The ministry of John the baptist.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 January

Mark 1.2-6, Matthew 3.1-6, Luke 3.1-6, John 1.6-8.

John 1.6-8 KWL
6 A person came who’d been sent by God, named John, 7 who came to testify.
When he testified about the light, everyone might believe because of him.
8 He wasn’t the light, but he’d testify about the light.
9 The actual light, who lights every person, was coming into the world.
Luke 3.1-3 KWL
1 In the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s governance, Pontius Pilatus governing Judea,
Antipas Herod as governor over the Galilee, Philip Herod his brother as governor over Ituría and Trachonítis provinces,
Lysanias as governor over Abiliní, 2 Annas and Joseph Kahiáfa as head priests,
God’s message came through John bar Zechariah, in the countryside.
3 He went into all the land round the Jordan,
preaching a baptism of repentance—to have one’s sins forgiven—
 
Mark 1.2-3 KWL
2 Like it’s written in the prophet Isaiah:
“Look, I send my agent to your face, who’ll prepare your road.” Ml 3.1
3 “A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’” Is 40.3
 
Matthew 3.1-3 KWL
1 In those days John the baptist appeared, preaching in the Judean countryside,
2 saying, “Repent! For heaven’s kingdom has come near.”
3 For this is the word through the prophet Isaiah. Quote:
“A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’” Is 40.3
 
Luke 3.4-6 KWL
4 like the prophet Isaiah’s sayings, written in the bible:
“A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’
5 All ravines will be filled; all roads and hills knocked down.
The crooked will be straightened; the rough into smooth roads.
6 All flesh will see God’s rescue.” Is 40.3-5

Jesus’s story begins with John bar Zachariah, “the baptist.” (As opposed to “the Baptist,” meaning someone from the Baptist movement, which takes its customs of believer-baptism and full immersion from John’s practice.)

John doesn’t come first just ’cause of the chronology—John was prophesied to his father before Jesus was to his mother; John was born before Jesus; John’s ministry began before Jesus’s. The chronology was kinda irrelevant, because as John himself pointed out, Jesus existed before he did. Jn 1.30 And as the gospel of John points out, the word of God, the light of the world: John came to testify about that light, and point people to him.

That was John’s job. He was Jesus’s opening act.

Yeah, Christians tend to call him Jesus’s forerunner. Which he kinda was. But a “forerunner” in antiquity was simply the guy who ran way in front of the caravan—whether a visiting lord or invading army—and announce they’re coming. Again, John kinda was that. But he didn’t just proclaim Messiah, or God’s kingdom, was coming. He got people ready for the coming, by getting ’em to repent, by washing them clean first.

Christians also tend to call him Jesus’s herald. He was kinda that too. But a herald came instead of the person whose message he brought. You know, like prophets tell us what God’s saying, instead of (or in addition to) God telling us what he’s saying. John wasn’t a substitute for the Messiah he preceded; he said his superior was coming right behind him, and he considered himself unworthy to take Messiah’s shoes off. Mk 1.7 But Jesus would soon speak for himself.

John’s ministry began, as Luke pins it down, in the year 28, when both he and Jesus (figuring they were born in 7BC or so) were about 34 years old. He’s described as being in the erímo/“countryside,” which the KJV and many translations render “wilderness”—but erímos means undeveloped, unfarmed land; places people didn’t live or work, and couldn’t drive John off as a nuisance. There, he announced the kingdom was coming—so people, get ready.

Figure out what God wants.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 January

It’s not as complicated as we make it out to be.

Too many of us Christians know God expects something of his kids. Loads of us preach it all the time: “God has a wonderful plan for your life. Just seek his face.” Problem is, when we seek his face, it’s only to praise him, not know him. The wonderful plan? We don’t know it, and never bother to find out what it is.

In fact a lot of us assume God’s plan is unknowable. It’s part of his secret will, his intricate plan for the universe which has been micromanaged all the way down to every single action we take. Which is secret because—let’s face it—there’s no way any one human can fathom it in all its complexity. Way too many moving parts. God is thinking a billion steps ahead, and if he clued us in just a little, it’d blow our minds.

Or, which is more likely, we’d respond like a backseat driver: “You know what you oughta do, God, is this…” and since we have the smallest fraction of information, we’re really in no position to judge how God rules the cosmos.

