St. Stephen, and true martyrdom.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 December

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 Στέφανος/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 took 10 percent of your firstfruits and celebrated with it; Dt 14.22-27 every third year you gave it to the needy. Dt 14.28-29 Apparently the first Christians 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 this list, and Acts’ author Luke 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.

The first church still consisted only of Jews: Christianity was still considered a Judean religion—the obvious difference being Christians believe Jesus is Messiah, and other Judeans believed Messiah hadn’t yet come. Otherwise Christians still went to temple and synagogue. 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 hauled 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: The senate was 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 adopted it) that if you’re on God’s side, no harm will ever befall you. You can bad-mouth your foes, and God’s hedge of protection will magically defend you when they turn round and punch you in the head. You can leap from tall buildings, and 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.

Stephen’s martyrdom.

Seeing a vision of Jesus at God’s side, and utterly tone-deaf to how he’d infuriated the senate, Stephen shared this vision. Ac 7.54-56 But shouting and plugging their ears (yep, exactly like a little kid who does this and yells, “Nah nah nah can’t hear you!”) the senators rushed him, dragged him out of the chamber, dragged him out of the city, and illegally stoned him to death. Ac 7.57-58

I say illegally ’cause the Romans had made it illegal for anyone but Romans to enact the death penalty. That’s why the senate had to go to Pontius Pilate to get Jesus executed. Jn 18.28-32 But lynch mobs don’t care about law. Likely there was later hell to pay with the Romans, but Luke never got into that.

In a stoning, the usual practice was to drop the victim off a cliff, and that would usually kill you. Then they’d drop heavy rocks down on the body to finish the job. It wasn’t like the movies depict it, where people just throw fist-size rocks at you till one of ’em finally cracks your skull.

Seems the fall didn’t kill Stephen, because Luke recorded his last words: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Ac 7.60 KJV Christians tend to self-righteously figure Stephen was in the right, so this was an act of grand forgiveness on his part. Me, I figure Stephen realized some of his own culpability in his death. Either way, he died.

Stephen’s death triggered the first serious persecution of Christians. It drove most of them out of Jerusalem, where the first church was headquartered, and they began to spread Jesus wherever they went. Plus it brought Saul of Tarsus into the story as a persecutor—and after Jesus got hold of him and repurposed him into an apostle, we better know him by his Greek name Παῦλος/Pávlos, “Paul.”

To persecutors’ annoyance, they began to discover how killing Christians didn’t stop us from spreading. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” was a famous statement of second-century church father Tertullian of Carthage. Getting killed for Jesus makes heroes of us. People admire heroes.

Stephen’s death was a big deal because Stephen was a big deal. He “did great wonders and miracles among the people.” Ac 6.8 KJV People knew him as a strong, dedicated Christian. His death made an impact because people knew his character.

Contrast this to how people presume martyrdom works. They figure the big deal, the huge impact, comes from making that dying confession; of claiming to trust Jesus right before some gun nut shoots you, or bravely defying the antichrists who threaten to torture the skin off you. Stephen wasn’t any such person. He laid down his life for Christ Jesus a long time before his martyrdom.

’Cause dying for Jesus requires us to live for Jesus. The life makes the witness. The death only draws attention to it.

Bad martyrdoms.

But the easy way out is the dying or defiant declaration. You can actually go your whole life long without following Jesus whatsoever, and because you confess him on your deathbed, you imagine this’ll gain you sainthood.

And Christians with this kind of rotten, cheap-grace attitude are largely the reason we have some really rubbish martyrs throughout Christian history. We got irreligious, may-as-well-be-pagan, lousy Christians who didn’t live for Jesus whatsoever, who assumed (as Christians still do) when we “die for him” it’s like a billion karma points, and makes up for all our evil. Hey, we gave our lives for the cause, so it should count for something, right? Should earn us heaven, right?

True, getting killed for any cause—even a wrongheaded or evil cause, as we see with suicide bombers—means certain people are gonna see you as heroes. But don’t assume martyrdom automatically makes a Christian right. It doesn’t in the least. Loads of Christian martyrs didn’t die for Jesus so much as die due to their own ignorance, stubbornness, arrogance, and stupidity. Some of ’em were even mentally ill.

We actually see some of this in certain church fathers. They pursued death for Jesus’s sake. They sought out persecutors. They did nothing to stop pagans from killing them. Sometimes ’cause they decided a quick death was far better than being sold into slavery, which was the more common punishment. Or—when they were old and gonna die anyway—they figured it was best to go out in a blaze of glory for Jesus. In some cases the Holy Spirit legitimately forewarned ’em they weren’t gonna survive their arrest, so they made peace with the idea and stepped into it.

But ordinarily? Those who wanna get martyred have a screw loose.

The words μαρτυρέω/martyréo and μάρτυς/mártys are Greek for “witness.” Your martyrdom isn’t significant because you died for Jesus. It’s because before your death you lived for him.

Same as Stephen. Look at him: He testified he knew Jesus, saw Jesus, and recognized Jesus as an important influence in his life. What made Stephen’s death relevant was how his short life reflected this relationship. Now if you aren’t known in life for having anything to do with Jesus—if in fact you’re a rotten bastard, and were hoping a glorious death in his name redeems you—it doesn’t; it won’t. People may not recognize hypocritical martyrs for their hypocrisy, but God certainly does. Means nothing to him.

Yep, it’s a mockery of martyrdom, just like the suicide bombers who think blowing themselves up in God’s name will make up for a lifetime of sin, and get them into heaven.

And we don’t even earn heaven! Even Islam, which those ignorant suicide bombers think they’re dying for, teaches this: We’re saved entirely because God is gracious. You want heaven? He’ll give you heaven, free. You don’t have to die for it; Jesus already did that!

So too many Christians figure we can be jerks and our testimony makes up for it. Doesn’t work that way at all. Anybody remember Samson ben Manoah as a great man of God? Nope; we remember him for having long hair, for being strong and violent, and for being horny and stupid. You want history to remember you as a jerk? Your testimony only makes the inconsistency between what you say and what you do way more obvious. Or, if you’re truly dedicated to Jesus like Stephen was, not.

Another phenomenon I’ve seen is when Christians unexpectedly lose a loved one—a kid, a parent, a good friend, whatever—and try to convert the loved one’s death into a martyrdom. The kid got murdered, so the parents begin to claim (sometimes with evidence, sometimes with none whatsoever) the murderer was only out to kill Christians, and their kid died “standing up for Jesus.” Or a Christian’s on vacation, dies in a traffic accident, and because she’s a Christian in a foreign land somehow this gets bent into “she was on the mission field” somehow, and died “in the field.” As happens every time someone dies, all good deeds get eulogized, all sins get forgotten, and they’re made to sound as saintly as possible. True, deaths can be tragic, but swapping real people for fake versions and mourning that? People grieve and seek comfort all sorts of ways, but lies and delusion is hardly a healthy method.

Well. You don’t have to be killed for Jesus in order to be a martyr. Remember, the word means “witness.” Live for Jesus. Share your testimonies. Demonstrate his work and teachings in your life. And if our lives for Jesus happen to irritate others for no good reason, and get us killed, that’s a proper martyrdom.

Working people up till they kill you in a fit of rage? Arguably Stephen wasn’t a proper martyr either. But he’s our first, and he was otherwise a good guy, so he at least merits a day on the calendar.

Amen!

by K.W. Leslie, 24 December
AMEN ɑ.mɛn, eɪ.mɛn exclamation. Utterance of support or agreement.

Amen probably comes from the Hebrew verb אָמַן/amán, “to support, assure, trust.” Sorta the Hebrews’ way of replying, “True.” For the most part, we Christians use amen as a way to end our prayers. Like when you say “goodbye” on a phone conversation, or “over and out” on a radio conversation. My childhood Sunday school teachers even described it as “hanging up.”

Custom is, we gotta finish our prayers with amen. Or the popular incantation “In Jesus Name amen.” Or, if you want everyone else in the room to say amen along with you: “And all God’s people said…” (or “the church said,” or “we all said”) at which everyone was conditioned to reply, “Amen.” Sometimes the three-syllable “A-a-men.”

