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29 December 2017

The wicked, deceitful human heart.

No, I don’t mean the blood-pumping organ in your chest.

HEART /hɑrt/ n. Hollow muscular organ which pumps blood through the circulatory system.
2. [in popular culture] Center of a person’s thoughts and emotions; one’s mood, feeling, enthusiasm, mood, or courage.
3. [in popular Christian culture] Center of a person’s lifeforce; one’s innermost being; the true self, particularly one’s true thoughts and feelings.
4. A conventional heart shape, as found on a deck of cards.
[Hearted /'hɑrt.ɛd/ adj.]
Jeremiah 17.9-10 KWL
9 “The heart is more twisted than everything.
It’s human. Who knows it?
10 I, the LORD, examine the heart and test the kidneys,
to give men according to their ways, the fruit of their deeds.”

The ancients didn’t know much about anatomy. So all the stuff we recognize are part of brain activity, the ancients believed were the function of other parts of the body. The heart, they imagined, did our thinking. The kidneys did the feeling.

Seriously. And why not? When we get excited, our hearts beat faster. When we’re sad or mournful, we feel it in the chest, and not so much the head. They saw a connection between mental activity and the heart. So they deduced it was the cardiac muscle behind our thoughts and feelings… not our thoughts and feelings behind our heart’s behavior. Yep, got it backwards.

What’d they imagine our brains did? Well, they didn’t. Seriously: The word “brain” isn’t in the bible. Y’might find it in various bible translations, but that’s because the translators know what the brain actually does, and decided to swap it for lev or kardía where appropriate. But in the scriptures, when we come across mental activity, the authors kept referring to one’s heart.

  • The thoughts Ge 6.5 or imagination Ge 8.21 of one’s heart: Of one’s mind, really.
  • Saying in one’s heart Ge 11.17, 24.45, Dt 9.4, 18.21 is saying to oneself, in one’s head, or at least privately.
  • One’s heart failed or fainted or was discouraged Ge 42.28, 45.26, Nu 32.7, Dt 1.28 means they lost their nerve.
  • One’s heart was hardened Ex 4.21, 7.13, Dt 2.30 means one’s mind is closed.
  • One’s heart was stirred Ex 35.21, 36.2 is what we’d call a brainstorm.

We still do this in our culture. When we remember, we “search our hearts.” When we rethink things, we “have a change of heart.” When we make up our minds, we “determine in our hearts.” And so forth.

Medical science didn’t realize the brain’s importance till Hippocrates in the fourth century BC, and Galen of Pergamon in our second century. For the longest time, more folks were familiar with Aristotle, who claimed the brain’s job is to cool down our blood. Considering all the bible’s talk about thinking and saying with our hearts, most people up until the Renaissance assumed the heart literally did as the bible describes.

But as I’ve said before, the bible’s not a science textbook. When its authors wrote about other subjects than God, they repeated what their culture had told them. They’d always been taught so, and God saw no reason to correct them: “No, guys, you think with your brains, not your hearts.” He had bigger fish to fry. He even used their terminology: He stated he thought in his heart. Ho 11.8 He was trying to relate to humanity, and it wasn’t the occasion for a biology lesson.

So if you’re worried about the scientific inaccuracy of the scriptures, don’t. Unlike young-earth creationists, we aren’t making anti-scientific claims about human biology based on our overly-literal interpretations of the scriptures. We’re simply reading the bible so we can understand God better. To a lesser degree, we’re also trying to understand the sin-damaged human mind better, and if the bible’s authors persisted in using “heart” to mean “mind”… well, let’s adapt.

28 December 2017

The Apostles Creed.

Orthodox Christianity, in a smaller nutshell.

My translation from the Latin—and as far as I can tell, the Latin’s the original.

I believe in God,
the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our master.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born from the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the afterlife.
The third day, he was resurrected from the dead.
He ascended to heaven; he sits at the almighty Father’s right hand.
From there he will come; he is judging the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church, communion of saints, forgiveness of sins,
bodily resurrection, and eternal life. Amen.

Whenever I bring up the Apostles Creed to Christians, I tend to get one of two reactions: Positive and negative.

I tend to get the positive response from Christians who grew up in formal, liturgical churches. Most of ’em can recite the creed right along with me… though the version I memorized is the Book of Common Prayer version, and most of ’em tend to know one of the Roman Missal versions. Minor wording differences.

If they didn’t grow up in such churches, or their churches never taught it to ’em, they might still know it. ’Cause they learned it as lyrics from a Rich Mullins song. Or someone else’s cover of that song. Or John Michael Talbot’s song, though that’s lesser-known.


Third Day and Brandon Heath perform Rich Mullins’ “Creed.” YouTube

27 December 2017

The odds of Jesus fulfilling prophecy.

They sound impressive… till you realize we’re applying the entirely wrong discipline to prophecy.

Round Christmastime you’ll hear all sorts of sermons about Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. I certainly have. Hear ’em every Christmas. Frequently more than one, ’cause I regularly go to live nativities ’n crap like that, where Christians are gonna preach about Jesus’s birth yet again, just in case anyone there doesn’t already know the story. (Nevermind the fact live nativities keep getting elements of the story wrong, like magi at the stable.)

