Hays on Mark’s Jesus: The God Who “Walks By” On the Water

echoes of Scripture.jpgThe Gospel of John is typically acknowledged as having a high, divine Christology. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are far more disputed. In his recent, magisterial work, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel Richard Hays makes a forceful case, though, that among other roles (Davidic Messiah, Son of Man, etc.), Mark intentionally (though subtly) identifies Jesus as the coming God of Israel in the flesh.

Given that the book is all about the way the Gospel writers use and appeal to the Old Testament, his mode of argument is unsurprising. Hays examine a number of key texts in Mark where Jesus is doing curious things (forgiving sin, calming the seas, leading sheep without a shepherd, etc.) and connects them to Israel’s Scriptures which show these are things only God has the right or the power to accomplish. In that light, divine activity reveals divine identity.

While each of the texts he examines are worth engaging, one text I’d never seen discussed in this respect is Mark 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee (pp. 70-73).

Now, taken simply it seems like an obvious act of divine power, either by way of divine empowerment of a chosen agent (prophet), or direct divine presence. Though for the first, there don’t seem to be parallels.  And for those tempted to suggest it, the Exodus doesn’t fit much since there God splits the seas and lets everybody cross on dry ground. And since Elisha’s splitting the Jordan is a mini-Exodus, nix that as well.

For the second suggestion, you could argue that it connects to the theme of subduing the powers of watery chaos, which in the Old Testament was a divine act, and is emphasized in Mark 4:35-41. Still, Hays points out that there isn’t an explicit Old Testament citation, and the image of God walking on the water isn’t a common one.

So how is Hays going to connect it to the Old Testament and the identity of Israel’s God? Well, he cleverly points us to this magnificent speech from Job extolling the power of God:

His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet. (Job 9:4-13)

At first that might seem a slender thread to hang a reference on. But Hays calls our attention to a couple of confirming lines of evidence.

First, there is the basic linguistic link if you look at the Greek of Mark and the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translation of Job 9.

Second, connecting the two texts would clear up an oddity in Mark’s narrative. In the story, Mark tells us that originally Jesus “intended to pass them by” (Mk. 6:48). Matthew doesn’t include that tidbit, and commentators have puzzled over it for centuries. But then we turn to Job’s speech. In it, we see him marveling over the mighty works and power of God and he says, “When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him” (Job 9:11).

Hays comments:

Thus, in Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. This metaphor, as we surely realize by this time, accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus. Thus, the story of Jesus’ epiphanic walking on the sea, read against the background of Job 9, can be perceived as the signature image of Markan Christology. (72)

Third, Hays adds that the verb parelthein (passes by) “almost surely alludes” to the story of God passing Moses by in Exodus 33:17-23 and 34:6. In that story, God passes by to show him his glory from behind, as it were, because for Moses to see him directly would kill him. The Septuagint uses the same work over and over, making it almost a technical term for a divine appearance. All of that together would fit with the theme of the incomprehension of the disciples (Mk. 6:51-52).

Finally, Jesus’ words of assurance to the disciples in the boat (“It is I [ego eimi]; do not be afraid”) should probably be heard, then, as an echo of Exodus 3:14. There God reveals himself as “I am who I am” (LXX: ego eimi ho on). That phrase becomes a stock self-identifying phrase of Israel’s God throughout Scripture (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 51:12; 43:11). So Hays:

“Thus, when Jesus speaks this same phrase, ‘I am,’ in his sea-crossing epiphany, it serves to underscore the claim of divine identity  that implicitly present in the story as a whole.”(73)

Of course, this is just one teaser of a reading of one, subtle passage. But set in alongside of the rest of Hays’ dazzling exegesis of other key texts, the argument that Mark’s Jesus is only a divinely-empowered man becomes labored and torturous.

In this text, Jesus is the God of Israel who treads on the waters, who passes by, present to save, though mysterious beyond comprehension.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

The Scandal of the Untameable ‘I AM’

Jesus had a habit of scandalizing the moralistic types of his day. Sometimes he went out of his way to press in on their tidy interpretations of the Sabbath by healing those in need on the Sabbath (Luke 6; John 9). Other times, he associated with sinners who any truly holy man would shun (Luke 7:39). Still further, Jesus claimed prerogatives that seemed to go beyond the authority of any mere man, even a would-be messiah. Nobody could forgive sins but God alone (Mark 2:7). And who can take authority over God’s house but God himself (Luke 19:44-20:2)?

