I, Tertius

papyrusFor my money, the Epistle to the church in Rome–the book of Romans more commonly–is the finest, most important letter in church history. Certainly in the canon. So who wrote this tremendous piece of work? The apostle Paul, right? Actually, no. That’s a bit of a trick question. Paul is the author–it is full of his words and thoughts–but the writer is another chap we only find out about towards the end of the letter:

I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. (Romans 16:22)

Tertius was apparently Paul’s writer–his amanuensis— as he dictated the letter to the Romans. Now, there might be any number of reasons for having a writer take down the letter for you. Some speculate that Paul had vision or health issues. Others point out that writing, in those days, was a much more difficult skill than reading. The materials required sharp, deft strokes that required training to develop. Tertius was a believer who was one such scribe.

I don’t know why, but this guy fascinates me. This is a verse in the Bible. This chap whom we don’t know anything about, really, was a part of this massively crucial piece of Christian history. And that largely because he knew how to write. He wasn’t an apostle. We don’t know that he was a teacher or preacher, a deacon, or particularly skilled in any area. All we know is that the brother had a technical skill and made himself available to Paul as a scribe.

There’s no big lesson I have beyond saying this: there are millions of Tertiuses sitting in the pews. Millions of ordinary Christians, with ordinary skills, doing ordinary things. And who knows what God will do with theses gifts? What ordinary skill is God currently using to get his extraordinary work done?

Soli Deo Gloria

The Jerusalem Council: More Law, Random Rules, or Something Else?

acts of JesusOne of the key interpretive puzzles in the book of Acts comes towards the end of chapter 15 with the famous decision of the Jerusalem Council on the inclusion of the Gentiles. Jesus’ commission to the disciples to be his witnesses to the gospel in the power of the Spirit in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), meant that eventually some Gentiles were going to hear the gospel. And, as we might expect given the power of God, many responded positively in faith and confessed Christ as Lord. This raised a number of questions: on what basis are they to be admitted into God’s people? Is the Mosaic law still binding on them? Must they become Jews (get circumcised, eat kosher, keep Torah), in order to be justified?

Resolving these questions takes up a great deal of the narrative of Acts. Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10-11, makes it clear that certain food laws don’t apply. As a part of the new stage of history brought on by Jesus’ life death, resurrection, and ascension, God seems to have abrogated or set aside key food laws and has cleansed the Gentiles like Cornelius who confess faith in Christ through the forgiveness of sins and by faith.

That’s not the end of the story, though. In Acts 15 we read that some Jews from Judea had come down to Antioch and began stirring up trouble in Paul’s church by teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved (v. 1). Obviously, Paul wasn’t having it, so they had it until they all decided to go up to Jerusalem to have the council of apostles and elders sort out the issue for them. In council, in the face of opposition, Peter stands up, gives a solid defense of justification by faith, not Torah-keeping (vv. 7-11), and eventually the council basically sides in his and Paul’s favor. The Gentiles are saved by grace as well as the Jews and so they shouldn’t be “troubled” by being made to keep the Law in detail, certainly not by being circumcised.

All the same, there is a caveat. James says:

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write them to abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (vv. 19-20)

Okay. So no need for circumcision—the covenant isn’t restricted to Jews or strict Torah-keepers—but it still seems like some of the restrictions of the Law are in play. Now this doesn’t seem like this fits into the classic categories that Protestants typically use to think about the way the Old Testament Law does and doesn’t still apply to New Testament believers (moral, ceremonial, and civil). There seems to be a couple that are moral (sexual immorality, things polluted by idols) and a couple that are clearly ceremonial (strangled food and blood). And why those moral categories? Why is sexual immorality mentioned and not stealing or murder or something?

What gives?

Three Options

Alan J. Thompson, in his work The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, notes that there are a number of options put forward by scholars (pp. 184-187).

Some think that these restrictions are a sign of the Law’s continuing binding authority drawn from Leviticus 17-18 that govern the behavior of Gentile sojourners in Israel. But that wouldn’t cover the strangled animal issue and there are a bunch of laws elsewhere covering sojourners.

Others have suggested that requirements are kind of on the spot laws picked because they were particularly offensive to Jews. So, this isn’t a requirement of the Law, but more like pragmatic commands just to suit that time and those groups. So, salvation by grace, but don’t offend your Jewish neighbors. The problem with that, though, is that it “overlooks the general applicability of these requirements to all the Gentiles in 15:19 and 21:25” (185).  And the language used about them refers, not to preferences, but binding “decisions” made by the council.

The final view that Thompson notes and opts for is Ben Witherington’s which is that, essentially, these form a restriction on idol practice. Witherington observes that all four of the practices were all associated with pagan temple practices at the time. He notes that the language used of “Gentiles turning to God” in Acts 15:19 is similar to that of 1 Thessalonians 1, where Paul talks about turning from idols to God. Also, there’s a very strong link between food practice and idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8-10, especially where Paul says to “flee from idolatry” (10:4). Beyond that, this fits with the polemic against idolatry in Acts, Paul’s preaching, and early Christianity.

