Sometimes I am simply astonished by my brothers and sisters. Jesus once asked a group of Bible experts, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Mk 12.24). Yes, this statement is directed to men who thought of themselves to be Bible experts.

A person has written to me, concerning Easter, “I am grateful that I remember the resurrection of Jesus every week not once a year.” And I’ve received other messages with the same basic message some nearly verbatim.

I have acknowledged neither. I had to refill my Cup of Java to make sure I was reading the rejection of “Easter/Pascha” correctly. Seriously brothers and sisters, is this supposed to be an objection?

Do these brothers/sisters actually believe that celebrating Easter (early Christians called it Pascha) implies in any universe, that Christians across the globe and thru the centuries celebrating Easter remember the resurrection only once a year! My friends this is actually absurd and I am not trying to be offensive by saying it is absurd. I just know of no other word suitable for it.

If you remember your wife/husband’s anniversary or birthday does that imply you are only grateful for them one day a year? Surely such is worse than silly. It is not even rational.

But these critics seem to not understand a biblical rhythm of life.

Sunday/Lord’s Day and Easter/Pascha function analogously to the Sabbath and Passover. I cannot stress enough that early Christians did not own personal New Testaments, much less Bibles. They learned the contents of the Story thru public worship. This is simply essential to grasp to understand early Christianity.

Early Christians for the first 100 or so years were mostly Jews. They had a “biblical” rhythm to life. That rhythm was dominated by the festivals. The sabbath is the first and primary festival in the Bible.

Sabbath and Passover are connected. So are Lord’s Day and Easter. Some (they do not know the scripture as Jesus said) do not seem to realize that the Sabbath remembers the liberation of slaves from Egypt, the Exodus just as much as it remembers the days of creation. This is stressed many times in the “Old Testament” not least in the Ten Words (Deuteronomy 5.12-15).

So every single week, Israelites, remembered the salvation by the grace of God in the Exodus. But also in the Passover feast, Israel celebrated the event and reenacted the event. They did not only remember God’s astonishing earth shattering grace on the 14th of Nisan. They did it weekly and had a shabbat meal, a miniature Passover.

Just so, the Lord’s Day with its meal remembers the astonishing grace of the God of the Exodus supremely in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Early Christians and modern Christians, like Jews around the world, remember the foundational events of faith every single week.

But Easter/Pascha was viewed in the early church just as the Passover was for a millennia prior to Jesus. The Passover celebrates what the Sabbath does. Easter celebrates what the Lord’s Day does. There was no competition between Sabbath and Passover nor is there any between the Christian Pascha/Easter and the Lord’s Day.

Early Christianity was born in, shaped by, and has the DNA of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism ground into it. It is astonishing how little we understand our own faith.

To celebrate Easter hardly implies only remembering the resurrection once a year. It is the “Christian Passover.” It is genetically connected to the weekly “festival” of gathering in the name of the Lord … the God of the Resurrection is the same God of the Exodus which is why Jesus used the PASSOVER as his Last Supper in the first place. (See how Paul connects them in 1 Corinthians 5.7).

Remember that Jesus, the Apostles, James, Paul, etc were, and are, Jews. The book they wrote, we call it the New Testament, is a Jewish book.

Jews in Jerusalem for Passover

Festivals in Israel, and even in the early church, had several functions. They gathered God’s People to worship. Worship is intended to be communal. The festivals taught the people the “word of God.” You see no one in Israel, or the first 1400 years of the church for that matter, owned personal copies of the Bible. No one went home “from church” to read the Bible prior to Gutenberg. This is a significant fact.

Festivals like the Sabbath, Trumpets, Unleavened Bread … and “Pascha/Easter” served the practical function of teaching God’s People the STORY, that is the WORD of God. In fact through the Festivals of Worship the historical word became the Living Word as God’s people dramatically reenacted the Story of Redemption. Suddenly the flight from Egypt was not something you heard read to you, it was something you participated in dramatically. Those who complain about “drama” in worship have limited historical understandings of what “worship” was like in Israel, and for centuries among Christians. Drama preached the Word. Unleavened bread/Passover, for example, in one dramatic “production” preaches the Story of the book of Exodus.

Unleavened Bread/Passover celebrates the astonishing steadfast love (hesed) and grace of Yahweh for a group of slaves deemed so worthless that the state sanctioned the murder of their infant boys. The feast/festival proclaims the care, mercy and involvement of Yahweh for the “least of these.” The festival culminates in the Passover which proclaims the greatest act of grace in the history of the world until the incarnation of Jesus. It is the story of the Gospel of the Exodus.

God saves.

We get saved.

God redeems.

We do not redeem ourselves.

No Jew shares in these festivals because they are worthy. They participate because they were invited by grace.

Unleavened bread/Passover is mentioned frequently in our written Scriptures. We read of it in Exodus 12.15-20; Leviticus 23.6-8; Deuteronomy 16.3-16; 2 Chronicles 30.23-27; Ezra 6.21-22; etc, etc.

The festival was important in the development of Jesus. Luke tells us his family traveled to Jerusalem annually for the festival (Lk 2.41). John depicts Jesus walking to Jerusalem regularly for the festival.

The apostle James was martyred by Herod during the festival of Unleavened Bread (Acts 12.3). The apostle Paul celebrated Unleavened Bread/Passover with his fellow Jewish disciples (Acts 20.5-6). Paul even told the Corinthian church to “celebrate the festival” (1 Cor 5.8) though scholars argue about what this means.

But most importantly, Unleavened Bread/Passover became the occasion for the Messiah’s New Exodus through his death, burial and resurrection.