Nothing offended first-century religious sensibilities more than Jesus’s extravagant, explicit claims for himself. Jesus claimed the “Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:26), that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and “No one can know the Father except through the Son” (Matt. 11:27). Easily the most startling of these of these pronouncements was his bold claim in the face of his critics, “Before Abraham was ‘I AM’” (John 8:58), for which the crowd picked up stones to execute him.

The crowds knew that by claiming this name, Jesus identified himself with the divine name “I AM” (Yahweh, or the LORD), the covenant God of Israel, revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3). When God revealed his name to Moses, he said that the peole would know him forever by this name (Ex. 3:15). By this name they would know the one who saved them, that the commands of God would be authorized (Ex. 20:1; 18; Lev. 1:2; Num. 5:1-2). It was scandalous for Jesus to take this name because a “sinful” mortal had identified himself with the holy, perfect God of Israel. If he wasn’t right, he was blaspheming.

We know Jesus backed up his talk. When the Father raised the Son in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:16), he was fully vindicated in all of his claims, established as the true LORD of the world, and yes, proven to be the eternal Son of the Father. So, after a couple thousand years of church history, some councils, creeds, and confessions, the scandal of these words has somewhat dissipated.

But for many today, it seems that Jesus’s confession still scandalizes our reigning moral sensibilities.

You can read the rest of this article and learn what the new “Modern Scandal” of the I AM is at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Peter Pan’s Shadow And the Promises of God

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:17)

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. (Hebrews 10:1)

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5)

Clearly, one of the New Testament writers’ favorite images for relating the truth of the Gospel in the NT to the revelation of the Old Testament was that of “types” and “shadows.” The images are rich, intuitive, and quite helpful in explaining the issue of continuity between the Old Testament and the New. For that reason, Christian theologians of all ages and ecclesiastical persuasions have fastened on these two metaphors and methods of relating the truths of the two covenants, as well as the problem of progressive revelation. As we saw earlier, Turretin leaned on the idea heavily in his defense of the Old Testament’s authority.

The relationship between type and antitype is suggested by the roots of the terms with the idea of stamping or making an impression of an image on a coin or something. There is a correspondence between the stamp and the thing stamped. In the same way, an Old Testament type links up with its New Testament antitype by serving as a preview or advanced model of the coming reality.

peter's shadow 2Picking up the second image, everybody knows that a shadow is not the same thing as its object. It doesn’t have the same substance, weight, or reality. And yet, at the same time, it is dependent upon and similar to the thing that it is a shadow of. My shadow is similar, yet different from me. Its shape is determined, yes, by the light and the distance I am from the ground, but also, in a deciding sense, from my own shape.

So looking at some examples in the Old Testament, Hebrews indicates that the sacrificial system, with its various kinds of sacrifices for thanksgiving, atonement, cleansing, and so forth, all point forward to different dimensions of the ultimate sacrifice that Christ offered upon the cross. Moses was a type of Christ in the liberation and Exodus for the people of God he brought about, which prefigured the New Exodus Christ was to bring about. They are not the substance that is Christ, but they point forward in a way that is determinatively shaped by the substance that is Christ. They are the promises that are copies and shadows of heavenly and better things.

The history, practice, and theology of biblical typology is complex, storied, and well worth pursuing at length. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, so I am not going to do that. All I want to do is follow up and make one brief, particular point about how we should think of how these metaphors function for expressing continuity and discontinuity.

A Different Type of Type

In some recent discussions regarding issues like atonement or the doctrine of God, I have seen some more progressive theological types refer to the metaphor of types and shadows in order to justify a particular kind of overturning or undermining of the Old Testament revelation. Alongside what we’ve called the Jesus-Tea-strainer hermeneutic, some have argued that now that Christ has come he has revealed the true, hidden nature of these types and shadows. Instead of coming as their more straightforward fulfillment, though, he comes as their abolishment. Or, he comes to reveal how screwed up our understanding has truly been up until this point.

Peter's shadowAs an example, when it comes to the sacrificial system, some will say that Christ served as an antitype by being an altogether different kind of sacrifice. Israelites may have offered sacrifices in the OT as propitiatory, concerned with putting away wrath, but Christ as the antitype shows that the types were distorted refractions of the reality of a God beyond the economy of sacrifice and exchange. Yes, the OT pointed to God’s salvation and victory, but the antitype of Christ shows that all of those OT victories were just shadows pointing forward to the non-violent victory of a God who would never engage in tribal warfare.