The sermons are usually from the Luke point of view, which has his actual birth in it. But occasionally preachers will bring up Matthew’s story about the magi, because it makes reference to the prophecy Messiah’s to be born in Bethlehem:

Micah 5.2 KWL
You! Bethléhem-Efratá! Smallest of Judah’s thousands! Israel’s ruler comes from you, for my sake.
They bring him forth—he who’s from the beginning, from days beyond counting.

A previous Messiah, David ben Jesse, came from Bethlehem, 1Sa 17.12 and the great once-and-for-all Messiah, his descendant, was also expected to come from there.

And certain Christians love to bring up this prophecy. Because it reminds us this was all part of God’s plan to save the world, y’know. Jesus wasn’t an unplanned pregnancy, despite the clever-sounding prolife memes going round the internet. His birth had been in the works since the very beginning.

Certain other Christians love to bring up the prophecy, because Christian apologists love to point out the significance of Messianic prophecies in general. According to them, they’ve done the math: The chances of Jesus fulfilling every single prophecy about Messiah in the Old Testament comes out to a vast, astronomical number. Then they pitch some number with an unfathomable number of zeroes after it. One popular stat, based on Jesus fulfilling only eight prophecies, comes out to one in a sextillion. That’s 1021, meaning 21 zeroes in the number. A billion trillion.

Sounds impressive, but the problem is their math is based on a faulty premise: When you’re calculating odds, you’re talking about chance. And when we’re talking about God’s will, ain’t no chance involved.

These’d be the odds if Jesus had coincidentally fulfilled prophecy. In other words, if he’d absolutely no clue certain things had been said about the future Messiah, and stumbled into actions which just happened to coincide with every ancient prediction.

Thing is, Jesus not only knew about these predictions, he knowingly, intentionally, deliberately fulfilled them. As the gospels state.

26 December 2017

St. Stephen, and true martyrdom.

The second day of Christmas honors the first martyr.

St. Stephen’s Day falls on 26 December, the second day of Christmas. Not that we know Stephen died on this day; it’s just where western tradition happened to put it. In eastern churches it’s tomorrow, 27 December. (And if they’re still using the old Julian calendar, it’s 9 January to us.) In some countries it’s an official holiday.

You may remember Stéfanos/“Stephen” from Acts 6-7. Yep, he’s that St. Stephen.

In the ancient Hebrew culture, tithes weren’t money, but food. Every year you were to take 10 percent of your firstfruits and celebrate with it; Dt 14.22-27 every third year you were to give it to the needy. Dt 14.28-29 Apparently the church took on the duty of distributing tithes to the needy, but they were accused of favoring Aramaic-speaking Christians over Greek-speaking ones. Ac 6.1 So the Twelve had the church elect seven Greek-speakers to take over the job. Ac 6.2-3 Stephen was first in the list, and Luke, the author of Acts, pointedly called him full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Ac 6.5 full of God’s grace and power. Ac 6.8 In other words, a standout.

At this point in history, the church still only consisted of Jews. Christianity was still considered a Jewish religion—with the obvious difference that Christians believed Jesus is Messiah, and their fellow Jews believed Messiah hadn’t yet come. Otherwise Christians still went to temple and synagogue. And it was in synagogue where Stephen got into trouble: The people of his synagogue dragged him before the Judean Senate, accusing him of slandering Moses, the temple, and God. Custom made slandering Moses and the temple serious, but slandering God could get you the death penalty. So Stephen was brought before the Senate to defend himself.

Unlike Jesus, who totally admitted he’s Messiah, Stephen defended himself. His defense was a bible lesson: He retold the history of Israel, up to the construction of the temple. Ac 7.2-47 Then he pointed out God doesn’t live in a building, of all things. Ac 7.48-50 And by the way: They’re a bunch of Law-breakers who killed Christ. Ac 7.51-53

More than one person has pointed out it’s almost like Stephen was trying to get himself killed. Me, I figure he was young and overzealous and naïve, and had adopted the American myth—centuries before we Americans had adopted it—that if you’re on God’s side, no harm can ever befall you. That you can bad-mouth your foes, and God’s hedge of protection will defend you when they turn round and punch you in the head. That you can leap from tall buildings, and the angels will catch you. You know, like Satan tried to tempt Jesus with. Mt 4.5-7

Well, that’s not at all how things turned out.

25 December 2017

Twelve days of Christmas.

How we do Christmas… and how we oughta do Christmas.

Today’s the first day of Christmas. Happy Christmas!

Sunday the 31th will be the seventh day of Christmas, and at church I expect to still wish people a happy Christmas… and I also expect them to look at me funny, till I remind them, “Christmas is 12 days, y’know. Like the song.” Ah, the song.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Two turtledoves
And a partridge in a pear tree.
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Three french hens
Two turtledoves
And a partridge in a pear tree.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Four calling birds
Three french hens
Two turtledoves
And a partridge in a pear tree.

Thus far into the song, that’s 20 birds. There will be plenty more, what with the swans a-swimming and geese a-laying. Dude was weird for birds. But I digress.

