I realize, before I post this, that some will be troubled by it. Yet it is the truth as I understand it. My thoughts are not new and have shared them before. It is possible to hold biblical truth as we understand it yet do so in nonbiblical and sectarian ways, this seems especially true on the doctrine of baptism. Baptism is the victim of both neglect and zeal without knowledge.

I Believe Baptism is GOD’s Work

I believe the Great Commission: Preach, Make disciples, Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. I believe in Matthew 28.19, Acts 2.38; Romans 6, Colossians 2 and 1 Peter 3.21.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28.19)

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38)

all of us who have been baptized int Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6.3-4)

And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3.21)

These are wonderful and great texts in the New Testament. They, and other texts, many of us had memorized before we even knew John 3.16 or Psalm 23. We believe every one of them.

I celebrate the fact that the wider Christian world is rediscovering the beauty of baptism. (Some never lost it). May we also continue to grow in a healthy and robust doctrine of baptism. We need to stress the wonderful grace centered biblical doctrine of baptism, for a positive exposition of baptism as I understand it see my Baptism: Work of God, Dripping in Grace.

The great baptismal hymn of Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson captures well this part of our blog.

Come, Holy Spirit Dove divine, On these baptismal waters shine,
And teach our hearts, in highest strain, To praise the Lamb
for sinners slain …

“We sink beneath Thy Mystic flood, And thank Thee for they saving grace;
We die to sin and seek a grave With The, beneath the yielding wave

(Songs of Faith and Praise, #427, vv. 1 & 3)

Alexander Campbell celebrated the great work of Judson in India and Burma. No reason we cannot too.

Avoiding the Human Centered Sectarian Trap

Sometimes we react to the (seeming) trivialization of the sacraments in (especially) American Evangelical churches by going to the other extreme. One of the great gifts of the Stone-Campbell Movement has been pointing to the significance of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. We must stay grounded in healthy biblical theology by reminding ourselves that

Christ is the Savior, Baptism is not.
Christ is the Judge, Baptism is not.

But, sometimes, when I read brethren and sisters, I think we have come to view baptism like some ancient Israelites did Moses’s bronze serpent (Num 21) that became an idol that needed to be destroyed (2 Kgs 18). It seems to me that some of us in Churches of Christ make baptism their whole canon (with instrumental music possibly in there). Baptism is everything, that is it is exalted above every Christian duty. K. C. Moser even quipped,

I have long noticed that most any position is tolerated just so it appears to exalt baptism, even at the expense of faith or the blood of Christ.”

So recently, I had a brief discussion about baptism that highlighted this very sectarian tendency. I was accused of not believing in baptism because I will not declare that Martin Luther, John Newton and millions of others who have served the Lord sacrificially but were baptized as infants were automatically condemned to hell. According to this brother, if I admit that God is merciful – this is not an opinion but fact – then I deny baptism altogether. In his position baptism is the savior rather than Christ, in his position baptism is the judge rather than Christ. This is actually false doctrine even has he was attempting to protect baptism.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Who is a God like You?

I confess that I not only believe such servants of the Lord are in fact part of the new creation, but that I pray that is the case. These disciples are not Hindus, Muslims and witch doctors. It was suggested I “need to study the Bible more.”

I agree we all need to study our Bible more. And it is because I have spent years studying the Bible, that I am troubled by this position not only on baptism but more importantly on the doctrine of God and Christ that support it.

So let me pose some questions that give me cause for pause. When we do we will find out that God “delights” in mercy. What does the Bible mean when it says God “Who is a God like you, who Delights in showing mercy” (Micah 6.18)?

What does it mean when God claims to “forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin“? (Ex 34.6; Joel 2.13; Num 14.17f; Pss 86.15; 148.8; etc).

It was Jesus who chastised some pretty sophisticated Bible students with these words, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (Mt 12.7-8, citing Hosea 6.6 which Jesus also quotes in Matthew 9.13)

If such people like Augustine, Luther, William Tyndale, John Newton, C. S. Lewis, and millions more are automatically lost, in spite of a lifetime of sacrificial service to the Lord because they were poured on rather than immersed, this is hard to reconcile with the claim God “delights in mercy.” It is not out of line with the pagan deity Zeus however!

So when we say “who is a God like you?” the answer is none because our God “delights in mercy!” Are we like the Pharisees who need to “go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice?‘” (Mt 9.13, citing Hosea 6.6).

Do we have the courage of Hezekiah to pray for those who were technically wrong (and it was not even a mistake but deliberate!) about the technical details … read 2 Chronicles 30, not once, not twice, but three times. All 27 verses. Underline everything from v.16 to v.20.

Then they took up their regular positions as prescribed in the Law of Moses the man of God. The priests splashed against the altar the blood handed to them by the Levites. Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves, the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean and could not consecrate their lambs to the Lord. Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.”

If this is not mercy over sacrifice then nothing is. Here the Holy Spirit is teaching us what mercy means. Hezekiah’s prayer is rooted in his faith that Yahweh is a certain kind of God, one who delights in mercy. That is the basis of his intercession. Is not the story of Hezekiah written for our learning (Rom 15.4)? What do we learn from it? Is it not something that is good for doctrine and makes us wise unto salvation (2 Tim 3.15-17)? What doctrine does it proclaim for our salvation?

It blows me away to, absolutely, insist that those heroes that gave us our Bible itself … Caedmon, Alfred, John Wycliff … men who loved the Lord with all of their heart, soul, strength and mind – like William Tyndale – who gave the ultimate sacrifice to the Lord. Tyndale was burned at the stake — and we are going to insist that these men who sacrificed everything they had to share God’s word (and we ourselves would not have it, if not for them) but they are no better than a pagan witch doctor to us? None of them were immersed. But they all thought they had been baptized!

Christ the Savior, Christ the Judge

But Jesus himself said “not greater love has any man than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15.13). These disciples (and many more) certainly have more love for Christ than many a sectarian, who is technically correct on baptism.

The Jesus who is the Savior prayed for those who hung him on the cross, “Father forgiven them,” … are we going to believe that Jesus the Judge is going to look at these people and on the day of judgment not stand up for them before the God of Steadfast Love??

Is failing to be dipped a bigger crime than crucifying the Son of Man?

Again what does it mean to “delight in mercy” (Micah 7.18-20)? I find it interesting that Jonah certainly had no doubt that Yahweh would forgive, at the drop of a hat, even the pagan Assyrians … Notice his words, carefully, in Jonah 4.1-2 … God “is gracious, merciful, full of steadfast love and relents from punishment.” Jonah, like Hezekiah, knew what kind of God our God is. G. C. Brewer once lamented, and for years I simply did not know enough of Bible to grasp how truthful he was, “we sing a better gospel than we preach.”

