17 Sep 2017

Church in the Shape of a Meal

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Church, Family, Forgiveness, Lord's Supper, Unity

The Bible talks a lot about eating. In fact some scholars claim Scripture speaks of food and eating more than it does faith. And it just may.

Have you ever stopped to ask why food and tables are so prominent in the Story of God with Creation?

Abram/Sarah cooked for angels.
God ate with Moses & the elders on Mt. Sinai
Unrecognized by many but almost all the sacrifices were simply divine barbecues.
The prophetic vision of the renewed creation is presented as magnificent feasts with luxurious food and expensive wine.

And what about Jesus!? Have you ever noticed how often Jesus is eating with people? Or how often Jesus told stories about giant buffets. And then Jesus feeds the masses, on a mountain side btw, till they are ready to take a nap. And the followers of Jesus had some of their first fights around the meal that Jesus wanted his disciples to celebrate all the time. And Paul got pretty upset with Peter because he would not eat with Gentiles.

Meals in the Ancient Near East are far more than having a burger at Five Guys. A meal indicated social equality. A shared meal indicated acceptance – that is fellowship. A meal binds the participants in a common way of life. In a very real sense a meal was a profound moment of grace, of saying that “you” and “I” are “ok.”

The Pharisees clearly understand the significance of meals. This is why they scoff at Jesus for eating with “sinners.” Listen to me very carefully, the meals of Jesus are virtual reality moments of the new heavens and new earth breaking into this fallen age They point to the reality of new creation grace.

Forgiveness in the bible is never simply a mental idea. It changes the world.

When Luke tells us that Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, ate and drank with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the tax collectors, the adulterers, with Pharisees, the demon possessed he is saying something incredibly significant. The meal is the social expression of what redemption looks like.  Those who are saved, forgiven, redeemed are now one in the New Creation.

Forgiveness meant to heal. How is healing recognized – a meal. We are no longer at war – eat. Two families are now one – we eat together. Humans have been reconciled with God – we eat together. Humans have been reconciled to one another – how do I know? We eat together!!!

The meals of the Bible are the social reality of salvation. The meals of the Hebrew Bible, the meals of Jesus, and the Meal we eat every week is to be the proclamation that we are one, that we are united, that we are equal.  If we eat together in the presence of God then we are at shalom with one another.

The Pharisees knew this. Those who objected to unclean Gentiles eating at the table in Antioch knew this. Paul knew this in Corinth where the meal was destroyed by the shaming of the poor by the rich.

If our churches today were molded and shaped by God’s dinner table as Jesus was in his life then chances are the Pharisees will take notice. But the meal is not about deserving a place there. We are at the dinner table eating because the Creator God has sat us at his table and put a plate in front of us and said, eat with me.

Perhaps it is a commentary on our imprecise Bible reading when we do not seem to think the ubiquitous meals of Scripture and Jesus teach us what it means to be the church. I invite you to reflect prayerfully on Luke 7.36-50 in light of what we have said.

Church is best expressed in a meal … the physical, literal, social manifestation of forgiveness and welcome.


In our “Journey thru the Bible” we have been in the Gospels and in fact finished reading them this morning after Psalm time.  I love Jesus. I even worship him. His story is so compelling.  And reading the Gospels as a continuation of the same narrative contained in the first part of my Bible really makes Jesus “come alive” in ways that are powerful.

This morning for some reason I was drawn back to an earlier reading in the Gospel of Matthew.  And there the story of Jesus, the story of Israel and the story of me all came together.  In this text Jesus teaches the church about forgiveness.

Jesus and His Old Testament Theology Directed at the Church. (Yes the teaching of Jesus is for the church)

In this text, the call of Jesus is for us to be “The Return from Exile, Jubilee Immanuel People.” That is people molded by the heart of the theology of the Hebrew Bible. I pray you will appreciate this text more, your own relationship with God more and Jesus more …

You remember that powerful parable of Jesus in Matthew 18.21-35. The story begins with Peter asking how many times we should forgive a brother or sister caught in a terrible offense (vv.15-20) “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (NRSV)

The Jewish theologian from Nazareth replied “Not even seven times but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.”

Ears to Hear: The “Old Testament” Baseline

This is a classic example to illustrate Jesus’s call to have ears to hear. Two powerful themes from the Hebrew Bible are quite literally shoved into Peter’s face by Jesus. These numbers, 70s and 7s, were floating in the air of Jesus’s day. But where did they come from and what were their significance?

Daniel 9

The first theme comes from book of Daniel. In Daniel 9, we are told Daniel prays to God in Exile. The exiled Daniel reminds God that he had read in the “book of Jeremiah the prophet” that the time of Exile would be “70 years” (9.2). Daniel continues in his prayer basically telling God it is time for the promised forgiveness to happen and time for Israel to return to the Land (9.3-19). The time of forgiveness has come is Daniel’s plea. Gabriel was dispatched to bring a response to Daniel’s prayer.  The angel tells Daniel that indeed he is right. The prophecy is coming true but not in the manner he assumes. Instead of 70, it will be “70×7” or 490 years. We see our phrase in that Jesus uses to answer Peter.

In Jesus’s day many Jews actually had their “calculators” out and expected the seasons of refreshment (see Peter’s statement in Acts 3.19-20) to be then (or now). God was doing his new work again. That is God would come and dwell with them again as in the days of old, as in the days of the glorious Exodus and the Temple (Exodus 40.34-38 & 1 Chronicles 5.13-14; 7.1-2) . So Jesus is telling Peter the time has come. It is Time to be Immanuel – God with them – People. The Forgiveness People. What Daniel had prayed for has come.

Leviticus 25

The second powerful connection in Matthew 18 is Leviticus 25, the great year of Jubilee, the year of grace, the year of forgivness.  The great, even unbelievable, command that every 7×7 years the people of God are to mimic Yahweh by forgiving one another’s debts. A life time of crippling debt (literal debt), grudges, animosities, and hates had sapped the life out of God’s people. The coming of the “year of the Lord’s favor” is signaled by the blowing of the shofar along with massive parties to celebrate liberation, restoration, redemption, and forgiveness (the entire parable Jesus tells is literally a “Jubilee” parable … the King destroys the records of debt and forgives.)

One of the fundamental claims of the Gospels is that in the person and ministry of Jesus, the Year of Jubilee has arrived with a vengeance! It is difficult to properly read the Gospels without the Jubilee motif constantly before our eyes and ears. But we moderns often miss it because of a failure to know the Hebrew Bible inside and out.

So Jesus tells Peter, the disciples — you and me — that we are the return from Exile people (we are no longer exiled from his Presence because Matthew tells us God is among us). We are the Immanuel People. We are those among whom God dwells.

If God has come to live with us we have been delivered, we have been set free, we have been forgiven. Jesus tells Peter that as such we are  to be “The Jubilee People.” In the Year of Jubilee there is no keeping a slate of the wrongs committed against us. The slate has been whipped clean and then destroyed! We are the 490 times, or better the people who just do not keep a record of wrongs. The means of keeping a record of grudges is itself gone. So Jesus is saying, “Peter if you are going to be a part of this return to the presence of God movement, then you have to be a Jubilee person. Stop parceling out grace, mercy and forgiveness as if it were mint, dill and cumin that Pharisees parse!!

The Jubilee People

Matthew, in telling the story of Jesus in chapter 18, is making massive claims about not only Jesus but also those who would be his “church” — as this parable directed to the church (18.15-20). It is not enough to claim to believe certain things about Jesus to be his church. It is not enough to proclaim certain marks of the one true church.

To be Christ’s church is to be a Jubilee, Return from Exile, Immanuel Forgiveness People!

This is what is going on in Matthew 18. What we call the “Old Testament” is quite literally essential to having any understanding of the text … and we pray that we become those 70×7 … that is those who do not keep track of sin … people. We do not even have a tablet to write the records upon (cf. Ps 130).

Exile is ended. Jubilee has begun. Immanuel is with us. So act like it, the Messiah says to Peter … and to you and to me.

Shalom & Be Blessed

The Cross is God’s “balance beam”

Bobby You Have to Balance Grace with Falling from Grace

We often hear from critics when we preach or teach on God’s grace or love. It has happened this very week. They say we have to “hold everything in balance. We must talk about responsibility and hell to be true to the Bible. Preaching grace and love is fine.  But without the corresponding fact that we can fall from grace leads to apostasy resulting in denominationalism. You simply cannot be faithful to New Testament Christianity without preaching on hell” (quoting my critic).

I have heard this line of reasoning many times in my life. But I have learned over the years that these well meaning critics have a made up definition of “balance.”Usually what is regarded as balance looks nothing like the proportion of material devoted to something in the Bible itself.

Surely the Scripture itself tells us what God himself thinks is “balanced.” Since we claim that Scripture is our model, our guide, our pattern then is it not also a model/guide/pattern on the meaning of balance in Christian doctrine and preaching?

Is Scripture Really Our Model/Pattern? A Back to the Bible Test

I suggest that we lay aside all sectarian and denominational agendas and let the Bible decide what is balanced. Isn’t that what we claim we want when we claim to be a “Back to the Bible” movement? If our teaching and preaching does not mirror the emphasis of Scripture then it is we who are out of balance with the word of God.

So I did a little experiment today. I asked the following questions and got some startling answers from the New Testament.  Do the Apostles, does the entire NT, pass the balance test of his scale?   When I shared my results with my critic he literally dismissed out of hand.  What he meant by balance had nothing to do with Scripture but reinforcing loyalty to a religious (sectarian??) agenda. I call it the “sniff test.”

+ How many times does Paul preach about hell?

+ How many times does Luke in Acts mention hell?

+ How many times does the New Testament as a whole talk about hell?

+ How many times does Paul/NT talk about grace?

+ How many times does Paul/NT talk about love?

If you have never done this experiment you will be shocked by the answers. My critic/s would have you to believe that “hell” occupies a significant amount of biblical teaching. The critics would have you believe that ‘balance’ means devoting nearly, if not actually, a one to one emphasis on grace/love to hell/lost/etc. My friends that is a complete made up belief with not a shred of biblical support.

The Test Results from the New Testament

So if you ask “how often did Paul mention hell in his epistles from Romans to Philemon?” The answer is a big fat 0!! Yes that is ZERO! There is not a single verse in any epistle with Paul’s name attached that even contains the word “hell.”

What if we ask “how often does Acts, with the only sermons in the NT in it, mention hell?” The answer is a big fat 0!! Yes that is ZERO!

Between the epistles of Paul and Acts that is huge chunk of the New Testament that does not even mention hell a single solitary time. When Paul was chastising the Corinthians you would think reminding them of the fires of hell would be useful to “scare the hades” out of them.  Hell is simply not a recognizable theme in the epistles of Paul regardless of what my critic claims.