Thompson summarizes the twofold thrust of the council’s decision this way, then:

The Jerusalem Council therefore clarifies two issues involved in how Gentiles may be saved: (1) Gentiles do not have to become Jews; salvation for Jew and Gentile alike is by grace alone through faith in the Lord Jesus alone. (2) However, Gentiles cannot remain pagan idolaters either; they must turn from their pagan idolatrous past. (p. 187)

This option makes sense out of the general applicability of the commands, the fact that they’re not to be seen as just a pragmatic grouping of requests, and the fact that it shouldn’t be seen as a continuation of the OT covenant Law’s binding character on the Gentiles.

Moving Forward

What comes of this? Well, I’ve seen it argued that this text is a good example of the somewhat arbitrary approach to the OT law, or the moral commands of the New Testament. It’s then taken, in some cases, to be part of a case for seeing the New Testament’s commands about sexual immorality to be of the same category as the temporary and apparently pragmatic as the food laws. In which case, now that we’re in a different situation, we’re free to thoughtfully move past them as we have the food restrictions.

Of course, this is all too brief. Still, I think this way of viewing the Jerusalem council’s decision is quite helpful, though, in understanding the way that commands of both sorts—perennial moral commands grounded in the norms of creation and what seem to us to be temporary ceremonial ones—can be coherently grouped together under the broader, perennial concern about idolatry. And this is without falling into the view that we are still partially under the Old Covenant, or that there is no significant difference between the New Testament’s restrictions on sexual practice and food practice.

Insofar as eating food that’s been strangled or with blood in it is connected to idolatry, it is always wrong. On the flipside, given that there are a number of different lines of reasoning behind the prohibition against sexual immorality (porneia), just because it might not be connected to explicit idolatry as in Temple prostitution, that doesn’t mean it’s now okay. As we might expect, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

While there are a number of lessons we could draw here, once again are faced with the reality that we must be wary of constructing our moral and theological frameworks on the basis of single texts or narratives. We have the whole New Testament—narratives, epistles, and so forth—for a reason. While individual texts must be heard, studied, and paid attention to in their own right, this is a case where issues regarding the law, authority, sexuality, and so forth, must be judged in light of the broader canon given to us through the apostles and prophets. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

StoningThere are a number of laws in the Torah that, when you just look at them cold, strike us as rather outlandish, harsh, and even bizarre. You know, the kind that usually get trotted out in the middle of apologetic debates about the morality of the Bible, or the Old Testament law. For instance, that bit in Numbers 15 about stoning someone for moving a few sticks on the Sabbath. That strikes us initially rather harsh and it is, but as I’ve written before, I think there are some significant considerations at the contextual, historical, and theological level that can shed some light on the text.

I was reminded of another such text this last week when my pastor was preaching out of Hosea, in a passage referring to Israel as a rebellious son. He chose to highlight and contrast that with the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. ‘ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Now at this point, the usual response is, “Really? I’m supposed to believe that God wants me to take little Joey outside and stone him for talking back and not taking out the trash when I tell him to? That’s a bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?” Well, yes, taken baldly, it does seem like a bit of an extreme regime of parental discipline. But once again, I think there are a number of factors that, when taken into account, mitigate some of the seemingly inexplicable barbarism of the text.

Contextual Keys

So what are these factors?

Instruction. Well, first of all, a number of commentators note that there is no record of this punishment ever having been administered in Ancient Israel. In fact, OT scholar Duane Christensen draws attention to the explicit logic of the law as being handed down so that if it ever came to it, “all Israel shall hear, and fear.” In other words, the point of the law was “pedagogical” or educational, but not so much featuring a scenario likely to be put into practice very much, if at all.

A Son, but a Man. Second, pushing beyond that, we need to get it out of our heads that we’re dealing with some aggressive form of childhood punishment. The “son” in question is not a boy, or even just a teenager who is going through a rebellious phase, experimenting with heavy music and so forth. This is a presumably a young man, yet a still man who is of an accountable age before the Law. He stands accused by his parents of being a hardened delinquent, a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” What does that mean? Well, scholar Paul Copan says the scenario involved was something like this:

The son, probably a firstborn,  would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet. –Is God a Moral Monster, pg. 91

More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.

Families and Social Authority. What’s more, he is a repeat offender. He is someone who has rejected all counsel, all rebuke, even that of both of his parents, which was a significant rejection of all social and moral restraint in Ancient Israel. Why is this significant? Modern Westerners have trouble thinking along these lines, but in Ancient Israel, the foundation of the social fabric in terms of political authority and social peace in the clans and subgroups was the family. When the family falls apart, society falls apart. We must not forget that honoring father and mother is one of the 10 foundational commands that form the charter for Ancient Israel’s relationship with God as a nation. Historically, commentators have found in this command not only the foundations of familial relations, but the structure of human political authority in general.