On this view, the shadows and types actually distort the reality of the original. Instead of being proper shadows, they are more like Peter Pan’s shadow, running around, behaving in ways that give a false impression of the original. Types end up, less like helpful, advanced signposts, and more like funhouse mirror perversions.

A Promising God

Now, there are multiple problems with this hermeneutic, but the first is that it actually imputes falsehood and unintended deceptiveness about God to the Old Testament authors. Of course, humans are finite and liars, to boot, much of the time. The problem is, of course, that this turns into a functional denial of God’s proper inspiration and authorship of the Old Testament and its authority. Or at least a serious demotion of it. My concern here isn’t that we’re left with a less than perfect book on our shelves. My concern is that our view of inspiration is caught up in your view of God with respect to his trustworthiness as a communicator, as well as his faithfulness as a covenant-keeper. 

Classically, Christian theologians have seen God’s history with Israel, the signs, the symbols, Temple, Tabernacle, priesthood, kingship, and the whole of it, as the divinely-intended matrix of meaning prepared with care for Jesus’ entrance into the world. Jesus fulfills the promises and signs God has made to Israel, just as he said and predicted. It is God, so to speak, setting his own expectations for what he’s going to do to save Israel. As Kevin Vanhoozer says:

Yet Jesus’ story neither begins nor makes sense apart from the broader canvas of God’s prior speech and activity in the history of Israel. Who God reveals himself to be is the one who in Jesus keeps his word to Israel. God’s speech in Jesus Christ may be definitive, but it presupposes prior divine communicative action. The God whose nature is displayed in the history of Jesus Christ is the same as the God who declares his nature by his name in Exodus 3:14 and 34:6–7: merciful, gracious, steadfast love. –Remythologizing Theology, pg. 215

On this other view, though, we come to see Jesus’ story as the last step in a valiant attempt by God to get his message across, that finally (mostly) broke through, correcting all of his earlier communicative misfires. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets”, but apparently he was stuttering up until the time he said “Jesus Christ.” Not only does this rob us of the comfort of understanding God’s promise and fulfillment, it leaves us in the precarious position of having to make sense of which bits of the OT are revelatory or not, which we should discard as false or still hold as true, according to our own lights. We can’t see which promises God intends to keep, and which were simply the flights of fancy of an ancient tribal people.

Again, ultimately, what it robs us of is confidence in the communicative efficacy of our Promising God. For the life of me, I can’t see how that view of Scripture is supposed to sustain the kind of faith that Jesus spoke of when he said, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matt. 4:4).

Soli Deo Gloria

Is the Old Testament Still a Source for Theology and Spirituality for Christians?

old testamentDoes the Old Testament still matter for Christians? I think most of us have asked that question at some point. For many of us, the Old Testament is weird and scary, full of rituals that are foreign and irrelevant. Others of us wonder what the point of studying the Old Testament is now that we have Jesus and the New Testament. I mean, didn’t his coming make all of that pointless? Can’t we kind of move on and ignore it now?

Downplaying or denying the Old Testament’s importance or binding nature as revelation has been a perennial temptation for Christian theology. Looking at the ‘newness’ of the New Testament and the finality of Christ, some of us can only imagine that having a sense of abolishment and denial instead of one of fulfillment and completeness. This was true in the earliest church controversies into much later periods such as Francis Turretin’s own time. Apparently, some Anabaptists at the time denied this, and so Turretin took up arms to defend the Old Testament, dedicating a lengthy question (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1, Q. 8) in his section on Scripture to establishing the continuing authority and authenticity of revelation of the Old Testament alongside the New Testament as part of the rule of faith and conduct for the life of the church. (Side-note: I’m not charging current Anabaptists with this, just stating Turretin’s position. So, if you are one, and this doesn’t apply, excellent!)

Regular readers of the blog will know that the unity of revelation in the Old Testament and New Testament is a theme that’s shown itself to be increasingly important for all sorts of issues. Again, then as now, some will deny the Old Testament’s authority in order to propose revisions in our concept of God, of salvation, and the nature of God’s Word. I figured it would be useful to trace out Turretin’s case here for future reference and present edification.