There are 12 days of Christmas, but in our culture we celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and we’re done. Two days of Christmas. And some of us cannot abide any more than that. When I remind people there are 12 days of Christmas, their look is not that of surprise, recognition, or pleasure. It’s tightly controlled rage. Who the [expletive noun] added 11 more days to this [expletive adjective] holiday? They want it done already.

I understand that. Whenever the focus gets off Christ, and gets onto all the traditions we’re forced to practice this time of year, Christmas sucks. You know the routine: Irritating customs, fake sentimentality, forced interaction with awful people, reciprocal gift-giving, bad music, bad pageantry, tasteless ornaments, and of course the new political custom of being a dick to people who only wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of the mandatory “Merry Christmas.” I don’t blame people for hating that stuff. Really, Christians should hate it. It’s works of the flesh, y’know.

Christmas, the feast of Christ Jesus’s nativity (from whence we get foreign names for Christmas like Navidad and Noël and Natale) begins 25 December and ends 5 January. What are we to do those other 11 days?

22 December 2017

Set your hearts for Jesus’s return.

Before Jesus returns, there’s a whole lot of lawbreaking.

Different scholars have different ways they wanna interpret the Greek word parusía/“[second] coming.” Most of the time “appearance” or “coming” or “return.” When used to describe what Jesus is up to, it has more of a sense of “arrival,” or even “invasion.” Certain gutless commentators leave it untranslated, and just refer to Jesus’s parousia, as if it’s too difficult a concept to convert into English. Rubbish: The popular idea of “second coming” works just fine to describe it, 1Th 3.13 so that’s how I translate it.

Today I wanna point to Jesus’s brother James, and how he referred to it:

James 5.7-8 KWL
7 So be patient, fellow Christians, till the Master’s second coming.
Look, the farmer awaits the land’s precious fruit,
patient about it till they can get early- and late-season rain.
8 Be patient yourselves as well. Strengthen your minds:
The Master’s second coming has come near.

So. Ever since Jesus’s rapture, Christians have expected him to return at any time. True, he’s taking a mighty long time, but as I regularly point out, he’s trying to save everyone he can, and may put it off a great deal longer. Regardless, he’s one day coming for you individually. And me. And everyone else on the planet. Everybody dies, and we don’t always know when. So be ready.

James used the analogy of a farmer who looked forward to his crops. And yeah, at the time James wrote this, a few things had to happen before Jesus returned. In the analogy, the farmer had to wait through early- and late-season rains. Most Christians accept the idea the “early-season rain” has already happened in some form. Not all of us are agreed the “late-season rain” has happened yet. I figure they have; others insist it’s part of a future End Times timeline.

But either way, Jesus is taking his time about returning. And either way, we need to be patient. Which is a serious struggle for those Christians who want him to return today, and wrest our governments away from the fools and opportunists who currently have the reins. Much easier to have Jesus fix everything, than clean up our own messes. (And some of us are hoping Jesus does so with a whole lot of bloodshed; and yes, that’s seriously f---ed up of them. They need to get saved.) The End takes place on Jesus’s timetable, and not our timelines. If we gotta wait, we gotta wait. Still, let’s be ready.

18 December 2017

Apostasy before the second coming.

Before Jesus returns, there’s a whole lot of lawbreaking.

Before Jesus returns, bad stuff was predicted to happen. Both by Jesus, who described some of the events 40 years hence when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem; and here by Paul, Silas, and Timothy when they reminded the people of Thessaloniki that there’d first be a time of apostasy.

2 Thessalonians 2.1-12 KWL
1 We should ask you, fellow Christians, about the second coming of our Master, Christ Jesus,
and how we’ll be gathered together with him.
2 It’s so your minds won’t be shaken up, nor go into a panic,
whenever some spirit, message, or letter (like those from us) claims the Lord’s Day has come.
3 Don’t let anyone trick you in any way: Nothing happens till the apostasy comes first,
till the lawbreaking person, the child of destruction, is revealed—
4 the antagonist, the one exalting himself over everything called “god” and “worshipful,”
so much so he sits in God’s temple and claims he’s a god himself.
5 Don’t you remember the things I told you when I was still with you?
6 Now, you know who holds him back so he can be revealed in his own time:
7 The secret of the lawbreaker is already working—
but only till the one holding him back can come out of the way.
8 Then the lawbreaker will be revealed—whom Master Jesus will take out with his mouth’s breath.
He’ll abolish the lawbreaker at the manifestation of his second coming:
9 This is the coming against Satan’s works in every power, “miracle,” and fake wonder;
10 in every unrighteous trick towards those destroying themselves.
For fake miracles don’t accept the love of truth in their salvation.
11 Through it, God sends them off with their belief in fakes, in powerful error.
12 Thus everyone can be judged who didn’t trust truth, but were pleased with wrongness.

Popular Christian culture tends to call this “lawbreaking person” the Antichrist (with a capital A, as opposed to any old antichrist who just doesn’t like Christ or Christianity), and figure he’s the same as the beast of Revelation 13. There are also a bunch of wacky myths about how evil he’ll be and what he’ll do, but I won’t go into them today. Suffice to say he’s basically Bizarro Jesus: Like Bizarro Superman, who’s like Superman on Opposite Day, Antichrist supposedly does everything Christ does, but for evil and twisted reasons.