Again, Christensen comments:

Respect for and obedience to parents were of vital importance in ancient Israel. In the Book of the Covenant, a son who strikes his father or mother, or who curses them, “shall be put to death” (Exod 21:15, 17; cf. also Lev 20:9); and the covenant curses of Deut 27:16 include “anyone who dishonors father or mother.”

So, this man’s rebellion was a threat at multiple levels. First, he was threatening his family, next the social order, and finally, his rebellion was an assault on the whole nation’s covenant with the Lord. Scripture, especially in the OT, doesn’t deal with us as purely independent, autonomous units. Israelites were members of Israel as a whole and it is with Israel that the Lord deals. So the whole community is implicated in this man’s rebellion and sin against God as long as it persists. One man’s disobedience is a threat to everyone.

Community Justice. Which brings us to a next point. It is important to note that it is not actually the parents who condemn or stone in the man, nor even the father alone. No, we are told that both mother and father, who have presumably reached their wit’s end, are to bring it to the leaders of the community at the gate (the court of the local village), in order for the community as a whole to evaluate and render judgment about the situation. It also bears noting that the mother’s inclusion in the process serves as something of a surprising disruption of our expectations of a patriarchal society. This is not the pure patria potestas of the Romans. This wasn’t, then, some hasty act of parental vindictiveness, but one of justice administered by the proper civil authorities.

The Obedient Son Replacing Insubordinate Israel on the Cross

One final note, though, to round out our consideration of the text. As Christians, we cannot claim to have fully examined it unless we set it in the broader context of Jesus’ own story. Remember, Israel had been created and called by God to be his faithful firstborn son (Exod. 4:22), who served him and represented him among the nations. But Israel proved false, a drunkard and a glutton, worse, an idolater and a murderer who had spurned God’s fatherly hand, rejecting his rebuke, and returning all of his good with vile ingratitude (Hos. 11).

Now, along comes Jesus, the pure, perfectly obedient True Son bringing the Kingdom of God, playing his role as the New Israel and what do they accuse him of being? A “glutton and an drunk” and a friend of tax collectors and sinner (Matt. 11:19). And what happens to him? The execution the law prescribes for the disobedient Son, death outside the gates.

In fact, it’s even worse. Paul reminds us that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13)

The text Paul quotes comes in the section in Deuteronomy right after the text on the disobedient son:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” (21:22-24)

In effect, we see that Jesus, the faithful Son, bears the curse and punishment of God that the unfaithful son Israel deserved, in its place. He does so that in “Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14).

Rounding it Out

Now, after all this, you still might find the law harsh, and that’s quite understandable. I do think there’s been some historical progression from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, certainly a radical shift in implementation (I’m not a theonomist by a long shot), and the impact of Christian social thought on our moral sensibilities in the administration of criminal justice.

That said, I think with considerations like these in place, we can begin to understand the moral core to even this initially shocking text in its own Ancient Near Eastern context. What’s more, along with the concerns I outlined in the case of Numbers 15, we begin to see the way it provides some of the dark backdrop against which we understand the bright light of the gospel of the faithful Son who goes to the cross in place of a rebellious people, so they might receive the Spirit who makes them true sons. As Paul says again,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Soli Deo Gloria

Jude on Showing Mercy to Three Types of “Doubters” in the Pews

mercy 2Last week I wrote a reflection/brief commentary on the short book of Jude. In it I dealt with the general problem of false antinomian teaching that had been cropping up in the church, it’s parallels to the current doctrinal struggles with moral revisionism, and our call to remain faithful in the middle of it all. Well, though I dealt with the whole of the letter, I judged it worth returning to the letter and take a closer look, especially at Jude’s admonitions to mercy towards the end.

As I read this last week with my small group, I was struck by Jude’s emphasis on mercy. I suppose I am a bit more sensitive to the subject after meditating on Thomas Watson’s beautiful reflections on the mercy of God. Still, after a letter full of warnings judgment it can strike some as a bit of a left turn. And yet it shouldn’t really. Only those with a sharp appreciation for God’s holy opposition to sin can understand the gratuitous nature of the mercy of God. It is to this dimension of Jude’s thought that I’d like to direct our attention. There is a level of discernment and discrimination (in the good sense) Jude shows, which we need to recover if we’re going to deal pastorally with those in our midst prone to various sorts of “doubt” and disagreement.

Meditating on Future Mercy

After condemning the false teachers and issuing a general call to faithfulness and resistance, Jude offers encouragement to his people:

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. (20-21)

Jude tells his people to build themselves up like the holy Temple they are on the foundation of the faith, the solid doctrine they’ve been handed on from the apostles, prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit. They should do this as they keep themselves in the love of God, obeying God’s will. In order to do this, Jude says they should “wait for the mercy of our Lord.” Waiting for the future mercy of God in the final salvation that Jesus will bring when he returns gives them the strength to endure.  This is one of those places where having a sense of the “now and not yet” dimension of our salvation is so crucial. Christians are able to trust in this future mercy only because they are confident of the mercy already shown them in the sacrifice of Christ’s cross. His death for sin is the assurance they have passed from death to life and that the judgment of God to come no longer has their sins in view.

