that one of the criteria for just war is that it must be authorized by legitimate government leaders. By definition, a revolt is lacking legitimate government authority. However, the rebels tried to create legitimacy by appointing a continental congress.

The Revolutionary War also fell short of being fully just in that it is difficult to see it as an appropriate and restrained response to aggression. War is most just when it responds to unprovoked aggression. War in response to unjust taxation or in order to institute a type of government you like better is certainly an overreaction (otherwise most Americans should go to war against their government now!). Of course, the Revolutionary War was a bit more complicated than that - Parliament refused to listen to legitimate requests of the colonies, the colonists had some violent protests, British troops were deployed, and Parliament took punitive economic measures against the colonies.

(By the way, it is a common misconception that the Revolution was a response to religious persecution by England. This was not the case - the British colonial governments tolerated all Protestant denominations. Catholics were not tolerated - but the Revolution was not fought to give rights to Catholics!)

With the other just war criteria, one can make a greater case that the colonies had just causes - war was a last resort, and its goals were limited to reversing the wrongs suffered. At the beginning, it was not so clear that they had a reasonable chance of success, but obviously they succeeded.

For Christians, Romans 13:1-7 provides another reason for caution when evaluating the Revolutionary War. Paul wrote that Christians may not rebel against the government. He didn't say that Christians should obey unjust laws, but he did not allow armed revolt.

This is one of the main reason why so many Americans were Tories (British sympathizers). They were not necessarily traitors; they believed that it was morally and biblically wrong to rebel against their rightful government. James Bradley, a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary, told me that most Anglican (Episcopalian) churches preached regularly from Romans 13 during the Revolutionary War, and most Congregational churches preached from passages like Isaiah 61 that talk about liberty. In this case, I think the Anglican Tories were doing a much better job interpreting the Scriptures than the Congregationalist Rebels.

If we were to use a "just war score" with 0 being unprovoked aggression and 100 being response to unprovoked aggression (following all just war criteria), then I think that the American Revolutionary War should probably have a score of about 60 or 70 at the highest. If we use the criteria of Romans 13, then quite likely Christians should not have joined in the Revolutionary War.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Caleb the Vegetarian

Me: Caleb, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Caleb: a vegetarian.
Me: Oh?
Caleb: Yes, I want to take care of animals. Are there possums?
Me: Yes, possums are real.
Caleb: Are there possums in Hawaii?
Me: No, but they are on the Mainland.
Caleb: How about Africa?
Me: I'm not sure. We can look it up. Do you want to be a zoo veterinarian?
Caleb: No, just a regular animal vegetarian. I will take care of baby animals and then sell them back to their mommies.
Me: Actually, it's called a veterinarian.
Caleb: Oh, a vegetinarian.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Just Reasons for War

I have had a few requests to explain more clearly whether I thought that the American Revolution or the Iraq war were just wars. I'll take a shot at it, although I know some of my readers will sharply disagree no matter what opinion I give.

I'm going to analyze a very narrow question so I can be more clear. I'm going to explain what just war theory says, and then try to place a few wars (including the Iraq War and the American Revolution) on some sort of "justice scale." On one end of the scale would be totally unjust wars of aggression, such as Saddam's invasion of Kuwait or Germany's invasion of Poland. On the other end of the scale would be wars as close to just as possible, such as (perhaps) England's defense of European allies in WWII. Then we can see where other wars might fit it.

Just war has two sets of criteria. The first set describes just causes for going to war (jus ad bellum) and the second set describe conduct in the war (jus in bello). What are just causes for going to war? Just war theorists usually break down jus ad bellum into multiple criteria, but I'll simplify a little.

1) War is justified in response to aggression - to reverse the aggression and to retaliate. While the individual may not be right to retaliate, a government probably has an obligation to retaliate. A government must retaliate against criminals in order to defend the innocent, and thus it must retaliate against aggressive actions from other countries. A government may also be obligated to respond with force when an ally or an innocent people group is targeted by an unjust war. Thus, the US-led defense of Kurds from Iraqi genocide in the 1990s was a just use of force.