But Christians are actually disagreed as to whether such an Antichrist still needs to show up first. After all, it’s been 20 centuries since the apostles wrote to the Thessalonians, and many antichrists, many lawbreakers, have come and gone… and fulfilled this prediction many, many times already. And if this is the case, nothing more needs to happen before Jesus returns.

Still, some Christians really have their hearts set on this Bizarro Jesus version of the beast, and are anxiously awaiting him far more than they’re hopefully awaiting Jesus.

15 December 2017

No, seriously: When’s Jesus returning? He’s taking forever!

Because even in the first century, people grew tired of waiting.

2 Peter 3.1-9

I’ve been writing about the scriptures on Jesus’s second advent, or second coming. And of course I had to point out we don’t know when that’ll be. The events which were meant to come before his return, happened. There’s nothing left to hinder it—so it can happen at any time.

This being the case, people want that day to be today. Right now. ’Cause they’re suffering, or ’cause current events are awful, or ’cause they’re in a hurry to live under Jesus’s direct rule. Either way, come Lord Jesus! But he hasn’t yet.

And sometimes people give up hope of him ever returning. Which was the mindset Simon Peter had to deal with in his second letter.

2 Peter 3.1-4 KWL
1 Now this, beloved: I wrote you a second letter in which I awaken you to a purely-thought reminder—
2 to remember the words the holy prophets and your apostles foretold,
commands of our Master and Savior.
3 Know this first: In the last days, mockers will come to mock,
following however their own desires are going, 4 saying,
“How’s the promise of his second coming meant to work?—since the church fathers died over it,
same as everyone continues to die from the beginning of creation.”

See, the expectation of the first Christians was—same as now—that Jesus could return at any time. During their lifetimes, they expected. They hoped. They waited. If anyone’d told them Jesus still wouldn’t return for more than 20 centuries, I doubt they’d believe it. (Of course, if you spoke to them now, from their vantage point in paradise I’m pretty sure they have a better idea of what Jesus is up to.)

But you know how impatient humans can get. Even in the first century, they were taking crap from those naysayers who were wondering just how much time Jesus needed to put together his heavenly invasion. After all, the first generation of Christians were dying off. And didn’t Jesus say they’d live to see his return? Mk 13.30, Mt 24.34, Lk 21.32 (Not really. But you know how people will take any hint and just go nuts with it. Jn 21.22-23)

So part of the reason Simon wrote 2 Peter was to remind his readers of their original conviction. 2Pe 3.1 Either you trust what the prophets and apostles taught you, or you don’t. And they did warn us about naysayers, who follow their own urges instead of God’s messengers, 2Pe 3.3 who spin the second coming till it suits them better. Sometimes by imagining Jesus never will come; that instead we all die and go to him. Sometimes by creating intricate seven-year tribulational scenarios. However they work.

14 December 2017

“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Of course we have some iffy ideas about what “waiting on the Lord” entails.

Isaiah 40.31

Whenever I visit fellow Christians at their homes, a large number of ’em have a painting or sculpture of an eagle somewhere. Often it’s an American bald eagle, meant to express their patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores before it went bankrupt and shut down. Patriotic or not, if it was produced by Christians, it’s gonna be captioned with the following Isaiah verse:

Isaiah 40.31 KJV
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

The sentiment which really appeals to Christians, whether it’s blended with patriotism or not, is the idea the LORD, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even though the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 God can indefinitely renew our strength. Is 40.31

Well, if we trust in the LORD. Hopefully we do.

So it’s meant as encouragement for those of us whose batteries run low, thanks to working hard, playing hard, and otherwise doing a crappy job of resting. When we’re exhausted, God can recharge us. When our resources are taxed, God can replenish ’em. Many’s the time I’ve told my students, “I ran out of patience with you a long time ago; I’m tapping God’s patience now.” Tapping God’s dyamis power,” his dynamo of endless cosmic supply, is possible for every Christian.

Right? Well… now we get to the bit where Christians take this verse out of context.

13 December 2017

The prayer of Nehemiah.

And the need to seek God’s will in our prayer requests.

Back in the ’00s, the prayer of Jabez got a bit of attention with a popular book. Which was quickly followed up by other writers, covetous of The Prayer of Jabez’s success, whose books probably didn’t sell as well for that reason: Books on the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Prayer and other tricks to successful prayer.

The only real trick is remembering God can’t be reduced to formulas, and that he has every right to say no. These books don’t necessarily teach this fact. Instead, the idea is if we pray like Jabez, God’ll expand our territory. Pray the Jesus Prayer and receive peace. Pray the St. Christopher prayer and kids get protection; pray the St. Jude prayer and get a yes to your hopeless cause; pray the rosary and get special protection; do X and now God owes us Y.

Doesn’t work like that. And to help that idea sink in a little, I remind you of the Prayer of Nehemiah, offered by Nekhémya bar Khakálya right after he heard what a mess Jerusalem still was.