To admit that God has reserved judgment for Christ, the One who died for the ungodly enemies (Rom 5.1-11), and that William Tyndale and John Newton will be saved in the end … in no way minimizes the reality of faith in Christ and being baptized in his name. It simply recognizes the biblical truth that God has a long record of forgiving people that God’s people would not because he delights in mercy.

And He ordered us to preach to the people and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10.42)

He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness/ through a Man whom he has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17.31)

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ …” (2 Cor 5.10)

Jesus is the Judge. The Judge is not even God the Father. Jesus has been appointed by the Father to that role.

The Judge is the One who died, the One who shed his blood, the One who said “Father forgive them.”

I simply do not believe that that Jesus will look at a person who has loved him in everything, worshiped him, served him, many have even died for him but failed to understand a technical point on getting wet will be treated as if they are a rebellious rejecter of God. I think of those 45 disciples who were slaughtered in Alexandria, Egypt in 2017 refusing to deny Christ, yet not one had been immersed.

An old time preacher named Basil the Great commented on baptism and those who died without it but died in the service of Christ. It is insightful and I agree with it.

There have been some who in their championship of true baptism have undergone death for Christ’s sake, not in mere similitude, but in actual fact, and so have none of the outward signs of water for their salvation, because they were baptized in their own blood. Thus I write not to disparage the baptism by water, but to overthrow the arguments of those who exalt themselves against the Spirit.” (quoted in Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, p. 591)

Our “Fathers” Understood Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Alexander Campbell met Nathan Rice from November 15 to December 1, 1843 in an epic debate. Campbell certainly did not back away from his understanding of biblical baptism. He also did not divorce it from biblical theology. He said, seemingly anticipating a myriad of bad Facebook memes and posts,

according to our teaching, there is no one required to be baptized where baptism cannot be had. Baptism, where there is no faith, no water, no person to administer, was never demanded as an indispensable condition of salvation, by Him who has always enjoyed upon man ‘mercy, rather than sacrifice.‘” (Campbell-Rice Debate, pp. 519-520)

This is a deeply embedded biblical principle in Campbell. Campbell himself had been baptized as an infant and knew that he loved the Lord, worshiped the Lord, served the Lord and even had fellowship with the Lord for a good portion of his life before he came to believe that adult immersion was the proper biblical practice. So he wrote in what has become known as “The Lunenberg Letter,”

I cannot, therefore make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy … as aliens from Christ and the well grounded hope of heaven … Should I find a Pedobaptist more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians. Still I will be asked, How do I know that any loves my Master but by his obedience to his commandments? I answer, In no other way. But mark, I do not substitute obedience to one commandment, for universal or even general obedience. And should I see a sectarian Baptist or a Pedobaptist more spiritually minded, more generally conformed to the requisitions of the Messiah, than one who precisely acquiesces with me in the theory or practice of immersion as I teach, doubtless the former rather than the latter, would have my cordial approbation and love as a Christian. So I judge and so feel. It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.” (Alexander Campbell, “Any Christians among the Protestant Parties,” Millennial Harbinger 8 [September 1837], 412)

These words by Campbell are not cited to give him biblical authority. They are cited because they demonstrate understanding of biblical theology and nonsectarian Christianity. For a deeper look on Campbell’s baptismal journey see Alexander Campbell, Rebaptism & Sectarianism.

Conclusion

I believe and teach baptism as much as anyone (its in books with my name, there are articles on my blog, there are sermons, I’ve baptized many over the years). I will continue to do so. But when we make baptism an idol we gut the biblical witness and loose any credibility when we paganize those whose faith dwarfs our own.

I love baptism. It is God’s work. But I know that as Jesus said that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” that that same principle applies to baptism. Sectarian positions on baptism are powerful obstacles that often hinder presenting the biblical and historic Christian teaching on baptism.

Baptism serves faith; faith does not serve baptism.

We have faith in Christ our faith is not in baptism nor any other thing we may treasure and hold dear. We honor baptism by kneeling before Jesus’s cross … “nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling.”

Christ is the Savior. Baptism is not.
Christ is the Judge. Baptism is not.

Paul, quoting the Lord God himself, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9.15; Exodus 33.19)

That settles it. For me. God is Merciful and does not ask my permission.

I already know some will go say I do not believe in baptism.

(It is possible that only bibliophiles will be edified by this post)

It is poor form to embrace an “argument” solely because it serves a partisan/sectarian purpose. It may not true but it sure makes the home crowd happy and may even win a debate in our own eyes.

The example of Alexander Campbell is notable when he embraced a critical reading of a textual variant, in his Living Oracles version of the NT. Campbell was chastised because the other variant was “useful in proving the deity of Christ.” Campbell responded, “though I am as convinced of the proper divinity of the Saviour … as ever John Calvin was, I would not do as this ‘Friend of Truth’ insinuates I ought to have done, made the text bend to suit my views.

False information (fake news), honestly, simply serves the useful purpose of furthering partisan and sectarian agendas. Truth is not the objective rather the rejection of “them” is.

Three times over the recent Christmas holidays, I was asked about the “Four Hundred Years of Silence” that supposedly lie between Malachi and Matthew. God supposedly withdrew from the world, took prophecy (inspiration) away and the like.

Interestingly, the “four hundred years of silence” is not a historic Christian doctrine but a position forged in the Protestant-Roman Catholic debates in the 16th-17th centuries. To my knowledge it is not found in the Church Fathers at all. It has now become a staple of conservative Evangelical identity. The argument was crucial for rejection of books in the Apocrypha. I have not found this argument among the Reformers themselves. I do not claim to be a Reformation expert so I may have simply not read enough.

But today, scholars of all persuasions (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, even Atheist) recognize this simply will not stand up to critical evaluation.

The notion that Malachi (because it is the last book in our modern “Old Testaments”) is the last book of the “Old Testament” is simply incorrect. I pulled down one of the most conservative Introductions to the Old Testament around, Roland Kenneth Harrison (Eerdmans 1969, I got my copy in 1989). Here are some dates this famous conservative scholar recognizes for books in the Hebrew Bible …

Ecclesiastes, 444-328 BC
Esther no later than 350 BC
Daniel scholars are all over the place but most put it around 180 BC
Jonah final form possibly as late as 200 BC but probably earlier (Jonah has so many allusions to the rest of the biblical corpus that it is universally seen as one of the last books of the “Old Testament”)
Psalms has a loooooooooooooong compositional history with some dating back to David and some down into the third century BC
Chronicles forth to third century BC

There was no 400 years of silence.

