Bart, Interrupted

Bart Ditched His Bible and He Wants You to Do the Same

A review of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart

From the Top, the Bottom Line

Bart D. Ehrman has thoroughly researched the Bible and he is thoroughly convinced is a merely human invention.  On that basis, he ditched his Bible and became an agnostic (officially a “doubter” that there is a God, functionally an atheist) and he wants you to do the same.  Jesus, Interrupted is nothing more or less than the “science” of historical criticism warmed over and plated in a way to appeal to the widest possible audience.  The book is not worth your time.

Meet Bart

Dr. Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of – get this – Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  If an avowed agnostic directing a department of religious studies sounds oxymoronic, you may not need to read the rest of this review.  You already get his schtick.

Visit his website and you’ll find Dr. Bart is a media darling.  If Oprah were still dosing out daily secular culture, she would have Dr. Bart on the show as a regular.  Not content to poison the waters of academia (he says that nearly all the experts agree with him anyway), Bart has set his site on the general public.  It is his method to make this one-sided academic as folksy as possible so that more of us bumpkins will follow his lead.  All that’s necessary is that you trust Dr. Bart implicitly when he says this is this and that is not what you thought it was.

He claims that his aim is not to tear down anyone’s faith, but his use of language, repetition, and his one-sided, single-minded propagandizing give the lie to that claim.  Whether his real motive is to increase his fame, enlarge his followers, please his dog Billy, or what I don’t know.  I do know that nobody goes to all this trouble for some selfless “Dragnet”-like presentation of “just the facts.”  There is no reason to trust someone who possessed faith and recanted it (see 1 John 2:18-19 and 1 John 2:26-27; 5:10-11; 2 John 7-10).

Bart, Interrupted

If, for now, the reader hesitates, wondering if I am oversimplifying or overstating my case, let me offer the subtitle of the book; “Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them).”  No, I’m not making this stuff up.  When you get beyond the cover, that kind of thing is repeated several times each chapter.  Unless I missed something on Dr. Bart’s website, none of his degrees are in history.  Just keep that in mind as he identifies himself as a historian.  Now we’ll take a look at some of the details and see if there are answers to Dr. Bart’s rhetoric.

  1. Dr. Bart’s Thesis. “My thesis here is that not only is the Bible a very human book, but that Christianity as it has developed and come down to us today is a very human religion.”  (p. 226)
  2. Dr. Bart’s Personal Application. “The Christian claim that their religion is also divinely inspired is a theological view that historians have no way of evaluating; historians don’t have access to God, only to what happens here on earth and in front of our eyes – or in front of someone else’s eyes.  I personally do not accept this view any longer (though I once did); but as you will see in the final chapter, the historical findings I am discussing here do not necessarily lead to my personal agnostic conclusions.” (p. 227)
  3. Dr. Bart’s Main Points. Why you too should not believe the Bible is the Word of God.

a. The Bible is just a human book because we don’t really know who wrote these books. Under intense scrutiny experts in language and history find differences in books attributed to the same author.  Dr. Bart helpfully supplies a number of reasons why someone would write a book claiming to be someone else.  He concludes that this kind of duplicity is damning evidence of the unreliability of the Bible.  That suits his case, but does it really matter?  Is it impossible that God could inspire someone who wrote under a pseudonym?  Comments like these delve into minutiae, constructing mountains out of molehills.  Even if we give them this point, does it make any real difference?

b. The Bible is just a human book because we don’t like some of the things written there. This is the most convenient part of the opinions of Dr. Bart and his fellows; find something disagreeable almost everywhere they look.

Generally speaking, people with Dr. Bart’s point of view are Modernists who haven’t got the memo.  They think the scientific method is all that and a bag of chips.  So, let’s start by assuming an evolutionary frame of mind: what’s new (and incidentally trendy) is better.  Only things that bow to the idol of reason or can be observed by the five senses are true: everything else is opinion, not fact.  The short list of things cut down by this perspective include the non-scientific, extrasensory, and politically incorrect. Misogyny.  Homophobia.  Miracles.  Divinity (the supernatural, not the fudge-like stuff grandma made at Christmas).  Prophecy.  Inerrancy.  Infallibility.  Inspiration.  Capitalism.

c. The Bible is just a human book because the selection of the canon was done by the Church. Dr. Bart’s opinions rely on viewing these complex issues through a single lens; a “scientific historian” one.  A modern, Western, scientific historical one.  A viewpoint that looks like his.  Put on your cardigan and suit coat with the leather elbow patches.  A scraggly beard and glasses would help.

d. The Bible is just a human book because other ancient writers said so. As non-Christians, what would you expect?  People outside the faith aren’t going to credit it as true.  If Christianity competed with their worldview, they’d ignore it, decry it, or minimalize it.

e. Because the Bible is just a human book, we’ve entirely missed the point on Jesus; he actually was just an “apocalyptic Jewish prophet.” Yeah, try that on for size.  Is anyone else seeing this as a conclusion strikingly similar to Muhammed’s take on Jesus; “just another prophet?”

4. Dr. Bart’s Methods.

a. “I’m a doctor, trust me.” Bart D. Ehrman wants to spare the reader the tedious work of studying these matters (a worthy goal) and independent thinking (an unworthy goal).  He may sincerely believe he’s giving us the benefit of his lifelong search for the “historical Jesus,” but he repeatedly resorts to the equivalent of “just take my word on this.”

Would some statistics or facts help or harm his position?  He frequently resorts to generalities “lots, many, most” that could just as easily be oversimplification or exaggeration.  Dr. Bart does offer examples of passages that support his views, but he also claims that there are “lots” more of these in the Bible.  How about a list?  Generalized, exaggerated, inflated statements like these typically betray someone trying to sound more knowledgeable than they really are.  (Ooops.  Was that ironic?  Am I trying to do the same thing to Dr. Bart that he’s done to the reader?)

b. “Eight out of ten doctors of religious studies in liberal universities agree with me.” OK, I am clearly overstating this to make a point.  Since when does orthodoxy equal popularity?  When a writer appeals to popularity as a basis for authority, reasonable discourse is less possible.  Again, it’s the kind of thing you write if you want to sound authoritative without actually supplying evidence.

c. “People who believe in divine inspiration are biased, ignorant, and unsophisticated.” This is implied, not stated, but it’s a mood that clings to the book like cigarette smoke to a bowling shirt.

d. “I can trace my philosophic lineage back to Schweitzer and Bauer and they lived a long time ago.” Albert Schweitzer became a Unitarian and denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Walter Bauer’s thesis (one that Dr. Ehrman seems to embrace) was that one version of Christianity triumphed over the others and won the title “orthodox” (correct belief).  You can – as “historians” often do – blame Constantine for that.  The fact the other Christian beliefs existed is, to Dr. Bart, a sure sign that a human process was at work and orthodoxy is just a human invention.

e. “Let me remind you.” There is a sentence that is rephrased but appears often in this book.  It is the same assertion made in the subtitle; the Bible is just not trustworthy.  It is the same old “full of errors and contradictions” stuff that people spout just because they’ve heard it from somebody in authority.  That kind of repetition is pedantic, propagandistic.

