30 March 2020

The Law of Christ

The Law of Christ is a strange phrase found in certain passages of the New Testament. It is never defined in any book included in the Bible. In Galatians 6:2 the phrase appears to mean to "bear one another's burdens," possibly referring to Jesus's assertion of the greatest commandments in Matthew 22:36-40 being to "love the Lord your God" and "love your neighbor as yourself." In Matthew, Jesus asserts that "the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." Still, the question remains, if there is some law to which Christians are to adhere, what is it?

In Genesis 9:1-17 God makes a covenant with Noah, which is offered to him and all his descendants (all of humanity). This passage is sometimes referred to as the Noahide Law, because of the requirements of the covenant. God promises prosperity, and asks for Noah to adhere to a code of righteousness: to eat no meat of an animal which is still living, to avoid eating blood, to not murder, and to take an accounting (this is thought to mean to establish courts of justice). This law will be largely echoed in Acts 15.

In Genesis 17, God makes another covenant with the nation of Israel and in Exodus 20 gives them the Ten Commandments. These are sometimes numbered differently in different Biblical traditions. In Exodus, only the first two commandments, "I am Yahweh your God... You shall have no other gods before me" and "You shall not make for yourselves an idol... you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them" are written in the first person. The rest of the commandments are written in the third person. This has led some to believe that the first two commandments are required by God for salvation while the others give a guide to the way of righteousness. Regardless, it is important to note that these are part of God's covenant with Israel, and not part of any covenant given to Gentiles (non-Jews).

In Acts 15:1-29, the leaders of the primordial Church (the Church as it was established in the First Century, immediately following Jesus' resurrection) are debating whether the Law of Moses should be required of all Christians. Peter, having received a vision that God had already accepted the Gentile Christians and made them clean even without adherence to the Law, and having witnessed them receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost, argued that no law should be given to them. Instead, the council wrote a letter, with recommendations to smooth over relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians. These included abstaining from "[food] sacrificed to idols, from blood, from [meat of] strangled [animals], and from sexual immorality" (Acts 15:29).

So what is required of Christians? When we are told that Christ Jesus died for all, there are no restrictions placed on that. He died that all may be saved. There is no law given to us. Salvation comes by God having called us, Christ having made us clean, and the Holy Spirit having chosen to dwell within us. The evidence of salvation therefore is the Holy Spirit. The "law" of Acts 15 is that we attempt to live together in peace. In Matthew it is that we love God and love our neighbors. In Exodus, it is that we embrace God and God alone. In Genesis, it is that we act with justice for ourselves, for each other, and for the natural world, of which we are stewards.

We are saved because God has chosen us. We are righteous because God has shown us how to be righteous and even forgives our shortcomings when we fail to be righteous.

Peace be with you.

27 March 2020

Luke 4:1-13 The Testing of Jesus

4:1 Jesus is "full of the Holy Spirit," is a phrase that indicates that he is being led by God and is empowered to achieve God's purpose.

4:2 In the wilderness, Jesus is to be tested for forty days. Different Bibles will translate this word differently as "tempted" or "tested." Its meaning can vastly change the reading of the passage. It is important to consider the context. Jesus has just received the Holy Spirit, become the Son of God, and is about to start his work as a teacher and as the Messiah. Is he being tempted? To what purpose? Is he being tested? For what role? The other important note about this verse is that Jesus is tested for 40 days. In Hebrew numerology, "40" means "until a task is complete." It is typically an indeterminate amount of time, not to be taken literally, but rather to indicate that at the end, the task was completed. What is Jesus's task in the wilderness? What must be completed before he can leave?

Luke tells us that when the forty days were completed, Jesus was hungry. Because of the symbolism, we can conclude that he was completely hungry, desperately so: he was starving. Religious fasting is a common practice. The deprivation of food brings us to a place that is closer to God. This is because there is no pain quite like hunger. And it is a pain with a quick and obvious resolution. Jesus is driven to a level of desperation that truly tests him. He cannot think clearly, his body slows, and his mind continually turns only to a single thought: food. This is not a fair test. When the devil comes in verse 3, he has a clear advantage.