2) War for economic gain is not justified - this consitutes a war of aggression. What makes this criteria complicated is that sometimes a nation may be justified in going to war (defense of an innocent nation), but the reality is that some economic benefit may result. Further, some government leaders may be motivated by just causes, while others may be motivated by economic causes.

3) Only legitimate authorities may begin a war. In other words, a group of independent US citizens cannot decide to attack Iran, even if other grounds for a just war have been satisfied.

4) The war's goals must be limited to responding to the wrong suffered. For example, reasonable goals during the first Gulf War were to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait and destroy a significant part of its army so that Iraq could not attack again. Overthrowing the government of Iraq or invading Iraq would have gone beyond reversing the wrong and appropriate retaliation (at least, that was the reason why the elder George Bush chose not to invade Iraq in 1991). This concept is related to criminal justice. We give fines for speeding and increasing amounts of jailtime for more serious offenses. In war, the intended response should also be limited by some concept of justice.

5) Most important criterion: war is just only if it is the last resort. A nation must demonstrate that it has taken every reasonable action short of war. This is based on the idea that war is never good, and always goes worse than intended. War may be necessary and therefore just, but it should be avoided if there is any other reasonable solution.

6) Reasonable chance of success. If a nation has no hope of winning, then by going to war it is wasting lives.

Next post: Jus in bello - just practices in war.

By the way, some Christians are pacifists - they believe that war is never justified or never necessary. I will not cover that approach in these posts, but you can learn more about their approach at the Just Peacemaking website.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Eutychus Legos

The Brick Testament added a section entitled "Bored to Death," about the story of Eutychus in Acts 20:7-12. Click on the arrows to cycle through nine frames illustrating the story of Eutychus.

The author makes all scenes entirely out of Legos, and he has a rather warped sense of humor - enough so that some of his scenes have a rating system to indicate sex, violence, nudity or cursing. In other words, although many of the scenes are very creative and funny, you might not choose to have your young children look at all the pictures without supervision. I have featured his art in several of my previous blog posts.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

More Preaching

I am speaking at Mililani Community Church on Sunday, June 29, 10:15 am. The sermon will be on Eutychus in Acts 20:7-12 (of course!), and the title is "Eutychus Rising: The Church as it Ought to be." Actually, I have never given a sermon on this passage, so this will be a first. I will also be teaching at their adult Sunday School class (9:15 am) on the topic of Challenges to Faith, in which I will address some of the major controversies concerning Jesus and the Scriptures in the last two years.

I will also be speaking at Kailua Baptist Church on Sunday, July 6, at 10:00 am. Same sermon! But probably a little better second time around.

I'll try to have the sermon podcasted as soon as the church I am visiting posts it (see podcasts at right).

Monday, June 23, 2008

That Melchizedek Guy (Psalm 110, Hebrews 5-7)

Question: What is the cultural/historical significance of Psalm 110:7? Am I correct that this is a messianic psalm? "He shall drink from the stream by the wayside, therefore he shall lift up his head." - Anonymous

Psalm 110 is a fascinating hymn written to honor the king of Israel and the King above him. It has special application to King David, but was likely sung on other occasions in honor of later kings of Israel. Since Jesus the Messiah is (among other things) King of Israel and descendant of David, Psalm 110 also can be applied to him (as we find in Matt 22:41-46, Acts 2:34-36, and Hebrews 1:13, and chs. 5-7).

The opening line is perhaps a little clearer in this translation from Hebrew: "Yahweh said to my master (adonai)..." This Psalm pictures God speaking a war-blessing over the king of Israel. The king will rule even with enemies around (v. 2); the people of Israel will serve in battle willingly (v. 3), the enemies will be defeated (vv. 5-6); and after war, the king will receive refreshment and rest from God (v. 7).

Verse 4 seems rather strange to us today. Why would a war-blessing describe the king of Israel as "a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek"? There is a somewhat convoluted story behind this title. Jerusalem (earlier called Jebus, even earlier called Salem) was under the control of the Jebusites until the time of David. After becoming king, David captured the city and made it his capital (2 Samuel 5:6-10). By ancient custom, he thus acquired the title of the previous king of Jerusalem - Melchizedek. This word, meaning "righteous king," was possibly a hereditary title rather than a personal name. As in other ancient near eastern cities, the king of Jerusalem was also the city's high priest. In the time of Abraham, the king of Jerusalem (Salem) served El Elyon - the Most High God (Gen 14:18-20). Of course, Gen 14 refers to events over 1000 years before David, so we have no idea if the Jebusite kings of Jerusalem still served El Elyon at the time of David. They were still using the hereditary title Adoni-zedek (Master of Righteousness) at the time of Joshua (Josh 10:1).