The facts that emerged from our “back to the Bible” test is that the entire NT uses the word “hell” a grand total of 14x. There are 138,020 words in the Greek New Testament (give or take a couple hundred because of textual variation).  The word “hell” occurs fourteen times out of 138,020 words.  Anyone want to do the math and decide on the balance on that?

So when the Holy Spirit speaks, giving us the model, the guide, the pattern the Spirit only saw fit to speak of hell, from Matthew to Revelation, 14x. All but two of those are in the Gospels and several of those are parallel passages themselves and not independent occurrences.

The two places outside the Gospels with the word “hell” are James 3.6 and 2 Peter 2.4.

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and it is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3.6, NIV)

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when be brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;” (2 Peter 2.4, NIV)

That’s it.  The only two places in the New Testament where we find the word “hell.” I believe in the reality of hell. But it does not look like the Apostles used it very often to frighten anyone or for any other purpose.

Balance of Love and Grace Vs Hell: According to the Bible

Now are you ready for the biblical balance on grace and love?? Be prepared for some amazement.

If I asked, “I see that the NT uses hell 14x, so how often do the writers speak of grace?” The answer to this is an astounding 123x!! That is one hundred and twenty-three times.

If I asked, “I see the NT uses hell 14x, so how often do the Spirit guided writers speak of love?” The answer is a whopping 232x!! Yes that is two hundred and thirty-two times the NT writers speak of love. By the way if we expand that to the whole Bible the number climbs up to 551 times the Scriptures speak of love.

The Bible exalts, from Genesis to Revelation, the themes of grace and especially love. Grace is the function of divine love. We cannot be true to the God of the Bible, the Holy Spirit or Word if grace and love are not the foundation of every sermon we preach.

If our preaching and teaching reflected this biblical balance my critic would not be able to criticize with a straight face.  If the Bible is our norm then why is that I can count on one hand the teaching I received on grace in my formative years on one hand.  And my most frequent recollection of the word “grace” is that it was always accompanied by the word “but.”  So we had “yes, we are saved by grace, but …”  (See my article in Grace Centered Magazine, linked here: “The Grace ‘But’).

Paul’s Notion of Balanced Preaching

The Pauline notion of balance is Titus 3.3-8. All the action, all the verbs, all the doing is the Triune God’s (Father, Spirit, Son). Baptism in v.5, is not an instrument of “Precision Obedience” but the glorious work of the Holy Spirit. Goodness, loving kindness, mercy, justified by grace. Paul says in v.8 “I want you to STRESS these things.” Why Paul? “so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.”

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. BUT when the KINDNESS and LOVE of God our Savior appeared, HE SAVED US, not because of righteous things we had done, BUT because of his MERCY. HE SAVED US through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been JUSTIFIED BY HIS GRACE, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. AND I WANT YOU TO STRESS THESE THINGS, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone” (Titus 3.3-8).

This is the Holy Spirit’s call for balance and what needs to be stressed. This is the entire “plan of salvation” in a few verses.  There is not a single human action even mentioned in these verses. Baptism is mentioned but it is not a human “doing” but a “God doing” in this passage. And while my critic claims that you have to stress falling from grace and hell to avoid “apostasy resulting in denominationalism,” Paul states the 180 degree opposite.

Love. Kindness. Justification by Grace. Mercy (the reader attune to the rhythms of the Hebrew Bible will recognize that Paul’s highlighted vocabulary is rooted in Exodus 34.6-7). Love, Kindness, Grace, Mercy, He saved us, these are the basis and ground for obedience and Spiritual growth. Healthy Christians are planted in the love of God. Obedient Christians are immersed in the grace of God. Faithful Christians are ever conscious of the mercy of God.

Embracing the Biblical Balance

We can never scare people into faithfulness. We may frighten them into pathological legalism but we will never scare them into devotion and love for God. Fear is not the offspring of genuine biblical teaching. John says that love casts out all fear in fact. Paul talks about obedience, but he does not scare people into heaven.  Obedience, and this is true in the “Old Testament” as much as it is in the “New Testament,” obedience is called for and based upon God’s prior act of grace towards us.  To put it as John puts it, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4.19).

So to my critic. I am thankful you have been my critic. I have learned that I have not stressed, as Paul directed, God’s love and grace nearly according to the biblical balance.

Love saturates the New Testament 232x and the whole biblical canon. Grace flows from the Apostles 123x. Never once did a biblical writer apologize for “stressing” God’s gracious love rather they exalted it.

Now my point is not that a word count settles all things because it does not.  However this is indicative of the stress of the biblical narrative and the balance for which we want to emulate in our ministry.  Paul tells us what to stress.

Be blessed.

Marty & Doc about to visit the Jerusalem Temple

In our Journey through the Bible we are in the Gospels, and Acts is looming near.  There is so much of the geography, the social customs and religious practices that we often are not in tune with.

In particular the Temple is one of the most prominent things in the Gospels, Acts and in all the NT. But we know so little about it. So what if we take a “fact finding” trip to the Temple during the time of the Gospels and the Acts, from about AD25ish to AD 65ish.  It would be an exciting trip.

So lets make sure the flux capacitor is fluxing, get in our DeLorean, and go Back to the Temple. As we the doors open on our time machine what would Marty and Doc see? What would Jesus, Peter, James, the thousands of early believers in the Way … what did they see as Peter and John was heading to worship in Acts 3?

But first we need some traveling music … from the Psalms

Lyrics from the Psalter

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars,
O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise …
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper
in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness
(Psalm 84.1-4, 10)

Walking Through the Temple

We would be impressed first by how massive the Temple complex actually is. It is built to make a statement. We would also be amazed at how many people are here, including Gentiles from all over the world who come by the thousands to see the Temple and worship the God of Israel (cf. John 12.20; see texts like Tobit 13.11; 14.6).

We would see the daily Temple worship and rituals (not a bad word btw) were performed primarily by the priests but not exclusively so. The priests, however, in Herod’s Temple had exclusive access to the altar and the sanctuary. There they offered up to the Father of Jesus both communal and individual sacrifices, burned incense and kindled the candelabrum in the sanctuary and pronounced the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6.22-24) upon the people.

We would see the Levites working alongside the priests. In Herod’s Temple the Levites did not have access to the altar and sanctuary though. They served as singers and gatekeepers. As we walk thru the Court of the Gentiles toward the Court of Women we would ascend a series of steps. As we did we would join the Levites as they sang on their sacred instruments the Psalms of Ascent (Pss 120-134) with each step up.

Only ceremonially clean Jews, men and women, were allowed to enter the Temple proper (which begins with the Court of Women). There is a large monumental inscription warning Gentiles to go no further into the Temple, if they do they bear sole responsibility for their fate. There was a small wall here about waste high that “divided” and served as a “barrier” for Gentiles. Most scholars believe this is what Paul refers to in Ephesians when he writes Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall” that reflected ethnic division (Ephesians 2.14).

The Levites are not only our worship leaders as we ascend into the Temple but they serve as the bouncers safeguarding the Temple. It was their job to protect, by any means necessary, the sanctity of the temple. These Levitical bouncers were stationed at 24 different places

Looking over the Courts of Women and Israel and Priests to the opening of the sanctuary which contains the Holy of Holies

1) at the five Temple gates
2) at the four inner corners
3) at the five gates of the Temple court
4) at the Temple courts four exterior corners
5) behind the Holy of Holies
6) in five chambers

Josephus tells us that 200 to 240 gatekeepers – guards – were at their posts day and night at the Temple. The gatekeepers were responsible for opening and closing the gates to the Temple.

As we pass the guards with our best Jewish impression, passing the ceremonially clean test, we see thousands of Jews from all over Palestine, and the whole world, entering the this place of pilgrimage. What are these people doing on any given day? What did Jesus, Peter, James and the followers of the Way see and do in that Temple. They came to …

1) fulfill their obligations and vows, offering of first fruits, tithes, wave offerings and sacrifices
2) worship, pray, and celebrate during the liturgy
3) to inquire of priests
4) to study the Torah and talk in the virtual Presence of the Lord (dozens of rabbis are teaching)
5) to participate in Temple worship alongside the priests for special offerings

While teaching in the Temple courts, Jesus refers to himself as “the vine.” There are rich “OT” roots for this image. But also every one would see the Golden Vine at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the presence of God. No one would miss the point. (John 15.1-17)

We notice that “ritual purity” is a major concern and function of the Temple. Thus on the fourth and seventh day worshipers were doused by the priests with cleansing water to take away defilement.

Purity is rigidly enforced. The Levitical bouncers protect the Temple from any one that is not clean (including priests). Thus around the Temple mount are immersion pools for pilgrim worshipers to pass through before entering the Temple. So we see a lot of wet people as they enter the Temple courts.

I have often said it just may alter our view the early church. When we read the Gospels and Acts, we need to imagine a drenched Jesus coming up out of the mikva (immersion pool) as he enters the Temple. And as the church gathers in the courts, the three thousand, are soaking wet just to get in.  Such images would remind us just how Jewish the Messianic Way was/is.  This is the background in Acts 2, including 2.46 and Acts 21. Peter and John simply could not get in the temple in Acts 3.1 without going through ceremonial cleansing, a mikva.  A Levite would happily relieve them of their lives if they tried.

We notice that the Temple is regarded by Jews as a house of prayer for all the nations of the world and not just Jews (see even texts like Tobit 14.6; etc). Gentiles would come to worship the God of Israel and were allowed the privilege of presenting offerings to the Lord through the priests. They came to be taught the way of the Lord in Scripture (Torah).

Looking at the hand out of the daily activities, we note that daily worship begins and ends with a whole burnt offering. A lamb in the morning and in the evening. Between those services the priests remain busy. Various offerings are offered up as worship with groups bringing their sacrifices to the God of Israel.  These same priests would have worshiped with Paul in Acts 24.11,14,16. What are these various sacrifices that we know so little about? Most sacrifices were voluntary and nonobligatory.  They are offered out of gratitude and thanksgiving.

1) burnt offerings
2) shalom offerings
3) thank offerings
4) various categories of meal offerings

There were also obligatory sacrifices that people had to make for various reasons

1) sin offering
2) guilt offering
3) purification offerings

Temple depicted on a coin from the Bar Kochba era.

Jesus commanded a pilgrimage of sacrifices to the leper he cleansed in Galilee, Luke 5.12-14. “[G]o show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them” (5.14).

We notice that sacrifices are not so much throwing a carcass of an animal on the altar. Rather only small portions of the animal, typically the fat, are burned on the altar.  The rest is shared in a delicious communal meal with family, friends and priests.

