joel-overview-bible-minor-prophet-plague-locusts-day-of-lordWhy this Blog

Another version of this paper was delivered to the 2016 Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars Conference held on the campus of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.  I almost called my paper “Earth, Wind and Fire” to make a play off of a rock group but I went old school and stuck with the wording from the prophet Joel himself.

I have decided to post this paper on my blog for a variety of reasons (I have removed most of the citations of secondary literature, added the text of Hosea, and left out a few things to keep it short).  One reason was because the current issue of the Spiritual Sword has published a special issue on eschatology in which John Mark Hicks and myself have been mentioned by name in reference to the biblical doctrine of a renewed earth.  The writers in the SS seem, in my judgement, fairly uninformed on the matter from virtually every angle: the overall redemptive theme of Scripture itself, the exegesis of specific passages, the meaning of resurrection, the history of this healthy teaching.  The irony remains that the alternative of a nonphysical eternal state was held only by Gnostics in the early church.  I have asked for the name and passage of a recognized teacher that held that view (other than a Gnositc) in the first five centuries and have not received one yet.

One final reason I have chose to post this is because so many simply do not realize just how wide spread the idea of creation and redemption going together is.  God has not surrendered his prized creation to Sin or Evil.  From Genesis to Revelation redemption is redemption of creation not immaterial souls.  Creation, human and nonhuman, is bound together in suffering and pain because of Sin.  Creation, human and nonhuman, is bound together in glorious redemption.  So this blog is a response to the Spiritual Sword from a specific text. So to the Prophet Joel … Do Not Fear, O Soil, Animals, People: Hope of Cosmic Redemption in Joel’s Liturgy

A Problem with the Land

The prophet Joel offers us the most comprehensive picture of how sin, lamentation, repentance, and renewal are intertwined. The book of Joel is a communal lament with a divine response.[1] It leads God’s people through a liturgical procession. Joel calls the “inhabitants of the land,” the “drunkards,” and “priests” (Joel 1:2; 5; 13) to weep, wail, mourn, and cry out.

A deadly locust plague, perhaps symbolic of some army, has scorched Palestine. In Joel 1:6– 7, as in Jeremiah 8– 9, God laments. The army has invaded,

My land . . .
My vines . . .
My fig trees
 . . .

God is depicted as weeping over the condition of his property.  Sin has hurt not only people but the creation that God loves and said was “very good” (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 104)

The ferocity of the devastation leads to a wider participation in lament: “The fields are devastated, the land mourns” (Joel 1:10). It is no longer merely humans and deity that are mourning but the earth, the land, the physical creation that is crying under the scourge of the locusts. Joining the land in lament, the animals “groan” or “cry/pray” to the Lord.

How the animals groan!
the herds of cattle wander about

because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep are dazed

Human sin has resulted in the suffering of the animals.  Sin does not simply affect humanity but vandalizes God’s creation in every dimension.  The groaning of the animals results in them praying to the Lord, just as Joel has told us humanity has been called on to assemble and lament.  The prophet adds his own voice “To you, O LORD, I cry …” Then he states

Even the wild animals cry to you,
because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured the pastures
of the wilderness
(Joel 1.20)

There is nothing left in the land following the invasion. The wine is gone. The crops have disappeared. Things are so bad, brides dress in sackcloth instead of white (Joel 1:8).  God laments.  The Land laments.  The animals lament.  The people are called to join the lament.


What can be done? Joel calls for a solemn assembly in the temple of “all the inhabitants of the land” (Joel 1:14–20). Just as in Hosea 4:1– 3, this includes nonhuman participants: “How the animals groan! The herds of cattle wander about because there is no pasture for them” (Joel 1:18). “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up” (Joel 1:20). They groan like oppressed slaves in Egypt (Ex. 2:23). Lament appeals to God for deliverance. Joel 1 leads God’s people and God’s creation to their Savior.[2]  Hosea says it like this,

Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her, from there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the day of her youth,
as as the time when she came up out of the land of Egypt.
On that day, says the LORD, you will call me ‘My husband,’
and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal/My Master.”
For I will remove the names of the Baals from her
mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more.
I will make for you a covenant on that day WITH THE ANIMALS,
the birds of the air, the creeping things of the ground;
and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land;
and I will make YOU lied down in safety. And I will take you
for my wife forever in righteousness and in justice and in
steadfast love and in mercy.”
(Hosea 2.14-20)

Most modern Westerners dismiss such talk as mere metaphor or hyperbole.  But It is in the biblical narrative repeatedly.  God ties human redemption to his promise to the animals … remember the first time the word covenant occurs in the Bible is after the flood when God enters a covenant with creation … not people but all flesh where he promises them that they would no more be punished because of the failure of their divine steward, humans (Genesis 9.8-17).

Joel 2 reveals the problem. Gathered in solemn assembly, human sin is exposed as the reason for the devastating day of the Lord. Solomon, at the dedication of the temple, warned how locusts were among God’s tools to bring about repentance.[3] In repentance, “God will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 6:28; 7:13– 14). The locusts, whether Assyrian, Babylonian, or Roman, are representatives of the Creator, the commander in chief.

Once again, creation suffers with humanity and because of human hubris.[4] The Promised Land is a virtual Garden of Eden raped by sin:

Fire devours in front of them,
and behind them a flame burns.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
but after them a desolate wilderness,
and nothing escapes them
. (Joel 2:3, NRSV)

The judgment of God upon Israel reverses creation itself. The fate of the land is bound up with the fate of Israel and the fate of Israel points to the fate of the land. What was good, beautiful, and full of life has now retreated into a useless void (Gen. 1:2; cf. Jer. 4:23).

Nevertheless, “even now,” Yahweh is ready to redeem and heal. God stops the army at the doorstep and offers yet another opportunity for repentance: “Even now,” if God’s people join in genuine penitent lament, hope remains. The prophet, quoting the “God Creed” (Ex. 34:6– 7), declares God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

In the light of such a gracious proclamation, another solemn assembly is summoned. The people gather before the Lord and the priests stand before the altar to weep in prayer: “Spare your people, O Lord” (Joel 2:17).  It is the people who have sinned but all who have suffered because of that sin.