5. Where I agree.

a. If you define “historian” as a guy like Dr. Bart, then I agree with his contention that such people are unqualified to judge the supernaturality of anything. However, he uses that as a point for rejecting anything of the divine, so I guess he thinks maybe he is qualified after all.  I suspect it is a rhetorical device for avoiding discussion of anything he doesn’t want to discuss.

b. When someone claims as a statement of faith that the Bible is “inspired in its original autographs (first copies),” that is a cop-out. We simply do not have the original documents.  It’s not a great leap of faith to say, “We believe God inspired the original authors, but these copyists we’re not too sure about.”  Make a statement about the Bible in your hands or say nothing at all.

c. Bible interpreters DO need to do more of what Dr. Bart calls “horizontal reading,” making comparisons in biblical passages. “Vertical reading” is very much akin to cherry-picking and taking quotes out of context.  Every Bible study and sermon needs to examine the text in literary, cultural, and historical contexts.  More horizontal reading will lead to less error and be less prone to eisegesis (interpreting from preconceptions first).

d. There are things in the Bible that require, at least, some mental gymnastics to fit together and fit in a systematic theology. The Bible itself seems to offer resistance to making easy generalizations.  Exceptions and challenging passages are numerous.  However, in my experience, they rarely – if ever – amount to much.  For example, how did Judas die?  Who cares?  I have struggled to harmonize the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection.  It can be done.  Is it important?  Not really.

e. Introducing us to some of the books that did NOT make the canon (were not included in our Bible), Dr. Bart supplies good reasons for their NOT being included, though he does not say that. Some of the stuff in this non-canonical works is just goofy.

f. “In traditional Christianity the Bible itself has never been an object of faith.” (p. 225) There is a line that is crossed when knowledge of the Bible becomes the primary or sole means of salvation.  It is a line drawn by the beholder, but it’s there just the same.  The object of our faith is Christ; the Bible is one means Christ has been revealed to us.  I try to refrain from “bibliolatry” as I call it.  If this is Dr. Ehrman’s point, then I agree.

6. Where I disagree.

a. Despite his claims to the contrary, Dr. Bart does want to persuade the reader to adopt his opinion. Generously, he allows you to make up your own mind how you apply it to life or faith.  That does not change the fact that his aim is to create a new orthodoxy and is trying to make it as appealing to a mass audience as possible.  (After all, who wants to be “unsophisticated” or “unscientific?”)

b. Proving that people had something to do with the Bible does not prove its unreliability as a written revelation of God. It proves that historically, people were involved.  Dr. Bart won’t even speculate that God might’ve been providentially involved in a process that can be historically described.

c. Dr. Bart has exercised his imagination in providing an alternative and thoroughly secular view to the development of the Bible and Christianity. Take the same set of facts and look at them from a theological viewpoint and other explanations arise.

d. When is Dr. Bart going to apply his critical expertise to the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita? When are other sacred writing exposed to this withering scrutiny?  How would this kind of prickly expose be received by Muslims or Hindus?

e. What you won’t find Dr. Bart discussing are the facts that the Bible was penned by nearly 40 authors over a period of 1600 years. It would be a statistical impossibility to achieve the internal integrity shown by the Bible.  You won’t find the same level of consistency in the Quran, Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Gita, though they are all reputedly written by a single person.

f. If 90% of the Bible (as a completely arbitrary figure, giving Dr. Bart too much credit) is self-consistent and 10% is not, it does not make sense to write a whole book about the 10% and claim it discredits 100% of the book.

g. I don’t accept Dr. Bart’s viewpoint as solely conclusive. I don’t trust him and view his generalizations, simplifications, and exaggerations with suspicions.  Indeed, our modern predilection toward viewing the scientific method as being THE test of truth is self-serving.

h. Portions of the Bible identify itself as inspired. For example, Peter viewed Paul’s writings as Scripture (see 2 Peter 3:15-16).  Dr. Bart speculates that Paul did not write his letters thinking of them as Scripture because he nowhere asserted such a claim.  That’s merely an argument from silence.  If historians find God inaccessible, what makes him think he can access Paul’s mind?  I would think a disciplined historian would not make unproveable assertions.

i. People who want to find fault always do. If Christianity had emerged whole cloth and Scripture was easy to harmonize, then people like Dr. Bart would still cry foul.  Imagine four people on the corners of an intersection.  Their accounts of a traffic accident occurring in their midst would not agree in all the details and significant differences may occur.  Does that make the witnesses liars?  Could not the explanation of the accident that accounts for the greater portion of the witness accounts be assumed to be an accurate portrayal of the accident?  Look at all the commentary on JFK’s assassination.  Is there no way to evaluate all that evidence, mitigating biases, to come up with a rational explanation?

He cries foul because, given some factoids and imagination, he can trace the development of the Bible and Christianity as a merely human set of actions (a conspiracy?).  The presence of what I call “human fingerprints” and a historical paper trail do not disprove the role of the supernatural in what we call orthodoxy today.  This is political correctness and modernity masquerading as scholarship.

j. Textual criticism and historical criticism are not methods of study that inevitably lead to Dr. Bart’s conclusions. That’s called bias, Dr. Bart, and that’s the charge you lay at the feet of the church fathers.

k. It’s counter-intuitive to contend, as Dr. Bart does, that a theology was formed and then sacred writings were cooked up to justify them. A simpler explanation is that the theology was received by writings that were later regarded as sacred.  Whether the canonizing councils always did right and for the right reasons merely proves their humanity, not their inaccuracy.

l. “Amazingly, virtually every time a new document is found, it is ‘heretical’ rather than ‘proto-orthodox.” (p. 215) Please don’t be distracted by the jargon; Dr. Ehrman’s point is that archaeology typically disproves the Bible.  Here’s another of those generalizations I told you about.  Dr. Bart wants us to take his word on this.  Here’s why; the movement of historical criticism of the Bible predates the establishment of the science of archaeology.  Germans like Schweitzer and Bauer were skeptical of the historicity of the Bible because, in part, there was so little evidence to examine.  But then people started digging stuff up.  Archaeology was born.  For example, no contemporary records for the existence of Pontius Pilate had been found and skeptics famously insisted the Bible was wrong on that point.  Then a monument was unearthed bearing his name.  Ooops.  Did any of those “experts” recant?

I will commit the same kind of gross generalization Dr. Bart does and say my perception is that the findings of these digs consistently uphold the Bible as an authentic statement of ancient history.  I wonder if there is any reliable statistical data to support either of us?  What Dr. Bart perceives is no doubt the bias of the people he’s read.  Me too, probably.

Throw out the whole point.  What difference does it make if historical evidence can be found?  The very nature of faith is that it operates independently of secular and physical evidence.  Who agreed that reason and/or the human brain and senses should be exalted as the final authority?  That kind of idolatry serves the skeptics, so they insist on it.  Phooey.

m. Dr. Bart is fairly transparent in writing that for him personally, the sticky wicket of Christianity is not claims of divine inspiration of the Bible, but the problem of suffering.  The existence of evil and suffering is a deal breaker.

I find this disappointing because it is a superficial complaint, even an excuse too-frequently offered.  Some people can’t (or won’t) reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with a god who is perfect in love or power.  Because bad things happen, god must either be imperfect or the whole thing is an exercise in wishful thinking.  This is the objection that grounded the faith of Charles Templeton, a close friend of the late Rev. Billy Graham.  In the 1940s, Templeton and Graham were in a kind of competition to establish ministries as mass evangelists.  It wasn’t so much that Graham won the race as Templeton chose to drop out.  He witnessed atrocious suffering and lost his faith, becoming a notorious atheist. Obviously, Billy Graham kept faithful to his faith and went on to impart it to countless others.  (This is merely an example.  I do not offer it as a proof of anything.)

There are many things that can be offered in answer to this problem.  As many of them are derived from the Bible, one wonders if Dr. Bart would receive them at all.  There is not space enough to address this issue here, so instead I encourage to read his Bible and to reason it out as well.  Quite simply, there is evil in the world and it creates suffering in its wake.  God allows suffering as a worldly outcome of free will and utilizes it, redeeming it, as a means of refining our faith.  An image of god that is only pleasant is another exercise of imagination and a “straw doggie” set up because it is easy to knock down; another rhetorical trick.

 

Advertisements

A Forever Kind of Love

God’s love is eternally expressed in Jesus Christ.

Please read Psalm 89 in your Bible.  I used the NIV to research my remarks.

