nameThe Way … of Espresso

Talya is off to a gun show in Phx with her boyfriend so I rode to my favorite coffee house in Tucson, Cartel Coffee (its not Starbucks), about 7:30. You can do some serious thinking with four shots of espresso pumping thru your veins 😉

Since it is the Sabbath, I thought I would offer some controversial – yet true – notions. Just blame the espresso 😉 .

Sometimes sectarian concerns can blind us. I grew up learning Acts 11.26, “the disciples were first called Christians.” It is true that this word has become THE descriptor of the followers of the Way historically.

But there is no evidence, at all, that Luke intended that to be “the name” of the followers of Jesus. In the entire book of Acts the word only occurs twice (and only three in the entire NT it is a startling fact that Paul, James, John, Jude, Hebrews never once use the term to describe anyone. Peter uses the term but not as a self-descriptor) and neither time is it used as a self-designation. It is certainly not the term Luke himself uses to describe the Jesus people.  Luke does not use “church of Christ” with a big “C” or a little “c” as either a name or descriptor of the followers of Jesus even once.  We find that name as “The Way.”

[Saul] asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way ...” (Acts 9.2)

speaking evil of the Way before the congregation ...” (Acts 19.9)

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19.23)

I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24.14)

But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off ...” (Acts 24.22)

What are People on “the Way” Called by Luke?

Luke actually uses a potpourri of terms to describe the followers of Jesus with “the Way” seeming to be the one that Paul himself latched onto. Contrary to what is so frequently assumed, Luke does not think or teach that the “church” is a different religion than that of Jesus and Israel … the church is Israel renewed. So Luke uses a bunch of terms for Israel in the Hebrew Bible/LXX to describe the followers of Jesus precisely because the followers of Jesus was Israel … or as James puts it … the House of David restored. Why did I not learn these terms? One (brothers) I did learn but did not understand where it came from. So what are these terms? Here they are … I hope you will look them up yourself to see “if it is so.”

The Brothers

“The Brothers” (hoi adelphoi) is used 25 or 26x by Luke. This is a thoroughly Jewish way of speaking about themselves used in numerous intertestamental works and Qumran. Luke reflects this in Acts where Peter addresses the crowd as “brothers” (2.29), as does Paul in Pisidian Antioch (13.26, 38). Even up to the very end in 28.21 the Jews are called “brothers.” This is such a characteristically Jewish way of talking that the NRSV simply glosses the term as “fellow Israelites” (see Acts 2.29, etc)

Luke, seemingly without apology, also applies this term to the messianic community some 23x. For example look at 9.30; 11.29; 14.2, 15.1; 18.27). Some believe that this indicates that Luke did not believe that there was a distinction yet between the “Christians” (I am using that term accommodatingly because it is not Luke’s chosen term for the followers of Jesus though he acknowledges that OTHERS, probably enemies, called the followers that) and the “Jews.” The Jews were still the people of God.

The Disciples

This is Luke’s second most used term is “hoi mathetai” or the disciples (21x). The absolute form, “the disciples” is usually used without qualification but in one instance Luke says “the disciples of the Lord” (9.1).

In Antioch the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (11.26). The verb is in the passive tense and appears to be a term applied to the disciples from the outside. One scholar writes, “little did Luke realize that this novel designation, used in scorn by the enemies of the followers of Christ, would one day eclipse the title ‘the disciples.”

The term disciples is a constant reminder that those who believe in the Christ are his personal followers. They know his presence in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The Saints

Saints, like brothers, has deep Jewish roots. In the Hebrew Bible/LXX when the band of slaves were at the foot of the Mount and entered the covenant of love they were designated a “holy nation’ (Ex. 19.5-6). The writers in the Hebrew Bible thus speak of Israel collectively as ‘the saints’ (Deut 33.3, Num 16.3, Ps 34.9, 89.6. etc). In later Jewish works the saints are the “elect” of Israel who will enjoy rewards in the messianic kingdom (Dan. 7.18-27; Psalms of Solomon 17.1; 1 Enoch 51.5, 8; 62.6, 8, etc). The Qumran community claimed the title for themselves being the “the saints of his people” (1 QM 6.6, 14.22, etc).

It seems clear that in using this loaded term for his community, Luke is claiming a theologically defined status before God. They are not “new” but they are the restored Israel.

The Church/Gathering/The Gathered People

After brethren and disciples, the term ekklesia is the next most common designation for the messianic community. It is used about 19x.

Ironically through the first four chapters of Acts Luke never “names” this group of people as “church.” They are anonymous. There is no “church” until 5.11. The believers are designated in these first chapters as

those devoting themselves with one accord to prayer

the brothers

all those being saved

the community of those who have believed” (Acts 1.14, 15; 2.1, 44, 47; 4.23, 32)

It has been argued that Luke never uses the term “church” as an equivalent to what we mean by “Christianity.” This is an accurate claim.

Luke first uses the term in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in 5.11. His next use is in 7.38 which refers to the “church” assembled before Mt Sinai (!!) as Moses delivers the torah. Significantly the people in Stephen’s speech do not listen (that is they reject) the message of Moses. Because Peter had identified Jesus with the Prophet like Moses, indeed a second Moses (3.22-23) the implication seems to be that just as Moses was with the people of Israel, the ekklesia in the wilderness, so now Jesus is with restored Israel in the eschatological age.

The People (of God)

The final collective name for believers found in Acts, I wish to look at, is ho laos (the People). This is an incredibly important term for Israel. In the Hebrew Bible/LXX it is the most exclusive designations for Israel. Luke repeatedly uses it for Israel in his Gospel and in Acts. But on two occasions he “dares” to transfer this phrase to the messianic community. In 15.14, James speaks of gentiles becoming “a people (laos) for his name” and in 18.10 we read that “the Lord” tells Paul he has many people (laos) in this city.”

These references must be associated with 3.23 where Peter, speaking to Jews, says that all those who do not recognize Jesus as the prophet like Moses ‘shall be destroyed from “the people” (laos). Just as Gentiles can be included, so ethnic Jews can be cut off (so to Paul’s olive tree in Romans).

Luke never stops using the term ho laos of the Jews however. Even as late as the last chapter of the Acts we read of this significant term being applied to them (28.17, 26, 27).

Conclusion: Embrace our Place in the Story

These are just some of the ways that Luke describes the individual followers of “The Way” (Acts 24.22, etc) … all of them connect the followers of Jesus with the people of God were read about in the “Old Testament” … another term Luke never heard of. Maybe we should embrace the words Luke uses and see ourselves in the same Story that Luke places us in … the Story of Israel.

Hurricane-Katrina-heading-right-for-New-Orleans“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. ” — Paul in Galatians 5:6

When the Hurricane Hits

Many years ago I lived in New Orleans and preached for a small congregation called Barton Avenue Church.  I have always thanked God that that was my first full time ministry.  I could not have had a more caring and gracious group of people to share my life with.  Both of my girls were born there.

When Hurricane Katrina smashed into that city, I prayed. I watched in horror the pictures of streets I had walked completely underwater.  Neighborhoods I had broke bread in simply gone. The damage was well over two hundred billion dollars, making Katrina the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

The images from the Gulf Coast highlighted the destructive nature of hurricanes. I suppose the images haunted me because I had a connection to that place. One picture in particular captured the crises of has remained in my mind all these years later … maybe because I have since learned that hurricanes do not always come off the Gulf of Mexico into cities but from life into our personal world.

The picture was a woman being evacuated from her home, clutching a single cardboard box. Imagine, a lifetime of collecting, building, acquiring–and in a moment of crises you are forced to choose what really counts. What do you think she carried in that box? What would you have placed in that box?

The Hurricane of Fellowship at the Lord’s Table

Over nineteen-hundred years ago the apostle Paul sent a letter to the churches of Galatia which could be characterized as a spiritual hurricane. It is a letter of swirling emotion and pounding conviction.  The letter is not an attack upon Jewish legalism as I once so ignorantly imagined. However, the letter raises some of the most fundamental and far-reaching questions that can be raised within Christianity:

“Will the Christian sect differ from other Jewish sects [i. e. Essenes or Pharisees] only in the recognition of the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth?”


Must men and women from every nation and religion enter into a saving relationship with the Christ through the hallway of circumcision?”

Those who differed from Paul accepted the fact that Jesus was the door to the Father, but they also believed circumcision was the door leading to Jesus. Paul’s letter was an effort to teach the believers what matters and what doesn’t. No law or works can lead to salvation.

We cannot assume, as has been so frequently done in the past, that the false teachers in Galatia were, by definition, Jewish legalists.  Paul states quite clearly that Jews knew that a human could never be justified by obedience to the law. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2.15-16)

The problem in Antioch was Table Fellowship.  What kind of Table Fellowship does Paul have in mind?  He is not talking about eating at the local McDonald’s.  Paul can only be talking about the Lord’s Supper or the Agape Feast (which in the first century these were identical).  Some brothers refused to sit and commune at the Lord’s Table because the other person sitting did not measure up to a certain doctrinal standard of purity.  So Peter, Barnabas, others decided, in essence, to have a separate Lord’s Supper!

As diverse as Creation. United in Fellowship of the Mission

As diverse as Creation. United in Fellowship of the Mission

Paul exploded!!

As we shall see Paul could care less, when the chips were down, if you are circumcised or not.  But whether you were or not you could not let that separate you from Table Fellowship with God’s family which is very picture of the new creation!!  As Richard Hays has shown the issue of “justification” here in Galatians is directly connected to what it takes for Jews and Gentiles to be able to sit in communion. Circumcision or no circumcision could undo the unity of God’s people that the Table both demands and proclaims. If your position led you to withdraw from the Table in which your brothers and sisters sit then, Paul declares, you are no longer walking according to the Gospel.

The differences between Paul and the “Judaizing” teachers (whether Jewish or Gentile) came to a head over the practice of circumcising Gentiles. It was the subject of more debates and the cause of more bitterness than any other in the early church. It divided the early Christian congregations into warring camps. The prominence of this dispute can be seen in the number of times the ward is found in the NT (the verb is used 17x and the noun is used 36x, 31 of which are in Paul’s writings, the antonym is used 20x, 19 of which are found in Paul’s writings).

According to Gal. 2: 7-8 the Jewish Christians were closely aligned with Peter and the Gentile Christians were closely aligned with Paul. The tension between these two groups is vividly portrayed, though sometimes we overlook it:

– at the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:45)

– at Peter’s return to Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-3)

– In Antioch and at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15: 1-2, 5-6)

– in Antioch shortly before the Jerusalem conference (Gal. 2: 11-13)

– in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor. 7: 18-20)

– in Paul’s Roman correspondence (Rom. 14: 1-6, 17, 19; 15:1, 7)

That’s Not Doctrine? or Is it?

But I can hear the objection, “Yes, Bobby, I see what you are saying about circumcision and dietary laws and holy days, but what about doctrinal issues?”

But we just don’t understand how strongly DOCTRINAL these ancient issues were! First the Jewish Christian could point to `Book, Chapter, and Verse.’ It was a matter of faith to him or her! The Bible said to do it.

Jews could use Paul’s own argument on him, he argued that Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised because the promise was made to Abraham long before the Law was given. The Jews could say that means we have to keep circumcision because circumcision itself was the mark of God’s promise to Abraham independent the Law of Moses (Gen. 17: 9-14). Circumcision was THE distinctive mark of God’s people, this was the heart of God’s covenant with Israel.

Much Jewish blood was spilt over this issue because they choose to follow God instead of culture. Between 176-163 B.C. , the Jews were forbidden to circumcise their children. The punishment for disobedience was death for both mother and the child! In the Deuterocanonical book of 1 Maccabees we are told:

According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mother’s necks. But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die! (1 Maccabees 1: 60-63)

This issue that had the early church in a strangle hold was a life and death DOCTRINAL issue for Jews. We in the modern church fail to realize the gut wrenching trauma that many Jewish Christians felt. Once we realize the nature of this issue we can see how it speaks to our issues of today.

Carl Ketcherside

Carl Ketcherside

A Lesson from Carl Ketcherside Might Help

Paul’s assertion is Gal. 5:6, quoted above, throws same badly needed light on the darkness we find today within the Churches of Christ. We can learn how to handle disputes which plague the church by comparing the value of faith with the destructive nature of issues. Circumcision is no longer an issue facing the church. It seems quaint that it could have been an issue from our modern perspective, but it divided believers. It was displaced by other issues which have also been relegated to the dusty annuals of history where the follies of succeeding generations are recorded.