As you know, some Christian customs are more than just traditions: We gotta do them. They’re virtually commands. If you don’t end a prayer with amen, it confuses people. Wanna really throw off your prayer group? Next time you lead prayer, don’t bother to “hang up.” Just start speaking to them as you ordinarily would, and watch ’em get all agitated: “You didn’t say amen. You gotta say amen.” As if God ever gets confused. As if he thinks we’re still speaking to him unless we “get off the phone,” so to speak.

No, we don’t need to end prayers with amen. You realize even the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end with amen? Lk 11.2-4 Yet Christians will still go bonkers if we skip amen. It’s become an obsessive-compulsive thing with them; it’s like someone who simply can’t knock an odd number of times, and has to knock twice or four times or six times, but never thrice. And you just knocked thrice. Some of ’em will even say an annoyed amen for you.

But this insistence on capping our prayers with amen, misses the entire point of the word. What’s amen mean again? True. Why would you say “True” at the end of a prayer? Because the rest of us are listening to it, and agree with its content: “What you said is true. What you requested is good. So be it. Amen.”

This being the case, having “all God’s people say amen” at the end of a prayer is appropriate. It’s not just the prayer leader trying to get recognition: It’s consensus. Do you agree with what was just prayed? I’d hope so. (That is, I’d hope the prayer leader didn’t pray anything inappropriate. It’d suck not being legitimately able to mean amen when we say it.)

This also being the case, do we need to cap our own prayers with amen? Seems a little redundant to agree with ourselves. Yet we do it anyway… ’cause it’s unthinking, brainless custom. You know, dead religion.

When did Jesus say amen?

Jesus says amen in the gospels all the time. And you probably never noticed it, ’cause bibles don’t translate it “amen.” They use other words.

KJV. “Verily.”
ESV, NIV, NRSV. “Truly.”
GNB, NJB, NLT. “Truth.”
NKJV. “Assuredly.”

Because Jesus uses amen to declare what he’s about to say is absolutely valid, as good as a promise. Not end his prayers. Here’s five instances from his Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 5.18 KWL
“Amen! I promise you all: As long as the heavens and earth exist,
not one yodh nor one penstroke will ever be taken out of the Law till it’s achieved.”
 
Matthew 5.25-26 KWL
25 “Be quick to cooperate with your opponent—whoever you get in the way of—
lest your opponent turn you in to the judge, the judge to the bailiff, and you’re thrown into prison.
26 Amen! I promise you: You’ll never come out of there
till you work off your last quarter.”
 
Matthew 6.2 KWL
“So whenever you do charity, don’t toot your own horn,
like hypocrites do in synagogue and on the street, so they can be praised by people.
Amen! I promise you: They got their wages.”
 
Matthew 6.5 KWL
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who really like standing in synagogues
and the corners of the main streets, praying so they might be seen by the people.
Amen! I promise you all: They got their credit.”
 
Matthew 6.16 KWL
“When you fast, don’t be like the sad-looking hypocrites
who conceal their faces so they look to people like they’re fasting.
Amen! I promise you all: They got their credit.”

Jesus prefaces his statements with amen (or “amen amen,” two of ’em, in John) because he wants it clear he’s making a statement we can utterly depend on. It’s why I translate these statements, “Amen, I promise you.”

Hence we should get the idea amen isn’t a word to be thrown around lightly. As so many hypocrites do.

Inappropriate amens.

See, amen means we agree. In responsive churches, like my Pentecostal church, whenever the pastor says something people agree with, you’ll hear people in the congregation say (or shout) “Amen!”

In fact there are certain Christians whom you can count on to say amen to pretty much everything their pastor says. Whether he makes any sense or not; whether she’s quoting bible in context or not. Popular culture tends to call these folks “the amen corner”—they’re the ones who can be counted on to go along with any harebrained thing you say or do. Like political devotees.

From what we’ve seen of the amen corner’s unkind, out-of-control lives, we know they’re not actually following Jesus. That’s why they’re so quick with the amens. That’s why they sit within earshot of the podium; if the sermon’s getting recorded, they’ll be heard on the audio. They’re sucking up because they’re trying to hide their sins. It’s more hypocrisy.

The rest of the church says amen when we actually agree. But not always. Too often we’re hypocrites too: We say amen when we oughta agree, but deep down we don’t necessarily.

Or we wanna look like we were paying attention. We say amen to some long-ass prayer we weren’t really listening to; meanwhile our minds were wandering, and we spent the last 15 minutes debating with ourselves whether to have Mexican or Chinese for lunch. ’Cause we like Chinese, and it’s less expensive; but the kids always want Mexican; but the kids have no taste, and all they ever order is quesadillas anyway, and that’s just cheese and tortillas and barely counts as Mexican food; and I’m the adult here dangit… oh wait, did they just say “In Jesus Name all God’s people said”? Gotta say amen now!

Not only should we never say amen to any prayer we don’t agree with: Sometimes we need to speak up. Sometimes the prayer leader needs correcting. Hopefully that’s very rare. But it can happen, and when it does, us saying amen to it means we’ve vocally agreed to a rotten prayer. Bad example for fellow Christians, and doesn’t honor God any.

I know; people don’t wanna make trouble. Which says all sorts of things about their lack of courage, or their church’s dysfunction. Either way, grow a spine. I’m not saying you have to stand up and proclaim anathema (the opposite of amen, which literally means “accursed”) upon such prayers. Just don’t blindly, or falsely, say amen. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Let your yes be yes, your no be no, Mt 5.37, Jm 5.12 and your amen be amen.

And privately get this stuff sorted out. Have an honest relationship with one another.

One who brings justice to the gentiles.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 December

Isaiah 42.1-4, Matthew 12.14-20.

After Jesus cured the man with the paralyzed hand, this happened.

Matthew 12.14-20 KWL
14 Going out, the Pharisees took a meeting about this—so they could have Jesus destroyed.
15 Jesus, who knew this, left there, and a great crowd followed him; he had cured them all.
16 Jesus had rebuked them, lest they reveal what he might do
17 so that he might fulfill the word from the prophet Isaiah, saying,
18 “Look at my servant whom I chose, my beloved. My soul approves of him.
I put my Spirit in him, and he’ll bring justice to the gentiles.
19 He won’t struggle or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
20 He won’t split a broken reed, won’t extinguish smoking linen, till he can issue justice in victory.
21 Gentiles will put their hope in his name.” Is 42.1-4

Since Matthew quotes Isaiah and says Jesus fulfilled it, Christians presume this particular part of Isaiah is a messianic prophecy; that it’s specifically about Jesus. I may as well translate it too, instead of just translating Matthew’s translation of it:

Isaiah 42.1-4 KWL
1 “Look at my slave. I support him, my chosen one. My soul is pleased with him.
I put my Spirit upon him: Judgment goes forth to the gentiles.
2 He doesn’t cry out, doesn’t stir things up; his voice isn’t heard in the street.
3 He doesn’t break up crushed reeds, nor put out a dimming wick.
Judgment is issued to promote truth. 4 Likewise he doesn’t fade nor break down till he brings judgment to the earth.
The border lands await his instruction.”

Y’notice there are minor differences. No, not because I translated it differently; it’s because either Matthew was quoting a bad copy, or paraphrasing. (I prefer to think he was paraphrasing.) Matthew simply laid his ideas on top of Isaiah, same as Christians still do… and really shouldn’t.

Anyway, because Christians don’t understand what fulfillment means, again we assume the Isaiah passage is about Jesus. It’s actually not. It’s about Israel. The LORD specifically said so in the previous chapter of Isaiah.

Isaiah 41.8-9 KWL
8 “And you, my slave Israel, Jacob whom I chose, my beloved Abraham’s seed:
9 I seized you from the land’s end, called you one of its chiefs, and told you,
‘You’re my slave, my chosen. I don’t reject you.’ ”

No, he didn’t switch from Israel being the servant he meant, to Messiah being the servant he meant, in the course of a few verses. He was still telling Isaiah about Israel. He’s gonna put his Spirit on Israel and use the nation to promote justice among gentiles. True, Israel isn’t currently doing the best job of promoting justice towards anyone but fellow Israelis. But I don’t figure this prophecy is describing the present day anyway.