Anyway, the complexity of God’s master plan is too intimidating for a lot of Christians. “It’s way beyond me,” like the TobyMac song goes. True, the song’s more about how God stretches us beyond where we’re comfortable, but most Christians use the phrase as our excuse to stay comfortable. God’s will for our individual lives, God’s plans for our individual futures, the nature of God’s personal relationship with us—that’s too deep for us. Probably too deep for everyone, seminarians and scholars included.

Rubbish. And, might I add, disingenuous. People want God’s will to be far out of our reach, because it might just mean we have to change our lifestyles. A lot. You know, like Paul wrote:

Romans 12.1-2 KWL
1 So I urge you Christians, by God’s compassion:
Present your bodies to God as a holy, pleasing, live sacrifice—your logical worship.
2 Don’t follow the scheme of this age. Instead be transformed. Mind renovated.
Find out for yourselves what God’s good, pleasing, complete will is.

If learning God’s will—God’s complete will—weren’t possible, Paul wouldn’t have advised the Romans to do it. It’s not enough to give him our warm fuzzy feelings. He wants our bodies. He wants us to follow. Stop conforming to this culture; it’s passing away. Conform to the next one.

How? Seek God’s will. It’s not beyond us. God made it available. You know what Jesus taught. If you don’t, read your bible. Then do that.

The bible in “the original Greek”: The Septuagint.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 January
SEPTUAGINT sɛp'tu.ə.dʒɪnt noun. An ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament.
[Septuagintal sɛp.tu.ə'dʒɪnt.əl adjective.]

When you read the New Testament, and one of the apostles quotes the Old Testament, most of the time they’re not translating it from the original Hebrew. They’re quoting a Greek translation.

There wasn’t just one translation. Same as English versions of the bible nowadays, different translators had taken different shots at putting the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Some Greek-speaking Jew in Jerusalem might put together something like a “King Jonathan’s Version,” or KJV; some Greek-speaking Jew in Egypt might’ve cobbled together an “Egyptian Standard Version,” or ESV; some curious gentile in Laodicea might’ve put together a “New Laodicean Translation,” or NLT… I could come up with more hypothetical reasons for these familiar initials, but you get the gist. But over time, copyists smooshed all these different Greek bibles together into one sorta-kinda-the-standard copy, and we call it the Septuagint.

Why’s it called the Septuagint? Funny story. According to a Pharisee legend, told in the Letter of Aristeas, King Ptolemy Philadelphius of Egypt wanted a copy of the bible for his famous Library of Alexandria. So he asked Jerusalem for translators; they sent him either 70 or 72 scribes, who cleverly answered Ptolemy’s test questions and got the job. Each were given their own room, got to translating, and when done all their translations miraculously matched, word-for-word. Therefore this is an inspired, inerrant translation of the bible. (Oh, and septuaginta is Latin for 70. It’s why people tend to use the abbreviation LXX, the Roman 70, for the Septuagint.)

Yeah, it’s as bogus as the myth KJV-only adherents have for their favorite translation. Because if it really were an infallible version of the bible, the New Testament authors would’ve quoted it, and only it, for their scriptures. Instead some apostles quoted it. And others translated the Hebrew for themselves. Paul went back and forth. Seems sometimes he just didn’t care for the way the Septuagint put it, and decided to phrase the original Hebrew in his own way.

Dark Christianity.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 January

God is light. For this reason Christians ought not walk in the dark. 1Jn 1.5-10 People don’t bother to read this passage in context, and assume “light” and “dark” has to do with truth versus lies, or revelation versus mysteries. Nope; it has to do with obedience versus sin. Christians shouldn’t sin, and when we live in light, we oughta stay out of sin.

But more than that. We shouldn’t fixate on sin either. We shouldn’t obsess about what sinners are up to. We shouldn’t analyze the devil’s works in order to understand it better, Rv 2.24 on the pretense that knowledge is power. Our strength isn’t mean to come through our studies of devilish strategies: We’re to be strong through God’s power. Ep 6.10 Resist temptation. Lead others to the light.

However, there are loads of Christians who firmly believe a significant part of our duties—if not our only duty—is to study sin, fight it, and condemn it.