The festival is eight days long. Christians have called this week “holy week” since at least the third century AD. It is “holy” in that the events of the greatest moment of redemption in the Hebrew Bible took place AND the the greatest moments of redemption in the history of the world took place. This week changed cosmic history.

During the festival the Hallel Psalms (Pss 113-118) are sung (Mt 26.30) and the Song of Songs is read out loud on the Sabbath during the Passover.

As we head through this week that remembers such momentous events I encourage you to read the following:

1) Story of the Exodus (Exodus 1-15)
2) Psalms 113-118
3) Song of Songs
4) Matthew 21-25

Passover – Pascha – Easter – God cares for the powerless and the aliens. That is why God delivered Israel. God loves the powerless and the aliens. That is why Jesus celebrated the Passover and became the Lamb of God.

7 Apr 2021

Jesus & The Temple: Freaky Facts

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Patternism, Worship
A view of the Court of Women, the 15 steps leading to the Nicanor Gate. Solomon’s Porch is located on the eastern side of the Court of Women where the Way met (Acts 5.12, etc)

Many times the images that lie hidden deep within our subterranean mind influence us in profound ways. These images are frequently never on the surface but their power is undeniable. What makes them insidious is they often skew how we interpret “reality.” Today’s Freaky Jesus Facts looks at a few facts that just might unsettle our minds and also help us read both the Gospels and Acts much better.

1) Freaky Fact. The Temple is a powerful theme and symbol that is ubiquitous in the Bible. To use an analogy (which has limitations), the Temple is like a wedding ring. It is incredibly an emotive symbol that points to something far more than metal and rock.

2) Freaky Fact. Jesus loved and revered the Temple. Like many Jews he may argue with the power structures running the temple, but the Temple itself, its worship, what it is, Jesus loved to be there. He called it “my Father’s house” (Lk 2.49; Jn 2.16f).

3) Freaky Facts. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus made the annual pilgrimages to the Temple. Those great worship festivals became the occasion for worship and teaching by Jesus. Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus takes place either during or immediately after Passover/Unleavened Bread mentioned explicitly in 2.13, 23 and helps explain the allusions to Exodus/Numbers narrative.

John 5.1, Jesus walks back to Jerusalem and the Temple. Though this festival is unnamed scholars have often identified with Weeks (Pentecost). Some have identified it as Purim (cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Temple, p. 332).

In John 7-8, Jesus has yet again walked to the Temple for the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles (cf. 7.2, 10, 14). And yet again Jesus walked to the Temple for Hanukkah/Dedication in John 10.

And finally, of course, the Passover/Unleavened Bread which dominates the last half of the Gospel. Jesus got a lot of exercise journeying to the Temple to worship and to teach just like other rabbis in the courts. (See the discussion in John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Johnny Melton, A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Divine Encounter, pp. 30-33).

4) Freaky Facts. Neither Jesus nor his disciples nor the church that gathered in the Temple in Acts could ever get into the temple without doing two things. Jesus, James, the early church, Peter, John, Paul, could not enter the Temple without having paid their Temple tax and entered a mikvah to be purified. There were huge pools, like the Pool of Siloam, for ritual purification. Jesus, the disciples, the early church, and Paul, would not have gotten past the Levites guarding the Temple gates.

When we read the Gospels there are many hidden assumptions. We need to see in our minds Jesus entering into the mikveh, immersing himself, and soaking wet as he enters the Temple courts (See James H. Charlesworth’s, “Jesus and the Temple” in Jesus and Temple, ed. J. H. Charlesworth, pp. 145-181). This same reality is true for Acts 2, Acts 3, Acts 4, Acts 21, etc.

5) Freaky Facts. Jesus drove out the money changers from his “Father’s house” but not the musicians and dancers. In the biblical tradition there are two violent expulsions of people from the Temple: Heliodorus and the money changers. Second Maccabees 3.13-40 tells the story of the pagan General Heliodorus who intended to rob the sacred wares of the Temple and violate its sanctity. Led by the priest Onias, the people pray for the Lord to protect his house. As the General entered, a magnificent rider on a horse was manifested and struck Heliodorus on the forehead.

when he arrived at the treasury with his bodyguard, then and there the Sovereign of spirits and of all authority caused so great a manifestation that all who had been so bold as to accompany him were astounded by the power of God, and became faint with terror. For there appeared to them a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien; it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck him with its front hoofs.” (2 Maccabees 3.24-25).

Then two “glorious men” flogged the General and finally a “deep darkness” fell on the pagan. God’s glory was manifest and Heliodorus recovered and became a follower of the God of Israel (2 Maccabees 3.35-40).

The second time was Jesus driving out the money changers. An episode recorded in all four Gospels though in different locations. Jesus taught in the Court of Women of the Temple frequently it is there that the “Treasury” was located and the occasion of the Lord’s memorable teaching about the widow’s two coins (Mk 12.41-44). He would come into the Court and see the Levites gathered on the fifteen semi-circular steps that rise. As the Mishnah relates,

Fifteen steps led from within it to the Court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen Songs of Ascents in the Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing” (mMiddoth 2.5).

On these steps not only are the Levites singing the Psalms, they are playing instruments of cymbals, harps, and lyres and many other kinds of instruments. As we read,

There were chambers beneath the Court of the Israelites which opened into the Court of Women, and there the Levites played upon harps and lyres and the cymbals and all instruments of music” (mMiddoth 2.6).

These fifteen steps that lead up to the Nicanor Gate was a place of praise and often a place for large crowds of men and women. Within the Court of Women, twenty-four girls dance with seeming joy to the Lord holding colored fabrics and we hear this,

Praise Yahweh!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with the trumpet sound;
praise him with the lute and harp!
Praise him with the tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!

Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise Yahweh!
Praise Yahweh!

(Psalm 150)

Jesus sees this. Jesus regularly experiences this when he comes to his “Father’s house.” But not Jesus only. James, Peter, John, Paul and the entire Jerusalem church experienced this every time they gathered in the Temple to worship. And they did worship just as Paul says explicitly, “I went up to Jerusalem to worship … I came to bring alms to my nation and to offer sacrifices” (Acts 24.11 & 17).

When Jesus had to protect the sanctity of his “Father’s house,” like Onias in 2 Maccabees and he drove uncleanness out as did that mystical rider on a horse, it was not the Levites with all kinds of instruments that he chased from the Temple. It was not even the women dancers that drew the ire of our Lord (cf. Pss 149.3; 150.4). What drew the anger of Jesus was the money changers, not singing, not dancing and not instruments. Makes you go, hmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Jewish Mikvah. A person would descend into the pool via the steps then ascend out of the pool via the other set of steps.

It is just one of those Freaky Facts that will always be true.

When we put Jesus, and the early church, into the real world in which they really lived, many things become clearer and our assumptions fall by the way side.

The image of Jesus traveling with his Joseph, Mary, his brothers and sisters, to the Temple offering sacrifice during the festivals is a powerful one. The image of Jesus traveling with is disciples to do the same is powerful. Jesus and the disciples shared a sacrifice to the very end as the Passover eaten by Jesus included the sacrifice (cf. Luke 22.7-13; Mk 14.12-16). The mental image of Peter, John, James and Paul descending into a mikveh so they can enter the Temple to praise with the Saints is powerful is powerful indeed.

The image of Jesus, fresh from his immersion in the Pool of Siloam, singing joyfully, even shouting, clapping his hands to the music of the Songs of Ascent, even dancing a little in the Court of Women … just might help us from being so dour and argumentative about things that should never be an issue.

Of Related Interest:

Back to the Temple, AD 33: Time Machine Pilgrimage to the Temple and Early Church

Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced

5 Apr 2021

“Holy Week:” Scripture for Meditation

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Discipleship, Easter, Grace, Jesus, Journey, Lent

The coming week is traditionally known as “Holy Week.” The phrase dates to at least Athanasius, an African Christian leader in Alexandria Egypt and Epiphanius, a Christian leader in Palestine both lived in the AD 300s. From its earliest days, the church used a calendar to teach the story of redemption. The vast majority of people could neither read, nor afford reading materials like a scroll or book and thus did not own a Bible. In fact it would be nearly 1500 years before average disciples could own a bound Bible. The calendar was essential.

Days of the year would be associated with events in the story of redemption like the Exodus, the birth/incarnation of the King, the death and resurrection of the King. Since the first century believers celebrated what they called “Pascha” (means “passover”) which we call in our language, Easter.

The week leading up to Easter people would gather to hear Scripture read out loud, The passages read told the story of the Messiah and what lead to his death. The culmination was “Easter” (called “Pascha”). The readings for this week are as follows.

Monday: Isa 42.1-9; Ps 36; Heb 9.11-15; John 12.1-11

Tuesday: Isa 49.1-7; Ps 71; 1 Cor 1.18-31; John 12.20-36

Wednesday: Isa 50.4-9; Ps 70; Heb 12.1-3; John 13.21-32

Thursday: Ex 12.1-14; Ps 116; 1 Cor 11.17-34; John 13.1-17, 31-35

Friday: Isa 52.13-53.12; Ps 22; Heb 10.16-25; John 18.1-19, 42

Saturday: Lamentations 3.1-9, 19-24; Ps 31; 1 Pt 4.1-8; John 19.38-42

Print this out or write down the passages for the day. I pray you will walk with Jesus through the week that changed human history for eternity.


Alexander Campbell

In 1834, Alexander Campbell expressed himself on the importance of Reading and having a Good Library in the Millennial Harbinger. The article is actually by Thomas Smith Grimke, but Campbell prefaces it with these words, “I have not found any writer who more fully expresses my views.” So rather than writing his own, he copies and pastes.

Grimke provides a long list of authors and books that he believes should be owned and read by everyone. He notes that a person who wishes to be a “scholar,” not so much in the “literary sense” but some one who is ‘well rounded,” open minded, “dignified,” and generally useful to society, should continue to grow and learn. “It is an error to suppose that a course of study is confined to the period of YOUTH” [sic]. Learning, including going to college, has barely begun by the time youth is ended.

A well rounded individual ought ‘to make up his mind to be a devoted student, in spite of his professional engagements” in order to “enlarge the mind.”

Then Campbell, with Grimke’s words, makes this rather interesting remark. “And here let it be remarked, that the TRUE student never considers how much he reads, but rather how LITTLE, and only WHAT, and HOW he reads” [sic]. In other words one cannot read to much but one can read not enough and one can be poor quality books which also may make us poor readers.

What are some of the titles recommended by AC/Grimke? I will not list them all (there is a page of them). They cover a wide array of subjects.

The Bible (with commentaries listed like Clarke/Henry)
William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity.
Several by Robert Lowth (a Hebrew scholar).
Neal’s History of the Puritans.
John Locke’s Essays.
Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning.
Horseley’s Nine Sermons.
Thomas Reid (a philosopher).
Hallam’s History of the Middle Ages.
Milman’s History of the Jews.
Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Pitkin’s Civil and Political History of the United States.
Jonathan Edwards, God’s End in the Creation of the World.
Roscoe’s Pope Leo X.
Milner’s History of the Christian Church.
A number of works by Shakespeare, Walter Scott, etc.