Having never witnessed sacrifice before we are taken aback that our imagination was seriously skewed.  Sacrifice is more like a big Texas BBQ than endless legalistic burning animals for a wrathful deity. The aroma of the Temple is delightful to the senses.

So we see a lot of eating on God’s holy mountain and suddenly we recall passages in the Hebrew Bible that we just ignored previously, texts like Exodus 24.1-11; Isaiah 25.6-7; and Isaiah 55. The Temple is a place of joy, thanksgiving and feasting in the Presence of the Lord.

During our visit to the Temple we experience periods of prayer and readings from the Law of Moses (i.e the Bible). We would sing joyously at the top of our voices the Psalms and hymns on various instruments.

We may even join in the dances of the women in the Court of Women before the steps going into the Court of Israel. Jesus seems to have done lots of teaching in the Court of Women (cf. Lk 21.1-4). Singing, music and dancing in the presence of the “Father” also figures prominently in Jesus’s parable of the Father that we sometimes call the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32, vv. 25, 32).

Jerusalem was dominated by the Temple in Jesus’s life and the Book of Acts

Amazed By What We See

By the time we walk back to our DeLorean we can only imagine what this place would be like during one of the great festivals! But suddenly Marty looks at Doc and says, “you know Doc I think I see things about Jesus and the Way that I never even dreamed about before.” We realize that the Temple dominates the Gospels literary landscape as much as it does Jerusalem’s geographical landscape. Luke’s Gospel begins in the Temple, it ends in the Temple. Luke opens part 2 of his story in the Temple, the Messianic Way is literally born in the Temple. The Jerusalem Church barely leaves the Temple.  Jesus did not just teach in the Temple. Jesus worshiped in the Temple. See my article Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced.

Jesus loved the Temple.

Our discoveries on our Time Machine trip may also show us that the Temple actually begins the Bible in Genesis 1  and closes the Bible in Revelation 21-22. But that is another Time Machine trip.

Neither Jesus nor the early church experienced anything like what the average American follower of the Messiah does any day of the week … including Sunday. May we be faithful readers of the Story of Jesus and the continuing story of Jesus in the Way.

But I’m ready to go back to the future.

Some Important Resources

G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Mission of the Church (IVP 2012)
G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (IVP 2014)
James H. Charlesworth, ed, Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archeological Explorations (Fortress 2016)
Oskar Skarsuane, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (IVP 2008)

In Earlier Days Protestant scholars in particular attempted to make a sharp distinction between Temple worship and the Synagogue.  This distinction simply will not hold up to historical scrutiny especially in light of archeological discoveries.  So in the last 40 years there has been a major shift in thinking on the connection between the two.  Here are two very important articles.

Mordechai Aviam, “The Decorated Stone from the Synagogue at Migdal: A Holistic Interpretation and a Glimpse into the Life of Galilean Jews at the Time of Jesus,” Novum Testamentum 55 (2013), 205-220

Peter J. Leithart, “Synagogue or Temple? Models For Christian Worship,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2002), 119-133

For the love of Christ compels us on …” (2 Corinthians 5.14)

All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation …” (2 Corinthians 5.18)

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3.16)

Those who say, ‘I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4.20)

I want to state at the outset that my goal in this post is extremely limited.  My goal is simply to encourage some people who look more like my part of the human race to embrace the notion of racial reconciliation. I do not attempt to address or solve every facet but if we can at least get on the path and start the journey then my goal will have been reached.

Confessing Inadequacy, Finding a Compass Point

“Racial reconciliation.” I hesitate to address this matter. However I have had numerous requests to address this topic, including from some of my African-American friends. So with fear and trembling, I broach the subject.

My perspective is rooted in and shaped explicitly in the fact that I believe the church is God’s new creation placed like leaven inside this rebellious age and Christians act out that reality regardless of anything else.

The deeper the divide the harder reconciliation will be. I believe this is why Paul, who speaks of ethnic reconciliation throughout his Epistles (that Bible students do not recognize this speaks volumes to our failure to listen to the text), begins by demanding disciples have the “mind of Christ.” The division between Euodia and Syntyche was impacting the entire Philippian congregation. It is hard to do nothing out of selfishness but “in humility regard others as better than ourselves. Let each of [us] look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Messiah Jesus” (Philippians 2.3-5).

If my pride, or ego, refuses to even entertain a point of view that is outside my own experience then reconciliation, as envisioned by the Pharisee who sat with Gentiles, will simply remain a sham and mere rhetoric in the American Christian community. Our self justifications, our defensiveness, our pride in the things of this rebellious age must be crucified with Christ.

In what follows, I have attempted to use analogies to communicate. It is not my intention to suggest any of these analogies are moral equivalents. They are merely an attempt to communicate and lower defenses of people who look like me. I am also speaking explicitly and intentionally from and to those who claim to be disciples of Christ. At the bottom are a few recommended resources.

Reconciliation Begins with Obedience

Reconciliation is not simply saying that “racism is a sin.” Though that needs to be stated boldly and clearly to disciples of Christ. Racism is actually an attack upon God’s own self-expression! Fellow human beings are indeed the “expression” of God, God’s very self-portrait. So we must state that racism is as alien to our walk with God as idolatry itself. Reconciliation, however, moves beyond the mere recognition that racism is spitting at the image of God to the building of genuine relationship and fellowship.

Reconciliation is a matter of obedience to the message of the Messiah those in the church. It is not a Republican, Democrat, white, black, or hispanic issue. Reconciliation is an obligation laid upon disciples of the Jewish Messiah by his Cross and God’s victory in the Resurrection. So with a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I begin with this statement:

Reconciliation must be intentional.

Racial reconciliation simply will not happen if “I” do not take the responsibility to act.   How might that happen?

Embracing the New Testament Gospel

American disciples need to finally come to terms with the truth that the Gospel is not Gnostic private piety. When a preacher of New Testament Christianity can say the following words with a straight face something is awry:

Marshall Keeble was a great man, but one of the main reasons why he was so beloved by our Southern brethren was that he knew how to keep his place. He would never have been so un-scriptural as to teach that brotherhood in Christ should pervade everyday life, in such things as schools, jobs, public restrooms, or — perish the thought — calling a black man something other than “boy.”

This is a Gnostic view of Christianity and salvation.  That the Gospel is so disconnected from this world in which we live that new creation can literally be dismissed as having any claim on our lives in the present is the very essence of Gnosticism. As offensive as that may be to some it is the truth.

The Gospel is not merely, or only, or simply, or primarily about my personal sins and their forgiveness so that I can escape the fires of hell and go to some nebulous place called “heaven.” The Gospel is cosmic. It is as broad as divine creation. Every thing, visible and invisible that has been ruined through the horrific impact of Sin is the target of the blood. The Gospel declares that the Cross, the blood of Christ, was shed to deal with suffering of creation. The most graphic symptom is the division of the human race is the warfare we make upon other image bearers (i.e other “races”) as if that particular image is inferior. Read Ephesians 2.11-22, Colossians 1.15-20 and Romans 8.  The “you’s” in Ephesians are both plural and refer to an ethnic category, Gentiles.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth [i.e. ethnic category] … remember that at that time you [plural, Gentiles] you were separated from the Messiah, excluded from citizenship in Israel, and aliens to the covenants [plural] of promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Messiah Jesus you [plural, Gentiles] who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of the Messiah.

For he himself [Jesus] is OUR peace [Jews and Gentiles, races], who has made the two one [Jews and Gentiles, races] and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His [Messiah] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making shalom, and in this one body [the church] to reconcile both of them [Jews and Gentiles, race] to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He [Messiah] came and preached shalom to you [plural, Gentiles] who were far away and shalom to those who were near [plural, Jews]. For through him we both [Jews and Gentiles, races] have access to the Father by the one Spirit” (Ephesians 2.11-18)

Racial Reconciliation is in fact at the HEART of the Gospel. Jesus shed his blood to reconcile humanity that divided itself along racial lines.

Embracing Baptism

Disciples must decide to be who we are, a baptized Christ follower. If, and when, I decide to take my baptism seriously, then I am immediately confronted with the stunning truth that baptism is not simply, merely, or only, about the infinitesimal debates we have with Baptists over Acts 2.38.

In Paul’s writings baptism, like the cross it preaches, is a socially revolutionary God event. It is not just the forgiveness of past sins but the radical redefinition of the present according to the future. I am no longer defined by the ties of the old world. The Sinful structures of the old world we have died to.

A baptized person is God’s advertisement to the fallen world what the future looks like. We are not defined by, or divided by, the things the fallen world says we are defined by: gender, economics nor race.  Baptism makes us recognize the image of God in every human being. We love each human as a hologram of the Creator God. Creational differences become a matter of joy, celebration and worship to the God who redeems and glorifies the diverse Creation that God himself made.

Baptism redefines the world for disciples. Baptism makes us ambassadors of reconciliation from God’s future. So we must decide to BE what we are. I confess this is very difficult, and we tend to act as if we have never been baptized at all. Prayer, intentional prayer, covers every bit of this. Pray for the Holy Spirit to empower us with courage and love.

In other words we need to actually believe in the baptism we in Churches of Christ have so long professed.  As important as Acts 2.38 is for becoming a Christian, we find Paul applying the message of baptism to Christians themselves (Romans 6.1-4; 1 Corinthians 12.12-13; Galatians 3.26-29; Colossians 2.12, 20; 3.1, 11; See my article The Ethics of Baptism, Colossians 3.1-17).

We Must Embrace Cruciform Love

Jesus said the world will know we are his disciples if we love one another as he has loved us. We must decide to love. Love is hard, especially when we look at ourselves and others according to the fallen world. Christian love is cruciform.  When we look through non-baptized eyes, loving can be almost insurmountable. Love is not a platitude that we toss around. Love, as all baptized people know, is blood smeared on a Cross. This is where Paul took the Philippian church, what he proclaims in the Ephesian letter, and where he grounds the Corinthians as an outpost of the new creation. When I love my black sister or brother enough to die for her or him then I am ready willing and able to give up most anything that divides us (see. 1 John 3.14-18; 4.7, 16).

We Must Practice Cruciform Love in Deed

Cruciform love is something that is done. Loving our fellow humans, divine image bearers, means getting to know them. Is there a man in love with a woman, that does not want to “know” about her family and her “story.” Is there a mother on the planet that does not want to “know” what is going on her children’s lives? Love compels us to know.

If we are going to pursue reconciliation we must love enough to learn about a lived story that is very different than my own story. A wise person once said, “Tell me how much you know about the suffering of your fellow man and I will tell you how much you love him.”