In preparation these folks spend an awful lot of time on the dark side of Christianity. They wanna instruct the church in Defence Against the Dark Arts classes, and be ever vigilant to battle He Who Shall Not Be Named. (Forgive all the Harry Potter references, but there are an awful lot of parallels. It’s like J.K. Rowling grew up Christian or something.) Namely these areas:

  • The fall of the angels, the fall of humanity, original sin, total depravity.
  • Sin, mortal sin, unforgiveable sin, spiritual death, spiritual suicide, apostasy, heresy, works of the flesh, temptation.
  • Satan and its fellow tempters: Unclean spirits, devils, demons, idols, antichrists.
  • Spiritual warfare, exorcisms, intercessory prayer, hedges, umbrellas of protection.
  • The End Times: Signs of the times, fulfillment of end-times prophecy, rapture readiness, tribulation, the Beast.
  • Theodicy, judgments, punishments, double predestination, hades, purgatory, hell, second death.

True, all Christian theologians deal with this stuff, ’cause it’s part of Christianity. It’s the stuff Jesus defeated and frees us from, so we now can have an abundant life in God’s kingdom.

But to certain dark Christians we’re not free of these things. Not at all. ’Cause there’s still evil in the world, isn’t there? We still have the gates of hell to knock down. Jesus’s mission may have been to destroy the devil’s works, 1Jn 3.8 but they don’t believe he’s yet accomplished it. They believe it’s now our mission. They don’t consider the fact our own depravity might get in the way of accurately identifying evil, or corrupt us into using devilish methods to fight it—that Jesus really does want us to have nothing to do with evil.

Because dark Christians figure our primary duty isn’t to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, but fight sin, people don’t see them as bringers of light, peace, hope, love, and good news. Just darkness. They make pagans flinch and fellow Christians facepalm. Our job of proclaiming good news becomes significantly harder, because now we gotta make up for the fruitless actions of these nimrods: Pagans think we’re all like that, or suspect any loving actions on our part have, at the back of them, hatred, fear, horror, and judgment.

Jesus of Nazareth, child prodigy.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 January

A reminder to his parents of whom they were raising.

Luke 2.41-52

Growing up, I’ve usually heard this story taught this way: Jesus, now that he’s old enough to go to temple, went there with the folks for Passover. Afterwards, he stuck around and got into an interesting chat with the rabbis, and lost utter track of time. Extending into days, if you can believe he never noticed the need to sleep, eat, pee, etc.

Meanwhile his unwitting parents got halfway back to Nazareth before finally noticing their son was absent. They turned back, finally found him talking shop in temple, and Mary rebuked him: “Your father and I were worried!” But Jesus came back with, “I was doing the work of my real Father.”

But, in order to maintain appearances—in order to look like an ordinary human boy, instead of exposing the fact he was secretly a God-boy—Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. Back to their confining, non-intellectual existence. Behaving himself, quietly waiting for another 18 years for his time to come.

Yeah, that interpretation’s got problems.

First let’s look at the actual story.

Luke 2.41-42 KWL
41 Jesus’s parents went to temple every year to the Passover festival.
42 When he was 12 years old they took him to the festival as customary.

As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary would’ve gone to temple three times a year, as the Law commanded. Ex 23.17, 34.23, Dt 16.16 It wasn’t an option; it’s what they did. It was katá to éthos/“by the custom,” or customary. They, and everyone in Nazareth who also followed the Law, would caravan to Jerusalem for Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkot. Probably stayed with family in Bethlehem, and went to Jerusalem during the day.

And of course Jesus went with them. Passover was a family thing. This wasn’t Jesus’s first Passover in Jerusalem. It was his 11th or 12th. (’Cause y’know, he missed that one when Herod Archelaus had gone nuts and killed a bunch of people.) The whole point of this feast, and every feast, was to celebrate what the LORD had done in the past, and pass the history down to your kids.

Deuteronomy 6.21-25 KWL
21 Tell your child, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,
and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
22 The LORD gave prophetic signs and miracles, mighty—and bad—
to Egypt, Pharaoh, and all his house, right before our eyes.
23 He brought us out of there, because he came to us
to give us the land he promised our ancestors.
24 The LORD ordered us to do these duties, to live like today,
to fear our LORD God, who’s good to us every day.
25 It’s only right of us that we keep doing this command
before our LORD God, like he charged us to.”