Mercy Towards Three Types of Doubters

From this encouragement to meditate on the mercy of God towards them, Jude urges them to extend this mercy towards others.

Be merciful to those who doubt;  save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (22-23)

That’s one of the true tests of whether or not you understand the mercy of God: do you have any inclination or instinct to show others the grace God has shown you? If you are an unmerciful person who tends to hold grudges, keeps anger hot, and ready to unleash on others, stop and spend some time meditating on the mercy of God. You cannot do this enough.

In any case, Jude moves on to enumerate three types of people (doubters) who need to be shown mercy, but in each case there seems to be a different shape that this mercy is to take. While mercy is to be shown to all, distinctions need to be made. As we’ll see, it might be unmerciful to do otherwise.

First, there is the group that seems to be “in doubt”, or hesitant. Here we can imagine the average church-goer sitting in the pews who has been confused by the influx of smart, charismatic false teachers advocating a tempting lifestyle. It’s not an aggressive, arrogant doubt, but one that is tentative, and would likely respond if properly and carefully corrected. I’ve seen this a lot. In fact, this about 99% of what I’ve encountered in my time. Students who come in, worried about this or that article they’ve read, difficult conversation they’ve had, and so forth and they ask me a difficult question. In this case, usually that is needed is a careful conversation or two and they are ready to hear biblical truth. Mercy here is gentle engagement.

Second, there seems to be a different category where the “doubt” is more aggressive. Richard Bauckham suggests that as those who need to be “snatched out of the fire”, these people have already been lead astray by the false teachers to the point of engaging in sinful, licentious behavior. And yet, it is likely that many here would respond to proper correction. All the same, it may be that a sharper approach is necessary. Once you’re engaged in sin, all sorts of rationalizations set in which require a more forceful approach. It’s the different between warning little Johnny from running into the street while he’s in the yard, versus reaching out and pulling him out of the street after he’s already crossed the line. It’s not sufficient to call softly. “Johnny, please come back here” when there’s a car rumbling down the road, set to interrupt his play-time. In the same way, a different level of rhetorical and spiritual urgency will be required in this second case, not to mention possible movement towards church discipline.

Finally, there is a third group of those whom we are still to show mercy, but do so with fear. At this point Jude appears to be referring to the false teachers themselves. There is a certain kind of person who is not simply confused, not simply doubting, not only led astray through a lack of knowledge or sinful desire, but is actively pursuing and propagating false teaching. This isn’t the kid with normal (though difficult) questions or the relatively skeptical but honest dude in your Bible study. No, this is someone with a culpable level of responsibility, or personal authority, who is trying to influence others into adopting beliefs and practices that oppose holiness and the truth of God. It’s the difference between Eve being led astray through doubt, and the malicious serpent who “doubted” and taught others that same sort of doubt.

Jude commands us to show them mercy, nonetheless, but do so with fear because there’s a foolish sort of “openness” that can put you in danger of being led astray. Of course, you still need to love this person, pray for their salvation, and hope that God changes their hearts. But you probably need to change the way you engage with them, have fellowship with them, or whether you treat them like a believer or not. There’s a holy fear, a hatred of sin which is a part of the love of God (Rom 12:9), of even the garment that leads to sin, which means that at a certain point you may have to guard yourself from certain kinds of conversations or contact. This person needs mercy, but there’s an understanding that they should be engaged by the proper authorities who are equipped for that sort of thing. Don’t be too arrogant to think you can’t be misled.

The Trouble with Mercy Outside the Church

Now, there are all kinds of application for this sort of text today. First, of course, is in our actual churches. Pastors, people in the pews, and various church leaders need to have these distinctions in mind when dealing with false teaching popping up. You need to be able to distinguish between the honest Christian who is “hesitant” and those who are maliciously stirring up others. Dealing harshly wth the first would be to break a bruised reed, while dealing too gently with the latter might put the rest of the flock in danger. This can be difficult, which is why we should constantly be in prayer in the Spirit, meditating on the person of Jesus, and the witness of Scripture so that our instincts and imaginations can be formed and shaped by God’s Word.

Second, there’s the troubling question of online interactions. See, one of the problems I see with a lot of the doctrinal discussion online is that all of these categories get mixed up. The internet makes these lines harder Say there’s some blogger in the third category, actively trying to lead people astray, but who is read and finds sympathy with people in categories one and two. And say some pastor moves to correct or argue against a position they’re advocating. Well, the problem I see is when your signals get crossed and the harder words you have for the false teacher get read as the tone, approach, or estimation of those who are merely hesitant, or maybe still open to rebuke. Ironically enough, in your desire to guard them, they might end up being pushed towards that position in reaction.

