Search This Blog

TXAB’s index.

20 July 2018

“He had some good bits.”

Sometimes that’s the best you can expect from certain preachers.

She came up to me after the sermon.

SHE. [referring to the speaker] “Wasn’t he great?
ME. “Yeah, he had some good bits.”
SHE. “Good bits? That was like good solid food!”
ME. “Meh.”

She left to go find someone who was as excited about the sermon as she was.

This didn’t take place at my church; I was visiting another church in town. And “she” is someone who used to go to my church. She stopped after we wouldn’t let her into leadership. For good reason; she’s spiritually immature. Regularly tossed to and fro by every charismatic fad, exactly like St. James described the unwise. Jm 1.5 So she went to find another church whose standards weren’t so high. Which is probably why she was visiting this other church.

I was visiting because of a special guest speaker. I won’t give his name, to protect the totally guilty. Many Pentecostals in northern California know who he is. Quite a few Pentecostals outside the area have heard of him. I hadn’t heard him preach before, so that’s why I was visiting.

Good public speaker. Entertaining, winsome, enthusiastic, clever. Had some really positive, uplifting, encouraging things to say. Quoted the bible out of context like the devil itself, though.

No I’m not calling him a devil. Nor an antichrist. Nor uninspired, nor a false teacher, false prophet, false anything. Just saying he’s really sloppy when it comes to interpreting bible. Lots of preachers are, because they don’t do their homework. They repeat what popular Christian culture claims the bible means, rather than double-check anything for themselves. They figure if their conclusion sounds all right, it doesn’t matter what route they took to get there. And obviously they didn’t pay attention in science class… or math, forensics, logic, hermeneutics… Let’s just say they spent their college years, if they had any, having fun instead of studying.

From what I know, this preacher earnestly tries to follow Jesus. Loves him, loves his church, wants to do right by God. But for every time he interpreted bible properly, he likewise interpreted the bible questionably, or downright wrong. And because it was stuff the audience had never, ever heard before—which stands to reason; he was making it up—they were gasping and oohing and declaring “Amen” like he was reading golden plates fresh from heaven.

So they were impressed. The flighty woman from my church was impressed. Me, I know more bible than that. I make absolutely no claims of infallibility, but the preacher kept quoting verses that I’ve either researched, or at least know fairly well. And spun ’em in all sorts of directions with no respect at all for literary or historical context. I don’t know where this guy went to school, but wherever it was, he had a lot of fun.

19 July 2018

From the lowest place to the highest heavens.

He doesn’t want us to live in ignorance. He wants us to follow Jesus.

Ephesians 2.1-10

Gotta confess: I grew up Christian. I said the sinner’s prayer at age 4. I have no real memories of being pre-Christian. So when the scriptures, particularly Ephesians, brings up one’s wayward pre-Christian life before God got hold of us, it’s not so easy to relate. I didn’t live that way.

Oh yeah, I had my hypocrisy phase in high school and college. But it wasn’t an apostasy phase; I didn’t quit Christianity and go pagan in rebellion, doubt, or apathy. I was just a sucky Christian. More Christianist than Christ-following; I held to religiosity when it suited me, and clung to cheap grace when that suited me. Like I said, hypocrisy.

So when Paul wrote about the Ephesians’ pre-Christian lifestyle, I understand what he’s talking about; I know plenty of pagans who live this way. My trouble is I don’t have a shared experience with them, so I don’t relate as well as someone who did have those experiences.

But y’know, that’s one of the great things about Christian diversity: Plenty of us have. And it’s those former pagans who can speak best to current pagans, and point ’em to Jesus. (Although I should point out I strive to be kind to them, so that tends to take me pretty far with them as well.)

And I do have the experience of being a lousy Christian, yet God didn’t give up on me and straightened me out. So there’s that.

But for ex-pagan Christians, this is more what they experienced:

Ephesians 2.1-3 KWL
1 You who were dead in your missteps and the sins 2 you previously walked in,
following this world’s age, following the head air-power—the spirit now working on apathy’s children.
3 We all used to walk backwards like that in our bodily desires, doing the will of our body and minds.
We were natural, raging children, same as everyone else.
4 God, being rich in mercy, loves us out of his great love. 5 Us, being dead in our missteps.
God makes us all alive in Christ: You’re saved by his grace.

Previously following our desires, our culture (“the world’s age”), and various idols (“the head air-power”), we were as good as dead, ’cause sin kills. Ro 6.23 But God loves us despite that, rescues us from all that, and grants us eternal life for no other reason than pure grace. He’s entirely justified in leaving us to our own destruction, but he’s predestined far better for us.

18 July 2018

“To follow thee more nearly.”

He doesn’t want us to live in ignorance. He wants us to follow Jesus.

