Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Baa! We're Lambs (John 10)

Thought you might like to see this video, inspired by John 10, Matt 18 and Luke 15. There's a version with better graphics here, but it didn't have embedding enabled, so I used this version instead.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Judas' Kiss (Matthew 26:50, John 13:27)

Question: There seems to be a great difference in the translations for Matthew 26:50.

And Jesus said to him, "Friend, do what you have come for.” (NASB)
But Jesus said to him, “Friend, why have you come?” (NKJV)

It seems as if these are two completely different translations. Is there a correct one and which one is it? Also, what is the reason for italics to be used on words?

In the original Greek, the phrase in Matt 26:50 can actually be read either way, at least at first glance. In the first century, they had not yet invented the question mark, or most other punctuation for that matter. They didn't even put spaces between the words! As a result, there are a few places in the New Testament where it is a little unclear whether we should read a question or a statement.

In Matt 26:50, there are a few hints that "do what you have come for" is more likely correct, although it's not a slam dunk. First, the way it is phrased works slightly better as a question according to normal Greek grammar. Second, in the parallel passage in John 13:27, where there is no difficulty with translation, Jesus says "What you do, do quickly."

Nerd note: the phrase in question is eph ho parei (literally, "for which you are present"). You can see why it could be read as a question: "For what are you present?" But there are no other examples in the NT or in the LXX of a question starting with the preposition epi (or eph), making it a little less likely. So the other option is an implied command: "do!" There are a few other places in the NT with implied imperatives.

If you do a little looking around, you can see that most modern translations choose this option. In general, I don't advise using the NKJV, at least for the New Testament. It's not really bad - not as if you will become a heretic by reading the NKJV! But the NKJV always follows the decisions made by the translators of the 1611 KJV, even when better ancient manuscripts are found, or when scholars have learned more about how Greek works. Modern translations like the NASB, NIV, NLT, ESV, NET and RSV are all better.

You asked about italicized words in the NASB. All translators occasionally have to add words that are implied in the original languages, so that the translation will make sense in English. The NASB translators decided to italicize such words, while most other translators leave them in the same font. By the way, this is not anything to be concerned about. In English, we regularly omit words that are obvious to us. For example, if I say "I like chocolate, but not butterscotch," I am leaving out the phrase "I do not like" from the second half of the sentence. Someone translating the sentence into another language might put "I do not like" in for clarity in the other language.

Bonus: Jesus calls Judas "friend" in Matt 26:50 (hetaire in Greek). Jesus has used this word twice before in parables (Matt 20:13, 22:12). In both cases, the speaker is implying that the "friend" has taken advantage of his kindness.

Another bonus: Jesus' disciples probably normally greeted him with a kiss as a sign of respect. Anyone who didn't know Jesus would guess that he was the rabbi by seeing his disciples kiss him. So it was a very obvious way that Judas could point out the rabbi to the waiting soldiers.

The picture: The Kiss of Judas, ca. 1308, by Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

This Generation Will Not Pass Away (Matthew 24:34)

Question: In Matt 24:34, Jesus says "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." But we are still awaiting his return. I know in this text, the word 'generation' also means race, or as I heard before, 'people of the Promise'. How do you explain this passage?

Matthew 24:34 has troubled interpreters throughout Christian history! So although there are several proposed answers, none of them is entirely satisfactory. You mentioned the idea that the Greek word genea can be translated as race rather than generation. However, there are no other passages in the NT where race is the best way to translate genea. The NIV, NASB, and NLT never translate genea as race. So the best way to read the verse is as it is translated, implying that Jesus' prophecies would be fulfilled within one generation, about 40 years after his words.

The best solution is found in the context. In Jesus' sermon so far, he has listed a number of signs. These signs have to do with when the Temple will be destroyed (24:2). In fact, all of the events described in vv. 5-25 actually happened in the 40 years after Jesus gave this sermon, and the Temple was destroyed in AD 70. There was persecution, there were false Christs in the wilderness, there was an "abomination of desolation" (the presence of Gentiles in the holy place), and there were wars and earthquakes. And although we know that the Gospel had not yet been literally preached to all nations (Matt 24:12), Paul was quite willing to say that the Gospel had been "proclaimed to all creation under heaven" (Col 1:23) by the 50s.

Jesus makes it quite clear that these signs are not signs of the end (Matt 24:8), but signs of the end of the Temple. Jesus only clearly speaks of his return in 24:29-31. He says that "after the tribulation of those days," the Son of Man will return. In other words, the signs that will occur within a generation are the signs of the destruction of the Temple, but the return of Christ will be at some point after the destruction of the Temple. That time is unknown to everyone, even the Son (24:36, 42-44). The "these things" of v. 34 refers to the "these things" of v. 33 and v. 8 - which are all signs of the destruction of the Temple.