Today, we are confronted with new issues which have supplanted the old, and which seem as grave and important to us as did the others in times past. A brother, who I don’t always agree with myself, once wrote some very wise words about our folly:

“We are always getting caught on the ‘either-or’ hook, ‘Either circumcision or uncircumcision. ‘ We say a thing has to be either right or wrong. What we overlook is the tact that regardless of which it is, it still may be relatively unimportant, and have no effect whatsoever on our relationship to God, and should have none on our relationship to each other. Future generations will see this and wonder at our childishness even while they fight over matters as trivial.

All truth is equally true but not all truth is equally important. So all error is equally error, but not all error is equally important… It is not true that everything in the Bible is equally valuable to know. It is not nearly so important to know that Methuselah died at the age of 969 years as to know that Jesus died far our sins. Paul wrote that he left his overcoat with Carpus but that is not so valuable t to know as that “the Lord’s servant must not be a man of strife; he must be kind to all, ready and able to teach. “

There are some things which have no real validity in Christ Jesus. The essential thing is to be in Christ. A man might be circumcised, or he might not be, but whether he was or not did not affect his state in the Lord. To be in Christ is to lift us above a lot of things and place us on a wholly different plane…. It is certain that most of the things about which we have wrangled and travailed have no eternal significance. They are all transcended by our tremendous adoption into grace through the new birth.” (W. Carl Ketcherside, “The Priority Value” Mission Messenger, vol 31 #12 December 1969, p.189).

Why have we allowed issues of our day to gain such importance in our thinking? What Counts? What MUST you have in your spiritual cardboard box like that woman after the hurricane?

If Paul were writing to our fractured fellowship of today what would he say? Based on Galatians 5:6, I think Paul would confront us with a comparison between faith and issues. Me would say that in Christ everything changes. Those issues which seem so urgent and important are shown to be of no value, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love! Why aren’t issues important in light of faith? Three reasons stand behind this text:

Faith is Permanent, Issues are Temporary

Paul teaches the truthfulness of the first part of this proposition in 1 Cor. 13:13. The truthfulness of the second part of this proposition is easily documented. Mack Lynn states that the total number of churches of Christ in the U.S. stands slightly above 13,000. About 3,400 or one-fourth of these congregations are distinguished by some doctrinal issue which keeps them separated (or Distinct!) from the larger group. That is they have gone and formed their own separate communion table like Peter and his associates.

The issues change with the times, major issues that have divided us in the past include:

1875-1890 Rebaptism, card-playing, dancing, going to the theater, reading fiction, and going to baseball games

1890-1910  instrumental music, blue laws (Sabbath question), use of tobacco, pacifism, role of women, role of the Holy Spirit

1910-1940 premillennialism, use of prepared Sunday school literature (i.e. Gospel Advocate Quarterly), congregational autonomy

1940-1960 non-institutionalism, non-class, kitchens in the church building, one-cup, and mutual edification

1960-1985 bible translations, Holy Spirit, pacifism, marriage, divorce and remarriage

1985-2016 authority of elders, rebaptism, hermeneutics, women’s role, worship styles

None of these issues stay around, but they come and go.  They are recycled. Faith is permanent though.

Faith allows for Diversity leading to Unity, Issues demand Conformity leading to Division

The only type of unity the Bible knows as unity in diversity, though some will deny this vehemently. Remember Romans 14-15? The question is raised about who is the weak brother and who is the strong. That depends on where you start from.

A sectarian or liberal is one who has what we oppose, and an anti, or legalist is one who opposes what we have! This is how it is in our brotherhood. We are to look like Christ, not clones of each other. The Gospel transcends every ethnic, social, political, economic, and cultural wall ever devised by humanity.

Faith enables us to Remain in Christ, Issues lead us Away from Christ

Look at the issues the Jewish leaders attempted to debate with Jesus: Sabbath ­keeping, fasting, and hand washing (Mt. 15:1-3, 8-9). They were so caught up in issues that they missed recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, what a tragedy (cf. Jn. 5:39-40).

In the same way, Paul was not seeking to establish a theological base, nor arguing against one which was established. He was simply showing that the big issue of the day was without any value in Christ, and if it kept you from sitting at the Table with God’s family then you have walked contrary to the Gospel. Rather the one thing that really counts is FAITH EXPRESSING ITSELF IN LOVE.

If Paul were writing directly to our situation, I believe he would say:

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in clapping or in refusing to clap, but it is faith expressing itself through love.

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in using song books or in using power point, but it is faith expressing itself through love.

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in using the KJV or in the NIV, but it is in faith expressing itself through love.

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in holding an amillennial view or a premillennial view, but it is faith expressing itself through love.

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in singing Stamps-Baxter songs or in singing Newsboys songs, but it is faith expressing itself through love.

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in N. T. Wright or John Piper but it is faith expressing itself through love.

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in Pepperdine Bible Lectures or Gospel Advocate/Spiritual Sword but it is faith expressing itself through love.

– In Christ Jesus there is no value in all the issues we get emotionally worked up over but it is faith expressing itself in love.

Much of our heritage in the Stone-Campbell Movement has stressed unity, love and patience in the face of difference.  It has also cautioned about swallowing gnats and camels (see my blog Unity, Freedom of Inquiry and Humility … Of Gnat and Camel Swallowing and Who is Sound? A Thought from 1916)


The congregations that survive and thrive here at the beginning of the 21st century will be centered on Jesus Christ and not on issues! They will be lead by men and women who know the difference between faith and issues, wise leaders, who will gently but firmly admonish those who would cause dissension and division by exalting issues to a level of idolatry when they cause us to leave the Table of New Creation.

In Gal. 5:7 & 15, Paul confronts us with a question and a warning:

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you, and kept you from obeying the truth ?… If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Unity consists in our faith and loyalty to Christ.  It will never consist in our agreement even upon issues that we are zealously passionate about.

Paul has a word for us.  Hurricane Galatians has hit … what is in your cardboard box??

psalmsBeyond Importance

Even if modern Restorationist/Evangelical disciples tend to ignore the Book of Psalms (like the rest of the Hebrew Bible) it is difficult to exaggerate its importance to Jews of the Second Temple period.  This includes Jews of all stripes: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Jesus himself.

For example, the Psalms dominate the biblical manuscript treasure found at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) with thirty-nine separate manuscripts found (for comparison the next closest are Deuteronomy with thirty-one manuscripts and Isaiah with twenty-two). This ratio is matched pretty well in the New Testament writings themselves.

The Psalms are so important in Jesus’s life and teaching that N. T. Wright has called the Gospel “the Psalm soaked gospel.” Any disciple of Jesus must become a student of the Psalms just as he was because the tune Jesus sang was already playing in the liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Just a single example from the most fundamental of all Jesus’s teachings, the kingdom of God.  See my blog: The Psalms, The Reign of God, and Jesus the Messiah.

Psalms and Liturgy in the Second Temple

My interest in this blog is not necessarily the temple as ancient Israel experienced it though that is a vital question in itself.  Rather our question is how did Jews, Jesus and those who followed Jesus experienced the Psalms.  There is likely going to be some overlap but also some differences.

Among our earliest window into the temple liturgy is from Ben Sira who flourished about 200 BC. His writing was later translated into Greek and became part of the Septuagint and was recognized as Scripture by many in the ancient world.  Either way his work is of immense importance as a witness to the faith of God’s people.  Ben Sira shared the opinion of most ancient Jews that worship in the temple was arranged by King David who was also a prophet.

[David] established harp-singers before the altar, also to make sweet melodies with their ringing sounds. He gave dignity at the feasts, and he arranged seasons until completion. When they were praising his holy name, and from early morning the holy precinct was resounding” (Sirach 47.9-10).

Later describing the worship the Sage wrote, “And the harp-singers sang praises with their voices, a melody was made sweet with a full tone” (Sirach 50.18).

Years later after the desolation of abomination was set up in the Temple by Antiochus IV, the temple was recaptured and rededicated to God.  It became a time of great worship to the Lord.  We read in 1 and 2 Maccabees

At the very season and on the very day that the gentiles had profaned it [temple], it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals” (1 Macc. 4.54)

They offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year” (2 Macc. 10.7-8)

Offering a sacrifice of praise was an integral part of worship in the Temple whether in daily worship or on special occasions.

What a wonderful image ... Jesus dancing

What a wonderful image … Jesus dancing

Daily Psalms in the Temple

Jesus frequented the Temple.  Luke tells us that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover “every year” (2.41-42).

The Gospel of John spreads Jesus’s ministry over a three year period integrating various pilgrimages to the Temple into his narrative.  We Gentiles often read right over this material failing to recognize how John uses the Old Testament liturgical calendar to tell the story of Jesus.

In addition to the Passover, John says Jesus attended all the major festivals of liturgical calendar. John does not name the festival in 5.1, but since ancient times it has been identified as Weeks/Pentecost; Jesus attends the Festival of Tabernacles in John 7-8 (7.2, 14, 37); Jesus attends the Festival of Hanukkah/Lights in John 10 (10.22ff).

Besides being in the Temple for the festivals, the Gospels depict Jesus doing a great deal of his teaching in the temple like other rabbis would have done.  So whether it was for the festivals or daily routine Jesus and his disciples would have received a considerable immersion in the Psalms as we shall see.

The tradition of having daily Psalms did not begin with St. Benedict by any stretch of the imagination.  Daily Psalms were sung, chanted and prayed in the Temple itself.  One of the oldest tractates in the Mishnah is called The Tamid and it concerns the Temple.  In Tamid 7.5 we read the following on the Psalms.

The song that the Levites would recite int he Temple: on the first day they would recite, ‘to Yhwh is the earth and its fullness, the world and its inhabitants;’ on the second [day], they would recited, ‘Yhwh is great and much to be praised, in the city of our God, his holy mountain;’” (etc)

In typical Jewish fashion only the first line of the Psalm is quoted in the text as it goes through the days of the week (the rabbis believed you had the Psalter memorized and it was unnecessary to quote the entire passage for illustrative purposes).  So from Tamid 7 we learn the following Psalms were used on different days of the week.

Day 1, Sunday, Psalm 24
Day 2, Monday, Psalm 48
Day 3, Tuesday, Psalm 82
Day 4, Wednesday, Psalm 94
Day 5, Thursday, Psalm 81
Day 6, Friday, Psalm 93
Sabbath, Psalm 92

This information is corroborated from the Septuagint which assigns specific days to five of the seven Psalms listed above

Day 1, Psalm 24 (LXX Ps 23, the numbering of the LXX is one off from the Hebrew, the Psalms are identical)
Day 2, Psalm 48 (LXX Ps 47)
Day 4, Psalm 94 (LXX Ps 93)
Day 6, Psalm 93 (LXX Ps 92)
Sabbath, Psalm 92 (LXX Ps 91)

Based on the evidence, most scholars believe we have an accurate picture of the daily Psalm singing in the Temple that Jesus and his disciples worshiped in.  A brief examination of these Psalms reveals why these were deemed particularly appropriate for such frequent use in the communal worship of God’s people.  I will quote a sampling that seems to drive home the vital Spiritual truth to be impressed upon all those entering the Temple and embraced by all who wish to worship the Holy One in Spirit and Truth.

Psalm 24: “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? And Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart ...”

Psalm 48: “The LORD is great and greatly to be praised. In the city of our God, his holy mountain … We envision, O God, your kindness, In the midst of your temple, As is your name, O God, so is your praise, Unto the ends of the earth ...”

Psalm 93: “Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore.”

Psalm 92: “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, Like a cedar in Lebanon he shall grow strong. They are planted in the house of the LORD; and they flourish in the courts of our God.

The daily Psalms are not the only Psalms used in the Temple by any means.  All the Psalms were used in the Temple however these ones Jesus, the disciples and the Way that gathered in the Temple heard these to the point they became chiseled on the hearts of God’s people.

Psalms in the Temple for Different Festivals

Various Psalms were used specifically in relation to certain of the festivals in Jesus’s day.  Mishnah Middot 2.5 tells us regarding the Songs of Ascent (Pss 120-134),

And there were fifteen steps that went up from its [Court of Women] midst to the court of Israel, corresponding to the fifteen Songs of Ascent that are in Psalms [=book of], on which the Levites would stand in song.”

