Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Why Did Jesus Tell Mary, "Mine Hour Is Not Yet Come" (John 2:4)?

In John 2:1-11, Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding, and the wedding feast runs out of wine.  Jesus’ mother Mary tells Jesus about the problem, and Jesus replies, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come” (KJV).  But Jesus proceeds to turn the water into wine.

Jesus’ statement that “mine hour is not yet come” intrigues me.  The reason is that, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus’ hour refers to the time of his crucifixion and resurrection (see 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1).  But what does Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection have to do with his reluctance to change water into wine?  “I don’t want to change water into wine right now, for my time to be crucified and resurrected has not come yet.”  That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

In this post, I will interact with four attempts to solve this apparent problem.  I will be drawing from this 2013 post, while also adding two interpretations that I recently encountered.

A.  John Gill speculates that “it was not proper for him to work miracles as yet, lest it should provoke his enemies to seek his life before his time…”  According to this interpretation, Jesus is essentially saying to Mary, “My hour to die is not yet come, so don’t pressure me to do something that might bring that about!”  Maybe this explanation works.  Perhaps Jesus in John 2:4 realized that the performance of his work was a delicate task: that he had to do things just right to get his message out.  Jumping the gun by publicly turning the water into wine might puzzle or anger people prematurely, leading to his death, and thus he would not be able to say what he needed to say, when he needed to say it.  Why, then, did Jesus turn the water into wine?  Because he did so in a private, low-key manner, which would not attract premature attention.

And yet, not long after turning the water into wine, Jesus in John 2:13-25 cleansed the Temple of merchants and money-changers, criticizing them for making his Father’s house a house of merchandise.  Jesus then told some of the Jews to destroy the Temple and Jesus would raise it up in three days, a statement that baffled them.  Jesus also performed miracles in Jerusalem.  Jesus was not afraid to be provocative, baffling, and confusing at the onset of his ministry.  Why, then, did he think that turning water into wine was inappropriate, not long before that?  Was he aware that the ministry that would lead to his death was about to start, and he was not in a hurry to start it?  Did he want his ministry to be defined, not primarily in terms of miracles, but in terms of piety, and thus he wanted to start it with the cleansing of the Temple, not a miracle?  Such a dim view of miracles does occur in the Gospel of John.  In John 2:23-24, Jesus does not commit to people who believed in him on account of miracles that he did.  In John 4:48, Jesus says with some frustration to a nobleman who wanted Jesus to heal his son, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”  In John 6:26-27, Jesus criticizes those who sought him for his miracles, specifically the multiplications of the loaves, encouraging them instead to seek the food that leads to eternal life.

B.  Related to (A.), George Beasley-Murray in the Word Biblical Commentary on the Gospel of John states the following:

“In this Gospel the ‘hour’ of Jesus commonly denotes his death and glorification (see 7:30; 8:20; 13:1; 17:1). An immediate reference to that hour is scarcely thinkable in this context; it must relate to the service of the divine sovereignty on which Jesus now embarks, which will (as the Evangelist knows) culminate in the ‘lifting up’ on the cross. (If the saying was in the source it would clearly have related to the beginning of the redemptive ministry, and was interpreted by the Evangelist in the light of its end, since the ministry was an indivisible unity.) The import of the statement is to declare that Jesus’ service for the kingdom of God is determined solely by his Father; into that area not even his mother can intrude (cf. 7:3–9 and Mark 3:31–35, and see the excellent discussion of Schnackenburg, 1:327–31).”

In a way, Beasley-Murray interprets Jesus’ hour, not just in reference to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but also in reference to Jesus’ entire ministry, which would lead to Jesus’ crucifixion.  And yet, Beasley-Murray’s reference to John 7:3-9 poses a problem for this interpretation.  John 7:2-9 states:

“Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand.  His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest.  For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world.  For neither did his brethren believe in him.  Then Jesus said unto them, My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready.  The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil.  Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come.  When he had said these words unto them, he abode still in Galilee.”
John 7:2-9 takes place after Jesus started his ministry.  And, after starting his ministry, Jesus is still saying that his time has not yet come.  Can we, therefore, interpret Jesus’ ministry as part of his “hour”?

What is interesting, though, is that Jesus soon thereafter in John 7 goes to Jerusalem and assumes a public profile by teaching in the Temple and getting into an argument with Judean critics.  Jesus probably realized that he was walking a fine line, or treading on delicate territory.  Jesus did not want to bring about his death before his time, so he was hesitant at times to make a public appearance, lest that could provoke people to kill him.  And yet, Jesus did not impose on himself inflexible guidelines, for he changed his mind and went to Jerusalem.  John 7:30 states that Jesus’ enemies did not lay hands on him, as much as they wanted to do so, for Jesus’ hour had not yet come.  Perhaps Jesus concluded, after some thought, that his enemies could not harm him at that point, so he decided to go to Jerusalem, or to assume a public profile after arriving there.

C. John MacArthur in the MacArthur Study Bible states: “My hour has not yet come. The phrase constantly refers to Jesus’ death and exaltation (7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1). He was on a divine schedule decreed by God before the foundation of the world. Since the prophets characterized the messianic age as a time when wine would flow liberally (Jer. 31:12; Hos. 14:7; Amos 9:13, 14), Jesus was likely referring to the fact that the necessity of the cross must come before the blessings of the millennial age.”

I am not overly convinced by this explanation, to tell you the truth.  I do not think that Jesus had to die and rise again before Israel could enjoy the blessings of the messianic age, for such blessings were evident in Jesus’ ministry before he died and rose again.  In Matthew 11:5 and Luke 7:22, Jesus says that John the Baptist should have known that Jesus was the Messiah on account of the healings that Jesus was performing.  Jesus in these passages may have had in mind such scriptures as Isaiah 35:6: “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.”  But, if you only want to consider what is in John’s Gospel in interpreting John’s Gospel, even John’s Gospel implies that the blessings of the messianic age were occurring during Jesus’ ministry.  In John 6:45, for example, Jesus applies the prophecy of Isaiah 54:13 that “they shall be all taught of God” to the people who were believing in him.

And yet, there is a sense in John’s Gospel that certain prophecies in the Hebrew Bible could not be fulfilled until after Jesus died and rose again.  In John 7:38-39, we read (in the KJV): “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)”

D. Derek Leman raised some considerations in his May 27, 2017 Daily Portion.  Part of what he said is here.

Leman observes that John 10:11 states that Jesus manifested his glory at this first miracle in Cana of Galilee.  Leman goes on to state:

“John interprets Yeshua’s nature miracles, such as turning water into wine, as the Messiah letting slip through the screen a bit of the divine glory that was his from the foundation of the world. Only the creator of water, of grape vines, can transmute matter in such an omnipotent manner. And Yeshua did not pray and ask God to perform the miracle. He apparently did it himself. He let slip his glory, allowing it to show through, for those who paid close attention, and thought deeply about such things. Of course, no one got it. No one understood until the revelation was made more obvious in the ascension and in later appearances of Yeshua from heaven, seated on the throne of heaven beside God.”

Leman later states:

“There is a mysterious indication that Mary knew Yeshua’s divine power, leading even very early in Christian history to speculation about miracles he may have worked in his youth (as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). The miracle is a sign fostering belief in his disciples, manifesting his Glory, his hidden identity (vs. 11)…Why does Yeshua feel this is not his business? The answer he gives is that it is ‘not yet my hour,’ meaning ‘my hour to be revealed as the hidden Glory revealed.’ That hour will be at his death and resurrection. Yet Mary is persistent and, as is often the case, Yeshua is willing in spite of his objection…Yeshua may have said his hour had not yet come to reveal his Glory, yet he fosters faith in advance of his hour with this sign and with others that will come. These signs lead to a greater understanding of the ultimate one, the resurrection.”

Leman is saying that Jesus, by turning the water into wine, was revealing his divine glory and power, and Jesus did not want to do that at that time because his death and resurrection were to be the occasions at which he revealed his divine glory.

There is much that Leman does not say here.  Were Jesus’ other miracles occurrences in which Jesus reluctantly decided to reveal his divine glory?

A relevant consideration is that, in the Gospel of John, Jesus quite possibly does his miracles through the power of his Father.  Jesus affirms in John 5:31-38 that the works that he is doing are the Father testifying that he sent Jesus.  In John 14:10, Jesus states that the Father does the works.  Perhaps the miracles that Jesus did in John’s Gospel are different from his turning of water into wine and his resurrection.  When Jesus turned the water into wine, he did that miracle by his own power.  Regarding his resurrection, Jesus implied in John 2:19-21 that he, Jesus, would raise up his own body after it is destroyed.  The other miracles, by contrast, were done by the power of his Father.