A couple of notes to begin. First, know that Turretin’s sections are referenced under questions and paragraphs indicated by Roman numerals. As I will be summarizing, I won’t bother much with page numbers but will stick to the section numerals to note the arguments he makes. Also, I will be paraphrasing, and at times, putting Turretin’s terms in my own language for clarity’s sake, as well as to making its current relevance clearer. Finally, I may not actually buy every argument he lays down. Still, there’s plenty of beef there.

Turretin’s Clarifications. Turretin regularly spends a few paragraphs clarifying what he is and is not arguing for, as that seems to be where much of the confusion on these issues happens. The question of the authority of the Old Testament is no different.

II. Turretin makes it clear that he is not arguing that the Mosaic dispensation or administration of the covenant in the Old Testament is still binding and authoritative for Christians. Christ has fulfilled it and abrogated it. And yet, that doesn’t rule out its use for teaching and instruction as to doctrine and revelation.

III. Turretin also wants to be clear that he is not denying that Christ clarified and reformed the law by correcting and completing it. He wants to argue that Christians can still look to the OT to help establish the rule of faith and life because, in essence, the “religion of Christ” is contained in the OT books of Moses.

IV. He’s also not denying that there’s a difference between OT and NT, or that the NT is much clearer on certain points than the OT. OT promises and types are fulfilled in the NT, and so are, therefore, more obvious. His point is that their principle of religion–revelation of God, salvation, and so forth–forms a unity and consistency such that they are still revealing the same thing, even if in a different form. In other words, if we’re proving doctrine about salvation, or arguing for a certain pattern of obedience, or teaching about God’s nature, quoting the Old Testament as authoritative is still fair game for Christians.

Francis-TurretinTurretin’s Case. Now we get to Turretin’s actual reasons arguing for his positions.

V. First, and most important, Jesus approved Moses and the Prophets and wanted people to listen to them for their salvation (Luke 16:29). Peter and the apostles follow him in this, so you know he wasn’t just talking to Jews (2 Peter 1:19). The light of the Old Testament is there, shining as a witness for all until the end of the age.

VI. Second, Turretin notes that the Church is built on the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20), which he takes to be referring to the teaching of those two groups. Assuming the New Testament gift of prophecy was temporary, Turretin assumes he has to be referring to the OT prophets whose witness is secure and sure.

VII. Third, Paul explicitly says, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom.15:4). Even though not every text applies in the exact same way, they all still have the same author in God, so they all have a place in the life of the believer, even if that place has shifted a bit.

VIII. Fourth, appealing to II Timothy 3:14 -15, Turretin points out that if the OT was good enough for Paul to tell Timothy, a minister of the Gospel, to ground his faith and conduct on it as he had since his youth (because the OT was the only Scriptures written when Paul was writing this) it seems reasonable to think it is good enough for us.

IX. Fifth, Jesus tells his Jewish opponents to go read the OT Scriptures because they speak of him (John 5:39). This is a command that assumes the OT will point them to Christ as the way to salvation. In which case, Christ obviously approves of it and thinks the substance of the OT is the same as that of his own message.

X.  Sixth, Turretin points out that the NT authors assume that the OT “contains the same substance of doctrine as the New, both with regard to things to be believed, and to be done, nor is any other gospel proclaimed today to us than which was formerly promised in the prophetic writings (Rom. 1:3; 16:25 – 26).” Paul preached the whole plan of God for salvation to Christians (Acts 20:26) and claimed that he was only saying what Moses and the prophets said (Acts 26:22). The command to love God and neighbor is just Deuteronomy all over again.

XI. Seventh, if the OT isn’t binding for Christians in terms of doctrine and life, how are they supposed to argue with the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of OT prophecy?  Jesus and prophets did this by appealing to the OT as authoritative (Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 10:43; 17:11; 26:22; Rom. 3:21).

Answering Objections.  From there, Turretin sets out to making more clarifications and answering objections to his case.

XII. When Jesus says that the Law and the Prophets prophesied until John (Matt. 11:13), he isn’t talking about the permanence of the OT compared to the NT. You see, the two teach the same substance in different form. The first prophesies with types and shadows what is to come, the second proclaims clearly and plainly what has arrived. Jesus is saying that the OT as unfulfilled prophecy lasted until John, because now Christ is to be proclaimed as having arrived as that fulfillment.