God’s Response: Targets of Divine Mercy

God’s response to the priestly prayer (Joel 2:18– 27) is breathtaking. In fact, this gathering is the hinge of the book (Joel 2:15– 17). We move from a death to a resurrection. Though the army of locusts belonged to God, there was no joy in it (cf. Lam. 3:31– 33). The land was “collateral” damage (as in the Flood) in Yahweh’s judgment upon sin: “Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people” (Joel 2:18).  Note carefully those words.  Land is not a synonym for humanity.  God is guaranteeing the safety of his nonhuman creation just as he did in Genesis 9, Hosea 2 & 4, and now in Joel.

However, the jealousy of God for the land is akin to his jealousy for Israel. Indeed, they cannot be separated. God has compassion on all creation. Remembering the covenant with creation given after the flood, and seemingly renewed by Hosea, Yahweh simply refused to extend the damage further. Instead of punishment, God announces three targets of grace:

Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field . . .
O Children of Zion, be glad and
rejoice in the Lord your God
(Joel 2:21– 23, NRSV)




God directly addresses the earth and animals, not just humans. Bound together in sin. Bound together in redemption. Each of these had cried out in lament. The suffering of creation was a sign of a lack of repentance. So now the praise of creation is a sign of alignment with God. God pours out healing grace.

Grace on the Earth.

Grace on the animals.

Grace on the people.

As creation joined humanity in lamentation, so now— as in the psalms— creation joins humanity in praise for the restoration of Eden.

So astounding is Yahweh’s grace, God seemingly apologizes for the damage done: “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locusts has eaten” (Joel 2:25). What was lost—grain, wine, and oil—because of sin is restored beyond measure.

Eden Renewed-Communion Restored

As amazing as God’s healing grace is to the land, the animals, and the people, this only points to the greatest grace—restored communion with God. The redemption of creation serves the purposes of God from the beginning: to mediate fellowship with God. After the miracle of salvation, Joel declares, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God” (Joel 2:27). Humanity, expelled from the divine presence, enjoys the redeemed “community of the world” as the Lord comes to dwell within creation again. This is the very promise of Revelation 21 and 22.

Concomitant with the renewal of creation is the pouring out of the Spirit. As the Spirit brought life in the beginning, so now the Spirit restores creation. The inhabitants of the world become the community of the Spirit:

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my Spirit.

(Joel 2:28– 29, NRSV)

Restored Eden is radically different from the social structures of the fractured world. Hierarchy, patriarchy, and social position lose their significance in God’s new creation. Resurrection is not just a renewed relationship with God but a redefinition of human society itself. The women called by God within Israel in unusual circumstances— Miriam, Deborah, Huldah— are now ordinary.

God’s church is a re/new creation within the old. Peter quotes Joel’s text on Pentecost to identify the dawning of the new age (Acts 2:17– 18). Less well known is how significant Joel 2 is for Paul. Paul’s appeal to baptism as our incorporation into the Abrahamic covenant in which all people shall be blessed echoes Joel’s promise:

Galatians 3:26–28                   Joel 2:28– 29
Jew/Greek                              All flesh
Male/female                          Sons/daughters
Free/slave                              Free/slave

The church is the future of the world on display within the old as a demonstration (or we are the leaven of life from God’s renewed creation sprinkled within the old) of what God intends to do with all of us.  Just as Jesus’s resurrection is the first fruit of God’s new world for all of us. Renewed Israel is the place where the old power structures are removed.

Yet we still wait for the final consummation of Eden’s return in the restoration of all things (Acts 3.21).

A New Notes:

[1] Joel’s relationship to the temple cult is explored in G. W. Ahlstrom, Joel and the Temple Cult of Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill, VTSup XXI 1971) and more recently in Laurie J. Braaten, “Earth Community in Joel 1-2: A Call to Identify with the Rest of Creation,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 28 (2006) 113-129.

[2] Graham S. Ogden, “Joel 4 and Prophetic Responses to National Laments,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (1983): 103-105.

[3] Locust invasions and drought are among the curses which come upon the land when humans sin (Deut 28.23-24, 38; Lev. 26.19-20)

[4] Scholars have identified nine “suffering” or “mourning” of the land passages in the Hebrew Bible. These are: Amos 1.2; Hos 4.1-3; Jer 4.23-28; Jer 12.1-4; Jer 12.7-13; Jer 23.9-12; Isa 24.1-20; Isa 33.7-9 and Joel 1.5-20.  See Laurie Braaten, “The Groaning of Creation: The Biblical Background for Romans 8:22,” Biblical Research 50 (2005): 19-39; Donald E. Gown, “The Fall and Redemption of the Material World in Apocalyptic Literature,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 7 (1985): 83-103

holy-spirit-piccyThe winners of Wineskins book drawing done through my blog to receive a copy of Mark Powell’s Centered on God are: Robert C. Bliss; Eric Whelchel; and Jerry Starling.

Introduction to Caricatures 

Ok! I grow tired, can I confess that?, of caricatures of the Old Testament. They are prevalent among Christians.  What is most disappointing is that many that profess to be “teachers” also perpetuate these false notions about God’s word.  Paul warned about those that wanted to be “teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Tim 1.7).  They do not invest the time to learn to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2.15) though Paul told Timothy these Scriptures make us wise unto salvation (2 Tim 3.15-16).  In each of the texts just cited, Paul is talking about what some Christians call the Old Testament.

What is baffling about these caricatures is that Jesus’s own faith is in the God of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus’s mission in the world is defined by the explicit words and theology of the Hebrew Bible (Luke 4; Isa 61; Lev 25). Almost every time Jesus opens his mouth it is with a word from the Hebrew Bible. He was so immersed and shaped by the Hebrew Bible that even in the greatest of all crises of his life, hanging on the Cross, he has no words to pray but those of the Psalms.