On the flipside, you have those in that third category who hide under the mantle of the first. “Is that what God said?” becomes a cover for “Did God really say?”, so that the aggressive doubt being advocated gets smuggled in surreptitiously under its more benign cousin. I don’t know that I have a real answer to all of this. I suppose I think it’s important enough to simply be aware of those dynamics and the way it colors the way we read online engagements, or go about conducting them. Stating our understanding of what exactly it is we think we’re doing, thinking about who our conversation partners are, who might silently watching from the sidelines, and so forth. For others, it might simply be wise to start considering the nature of doubts and questions. To that end, I’d recommend Matt Anderson’s book The End of Our ExploringI can’t think of a more helpful resource on the subject.

Finally, I suppose I can end by simply noting the way that this is one more text that reminds us every inch of Scripture, even the weirdest bits like Jude, has some fitting word to speak into our day. A word of truth as well as a word of mercy for those who struggle with it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jude, Corpse-Fights, and Angels: Dealing with Moral Revisionism Then and Now

michael v satan

Michael challenging Satan for Moses’ corpse.

Jude, Jesus and James’ little brother, wrote probably the quirkiest little book in the whole New Testament. For one thing, it’s not a typical epistle. It’s just a short little letter, only one chapter in your Bible with twenty-five short verses marked out. But then again, so are the letters to Philemon and 2nd and 3rd John.  What distinguishes Jude is how jam-packed it is with short allusions to really intense biblical texts about judgment, densely clustered together, barely unpacked, with an expectation you’ll just be able to pick up what he’s throwing down. Beyond that, I’m fairly sure it’s got the most references to extra-biblical literature than any other NT text as well. Certainly by volume. Tucked in the back, there, right before Revelation, it’s this spicy, aggressive appetizer that whets your taste for the hyper-figural, bizarrity of John’s Apocalypse.

Which is probably one of the reasons it’s so ignored. And that’s a shame because it’s such a fascinating and relevant little text. In preparation for a Bible study, I was able to finally do a little digging into it and nail down some of the flow and even quirkier elements of the argument and was surprised at the way that even some of the weirdest stuff maps onto the current modes of argument and struggles with doctrinal debate and struggle in the church today.

The Opponents

So what’s going on? Well, Jude tells his readers very quickly he’d rather be writing a different letter–a more positive one about our “common salvation”–than the one he had to write appealing to the believers “contend” the faith once for all delivered to the saints (3). Apparently, false teachers and “believers” had stealthily snuck into the church and were threatening to lead people astray with their doctrines (4). What kind of doctrines are these? Well, in the past, there was the theory that it was Gnostics, but Richard Bauckham has argued that this thesis pushes past the evidence we have in the letter.

Jude says these opponents are drawn along by their own desires and sinful instincts the way the Israelites in the desert (cf. Paul 1 Cor. 10), the angels (the Watchers) were in pursuing the daughters of men (Gen 6), and the men of Sodom who pursued strange flesh (whether the accent is on angelic or simply male flesh), and will be judged like them (vv 5-8, 10, 19). Judging by that and his judgment that “They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (4), it seems licentious antinomianism is probably the biggest issue. According to Bauckham, these opponents were probably arguing for some sort of rejection of traditional moral norms because they’d transcended them and were inviting the rest of the Church to join.

The Opponents’ Main Moves

So how were they making the argument? There are about two or three arguments that I can spot Jude pointing to.

1. Abusing Grace. First, it appears that they were making a false appeal to Paul’s preaching of the gospel of grace. Mistaking grace for permission, they could be preaching “sin in order that grace may abound.”

Oh look, someone abusing the gospel of grace. How surprising.

2. False Appeals to “Visions”. Second, and the next two points are connected, they are appealing to “the strength of their dreams” (v. 9).  In other words, possibly some hyper-charismatic experience, or an appeal to a new, special experience of the Spirit that elevates or moves them beyond former moral norms given in the teaching of the Apostles or Scripture.

Oh look, someone abusing the claim of spiritual experience to downgrade Scripture. How surprising.

3. Assaulting the Law. Third, these “dreams” or visions taken to be superior to Old Testament moral law as given by lesser beings. And this is where we get to some of the quirky stuff in verses 8c-10a:

…reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand…

So, here’s where knowing some extra-biblical, 2nd Temple Judaism literature helps. At the time, there were a couple of teachings that were popular. First was the idea that the OT law was given by angels, intermediaries, and not directly by God, though by God’s authority. You can see this idea peeking out in Paul and Acts (Gal. 3:19; Acts 7 :38).