The LORD has big plans for Israel—and for Jesus as Israel’s king. So it’s entirely likely this prophecy refers to Israel when it’s finally following its Messiah during his millennium, after his second coming.

Meanwhile Matthew jumped the gun a little, ’cause though Jesus was starting his kingdom it hasn’t come yet. (Keep praying for it!) So in what way did Jesus fulfill this Isaiah passage in the first century?

Before you go book shopping…

by K.W. Leslie, 20 December

This Christmas, some of you are getting gift cards or gift certificates. I regularly get Starbucks cards—which is great, ’cause that’s exactly what I want. I’ll definitely use ’em. Yes, I’m at Starbucks as I write this.

Anyway, some of these gift cards will be for bookstores. Maybe Amazon, maybe not. And as Christians who wanna get religious about our relationships with Jesus, some of us are likely thinking of buying Christian books and resources, and stuff that’ll help us get better at Christianity. I know I do.

And, when I was newly devout, I wasted a bunch of money on stuff that really didn’t do any of those things. Likely so will you. We all do. Our zealousness overtakes our wallets. But hold on there, little buckaroo: Don’t get all fired up to ride off an’ lasso some steer, ’cause you might just wind up with some bull.

If you go to a brick ’n mortar Christian bookstore, first thing you’re gonna notice is they sell an awful lot of “Jesus junk.” And bibles; most of their money comes from bibles. But they also sell art, T-shirts, CDs, devotionals, romance novels without any sex in ’em (with Amish girls on the cover, just to tell everyone who catches you reading one, “Nope, the clothes are staying on”), inferior Christian fiction, bestselling Christian books by famous authors, and classic Christian books by famous dead Christians.

There are some actually useful books in there. But more of them are junk. Even among the classics. They’re nice sentiments, disguised as God-inspired wisdom. They’ll make you feel good, like they’re expected to. But you won’t grow any closer to Jesus, won’t get any more spiritually mature, won’t grow in the Spirit’s fruit, won’t anything. I used to own bookshelves of that rubbish.

How d’you tell the difference? Which of them should you buy? Well maybe this article’ll help get you started.

The seven deadly sins.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 December

The “seven deadly sins” confuse a lot of people.

Back in 2008, a rumor spread that the Vatican declared more deadly sins. It came from an interview with Gianfranco Girotti, the head bishop of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary. (I know; this sounds like the Vatican prison. It’s actually the theologians who handle questions about sin, repentance, and forgiveness.) Anyway, in Girotti’s interview with L’Osservatore Romano on 7 March 2008, he listed certain present-day practices which he believed have a harmful global impact: Pollution, drug trafficking, embryo-destroying research, other unethical human experiments, abortion, pedophilia, and economic injustice.

Somehow the press converted this into “The Vatican announced there are new sins!” And since your average reporter (lapsed Catholics included) know bupkis about the seven deadly sins, they just assumed there are now 14 deadly sins. Now littering is gonna send you to hell.

Like I said, they confuse people.

Most people figure they’re a Roman Catholic thing. And they largely are. Few Protestants teach on ’em. More of them, particularly the Fundamentalists, consider way more things to be deadly sins than seven. Like voting for the wrong political party.

Loads of people think the seven deadly sins are in the bible. And they actually are. Just not in the form of a list.

I’ve heard Protestants claim the list is found in Catholic bibles. Well, maybe if it’s a Catholic study bible, it’ll be in the notes, but no. You’ll find passages—in all bibles—which rebuke these attitudes and the behaviors they cause. And whether you’re Catholic or not, you might wanna know about them. So here’s the list, in convenient chart form.

DEADLY SINLATINOUT-OF-CONTROL DESIREOPPOSITE VIRTUE
1.LECHERYluxuria/“sexual lust”For sex. Cl 3.5Purity
2.GLUTTONYgulaFor food, drink, intoxicants. Ek 16.49Moderation
3.GREEDavaritia/“avarice”For money, wealth, possessions. Ep 5.3Generosity
4.LAZINESSacedia/“sloth, discouragement”To evade responsibility, avoid work, stay uninvolved. Mt 25.26Integrity
5.WRATHira/“anger”To fight, take revenge, act out of rage or bitterness. Ep 4.32Meekness
6.ENVYinvidia/“begrudge”To covet, be jealous. Mk 7.22Kindness
7.PRIDEsuperbia/“magnificence”To exalt oneself: Self-praise, self-promotion. Mt 7.22Humility

What makes ’em deadly? Well, they’re works of the flesh. And those who choose a lifestyle of works of the flesh don’t inherit God’s kingdom. Ga 5.21 Their lifestyle implies they’re not saved: They don’t have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, making ’em fruity, making ’em not want to sin, getting them to reject the sort of lifestyle which burps up deadly sins.

Fasting on the feast days.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 December

Christian holidays are also known as feast days. The term comes from the bible, ’cause that’s how the LORD described the holidays he instituted for the Hebrews: “Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year,” Ex 23.14 KJV namely Passover, Pentecost, and Tents. Christians turned Passover into Easter, added Christmas, usually downplay Pentecost, and usually skip Tents… but otherwise yeah, on Christian holidays we tend to do a bit of feasting. (And on St. Patrick’s Day, drinking.)

Thing is, Evangelicals regularly forget Christmas is 12 days long. Our secular culture thinks it’s one day—beginning and ending on 25 December. If the decorations stay up till New Year’s Day, it’s only because you personally struggle to let go of things. Give it up; take ’em down. Hey, the stores are already getting ready for Valentine’s Day.

In reality Christmas continues till Epiphany. But because Evangelicals follow the culture, and tend to dismiss ancient custom as “Catholic,” they figure Christmas is over and the next major holiday is New Year’s Day.

And what’s the best way to start a new year? No, not partying till pukey. It’s to focus on what God’s will might be for the year.

What’s he want us to do? If we can figure it out and do it, maybe God’ll reward us by taking away suffering and showering us with wealth. Or, y’know, spiritual blessings. But let’s be honest: Deep down we’re kinda hoping for material ones.

So in order to really focus on God, really listen for his voice, and demonstrate to him and ourselves we really mean it, Evangelicals dip into one of our old Christian traditions… and fast.

Well, kinda. North Americans usually refuse to defy our stomachs and palates; even for Jesus. So we made some adaptations about what “fasting” means; we don’t go anywhere remotely as hardcore as Jesus. We skip a meal at most. Some of us go on a diet we like to call “the Daniel fast.” This way we deprive ourselves, but we’re not actually starving. And hey, we might lose a little weight, as we resolved to do anyway.

Evangelical churches get so eager to get started on that sweet, sweet Daniel fasting, we start right away. On 1 January if possible. Okay, maybe 2 January, because it’s so hard to start fasting when we’re hung over snacking as we watch New Year’s football games. We can put it off a day. But 2 January for sure!

Okay, so we start fasting on 2 January. Which is the ninth day of Christmas; a feast day.

Are we supposed to fast on feast days? No.

But as I said, Christians don’t know it’s a feast day. So we’ll fast anyway. And various other days throughout the Christian year.

Our suffering servant.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 December

Isaiah 53.

Mixed in with all the Messianic prophecies about a king who’d restore Israel, conquer the world, and set aright everything gone wrong, there are also prophecies about a suffering servant who’d get crushed.

We Christians likewise recognize these prophecies to be about Jesus. But people only realized it after the fact. Before Jesus went through his suffering, Pharisees believed these prophecies can’t be about Messiah. He’s gonna conquer the world! It’s gonna be an easy victory, achieved through the Almighty’s power. Suffering and death? Has to be some other guy.

Y’might recall as soon as Jesus brought up the very idea this suffering servant was him, his best student Simon Peter recoiled. “This will never happen to you,” was his rebuke. Mt 16.22 Human nature being what it is, we pick and choose the bible passages we like, skip the rest… and consequently miss most of the story. ’Cause the parts we avoid are frequently the really important parts. Jesus’s death saves the world just as much, if not more so, than his second coming will.

