Archive for December, 2011

Christ was there. Christ is here.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend and he shared with me a dark time he had gone through years ago.  He was in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and he decided to move overseas and explore the world.  Unfortunately, his move away from home only precipitated his fall.  He fell in with the wrong crowd, he did the wrong things, and, one night, he found himself at a point of despair.  Walking alone along a dark street, he cried out, “Jesus, if You’re there, I really need You to show up right now.”  After making his way to a phone booth, he fumbled through the phone book inside, deposited his change, and called the first church he could find.  The pastor of the church answered.  The next day, the two of them had lunch.  And thus began my friend’s re-awakening to the glory of God and the grace of Christ.  My friend felt all alone on that dark night.  But he wasn’t.  Christ was there.  In that phone booth.

One of the texts that has long been compelling to me is 1 Corinthians 10:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

Paul is here recounting the history of Israel during the Exodus.  And he uses Israel’s history to warn the Corinthians against the dangers of unrepentance:

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.  Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.”  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did – and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.  We should not test the Lord, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes.  And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10:6-10)

In the midst of the unrepentance, evil, and rebellion of the Israelites, Paul says, Christ was there.  In that rock.  The same rock which poured forth water in the wilderness for the Israelites to drink (Exodus 17:1-7).  What a strange place for Christ to be!  And yet, Christ was there.

The other day, I was reading an article by a prominent evangelical theologian, who was bemoaning the dangers of inserting Christ recklessly and relentlessly into every page and phrase of Scripture.  He wrote, “Christ cannot be found under every rock.”[1]  I would agree – in part.   It is dangerous to present Christ in ways that the biblical text does not mean present Him.  For instance, the Church Father Origen, famous for his excessive allegorizing of the Bible, reads Exodus 17:9 – “Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some of our men and go out to fight’” – as “Moses said to Jesus,” since the Hebrew name for Joshua, Yeshua, comes to us in English as “Jesus.”  Origen comments:

Up to this point the Scripture has never anywhere mentioned the blessed name of Jesus.  Here for the first time the brightness of the name shines forth.  For the first time Moses makes an appeal to Jesus and says to him, “Choose men.”  Moses calls on Jesus; the Law asks Christ to choose strong men from among the people.  Moses cannot choose; it is Jesus alone who can choose strong men; He has said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”[2]

Origen’s words here certainly strain the bounds of responsible biblical exegesis.  To so immediately equate Joshua with Jesus presents a whole host of problems, not the least of which is that Joshua was flawed and fallen (e.g., Joshua 9:1-14), something which Jesus was not.  Thus, we must be careful in how we interpret biblical texts.  However, there is a sense in which, contrary to what this scholar says, we can indeed find Jesus under every rock, for Jesus is the center, focus, and locus of the Scriptures.  Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 10:4, we don’t just find Christ under a rock, He is the rock!  Indeed, this is the very doctrine of the incarnation:  that Christ shows up in the strangest of ways and places – even under rocks.  Christ was there.  In the phone booth of my friend.  Christ was there.  In that rock.  Christ was there.  In the manger.  Christ was there.  On the cross.  And Christ is here.  In the pages of Scripture.  Christ is here.  In the waters of baptism.  Christ is here.  In the bread and wine of Communion.  Christ is here.  In our hearts.

Christ was there.  Christ is here.  This is the mystery and glory of the incarnation – and of Christmas.

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[1] Ben Witherington III, “Towards a Biblical Theology – Part Two” (11.21.11).

[2] Origen in Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 1999) 86.

December 26, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – How Firm A Foundation

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of our family trips to the beach.  The sun, the white sand, the clear blue water.  Wait, check that.  I grew up in Oregon.  It was always cloudy, the sand was rocky, and the water was murky.  But I loved the beach nonetheless.  And even in the rocky sand, I loved to build sandcastles.  I would always make sure I had my pail and spade in tow, ready to create an impenetrable fortress right there at the base of beach.  Except that, inevitably, my fortress would always be penetrated – and washed away – by the water.  For sand castles, no matter how well you build them, never last.  They always succumb to the relentless pounding of the surf.

