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”
(Hallelujah!
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.

11 Nov 2020

2020 Confession: Frustration, Extremes, Fragmentation

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Uncategorized

I am frustrated. I admit it. For many years I felt that Churches of Christ, as a whole, have been moving forward biblically and Spiritually. The legalism that I grew up with in North Alabama seemed like it was dying. We talked about grace more and the role of the Spirit in our lives. It seemed like many congregations were more ethnically integrated than ever. And it seemed even that we began to see the Gospels and Hebrew Bible as more integral to the faith of the church than previously. Many of these positive steps forward were reflected in my own life. (It was as if wholesome fruit was being bore from Leonard Allen’s great book The Cruciform Church).

But numerous events over the last ten years or so have shown me I may have misread the signs. This is what I see now.

While, indeed, there are many congregations and ministers who have moved to a healthier more integrated understanding of the whole Bible, believe the Holy Spirit of God is active in the life of the church, and a retreat from legalism and sectarianism; there has also been a corresponding hardening not only of former positions but taking up even more extreme ones than before.

Dispensationalism: Hebrew Bible & Gospels

Sadly, the dispensational hermeneutic we have inherited is something that is parasitic on both “progressives” and “conservatives” in Churches of Christ. Many “out Campbell, Campbell,” on this.

Yes, Alexander Campbell delivered his famous or infamous “Sermon on the Law” and essentially guts the authority of 76% of the Bible. This has had massive unintended consequences that Campbell not only would not, but did not, endorse. You see Campbell still believed the Hebrew Bible shaped (in fact it was essential) Christian theology. He even states that his Sermon was his most juvenile effort! Campbell, unlike many of his descendants, did not reduce Christian doctrine to ecclesiology (especially its forms and structures). One gets a much better view of Campbell’s grasp of the sweep of the integrated scope of Scripture in his 1833 mini-biblical theology called “Regeneration.”

But today, the moment you say 2 Timothy 3.16 means the Hebrew Scriptures are good for doctrine some one replies, “you are not satisfied with the Christian dispensation and the law of Christ” (a statement that was said to me by another preacher). Or they say, “So when are you going to start offering animal sacrifices?” (another statement said to me by a preacher). As if these retorts actually have merit. They are truthfully extremely misinformed and misguided, I am sorry to say. In fact often just bringing up something from the “Old Testament” will find the retort, “that is the Old Testament,” or “we are New Testament Christians,” or “we are not under the Old Testament,” etc. Some even apologize for teaching something that comes from the Hebrew Bible.

Why you ask? Because it assumes that one comes to any text in the Bible across the massive historical gulf naked and immediately. The authority of the Hebrew Bible is not diminished because we must approach it hermeneutically. These naysayers do the exact same to the New Testament. Not one of them comes to the NT on any single subject without a hermeneutical grid, even if they do so unconsciously. There is no “one to one” correspondence. Not one of these folks, who make such quoted statements (actual and not made up btw), can dispute this.

Do these naysayers “share all things in common” (Acts 4.32-37)?
Do they forbid speaking in tongues?
Are they eager to prophecy? (1 Cor 14.39)?
Do we gather in councils to decide what the will of God is (Acts 15)?
Do they “enroll the widows?” (1 Tim 5.9ff).
Do their elders anoint the sick with oil (James 5.14)?
Do they contribute to the poor saints in Judea (Romans 15.25-29; 1 Cor 16.1-2)?
Do they make women wear veils in public worship (1 Cor 11)?
Do they break bread in homes daily (Acts 2.42)?
Do they meet in the temple at the hour of sacrifice? (Acts 2.46)?
Do they lift up holy hands in prayer as was commanded (1 Tim 2.8)?
Do they allow the preacher to appoint elders (Titus 1)? [Etc, etc]

You see, not one of these ministers do these things that are “plainly” written the text. In fact they would likely condemn anyone who did any of those things just listed.

Whether good or bad hermeneutics, they interpret these New Testament texts as not applying in the “literal” import of the language. So if this is true of the New Testament, why is it not true of the Hebrew Bible. But such statements as quoted above show, graphically, how little reflection on the text is done. It is simpler to dismiss the text, (in this case the Hebrew Bible) than wrestle with the text.

Simply because sacrifices are done in the Torah does not imply that we are to. Simply because Paul commands the Corinthians to aid the poor saints in Jerusalem does not mean that is a command to us. In truth Campbell’s views were far superior, and nuanced, than those that are paraded among many of his descendants. Campbell believed that even the very Greek of the New Testament had “the soul of Hebrew” because the Apostles were so in debt to the language and thinking of the Septuagint (see his Preface to the Living Oracles, and in Christian System he says that if we are to understand the NT properly we need to approach it through Moses. Campbell will say, “Paul was a Hebrew, and spoke in the Hebrew style. We must learn that style before we fully understand the apostle’s style. In other words, we must studiously read the Old Testament before we can accurately understand the New” p. 231).

The Bible is a single unified narrative and we cannot simply cut off 76%, and claim to respect 2 Timothy 3.16 … it is a game of deception called bait and switch. We bait you with this classic text that affirms the authority and divine origin Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, etc and then switch its referent to something that did not even exist when the verse was penned – the New Testament. Oh they deny it actually affirms the genuine doctrinal authority of those very Scriptures Paul grew up with. Hermeneutically we can apply that text to the New Testament but Paul himself did not mean that.

I spoke mostly about Hebrew Bible just now but the same extremes are being embraced about the Gospels themselves. The teaching of Jesus is not directly related to Christians because he lived before the “new covenant came into effect.” The Gospels are “BC” or as some put it “MMLJBC.”

In this perspective nothing before Acts 2 is directly for the church. It is an extremist version of Dispensationalism. In it the Living Word, Jesus, is not directly applicable to how we do Christianity. Sounds like heresy just writing it out. This view has so many things wrong with it that it would take a book to point them out.

However, one immediate problem is that it misses the point of why the Gospels exist in the first place. Many folks think the Gospels are something like evangelistic tracts. That is written to address nonbelievers to prove to them that Jesus is the Messiah. But that is not why the Gospels were written at all. The Gospels are written as instruction to the church. This is so obvious in Matthew, for example, that it boggles the mind that one can even entertain that false view. But Jesus once said “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to ME.” He did not say it was given to a book or the epistles. How the book functions WITH the authority of Jesus we need to wrestle with.

Extremes

Extremes are articulated and promoted that we did not have in the 80s. Salvation by “precision obedience” is just one example. This new man made doctrine was initially promoted around the end of the 1990s and has gained ground in some prominent corners of Churches of Christ. This is pure false doctrine.

The irony is beyond the pale. The purveyors of precision obedience decry Martin Luther for “adding” to the text the word “only,” so we are saved by “faith only” rather than just faith. These folks do not teach one must simply be “obedient” to God but but have inserted the word “precision” obedience. I cannot tell you how revolting this is. It is nothing but works salvation of the worst sort. Not only does no text say, or imply, this but it flat out contradicts the entire teaching of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Faithfulness to God is not a claim to having fulfilled God’s commands “precisely.”

I have no problem with singing “trust and obey” … simple trusting faith, yielding itself to the best of its ability to God is my sacrifice. The doctrine of salvation by precision obedience breeds sectarian arrogance and extremes. A few people who hold this view claim – unbelievably – to hold K. C. Moser in high esteem. I have read every known published and nearly everything Moser did not publish and can say that Moser would quickly brand this as a doctrine of hell. Just saying.