Nehemiah 1.5-11 KWL
5 I said, “Please LORD, God of heaven, great God,
scary covenant-keeper, lover of those who love you and keep your commands:
6 May your ear now be attentive, your eyes open, to hear your slave’s prayer,
which I pray to your face daily and nightly over Israel’s descendants, your slaves:
I confess the sins Israel’s descendants sinned against you. I and my father’s house sinned.
7 We hurt, hurt you, and didn’t keep the commands, decrees, and rulings you sent your slave Moses.
8 Now remember the word you sent your slave Moses, saying,
When you trespass, I’ll scatter you among the nations.
9 Return to me, keep my commands, do them, and if you’re exiled to the heavens’ edge,
I’ll gather you from there, and return you to the place I chose where my name dwells.’
10 They’re your slaves, your people whom you rescued with your great strength and strong hand.
11 Please Master, have a listening ear for your slave’s prayer,
for your slaves’ prayer—we who wish to respect your name.
Please grant your slave success today. Give me compassion before this man’s face”
for I was the Persian king’s butler.

And though Nehemiah didn’t neatly sum it up as did the author of Chronicles, 1Co 4.10 God went along with his request, and Nehemiah himself got to go to Jerusalem and fix its problems.

12 December 2017

Why skipping church messes us up.

Treating it as an optional practice blinds us to the fact we’re going heretic.

Whenever I share Jesus with people, most of the time I discover they’re Christian. Or at least they imagine they’re Christian.

In the United States, most folks have had some exposure to Christianity. Some of us grew up churchgoers. Others said some version of a sinner’s prayer at one point in our lives. Others had Christian parents, or were baptized, or attend Easter and Christmas services and figure that’ll do ’em. They figure they believe in Jesus, and that’s all it takes to make ’em Christian. Confess, believe, and we’re saved. Ro 10.9 Right?

So by this metric, they figure they’re Christian. They believe in Jesus. Following him is a whole other deal. They’re not religious. They’re “spiritual,” as they define spiritual, which usually means imaginary—’cause like I said, they imagine they’re Christian. Their Christianity exists in their heads. You’d be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere in their lives, but it’s in their heads at least—and somebody’s assured them it counts if it only exists in their head. Or “in their heart,” i.e. their feelings, i.e. still only in their heads.

So to them, Christianity’s how they feel about God. Not what they do for him. They don’t do for him. Well sometimes they do; they’ll pray every so often, and it won’t entirely be prayer requests, but some actual sucking up praise. They’ll drop a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle.

As for going to church… well they don’t go. Just on the holidays. Rest of the year, don’t go. ’Cause Sundays are their time. Their one day off; the one day of the week they get to sleep in, or have no obligations, or can get drunk during brunch. “Sunday funday,” their weekly holiday.

’Cause nobody’s ever explained to them that if “Christians” don’t go to church, it means they’re heretic.

No, seriously: Heretic. No, not meaning they’re going to hell; that’s not what “heretic” means. It means they got God so wrong, it can be argued they’re not properly Christian. See, contrary to what they imagine, there are actual standards for what makes a person Christian or not—they’re called orthodoxy—and among those things is that we deliberately interact with fellow Christians in worship. It’s called “the communion of saints,” or the church. It’s in our creeds.

If we avoid this communion of saints—and it might sound like we have perfectly legitimate reasons—the cold hard fact is we’re heretic. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to go it alone. He ordered us to love one another. He made it a full-on command. It identifies us as his followers. Jn 13.34-35 And when we don’t follow it—when we figure we can love one another just fine without ever bothering to come together to formally worship Jesus—we’re not following Jesus either. We can call ourselves Christians, but does Jesus recognize us as such? I’d say he doesn’t. Lk 6.46 And if he doesn’t identify us as his, Mt 7.21-23 we’re not.

Hey, somebody had to warn you. Better you hear this now than when you stand before Jesus.

11 December 2017

When Jesus got raptured.

He doesn’t say. Not that this stops us from guessing.

On 15 May, in the year 33 (if we take Luke’s count of 40 days Ac 1.3 literally, and not as an estimate) this happened.

Acts 1.6-11 KWL
6 So when they came together, the apostles questioned Jesus:
“Master, is it at this time you’re restoring the Kingdom of Israel?”
7 Jesus told them, “It’s not for you to know times or timing.
That, the Father sets by his own free will.
8 But you’ll all get power: The Holy Spirit is coming upon you.
You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the world.”
9 Saying this as they watched him, Jesus was raptured.
A cloud concealed him from their eyes.
10 While they were watching him go up into the sky,
look!—two men in white clothing stood by them.
11 The men said, “Galileans, why’d you stand looking at the sky?
This Jesus, raptured from you into the sky like this,
will come back like you saw him go into the sky.”

Christians call this Jesus’s ascension, and celebrate it on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter (and 10 days before Pentecost Sunday). ’Cause it’s when Jesus went up, ascended, into heaven, to stand in service or sit in judgment, at the Father’s right. Ac 2.33, 7.55-56

But the reason I bring up Jesus’s ascension today isn’t to remind you he’s in a position of authority and intercession. It’s the bit the two men said after the students realized they weren’t alone in watching Jesus rise up into the sky. Yes, Jesus went up. But at some point he’s coming back down.

08 December 2017

When is Jesus returning?

He doesn’t say. Not that this stops us from guessing.

Jesus is returning. But when?