Second, there’s the story of Moses’ burial/assumption told in the Assumption (or Testament) of Moses. If you remember, Moses died on the mountain before entering the promised land. Well, a bunch of legends had grown up around that God had sent the Archangel Michael to retrieve the body of Moses for burial. When he got there, Satan (the Accuser), argued with Michael that Moses’ body was his because Moses was a murderer. Now, Michael knew that this was a slanderous charge, but what did he do? Surprisingly, he does not condemn Satan for slander or over-reach, but appealed to the Lord to judge him for the false accusation made according to the Law.

Without getting into the status of extra-biblical materials, what does this have to do with the false teachers Jude is dealing with? Apparently they were blaspheming the “glorious ones” or “celestial beings” through whom the Law came in order to denigrate the Law, and supplant moral authority of OT Scripture with their own licentious teachings. If the Law was delivered through untrustworthy angels, then it’s all the easier to replace with private revelations. Jude responds to their arrogance by appealing to Michael’s example. Bauckham comments:

Michael’s behavior contrasts with that of the false teachers when they reject the accusations which the angels, as spokesmen for the Law, bring against them. They do so because they claim to be above all such accusations, subject to no moral authority. In fact, even if they had the status of Moses or Michael, they would remain subject to the divine Lawgiver and Judge. — Jude, 2 Peter, pg. 62

If they really understood the nature of the spiritual realm they claimed to, they would not slander revelation as they have been doing, but apparently all they understand is their own lusts. The only authority that they will recognize is their own desires trumped up in the garb of elevated spiritual insight.

Oh look, someone is denigrating the revelation of the Scripture and the Apostles’ teaching  as revealing God’s creative intent of Christian moral practice because we’ve moved past that. How surprising.

This is Not New

Don’t get me wrong here. I know there are difficult issues involved with parsing the relationship with the OT and the NT, or contextualizing the preaching of the apostles in the 1st Century in the 21st Century. I have to say, though, when you begin to study the structure of heretical arguments made in the history of the church, there is a redundancy in form that becomes increasingly familiar.  I’m not an expert, but I’ve read about these sorts of moves in the first couple of centuries, and again with some of the hyper-radicals of the Reformation and the post-Reformation period, and down on into today.

Of course, that means that, despite the complexities, modern nuances, and varied ambiguities we need to manage, Jude’s call to “maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints” remains the same. We haven’t “moved past” this, or progressed on to a fundamentally new stage in spiritual history. Yes, history moves on, but now, as then, we live between the comings of Christ. The 1970s were not an eschatologically-significant event comparable to the changing of the covenants brought about through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So, as difficult and tempting  as it might be, we are called to keep ourselves from being drawn off into false teaching:

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. (20-21)

This is not a call to rigid, or harsh judgmentalism in matters of doctrinal difference, or towards those who struggle with belief. Christ-like pastors are sensitive to tender consciences. Jude continues by telling people that even though they should hate even the clothes stained by sin, they are to:

Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear… (22-23)

People in the pews are in all kinds of different places. We need to be prepared for that and deal gently, even as we correct false teaching coming from those set on uprooting the truth.

Thankfully, we have God’s promises to sustain us, which is why in the midst of conflict and controversy we praise him now as Jude did then:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (24-25)

Soli Deo Gloria

Torrey on the Trustworthy Temple of Scripture

torreyFred Sanders put together a nifty little collection of evangelist, expositor, Bible college dean, and pastor R.A. Torrey’s sermons entitled How God Used. R.A. Torrey. Sanders introduces the work with a little bio, then adds brief introductory commentary before 13 representative sermons and addresses by Torrey. I’ve been reading it for a couple of days between other works and it’s been a fun little work so far. The preaching is dynamic, personal, and spiritually compelling. Also, as a preacher, it’s just interesting to see how much the game has changed, so to speak, since Torrey was calling people back to faith.

One address I enjoyed, in particular, was his famous “10 Reasons Why I Believe the Bible is the Word of God.” Torrey, of course, famously edited the collection of essays in defense of orthodoxy known as The Fundamentals at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies, so it’s unsurprising he dedicated significant preaching to the subject of the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.

Well, the whole sermon holds up remarkably well 100 years later on, but the section I enjoyed most was his argument about “the unity of the book”:

This is an old argument, but a very satisfactory one. The Bible consists of sixty-six books, written by more than thirty different men, extending in the period of its composition over more than fifteen hundred years; written in three different languages, in many different countries, and by men on every plane of social life, from the herdman and fisherman and cheap politician up to the king upon his throne; written under all sorts of circumstances; yet in all this wonderful conglomeration we find an absolute unity of thought.

A wonderful thing about it is that this unity does not lie on the surface. On the surface there is oftentimes apparent contradiction, and the unity only comes out after deep and protracted study.

More wonderful yet is the organic character of this unity, beginning in the first book and growing till you come to its culmination in the last book of the Bible. We have first the seed, then the plant, then the bud, then the blossom, then the ripened fruit.