More Extremes

More extremes. I have numerous brothers who have confessed to me that women reading Scripture, or serving communion, in the assembly is not actually forbidden by Paul (even according to the their traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 14.34-35 and 1 Tim 2.8-15). LaGard Smith has stated this both in print and lectures. Yet these brothers then go on to forbid, and draw lines of fellowship over the very things they claim are not forbidden. [I do not know any that have the courage to stand in front of the FHU open forum and say “brethren we hedge Paul and chain women beyond what is actually written! Is that not what the Pharisees did? Build hedges to protect the law? The slippery slope is noting but Pharisaic hedges.]

Why?

Stop being so condescending to women brothers. If the Bible does not in fact forbid a woman from doing these things even according to YOUR interpretation, then why in the name of reason would you have so little respect for the word of God that you forbid what you say Paul did not forbid? Get in the pulpit, get in the Spiritual Sword, get in the Gospel Advocate and write clearly and forcefully that our practice towards women is more restrictive than Paul commands. Write that women can and should be allowed to participate in the assembly beside sitting.

I used to be more tolerant on this until my own daughter (after this being explained to her btw) stated “don’t you think that is degrading?” The degradation was forbidding her what you yourself admit she is permitted to do! It is almost – no it is – a matter of integrity. If you hold the traditional view and you admit that it does not forbid women serving communion and yet you forbid it you are self-condemned. Matthew 15.9 and Matthew 23 is written all over that male [literally] made doctrine. But this is binding of what is admitted as not God’s word is among the extremes today.

Sectarianism is alive and well. I will tell you my own theory of why these brothers do not state clearly and forcefully what they admit privately … fear! They are afraid. It is easier to succumb to the denominational pressure.

I lament the times. I could go on with my confession of frustration but my coffee is now gone …”

If video of Paul bringing his sacrifice to the priests ever surfaces on YouTube it would explode so many Protestant mental images of Paul the Pharisee

A post of no interest to anyone but me (perhaps) 🙂

First. I worship the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, not Paul. Paul is not the only apostle, though reading some scholars (both “liberal” and “conservative”) you would think he is. In most New Testament theologies Peter, James, and even Luke, have minimal influence. John seems to be represented but still not nearly enough. If Paul did not write it then it is practically irrelevant. Then even if Paul’s name is on it, it is still ignored because there is a preexisting picture of who Paul was and what he taught that is believed and that picture determines what can, and cannot, be really Paul. I actually like Paul but I also like James, Peter, Jude, John the Prophet (if he is different than the author of the Gospel), and Luke.

Second. The words “covenant” and “Torah/law” and “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible” are not synonyms. This is so important.

Third. Why is it that Pauline scholarship makes use of Hebrew Bible scholarship only sparingly and practically dismiss Acts out of hand?

Daniel Block, a well known HB/OT scholar, has written extensively on Deuteronomy for example. In his work, The Triumph of Grace: Literary and Theological Studies in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Themes, Block ends with a chapter called “Hearing Galatians with Moses.” This is a stimulating essay to say the least.

Block ventures, as an OT scholar, into the debate between “new” and “old” perspectives on Paul. He makes a statement that I have been noting for a long time.

As an outsider to the debates between representatives of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ perspectives, I am struck by several features of the discussions. First, Hebrew Bible scholars are completely absent. Magnus Zetterholm’s eight page bibliography (135 entries) at the end of his volume on present scholarship on Paul lacks the name of a single recognizable Hebrew Bible scholar.

It is not simply an absence of Hebrew Bible scholars writing on Paul. It is an absence of Pauline scholars using Hebrew Bible scholarship. For example, I read Brant Pitre/Michael Barber/John Kincaid’s Paul, A New Covenant Jew. They try to make the case that Paul is a Jew indeed but not as the “Paul within Judaism” school thinks for he is a “new covenant” Jew. The authors take us through their interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3 and Jeremiah 31. There is not a single Old Testament scholar mentioned or interaction with current understandings of Jeremiah 31.

I would love to see these Pauline scholars integrate Hans Walter Wolf’s (no fly by night scholar) essay that is a full 40 years old (“What is the New Covenant?”). Why is this not relevant?

Frederick Holmgren, another no fly by night scholar, devotes two entire chapters to Jeremiah 31 in his The Old Testament & the Significance of Jesus. What of Rolf Rendtorff, “What is New in the New Covenant?” or John Goldingay (who certainly needs no introduction), he has addressed the matter repeatedly.

But you can scan New Testament scholarship in general and not find any reference to these and numerous others. Hebrew Bible scholarship is not only relevant for Jeremiah 31 but for the entire discussion regarding “torah” and “covenant.”

I realize Paul’s use of Jeremiah 31 may be different than what is envisioned in that text. But Jeremiah 31 and its context is certainly relevant. Do Jeremiah or Ezekiel envision the repudiation of the law of God. When the text is actually quoted, in full, by the Hebrews Preacher the words covenant and law are still not synonyms, and neither envision the replacement of the partners in the covenant. Further neither text says that God found fault with either the covenant or the law but with the people themselves (Hebrews 8.8; Jeremiah 31.32, “a covenant they broke.”).

Lastly there is little if any recognition in NT scholarship that in both Jeremiah and Hebrews the term for new can easily mean REnew. In Hebrew hadas is used for the “new” moon, Yahweh’s love being “new” every morning, and doing repairs on the temple. There certainly is not a different moon, a different love and a different temple. In Greek kainos also does not mean completely new or different. It is easily translated as “renew.” But if you approach this text through centuries of anti-Judaism believing already God did in fact replace the people then it is unbelievably natural to translate it as new (as in different), which is not what the text actually says. If you read Hebrews 8 as if you have never heard the word “Christian” or “Christianity” (or heard the phrase “Old Testament!”) then something else emerges altogether. See my article: Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Explorations on “New” and “Renewed” in the Bible.

Fourth. The book of Acts is practically ignored. There is a reason for this. The picture of Paul in the book of Acts is nothing like the Protestant Paul. “Protestant Paul,” in my humble opinion, remains a poltergeist even within leading lights of the “new perspective” on Paul.

Paul in Acts is a Pharisee.
Paul in Acts is devoted to the temple.
Paul in Acts keeps the Sabbath.
Paul in Acts takes vows.
Paul in Acts circumcises people.
Paul in Acts offers sacrifice.
Paul in Acts claims to have never broken the law or customs of our people.
Paul in Acts in Acts preaches “the Hope of Israel.”

A kosher Paul wreaks emotional havoc among Protestants (and apparently Roman Catholic scholars as well).

There is irony here because Pitre/Barber/Kincaid lob this charge.

It is worth noting that most advocates of the Paul within Judaism’ approach tend to reject Acts as chronologically late (after AD 70) and historically unreliable” (p. 31, note 76).

What an interesting statement because everyone regards Acts as after AD 70. But Acts is as ignored by these writers as by those whom he is charging as believing it to be unreliable.

However, Mark Nanos consistently asserts that his reading of Paul is very much inline with what is in Acts. But if Luke can simply make things up and get Paul so unbelievably twisted that his portrait is just false then surely he has goofed up his picture of Jesus as well. David J. Rudolph’s A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 certainly takes Acts seriously.