That’s the question every Christian asks, whether it’s in the front of the back of our minds. When’s Jesus coming back? Sooner rather than later, we hope—though considering the past 20 centuries, he’s taking an awfully long time to get round to it.

What did Jesus himself have to say about it? Well, this. You’re not gonna like it.

Mark 13.32-37 KWL
32 Nobody’s known about that day or the hour.
Neither the heavenly angels, nor the Son. Just the Father.
33 Look. Stay awake. You don’t know when it’s time.
34 It’s like a person abroad, who left his home.
He empowered his employees to do their jobs—and he ordered the doorman so he’d stay awake.
35 So stay awake! You don’t know when the master of the house returns.
Evening? Midnight? Sunrise? Morning? 36 When he suddenly arrives, don’t let him find you asleep.
37 What I tell you, I tell everyone: Stay awake!”

In short: “I dunno. And even if I knew, I’m not telling. You just need to be continually ready for it. On your toes. No slacking. Alert. Stay awake!”

Well, some of us can handle that command. Others really can’t. It’s why they’re running round like Chicken Little: “The sky’s falling! The End is near!” Everything they see in the news—contrary to Jesus’s instructions that these sorts of things will happen, but it doesn’t make it the End yet Mk 13.7-8 —is nonetheless treated as if it fulfills End Times prophecy. “Prophecy scholars” have us all wound up fearing all sorts of boogeymen which, no fooling, aren’t even in the bible. Aren’t even hinted about in the bible—they have way more to do with the prophecy scholars’ loopy politics than scripture. It’s all dark Christianity and irrational panic. Stuff that’s far more devilish than godly.

On the other extreme, there are the Christians who are pretty sure Jesus is never coming back. ’Cause it’s been 1,984 years since he ascended to heaven, and assuming a conservative 30 years per generation, that’s 66 generations ago. (And don’t go reading anything into that number, wouldya? Yeesh.) Since Jesus doesn’t appear to be in any rush to return, patiently waiting for as many to be saved as possible, 2Pe 3.9 he might take another 66 generations to finish the job. If ever.

Yeah, I don’t think it’s wise to adopt either extreme. Jesus fully intends to come back. If he’s not returning for the world for another generation or two, bear in mind he’s totally coming for you personally. You’re gonna die someday. So will I. So will everyone. We don’t know when that will be. “Stay awake” is as good advice for our personal day of reckoning, as it is for the world’s.

07 December 2017

Liturgy: A formula for worship.

Some Christians do better in a church with more structure.

LITURGY /'lɪd.ər.dʒi/ n. Detailed order of service for (Christian) worship.
2. [capitalized] The eucharistic service in an Orthodox church.
[Liturgical /lə'tər.dʒə.kəl/ adj., liturgist /'lɪd.ər.dʒəst/ n.]

Some churches—namely the older ones—are liturgical: They have a very particular order of service, and all the churches do it the same way. Go to nearly any Catholic church anywhere on the planet, and you’ll instantly find it familiar, because all of them use the very same prayer book, the Roman Missal. True, it’s been translated into all the local languages, but whether the service is in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, or Italian, it’ll be the very same order. Same bible readings. Same prayers. Same songs. Same everything. Everywhere.

Some Christians are bothered by this level of conformity. They don’t get it: The point isn’t conformity, but unity. All these Christians are worshiping God together, as one massive body of Christ, and that’s why they’re all saying the same things and praying the same prayers. When you’re off by yourself, having left the worship service, you’re entirely free to worship God as an individual: Sing what you like, pray what you pray, on your own. But once you’re together, you really are together. You, and every other Catholic on the planet. (Or every other Orthodox, or every other Anglican, or every other Lutheran.) It’s a powerful idea.

And it’s a comforting idea. For some Christians, churches which don’t do this are way too undisciplined.

Sure, the nonliturgical churches have a bit of a liturgy: Nearly every church follows an order of service of some kind, whether they print it in their bulletins or not. At my church, it’s three songs, announcements, offering, greeting one another, sermon, altar call, dismissal. But y’know, another church in my denomination might follow a whole other order. And sing different songs. Certainly pray different prayers. One congregation worships together, but not together on the level of a church where every congregation syncs up like Catholics.

But liturgical Christians feel there’s a little too much freedom in such churches. The music may not be theological enough for them. The extemporaneous prayers don’t do as good a job as rote prayers in teaching Christians how to pray. The preacher’s freedom to discuss any bible passage, means there’s a whole lot of bible which is never touched. (Fr’instance, when’s the last time you heard a message about one of the minor prophets?—and quoting one of their Messanic prophecies doesn’t count.)

Hence liturgical Christians prefer liturgical churches. There, they feel they’re particularly worshiping God together—with other Christians round the world, with other Christians throughout history, and growing with them rather than growing on our own.

06 December 2017

The Son of Man’s returning. And everyone will see it.

It’s gonna be really obvious he’s come back.

When Jesus returns, it’s not gonna be a secret second coming. It’s not gonna be an event which only takes place metaphorically, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim; where they believe God’s kingdom began in 1914 but Jesus isn’t coming to earth till the final battle.