So the destruction of the Temple will happen within a known period of time (one generation, 40 years), but the return of Christ will happen at an unknown time. The "immediate" language is related to what the rest of the chapter teaches: we must always be ready for the immediate return of Christ. Since the fall of Jerusalem, every generation of Christians has had to be ready for Christ to return.

This is admittedly not a perfect explanation! But here are the other options: 1) Jesus predicted his return within 40 years, but he was wrong; 2) Jesus did return within 40 years, but in some metaphorical fashion rather than literally; 3) "this generation" refers not to Jesus' generation, but the future generation right before Christ returns. None of these explanations really fit the evidence of the passage very well.

How does this matter to Christians today? Jesus gives the relevance in the following parables (24:45-25:30): Jesus' followers must be busy doing his work, since he could come back for "inspection" at any moment. In the first parable, the slave wrongly thought that his master would be late; in the second parable, the bridesmaids wrongly thought that the bridegroom would come early. The point of the parables is not to panic about the imminent return of Christ, but rather to keep busy doing the work of a disciple of Jesus.

The picture: The crowning of Aragorn from Return of the King. Tolkien's portrayal of the prophesied king is influenced by the Bible's portrait of Jesus as returning King. Tolkien's publisher picked the title Return of the King for the third volume of Lord of the Rings; Tolkien was reportedly quite irate that the title "gave away the whole story."

Eutychus Drama

At a recent chapel at Pacific Rim Bible College, where I teach, students had to quickly perform odd scenes from the Bible. Here is their performance of the story of Eutychus (Acts 20).


Paul: Paul Kiriakos

Eutychus: Justin Masuda

Audience: Sabeth Erungel and Christina Youngs

Stunt crew: Antonio Criado and Michael Soraoka

Chair: Gabe Diaz

Victory at Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4-7)

The following is a devotional that I wrote for my church's Bible reading plan.

1 Samuel 4-7
This section of Scripture starts and ends with the people of God at war against the Philistines in a place called Ebenezer (“Rock of Help”). After being defeated in the first round of battle, the elders of the nation decide to bring out the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the presence of God. The presence of the Ark had brought victory to Israel before. (Remember that line in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it… is invincible.”) The presence of the Ark even terrifies the opposing army and convinces them that they are about to be destroyed (1 Sam 4:6-9). But it is not enough. The army of Israel is defeated, the two sons of the high priest are killed, and the Ark is taken captive by the Philistines. Eli, the high priest, falls down dead when he hears the news, and his newborn grandson is named Ichabod, “the glory has departed,” as a sign of mourning.

About a year later (after a number of fascinating and even humorous events that bring the Ark back to Israel), the army of Israel again fights the Philistines at Ebenezer. But this time, although they don’t bring out the Ark, Israel is victorious and casts off the oppression of the Philistines. What happened to make the difference? Why did the first army fail, and why did the second army succeed?

The first army suffered from fatal flaws. First, they thought that religious ritual alone could bring victory and blessing. There is no sign that they did anything else to honor God – just brought out the Ark. Like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they thought that mere possession of the Ark would grant power. Second, Israel relied on immoral leaders. God had already warned Eli the high priest that they were in danger because his two sons were breaking the priestly laws, extorting gifts from worshipers, and sleeping with the women who were appointed to serve in the Tabernacle (1 Sam 2:15-25). These were not the men to carry the Ark and bring the presence of God before the people.

Why did the second army succeed? Samuel led the people into an inner transformation that went beyond just ritual. He helped them experience the real presence of God in their lives rather than trying to control God by bringing out the Ark. Samuel called the people to take inner and outer steps of repentance as they turned to God. They got rid of their idols to other gods, they fasted, prayed and confessed their sins; and when they went off to battle, Samuel remained behind, offering a sin sacrifice and praying for the people (1 Sam 7:3-10).

We cannot expect blessing, whether as a whole congregation or as individual Christians, if we think that religious ritual alone pleases God. We are sometimes tempted to think that God has to bless if we attend everything we are supposed to. We sometimes expect victory because we experience emotional worship or because we make great promises to God. But the story of the victory at Ebenezer reminds us that God delights in genuine repentance and utter faithfulness to him. Both Samuel and the sons of Eli used religious ritual – but it only Samuel’s that was acceptable to God. Samuel’s ritual (the sin sacrifice) was valuable because it was connected to genuinely transformed hearts. I believe that any ritual we participate in – whether it is worship, communion, baptism, laying on of hands, fasting or any other common Christian practice – only matters to God if it represents repentant and transformed hearts.

Lord, as a church, we want to please you and experience your blessing. Please help our hearts to match our Christian habits and rituals. Cause us to seek repentance and transformation, not merely empty ritual. And Father, we pray that all the rituals that we practice will be pleasing to you because they represent the reality of your presence in us.