At any rate, I think Hebrew Bible scholarship is extremely relevant to Paul. I think Acts is relevant to Paul. I think Jacob Jervell is relevant to Acts (not mentioned even once in the bibliography, surprisingly, of Wright and Bird, The New Testament in its World). Remarkably W/B can summarize Acts 21 in their chapter on Luke-Acts in The NT in Its World and not even mention Paul’s sacrifice (it is mentioned earlier in the chapter on Paul’s life as James suggestion. For some reason no one ever mentions Acts 24. 11, 17 when Paul explains his own intention in coming to Jerusalem. That intention, he declares, includes “to offer sacrifices.” This does not sound like James twisted his arm.).

If you begin with Genesis, then read through Malachi, then include most of the Apocrypha before you get to Paul, he sounds a lot different than if you begin in the Protestant Reformation and then read backwards to him.

Blessing

1 Nov 2020

Communion of the Saints: Love and Prayer

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Uncategorized

I posted an earlier version of this on my Facebook wall on October 30, 2020. Because of interest I have decided to expand it and place it here.

As Christians we confess that we believe in the catholic [=universal, lower case “c” means universal church not Rome] church, the communion of the saints, the resurrection of the body and eternal life. On All Hallows Eve, these particular truths are remembered by Christians for centuries past and all around the world.

Now, we recognize, there is nothing inherently special about the day (Oct 31) nor “All Saints Day” (Nov 1). But since it is this day, it may be worthwhile to reflect on what we believe but often do not understand. (If we recall that for most of the history of Christianity no individual owned a Bible. The faith was taught through public worship and “days” were often used to teach some point of the faith. That is what happened for centuries on this day we call Oct 31).

The biblical vision of salvation is breathtakingly cosmic in scope. The vision of God’s people is also cosmic in scope. The communion of the saints is not just Christians in San Francisco Bay having a connection with those in Florence, Nashville or Africa, though that is wonderfully true and sometimes under appreciated.

Rather It is those who are “living” and those who are “dead.” But they are not “dead” according to Christian faith. God is the “God of the living not the dead, for to him all of them are alive” according to Jesus (Lk 20.38). Paul kneeled in praise before the

Father, from whom his whole family
IN HEAVEN and ON EARTH
derives its name,


he includes in his prayer that “together with ALL THE SAINTS” we may grasp the incomprehensible love of God (Eph 3.14-19).

The Hebrews Preacher tells us that, as we are gathered in worship, we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 11.39-12.2; see also Rev 4-5, 6, etc). Those witnesses are alive. The Preacher has listed Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, “the prophets” (11.32). The great cloud in Hebrews 12.1 seems to be every faithful Israelite. As the chapter goes on we learn that the cloud includes far more however. God’s people have communion, fellowship, with the “spirits of the righteous.”

You have come to Mount Zion,
to the heavenly Jerusalem,
the city of the living God …
to the spirits of righteous made perfect
…” (12.23)

In the Revelation of John we see those righteous in chapters 4, 5 and 7 gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb. Heavenly worship and “earthly” worship combined. The saints on earth and the saints in heaven, the “communion of the saints” united before the God of all.

What we celebrate is that God’s people are not separated by death but are in fact united in Christ and commune yet. But it is not just fellowship we celebrate, the mixture of those items, resurrection of the body and eternal life, are celebrated as well. As I have said in many a funeral over the years,

may the faithful and beloved departed,
through the mercy of God,
rest in peace and rise in glory.


That prayer points to the fact that our loved ones are resting with God, but their journey, nor ours, is over. We share/have communion:

we share in the fellowship of God,
we share in the worship of God,
we share a seat at the Lord’s Table,
we share in the forgiveness of sins,
we share in the hope of resurrection of our bodies.

We also celebrate that our departed beloved ones are among the bright stars of faith as much as Abraham, Huldah, Mary, Paul. This includes grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, a son or daughter. There is sooooooooo much joy and peace that we share.

Those who have gone before are great because they shared our frailty but lived in hope. One of the greatest joys of gathered worship, in my view, is the communion of the saints in “heaven” and on earth.

What I have written so far, I believe, rests on solid biblical teaching though we often do not reflect on it. What I am about to say is, I believe, biblical too. But if you disagree that will not bother me. But after 26 years of pastoral ministry and funerals from older saints to premature infants, I have come to hold this view. But I do not know, I confess, the LIMITS of fellowship we have.

But prayer is among the things shared in communion, I believe. The saints in Revelation 6.9ff certainly are praying to God. It is hard not to pray for some one we love. Nearly impossible in fact. Prayer is the outflow of love. If I love you then I WANT to pray that person. I want to pray not merely because of difficulties or a particular need I am aware of. I pray because I want to hold them up in the presence of God. And I believe God chooses to work through our prayers for the world’s benefit.

Now, here is the big point, love does not stop at death. If it does then that is pretty poor love. Sometimes, if we lift our loved ones to God, though departed, in prayer. It is not because we are trying to get them saved now that they are gone. It is not because we think purgatory is real (its not) and my prayer will change it. It is simply because we love them STILL and want to talk to God about them.

We even may not understand the mystery of their departing but we can celebrate them before our Father who yet allows us to remain in communion … in the hope of resurrection.

So on this day remember God’s heroes. We praise God for their victory in Christ, do we not? Some were in the Hebrew Bible. Some are in the pages of the New Testament. Some lived in the early centuries of the Way. Some have passed only recently. But we enjoy communion with all of them, our love for them has not diminished and we look forward to embracing them in the resurrection.

Happy Halloween. Celebrate the Saints.

28 Oct 2020

Acts 1: Luke’s “Old Testament” Connection with Isaiah, Joel and Tobit

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Uncategorized
Acts

Luke-Acts is a Third Chronicles

Old familiar texts often have connections and dimensions that we modern disciples miss because our world is not saturated with the Hebraic worldview. Luke goes out of his way to paint his story using a brush dipped in, what we sometimes call, the Old Testament. His story is very much in line with the contours and cadence of the Story he found in his Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. I have often referred to Luke as a Third Chronicles.

Luke is telling the same story that the Chronicler is. God has not cast off his people but instead has renewed them by keeping his covenant with Abraham and David by sending the Messiah Jesus. Contrary to some VBS material in the past, as Luke tells it, there is only one people of God and that is “Israel.” There are not two, OT Israel and NT Church. Just One People. Restored Israel is made up of believing ethnic Jews and Gentiles who have come to believe in the God of Israel and the Jewish Messiah.

Same God.
Same Promise.
Same People renewed.

In the first eleven verses of Acts there are multiple echoes of the Story of Israel already embedded in the text. I cannot examine them all in this little note. However, I will examine a few that help us see the continuity that Luke is stressing. I pray they add depth to our reading and understanding of Acts and help us see how important the Hebrew Bible was to Luke himself and renewed Israel (Luke will not use the word church btw until chapter 5.11).

“The Promise of the Father” (1.4)

The promise of the Father (1.4). This promise connects the opening of Acts not only with the ending of the Gospel of Luke (24.49) it connects with the Hebrew Bible. The promise of the Father is the Holy Spirit.