So the original meaning of the psalm was that God had provided David with victory over Jerusalem, a new title, and rest from war. In later generations, the psalm could be sung in faith that God would again provide victory to other faithful kings. As the NT points out, Ps 110 ultimately applies to Jesus, the Son of David and greatest king of Israel. Jesus' victory is over the evil powers, and is accomplished at the cross (Acts 2:33-36). Like the kings before him, Jesus has the title of "priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek," which allows him to serve as a unique mediating priest between God and people (Hebrews 5-7). Like David, Jesus had rest after his battle was complete (Ps 110:7).
Additional note: The Hasmonean dynasty ruled over Israel from about 140 BC to 37 BC, before being replaced by the Herodian dynasty. The Hasmoneans were neither decendents of David nor Aaron, but they served as both kings and high priests. The last direct descendents of Aaron had died or fled Israel, so there were few options for filling the role of high priest.They justified their priestly role by their descent from a non-Aaronic priestly line and on the concept of the Melchizedekan priesthood. Since they ruled Jerusalem, they reasoned that they could inherit the high priestly role. The application of this priesthood to Jesus in Hebrews was understandable to Jews of the first century, many of whom looked back on the Hasmonean dynasty with some fondness.

The picture: Communion of the Knight, ca. 1250, depicting Melchizedek blessing Abraham, in Notre Dame de Reims. This cathedral was the coronation site for the kings of France, making an interesting connection to Genesis 14 and Ps 110.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Torah, Torah, Rah Rah Rah! (Psalm 119)

How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to your word.
With all my heart I have sought you; do not let me wander from your commandments.
In my heart I have treasured your word, that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.
With my lips I have told of all the ordinances of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I have rejoiced, as much as in all riches.
On your precepts I will meditate and regard your ways.
In your statutes I will delight; I shall not forget your word.
-Psalm 119:9-16 (NASB, modified)

I recently asked my undergraduate Bible interpretation class to write out a title or subject of this stanza of Psalm 119. Seventeen out of 18 students said something like, "How to live a pure lifestyle."

That would be a good title, if this stanza were written the way we teach high schoolers to write today. The first line of a paragraph is supposed to be the topic sentence, so many English readers reason that "How shall a young man keep his way pure?" is the topic of the rest of the stanza. (Actually, stanzas of a psalm are usually called strophes, and it makes you feel so much smarter if you call them that).

But of course, Psalm 119 is not a modern American high school essay, but an ancient Hebrew poem extolling the virtues of God's instruction (or Torah). The meaning of these eight lines is not governed by the first line, but by the poetic structure of the entire psalm.

The author of Psalm 119 took on an impressive poetic challenge. To express his delight with the Torah, he decided to write 22 strophes of eight lines each describing how good God's word is. (Let's see... eight times two, carry the six... that adds up to... A LOT.) Why 22? Because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Every line in the first strophe begins with aleph, every line in the second strophe begins with beth, and so on up through tav. This kind of poem, as you may remember from an English class in your youth, is called an acrostic.

The strophe in vv. 9-16 is the "beth" section, so every line begins with a beth. In the version above, I rearranged the word order to more closely match the Hebrew and highlighted the first word in blue, so you can see the poetry. (The words "how" "with" "in" and "on" are different ways of translating the same Hebrew word, which is a b- prefix added to the next word. In line 4, the Hebrew for "blessed" is brk)

(Nerd note: the translator of the Psalms in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek Old Testament) managed to partially translate the acrostic in this strophe. Every line begins with an epsilon in the Greek. In the vav strophe, every line begins with a kappa in the Greek. The rest of the Greek translation does not preserve the acrostic.)