Picture the usual Christmas scene and focus on the husband and wife opening their gifts to each other.  This is one of those moments in life when something funny is bound to happen.

The husband pointed to an ill-wrapped package and said, “Open that one next.”

The wife picked up gift and unwrapped it, opening it to find one of those obnoxious singing-and-dancing robot Christmas trees. She is a bit shocked, remembering how just days ago she had pointed out how much she hated those things when she and her husband were shopping together.

Holding it at arm’s length she said, “Weren’t you listening when I said I thought these were the most annoying things ever?”

“Open that other gift,” the husband said, pointing to a long package that is even more poorly wrapped and is very heavy.

His wife set down the robotic Christmas tree as if it were radioactive.  She opened the second package to reveal a sledgehammer.

“Is this for what I think it’s for?”

The husband replied, “And you thought I wasn’t paying attention!”

<Adapted from https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/funny-christmas-jokes/ on 12/21/17.>

We pin a lot of hopes and waste a lot of time trying to both please and surprise one another with Christmas gifts, don’t we?

One person wrote about how her dad got her mom a DVD of her favorite movie.  That would’ve been a thoughtful gift, except the DVD was a rental and they didn’t own a DVD player!

When calamities come, one question that springs to mind is “Why?  Why did God allow this to happen to me?”  The worst calamity to ever befall the OT people of God (Judah) was to be taken over and taken captive by the Babylonians.  This psalm is one of many examples of songs lamenting this terrible circumstance.

The psalm writers were not shy about expressing these questions, even accusing God of neglecting them.  They pleaded for an end to their suffering and leaned on His promises to encourage their hope.  This morning’s Psalm is an example of this way of attempting to renew the hopes of the captive Jews.

  1. The forever love of God is found in the dynasty of David (Psalm 89:1-4).

In verses one and two the LORD is worshiped because of His LOVE and FAITHFULNESS.  These words occur seven times in the 52 verses of this psalm.

Eternity is bound up in this song; it is meant to be “The Song that Never Ends.”  We see this in the use of FOREVER and THROUGH ALL GENERATIONS; this worship is as eternal as HEAVEN ITSELF.  In Hebrew, the word translated as FOREVER is an indefinite length of time.  It is not exactly the same as the New Testament idea of eternity.  For example, in Romans 11:29, Paul wrote GOD’S GIFTS AND HIS CALL ARE IRREVOCABLE.  This assures us that God is not going to suddenly change His mind.  Our salvation is secure.  Here we see the idea that eternal means “unchanging.”

The LORD’s GREAT LOVE, a constant (faithful) LOVE.  So faithfulness is another aspect of things eternal.

These divine virtues they have been ESTABLISHED…IN HEAVEN ITSELF. The idea implied in the Hebrew is that the psalmist is creating a record of God’s faithfulness that will be preserved for future generations.

The appropriate human response is to praise God for His perfect love.  The words SING and DECLARE cover the two main ways we humans use our mouths to praise God.  The phrase WITH MY MOUTH meant “aloud” or “loudly.”  The joy of being in God is not supposed to be something we contain.  It ought to be too wonderful for us to conceal or hold inside; it ought to flow out of us, revealing God’s LOVE and FAITHFULNESS to our family and community.

The rest of this song gives us examples of other reasons the LORD is worthy of worship.

Vs. 5-13 = God’s power over creation.

Vs. 14-18 = God’s moral power.

Vs. 19-29 = God’s Son will be imbued with power.

Vs. 30-45 = God’s wrath against sin is mitigated by his covenant LOVE and FAITHFULNESS to keep His part of the covenant.

Vs. 46-52 = Worship includes pleading to God for mercy and relief from His discipline.

Verses three and four explain one aspect of His LOVE and FAITHFULNESS: His eternal covenant with David in which God established the dynasty of David forever.  (See also vs. 26-29.)  King David is referred to as the LORD’s CHOSEN ONE and His SERVANT, emphasizing the special relationship they enjoyed.

The title CHOSEN ONE refers to the way God always works.  He chooses us first.  He makes His plans and attempts to work them with our cooperation.  The emphasis is never on our qualifications, but on God’s choosing and empowering.

The title SERVANT refers to David doing his part of the covenant-relationship; doing God’s will.

The COVENANT God swore with David was to establish an eternal dynasty, having one of David’s descendants reign over God’s people for all eternity.  The fulfillment of this promise was realized in Jesus, who was a member of David’s royal family and because of His victory over death, Jesus Christ will reign as King for all eternity.

We are to feel secure in this promise.  The psalmist expressed that feeling of security in a couple different ways: he used the words STANDS FIRM (2) and ESTABLISH (4) to assure us of this trustworthy foundation to our faith.

  1. The forever love of God is found in the Son of David, Jesus Christ.

The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-17) is there to prove that Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, was of the line of David and went back only as far as Abraham.  The purpose behind that family tree was to show that Jesus is related to all Jews.

The genealogy of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (1:1-17) is also there to prove that Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, was of the line of David.  But Luke’s version goes all the way back to Adam, with the purpose of showing that Jesus is related to all people.  Some people also think that even though Mary’s name is not used by Luke, these ancestors Mary shared in common with Joseph.

The love of God the Father for Jesus, God the Son, was expressed three times in the New Testament.

The first was at Jesus’ baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22), where the voice from heaven said, “THIS IS MY SON, WHOM I LOVE; WITH HIM I AM WELL PLEASED.”

These words were repeated by the voice of our Heavenly Father at Jesus’ Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36), with an addition, “LISTEN TO HIM.”

In John 12:20-50, Jesus taught some Greeks about eternal life and prayed, “FATHER, GLORIFY YOUR NAME.”  The heavenly voice responded, “I HAVE GLORIFIED IT, AND WILL GLORIFY IT AGAIN.” Jesus explained that the voice spoke so that the people there would realize that His immanent death would provide salvation for all people.

God’s love is eternally expressed in Jesus Christ.

In an article entitled “Keep Close to the Heart of Christmas,” Bible Teacher and Pastor John Piper put Christmas in perspective.

“Now, I think this is as close as we get to the actual description of the event of the incarnation — of the divine nature, in some way, uniting with the human nature in the womb of Mary. We know from numerous texts in the New Testament that Jesus was God, very God, who had a divine nature. He had a real divine nature. Colossians 2:9 says that in his body there was ‘fullness of deity.’

“And we know that Jesus Christ also had a human nature. Paul says, ‘There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5). So he was a mediator between God and man because he was a man. So we know that Jesus was a God-man. There were two natures, the divine nature and the human nature, in this one person — Jesus Christ.”

<Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/keep-close-to-the-heart-of-christmas on 12/21/17.>

On this last Sunday in Advent, with Christmas Eve just hours away, we reach the climax of our struggle to keep Christmas centered on Christ.  Too soon, the day will be over and we’ll wonder why we got into such a fuss again this year.  We’ll vow to do better next year and probably fall back into old habits instead.

We’ve learned that Jesus Christ is the focus of both Old and New Testaments.  He gives all that is needed for salvation to all who will, by faith, receive it.  Be one of those people at Christmas and all year long.

All Good Things

Please read Psalm 85 in your Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Jesus is Keeper of all God’s promises, the Giver of all good things.

One part of the process of maturing is setting aside the myths and mistaken thinking that comfort and guide us when we are young and/or immature.  For example, the inevitable moment in growing up when we set aside the Santa Claus myth.

In his book Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller tells the story of when he first realized that Santa was not real.  He was eight years old at the time and at the mall.  Needing to use the restroom, he went inside and was awestruck to see Santa himself, standing there using the facilities.  He thought it an honor to see jolly ol’ St. Nick, even though he was outside of his usual environment.

Santa finished what he came for, turned around and caught young Donnie staring at him.  He said, “Ho, ho, ho, kid.”

