21 May 2024

To whom are the scriptures written? It’s kinda important.

Some months ago I visited another church. (So if my pastors are worried this article’s about them: Relax! I figure you know better than to do this.)

The passage was from the New Testament; Paul of Tarsus was, as usual, correcting Christians. I won’t say which of Paul’s letters was quoted; I don’t actually need to. In his sermon, Pastor Berwyn (not his name, but it’s what I’m calling him) expounded on what Paul had to say to all the sinners in our wicked world.

Except… was Paul writing to all the sinners of our wicked world? Or all the sinners of his wicked world?—namely the Roman Empire and its pagan practices. And maybe I should use the word “Pagan” with a capital P, because we’re not talking about today’s pagans, who lean monotheist thanks to the influence of Abrahamic religions: I’m talking old-school pagans, who believed in many gods, few of whom were good or moral or cared about humanity.

If you’ve read your bible, you’re fully aware every single one of Paul’s letters, whether written solo or with co-writers, was addressed to the Christians of various Roman Empire cities. And you’re fully aware every letter—the ones by James, Peter, John, Jude, and Luke—and all the gospels, were likewise written to Christians. The recipients and audience of the entire New Testament? Ancient Christians. And their posterity, which includes today’s Christians.

Not pagans. Not pagans then; not pagans now. Yep, even though we’ll give free bibles and gospels of John to pagans, in the hopes they’ll find Jesus in there: It wasn’t written to them.

Now, since the New Testament was written to ancient Christians, it stands to reason there are gonna be some things in it which dealt specifically with ancient Christian issues and problems. And for that, we gotta do a little historical research, and make sure we’re not borrowing the instructions about an ancient problem, and wrongly turning ’em into a current problem. (Like telling women they can’t speak in church.) Historical context is just as important.

Otherwise, the New Testament was written to Christians. Not pagans. And Paul’s instructions—and rebukes—are to Christians. Not the cold cruel world of the Roman Empire, nor the cold cruel world of the United States. He’s doing housekeeping. He’s trying to clean up the people who claim to follow Jesus. The people who make no such claims: They’re on their own. Ro 1.28-32 Till they repent.

If you ever hear a preacher angrily condemning the world… well, that’s gonna happen. Shouldn’t be done in anger, ’cause sinners aren’t gonna listen to an angry person; such preachers are speaking without love. (And don’t give me any rubbish about “tough love.” That’s just more anger.) But they’re gonna figure, “The Old Testament prophets did it; why can’t I?” and rant about it as much as they please, and maybe there’ll be some truth in it.

But if you’re claiming or implying the apostles did the same thing in the New Testament, you’d be wrong. You’re pulling the scriptures out of their context, and teaching your own bile instead of godly wisdom.

19 May 2024

Pentecost.

Pentecost is the Christian name for the Feast of Weeks, or שָׁבֻעֹת֙/Šavuót: Seven weeks after Passover, at which time the ancient Hebrews harvested their wheat. Ex 34.22 On 6 Sivan in the Hebrew calendar, the 50th day after Passover, they were expected to come to temple and present a grain offerng to the LORD. Dt 16.9-12 Oh, and tithe a tenth of it to celebrate with—and every third year, put that tithe in the community granary.

Our word comes from the Greek τὴν ἡμέραν τῆς πεντηκοστῆς/tin iméran tis pentikostís, “the 50th day” Ac 2.1 —the Greek term for Šavuót.

Why do Christians celebrate a Hebrew harvest festival? (And have separate “harvest parties” in October?) Well we don’t celebrate it Hebrew-style: We consider it the last day of Easter, and we celebrate it for a whole other reason. In the year 33—the year Jesus died, rose, and was raptured—the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’s new church on Pentecost. Happened like so:

Acts 2.1-4 NRSVue
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The speaking-in-tongues part is why the 20th century Christian movement which has a lot of tongues-speaking in it, is called Pentecostalism. Weirdly, a lot of us Pentecostals never bother to keep track of when Pentecost rolls around. I don’t get it. I blame anti-Catholicism a little. Anyway, Luke goes on:

Acts 2.5-13 NRSVue
5 Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Christians like to call this “the first Pentecost.” Obviously it wasn’t; the first Pentecost, or Šavuót, or Feast of Weeks, was after the Exodus. It’s when every devout Jew on earth was bringing their grain offerings to temple on that very day, 25 May 33. And suddenly a house full of Galileans broke out in every language they knew—spoken to as if to them personally.