Three passages in the Hebrew Bible are critical, Isaiah 59.21, Ezekiel 36.22-38, and Joel 2.26-32.

And as for me, this is my covenant with them [Israel], says the LORD: my Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or your children’s children, says the LORD, from now on and forever” (Isaiah 59.21)

The echoes of Peter’s words in Acts 2.39 of the gift of the Spirit to the “children” are plainly evident.

The coming of the Spirit was proof of the messianic age having arrived. If in fact the Spirit is here then the Messiah had come. Don’t miss this point. The coming promised Spirit means the Covenant has been renewed and creation itself is being renewed.

In Joel 2 creation (as in Genesis 3 and Romans 8) is in anguish as a result of human sin. Even the animals are groaning and crying to Yahweh for relief (1.18, 20). God’s army of punishment devours “the garden of Eden” (2.3) before it, leaving a wasteland behind it. The prophet quotes the Golden Text of the Bible, Ex 34.6-7, in 2.13.

God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in hesed,
and relents from punishing
” (Joel 2.13).

The text declares that Yahweh becomes “jealous for the land” (2.18) and, true to his name, pours out amazing grace. There are three targets of God’s grace

1) the land itself (2.21) then
2) the animals that cried to God (2.22) and
3) finally the sinful people of Israel (2.23).

Such stunning grace, in fact, that Yahweh asserts, shockingly, he will even pay sinful Israel back for the devastation caused by his own army of judgement (2.25)!

How is it that the earth, the animals, and the people are “healed?” Because God will live (dwell) among his creation just as he did in Eden.

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel.”

How?

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (2.28).

The readers of Acts know what the “promise” of the Father is. In fact Luke has been using Joel 2 as a sort of template for his narrative since the he opened his Gospel in Luke 1.

The Spirit of creation and renewal is here. The Spirit that brings healing to all God’s creation is about to be poured out, the Covenant is being renewed, creation is being healed. The Age of the Messiah is here … which is the Age of the Spirit of Life. The Spirit brings God’s grace to all creation. If the Spirit is here then God’s people are also being renewed and that is exactly what we see in Acts 2 when Luke explicitly roots Shavuot in Joel 2. For more on Joel’s amazing promise see “Do Not Fear, O Earth, Animals & People: Hope of Cosmic Redemption in Joel.”

“You Will Be My Witnesses” (1.8)

Our second example of Luke’s grounding his story in the history of Israel comes in verse 8, “you will be my witnesses.” This is not some randomly chosen verbiage by Luke.

The Book of Isaiah tells us that Israel was created for a priestly function (cf. Exodus 19.6) to be a “light to the nations” in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12.1-3). But Israel did not show the world either who God was nor what it meant to live as a holy nation. Rather God’s name became profaned because of Israel.

Israel, in Exile, (as in Joel 2) is not cast off. Instead God acts on his own account (by grace) and will place Israel in a situation where they will bear witness to the nations. Isaiah 43.8-13 and Isaiah 44.6-8 are critical for Luke. We will look at 43.8ff. God calls forth a people “blind” and “deaf” before an assembly of the nations Gentiles) in v.8. Israel, characterized as blind and deaf, is placed on the Stand to testify about the one true God.

You are my WITNESSES, says the LORD,
and my servant whom I have chosen …
besides me there is no Savior …
you are my WITNESSES …
I am God
.”

The refrain “you are my witnesses” is in 43.10, 12 and 44.8. The entirety of chapters 43 and 44 are relevant to Acts but I will refrain from quoting the entire section.

The commission of Acts 1.8 is to continue the very mission of Israel herself. Now that promised Spirit will renew the people the mission can continue. But the “church” will be just as “blind” and “deaf” to the ways of God (as in Kings and Chronicles) as the narrative of Acts clearly goes on to show. The Promised Spirit literally drags the renewed People of God kicking and screaming to be his instruments of covenantal and creational renewal.

Being a witness is not simply another word for “evangelist.” Rather Luke is saying, by connecting to Isaiah, that even the Exile has not derailed God’s purposes for his people … to be his Witnesses in the middle of cursed creation. God’s people are to testify to his healing and his grace because the Messiah has come and the Spirit has been given to bring healing not only to traditional Israel but to bring all creation into the new world. The renewed People of God are formed, as in Isaiah, “so that they might declare my praise” (Isaiah 43.21). They can do this because they are “Exhibit A” of God healing grace. They witness to it because they are the “graced.”

“To the Ends of the Earth” (1.8)

Our third example comes from the same verse, “to the ends of the earth” (1.8). Some mistakenly read this as some kind of geography lesson from Luke. It is not. In fact the language of the text has practically nothing to do with geography – literally.

Rather than geography this is missional language that comes from the Greek Bible (Septuagint) that Luke uses. The Greek comes from a text we have already referred Isaiah 49.6, one of the “Servant Songs.” As in Isaiah 43, we see the task of Israel in full view. The Song beginning in v.1 and ending in v.7, records Yahweh’s words to the “distant nations” (v.1) and how he will “display my splendor” in “my servant Israel” (v.3). Yahweh asks

Is it too small a thing for you to be my servant,
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation
to the ends of the earth
” (v.6).

The phrase to the ends of the earth are ethnic, meaning to non-Jews. The full text of Isa 49.6 is quoted again by Luke in his version of Paul’s synagogue sermon in Acts 13.46.

So in one verse we have a combination of Isaiah 43 and 49. God’s deaf and blind people are gathered by the Lord himself and commissioned to testify and to fulfill the role for which they were created. The “gentile mission,” as some call it, is directly connected to the restoration of Israel in these texts.

The coming in of the Gentiles does not signify the creation of a new people of God replacing the old people of God. Rather the coming in of the Gentiles symbolizes that God is restoring Israel herself to the task and commission for which she was created in the first place.

The Ascension (1.9f)

Luke is the only NT author to record the ascension of Jesus. Both in the telling in Luke 24.50-52 and here in Acts 1.9f, he uses powerful images from the Story of Israel. I have had more than one person through the years think Jesus exited the world via a white fluffy Cumulus cloud. Simply white water vapor (some have even thought Jesus’s body ceased to exist in those clouds!)

While it is possible that some water vapor was involved, no Jew would have read the text that way. It may surprise many but the word “cloud” (Hebrew ‘anan) occurs 87 times in the “Old Testament.” Fifty Eight (58) of those 87 are used in connection with God’s theophanic presence.

The cloud represents God’s “shekinah!” The Israelite would think principally of the completion of the Tabernacle in Exodus 40.34-38 and the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8.10f; 2 Chronicles 5.13-14; 7.1-2. In these texts we read

the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent because of the cloud … the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

This same cloud enveloped Jesus in the Transfiguration (Lk 9.28-36). Luke tells us that the last thing the apostles see of Jesus is a theophany. What a glorious moment.

As an aside, because it is such a historical moment, Luke taps into another story in his Greek Bible. How do you tell a story that can hardly be described? No other NT writer makes the attempt. But there is an “ascension” in one other place in the Greek Bible, the book of Tobit.