What does all this mean? Psalm 119:9-16 is not about how to be pure. It is one of 22 strophes describing how good God's word is. In these lines, the psalmist says that he keeps, seeks, treasures, learns, talks about, rejoices in, meditates on, and delights in God's words. What are the consequences of this attitude towards God's word? Purity. An unstraying heart.

This is what we need - not a mere snacking on God's word, already digested by someone else for us, not merely the keeping of a discipline or the checking off of a box that tells us we are holy - but an absorption of Torah, God's instruction, that encompasses our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

The picture: David the Psalmist, in Geystliche Lieder (a hymn book) by Martin Luther and Valentin Babst, published 1567. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Harrowing of Hell?

Question: I recently heard Tony Campolo mention the Apostles' Creed and how basically it was an almost perfect summation of the right "stuff" to believe as an Evangelical. Upon seeking it out and reading the different versions for myself there was one part included in some versions that didn't sit well with me... "he descended into hell." Is this true? Did Christ really descend into hell between his crucifixion and resurrection? - K.L.

Many Christians throughout history have believed that Jesus went to hell during the three days after his death, either experiencing full punishment for our sins, or preaching to the damned, or releasing OT faithful from imprisonment (the so-called "harrowing of hell"). However, the four gospels say nothing about where Jesus was during those three days.

Why do some people believe in Jesus' descent to Hell? First, some later versions of the Apostles' Creed include the phrase "He descended into Hell," but the earliest versions don't include that phrase. (The phrase first shows up in the seventh version of the creed, in the works of Rufinus of Rome in AD 390.)

Second, some interpret 1 Pet 3:18-20 to mean that Jesus was in Hell; but most NT scholars don't think that's what Peter meant. It's a very difficult passage to understand, but it has several possible interpretations. When Peter says "He preached to the spirits in prison," it may be referring to spirits who are now in prison, but were not when he preached to them. We also don't know if he is referring to human spirits or demonic spirits. Other passages describe the cross as a proclamation of victory against the evil powers (Eph 3:10, Col 2:15). Peter may even be referring to the Spirit of Christ being preached through Noah, as he earlier said in 1 Peter 1:10-11.

Third, some people think that Ephesians 4:8-10 refers to Jesus' descent to Hell. But the passage, read carefully, probably refers to Christ's descent to earth, not Hell (note how the NIV and NLT correctly translate this passage).

So what's the bottom line? The idea that Jesus descended into Hell does not have firm scriptural support, although some believe in it based on 1 Peter 3:18-20. We should normally avoid building significant doctrines based on a single difficult passage. Whichever way you believe on this issue, this is a relatively minor issue, not one that Christians should fight over. Christ's victory on the cross and at the empty tomb is far more important than what happened during the three days between them.

The picture: Descent of Christ to Limbo, Andrea da Firenze, 1365.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mark's Secrecy (Mark 7:36)

A question that came by email:
How come in the New Testament when Jesus is performing all these miracles for the people, he repeatedly tells the people who watch him not to tell anybody? For example in Mark 7:36 it says, "Jesus told the crowd not to tell anyone, but the more he told them not to, the more they spread the news." - C.D.

It's a good question, and one that has puzzled many people. Mark doesn't tell us clearly why Jesus gave these commands, so we can't give a certain answer - but we can make some reasonable guesses.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus often asks people to keep secrets. (Gospels scholars call this the "Markan secrecy motif." Doesn't that make you feel better just knowing there's a term for it? Kind of like knowing the name of your rare disease). Jesus commands the demons not to talk about his identity (Mark 1:23-24, 2:34, 3:11-12); he tells the disciples not to testify that he is the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30); and he tells some healed people not to talk about their healing (Mark 1:44, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26). Some of these make sense - Jesus does not want the testimony of demons, and he wants the disciples to wait until the resurrection to proclaim him as Messiah. The identity of the Messiah should be understood in light of the cross.

But why does he tell some healed people to keep quiet? Here are some reasonable guesses.

1) Hype about Jesus' healing ability sometimes made his ministry impossible, as you see in Mark 2:2, 3:8-10, 8:1-4 and others. After the healed leper disobeyed Jesus and told everyone (Mk 1:44), Jesus was not even able to enter any town for a while (Mark 1:45). He wanted to be able to freely travel and minister, and the crowds made that difficult.

