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.