Ephesians 1.15-23

Humans are creatures of extremes. It’s why American churches are likewise creatures of extremes. Either we pursue God with all our might, and strive to make sure our teachings are accurate and solid… and ready to pound into the heads of newbies, skeptics, people of other church traditions which aren’t as up-to-speed as we. Or we pursue godly behavior with all our might, strive to behave ourselves and help the needy… and feel incredibly guilty when we don‘t.

I know; why can’t we get this stuff right? Why can’t we pursue accurate teaching without turning into insufferable know-it-alls? Why can’t we pursue good works without turning into legalists? Why can’t we do both bible study and charitable works—why do we have to pit these behaviors against one another? More than that, why must we insist on pretending to do one or the other, yet use compromise, loopholes, and excuses to do neither? What, are there just too many chainsaws to juggle?

Well. Paul, upon hearing of the Ephesians’ good behavior and faith, prayed God’d grant ’em more wisdom, revelation, knowledge, and power. Partly because knowledge is power; partly because God gives us access to supernatural power, and we oughta learn how to tap that, and minister more mightily.

Ephesians 1.15-19 KWL
15 For this reason I too—hearing the about your trust in Master Jesus and the acts of love towards all the saints—
16 I don’t stop giving thanks for you, working my memories of you into my prayers
17 so the God of our Master, Christ Jesus, the Father of glory,
might give you the spiritual wisdom and revelation to understand him—
18 flooding your hearts’ eyes with light, so you’d understand.
It’s the hope of your calling. It’s the saints’ glorious inherited riches.
19 It’s the over-and-above greatness of God’s power for us believers, through the energy of his powerful strength.

Ephesians is the rare letter where Paul doesn’t have to spend a lot of time correcting the church for its misbehavior. To be fair, this may be because Ephesians is a form letter (as I explained previously) so Paul couldn’t offer customized correction to any one particular church. Not that this hasn’t stopped commentators from leaping to the conclusion Ephesus was the one church in ancient Christendom which was following God properly. I expect they made the same mistakes as every Christian does. But I also expect they were getting a lot right—otherwise Paul would’ve felt the urgent need to write ’em something custom. But he didn’t. He wrote this.

And in it, he prayed the church and its Christians would grow. He made a regular practice of such prayers. He knew from experience they’d need the help. Ephesus especially: They lived in a city which manufactured new religions on a daily basis. (Some of which featured really bizarre versions of Jesus.) They needed to know the truth and hew to it, lest someone lead them astray with some strange but appealing novelty. You know… like nowadays. ’Cause Americans are so easily led astray by churches which claim God promises us a safe, comfortable, unchallenging, prosperous life.

17 July 2018

Adoption in the Roman Empire—and God’s kingdom.

How we literally become God’s kids. And no, I’m not using “literally” wrong.

Ephesians 1.11-14

Last time I focused on predestination, God’s great plan to save the world, which Paul spelled out for everyone who read his letter to the Ephesians. We get redemption, forgiveness, goodwill, God’s riches, etc. Ep 1.7-10

We get this through adoption. The plan was for God to adopt us as his kids.

Ephesians 1.4-6 KWL
4 Namely how God chose us in Christ to be holy—
spotless before his presence—before the world’s foundation!
In love, 5 through Christ Jesus, God predestined us for adoption to himself—
according to the goodwill of his will,
6 in glorious praise of God’s grace, which he poured out on us in love.

The problem is adoption nowadays, doesn’t look all that much like adoption back in the first-century Roman Empire. So this passage makes less of an impact than it should. Lemme fix that.

In every culture there are kids without parents. They had biological parents, but those parents are unable, unfit, or unwilling to raise children. So their children are on their own… unless someone else steps in to care for them. (Someone other than the state.) And adoption means these people wanna be parents, not just mere guardians: They wanna take these children into their family, take legal responsibility for them, and have the very same rights biological parents have over their biological children. The kids become their children.

True, some folks in our culture have hangups about adoption. They figure these kids aren’t the adoptive parents’ real children. As you can tell by how they constantly describe that relationship: “Their adopted son,” or “Her adoptive mother”—just to make it clear biology isn’t involved, so there’s not a full parent/child relationship here.

’Cause for some folks there’s a stigma connected with adoption. They’re bothered by the idea people haven’t passed down their own genes, and are raising “strangers,” or someone whose ancestry or background might be deficient, unsavory, or unwell. In some cases they seriously believe if the adoptive parents can’t produce their own biological children, it’s because God doesn’t want them to have children, so adoption is an end-run around God’s will. And sometimes it’s because others have a hangup—so rather than deal with that, they pretend their adoptive kids are their biological kids, and the secretiveness creates the stigma.

The stigma isn’t a recent thing. It’s a very old thing. But it’s a very European thing. Medieval Europeans were the ones who were all hung up on bloodlines: Men, especially men with wealth, wanted to be certain their kids were legitimately their kids, their parentage made absolutely certain. (Well, as certain as you could in those days before genetic testing.) If there was anything irregular about a birth, the kid was “illegitimate” or a “bastard,” and anyone with “legitimate” parentage would try to make sure the illegitimate inherited nothing. Some of these graceless customs are still embedded in European law, and greedy heirs still try to take advantage of them.