We are not told at this point in the Mishnah when these Songs of Ascent were song.  As we will learn it was on multiple occasions.  In describing the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) we read

Pious and distinguished men would dance before them with torches, and they would recite hymns and words of exaltation before them. And the Levites accompanied them with harps, lyres, cymbals and musical instruments without number–on the fifteen steps that go down from the Court of Israel to the Court of Women, on which the Levites would stand and would recite in song” (Sukkot 5.4).

The Songs of Ascent were deemed particularly appropriate for the Festival of Booths. Large numbers of pilgrims would come from all over the known world on this great festival to the Lord.  Imagine being a pilgrim from Anatolia, or Nazareth, and you sang these words as part of the festive throng.

Woe is me, that I reside in Meshech [= Anatolia/Turkey!], That I dwell amongs the tents of Kedar [=Arabia] … too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace …” (Ps 120.5)

The passage in the Mishnah reminds us that it was not, as is sometimes asserted, only the Levites that sang (some are concerned about this because of the instruments!).  At the very least during Sukkot, Israelites would sing and dance while the Levites accompanied the joyous praise with “instruments without number.”

Psalm117The Hallel Psalms

The Hallel Psalms are a collection of Psalms that are dominated by the word “praise.”  These are Psalms 113-118.  The Mishnah tells us that when individual Jews brought their sacrifice to the temple “they read/recited the Hallel” (Pesahim 5.7).

The Hallel Psalms were incorporated into the Passover liturgy as well and provides the Scriptural context, along with the Exodus, for the table Jesus and his disciples reclined at for the Last Supper. Or as Matthew states “after they sang a hymn” (Mt 26.30 =the Hallel) Jesus and the disciples followed regular Jewish practice to spend time in prayer.  It can be an interesting experience to read the Pss 113-118 among the gathered saints with the Wine and the Bread on the Table.

Final Thoughts: Worship and Heaven

As we began this blog I claimed that it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Psalms to Jews of Jesus’s day.  I think that is also true of Jesus and the early church.  The more we immerse ourselves in the Hebrew Bible in particular and the Psalms in particular the richer the more we see Jesus as he was and is.

One last important thought needs to be recognized.  Among the Dead Sea Scrolls a document was discovered that has been called Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (parts of several mss survive, 4Q400-407; 11Q17 and at Masada).  What this document reveals is what Geza Vermes called “the simultaneity of heavenly and earthly worship” (Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 321). That is, when worshipers are gathered together to offer sacrifice and sing the Psalms the angels in heaven simultaneously joined in the worship.  That is worship on earth was the mirror image of that in heaven! This by the way is exactly what we see in the Book of Revelation.  Heavenly worship is the counterpart to earthly worship and it is united in the Psalms. Now if we believed this we probably would be as excited about the Psalter as Jesus and his contemporaries were.

This short blog has attempted to provide a window into what Jesus, Peter, James, Paul and the thousands of disciples that gathered in the temple daily experienced.  If we “went to church” with Peter and John that day in Acts 3.1f, we just might be in for a pretty big shock that it does not look or sound anything like a contemporary gathering in north American Churches of Christ … or Baptists for that matter …

Jesus sang the Psalms.  Jesus danced the Psalms.  Jesus prayed the Psalms.  The early Way did too.  I hope you fall in love with them.

Helpful Resources for Studying the Psalms in the World of Jesus

William Holliday, A Cloud of Witnesses: The Psalms Through Three-Thousand Years

Gary Rendsburg, “The Psalms as Hymns in the Temple of Jerusalem,” in Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archeological Explorations, ed. James H. Charlesworth, (Fortress Press, 2014), 95-122

Peter Pringle's reconstruction of the "Lyre of Megiddo" that dates to the time of David.

Peter Pringle’s reconstruction of the “Lyre of Megiddo” that dates to the time of David.

I have hesitated to post this material for fear of misunderstanding. However we have a hard time dealing with the Bible correctly and maintaining unity when we suffer from distortions of the truth.  In the spirit of Psalm 133, I offer this.

Preliminary Quotes

“I would prefer to have an organ, or a fashionable choir as a means of my worship than the words of a hymn set to the notes of a tune on which to fix my eyes while engaged in the worship of God.” (Alexander Campbell, “The Christian Psalmist,” Millennial Harbinger [March 1847], 179)

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me … so they may be one as we are one” (Jesus, John 17.20-23)

“Accept those whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters … Who are you to judge another man’s servant … Therefore stop passing judgment on one another” (Paul, Romans 14.1, 4, 13)

A Word Before We Begin about Caricatures and the Hebrew Bible

I have no interest in being an apologist for instrumental music. But I do have an interest in correctly representing the Bible. And I am concerned that some through their zeal have not done so. I interested in this matter also because of my interest in the unity of the family of God.

ChristianUnity_thumbA couple of things I want to address and all have to do with the “Old Testament.” There are those who make the claim that: IM is pure entertainment (this is negative) without for a second thinking about how this reflects on the character of God. Can one be edified by instrumental music though without it being pejoratively “entertainment?” De we apply the same rule to preaching? ; 2) those who are so biblically illiterate that they claim that instruments were introduced by David and never were commanded by God. This is not true but even if it were the NT itself declares that David was himself a prophet!!! and 3) that playing an instrument itself (no singing) cannot either be worship to God or give glory to God.  And finally the assumed implication by some that Israel did not worship in “Spirit and Truth,” a notion that is difficult to justify from either Testament (Jesus seems to think the Jews were correct in John 4!)

God has Always Demanded Pure Worship

God has always demanded holy & pure worship. This is not new in the “NT.” Worship in the Hebrew Bible is not “carnal” unless one dares to imagine God commanded the Israelites to participate in something less than holy and Spiritual. If you do not believe this read the book of Leviticus. The Jews did in fact worship “in truth” as Jesus himself informed the woman at the well in John 4.22, “you Samaritans worship what you do not know; WE worship what we do know; for salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus clearly endorses Jewish worship right here. God has always called for worshipers with clean, circumcised, hearts and pure motives. He tells the Israelites to “circumcise your hearts” (Deut 10.16; Jer 4.4; etc). All Israelites were called to offer worship through pure hearts and clean holy lives, one demands the other.  Psalm 15 and Psalm 24, among other texts, address this head on.

spiritandtruthO YHWH, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly and do what is right,
and speak truthfulness out of their heart … (15.1-2, BV)

Who shall ascend the hill of YHWH?
And who can enter the sacred place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false
and do not swear deceitfully …
Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob” (24.4-6, BV)

Jesus learned about Spiritual worship from the Psalms.

Therefore, when God himself told the Israelites to worship with instruments that cannot be in conflict with the demand for holy, pure, clean, Spiritual worship. A house divided cannot stand.

God did not command the Israelites to do that which was sinful, self-serving, “carnal,” and he certainly did not tell them to engage in “entertainment” but the Hebrew Bible does know that worship in the Presence of the Lord is a privilege accompanied by great joy. As a study of the Psalms will show, worship in Israel was an expression of the Shema (Deut 6.4) in 3D: expressing love for God with heart, soul, and strength.  Nothing is withheld from God.

Misrepresenting the Spirit’s Word

It is surprising to me how many with zeal for a certain “position”  on IM make some astonishing claims in regard to the subject.  In a recent conversation with me, a brother told he had looked up every reference to instruments and had not found a single one that said they were commanded by God.

Psalm-150My response to my brother was, what Bible where you reading? Shocking as it is to some who do not know the Scriptures, instrumental music was associated with Israel’s worship from the very beginning of the Exodus (before the giving of the Law), commanded by God in the Law of Moses itself. The Bible does not teach that David introduced instruments to Israel’s worship in the Hebrew Bible.

The moment of Israel’s salvation by grace was the Exodus. Both the prophet Moses and the prophet Miriam led Israel in worship to celebrate the wonder of that salvation. The prophet Miriam grabbed a “tambourine” and led a huge worship service singing on that instrument songs “to the LORD” (Exodus 15.20-21).

Instrumental music was integral to Israel’s sacrificial worship from the beginning. Numbers 10 records God’s own words (these would be in red letters if we did that in the OT) where he commands the use of trumpets as part of sacrifices, all sacrifices and worship festivals. Did not the Lord God say these words “on your days of rejoicing, at your appointed festivals, and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings [=worship] and over your shalom offerings; they shall serve as a memorial before the LORD your God: I am the LORD your God” (Num 10.10, see vv 1-10).

Of all the texts so grossly abused and outright misrepresented on this score is the eighth century prophet Amos. A recent blog on instruments in the Old Testament argues that through Amos, God rebuked unauthorized.  The writer claimed that instrumental music was rejected in Israel by Amos because it was unauthorized.  The blog quotes both chapter 5 and 6 of Amos:

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen” (Amos 5:22-23).

Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music” (Amos 6:4-5).

I wonder why some would so ignore the context of a passage.  Neither of these texts reject instruments any more than they do sacrifice or singing itself. The phrase “like David who improvise on instruments of music,” like the rest of the text from verse 1 to verse 7 has nothing to do with worship per se at all.  Amos is attacking the avarice of the rich and the callous, self-indulgent, lifestyle of the powerful as they abuse the poor.  This a classic example of ripping a text from its context to suit an already established agenda.  Why is it that the entire oracle is not quoted from Amos? Why stop at v.5 and ignore v.1? Note the language in this oracle

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure in Mount Samaria,
the notable people of the foremost nation … You who lounge on beds of ivory, and lounge
on their couches, and eat lambs from the stall, who sing songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine by the bowlful, and
anoint themselves with the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph …
and your feasting and revelry shall pass away

The fact that these rich people are improvising on instruments attests to their leisurely and opulent lifestyle.  But it is much safer to imagine that Amos is castigating them for instrumental music in worship (which is not even on the radar screen in the oracle) than to embrace the actual justice issue of Amos in this text.

There is no text in Amos where the prophet rejects instrumental music because it is instrumental music.  Amos is, however, a classic text that rejects worship rituals divorced from discipleship especially in the form of justice and mercy. In the context of our oracle in chapter 5 we read,

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD,the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5.14-15)

Immediately after vv. 23-24, quoted above, that rejects not instruments but the entire liturgical service of the rich and powerful who crush the poor and needy while they sing praise to the God of the Exodus!  The very next line in v.25 thunders,

But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness an everflowing stream.

Amos is a blistering attack upon the vain notion of that God’s people can separate ethics, justice and mercy from proper worship forms.  Amos does not, anywhere, attack the form if Israel’s worship.  He attacks it because the people offering it have become little Pharaoh’s toward the least of these.  To claim that Amos rejected Israel’s worship because it had instruments is not supported by the text.

The Prophet David’s Role and the Temple

David did not “introduce” instrumental music to Israel’s worship. Only the most uninformed person can claim that (or they are just being deceptive). But what David did do, was by command of God himself. He arranged the music for the temple. That is what David did, he did not introduce instruments because they had been used since God gave the Law to Moses himself. The inspired historian wrote

he stationed Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet; for THE COMMANDMENT WAS FROM THE LORD THROUGH HIS PROPHETS {this btw places David with Gad and Nathan as prophets}(2 Chronicles 29.25-26).

David did not act on his own. David did not introduce instruments. David simply arranged the service of the temple. But all this was “from the Lord.”

Chronicles is loaded with interest in the Temple and its worship including that of music (whole books have been written on this interest in OT scholarship). But before the temple was built, David placed the Ark in a “Tent” at the future site of the Temple.

David, himself, offered sacrifices at this occasion and the future musicians took up their holy tasks. First Chronicles 16 the entire chapter should be read. The harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets were all arranged (vv.4-6) and then Asaph who was the chief and head of the cymbals section led the people of Israel in a praise service (vv. 7-36; you might want to compare this text with Pss 105 & 96).

When Solomon led the dedication worship service we see a parallel celebration to David’s. This story takes up almost the whole of 2 Chronicles 5-7. When we examine the text we see again,

the Levitical singers … with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with a hundred and twenty priests who were trumpeters {thats a lot of trumpets!!} and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments … the house of the Lord was filled with a cloud” (2 Chronicles 5.12-13; 7.1-2).