There were no words in young Donald’s mind and nothing came out of his mouth.   Santa shrugged & walked out of the bathroom.

After being starstruck wore off, Donald realized that Santa had left the men’s room without washing his hands.  Yuck!  He could not believe that someone with Santa’s reputation for fussiness about keeping naughty and nice lists could be so lacking in simple hygiene.  It was then and there that Donald decided there was no such person as Santa Claus and the guy with germy hands was just someone trying to earn some extra money during the holidays.

He left the restroom to join his family who were already in line to see Santa Claus.  He asked his mother to be excused.  He sat down in the lingerie department and consider the ramifications of this important decision.

(Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller, 2004, pp. 22-25.)

This process is not just for children, however.  All our lives we are supposed to continue maturing, continuing to put away the myths, superstitions, and half-truths that have made us comfortable but are wrong.

Jesus came, in part, to keep God’s promises.  He became one of us to give us the whole truth about God and set us free from the untrue things that hold us back from real life with God.  Psalm 85 is packed with “adult words” and encouraging promises.

  1. The key words in these promises.

FAVOR (v. 1).  The object of God’s FAVOR is the LAND.  The Promised Land was one of the chief points of Jewish theology, it was a sign of God’s love for His people.

Restoration (v. 1+4).   The historical object of restoration was to be returned to their LAND, to end their 70 years of captivity.

Forgiveness is named and described in four different ways.

God forgave and COVERED ALL THEIR SINS (v. 2).  True forgiveness requires some forgetting, putting away the offense.  When God forgives, He forgets completely.  We must do the same.

The psalmist pleaded with God to forgive and SET ASIDE ALL YOUR WRATH AND TURN FROM YOUR FIERCE ANGER (v. 3).  Forgiveness requires giving up one’s right to seek revenge or punish.  To truly forgive, both the forgiver and the forgiven need to humble themselves and make some sacrifices

He also pleaded with him to PUT AWAY YOUR DISPLEASURE (v. 4).  Forgiveness does not allow grudge-holding.  Love does not keep a record of wrongs.  This truth is expressed twice in verse five, in slightly different ways.  (Do not BE ANGRY WITH US FOREVER, and do not PROLONG YOUR ANGER THROUGH ALL GENERATIONS.)  They show a concern for the future and a desire to move forward.

Revival (v. 6).  To “revive” something is to restore or renew life; to spark vitality where life is ebbing.  This is a gift from God, another act of grace.  Asking for and receiving God’s forgiveness is the first step toward revival.  Every revival has begun with intense times of conviction of sin and repentance.

LOVE (v. 7).  LOVE is an Old Testament virtue.  It may not be as obvious as it is in the NT, but it is true that throughout the Bible, LOVE is the greatest virtue.  This verse is as accurate and abridged statement of the Gospel as you’d hope to find in the NT.  LOVE has always been God’s thing.

RIGHTEOUSNESS (vs. 11+13).  We think of RIGHTEOUSNESS in moral terms and that’s true, but not the whole truth.  The origin of RIGHTEOUSNESS is not in our moral willpower.  It comes with the Holy Spirit.  It is another grace God gives us.  The Bible says that any righteousness we can achieve is inadequate to save us.  As v. 13 makes clear, the human form of RIGHTEOUSNESS was expressed in the living and teaching of Jesus.  We follow His example.

  1. The results of the promises kept.

REJOICE IN YOU (v. 6).  Joy is supposed to be our “default setting.”  If life is characterized by anger or gloom, something must change.

SALVATION (vs. 7+9).  It is likely the original readers/singers of this psalm saw restoration, revival, and SALVATION as returning home from Babylon.  For us, SALVATION takes on a more eternal perspective.  We think of SALVATION as our going from earth to heaven.

PEACE (v. 8).  This is REAL peace, the kind that passes human understanding (see Philippians 4:7).  More than the absence of conflict, this is an emotional stability that exists in the face of conflict, a contagious positivity and ease.

HIS GLORY will DWELL IN OUR LAND (v. 9).  God’s presence is His glory and is manifest in light.  God is among His people and in the LAND.

The combined virtues of LOVE and FAITHFULNESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS and PEACE become possible (v. 10).  We know it is difficult to be loving AND faithful at the same time.  God will sometimes require us to do the faithful thing and someone will feel like we’ve been unloving.  Doing the right thing will put us at odds with people doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing.  When your choice is between doing God’s will OR anything else, pick God’s way.  Be obedient to God first and let the people sort themselves out.  We have to answer to God.

THE LORD WILL GIVE WHAT IS GOOD, the LAND WILL YIELD A HARVEST (v. 12).  Whether or not we recognize it at the time, the LORD will do what is GOOD for us.  What we HARVEST depends on what we have planted (see Galatians 6:7-8).

  1. Our part in receiving these promises.

We must LISTEN TO WHAT THE LORD GOD SAYS (v. 8).  On a practical level, this means two things.  First, listen to the LORD, not the world and CERTAINLY not the devil.  Second, as James 1:22-23 states, don’t just listen to God’s word and then go out and do whatever you please.  Apply the word.

Be FAITHFUL SERVANTS (v. 8).  Pride can get in the way of being a SERVANT, but you must serve others if you want to serve the LORD.  God’s will is that we should serve each other, not be individuals unconcerned about each other, or worse, in competition with each other, or worst of all, in conflict.

TURN NOT TO FOLLY (v. 8).  FOLLY here refers to claiming to be a child of God but behaving like a worldly person, not following the way of God.  It is the worst kind of FOLLY to see the life that God offers and then reject Him.

FEAR HIM (v. 9).   FEAR of God means at least three things.  One, feeling awe for God; being overwhelmed by His glory and goodness.  Two, having respect for God; complying with His will because you recognize His authority.  Three, it is legitimate to have a healthy FEAR of God.  A healthy fear is based on knowledge that God has all power and that one day we will have to stand before Him in judgment.

Verse 11 lists two virtues and describes their different points of origin.  FAITHFULNESS is something we practice: that’s why it SPRINGS FORTH FROM THE EARTH.   To be faithful, we must make our daily decisions based on the guidance we receive from God’s word; it involves our will.

RIGHTEOUSNESS is a virtue we receive from heaven: that’s why it’s said to look DOWN FROM HEAVEN.  To be righteous, we must allow the Holy Spirit within us to guide us into the right things to say and do.

  1. Jesus was born to keep these promises.

This truth is affirmed in the Gospels.  In Matthew 1:21, an angel declared to Joseph one reason for the birth of Jesus; “[Mary] WILL GIVE BIRTH TO A SON, AND YOU ARE TO GIVE HIM THE NAME JESUS, BECAUSE HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS.”

To Mary, the angel Gabriel declared a different purpose, “YOU WILL CONCEIVE AND GIVE BIRTH TO A SON, AND YOU ARE TO CALL HIM JESUS.  HE WILL BE GREAT AND WILL BE CALLED THE SON OF THE MOST HIGH.  THE LORD GOD WILL GIVE HIM THE THRONE OF HIS FATHER DAVID, AND HE WILL REIGN OVER JACOB’S DESCENDANTS FOREVER; HIS KINGDOM WILL NEVER END.” (Luke 1:30-33).

Paul affirmed Jesus was the keeper of God the Father’s promises (see 1 Corinthians 1:30-31).  He is our RIGHTEOUSNESS, HOLINESS, and REDEMPTION

Jesus is Keeper of all God’s promises, the Giver of all good things.

Don’t be content to just hear the words; be ambitious to do them.  The world needs godly people ambitious to do God’s will.

Wage War on Weariness

It has been talked about and reported so often that Americans are too busy, too driven, and, as a result, chronically fatigued, that it’s not news any more.  But it is worth talking about, because it affects every aspect of our lives AND because God created us to rest.  Remember our discussion of Genesis 1.  From the beginning, before there were calendars and clocks, before businesses and bosses were even thought of, God commanded that one day of the week be set aside for rest, recreation, and renewal.