The Pharisees believed Messiah would come once, to conquer the world. They presumed he’d do it same as other conquerors: Take it by force, and make humanity submit. Smite his enemies with an iron scepter. Politically-minded Christians figure they can take over their society on his behalf, and make our nation into an outpost of his kingdom. They don’t realize Jesus demonstrated, by humility and self-sacrifice, not conquest, how very much he deserves the world as his inheritance. They don’t get how he gets people to submit to him out of love, out of recognizing the absolute wisdom and rightness of his rule. That’s much harder to achieve than mere force. (Plus there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in the idea of forcing people to submit, instead of getting ’em to want to. Such is human nature.)

But winning the world through his suffering, rather than seizing it by force, is what Isaiah saw him do. And reported thisaway.

Isaiah 53 KWL
1 Does anyone believe what we’ve reported?
The LORD’s arm is upon this person who’s been revealed.
2 He grew up in God’s presence like a sapling, like something rooted in dry ground.
We could see nothing honorable in his form. He wasn’t anything to look at.
3 People dismissed and refused to hear him. A man in pain, familiar with illness,
dismissed like one who hides his face from people—we took no account of him.
4 But in fact he’d taken up our illness. He carried our pain.
We figured he’d been smited: God had struck him down to humble him,
5 but he was wounded for our rebellion, crushed for our evil deeds.
Our peace came from his punishment. His beating brought us healing.
6 Like sheep, all of us have wandered off; we all went our own way.
The LORD put all our evil deeds on him.
7 He was abused and humiliated, and didn’t open his mouth.
Like a sheep to slaughter, or an ewe to her shearers, is silent: He didn’t open his mouth.
8 Arrested, judged, he was carried off. His peers—who spoke up for him
when he was cut off from the land of the living? beaten for the evil deeds of my people?
9 They put him in the grave with evildoers, with the rich in death,
though he’d treated no one violently. No deceit was in his mouth.
10 The LORD was pleased to crush him, to make him unwell, to make his soul a guilt offering,
and see his seed survive. God will prolong its days. The LORD is pleased to make it prosper in his hand.
11 God will be satisfied by the trouble of this servant’s soul:
He will be right in knowing the righteous one, my servant, will bear the weight of both the great and the evildoers.
12 Therefore I will give him something from the great ones. He’ll be given spoil with the mighty ones.
For under them, his soul was poured out to death. He was counted with the rebels.
He carried the sin of the great. He brings light to the rebels.

The Son who was given us.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 December

Isaiah 9.6-7.

Isaiah ben Amoch (KJV “Amoz”) was a prophet all his life. His book contains prophecies spanning the 60-plus years of his ministry in the second half of the 700s BC. And it was during this time, in 722, that the Assyrian Empire conquered and scattered northern Israel.

Isaiah lived in southern Israel, also called Judah or Judea. The Judeans worried greatly about the threat of Assyrian invasion. A number of Judeans were convinced the LORD would never let any dirty foreigners conquer their great land; after all, God’s temple was there, and he’d never let ’em destroy his temple. And a number recognized, same as Isaiah, their covenant with God dictated he’d totally let the land get taken if his people defied him. If you didn’t believe this, just look at what happened to northern Israel.

But even when we think the End has come, that everything’s been destroyed and is over and done with, God knows better. He had Isaiah say this to all Israelis—both the defeated, discouraged northerners scattered all over Assyria; and the southerners fearfully getting their End Times bunkers ready in Judea:

Isaiah 9.6-7 KWL
6 For a child was begotten by us. A son was given to us. The empire is on his shoulder.
His name is called Wondrously Helped by God, Great God, Eternal Father, Peace Chief.
7 There is no end to the abundance and peace of his empire, over his kingdom, David’s throne.
It establishes it, upholds it with justice and rightness, from now to forever.
The zeal of the LORD of War does this.

It’s another messianic prophecy, a prediction of a messiah, “anointed king,” like David ben Jesse—but a greater messiah, the Messiah, who’d rule Israel forever. More; he’d conquer the world.

Christians have definitely adopted this passage as applying to Jesus. We regularly refer to him by these titles.

  • WONDERFUL (as in KJV; פֶּ֠לֶא/pelé, “unique, great, difficult, miraculous”). Properly this describes the next word—it tells us which sort of counselor this Messiah is—but Christians frequently interpret it on its own, and describe Jesus as wonderful. Which he is; I’m not saying otherwise.
  • COUNSELOR (as in KJV; (יוֹעֵץ֙/yohéch, “YHWH-aided”). Because people insist on word-for-word translation, they convert this idea into too few words. In the 1600s a counselor was what you called an aide or assistant, meaning someone who helps you, and not just with useful advice. Yohéch means the LORD’s the one providing the aid. This Messiah’s gonna be miraculously helped by God. But, y’know, Christians prefer the idea of Jesus being our counselor—which, again, he is. 1Jn 2.1
  • MIGHTY GOD (אֵ֣ל גִּבּ֔וֹר/El-Gibbór, “God the powerful warrior”). The word El means “God,” but same as in our culture, it can refer to a lowercase-G “god” who’s not so much a divine being as just a really powerful person, like a superhero. So the folks who initially read Isaiah might not’ve taken this literally and imagined Messiah would be God incarnate; he’d just be a really mighty king. Thing is, Jesus is God incarnate. So, y’know, take it literally.
  • ETERNAL FATHER (אֲבִיעַ֖ד/aviád, “perpetual father,” KJV “everlasting Father”). Occasionally we get modalists who insist this means Jesus is the Father, and use it to confound how trinity is described. Properly, this refers to how the ancients tended to call their spiritual leaders “father” (something Jesus discouraged Mt 23.9), and this Messiah would likewise be their spiritual father—but not merely for a short time. He’d perpetually be their father. He’d be their go-to guy about God.
  • PEACE CHIEF (שַׂר־שָׁלֽוֹם/sar-shalóm, KJV “Prince of Peace”). A sar refers to any leader, and Hebrews used it to describe nobles, generals, civic leaders, or anyone else in charge. Messiah’s gonna be in charge of peace: He’s gonna get it, and grant it to his people.

So if you’re worried about the specter of chaos and war looming over your land, if you’re one of those dark Christians worried the End is nigh ’cause things are worse than they’ve ever been, this Messiah’s gonna put everything right. He’s gonna take over and fix the world.

Hallelujah!

by K.W. Leslie, 10 December

Hallelujah is actually two Hebrew words. הַ֥לְלוּ/hallelú, the command “All of you, praise!” (KJV “praise ye”), and יָ֨הּ/Yah (KJV “Jah”), short for יְ֭הוָה/YHWH, “Jehovah, the LORD.” When we say hallelujah, or its Greek variant ἀλληλούϊα/allilúia (Latin and KJV “Alleluia”), we’re literally saying, “Praise the LORD,” which is why many bibles translate it that way.

There are certain Jews who insist the -jah ending of the word absolutely does not refer to YHWH. That’s because they consider God’s name far too holy to say aloud. (Certainly too holy to abbreviate with some nickname like Yah!) But they wanna say hallelujah, and don’t wanna replace it with “hallelu-Adonai” or “hallelu-haShem” or one of their other euphemisms they use, like the Christian substitution “the LORD.” So they claim Jah means something else, like “yea!” Which is kinda ridiculous, considering all the Hebrew personal names which deliberately end in -iah or -jah, such as Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Nehemiah. These names are deliberate references to YHWH; their parents wanted the LORD’s name to be part of their names, and remind them who their God is. Most Jews recognize Jah is totally an abbreviation for YHWH—and since it’s not the whole holy name, it’s okay to say it. So they’ll say hallelujah with no hesitation.

My mom once participated in a prayer ministry in Israel. At one point, when they worshiped together, someone got the clever idea to sing a popular worship song together. One that’d been translated into dozens of languages, so each of them could sing it in their native tongue and it’d harmonize, despite the cacophony of different languages. But when they call came to the word hallelujah in the song… no surprise, they all sang “hallelujah” together. It’s the one word we all have in common. It’s probably more universal than the word “okay.”