What a remarkable list that includes the leading historical, biblical, theological, and philosophical scholarship of the day. What a great perspective. I have met way to many, ministers and non-ministers, who almost brag (some actually do) about not reading. I have seen political leaders do the same. The former President Donald Trump was a notorious non-reader (see David Graham’s, The President Who Doesn’t Read in The Atlantic). It is only the young that need to learn and read (and possibly not even them!). What is equally interesting is that Campbell regards this as a starter list 🙂 .

There was a time, however, when many held the opinion that to be integrated into and to contribute to society – not just to be a minister or a politician – one had to cultivate the habit of enlarging the mind beyond its own inherent limitations through reading widely. Reading widely, in the words of Karen Swallow Prior “makes us more human” (see her essay, How Reading Makes Us More Human.) C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Literary Criticism, speaks in much the same way of how reading serves our humanity,

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

Oh for statesmen who read like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. Oh for ministers who believed reading widely, and deeply, was a sign of service to God to be equipped to minister to his people. I have met some who pretend to read and some who buy lots of books but do not read. Oh for those who held Campbell’s and Lewis’s view. Reading and Good reading is simply necessary.

Read. Read Good Books. Read cross culturally. If you are white then read some Black authors regularly (James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Esau McCaulley, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Cornell West, Bryan Stevenson, John Perkins, Ta-Nehisi Coats). If you are a man incorporate women authors (Maya Angelou, Lisa Bowens, A. J. Levine, Latasha Morrison, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Bell Hooks, etc). Read. Ponder. Grow.

Jack P. Lewis, of blessed memory, at Harding School of Theology used to call it “the ministry of study.” I end with what I quoted above, we cannot read too much. “And here let it be remarked, that the TRUE student never considers how much he reads, but rather how LITTLE, and only WHAT, and HOW he reads” [sic].”

You can find this article in the Millennial Harbinger for October 1834 on pages 490-493.

Campbell will publish an article 20 years later in 1851 called “A Christian Minister’s Library” with an amazing selection of recommended reading. It can be found in the Millennial Harbinger, May 1851, pp. 259-260.

Tolle lege

Related Posts:
Why Do We Read?

Why Do We Read, Part 2

One Hundred Great Books

Remembering the Slaves

The Sabbath.

Ask many disciples about the Sabbath and the only thing they really know about it is that there were “weird” rules about work. What is missed however, is that the “rules” meant we have a day off from the drudgery of work. The rule ensured, in fact, that we never became a slave!

What Christians often do not understand about the Sabbath is, WHY the Sabbath. Foundational to Shabbat (the Sabbath) is the divine act of grace: liberation from slavery (Deut 5.12-15). The Sabbath preaches the Gospel of freedom from slavery. The Sabbath is in reality the foundation of Jesus’s own ministry (Isaiah 61.1-2; Lk 4.18-19). I would say that makes it pretty important for any Christ follower.

In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to keep the Sabbath in order to “Remember that you were slaves” (Deut 5.15). A bunch of folks dislike this notion of remembering. The Sabbath constantly reminded Israel of where the came from and that they had been set free. Remembering automatically gave Israel a connection with every slave in the world, remembering causes us to identify with the captives, with the disinherited, with the aliens. And that God, our God, the God of Israel is the liberating, slave redeeming, God. In fact, Moses tells the Israelites they are to “have the heart of alien” (Exodus 23.9).

The weekly Sabbath was like a mini-Passover celebration. Israel took a day to remember they were enslaved aliens in a land simply known as “the land of slavery.” Israel took a day and remembered that Yahweh heard their cry and sent a redeemer and brought them out of slavery with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. The God of Israel saved the slaves. What a profound message of love and grace remembered every Sabbath day and in the annual Passover. And that is why Israel every week gave a day off for “you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, your ox, your donkey, your livestock and the aliens in your town so they may rest as well as you” (Deut. 5.14, when we read this text is essential to remember that “slaves” in Israel were more like indentured servants. Chattel, race based, slavery did not exist in Israel nor in the Ancient Near East in general).

The Pharisees were not, btw, the last people that could take something so beautiful, so loving, so grace filled and transform it into a burden for God’s people. I meet people who that all the time.

Remembering the Slaves

So in honor of Moses command, and Jesus’s mission, I want to remember a few things about slavery. Maybe things you did not know.

First. Remember that in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, there were three categories on the US Census data sheet for color:


Do we remember the Black and Mulatto were counted as three-fifths of a human being in what was called the “Slave Power.” Blacks and Mulattoes had no rights yet it was essential to Slave holders to have them counted in the census because this translated into how many seats the South could have in the House of Representatives. Further do we remember that you could be as “white” as me and not be “white” at all. Forty percent (40%) of the “free Negroes” in the South were Mulattoes but the vast majority of Mulattoes remained in slavery. The very existence of Mulattoes testifies to the extent of the power of the oppressor over the oppressed.

Second. Remember in 1860 only 10% of the slave population was older than 50. We need to reflect on this number. Old slaves were rare! Slaves were worked to death. Then they were tossed into the ground in unmarked graves.

Three. Remember the Middle Passage, the death passage between Africa and America that directly resulted in the deaths of around four million people all in the service of making money.

But we must remember the Second Middle Passage. After the trans-Atlantic slave trade was banned in theory (it would continue till Abraham Lincoln declared war on it), slave trade flourished internally in the USA. Over a million slaves would be moved from the “upper” South to the “lower” South via the domestic slave trade.