As I have thought about this topic the last three weeks, I decided a little context might help.  I went looking for some information that might objectify this sense that we are a nation of walking weary.  I found a couple items.  I’m not offering them as proof, but as numerical anecdotes that illustrate the pervasiveness of the problem of weariness.

            “Americans Are Tired Most Of The Week”by Niall McCarthy, Jun 8, 2015

“How many days of the week do you wake up feeling exhausted? If you really feel like a slave to your alarm clock, you aren’t alone. Only one in 7 Americans wake up feeling fresh every day of the week, according to a poll conducted by YouGov. Experts have recommended eight hours sleep, though seven hours should also be sufficient.
“45 percent of Americans sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night reported feeling tired or fatigued up to three times a week. 27 percent of people said they wake up tired on 4 or more days per week. Those only managing six hours sleep or less each night are, quite unsurprisingly, the most tired. 54 percent of people getting six or less hours sleep wake up tired 4 or more days a week.”

<Retrieved at https://www.statista.com/chart/3534/americans-are-tired-most-of-the-week/ on 2/16/17.>

            “The Enormous Cost Of Sleep Deprivation” by Niall McCarthy, Dec 2, 2016

“Are you getting enough sleep every night? According to a new study from Rand Europesleep deprivation is a serious and costly problem for the globe’s major economies. In the United States, 1.2 million working days are lost every year due to insufficient sleep, costing a whopping $411 billion. That equates to 2.28 percent of the country’s GDP. Japan is also suffering the effects of sleep deprivation, losing 600,000 days and $138.6 billion annually.”

<Retrieved at https://www.statista.com/chart/7052/the-enormous-cost-of-sleep-deprivation/ on 2/16/17.>

These statistical snapshots seem to support the general conclusion that we are weary and our weariness is costing us.  Fortunately, God has provided several things we can do to combat weariness.  We will continue that study today and learn another step faithful people can take when trials threaten to weigh us down.

What do we do when we are wearied?

REVIEW:

  1. Continue to do good anyway.
  2. Wait on the Lord.

NEW:

  1. Stand firm; hold tight; hang on to Jesus’ hand.

Do not take your eyes off the prize.  Please read Philippians 3:12-16 in your favorite Bible, I have used the NIV for these remarks.

In vs. 12-14 Paul admitted that he had more to learn and room for improvement. But he did not focus on his failures or the wearying parts of life. Instead, he oriented himself toward the future.  We clearly see that orientation in the following: I PRESS ON…FORGETTING WHAT IS BEHIND AND STRAINING TOWARD WHAT IS AHEAD, I PRESS ON TOWARD THE GOAL.

PRESS ON is a hunting term; “to pursue, chase, run down.”  This is an aggressive term, indicating the passion Paul had for knowing Jesus Christ and expressing His character in the way Paul lived.

FORGETTING WHAT IS BEHIND means whether we see the past through rose-colored glasses, exaggerating its good points, or through dark glasses, exaggerating its ills, the fact is that it is behind us and will always remain unchanged.  A concentration on the past contributes to weariness.  Looking to the future – with optimism or pessimism – gives us strength and excitement.

STRAINING TO WHAT IS AHEAD = STRAINING is an athletic word, picturing a runner giving everything he’s got to finish first.  Think of that final lunge across the finish line.  His emphasis was on the time frame over which we can exert the most influence: the future.  Human nature is such that we move in the direction we’re looking.  That is a physical truth and a spiritual one as well.

I PRESS ON TOWARD THE GOAL turns the hunting imagery to track and field.  In any case, “pressing on” is not necessarily easy and does not always feel like a success, but it is necessary, and it is a path toward healing weariness. The Greek word translated as “goal” pictures a physical marker that indicates where the finish line is located.  In spiritual terms, the GOAL is becoming more like Jesus as we move ahead toward eternal life.

In v. 15 Paul confidently asserts that all maturing believers will share this orientation toward the future.  There is no room for disagreement on this matter.  Well, he was an APOSTLE, after all!

In v. 16 we are told the bottom line is that we don’t regress.  We are committed to not moving backward.  When we are weary we may be truly incapable of moving forward, but we should at least not give up any ground.

Please read Hebrews 3:1-14; 4:14 in your favorite Bible.  I use the NIV.  Keep the faith you received.

In 3:6 we read BUT CHRIST IS FAITHFUL AS THE SON OVER GOD’S HOUSE. AND WE ARE HIS HOUSE, IF INDEED WE HOLD FIRMLY TO OUR CONFIDENCE AND THE HOPE IN WHICH WE GLORY.  The object of this verse is to teach us about the essential role of Jesus Christ in our salvation.  Based on that fact, we have something substantial on which we can HOLD FIRMLY.  Our CONFIDENCE and HOPE are safe and secure as long as they are based on the truth about Jesus Christ.

When we dilute that truth by allowing modern culture to change our minds, then our CONFIDENCE and HOPE are less reliable.  Notice the phrase IN WHICH WE GLORY.  This means that our CONFIDENCE and HOPE is what gives us true joy, real strength.

In 3:14 it is written WE HAVE COME TO SHARE IN CHRIST, IF INDEED WE HOLD OUR ORIGINAL CONVICTION FIRMLY TO THE VERY END.  We tend to focus on beginnings, don’t we?  We get sentimental about firsts and that includes our Christian faith.  We also lump beginnings and endings into one, deleting the process in the middle.

These tendencies come back to bite us when we think that baptism or joining a church is the end of it.  This is why people sometimes disappear from church once they have achieved milestones like this.

However, Paul here reminds us of a central truth: how we begin our journey of faith is important, but it is of greater importance how we continue it and how we end it.  Commitments to Christ can be easily made in a moment, but professions of faith must be proven true by doing the hard work of living for Jesus each day, through the end of your life.  Our CONFIDENCE and HOPE are safe and secure as long as they are based on the truth about Jesus Christ.

For example, He is superior to any human priest because He is THE SON OF GOD.  Our faith asserts that He is fully God and fully human at the same time.  Any teaching that shrinks from this assertion is false.  The human side of Jesus’ nature assures us that He is sympathetic with our condition, having experienced it Himself.  The divine side of Jesus’ nature assures us of our salvation: because He is God He is able to save us.

In 4:14 we are told THEREFORE, SINCE WE HAVE A GREAT HIGH PRIEST WHO HAS ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN, JESUS THE SON OF GOD, LET US HOLD FIRMLY TO THE FAITH WE PROFESS.  The object of this verse is to teach us about the priestly role of Jesus Christ.  In the OT system, a PRIEST was a mediator between God and His people.  The HIGH PRIEST had an especially important role in that he offered the annual Day of Atonement sacrifice for the sins of the nation.  Jesus is superior because HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN, a greater feat.

Notice Jesus is our GREAT HIGH PRIEST, far superior to any person who ever held that office.  He offered Himself as a sacrifice for sins and that was done once and is effective to save all people in all places at all times.  Everyone who accepts this act of grace will be saved.

This is a question that pains me as a Minnesota Vikings football fan.  HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF WALTER PAYTON?  Walter Jerry Payton from the state of Mississippi. Payton lived from July 25,1954 until November 1, 1999. He was 45 years old when he died of a liver disease.

Mike Ditka was Payton’s coach and he said: “Walter was a great player, but he was even a greater man.”  Payton’s nick name was “SWEETNESS.”  Payton played for the Chicago Bears and so was constantly a thorn in the side of the Minnesota Vikings.  The worst was setting a single-game rushing record that I believe still stands.

Because it is too painful for me to recount and to avoid boring you good folks, I will spare you all the statistical evidence and just say it can be argued that Payton was the greatest running back of his time, perhaps of NFL history.