Protestants in the 16th-17th to present centuries often have claimed that Jews themselves thought prophecy had ceased. (The Talmud preserves some Rabbinic debate on the matter but these are later than the biblical period.). Protestants go to 1 Maccabees 9.27, which reads “since the time prophets ceased to appear among the people.” The text does indicate there was no prophet among the people at the time.

But context matters even when quoting the Apocrypha. This same kind of phrase occurs in the Protestant Old Testament and no Protestants imagine they indicate God withdrew prophecy as such. For example,

there is no longer any prophet” (Ps 74.9)
her prophets obtain no vision from the LORD” (Lam 2.9).

But First Maccabees certainly expects a prophet will in fact appear. Thus Simon is elected leader of Israel “until a trustworthy prophet should appear” (1 Mac 14.41). The author clearly believes a prophet will appear soon and say whether this course of action is the right one or not.

But if the Apocrypha is to be appealed to, incorrectly, that prophecy ceased, then what do we do with the myriad of texts that indicate it had not.

Judah the Maccabee himself certainly receives what can only be called a prophetic vision in 2 Maccabees 15.11-16. The divine manifestation of the rider on the horse to protect the temple from the pagan Heliodorus (2 Mac 3) clearly shows the author believed God was currently miraculously involved in life.

Tobit tells the story of Raphael coming to travel with Tobias and is revealed as the angel that stands in the presence of the Lord and he ascends “to him who sent me” (Tobit 12.6-22). Ezra, in 2 Esdras, certainly receives a number of divine revelations (2 Esdras is a composite work and dates to after the fall of Jerusalem).

In the Gospels, Anna is a prophet the better part of a century before John and Jesus were born (Lk 2.36ff). Simeon is filled with the Spirit and prophecies (Lk 2.26-35). Elizabeth is also a prophet and the Spirit fills her (Lk 1.42-43). John recognizes that even the High Priest sometimes was a prophet (Jn 11.51).

Josephus is often appealed to by those who claim there was “400 years of silence.” Josephus believes no such thing. There were both genuine and false prophets that Josephus mentions (some folks cite him who have never read him). So one such prophet is Jesus b. Chananiah. He was a prophet in Jerusalem through the AD 60s and prophesied the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Josephus quotes from this Jesus (who in this instance also prophesied the fall of the Temple.

A voice from the East,
A voice from the West,
A voice from the four winds;
A voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary,
A voice against the bridegroom and the bride,
A voice against all the people
. (War 6.301)

Josephus even mentions there was a group of Pharisaic prophets in Herod’s court (Antiquities 17.43ff). There are numerous other figures we could mention.

Recognizing a poor argument, and the partisan/sectarian motivation, for it however, does not mean that any or all of the books of the Apocrypha were divinely inspired. It is the case that some Jews apparently, and after the dawn of the Christian era, and Christians did believe in the divine origin of these books. It may be the case that no one will “win” such a debate.

Do not be afraid of truth.

Recognizing the complexity of reality simply means we live in the real world. Recognizing the truth does not make any book in the Bible less significant or less important.

But we should not misrepresent anyone … we cannot represent the truth if we are “lying” about the truth. Do not embrace something simply because “it suits my views.”

Shalom … Time for a refill of Coffee

Gregorian Calendar

There is a massive historical chasm between the world of the Bible and the world north American believers live in. This becomes a problem when we are unaware of it because we can distort the biblical text with the hidden assumption that ancient people lived, and thought, as we do.

Take as one example, the calendar, we live by it. Today is December 30, 2019 not only in California but everywhere. Sometimes we are vaguely aware that there is a “Chinese” calendar but we typically simply assume that it is December 30th in Beijing, Moscow, and even Iran. But this has not always been the case in the world and certainly was not in the Bible. The calendar is one of the most important ways groups of people have, historically, understood their self-identity. Calendars were not simply a method of keeping time but vehicles to tell national or religious stories.

The modern world follows the Gregorian Calendar that was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Protestant Europe resisted mightily this intrusion of the Roman Catholic Church but 200 years later the lands of Germany adopted it. The British Empire did not adopt it until a few years before the Revolutionary War. When adopted the date went from September 2 to September 14, 1752, overnight! Thus this became the calendar in the American Colonies too. The Soviet Union did not adopt this calendar until the 20th century.

The adoption of the Gregorian Calendar was to change the date of Easter because it was not falling where it needed to. This is why the date of Easter (for example) is different for the “West” than for the “East” because Eastern Christians never adopted the Roman Catholic calendar. One of the great ironies of certain critics of Christmas and Easter as “papal” inventions blissfully (unaware!) use a real Roman Catholic invention everyday of their lives.

But it was not so in Jesus day or the first century church nor ancient Israel. The Roman Empire officially adopted the calendar of Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Today’s date on the Julian Calendar is actually December 15, 2019. This was the basic calendar of western Europe until it was supplanted by the Roman Catholic Gregorian calendar.

In the Roman Empire there were numerous competing calendars: Macedonian (retained in most of the areas held by Alexander the Great), Egyptian and Jewish. The Julian Calendar, like the Gregorian, is a solar calendar of 365 days. It would not be until the time of Constantine that the seven days for a week became normative.

Israel’s Festival Calendar

But the Jews never adopted the Julian nor the much later Gregorian Calendar. Many do not realize there is a calendar in the Bible itself. It is a lunar calendar that runs from new moon to new moon and is 29 or 30 days. Today’s date on the Jewish calendar is 2 Tevet of the year 5780. This calendar comes out of the Law of Moses and dates in the Bible are in relation to that calendar. The day ran from sundown to sundown, thus what we call Saturday evening was actually the beginning of what we call “Sunday.”

The Jews had a seven day week which is based on the days of creation and the Sabbath. Days are simply numbered in relation to the Sabbath. The New Testament continues the “policy” of the Hebrew Bible in numbering days in relation to the Sabbath. Thus “Sunday” is never “Sunday” in the Bible but the “first of the sabbath” and so on. In fact it not certain that any apostle would even know the word “Sunday.”

Our modern days, however, are all named for pagan gods:

Sunday (Sol, Sun god);
Monday (Moon god);
Tuesday (Tiu, Anglo-Saxon name for Mars god of war);
Wednesday (Odin/Woden, supreme deity of the Anglo-Saxon/Norse mythology);
Thursday (Thor, Anglo-Saxon god);
Friday (Frigga, the goddess wife of Odin);
Saturday (Saturn, Roman god of fun and feasting).

In the Bible, including the NT, days are not given these pagan names but numbered in relation to the Sabbath as noted above.