Four. Remember that Thirty-three percent (33%) of the slave labor force in 1860 was children. We cannot forget that one out of every three slaves was a child. Hundreds of thousands of these were the offspring of white “owners” who then sold off their own children (after all they were only three-fifths of a human). They were the Mulattoes.

Five. Remember what slavery really was. One of the most persistent myths, perpetuated by movies like Gone with the Wind, is that slaves were happy and simply worked cotton or tobacco farms. But in reality many of them did but many did not.

Before 1860, slaves laid nearly 10,000 miles of rail for trains (more gauge than Germany, France and England combined). Slaves were sailors, miners, masons, artisans. Slaves were used as accountants. Slaves built the monumental architecture in Washington DC like the White House and the Capital Building. Slaves worked restaurants in major cities of the South. Most repugnantly of all, slave women (and sometimes men) were used as mistresses and rented out as prostitutes in New Orleans, Lexington, St. Louis, Charleston, Nashville and many other places.

Six. Slavery in the Bible has nothing in common with slavery that existed in the United States. It never ceases to amaze me how many Christians are utterly ignorant of this fact. Slavery in the Bible, indeed the whole ancient world, had nothing to do with race/color. Many scholars compare slavery in Israel to indentured servanthood rather than slavery. Slavery is like divorce in the Bible. The Bible did not create it but it did regulate it and slaves were to be set free.

Remembering with Jesus

When your whole religion is based on “remember that YOU were a slave …” it changes the whole game. God proclaimed FREEDOM/LIBERTY … “forgiveness” … for the captives.

Jesus remembered the Sabbath every week of his earthly life. Jesus loved the Sabbath for the same reason he loved the Passover itself, they both preach the same message of God’s grace towards the disinherited, call us to remember the disinherited ourselves. On one Sabbath day Jesus was in Nazareth. It was his turn to read the Scriptures. He read a passage rich in Sabbath imagery, the Sabbath of Sabbaths – the Year of Jubilee.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the
Lord’s favor.
(Luke 4.18-19)

Jesus reads from Isaiah 61. It does not take much to see the connection between the Year of the Lord’s favor (Jubilee) and weekly Sabbath. The message is exactly the same. God, Jesus says, is sending once again a Redeemer to set the slaves free. In fact because we read this passage in English rather than Greek many disciples do not realize that Jesus is proclaiming “forgiveness.”

he has sent me to proclaim FORGIVENESS (ἄφεσιν) to the captives …”

Many do not realize that Jesus uses the exact same word that Peter does in Acts 2.38 when he tells people to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness (ἄφεσιν) of sins. Liberty, Freedom, Forgiveness the same word in Greek. When we remember the slaves, especially remembering them through Jesus, we remember that just as Israel was called to have the heart of the alienated slaves, so too those who claim to be disciples of the Redeemer. His very mission was to proclaim liberty, to preach freedom, to bring forgiveness to the slaves. If we are not about this then are we really on board with the mission of Christ?

I have lots of conversations. That is ok since Casper is not a good conversation partner. So I either have conversations going on via text, FB and email, they are usually about several things: someone’s marriage is in trouble (usually looking for a safe place to vent), the Stone-Campbell Movement, the Hebrew Bible or the Psalms, new heavens new earth, Astronomy, Judaism and the Middle Testament. It keeps me on my toes.

But no one ever wants to talk about Jonah, Song of Songs, Revelation or Gilgamesh!

For the last week or so I have been having conversation about the Middle Testament or Apocrypha. The conversation, initiated by him, has been good.

“What is it?”
“Did the Catholics put them in the Bible to support their false doctrine?”
“No New Testament writer knew them or quoted them?”
“They are just nonsense.”

He had all the usual Evangelical prejudices. All of which are incorrect. But the biggest problem was the lack of any real knowledge of them. But for some reason wants to learn more, but I am grateful. So the question was asked,

“How can the Apocrypha help me?”

I answered in several ways. First, because it is a primary source for understanding Jesus and the early church was my answer. The Apocrypha has sometimes been referred to as the “Bridge between the Testaments.” That is both a helpful yet limited perspective.

I illustrated it like this. The Apocrypha gives us “eyes to see and ears to hear.” Have you ever known of some one or thought that you did. You had read about them, saw pictures of them, heard stories about them.

And then met that person. But she or he was nothing like you imagined them to be?

Perhaps the New Testament, and early Christianity, is like that. We hear prejudicial stories about Jews and we impose them (unconsciously) on Jesus’s context and the early Way. The Hebrew Bible, first, is the primary reference. But the “Apocrypha” is like watching a documentary of the life and times in which the Way breathed. The whole world is gently recast, as we see God’s People struggle to be what he wants them to be.

They suffer.
They are persecuted.
They deal with alien/minority status.
They pray and worship.

And all of this is like meeting the person you thought you knew but she or he is nothing like what you imagined. They are not a distorted cartoon but flesh and blood. This is God’s gift of the Middle Testament.

A thoughtful reading of the Middle Testament (Apocrypha) can pay rich dividends in hearing Jesus and the New Testament itself. It is amazing how many stereotypes, that blind us to the plain words of the NT, fall by the wayside.

Besides … Jesus and the NT do in fact know most of the books that we call Apocrypha. Protestant apologetics does not rewrite history.

These books, canonical or not, had a profound impact on early Christianity and it is simply hard to actually understand the early church it as it was without them. Many early Christians knew of Susanna (Greek Daniel) but did not the letter to the Hebrews. Many Christians knew Judith or Wisdom of Solomon but did not Titus. Many young Christians would spend years learning the basics of Godly living through Sirach (it was even called Ecclesiasticus which means “Church book!”) but never heard of Revelation, 2 Peter or (again) Hebrews. This is why every manuscript Bible known to exist includes them. The reason for these facts is that the modern American editions of the King James Version did not fall out of the sky to early Christians (I say modern American editions of the KJV because for centuries the KJV included the Apocrypha and British versions still do).