It’s not gonna be a secret gnostic event, which only the chosen few know about. It’s not gonna be a secret rapture, where the Christians vanish and go to be with Jesus, and the rest of the planet has to wait seven years. It’s not secret. It’s nice and visible and obvious. As Jesus himself describes.

Matthew 24.23-28 KWL
23 “Then when anyone might tell you, ‘Look! Here’s Messiah!’ or ‘He’s here!’ don’t believe it:
24 Fake messiahs and fake prophets will arise, and will give great signs and wonders to deceive you.
If possible, to deceive God’s chosen people too.
25 Look, I’m forewarning you 26 so when people tell you, ‘Look, he’s in the wilderness!’ you don’t go out;
‘Look, he’s in the inner room!’ you don’t believe it.
27 For just as lightning comes from the east and appears in the west,
so will be the Son of Man’s second coming.
28 Wherever a corpse may be, there one will find eagles.”

That last line tends to confuse people—“Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather” is how the NIV puts it. Certain dark Christians like to claim it implies judgment—that when Jesus returns, he’ll kill all the sinners, and carrion birds will feast on their flesh. Rv 19.8 ’Cause they take Revelation literally, but that’s not how to appropriately interpret it.

It’s not a judgment. It’s an epigram. “Where there’s a corpse, there’s eagles” is like saying, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” or “If it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” If it obviously looks like Jesus has returned, that’s what happened. But if there’s anything iffy, or secretive, or “spiritual” about it—if it looks like nothing, but only “the chosen few” know about it—it’s a con. It is nothing.

When you read the Left Behind novels, or watch any of the movies where all the world’s Christians mysteriously vanish, you notice there are always pagans who argue, “We don’t know what that was,” and deny the disappearances had anything to do with Jesus. After all, Jesus didn’t appear! And if all the Christians in a given town vanish overnight, shouldn’t you suspect foul play? Doesn’t this secret-rapture idea make it disturbingly easy for anti-Christians to wipe us out and blame it on Jesus?

Thing is, it’s not at all how the scriptures describe the actual second coming of the Son of Man. Not Jesus, nor his apostles. It’ll be so obvious, everyone will see it, and know precisely what’s happening. Whether they believe their own eyes or not.

05 December 2017

Humility, and the “cage-stage” Christian.

When we’re willing to toss fruit aside, and fight for our beliefs.

The first principle of theology is humility—knowing who and what you are, and not claiming you’re anything more. Or, as we so often see in false humility, less.

That means we’re fully aware we’re wrong, and Jesus is right. The purpose of theology isn’t to believe we’ve “arrived,” and defend our newly-acquired high ground. It’s to correct our beliefs, poor character, and bad attitudes. Because they’re misbegotten and wayward. We may be redeemed, but they’re not. Bearing this in mind, with the Holy Spirit’s help and power, the goal is to get those traits to match Jesus’s.

The problem? A lot of Christians have utterly skipped that first theology lesson. Or weren’t paying attention, ’cause they were too busy staring at the syllabus. Or promptly forgot all about it, ’cause all their new knowledge puffed ’em up. However it happened.

Hence they imagine theology’s first principle is, “I was wrong—but now I’m not. Jesus fixed me.” When he gave us new life, supposedly he gave us a new nature—his nature—so now we have the mind of Christ. 1Co 2.16 We think like Jesus does… or he thinks like we do; it’s all the same. We have arrived.


As Calvinist cartoonist Adam Ford depicts it. They don’t always foam at the mouth though. Adam 4d

I run into Christians with this mindset all the time. They’d be the folks who email me to explain, patiently or not, why I’m completely wrong. Or who show up on discussion boards to loudly, angrily correct everybody who varies ever so slightly with their infallible doctrines. Back when they were pagan, they’d get this way about plenty of other subjects, like politics and Star Wars. Now they do it with doctrine. Or apologetics.

There’s a term the Calvinists use when their young, overzealous theologians get like this—when they’re so enthusiastic about “the doctrines of grace,” they forget to be gracious altogether. Calvinists call it “the cage stage.”

The cage-stager is as eager to defend their theological territory as a junkyard dog. They’ll fight anyone. Even friends: You might believe precisely the same as they, but if (God forbid) you misstate the slightest idea, the cage-stager will tear your throat out. Best to lock ’em in a cage till they calm the heck down. Hence “cage stage”: Lots of knowledge, very little love.

Calvinists may have coined the term, and may be notorious for the behavior. But lemme tell ya, by no means do they have a monopoly on it. I’ve met cage-stage Fundamentalists, Catholics, people in my own denomination, people in heretic denominations. I’ve encountered cage-stage Jews and Muslims too. The phenomenon’s all over Christendom.

It’s a pitfall many Christians (myself included) fall right into during our early days of following Jesus. The devil’d love every Christian to fall into it, ’cause it nullifies much of the work we do for God’s kingdom. We’re too busy denouncing ideas, sins, and people we hate, to ever get round to loving people, and winning them to Jesus through our kindness and love. ’Cause screw kindness and love; there are doctrines to defend!

04 December 2017

Jesus describes his second coming.

The first hint we get that he’s bodily coming to earth more than once.