Do we not know that Paul, like his Master before him, cannot think apart from the Scriptures of Israel in Hebrew or their Septuagint translation. So he claims that his Gospel itself is “according to the Scripture.”  That is not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts and the Letter to the Romans (you know the song!).  The Good News is the Good News because of it has an ancestry.  When Paul speaks of salvation by Grace thru Faith he bases his entire theology upon the “Old Testament.” Abraham and David are prototypical.

So the caricatures are rooted in wilful ignorance.

A Sad Example

Several years ago I found myself involved in a discussion with a preaching brother who castigated me over some point about the Hebrew Bible.  I had published a blog about the grace of God in the Hebrew Bible.  He believed the myth perpetuated by many that the HB is “carnal” (his word) and that Jesus brought a brand new religion … grace-faith religion.

I shared numerous things with him that he simply refused to read. So I invited him to simply read the Psalms with me for a couple of months. That is a daily run thru the Psalter. He refused to my dismay even after I tried to explain how important they were for Jesus and the NT church.

He finally “marked me” because I clearly did not know the OT was “nailed to the cross” and “do not understand the distinction between the covenants.” I was sad but amused.

The Israelite, The Holy Spirit & Relationship with God

One of the greatest caricatures of the Hebrew Bible has to do with the Spirit of God. This is directly related to the old saw that the “OT” was a religion of legalism, form without substance, and ritual without life.  Certainly the Jews do not recognize themselves in our caricatures of them.  So the question can be formulated as follows:

Were Israelites/Jews aware of the need for and reality of God’s personal presence and aid to understand the word, to obey the word and to have communion with God?

Most recently I was involved in this discussion because my conversation partner hold the view that Israelites could obey God’s word without the indwelling of the Spirit therefore contemporary believers do not have any need of an actual indwelling of the Spirit either.  I disagree with the position from every quarter.  But I want to focus on the assumption that Israelites knew nothing of a personal presence of God in his Spirit and they were left without enabling divine aid to walk in the ways of God.  These assumptions simply do not reflect what is in the Hebrew Bible itself.

This is not intended to be a theology of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible rather we are exploring the idea of whether or not the Israelite had a personal relationship with his or Creator and Redeemer and if they knew how that was sustained.

Three Points Need to Be Made

The position just noted above is simply false and is based on misreadings of both Testaments. Serious ones.

First, God’s “word” in Scripture is not the Bible. I do not know of a single text where the word phrase “word of God” refers to a page with hand written words on it.

Second, the power of God’s word is not conditioned on which Testament it appears. The Hebrews Preacher believes that the “Old Testament” is nothing if not the Spirit himself talking (Heb 3.7, etc). So the Spirit is addressing people even in the Hebrew Bible.

Third, though we may be able to say that Israelites did not have the personal indwelling of the Spirit in the same manner as disciples in the Messianic Spirit age, it is decidedly NOT the case that they were not aware of the Spirit and their need for divine aid in accomplishing God’s will, for understanding the will of God and for faithful obedience.

The Spirit and Personal Divine Aid for the Israelite

The word ruach occurs about 400x in the Hebrew Bible. About fifty times it is clear in the context that ruach means air or wind (in the sense of the matter of Earth’s atmosphere) that leaves hundreds of times when it refers to a spirit from God.  This basic fact stuns many because they have trouble remembering any texts about the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible.

Typical of Hebraic theology is Psalm 51. Prayer is itself a request for divine aid even when such is not explicitly stated. But in Ps 51, a text that belongs to ALL Israelites that come to the temple to worship not just the author,

Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51.10)

The context is that of gross sin.  Sin of such a nature the psalmist believes that he/she does not have the power to overcome with her human willpower.  The editors of the Psalter thought it was a fitting Psalm to illustrate the horrific fall of David when he murdered Uriah and raped Bathsheba. Divine power is appealed to change the heart.

Isn’t this what Moses commanded Israelites in Deuteronomy, that they are to “circumcise your hearts” (10.16)? But did not Moses prophesy that Israel would fail? Did not Moses prophesy that Yahweh would circumcise the hearts of Israelites, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your soul and live” (30.6).

Significantly this Psalm also uses the word bara (create). This is not the word “make” but “create.”  This is evocative of creation itself and only God can bara in the Hebrew Bible.  “In the beginning God created (bara) …” The ancient Israelite encountered the creation stories the same way they did the psalms, in worship.  In Genesis, God’s creation of the pristine and good world is accompanied by the “Spirit of God” filling the useless chaotic void with life and goodness.  So the psalmist pairs her own prayer with creation and the Spirit … to to me what you did “in the beginning” … make me new … such an act of grace is nothing an Israelite could do by his strength, work, obedience or anything else.  It must be a new creation of God himself through his own ruach.

Psalm 51 is the prayer that thousands upon thousands of Israelites confessed and prayed in the context of their own struggles for God to do to them what Moses promised. They need God to do what they proven to be a failure at. Each one prays for Yahweh to create a clean heart, this is a brand new heart. The Jew knows this is not done by their own initiative or boot straps.  There is no illusion of self-sufficiency here.

Do not cast me away from you Presence
and do not take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51.11)

John Goldingay suggests this as the proper translation of Ps 51.11-12

Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit

This is a nonsensical statement and plea if the average faithful Israelite had zero conception of personal fellowship with God thru His Spirit. Further the person praying this prayer in worship recognizes that Yahweh sustains us with the Spirit and with the parallelism makes it abundantly clear that the saving help is from the ruach.