This is where many will throw up their arms in revolt and the old way of thinking of this fallen world raises its head. Yes we will want to know that woman’s story (or a man’s) but the story of people who do not look like me!? What nonsense! Why should I have to learn “black history” or “native American history!” And the justifications just keep coming. Without the previous bedrock truths we will simply not embrace a walk that says “seek not our own interests …” But cruciform love will indeed seek to know.

And getting to know the story of African Americans or Hispanics or Native Americans can be daunting. There are names we do not know. Places we do not know. And more importantly language, code words, emotions … that I do not know.

But the LOVE of Christ in a baptized believer COMPELS us to carry the burden of getting to know.

Getting to Know, What I Can Do

It has been my experience that many of us simply are not willing to make the effort, to go the second or third or fourth mile to do what it takes to learn. But love that looks like the Cross has mettle and will not shy away.

If we are shaped by the themes sketched above and are compelled by love to learn, what can I do, where do I go?

Practice hospitality. This is a requirement of elders (1 Tim 3.1-2; Rom 12.13; etc) and a genuine Christian trait (Hebrews 13.1-2). Cultivate friendship with people that do not look like us. When was the last time an African American, a European American, a Mexican American sat at our table in our home?

Learn to listen. Most of the time we want to defend the status quo, defend the past, say it isn’t so. But we do not tell our wives or daughters what their story must say. We listen because we love. Even when they say that we have hurt them, we listen. As another wise person once said, our reply should be “tell me more, I want to understand you because I love you.”

When we want to learn (because we love) we do not complain when our wives or our daughters pull out photo albums, shares the names of people we do not know or are introduced to a new language. The same is true in learning about the African-Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiian Americans, etc. Read a book. Watch some movies.

Get to know something about American culture that is not Europeanized. If Martin Luther King Jr is the only black hero we can think of, and all we know about him is he had a dream of some sort, then we have not learned much about our neighbors. So if you do not know the significance of the following then practice some love. To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 9.13, “GO LEARN what it means to have lived with blackness in America.”

If you are unable to make a meaningful statement about the following and why they may matter a great deal to African Americans then let these be a basic beginning homework assignment. Cruciform Love will learn and go the extra mile but these, honestly, are just skimming the surface. Literally go learn please.

Three-Fifths Clause.
Plessy v. Ferguson.
Middle Passage.
James Meredith.
Linda Brown.
Ruby Bridges.
Benjamin Banneker.
Langston Hughes.
Duke Ellington.
Slave Codes.
Stono Rebellion 1739.
New York City Conspiracy 1741.
W. E. B. DuBois.
Gabrial’s Revolt 1800.
“German” Coast Revolt 1811.
Nat Turner.
Jim Crow.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Harlem Hellfighters.
Tulsa Race Riot.
Jack Johnson.
Thurgood Marshall.
Harlem Renaissance.
The Crisis.
Tuskegee Syphilis “Experiment.”
Charles Drew.
Ida-Wells Barnett.
Literacy Tests.
The Grandfather Clause.
Summer of 1919.
We Shall Overcome.
Cornerstone Speech.
Thirteenth Amendment.
Frederick Douglass.
Marian Anderson.

These are just events/persons off the top of my head and are by no means exhaustive but suggestive. “Negative Discovery,” is a term coined by Daniel Boorstin for the “discovery of realms of unknown ignorance.” In my own life, learning about the my black sisters and brothers “story” has been certainly “negative discovery” because I was utterly ignorant. Yet my ignorance still impacted how I live and how I listen and how I love. I was, and often still am, blind and could not see.

If I cannot utter the name “Obama” without abject contempt or as if it were a curse word, then I have a lot of loving yet to embrace. If we can (and Americans have routinely done it) embrace deeply flawed humans with enthusiasm (i.e. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, George Custer, Robert E. Lee, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, etc) then it follows we can at least try to understand why millions radically disagreed with Obama on things yet have embraced him as a genuine American hero.  And until we learn that that embrace has nothing to do with politics but rather the story others have lived then we will never come close to racial reconciliation.

Embracing Truth

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not synonyms. Truth is essential to reconciliation. Forgiveness is an essential component of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are called to forgive. We are called to cruciform love. But Truth is also a part of the Gospel message. Truth is as difficult as cruciform love. The truth of the Gospel shows that we are sinners, that my personal sin is part of a cosmic alienation from God. The Gospel truth reveals that I have been complicit and even benefited, even when unaware, from injustice. Love, Truth, Forgiveness and Reconciliation go together throughout the Story of God in the Bible.  Embracing truth is part of accepting the other person’s story.

If our love for our neighbor is as deep as a blood stained cross then I will want to eradicate my realms of ignorance of their story. Learning that my experience is hardly that of millions of not only African Americans but Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans can help me love more deeply, be committed to the truth more honestly, seek forgiveness from our failures, and to invite reconciliation.  A woman who has been emotionally, physically or sexually abused by some one important in her life may find the grace to forgive the perpetrator but reconciliation is impossible apart from truth. And the perpetrator must embrace the Gospel truth of his actions.  This is no easy task.  Apart from God’s Holy Spirit it just may be impossible.

Embracing God’s Beloved Creational Diversity, the Memorial of the Kingdom

I mentioned baptism at the head of these thoughts. But what about communion? Baptized people, those who are God’s advertisement of the future, do not celebrate monuments whose purpose is to proclaim that the fallenness, the division, the hates of the world are good.

The “memorial” of the Kingdom of God proclaims the opposite of such monuments and graven images. The Memorial of Christianity is that all human beings sit as equals at the Table in the Presence of the Messiah. Our Memorial preaches to the fallen world that there is no class, race, gender that is segregated off, subservient too, inferior too another.

The memorial of Christianity proclaims to the fallen world and its monuments to oppression, racism, division have been destroyed as enemies of God’s redeemed Creation at the Cross of the Jewish Messiah. God set us free from those kingdoms of hate and graciously sat us at his Table … a table of grace, a table mercy, a table of justice, a table of equality. It is the Table of Fellowship of God’s redeemed beautiful multifaceted creation.

I struggle with how we can sit at that Table and and offer an olive branch to any sentiment that even hints that part of the human race is not worthy. Do we understand what we are preaching to the world when we dare to sit at the Christian Memorial. The table is not about ME! The table is about US, God’s redeemed creation. The Memorial of the Blood Stained Messiah who created and redeemed every black person, yellow person, tan person, and yes white person.

We Must Embrace Justice and Mercy

When cruciform love is the our baptismal identity that is confirmed in our practice of the Table of the New Creation, then we will practice Justice and Mercy. Justice is simply grace in motion. It is unfortunate that most Americans, including Christians, think the word “justice” is equivalent to punishment but this is far from the case. The main notion of “justice” is to do the right thing for the circumstances, it is to set things right. The word justice is not a synonym for law either. The right thing at a given moment may not be what the law says in actual ink. Any serious Bible student knows this.

Justice is GRACE and Cruciform LOVE in motion. Reflection on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20.1-16) pays rich dividends for those with eyes and ears to see and hear. Some time with the prophet Amos will reap rich rewards.

Resources that have Spoken to Me:

Martin Luther King Jr., The Strength to Love

John Perkins, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win

Ta-Neshi Coats, Between the World and Me

Lerone Bennett, Jr, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America

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


12 Years a Slave

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

Slavery by Another Name

Soundtrack for a Revolution

White Man’s Burden

And a Link for another article here on my blog:

Learning & “Thinking” about Race as a Southern White Disciple of the Jewish Messiah

Social Concerns in Churches of Christ, Trends from 1950 to 2000

A Memory

I grew up on Acts. I learned that Acts was primarily a “book of conversions” and that Acts 2 was “the center of the Bible” for distinguishing between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  To quote my dad, “we have been Axed to death Robert.” Approaching Acts as a book whose purpose was, apparently, to prove the we had to be baptized lead to a concentration on only a few select texts: Acts 2.38, the conversion of the Ethiopian, and Acts 22.16.  Now it was not only these texts but those are the ones that were mentioned repeatedly.

We read Acts as we did the rest of the Bible, piecemeal. A great deal of Acts, I would even say the majority of Acts, was missed. The majority of Acts has no conversions and is not even interested in making sure all of the conversions are done exactly the same. The last third of the book narrates none.

Perhaps Acts is something other than a “book of conversions” and Acts 2 just may not be the “center of the Bible.” Luke may be following a pattern in Acts 2 but it is a pattern few want to acknowledge.  Luke connects Pentecost with Calvary and he models the Calvary-Pentecost event upon the Exodus-Sinai pattern.

Luke’s One Story, Not Two

The Holy Spirit did not inspire Luke to write Acts. The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write a single unified narrative of what Jesus began to do and say (Acts 1.1), a story that begins in Luke continuing through what we call Acts. Thus Luke-Acts is a single, holistic, story with unifying themes. Imagine the multi-volume series today: Lord of the Rings; Hunger Games; Star Wars as analogy. Or better that Second Chronicles continues the story from First Chronicles.

It is difficult to take “Return of the King” or “Return of the Jedi” as a stand alone work. To use an analogy: as Return of the Jedi shows the redemption and renewal of Anakin Skywalker, so Acts continues the “tale” of the redemption and renewal of Israel as the people of God through the coming Messiah and the Holy Spirit. The story begins Mary praises God because he,

has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to
our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever
(Luke 1.54-55)

So Paul closes the story with the same sentiment,

I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and to speak with you since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain” (Acts 28.19-20)

Return of the King reads differently, and more coherently, when we connect the people, places and episodes against The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.  Acts reads differently, and more coherently, when connected specifically to the Gospel of Luke and with the history of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (or Luke’s copy of it in the LXX). Some have even suggested that Luke-Acts is sort of like a Third Chronicles.

I encourage you, when you read Acts – read it in light of Luke. When you study Acts – study it in light of Luke and the “living oracles” – which for him are only the Scriptures of Israel. Read Luke and Acts as a single, unified, story within a story.

The story of Jesus takes place within God’s story of Israel in accordance with the promises to Abraham “and all his descendants.” The story of the church is part of the story of Jesus which is part of that bigger story of God with Israel.

Mary and Paul’s statements provide an “envelope” for Luke’s work, they are a frame.  There is a narrative thread that runs from Mary in the beginning to Paul in the end … and if the analogy to Chronicles is legit (and I think it is) it is even interesting that Luke ends his work abruptly and leaving us “hanging.”  Just as in Chronicles.