Ps 81Psalms and the Commandment of the Lord

The Bible in fact does not give David the credit for making such an innovation in the worship of God. The Book of Psalms is inspired by God and it has this to say about the authority of instruments. Psalm 81 reads,

Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, as the full moon, on our festal day. FOR IT IS A STATURE FOR ISRAEL AN ORDINANCE OF THE GOD OF JACOB. He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt.” (vv 1-5).

Several things are clear in this text: 1) the text clearly identifies the use of instruments as the commandment of God and does not mention David at all; 2) the text places the authority of instruments all the way back to the Exodus as pointed out above; 3) for those who are biblically in tune know this is a clear reference back to God’s command to Moses in Numbers 10.

Revelation and the Hebrew Bible

The Book of Revelation is hardly silent on the matter of instrumental music. I think there are two reasons Churches of Christ have had an allergy to Revelation: 1) the Premillennial controversy of the early and mid-20th century and 2) it shows saints praising God with instruments no less than three times. Brethren are defensive on both counts.

In Revelation 5.8-10 we read “when he had taken down the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints. They sang a new song …

Then in Rev 14.2-3 we read “I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sang a new song before the throne …

And then over in 15.2-3. “…those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands, And they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God and the song of the Lamb …”

It has always been interesting to watch those who do their best to explain these texts away: “That is in heaven and not how the church is to worship!” For all the anger we have had towards one another and the splits of the church we should at least be able to admit that no one would be singing the Song of Moses and the Lamb in heaven if God did not like it!!

Even if we grant that the harps are “symbolic,” is it or is not the case that Revelation is symbolizing Christian worship?? We still have to explain why John colors Christian worship in Revelation with the imagery of the Temple, including instruments, if such was inconceivable to him and his readers.

Can an Instrument Itself be a Vehicle of Worship?

According to 1 Chronicles 23.5 an instrument can itself, by being played, can be praise to the Lord. The Chronicler speaks of David’s arrangements (as noted above) of the Levites who “shall offer praises to the LORD with instruments which I have made for praise” (1 Chron 23.5, RSV). The instrument was created as a vehicle for the glory of God.

Our divisions are in direct opposition to the prayer of Jesus and the commands of the Spirit. Somethings are adiaphora ...

Our divisions are in direct opposition to the prayer of Jesus and the commands of the Spirit. Somethings are adiaphora …

Not Apologetics but Unity

Once again I am not being an apologist for instrumental music. I am however critiquing fallacious and unbiblical arguments that are used to justify the division of God’s blood bought family.

We do not have to misrepresent the Bible because we are afraid of “their” position. We should have zeal that is according to knowledge and wisdom. God did in fact command instrumental music. God did in fact command it in the Law. As part of sacrificial worship it most certainly was part of every sacrifice that took place in the temple … which means that when Paul went to offer his sacrifice (Acts 21.17-26; 24.17) he did in fact worship with instruments.

The apostles James and Paul recognized the validity of liturgical diversity in the book of Acts. The Jerusalem church, under apostolic direction, worshiped in the Jerusalem temple for the entire NT period as far as the record is concerned.  James and Paul refused to let “style” of worship divide Jewish and Gentile branches of Christianity. Paul took a Nazarite vow and offered sacrifices in the temple to affirm this unity. Would Churches of Christ fellowship the apostle Paul if a video of him surfaced on You Tube entering the entering the temple from his ritual bath, in his prayer shawl with tassels dangling, and slaughtering an animal with the priests? Paul calls it worship (Romans 9.4; Acts 24.11, 17). James and Paul are the Holy Spirit commentary upon the words Paul had just penned prior to his actions in Romans 14 and 15.  Unity matters.

David did not introduce instruments but arranged temple worship.

Instruments were not entertainment, or “carnal,” and anyone respecting the integrity of God should cringe when they hear that even suggested!

And playing an instrument can itself be the vehicle of worship.

The Doctrine of Unity is not only inherent in the Gospel of Reconciliation but the frequent express letter of the law in the Bible.  As such it takes precedence over disputable matters.  Our obedience is measured in our maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of shalom (Ephesians 4.1-4).

There is so much strife in our world today and it is time for the church to recognize it no longer has the luxury of division over disputable matters.


SoloGreetings from sunny Alabama. For the last month I have been asked by various people about solos and special music (a singing group) being used in the “corporate” gathering of God’s people. This matter is an example of an invented issue pure and simple.

I have no axe to grind on this particular issue except to show that it is a nonsensical issue and to cause dissension over it is to assume a sectarian posture.  Many years ago I felt that singing groups/solos were quite unbiblical (just entertainment!) so I set out to prove them so (this was around 1995ish).  I read every piece of information I could get my hands on. I divided my research up into four areas of pursuit:

1) What does the Hebrew Bible say and assume on this matter?

2) What does the NT say about the matter?

3) What did the early church understand the scriptures to teach and how did they implement such?

4) What have leading lights in the Stone-Campbell Movement understand on this matter?

I published my findings in a short booklet of about 20 pages under the title “I Will Call Upon the Lord.”  My research convinced me that my previous position had been based upon ignorance and based upon prejudice.

Grammar Matters

I have read Dave Miller’s work and found it wholly unconvincing.  His argument falters (as does most others that I have seen) on the basics of Greek grammar.  There is basic confusion on the action of a reflexive and a reciprocal pronoun and the difference between the two.

Wayne Jackson, for example, says that “eautois” in Ephesians 5 (“one another”) demands congregational singing.  That is a fundamental error.  “eautois” is a reflexive and is not be confused with a reciprocal.  According to standard grammars, like Blass and Debrunner’s, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, pp. 147-148 and 150 (this is the standard grammar) says that a reflexive simply involves a mutual exchange: not necessarily the same thing or at the same time.

We see that this is quite true in a number of passages in the Greek NT that involve the reflexive: “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving EACH OTHER (eautois)” (Ephesians 4.32).  Is forgiveness to be practiced only collectively and all at the same time?  “Encourage ONE ANOTHER daily . . .” (Hebrews 3.13) Must all Christians encourage each other at the same exact time and in the same way to obey this command?  “EACH ONE should use whatever gift he has received to serve others . . .” (1 Peter 4.10)  These examples could be multiplied, but it is obvious that the reflexive does not mean everybody and all at the same time.

In Ephesians 5 the reflexive action can occur in a variety of ways.  The one singing (as in 1 Corinthians 14.26) edifies those gathered in the presence of God.  That mutuality is the reflexive action.

Kurfees, Jividen, Whiteside on Solos

Those who have a grasp of the syntax of the Greek have always recognized this.  M.C. Kurfees for example — that legendary opponent of instrumental music and author of Instrumental Music in Worship, wrote directly on this subject:

“[Paul’s] admonition for the Christians to sing in the following words: ‘Speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ (Eph. 5:19).  He uses the reflexive pronoun, ‘speaking to one another,’ or by ‘one another.’ He does not say whether this speaking in psalms and other kinds of musical compositions shall be done by all in concert or by one at a time: hence either is correct.” (M.C. Kurfees, “Is Solo Singing Permissible in the Public Worship of God?” Gospel Advocate 55 [May 15, 1913], pp. 464-465).

Along the same lines Jimmy Jividen writes in his Worship in Song,

Nothing is said as to the number or organization of singers in the ‘one another singing’ of Eph. 5: 19 and Col. 3:16.  Whether one, four or an hundred sing is incidental. Nothing more is being done than singing.  In four part harmony one might say that there are four choruses responding to one another in song.” (p. 163, see also p.52).

R. L. Whiteside was the subject of my thesis and I have read everything the man ever published that is known to exist.  Whiteside is definitely a “conservative” (nothing pejorative intended in that) but this is what he had to say when asked about the issue of solos and quartets in worship:

One definition of ‘special’ is: ‘designed for a particular purpose, occasion, or the like.’  If that is what is meant by special songs, then I am in favor of special songs . . . To the Corinthians, Paul said, ‘When ye come together each one hath a psalm’ (1 Cor. 14:26).  A solo is sometimes very effective; so also is a quartet . . .”

At this point Whiteside wants to ensure that the congregation “gets” to sing too.  He continues, “Let the congregation sing, even if a quartet has charge of the singing.”   On another occasion he says:

There does not seem to be anything wrong in singing a solo, if the singer puts his heart into the singing and sings so the people can understand what he says. But if he sings for show he should not sing the songs of Zion.”  (for ease of location these two RLW quotes can be found in Reflections, pp. 372-373 and 379)

RLW is not “promoting” these things but he clearly says they are biblical and he even says they can be edifying.  He warns of abuse — something to be heeded in all things I think.

Final Words

On the basis of the grammar of the NT, solos are in fact “authorized in worship” and our folks have recognized this in the past.  The early church, as stated before, did not sing congregationally as we experience it.  This can be demonstrated as well. In fact exclusive congregational singing is a tradition and not a command anywhere in the Bible as a whole or the New Testament in particular.  Neither of the two passages most commonly associated with singing (Eph 5 and Col 3) specify.  Thus as Jividen correctly noted, but brethren completely ignore, either is correct! Further the one text in the entire NT that actually gives a command is solo singing (1 Cor 14.26). Thus to demand what the Scripture clearly does not (exclusive congregational singing) and to forbid what the NT explicitly allows (solo singing) is the very essence of sectarianism.

Debates over solos and “special” music are simply examples of invented issues.  God’s people often have a track record of invented issues … it is zeal without knowledge.  These invented issues divert us from the real issue of unity, love, compassion, justice and mercy.

This blog started by identifying “traditions” and made up issues. Some border on the proverbial sacred cow, exclusive congregational singing is one of them.   But men who knew the Greek well enough have recognized that such things as solos and singing groups are biblical and thus never made an issue out of them.

Perhaps we can learn from their wisdom.

shavuot 2Convergence

When we open our Bibles to Acts 2 and read about a loud, violent, wind and fire on the heads of the 120; when we read about people from all over the known world gathering in the temple at that time; and when we read Peter quoting from Joel 2 about the Spirit being poured out upon men and women; sons and daughters; old and young and even male and female slaves we see a great convergence taking place.  Israelites in Luke’s day had a massive amount of information converging on a single point.  All of these motifs are “Pentecostal” themes embedded in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism that explode on the scene in Acts 2.  Rich and varied themes come together here and point to far more than the birth of the church.

Pentecost is, in essence, the declaration by God and Israel “we have a long history and we want it to continue.”  It is the REnewAL of God’s covenant at the Feast of weeks/ingathering/first fruits/Pentecost.  How is this? Sadly in a day when we are awash in Bibles many do not know the story or the structure of the biblical narrative nearly as well as those in Luke’s day that never in their lives ever owned a Bible.

Foundation of Joy in the Torah

The Torah provides several texts which direct when and where Shavuot is to be observed. It is celebrated fifty days after Passover as wheat and barley (the ingredients for beer which helps explain why some assumed the disciples were drunk btw) are harvested, as the book of Ruth depicts. Shavuot is dependent upon, and responding to, the prior act of God’s salvation of Israel by his glorious grace. The festival always looks back to the history of God’s incredible faithfulness to Israel from the call of Abraham, thru the Exodus, until “now” (more on this in a moment). God’s grace is not simply in the historical act of redemption from a terrorist regime in Egypt but is expressed in Yahweh’s loving care for all in giving them food and drink.

So Shavuot interweaves God’s providential care with his historical acts of grace.  When we gather our crops together we come before the Lord to celebrate.  So Deuteronomy 16.9-12 tells us that Shavuot is about gratitude for grace.

And you shall make the Festival of Weeks for YHWH your God, contributing a freewill offering of your hands which you shall give just as YHWH your God blesses you. And you shall rejoice before YHWH your God, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female slave and the Levite who is in your gates, and the alien/stranger/foreigner and the orphan and the widow who is among you … And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and you shall diligently observe these statutes” (Deuteronomy 16.10-12, BV; See Leviticus 23.15-21)

Freewill offerings reflect how grateful we are.  Joy is the characteristic of this festival of worship according to the Deuteronomy. Moses says we come before the Lord and “rejoice” because Israel has reason to rejoice.

The Festival is not just a gathering of men.  Instead get your sons, daughters, widow, Levites and even male and female slaves … bring them with you and celebrate. Please note that Deuteronomy specifically mentions the male and female, slave and free … people that pop up in Acts 2.