The second answer is that these books are rich theologically and Spiritually. The church has used them for that for reason. Some of the most moving prayers you will find are in the Apocrypha. I would rather read Tobit than Max Lucado or the Spiritual Sword. In a thousand years, should the Lord tarry, three quarters of the Christian world will still read Tobit but only the rare scholar reading dusty microfilm will have a clue who Lucado was or what the Spiritual Sword was.

They do show us how to pray.
They do offer us discipleship challenges.
They do call us to faithfulness to God.
They do call us to worship only him.

These books are used as sources of devotion in every century of the Christian era. This includes Protestant theologians like Martin Luther, William Tyndale, John Bunyan, and many more.

By the way none of this will be evident to a person who approaches these writings with prejudice. Nor will it be evident from a cursory and shallow engagement. But if you sit down and read asking the question, “Why did the early church find so much value, and even inspiration, here?” You will be amazed at what is discovered.

So that is one conversation. Boring to all but me.

Gallows at the Capital, January 6, 2020

Sunday in my lesson at Eastside, I attempted to navigate the minefield we find ourselves in the USA. I began by talking my own baptism and the confession it sealed and proclaimed, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah.”

I confessed that I did not really understand what all that meant when I said “I do.” Over the years I have grown into a deeper understanding of what my confession really means. To say I believe that Jesus is the Christ is to say I believe that Jesus is the King and Caesar is not.

The four commitments that will see us through are rooted in our baptismal identity. While on Sunday we could spend hours debating all kinds of points, I believe these four commitments are simply beyond question for any one who has made the confession and were baptized into Messiah/King. It is not the case that these four commitments are “easy” to live. They are not but that is part of “cost of discipleship.” I summarized the four commitments with the letters JTPP (Jesus, Truth, Prayer, Peace).

#1) We are committed to the exclusive Kingship of Jesus. Nothing is beyond the purview of the one I confess to be King. Everything, everything, in our lives submits to his Kingship in our lives.

#2) We are committed to the Truth. Jesus stated clearly that he is “the Truth” (Jn 14.6). He tells Pilate, “for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (Jn 18.37). In almost American form, Pilate huffs, “What is truth?” (Jn 18.38).

Our commitment to Truth is directly rooted in our confession that Jesus is the King. Truth is often unpopular, it is often painful, it is often the last thing we want to embrace, it is not equivalent to my opinion or what I was taught or what this or that favorite talking head said. Sometimes we do not know what the truth is. But one stunning truth we confess is that God loves the world and Jesus is not American or white.

But we are committed to finding the truth. Those who are “on the side of truth” will follow the King. Commitment to Truth well help us through.

#3) We are committed to Prayer. Our King himself is devoted to prayer. But Paul tells us to pray for those who are leaders (1 Timothy 2.1-2). Paul does not tell us to pray so that leader suddenly becomes a disciple. He tells us to pray “so that [the purpose!] WE [Christians] can live peaceful/calm lives in godliness.” Godliness … GodLIKEness. Our lives become a witness (a sacrifice perhaps) to the One who is our King. Psalm 72 is a great biblical prayer for those in authority.

#4) We are committed to Peace. Our King is the “Prince of Peace,” he came “preaching peace” and literally “put to death hostility” thus those who are baptized and call him “Christ/Messiah = King” then how can we be “in him” and not be what he is? That is why our King said, “Blessed are the Peacemakers, FOR they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5.9). God makes peace. Jesus makes peace. Those who are his disciples make peace.


Jesus. Truth. Prayer. Peace.

I personally believe if the Christians that live in the USA, were literally committed to these we not only would make it through but we would change our world.

Blessings Be Upon You.

One of the most pervasive themes in the Bible is the power of leaders, for good or ill, to shape people. So pervasive is this theme is that it has nearly proverbial status: As the king goes, so goes the people. We see it over and over in Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. Think Deborah, Gideon, Eli, Samuel, David, Solomon, Ahab, and Zedekiah. In Scripture we read a typical statement like the one regarding Asa on the influencing power of the King/President,

He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, walking in the ways of Jeroboam and his sin, which he had caused Israel to commit” (1 Kgs 15.34).

We must remember that Israel is the people of God, they are not analogous to the USA/Russia/Germany but the church. But the principle of “As the goes the king, so goes the people,” is one that holds true when the biblical writers evaluate the governments (kings) of the nations around them. When we read of the prophets, for example, criticizing the nations around them they never (as far as I recall) bring up a specific covenantal issue. But they do bring up matters God seems to expect of everyone. Lewis Smedes years ago called this “Mere Morality.” We might want to call this the second half of the Ten Words/Commandments. Yes, it would seem that the second half the Ten Words/Commandments is stuff that God expects of everyone, Israelite or non; Christian or non.

The Bible, in fact, gives a rather simple standard for a leader and that standard is not the unique covenantal values of Israel, but the mere morality, the exercise of justice on behalf of the lowest of humans.

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice …
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor …

For he will deliver the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy

(Psalm 72)

In fact, more often than not it is that “mere morality” that is used even against Israel’s own leaders. King Ahab is a case in point. From “secular history” we know that Ahab was in fact one of the most successful of all Israel’s kings. Israel was rich and powerful, as the archeological record for the period has shown.