In the biblical calendar there is no winter, spring, summer and fall seasons. Israel has basically two meteorological seasons, a long warmer summer and a cooler wetter “winter.” What the Bible calls “seasons” in older translations of Genesis 1.14 are not winter, spring, summer and fall. In the 2011 NIV we read, correctly,

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years

The “sacred times” are marked on the calendar in Genesis 1. these are the festival “seasons” of Israel. The season of Passover, the season of Weeks, the season of Tabernacles, etc. What is so interesting is that though Paul certainly told Gentiles they did not have to observe special days as a requirement for salvation, it is certain that he taught Gentiles Jewish time. For more on Genesis 1.14 see “Seasons or Special Days: Genesis 1.14 and Israel’s Worship Calendar.”

In modern America, even for most believers, “time” is a completely secularized concept. This is not only unknown in Scripture but it is completely alien to it. It would also have been alien to any Greek or Roman of the day.

Time is filled with GOD and tells the story of Yahweh and God’s mighty acts on behalf of creation through God’s people Israel. The Calendar was the vehicle for teaching the faith in Yahweh and what God had done and will continue to do.

This calendar is deeply embedded in the very fabric of Scripture itself. A simple example would be the prophet and book of Haggai. Haggai’s name, חגי, is quite literally “festive” or “festival.” The book of Haggai dates itself as follows,

1.1, “on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai

2.1 “on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai

Etc. The sixth month is Elul. The seventh month is Tishrei. Haggai dates the oracle to the “twenty-first day.” What is the twenty-first day? It is the last day of Sukkot or the Festival of Tabernacles which follows on the heels of Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishrei. Jews would read (or hear) these words in association with the festival they were observing. Haggai’s message is clearly appropriate for the calendar it is associated with and adds considerable layers of meaning to the book. But when we ignore the biblical calendar we miss what the text assumes you and I bring to the text.

The early church continued this calendar. The Way did not tell the story of Rome or Alexander but of what the God of Israel had done in and through Jesus the King of the Jews who has inherited the nations. This explains a great deal in the early church. The calendar is the story of God with God’s creation. That is the story the Way celebrates in the “time” allotted to it.

Jesus lived according to this calendar.
Jesus died according to this calendar.
Jesus was raised by Yahweh in the flesh according to this calendar.
Yahweh poured out the Spirit and renewed God’s covenant according to this calendar.

It would serve us well to at least recognize it in the biblical narrative.

Helpful Resources

David Ewing Duncan, The Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. (A general and lively read into the history of calendars around the world).

Michael LeFebvre, The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding the Calendars in the Old Testament in Context. (This is one of the better introductions to the biblical calendar and how it structures the biblical narrative).

Jin K. Hwang, “Jewish Pilgrim Festivals and Calendar in Paul’s Ministry with Gentile Churches,” Tyndale Bulletin 64 (2013): 89-107. (This is an in-depth look at calendars in the Roman Empire of the first century. Hwang delves deeply into the evidence in the New Testament, especially Paul, on how the NT uses the Jewish rather than a Roman or Gentile calendar. He concludes that Paul did teach the Jewish calendar to his Gentile converts even as he did not require Gentile observance of sacred days).


17 Dec 2019

“Winter” Weather in Israel and Christmas

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Exegesis, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke
Shepherd in Israel’s Negev

I have often (repeatedly) said in sermons, Bible classes, writings that there are two fundamental rules for reading the Bible: Context and Context. These rules are regularly ignored especially during sectarian polemics – the worst culprits are preachers. Let me illustrate with “winter” and “Christmas.”

Many conservative Christians have heard (and repeat) that December 25 could not have been when Jesus was born because it would be to cold for shepherds to have their flocks out in fields.

This opinion is rooted in a violation of the rule of context and context. What it does is impose North American experiences with “winter” onto the biblical text. It is assumed that December is freezing cold because it is freezing cold in New York, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Abilene, TX, etc. I have written on the dangers of assumptions here: Assumptions: What We Simply Assume often Hides the Truth.

It is easy but very dangerous to simply ignore the Grand Canyon that separates modern American disciples from the biblical text. See also Evel Knievel, the Grand Canyon & Us: The Strange and Deep Gulf to the Bible.

A little bit of research on the historical setting (geography and climate certainly are part of the historical setting of Scripture) reveals that Israel has a Mediterranean climate. Except for the amount of rain, we need to see the weather in Israel as far more like Florida. Snow is very rare in Israel, just like in San Francisco. It happens once in a blue moon (Jerusalem gets snow every three to four years and will receive “flurries” about twice a “winter.”)

Israel does not have “four seasons” as North American Christians think of “winter, spring, summer and fall.” It has a long warm summer and short wetter and cooler winter. The average temperature in Bethlehem in the “winter” is 56 degrees in the day and dips down to an average of 47 at night. These numbers are almost uniform for January thru February. The classic Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith puts it this way.

[T]he cold of winter seldom falls to freezing-point; February is the coldest month, with a mean temperature of 46 [for a low, BV] degrees … After the rains there is a fall in November to about 60 degrees, and in December to 52” (p. 67).

Other resources to examine are Dennis Baly’s outstanding work Geography of the Bible, Revised and Expanded, which devotes chapters 4 and 5 (pp. 43-68 to the “seasons” and climate of Israel).

Today, December 17, 2019, the temperature in Bethlehem is 51 degrees, 68% humidity, with a barely noticeable breeze of 3 mph. This is hardly cold critics imagine.

After having lived in Milwaukee and Gunnison, Colorado such “winter” temps are nothing at all. In Milwaukee and Gunnison they are still in their flip flops, shorts and even tank tops at 50 degrees. Certainly not difficult for pasturing sheep.

This does not show Jesus was born on December 25. What it does show is that the objection based on weather is rooted in shaping the biblical narrative into a mirror of our experience rather than keeping it in its historical context/setting. It also highlights the fact that we need to read the Bible in its historical setting.

Blessings.

30 Nov 2019

Defending Christmas … From Christians

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Church History, Culture, Hanukkah, Sectarianism
Example of Christian Fake News Paraded on the Web

Fake News

It is not even “Thanksgiving” and misguided Christians are already rolling out the “Christmas is pagan,” “Christmas is a departure,” “Christmas is sin,” nonsense. You would think these well meaning, but misguided, disciples had suddenly joined hands with the ACLU 🙂

I love Christmas. Not every one does. (I do not necessarily love the crass commercialism in America). Indeed already this very morning, I have had three things in my Facebook feed that claim Christmas is pagan and related to the Sun/Sol (or Saturnalia). Even Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory has spouted this made up tripe.

All of this goes back to what some historians now call the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century War on Christmas, which was part of liberal Protestantism’s attempt to unhinge everything they deemed Roman Catholic by rooting it in late paganism. The same was done with “Easter.” It is easy to find a myriad of old (often blatantly sectarian) Protestant sources, especially in “restoration” circles, that regurgitate this fake news.