Someone once asked Walter, “Where did your greatness start?”  Walter said: “When I started playing my junior year the coach told us to run up and down the hill behind the school 25 times.”  Most of the players ran up and down the hill a few times and went to the locker room. I started to go with them and then I thought: “No, the coach said run the hill 25 times, so I went back and was the only one who would run the hill 25 times. That may have been a turning point for me.”

Payton’s Motto?  “NEVER DIE EASY — ALWAYS GET UP — NEVER QUIT — KEEP ON TRYING.”

<By Wade Martin Hughes, Sr. Kyfingers@aol.com, retrieved from https://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-wade-m-stories-84249 on 02/17/17.>

“Never die easy;” that has a strange ring to it, doesn’t it?  But I think it has a great similarity to the words we’ve just studied in Hebrews.  Weariness is going to happen.  Discouragement sets in.  When these trials come against us, what are we to do?

One of the things we are to do is resist the urge to quit.  Instead of giving up as a way to try to ease our pain, we need to hang on more tightly to the truth.  Here is one essential truth to which we must cling: Because God is for us, it doesn’t matter who is against us.  If we remain in Him, the outcome is assured.  We will triumph.

PREVIEW:

  1. Focus on the basics: prayer and the Word.
  2. Rely on the Lord’s strength, not yours. (RMS 8:13)
  3. Share your burdens. (GLS 6:2)
  4. Spend your sorrow on service.
  5. Invest in wellness.

A Book Review of “Jesus” by Marcus Borg

A review of JESUS: UNCONVERING THE LIFE, TEACHINGS, AND RELEVANCE OF A RELIGIOUS REVOLUTIONARY by Marcus J. Borg

 

borg

It turns out sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover.  One example is Marcus Borg’s 2006 book, Jesus.  On the cover of this book is a photograph of the massive statue, “Christ the Redeemer.”  (The one that was adored from all kinds of camera angles at last year’s summer Olympics in Rio.)  This time the statue is surrounded by scaffolding.

The photograph perfectly depicts Borg’s thesis: Jesus is a construct of the Church.  Beliefs about Jesus have determined by culture and historical circumstance, not recovered from inspired Scripture.  The Jesus you think you know is a construct of the last couple centuries, vastly removed from the actual, historical Jesus.

Borg’s thesis will not surprise anyone familiar with “The Jesus Seminar,” another incarnation of the tired quest for the “historical Jesus” begun a couple centuries back among European Bible scholars.  What purveyors of this heresy attempt to do is, ironically, what they accuse traditional scholars of having done: creating a Jesus that suits them.

It goes like this; exalt reason above revelation, deny anything that can’t be proven scientifically, and save what’s “left” of the biblical record that suits you, lending an air of authority to your preconceptions.  With this self-appointed largesse, you have latitude to keep what you like and discard the parts you don’t as “unhistorical.”  Traditional theological conclusions can then be discarded as “provincial,” “archaic,” or “not credible.”

As we’ve heard from too many Bible scholars, Borg asserts the Bible in general and the Gospel accounts in particular are “metaphor.”  They are not to be taken as historical accounts (which sets aside that pesky issue of historicity), but as metaphors, expressing spiritual truths that are “trans-historical.” There are at least two problems with this assumption.

One, the Bible writers never viewed themselves in this way.  As the beginning of Luke’s Gospel makes clear, their intent was to set forth orderly and factual accounts of the life of Jesus.  What use is “metaphor” in fighting heresies in the first century Church?  Can you picture Paul teaching that the Old Testament never intended to relate the truth about God’s great acts in history, but instead to pass along noble sentiments by way of metaphor?  Borg’s imaginative approach reduces Jesus to a figure who lived and died in a first century Roman province.  His followers were jazzed by “visions” they’d had of a resurrected Jesus and set about to form a religion based on these clever metaphors.

Two, “metaphor” is a far too elastic term.  It is too subjective, too prone to flights of fantasy and manipulation.  That is why, for centuries, Bible scholars have moved away from allegorical and metaphorical methods of interpretation.  It is, however, very suitable to “progressives” (Borg’s term of choice for his assumptions) and to the Emergent Church, who are keen to remake the Church into something that is a better fit with postmodern culture.

While our modern approach to historical writing is more strict (“scientific”) than the authors of the Bible, that does not condemn the Bible as unreliable.  With his imaginative reconstructions of New Testament formation, Borg moves away from the self-testimony of Scripture as inspired, to a man-made writing.  I suppose he takes exception to 2 Peter 1:20-21 which explains that no prophecy has its origin in the will of man, but inspired by the Holy Spirit.

His assumptions are that events covered by more of the Gospels are more likely to be historical, that Mark is older than Matthew and Luke, that events in John are more likely to be embellished, and that an ancient document that sourced material shared by Matthew and Luke is explained by an undiscovered document referred to as “Q.”  (It is only an argument from silence, but the fact is that “Q,” nor any document remotely like it, has been discovered.  When one considers the hundreds of surviving scraps of manuscript evidence for the real Gospels, one has to wonder how it is that nothing of “Q” survived.  Might it be because it is only a theory?  It is a moot point either way.)

At the risk of over simplifying or stereotyping, liberals like Borg assume that the biblical texts must serve logic, especially the contemporary fads in philosophy and culture.  Conservative scholars insist that logic serve the texts.  Borg attempts to reverse engineer the texts to make educated guesses about first century communities, while traditional scholars use historic information like detectives to discern the intended meaning of the passage.

Borg also resorts to a line of reasoning familiar to “progressives:” since there are similarities in cultures and religions contemporary to writers of Scripture, the Bible writers must have borrowed these to form their own writings.  This seems like a left-handed way of denying the inspiration of Scripture while at the same time authorizing the syncretism of the Church: our faith being re-formed in the image of our own culture.        As Borg is not critical of his own assumptions, the reader must be.  We must be careful to “test the spirits” as 1 John 4:1 commands.  When tested, Borg’s heresy is to deny the divinity of Jesus.  Here it is in his own words; “the pre-Easter Jesus was not God, but God was the central reality of his life.”  To make certain this artificial distinction of his is not lost on the reader, it is presented in italics and stated on p. 109 and again on p. 136.  If one accepts this premise, it is then up to Borg to decide which Gospel texts are “pre-Easter” and therefore more historically accurate, and which are “post-Easter” and therefore more prone to embellishment by the Gospel writers in order to justify the beliefs of the churches in which the Gospel writers lived.

One final concern is his frequent citation of “the majority of biblical scholars” (you’ll find an example on p. 73) as evidence that his positions are well-founded.  I find this kind of unsubstantiated, unqualified statement to be asides, toss-offs that do not contribute anything to rational discourse.  It’s the kind of thing people put in papers when they wish to pass themselves off as well-informed but haven’t got any research or actual numbers to back it up.  While Borg’s credentials as an academic are there for all to see, these kinds of statements detract from his writing, they do not support it.

In his epilogue Borg takes a jab at those who disagree with him using the usual broad brush of the stereotypical “religious right.”  While he claims to only want to add to the “conversation” about Jesus, what Borg wants us to clearly understand is that only those who adopt his “pre- and post-Easter” dialectic are capable of truly perceiving Jesus.  My advice to the reader is to take a look at the cover and pass on this book.  The cover will tell you all you need to know about its contents.

Turns Out You CAN Go Home

(Please read Matthew 2:19-23 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I used the NIV to do my research.)

Matthew 2:19-23  X  “Turns Out You CAN Go Home”  X  EBC = 12/25/16

One of the offbeat things that 2016 brought us is “fake news.”   This is something entirely fictitious masquerading as an actual news story.  People put this stuff on the Internet for various reasons, but the common factor is that it’s fake.