To pagans, hallelujah is an exclamation of joy. In the Leonard Cohen song (assuming you aren’t more familiar with the version Cloverton rewrote for Christmas) it’s a euphemism for disappointing lust. Some of the pagan stuff has leaked into Christianity, with the result being people who shout “Hallelujah!” at stuff we probably shouldn’t praise God for. But most Christians correctly understand it means “Praise the LORD,” and that’s why we say it: We’re praising God. We’re encouraging and provoking others to praise God. It is phrased as a Hebrew command after all.

Plucking Jesus’s beard. Or not.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 December

Isaiah 50.6.

Jesus fulfills a lot of Old Testament scriptures, and this advent I wanna look at the ones he particularly fulfilled from Isaiah.

Some of them explicitly refer to Jesus, ’cause a future Messiah, a savior, a suffering servant, a King of kings, is precisely who Isaiah was writing about. But some of ’em actually aren’t about Jesus. They’re either about humanity in general, Israelis in general, or even Isaiah himself. But because the same or similar events happened to Jesus, he fulfilled them. His experiences fleshes out these verses. That’s what fulfillment in the bible actually means: Not that Jesus did as predicted, but that Jesus reflects these ideas better, sometimes, than the original ideas.

So today’s passage is one of those reflections. It’s not about Jesus; it’s explicitly about Isaiah himself. About how, as a prophet, he gets crapped on.

Isaiah 50.4-9 KWL
4 The LORD my Master gave me an educated tongue so I might know to say a timely word to the weary.
He wakes me every morning; he wakes up my ear so I can hear like an educated man.
5 The LORD my Master opens my ear, and I won’t rebel or backslide.
6 I gave my back to those who’d beat it, my jaw to those who’d strike it.
I didn’t hide my face from disgrace… and spit.
7 The LORD my Master helps me, so I’m not confused;
so I steady my face like a flint, and I know I won’t be disappointed.
8 He who justifies me is near. Who wants to fight me? Stand up together!
Who’s my lord who justifies me? Have him approach!
9 Look, the LORD my Master helps me; who’s making trouble for me?
They’ll wear out like moth-eaten clothing.

If you believe “prophet” is a title which gets people acclaim and honor, you don’t know any real prophets. Or you might, but you don’t know them; you don’t really see what they go through. Actually hearing and sharing from God means you’re gonna get pushback.

Usually from people who only want a prophet to tell them happy thoughts. Who have their own ideas about who God is (and make him a lot like them), and don’t wanna hear otherwise. Who certainly don’t wanna hear God correct and rebuke the hypocrisy and sin of those who claim to follow him.

Less often, and usually from outside our own churches, we get pushback from people who prefer the idea God doesn’t talk anymore. A number of people like to condemn any and all prophecy, and claim only preaching is a form prophecy—and they’re preachers, so they’re prophets, so listen to them, and no one else. It’s a professional jealousy thing.

Isaiah dealt with both types. And since ancient Israel had no such thing as freedom of speech, Isaiah had to suffer consequences for anything he said. No, not prison; they’d just cane you. Usually without trial: The mob would just whack you with their walking sticks. Or punch you in the jaw.

Maranatha: Come Lord Jesus!

by K.W. Leslie, 03 December

There’s an Aramaic word in the New Testament which only appears once, in 1 Corinthians 16.22, and is probably better known as the name of a music label or a brand of peanut butter: Maranatha. Some bibles don’t bother to translate it…

1 Corinthians 16.22 NASB
If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha.

…and some bibles do.

1 Corinthians 16.22 ESV
If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!

Properly maranatha is two words, which in Greek are μαρὰν ἀθά, and in Aramaic are ܡܪܢ ܐܬܐ (still transliterated marán athá). And properly it’s not a command for our Master to come; it means “our Master came.” But Christians prefer to interpret it with the same idea we see in Revelation 22.20:

Revelation 22.20 ESV
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Yeah, the Lord came to earth in his first coming. But that’s not the end of the story. He’s coming back.

Hence the ancient Christians prayed maranatha, by which they meant “Come Lord Jesus!” We see it in the Didache and their prayer books. Christians still pray it.

Most of the time when we pray maranatha, it’s for our Lord Jesus to come back. Either we want his presence to be among us during our worship services or church business… or we want him to stop delaying his second coming and take over the world already. But more often when we ask for Jesus’s presence, we pray it in our native languages. “Come Lord Jesus!” works just fine. The word maranatha is more of a liturgical word; it’s something we might pray formally, but it doesn’t feel as personal as when we use the words we commonly use. I get that. And it’s fine: Using foreign-language words when English words will do, is frequently showing off how we happen to know foreign languages. And showing off is hypocrisy, and we don’t want any hypocrisy in our prayer life.

But then again: If you use the word maranatha in your private prayers, whom are you showing off to? So don’t worry about telling God maranatha in private. Jesus did tell us to pray “Thy kingdom come” after all, so by all means pray that Jesus return. The sooner the better!

“Prevenient grace”: Already there, without limit.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 November
PREVENE pri'vin verb. Arrive first, come before, pre-exist.
[Prevenient pri'vin.jənt adjective, prevenience pri'vin.jəns noun.]

Time for an old-timey word, prevenient. One you’ll really only find theologians use anymore. But I gotta inflict it on you—sorry—because so many Christians use it to describe how God’s grace works.

Y’might already know humans are selfish, and this self-interest distorts everything we do. Including everything good we try to do: There’s gotta be something in it for us. Even if it looks and feels like there’s nothing in it for us—if it’s an absolute act of sacrifice, one which harms us instead of benefits us, one which makes us feel awful instead of noble—there’s still something way deep down, embedded in the core of our being, which gets some satisfaction from it. Otherwise we we’d never voluntarily do it. That’s just how messed up we are. “Totally depraved,” as the theologians put it.

But people usually pretend this messed-up core doesn’t exist, and claim it was a truly selfless act; that it proves we humans aren’t all bad. But self-justification is also selfish.

This total depravity means we’re too messed up to save ourselves. We’re never gonna be good enough. Even if, by some mathematically impossible fluke, we follow all God’s commands to the letter, we’re still gonna have this hanging over us: It wasn’t done out of love for God. We did it so we could claim righteousness. We want to be “good people.” We want the good karma; we want to merit heaven. Don’t lie; it’s totally why we go to all the trouble. It’s a pride thing. And God never did care for pride. Jm 4.6, 1Pe 5.5

So how can we be saved? Well duh; only God can save us. We gotta trust God.

But aren’t we pretty far gone? Aren’t we too messed up to trust God? We’re so self-centered, so focused on ourselves, humanity is spiritually dead inside: We can’t hear the Holy Spirit poking us in the conscience. Before we can turn to God, doesn’t he first have to transform something within us?

Sure. And he did. When Jesus died for the world’s sins, 1Jn 2.2 he took out sins both past and future. Ro 3.25 His act of atonement worked its way backwards and forwards through time, so that everyone receives God’s grace—from Adam and Eve, to you. Thanks to Jesus, through Jesus, every human on the planet, no matter how messed up, has the ability to recognize we need God to save us. We had the ability before we even realized we needed it.

This grace was always around. Always available. Prevenient.

Yeah, there are other Christians who insist it’s not. It’s not prevenient; it’s particular. God doesn’t offer grace to just anyone. He only offers it to the repentant. Or to the elect. He doesn’t waste his grace on people who want nothing to do with him, on people who will never turn to him. Grace is only for certain people, a limited few.

This idea doesn’t come from bible. Not that people don’t try to twist certain verses really hard, and claim it totally does. It comes from graceless humans. We don’t consider the whole of humanity worth saving; we figure there are sinners who just aren’t worth it. Jesus can’t have wasted his precious life on them. So, in these Christians’ minds, he didn’t. It’s a ransom for many, Mt 10.45, 20.28 not all.