4:3 The devil chooses the low hanging fruit: food. Jesus is starving, there is nothing he wants more. It is well within his power, a power which God gave him. All he has to do is command a stone to become bread. What could be wrong with that? In the first chapter of Genesis, God brings order to the chaos of the world. He names all things and gives them purpose. Jesus could do the same thing here, take a purposeless stone and give it purpose.

4:4 However, Jesus only uses his divine gifts to help others. He chooses to accept his purpose in God's plan and reminds the devil of his purpose.

4:5-7 The devil tells Jesus that the world does not have to operate by God's plan. It can operate by Jesus's plan instead. All the devil requires for this transfer of power is for Jesus to worship him.

4:8 Jesus again quotes the scripture and affirms God's plan.

4:9-12 The devil shows that he too can quote scripture. He reminds Jesus that God will protect him always. Jesus replies with scripture, showing that while the devil can be technically right, he can still come to the wrong conclusion simply by emphasizing the wrong passages of scripture.

How might you apply this passage to your life? For me, I think that I may be lonely or suffering, but God has a plan for me. God is leading me by the presence of the Holy Spirit. In time, that plan may be revealed. When it is, I will be ready with the Holy Spirit in my heart, divine purpose at my back, and the scripture tempering me through times of trouble and abundance alike.

Peace be with you.

26 March 2020

Know That You Are Not Alone

Becoming a Christian means becoming part of a family. Just like your Earthly family, your Christian family is forever. Wherever you go, no matter how far, you will always be family. When you are alone, know that you are still in the thoughts of your family, just as they are in your thoughts. When you feel isolated, know that God is with you always. Just as David said in Psalm 139, "Where could I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in [the depths], behold, you are there! If I take the wings of the dawn, and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will hold me" ( 139:7-10).

God will always be with you. You will always be part of a family. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, "Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually (27). For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many (12-14)." Even though you are far away, God is still present, and you are still part of a family which loves you.

You may wonder how you can know that God is with you. Paul answers this in verse 3 of the same chapter. "Therefore I make known to you that no [one] speaking by God’s Spirit says, 'Jesus is accursed.' No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' but by the Holy Spirit." So say it aloud, as a prayer to God and feel the Spirit, feel the divine presence, though we Christians are far away, we are gathered in spirit, and where two or three are gathered, the Spirit of God is there (Matt 18:20). So let us pray together,

"Jesus, our Lord, blessed redeemer, Son of Love, may we feel your presence now and know that we are never alone. God please live within us and be our vitality. In you we live, and move, and have our being. In you we our bound together, no matter how far apart we may be. Your gifts of love, and healing, compassion, and communication, are evidence of your presence. In you we are blessed. Though there are many who have more or less, you inspire us to share until in you, we are made equal. Give us peace in solitude, Lord, until we meet again. In the name of Jesus, Amen!"

Brothers and Sisters, may God's peace dwell with you. Amen.

25 March 2020

Starting the Gospel: Luke 1-3

Luke 1:1-4 Introduction

1:1 The Gospel of Luke is not unique. It is one of four gospels included in the New Testament, and one of over 30 gospels known to exist at the time of it's writing.

1:2 Luke's gospel is comprised of the teachings of the Apostles, but Luke himself was not an Apostle. He is not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus or to the events he records.

1:3 Luke establishes his credentials, he has researched the events of Jesus's life and his teachings. This is why he chooses to write an “orderly account” or “narrative.” This could also be considered a story. Luke identifies his intended reader as “most excellent Theophilus” which may have been an actual person, but it is important to not that the name also translates as “Pursuer of God,” and so could be applied to any believer.

1:4 Luke's intended reader is not a new convert to the faith or an unbeliever, but someone who has heard the Gospel and wants to know more. Luke's goal is to show the certainty of the Gospel by giving a well researched and detailed account, complete with names, places, and dates. This does not mean that it is a factually accurate historical record. It is still a story, or narrative.