The saving help of Psalm 51 is God’s ruach, his Spirit. Not only is the Spirit the instrument of help in overcoming sin and the creation of the clean heart but the Spirit functions as the means of fellowship with God.  Communion with God was therefore in and through the Holy ruach of God.

holy-spirit1Praying for Divine Aid

All through the Psalms the psalmists are praying for divine intervention to enable them to understand and even obey just as we saw in Psalm 51.  In the longest and most complex meditation upon God’s Word within the pages of the Bible, Psalm 119, we are confronted repeatedly with the prayer of one that confesses love for God’s word but not the wisdom to understand nor the strength to be precisely obedient to it without God’s personal aid.


I treasure your word in my heart … teach me your statutes” (Ps 119.11, 12)

teach me your statutes, make me understand the way of your precepts” (119.26)

Put false ways far from me; and graciously teach me your law” (Ps 119.29)

Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart” (Ps 119.34)

Direct me in the paths of your commands, for there I find delight” (Ps 119.35)

Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain” (Ps 119.36)

The earth, O LORD, is full of your hesed, teach me your statutes” (Ps 119.64, see v.65, 73, etc)

Your statutes are forever right: give me understanding that I may live” (Ps 119. 144)

Many more texts can be cited but this final one says it all …

I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me” (Ps 119.102)

Let’s be clear about one thing as we read these words, the psalmists that pray this prayer are no asking God to give them the power of literacy.  They are not want to know how to read.  The psalmists already know what the “Bible” says! They are not praying that God give them lessons in grammar and syntax. God does not become the teacher by saying “read the book.” The commands, statutes, ordinances, etc are already known. The prayer is precisely,

open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things in your torah” (Ps 119.18)

Something divine had to happen! The prayers of Psalm 119 are precisely the prayer of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1.17-18 that the eyes of disciples hearts may be “enlightened” so they can know God!

The Israelite prays that God will personally teach him or her.  The Israelite prays that God will personally direct her or his steps.  The Israelite prays that God will personally enable the him or her to love the word in the first place. The Israelite prays that God will personally save them “I am YOURS; SAVE ME” (Ps 119.94; cf. v.76-77, etc)

In short Israelites pray in Psalm 119 exactly what they pray in Psalm 51.10-13.  They need Yahweh to personally sustain them through his Presence … through his ruach.

Isaiah’s Word on Israel’s Personal Relationship with the Spirit

Our Spiritual ancestors were very much aware of the stark truth that they depended upon the Spirit of the Lord for life, communion, power and even the source of obedience.  Isaiah looked could look back on Israel’s history from the time of her birth and testify that it was God’s Holy Spirit that was with them from the beginning.  Indeed in words not to distant in thought from Psalm 51 we note that it was gross sin that would drive God’s Spirit from dwelling with Israel.

I will recount Yahweh’s acts of commitment, Yahweh’s praise …
He was the one who restored them, lifted them up,
and carried them all the days of old.

It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them …

But they rebelled
and hurt his Holy Spirit …

But he was mindful of the days of long ago,
of Moses, of his people.
Where is the one who brought them up from the sea,
the shepherds of his flock?
Where is the one who put in its midst
his Holy Spirit,
the one who make his majestic arm go
at Moses’ right hand,
dividing the waters in front of them
to make himself a name in perpetuity
enabling them to go through the depths like a horse in the wilderness,
so they would not collapse,
like a beast in the vale that goes down,
the Spirit of the LORD gave them rest,
thus you led your people,
to make for yourself a glorious name
(Isaiah 63.7-14)

Isaiah tells us that it was not an angel that God used to bring Israel out from slavery or who was “with” the Israelites. Rather it was his Holy Spirit doing what is prayed for in Psalm 51.

Wisdom of Solomon, Relationship Sustained with God through the Spirit

Jews certainly were aware of God’s personal presence, Gods personal empowerment, God’s personal teaching and they did NOT confuse that personal presence, personal teaching, etc for the Bible.  The Psalms more than demonstrate that many Israelites seemingly had deeper and more intimate relationships with Yahweh than many of their Christian descendants. He is the “God of my salvation” after all (Isaiah 12.2, see vv 1-6)

It is simply a misrepresentation of the Old Testament (something Protestants and Restorationists do routinely anyway) to imagine that Israelites some how were confronted by God’s holy word and left to pull up their obedience by their bootstraps. The book of Psalms shatters the idea for the bunk it is. Having God withhold his Spirit was a terrifying thought for the faithful Israelite as we see in Ps 51.

But even if the one rejects the Apocrypha those books show what Jews believed that had been reading the same “Old Testament.” Thus in complete line with Psalm 119 we see in Wisdom of Solomon written in the two centuries before Jesus (scholars are divided on the date)

I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the SPIRIT of wisdom came to me” (6.7)

But I perceived that I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me” (8.21)

who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and SENT YOUR HOLY SPIRIT FROM ON HIGH” (9.17)

God’s word is activated and carried by the source of its power – the Spirit. It was mediated to Israel, so the Jews believed, thru the Spirit/Presence/Spirit of the Lord. Thus we read, Wisdom says,

your all-powerful word LEAPED FROM HEAVEN (clearly not the Bible), from your royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed” (18.15)

The Conclusion of the Matter: Walking with God Requires God’s Personal Ruach

God word is equally powerful in the Hebrew Bible and the Messianic age. Same God, same Spirit, same word empowered by the Spirit!

To understand God’s word required personal divine aid for which worshiping Israelites plead for routinely. To obey the holy commands revealed required that God personally “direct” our steps. Israelites personally knew the communion of God’s presence else they would not pray take not your Spirit from me.

Luke did not INVENT the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Jesus could not have accused some of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit had those Jews no inkling of who or what that was! They did know. And they knew divine aid was required for walking with God.

To recognize that the Israelite, or Second Temple Jew, may not have had full Trinitarian view of the Spirit does not in any fashion support the false idea they had not idea what Presence was, communion with God, felt the need for and received divine aid in following the will of God. They knew “something” about the Spirit. Simply because the doctrine of the Trinity was not fully comprehensible prior to the Incarnation does not mean that God became Triune at the birth of Jesus. God has always been Father, Son and Spirit.