Our infinite God has infinite resources, infinite love, infinite grace, and the ability to save absolutely everyone who turns to him. And wants to! 2Pe 3.9 But not all the world is willing. Mk 13.34, Mt 23.37 To all who receive him, he makes them his children. Jn 1.12 To all who don’t… he tries again. And again. His mercies never come to an end. Lm 3.22 ’Cause he’s patient like that.

Humans, not so much. And we project many of these selfish, depraved qualities upon God, and limit his grace because we lack grace. They feel it depletes their karma to waste love on people who will never reciprocate. They can’t justify this irrational, unbiblical idea, so they reframe it this way: They don’t love everybody because God must not love everybody—because he’s so almighty, so sovereign, his love would overwhelm and transform everyone it touches. Since not everyone is overwhelmed and transformed, God must not have loved them; certainly not in the way he loves us. So if he doesn’t love the world (despite Jesus saying he totally does Jn 3.16), why should they waste their love on ingrates? Hence limited love. Limited atonement. Limited grace.

It’s totally inconsistent with how Jesus describes his Father:

Matthew 5.43-48 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.
45 Thus you can become your heavenly Father’s children,
since he raises his sun over evil and good, and rains on moral and immoral.
46 When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?
Don’t taxmen also do so themselves?
47 When you greet only your family, what did you do that was so great?
Don’t the foreigners also do so themselves?
48 Therefore you will be egalitarian,
like your heavenly Father is egalitarian.”

Our heavenly Father loves both good and evil people—and grants his amazing grace to both. To all. Without limit. Preveniently.

Don’t be ashamed of Jesus.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 November

Mark 8.34 – 9.1, Matthew 16.24-28, Luke 9.23-27.

Christianity embarrasses a lot of people.

Which I get. I have a coworker who’s one of those dark Christians who’s all about judging sinners, ’cause she thinks their sins are gonna trigger the End Times. She thinks she’s just keeping things real and telling the truth, but my other coworkers think she’s a loon. I think she’s a loon. I don’t wanna be associated with that.

Thankfully I know the difference between that particular brand of angry, blame-everybody-but-ourselves doctrine, and Christ Jesus and his gospel. So when people ask what I think, I can tell ’em I don’t believe as she does; I believe in grace. My Lord isn’t coming to earth to judge it—not for a mighty long time—but to save it. I proclaim good news, not bad.

Other Christians… well they don’t know there’s a difference between dark Christianity and Christ Jesus. Or they do, but don’t know how to articulate it. So they mute the fact they’re Christian, and hope they can pass by unnoticed.

And sometimes, just to make sure nobody guesses they’re Christian, they don’t act Christian. They’re as profane as any pagan, and get drunk or stoned and fornicate just as often. They don’t bother to produce fruit. And when Easter or Christmas rolls around, and they slip up and mention they’re going to church for the holidays, their friends and coworkers are startled: “Wait, are you a f--king Christian?” They had no idea, ’cause these folks are neither religious nor holy.

What’s Jesus think of these people? Well they embarrass him.

’Cause if we’re truly following him, if we want to follow him, we’re not gonna be like everyone else; we’re gonna stand out and be weird. Our lifestyle isn’t gonna be about what pleases us or gets us off; it’ll be about self-control and emotions under check and taking other people into consideration. It’s not gonna be about judging our neighbors, but loving them (and not in that angry way which dark Christians claim they’re actually doing). We’re gonna act like his followers, not pretend we don’t really know the guy.

And when he says stuff which rattles us, kinda like he did in the previous passage, we’re gonna deal with it, instead of pretending he never said any such thing. Everything he teaches, everything, is part of the package. Take it or leave it.

Mark 8.34-37 KWL
34 Summoning the crowd with his students, Jesus told them, “If anyone wants to follow me,
renounce yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me.
35 For whoever would only want to save their soul, will wreck it.
Whoever would wreck their soul for my and the gospel’s sake: They’ll save it.
36 For what good is a person who wins the whole world and damages their soul?
37 For what might a person give in exchange for their soul?”
 
Matthew 16.24-26 KWL
24 Then Jesus told his students, “If anyone wants to come after me,
renounce yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me.
25 For whoever would only want to save their soul, will wreck it.
Whoever would wreck their soul for my sake: They’ll find it.
26 For what will benefit a person when they win the whole world and destroy their soul?”
 
Luke 9.23-25 KWL
23 Jesus told everyone, “If anyone wants to come after me,
renounce yourself, pick up your cross each day, and follow me.
24 For whoever would only want to save their soul, will wreck it.
Whoever would wreck their soul for me: This person will save it.
25 For what good is a person who wins the whole world, and damages or ruins themselves?”

If the only thing you care about is your soul, by which I and Jesus mean your lifeforce, your public life, or your eternal life—if all you care about is how other people think of you, or the comforts of living an unchallenging daily existence—you’ve chosen a life without Jesus. You’re gonna get wrecked.

How not to rebuke someone over the internet.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 November
Questions? Comments? Email. But remember, my feedback policy means I can post it. Maybe even make fun of it.

Y’might notice on some of the older TXAB articles, the Disqus comments have closed. I put an expiration date on posting comments on the article itself. It’s just weird when someone comments on something years later. It’s weird when they do it on YouTube (and super annoying when it’s something inane, like “Hey, who else is watching this video in 2019?”); it’s weird when they do it anywhere. So I prevented it on this site.

But nothing can stop you from throwing me an email, so people will do that.

So I got feedback on my article, “The fear of phony peace.” Wasn’t positive. A lot of Christians believe the great tribulation is definitely gonna follow the rapture, and somehow my saying otherwise is doing people a disservice: Christians need to be prepared for… utterly escaping all the bad stuff?

Seems if we did need to be more prepared for anything, it’d be in case the rapture doesn’t precede tribulation, and we do have to live through 3½ to 7 years of suffering. In which case one of Jim Bakker’s buckets of End Times pizza would be looking pretty good pretty fast. But this person’s pretty sure my rejection of getting skyhooked out of suffering is “false doctrine.” I’ll let him say it.

So you’re saying that the antichrist wont make a peace treaty with Israel and break it after 3.5 years?

I had tremendous respect for your teaching until the fear article. You are the one deceived. I am gifted to discern right and wrong doctrine. And boy! You are wrong! No other way to say it.

I know you will try to persuade me further but don’t. I have done all the research and you are just wrong. Now you are accountable for spreading false doctrine. I admonish you to remove this garbage and get right with the Father once again. You can’t go doing that. You can’t.

Peace to you.

My response to him was, “Okay, you persuade me. Give me the scriptures.” But he didn’t respond. Likely he figured it’d be a frustrating waste of his time. Maybe so. When people are convinced we’re right (whether it’s him or me), someone who won’t accept this can get really aggravating. When he’s absolutely certain his reasoning is sound, yet I keep poking holes in it (as I was trained to)… well you can quickly see why ancient Athens decided to be rid of Socrates.

So this fellow rebuked me. Productively? Not unless you count this article, which I’m gonna use to show you how not to rebuke someone over the internet.

Preaching the dictionary.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 November

Nine years ago I visited a family member’s church. The pastor had just started a series about home-based small groups. His primary proof text came from Acts 2, namely the part where Luke described the brand-new Christians in Jerusalem, and how they got religious.

Acts 2.42-47 KWL
42 They were hewing close to the apostles’ teaching, to community, to breaking bread, and to prayers.
43 Reverence came to every soul, and many wonders and signs happened through the apostles.
44 Every believer looked out for one another, and put everything in common use:
45 They sold possessions and property, and divided proceeds among all,
just because some were needy.
46 Those who hewed close unanimously were in temple daily,
breaking bread at home, happily, generously, wholeheartedly sharing food,
47 praising God, showing grace to all people.
The Master added saved people to them daily.

He used the NLT, I believe. Its verse 46 goes like so:

Acts 2.46 NLT
They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity…

“They met in homes,” he pointed out. “The Greek word for ‘home’ is oikos.” (Yep, just like Dannon’s brand of Greek yogurt. See?—knowing Greek comes in handy. Although οἶκος is properly pronounced íkos.) “And according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, that means ‘a dwelling; by implication, a family.’ So what that verse really means is that they met as families.”