Another consideration is that, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is glorifying God, not self (John 8:50; 11:4, 40).  In John 17:5, however, Jesus wants God to glorify him with the glory that he had before the foundation of the world.  Presumably, this would occur at his resurrection.  Were Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine and rising from the dead incidents in which he demonstrated his inherent glory, whereas, in the other miracles, his focus was on the glory of his Father?

I do not know if this thesis consistently works throughout the Gospel of John.  Just looking at John 17 itself, I see that Jesus’ hope is that the Father will glorify him.  Does that imply that Jesus lacked inherent glory, at least before his resurrection (I wonder if I am approaching heresy here)?  Or does it at least suggest that the glorification of Jesus at Jesus’ resurrection was the Father’s glorification of Jesus, not Jesus’ glorification of himself, which would go against what I argued above?  And can we truly differentiate what Jesus does from what his Father does, since they were in each other (e.g., John 14:20)?  Plus, are not Jesus’ glory and his Father’s glory intertwined?

I am open to correction on this, so I will leave the comments on.  Be tactful, though!  And, just to be clear, I am building on Derek Leman’s thoughts here, so don’t blame him for my conclusions.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Church Write-Up: Reagan on Memorial Day; Keswick Lives; Jewish Literacy in the Time of Jesus

I went to the "Pen Church" this morning.  Here are some items:

A.  We saw a brief video about Memorial Day.  In the background was a speech by President Ronald Reagan.  Reagan said that many of us see soldiers as wise old men, but he noted that the people who went to war were boys.  Not only did they give up their lives, Reagan said, but they also gave up the lives that they could have had: as fathers and grandfathers.  That made me appreciate the gravity of their sacrifice.  And, in saying "appreciate," I am not necessarily supporting all the wars in which they fought: some may have been necessary, some not.  I do honor their willingness to sacrifice, but the video also convinces me that we should only enter war as a last resort.

B.  The pastor was continuing his series about becoming a "Velcro Christian": having a faith that sticks.  In today's sermon, he talked about the importance of Scripture reading.  He brought up a variety of considerations: how today's generation has more access to Scripture than previous generations on account of new technology; how Scripture can be a comfort to people; how there are different ways to do one's quiet time (i.e., morning, evening, when riding the bus, whenever one feels inspired, etc.); and how Scripture is like a plumb line, showing us where we are crooked rather than straight (and he showed a picture of a plumb line beside a wall, which illustrated its function).  In talking about the plumb line, he seemed to make biblical correction look so simple: we read the Bible, it corrects us, and we change.  That can be the case sometimes, perhaps more effectively if we focus on one character defect at a time (or, more accurately, one manifestation of a character defect at a time) rather than allowing ourselves to be inundated with the Bible's demand for perfection.

C.  The pastor quoted the NLT rendering of Romans 12:2, which reads: "Don't copy the behavior and customs of the world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect."

The pastor was saying that we should relax and "let" God transform us.  When I got home, I checked the Greek on my BibleWorks to see if there is any merit to his point.  Well, the Greek does use the passive: be transformed.  Does that not imply that someone else, namely God, is doing the transforming?  I did not check every use of the passive verb in Greek, though, so I do not know if passive verbs always exclude activity on the part of the agent.

I started Geoffrey R. Treloar's The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson and Hammond.  On page 19, Treloar discusses three evangelical approaches to sanctification in the nineteenth century.  According to Treloar, the Reformed and Wesleyan approaches advocated struggle against sin, and Wesley was more optimistic about the ability of believers, with God's help, to eradicate sin from their heart in this life.  A third approach was that of the Keswick movement.  It was basically a "Let go and let God" approach: stop struggling and rest in God's power to remove sin from your life.  According to Treloar, this conception spread to different countries and gained influence within evangelicalism, albeit against opposition.

What the pastor said this morning reminded me of Keswick, even though the pastor did seem to acknowledge that we play some role in our sanctification: we have to "let" God transform us, and such factors as trust, reading Scripture, drawing closer to God in prayer, and yielding to the Holy Spirit's correction are significant in this.  Still, he was presenting sanctification as more of a relaxing process than some Christians do when they depict it as a struggle.

Incidentally, one can draw parallels between Jimmy Swaggart's "Message of the Cross" and the Keswick movement.  To quote a description of Swaggart's book, The Message of the Cross:
"The message in this book is personal and addressed to every believer who has tried to live for God but failed.  It was written for those who were told by elders to just try harder to overcome sin.  It's for the people of God who trust their own abilities, strengths, and talents because they don't know how to trust God.  Read this apostolic revelation from God to Brother Swaggart and how it changed his life and ministry.  In these chapters, he shares God's prescribed order of victory though faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, which is the story of the Bible.  Learn how the Holy Spirit works within the parameters of the finished work of Christ to help believers gain victory over the world, the flesh, and the Devil."

This article here is an attempt to refute Swaggart's message.  I did not read it in its entirety but skimmed here and there.

I have encountered both approaches within Christianity: look to God and let God transform you, on the one hand, and keep trying hard and virtue may become second-hand, on the other hand.  Many combine the two approaches, in some manner: the Holy Spirit works, and yet our efforts are important, too.

D.  The pastor was arguing against those who would point out that daily quiet times are now possible due to the printing press and new technology, but that Christians and devout people prior to those inventions did not have quiet times.  Why, then, emphasize daily quiet times as essential for Christian growth?

The pastor referred to a scholarly view that Jesus' family may have had its own scroll of the Torah.  What he said reminded me of John Sailhamer's The Meaning of the Pentateuch, which I recently discussed in a post.  Sailhamer contends that there is a shift towards individual piety in the course of the Hebrew Bible.  Deuteronomy 15:1 commands that the Israelites are to hear the Torah every seven years.  By contrast, Joshua 1:8, which marks the “Prophets” section of the Hebrew Bible, and Psalm 1, which marks the “Writings” section, exhort individuals to meditate on the Torah day and night.  Sailhamer refers to a scholarly argument that the Book of Psalms was intended for individual piety, and he presents a picture of exilic and post-exilic Jews as literate.

There is debate within scholarship about how literate Jews were in Jesus' day.  My post here rehearsed arguments against widespread Jewish literacy back then.  A commenter referred me to Alan Millard's Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, which argues for more widespread literacy.  Josephus in Against Apion 1.60 and 2.204, and Philo in "On the Embassy to Gaius" 115-116, affirm that Jewish children in the first century were taught the Jewish laws; Josephus even mentions education in letters.  But, as Chris Keith asks on page 77 of Jesus' Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, how typical was this?  "As we will see," Keith says, "it is far more likely that Josephus and Philo reflect only the status of the privileged few such as themselves, and universal literacy was nowhere near a reality for Second Temple Judaism as a whole."

Was there still individual piety, then?  Perhaps one could argue that Joshua 1:8 and the passages in Psalms about meditating on Torah are about what leaders should do, not what every Israelite is expected to do.  Joshua 1:8 is an instruction to Joshua, the leader of Israel, and the Book of Psalms is largely attributed to King David.  And Deuteronomy 17:18-19 commands the King of Israel to write out a copy of the Torah so that he might obey it.  And yet, Psalm 1 seems to say that men who meditate on God's law prosper: that means more people than leaders and kings, right?

One can make a case that there could be individual piety, without widespread literacy.  Keith questions the assumptions that "'most Jews' drew a direct line between Torah-observance and literate skills."  Jews could have heard the Torah in the synagogue and meditated on what they heard.

And yet, Deuteronomy 6:9 commands Israelites to write God's laws on the door-frames of their houses.  Does that imply widespread literacy?

Anyway, I am writing myself into a pit, so I will stop here.  If you want to comment, please focus on the last three items.  I am not really interested in reading comments about how churches are wrong to honor Memorial Day. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Dawn of Christianity, by Robert J. Hutchinson

Robert J. Hutchinson.  The Dawn of Christianity: How God Used Simple Fisherman, Soldiers, and Prostitutes to Transform the World.  Nelson Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

In The Dawn of Christianity, Robert J. Hutchinson covers the time from the last days of Jesus to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.  Chapter 1 is somewhat of a novellization, but the remainder of the book has more of a tone that one would expect from a non-fiction historical book.  Hutchinson tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.