In case you missed it, there was an example of fake news in the Twin Cities just last week.  Some guy got it in his head that the new stadium was a waste of tax payers’ money and should be opened up as a shelter for the homeless on that especially cold night.  So he “tweeted” that it would be.

A friend of his “re-tweeted” this as if it were a real news item.  That fellow had 14,000 followers, many of who “re-tweeted” this item as if it really were accurate.  Announcers calling the Minnesota Vikings game on TV talked about it during their broadcast, and the whole messy lie took on a life of its own.

Other examples abound.  Fake News is nothing new.  Anybody here heard about Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds?”  It has been suggested that dead children and grieving mothers in ISIS video are just actors.

Having more access to information does not necessarily mean we have more access to the truth.  It means that, more than ever, we have to exercise good judgment to discern what is true.

As believers, we have an alternative to “fake news.”  For about 2000 years we’ve been calling it “good news,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim Stanley wrote an article entitled “Sick of fake news? Try the ‘good news’ about Christmas” for the London Telegraph.  I like his take on our more wholesome alternative to fake news.

“How do we test if faith is real? Look at what it produces. It is outwardly, indisputably more beautiful and magnificent than its secular alternative.   As my evidence, I won’t just cite the eyewitness accounts or the corroborating evidence from Josephus or Pliny. No, I cite love.

“You’ll think I’m mad. Love is just a concept, say the philosophers, or an evolutionary quirk, say the biologists. Society doesn’t seem very interested in talking about it; it’s out of style. The news, fake or otherwise, is dominated by evil.

Stanley cites a letter from an American agnostic who found a surprising alternative in Christianity: “Right now, I am struggling to accept the basic Christian doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, second coming) because I feel the Christian tribe may be the right tribe for my family. We just finished watching a BBC miniseries about the birth of Jesus, which was so beautiful and moving compared to secular TV. My nine-year-old really enjoyed it.”

“That the events of two thousand years ago inspire all of this suggests, to me, that there has to be something to them. People wouldn’t turn their lives around over a myth – any more than the critics of Christianity wouldn’t waste so much energy trying to debunk a childish delusion. We do this big Christmas festival thing for a reason. Because deep in our soul, we connect the love on display in the nativity with our own needs and experiences.

“Some people have found 2016 depressing. It’s had its ups and downs. But evil trades in doubt and we should resist it. The fake news is that mankind is lost. The good news is that it can be saved.”

<Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/23/sick-fake-news-try-good-news-christmas/ on 12/23/16.>

  1. This event itself.

Verses 19-22 relate the third dream.  For the first and only time Joseph hesitated.  The angel’s message from God was simple; there was no longer any threat to the Christ-child, so it was time to come home.  King Herod died in 4 B.C.  This makes it possible that he did not live long after ordering the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem.

By Herod’s own will and the prerogative of Caesar Augustus, Herod’s kingdom was divided between his surviving sons.  Matthew recorded Archelaus was given jurisdiction over Judea (Jerusalem), Samaria, & Idumea (south).  His brothers Philip II ruled Galilee (north) and Antipas Galilee and Perea (middle).

The angel’s command was to go to THE LAND OF ISRAEL, which Joseph understood as being Judea, a province ruled by Archelaus.  Joseph was concerned about his family’s safety if they settled anywhere in Judea. He had good reason to be concerned: when Archelaus was king over Judea, he ordered the killing of 3000 people during the observance of the Day of Pentecost.  This massacre caused widespread rioting and got Archelaus in a great deal of trouble with Rome.  Later, in AD 6, a joint delegation of Jews and Samaritans went to Rome and pleaded Augustus to remove Archelaus from power.  Caesar agreed, and banished Archelaus to the frontier – the middle of Europe – in a place that would be called “Vienna.”  Archelaus was replaced by a governor appointed by Rome, which is where Pontius Pilate will come onto the scene when Jesus is grown to manhood and accused by the Jews of treason.  (Pontius Pilate was the fifth man to hold that title.  He was no great statesman and could be ruthless like Archelaus.)

Clearly, this account in Matthew 2 happened before Archelaus’ banishment.  No doubt reports of this grave abuse of power reached Joseph and other Jews living in Egypt.

God heard Joseph’s concern and sent a fourth dream, diverting the Holy Family to the province of Galilee, which was ruled by Antipas, not Archelaus.  Antipas was no real prize either, as the Gospels tell us he was the man who would order the death of John the Baptist and interrogate Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

The fourth dream and Joseph’s compliance are recorded in vs. 22+23.  Put yourself in Joseph’s place for a moment: all these dreams.  Are you worried about sleeping?  Do you lay down and think, “OK, what’s it gonna be tonight?  More angels bossing me around?”  So the family settled in Nazareth.  In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems like Nazareth is a new community, but Luke tells us it was the place from which both Joseph and Mary originated.

If you were looking for a place to “hide in plain sight,” Nazareth was a good choice.  It had a population of just 500-1500 people.

  1. The significance of the event.

The safety of the Christ-child is the most significant outcome.   Having preserved Him from Herod’s rage, the infant Jesus is now preserved from the lethal tyranny of Archelaus.

It proves that returning to Bethlehem was out of the question.  It was in the territory ruled by Archelaus and he was deadly crazy like his father.  It would have been the first place Archelaus would have looked if he followed up on his father’s bloody crusade against the new king.  Most importantly, growing up in Bethlehem was simply not God’s plan.

Another significant aspect of event is the fulfillment of prophecy (23).   Matthew is not directly quoting any single Old Testament prophet and that is why he used the plural term PROPHETS.  His statement is a summary and restatement of Scriptures he memorized from the Hebrew version of the Old Testament and that is a partial explanation why we can’t find this quote directly in the Old Testament.

Nazareth was an obscure town 70 miles north of Jerusalem.  It was a place of lowly reputation, especially among the city folk in Jerusalem.   For example, in John 1:46, Nathanael asked “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  He found out something good had come out of Nazareth; Jesus.  He would go on to become one of Jesus’ disciples.  Another example: in Acts 7:25, when Christians were referred to as “the Nazarene sect,” it was intended as an insult.

Some people denied Jesus was the Messiah based on their false assumption that He was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.  It became a point on which they sneered at Jesus (John 7:41-43).

Finally, in this event some scholars see a repeat of the Exodus.  In the original Exodus, the nation of Israel was delivered from slavery to Egypt.  While it is true Jesus also came out of Egypt, but unlike the Israelites, He was tested in 40 DAYS, not 40 YEARS, and He was faithful to do the entire will of God.  He left Egypt a child, not a slave.  His mission was not to found a new nation, but appeal to God’s people to believe in Him as their Messiah and so be saved.

With more than a tad bit of cynicism, Arden Dier reported on a recent event that does not portend well for the new year.  This prediction is based on a relic that bears an odd resemblance to a “Magic Eight Ball.”

“According to legend, a woman collected the blood of Saint Januarius, or San Gennaro—the once pious bishop of Naples who was beheaded as Christianity was under attack around AD 305—and preserved it in a glass vial, reports Seeker.  Then a ‘blood miracle’ in 1389: the congealed blood liquefied. The archbishop of Naples now performs this ‘blood miracle,’ shaking the vial in front of thousands until the blood liquefies.  This occurs on three significant days each year, the most recent of which should have been Dec. 16. (Mount Vesuvius erupted on that day in 1631, and Naples was said to have been protected by the saint.) And yet last week, it didn’t.

“One website claims that when the blood miracle—which is ‘not quite sanctioned by the Catholic Church,’ per the Week—has failed to work, 22 epidemics, 19 earthquakes, four wars, and various other tragedies have followed. When the blood last failed to liquefy in 1980, an earthquake struck 30 miles from Naples, killing 2,400 people. The blood also remained congealed in 1939, the year World War II began.

“But ‘we must not think of calamities,’ says the local abbot, per the Catholic News Agency.  ‘We are men of faith and we must pray.’”