Um… no it doesn’t.

Íkos means house or home. It’s why the NLT rendered it as “homes.” It’s why most bibles render it that way. It’s what anybody who took Greek 101 understands it to mean; íkos is one of the first words we learn, appears in the Greek New Testament 112 times (114 in the Textus Receptus), and it’s a really easy concept. Hence bible translators aren’t being inexact when they render it “house” or “home.” They know what they’re doing. It’s why bible publishers, and bible translation committees, hire ’em.

If “They met as families” were a better translation, you’d see it translated that way in most bibles. If it was a valid alternate translation, you’d see it translated that way in at least one bible. But check out all the different English translations on Bible Gateway, and you’ll find not one translator decided, “Y’know, íkos really means ‘family,’ so let’s go with that.”

So why’d this pastor make this claim? ’Cause he wants the Christians of his church to meet together in one another’s homes, and be family together. Which is a great idea! It’s precisely what church is meant to be. It’s just he was trying to prove it by misusing a Greek dictionary, and wow his congregation by dropping on them a secret, cryptic meaning of íkos which they’d never heard before. Wow, “home” really means “family”!

And yeah, in certain contexts it can mean that. Like Joseph being of David’s house, Lk 1.27, 2.4 or when Paul told his Corinthian guard he and his “whole house” would be saved. Ac 16.31 In these instances it meant family. But all translation depends on context. If it didn’t—if every instance of íkos means family—then let’s talk about Solomon building the LORD a house, Ac 7.47 and do try to not sound ridiculous.

Expository preaching… if that’s what’s even happening.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 November
EXPOUND ɪk'spaʊnd verb. Present and explain (a theory or idea) systematically and in detail.
2. Explain the meaning of (a literary or doctrinal work).
[Exposition ɛk.spə'zɪʃ.(ə)n noun, expository ɪk'spɑ.zɪ.tɔ.ri adjective, expositor ɪk'spɑ.zə.dər noun.]

I regularly run into this situation: People like to compliment their favorite preachers by calling them “great expositors.” Apparently they’ve learned exposition is the very best way to preach, so when they like certain preachers, that’s what they call ’em.

And once again, this is one of those situations where I gotta quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride.

Giphy

’Cause I listen to these preachers for myself, and find they’re not great expositors. Or even expositors.

Oh, they can preach. They have outstanding abilities as public speakers. They know how to keep their listeners’ attention. Some of ’em have even done their homework, and teach the scriptures admirably. But expositors? Nope.

They get called “expositors” because they’ll go verse-by-verse through a bible passage. They start with verse 1, and talk about it a bit. (Or a lot.) Then verse 2. Then verse 3. And so on. They’re a series of talks, each of ’em prefaced by a verse. Because the preacher does quote every single verse in a passage, people think this is what makes a sermon expository.

Nope. What makes it expository is they expound on the verses. They have to actually analyze and explain what every verse means. Preferably in detail. And their message has to be about explaining what it means.

Whereas most of these “expository” sermons are really just preachers quoting bible, then using the bible verses to riff about the topics they wanna talk about. Whether these topics have anything to do with the verses they just quoted. Sometimes they do. Sometimes not so much.

Nontheists and prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 November

Whenever you talk prayer with a nontheist or antichrist, they’re gonna scoff at you because they’re entirely sure you’re praying to no one.

You only imagine you’re praying to someone, they insist. You only think God answered your prayers, but it’s just coincidence; or you’re selectively reinterpreting “signs” from nature and claiming they’re God-things. You’re only pretending that’s God’s voice in your head talking back to you; it’s really your own. You want so bad for God to be real, for prayer to be valid, for Christianity to be true, you’ve psyched yourself into everything. But it’s pure self-delusion.

Yeah, sometimes I talk with some people, so I’ve heard their condescending explanations before. They’d probably work on me… if there was no such thing as confirmation. Test the bloody spirits! 1Jn 4.1

See, when I think God’s told me something, I don’t just run with it. I’m patient. I double-check. ’Cause we’re supposed to double-check. Not double-checking is how Christians wind up doing some dumb stuff, insisting God’s behind it, and wondering why on earth none of the things they think God told them actually come to anything. Duh; it wasn’t actually God! Remember all that stuff our hypothetical nontheists said about about prayer? Totally true in these presumptuous Christians’ cases: They psyched themselves into thinking God spoke to them, but they never confirmed it’s really him. Turns out it’s really not.

It’s why there are a lot of Christians stumbling around, claiming God told ’em this or that, and no he didn’t. It’s also why the nontheists and antichrists mock them: It totally confirms them, and their godless beliefs.

So we Christians gotta wise up. God does talk to us, and regularly answers prayer, but if you wanna know it’s truly him, you gotta prove it.

And once you can prove it, you can answer these nontheists: “I know it’s God ’cause I spoke with a fellow Christian, and God told him the very same thing he told me, and there’s no way we could coincidentally guess the same thing.” Or “I know it’s God ’cause I asked him for something ridiculously specific, and he came through; there’s no way I coincidentally got what I wished for.”

Oh, I’m not saying it’ll convince them they’re wrong. It won’t. Their minds are closed. But it’ll make ’em fumble a bit, ’cause they never ever expected you to point to objective, concrete evidence. They weren’t taught to expect such things when they learned atheist apologetics. (Yes, there’s totally such a thing as atheist apologetics. Why do you think they all use the same uninspired arguments? For the very same reason we wind up using all the same uninspired arguments.) Nontheists presume, since most Christians don’t do objective evidence, none of us do. Show ’em otherwise.

That time Jesus called Simon Peter “Satan.”

by K.W. Leslie, 18 November

Mark 8.31-33, Matthew 16.21-23, Luke 9.21-22.

Most people are aware Simon Peter was Jesus’s best student. That’s why he’s always first in the lists of the Twelve—even ahead of Jesus’s cousins!—and why there’s all the stories about him in the gospels and Acts. Thing is, because there are so many stories about him, we regularly get to see how he screwed up.

And certain Christians wind up with the wrong idea about him—that he was nothing but a screwup till the Holy Spirit empowered him. Nope; sometimes he got it right. When Jesus asked what the students thought he was, Peter correctly answered, “You’re Messiah,” and Jesus blessed him for it. Blessed him so good, Peter’s fans still venerate him. Maybe a little too much, but that’s a whole other article.

Today’s story is about one of the times Peter screwed up, and it comes right after the story where Peter identified Jesus as Messiah and got blessed. But bear in mind the stories come after one another. The time these two stories occurred might’ve been weeks apart. ’Cause once it was clear Jesus’s students recognized him as Messiah, Jesus had to set them straight about what Messiah had to undergo. Contrary to popular expectation, contrary to everything Pharisees claimed about how the End Times timeline went, Messiah wasn’t about to violently overthrow the Roman Empire and take over the world. He was going to be rejected by the Judeans, and die.

Mark 8.31 KWL
Jesus began to teach his students it was necessary for the Son of Man to greatly suffer;
to be rejected by the elders, head priests, and scholars; to be killed; and to be resurrected after three days.
Matthew 16.21 KWL
From then on, Jesus began to teach his students it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem,
to greatly suffer under the elders, head priests, and scribes; to be killed; and to be raised on the third day.
Luke 9.21-22 KWL
21 Jesus rebuked them, ordering them to never say this,
22 saying it was necessary for the Son of Man to greatly suffer,
to be rejected by the elders, head priests, and scholars;
to be killed; and to be raised on the third day.

And be resurrected on the third day. Or “after three days” in Mark, which probably got tweaked by the other gospels’ authors since literalists might nitpick. But considering how Jesus’s students reacted on the first Easter, they seem to have forgotten all about that part. Hey, sometimes kids just don’t pay attention.