2) Jesus did not want to be known as just a wonder-worker, like other (supposed?) miracle-working Jews and Greeks of his time. He wanted his reputation as a healer to be tied to his teaching about the Kingdom of God and repentance. People who were only excited about the healings would spread word about his power, but not about the gospel. Jesus wanted the healings to always be accompanied by his teaching.

3) Jesus wanted to have formal testimony to his healing power, not just the rumors spread by crowds. That's why he told the leper in Mark 1:44, "Go, show yourself to the priest and offer a sacrifice for your purification." If the leper would have followed Jesus' command, the priests would have formally verified that a registered leper had been healed. Not many scholars seem to talk about this reason. However, it has the advantage of being the first time in Mark that Jesus asks a healed person to keep quiet about it. Maybe Mark wanted us to read all of the remaining healing secrecy commands in light of this first one.

The picture: an ivory carving depicting the healing of the leper (Mark 1:44), ca. AD 400.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Overthrowing Dictators

The following is an answer to a question I received by email:
What does... Romans 13:1-7 mean? It seems to conflict with our beliefs in freedom and justice.This is not what I expected because it seems to be saying that rebelling against a dictator is wrong. It's like the American Revolution and like overthrowing Saddam Hussein were sinful. So how do we reconcile this with our beliefs in freedom and justice? - Thanks, L.L.
First, it is important to know that wise and godly Christians today and throughout history have not always agreed on this issue, so we need to be humble and understanding of other people's opinions. For example, during the Revolutionary War, many Christians felt that that they should support the Revolution, but many believed that the Bible would not allow them to rebel against their king.

What did Paul mean when he wrote this passage almost 2000 years ago? At the end of Romans 12, Paul explained how Christians should respond to those who hate or persecute - by doing good and blessing. He naturally moved into the topic of how to respond to the government, which at that time was dictatorial and occasionally persecuted Christians. Paul said that the Christian's response to government injustice was not to take up arms against the government or stop paying taxes. Christians, Paul said, should obey the government as much as possible (compare to Romans 12:18). Of course, Christians should not obey the government if it tells us to disobey God (see Acts 4:18-20, for example).

What did Paul do when he was persecuted? He used the legal system to defend himself, but he never advocated violent overthrow of the government, even when he was persecuted. In fact, even after being unfairly imprisoned repeatedly, he only advised that Christians pray for rulers so that Christians could be free of persecution (1 Timothy 2:1-4). The church throughout history has generally followed this advice - when persecuted by their own government, Christians have rarely used force to resist.

This suggests (at the very least) that it should be a very rare event for Christians to ever rebel against their lawful government, although we should not obey the government if it tells us to do something clearly against God's will. We should try to use legal means to change the government as much as possible. On rare occasions, Christians have decided that they must use violence to overthrow an evil government when it is no longer a legitimate government. Since there is so little Scriptural support for such a practice, Christians should be very cautious before ever taking such an approach.

Your question about Iraq is slightly different. Paul told Christians not to rebel against their own government, but the war in Iraq is one government overthrowing another. The Bible does not give clear guidelines on when one government is justified in going to war against another. Many Christians throughout history have followed the "Just War" guidelines of the theologian Augustine. This answer is already too long, so I won't attempt to fully explain Just War (wikipedia has a good introductory article on it). The basic idea is that governments have an obligation to defend their people and to right wrongs; but governments must have just reasons for going to war and just ways of conducting war. Christians today disagree over whether the war in Iraq qualifies as a just war, and over whether there is such a thing as just war.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Some of my sermons and radio interviews are now available on a menu at right. I'll be adding more as I have time. Just click on the sermon title, and the sound will load on this page. Or click on the title ("Gary's podcast") to go to my podomatic page.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Preaching on the Exodus

I will be preaching this Sunday, May 14, at Hope Chapel West Oahu, at the 7:45 and 11:00 services. We are still in the series "Against All Odds," and this week's sermon will be on Exodus 14-15, the parting of the Red Sea. Service information and the podcast can be found on our church website.