Got their attention.

16 May 2024

Praying exact prayers.

I haven’t heard this teaching in a mighty long time, but I heard it again recently: The preacher was informing her audience (and reminding her regular listeners) that whenever we pray for stuff, we gotta get really, precisely specific. We gotta tell God exactly what we want from him. Otherwise we might not get it. God might give us something which generally resembles what we want, but not exactly what we want. We weren’t clear.

Fr’instance let’s say you’re looking for a job. What you’d love to do is work at a bank, approving loans. But you ask God, “Please Lord, I’d like to work at a bank; any job will do.” And God answers that prayer! But your job at the bank is looking at the dark and blurry photos people send of checks through the bank’s app, and confirming they’re something the bank can actually cash. Hardly your dream job. But hey, God answered your prayer!—you just didn’t specify you didn’t wanna look at bad phone-camera photography eight hours a day.

Ergo we have to specify what we want. You know, kinda like you’re programming ChatGPT. You want the bot to output exactly what you want, without any surprises or errors? You gotta spell it out for it. It’s not that intelligent.

Now. If you’re in any way familiar with the Almighty, you know he’s not a moron like these “artificially intelligent” programs. If you know your bible, you can probably quote this verse from memory, or close enough:

Matthew 6.8 NRSVue
“Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

That’s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, explaining to his listeners, and to us Christians centuries later, that we don’t need to use many words and empty phrases with God. Mt 6.7 In context he was really talking about pagans who feel they need to call upon their gods with big, complicated incantations—and if they get the incantations wrong, maybe their gods won’t listen!

And y’know, it’s kinda what this preacher is suggesting God is like. That if we get our prayer wording wrong, maybe the LORD won’t listen, and we won’t get exactly what we ask for.

If you’ve heard this teaching before, I’m betting you heard it from the “name it and claim it” crowd. Every time I’ve heard it taught, it came from someone who’s been listening to their preachers, reading their books, and dabbling in their teachings. A number of ’em believe our words are so powerful, we can actually call things into existence. Same as God! Supposedly he’s granted us Christians the same power he has to create stuff. So we gotta be careful with those words, lest we create things we don’t actually want.

Because when we don’t get precise with our prayer requests, we might ask for the right thing, wrongly. And when we do this, God might grin, say, “Well you did ask for it,” and prankishly give us literally what we requested. And now we’re stuck with it.

Like the man in the joke who asked a genie for a million clams. By which he meant dollars—and somehow expected a genie, who shouldn’t even know English, to know American slang. But nope; the genie bestowed him with a million literal clams.

I don’t know what’s worse: Claiming God is as dumb as a chatbot, or God is some kind of prankster god like Cupid, Loki, or Coyote. I should hope you know he’s wiser, and has a far better character, than that. I should hope you know he’s generous, and is eager to bless us far more than we ask or think. Ep 3.20 I mean, they very idea God’s interested in playing dumb games with prayer, oughta offend us a little. It is blasphemy after all.

But if you're way more interested in getting your wishes granted, stands to reason you'll fall for this foolish advice.

15 May 2024

The implications of being the Son of Man.

John 5.24-29.

On occasion I’ll hear some Christian preacher claim that Jesus referring to God as “Father”—whether he’s talking about God as his Father, or God as our Father—was a wholly unique thing in history; that somehow the Jews had never before imagined God as their Father. It’s not true—

Deuteronomy 32.6 KJV
Do ye thus requite the LORD, O foolish people and unwise? is not he thy father that hath bought thee? hath he not made thee, and established thee?
Psalm 89.26 KJV
He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.
Isaiah 63.16 KJV
Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O LORD, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting.
Isaiah 64.8 KJV
But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.
Malachi 1.6 KJV
A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name. And ye say, Wherein have we despised thy name?