Modern historical scholarship (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and even atheist), however, has recognized the baselessness – and agenda driven – nature of that fake news. Frankly, I blame preacher training schools and even our colleges who do not require some basic learning in Christian history, for the continued passing on of this nonsense. C. S. Lewis once said he “pitied the man who imagined the world began with the dawn of his own consciousness.”

Pre-Black Friday Defense of Christmas

First, Paul wrote that Holy Days were both good and acceptable to God. Paul and the early church kept Holy Days. Jesus kept them all, including the “unauthorized” Hanukkah (John 10.22ff, See Jesus the Jew and Hanukkah). Paul notes that no one was/is obligated to keep them as conditions of justification. However we (he) are not only free to do so but that they are “unto the Lord“(Romans 14.6). But Paul also says these words,

Therefore do not let your good be spoken as evil” (Romans 14.16).

There are those who are not satisfied with Christian liberty. They rail against what other believers consider valuable and even “holy” . Paul spends a chapter telling us not to do that. But he also says believers do not have to sit idly by and let their freedom be attacked and spoken of as evil. And contrary to popular thinking Paul never associates days – or even food – with the “weak” in Romans 14. He never uses the word “strong” until chapter 15. (cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s, When In Romans, pp. 91-92, 107-113).

So I will defend Christmas liberty from the misguided gainsayers. In fact I grow weary of nonsense ripped off from various internet sites and memes created that contain nothing but made up stuff.

Second, Christmas did not evolve from the celebration of the Sun or Saturnalia. Constantine, much less Rome, had anything to do with origin and meaning of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, nor for that matter why December 25 became associated with the birth of the Savior. These claims were all manufactured beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries but there is no evidence to support them in the first thousand years of Christian history. Today historical scholars of all religious persuasions, and even nonbelieving ones, recognize the fallacious nature of these claims. It is sad that some would rather gainsay something than take the time to learn some basic historical facts.

It is true that the word “Christmas” is not in the Bible. But guess what the word “Bible” is not in the Bible either (the Greek word “biblio” is not simply “the Bible”). Yet, just because the English word “Christmas” was not used by early Christians (they did not speak English) does not mean that early disciples did not have an interest in the birth of Christ that has more space devoted to it than other event in Jesus’s life except his Cross. Luke 1-2 are fairly long!

It is without a doubt true that the early church placed far more emphasis on the death of Jesus and thus Pesch/Easter has been with Christianity since the very beginning. By the end of the second century, long before a Pope btw, Christians were quite interested in Jesus’s birth and by the 4th century AD two basic dates were accepted for the birth of Jesus, December 25 and January 6. These dates were not chosen because of paganism nor because of the Pope (who did not exist as people think of a pope today) but related to how redemption was understood.

There are parts of the modern traditions of Christmas that come from northern Europe and may have pagan roots but that has nothing to do with the origin and significance of the day be it Dec 25 or Jan 6. The day was arrived at by the early church because of the death of Jesus.

I celebrate the Incarnation of God as a hinge of redemptive history. I make no apologies for it.

See also:

A Doctrinal Christmas: Two Theological Gifts of Christmas

And Emmanuel: Why Christmas is Essential to Biblical Faith

Some Historical Resources

Andrew McGowan, How December 25 Became Christmas, Biblical Archaeology Review (2002) (Linked in title)

McGowan is a premier authority on early Christian worship and professor at Yale

C. P. E. Nothaft, “From Sukkot to Saturnalia: The Attack on Christmas in Sixteenth Century Chronological Scholarship,” Journal of the History of Ideas 72 (2011): 503-522

C. P. E. Nothaft, “The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research,” Church History 81 (2012): 903-911

Nothaft is professor in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College in London

Thomas Talley, “Constantine and Christmas,” Studia Liturgica 17 (1987), 191-197

Thomas Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year.

Talley is one of the foremost historians of early Christian worship.

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas

Some believers are, seemingly, under the impression that human activity does not have any significant, detrimental, impacts upon God’s creation. Because God promised that God would not destroy the world (Gen 9), they surmise that we humans cannot kill God’s property. Even though we all know of myriads of now extinct species killed off by humans. We know where there was once vast tracts of forest that are now parking lots (where are the legendary “cedars of Lebanon”). We all know of rivers and lakes that are not only unsafe for drinking, playing in but are aglow with toxic waste. But we tell ourselves this does not matter, humans do not alter the environment.

To even bring it up they claim you are being “political.” But again those who claim to follow the Bible often know very little about the Bible. So God’s prophet, Hosea, chastised Israel because they had sinned. There was “no knowledge of God” in the land. In our modern north American context we translate this as “there is no church attendance in the land” or “there is no patriotism in the land.” But this is not what it meant in Hosea’s day and is not what it means in our own.

What does the lack of knowledge of God do? Let’s see,

Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel;
for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness, no love, no knowledge of God
in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds and bloodshed follows bloodshed
.”

That certainly sounds like a society without knowledge of God doesn’t it? It sounds like a list of infractions against the Ten Words/Commandments in fact. But Hosea, inspired by the Holy Spirit, does not stop in verse 2. He states that human sin does something to God’s creation. Note carefully,

THEREFORE [v.3 is the conclusion of v.2] the land mourns,
and all the who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing

(Hosea 4.1-3)

It was not God destroying the creation, human sin was. Animals, birds, even fish are dying because there is “no knowledge of God.” The Bible speaks to this matter quite frequently (to the surprise of many). For example, Isaiah tells us that among the many crimes that God would judge the Assyrian king Sennacherib for was that he made war on those famous, but now nearly extinct, cedars of Lebanon. He “laid waste to all the nations {the people} and their lands {the dirt}).” He threatened little Judah and bragged of his destructive power. Isaiah sent a letter to Hezekiah delivering the judgement of God against him. The Lord quotes the king’s arrogant boasts, “I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses” (Isaiah 37.24).

In two texts Babylon is singled out for similar reasons. In Habakkuk 2.17, Yahweh tells the Babylonian king “for the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of the animals will terrify you.” Here Yahweh is returning to Babylon the destruction she has sown against creation. In Isaiah 14 it is the trees themselves that break out in exultation because God has destroyed their Babylonian destroyer, “the cypresses exult over you, the cedars of Lebanon, saying, ‘Since you were laid low, no one comes to cut us down.” (Isa 14.8).

Modern westerners read right over these, and similar texts. They do not register in our post-Enlightenment platonic worldview. But the Bible declares that the trees belong to the Lord (Ps 104.16f) and that humans are themselves “creatures” who are part of a community of God’s creatures.