Update, thanks to Anonymous: Oops... May 18, not 14.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Blind Devotion? (Luke 14:26)

A few weeks ago, someone asked about how to interpret Luke 14:26, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." Is this blind devotion? If so, isn't blind devotion dangerous - kind of Hitlerish?

The devotion that Jesus called for is radical, but not blind. Note the next few verses: "For which of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish it, all who see it will begin to mock him." Jesus then tells a similar parable about a king preparing for war (Luke 14: 28-32).

Jesus' point is this: we must enter the kingdom open-eyed, recognizing what it may cost. This is much like the parables of the pearl and the buried treasure in Matthew 13:44-46. It is only rational to sell everything one has to buy a property that has a fortune buried in it. In the same way, it makes sense to be willing to pay anything to gain the kingdom.

What about paying the cost of hating your family? In the parallel passage in Matthew 10:37-38, Jesus says "The one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." In Matthew's context, it is clear that Jesus is warning about the division that can come in a home when one person becomes a disciple of Jesus and others do not. In many cases, new believers can feel rejected, or even be expelled from their families. In such cases, Jesus says, one must decide which relationship to keep. In Luke 14 and Matthew 10, Jesus is saying that if you have to choose, choose him. Ideally, we don't have to choose - our non-believing family members tolerate our faith, or come to also trust in Jesus. But if they force us to make a choice - choose Jesus, every time.

Both passages remind us that the same is true of life itself. In most cases, the non-believing world allows us to keep living if we become Christians. But if it forces a choice upon us of living without Jesus or dying with Jesus - choose Jesus, every time. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

The picture: Luke 14:26, from The Brick Testament.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Josiah Sermon - correction

I know a few of you were planning on hearing me preach this weekend. There is a correction to my preaching times. I will preach at 7:45 am at our Waikele site, and then at 10:00 am at our Mililani site. You can get directions to both sites at our church website.

Note: The podcast is now available at the above website.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Big Blogger is Watching You

You may not be aware of it, but you are slightly less anonymous on the Internet than you may have thought. I have an interesting program (Google Analytics) that tells me a little about people who visit my website. It doesn't give anything personal like names and addresses, but it does tell what city you live in, how long you visit the web page, what search engine brought you to my page, and the last five embarrassing things you have thought about. (OK, maybe not the last one. But it's probably coming in version 2.0).

Here's some interesting things that I have learned about visitors to this blog since I started on March 3:
  • 145 people have visited. Thanks for stopping by!
  • People have visited from Spain (Hola, guys!), Singapore (Jia ba liao buay!), Canada (hello, eh?), Japan (Konichi wa!), Finland (Hyvää päivää!), Turkey (Iyi gunler!), England (hello!), and Rivendell (Mae govannen!).
  • But most visitors are from the USA, and mainly from Hawaii, California, and Michigan, where I have family, friends, and students.
  • Some people have visited from Kentucky. I didn't know you had the Internet there! :)
  • My most popular post was Andrew and the Jelly Bean Crisis.
  • Lots of people have come over via the link from my friend Rich's blog.
  • One person found this site by googling "pronounce Eutychus." If you're still wondering, Americans usually pronounce it "you-ti-kuss." (interesting aside: my spell-checker already recognizes "googling")
  • Two pastors were looking for sermon material on the story of Eutychus in Acts 20:7-12. I hope your sermons went well! Let me know.
  • Someone googled for a "photo healing centurion's servant." I hate to disappoint you, but they didn't have any cameras then.
  • Another person googled for "duccio raising of lazarus." A man / woman after my own heart!
  • Someone else googled "eutychus stained glass." I don't know of one. Let me know if you find one, so I can add it to my graphics collection.
  • Eleven people googled on topics related to the resurrection, and especially what Jesus taught on after the resurrection. I'll plan on writing more on that topic soon.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Kingdom for the Birds II

In an earlier post, I wrote about Jesus' parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32). The kingdom, Jesus said, was like a tiny mustard seed, hidden in the ground, that would grow into the largest garden plant. Jesus described the birds nesting in its branches to connect his parable with a similar parable about a kingdom from Ezekiel 17.