The Holy Spirit was not unemployed in the Hebrew Bible.

This blog is no stranger to recommending good books for Bereans.  Today something a little different is happening.  I will be offering brief “book notes” for three books all published by members of the Churches of Christ and in conjunction with Winekins three copies of Mark Powell’s Centered in God will be given away on Friday July 8.  To be eligible you have to comment. Wineskins will place the responders in a randomizer to pick the three winners.  The winners will be announced on Facebook and my next blog.  I am delighted to partner with such a wonderful resource as Wineskins and if you do not already regularly read it I cannot recommend it enough.  It is without a doubt the best source for healthy teaching in Churches of Christ today.  I have included Amazon links for each book to facilitate ease in getting them.

CenteredMark E. Powell, Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality

Mark Powell is associate professor at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee.  There are many technical works on the “doctrine of the Trinity,” but Centered in God is not one of them. In fact what Powell has given us is a vision of Christian Spirituality by describing the practical implications of the Trinity.  So many Christians within the Stone-Campbell Movement think the Trinity is just some esoteric  notion that has no practical significance at all.  This is because of massive failure to understand and communicate on the part of thought leaders in Churches of Christ.

After briefly describing the foundations of the Trinity, Powell moves to the meat of his book which explicates how the Trinity is the foundation of virtually every dimension of truly Christian thinking, praying and worship.  Christian life is itself Trinitarian from beginning to end.  The Trinity keeps us from embracing Platonic and Gnostic views by leading us to embrace creation (I was gratified to see this phrase).  The Trinity is the basis for authentic human living and discipleship in the present age.  Three of the richest chapters in Centered in God are “Community,” “Worship,” and “Unity.” I wish I could just pull them out and pass them out at the Christian gathering and pay people to read them.  The book closes with a much needed meditation on the role of genuine mystery within the Christian worldview.

Centered in God is a genuinely good book. It is insightful, meditative and surprisingly easy to read. There are not many things in this world that could be more foundational to our Spirituality than taking time to reflect on and seek to be centered in the Triune God who reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Worship and praise will flow from you as you eat this book.

Make sure you comment below to be entered into the give away for this rich work.

PPPRLatayne C. Scott, Passion, Power, Proxy, Release

I received this book from the author near the end of April.  I have known Latayne Scott’s work since the 1990s when I needed reliable information on witnessing to Mormons (The Mormon Mirage; After Mormonism, What?; ). Then she wrote a work on worship, Crises: Crucible of Praise, that has left a phrase with me ever since I read it: “sometimes we praise God through clenched teeth.”  When Songs of Faith and Praise was published we were blessed with her poetry.

Passion, Power, Proxy, Release is a work of devotion focusing on the atmosphere of the Lord’s Supper.  The title gives us the four angles in which to we move during that holy meal.  Passion as we see his suffer; Power as we witness his resurrection; Proxy as we identify and participate in his suffering; and Release as we also share in the power of his resurrection.

Each devotion consists of a Scripture, an original piece of poetry and then a short meditation.  I made the mistake of rifling through this work as I camped out at Joshua Tree National Park on the way to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures.  I have since gone back and gone thru most of the meditations again.  Scott is a master poet and she offers some arresting examples.  Poetry is not simply some short rhyming limerick.  She shapes words in such a way that they rest in our mind and just sit there and slowly work their way into our subterranean nature where they do their work.  One of my favorite pieces is a meditation on Exodus 15.11-13 and the spontaneous outburst of praise by Moses, Miriam and the Israelites …

The force of your love
Awes me,
Like a great mountain I cannot ascend
But whose warming breezes
And crags of protection I crave.
I stand on the beach
of this limitless sea
Of forgotten depths;
I would drown myself
In its richness.
Shine forth, great mountain,
Roll forth, great ocean–
Your bursts of light
Pierce my dimmed eyes,
Your thunderings
Soothe my sluggish ears
Your beauty
Makes my heart sing
(Passion, Power, Proxy, Release, p. 46)

I think Passion, Power, Proxy, Release would be a great work of personal devotion and even shared in the context of corporate worship and small groups.  I also see it as a guide for specific seasons of the calendar. For example I think it would be a wonderful guide for Lent to focus our hearts, minds and souls on the heart of the gospel for a season. You will be so enriched by this work.

RRTanya Smith Brice, Reconciliation Reconsidered: Advancing the National Conversation on Race in Churches of Christ

Racism is a sin beloved. It is not some insignificant matter, some individualistic personal problem. Racism is a theological rejection of the Gospel itself.

My friend Tanya Brice, Dean of the School of Health and Human Services at Benedict College, has assembled a remarkable team of black, white, male and female thinkers and doers of racial reconciliation within Churches of Christ.  Reconciliation Reconsidered is divided up into three sections: Historical Realities; Contemporary Challenges; and Concrete Examples.  In the historical section I was gratified that the historical work has paralleled much of my own research revealing accommodation to the racist culture with occasional challenges here and there but mostly silence in the face of evil.  More focused chapters are by John Mark Tucker on “People of Faith at Racial Barricades: Little Rock, Arkansas 1957,” is fascinating.  In the section on Contemporary Challenges we are confronted with how do deal in Radical Love in the wake of Ferguson and the challenge of refusing to be silent.  The third section provides us with a hands on guide to congregations that are actually doing something and helping people like me have the courage to examine my own life and behaviors (microaggressions).

Reconciliation Reconsidered would be an excellent resource for small groups or personal study.  Ministers and elders ought to read the book and meditate upon it so the pulpit can be a healing voice in bringing the meaning of the Gospel’s reconciliation to visible manifestation in the local church.  I cannot help but believe that interaction with this outstanding volume can help Churches of Christ image the creational beauty and diversity of the Kingdom of God more faithfully.  Put it on your must read list and then actually read it.

Bring the Books

When Paul was languishing in prison he told his friend Timothy to bring the books.  I hope you will get all three of these books, I think each has something worthy to share and will bless you, enrich you and challenge you to kingdom living.