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we were introduced to one of history’s most infamous rulers – Herod the Great.  Known for his ruthlessness and megalomania, Herod would stop at nothing to protect and extend his reign and rule as “king of the Jews,” a title bestowed on him by the Roman Senate in 40 BC.  He was married to no fewer than ten women over his life, most of whom he married out of political expediency rather than out of love.  He banished his first wife, Doris, because he wanted to marry his second wife, Miriamne.  He eventually had her executed after they got into a fight.  He also killed his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, as well as three of his sons under suspicion that they were trying to usurp his power.  Herod was a tyrant indeed.

But for all of Herod’s tyranny, he was also a monarch of great skill and vision.  Most notably, Herod was a master builder.  He built a whole city called the Caesarea Maritima, situated on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, which had a breathtaking manmade harbor spanning more than forty acres.  He built himself a palace which included baths, a pool, a colonnaded garden, and a 600 foot long terrace.  He named it, modestly, the Herodium.  But most famously, Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem bigger and better than ever.  He plastered it in marble and gold.  It ascended higher than a fifteen-story building.  It was truly a monument to Herod’s skill as an artisan.  Herod began his work on the temple in 19 BC.  It was not completely finished until 68 years after his death.  If Herod died, as the German theologian Emil Schürer asserted, in 1 BC, that means the temple was finally finished in AD 67.  In AD 70, the Roman general Titus laid siege to the city of Jerusalem and destroyed its temple.  Herod’s completed temple stood for only three years.

Like my sandcastles on the beach, Herod’s building projects weren’t as enduring as he thought they would be.  His crowing achievement, the Jerusalem temple, was destroyed only a few years after it was completed.  His architecture succumbed to the relentless march of human history.

Jesus once told a story about the fate of building projects:  

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:24-27)

Jesus warns that man’s building projects can and do fall.  The only way to make them last is to build them upon a firm foundation – and that firm foundation is Christ.  Herod never learned this.  Indeed, we learn in Matthew 2:16 that he wanted to kill Christ, not build his life and legacy on Him.

What are you building?  And more importantly, on whom are you building?  The things you build to your own fame will inevitably fall.  But what is built on the rock of Christ and to His glory will endure.  Do you build on the rock of Christ at your job, with your family, and throughout your life?  Or, like Herod, are you only building monuments to your own greatness, which are really no sturdier than sandcastles?  As the apostle Paul warns, “If any man builds…his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Corinthians 3:12-13).  May our work not be found wanting – not because of our skill, but because of Christ’s foundation.

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December 19, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – You Need A Break!

Yes, this is a picture of me.  This is when we were at the rodeo in January, seeing MercyMe in concert.  Well, our friends and my wife were seeing MercyMe.  I, on the other hand, was a little tired that evening.  So I took a little nap in the middle of a big concert.

I am one of those people who can sleep anytime and anywhere.  If I’m tired, my eyes begin to close and my head begins to nod.  It doesn’t matter if it is at night or during the day, at a public place or when I’m at home.  I can even doze at a rodeo.  My wife, on the other hand, needs everything to be just right before she can fall asleep.  The room must be pitch black.  The ambience must be dead quiet.  Even the slightest noise in the middle of the night can startle her awake.

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we talked about gift and glory of rest.  But in a world full of appointments, tasks, meetings, and errands, rest can be hard to come by.  Especially during this holiday season, when we have parties to host and presents to buy and relatives to visit, the specter of a restful Christmas can seem to be nothing but a cruel illusion.

So how do we get the rest we need when the world around us never seems to slow down?  First, to rest, we must intentionally slow ourselves down.  I shared this quote in ABC, but it is so insightful, I want to share it here again.  It concerns the biblical day of rest, otherwise known as the Sabbath:

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working [and rest] is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily, the way you might slip into bed at the end of a long day. As the Cat in the Hat says, “It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.” This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional, requiring extensive advance preparation – at the very least a scrubbed house, a full larder and a bath. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will.[1]

Resting “requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will.”  In other words, rest isn’t easy!  It must be intentional.  You must schedule rest, prepare for rest, and then stubbornly take a rest, even if it spites a calendar which clamors for your every waking moment.