So wealthy, and powerful, was Ahab that he was able to lead a coalition, that included Egypt, itself against the mighty Assyrian Empire at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC with 2000 chariots (the equivalent of sophisticated ancient tanks). The Assyrians themselves tell us about this battle, not the biblical historians. From the biblical perspective, Ahab was an utter failure.

Why was Ahab such a failure? The economy boomed. The riches of Samaria are plainly evident archeologically. Israel was an entity to be reckoned with under Ahab’s regime. Israel had the respect of the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, in fact of everyone.

What was the problem? In a word, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The powerful ran over the non-powerful. Ahab turned Psalm 72 on its head.

Elijah was God’s voice to Ahab. You will recall that Elijah had the famous encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18. Worshiping false gods (idols) was a covenant violation. The false prophets were defeated. But Elijah’s story with Ahab does not end there.

It is not until several chapters later where we find “doom” pronounced upon Ahab. Ahab robbed the poor. The poor suffered. The rich got richer. Justice was denied the powerless. As the Proverb notes, King Ahab revealed his lack of righteousness:

The righteous know the rights of the poor;
the wicked have no such understanding” (29.7).

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy
.” (31.8-9)

So we are confronted with Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). Naboth is a peasant. Ahab wanted Naboth’s property for himself, even though he already had plenty. A plot was hatched in cooperation with the local authorities to steal Naboth’s ancestral heritage to satisfy the covetous greed of the wealthy. Naboth was arrested on falsified charges by the authorities, essentially for being non-patriotic (meditate upon 21.13 a long time). Then Naboth was legally executed – murdered – and the property was taken over by the state (king).

I find it noteworthy that God did not threaten to kill Ahab for idolatry. But Yahweh did promise to kill Ahab for his abuse the poor man Naboth. Notice what Yahweh said,

This is what the LORD says: Have you murdered a man and seized his property? Then say to him [Ahab], ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood – yes, yours!” (21.19)

Yahweh, through his prophetic servant Moses, had already gave notice how seriously God takes the abuse of power against the poor by those in political power. When leaders decide to mimic Pharaoh, they make themselves Yahweh’s personal enemy. The words are terrifying to me.

You shall not wrong or oppress an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword” (Exodus 22.21-22).

Ahab led Israel by greed, avarice, lust for power. This toxic elixir translated into how people treated one another as well. Having a massive 10,000 chariot army was no sign of God’s blessings upon Israel. While Assyria had great respect for Omri and Ahab (father and son), he destroyed the mere morality of his nation.

It was not the economy! It was the care for the poor that was the measure of the strength of their relationship with God. (I recommend reading Amos on this point, dated a few generations later, the scenario is almost exactly the same: Israel is rich and powerful again but the poor are sold for a pair of slippers!).

When God humbled Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel did not accuse him of any uniquely covenantal violations. Daniel said to the Babylonian monarch, “atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged” (4.27). Mercy to the oppressed. Toxic leadership is a cancer in a nation.

In line with the vast sweep of biblical tradition, the very wise sage, Jesus the Son of Sirach, offered the following perspective on why it is necessary to choose leaders who have a basic grasp on how they impact society.

A sagacious ruler educates his people,
and his rule is well ordered.
As the magistrate is,
so will his officials be,
as the governor is,
so will be the inhabitants of the his city.
An undisciplined king will be the ruin of his people,
a city owes its prosperity to the understanding of its leaders
(Sirach 10.1-3)

I like how Knox translates that opening line in v.2,

Like king, like court,
like ruler, like subjects.

The United States is not Israel (the people of God). But God expects mere morality, the pursuit of basic justice for the aliens, the poor, the powerless, from us just as he did Nebuchadnezzar.

Perhaps Sirach explains why “we” are often in the situation we are in because we leaders (like Ahab and Nebuchadnezzar) think greatness is measured in tanks, wealth, and avarice rather than protecting the poor, the widows and the aliens.

Just some thoughts.

Psalms. Hymns. Spiritual Songs, Psalm 76

For many years I did not know what Ephesians 5.19 meant.

I grew up on debates about “instrumental music” that were shaped by the word “psallo” in this text. This term was critical for our argument that God “changed his mind” about instrumental music (we rejected it outright). From time to time a person would talk about the types of songs represented in the words “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” These terms are indeed foundational.

For more on how the Instrumental Music debate has sometimes misrepresented the Hebrew Bible see my article, Israel, David, Music: Caricatures, Misrepresentations and Unity.

Because the so called Old Testament played such a minimal role in our theology, we typically did not look to that source for the meaning of these terms. Further because we read the “Old Testament” in English translation we were even further removed from the important information.

Yet Paul’s readers in Asia Minor did not read English. Nor did they read a Protestant translation of the Hebrew Bible. They read, their Bible was, the Septuagint ( =LXX). In fact the LXX was their only Bible. They in fact had the Septuagint read to them orally because Paul had told their preacher to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4.13) and these are the same Scriptures Timothy had known since he was a child that Paul said to that congregation was “good for doctrine” and “equipped” the people of God for “every good work” (2 Timothy 3.15-17).

In our text (Eph 5.19) Paul makes two references to the “Old Testament” as it is represented in the LXX. These two references are significant and show Paul believed the Hebrew Scriptures taught the fellowship of the Messiah how to worship God.