Remember to make a comment so your name will be entered into the randomizer for one of the three free copies of Centered in God to be given away by Wineskins.  The drawing will occur on Friday, July 8, 2016.

17_jews-gentiles-one-bodyThe “Soul” of Hebrew

Though Alexander Campbell advocated a dispensational hermeneutic in relating the so called “Old Testament” and New Testament his views are far more nuanced than most of his heirs in the Stone-Campbell Movement.  Campbell recognized that it is simply impossible to properly understand Paul apart from the Hebrew Bible.  Sounding incredibly modern, Campbell wrote in the Preface of the Living Oracles that a student of the Greek New Testament would be better served by spending hours reading and studying the Septuagint (LXX) to understand Paul than virtually any other commentary or discipline.

Paul wrote in Greek, Campbell said, but did so with a thick Old Testament and Jewish accent.  In fact a significant problem with the King James Version, he said, was that the King’s men did not recognize the “special character” of NT Greek.  Paul’s language has “the body of Greek but the soul of Hebrew.” A look at the most recognized Greek lexicon, BDAG, confirms Campbell’s insight. The LXX is more than a source of words and shaper of syntax, rather it is even more fundamental as supplying the worldview or structure of thought that is used within the New Testament.

The influence of the LXX on the NT is enormous and simply cannot be exaggerated.  All the words that we recognize as significant doctrinal words in the “New Testament” are first encountered in the LXX and had been there for hundreds of years by the time of Jesus, Paul and the early Way, as James noted that “Moses was read in every city” (Acts 15.21).  These words are themselves translations of Hebrew and they carry with them meanings that arrive out of the Hebrew text not classical Greek.  So we find “faith,” “grace,” “covenant,” “mercy,” “love,” “righteousness/justification,” “redemption,” “salvation,” and many more. One important word is the word “church.” The New Testament, and Paul in particular, did not simply invent the “doctrine” of the “church” out of thin air, as I have written about in two blogs on how the Hebrew Bible shapes the notion of “church.”  I hope you will check them out here: Old Testament Roots of the NT Doctrine of Church, Pt 1; and Old Testament Roots of the NT Doctrine of Church, Pt 2.

Hebrew Root of Paul’s Ekklesia

In my blog “Who Are We? Perhaps Not Christian: Luke’s Designations for the Followers of Jesus,” I showed that Luke uses the word ekklesia as a traditional Jewish word. Likewise it is not a word or idea that Paul came up with because of his missionary work. The apostle Paul inherits more than a word in ekklesia rather he inherits a whole perspective, a theology, or as we usually say, a doctrine.

Many make the mistake that Campbell cautioned against way back in the 1820s. They read Paul’s use of ekklesia as if they were reading Plato rather than Deuteronomy, the Psalms and Chronicles. Thus Robert Banks in his book Paul’s Idea of Community (many house church and “progressive” folks hold his work in esteem, and his work has value though in many ways he is not correct) argues that the word ekklesia simply means merely assembly without much theological/doctrinal content.  There are a couple places where this classical Greek meaning seems to be in view in the NT.  However, this position has been examined critically in many writers and does not work in Paul nor the rest of the NT by and large.

Indeed Paul did inherit the concept of ekklesia.  The word ekklesia appears around 100 times in the LXX, twenty-two of those in the Apocrypha.  The root of the concept of ekklesia lies with the Hebrew qahal.  The word qahal is translated in the LXX as synagoge 35x (and used of the “church” in James 2.2) and ekklesia over 70x.  When we examine the 100 or so times ekklesia is used in the LXX some interesting things emerge. Nearly every one of them refer to Jews (Psalm 26.5 and Ezekiel 32.22-23 being exceptions) that are actually assembled in reference to God or the torah (for example Deuteronomy 9.10; 18.16; 23.1ff and 31.30).  Thirty-three times in 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles ekklesia refers to Israel gathered as a worshiping community (in many of these texts ekklesia is used as a concrete noun for the people). In the Psalms and Sirach ekklesia is used of groups of Jews gathered for worship (cf. Pss 22.22,25; 26.12; 35.18; 40.9; 68.26; 107.32 and Sirach 15.5; 21.17; 24.2; 38.33; 39.10; 44.15).

The last book of the Hebrew Bible is 1-2 Chronicles and in its Greek translation uses ekklesia quite a lot. There were three great days of “church” in the “Old Testament:”  the day Israel was gathered before God at Mt. Sinai; the day Israel was gathered before God at the dedication of the Temple by Solomon and the day Israel was gathered before God and renewed as the people of God at Hezekiah’s Passover. I will offer a few examples from the day of the Temple.

According to the Chronicle’s telling of the story, the Temple dominates the end of David’s life and consumes the first years of Solomon’s reign. Indeed Solomon’s story in 2 Chronicles is taken up by the Temple. Thus from 1 Chronicles 22 to 2 Chronicles 7 everything is about the Temple.  Significantly the building of the Temple follows Solomon’s miraculous gift of wisdom (2 Chron 1-3).  The Ark of the Covenant is brought to Zion in a great ceremony.  Just as at Sinai, all Israel gathered “at the festival that is in the seventh month” (2 Chron 5.3). Israel breaks out in loud and joyous praise and worship singing a Psalm with instruments.  And “the house of the LORD was filled with a cloud, so the priests could not minister  because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God” (5.13-14; 7.1-2). It is not only Mt. Sinai redone but the Tabernacle redone (Ex 40.34-38).  At this point Solomon turns and blesses “the ekklesia/church of Israel” (6.3).  Standing before the Presence of the Lord (i.e. Altar and the Cloud), Solomon in the presence of the “ekklesia of Israel” (6.12, 13) and prayed to, and worshiped, the God of Abraham.  Similarly in Hezekiah’s Passover a great gathering/ekklesia was called (2 Chron 30.2, 4, 13, 17, 23, 24, 25) for the purpose of worship and renewing the people of Israel as a whole … the Passover is sort of a “reconstitution” of Israel itself. When ekklesia is used it is never a mere assembly but a manifestation of the people of God in the Presence of the Lord.