Matthew 13 has seven parables. Four of the them teach that the kingdom of God is hidden yet valuable; three explain why only some respond positively to the message of the kingdom; all of them invite us to seek the kingdom.

Why did Jesus teach this set of parables? Just before, the Pharisees make a formal decision about Jesus: "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons" (Matthew 12:24). In the remainder of Matthew 12, Jesus denounces their claim and the hearts that would produce such twisted logic. In Matthew 13, Jesus' parables explain why the Pharisees and others rejected the kingdom (bad soil, weeds, trash fish) and why Jesus' kingdom didn't look like much yet (mustard seed, yeast, pearl, treasure).

There is comfort and challenge yet in these parables. Comfort, because the kingdom still looks small and weak today, and many reject it. We kingdom citizens and kingdom soldiers know our weakness (when we are honest) and we mourn at the failures around us and in us. Challenge, because the parables call us to recognize the value of the kingdom and seek it with all our hearts.

The picture: Parable of the Sower, from Das Plenarium oder Ewangely Buoch, 1516. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Josiah Sermon

This coming weekend, April 12-13, I will be preaching at my home church, Hope Chapel West Oahu, at 6:00 pm Saturday, and 9:00 and 11:00 am Sunday. Sumo Sato, our associate pastor, will be preaching at the other services. The series is "Against All Odds" and I will be preaching on the life of King Josiah from 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35. All of our sermons are available for listening or download on the church website.

Blind Devotion and Faith (Luke 14:26)

Anonymous posted this provocative question:
There was a story in the news this week about the presidential candidates attending a prayer group. In it, they mention this verse: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)

This kind of commitment was compared to the blind devotion given to Hitler. Blind devotion and faith aren't the same thing, are they? What did Jesus mean by this verse? And (real life question...) what happens when loving God & loving our families seem to come in conflict? Who is supposed to "understand" why they can't have my full devotion or attention? Thanks so much for the blog, Gary!
Looks like there are at least three questions to tackle here: 1) What did Jesus mean in Luke 14:26? 2) What is the difference between blind (dangerous) devotion and faith? 3) What do we do when loyalties to God and family conflict?

Now is where you come in. Post your thoughts on any or all of the questions.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Kingdom for the Birds? (Matthew 13:31-32)

"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all (garden) seeds, but when it is grown, it is larger than all the herb plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32)

Why the birds? Some see the birds as symbolic of Satan, since the birds are "the evil one" in Jesus' first parable (Matt 13:19). However, symbols don't mean the same thing every time they occur. In this case, Jesus is drawing on an Old Testament image to enrich his parable. The picture of a great tree that provides a haven for birds is used three times in the OT (Ezek 17:23, 31:6; Dan 4:12). In each case, the tree is a mighty kingdom and the birds depict the majesty and blessings of that kingdom.

At first look, Jesus could be alluding to any one of these three OT passages. His wording does not perfectly match any of the three passages, which is quite normal when the NT refers to the OT. A closer look shows us that Jesus is probably echoing Ezekiel 17, which contains a provocative parable about the fall of the royal family of Israel in 586 BC. The family is a vine, which is uprooted and withers because of its unfaithfulness to its gardener. But one day, God will take a tiny twig, plant it in Jerusalem, and it will become a great cedar, "and birds of every kind will nest... in the shade of its branches."

Many Jews at the time of Jesus believed that Ezekiel 17:23 described the rule of the messianic king, ruling over a restored Jewish kingdom. The translators of the LXX (the Greek Old Testament) called the cedar "he" to make it clear that the cedar is a person (in Greek, cedar is a feminine word); and the Ezekiel Targum (an Aramaic translation, possibly from the late first century) explained that the cedar was a king from the line of David, and the birds were the "humble who dwell in the shade of his kingdom."

So Jesus ends his parable with an allusion to Ezekiel's older parable. Ezekiel's tiny twig would become a mighty cedar. Jesus' mustard seed would become a great tree. The dusty rabbi from Nazareth and his nondescript band of disciples would become a mighty kingdom, providing blessings to all who recognize the majesty of the king and his kingdom.

The picture: Jesus Teaches His Disciples, in Das Plenarium oder Ewangely Buoch, printed 1516. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.