Luke 1:5-25 Birth of John the Baptist Foretold / Luke 1:26-38 Birth of Jesus Foretold

Luke proceeds to tell two stories in parallel, the story of two cousins, John and Jesus. John is to be the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Jesus is to be the son of Joseph and Mary. Zechariah and Elizabeth are too old to have children, while Joseph and Mary are too young to have children. While these pregnancies are notable, they are far from miraculous. Mary ans Zechariah are each visited by an angel and told what name to give their sons. Zechariah does not believe and is silenced, while Mary responds with wonder and goes to her cousin Elizabeth to share the good news.

Luke 1:39-45 Mary Visits Elizabeth, Luke 1:46-56 Mary's Song (1 Sam 2:1-10)

While Mary is visiting her cousin, she sings a song. This song is a parallel to both the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and the song in Luke 1:67-80, Zechariah's Song. Elizabeth does not get a song, but her situation is identical to Hannah's in 1 Samuel, which invites a comparison between John the Baptist and Samuel, last of the judges and first of the prophets.

Luke 1:57-66 The Birth of John the Baptist

Once John is born and Zechariah names him, Zechariah's silence is ended and he praises God, much to the astonishment of his friends and relatives.

Luke 2:1-21 The Birth of Jesus

This story runs parallel to the birth of John the Baptist. When Mary gives birth, she is visited by Shepherd who marvel at the wondrous child. Unlike Zechariah, she remains silent and contemplates the meaning of what is happening.

Luke 2:22-40 Jesus Presented at the Temple

Forty days after Jesus's birth, he is taken to the Temple in Jerusalem. This is to complete Mary's ritual purification after having given birth and to induct their firstborn son into the faith with the sacrifice required in Leviticus 12:1-8.

Mary and Joseph are met by two strange figures, Simeon and Anna. Each identify Jesus as the coming Messiah. They make reference to the idea that the Messiah will end the rule of Rome in Israel. They consider Jesus to be the coming of an earthly king who will set Israel free and forever displace (or even kill) all the foreigners occupying Israel.

Luke 2:41-52 Jesus Returns to the Temple at 12 years old

Jesus and his family visit the Temple in Jerusalem, as they do every year. This year, however, Jesus stays behind while his parents leave with the caravan. After searching, Jesus's parents find him in the Temple, which he calls, “my Father's house.”

Luke 3:1-2 Setting the Date

This passage mentions a number of names and dates which would be familiar to the reader at the time the book was written. Luke gives names familiar to Jews of the era but also to those of the larger Roman world.

Luke 3:3 John's Baptism

When John preaches baptism, it is not a new idea. There was already a baptism of ritual purification. What John's baptism introduced was the idea of repentance. To repent is to commit to a specific change in a person's life and to take the action necessary to live that change. Compare this to the idea of offering sacrifices, and it is clear that John is preaching that forgiveness should not come at a cost.

Luke 3:4-6 Prophesy About John

This prophesy is taken from IIsaiah 40:3-5.

Luke 3:7-20 John Speaks of the Messiah

When John addresses the crowd as a “brood of vipers,” it is because of their beliefs about the Messiah. At this time, it was believed that the Messiah would come for Israel, and only Israel, that he would drive out the Romans, and indeed all foreigners, and that he would rule Israel and keep its borders safe for all time. This nationalist idea is immediately dismissed by John who declares “out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

John corrects this idea by defining what lines the Messiah will expect of those he saves, that the rich share with the poor, and that those in power do not abuse those under their authority.

Luke 3:21-22 John Baptizes Jesus

Jesus is baptized by John. At this time, the Father declares from Heaven, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” However, in the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Luke, this same passage reads, “Today you have become my son.” This is an important distinction, because it means (as it is suggested elsewhere in the book) that in the mind of the original author of the Gospel of Luke, there was nothing inherently divine about Jesus.

Luke 3:23-38 Genealogy of Jesus

Many people skip over reading this list of names, but there are a number of important entries in Jesus's genealogy. For one, it starts with Joseph. This is because Jesus is, in the oldest manuscript, the literal son (yes, in the normal way) of Joseph.

Joseph is a descendant of David, the second King of Israel, who united the kingdom and from whose line the Messiah must come. David is a descendant of Judah who is the founder of the Tribe of Judah. Judah is a descendant of Abraham, who is the father of the entire nation of Israel, their common ancestor. Abraham is a descendant of Noah, whose apocalypse is very similar to the concept of the Messiah in Jesus's time. Noah is a descendant of Adam, the first human, whose name means “Man” and so Jesus is a Son of Man. Adam is noted here as the Son of God, and so Jesus is also a Son of God.