—but man do preachers like to claim it.

Anyway, Jesus regularly refers to God as our Father, and specifically his Father… but whereas we humans are just creations and adoptive children of our heavenly Father, Jesus is something significantly different. He’s the Son of God. And no, not just “Son of God” in the sense we see in Psalm 2, where the king of Israel is especially adopted by God as his son, and therefore “Son of God” is just a royal title like Messiah. Nope; in the trinity there’s a Father and Son, and the Son became human, and that’s Jesus of Nazareth. He’s fully God same as his Father is fully God.

In John chapter 5, Jesus explains some of that idea. And it’s a doozy of an idea. Pretty sure it broke the brains of most of the Judeans he said it to. Because Jesus is making some pretty cosmic declarations about himself. He already said in the last bit the Father shows the Son everything he does, Jn 5.20 the Son’s gonna raise the dead, Jn 5.21 the Son’s gonna judge the world, Jn 5.22 and you’d better recognize the Son’s authority if you respect the Father. Jn 5.23

Oh, and at the End, the coming in the clouds of the Son of Man? Da 7.13 That’s Jesus. He’s the Son of Man. Did you not notice he constantly calls himself “the Son of Man”? He doesn’t do it to remind people he’s human; anybody who looked at him could tell he was human. He does it to remind people he’s that guy. The guy who does all this:

John 5.24-29 KWL
24 “Amen amen! I promise you the one who hears my word,
and trusts the One who sent me,
has life in the age to come
and doesn’t go into judgment.
Instead they passed from death into life.
25 Amen amen! I promise you the hour comes, and it’s now,
when the dead will hear God’s Son’s voice,
and those who will hear it, will live.
26 For just as the Father has life in himself,
likewise he gives life to the Son to have in himself.
27 The Father gives the Son power to make judgments,
because he’s the Son of Man.
28 Don’t be amazed by this, because the hour comes
in which everyone in the sepulchers
will hear the Son of Man’s voice
29 and come out—
those who do good, into resurrection life;
those who do little, into resurrection judgment.”

You realize this discussion started because some people got bent out of shape over Jesus curing the sick on sabbath. And people think I go off on tangents. Jesus went from, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” Jn 5.17 KJV to “Oh and just to remind you, I’m the Son of Man.”

It’s weird how various pagans will insist Jesus was only a great moral teacher and nothing more, when Jesus straight-up tells people he’s going to raise the dead, judge humanity, and rule the world. And people don’t dismiss him as a demonized madman and stone him to death, because he just cured a guy who was unable to walk for 38 years, and demonized guys can’t do that. The only ones who can do that, outside of hospitals, were empowered by God—and for all you know, might actually be the great End Times figure whose everlasting kingdom shall not be destroyed. Da 7.14

14 May 2024

The implications of being God’s son.

John 5.17-23.

After Jesus cured some guy at a pool, the Judeans objected because he’d done so on sabbath. Now in the synoptic gospels, Jesus’s defense was usually along the lines of, “Curing the sick is a good deed, and doing good deeds on sabbath doesn’t violate the Law.” In John however, his defense is entirely different:

John 5.17-18 KWL
17 Jesus answers them, “Even today, my Father works.
And I work.”
18 So this is why the Judeans are seeking all the more to kill him:
Not only is Jesus loosening sabbath custom,
but he’s saying God is his own father,
making himself equal to God.

Y’see, there’s a really profound legal concept embedded in Jesus’s statement, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” Jn 5.17 KJV It’s something you’re gonna miss if you don’t understand how adoption in the Roman Empire worked. Instead you’re gonna wind up making the foolish assumption many an Evangelical has: They think Jesus told the Judeans, “God’s not bound by your customs and Law, and neither am I.” Therefore he can break the Law. With impunity. Kinda like they do.