Shavuot says we have a history that reaches way back before I was born, continues into the present, and we want it to continue in the future. We are part of that Story.  As I noted in a previous post Israel did not so much as read the Bible but reenact it.

shavuot 3We are Part of the History of Redemptive Grace … Shavuot is about Us not Just Them

In the Torah we read the epic “Pentecostal” text Deuteronomy 26.1-11. In the third month we gather our family, friends, and any that will come for the pilgrimage to the Temple.  But what will we do? What will we say? On that day we come into the Presence of the Lord to confess (I paraphrase) “we have a long history! you have loved us from ages past. never was there a time you did not love us! we are here because of your faithfulness to the covenant! we are here as proof of your grace, mercy, love and your commitment to the covenant of hesed.”

This is in fact what is confessed.  Deuteronomy 26 tells us, have ears to hear! I, in the presence of the Lord and my sons, daughters, slaves and all, say “Today I declare to YHWH that I have come into the land you swore to our ancestors” (26.3).  Immediately we, not me, are connected to the sweep of the Story of God and his faithfulness from the time of Abraham.  The mere fact that we are here is proof that he has kept his promise of grace.  Then we make that astounding confession, it is the great summary of Israelite faith, in vv. 5-10,

A wandering Aramean was my father, he went down into Egypt … we were afflicted … we cried out … YHWH heard our cry and brought us out and brought us to this place … So now I bring O YHWH the first fruit of the land that you gave back to you.”

And we rejoice! We rejoice with the aliens (i.e. Ruth!). We rejoice with the slaves. We rejoice with women. We rejoice with the priests.  The covenant is not just with those in the distant past, it is with us!! God’s grace, God’s promise, God’s love is for US.

The covenant is REnewED in our time and with us. In Acts 2 everyone one of those thousands of people were coming to Jerusalem to make that confession from Deuteronomy 26.  The Festival “says” we have a history God and we want it to continue.

The Calendar Jesus followed

The Calendar Jesus followed

Yahweh Married Israel on Pentecost

A not so minor point to be made here. The covenant that God made with Israel, the awesome revelation of his Presence at Mt Sinai, and the giving of his holy word was done on what later was called Pentecost. God entered into a marriage with Israel – a covenant of love.

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai … YHWH called from the mountain, saying … You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on Eagles wings and brought you to myself … you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples ...” (Exodus 19.3-5)

Sinai is three months after the Exodus, just like Shavuot is three months after Passover. After the Bride has been liberated the Lord enters into what amounts to a marriage with Israel. The Torah was like a bridal gift and is seen as such throughout the Hebrew Bible. But God gave more than the Torah at Sinai, he gave himself!

We will note more of this in a moment but it shows up in Acts 2 and no Jew missed it.

Pentecost Was a Time for Renewing the Covenant

From the beginning, Shavuot, Pentecost, pointed to God’s long history of grace with his people combined with his daily care for the needs of his people. It pointed to the covenant. Pentecost provided Israel an opportunity to respond to God’s grace.  Free will worship.  How grateful am I? Celebration and Joy are the mood of this great festival.

Since Pentecost provided Israel with a way of responding to God’s grace in faith and joy, it became a time not just to acknowledge our standing in the covenant. Rather Shavuot became a time to renew the covenant for people that were terribly sinful and unfaithful.  Israel was just the opposite of their Lord.

Thus we see in that book no one hardly ever reads, 2 Chronicles, of a covenant REnewAL in the time of the evil king Asa.  The prophet Azariah met Asa and told him “for a long time Israel and Judah was without the true God, the teaching priest and without Torah” (2 Chronicles 15.3). After exhortation, Asa was led to repent and called all Israel and Judah to come and Renew the covenant of God’s love. So in the “third month” …aka the time for Shavuot/Pentecost … they entered into a “covenant to seek YHWH” all over again (15.10-15). As Judah took an oath on during this covenant ceremony they “rejoiced  … with all their heart, and had sought him with their whole desire, and he was found by them, and YHWH gave them rest …”(15.15).

Even greater than Asa however was the renewal of the covenant at Mt. Sinai itself.  Moses had not even descended from the mountain before Israel had tragically shattered the covenant with the assistance of Aaron.  The Golden Calf is to the history of Israel what the eating of the forbidden fruit is for all humanity … a great Fall! (Exodus 32-33). God threatened to destroy the children of Israel and fulfill his promises to Abraham through Moses himself.  As Moses interceded with Yahweh grace was given. Moses returned to the mountain to hear God reveal his name in that epic text of Exodus 34.6-7.

What we may not have remembered is that God says “I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform my marvels … for it is an awesome thing I will do with you” (34.10). The chapter relates how God has renewed his covenant mentioning both Unleavened Bread/Passover and Weeks by name (34.21-28).  Israel’s experience at Mt. Sinai was not only the giving of the marriage to Israel but also the scene of the first covenant renewal in the face of scandalous sin.

Pentecost was the time for the whole, faithless, nation to come before the LORD and make the confession of Deuteronomy 26.  We have a long history Lord, you have always been faithful and gracious before we were even born and that we are here in spite of our faithlessness, show how faithful and true you are.

God initially gave his covenant, his torah, himself on Shavuot and it became the day on which Israel hung hopes and dreams of mercy, grace, and renewal in the future just as it was for Asa.

There are many resources on Pentecost but Park's work is the most extensive exposition I know. Great discussion on the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, Jubilees, Dead Sea Scrolls and Luke/Acts

There are many resources on Pentecost but Park’s work is the most extensive exposition I know. Great discussion on the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, Jubilees, Dead Sea Scrolls and Luke/Acts

Shavuot: Great Expectations of Hope, Healing and Renewal

By the time of Jesus, and Acts 2, a lot of water had passed under the bridge.  Never once, even for a moment, was God untrue to his covenant. But sadly the same cannot be said for God’s people in either Testament. Unfaithfulness has been the single greatest recurring theme in this history of our Ancestors.  That unfaithfulness lead to the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and Exile among the nations.  One Empire after another trod over the heads of people of God.  Had the covenant been undone? Even with the promise of Haggai, and the rebuilding of the Temple, it was not always felt like God had healed “us.” Even with the Maccabees it was felt that God’s promises were not quite realized. Pentecost was a time of great expectations.  Another Sinai would happen!

Long before Jesus was born, Jews believed that on Pentecost a powerful and great renewal would take place. Just like at Sinai itself. God is faithful.  We confess it every Shavuot. We confess we have a long history and we want it to be more glorious in the future than it has even in the past.

In an influential work known as Jubilees, which is essentially a retelling of the history of Israel, we learn that Jews believed that Shavuot was as old as the world. Noah celebrated Shavuot. Then the world in its rebellion no longer acknowledged the true God. Shavuot was restored to the world when God gave his covenant, his torah and himself at Sinai.  And every year they gathered before the Lord to renew that covenant that was made by God. Each one points to the great Shavuot when something like Sinai might happen again.

For this reason it has been ordained and written on the heavenly tablets that they should celebrate the festival of weeks during this month–once a year–to renew the covenant each and every year. This entire festival had been celebrated in heaven from the time of creation until the lifetime of Noah … Abraham alone kept it, and his sons Isaac and Jacob kept it until your lifetime. During your lifetime the Israelites had forgotten it until I renewed it for them at this mountain” (Jubilees 6.17-19)

In Jubilees, Pentecost became the occasion that God renewed his covenant with Noah, then Abraham, then Moses and the great expectation was that God would do the same again.  We know that the Essenes of Qumran practiced Shavuot as a covenant renewal celebration, every year. It was not a different covenant but the same covenant made new.

pentecost-renewedSeeing What Luke Saw

The Story of Ruth is read publicly during Shavuot.  It is in fact a story the celebrates many key themes of this great worship festival. The story centers on the marginalized, the fringe, the outcasts, the powerless … even the forbidden woman of Moab being welcomed as part of the covenant even though forbidden! The story is about the nature of hesed and a testimony for those who come to the God of Israel “under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2.12).  Pentecost is when all of Israel becomes Ruth the outsider longing for God to build the house of Israel (see Ruth 4.11).

So when Israelites came from all over the world in the first century on their pilgrimages, like Pentecost, they had incredible hopes that THIS is the year a new Sinai event would take place.  They came far and wide, confessing with their sons and daughters, the old and the young, the slaves and the free – standing before the Lord as equal human beings – that God had been faithful. He has always been faithful. That he will always be faithful. That we standing in his Presence is proof of his covenant.

In joy and celebration we share in the bounties of God’s infinite grace. All the while praying that something else may happen – a Sinai happening, an Asa happening.  Joel 2, which Peter quotes, is obviously a “Pentecostal” text.  God renewing his covenant not only with Israel but all of Creation.  Not with men but women too (Ruth is, interestingly, about older and younger women). Not just the young but the old. Not just the free but the slave too.  All those who stand before the Lord on Shavuot.

So when the loud sound of a hurricane appeared (Luke’s word can be translated as “roar”) and fire in the sky upon the peoples head … No Jew reading this would mistake what is happening. When God shows up, stuff happens in the Hebrew Bible.

God showed in a storm of smoke and fire at Sinai.  God shows up in the violent thunder storm in the temple(!) in Ps 29. God shows up, and speaks, out of the storm in Job.  God shows up in fire when he revealed his Name at the bush. God shows up in fire and smoke at Sinai in Exodus 19.  God shows up in smoke and fire in numerous Psalms.

What we hoped for, what we prayed for, what we dreamed of is taking place.  God is REnewING his covenant – finally.  He is making it new. He is giving his Word. He is keeping his Promise. He is giving himself.  Acts 2 is the great long awaited for Shavuot that revealed that God was STILL true to his promises to the patriarchs. That God is saying “we have a long history and it will never end.”  This is why Peter, hardly containing himself, says THIS is THAT … this Shavuot – the stuff you are busy sharing and confessing as you sacrifice with your family, friends, neighbors – is THAT long promised renewing Pentecost.

When the disciples asked Jesus when he would restore the kingdom in Acts 1.6. This is not, as I was taught, a misguided question at all. It is based directly on the Hebrew Bible. God has rescued his people again at the Cross of Christ.  The New Exodus has taken place. It is natural, being schooled in the rhythm of Israel’s history, to expect the next event to be the renewing of the covenant at … Shavuot! And it happens.

Acts 2 is to Jesus’s Death/Burial/Resurrection what the theophany, torah and covenant on Sinai is to the defeat of Pharaoh and the Red Sea. God has renewed his covenant. This is a big deal for Luke who stresses so powerfully – and directly contrary to many Christian theologies – that God did not replace Israel with the church. God restored Israel by renewing his covenant and giving himself in his Spirit. Luke’s allusions to “Pentecostal” themes flow throughout Acts but we do not have time to review them here.

Final Thought: We Continue to Be Part of the Story

We sometimes call Acts 2 the “birthday of the church.” Perhaps in a sense that is true. But the world “church” never appears in Acts 1, Acts 2, Acts 3, or Acts 4.  The first time the word “church” appears in Acts is 5.11.  But something massively important happened on Pentecost, but it was not the beginning of a new (=different) people of God.  Luke would not call it the birthday of the church, if we mean by church “the people of God.” Pentecost is not the creation of God’s people, but the renewal of his people.

I think Luke would say such a position is utterly false and unbiblical. Acts 2 records the great eschatological renewal of the covenant with God’s ancient people with their long history of disobedience, yet he saves and comes in covenant by his love just as he did with Abraham, just as he did in the Exodus, just as he did with Asa, just as he does with us. The REnewED covenant certainly has differences with just the old one but it does not have a different God and it does not have a different people.

This and so much more is going on in Acts 2 … the great covenant renewal on the Day of Pentecost.  God gave his covenant. God gave his word (revelation).  God gave himself on this day.

Now you see why Israel rejoiced and celebrated with a great joy on this day.

We should too.

My Pocket NRSV

My Pocket NRSV is a library no first century person, rich or poor, could have imagined.

An Opening Conversation

Last night a friend said to me in response to something about context, “Bobby I do not believe you have to be a scholar to read the Bible. I will just read the Bible like an ordinary person in the first century.” I looked at him and smiled.  He said “why are you smiling?”  And I replied, “you really do not want to know because it requires acknowledging context.” So he pressed me, “what!?”  So I said, “[name] ordinary people did not read the Bible in the first century.  Ordinary people did not own Bibles in the first century. In fact no one owned a Bible and no ordinary person read it.”