Opening Up the One Story: What we Do and Don’t See

Reading Acts as part of Luke-Acts, the unified and single story, that the Holy Spirit inspired, something interesting does happen. First certain narrative patterns do in fact emerge. This is undeniable. We see parallel patterns in characters and events just as when Tolkien narrates in Lord of the Rings.

Reading Acts 1 to 28, however, the patterns that emerge are not Roberts Rules for Doing Church. There is not an iota in Acts, for instance, on how Paul set up a local church in Asia. We learn that some elders were appointed but nothing is said regarding their qualifications and duties except that the Holy Spirit appointed them (Acts 20.28). There is not even a single verse on the worship of Paul’s congregations, except that we learn that they “broke bread.” Luke quite literally tells us nothing regarding the organization and worship of the Gatherings of the Messiah. There is one exception to this: the Jerusalem church. Many will quote Acts 2.42 about the Messianic community being devoted to the apostles teaching and the breaking of the bread but freely reject that church a any kind of “pattern” for how church is to be done.

In fact as Acts is written, that is inspired by the Spirit, there is considerable diversity that he relates to us. They are not the pattern he seeks to inculcate. But first we need to recognize that the “story” does not begin in Acts 1.1. It begins in Luke 1.1 and even before that as Luke assumes the hearers of his single story are in fact saturated in the LXX as Jesus tells us in Luke 24.

If Luke tells us so little about the “doings” of the church it is a fair question to ask, maybe that was not his nor the Holy Spirit’s purpose.

What Jesus is Doing

If Acts is continuing the story of what Jesus not only did but is doing.  Reading Acts as the same story as the Gospel of Luke we do find a pattern that emerges. Jesus is found praying and seeking divine guidance and power at every turn: at his baptism (Luke 3.21), at choosing his disciples (Luke 5.16), all night (Luke 6.12), when his name is confessed (Luke 9.18), at his transfiguration (Luke 9.28), at the cross (Luke 22.41).

The “church” follows this messianic “pattern.” Thus they pray while waiting (Acts 1.14), while seeking to replace one of the twelve (Acts 1.24), the apostles devote themselves to prayer (Acts 6.4-6), when performing miracles (Acts 8.15; 9.40), Peter “gets away” to pray at Joppa (Acts 10.9), gathering at Mark’s house (Acts 12.12), commissioning mission (Acts 13.3), and in these places Acts 16.25; 20.36; 21.5; 22.17; and 28.8.

What is the point of this pattern? It is that Jesus is now living in and through his people, restored Israel. The church did not ask “What would Jesus do?” The church did what Jesus would do. Or that is what they were supposed to do. The church mirrors Jesus’s walk with God for the sake of the world.

Beginning in the beginning, as Luke calls us (Acts 1.1-5), we notice that the Spirit is given to Jesus in prayer at his baptism (Luke does not actually narrate John’s baptism of Jesus!).

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove …” (Luke 3.21-22)

Only after Jesus has been “anointed” does he begin his ministry (Luke 3.22-23).  Jesus is clothed with power from on high as he notes himself in Luke 4.18-19 (quoting Isaiah 61.1-2 and 58.6). The 120, in Acts 2, follow this very same pattern. The disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit according to the promise of the Father being clothed with “power” from on high (Luke 24.49; Acts 1.5,8). Only after the Spirit descends upon the messianic community do they begin a public ministry.

All the “characters” in Acts are, like Jesus the Anointed One, filled (or anointed) with the Holy Spirit: Peter (4.8); Stephen (6.5); Paul (13.9) and many other references. What is the point of this pattern? That the early church is lead by and directed by God’s own Spirit to do and say what Jesus said and did.  The entire church is anointed and Luke wants us to think about the “promise” given in Ezekiel 36.16-38; 37.14; 39.29; Isaiah 59.21, etc. That is the story of Jesus and the church is taking place within the larger story of God with Israel, a story within a story.

Stephen and the Jesus Pattern

The Stephen narrative is instructive. Here Luke brings together three parallel stories in fact: Moses, Jesus and Stephen. For our present purpose I focus on Jesus and Stephen for the sake of brevity. Both are spoken well of. Both are filled with the Spirit. Both are recipients of wisdom, grace and power. Both do “signs and wonders” (a Mosaic connection). Both are accused of blasphemy. Both are taken to the council. Both have the eyes of the group fixed on them. Both are cast out of the city. Both pray to God that this crime will not be held against the perpetrators. Both commit their spirit to God. Both are killed. Both are buried by devout faithful people.

What is the point of this pattern? That Jesus’s messianic life is radically reproduced in the life of his messianic community. The story of the church should be the story of what Jesus said and did.  This pattern is really there. It is not reconstructed and brought together like a jigsaw puzzle of scattered, random, and disconnected verses taken from their own setting. The story of Stephen is almost like a miniature passion of Jesus, except that it is a member of the messianic community. Jesus’s life and his death are as much a pattern for the disciples of Christ as well as his resurrection in the flesh from the dead.

Luke knows nothing of the old dispensational hermeneutic that relegates Jesus’s life and teaching to the “old covenant” and thus “not binding.”  For Luke, Jesus is what God was doing to and for the renewal of Israel for the sake of the whole world.  The anointed Christ is therefore the pattern for living, for dying, for praise, for worship, for the kingdom, for the “hope of Israel.” For more on Acts 2 not as the beginning of a different and new covenant but as a renewal of the covenant, See my article here: Acts 2: Shavuot/Pentecost, The Day God Renewed His Covenant.

The Church Obeys the teaching of Jesus

In Acts we find the disciples doing what Jesus had commanded during his ministry. Thus the disciples “rejoice” when persecuted (Acts 5.41, etc) and they “shake the dust” off when rejected (Lk 9.3-5; Acts 13.51; 18.6).

This pattern of doing as Jesus directed is most evident in the that troublesome area of money, economics, and koinonia in Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, much more than in Matthew, Mark or John (though not absent in these Gospels) Jesus proclaims the Year of Jubilee (Luke 4.18-19).

In fact, Luke tells us, Jesus defined his entire ministry in terms of the Sabbath of Sabbaths – God’s Jubilee. He encourages sharing possessions and condemns greed and selfishness harshly. Stories on this theme told only in Luke are (and Luke knows we have read these stories when he narrates Acts. Its like reading in Return of the King and remembering the Fellowship of the Ring): the Rich Man and Lazarus; ‘blessed are you who are poor NOW”; Zaccheus; the widow and her coin in the temple; parables about inviting the poor, lame, maimed, blind; the dishonest steward; and the command to sell your possessions and give alms to the poor.

Jesus’s Jubilee pattern shows up in Acts. Both positively and negatively. Thus the early church “sells” their possessions and no one claimed their property as their own (Acts 2 & 4); we are told of Barnabas’s generosity, Dorcas caring for the poor, Paul and the Antioch church. And Paul brings “alms to my nation” (Acts 24.16-17). Negatively we read of Ananias and Sapphira holding back, Simon, Felix and even Judas.

What is the point of this Pattern? That the early church became what Jesus taught … Year of Jubilee people. The ministry of Jesus was the pattern for the life, thought and teaching of the early church. For a fuller study of Jubilee see my article here: Jubilee and the Story of God: Our Task and Identity in the World.

Luke was a physician, author, and a Jedi knight

Pattern of Sanctified Diversity

Shift gears slightly. Traditional patternism in Churches of Christ claims that “uniformity is the very thing that the Lord requires.” Acts, however, does not teach this claim anywhere. We have noted some ingrained patterns in Luke-Acts however. Ironically many know nothing of these patterns and want nothing to do with them.

These patterns are in fact “hard.” But For the Luke, the life of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus, interpreted through the Spirit and the so called “Old Testament,” was the authority and pattern for the messianic community.

But reading from Acts 1 to 28, we are hard pressed to find “churches” that are “uniform.” That oft quoted text in Acts 2.42 of continuing “steadfastly in the apostles doctrine” (KJV) is simply not believed, though quoted. That text refers to assembling and worshiping in the Temple at the daily hours of sacrifice. That text refers to selling possessions and sharing all things in common (v.45, what Luke means by “fellowship”).

That apostolic church, in Acts 2, is absolutely nothing like any church I have ever been in my life. The community described in Acts 2.42 is the same church, that is “the mother church” when we are through 75 percent of the Book of Acts (that is by Acts 21). It is clear – on every page nearly of Acts – that churches in Jerusalem, Joppa, and Samaria, are quite different than those in Antioch, Corinth, Galatia and other places. Ironically this is in fact a “pattern.” It is a “pattern” of diversity. Gentiles did not have to become ethnic Jews, did not have to look like Jews, did not have to worship like Jews to be part of Israel. Conversely, Jews did not have to become Gentiles to be part of renewed Israel.

Luke devotes all of Acts 15 to this matter. But Acts 15 has specifically been denied being a “pattern requirement.”  But the entire anointed community comes together to seek the Lord’s will, and a solution to the Jew-Gentile problem in Israel was offered that “seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit.” The solution was diversity. The apostle James, Jesus’s brother, explicitly notes this in another regularly hidden text, Acts 21.

They have been told [James refers to rumors circulating among some Jews started by Jews from Asia] about you that you teach all the JEWS living among the Gentiles [in the Diaspora] to forsake Moses that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.  So do what we tell you. We have four men under a vow [cf. Acts 18.18; Numbers 6]. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know there is nothing in the rumors they have been told about you, BUT THAT YOU YOURSELF OBSERVE AND GUARD THE LAW. But as for the GENTILES WHO HAVE BECOME BELIEVERS, we have sent a letter [cf. Acts 15.23-29; 16.1-5, note v.4] that it is our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from fornication. Then Paul took the men and having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification WHEN THE SACRIFICE WOULD BE MADE for each of them” (Acts 21.20-26).

It is difficult to find a clearer text than Acts 15 and 21. James is adamant that Gentiles are not bound to certain measures of the Law. This is clear in the Council and its letter in Acts 15 and 21.17-20.  Paul and James are on the same page here.  At the same time the Jerusalem church, including James and Paul, believed that Jews did not become Gentiles and cease being Jews in their walk with God, including worship.  Gentiles, to use Pauline lingo, are grafted into the tree of Israel by the grace of the Jewish King and join Israel, as the nations, to worship the Creator of all the Diversity of Creation (cf. Romans 15.7-13, 16). Renewed Israel is paradigmatic for the entire renewal of creation itself. Diversity is a must. For more on Jewish character of early Christianity in Acts see my article: Acts, A Jewish Story: James & Paul’s Animal Sacrifice.

The pattern of diversity canonized by Luke under the Spirit’s guidance is breath taking. It was not uniformity of liturgy that bound the early church together in Acts. If we ever caught the biblical vision of the Spirit given diversity of God’s renewed Israel it would save us a lot of trouble.