If Jesus is claiming he has the almighty prerogative to do as he pleases, including break whatever commands he wished, then Jesus could sin like crazy. It’s why lawless Christians love this interpretation—it gives them license to sin like crazy. Grace forgives everything, right? So let’s get nuts!

It turns Jesus into a major jerk—which is an obvious sign that’s not what he meant. If any interpretation of God violates his character, it’s wrong. It’s based on our bad attitudes, not his.

Jesus isn’t claiming he can do as he pleases. He’s claiming he does as the Father does. And the Father is benevolent, kind, generous, compassionate, forgiving. He does good deeds every day of the week, sabbath included. Ever been sick, and got well on a Saturday morning? Looks like God cured you on sabbath too.

Likewise Jesus is kind. His goal is always to demonstrate his Father’s love, and in so doing reveal who the Father is, and the sort of kingdom the Father’s given him to rule. Bear that in mind whenever you read the gospels.

Okay, on to what Jesus actually means. And why it outraged the Judeans.

13 May 2024

“But you cured them on 𝘴𝘢𝘣𝘣𝘢𝘵𝘩.”

John 5.8-16, Luke 13.10-17.

So Jesus goes to Jerusalem and cures some guy at a pool. I’ll quote the pertinent part:

John 5.8-9 KWL
8 Jesus tells him, “Get up.
Pick up your bed and walk.”
9 At once the person becomes whole.
He picks up his bed and walks.
It’s the sabbath on that day.

In case you missed it, the last line of verse 9 points out that day was sabbath. That’d be Saturday, the seventh day of the week; the day on which the LORD told Israel he wanted ’em to not work. There’s a whole command about it:

Deuteronomy 5.12-14 KJV
12 Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. 13 Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: 14 but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. 15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.

Everybody got that? No worky. Not you, nor your kids, nor your employees, nor your animals, nor “shabbos goys”—which is what certain American Jews call their gentile friends who do things for ’em on sabbath so they won’t break the command. They might think having their gentile neighbor pick up a pizza for ’em isn’t suborning a commandment violation. But it totally is.

Pharisees got mighty specific about what constitutes rest. The Mishna has a whole section, or tractate, called Shabbát. It’s all about what you can and can’t do on sabbath. There are 39 specific Pharisee rules about what not to do. No planting, plowing, reaping, gathering, threshing, winnowing, etc. Picking up your bed broke the 39th rule: No moving something from one significant place to another.

Yet here was this guy, carrying his bed. Because Jesus, who cured him, told him to do it.

John 5.10-13 KWL
10 So the Judeans are telling the cured person, “It’s sabbath!
It’s not right for you to pick up your bed.”
11 The cured person answers them, “He who makes me whole—
that person tells me, ‘Pick up your bed and walk.’ ”
12 They question him, “Who is the person
who tells you, ‘Pick it up and walk’?”
13 The cured person didn’t know who Jesus is,
for Jesus slipped into the crowd in that place.

09 May 2024

Ascension: When Jesus took his throne.

This happened on Thursday, 15 May 33—if we figure Luke’s count of 40 days Ac 1.3 wasn’t an estimate, but a literal 40 days.

Acts 1.6-9 NRSVue
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

I usually translate ἐπήρθη/epírthi (KJV “he was taken up,” NRSV “he was lifted up”) as “he was raptured.” ’Cause that’s what happened. Jesus got raptured into heaven.

From there Jesus ascended (from the Latin ascendere, “to climb”) to the Father’s throne—to sit at his right hand, Ac 2.33, 7.55-56 both in service and in judgment. We figure Jesus’s ascension took place the very same day he was raptured, so that’s when Christians have historically celebrated it: 40 days after Easter, and 10 days before Pentecost Sunday.

Some of us only focus on Jesus’s rapture—“Yay, he’s in heaven now!” And yeah, there’s that. But the way more important thing is Jesus taking his throne. When we say our Lord reigns, you realize his reign began at some point. Wasn’t when he died, and defeated sin and death; wasn’t when he rose from the dead, and proved he defeated sin and death. It’s when he took his throne. It’s his ascension day. Which we observe today.