XIII. Some charge that when Paul calls the apostles ministers of the Spirit, not the letter, he was talking about the OT (II Cor. 3:5 – 6). Here Turretin responds with some solid exegetical chops by saying that Paul is not talking about using OT in total as a document, which would be silly because he quotes it constantly. Instead, he’s talking about the movement from one covenant to the next, or one way of administering the covenant to the next. Still, he does acknowledge that “It is in many ways superior, not only because of its clarity and completeness, but also because of its efficacy, because it not only requires and commands duty as does the law, but also performs it through the law written in hearts by the Spirit.”

XIV. Turretin then points out that the incidental, or accidental form of implementing the covenant can change (sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, circumcision to Baptism, etc.), even when the internal meaning and substance is the same. He doesn’t deny the former, but affirms the latter.

sacrificial lambXV. Next, he addresses the abiding value of the OT ceremonies. He points out that just because we don’t have to observe OT ceremonies anymore because they’ve been fulfilled in Christ, that doesn’t mean they’re not still instructive or useful to us to meditate on. By connecting the dots between the OT shadows and their NT substance, or the promises of the OT and their fulfillment in the NT, believers can still learn, grow, and be blessed by studying the Law and the Prophets.

XVI. For those who are wondering, Jesus’  apparent corrections of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 are actually corrections of the glosses and corruptions of interpretation of the teachers of the Law at the time. He wasn’t rejecting the Law, but trying to bring out its inherent beauty.

XVII. While the NT has a full and complete revelation of Christ, in one sense, in another it does not. You can only see Christ as the fulfillment of the promise (NT), only if you’ve first seen Christ as promised (OT). In that sense, the perfection of the NT witness is dependent on the perfection of the OT witness. Removing this dimension to Scriptural truth removes a deep comfort and strengthening of a believer’s faith.

XVIII. In one of the most theologically-interesting bits, Turretin notes that only things that come directly, or indirectly, from Christ have authority for Christians. Well, contrary to what some might think, the OT has that. “But the law that was given by Moses was also given by Christ; by Moses as servant (servus), by Christ as Lord.” Turretin then argues that according Acts 7:38 the angel who appeared to Moses in the desert and on Mount Sinai, was the Angel of the LORD, the angel of the covenant and the presence, who was YHWH himself. We should see this figure as the preincarnate Christ himself, in which case Christ is the “primary author and promulgator of the Law”, and Moses was just a minister of it. In which case, the OT is binding.

XIX. For those of you wondering about that phrase “Christ is the end of the law”, it doesn’t mean he has put it away and done away with it. It means he is its goal, its “telos”, its “end”, in that he has fulfilled it by obeying it, completing its purposes in his life, death, and resurrection. Also, by writing it on the hearts of his people so they can walk in it as well. Finally, we must remember that he himself said he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it (Matt 5:17).

XX. Servants that contradict their masters should be ignored, but if they keep it, we should hear them. ” Moses and the prophets did this no less than the apostles (John 5:46; Acts 10:43), and Christ expressly enjoins the hearing of Moses and the prophets (Luke 16:29). This is not going back from Christ to Moses, but a going forward from Moses, who is a tutor (Gal. 3:24), to Christ.”

XXI. Finally, even though John’s ministry is called the beginning of the Gospel in terms of its fulfillment (Mark 1:1), this is the same Gospel that had long been prophesied in the OT (Rom. 1:2; Gal. 3:8; Isa. 52:7; 61:1).

Conclusion. To sum up, then, I think Turretin’s case holds up in the main. What’s more, many of Turretin’s lines of argument from Jesus’ and the Apostles’ use of the OT could be expanded upon at length. Christians can and ought to consider the Old Testament a valid source of doctrine and spirituality, even if we acknowledge the great clarity of the New Testament, and take care to note the way the shift in covenants changes our relation to it. It is God’s word of revelation to us, “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Let us graciously and humbly receive it as such.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Instances of NT Judgment (Or, Apparently Luke Didn’t Get the Memo)

sapphira-leclercEverybody knows that God allegedly struck people down in wrath in the Old Testament. We find dozens of instances in the Torah of God dealing out judgment in the form of illness or death, both on foreign enemies (Pharaoh & the Egyptians) as well as his own people (Sons of Korah, the snakes, etc.) for their sins. The pattern continues on through the historical prophets, as well as the the literary prophets. In text after text we see God prove that he both “kills, and makes alive” (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6), as he executes his righteous rule over the earth.