I too do not believe one must be a “scholar” to read the Bible. But we may have to do just a little homework to hear it like an ordinary person in the first century.  Most of us realize that we need to know how to add 2 plus 2 … but knowing that does not make us a mathematician.  It simply means we have mastered a basic fundamental skill to live in our world.  So …

Ordinary Me and My Bible

I suspect that I am about as ordinary as they come.  Plain manila envelope here folks. While I do not care that much for Elvis, I love mom and apple pie! I live in the Southwest, drive a Jeep, ride a Harley, love to explore and camp. I have a handful of friends to watch football and baseball with. Ordinary Me!

Like most ordinary disciples I love my Bible.  In fact like most ordinary disciples I have several versions of the Bible. To the left (or above) is a picture of my pocket size NRSV that is my always Bible. I carry it every where I go.  I have a shelf of a dozen different translations. I even have a Bible app on my phone that has the NIV and Westcott/Hort. I cannot imagine a world without Bibles all over the place.  Modern American disciples are awash in Bibles and now we simply pull up Bible Gateway and look at virtually any translation with in a few seconds.

But Ordinary Me is not Ordinary Disciple in the first century.  My little NRSV with the Old Testament, Apocrypha and New Testament is more than even the apostle Paul would have seen at one time in his entire life.

Ordinary Disciple and the “Bible” in the First Century

Ordinary Disciple never saw a Bible in his or her life.  So how did an “ordinary” person encounter the “Bible” in the first century?  This is such an important question because we simply retroject our ordinary back upon the pages of the New Testament our ordinary experience and it shapes (literally) how we then interpret the Bible itself.

The fact that no ordinary person actually owned a Bible for more than 1500 years after Jesus is a truth I am convinced we have not wrestled with. Most ordinary people would never have even held in their hands a portion of the Bible much less the Bible itself. Producing letters and books was an expensive task in the ancient world.  Paul’s letter to the Romans would have cost, according to scholars, approximately 2000 dollars, an astronomical sum even by today’s standards.  Only the exorbitantly rich, the powerful and institutions possessed “books” (mostly temples or government archives but there were some libraries in the ancient world, the legendary Library of Alexandria being the prime example). For more on this aspect the strangeness of the Bible see my Evel Knievel, The Grand Canyon and the Deep Gulf to the Bible.

Isaiah Scroll from Qumran

Isaiah Scroll from Qumran

Books in the first century were actually scrolls.  Scrolls would normally contain a single writing (a copy of the minor prophets on a single leather scroll found at Masada is an exception).  Thus the book of Isaiah was the scroll of Isaiah (as in Luke 4.17) and the book of Luke itself would have been a scroll of Luke.  Examples of what “books” look are the Dead Sea Scrolls. To consult another part of the Bible you would need to get a completely different scroll.  Paul’s letters were also scrolls just smaller (and papyrus not leather) than the great Isaiah scroll that Jesus would have held in hands in Nazareth.

The Ethiopian eunuch is only an apparent exception in Acts 8. The Ethiopian is not ordinary (he is quite wealthy) and he did not own a Bible but a scroll of Isaiah. powerful. For more on the Ethiopian see my Indiana Jones, Temples & Acts: Who Did Philip Talk to in Acts 8?

Scripture was held by the community. The Temple in Jerusalem would have been the primary place where official copies of the holy writings would have been stored.  Synagogues, like the one in Nazareth, would also have collections of the Scripture.  However it is not a foregone conclusion that even a synagogue would have all the scrolls. Economics are often times bitter but even in the history of the church many local churches often did not have a complete Bible. At Qumran we know the community there had a library that belonged to the whole community.

But no one individual owned these Scriptures.  Some very rich person may have some of the Bible, like the Ethiopian. But most will be like Jesus himself … when he read from Isaiah he read from a scroll owned by the group.

Example of HEARING the Bible

The world of the early church was an oral culture not print. They heard things rather than read things (no one read silently in the ancient world). Most ordinary people were functionally illiterate.  They did not need to read because they did not exist in a print based culture like we do today. Books like the Iliad were memorized in overall detail.

When I was young in the late 1970s, my family lived in a small white house in Cloverdale, AL.  We did not live in the lap of luxury.  We did not have a TV.  We played games at the kitchen table. Monopoly. Clue. Yatzi. Uno. Sorry.  However, one day my mom discovered some old time radio shows on cassette. So we would sit and listen to “The Shadow” which was a detective radio show from the 1930s. There were no images to look at. There was just the family sitting there listening to the story. In fact we would get caught up in that story. To this day I can hear in my head the voice of the narrator and the images that popped up in my imagination. We learned about the characters and most important we learned the story.

That is how people in the first century encountered the Bible. A father or mother would tell the story to the family.  A rabbi would tell the story. They memorized the Story.  The Bible was not carried around in hands rather the Bible was heard orally within a communal context, that is Ordinary Me normally heard the “Bible” not by myself but within a group (recognize I use that word accommodatingly to signify even portions of what we call the Bible).

There is another way the Bible was encountered by Ordinary Me in the first century and that is in worship. Going to the Temple or attending the synagogue. In fact this would have been the major way anyone encountered Scripture in the time of Jesus, Paul, Peter or even the John the Prophet. In the worship festivals the Bible was relived and that is how the word was given to the ordinary person. Disciples dramatically relive the central theme of the Scriptures through the Festivals. As one scholar recently put it, Israel did not read the Bible they acted it out. The festivals reenact the central features of the Story of Redemption (Passover, Booths, Shavuot, Purim, Hanukkah, etc). In these contexts portions of the Bible were read orally to the people. The festivals by their very nature point to the most important part of the “Bible” … what Yahweh has done to save and redeem Israel to make her his own.

One of the great lessons learned from how people encountered the Bible for centuries is that it focuses upon the essential part of the Story. I think we would do well to learn that. These early disciples were indeed “People of the Word” but they were not “People of the Book.

scrolls-pile2Ordinary Me, Printed Pages, Arguments and the Holy Spirit

Some modern disciples have practically come to believe that the printed page is the Holy Spirit. Early on in the Stone-Campbell Movement there were people that advocated the heresy that the Holy Spirit had retired from work in God’s world. Some of these seemed to literally think of the printed Bible as the Spirit. The great Walter Scott satirized these folks in this quip, “Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins, and you shall receive a New Testament.

This is a position that is not materially different and held by a number is that of famed false teacher Foy Wallace Jr. Wallace wrote

Apart from the inspiration of the apostles and prophets, it is impossible for spirit to communicate with spirit except through words. God and Christ never personally occupied anyone; and for the same reason, the Holy Spirit does not personally occupy anyone.”

Wallace goes on to say

“Now the Word of God is in the Book – THE WRITTEN WORD [his emphasis] – and the direct possession of the Holy Spirit is unnecessary and superfluous.” (Mission & Medium of the Holy Spirit, pp. 7-8; as a side note this is why Wallace thought K. C. Moser was a heretic!)

There is not a person alive in the first century that could have endorsed Wallace’s position. They never had the WRITTEN word, that is they did not have a Bible. Before the end of the first century no congregation, much less an ordinary person like me, had anything remotely like what people typically call the Bible today.

We mentioned the eunuch above. When he returned to Meroe he had nothing whatsoever of our WRITTEN New Testament all he had was the LXX, if he had all of that. The Gospels do not start appearing in written form until the 60s (Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 and both Peter, Paul, James were all dead by then).

How did those people encounter the Bible? Not as Wallace suggests. They encountered the Word of God like I did the Shadows as a kid. It was spoken in worship. The Story focused upon God’s work thru Israel and culminating in Jesus. And like my family years ago they encountered the Word most frequently at a table where some one would tell the Story.

Context Matters even for Ordinary People

Sometimes we just need to reflect on how radically different our experience of the “culture” of the Christian faith is from people living in the first Christian centuries. The world of the Bible is strange to us in every possible way. And the more we recognize that the more it challenges us to approach it humbly and seek to hear it just like an ordinary person would in that day

Recognizing the strange world of the Bible could also help end our tragic divisions. It may also help us realize that contrary to Wallace’s claim God’s word is not equivalent to a written page. The written page may be (and is) a RECORD of the word of God but the written page is not what the Bible itself calls “the word of God.” The word of God was HEARD and empowered by God’s own Spirit.  The scroll of Revelation records “Blessed is the ONE {singular} who reads ALOUD the words of the prophecy, and blessed are THOSE {plural} who HEAR …” (Rev 1.3). Revelation was encountered in worship among a gathered group of disciples … One read and the rest listened with rapt attention.

rhema_smFinal Words

I am sooooooooooooooo grateful to have my own “Bible.” Anyone that knows me, knows I have a fascination with anything that has to do with the Bible. I have, and have read, old “Bibles” from cover to cover like Wycliffe’s Bible, Tyndale’s OT and NT, the Geneva Bible, was part of a nerd FB group in 2011 to read the whole 1611 KJV cover to cover for its 400th anniversary.

I love the Bible. But as grateful as I am I need to be historically aware enough that sometimes having my own personal Bible creates both assumptions and expectations that were not only not shared in first century Christianity but simply did not exist in any form in most cases until after the Protestant Reformation.

The point here is not to discourage Bible reading.  Just the opposite is the case.  This is to encourage reading that ushers us into the realm of the first century so we can indeed hear and understand as did Ordinary people in the time of Jesus and the Jerusalem church.  Recognizing the strange world of the Bible is part of having “eyes to see” and more importantly in this case “ears to HEAR.”

Bobby V

You may also enjoy my Ancestry of the KJV: Making Books in the Ancient World

slide-02Opening a Letter

Some “Sabbath” reflections are offered today on Paul’s legendary Epistle to the Romans. There are lots of modern assumptions that function like a prism more than a lens when we look at Romans (see why Assumptions often hide the truth). These assumptions have done some interesting things to us in reading Romans.

Some of my first blogs focus on Romans as I was preparing to preach through the book: Praying with Romans & Manasseh (2006); Praying through Romans (2006); Wrestling with Romans (2006); Romans 8 (2007)  among others. I have returned to Romans every year as I read through Bible but three years ago I engaged in an intense program of Romans studies for a sermon series. To say that Romans, like the Psalms, is deeply profound is an understatement.  Romans, also like the Psalms, is connected to the entire biblical story and the more you understand the Story the more you see how the whole story flows into Romans. Paul’s own thinking is shaped mightily by that narrative structure that the Psalms also bear witness too.

Rules of Engagement

There are two rules that I believe are simply nonnegotiable for any serious engagement with a writing and those are context and context. One of the major advances in NT studies since World War II is the belief that these two rules actually apply to the book of Romans.  For centuries since the Protestant Reformation it has been simply ignored that Romans is a letter to a historical believers living in a historical situation.  Further Paul has a context as well as the believers in Rome we need to pay attention to these facts and understand them as best we can.

Opening of Romans. Medieval text

Opening of Romans. Medieval text

Romans is Jewish … Surprise

First Romans is not only a Jewish document, it is very Jewish.  Since the Reformation, this astounding fact has bothered Protestant scholars and believers who have had a certain picture of Paul already in their head. That portrait is, Paul was fleeing a ritualistic, carnal, legalistic, law based religion as fast as he possibly could to found something radically different from his previous life. This picture was, and is, incredibly difficult to maintain in light of Acts, other Pauline letters, etc.  So contrary evidence has been marginalized, ignored, and among liberal scholars simply declared to be non-Pauline.

In Romans itself parts are so Jewish that scholars who recognize this Jewish element have frequently decided that this or that text is not actually Paul but his incorporation of inherited material that does not necessarily reveal what is important to him. An example is the unbelievably Jewish presentation of the Gospel in 1.1-7.

the gospel of God, promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord …” (1.2-4)

The Gospel is explicitly defined in reference to the “Old Testament,” the law, the prophets, the promises, the Messiah is explicitly the Jewish Messiah the son of David. The Story of the Gospel is the story of Israel. Older scholars recognized the Jewish character and claimed the text is non-Pauline fragments and believers failed to recognize it is Jewish and simply ignore it.  The result is the same.

I have often thought such logic on the scholars part to be humorous in the extreme. If I wrote my girl friend a letter and I incorporated some lyrics from a song for her, it most assuredly represents MY thinking for her even if I did not write it or say it! Romans is utterly Jewish. We will return to this repeatedly.