How Jesus became “Jesus the Nazarene.”

by K.W. Leslie, 17 January

Imagine calling him “Jesus the Bethlehemite.” Hmm. Well, we’d have got used to it.

Matthew 2.19-23.

As we know from Luke, both Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth, but had to go to Bethlehem for survey reasons, and Jesus was born while they were there. But Matthew never told that part of the story; only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Mt 2.1 If all you had was that gospel, you’d think that’s where they lived already. And maybe that’s what the author of Matthew believed.

’Cause what happened was after Joseph took the family to Egypt to escape Herod’s mad little bout of infanticide, God finally lets him know it’s safe to return… and in returning Joseph “came to settle in a city called Nazareth,” Mt 2.23 KWL which implies he hadn’t already settled in Nazareth, and just hadn’t been home in a while.

Well. Assuming, as most of us do, that Jesus was born around the year 7BC; that he was about two-ish when Herod came a-killing (round 5BC), and that the reason they needed to hightail it to Egypt was because Herod wasn’t gonna die for a while (which he did in late March 4BC), that’s roughly the time we’re talking about.

Matthew 2.19-22 KWL
19 On Herod’s passing, look: The Lord’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
20 saying, “Get up. Take the child and his mother.
Go to Israel’s land: Those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
21 Getting up, Joseph took the child and his mother and went to Israel’s land.
22 Hearing Archelaus Herod was made Judea’s king after his father Antipater Herod, Joseph feared to go there.
After negotiating in a dream, he went back to a part of the Galilee.

But as you can see, once Joseph got back to Israel, he realized Judea was in no way a safe place to raise Jesus. ’Cause the Herod family was still in charge, and the crazy side of the Herod family was still in power.

Does Jesus call himself Messiah?

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January

As I pointed out in my piece on Historical Jesus, a number of skeptics claim Jesus didn’t say and do everything we read in the gospels. Or anything. Once they’re done revising him, turns out Jesus did no miracles, wasn’t resurrected, taught nothing, wasn’t even born. He was entirely fabricated by overzealous apostles.

Hogwash, but popular hogwash. ’Cause if Jesus isn’t anything, they don’t have to follow him. And they really don’t wanna, so it’s quite fortuitous for them he turns out to not be anything. It’s almost as if they loaded the dice, innit?

Anyway. The reason I bring ’em up is because every so often, one of the Historical Jesus revisionists’ claims winds up worming its way into Christendom. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The revisionists do like to point out baby Jesus wasn’t really visited by magi while he was still in the manger, and it turns out they’re right; it was years later. Skeptics can be mighty useful when they poke holes in popular culture’s myths and help us get to the real Jesus. They have their uses.

But sometimes one of their false claims gets into Christians’ heads, and we gotta help correct our fellow Christians.

The most common one I bump into is this idea Jesus never called himself Messiah. He never did, skeptics insist; go check your bible. So Christians do—and lo and behold, Jesus never does use those precise words, “I’m Messiah.” Not in English, nor in Aramaic nor Greek. Didn’t say ’em. It’s always others who call him Messiah. And since he didn’t say it… maybe he wasn’t.

Okay, time to clear things up.

Getting drenched in the Holy Spirit.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 January

Spirit baptism is a controversial topic. ’Cause it involves power, and people either covet power, or fear it.

Luke 3.16-17 KWL
16 In reply John told everyone, “Indeed I baptize you in water.
And one stronger than me comes. I’m not able to loose his sandal strap.
He’ll baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.
17 The winnowing-shovel is in his hand to thoroughly clean his threshing-floor.
He’ll gather together the grain in his silo.
He’ll burn up the straw with endless fire.”

Getting baptized, ritually washed, in water was not a new idea for John the Baptist’s listeners. Any time they wanted to be clean for worship, they baptized themselves and waited till sundown. John’s baptism, for those who were repentant of their sins, was a little different. But Jesus’s baptism would be way different. It involved the Holy Spirit. And fire.