Second, to rest, we must examine our hearts.  The apostle John writes, “We set our hearts at rest in God’s presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20).  Rest, John reminds us, goes deeper than just how many appointments we have scheduled.  It goes down to the state of our hearts.  Thus, even when our schedules are packed full and our lives are running at high speed, our hearts can be at rest because our hearts are held by the Lord.  The stress our world does not have to ruin the rest of our hearts.  Thus, even when we feel as though our hearts are overwhelmed by this world’s demands, we can cling to this promise:  “God is greater than our hearts.”  God’s power and grace far outweigh, outlast, and outdo the anxiety and unrest we can harbor in our hearts.  So find your rest in Him.  He’s just the break you need.

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[1] Judith Shulevitz, “Bring Back the Sabbath,” The New York Times (3.2.2003).

December 12, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – “Jesus was born of a…”

When trying to understand a particularly puzzling or perplexing passage of Scripture, it is helpful to turn to other interpreters and study how they have interpreted the passage.  This is especially helpful in the case of Isaiah 7:14, a famous prophecy about the birth of Jesus: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel.”  This passage became a source of heated debate and disagreement when the Revised Standard Version of 1952 famously translated, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign.  Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”  Traditionally, this verse has been taken as a prophecy of the miraculous conception of Christ as one who was born of a virgin girl named Mary: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  It was the Holy Spirit, Matthew says, who planted the Christ child in Mary’s womb.  Mary, therefore, was still a virgin when she had Jesus.  But the RSV changed the traditional translation of Isaiah 7:14 from “virgin” to “young woman.”  Why the change?

The crux of the debate centers on the Hebrew word for “virgin,” or, as the RSV translates, “young woman.”  The word is almah.  And although almah does generally refer to a young woman who is a virgin, there are limited instances where it may refer to a young woman not in a virginal state, the most famous being Proverbs 30:18-19: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.”  The Hebrew word for “maiden” is almah.  In this instance, the word seems to be referring to a woman already married and, hence, no longer in a virginal state.  This is why the translators of the RSV opted for a more general translation of almah – “young woman” – rather than a more specific one – “virgin” – in Isaiah 7:14.  The difficulty with this translation, however, is that Christianity’s critics have quickly pounced on this translation to undermine the Christological implications of this prophecy.  Rather than foretelling the virgin birth of Christ, these critics maintain that this prophecy points only to events in the Isaiah’s own day.

This debate, then, leads us to this important question:  Which translation of almah is correct?  “Virgin” or “young woman”?  And make no mistake about it:  At stake here is far more than trifling lexical nuances.  At stake here is a prophecy which the gospel writer Matthew says is fulfilled finally and fully in Jesus Christ!  Indeed, Matthew cites this prophecy in his birth narrative:  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22-23).  Did Matthew misquote, misunderstand, or, worse yet, purposefully misuse this passage from Isaiah 7:14 when he applied it to the virgin birth of Jesus?

It is here that it is helpful to turn to other interpreters and see how they have understood this particularly puzzling and perplexing passage of Scripture.  One of the oldest interpretations of this passage comes to us via an ancient translation of the Bible called the Septuagint.  The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament, commissioned in the third and second centuries as more and more Jews, after Alexander the Great undertook his project of radically Hellenizing the whole world, were no longer able to speak and understand Hebrew fluently.  This Septuagint was a way for the Jews to maintain their religious Scriptural heritage in a language they could read and understand.  And in Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word almah is translated as the Greek word parthenos.  And although there may some limited linguistic ambiguity in the meaning of the word almah, there is no such ambiguity in the word parthenos.  It means “virgin.”  Thus, ancient Jewish translators, living before the birth of Christ, interpreted this prophecy Messianically, referring to a miraculously virgin born Messiah.  And Matthew, in his account of Jesus’ birth, picks up on the Seputagintal translation of this prophecy and too uses the word parthenos.  Interestingly, later Jewish Greek translations of this verse from the second century AD translate almah as neanis, meaning “young woman,” no doubt in an attempt the mute the Christian interpretation of this passage.  But before the birth of Christ, the Jews were expecting nothing less than a miraculously born Messiah – a virgin born Messiah.

Thus, this particularly puzzling and perplexing prophecy stands as it has traditionally been interpreted.  And this particularly puzzling and perplexing prophecy is puzzling and perplexing no more.  For it has been fulfilled in Jesus.

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December 5, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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