The Greeting

Have you noticed Paul never once addresses the Romans as “the church of God/Christ?” Why is this? One massive assumption modern disciples have is that first century followers of Christ believed they were starting a different religion. This underlies the common description of Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road as his “conversion.” No doubt something radical happened to Paul but conversion is probably not what he would call it.  Luke presents the story pretty much in line with traditional prophetic calls we read about in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel for example).

But the separation of Judaism and what we call Christianity is a post AD-70 reality, it had not happened in Paul’s day. And it would take quite some time before it was a real separation. There is no archeological evidence of a large synagogue, or church building, in Rome until centuries after Paul. But 20,000 to 50,000 Jews lived in Rome. Where did they meet? They met in homes as associations! In fact, the word “synagogue” referred as much to a group of people as it did a building in the first century.

Oakes presents us with a concrete social setting for the original readers of Romans. Not all readers were the same either either. So what might a small apartment Gathering look like?

Oakes presents us with a concrete social setting for the original readers of Romans. Not all readers were the same either either. So what might a small apartment Gathering look like?

We know that before AD 49 the followers of the Way, and traditional Jews, still met together. And house “churches” seem to have been modeled upon house synagogues. What modern folks do not realize is that Julius Caesar banned the assembly of religious societies in the city of Rome except for the Jews. The saints – if they are in independent assemblies would still have been thought of as a synagogue by everyone else. The historical record shows that, as late as the first century, the Romans did not distinguish between “Christians” and Jews at all. Messianics were simply a sect within Judaism.

All of this does have a bearing on reading Romans. The house gatherings of disciples in cramped apartment buildings in Rome are rooted in a Jewish social environment. Mixed in this complex social environment is a latent and not so subtle anti-Jewish sentiment that is growing among the Romans themselves.  This anti-Jewish (not simply anti-“Christian”) has been amply documented by scholars and is addressed point blank in the letter itself.

Romans is NOT Galatians

After first getting excited about Romans with K. C. Moser’s Gist of Romans, I have wrestled with it over and over. There is much in Moser’s book that is on target. The glory of grace and the truth about faith in Christ. Moser reads Romans as most did in his day, as if it were an attack on that evil legalistic religion–Judaism. When we assume that Romans is simply Galatians expanded we divorce both writings from their own context. Many take Galatians and declare it to be Paul’s views on the law in particular across the board.  But Paul is dealing with Gentiles and the law in relation to justification in Galatians not in general.

But my understanding of Romans as a whole is different than Moser. Let me give one major example, there are no Judaizers in Romans. In the past, when it was commonly stated and assumed that Paul was fleeing Jewish legalism folks basically only read parts of Romans basically 3 to 8 with no idea what to do with 9-11 and then thinking 12 to 15 was just an addendum at best. None of 9-16 was really related to the argument in 1-8 … this was possible because moderns had divorced Paul from his Jewish context. But chapters 9-16 are in fact intimately related to 1-8.

In fact Romans was just Galatians on steroids in much thinking. But Romans is more than 3 to 8 in fact it is a whole unified argument. What if we read the whole, taking its social context seriously, from beginning to end? We just might conclude that instead of Judaizing we discover that Paul is actually concerned with the “Gentilizing” of the Gospel! ” That certainly explains some significant passages in the letter that are routinely ignored.

Recent work with short chapters illustrating how Romans coheres and contrasts with Jewish perspectives. Written on an introductory level and thus is very accessible.

Recent work with short chapters illustrating how Romans coheres and contrasts with Jewish perspectives. Written on an introductory level and thus is very accessible.

Context Explains …

If Paul is addressing Gentiles that have contact with Jews on a regular basis (and that seems utterly clear this is happening from Romans 14 and given what was said above) with growing Gentile prejudice towards Jews then that helps explain what we actually read in Romans.

The Gentile “saints” (“saint” is a Jewish word coming from the LXX, Paul never uses the word Christian) are not tempted toward circumcision, as in Galatians, but toward an arrogant triumphalism against the circumcised! It is the opposite end of the spectrum encountered in Romans from that found in Galatia.  Thus, while in Galatians there is significant criticism of the law, there is no criticism of the Law in Romans (a stark fact). Instead Paul “delights” (7.22) in the Law and declares that it is Spiritual (7.14), holy, righteous and good (7.12, 16). There is no negativity regarding the Law in Romans 7, the problem is Sin and Death.

Paul even declares that faith rather than undermining actually “upholds the law” (3.31, one of those texts – among many – that are conveniently swept away). Paul dares to say that the Law is even an “advantage” for Jews ( 3.1-2) in Romans.  The apostle Paul calls the Law a “gift” in 9.1-5 and 11.28-29

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; so to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah …”

for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable …”

This is language straight from the so called “Old Testament” which frequently views the torah as a gift of grace (Deuteronomy, Psalm 1, 19, 119, etc). This sounds very different than Galatians but the context explains why. In passing note that Paul uses the plural for “covenants” and he does not equate “covenants” with the “law.”  God has given gifts to Israel and the Law is among them. Paul is not saying this for the sake of Jews but for the sake of Gentile triumphalism over Jews!

Paul confesses his desire to obey the Law and says that “in Christ” he finds the victory enabling him to fulfill the righteous requirement of Torah (7.7-8.4; 13.8-10). The attitude of Paul towards the Law in Romans is clearly different than what is sometimes imagined.  The Law is not an instrument of justification and never was envisioned to be one by Moses (I do not have time to stop and talk about the nature of the “I” in Romans 7).

Again why all this emphasis that is found throughout Romans? I call it Paul’s effort to correct Gentilizing … that is the misconceived triumphalism on the part of Gentile saints in Rome over Jews and Jewish heritage of their own faith. That was the effort to have a “Christian” faith apart from story of Israel, apart the “Old Testament” and apart from it fundamental Jewish character. If rumors of these attitudes among Gentile believers were filtering back to Jerusalem, even though Paul is not responsible, that would explain the concern of James and the elders in Acts 21.21f.  One scholar, Jacob Jervell, has called Romans “Paul’s letter to Jerusalem.” That is, what we read in Romans, is what Paul intends to say to the Jerusalem leadership that has heard distortions of his teaching.  Such a perspective is quite valuable in keeping us grounded in the historical context.

Classic collection of essays on exegesis of Romans. I cannot imagine wrestling with Romans apart from this classic.

Classic collection of essays on exegesis of Romans. I cannot imagine wrestling with Romans apart from this classic.

Gentiles do not Replace Israel but become Part of Israel

What Paul does in Romans to counter the Gentilizing is show how Gentiles themselves have entered God’s Story with Israel, a story intended to bring about the healing of the nations and indeed all of creation. This is why Romans 1.1-7, even if a summary of pre-pauline material, is the heart of Paul’s own gospel. As Christian Beker noted, though Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles rejects (along with the Jerusalem church itself btw) requiring circumcision of Gentile converts to the Way he still demands a particular Jewish orientation to the Gospel itself (Beker calls it Paul’s “dogmatic imposition,” Paul the Apostle, p. 170-173). Paula Fredriksen, a Jewish scholar, has argued that Paul is “Judiazing the Gentiles” and demands more of Gentiles than any Jewish teacher of his time. Thus in her view Paul is the most Jewish of the Jewish writers of the New Testament.

The Gospel will always be the culmination of the God’s promises to Israel, and the Messiah will always be Israel’s Messiah, and Gentiles will will always be grafted into Israel … not the other way around. Paul does not make Israel irrelevant to the Gentiles rather he says now we Gentiles are part of that great line we read about from Genesis to Malachi.

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles, inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify in my ministry …
“and you, a while olive shoot, were grafted in their place … do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root but the root that supports you … Do not be arrogant, but be afraid …
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are …
” (11.13, 17, 18, 20, 25)

Pretty straight talk from Paul to Gentiles! Gentile arrogance boasting was excluded. The Gentiles were dependent for everything to the Israel Story.

I have long wondered why the phrase, “I appeal to you {plural – the group}, therefore … be transformed by the renewing of your {plural – the group} mind,” comes after a discussion of Israel (ch’s 9-11).  But I ignored the fact that Paul explicitly points back to chapter 11 with the word “therefore.” Paul is still addressing the same group of people in 12.1f as in chapter 11. What he says about renewing our collective minds flows from the discussion of Israel and Gentiles relationship.

We might expect Paul to say something about renewing our minds after mentioning immorality or idolatry (like in chapter 1!) but he doesn’t. The “renewing of our mind” has reference to what those Gentiles thought about Jews being “enemies” of God as chapter 11 closes (Paul did not put these breaks in the text!). Perhaps the Gentiles needed to re-evaluate their status in the kingdom, their relationship to the Story and praise God that they are actually the product of God’s grace to Israel.

Gentiles and Law

Paul clearly thought there was a wrong way for Gentiles to be related to the Law. Galatians deals with that error. The Jerusalem Decree addresses that problem. Paul and James are in the same boat on this matter. They are also in agreement coming the other direction.

Romans is saturated with the Israel's Bible. Using Richard Hays methodology, Crisler takes us thru the whole Letter to the Romans with an eye on how the so called OT shapes and molds Paul's own language and argument. Lament plays a large role.

Romans is saturated with the Israel’s Bible. Using Richard Hays methodology, Crisler takes us thru the whole Letter to the Romans with an eye on how the so called OT shapes and molds Paul’s own language and argument. Lament plays a large role.

But there is also a right way to relate to God’s gift and to Jews themselves. And, this is my conviction and where I am today, Romans and Ephesians show us the Paul that Luke tells a story about in Acts is real. Acts shows that Paul believed what he wrote in Romans 9.4 and 14 for he is one of those that keeps holy days and seeks God in Temple worship.

Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles brings them Israel’s gospel, Israel’s story, Israel’s Messiah and shows how they can become part of that Story on the same basis as Abraham – faith. This is all done on the basis of Israel’s own Scripture too. Paul says the Gospel is according to the Scripture, it is not separate and apart from Israel’s Bible. At the same time his preaching shows how Gentiles are actually now part of the Israel of God that has existed since Abraham. They have been grafted INTO Israel and are now heirs to the covenants of promise.

Rather than chunking God’s word as irrelevant or assuming arrogant and superior attitudes, Gentiles now humbly take their place as part of Israel and join heirs according the Promise embedded in Scripture itself. This is the Paul we find in Acts. He is a Jew and has never “converted” to Christianity rather he has embraced his own STORY. The Story said the Messiah would come and renew the covenant, grant the Spirit, and the gentiles would come and worship the God of Israel.

So Paul is a Pharisee (not was) according to his traveling buddy Luke. So Paul, who says the torah was a “gift” and an “advantage” in Romans, keeps vows and delights in “the worship” (cf Romans 9.4 and Acts 24.11, 14, 17). In fact the Paul we see throughout the Epistle to the Romans is the very one who puts his own principles in action about relating to Jews in Acts 21.

Conclusion: Romans and the One Story

The more I read the Hebrew Bible the more I understand Paul. The more I understand the truth that Paul was a rabbinic Jew till he died, the more he makes sense. My blog has grown long and we have not even begun to touch how Paul weaves the story of the Exodus into the book of Romans on macro scale.  Nor how Paul envisions this renewed Israel with Gentiles is how God is renewing his whole creation, all according to Scripture.  And how now Gentiles and Jews gather around the Jewish Messiah “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Messiah” (15.6).  God heals the world in his renewed Israel and all the world now worships the one true God … just as the Psalms and the Prophets envisioned.  There are not two stories, one of Israel and one of “church.”  There is only one.  We Gentiles, by grace have become part of that amazing Story.

The more I read Paul and look at my own heritage the more I am convinced that Paul’s concern about Gentilizing may be a problem that Christians in general and Christians in the Restoration Movement need to wrestle with.

A Few Suggested Resources Besides those already Noted in the Pix

For me Paul Sampley’s “Romans and Galatians Compared and Contrasted” in Understanding the Word: Essays in Honor of Bernhard Anderson was very illuminating when I first read it many years ago. I had fallen into the trap of viewing Galatians as a cliff notes version of Romans. I was very wrong.


26 May 2016

God as Prayer Partner – a Short Thought

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Prayer
Prayer can be tough ... just ask Jesus

Prayer can be tough … just ask Jesus

Prayer is hard work for me.