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his students to wait in Jerusalem for that baptism, Ac 1.4-5 and 10 days later this happened:

Acts 2.1-4 KWL
1 When the 50th day after Passover drew near, all were together in one place.
2 Suddenly a roar came from heaven, like a mighty wind sounds,
and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 Tongues, like fire, were seen distributed to them,
and sat on each one of them, 4 and all were filled with the Holy Spirit.
They began to speak in other tongues,
in whatever way the Spirit gave them the ability.

This, we recognize, is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire which both John and Jesus spoke of.

A number of Christians believe this was a one-time deal. The brand-new church, needing a kick in the pants from God to go out and do everything Jesus commanded them to, had God the Holy Spirit specially appear to them, prove he was among them, empower them, and from there they could go out and do the work of mighty Christians. Wouldn’t need to do it twice.

A larger number of Christians believe this so wasn’t a one-time deal. ’Cause it happened again. And again. And again and again and again. Happened to us. Still happens.

The magi and the monstrous king.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 January

Matthew 2.1-18.

Both Mešíakh/“Messiah” and Hrístos/“Christ” mean king.

It’s a fact most Christians forget. Either we translate these words literally and assume they only mean anointed, or we mix ’em up with the meaning of “Jesus” and figure they mean savior. We treat Christ like Jesus’s surname, and forget it’s his title.

And we forget you couldn’t just wander around ancient Israel and call yourself Messiah or Christ. There were other people who laid claim to that title. Powerful people. Homicidal people. Like Herod the Great, who was only “great” because of all his building projects; as a human being Herod was a monster. Emperor Augustus used to joke he’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son. Herod did execute two of his sons, and since Edomites didn’t eat pork, Augustus’s comment was quite apt.

How’d baby Jesus get on Herod’s bad side? Well, you might know parts of the story, and if you don’t I’m gonna analyze the story in some degree. It begins with some mágoi/“Zoroastrians.” Or as the KJV calls them, “wise men.” Contrary to the Christmas carols, these weren’t kings.

Matthew 2.1-3 KWL
1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea, in the days of King Herod,
look: Zoroastrians came to Jerusalem from the east.
2 The Zoroastrians were saying, “Where’s the newborn king of Judea?—
we saw his star in the east, and came to bow before him.”
3 Hearing this, King Herod was agitated, and all Judea with him.

Mágos is Greek for maguš, the old Persian term for Zoroastrian, a follower of the 11th century BC Avestan prophet Zarathustra (Greek Zoroaster). In English this became magus, plural magi.

Problem is, when people look up magi, they have to navigate through ancient Greek beliefs about Zoroastrians… and the Greeks didn’t know squat. Yeah, they had books about Zarathustra and his followers and what they believed and taught. But all of it was based on rumor and conjecture. Zo- in Greek means “life,” and astír means “star,” so they leapt to the conclusion Zoroastrians worshiped stars, and were Babylonian (not Persian) astrologers and magicians. Even the early Christian Fathers repeated these myths. Hence our own word magic comes from magi.

Like Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians are monotheists. They worship Ahura/“Supreme Being,” and he’s mazda/“wise.” They seek wisdom, so “wise men” isn’t a bad description for ’em. Ahura Mazda created the universe and truth. He’s opposed by the Angra Mainyu/“the destructive principle” which produces the chaos and lies in the universe. (Some folks assume this is another, equally powerful god to Ahura Mazda, but he’s not Ahura’s equal.) Ahura’s Spenta Mainyu/“generous principle,” sort of a holy spirit through whom he interacts with the universe, fights the Angra Mainyu. At the End, Ahura Mazda will send a savior, the Sayoshyant, born of a virgin; the dead will be resurrected, and Angra Mainyu will be destroyed.

Notice a few similarities between Zoroastrianism and Christianity? Some pretty significant differences too—so no, they’re not Christians who are just using Avestan words for everything. Still, the matching beliefs make a lot of scholars wonder just how much Zoroastrianism and Judaism interacted with one another—even influenced one another—when the Jews were exiled to Babylon in the sixth century BC. ’Cause both Nabú-kudúrri-usúr of Babylon (KJV “Nebuchadnezzar”) and Kuruš 2 of Persia (KJV “Cyrus”) had Zoroastrians among their wise men.