The first reference to the “Old Testament” is when he quotes the phrase “sing and make melody to the Lord…” In quoting this Paul points the readers of Ephesians back to the Scriptures he told them made them wise and equipped them to properly serving God. “Sing and make melody to the Lord” occurs repeatedly in the Book of Psalms. The exact phrase comes from Psalm 27 (in English)

I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
I will sing and make melody to the Lord

{ᾄσομαι καὶ ψαλῶ τῷ κυρίῳ}” (Psalm 27.6 = 26.6, LXX)

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous.
Praise befits the upright.
Praise the Lord with the lyre;
make melody
{ψαλῶ} to him [the Lord]
with the harp of ten strings
(Psalm 33.1-2)

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody
{ψαλῶ} to our God on the lyre
(Psalm 147.7, we recall that Paul mentions thanksgiving as well in 5.20)

For a deeper look at the phrase “Sing and Make Melody” see “Making Melody to the Lord: Paul’s Debt to the Psalter when talking about Worship.”

The word “psallo” is immediately apparent and used in all of these examples.

Paul’s second reference to the “Old Testament” is when he references the Book of Psalms as a whole. When Paul says “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” he is not making some general comment about musical genres in the Greco-Roman world. Paul is looking at the content of the Book of Psalms in his LXX. These are the songs Jesus, Peter, James, Paul and myriads of disciples had already been singing in worship for centuries. ψαλμός (psalms), ύμνοις (hymns), ωδή (songs) are genre identifications from the headings of the Book of Psalms.

Psalms (ψαλμός) is the most common identification of texts. We can find it among other places in the headings of the LXX (the heading is vs. 1 in the LXX just as in Hebrew, they are not numbered in English) at 3.1; 5.1; 6.1; 7.1; 8.1; 9.1; 11.1; 29.1; 47.1; 91.1 (etc, etc, etc). So we read in Psalm 3.1 in the LXX, “ψαλμός to/pertaining to David.”

We find hymns (ύμνοις) identified in the headings in among other places at 53.1; 54.1; 60.1; 67.1; 75.1; etc, etc. So in Psalm 53.1 of the LXX we read “Among ύμνοις. Of understanding. Pertaining to David.”

We find spiritual songs (ωδή), the second most common designation in the headings in, among other places: 4.1; 17.1; 29.1; 38.1; 47.1; 86.1; etc, etc. All of the “Songs of Ascents” (Pss 119-134, LXX) are identified as Odes (hymns). So in Psalm 4.1 of the LXX we read, “ωδή to David.”

A number of headings include both “psalm” and “ode.”

Most interesting of all, though, is a number have all three of Paul’s terms in the heading. So Psalm 66 (Ps 67 in English) is a “ύμνοις. ψαλμός. ωδή.” It is a psalm, hymn and (spiritual) song! See also Psalm 75 (Ps 76 in English). These categories the Ephesian readers already know from the public reading of the Scriptures.

Paul identifies the Book of Psalms and catalogs its contents straight out of what people call the headings today for praise to God and building up the ἐκκλησίᾳ (church). Then he quotes Psalms (as noted above) to tell us to praise God.

If this were not interesting enough (and to me it is very interesting) we read the following in Psalm 149 in the LXX.

V.1 “αλληλουια ᾄσατε τῷ κυρίῳ ᾆσμα καινόν ἡ αἴνεσις αὐτοῦ ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ ὁσίων”
Sing to the Lord a new song,
praise his name in the church of the faithful

In verse 3 we read,

“αἰνεσάτωσαν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐν χορῷ ἐν τυμπάνῳ καὶ ψαλτηρίῳ ψαλάτωσαν αὐτῷ”
(Let them praise his name with dance;
let them make music to him with the drum and harp

I wonder if anyone reading the LXX, as Paul just told them too, in Ephesus would think they are the “church of the faithful?” And I wonder if they thought the term psallo (in v.3) did not really mean what it seems to mean? Especially since Paul told them to praise God from the Book of Psalms?

But here in this text we find Paul’s language. Paul clearly thought the Book of Psalms was the worship manual in Asia Minor. There is no evidence that he means something different by psalms, hymns and (spiritual) songs than what those words mean in the very LXX he quotes. Nor is there any actual evidence that he means something different by psallo. The burden of proof that he means something different is upon those who make such a claim.

Everett Ferguson, a scholar devoted to a cappella music, makes a rather startling admission. Of course the Jerusalem church is sidelined as is the Book of Revelation in his discussion (Revelation gives three instances of instruments used in the worship of God, cf. Revelation 5.8-10; 14.2-3; 15.2-3). The confession is interesting in light of the energy Churches of Christ have expended on dividing over this issue.

“Before leaving the New Testament references, we may note in passing that the New Testament gives no negative judgment on instrumental music PER SE.” (A Capella Music in the Public Worship, p. 42).

What a stunning admission. There is not a shred of evidence that any biblical writer, not just the NT, ever even hinted at disapproving instrumental music (as Ferguson admits). But here is another stunning fact, there is no evidence anywhere from any writer prior to about AD 200 that anyone said anything negative about “instruments.” Then it would be another 150 years or so before we get the great denunciations in the Fourth Century. But such a position is not to be found in the First nor the Second century that I can find. But in the earliest Christian collection of hymns known (next to the Book of Psalms itself) which dates before AD 125 we read, these interesting words.

To announce to those who have songs of the coming of the Lord,
That they may go forth to meet Him and may sing to Him,
With joy and with the harp of many tones

(Odes 7.17)

I poured out praise to the Lord,
Because I am His own.
And I will recite His holy ode,
Because my heart is with Him.
For His harp is in my hand;
And the odes of His rest shall not be silent.

(Odes 26.1-3)

Paul told us to praise God from the Psalms, he uses the very words of the Psalms both as to its content and its form. I think these facts are not acknowledged nearly enough, but should be.

Sometimes our divisions may not be righteous ones. I suspect that Paul, Peter, John the Seer, and most of all Jesus, would wonder about this one.

For more on Jesus, the Way and the Psalms see: Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced.