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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label exegesis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label exegesis. Show all posts

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bible Promise Verses and Apologetics



Yesterday, I posted a short clip on how many people take the oft-quoted passage "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" and apply it incorrectly. (Click here to see the video.) I also shared the post with a couple of online apologetics groups. A couple of people were confused on why I even bothered with this point. Why make a big point about something as seemingly small as using Philippians 4:13 to show that they can conquer their difficulties?

The reason is both important and relevant to apologetics. First, apologetics doesn't only concern believers defending their faith against non-believers. 1 Peter 3:15 is clear when it instructs us to be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks. That "anyone" includes those inside the church who may not know as much as you or those who are mistaken in their use of scripture. Paul instructs Timothy to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15). Paul immediately follows this up by telling Timothy to correct errors that are being spread within the church, stating "But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene."

The Problem with Misapplying Scripture

Of course, some may think that this is a bit of an over-reaction. How can a mis-applied verse on a Bible Promise calendar escalate to spreading like gangrene? The problem is twofold. First, there are those who may "claim" these verses and when they don't play out as they expect in really difficult times, they see it as evidence against the Christian faith. This happened en masse in the Great Disappointment of the Millerite movement of 1844, but I've spoken with those today whose Christian beliefs were more rooted in these feel-good promises than the hard task of working out one's salvation with fear and trembling. When they did face pressures, they felt these promises didn't deliver, and therefore Christianity was something of a bait and switch. Others may not leave the faith, but they question themselves or their standing in salvation.

Secondly, approaching the Bible with this kind of sound-bite exegesis is incredibly misleading and even dangerous. One of the biggest difficulties I have in sharing an orthodox Christian belief with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons is how they try and use the Bible to proof-text their beliefs. They abuse the text in the exact same way as the passage above by ripping it out of its larger context and isolating a verse or two so it can mean what they want it to mean instead of what the author intended. If Christians begin to take all of scripture as a series of verses that stand independently, how can we ever know what meaning the writers actually had in mind and whether this applies or not? Such misapplied Bible verses, even in the guise of providing encouragement, actually encourage the misuse of Scripture. If we chide the Mormons and JWs for doing this, we shouldn't do it either.

In all, I think it's important for Christians to be careful when using individual verses to support any belief. As I've shown before, sometimes people can sound really Christian and even say all the right slogans, but they may not even understand salvation. As believers and faith-defenders it is important we gently correct those who may misuse scriptures, lest they fall into a greater error. The video is one small step in that direction.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

What Does "Thou Shalt Not Judge" Really Mean? (video)


One of the most often quoted verses in the Bible is also one of the most misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike. Just what did Jesus mean when he commanded his followers not to judge in Matthew 7? Does this mean Christians cannot criticize any action by someone else? No; the command was focused on another idea prevalent in Jesus' day.

In this short video, Lenny explains how Jesus' listeners would have understood his words and how we can apply them today.



Image courtesy Jonathunder - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Correcting the Idea We Must Avoid Every Form of Evil



1 Thessalonians 5:22 is a fairly popularly quoted verse. The King James Version's "Abstain from all appearance of evil" is probably the most well-known, but more modern translations, like the ESV's "abstain from every form of evil" are also familiar. Usually, those who quote the verse apply it to mean that a Christian shouldn't be found anywhere near any place or situation that seems to be sinful. Some have taken it even further, believing that any action that could be misconstrued as sinful by others should be avoided.

Such views are really misunderstanding the meaning of Paul's exhortation because they are ripping the verse out of its context. Often when I engage with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons I will have to correct their faulty understanding of a verse that they have taken as a stand-alone admonition, when it is actually more specific and more nuanced. We recognize that taking verses out of context is the wrong way to try and bolster their views. However, if it's wrong for the Mormons and JWs, it's wrong for Christians, too. Therefore, it becomes important to correct the faulty understanding of passages such as the one above.

Bible scholar Walt Russell has written a great explanation of the context in which the Bible student should take 1 Thess 5:22. He says:
1 Thessalonians is the Apostle Paul's letter to a group of new Christians who have been persecuted by their fellow citizens in northern Greece for most of their six months in Christ. It is an adversarial context for the church, so Paul spends much of his time defending his church-planting team's integrity and actions in chapters 1-3. In chapters 4-5 ("the moral exhortation" section), he addresses five successive threats to the life of this body. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 is the fifth and final significant issue facing this fledgling church.

This last issue in vv. 12-22 deals broadly with the concerns that arise when the church gathers for her weekly assembly. Paul gives instructions about how to foster healthy body life in this context by rightly esteeming leaders (vv. 12-13), dealing sensitively with the varying needs of the saints (vv. 14-15), establishing a joyful assembly (vv. 16-18), and not quenching the ministry of the Holy Spirit in prophetic utterances (vv. 19-22).

Given the broader context, we are now ready to look at the immediate context for v. 22. Notice the logical flow of the argument about prophetic utterances in vv. 19-22:
  • "Do not quench the Spirit" (v. 19) (the general exhortation);
  • "Do not despise prophetic utterances (v. 20) (the specific negative aspect of the exhortation).
  • "But examine everything carefully" (v. 21) (the contrasting positive aspect of the exhortation);
  • "hold fast to that which is good" (v. 22) (what to do with good prophecies after examining);
  • "abstain from every form of evil" or "every evil form of utterance" (v. 23) (what to do with the evil prophetic utterances).
As is generally the case with Scripture, God and the human authors are very specific in their discussions. They seldom sprinkle broad moral sayings in free-standing fashion. By contrast, they usually speak in a closely-argued style, especially in the New Testament letters. Such is the case with 1 Thessalonians 5:22. By removing v. 22 from its very specific context, we abstract the language from its tightly reasoned moorings and create a much more general, vague concept.1
Russell goes on to note that if Christians were to abstain from all evil locations or people, it would severely hamper one's witnessing efforts. You could only seek to save those who came across your path in the "safe zones" instead of following Jesus's example of going where the sinners are. By having a proper understanding of verse 22, Christians can be free to go into those areas that most need Jesus in order to share Him with others. It has the added benefit of allowing the Christian to not live in a legalistic fashion, but make judgments on whether certain conditions could actually cause him or her to fall.

If you'd like to read more about how Christians have taken popular verses out of context, I recommend his book Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul.  Grab it. It will cange the way you read the Bible.

References

1. Russell, Walter. "'Avoid Every Appearance of Evil!' Toppling a Faulty Moral Pillar." The Good Book Blog. Biola University, 13 May 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. http://www.thegoodbookblog.com/2011/may/13/avoid-every-appearance-of-evil-toppling-a-faulty-m/.
Image courtesy Tom Coates from London, United Kingdom [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Don't Abuse 'What Would Jesus Do'



All Christians should strive to be more like Christ. Paul tells us that we are to be "conformed into the image of his son" (Rom. 8:29). Christians, seeking to model their lives after their Lord several years ago began popularizing the "What would Jesus do?" slogan. This caught on, but was also used by those critical of certain church positions to claim Jesus "would never do" thus and so. Others balk at their claims, saying Jesus would indeed hod to whatever position they are advocating.

How can a Christian in good faith model his choices after Jesus when there seems to be no clear answer? Given the circumstances and viewpoints of the modern culture differs so drastically from first century Palestine, is it even possible to do what Jesus would do today? In this excerpt from his article What Would Jesus Think or Do? J.P. Moreland offers three ideas on how modern Christians can order their lives on the teachings and example of Jesus.  Dr. Moreland writes:
First, we should do our best to interpret the Gospels in their historical setting. I believe the Gospels are historically reliable but cannot take the time to defend that belief here. If you don’t believe the Gospels are historically reliable, it doesn’t matter for our purposes. Why? Because it is the Jesus of the New Testament who figures in the culture wars and who is the object of the question “What would Jesus think or do?” So the biblical Jesus should be our object of focus.

Second, we should accept the teachings of the Old Testament (properly interpreted) as expressing what Jesus would think or do. In his most important inaugural address when he was launching his ministry and distinguishing himself from other leaders of his day, and on an occasion where Jesus was clearly presenting Himself as the New Moses who was forming a new covenant community centered around His teaching about, demonstration of, and embodiment of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ very first teaching was his complete commitment to the entire authority of the Old Testament as the very word of God (Matthew 5:17-19). He repeatedly affirmed this belief and accepted as true the entire Old Testament. While he did critique false interpretations of the Old Testament, he never rejected the Old Testament itself, which becomes an important source of information about Jesus’ views for the following reason. If a teacher has not explicitly commented on a topic but, instead, has affirmed his acceptance of a body of literature as speaking for him, then it is fair game to employ that literature for developing an accurate picture of the teacher’s views on topics he did not expressly address. For example, Jesus never addressed the abortion question, but a clear view of the status of the fetus is taught in the Old Testament, and it would be intellectually irresponsible not to hold that Jesus accepted this view. Of particular interest will be Messianic prophecy because it quite explicitly teaches what the Messiah would think and do and Jesus repeatedly taught that he was the fulfillment of those prophecies and, in fact, was the Messiah.

Finally, for supplemental information we should turn to the teachings of those who knew Jesus best—the authoritative guardians and disseminators of Jesus’ thoughts and deeds and the designated authorities over Jesus’ community. In keeping with Jewish tradition in his day, Jesus explicitly appointed apostles to serve as authoritative preservers of information about Him and as the appropriate interpreters of his teachings to new and different situations. The apostles were appointed by Jesus to represent him accurately after his death, and they knew him well enough to carry this out. Thus, Paul—whose ideas were in complete agreement with the community authorities (e.g., Peter, James and John) in Jerusalem—is a better guide for what Jesus would say and do than is the Huffington Post or Rush Limbaugh.

It is important to keep in mind that the canonical Gospels are not the only sources of we have for what Jesus would think and do. The Old Testament and the teaching of His apostles fill in gaps that are left out of those Gospels.1
1. Moreland, J. P. "What Would Jesus Think or Do." JPMoreland.com. J.P. Moreland, 11 Aug. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. http://www.jpmoreland.com/2012/08/11/what-would-jesus-think-or-do/.
Image courtesy CrazyLegsKC. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

What "Thou Shalt Not Judge" Really Means



"Thou shalt not judge" is a phrase that Christians hear over and over again. Even those who don't believe in Jesus will cite his teaching in Matthew 7:1 to try and say that Christians shouldn't tell others certain actions (things like abortion, homosexuality, and the like) are wrong. But that's a bit too cavalier. We must take Jesus's words in their proper context to understand exactly what he meant.

In this passage from his web site, Dr. J.P. Moreland gives a great explanation on the different types of judging and why Jesus did not say moral judgments were out of bounds. He explains:
We need to distinguish two senses of judging: condemning and evaluating. The former is wrong and is in view in Matthew 7. When Jesus says not to judge, he means it in the sense that the Pharisees judged others: their purpose was to condemn the person judged and to elevate themselves above that person. Now this is a form of self-righteous blindness that vv. 2-4 explicitly forbid. Such judgment is an expression of a habitual approach to life of avoiding self-examination and repentance and, instead, propping oneself up by putting others down.

But there is another sense of judging that is central both to moral purity/holiness and to showing tough love to another: evaluating another’s behavior as wrong, pointing that out to the person with a view to their repentance, restoration and flourishing. This form of judging another may bring short-term pain in the form of guilt, embarrassment and a experience of the need to change, but its long-term effect is (or is supposed to be) the flourishing and uplifting of the other.

Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for another is to tell him or her something hard to hear. This form of judgment is absolutely biblical. In fact, in Matthew 7:5, Jesus basically says that after one has appropriately engaged in self-examination and personal repentance, he/she is now in a position accurately and helpfully to evaluate another. This very same form of judgment is commanded in Galatians 6:1-2. It is moral confusion and cowardice to eschew evaluating other’s behavior. It is moral clarity and courage not to condemn others.

Today it is more important than ever for the church to recover and proclaim judgment as evaluation gently yet firmly. 1
I agree with J.P. To not be allowed to make any moral judgments is insane. We rely on people such as whistleblowers to come forward if they see corporate executives who are embezzling funds. In the same way, we rely on whistleblowers to call out Planned Parenthood when they are taking live-born babies and cutting them up for their parts. Both serve the same purpose, to help diminish the amount of evil in the world.

References

1.Moreland, J. P. "Search On Judging Others: Is There a Right Way?" JPMoreland.com. J.P. Moreland, 19 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Oct. 2015. http://www.jpmoreland.com/2012/12/19/on-judging-others-is-there-a-right-way
Image courtesy hobvias sudoneighm -  Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Trinity, Firstborn, and the Dead



The Trinity is central to Christianity. If you deny the triune nature of God, then you've denied the historic Christian faith. Some like the Mormons deny there is only one God. Others like the Jehovah's Witnesses deny that Jesus was God at all. New Testament writers like Paul strove to describe the distinction between the Father and the Son while still honoring both as God, but those very passages can be taken out of context and twisted to carry a meaning the original author never intended.

One example of this is the phrase "firstborn" that Paul uses in Colossians 1:15-17. It reads:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.1
In this passage, Paul is trying to stress how Jesus is creator, master, and lord over all of creation. This role has been traditionally understood as God's. The Bible even begins with the grand claim that "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Psalm 8 directly attributes the creation to Jehovah, stating "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you care for him?" Even we ourselves are the direct creation of God, as Psalm 100:3 admits, "Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his." As we see, over and over the Old Testament ties God to all of creation and uses it to show his rightful lordship over that creation.

Firstborn Doesn't Mean First Created

Despite this, the Witnesses and others point to Colossians 1:15 to try and prove that Jesus was the first created being of God. To do this, they must redefine Paul's use of the word firstborn in that verse to mean first created. On its face, the mistake can be an easy one to make if you aren't paying attention. Western cultures no longer abide by traditional patriarchy and inheritance traditions where the first born son becomes the chief of the family.

So, when we hear the word firstborn, we simply think of "first-born," that is the order of coming into the world. But the Greek word it is ranslated from, prototokos, carries a much richer meaning than simply birth order. It more properly is understood in Colossians as "pre-eminent" or "primacy in rank."2Of course, many Witnesses have resisted this interpretation, claiming that we should take the word firstborn in its natural meaning. I can understand their desire; a more literal rendering of words is usually the first choice of translators unless the context shows otherwise.

Given that most people on both sides of this debate have not mastered Greek, how are we to show that the meaning of firstborn I've offered is to be preferred over the more literal rendering? In fact, it's very easy and context is the key. All we have to do is to keep reading Colossians 1, for in the next two verses we read "And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent." Note verses 15-17 above and verses 18-19 here are both in the same paragraph. They are all one thought and the word firstborn appears not once, but twice! In the second instance, Paul claims that Jesus is "firstborn from the dead." If we are to use the natural rendering of this word, it would mean that dead people give birth! That doesn't make much sense at all. Jesus wasn't born from a dead person when he rose from the dead; that isn't a resurrection. In fact, Paul explicitly unpack the meaning of the word in verse 19, explaining that "in everything he might be preeminent." Paul is using prototokos to refer to Jesus's pre-eminence! He tells us that very plainly.

The big takeaway here is that it isn't necessary to have mastered a biblical language to answer folks like the JWs when they charge that the Bible makes Jesus out to be less than God. Many times, we just need to read the verses in context and carefully. The meaning can show itself in plain English.

References

1. Colossians 1, all other scriptures taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). Bible Gateway. Web. 28 Sep. 2015.
2. "prototokos." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdsmans, 1985. 968. Print.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Jehovah's Witnesses, the Bible, and Bias (video)



The Jehovah's Witnesses claim that both the Bible we read and orthodox Christian theology has been some kind of trinitarian bias that unwittingly leads us to believe Jesus is God. However, when looking at the doctrines of the Jehovah's Witnesses and their  sponsoring organization, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, it becomes clear that the only bias on display is their own.

Watch this short clip as Lenny explains how the JWs misunderstand the name of God,  proper biblical interpretation, and how they deliberately change passages of Scripture to try and dodge the conclusion that Jesus is God.


Image courtesy Steelman and licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.5

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How Can I Celebrate Peace on Earth With Tragedy In My Life?

This past week, the headlines have been especially horrifying. A crazed terrorist takes hostages in a Sydney chocolate shop, killing two people including a woman shielding a pregnant woman from the gunman. The Taliban kills nearly 130 school children in Pakistan. How can the promise of Christmas, the season of peace on earth and goodwill towards men be realized with such evil going on?


Actually, the question isn't new. In a Huffington Post article entitled "Whatever Happened to 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men'?" Robert Fuller said that he wondered the same thing even as a child:
My take-away questions from Sunday School were:
  • Why are moral precepts—even those that everyone accepts—widely ignored?
  • Why has "peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men" not been realized?
I wondered about this gap between the ideal and the reality as World War II raged, as the Holocaust was revealed, and as Japan surrendered to American atom bombs. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that religion's most serious short-coming was not that it harbored "deniers" of well-established science models, but that it had not found a way to realize its own aspirational goals.1

Looking For Candy Canes in Coal Mines

I think that a lot of people feel the same way as Robert. They watch the various Christmas specials, they see the slogans painted on storefront windows, yet they think that the Christmas promise of peace and goodwill is just as illusory as the story of a jolly old elf sliding down your chimney. But these folks are starting in the wrong spot. They're like people who shop for stocking stuffers in a coal mine. You'll never find toys and candy there. The reality is that this world is fallen. It's filled with men who are corrupted by sin and if left to themselves would never seek peace with one another.

But that's exactly why the Christmas message is so joyful. God hasn't left us to ourselves; He sent His only Son to earth to save us from our fate. In announcing the birth of Jesus, the angels weren't asking human beings to be nice to one another. They were announcing that God has provided a way for peace between Himself and mankind. God was exhibiting goodwill toward men in giving them a Savior. See how Luke 2:14 is rendered in different translations:

Translations of Luke 2:14

New International Version Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.
New Living Translation Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.
English Standard Version Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!
New American Standard Bible Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.
King James Bible Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Holman Christian Standard Bible Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!
NET Bible Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!

As you can see, the responsibility is God's and the action is towards mankind. That's why Christians should celebrate Christmas even during the most difficult of circumstances. I know it can be hard to feel the Christmas spirit when the bills are piling, health is threatened, or tragedy is pushing in all around you. Yet, Christmas proves that God has better plans for us. Perhaps we won't see that this year, or even the next. Our hope lies ultimately in our destiny where God will "wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away" (Rev 21:4, ESV). That hope began by lying in a manger in Bethlehem and was proven on Calvary's cross.

I feel sorry for folks like Robert Fuller. He thinks that Christianity fails because we aren't getting any better. (Actually, Christianity has dramatically improved the lot of humanity in demonstrable ways.)But the promise of a world of peace and goodwill isn't found by those who work for it. It has been offered as a free gift to those who believe on Him who God has sent (John 3:16, Romans 10:9). Unless you claim that gift, Christmas will always be a disappointment.

References

1. Fuller, Robert. "Whatever Happened to 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men'?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 July 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-fuller/whatever-happened-to-peace-on-earth-goodwill-toward-men_b_1644922.html.
Image courtesy John and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Levitical Laws, Slavery, and Sexual Prohibitions

Yesterday, I began a conversation based on a question from an atheist concerning a passage in Leviticus that seems to condone slavery. You can read the first post here, but basically he asked why Christians believe that slavery is immoral if:
  1. It has biblical support, such a Leviticus 25:44-46
  2. It is used as a model by the New Testament writers as a way to express allegiance to Christ.
In yesterday's post, I discussed how the NT writers were referring to a different type of slavery than what one might immediately come to mind, such as that practiced in the Antebellum South. I also noted that Levitical laws performed three different functions (distinguishing Israel from pagan nations, demonstrating allegiance to Yahweh, and laws governing social interactions). However, since these laws are all intertwined, a fair question would be "isn't the distinction arbitrary?" How does one know whether a law still holds for Christians, such as the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 versus the longer slavery passage just a few chapters later?


How Leviticus Applies to Christians

The short answer to the question above is simple. Christian theology teaches that none of the Levitical laws are binding on Christians today. Paul is very clear that a Christian is no longer governed by the Old Testament laws (Gal. 3:15-29, Rom. 6:12). In fact, Paul makes a big deal in Galatians that the law was something of a schoolmaster, used to teach people about their sinfulness: "Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Gal 3:24-25)."

Given that we are not to abide by the Levitical laws, does that mean that they are worthless to us? Here would be the longer answer. As a teacher, the Levitical laws can help illuminate certain actions that God considers sinful. For example, Leviticus 18 uses the strongest possible language when forbidding adultery (v. 20), child sacrifice (v. 21), homosexual relations (v. 21) and bestiality (v.22). Interestingly, intercourse with a menstruating woman is the only prohibition not specifically carrying its own term of condemnation.

Leviticus 18 is primarily a guide of differentiation. Verses 24through 26 state "Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you." The Canaanites were using all of these practices and many times in ritual worship.1 However, designating such practices as "abomination," "defilement," and "perversion" distinguish these acts as wrong intrinsically.

When we look at Leviticus 25, though, the focus is not one of differentiation, but of dealing with laws of land ownership and how to treat the poor. Slaves fall into the second category as slavery served as a type of indentured servitude that allows the poor to survive. Since laws like reverting the land to its original owners during the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:10) and providing a kinsman redeemer (Lev. 25:25) don't apply in any way to modern Christians, neither do the slave statues that immediately follow. However, the point must be made that because the slavery passage is found within the context of national dealings with the poor in a nation where all land rights have already been assigned, it shouldn't be assumed that modern concepts of slavery are in view at all.

References

1. Neill, James. The Origins and Role of Same-sex Relations in Human Societies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Print. 96.
Photo provided by Jun and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Why do Christians Condemn Slavery?

I saw an interesting question posed by David, a self-identified atheist in a Facebook group the other day. I believe the question is earnest and his tone appropriate. I think it deserved a thoughtful response. He asks:
I am an atheist. However, this is a serious question that will appear to be trolling. Trust me, it isn't.

Why do Christians condemn slavery?

The Bible seems to condone a few different forms, explicitly in the OT (Leviticus 25:44-46) and at least complicity in the NT. Doesn't Jesus (Luke 12:47-48), Paul (Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2) and others use this relationship as a allegory of people's relationship with Jesus, being "slaves to Christ"? Isn't this supposed to be a picture of this relationship, similar as a husband and wife relationship is a picture of Christ and the Church? We wouldn't want to abolish the institution of marriage, correct? If we abolish slavery forever, how will people one hundred years from now REALLY understand this slave/master relationship? Perhaps abolishing slavery will ultimately hurt our chances of understanding God, no? So, why do Christians condemn slavery?

Slaves to Christ

There's a lot here, so I want to go through it appropriately. I also think there's a related question that wasn't expressed but that may be in the back of the questioner's mind, which deals with the Christian objection against same-sex marriage. Let me tease this out a bit.

One way that some Christians have argued for the sanctity of man-woman marriage is because God created it to reflect the relationship between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:22-33).Same-sex marriage mars that model by eliminating the husband/wife distinction. Two men or two women don't fit the designations of Ephesians 5.

Another model of the relationship between Christ and the believer is the slave model. Almost all the New Testament writers used the phrase of themselves (Rom. 1:1, 2 Cor. 4:5, Gal. 1:10, Phil. 1:1, Jas. 1:1, 2 Pet. 1:1. Jud. 1:1, Rev, 1:1) and also other Christians (Col.1:7, Col. 4:7, 2 Tim.2:24, Rev, 1:1). Slavery, therefore, is a way believers can identify in their relationship with Christ. Thus, if same-sex marriage corrupts the picture of Christ and his church as laid out in Ephesians 5, then doesn't the abolition of slavery also corrupt the picture of a devoted believer to his Lord as cited in the passages above? Aren't Christians being inconsistent in standing against same-sex marriage while they support the abolition of slavery? Since Leviticus is the primary text against homosexuality (Lev. 18:22) and it condones slavery in Lev.25:44-46, then shouldn't Christians be consistent in their obedience to the Levitcal laws?

Not All Levitical Laws are Alike

I appreciate David's thoughtful approach to this issue. However, I think he misunderstands the role Leviticus plays in the life of the Christian. The Levitical laws are primarily written to the inhabitants of Israel and they were intended to give the new nation a way of separating themselves from their pagan neighbors, showing their allegiance to their God, and various social laws on how to run a nation. Today, the first two items would be seen by most Westerners as separate from the third, but that wasn't true for people of that era, just as it isn't true for many in the East. Paul Copan notes the distinction when he writes:

So when a neighbor, say, moves boundary stones to enlarge his own territory, this has a social impact, affecting his neighbor's livelihood. This act of theft from a neighbor isn't just a societal violation; it's a violation against God as well. Or consider how adultery throws a family into upheaval, not to mention creating a tear in Israel's social fabric. It was an offense against God as well. So when the one God makes a covenant with his people (at Sinai) just before providing a land for them, he is attempting to reshape his people into a nation very much unlike their neighbors.1

Some of these laws, such as dietary restrictions or not wearing garments of mixed fabric are clearly made to distinguish Israel as discriminating and unique. The New Testament tells us that the sacrifice of Christ abolished those distinctions in passages like Acts 10, where Peter first sees a vision of the unclean animals, is told to kill and eat them, and then receives gentile visitors. He concludes, "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him" (Acts10:34, ESV).

Laws Must Reflect Their Culture

Secondly, the laws of a nation will naturally reflect the times in which one lives. For example, horse theft used to be a capital crime in many states when a horse was crucial to a man's livelihood and it usually was the most expensive piece of property he owned. Those statues are no longer applicable; not because the crime has changed, but because the culture has changed around it, making losing one's horse an act that has different consequences. Jesus noted this, too, when he chastised the Pharisees asking about Moses' law of divorce in Deuteronomy 24.

I say this because it is crucial to understanding the concept of slavery in the ancient world, especially in the way the New Testament writers use the term. As I've said before, slavery in the Ancient Near-East was not the same as the chattel-slavery of the pre-Civil War South. It was more like serfs and Lords in Israel. Remember, no one was guaranteed a meal in those days. If you were hurt, if you were poor, or if you were a conquered people, you had very few options to avoid starvation. People would even sell themselves into slavery to pay off debts. Once under the protection and care of a wealthy master with the resources to guarantee your basic welfare, some people would actually be better off as slaves. There were even those who decided to pledge their allegiance to their master and became a permanent "employee" of the master's house, sometimes written as a bond-slave or bond-servant. This is the idea that Paul and the other writers above make when they compare themselves to slaves. They are committing themselves freely and permanently to Christ.

Slave in the New Testament is also often used as a descriptor of one's entrapment to sin, such as Romans 6 where Paul tells the church in Rome that they were previously slaves to sin, but now have become slaves to Christ. So, Christians can consistently oppose slavery and still hold the idea of being a bond-servant to Christ. Slavery in that culture meant something other than modern versions of slavery, and the kind of slavery the New Testament writers use concerning Christians is a voluntary slavery.

Tomorrow, I will discuss a little more how the Levitical laws are relevant to Christians and the general culture.

References

1. Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. Print. 70.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Are We Not to Judge Unbelievers?

The most often quoted verse in the Bible is not John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1, "Judge not, that you be not judged." I'm sure most Christians have heard this verse thrown out as soon as they point out the failing of a friend or family member. It's a common response, given even by those who know nothing else about the Bible. However, I recently had a conversation with a self-identified Christian who believes the Bible teaches Christians should not judge the actions of unbelievers, since they are lost and therefore unable to live a Godly life. In fact, he claimed:
The directive to REFRAIN from judging outsiders, has ONLY ONE context in the narrative: "You WILL be judged by whatever judgment criteria you use against un-believers", period! Paul FRIMLY reiterates this in 1 Corinthians 5
  • 1Cor. 5:12 "For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within?"
  • 1Cor. 5:13: "But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person."
There is only one judgment allowed to Christians: to ascertain the legitimacy of those who call themselves Christian, and yet indulge in those practices Paul outlines in great detail as forbidden to believers.
This is a claim that I think needs some attention. It seems superficially that the verses above warn against judging others in any way, but the concept of judgment that both Jesus and Paul are talking about does not exclude any kind of condemnation or criticism of sin. Basically the command against judging others simply means that no Christian should ever write off an unbeliever as irredeemable nor should they somehow look down upon unbelievers as somehow less valuable than a believer. In order to demonstrate this, I offer three ways the Bible shows that pointing out moral failings is appropriate when done appropriately.


1. First Century Understanding of Judgment

First off, our 21st century concept of judgment has been warped by those who would say any kind of criticism of another is wrong. In understanding Jesus and Paul, it is crucial to remember they were first century Jews. Ancient Jewish culture divided the world into two simple categories: the Chosen Ones (themselves) and the Gentiles (everyone else). As Merrill Unger notes, Jews of this time were taught the laws of cleanliness and eating kosher were things that separated the clean from the unclean.1 Therefore, nonbelieving heathen were unclean and were fit only for eternal hellfire. Jewish rabbis of this time even taught the faithful Jew to daily pray thanking God that he is "not a Gentile, not a slave, and not a woman."2 This is one of the reasons that the Judaizers were starting to make so much headway in the Galatian church. Jews felt not merely superior to the rest of the world, but confident that God was on their side. Unger states, "the Jews seemed to regard the heathen only as existing for the purpose of punishing the apostasy of Israel… or of undergoing vengeance for their enmity toward her.3

When looking at the culture and language of first century Judaism, one can see that the type of judgment Jesus and the New Testament warns against in the passages above is a wholesale condemnation of other people. Christians cannot simply "write off" another person as unworthy or incapable of salvation. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament expounds on the Greek word for judge and explains "In light of God's judgment, we should not judge others. This does not mean flabby indifference to moral wrong but recognition of solidarity in guilt."4

2. Jesus and His Disciples Call Out Sinners for Their Sins

If we look to the apostles, we see that Paul did some judging of his own. In 2 Timothy 4:14, he calls out one man by name and writes it in the scriptures for all to see: "Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds." A little earlier he condemns the actions of another: "For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica" (2 Tim 4:10). These sound like pretty big judgments to me. Of course, Paul directly instructs Timothy to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort" as his part of preaching the word. One cannot reprove without judging.

The apostle John not only judges Diotrephes, but says, "So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us" (3 John 1:10). He wants to make it public! Jesus even gave us a set procedure for those who would sin against a person of the church in Matthew 17. Surely this requires judgment. We also have the admonition in James 5:20 where he writes, "let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." Is judgment required there?

I think the Bible is very clear that we are not to retreat into some holy huddle and let the unbelievers go to hell, taking the world with them. Part of that requires us to point out their sin, just as John the Baptist did toward Herod. Even when looking at Corinthians 5, which is the example given above, we can see judgment taking place. Paul clearly judged the person sinning in Corinth. "For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing."

The biggest example of a judgment against unbelievers is Stephen's sermon in Acts 7. Facing the Sanhedrin, he uses some of the harshest language he can in condemning their actions:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7:51-53).
Either Stephen was wrong to call out the priests or we are also called to be the witnesses of Christ, which must include telling others how they violate His law. Otherwise, why would they ever wish to repent?

Jesus Commanded His Followers to Stem the Moral Decay of the World

You write, "The directive to REFRAIN from Judging outsiders, has ONLY ONE context in the narrative: ‘You WILL be judged by whatever judgment criteria you use against un-believers', period!" But Jesus just a few verse later called us to inspect the fruit of others and to make judgments about them based on their actions. He also taught in that same Sermon on the Mount that "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet" and "Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven"(Matt 5:13, 19). Jesus clearly teaches his church to instruct sinners and to act rightly. Instruction requires correction; you cannot get around it. Being the salt of the earth means the church must seek to preserve a certain moral value in society.

Judging people as beyond salvation is clearly forbidden in the New Testament just as allowing sin to progress unchecked is also. To think that the unbeliever is somehow immune from criticism for his actions would mean that we never share that another person is in need of salvation! For one must be saved from something, and that something is the sin that plagues all of humanity. If we are not able to declare immoral acts sinful, then evangelism is worthless and Christianity becomes a feel-good group, not the truth of the ages.

References

1. Unger, Merrill F., R. K. Harrison, Howard Frederic Vos, Cyril J. Barber, and Merrill F. Unger. "Gentile." The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody, 1988. 466. Print.
2. Kahn, Yoel H. The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship, and Identity in Jewish Liturgy. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. 10-12.
3. Unger, 466.
4. "Krino." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdsmans, 1985. 472. Print.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Sam Harris' Wrongheaded View of Christian Faith

Photo courtesy Auren Hoffman.
If I ask Christians for a biblical definition of faith, many times I have Hebrews 11:1 quoted to me: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." But, is that the end of the story? Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, takes Hebrews 11:1 as an example of how Christians are not reasoning, how faith is diametrically opposed to reason. He writes, "Read in the right way, this passage seems to render faith entirely self-justifying: perhaps the very fact that one believes in something which has not yet come to pass ( 'things hoped for') or for which one has not evidence ('things not seen') constitutes evidence for its actuality ('assurance')."1

Obviously, Sam Harris is not a Greek scholar, nor is he a biblical scholar. He knows nothing about exegesis and he's just flat wrong on this, but he wants to prove his point. The assurance of things hoped for does mean the assurance of future things. Faith does deal with those things that we don't necessarily know, or that we don't have 100% confidence in. By the way reason deals with things we don't necessarily have 100% confidence in. You can reasonably believe something or you can claim you know something with less than 100% confidence.

As an example, think about a man dating a women he is considering marrying. He talks with his friends and says, "I think it's time to ask her to marry me." His friends may reply, "Well do you think she will say yes?" A reasonable response would be, "I have faith that she's going to say yes so I'm going to ask the question. If I had no faith that she would say yes, then I wouldn't ask at all."  Is such a faith a blind faith? Or is it based nio years of involvement and growing to know one another? I had faith that my wife and I would be compatible together as husband and wife. How can I know that? The only way to know how compatible we are is to become husband and wife. We cannot know that beforehand.

When we talk about "the assurance of things hoped for," it is not merely something which does has not come to pass. When we talk about "the conviction of things not seen," it is the writer using a Hebrew idiom where if they wanted to stress a point or add emphasis they would repeat it. That's what the writer of Hebrews is doing here. The lines "The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" is the same phrase said differently. It's a linguistic device.

Both Sam Harris and Christians need to realize that the Bible isn't meant to be taken so superficially. Hebrews 11:1 it is a good definition of one aspect of faith. It is not the sum total of what faith means, just as saying God is love is not the sum total of all that God is. God is also defined as a Spirit. God is also defined as a consuming fire. We are told many things that God is in the Bible and love is one aspect of God's character, but it's not the sum total of God's character. God has more depth to Him than merely love. Similarly, Hebrews 11:1 does not provide a complete definition of faith. One must take the passage for what the author intended, and not limit the whole concept of faith to that one verse. If you'd like to read a fuller definition of the biblical meaning of faith, see this post. But there is one thing you can actually know, and that is that Sam Harris' version of Hebrews 11:1 is nothing but a straw man.

References

1. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith.
(New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004). 65.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Don't Let Your Eyes Deceive You!


In my devotion this morning I found myself in Ezekiel 12 - a prophecy about Israel and Judah going into captivity. In this prophecy, the Lord tells Ezekiel:
"The prince who is among them will load his baggage on his shoulder in the dark and go out. They will dig a hole through the wall to bring it out. He will cover his face so that he cannot see the land with his eyes. I will also spread My net over him, and he will be caught in My snare And I will bring him to Babylon in the land of the Chaldeans; yet he will not see it, though he will die there." (vv. 12-13)
This prophecy was fulfilled during King Zedekiah’s reign. After trying to form a revolt against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had previously put him in power, the Babylonians came into Judah, besieged Jerusalem and leveled the city. Capturing Zedekiah, they slaughtered his sons before his eyes and then put his eyes out – making that the last thing he would ever see. Once blinded, they carried him in chains to Babylon.

This story got me thinking about how the Bible treats the eye symbolically.
  • In Genesis 3, Eve saw the fruit of the tree was good for food, so she took it and gave some to her husband to eat.
  • Sampson had eye trouble - he saw a daughter of the Philistines and wanted to marry her (Judges 14:1) and he saw a harlot in Gaza (Judges 16:1) which led to his fate with Delilah. The Philistines put out Samson’s eyes. Only after this did God use him again.
  • Jesus once taught "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (Matt 5:39).
One of Israel and Judah's problems prior to the exile is they trusted too much in what they saw – their temple, their walls, their chariots and their alliances – instead of their relationship with the Lord. Symbolically, God is showing the entire rebellious nation that their eyes are deceiving them and leading them away from Him. So he allows them to be "put out" the king's eyes are put out, the temple is destroyed and the nation is put out of the land so they can no longer trust in their surroundings.

The interesting thing in all this is how we can be reconciled through Jesus. In John 9, Jesus healed a man born blind by making clay or mud from the ground and putting it on his eyes. I've always read that with a nod to Genesis 2 - since God created us out of the dust of the ground, could it be that this man's condition was he was born without his entire eye? Perhaps Jesus is creating that part of him that the man lacked in the same way that God made Adam.

Whatever the case, Jesus has the ability to heal us of our deepest sin issues. The eye is the source for all kinds of sin. If we voluntarily admit our sins and give them to Him, He can restore us to a proper state. If we continue in rebellion, God just may have to deal with us more strongly in order to keep us from sinning so we can again make the main thing the main thing.
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