These titles are taken directly from his genealogy, and it is entirely possible that in Luke's mind, Jesus was only as much a “Son of Man” or “Son of God” insomuch as any other human being. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, but anyone could have been.

23 March 2020

The Danger of Following Your Conscience

After the death of Moses, Joshua led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. The book of Judges takes place after he has died and Israel has been occupied by a foreign power, the Philistines. Often repeated throughout the book are variations on the statement, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 WEB).

In a way, this is Israel's “Old West” period. There is no one to enforce the law, so people do whatever they like. Without a law, and without a government, the people are left to fend for themselves. The depravity to which the people of ancient Israel sank may best be demonstrated in Judges 17-18.

In this one story, there is idolatry, theft, covetousness, and murder. Four out of the ten commandments are broken by a family, a priest, and an entire tribe, simply because “everyone did that which was right in his own eyes.”

Authority figures are not always right. They fail as often as the rest of us flawed humans. But by following God, reading his word, being part of a community of faith, and following our spiritual leaders, hopefully we can do better than how we might if we were to simply follow our consciences.

Peace be with you.

20 March 2020

Why Don't Our Bibles All Say the Same Thing?

It is a common belief among Christians that the Bible is a singular ancient text. It's Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and predates Christianity, having all been written before 100 BC. It's New Testament was written in Greek and its books were written between 50 AD and 400 AD. That is the picture Sunday School paints for us; pretty simple right? Except that the textual history of the scripture is nowhere near that simple, and this is largely why our Bibles differ.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. It's earliest books are thought to be written between 50-70 AD, with some being written as late as 300 AD. During this period (pre-450 AD), most of the copying of these books was being done by uneducated Christians, whoever happened to be able to write. In that time, literacy was rare, and often part of job training. You learned to read and/or write in much the same way one might learn to work a cash register today. If you learned both to read and write (not just one or the other), you were probably very well-educated.

The problem that comes with this is that early copies of New Testament book were riddled with errors. Scribes also had no problem with changing an author's words for the sake of clarity, redacting, revising, or even just adding in their own opinion. Some letters were even forged, written in the name of apostles long dead, 1 Peter being the most notorious example which still exists in our Bible today.

Today, there are more differences between the words of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.

A similar problem exists with the Old Testament. In 70 AD, Rome burned the Temple in Jerusalem, destroying the most ancient copies of the Old Testament that existed up to that time. If there was ever a definitive copy of the scripture, it would have been there. However, when we look at ancient texts from that time, preserved from all across the Near East, it shows that the Old Testament existed in several languages at the same time. Readings in synagogues could have been in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or whatever other language was spoken in that area. Readings may have been from any of up to seven languages.

In the New Testament, all of the Old Testament quotes are taken from the Septuagint, a version of the Old Testament in Greek that was written somewhere between 300-100 BC. This is thought to be the most commonly available version of scripture at the time of the New Testament's writing. Often, this will lead to the quotes in the New Testament differing from what is in the Old Testament because the translators used a different text for the Old Testament. Most likely, translation would have been done from the Masoretic Text, a version of the Old Testament in Hebrew dating back to around 1000 AD, and still in use today in Jewish synagogue services.

It is a common belief that there are singular sources for books of the Bible. However, at the time of Christ, one could compare any two different copies of the Old Testament and they would not say exactly the same thing. In 300 AD, when the New Testament was largely finished, the same situation existed, no two copies of any book were identical, even in the same language. This problem is compounded with extant copies of the Old Testament in 70-300 AD existing in several languages, in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and others, each with their own differences between copies.

How do we know what the real, original, word of God is if we cannot determine what its original words were? We study it. We analyze its themes, its history, and just like the Bereans of the Acts 17, we compare the texts. When something looks off, we pray. We hold to what we know is true, that God is love, is just, is faithful, and that God is there in our times of need. This is how we judge the truth of Scripture, and in those cases where it does not seem right, we accept that we will understand it all in good time.

Peace be with you.