In Tobit 12, the angel Raphael reveals his identity as “one of the seven angels who stands ready and enter before the glory of the Lord” (12.15). Much like John in Revelation, Tobias and Tobit immediately fall on their faces in holy terror. Raphael tells them not to be afraid. He commands them to get up and says “See, I am ascending {or about to ascend} to him who sent me.” (12.20). Then we read,

And he ascended. Then they stood up, and could see him no more. They kept blessing God and singing his praises, and they acknowledged God for these marvelous deeds of his, when an angel of God appeared to them” (12.21-22).

This sounds very much like the description Luke gives us of the apostles in Luke 24 that they broke out in worship and praise. How else do you respond to a theophany!?

Final Thoughts

Ok, my little note has grown a little long but I hope you have enjoyed it. I hope we see just a little more how the Hebrew Bible is so embedded in the warp and hoof of New Testament that the latter simply cannot exist without the former.

Hopefully with these thoughts we also have a deeper appreciation for our mission as the people of God.

And finally it is my prayer that it has helped encourage us to become as aware of the Scriptures that Jesus himself taught to the apostles for 40 days (Lk 24) and that we must devote ourselves to them. I pray we are spurred to deeper appreciation of how God’s people today are one with the people in Kings, Chronicles, Psalms, Isaiah, Joel and the rest.

Be blessed and filled with God’s glorious shalom.

Related Articles of Interest

Luke’s Pattern for the Church: Reading Luke-Acts, a Story within a Story

They Continued Steadfastly in … THE Prayers: What Does Luke Say the Disciples are doing in Acts 2.42?

Acts 2: Shavuot/Pentecost, the Day God Renewed His Covenant

Aroma of Incense: Shadow of the Temple in Luke’s Jewish Story of Jesus and the Way

Psalm 119 is an exilic Psalm. This being the case, the author and the community of faith have lost everything.

The Davidic king is gone.
The Temple is gone.
We are captives in a far land.
The likelihood is many family members having lost their lives.
A large portion of people have lost faith in Yahweh.

This community has experienced the shattering Lamentations bears witness (Lamentations is the product of those who still believe). Some scholars have made the insightful suggestion that Ps 119 originated in the Festival of Tabernacles this community held during the exile.

The Zayin and Heth sections of Psalm 119 are among my favorite (vv 49-64). The speaker (whom I believe represents the entire community personified), who is fully aware of his/her fallenness and failure to keep God’s word (cf. “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” v.176), appeals to the grace of God. In particular the word of God’s Promise. There is no delusion of salvation by “precision obedience” anywhere in the Hebrew Bible but these verses annihilate it.

Psalm 119 is the stellar refutation of the false, but rampant, belief that “law” is simply a series of legal commands. First and foremost, for the Psalmist, the torah is story of God’s amazing Hesed and Promise. (For more on what “torah” means see my article, Sweeter than Honey: Torah’s God’s Love Story).

Remember your word to your servant,
in which you have made me hope.
This is my comfort in my distress,
that your promise gives me life
.”
(vv. 49-50)

The Promise is the basis of hope in the land of hopelessness. The Promise is the means of comfort and in fact is the source of life.

Two things require understanding. Who is the servant and what is the Promise?

Surely the psalmist imagines him/herself to be a servant, but that is not what is meant. In the biblical tradition that the Psalms major in, the Promise is made to the Patriarchs and the servant is Israel. One of the clearest examples where this Promise is the means of salvation is Moses’s own appeal to it during the equally dark day in Israel’s life, the Golden Calf. So Moses prays (in words that the psalmist nearly echoes)

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and ISRAEL,
your servants, how you swore to them by your own self …
I will multiply your descendants
…” (Ex 32.13-14)

We expect Moses to say “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But frequently in the Hebrew Bible “Jacob” means the nation and not the individual patriarch. Moses plays on the double meaning of the word and says “Israel.” God made a promise to the man but the man is the people! Many other texts can be cited like Deuteronomy 9.27 (which recalls the Golden Calf)

Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness, and their sin …”

Abraham, Isaac and Israel received the astonishing promise and are God’s servants and Israel is God is “servant.” Note the word that is also addressed to an exilic community.

Is it to light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel

(Isaiah 49.6).

The community has faith and hope, even in the land of death (exile), on the basis of God’s Promise which the torah narrates. The torah is the Story of God’s Faithfulness to his Promise to a faithless and rebellious people from the moment God saw them (Deut. 9.24, NRSV)

So the community prays, like Moses did at the Golden Calf,

REMEMBER THE PROMISE.

This Promise, and the promise alone, is the basis of hope and life. We did not perish because of God’s gracious promise. We will not die because God promised we shall be like the stars in the heavens.

As the next verses show, many Israelites had rejected these promises. They had lost faith. They “deride” the psalmist and “turn away from the torah.” They forsake the torah (vv. 51, 53). In the ashes of exile, faith and hope were far from them.

The psalmist, the community of faith, however, respond with a promise to God’s promise (vv. 57-64). The stunning words,

Yahweh is my portion” (v.52)

This reminds us of Lamentations itself. In the horror that was the destruction of Jerusalem, the “Strongman” in Lamentations 3, declares that God’s Promise made at the Golden Calf is not done. God’s steadfast love is new every morning, God’s faithfulness is infinite,

the Lord is my portion,
says my soul,
therefore I will hope in him

(Lam 3.21-24).

We have no King.
We have no Temple.
We have no Land.
We seemingly have “nothing.”
But Yahweh is my inheritance.

These are stunning words both in Lamentations and in Psalm 119. If we have Yahweh, even in an alien land, then we have everything.

Because Yahweh is “my portion,” the community responds to God’s Promise with a promise,

I promise to keep your words” (v.57)

This leads to the plea for mercy.

I implore your favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me
ACCORDING TO YOUR PROMISE


It is possible, I suppose to legalistically obey some rule. But it is impossible to do that with a promise. You either believe or do not believe a promise. Promise requires faith in the Promise Giver. The community believes the Promise given as the very basis of life. We respond in faith, in trust, in hope in God’s Promise. The Promise is the motivation and basis for our promise. God’s Promise elicits our promise of faithfulness to God.

The psalmist ends this section with the equally astonishing confession that Yahweh’s Hesed (the basis of the promise and declaration in Exodus 34.6) fills the entire earth. Remember the community is in exile! Babylonian exile! The land of death. Everything we have known is gone. And yet the Psalmist, the community personified, praises God with the words,

The earth, O Yahweh,
is full of your HESED;
teach me your statutes.
” (v.64)

The Story is not over. We will not die in exile. We will be raised from the dead (to use a metaphor). Why? Because Yahweh’s hesed is deeper than the ocean and wider than the sea and is the basis of his astonishing Promise to his servant.

God’s Hesed Promised. Therefore I promise … Now God I need you to teach me!

I am holding on to the Promise … it is also the basis of our hope in the New Testament.

Shalom.

P. S. See Happy Are the Blameless, Pt 4 (On Ps 119)

I wrote a version of this three years ago in October 2017. I revisited it today. I think our image problem is even worse now than then.

What is the “first word?” I have been wrestling with this question for a long time. Do we (do I!) understand the depth of this question? The question is not just about a word that passes our lips. The question covers deeds. The question asks, “what is the knee jerk response of all my actions and reactions.” I ask this question specifically as a Christian.

Several years ago I took the shepherds at PaLO VErde through David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons book, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. The book is a landmark study of people between the ages of 19 to 29, they are now in their late 20s and mid 30s. I was not greatly surprised by the perspectives. But I was so disturbed by the “image” even younger than me Christians had. What I wanted to do at PV was simply confess that “we” have an “image problem” in our culture so we could address it.