Looking at Paul

Most biblical scholars today will say that ekklesia was not a technical word among Jews in Jesus and Paul’s day, rather it was a loaded term.  We might want to think of the word “American” as a possible analogy. The word “American” is not, in fact, a technical term for a citizen of the United States.  Technically citizens from Mexico, Canada, Panama, and Brazil are also Americans. But in most common usage “American” is a loaded term and not a few people would imagine that it is indeed a technical term for citizen of the United States.  Just so there are a number of words that have the same basic analogous function in Second Temple Judaism, ekklesia is among those (Philo and Josephus tend to use the term as the LXX does).

If what we have explored above has any validity at all, and I think it does, then this informs our understanding of Paul in many ways and places.  The people reading the LXX in Paul’s gatherings are no stranger to the word ekklesia linguistically nor as a concept. I want to suggest that we find Paul using the word ekklesia in four ways against the backdrop of his inherited understanding of that word.

  1. ekklesia can simply refer to the people of God as an entity.
  2. ekklesia can refer to all the disciples, or the people of God, in a specific geographical area.
  3. ekklesia can refer to all the disciples, or the people of God, in the world.  (in these first three usages ekklesia is practically equivalent to “the people” [ho laos] which it is used in conjunction with in numerous LXX texts.  That is like using the word “American” noted above which most will interpret as citizen of the USA thus ekklesia of God, for example, is practically like using the word “Israel” and indeed Paul can use the phrase “Israel of God.”  “the people” is not just a loaded phrase but indeed a technical one and always refers to Israel)
  4. ekklesia can refer to a small gathering of disciples who are a local manifestation of the people of God.

Let me provide a few illustrations.  In full continuity with the LXX Paul uses ekklesia in the following places that carry significant theological weight.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism, I was violently persecuting the ekklesia of God” (Gal 1.13)

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the ekklesia of God” (1 Cor 15.9; cf. Phil 3.6)

Ephesians 2.11-22

Ephesians 2.11-22

In these texts Paul recognizes that there was something called ekklesia before his own encounter with the Messiah, therefore Paul was not the first to appropriate this term for disciples. Likewise Paul’s usage in these passages clearly does not mean a mere local assembly of people as in the classical Greek sense.  Rather what we have in these passages is an identification with the historic people brought to God and by God. As in 2 Chronicles the ekklesia of Israel was simply Israel constituted as the laos of God.  Paul had attacked not mere groups of people rather he attacked people of God as an entity.  The word ekklesia does not replace the word, much less the concept, Israel.  Rather it stands for Israel, the people of God.

We can see how Paul does this (what I claimed in the last paragraph) by his interweaving of the second usage of ekklesia in the list above with two other distinctly Old Testament terms for Israel.  In 1 Corinthians we can observe Paul wrapping #’s 1 and 2 above into one, that is all the disciples in a specific location identified with the concept of the people of God

To the ekklesia of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Messiah Jesus, and saints by God’s call …” (1.2)

Those who, unlike Paul and his readers, that are unfamiliar with the Hebrew Bible simply miss what Paul has done.  As Campbell said, a few hours reading the LXX does as much for understanding Paul as ten hours with a commentary (provided one actually learns the vocabulary).  Here in the space of a single sentence Paul has directly applied one loaded term and two technical terms straight out of the Septuagint directly to the disciples in Corinth.  The two technical terms further modify the loaded term.  The terms are ekklesia, kletoi, and hagioi.

In the LXX, Israelites are the “saints.”  On that great day of ekklesia at Mt. Sinai, by the act of God’s grace, the refugees from Egypt became the saints. Israel, that rebellious and faithless people, were declared to be Yahweh’s holy people (Ex. 19.6; Lev. 11.44, 45, etc, etc). Israelites were thus the saints (Num 16.3; Deut 33.3; Pss 16.3; 34.9; 89.5; Isa. 4.3; Dan. 7.18, 21, 22, 25, 27; etc).  Saints was a common term in Jewish literature of the time finding its way into the Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch and throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the LXX, Israel is the “called.” This is the idea of “election” or even ‘the elect” (hoi eklektoi).  This idea is in fact basic to the biblical teaching on Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  Israel is the called ones or chosen ones (1 Chron 16.13; Pss 89.3; 105.6; etc.)

In 1 Corinthians 1.2, the “saints” and “the called” refer to the very thing ekklesia does. Paul is designating all the disciples in the geographical area of Corinth with two terms that are the sole preserve of Israel in the LXX.  In using them Paul is identifying the Corinthians with Israel.  As Kevin Giles notes in What on Earth is the Church? An Exploration in New Testament Theology, the ekklesia of God must bear the same force as the previous terms.

Thus in 1 Corinthians 1.2, Paul does not use “ekklesia” as mere assembly.  Nor does he appropriate the term in contradistinction with the people of God in the “Old Testament.” Rather Paul uses the terms specifically to identify the Corinthians with Israel, the people of God.  It is not replacement but identification with. This is plainly evident as we read through the material of 1 Corinthians. Coming to chapter 10 we notice what is so frequently overlooked. The apostle places is Gentile converts squarely within the Israelite Story making no distinction at all.  “I do not want you to be unaware brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses …”  The heritage of Israel is now the heritage of these Gentiles, they are “our ancestors.”  The Corinthians have become part of the one people of God. As Christian Beker notes in his classic, Paul the Apostle, “the church, in its Jewish-Gentile unity is the proleptic dawning of the future destiny of Israel, but it is not Israel’s replacement” (p. 316).

Paul’s use of “church” is shaped by his “Old Testament” theology!  A lot can happen when we follow Alexander Campbell’s advice and read the New Testament through the Hebrew Bible. Or a Gerhard von Rad said bravely in the heart of Nazi Germany, there are many paths into the New Testament but only one that opens the proper meaning.  That is the path that goes through the “Old Testament.”