The Jerusalem church was as “authentically” on The Way as the disciples in Galatia. Our false assumptions have quite literally blinded us at times to the pattern that Luke actually gave us, while causing us to deny what is plainly inscripturated.

In Acts, we learn that Paul is a Pharisee, who just happened to be an “apostle” (Acts 23.6; 26.5-6). We learn that Paul explicitly defines “salvation” itself in terms of “the hope of Israel” (Acts 28.20).  We learn that Paul takes “Old Testament” vows (acts of worship) on are regular basis.

We learn that James and Paul are both concerned that liturgical diversity not undermine the oneness of God’s renewed Israel. The early church, liturgically, participated in the Temple. This is crystal clear from Acts 2-5 and 21 (for more on Acts 2.42 see my article: They Continued Steadfastly … Acts 2.42.)

Because we have, frequently, failed to read Acts from the direction of 1) the “Old Testament” or “living oracles” and 2) the Gospel of Luke, we have failed to notice that Paul and James are “in one accord.” Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be part of God’s renewed Israel. But Paul and James did in fact think Gentiles were bound to Torah instruction regarding “aliens” in the midst of Israel (the Apostolic letter in Acts 15 contains the gist of that Mosaic instruction in Leviticus 17-18. “For Moses has been proclaimed“, Acts 15.21).

Liturgically … that is how worship is done … this meant diversity. Paul did not have his arm twisted to offer animal sacrifice in Acts 21. He says himself, that he was going to do that whether James suggested it or not for that was his purpose in coming to Jerusalem (Acts 24.11-17).

Disciples shaped by the Protestant Reformation, more than they ever realized, are often surprised that in the early church James was more influential that Paul (Paul is the “go to guy” in Protestantism … I try to avoid a canon within a canon though I probably have not succeeded in that). James, according to surviving testimony, was so Jewish that he looked and dressed like a Jewish priest as an apostle for Jesus. This is just some of the diversity of the early church, and it all right there in Luke’s story in Luke-Acts. Yet in spite of this Luke tells us that God’s people are one and diversity is part of that oneness.

Final Thoughts: Patterns that Exist and Patterns that Do Not

When we read Luke-Acts as the Spirit gave it, not a little here and a little there, while ignoring this and that inconvenient text (like the excess dough in those holiday cookie cutters!) we see an interesting and very significant fact. Luke, unless I’m missing something, relates a grand total of zero stories of the appointing of elders, or relating advice on how a church was to be “organized.” We learn that the church in Antioch had elders (11.30) but we do not read of the actual appointment of elders until 14.23.

What is significant about 14.30 is that we have already read about “elders” within a specifically “Jewish” context in Acts. Paul is simply using Jewish synagogue polity, which goes back to the elders in the city gates in Israel, for his Gentile congregations. This makes perfect sense since Paul believes (like James and Luke) that Gentiles are now part of Israel!

No worship “service” is related by Luke. The only singing in the entire book of Acts is a duet in a jail cell. The songs sung are almost surely the Psalms (Acts 16.25). What we know is that some disciples followed Temple liturgy and we know that some disciples followed more of a diaspora synagogue pattern – like in Troas. This pattern of diversity is hard to accept … we want to “fix” Luke!

Reading Luke-Acts as a single unified story with an eye on how that continues the story that is related in Israel’s Scriptures (as Jesus taught the apostles to do in Luke 24.27, 44-49), we learn that “ecclesiology” is not unimportant to Luke. But what Luke means by ecclesiology has nothing to do with five acts of worship, almost nothing to do with the “name” of the group, virtually nothing to do with the organization of the church and almost nothing to do with liturgy.

Just read Luke-Acts yourself from beginning to end and see. For Luke what we call ecclesiology is derived from christology. The goal of Luke’s narrative is to reproduce a pattern of sorts. But he is not trying to make churches like those in Palestine nor like those in Galatia.

The Pattern for the church is none other than the life, ministry, teaching and resurrection of Jesus reproduced in the life of renewed Israel whether in Palestine or Greece. The pattern is that we are to become and do what the God of Israel did in Jesus the Anointed One for the sake of the whole world in accordance with the promises to “Abraham and all his descendants.”  Abraham’s descendants include all the Gentile believers that Paul and others bring into Israel. Abraham is the father of many nations.

The hermeneutical goal is not to be like the first century church but to be like Christ in every fashion. We know we are Christ’s church when a historian has a hard time telling if what we do is what “we” do or if it is what “Jesus” is doing.

The Pattern for the “church” in Luke-Acts is the church reproducing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit among us believers. That pattern not only recognizes the diversity of God’s renewed Israel but, like James and Paul, we are willing to go the extra mile to protect it and affirm our oneness because that is what Jesus did … he got a tax collector and a zealot to sit at the same table!

The church that Luke writes about does the same thing.

Be blessed.

A Few Recommended Sources

Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God

_______, The Unknown Paul: Essays on Luke-Acts and Early Christian History

Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity

Howard Marshall, “Israel and the Story of Salvation” in Jesus and the Heritage of Israel: Luke’s Narrative Claim Upon Israel’s Legacy, edited by David P Moessner.

What comes first? Theology or hermeneutic? This is the old chicken or the egg conundrum. There is an undeniable symbiotic relationship between them, existing in relation like the sides of a ring. Hermeneutic informs theology. Theology informs hermeneutic.

Bad hermeneutic leads to atrocious theology.

Horrible theology reinforces appalling hermeneutics.

And we cannot forget the impact of our social setting on both. Let me tell you what my divorce taught me about God. It is more important to have a good theology, theology will in the end impact everything about “me” … who I am and what I do.

Theology transforms us into a living and breathing hermeneutic.

Technical god Heresy

Some people believe in a Technical God. For these people the occasional terrifying story in the Bible is central to forming their doctrine of God.  They stress how this technical deity demands nothing less than absolute precision obedience in our response to him in order to be saved. Noah’s ark, Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah and Moses striking the rock all show just how technical this god can be. Like the Pharisee of old this god literally counts nine grains of dill and one measuring the offering with precision. For them the entire “relationship” with deity is conceived of in terms of “law” (people often mean by “law” something the Bible does not). It is a legal contract for them (covenants are routinely defined in terms of contracts in this theological construct. Biblically covenants are matters of divine grace and love and not matters of law).

I confess that I lived with that image of God a good portion of my life. The image was modified somewhat as I grew in my reading of Scripture. But it was – ironically – nothing short of divorce that exploded, and destroyed, that idolatrous view of God.

Unless you have been through an earth shattering experience (divorce, death of a child or drawn out death of a spouse, etc) it is often difficult to imagine the seismic shift that can take place in our world.

Hermeneutic Reshapes Theology

After my divorce I read the Bible in a way I had never read it before. I read it for life. I read it demanding to hear from God! I read it cover to cover and then again. It was the only place to run. I was not concerned about this or that issue anymore.

I confess looking back that I really never actually read the Bible previously.  I read bits of Scripture here and bits over there. Sometimes what I read was not even an entire sentence but I had memorized a verse devoid of its setting because it was useful for defeating the enemy (i.e. the wrong kind of believers!).

But now I read the Psalms over and over, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, the Gospels, 1 Peter, the whole Bible end to end and then again. I was desperate for something that is hard to explain.

I can look back at my notes and see the desperation of the deer in Psalm 42. Images that had never had any meaning to me were screaming in my face … “as the deer is dying for the water so I need you!!!” Those words were sung a thousand times but had no meaning whatsoever. But huddling in the corner of the shower screaming at the wall gave those words immediacy. Suddenly in my life an irrelevant phrase was a word of remarkable grace. It was the word of life. And it was Old Testament!

As I read the Bible, I noticed its God given structure that I had never even considered previously.  I noticed that reading from Genesis to 2 Kings was a single, unbroken, narrative. It is the Story of a God who creates and delights in what was created. That single narrative is a story of a God who is passionate and pursues those who respond by giving him the middle finger.

The Story was about God and only secondarily about the people.  God is the “star.” God created. God did not destroy. God gave a murderer a mark of grace. God punished sin. God saved Noah and the world by grace. God called the pagan Abram. God promised the pagan all creation would be blessed by God thru him. God promised the doubting Abram a unilateral covenant that God would keep it no matter what. God brought Joseph to bless the whole world thru Abram’s seed. God heard the cries of aliens whose baby boys were slaughtered by state approval. God delivered people from state sponsored terrorism even as they fought, complained, resisted because slavery was better than the wilderness. God came to LIVE IN THEIR MIDST. God married Israel. God fed, clothed and even protected the feet of those who rejected him for 40 years. God lead a faithless and even idolatrous band into a land flowing with “milk and honey.” God delivered Israel from self-inflicted wounds using people often no better than criminals. God promised David an eternal kingdom. God walked with both Israel and Judah for hundreds of years through their brazen unfaithfulness. God places the exiled son of David at a place of honor.

The Story is literally about God. The God of Exodus 34.6-7. God is slooooooooooooooow to anger. God forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

I read the Bible, often barely seeing the page in those early days, I saw stories that I used to see as about a very picky and technical deity transformed. What I had so poorly understood as nothing but wrath I could see were not the marks of Technicality, but of the suffering and a broken heart of Yahweh.

God’s “anger” is the expression of Spurned Love! The Hebrew Bible conceives of Yahweh’s relationship with them as a covenant which is perversely called a “contract” by many. In Jewish understanding marriage interprets the relationship with God and the relationship with God explains marriage. We don’t have contracts with our spouse nor our children.

HESED is the very essence of marriage and it is the essence of Israel’s covenant -all of them. “You are my people” and “You are our/my God” is a nuptial vow!

Literally “I will take you to myself as my people” the Hebrew verb “take” is used no less than 70x in the Bible to refer to getting married (see Gen 4.19; 6.2; 11.29; 12.19; 24.4; 25.1; 34.16; etc, etc).  Exodus views Mt. Sinai as a divine wedding ceremony envisioning all the wondrous intimacy between humans and Yahweh, as the Song of Songs views between a wife and her husband!

So when we get to the “Golden Calf” episode in Exodus 32-34 we have narrated for us the equivalent of a husband/wife cheating with room service while on the honeymoon. When I read Yahweh’s response to his “wife’s” infidelity for the first time ever I was able to see that — because of my divorce — as something other than simply being ticked off!

I knew because that was how I felt! I knew that raw emotion. I knew that pain! Yahweh did not respond to Israel because he was Technical, rather God responded as he did because he is a Passionate Lover! Yahweh is Suffering in Exodus. This is revealed in the Greatest Text in the Bible … Exodus 34.6-7 where “HESED” is not only the essence of the covenant but of the one true God the Creator of Heaven and Earth. (For more on Exodus 32-34 see my linked Untamed God, Dangerous Grace).