We may not care about our image in the community, honestly. As has been pointed out to me, “Bobby who cares what the lost think about us?” This was asked in all seriousness. I am surprised by this question though. Do not most of us check Yelp to see what the “image” of a restaurant is before we patronize it. We check other online sources before we spend money at a business. If we read through the comments and they say:

food sux!,”
“It is a dump,”
“McDonald’s is a 5 star restaurant by comparison,”
“They are rude and act like they could careless that you are there
.”

Such a business will quickly cease to exist. We should care. Not because “the lost” are necessarily correct, rather because an image the repels leads to a dead business and a valley of dry bones where there was once a congregation.

We should care because God cares. Remember when Yahweh was going to destroy the Israelites (justly btw) and Moses said to God, “what will the Egyptians think?” (Exodus 32.12f) Who cares, right? God cared. Paul tells the disciples on the island of Crete that they need to live in such away that the teaching of God is “attractive” to the unbelievers (Titus 2.10, NIV). Peter tells his group of aliens that bad reputations are inevitable. Rumors will always abound. However he says that, as aliens, we need to conduct ourselves as if on a silver screen so that when we are castigated that our good deeds speak in our defense (1 Peter 4.14-19).

So this brings me back to my question, “what is the first word?” Over the last week, or so, I have been wrestling with Amos on the heels of 6 months of reading and rereading 1 John. They are like a double one two knock out punch. What ever the first word is, it dictates what the first deed, first action, is.

I think Unchristian is more needed today than when it came out a few years ago. When asked what was the primary word, image, thought that comes to mind an entire generation has unbelievably harsh words to say. Many in the research in fact even grew up in Christianity, went to Christian schools etc (not all but a bunch did). There were six primary thoughts.

1) Hypocritical
2) The only thing Christians talk about is “getting saved” and could careless about anything else in the world.
3) Christians are homophobic, indeed they “hate homosexuals”
4) Christians mistake their brand of politics for Christianity
5) Judgemental
6) Christians are mean spirited people.

The issue is not changing the Bible on any subject. I assume most of us would agree that Jesus of Nazareth knew the Bible condemned sexual immorality. I assume most of us agree that Jesus/Joshua of Nazareth was the most holy person that has ever walked the face of the earth. But I promise you that no sinner, no person ever used these six words/images to describe Jesus.

Instead, Jesus obtained the opposite “image problem.” Sinners loved to be with him. Prostitutes loved hanging around him. Tax collecting traitors (they would be like the “communists” in the Holy Land) for the Roman Empire hosted huge parties for him. When women were caught in the very act of adultery by the moral police, he dared to side with the accused. Jesus had an image problem with other religious people but he did not have one with the “unchurched” of the day.

Sinners loved to be with Jesus but seriously dislike Christians. This generation is leaving Christianity in droves. I am not sure some of us older Christians truly want to ask the questions of why. What is the first word? It may be simplistic but the answer to this question changes our image problem.

If outsiders saw that we had a “nasty reputation” of being on the side of the down, the out, the sinners, the adulterers, the “homos,” the aliens … the people Jesus ate with … we might find that something amazing might take place.

What is the first word? Is it not love! In every, in any, situation the first word, the first response, the first reaction, the first deed is LOVE. As the rock theologian Scott Stapp sang,

what would love do
If it were here in this room
standing between me and you,
what would love do?


Believe it or not my friends, my first job as a disciple of Christ is not to tell people to “repent and be baptized.” My first job as a disciple of Christ is to love as God so loved, to love as Christ so loved, to love because the Holy Spirit of love is the only reason I am even alive. As Paul wrote about Spirit inspired love.

Love suffers with others.
Love is kind.
Love does not envy.
Love is not arrogant.
Love does not seek its own way.
Love does not easily give way to anger.
Love does not celebrate in others misfortune.
Love rejoices in truth wherever it may be found.
Love bears with the faults of others.
Love endures the faults of others.
Love hopes.
Love leaves a blessing.
Love leaves the door open.
Love treats with dignity no matter who is in front of us.
Love is the supreme doctrine of God … God is love.
Love leaves the aroma of Christ.

Our image problems will change when we as Christians answer the question: “What is the first word? Any time, Any day? What is the first word?”

May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you as we struggle to have the reputation of Jesus/Joshua the Messiah.

Richard Wright (1908-1960). Wright wrote Native Son, Black Boy, Ethics of Living Jim Crow and many others

Richard Wright Goes to the Library

I begin this post with a quote from Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy,

The white librarian looked at me. ‘What do you want, boy?’ As though I did not possess the power of speech, I stepped forward and simply handed her the forged note, not parting my lips. ‘What books by Mencken does she want?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know, ma’am,’ I said, avoiding her eyes. ‘You’re not using these books, are you?’ she asked pointedly. ‘Oh no, ma’am, I can’t read.’”

Richard Wright gives us a window onto how one young African American was able to obtain books that he was otherwise forbidden, he had to practice subtle deception against the principalities and powers. Some today would condemn Wright for breaking the law and “lying” in his attempts to be able to read (I’m not so sure the authors of Joshua and Amos would). Wright went on to become a powerful novelist, in part because he was able to beat the system through misdirection. I knew this story, and others, but it did not become part of my “consciousness” until recently.

I am convinced that part of the journey to mental, and spiritual, maturity is the realization that the world is far more than my personal experience. Most of us grow up with a set of filters that have been firmly placed in front of our eyes. These filters skew the reality that is plainly staring us in the face. Most of us never know we are wearing these glasses until they get a scratch or smudge on them, then we are conscious we are looking through something.

A Memory

I grew up in a house with books. We did not have a TV when I was young, but we had books. Dad had his religious books and mechanic books. Mom had romance novels. We had encyclopedias, big National Geographic books and the like. We would climb into the old station wagon and mom would take us downtown to the public library in Florence. What a place it was! Books galore everywhere, floors of books. They had summer reading programs and we would get signed up for those. And I remember the day I got my very own library card. I thought I had arrived! How different was my experience at the library and Richard Wright’s.

The depths of what I do not know was again on display. The pettiness and pervasiveness of white supremacy knew no limits.

Not For All, White Only Libraries

I cannot imagine my life without books. I have spent thousands of dollars on books and I still love the library. Can you imagine seeing that gleaming white edifice – a temple of books – frequently with slogans etched into the concrete that said, “Free to all,” “Libraries are the heart of democracy,” or some such … Only to encounter when you walk in you are forcefully told “you do not belong here.” “N*****s are not allowed in here.” This is for “Whites only!”

Sometimes I fool myself into believing that I am fairly well read on what is called “Black History.” But my ignorant naivete is routinely shattered. I continue to be amazed at how deep racial paranoia gripped America for centuries. I still know nothing! The “land of the free and home of the brave” was the land of white only bathrooms, white only water fountains, white only rail cars, white only restaurants, white only churches, etc

But I never imagined we were also the land of white only books and libraries. It is only recently that I became “consciously” aware that there was a deeply embedded reality of whites only books and book spaces – white only libraries.

In 1900, Guthrie, Oklahoma, received a Carnegie Foundation grant for a library. When it opened, D. G. Horton the principle of the local black high school went to the library. He was denied access by the clerk at the front desk.