The first hint we have that Jesus is arranging a second coming—that he’s not taking possession of his kingdom during his first coming—appears in the Olivet Discourse, the bit in Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21, where Jesus answered his students’ question about a future disaster he’d just casually referred to. Mk 13.1-2, Mt 24.1-2, Lk 21.5-6

In each gospel’s version of the discourse, Jesus brought up the persecution of his followers, a particular time of great suffering which’d take place in Jerusalem, and fake Messiahs and prophets who’d try to lead them astray. But afterwards, this:

Mark 13.24-27 KWL
24 “But in those days after that suffering:
‘The sun will be darkened and the moon won’t give its light.’ Ek 32.7
25 The stars will be falling from the skies; the heavenly powers will be shaken.
26 Then people will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ Da 7.13 with great power and glory.
27 Then he’ll send angels, and gather together his chosen ones from the four winds,
from the earth’s edge to heaven’s edge.”

Where’s Jesus during this suffering and persecution? Apparently not here. Which meant he was gonna leave. Which is not what his students were expecting. Even though he repeatedly told ’em they were going to Jerusalem where he’d be killed, Mk 8.31-32, 9.31, 10.33 they expected they were going to Jerusalem for him to conquer it. Even after he was raised, they expected him to take it over at that time! Ac 1.6 Fond beliefs are awfully hard to give up.

I don’t blame ’em for wanting Jesus to take over Jerusalem immediately. I want him to do that too. But first things first. First the period of suffering, like the bit where Jerusalem fell to the Romans, who performed horrible atrocities on its inhabitants in the year 70. Then the persecution of Jesus’s followers, which—despite large breaks, and powerful sanctuary nations like the United States—continue to this very day, in the millions, far more than there have ever been. And of course fake Messiahs and prophets, which we have in the States as well, ’cause comfortable Christians are way easier to lead astray than those who depend on God minute by minute.

The conditions are right for Jesus to return at any instant. The sooner the better. Come Lord Jesus!

01 December 2017

The TXAB Advent Calendar.

When the Christmas season well and truly begins.

The word advent comes from the Latin advenire/“come to [someplace].” Who’s coming to someplace? Jesus. Coming to earth. Either the first time around, around the year 7 BC, which is what we celebrate with Christmas; or the second time around, in the future, to take possession of his kingdom.

Four Sundays before Christmas is Advent Sunday, the start of the advent season, the Christmas season, and the Christian year. And if you’re counting down from today, the text below will update automatically through the power of Javascript. Here are the number of days till (or of) Christmas:

Javascript isn’t working this Christmas!

Many Evangelicals only know about advent from commercial advent calendars, which count down to Christmas from 1 December instead of the ever-changing date of Advent Sunday. Each “day” on these calendars usually contain a surprise; preferably chocolate. And manufacturers don’t want to keep changing the product every single year. So you’re kinda stuck with 25 chocolates, even though some years you oughta get as many as 28. But that’s what happens when Mammonists get to decide when the Christmas season begins.

Of course, commercializing the tradition is an irritating way to remember it, ’cause the point of advent is to be the antidote to rampant materialism. We’re to focus on Jesus. Not social custom. Not gift-giving. Not all the stuff we’re expected to do every single year. Jesus. We claim he’s the reason for the season; now it’s time to take that saying seriously, instead of using it as an excuse to browbeat clerks into telling us “Merry Christmas” like we prefer.

Part of getting ready for Jesus’s second advent is to stop being this sort of argumentative, frenzied, self-focused consumers, and start behaving like he’s coming back. ’Cause he is. Maybe not for the whole world just yet; he’s still trying to save everybody. But at some point you’re gonna die. (As will I. As will everyone.) So he’s coming for you personally. Are you ready?

Luke 12.35-48 KWL
35 “Be people whose toolbelts are on, whose lamps are burning.
36 You should be like people waiting for their own master when he returns from weddings:
He arrives, knocks, and they can quickly unlock the door for him.
37 These slaves are awesome. The returning master will find them alert.
Amen, I promise you the master will put on a towel and have them recline to eat,
and he’ll come in to serve them.
38 Even at the second hour after sunrise, even at the third, he can come and find them ready.
These slaves are awesome.
39 (You should know: If the homeowner knew what time the burglar came,
he’d never permit him to break into his house.)
40 You be ready: The Son of Man comes at the time you don’t expect.”
41 Simon Peter said, “Master, are you saying this parable for us or for everyone?”
42 Master Jesus said, It’s to whoever’s a faithful, wise butler.
The master puts the butler over his waiters, giving them their trays at the right times.
43 This slave is awesome when the master, coming to the butler, will find them doing this job.
44 I tell you the truth: The master will put the butler in charge of everything.
45 But when this slave says in their mind, ‘My master delays in coming,’
and might start beating the boys and girls, or eating, drinking, and getting drunk,
46 that slave’s master will come on a day they don’t expect, at a time they don’t know,
and will cut them down to size, and assign them a position with the unreliable slaves.
47 That slave who knew their master’s will, and didn’t prepare, nor do his will: They’ll get skinned.
48 The one who didn’t know, who did what deserved a smack: They’ll get skinned a little.
To everyone who’s given much, much is sought from them.
To those with much set before them, more will be asked back.”

Do you know what our master expects of you? ’Cause he’s coming when we won’t expect.