Now, if you grow up only hearing one interpretation of the End Times, and someone you respect suddenly introduces you to another interpretation (or in Jesus’s case, the fact it’s actually not the End yet, and won’t be for millennia) your first response, your basic instinctive self-defense mechanism, is to not believe it. Because you’ve never heard that before. Because you prefer your old ideas: Y’might not even like them, but you’re used to them; you’re comfortable in them. And frankly the idea of Messiah overthrowing the Romans, is way more satisfying than Messiah being killed by the Romans. Who doesn’t wanna see Jesus kick some ass? Heck, certain Christians are still hoping to see him do that at his second coming. Deep down, they don’t really like the idea of a kind, gentle, humble, loving Lord; they want his wrath to look exactly like their wrath.

So some of the students didn’t like this new teaching of Jesus’s. Peter in particular.

Sock-puppet theology: Meditation gone bad.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 November

Let’s begin with a frequently-misunderstood passage, which I’ve elsewhere discussed in more detail.

Hebrews 12.1-2 KWL
1 Consequently we, being greatly encircled by a cloud of witnesses,
throwing away every training weight and easily-distracting sin,
can enduringly run the race lying before us,
2 looking at the start and finish of our faith, Jesus.
Instead of the joy lying before him, Jesus endured a cross, dismissing the shame.
Now he sits at the right of God’s throne!

This is a sports metaphor. Since we do track and field events a little differently than the ancient Romans did, stands to reason Christians will mix up some of the ideas. The “cloud of witnesses” among them: It refers to the runners. It’s our fellow Christian witnesses, running through dirt, kicking up dust. Since today’s stadiums use polyurethane and rubber tracks—so we can actually see the runners, not a massive dust cloud—we don’t recognize the historical context of this verse anymore. Hence Christians guess at what νέφος/néfos, “cloud,” means… and guess wrong. Usually it’s heavenly spectators.

So now lemme bring up John C. Maxwell’s book Running with the Giants. I worked at a church camp a decade ago, and this book was inflicted upon me as a devotional. Leadership principles are Maxwell’s shtick, and he had 10 leadership principles to share. Like many a Christian, he wanted to put ’em into the mouths of bible characters, so it’d look like these principles come from bible. And since he knows little about historical context—and certainly doesn’t care, ’cause it’d make book-writing so much harder… well you can quickly see why I dislike this book.

The book begins with Maxwell envisioning a stadium with Christian track ’n field going on. From time to time, a great figure from the bible comes down from the “cloud of witnesses” in the stands, to encourage us runners. They’re not running with us, in Maxwell’s imagination; they’re all done. Now they have stories and life lessons to share; which is the point of the book.

After getting these life lessons from Abraham, Esther, Joseph, Moses, and Noah, by the sixth chapter Maxwell was so jazzed about all their good advice, he “can’t wait to act on the empowerment I have received” from them, “to put it to good use.” Maxwell 79

Except none of it came from them. Maxwell put all the words in their mouths. As anybody who knows historical context can tell, ’cause very little of what he imagined his “bible characters” said, are what they’d actually say. Far more what a present-day motivational speaker says.

Using your imagination to meditate.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 November

The kids, and their robot in the red galero, have a not-at-all-awkward conversation with a buck-naked pre-genitalia Adam and Eve. Aníme Óyako Gekíjo episode 1, “Adamu to Eba Monogatari”

When I was a kid there was a Japanese TV cartoon called Aníme Óyako Gekíjo/“Anime Parent-Child Theater,” which Americans know better as Superbook. Christian TV stations used to air it every weekday. Your own kids are more likely to have seen the 2009 American remake.

In the 1981 original, two kids named Sho and Azusa discovered a magic bible which transported them, and their toy robot Zenmaijikake, back to Old Testament times. (Yeah, they all had different names in the English redub: Chris, Joy, and Gizmo.) The kids would interact with the bible folks, who somehow spoke Japanese instead of ancient Hebrew, and were surprisingly white for ancient middle easterners.

Well in the first series they did. In the second series—also called Superbook in the States—Pasókon Toráberu Tántei-dan/“Computer Travel Detective Team,” the kids totally ignored the bible characters ’cause they were trying to rescue a missing dog. Which is best, I suppose: Less chance they’d accidentally change history, and whoops!—now we’re all worshiping Zeus, and Biff Tannen is president. (Well…)

Obviously we haven’t yet invented time travel, and it’s not possible to have any Superbook-style adventures. But a whole lot of us would love to check out the events of bible times, and maybe interact with it. It’s why there are bible-times theme parks in the Bible Belt, like The Ark Encounter or The Holy Land Experience, which Christians flock to. (Or, for about the same price, actual real-life Israel, which I far more recommend.)

But when time travel or pilgrimage are out of the question right now, it is possible to meditate on a story from the scriptures, by imagining ourselves there as it happened, watching it as it took place.

Some Christians call this practice Ignatian meditation, after St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. In his 1524 book Exercitia Spiritualia/“Spiritual Exercises,” he taught his followers to not just contemplate certain passages in the bible, like Jesus preaching in synagogue or temple, or teaching students, performing miracles, getting born, getting crucified, paradise, hell…. Instead, really mentally put themselves there. Imagine breathing the air. Feeling the weather. Hearing the sounds, smelling the smells. Being in these places.

The idea is to stop thinking of these events as merely stories, but as real-life history. Stuff that truly happened. Stuff the prophets and apostles truly experienced. Stuff where God came near and interacted with humanity—same as he does now. Stop looking at them from the outside, and visualize yourself in the inside, in the bible, fully immersed in the story, just as you’re fully a part of God’s salvation history now.

Try this with the passages you’re reading now. Put yourself there, in your mind. See what new insights come out of it.

The fear of what meditation might “open you up to.”

by K.W. Leslie, 13 November

Years ago in a prayer group, our prayer leader asked us to sit a moment and meditate on the lesson we’d just heard.

“And I know,” she said; “some of you are worried about this whole ‘meditation’ thing. You’re worried it’ll open you up to evil spirits or something. Well, you’re Christians. It won’t.”

She didn’t go into any further detail; she wanted to get to the exercise, and didn’t want to spend the rest of prayer time explaining why it won’t happen. I’ve got time, so I will explain.

There are a lot of Christians who are big on what they call “spiritual warfare.” Which isn’t at all what the scriptures call spiritual warfare, i.e. resisting temptation: They think spiritual warfare means we fight evil spirits. Mostly by praying against them, but often by constantly, carefully watching out for boogeymen. Because they believe evil spirits are everywhere. Everywhere. Behind every corner. Even in the corners of our prayer closets. Waiting to pounce.

This dark Christian mindset makes ’em super paranoid. They call it being watchful or vigilant, but really it’s a lifestyle of fear. The sort of fear actual evil spirits can use to keep Christians far away from anything unfamiliar. Particularly new stuff the Holy Spirit himself is introducing into our lives to encourage growth and fruit. If it doesn’t look like the stuff their church does, or the popular Christian culture, or even just looks like something they don’t feel like doing, they presume that’ can’t be of God. Thus they follow their comforts instead of Jesus, and never doubt the two might not be the same thing at all.

So, meditation. As I said in the appropriate article, the middle eastern stuff is about filling our minds instead of blanking them, and the Christian stuff is about filling our minds with God. We think about him. We contemplate him. We go over what we read in the bible, what he’s shown or told us recently; anything God-related. Eliminate distractions as best you can, and do some deep thinking.

But if all you’ve known thus far are the pagan forms of meditation—if, really, you’re surrounded by it—you’re gonna think that’s the default. Maybe wrongly presume “Christian meditation” is an attempt to Christianize the pagan stuff. Except, as your paranoid dark Christian friends might warn you, some pagan practices can’t be Christianized. They’re just too inherently wrong.

Well, we’re not appropriating the eastern practices. If you know your ancient middle eastern or Christian history, you’ll know people have been practicing Christian-style meditation for at least as long as easterners and Hindus have. Our practices developed and evolved very differently. ’Tain’t the same thing. No matter what physical traits we might share—like sitting down, closing one’s eyes, controlled breathing, concentration. No matter what external accouterments we might also have in common—maybe soothing music, candles, privacy, whatever. If you’re worried the tchotchkes might lead you astray, go ahead and leave them out. But don’t believe the rubbish of fearful Christians who don’t meditate, and clearly lack the fruit of peace.