Of course, that’s the Old Testament. It’s now quite common to assert something along the lines of “Well, though the OT was really inspired (to a point), the fact of the matter is the OT authors were confused on some realities when it comes to God. How do we know this? Well, Jesus. I mean, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, who does whatever he sees the Father doing, right? So Jesus never killed anybody nor did he teach anybody to kill anybody. Therefore, we know that God’s not the kind of God who would kill anybody or ever command anybody to be killed like we see in a number of OT narratives and legal passages. Now that Jesus came, we can overlay Jesus’ picture on the OT and see clearly which parts get God right and which don’t.” Or something like that.

This is the sort of thing Andrew Wilson has dubbed the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. I’ve dealt at length  with this sort of logic before in a few places myself, dealing with the problematic theology of revelation, hyper-pacifism, and it’s contradiction of Jesus’ own views of the Old Testament. Once here with respect to some unfortunate things Brian Zahnd said, and a second time with respect to Steve Chalke and Sabbath Sticks. Still, it’s worth pursuing the line of thought from another angle.

You see, it appears to me that if this logic were true, then the New Testament writers who had seen Jesus wouldn’t have gotten God wrong, right? I mean, they’d seen him face to face and received the New Covenant blessing of the Holy Spirit in union with Christ who would reveal all things to them, right? And anybody being discipled by them in subsequent years who also wrote inspired Scriptures should have that gift as well, right? So then, if any biblical writers might be expected to get the totally non-violent nature of God right, it would be the New Testament writers.

Except for it seems that they didn’t get the memo. At least Luke didn’t. Observe:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.

And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:1-11)

In this dark and disturbing story we see the judge of all the earth disciplining his church. Ananias and Sapphira greedily and foolishly conspired to lie to the church about their giving and in doing so lied to God himself, bringing down his judgment. Now, of course, it’s possible for you to try and speculate as to whether both Ananias and his wife both just so happened to have cardiac failures on the same day, in the same situation, (shared eating habits & whatnot), or you can accept it in line with the revelation of the OT as the hand of God.

Still, if that’s not convincing enough, jump ahead a few chapters to Acts 12:

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.  (Acts 12:20-23)

Just as in the Old Testament, the Lord strikes down a tyrant who has been oppressing his people for his pride and arrogance. If in the last story Luke left the author of judgment anonymous, here he explicitly names him: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down…” Now again, if you want to go about speculating as to whether this was a rogue angel, prone to disobey God, who nonetheless goes about defending his name…well, that’s your prerogative. It seems clear enough from the context, though, that this is to be taken as a divinely authorized judgment–angels are “messengers” bringing God’s righteous message here.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that in both cases Jesus’ followers are not the ones executing judgment. A pacifist reading of these texts is totally possible; I don’t mean to settle that issue here. What I will say is that unless you want to go around calling into question the New Testament’s revelation of the character of God as well, then you have to have an amazing level of confidence in your ability to distinguish the really inspired bits from the not-so-inspired bits–one that I’ll admit I simply don’t share. This is especially the case when I consider that the inspired author of Acts is also the inspired author of one of those Gospels I’m relying on to get my picture of the non-violent Jesus who points us to a God who never violently judges people.

Now, this may not be enough to convince you, but I do hope it at least slows you down from the overhasty judgments about Jesus & the OT we’ve been seeing lately. Buying into these claims means biting off, chewing up, (and eventually spitting out) a bit more than you might have anticipated.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Sabbath Sticks, OT Morality, and the Jesus Tea Strainer

There’s a very troublesome text smack dab in the middle of Numbers 15, which I suspect many of us wouldn’t know what to do with if asked about it:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death,as the Lord commanded Moses. (Num. 15:32-36)

well-that-escalated-quicklyOn first reading we’re left thinking, “Well, that escalated quickly.” It’s a bit harsh isn’t? I mean, really, picking up a few sticks on the Sabbath and he’s to be executed? Is that how God works? Is that a moral Bible? Indeed, some skeptical critics point to that story specifically in order to prove that it isn’t.

I was reminded of this as I watched my friend Andrew Wilson debate (or rather, get interrupted by) Steve Chalke about the authority of Scripture and how to read the OT.  During the debate, after a lot of prodding for clarification, Chalke finally came out and said that while he believed that the event happened, Moses or the author was simply confused as to God’s commands, having misheard him or something (I kid you not, that’s what he says, I’m not lying). Given who Jesus is, and the fact that God is unchanging, he simply couldn’t believe that God would wipe a guy out just for picking up some sticks on Sabbath, so the text is simply wrong on that point. And pretty much every other time it says God strikes something down (all throughout the OT and NT).