Here are some of my reactions to the book:

A.  I am giving the book five stars, for reasons that I will explain below.  Let me start, though, with a few critiques.  For one, Hutchinson argues against the scholarly idea that Jesus predicted an imminent end of the world.  Overall, his arguments were not particularly convincing (at least to me), and he did not entirely explain what Jesus meant when he preached about the Kingdom of God.

Mark 9:1 states that some standing there will not taste death before they see the Kingdom come with power.  Hutchinson seems to argue that the Kingdom was already coming in power at that time, with the ministry of Jesus.  On some level, that may be true, but is that what Jesus was talking about in Mark 9:1?  Why would Jesus say that some standing there would not taste death before seeing the Kingdom, if he were discussing a Kingdom that was breaking out all around them?  Hutchinson believes that Matthew 24:14, which states that the Gospel shall be preached to all the world before the end comes, precludes the possibility that Jesus envisioned an imminent end of the world, for the Gospel at the time was a long way off from being preached to all the world!  And yet, Paul in Romans 10:18 and Colossians 1:6 (assuming Paul wrote Colossians) seems to suggest that the Gospel then had gone or was going to the entire world.  Hutchinson states that certain Jesus Seminar scholars dispute that Jesus believed in an imminent end of the world, and yet he does not share that some of the Jesus Seminar scholars dismiss as secondary and non-authentic the apocalyptic parts of the Gospels.  I doubt that Hutchinson embraces that kind of methodology!

Hutchinson tried to offer an idea of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.  He presented a picture of God offering forgiveness and people repenting, lives being changed, and people gathering together in groups in which Kingdom principles were practiced.  The Kingdom of God arguably entails those things.  And yet, on page 19, Hutchinson states that “Jesus saw himself, and was seen by others, as the long-promised Jewish Messiah, the divine Son of Man who was inaugurating a new era in human history—-and whose reign would threaten and ultimately destroy all the kings and warlords of the earth.”  That sounds rather apocalyptic, perhaps imminently apocalyptic!  (Well, there is that word “ultimately” there, but the statement still implies that eschatology was a significant aspect of Jesus’ identity and mission.)

This is not to suggest that all of Hutchinson’s discussion of this issue was lacking.  I myself wonder if Bart Ehrman is correct in saying that Jesus envisioned an imminent divine destruction of the Romans, since Jesus hardly ever mentioned the Romans.  Hutchinson had a pretty good response to Bart Ehrman’s arguments that Q has an imminent apocalyptic saying: Hutchinson noted that the saying includes Jesus’ statement that Christians will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man but will not see it (see Luke 17:22).  As Hutchinson notes, that sounds like a delay in the Son of Man’s coming, not imminence.  Hutchinson also recommended scholarly books on the topic.  And the endnote about Dale Allison’s struggle with this issue was endearing.  To quote Allison: “…a Jesus without eschatological error would certainly make my life easier…I might, for instance, be able to tell some of my relatives, without them shuddering aghast, what I really do for a living” (quoted from Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p. 133).

B.  There were a few factual errors.  Hutchinson seemed to equate God-fearers with proselytes, when the two were not the same.  He considered such Jewish dietary prohibitions as the ban on mixing meat and milk to be biblical, when it was post-biblical.  Not that this necessarily counts as a “factual error,” but Hutchinson assumed that Isaiah 40 was written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, when many scholars believe it was written by Second Isaiah, who was a century later than Isaiah of Jerusalem.  This was surprising to me, since Hutchinson is well-versed on scholarly debates.

C.  Hutchinson generally believes in the historical reliability of the Gospels and the Book of Acts.  This approach actually led to interesting discussions in this book, as when he suggested that there is plausibility in the Gospel portrayals of Pilate being reluctant to execute Jesus, even though Pilate is presented in non-biblical sources as quite ruthless.  Hutchinson offered ways to reconcile these pictures.  At the same time, Hutchinson was not rigid in defending biblical inerrancy.  He thought that the Gospel of John’s timing of Jesus’ last meal and crucifixion makes more sense than that of the synoptics, for the Jewish establishment would not try Jesus on a Sabbath.  (In an endnote, however, he refers to a scholarly argument that there were different ways to date the Passover at the time.)  In discussion the question of whether the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 coincides with the Gospels, Hutchinson mentioned possible areas of overlaps (i.e., an early appearance to Peter), but also difficulties (i.e., the difficulty of assuming that Jesus’ appearance to the 500 is what Matthew 28 depicts).

D.  I had a slight problem with Hutchinson’s implication that Jesus was on everyone’s radar: that everyone was thinking about Jesus (well, maybe that is overstating his argument, but he did seem to suggest that a lot of people in first century Palestine were thinking about Jesus).  Hutchinson may just be following the Gospels here, since there are statements in the Gospels that state that Jesus was famous, or was unpopular with the Jewish establishment.  I wonder why, if Jesus’ was on so many people’s radar, there is such a dearth of first-century non-Christian references to Jesus.  Maybe my question is off-base: one could argue that there are major historical events that we only know about from one source, or that not all sources have survived.  Maybe.  The question still nags me, somewhat.

E.  Hutchinson attempts to explain why the early Christian movement was controversial.  He opts for Larry Hurtado’s suggestion that the early Christians were portraying Jesus as divine, on some level, and that was what many first century Jews did not like.  Hutchinson refers to a few passages in Acts that he thinks may imply this.  This discussion was rather brief, considering how significant the issue is: why do so many people in Acts hate the Christians so much?  Yet, Hutchinson deserves credit for attempting to offer an explanation.  (And, as Hutchinson notes, many Gentiles did not care for Christians turning people away from idols and, in turn, their business.)

F.  I said above that “Hutchinson still tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.”  This is where the book shined!  And Hutchinson did so in a compelling, lucid, and engaging manner: readers would not get caught up in a bunch of weeds (those were saved for the endnotes!), and the asides did not inhibit the story but often advanced it.  There are many examples in this book, and I will not share all of them here.  I will share one, though: I appreciated Hutchinson’s discussion of Herod Agrippa I.  Herod Agrippa I became King of the Jews on account of his friendship with Caligula, so he had the authority to implement the death penalty, something that the Jewish authorities in Palestine often lacked under Roman rule.  In the Book of Acts, he used that authority against early Christians.  And yet, Josephus and rabbinic literature portray him as a pious man.  But Josephus and the Book of Acts also talk about his demise, with overlapping details: both present him as dying soon after people were extolling him as a god!  Okay, many who have read and studied the New Testament may already know this, but Hutchinson also shared some less-known scholarly controversies.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Biologos: Did Darwin Promote Genocide?


Church Write-Up: We Support Each Other, but We Walk Our Own Spiritual Walk

I visited two churches last Sunday.  The first is a non-denominational evangelical church.  I will call it the “Pen church” because I got a new pen there.  And these pens are long-lasting!  The second church is a largely African-American Baptist church.  I have been there a lot of times in the past.  Even in weeks that I do not go there, I watch the sermon online.

The pastor at the Pen church was starting a series about being a velcro Christian, having a faith that sticks.  The pastor shared a statistic that 70% of high school students who become Christians end up leaving the faith.  One solution that the pastor proposes is being in Christian community.  That can keep Christians on track, as they deal with a world that tempts them towards pleasure away from God.

The pastor at the Baptist church was continuing a series on the family.  Last Sunday, he was preaching about how husbands and wives should relate to each other.  He said that spouses cannot force each other to be a certain way through nagging, for each spouse has to feel that call from God for himself or herself.

I somewhat juxtaposed the two sermons in my mind.  I can understand the benefit of small groups or church attendance.  Christians gather together with other Christians, and they can encourage one another on the Christian path.  A person who wants to keep on being a Christian may appreciate that positive form of peer pressure.

But it is far from fool-proof.  There are people who professed Christianity who were involved in church, small groups, and maybe even Christian ministry, but they ended up leaving Christianity.  Maybe they felt alone in small groups and felt that they were wearing a Christian mask.  Perhaps they had intellectual doubts that they deemed to be insurmountable.  Maybe they got discouraged with God on account of life, or got tired trying to be perfect all of the time.

In some cases, their fellow Christians may have tried to help them.  They gave them Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ or tried to argue them back onto the Christian path.  But it did not work.  Either these Christians falling out of the Christian faith were not truly convinced intellectually, or perhaps their mind was simply going in the opposite direction.  I have been there before.  I am told that I need to be HERE in terms of my faith, but I am THERE.

This is where the Baptist pastor’s sermon comes in.  We cannot have faith for somebody else.  People ultimately have to walk their own walk.  Maybe Christians can advise others, or offer a listening ear, provided that the struggling or leaving Christian wants that.  But nobody can make a person have faith.  Attempting to argue someone into the faith may create resistance rather than helping the person.