Discovering the God of the Bible

When I read in the Bible I saw things that had always been there but I paid no attention to them. The Passion of God, and his suffering, because (and on behalf) of his people was something I picked up on.

Jeremiah told me that Yahweh himself went through a divorce! The stigma of divorce in my religious circles is hard to justly describe. It borders on the unforgivable sin. These texts in Jeremiah, I never paid attention previously.  God’s divorce was no quick, easy, divorce over some technical issue. Yahweh had suffered centuries of Golden Calfs (repeats of Exodus 32-34)!  When I realized that Hosea’s marriage quite literally was the living interpretation of the history of the Bible (God’s people in the Bible) again the whole Story was recast and Jeremiah burst open the heart of Yahweh.

The deeper the love the more bitter the sorrow, I can tell you this. Love does not always bring giddy flights of fuzzy feelings! True love may place you right smack in the middle of Emotional Hell. I can say I had no clue. God’s history with Israel alone destroys the myth of the idolatrous technical god.

But I did not know God had suffered divorce (Jer 3.6-24). It was not part of my bits of data I had memorized for “commands, examples and necessary inferences.”  Had I known about it at that time I likely would have dismissed it, as we so often do, as “that’s in the Old Testament.”

Suddenly rather than a Judge, or a Cop, isolated from the dirt of life, I noticed that Yahweh actually understood my shame. Israel’s God actually loves enough to share it! In that very text, where Yahweh unleashes centuries of brutal anguish, we even hear from the tear stained lips of God some of the most emotive, graphic, and powerful language in the Bible … but I had been there! (I speak of Jer 3.2 where every English translation known to me follows the ancient rule, “do not translate in public” the word sagal … but we should!!!  The Germans do).

God is not wrathful as some volcano, God is “dying” to use a not very far from the truth metaphor.

When we continue into Jeremiah we see Yahweh not issuing legal decrees but hiring mourners because his own “eyes” could not shed enough tears and he is begging for comfort because the pain of Judah’s centuries of infidelity had caused him (cf Jer 8.18-9.25). Suddenly there in the corner of the shower my entire theology of God was redefined. This is no technical god that spoke through Jeremiah! (See on God’s Tears here Tears: God’s or Mine?)

Exceptional Stories that are the Exception

As I read and reread … for life … I saw those old terrifying stories in a completely fresh and new light. First I noticed them for what they are … exceptional. They are not the “norm.” We do not build life or theology from unique circumstances only. I also saw that God is Holy. He is Light. No darkness is in him. I saw that God cannot tolerate EVIL. God HATES evil.

But as much as God hates evil, the Story declares that God loves creation more than he hates evil. Some will balk at this but it is true nonetheless.

God refused to eliminate Adam and Eve (they are the whole human race btw). Love was greater than Sin.
God refused to make creation non-existent in the Flood but saved all creation. He vowed to never do it again. Love was greater than Sin.
God refused to wipe Israel out at the Golden Calf. Instead Immanuel came. Love was greater than Sin.
God refused to eliminate Manasseh. Instead forgave him at the drop of a hat and restored him. Love was greater than Sin.
God refused to let rebellious Jonah die but saved him repeatedly. Even when Jonah nearly curses God for Hesed on the Assyrians. Love was greater than Sin.

Exodus 34.6-7 is the only explanation for all of these things. It is the history of Israel that is the basis for Paul’s startling declaration “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5.20).

But I saw that God loved his Creation as much as he hates Evil! Indeed more. The Cross is the supreme testimony to this stunning Hebrew Bible truth (meditate on Romans 5.6-11 and 1 John 4.9, 16).  I did not get this before.

Before I sort of believed if I happened to “make it to heaven” I would be a lucky one. What blasphemy! If I am saved now I know it is because God chose to suffer for creation rather than destroy it.

So Nadab and Abihu did in fact die but it was not because God was technical. They mocked God!! That is the entire point of the story and I missed it, and many still do. They had a heart issue. They showed up to the first day, the “day of inauguration,” of the holy priesthood (Lev 10 is the day of inauguration of the priesthood) so smashed they could not do their job on behalf of Israel.

But our old hermeneutic that created the Technical god, literally blacks out the story as the Holy Spirit gave it. Eleven verses are dedicated to the Nadab and Abihu debacle (vv 1-11) and four of those have to do with the prohibition of alcohol while on duty, that is forty percent (40%) of the passage (and the techy hermeneutic people deny these verses are relevant) of going to work drunk!! And some folks think this is a matter of Precision! This is a matter of mocking the holy.

But Nadab and Abihu are only half the story of inauguration day. I never paid attention to Eleazar and Ithamar. In fact till the mid- 90s, I never heard of them! I can safely say that not one time in my life, did a “Church of Christ” preacher ever so much as mention them in a sermon or Bible class. But I heard about the strange fire regularly. I preached them.

But Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar are part of the same story in the ver same chapter! In fact N & A end in v.11 and E & I are named in v.12 and the rest of the story is dedicated to how God had mercy on them for indeed breaking a technical requirement but with a vastly different outcome.

Some mock the story now as a “sugar stick” text! About three years ago a preaching brother challenged me to a debate. He brought up Nadab and Abihu, so I asked about Eleazar and Ithamar … he literally did not know who they were. They had no place in his hermeneutic or his theology. A Technical god cannot abide Eleazar and Ithamar.

Old Uzzah has been shafted nearly as bad as Nadab and Abihu. It never occurred to me that the problem was not Uzzah at all. The problem was David!

Because I grew up cherry picking the biblical text, I did not realize that there was more to the story of Uzzah than just bringing the Ark up in 1 Chronicles 13. The Chronicler basically devotes 3 chapters to the episode, chapters 13, 15-16. David gets smacked down because he did basically the same thing Nadab and Abihu, he mocked God. David sought to control God. The ark was his divine talisman to manipulate the divine. A rabbit’s foot. Yahweh did not play David’s game.

David confesses his responsibility for the debacle in 15.13ff. Ironically when the Ark is brought up we see David wearing high priestly attire (15.25, 27) and performing the sacrifices before the Lord (16.1-3), certainly technical violations but no frying takes place. Uzzah was not burned up because of a technicality. He suffered because of David’s arrogance. Uzzah suffered from David’s sin. The principle is the same as in 1 Chronicles 21 where David brings “guilt upon Israel” and thousands of people suffer because of his hubris (see 21.1-17). David, not Uzzah, is the culprit in the Ark narrative. But this is completely missed when our hermeneutic dictates we see little isolated verses rather than the narrative structure of the whole.

Life, Theology, Heremeneutic

I do not recommend divorce. It is a hellish experience. But through it I see God transformed. Now God did not change.  What changed was my ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear. I once saw that Technical god but now I see a God who suffers precisely because he loves so deeply.

Yes God hates evil but his solution to that was to sacrifice himself through the Word incarnate. The God who shed tears in Jeremiah and commanded Hosea to go buy back his wife (!!) and “love her as I love the Israelites EVEN THOUGH SHE IS LOVED BY ANOTHER” (to use the old jargon, God found his wife “living in sin” and set “bought” her anyway) and is the God who would rather let Jesus die on the cross than be without you and me!

I simply cannot comprehend that love. There is no technicality to it. There is no logic to it.

It just is.That is why John thunders, “if you want to know what love looks like see Jesus stripped and hanging on the cross.”

My divorce made me see God’s own “experience” in the text that I had never paid attention to. My divorce made me mad but the anger had nothing to do with hate or revenge. I was mad because it “hurt like hell.”

My relationship with God, our relationship with God, is a Covenant of Love. Because we actually love our Spouse we desire nothing short of living in utter devotion to him/her.

Nothing pleases us more than pleasing our God. Nothing! But because I am in a genuine covenant of HESED, I do understand that when (not if) I mess up, the relationship itself is not in danger of collapsing. What a pathetic excuse of a relationship if it was.

Instead my God has wrapped his glorious holiness in Jesus and weeps with those who weep, is the friend of sinners (even religious ones!!) and declares for all those who did not quite get it back in Hosea … “I DESIRE mercy rather than sacrifice …” It has always been so.

What kind of God do you worship? My God is the one who suffers, cries, and laments. My God is the one who is Holy and so Loving that when his holiness could take no more, he put Jesus on the cross instead of me.

All I can do is join Moses, and worship him (Ex 34.8)


In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all” (Colossians 3.11)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slaver or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28)

A Point of View I Sympathize With

Some of my closest friends are writing on their Facebook walls (and we all write on our FB wall) some variation of this slogan:

“I do not see color. I do not see black or brown or white but only humans.”

I completely and utterly sympathize with this sentiment. I even understand why my beloved friends are saying it.  They want to disassociate themselves as far as the East is from the West the stain of racism and bigotry.     And part of it IS true. We are ALL human. The motive of my friends are in the right place. I share a revulsion to any kind of racism … even as I believe we all struggle with fallenness in human relationships.

But I Do Not Think it is True

But I think the slogan is, in fact, not true. I think it actually fundamentally misunderstands the biblical language of neither Jew nor Gentile that we quoted above. Let me unpack how I understand this matter.

First of all, it is simply not the case that any of us do not see color.  We do see color.

Second seeing “color” is not a sin nor is it even wrong.  It is what we do when we see color that decides the rightness and wrongness of seeing.  Does the diversity of skin tone, facial structures, and kinds of hair become symbols of segregation OR does this diversity become the occasion of praise and worship to the glory of the Creator God?

Diversity is the Grace of Creation & Redemption

Diversity is a divine act grace in Creation. Diversity is a divine act of grace in Redemption. How you may ask?

Regarding the color matter, let me use an analogy. There is not one of us that does not notice gender. For anyone to claim they do not notice if the other person before us is a male or female would not be far from a lie. Christians recognize that the person before us was created by God in that way. To deny that he or she is a “he” or a “she,” is to deny their creational identity. God made it. It is good. Femaleness is good. Maleness is good. When I meet another human, I recognize them as God has made them. Difference is God’s glory.

The same is true with our “color.” God created blackness. God created brownness. God created yellowness. God created a minority of the world with paleness!

When the Bible says there is no longer male, nor female, Jew or Gentile, etc in Christ, we need to understand what is said. The Fallen world has used the good that God created (color & gender) as the BASIS for segregating ourselves from one another and for determining value. Difference became the basis of oppression in the fallen world.

But Christ’s redemption does not now, and will not ever, erase the goodness of creation. The cross, the blood of Jesus, does not erase creational differences. Redemption sanctifies created differences.