It has not been the purpose of this blog to write a complete “doctrine” of the church. My goal is far more limited. I want to caution us against two disastrous misconceptions both rooted in a failure to enter Paul through the Hebrew Bible.

For some people the doctrine of the church is merely organization (elders, deacons, name, etc). While we cannot say that Paul has zero interest in such matters we can say that such matters are not very prominent, and indeed simply absent from most of Paul’s letters.

Some conceive of “church” as something different and separate from the Old Testament and Israel.  The is patently not true of the book of Acts and, as I have argued here, it is simply not true of Paul’s Epistles either. For Paul his apostolic ministry is rooted in the mission that God gave Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  Israel, God’s saints, were to be a kingdom of priests and a light unto the nations.  Now the Jewish Messiah has come and Paul in his own mission to the nations is doing what Israel was called to do … that is to get the Gentiles to come worship the God of Israel because the King has come. In the Hebrew Bible in the new age the peoples of the world will join Israel in worshiping Yahweh as the true God.

The ekklesia is that renewed Israel of God that now includes Gentiles as children of Abraham, grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel, now “fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise in Messiah Jesus” (Eph 3.6) no longer “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2.11-13).  Paul does not use the word “church” to distinguish believers in the Messiah from Israel in the so called Old Testament.  Rather he uses that loaded word precisely to identify believers in the Messiah WITH Israel in the so called Old Testament. It shows the continuity of the One People of God … the Children of Abraham.

The “root” of Paul’s ekklesia is the Old Testament. It is Israel.  It is the promise to Abraham.  “[R]emember that it is not you [gentiles] that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11.18).

In fact the root of Paul’s ekklesia is so Old Testament in his concept, that we can say the ekklesia is the eschatological people of God as gathered before God in worship and as we witness to the coming glory of God which we celebrate in the present.  Paul is able to use the work ekklesia in four ways but all are the threads of a single rope that starts in the Hebrew Bible.  The ekklesia is the gathered by the call and grace of God people, who like in ancient Israel, stand in the Presence of God calling the world to join us in the worship of the Creator and King of all.

Jesus Christ Praying Wallpapers

Jesus wrestling in prayer

I have been in full time preaching ministry since 1992.  In that time I have worked with churches in radically different social settings.  Some ministers when they move they go fifty miles down the road. When I have moved it has been from New Orleans, to Grenada, MS, to Milwaukee, WI to Tucson, AZ.  Not only are these locations geographically separate but they are radically diverse culturally.  Each time I have been confronted with what does it mean to minister.  This year I am faced again with the question of what are the qualifications of being a minister?

I have reflected on these questions many times.  On the twentieth year of preaching I wrote my blog So You’re a Minister … Leaves from a Journal Spanning 20 Years. I asked Is Preaching Folly?

There are many things that help equip us for ministry.  A sense of calling. A deep life of prayer. Being equipped through training. But I have come to believe there are other “intangibles” that qualify the person for ministry with God’s people.

The Qualification of Struggles 

Maybe we can learn something about being a minister from the one who is the Son of Man himself.  He was a man “familiar with suffering.”  Struggling … wrestling … is not a sign of weakness.  It is a sign that one may very well be in tune with God. God named his people Jacob, the one that wrestles/struggles with God.  Flowing out of this wrestling comes ministry itself.  That is the minister’s own life becomes a training ground for ministry.

Jesus’s ministry was molded and shaped by events in his personal life and in the lives of the people he met. Thus the timing and place of Jesus’ first miracle was determined by the relationship he had with his mother. Jesus’s interaction is different with Nicodemus than with the Samaritan woman. Jesus’s words to the Pharisees are radically different than those to the woman “caught in the act” (where was the man??) of John 8. And Jesus’s own experience of prayer is quite different in the “Lord’s Prayer,” the Garden, and his prayer on the Cross.

My philosophy of ministry, therefore, holds that ministry flows directly out of our own pain, hurt, triumphs and failures seen in light of God’s purpose. Though the Hebrews’ Preacher is talking about an ancient Jewish high priest it is, nonetheless, true that the Christian minister can best serve precisely when he has struggled with the same life situations as are common to humanity. This kind of ministry majors in mercy.

Light from Hebrews on Being a Minister

I recently read through Hebrews, again. It is a text that I think is frequently misunderstood. But as I was reading it dawned on my to ask, what does the ministry of Jesus as described in Hebrews have to say about OUR ministry today?

I am really coming to believe that “life” is a major requirement for ministry. Listen to what the Hebrews Preacher says about the “qualifications” that God used to see if a person was fit for ministry.

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are …” (Heb 4.15)

He is able to sympathize with people who don’t know very much, or who wander off in different directions, since he too has his own share of weaknesses” (5.2)

Although he was a son, he learned the nature of obedience through what he suffered” (5.8)

That word there in v.2, ‘since‘ perhaps we should translate as “because.” The meaning is the same. Thus some “qualifications” for ministry might be:

1) Must know what temptation is like to the point that it is a “struggle”

2) Must have gone through some valleys in life to know what “suffering” is.

3) Must have come to a knowledge of obedience by wrestling with God.

It would seem, according to the Preacher, that such qualifications actually make one “fit” to actually minister with God’s own people. The “priest” is never above or apart from the people because he is himself one who sins and has to seek forgiveness for his own weaknesses. It would seem such “qualifications” are an antidote to self-righteousness.

The result of such training seems to be “gentleness” or “mercy.” Some of the harshest people I have met over the years are people who see their own life history above the fallenness of this world. Some of the best elders, deacons, preachers, teachers and disciples I have ever met are ones who know what it is like when the hurricane strikes. The struggles of the “priest” make him a minister of compassion and love and mercy.

Just another perspective on being a minister for, and of, the people.

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.