Whether this report worries you or not, having faith and praying is always good advice.  I can absolutely guarantee 2017 will be a good year if you commit to being more faithful and give more time to prayer.  It may not be “good” in the way you’re envisioning right now, because that’s up to God to decide.  But I hope we can all agree that any year which sees us drawing closer to God is a good year in the most important sense.

These first two chapters of Matthew are secretly about Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph.  We have seen how God guided Joseph by supernatural means – through his dreams.  It would be easy to be cynical and discount dreams, just as we might find the “Blood Miracle of Naples” to be a little hard to swallow.

Instead, let’s give credit to Joseph for being faithful and obedient.  Let’s give glory to God for the greater miracle of the life of Jesus.

The King’s Kin

(Please read Matthew 1:1-17 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV for my remarks.)

Matthew, author of the first of the four Gospels, lived and wrote in a time when it was an important question who your ancestors were.  His purpose in starting with the genealogy of Jesus is cultural; it answered the question of who His kin were.  On the historical side, it establishes Jesus’ place in history and His descent from Abraham and David.

Theologically, Jesus’ connection to David is important for the fulfillment of prophecy: God had promised that the dynasty of David would be unending.  Of course, there would be no one man who could keep that promise himself as we all must die.  But Jesus, who lives forever, reigns forever.  In Him the line of David and the rule of his descendants continued into eternity!

The first two-thirds of Matthew’s genealogy come from various OT sources.  The remaining one-third is information not included in the Bible, but there is good extra-biblical evidence that public records of ancestry were kept at least throughout the first century, AD.  People like Matthew could have researched these sources for this information.

There are 42 men mentioned and four women mentioned.  Usually genealogies were exclusively male; Matthew including women implies that he had a point to make.  The explanation I prefer is that Matthew wanted to show in some of these women and men is the family tree of Jesus included some grafted-in branches and some twisted limbs.  He is showing how the King of King’s kin included a few foreigners and some notorious sinners.  The implication is that God is so powerful He uses whom He chooses; a sparkling-white pedigree is not necessary for us to be used by God.

The passage is organized according to Matthew’s three eras of Jewish history, from Abraham to Christ.

  1. Set #1 = From one family to one nation (1:2-6).
  2. Set #2 = From nationality to captivity (7-11).
  3. Set #3 = From captivity to Christ (12-16).

BACKGROUND = The BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY.

Warning & Fulfillment.  Through the prophets, God had repeatedly warned His people Judah that their sin would land them in grave difficulty.  In fact, He specifically said that they would be conquered and carried off by a pagan nation for 70 years.  (See Jeremiah 25:8-14 and Jeremiah 29:10-14.)  In 597 B.C., the Babylonians invaded Judah, sacked the city of Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple.  They carried off to Babylon the wealth of the city and the temple as plunder, along with the strongest and best of the survivors.  The biblical accounts of Daniel, Esther, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all come out of this period of the history of the people of Israel.

Promise & Fulfillment.  With the warning, God promised them that their captivity would be for a limited time (70 years) and at the end of that time, He would restore them to the land.  In the interim, they were to remain faithful. During the course of their captivity, the Babylonian empire was absorbed by the Persians.  In 538 B.C., the Persian Emperor Cyrus named Zerubbabel, a prince of Judah, as governor of Judah, which they considered a “colony.”

CHARACTER STUDY = ZERUBBABEL

Why bother to look at this man’s life?  Both Matthew and Luke list him as one of the ancestors of Jesus.  That alone makes him important.  But more to the point, God promised to use him in a great way in Haggai 2:20-23:

20 The word of the Lord came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: 21 “Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. 22 I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.

23 “‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The person bearing the signet ring carried the authority of the person who normally wore it.  It was pressed into a lump of hot wax to seal a scroll or at the bottom of such a document to serve as a signature.  This designates Zerubbabel as an important biblical figure, someone who directly represented God’s will to the people.

Who is he?  His name means “descendant of Babylon” and is probably the Hebrew version of a Babylonian name.  It seems strange to me to name one’s child after the nation that conquered you.  But the people of God were living in captivity in Babylon at the time and his name may simply indicate this.

Without getting into the complicated particulars, his parentage is not as simple as it appears in Matthew’s genealogy.  (The Bible cites two different men as his father: Shealtiel is the usual name given (i.e., Ezra 3:2+8; MTW 1:12), but in 1CL 3:19 the name Pedaiah is set forth.)  This is one of many examples in this list where God uses someone whose family history is less than squeaky-clean.

What did he do?  Most of what we know about Zerubbabel we read in Ezra and Haggai.  He was named governor of what was left of Judah; he returned to Jerusalem to lead the Jewish refugees in building the second temple.  This was no easy task.  In addition to all the logistical challenges, Zerubbabel faced active and even violent opposition from neighboring nations.  The enemies of Judah did not want to see Jerusalem’s walls or the temple reconstructed.  They were so successful in convincing the Persians, construction was stopped and building suspended during the reigns of several Persian emperors.  In 520 B.C., Emperor Darius allowed construction to recommence.  This time, it would not be interrupted until the second temple was dedicated in 515 B.C.

After the second temple was built and dedicated, Zerubbabel was not mentioned again in the Bible.  However, among the Jews of Matthew’s day, he took on a heroic kind of image, a man who stood against seemingly insurmountable challenges to do what God asked him to do.  One explanation of this admiration is that Zerubbabel was singularly devoted to accomplishing the rebuilding of the temple.  He did not use that responsibility or achievement as a springboard to fame, but quietly receded to the background once his objective was accomplished.  Zerubbabel showed a dedication to the house of God and more importantly, to the will of God, that caused him to persevere and complete the work God had set before him to do.

Zerubbabel did not do this work alone; he was supported by the prophets Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah.  Nehemiah brought support from the king and the people labored to construct the building themselves.  His name is often mentioned with Joshua the high priest, so they were partners.

Over the years, Zerubbabel came to be identified with the Messiah the Jews were awaiting.  They believed that the promised redeemer would be a man like Zerubbabel.  This makes him an important but lesser-known biblical figure and connects him with Jesus in ways other than mere ancestry.

Zechariah 4:6-10 give us some appreciation of the importance of Zerubbabel.

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.

“What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.

10 “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?”

In this brief passage we read very familiar words and very comforting promises.  This shows us how important Zerubbabel is in the history of God’s people and what a potent example he sets for us today.  God’s message to us through Zerubbabel is one of encouragement: DON’T GIVE UP!  In God’s time God’s plan will be enacted.  Stay faithful.

This is especially important when trials or periods of stagnancy or feelings of inadequacy arise, as they inevitably do.  Drive through Atlanta, Georgia today, and it’s nearly impossible to picture the aftermath of the Civil War, when the city smoldered after a relentless, 36-day shelling from Sherman’s Union troops.

The shelling finally stopped on Aug. 9, 1864, and a handful of people sorted through the burned-out embers, wondering how in the world they might possibly rebuild the city. In the early days, it must have been impossible to think that within a century, Atlanta would be one of the largest cities in America, and on its way to becoming one of the best-known cities in the world.

No, the heady days of the 21st century were far beyond the imagination of those living in the lean times of Civil War Reconstruction. For them, finding enough food, and finding good shelter, took all their work, all their time, and all their emotional energy. In those days, imagining a mega city in its steel and glass glory was simply not possible. And yet Atlanta would rise from the ashes, bigger and more fantastic than ever.

I am going to ask you to take some time this week to ask yourself where does God want you to be in 12 months?  What will be different about your situation by Thanksgiving Day, 2017?  What steps will it take to get you there?  How can you start today?  Between now and then, remain true to your vision by following the example of Zerubbabel.

(If you’d like to see this message delivered, the video is available on YouTube at “EBCSF.”)