The Bible teaches that humans most certainly impact, through their sin, the creation that belongs to God. Our interaction with creation shows our knowledge of God. And God, according to the Bible, cares a great deal about our destruction of what does not belong to us. In the last book of the Bible, the Creator God and the Messiah face the nations that rebel against divine kingship. But God’s wrath has come,

but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and
all who fear your name, both great and small,
AND FOR DESTROYING THOSE WHO DESTROY THE EARTH
” (Revelation 11.18).

Here is the thing my beloved friends. If I am a Christian (and I am talking to folks who believe in the God of the Bible), when the chips are down it does not matter if I believe or disbelieve in “global warming,” or if I believe humans impact the world. Caring for God’s creation is a matter of faithful discipleship to God. According to Genesis that is why God created us in the first place, to be gardeners. That is, we were created to care for the good creation on behalf of the Lord of Creation.

The Knowledge of God … is it in our churches?

Texts you may want to read in addition to those cited here are Genesis 1.1-2.4; Psalm 104; Joel 1-2; Colossians 1.15-21; and Romans 8.18-21.

Sometimes after the death of a loved one, a well meaning brother or sister will say “how precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”

These words are intended to be comforting. There is no malice when such has been said. The intention is good.

But it is frequently not comforting. It is even sometimes understood that death was a good or desirable thing. Now in scripture “death” is more than the moment our heart stops beating. The end of terrible pain can be a moment of grace. But in the Bible, the pain, the suffering, the decay of life is all part of the working of death in God’s good creation. It can indeed be a moment of mercy when terrible suffering ceases.

Our attempts at comforting the bereaved is not wrongheaded but a failure to understand the Psalm and death … which does not say the death of God’s people is a good thing in the sight of God and warms God’s heart.

In Psalm 116.15 we have an example of the power of tradition in English Bible translation. Psalm 116 is from first verse to last a declaration of praise from deliverance from death not a thanksgiving welcoming it. So, the Psalmist declares Yahweh heard his/her cry

O Yahweh, I pray, save my life … you delivered me from death” (vv. 1, 4, 8)

When I was brought low, he [Yahweh] saved me” (v. 6)

For you have delivered me from death” (v. 8, TNIV)

In response to God’s deliverance from death, the psalmist will offer praises and lift of the cup of salvation as in a toast to Yahweh for the bounty of life bestowed (v.12).

what shall I return to Yahweh
for all his bounty to me?

The word that is traditionally translated as “precious” in the KJV tradition and those influenced by it (including the NIV here) does not mean desirable. Had the psalmist’s death been “desirable” to Yahweh, God would not have rescued him from certain death. Had it been desirable the psalmist would not have been desperately crying to the Lord to rescue him/her from that death.

Sometimes it really does pay to check with other modern, contemporary English, translations of the Bible, especially those outside the King James family tree. Here are a few translations that capture what Psalm 116.15 actually means. I will emphasize the word …

How PAINFUL it is to the LORD
when one of his people dies!
” (Good News Translation)

The death of the devout
costs Yahweh dear
.” (Jerusalem Bible)

Costly in Yahweh’s sight
is the death of his faithful
” (New Jerusalem Bible)

The death of His faithful ones
is grievious in the LORD’s sight
” (TANAKH: New Jewish Translation of the Hebrew Bible)

The death of the LORD’s faithful
is a costly loss in his eyes
” (Common English Bible)

The death of the Psalmist, of any of God’s faithful people, is not in fact desirable to God. It is painful. It is costly. It is expensive in his sight.

There is a parallel to our text in Psalm 72. The king, as Yahweh’s vice regent, takes special care of the poor and needy. Note the words in v.14 but I will begin in v.12

he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he
REDEEMS THEIR LIFE;
THEIR LIVES ARE PRECIOUS TO HIM
” (GNT)

It is our life that is valuable to God, not our death.

In fact the Bible teaches that God hates death. Jesus came to destroy death and banish it from God’s good creation. Paul states, in fact, death is the enemy that will be destroyed (1 Cor 15.26, 54-55) and John said death would be cast into hell itself (Rev 20.14). The Resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, as the first fruit of all the human race, is God’s resounding no to death.

If you want to know what God thinks of the death of those whom he loves then look at Jesus weeping uncontrollably at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11.38-44).

Psalm 116.15 is the victim of well meaning believers, especially ministers, lifting a text out of its context (and ignoring that context) and the unfortunate retention of a translation fossil in the word “precious.”

Psalm 116 is the celebration of life that has been rescued from the clutches of the satanic power of death. It tells us, as we see in Jesus, that the death of those whom God created is painful and costly the Creator. God sheds tears over death. God hates the pain, the suffering, the decay. God delivers us from any and all death.

Psalm 116 is part of the Hallel Psalms (Pss 113-118) used in the Passover liturgy. Jesus sang Psalm 116 on the night he was betrayed. After having told the Story of salvation in the Passover and singing this hymn with the disciples (the Hallel were sung as a unit like a medley today) it may not be to difficult to understand the prayer Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus did not want to die anymore than the Psalmist did. In the death of the Son of Man – the representative of all humans – we finally see just how costly to the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.

And God refused to let death keep the Son of Man … and thus all of us.

How I look forward to the resurrection on that day when death is banished to hell.

Psalm 116 remains a comforting text, even more so. First, God has promised to deliver creation from the shackles of death. Second, God shares our pain and grief when our – and God’s – loved one succumbs to the power of death. I am thankful to know my Creator does not find our deaths desirable but comes alongside and sheds tears with us.

It is not uncommon to find learning and scholarship put down in some quarters of the church. The mantra rings out, “You do not have to be a scholar to understand the Bible.” “Scholars just mess us up.”

It may be true that one does not have to be a scholar to read the Bible in English (but there are in fact difficult things in the Bible). But it is true that God used scholars to write the Bible.

Some may be surprised that the biblical narrative is loaded with some fairly amazing and sophisticated scholars. Yes, bona fide scholars. Women and men who, in their day, were among the most educated people of their day. They were scholars with a love for the Creator God, the God of Israel. The flame of love flowed in, and through, them. They practiced the Shema by loving the Lord with their mind (Deut 6.4/Mt 22.37).

Who are they? Here is a sampling but is hardly exhaustive.

+ Moses, the Prince of Egypt is second to none in the realm of scholarship. He received a massive royal education. He had mastered all the wisdom and knowledge of Egypt. “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7.22). His humility and love for the people is equally renown.

+ Solomon, was a man endowed with thirst for knowledge. The son of the victimized Bathsheba loomed in his psyche, he begged the God of Israel to help him be a wise and just ruler. The book in the spirit of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, tells us that he pursued every avenue of wisdom and knowledge. Yes, God granted him knowledge but he also had to exercise his brain. And he did so. The sages of Israel followed Solomon’s example and were students of the knowledge and wisdom from the world around them. However, Solomon, like many, often did not live in line with wisdom.

+ Song of Song’s Woman. I belong to the ever growing crowd of folks that believe a woman wrote the Song of Songs (a female speaks about 70% of the book). Song of Songs is, hands down, the most challenging Hebrew in the Bible. This woman (or if it was a man) had an immense command of the Hebrew language. I think she is inspired by Lady Wisdom that shows up in Proverbs 1-9 and 31. Lady Wisdom does not believe that ignorance is a fruit of the Spirit. In my opinion, only Isaiah of Jerusalem and the NT’s Hebrews Preacher can rival this Woman’s sophistication in the use of language.

+ Isaiah the Prophet. Years ago (about 1992ish) I was in a Hebrew readings class with Dr. James Smith and he referred to Isaiah as “the beast.” By that he meant that Isaiah was extremely complex, and the prophet had memorized the now long lost Hebrew thesaurus! Isaiah, like Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Ezekiel, was a priest for starters. He was already trained in God’s word. But he was a master of cultural world of his day. If vocabulary is any indication of a person’s educational attainment then Isaiah was in fact a Harvard Ph.D. and editor, along with the Song of Songs woman, of the Jerusalem Unabridged Hebrew Dictionary.

+ Daniel. If there ever was a scholar on the face of this planet it was Daniel. After Nebuchadnezzar had defeated Jerusalem, he directed that the cream of the crop of leaders should be taken to Babylon. So men who were already masters of knowledge and “versed in all wisdom” (1.4-5) were to be taken to Babylon. In Babylon, Daniel was enrolled in a three year Ph.D program (1.5) where he was to master the “language and literature of the Babylonians.” So as the vision suggests later in 10.17, Daniel set his mind to master and learn all the knowledge and become skilled in even dreams (long before Freud!!). Daniel was the scholar among scholars in the book of Daniel. Yet he was humble and kind and loved God with all his heart.

+ Saul, aka Paul the apostle. I struggle with who would win a game of chess, Moses or Paul. Paul was a walking Concordance and had the Bible memorized (as most rabbis did). But Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel the renowned rabbi of his day. This is like going to Oxford or Harvard today. It’s like a physicist saying Stephen Hawking was his PhD supervisor. Paul can quote, with ease, Epimenides, Aratus, Epimenides, and Menander in the pages of the NT reveals that Saul was one educated “dude” (to quote from Ted).

+ The Hebrews Preacher. The Hebrews Preacher, like the Song of Songs Woman or Isaiah, has the most amazing Greek of the NT. His (or her) style is elevated in the same way as reading Shakespeare next to the newspaper. The Preacher has a firm grasp of Greek rhetoric and uses it brilliantly. Yet the Preacher also is the master of Jewish traditions from the Septuagint to the Maccabees and Wisdom of Solomon. Once again if Isaiah’s vocabulary is an indication of his education then so is the Hebrew’s Preacher who even makes Paul look almost common.

+ Luke the famous Doctor. Luke was a highly educated man. Scholars today debate if he was an ethnic Gentile or at least a God-fearer (or proselyte). Along with the Hebrews Preacher he has the most sophisticated Greek in the NT, a person who lived in two worlds at once, a Greek world and a Jewish world. He can write in a brilliant “biblical” manner (copying the LXX) to make his writings have a “biblical” aura about them. He is the master of historical and theological detail and can siphon echoes from Genesis to Judith to the Prayer of Manasseh.

We may be surprised by how many scholars there are in Scripture. Even the Twelve were in a three year master of divinity program with the master Rabbi himself, Jesus. And after the resurrection Rabbi Jesus took them once again through a 40 day graduate seminar in the Hebrew Bible.

These women and men were servants first and foremost of the King. Servant and knowledge were not, and are not, antitheses.

I do not ask God why he sent some brilliant women and men as his servants. I am just glad he did. Can we imagine a Bible without Moses, Solomon, Song of Songs, Saul/Paul, Hebrews and Luke-Acts?? What a different Bible it would be.

Gratitude

I am grateful for women and men who, like Daniel, have dedicated their lives to mastering the language and literature so most of us can even read the Bible in English. Every time we open an English Bible we should say a prayer of grateful thanksgiving to the Lord.

I personally have been the recipient of amazing teaching by amazing scholars. I praise God for every single one. Each one has shown me what it means to love the Lord my God with all of my heart, soul, strength and “mind.” I am a better servant of my Lord because of them.

True scholarship is simply recognizing that “I” am not sufficient in myself. That “I’ need help because what I know and have experienced is not nearly sufficient. Scholarship it would seem, by definition, confesses its inadequacy and that is why it seeks other’s input and wisdom from the “get go.”

A Pink Floyd Introduction

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re O.K.
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money, get back
I’m all right, Jack, keep your hands off of my stack.
Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set
And I think I need a Learjet

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away

(Money, by Pink Floyd from Dark Side )

The Chasm

One of the great chasms between biblical faith, the early church and contemporary north American Christianity can be summed up in just a few words: attitudes toward money, “personal” property or possessions.

Money, mammon, is indeed the great cultural, even religious, value in the western world. Money drives our attitude toward almost every ethical issue facing disciples.

I share in this chasm as much as anyone. I will share four brief vignettes.

David

David spent years collecting materials and saving up “money” for the temple. He ended up donating his personal fortune to God (1 Chr 29.3). David then asked a crucial question,

Who am I, and what is my people, that we are able to make a freewill offering?

This is actually a critical question, it reframes how we see mammon and our relation to it. David then confesses,

For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are but aliens and transients before you” (1 Chr 29.14-15).

David believes that, in reality, he has no property. He does not even own enough to offer God a freewill offering. It is already God’s.

David’s understanding pervades the Hebrew Bible. The people of God were, in reality, to regard no one as an alien because God’s people themselves are, by definition, “aliens and transients.” People who live off the generosity of another (in this case God). They owned nothing.

Acts

We find this perspective did not change in the so called New Testament. Luke tells that strange, to us, story in Acts 4. We probably have never heard a sermon on it because it is part of the “pattern” we feel free to discard. Luke tells us,

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4.32).

The language here echoes our text from 1 Chronicles 29.9. As the NRSV renders, Israel gave with a “single mind” but it is quite literally with a “single heart” or a “perfect heart.” They regarded themselves as “aliens and transients” and people who live of the generosity of another … the God of Israel.

Basil the Great

Basil, the great Church Father from what we call Turkey today, preached a sermon from Luke 12 on the Parable of the Rich Fool (12.13-21). He calls the Fool a “robber and a thief.” Why? because by keeping “his” possessions he was robbing others who had need. Here is an extended quotation. Basil understood David’s prayer and the teaching of Luke. He asks profound questions. The great preacher asked,

Tell me, what is yours? Where did you get it and bring it into the world? It is as if one has taken a seat in the theater and then drives out all who came later, thinking that what is for everyone is only for him. Rich people are like that. For having pre-empted what is common to all, they make it their own by virtue of this prior possession. If only each one would take as much as he requires to satisfy his immediate needs, and leave the rest to others who equally need it, no one would be rich — and no one would be poor.” [End Quote]

What is “mine?” Who are we that we can give? No one claimed private ownership. We are but aliens and transients. It is who we are.

Nashville Bible School Tradition

David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, founders of the Nashville Bible School “tradition” among the Churches of Christ would Amen loudly David, the images of the gathered people in Acts 4, and make Basil’s words their own.

God calls us to be rich in trusting faith and generosity that flows out of a full self consciousness that “nothing belongs to me.” We find fellowship by sharing.

If I have my needs met for today then I have enough to share with another. This sharing, Lipscomb/Harding called it “fellowship” is actually a “means of grace.” We are brought into genuine communion with Christ Jesus himself as we both emulate his actions and find him personified in the face of the needy. We share, in reality, from the family table. It is not mine but ours equally.

Conclusion

It is no wonder that we want to argue about trivia as American disciples. Those fine points cost us nothing. And we ignore, sometimes outright deny, the great themes of biblical faith and legacy of the early church because those are the things that actually call us to change, to give things up, to deny ourselves.

I admit, this is hard to do. But we have to allow the Spirit to challenge us.

Shalom.

I have not arrived. That is my beginning and ending point of this blog. I want to receive grace and mercy and I want to extend grace and mercy.

The year is 1994. I moved to Louisiana to preach for Barton Avenue, a congregation in a New Orleans metro suburb. They were good to me and my family (both my daughters were born there). It was a good place for me to begin full time preaching ministry. I did a lot of growing with those brothers and sisters. I preached on (in New Orleans!) the evils of beer (and was gently told I needed to study more and I did). We learned a lot about the Holy Spirit, prayer, and I introduced them to the Hebrew Bible. And I even spoke on prejudice occasionally.

My Naivete Exposed

I had prided myself as not “having a bigoted bone in my body.” I even said that out loud. And I condemned racism. Bluntly sometimes. I addressed issues from a Christian point of view, or so I thought.

See, I grew up in an Italian family in North Alabama. Black people were in our house on a regular basis. We had dated across the “color line” Mom and dad were sort of “progressive” on that level. I was convinced I was not a racist. But I was thoroughly socialized into the southern way of thinking. I had a Confederate battle flag bandana hanging from my truck’s mirror, I had Robert E. Lee, two swords and the Confederate battle flag emblazoned on my high school class ring. All of which just made me a good ole boy in my view (at the time).

One day a gal, not much older than me, named Alisha Pierre came to me. I liked Alisha, her father Claude and the whole family. They were kind, encouraging, loving and took care of my family. Alisha was articulate. She was very smart. And one day she stunned me. She came to me and shared some concerns with me. She was diplomatic but I was still offended to high heaven. (Alisha is black if you did not get that yet). In fact I was angry. She said to me,

“Bobby you talk about racism and you tell us racism is a sin. And you are right. But Bobby sometimes you sound like a racist.

Did you see what she said to me? “You sound like a racist!” She might as well had dropped napalm on me. I was incensed! I was extremely defensive! There was no way that “I” could sound like a racist! I love black people! How could I sound like a racist!?

She said a few other things like, “how much do you know about Black people themselves?”

I was miffed! I called my wife (of the time). She was shocked. I was shocked. I was offended! I was not a racist!!

I recall the topic that brought her to me. I had addressed a “Christian view of affirmative action” in my class. Alisha was in my class.

I thought I had told the truth. It did not take long to find out that I was ignorant as the day is long.

About the same time, maybe 1995/6, I began to teach a men’s class in the city at the Louisa St church. I had a series of conversations with Robert Birt the preacher there. He told me almost the same thing Alisha did. He put a book in my hands a book by Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower, that would forever change my life.

What I Learned? Negative Discoveries!

When Alisha had first talked to me I was not able to hear what she said. I had to defend myself rather than listen to what she actually shared with me. At first I thought she was attacking me but I knew that she was my friend. I had to overcome myself to give any credence to what she said. With love and patience from her and Robert, I made lots of “negative discoveries” (negative discovery is a phrase coined by Daniel Boorstin that refers to entire realms of knowledge that we have no idea exists).

First, I learned on every page of Before the Mayflower that I was extremely naive and one of the most uninformed persons on the planet. Alisha was correct, I knew nothing.

Second, claiming I do not have a bigoted bone in my body did not mean I didn’t have a bigoted bone buried inside me. The most insidious racism is not the KKK. It has a smile and comes in the form of supposed gentleness. Racism is not merely prejudice though they are related. I can confess freely that I hate racism. I do. But I’ve come to understand that racism is a principality and power in this world and that I have benefited from and participated, even while denying and blind to it, in the structure of racism.

Third, I learned that we white people – at least I was – extraordinarily sensitive and defensive. The cross burners were racists, not me. I had “black friends.” And thankfully I actually did (and do) have black friends and family that are not afraid to say, “Bobby, let me share with you …”

Fourth. I learned that being anti-prejudice is not the same thing as being pro-justice. In fact I had virtually no understanding of what “justice” meant. But the Bible calls me to LOVE JUSTICE. Justice is very hard.

Fifth, I learned I was wrong. I had been deceived. I learned that some of the hardest working and most qualified people ever had benefited from “affirmative action” (I also learned there had been generations of affirmative action for whites but we did not call it that). I learned I knew very little of genuine American history. I learned that other people’s experience of America has been radically different than mine. I am still growing. I learn more about myself and racism every day. I wonder if my love for justice grows equally.

I now look back on that fateful day when Alisha came to my office as one of the defining moments in my walk with God. I had many conversations with her and Robert about Before the Mayflower. I’ve read dozens of books since, hundreds of articles, and feel I’ve learned a lot. I still wake up in the morning and pray,

Lord help me have ears to hear today because I failed miserably yesterday. Lord help me to love justice today, I was too concerned with mammon yesterday. Lord help me to remember Alisha’s words and help me grow beyond my experience and my blindness. Thank you for those who love me enough to help me be like you. Amen

I probably still sound like a racist at times. I do not want to. Forgive me.

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