Blackness does not imply inferiority. Blackness is declared to be Holy.

Femaleness does not imply inferiority. Femaleness is declared to be the Image of God.

Brownness, Yellowness, and Whiteness are not abolished in the New Creation. Creational Diversity is “holifeid” by the blood of Jesus which redeems from Sin all that he made.

Jesus was not an androgynous being when raised from the dead. He will eternally be the son of David, the son of Man. To be the son of David he will forever be a Jew too! Resurrection did not erase either Jesus’s gender nor did it erase the truth that he is the Son of Abraham, the Son of David, the Son of Mary. The MAN Jesus intercedes for us in heaven (1 Timothy 2.5). Resurrection seals the deal, so to speak, of the Incarnation!

God’s kingdom is not monochrome. In God’s kingdom, what the fallen world uses as a basis to divide and oppress, has become the ground for unity and celebration.

When we look into the presence of God thru the eyes of John the Prophet, we see the wonder of God’s gloriously diverse creation matched IN HEAVEN worshiping him.

“there was a great multitude that no one could count
from EVERY nation,
from ALL tribes and peoples and languages
standing before the throne and before the Lamb …” (Rev 7.9)

This praise includes all the diverse creatures God has made (3.13).

Genesis 10 records what has been called The Table of Nations.  It is critical to note that in the Story of God the listing of the diversity of God human creation is recognized as from God prior to the curse of the Tower of Babel.  There is no indication that the diversity of tribes and nations is bad or evil.  They all come from Noah’s sons who likely represent the diversity of humanity before the Flood as well.  All of those nations are the ones that the family of Abraham was called to be a blessing.

The Good, Beautiful and Diverse Creation that Sin has vandalized has been washed in the blood and made holy in the presence of God. Redemption makes HOLY the various races that God created. Paul makes precisely this point in 1 Corinthians 12.  Paul argues for diversity and in fact stresses diversity.  “Different kind of working” (12.6), different kinds of gifts (12.1-4), etc.  Then Paul argues for oneness in the midst of all that diversity because the diverse gifts are from the one Spirit.  Each different person with his or her different gift is one in the same body because of what the One God has done thru the One Jewish Messiah by the One Spirit of God. The Human Body is the most amazing monument to Unity that is Diverse and Diversity that is One.  So Paul declares,

For just as the body is one, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the One Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we are all made to drink of the one Spirit” (12.12-13)

Baptism into Christ preserves the unique diversity of God’s creation. To claim that suddenly Jews are not Jews and Gentiles are not Gentiles explicitly contradicts Paul’s belief that we are not all eyes, ears, or feet.  We are different. That diversity is protected at the Table of Fellowship where rich, poor, white, black, male and female gather in the power of that One Spirit as a projection of the renewed creation within the old fallen world.  Diversity does not divide us.  Diversity unites us.

Diversity the Reason to Praise the Creator

The blood of Jesus destroyed the hostility between Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2.14). But if we read Paul he is pretty adamant that Gentiles do not literally become Jews. Instead Gentiles now come to worship the God of Israel as Gentiles and join Israelites in his praise.

When I meet people, I do not deny they are who they are. They are male or female. They are white or black. I recognize that these things are in fact part of their created humanness.  I confess that my Father, the Creator God, loves this diversity. So gender is not abolished it is made holy. The hue of our skin is also not washed off but made holy and is the basis of unity and celebration.

I do not deny God’s work. I glorify God for it.

This is why I do not say I do not see color or see race. I do!

And I fall on my knees to worship God the Creator and Redeemer for it.

Some one sent me a rather scalding letter (PM on FB) asserting that I am a liberal hater of the South. This is because I support removing Confederate monuments from publicly paid for land and placing them in appropriate contexts such as a museum or national battlefield (like Shiloh, Vickesburg, Gettysburg, etc).

I do not support the mob destruction of such monuments. I do not think we need to rewrite the past.  We need to be honest about the past. So I do not believe in rewriting but I do repudiate the “heritage” associated with such monuments.

But to repudiate slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, etc is not a repudiation of the South. Unless you believe those things are equivalent to the South. But I for one do not.

The Heritage of the South the World Wishes it Had …

But I am far from liberal and far from a hater of the South. I am in fact quite proud to be from Alabama. So since reading my “love note” twenty minutes ago I decided to share the wonderful people, places and genuine heritage that I love and am quite proud of. There is plenty about the South to be proud of.

Jesse Owens from Oakville, Alabama. Trashed the Nazis and became a 4x gold medalist in 1936 Olympics in BERLIN.

The Tuskeegee Airmen, the famous Red Tails, were from Alabama.

Johnny Cash from Kingsland, Arkansas. A bad boy most of his life but what a musician … and promoter of justice.

Jazz, the Blues and Rock n’Roll are from the South! Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Otis Redding, Jim Morrison, Louis Armstrong, Tom Petty, ZZ Top, W.C. Handy, Janis Joplin,  and some one named Elvis .. all Southern

Can there be better food than New Orleans? Beignets! Hello! BBQ. Red beans & rice. Muffulettas. Po-Boys. Popeye’s. Tabasco sauce.

Martin Luther King Jr, is a southern hero from Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Jack Daniels are all Southern

Helen Keller is from Tuscumbia, Alabama

Hank Aaron, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and Harper Lee are all American heroes from Alabama

Tom Wolfe, William Faulkner, John Grisham, Flannery O’Conner, Willie Morris and Mark Twain are all Southern

The Beach Boys sang about California Girls but have you been to the South? In case you did not know Beyonce, Eva Mendez, Eva Longoria, Sandra Bullock, and Megan Fox … all Southern

Blanche Bruce, Robert Smalls, and John R. Lynch are all from the South. If you do not know who these heroes are then it is time to learn. The obstacles they overcame and what they accomplished is something to be proud

George Washington brought the British army to its knees on Southern soil at the Battle of Yorktown (in Virginia)

The Crimson Tide is from the South!

George Wallace, Governor of the great state of Alabama stood on the steps of the University of Alabama with a baseball bat yelling “Segregation Today. Segregation Tomorrow. Segregation Forever!”  George Wallace shows that a true Southerner can not only admit she or he was wrong but even change.  After he was shot in 1972, Wallace underwent a “baptism.”  He died to the racist nonsense and came out fighting for equal rights and when he died Coretta Scott King and even Jesse Jackson attended his funeral.  True Southerners have COURAGE.  They face the facts and change.  What a courageous legacy.  That is something to be extremely proud of.

Southern Culture is the original multicultural mix.  From the Tennessee River to the sandy beaches of Florida. From the Bayou of Louisiana to the Smokey Mountains. From Beale Street to Orange Blossom Trail. Cultural diversity is the very definition of Southern.

Millions of Reasons for Pride

There are millions of reasons to be proud of the South and to be a “Southerner.” There are genuine heroes in the very best American tradition of opposing tyranny. There are are poets, novelists and scientists that have changed the world for the better. There are athletes that make us cheer and food and drink to celebrate with. And we have music that the entire world sings, dances and rocks too!

These are just some of the Southern traditions and culture that are incredibly rich, incredibly diverse, and worthy of celebration. As Southerners lets celebrate with gusto love and triumph over all evil … let us run away from those things that tarnish our heritage. Graven images singing the glory of slavery tarnishes what we stand for.

My response to an ignorant note.

Tobit by Jacques Blanchard (1600-1638

Every year as we make our journey thru the Bible we come to that part between Malachi and Matthew that I playfully term the “Middle Testament.” Protestants have traditionally used the word “Apocrypha” for these books but for American Evangelicals that is more of pejorative term than for Martin Luther or John Calvin. So recently we have been reading Tobit. I share John Purvey’s, and Martin Luther’s opinion of Tobit, it is a spiritual treasure.

One of the most frequent teaching in the Bible has to do with having eyes and ears but we are blind and deaf. Sometimes, this teaching comes as a lament and sometimes it is an exhortation. Isaiah records Yahweh’s lament that his people “stop their ears” and “shut their eyes.” Jesus quotes Isaiah in Matthew 13 and says they see but do not “perceive” and hear but never “understand.” It is indeed a sad commentary on the nature of God’s people. We often have memorized lots of Scripture in our head but never come to an understanding of what it says. We parade our loyalty to the “pattern” but do not quite smell like Jesus.

Augustine, the great African church father, believed there was a whole book “in the Bible” (Tobit was in Augustine’s Latin Bible) that addressed the spiritual condition of having eyes but failure to see. Tobit was a man who was blind but had eyes to see.  Tobit, according to Augustine, was a challenge to God’s people and ironically being blind he was exactly what God wanted.

Augustine refers to Tobit many times in his sermons. But it was in a sermon on the Psalms that he brings the story before his congregation in Africa. And since I am reading the Psalms and we just finished Tobit, I thought I would share his insight.

Augustine simply assumes everyone in his church knows the story of Tobit by heart. Tobit is sort of a Job figure. Though in Exile he courageously lives for God, he sacrificed to care for the poor, he assumes the risk of burying the dead, even when it is against the law. But like Job, his faith leads to suffering. He is blinded which threatens his family and even possible death. But he refused to leave God. He was blind and helpless! This is where Augustine picks up in his sermon. I quote,

Tobit was blind, yet he taught his son the way of God. You know this is true because Tobit advised his son, ‘Give alms, my son, for almsdeeds save you from departing into darkness’ [Tobit 4.7, 11, Old Latin]; yet the speaker was in darkness himself … He had no fear that his son might say in his heart, ‘Did you not give alms yourself? Why, then, are you talking to me out of your blindness? Darkness is where almsgiving has evidently led you, so how can you advise me that ‘almsdeeds save you from departing into darkness?‘”

Augustine notes that for those who have eyes, and cannot see, Tobit’s confidence looks misguided at best. It is dangerous even because serving God has no rewards. So Augustine asks his congregation, “How could Tobit give that advice to his son with such confidence?” It was because God gave Tobit to show us what true vision looks like. Though blind, Tobit has 20-20 vision. The great African preacher explained.

It is only because he [Tobit] habitually saw another light. The son held his father’s hand to help him walk, but the father taught his son the way, that he might live. The other light that Tobit (though blind) saw, of course, is the light of FAITH!” (Expositions of the Psalms, vol 2, Psalms 73-98, p. 456)

Through his faith in Yahweh, the blind man, Tobit not only taught his son (Tobias) the way of sight but, according to Augustine, continues to do so “to this day.” Tobit, ironically, is blessed. “Blessed are your eyes, for they see and your ears, for they hear.

The blind man sees. Sadly God’s people often do not. Augustine called his congregation to be like Tobit, have 20-20 vision through faith.