But the ancient Romans had no such hangup. They regularly adopted children. A Roman paterfamilias/patriarch could, and did, adopt anyone he wished. Family members, non-family members, close friends, employees, slaves; didn’t matter. A patriarch could choose absolutely anyone and declare them his daughters or sons. And so they were—with full legal rights and responsibilities as a daughter or son.

Nope, ancestry made no difference to the Romans. Because back then, ancestry wasn’t really provable. All you really had was the mother’s word—and as anyone who’s watched The Maury Povich Show knows, some mothers don’t have the most reliable word. So the Roman culture adjusted to this reality: A man was a child’s father because he formally got up in front of family, friends, and priests, and declared, “This child is mine.” It wasn’t a claim; it was a declaration. Any blood relation can weasel out of their parental duties. But if you stood up and claimed that child as your own, that meant something. Still does. And should.

And that is the cultural idea the Romans, Ephesians, and Jews had in the first century. And what the authors of the New Testament meant when they wrote about adoption—particularly about God adopting us Christians as his children.

16 July 2018

Predestination and the Ephesians.

God has a wonderful plan for your life… if you choose to accept it.

Ephesians 1.1-10

Eleven years ago I led a year-long bible study on Ephesians.

Seriously, a year. Every Sunday I took about two or three verses and analyzed the pants off ’em. Some of the participants in our group loved it, ’cause they’d never dug into the scriptures to such depth. Others figured I could’ve whipped through that letter in four weeks, ’cause every other bible study they’d been to had done so. Taking 50 weeks (’cause you gotta take a week or two off, y’know) felt to them like overkill.

Meh; maybe. I will say I’ll take considerably less than a year in this go-around. So let’s start.

Ephesians 1.1-3 KWL
1 Paul, by God’s will an apostle of Christ Jesus,
to those in Ephesus who are holy and trusting Christ Jesus.
2 Grace to you. Peace from God our Father, and master Christ Jesus—
3 blessed God, and Father of our master Christ Jesus!
God’s the one who blesses us,
in every supernatural blessing in the high heavens, in Christ!

The “to Ephesus” in verse 1 was blank in the original. That’s because Paul’s letters were form letters: His secretaries copied them and sent them to multiple churches. Paul sent this copy with Týhikos, Ep 6.21 who was from Asia Minor, Ac 20.4 and since Ephesus was Asia’s capital, stands to reason it’d go there.

Paul wrote Ephesians late in his life, as indicated by his being a prisoner Ep 3.1 in chains, Ep 6.20 possibly awaiting trial before Nero Caesar, who ultimately had Paul beheaded. It’s considered a later letter also because its theology appears to be way more thought through than Paul’s other letters—yep, even Romans. In fact some scholars kinda wonder whether Paul wrote it, and whether some other clever student or fan of Paul wrote it instead, pretending to be Paul so the letter would get read.

Me, I figure those scholars are trying to make a name for themselves by pitching controversies. (And some of them did succeed, y’know.) The idea Paul never grew more mature in his beliefs, or that he only wrote them down once-and-for-all (or twice, considering the same subjects in Galatians and Romans) is naïve. How many Christian authors do you know who only discuss a subject once-and-for-all? Some of ’em rehash their favorite ideas in every single book. And unless they’re intellectually lazy (and let’s be blunt, a number of ’em are) you’re gonna see those ideas evolve. Not necessarily change, but get deeper. Show greater insight and complexity. Get a little more patient with people who think differently than they. They also grow as writers, too.

Those who assume Paul never grew in maturity, as a Christian and as a writer, tend to be two sorts of people. The ones I bump into most often are the cessationists, who don‘t understand how revelation and prophecy work, and therefore have no idea how it worked when the Holy Spirit inspired Paul. They assume Paul got all his revelation once-and-for-all… then wrote letters. They’ve no clue—because they won’t listen to the Spirit!—that he doesn’t work like that. Some revelations we’re simply not yet ready for. Jn 16.12 We’re not mature enough; we’re not patient enough; we haven’t learned enough. We’ll trip over ourselves like Jesus’s teenage students. Not for nothing did Jesus wait till John was in his 70s before giving him his Revelation.

The other sort consists of lazy writers. They don’t try to grow as writers; they figure they know what they’re doing, or they’ve achieved enough success at it, and don’t make any efforts to get any better. And they assume everybody gets that way. Everybody peaks in their thirties, and as they age, they take their younger, unrefined selves, turn that into their persona, and milk it for what they can get out of it. You’ve seen actors and musicians do this. Writers do it too. Christians do it too. More immaturity.

Spirit-led Christians grow. Which is why I like Ephesians: We get to take a look at how Paul grew. Hope we’re growing too.