I may visit the Pen church next week, since I find the series to be intriguing.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Most Misused Stories in the Bible

Eric J. Bargerhuff.  The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories Are Misunderstood.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Eric J. Bargerhuff has a doctorate in biblical and systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was a pastor for over two decades, and teaches in the Bible and Theology department at Trinity College in Florida.  Bagerhuff in this book discusses biblical stories, explains how he believes that they have been misunderstood, and offers his interpretation.

In this review, I will comment on each chapter, except for the Introduction and Conclusion.

Chapter 1 is about the David and Goliath story.  According to Bargerhuff, the popular misunderstanding here is that the story is a lesson about how we should overcome our fears and face our giants.  But Bargerhuff observes that David is not actually afraid in this story.  David challenges Goliath because he is jealous for the glory of God, whom Goliath has mocked.  These are good observations.  At the same time, there are times in the Bible in which David was disturbed and sought refuge in God, and that should be appreciated.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Gideon and His Fleece.”  According to Bargerhuff, the misunderstanding here is that the story is about how we should determine the will of God.  As Bargerhuff notes, however, Gideon already knew the will of God when he performed the test.  Bargerhuff mostly spent this chapter on the topic of how we can discern the will of God, and he seemed to regard Gideon as unnecessarily insecure.  In my opinion, though, the story is a beautiful example of how God is patient with us in our insecurities.

Chapter 3 is about Cain and Abel.  Bargerhuff attempts to explain why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s sacrifice, and he resorts to appealing to Hebrews 11:4 to find an explanation.  Ordinarily, I prefer for scholars to focus on the Hebrew Bible in explaining the Hebrew Bible, but I did not mind Bargerhuff’s approach in this case.  The reason is that Bargerhuff tried to get whatever he could from the context of Genesis 4, as he interacted with the proposal that Abel offered the firstlings of his flock, whereas Cain did not offer the firstfruits of the soil.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Jonah and the Big Fish.”  One feature of this chapter that stood out to me was when Bargerhuff noted that Jonah seemed really proud to be a Hebrew in Jonah 1:9-10, even as he was disobeying the God of the Hebrews!

Chapter 5 is entitled “The Woman Caught in Adultery.”  He points out that Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more.  Bargerhuff disagrees with those who appeal to the story to undermine criticisms of sin.  Throughout the book, Bargerhuff stresses the importance of repentance in salvation.  In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff discusses the text critical issues surrounding this passage, as well as its controversial status among Christians in the time of Augustine.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Jesus Could Not Do Miracles in His Hometown.”  Bargerhuff spends this chapter criticizing health-and-wealth Gospels that claim that people who are not healed lacked faith.  He appeals to Paul as one who was not healed (assuming his thorn in the flesh was a physical malady), and he makes the wise statement that life in this fallen world entails suffering.  These are fine points, but I thought that Bargerhuff was dodging what the biblical passage said: Jesus could not do miracles in his hometown.  Bargerhuff was trying to argue that Jesus could perform miracles but chose not to do so.  Perhaps Bargerhuff would have done well to have done a word study on the Greek word dunamai to see if it always means “to be able to.”  The chapter also would have been better had it explored the question of why Jesus emphasized faith when it came to healing.

Chapter 7 is about Zacchaeus.  Bargerhuff argues that this story is not about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus but rather Jesus seeking Zacchaeus.  Bargerhuff interacted with a scholarly view that Zacchaeus was already doing the right thing before meeting Jesus, and, lest you wonder who in the world would think that, he quotes scholars who make that argument.  (Now I am interested in reading their rationale!)  Bargerhuff resorts to Paul’s writings in an attempt to explain why Jesus emphasizes that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham.  I think that, instead, he should have based his explanation on the significance of Abraham in Luke/Acts.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Sowing Your Seed.”  In this chapter, Bargerhuff criticizes prosperity preachers who claim that people can prosper by sowing seeds (money) into the preachers’ ministry.  According to Bargerhuff, the Parable of the Sower is not about that.  I am open to correction on this, but I doubt that prosperity preachers appeal specifically to the Parable of the Sower to defend that teaching.  There are other passages that they can cite to make their point, such as Luke 6:38 and II Corinthians 9:6.

Chapter 9 is about the “three” wise men.  As Bargerhuff notes, the Bible never says that there were only three wise men.  Bargerhuff makes interesting points as he tries to harmonize the stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: he states that the magi brought Jesus the gifts a while after his infancy.  After all, if Mary and Joseph had that wealth when Jesus was a baby, why did they offer a poor-person’s offering at the Temple in the Gospel of Luke?

Chapter 10 is about Judas.  Bargerhuff argues that the example of Judas does not demonstrate that a Christian can lose his or her salvation.  According to Bargerhuff, Judas was never a believer, and Bargerhuff astutely appeals to John 6:61-64 to support this point.  Is that true of everyone who leaves the Christian faith, though?  Bargerhuff appears to think so, on the basis of I John 2:19.  But, in reading this book, I wonder if he is completely persuaded by this, for he seems to manifest a sensitivity towards the reasons that people leave the faith.  Moreover, while Bargerhuff finds comfort in once-saved-always-saved, he appears to believe that believers should look to subjective criteria (are they bearing the fruit of the Spirit?), among other things, for assurance of salvation.  Can that offer assurance, since we are imperfect?

Chapter 11 is entitled “The Samaritan Pentecost.”  In Acts 8, there is a gap of time between when the Samaritans believed in Jesus and when they received the Holy Spirit.  Bargerhoff argues against the idea that all Christians who are baptized with the Holy Spirit speak in tongues, experiencing a “second baptism” sometime after their conversion.  Bargerhuff argues on the basis of I Corinthians 12:13 that all Christians are baptized with the Holy Spirit right when they believe, and it does not necessarily entail speaking in tongues.  The early chapters of Acts, according to him, portray a different scenario because it was a time of transition between the Old and New Covenants.  Bargerhuff’s argues that God in Acts 8 was showing that God accepted the Samaritans as God accepted the Jews by giving them a similar experience, like the Jews had in Acts 2.  That makes a degree of sense: after all, in Acts 10, the Gentile Christians spoke in tongues like the Jewish Christians did in Acts 2, for that very reason!  Bargerhuff should have attempted to account for the people in Acts 19 who speak in tongues, but perhaps he can tweak his explanation about the Samaritans who receive the Holy Spirit, such that it accounts for the people in Acts 19.  In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff quotes a statement by D.A. Carson offering a grammatical reason that the baptism with fire that John the Baptist mentions is the purifying Holy Spirit, not hell or divine wrath.

Chapter 12 is about the rich fool in Luke 12.  This was a level-headed chapter.  It said that God is not against people being rich, but God does not want people to be greedy: God wants them to be generous to those in need!

Chapter 13 is about Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper that “This is my body.”  Bargerhuff critiques the doctrine of transubstantiation and provides a lucid explanation of consubstantiation, referring to a sponge analogy (quoting Wayne Grudem).  Bargerhuff critiques Roman Catholicism for believing that the mass is a literal sacrifice of Christ, as he appeals to the Epistle to the Hebrews to argue that Jesus died once and for all.  I wondered how Catholics get around that.  From the Council of Trent, I can see that Catholicism does regard the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice.  Do they reconcile that with Hebrews in a manner that makes sense, or is the fit rather awkward?

Chapter 14 is about “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit.”  Essentially, Bargerhuff argues that it is rejecting Christ, to whom the Holy Spirit testifies.  But Jesus said that speaking against the Son will be forgiven.  How does Bargerhuff account for that in his argument?

This is a thoughtful book.  I was hoping for a little more depth, considering Bargerhuff’s scholarly credentials, but it was an informative, edifying read.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Thomas a Kempis.  The Imitation of Christ.  New York: Dover Publications, 2003.

According to the translators in the Foreword, the most popular view regarding this book’s origin is that it was written by a few members of the Brethren of the Common Life, a group of priests, in the Netherlands during the second half of the fourteenth century.  The priest Thomas, a member of the Brethren, translated it into Latin.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  What surprised me was what was lacking in the book.  When we think of WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”), what enters a lot of Christians mind is love and service towards others.  There are statements about that in this book, here and there, but it is not the book’s focus.  How, then, do we imitate Christ, according to the book?  We accept suffering, as Christ did, placing God’s desires above our own in so doing.  Some of this suffering comes from life’s events.  Yet, the book also has a strong ascetic focus.  When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, this book seems to regard that as more normative than a lot of Christians do.