Suppose a vast building were to be erected, the stones for which were brought from the quarries in Rutland, Vermont; Berea, Ohio; Kasota, Minnesota, and Middletown, Connecticut. Each stone was hewn into final shape in the quarry from which it was brought. These stones were of all varieties of shape and size, cubical, rectangular, cylindrical, etc., but when they were brought together every stone fitted into its place, and when put together there rose before you a temple absolutely perfect in every outline, with its domes, sidewalls, buttresses, arches, transepts–not a gap or a flaw anywhere. How would you account for it? You would say:

“Back of these individual workers in the quarries was the master-mind of the architect who planned it all, and gave to each individual worker his specifications for the work.”

So in this marvelous temple of God’s truth which we call the Bible, whose stones have been quarried at periods of time and in places so remote from one another, but where every smallest part fits each other part, we are forced to say that back of the human hands that wrought was the Master-mind that thought.

How God Used R.A. Torrey, pp. 23-24

I have to tell you, this “argument” isn’t one that you just trot out in the middle of an apologetic dispute, especially with someone predisposed to disbelieve or be hostile to Scripture. Still, year after year, this insight into the unity of Scripture–it’s ability to consistently point to Christ through Law, Prophets, and Gospels, across various genres, generations, authors, and centuries is a continuous marvel. This is especially the case when you take off the modernist blinders and begin to pour over the various narratival and typological continuities.

The Scriptures truly are a marvelous Temple of God’s truth. But Torrey is right–it’s not a unity that just lies there on the surface. It’s the kind of thing that you come to see once you give it the sustained attention and care that it deserves. But once you see it, much as Moses face coming down from Sinai, it shines with the reflected glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Retribution in the Sermon on the Mount? (Or, the Jesus You Find At the Bottom of a Well)

JJesus and the crowds.D. Crossan has apparently written a book about How to Read the Bible and Remain a Christian. In light of the obvious, almost trite, irony of a man whose rejection of basic Christian orthodoxy extends to even a denial of the resurrection of Christ, attempting to tell people how to remain Christians, one must wonder what the point of engaging such a work with seriousness. Well, the reality is that he’s taking up one of the most recent causes du jour, which we’ve had reason to deal with on this blog on a regular basis: the problem of reconciling violence in the Scriptures with the allegedly non-violent God revealed in the preaching and person of Jesus.

Now, I’ll be honest, I haven’t read the text, but I have read his earlier God and Empire text, and from what it looks like, Crossan’s working with much the same presuppositions, with less of a focus on America-as-Rome narrative, but cashing out a more general thesis about Scripture and violence. Collin Garbarino has an excellent review of the work over at First Things. He quotes Crossan’s main thesis:

Throughout the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, every radical challenge from the biblical God is both asserted and then subverted by its receiving communities—be they earliest Israelites or latest Christians. That pattern of assertion-and-subversion, that rhythm of expansion-and-contraction, is like the systole- and diastole cycle of the human heart.

In other words, the heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s violent retributive justice. And, of course, the most profound annulment is that both assertion and subversion are attributed to the same God or the same Christ.

For Crossan, the Bible needs to be read in light of Jesus, but not the Jesus of Revelation, or anything like that, but the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount given in the Gospels. Garbarino quotes him again:

This biblical patterning of yes-and-no justifies my choice of the nonviolent Jesus of the Incarnation over the violent Jesus of the Apocalypse as the true Jesus. Put simply, the nonviolent Jesus is the Christian Bible’s assertion, acceptance, and affirmation of the radicality of God while the violent Jesus is its corresponding subversion, rejection, and negation in favor of the normalcy of civilization.

What we see here is another variation, albeit a bit more radical, of some of the Jesus Tea-strainer hermeneutic.

In an oversimplified nutshell, for many, the arrival of Jesus, his preaching in the Sermon the Mount, his rejection of retaliation against enemies, his message of forgiveness, love, and open-armed reconciliation leads to a clear conclusion: Jesus rejected wholesale the logic of justice as retribution, or any component which contains violence. “Mercy over justice”, if you will. If that’s the case, then we must read the Scriptures as presenting us with two logics: a retributive, violent logic present in Deuteronomy, the Law, OT narratives, and Paul’s more unreconstructed moments, and a prophetic, non-retributive logic given to us in the prophets and ultimately in Jesus that overcomes retribution. God simply is not like that. Now go reorganize your atonement theology, doctrine of God, and revelation accordingly.

I bring all this up because I found his response to this sort of thing so helpful and compelling. With apologies to First Things, I’ll go ahead and quote it at length:

It seems to me that Crossan will need to cut the Sermon on the Mount down to just a few sentences bereft of context if he wants to maintain a Jesus who is primarily concerned with everyone getting their fair share. When read in context (that’s something we historians do), the Sermon on the Mount contains quite a bit of retributive justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that condemns the Jews for their inability to see Jesus for who he was. At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew juxtaposes the king of the Jews with the gentile magi, a comparison which doesn’t leave the Jewish king looking too good. At the end of the Gospel, Matthew records the people of Jerusalem shouting, “His blood be on us and on our children!” The Sermon on the Mount is an integral part of Matthew’s argument that the Jews missed their Messiah, not some parenthetical aside that somehow managed to slip into an otherwise tightly constructed theological narrative.

At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as being the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. Just as Israel experienced exile in Egypt, baptism in the Red Sea, and wandering in the wilderness, Matthew depicts Jesus as experiencing exile in Egypt, followed by baptism in the Jordan, followed by wandering in the wilderness.

Which brings us to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, like Moses before him, goes up on the mount to deliver a new law to the people. Crossan imagines that it’s here we see God’s distributive justice, “God’s radical dream for an earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its people.”

In Crossan’s defense, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount sounds warm and fuzzy. In the Beatitudes, Jesus announces that those who mourn will be comforted and that the meek will inherit the earth. It seems to me, however, that Jesus demonstrates good homiletic technique—hook the audience and then let them have it. Jesus moves swiftly from comforting his audience to causing great discomfort.

After pronouncing blessings on all of the good people, Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wait a second—didn’t he just say that the poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven? So the poor in spirit must be more righteous than the Pharisees, the guys who were experts on the Law? The audience would do well to consider whether Jesus thinks them poor in spirit.

Then he says that we’re going to hell if we’re angry. And he also says that we’re going to hell if we’ve ever looked on a woman with lust. And then he says that we can’t defend ourselves from our enemies.

And then Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This talk of hell is pretty heavy stuff. Jesus’s law is heavier than the Law of Moses, and if you don’t follow his law perfectly, he says you stand condemned. Perhaps Jesus was referring to himself in those Beatitudes, not his hearers. After all, neither the prophets nor the Romans ever called the Jewish people “peacemakers.”

Here’s the frustrating part about this. There’s no real winning with this kind of hermeneutic, no matter how many texts you pile up.

One really can’t argue with Crossan, however, because his methodology ensures that he’s always right. If one brings up some contrary evidence to his thesis, he’ll just apply his editorial pen more liberally and label that bit of Jesus inauthentic. This isn’t how one ought to read the Bible if one wants to stay Christian.

The same thing is true with (some) other versions of Tea-Strainer hermeneutic. Produce yet another text in the Old Testament or Paul, or whoever, and it’s often simply a text that needs to be overcome, or subverted, or read backwards, sideways, or in a code we finally cracked in the 1970s.

Here’s the problem, though: either you take Matthew’s presentation as the proper context for reading Jesus’s words as Garbarino does, or you’re left with a very awkward operation of reading the words of Jesus as given to us by Matthew against Matthew. This puts us in the rather intellectually unenviable position of having to assert that Matthew is a somewhat reliable witness to the historical Jesus in many cases, but that he’s a rather poor one in others, or simply an inept theologian. It seems that he, as a disciple, or the disciples from whom he gleaned these stories, words, and theological interpretations didn’t understand Jesus quite as well as we do now. Reading at a 2,000-year remove in the 21st century, we’re finally piecing together the real, true, deep intentions of Jesus, using hermeneutical presuppositions given to us through the witness of the text, despite the text, that his disciples who authored the text have missed somehow.

Or again, I’ve made this same point with the accounts of God striking down Ananias and Sapphira as well as the Tetrarch Herod in judgment in the book of Acts. In the text, the author clearly identifies God or God via an angel, as ordering the very retributive judgment. Now, the thing to remember is that this is the same author as the Gospel of Luke, who gives us a fair amount of the picture of Jesus who tells us to forgo vengeance, love our enemies, and so forth. Either we’re to believe that Luke, or whoever you think wrote it, didn’t see the very clear contradiction, or maybe we should allow Jesus, and the Bible, to have a far more complex, yet unified message than that.

This, of course, is just a rehash of the old historical-critical Jesus Seminar problem. First, you take a statement or two from the Gospels that you label “The sorts of thing we know Jesus could say”, whether because it’s different enough from the kinds of things later disciples said, or its similar to the particular political movement you’ve chosen to set Jesus against, (or it fits with your 1970s-style political socialism) something like that. Then, you measure all the rest of the statements against it, usually pressing for strict dichotomies in order to rule out “the sorts of things we know Jesus couldn’t say”, or “the sorts of things we’re not quite as sure about.” At the end, you get the classic problem of historians staring down the well of history to find the Jesus behind the Gospels, only to end up seeing a Jesus who looks very much like a bearded, 1st Century version of themselves looking back up at them.

The same sort of logic is at work in a number of the Tea-strainer hermeneutics. Attempts to split Jesus off from the “retributive logic” found in Scripture inevitably leads to accusing the New Testament authors of a schizophrenic presentation of Jesus himself, or with the inconsistent attempt to uphold the Jesus of the Gospels, without actually upholding the Gospels. With Crossan, a bona fide historical critic, you at least get the benefit of an explicit acknowledgement of what’s going on.

Soli Deo Gloria