In Texas, a black World War II veteran took his daughter to the library and was denied entrance. In Durham, NC, the library opened up and black physician Aaron McDuffie Moore was told he could not use it. Black men, black women … black children … could not use it. Moore took matters into his own hands and opened a small library for people of color in the basement of White Rock Baptist Church.

W. E. B. DuBois, at the time, faculty member of Atlanta University led a group of African Americans to present a petition for “Negroes to Use the Carnegie Library” in Atlanta.

The Lake City (South Carolina) Public Library called the police on Ronald McNair when he attempted to check out books. (McNair would end up getting a PhD in physics from MIT becoming the second African American to fly in space. He died on the Challenger in 1986). How differently the lady at the counter treated me than Roland McNair.

From the 1880s to the 1940s, there was a library building phenomena. Across the South (and occasionally outside the South) these temples of books were denied to people of color. By 1930, for example, there were 6000 libraries in the United States. Four hundred ninety one were in the South and only 64 that were available on a limited basis to African Americans. These were separate and but hardly “equal.”

The library was an extension of white supremacy and privilege. The fact is these public libraries were maintained by public taxes. African Americans paid millions of dollars in taxes. Yet though their taxes were used to maintain these temples of books, they were denied access. Part of the reason for whites only library was the historic effort to deny blacks information and education. Book learning ruined people of color for the jobs they were supposedly created to do (be servants to white folks). Denial of information and education is a means of control. Part of the reason for whites only libraries was the library became a socially accepted space for white women to work (and thus also a safe place for white children). White women had to be “protected,” supposedly, from the lustful eyes of black men.

But people of color were just as intelligent as people of whiteness. They understood the power of books and information. They established libraries in churches, small offices in places like Greenwood (Tulsa, Ok). They even built temples of books called “Faith Cabin” libraries that literally were log cabins. Enterprising African Americans converted trucks and vans into small mobile libraries to bring books to thousands who were denied the right to read a book. Occasionally they even secured a grant from the Carnegie foundation for a “black only” library.

I never dreamed that wanting to read a book could cause so much trouble in the USA.

My Filters

But on the whole the library in the United States, especially in the South, was not free and it was not for all. I find it nearly incomprehensible that black men, black women, black students were literally arrested for trying to check out a book from the white only library. But this was their America. We need to remember, firmly, the problem was not of class but of race.

During the Civil Rights Movement libraries were just one of the many essential cogs of Jim Crow that were dismantled by brave high school and college students from Houston to Birmingham to Charlotte to Jackson. Some things help us see anew. When a person is denied access to a building with books for no other reason than the color of her or his skin, we begin to realize just how different the world really was … and my filtered experience of it.

In 2018, the Birmingham Public Library system publicly acknowledged and apologized for its historic role in maintaining white supremacy. We are still living with the legacy of this evil. A wise man once said, “we misunderstand ‘white privilege.’ We think it is about OUTCOME when it is really about ACCESS. Access to goods and services, not outcome.” When I heard this it was like bells going off in my head. Outcome is often shaped by access no doubt but they are not the same. When I heard this, at least for me, it was like scales falling from my eyes. In America, the color of your skin certainly was the key to access to many things in life.

The purpose of growth, of expanding our horizon, is to help us understand our own filtered experience in light of something bigger than ourselves. My understanding of the world is not exactly how the world really is. When something as simple and ordinary as a book is denied people of color – and we finally understand that – we see that my world and their world has been radically different.

Recently I read two books that have made their way into this post. Cheryl Knott, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (2015) and Wayne & Shirley Weigand, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in Jim Crow South (2018).

Hearing and Seeing often takes Effort

I’ve been having a discussion on becoming better readers of the New Testament and understanding it better from a first century standpoint. I stress first century because I grew up in tradition that believes that some how the first century contains what is normative for it means to be a “Christian” or disciple of Jesus.

This is a question I have been wrestling with for a long time. The answers I now offer have points of similarity to how I would have answered the question in 1992 when I took my first ministry position. Yet there is a different orientation and I believe I “hear” the New Testament better now than I did in 1992.

I pointed out last night there is no magical formula for becoming better readers of the NT. We are all padawan learners. In biblical studies we never obtain the level of Master rather we are always disciples. Discipleship is a way of life, an orientation or disposition to learning and growing. One aspect of being a disciple is becoming a better reader. We are better readers when our ears understand.

It will take work and if we are not willing to invest that then it is for naught. But I want to offer EIGHT suggestions that if we cultivate these we will read the NT and Jesus especially far better. Because we love Jesus we want to know and understand him.

First: Worship

First, we need to recognize that Scripture is fundamentally a product of and for worship. Scripture is not a tool for religious argument and debate, scripture is given to the people of God to nourish their lives with God and one another. Scripture proclaims the God who created and redeemed us. Scripture from the Torah to the Psalms to the Gospels to the Epistles to the Revelation were universally heard and encountered in and part of corporate worship. Do not approach Scripture merely as a source of information but rather as a vehicle to worship God. Scripture is a means to encounter God through the Holy Spirit. Literally pray Scripture. Let Scripture set your prayer agenda. When we read any passage ask the Holy Spirit to pray through to change us so we live the values of the text. If we are not Gathering with God’s people, communing in the Story of God with them, Scripture will remain just letters.

Join Jesus and recite the Shema or what has been called the Jesus Creed daily. Cultivate the hours of prayer that Jesus observed (they are the hours of sacrifice at 9, 12, and 3). Pray the Lord’s Prayer (memorize it along with the Jesus Creed) daily.

Second: Become a Serious Student of the Hebrew Bible

Second, if we want to approach NT texts like a disciple in AD 40 or 55 or 66, then we must first become serious readers of the Hebrew Bible. Not one, no not one, disciple of Christ had a copy of the New Testament in the first century. What they did have was the Hebrew Bible, principally through the Greek translation known as the Septuagint (LXX). The Hebrew Bible was what Paul told Timothy to “devote himself to the public reading of the Scriptures.” (Here again we see point #1). Most today also encounter the Hebrew Bible through a translation. I simply cannot stress enough the importance of the First Testament in reading the NT. The point of reference for everything was the Hebrew Bible/LXX. Deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible was the preunderstanding, the presupposition, the assumed common denominator in the Gospels and the Epistles. When the Bereans checked the Scriptures it was not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or Acts or Romans. Rather they searched Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, etc. Read it daily. Yes every day.

When we are reading the “New Testament,” we need to think in terms of the unified Story. The New Testament is the same story as the Hebrew Bible, with the same God, same Promise, with the same People. The people and teachings in the “New Testament” mean what they mean because of the so called “Old Testament.” There is continuity than discontinuity between the so called “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” I recommend a book like “The Drama of Scripture” (Bartholomew & Goheen) in helping to grasp the single story or the “plot line” that ties Genesis to Revelation. Intimate acquaintance with the Hebrew Bible, its values, its “theology” and its worship will go a long way toward helping us hear, and see, as a disciple in AD 66 did. Recall that no one in AD 66 ever heard of something called “the Old Testament.” It would be another hundred plus years before Melito of Sardis gave that designation to Jesus’s Bible. They just knew “the Scriptures” which are Genesis to Malachi. Now this will take time but it is worth it. I also recommend, with no reservations, Christopher J. H. Wright’s Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. It is epic.