One of the reasons I have become so devoted to the Psalms is because they build the “vocabulary” of prayer into my life.  I have however accepted the fact that I will always be an amateur when it comes to prayer.  Many years ago Eugene Peterson helped me immeasurably as I struggled.  It was his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. He begins by explaining that biblical prayer is always a response. The whole of human life is answering God. God has already acted and spoken even before I was born therefore my life in every dimension is my reply to grace God has already lavishly poured. Understanding that my prayer(s) is an answer or response or reply to God’s previous word has had a profound impact on me.

Biblical prayer assumes that the Hebraic worldview that God is not a robot or an abstract idea.  Rather God is a person deeply involved with his creation at every level and in every dimension.  Biblical prayer assumes that God is not somewhere over the rainbow but “very near.” If God has acted/spoken, God waits for our answer.  In this way prayer is seen as a conversation between creation and God.  It is a genuine dialogue but not a dialogue of equals.

God Waits

When we read through the book of Isaiah we come to an interesting passage that tells us something about our God and prayer.

“Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious for you:
Therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.
Truly, O people of Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem,
you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious
to you at the sound of your cry;
when he hears it, he will answer you.”
(Isaiah 30.18-19)

This text reveals the character of God.  No one has to wonder about God.  He is waiting to be gracious.  The text knows that God’s people have been disciplined for their unfaithfulness to God’s covenant.  Yet something is revealed even in the chastisement both about God and prayer.  God is waiting for those who seek him.  God is actively listening for the prayer responds to his action.

Learning to Listen

Since prayer is answering God we need to cultivate the discipline of listening ourselves.  There is not a micron of Deism in the Bible.  God has not stopped acting.  God has not stopped pursuing his Mission.  God has not stopped even speaking. We need to listen.  We need to see.  We need to recognize the voice and hand of our Father. We lovingly feast on his word.  We seek his face with the saints in communal worship.  We discern the path he has blazed in our world. We need to listen so we can answer.

Final Thought

God has acted.  He waits for his people to answer him.  At the sound of our cry he responds. His response is grace and mercy even in the midst of discipline.  God is revealed as a partner in prayer. He longs for our answer …

Prayer is hard work but …

God is talking.  God is acting. God is waiting on our answer.

Ghosts do not have flesh and bones as you see that I have ...

Ghosts do not have flesh and bones as you see that I have …

Famously Abused Text

Next to Song of Songs, Paul’s lines near the end of his famous resurrection chapter, are perhaps the most tortured and grossly misunderstood words in the Bible by modern North American disciples. The instrument of abuse for both texts is Platonic dualism.

It is amazing how many think that after all Paul has said about the truth and essentiality of the resurrection that he suddenly embraces some kind of platonic dualism and pulls a huge bait and switch at the perfect moment and declares:

flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God …”

Ahhhh see Paul does not really believe in anything so carnal as a literal bodily resurrection of flesh and blood humans we are told! We will be “transformed,” so the modern mythology goes, into spirit beings.  This is indeed the reading of Paul that was promoted by the second and third century Gnostics but not what he meant at all.

Looking at 1 Corinthians 15

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 is not arguing for the resurrection of Jesus.  The Corinthians believe Jesus was raised from the dead. They have accepted the Gospel as Paul points out. The sole argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is not Jesus’s resurrection but OURS! The bone of contention is the resurrection of God’s people.  Paul argues that Christ’s resurrection is the paradigm for the whole world which would include you and me.

John Mark Hicks, Mark Wilson and myself include an exposition of 1 Cor 15 in our book Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission in a chapter called “the Gospel of Promise.” In this blog I want to look in more detail at those famous or infamous words, depending on your commitment to Plato, in verses 50 and 51.  There are two rules that really have to guide the interpretation of Scripture and those are 1) context and 2) context … literary and historical.  Paul has not pulled an epic bait and switch on his readers.  In fact when examined closely from his Jewish setting Paul in fact sounds even more Jewish in these verses than ever and did not surrendered even a single cell to Plato.

N. T. Wright has offered, perhaps, the most exhaustive exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15, at least that I am aware, in The Resurrection of the Son of God (pp. 312-361) and I am indebted to him along with many other scholars both ancient and modern.  Outlining the chapter helps us to see what is going on fairly quickly:

15.1-11 Shared Gospel narrative between Paul’s gentile believers and Jewish believers. The gentiles believe the same framework for the Gospel.
B  15.12-28 If Messiah has been raised how can some claim we are not raised? He has been therefore we will be!
15.29-34  Rhetorical interlude
15.35-49  A body animated by the Holy Spirit will be the result of the resurrection
E  15.50-58  Death is destroyed and raised human bodies glorified with immortality

This is, as I see it, the flow of Paul’s argument. We do not have to speculate on the nature of what the paradigmatic resurrection of the Messiah looks like for Luke offers it at the end of his Gospel in 24.37-42.  There is no doubt that Luke intends this description to be the meaning of the apostolic preaching in Acts.  When Theophilus and his church heard Acts read and Paul proclaimed the resurrection of the dead in Acts 17 or Peter did in Acts 2 … that scene is what Luke intends his hearers to understand.  For our purposes it is interesting that Jesus specifically states

Look at my hands and my feet; see it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have FLESH and BONES as you see that I have.”  (24.39)

As Alexander Campbell noted back in 1833, it is not as a spirit that Jesus was raised from the dead but in the flesh.  And it was not as a Spirit that Jesus ascended to the Father (See my Alexander Campbell & the Regeneration of Creation).  And it is not as Spirit that Jesus has become the head of the new creation.  Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 reveals that his Greek speaking converts were presented with the same Jewish content for the Gospel … that content included resurrection of the human body from the grave.

The resurrection body will be a fully human body just as Jesus’s own resurrection in the body that has been set free from death and made fully alive by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is declared pretty much point blank in vv.20f

But in fact Messiah has been raised from the dead, the FIRST FRUITS OF THOSE who have died … But each in his own order; Christ the first fruit, then at his coming those who belong to Messiah” (vv.20, 23)

Christ’s resurrection is, declared right here, to be the “pattern” for all resurrection. Paul draws on good Hebrew Bible themes to make his point. During the festival of first fruits, Jews bring the first stalks/grains of the harvest to the Lord in worship as the guarantee that the rest of the harvest will come in.  The grain that is brought to God is the same grain that waits further harvest in the field.  Joachim Jeremias, in his 1955 Presidential Address to the Society of New Testament Studies, commented on this verse saying “But now Christ is risen (v.20), and his resurrection is the guarantee for the universal resurrection.” Paul consistently uses the “Old Testament” notion of first fruits in just this manner see Romans 8.23; Romans 11.16; Romans 16.5 and 2 Thessalonians 2.13.

Again it is important to remember that Paul is not trying to prove the resurrection of Jesus to the Corinthians as if they were some sort of secular humanist.  Paul is showing the Corinthians that Christ’s resurrection is about THEIR future, that is that Christ’s resurrection is about their own resurrection.

Mentioning the secular humanists is also important for this reason.  Paul is not trying to convince the Corinthians that there is such a thing as life after death. The vast majority of the pagan world had some conception of life after death. Christianity did not invent that idea! Paul’s argument is not life after death but resurrection of our bodies – just as in Acts 17.

What is it that Does not Inherit the Kingdom? (15.50-51)

Our brief look at the whole (and no one will read this if we go verse by verse) brings us back to the crux of the argument: Christ’s resurrection is paradigmatic for believers.  Paul does not suddenly inject Platonic dualism when he writes,

what I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this:
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God

The singular dunatai shows that the phrase “flesh and blood” is to be understood and taken as a single idea.  Just when some imagine that Paul has embraced Plato, he instead sounds very much like a rabbi.  The phrase “flesh and blood” is a semitic idiom (Paul is a Jew and still thinks within that worldview though he is writing in Greek).  The phrase first pops up in Jewish literature translated into Greek in a book both Jesus and Paul are quite familiar: Sirach.  Its Hebrew original, basar wadam, is found throughout rabbinic literature.  Here is something to grab a hold of … the phrase always refers to LIVING PEOPLE and not dead ones.  And as we shall see that is exactly the case in 15.50f.  But some texts …

What is brighter than the sun? Yet it
can be eclipsed.
So FLESH and BLOOD devise evil
(Sirach 17.31; cf 14.18; etc)

The Lord Jesus uses the same semitic idiom when he says to Peter

“… Simon son of Jonah! For FLESH and BLOOD has not revealed this to you …”

Dozens of citations can be produced to demonstrate the meaning of this idiom.  But I do not need to do so.  The phrase is a Jewish way of talking (an idiom) that is only applied to living persons (not dead ones) and denotes unredeemed frail humans.  Or as Jeremias states “it denotes the natural man as a frail creature in opposition to God.” So Paul in v.50 is not talking about dead people who will experience the resurrection at all. He is talking about living people, those who are alive, those who have not died, at his appearing. “Flesh and blood” refers to unredeemed humans on that day.  So literally the phrase “flesh and blood” does not literally refer to “flesh and blood” at all but living breathing humans living in a fallen state! That is how idioms work even in English. This is important to know.

What will happen to the LIVING on the day of appearing, the day of resurrection? If Resurrection is so important, then will they miss out? That is the issue in vv. 50 and 51.  Verse 50 offers a negative assertion neither the living nor the dead can inherit the kingdom of God as they are! Verses 51-53 add the positive assertion, the “mystery” … both the dead and the living will be transformed at the parousia.  No one will be left out!

The Good News of the Mystery

Not every human will be dead at the appearing of the Messiah, Paul says (“we will not all die”).  The mystery is not that, after all is said and done, humans really simply become spirit beings.  That is not the mystery at all.  The mystery is not that unredeemed humanity cannot inherit the kingdom of God.  When people turn a Jewish idiom into a Platonic dualism disaster occurs.  This can only happen by divorcing Paul from his context.

The mystery has to do with the event of resurrection or better what will happen at that event. All will share in the benefit of the resurrection (even those disciples that are not dead) at the same time at the parousia of the Messiah.

The change/transformation is not from physical to non-physical.  Paul has already told us that Jesus’s resurrection is the paradigm.  Rather our fallen, corruptible, sin infested nature will be redeemed from sin and death. The “transformation” is the “application” of the benefit of resurrection to those who have not died.   The Good News is that even fallen, but living human beings, can also share in the glory of the resurrection.  They will if they belong to the One already raised in the body from the grave.  This is the mystery that has now been revealed in the Messiah’s own resurrection.   Both those being raised and those living will share in what the Messiah’s resurrection victory over dead brought.

11-18-12-Resurrection-of-the-BodyConclusion: What Inherits the Kingdom of God

Paul’s concern throughout the chapter is that the Gospel is not merely about Jesus’s personal resurrection.  The Gospel is about our participation in resurrection.  So as he concludes the chapter he stresses that on that day, whether we are in the grave or among the living, we will both experience the blessing of the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8.11, 23-24) on that day.

The “Spiritual body” is patterned on the resurrection of Jesus himself. Paul has not embraced Platonic or Gnostic spiritualism – that is the body is a prison for the soul and longs to be set free.  In fact in 1 Corinthians 15, the human body is not the problem at all, anywhere.  Rather sin and death are the problem.  Sin and death have corrupted all of God’s world and that includes our body.  Through the resurrection of the Messiah this has radically changed.  We share in that resurrection, our bodies are redeemed from sin and death; our souls are not redeemed from our bodies.

“Bodies are good. Flesh, as the incarnation declares, is good.” (Embracing Creation, p. 112). Bodies are good.  Flesh is good.  Christ’s resurrection body, according to his own lips, is flesh and bones.  His body had been redeemed from death.

So Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15.50-51 that NEITHER the living nor the dead can inherit the kingdom of God apart from the grace of the resurrection being applied to them.  “Flesh and blood”,  that is unredeemed humans cannot inherit God’s kingdom.  But thanks be to God, to quote Paul in Romans 8, he sends the Holy Spirit to animate, fill, and give life to, our “mortal body.”  On that day as we are redeemed by the power of God, we shall see our Resurrected Lord, dwell with him and his Resurrected people on his Resurrected world.

Suggested Reading

John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission

N. T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God
_____, Surprised by Hope

Joachim Jeremias, “Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the Kingdom of God,” New Testament Studies 2.3 (1956): 151-159.