Now, I can’t be too harsh here. I really do get the hesitation. It’s an odd, initially terrifying story that I’m somewhat tempted to edit myself. That said, as I watched and considered, I thought of a few points (a couple contextual, one broadly theological) that ought to be considered as we approach troubling texts like these in order to do them justice without chopping them up. I’ll tackle them in no particular order:

1. Flagrant defiance – The first has to do with the act itself. Looking at it the stick-collecting in a sort of flat sense, it does seem fairly innocuous. A few sticks–what’s the big deal? But, see, I don’t think it is as simple as just a few sticks. Say for instance you have a child and you see him reach for a cookie, so you say to him, “Don’t lay a finger on those until after dinner–I don’t want you to spoil your supper.” Your child then looks up at you, looks at the cookie, looks back up at you, and then with a smug look, grabs the cookie and stuffs it in his mouth. Now, at that point, what do we have? We don’t have a simple cookie-eating incident do we? Instead we have an act of willful flagrant defiance that merits some more serious attention. Superficially innocuous actions can be laden with deeper meaning.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?

Now, a 5-year old doing some boundary-testing is still pretty mild, but consider the case in question. The Israelites have been saved out of grinding slavery and given a good law by the sovereign God of the Universe. Moses came down from the mountain of smoke, lightning, and fire, and delivered the Ten Commandments, the foundational charter laws of the Covenant, on tablets written by the finger of God himself. The fourth, the command to keep the Sabbath Holy, is actually the lengthiest of the ten. At this point you begin to see that this man, in going out to collect something as stupid as a bunch of sticks, isn’t just bending a little rule–he’s acting in flagrant defiance of the express will of the King of the nation. This is not a mild act, but an aggressive breach against authority demonstrating his total repudiation of the rule of the Lord.

Some might wonder if I’m importing or imposing this interpretation on the text, but I think I’m on solid contextual ground when we consider that this little episode is recorded right after the regulations forbidding sacrifices to atone for intentional sins or “sins with a high hand” in verses 32-33:

“‘But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them.’”

The fact that we don’t see this, I think, is indicative of how little importance we place on the idea of authority culturally, or the idea of defying God’s authority. We simply don’t take that category of sin seriously, because of our modern, Western mindset.

2. National Significance – The second factor to consider is that this is probably not just about this one guy.  I’ll be honest that it’s been a conviction of mine for as far back as I can remember that God doesn’t owe me my next breath–both by dint of authorial rights as well as because of my own sins and wickedness. That said, it’s hard to not see this as a national, and indeed, redemptive-historical issue.

God has purposes for his people. They are to live in relationship with him and serve as a light to the world in their worship and obedience. The laws serve as a hedge around them, protecting them from the pagan influences of their neighbors as well as training them in the proper life with God. These laws aren’t simply for the life of Israel, then, but for God’s cosmic redemptive purposes for Israel among the nations. In that light, the question becomes then: Is God serious about his law? Is he just blowing smoke when he commands these things, or do we need to take him seriously? Are these serious commands or mere suggestions?

I would suggest then, that while he was culpable and deserving in himself, this early case of Sabbath defiance also had ramifications beyond his own case that were at issue as well. The course of the life of the nation was stake such that tragic, but just, action had to be taken to ensure there was clarity and resolved on this point.

3. Appropriate For The Time – Third, I think there is also a level of progressive revelation at work here. Both Wilson and Chalke agreed that compared to most of the laws of the surrounding nations, the law of Israel was comparatively humane and just. In fact, one of the processes we can see in Scripture is the idea that God meets people in history, deals with them in a manner that’s appropriate to them at the time in order to move them along towards the divine ideal. He starts out with their pagan, distorted thinking and then employs laws that are suited to them (but are no longer suited to us) in order to bring them along slowly.

Think of it this way: were I to have children, some of the rules I might give to my 5-year old would be harsh and inappropriate for a 15-year old. For instance, I might tell a five-year old child, “Every time you go outside, you need to come ask permission. If you don’t, you’ll be grounded from play for a week.” Now, to a 15-year old, this would seem draconian–indeed, to apply it to the 15-year-old it would be–but it makes perfect sense for a 5-year old at a time when you’re trying ingrain the lessons of the importance of parental authority, safety, and so forth. A second point follows from this: simply because I change the house rules for my 15-year-old to something different than when he was 5, it doesn’t mean that I’ve overall changed my mind or something. It means that in my consistency of character I have spoken differently in different situations.

In a similar way, God implemented laws back then and there, which were appropriate in the process of moral and theological education (“because of the hardness of your heart”) that he wouldn’t apply now–especially in light of the new covenant in Christ and the move from a theocractic national kingdom to a spiritual Kingdom. But that’s not because he would have been unrighteous in applying them then, but because we’ve moved on from that part of the story. To try to go back is to miss the intended movement at work. Nor is he inconsistent when he shifts his demands, or changes the application of underlying principles in the New Covenant.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Returning to The Tea-Strainer – Where does all of this go? Well, for one I hope it sheds some light on Numbers 15. But further than that, I think this serves to highlight what Wilson has called the difference between a Christ-centered lens versus a Christ-centered “tea-strainer” hermeneutic. The one allows you to look at a text in a different light, while the other simply screens out the bits we don’t like. Returning to the debate I referenced above, we see that Chalke looks at this text and says, “Well, looking at Christ in the NT, I know God couldn’t have commanded that and therefore we see that Moses was probably confused.” And therefore, the text is actually wrong. (Again, go watch the video, I’m not exaggerating here).

I had a couple of friends complain about the article when I shared it last week to the effect that, “Well, that doesn’t reflect the Christocentric hermeneutic I’m talking about, or the best versions of it.” Well, if that’s the case, then that’s lovely. I’m ecstatic to hear it. But sadly it does reflect Chalke’s self-designated “Christ-centric” hermeneutic, and it’s even the sort of thing that I’ve seen Brian Zahnd, someone I have serious respect for, write before, to wild applause and cheers in some sectors.

So what do we say instead? I, and I think Wilson as well, would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

So, which hermeneutic are you working with? A lens or a tea-strainer?

Soli Deo Gloria

I work through some related issues in “The Cure that Killed the Patient“, as well as this post on the importance of Context the Conquest of Canaan.

Jesus’ Favorite Book

torahSadly, for orthodox Christians who would readily confess Christ’s divinity and humanity, it’s very easy to forget Jesus was a real person sometimes. By that I mean that he probably had a lot of the normal personal tastes, likes, dislikes, and so forth, that we would think of. He probably had dishes that Mary made he was particularly fond of, or stories Joseph told that he loved best, or friends up the street he would duck out to go play with. You might even imagine that there were spots he loved to go think, or hide away, much as we all do.

That we forget this is tragic because it robs us of part of the glory of the Gospel that God became man, a specific man, at a particular time and place, who could fully identify with the experience of being a human person.

I was reminded of this the other day when I ran across a remarkable quote by Christopher Wright in David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page on Jesus and the Old Testament.  He quotes Wright at length:

In the midst of the many intrinsically fascinating reasons why Old Testament study is so rewarding, the most exciting to me is the way it never fails to add new depths to my understanding of Jesus. I find myself aware that in reading the Hebrew Scriptures I am handling something that gives me a closer common link with Jesus than any archaeological artifact could do. For these are the words he read. These were the stories he knew. These were the songs he sang. These were the depths of wisdom and revelation and prophecy that shaped his whole view of ‘life, the universe and everything.” This is where he found his insights into the mind of his Father God. Above all, this is where he found the shape of his own mission. In short, the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus. (After all, Jesus never actually read the New Testament!)

–Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, pg. ix

I’d never really thought about it that way, but the Bible was Jesus’ favorite book. (Now, being a peasant, I’m not sure that he had access to many others, but that doesn’t change the point.) When you’re reading the Old Testament, you’re reading words that Jesus read, sang, prayed, dwelt on, meditated over, struggled with, memorized, and loved.

When we were dating, McKenna and I made up a list of movies we wanted the other to see because they were particularly important to us. Watching those movies together was as experience we wanted to have with each other, yes because we liked the movies, but at a deeper level, because we felt that they revealed something about us to each other. In a similar way (alongside of the theologically-thicker ways), when you dive into the Old Testament, you’re learning something the very human Jesus who walked the earth 2,000 years ago. As Wright points out, this is just one more reason for us to dive into the Old Testament.

Of course, the joy of that is that is not to feel closer to someone who lived and loved a very long time ago. The still very-human, though resurrected and ascended, Jesus still loves those texts, has revealed himself in them, and promises to give himself to us through them if we will only meet him there.

Soli Deo Gloria