Third: Read the Psalms Passionately

Third. My suggestion here draws from both numbers 1 and 2. Cultivate the habit of reading the Psalms routinely and regularly. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of the Psalms on Jesus and the Way. I read the Psalms from beginning to end every month. If you read an average of 4 to 5 Psalms a day (except for Ps 119) you will go through the book every month and it takes 15 or so minutes every day. You can use the Psalms during one of the Three Hours of Prayer mentioned below.

The Psalms do several things when regularly integrated into our lives. First the Psalms help train us in a biblical (or Hebraic) worldview. The Psalms keep our prayers from becoming trite and narcissistic. The Psalms constantly help us understand the big picture of story of God in the rest of Scripture. The Psalms do much more but these are to be noted here.

Fourth: Learn about Time and Space

Fourth. Become familiar with the biblical calendar (sacred time) and the temple (sacred space). Most of us just assume that everyone lives by the same calendar. It never dawned on me that not everyone has a seven day week, has the same names for days, has the same months, has the same years. For years, I literally was in the dark on how deeply embedded the calendar is in Scripture – in both Testaments. What is the Sabbath, Passover/Unleavened Bread, Tabernacles, Weeks/Pentecost, Purim, Dedication, Day of Atonement. Biblical writers simply assume we know this stuff just like we know “St. Patrick’s Day” comes with four leaf clovers, the Irish and green in our culture. I confess that I simply never paid any attention to this, precisely because I did not read the NT as a person would in AD 40, 55 or 66. Both the structure and the meaning of the calendar in the “Bible” was different than I use on a daily basis.

Fifth: Read the Middle Testament

Fifth. Read the books of the Apocrypha (I playfully call this the Middle Testament). Yes read them. The Apocrypha is primarily a Protestant term but it refers to a body of literature that was part of the LXX. This literature is amazingly valuable for cultivating eyes to see and ears to hear as disciples did in AD 40. We suddenly see their prayers, their hymns used in worship, the struggles of faith, examples of great faith. Contrary to much popular opinion the early disciples did in fact know this literature and the NT writers even allude to various stories in Tobit, Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon and the like. But our point is this, to read the NT as a person did in AD 40 we have to, as best we can, try to see and think like they did in AD 40. The Apocrypha is, after the Hebrew Bible itself, one of the most helpful sources for becoming a better student of the NT writings themselves.

Sixth: Accept the Jewish Nature of the New Testament

Sixth. Accept the fact that the NT was written by Jews and out of a Jewish worldview. Just accept it because it is a fact. While Paul certainly knew Greek some philosophy, the primary point of reference for every page of the NT is the Jewish world. Take seriously the truth that Jesus is (not was) Jewish. All the NT writers are Jewish. The only possible exception to this is Luke. And, frankly, there are a number of scholars that believe the author of Luke-Acts if not actually Jewish was likely a proselyte. Contrary to much popular mythology Luke is every bit as “Jewish” in its orientation as Matthew ever dreamed. We miss it because we do not “hear” and “see” as did a disciple in AD 60. To get into this Jewish world view we need the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, the calendar and the Apocrypha.

Seventh: Reflect on Helpful Studies

Seventh. One of the most helpful books I have ever read was Oskar Skarsaune’s “In the Shadow of the Temple.” I just believe that every student, who wants to be a teacher with the correct glasses for reading the New Testament will devour Skarsaune. Jacob Jervell’s Luke and the People of God is another book that, if meditated upon carefully, will make one a far better reader of the New Testament.

Eight: Live it

Eighth. Biblical theology is not merely about thinking but about living. Therefore if we are to be better students of the New Testament and its Hebraic doctrine then we must practice it. Visit widows. Serve in a soup kitchen for the homeless. Care for the alien. Find ways to serve as Jesus’s hands and his feet. It is amazing how the prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, James and many other portions of Scripture burst with meaning when the words on the page are guiding our hands, feet, mouths, wallets, to the least of these.

As I stated before this will take time and it will take a disciple’s mindset. But approaching the text prayerfully and “worshipfully” and within the context of the community of faith is simply essential. Cultivating the hours of prayer and becoming intimate with not only the basic story of the Hebrew Bible but its values and worldview will help us hear as a disciple in AD 55. Psalms, the Temple and Apocrypha are important. Live what you read. And reading the few books I’ve mentioned will indeed bear much fruit.

This might sound like a lot of work. It’s not really. But it will take time and “just doing it.” Most of it is simply dealing with the volume you already have in your hands. The books I’ve mentioned can help with the big picture and even some details.

Now in my opinion, and that is what it is so take it for what it is worth, if we want to hear the New Testament for all its worth then cultivating this agenda will bear much fruit.

Let’s get started.

Shalom.


Walter Scott was not the only Five Finger Preacher

Every once in a while I am accused of being a Calvinist. This is one of the strangest things I have ever been accused of, for I do not have a Calvinist bone in my body (many only have a vague conception of what Calvinism actually is. The TULIP is post-John Calvin btw).

But I am a fan of the new TULIP that Brian McLaren gave us in his perceptive book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I remember reading this 10 or 11 years ago. It was one of my favorite two pages in the book. So for your third day of the week, I want to suggest that we all embrace the redefined TULIP … (putting my own spin on it as well)

T = Triune Love. The endless love that binds together the holy and divine community of Father, Son and Spirit, shall be the love that binds us to one another in the sacred bond of community and unity as well.

U = Unselfish Election. Election of God’s people has nothing to do with us being superior than anyone, in any fashion. In fact election is not about us at all. Election is about God using us as his hands and feet to be his instruments of shalom in this world. Election is Unselfish. We serve the red, yellow, black and the white, we embrace the widows, orphans and the aliens. We serve the poor because we were poor and God has made us rich. Unselfish Election is about us being a blessing for the world so God’s will will be done on earth as in heaven.

L = Limitless Reconciliation. Instead of arguing that atonement by definition excludes some part of creation, from this Tuesday on, let’s see that reconciliation is a function of the Missio Dei (the mission of God). God, through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, reconciles “all things” to himself in heaven and on earth, things seen and unseen. With this, we exercise our unselfish election, by praying to God to be forgiven AS WE FORGIVE others, knowing that God always loves my neighbor.

I = Inspiring Grace. Grace is not some impersonal force that runs us over like a tank. Grace is the expression of the passionate personal love of the Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit). This grace INSPIRES grace among the people of God. It is not merely some doctrinal stance but practical way of living in relation to the world around us. We are the Jubilee/Forgiveness of Sins People who welcome others on the same basis God has welcomed us … Grace.

P = Passionate and Persistent Saints. God’s people rooted and established in Triune Love, the selfless abandon of election, of our mission of limitless reconciliation and the grace that inspires God’s people to live boldly and passionately as people reflecting that Glory of God back into God’s world. We are not arrogant, a notion at odds with all the above. We are simply persistent in our love, our forgiveness, and our graciousness to others for the sake of the kingdom of God.

With apologies to Brian McLaren if I do not remember it exactly right. But this is how Bobby V has shared it repeatedly over the years. It is a good five finger way to look at the world.

It could help us in the current morass as God’s people in the USA. Appreciate you reading. Blessings.