B.  The book resembles Buddhism in its belief that Christians should detach themselves from worldly things, such as money and a desire for success.  It even believes that Christians should try to avoid looking to people for consolation and should instead turn to God for that: God may take God’s time to console us, the book acknowledges, but keep on waiting!  The reason that I say that the book is like Buddhism in its emphasis on detachment is that it maintains that attachment leads to suffering: our desires will be disappointed in this life, so we are happier when we are detached.  But the book also holds that even those who do get what they want are either suffering, or their possessions are standing in the way of their intimacy with God and the spiritual rapture that can come from that.

C.  While I understood the book’s argument that attachment leads to suffering, I did not know what its rationale was for asceticism.  Okay, sure, this world will not last, but why not enjoy it when we still can?  And cannot enjoying the pleasures of life enhance our appreciation for God, as we give God thanks?  I think of I Timothy 4:3, in which the author criticizes those who command people “to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (KJV).  Asceticism sounds rather Gnostic to me.  The Gnostics believed that the material world was bad because it was created by a sinister or an inferior sub-deity to trap people and estrange them from spirituality.  Their asceticism is understandable, in light of this view.  The Imitation of Christ does not believe that, though, for it holds that the creator of the material world was a good God.  Yet, for some reason, it seemed to denigrate the material world and enjoyment thereof.

D.  There is a lot of emphasis in evangelical Christianity on socializing: you need to be in DEEP community!  You cannot be a lone-ranger Christian!  This book, by contrast, stressed solitude: it is good to get away from people and seek consolation from God!  At times, the book treats chatting as foolishness to be avoided.  On one occasion, though, the book did say that people should not allow their private prayers to take them away from public prayer, a rather communitarian sentiment, but that sentiment was rare in this book.  As an introvert, I appreciated the book’s emphasis on solitude.  Still, I thought that the book went too far in that direction.  Does not Galatians 6:2 exhort Christians to bear one another’s burdens?  And, since the book was putting words into the mouth of Jesus, would not one expect Jesus to say more about loving other people?

E.  The book did exhort people to avoid negative feelings about others, but it tended to avoid the cheery “reach out to people” sentiments of modern evangelicalism.  Rather, it said that we should try to minimize our annoyance with others, since we ourselves have flaws that may annoy people.  Overall, though, the book had a rather dim view of life and of people, as if it regarded life as a drag, with temptations and desires that drag people down.  It looked to God, for consolation in this life and in the life hereafter.

F.  Humility was a theme that recurred frequently in this book.  We should be intellectually humble: intellect should lead to a virtuous life and not simply be for the sake of knowing things!  Part of the book’s stress on humility was its conviction that priests should submit to their superiors.  The book also emphasized that we are sinners.  We will interact with that more in the next item!

G.  A problem that I have long had with elements of conservative Christianity is this: we are supposed to believe that we are sinners, yet we are also supposed to look for internal signs that we are saved, and such signs include the fruit of the Spirit: are we loving?  Do we have joy?  I am not saying that all of Christianity is like this, but I believe that the elements of Christianity that do have this sort of stance place people in a Catch-22.  Am I supposed to see myself as bad?  Am I supposed to see myself as good, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work?  Which way do I go?

In light of that, the way that this book interacted with such issues intrigued me.  On the one hand, it believed that God’s judgment was a reality that even Christians should fear: in one poignant passage, it said that many of us are afraid when people are upset with us, so what makes us think we will be so brazen at God’s judgment seat?  That definitely spoke to me: I can be quite timid around other people, and yet, for some reason, I can envision myself telling God off at the last judgment!  In addition, the book seemed to regard its exhortations as a heaven or hell issue: those who surrender to God’s will and give up attachment will be the ones who will be saved.  One can get the impression that, as far as the book is concerned, we need to have all our ducks in a row to be saved!

On the other hand, the book was honest about human flaws.  The authors confess their imperfections.  If there is good within them, they believe it is on account of the Holy Spirit, and, even then, they often do not feel God’s consolations and sense the depths of their own shortcomings.  Sometimes, the book makes concessions: if you cannot bear suffering cheerfully, at least do so with patience!  If you cannot partake of the Eucharist with enthusiasm, then you can put off doing so, as long as you do not make that a habit.  The book also emphasized God’s mercy.  The book did not embrace any concept of “Once Saved Always Saved,” as far as I could see, and yet it was comforting, in its own way, since it was honest about human fallibility and encouraged people to persevere, trusting in a merciful God.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: 12 Days in Africa

Lisa Sanders, with Cathy Bruning and Blake Sanders.  12 Days in Africa: A Mother’s Journey.  WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

12 Days in Africa is about Lisa Sanders’ time in Uganda.  She talks about the people she met and the experiences that she had, both happy and sad.  At times, the book contains first-person testimonies by people in Uganda who were helped by an organization.  Children received an education, for example, which allowed them to contribute to their nation.

The book reads fairly smoothly in terms of prose, but not so much in terms of structure.  It is informative in that it sheds light on the struggles that people experience in Uganda, and the barriers that inhibit them from surpassing them.  Although parts of the book seem like an infomercial, it was good to read about positive contributions that people are making.  At the same time, the book sometimes conveyed a tone of Western saviors swooping in and helping helpless Ugandans.  The occasions when the book talked about Ugandans helping Uganda were rare, as I recall, but they were valuable.  There was not a whole lot of theological reflection in the book, until the very end.  The end was also when Sanders shared some of her own vulnerabilities and characteristics, and that was endearing.  I especially liked her story about how her son wanted to work in Africa for a semester rather than finish up that year of college, to the consternation of his practical engineer father!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Write-Up: Wings of the Wind, by Connilyn Cossette

Connilyn Cossette.  Wings of the Wind.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Wings of the Wind is the third book of Connilyn Cossette’s “Out from Egypt” series.  The series is about the Exodus and Israel’s time in the wilderness.

Wings of the Wind is set after the failed rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram against Moses.  This book covers the incident in Numbers 21 in which God sends fiery serpents against the complaining Israelites, and the only way that they can be cured of snakebite is to look at a brass serpent.  It goes through the Canaanite prostitute Rahab concealing the Israelite spies in the Book of Joshua, as well as the battle of Jericho.

Alanah is a Canaanite woman.  She dresses as a man and goes to the battlefield to avenge her father and brothers, who were killed in battle against the Israelites.  She is unconscious on the battlefield, and an Israelite, Tobiah, feels compassion for her and takes her to the Israelite camp.  There, she is nursed by Shira.  A la Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Tobiah wants to marry Alanah, and she undergoes the ritual prescribed under that law.

Alanah is ambivalent about marrying Tobiah and dwelling with the Israelite people.  On the one hand, she resents that the Israelites are trying to conquer her land.  She also has to deal with culture shock, since the Israelites do things differently from the Canaanites (e.g., in Israel, one can have a relationship with God without an idol or sacrifice).  On the other hand, she thinks that Israelite society under the Torah is more compassionate, just, and humane than Canaanite society, and that the God of Israel seems more real than the mythical gods of Canaan.  She develops relationships with Israelites in the camps, some of whom were foreigners who had joined the Israelite community.  Israel is not a complete Shangri la for her, however, for she has to deal with the bigotry and hostility of Tobiah’s twin sister, Tzipi.

The book picks up speed after Alanah discovers something that can negatively affect some of her relationships with Israelites.  In the course of the story, Cossette provides an explanation for why Rahab was so willing to help the Israelite spies.

My reactions to this book are mostly ambivalent.

The book, of course, portrays the Israelites as good (or Israelite society as good) and the Canaanites as bad.  It is an evangelical Christian book, after all!  And that is how the Israelite Conquest is justified in this book: it is God’s judgment on the sinful Canaanites, who had years to repent or to leave Canaan but failed to take advantage of the opportunity.  Occasionally, we get some nuance.  Although the book tries to argue that the Canaanites had time to leave Canaan and that it was primarily a few sinful die-hards who stayed behind, some of the Canaanites who are still in Canaan are not bad people: some are victims of the unjust system or life’s circumstances, and some are old.

The book portrays Canaanite society as rife with prostitution (cultic and otherwise), as violent and bloodthirsty, and as committed to child sacrifice.  On one occasion, Alanah reflects that Canaanites ditch their elderly parents, whereas the Israelites are commanded to honor their father and mother.  Cossette may be correct that there was cultic prostitution and child sacrifice in Canaan, but there are biblical scholars who have questioned the extent of those things in Canaan.  While Cossette depicts Canaanites as unfaithful to their family, one should remember that they performed rituals to support their dead ancestors: can such people be categorized as unfaithful?  And, while Cossette depicts the Torah as compassionate, just, and humane, there are people who would question that, seeing the Torah as patriarchal, brutal, and genocidal.

This is not to suggest that there is absolutely nothing to Cossette’s narrative.  There are just and compassionate elements in the Torah, and one can make a case that Canaanite society had significant flaws.  One can also read this book and appreciate the homiletical lesson that God gives us laws to restrain our base impulses and to move us in the direction of behaving more righteously (and, yes, grace is a significant factor in this book, too).  Still, in reading this book, one should remember that there are additional nuances.

A point that Cossette tries to make is that the Canaanites had a genuine opportunity to repent.  They knew about God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  They were aware of the Exodus and Israelites’ victories against overwhelming odds up to that point.  Cossette even speculates in the appendix that God may have sent a prophet to Canaan to warn them to repent of their sinful behavior.  Perhaps she would have done well to have mentioned Melchizedek, who was a priest-king in Salem during the time of Abraham and worshiped the Most High God.  He may have been a light to the Canaanites!  While she wants to portray the Canaanites as having the truth and rejecting it, as that would justify the Conquest (according to her), she also portrays them as having a distorted understanding of what was going on: they see Moses as a sorcerer, and Joshua as a descendant of Baal!  Is Cossette’s point that they were suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18)?

As far as the story itself is concerned, it was pretty good.  I think Cossette tried to create a sense of pathos, but she was not overly effective.  Israelites in the story were trying to move on after the people in their families had been killed by God in Korah’s rebellion, but they usually dismissed their concerns and justified God with the usual apologetic answers.  In addition, Alanah was won to the truth too quickly and too easily.  It looked rather facile.  There also seemed to be more telling than showing in the story.  Some of the scenes (i.e., the raging river scene) could have been more vivid.

This book is too good to get a three, but it falls short of a five.  I’ll give it a four!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Church Write-Up: Imparting Values

I attended a non-denominational church this morning.  I hadn’t visited this particular church in about a year, and the reason that I decided to visit it this morning was that I wanted a new pen!  A year ago, when I visited this church, I got a new pen.  It was in the program so that we could write down our contact information and put it in the offering bucket.  That pen lasted for a year!  A few days ago, however, it ran out.  So I decided to go to that church and get a new one.

The sermon was a Mother’s Day sermon.  It focused on mentoring and passing down values to young people.

The pastor noted that Eli in the Book of Samuel had been a bad father, yet he got a second chance when he mentored Samuel.

The pastor also shared a video in which an elderly woman and her husband were sharing.  The elderly woman said that she visited a young woman who had recently had a baby.  Of course, everyone was paying attention to the baby, but the elderly woman took the opportunity to talk to the older brother.  “I’ll bet that you are a good big brother,” she said to him.  The young woman was happy that someone took the time to talk to her son.

The pastor read a story about a family in the church, as told from the perspective of the mother of the family.  Her husband had died of cancer, so now she was a single parent.  She needed her two daughters’ help, so, when she told her two daughters that they needed to stay and help her with the yard work rather than go bicycling with their friends, she wasn’t being mean or trying to teach them a lesson: she really needed their help!  She started going to church with her daughters, the church that her husband had attended before his death, and she noticed that her attitudes were subtly changing: nothing dramatic, but she prayed and relied on God more each day.  People at church came to her house and accomplished in four hours what would take her and her daughters weeks to do, and she valued that experience because it taught her two daughters the value of service.

I do not feel called to mentor anybody right now, but, if I am ever in a position to be an example to others, I hope that I do that well and teach the right values.  I liked the stories today, even though there was tragedy in some of them.  Why God allows a world where cancer takes the lives of those we love, I do not know.  I was thinking about that topic before going to church this morning.  Incidentally, the pastor also in his sermon said that each breath we take is a gift from God and we should appreciate it.  The world is a tragic place, but it is good when people can find second chances, appreciate others, and teach values.

Book Write-Up: Paul the Apostle, by Robert E. Picirilli

Robert E. Picirilli.  Paul the Apostle: Missionary, Martyr, Theologian.  Chicago: Moody, 1986, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

In Paul the Apostle: Missionary, Martyr, Theologian, scholar Robert E. Picirilli goes through the life of the apostle Paul.

Picirilli starts with Paul’s background in Tarsus.  Some of Picirilli’s discussion about Paul there was speculative, yet it was informed by historical information.  Picirilli talked about the sort of city that Tarsus was and how that made Paul a suitable vessel for God’s missionary purposes.  Since the Book of Acts says that Paul was a Roman citizen, Picirilli discusses how people became Roman citizens in those days, what being a Roman citizen entailed, and the relationship of Tyre to Rome.  And, of course, Picirilli is informed by the Scriptures.  Although Tyre was a Hellenistic place, Paul was a Pharisee, according to Philippians 3:5.

Next, Picirilli goes into Paul’s conversion.  A salient aspect of this section is the critical questions that Picirilli addresses.  How could the high priests have authority to persecute Christians in Damascus, which was outside their jurisdiction?  How should we understand the apparent contradiction in Acts over whether the people around Saul heard the voice or saw the light when Jesus appeared to him (Acts 9:7; 22:9)?  Can we fit Paul’s trip to Arabia (Galatians 1:17) into the events in Acts?  Picirilli largely assumes the historicity of Acts and uses that as a frame for his narrative about Paul’s life.

Picirilli then discusses Paul’s epistles.  He maintains that Paul wrote all of the New Testament epistles attributed to him and addresses scholarly arguments to the contrary.  Picirilli wrestles with options about when Paul could have written certain epistles.  He discusses what sort of city Corinth was, the question of whether Paul wrote to North Galatia or South Galatia, various traditions about whether Paul reached Spain, and what slavery was like.  Occasionally, Picirilli talks about the theological and religious content of the epistles.  For example, Picirilli speculates that the Book of Colossians rarely mentions the Holy Spirit because it does not want the Spirit to detract from Christ.  The letter, after all, is responding to a heresy that treated Christ as merely one facet of the divine among many.

In the course of the book, Picirilli offers historical asides.  After reading his brief narrative about Felix, one can see why Felix was disturbed by Paul’s sermon about righteousness, temperance, and the coming judgment (Acts 24:25)!

In terms of positives, the book was informative, especially when it came to historical background.  It manifested a humble tone when it engaged other points of view, though Picirilli could be a bit saucy, every now and then.  While Picirilli maintained a rather harmonizing approach towards the biblical text, he sounded like a reasonable person, not as someone trying to stretch things to make his argument fit.  I also appreciated his references to J. Gresham Machen’s work on Paul.

In terms of negatives, the book could have used more religious and theological content, not only regarding Paul’s epistles, but also regarding such questions as the religious motivations that Hellenistic Jews and Saul of Tarsus had when they persecuted the early Christians.  While many may find Picirilli’s discussions on when Paul wrote to be useful, they were dry, in places.

Would this book be a good introduction to students about the apostle Paul?  On such topics as historical context and scholarly ideas about the authorship of the epistles, I would say yes.  On theological and religious questions, however, I think students should look for a supplement.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Meaning of the Pentateuch, by John H. Sailhamer

John H. Sailhamer.  The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation.  IVP Academic, 2009.  See here to purchase the book.

The late John Sailhamer taught Old Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Brea, California.

In the Meaning of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer makes a variety of points about the Pentateuch. They include (but are not limited to) the following:

—-Sailhamer argues that a version of the Pentateuch was written by Moses, who used different sources.  Later, the Pentateuch underwent an eschatological update.  Parts were added that stressed the coming of a Messianic king of Israel in the last days.  This king of Israel would defeat Israel’s enemies, inaugurate paradise, and bless the nations.  Sailhamer believes that such themes were latent in the original Pentateuch, but that the additions emphasized them and made them clearer.

—-According to Sailhamer, canonizers played a role in the Pentateuch’s eschatological orientation, as well as that of the Hebrew Bible.  The Pentateuch ends with Israel not yet in the Promised Land, and that is because the Jewish people during the time of this canonization are still awaiting the Messianic, eschatological restoration of Israel to, and in, her land.  The same goes with the Hebrew Bible, which ends with II Chronicles, with Israel still in exile, and yet hope is on the horizon.  At the same time, Sailhamer maintains that there were different communities with different canons: some communities preferred to end the Hebrew Bible with II Chronicles, giving the Hebrew Bible an eschatological focus that anticipated a future restoration from exile.  At least one community, however, ended the Hebrew Bible with Ezra-Nehemiah.  This gave the Hebrew Bible a historical focus, which maintained that the fulfillment of Israel’s restoration from exile occurred historically under Ezra and Nehemiah.  Sailhamer holds that this difference of opinion can also be discerned in different versions of the Book of Jeremiah.

—-Sailhamer maintains that the Pentateuch is not about obeying rules but is about faith.  Trust in God is a recurring theme in the Pentateuch (i.e., Abraham believes God, the Israelite spies did not have faith in God).  According to Sailhamer, God in the Pentateuch desired a direct relationship with Israel.  Israel would be a priesthood and would hear from God directly, and she would have few rules to follow.  But Israel feared hearing directly from God and requested a mediator, and she kept sinning.  Aaron helped Israel to construct the Golden Calf, and Israelites worshiped goat demons.  God then gave more laws to provide Israel with discipline, restraint, and guidance.  The Tabernacle would provide a system of mediation, the levitical laws would keep the priests on the straight and narrow, and the Holiness Code would guide individual Israelites.  For Sailhamer, this structure of the Pentateuch (and he seems to believe this is part of the original Pentateuch) anticipates the new covenant, in which God would write God’s laws on the Israelites’ hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  Sailhamer argues that parts of the Book of Jeremiah support this picture of God giving Israel more laws in response to Israel’s sins, and he also refers to New Testament and patristic views to that effect.

—-Sailhamer defends certain Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.  When Paul in Galatians 3:16 states that God made the promises to Abraham’s seed (Christ, according to Paul), not Abraham’s seeds, did Paul fail to realize that “seed” is a collective noun?  When Matthew 2:15 applies Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) to Jesus coming from Egypt, did Matthew not notice that Hosea 11:1 is about Israel coming out of Egypt?  Is Isaiah 7:14 eschatological or Messianic, as Matthew 1:23 seems to suggest, or does it concern an event in the seventh century B.C.E.?  Sailhamer wrestles with difficult questions and offers important insights: that there is an individual, kingly seed in the Hebrew Bible who blesses the nations, and that Numbers 24:7-8 can be interpreted to mean that God will bring the king of Israel out of Egypt.  In my opinion, he was not as convincing on Isaiah 7:14.  While he may be correct that Isaiah 7:14 has a larger eschatological significance in the Book of Isaiah, it still seems to be a sign about events in the seventh century B.C.E.

—-While Sailhamer defends Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, he is unhappy with the tendency of many Christians to treat the Hebrew Bible primarily as a prophecy about Christ, or as a promise about Christ’s coming.  In his mind, such an approach implies that the Hebrew Bible is useless now that Christ has come.  Sailhamer believes that the Hebrew Bible still enlightens and informs, and that it provides a context for the New Testament.  For Sailhamer, the Hebrew Bible’s focus is not so much on prediction as it is on elucidating God’s will and ways.

—-Sailhamer contends that there is a shift towards individual piety in the course of the Hebrew Bible.  Deuteronomy 15:1 commands that the Israelites are to hear the Torah every seven years.  By contrast, Joshua 1:8, which marks the “Prophets” section of the Hebrew Bible, and Psalm 1, which marks the “Writings” section, exhort individuals to meditate on the Torah day and night.  Sailhamer refers to a scholarly argument that the Book of Psalms was intended for individual piety, and he presents a picture of exilic and post-exilic Jews as literate.  Sailhamer also maintains that the song in Exodus 15 presents a picture of individual praise of God.

—-Sailhamer made intriguing points and addressed questions that I have had.  What did Noah mean when he predicted that Japheth would dwell in the tents of Shem (Genesis 9:27)?  Sailhamer answers that in reference to the identification of their descendants in Genesis 10 as well as the Book of Daniel, relating it to Rome and Greece’s dominion over Assyria, Babylon, and Israel.  Did Noah end God’s curse of the earth (Genesis 5:29)?  If so, why does the ground still produce thorns?  According to Sailhamer, Noah, by sacrificing after the Flood, encouraged God to bless the earth.  Sailhamer also notes that, prior to the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants, the Hebrew hero (Abraham and Moses) had contact with a Gentile (Melchizedek and Jethro).  Sailhamer commented some on the significance of this, but he could have commented more; most of the time, he had the opposite problem, repeating points he had already made—-sometimes the exact same arguments and quotations.

Now for my assessment:

—-Sailhamer argued robustly for his positions.  He did not merely assume that certain passages in the Pentateuch are eschatological, as some evangelical scholars do, but he actually set out to defend his positions and to address challenging questions.  His argument that there was a later eschatological update to the Pentateuch is plausible, even though I would not be too quick to acknowledge that the Pentateuchal writings were originally eschatological.

—-Sailhamer focuses on Judah in his interaction with Genesis 49.  Genesis 49 can be translated to concern the last days, and it talks about a Judahite king, whom Sailhamer interprets as the Messiah.  But Jacob in Genesis 49 talks about the other Israelite tribes as well.  How do they fit into the last days?  Many Jewish interpreters have interpreted Genesis 49 in reference to events in Israel’s history: the judge and serpent Dan in vv 16-17 has been interpreted as Samson, for instance.  They have also maintained that the phrase translated as “last days” actually means coming days, which is not necessarily eschatological.  (Sailhamer acknowledges that as a possible translation but rejects it, thinking that the eschatological interpretation of the phrase makes more sense, in terms of the structure of the Pentateuch.)  A possible challenge to Sailhamer’s interpretation of Genesis 49 as eschatological occurs in v 7.  Jacob predicts that Simeon and Levi will be scattered in Israel.  That happened historically, but, after Israel’s eschatological restoration, Simeon and Levi will receive land in Israel, according to Ezekiel 48.  How would Sailhamer interpret such details of Genesis 49, from an eschatological standpoint?

—-Did exilic and post-exilic Jews really possess their own copies of the Torah, as in their own scrolls?  That is not usually the picture that I have gotten from academics, but I am open to correction.

—-Sailhamer interprets Numbers 24:7-8 to concern the Messiah coming out of Egypt.  Are there any post-biblical Jewish sources that manifest such an expectation, though?  If canonizers updated the Pentateuch to include such an expectation, would we have seen it in other Jewish sources?  More engagement with post-biblical Jewish sources may have helped Sailhamer’s case (or not).

—-As I said above, Sailhamer was repetitive when it came to certain points.  That did help me absorb the points, but did he have to, say, quote Jamieson-Faussett-Brown’s statement that Moses used sources three times?  The conclusion did a good job tying things together, especially when it related Sailhamer’s discussion of methodology and evaluation of evangelical scholarship to Sailhamer’s own methodology and project.  Still, an appendix in which Sailhamer laid out the passages that he believed were the original Pentateuch, and the passages that he considered to be the later additions, would have been helpful.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Church Write-Up: The Door, the Trial, and the Church of Humans

I attended the traditional Lutheran service this morning.  When I quote a Scriptural passage, it will be from whatever English translation the bulletin was using.  Here are some thoughts.

A.  One of the Scripture readings was from John 10:1-10.  The passage slightly confused me, particularly in its usage of the “door” metaphor.  Jesus says that thieves and robbers do not use the door but climb into the sheepfold another way.  Jesus, however, enters by the door, and his sheep follow him when he leads them out because his sheep recognize his voice.  But then Jesus says that he himself is the door and those who enter by him will be saved and enjoy the pasture.  Jesus contrasts himself with the thieves and robbers, whom his sheep did not heed.  Jesus finally mentions a thief who comes in to kill and destroy, whereas Jesus came so that his sheep could have abundant life.

The thieves and robbers did not enter the door, who is Jesus.  Is this a criticism of non-Christian teachers, meaning teachers who rejected Christ?

There are points that I think I understand in this passage, but I am a little unclear about the “door.”  Does the door consistently represent Jesus in this passage?  It just seems to me that the metaphor is being used in different ways.  I would not be surprised if the themes overlapped, though.

I can probably look this up.  But reading this passage at church this morning reminded me of how I always have something more to learn about the Bible.

B.  Another Scripture reading was from I Peter 2:19-25.  V 23 stood out to me: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

I thought about books and TV shows, and I often admire the characters who stand up for themselves when they are challenged, or who threaten bullies who themselves are on a power trip.  V 23 somewhat challenges this sentiment within me.  Still, I can identify with elements of v 23: of actually loving those who persecute, as opposed to reviling and threatening.

At the same time, as I said in this post a while back, Jesus stood up for righteousness throughout his ordeals, so he was not a doormat.  That included challenging the powers that be, and it also included love for enemies.

C.  The main text of the service was Acts 2:42-47.  The pastor said that the early church had the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the sacraments (which is probably how he is interpreting the “breaking of bread” in the passage—-as holy communion).  He said that, when we are looking for a church, we should seek one that has those elements.  He also observed that many people crowd into megachurches because they are looking for something to fill them.  They have a hunger that the preacher’s powerful personality cannot by itself satisfy.  They are looking for teaching.

The pastor noted v 47, which states that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  The pastor said that the Lord has to build the church, for humans left to their own devices will lead the church to destruction, as Martin Luther said.  Humans, after all, have their pride and preferences, which lead to conflict and disagreement.

After hearing this, my thought to myself was, “Do I really believe this?”  There are plenty of non-Christian groups that do well; and there are plenty of Christian groups that suffer through divisions.  This is not to suggest that non-Christian groups are better than Christian groups.  I just wonder, though, if there is more to human nature than “Human nature is bad.”  Still, speaking for myself personally, I identify with the pastor’s characterization of human nature, at least when it comes to myself.

I thought recently about Christians who treated me in, well, a less-than-Christian manner.  I am tempted to declare that they are not real Christians.  But who am I to say that, just because they do not like me, they have no right to fulfill their spiritual needs?  The pastor’s sermon this morning reinforced whatever charitable sentiments I have.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Guide to Life

Lucas R. Leach and Ashley J. Leach.  The Guide to Life: An Inspiration from the Bible.  Revival Waves of Glory Books & Publishing, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Lucas Leach has a B.S. in environmental science, served as a Marine in Iraq, and is an evangelist.  His wife, Ashley, has a B.A. in English and a certificate in Biblical counseling.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  The book reflects the sort of Christianity that believes in generational curses, spiritual warfare against demons, the possibility that demons can influence believers if they are not careful, and the authority of believers to heal, raise the dead, and cast out demons.  This book attempted to support these positions with Scriptures, yet left some questions unanswered.  If believers were to continually possess the authority to heal, for example, why did Paul leave Trophimus sick at Miletus (II Timothy 2:40)?  And, in making this point, I do acknowledge that cessationists have their own share of questions to answer.  The Leaches refer to John 14:12, in which Jesus affirms that believers will be able to do the works that Jesus did, and more.  Cessationist attempts to explain that verse have not satisfied me.

B.  The Leaches make the point that believers do not have to pray to heal or cast out demons.  We don’t read about the disciples praying before healing or casting out demons, right?  They just did it, because Jesus gave them the authority!  The Leaches address Acts 9:40, in which Peter prays before raising Tabitha from the dead: they say that Peter was praying for faith, even though the text does not explicitly say that.  They also leave unaddressed Jesus’ point in Mark 9:29 that some demons can only come out through prayer.  Still, it is odd that we see little in the Gospels about the disciples praying before healing or casting out demons.  Maybe Jesus’ all night prayers took care of that, or the disciples’ prayers after Jesus’ resurrection.

C.  The book seems to waver between believing in a God who cuts people slack, does not expect them to be perfect, has eliminated the curse of the law and now disciplines rather than punishes believers, and saves sleeping believers, and a God who condemns disobedient, unrepentant Christians to hell.  Maybe the Leaches hold these things together in their own minds, in some way.  It’s not impossible to do, I suppose.  Still, it seemed that the Chapter 2 was saying that sleeping believers (who fail to repent?) go to hell and then go to heaven, whereas Chapter 3 (and much of the rest of the book) was arguing strongly against once-saved-always-saved.

By the way, the argument in Chapter 2 was pretty bad: it was interpreting the sleep of death in I Corinthians 15:18 and I Thessalonians 4:14 as spiritual sleep (the type in Romans 13:11-14).  The arguments in Chapter 4 were all right, overall.  The Leaches maintain that, when Jesus says that no one will be able to snatch his followers from his hand (John 10:27-29), he is talking about his obedient followers, and there may be something to that.  They also argue that the exorcists who say “Lord, Lord” yet fail to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 7:21-23) were initially saved, otherwise they would not have been able to cast out demons.  That, I think, is jumping to conclusions.  Did not Jesus say that the Pharisees who criticized him cast out demons (Matthew 12:27)?

D.  The Leaches do well to acknowledge biblical passages that say that God does not hear certain prayers, due to certain sins (i.e., not hearing the cry of the poor).  Those are not comfortable or reassuring passages, but they are in the Bible, and those who believe in the Bible should deal with them somehow.  At the same time, the Leaches also should have addressed God’s faithfulness to and use of imperfect people, such as the disciples, who had their share of pride and strife.

E.  There were edifying features in the book.  The Leaches talked about what covetousness is and is not, and that spoke to me, since I am dealing with my share of jealousy.  Ashley’s stories were especially good.  I liked her story about an old man who went to a coffee shop where she was a waitress, and he had tried to make up for his own unfaithfulness to his wife by giving her shopping money.  The story’s point was that we cannot earn salvation, and Ashley acknowledged that she, too, sinned.  The Leaches’ picture of God’s quickness to forgive, in contrast with society’s punishments, was also effective.

F.  The book seems to suggest that God’s healing will eliminate the need for anti-depressant medications.  Maybe the Leaches are just saying that this is what happened to them and people they know, but I am leery about messages that may encourage people to give up on needed medication.

G.  The book perhaps could have gone more deeply into how one can overcome deeply-ingrained sin.  In my opinion, repentance alone is insufficient, for a person can say he or she is sorry to God and still have propensities towards sinful, or just human, attitudes.  The book tried to address this, on some level, but it could have gone deeper.

H.  The book needs editing.  Some parts were well-written.  Other parts, not so much.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash.  My review is honest!

Monday, May 1, 2017


I am doubling down on my dissertation work, so I will not be blogging much this year (May 2017-May 2018).

I will still write my weekly Church Write-Up, since that is a way that I keep a record of the church services that I attend and process what I heard there. Sometimes, I will offer my thoughts.  But don’t be surprised when I just offer a summary of the sermon.

I will still write book reviews here, but the pace will be slower, since I will be reading fewer pages each day.

I may drop the Current-Events Write-Up.  Regarding news, I will only watch ABC News each night.

Just wanted to let you know!  If I do not post for a while, this is why!  I will still post at least once each week, though.

Church Write-Up: The Parable of the Talents

For church this morning, I went to what I call (accurately or inaccurately) the “Word of Faith” church.  It had a guest speaker, who is a missionary to Brazil.  He was preaching about the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30.  See here to read the parable.

Here are some points that were made at this morning’s service:

A.  The missionary said that we have to sow according to the vision that God has given us.  He told a story about a Christian man who owned a restaurant.  The restaurant became prosperous and employed a lot of young people, but the busy hours kept them away from youth group.  The restaurant owner talked to the missionary and said that he would donate a lot of his profits to the missionary’s church, but the missionary gently answered no.  That angered the restaurant owner, but the restaurant owner later reflected on what the missionary said and let his employees take time off to go to youth group.  The restaurant still thrived.

B.  The sermon was primarily about stewardship: how do we manage what God has given us?  This includes money, but it also includes our emotions, the words that we say, and our responsibilities towards our loved ones.  Do parents blame God for their rebellious teenagers, as the unprofitable servant blamed God in vv 24-25, or do they pray for their teenagers?  Money still came up, of course.  After the sermon, the pastor talked about giving to a charity that helped Ukrainian widows get houses and jobs.  He mentioned others who had vision, such as a couple who started a marriage seminar at the church.  He was saying that we can give to God, and stand back and see what God does with what we gave.

C.  The missionary highlighted vv 21, 23: the master said that the profitable servants were faithful in a few things.  He talked about a time when he only had a few cents in his pocket.  I don’t remember how the story ended, but his point was that God can bless the little that we give.

D.  A young man got up and gave a testimony.  He said that he diligently tithed, but God prompted him to give a little more.  He stepped out in obedience, and his income increased the more that he gave.  He said that he was not offering this as financial advice, but rather was highlighting God’s faithfulness.  It is interesting to note, though, that, as he earned more, he gave more.

In terms of my reactions, the Parable of the Talents is not a beloved parable of mine, since God comes across as harsh in that parable.  The missionary actually admitted that a couple of times!  Plus, I am in a period of saving: I try to hold on to what I can.  I do not plan to change that after writing this post, at least not yet.  Still, the service this morning highlighted a compelling theme, about using what God has given us to make a positive difference in the world.

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